The House on Blackberry Hill by Donna Alward

house on bBook – I was looking for a nice light read with a plot and characters that would invite relaxation. I got it in The House on Blackberry Hill by Donna Alward.

Abby Foster has had a difficult life growing up and her experiences from then have colored her attitudes about the house and history that she’s inherited. She wants nothing to do with a heritage that was denied her and her only goal is to sell and run. In order to sell, she needs to get the house in better shape. In comes Tom Arseneault, the contractor determined to work on the Foster estate. His specialty is restoring old homes and he cannot bear to see a house stripped and sanitized instead of restored.

While bringing this estate back to life, both Tom and Abby deal with their pasts in the hope of enjoying a future together.

A really fun, sweet read with enough twists and misunderstandings to keep it from being sappy, yet not so many that it defeated the purpose of a light, fluffy read. I enjoyed the journey that Abby made and some of the self-realizations were very well written and not once did I roll my eyes (that has often been the case in other books of this weight.) I will definitely revisit this series and look forward to the next one coming out in October.

Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter

burning your boatsBook – Short stories are funny things. They’re short, of course, which means you don’t spend very much time with them, but somehow they can pack even more emotional punch than a novel. Some writers can write beautiful novels and their short stories fall flat; some writers write incredible short stories but their novels meander strangely. For my part, I think of Angela Carter as the second type: her novels are deeply weird in a way I don’t enjoy, but her short stories are incredibly powerful.

This is an omnibus collection of Carter’s work, so there’s a lot of variety here. Some of my favorite stories are “The Fall River Axe Murders,” a narrative about Lizzie Borden; “The Bloody Chamber,” a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale; and “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” a story Carter wrote after someone argued that the only thing a story needed was for something to happen. (Nothing actually happens in “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” but it’s a moving story nonetheless.)

This is a big collection, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it all at once anyway – there’s too much going on. But if you’re looking for a little flicker of something brilliant, this is a good book to dip into.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

circleBookThe Circle chronicles the experiences of Mae, who with the help of a friend has landed her dream job at the nation’s premier Internet corporation, the Circle. This company is the descendant of companies such as Google and Facebook, and descriptions of the well-appointed corporate campus resemble the Silicon Valley workplaces glorified in movies such as The Internship. Mae’s story is engaging as she revels in the luxury and convenience of her modern workplace, and endeavors to move up in the literal ranking system of the company. Her character brings to mind recent college graduates who have faced a grim employment landscape, therefore her motivations are understandable and her successes are satisfying.

The Circle takes care of their employees’ every need, physical, intellectual, and social, asking only that employees immerse themselves in the campus culture and share feedback on all their experiences. “Sharing is Caring” is a corporate mantra that Mae herself helps to develop, one that evolves over the course of this cautionary tale. What is especially chilling about this cleverly subtle satire of modern Internet culture is that the technology and worldview described are only steps away from where current trends are steering us.

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.

An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg

an unfinished lifeBook – An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg is the story of Jean Gillkyson, a young widow with a precocious nine year old daughter named Griff.  Griff has made her mother promise that the next time Roy beats Jean up they will leave him. Jean keeps her promise and Griff is thrilled by the prospect of them starting a new life and going on an adventure. Having no money and no place to go Jean decides to seek refuge with her father-in-law, Einar, an old rancher in Wyoming whom she hasn’t seen in over a decade. Griff loves ranch life, the log house, and immediately makes friend with Einar’s Vietnam buddy Mitch, but will she be able to win the heart of her grandfather? Will Einar and Jean ever be able to move on and overcome the guilt that they both feel and learn to forgive and accept one another as family? Beautifully written and full of emotion this story is about healing and the hope that Griff will finally have a real home and stable family.  The movie version of An Unfinished Life is very well done and shows the beauty of Wyoming.  It stars Robert Redford as Einar and Jennifer Lopez as Jean.

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.