The Shattered Spear by Jack Campbell

With Shattered Spear, the world of Midway draws to a close as Iceni and Drakon work their hardest to create a unified and cohesive power base to protect their system. Many of the loose strings (Morgan, the child, Iceni’s former assistant, etc.) are tied up and the book comes to an appropriate and interesting conclusion for the series.

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Story: When an Enigma warship appears and then disappears near a Syndic colony, Drakon and Iceni fear the Enigma can use alternate routes to plan an attack than the known jump gates. In order to shore up an alliance to deal with the problem, they will have to work with a pirate -one with an axe to grind with Iceni. At the same time, they might have a clue as to a location where prisoners of war are being held and hidden by the Enigma. As they plan a daring rescue, can they really count on their allies to back them – or will they turn and betray Midway in order to gain control of that powerful system? Meanwhile, it’s becoming clear that someone very powerful wants Drakon dead – and if he doesn’t do something about it soon, he may not be so lucky after the next attempt.

There is, as always, some great action to be found in Shattered Spear. And Campbell does an excellent job of providing several twists – including the true sabateur trying to kill Drakon. The ending of the book isn’t clean – expect some deaths of major characters. But at the same time, I was glad that the melodrama of the previous books had been eschewed for clear action and the big picture again. We’re always rooting for Drakon and Iceni but at the same time all the personal assistants doing their own thing for the sake of their leader was telling the story of the ‘screwed up Syndics’ a bit too heavily.

I have greatly enjoyed every single Campbell book and I am sad this is ending. But I also look forward to the new series set in the beginning of the Alliance period. Note: I listened to the Audible version and the narrator did a good job with the book.

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The Conspiracy of Us by Maggie Hall

I think this is aimed squarely at the less demanding YA readers – perhaps those that enjoy Dan Brown or the Twilight series. Because honestly, it’s all pretty silly and with some majorly obvious and really bad logic holes. I could tell fairly early that it would be a problematic listen/read when there is a protagonist with a hot guy stalking her and so she jumps on a plane randomly with an airhead relative after being told she can find her kidnapped mother that way. Illuminati here we go…..

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Story: A hot new guy comes to her school and she’s flattered by his attention – until she sees her picture fall out of his bag. After conveniently overhearing him talking about her on the phone (and suddenly talking in a British accent) she confronts him. Only to learn that her mother has been kidnapped and she might be a speshul snowflake who can save the world and prevent World War III. And hot guy is there to protect her, of course! Upon arrival in Paris, she meets hot guy number 2 who teases her as a bad boy – she’s so flattered by it that she forgets her mother is in mortal peril. But hey, at least he has beautiful eyes.

If you can shut off your brain and don’t mind absolute fluff, then likely you’ll enjoy this story as pure escapism. And heck, who doesn’t want two hot guys after you while you have globe hop to find clues to save the world from the shadow people who pull the strings of the powerful. And yeah, check out the hot guys falling all over you.

Note: I listened to the audible version and the narrator did a decent job with what she had.

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Toni Tennille a Memoir by Toni Tennille

What Toni Tennille gives us with her memoir is a gentle tale of a gentle person. Born and raised in the deep South to upper middle class parents, she’s too much of a lady to kiss and tell. But at the same time she does recount things plainly in her own sweet way. So don’t expect much in the way of shocks or revelations about the couple, their music, or the 1970s/1980s. Instead, this quick and fluffy read is a nice way to spend time getting to know a nice lady.

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The audible is narrated by Toni and that makes it all that much more interesting, though it does still feel like she is reading and not chatting. I can compare another autobiography, by the ‘cat daddy’ Jackson Galaxy, as a true intimate experience between author and listener as an example of how to do an autobiography read well. But hearing Toni’s light Southern twang throughout does put a lot of the book into perspective nicely.

The underlying theme of the book is Toni hoping for intimacy with her husband as they work hard in the industry, become famous, pass the limelight on, and then Toni moves on to Broadway and other endeavors. But we’re also given her viewpoing on the racism in the deep South and expectations of her as a woman in that era and place.

From assisting in bands to being backup singers with the Beach Boys, break out fame with Captain and Tennille, writing a play then ultimately working grueling hours in one, to finally retirement, Toni lays out her career trajectory. There are a few tidbits about people she worked with but nothing scandalous or revealing; just a few side comments really on them. I get the feeling she forgives a lot and doesn’t say anything in the book that she wouldn’t say in person to someone.

I do recommend the Audio version just to hear her tell her story. It’s clear that everything she’s stated is very close to the mark and true, without unnecessary embellishments. But also, that means that she has very carefully skirted any true reveals about the people with whom she has worked and interacted. Even her husband, despite the eccentricities, gets pretty much a carte blanche. But even knowing the royalties incurred, I would have loved to hear her hum a few bars when she talks about their hit songs and how they came about.

