Saturday, February 22, 2014

Front Porch Books: February 2014 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.

Between Wrecks by George Singleton (Dzanc Books):  I had a Punxsutawney Phil moment earlier this month when I poked my head out the front door and saw the envelope from Dzanc Books sitting on the doorstep.  I ripped it open and out dropped an uncorrected proof of George Singleton's new short story collection, Between Wrecks.  Yep, it's gonna be an early spring: sun shining, flowers blooming, birds singing, and all that good shit.  Singleton's book officially reaches bookstores in May, but I'm already breaking out into song and Gene Kelly-ish dances through rain puddles.  Why?  Look no further than the Opening Lines of the first story ("No Shade Ever"):
Because I'd seen part of a documentary on gurus who slept on beds of nails, and because I'd tried to quit smoking before my wife came back home after leaving for nine months in order to birth our first child--though she would come back childless and say it was all a lie she made up in order to check into some kind of speech clinic up in Minnesota to lose her bilateral lisp--I had a dream of chairs and beds adorned entirely with ancient car cigarette lighters.
Welcome to the off-kilter, hilarious world built by George Singleton.  It will tear down the walls and completely renovate the interior of your brain.  One of the things I like about Singleton's writing is how he doesn't tip-toe into his stories with a lot of wasted, rambling preamble.  He gets right to the point with his first sentences, setting the hook like an expert angler.  Here's just a small sampling of more great beginnings from Between Wrecks:
Luckily for everyone in the family on down, the mule spoke English to my grandfather.  ("Which Rocks We Choose") 
A couple of months later, with everything going right in our marriage, my wife pulled out a photo album I'd never seen.  ("Vulture") 
Rodney Sheets couldn't stop thinking about deforestation.  ("Unfortunately, the Woman Opened Her Bag and Sighed"--a title which also sports a barbed hook) 
At this, the completion of No Cover Available: The Story of Columbus Choice, African-American Sushi Chef from Tennessee, I will not thank God, like all those athletes and musicians do on TV in hopes that it'll make them appear like a neighbor one would wish to know.  I'll try to make this short.  ("I Would Be Remiss"--a story whose narrator then goes on thanking people for another 60 pages)
Need I say more?

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco):  If this is February, that must mean it's time for another brick in the JCO library.  This time around, the Prolific One takes us to upstate New York where we join the search for a missing girl.  Yes, abducted/ missing/murdered children novels seem to be in vogue these days, but I trust Ms. Oates to put her own pitch-perfect spin on the subject.  Leafing forward through the 482 pages in a quick skim, most of the narrative seems to be telegraphed to the reader through spare, choppy sentences.  These are paragraphs that pop like flashbulbs, illuminating the sadness of the search and those connected with it--the family, the accused, the law--in stark terms.  Here's the Jacket Copy for further illumination:
Zeno Mayfield's daughter has disappeared into the night, gone missing in the wilds of the Adirondacks. But when the community of Carthage joins a father's frantic search for the girl, they discover the unlikeliest of suspects--a decorated Iraq War veteran with close ties to the Mayfield family. As grisly evidence mounts against the troubled war hero, the family must wrestle with the possibility of having lost a daughter forever. Carthage plunges us deep into the psyche of a wounded young corporal haunted by unspeakable acts of wartime aggression, while unraveling the story of a disaffected young girl whose exile from her family may have come long before her disappearance. Dark and riveting, Carthage is a powerful addition to the Joyce Carol Oates canon, one that explores the human capacity for violence, love, and forgiveness, and asks if it's ever truly possible to come home again.
Blurbworthiness: “Oates shows how perilous it is to assign guilt, and how hard it is to draw the line between victim and perpetrator in a blurred moral landscape in which every crime, on the battlefield or on the home front, is a crime of conscience.” (New York Times Book Review)

