Thursday, October 25, 2012

Front Porch Books: October 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.  This month's Front Porch Books is a special edition, looking at books I picked up earlier this month at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade shows.

Schroder by Amity Gaige (Twelve): Loosely based on the story of Clark Rockefeller (which I previously highlighted here at the blog), Gaige's novel delves deep into the life story of a man who swapped identities, then tried to steal his own daughter.  The publisher's rep at the trade show, who was familiar with this blog, said, "Here, take this--I think you'll really like it."  I think he's right.  Jacket CopyAttending a New England summer camp, young Eric Schroder-a first-generation East German immigrant-adopts the last name Kennedy to more easily fit in, a fateful white lie that will set him on an improbable and ultimately tragic course.  Schroder relates the story of Eric's urgent escape years later to Lake Champlain, Vermont, with his six-year-old daughter, Meadow, in an attempt to outrun the authorities amid a heated custody battle with his wife, who will soon discover that her husband is not who he says he is. From a correctional facility, Eric surveys the course of his life to understand-and maybe even explain-his behavior: the painful separation from his mother in childhood; a harrowing escape to America with his taciturn father; a romance that withered under a shadow of lies; and his proudest moments and greatest regrets as a flawed but loving father.  Opening Lines:
      What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance.
      My lawyer says I should tell the whole story. Where we went, what we did, who we met, etc. As you know, Laura, I'm not a reticent person. I'm talkative--you could even say chatty--for a man. But I haven't spoken a word for days. It's a vow I've taken. My mouth tastes old and damp, like a cave. It turns out I'm not very good at being silent. There are castles of things I want to tell you. Which might explain the enthusiasm of this document, despite what you could call its sad story.
Blurbworthiness: "In Schroder, Amity Gaige explores the rich, murky realm where parental devotion edges into mania, and logic crabwalks into crime. This offbeat, exquisitely written novel showcases a fresh, forceful young voice in American letters."  (Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad )

Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach (Algonquin Books):  I had the pleasure of meeting Bill at the PNBA show and he proved to be every bit as warm and funny as his Facebook posts had led me to believe.  Life Among Giants was already a large blip on my book radar, but hearing Bill tell the booksellers stories about his young adulthood and how he came to write the book only solidified my conviction that I needed to add the novel to my library posthaste.  Skimming through the first few pages, I was further convinced that this is destined to be one of the top books of the Fall season.  Opening Lines:
I have a thing about last meals. Not as in prisoners about to be executed—they know it’s going to be their last. But as in just about everyone else, most all of us. Whatever’s coming, there’s going to be that last thing we eat. My folks, for example. They did pretty well in the last-meal department, beautiful restaurant, family all around them, perfect sandwiches made by someone who truly cared about food. Lunch, as it happened. Their last meal, I mean. For my sister it was breakfast, but that was years later, and I’ll get to all that. The point is, I like to eat every meal as if it were the last, as if I knew it were the last: savor every bite, be there with the food, make sure it’s good, really worthy. And though it’s an impossible proposition, I try to take life that way, too: every bite my last.
Jacket Copy:  At seventeen, David “Lizard” Hochmeyer is nearly seven feet tall, a star quarterback, and Princeton-bound. His future seems all but assured until his parents are mysteriously murdered, leaving Lizard and his older sister, Kate, adrift and alone. Sylphide, the world’s greatest ballerina, lives across the pond from their Connecticut home, in a mansion the size of a museum, and it turns out that her rock star husband’s own disasters have intersected with Lizard’s—and Kate’s—in the most intimate and surprising ways.  Over the decades that follow, Lizard and Kate are obsessed with uncovering the motives behind the deaths, returning time and again to their father’s missing briefcase, his shady business dealings and shaky finances, and to Sylphide, who has threaded her way into Lizard’s and Kate’s lives much more deeply than either had ever realized. From the football fields of Princeton to a stint with the NFL, from elaborate dances at the mansion to the seductions lying in wait for Lizard, and ultimately to the upscale restaurant he opens in his hometown, it only takes Lizard a lifetime to piece it all together.  A wildly entertaining novel of murder, seduction, and revenge—rich in incident, in expansiveness of character, and in lavishness of setting—it’s a Gatsby-esque adventure, a larger-than-life quest for answers that reveals how sometimes the greatest mystery lies in knowing one’s own heart.

