Thursday, March 8, 2012

Front Porch Books: March 2012 Edition

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.

Boleto by Alyson Hagy (Graywolf Press):  Because I enjoyed Hagy's previous book so much, I have high hopes for this new novel about men, horses and their place in the contemporary American West.  Hagy's prose is filled with the kind of lyricism that makes the sharp, herby scent of sagebrush rise from the pages.  Here's the Jacket Copy for Boleto:
Will Testerman is a young Wyoming horse trainer determined to make something of himself. Money is tight at the family ranch, where he's living again after a disastrous end to his job on the Texas show-horse circuit. He sees his chance with a beautiful quarter horse, a filly that might earn him a reputation, and spends his savings to buy her. Armed with stories and the confidence of youth, he devotes himself to her training--first, in the familiar barns and corrals of home, then on a guest ranch in the rugged Absaroka mountains, and, in the final trial, on the glittering, treacherous polo fields of southern California.
Blurbworthiness: “Boleto is about the dusty and soulful making of a young horse whisperer; it has the warmth of smooth, copper-colored whisky running through every page, bound and determined to get you drunk with its beauty and precision. Hagy’s signature no-nonsense, spit-and-polish writing style pulls no punches in delivering a quiet, lingering novel that will open more space inside you than the expanse of a spring Wyoming sky.”  (Stacie M. Williams, Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books):  Readers, critics and booksellers always greet Emily St. John Mandel's novels with trumpets and confetti.  I predict her newest novel from Unbridled Books will generate as much or more fanfare when it's released in May.  It's about a disgraced young journalist trying to track down his ex-girlfriend who is on the run from drug dealers.  The Jacket Copy says it's "a work that pays homage to literary noir, [and] is concerned with jazz, Django Reinhardt, economic collapse, love, Florida's exotic wildlife problem, crushing tropical heat, the leavening of the contemporary world, compulsive gambling, and the unreliability of memory."  That's an eclectic stew of ingredients, but I think Mandel can pull it off.  Witness the Opening Lines:
      Anna had fallen into a routine, or as much of a routine as a seventeen-year-old can reasonably fall into when she’s transient and living in hiding with an infant. She was staying at her sister’s friend’s house in a small town in Virginia.
      The baby always woke up crying at four thirty or five a.m. Anna got up and changed Chloe’s diaper, prepared a bottle and bundled her into the stroller and then they left the basement where they were living, walked three blocks to the twenty-four-hour doughnut shop for coffee and across the wide empty street to the park. Anna sat on a swing with her first coffee of the morning and Chloe lay in the stroller staring up at the clouds. They listened to the birds in the trees at the edges of the park, the sounds of traffic in the distance. The climbing equipment cast a complicated silhouette against the pale morning sky.
      There was a plastic shopping bag duct-taped to the underside of the stroller. It held a little under one hundred eighteen thousand dollars in cash.
Yep, I'm hooked.

The 500 by Matthew Quirk (Reagan Arthur Books):  Quirk's debut novel is getting a big push from its publisher (including a $500,000 publicity campaign), so you'll probably be seeing a lot of it everywhere, from Twitter to the Washington DC metro.  For once, the hype looks like it might be worth it.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
A year ago, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Mike Ford landed his dream job at Davies Group, Washington’s most powerful consulting firm. Now, he’s staring down the barrel of a gun, pursued by two of the world’s most dangerous men. To get out, he’ll have to do all the things he thought he’d never do again: lie, cheat, steal—and this time, maybe even kill.  Mike grew up in a world of small-stakes con men and learned the trade at his father’s knee. As the Davies Group’s rising star, he rubs shoulders with “The 500,” the elite men and women who really run Washington—and the world. But peddling influence, he soon learns, is familiar work: even with a pedigree, a con is still a con.  Combining the best elements of political intrigue and heart-stopping action, The 500 calls to mind classic thrillers like The Firm and Presumed Innocent. In Mike Ford, readers will discover a new hero who learns the hard way that the higher the climb, the harder—and deadlier—the fall.
And here are the Opening Lines:
Miroslav and Aleksandar filled the front seats of the Range Rover across the street. They wore their customary diplomatic uniforms—dark Brionis tailored close—but the two Serbs looked angrier than usual. Aleksandar lifted his right hand high enough to flash me a glint of his Sig Sauer. A master of subtlety, that Alex. I wasn’t particularly worried about the two bruisers sitting up front, however. The worst thing they could do was kill me, and right now that looked like one of my better options.

