Thursday, April 10, 2014

Front Porch Books: April 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.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco):  Henderson's debut novel has been on my book radar for more than six months--ever since I heard editor Lee Boudreaux mention it on Brad Listi's Other People podcast.  I can't remember exactly what Ms. Boudreaux said during that interview, but I believe the words "epic," "beautiful," and "Montana" were breathed into the microphone.  That's all I needed to hear.  Ping! went my radar.  And now I finally have an advance copy of this big, beautiful novel about Montana in my hands and I couldn't be more excited.  Let's begin with this bit of Blurbworthiness from Philipp Meyer (himself the author of the epic novel The Son): “This book left me awestruck; a stunning debut which reads like the work of a writer at the height of his power. Begins with the story of one struggling man and his family and soon seems to encompass and address all of modern America's problems.  Fourth of July Creek is a masterful achievement and Smith Henderson is certain to end up a household name.”  Here's the Jacket Copy:
After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face-to-face with the boy's profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times. But as Pete's own family spins out of control, Pearl's activities spark the full-blown interest of the FBI, putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed. In this shattering and iconic American novel, Smith Henderson explores the complexities of freedom, community, grace, suspicion, and anarchy, brilliantly depicting our nation's disquieting and violent contradictions.
And the Opening Lines:
     The cop flicked his cigarette to the dirt and gravel road in front of the house, and touched back his hat over his hairline as the social worker drove up in a dusty Toyota Corolla. Through the dirty window, he spotted some blond hair falling, and he hiked in his gut, hoping that the woman in there would be something to have a look at. Which is to say he did not expect what got out: a guy in his late twenties, maybe thirty, pulling on a denim coat against the cold morning air blowing down the mountain, ducking back into the car for a moment, reemerging with paperwork. His brown corduroy pants faded out over his skinny ass, the knees too. He pulled that long hair behind his ears with his free hand and sauntered over.
     "Name's Pete," the social worker said, tucking the clipboard and manila folder under his arm, shaking the cop's hand. "We're usually women," he added, smiling with an openness that put the cop at ill ease.

We Were Flying to Chicago by Kevin Clouther (Black Balloon Publishing):  Kevin Clouther's collection of short stories is further evidence that some of the most interesting literary fiction is coming out of small presses like Black Balloon Publishing.  I've sampled paragraphs from several of the stories in this book--sort of like picking out pieces from a box of chocolates, taking one bite, then putting it back and moving on to the next caramel--and I can confidently report that this is writing that's unmistakably alive and feral.  Here, for example are the Opening Lines to the title story:
For no good reason, we were flying to Chicago. Our connecting flight had already left, and there was no hope of another that night. The flight attendant was a cruel sentinel. Stubbornly unattractive, she skulked in the corner, preemptively dismissing the complaints we all were thinking.
I just love that phrase "stubbornly unattractive."  Succinct and fresh, it paints a clear picture of this "cruel sentinel" in just two words.  Or consider this opening paragraph to the story "I Know Who You Are":
I was sitting at a desk in New York, an enormous desk with too many small things on it. The smallest thing was a paperclip. I mauled the paperclip. It was the only one. I turned it into an S and then a triangle. With my index finger, I launched the triangle into the door. The paperclip bounced cleanly onto the carpet.
Haven't we all mauled paperclips at one point in our lives?  I'm attracted to Clouther's writing by its blunt, simple style--which I know can be a turn-off to some readers.  Dare I say that I hear Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway echoing in my head?  Which, again, are high compliments in my book.  Blurbworthiness: "Kevin Clouther's remarkable collection illustrates, page by page, the unique joys of reading short fiction. By turns subversive and poignant, darkly humorous and deeply moving, these ten stories show us the author's expansive range and the heart that drives his imagination. Clouther's beautifully rendered characters will stay with you long after you've finished the book--you'll see them on the street, in the office, in your mirror."  (Bret Anthony Johnston, author of the forthcoming Remember Me Like This)