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins (Penguin Press): Scott is another author who, along with me, pitched his book to the lunchtime crowd on the final day of the PNBA show.  He read a selection from A Working Theory of Love which was alternately funny and touching.  I'm really looking forward to reading more about his protagonist Neill Bassett, a San Francisco man who is adrift on the singles scene after the implosion of his marriage just months after the honeymoon (ouch!).  The Jacket Copy is a little wordy, but if you can cut your way through the jungle of language, you'll get a good idea of Hutchins' high-concept plot:  When Neill’s father committed suicide ten years ago, he left behind thousands of pages of secret journals, journals that are stunning in their detail, and, it must be said, their complete banality. But their spectacularly quotidian details, were exactly what artificial intelligence company Amiante Systems was looking for, and Neill was able to parlay them into a job, despite a useless degree in business marketing and absolutely no experience in computer science. He has spent the last two years inputting the diaries into what everyone hopes will become the world’s first sentient computer. Essentially, he has been giving it language—using his father’s words. Alarming to Neill—if not to the other employees of Amiante—the experiment seems to be working. The computer actually appears to be gaining awareness and, most disconcerting of all, has started asking questions about Neill’s childhood.  Amid this psychological turmoil, Neill meets Rachel. She was meant to be a one-night stand, but Neill is unexpectedly taken with her and the possibilities she holds. At the same time, he remains preoccupied by unresolved feelings for his ex-wife, who has a talent for appearing at the most unlikely and unfortunate times. When Neill discovers a missing year in the diaries—a year that must hold some secret to his parents’ marriage and perhaps even his father’s suicide—everything Neill thought he knew about his past comes into question, and every move forward feels impossible to make.  Blurbworthiness: "A brainy, bright, laughter-through-tears, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over kind of novel. Fatherless daughters, mother-smothered sons, appealing ex-wives, mouthy high school drop-outs—damn, this book’s got something for everyone!"  (Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story)

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (Riverhead):  Cathy was another author with whom I shared the podium at the PNBA trade show.  Her presentation on this, her second novel, was so smooth, so professional, and so passionate, that I knew this book had to be something that came directly from her heart.  Her first novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, has been on my to-be-read list for years (lame-but-true excuse: not enough hours in the day) and now this one looks like it will join it in the queue.  Here's the Jacket Copy for The Painted Girls: 1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.  Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde. Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other. Blurbworthiness: "Sisters, dance, art, ambition, and intrigue in late 1800s Paris. The Painted Girls offers the best of historical fiction: compelling characters brought backstage at l’Opera and front and center in Degas’ studio. This one has 'book club favorite' written all over it."  (Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters)

The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  As a young newspaper editor and reporter in Montana (shortly before I joined the Army and left the state for 20 years), I was witness to the growth of the Church Universal and Triumphant (abbreviated to "CUT" by those of us who lived in Livingston).  Its belief system, according to Wikipedia, included "elements of Buddhism, Christianity, esoteric mysticism, the paranormal and alchemy, with a belief in angels, elves, fairies, and other beings it calls elementals (or spirits of nature)."  It was led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, a self-proclaimed messenger of God who always seemed to me to be a, unstable (years later, it was revealed that she had Alzheimer's).  Novelist Peter Rock worked on a sheep and cattle ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park during the heyday of CUT's apocalyptic predictions--which included stockpiling weapons in underground bunkers where CUT members would wait out the Destruction of the Earth and then emerge to populate a new Eden (my words, not an endorsed Church philosophy).  Years later, Rock met a young woman at the college where he teaches who told him she was a child who went underground into one of the bunkers.  Intrigued by her story, Rock started thinking about what it must have been like to be a child of the Paradise Valley cult.  Here's the Jacket Copy: Francine and Colville were childhood friends whose families belonged to an extreme religion, the Church Universal and Triumphant, whose members built elaborate underground shelters to protect themselves from a nuclear apocalypse that never came. Reunited twenty years later by the search for an abducted girl, Francine and Colville must reckon with the powerful memories of their former church's teachings, and the haunting feeling of leading adult lives in a world they once believed would be destroyed.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell (Harper):  This debut novel has what are perhaps my favorite Opening Lines of the year:
      Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
      Neither of them were beloved.
It just gets better from there.  Here's the Jacket Copy:  Hazlehurst housing estate, Glasgow, Christmas Eve 2010. Fifteen-year-old Marnie and her little sister Nelly have just finished burying their parents in the back garden. Only Marnie and Nelly know how they got there. Lennie, the old guy next door, has taken a sudden interest in his two young neighbours and is keeping a close eye on them. He soon realises that the girls are all alone, and need his help -- or does he need theirs?  As the year ends and another begins, the sisters' friends, their neighbours, and the authorities -- not to mention the local drug dealer, who's been sniffing around for their father -- gradually start to ask questions. And as one lie leads to another, darker secrets about Marnie's family come to light, making things even more complicated.  Blurbworthiness: "The Death of Bees is completely addictive. A beautiful and darkly funny story of two sisters building a fantasy within a nightmare." (Alison Espach, author of The Adults )

