Thursday, August 14, 2014

Front Porch Books: August 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.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Ecco):  Maybe it’s because I’m just emerging from the depths of Anthony Doerr’s mesmerizing novel All the Light We Cannot See, in which miniature models of two French cities (Paris and Saint-Malo) figure prominently, but ant-scale versions of urban areas fascinate me.  Then again, maybe it’s the notion of being able to hover like God over these small worlds that draws me closer.  Whatever the reason, Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist makes me want to shrink down and really get inside this novel.   That fantastic cover design goes a long way toward hooking me, too.  Here’s the Jacket Copy:
On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin. But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways. Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation...or the architect of their destruction?
Check out these atmospheric Opening Lines:
      The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded. She watches the scene unfold from the safety of the choir stall, as guildsmen and their wives approach the gaping grave like ants toward the honey. Soon, they are joined by VOC clerks and ship’s captains, regentesses, pastry-makers – and him, still wearing that broad-brimmed hat. She tries to pity him. Pity, unlike hate, can be boxed and put away.
      The church’s painted roof – the one thing the reformers didn’t pull down – rises above them like the tipped-up hull of a magnificent ship. It is a mirror to the city’s soul; inked on its ancient beams, Christ in judgement holds his sword and lily, a golden cargo breaks the waves, the Virgin rests on a crescent moon. Flipping up the old misericord beside her, her fingers flutter on the proverb of exposed wood. It is a relief of a man shitting a bag of coins, a leer of pain chipped across his face. What’s changed? she thinks.
      And yet.
      Even the dead are in attendance today, grave-slabs hiding body on body, bones on dust, stacked up beneath the mourners’ feet. Below that floor are women’s jaws, a merchant’s pelvis, the hollow ribs of a fat grandee. There are little corpses down there, some no longer than a loaf of bread. Noting how people shift their eyes from such condensed sadness, how they move from any tiny slab they see, she cannot blame them.

I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy (Doubleday):  Novels narrated by precocious young girls are as old as mockingbirds, but Jennifer Murphy’s debut somehow feels fresh right from the Opening Lines:
      The rumors started before my daddy’s body got cold. I’d made my peace with the lies by then—lies I’ve learned are a necessary evil—and, being from the South, I’m used to cloying (that means sickeningly sweet) smiles, but I hadn’t figured on the sideways glances, hushed talk, loud silence. Feigned ignorance. I mean someone’s dying had always made the front page of the Hollyville Herald. Even Mrs. Morgan’s twenty-year-old cat got a paragraph, but not my daddy. The particulars of Oliver Lane’s funeral were tucked in the ad section between an upcoming gun show, an irony I’m sure was lost on the editor, and a JESUS LOVES YOU, standard filler for slow news days. Thankfully there was no mention of murder, or of the fact that the police suspected Mama or one of those other two ladies. It wouldn’t be polite to put such things in writing.
      My name is Picasso, like the artist. Mama said she named me Picasso because he painted about truth, but I think Mama misinterpreted his words. What Pablo Picasso said was this: Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. What I think he meant is that great art is born from skillful lying, and something else, something much more profound, that lying is okay as long as its end goal is altruistic. Well that’s how I read it anyway, and that’s how I’ve been able to justify what happened that day.
“What happened that day” is at the heart of I Love You More, one of the more intriguing books to land on my front porch this month.  Here’s the Jacket Copy:
One man, three wives, the perfect murder. A scintillating novel of betrayal and conspiracy. Picasso Lane is twelve years old when her father, Oliver, is murdered at their summer beach house. Her mother, Diana, is the primary suspect—until the police discover his second wife, and then his third. The women say they have never met—but Picasso knows otherwise. Picasso remembers the morning beautiful Jewels showed up at their house, carrying the same purse as her mother, and a family portrait featuring her father with two strange boys. Picasso remembers lifting the phone, listening to late night calls with Bert, a woman heavily pregnant with Oliver's fourth child. As the police circle and a detective named Kyle Kennedy becomes a regular fixture in their home, Picasso tries to make sense of her father's death, the depth of his deceit, and the secrets that bind these three women. Cunningly paced and plotted, I Love You More is a riveting novel of misplaced loyalty, jealousy, and revenge.
Blurbworthiness:  “When I really, truly love a book, I feel a kind of deep excitement-envy-admiration that verges on awe.  My requirements: the story must make me forget everything but it, and the writing must be lean, evocative, and powerful.  I Love You More is all of these things.  I really, truly love it so much that I wish I’d written it myself.  In its pages, Jennifer Murphy deftly balances light and dark, humanity and heartlessness, love and murder, and creates characters so well drawn you feel as if you know them, as well as a mystery so compelling you can barely look away from the page.”  (Jennifer Niven, author of American Blonde)

