Thursday, September 10, 2015

Front Porch Books: September 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.

I begin today with a trio of novels coming in early 2016 from the new imprint Lee Boudreaux Books. I’m especially interested in these releases because the namesake of the Little, Brown imprint has edited and/or acquired some of the best manuscripts in recent memory, including Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and many others. These first three to roll off the Lee Boudreaux presses promise to carry on that fine legacy.

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
by Sunil Yapa

Jacket Copy:  The Flamethrowers meets Let the Great World Spin in this debut novel set amid the heated conflict of Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests. On a rainy, cold day in November, young Victor—a boyish, scrappy world traveler who’s run away from home—sets out to sell marijuana to the 50,000 anti-globalization protestors gathered in the streets. It quickly becomes clear that the throng determined to shut the city down—from environmentalists to teamsters to anarchists—are testing the patience of the police, and what started as a peaceful protest is threatening to erupt into violence. Over the course of one life-altering afternoon, the lives of seven people will change forever: foremost among them police chief Bishop, the estranged father Victor hasn’t seen in three years, two protestors struggling to stay true to their non-violent principles as the day descends into chaos, two police officers in the street, and the coolly elegant financial minister from Sri Lanka whose life, as well as his country’s fate, hinges on getting through the angry crowd, out of jail, and to his meeting with the president of the United States. In this raw and breathtaking novel, Yapa marries a deep rage with a deep humanity, and in doing so casts an unflinching eye on the nature and limits of compassion.

Opening Lines:  The match struck and sputtered. Victor tried again. He put match head to phosphate strip with the gentle pressure of one long finger and the thing sparked and caught and for the briefest of moments he held a yellow flame. Victor—curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor with his hair natural and braided, two thick braids and a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor—with his dark eyes and his thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, a pair of classic Air Jordans on his oversized feet, the leather so white it glowed—imagine him as you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.

Blurbworthiness:  “There is nothing to say about Sunil Yapa’s debut novel that its wonderful title doesn’t already promise—its heart beats and bleeds on every page, in prose so raw it feels built of muscle and tissue and sinew and sweat. This book is delightfully, forcefully alive, and I feel more alive for having read it.”  (Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints)

by Belinda McKeon

Jacket Copy:  When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James’ life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. Catherine, grateful to James and worried for him, desperately wants to help-—but as time moves on, and as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. When crisis hits, Catherine , walled off by a truth he feels unable to share. When crisis hits, Catherine finds herself at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, leading her to jeopardize all she holds dear. By turns exhilarating and devastating, Tender is a dazzling exploration of human relationships, of the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we are taught to tell. It is the story of first love and lost innocence, of discovery and betrayal. A tense high-wire act with keen psychological insights, this daring novel confirms McKeon as a major voice in contemporary fiction, belonging alongside the masterful Edna O’Brien and Anne Enright.

Opening Lines:  Dreams fled away, and something about a bedroom, and some­thing about a garden, seen through an open window; and a windfall, something about a windfall—a line which made Catherine see apples, bruising and shrivelling and rotting into the ground. Windfall-sweetened soil; that was it. And, the flank of an animal, rubbing against a bedroom wall—though that could not be right, could it? But it was in there somewhere, she knew it was; something of it had bobbed up in her con­sciousness.
      She was on the lawn in front of James’s house, a wool blanket beneath her, one arm thrown over her eyes to do the job of the sunglasses she had not thought to bring. It was so hot. It was such a proper summer’s day.

Blurbworthiness:  “Tender rises above every other book on the shelf for its language alone; the beauty of each sentence will break your heart. But the story, full of the pleasures and terrors and betrayals of youth, will do that anyway. There is no way around it: you will weep. Spectacular.”  (Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Story of a Marriage)

As Close to Us as Breathing
by Elizabeth Poliner

Jacket Copy:  In 1948, a small stretch of the Woodmont, Connecticut shoreline, affectionately named “Bagel Beach,” has long been a summer destination for Jewish families. Here sisters Ada, Vivie, and Bec assemble at their beloved family cottage, with children in tow and weekend-only husbands who arrive each Friday in time for the Sabbath meal. During the weekdays, freedom reigns. Ada, the family beauty, relaxes and grows more playful, unimpeded by her rule-driven, religious husband. Vivie, once terribly wronged by her sister, is now the family diplomat and an increasingly inventive chef. Unmarried Bec finds herself forced to choose between the family-centric life she’s always known and a passion-filled life with the married man with whom she’s had a secret years-long affair. But when a terrible accident occurs on the sisters’ watch, a summer of hope and self-discovery transforms into a lifetime of atonement and loss for members of this close-knit clan. Seen through the eyes of Molly, who was twelve years old when she witnessed the accident, this is the story of a tragedy and its aftermath, of expanding lives painfully collapsed. Can Molly, decades after the event, draw from her aunt Bec's hard-won wisdom and free herself from the burden that destroyed so many others? Elizabeth Poliner is a masterful storyteller, a brilliant observer of human nature, and in As Close to Us as Breathing she has created an unforgettable meditation on grief, guilt, and the boundaries of identity and love.

