Tone Deaf by Olivia Rivers

Tone Deaf is a sweet, if undemanding, story of two ‘damaged’ individuals coming together. The story takes place over a short amount of time and mostly within the confines of a tour bus. This is a light and airy read, perfect for a Summer afternoon.

Story: Ali was a gifted musician until an operation permanently took away her hearing. When her mother died at the same time, she was taken in by her estranged father. But her father’s PTSD from hard nights on the police force as well as a drinking problem means he has taken his frustrations out on his daughter. Now, at 17, she is ready to flee her abusive home – and seizes her chance with the band Tone Deaf and harsh lead singer Jace Beckett. But Ali won’t be safe until she’s 18 – several months during which her father will attempt to track her down and bring her back under his heel.

Although I liked Tone Deaf, I admittedly found the story a bit shallow. Everything seems to fall into place nicely and perhaps in a bit too much of a Cinderella way. Since the story is quick, there’s not a lot of room for character development and nuances in the plot. It’s a fairly straightforward story of Ali getting over her negative first impression of Jace, the lead singer, and his falling for her; at the same time, there are the quirky bandmates and the spectre of her father looming.

Admittedly, there was a lot of issues with logic and plot holes that kept this from a four star read for me. Little things like whole conversations that Ali is able to understand despite being described as staring at the ground or being jostled at a concert. Similarly, characters are able to hold a bag, point out a bus, and sign a conversation at the same time. It was very confusing and I think a bit more time spent on the descriptions would have helped. Additionally, there are some time issues; e.g., Ali says she met her best friend at the age of 10 but then also says that she hung stars on her friend’s ceiling when they were in kindergarten. Perhaps I was reading too fast because things kept jarring as I went along.

The romance is quite sweet, of course. It’s a very pride and prejudice story of mistaken impressions at the beginning. The two leads come together due to similar histories: Ali being a musician and Jace also having experienced an abusive family life. It is the latter that will lead Jace to want to ‘save’ Ali when he sees the symptoms of abuse in her.

So yes, a lovely and fairly quick read perfectly suited for younger teens as well. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Phase Shift by Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen

I’ve greatly enjoyed every book in the Chaos Station series so reading Phase Shift was bittersweet. It ends the series in a satisfying manner but of course I would have been happy to continue reading the story of Zander and Felix and their companions. But I also look forward to what Burke and Jensen will produce next.

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Story: Zed is ready to propose to Flick but fate steps in before that can happen. Someone has illegally accessed the Chaos’ memory in order to steal Project Dreamweaver secrets – and that someone appears to have the same Stin-poison enhanced skills that only Zander should be able to perform. Both Zander and Felix will journey across the galaxy to find an evil secret lurking in a remote colony planet.

At only 200 pages each, the stories always remain quite tight. Chaos Station is one of the few stories to get the ‘after’ right – what happens in a romance after the initial conflicts are resolved. The focus is always on plot, not romance, and neither character gets sappy nor soppy; they remain strong despite having a committed relationship. It means the writers have the creativity to create conflict through plot rather than relying on twisting a relationship stupidly.

What made this series so wonderful is definitely the characters. Not just our two lead protagonists but all the side characters around them. Each was clearly defined and had their own personalities. But they were also genuinely likable and people we wanted to follow. From aliens to humans, this was a surprisingly diverse cast in a small novella format.

The story of Phase Shift has all we have come to expect from the previous novels – plenty of action, sweet moments between the leads, and the careful balance of big picture story with smaller picture interpersonal relationships. The writing is tight, plot distinct, and never bogs down anywhere. Highly recommended. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Mastro (Homecoming 2) by R.A. Salvatore

This new installment in the seemingly endless series of Drizzt books continues from pretty much where we left off at the previous book Archmage. Following the theme Salvatore has done for a while, the story picks a few of the (vast) cast of character to follow closely – this time Entreri and Dahlia are back after being absent for the last few books.

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The main plot follow from the previous book with Catti-Brie attempting to rebuild the Host tower of the Arcane while in the Underdark, Demogorgon wrecks havoc on Menzoberranzan while Entreri, Jarlaxle and Drizzt journey back to Menzoberransan to rescue Dahlia. There is a complex plot among the noble houses but again, unfortunately, it seems more like squabbling children than devious creatures. The author also has an annoying tendency to do a buildup of a huge plot only to overshadow it with another a book later or even allow it to fizzle out completely. While it may be true to form that all Drow eventually betray each other, it does not make for a very exciting read, and the cookie-cutter evil nobles do not make it any easier to enjoy these segments.

The two other main plots, those of Cattie-Brie and the Drizzt/Entreri/Jarlaxle sections are fortunately more interesting. Their plot is clearer and moves along nicely; and while I don’t like where Drizzt is headed in the end (a man of two centuries really should not mope like a teenager), as a whole the journey was more enjoyable than the previous outing.

