We read lots this year, and I don’t mind that in the least. This chunk of books includes books that we enjoyed and would readily recommend, but didn’t make the best of what we read this year. These books aren’t “meh” (you got that in the last post) and certainly not bad.
You’ll notice there are a lot of them. And there are. In fact, we’re breaking this post into two because of how many are here. How did we read so many books we thought were good and so few that we thought were bad? Well, basically, if we see a book’s bad, we don’t keep reading it. So nearly everything we read is something that we’re going to enjoy. We’re not going to waste time on books we don’t like!
Without further ado, books we thought were pretty darn good, ya know:
Across the Universe
by Beth Revis
Jon says: Amy was frozen for the journey to another world. Elder rides the ship that takes them there, training to lead the next generation on this generational ship. And then he discovers Amy… and all the other frozen ones. And then someone begins killing the frozen people. Elder barely saves Amy from death… but now they’ve been targeted. Who would murder a population no one even knew existed? And what will Amy do now that she’s stranded on a ship she never should have known?
The opening chapter to this novel grabbed me. Amy and her parents go through the freezing process, and man, it is perfect horror. It reminded me in a lot of ways of that one scene at the end of Neal Shusterman’s Unwind. If you’ve read the book, you know the scene I’m talking about. While the central mystery of “Who’s killing the passengers?” is pretty much a dud, the dystopia set up, why it exists, and how it came to be, was so perfectly orchestrated I’m willing to forgive the dumb mystery. There’s this growing sense of horror as you find what really does appear to be a good, stable society is rotten. There’s more than one scene that reminds me of The Giver in the right ways. I also enjoyed that this book ends. Unlike many modern trilogies where they’re basically just a long novel cut into parts, this volume reaches a satisfying conclusion. Not every thread is wrapped up, leaving plenty of room for more writing, but you don’t have to get the next volume to be satisfied. That actually just entices me to pick up book two that much sooner!
By Vera Brosgol
Helen says: This one’s a graphic novel we picked up I’m guessing in large part because there’s a Neil Gaiman review on the cover. Inside I found very clean and easy-to-follow artwork. It’s all in shades of grey (and black and white), which helps keep it simple and which really fits this story. Like, I don’t think I would want it colorized.
Anyway, it’s a fun story idea. Anya accidentally befriends a ghost. Some fun little “what would you do if you had an invisible friend?” type situations ensue. And then, you start to notice something’s just a little bit….off. That ghost is starting to look less and less like her original self and more and more like Anya instead. And it turns into a “what would you do if your invisible friend was trying to take over your life?” story now. The ending holds some danger as the ghost gets desperate (and you learn her backstory). But, for all it’s supernatural elements, this is actually a story about Anya growing up and learning to survive high school and just be herself.
by Vera Brosgol
Jon says: Anya pretty much hates life. She doesn’t fit in at school, and her family just wants to embarrass her. Oh, and then she falls down a well.
And meets a new friend: a ghost, who only wants to help.
Except… maybe the ghost isn’t as friendly as she appears at first. As Anya’s ghost tries to control her life more and more, Anya must find a way to fight back… before what little she has of her life is taken from her.
This graphic novel feels like a great mash-up of slice-of-life girl-growing-up comic and horror. Anya’s ghost offers just the right temptations, and her threats are really, really diabolical. Anya’s character shows more growth in this short book than most main characters in lengthy novels, too, but it’s perfectly realistic for such a young woman – particularly one with such problems. The art is simple. It reflects the slice-of-life aspects well, but then when it adds in the ghost – particularly at the climax, the creepy vibe is perfect.
We just happened to find this book at a Goodwill many months ago, and I’m glad that we did. It’s worth a gander!
By Rafe Martin
Helen says: I finished this one juuuuuuust before the deadline (our self-imposed deadline, but still). I actually started this book twice. Just wasn’t in the mood for it the first time I guess but circled back around to it. It’s a fairy tale. It takes Grimm’s The Six Swans (a tale I wasn’t really familiar with but which is retold in-story so no worries) and asks, “What next?” Prince Ardwin was once a swan, enchanted by an evil witch. The enchantment was broken years ago, but imperfectly – he still bears a wing on his left side. This wing is both a blessing and a curse. It allows him to understand animals and reminds him of the days he flew free in the sky. But it also brings him mockery and lonliness.
