Thursday, July 2, 2015

Front Porch Books: July 2015 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.

The Perfect Son
by Barbara Claypole White
(Lake Union Publishing)

Imperfect families are my bag and Barbara Claypole White seems to have perfectly tapped into that domestic dysfunction in her new novel. The Perfect Son is next up in my ebook reading queue, elbowing aside other books I’d been planning to read. Take that, Donna Tartt and Judy Blume!

Jacket Copy:  From a distance, Felix Fitzwilliam, the son of an old English family, is a good husband and father. But, obsessed with order and routine, he’s a prisoner to perfection. Disengaged from the emotional life of his North Carolina family, Felix has let his wife, Ella, deal with their special-needs son by herself. A talented jewelry designer turned full-time mother, Ella is the family rock…until her heart attack shatters their carefully structured existence. Now Harry, a gifted teen grappling with the chaos of Tourette’s, confronts a world outside his parents’ control, one that tests his desire for independence. As Harry searches for his future, and Ella adapts to the limits of her failing health, Felix struggles with his past and present roles. To prevent the family from being ripped apart, they must each bend with the inevitability of change and reinforce the ties that bind.

Opening Lines:  Passengers in the row behind muttered the Lord’s Prayer. Ella, however, had no plans to make her final peace with God or die in the clouds.

Blurbworthiness:  “With empathy and heartbreaking clarity, Barbara Claypole White explores a family on the precipice of collapse. With the unexamined past coloring their present, a father’s only hope to accept his son’s limitations and be strong for his ailing wife is in finding the resilience to face his own imperfections. The Perfect Son offers insight, compassion and hope.”  (Randy Susan Meyers, author of Accidents of Marriage)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest
by J. Ryan Stradal
(Pamela Dorman Books)

I suppose it would be a lazy way out to call J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel “Garrison Keillor meets Like Water For Chocolate”—lazy because every quirky-literary book set in Minnesota gets the Keillor comparison, and every “foodie” novel is likened to Laura Esquivel’s 1989 bestseller—but I think the Keillor-Esquivel treatment might be rather apt in this case. Kitchens of the Great Midwest looks like great fun, set in a place “where all the cooks are strong, all the stovetops are good-looking, and all the lutefisks are above average.”

Jacket Copy:  When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience. Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.

Opening Lines:  Lars Thorvald loved two women. That was it, he thought in passing, while he sat on the cold concrete steps of his apartment building. Perhaps he would’ve loved more than two, but it just didn’t seem like things were going to work out like that.

Blurbworthiness:  “Tender, funny, and moving, J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel made me crave my mother’s magic cookie bars...and every good tomato I’ve ever had the privilege of eating. Kitchens of the Great Midwest manages to be at once sincere yet sharply observed, thoughtful yet swiftly paced, and the lives of its fallible, realistic, and complicated characters mattered to me deeply. It’s a fantastic book.”  (Edan Lepucki, author of California)

by Louisa Hall

I’m drawn to novels that push the envelope and this new one from Louisa Hall has all the makings of a damn fine pusher. Fans of Cloud Atlas, take note!

Jacket Copy:  A thoughtful, poignant novel that explores the creation of Artificial Intelligence—illuminating the very human need for communication, connection, and understanding. In a narrative that spans geography and time, from the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century, to a correctional institute in Texas in the near future, and told from the perspectives of five very different characters, Speak considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive. A young Puritan woman travels to the New World with her unwanted new husband. Alan Turing, the renowned mathematician and code breaker, writes letters to his best friend’s mother. A Jewish refugee and professor of computer science struggles to reconnect with his increasingly detached wife. An isolated and traumatized young girl exchanges messages with an intelligent software program. A former Silicon Valley Wunderkind is imprisoned for creating illegal lifelike dolls. Each of these characters is attempting to communicate across gaps—to estranged spouses, lost friends, future readers, or a computer program that may or may not understand them. In dazzling and electrifying prose, Louisa Hall explores how the chasm between computer and human—shrinking rapidly with today’s technological advances—echoes the gaps that exist between ordinary people. Though each speaks from a distinct place and moment in time, all five characters share the need to express themselves while simultaneously wondering if they will ever be heard, or understood.

