The Vacationers by Emma Straub

vacationersBook – The Posts are going to Mallorca for a two-week vacation. Franny and Jim are celebrating their 35th Anniversary, but recent issues are casting doubt that they’ll celebrate their 36th. Their daughter, Sylvia, is happy to escape Manhattan for the summer to join them before she heads off to college. Bobby, her older brother, arrives with his girlfriend, Carmen, a fitness instructor who annoys the family. The guest list rounds off with Franny’s best friend, Charles and his husband Lawrence. When the guests are assembled in the luxurious villa, they begin to realize that their hopes and troubles have followed them to their holiday paradise. As the vacationers relax and explore the island, they discover truths about themselves and their relationships. I didn’t think I was going to like these characters as much as I did. Straub’s humor manages to be pointed, yet kind.Straub is also the author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.

Road Ends by Mary Lawson

road endsBook – Straun, Ontario is home to twenty-one year old Megan Cartwright and her family. Megan has been the organizer of her household and primary caretaker of her family since she was a young girl. Her father is a banker and stays in his study when he’s home and her mother is caught up with the arrival of the newest baby. When Megan decides that it’s time she goes out on her own and leaves for England, the family is left without their safety net. Her older brother, Tom, has been driving the town snow plow and living at home since a tragedy involving his best friend. Her mother is increasingly vague and neglectful. The younger boys are fending for themselves. Her father refuses to acknowledge his family’s decline. Megan is unaware of the family’s turmoil as she struggles to find her own place in the world. When things finally come to a head, everyone must own up to their frailties and make difficult choices. I love the way Lawson captures family dynamics and small-town life. Her characters are flawed, but relatable in their struggles. Straun is also the setting for Lawson’s novel Crow Lake and some of the characters make a reappearance in Road Ends.

Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

raisingBook – Stony Mayhall isn’t like other kids. His skin is cold and grey. He doesn’t hurt when he’s injured. Oh, and he’s been dead since he was born. On a cold night not long after the zombie uprising. Wanda Mayhall found the body of a young mother by the side of the road, but the baby in her arms reached out when Wanda came close, so she brought it home and raised it as her own. No one knows why Stony grew up, even though he was a zombie, but they know they have to keep him a secret.

Unlike most zombie stories, Raising Stony Mayhall isn’t really a horror novel: it’s a story about family, and finding out who you are. Stony grows up in isolation, but his discovery that there are other living dead folks walking around brings his life into a new perspective. The point isn’t to scare you but to make you think. Daryl Gregory calls the genre he writes in “anti-horror,” a story that starts out seeming like horror but which turns into something much more positive. Even if you’re sick to death of zombie stories, give this one a try: it’s not at all what you’ve become used to.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinchBook – This Pulitzer prize-winning story has been likened to a number of classic coming-of-age tales from Charles Dickens. The central character in this novel, Theodore Decker, loses his mother during a tragedy that he himself survives at a New York art museum. The traumatic event, told from Theodore’s perspective, provides a compelling start for the book.

The audiobook for this title is narrated by David Pittu. His narration is exceptional as his voice conveys the pathos of young Theo and the psychic burden that overlays his life. Theo and his mother had been estranged from his father, and after the events in the museum Theo is housed for a time in a beautiful Manhattan apartment with the wealthy family of a socially-inept schoolmate. His appreciation for the art and antiques in the apartment touches upon on-going themes in the book: the immortality of masterpieces, the messages they convey through the ages, and the profound attachments individuals form with these pieces.

I was especially glad to be listening to the audiobook version of this story when Theo, as a teenager, develops a friendship with Boris, a boy from Ukraine. Both author and narrator played delightfully with the Slavic dialect. Boris is a wonderful character because he brought levity and perspective to the story, and David Pittu’s Boris was very likable.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

RevisedBook – Ben Benjamin is in a low place – he’s lost his job, his home and his family. Hoping to start a new career, he enrolls in a night class called the “Fundamentals of Caregiving.” Upon receiving his certificate, he begins to care for his first patient, nineteen-year-old Trevor. Trevor has Duchenne muscular atrophy and requires an extensive amount of assistance from his mother, Elsa, and Ben. Trevor’s father, Bob, has awkwardly been trying to mend the rift he created with Trevor when he abandoned the family years earlier. Although Trevor and his mother have been rebuffing his attempts for years, when Bob is in a car accident, Trevor initiates the idea of a 600 mile road trip to visit him in Utah. When Ben and Trevor set off on their adventure, they have no idea about the people they’ll meet and the shift their lives will take on their journey.

