Sunday, October 29, 2023

Double Takes

Did you ever glimpse an attractively grizzled former President of the United States, dancing barefoot on a beach with a lady who did not look like his famous first lady spouse, in an advertisement for an oceanside resort for seniors? Or a pitch for dental insurance that appeared to include an A-list actor who made a Castaway movie that included a DIY tooth extraction scene?

In all likelihood, it wasn't your eyes that lied. It was AI. 

AI can generate songs that were never sung in the style, sound and voice of a music megastar; it can make politicians appear to say things that they never said; it can duplicate Old Masters or create new or lost art in the style of anyone; it can write essays or newscopy; or take exams. It can probably duplicate and improve upon a rival's video advertisements. (The latter is an extrapolation, that case was not about how an envied ad was recreated.)

The genius folks who once stole books by the library-ful (and got away with it) are now stealing celebrity likenesses, because they can.

Maybe that is a bridge too far, to coin a phrase. Enter the bipartisan draft of a No F.A.K.E.S. Act to protect celebrities from having their voices or likenesses lifted for the purpose of making them appear to endorse ideas or products that they would never consent to endorse.

Legal blogger Laura Lamansky for the law firm Michael Best & Friedrich LLP discusses how rights of publicity are under seige by tech, and what a bipartisan group of Senators hope to do to rein in AI.

Long time copyright-friendly Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, and Chris Coons of Delaware have released a draft of the Nurture Originals, Foster Art, and Keep Entertainment Safe Act of 2023 (known as the No F.A.K.E.S. Act). 

One suspects that they started with the acryonym and twisted a thesaurus to come up with the full name of the proposed legislation! After all, it is about a lot more than "Entertainment". Carping aside, it is a laudable effort. As Laura Lamansky explains, (emphasis, hers):

"The bill would create a new right to control digital copies of a person's image, voice, and likeness and such protection would last 70 years after the individual's death. Violators of the Act could be liable for $5,000 per violation."

As with existing copyright law, there are some exceptions in the Act to cover legitimate ventures such as documentaries and parody.

The other copyright exceptions in the DMCA cover news reportage and education. My personal view is that AI should not be making up the news.

For another take on the No Fakes Act, I recommend the analysis by legal bloggers Jennifer A. Kenedy and Jorden Rutledge of the law firm Locke Lord, published here:

Under existing law, an individual can only sue for rights of publicity if their likeness has commercial value. The No Fakes Act would protect (as I interpret it) private persons from, for instance, deep-faked revenge porn.

What the Locke Lord lawyers write is:

"...A student bullying another by creating a “digital replica” of his target and spreading it through school would likely be free from any right-of-publicity suit under the current law, as the victim’s “identity” is without commercial value, and, in any event, the damages would be negligible or difficult to prove.  The NO FAKES Act, however, would prohibit this conduct and stack statutory damages in multiples of $5,000.00, not just for the creation of the unauthorized digital replica, but also for each unauthorized distribution. It would also make clear that anyone forwarding or hosting that content could also be liable...."

Emphasis is mine. There is a lot more in the Locke Lord article, and it is important. I can only scratch the surface.

Not unsurprisingly, SAG-AFTRA approves.

As has been pointed out, one of the sticking points in the recent SAG-AFTRA strike was that movie studios appear to have attempted to require extras (or background actors) to sign away their rights to their likeness in perpetuity. One might be paid to be part of a crowd scene once, and one's likeness could be cut and pasted into myriad, literally, future crowd scenes and one would never be paid again.

For authors, it's best to know this information, because if you use AI on your cover art, or if your webmistress uses it, this No FAKES Act might affect you one day.

All the best,

Friday, October 27, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List}: Cast a Cold Eye by Alan Ryan

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Cast a Cold Eye by Alan Ryan

by Karen S. Wiesner

Here's a legitimate question that I posed in an earlier review I did (The Ritual by Adam Nevill Is a book worth reading if the end is disappointing? In other words, should I "waste" my time, money, and effort on a book if ultimately the story doesn't live up to the promise it initially had? While I'm sure most people would say "don't bother with anything less than perfect from start to finish" (and the logical practicals among us would add that they won't know the truth of that until after they've done the "wasting"), I find myself disagreeing. Before we get into a discussion about my reasons for disputing the majority vote, let's talk first about the basics about this particular book.

