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.
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck (New American Library): Every literary year has trends, whether it's 50 Shades of Gray triggering a whipcrack of S&M imitators or a coincidental congregation of Amish romance novels ("bonnet rippers"). By all accounts, 2013 will be the Year of Zelda. In the coming months, new titles about F. Scott Fitzgerald's doomed wife will be gathering like chatty cocktail party guests in your local bookstore: Z by Therese Fowler, Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo, Guests on Earth by Lee Smith, and Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck. While I'm interested in all of them (primarily because I don't know as much about Zelda as I'd like), it's Robuck's novel which holds my attention front and center. Here's the Jacket Copy:
From New York to Paris, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald reigned as king and queen of the Jazz Age, seeming to float on champagne bubbles above the mundane cares of the world. But to those who truly knew them, the endless parties were only a distraction from their inner turmoil, and from a love that united them with a scorching intensity. When Zelda is committed to a Baltimore psychiatric clinic in 1932, vacillating between lucidity and madness in her struggle to forge an identity separate from her husband, the famous writer, she finds a sympathetic friend in her nurse, Anna Howard. Held captive by her own tragic past, Anna is increasingly drawn into the Fitzgeralds’ tumultuous relationship. As she becomes privy to Zelda’s most intimate confessions, written in a secret memoir meant only for her, Anna begins to wonder which Fitzgerald is the true genius. But in taking ever greater emotional risks to save Zelda, Anna may end up paying a far higher price than she intended.
And here are the Opening Lines:
The ward was never the same after that February afternoon when Zelda Fitzgerald stumbled into the psychiatric clinic with a stack of papers clutched to her chest, eyes darting this way and that, at once pushing from and pulling toward her husband like a spinning magnet.From the looks of it, Robuck's novel will be an unexpected delight to read.
I opened my arms to her. She would not look at me, her nurse, or allow me to touch her, but walked next to me down the hallway to her room. We left Mr. Fitzgerald at the desk preparing to meet with the resident in charge of his wife's case, when Mrs. Fitzgerald suddenly stopped and ran back to him, nearly knocking him over with her force. Her husband wrapped his arms around her and kissed her hair with an intensity that filled me with longing and squeezed my heart. They both began to cry like two lost, scared children. They were not what I expected in any way.
North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey by Shannon Huffman Polson (Zondervan): In the world of "elevator pitches," I can imagine Shannon Huffman Polson would have publishers hooked before the elevator had ascended even one floor: "After my parents were killed by a grizzly in Alaska, I retraced their route along that Arctic river in a journey of faith and healing." I've known Shannon via social media for more than a year and had the opportunity to meet her in person when I had a reading at Seattle's Elliott Bay Books last week. She is a bright, friendly, adventurous soul and of all the books on my radar for 2013, North of Hope has been pinging the loudest. Now that it's finally landed on my front porch, I can't wait to start reading her personal story of hope and healing. Opening Lines:
The plane fell from the clouds toward the dirt airstrip in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska. I braced myself against the seat in front of me. Windows aged and opaque blurred the borders of ice and land, sea and sky. The airstrip rushed upward with menacing inevitability. Kaktovik perched on Barter Island, a barrier island shaped like a bison’s skull just north of the Arctic Coastal Plain. Ice stretched from just offshore to the horizon. The Beech 1900 touched down with all the grace of a drunk, first one wheel and then the other staggering on the rough surface. Our bodies lurched forward and to the side. Gravel crunched beneath the wheels until the sound smoothed into a rhythmic bumping to the end of the runway.Blurbworthiness: "Daring, perceptive and eloquent…Polson's writing is clear and forceful. Like all true pilgrimages, this one is challenging, and well worth taking." (Scott Russell Sanders, author of A Private History of Awe)
As I walked off the plane down the rickety stairs, the Arctic wind cut through my fleece. I stood on the boundary between land and sea, water and ice. It was the end of the world. The ultima Thule.
As much as I pretended that courage motivated my trip, my arrival was a supplication born of a bewildering devastation I could not shake. I came on my knees, begging and desperate.