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The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

Sometimes, you find a series so great, you wonder why it isn’t the next Harry Potter. Because truly, The Lockwood series has all the things that made Harry Potter great: intricate plot and worldbuilding, intriguing characters, a fascinating story, and excellent pacing/writing. For me, these books do to mild horror what Potter does for high fantasy – they create an immersive experience that you never want to end and an appeal for all ages.

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Story: Lucy has left Lockwood to protect her former employer from himself. But living with the Skull has its own problems, even if she seems to be doing decently in her free-lance work. But she has stumbled upon corruption in the agencies and then the skull is stolen. Lucy will have to team up with Lockwood again – but he appears to be even more reckless than before.

Quite a bit of the large backstory was revealed in this book four – all clearly leading to the finale in the next and final book. The interactions of Lucy and the skull were so well written as to be laugh out loud funny and bone chilling at the same time. Even more interesting, we get a picture of what the skull originally looked like – and it is quite shocking. I am even more intrigued to find out the mystery behind the skull in the jar.

Of course, there are great interactions with Lucy and Lockwood and the Mulder and Ssully type of uncomfortable attraction. Lucy is great at denial and Lockwood is too preoccupied – but darn if it isn’t so well written that you want to lock them into a room together. George and Holly are as distinct and well drawn as ever and the addition of Kipps makes the story all that more engaging. I’m glad that Stroud doesn’t drop characters between books and instead seamlessly incorporates them back into the plot.

This is definitely one of my favorite reads/listens of the year. Extremely well written, exciting, genuinely scary at moments, and laugh out loud funny at others. Note: I listened to the Audible version and the narrator did an excellent job (though I wish the series kept the same narrator throughout).

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Long May She Reign by Rihannon Thomas

Although this may look like YA fantasy, what we have with Long May She Reign is more murder mystery than action/adventure as our heroine seeks to solve crimes through science and beakers. The worldbuilding makes for an uncomfortable melange of Renaissance and Sun King influences and then Georgian “scientific method” a la John Dalton and the Quakers. At times, it feels like the book is an attempt to encourage young girls to take up STEM subjects – after all, they lead to adventure and romance!

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Story: Freya is very far down the dynastic line and hopes to spend her life exploring science rather than finding a husband and making children. But when a royal celebratory party leads to the the poisoning deaths of every other heir before her, she finds herself suddenly crowned queen. Along with the hunky and misunderstood illegitimate son of the late King, Freya will use her scientific lab to find out not only the poison used but also how it was administered. But there are those who suspect she was the poisoner – and her reign may come to an abrupt end if she cannot prove she was not involved in the murders.

The story moves briskly and certainly the story is decently written. There is an understated romance but the focus is on the science and discovery. The worldbuilding is fairly undefined and created to fit the story rather than being an organically grown milieu that would have been much more believable. Freya is a capable protagonist and author Thomas gives us a surprise ending with the final murderer reveal, though it was clearly telegraphed and easily guessed.

Admittedly, I didn’t find Freya or any of the other characters very interesting or nuanced. There are no vicious or truly greedy characters and all the misdeeds are done through misguided motivations or incompetence rather than avarice. As such, the story did lack a bit of edge; I wanted a Moriarty but ended up with a lot of characters who wouldn’t even cut it as a Disney villain. All of the characters could have used a lot more depth.

In all, Long May She Reign is a decent book that could have used a bit less science and much more edge. A little darkness would have made all the brightness that much more interesting. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Hunted by Meagan Spooner

Author Spooner made several smart choices with this retelling of Beauty and the Beast: Russian folklore is mixed with hard fantasy to give a very unique story. The Beast is feral, the sisters good hearted, and the suitor for our heroine is not an evil person. But at the same time, the story is fairly inert for most of the book, the love story never really developed, and many of the characters were fairly hard to like.

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Yeva and her sisters live in the City as part of the nobility. Yeva (named Beauty at birth by her father) is being courted by the man that Yeva’s gentle sister secretly loves. When the family’s fortune wavers and they return to the distant forest lodge their father used to call home, Yeva is secretly happy to return to her love of hunting and be free of court intrigue. But their father is not right in the head and has gone hunting the Beast whose body he feels can change his fortune. When Yeva, who is as skilled a hunter as her remarkable father, goes after him, she finds herself beaten and imprisoned by an unknown jailer. Despairing, she has only one goal – to kill the beast who killed her father.

