This is like a Hallmark Christmas romance, but for Halloween. This, in my opinion, is exactly what the world needs. Halloween is associated with horror fiction, and rightly so, but there is no reason for it to be exclusively the holiday of horror.

There’s nothing wrong with horror. I like horror. (Slasher stories I could do without.) But a Halloween story need not be a horror story by definition. Halloween is a holiday with room for all sorts of stories.

Did you know that ghost stories used to be a Christmas tradition? It’s true, though nowadays the only surviving relic of that custom is A Christmas Carol.  And if the Victorians could tell ghost stories at Christmas, why can’t we tell romance stories at Halloween?

This story has black cats, costumes, and a classic boy-meets-girl love story. Does it reinvent the romance genre? No, but it doesn’t need to. When you read a story like this, you want the feeling of familiar coziness you get sipping warm cider on a brisk October evening, looking at the sun setting over a pumpkin patch.

Or something like that. Experienced Halloween aficionados will no doubt have their own ideal atmosphere to conjure the required mood. Something Whiskered This Way Comes is a perfect, non-scary way to get into the holiday spirit.

Books require a higher level of investment from the audience than, say, movies do. As readers, we have to do some of the work of imagining things for ourselves. I think it’s accurate to say that while you and I may read the same book, we don’t necessarily read the same story. Your way of envisioning it will not quite match mine, much the way a computer program may be handled differently by different compilers.

This subjectivity is a key element of the written word as a medium for fiction. A really good book takes full advantage of this curious feature, inviting the reader to use their imagination to fill in details, or even to come up with their own interpretations of the entire story.

Fatal Rounds is just such a book. The central character, Liza Larkin, is a pathology resident at a hospital in Massachusetts. She has chosen the hospital specifically because she has become suspicious of one of the hospital’s surgeons, Dr. Donovan, who attended her father’s funeral, much to the horror of Liza’s schizophrenic mother.

Liza’s obsessive investigation of Dr. Donovan brings her into possession of evidence that implicates him in a number of deaths. Her highly atypical mind gives her an unusual ability to concentrate on her goal, and she becomes fixated on bringing Donovan to justice.

That’s the basic plot of the book. But the real meat of Fatal Rounds is in subtle details and ambiguities. It’s not so much about what happens as it is the reader’s interpretation of what happens. That’s why I don’t want to talk too much about specifics; lest I color your reading of the book with my own views.

No joke, this book reminded me of one of my favorite works of fiction of all time, “The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers. If you’ve read that story, you probably can see what I mean. If you haven’t… well, let’s just say Fatal Rounds is a great demonstration of the philosophy of fiction that I acquired from reading “Repairer of Reputations.”

This book is a great medical thriller, but more than that, it’s just a flat-out great story, and I highly recommend it to anyone, even if medical thrillers aren’t a genre you typically read. It gives you some things to chew on long after you close the book.

Another fast-paced thriller from Geoffrey Cooper, the fifth in the series. This time Brad Parker and Karen Richmond are drawn into investigating a sex trafficking ring with connections to a major medical institute.

Strictly speaking, you can read this book without reading any of the previous Brad and Karen books. But, unlike the others, I have to say I think you shouldn’t. The way the characters develop is an important element of this book. So, I don’t think it’s possible to fully enjoy this story without already being familiar with the dynamic between the two leads.

And Brad and Karen really are likable characters. It’s always a pleasure to open a new book in the series, because they are an excellent team, besides being a cute couple romantically. <Insert “name a more iconic duo” meme.>

And so if you have read the other books in the series, you’ll be glad to know that this one is just as enjoyable as the rest. I highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys thrillers. It’s action-packed and interesting. Check it out if you haven’t done so already.

Mark Paxson has this thing he does where he tells a story beginning with seemingly-innocuous prompts and making them a starting point to craft wonderful characters. He can use anything for raw material, and from it weave a tapestry full of the most vibrant and memorable figures.

Some of his stories, like those in this collection, are quick sketches in terms of length, but in terms of depth might as well be full-length novels. The characters are deep, well-rounded and developed. In a few words, he shows us a whole world, populated with real people. The simplest way I can say it is, reading Paxson is like experiencing a combination of a John Steinbeck novel and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

Some examples include one of my favorite stories in this book, “The Life of a Shoe.” Told from the perspective of, yes, a shoe, it tells a powerful story of growing up, experiencing hardship, and having faith. Or take “The Rosewood,” which gives us a picture of all the residents of an apartment complex, and how their disparate lives intertwine in different ways.