Crooked River by Valerie Geary (William Morrow):  I was impressed with Valerie Geary's way with words right from the Opening Lines of this novel:
We found the woman floating facedown in an eddy where Crooked River made a slow bend north, just a stone skip away from the best swimming hole this side of anywhere.  Her emerald-green blouse was torn half open and her dark, pleated skirt was bunched around her waist, revealing skin puckered and gray, legs bloated and bruised.  Her hair writhed like black snakes in the current. I poked her back with a stick. Not mean, but gentle, the way you might poke someone who's asleep.  She skimmed the surface, bumped against a half-submerged rock, and returned to where Ollie and I stood at the water's edge.  She bobbed there in the shallows in a tangle of brown leaves, her arms outstretched, fingers reaching, and it seemed like she was settling in to wait for someone else to come find her.  Like maybe we weren't good enough, Ollie and me, just two girls with skinny arms and skinny legs who didn't know the first thing about death.  We did, though.  We knew more than we wanted to anyway.
Apologies if you're eating breakfast while you read this; I should have warned you first.  A bloated body in a river is never a good way to start off the day.  However, a good book is always the best way to begin a morning, right?  Here's more about what you'll find along the banks of Crooked River, from the Jacket Copy:
With the inventiveness and emotional power of Promise Not to Tell, The Death of Bees, and After Her, a powerful literary debut about family and friendship, good and evil, grief and forgiveness. Still grieving the sudden death of their mother, Sam and her younger sister Ollie McAlister move from the comforts of Eugene to rural Oregon to live in a meadow in a teepee under the stars with Bear, their beekeeper father. But soon after they arrive, a young woman is found dead floating in Crooked River, and the police arrest their eccentric father for the murder. Fifteen-year-old Sam knows that Bear is not a killer, even though the evidence points to his guilt. Unwilling to accept that her father could have hurt anyone, Sam embarks on a desperate hunt to save him and keep her damaged family together. Ollie, too, knows that Bear is innocent. The Shimmering have told her so. One followed her home from her mom's funeral and refuses to leave. Now, another is following Sam. Both spirits warn Ollie: the real killer is out there, closer and more dangerous than either girl can imagine. Told in Sam and Ollie's vibrant voices, Crooked River is a family story, a coming of age story, a ghost story, and a psychological mystery that will touch reader's hearts and keep them gripped until the final thrilling page.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Grove/Atlantic):  There are anticipated books, and then there are Anticipated Books.  You know, the ones which cause you to pull out your pocket calendars and scribble boxes around publication dates, pressing hard with the red ink pen until the paper tears.  Roxane Gay's debut novel is one of those books.  I've been in a restless state of impatience for what seems like years (though it's probably only been a matter of months), ever since I heard the news my publisher (Grove/Atlantic) would be releasing this novel about a rich Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped and held for ransom.  I myself feel like I've been tied to a chair in a dank basement, held at gunpoint while I wait for bags of money to be delivered to my kidnappers.  And now the day is here at last (or will be, for the rest of you, when An Untamed State is published in May).  The Opening Lines prove the payoff was worth the wait:
      Once upon a time, in a far off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.
      They held me captive for thirteen days.
      They wanted to break me.
      It was not personal.
      I was not broken.
      This is what I tell myself.
This is easily one of the best openings I've read this year; and the novel just gets better from there as we see the narrator, Mireille, attacked and ripped away from her husband and son while on their way to a beach outing.  Their car is surrounded by three black Land Cruisers: “The doors of all three trucks opened at the same time and men we did not know spilled out, all limbs and gunmetal.”  The men approach Mireille's car and bash out the windshield with the butts of their guns. “Their bodies glowed with anger,” Gay writes as she sends us into the heart of her novel, propulsive sentence by propulsive sentence. I have to agree with Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow) when she says, “From the astonishing first line to the final scene, An Untamed State is magical and dangerous.  I could not put it down.  Pay attention to Roxane Gay; she's here to stay.”  Still not convinced?   Okay, what do I have to do--persuade you with the Jacket Copy?
Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents. An Untamed State is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce. It is the story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places.

