Tuesday, May 31, 2022

#Review - For the Wolf (Wilderwood #1) by Hannah F. Whitten #Fantasy

Series: The Wilderwood (#1)
Format: Paperback, 480 pages
Release Date: June 1, 2021
Publisher: Orbit Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Fantasy / Dark Fantasy

The first daughter is for the Throne.
The second daughter is for the Wolf.

An instant NYT bestseller and word-of-mouth sensation, this dark, romantic debut fantasy weaves the unforgettable tale of a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom. But not all legends are true, and the Wolf isn't the only danger lurking in the Wilderwood.

As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose—to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he'll return the world's captured gods.

Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can't control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can't hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn't learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood—and her world—whole.

The First Daughter is for the throne.
The Second Daughter is for the Wolf.
And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.

For the Wolf, by debut author Hannah F. Whitten, is the first installment in the authors The Wilderwood series. This lush debut epic fantasy combines fairytale elements, rich world-building, and a dark romance to appeal directly to fans of books like Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale. For the Wolf is a dark retelling of the story of Beaty and the Beast with a bit of Little Red Riding Hood mixed it. In this story Red is bound to go into the woods as a "sacrifice" to the Wolf on her 20th birthday. Red is resigned to this fate, but things with the Wolf and the Wilderwood are not what they are rumored to be.

The Wilderwood is dying and because it’s dying, monsters from the Shadowlands are escaping into the world. The Shadowlands was created by the Wilderwood and is located directly under the forest. Eammon’s job is to close these holes between the world and the Shadowlands and kill any monsters that escape. Red (Redarys) is the second daughter, and her older sister (Neve) is the  heir to Queen Isla. Red is prepared to fulfill her destiny and wishes to be away from those she loves because of the dangerous dark magic within her, which continues to change. 

The people of Valleyda are hoping that in return, the Wolf will release the Kings who bargained with the forest to find away the monster Gods only to end up in Shadowland. However, losing Red isn’t something Neve is willing to accept. Once Red is sent into the forest, she realizes she’s been misinformed about many things throughout her life, including the wolf she’s destined to be given to. Red’s power is needed more than anything to save the Wilderwood.

When Red meets the wolf (Eammon) and the living forest, as well as Fife and Lyra who are bound to Wilderwood, she learns of her dangerous gifts, and a friendship, albeit reluctant with misunderstandings, gives way to the truth behind the myth, the wolf’s real presence, and the darkness within Wilderwood. Away from her family, locked in the entanglement, she cannot be reached by her sister who is desperately looking for her.

Meanwhile, Neve has fallen in league with the Order priestess's who will do anything to release their gods from the Shadowland including sacrificing Red, and destroying Wilderwood. Red struggles to understand her magic which she has ignored for 4 years, while also learning how to open her heart to another without worrying that person will treat her like her own mother did. Neve's scheming to find a way to rescue Red ends up messing things up a whole lot more than she ever thought possible.

The POV also alternates between Red in the Wilderwood's and Neve (Red’s twin sister) in Valleyda by way of Interludes. Luckily, I have been approved for the sequel and shall be reading it shortly. It appears that the story will be a shared focus on both Neve and Red next time. 

Monday, May 30, 2022

#Review - The Handler by M.P. Woodward #Thrillers #Espionage

Series: Unknown
Format: Hardcover, 448 pages
Release Date: May 31, 2022
Publisher: Berkley Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Espionage

Meredith Morris-Dale is a CIA case officer and a damn good one...even if this last mission did go terribly wrong. Now she has been summoned back to Langley where she expects to be fired. Instead, she is met by the Deputy Director with stunning news. 
A single well-placed CIA mole in Iran’s uranium enrichment program has kept the terrorist nation from building a bomb by sabotaging the performance of their covert centrifuge arrays. But after losing his daughter in an airliner shootdown, the mole wants out—leaving the world on the brink. His one demand: a reunion with the only handler he ever trusted, John Dale—Meredith's disgraced, fired, wayward ex-husband. As Meredith and John struggle through their fraught relationship, a craven CIA political hierarchy, Russian interference, and the rogue spy’s manipulation, they must reach deep within their shared connection to maintain, recover, or kill the asset.  

M.P. Woodward's The Handler, is the story about a disgraced former CIA operative who must go back in the field with only his ex-wife as his handler in this electrifying thriller from a former intelligence officer. The novel has all the action of The Gray Man with the personal dynamics of Karen Cleveland's Need to Know. If you've been reading any news lately, except the Monkeypox, or the economy, or the price of gas, or the cost of food, or baby formula shortages, you know that the Iranian nuclear program is one of the most important challenges facing the West today. 
Thanks to Russia and China's antagonism towards the West, especially the US, it will only grow in prominence over the coming years. Iran also holds a strategic place in the Middle East because of their oil reserves, and because they are a state sponsor of terrorists groups like Hezbollah. This story hits on several recent events that saw Iran shoot down an Ukrainian airliner, as well as the US killing a General who had been responsible for hundreds of US military lives in Iraq. 
This story starts with a heart breaking event when the daughter of an Iranian scientist is killed about the airliner. Said Iranian is also a spy working for the CIA trying to keep his country from making nuclear weapons. Key Characters: Meredith Morris-Dale, John Dale, Ed Rance, Maria Borbova, Zana Rahimi, and Kasim Kahlidi. 

