Thursday, June 26, 2014

Front Porch Books: June 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.  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.

The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith (Harper):  After reading the Jacket Copy for Katy Simpson Smith's debut novel, I'm a little surprised a mere 256 pages could contain a story as big as this seems to be.  Not that an epic tale can't be told in a slim volume, but just look at all the lively characters and action in The Story of Land and Sea:
Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, this incandescent debut novel follows three generations of family--fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love. Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father's stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. Since the loss of his wife Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her. Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father. Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father's wishes by falling in love. Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.
If these Opening Lines are any indication, there is some good storytelling waiting for me in the pages ahead:
      On days in August when sea storms bite into the North Carolina coast, he drags a tick mattress into the hall and tells his daughter stories, true and false, about her mother. The wooden shutters clatter, and Tabitha folds blankets around them to build a softness for the storm. He always tells of their courting days, of her mother’s shyness. She looked like a straight tall pine from a distance, only when he got close could he see her trembling.
      “Was she scared?”
      “Happy,” John says. “We were both happy.”

The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Books):  Kelly Barnhill's fairy tale (the first four words are "Once upon a time") is tinted with tones of Disney elements: enchanted kingdoms, meek heroes finding inner strength, the everlasting bonds of friendship, etc.  That's why it's a little surprising to see the death of a major character on page 2 of this novel for young readers.  Then again, I have to remind myself, even Bambi's mother died and Old Yeller had to be put down.  In The Witch's Boy, Ned and his identical twin Tam secretly build a raft and, once they feel the vessel is seaworthy, slide into the Great River, hoping to make it to the sea.  The raft is a failure, both boys tumble into the river's current, and their agonized father dives in, knowing he can save only one of his children.  People call from the shore: "If you can only save one, make sure you save the right one."  That's quite a moral dilemma to present to young readers right off the bat, isn't it?  But I think it helps us sympathize all the more with Ned, the one who was saved, the one the villagers say was the wrong one.  In just three pages, Barnhill has already set the hook and grabbed my attention.  But wait, it gets even better.  Ned's mother, it turns out, is a witch, "the keeper of a small store of magic--one so ancient and so powerful that everyone knew it would kill a man if he touched it--but it did her no good.  Her magic could only be used in the service of others."  All the spells in the world cannot revive Sister Witch's drowned son.  So far, I haven't even gotten past the first six pages of the book in this description.  There's plenty more enchantment ahead of us.  Here's the Jacket Copy to cast a spell over you:
When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging, bewitched river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. Sure enough, Ned grows up weak and slow, and stays as much as possible within the safe boundaries of his family s cottage and yard. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic that Ned's mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it's Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community. In the meantime, in another kingdom across the forest that borders Ned's village lives Aine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King. She is haunted by her mother's last words to her: The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his. But when Aine and Ned's paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to make their way through the treacherous woods and stop the war about to boil over? With a deft hand, acclaimed author Kelly Barnhill takes classic fairy tale elements--speaking stones, a friendly wolf, and a spoiled young king--and weaves them into a richly detailed narrative that explores good and evil, love and hate, magic, and the power of friendship.
For more about the book and Kelly Barnhill's writing routine, you should check out this Q&A at her Algonquin page.  She talks about balancing motherhood and writing, cats vs. dogs, and what she thought was the most difficult scene in The Witch's Boy to write: "As a mom, one of the great fears and horrors that any of us feel is the very thought that something bad might happen to our children.  (Pause for a moment as mothers everywhere nod and go knock on some wood.)  Writing about Sister Witch’s grief is quite possibly the hardest bit of writing I ever did.  And in fact, when I wrote the initial draft of that scene while sitting in a coffee shop near my house, I burst out sobbing in the middle of everything and everyone.  People thought that maybe I had received bad news via email. 'No,' I had to tell them.  I just made something up and it made me ever so sad.'  And then they looked at me like I was nuts."

