Review: “Sinkhole,” April A. Taylor

Pros: Decent basic storyline
Cons: Downright silly; unlikable characters
Rating: 3 out of 5

SPOILER WARNING: I’m afraid that I just can’t review this one without dropping a few spoilers in.

April A. Taylor’s horror novella Sinkhole: A Horror Story starts with 8-year-old Allison nearly being swallowed by a sinkhole that mysteriously opens in her lawn in Michigan. She believes something in the hole tried to drag her down into it. Her mother Carol and her alcoholic father Scott decide to bug out once the news reports that this is happening all over the place. Meanwhile, twins Rachel and Ivy Meador visit West Virginia to research their genealogy, only for Rachel to be bitten by a crazed deer. Neighbor Thad shoots the deer and drives the girls to the hospital, where many more people are being brought in–and Rachel is showing severe signs of illness. In Pennsylvania, there’s a mostly-abandoned town that has long-running coal fires burning beneath it. There, holes in the earth open up and flames overtake the town. Jill and Doreen Sabinski (a lesbian couple) grab their homophobic neighbor Don and his truck and head out of town. Unfortunately, he’s so driven by the desire to screw them over for their sinners’ ways that he gets them picked up by law enforcement, even though he’s injured and thus can’t drive his truck himself. In Oregon, Crandall runs a compound of cultists called the Devotees. When he sets two of his followers to digging holes and a bunch more open up on their own, he decides God is on their side.

It’s a horror story where the Earth decides she’s tired of our crap and sets about culling us. There’s even a section of text where we hear the thoughts of various animals and trees and such as they cackle over getting rid of those awful humans. This makes the whole thing seem really silly. Without that section it would have been much creepier; this just made it laughable. Also, there’s no reason given for why individual sinkholes and sentient tree roots are the main route of this rout, given that the Earth could just move a few tectonic plates (or, as apparently happens in China, drown everyone with a ton of rain). There’s no reason given for why the Earth is content to kill off a fraction of the population rather than everyone. Also, what’s with the weird illness that everyone who’s bitten by animals seems to pick up, and that turns some (but not all) of them into quasi-zombies?

The characters are universally unlikable. I particularly couldn’t see how Crandall could possibly be charismatic enough to have all of his Devotees swooning over his every attention. He just didn’t come across that way at all.

The basic structure of people running away from animals and national disasters was good, but this book needed more than that.

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Review: “Alien: Prototype,” Tim Waggoner

Pros: Rollicking good action!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

At the time I bought Tim Waggoner’s Alien: Prototype (set in the universe of the Alien and Aliens movies), it wasn’t at all obvious on Amazon that this was a follow-on to a specific other book (I believe it’s Alien: Isolation). So I was a little confused by a bunch of alluded-to background on the main character, Zula Hendricks, who apparently used to fight aliens with Amanda Ripley (Ellen’s daughter, I believe). However, once the story picks up you won’t feel left behind. Tamar Prather is a corporate spy pretending to be a space pirate, and she just found the mother-load: a stasis pod containing an alien egg. She works for Venture, a rival of Weyland-Yutani, and it’s worth a lot of money to her to get this treasure to her corporate masters. She takes it to the Lodge, or station V-22, where Dr. Millard Gagnon, a psychopathic piece of work, sets about experimenting on his new find. A live Xenomorph is a lot more valuable than an egg, so he pays someone to volunteer for an experiment (not an unusual way of doing things for Venture). Of course the resulting larval Xenomorph doesn’t stay penned up for long–and it incorporated something special from its host into its DNA: an extremely virulent disease. It has weaponized the disease, and incorporated a new instinct into its drives: to spread the disease. Gagnon dubs the new species a Necromorph. Zula, who used to be a Colonial Marine, is on-station teaching a bunch of trainees protective duty. She’s had experience with Xenomorphs, and when things go south she rallies her inexperienced troops to do whatever they can.

