Saturday, December 14, 2013

Front Porch Books: December 2013 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly 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.

Stop Here by Beverly Gologorsky (Seven Stories Press):  I'll begin this snapshot of Gologorsky's second novel with a bit of Blurbworthiness from Elizabeth Strout (author of Olive Kitteridge): "Unflinching, piercing, Gologorsky looks straight into the face of class in this country, capturing the reverberations across generations of who really fights our wars, who really serves our coffee, who really gets up in the dark to wipe the diners' counter clean. This book is filled with an array of characters whose bravery is unsung, women who persevere with a dignity unseen by many, until Gologorsky pulls the curtain back and allows us in.” Those women are Ava, Mila, and Rosalyn who all work at Murray's Diner in Long Island.  As the Jacket Copy tells us: "They are friends and coworkers struggling to hold together their disordered lives. While Ava privately grieves the loss of her husband in the first Iraq War, Mila struggles to dissuade her seventeen-year-old daughter from enlisting in the second. Rosalyn works as an escort by night until love and illness conspire to disrupt the tenuous balance she'd found and the past she'd kept at a safe distance. The promise of a new relationship with a coworker soon begins to restore Ava's faith in her own ability to feel, and Mila learns through wrenching loss that children must learn from their own mistakes. But ultimately it is love—for one another and for their wayward families—that sustains them through the pain and uncertainty of a world with no easy answers." Gologorsky's first novel, The Things We Do To Make It Home, was published by Random House in 1999. Though once-a-decade writers like Jeffrey Eugenides and Donna Tartt get all the media ink, there's no doubt the term "long-awaited" can be applied to Gologorsky as well. Judging by the Opening Lines, the wait seems to have been worth it. The novel opens with a party at Murray's house:
      There’s no way to ignore the warmongering on Fox News, though Ava is trying. The screen takes up half the wall. Hours ago, it seems, she searched for the remote to lower the volume, but no luck. She went so far as to ask Murray to turn it off, but instead he began jabbering about our brave boys, keeping the country safe, on and on like he knew something no one else did. That sent her mind reeling back to the evening her son pulled her onto the couch to watch the invasion of Iraq. Shock and Awe, he said, repeating what he’d heard the newscasters call it. Then, too, she wanted to close her eyes. She told him the sights were frightening, nothing to celebrate, but it didn’t dampen Bobby’s childish excitement. That scared her, too. No one seems bothered by the TV. The party is in this room where the food table and bar are set up, where wraparound windows allow only blueberry darkness, where vaulted ceilings create echoes as people talk and gesture and take up space. If she could find a corner to be alone—to hide, actually—it would help, but no luck there either. She avoids parties, fears the expectations, the false gaiety, and worse, strangers’ idle curiosity.
      Maybe another glass of wine, but her head feels spacey, her fingers tingle, and when she tries to breathe deep her body tenses. It’s been a while since anxiety dogged her, though it happened a lot after her husband was killed. Damn TV. It’s boring through her senses.
I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Stop Here—which, by all appearances, deserves to be heard above all that warmongering chatter on Fox News.