When his father the King tries to force him into removing the wing (in exchange for a magical, mechanical arm), however, Ardwin flees. Wing or no wing, it needs to be on his own terms. In his journies he meets the wizard who made the mechanical arm, the witch who once made him a swan, a vicious snow lion, kidnappers, and all manner of other adventures.
The pacing and storytelling style is unique with some parts being “live action” while others are more “told from the outside/after the fact.” Bits sand pieces of other fairy tales are woven in here as well, including “The Goose Girl” which made total sense to me. My only real quibble with the book is Ardwin’s wing on the front cover. (Left wing! Left wing! Sigh.)
Jon says: I love that you catch things like that on covers.
Helen says: 🙂
Black Rabbit Hall
By Eve Chase
Helen says: I did read some adult novels this year. They’re not all YA – promise! And here’s the proof. Set in England, this is kind of two stories about Black Rabbit Hall (a house/home) that eventually come together (like you know they have to).
On the one side you have the story of a family – Mom, Dad, kids – who spent their summers at Black Rabbit Hall. Wonderfully happy, carefree summers. Until one of the children wanders off. A storm moves in and, as she’s looking for the child, Mom falls from her horse. The family is never quite the same without her. A step mom is added to the picture, but that’s certainly no better. The family drifts apart.
On the other side you have the story of a young woman and her fiancee looking for a place to hold their wedding. Lorna falls in love with Black Rabbit Hall and simply must have her wedding there. Of course as she looks around, she slowly learns what happened to the other family. She learns how she and the old woman who lives here now are connected to them also. There’s an air of mystery about it, though it’s certainly not a “whodunit” novel. It’s a family story told over many decades.
Black Star, Bright Dawn
By Scott O’Dell
Helen says: I picked this up based on the author’s name alone. It’s an adventure in nature story much like his Island of the Blue Dolphins, but this one is set in the cold of Alaska. Bright Dawn, an Eskimo girl, runs the Iditarod with her husky/wolf Black Star. If you have seen or heard much about the Iditarod, you can guess some of the trials and troubles she encounters along the way. It is definitely aimed more at the middle school level – more doing, less talking and thiking. But I can see it being used well in that setting or as part of a larger unit about Eskimo culture, tundras, and of course the Iditarod. So for its intended audience – win.
The Boy with 17 Senses
By Sheila Grau
Helen says: A: I love the science behind this concept (synethesia) and that the author’s own condition (misophonia) led her to learn about it and then turn it into a story.
2: You will quickly learn that I love the story behind the story almost as much as the story itself.
C: Yes, I did just mix my letters and numbers.
This story is about a boy who lives in a world where words have tastes and sounds have colors and numbers have emotions and just generally everything (to our way of thinking) is all mixed up and jumbled together. He has 17 senses and they are all intertwined. And then he goes on an adventure into a world of giants, giants who only have 5 senses and who have no idea how terrifying it looks to him with his 17. Our world.
It’s a fun retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk aimed at middle graders.
Jon says: This is one of the few books I’ve read that I really want to know more about how much of the author’s experiences made it into the novel.
The Boy with 17 Senses
by Sheila Grau
Jon says: W just tastes bad. That’s why you don’t name your spiffy new product Wexler’s Wombat-Squares! Not unless you want it to fail terribly. At least, that’s how it works on planet Yipsmix. Jaq grew up on Yipsmix and that’s all he knows – a world where sounds have tastes, numbers have colors, and life just stinks. When Jaq discovers a portal to another world where things are… different… well, it’s good to explore a little, right?
The author, Sheila Grau, has misophonia, which means that there are certain sounds that trigger feelings of rage and disgust. After getting diagnosed, she eventually thought, “Hey, this would make a great kids’ book!” And she was right. The book’s aimed at younger readers, but it was a delight to read. Certainly not terribly complex in plot or characterization, but with a unique setting that really opens up the possibility of how different people sense differently.