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain by Adrianne Harun (Penguin Books):  Exhibit B on this month's Missing Children shelf.  Here are the Opening Lines to Harun's debut novel (her first book was the short story collection The King of Limbo):
That wasn’t the first summer girls went missing off the Highway, not the first time a family lost its dearest member to untraceable evil, but it was the first time someone I loved was among that number—spirited away, it seemed, although I knew better.  If Uncle Lud were here, he'd tell this story.  He'd know right where to begin so you could see how the devil slipped into town, how visible his entry was, and yet how we bumbled right into his path.  All the pieces would make perfect sense then.  Fractures would vanish.  You'd see the whole of it.  But Uncle Lud's not here, and he left me and a few scattered notebooks to set the shards of the story side by side and conjure demons once again.  Even as I do, I want to call out to all of us.  I want to yell: Look sharp!  For as Uncle Lud might say, the devil could find a soul mate in a burnt teaspoon and he sure as hell can choose whatever forms suit his purpose.  I can almost see myself, crouching down beside Bryan and Jackie at the refuse station as that Hana Swann strolls toward us, or hollering up at Ursie on the motel's upper balcony while Keven Seven waits for her.  Look sharp!  As if that might have altered every part of the day the devil first arrived to meet us—the bunch of us—in person.
Note to self: avoid burnt teaspoons at all costs.  The Jacket Copy reveals more about this deliciously dark novel:
In this seductive and chilling debut novel from the acclaimed author of The King of Limbo, girls, mostly Native, are vanishing from the sides of a notorious highway in isolated British Columbia. Leo Kreutzer and his four friends are barely touched by these disappearances—until a series of mysterious and troublesome outsiders come to town. Then it seems as if the devil himself has appeared among them. In this intoxicatingly lush debut novel, Adrianne Harun weaves together folklore, mythology, and elements of magical realism to create a compelling and unsettling portrait of life in a dead-end town. A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is atmospheric and evocative of place and a group of people, much in the way that Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones conjures the South, or Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children provides a glimpse of the Las Vegas underworld: kids left to fend for themselves in a broken world—rendered with grit and poetry in equal measure.

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld by Justin Hocking (Graywolf Press):  Captain Ahab hangs ten in Justin Hocking's memoir about surfing, Melville, romantic obsession, crime and, quite possibly, the kitchen sink.  Starting with a wonderfully evocative title, this new arrival from Graywolf instantly captured my attention.  Why?  The Jacket Copy is all the answer you'll need for that question:
Justin Hocking lands in New York hopeful but adrift—he's jobless, unexpectedly overwhelmed and disoriented by the city, struggling with anxiety and obsession, and attempting to maintain a faltering long-distance relationship. As a man whose brand of therapy has always been motion, whether in a skate park or on a snowdrift, Hocking needs an outlet for his restlessness. Then he spies his first New York surfer hauling a board to the subway, and its not long before he's a member of the vibrant and passionate surfing community at Far Rockaway. But in the wake of a traumatic robbery incident, the dark undercurrents of his ocean-obsession pull him further and further out on his own night sea journey. With Moby-Dick as a touchstone, and interspersed with interludes on everything from the history of surfing to Scientology's naval ties to the environmental impact of the Iraq War, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is a multifaceted and enduring modern odyssey from a memorable and whip-smart new literary voice.
And here's some awesome, gnarly Blurbworthiness for you: "This nightshade journey reflects on the inner Ahab inside all of us....Melvillian arcana abounds, leading to a profound journey into Moby-Dick's infinitude of meanings, mixed with inopportune break dancing, a harrowing carjacking, and a meditation on the redemptive power of skateboarding and surfing, the allure of waves and the sea, and life itself." (Jocko Weyland, author of The Answer Is Never)

