Review: “The Living Dead,” George Romero, Daniel Kraus

Rating: 4 out of 5

Spoiler warning: I wanted to talk about some of the events closer to the end, so there are things you will learn in this review that purists might want to experience from the book first. However, I tried to speak in generalities so that the details will still be new to you.

In The Living Dead, writer Daniel Kraus finishes the novel George Romero never managed to complete. Luis Acocella is San Diego’s assistant ME, and Charlie Rutkowski is his diener. They perform the autopsy on what becomes Zombie Zero, and they’re the first to determine that destroying the brain is the secret to destroying what come to be called “ghouls.” This thing is happening around the world nigh-simultaneously, so while it can be spread via bite, it didn’t start out as a contagion. Statistician Etta Hoffman is a neurodivergent government worker at the Census Bureau in DC. She’s the first to see Luis’s uploaded post, and the first to realize this was the start of something big. When all of her co-workers left, she remained behind. She posted her phone number on government websites and started collecting people’s stories of what was going on into an archive.

Greer Morgan wakes up in her trailer park to find her neighbors and her father hungry for flesh, and with the help of other neighbors escapes the park. She goes to find her brother at the high school, only to discover that he’s gone off the rails in a different direction. When she meets up with Muse, the two of them travel together. Greer is the warrior; Muse is a pacifistic musician. Together they become known as “the Lion and the Dove.” Onboard a carrier called the USS Olympia, Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Karl Nishimura finds himself caught between ghouls below and a mad priest above. All he really wants is to get home to his husband and children, and he makes a pact with pilot Jenny to get back to the mainland. News anchor Chuck Corso, known as the Face due to his attractiveness (and lack of ability), ends up becoming the voice of the apocalypse, remaining on the air just as long as possible. And it’s his unexpected honesty that makes him so entrancing. He and producer Baseman, with a handful of others, stick around to narrate the end of the world.

This book is quite long, and read a little slow to me in parts. But that’s kind of to be expected in a book of this length–too much tension with no breaks would be exhausting.

These zombies are really not what we’ve come to expect. They have some smarts to them. When Greer is trying to hole up in her trailer, they start doing things like peeling back siding and digging up through the floor. On the aircraft carrier, doors stymie the zombies–but only at first. It’s like one or two will remember how to do something, and then they spread that knowledge to the others. Some of the sections are written in the second person, as though “you” are the zombie, and it’s pretty fascinating to see what’s in their heads. Some zombies can be trained to a small extent; others return to favored places and routines. I don’t want to say too much because it definitely becomes important to the story later on.

The book goes overboard, to my tastes, with demonizing all of our electronic gadgets. There’s an over-the-top scene where people text and swipe while being eaten, and the things get complained about pretty much throughout the book. But there’s something to be said for the authors’ notion that seeing things through our smartphones makes them seem controllable.

Early on, there’s a steady theme of Us vs. Them. At first everyone wants to blame the deaths and riots on gangs, which means anyone non-white gets targeted. As the book says, “Self-proclaimed heroes could only exist in opposition to villains.” So the populace invented villains. This is a theme that recurs later on. We also see moments where the humans are every bit as violent as the ghouls, even in one case biting someone’s neck so that they bled out.

The humans deal with trauma in all sorts of ways. There’s a conversation between Karl and Jenny that’s really fascinating for just how they’re talking around each other, each of them traumatized by what they’ve been through. Before we know it, more than 10 years have passed. Eventually there are zombie dogs, chimps, rats, and chickens, and Etta believes she’s stumbled on why. Of note is the fact that none of them attack their own kind: they all hunger for humanity.

We do get far enough to see a group of people trying to rebuild, and trying to figure out what’s going on with a changed and reduced zombie population. Great things happen, but I admit, I found this part of the book depressing. It’s interesting to see people defining themselves now by how they treat the zombies. It’s a time of legends, like that of the Lion and the Dove, or of a mysterious, notable zombie who’s been spotted making her way Westward by a number of people. Zombies come to be seen as literal and metaphorical “leeches” on humanity.

All in all I recommend this book. The people are fascinating, the journeys they take even more so. And the zombies are surprisingly intriguing. My main problem is just how heavy-handed some of the book’s themes are.

