Front Porch Books is a monthly tally 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 Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. 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. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.
Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch (Ecco): Benjamin Busch has led what appears to be a rich and varied life. He's the son of acclaimed novelist Frederick Busch, he's an actor who played cop Anthony Colicchio on The Wire, and he's a U.S. Marine who served two combat tours in Iraq. All three of those, along with the charred lighter on the cover, were enough to draw me to this book, which the Jacket Copy calls "an extraordinary memoir about ordinary things." During the composition of Fobbit, I've mostly avoided reading books about Iraq (with the singular exception of George Packer's The Assassins' Gate), but now that my novel is on its way to the typesetter at Grove, I'm ready to step into those waters. Busch's memoir will be a good place to start because I'm particularly fond of his father's fiction and I have a good feeling that the talent has been handed down a generation. Here are the Opening Lines:
I was not allowed to have a gun. My parents were fresh from Vietnam War protests, and they had no intention of raising a soldier. My mother was against the idea of toy weapons, and my father quietly supported the embargo. He had been a boy once, though, and was a war baby. His father, Benjamin Busch, had been a sergeant in the Tenth Mountain Division, fighting German troops in the Italian Alps. My mother's father, Allan Burroughs, had been a marine in the Guadalcanal campaign against the Japanese. He called me "Little Son of Gun," but I continued to have no guns at all.Blurbworthiness: “Dust to Dust is a wonderful book, original in concept and stunningly written, a soldier’s memoir that is about soldiering and much else besides. The last two dozen pages are a tour de force, a breathtaking meditation on loss and remembrance, dust to dust.” (Ward Just, author of Rodin's Debutante)
Blind by Belo Miguel Cipriani (Wheatmark): Here's another memoir which caught my eye (no pun intended). It's relatively short page-wise, but it's long on poetic descriptions of our world. Which is not surprising when you learn that Cipriani is writing about his life adjusting to a world of darkness after 2007 when he was attacked and beaten so severely he lost his vision. He was literally robbed blind. To add a complex layer of drama on top of that, his muggers were his childhood friends. Okay, now I'm hooked. Jacket Copy: "Blind chronicles the two years immediately following the assault when, at the age of 26, Cipriani found himself learning to walk, cook, and date in the dark." Blurbworthiness: "Belo Cipriani's account of profound loss is both riveting and suspenseful, as we traverse with him into a new world." (Amy Tan)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (HarperCollins): The first time I encountered Jess Walter, I was laughing so hard I thought I might need a diaper. It was two years ago at the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula and Walter was reading a short story about a guy, a couch, and a disastrous love affair. At least I think that's what I was about. I don't know, I was giggling to the point where my throat seized up and my ears popped. So, maybe it was about a gorilla, a taxidermist, and a banana. It wouldn't have mattered because, based on that short story alone, I can safely say Jess Walter is one of the funniest writers in print these days. I don't know how much of a knee-slapper his new novel, Beautiful Ruins, will be, but he's already got a good track record of humor with The Financial Lives of the Poets and Citizen Vince. Beautiful Ruins begins on the coast of Italy in 1962, where Pasquale, a young proprietor of the Hotel Adequate View, a failing hotel on the Italian coast, glimpses a beautiful Hollywood actress filming on location and falls in love. Fifty years later, that same Italian man heads to California to find her, aided by a cynical movie producer and an idealistic young assistant. Funny or not, Beautiful Ruins has all the right elements for me: Hollywood, the Italian coast, unrequited love, and Jess Walter.
Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan (Knopf): This is one of two sequels I'm looking forward to this year (Justin Cronin's The Twelve, the followup to The Passage, is the other). Talulla Rising picks up where The Last Werewolf left off. Jake (the titular lycanthrope of the first novel) is dead and WOCOP, the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena, is in pursuit of his lover, the female werewolf Talulla. Given my enjoyment of The Last Werewolf, I expect I'll be howling with delight at Talulla. Jacket Copy:
Talulla, pregnant, grieving, and on the run, must face her werewolf future without Jake. Premature labor under a full moon leaves her near death, but with her newborn son in her arms, she believes the worst is over. Until the door opens--and a new nightmare begins. What follows tests her sanity, her motherhood, and her will to survive, in a race against time to recover her lost child, an epic struggle that sees her crossing paths with a psychotic new WOCOP leader, an unlikely human lover, blood-drinking religious fanatics, a pack of London werewolves, and (rumor has it) the oldest living vampire on earth...Talulla Rising pushes the werewolf myth further into new territory to give us a novel rich in action and ideas, delivering in the process the definitive twenty-first-century female of the species.
Hollywood Boulevard by Janyce Stefan-Cole (Unbridled Books): Here's a debut novel that combines several elements that have instant appeal to me: washed-up Hollywood celebrities, noir, and Unbridled Books. I've always looked forward to cracking open an Unbridled release soon after it lands on my doorstep and Stefan-Cole's novel definitely punches my ticket to Anticipation Land. Here's the Jacket Copy:
Ardennes Thrush is an award-winning movie star who suddenly and mysteriously quit acting at the height of her fame. She is in Hollywood now, at the Hotel Muse, visiting her husband Andre, a world-renowned director struggling through his latest film. Ardennes, a contemplative woman, is also something of a voyeur, and as she watches the comings and goings in the hotel she begins to fear that perhaps she is being stalked. Her period of anonymity ends after a box of dead roses is delivered to her suite. When a Beverly Hills detective comes to investigate, a powerful attraction turns unexpectedly unprofessional and quickly carnal. When the stalker turns out to be real, Ardennes's private journey escalates into real danger, and we watch rapt as she searches her past for the answer to how she brought herself here.
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): This year marks the centennial of the founding of the Girl Scouts of America. You can celebrate by gorging on Thin Mints and Tag-a-Longs, or you can read Hassman's debut novel about young Rory Hendrix who lives in the Calle de las Flores trailer park in Reno, Nevada. Rory is so obsessed with the Girl Scouts, if you cut her veins, she bleeds green. Hassam's novel is eye-catching--starting with that wonderful cover design of a library card poking out of a pocket overlaid on a green grim picture of what could be Rory's trailer. Inside, the chapters are most short and acute observations of grade-school life. This one is going straight to the To-Be-Read pile! Here's the Jacket Copy:
Rory Hendrix is the least likely of Girl Scouts. She hasn’t got a troop or even a badge to call her own. But she’s checked the Handbook out from the elementary school library so many times that her name fills all the lines on the card, and she pores over its surreal advice (Uniforms, disposing of outgrown; The Right Use of Your Body; Finding Your Way When Lost) for tips to get off the Calle: that is, the Calle de las Flores, the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, the sweet-faced, hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop. Rory’s been told that she is one of the “third-generation bastards surely on the road to whoredom.” But she’s determined to prove the county and her own family wrong. Brash, sassy, vulnerable, wise, and terrified, she struggles with her mother’s habit of trusting the wrong men, and the mixed blessing of being too smart for her own good. From diary entries, social workers’ reports, half-recalled memories, arrest records, family lore, Supreme Court opinions, and her grandmother’s letters, Rory crafts a devastating collage that shows us her world even as she searches for the way out of it.Blurbworthiness: “This first novel is not like anything you or I have ever read. Something between a shocking exposé, a defiant treatise, a prose poem, and an exuberant Girl Scout manual, it is always formally inventive and bursting with energy. Yes, this is an insider’s report confirming the worst you ever allowed yourself to think about lowdown trailer parks. And yet somehow Tupelo Hassman’s book is also a testament to joy and beauty, and to the saving power of language wherever it gets a foothold. She has irrepressible high spirits, which flow forth in this case as brilliance and lyricism. Tupelo Hassman loves life in spite of everything, and you can’t help loving this novel and her.” (Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule)
Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco): The phenomenally prolific JCO (who, I secretly suspect is a robot cranking out words 24/7) lands another novel in our laps. This time, it's about "the tension between childhood and adulthood, the real and the imagined, and the 'public' and 'private' in the life of a highly complex contemporary woman." Here's more from the Jacket Copy:
Mudgirl is a child abandoned by her mother in the silty flats of the Black Snake River. Cast aside, Mudgirl survives by an accident of fate—or destiny. After her rescue, the well-meaning couple who adopt Mudgirl quarantine her poisonous history behind the barrier of their middle-class values, seemingly sealing it off forever. But the bulwark of the present proves surprisingly vulnerable to the agents of the past. Meredith “M.R.” Neukirchen is the first woman president of an Ivy League university. Her commitment to her career and moral fervor for her role are all-consuming. Involved with a secret lover whose feelings for her are teasingly undefined, and concerned with the intensifying crisis of the American political climate as the United States edges toward war with Iraq, M.R. is confronted with challenges to her leadership that test her in ways she could not have anticipated. The fierce idealism and intelligence that delivered her from a more conventional life in her upstate New York hometown now threaten to undo her. A reckless trip upstate thrusts M.R. Neukirchen into an unexpected psychic collision with Mudgirl and the life M.R. believes she has left behind.
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Little, Brown): Each month, it seems I get at last one book that comes to my house with the outward appearance of something I need to read At All Costs. It's like a confident, smart, funny, gorgeous person entering the room at a cocktail party--you can't help but be drawn by the magnetic allure. Last month, it was The Evening Hour. This time around, it's Charlotte Rogan's debut novel The Lifeboat. These are books which make me wish, for the hundred-thousandth time, that I was a professional reader, a bon vivant who was paid to sit around and read non-stop for nine-hour shifts. Maybe then I could whittle down my To-Be-Read tower of books which teeters dangerously on the corner of my desk, swaying in the breeze from my slightest cough. Right now, The Lifeboat sits at the summit of that stack. From the time it walked into the room a week ago, I couldn't take my eyes off of it--starting with the gorgeous cover, and continuing with the Jacket Copy:
Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die. As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she'd found. Will she pay any price to keep it?I should also mention that I'm a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat; Rogan's novel seems to share some of the movie's moral-dilemma qualities. Here are the Opening Lines (from the first chapter):
The first day in the lifeboat we were mostly silent, either taking in or refusing to take in the drama playing itself out in the seething waters around us. John Hardie, an able-bodied seaman and the only crew member on board Lifeboat 14, took immediate charge. He assigned seats based on weight distribution, and because the lifeboat was riding low in the water, he forbade anyone to stand up or move without permission. Then he wrested a rudder from where it was stored underneath the seats, fixed it into place at the back of the boat, and commanded anyone who knew how to row a boat to take up one of four long oars, which were quickly appropriated by three of the men and a sturdy woman named Mrs Grant. Hardie gave them orders to gain as much distance from the foundering craft as possible, saying, "Row yer bloody hearts out, unless ye want to be sucked under to yer doom!"
A Stranger on the Planet by Adam Schwartz (Soho Press): I can't speak for the rest of Schwartz' debut novel, but I sure liked the Opening Lines:
My mother met Eddie Lipper in the Catskills on July 4, 1969, and married him in Las Vegas sixteen days later. She claimed they were pronounced man and wife at the exact moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I didn’t believe her, but I was twelve years old that summer and would have welcomed just about any man into our lives. My mother was thirty-five, and I know the same was true for her.Here's the Jacket Copy for what looks like a pretty damn good book:
We were a family of four: me; my mother, Ruth; my twin sister, Sarah; and our younger brother, Seamus—a name recommended to my mother by our neighbor Mary Murphy from County Cork. My name is Seth. Seth Shapiro. Ruth said she selected all of our names because she wanted our initials to represent how strongly we were connected: SSSSSS. She called us her chain of love. She was right, of course—the four of us were deeply and painfully bound together—but over time I have come to see these letters as an ideogram for silence.
