Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Front Porch Books: October 2011 Edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly assessment of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mr. UPS, deliver them with a doorbell-and-dash method of deposit, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. To see a larger version of the book covers, click on the thumbnails.

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin (The Penguin Press):  When this padded envelope from Penguin landed on my front porch and I took it inside to rip it open and this handsome chunk of a book fell out into my hands, it was the best of times, not the worst of times.  This above all other new arrivals is my most-anticipated new title of the year.  I've been tracking Tomalin's biography of the Inimitable Boz for more than a year, watching the blip move ever closer to the center of the radar.  And now, it has arrived.  Too bad I have so many other mandatory must-reads ahead of it because I want to dive right in to its pages.  I'm looking forward to the other recent Dickens biography by Michael Slater, but Tomalin's seems to hold even more promise for its liveliness and the fresh angle it appears to take, according to the Jacket Copy:
Like a hero from his novels, Dickens trod a hard path to greatness. Born into a modest middle-class family, his young life was overturned when his profligate father was sent to debtors' prison and Dickens was forced into harsh and humiliating factory work. Yet through these early setbacks he developed his remarkable eye for all that was absurd, tragic, and redemptive in London life. He set out to succeed, and with extraordinary speed and energy made himself into the greatest English novelist of the century. Years later Dickens's daughter wrote to the author George Bernard Shaw, "If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me." Seen as the public champion of household harmony, Dickens tore his own life apart, betraying, deceiving, and breaking with friends and family while he pursued an obsessive love affair.
William Boyd has already given it a glowing review in The Guardian: "...what is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges. Tomalin doesn't hesitate to condemn Dickens when his behaviour demands it, yet she writes throughout with great sympathy and unrivalled knowledge in the most limpid and stylish prose. She has the gift of being able to set a scene and a time with compelling vividness."  Please, sir, can I have some more?

A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Atlantic Monthly Press):  It's always puzzled me why Canadian novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe is not more popular here south of the border.  The Last Crossing, his 2004 epic western about the search for a lost Englishman in the Indian territories of the U.S.-Canadian borderlands in the late 19th century, rivaled the best of Larry McMurtry or A. B. Guthrie Jr. but it never got a strong toehold in the U.S. despite glowing reviews.  The same with The Englishman's Boy, his next novel to be published here, but published prior to The Last Crossing in Canada. Now comes A Good Man to round out the trilogy about the American West (though each firmly stand on their own and can be read in any order).  This one sounds like it packs a lot of appeal for fans of Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Wesley Case is a former soldier and son of a Canadian lumber baron who sets out into the untamed borderlands between Canada and the United States to escape a dark secret from his past. He settles in Montana where he hopes to buy a cattle ranch, and where he begins work as a liaison between the American and Canadian militaries in an effort to contain the Native Americans’ unresolved anger in the wake of the Civil War. Amidst the brutal violence that erupts between the Sioux warriors and U.S. forces, Case’s plan for a quiet ranch life is further compromised by an unexpected dilemma: he falls in love with the beautiful, outspoken, and recently widowed Ada Tarr. It’s a budding romance that soon inflames the jealousy of Ada’s quiet and deeply disturbed admirer, Michael Dunne. When the American government unleashes its final assault on the Indians, Dunne commences his own vicious plan for vengeance in one last feverish attempt to claim Ada as his own.