Blurbworthiness: Speak is that rarest of finds: a novel that doesn’t remind me of any other book I’ve ever read. A complex, nuanced, and beautifully written meditation on language, immortality, the nature of memory, the ethical problems of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human.”  (Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven)

by Charles Haverty
(University of Iowa Press)

I can always count on the University of Iowa’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award to consistently deliver some of the best short story collections to my doorstep (see also: Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino, Dancing in the Movies by Robert Boswell, When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds, and Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes by Merrill Feitell, among many others). Charles Haverty’s Excommunicados looks like it will be another winner.  From the first line (see below) to the last (She smiles and speaks one horrible syllable. “Next?”), this is a collection I could fall in love with at the whisper of one horrible syllable.

Jacket Copy:  By turns haunting, hilarious, and heartbreaking, Charles Haverty’s debut collection charts the journeys of men, women, and children cast out of familiar territory into emotional terra incognita where people and things are rarely what they seem. These twelve stories are populated with ex-nuns and Freedom Riders, Chaucer scholars and strippers, out-of-work comedy writers and presidents, navigating their way through bedrooms and emergency rooms, backyard burial parties and airplane crash sites, the Piazza San Marco and the post-apocalyptic suburbs of Boston. A sixteen-year-old boy unearths grisly evidence of his genteel grandfather’s racist past. At his sister’s booze-soaked destination wedding, a recovering alcoholic English professor is finagled into ghostwriting their unreliable father’s nuptial toast. A small town lawyer’s Edenic existence is jeopardized when his wife’s younger brother is arrested for a rash of local burglaries. In the wake of her daughter’s brush with disaster in the Haiti earthquake, a mother finds herself drawn down a dark neighborhood sidewalk toward what might or might not be a dead body. And in the title story—the first of three linked stories—a pious altar boy confronts the twin mysteries of sex and death through the auspices of a classmate’s divorced mother. There are secrets at the center of each of these daring and original stories—secrets that separate these characters from one another but grow in the mind and the heart, connecting them with all of us.

Opening Lines:  The happiest moment of my father’s life was finding his name on President Richard M. Nixon’s enemies list.

Blurbworthiness:  “Charles Haverty drives right into the heart of the storm—storms of doubt, storms of anger, storms of perverse desire, storms of regret. Here are stories that ask enormous questions about faith and doubt, love and death, justice and forgiveness, questions that are always anchored to real human characters in a gorgeously rendered physical reality. I loved the pointillist precision of Haverty’s descriptions: ‘sudsy’ flowers cover caskets, telephone receivers smell like ‘cigarettes and Juicy Fruit,’ pink salt flies through red taillights. You might hear echoes of Jesus’ Son and Flannery O’Connor and Bruce Springsteen and the Book of Ecclesiastes, but these tales belong to Haverty. His scenes are charged with emotion and wonderfully, discomfitingly true to life, whether they unfold inside a Catholic church or a couple’s bedroom. Haverty blurs the sacred and the profane, with plenty of jokes in between. (A father admits to his son at a destination wedding: ‘I know I’m the last resort at this resort.’) Haverty does a beautiful job of revealing how the present moment is always haunted by past and future. In every one of his artful stories, you’ll hear ‘the ghost of another conversation bleeding through the wires.’” (Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia)

The Small Backs of Children
by Lidia Yuknavitch

Sometimes all you need is an impassioned Tweet from a trusted reader.  Lidia Yuknavitch’s new novel was already in my ever-growing To-Be-Read pile (aka Mt. NeverRest), but Michele Filgate’s holy-shit Tweet bumped it up to a spot near the summit. It also doesn’t hurt to have a bold and brilliant cover design to nudge me even closer.

Jacket Copy:  In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image wins acclaim and prizes, becoming an icon for millions—and a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own. As the writer plunges into a suicidal depression, her filmmaker husband enlists several friends, including a fearless bisexual poet and an ingenuous performance artist, to save her by rescuing the unknown girl and bringing her to the United States. And yet, as their plot unfolds, everything we know about the story comes into question: What does the writer really want? Who is controlling the action? And what will happen when these two worlds—east and west, real and virtual—collide? A fierce, provocative, and deeply affecting novel of both ideas and action that blends the tight construction of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending with the emotional power of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children is a major step forward from one of our most avidly watched writers.

Opening Lines:  On a winter night when she is no longer a child, the girl walks outside, her shoes against snow, her arms cradling a self, her back to a house not her own but some other. It is a year after the blast that has atomized her entire family in front of her eyes. She is six. It is a house she has lived in with a widow woman who took her in—orphan of war, girl of nothingness.