CIA agent Meredith Morris-Dale, of the Counter-Proliferation Division, finds herself recalled to Langley after a botched operation in Dubai. Waiting to hear the words that will end her career, she’s taken aback when a priority mission is thrust into her hands. Instead of running assets in foreign lands, she's tasked with an infinitely more challenging task handling a disgraced agent, who also happens to be her ex husband. A CIA mole in Iran’s uranium enrichment program wants out, but he demands that he will only work with John, the only handler he ever trusted. The Russians and Iranians aren't playing. They'll do anything to stop Meredith and John from succeeding.
5 years ago, John was held hostage by ISIS, but managed to escape. On his return, he's accused of being a traitor for having contact with a foreign operative who was also held. You can imagine why Dale would be reluctant and bitter, feeling it was a superior’s incompetence and malfeasance that got him axed in disgrace. Shortly after Meredith's departure from his Washington home, a Russian Special Forces hit team tries to gain access to the info that Meredith left for him. After John faces a life and death struggle, he choose to accept coming back to work but only with Meredith as his handler.
The novel continues from several points-of-view, including a beautiful female Russian agent and assassin; a lieutenant colonel with the Iranian Quds forces: a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Cerberus himself, among others. As Meredith and John struggle through their fraught relationship, a craven CIA political hierarchy with leaks like a sieve, Russian interference, and the rogue spy's manipulation, they must reach deep within their shared connection to maintain, recover, or kill the asset. 
The tradecraft felt authentic and this is likely due to the author’s intelligence background. The novel takes readers from Virginia to Iran to Iraq to Turkey to the United Arab Emirates. One of the things that you will definitely feel is that this is ripped from the headlines, and everything that happens, can and likely has happend. It's why I am curious to see that the publisher has stated that there is a sequel in the works.


Sahar Rahimi arrived at the airport early only because her mother had insisted on it. The smart, lithe, yoga-­loving nineteen-­year-­old had pushed back on the early hour, trying to tell her mother that she worried too much. But her mother, Nadia, had lived in Tehran for all of her fifty-­one years. Somewhere in that instinctual space between maternal wisdom and middle-­aged pessimism, the older woman had just known she’d be right.

“They’ll find a way to hold things up,” she’d kept saying during the pack up. “An unscheduled search, a long interview, a fivefold check of your visa, a dispute over the weight of your luggage—­doesn’t matter. There will be something. It’s Tehran. Trust me.”

A premed student near the top of her class, the nineteen-­year-­old responded with a subtle eye roll and a stream of text messages to her boyfriend, Esfan. The one-­month trip home from university had been insufferable. Thank God, it was all nearly over.

With a long, labored breath, Sahar had gone on to explain to her mother that the world was no longer quite so jammed up as it once had been, even in Iran. The magic of technology had smoothed things out. Today’s Tehran was not her mother’s Tehran. It was, the daughter had advised, perhaps time for a more optimistic outlook.

Waving all of that away, Nadia replied with a mantra of near religious clarity. “You don’t know these people the way I do. There will be something,” she’d said again.

Recalling their conversation now, Sahar stifled a yawn and looked blearily at the queue in front of her. She checked her phone again. Still no reply from Esfan. The last she’d seen him was at a shuttle stop as she was leaving Montreal’s McGill University for the airport weeks ago, a scene she’d replayed in her mind at least a hundred times since. Because they’d both pledged to keep their relationship a secret from their meddling parents, texting had been the only way to stay in touch.

But to her liking, he’d been a little too quiet. Of late, his sometimes hours-­long silences would cause her to create wild, spine-­tingling fantasies of a forthcoming breakup. Even now she was imagining he’d found some new way to avoid her at the airport, wobbling her faith in the one immovable thing she’d been counting on: their shared flight back to Canada. This morning’s flight.

At a little after four thirty in the morning, trapped in an overengineered glass tunnel somewhere between security and immigration, she stood among a crowd of fellow travelers with nervous faces, none of them Esfan’s. Adding to her anxiety, in the close confines of the tunnel, the line had ballooned and lost its shape. There was some kind of delay up ahead. Grudgingly, she’d begun to think her mother might have had a point.

Someone behind her accidentally kicked her heel. Her elbow touched the man next to her. She balled her fists in frustration and shifted the strap of her shoulder bag away from someone else. This was not coming off at all the way she’d hoped.

Compounding it, her despair rang with a certain sense of inevitability, a pang of foreboding. She’d intuited it as soon as she’d stepped out of bed a few hours earlier. She told herself that her mother’s dour outlook, coupled with the disquiet of her relationship, had morphed into this stubborn sense of dread and that it would all go away soon enough. But it hadn’t. If anything, it had gotten worse.

In the car on the way in, the reporter on the all-­news station had been going on about the Iranian missile attack on the American base in Iraq, payback for the US bombing of a top Revolutionary Guards general named Soleimani. Forty dead American soldiers, invaders, the newsreader had kept saying, repeating the number as though it were a football score.

Hearing this, her mother had stabbed the steering wheel with an index finger. “That’s it,” she’d said. “The fools.”

Now, ignoring the jabs of the crowd, Sahar could picture her mother sitting in the parking lot out there somewhere, waiting in their snow-­mottled sedan, obsessing on the news. Nadia had lived through the Iran–­Iraq War, so anything of a military nature always made the woman jumpy. As though in concert with Sahar’s own dark presentiment, Nadia had vowed to stay at the airport until Sahar’s plane had safely taken wing.

Her spirits at a low ebb, Sahar supposed that whatever was happening up there might cause her to miss her flight. With a shaking thumb, cramped against fellow travelers, she began to compose a signal to her mother to wait for her, just in case.

But her typing was interrupted with an incoming message. It was Esfan finally. She savored the few words glowing in front of her, the weight of her fears suddenly lifted. She canceled the message to her mother and opened a dialog with him instead.

He was also in the throng, somewhere back behind her, around the corner where she couldn’t see him. Predictably, he complained about being too early. No doubt, she replied, adding that he was lucky his mother wasn’t as much of a psycho as hers. She restrained from further comment, attempting to play it cool, giving him a taste of his own taciturnity.

The line narrowed and re-­formed. Travelers were moving forward. Things were happening. She felt a rising sense of confidence. While Esfan remained out of sight some hundred yards behind her, his presence had made all the difference.

Over the next quarter hour, she passed through the gauntlet with a smile, eventually selecting a red vinyl chair in the waiting lounge where she could block the seat next to her with her bag. Aiming for a look of metropolitan sophistication, she adjusted the pink hijab across her throat and crossed her legs, checking her lipstick in a glass railing. Comprehending nothing at all, she flipped through a censored—­but mostly intact—­Vogue magazine, preparing for Esfan’s arrival.