I stumbled on Cast a Cold Eye, a 1984 horror story writing by Alan Ryan, while browsing online horror book selections. In this novel, an American writer, Jack, heads to a small, remote village in Ireland to research a book on the Irish famine that took place near the place he settles. In the process, he sees and hears things that hint at a very dark legacy the locals--including a priest--harbor and almost humor. Easier to put up with something, even an evil something, than it is to fight it, right? Interestingly, one reviewer of the book pointed out how this story focused on faith and belief and how those things can sometimes be "horrible and frightening to behold". Indeed.

From the moment I started reading this story, I was intrigued and glued to it. Even when nothing crucial seemed to be happening in the beginning--just a writer going about his usual business--I felt something mysterious and creepy lurking beneath the surface, keeping me on edge as the dangers rousing along the fringes of Jack's present reality become clearer and even more menacing. One of the descriptions reviewers of the work noted was that this is a "slow burn horror" because the story builds slowly but steadily. That's something I love about really good horror novels. The setting was also deliciously haunting and oppressive. When a story's atmosphere settles in my chest like a dense fog, I'm at my happiest. Dread at the horror rising steadily in every direction, hemming in the main character so he was trapped, kept me turning the pages, not wanting to set the book down for any reason.

Sounds ideal for a lover of horror, doesn't it? I was on tenterhooks when I approached the last few pages of the tale. But what should have culminated into a frothing horror instead fizzled and died. Done. Over. Goodbye. All that suspense building only to have that unworthy ending was almost enough to make weep (as a reader and a writer). I'm not the only one who had this reaction. Other reviewers described the end as "inconclusive, anticlimactic" and as a "too quiet" story that "petered out at the end". I read the last few pages over and over, wondering how this had happened. Surely the author himself, his critique partners, his editor, the publisher, advance readers all cried out at the crime that had been committed by failing to make the final denouncement worthy of the rest of the story! I couldn't imagine how any of them could have missed this lamentable flaw in the otherwise flawless material. Speaking as an author, a reader, a fan of truly good horror, in the name of all that's literally good and right, why?

My severe disappointment had me passing the book off to someone else who I expected would enjoy most of the book as much as I had. I wanted to know if another reader would have the same reaction I did to the end. Maybe I was just being overly critical or wanting to rewrite it the way I would have written it? But…no. This person shared my angst at having an incredible story basically come to nothing.

After that situation, I thought I'd trying reading another book by the author. I will note that I had an extremely hard time finding anything. While the books Alan Ryan had written were all listed on his Wikipedia page, finding copies of them proved very difficult. That may be because the author died in 2012, and maybe he gained a post mortem following that caused his books to become scarce as a result. The one short book I was able to purchase of his, accepting a used edition, was Amazonas. This story was written under his full name, Alan Peter Ryan. I'm given to understand that he took a 20-year hiatus from writing horror before this one came out. In any case, the novel was about a man who trespassed the boundaries of something that should have remained untouched. Good premise. Excellent writing. Loving it like I did the previous…and then the end came, and, for me, all the previous tension-building fell flat. Again. I'm sorry to say that this repeated experience did affect my willingness to search harder to obtain the author's other offerings.

That leads us back to my original question: Should I "waste" my time, money, and effort on a book if ultimately the story doesn't live up to the promise it initially had? The reason I'm saying yes, that Cast a Cold Eye was worth reading despite the crushing dismay I experienced at the end of it, is because--save for a few pages at the end of the book--I would have said it was one of the best horror novels I'd ever read up until that point. True that, if I ever read it again, I will know upfront that I'm probably not going to like the end, though the journey would have been immensely worthwhile.

Additionally, I've found as a lifetime reader, I can actually come back to a story that I once read voraciously years ago but ultimately hated or had a violent response to and see it in a whole new light. This has been the case with The Hunger Games series. My initial reaction was modified by a new perspective I simply didn't have when I was younger. In the case of The Hunger Games, I actually liked the trilogy better the second time around. The first time I read it, I was a young mother who couldn't conceive of a world where a parent would allow something so awful to happen to their children. I didn't buy the premise of the series, so enjoying it was because of that was nearly impossible. All my opinions were filtered through that unwilling perspective. Though the story itself was compelling enough to get through each of the books, I couldn't enjoy them or identify with the characters' struggles. The second time, I was older, and I actually felt sympathy for people I'd once cursed.