Blurbworthiness:  “There are a handful of books that have changed the way I move through the world. The Small Backs of Children is one of them. Lidia Yuknavitch writes with sly, subversive, nervy, compassionate madness. She is one of the great American writers.” (Chelsea Cain, author of One Kick)

Honey from the Lion
by Matthew Neill Null
(Lookout Books)

At least on the surface, Matthew Neill Null’s debut novel bears some resemblance to my favorite historical novels: Serena by Ron Rash, The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent. I’m really looking forward to getting lost inside Null’s pages. Judging by the opening pages, I might get so deep into this book, I should carry a bag of breadcrumbs to mark my path so I can find my way back out.

Jacket Copy:  In this lyrical and suspenseful debut novel, a turn-of-the-century logging company decimates ten thousand acres of virgin forest in the West Virginia Alleghenies and transforms a brotherhood of timber wolves into revolutionaries. After fleeing his childhood farm in the wake of scandal, Cur Greathouse arrives at the Cheat River Paper & Pulp Company’s Blackpine camp, where an unlikely family of sawyers offers him new hope. But the work there is exacting and dangerous with men’s worth measured in ledger columns. Whispers of a union strike pass from bunk to bunk. Against the rasp of the misery whip and the crash of felled hemlock and red spruce, Cur encounters a cast of characters who will challenge his loyalties: a minister grasping after his dwindling congregation, a Syrian peddler who longs to put down his pack and open a store, a slighted Slovenian wife turned activist, and a trio of reckless land barons. Cur must accept or betray the call to lead a rebellion and finally reconcile a forbidden love.

Opening Lines:  Conflict begets commerce, and theirs was the American Civil War.

Blurbworthiness:  “This novel is a master performance. Industry, capital, religion, class, race, and unionization are all rendered through the fully realized loggers, vigilantes, industrialists, and preachers that Matthew Neill Null conjures so utterly and empathetically. You will be awed and emptied by this book, and the truth and humanity within it. Honey from the Lion isn’t just beautiful—it’s important. Read it now.”  (Smith Henderson, author of Fourth of July Creek)

by Matt Bell
(Soho Press)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the decline and fall of Detroit (from autopsies to beautiful terrible ruins), but the one person I really want to hear from is Matt Bell. He follows up his previous novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, with what looks like will be a beautiful autopsy not only of a city but of its citizens as well. Of course, the announcement of a new Matt Bell novel on our shelves is always a great and wonderful thing. As Benjamin Percy notes: “Matt Bell does not write sentences—he writes spells.”

Jacket Copy:  Kelly scavenges for scrap metal from the hundred thousand abandoned buildings in a part of Detroit known as “the zone,” an increasingly wild landscape where one day he finds something far more valuable than the copper he’s come to steal: a kidnapped boy, crying out for rescue. Briefly celebrated as a hero, Kelly secretly takes on the responsibility of avenging the boy’s unsolved kidnapping, a task that will take him deeper into the zone and into a confrontation with his own past, his long-buried trauma, memories made dangerous again. Scrapper is a devastating reimagining of one of America’s greatest cities, its beautiful architecture, Its lost houses and its shuttered factories, its boxing gyms and storefront churches, anywhere hope lingers. With precise and powerful prose, it asks: What transgressions would we allow if we believed they would ensure the safety of the people we loved? What do we owe for our crimes, even those committed to protect our charges from harm?

Opening Lines:  See the body of the plant, one hundred years of patriots’ history, fifty years an American wreck. The remainder of a city within the city, a fortress of squared buildings a mile long and five blocks wide.

Blurbworthiness:  “Like the very best novels, Matt Bell’s dark and suspenseful Scrapper works on so many levels that it’s difficult to describe in just a few words, but what I can tell you is that it’s ultimately about love and death, and that people will still be reading it when all of America, not just Detroit, is crumbling under the weight of its mistakes.”  (Donald Ray Pollock, author of The Devil All the Time)

The Sweetheart Deal
by Polly Dugan
(Little, Brown)

My wife and I often talk about who will take our place when one of us dies. After much thought and a couple bottles of wine, we come up with an answer: no one. We agree I’ll spend my widowerhood shuffling, unshaven, down the sidewalks of Butte, Montana in my slippers, mumbling the lyrics to our favorite love songs; while Jean will stare vacantly at a TV screen which plays increasingly inane “reality” shows over the years. Neither of us will be completely happy, but we’ll get by, emotionally limping through the rest of our lives. In her debut novel, Polly Dugan suggests another option for happily-married couples: make your best friend (preferably a bachelor/bachelorette) sign a contract to be the one who’ll step in when you die. I’m sticking with my original slippers/shuffle/mumble plan, but I’m also very interested in reading Dugan’s bittersweet romance to learn how someone else might work out their life-after-death melancholy.