Chaos Walking Book 1 – The Knife of Never Letting Go
By Patrick Ness
Helen says: If you’ve been reading our “2016 Books” posts, you’ve already read a review of this one. It was in Jon’s “Top….9.” I read it at a somewhat slower pace than he did and was slower to move on to Book 2, but I still greatly enjoyed it. I love how the different animals and people have different thought patterns. I love how, when you can hear dozens of thoughts overlapping, it appears in the book as crazy overlapping words. (Layout and printing for that must have been fun.) This is certainly part of a larger story; the characters have further to go when this story ends. But at the same time, it is complete in and of itself. This portion of their story is complete. The next challenge will be different. (I’m stressing this here bcause I know a few entries down this list there is a book that failed at this. So note the difference.)
In any case, give it a read. It’a good “chase” novel and reads at about that pace – which is great.
Chaos Walking Book 2 – The Ask and the Answer
By Patrick Ness
Helen says: This one picks up right where the previous one left off. So…I’m not sure how to describe it to you without spoilers. Hm….Well, the first one was a chase novel – constant motion for several straight weeks. This one….is considerable slower. It covers more time. Todd and Viola are apart for much of the novel and they are being forced to take sides, possibly against each other. They actually don’t know whether the other one is okay, or where they’ve gone in the meantime. They are intentionally pitted against one another and used as leverage against each other. And life just generally gets all sorts of complicated.
The “bonus” short story at the end is excellent as well. And though it’s billed as a bonus, I have no doubt it will tie into Book 3 and help illuminate characters and events there. Hm… I really should get back to this series. Oh well, I’m sure Jon will give you a review for Book 3.
Jon says: What was that? Oh yeah. READTHEBOOK! Also, I think Book 1 spread out over, like, one week. We counted at one point.
Helen says: Hey, I answered you over on your review. Expect a book to appear in your seat or on your desk soon. Also, yeah – I just don’t remember the exact timelilne of Book 1.
Jon says: OK, so I already reviewed book one. It made my “best of” list. Books two and three continue and conclude the trilogy, so I don’t want to say too much about their plots, lest I give anything away. I will say that all the tension that Ness brought to book one keeps ratcheting up.
Book two does slow down the pace considerably. In fact, much of it is far more psychological than the fast physical conflict of book one. However, it puts all the pieces in place for an explosive culmination of the trilogy in book three. (I’d actually put the cliffhanger ending of book two among the best cliffhangers I’ve ever read.)
Each book ends with a short story set within the world of Chaos Walking, enriching the characters. The stories at the end of book one and two are perfect “bonus tales.” The story in book three, though… man. Book three ends perfectly. I do not want more. Anything else would ruin the ending. But then Ness included that short story and… well, it doesn’t ruin anything, persay, but it really wasn’t necessary at all.
Look, just go read the set, ok?
Helen? I’ll read Blood Mirror if you finally read Monsters of Men.
Helen says: DONE!
[Editor’s note: Since the writing of this post, Jon has indeed read Blood Mirror and Helen has yet to read Monsters of Men. She needs to keep her end of the bargain!]
The Chaplain’s War
by Brad R. Torgersen
Jon says: The humans were losing the war to the Mantis… until chaplain’s assistant Harrison Barlow struck up an impossible friendship and ended the war. But when it looks like the Mantis are on the move again, Barlow is reactivated to work his magic again. Disaster strikes, though, and it looks like it might be too late… unless Barlow can do the impossible again, even when both the Mantis and the humans want him dead.
Well, if you’re familiar with my other blog, you know I’m a pastor. Baen, who published this book, is known to be open to publishing novels that include conservative Christian characters. And so the concept of this novel grabbed my attention. The opening pages reveal that the Mantis are intrigued by humans, because we are the only species that has religion. Oh, yeah, that grabbed me! …and then it was basically untouched the entire rest of the novel. What was there was very fine military sci fi. If I’d been expecting that, I think I would have enjoyed the book far, far more. As it was, I was looking into a meditation on religion in an intergalactic war. Sigh.