Content note for everything you’d kind of expect from this book: slurs, an autopsy, ghouls eating people, mention of childhood sexual abuse, gore, self-harm, sexual content. However, it’s a long book, and the level of gore absolutely suits the topic and serves the story. One oddity that might annoy some readers: a lot of periods were somehow replaced with commas, and it tripped me up at first figuring out where the sentences began and ended.

The difference between total societal upheaval and trivial annoyance was cobweb-thin.

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Review: “The God Gene,” F. Paul Wilson

Rating: 4 out of 5

F. Paul Wilson’s The God Gene: A Novel (The ICE Sequence Book 2) picks up a little after the close of Panacea. Rick Hayden’s adoptive brother Keith (a zoologist) has gone missing. He liquidated all of his assets and transferred them overseas first, so the cops figure he just left voluntarily and aren’t particularly looking for him. Meanwhile, a South African man named Marten Jeukens is looking for a mysterious island that is the source of a new type of… well, not actually a monkey. These creatures, whom he dubs dapis, are extraordinarily smart and capable of learning very quickly. There’s also something strange hidden away in their genetic code. Marten is up to something–in addition to hiring a boat to look for that island, he’s purchasing strange cannisters of liquid–among other things.

I really have a beef with Laura in this volume (yes, more so than in the last volume–that’s why I noted that it was her depiction across the books that was annoying). She becomes really sanctimonious and naive about a handful of things. For one, Rick has pretty much no relationship at all with his adoptive mother. Laura patronizingly compares her to a Nazi in order to make the point that she can’t be that bad, and is entirely condescending about his feelings without knowing the first thing about their relationship. No one knows how bad a person’s relationship with their family is or is not, and no one should require someone to justify their familial feelings. Especially since it isn’t like she’s his fiancee or something, so she really has no right to butt in. The naivete comes in when she flips out over having to pass bribes once they start traveling to certain countries, and almost screws them over in a couple of places because of it.

One of the new characters in this volume is Hari, an Indian woman who is a forensic accountant. She’s confident, loud-mouthed in an entirely fun way, and incredibly good at what she does. For someone with a very limited amount of screen time, she’s disproportionately colorful and fun.

Laura and Rick’s seemingly burgeoning relationship has, of course, fallen apart, so we can have more of that will-they/won’t-they, and so Rick can flagellate himself with thoughts of how she’s too good for him. It’s a little annoying, but not too bad.

There’s lots of adventure to be had. An island full of dapis, betrayal, death, helicopters crashing, boats disabled, explosives, and bizarre mental disorders. The depiction of Marten is… I can’t say a lot without giving things away, but it’s weird, and it kind of works in how it’s done. It’s also intriguing to see how this fits into Rick’s ICE theories. It’s odd that he and Laura seem to be becoming the world’s secret-keepers.

Content note for animal harm and sexual content.

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Review: “Dig Two Graves, Volume II” Various Authors

Rating: 3 out of 5

A horror anthology full of revenge stories: how could I go wrong? Dig Two Graves:An Anthology Vol. II presents a wide variety of horror styles, and this becomes a negative. When I hang out on social media and people ask for horror book recs, 99% of the time they’re asking after a certain style: atmospheric, creepy, outdoorsy, extreme (“torture-porn”), gritty urban horror, etc. Most of this book is in the creepy, moderately violent vein, and then out of nowhere there’s an extremely graphic story. Given that different people tend to like vastly different horror styles, it might have been better to save that story for another anthology. Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m okay with lots of blood and guts as long as it feels like it serves the story, rather than the other way around.

Content note: Well I mentioned the one “extreme horror” story, so you know there’s over-the-top violence and sex right there. Other random things from other stories: slurs, domestic violence, animal harm, sexual content, child death, rape, partner rape, and quasi-incest.

In Wesley Southard’s “Catalog,” Andy Ricci has plenty of reason to want revenge on more than one person. When he receives a mysterious catalog in the mail, he becomes obsessed with it. But he won’t let his wife, Donna, see what’s in it. (Mild plot point: Donna’s on crutches and has a hard time walking, but she “leapt over” a body at one point.)