In the summer of 1969, twelve-year-old Seth lives with his unstable mother, Ruth, and his brother and sister in a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey. His father lives with his new wife in a ten-room house and has no interest in Seth and his siblings. Seth is dying to escape from his mother’s craziness and suffocating love, her marriage to a man she’s known for two weeks, and his father’s cold disregard. Over the next four decades, Seth becomes the keeper of his family’s memories and secrets. At the same time, he emotionally isolates himself from all those who love him, especially his mother. But Ruth is also Seth’s muse, and this enables him to ultimately find redemption, for both himself and his family.
From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story by Ron Tanner (Academy Chicago Publishers): My wife and I live in a Craftsman home built in the early 1920s and over the years we have put a good amount of "sweat equity" into a few remodeling projects (and when I say "we," I mean "my wife, with some applause from the sidelines by me"). The two of us have nothing on Ron Tanner and his wife Jill, however. Back in 2000, Ron and then-girlfriend Jill discovered the house of their dreams: a landmark Baltimore brownstone that had belonged to a notorious fraternity. The result is, as the subtitle says, a love story between a man, a woman, and a house. Here's the Jacket Copy:
It was condemned property, had sat abandoned for nearly a year, and was such a wreck that no one would buy it. But Jill wanted the house and Ron wanted Jill. So he bought the 4,500-square-foot ruin. Neither he nor Jill knew anything about house repair or renovation. The bank gave them six months to get the house up to code. The neighborhood historians told them flatly, "You'll never bring that house back." Ron's realtor said, "This house will eat you alive." Ron's mother said, "Why do you always do things the hard way?" Impulsive and quixotic—and with two marriages behind him—Ron inspired little confidence. His life had been a series of mistakes and wrong turns. He recognized that taking on this wrecked frat house could be the biggest mistake of his life and he wondered if this time, in what seemed his final reach for love, he had reached too far. As soon as he and Jill started working on the house, they were at odds every day and it became clear to them both that the project would very likely ruin them financially and emotionally. Panicked, flirting with bankruptcy, and barreling through disasters, they had to learn how to live, love, and work together—and succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds.Tanner's book, liberally illustrated with his own charming sketches, is something like "This Old House Meets The Bachelor." If Tanner had had a camera crew following him around, he would have had a killer reality show on HGTV.
The Sincerest Form of Parody: The Best 1950s MAD Inspired Satirical Comics edited by John Benson (Fantagraphics Books): Like many a young boy in the 1960s and 70s, I grew up on a regular diet of Mad magazine. I also grew up on a diet of pink Hostess Sno-Balls and Orange Crush. Of the two, Mad was certainly the more nutritious. I loved Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side of...," Sergio Aragones' "A Mad Look at...," Don Martin's gags, Al Jaffee's back cover fold-in, and especially Mort Drucker's film spoofs (A Fistful of Lasagne, Dirty Larry, The Poopsidedown Adventure, et cetera). The latter were my first introductions to film criticism--this is how to poke holes in the pretensions of Hollywood, I thought. Of course, a word like "pretensions" didn't pass through my 12-year-old mind--I was too busy picking myself up off the floor from my giggle-fit. And now, Fantagraphics has packaged some of the best movie parodies in this ripely-colored book. But these aren't Mad comics. They're the imitators which popped up on newsstands in the 1950s--comic books like Whack, Nuts!, Crazy, Bughouse and Unsane. As Jay Lynch writes in his introduction to The Sincerest Form of Flattery, "The Mad clones never topped the Mad comics for pure, uncut satire. But to me, even the worst of them was more enjoyable and unpredictable than those from the other genres of comic books of the 1950s...they were still enjoyable in the same sense that it would be interesting today to see Rush Limbaugh try to do a George Carlin routine." Most of the comics in the pages of this book are understandably dated for today's web-weaned generation who may have never heard of I, Jury ("My Gun Is the Jury by Melvie Splane"), What's My Line? ("What's My Crime?"), or Come Back, Little Sheba ("Come Back Bathsheba"), but that doesn't drain these parodies of their punch.
