Black Bottle Man


Black Bottle Man

Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell
Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2010; 176 pages
Gold Medal, Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, Young Adult Fantasy/ Sci-Fi, 2011

What do you do when your two childless aunts sell their souls to become pregnant? According to Black Bottle Man, you cut a deal with the devil and spend the next eighty years trying to find a champion who can beat him at his own game.

In 1927, Rembrandt is only ten years old when his loving Canadian farm family tears itself apart over his aunts’ dabbling in black magic. Determined to save the two women’s souls, Rembrandt, his Pa, and his Uncle Thompson cut a deal with the Black Bottle Man, Satan’s rather uninspiring earthly persona. The deal requires them to never spend more than twelve days in any one place until they either find a champion to defeat him, or die. Pa and Uncle Thompson only make it for a few years on the road. The rest is up to Rembrandt and the magic he’s learned to do using hobo signs.

If that description doesn’t tempt you, well, it didn’t really tempt me, either. Craig Russell contacted me last year, wanting to send me a review copy, and at first I think I didn’t answer. (Sorry!) He tried again a few months later, sending along an outstanding review from a blogger I usually agree with, so I cautiously agreed to give it a read.

Thank you, Craig, for persisting. This story is wild, ridiculous, serious fun.

Black Bottle Man’s structure easily draws the reader into the culture of hobo freighthopping. It moves with the speed of a train, jumping between Rembrandt’s Dust Bowl-era travels and a “present” time in 2007, while throwing in the points of view of other characters along the way. Russell’s prose is crisp and effective. He has a knack for finding just the right image to quickly wrap a reader into a scene. His characters are a blend of ordinary and outlandish, and the balance between the two is just right.

Best of all, Russell has given us a story that works at every level. Black Bottle Man is a romp, and if you want to leave it at that, it will let you. But scratch the surface just a little, and layers of new meaning begin to emerge. Rembrandt’s two aunts literally sell their souls for a magic bottle that will give them babies; it’s hard not to read that as a metaphor for modern technologies like IVF. It’s also hard to resist the unrepentant Aunt Annie’s claim that her sin was worth it, to have her strong, good daughter. But the aunts’ souls are still worth saving, and it is only through the intercession and sacrifice of others that such a feat is possible. Rembrandt’s hobo signs are part of a very incarnational magic. Each word, or sign, brings its meaning into being; for example, the sign for fish makes actual fish appear. These signs are a kind of sacrament, a visible sign of grace. The story drips with symbolism, some explicit and some more subtle, and I suspect there is even more that I will uncover in subsequent readings. Black Bottle Man is the very best kind of Catholic fiction: it weaves a Catholic worldview into the fabric of its being, creating a story that is resplendent with grace without ever needing to preach.

Black Bottle Man is marketed as “teen fiction,” and it is a book I would happily give to a teenager. But I think that moniker might also be holding it back from reaching an adult audience, who can enjoy it just as much.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at


Cinder Allia Named to Catholic Reads “Best of 2017”




Catholic Reads released their favorite books of 2017, and my newest novel, Cinder Alliafinished in a tie with Jane Lebak’s An Arrow in Flight for the top fantasy novel of the year! Congratulations to Jane and all the other winners. And if you haven’t read Cinder Allia yet, what are you waiting for?

In honor of this award, the Kindle Edition of Cinder Allia is now available for $0.99, but only until the end of 2017!

Here’s what Catholic Reads has to say:

Cinder Allia by Karen Ullo serves readers a fun, creative Cinderella story. Ullo’s plot, full of character twists, competent crafty villains, and cowardly heroes kept me thumbing my Kindle page after page. Her plot of political intrigue, quests for love, and restoration of a kingdom progresses through a cast of diverse characters who all struggle with their loyalty to their true selves. Ullo has captured my imagination and has written many excellent unforgettable scenes with vivid imagery and dialogue, humor, and an exciting plot worth reading again and again. The literary treasure and the incredible intrigue it contains are well worth the read.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at

Where to Find Catholic Fiction


Good Books

There’s been an awful lot of ink spilled about the rebirth, revitalization, and re-enchanting of Catholic literature in the last several years, complete with the proliferation of journals, publishing houses, and conferences. But did you know there has also been a similar effort to revitalize the marketing and availability of Catholic fiction? Several new ventures have emerged to help readers—as well as parents, teachers, and librarians—connect to all the good work being done in the name of Catholic fiction. Below are the ones I know about. If you know of any others, please spread the word in the comments!