Ordinary Sins by Jim Heynen (Milkweed Editions):  My advance copy of Jim Heynen’s story collection is a thin book—no thicker than saltine cracker, really—but it is fat with characters.  We meet these people in 47 stories spread across 96 pages.  You do the math.  At that rate, Heynen better be a pretty damned good writer to put flesh on the bones of one character before moving on to the next.  From what little I’ve sampled from the book, I’d say he succeeds more than he fails.  Several of the titles begin with “Who,” a silent “The Man” or “The Woman” preceding it: “Who Jingled His Change,” “Who Loved Her Dog,” “Who Didn’t Like to Have People Watch Him Eat,” “Who Talked to His Bees,” etc. We also meet “The Hoarder,” “The Hardware Store Man,” “The Checkout Clerk,” “The Couple That Never Fought,” and “The Lepidopterist,” whose Opening Lines are:
He had an eye for the detailed web in the clearwings and for the colors in the brimstones and sulphurs. He admired the excited movement in the flashers and skippers, and savored the sweet diversity of the fritillaries, the leafwings, and the metalmarks.
I also like the way the short-short story “The Chapstick Guy” opens:
For some reason this man wore so much chapstick on his lips that if he fell on his face he’d leave a skid mark like a slug. Nobody ever commented about it, even though his lips slid around so much when he talked that you’d think he was trying to invent a new language for romance.
There, I’ve already given you half of this piece of flash fiction.  You’ll need to buy the book to find out what happens to The Chapstick Guy.  Along with fresh, inventive fiction, Ordinary Sins features drawings by Tom Pohrt.  Blurbworthiness:  “Ordinary Sins gives you people-watching in book form.  Each eccentric in this pantheon is a magnet for your gaze, their excesses fascinating, exasperating, bizarre—then suddenly familiar.  ‘Hey, I have relatives like these characters!’  And eventually you will see yourself, recognize your quirks, and thanks to Jim Heynen’s portraits of us all, you may forgive yourself.  Why be human if you can’t be odd in your own glorious way?  This is a book to revel in.”  (Kim Stafford, author of The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft)

Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly (Grove):  Fans of Paula Daly’s debut novel What Kind of a Mother Are You? will definitely want to get in line for this new book, a tense marital thriller that has shades of Diabolique and Single White Female.  Here’s the Jacket Copy, which is sure to unnerve even the happiest of marriages:
Natty and Sean Wainwright have a rock-solid marriage—with two teenage daughters, a successful hotel business, and a beautiful house, they are a model family. When their younger daughter falls gravely ill on a school trip to France, Natty rushes to her side. Luckily, Natty’s best friend from college, Eve Dalladay, is visiting and offers to stay with Sean to lend a hand in the Wainwright household. But Natty returns home to find that Eve has taken to family life a little too well: Sean has fallen in love with her. With no choice but to put on a brave face for the children, Natty attempts to start anew—yet no matter how hard she tries to set herself upright, Eve is there to knock her down again. Then Natty receives a mysterious note that says Eve has done this before—more than once—and the consequences were fatal. On a mission to reveal Eve as a vindictive serial mistress, Natty must navigate through a treacherous maze of secrets and lies that threatens her life and the safety of her loved ones.
Are you nervously twisting your wedding band around your ring finger yet?  Here’s some Blurbworthiness to seal the deal:  “The suspense, dread and paranoia intensify with each page.  Paula Daly explores what happens when a serpent invades the family nest, twisting truth into lies and illuminating our deepest fears.  A novel that explores the power of family, love and betrayal, and what lengths we will go to keep our loved ones safe.”  (Denise Hamilton, author of Damage Control)