It wasn’t that hard to tune out a ceiling-­mounted TV that went on and on about the missile attack. Now and then she glanced up at the reporter, but tried not to. Nearly departed from this besieged country, she was determined not to be her mother.

Yet ten minutes on, there was still no sign of Esfan. The gate agent ran through the boarding procedures over a squawking PA. The foreboding reemerged. The connection time in Kiev was painfully brief. If he missed this flight, then she wouldn’t see him for another day, perhaps even three, given the sparse schedules out of Tehran.

A tortured breakup fantasy bubbled up from the depths. Who was she to think she could hold on to him during this long time apart? She stewed on her shortcomings for another few minutes before her substantial reasoning powers finally won out. Even if he was going to dump her, she reminded herself, he still had to come. He had school starting in a few days and responsibilities of his own. It made no sense that he would turn around now.

Then where was he?

She leaned forward and looked up the concourse in a fruitless search. It made no sense. She lost control of her fingers, texting him three times in forty-­five seconds with essentially the same message: WTF? But no response came. She soon regretted sending them and melted under a hot wave of self-­incrimination. Exasperated with her overactive imagination, she stuffed the magazine into her bag and stared at the carpet, her phone on her lap, just in case it should come back to life.

But it didn’t. When her row was eventually called, she proceeded glumly through the door, down two flights of stairs, and out onto the tarmac. It was still dark, only five thirty in the morning. A cold breeze ruffled her headscarf.

Sahar gaped at the big blue airplane before her, which hissed from its ground turbines and gleamed under the floodlights of the terminal building. She climbed the boarding stairs and squeezed into the cabin, where she was greeted by an enviously pretty Ukrainian flight attendant. Sahar thought that a flight attendant with those looks would have no problems with men.

She settled into her seat and waited; in order to distract herself, she watched the other passengers stow their bags. She watched the luggage streaming into the belly of the plane. It was going to be another gloomy day, but there was a small gleam of pink as dawn crested an eastern ridge.

Pulling out her phone, she snapped a picture of it. She coached herself to stop caring about Esfan. If he wasn’t coming, then so be it.

She thought about posting the photo to Instagram with a few words about a new day, a new year, a new semester, faintly hoping he’d see that she’d turned the page. But nothing clever came. Better to leave it alone than say something stupid, she thought. Besides, her father had told her to avoid Instagram while home in Iran. She was suddenly glad of the excuse. Reminded of her parents, she texted her mother, letting her know she was safely on the plane.

The incoming text found Nadia a half mile away through a cordon of security fences. On seeing it, she closed her eyes and thanked her god. Despite all her misgivings, Sahar was safely on the plane.

Nadia was sitting in her car with the engine running, her chai thermos empty and cold. She’d been firing the engine in three-­ to four-­minute intervals, just long enough to ward off the chill while still conserving gas, which had been rationed for the last eight months. She stared out at the orange line cresting the ridge and ran her hand through her hair, tension draining from her fingertips as she massaged her scalp.

Her phone rang. It was her husband, Zana. Though he’d also planned on staying to see Nadia off, he’d been recalled three days early to his work site, a few hours off to the northwest, over toward the Caspian.

Nadia had been angry with him for that, which had led to a nasty spat. But in her suddenly expansive mood, she’d let it all go, appreciative that he’d thought to call. While she didn’t like his job, she admitted that he was well looked after by the government. They had a pleasant home up in the foothills and a daughter in her second year of premed at a Canadian university. On balance, she thought now, it seemed one of life’s more equitable trade-­offs.

“Everything going okay?” he asked through the phone tentatively, the fight over his early exit still fresh in mind.

“Yes, it’s fine now,” she replied. “But you know your daughter. She’s obsessed with that Taghavi boy. And believe it or not, she still thinks we don’t know.”

“Hmph,” he said with a chuckle. “She thinks we’re idiots.”

Nadia smiled. She glanced in the mirror on the back side of the visor. There were some wrinkles on the forehead, some skin gathered below the chin. But her hair was still thick and black. “I was once that way about you, eh? Sneaking around behind our parents’ backs.”

“A long time ago. Not so sure about now.”

“Hmph,” she said, imitating him. She tucked some hair behind an ear and closed the mirror.

Seeing Sahar step out onto the airport curb in the dark a few hours prior had made Nadia wistful. The old argument with her husband was gone now, displaced by the sentimentality of parenthood.

“Am I so terribly old?” she asked her husband.

“Whatever you are, you’re younger than me.”

She’d hoped he might say a little more, but let it go. Trade-­offs. Through the phone she heard the sound of papers rustling, the creak of a chair.

“So,” he said, anxious to get to more practical matters, “she’s on the plane? On her way to Canada?”

“Yes, she’s on. Ukraine first, remember? It connects in Kiev.” In the spare gray light, Nadia could see that they’d removed the boarding stairs. A squat yellow tractor was pushing the jet back toward a taxiway. “Late but leaving now.”

“That’s a relief,” he said. “You know Tehran.”

Sahar gasped aloud when she saw Esfan walking down the plane’s aisle. Flustered, she tidied the empty middle seat to make room. She smoothed her scarf and pulled out a thick lock of hair across her shoulder. Esfan dropped into the seat, grabbed her hand, and brushed his lips across her cheek.

“My bag was too big,” he said, grinning. “Apparently the plane is overweight. I had to make arrangements to get it back to my mother.”

Abandoning another particularly cruel breakup fantasy, Sahar sucked in a shaking breath and held it for a moment. The very smell of him gave her vertigo. To steady herself, she squeezed his hand.

“They’ll ship it” was all she managed to say.

“Yes,” he answered. “And . . . in all the confusion, they missed this.” He pulled a small bottle of Listerine from his carry-­on and took a sip. “Canadian Club,” he added, smiling widely. “Minty fresh.”

She leaned in conspiratorially to catch a whiff of the whiskey. “Oh, do I ever need that.”