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (Ecco):  I'm always a little wary of fiction written in punctuation-less lowercase sentences--something I'd call "stunt narrative"--but Leyshon's story of an illiterate 19th-century farm girl intrigued me by its Opening Lines:
      this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.
      in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with their cries. i can see the trees and i can see the leaves.
      and each leaf has veins which run down it.
      and the bark of each tree has cracks.
      i am not very tall and my hair is the colour of milk.
      my name is mary and I have learned to spell it, m. a. r. y. that is how you letter it.
I like that bold and forthright "this is my book" (if she was a 21st-century teenage girl, I can imagine Mary appending "and you better not mess with it, motherfucker!").  It also sets the tone for the rest of the lower-case novel: "Take it or leave it, but this is how I'm coming at you, the reader."  The Jacket Copy tells us Leyshon's book is "about an illiterate farm girl’s emotional and intellectual awakening and its devastating consequences. Mary, the spirited youngest daughter of an angry, violent man, is sent to work for the local vicar and his invalid wife. Her strange new surroundings offer unsettling challenges, including the vicar’s lecherous son and a manipulative fellow servant. But life in the vicarage also offers unexpected joys, as the curious young girl learns to read and write — knowledge that will come at a tragic price."

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (Hogarth):  The advance reading copy of Marra's debut novel is crowded with praise from big-name writers, including this nice Blurbworthiness from Ann Patchett: "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is simply spectacular.  Not since Everything is Illuminated have I read a first novel so ambitious and fully realized. If this is where Anthony Marra begins his career, I can't imagine how far he will go."  Okay nice words, but what about the plot?  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In the final days of December 2004, in a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces. Fearing for her life, she flees with their neighbor Akhmed--a failed physician--to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees and mourns her missing sister. Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonja reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness that unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate.
That's all well and good, but it was really the Opening Lines (the pudding's proof) that really convinced me to add this book to my tote bag at the trade show:
On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed, who hadn't slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom, looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. "Havaa, we should go," he said, but neither moved.

The Fall of Alice K. by Jim Heynen (Milkweed Editions):  It was the Opening Lines of Heynen's new novel which grabbed me in a quick chokehold--you know the feeling when you read something in which every word feels necessary and urgent.  I don't know if the rest of the novel sustains this kind of tension, but I'm willing to bet it does:
Alice Marie Krayenbraak was standing on the screened porch when she heard shots coming from a neighbor's farm--one loud blast after another, the sounds of a twelve gauge. Each time she thought the shooting had stopped, it would start again. Some shots were followed by moments of silence, but others were followed by guttural squeals, like pathetic last-second objections. Sometimes a new blast came before the last squeal stopped. The time between shots got shorter, as if someone was hurrying to get this done.
Here's the Jacket Copy: Seventeen-year-old Alice Marie Krayenbraak is beautiful, witty, a star student, and a gifted athlete. On the surface, she has it all. But in Alice’s hometown of Dutch Center, Iowa, nothing is as it seems. Behind the façade of order and tidiness, the family farm is failing. Alice’s mother is behaving strangely amid apocalyptic fears of Y2K. And her parents have announced their plans to send her special-needs sister Aldah away. On top of it all, the uniformly Dutch Calvinist town has been rattled by an influx of foreign farm workers. It’s the fall of senior year, and Alice now finds herself at odds with both family and cultural norms when she befriends and soon falls in love with Nickson Vang, the son of Hmong immigrants. Caught in a period of personal and community transformation, Alice and Nickson must navigate their way through vastly different traditions while fighting to create new ones of their own.

1 comment:

  1. A Working Theory and Life Among Giants sound so intriguing - and I am with you on "stunt narrative" (great term!) wariness. Even in email. Especially in email.