Could that happen with Cast a Cold Eye? Maybe. As a writer, I learn something when I love a story from start to finish, and I learn just as much when I don't love it fully. Even if I'm at extremes, these are the stories that are indisputably memorable. The characters and situations stick with me permanently, almost like a haunting. It's the mediocre that doesn't cast a long shadow and soon fades from all remembrance. Better to love or hate a story, rather than being lukewarm or cold to it, because it's then that it becomes apparent the author is clearly capable of rousing strong emotions in me. I want to be moved by every book I read, whether for joy or grief. Even if that means some disappointment, those are the tales that will stick with me evermore. However, after having read two books by Alan Ryan that I hated the last few pages of but loved everything else, I found myself unable to consider the dubious investment worth repeating.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

Visit her publisher here:

Thursday, October 26, 2023

A World Without Christmas

The Hallmark channel has already begun its annual Countdown to Christmas movie marathon. For us (Episcopalians) the season runs from the first Sunday of Advent (early December) to Epiphany (January 6, aka Twelfth Night), and I keep the tree up at least until Epiphany. But starting before Halloween?!

Last Saturday night, I watched WHERE ARE YOU, CHRISTMAS? The protagonist wishes Christmas didn't exist and wakes up from a minor car crash to discover she's got her wish. She finds herself in an alternate reality where nobody else has heard of the holiday.

Does the script take into account any of the implications of a world with no Christmas? If they even thought of that aspect at all, they didn't bother, maybe to avoid complications that would distract from the theme of rediscovering the joy of the holiday. No Christmas implies no Jesus and no Christianity, a change that would make the history of Europe, Britain, and the Americas almost unrecognizable. As far as religion is concerned, you'd have Judaism, Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and modern-day versions of the various pagan cults. As for Islam, I conjecture it might not exist without Christianity, at least in a form we'd easily recognize. So we should see pagan temples all over the place and people celebrating Saturnalia and/or Yuletide. (Earth's history as portrayed in the cartoon series STEVEN UNIVERSE takes this sort of thing seriously. There's no Christianity, so we don't see Christmas, Halloween, or Valentine's Day.)

For a less drastic point of divergence from actual history, suppose the Reformation as a whole concurred with the Puritan belief that the feast of the Nativity shouldn't be celebrated because it's merely a Christian veneer over a pagan festival, and the Catholic Counter-Reformation adopted that position, too. In that case, we can imagine Christmas being abandoned in the early modern era. Therefore, some people would recognize the word "Christmas" when the heroine mentions it, but for the most part they'd be medieval historians, which she probably wouldn't encounter in a typical Hallmark-movie small town. Moreover, in every human society outside of the tropics (as discussed in Stephen Nissenbaum's delightful book THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS), the winter solstice has been celebrated by feasting and other forms of excess. In the absence of Yule or some other pagan observance, what, in this alternative universe, replaces Christmas? Apparently New Year's celebrations dominate the winter festive season, although this point is mentioned only once. The dialogue includes a slyly self-referential remark about New Year's-themed TV movies starting to air in June.

Aside from the practical difficulties of fitting this kind of speculation into a two-hour feature film (including commercial breaks), I suspect there's not much overlap between writers of alternate-history SF and made-for-TV romance movies.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Say, Say, Say

"Say, say, say..."  Is that one word? Or is it three? Is that a quibble? Does it matter?

It might. Some would say that the context matters very much, for instance as in how and why a novelist would use a line or two from a song. Others would look at the percentage of the song that is represented by the quoted words/lines/chorus.

As a rule of thumb for writers, one should avoid quoting song lyrics at all, and there is an informative discussion on whether or not the Fair Use doctrine applies to quoting snatches of song in novels, which discussion is currently taking place on the Authors Guild forum.

It is well known that one cannot copyright a title, even of a song, but a title can be trademarked. For the Writer's Digest take, see here:
Credit given to Brian A. Klems.

Something important that writers tend to forget is that, if one uses someone else's lines under the argument of "Fair Use", one must be prepared to defend one's position in court, which might be expensive, win or lose.