Torgersen does play around a little bit with the concept, but not nearly as much as I had hoped. If you’re looking for some good military action, this is good. The aliens are well-imagined and truly alien. But if you’re looking for that religious aspect, like me, you’ll probably end up disappointed.
The Crowfield Curse
By Pat Walsh
Helen says: Okay, so first I want to note that this is a Chicken House book. Chicken House does something I love. Somewhere on the cover is a “Try It!” suggestion with a page number (for this book it happens to be page 31). So you go to that page and it gives you a snapshot of the writing style, a little hook to draw you into the story. Sometimes I will read the first page in a book to see if that story is what I’m in the mood to read. This gives another spot to try as well (as sometimes the first pages aren’t the most gripping). So, look for it if you find a Chicken House book.
Will is an apprentice at an abbey. Really they were just the ones to take him in as a child and now he’s the errand boy most of the time. But lately, there’s something mysterious and maybe dangerous going on – whispered between the monks and felt in the forest nearby. And then a leper of all people comes to stay at the abbey. He’s looking for something, chasing a legend about a buried angel. And in a hidden spot in the abbey, Will sees a long, white feather. It seems the monks have been hiding secrets. But who could have killed an angel?
Jon says: Huh. Your description is WAY different from the back of the book. I’m more interested in picking it up now!
Helen says: Yeah, I don’t remember what order you get all those clues in, and there’s definietly more to it, but that’s the core.
Doctor Who: Twelve Doctors of Christmas
by various; no editor listed
Jon says: In recent years, the Doctor Who Christmas Special has become a thing. This collection basically offers a Christmas special for each of the Doctors. (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about with multiple Doctors, it’s ok, but this book probably isn’t for you. Try watching a few episodes first, eh?)
The stories vary widely in quality. “Three Wise Men” for Tom Baker’s Doctor seems to punt the idea, when the Doctor visiting Apollo 8 astronauts should have been something far more special. “The Ghost of Christmas Past” for Paul McGann’s Doctor, though, oh, that was a special feeling that you should get from a Christmas story. The Doctor goes hunting for something in the Tardis… and what he finds is something just for him. “The Red Bicycle,” for Chris Eccleston’s Doctor, finds the Doctor looking for a Christmas present for Rose. This one was sweet as well, and it helps it’s written by Gary Russel, who knows the Doctor very well indeed.
The set is a mixed bag, but the stories that are good are oh, so, so good. If you’re a Doctor Who fan and you like the Christmas Specials, this one’s worth grabbing. (And again, if you’re not a Doctor Who fan, why are you bothering with this review? Skip down to the next one!)
Helen says: Maybe put this one in my TBR stack….around Christmastime…we shall see. So many books, so little time.
Jon says: So little time? With the Doctor? Are you trying to be funny?
Jon says: On Durdane, the Faceless Man reigns. He can literally take anyone’s head that he judges guilty. No one knows who he is, but he knows all, and he will find you if you transgress the law. Anyone may petition him, but beware: he will know the truth of the matter. But Gastel Etzwane has seen ferocious invaders come to their lands, and he asks the Faceless Man for help. Why does he not intervene? Etzwane will find out… and his investigations will lead him on a journey that will change his world forever.
Vance is a master at creating new worlds that just work. Cultures may be completely alien to us, but they’re not, “Oh! That’s just a thinly-veiled reference to the USSR!” Durdane is no different for what he usually does. His plots are perfect, his dialogue is hysterical, and his setting intrigues. My only problem with Vance is that often his characters are almost too realistic. The main character, Etzwane, was not someone I really was drawn to. He wasn’t a bad character at all, and he was clearly the protagonist. I just… I didn’t like him the way I want to like my protagonists. That said, the setting, plot, and dialogue sparkle so much that my non-liking of the protagonist didn’t impede my enjoyment of the story.