The Peerless Four by Victoria Patterson (Counterpoint):  This new novel by Victoria Patterson (This Vacant Paradise) came out last October but somehow swam completely below my radar.  If it wasn't for Patterson's interview with Brad Listi on his Other People podcast, I might have missed it altogether.  God bless Brad Listi.  (And, by the way, if you're a regular reader of this blog but you're not a regular listener of Other People, you need to fix that posthaste.)  While some of us (not me) are currently obsessing about halfpipes, slaloms, and salchows at the Winter Olympics and others (still not me) are blocking off their schedules for the Summer Olympics, now would be the perfect time to read Patterson's novel about female athletes at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.  Jacket Copy:
Running so hard you think you'll choke on your next breath. Lungs burning like they're drenched in battery acid. Peripheral vision blurred by the same adrenaline that drowns out the cheers coming from the full stadium. And of course, the reporters. The men scribbling furiously on their notepads so they can publish every stumble, sprain, and sniffle. This was the world of the female athletes in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the first games in which women were allowed to compete in track and field on a trial basis. Nicknamed "The Peerless Four," the Canadian track team included some of the strongest, most diversely talented women on the scene. Narrated by the team's chaperone--a former runner herself--the women embark on their journey with the same golden goals as every other Olympian, male or female. But as the Olympic tension begins to rise with unexpected injuries and disqualifications, each woman discovers new fears and priorities, all while the weight of women's future in the Olympics rests on their performance. The Peerless Four is more than a sports novel, more than a record of women's rights. It's a meditation on sacrifice, loyalty, perseverance, and the courage to live a true underdog tale.
I'd like to tell you to run out and get a copy of the book right now, but I'm not one for cheap puns.  I'd never make you jump over those kind of hurdles.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger (William Morrow):  Let's start with the gripping Opening Lines of this historical novel by medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger:
      Under a clouded moon Agnes huddles in a sliver of utter darkness and watches him, this dark-cloaked man, as he questions the girl by the dying fire. At first he is kind seeming, almost gentle with her. They speak something like French: not the flavor of Stratford-at-Bowe nor of Paris, but a deep and throated tongue, tinged with the south. Olives and figs in his voice, the embrace of a warmer sea.
      He repeats his last question.
      The girl is silent.
       He hits her.
      She falls to the ground. He squats, fingers coiled through her lush hair.
      “Doovay leebro?” he gently chants. “Ileebro, mee ragazza. Ileebro.” It could be a love song.
      The girl shakes her head. This time he brings a fist, loosing a spray of blood and spittle from her lips. A sizzle on a smoldering log. Now he pulls her up, dangling her head before him, her body a broken doll in his hands. Another blow, and the girl’s nose cracks.
      “Ileebro!” Screaming at her, shaking her small frame.
      “Nonloso!” she cries. “Nonloso, seenoray.” She spits in his face.
      He releases her and stands. Hands on his knees, he lets fly a string of words. Agnes can make nothing of them, but the girl shakes her head violently, her hands clasped in prayer.
      “No no no, seenoray, no no no.” She screams, sobs, now whimpers as her softening cries fade into the silence of the moor.
      When she is still he speaks again. “Doovay leebro?”
      This time the girl hesitates. Moonlight catches the whites of her eyes, her gaze darting toward the dense foliage.
      In the thick brush Agnes stiffens, ready to spring. The moment lengthens. Finally, in the clearing, the girl lowers her head. “Nonloso.” Her voice rings confident this time, unafraid.
      The man raises a hand. In it he clutches a stick of some kind. No, a hammer. “This is your last chance, my dear.”
Perhaps unfairly, I'll leave the violent scene there in that spot on the moor. As you can see, A Burnable Book is also A Readable Book.  Here's the Jacket Copy to put everything in context:
In Chaucer's London, betrayal, murder, and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England's kings. London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers--including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt's artful mistress, Katherine Swynford--England's young king, Richard II, is in mortal peril. Songs are heard across London--catchy verses said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the ends of England's kings--and among the book's predictions is Richard's assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a "burnable book," a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low. Gower discovers that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a conspiracy that reaches from the king's court to London's slums and stews--and potentially implicates Gower's own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that John Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may hold the key to saving the king, and England itself.