Flatscreen by Adam Wilson (Harper Perennial): Like most of you, I typically don't heed book-cover blurbs when it comes time to decide whether or not to pull the wallet out of my pocket in the bookstore.  Nothing against the many sincere and generous authors who read the book in galley and subsequently write a few nice cheerleading comments on behalf of the book's merits, but jacket design, plot summary and--most especially--the opening lines of Chapter 1 hold much greater sway over me.  When it comes to Adam Wilson's debut novel, however, I'm immediately struck by the blurb from Gary Shteyngart on the front cover: "OMFG, I nearly up and died from laughter."  Continuing to the back cover, I find two more from Tom Perrotta ("Bleakly funny and totally outrageous...Adam Wilson has written the slacker novel to end all slacker novels") and Darin Strauss ("Erudite and hilarious, raunchy and topical, and flat-out fun. Nicholson Baker meets Barthelme with a dash of Nabokov...A magical book").  For some reason, these three songs of praise grease my wallet as it slides from my pocket.  As does the Jacket Copy:
Flatscreen tells the story of Eli Schwartz as he endures the loss of his home, the indifference of his parents, the success of his older brother, and the cruel and frequent dismissal of the opposite sex. He is a loser par excellence—pasty, soft, and high—who struggles to become a new person in a world where nothing is new. Into this scene of apathy rolls Seymour J. Kahn. Former star of the small screen and current paraplegic sex addict, Kahn has purchased Eli’s old family home. The two begin a dangerous friendship, one that distracts from their circumstances but speeds their descent into utter debasement and, inevitably, YouTube stardom. By story’s end, through unlikely acts of courage and kindness, roles will be reversed, reputations resurrected, and charges (hopefully) dropped.
But it's the Opening Lines which really put butter on my credit card as it slips out of the wallet into the hands of the bookstore clerk:
But maybe Mom's not the place to start, though she's where I began (in her I took shape, grew limbs, prepared to breathe oxygen, albeit with a slight asthmatic wheeze that has not been helped by cigarettes), and where all this coming-of-age stuff inevitably buds then barely blooms, like the pale azaleas Mrs. Todd put on her porch every spring but never watered, letting the rain try to raise them up, make them stand and receive sunlight, just as the constant dull glow of the television tried with me, equally failed.

Threats by Amelia Gray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):  The disturbing aspects of Gray's debut novel begin on the cover with its wadded, rolled and discolored pieces of paper forming the words while sitting on top of fresh soil.  It's creepy in a way I can't quite put my finger on....until I flip the book around and read the Jacket Copy:
David’s wife is dead. At least, he thinks she’s dead. But he can’t figure out what killed her or why she had to die, and his efforts to sort out what’s happened have been interrupted by his discovery of a series of elaborate and escalating threats hidden in strange places around his home—one buried in the sugar bag, another carved into the side of his television. These disturbing threats may be the best clues to his wife’s death: CURL UP ON MY LAP. LET ME BRUSH YOUR HAIR WITH MY FINGERS. I AM SINGING YOU A LULLABY. I AM TESTING FOR STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS IN YOUR SKULL. Detective Chico is also on the case, and is intent on asking David questions he doesn’t know the answers to and introducing him to people who don’t appear to have David’s or his wife’s best interests in mind. With no one to trust, David is forced to rely on his own memories and faculties—but they too are proving unreliable.

This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury):  This is McGregor's first collection of short stories after publishing several novels (Even the Dogs, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin) which have been popular in the UK but, in my typically insular American way, had never blipped on my book radar.  After opening This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, it took me exactly 2.5 seconds to realize I'd been missing out on some first-rate writing.  As I started reading the first story, "That Colour," I was riveted by McGregor's voice.  Here are the Opening Lines:
She stood by the window and said, Those trees are turning that beautiful colour again.  Is that right, I asked.  I was at the back of the house, in the kitchen.  I was doing the dishes.  The water wasn't hot enough.  She said, I don't know what colour you'd call it.  These were the trees on the other side of the road she was talking about, across the junction.  It's a wonder they do so well where they are, with the traffic.  I don't know what they are.  Some kind of maple or sycamore, perhaps.  This happens every year and she always seems taken by surprise.  These years get shorter every year.
(I love that last line!)  This particular story doesn't go on much longer, but I don't want to give it all away, so I cut it off mid-way.  McGregor seems to have the kind of style which first attracted me to minimalists like Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway.  Sentences that are simple, direct, and driven forward by syntactic rhythm.  I can't wait to read the rest of this collection.

