A Year of Books: Decent, Meh, and Ugh

Not every book we read is gosh darn pretty good. Most are; we don’t typically waste our time reading books that aren’t good. We’ve got too much to read to waste our time on crap. This post will cover the remaining books we read this year in three categories: “Decent,” which means that they weren’t bad, they weren’t even neutral, but they weren’t really good either. Then we have “Meh” which basically means that while it has some good qualities in it, it didn’t arouse an emotional reaction from us. Finally, you have, “Ugh,” which are books we usually finished reading more out of a sense of duty than a sense of enjoyment.

Go away. I’m reading.

We shall begin with “Decent!”

That’s a… really busy cover.

The Adventures of Chance Fortune
Chance Fortune and the Outlaws
Chance Fortune in the Shadow Zone
By Shane Berryhill

Helen says: Josh Blevins has always wanted to attend the academy for the superhuman. Unfortunately, he has no superpowers. So, he trains as much as he can – and then cheats his way in. Name: Chance Fortune. Superpower: Luck. Amazingly, this tactic combined with natural leadership and teamwork abilities, gets him through his first year of school. ….And then instead of heading home for the summer, he and his teammates find themselves transported to the Shadow Zone. Time to really test his so-called superpowers.

These books were fine for what they were. Superhero stories aimed at middle schoolers. I, however, found them a bit too predictable. There were certainly unique moments and some interesting secondary characters. At one point, for instance, Chance and his teammates have their powers scrambled. Everyone has someone else’s powers, which results in some interesting new situations and solutions for the team. I think that was in book two. The formula for book one, though, was almost too to the letter. Step 1: Convince older, mentor figure to help you. Step 2: Training montage. Step 3: Awkward first days at school. Step 4: Figuring out how to work together. Step 5: Success! The second book was better by far in this regard. So I suppose you could just jump in there.

Jon says: Ugh. If it’s predictable for you, who haven’t read many comics, what will it be for me? OK, I love the idea of these books, but I’m guessing I’m going to have to stay away…

Helen says: Yeah, you should definitely skip book one.

This is a slick cover!

The Empire of Gut and Bone
by M. T. Anderson

Jon says: New Norumbega is an empire lost within the body of a gigantic alien, nestled within gut and bone. Brian and Gregory have come to get them to help; the earth is being invaded, and only the New Norumbegans can stop them. Except… the residents of this empire just don’t care. Well, most of them don’t care. Someone wants Brian and Gregory dead. Maybe earth is doomed after all.

After the horrific weirdness of The Suburb Beyond the Stars I looked forward to the next book in the series – this one. I loved the strangeness of the concept, and honestly, it’s simply the title of this volume that convinced me to try out the series.

But, as you may guess by being in this category, it just didn’t hit me as well as the previous volume. The horror and creativity are still on full display, but by removing the action from earth, everything is strange. The just-slightly-off-kilter feeling doesn’t apply here when there’s nothing mundane to ground it. This volume also felt slower; I’m not sure if that’s the setting talking or just my reading of it, but I really wasn’t drawn in nearly as much as I was in book two.

That said, I still want to get the concluding volume to find out what happens, so it’s not a total failure!

“What should be on the cover?” “I dunno. A house. Maybe some shadows.” “K. Got it covered.”

The House of Dark Shadows
By Robert Liparulo

Helen says: This is book one in the Dreamhouse Kings series (in case you were interested). It’s a creepy book and a Christian fiction book. The combination is less than common, so we picked it up. It starts off kinda slow with the King family moving from the big city to a small, middle-of-nowhere town. It has your typical complaining teenager, encouraging parents, etc. Things don’t start getting interesting till they choose their new house, really. There are huge footprints in the dust near the window, sounds bounce around in the weirdest way, and something just feels off. Then Xander and David find a closet that teleports them to….a school locker? And hidden away in the attic is a whole hall of doors. Xander goes through one and finds himself in the Colosseum in battle. Of course Dad makes the whole attic off limits. And of course the boys go back anyway. And they wake the house.

Someone from the other side comes through the doors and kidnaps a member of the family. That’s when we learn this has all happened before. And (spoilers) Dad knew.

