The Bathwater Conspiracy, by Janet Kellough*****

TheBathwaterConFeminists rejoice! Janet Kellough, known for the Thaddeus Lewis mystery series, has cut loose with a genre-bending science fiction mystery novel that’s cleverly conceived, brilliantly written, and funny as hell. I was invited to read it free of charge, courtesy of Edge Publishing and the author.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. Women have inherited the Earth, emerging victorious from the Testosterone War, but that was a long time ago. About the only time anyone even thinks about them is in an academic setting, and it wouldn’t even come up now, except that a student from the Men’s Studies field of history has been murdered. Even stranger, the Darmes—the future equivalent of the FBI, perhaps—are hushing it up.

This presents a problem for city police detective Carson MacHenry, who gets the call initially. First she’s told to solve the case; then she’s told not to. And while most of us, in a similar situation, would yield fairly quickly, Carson is disturbed by the skullduggery involved in this whole thing. Who the hell wants a cop to NOT solve a crime, especially a murder? Add to this Carson’s workaholic tendencies since her split with Georgie; home is too damn lonely, and a meaty case like this one is far more alluring than returning to her cat and her empty home.

Given the setting, which is more disorienting than it seems on the surface, it’s helpful that Kellough soft-pedals the invented language and coding that many science fiction and fantasy writers favor, keeping it minimal so that we are not scrambling to catch up with a complex plot.

Carson is assigned a rookie partner, an annoying, punctilious young cop named Susan Nguyen. In order to pursue the investigation she’s been warned away from, Carson sends her hapless partner off on one snipe hunt after another, and from about the halfway mark I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s no way that’s all there is to Nguyen. And of course I am not going to tell you how this aspect plays out, but it’s hilarious.

There are deeper issues lurking beneath the surface here, issues of philosophy and ethics related to genetics, research, and science. In addition, even the most die-hard feminist readers will catch themselves assuming, at some point, that one or more characters are male, even though we have been told everyone is female. Back in the day we called this consciousness raising; you can call it anything you want to now, but it is bound to make you think harder.

At bottom, though, the voice is what makes this a terrific read rather than merely a good one. The wry humor and side bits are so engaging that I was sorry to see the story end.  I laughed out loud more than once.

Those that love strong fiction and lean to the left should get this book. Fans of police procedurals, science fiction, LGTB fiction and above all, smart stories written with great, droll humor have to read it too. It’s for sale now at about the price you’d ordinarily pay for a used book. Go get it.

Skitter, by Ezekiel Boone****

skitter Skitter is the sequel to Boone’s monstrous horror novel, The Hatching. Mutant spiders are on the rampage, fulfilling the worst nightmares of every arachnophobe, and president Stephanie Pilgrim has to decide how to save the USA—if it isn’t too late. I received my copy free and in advance from Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; copies will be available to the public May 9, 2017. Don’t miss out.

The first portion of the book is dedicated to bringing the reader up to speed so that those that didn’t read the first book can jump right in. The pacing feels a little slow, and I am thumbing my reader impatiently, wanting to find out what happens next. There is a fair amount of time discovering and discussing cold egg sacks versus warm, throbbing, glowing ones, but the emphasis is there for a reason, and it also makes for a more accessible read to a wider audience. At the 34% mark the ground work is done—so to speak—and the story breaks loose and really flies. The scene in Japan is particularly arresting.

So…imagine a bag of nice, warm spider eggs roughly the size of a bus; think of it as a “giant packet of doom in the corner”. It might hatch at any moment, and although the spiders may kill you, there’s a chance they may not. They spare some people to use as incubators for the next generation to come.

Let me just ask: how is your stomach doing right now? Are you feeling okay?

 

“Somebody gets bitten and then, what, five hours later they’re opening up and spilling out spiders like a bag of frozen peas?”

 

After The Hatching came out, I suddenly began noticing the spiders that came into the bedroom at night. It was uncanny how one turned up right after my spouse had fallen asleep, every single night. The spider would start in a far corner of the room—nothing to worry about here, ma’am, just minding my own business—and then gradually either circle to where it was directly overhead, or make its way to a location above the very center of the king sized bed, start a nice web, and commence to rappel doooown. I had never been that aware of them before, but now they seemed ominous. What the hell? Every night? Before he knew it, my spouse, who is nimbler than I, found himself drafted into spider-bombing the attic.

So yes, there is risk in reading this mesmerizing horror tale, but on the other hand, how can you not?

Ultimately, everything that can go wrong on Earth, does. There are mutant spiders from the South Pacific to Scotland, from Asia to Michigan. Quarantine zones fail. Hospitals fail. Other nations have tried everything, including using nuclear weapons on their own soil. And ultimately the president and her advisers wonder whether it is time to break out the Spanish Protocol.

I won’t tell you more than this; you need the book itself, either to take with you on vacation, or to make you feel better about the fact that you can’t go anywhere this year. Afterward, you’ll look at every little spider web in your living space with suspicion, and you’ll know it’s time for spring cleaning…right away!

The Hatching, by Ezekiel Boone****

thehatching I was never afraid of spiders until I read this book. Thanks to Boone’s monstrous, boisterous, hair-raising new novel, I now eye the ceiling for wolf spiders that hunt at night just before I fall asleep…and I usually find one. I received this DRC in advance thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books, in exchange for this honest review. This book goes up for sale July 5, 2016 and frankly, I don’t know how you’re going to wait that long!