Cameron Trost’s “It Starts with Insects” was intriguing, but it doesn’t fulfill the actual act of revenge–it ends too early. What’s that about??

Gerri R. Gray’s “Ailurophobia” (extreme fear of cats) involves a house full of cats and their dead owner. When a single father and his daughter move in, she wants a kitten like the one that shows up on her windowsill–but her father is very upset by the idea. The narrative has odd pacing, and some of the disturbances in the house seem a bit odd or random.

Cameron Kirk’s “The Writer” has a man being interviewed by a writer about a horrible event in his life and the things that came afterward. This is told as if we’re hearing everything the old man says to the writer, but none of the replies. It really works well.

Mawr Gorshin’s “Violation” disappointed me. A naked woman emerges from the woods in front of a car with three young men in it, and they immediately rape and kill her. (We’re given to understand later in the story that this is not unusual behavior for any random car full of men?) Unfortunately I can’t really get into my beef with it without spoiling everything.

Susan E. Abramski’s “Spider Lace” introduced us to a Dr. Matthew Crandall, who’s trying to make a hybridized type of spider silk that will replace many items we use today. When one of his spiders starts talking to him, things get weird. This one is a little clumsy, and there’s too much speechifying on the spider’s part. The action portions of the story are good, though.

Mark Lumby’s “Into the Clouds” sees Peter and his father, Henry, going up in a hot air balloon. Only Henry starts acting very strangely. This is… an odd one. It definitely has a really horrifying moment in it.

Lucas Milliron’s “Meat” was… silly. The main character, Trent, is the most over-the-top, ridiculous stereotype of the painfully, destructively self-righteous vegan chef. He’s a buffoon, really, and it detracts from what could have otherwise been a genuinely horrifying story. He keeps super-gluing offensive posters over the window of a nearby restaurant that serves meat, and is driving that restaurant’s chef-owner, Carver, mad. One little hole: how is Trent still moving and acting like normal for hours after having a boiling soup poured over his legs?

David L. Tamarin’s “What Did You Do to the Children?” is the “extreme” horror story that seems so out of place in this volume. A depraved man and a depraved woman meet each other at a movie theater, start torture-killing people together, and then the man’s equally depraved past comes into play. There are a handful of little plot holes throughout it–it feels like the author was so focused on the violence that he wasn’t really worried about the other details adding up.

Lori Tiron-Pandit’s “The Maiden of the Triangle” is an unusual story about a forest spirit that gets disturbed by people cutting down her trees, and how her curse wends its way into the lives touched by her. This one is a little relaxed in its pace, and I liked the concept.

Pete Mesling’s “InPerson” starts with Gerald receiving a video chat from his ex-wife, Patricia. It seems like someone has attacked her, and he has to figure out where she is and save her. He recruits an old friend of his to help him track down the location, and things get interesting. The direction revenge takes may not be what you’re expecting.

G. Allen Wilbanks’ “Abandoned” gives us a typical-and-satisfying tale of revenge after a young woman is raped and killed in an abandoned house.

Thomas Vaughn’s “The Tulpa” introduces us to serial killer Tommy Velasco, and his starry-eyed fanbase (“Velasco’s Vixens”). I’m a bit surprised that the judge lets him wear sunglasses at his own trial, which makes for a certain plot-hole (he has a mirror hidden in them that lets him watch the young women at the back of the courtroom).

“The Ninja and the Night” is authored by Sergio “ente per ente” Palumbo, and edited by Michele Dutcher. It’s… odd. The writing style is very new to me. It’s interesting, but also awkward. A ninja must enter a very well-guarded mansion in order to ruin the life of the daimyo. The background and method involved is where things get interesting.

Duane Bradley’s “Seymour Must Be Destroyed” didn’t really appeal to me. Walter Krelborn’s undersized penis (named Seymour) runs away to Hollywood, and Walter, along with a woman he meets, must defeat Seymour as he develops more and more power. It’s… mostly just surreal and silly, and I’m not really sure how it fits in a revenge-themed book.