As usual, corporate scientists are totally psychopathic and care about discovery at the cost of whatever human lives might be necessary. I guess I’m used to that with Weyland-Yutani, and it makes sense that they have a consistent corporate culture, but I would have liked to see a little variation in dealing with a rival corporation. On the other hand, that element is sort of part of the structure of Alien tales, so maybe it would be a bit weird if it weren’t present. I really like the character of spy Tamar, because she’s charismatic and it’s hard not to like her, but she’s utterly and completely self-serving. Zula is also great. She’s tough but has her own issues, and she does a great job dealing with needing her trainees’ help against the Necromorph but also trying to keep them alive.

The advent of the Necromorph itself is fantastic. I love seeing the ways in which the Xenomorph’s adaptation to its host’s DNA changes the Xenomorph. This is a really interesting variation on that, and it introduces some irregularities into the Necromorph’s behavior.

As usual there are a couple of synthetics in the mix, obvious from the start. Zula’s friend Davis is currently lacking a body, so he’s acting much as an AI in a computer, only much more human. He’s trying to stay under the radar while still helping Zula out by making things happen within the station computer system. Brigette is another synthetic who works for Dr. Gagnon; there’s some question as to how much free will she has, as she seems to disapprove of his methods but carries them out anyway.

I’m enjoying reading Alien novels this week. I’d almost forgotten how much I love that franchise.

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Review: “Alien: River of Pain,” Christopher Golden

Pros: Great depiction of the lead-up to the Aliens movie
Cons: Doesn’t really conclude the trilogy
Rating: 5 out of 5

I’ll get this out of the way first. If you’ve read the first two books in the trilogy, you’re probably going to be disappointed by the fact that this book in no way concludes the trilogy. Apart from an allusion to Ripley’s buried memories from book one, it has nothing to do with the first two books and is basically a standalone writeup of what happened on LV-426 (Acheron) before Ripley and the marines show up in the movie Aliens. I found this kind of annoying since book two left off with a great setup for a follow-on, but it doesn’t change the fact that this book is actually quite good when taken on its own merits.

Christopher Golden’s Alien: River of Pain (Novel 3) introduces us to planet LV-426, also known as Acheron–the planet where the Nostromo discovered the Xenomorphs in the movie Alien. Frankly it’s a crappy planet (technically a moon) for terraforming and colonizing, but Weyland-Yutani has hopes of finding evidence of alien life there, so they influenced things such that a colony, Hadley’s Hope, was settled there. The colony is still fairly new, and young Rebecca Jorden, better known as Newt, was the first child born on-world, to parents Anne and Russell Jorden. Anne and Russell are wildcatters, who explore the surface of the planet looking for any kind of find that would appeal to the company. Captain Demian Brackett is the new CO of the Colonial Marines stationed on the planet–and Anne was his first love, many years ago. When the company questions newly-discovered Ripley (who’s been in stasis for 57 years) and finds out about the aliens she fought on LV-426, they get coordinates and send the Jordens out to the crashed spaceship. When a facehugger attaches onto Russ’s face, he’s brought back to base by a rescue team and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

This is a rollicking good time of a science fiction/horror crossover. It has everything you could want: plucky characters and devious characters. Creeping horror and all-out firefights. Noble marines and troublemaking marines. Xenomorph critters and facehuggers. Conflict among the marines, the scientists, and the marines vs the scientists. The vicious guiding hand of Weyland-Yutani, always searching for more and easier profit, determined to turn the aliens into a weapon.

There’s plenty of gore and acid blood and firefights. There are all the various stages of trying to save the colony. And even though we know from the start of Aliens how this has to end, it’s still fascinating to see how the book gets there. It’s also making me want to go watch the movie again, to try to see how well the book matches up with what we see of the colony in the movie.

