A Year of Books: Pretty Gosh Darn Good Books, Ya Know, Part 2

OK, so we now own a library. Next step: cool ladder.

Welcome to part two of the books we read this year that are pretty darn good, don’t ya know? Let’s get to it!

It looks like a spy novel. Don’t be fooled.

By Sasha Stephenson

Helen says: This one missed my top picks list by half a page. Half a page! Aaaauugggghhh!

Okay, the good stuff: This is a story about two sisters. Lorna is your typical teenager. Her sister Callie is….not. She’s….well….Callie was found in the arctic (with a bunch of other abandoned babies – collectively “Icelings”) and adopted. You could see how that would make someone different right off the bat. She loves to dig in the garden and she’s close with her sister, but she never talks. Never. Not once in the 16 years Callie’s been with the family. But then, she starts building…something…a sculpture of some sort. She goes out and sits in the car, waiting to go….somewhere. She’s definitely trying to communicate something, but even Lorna doesn’t know what.

Another Iceling/sibling pair (Ted and Stan) is, incredibly, doing exactly the same thing at their home. Together Lorna and Stan figure out that these sculptures are maps, more or less. They are sculpting the arctic island where they were found as babies. And they want to go back.

This is a wonderful mystery. Where did these kids come from? Why were they abandoned? Why the arctic of all places? Why don’t they talk? And, as they travel north and meet more and more Icelings like them, how on earth are they all deciding to go back at the same time like this? I loved it! Seriously!

And then there was the last half page. Stephenson could have just stopped half a page sooner. 167 words (give or take my poor counting). The last paragraph should have read:
“I don’t know what comes next, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it without screwing it up, but whatever it is, it’s my sister and me. Here. Now. And with this – with this – I say, Fine. I can take it. I dare you.”

There’s planty of material left for a book 2, but this book is closed then. Finished. Complete.

Instead he added the next few paragraphs. Half a page. Which leaves us with a cliffhanger that I just felt was completely unnecessary. That half page – in my opinion – would have been better used as the opening to book 2. Pick up right where you left off – and it could make a good opening action sequence in short order. And I would have been happy with that.

Now, mine is an advance reader’s copy. So I thought, hey, maybe mine is missing a chapter or two at the end here? So you have to buy the book later to get the ending? ….I dunno. So I looked it up online. Like you do. And there I found…..All sorts of other upset readers. Nope. There is no more. No missing chapters. Just a cliffhanger ending that feels out of place.

In the end I was still too upset at this book to promote it to my top picks. I do encourage you to pick it up and read it. Most of it was really excellent! …Just skip the last half page, okay?

Jon says: Yeah. She was really angry about that last part. She still is. Seriously. She threw the book around a few times while writing the review. If you want to get Helen mad, just write a book like this.

It’s edgy.

By Holly Black

Helen says: Kaye, a pixie, lives “Ironside,” that is, in our world (which is full of iron and makes many faeries sick). She is in love with Robien, who lives in Faerie and has just been crowned. Then Kaye is tricked into formally declaring herself. Unfortunately, since she lives Ironside, she didn’t know all the rules of the Faeire realm. Now the rules dictate she must complete a quest before she can see Robien again. Kaye must find a faerie who can tell a lie. Which is impossible. Why would Robien choose that quest? Is he trying to send her away? Should she still try to complete it?

As she debates what to do, and whether it’s worth trying to play by the rules of Faerie, Kaye finds herself caught up in a Faerie power battle that even spills over to those living Ironside. She better figure out what the rules are quickly.

This one was enjoyable. It’s subtitle (or whatever you want to call it) is “A Modern Faery’s Tale.” The downside is that this is apparently book three. I think book one was Kaye’s tale, book two Robien’s tale, (or possibly vice versa) and this is the one where the two stories come together and resolve. I think. You can certainly read this book on its own (and I did). But you can tell there’s a history and a relationship here that’s already established. And I think it’s somewhat assumed that you’re already invested in these characters. So heads up.

She looks feisty.

by R. J. Anderson

Jon says: Bryony wants to explore outside the tree, but ever since the fairies lost their magic, it’s too dangerous. But when she is named the Queen’s Hunter, the only fairy not just allowed but forced to leave the tree to bring back food, she thinks her life will finally be perfect. What she finds is dangerous, though: the fairies are dying, and the only solution may be for them to give up what makes them fae.