Right at the start, something has gone very wrong.  In Peru, a shadow falls upon a group of helpless tourists and devours them with breathtaking speed. Soon thereafter, China tells the world that it has inadvertently nuked one of its own villages. Just an accident; terribly sorry. Please don’t push that button, because we aren’t gunning for you, oh mighty imperialist powers.

When a bizarre package arrives at the laboratory of Melanie Guyer, she immediately tucks its contents into an glass tank where it can be watched in a secure environment. There. See now, that’s sensible. And yet…

Clear on the other side of the continent, the greater Los Angeles area finds itself under quarantine. With a finger to the wind, one soldier in charge of the containment eyes the razor wire and holding pens springing up and decides to make a break for it while he can. He powers the hell through the closed gate, because there’s a time to sacrifice for one’s country, but there’s also a time to save yourself first:

    He took the last few steps to the truck and had his hand on the door handle  when  he  heard the sound.  It was a sort of scraping…and he noticed there was something wrong …with the shadows. Over there, maybe twenty paces away, one of the shadows seemed to be moving a little, pulsing. He watched it, fascinated, and it wasn’t until a thread of black seemed to fall out of the shadow and unspool toward him that he broke from his reverie.

Uh oh.

However, survivalists in Desperation, California aren’t panicked; they’re gloating. All that preparation for doomsday, and now it’s here. Let’s have a party! The doors are sealed against radiation, against spiders, against whatever. The dog has even been trained to go potty on a little piece of Astroturf. They are so ready.

I wasn’t sure I liked this book at first. The moment when the first spider popped out of the first human host, I made a note in my e-reader saying this is just another version of the 1970’s movie Alien, but with spiders. Still, I continued to read.

When the president of the United States asks quite seriously whether zombies are involved, right around the halfway mark, I wanted to throw my kindle across the bedroom. If it had been a library book, I would have slammed it shut and put it in my tote bag to return first thing in the morning. But it wasn’t a library book, it was a DRC, and so I had an obligation, and I gritted my teeth (president. Zombies! My ass,) and continued reading. And I am really glad I did, friends, because it got so much better.

Let’s go back to the movie Alien. For those unacquainted with this cult classic, the story devolves around aliens that seek human hosts. The setting of Alien is a space ship, so they’re a very long way from home and help; yet they are also contained.  And as I read on, I realized that in Boone’s setting—the entire planet—there are so many more possibilities. I hit about the sixty percent mark and had to munch my way through the rest, if you’ll pardon the expression, until the very last page was done.

I found myself pondering the possibility of a sequel.

I nearly tacked on the fifth star, because this was tremendously entertaining, and Boone breaks up the horror with odd places, few and unexpected, that are laugh-out-loud funny. But then I reflected on the fact that I rated every single thing Michael Crichton ever wrote as four stars, and I see this quirky, horrifying, delicious novel as on a par with Crichton. Rather than hustle back and re-rate everything Crichton ever wrote, which would be a bit impulsive, I stuck to the four star standard.

There’s no explicit sex here, but there’s plenty of gore. Those that love good horror and science fiction should snap this book up right away. And if one is looking for a summer read to keep your nerdy teen out of trouble for a hot minute over the summer, this is a good choice for that set also.

But you’ll never see a spider web in quite the same way once you’ve read it!

Huge fun for anyone not already genuinely afraid of spiders.

 

Nirvana, by J.R. Stewart****

NirvanaNew rating and review based on updated DRC:

Larissa Kenders is a musician living in a post-apocalyptic world; her lover Andrew is missing. This newly revised young adult novel is a winner, and it will be published  November 10. Thank you to Blue Moon Press, Net Galley, and Adam Mawer at DigiWriting Book Marketing Agency for including me on the second spin. It was time well spent.

The problem on Earth began when the bees began to die. How can anyone grow food, flowers, or anything else if pollen can’t be transferred? And indeed, how does pollen get from one plant to another without the bees? Corporate giant Hexagon has created an alternate world, and humans are dependent upon the company for their sustenance. Nirvana is a virtual world that workers can visit, for a hefty price, on their days off. The question Larissa has, then, is whether the Andrew she sees in Nirvana is the virtual Andrew of her memories, or whether he may in fact still be living, hiding out from those that may wish him gone.

Various topics are explored, from alienation and the question of whom to trust—one that will resonate with teenage readers—as well as environmental issues such as GMOs, and more futuristic philosophical questions. Edward Snowden comes up, and why should he not, in a story in which many researchers have uploaded their brains to the Cloud so that their work will remain once they are gone?

I was one of a handful of reviewers that read the first draft of this book. I reported that it was dreadful because it lacked character development. This new and vastly improved version creates a Larissa Kenders that is believable, a character to whom we can bond. The remaining stereotypes, such as the jealous female that is our main villain, along with the preponderance of males rather than the usual fifty percent of the population, are problems that are so rife within the genres of science fiction and fantasy that it’s hard to hang the whole problem on this one writer, who has created a truly original and interesting plot .

Teachers considering its classroom use should be forewarned that there are a couple of sexual situations; the porn industry, a pet project of one of the villains, also gets multiple mentions. I should emphasize that this reviewer sees no problem with today’s teenagers reading the book, since most of them have seen far more explicit material on their own. But those that teach in school districts so conservative that the villagers bring everything but flaming torches to the school board meeting may want the information ahead of time prior to going out of pocket for a classroom set.

In revising his story, Stewart has plucked victory from the ashes; a job well done.