Feedback by Robison Wells

Feedback is the type of series that will rise or fail based upon the choices made for the final reveal. After book one, there was going to have to be one heck of a surprise to explain the high level of technology of the robots and the reason why the Maxfield Academy exists. Unfortunately, it felt like author Wells wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t come out of the premise with enough of a unique twist. As such, I do admit to a bit of disappointment that I didn’t get the payoff I was expecting at the end of Feedback. But even more problematic was the lack of impetus and action – the story is fairly static for most of the book.

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Story: Benson and Becky escaped from Maxfield – only to be trapped in the village outside. Day in and out, they try to formulate escape plans. But Becky’s grave injury, politics within the village, and the remote location of the Maxfield complex continually derail their plans. But while Benson learns more about the robots, they too are slowly closing in – and ready to bring Benson and Becky back into the fold.

Book 2 is very different from the first: where we had a very aggressive and strong Benson in the first, in the second we have a confused and surprisingly passive character who spends most of his time in half hearted escape attempts and mooning over Jane and Becky. In fact, not a lot happens for most of the book; we do learn more about Maxfield but never really get satisfactory answers.

I think the big problem I had with Feedback was the writing. There were a lot of times I had to reread passages to understand what was happening. 3/4 of the way through the book I gave up on the rereading and just let it go. That did distance me from the story further.

That lack of engagement – in both the writing and the plot – translated into a 3 star rating for me. A better (or more original villain) at the ending might have lifted this a star higher. I don’t regret buying this but at the same time, I had hoped for more.

Note: I listened to the audible version and the narrator did a great job.

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The League of Seven by Alan Gratz

The League of Seven is an imaginative mid school read featuring a wild steampunk world full of menacing monsters and soaring steamships. But oddly passive main characters rarely rise to meet the challenge of the worldbuilding and the horror is fairly disturbing.

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In an alternate universe 1875 America, Archie Dent is the son of heroic parents: members of the Septemberist Society who have historically protected the Earth from the monstrous creatures known as Mangleborn. Although they have been suppressed for centuries, the mangleborn have found a new conduit back into the human world: electricity. The time has come for a New League of Seven: the heroes with unique abilities to appear when the world needs them most. Archie Dent always dreamed of being the leader of the League of Seven: fate may have arranged that he will assume that role and find the remaining six.

About half way through this novel, I realized I just wasn’t enjoying the story.  Despite the very creative reimagining of the 1875 world, I didn’t get into Archie or the other characters. Gratz is a good enough author that he would take a very passive child and transform him through adversity into a hero.  But that transformation was taking far too long and I had a hard time rooting for or understanding the character. Odd plot choices abounded – each one making Archie more of a unappealing, timid, crybaby than heroic. He falls asleep in great danger, doesn’t run or fight but goes along with the flow, cries and shuts down with adversity, and seems more like a seven year old than pre-tween. Perhaps that was more realistic when a child is confronted with horror situations – but then again, I don’t want realism in a fantastical steampunk world. And in other situations, the reactions were so odd and unrealistic that the lack of consistency kept throwing me out of the novel.

So for me, I was fascinated when the world was described; disengaged when the story turned to Archie Dent. The horror aspects were disturbing and a bit much for me as well. This is a book that I can see many enjoying; I just didn’t like the characters, felt there were some odd plot choices, and felt there was perhaps too much going on overshadowing the characters.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato

The Clockwork Dagger presents an interesting dilemma: in a world built more upon a fantasy setting than an alternate universe Victorian Earth, in which faith in God is the antidote to technology that is used to maim and murder, is this really a steampunk story? In truth, the main statement made here (and there are many made in the book) is anti-steampunk: science/technology is dehumanizing rather than wondrous or fantastical and people need to find their faith/religion again or lose their souls. Ironically, the book needed more soul to really engage the reader since so many of the characters were poorly defined and the plot slow.

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Story: Octavia is an extremely skilled healer – she calls upon her God and the Lady in order to use magic to save patients. When the leader of the healers sends her on a mission to save a village suffering from an enemy-engineered plague, Octavia finds herself upon a steamship laden with characters – some wanting to harm her and others wanting to help. But as she is about to discover, she is far more valuable than she realized and the course of her life is about to change.