The basis of this story is Beauty and the Beast meets Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf. Spooner seamlessly weaves the Russian and French myths together into a coherent but grim story. Where the story falters, however, is not where most readers would expect. This isn’t a “Barely even friends then somebody bends” Disney tale and instead involves a brew of hate and despair. As such, we don’t spend much of the book with the two protagonists getting to know each other so much as hurting or torturing the other. Those looking for a sweet tale won’t find it in Hunted but readers wanting an edgier and darker take on the fairy tale will likely enjoy this book for its uniqueness.

Most problematic for me is that there just wasn’t enough emphasis on the relationship to warrant a love story at the heart. The Beast cultivates an atmosphere of hate and pain (yes for a reason) and Yeva is so one-sided in her determination to destroy/maim the Beast that not even Stockholm Syndrome would explain the attraction to each other by the end. It’s dark cold dungeons, broken bones, and slit throats rather than pretty dresses and dancing talking candles.

Because the Beauty and the Beast tale is interwoven with Ivan, Spooner has quite a bit to work with and doesn’t spend too much time with the ‘getting to know each other’ part. That is both a positive and a detractor, though. We get an interesting retelling but we also lose the heart of Beauty and the Beast – that outside appearances aren’t as important as the goodness within. Since Beast is feral, barely sentient, that point is completely lost.

Because I didn’t believe the relationship, the ending lost its relevance for me. Oddly enough, I really like how Yeva’s sisters fared more; indeed, I really liked her suitor who stayed true to her despite her single mindedness. The story does tie up quite nicely and clearly a lot of great thought was put into creating an intriguing concept. I only wish the heart of Beauty and the Beast (the romance) was retained rather than adding in the quest for the Firebird. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Miss Ellicott’s School For The Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood

Sage Blackwood is definitely an author at the top of her game as she gives us yet another intriguing children’s fantasy, this time a stand alone. And although middle grade is likely the target audience, the themes and nuances make this a very interesting read for adults as well. With Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded, we have a modern day Alice in Wonderland poking gleeful fun at Trump America as skillfully as Lewis Carroll skewered Victorian society. Those looking for a good read need not worry about messages getting in the way -this book is a fun adventure story featuring a plucky but diffident 13 year old girl and her somewhat distracted fire breathing dragon.

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Chantel lives in the walled city of Lightning Pass, learning to be a good summoner sorceress at Miss Ellicott’s school. The city is protected by magical wards on the wall called the Seven Buttons. Though Chantel is a bit cheeky for her own good, she has a bright future as a skilled summoner. That is, until the city’s sorceresses disappear, marauders besiege the wall, food runs short, and she is forced to seek help from both the city’s powerful Patriarchs and then the King himself. But they have their own distractions and a 13 year old girl who hasn’t learned proper deportment or etiquette is just a nuisance. That is, until the dragon appears….

From the cover image as well as the description, this would seem to skew to the younger side of middle grade. But really, this is an intricate and layered story that should appeal to young and old. As with Alice in Wonderland, younger readers will enjoy Chantel’s adventures and older readers can ponder the many themes brought up seamlessly through the plot and character interactions. Because like Alice, our heroine Chantel will continually come up against metaphors for the silliness of modern day politics, mores, and society as she attempts to save her City (especially from itself).

The theme here is “think bigger” and that runs throughout the book. Since this is a Blackwood novel, children have a clarity that the adults, in their petty machinations, always seem to lose. Indeed, our dragon is a metaphor for that clarity rather than a deus ex machina to fix Chantel’s situation (especially since one of the adults ‘lost’ the dragon when she became of age and gave up childish things). As with the Jinx series, our protagonist is underestimated, rebuffed, ignored, and patronized despite her willingness and ability to see to the heart of the situation and what needs to be done. Similarly, Chantel (also like Jinx) will be continually frustrated and doubt her own instincts in the face of adult self confidence.

All the characters are wonderfully eccentric and distinct; from the adults who are acting with tunnel vision narrowness to Chantel’s new and old friends, who each prove to be a unique resource in some way. Not everyone has Chantel’s boldness and certainly many find it easier to just do as the adults say since ‘they should know best, after all.” But then again, Chantel isn’t acting recklessly or blindly and does try to balance the advice given by others with that she feels instinctively. It doesn’t always put her in the best situations and certainly the adults manage to frustrate her quite a bit.

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded isn’t a Lampoon of modern society but does create an interesting window that is almost prescient considering it was written pre-Trump. It is also an incredibly fun and quick read well worth the time investment by both kids and adults. Interestingly enough, I can’t help but wonder if this book will become its own classic as a window on the America of 2017: walls to keep out neighbors, obsession over capitalism and taxes, and the return of conservative values and their implications for girls/women. Highly recommended. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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