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese):  There are some authors whose new novels I will buy before the last syllable of their name leaves a bookseller’s lips: Richard Ford, John Irving, Alice McDermott, Benjamin Percy, and Shari Holman, to name just a few.  Add Ian McEwan to the list.  Starting with Atonement, I have been a die-hard fan.  So, it was with heart-flutters of joy that I received his newest release, The Children Act, which is due out next month.  Turning to the Opening Lines, I was struck by the Dickensian Bleak House homage:
London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather. Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, at home on Sunday evening, supine on a chaise lounge, staring past her stockinged feet toward the end of the room, toward a partial view of recessed bookshelves by the fireplace and, to one side, by a tall window, a tiny Renoir lithograph of a bather, bought by her thirty years ago for fifty pounds. Probably a fake. Below it, centered on a round walnut table, a blue vase. No memory of how she came by it. Nor when she last put flowers in it. The fireplace not lit in a year. Blackened raindrops falling irregularly into the grate with a ticking sound against balled-up yellowing newsprint. A Bokhara rug spread on wide polished floorboards. Looming at the edge of vision, a baby grand piano bearing silver-framed family photos on its deep black shine. On the floor by the chaise lounge, within her reach, the draft of a judgment. And Fiona was on her back, wishing all this stuff at the bottom of the sea.
I don’t know about you, but I can really feel that room and hear those raindrops.  Here’s the Jacket Copy to convince the unconvinced:
Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge who presides over cases in the family court. She is renowned for her fierce intelligence, exactitude, and sensitivity. But her professional success belies private sorrow and domestic strife. There is the lingering regret of her childlessness, and now her marriage of thirty years is in crisis. At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: Adam, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents echo his wishes. Time is running out. Should the secular court overrule sincerely expressed faith? In the course of reaching a decision, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital—and encounter that stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy. Her judgment has momentous consequences for them both.

See How Small by Scott Blackwood (Little, Brown):  Judging by its Opening Lines, I suspect See How Small is going to be an emotionally-rough book to read:
      We have always lived here, though we pretend we’ve just arrived. That’s the trick, to make forgetful shapes with your mouth so everything feels new and unremembered. But after a while we slip up. A careless word, an uninvited smell, a tip of the tongue taste of something sweet, makes the room suddenly familiar—and we have to begin again. Like startled infants, we look to your face to tell us what comes next. You came into the fire.
      Take off your clothes, the men with guns said.
      Please, we said.
      Now, they said.
      Please let us go, we said. We won’t tell anyone.
      Not anyone? They smiled with their guns.
      Not anyone, we said. Please.
      Our jeans and boots and jackets and shirts were piled high in the middle of the floor, like a breaking wave.
      The tile was cold under our feet.
      Across the room, the stainless steel ice cream case gleamed. On the floor beside it, the cash register drawer sprawled on its side.
The narrators of that first chapter are three teenage girls who (no spoiler here) are murdered in a rather brutal fashion.  Though you might think this is a novel told by ghosts (a la The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold or The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan), Blackwood soon moves his narrative, like a roving camera, to other members of the small town so we get a chorus of voices filling us in on what happened in that ice cream parlor.  Hard as it may be, I really can’t wait to read this heartbreaking novel.  Blurbworthiness:  “Horrible deaths of the innocent, and the various means and tactics by which the living manage to go on in the aftermath of unsolved horror, form the heart of Scott Blackwood’s haunted and haunting novel, See How Small.  His prose is crisp and his narrative approach is fresh and inventive, calmly pushing forward, with characters rendered so convincingly you think about sending cards of condolence or calling with advice on the investigation.”  (Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone and The Maid’s Version)

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Europa Editions):  Europa’s cover design for Damon Galgut’s third novel could be a frame from a Merchant-Ivory film.  That wouldn’t be too far off, actually, since Arctic Summer is a fictionalized biography of E. M. Forster whose novels A Room With a View, Maurice and Howards End Ismail Merchant and James Ivory put before the camera.  I don’t know much about Forster (haven’t read his books, though I’ve seen some of the movie versions), so I’m especially interested to read Galgut’s treatment of his life.  Here’s the Jacket Copy:
Damon Galgut's third novel, a fictionalized biography of English author E. M. Forster, focuses on Forster's many years in India and the process of writing his masterpiece, A Passage to India. This compact, finely wrought novel also addresses Forster's unforgiving childhood in England and the homosexuality he feared and repressed throughout his life. Psychologically acute without being sentimental, Forster's relationships are described with compassion and great care. Galgut is a master at constructing strange, compelling landscapes, and Arctic Summer shifts seamlessly between staid, restricting England and Cairo and vibrant, pleasantly, absurd India. Moments of gentle humor shine through the sparse prose, lending Forster a humanity that makes his story all the more heartbreaking.
Even the Opening Lines have a formality that seems to be in line with something Forster himself would write:
In October of 1912, the SS City of Birmingham was travelling through the Red Sea, midway on her journey to India, when two men found themselves together on the forward deck. Each had come there separately, hoping to escape a concert that some of the other passengers were organising, but they were slightly acquainted by now and not unhappy to have company. It was the middle of the afternoon. They were sitting in a spot that offered sun and shade, as well as seclusion from the wind. Both carried books with them, which they politely set aside when they began to speak.
Blurbworthiness:  “In describing these adventures and encounters, as well as meetings with Edward Carpenter and others, Galgut has so seamlessly incorporated Forster’s diaries, letters and novels into his narrative that it is often hard to tell which novelist is which.”  (The Telegraph)