“What was the big rush to get back to work?” Nadia asked, grateful to see Sahar’s plane rolling toward the end of the runway.

“I assume you’ve been listening to the news,” Zana answered tersely.

The Americans, she thought. He had a rule against talking politics over the phone and dropped into this monotone whenever she ran afoul of it. “Never mind,” she said. “I understand.”

He changed the subject. “How is the new medicine doing? Been long enough to tell?”

Nadia, who’d developed multiple sclerosis in her early forties, looked unconsciously at her hand. No shaking. The headaches had dissipated as well. Come to think of it, the new medicine had been a blessing during Sahar’s long visit home.

“You know,” she replied, “I think it’s very good. You can get me more?”

“Good,” he said. “Yes, I can get more.”

In a wide dirt clearing three miles away, a twenty-­five-­year-­old third lieutenant in the Iranian Air Defense Force had just assumed the watch.

It was now after six and the January sky was brightening, but the young officer had no sense of that. There were no windows in the corrugated metal box where he worked, which was roughly the size and shape of a shipping container. Inside he had only the gray-­green pall of optical TV and radar screens with which to render the world.

His eyes were pink and narrowed, his uniform rumpled. He’d been up until two at an after-­hours party at a friend’s house a few miles away. Though Iran was a dry country, the after-­hours-­cocktail circuit was something of an open secret among Tehran’s Snapchat set.

The interior of his trailer was a steady sixty degrees in order to keep the electronics happy. The unending whir of computer fans made him sleepy, while the disapproving glances of the three sergeants in front of the radar scopes made him jumpy. More than anything, he wished he could simply crawl back in bed and sleep off the thumping in his head.

He thought about grabbing one of the Toyota four-­by-­fours to drive around the Tor missile batteries a few hundred yards away just to get away. The fresh air would be a tonic, he told himself, just the thing he needed. Moreover, driving around the missile site would buoy his mood. He liked mixing it up with the crews, inspecting the tank-­tracked vehicles, glimpsing the spotless white missiles.

But as the platoon commander, his job was in here, the trailer, the nerve center. Especially since his commanders had called in the alert. There’d been some kind of attack on the Americans. All crews had been recalled. They were at the highest state of alert.

He and the sergeants wore their working green fatigues and heavy winter coats, shivering against the chill. A diesel generator chugged outside, keeping the systems running. Raising his voice over the hum of machines, one of the men said something about a status report. The young officer rubbed his face, put his communications headphones over his black beret, and shifted in his chair. He read aloud from a checklist into his microphone, just as he’d done a thousand times before.

He’d been coming to this particular tac trailer on the outskirts of Tehran for going on two years now. It was his first assignment as an officer of the ADF and he had decidedly mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it wasn’t a particularly prestigious billet, manning a button to launch surface-­to-­air missiles against an air raid that would probably never come. But on the other, it allowed him to live in the city and go to after-­hours parties.

“Say status,” he said to the lead radar operator, continuing the exercise.

“Clear sweep sectors one, two, three, and four” came the rote response.

They could all do this in their sleep. The lieutenant’s mind drifted back to the party.

“Contact!” the sergeant suddenly shouted. “Designate unknown target Alpha One.”

Jarred by the sharp tone, the young lieutenant stiffened. He rose and approached the sergeant from behind, the cord from his headphones stretching back to his console. The operator repeated the information, the words tumbling out in haste.

The lieutenant looked dubiously at the scope. But there it was, a blip moving at about two hundred knots, circling in toward them. Headed toward his sector, it had already been designated a target by HQ. A suspected American Tomahawk cruise missile, according to the scope’s marker.

“Range nine kilometers, speed two-­five-­zero knots, altitude one thousand feet and holding. Bearing two-­eight-­five. Heading three-­zero-­zero. Turning south now.”

The officer studied the glowing red dot, his mind running through calculations. The profile didn’t seem quite right to him, too slow for a Tomahawk. He noted the bearing.

“That’s near the airport,” he said to the sergeant at the scope. “How do we know that’s not just civilian traffic? Check the squawk.”

The sergeant rattled off some instructions into his microphone and punched a few buttons. “IFF showing a negative response, sir. No plane would be out there without a squawk.” The experienced operator angled toward him. “Sir,” he said, “they’ve marked it hostile—­it’s right over the city.”

His mind still reeling with calculations, the lieutenant turned away and gave a grudging nod. It didn’t add up. But he had no time to override procedure. It was all happening too fast.

“Fire-­control radars ready,” he said automatically. “Batteries one through four. Standing by.”

The sergeant barked out the changes in altitude, bearing, speed, and heading of target Alpha One. The radar operators reported a solid track, a good targeting solution. The missiles were armed and ready.

No, the lieutenant thought. It didn’t add up. The contact was too slow. Its altitude was rising rather than falling. The profile was just plain wrong. The young officer tugged at his shirt collar, bit his lip. To the man at the scope he said, “This has to be a drill.” But the older sergeant dismissed him with a crisp shake of the head.

The target was now in sector four, the one he commanded. Through his own headset, the lieutenant heard the order from the ground-­control-­intercept operator in the hardened underground bunker some six miles south.

“Sector four: fire, fire, fire! Target Alpha One. Fire!”

Though trained to accept them, in all his time at this site, he’d never heard those exact words. This was no drill.

The young officer hesitated. He couldn’t believe his own ears. The sergeant at the scope glanced at him. The lieutenant started to say something, then thought better of it and cleared his throat. He wet his lips.

“Lieutenant!” the sergeant yelled. “Did you hear?”

The young officer put a hand over his microphone. “No. I mean, yes, I heard. But it doesn’t look right. . . .”

All three of the sergeants were looking at him now.

“It’s an order,” the lead one said, eyes wild and searching.

Friday, May 27, 2022

#Review - Rift (Rift Saga #1) by Andreas Christensen #YA #Dystopian

Series: Rift Saga # 1
Format: Kindle, 259 pages
Release Date: December 29th 2014
Publisher: Andreas Christensen
Source: Amazon
Genre: Young Adult / Dystopian

The RIFT Saga begins here.

