Thursday, November 6, 2014

Front Porch Books: November 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, independent bookstores, 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 here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.  I should also note that, in nearly every case, I haven't had a chance to read these books.  I'm just as excited as you are to dive into these pages.

Before He Finds Her by Michael Kardos (The Mysterious Press):  Michael Kardos comes up with some of the best plot hooks to drag me inside his thrillers.  In The Three-Day Affair, he put readers in the car with three friends who impulsively kidnap a young woman after stopping at a convenience store; and now in Before He Finds Her, he introduces us to a woman named Melanie Denison who is looking for the man who tried to murder her a decade ago.  The twist: the would-be murderer was her father.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Everyone in the quiet Jersey Shore town of Silver Bay knows the story: on a Sunday evening in September 1991, Ramsey Miller threw a blowout block party, then murdered his beautiful wife and three-year-old daughter. But everyone is wrong. The daughter got away. Now she is nearly eighteen and tired of living in secrecy. Under the name Melanie Denison, she has spent the last fifteen years in small-town West Virginia as part of the Witness Protection Program. She has never been allowed to travel, go to a school dance, or even have internet at home. Precautions must be taken at every turn, because Ramsey Miller was never caught and might still be looking for his daughter. Yet despite strict house rules, Melanie has entered into a relationship with a young teacher at the local high school and is now ten weeks pregnant. She doesn’t want her child to live in hiding as she has had to. Defying her guardians and taking matters into her own hands, Melanie returns to Silver Bay in hopes of doing what the authorities have failed to do: find her father before he finds her. Weaving in Ramsey’s story in the three days leading up to the brutal crime, Before He Finds Her is a stirring novel about love and faith and fear—and how the most important things can become terribly distorted when we cling to them too fiercely.
Blurbworthiness: “Brilliant.  Before He Finds Her is one of the most innovative and compelling thrillers to come along in recent years.  Read the first page and kiss the next 24 hours goodbye.  Bravo!”  (Jeffery Deaver, author of The Skin Collector)

My Sunshine Away by M. O. Walsh (Putnam):  Walsh's debut novel, set in Baton Rouge in the late 1980s, comes loaded with Blurbworthiness from high-profile authors--a diverse roster which includes Anne Rice, Kathryn Stockett, Tom Franklin and this bit of praise from Darin Strauss: “Q: When is it a thrill to feel gutted?  A: When you start reading the book you hold in your hands.  M. O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away reminds us that art can be wrenching and a delight, that pain—if examined through wit, intimacy, and wisdom—can be a salve.  This novel is great.”  Because it is Southern and because it's narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy and because it centers around a crime, there's always the temptation to dredge up a To Kill a Mockingbird comparison.  While that may be valid, I suspect My Sunshine Away will stand on its own two feet.  Walsh wastes no time in grabbing our hands and pulling us right inside the book.  Here are the Opening Lines:
      There were four suspects in the rape of Lindy Simpson, a crime that occurred directly on top of the sidewalk of Piney Creek Road, the same sidewalk our parents had once hopefully carved their initials into, years before, as residents of the first street in the Woodland Hills subdivision to have houses on each lot. It was a crime impossible during the daylight, when we neighborhood kids would have been tearing around in go-karts, coloring chalk figures on our driveways, or chasing snakes down into storm gutters. But, at night, the streets of Woodland Hills sat empty and quiet, except for the pleasure of frogs greeting the mosquitoes that rose in squadrons from the swamps behind our properties.  
      On this particular evening, however, in the dark turn beneath the first busted streetlight in the history of Piney Creek Road, a man, or perhaps a boy, stood holding a long piece of rope. He tied one end of this rope to the broken light pole next to the street and wrapped the other around his own hand. Thinking himself unseen, he then crawled into the azalea bushes beside Old Man Casemore's house, the rope lagging in shadow behind him like a tail, where he perhaps practiced, once or twice, pulling the rope taut and high across the sidewalk. And then this man, or this boy, knowing the routine of the Simpson girl, waited to hear the rattle of her banana-seated Schwinn coming around the curve.
If that wasn't enough of a fish-hook for you, just wait until you get to the concluding lines of that first chapter: “I should tell you now that I was one of the suspects.  Hear me out.  Let me explain.”