In some of Paxson’s works, there are recurring patterns, like leitmotifs in music. The family dynamic in “What Happens When A Pet Dies” shares a little with that in “Deviation”: two bickering siblings confronting their relationship with themselves and their parents. And the irresponsible protagonist of “Nobody Important” is just about as thoughtless as the protagonist of Paxson’s early novel, One Night in Bridgeport, acting without considering the consequences.

Then there are the stories about war and the people who become caught up in it, like “Memories of Foom” and “Aleppo.” A more satirical take on war is found in “The Last Dance.” There are stories of relationships gone right (“Spaces After The Period”) and gone very wrong. (“Beelzebub & Lucifer”) And then there are the pieces like “An Obituary,” “Coyote,” and “Carnies” that defy categorization.

Interspersed throughout the book are fragments of poetry and flash fiction which are every bit as haunting and moving as the longer stories they serve to season.

Every time I read a collection of Mark’s stories, I’m struck by how versatile and imaginative he is, and this one is no different. If you’ve read his other books, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about it; you’ve probably already picked this one up.

If you haven’t read Paxson before, this is a fine collection to start with. I loved it, and I think anyone who enjoys good fiction will too. Go ye now, and pick it up already!

Oh, ah, that’s right… there is one other story in this collection, isn’t there? One that I didn’t discuss yet. The titular piece. The one about killing a certain author, yes?

I figured that one would grab your eye. It’s on the cover, after all. Perhaps it’s my vanity talking, but I have to assume it got the attention of a few readers.

But, why spoil such a great hook? No, no; if you read my blog, then you simply have to read this book, and this story in particular. What is the story behind the story, you wonder? Never fear, for Paxson will tell, as he does with all the stories. But first you have to read it for yourself, with as few preconceived notions as possible.

So I’ll say nothing about it, except this: it’s perfect. Perfect for what it is and what it was meant to be. Anything more than that is for you to say.

Killing Berthold Gambrel is a must-read.

Hey, how many of you know about the Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius?

Well, I know one of my readers is actually a practicing Stoic, and thus is familiar with the “last good emperor’s” philosophy. Another writer friend mentioned him in a story. And I’m aware of at least one other fan of ancient Roman history among my readers. As for me, I only began studying Stoicism relatively recently, and I find it very interesting. Not that I can claim to be Stoic, or even a reasonably accomplished student of Stoicism. No, indeed; I am probably the worst Stoic in the world. This comic describes me to a “T”. But, you know, as Martyn Green’s singing instructor told him: “With you? We start on exercises, and hope!”

I hear the cry go up, “Berthold, we’ve come here for a book review! What are you going on about?” Well, it so happens that Zachary Shatzer’s latest novel includes many Stoic themes.

Of course, on a superficial level, this is another of Shatzer’s comic tales, this time set in a laid-back beach town, where the titular Beach Wizard comes into conflict with a formidable Sea Wizard, putting the entire lifestyle of the beachgoing population at risk.

I’ve compared Shatzer to Wodehouse before. It’s not a comparison I make lightly, but I’ll do it again. As with Wodehouse, you can’t be unhappy while reading one of his books. If you enjoyed any of his previous humorous novels, you’re going to like this one, too. It combines all the elements we’ve come to expect from him: a varied and entertaining cast of characters, recurring jokes that gradually become sub-plots in their own right, and a story-within-the-story that forms an engaging narrative.

But this one has a little bit of something else, too, besides all the fun. The Beach Wizard is not just a stock character who uses magic as a deus ex machina anytime the plot demands it. No, he is a well-rounded character, complete with wisdom befitting his age. Think Gandalf, if Gandalf had found his way into a Frankie & Annette picture.

Actually, the whole beach town reminds me of Tolkien’s Shire, with its simple, easy-going, goodhearted folk who live their lives in quiet tranquility. And the Sea Wizard is no Saruman, of course, but he brings about the closest thing to a scouring that the chilled-out beach bums have ever experienced.

Not that the Sea Wizard is truly a villain, you understand. Shatzer is like Chuck Litka in that he is capable of writing a conflict without resorting to characters who are simply evil. Everything the characters do is understandable and reasonable, given who they are and what they know.