If Not For This by Pete Fromm (Red Hen Press):  Just as I will stand in a long, out-the-door-and-around-the-corner line to buy a new Ian McEwan novel, any time a fresh Fromm hits the bookstore shelves, I’m there.  In this case, I happened to be at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana for a reading by fellow Big Sky novelist Malcolm Brooks when I spied the woman on the cover of If Not For This floating past me.  Snatch and grab.  This new novel, set partially in my home state of Wyoming, looks especially good.  Exhibit A: the Jacket Copy:
After meeting at a boatman’s bash on the Snake River, river runners Maddy and Dalt embark on a lifelong love affair. They marry on the banks of the Buffalo Fork, sure they’ll live there the rest of their days. Forced by the economics of tourism to leave Wyoming, they start a new adventure, opening their own river business in Ashland, Oregon: Halfmoon Whitewater. They prosper there, leading rafting trips and guiding fishermen into the wilds of Mongolia and Russia. But when Maddy, laid low by dizzy spells, with a mono that isn’t quite mono, both discovers she is pregnant and is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they realize their adventure is just beginning. Navigating hazards that dwarf any of the rapids they’ve faced together, Maddy narrates her life with Dalt the way she lives it: undaunted, courageous, in the present tense. Driven by her irresistible voice, full of wit and humor and defiance, If Not For This is a love story like no other.
Blurbworthiness:  “What do you do when you get everything you most desire in this life, but getting through every day requires you to be a superhero?  In Pete Fromm’s smart, gorgeous, uplifting and heartbreaking new novel, If Not For This, you consider yourself damn lucky.”  (Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of Once Upon a River)

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce (Doubleday):  Another novel I picked up on that same Country Bookshelf visit (CB really knows how to curate books to my taste) was this new one by British writer Graham Joyce.  I’ve mentioned his earlier end-of-the-world tale, The Silent Land, earlier here at The Quivering Pen, so this was an easy sell to me.  The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit looks like it might make for some great late-summer beach reading (if only I had a beach here in Montana….).  Check out the Opening Lines:
      It was 1976 and the hottest summer in living memory. The reservoirs were cracked and dry; some of the towns were restricted to water from standpipes; crops were failing in the fields. England was a country innocent of all such extremity. I was nineteen and had just finished my first year at college.
      Broke and with time on my hands, I needed a summer job. Looking for a way out from the plans my stepdad had made for me, I got an interview at a holiday resort on the east coast. Skegness, celebrated for that jolly fisherman in gum boots and a sou’wester gamely making headway against a sea- ward gale: It’s so bracing!
      But when I arrived in Skegness there wasn’t a breath of wind, not even a sigh. The train rumbled in on hot iron tracks, decanted me and a few others onto the platform, and wheezed out again. The dirty Victorian red brick of the station seemed brittle, powdery. Flowers potted along the platform wilted and the grubby paintwork was cracked and peeled. I took a double-decker bus—mercifully open-topped—and asked the driver to drop me at the resort. He forgot and had to stop the bus and come up the stairs to tell me he’d passed it by. I had to backpack it a quarter of a mile, all in the shimmering heat. I followed the wire-mesh perimeter of the site with its neat rows of chalets and the seagull-like cries of the holidaymakers.
      I thought I might get a job as a kitchen porter or as a white-jacketed waiter bowling soup plates at the holidaymakers. Any job at all, just so long as I didn’t have to go home. The manager in charge of recruitment—a dapper figure in a blue blazer and sporting a tiny pencil mustache—didn’t seem too interested. He was preoccupied with sprinkling bread crumbs on the corner of his desk. As I waited to be interviewed a sparrow fluttered in through the open window, picked up a crumb in its beak, and flew out again.
And here’s the Jacket Copy (complete with a plague of ladybugs!) to further entice us, like birds to crumbs:
David, a college student, takes a summer job at a run-down family resort in a dying English resort town. This is against the wishes of his family... because it was at this resort where David's biological father disappeared fifteen years earlier. But something undeniable has called David there. A deeper otherworldliness lies beneath the surface of what we see. The characters have a suspicious edge to them. David is haunted by eerie visions of a mysterious man carrying a rope, walking hand-in-hand with a small child...and the resort is under siege by a plague of ladybugs. Something different is happening in this town. When David gets embroiled in a fiercely torrid love triangle, the stakes turn more and more menacing. And through it all, David feels as though he is getting closer to the secrets of his own past. This is a darkly magic and sexy book that has a strong suspense line running through it. It's destined to continue to pull in a wider circle of readers for the exceptionally talented Graham Joyce.