The White Van by Patrick Hoffman (Atlantic Monthly Press):  Patrick Hoffman is a private investigator who's worked in New York and San Francisco.  Patrick Hoffman is also, as it turns out, a novelist who writes sentences that land like bullets.  The White Van is his debut novel, but judging from the Opening Lines, you'd think he'd been tapping the keyboard for decades:
      The man who had been following her stepped into the bar. Emily remembered that. At the time she didn’t know he had been following her, but she remembered the way he had stepped into the bar. She remembered the door opening. She remembered him backing into the bar and closing the door. She remembered him turning to face the bar. He was big and white and dressed like someone who had a job in an office. He hesitated at the doorway and then continued in.
      Emily was sitting the back. An old Chinese man sat toward the front. There was only the bar and fifteen stools, nothing fancy. The bartender, a woman with thick makeup, seemed happy to see the new man. She greeted him with a smile. It was a Tuesday night. There were only four people in the Kum Bak Klub.
      "I'll have a whiskey," said the man, having already looked toward Emily's drink and seen something brown. There was just enough light to make out the color of it. The man had an accent of some kind. An accent and a silver watch. That was a lot. She looked him over. He seemed handsome. He was a big guy with a watch in the Tenderloin. Maybe he was here for a convention or something. He sat on his stool and sipped his drink. She sized him up.
      Emily was thirty-one years old. Her hair was pulled back tight in a ponytail; she had on tight blue jeans, men's basketball shoes, and a red 49ers jacket with gold trim and snap buttons. She was pretty, but in a beat-up way. She would have been prettier in a different life. She had on black eyeliner. Her teeth were not straight, or white. Her nails were bitten down. She had a star-shaped scar on her forehead.
Man, Hoffman really knows how to wrestle a sentence and pin it to the mat, doesn't he?  This is the pure drumbeat of noir fiction, echoing masters like Chandler and Hammett--but with the twist of putting a female at the center as our guide--at least in this first chapter.  Call her Samantha Spade.  There's a lot to love in that excerpt--especially in that last paragraph.  Look at the precise details which give us a full portrait of Emily: "pretty, but in a beat-up way;" "would have been prettier in a different life;" teeth are "not straight, or white;" and that intriguing "star-shaped scar on her forehead."  I don't know about you, but I'm eager to follow Hoffman through the next 240 pages.  Not that you need much more convincing at this point, but here's the Jacket Copy to describe what you'll find in the rest of The White Van:
At a dive bar in San Francisco's edgy Tenderloin district, drug-hustling Emily Rosario is drinking whiskey and looking for an escape from her desperate lifestyle. When she is approached by a Russian businessman, she thinks she might have found her exit. A week later--drugged, disoriented and wanted for robbery--Emily finds herself on the run for her life. When cop Leo Elias--broke, alcoholic and desperate--hears about an unsolved bank robbery, the stolen money proves too strong a temptation. Elias takes the case into his own hands, hoping to find Emily and the money before anyone else does. A sharply drawn cast of characters--dirty cops, Russian drug dealers, Chinese black-market traders, street smart Cambodians, and shady entrepreneurs--all take part in this terrifying tour through San Francisco's underbelly. Confronted with the intimate details of characters that blur the line between good and evil, and twists that surprise until the end, readers of The White Van will find their own moral code challenged by the desperate decisions the characters are forced to make.

The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons by Heather A. Slomski (University of Iowa Press):  The University of Iowa Press consistently delivers first-rate short fiction to my front porch (See Also: When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds, Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino, Tell Everyone I Said Hi by Chad Simpson, and Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas).  The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons by Heather A. Slomski looks just as promising as those other winners of the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the John Simmons Short Fiction Award.  Most of the stories in this collection are very short (1-2 pages), but there are a couple (like "Neighbors" and "Before the Story Ends") which stretch their legs to longer lengths.  I particularly like the Opening Lines to the title story:
We are sitting at a table in a restaurant. The four of us. You. Me. The woman with whom you had an affair. Her boyfriend.
This sets the stage for a mealtime drama which Slomski unfurls like a play for our disquieting entertainment.  As the pairs of lovers eat their fried sage leaves and squash flan, it's like Raymond Carver is their water, serving the drinks and appetizers.  Yes, Slomski is that good.  But don't just take my word for it--check out this Blurbworthiness: "Never far from a dining table, the characters in Heather A. Slomski’s limpid and elegant debut collection are not given to melodramatics.  Civility reigns, voices are not raised, much goes unsaid.  But just beneath the sophisticated composure are longing, loss, heartbreak.  And how intensely familiar is the table itself, which made this reader suddenly understand how much of our real life takes place there.  Heather A. Slomski is truly a fresh voice on the scene, and The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons is that rare thing, a new book as innovative in its design as it is compulsively readable."  (Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule)