The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams (Bourbon Street Books):  If you're snowbound and looking to escape into a good old-fashioned Gothic thriller, might I suggest this fog-shrouded novel by Charlotte Williams?  Fans of Daphne du Maurier, Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt probably already have The House on the Cliff in their stack of bedside To-Be-Read books.  If not, here's the Jacket Copy to push them over the edge (not, hopefully, of a cliff):
Jessica Mayhew is a sharp, successful therapist with a thriving practice and loving family. But the arrival of a new client, actor Gwydion Morgan, coincides with a turbulent moment in her life: her husband has just confessed to a one-night stand with a younger woman. The son of a famous stage director, Gwydion is good-looking and talented but mentally fragile, tormented by an intriguing phobia. When Jessica receives a frantic call warning that he is suicidal, she decides to make a house call. The Morgans live in a grand clifftop mansion overlooking the rocky Welsh coast. It seems to be a remote paradise, but there's something sinister about it too: Jessica learns that the family's former au pair drowned in the bay under mysterious circumstances. In her quest to help Gwydion, to whom she's grown increasingly attached, Jessica becomes ensnared in the Morgan family mystery, which soon becomes an explosive public scandal--one that puts her directly in harm's way. Meanwhile, Jessica is doing her best to keep her marriage and family together, but her growing attraction to Gwydion is impossible to ignore.

The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford (Tin House Books):  While money and finances aren't necessarily my forte (just ask my wife), this new novel by Peter Mountford (whose debut, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, created quite a splash) comes with this convincing Blurbworthiness from The Collagist: "Mountford pulls off impressive feats of empathy: he creates compelling characters out of self-interested economists, and makes the nuances of financial policy—the 'dismal science' of the book's title—accessible to lay readers."  Layman's math--that's me!  The novel, according to the Jacket Copy, tells of a middle-aged vice president at the World Bank, Vincenzo D’Orsi, who publicly quits his job over a seemingly minor argument with a colleague.  A scandal inevitably ensues, and he systematically burns every bridge to his former life.  After abandoning his career, Vincenzo, a recent widower, is at a complete loss as to what to do with himself.  The story follows his efforts to rebuild his identity without a vocation or the company of his wife.  And then there are these great Opening Lines:
      The annual meetings had become a kind of rowdy reunion, bearing, increasingly, the muffled bonhomie of a great funeral. At the dueling bars of the Omni and the Sheraton, the dignitaries—old friends and colleagues and rivals who’d been driven apart and together by the conflicting currents of their careers—gathered over strong drink and weak gossip. Everyone was present: the longwinded bore, the hardened bureaucrat, the warmly glib, and the heaving braggart, all driving up astronomical bar tabs over well-worn war stories. For most, the old ambition that had brought them together lifetimes ago was now largely vacuumed away. Vincenzo planted himself at the Sheraton’s superior bar, occasionally reading briefs in the comfortable chairs of the adjacent lobby, but otherwise holding to a tight orbit. There were fewer bilaterals this year, or at least he wasn’t required to go to as many. When he did venture off for a session or a panel, he’d lurk at the back so that he could duck out early. The young ones still passed around their business cards, as if there was some angle to be had, as if someone would remember in a week, as if it meant anything to be remembered.
      Vincenzo and the other senior management mostly gossiped of their mutual acquaintances—the firings and divorces and promotions and cancer diagnoses—and struggled to reel in their diatribes and impolitic outbursts. They made jokes when they were able, allowed silences to overtake them often.
      This being 2005, it wasn’t lost on them that there hadn’t been a single major economic catastrophe in five years. Except for Argentina, and that didn’t count, because their central bank was just too inept for words. So maybe everyone was starting to feel like they’d gotten it right, after all. The medicine was taking. It was terrible about Iraq and Afghanistan and a lot of other things in the world were terrible, too, but really, it could’ve been so much worse. And so the proceedings seemed lifted by a calm buoyancy that had been absent before, especially during the troubled ’90s when there began to be a lot of talk about hegemony, a word that hadn’t really seemed to exist before, but suddenly became so ubiquitous as to be immediately exhausting. Everything had been fraught in the international aid community then—crises came huge and frequent, each more terrifying than the last. Executives sharing elevators would exchange wide-eyed looks, shaking their heads, quietly pining for a return to the relative sanity of the Cold War.

