Review: “Faithless In Death,” J.D. Robb

Rating: 4 out of 5

Just so you know right off the bat, J.D. Robb’s (Nora Roberts) Faithless in Death (In Death, 52) is not action-packed. These books go back and forth, showcasing different styles of mystery and murder, different levels of darkness, different action quotients, and so on. This particular volume is all about Eve and Peabody’s detailed, nit-picky drive to solve a murder that requires good old detective-work rather than beating people up or shooting them.

It’s the spring of 2061 and homicide Lieutenant Eve Dallas lands another murder case: a sculptor was killed in her home by some nasty blows to the head. Clearly she had entertained a lover shortly before that, and a 911 call came in from an entirely different part of town, an hour after the time of death. The woman who called it in seems anything but forthcoming–she lies, she manipulates, and it seems like she’d step on anyone she had to in order to get where she wants to be. But that doesn’t necessarily make her a murderer. Soon Eve finds herself tracking down a cult called Natural Order, a quasi-religious group known for violence even though they preach peace, with a very high-flying lifestyle for the few at the top. Women are believed to be inherently inferior to men, and while they have no problem having members of other races, they insist that the races must not mix any more than necessary–each group lives and learns separately, and the whites are in charge.

If you enjoy diving into the nit-picky details of police procedure, putting together details, coordinating between agencies, getting psych profiles, researching entire religious sects, diving into financials, and all of that stuff, you’ll enjoy this installment in the series! There’s also plenty of character interaction between all the characters we’ve come to know and love, Jenkinson’s loud ties, Mavis and Leonardo buying a house with Roarke’s help, Roarke as usual finding time to take care of Eve and help with her case as a consultant, and so forth. But it’s mostly police-work in this one.

Personally this wasn’t my favorite of the series–I like more tension–but it’s a solid book. As usual my favorite parts were watching Eve and Peabody manipulate suspects in interview. It’s so much fun watching them work!

Content note for domestic violence, racism, sexism, mild violence and gore, semi-abstracted sex.

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Short Take: “Obsidian,” Alan Baxter

Rating: 4 out of 5

Alan Baxter’s Obsidian (Alex Caine) (Volume 2) makes for a really interesting follow-on to book one. In Bound, Alex Caine discovers he has powers–a lot of them. He’s tossed head-first into the world of magic and comes out the other side. In volume 2, he’s at a bit of a loss–he’s too powerful to get any joy out of fighting humans in cage matches any more, but demons are kinda dull too. Then an organization called Armor comes to call on him and Silhouette. They want help in dealing with three people who have stumbled onto a ritual that is way beyond their ability to control. At the same time, Claude Darvill, the son of Mr. Hood from book one, tries to track down Alex to find out what happened to his father. When the smoke clears, they’re all trapped in Obsidian, a magical city seemingly entirely cut off from Earth and run by a vicious cult.

As a minor note: there is way too much sneering in this book. Sometimes it feels like all the characters do is sneer at each other. Also, as Alex learns to use his elemental abilities in the previous book as well as this one, I find myself wondering why it never occurs to him to use air. A well-targeted tornado or two might have made several obstacles easier to overcome, or at least there might have been less collateral damage.

On the positive side: pretty much every time I found myself going, “hey wait a minute…” my concerns were addressed shortly thereafter. I like the fact that Armor has seers (not necessarily amazingly strong ones) who help them find supernatural threats that need to be dealt with.

I don’t want to get too much into talking about Obsidian, because it’s one of those things best unveiled a bit at a time as the story progresses. This is entirely a tonal break from the first book; the only joint threads are the presence of Alex and Sil.

I’m still enjoying this series and look forward to reading book three!

Content note: death/harm of mythical animals in combat.

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Review: “Collected Easter Horror Shorts,” ed. Kevin J. Kennedy

Rating: 4 out of 5

Kevin J. Kennedy edited Collected Easter Horror Shorts (Collected Horror Shorts Book 2). As the title says, it’s a collection of short stories connected to Easter in one way or another. Some are about mysterious eggs. Others are about resurrection. Still others are about bunnies, and some just happen to take place on Easter. I have to say that my favorite sub-theme is that of mysterious eggs that hatch into something unexpected. Like most anthologies, you’re likely to find some stories you like better than others; I think it’s a solid 4/5 overall, which is what I end up giving most anthologies.