I loved this book, except for one part I’ll get to. I’ve read a fair amount of fiction about fairies, elves, and the like. (Don’t believe me? Check out what else I’ve read just this year!) Anderson has set up a truly unique world, though, and I loved how she revealed different parts of Bryony’s world bit by bit. Bryony is also a joy to read about. Yeah, she’s a touch cliché as a protagonist who wants to go and explore, but she’s just so likable that the cliché portions of her personality just don’t matter.

But… sigh. It seems that there’s often that part of fairy books where the main fairy is injured and rescued by one good human. And it happens here. And it annoyed me enough when it happened I set the book aside.

That said, that episode is absolutely essential to the plot, and what happens because of that encounter, again, makes up for that plot “twist.” It’s only that twist that kept this novel from being in my “favorites” list. The rest is great. It’s been released several times – I happen to have a British edition – but it came out recently from Enclave publishing. (I have no idea why. Unless later books in the series touch on Christian themes, there’s pretty much nothing distinctly Christian about this story.) And yes, it is part of a series, but this novel stands completely by itself. I want to read more, but it’s not “to be continued” or anything!

You should let them in. They look a trustworthy lot.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
By John David Anderson

Helen says: Ms. Bixby is an awesome teacher, and her 6th grade students love her. Topher, Brand, and Steve all have their own reason for connecting to her (though I won’t ruin it all here). So, when she announces that she suddenly won’t be able to finish the school year, they simply can’t believe it. She’s going in for cancer treatments. And while she tries to sound like it’s no big deal, the boys are having none of it.

The three formulate a plan to get themselves out of school, into the city, and to Ms. Bixby’s hospital room to give her the best day ever, complete with McDonalds french fries, white-chocolate raspberry supreme cheesecake, and a bottle of moscato…..Some of those things could be harder to get a hold of than others. And that’s not even taking into account unexpected encounters with other teachers, siblings, and nurses with all their hospital rules.

It really is a touching story. More about the boys than Ms. Bixby because you know how Ms. Bixby’s story is going to end; it is, after all, about her last day.

Amazon thought this picture should be small, apparently.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World
By E. L. Konigsburg

Helen says: This is a “connect the dots” kind of story. This person is related to this that person if you know…. And then from there you can figure out how…..Okay, so that means….And ta da! You have meaningful connections between all the people involved. It’s kind of hard to explain any other way really.

It all starts when Amedeo helps clean out his neighbor’s house and get stuff ready for auction. Mrs. Zender has so much stuff! Dishes and knick-knacks and books she hasn’t touched in ages. And tucked away where only Amadeo would find it, a small drawing in a simple frame. But there’s something about it….if only he could put his finger on it.

And that picture is the piece that draws everyone together, connects all the dots. Eventually.

Well, if R. L. Stine says it’s good…!

by Rachel Ward

Jon says: Anytime Jem makes eye contact with someone else, she sees their numbers… she sees the date they will die. You have any idea how much that’s going to mess someone up? Jem’s avoided relationships ever since. But then Spider enters her life and refuses to go. They run off to London together… but every person she sees has the same numbers. Something is coming. Something is going to kill a lot of people all at once. And there’s nothing she can do about it.

I love that Ward doesn’t sweep the trauma of knowing when someone is going to die under a rug. She has Jem deal with it however she can, and it’s not pretty. Jem’s character isn’t entirely likable because of that damage, but man, Spider is instantly likable. He comes in and you want to cheer for him so much. The book reminds me a bit of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, though less morose. That novel also dealt with a main character that knew when death approached, and it included a lot of blood and gore. Numbers, on the other hand, focuses on the damaged mind and heart of a young woman having to deal with this “gift.” The last page reveal, though not unexpected, also is delicious in its presentation.

Helen says: I thought you said you were expecting sci-fi with this one (just looking at the book and back cover and such), but then it wasn’t…..But it was still enjoyable I see. So….

Jon says: You’re right – this isn’t what I expected. What it was, though, I enjoyed. It felt a lot more like urban fiction with a twist.

The cover really matches the feel of the book; I appreciate when that happens!

