Review: “Heirloom,” Graham Masterton

Rating: 3 out of 5

In Graham Masterton’s horror story Heirloom, an antiques dealer comes into possession of a huge throne-like chair that seems to have hypnotic effects. When it seems to move on its own from the garage to the library, it doesn’t take long for Rick, his wife Sara, and their son Jonathan (6) to realize that they aren’t imagining things. Time dilates in odd ways, all of the living things on their property start to die off as if summer has turned to fall, and after their dog sits on the chair he becomes very ill. Rick tries to get rid of the chair, but it always returns–and when he starts hearing its voice in his head, it threatens his family. Finally he meets David, who wants the chair and knows a few things about it. Now they just have to figure out how to get it to stop returning to Rick!

The story behind the chair is actually pretty interesting, as is what it’s up to right now. Rick’s inability to get rid of the chair, coupled with its threats toward his family (most particularly six-year-old Jonathan), keep things quite tense.

One thing I didn’t like is that as far as I could tell, pretty much every worker in a service job was Mexican or something else similar, while everyone not in a service job was white. It was so matter of fact that it felt like the author just assumed that this was naturally the proper place and context for non-whites. There were one or two other little details that left me feeling there was a tinge of xenophobia to the book.

Rick apparently met Sara in college. Instead of simply walking up to her and asking her out, he deliberately rear-ended her car. That’s seriously some stalker-level crud, and risked injuring her because it doesn’t take a high-velocity crash to potentially cause whiplash. Yet it isn’t treated as though his actions were in any way bad.

There’s an odd moment where in the midst of all the building horror, Rick and Sara take a break to argue about whether he shaved. I realize this was to indicate that time had, in fact, jumped forward for them, but it was incredibly out of place and wasn’t even necessary. I’m also pretty impressed that a person could get flung back and forth all around a room in a house and yet it was easily cleaned up afterward. There should have been blood all over the walls and furniture, and that doesn’t come out so easily.

This starts out as a somewhat personal and claustrophobic horror, but becomes broader and more widely impactful later on. The switch is slightly jarring, but also very interesting. Over all, the horror is great, but the details tended to be problematic. If you don’t care about the details as much, you’ll almost certainly like this book more than I did.

Content note for explicit sex, animal death, and gore. Also, the characters are a bit on the religious side (Christian)–that might make you either more or less interested.

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Review: “Nemesis Games,” James S.A. Corey

Rating: 5 out of 5

In the previous book of James S.A. Corey’s marvelous series “The Expanse”–Cibola Burn–Holden was sent to mediate a dispute between self-avowed colonists and an Earth corporation who both wanted the same planet. We learned a little more along the way about what might have happened to the extinct aliens who built the Ring system. Now, in Nemesis Games (The Expanse, 5), the form the story takes gets a bit different. The crew of the Rocinante is forced to take some downtime while the ship gets fixed, and one by one the various members (except for Holden) take some time off to take care of various personal issues. Amos goes to Earth to find out what happened to a woman he cared about who died. Alex goes back to Mars to reach some sort of closure with his ex-wife (yeah, that’s never a good idea). Naomi receives a message that sends her off to the Belt and into contact with some old friends who are up to no good. Somehow, one by one, they end up in the middle of a spreading series of disasters engineered by someone who wants to see the Belters come into control of the solar system. The availability of new worlds past the Ring is making Belters obsolete, and some of them think the only way to solve this is to blow things up.

Plans within plans within plans. Marco is a charismatic Belter who has organized a group to take over the solar system. He plans to get rid of Holden and Fred, rope Naomi back into his world (the world she escaped from years ago), get his hands on a small fleet’s worth of Martian military ships, and even attack the Earth. That’s some serious ambition.

I like the timescale things are on. It’s been three years since they left for Ilus, because space travel still takes time. It’s going to be several months for the Rocinante to get fixed up, because major repairs take time. As much as I think near-instantaneous space travel in other books can be a good thing, the scale in these books allows for more political development and a world rich in consequences.