And what a story! Each volume changes the feel of the story, truly pushing a tale forward that would take George R. R. Martin a few dozen decades to finish. Really, if you want to read some great sci-fi, you can’t go wrong with Vance, and this is as good a place to start as any!
by Conor Kostick
Jon says: Ever since they colonized the world, the virtual reality game Epic has determined everything: your job, how much money you have, whether or not your town will be allocated more resources. And if you don’t like what you get? Simply join the tournament and take down the government. Just that easy. Or at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But when Erik’s character is defeated – and deleted as a result – just a few weeks before the tournament that will determine his life-long occupation, he decides to try something different. Why create a character for fight optimization? He’s only got a few weeks. He can’t level up fast enough. What if he maxes out charisma instead? And that simple question leads him down a path no one has taken in over a hundred years…
This book was right on the edge of making my “best of” list. The writing moves along at a very snappy pace, the characters are both likable and realistic, and world is just enough different from this one to seem realistic. The one problem I had with the book is that I felt the author stuffed too much into it. He asks some really neat questions and sets up some fascinating situations, but doesn’t seem to explore them sufficiently. There is a book two, Saga, which I’ve picked up, but the description seems to take the setting to a very different direction. Alas.
The Feathered Man
By Jeremy deQuidt
Helen says: This is an adventure/suspense novel. YA level horror maybe? Definitely creepy, whatever you call it. It all starts when the toothpuller finds gold and a jewel hidden beneath a dead man’s false teeth. (Yeah, there’s also a fair amount of just dark, gothic-ness to this one.) Before long, everyone is after that jewel, though few know what it really is.
Klaus, the tooth puller’s boy, finds himself running from them all. And burned into his vision is the shadow of a feathered man. The feathered man also seeks the jewel (and Klaus) from another world, a world beyond death. As the story continues, that other world draws ever closer until Klaus finds himself crossing into it. It is a strange world of jungles and death and horror. And if Klaus can’t rid himself of the jewel that has chosen him, he will soon be part of it forever.
If that all sounds strange, that’s because it is. It takes a good 100 pages before the various threads of this story even begin to come together and you can begin to see what this jewel really is and can do. Elements of Aztec ritual/afterlife/superstition play a heavy role here. I wonder if there’s an Aztec myth you could tie any of this to, but sadly I have no idea. Also, I didn’t realize it was a suspense/horror type book when I picked it up. But yeah, it’s kinda dark (especially for a kids’ book.) Even the ending is one of those “It’s still out there waiting” kind of endings.
Jon says: How did you not pick up the creepy vibe from the cover and the back page solicit? The feel there reminded me a lot of the excellent Feathers graphic novel from Archaia Entertainment.
Helen says: True story – flip to the back page solicit first. That will warn your of the creepy. Sigh – hindsight is 20/20.
by M. T. Anderson
Jon says: We’re all hooked up to the web. It’s easier that way, you know? Easier to order your food and chat. Who wants to talk anymore? And we went to the moon, but the moon turned out to suck. But there was this girl there, and she was different. And then this hacker broke in and turned off our connections. We went almost a week without being able to chat. We almost went insane. Total mal. But the girl – Violet? Yeah, she decides to stay off the feed on purpose. And I want to spend more time with her. What’s wrong with me?
Anderson’s novel Feed serves as biting satire and a dark, dark warning. As I read the novel, I felt incredibly uneasy. Some dystopias you read and enjoy because you know it’s totally unrealistic to think we’d ever end up there. But this one? This one’s dangerous. From the casual way the main characters treat the ecological death of the world, to each other’s emotions, to the shallowness of “Friendships,” it all rings like the next step in our world. Anderson plays with language in ways that make me fear the future, and his revelations of the world he’s created just bring more and more horror. And Violet’s dark secret, along with the main character’s reaction to it, just add more dread.
I should warn that though the book is YA, it’s… well, it deals bluntly with drugs and sex. It’s not explicit by any means, but it’s also not something I’d hand a young kid that just read, for instance, Hunger Games. But the warnings it has are well written and worth a gander.
Helen says: Apparently we got a few in this vein as well this year, huh? This one, Epic, The End of Fun…Was there another one too? But it looks like you picked the better ones of the bunch.