Lex H. Jones’s “Sonnes Hall” introduces a mixed-race gay couple who move out into the countryside and are surprised at how tolerant their neighbors are. When one of them develops a serious illness, they discover that there are some unusual happenings in the area. Latashia Figueroa wrote a story about a child named Brian, his mother Angela, his mother’s abusive boyfriend Pete, and the neighbor Mr. Eldridge. Brian goes to Mr. Eldridge for a sense of safety, only to result in Pete’s attention focusing on Mr. Eldridge. This is a mysterious egg story, and it’s dark and excellent. Mark Lukens’s “Mia’s Easter Basket” introduces us to Mia, who gets mysterious packages from an old man on each Easter–packages she can’t let her daughter see.

C.S. Anderson’s “He Has Risen” is a great tale of the zombie apocalypse in which one man who got drunk and fell asleep on sentry duty has to pay for his sins. Jeff Strand’s “Rotten Eggs” is a story of a prank involving hidden Easter eggs that someone carries much too far. Jeff Menapace’s “Paying It Forward” shows us what can happen when you don’t do some research before obeying your fortune cookie’s instruction to “Be kind to strangers.” Veronica Smith’s “It’s Not All About Bunnies and Chocolate” sees six-year-old Lilymairose’s mother Jean trying to get her daughter one of the wildly popular “Hatch-A-Pets” for Easter. Still loving those mysterious egg stories!

The stories I’ve listed so far are my favorites, but there are others that are still quite good. Amy Cross’s “Lamb to Slaughter” introduces us to a rather different idea of what should happen on Easter, involving sacrifice. In Mark Cassell’s “The Rebirth,” teacher Kelly brings to school a beautiful wooden egg she found outside of her door. (Another mysterious egg story!) Briana Robertson’s “Baby Blues” is a really difficult (and potentially traumatizing) glimpse into what can happen when a mother falls deep into the grip of depression. It’s really tough to read about that. There’s a poem called “Killer Jelly Beans from Outer Space” that’s pretty funny. Kevin J. Kennedy’s “A Town Called Easter” is a monsters-run-amuck story about giant bunnies. This one is not humor.

J.C. Michael’s “Lord of the Dance” was really amazing right up until the confusing end. A man who witnessed Jesus’s death on the cross has been killing one person every year at Easter at the behest of the voice of God in his head–for two thousand years. Peter Oliver Wonder’s “Easter Gunny” is told from the perspective of a mini Australian Shepherd who tries to figure out how he’s supposed to fit in with the family’s Easter celebration. My only problem with this one is that sometimes he seems to think like a dog, and at other times he seems to think like a human, and it’s jarring. Suzanne Fox’s “Last Supper” is a fascinating revenge story with multiple layers to it. Lisa Vasquez’s “Bunny and Clyde” was a bit confusing at first, but turned into an interesting story about grief and loss. Christopher Motz’s “Magic Awaits” has a man’s boss invite all of his employees’ kids to an Easter scavenger hunt. Some of the details in the ending are what really made this story for me.

Christina Bergling’s “Hatch” is another excellent mystery-egg story, featuring a young man who finds a rather unusual and homely egg and becomes obsessed with it. (I did find some of the description odd, though, like “her pupils bounced against her irises,” which, what?!) Mark Fleming’s “Sulfur” seemed unreasonably confusing until the end, but that end was worth it. It involves a very hungover man and a little girl hurling eggs.

Of the stories I wasn’t as fond of, one was a revenge story that seemed disproportionate and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the role the gay man was cast in. Another is a tale of toys in a festival claw machine that break out and start attacking; the beginning could have been skipped entirely and only served to completely confuse what was going on. Another story, about a writer, got a bit too cutesy. It tries to be meta-meta; the nod to Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes doesn’t solve the fact that this feels too much like “Misery”; and one character’s actions come entirely out of left field and needed at least a little foreshadowing.

Overall this is an excellent collection of horror stories, and definitely worth reading.