River of Dust by Virginia Pye (Unbridled Books): Unbridled Books has been keeping my bookshelves well-stocked for years and I know I can count on quality literature whenever I open one of their large mailing envelopes found on my front doorstep. Virginia Pye's debut novel looks like it will be among the best of what Unbridled has to offer. Virginia will have an upcoming guest blog in the My First Time series, but I can offer this one spoiler alert now: it only took her 23 days to write the first draft of River of Dust. It's the stuff of legends and, yes, the majority of us writers are filled with equal parts admiration and jealousy at the thought of this accomplishment. But there's also a bit of skepticism: could something written that quickly be any good? Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here to assure you that, based on the first chapter at least, River of Dust is a beautiful, enthralling piece of literature and more than amply meets Unbridled's high standards. Here are the Opening Lines:
The Reverend loomed over the barren plain. He stared at the blank horizon as if in search of something, although to Grace’s eyes, nothing of significance was out there. Sunset burned his silhouette into a vast and gaudy sky. Standing tall in his long coat on the porch above his wife and son, he appeared to be a giant—grand and otherworldly. Perhaps this was how the Chinese saw him, she thought. Her husband spread his arms toward the blazing clouds and shadowed flatlands as if to say that all this was now in the Lord’s embrace. The breeze shifted, and billows of smoke circled their way. Grace watched the Reverend’s outline waft and shimmer. She would not have been surprised if his body had gone up in flames right there before her eyes, ignited in a holy conflagration with only a pile of ash left behind to mark his time on this earth. Grace shook the strange notion from her mind, although she wondered how so good a man could appear so sinister in such glorious light.And here's the Jacket Copy:
On the windswept plains of northwestern China not long after the Boxer Rebellion, Mongol bandits swoop down upon an American missionary couple and kidnap their small child. As the Reverend sets out in search of the boy, he quickly loses himself in the rugged, corrupt, drought-stricken countryside populated by opium dens, sly nomadic warlords and traveling circuses. Grace, his young wife, pregnant with their second child, takes to her sick bed in the mission compound, where visions of her stolen child and lost husband begin to beckon to her from across the plains. The foreign couple’s capable and dedicated Chinese servants, Ahcho and Mai Lin, accompany and eventually lead them through dangerous territory to find one another again. With their Christian beliefs sorely tested, their concept of fate expanded, and their physical health rapidly deteriorating, the Reverend and Grace may finally discover an understanding between them that is greater than the vast distance they have come. Inspired in part by journals of her grandfather, who was himself an early missionary in China, Virginia Pye delivers a hypnotic, emotionally powerful, spiritually resonant debut that is at once both lyrical and dynamic.
Half as Happy by Gregory Spatz (Engine Books): Engine Books, another small but scrappy publisher, is another supplier of front-porch packages which always assure editorial quality. So far in their short history, they've only put out a few titles each year but that speaks volumes to the thoughtful editorial care they give each book. Gregory Spatz's new collection of short stories promises to be one of the better books of short fiction being released this year--a year which already looks like it will see a mini-renaissance of short stories. Not only do I like the book's cover design which diagonally splits it into two halves of dubious happiness, but perusing the first lines of the stories, I grow more and more excited for its contents. Here, for instance, are the Opening Lines to "String," the final story in the collection:
We were not bad kids. We'd never stolen candy bars, tormented insects or smaller children, drowned cats. Our worst crime the previous summer: breaking into the Cassidys' back yard to float in their pool on a moonlit night and imagine one or all of the pretty young sisters who lived there coming out to join us, or leaning from the windows of the upper story bedrooms with their hair down and the straps of their nightgowns falling away.Here's more evidence to tease us from the Jacket Copy:
A grieving couple rents a desperate landlord's house in an effort to recover lost intimacy. Twins are irrevocably separated by events both beyond and within their control. A nighttime prank and its gruesome aftermath forge human connections no one could have anticipated. The eight stories in Half as Happy reveal with startling clarity their characters' secrets, losses, and desires. Each with the depth of a novel, these insightful portraits of the darkness and light within us reverberate long after they've ended, like beautiful and disturbing dreams.
Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson (Harper): If you cast Alfred Hitchcock as a character in a novel, you can be 100 percent assured that I'll be instantly hooked. In Nicola Upson's new mystery, he is joined by another real-life persona: mystery novelist Josephine Tey. I just swallowed another hook. Here's the Jacket Copy:
Summer, 1936: Josephine Tey joins her friends in the resort village of Portmeirion to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, are there to sign a deal to film Josephine’s novel, A Shilling for Candles, and Alfred Hitchcock has one or two tricks up his sleeve to keep the holiday party entertained—and expose their deepest fears. But things get out of hand when one of Hollywood’s leading actresses is brutally slashed to death in a cemetery near the village. The following day, fear and suspicion take over in a setting where nothing—and no one—is quite what it seems. Based in part on the life of Josephine Tey—one of the most popular, best-loved crime writers of the Golden Age, Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight features legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock as a prominent character—and features the classic suspense and psychological tension that fans of Hitchcock films love.I swallowed yet another barbed hook when I read these Opening Lines:
"Do you mind if we stop for a moment?"
"Sure." The detective sounded impatient, but he did as he was asked and the staccato whirr of the projector gradually subsided. Archie Penrose closed his eyes, but the image of Josephine refused to go away. She sat on the hotel terrace in the afternoon sunlight, a little self-conscious in front of the camera but laughing nonetheless at something he had just said to her. He couldn’t remember what they had been talking about, and that annoyed him – irrationally, because the moment was eighteen years ago now and the conversation had been nothing more than easy holiday banter; but, since Josephine’s death, the gradual fragmentation of all she had been in his memory disturbed him, and any elusive detail stung him like a personal rebuke. He stood and lifted the blinds on the windows, aware that the American was watching him, waiting for an explanation. "I didn’t mean to upset you, sir," he said hesitantly, and the lazy drawl of his Californian accent gave the words an insolence which might or might not have been intentional. "There’s worse to come in the later footage. Much worse."