Then, the book ends. Or rather it doesn’t. On the last page is says “Not the End…” I’m not sure what I think of that. We did pick up book two when we saw it cheap. I’m hoping that since we now know all the setup, book two can just hit the ground running. But we’ll see. It was enough that I’m willing to give it a shot. But not so great that I feel compelled to continue. So, there you go.

Jon says: That review makes it feel more “meh” than “decent” to me… what makes it decent?

Helen says: Doesn’t take much on my creepy scale. Also, I’m kinda banking on the setup paying off in future books, really.

“What’s this one about?” “Um, Titanic.” “All right. Got it covered.” “Oh, make sure there’s a woman on the cover.” “Yep. I’ll make sure her heart will go on.”

Queen of the Waves
By Janice Thompson

Helen says: I was in the mood for something different. This one is historical fiction and Christian romance. Jacquie wants out of an arranged marriage. Tessa needs to escape her abusive father. And it seems the two can help each other. Jacquie’s mother, who also doesn’t agree with the arranged marriage, gets Jacquie tickets to sail on the Titanic. Jacquie, however, doesn’t want to sail away either. She has Tessa take her place (and clothes and identity) aboard the ship, and Jacquie makes plans to elope with the gardener instead.

The setup is, admittedly, a little mixed up. Hats off to you if you followed all that on your first read through. The appeal of this book, for me actually, was the setting. Unfortunately, since that setting is the Titanic, there is a certain predictability to it. Yep, ship’s gonna sink. Yep, at least some of our main characters are sure to survive. It was interesting, however, to watch Tessa, a farm girl, try to imitate and become Jacquie, a high-class lady, aboard the ship.

Jon says: The Titanic sinks?! What?! Spoilers!!

I call shenanigans. There is no storm on this cover!

The Storm in the Barn
By Matt Phelan

Helen says: This one is again historical fiction – in graphic novel form this time. It is a story about eleven-year-old Jack living in the Dust Bowl. Life, as you can imagine, isn’t great. And when he sees something in the barn, no one believes him. But, as you might guess from the title, what’s hiding in the barn is exactly what they need – A storm.

I read this one for the art. The story itself is relatively simple. You know what’s lurking in the barn because the title tells you. So there’s few surprises there, and I really feel no need to go back and read this one for its story. But the art….The art is gorgeous and just perfect for the setting. Pencil drawings with muted colors – they just feel dusty. And that I love.

The Storm in the Barn
by Matt Phelan

Jon says: Jack Clark has to deal with bullies, a mean sister, and a despairing father. And when a heat wave adds to his family farm’s trouble, this eleven-year-old boy has a lot on his plate. It doesn’t help that it’s 1937 and the dust bowl has sucked all the joy out of Kansas. But something strange is going on in a neighbor’s abandoned barn. Something… wet. Jack will need to take heart and become a hero, and maybe, just maybe, save his farm.

The art in this book is phenomenal. I felt dusty and dirty after finishing reading it; I needed a glass of water! The graininess of the art conveys the desperation and the simple feel of the dust bowl like little else I’ve ever read. The design of the antagonist, too, was inspired.

The story is simple but effective. As soon as you meet all the characters, you know exactly how it’s going to end. That’s the only reason I put this book here and not up a notch. Really, I could be swayed to grade it higher relatively easily, because even after almost a year, I can still feel this book, even if I can’t tell you a lot of specifics of the story. This book won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, which is pretty hard to do considering it’s historical fantasy!

Unlike most of the books on this post, this is one I will recommend you check out. Like I said, the characters will do exactly what you expect them to, but the art overcomes any shortfalls in the story, and you still cheer for the hero. That’s an effective story in my book.

Helen says: Yeah, I was tempted to knock this up a notch as well and for the same reason. I loved the dusty art! So I suppose if you’re looking for a great art book (as opposed to a great story), I would grab this one.

…is that a giant spider? Did Sheelob go book hopping again?