The Schwa was Here
By Neal Shusterman

Helen says: Calvin Schwa goes through life mostly unnoticed. Maybe he just has one of those faces. Maybe he’s just a little too quiet or a little to shy. Who knows? But his friend Antsy Bonano has put it to the test. Even dressed in a cat costume and giant orange sombrero, singing at the top of his lungs, “the Schwa” (as Antsy calls him) is only barely noticed.

While testing “The Schwa Effect” and how far Calvin’s invisibility powers will go, Antsy and Calvin take it a bit too far and get caught tresspassing at Mr. Crawley’s. Now they have to come walk his 14 dogs for the next 12 weeks. Bummer.

It’s not that The Schwa doesn’t want to be noticed necessarily. He thinks he gets it from his mother, actaully. After all, she just disappeared one day. Maybe the same thing will happen to him, too. And really, under all the silliness (which is awesome fun), that’s why this is Calvin Schwa’s story.

Jon says: It’s Shusterman. And really, this story is so, so good. You really need to read the follow-up, Antsy Does Time. And I should read the third book in the seires, Ship Out of Luck. Antsy has such a strong voice – I rarely find narrators like him!

Helen says: So much Shusterman, so little time.

I love how the cover captures all three personalities.

Secret Hero Society
Study Hall of Justice
Fort Solitude
by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen

Jon says: Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Diana Prince have come to the Ducard Academy to, you know, go to school. Because that’s what kids do. But something funny is up. And once they solve that mystery, well, Evergreen Adventure Camp has its own mysteries. Only if the three of them team up will they be able to figure out what’s going on!

These are cute and just fun. Now, I’m a comic geek, so I got most of the references here. I have no idea if it would be nearly as enjoyable without getting those nudges, but I had so much fun reading these. They’re aimed at younger grade school kids; there’s lots of comic portions and the like. They’re also written first-person – Study Hall of Justice is written from Bruce’s point of view, while Fort Solitude is written from Clark’s point of view. Apparently at this point there’s no book three from Diana’s point of view, which is a shame on multiple levels. If you’re looking for a breezy nerdy read, yeah, I heartily recommend these!

Not the kind of cover that usually grabs my attention.

Spindle’s End
by Robin McKinley

Jon says: Rosie loves her life. She grew up in a small town on the lord’s lands, raised by two fairies who take care of the town’s magical problems, and is training to be a blacksmith (really, the least fairy-like profession there is). She’s got a gift to speak with animals, but really, everyone has their thing, so why not that? But as Rosie approaches her twenty-first birthday, strange things begin to happen, and her protectors may not be enough to keep her safe. You see, there’s a secret: Rosie is the princess, cursed to prick her finger on a spindle on her twenty-first birthday and die. But if Rosie doesn’t know she’s a princess, can the curse pass her by?

This novel’s cover almost kept me from picking it up, but then I read the first paragraph:

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (It didn’t have to be anything scary or unpleasant, like snakes or slime, especially in a cheerful household – magic tended to reflect the atmosphere of the place in which it found itself – but if you want a cup of tea, a cup of lavender-and-gold pansies or ivory thimbles is unsatisfactory. And while the pansies—put dry in a vase – would probably last a day, looking like ordinary pansies, before they went greyish-dun and collapsed into magic dust, something like an ivory thimble would begin to smudge and crumble as soon as you picked it up.)

The setting and the just-so approach of the author to that heavy use of magic drew me in. Her creative way of telling Sleeping Beauty through the eye of the princess who didn’t know she was a princess also stuck me as fairly unique. However, throughout the course of the novel, McKinley switches her point-of-view character three times, and that drove me up a wall a bit.

The novel is relatively quiet and full of fantasy. The tone reminds me a bit of The Last Unicorn, and not in a bad way at all. I’ve found it several times in used book shops for cheap, so keep your eyes open. It’s a worthy buy.

Helen says: That first paragraph sounds like it should be read aloud.

Jon says: Yeah. It’s a long book for a read-aloud, but it has a very audible quality to it.

You can tell it’s old by the style of uniform. Why, yes, I am a geek. How did you know?