David Owain Hughes’ “For the Love of Shakespeare” is an interesting story. Edmund must look after his half-man, half-monster brother Edgar, who is also insane and, before he was chained in the attic, used to eat children.

Finally, “The Pain, the Heat, the Blood,” by Betty Rocksteady, is surreal and odd. A woman is trying to hide away from everyone, and she’s living in her dead father’s house. When her brother shows up and is abusive, things get bizarre.

This isn’t my favorite horror anthology, and there are a few stories that feel out of place. But it has some good stuff in it as well.

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Review: “Panacea,” F. Paul Wilson

Rating: 4 out of 5

F. Paul Wilson’s Panacea: A Novel (The ICE Sequence Volume 1) runs on an intriguing premise: what if there’s a “potion” of sorts that can cure… anything? It can bring the recipient back to a state of full health overnight. How would you go about tracking down the few people who know about it, and what would happen if society found out?

Dr. Laura Fanning, a deputy medical examiner, is half-Mayan. She used to engage in bio-prospecting (wandering through areas looking for new, potentially valuable, plant species that might yield medicines), and has done a fair amount of traveling in the area her ancestors came from. One day, a strange corpse crosses her table. The man is in utterly perfect health, and while his body was found badly burned, it’s clear the fire didn’t kill him. There’s also an unusual tattoo on his back, and he was in perfect health–no cause of death can be found. This happens again, and then Laura examines the corpse of a boy she knows, who absolutely had arthritis so bad that he used a wheelchair–and there’s no sign of it in his body. A Mr. Stahlman offers to pay her a ridiculous amount of money (certainly enough to set her sick daughter up for life) to find the panacea for him that he insists exists. He’s extremely sick, and just wants to live. He’s hired Rick Hayward to accompany and protect her–a dangerous, ex-Navy SEAL (or is he?) who has some strange ideas about the universe. Just to make things dicier, there’s a religious order called the 536 Brotherhood that’s after the people making the panacea, and they aren’t too thrilled to see Laura and Rick stick their noses into things. In a bizarre coincidence, Brother Nelson Fife, who’s heading this operation (and is also a CIA agent), has an uncle who was partially paralyzed when Laura ran into him when she was just 17. Thus, Nelson would be very happy to see Laura dead.

Yeah, as you can see, it’s a bit complicated. Plenty of twists and turns. If you, unlike Rick, do not believe in ICE (Intrusive Cosmic Entities), or at least in Nelson Fife’s God, then the coincidences in the entire trilogy will be waaaay over the top. If you can’t suspend disbelief on that end, it might be best to skip it. I mean, Laura just happens to be the person who paralyzed Nelson’s father when she was 17. She’s so perfect for this mission it’s almost spooky (her bio-prospecting background and ability to speak the necessary language), especially considering she just stumbled across it in her morgue. Rick just happens to have history with Nelson. Either you go all-in or it just won’t work.

Naturally both secret organizations (the “panaceans” and the Brotherhood) tattoo their members so the protagonists can easily classify them. (I thought this was a pretty well-established “don’t have your (villain) do this because it totally undermines their secrecy” idea by now?)

The one thing that’s particularly weird to me is the depiction of deputy medical examiner Laura Fanning (over the course of all three books). She’s half-Mayan but, naturally, has blue eyes with her brown skin (funny how that particular combination of features shows up so often in books. Typically it’s used to imply (or even outright state) that this person is somehow better or more special than others of her ethnicity or race because she has a distinctly Caucasian feature). She’s also depicted in a very dated fashion. She’s “perfect,” she’s “plucky,” she’s put on a pedestal by Rick, she’s sanctimonious at times yet is depicted as mostly not being able to do anything wrong (except for that one accident when she was 17), and she’s naive in certain areas. What’s particularly weird about this is that otherwise, she really is a strong female character. But this particular stereotype of the “perfect” woman who also acts as the moral compass for others is old and is usually used in a sexist manner–all real women, when held up to this example, fall short. Hold on through it if you can, because she really is a strong character otherwise, and there are other good female characters in the trilogy.