Content note for domestic abuse; child death, neglect, and abuse; suicide; animal cruelty and death; standard horror warning for bits of gore and death.

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Short Take: “Wyrd and Other Derelictions,” Adam Nevill

Rating: 5 out of 5

Adam Nevill’s short story collection Wyrd and Other Derelictions is one of the most original pieces of horror I’ve seen. There are seven “stories.” I put stories in quotation marks because they’re not at all what we think of when we hear the word. If anything, these are epilogues to stories. The action has already happened, and the only narrative voice is very unobtrusive. It’s like taking a guided tour through an abandoned (mostly!), unnatural crime scene in every story, piecing together what happened.

There’s a seemingly-empty ship that heads toward port. There’s a land empty of life where there can be found a circle of colorful tents and the remnants of a ritual. There’s a gash in red sands that leads either to or from the sea, and a bloody clearing in the woods where tents and campers lie ruined. These places are so devoid of anything currently human that they read and feel like alien landscapes. It’s several stories in before we even see a sign of concurrent life. There are bodies with eyes missing; burned bones and cooked bodies; and a holiday camp that looks like it was flooded by the sea. A seemingly abandoned town being lit by a strange light from the sky yields the sound of glass breaking in the distance.

I loved these stories and felt entirely pulled in despite the lack of a “normal” narrator, a protagonist, or almost anything we associate with stories. It’s a magnificent collection!

Content note for some mutilation, death, etc., but it’s all past-tense. It’s already happened.

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Short Take: “White,” Tim Lebbon

Rating: 4 out of 5

In Tim Lebbon’s novella White, a bunch of people are stuck in a manor house during a wintry apocalypse. They know little about what’s going on out in the world, but enough to know they might be better off where they are. Until, that is, people start dying in terribly violent ways. There’s something white out there moving against the snow. But what will happen if it manages to come inside the manor?

We know very little about this apocalypse except for glimpses. There’s a disease ravaging the population. The earth itself seems to be rising up against people. The climate has gone crazy. Perhaps the earth has simply decided that man’s time is over. But we see this vast set of circumstances only through the lens of a small, fragile group of people suffering from arguments, different ideas of what should be done, and a dwindling supply of everything necessary. There’s a lot we won’t have learned by the end of the book, because the larger problems aren’t what it’s all about. It’s just this one story that happens to be set within that context.

As long as you’re fine reading a story that doesn’t particularly address the over-arching world issues, I think you’ll enjoy this. I certainly did.

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Review: “Shiver,” ed. Nico Bell

Rating: 4 out of 5

I’m a big fan of snowy, icy horror. Once you’ve found yourself in the eerie stillness of an evening snowfall, it’s easy to imagine all sorts of horrors to go with. The anthology Shiver: A Chilling Horror Anthology (edited by Nico Bell) is icy, snowy horror.

My favorite stories from this volume include Nicole M. Wolverton’s “Waiting for Winter.” The daughters of a group of “final girls” that survived serial killer attacks seem to be targets themselves. They decide to turn the tables and get ready for the man who’s coming after them. This one is fun and clever, but honestly I wish it had been stretched into a full novella.

Mark Wheaton’s “Mongrel” is another excellent tale. Sled dog Asra isn’t able to keep her person, Katie, from being killed by a mysterious and deadly creature. But she’ll get a second chance. (As is probably obvious from the fact that the main character of this horror story is a dog, there is animal harm involved.) Asra makes a wonderful main character.

Cristopher Wood’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a short, funny horror story of two men who go to work Christmas Eve to butcher and package meat. Only some of that meat has been contaminated. Mason McDonald’s “On the Frozen Waters Of Lake Namara” introduces us to a lake where many children have gone missing–no bodies to be found–always in the wintertime. When Ian dares his friend to go out on the ice, you know things won’t end well!

Michael Tichy’s “The Partisan” involves a sniper who goes after Nazi forces in Europe in the 1940s. A creature from childhood warning stories puts in a frightening appearance. Stephanie Rabig’s “For Sale: One Nightmare,” definitely gripped me! Natalie ordered “a nightmare” from Etsy on a whim while buying other things. Oh yeah, she definitely regrets that now!