Filip is a 15-year-old boy who’s in deep with the Belters, because Marco is his father. He already has blood on his hands, and his place in things is particularly interesting. He and the rest of Marco’s little cabal let us in on Naomi’s darker secrets, the things that have been barely hinted at that she hasn’t even wanted to tell Holden. Speaking of Holden, I love that he’s growing as a person but sometimes falls back a step. He’s trying to cope with not knowing where Naomi is, and it’s making him look at himself a little bit closer. Journalist Monica returns and takes a more active role in this particular plot, such as poking at Holden to help her look into some ships that went missing when they went through the Ring. We also get to see some of the crew finally having to deal with the fact that they’re well-known now. Maybe not as much celebrities as Holden is, but interesting in their own right.

This is tightly plotted, with fascinating stories going on in parallel. It also seriously digs into all of the crew, examining their past and present lives, their relationships, their secrets, and more. All of that without bogging down at all. I can’t wait for more!

Content note for emotional abuse, manipulation, and gaslighting.

“Alien superweapons were used,” Alex said…. “The laws of physics were altered, mistakes were made.”
“Same shit, different day,” Amos replied.

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Review: “Velocity,” Dean Koontz

Rating: 4 out of 5

When I read a book by Dean Koontz, I never know what I’m going to get. I’ve given books of his anywhere from a 5-out-of-5 to a 2-out-of-5. Thankfully Velocity: A Novel was a good one. I resisted getting it for a while because let’s face it, “Velocity” sounds… bland and meaningless. But I had a coupon for a discount on a Dean Koontz book and decided to give this one a try. I’m glad I did.

Billy Wiley is a bartender. He keeps things mellow, and spends some of his off hours looking after his fiancee, Barbara, who’s been in a coma for several years. One day he leaves work to find a piece of paper on his windshield. It says that if Billy calls the the police, the writer will kill an elderly woman. If he doesn’t call the police, the writer will kill a lovely schoolteacher. Billy takes the letter to Lanny, a deputy who’s also the closest thing he has to a friend. Lanny tells him it’s a prank and to ignore it. When of course there’s a killing that matches the letter writer’s description, and a second note shows up on Billy’s windshield, everything goes to hell. Lanny is desperate to keep the Sheriff’s department from finding out he didn’t take the first letter seriously, and Billy is conflicted about his latest choice. He also had a particularly bad experience as a teenager that made him extremely wary of the police, and he knows the Sheriff–with whom he has a history–will try to pin the killings on him.

One minor detail, just because I have to get it out of my system. Of course there’s a young, beautiful woman, a waitress, who is described as “genuinely unaware that she was the essential male fantasy in the flesh.” This is a really bad stereotype that upholds the idea that it’s somehow wrong for women to understand that they are attractive. That this makes them somehow impure or “less than.” And it sucks. Anyway. Moving right along.

For some reason the serial killer has targeted Billy–but so far he doesn’t seem interested in killing him. Instead he wants to put on some sort of performance in which Billy is forced to choose who lives and who dies–and end up looking very guilty. He starts cleaning up bodies to keep the sheriff from darkening his door. Things get planted in his house. (I do wonder how the killer was able to go so freely in and out of all sorts of locked doors, both home and vehicle–we never really find out.) Billy becomes convinced that the end goal of the killer is to kill Barbara (slowly) and drive Billy to suicide. But things may not be that straightforward.

The beginning of the book, which takes place in the bar Billy works at, has a touch of whimsy reminiscent of Odd Thomas, but things get more hard-nosed pretty quickly. Billy has a really interesting inner life; he’s an unsuccessful writer, and he sometimes thinks in T.S. Eliot quotes. He’s unpretentious and reasonably okay with being a bartender and a small town guy who’s just watching over his fiancee. The doctor keeps trying to convince him to pull the feeding tube, that there’s no chance Barbara will ever wake up, but Billy refuses. She tends to mutter in her sleep, and he keeps notebooks of everything she says.

The various character relationships in here are great, there are plenty of interesting people, and the plot is solid. Billy is stuck in a position of trying to clean up after a serial killer while simultaneously trying to catch him, and it’s quite tense and inventive. I definitely recommend this particular Dean Koontz novel.

Content note: dead bodies and pieces of dead bodies.