An Unexpected Guest by Anne Korkeakivi (Little, Brown): In her debut novel, Korkeakivi channels the day-in-a-life structure of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway into what looks like a fascinating plot. Here's the Jacket Copy:
Clare Moorhouse, the American wife of a high-ranking diplomat in Paris, is arranging an official dinner crucial to her husband's career. As she shops for fresh stalks of asparagus and works out the menu and seating arrangements, her day is complicated by the unexpected arrival of her son and a random encounter with a Turkish man, whom she discovers is a suspected terrorist. More unnerving is a recurring face in the crowd, one that belonged to another, darker era of her life. One she never expected to see again. But it can't be him--he's been dead for 20 years....I particularly like the novel's Opening Line: "Time rained down on Clare." Simple, clever and full of tension. I expect good things to rain down on readers in the next 277 pages. Blurbworthiness: "Anne Korkeakivi writes wonderfully about embassy manners, food, and Paris, and she writes even better about the darker world that threatens to disrupt not just Clare's seating plan for dinner but her entire life. An Unexpected Guest, like its heroine, is a novel of great elegance, enormous surprises, and unexpected depths." (Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street)
Caring Is Creepy by David Zimmerman (Soho Press): To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, Zimmerman's novel about the summer in the life of a troubled teenage girl who flirts with strangers online had me at "hello." Here are the Opening Lines:
The most dangerous thing I ever did was tell a grown man my real name. I typed it for him. Lynn Marie Sugrue. When it happened, it didn’t seem like anything at all. Hardly something worth worrying over. Me and my best friend Dani were down in her basement bedroom on a night hot and thick enough to push in against the window screens. We were playing our favorite game of the moment, a sort of online combination of crank phone call and blind man’s bluff, but it was really more of a scheme to try out being bad in a place we thought it wouldn’t count. We just never expected to be the ones wearing the blindfold.
So this is August of 2005 in Metter, Georgia, population half of nothing. A million miles from anywhere good. So this is me and Dani, just turned fifteen and a couple weeks away from our sophomore year at Metter High. So this is me fucking up my life like you wouldn’t believe.
The Water Children by Anne Berry (Simon & Schuster): I also like the Opening Lines to Berry's novel which will be released in the U.S. in May. These sentences do a good job of setting the watery scene for the rest of the book:
It is the recipe for a perfect day. The sun beats down from a cloudless blue sky. The air fizzes with heat and salt. The sea glitters and shifts and curls and breaks along the three-mile stretch of pale, gold, Devonshire sand—Saunton Sands. It somersaults over mossy rocks and tangled tresses of tide wrack. It sends the beach into a nervous, excited jitter. The seasawing cry of gulls rises to a crescendo with their swoops and nose-dives, then quiets as the curved beaks snap at darting fish. Apart from a few surfers riding the breakers, and sporadic clusters of people guiltily enjoying their mid-week leisure break, this coastal paradise is deserted.Here's the Jacket Copy from the UK edition (which, frankly, I prefer to the more muddy one from the U.S. publisher):
Four lives. Four defining moments which will bring them together. Owen Abingdon is haunted by nightmares of the Merfolk. He believes they have stolen his little sister who vanished while he was meant to be minding her on the beach, but he was only a child himself. Is it fair for his mother to blame him? Catherine Hoyle's perfect Christmas with her cousin from America was blighted when they went skating on thin ice and Rosalyn nearly died. Somehow, instead of being praised for raising the alarm, Catherine gets blamed. Sean Madigan grew up on a farm in Ireland. Learning to swim in the Shannon was his way of escaping the bitter poverty of his childhood, but it also incurred his father's wrath. He flees to England, but his heart belongs to the Shannon and her pulling power is ever near. Unlike the other three, Naomi Seddon didn't fear the sea. She'd been orphaned and placed in a children's home in Sheffield and cruelly abused. The sea offered her a way out and she revelled in its cruel power. The "water children" meet in London in the searing hot summer of 1976 and Naomi uses her siren's charm to lure Owen, Catherine and Sean into her tangled web of sexual charm and dangerous passion. A holiday in the Tuscan mountains with a flooded reservoir and its legend of the beautiful Teodora who drowned there brings this emotional drama to a powerful climax.