The Understory by Pamela Erens (Tin House Books): Also out from Tin House Books next month is the re-issue of Pamela Erens' debut novel, first published in 2007 by a tiny press which folded soon after its release.  As Tin House publicist Nanci McCloskey notes in a letter accompanying my advance copy of the book, "There was no marketing, no publicity, no distribution ....The Understory did not get the audience it deserved."  I hope this fascinating book does find a new army of readers eager to embrace it. Those of you who were blown away by Erens' most recent novel, The Virgins, will definitely be hugging this one. Here's the Jacket Copy:
(The Understory) is the haunting portrayal of Jack Gorse, an ex-lawyer, now unemployed, who walls off his inner life with elaborate rituals and routines. Every day he takes the same walk from his Upper West Side apartment to the Brooklyn Bridge. He follows the same path through Central Park; he stops to browse in the same bookstore, to eat lunch in the same diner. Threatened with eviction from his longtime apartment and caught off-guard by an attraction to a near stranger, Gorse takes steps that lead to the dramatic dissolution of the only existence he's known. As the narrative alternates between his days in New York City and his present life in a Vermont Buddhist Monastery, The Understory unfolds as both a mystery and a psychological study, revealing that repression and self-expression can be equally destructive.
And now for the Opening Lines:
      Many years ago, in a deli, I found flaky white bits floating in my self-serve coffee; the milk, sitting all day in a bucket of cold water, had turned sour. Since that day I have never drunk my coffee anything but black. Yet I look for those tainted curls every time: I pour, peer inside to reassure myself, then top it off.
      Even here I am bound to my habits. I pour, pause, bend to my mug. All at once Joku is standing next to me at the end of the buffet table. He looks down, as if he too suspects that something is wrong with my drink. I move the mug away, toward me, and by the time I have accomplished this I’ve forgotten my most recent action. Did I already look inside? I think so, but it nags at me that I don’t know for sure. The glass coffeepot, suspended above the mug, is beginning to hurt my wrist. Joku is watching me now, and I become even more flustered and uncomfortable. To look twice is not good, not the way things should be, but I decide it is better than failing to look at all. So I glance in, confirm that the surface of the coffee is black and pure, then finish filling the mug and replace the pot on the electric hot plate. Joku moves off, toward the metal trays of kidney beans and homemade bread and peanut butter.

The Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene (Thomas Dunne Books):  Note to aspiring novelists: put a naked man, disoriented by his memories, wandering through Central Park in the opening pages of your story and you're pretty much guaranteed to hook me.  All I can say is, the hook is strong in The Headmaster's Wife and I will definitely be reading it soon to find out what put our confused, nude protagonist in a wintry Central Park.  Here's the Jacket Copy for those of you who still remain unhooked (though I can't understand why--do you not have a pulse?):
Like his father before him, Arthur Winthrop is the Headmaster of Vermont’s elite Lancaster School. It is the place he feels has given him his life, but is also the site of his undoing as events spiral out of his control. Found wandering naked in Central Park, he begins to tell his story to the police, but his memories collide into one another, and the true nature of things, a narrative of love, of marriage, of family and of a tragedy Arthur does not know how to address emerges. Luminous and atmospheric, bringing to life the tight-knit enclave of a quintessential New England boarding school, the novel is part mystery, part love story and an exploration of the ties of place and family. Beautifully written and compulsively readable, The Headmaster’s Wife stands as a moving elegy to the power of love as an antidote to grief.
Blurbworthiness: "I devoured this book. It has all the hooks–a mystery, a marriage, an investigation, a loss, a close-up of a society I’m not privy to–and yet, at its heart, there are unexpected love stories embedded within. Thomas Christopher Greene is a wonderfully accomplished novelist, and The Headmaster’s Wife is both psychologically complex and wickedly fast-paced." (Julianna Baggott)

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