Rick is my favorite character in the whole trilogy. He’s done some genuinely dark things and has a lot of blood on his hands. He also has a surprisingly deadpan sense of humor, and a lot of very bizarre ideas about the world once Laura gets him talking. He is not at all the tall, dark and reticent character that one would expect, and I love that!

There’s a lot of great action, globe-spanning travel, good pacing, and intriguing plots. Pretty much all of my concerns are about how Laura is presented and all the coincidences. If those wouldn’t bother you, you’ll probably find this book to be quite fantastic. Even if they would bother you, it’s still quite good.

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Review: “Lucid Screams,” Red Lagoe

Rating: 5 out of 5

Red Lagoe’s Lucid Screams is a delightful collection of 16 horror short stories. A few of them are creature features, but sometimes the horror is closer to home, and there are also plenty of horrific people and circumstances involved.

The first and final stories are connected. In “Lucid Screaming,” a heroin user (Elaine) has a hard time handling her children, Lily and Ben. This is a harsh and heavy story, tough to read. In the opposite side, “Empty Nest,” Elaine’s ex-husband, Joe, ruminates on what happened to Elaine. It also clears up one detail in the first story that at the time seemed contradictory, which is neat.

“The Haunting Murder” is a short, intriguing tale about a prisoner and the murder of crows that haunts him. “Best Seat in the House” is a chilling bit of flash fiction.

“Luna’s Lure” starts off with Jeff telling David about recent cases of four disappearances that are believed to be murders, all taken place on the full moon. It is, of course, a full moon tonight, and there’s a woman next door who seems to be trying to lure David. I really like where this one ends up. I also really like the fact that it probably is not the story you think it’s going to be. Not entirely, anyway.

Helia and her friend set out to enjoy a total eclipse of the sun in “The Great American Eclipse.” The company her father worked for has provided free glasses for everyone to wear to safely view the eclipse. How exactly will her father and uncle’s work in parasitology and fungi come into play? This one is definitely fun.

Brooke and her step-mother Mandy have been left in their new home by her Navy father in “Abandoned Souls.” A few local kids try to warn her that people come and steal the children at night. If she’s to have any hope of surviving, she’d better listen! I really love where this one ended up, although I also would very much like to know more.

In “Malignant Roots,” Karen and her brother Derrick stop by the old family house to pay respects to her dead-and-buried abusive father. Unfortunately for them, his influence has stuck around. This is a fairly fun conceit.

In “Helping Hands Retreat,” Sarah is trying to escape an abusive relationship with Wade by going to a retreat for women. However, she finds a slightly different retreat than the one she was aiming for. When she gets locked in at night and hears screaming outside, she starts to fear for her life. The end of this one made it one of my favorite stories in the book.

“Severed Connection” is about Charlotte, a woman who goes to a disreputable man with a strange reputation in hopes that she’ll be able to contact her dead husband. Yeah, turns out that reputation was well-earned, and maybe she shouldn’t have come. This has some really clever turns to it.

“Odor Mortis” features mortician Harold, who loves the smell of death and corpses. When a corpse comes through his office that resembles his dead childhood best friend, he goes a little off the rails.

In “Slice,” Tara and Marissa eat pizza at a bizarre hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and when the owner overhears them say they want jobs, she offers them money under the table to work some shifts. One of them is taught how to prepare the special sauce handed down by the original owner, Grisha, and is told it must be prepared exactly or it will anger Grisha. In the ensuing predictable blood-bath, another secret is revealed.

“Intimidating Smile” introduces us to a girl who has a condition that results in her appearing to have fangs. She’s planning on having surgery to correct the problem, because holy hell is she tired of people either being afraid of her or obsessed with her. Then they come in handy in an unexpected way. I love this tale!

“The Astronomer’s Mistress” is a lovely dark tale. Thomas spends weeks making the perfect anniversary gift for his wife, only to have her throw a fit. Sure, this sounds like a problem with his wife, but she has a point–all of his gifts, even his pet name for her, are really not about her at all. She very clearly comes second in his life to something else.

In “Memory Lane” Victor’s recording of his dead daughter’s voice finally gives out. A mysterious girl offers him an album of what might have been had his daughter lived. Chilling!