Death on Blackheath by Anne Perry (Ballantine Books):  I'm a late-comer to the Anne Perry party and, in fact, have only read a couple of her Christmas mysteries.  But thanks to the Opening Lines of this new Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novel, I might just have to start exploring the Victorian world of these sleuths:
      Pitt stood shivering on the steps leading up from the areaway to the pavement and looked down at the clumps of blood and hair at his feet. There was blood on the shards of glass as well, and some of it had already congealed. Splinters lay on the steps below and above. The January wind whined across the open stretch towards the gravel pits in the distance.
      "And the maid is missing?" Pitt asked quietly.
      "Yes, and sorry, sir," the police sergeant said unhappily. His young face was set hard in the grey early morning light. "Thought that seeing whose house it was, like, we should call you straight away."
      "You did the right thing," Pitt assured him.
Here's the Jacket Copy to tell us more about the gore on those steps:
As commander of the powerful Special Branch, Thomas Pitt has the job of keeping Britain safe from spies and traitors. So there’s no obvious reason why he is suddenly ordered to investigate two minor incidents: the blood, hair, and shards of glass discovered outside the home of naval weapons expert Dudley Kynaston, and the simultaneous disappearance of Mrs. Kynaston’s beautiful lady’s maid. But weeks later, when the mutilated body of an unidentified young woman is found near Kynaston’s home, Pitt realizes that this is no ordinary police investigation. Far from it. Is Kynaston—one of Britain’s most valuable scientists—leading a double life? Is Pitt saddled with a conspiracy so devilishly clever that it will ruin him? A baffled Pitt has never needed his friends more desperately, including his indomitable wife, Charlotte; his canny old colleague Victor Narraway; and his personal drawing-room spy, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould. But even these allies may not be able to save Pitt—or Britain.

Dakota by Gwen Florio (The Permanent Press):  Moving from Victorian-era England to the present-day oil fields of North Dakota, we come to Gwen Florio's follow-up to her debut mystery, Montana (which was just released last month).  Once again, Florio's amateur detective Lola Wicks is on the case—this time involving a dead girl in a snowbank.  Here's the Jacket Copy to spill the plot points:
Former foreign correspondent Lola Wicks is getting a little bored in Magpie, Montana, where she landed at a small local newspaper after being downsized from her job in Kabul. Then Judith Calf Looking, a local Blackfeet girl missing for several months, turns up dead in a snowbank with a mysterious brand on her forearm. The sheriffwhose romantic relationship with Lola provides Magpie with its most delicious gossip in yearsthinks Judith probably froze to death while hitch-hiking back to the reservation from wherever she’d been. But Lola hears rumors that Judith had been working as an exotic dancer in the North Dakota oil fields, and further discovers that several Blackfeet girls, all known drug users, have gone missing over the past year. She heads out to the oil patch to check things out, only to find herself in a place where men outnumber women a hundred to one, the law looks the other way, and lifeespecially her ownis cheap. Dakota shows the frightening underside of a boom-and-bust economy; of the effect on a small town when big-city money washes in, accompanied by hordes of men far from their families; of what happens when the old rules no longer apply, but the new ones are yet to be determined.
With the current boom-or-bust growth on the Bakken oil fields in Montana and the Dakotas, Florio's new mystery couldn't be more timely.

Byrd by Kim Church (Dzanc Books):  Kim Church's debut novel opens with a mother writing a tell-all letter to a son she never knew—one she gave up for adoption soon after his birth years ago.
      Dear Byrd,
      This is how I told your father.
      We climbed up on his roof. We could see the ocean, wrinkles of light in the distance. I was wearing a billowy cotton skirt. I wanted to look soft, unthreatening, unselfconsciously pretty. I wanted your father to love me. My legs were pale, not used to sun in winter. I had painted my toenails lavender. I wanted him to be a little sorry he hadn't loved me all along.
      The roof of his apartment was flat, asphalt. All grit and sparkle.
      He was glad to see me, he said. He didn't ask why I'd come back.
      He unfolded an orange blanket from his sofa bed and we laid out our picnic: smoothies, crinkle-cut fries from his favorite stand on the beach, canned peaches from his kitchen, and barbecue I'd brought from home, packed on dry ice. So much food. I had to make myself eat. I chewed slowly, counting each bite, the way you're supposed to, though I couldn't remember how high to count.
      A warm breeze ruffled my skirt.
      Your father offered to spike my smoothie, but I covered my cup with my hand.
      I wish I could tell you we were young, inexperienced, not yet grownups or ready to be. That's the story you're expecting, isn't it?
      We were thirty-two. We'd grown up together. Everything about the afternoon
our picnic, the roof, the sun, the salty air, your father's pilled orange blanket, him sitting close and warm beside mehad been coming all our lives.
As you can see, there's some fine writing in those Opening Lines, a sparkle-promise of good things to come in the rest of the novel.  I'm not even off the first page and I'm already invested in the lives of these characters.  That's the power of tight, controlled writing—so, kudos to Ms. Church!  Here's the Jacket Copy to tell us more about Byrd and his parents:
Addie Lockwood believes in books. Roland Rhodes believes in blues guitar. Coming of age in the small-town South of the 1970s, they form an unlikely friendship that makes each of them feel, if only for a little while, extraordinary. They meet again in their disillusioned thirties, this time in California, where Roland’s music career has landed him. Venice Beach is exotic, a world away from North Carolina and Addie’s cloistered life as a bookstore clerk. But when their whirlwind reunion leaves Addie pregnant, reality sets in. Conflicted, unready to be a mother, she gives birth and surrenders her baby for adoption without telling Roland, little imagining how the secret will shape their lives. Told through sharply-drawn vignettes and Addie's letters to her son, Byrd is an unforgettable story about making and living with the most difficult, intimate, and far-reaching of choices.
Blurbworthiness: "This protagonist is so appealing, with her unflinching moral candor, her mistakes based on generous instincts. The prose is lilting, joyous. This novel—about young lives that start out full of promise, falter, then recover—is a hard luck story that will make you feel good."  (Debra Monroe, author of On the Outskirts of Normal)