This Will Be Difficult to Explain: And Other Stories by Johanna Skibsrud (W. W. Norton): I still have Skibsrud's prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists sitting high in my To-Be-Read pile, but in the meantime I'm looking forward to dipping into this new collection of her short stories. Take a gander at the Jacket Copy:
In the Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning author Johanna Skibsrud’s new book, nine loosely connected and hypnotic stories introduce an unforgettable cast of characters. A young maid at a hotel in France encounters a man who asks to paint her portrait, only later discovering that the man is someone other than who she thinks. A divorced father, fearing estrangement from his thirteen-year-old daughter, allows her to take the wheel of his car, realizing too late that he’s made a grave mistake. A Canadian girl and her French host stumble on the one story that transcends their language barrier. Youth confronted with the mutterings of old age, restlessness bounded by the muddy confines of a backyard garden, callow hope coming up against the exigencies of everyday life—these are life-defining moments that weave throughout the everyday lives of the remarkable characters in this book. Time and again they find themselves confronted with what they didn’t know they didn’t know, at the exact point of intersection between impossibility and desire. In This Will Be Difficult to Explain Skibsrud has created a series of masterful, perceptive tales.
Let's Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson (Amy Einhorn Books): I recently stumbled upon Lawson's popular blog, The Bloggess, and--as they say in Hollywood and Amway brochures--my life will never be the same again. Why was I wasting so much of my internet time dillying and dallying when I could have been coming straight to the Bloggess for the web equivalent of Our Daily Bread? One will never know. But here's one thing I do know: Lawson's grabbed me like a snoutful of cocaine right from the Opening Lines of the book's introduction:
This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren't. It's basically like Little House on the Prairie but with more cursing. And I know you're thinking, "But 'Little House on the Prairie' was totally true!" and no, I'm sorry, but it wasn't. Laura Ingalls was a compulsive liar with no fact-checker, and probably if she was still alive today her mom would be saying, "I don't know how Laura came up with this whole 'I'm-a-small-girl-on-the-prairie' story. We lived in New Jersey with her Aunt Frieda and our dog, Mary, who was blinded when Laura tried to bleach a lightning bolt on her forehead. I have no idea where she got the 'and we lived in a dug-out' thing, although we did take her to Carlsbad Caverns once."From looks of it, Lawson is like David Sedaris, but with hair-curlers. I'm prepping my throat for laughter even as we speak.
And that's why I'm better than Laura Ingalls. Because my story is 90% accurate, and I really did live in a dugout. The reason why this memoir is only mostly true instead of totally true is because I relish not getting sued. Also, I want my family to be able to say, "Oh that never happened. Of course we never actually tossed her out of a moving car when she was eight. That's one of those crazy things that isn't quite the truth." And they're right, because the truth is that I was nine. I was sitting on my mom's lap when my dad made a hard left, the door popped open, and I was tossed out like a sack-full of kittens. My mom managed to grab my arm, which would have been helpful if my father had actually stopped the car, but apparently he didn't notice or possibly thought I'd just catch up, and so my legs were drug through a parking lot that I'm pretty sure was paved with broken glass and used syringes.