For me, I enjoy steampunk as a wonderous adventure – a reimagining of a time when the future was full of opportunities and the world left to explore. But that is a steampunk that is an alternate universe of the Fin De Siecle Victorian world. Since Cato’s The Clockwork Dagger is a fantastical creation, already the very important historical grounding of Steampunk is lost. It becomes more of an affectation than an integral part of the story. I truly felt that loss took away a lot of the enjoyment for me.

As well, the very heavy Catholic religion trappings (and the message that technology and science are evil tools of faithless men) were offputting. Others will likely appreciate the statements made about nature, God, technology gone wrong, futility of war, and senseless loss of human life. But I felt that a story with such specific religious trappings should definitely have been grounded in an AU Earth rather than fantasy. It would have given Cato’s messages more punch.

The story itself also failed to engage me. Octavia was a mix of passive and aggressive that I found frustrating to define. As well, nearly all the side characters had improbable hidden secrets – I found it hard to believe that every single person Octavia meets on her trip is hiding something major or pretending to be someone they aren’t. It didn’t help that their personalities were ill defined and lacking in depth. Most, including the bland love interest, felt more like over idealized caricatures rather than fully defined people. It took away from the very strong statements about religion and society that Cato was continually making throughout the story.

I greatly appreciate books with ideas and authors that don’t give in to easy answers or a simple straightforward plot. But in this case, I didn’t agree with the statements made throughout and never really got into any of the characters.  I wasn’t carried by the story so much as dragged along while being beaten over the head with statements about society and especially the need to find religion again. The romance aspect was especially tepid.

So although I never hated the book, I was never engaged, either. It is not poorly written and the author did an excellent job of reinventing history (e.g., ‘zymes’ and mechanical limbs) into a new fantasy setting. But there wasn’t enough in the story to encourage me to continue.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

The Whispering Skull continues smoothly from the first book: the Lockwood and Co crew will have a new assignment to solve, rivals to beat, confront the reality that the The Problem is escalating in unexpected ways, and learn more about Anthony Lockwood’s family secrets.

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Story: Lucy, Lockwood, and George are dismayed to learn they must solve a case with the assistance of Quill Kipps and his eccentric team from Fittes. The investigation involves a Victorian doctor who robbed graveyards in order to plumb the mysteries of life after death. When his corpse is unearthed and then subsequently robbed, both teams will watch the situation reverberate through all levels of society. It will take all their luck and guile to not only solve the case but also to survive it.

Once again, we have a very engaging story that is never straightforward or easy.  Our characters grow and learn about themselves and others, and along the way there is plenty of action. Stroud does an excellent job of dropping just enough hints and mysteries to be intrigued but never so much that we have nothing left to discover.  Actions by the characters make sense (both what they do right and what they do wrong) and each person who shows up in the book has a very distinct and unique personality.

As with the first book, at the end of The Whispering Skull we are left with tantalizing hints of the story to come. The plot builds organically yet unexpectedly and the book-length story arcs fit seamlessly into a series-long set of mysteries. From the clues, it looks like Stroud will eventually tackle the root of The Problem and we’ll learn what started it and now escalated the return of The Visitors. It will be interesting to see if George’s skull will be at the heart of the mystery.

In all, greatly looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Lockwood and Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood and Co is a rare animal: a thoroughly enjoyable middle grade story that has the depth and interest to appeal to all ages, especially adults. Characters are nuanced, the plot intriguing, mysteries build upon mysteries, and there is an overall story arc that will take several books to slowly uncover. I was never interested in supernatural/ghost stories but this really does rise above the genre.

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Story: For 50 years, ghosts have been a problem for England. Only the young can see/sense/fight them but the spectral visitors are returning in numbers – creating “The Problem” for modern England. Young Lucy is especially talented but an unfortunate incident has left her with no means of employment.  She comes to Lockwood & Co hoping for a job fighting ghosts – but will get much more than she bargained for at the small agency.

