Friday, August 29, 2014

The Best Paranormal Novels You Probably Never Heard Of

***As I mentioned elsewhere on my blog, Squidoo - a site where I had previously published a number of articles - has gone the way of the dodo.  (Or rather, they will in the very near future - I think they shut down on October 1.) That being the case, I've been transferring some of that content to my blog here, including this post. Disclaimer: this is several years old and has not been updated, but I don't think much has changed.

Paranormal is the New Normal

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when reading paranormal novels - outside of Dracula and Stephen King books - was something other than mainstream. Now, thanks to the success of series like Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse novels, there's a glut of them. So many in fact, that there's an entire section at Half-Priced Books devoted to this new genre called "Paranormal Romance." (And it's a big section.)

Still, a deluge of paranormal novels doesn't mean that they're all great reads, and there is an abundance of awesome stories that probably get lost in the process. With that in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to mention some paranormal series that I felt would be worth your time and attention if you're trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in this arena.

Sandman Slim (The Sandman Slim Series)

James Stark is a young man who can perform magic – real magic – when he is dragged down to Hell (while still alive) and forced into gladiatorial combat for the entertainment of Hell’s denizens. Although – as a mere human – he was not expected to survive, he does the impossible and not only manages to stay alive during 11 brutal years in the arena, but develops a supernatural toughness in the process. Garnering the nickname “Sandman Slim,” he also becomes a feared supernatural hitman. After 11 years Stark manages escape, returning to Earth and vowing vengeance on the men who sent him to Hell and killed his girlfriend.

This is actually one of the best series I’ve come across in a long time. Needless to say, Sandman Slim is more of an anti-hero, combing the seedy streets of an L.A. underworld filled with magic, monsters and supernatural beings while seeking revenge. He is hard and completely fixated on revenge – but surprisingly humorous (which helps make such an uncompromising character likeable) – and tough enough not to take smack from anybody. For example: after beating back a surprise attack, Stark stands bleeding in Lucifer’s penthouse hotel suite. (Hey, Old Scratch has got to stay somewhere when he’s in town – you thought the devil camped out?) Stark is about to take a seat when he is told by Lucifer – the devil himself – “Don’t get blood on my couch.” Stark replies, “It’s not your couch,” and sits anyway.

Equal parts mystery, paranormal fiction, and high-octane adventure, the books in this dark urban fanatsy series (by Richard Kadrey) are as follows:

Sandman Slim

(On a side note, the first book, Sandman Slim, is purportedly being developed as a feature film.)

Staked (The Void City Novels)

In the supernatural world of Void City – which includes, demons, werewolves, witches and more – vampires come in four flavors:

Drones – Barely immortal
Soldiers – Tough, but not too hard to get rid of 
Masters – Very powerful 
Vlads – Top of the food chain, and almost impossible to kill for good. Cut their heads off, and they can be reattached; blow them up, and their bodies eventually reform; etc. 

Which type of vampire a person arises as after being turned is somewhat haphazard, although it tends to be related to force of will and personality. And there really isn’t a way to rise up the ladder, e.g., a vampire that arises as a drone will stay a drone forever (or until he gets killed).

Eric Courtney is a vlad famously known for having blackouts and an extremely poor memory. He chalks it up to having been embalmed before arising as a vampire. He can’t even remember how he came to be undead in the first place, and no other vampire has ever stepped forward to declare himself Eric’s sire. His legendary blackouts are usually the result of someone making him angry, and whenever he comes out of it there’s usually a dead body (or several) nearby. In fact, the first novel opens with Eric shouting at someone as he comes out of a blackout, looking at the decomposing vampire body and wondering who he’s killed. Moreover, he soon finds himself framed for the murder of a werewolf, who just happens to be the son of the local pack leader. Now he just has to prove himself innocent, find out who set him up (and why), and – among other things – avoid the werewolf assassins that he knows will be coming after him. Not the easiest thing to do for a guy who typically can’t remember who he ate the night before.

In the Void City novels, the author – J.F. Lewis – has created something other than the typical vampire storyline. His is a dark and gritty world with its own unique vampire mythos. It’s a world where a magical veil over the city keeps normal humans oblivious to the monsters in their midst, and a corrupt police force gets rid of bodies and covers up crimes for supernaturals with enough money to pay the “fang fee.” Moreover, nothing is what it seems: one of Eric’s associates, Talbot, resembles a handsome Black man, but – as he tells a female character who doesn’t like his behavior towards her, “You keep expecting me to act human. I’m not…” (Talbot is, in fact, a rather unique creature, but to say more would be to risk spoiling it for some.)

The action is fast-paced, fun, and totally engrossing. The Void City novels are:


Child of Fire (The Twenty Palaces Series)

The Twenty Palaces Society is a group of warlocks dedicated to rooting out the use of magic by people trying to exploit it to gain power. Basically, there is a myriad of horrific, otherworldly beings – any one of which is capable of stripping all life from Earth – who generally promise power to any person who calls them forth. Needless to say, these creatures are nearly impossible to control, and death and destruction usually follow in their wake. Thus, the Twenty Palaces Society ruthlessly exterminates anyone they feel is guilty of the unauthorized use of magic, which basically seems to be any use of magic at all - other than their own, of course. (Their attitude towards other practitioners reminds of a line from one of my favorite video games, Fallout 3, when a villain tells his henchman, "Shoot anybody that isn't you, and isn't me.")