Afghan Post by Adrian Bonenberger (The Head & The Hand Press):  Composed entirely of letters, journal entries and the occasional glossary of military terms, Adrian Bonenberger's Afghan Post is not your typical war memoir (which is funny, given the original title he was contemplating for this book: Just Another War Memoir).  Though I've only had enough time to dip briefly into its pages and take a few sips here and there, Afghan Post looks like it will be a rewarding journey through the physical mechanics of combat and the spiritual toll it takes on an individual.  By building his story through correspondence, Bronenberger invests Afghan Post with the immediacy of every situation in which he finds himself, written in the white-hot emotion of the moment.  Here's the Jacket Copy to give us a little more background on the book:
Afghan Post begins in 2001 with the attack on the World Trade Center and follows Adrian’s journey from Yale English major to U.S. Army captain in letters and journal entries. Over the course of the memoir, under the strain of war, Adrian’s identity splits and splits again as he maintains different correspondences with friends and family, fellow veterans, and himself. The tectonic shifts in relationships, mental states, and levels of physical danger cause Adrian to reevaluate his rejection of the many paths that were available to him post-graduation in favor of volunteering for military service. He left the Army as a decorated captain in 2012 after two tours.
Blurbworthiness: "This is one of the best memoirs to emerge from our recent wars. It is painfully honest as we see the author grow from being a narcissistic Yalie weenie who judges the 'aesthetics' of paratrooping to an Airborne captain who revels in commanding an infantry company in combat—and then is crushed by it. One way to thank vets for their service is to read this book." (Thomas E. Ricks, author of The Generals)

Flushboy by Stephen Graham Jones (Dzanc Books):  If hygienic matters of the water closet are not your thing, you might want to move on.  But if, on the other hand, you don't mind descriptions of the activity in which all of us—to a person—engage on a daily (sometimes thrice-daily) basis, then Stephen Graham Jones' newest novel will have you flushed with pleasure.  In fact, urine for a real treat here.  Hey, don't blame me for the puns.  Wordplay abounds in Flushboy, starting with headings Jones gives the novel's sections: "The Urinal Cake Blues," "The Great American Splashdown," "Leaktakers and Heartbreakers," and "The Gospel of P."  Jones is the author of ten novels, three short story collections, and one novella--and I'm guessing he's not exactly a household name where you live.  By all accounts, he's one of America's most overlooked contemporary novelists (including, I'll admit, by me).  I'm not sure if Flushboy will be his breakout book, but I'm definitely willing to give it a go, based on the zippy energy of its Opening Lines:
      So there's video footage of me not washing my hands in the bathroom at work. My dad says it's the kind of the thing that can tank his whole business. That he has to be extra careful. Don't I understand?
      Usually when he's spewing all this, I just stand there.
      Last week I was his show-and-tell for Sunday school class. We wore matching ties, and I was under strict orders not to smile or look sly. Some of those people were his customers, after all.
      I don't know.
      Anyway, bam, yeah, the camera caught me: I ran the water but didn't wash my hands. Even pulled down a paper towel or two because that's the kind of thing you can hear through a metal door.
      So, really, it's two crimes: bad hygiene and wasting paper towels.
The Jacket Copy only offers a small hint of the plot—but it's enough for me: "Over the course of one shift working the window of his father's drive-through urinal, our sixteen-year-old Flushboy will have to not only juggle gallons of warm pee and deal with the worst flood ever (it's not water), but he'll also have to fend off the urine mafia, solve the citywide mystery of Chickenstein, and win his girlfriend back."  Wait—did he just say drive-through urinal?  Hmmm....I'd better sit down for this.