The Disunited States by Vladimir Pozner (Seven Stories Press):  If you're a fan of Studs Terkel, James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or even de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, I think Vladimir Pozner's The Disunited States would be a welcome addition to your bookshelf (if, in fact, it's not already there).  The portrait of Depression-era America, first published in 1938 in Pozner's native France, has been released in a new edition by Seven Stories Press (translated by Alison L. Strayer) with an excellent cover design showing two vagrants heading down a highway in search of their dreams...or perhaps just their next meal.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Influential French novelist, screenwriter, pioneer in literary genre and Oscar nominee Vladimir Pozner came to the United States in the 1930s. He found the nation and its people in a state of profound material and spiritual crisis, and took it upon himself to chronicle the life of the worker, the striker, the politician, the starlet, the gangster, the everyman; to document the bitter, violent racism tearing our society asunder, the overwhelming despair permeating everyday life, and the unyielding human struggle against all that. Pozner writes about America and Americans with the searing criticism and deep compassion of an outsider who loves the country and its people far too much to render anything less than a brutally honest portrayal. Recalling Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Pozner shatters the rules of reportage to create a complete enduring and profound portrait.
The first chapter is a barrage of images and extracts from thirty different newspapers in America on a single day: September 21, 1936—seven years after the stock market crash of ’29, the bank runs, and the onset of the Great Depression.  In fragments separated by ellipses, the chapter sips and dips, never staying in one place too long.  Starting with a minute-by-minute account of the sun traveling across time zones, Pozner then descends from the clouds to show us the Colorado River hauling "its swollen yellow floodwaters across the plains of Texas," then starts in on the human interest stuff like: "Mrs. Johnson of Washington filed for a divorce: she drank too much one night and the next morning woke up in North Carolina, married to a Mr. Johnson."  Or this priceless scene ripped from a news story:
In a Newark hospital, a police officer approaches a nurse. "You've got a casualty who lost his nose in a car accident? Well! We found the nose stuck to the car radiator. I've brought it for you."
The chapter is very Terkel-esque and serves to set the tone for the rest of the book.  Blurbworthiness: "1936 was a hell of a year.  James Agee living with cotton tenant farmers in Alabama for what became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  Louis Adamic toiling away on his epic, My America.  John Dos Passos publishing The Big Money, the last in his American trilogy series.  And Vladimir Pozner working on The Disunited States.  Pozner is a missing link in this body of vital literary documentation centered around that most amazing year in American history.  But The Disunited States is not about a year or a nation frozen in time.  It speaks to us today."  (Dale Maharidge, author of And Their Children After Them)

Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie (Harper):  Intrigue!  Betrayal!  Printing Presses!  Alix Christie's debut novel takes us on a journey in the way-back machine to Germany in the mid-1400s.  Who knew a book about the "first Bible" could be so fascinating?  Apparently, Alix Christie did.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Youthful, ambitious Peter Schoeffer is on the verge of professional success as a scribe in Paris when his foster father, the wealthy merchant and bookseller Johann Fust, summons him home to corruption- riddled, feud-plagued Mainz to meet "a most amazing man." Johann Gutenberg, a driven and caustic inventor, has devised a revolutionary--and, to some, blasphemous--method of bookmaking: a machine he calls a printing press. Fust is financing Gutenberg's workshop, and he orders Peter to become Gutenberg's apprentice. Resentful at having to abandon a prestigious career as a scribe, Peter begins his education in the "darkest art." As his skill grows, so too does his admiration for Gutenberg and his dedication to their daring venture: printing copies of the Holy Bible. But when outside forces align against them, Peter finds himself torn between two father figures--the generous Fust and the brilliant, mercurial Gutenberg, who inspires Peter to achieve his own mastery. Caught between the genius and the merchant, the old ways and the new, Peter and the men he admires must work together to prevail against overwhelming obstacles in a battle that will change history . . . and irrevocably transform them all.
Here's some Blurbworthiness for the book: "If ever there were a historical novel with up-to-the-minute resonance, this is it.  As we go through another information revolution, Christie’s novel takes us back in brilliantly-observed detail to the first–the invention of the printing press.  Her characters are engaging, the world as beautifully crafted as one of Gutenberg’s hot-metal letters, and the themes more relevant now than ever."  (Naomi Alderman, author of The Liar's Gospel)

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