Saturday, May 5, 2012

Front Porch Books: May 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.

Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer (St. Martin's Press):  I'm looking forward to settling in with at least a dozen debut novels this summer and right at the top of the list is Netzer's story about an astronaut's wife dealing in her own quirky way with life back here on earth in Norfolk, Virginia.  The novel combines math, motherhood, Asperger's, and robots into one simmering, delicious stew of a novel.  It's dark, it's romantic, it's irresistible.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Sunny Mann has masterminded a perfect life for herself and her family in a quiet Virginia town. Even her genius husband, Maxon, an astronaut on his way to the moon, has been trained to pass for normal. But when a fender bender sends her blonde wig flying, her secret is exposed. Not only is she bald, but she’s nothing like the Stepford wife she appears to be. As her fa├žade begins to unravel, we discover the singular world of Sunny and Maxon, two outcasts who found unlikely love in one another. Theirs is a wondrous, strange relationship formed of dark secrets, long-forgotten murders and the urgent desire for connection.  But with parenthood came a craving for normalcy that began to strangle their marriage and family. As Sunny and Maxon are on the brink of destruction, at each other’s throats with blame and fear, Maxon departs for the moon, where he’s charged with programming the fledgling colony’s robots. And when an accident involving Maxon’s rocket threatens everything they’ve built, revealing the things they’ve kept hidden, they discover nothing will ever be the same…
And here are the Opening Lines:
      Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the rocket and see the Earth. He could also see the moon sometimes, coming closer. The Earth rotated slowly and the spaceship moved slowly, relative to the things that were around it. There was nothing he could do now, one way or the other. He was part of a spaceship going to the moon. He wore white paper booties instead of shoes. He wore a jumpsuit instead of underwear. He was only a human, of scant flesh and long bone, eyes clouded, and body breakable. He was off, launched from the Earth, and floating in space. He had been pushed, with force, away.
      But in his mind, Maxon found himself thinking of home. With his long feet drifting out behind him, he put his hands on each side of the round window, and held on to it. He looked out and down at the Earth. Far away, across the cold miles, the Earth lay boiling in clouds. All the countries of the Earth lay smudged together under that lace of white. Beneath this stormy layer, the cities of this world chugged and burned, connected by roads, connected by wires. Down in Virginia, his wife, Sunny, was walking around, living and breathing. Beside her was his small son. Inside her was his small daughter. He couldn't see them, but he knew they were there.
      This is the story of an astronaut who was lost in space, and the wife he left behind. Or this is the story of a brave man who survived the wreck of the first rocket sent into space with the intent to colonize the moon. This is the story of the human race, who pushed one crazy little splinter of metal and a few pulsing cells up into the vast dark reaches of the universe, in the hope that the splinter would hit something and stick, and that the little pulsing cells could somehow survive. This is the story of a bulge, a bud, the way the human race tried to subdivide, the bud it formed out into the universe, and what happened to that bud, and what happened to the Earth, too, the mother Earth, after the bud was burst.

No Animals We Could Name by Ted Sanders (Graywolf Press):  The winner of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize, this debut collection of short stories is, at first skim, startling in its subject matter and creative technique.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
The animals (human or otherwise) in Ted Sanders's inventive, wistful stories are oddly familiar, yet unlike anyone you've met before. A lion made of bedsheets, with chicken bones for teeth, is brought to life by a grieving mother. When Raphael the pet lizard mysteriously loses his tail, his owners find themselves ever more desperate to keep him alive, in one sense or another. A pensive tug-of-war between an amateur angler and a halibut unfolds through the eyes of both fisherman and fish. And in the collection's unifying novella, an unusual guest's arrival at a party sets idle gears turning in startling new ways.
Here are the Opening Lines to "Opinion of Person," a story about halfway through the collection:
The cat was into the curtains; his goddamn claws were pricking and popping. Even from the bed, Julie could see the new little starholes he was making in the cloth. The fabric swung as Rory's shadow twitched, high up between the sheers and drapes where he was hanging. Julie waited for him to fall. "You'll die, you dumb animal," she said.
Blurbworthiness: "It is impossible to adequately describe Ted Sanders's new short story collection, No Animals We Could Name, a book about all sorts of sea life and obituaries and dwarfism and a party so monumentally bad it has to be told in three parts.  Is the book brilliant?  It is.  Is it weird?  It is.  Does it suggest that its author is so talented that he can do pretty much anything he wants, a writer equally expert at tragedy and comedy, realism and surrealism?  It does.  But still, none of this quite does this remarkable book justice.  Let's just say that I've never read another book like it.  Let's just say I love it, and that you will, too."  (Brock Clarke, author of Exley)