“Brush With Fate” is a great “cursed artifact” story. In this case, the artifact is a set of painter’s brushes guaranteed to spark creativity in any painter. Of course, the price is high…

These are wonderful stories, and I really enjoyed this book. The characters are great, the ideas are creative, and there a few good twists and surprises.

Content note for child death and domestic abuse, both off of the page, and very mild sexual content.

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Review: “Recall Night,” Alan Baxter

Rating: 5 out of 5

In Alan Baxter’s Recall Night: An Eli Carver Supernatural Thriller – Book 2, Eli Carver has spent the past two years laying low in Canada. When his ghosts come back to haunt him–all five of them–he gets a message from Carly that she’s cleaned up the situation back home and therefore he’s safe to come back. He sets out by train, and ends up meeting Bridget Carlson, a professional gambler who’s trying to escape the man who taught her–with all the money she stole from him. When she goes to pay off a mobster she owes money to–paying Eli to be her “bodyguard”–they get caught up in a mob war. After they save Mr. Lombardi’s life, and Bridget loses her money to one of the attackers, the mob boss manipulates them into going after his enemies, who have apparently kidnapped his wife, Cora.

I love Eli’s troupe of ghosts of some of the people he’s killed. There’s Michael Privedi, his childhood best friend, his first kill and the least antagonistic of the ghosts. There’s Dwight Ramsey, a racist weed grower. There’s Sly Barclay, a Jamaican gang member and drug dealer. (As you might imagine, Dwight and Sly do not get along.) There’s Alvin Crake, auto mechanic and asshole. And then there’s Officer Graney, a police officer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m pretty sure thanks to the ending of the last book that they’re all “real,” but Eli Carver still worries he’s just psychotic and they’re all in his head. Most of them seem to want to see him dead, but he still gets hints and warnings from them sometimes. I particularly appreciate, given the way things are going in the world right now, that Officer Graney isn’t an angel or even necessarily a good guy just because he wasn’t doing anything bad at the time of his death.

One amusing through-line is that Eli’s been reading some Japanese books and has decided he is a “ronin” and he should live by some sort of “code.” His ghostly entourage thinks this is hilarious, and love pointing out how he manages to rationalize so much killing as being within this code. He does go through some serious mental contortions to keep himself on Bridget’s side. Also, Eli is having to try to be subtle and inconspicuous in order to find out what he wants to know, and it’s pretty damn hilarious given how non-subtle he is.

This isn’t an incredibly long book, but it’s packed full of action, some confusion, and a heavy dash of the probably paranormal (between the ghosts and a character called “Papa Night”). I think the previous book was a little better just because I loved so much the experience of watching Eli try to remember who he was, with bits and pieces coming back as she went along. But this is an excellent read.

Content note for lots of killin’.

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Review: “Infested,” Carol Gore

Rating: 4 out of 5

Carol Gore’s Infested (Rewind or Die) is a great classic-style horror novel. Casey works for the Green Swamp Zip-Line Adventure and Campground. At the moment, she’s been helping Dr. Phillip Edwards release sterilized mosquitos that are supposed to help lower the population of mosquitos on the whole. It’s the result of a grant from a nearby university, and Casey hopes it will keep the man who runs the campground, Mr. Wright, from using damaging pesticides in the swamp. It’s bad enough that the chemical plant upstream has previously contaminated the local water. Then the unthinkable happens–a person is attacked by hundreds of seriously large mosquitos, and dies. Next there are humongous horse flies that eat an alligator alive. Unfortunately, Mr. Wright refuses to shut the park down, tries to victim-blame for one incident, and–oh yeah, he has ties to the chemical company! Can Casey and Phillip figure out what’s happening and make it stop before the entire town is eaten alive?

The characters are great. Casey has a troubled family, is often dismissed and overlooked by her boss, and just wants to be able to make a living in the swamp that’s always been there for her. Phillip starts out as the befuddled professor, but he has a certain strength to him as well. And might there be an attraction between the two? Mr. Wright is not as well-detailed, but he also isn’t the focus of the book, so I think it works well enough. Casey’s family–her depressed, pill-popping mom and her bully of a cop brother–turn out to have more to them than I expected, which was nice.