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Review: “Twisted: Tainted Tales,” Janine Pipe

Rating: 4 out of 5

Janine Pipe’s horror collection Twisted: Tainted Tales has an interesting conceit to it. A woman found a bunch of papers at an author’s estate, each story linked to a song on a mix tape. Each story is named after its matching song, and is introduced by the woman who found the papers.

There’s a monster-in-the-woods story, a desperate woman who takes shelter in a man’s home, a hunter who may be more terrible than his monstrous prey, detectives trying to figure out the cause of a bunch of exsanguinated corpses, childhood imaginary friends, and a woman who stalks a man she saw on a bus. There’s a drive-in open in the midst of a rash of missing kids, and a boy whose friend vanishes one day (this latter one had too much bald-faced explaining at the end, but was still quite good).

There’s a weird story that feels kind of out of place, about a world in which the poor have overthrown the rich and the rich are made to participate in some sort of blood-sport. The ending was written such that it seemed like the reader should be having some sort of revelation, but damned if I could figure out what it was. Also, this story seemed to uniformly picture the wealthy as decent people while the poor folk are the bloodthirsty bad guys.

There’s a story in which a young woman wants to attempt to see a reputed Halloween haunting, and her boyfriend seems interested in helping with that. There’s an odd story in which a bunch of kids are storing sexy photos in a tree. There’s a great little haunting story about a decrepit building that used to be a school for boys, and a tale about two kids and their father who are going camping sometime after the boys’ mother was murdered.

One of my favorites was a story about the reputed haunted house in a town, and two boys finally giving in to their curiosity and going inside. Another good one introduced a teenaged boy who has had night terrors for his entire life. And finally, a story about a drain pipe with something terrible hiding inside. (There are a lot of stories with teen boys as the main characters!)

The stories are intriguing and inventive, with plenty of death and horror afoot. I recommend this collection to my fellow horror fans.

Content note: menstrual blood, body parts, mutilation, sex, gore, vomit, psycho-stalker, off-screen child death, attempted date rape, slurs, off-screen animal death.

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Review: “Cibola Burn,” James S.A. Corey

Rating: 5 out of 5

James S.A. Corey’s “The Expanse” series is such an amazing science fiction tale (with a touch of horror). Cibola Burn (The Expanse, 4) makes it clear that each of these books is just as good as the previous, and that’s a hard thing to pull off.

When we left off at the end of Abaddon’s Gate, the gates had opened up and made more than a thousand habitable worlds available to humanity. On one of these planets, colonists have cobbled together a settlement (they call the planet Ilus) and are mining valuable minerals. The company Royal Charter Energy, however, received a charter from the UN granting them ownership of the planet. They’ve sent a ship full of scientists to start studying the planet (which they call New Terra). Basia Merton has been convinced by some of his fellow colonists to blow up the landing pad that RCE needs in order to send their scientists down to the planet. Unfortunately, the drop shuttle gets caught in the explosion and some of the scientists die, while others are injured. Immediately the colonists and RCE are set against each other, and the psychotic head of security for the RCE vessel (Adolphus Murtry) is determined that his side will win at any cost. Havelock, Miller’s one-time partner, is working security on the RCE vessel, and the UN sends Captain Holden to Ilus to mediate some sort of solution to the dispute. As if this weren’t bad enough, as soon as Holden’s ship arrives, defunct alien machinery on the planet starts to come alive–and some of it is quite dangerous. Even Miller’s ghost has followed Holden to Ilus, and he too wants Holden’s help.

The mystery of Ilus is fascinating. A geologist on the RCE mission feels like he has nothing to do because, in his words, the planet was “machined.” It was designed, and the regularly-spaced moons around it are clearly meant to serve some function as well. The first encounter with anything alien was the protomolecule and the horror show it made of Eros. The second was the Ring and the station Holden discovered on the other side. Now we get to see an actual planet that the aliens inhabited, complete with alien ruins. There are some organisms there–flora and fauna–and some of them are eerily dangerous. The alien equipment is also quite capable of causing damage as it “wakes up.” Miller is trying to figure out what happened to the aliens, and pushes Holden to look into that when Holden really just wants to keep people alive.