Ray Lilly is a small-time crook and petty thief who serves as a driver for a member of the Twenty Palaces Society. Because he betrayed her once, his boss doesn’t trust him and wouldn’t mind seeing Ray in a pine box. (In fact, Ray is designated a "Wooden Man," which essentially means that his job is to literally get himself killed if it helps his boss complete her mission.) When his employer gets hurt, Ray – with a single spell to his name and a few magical tattoos on his arms and chest – must go alone after an otherworldly monster capable of controlling not only people, but also time itself.

The action is fast and furious from the very start. Like the other novels in this post, this is dark urban fantasy – no lubby-dubby supernaturals here. It’s tense and violent, but utterly enjoyable. The books in the Twenty Palaces series are:

Child of Fire

Dying Bites (The Bloodhound Files)

Jace Valchek is an FBI profiler whose specialty is tracking down serial killers. Because of that talent, she is ripped from our world into an alternate reality – one where creatures such as vampires and werewolves are the norm. In fact, they are the majority: 33% of the world’s population is vampires, 47% are werewolves and 19% are golems (artificial constructs magically brought to life). Normal humans number less than 1 million people – the result of various activities over the years, including the forced transformation of millions during the alternate reality’s version of World War II.

A serial killer is stalking and killing supernaturals in this new world Jace finds herself in. Because vampires, werewolves and golems don’t suffer from mental illness, the killer – presumably – is human. Moreover, the lack of mental illness means that the authorities have no skill in this area, thus the reason for “borrowing” Jace from her own reality. In tracking down the killer, Jace also has to adjust to a world where she’s suddenly part of a dwindling minority, and the supernaturals have cute little nicknames for normal people, like “O.R.” (which stands for “original recipe”). Not to mention the fact that, in many ways, she sympathizes more with the killer she’s chasing as opposed to his victims.

This series makes a nice departure from the typical paranormal stories, where all of the things that go bump in the night are kept under wraps and hidden from plain humans. Here, all of the supernatural beings are out in the open, and it’s Jace who has to masquerade as something else – a werewolf, courtesy of a specially formulated body spray – in order to avoid detection for what she truly is. All in all, it’s a good read with great supernatural elements, mystery and action. The novels in the Bloodhound Files are:

Dying Bites

Needless to say, there are plenty of other fantastic series out there. These are just a few that I've come across and found worthwhile, but I also welcome any suggestions others may have.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Best Thing About "Guardians of the Galaxy"

I am without question a scifi/fantasy devotee.  Thus, my love of the genre - combined with an inherent affection for Marvel comics - meant that going to see the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie was almost mandatory for me.  

Thankfully, the film did not disappoint. From my perspective, it contained an entertaining dose of the requisite elements required in such movies: action/adventure, comedy, special effects, etc.  Apparently, lots of other people agree with my assessment; thus far, the movie has cleaned up from a fiscal standpoint, raking in over $400 million at the global box office.

However, despite all those other pleasing qualities, what I found the best - and most surprising - feature of the movie was actually something I usually don't give a great deal of thought to with respect to films: the soundtrack.

Sure, there are movies which will contain a song that will hit you in the gut or make sit up and you take notice because of the way it captures your fancy or suits a scene (eg, Jim Croce's Time in a Bottle in X-Men: Days of Future Past), but this was a little different. This was an occasion where the music not only fit the visual on the screen, but was so embedded in the action that it almost seemed to have a role in the film.  From the early scene with Star Lord grooving to Redbone's infectious Come and Get Your Love (see the video below) to the Jackson 5's immortal I Want You Back, the music in this instance just seems to capture the essence of the film.

Moreover, it's patently obvious that I'm far from the only person who was impressed with the music.  The soundtrack recently hit #1 on the Billboard charts - a nice feat for a bunch of songs from the '60s and '70s.  I guess it's true what they say: everything old is new again.

The film's director, James Gunn (who also co-wrote the screenplay), was the person responsible for selecting the songs used in the movie. As far as I'm concerned, he should be given an Academy Award just for that. (You have to admit that even the name of the soundtrack is pretty cool: "Awesome Mix Vol. 1")  

Long story short, the movie was great - but the soundtrack was absolutely fantastic! The only downside is that, when I look to the future, I'm not worried about how the movie sequel will compare to the original film; I'm sure it will do fine (and set the stage for a third film).  However, "Awesome Mix Vol. 2" will have the unenviable task of trying to measure up to its predecessor, and that, my friends, is a high bar to hurdle.  Mr. Gunn, sir, you have your work cut out for you, but you are merely a victim of your own success.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

The Speculative Fiction Blog Hop

I've been fortunate enough to be tagged as the next contributor on the Speculative Fiction Blog Hop, wherein individual authors discuss and provide an overview of their writing process.  