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central Publishing):  Though I'm not familiar with Tom Rob Smith's novels (his Child 44 still sits unread on my shelf), the premise of The Farm is one that seems guaranteed to send me into his pages.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Until the moment he receives a frantic call from his father, Daniel believed his parents were headed into a peaceful, well-deserved retirement. They had sold their home and business in London and bid farewell to England, setting off to begin life anew on a remote, bucolic farm in rural Sweden. But with that phone call, everything changes. Your mother's not well, his father tells him. She's been imagining things--terrible, terrible things. She has had a psychotic breakdown and been committed to a mental hospital. Daniel prepares to rush to Sweden on the first available flight. Before he can board the plane, his father contacts him with even more frightening news: his mother has discharged herself from hospital and he doesn't know where she is. Then his mother calls: "I'm sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I'm not mad. I don't need a doctor. I need the police. I'm about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow." Caught between his parents, and unsure of who to believe or trust, Daniel becomes his mother's unwilling judge and jury as she tells him an urgent tale of secrets, of lies, of a horrible crime and a conspiracy that implicates his own father.
Here are the Opening Lines:
      Until that phone call it had been an ordinary day. Laden with groceries, I was walking home through a neighborhood of London, just south of the river. It was a stifling August evening and when the phone rang I considered ignoring it, keen to hurry home and shower. Curiosity got the better of me so I slowed, sliding the phone out of my pocket, pressing it against my ear–sweat pooling on the screen. It was my dad. He’d recently moved to Sweden and the call was unusual; he rarely used his mobile and it would’ve been expensive to call London. My dad was crying. I came to an abrupt stop, dropping the grocery bag. I’d never heard him cry before. My parents had always been careful not to argue or lose their temper in front of me. In our household there were no furious rows or tearful fights. I said:
      ‘Your mother...She’s not well.’
      ‘Mum’s sick?’
      ‘It’s so sad.’
      ‘Sad because she’s sick? Sick how? How’s Mum sick?’
      Dad was still crying. All I could do was dumbly wait until he said:
      ‘She’s been imagining things–terrible, terrible things.’

Orion's Daughters by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk (Engine Books):  Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's debut was aptly titled Spark, and, judging by this new novel, she has kindled the start of a solid career in storytelling.  Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply, apparently agrees with me: "It's clear to me that Courtney Elizabeth Mauk is going to be an important new voice of her generation." As described in Orion's Daughters' Jacket Copy, Mauk's new work is about how our past echoes into our present:
A postcard arrives straight out of her past, forcing Carrie to confront her commune upbringing alongside Amelia, the almost-sister she worshipped and lost. Desperate to keep her daughter close as her marriage disintegrates, Carrie must come to understand how the choices made by a well-meaning but misguided community have defined her life since, and threaten to forever.
We get a taste of Mauk's natural way with words in the Opening Lines:
From the time we were small, Amelia had a knack for storytelling. She could string words together like the pastel candies on the necklace she wore as a bracelet, twisted four times around her skinny wrist. Like those candies, her words never split or cracked, they never fell off into the grass and were lost. I did not have her skill. Two days after her grandfather gave us those necklaces mine had been destroyed by my sweet tooth and my carelessness.
Orion's Daughters is told in a series of brief chapters, some only a page long, which have the short, sweet crunch of beads on a candy necklace.  The novel officially publishes in May, but you can get a copy right now, through the publisher.  Click here to see the exclusive deal at the Engine Books website.