Section 107 (On Fair Use)

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include-

the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
the nature of the copyrighted work;
the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

Context is also very important when it comes to a public exchange of insults. Under British law, it matters very much whether harsh words can be defended as an honest opinion (which one may have, hold, and share) or if the harsh words might be read to be an allegedly untruthful, allegedly defamatory, and possibly malicious statement of fact (or not fact).

Legal bloggers Peter Lees, Abi Kennedy, and Hayley Clark of the British law firm Squire Patton Boggs discuss a recent libel case in an article titled "What People Say and What they Really Mean -- The Importance of Context."

It's quite a good story, and although the case is British, it resulted from a bunch of Tweets on Twitter (or X), so we can all relate.

Apparently, if one is prepared to accuse someone else of being an "" or a "...phile" or a "...phobe" in writing on social media, it's advisable to quote-tweet back at them to include whatever it was that the first person wrote that caused the Tweeter to form an unfavorable opinion.

Of course, it's best to follow "The Thumper Rule"... but if everyone did that, lawyers and social media titans wouldn't make much money.

All the best,

Rowena Cherry 


Friday, October 20, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List}: Malorie (sequel to Bird Box) by Josh Malerman

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Malorie (sequel to Bird Box) by Josh Malerman

by Karen S. Wiesner

Bird Box, a post-apocalyptic horror novel by Josh Malerman, was published in 2014. See my review of it here: The direct sequel, Malorie, was published in 2020 (two years after the Netflix film adaptation starring Sandra Bullock aired). The initial chapters are set two years after the events of the first story, in which Malorie and her two young children are forced out of the school for the blind they've been staying, safe in a group setting, from undefined creatures that have caused mankind to go homicidally mad just by looking at them. From the school, they flee to an abandoned Jewish summer camp. The story in Malorie really begins 12 years after that point.

The kids are now teenagers going through many changes--for Tom (or Boy, as he was referred to in the first book), it's wanting to rebel against any and all authority. In this case, that's his mother, who forces them to live in fear, always protected against the monsters that have destroyed the world as she knew it. Tom believes he's found the means to combat the madness that comes from seeing the creatures. Malorie refuses to allow him to test his prototype out, since doing so would not only be dangerous for all of them, but deadly for the person who made the attempt. For Olympia (or Girl, as she was called in Bird Box), she fears telling the secret she's been hiding for so long, knowing how badly her mother would react to learning the truth about her.

When Malorie learns that her parents might still be alive, she's too wary to leave their secure hiding place…until, of course, their safety is breached and she has no choice but to flee. Going to the place her parents were last seen seems like the best option, but I'm certain, if not for that immediate threat, she never would have considered leaving.

Malorie is 12 years into raising her children, holding on to them so hard, they're bleeding (not simply chaffing) from her inflexible tyranny in enforcing the rules. In preparation for writing this review, I reread Bird Box and found Malorie even more abusive in that story than I originally remembered when writing the review for the first book. She lives in fear and thrusts the kids into the same terror that constantly threatens to drown her. She justifies this by telling herself that, to survive, she has to be unceasingly disciplined and ruthless. As I said in that review, being cold with children, withholding affection, in no way makes anyone physically safer, let alone happier and well-adjusted. In fact, I think the opposite is actually true. If there's a strong bond of love with open communication and a willingness to listen to other people's feelings and ideas, there's more acceptance and obedience as everyone tries to work together to ensure safety and well-being are achieved. In this case, I don't know that that ends justify the means. In this sequel, Malorie was unnecessarily cruel, harsh, and loveless in her discipline. She never explained anything to her children. She was more like a ruthless drill sergeant. Her unyielding authority led to all the problems that followed in the book. Tom and Olympia are perfect examples of what happens with this kind of parenting. Kids either rebel violently or they become exact matches of their own barbaric authority figure, which is a vicious circle. I believe Malorie's only saving grace was that she didn't ask her kids to do anything she wasn't willing to do herself--and religiously!

Although it was very hard to accept Malorie's justifications as acceptable, I wasn't without compassion. I can't imagine the hell of her situation. How do parents keep children safe in a world where there's literally no such thing? Even in the present day, this is a universal struggle, and no one has found definitive answers since, naturally, no one seems to agree on what's actually right and what's actually wrong. I found it sad (if a little clichéd and pathetic) that Tom became such a reckless, foolish person, damning all when he finally threw off the shackles of his confinement. If Malorie had just listened to his ideas and tried to find ways to encourage him without putting them in danger, he wouldn't have reacted the way he did. If Olympia had felt safe enough to talk to her mother about who and what she is, she wouldn't have had to withhold secrets her mother desperately needed to know. When militant obedience is the only required response…well, what could possibly make life worth living? Mere survival won't be enough for long.