In the ruins of what was once North America lays the Covenant, a nation forged by the iron will of the Moon people, who descended from their dusty refuge on the Moon after the Fall. The Moon people are wealthy, ruled by a strong government who protects its citizens from the dangers from outside their borders. Their greatest achievement is having learned the secret of immortality, and every citizen has the opportunity to live nearly forever if they choose to, a life of riches and abundance.

Rift, by author Andreas Christensen, is the first installment in the Rift Saga. This science fiction dystopian trilogy is set more than two centuries after the events of the Exodus trilogy, in a future dystopian society forged from the ashes of global disaster. In the ruins of what was once North America lays the Covenant, a nation forged by the iron will of the Moon people, who descended from their dusty refuge on the Moon after the Fall. The Moon people are wealthy, ruled by a strong government who protects its citizens from the dangers from outside their borders. 

Their greatest achievement is having learned the secret of immortality, and every citizen has the opportunity to live nearly forever if they choose to, a life of riches and abundance. The English are the descendants of the original inhabitants of this place, and they live very different lives from that of the Moon people. They only live to serve the greater good, and citizenship is something few have the opportunity to earn. At the age of fifty all non-citizens are subjected to mandatory euthanasia. In order to maintain a sustainable society, they are told.

Every year a number of girls and boys at the age of eighteen are selected for Service to the State. The brightest and most talented are sent to become Students. The strong, the fighters and the athletes become Janissaries, a band of soldiers protecting the northern border from the enemies of the Covenant. The Wardens, a secretive organization known to operate far to the west, near the Rift, which makes up the border to the wastelands, sometimes chooses one or two initiates, but nobody knows what becomes of them. And then there is the Corpus, where the whip rules and backs are bent.

Those who complete their seven required years of Service, may become citizens.
Janissaries are mandated 3 years since most of them don't survive. And although they will never be equal to the Moon people, they will have access to all the riches and opportunities granted by the Covenant leadership to its citizens. As Sue is nearing Selection Day, she secretly hopes to be chosen, despite having to leave her mother and brother behind. She doesn't crave glory or wealth though. A man or woman with citizen status can do a lot of good, and although few return to their home towns, Sue hopes to return to give her family a better life on the other side of Service.

But the Covenant is rotten to the core, and as she begins to learn its secrets, Sue must question everything she has always taken for granted. Soon she will find herself in dire peril, for she has seen the truth and there will be no turning back after that.
The story viewpoint alternates between Sue, chosen for military service, and Mark, originally chosen for military but taken by the Wardens instead, as well as David Wagner, who not only helped the world fall, but is now the oldest man alive. The prime job of the military is to protect the northern border from incursions by savages. The prime job of the Wardens is also to protect the borders, but also to research and use technology for unstated reasons.

This story ends on a cliffhanger ending. As much as I'd like to finish this series, the next two books will need to go on sale first.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

#Review - Hide by Kiersten White #Thriller #Supernatural #Horror

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
Release Date: May 24, 2022
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Supernatural / Horror

The challenge: spend a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park and don’t get caught.
The prize: enough money to change everything.
Even though everyone is desperate to win—to seize their dream futures or escape their haunting pasts—Mack feels sure that she can beat her competitors. All she has to do is hide, and she’s an expert at that.
It’s the reason she’s alive, and her family isn’t.
But as the people around her begin disappearing one by one, Mack realizes this competition is more sinister than even she imagined, and that together might be the only way to survive.
Fourteen competitors. Seven days. Everywhere to hide, but nowhere to run.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are."

Set in a long abandoned Amusement Park, Hide, by author Kiersten White, is a high-stakes hide-and-seek competition that takes a deadly turn in this dark supernatural thriller. Sponsored by a group called Ox Extreme Sports, they are putting together a contest of Olly Olly Oxen Free aka Hide and Seek tournament. The challenge: spend a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park that was closed after a little girl disappeared and don't get caught. If you get caught, you're out. No second chances. The winner will get $50,000.

For Mackenzie (Mack) Black, the price money is enough to change her life and make up for her past mistakes.Fourteen competitors. Seven days. Everywhere to hide, but nowhere to run. Even though everyone is desperate to win--to seize their dream futures or escape their haunting pasts--Mack feels sure that she can beat her competitors. All she has to do is hide, and she's an expert at that. It's the reason she's alive, and her little sister isn't. It's the reason why she agreed to participate in this contest since she blames herself for what happened to her sister Maddie years ago.

The Rules
-30 minute hiding window given at the start of each day
-the game is active from dawn to dusk
-no allowance for medical, bathroom emergencies or food runs
-a beacon will shine in the sky at dusk calling the contestants back to camp
-2 contestants will be eliminated each day.

As the people begin disappearing one by one, Mack realizes this competition is more sinister than even she imagined, and that together might be the only way to survive. She chooses to make an alliance with Ava, who is a veteran who nearly lost her legs in Afghanistan. To make things interesting, the author doesn't leave the reader hanging. She actually allows you to read certain sections of a dairy that explains what happened years ago, and why every 7 years, 14 people are chosen to come to this abandoned Amusement Park. 

As the game progresses, Mack realizes the prize for winning this mysterious hide-and-seek game is her life. Mack's an interesting character whose name is famous to those in this world's Horror genre. She has to choose whether she can win by hiding by herself, which she's good at, or finding someone to align with so that they can survive until the end. Mack's story literally begins with her in a homeless shelter where she just lost everything and later we find out who she really is as a character. 

I don't believe that you have to pay attention to all 14 characters in this story. By the time the game begins, 2 will already be dead, and then 2 more, until Mack and her allies realize something is really, really wrong here. It is fair to say that I will not compare this story to the Hunger Games. More like The Cabin at the end of the World. I am happy with the way the story wraps up. The story isn't all that gore filled as with other more dastardly horror novels. Readers get a look at the monster, but only through the eyes of Mack who is one of the only people in the entire contest who can see  it.