All in all, if you’re looking for a fun bit of military sf/horror, this is a great option. Now what I really want to see is a crossover between the Lucky’s Mercs saga and the Xenomorphs…

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Review: “Alien: Sea of Sorrows,” James Moore

Pros: High-action, creepy, and fascinating!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

James Moore tackles the second volume in the Alien Trilogy, Alien: Sea of Sorrows (Novel 2). (Book one was by Tim Lebbon.) Book one was good; it took place between the Alien and Aliens movies, included Ripley, and turned into quite a wild ride. This second book is even better. It’s been well over a hundred years since the events of the movies, and Weyland-Yutani still hasn’t acquired one of the Xenomorphs. Alan Decker is a bureaucrat who oversees things like terraforming procedures gone wrong. He’s on the planet LV178, which some might recall from the previous book, and there’s a mysterious area where the terraforming is turning to toxic sands and bizarre silicon nodes. This is a serious problem, and his report implicates negligence on the part of Weyland-Yutani. Before he leaves the planet, however, he’s seriously injured, and W-Y makes sure he loses his job–and faces far worse repercussions, even threatening his three children. So back he goes with more than thirty mercenaries, determined to find and capture a Xenomorph in order to secure his children’s future and wipe out certain debts. Making things all the more interesting is the fact that he’s a low-level empath, able to sense strong emotions from others. And during his time on LV178, he somehow established a link with the Xenomorphs–he can sense when they’re near. He can also sense their overwhelming hatred: for him. He’s Ellen Ripley’s descendant, and they recognize his blood as linked to Ripley, and so in their minds he is the Destroyer who wiped out a handful of queen eggs. They’ll do anything to wipe him out.

Alan is an interesting main character. I love the fact that he’s basically a bureaucrat. He doesn’t have the physical skills of an Ellen Ripley, nor those of a space marine, but he’s going up against a hive full of Xenomorphs. They became aware of him when he was injured and his blood spilled deep into the sands, and while he can sense them, they can also sense him. Some of the mercenaries going in with him are also interesting–both the men and the women are tough and capable; it isn’t their fault the aliens are killing machines. There’s an Andrea Rollins who makes a great company bad guy; she’s cold as ice and feels no shame about threatening Decker’s family. She provides enough incentive that even Decker doesn’t want to fail to bring back a live specimen, no matter how much he realizes that this could be a very, very bad thing.

There’s plenty of action to be had! There’s an alien ship (from the previous book) that provides a whole lot of alien territory for the good guys to get chased around in. There’s an entire mine to hide out in. There are scientists still on the surface in addition to the mercenaries sent in. Things get quite tense and exciting, and there’s a huge area–that’s remarkably claustrophobic in its construction–to make things interesting.

I absolutely enjoyed this book. This is probably obvious, but, content note for gore and violence.

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Review: “Strange Love,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: Silly, sweet, and deliriously fun!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Ann Aguirre’s Strange Love: An Alien Abduction romance (Galactic Love Book 1) features Zylar of Kith B’alak, who has failed four times at the Choosing. If he fails once more, he’ll never have a mate, and he’ll spend his life as a servitor drone. He lacks a certain confidence, his chitin colors aren’t all that pretty, and his rival Ryzvan undermines him at every turn. So, he turns to an online matchmaking service. He’s on his way to pick up his intended mate when something goes wrong. He ends up at Earth instead, and thinking he’s rescuing his intended, he ends up kidnapping Beryl Bowman and her dog, Snaps. The computer problems cause the location of Earth to be lost, so there’s no way of getting her back home. Zylar gives Beryl a choice: he can drop her off at a station, or she can come participate in the Choosing with him. Beryl, a remarkably sanguine woman who works at a daycare and has a propensity for getting into trouble, decides that what the hell, she might as well go with him and compete to see if she can become his nest-guardian.

The world-building is pretty neat. Barath used to be over-populated, so the Choosing was created. Barathi have to compete for the right to procreate, essentially. It’s considered acceptable to “out-bond,” or mate with aliens, because they don’t need to be physically compatible–Barathi scientists can combine genetic material from both to make use of each species’ best traits.