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas (Hogarth):  This new novel by the author of The Slap had me in its grip right from the Opening Lines—words which immediately shot this 433-page book to the top layers of my To-Be-Read pile:
      When the rain first spills from those egg-white foams of cloud that seem too delicate to have burst forth in such a deluge, I freeze. The heavy drops fizz on the dry grass as they hit; I think this is what a pit of snakes would sound like.
      And suddenly the rain is falling in sheets, though the sky is still blue, the sun still shining. The Glaswegians on the pebbled shore are yelling and screaming, rushing out of the water, huddling under the trees, running back to their cars. Except for the chubby young man with the St Andrews tattoo on his bicep, criss-crossed white lines on blue; he is standing in the water up to his knees, grinning, his arms outstretched, welcoming the rain, daring it.
      And just as suddenly the rain has stopped and they all slink back to the beach. Two young boys race past me and throw themselves into the lake. A teenage girl throws away the magazine she has been sheltering beneath, takes out a compact and starts to powder her cheeks and nose, to reapply colour to her lips till they are the pink of fairy floss. Someone has turned the music back on and the words when love takes over roar through the valley. A pale skinny youth with broken teeth and a mop of greasy black hair dives past me; sheets of crystal-clear water splash all over the wading tattooed guy, who grabs his friend, holds him from behind in a bear hug, and ducks him under. He sits on him, laughing. A woman shouts from the shore, "Get off him, Colm, get off him!"
      The chubby guy stands up, grinning, and the thin boy scrambles to his feet, coughing water.
      The girls and the women are all in bikinis, the boys and the men are all in shorts, and bare-chested or in singlets. Except me: I have jeans on and two layers on top, a t-shirt and an old yellowing shirt. The sun feels weak to me; it can’t get any stronger than pleasant, it can’t build to fire, it can’t manage force.
The narrator is Danny, a troubled competitive swimmer who—well, here, let’s let the Jacket Copy explain the plot of Barracuda:
Fourteen-year-old Daniel Kelly is special. Despite his upbringing in working-class Melbourne, he knows that his astonishing ability in the swimming pool has the potential to transform his life, silence the rich boys at the private school to which he has won a sports scholarship, and take him far beyond his neighborhood, possibly to international stardom and an Olympic medal. Everything Danny has ever done, every sacrifice his family has ever made, has been in pursuit of this dream. But what happens when the talent that makes you special fails you? When the goal that you’ve been pursuing for as long as you can remember ends in humiliation and loss? Twenty years later, Dan is in Scotland, terrified to tell his partner about his past, afraid that revealing what he has done will make him unlovable. When he is called upon to return home to his family, the moment of violence in the wake of his defeat that changed his life forever comes back to him in terrifying detail, and he struggles to believe that he’ll be able to make amends. Haunted by shame, Dan relives the intervening years he spent in prison, where the optimism of his childhood was completely foreign. Tender, savage, and blazingly brilliant, Barracuda is a novel about dreams and disillusionment, friendship and family, class, identity, and the cost of success. As Daniel loses everything, he learns what it means to be a good person—and what it takes to become one.
I hate to leave you with an unforgivable pun….but, really, I can’t wait to dive into this novel.

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