Red Lagoe’s “A Cold Day In Hell” shows us Jean, who has stolen a car and is taking her baby to a supposedly haunted house in order to avoid the police. This one has some excellent surprises in it! Jessie Small’s “Bad Bunnies” has several delightful parts to it. The main character’s father, when asked by his child not to hunt bunnies, promised only to hunt the “bad bunnies.” Of course the child eventually recognizes that for the fig leaf it is.

Tiffany Michelle Brown’s “Addison House” is an urban legend tale with a chilling ending. Sarah Jane Huntington’s “The Snow Woman” is another urban legend with a literally chilling ending. Brennan LaFaro’s “A Shine In the Woods” is a terrifying creature-feature.

There are quite a few other stories that were good, but didn’t haunt me as much. One story had a beautiful plot, but the narrative details were all over the place as though they were too conscious of themselves. It was distracting, and it made some of the descriptions weird: “Al’s jumpy blood wiggled through their left fingertips to flick their headlights off.” Another story kept pointing out weird “coincidences” (without explaining what made them coincidences rather than just weird things going wrong) as though they meant something, which they didn’t seem to. And the tone of it was kind of flippant and off-handed rather than scary. Another story of the wendigo felt clunky and awkward, particularly when it came to dialogue.

Another urban legend story had a bit of a rough, tumble-on narrative and a protagonist who was annoying enough that it was hard to feel the horror of the ending. One story centered on a particularly bad drug trip, and other than the ending it didn’t really appeal to me; I’m not fond of surreal, dream-like narratives. I somewhat liked a story about two friendly skeletons in a bio lab, but it doesn’t really go much of anywhere. A story about a prison escape similarly got a bit too surreal at the end; I like to have some idea of what’s happening. A story about a winter sprite run amock killing people doesn’t entirely add up: it’s just when people seem to be noticing and appreciating the winter wonderland around them that the sprite decides to kill them for not noticing and appreciating the winter wonderland? Another surreal and confusing story seems to be about a very disturbed woman who’s supposedly caretaking for a mansion while the owners are away. I honestly have no idea what happened in that story.

Content note: standard horror blood and death fare.

This anthology is loaded with some very good stories, and I definitely recommend it.

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Review: “Alien: Into Charybdis,” Alex White

Rating: 5 out of 5

Alex White’s Alien: Into Charybdis is sort of a follow-on to his Alien: The Cold Forge. You probably don’t need to read that one first, and you’ll spend the first half or more of this book wondering why I say you should, but it does become relevant and I think I would have been a bit confused had I not read that book first. I’m a huge fan of the Alien franchise, and I think Alex White’s books stand up very well to the other material out there.

Cheyenne (Shy) Hunt is a contractor–her and her team handle contracts for installation and maintenance of colony infrastructure (yes, even in space you need HVAC maintenance!). They take a job on a planet that’s literally called “Hasanova Data Solutions” that is run by the Iranians. A couple of people on the contractor crew are not entirely happy about this, but they need the money badly. The actual colony is, so far, a big island with a stable lava tube in the middle. This feature, called Charybdis, is a whirlpool of water and toxic gases, and anything that goes over the safety railings isn’t coming back. A local named Kamran Afghanzadeh is tasked with making sure the contractors stick to what they’re supposed to do and don’t go poking around. Of course Shy and Noah stumble across something they shouldn’t see, and suddenly they’re virtually prisoners. Then the Iranians come across a certain xenomorph, and Noah decides it’s time to send a distress call.

I love that the main characters are blue-collar workers in space. It’s creative and interesting, and brings some unusual skills and knowledge to the table. The Iranians and the Americans are pretty prickly for a while, and some of it starts out seeming like stereotypical bigotry, but when push comes to shove, all the characters have depth and nuance.

There are a couple of unexplained mysteries that got dropped in that never paid off; I was a bit disappointed by that, but it’s really my only complaint. We do, however, get to find out what happened to Dr. Blue Marsalis after the end of Alien: The Cold Forge, which is great. She was such an excellent character.