The Amazement Park opened in 1953.

get lost in the fun! posters advertised, and it was true: Crowds surged through the gates in the morning and didn’t stumble out again until the sun had set, and spotlights at the exit guided them free. The maps were useless, the You Are Here guides impossible to find. It was a park designed to swallow. Trees loomed over lush grounds. Signature topiary lined every walled and wandering path, adding to the sense of wonder. Roller coasters, swings, carousels, games, houses of love and fun and terror—though the house at the very center was always closed for refurbishment.

The park was open from mid-May until early September. whites only was on signs in the early years, heavily implied when such a thing became harder to officially declare. And, for one week every seven years, it was free. The gates would swing wide, and the summer migrant workers and distant relatives of the wealthy townsfolk, normally too poor to enjoy something designed purely for escape, would wander in, wide-eyed. There were no ticket sales, no attendance numbers, just a joyfully packed park.

In 1974, during the free week, a prominent businessman from upstate decided to visit. He hadn’t been invited, but he was considering investing since a cousin-of-a-cousin owned the park. He wanted to see the attractions for himself first, though. He brought along his wife and two children and made it a holiday.

Their little girl, five, was never seen again.

One of the migrant workers was arrested for her murder, but the negative publicity left a stain that didn’t wash out. So the Amazement Park closed its gates.

Eventually, the rumors died. The plants grew. Nature slowly co-opted the buildings, the rides, the roller coasters. What didn’t crumble rusted, and what didn’t rust leaned, and what didn’t lean sagged under the weight of ivy and neglect.

Somewhere, very close to the center—the house that was always closed, where few ever even got, owing to the odd layout of the park—a shoe had caught on the low branches of a topiary. Unchecked, the verdant beast slowly grew higher and higher until the shoe was eye level.

It was patent leather, dulled and cracked with weather and time. The perfect size for a five-year-old foot.

It takes money to make money, her dad used to say.

He also once said Come out, come out, wherever you are, dragging the knife along the wall as music to accompany the dying gasps of her sister. Mack might have imagined the gasps, though. Who could say.

She couldn’t, and even if she could, she wouldn’t.

She’s not saying anything right now, either, sitting across from the manager. The meeting was mandatory, a “shelter requirement,” though she’s been here several months now and this is the first one.

“Come on, Mackenzie. Help me help you.” The woman’s smile is painted on like her cheekbones and eyebrows, and just as artfully. Her expression doesn’t shift at all in the face of Mack’s silence. It’s impressive. Does she do stamina reps in the quiet dark of her bedroom, lifting the corners of her lips over and over, careful not to disrupt her eyes?

The manager clasps her hands together, fingernails painted dark red. “I’ll be honest with you. Things are going to change around here. I believe that we can help only those willing to help themselves. These shelters have stagnated—no hope, no progress. How can we live in a society without progress?”

The voice is animated, but the eyes remain untouched by the sentiments or the smile. Expressionless. Like they’re hidden behind something. Mack feels an odd affinity for this woman, alongside an instinctive wariness. But she disagrees. The point of a shelter isn’t progress. It’s shelter.

“I’ve looked at your file.” The woman gestures to a blank manila folder on the desk. Mack suspects it’s empty. She hopes it is. “It’s bad luck you’re here. I understand. No social safety net to fall back on. A few months without a job, without rent, and it’s hard to dig yourself out. You need to move on with your life. Contribute to humanity. All you need is a little good luck first.”

“Donation bins could use tampons more than luck.” Mack’s voice is soft and dry with disuse.

The woman cracks, something triumphant behind her eyes. Mack shouldn’t have spoken. The woman holds up an envelope. “It just so happens, some luck has come in the mail. Whether it’s good is really up to you. Right now, it’s an opportunity. And I think you’re perfect for it.”

Mack has never been perfect for anything in her life. Perfect feels like a foreign word, stiff and uncomfortable. But maybe it’s a job. A little money to get presentable and she’ll have an actual chance. As long as they don’t pry. As long as they don’t look too closely. She could make it work.

She takes the sheet of paper the woman slides across the desk. It’s thick. It feels expensive. Mack is suddenly aware of her hands—her bitten fingernails, her shiny burned palms, her ragged cuticles. If she sets down the paper, will she leave a smudge? It’s hard to be embarrassed at this point in her life, but the idea wriggles beneath her skin.

She’s so worried about leaving a fingerprint—one that will somehow count against her in this imaginary job interview—that it takes her several seconds to process what she’s reading.

“Is this a joke?” she whispers.

The woman’s smile doesn’t budge. “I know it sounds like one. But I assure you it’s legitimate.”

“Who told you?”

Finally, the woman’s cheeks relax, and her eyebrows draw close. “What do you mean? Who told me what? That it’s legitimate?”

About me, Mack thinks. Who told you about me? But the woman’s confusion can’t be feigned. Can it? If she can paint on a face, can she paint on emotions, too? Mack drops the letter. There are no fingerprints. But the words have left smudges across her mind.

“Why are you giving this to me?” Mack knows how lost she sounds, how scared, but she can’t help it. “Why me?”

The woman laughs, a single dismissive burst. “I know it seems silly. The Olly Olly Oxen Free Hide-and-Seek Tournament. It’s a children’s game, for god’s sake. But it’s a chance to win fifty thousand dollars, Mackenzie. You could use that to actually move up in the world. You’re young. You’re intelligent. You’re not a thief, you’re not an addict. You shouldn’t be here.”

No one should be here. They all still are.

The woman leans forward intently. “It’s run by an athletic company, Ox Extreme Sports. I can put in a good word and get you registered. There’s no guarantee you’d win, but—I think you have a shot. It’s more about endurance than anything else. Besides, you strike me as someone who’s good at hiding.”

Mack’s chair scrapes back, jarring them both. But Mack can’t be in this room, can’t think, not while she’s being looked at. Not while she’s being seen. The woman doesn’t know about Mack’s history, and still, somehow she knows.