Virtue Works Media

Cathy Gilmore is in the process of building a platform to connect media consumers of all ages to books, movies, and other media that promote one simple thing: virtue. Her vision is comprehensive, looking to serve all ages and genres, including everything from boutique small press fiction to Hollywood blockbusters. Virtue Works Media will eventually bring its catalog directly into parishes, Catholic schools, parish schools of religion, conferences, and anywhere else Catholics gather. Cathy is on a mission to make sure Catholics know they can get their entertainment from a Catholic source and still find works of the very highest quality.

As a start, she’s put together Five Fave Top Ten Lists of books and a few movies for ages preschool through adult. I’ve read enough of the books to know, these are good lists.

Good News! Book Fair

Lizette Lantigua is determined to oust Scholastic from Catholic schools by creating Good News! Book Fair. She offers fairs at every level, from elementary through college, as well as fairs for Catholic parishes or organizations. The books cover every possible genre, fiction and non-fiction alike, hopefully replacing some of the vapid secular offerings with something better, in every sense of the word.

Catholic Reads

Catholic Reads is a brand-spanking-new program launched in 2017, designed to be the Catholic equivalent of BookBub. Every book they review must be offered at a significant discount to receive promotion through the site. Alyssa Watson and her team are a bunch of unabashed sci-fi/ fantasy/ horror nerds—in other words, my kind of people—but the site offers every kind of fiction, from picture books on up.

Catholic Teen Books

Catholic Teen Books is a co-op of about ten Catholic YA authors who write in a variety of genres. They also have a Facebook Page with a slightly broader membership, dedicated to promoting Catholic-themed fiction for middle and high school students.

Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval

The Catholic writers Guild Seal of Approval is designed to help Catholic bookstores find good work to fill their shelves, so it is geared toward retailers rather than readers. Some of the venues mentioned above use it as a shortcut to approving books for their own catalogs. You can find a list of books that have received it on Goodreads.

Happy Reading!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at

The Literature You Save May Be Your Own


Wiseblood logo


Have you ever wondered what happened to good books? The kind that told good stories without worrying about whether they were “speculative” or “literary” or “mass market trade”? The kind that fearlessly followed the characters into the depths of their genre-bending darkness and the heights of their non-ironic joys? You know… the kind that I write? Wink-emoji

Wiseblood Books wondered that, too. That’s why Dr. Joshua Hren founded the company: to help bring back the kind of literature that takes chances. Literature that brings us epiphanies of beauty. Literature like my debut novel, Jennifer the Damned.

Wiseblood is a non-profit company that exists only because of private, tax-deductible donations from readers like you. They are currently holding a fundraising campaign to help them  grow their mission to “foster works of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and philosophy that find redemption in uncanny places and people; wrestle readers from the tyranny of boredom; articulate faith and doubt in their incarnate complexity; dare an unflinching gaze at human beings as “political animals”; and suffer through this world’s trials without forfeiting hope.”

If that sounds like a cause worth supporting, I hope you’ll take a moment to visit their fundraising page and make a donation, no matter how small. Generations of future readers will thank you.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at

Cinder Allia has arrived!




It’s here! My second novel, Cinder Allia, is now available in print on Amazon and on all major eBook platforms. Here’s what it’s about:

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division. Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love? Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most—her father—Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

And here’s what people are saying about it:

“A corrupt, disintegrating kingdom is made whole by a young girl wielding the sword of justice in this engaging fairytale about the dire costs of both love and hate. Karen Ullo’s literary talent is captivating and thought-provoking, using symbolism and mystery to explore what keeps human beings in touch with the divine.” – Kaye Park Hinckley, author of A Hunger in the Heart and Birds of a Feather

“A Cinderella story like you’ve never heard it before, Cinder Allia fills in a grim backstory to the famous Grimm fairy tale. This novel answers the burning question every reader has about the fairy tale: why would Cinderella’s father allow her stepmother to treat her so badly? Ullo reveals Allia’s stepmother’s motives in keeping her in servitude and serves up a surprising twist in the form of a not-so-perfect Prince Charming.” – Barb Szyszkiewicz, Franciscanmom

“With its fascinating characters and unexpected twists it turns the original Cinderella on its head. Definitely a must read.” – Christina Weigand, author of The Palace of the Twelve Pillars

Happy reading!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at