In the grand scheme of things it also is starting to look like the field has been cleared a bit and the overall plot is now more concise and the amount of characters manageable. This makes me look forward to the next book more – and perhaps this time we’ll get to see what Regis and Wulfgar are doing. The series could do with some new areas, characters and plots rather than rehashing the old ones over and over again. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Attack on Titan No Regrets 1 by Hikari Suruga, Gun Snark, Hajime Suruga

Attack on Titan No Regrets is a short, two-part introductory story to Levi’s and Erwin’s pasts. Both have been fan favorites for since the series began and it was great to see their origin stories. The art is serviceable – it may not live up to the original series (everyone is quite pretty here, even the Titans) but it doesn’t stray far from the original character designs, either, and is clean and easy to follow. Those new to the series will want to start with the original Attack on Titan, though, and not No Regrets.

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Story: Levi masterfully uses the 3D maneuver gear deep underground to eek out a living with Isabel and Flagon, using it for petty thievery to survive. When their group is captured not by the military police but by the Survey Corps, they are coerced by leader Erwin to join and help fight the Titan menace. But unknown to Erwin, a corrupt nobleman got to them first – and gave them a mission to steal paperwork and kill Erwin.

This first novel is more set up than action – creating an intricate plot of betrayal and counter betrayal while also establishing how Erwin cannily recognized the talent in the underground. Most of the action takes place in the second volume since the first is about the prejudice Levi’s group encounters among the recruits and their machinations to enact their secret mission against Erwin.

The art is clean and nicely rendered, staying completely faithful to the original series despite having a different illustrator. Yes, the designs are pretty and this can feel like a ‘shoujo’ interpretation of a gritty ‘shounen’ story. But fangirls of Levi or Erwin will devour no regrets for that reason.

Is it worth buying this in addition to the original series? Yes, definitely, because the story and art stay true, give us an interesting background story, and set up a better understanding of several Attack on Titan characters.

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Attack on Titan No Regrets 2 by Hikari Suruga, Gun Snark, Hajime Suruga

With this second and final volume, we bring the origin story of Levi and Erwin to a close. Fans of the series will spot regulars (like Hange, as quirky as ever) but the focus is definitely on Erwin and Levi coming to their position of mutual respect. Of note, the manga is quite different than the anime adaptation OVA, so this is definitely worth a purchase.

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Story: As the Survey Corps ride out with a bold new plan by Erwin, Levi will use a dense storm to try to murder Erwin and steal the paperwork that will free his underground band forever. But the same storm that gives him his opportunity also allows for a horrific Titan attack. And in acting out on his own, Levi may end up leaving his companions completely defenseless.

Those familiar with the Attack on Titan storyline will likely guess what happens to likable companions Isabel and Flagon since they don’t show up in the contemporary storyline. But the action here is quite riveting and where the tragedy comes to its natural conclusion. Erwin’s big picture of heavy sacrifice for great victories will foreshadow events in the series – here, we see how his Machiavellian plotting can have such catastrophic results.

The artwork is quite lovely, true to the original author’s illustration work, though definitely a bit ‘prettier’. And the story itself fits seamlessly into the Attack on Titan Canon. Note that there are color pages in this short volume.

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The 13th Continuum by Jennifer Brody

The 13th Continuum starts out as a sci fi but rapidly turns into a dystopian as enclosed societies stagnate and begin to feed off themselves. We read through two different POVs – and each character is distinct, as is the small communities in which they find themselves. Comparisons to Divergent, City of Ember, Red Rising, and even the anime Ergo Proxy will be inevitable. But in all, this is a satisfying adventure and first in a trilogy.

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Story: An unexplained catastrophe destroys the surface of the Earth. But humanity had prepared and created continuum colonies – deep underwater, underground, and even in spaceships and a Mars colony. 1000 years later, in the Marianas Trench, teen Myra’s continuum exists under a harsh religion-based hierarchy that prohibits knowledge/discussion of the surface. In space, a continuum colony ship that has searched the stars in vain for a new home has returned to Earth to see if it is ready for resettling. On the militaristic-discipline meritocracy, teen Aero is an elite warrior chosen to be the first to lead a small reconnaissance mission on Earth once they arrive. In Myra’s world, she must find the lost artifact, the Beacon, if she is to lead her dying colony back to the surface. But the Synod, the religious leadership, will do anything to stop her and destroy the Beacon once and for all. Aero, meanwhile, must contend with a mutiny that will overthrow the ship’s leaders and send them back on a fruitless quest into space again. Both will struggle to reach the surface of the earth and learn if it is inhabitable.