“Can I think about it,” Mack states. It’s not a question.

“Of course. But let me know by tomorrow. If you don’t want the spot, I’m sure someone else will. It’s a lot of money, Mackenzie. For a silly game!” The woman laughs again. “I’d enter it myself, but I can’t go more than twenty minutes without needing to pee.” She waits for Mack to laugh, too.

She’s still waiting as Mack slides out through the door, not even a whisper in her wake.

Everything about the shelter is designed to remind them that nothing is theirs. There are no lockers. No alcoves. No closets. No bedrooms. In a featureless box of a space, the ceiling looming so far overhead a bird lives in the beams, there are cots. Each has the same stiff white sheets and scratchy blankets. The area beneath the cots is to be kept clear at all times. They are not allowed to use the same cot more than two nights in a row. Anything not cleared by nine a.m. will be confiscated and thrown out, so they can’t even leave their meager possessions on the cot that is not theirs.

When the cots are all filled, Mack is as good as hidden. She’s small. She’s quiet. But now she feels as though a spotlight has been trained on her. Everyone else has already cleared out for the day. Some will go to whatever work they’ve found. Several will sit outside on the sidewalk until they’re allowed back in at four p.m. The rest, who knows. Mack doesn’t ask. Mack doesn’t tell. Because she goes somewhere she doesn’t want any of them to know about, either.

Hidden behind a half wall, choked with the scent of burning dust, an old water heater sizzles and rages. She has permanent shiny burns on her hands from where she scales the water heater, wedges herself between walls, and shimmies up.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

#Review - Omega Rules by Eric Van Lustbader #Thrillers #Espionage

Series: Evan Ryder (#3)
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Release Date: May 24, 2022
Publisher: Forge Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Espionage

Evan Ryder returns to uncover an international conspiracy against American democracy in a white-knuckle new thriller by New York Times bestselling author, Eric Van Lustbader.

Evan Ryder was once a field agent for a black-ops arm of the Department of Defense. Now she works for Parachute, a cutting-edge quantum-computing firm whose private espionage network exceeds any government spy agency. But her mission remains the same: seek out and destroy Omega, a fanatical global cult intent on destroying democracy. The fight against Omega has already cost Evan dearly, but she will not stop until she has torn out the conspiracy by its roots, no matter the risk.

In Omega Rules, the assassination of a Parachute agent in Vienna sets Evan on a dangerous, world-wide hunt for answers and on a collision course with forces so powerful they may be beyond her abilities to annihilate. Once again Lustbader delivers a prescient exploration of the political and ideological forces that are wreaking havoc on the stability of the Western world and its struggling democracies.

Omega Rules, by author Eric Van Lustbader, is the third installment in the authors Evan Ryder series. Key characters: Evan Ryder, Ben Butler, Isobel Lowe, Kata Romanovna Hemakova, Lucinda Wells, and Marsden Tribe. Evan Ryder was once a field agent for a black-ops arm of the Department of Defense, but was cast aside with the arrival of the new President. Five months ago, Evan, and Ben were recruited by Isobel after Ben was shot and crippled facing off against Nemesis. They now work for Parachute, a cutting-edge quantum-computing firm whose private espionage network exceeds any government spy agency. 

For the past 2 years, Evan and Ben have had one singular mission: seek out and destroy Omega, a fanatical global cult intent on destroying democracy through Nemesis as well as possible Russian participation. Thanks to the billionaire Samuel Wainwright Wells, the organization has unlimited funds, and access to a variety of outlets to spread their message of hatred and intolerance. Samuel's wife, Lucinda Wells, just happens to be a sister she never knew she had until The Kobalt Dossier. The fight against Omega has already cost Evan dearly, but she will not stop until she has torn out the conspiracy by its roots, no matter the risk. 

Ben is lucky to be alive after the last novel, and is now confined to a wheel chair and if it weren't for his young daughter currently living in Germany, he'd likely have given up. He also refuses to admit that he cares for Evan more than he wants to admit. When Arne Armistad, a Parachute operative, is murdered in Vienna, Evan takes it upon herself to investigate. Evan's journey takes her to Vienna. Evan seems to get her ass handed to her where ever she goes in this story. From Vienna where she meets a dangerous Russian assassin, to Germany where she meets an Omega hired mercenary, to her encounter with Lucinda in Virginia.

I think the most important character in this entire book is Kata, and not just because she's Evan's supposed deceased sister who is a blood thirsty killer, and not the fact that she's been put in charge Zaslon, part of the FSB directorate, and not because it appears she's playing a double agent while working for Lyudmila Shokova. She rarely if ever finds herself allowing someone to get the drop on her, and when she does, the person usually ends up shark food. I don't know how long the author intends to keep Kata's real identity and the fact that she's alive from Evan. Kata and Evan seem on the same side when it comes to destroying Omega in their respective countries as well as their connection to Lyudmilla. 

One of my issues with this story, and series, is that the author is a conspiracy nut. There are too many nuisances that make me roll my eyes every time he writes about them. He should definitely write for one of those grocery magazines since I believe he thinks aliens are walking around in this country, and they have taken over America political parties. The author has, hopefully, ended the Omega storyline, and can now fixate on something else. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

#Review - Two Truths and a Lie by April Henry #YA #Thrillers #Suspense

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
Release Date: May 24, 2022
Publisher: Christy Ottaviano Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Thrillers & Suspense

A group of teens are trapped in an old motel with a murderer in this chilling YA mystery by New York Times bestselling author April Henry.

Nell has always wanted to be an actor, but doubts her ability. As a member of her school’s theater program, she prefers working backstage. On the way to a contest, an unexpected blizzard strands her acting troupe in a creepy motel. Soon they meet a group of strangers from another high school—including the mysterious and handsome Knox, who insists they play the game Two Truths and a Lie.

Suddenly a night of harmless fun turns into a matter of life and death. As guests go missing, it becomes clear that a murderer is hiding in their midst ready to strike again. In a room full of liars and performers, the truth is never quite what it seems. Nell is going to have to act like her life depends on it—because it does. 