Opening Lines:  The summer of 1948 my brother Davy was killed in an accident with a man who would have given his life rather than have it happen.

Blurbworthiness:  “Vivid, complex, and beautifully written, Elizabeth Poliner’s novel, As Close to Us as Breathing, brims with characters who leave an indelible impression on the mind and heart. This moving story of the way one unforgettable family struggles with love and loss shows an uncommon depth of human understanding. Elizabeth Poliner is a wonderful talent and she should be read widely, and again and again.”  (Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World)

Silence and Song
by Melanie Rae Thon

Reading Melanie Rae Thon’s fiction and poetry is like floating in amniotic fluid while watching the birth of nebulae—Technicolor splashing across your face—and listening to harp music whispering from another world. I want to get lost in this latest book—two novellas joined by a poem—and never return.

Jacket Copy:  Immigrants lost in the blistering expanse of the Sonoran Desert, problem bears, bats pollinating saguaros, a Good Samaritan filling tanks at emergency water stations, and the terrified runaway boy who shoots him pierce the heart and mind of Rosana Derais. “Vanishings,” the first story in Silence and Song, is a love letter, a prayer to these strangers whose lives penetrate and transform Rosana’s own sorrow. In “Translations,” the prose poem connecting the two longer fictions, child refugees at a multilingual literacy center in Salt Lake City discover the merciful “translation” of dance and pantomime. The convergence of two disparate events—a random murder in Seattle and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl—catalyze the startling, eruptive form of the concluding piece,“requiem: home: and the rain, after.” Narrated in first person by the killer’s sister and plural first person by the “liquidators” who come to the Evacuation Zone to bury entire villages poisoned by radioactive fallout, “requiem” navigates the immediate trauma of murder and environmental disaster; personal and global devastation; and the remarkable recovery of the miraculously diverse more-than-human world.

Blurbworthiness:  “Melanie Rae Thon belts out her stories in a tone and style reminiscent of classic blues singers....The reader is swept along not only by her remarkable characterizations, but also by the taut, magic current of her prose, which carries an exhilarating rhythmic punch.” (New York Times Book Review)

Opening Lines:  My brother kneels in the back of the Chrysler. Leo Derais, eleven years old: he’s skipped three grades: this fall he’ll start high school.
     He’s just made the most astonishing discovery, has seen the evidence and understands at last how time moves at different speeds in both directions.

Mendocino Fire: Stories
by Elizabeth Tallent

My Fall reading schedule is peppered with big, meaty novels like City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, Purity by Jonathan Franzen and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving. Tucked in among those tomes, however, I’d like to sneak in a little short-story refreshment like Elizabeth Tallent’s latest collection whose stories lure me with titles like “Mystery Son,” “Eros 101” and “Mystery Caller.”

Jacket Copy:  The triumphant, long-awaited return of a writer of remarkable gifts: in this collection of richly imagined stories—her first new work in twenty years—the master of short fiction delivers a diverse suite of stories about men and women confronting their vulnerabilities in times of transition and challenge. Beginning in the 1980s, Elizabeth Tallent’s work, appeared in some of our most prestigious literary publications, including The New Yorker, Esquire, and Harper’s. Marked by its quiet power and emotional nuance, her fiction garnered widespread praise. Now, at long last, Tallent returns with a new collection of diverse, thematically linked, and deeply powerful stories that confirm her enduring gift for capturing relationships at their moment of transformation: marriages breaking apart, people haunted by memories of old love and reaching haltingly toward new futures. Mendocino Fire explore moments of fracture and fragmentation; it limns the wilderness of our inner psyche and brilliantly evokes the electric tension of deep emotion. In these pages, Tallent explores expectations met and thwarted, and our never-ending quest to avoid being alone. With this breathtaking collection, she cements her rightful place in the literary pantheon beside her contemporaries Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, and Louise Erdrich. Visceral and surprising, profound yet elemental, Mendocino Fire is a welcome visit with a wise and familiar friend.