This first book in the trilogy sets up conflicts in the path of our protagonists to keep them from their goals to get to the underground first continuum. So this entire book takes place in both continuums. There is not a lot of explained – about the beacons, the mechanics of the mysterious machines that allowed civilizations to continue in space and under water for a thousand years, what exactly the cataclysm was, how scientists knew it was coming, etc. It’s all up in the air for the adventure aspects of the story, placing this firmly in the YA category. And a lot of the technology is almost magical in what it can do (transforming its shape at will, mind melding, continuous autonomous existence, etc.)

Admittedly, although this was a smooth read with likable characters, I did have a hard time with the logic of the societies and would have liked them more deeply considered. E.g., although the author showed how they took their totalitarian regimes to a logical extreme conclusion, only the leadership changed and not the people. The languages, mores, etc. didn’t feel fully developed enough and the characters were contemporary (2016) but in dystopian trappings. Little things – such as a military society where men and women have equally shorn heads for a thousand years, yet the 16 year old Aero noted that even the girls had short hair (where would he get a context for women not having long hair if it hasn’t been a part of their society for a thousand years and there was no male/female differentiation?). Or someone being able to build a submarine that can leave the Marianas Trench out of ‘spare’ parts from a thousand years of sitting around? I just find it hard to believe that over a thousand years, materials didn’t get scarce and re-purposed beyond further reuse. And then suddenly in Myra’s world everyone is searching for the Beacon after hundreds of years of being lost. Because of logic holes like those (and there are several) I didn’t get into the 13th Continuum as much as I would have liked.

Myra and Aero are characters we want to follow. Each has a strong moral compass, companions who support them, and a clear goal to get their people to the Earth’s surface. Side characters are less well drawn, however, and with the exception of Myra’s little brother Tinker and Aero’s lieutenant Wren, it was hard to tell them apart at times. Their antagonists were very one-dimensional, each unremittingly evil and reveling in their murderous crimes. Sadly, we have villains who loudly tell our protagonists about their evil acts while twirling metaphysical mustaches. It would have been better to draw upon nuanced ‘bad guys’ who think they are doing the right thing (either in abject faith of their religion (Myra’s continuum) or because they really believe they can relocate to another planet (Aero’s continuum)). But sadly, it’s all about, “Cackle, I murdered (insert relative or nice person here) and I enjoyed it because I’m so evil, cackle” type of histrionics.

Myra’s world reminded me greatly of City of Ember. Aero’s world very much felt like Darrow’s in Red Rising. Readers of those books will likely fund much to enjoy in 13th continuum as a result. It is a quick and easy read and doesn’t get bogged down by the science. At the same time, it can feel very simplistic at times to more sophisticated readers. But in all, definitely recommended to the YA audience. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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B.S. Incorporated by Jennifer Rock and Michael Voss

From the blurb, I expected a crazy send up of the business world – more along the lines of The Office and Dilbert. But what we have here is a heart-felt story of a company manager and new hire who have to save the owners of a large copier supply firm from themselves. There are two protagonists – a male and a female – each representing different points of view (people vs process). Although they are hard to like in the beginning, by the end most will appreciate the warm fuzzies that they (and this book) engender.

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Story: Business Solutions Inc.’s owners are looking for new market opportunities after years of a successful business selling copiers. They’ve hired a fancy consultancy firm and created a new product/service (it’s a mystery!) called Optelligence. Frontlines communications manager Will Evans started from the original factory distribution area and worked his way up over the years – the business is his life. New hire Anna wants to sink her leopard skin stilettos into BSI and make her mark. When everything starts to fall apart around them, they will have to band together to save the company from itself.

The blurb is honestly very misleading – nearly all the points about the craziness of the company make this sound more like a surreal comedy. But the struggles of our two leads are much more personal – the story is about Will and Anna and believing in the company as well as themselves. The ‘evil’ bad guy here is the parasitic consultancy firm – getting its hooks into the two co-founders and leading them down a path to profits on the consultancy’s end but bankruptcy on the BMI end. Is this book realistic? No, not really – at least not to the extent it is taken here. But the emphasis is on the characters – and there are some really wonderful ones in B.S. Incorporated. It is a very heartfelt story.

The two leads – Will and Anna, will go through a transformation and catharsis by the end of the story, creating a nice circular storyline. Sure, the battle between white collar and blue collar is a bit one dimensional (the blue collar guys work hard honest hours and have the best rapport with the clients while the white collar guys screw up constantly, create fiefdoms, have sex with the secretaries, and lay off the blue collar guys to save their own jobs. The only decent guys are kind of sad sacks while the women are predatory, unfortunately, or housewifely assistants. In a cast as large as in this book, that was honestly a bit of a disappointment.

There are some cute lines in there and a few chuckles. This is a book you read for the heart and not for humor. And for a hyperrealized, if simplistic, view of American business (especially midwest style since this is set in Minnesota). The only thing missing was another consultancy firm pushing ISO9000 or TQM quality management principles to unsuspecting lineworkers. But in all, I really enjoyed it. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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