To Beryl, Zylar is pretty terrifying–he’s tall and covered in chitin, like something vaguely insectoid. Of course, no one on Barath has ever seen a human before, and they find Beryl so fearsome that Zylar calls her “Terrible One” as an endearment. (This of course is a desired trait in a nest-guardian, because it would keep predators away.) Beryl also has experience caring for “nestlings” (toddlers) already, giving her a leg up in appearing to be an acceptable mate. Unfortunately, some of the challenges for the Choosing are quite dangerous, particularly since Ryzvan is manipulating things behind the scenes. Beryl does something a bit unprecedented–she makes an alliance with another prospective nest-guardian, Kurr, a plant creature that comes in handy.

There are shades of Mass Effect in here in that there’s human/alien sex and romance. Yes, actual explicit sex. If that isn’t your cup of tea, just don’t read this. The romance is so amazingly sweet; it takes place between two characters who start out with no inherent attraction to each other–it’s emotion that creates the heat, rather than the other way around. Zylar has some self-esteem problems, and Beryl gently shores him up. It does him a world of good to see that she isn’t impressed by Ryzvan. The relationship is very much about consent, with each character determined to only go as far as the other is comfortable with. Zylar and Beryl respect each other and want to make each other happy. It’s just delightful.

Oh, how could I forget? There’s a talking dog! Snaps and Beryl both get “chipped” such that they can converse with others, so we get to hear Snaps’ side of the conversation, which is both adorable and hilarious.

This book is funny, sweet, adorable, and yet also rather tense in places. I was having so much fun reading it that I stayed up 2 hours late to finish it!

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Review: “Alien: Out of the Shadows,” Tim Lebbon

Pros: Interesting installment in the series universe!
Cons: A bit straightforward at first.
Rating: 4 out of 5

Tim Lebbon’s Alien – Out of the Shadows (Book 1) (Alien Trilogy 1) definitely hit the spot. I was looking for a nice, tense horror novel, and I’m a fan of the Alien franchise. This book takes place between the first movie, Alien, and the second movie, Aliens. Yes, it does have Ripley in it, and Lebbon found a way to make that work, although it’s a little bit awkward. A mining ship (the Marion) is in orbit over planet LV178 when its two dropships unexpectedly come hurtling up toward it. One crashes, and the other clearly (through camera feeds) has monsters on it that have killed the crew, bursting out of their chests. The crash caused the Marion to shift its orbit, and now it only has weeks to go before it crashes and burns. In that time Ripley’s capsule, in which she’s in cold sleep, auto-docks with the ship. She’s stunned to find out it’s been 37 years since the Nostromo went missing, particularly since she was hoping to find herself home with her daughter, Amanda. Now she once again finds herself in the position of battling the terrifying alien creatures that slaughtered her last crew.

Oddly, the beginning felt a little rushed with how quickly the newborn aliens came on the scene. And the ending–or at least, that portion of it that’s manipulated to allow this book to happen between the two movies–is a bit awkward. I’m not sure the author could do much about that, though, since the movies already exist and he had little choice in how to make this book work with those.

It’s interesting seeing Ripley engage with this new group of people, and seeing her deal with the trauma of running into the aliens once again. Dealing with her trauma doesn’t in any way undercut her strength, which I appreciate. She can be both Amanda’s distraught mother imagining what the aliens would do to her daughter, and kick-ass Ripley taking the fight to the aliens.

There are some nice complications to keep things interesting. Android Ash isn’t entirely out of the picture yet. Ripley’s pod doesn’t have enough juice to get her home and needs a recharge. Some of the supplies the team needs if they’re going to get out of the ship and hope for rescue are down in the mine–where the miners presumably discovered the aliens. Also, there are no military-types here: it’s all a bunch of miners and science officers and doctors trying to turn mining equipment into weapons that can be used against the aliens, which is pretty interesting.