While Ben struggles to keep a professional, emotional distance from Trevor, he also struggles with his own emotions in dealing with his tragic past. What keeps this book from becoming overly maudlin is the humor. The characters are quirky, and Evison highlights the absurd amidst the difficult situations in their lives. This book was an off-beat, surprising ride through the lives of Ben and Trevor.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

goblinBook – Maia may have been an emperor’s son, but he never expected to amount to anything. His older brother was the heir, after all, and Maia had been exiled from court when his mother died, so the chances of Maia ever leaving the backwater estate he’s grown up in are small. But when the Emperor – along with all of his other heirs – die in an airship crash, Maia is the only one left, and he will have to learn everything there is to know about the court before he suffers the same fate as his father.

Katherine Addison is the new pen-name of Sarah Monette, who I’ve already written about as one of my favorite authors. With The Goblin Emperor she switches gears from the dark, emotionally fraught stories she’s known for to a more optimistic mood. Maia has a hard life, but he does well in it, gaining confidence by leaps and bounds as the story progresses. This is a coming-of-age story that starts where most leave off (usually becoming Emperor is the reward at the end of the quest) and it’s an extremely satisfying one. I’m happy to call this already one of the best fantasy books of the year.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

astonishBook – Joan has been studying ballet since she was a young girl. Her best friend in high school, Jacob Bintz, is in love with her, but Joan is intent on following her dreams of a dance career. She travels to Paris and becomes entranced with a Russian dancer named Arslan Rusakov when he performs during a rehearsal. They have a brief, intense affair and Joan evaluates her life and ambitions. As the story moves ahead, Joan’s future becomes entangled with her past in surprising ways. We get to know Joan’s family and friends and witness the complicated way relationships evolve and shift during their lives. I enjoyed this story as I learned more about the demands of ballet, the choices that performers may face and the way that talent can emerge and impact lives.

Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaBook – This is the courageous and adventurous coming of age story of 15 year old Dell Parsons. The book opens with, “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” This is Dell’s reflection, 50 years later, as he retires from his teaching profession.

The novel begins with the Parsons family moving to Great Falls, Montana in 1956.  Dell has a twin sister, Berner, who is bigger and stronger than he is and while Berner contemplates running away with her boyfriend, Dell immerses himself in chess and dreams of beekeeping. Bev Parson decides to leave the Air Force at the age of 37 and attempts many jobs and schemes to support the family.   In desperation, he convinces his wife that he has a foolproof plan and that they should rob a bank in North Dakota.  The parents are jailed for the bank robbery and the twins are left to fend for themselves.

Berner runs away to West Coast and Dell is taken to Saskatchewan by a family friend and turned over to Arthur Remlinger, a mysterious Harvard educated American who is lawless and has violent tendencies. Dell is put to work and most of it is hard and unsavory. He finds himself living a very barren and lonely existence. This haunting work of psychological fiction shows how Dell adjusts to his new circumstances and makes the best the out of almost hopeless situation. This beautifully written story by Richard Ford is a must read.

 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetBook – With great pleasure I will be giving away free copies of the book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford on Wednesday, April 23rd (Shakespeare’s Birthday) for World Book Night. This is a beautiful, sentimental heartfelt story suitable for teens and adults. Set in Seattle during World War II, 12 year olds Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe form a friendship, drawn to each other since they are the only non-Caucasians on scholarship at a prestigious private school. Unfortunately the relationship is forbidden and Henry must keep it a secret from his family since he is Chinese and Keiko is Japanese. Henry is forced to wear a button reading “I am Chinese”   by his father, who has a deep-hatred of Japan. Japanese residents of Seattle have begun to be shipped off by the thousands to relocation centers due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Eventually, Keiko and her family are sent to an internment camp in Idaho and Henry vows to wait for her.  Forty years later, Henry learns that the Panama Hotel will be renovated and that the basement contains the belongings of many of the Japanese that were forced to leave Seattle during WW II.  His fond memories of Keiko are rekindled and he relays of his friendship  to his own son, in hopes of preventing the dysfunctional relationship he experienced with his own father.  This is a good choice for a book club and if you enjoy this novel you may want to read Jamie Ford’s new book Songs of Willow Frost.

Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler

Sea ChangeBook – For the past several years I’ve been attending the awards ceremony for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” Sometimes I’m already familiar with the winner, but usually I get a list of great new books to read. This year the only one of the nominees I’ve already read is Sea Change, a fairytale by S.M. Wheeler about a girl and her octopus.
Lilly lives a sad and miserable life as the only child of parents who hate each other, perched in their castle by the sea. Her best friend is Octavius, a kraken; the two of them talk about friendship and morality. Then one day Octavius is captured and sold to a circus, and Lilly sets out on a quest to rescue him.
This is an incredibly poetic book, written more for the beautiful language and the sense of a fairy-tale than for ease of reading. Lilly’s story is a hard one, but the way she perseveres and changes is inspiring. I’d recommend it for fans of Caitlín R. Kiernan and Catherynne M. Valente.