A History of the Future by James Howard Kunstler (Grove/Atlantic): The arrival of this latest addition to James Howard Kunstler's post-apocalyptic "World Made By Hand" series reminds me that time is running out for me to get started reading these books (World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron are the other two).  After all, the world could collapse any minute--as it does in these novels: "In the not-distant future...The electricity has flickered out.  The automobile age is over.  The computers are all down for good.  Two great cities have been destroyed.  Epidemics have ravaged the population."  Then again, such a scenario like that might leave me more time to read intriguing books like candlelight, of course.  Here's the Jacket Copy for A History of the Future:
Following the catastrophes of the twenty-first century—the pandemics, the environmental disaster, the end of oil, the ensuing chaos—people are doing whatever they can to get by and pursuing a simpler and sometimes happier existence. In little Union Grove in upstate New York, the townspeople are preparing for Christmas. Without the consumerist shopping frenzy that dogged the holidays of the previous age, the season has become a time to focus on family and loved ones. It is a stormy Christmas Eve when Robert Earle’s son Daniel arrives back from his two years of sojourning throughout what is left of the United States. He collapses from exhaustion and illness, but as he recovers tells the story of the break-up of the nation into three uneasy independent regions and his journey into the dark heart of the New Foxfire Republic centered in Tennessee and led by the female evangelical despot, Loving Morrow. In the background, Union Grove has been shocked by the Christmas Eve double murder by a young mother, in the throes of illness, of her husband and infant son. Town magistrate Stephen Bullock is in a hanging mood.
Blurbworthiness: "Kunstler skewers everything from kitsch to greed, prejudice, bloodshed, and brainwashing in this wily, funny, rip-roaring, and profoundly provocative page-turner, leaving no doubt that the prescriptive yet devilishly satiric World Made By Hand series will continue."  (Booklist)

Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones (Two Dollar Radio):  Here's another novel with a fantastic, dazzling premise at its heart.  I'll let the Jacket Copy explain this new book from the author of the equally-trippy Light Boxes:
Remy is a young girl who lives in a town that believes in crystal count: that you are born with one-hundred crystals inside and throughout your life, through accidents and illness, your count is depleted until you reach zero. As a city encroaches daily on the village, threatening their antiquated life, and the Earth grows warmer, Remy sets out to accomplish something no one else has: to increase her sick mother's crystal count. An allegory, fable, touching family saga, and poetic sci-fi adventure, Shane Jones underlines his reputation as an inspired and unique visionary.
Blurbworthiness: "Crystal Eaters is full of sentences that jump at you like a pop-up book, painting a world that is at some times painfully real, and at others an exercise in vivid hallucinations.  Jones is pushing genres here, not unlike George Saunders or Karen Russell.  Crystal Eaters grabs your face and pushes it up against a fantastic, sprawling, impressionistic painting of death and family."  (The Rumpus)  The book literally counts down, with the first chapter numbered 40 (on page 183), the next one 39 (on page 180), and so on, reminding us of Remy's deadline.  Here are the Opening Lines:
      It feels good to believe in one hundred.
      They walk through the village wondering how many they have left. Their land is homes and shacks lining seven dirt roads. Everything is hit with sun. Tin roofs glare. Wooden structures glow. The city appeared at the horizon like a mountain range decades ago but it's close now--dangerously close and growing closer by the day--and believing in one hundred is a distraction. A long road connects the village to the crystal mine. A man named Z. mumbles his number and walks by the home of Remy.

Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose, edited by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil (Sourcebooks):  Fans of Go Ask Alice and Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, take notice: there's a new, fiery voice in town.  Dear Nobody is the purportedly "true diary" of a Pennsylvania teenager who drank too much, fought with her mother, struggled to make friends in a new school, and generally had the kind of life most of us had (and continued to have) during our adolescent years--with one exception: Mary Rose died when she was 17.  Co-editors Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil (authors of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) stumbled across Mary Rose's "powerful and raw" journals about five years ago and knew they had something special when they started reading some of the entries.  As McCain explains in the book's introduction:
      Though the Internet existed in the mid-nineties, it was not yet accessible to everyone. Most high school kids still wrote by longhand, passed notes on paper, and called their friends on a landline. Parents couldn’t track you via social media. If you were walking alone, at night in the rain, along a desolate highway, you probably didn’t have a cell phone to call for a ride home.
      But most importantly in this case, you didn’t chronicle your life in 140 characters or less. You wrote about your life in notebooks, described it in long letters to friends that you stamped and mailed, and took photographs that you got developed at the drugstore. You could probably count the numbers of friends you had on two hands. There was still a thing called privacy, and it was still possible to keep secrets about yourself. Your thoughts had room to develop. You had time to contemplate. You could describe, at length, what the water felt like when you went skinny-dipping that night. And you didn’t have to worry that naked pictures would pop up on Facebook the next day.
      And yet the experiences and struggles that Mary Rose had are not different from the ones teenagers face today: loneliness, insecurity, depression, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol problems, bullying, break-ups, and divorce.
      Every word of this remarkable tale is true, though all of the names, except for Mary Rose’s, have been changed to protect her anonymity. A friend of hers shared these journals with us after being asked, “What’s the best thing that you have read lately?” Once we had the opportunity to read them ourselves we were completely captivated. Through this book represents only a sample of the 600 pages of her work, we didn’t change a word.
I haven't read all of Dear Nobody yet, but I've gone through enough of the entries to get a feel for Mary Rose's funny, profane, urgent and ultimately sad voice.  Though Go Ask Alice eventually turned out to be fiction, if what McCain and McNeil claim is true, then this is truly a case of a bright voice snuffed out all too soon.  Blurbworthiness: "Mary Rose’s enormous pain and the ways she attempts to swallow it are evident in every profane, rage-filled entry; while her anguish is near-constant, it’s spiked with moments of biting humor, elation, and hope.  It’s a rare, no-holds-barred documentation of an American teenager’s life, written for no audience but herself."  (Publishers Weekly)