I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.

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Short Take: “Trying to Survive, Part 1,” C.J. Crowley

Pros: Standard post-apocalyptic survival story
Cons: Nothing new; not very interesting
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

C.J. Crowley’s novella Trying to Survive (Part 1) is another entry into the post-apocalyptic survival genre of stories. Brothers Walt and James are trapped in their house. Outside, the majority of the population of their Florida town has turned into frenzied, super-powered cannibalistic monsters with glowing amber eyes. When Walt and James make their escape to some place a little less surrounded, they end up taking in several other people. But what comes next?

I guess this isn’t a bad post-apocalyptic; it just has nothing to really recommend it. The characters are totally bland and uninteresting. The author seems to be holding off on explaining what the “creatures” are that people have turned into and why most turned but a few didn’t, but frankly, I’m not interested enough to read the next book and find out.

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Review: “Underneath,” Robbie Dorman

Pros: Fascinating premise
Cons: A couple characters become one-dimensional bad guys
Rating: 4 out of 5

Robbie Dorman’s Underneath is a wonderfully chilling tale of Antarctic horror. Medic and former marine Mary Jensen gets a call from an ex, Mike: he’s working a research site in Antarctica, and the medic died. They need a new medic right away. She decides that sure, she’s willing to take this on, and immediately heads out. The research station is tiny and isolated. The previous medic wandered out into the cold for no apparent reason and died. Apparently some sort of cosmic radiation was detected emanating from beneath the ice, which just shouldn’t be possible, and Dr. Schuller, the lead scientist, believes they’ll find some sort of unknown particle down there that contributed to human evolution. Unfortunately, when the drilling reaches the target depth, they find nothing at all. And then some of the dig personnel begin to hallucinate…

Schuller is a true believer who holds weekly meetings so known for his quasi-religious fervor that the others call them going to “chapel”. It’s kind of inevitable that he becomes a despotic, obsessed bad guy when faced with the notion that all of his hard work might come to naught. It’s a little too convenient that one of the other scientists becomes a mindless minion with no apparent ability to think for himself. The rest of the characters, however, have a little bit of depth to them, although Mary and to a lesser extent Mike are the only ones that get the full treatment. This won’t be a big deal to a lot of horror readers. Schuller’s minion did seem to have some extra talents that needed explanation–I might buy that a chemist can rig a fuel tank to explode, but there’s another explosion that is less understandable. Also, there are two identical psych evaluations in the files, leading Mary to realize someone’s eval was forged, but I wasn’t sure why she immediately decided on one of the two people as the culprit rather than having to wonder which it was.

The Antarctic is used quite well as a deadly setting. There’s a lot of detail on succumbing to the cold, being revived from the cold, and so on. I don’t have the background to know if it’s accurate, but when there’s this much detail to something I tend to expect that someone has done their research.

Content note for lots of gore, and torture. Things definitely get intense and horrific. I thought this story was quite good.

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Review: “Sleep Disorders,” Mark Lukens

Pros: Fascinating thriller
Cons: Works in a few too many conspiracy theories; some details didn’t entirely make sense
Rating: 3 out of 5

Mark Lukens brings us Sleep Disorders–an interesting thriller. Pest control and lawn tech worker Zach Hughes goes to a restaurant with his wife, Michelle. Michelle goes to the restroom and never comes back, leaving her purse behind. Zach of course is the police officers’ main suspect, and he can’t restrain himself from poking into everything himself. He harasses the people who work at the restaurant until they threaten to call the police. He visits Michelle’s office, only to be told she quit three weeks ago and had said she was afraid of Zach. Now he starts waking up in the morning to find himself fully dressed, with lights on all over his house and the front door unlocked. When he figures out that he’s doing some sort of sleepwalking, he calls his buddy Stan to help him install cameras to figure out where he’s going.