I really appreciated that there was layer upon layer of intricacies within the plot.  The whole supernatural situation is well constructed and the worldbuilding supreme.  Imagine a Dickensian type of London but in a modern setting and you have a good idea of the setting. But in addition to the book-specific mystery that they solve (the Screaming Staircase), there are hints that each of the other characters have their own mysteries and skeletons in the closet. That means we have more than a ‘monster of the week’ plot and even more reason to anxiously await the next book. The hints are tantalizing and the books end with a very big reveal.

I’ve read the first two books in the series and they are both excellent – the foundation of the first book sets up more intrigue in the second. Characters are built upon from book to book and even side characters (rival agencies, government officials, etc.) are given depth and grow.

This was one of my favorite reads of the year. Note: I listened to the audible version and the narration was excellent. Reviewed from an ARC.

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Della Fattoria Bread by Kathleen Weber

Della Fattoria Bread was a pleasant surprise. What I thought would be a book full of odd artisan recipes is actually a bread making book that answered a lot of the questions I had as to why my breads seemed to come out as bricks, tasteless, or spongy. The book starts with simple recipes that are first tried and perfecedt by readers – and that leads to more complex/interesting varieties.

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The book is broken down as follows: Introductions/Foreward about the author and her bread then a section breaking down and discussing the basic ingredients of every bread. Then chapters/recipes as follows: Yeasted Breads; Enriched Breads; Pre-Fermented Breads; Naturally Leavened Breads; Crackers, Breadsticks, Pizza Doughs, Flatbreads; Sources/Index.

Recipe types include: Toscano loaf, olive oil wreath, pumpkin seed campagne batard, spicy cheddar crackers, what and barley pullman, brioche dough, sticky buns, and many more. Along with the bread are also recipes for meals that go great with bread (or use bread as an ingredient): pizza, tuna melt, tomato bread soup, green salad with citronette, and more.

The book is beautifully laid out with full color photographs. The recipes are easy to use/follow, with introductory paragraphs, ingredient amounts in grams/oz/cups/tsps (depending if you prefer to weigh or measure your ingredients), then directions in paragraph bulleted form (here, I would have preferred numbers with breaks).

The directions are very detailed and there are tips in separate boxes littered throughout. Terms are also discussed, as well as equipment (e.g., cast iron pot), and techniques (such as shaping, rolling the dough).  I found the tips and techniques especially useful.

The recipes are really translating into better bread for me. It took learning about things like not using table salt nor mixing the wrong grains to keep me from making bricks. I also understand a lot better why my little portable bread maker was a complete waste of money. As such, Della Fattoria Bread is a great book for those who have been frustrated when making bread in the past.

This is one of the best bread books I’ve read. What kept it from being a 5 star book from me is that there is a LOT of fluff – mostly about the owner, her history and background, philosophy, and people she deals with in her store.  I am sure many will find those sections an added bonus but for me, it was just too much.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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The Swap By Meagan Shull

The Swap is a sweet and engaging middle school (the main characters are 12 and 13) read. Although the premise is very tired, the author’s great use of dialogue and situations (as well as avoidance of turning this into a romance) help to create a very good book.  Both my 11 year old and I read this and we both enjoyed it greatly.
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Story: 12 year old Ellie is crushed when her best friend suddenly turns very meant toward her.  12 year old Jack is focused solely on his dream of a hockey career.  When their lives intersect at the school nurse’s office, both will wake up to find they have switched bodies. Ellie’s emotionally heavy home is contrasted with Jack’s very macho routine driven household.  Both will learn a lot about each other and even more about themselves as they spend the weekend in someone else’s life.

The writing is easy to follow and the dialogue authentic. This isn’t an excuse to do a romance, either, as both characters know the other only peripherally. It’s really about respecting what each does and helping them get a perspective on their own lives. Ellie has to understand that her ‘friend’ is really nothing more than an insecure bully.  Jack needs to finally stand up to his very authoritarian father to ensure his own dream of hockey doesn’t fade out.

We both really enjoyed this story and look forward to more books by this author.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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