High as the Horses' Bridles by Scott Cheshire (Henry Holt):  If your Father's Day reading pile leans more toward The Road than it does Sh*t My Dad Says, then Scott Cheshire's debut novel might be right up your troubled, dysfunctional alley.  It's a big, sweeping novel Philipp Meyer (The Son) calls "nothing less than Dostoyevskian."  Check out the Jacket Copy:
It’s 1980 at a crowded amphitheater in Queens, New York and a nervous Josiah Laudermilk, age 12, is about to step to the stage while thousands of believers wait to hear him, the boy preaching prodigy, pour forth. Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, Josiah’s nerves shake away and his words come rushing out, his whole body fills to the brim with the certainty of a strange apocalyptic vision. But is it true prophecy or just a young believer’s imagination running wild? Decades later when Josiah (now Josie) is grown and has long since left the church, he returns to Queens to care for his father who, day by day, is losing his grip on reality. Barreling through the old neighborhood, memories of the past—of his childhood friend Issy, of his first love, of the mother he has yet to properly mourn—overwhelm him at every turn. When he arrives at his family’s old house, he’s completely unprepared for what he finds. How far back must one man journey to heal a broken bond between father and son? In rhapsodic language steeped in the oral tradition of American evangelism, Scott Cheshire brings us under his spell. Remarkable in scale—moving from 1980 Queens, to sunny present-day California, to a tent revival in nineteenth century rural Kentucky—and shot-through with the power and danger of belief and the love that binds generations, High as the Horses’ Bridles is a bold, heartbreaking debut from a big new American voice.
Cheshire's language is indeed bold and rhapsodic right from the Opening Lines:
      They sit.
      Below a painted ceiling looming high overhead, they sit and they wait. The ceiling yawns, stretching like one vast wing warming oh so many eggs.
      See the stars, the affixed points of light, the glowing striated mists of silvery cloud. See the night clouds lolling, drifting above their heads across an expanse of blue plaster sky. Like vapors released, dust climbs blue-gray and upward like prayers.
      Now, see the ceiling stretch outward and above the seated people, this for all of one hundred feet, over and above the lettered rows A through Z, double-A and onward—on and above, across the grand room of ceramic, marble, and wood. Heels click and rubber soles pat, the sounds bouncing off here, and there, up through open space like swimmers ascending for air. And above every head, the sky stretches on toward brassy balcony railings, sloping down from the armpit arch of the ceiling’s rounded center. Steeping downward, over the balcony railing—not even one foot resting there—then, just as you’d expect, the tiered seating rises even higher. Their heads are closer to the ceiling up there, with hair well combed and slicked.
Then, a few paragraphs later, we meet Josiah:
Backstage, behind the hanging curtain, the boy is clearly nervous. Hungry and nervous. He can’t keep still. He’s done nothing like this before, and certainly not here. Worse, he needs to go to the restroom. Feet shuffling in place, had way too much orange juice, he tries to sneak a look toward the front rows where he saw his parents seated earlier this morning. They always sit up front at church, something Dad practically can’t not do. Up front, as close as they can, Dad on the aisle, Mom beside. A pale vessel. Dad has even asked people to move before, said he can’t concentrate sitting anywhere else. Sometimes lately he’s been sitting, and then standing again, and then sitting. Standing. Like he can’t help himself, trying to get his place relative to the stage just right. There they are: Mom with her long red curls, and Dad wearing a stern face, looking like he’s in charge. But who’s in charge anymore?
Who's in charge?  Why, Cheshire is, of course.  This is writing from a steady hand, strong as a preacher's voice.


  1. There are sequels to "World Made by Hand"?! How exciting!!! Get on reading those, David!

  2. First time here, couldn't stop reading. So far at least, have limited myself to just this day's blog. Way past bedtime. TJH.

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