Temping Fate
by Esther Friesner

Jon says: Ilana needs a summer job, and she’s willing to try just about anything. (Apparently showing up to interviews with a t-shirt reading “Orc: The other green meat” doesn’t convince employers of your worth.) And that’s usually when “just about anything” happens. The Divine Relief Temp Agency takes her on and assigns her to help out three lovely ladies who just need a few days off… Yeah, too bad those three ladies are the Fates, in charge of spinning, measuring, and cutting the life threads of every mortal on the planet. Ilana has a full summer now, but some of the other temps working for the other Greek gods might be able to help her get through (and maybe one of them will ask her on a date!), and if she’s lucky, she won’t be turned into a pig in the process.

This novel was a breezy, fun read. It is exactly what it presents itself as: a teen girl slice-of-life summer story with a Greek divine twist. The humor worked, the characters were likable, and the settings imaginative.

So why did I grade this merely “Decent”?

It comes down to… well, if your temping for the Fates, I really expected something… bigger, louder, stranger. This really is slice-of-life with a twist, not fantasy in a slice-of-life setting. I think I just might not be the target audience, I guess. For what it is, I enjoyed it! I just think the concept could have gone much, much farther.

I actually really like this cover. Clean, simple, and accurately conveys the idea of the story.

Threads
by Ami Polonsky

Jon says: Clara finds a note in a luxury purse: “To whom it may concern: Please, we need help!” Her life changes forever. This twelve-year-old girl will do whatever she can to save the mysterious girl who put a note in a purse in her sweat shop. She will convince her family to cross the globe and bring rescue.

Thirteen-year-old Yuming put that note in the purse six weeks ago. If she doesn’t escape soon, she may never escape. She doesn’t know Clara is coming, and what she is about to do may mean no one will be able to rescue her.

Two lives on opposite sides of the globe intersect in one note, and both will be changed.

Man. I love the concept of this book. It’s written with authority, too, telling us about China while grounding American sensibilities in the States for a chunk of the novel as well. I knew the writing was solid when I was in tears – yes, literal tears – sixty pages into the book. The prose is at turns delicate or forceful, restrained or powerful. Polonsky knows what every scene needs and provides it with gusto.

So, if I’m praising the novel so much, why do I put it in the “decent” category?

Man. Well, I’m going to have to give some spoilers here.

So, spoiler warning. Skip to the next review if that bothers you.

The reason I put this novel way down in the “Decent” category is that… the two protagonists never meet. They are tied by the inciting incident – the note in the purse – and then never touch again. Clara is off to rescue Yuming, but her actions never again touch on Yuming, and Yuming’s adventure never touches Clara. I figured it would resolve in the last pages of the novel as they finally recognize each other and embrace, but nope. Both plots do resolve, but separately. Sometimes a gambit like that works; here, it left me unfulfilled. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as Helen’s reaction to Iceling, but it was enough for me to put the book down among the “decent” and not among the best.

Helen says: This review makes me sad. I wanted to read this one. And now I can’t decide whether I should. If the writing is that good, I really want to read it still. But at the same time, I don’t know if I can take another Iceling. (Also – why does a twelve-year-old have a luxury purse?)

Jon says: Clara is intentionally annoying her mother and digging through purses in a luxury section of a department store; she doesn’t own the purse.

“What’s this one about?” “Time travel. Prehistoric men.” “Right. So, UFO on the cover.”

Time’s Last Gift
By Philip Jose Farmer

Helen says: This is an author Jon had been wanting to pick up for a while. Which means I think it’s kinda funny that I got to read this one first. It says it’s part of the Wold Newton Universe, but I found that this one stands alone just fine.

In 2070 John Gribardsun and his team travel back in time to 12,000 B.C. There they befriend some cave people and observe them, make notes about language and animals and climate and all thosse other things scientist might want to research if they could go back that far in time. John, however, seems to adapt to their new surroundings better and faster than the others. He seems quite at home here, in fact. What is his story?

I’m not sure about Farmer’s style, even now. Not sure it’s entirely my thing. Maybe it’s just an older style, a little more dry or detached than the YA I’ve read so much of this year. You can also see from a mile away that John wants to stay in this time period when the others go back to 2070. But a few things I found especially fascinating: One, the principles behind time travel used here. This is the only time they will be able to go so far back in time. The next trip will have to be shorter. Two, when you finally get all of John’s story at the end of the book. Farmer does a great job of tying things together for you in that regard. But I won’t ruin that part here.

