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.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

discoveryBook – A Discovery of Witches begins in the heart of academia in Oxford’s Bodleian library, where a bright young scholar, Diana, is researching centuries-old manuscripts for a presentation on the origins of science. The author’s detailed descriptions of the atmospheric library and Oxford’s history laden campus set a very pleasant tone for this story of romance, magic, history, and suspense. Diana has suppressed all connections to her family’s involvement with magic and is therefore taken by surprise when her contact with an enchanted manuscript on alchemy in the Bodleian library attracts the unwanted attention of a diverse supernatural community. This community includes another professor, a vampire studying genetics, named Matthew. A tentative courtship between Diana and Matthew includes yoga classes, carefully planned meals, scholarly conversation, and the finest wines. The realistic details of these romantic engagements obviously draw deeply from the life of author Deborah Harkness, who is a history professor, recipient of numerous fellowships, and an award-winning wine blogger. Whether Matthew is trustworthy, or actually one of the numerous entities jeopardizing Diana, is a mystery to be revealed. The second book in the series, Shadow of Night, is even more a work of historical fiction, and reveals the author’s knowledge of Elizabethan England.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

tale forBook – Ruth is a writer in a rut. That is until she finds a Hello Kitty lunch box, wrapped carefully in plastic bags off the coast of British Colombia, thought to have been carried across the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 tsunami. Inside are letters, a decorative wrist watch, and a diary of a teenage girl named Nao.

Nao lives in Japan, and after years of bullying and not being accepted, she has decided to kill herself. But not before she tells the story of her great grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun who is over 100 years old.

Ruth’s life becomes engulfed with Naos. Questions arise: Is Nao still alive? Is Jiko still alive? Can Ruth do anything to help Nao and her family?

This novel allows the audience to read Nao’s journal with Ruth. We solve mysteries and gain new information together, which makes for a rather exciting read. A Tale for the Time Being has been nominated for various prizes and awards, and also won the LA Times Book Award for best fiction of 2013.

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.

 

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

quicksilBook – A vagabond, a natural philosopher, a mathematician, and a harem girl meet in London, in the late Baroque period (as early as 1661), and the result is one of the most epic, sprawling series of historical fiction you will ever read. Stephenson is better known for his cyberpunk novels like Snow Crash, but Quicksilver has more in common with his other work than you might first imagine. He started writing it during the composition of his award-winning Cryptonomicon, which is also a thriller about politics, money, and computers. (Yes, computers: Gottfried Liebnitz was trying to invent a computer as early as 1671.)

Stephenson has become rather famous for big books, but his three-volume Baroque Cycle is definitely his biggest. Although it’s hard to keep track of any given plot thread over the course of more than 2,700 pages, the well-drawn cast of characters from all walks of life will keep you engaged anyway. Fans of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy will enjoy the grand sweep of history and wealth of historical detail, and fans of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon owe it to themselves to give this series a try.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

whereBook – Bernadette is married to a brilliant man, Elgin, who works for Microsoft, and her daughter Bee is a top student at a private middle school. When Bee asks to go to the Antarctica as a reward for her grades, Bernadette is thrown into a tailspin. She has lived a reclusive life in their rundown Seattle home for more than a decade. Using a virtual assistant from India to complete everyday tasks such as shopping and making reservations, Bernadette has tried to avoid mingling with parents from the school and her neighbors. As Bernadette takes increasingly drastic measures to avoid the trip, Elgin becomes more worried and then, Bernadette suddenly disappears. Bee is determined to solve the mystery and, in the process, discovers that people aren’t always who they seem to be. The story is told in a series of emails and correspondence from Bernadette, Elgin, Bee and various friends, doctors and co-workers. This book is fun to read and often laugh-out-loud funny. Bernadette has a wicked sense of humor, but she’s so vulnerable and lonely that I was rooting for her and hoping for a happy ending. I didn’t want to put this book down and was delighted to give away 20 copies for World Book Night on April 23.

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

weightBook - Family is everything in small towns, but Lucy Dane has a hole in hers. Her mother Lila disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and people in town still gossip about her, suggesting witchcraft or something worse was behind her sudden appearance and disappearance in their small Ozark town. Then Lucy’s friend Cheri disappears, and her body is found in horrifying condition near the edge of town, and Lucy finds herself investigating the web of secrets surrounding these two women’s disappearances.

It’s not just the setting that The Weight of Blood has in common with Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, it’s a whole atmosphere, a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia in the wide-open, tight-knit rural world of the Ozarks. This is McHugh’s first novel, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she writes, as smooth and confident as any more seasoned writer, and with an excellent grip on her readers’ emotions. Set some time aside when you start this one – I ended up canceling my weekend plans to finish it!

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Book - The Storied Life of A.J. FikryA.J. Fikry is a curmudgeonly bookstore owner who lives on Alice Island. He recently has been widowed and is in a deep depression when he meets Amelia, the new sales rep from Knightley Press. He is curt with her during their first meeting and after she leaves, goes upstairs to his apartment, eats a frozen dinner and drinks until he passes out. When he awakens the next day, he discovers that the only item of value he possesses, a first edition book, has been stolen. Police Chief Lambiase takes the theft report and during the investigation, the men strike up a friendship. Lambiase is summoned back to the bookstore a short time later, because a toddler named Maya has been abandoned at the store. Fikry’s life is forever changed in the ensuing events, as he begins to discover things about himself and the people in his life. This is a charming tale, with a gentle humor, eccentric characters and observations about the unexpected paths our lives can take.   

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

princesBook – Awakening alone and thoroughly bandaged in a hospital room, Corey can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He is sure, however, that he really ought to get out. He manages to bluff his way through meeting two of his siblings before he confesses the truth of his amnesia, and they help him to remember: he is Corwin, a Prince of Amber, the only true world, and if he doesn’t act quickly, his hated brother Eric will crown himself king.

This is hardboiled fantasy, snappy, sarcastic, and to-the-point. If Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett got together to write a fantasy novel, it might have come out like this. Some of it is a little dated – everyone smokes almost constantly, and when was the last time you heard someone use “dig” to mean “understand?” – but hey, it was published in 1970, you have to make some allowances.

I was struck when reading this (for the first time since high school) at how much of a debt George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire owes to Amber. Sure, it’s all in one family instead of spread over several, but there’s just as much politicking, backstabbing, and fighting for the throne. If you like the one, I bet you’ll like the other.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case HistoriesBook - Three unresolved cases in England span twenty-four years. Case One involves the disappearance of three-year-old Olivia Land. Case Two involves the brutal, seemingly random, murder of eighteen-year-old Laura Wyre. Case Three involves Michelle, a new young mother who feels a murderous rage at being stuck alone out in the country with only her baby and husband for company. As private detective Jackson Brodie begins to look into the cases, he unearths startling discoveries and connections between the cases. We also get glimpses into Jackson’s own tragic past. As he comes to resolutions in the cases, he begins to make peace with his own history. This book was a page-turner and I enjoyed the plot’s twists and turns. It’s told from several different perspectives, which helps illuminate the hopes, struggles and failings of the characters. Despite the dark topics, the novel offers an overall message of hope and healing.