The Flying Saucer Gambit
by Larry Maddock
Jon says: EMPIRE is messing with the timeline, and now they’ve landed in New Mexico in 1966, posing as aliens and abducting all the right people. Hannibal Fortune, agent of T.E.R.R.A. Is on the case to make sure the timeline stays pure. He needs to get in, stop EMPIRE, and disturb the natives as little as possible. Well, maybe it’d be ok if he gets romantically entangled with one of the natives. But Fortune’s ally, Webley, a fifteen-pound shape-changer, will keep him on task and take out a few bad guys all on his own.
Man. This is just fun. I’ve read book three in this series before, but this is the first one, setting up the entire premise. It’s a fun time-travel tale that takes advantage of being able to move forward and backward in time. Fortune is a great he-man hero, a two-fisted man who isn’t afraid to flirt – and more – with the ladies while taking care of the bad guys. Maddock clearly is having a great time writing the series, too, and that even soaks into the chapter titles: “You call that the U. S. cavalry?” being one of my favorites. It’s spinner-rack sci-fi at its finest!
Helen says: I don’t know if this is one I’d ever have picked up on my own. Based on that review however….maybe. Remind me of this when I need something short and punchy.
By William Alexander
Helen says: There are so many things I love about this book, and so many things I really wish we could read more about. I was debating putting this one in my top picks list actually. Jon would say it’s great storytelling when there are just these hints at deeper story that you don’t get to see. Personally, I guess I just want it all now.
Rownie lives in a city where playacting or wearing masks or generally pretending to be anyone or anything you are not has been outlawed. Outlawed for citizens anyway. The goblins still put on plays. And when Rownie joins a troup of goblins he learns (at least in part) why mask are so important and the magic behind them so powerful. Powerful enough to save the city…if they hurry.
Like I said, so many deeper stories hidden here. The author does an excellent job of showing not telling. Like, there’s one connection/relationship in the story that you just have to piece together and infer from all the little bits you are shown. It is never spelled out. (Doubly odd because this is written for a middle school type audience again.) There is so much more to the magic of masks that we never get to see and certainly never get explained. And I want all that story. I really hope he writes some more books in this world, because there is so much more to explore.
Jon says: Good writing leaves you wanting more, huh?
By Roald Dahl
Helen says: Some non-fiction for the list! This is really a sequel to Boy which I would assume covers the first part of Roald Dahl’s life. This one covers his time working for the Shell company in Africa and then deciding to go fight in WWII. So some adventure stories involving snakes and lions for the Africa portion. And then, flight training, and missions as a pilot for the RAF (Royal Air Force). There’s also the time he crashed his plane and spent several months recovering as well as how he finally found his family again at the end if it all. So both autobiographical as well as a closer look into what life was like for those men at that time in history. Not necessaarily a normal read for me and not really the kids’ book it looks like. Junior high kids maybe.
Jon says: Sounds neat to me, though. Any tie-ins to other books of his – like this is where he got the idea for X?
Helen says: No, I don’t recall there being any tie to his fiction or writing process. Though I would be interested to read a book like that.
by Chris Wooding
Jon says: If you perform the ritual, you go inside the book. You’ll arrive on Malice, a hellish place where Tall Jake rules. But now Malice is leaking into the real world, Kady is trapped on the inside, and only Seth can stop it. To do that, he’ll need to find how Malice was created and what happens to all the kids who have performed the ritual.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s actually book two in a series, and at the time I read this, we didn’t have book one. (We have since purchased it, but I’ve not yet read it.) This feels a fair amount like The Suburb Beyond the Stars, but aimed maybe a year or two younger. It’s still creepy and has plenty of suspense, but it isn’t quite as much nightmare fuel. Portions of this book switch to a comic format, as the world of Malice exists within a comic book. In fact, the characters end up reading the comic, letting us see what’s going on. It’s a bit meta, which also appeals to me. I do wish the art wasn’t quite as cartoony, though – a plot like this could do with some grit in the art. That said, some good characters and thrilling situations make a good novel.
Helen says: Metafiction is always win.
Thus ends “part one” of the pretty darn good book collection. Come back next time and see Helen get angry at a book. Like, really angry. Like, it’s hilarious.
Just don’t tell her I said so.