Jacket Copy:  Leo has long joked that, in the event of his death, he wants his best friend Garrett, a lifelong bachelor, to marry his wife, Audrey. One drunken night, he goes so far as to make Garrett promise to do so. Then, twelve years later, Leo, a veteran firefighter, dies in a skiing accident. As Audrey navigates her new role as widow and single parent, Garrett quits his job in Boston and buys a one-way ticket out west. Before long, Audrey's feelings for Garrett become more than platonic, and Garrett finds himself falling for Audrey, her boys, and their life together in Portland. When Audrey finds out about the drunken pact from years ago, though, the harmless promise that brought Garrett into her world becomes the obstacle to his remaining in it.

Opening Lines:  I know Garrett never thought I was serious when I told him, If I die, I need you to marry Audrey. Make my wife your bride—she’s meant to be a bride, not my widow. And I know she didn’t think I was either, but I’d never been more serious about a thing in my life.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Sweetheart Deal hits all of my favorite topics: loss, pain, friendship, betrayal—but ultimately love. It’s the most romantic story I’ve read in years.”  (Elin Hilderbrand, author of Beautiful Day)

All This Life
by Joshua Mohr
(Soft Skull Press)

I love books that take chances—novels reaching out with both hands to grab great heaping armloads of characters, narratives, and ideas. Starting with that key word in the title—“All”—Joshua Mohr’s new novel looks like it will “go big or go home.” Based on its first few pages (especially that terrific verbal rush of the first chapter’s first sentence), I think this one will be a bona fide winner. It’s going straight to the top of Mount NeveRest.

Jacket Copy: Morning rush hour on the Golden Gate Bridge. Amidst the river of metal and glass a shocking event occurs, leaving those who witnessed it desperately looking for answers, most notably one man and his son Jake, who captured the event and uploaded it to the internet for all the world to experience. As the media swarms over the story, Jake will face the ramifications of his actions as he learns the perils of our modern disconnect between the real world and the world we create on line. In land-locked Nevada, as the entire country learns of the event, Sara views Jake’s video just before witnessing a horrible event of her own: her boyfriend’s posting of their intimate sex tape. As word of the tape leaks out, making her an instant pariah, Sara needs to escape the small town’s persecution of her careless action. Along with Rodney, an old boyfriend injured long ago in a freak accident that destroyed his parents’ marriage, she must run faster than the internet trolls seeking to punish her for her indiscretions. Sara and Rodney will reunite with his estranged mother, Kat, now in danger from a new man in her life who may not be who he—or his online profiles—claim to be, a dangerous avatar in human form. With a wide cast of characters and an exciting pace that mimics the speed of our modern, all-too-connected lives, All This Life examines the dangerous intersection of reality and the imaginary, where coding and technology seek to highlight and augment our already flawed human connections. Using his trademark talent for creating memorable characters, with a deep insight into language and how it can be twisted to alter reality, Joshua Mohr returns with his most contemporary and insightful novel yet.

Opening Lines:  It’s another brittle day, all of them inching over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco, their typical trek to cluttered desks, schlepping with their hangovers, their NPR, carpools and podcasts, prescription pills and nicotine patches, their high-def depressions, Lasik so they can see all their designer disaffections, lipstick smeared on bleached teeth, bags under their eyes or Botox time machines, bald spots or slick dye jobs, bellies wedged in pants or carved Pilates bodies, their urges to call in sick, their woulda coulda shouldas.

Blurbworthiness:  “Joshua Mohr is a rabble-rouser whose first four novels have earned him a near cultish following. Now, with All This Life, Mohr wades into the dark territory of cyber voyeurism, internet shaming, tweets, YouTube, and streaming anger. Trouble spreads like wildfire in this compelling novel, and with brutal honesty, and empathy for his diverse cast of characters, Mohr refuses to flinch.” (Tom Barbash, author of Stay Up With Me)

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