There are some great characters on every side in this dispute. Elvi, a biologist, is trying to study the native lifeforms, but gets roped into doing entirely more urgent things (she also has a serious crush on Holden). Fayez, the geologist, is doing his best to feel relevant. Havelock is left up on the RCE vessel and ends up training a “militia”–yeah, that doesn’t go as planned. Basia is hauled off to the Rocinante as a prisoner, which is really Holden’s attempt to keep him from getting killed by Murtry. Absolutely no one wants to listen to Holden, particularly Murtry.

Don’t worry, there’s still plenty going on at the ships–the Rocinante (Holden’s ship), the RCE vessel, and the Barbapiccola (the ship that transported the colonists and is supposed to take their ore to sale). Between Havelock’s militia, Murtry’s orders, and Holden’s people, there are plenty of unfortunate things happening up there. And when enough alien equipment wakes up to put the ships’ reactors offline, their orbits start to decay. The amount of stuff going wrong is epic, and it makes for a tense, tightly-plotted story.

I also liked the fact that there’s a little bit of nudging at the idea that these new worlds are going to have a huge impact on the economic and political landscapes that humans rely on. I can’t wait to read book five and see where that goes!

It was astounding, Bobbie thought, how quickly humanity could go from What unimaginable intelligence fashioned these soul-wrenching wonders? to Well, since they’re not here, can I have their stuff?

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Review: “The Unredeemed,” Luke Walker

Rating: 5 out of 5

In Luke Walker’s horror novel The Unredeemed, Benjamin Harwood has been dead for 400 years. He spends his time carefully destroying lives and families by haunting them, something that he enjoys. He escaped going to Hell in the first place because he made a deal with a demon, Drude. Now Drude is coming after him in order to send him to the Pit, a place below even Hell itself. Drude’s attention seems to have been drawn by a newer ghost, Cooke, who is so appalled by Benjamin that he’s going a bit crazy trying to destroy him. Benjamin’s only chance is to rile up every ghost and shade he can to fight back.

Don’t get the wrong idea–Benjamin is as bad as they come. He killed untold people while he was alive, and all because he enjoyed it. His idea of haunting people results in ruined (and sometimes ended) lives. His own “friends”–ghosts who are almost as bad as he is–know how self-centered and narcissistic he is. He makes a strange choice for a narrator.

Drude has come for Benjamin, and in the only detail that didn’t work for me in this book, I still don’t know why. Benjamin killed a bunch of people for him 400 years ago, so why is Drude suddenly desperate to send him to the Pit, to the point of breaking the rules that govern demons? I felt this really needed to be addressed more.

The various dead characters are really interesting. Benjamin has sort of been collecting bad guys, and although he doesn’t particularly want to be a leader, he finds the possibility too useful to set aside. There are also some interesting living characters who get caught up in this, such as a teenaged girl and her mother. The rules surrounding what demons can and can’t do to/around mortals make this quite intriguing, especially since some rules cannot be broken no matter what Drude may want.

The worldbuilding is excellent. Hell is different than the usual depiction, and the purposes of most demons are unexpected as well. Drude is actually something of an anomaly. The ghosts also display some unusual abilities.

SPOILER WARNING: Benjamin can be charming when he wants, but he’s definitely not terribly likable. And sometimes we need a reminder as to just how selfish he is. What we’re looking at is someone who’s so bad, it takes a major revelation to make him even slightly less objectionable, and honestly that’s fascinating. I’m used to seeing only two kinds of bad guys: the ones who don’t change at all, and the ones who make near-total turnarounds. This is much more believable and interesting. End Spoilers

This is a really neat book, and the ending gave me chills!

Content note: murders, child murder, and a character who’s a pedophile.

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Link: 100 Books by Trans and Non-Binary Authors

Luminosity Library reviews “Fantasy, Science Fiction, & Horror in the age ranges YA to Adult.” They present a portion of a collection of 100 Books by Trans and Non-Binary Authors for Pride month (with links to the other portions). Enjoy–some of those books look amazing!