Star Trek
adapted by James Blish

Jon says: Before reliable reruns, before home video, and way before Netflix, if you wanted to catch up on Star Trek, these novels were the best way. James Blish writes short story versions of seven of the episodes of the classic series. This collection came out only six months after the premier episode of the Classic series, allowing fans to read the adventures they missed or relive their favorite moments.

And… this was fun. It was clearly written before continuity “settled down” or the show became a tame beast. Ideas zing here and there so fast – very similar to the classic show. I was a little disappointed in some of Blish’s choices, though. For instance, in his short-story-ification of “The Conscience of the King,” it’s all about the murder mystery, and we get nothing of the struggle that the Butcher felt. That was my favorite part of the episode!

We own ten more of Blish’s collections and I plan to read through them all (eventually…). This opening collection reminded me why classic Trek is so great!

I love titles that include exclamation marks. Like, just go for it.

Edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant

Jon says: The subtitle on the cover reads, “An anthology of fantastically rich and strange stories.” Truth in advertising! There’s some great authors here – Cassandra Clare, Garth Nix, Holly Black, M. T. Anderson… My favorite story here is probably “The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. An abused girl takes her father’s timepiece and creates a device that allows her to slide through time… and rob trains. Like most anthologies, this collection has some strong stories and some weaker stories, but you can’t say you’re getting something that isn’t advertised. It is distinctly steampunk, with all the clockwork inventions to prove it.

It’s sad that the covers change format after book 4…

Book 3: Black Powder War
Book 4: Empire of Ivory
by Naomi Novik

Jon says: I’m not going to say a lot about the plots of these two books, as they’re, you know, later books in a series. I will tell you the concept of the series, though, and if the concept doesn’t explode your head with how awesome it is, we probably can’t be friends.


Napoleon has captured Europe – or nearly all of it – and only Britain’s dominance on the sea can prevent him from capturing the world. But Britain’s victory is far from assured; they need more dragons. Their air forces can barely hold their own. When a dragon imprints on navy captain Will Laurence, it looks like a new species of dragon might take to the skies over London!

In these volumes, Temeraire and his crew fight their way back home from China, and then must explore inner Africa searching for more aid against Napoleon.

Seriously. These books are delicious. If you’re a fan of naval stories as I am – seriously, read some Horatio Hornblower-– as well as a fantasy geek, these novels are gold. Novik’s writing reveals her knowledge of both the Napoleonic era as well as how dragons might work in the real world. Temeraire the dragon’s personality is instantly likable, and Laurence is just a perfect stiff British captain. Great creativity, huge stakes, and imaginative battles round out the novels.

Has your head exploded yet? No? What’s wrong with you?!

Cthullu or simple underwater denizen? You decide!

The Transatlantic Conspiracy
By G. D. Falksen

Helen says: This is the first steampunk I’ve read….I think. And it wasn’t a bad place to start. Set in 1908, most of the action takes place aboard an underwater railroad train. Rosalind, Cecily, and Charles are set to ride on the maiden vogage? of the Transatlantic Express. They may be young, but should have little to worry about considering Rosalind’s father built the whole thing.

Except, Charles is called away just before boarding, and Rose and Cecily can’t find him anywhere. Then, to Rose’s horror, Cecily is found murdered in her cabin. Who would have done this? Why? There’s actually far more going on aboard the train than Rose is aware of, more to Cecily than she knew, and deeper plans for the railway than she imagined.

This was a fun read, and like I said, not a bad place to pick up some steampunk. Mine is once again an advance reader’s copy, so the art in it is unfinished. But, given what I can see here, I bet that’s gorgeous in the final copy too. Bonus!

Art indicative of the interior!

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs
By Jon Scieszka

Helen says: Okay, so we picked this one up simply because my husband had never read it in grade school. I then proceeded to read it aloud to him. Because that’s what you do with picture books. 🙂

Obviously this is intended for young children, and doesn’t hold nearly the same charm as an adult. But I still like the concept of retelling fairy tales – whether it’s from another point of view (like this one) or a modern update or a “what’s next” or just a reimagining. Because I love fairy tales.

Jon says: Yeah, so many people love this book… and don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but I guess I don’t get the hulabaloo. I think it is just because my first encounter with it is as an adult and not a kid.

I hate it when books call me names.