Without these conflicts, the book wouldn't have had much of a foundation, and, given that these very questions are the ones that mirror society as we know it in the present day, they're valid and relatable. Despite the timeworn nature of the plot problems, there's a fresh spin on them here and I enjoyed this book as much as I did the last one. The scenario was compelling and tense, constantly escalating.

However, this follow-up was supposed to provide "the reason for all the bloodshed", and it didn't. Not at all. Instead, the creatures in Malorie are even more mysterious, illusive, numerous, and actually appeared to have evolved since the last story, though again they're never described to us and we don't learn a single thing about who and what they are, where they came from, and what their purpose is (beyond making sure every person on the planet is killed--one can't help wondering what the point of that is from the monsters' point-of-view). That lack of resolution (again) was more than a little unsatisfying. I feel like I've only gotten half of a story because this went without saying (again).

Mild disappointment aside, if you liked Bird Box (the book and the movie), you should equally like Malorie. This tale also serves as a cautionary tale: Instead of treating your children like soldiers under your command, view them as unique individuals, worthy of love and respect. Encourage them to contribute not just to survival but also to the enrichment of life.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

Visit her publisher here:

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Defining Death

I've been reading a book called WHEN THE "DEAD" ROSE IN BRITAIN, by Nicole C. Salomone. After a forty-page overview of the history of medicine in Europe and Britain, the author delves into "premature burial and the misdiagnosis of death," mostly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Among the various related topics covered, there's a chapter on European vampire legends, the main reason I bought the book. Over hundreds of years, doctors as well as clergymen and philosophers debated and analyzed in great detail the dividing line between life and death and the criteria for diagnosing death. They distinguished between apparent death (or suspended animation) and absolute death, from which no recovery was possible.

Some physicians explained the essence of aliveness as the "vital spark," rather tautologically defined as the force that maintained life in the body. Later, it was suggested that the vital spark was in fact electricity, a hypothesis seemingly validated by the fact that an electrical current sent through an animal cadaver can make its limbs move. The recognition of the absence of breath and heartbeat as probable but not certain evidence of death inspired development of techniques for resuscitation, some of which produced concrete benefits in reviving victims of drowning and eventually led to CPR as we know it today. Societies for "the Recovery of Persons Apparently Dead" were organized. Salomone seems to accept as fact most of the recorded accounts of people misdiagnosed as dead, often prepared for interment and buried or dissected. On the other hand, the lack of specific details in many of those stories (e.g., names and precisely identified locations) leads me to think a lot were what would now be called urban legends. In any case, a widespread belief in and fear of premature burial in the nineteenth century resulted in the invention of numerous models of "safety coffins."

In modern times, medicine and the law have determined that life resides in the brain. Permanent cessation of brain activity -- "brain death" -- equals the demise of the person. Robert Heinlein's very uneven brain-transplant novel, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, includes an extended dialogue on this issue, for me the most interesting scene in the book.

If a person has apparently died and been restored to life, was he or she actually dead during the period of "apparent death"? Are "near-death experiences" genuine glimpses of the afterlife or merely the random firing of nerve impulses? Maybe such people are only "mostly dead," like the hero in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

If science eventually develops a technique for uploading a person's consciousness into a computer, as often envisioned in speculative fiction, is a person whose body has died with the mind preserved in this way alive or dead?

In the Star Trek universe, given that the transporter disintegrates the transportee into component particles that are reassembled at the destination, do people being teleported survive the experience? Or, as Dr. McCoy speculates, do you die every time you step onto the transporter pad, to be replaced by an exact duplicate? If it's an exact duplicate, though, how could you tell? Your memories and personality seem unimpaired. Furthermore, what about the episodes when a transporter accident creates two of the same person? Does destroying one of them or even merging them together (or splitting a new individual generated from two people by the transporter into his component halves, as debated in one VOYAGER episode) count as murder? In the eighteenth century, when the foolproof way of determining whether someone was alive or dead was to wait until the body started to decompose, the quandary was simple by comparison.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt

Sunday, October 15, 2023


Enunciation matters.