Blurbworthiness:  “Elizabeth Tallent is, and always has been, a vivid, meticulous, and astutely inviting writer. These new stories vitally tell us how things are for us, in the most acute and memorable ways. Her ear is perfect; her gaze searing and unmistakable.”  (Richard Ford)

Opening Lines:  Among the son’s bright fucking ideas, that last summer they worked together, was the notion that since there was good money in sport fishing they ought to start taking out parties of tourists. Shug could savor a rank cigar, resting up his bad shoulder while doctors and lawyers baited hooks, and when a senator failed to reel in a big Chinook Shug could grin around the last skunky inch and salt the wound with “Wave bye-bye to your wallhanger, son.”

True False
by Miles Klee
(O/R Books)

As a fan of Miles Klee’s story in the Watchlist anthology, I’m pumped to read this new collection of short stories—most of them very short in length—but, I assume, long and deep when it comes to thematic concerns. I’m a fan of short-shorts. Every now and then, I need a succession of quick, stinging barbs to the brain. Browsing through True False, I can tell already that Klee will deliver the jabs and jazz.

Jacket Copy:  Miles Klee’s first book Ivyland was variously hailed as “sharply intelligent” (Publishers Weekly) and “harsh, spastic” (Justin Taylor): we like to think of True False as intelligently spastic, or sharply harsh—disquieting and funny. A collection of stories that range from the very short to the merely short, these forty-four tales evoke extraordinary scenes in an understated manner that’s marked Klee one of today’s most intriguing writers. From the apocalyptic to the utopic, from a haunted office building to a suburban pool that may be alive, a day in the mind of a demi-god Pythagoras to a secret race to develop artificial love, True False captures a fractured reality more real than our own.

Blurbworthiness:  “Miles Klee is a fresh genius of the American literary sentence, and his every paragraph is aburst with nervous, agitative exactitudes. So much gets itself zanily and definitively rendered in the crackle of his ultravivid prose that True False is not just a joltingly original collection but the essential record of the inner terrors of our hyperurban era.” (Gary Lutz, author of Stories in the Worst Way)

Opening Lines:  The last known speakers of American English were garbagemen.  (from “Dead Languages,” the first story in the collection)

Bad Sex
by Clancy Martin
(Tyrant Books)

Last month, I talked to you about Married Sex. Now, I’d like to have a word about Bad Sex. Bad Sex and Good Writing. Clancy Martin’s new novel is slim, composed of very short chapters (most only a few pages long), and the kind of writing that’s as electric as French-kissing a lamp socket. You’ll sizzle your way through this book quickly, and feel good about yourself afterwards.

Jacket Copy:  “I drink, I hurt myself and the people around me, and then I write.” Brett is in Central America, away from her husband, when she begins a love affair with his friend, Eduard. Tragedy and comedy are properly joined at the hip in this loosely autobiographical book about infidelity, drinking, and the postponing of repercussions under the sun. Though coming undone is something we all try to avoid, Clancy Martin reminds us that going off the rails is sometimes a part of the ride.

Opening Lines:  One of us had to watch our hotel in Tulum during the storm, so I was flying into Cancun International then renting a car. The hurricane had closed all of the airports on the coast, and my flight was delayed, and then cancelled.

Blurbworthiness:  “Bad Sex is like a diamond, cut clean, dangerously sharp, brutally hard and yet paradoxically beautiful, ruthlessly honing in on the plight of a woman caught in the throes of alcoholism, desire, marriage and adultery. Like Camus in The Stranger, Martin digs into the philosophical through precise narrative, exposing the big questions for the reader to answer.”  (David Means, author of Assorted Fire Events)

Old Silk Road
by Brandon Caro
(Post Hill Press)

As a writer of war fiction, I inevitably read a lot of war fiction. This past reading year has seen a lot of great novels pass before my eyes: The Valley by John Renehan, I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them by Jesse Goolsby, and A Hard And Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti among them. Now along comes a fresh and promising novel set in Afghanistan by an equally fresh and promising writer who also happens to be a war veteran. I can’t wait to deploy my imagination into the world of war and madness, as written by former Navy corpsman Brandon Caro.

Jacket Copy:  Old Silk Road is a prescient, powerful novel of the Afghan war by someone who’s been there. Norman “Doc” Rodgers suspects he won’t make it out of this one alive. He’s a young combat medic in Afghanistan, eager to avenge his father’s death in the World Trade Center, and make sense of a new world that feels like it’s fallen to pieces. Haunted by hallucinatory encounters, his only solace is a barely concealed addiction to the precious opiates he’s supposed to dole out sparingly to those beyond aid. In this tautly-plotted debut novel, Brandon Caro, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, tells the story of a soldier’s undoing in raw, incendiary, hypnotic prose that forces us to ask ourselves about what we know about the futility of war–and what other outcome we can expect?