Jon says: You didn’t talk about the appendix? That’s all you’d talk about when you finished the book! Also, you’re really not selling me on his style, but I suppose I’ve read a lot more of the older style of fiction…

Helen says: Yeah, I wasn’t much on his style which is why it landed here. And yes – the appendix ties into and ties up a lot of John’s storyline – which was great. (It also ties it to the other Wold Newton books for those who are interested in that aspect of it.)

Next, we have “meh.” These books aren’t bad. They aren’t good, either. They just sort of were. Without further ado…

We start our “meh’s” with the End of Fun. Seems fitting.

The End of Fun
By Sean McGinty

Helen says: There is a fine line between my “meh” and “ugh” categories. In fact, I could get rid of the remaining four books I have to review (including this one) and not really care too much. The real difference between the two categories, I guess, lies in how much of the book I’m able to remember now. I remember slightly more about the “meh” books than the “ugh” books.

The End of Fun is….part future tech book, part treasure hunt. It’s an odd combination. FUN is the augmented reality program that everybody is on all the time. Our main character, Aaron, wants off. But in order to do that he has to be on FUN long enough to update his account and make it current (getting so many <yay!>s etc.) Meanwhile in the real world he’s sorting through his recently-deceased grandfather’s things and following some clues to a buried inheritance.

It really was an odd mash-up just looking back at it. I’m sure there were supporting characters and storylines, but obviously they didn’t leave a grand impression on me. Like I said, Jon picked the better stories in this “technology-is-vitally-integrated-with-life” vein.

Jon says: That’s too bad. It looks like a fun concept!

Helen says: Pun intended?

Jon says: Actually… no, for once!

That kid really does look evil, doesn’t he?

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil, and I Want to be Your Class President
by Josh Lieb

Jon says: Oliver is an evil genius. He plans to rule the world. He starts by aiming to win the class presidency.

And… I really don’t remember much beyond that, except that to succeed in his goal, the protagonist needs to pee in his pants in front of the entire school.

Which is why I put this in “meh.” I don’t remember having a lot of emotional investment with the characters. I do remember laughing a fair amount, but not why. It was a fine diversion, but not something I’d force on anyone else. So yeah. “Meh” nets you not a lot of memories…

What’s it about? Magicians and lying? Well, clearly, put a train on the cover!

The Magician’s Lie
By Greer Macallister

Helen says: This is a murder mystery. The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day. She saws a man in half onstage every night. But after a show one night, her husband is found dead – really cut in half, without the illusion. A policeman, Virgil, captures her and spends all night listening to her story, trying to determine her guilt or innocence.

That’s it. The action of the novel all takes place on that one night, though her story spans years. Given the title, I was of course waiting to see where her lie came into play and whether or not I could catch it before the author told me (I didn’t, though perhaps I could have.) On the positive end, it kept me reading. And the book has some interesting bits of actual history worked in (about magicians and theaters of the time). On the negative side, Arden’s story involves a lot of past emotional and physical abuse, which is just rough to read. Reasons I won’t be reading through this one again. (Besides which I already know what her lie was and whether she was guilty or not, so no more mystery.)

Jon says: I love interrogation mysteries. I might give this one a go…

Helen says: Heads up: it’s a lot of Arden talking and telling her story. Virgil doesn’t ask as many questions as “intererogation” makes me think. You can still certainly give this one a try – like I said – it kept me reading.

The cover really shows what the book should be: Full of adventure!

Raiders’ Ransom
by Emily Diamand

Jon says: The world is drowning. While Lilly is fishing, raiders attack her town and kidnap the Prime Minister’s daughter. Unless she can find the girl, her village will be scapegoated. So, off she goes to find the pirates, and the best place to do that is the now Venice-like city of London. Secret treasure, pirates, and modern technology in a post-apocalypse world combine into exciting adventure!

Or… it should. This novel has all the pieces of a thrilling story, but they don’t come together quite right. The most important secondary character is nowhere near as likable as he should be, and the plot seems to avoid the most interesting parts of the setting. It also moves much slower than a book like this should. It’s really too bad, because Diamand really did piece together a fantastic setting that I’d love to see more of – just not with these characters, and not at this pace.