Enunciation is the art or skill or ability to pronounce words clearly. Some minor celebrities have it, and some don't. If, as an author, you are paying substantial prices to have your works put into audio form, even if a bot is doing it, you need to make sure that your voice-talent is adequate.

Take a current TV advertisement for a luxury, plumbing-related solution to a bathroom renovation. Do you know what grey water is?

Now, grey -or gray- water is fine and environmentally responsible for watering your garden, but there is a limit to its uses. It is not glamorous. Basically, it is used bathwater.

If you are hiring visual talent to pitch your product, you might want her to be able to enunciate "great" as opposed to "grey" or "gray" because great is fantastic, and grey in the context of water is... gross. 

Otherwise, change the script. "Grea..." could be "Fantastic" or "Amazing" or any number of more easily pronouced synonyms.

All the best,

Rowena Cherry

Friday, October 13, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List}: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

by Karen S. Wiesner

Published in 2020, Piranesi by the celebrated author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, is labeled a fantasy, but it's far more than that. I purchased it because I love the previous novel by this author, which I reviewed earlier in my Alien Romances Friday column Put This On Your TBR List.

It's hard to even know how to review this story. It gracefully evades attempts at accurately describing and pinning down its premise or true nature, as the main character Piranesi himself does. Set in a strange, labyrinthine world called the House, there are seemingly infinite halls and vestibules that are filled with one of a kind statues, clouds, an ocean, along with a being called by Piranesi "the Other", a mysterious man who provides useful items from the outside world, though never explains where all these things come from (and Piranesi never seems to wonder, nor question where the Other disappears to half the time). Incidentally, I pictured the Other as The Architect from the Keanu Reeves' movie The Matrix and didn't trust him from the very first mention of him, though I couldn't really be sure at that point whether he deserved my swift judgment.

Piranesi fills his days exploring, gathering food and the items he needs to live, tracking the tides, and indexing and writing about his home and simple life in journals provided for him by the Other. This being has asked Piranesi to help him search for the Great and Secret Knowledge--whatever that is. In the process, Piranesi discovers journal entries in his own handwriting that he doesn't remember writing. The Other has told him that the House erodes memories and personalities, and that a being called "16" will seek to cause madness in Piranesi if they don't kill him. But Piranesi is a gentle soul, content to live where and how he does, in isolation except for birds that come and go, the tides that only he knows the rhythm of, and searching for signs of the 15 other beings that once lived in the House (two of whom are long-dead skeletons Piranesi cares for).

To say nothing is as it seems in the novel Piranesi is to imply that we ever truly know what reality is in this unique world. Readers will only ever glimpse fringes of such a thing through Piranesi's diary and the fragments of discovery he comes across on his journey.

When I picked up the story, I was keeping company with two people who were watching a football game I had absolutely no interest in. Would I have become so engrossed in the book if not for that? I don't know, but I'm so glad I did read it at that time when there was nothing else to do and therefore I could allow my interest to blossom slow but sure--because that's the unfortunate thing about this wonderful tale: It starts so incredibly weirdly, so sedately, I think anyone who doesn't give the story time and force themselves to push past page 100 may not continue reading. That would be a tragedy. It isn't until after the first and well into the second part of this tale that Piranesi and his unsettling life, as he begins piecing together a troubling mystery, really becomes something a reader can't put down.

The Los Angeles Times called the protagonist one "with no guile, no greed, no envy, no cruelty, and yet still intriguing." Piranesi as a character devastated me the further along I got into his story, discovering troubling truths, but more to the point, I agree with Lila Shapiro who said in her review of the book that "Piranesi will wreck you."

I can't recommend this tale highly enough, and, if I could giftwrap it and silently hand it to every reader, so (as Erin Morgenstern has said of it) "they can have the pleasure of uncovering its secrets for themselves", I would. In a way, that's what I'm doing here. Piranesi is an unforgettable treasure you may never recover fully from reading.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

Visit her publisher here:

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Learning Without Brains

Can creatures without brains think? Many of them can learn, so are they thinking? This article highlights several brainless life forms capable of learning:

Organisms Without Brains

Of course, this premise depends on what we mean by learning. If we think of that activity as a process that requires consciousness, a brain is probably essential. However, the article defines learning as "any change in behaviour as a result of experience." By that definition, creatures such as jellyfish, some plants, and even slime molds can learn, remember, and modify their reactions to the environment accordingly. For example, the beadlet anemone as a rule "violently opposes any encroachment on its territory by other anemones," yet it doesn't show aggression toward its genetically identical clones. Slime molds remember routes to food and use those experiences to guide future foraging. The Venus flytrap also acts as if it has a memory. Another article explores the potential "intelligence" of plants in more detail, discussing how chemical and electrical signals in their transport systems may carry information.