The colony is unusual in its makeup, size, and unique challenges, and the author makes wonderful use of these things when everything goes to hell. It’s also interesting to see what sorts of tricks their would-be rescuers have up their sleeves now that the military knows a lot more about the xenomorphs. It has enabled some interesting advances in technology and some new ways of dealing with the aliens.

I think if you enjoy the Alien franchise, you’ll love this book. It hits all of the sweet spots for character interplay, horror, science fiction, and combat against the deadliest creatures the universe has seen.

Content warning for blood & gore, dismemberment, spiders, a little bigotry, child harm, and child death.

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Review: “Alien: The Cold Forge,” Alex White

Rating: 5 out of 5

I’m a total sucker for “Alien”-franchise books, and Alien: The Cold Forge, by Alex White, is just the right blend of sci-fi and horror. Dorian Sudler, the director of special resources for Weyland-Yutani, is on his way to a space station to audit them. Dorian loves firing people and finding ways to save money, and he’s already anticipating just how much fun this trip will be. The station is actually being run by a skeleton staff because it’s host to just three projects, all of which are highly secretive. One is Glitter Edifice, which is being run by Dr. Blue Marsalis. She’s supposed to be weaponizing the xenomorphs, but she’s secretly blowing through the face-huggers in an attempt to find a substance they inject into the host bodies that’s capable of rewriting DNA. She has a nasty genetic illness that she won’t survive much longer if she can’t make it work. And if Dorian finds out she’s running her own experiments using the almost priceless, limited supply of xenomorph eggs, he’ll cancel her project and she’ll die in short order. Then, the product of one of the other projects “escapes”–a program that’s built to enter a network and be as destructive as possible–cyber-warfare, basically.

Blue and Dorian are the two point-of-view characters and it’s fascinating. Dorian is pretty clearly a psychopath, but not your average psychopath. He makes decisions and takes actions that, once you’ve seen his reasoning, make sense, but are unexpected. Blue is rather self-centered for her part, but I mean, when you’ve been dying for a decade and you’re running out of time to stop it, that makes some sense. And I like the fact that she isn’t perfect and pure.

Blue is also a disabled heroine, and that is handled extremely well. She isn’t paralyzed or completely incapable of walking, which is great–almost all media focused on the disabled show that either you need a wheelchair or you don’t, and there’s no partially-mobile middle ground. That depiction has done a lot of harm to disabled people who are capable of standing up and taking a few steps, only to have people around them insist that means they aren’t disabled. Blue needs a lot of medications and a lot of care.

Marcus is a synthetic, and he’s Blue’s arms and legs in a sense. Blue can “pilot” Marcus, taking him over entirely, and in that state she’s basically superhuman. But it also damages the relationships she might have had with the crew, leaving them not entirely trusting of her or interested in helping her out. Marcus also handles things like Blue’s meds and the care of her colostomy bag and catheter–the presence of which is, again, handled very well. Blue still has a lot of interaction with the story on her own, not just through Marcus. He isn’t used as a magical escape to make Blue essentially non-disabled, and he’s both a help and a hindrance.

The xenomorphs are seen very soon after the book starts–Blue has already hatched quite a few of them. Once Silversmile, the aggressive program, escapes, it’s inevitable that the xenomorphs will somehow escape. At first I thought they were going to entirely elide the how of their escape, because we seem to go straight from them being trapped to them being on the loose. But the story unfolds later in the tale, when our characters are finding out certain secrets.

Many of the side characters have interest as well. Some we never find out a lot about, but hey, someone has to die first! And even in the brief interactions with some of them there’s always a touch of personality. The pacing is also top-notch, with plenty of action building up throughout the book. If, like me, you love the combination of sci-fi and horror that the Alien franchise has practically trademarked, then I think you’ll love this book!

Content note: abstracted sex scene; blood and gore.

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Review: “The Cellar,” Richard Laymon

Rating: 1 out of 5

This time I’m going to put the content note right up front, because it’s important. DO NOT read this book if you don’t want to deal with child molestation and rape. (Also slurs, victim-blaming, murder, explicit sex, and some minor gore.)

WARNING: review contains spoilers

This should be obvious to anyone who is familiar with Richard Laymon, but he doesn’t write dark, thoughtful stories of abuse. He writes action-oriented horror. I’ve heard his work described as “a bit rapey,” but The Cellar (Beast House) really takes the cake, and ensures I won’t read any more of his work.