Scouting for the Reaper by Jacob M. Appel (Black Lawrence Press):  Jacob M. Appel, winner of the Hudson Prize, had me hooked with the penguins in his short story, "Hazardous Cargoes," whose Opening Lines go like this:
      Know your load.
      That’s rule numero uno in this business, which is why I make them count the penguins out in front of me one at a time. I’m not going to be the schmuck who shows up in Orlando two birds short of a dinner party. Or the screw-up who's got to explain to the highway patrol exactly how sixty kilos of coke ended up in his rig without his noticing. Short John Silver used to tell about one fellow who kept trying to turn his radio off, over and over again, but it just wouldn't shut off, and when he pulled into a rest stop for the night, he realized he'd got a ten-piece mariachi band camping out in his trailer. So I always insist on a comprehensive inventory. And the guys at the zoo grumble about it, giving me looks as icy as the day is hot, but they do it. So I know I’m pulling out of Houston with exactly forty-two Gentoo penguins, seventeen Jamaican land iguanas, four tuataras from New Zealand, and a pair of rare, civet-like mammals called linsangs. No more, no less.
Most of the other first lines in this collection of short stories are no less hook-y:
      Miss Stanley was new to the ninth grade that autumn, and we could all sense that she wasn't cut out for it.  ("Choose Your Own Genetics")
      The woman who was not my mother was named Sheila Stanton and at the age of nineteen she was held captive for ninety-one days by the Red Ribbon Strangler.  ("Creve Coeur")
      Nothing sells tombstones like a Girl Scout in uniform.  ("Scouting for the Reaper")
      George had handled their taxes. All year long, he tucked receipts and invoices into a battle-scarred manila envelope with a string-tie seal that he kept in his lower desk drawer alongside the church-warden pipes he hadn't smoked in two decades and the July 1958 copy of Playboy that he'd shoplifted as a teenager.  ("Ad Valorem")
      Another family crisis: The rabbit goes blind.  ("Rods and Cones")
I don't know about you, but when I see authors wield this much control and authority over their fiction from the first sentence, I just know the rest of the book will have a satisfying pay-off.  So, I'll just leave it at that and let Appel's sentences be the catalyst that compels you to buy the Reaper.

Savage Girl by Jean Zimmerman (Viking):  Jean Zimmerman follows up her debut novel, The Orphanmaster, with this enthralling story of a feral girl let loose in Gilded Age New York.  As I look back over this blog post, I realize I've used the word "feral" several times (along with "Untamed," of course).  This month, I must be drawn to dangerous stories and characters who need to be held at bay with whip and chair.  At any rate, here's the Jacket Copy to explain the wild roars of Savage Girl:
Jean Zimmerman’s new novel tells of the dramatic events that transpire when an alluring, blazingly smart eighteen-year-old girl named Bronwyn, reputedly raised by wolves in the wilds of Nevada, is adopted in 1875 by the Delegates, an outlandishly wealthy Manhattan couple, and taken back East to be civilized and introduced into high society. Bronwyn hits the highly mannered world of Edith Wharton–era Manhattan like a bomb. A series of suitors, both young and old, find her irresistible, but the willful girl’s illicit lovers begin to turn up murdered. Zimmerman’s tale is narrated by the Delegate’s son, a Harvard anatomy student. The tormented, self-dramatizing Hugo Delegate speaks from a prison cell where he is prepared to take the fall for his beloved Savage Girl. This narrative—a love story and a mystery with a powerful sense of fable—is his confession.
Here's how Hugo's confession begins in Savage Girl's Opening Lines:
Manhattan. May 19, 1876
      I wait for the police in the study overlooking Gramercy Park, the body prone on the floor a few feet away. Outside, rain has cooled the green spring evening. In here the heat is stifling.
      Midnight. I’ve been in this room before, many times in the course of my twenty-two years. The Turkish rug on the floor, the Empire chairs, the shelves of uncracked books, all familiar to me. A massive mahogany partners desk, from England, in the William IV style, installed as proof of the late victim’s diligence, a rich boy’s insistence that he is, after all, engaged in honest work.
      Of the dead man, a schoolmate of mine, I feature two possibilities. She killed him, in which case they will surely hang her. Either that or I killed him, in a fit of madness the specifics of which I have no memory.
Blurbworthiness: “A richly detailed 19th-century murder mystery and a fresh gloss on the Pygmalion fable, all in one. The story, narrated by a man who may or may not be a serial killer, compels you to keep turning the pages all the way to its shocking–and satisfying–end.”  (Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train)

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