Can Plants Think?

I've probably mentioned in the past a story in which one character asks another, "With what does a plant think, in the absence of a brain?" The skeptical second character who scoffs at the idea of plant cognition might be wrong after all.

The concept of brainless organisms capable of remembering and learning raises the question, again, of how we could be sure of recognizing an intelligent alien if we met one. Suppose they have modes of intelligence that, unlike ours, don't need anything that seems analogous to a brain? How easily could we realize they are actually thinking?

If "learning" means "any change in behaviour as a result of experience," considering what we watch and read in the daily news, we might well doubt whether some Earth-humans with allegedly functional brains have the ability to learn!

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Friday, October 06, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List}: Wildwood by Colin Meloy; illustrated by Carson Ellis

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Wildwood by Colin Meloy; illustrated by Carson Ellis

by Karen S. Wiesner

Wildwood is the first book in The Wildwood Chronicles, a 2011 children's fantasy series written by Colin Meloy (a member of the indie folk-rock band The Decemberists), illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis.

I found this beautiful little book with quirky artwork in an even quirkier bookstore. When I initially started reading it, I was reminded of a similar English children's series that I'd read to my son when he was young. Although it came out around the same time the Series of Unfortunate Events books were being released, I can't find them in my own library or in any successful internet search. In any case, the point is that I've never forgotten these uproariously hilarious stories filled with unlikely, improbable, and outlandish characters and situations. Everything in these tales was so ludicrous, there was nothing to do but laugh until you felt like your sides would split.

The crazy humor of the characters in Wildwood was a bit like that, enough to hope that good things were coming. But the thing this unforgettable series that I ironically can't remember the names, titles, or author of had one thing that I didn't find in Wildwood: There was a built in believability factor to them. I can't really explain why it was in that outlandish series other than that the reader was just never given a choice about swallowing the premise or any other part of those books. You went with it, and the fun insanity of it all carries you through the story without questioning the events that transpired.

Undeniably, Wildwood was well-written and I especially liked the unique illustrations interspersed throughout the off-beat tale. But the introductory scenario was one I just couldn't accept. In the opening chapters, a 13-year-old girl named Prue was handed off her baby brother by their parents to care for all day and night. This is done as if 1) it's Prue's job to do so, and 2) she has the degree of responsibility to do such a thing, whether she volunteered or not. Prue has a weirdly shocking sense of humor, which was appealing, and her laidback attitude was also a good setup. However, she had a blasé attitude about her brother. She thrusts Mac (an infant from what I'm understanding) in the naked "bed" of a red wagon which is attached to her bicycle. Prue proceeds to pull the wagon like a bat out of hell all over Portland. Readers are apparently supposed to believe no children could be seriously harmed in this way.

I found it harder and harder to suspend belief as the reader followed Prue around on her careless trek with a brother she didn't seem to want to be taking care of, nor really exercised any care in babysitting. I wasn't surprised because the back cover blurb of the book told us that Mac was stolen, plucked right out of wagon, by a murder of crows and taken into Portland's Impassable Wilderness.

I have a sense of humor. But, if any of this was supposed to be amusing, it simply wasn't written that way. But that's not the end of it. Add to this disturbing scenario yet another, equally unsettling and unbelievable one: Prue decides the best course of action after her brother is kidnapped is to go home, fool her parents into thinking Mac is already asleep in his crib, and she'll get around to rescuing him tomorrow.

First, I couldn't imagine the parents of an infant not checking on him personally before retiring for the night themselves, instead taking their teenage daughter's word for it that he was fine, fed, and off in la-la land, not to be woken by fawning parents.