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Review: “Abaddon’s Gate,” James S.A. Corey

Rating: 5 out of 5

I am seriously enjoying James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series of military science fiction books (with a touch of horror). I’m up to Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse, 3). When the alien structure lifted from Venus in the last book, it moved itself just outside the orbit of Uranus and assembled a ring. When a fame-seeking young man goes through the Ring, it becomes obvious that doing so takes you somewhere else–and is exceedingly dangerous. Meanwhile, Clarissa Mao, Julie’s sister, is working to ruin Holden’s legacy before she kills him for ruining her father and causing him to be put in jail. She’s calling herself Melba and working as an engineer on one of the ships headed for the Ring. When Holden’s ship arrives, she sends a fake broadcast from Holden taking credit for blowing up a large, manned ship. Holden is forced to take refuge through the Ring, setting off a bizarre and deadly chain of results.

As always I just love the characters. I missed Avasarala and Bobbie, but I figure with such a long series of very long books (I swear each one could be turned into a trilogy on its own), they’re almost guaranteed to come back in later books. Meanwhile, we spend most of our time going back and forth between several spacegoing vessels. There’s the ship Clarissa is on, a UN ship full of dignitaries sent to the Ring because of the optics, the Rocinante of course, and the OPA’s Behemoth–a huge ship that used to be the Nauvoo and has been retrofitted as a weapons platform. Sort of. On the ship of dignitaries we spend most of our time with Pastor Annushka Volovodov, an idealistic woman who thinks mankind needs to start asking questions about what the Ring and its makers mean to the realms of philosophy and religion. She and Tilly, a wealthy, grouchy woman who latches on to her, are a ton of fun to spend time with. Even the mostly-unnamed members of Anna’s ersatz congregation on board the ship are given detail and weight. On board the Behemoth, we catch up with engineer Sam again, who’s good friends with Naomi. Bull is the head of security, and he’s at odds with image-conscious Captain Ashford. Monica is a journalist who wants to get to the Ring and who hires Holden and his crew, and while her crew is mostly background, Monica is a low-key interesting player.

Holden, despite being a self-righteous man (righteous man? Eh, depends on who you ask) has a tendency to start wars by just putting all the information he gets his hands on out there for everyone to see. He’s been used to manipulate relationships between the major powers several times already, but that doesn’t stop him. He and his crew are living well and getting plenty of jobs. He has some narcissistic tendencies, and usually makes his decisions based on what’s emotionally most comfortable to him at the time, but he does genuinely care about his crew and want to do the right thing. He’s also seeing visions of Miller, the dead detective who ended up a part of the alien mess on Venus, who’s only being semi-coherent and seems to be talking in circles about death. But Miller is definitely trying to tell him something. Because of that and some other things that happen, Holden becomes convinced that the aliens want him to go through the Ring for some reason. (See those narcissistic tendencies there?)

Meanwhile, Clarissa is willing to kill hundreds, even thousands of people if it means she can destroy Holden, his crew, and their reputations. She develops a lot along the way to the Ring, learning to fit in better, making an actual friend, and flipping out here and there. She eventually becomes a very fascinating look at dissociation and psychotic breaks, and not in stereotypical ways–her decision-making processes are crucial to the story and they make sense.

The story is riveting, the pacing perfect, and I don’t know why I never read this series before now. I’m going all the way through!

Content note: some deaths/injuries/blood.

He was sick. Hell, he was dying. It seemed deeply unfair that he should have to improvise at the same time.

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Review: “The Atrocity Archives,” Charles Stross

Rating: 5 out of 5

I heard about Charles Stross on a certain facebook horror books group, and when I checked out The Atrocity Archives (A Laundry Files Novel), I had to give it a try. It’s a brilliant blend of comedy and horror. The Capital Laundry Services is the front for a super-secret British government agency. Their mission? To protect humanity from all the horrors they’re unaware of. Like most government projects they run on paperwork and back-stabbing. Bob is our erstwhile hero. He’s tech support, but he really wants to be a field agent. Be careful what you wish for, Bob! While trying to dodge the manipulations of his direct colleagues and superiors, he ends up roped into a higher-up’s attempts to keep people safe from the unknown.