Lona Hanson* by Thomas Savage (Riverbend):  Half a century ago, another Westerner was vying for recognition in the book world--a universe in which novels like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Peyton Place boomed in popularity.  Like Vanderhaeghe, Thomas Savage earned praise from critics (especially for his 1967 novel The Power of the Dog), but by the time of his death in 2003 he had slipped into obscurity.  Now, thanks to Riverbend Publishing, Savage has a shot at a revival among readers.  Two years ago, they reissued Savage's first novel, The Pass; this Fall, they're bringing back his second book, Lona Hanson, which revolves around the titular character who inherits a ranch and falls in love with a hired hand.  Yes, I'm predisposed to liking these novels because they're set in my beloved Montana, but there's also a raw  power and--dare I say it--savagery to the narratives which appeal to me.  Blurbworthiness: "It is incomprehensible to me that [Thomas] Savage is so neglected....In my view, Savage may be the best of all the western novelists, after Cather." (Thomas McGuane)

All the Roads That Lead From Home by Anne Leigh Parrish (Press 53):  This collection of eleven short stories deserves a shot at reaching a wide audience.  Parrish has previously showed up here at The Quivering Pen and now I'm anxious to read her first book which has just been released by the small-but-scrappy Press 53.  Parrish's work has drawn high praise from several fiction editors, including the legendary C. Michael Curtis of The Atlantic Monthly: "Anne Leigh Parrish has written a collection of stories that deserve a place on the shelf next to Raymond Carver, Tom Boyle, Richard Bausch, and other investigators of lives gone wrong. Parrish writes with painful clarity about marriages turned sour, children at war with their parents, women drifting from one damaging relationship to another, and about unexpected acts of generosity-an impoverished woman giving her battered piano to a priest who had befriended her, a schoolgirl who bribes a boy to pretend an interest in an overweight classmate, then finds that her kindness has disastrous consequences. These are potent and artful stories, from a writer who warrants attentive reading."   He had me at "Carver."

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch (Mariner):  First published in Germany in 2008, The Hangman's Daughter gained popularity in the U.S. thanks to Amazon which gave it a huge push by selling it on the cheap as an e-book through the newly-launched AmazonCrossing program which offers translations of foreign language titles.  It rocketed to No. 1 on the Kindle bestseller lists.  Now Mariner has just released it in a gorgeous paperback edition.  Though I'm usually resistant to the wildly-popular residents of the bestseller lists ("Hello, The Help"), this one looks mightily intriguing.  It's set in the mid-17th century and centers around Magdalena, the headstrong daughter of Bavarian hangman Jakob Kuisl. Together, father and daughter hunt for the person responsible for a rash of child killings.  Here are the irresistible Opening Lines:
October 12 was a good day for killing. It had rained all week, but on this Friday, after the church fair, our good Lord was in a kindlier mood. Though autumn had already come, the sun was shining brightly on that part of Bavaria they call the Pfaffenwinkel--the priests’ corner--and merry noise and laughter could be heard from the town. Drums rumbled, cymbals clanged, and somewhere a fiddle was playing. The aroma of deep-fried doughnuts and roasted meat drifted down to the foul-smelling tanners’ quarter. Yes, it was going to be a lovely execution.

Carry Each His Burden by James Goertel (The L.A. Rural Press):  Here's another highly-anticipated collection of short stories to arrive on my doorstep this past month.  I've had my eye out for Goertel's debut book for many months and now that it's finally here, it looks like it was worth the wait.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In the title story, the son of a literary giant has carried a family secret for forty years and is now ready to confront it and his father once and for all. In "Animal Kingdom," a pedophile stalks his prey unaware he too is being stalked. "Memories Can't Wait" delivers a powerful meditation on remembrance, loss and love through one man's struggle to live with his own heart-wrenching memories before time itself runs out. In "Letting the Days Go By," a man tries to outrun his past, a broken marriage, and the trail of forgotten days rolling out behind him as he takes to the road--one that leads him, ironically, not to a new life, but to a confrontation with the past that still haunts him. And finally, "Almost Blue" invites the reader to eavesdrop on multiple first person accounts of a man who turned the art world on its ear before disappearing into himself just as his most famous painting disappeared, leaving behind a fog of clues, a cloud of suspicion, and a storm of controversy over it and its connection to the death of a brilliant, but troubled musician.

Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston (W. W. Norton):  On the surface, Houston's first novel in six years sounds a little like the love-child of Walter Kirn's Up in the Air and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love:  "Stuck in a dead-end relationship, this fearless narrator leaves her metaphorical baggage behind and finds a comfort zone in the air," says the Jacket Copy.  But leafing through the pages, I see the bulk of the book is comprised of short, page-long dispatches from a love-lorn frequent flyer in hundreds of locations--Tibet to Tucson--and that lends it a quirky lightness which holds a lot of potential appeal.  The Opening Lines hint at the humor to be found here:
      We are two hours out of Sydney when the pilot's voice comes over the PA system. "Ladies and gentlemen," he begins, "I'm sorry to tell you this, but our instruments up here are indicating fuel system failure. We're on the phone with central in Chicago--they are advising us--and we've contacted Sydney air traffic to let them know we're headed back. You can probably tell we're making a big turn right now, and we're going to get you on the ground just as quickly as we can."
      I pull my headphones out of the seat pocket to listen to the tower communications. I hear the words "747-400 heavy" right before the channel goes dead.
      All around me people are turning back to their conversations and their magazines, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads like, Oh those crazy airlines. I listen for a shift in the tone of conversation and do not hear one. I ring my call button. Am I the only person on board who has experienced fuel pump failure in a car?
      "The problem isn't that we don't have enough fuel," the handsome-in-a-rangy, greyhoundesque-way flight attendant says, "the problem is we've got too much. Our max landing weight is 630,000 pounds and we're probably over that by 200,000. We've got two giant overwing fuel tanks, and the captain can't tell which tank the fuel is coming from. If it's all coming from one side it won't take long before we have a serious balance problem."
      "Not to mention if it stops altogether," I say.
      "Right," he says.

Back of Beyond by C. J. Box (Minotaur Books):  I discovered Box's mysteries a couple of years ago and immediately got hooked on the trials and tribulations of Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett who investigates everything from dead elk to missing hikers.  Back of Beyond is a non-Pickett book, but one which holds just as much appeal.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Cody Hoyt, while a brilliant cop, is an alcoholic struggling with two months of sobriety when his mentor and AA sponsor Hank Winters is found burned to death in a remote mountain cabin. At first it looks like the suicide of a man who’s fallen off the wagon, but Cody knows Hank better than that. Sober for fourteen years, Hank took pride in his hard-won sobriety and never hesitated to drop whatever he was doing to talk Cody off a ledge. When Cody takes a closer look at the scene of his friend’s death, it becomes apparent that foul play is at hand. After years of bad behavior with his department, he’s in no position to be investigating a homicide, but this man was a friend and Cody’s determined to find his killer. When clues found at the scene link the murderer to an outfitter leading tourists on a multi-day wilderness horseback trip into the remote corners of Yellowstone National Park—a pack trip that includes his son Justin—Cody is desperate to get on their trail and stop the killer before the group heads into the wild. Among the tourists is fourteen-year-old Gracie Sullivan, an awkward but intelligent loner who begins to suspect that someone in their party is dangerous. In a fatal cat and mouse game, where it becomes apparent the murderer is somehow aware of Cody’s every move, Cody treks into the wilderness to stop a killer hell bent on ruining the only thing in his life he cares about.
You can never go wrong with psychopaths on the loose in Yellowstone, the land of geysers and grizzlies.  Not to mention the fact this novel has some killer Opening Lines:
The night before Cody Hoyt shot the county coroner, he was driving without a purpose in his county Ford Expedition as he often did these days. He was agitated and restless, chain- smoking cigarettes until his throat was raw and sore. He drove right by the rural bars he used to frequent, not going in. Then the call came from dispatch on his cell phone: hikers claimed they found a burned-out cabin in the Big Belt Mountains to the northeast with maybe a dead body inside.

*Full disclosure: This book didn't land on my front porch, it was given to me as a gift from my good friend Dr. O. Alan Weltzien who wrote the Introduction for this new edition.

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