Second, that Prue didn't think to involve her parents, immediately, who should have called the police, immediately, put me off entirely for anything like a fun, breathtaking fantasy fairy tale with a protagonist fitting the description of a young girl with an "admirable and amazing independent streak". (Prue is based on the author and illustrator's niece, who has these qualities, according to them.) While I was initially intrigued by Prue, I found that she didn't develop as a character in the ways I wanted her to. Yes, she did go after her brother eventually, proving that maybe she cared for him, though she initially seemed more concerned about getting in trouble for losing him, from what I could tell.

Perhaps Prue's unwelcome sidekick, Curtis, would have been much more sympathetic, compelling, and worthy main character, but he did get his share of pages in this first book of the series.

Explanations that could and should have come earlier in the story probably would have convinced me to invest more in the story, to see it as hilarious and entertaining instead of negligent and alarming. I think people of various ages who have no children might enjoy this sometimes violent, shocking story, but that begs the question: Who is the target audience? I wasn't entirely sure at any point, least of all now.

Aside from those aspects, the fantasy setting of Wildwood, which is based on the real Forest Park and much of its actual terrain, should delight lovers of Neil Gaiman-like, parallel world fiction. There are two more Wildwood series titles available now, along with rumors that it's being made into a stop motion film, coming in 2025 boasting a cast of all-star voice actors.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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Thursday, October 05, 2023

Mental Illness in Horror

The Horror Writers Association's monthly newsletter has started running a column about the treatment of mental illness in horror fiction -- how it's been done wrong in the past and how to do it realistically, sensitively, and compassionately. Too often in such stories, neurodivergent people or sufferers from mental and emotional disorders have appeared as stereotypically monstrous figures such as deranged serial killers. Yet it's hard to imagine the genre without Poe's neurotic or perhaps delusional narrators, Renfield in DRACULA, Lovecraft's protagonists driven mad by cosmic terrors, Robert Bloch's PSYCHO, and works such as Theodore Sturgeon's brilliant SOME OF YOUR BLOOD (a short epistolary novel featuring a rather pitiable blood-drinking sociopath, who, with only two exceptions, kills only small animals he hunts in the woods). THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS presents the sociopathic genius Dr. Hannibal Lecter, more of a fairy-tale monster with almost magical powers than a realistic criminal, and the serial killer "Buffalo Bill," murdering women to sew a "girl suit" out of their skins. The latter has been criticized for giving the toxic impression that transgender men are inherently unstable and probably dangerous. Lecter explicitly says "Bill" isn't really transgender and has been rejected by more than one sex change clinic (as the procedure was labeled at that time); nevertheless, the impression lingers.

There's little room to doubt that the innumerable fiction and film portrayals of people suffering from psychosis and other mental or emotional disorders as insane killers have negatively affected the public's distorted perception of actual human beings with similar problems. Also, the pulp fiction and horror film trope of the "mad scientist" probably reinforces too many people's distrust of real-life science nowadays, often with potentially disastrous real-world results.

As the panel discussion articles in the HWA newsletter point out, horror writers don't have to stop including mentally ill and neurodivergent characters in their works. Those characters can be drawn as three-dimensional figures with credible virtues and flaws, even if they're sometimes the antagonists in their stories.

I recently read Stephen King's latest novel, HOLLY, which I enjoyed very much. Like King himself, I've been fond of Holly ever since her first appearance in MR. MERCEDES. Through the rest of that trilogy, the spin-off novel THE OUTSIDER, and the novella "If It Bleeds," she has believably evolved as a character. When we first meet her, she's nervous, shy, perpetually anxious, and at least mildly obsessive-compulsive. Even then, her suppressed intelligence shines through. She also seems to be high-functioning autistic, although the texts never explicitly state that diagnosis. As seen in HOLLY, she has grown in confidence, competence, and bonding with people she has come to love, while her core personality remains the same. She still displays the same quirks, including that touch of OC, exacerbated by the need for COVID precautions. She's a well-rounded character whose strengths and weaknesses we can empathize with, yet a true hero when circumstances require. She strikes me as an outstanding example of a non-neurotypical protagonist done well.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

On Moderation

To the people who leave comments that get flagged by our host for moderation, thank you. Thank you for your support and for the very kind words.

We read and appreciate all the comments, but we cannot post them all, particularly if the comments contain links to third party websites.

There was a time when other people's links were perfectly fine, but laws have changed around the world, and if we publish a link on our blog, we assume some level of responsibility for it.

I apologize for the excessive overabundance of caution.

All the best,

Rowena Cherry