The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill (Vintage):  I've only read one of Susan Hill's many Gothic horror novels—The Man in the Picture—but I was so thoroughly creeped out that as soon as I finished it, I wanted more.  So along comes The Mist in the Mirror, a classic ghost story which appears to be just the thing to really put the chill in this winter weather we're having out here in Montana.  The Jacket Copy even helps fray the nerves:
For the last twenty years Sir James Monmouth has journeyed all over the globe in the footsteps of his hero, the great pioneering traveler Conrad Vane. In an effort to learn more about Vane’s early life—and his own—Sir James sets off for the remote Kittiscar Hall on a cold and rainy winter night. But he soon begins to feel as though something is warning him away at every turn; there are the intense feelings of being watched and the strange apparitions of a sad little boy. And as he learns more about his hero’s past, he discovers that they are only the beginning, for Kittiscar Hall is hiding terrible secret that will bind their lives together in ways he could never have imagined.
Remote English manors, boy ghosts, terrible secrets?  Yep, I'm already on my way.  I look no further than the Opening Lines to help set the mood:
      London, and the library of my Club, toward the end of an afternoon in late November, that bleak, dispiriting time of year when the golden Indian summer days that lingered on through October seem long gone, and it is yet too early to feel the approaching cheer of Christmas.
      Outside in the streets the air was raw and a light mizzle greased the pavements, and had chilled my face and damped the sleeves of my coat.
Blurbworthiness: "Thanks to Hill’s deceptively simple plots and straightforward prose, you won’t even notice the noose she’s slipping around your throat."  (The Seattle Times)

2 a.m. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino (Crown):  This debut novel by Marie-Helene Bertino doesn't come out until next August, but I'm telling you about it now as a courtesy so you can hurry up and whittle down your To-Be-Read pile, clearing your plate for what looks like a great book to get you in the mood for next Christmas.  Take a gander at the Jacket Copy:
Madeline Altimari is a smart-mouthed, precocious nine-year-old and an aspiring jazz singer. As she mourns the recent death of her mother, she doesn't realize that on Christmas Eve Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary dayand nightof her life. After bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeline doggedly searches for Philadelphia's legendary jazz club The Cat's Pajamas, where she's determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth-grade teacher Sarina Greene, who's just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat's Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever, unless someone can find a way to quickly raise the $30,000 that would save it. As these three lost souls search for love, music and hope on the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia, together they will discover life's endless possibilities over the course of one magical night.
I'm already entranced by the Opening Lines:
Silent flurries fall in the city. Actors walking home from a cast party on Broad Street try to catch them on their tongues. The ingenue, landing one on her hot cheek, dissolves into a fit of laughter. In Fishtown a nightmare trebles through the nose and paws of a dog snoozing under construction flats. The stone deity that rules the Rittenhouse Square fountain switches to life with a pronouncement of water while Curtis Hall musicians, late for final rehearsal, arpeggiate through the park. The flurries somersault, reconsider, double back. The alleys of 9th Street bear witness as they softly change their minds.
Blurbworthiness: "2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas is as winning and funny as the nine year-old at its heart, and I love it for the way its protagonists turn their back on their city’s cruddiness and their own losses to proclaim their happiness to be in this world. They offer wryness as the antidote to self-pity and benevolence as the antidote to isolation, and they demonstrate how even the most forsaken can turn themselves into a warm, dry house."  (Jim Shepard, author of Like You’d Understand, Anyway)