The swamp is great, and I love the descriptions of the overgrown insects. Centipedes, spiders, roaches, wheelbugs–they all start showing up in larger sizes and with disturbing appetites. It’s a classic horror-style monster romp with a great cast and a fun plot. There are some good surprises along the way, too, despite the fact that this isn’t an incredibly long book!

All in all I really enjoyed this book. I did have one complaint: at one point Casey takes it upon herself to make her mom go cold turkey from pain pills, alcohol, and anti-depressants, all at once. Any one of those without the supervision of a doctor could go incredibly badly, much less all three!

Content note for gore and some seriously scary insects!

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Review: “Beneath the Rising,” Premee Mohamed

Rating: 5 out of 5

Premee Mohamed’s cosmic horror novel Beneath The Rising bowled me over. Right from the start we’re presented with a highly unusual friendship of sorts. Joanna “Johnny” Chambers was born to a wealthy family, and possesses an inhuman level of intelligence; every aspect of people’s lives has been touched by her creations and inventions. Nick Prasad is the same age, but he was born to a poor family and he’s nothing more than… ordinary. Yet somehow, no matter how long they go between visits as she country-hops and he works stocking groceries in a store, they always come back together again. Nick has a feeling he’s kind of in love with Johnny, but he’s also aware that he doesn’t really know what love is at this point in his life (they’re just past high-school age). One night Johnny builds a device the size of a shoebox that can deliver endless energy. But it changes everything. Suddenly she and Nick spot a dark being in the distance watching them, and then it threatens Nick, wanting him to get the device for it. Before long, there are horrifying creatures entering our world, and Johnny may be the only one who can stop the invasion that’s coming from another dimension–with Nick’s help.

The book immediately establishes itself as being in an alternate timeline from ours by mentioning the day two planes almost crashed into the World Trade Towers. Most of the changes we see are due to Johnny. Her solar panels adorn roofs around the world, she has a drug that treats dementia, and she cured HIV. As the book goes on, there are other little signs of the results of her genius. It’s fascinating.

Just when you’re starting to think that no matter how brilliant Johnny may be, there’s no way she could have done all that she has, more detail comes on board. And in a world where there are people who’ve been alive for a thousand years, hidden spells that can lock the Ancient Ones out of the world, and frighteningly powerful beings can walk into our world, it begins to make sense. Everyone thinks Johnny is the ultimate scientist, but she may be more magician than scientist.

Johnny and Nick end up racing around the world to find what they need to prevent the Ancient Ones from overrunning and destroying our world. Everything is arrayed against them: the police, since they’ve been tagged as runaways. Members of various secret orders, who have a few bones to pick with Johnny. Deadly creatures that will do anything to stop them.

The relationship between Nick and Johnny is what really makes this book. I don’t recall ever seeing a cosmic horror novel in which so much fascinating space is spent on a friendship. From the time they met (when they were both shot during a hostage crisis–they have untreated PTSD), to the upcoming end of the world, their friendship has been a delicate thing. They have in-jokes and they enjoy ribbing each other–something I’ll guarantee Johnny can’t get from anyone else. They’re tied together by a couple of near-death experiences. At the same time they’re torn apart by class, intellect, racial, and wealth differences. Add to that the weight of being virtual children who have to save the world with very little help… yeah, it gets pretty hard on them.

This is such a wonderful book. I really hope to read more by Ms. Mohamed someday!

The familiar song of envy and resentment and adoration and excitement of having Johnny back in town.

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Review: “Manifest Recall,” Alan Baxter

Rating: 5 out of 5

Alan Baxter’s paranormal thriller Manifest Recall (Eli Carver Supernatural Thriller) starts out in a moving car, with Eli Carver behind the wheel. He has no idea where he is, how he got there, or why he has Carly in the passenger seat with her hands tied. Gradually pieces come back to him. He was a hit man for mobster Vernon Sykes. Carly is Vernon’s stepdaughter. Every time he comes closer to remembering anything recent, he blanks out again. Carly seems surprisingly okay with being kidnapped, but she’s decidedly not okay with Eli blanking out and stuffing her in the trunk. As Carly tries to help Eli remember what happened without going over a mental cliff, Eli racks up a body count. He’s also haunted by the ghosts of five of the men he’s killed, all of whom seem ecstatic at the idea that he might get himself offed.