Helen says: This is sad because I was interested in reading this one. You’re right – it should have been better. It sounded better.

Nevermore.

The Telling
by Mike Duran

Jon says: Zeph hates his life. He owns a bookstore on the edges of town, but he avoids everyone he can. You would too, if the second you looked at someone you knew their darkest secrets. But then two police officers bring Zeph in to ID a body. His own. Someone has killed him… or someone just like him. Meanwhile, someone’s unearthed an ancient megalith outside of town, and the ninth gate of Hell is about to break open.

This is a Christian horror book. I’ve read some Peretti, but not a whole lot else. I thought I’d give it a try. And there’s some solid stuff in here. The darkness of the book is palpable, and Duran has a solid imagination. His explanation of who Satan was before he fell, in particular, I found very intriguing.

Zeph as a main character is a broken man. Broken men make fantastic protagonists, but something just didn’t click there for me. I’m not entirely sure why. The plot moved plenty quick, the setting worked, and most of the characters worked. But in the end, though I certainly enjoyed the more than my other “meh” entries, it just didn’t sing as much as I’d want it to. Maybe I’m just not the target audience. I don’t know. The book definitely isn’t a waste of time and I’ll likely keep it (as opposed to some others on this post), but… I don’t know. I think maybe I’m just not the target audience.

Helen and I did in fact read some “ugh” books. These are books that weren’t good, and they weren’t neutral. They’re books we won’t recommend and likely won’t keep. They’re books we finished more out of a sense of duty than any kind of enjoyment. So, woo.

Is slaying a zombie against the Ten Commandments?

The Christian Zombie Killers Handbook
by Jeff Kinley

Jon says: Kinley sets up parallel narratives. Every-other chapter tells of a zombie uprising; the odd chapters are Christian life writing, comparing our sinful natures to zombies. The two continue roughly parallel, until a conclusion arrives, showing that the zombie apocalypse has already occurred, and you’re in the middle of it.

While I like the idea of this book, I have the feeling the author wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do. The narrative tells a fairly standard, if well-written, zombie scenario with relatable characters. But the narrative and his chapters that just talk about our sinful natures and how they want to destroy us never really meet up. The narrative isn’t an illustration; it’s just a decent narrative. And the comparison of the sinful nature being a zombie isn’t a bad comparison, but it has nothing to do with the narrative. So you’ve got two books inside one cover that are supposed to mirror each other, but don’t. On top of that, it’s just not great theology.

Man, know what you’re writing and write it. The author is apparently a pastor; I hope he doesn’t preach this way!

The cover DOES give accurate representations of the characters!

Lion of Oz and the Badge of Courage
by Roger S. Baum, illustrated by Sean Coons

Jon says: Once, Lion was the greatest attraction in the Omaha Circus. Then a twister snatches him and his only friend, Oscar Zoroaster Diggs, to a magical land. The two are separated, and Lion is forced by the Wicked Witch of the East to find the Flower of Oz, whose blooms make all in Oz merry. On the way, Lion encounters new friends, finds his courage, and saves his new home.

I wanted to like this so much. It’s written by L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson. My edition is even signed by him! But… it feels like a relatively bland fan fiction. Typos throughout actively distracted me, the art is nothing like John R. Neill’s (who illustrated many of the original Oz series), and the Lion here is nothing like the Lion of the Oz novels. A backstory for the Lion isn’t a bad idea. I even like his “shared origin” with the Wizard – but Baum never really returns to it. His new characters do feel sufficiently Oz-y, but they never really use their abilities to further the plot along. A creative use for the witches just never really goes anywhere.

All in all, I think this could be a worthwhile addition to the Oz canon… after a good going-through with a professional editor. Tighten up the story, brighten the characters, and fix all the typos, you could have something really special. But as it is… man. What a disappointment.

Helen says: So….practice your editing skills on this one? That could be a fun exercise – just trying to determine what doesn’t work and why and how to fix it. (And with a novel that is in fact fixable – as opposed ot a certain other novel on our “bad books” shelf. Lol.)

Jon says:You go for it. 😛

Evocative cover is evocative.