By Robert Hoge

Helen says: Another piece of non-fiction. And another memoir. Robert was born with several physical challenges. There was a tumor on his face and his legs were short and twisted. Even his own mother wasn’t sure what to do at first. Life as a child was not “typical” for Robert – multiple surgeries, artificial legs, and of course the staring and name-calling.

Robert recounts for us what it was like growing up as “…the ugliest person you’ve never met.” It is aimed at a younger audience. 4th grade maybe. He talks about his life from the time he was born up when he was 14 and debating one last operation to truly shape his face. Definietly worth a read.

And then it’s got to call me names again!

by Robert Hoge

Jon says: Robert Hoge was born ugly. No, I’m not being mean. He suffered a severe birth defect that left him looking, well, horrifying. This is Roberts nonfiction autobiography, looking back at his childhood and how he survived school looking, well, ugly.

This episodic story grabbed my attention from the beginning. Hoge’s lighthearted style about a very serious circumstance helped things from getting too morose, but he never shies away from difficult topics, either. I described the book to a teacher friend when I was reading it, and she said it sounded a lot like Wonder. Um, sure. I haven’t read that one, but I leave the note here as a helpful tip to anyone else who knows that one.

To be honest, I read this at the beginning of the year, and at this point I don’t remember a lot of it other than enjoying it. Hopefully Helen’s review will be more detailed!

I wonder if this is a Scholastic book… I just can’t tell…

The Underland Chronicles
Gregor the Overlander
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane
Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
Gregor and the Marks of Secret
Gregor and the Code of Claw
by Suzanne Collins

Jon says: Gregor fell trying to rescue his sister. It was just a grate in their building’s laundry room; why did he fall so long? Gregor finds himself in a world far below New York City, filled with talking rats and cockroaches and bats and… other things, too. He finds himself in the middle of a prophecy that will change Underland forever. Of course, that’s assuming he can survive long enough.

So, yeah. I read the whole series this year. It didn’t grab me nearly as much as, say, Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, but this was good. Unlike many children’s books, in this set, there were real stakes and real losses. Every book the danger grew, until the last book was filled with fantastic tension. Gregor provided a likable protagonist that didn’t fall too victim of “chosen one syndrome” (you know, where everything happens just because he’s the chosen one). Surrounding characters are drawn well, along with secrets you find out along the way. The plots of each book build on one another, but I never felt like I was simply reading a multi-part novel.

But… sigh. The ending of the series. I feel like it just ends. Like Collins looked at the plots she had wrapped up, dusted off her hands, and said, “Yep. It’s over.” The end of book five would make a fine ending of a novel, but not of a series like this. I really hope she has plans to return and show us more.

Other than a biffed ending, though, the series is fun. It does mature as it goes on, a la Harry Potter. Book one I feel my nine-year-old son could handle pretty well, but I’m not so sure about others as it goes on. The positive of that is, as an adult reader, that only helped suck me in all the more. The danger is real, and you find yourself caring about the characters. Again, the stakes just keep getting larger and larger, and there’s no guarantee anyone will make it out alive.

Hurrah to Collins for writing a series that I found more engaging than her Hunger Games series!

He looks happy.

Waylon! One Awesome Thing
by Sara Pennypacker; pictures by Marla Frazee

Jon says: Waylon is a fourth grader who has the best ideas of how to improve life through science. But when one of his friends begins dividing up the class into teams, and a dreaded bully returns to school, Waylon can’t concentrate on science! What’s happening to his friends? Why is the bully the only one treating him like a friend? And how will all this tension lead to Waylon masterminding a jailbreak from the local police station?

The book is aimed at grade schoolers (could you tell with a fourth-grade hero?), and for that it’s pretty good. Enjoyable little twists that as an adult you see a mile away, but kids haven’t seen fifty times already. The characters are likable, and the plots come together in neat ways. I particularly enjoyed Waylon’s interactions with his sister, Neon. They seem so… real. Pennypacker doesn’t make the kids act childish or like little adults, but like… kids. And Neon’s story arc hit my heart just right. I probably wouldn’t have read this if I wasn’t previewing things to give to my kids, but I’m not upset I took the time to read it at all.

But wait! There’s more!

Thus ends the saga of pretty darn good books! Next time, Jon will share reviews on the graphic novels he read this year. There were a couple. Maybe more than two.

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