The Bird Saviors by William J. Cobb (Unbridled Books):  Take a look at this Jacket Copy and tell me if you don't feel like a metal shaving caught in the grip of a powerful magnet:
When a dust storm engulfs her Colorado town and pink snow blankets the streets, a heartbreaking decision faces Ruby Cole, a girl who counts birds: She must abandon her baby or give in to her father, whom she nicknames Lord God, and marry a man more than twice her age who already has two wives. She chooses to run, which sets in motion an interlocking series of actions and reactions, upending the lives of an equestrian police officer, pawnshop riffraff, a disabled war vet, Nuisance Animal destroyers, and a grieving ornithologist--a field biologist studies the decline of bird populations. All the while, a growing criminal enterprise moves from cattle rustling to kidnapping to hijacking fuel tankers and murder as events spin out of control.  Set in a time of economic turmoil, virus fears, climate change, fundamentalist cults and illegal immigrant hardship, The Bird Saviors is a visionary story of defiance, anger, and compassion, in which a young woman ultimately struggles to free herself from her domineering father, to raise her daughter in the chaos of the New West, and to become something greater herself.
What a glorious mishmash of plot elements!  I think Cobb had me at "Lord God."  Blurbworthiness:  “Bill Cobb's The Bird Saviors is a stark modern-day Old Testament story in which the evil that men do is barely balanced by the good that a few manage to achieve. It's a gritty harrowing story set in a dust-blown Colorado town that seems filled with vivid characters. Cobb's expert story-telling compels us forward scene by scene to a final satisfying redemption.” (Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong)

Calico Joe by John Grisham (Doubleday):  Just in time for spring training, Grisham winds up with a good pitch for one of his non-legal novels (which is not the same thing as an illegal novel).  In an author's note accompanying my advance reading copy of Calico Joe, Grisham says he's wanted to write a baseball novel for two decades but never found the right story.  Then, one day he started thinking about what happens when a pitcher throws a fastball from the mound and hits the batter.  Who suffers the most in these "beanball wars"?  What if the pitcher intentionally hit the batter?  What if both careers were ruined?  And what happens when an author like Grisham tosses some father-son conflict into the stew pot?  After reading a couple chapters of Calico Joe, I'd say the answer is: you get another good page-turner from one of America's bestselling authors.

Half In Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate by Judith Kitchen (Coffee House Press):  As I think I've mentioned before, my wife and I like to spend many of our weekends haunting antique stores and thrift shops.  As she inevitably veers off in the direction of furniture, I'm drawn to the paper-ephemera side of the store--books, of course, but also scrapbooks, movie posters, postcards, and family photos.  I can sit for hours looking at old photographs which captured, in the snap of a shutter, the stiffly-posed people of our past.  When Judith Kitchen inherited boxes of family photographs and scrapbooks, they also aroused her curiosity and speculation.  As she writes in the Introduction to Half in Shade:
I realized I didn't know who [the subjects of the photographs] really were--these strangers we call family--lost now, slipping into the shade.  But I wasn't done with them--or rather, they weren't done with me.  Their stern faces kept turning in my direction, asking me to bring them back to light....A photograph sparks reverie and speculation.  No two viewers will see it exactly the same way.  There's something about the framing that makes us consider the presence--or absence--of an aesthetic.  Snapshots, though, are somewhat exempt from artistic scrutiny.  We note the composition, but we do not wonder about the use of negative space.  Instead, we search out detail.  Snapshots record a real, lived moment in time, lost the very second the shutter clicks.
Half in Shade is illustrated with dozens of the family photos Kitchen found in that "haphazard collection of boxes and albums."  Each photo prompts a lyrical reflection on its place in her family history and how she herself fits into the picture, so to speak.

