Bewilderment by Richard Powers 288 pages

Nominated from The Man Booker Award and The National Book Award this year, Bewilderment is about Theo Byrne, a widower and his nine year old son, Robin. Theo is an astrobiologist at The University of Wisconsin. His son is very bright but has behavioral difficulties, especially at school, but Theo is hesitant about medicating him. When a colleague suggests that a neurofeedback experiment might help Robbie, Theo agrees to pursue it.

Very different from The Overstory which I loved, Bewilderment is just as riveting and also a blend of science and literature. Robbie is a unique, charming, empathetic character. Powers writes a lot about science and a look into the future, but because his story is mostly about a father and son who love each other, I didn’t mind.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers 288 pages

In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden by Niall Williams with Christine Breen 279 pages

The authors have been living in a stone house in Kiltumper, Ireland for 34 years. The house has belonged to the Breens for five generations. The authors have raised two children in the house, met some wonderful neighbors and planted an unbelievable constantly evolving garden. With the news that wind turbines are to be erected right next to their property, Niall and Christine feel that they must record the next year in Kiltumper because it just may be their final year in this rainy, wind-swept, magnificent place.

If you enjoyed This Is Happiness and/or History of the Rain, you will want to read In Kiltumper. Yes, it is a gardening book, but it is so much more. Both authors write with wit, compassion and intelligence throughout the memoir. Also, always in the authors’ and readers’ minds as they progress through the year is the question: what is most important progress, nature or history?

In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden by Niall Williams with Christine Breen 279 pages

The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves 382 pages

In Cleeve’s second Matthew Venn mystery , she focuses on a suicide and the murder of the man who was investigating the suicide. With the help of his assistants, Jen Rafferty and Ross May, Venn finally gets to the bottom of this and other alarming crimes occurring in the quaint, usually quiet, English village in Devon.

I rarely read mysteries with the exception of those by Ann Cleeves. I love her descriptions of the English countryside, her endings are never predictable and Matthew Venn is a unique, admirable detective-gay, very proper and guilt-ridden.

The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves 382 pages

Matrix by Lauren Groff 272 pages

Marie, a bastard relative of Eleanor of Aquitaine, is sent by the queen to a run-down, poverty stricken nunnery in rural England. With a good deal of brains, brawn and faith, Marie turns the convent into a thriving, safe, populated home. Matrix is the story of Marie’s accomplishments as well as her struggles.

Groff’s second novel takes some work. There are many 12th century English/religious words that sent me to the dictionary. Also, it wasn’t until Marie becomes abbess and good things start happening at the convent (at least a third of the way into the novel) that I really felt invested in Matrix. If you are willing to put up with these “obstacle,” you will be rewarded. It should be noted that Matrix is a women’s book-there are no male characters!

Matrix by Lauren Groff 272 pages

Late City by Robert Olen Butler 290 pages

One hundred and sixteen year old Sam Cunningham reviews his life with God as he lies in bed in a nursing home he has lived in for twenty some years. From his growing up years in Louisiana to his role as a sniper in WWI, Sam chats with God about what he regrets and what he is proud of. He goes on to discuss marriage and fatherhood and becomes insightful about what he failed to see as a parent and a husband.

Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler has written a decent book, but I felt that it lacked creativity and was somewhat predictable.

Late City by Robert Olen Butler 290 pages

The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers 790 pages

This is the story of a slave family, a Creek family and a white family. The narrative goes back and forth from 1734 to 2007, describing their problems, their cruelties and their intermarriages. Although there are many diverse characters in The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, the main character is Ailey Pearl Garfield. She is the youngest of three daughters, and her parents are African American and accomplished. Ailey experiments with life until she discovers who she is and what she is meant to achieve.

Honoree Fanonne Jeffers calls her debut novel a Black feminist novel, but it is so much more. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois is a family saga, a work of historical fiction, a coming of age novel and a terrific read.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers 790 pages

Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey by James Rebanks 285 pages

James Rebanks comes from a family of farmers in The Lake District in England. He observes the evolution of farming. His grandfather’s farm planted and raised a variety of crops, much of them for the farmer’s family. Farming today has become an industry which specializes in one product or animal using heavy machinery to produce huge quantities. Rebanks inherits the family farm and works diligently to get it back to the way the land and the animals will benefit long term.

I realize my description of Pastoral Song makes it sound dull and didactic, but Rebanks’ prose makes this work of nonfiction highly readable and enjoyable. Pastoral Song is part environmental warning and part homage to the small and diverse working farms of the world.

Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey by James Rebanks 285 pages

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina 376 pages

Yui has lost her mother and daughter in the Japanese tsunami of 2011. Uncertain how to deal with her all encompassing grief, she learns of a phone booth far from where she lives in Tokyo that mourners use as a symbolic way to talk to the dead. During her first journey there, she meets a surgeon who has lost his wife to cancer. From that day on, they make the pilgrimage together once a month.

Messina’s novel is a fine example of how some individuals cope with grief, love and loss. Although one would think The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World would be a terribly depressing read; it truly isn’t. It’s a work filled with hope and is life affirming. The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World is a beautiful, heartfelt gem.

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina 376 pages

The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge, and the Phoenix Park Murders That Stunned Victorian England by Julie Kavanagh 356 pages

On May 6, 1882 two men, Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke, were brutally stabbed to death by a violent group intent on obtaining Home Rule for Ireland. It was understandable why Burke would be the group’s target, but Cavendish was a fair man who sympathized with the plight of the Irish. The Irish Assassins describes the Irish-English conflict that led up to the Phoenix Park murders and what occurred as a result of the two killings.

Julie Kavabagh’s book is filled with a cast of interesting historical figures as well known as Queen Victoria and Charles Parnell to less famous but just as compelling characters, such as James Carey and John Mallon. If you are interested in the history of Ireland, you will want to read The Irish Assassins.

The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge, and the Phoenix Park Murders That Stunned Victorian England by Julie Kavanagh 356 pages

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life by George Saunders 390 pages

Every summer I read a classic that I have never read before. This summer is a little different. I read George Saunders’ most recent work which discusses seven Russian short stories: 3 by Chekhov, 2 by Tolstoy, 1 by Gogol and 1 by Turgenev. Saunders’ approach to these authors and their works is humorous, self-effacing and easy to understand. He takes examples from his life as a writer, a teacher and an average human being. After reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain I had a greater respect for the four Russian authors even though I had already admired them. I also sincerely wished that I could take a class, any class, that George Saunders was teaching.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life by George Saunders 390 pages