There are times when, as a reviewer, I feel unequal to the task. Actually, most times really. Basically, my critical style is just my flimsy pastiche of more talented critics whose work I enjoy.

But then there are times when I simply can’t even attempt to write what I imagine they would write. And with this book, I find myself imagining what Richard Armour could make out of it. He of The Classics Reclassified fame would be just the one to take this on.

If you have not read Classics Reclassified and can’t easily get your hands on a copy, you can at least read Armour’s quotes on Goodreads, which includes some of the gems.

Anyway, on to Frankenstein. You all know the story: mad scientist creates monster in laboratory. It turns out to have been a bad idea. Missing from the story are many of the tropes later created by Hollywood. There is no hunchbacked assistant to the scientist, there is no mix-up with the subject’s brains, and the monster is not destroyed by a mob with pitchforks and torches.

Basically, the executive summary is that, having created the monster, Victor Frankenstein feels really, really bad about it. The monster wanders off on his own and gradually teaches himself spoken and written language, and begins to resent his creator for bringing an abomination such as himself into the world. He then begins a quest of murderous revenge against Frankenstein, attacking those dearest to him in order to make the scientist feel as miserable as his creation.

In broad outlines, this is a decent enough plot, I suppose. But as you may have guessed by now, I did not really like it.

The first reason is that the writing is just too florid. I mean, look at this:

“The hour of my weakness is past, and the period of your power is arrived. Your threats cannot move me to do an act of wickedness; but they confirm me in a resolution of not creating you a companion in vice. Shall I, in cool blood, set loose upon the earth a dæmon, whose delight is in death and wretchedness. Begone! I am firm, and your words will only exasperate my rage.”

That’s dialogue. Frankenstein says it to the monster during one of their many futile interviews.

The whole book is like that. And look, I’ve long been a defender of the slower, more leisurely pace of older books. I don’t mind an author taking their time. What I mind is repetitiveness.

Like, Frankenstein tells us at the beginning of Volume II:

The blood flowed freely in my veins, but a weight of despair and remorse pressed on my heart, which nothing could remove. Sleep fled from my eyes; I wandered like an evil spirit, for I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible, and more, much more, (I persuaded myself) was yet behind. Yet my heart overflowed with kindness, and the love of virtue. I had begun life with benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them in practice, and make myself useful to my fellow-beings. Now all was blasted: instead of that serenity of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe.

We got it, you’re sad. So is there any need to remind us in Volume III?

My father was enraptured on finding me freed from the vexations of a criminal charge, that I was again allowed to breathe the fresh atmosphere, and allowed to return to my native country. I did not participate in these feelings; for to me the walls of a dungeon or a palace were alike hateful. The cup of life was poisoned for ever; and although the sun shone upon me, as upon the happy and gay of heart, I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me.

I am once again asking you: was Amanda McKittrick Ros really that bad? Or at least, was she so much worse than this? This prose is purple, melodramatic, overwrought, and any other pejorative term for ornate writing you care to employ.

But that’s not a fatal flaw. Writing styles change, and I try to be forgiving and understanding. While we might view these 19th century paragraphs as overly verbose, the writers of the 19th century would probably see us as childishly simplistic and crude in our language. Who is right? Who can say?

No, my problem with this book boils down to something much more serious: Victor Frankenstein is a moron.

I’m going to spoil a pretty major element of the third and final volume, so if you want to be surprised by the book, quit reading now.

The monster demands that Frankenstein make him a mate, and says he will visit the doctor again on the day of his wedding. (The monster, by the way, seemingly has the power to appear and vanish at will, possessing superhuman strength and speed. He is, as we gamers would say, OP as hell.)

Frankenstein nonetheless goes ahead with his marriage, figuring that, if worst comes to worst, the monster will kill him on the day of his wedding. Remember that to date, the monster has already killed Frankenstein’s younger brother and his best friend, as well as framing a friend for the former crime. And yet no other possibility occurs to Frankenstein. He does not provide in his calculations for any other contingency than that the monster will kill him on his wedding day, despite the monster not explicitly saying that.

Can you guess what happens? Well, I’ll leave it to you to put two and two together. Here’s where I’m most reminded of an Armour quote, which I have adapted slightly: “He doesn’t stop to think. He doesn’t even start to think.”