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood (Viking):  In the past month, I've received a number of books whose plots I can only describe as "creepy."  They're the kind of books that feel clammy to the touch and call to mind images of stone-faced children in British movies from the 1960s, bad seeds who stare at the camera with blank, calculating stares and you just know they've poisoned their parents and run over the bodies with a push mower and they don't feel the least bit of remorse having done so.  These books on my desk aren't necessarily about young Damiens or villages of the damned, but that's the mood they convey.  New releases like Threats by Amelia Gray, Before the Poison by Peter Robinson and Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron fall into this chill-lit category, but few of them have as cold-gut an opening as The Bellwether Revivals, which is about twentysomething Oscar who, according to the Jacket Copy, "falls in love with beautiful, quirky Iris Bellwether, a medical student, and is drawn into her opulent world. He soon becomes entangled in the strange obsessions of her brilliant but emotionally troubled brother, Eden, who believes he can heal people with his music—and who will stop at nothing to prove himself right."  Here are the Opening Lines:
They heard the caterwaul of sirens, and saw the dust rising underneath the ambulance wheels at the far end of the driveway, and soon the darkening garden was a wash of flashing blue lights. It only seemed real when they told the paramedics where to find the bodies. There was one upstairs on the top floor, they said, another in the organ house, and one more at the foot of the garden—the last one was still breathing, but faintly. They had left him on the riverbank in a nest of flattened rushes, with the cold water lapping against his feet. When the paramedics asked for his name, they said it was Eden. Eden Bellwether.
I may have a hard time reading this one; the lines on the page will blur from my trembling hands.

The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth):  Speaking of cold, cruel and delicious, Osborne's second novel (his previous one, Ania Malina, was published in 1986) intrigues me just on the basis of its magnetic Jacket Copy:
David and Jo Henniger, in search of an escape from their less than happy lives in London, accept the invitation of their old friends Richard and Dally to attend their annual bacchanal at their home deep in the Moroccan desert. On the way, the Hennigers stop for lunch, and the bad-tempered David can't resist consuming most of a bottle of wine. Back on the road, darkness has descended, David is groggy, and the directions to the Ksar are vague. Suddenly, two young men spring from the roadside, apparently attempting to interest passing drivers in the fossils they have for sale. Panicked, David swerves toward the two, leaving one dead on the road and the other running into the hills.  At the villa, the festivities have begun, and as the night progresses and the debauchery escalates, the large staff of Moroccans increasingly view the revelers as the godless "infidels" they are. When David and Jo show up late with the dead body of the young man in their car, word spreads among the locals that one of the infidels has committed an unforgivable act.  Thus the stage is set for a weekend during which David and Jo must come to terms with David's misdeed, Jo's longings, and their own deteriorating relationship, and the flamboyant Richard and Dally must attempt to keep their revelers entertained despite growing tension from their staff and the Moroccan Berber father who comes to claim his son's body.  As Osborne memorably portrays the privileged guests wrestling with their secrets amidst the remoteness and beauty of the desert landscape, he also gradually reveals the jolting back-story of the young man who was killed and leaves David’s fate in the balance as the novel builds to a shattering conclusion.
I'm thinking this one needs to be filed on the same shelf as Paul Bowles and Ian McEwan.

Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home by Matthew Batt (Mariner Books):  Can a house save a marriage?  If you're the harried couple who moved into the Amityville Horror, the answer is probably "no."  But if you're Matt Batt and his wife, then chances are good that your relationship will weather even the worst fixer-upper.  Ah, but what if it's a a dilapidated, former crack-den in the Sugarhouse section of Salt Lake City?  Well, that just makes for a fast-paced, entirely readable book written by what the publishers call "perpetual grad students/waiters/nonprofiteers."  The Opening Lines set the tone for the rest of the book:
      You’ve seen us. Them. You’ve said to your sugar, What the hell do they think they’re doing? You’re on your stoop, your porch, your lanai, your whatever—and as we pass by you scrunch forward, down to car-window height. I’m gonna say something, you say, handing your honey the hose. Can’t have people just driving around like that, all slow and everything, rubbernecking. Can I help you? you ask. You shake your head as we speed away. Freaks.
      But you’re just going to have to deal with it. We’re not burglars or pedophiles, missionaries or Hari Krishnas. We’re looking for a place to live. We need a home and we need one now.
Blurbworthiness: "Sugarhouse is a whale of a book -- an uproariously funny and deeply affecting account of home ownership and its discontents. Matt Batt has written a must-read manifesto for anyone who's ever faced off against a fast-talking real estate agent, an impossibly stubborn varnish, or a family on the brink of heartbreak. I'm still not sure how he managed to stuff so much life into one little book, but I'm dazzled at his achievement."  (Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak)

The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham (Knopf):  This collection of short stories, due to be published in October, superficially appears to have the kind of wide range of topic and setting as the collections of Andrea Barrett or Edith Pearlman.  Take a gander at the Jacket Copy:
In these seven beautifully wrought variations on a theme, a series of characters trace and retrace eternal yet ever-changing patterns of love and longing, connection and loss. These stories range over centuries and continents—from eighteenth-century Vienna, where Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte are collaborating on their operas; to America in the 1940s, where a love triangle unfolds among a doctor, a journalist, and the president's wife. A racecar driver's widow, a teacher in a prep school, a resident in a nursing home, a paralyzed dancer married to a famous choreographer—all of them feel the overwhelming force of passion and renunciation.
It's not just the variety of narrative which draws me into this short fiction, it's the art of the language itself.  I especially like these Opening Lines from the first story:
The motel was called The Sands of Time, but it could just as easily have been The Dunes, or The Sea Shell, or The Breakwater, or The Harbor Rest--all of which were the names of other, similar, motels lining the road that led to Plum Point.  The rooms smelled of disinfectant and of bodies.  Nothing vulgarly specific, not the smell of sweat or feet: just a tired essence of long, hard, human use.  The rooms were clean, but the surfaces felt slightly sticky.  Outside, the wind was dazzling and salty.
I love that last line; I can practically see the salt crystals sparkling in the air.

The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin (Harper Perennial):  This novel gets my vote for having one of the most haunting Opening Lines I've read this year:
A crying of tires erupted from the street.
I've had Arvin's debut novel Articles of War sitting in my To-Be-Read pile for far too long and now this second novel is calling my name just as insistently.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
As a boy, Ellis Barstow heard the sound of the collision that killed Christopher, his older half brother—an accident that would haunt him for years. A decade later, searching for purpose after college, Ellis takes a job as a forensic reconstructionist, investigating and re-creating the details of fatal car accidents—under the guidance of the irascible John Boggs, who married Christopher's girlfriend. Ellis takes naturally to the work, fascinated by the task of trying to find reason, and justice, within the seemingly random chaos of smashed glass and broken lives. But Ellis is harboring secrets of his own—not only his memory of the car crash that killed his brother but also his feelings for Boggs's wife, Heather, which soon lead to a full-blown affair. And when Boggs inexplicably disappears, Ellis sets out to find him....and to try to make sense of the crash site his own life has become.
Okay, that last line is pretty hokey, but that's not Arvin's fault--and it shouldn't diminish a reader's expectations for what looks like a smart story about an off-beat occupation set against the backdrop of a love triangle.  Blurbworthiness: “The Reconstructionist becomes a contemplation of the broadest questions of life: How do we love one another?  How do we survive the accidents of our lives? … Nick Arvin is an immensely gifted writer, and he has given us a thrilling, soulful book.”  (David Wroblewski, author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle )

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