Which brings me back to the Beach Wizard and his philosophy. At one point, the Beach Wizard gives a beautiful speech that I partially excerpt below:

“It is a difficult thing to understand someone who lives a very different life from your own. Many people choose not to make even an attempt at understanding, and simply dismiss such differences as being “Weird” or “Stupid” or what have you. But I don’t wish to criticize…

Lack of understanding is, well, understandable, but working through one’s ignorance and casting away petty feelings and resentment is of the utmost importance. At least, I believe it is so.”

And what I like best of all is that, even for all his experience and wisdom, the Beach Wizard is fallible. He makes mistakes. He comes up short of his own standards. But he recognizes when he fails, and resolves to do better. And he does. Any Stoic, including the good emperor himself, will tell you that nobody’s perfect; all you can do is keep trying to be better.

The Beach Wizard is a wonderful story that everyone should read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

This is the first installment in the “Dirk Moorcock” series. That is correct; the hero of the book is named “Dirk Moorcock.”

In a way, I could end the review right now, and you would know everything you need to know about this book. I mean, what kind of book do you think would have a hero named “Dirk Moorcock?” I suspect whatever book you imagine, you won’t be far from the mark. If you need another clue, look at the cover. I know, I know; we’re not supposed to judge by those, but in this case you would be fairly safe in doing so.

But it would be an abdication of my responsibilities as a reviewer to let it go at that. So let me go on a bit. In terms of plot, this is a standard sci-fi adventure. The hero (whose name, let me remind you, is Dirk Moorcock) goes to a remote world to fight space pirates. Things proceed as you’d expect from there. The bare bones of the story are not that different from, say, a Henry Vogel book.

Except, it’s way, way more risqué. Commander Moorcock is like a spacefaring James Bond only more so, with the campy dialogue and the double-entendres dialed up to 11. And if you think the naughtiness stops at wordplay, you would be quite wrong. There are some very, er, lovingly described intimate scenes.

Remember 9 Lovers for Emily Spankhammer? This has the same sensibility, only in space and with more laser battles and parodies of Star Wars. It made me think of Buck Rogers, as well as some other, similar-sounding words.

It’s also funny as hell. This book is not to be taken seriously, and it reminds you of that at every turn. Even attempting to take it seriously could result in injury. This is a goofy, silly, sexy, and deliberately cheesy adventure story, that makes no pretense of being anything else.

If you want thought-provoking sci-fi on the order of Asimov or Clarke, look elsewhere. But if you want something that’s irresistibly amusing and you don’t mind a heavy dose of bawdy sex comedy with your sci-fi adventure (or vice-versa), if you want something that calls to mind the carefree, unashamed ribaldry of pulp; then this is the book for you.

The tagline for this book says it all: “Finally, a paranormal romance for people who hate paranormal romance.”

The simple way to describe this book is to say it’s a parody of Twilight. It’s got a vampire and a werewolf and the awkward girl who loves them, set at a high school in the Pacific Northwest.

Except it’s way more than that. There’s no doubt the book does get in a few good digs at the paranormal YA romance genre, but it’s also a very sweet story in its own right. Indeed, it’s such an authentic representation of what a high school populated by supernatural creatures would be like that it beats Twilight at its own game.

The book is very funny, but there are also elements of creepiness and even of melancholy that find their way into the story. This is a parody that becomes more than a parody, and takes on a life of its own, complete with interesting characters and a memorable setting.

No exaggeration: I felt more of a connection with The Usual Werewolves‘ Serena and her supernatural crushes than I ever did with Bella, Edward, or the rest of that crowd.

And Bertocci’s writing is something to behold. Again and again, what started out as a seemingly run-of-the-mill sentence would make a sharp turn in an unexpected direction, morphing into something surprising and funny. The author clearly knows how to turn a good phrase.

The best example of all is the descriptions of the music the werewolves listen to while cruising around late at night. There are numerous examples, but the best one comes near the end:

“A distinctive lick of piano sauntered into the air like it was far too cool for school, and they cheered as if God Himself had greeted them.”

I won’t say what song this is. But it’s by one of my favorite musicians, and with that hint, and especially in connection with the subject matter of this book, I bet you can guess what song it is.

If you’ve figured it out, or if you’ve just read the book and know the answer, listen to the opening of the song in question. Now, tell me that isn’t a perfect description? I’ve heard that song hundreds of times over the decades, but I could never have put it so perfectly.

The Usual Werewolves is an entertaining and surprisingly heartfelt take on the high school experience, told with a good-natured wit. I certainly can understand if, at the height of the Twilight craze, you swore that you would never read the “supernatural high school romance” genre. But if you made such a vow, it’s worth breaking for this book.