This is a world in which math can destroy the universe, and Bob’s first, miserable field agent assignment is to break into an office and destroy a math paper. (“If he goes public and reproduces [the paper] we could be facing a Level One reality excursion within weeks.”) This is a book that drops gems like “the Turing-Lovecraft theorem.” You don’t need to be able to understand the magic-babble in order to have a lot of fun reading about it! I expect that a reader versed in math or physics, however, probably would get more out of it than I did. There are other universes, and creatures from those universes who, for one reason or another, would like to find their way into ours. This is what Bob and his colleagues are meant to prevent from happening.

Bob is an entertaining guy. He’s pretty normal, all things considered, despite the situation he finds himself in. He has roommates (Pinky and Brains, both of whom also work for the Laundry), he has a psycho quasi-ex girlfriend (honestly, not fond of that character even though we don’t see her much–she’s an unfortunate stereotype), and he’s taking courses at work that are basically “computational demonology for dummies.”

I’m so-so on the female characters, at least at first. Bob’s colleagues and psycho ex are stereotypes. But a couple of late-arriving women are much more interesting. One of them needs to be rescued a lot, though.

It was confusing that the story I was reading basically ended two-thirds of the way through, and then the last third is a separate story involving most of the same characters and through-plots and taking place after the first story. I was kind of expecting one full tale. A few details in the second story confused me a bit, but I hung on by my fingernails and enjoyed the ride.

Content note for death, monsters, and Nazis, but this isn’t a gross-out horror novel.

When we carry out a computation it has side effects that leak through some kind of channel underlying the structure of the Cosmos.

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Review: “Force of Nature,” Jane Harper

Rating: 5 out of 5

Sometimes I hear about authors in roundabout ways. This time, the guy from my college who was helping me with my resume saw that I reviewed genre novels and told me I should read Jane Harper’s thriller/mystery The Dry. I loved it so much that I almost immediately afterward went on to read Force of Nature: A Novel. It’s every bit as good.

The company of BaileyTennants sent a bunch of its employees on a kind of corporate retreat in the woods. The women took one trail, and the men took another. When the women arrive–late and injured–they’re missing one of their number. Alice Russell has vanished. The group insists she left to move on in the middle of the night because she didn’t want to wait until morning, but there’s reason to believe that isn’t the case. Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper were using Alice to get files and contracts implicating her bosses in money laundering, and more. On the night she disappeared, she tried to leave a voice mail for Aaron. While rescuers search the woods looking for Alice, Aaron and Carmen question everyone involved, trying not to give any hint to the employees that they are in fact already investigating the bosses. So the question is, did one or more of the ladies do something to Alice? Did the son of a serial killer who’s rumored to live in the woods nearby kill her? Did someone else, like maybe the guy running the executive adventures company, do something? There’s a lot of ill-will between the various women, leaving Aaron and Carmen with quite a few suspects.

Force of Nature follows after The Dry. Aaron is still facing some of the fallout from what happened in that novel. I don’t think you have to have read it first–this is primarily about the mystery–but it wouldn’t hurt to have that personal background for Aaron. Besides, The Dry is an excellent novel worth reading!

The characters have a lot of depth to them. There’s Jill, who didn’t want to work for her father but when he insisted, she buckled down and got to work. Her brother is the CEO. We gradually discover that Alice isn’t exactly going to be missed by a lot of people, with the exception of her teenaged daughter. Beth and Bree–twins–are about as different as night and day. Bree is Alice’s assistant, and constantly trying to impress the woman. Beth is the troublemaker of the family, although not always in the ways you might expect. Lauren and Alice both went to the “Endeavor Ladies’ College” together, which put some focus on learning to handle the out-of-doors, and their daughters have followed in their footsteps.

The women find a mysterious, run-down cabin out in the woods, and they start to wonder whether it has any connection to a serial killer who hunted the area some years ago. He was caught, but everyone wonders if his missing son has picked up the family torch. We watch the women make their way through the woods in parallel to the unfolding investigation, and it’s timed well. I never felt confused as to where or when I was.

This is a really fascinating tale and I highly recommend it!

Content note for death and injury of course.

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