Opening Lines:  The sun shone hard and the wind billowed in from the west the day I first killed a man.

Blurbworthiness:  “In our era of yellow ribbon patriotism and collective detachment from America’s brushfire wars, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road should serve as an IV of truth for any citizen still trying to give a damn. In tight, gritty prose, Caro taps into deep emotional veins the way only fiction allows for, and his drug-addled anti-hero Doc is as distinct a protagonist I’ve yet come across in post-9/11 war literature. Care about the consequences of America’s foreign adventures? Read this novel.” (Matt Gallagher, author of Kaboom)

A Free State
by Tom Piazza

I love a good chase novel. And when it’s wrapped in the complexities of racial issues, identity and our national shame of slavery, that makes it all the more attractive. Tom Piazza’s new novel is a book to run toward, not flee.

Jacket Copy:  The author of City of Refuge returns with a startling and powerful novel of race, violence, and identity set on the eve of the Civil War. The year is 1855. Blackface minstrelsy is the most popular form of entertainment in a nation about to be torn apart by the battle over slavery. Henry Sims, a fugitive slave and a brilliant musician, has escaped to Philadelphia, where he earns money living by his wits and performing on the street. He is befriended by James Douglass, leader of a popular minstrel troupe struggling to compete with dozens of similar ensembles, who imagines that Henry’s skill and magnetism might restore his troupe’s sagging fortunes. The problem is that black and white performers are not allowed to appear together onstage. Together, the two concoct a masquerade to protect Henry’s identity, and Henry creates a sensation in his first appearances with the troupe. Yet even as their plan begins to reverse the troupe’s decline, a brutal slave hunter named Tull Burton has been employed by Henry’s former master to track down the runaway and retrieve him, by any means necessary. Bursting with narrative tension and unforgettable characters, shot through with unexpected turns and insight, A Free State is a thrilling reimagining of the American story by a novelist at the height of his powers.

Opening Lines:  City haze shot through with morning sun. Buildings razed, buildings rising, dust drifting off the dirt streets drying in the morning air. Clank of carts on cobblestones, barrels unloaded, the men shouting, the mist burning off the river.

Blurbworthiness:  “Once I’d begun reading A Free State, I couldn’t leave my chair. It combines bite-your-nails tension with deeply felt evocations of the brutalities of slavery, the perplexities of racial masquerading and the transcendent joys of making music. At the end (Piazza) executes a swerve so bold, it’ll take your breath away.”  (David Gates, author of A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me)

Lay Down Your Weary Tune
by W. B. Belcher
(Other Press)

Just like that waterlogged wool cap snagged out of the river in the opening sentence of Lay Down Your Weary Tune,  I was hooked right from the start with W. B. Belcher’s opening lines (see below). I’m intrigued and entranced and can’t wait to read more.

Jacket Copy:  In this debut novel, a ghostwriter of the memoirs of a reclusive folk music icon—part Woody Guthrie, part Bob Dylan—attempts to glean fact from fiction, only to discover the deeper he digs into the musician’s past, the more his own past rises to the surface. Despite his fame, Eli Page is a riddle wrapped in a myth, inside decades of mask-making. His past is so shrouded in gossip and half-truths that no one knows who he is behind the act. Jack Wyeth, a budding writer, joins Eli in Galesville, a small town on the border of New York and Vermont, only to learn that the musician’s mind is failing. As he scrambles to uncover the truth, Jack is forced to confront his own past, his own hang-ups, and his own fears. At the same time, he falls for a local artist who has secrets of her own, he becomes linked to a town controversy, and he struggles to let go of his childhood idols and bridge the divide between myth and reality. Set against a folk Americana aesthetic, Lay Down Your Weary Tune is an emotionally charged exploration of myth-making, desire, and regret, and the inescapable bond between the past and present.

Opening Lines:  When little Sammy Sweet fished a waterlogged wool cap out of the river, Trooper Mark Calvin, of the New York State Police, said it was “definitive” proof that Eli had drowned. Case closed. Time to get on with our lives. But three days later, in the hollow behind the paper mill, Sammy snagged Eli’s bruised leather satchel from the murmuring backwash. A half a mile upstream from Eli’s last known location, the discovery was fodder for a new round of conspiracy theories, conjectures, and what-if scenarios. To further infuriate the investigators, the bag’s limp, deformed body wore a small bullet hole just above its clasp. Members of the trolling media, busybodies, and Galesville’s newfound tourists all voiced the same question from the same village sidewalks and gas pumps and bar stools: “What the hell happened to Eli Page?”