Marcelo in the Real World
By Francisco X. Stork

Helen says: I think this was the first book I read last summer after we bought a big stack of books. I was excited for this one because, I thought, it had a lot of potential. Perhaps that’s why it landed here – because it just didn’t live up to my expectations for it.

The back of the book (in part) reads: “Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear – part of an autism-like condition that no doctor has been able to identify. But his father has never fully believed in the music or Marcelo’s unique perception of reality, and he challenges Marcelo to work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer…to join the ‘real world.’” And I thought that was a great concept.

Unfortunately, much of what I remember about the book is how everyone he encountered tried to manipulate him, use him, or simply brush him off. I don’t remember any shining moments for Marcelo himself. And that’s just not a good sign. Mostly I just remember being disappointed.

HAT!

Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician
By Daniel Walllace

Helen says: This was another book that I had hoped would be better than it turned out to be. From the first page: “I need to tell you a story. After we buried your Henry and came home, I returned to Alabama. I had to. I was drawn back down there by the weight of everything I didn’t know…..This, what you have here, is all I know….A part of me wishes Henry had remained a mystery forever, but in the end I think it’s better to know what we can about people, to see beneath their skin, especially when it’s about our own family – sometimes the most mysterious people we know….I did nothing wrong, but I hope you can forgive me just the same.”

What follows is the story of Henry, told piece by piece, slowly digging closer to the truth of what really happened when he was a child and how he came to be “The negro magician” at a side-show/circus. It really is a sad story, again full of misfortune and loss, and just not something I’m interested in reading at all. Many of the steps of his decline could have been avoided, if he had better knowledge or if he hadn’t been so young. His death, likewise, should have been totally preventable. The storytelling itself is fine enough – even inventive in the way we get the truth of the matter bit by tiny bit. It kept me reading. Maybe I was just looking for something more magical and less depressing.

Jon says: Depressing books really aren’t bad because of their depressing-ness, but if you’re not expecting it… yeah. I get that.

Helen says: Exactly.

I, uh, I can’t find an entry on Amazon. Does this book actually exist…?

Resurrection Men
by T. K. Welsh

Jon says: Victor isn’t dead, but he’d be more valuable if he was. Doctors pay good money for fresh corpses in 1830 London. They need to find out more about the human body, after all, and child corpses in particular are hard to get a hold of. And when Victor is targeted by some gentlemen who want to sell his body and maybe help him along to corpse-dom, well, things might get dangerous.

This is another book I wanted to like so much. A lack of solid resolution hit this book hard, though, and I just wanted so much more from it. Victor isn’t written as a dumb kid, but so often the things that suddenly occur to him are things he should have known long before. I understand laying out clues so the reader can be a step ahead, but you shouldn’t make your protagonist look like an idiot. This looked like such a keep book, and the setting was fantastic. The author had clearly done his homework! I wish he’d put as much effort into his characters.

Cover’s creepy, at least!

The Ribbajack
by Brian Jacques

Jon says: Brian Jacques of Redwall fame writes six haunting short stories. And that’s pretty much it. I remember nothing about these stories except being disappointed. They’re not haunting. They don’t have that lyrical quality of his Redwall novels. The characters don’t stand out. All in all, just a disappointment. I expected better from Brian Jacques.

Helen says: Just didn’t know what level of horror to aim for maybe? How much the target audience could handle?

Jon says:Maybe. But it still didn’t work on a Goosebumps level, and not on a Shusterman level either.

The cover is rather striking. Or stabbing.

Tamburlaine Must Die
by Louise Welsh

Jon says: Christopher Marlowe has been summoned to London. Someone is using one of his most seditious plays to create chaos, and he will be held responsible unless he can track the real killer down. Can Marlowe match wits with his own creation?

At least, that’s what the back of the book says. I don’t remember what the book is really about except that it wasn’t that. There was murder, and Marlowe was held responsible, but it had none of that meta quality I was looking for based on the solicit. It was a simple tale that went directions I didn’t expect to go, and it left me disappointed rather than thrilled. Sometimes you can go against the solicit text, but you know, it’s just better if you write the solicit to match the book you’re trying to sell. I won’t be returning to this author.

And there we’ll end our reviews for today. Next time we get to get the stuff in the middle — the stuff that’s good, but not top ten.

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