I saw this in Lydia Schoch’s weekly list of free books a while back, and I just had to give it a try. Look at that cover! How cool is that?

Well, as great as it is, the book is even better. It begins by telling the story of Lord Oisin, who fought to avenge the raiding of his town by a bandit known as Cumhil.

Fast forward a few centuries, to the 1780s, when a disillusioned British soldier returning from the war in America finds himself billeted in Cahir Mullach, the castle of Lord Oisin. And on All Hallows’ Eve, no less!

You all probably know that I love Halloween, but you may not know that I also love the American Revolutionary period and everything associated with it. The way Callahan portrays the British infantrymen here really grabbed me: Corporal Michael Snodgrass is a brave man, who witnessed many terrible things in a futile war against the rebelling colonists. Rather than the common American conception of British soldiers as sneering, inhuman, “imperial stormtroopers with muskets,” Snodgrass is depicted as a real person, with an essentially good heart turned bitter by the war, and suffering from what we in modern times would call PTSD.

The other characters are great too: from the kindly priest of the town of Baile, to the greedy, conniving landlord plotting to evict the town’s populace, to the mysterious old woman who, despite the Catholicism of the era, has not forgotten the pagan knowledge of older times.

How it all ties together, I won’t say, but it’s in the great old tradition of stories about spirits meting out justice for old wrongs. It’s true, after a certain point I knew where it was going, but that’s not a bad thing, because I enjoyed every minute of the ride. What I liked best was how the characters grew over the course of the story.

And the atmosphere! Did I mention it’s Halloween? In Ireland? It simply doesn’t get much more Halloween-y than a thick fog late at night, on some lonely trail, ghostly voices whispering in the dark, and then, suddenly, a castle, looming out of the mists!

I thought about waiting to review this book until October, but I couldn’t. It’s too good; I had to tell you all about it immediately. Buy it now, and save it for a chilly Autumn evening, and then let yourself be drawn into Callahan’s marvelous tale of the horrors of war, of ghostly vengeance, of Pagan mysteries and Christian charity, and most of all, of redemption and healing.

This book is… strange. I know, right? Frank Herbert, the guy who gave us the Dune universe, wrote a strange book? Who would have thought?

In some ways, of course, it’s more grounded in reality than Dune. It’s set on Earth, albeit at some point in the (then) future, when there is a war for oil being fought between Eastern and Western powers. There’s no spice, no sandworms, no telepathic witches, no psychedelic twists on Middle Eastern religions.

But this relative normality makes the remaining weirdness really, really weird. There are only four major characters, all of whom are members of a submarine crew on a mission to find a deep sea oil well while avoiding detection by the enemy. One of them is newly assigned, and his job is to analyze the psychology of the other crewmen.

Also, because of a sabotage incident early on, it’s clear to all four men that at least one of them is a spy. No one can completely trust anyone else, and at different points, each man does something that brings him under suspicion.

Add to this the intense psychological pressure of isolation deep underwater during an interminable war, and everyone begins to lose their minds to greater or lesser extents. Even the psychologist, steeped in Freudian and Jungian theory, begins to lose his grip on sanity. Or what he thinks of as sanity, anyway. For what the book ultimately asks is, what does sanity even mean in such an insane situation?

At the beginning of the book, I hated it. Herbert’s penchant for writing the characters thoughts in italicized bits of exposition, which will be familiar to readers of Dune, is out in force here, and it annoyed me at first. But gradually I got into the swing of it, and after a while, I was hooked. It turns slowly into a fascinating philosophical and psychological drama, and by the end, I felt like I had just read something every bit as thought-provoking as Dune, but way tighter and more concentrated.

There are some very memorable lines in this book. Like this:

“There are men all through the service–not just the subs–who are so sick of war–year after year after year after year of war–so sick of living with fear constantly that almost anything else is preferable. Death? He’s an old friend–a neighbor just beyond the bulkhead there.”

And this:

“Each of us is the enemy”–Bonnett’s voice grew firmer–“to the other and to himself. That’s what I mean: I’m the enemy within myself. Unless I master that enemy, I always lose.”

To be fair, there is also some semi-incomprehensible jargon:

“Johnny, do you feel hot enough on the remotes to snag our ballast hose in the fin prongs of one of our Con-5 fish?”