The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes (Scribner):  As with so many books, my initial attention was snagged by the striking cover design of Jennifer Vanderbes' new novel, The Secret of Raven Point.  Half a profile and one eye of a World War Two-era WAC can be seen behind a sheet of yellowed, stained and torn memo paper which bears the book's title and a small red cross (nicely linked to the girl's bright red lipstick as well as her job as an Army nurse).  Man, I can't stop staring at this cover.  But eventually I have to, of course, and I step into the pages.  The cover may have caught my eye, but it will be the words inside which will no doubt keep me there.  Vanderbes (who also wrote the highly-acclaimed novels Easter Island and Strangers at the Feast) opens her newest book with this vivid prologue:
      The German puts his hands behind his head, biting at his lower lip, and gets down on his knees. He's looking at the ground, and his helmet tilts forward over his eyes, but he's too scared to move it. "Nicht Schießen," he says. "Nicht Schießen." He keeps repeating that in these short, stabbing whispers, like he's talking to himself, talking to God. Sergeant McKnight's watching him, kicking at the dirt, that vein in his forehead getting fat. He orders Rakowski and Dufresne to take the Jerry to the rear, so they each grab an elbow and haul the German off the ground and start heading back toward the wall....
      McKnight's looking at me. "Stop batting your fucking eyelashes at every Jerry," he says. Just as Rakowski and Dufresne get close to the wall, McKnight signals them to let go of the sniper. So the German's standing there all alone, his helmet still tilted, and McKnight trains his rifle on him. McKnight's just waiting, waiting for him to start moving, and finally the Jerry takes one step, then another, and soon he's walking, walking faster, staring at the ground, breaking into a run, and I hear a gun go pop.
When Vanderbes first mentions that fat vein on McKnight's forehead, we just know there's going to be trouble.  I also love the movement in that last sentence—linguistically and literally—which starts off at a walk, then breaks into a run, hurrying toward the finality of the pop just before the period.  If the remainder of the book is this good, then we're all in for a treat.  But what is the rest of the novel about, you ask?  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain:
1943: When seventeen-year-old Juliet Dufresne receives a cryptic letter from her enlisted older brother pleading for help, and then finds out he’s been reported missing overseas, she lies about her age and volunteers as an army nurse to find him. Shy and awkward, Juliet is thrust into the bloody chaos of a field hospital, living in a sprawling encampment north of Rome where she forges new friendships with her fellow nurses and is increasingly consumed by the plight of her patients. One in particular, Christopher Barnaby, a deserter awaiting court martial, may hold the answer to her brother’s fate—but the trauma of war has left him unable to speak. Racing against the clock, Juliet works with an enigmatic young psychiatrist, Henry Willard, to heal Barnaby’s psychic wound before the authorities take him away and any clues as to her brother’s fate are forever lost. Plunged into the horrifying depths of one man’s combat memories, Juliet and Willard are forced to plumb the moral nuances of a so-called just war, and to face the dangers of their own deepening connection. Reminiscent of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, The Secret of Raven Point is a war saga capturing the experiences of soldiers after the battles have ended. And as few novels have done, it depicts the ravages of war through the eyes of a young woman.
I can't be certain, but I think the person narrating the prologue might be the shell-shocked Barnaby; and, unless I'm further mistaken, Vanderbes is hinting that he's gay ("Stop batting your fucking eyelashes at every Jerry"). If so, this is setting up a nice tension for an already-promising narrative.

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