Zach’s mysterious sleepwalking spells are intriguing, certainly. While he has them he dreams about chasing his wife across the road to an abandoned house. When he finally goes there, he finds racist graffiti and a bunch of numbers scrawled on the walls. Given what we later find out about how and why he’s sleepwalking, most of this doesn’t really make sense to me. While I know how the numbers fit into the puzzle, I still don’t know why they got scrawled on the walls, for instance, and all of the obvious explanations don’t really seem to fit into the rest of it. While I also understand what the deal is with the rest of the graffiti, again given later developments it seemed… unnecessary. Hell, in general his sleepwalking for most of the story doesn’t seem to make much sense with the whole purpose of it later.

SPOILER WARNING: Basically, he’s been “programmed” to carry out a mission. All of this stuff seems to be meant to set him up as a patsy, but there’s plenty to do that without all of this excess detail–all this stuff accomplishes is to make him suspicious, thus acting counter to everything the bad guys should want. Also, shouldn’t the bad guys have worried that having Michelle disappear when she did could result in Zach going to jail and thus being unable to carry out that mission? And shouldn’t Zach’s fake psychiatrist have waited until after the big climax to mysteriously vanish from her office? END SPOILERS

Stan is a conspiracy theorist and brings a psychiatric student, Alicia, into things. Stan doesn’t just help Zach set up cameras–he sticks around for a night or two, helps to check out the house across the street, gets Alicia to figure out what might be going on with the sleepwalking, and even calls in a couple of acquaintances who might be able to help. He’s a die-hard conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard not to start giggling as soon as chemtrails enter the conversation.

I found the explanations for the sleepwalking fascinating, even if the details didn’t all add up for me. The climax of the story is gripping. I wanted to understand more about Michelle (she’s an exceedingly flimsy character), and the focus on conspiracy theories was a little eyeroll-inducing. But there’s a solid story in here that was interesting to read.

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Review: “In My Father’s Basement,” T.J. Payne

Pros: Engaging serial killer story from an interesting perspective
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

T.J. Payne’s In My Father’s Basement: A Serial Killer Novel is told largely from the point of view of one Isaac Luce, the son of infamous serial killer Walter “the Handyman” Luce. Walter killed a bunch of college students and then his basement was found full of bodies. He’s never given an interview or explained why he, a grandfatherly contractor, seemed to suddenly snap. Isaac can’t get a job thanks to his father’s notoriety, so he scrapes by selling old tools to serial killer fanatics and claiming they belonged to his father. One day, a death row prison guard named Teddy comes to Isaac with an interesting proposition: for one week Teddy will be in a unique position to give Isaac unusual amounts of access to his father, whom he’s never visited before now. He wants Isaac to get his father to talk about the killings while Teddy records the sessions, so they can sell the tapes and split the money. While Isaac does manage to get his father to talk, what he says may not be as straightforward as it seems.

This turns out not to be the typical “why did he do it?” type of exploration. The tales of what Walter was up to are fascinating, but Isaac keeps catching him out with little lies that cast the rest in doubt. Ultimately, “why did he do it?” is not the most interesting question one can ask.

Teddy is apparently doing all of this so he can afford to send his 18-year-old daughter Lauren to Columbia. He thinks the world of his daughter, and would never imagine her misbehaving. Like when she meets Isaac outside their home and talks him into taking her to see the house where the Handyman did half of his killing. Or when she talks Isaac into “misbehaving” in a cemetery. Isaac is not an entirely standard protagonist, and he starts to wonder at times whether he might have more in common with his father than he’d like to.

None of the characters are particularly likable, but not to such an extent that it drove me away at all. It’s just enough to make the characters interesting. There are no innocent people here.

Content note for racism, misogyny, slurs, torture, and gore. I think this is a perfect read for anyone who’s intrigued by the serial killer genre. It has some interesting things to say about the level of celebrity that serial killers enjoy in our society.

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