There are ways to address subjects like child molestation and rape such that they’re handled thoughtfully, sensitively, and without any prurient overtones. Yeah, Laymon doesn’t write like that. Instead, particularly since scenes involving or alluding to child rape are told from the adult’s view, his style definitely comes across as prurient. It’s blatantly sexualized. There’s victim-blaming (the mother of the child who was raped in the past thinks, with regard to a young woman being scantily clad, “The girl’s going to get herself raped”). In addition, there are details that imply some of the young women enjoy being sexually assaulted (and not in a “this is horrible but my body reacted anyway” kind of manner).

This is particularly the case at the end (like I said, spoilers in this review) where a twelve-year-old seems excited by the idea of one of her captors making her pregnant, and her mother, also a captive, mostly just comes across as cranky, not horrified. One young girl who’s been raped does become catatonic for a while, but the first time she comes around enough to be responsive, she’s described as “pouting.” As though having been kidnapped, kept in a car trunk, and raped was about as bad as being told she can’t have ice cream for dessert.

That’s the major thing that got to me, but there are others. The only Black character in the entire story is someone’s memory of the “fat, black face” of a dictator he killed. Donna (the mother) has a sister Karen, whom she tells that her rapist ex-husband is out of jail and that she’s fled the area, but the ex-husband catches Karen sunning herself outside, completely unaware of her surroundings, despite the fact that she should be worried that the guy might track her down while looking for Donna. Donna ends up holding hands with the male lead, Jud, after one meal together. Then, when Donna has to help Jud patch himself up after a fight, she gets all hot-and-bothered and starts kissing him passionately while he’s bleeding all over the place. And then has sex with him on the bathroom floor (thankfully after he’s bandaged up this time) while there’s another guy in the next room of their motel cabin. Then she also has sex with him while they’re waiting in her room fully expecting her ex-husband to show up at any moment, knowing he’s in town and has been told where she is. It’s ridiculous.

I definitely do not recommend this book, for all of the reasons enumerated above. It’s easy these days to find something better to read.

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Review: “The Debt,” Natalie Edwards, T.C. Parker

Rating: 5 out of 5

Note: this book was originally published under the name “Natalie Edwards,” but is currently being published under “T.C. Parker.”

T.C. Parker’s thriller The Debt: El Gardener Book 1 is a wonderful heist-type novel. When El was just a child, her mother was murdered. Although the man who presumably killed her was dealt with, it turns out he might have been framed. El, who’s a con-woman extraordinaire, is brought onto a team by her mentor, Ruby. Rose, who’s bankrolling the whole thing, wants to take down a wealthy, influential man: James Marchant. Each person she brings on to the team has a reason to hate Marchant, a manner in which he ruined their lives: missing parents, dead husbands, and so on. It seems Marchant has much to answer for, and Rose is determined to use her team to ruin his life in turn. Unfortunately, Marchant isn’t just cruel and misogynistic; he’s also very smart and has a lot of resources to call on.

I love the formation of a team of strong, almost fearless women who are all very good at what they do. There’s an expert in surveillance tech, a journalist, an actress, and more. El is an “inside woman,” who turns herself into whoever is needed to get close to their mark. (There are good-guy men around the edges, such as Ruby’s sons who are lawyers; they’re just not part of the main ensemble cast.)

El can’t help thinking that the whole situation is a bit too perfect. There are little details around the edges that seem too ideal a setup for a con, and it seems like everyone is keeping secrets. But there’s convincing evidence that Marchant killed her mother, and she won’t back down from getting revenge.

My only problem with this book is that it switches around in time a lot. Relevant things happen in 1976, 1978, 1993, 1996, 1981, 1990, 1995, 1998, 1994, 1975, and 1966. It seemed impossible to keep track of it all. I think a few of the flashbacks to past events could have been handled in other ways to keep them from confusing the issue so much.

If you’re looking for a detailed and satisfying (but also dark and tense) con job story, especially one with multiple strong women, I highly recommend this one!

Content note for child death, violence, drug use, and sexual situations.

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