The ghosts are fantastic. There’s a great thread running through everything where you’re wondering whether the ghosts are real or a figment of his imagination. Sometimes it seems like maybe they know things he doesn’t, but it could be explained as him having subconsciously noticed or remembered something. By the end you may know which it is! The ghosts also fight amongst themselves, which is pretty hilarious.

Eli is an excellent character. He’s obviously not an admirable person, as early on we see him kill a cop who did nothing more than knock on his motel door. And, well, that whole hit-man thing. But we also see his first kill, which he did not want to do, but had little choice about if he wanted to live. When he isn’t blanking out he’s treating Carly pretty well. And as we find out more and more about him, he becomes all the more human. Never an admirable man, but one we can sympathize with. Carly, too, is intriguing. Eli’s first memory of her once he returns to full consciousness is that she’s the mob boss’s daughter, but it’s more complicated than that. She’s scared but tough, and does an admirable job of figuring out how to keep Eli from drifting back into his blackouts.

Eli goes after some bad people–biker gangs, white supremacists–but not for any altruistic reason. He needs information. He knows the only way to ever be free is to kill Vernon Sykes, and there are reasons why he needs to hurry in order to accomplish that. There’s plenty of shooting and mayhem.

I really enjoyed this book. I think this makes three I’ve read of Baxter’s, and each one is both very different from and yet equally enjoyable as the last.

Content note for discussion of rape and for lots of shooting and killing.

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Review: “Shadows in Death,” J.D. Robb

Rating: 4 out of 5

J.D. Robb’s (Nora Roberts) Shadows in Death (In Death 51) starts out as so many of these books do: with a murder. The victim was a woman from an important and wealthy family, and she was stabbed while in the park. Nothing valuable was taken, and there’s very little to go on until Roarke sees a familiar face in the crowd around the crime scene. Lorcan Cobbe is probably the closest thing Roarke has to a nemesis, and he deliberately let Roarke spot him. He’s an assassin with a very long and successful history behind him. Someone had the poor woman killed, and paid well to do it. As it turns out, Cobbe was also at the center of a case 20 years earlier that Feeney and Whitney were never able to close, and Interpol has wanted him forever, so the case becomes very big very fast. Given Cobbe’s history, it’s likely he’ll go after Roarke and those closest to him–Summerset and Eve. The big thing the New York police have going for them is the fact that in his rage toward Roarke, Cobbe has gotten sloppy and broken from his former patterns.

This volume pulls in all of the police cast we’re used to (pretty much). Absolutely everyone wants in on stopping someone who’s going after Eve and Roarke. There’s a brief drop by the school Roarke is opening, but other than that the non-cop side characters don’t show up much, and that’s fine. I think it works better when a novel focuses more on one part of Eve and Roarke’s busy lives at a time, or close to it. The new character (doesn’t it always seem like there’s one?) is an Interpol agent who’s basically a good guy, but can’t resist trying to poke at Roarke regarding some unsolved thefts from back in the day.

Eve, Roarke, and Peabody are pretty much what we’ve come to expect from them so far. The main thrust of the plot is trying to out-think and out-play a canny assassin. There’s no mystery to the guilty parties this time. I do love the part where Eve sweats the guy who hired Cobbe and backs him into admitting what he knows. I always love watching Eve and Peabody play bad cop/good cop.

Cobbe is an interesting character. He has ego and charm, but underneath it all he’s a brute who likes his knives a little too much. He claimed to be Roarke’s half-brother back in the day, and while everyone but him is certain he wasn’t actually fathered by Roarke’s old man, he has never given up on the idea that he’s the one who should have been acknowledged as the man’s heir and legacy. Ironically, the thing that is likely to prove his undoing is that while he’s a lone wolf by nature, Roarke has an extensive found family.

It isn’t as quotable as some of these volumes, but it’s still a solidly enjoyable book.

Content note for sex, violence, and animal harm.

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