April Henry's Two Truths and a Lie is omage to Agatha Christie’s famous play, Then There Were None. Nell and her theater group, Adam, Jermaine, Raven and Min, along with the group's advisor, Ms McElroy, are traveling across the state for a competition. There will be college recruits there, opportunities for scholarships, and to finally gain recognition for all the hard work they have been putting in throughout high school. Ms. McElroy, has even managed to get a school van which normally is used by the schools sports teams. 

But when bad weather forces the group off the roads, they end up at a creepy motel in the middle of nowhere. Soon thereafter, a second group claiming to be robotics students arrive. Ten high school kids, their chaperones, and a handful of other guests spend the nigh in a rundown hotel out in the boonies. While playing a game of Two Truths and a Lie, Nell reads off a piece of paper.

“I like to watch people die
My least favorite food is mushrooms
I've lost count of how many people I've killed”

To try and get more answers to the mystery of whether the motel is haunted, the group ends up with a Ouija board. It, of course, replies in Latin. As the teens begin to panic, they also learn that their hotel has a dark past of its own. Back in 1996, a couple was brutally murdered, and the crime has never been solved. It appears that history is now repeating itself when a girl is found hung, and blood is sprayed all over the bathroom.

With the weather outside not letting up, and students go missing, Nell and her friends but try and survive. Things become even more twisted when it appears all of the adults staying at the motel have secrets of their own, including one who talks in the third person, one who may be transporting something highly illegal, and the owner who seems to be everywhere. Could one of them be a killer, and if so, who will be next? 

The motel setting is really creepy. From the ill-conceived conference center, a giant common room disturbingly sporting dozens of weird and creepy knick-knacks on the walls, blankets of dust, a strangely vibrant Hawaiian-style tiki hut, a unwelcoming lagoon-style pool, and the oddest assortment of motel staff, and caretakers. If you are looking for a quick read, and don't mind endings that you can pretty much guess, you'll like this book.

Recommended reading ages: 12-18 

Monday, May 23, 2022

#Review - Kagen the Damned (Kagen the Damned #1) by Jonathan Maberry

Series: Kagen the Damned (#1)
Format: Paperback, 560 pages
Release Date: May 10, 2022
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Source: Publisher
Genre: Epic Fantasy / Dark Fantasy

The first installment of an exciting new series of dark epic fantasy novels from bestselling author Jonathan Maberry.

Kagen Vale is the trusted and feared captain of the palace guard, specifically charged with protecting the royal children of Gessleyn, 89th queen of the unbroken line of the Silver Lands. But one night, while Kagen is drugged by a woman in a tavern, the Silver Lands are overrun, and the entire royal family is killed and burned as a sacrifice to the dark gods of the immortal Witch-King. The once-thriving kingdom is in ruins, and the people are enslaved.

Haunted and broken, Kagen becomes a wanderer, working odd jobs and trying to take down as many of his enemies as possible, when he hears a rumor that the royal twins are still alive, and possibly being raised for dark sacrificial purposes. Kagen makes it his mission to hunt for the royal children and fulfill his oath to protect them, and train them to begin a campaign to reclaim the throne. As he hunts for the children, Kagen’s quest takes him to strange lands where he encounters the supernatural in all its many bizarre and terrifying aspects.

Kagen the Damned is the first installment in author Jonathan Maberry's Kagen the Damned series. The book is being sold as The Witcher meets Game of Thrones. Kagen Vale is the trusted and feared captain of the palace guard, specifically charged with protecting the royal children of Gessleyn, 89th queen of the unbroken line of the Silver Lands. He's also the son of the famous Poison Rose who is one of the deadliest women in the Silver Empire. But one night while off duty, Kagen is drugged by a woman in a tavern and left weaponless. 

The Silver Lands are  quickly overrun, and the entire royal family is killed and burned as a sacrifice to the dark gods of the immortal Gethon Haklan, the Hakkian Witch-King. The once-thriving kingdom is in ruins, and the people are enslaved. Kagen manages to survive by killing an unkillable killing machine with banefire. Kagen doesn't blame the Witch-King or his Raven Warriors who seem to have come out of nowhere and quickly suppressed any threat they may face. He blames himself for allowing himself to be put into a situation where he broke a promise to the Queen to protect her children at all costs. 

With his oath broken, and the Gods seemingly turning their backs on him in his time of need, Kagen becomes a wanderer, working odd jobs and trying to take down as many of his enemies as possible. While on the road falling deeper and deeper into malaise and alcoholism, he vows to kill as many of the Hakkian enemy as possible, with the end goal of killing the Witch-King of Hakkia before he can be coronated as emperor. In in a world where forbidden magic is now reawakening and strange things are happening, Kagen isn't the only one Maberry sets on a journey. 

There is also the nun Miri and a fifteen year old girl Ryssa who manage to escape the capital city and find themselves in a far off land where things are a bit confusing as well as hinky. What role they will eventually play, really doesn't concern me at this point. Meanwhile, Kagen's only allies are Filia, a female warrior who is Unbladed or Outcast who is on a mission for Mother Frey, Tuke, a man who is as dangerous as Kagen is but without a hoard of enemies wanting his head, as well as Mother Frey who has been around for centuries and can be described as an inquisitor who missed magic making a return to this world and now must fix her error.

Who is the Witch-King that came from nowhere and is so enigmatic with a veil covering his face? Are any of Kagen's brothers still alive, and if so, where are they? Can Mother Frey overcome her errors in not seeing the return of the Witch King? Even though the book ends on a stunning cliffhanger, with a revelation that I think readers will see coming, the epilogue opens a path to the sequel to this book. This book is really dark, and bloody, and at times, Kagen isn't all that likable. He's literally given signs via flashbacks that should have clued him in on what's happening and who is responsible. This is also a new world now that has vampires, and fairies, and even werewolves. Anything is possible with magic roaring back.