Blurbworthiness:  “As beautiful and artfully constructed as an old guitar, Lay Down Your Weary Tune feels both familiar and wholly original. William Belcher’s debut is a highly readable wonder.”  (James Scott, author of The Kept)

The History of Great Things
by Elizabeth Crane
(Harper Perennial)

I really shouldn’t have to do much more than whisper these words in your ear: “Elizabeth Crane has a new novel coming out.” That should be enough to get you all twitterpated, enough to make you run and mark your calendar for April 5, 2016, enough to send you back to your bookshelf to read (or re-read) Crane’s previous books (We Only Know So Much, When the Messenger Is Hot and You Must Be This Happy to Enter) before this new one arrives. But if, for some reason, that’s not enough, read on for further proselytizing, arm-twisting, and brow-beating. The History of Great Things is coming, and it’s the one to put on top of your 2016 must-read list.

Jacket Copy:  A witty and irresistible story of a mother and daughter regarding each other through the looking glass of time, grief, and forgiveness. In two beautifully counterpoised narratives, two women—mother and daughter—try to make sense of their own lives by revisiting what they know about each other. The History of Great Things tells the entwined stories of Lois, a daughter of the Depression Midwest who came to New York to transform herself into an opera star, and her daughter, Elizabeth, an aspiring writer who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s in the forbidding shadow of her often-absent, always larger-than-life mother. In a tour de force of storytelling and human empathy, Elizabeth chronicles the events of her mother’s life, and in turn Lois recounts her daughter’s story—pulling back the curtain on lifelong secrets, challenging and interrupting each other, defending their own behavior, brandishing or swallowing their pride, and, ultimately, coming to understand each other in a way that feels both extraordinary and universal. The History of Great Things is a novel about a mother and daughter who are intimately connected and not connected enough; it will make readers laugh and cry and wonder how we become the adults we always knew we should—even if we’re not always adults our parents understand.

Opening Lines: You’re late. Two weeks, forty-one hours late, nine pounds, ten ounces. That’s a lot. That’s like a bowling ball coming out of me.
      —I’ve heard this part before, Mom.
      —Just let me have my say and then you can have yours.
      So you’re a giant bowling ball coming out of me. If bowling balls were square. It hurts like a bitch. Honestly. No one mentioned this detail to me in advance. I may as well be pushing out a full-grown adult. Wearing a tweed pantsuit. Think about that. That’s what they should tell kids in sex ed. Not that sex ed exists now, because it doesn’t. Sex exists. Not ed.

Studies in the Hereafter
by Sean Bernard
(Red Hen Press)

C’mon, admit it: you’re obsessed with death. Or, to be more exact, you have a healthy curiosity about “life after death.” Does it exist? Will it be cotton-candy clouds or fire and brimstone? Will we romp with our dogs, take long walks with our loved ones, eat pickles on our ice cream without a trace of guilt? Will Warren Beatty serenade us with a saxophone? Sean Bernard’s new novel Studies in the Hereafter may not have all the answers, but he’s certainly got some interesting questions. This is one book I want to read before I die.

Jacket Copy:  A disillusioned office bureaucrat in the afterlife has come to realize that maybe heaven isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Bored by the endless routine of work, golf, and vegan food, he finds his one saving grace in his Field Studies: detailed reports he compiles on the living in order to determine their best fit in his world. While working on his 62nd Field Study, he begins to fall for Tetty, a detached Basque-American beauty living in Nevada, while struggling to understand what she sees in Carmelo, a clumsy scholar obsessed with the elusive Basque culture. When people start going missing from heaven for no apparent reason, the narrator learns that Field Study 62 may hold the key to explaining the disappearances.

Opening Lines:  I’m just a bureaucrat. I live an ordinary life—if you can even call it a “life.”
      Maybe that sounds bad. Personally, when I hear other people say they live ordinary lives, I imagine days of dull routine, the waking up to alarm, the showering, the coffee, the dead-eyed commute to work, the sitting at desk and compiling reports and trying to lower a work-stack that will never end. Middling lunches. Hollow office gossip. Reading too-familiar human interest stories. More gossip. Home. Dinner. Television. Bed. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
      When I hear people say their lives are like this, are “ordinary,” I pity them a bit. Because after all isn’t existence our only chance to touch the trembling mysteries of the soul and the universe and etc?
      Then I remember—oh, that’s my life, too.

Blurbworthiness:  “A novel that makes us laugh while breaking our hearts; that is thought-provoking as it entertains; that is profoundly new, even while looking askance at old assumptions. Herein are vegan angels, time-hopping dead bureaucrats, and a love story for the ages. Quite simply: this novel is a joy." (Christopher Coake, author of We’re in Trouble)

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