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):  In a plot that seems to blend the best parts of Atonement and Downton Abbey, Coral Glynn had my attention with its Jacket Copy:
Coral Glynn arrives at Hart House, an isolated manse in the English countryside, early in the very wet spring of 1950, to nurse the elderly Mrs. Hart, who is dying of cancer. Hart House is also inhabited by Mrs. Prence, the perpetually disgruntled housekeeper, and Major Clement Hart, Mrs. Hart’s war-ravaged son, who is struggling to come to terms with his latent homosexuality. When a child’s game goes violently awry in the woods surrounding Hart House, a great shadow—love, perhaps—descends upon its inhabitants. Like the misguided child’s play, other seemingly random events—a torn dress, a missing ring, a lost letter—propel Coral and Clement into the dark thicket of marriage.
But Cameron really grabbed me with these Opening Lines:
      That spring—the spring of 1950—had been particularly wet.
      An area at the bottom of the garden at Hart House flooded, creating a shallow pool through which the crocuses gamely raised their little flounced heads, like cold shivering children in a swimming class. The blond gravel on the garden paths had turned green, each pebble wrapped in a moist transparent blanket of slime, and one could not sit on either of the two cement benches that flanked the river gate without first unhinging the snails and slugs adhered to them.
      The excessive moistness of the garden was of no concern to anyone at Hart House except for the new nurse, who had arrived on Thursday, and had attempted, on the two afternoons that were somewhat mild, to sit outside for a moment, away from the sickness and strain in the house. But she found the garden inhospitable, and so had resolved to stay indoors.
      She was the nurse, officially at least, only to the old lady, Mrs Hart, who was dying of cancer. Her son, Major Hart, who had been wounded in the war—he seemed to be missing a leg or at least part of one, and moved his entire body with an odd marionette stiffness—did not, officially at least, require a nurse.

Make It Stay by Joan Frank (The Permanent Press):  From the cracked glass and the four shadowy figures on the cover of Frank's novel, you know something is amiss, troubled, unsettling.  And then you read the Jacket Copy:
In the tree-nestled Northern California town of Mira Flores, writer Rachel ("an aging typist with an unprofitable hobby") and her Scottish husband Neil prepare dinner for a familiar "crew" of guests--among them Neil's best friend, the burly, handsome Mike Spender, an irrepressible hedonist--and Mike's wife Tilda Krall, a hard-bitten figure who carries her dark unknowability like an accusation.  Mike and Tilda have produced an enchanting daughter, Addie--who will also appear, unexpectedly, that night. As they ready the meal, Rae begs Neil to retell her the strange, twisted story of the Spenders--to include Mike's secret life, and what happened once Tilda learned of it. Neil and Rae cannot guess how the shock waves from that story will threaten to destroy their own marriage--after a mysterious catastrophe propels all five individuals into uncharted realities.
As Frank unspools the plot threads, she includes scenes of Rachel and Neil chopping vegetables and setting the table in preparation for the dinner of lamb with baby red potatoes, garlic, and rosemary and trifle for dessert.  Consider my appetite whetted.

Before the Poison by Peter Robinson (William Morrow):  Robinson, author of the popular Inspector Banks mystery series, has written a stand-alone novel about a man's obsession with a past crime.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Chris Lowndes built a comfortable career composing scores for films in Hollywood. But after twenty-five years abroad, and still quietly reeling from the death of his beloved wife, he decides to return to the Yorkshire dales of his youth. To ease the move, he buys Kilnsgate House, a rambling old mansion deep in the country. Although Chris finds Kilnsgate charming, something about the house disturbs him, a vague sensation that the long-empty rooms have been waiting for him—feelings made ever stronger when he learns that the house was the scene of a murder more than fifty years before. The former owner, a prominent doctor named Ernest Arthur Fox, was supposedly poisoned by his beautiful and much younger wife, Grace. Arrested and brought to trial, Grace was found guilty and hanged for the crime. His curiosity piqued, Chris talks to the locals and searches through archives for information about the case. But the more he discovers, the more convinced he becomes that Grace may have been innocent. Ignoring warnings to leave it alone, he sets out to discover what really happened over half a century ago—a quest that takes him deep into the past and into a web of secrets that lie all too close to the present.
The novel opens with Grace dropping through the gallows, her neck snapped by the noose.  I guarantee you won't be able to stop reading after you've reached the third paragraph of Before the Poison.


  1. One of the highlights of my month is seeing this post, David. Once again, thanks for adding to my TBR list!

  2. I really enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel's first two books. She is definitely a young talent to watch. I am looking forward to The Lola Quartet!

  3. Your Front Porch posts always make me want to clear my schedule for a week and do nothing but read...