I was tagged by the uber-talented Cora Buhlert, who was born and bred in North Germany, where she still lives today - after time spent in London, Singapore, Rotterdam and Mississippi. Cora holds an MA degree in English from the University of Bremen and is currently working towards her PhD. She has been writing since she was a teenager, and has published stories, articles and poetry in various international magazines. When she is not writing, she works as a translator and teacher. Visit her on the web at or follow her on Twitter under @CoraBuhlert.

As part of the blog hop, each participating author answers four questions about their writing process, which are as follows:

I. What Are You Working On?

There's an entire heap of projects (in various genres) that I've actually started.  However, I've mentioned on several other occasions that I tend to write the story that's making the most noise in my brain. These days, that's a scifi novel that I hope to finish very soon.  I've also started the next Kid Sensation novel, which is my most popular series. 

II.  How Does My Work Differ From Others of Its Genre?

The question is a little tricky to answer since my fiction currently encompasses two series - the Kid Sensation series and the Warden series.  

With respect to the Warden books, I suppose the most distinguishing characteristic is that I've chosen to fill those books with non-traditional monsters/antagonists.  Rather than vampires, werewolves, and the like, I've chosen to populate my books with a number of other creatures that generally don't get as much airplay: Thus, over the course of three books, my protagonist has entered fiends such as Wendigos, lamias, revenants, selkies, aswangs, and more.  

As to the Kid Sensation series, which encompasses superhero novels, one of the things that may be different is that I've tried to incorporate some of the physics into the stories. For instance, if someone can fly at 1000 miles per hour, there's a sonic boom heard by those nearby. If someone runs at high speed, the friction (eg, their thighs rubbing together) can wear out their clothes.

That said, I believe that - in general - the work of writers in the same genre is bound to vary naturally just based the authors' own thoughts, views, experiences, etc. - just as in other realms of entertainment.  By way of example, there were two Hercules movies released this year. It was the same subject matter, but two totally different takes on the story.  Likewise, I generally think that each author's work, even in overcrowded genres, is as unique and distinctive as the individual writer himself. 

III.  Why Do I Write What I Do?

As I mentioned, I've actually started quite a number of projects in various genres: mystery, romance, action/thriller, western...  In essence, I read a wide spectrum of books and find myself interested in a diverse range of subjects.  This, of course, affects my writing. In essence, like so many others, I write whatever interests me.

Nevertheless, I am - at my core - a scifi/fantasy author. (Works in other genres will quite likely be published under a pen name.) That being the case, I suppose I write what I write because I enjoy it. I like being a storyteller, and writing books that people of all ages can enjoy. Plus, writing scifi/fantasy gives me the option to explore the limits of my imagination. There's really no idea that's too far-fetched for me to put into a story.

IV.  How Does My Writing Process Work?

I suppose it all starts with the notebook: I have a composition notebook that I take with me everywhere.  If I get a good idea for a story, I write it in the notebook.  Moreover, each story idea typically gets a couple of pages in the notebook, so that if I get a thought about a scene, dialogue, or anything else, I write it down under the proper story. My notebook is basically my bible.

With respect to actually writing, I typically don't do outlines; for me, the story tends to tell itself.  In other words, when I sit down and start typing, it's more like the characters are telling their own story and I'm just taking dictation.  This happened in dramatic form with Sensation, the first novel in my Kid Sensation series; I had an idea of the story I wanted to tell, but in the course of writing the novel veered away so drastically from the book I originally intended to write that no one would believe me if I told them what I'd had in mind initially.

As I mentioned, I don't do outlines.  I usually know how I want the story to start and how I want it to end, but not much more than that - the rest is the journey. I do, however, check my notebook throughout the drafting process to make sure I incorporate any worthwhile thoughts. I also usually edit as I write. 

When I finish, I typically read through the draft at least twice before sending it to my editor. Quite often, in addition to typos, I'm looking for what I call "logic gaps" - scenes where characters are doing things that advance the story, but which really don't make much sense.  For instance, I watched a movie just yesterday where the main character took on a gang of about three dozen bad guys in a warehouse, and everybody was fighting with baseball bats, crowbars, etc.  It was a great scene, but at one point my thought became, "All these bad guys are fighting the protagonist, and not one of them has a gun?" I would have bought into any reason they presented for why nobody had firearms (eg, potential gas leak), but they never gave one.  It's with things like that I mind that I try - and hopefully succeed - in avoiding logic gaps. 

When I get the manuscript back from my editor, I usually read it at least two more times.  If I'm comfortable with it at that point it's ready for publishing.

That about sums things up for me, so my thanks to those in charge for being included in the blog hop. Next up is the amazing Ceinwen Langley, an Australian television writer and author. Her debut YA novel, The Edge of the Woods, has been described as dystopian Jane Austen, the Hunger Games meets the Stepford Wives and Margaret Atwood spear-tackling Twilight. (Okay, she said that last one herself.)

A full time writer, Ceinwen has contributed short stories to Birdee, an online magazine for young women, and has taught and spoken at universities and high schools. She spends her spare time trying to grow European wildflowers in a West Australian climate and taking pictures of her dog with things on his head. You can find out more about Ceinwen on her blog:  


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