Besides this, Frankenstein is useless, whiny, self-pitying, and melodramatic. He makes Bella Swan look like a Heinlein hero by comparison. He refuses to take responsibility for problems caused by his own arrogance, and then moans and cries about how miserable he is all the time. We’re told repeatedly how awesome he supposedly is, but the way I see it, the dude is a train wreck.

And perhaps the most irritating thing of all is that the book does explore some interesting themes, but it does so in such a ham-fisted way that I couldn’t help but shake my head at the execution, rather than pondering the ideas. Stealing again from Armour describing symbolism: “The monster stands for something. Frankenstein stands for something. The reader has to stand for quite a bit, too.”

Yet, the book is influential. And despite all my criticisms, I can understand why it is influential. In fact, it is a critic’s dream, because it contains all sorts of motifs, philosophies, and references to other texts. It is as though it had been written so that students can produce essays about it.

It deals with timeless and, dare I say it, deathless themes. So it’s no wonder it captured the imaginations of generations despite being, by most technical measures, pretty bad. And in her defense, Shelley was only 19 when she wrote it. When I think about what I wrote when I was 19, it was pretty bad, too. And I can’t say that any of mine inspired countless derivative works. At least, I hope not.

Frankenstein did, though, and it is to these that we will be turning our attention this month. Mary Shelley’s creation, like Frankenstein’s, has taken on a life of its own, for good or for ill.

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.

In my home state of Ohio, we’re a little more than halfway through lawn-mowing season. From March through November, the grass typically needs at least one, sometimes two or three mows per week. Fortunately, I enjoy mowing the lawn, but then again, I have a riding lawnmower, unlike the protagonist of this Chuck Litka short story.

You probably know Chuck Litka’s fantasy and sci-fi adventure stories, many of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. This book is different: it’s a slice of life story, it’s targeted at a younger audience, and it’s very short.

The core of the story concerns a young boy named Roy Williams and his long-held desire to be old enough to mow his family’s lawn. But when he finally gets his chance, his own avant-garde philosophy of lawn care comes into conflict with hidebound traditions of the old guard. (i.e. his father.)

Interestingly, although my own views on lawn mowing align more with Roy’s dad, reading this book actually made me think about cutting the lawn in a different way, and even inspired me to try out some different patterns.

As with all of Litka’s books, it’s well-written, with plenty of wit and good-natured humor. While it’s a departure in many ways from most of his books, young Roy is still a classic Litka character: a likable person who, though no real fault of his own, comes into conflict with the authorities.

The book is available for free on Smashwords, so you should go check it out. If you’re a lawn-care enthusiast, it might give you some ideas! If you’re not, it might make you see things from a different perspective. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but it’s still worth seeing what it looks like.

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.

Sometimes you need a book you can just kick back and read without having to tax your imagination too much. After reading some heavy science fiction books, I needed a break. And this book was just the ticket.

The protagonist, Susan Hunter, is infuriated to learn the man she has been dating is married. Wanting to get away from it all and clear her head, she and her friend Darby take a vacation to Florida. At first, it’s a relaxing escape, but then Susan begins to suspect they are being stalked by a mysterious character with a striking resemblance to a young Marlon Brando. But who is he, and why is he after them?

This all probably sounds more intense than the book really is. While there are some dark elements, such as a murder, the overall vibe is really much lighter, as the cover suggests. The attractions of a Florida vacation are as much a part of the story as the crimes that come with any mystery story. This is a book you read to relax, not to get so caught up in the suspense and terror of it all that you start jumping at loud noises.

And let’s face it, sometimes we all could use a little opportunity to read a story that’s not too intense or too heavy on world-building or too saturated with omnipresent grimdark. I love post-apocalyptic stories, for example, but sometimes even I get apocalypse fatigue. At such times, I just want to read about a likable, somewhat quirky lady who gets caught up in a series of weird incidents, and needs to work with some of her friends to sort things out, often in the campiest way possible.

This book is a vacation in written form. And it’s free, so it’s a convenient way to take some time off, especially with today’s travel costs! Why not go ahead and treat yourself?