This book is very light on description. Herbert basically expects the reader to fill in a lot of the details for themselves. Which, I have to say, I liked. Not to say that I wasn’t confused at times about what was actually happening, because I was, but at the same time, I appreciated that Herbert was like, “Look, there’s a war on, and these guys are in a submarine. Use your imagination if you want to know what everything looked like!”

This book isn’t for everyone. Some people may find it boring or confusing or just too bizarre. But if you like intense psychological drama and meticulously crafted characters, you’re going to love it.

If you enjoy one or more entertainment franchises, this post isn’t for you. I don’t want to be a joyless scold; berating people for liking something. So if you are excited about the latest installment in such-and-such a series, good for you! Go have fun.

This post is meant rather for a specific group of people: namely, the people who were fans of various entertainment franchises, but who are now disappointed, upset, and perhaps even downright insulted by the latest installments.

On YouTube, for example, there is a whole genre of videos which can be described as “fans mad about [Franchise]”. Some of it is political, some of it is nostalgia-based, some of it is just people who are upset that what was once a simple, straightforward story has been turned into a confusing muddle of disjointed retcons, spinoffs, and callbacks.

I have seen this pattern over and over and over and over again. With virtually any entertainment property I can think of, it eventually emerges. Sometimes it happens fast. Sometimes it takes decades. But it always happens.

Think of a creative endeavor as a living organism. It begins as something small, often as an idea in the mind of one person or maybe a few people. They work to make their vision a reality. Doing so often requires collaboration with others. This is the growth phase, where the story is maturing, acquiring everything it needs to flourish.

Eventually, it blossoms into full flower, and if it has been nurtured well, it is a beautiful thing to see.

But then comes the other half of the cycle: decay. Decay does not mean it just goes away; indeed quite often the opposite. It grows even bigger, adding new elements and components unrelated to those originally envisioned by the creators. It becomes more complex, and complexity is another form of entropy. And entropy, dear reader, is the undefeated champion.

When you complain about what is happening to your favorite fictional universe, you are arguing against the laws of Nature.

This may strike you as absurd. “There’s no law of nature governing stories!” you might say. “An intellectual property is not a living being; why should we expect it to behave as such?”

It’s a fair question. My response is simply that it always does, even if there is no obvious reason why it should.

Once you interpret the life-cycle of a franchise this way, it really does clarify a lot of things. We could even, if we were feeling Spenglerian, categorize the life of our favorite franchises in terms of the Earth’s seasons: the fertility of Spring, the growing energy of Summer, the gradual slowing down and darkening of Autumn, and finally the eerie stillness of Winter.

Viewed this way, we also can begin to see that different people will like a franchise at different points in its life-cycle. The works produced in the Spring of the franchise’s existence will appeal to very different people than those produced in the Autumn. There is no reason to believe that either is morally superior to the other. They just have different preferences.

This brings us to the question of how a franchise dies. If we model it as an organism, we have to include some terminal stage where the thing is finally just over.

The people that this post is intended for will sometimes say their franchise has “died” when it produces something they don’t like. But this is not true. If new episodes are being turned out, then it’s not dead. Simple as.

A franchise is dead when people stop following it, watching it, engaging with it, and above all, paying for it. If no one claps, Tinkerbell dies.

If there is something different about the world today, it is that franchises are living longer. To illustrate: my parents’ favorite childhood books, films, and shows were distant memories by the time they were in their 30s. Whereas all my childhood favorites are still very much going concerns.

Perhaps there are too many vintage franchises. Indeed, one might argue that some of them need to pass on in order to make fertile ground for a new crop. There is only so much talent, creativity, and money available for entertainment; and when all of it is being directed to maintaining franchises in the late Autumn stage, there is none available for nourishing new ones into a healthy Spring.

If you agree with the statement above, then the way to fix the problem is not to complain about your favorite franchise. Trust me on this. I have walked this path. It doesn’t go where you think.

Complaining that you don’t like the direction of a given franchise is implicitly saying you are a fan of said franchise. You want to consume this content! You are begging the mega-corps to make the franchise appeal to you again. In other words, you are still held in thrall!

If you want to change things, it cannot be done through criticism or complaining. You will never harangue an existing series back into whatever you want it to be. No, what you must do is transcend it, by caring about other things. New things, the seeds of new generations of stories, that are not even franchises yet.

If all of the energy directed toward complaining about this or that well-established media property were instead focused on the discussion of new and innovative stories, that are not part of any established canon…

…Well, I don’t actually know what would happen, to be honest. But I can’t help thinking it would be a lot more pleasant than what we have now.