Thursday, February 18, 2016

Front Porch Books: February 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly 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: many 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 mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books. 

The Mirror Thief
by Martin Seay
(Melville House)

Just as I’m recovering from the beautiful brainburst effects of City on Fire, along comes another big and bold novel. The Mirror Thief has been getting a lot of attention for a 600-page book about mirrors (and, judging from what I’ve read so far, justifiably so). I’ll never look at the one above my bathroom sink in quite the same way again.

Jacket Copy:  Set in three cities in three eras, The Mirror Thief calls to mind David Mitchell and Umberto Eco in its mix of entertainment and literary bravado. The core story is set in Venice in the sixteenth century, when the famed makers of Venetian glass were perfecting one of the old world’s most wondrous inventions: the mirror. An object of glittering yet fearful fascination—was it reflecting simple reality, or something more spiritually revealing?—the Venetian mirrors were state of the art technology, and subject to industrial espionage by desirous sultans and royals world-wide. But for any of the development team to leave the island was a crime punishable by death. One man, however—a world-weary war hero with nothing to lose—has a scheme he thinks will allow him to outwit the city’s terrifying enforcers of the edict, the ominous Council of Ten. Meanwhile, in two other Venices—Venice Beach, California, circa 1958, and the Venice casino in Las Vegas, circa today—two other schemers launch similarly dangerous plans to get away with a secret. All three stories will weave together into a spell-binding tour-de-force that is impossible to put down—an old-fashioned, stay-up-all-night novel that, in the end, returns the reader to a stunning conclusion in the original Venice...and the bedazzled sense of having read a truly original and thrilling work of art.

Blurbworthiness:  “A true delight, a big, beautiful cabinet of wonders that is by turns an ominous modern thriller, a supernatural mystery, and an enchanting historical adventure story....A splendid masterpiece, to be loved like a long-lost friend, an epic with near-universal appeal.”  (Publishers Weekly)

The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
by J. Kael Weston

The second “mirror” book which arrived at my house this past month has an undeniable, can’t-look-away first sentence. The remainder of the book seems like it will be just as compelling and—more importantly—vital reading.

Jacket Copy:  A powerfully written firsthand account of the human costs of conflict, The Mirror Test asks that we as a nation look in the mirror and address hard questions about America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. J. Kael Weston spent seven years on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan working for the State Department. The U.S. government sent him to some of the most dangerous frontline locations. Upon his return home, traveling the country to pay respect to the killed and wounded, he asked himself: How and when will these wars end? How will they be remembered and memorialized? What lessons can we learn from them? Questions with no quick answers, but perhaps ones that might lead to a shared reckoning worthy of the sacrifices of those, troops and civilians alike, whose lives have been changed by more than a decade and a half of war. With a novelist’s eye, Weston takes us from Twenty Nine Palms in California to Fallujah in Iraq, Khost to Helmand in Afghanistan, Maryland to Colorado, Wyoming to New York City, as well as to out-of-the-way places in Iowa and Texas. We meet generals, corporals and captains, senators and ambassadors, NATO allies, Iraqi truck drivers, city councils, imams and mullahs, Afghan schoolteachers, madrassa and college students, former Taliban fighters and ex-Guantanamo Prison detainees, a torture victim, SEAL and Delta Force teams, and many Marines. The overall frame for the book, from which the title is taken, centers on soldiers who have received a grievous wound to the face. There is a moment during their recovery when they must look upon their reconstructed appearance for the first time. This is known as “the mirror test.” Here, like grains of sand, Weston gathers these voices and stories—Iraqi, Afghan, and American—and polishes them into a sheet of glass, one he offers to us as a national mirror. What Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie did for Vietnam, The Mirror Test does for Iraq and Afghanistan. An unflinching and deep examination of the interplay between warfare and diplomacy, it is an essential book—a crucial look at America now, how it is viewed in the world, and how the nation views itself.

Opening Lines:  I first met Marine Corporal Aaron Mankin in Fallujah in early 2005, just before he lost most of his face in the Iraq War.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Mirror Test is an elegy, and a love story, and like all elegies and love stories it involves equal parts ardor and heartbreak. It is also an assignment to Americans: look at yourselves, look at these wars. It’s not only Weston’s experience at State which place him in a position to deliver this assignment; it’s his humanity, humility, and literary grace. These qualities bleed through the pages of this book, and reflect the humanity, humility, and grace of its subjects—Marines in Fallujah, Iraqis and Afghans in Anbar and Khost, leaders who tried to do right. And eventually, essentially, of civilians who mourn their children among the war dead.”  (Lea Carpenter, author of Eleven Days)

by Michelle Hoover

Maybe it’s because I’m currently reading Main Street, Sinclair Lewis’ withering satire of the prejudices of a small town in the American Midwest in the early 1900s, or maybe I’m just drawn to great writing—whatever the case, Michelle Hoover’s newest novel appeals to me for its setting (the Iowa prairie just after World War Two) and its characters (a German family faced with small-town prejudice). Granted, Bottomland seems to have a more serious tone than Main Street, but the idea of being ostracized due to race, class or gender is still the same old sad song.

Jacket Copy:  At once intimate and sweeping, Bottomland—the anticipated second novel from Michelle Hoover—follows the Hess family in the years after World War I as they attempt to rid themselves of the Anti-German sentiment that left a stain on their name. But when the youngest two daughters vanish in the middle of the night, the family must piece together what happened while struggling to maintain their life on the unforgiving Iowa plains. In the weeks after Esther and Myrle’s disappearance, their siblings desperately search for the sisters, combing the stark farmlands, their neighbors’ houses, and the unfamiliar world of far-off Chicago. Have the girls run away to another farm? Have they gone to the city to seek a new life? Or were they abducted? Ostracized, misunderstood, and increasingly isolated in their tightly-knit small town in the wake of the war, the Hesses fear the worst. Told in the voices of the family patriarch and his children, this is a haunting literary mystery that spans decades before its resolution. Hoover deftly examines the intrepid ways a person can forge a life of their own despite the dangerous obstacles of prejudice and oppression.

Opening Lines:  It was little more than a month before winter shut us in when I last saw the youngest of my sisters. Our little Myrle.

Blurbworthiness:  “Comparisons to Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather are inevitable when you read Michelle Hoover’s classic heartland novels because Hoover knows rural life, its unforgiving reality and its people so well; in Bottomland, she makes this landscape her own with new vivid lyricism. This post-WWI novel about an ostracized German-American family searching Iowa and Chicago for their missing teenaged girls is poignant, powerful, and hypnotically readable.”  (Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us)

Sweet Lamb of Heaven
By Lydia Millet
(W. W. Norton)

Though there’s a sly humor found in the opening lines of Lydia Millet’s latest novel (see below), the subject matter of domestic violence is deadly serious. Like Sleeping with the Enemy serious. This might be the literary thriller to beat this season.

Jacket Copy:  Lydia Millet’s chilling new novel is the first-person account of a young mother, Anna, escaping her cold and unfaithful husband, a businessman who’s just launched his first campaign for political office. When Ned chases Anna and their six-year-old daughter from Alaska to Maine, the two go into hiding in a run-down motel on the coast. But the longer they stay, the less the guests in the dingy motel look like typical tourists―and the less Ned resembles a typical candidate. As his pursuit of Anna and their child moves from threatening to criminal, Ned begins to alter his wife’s world in ways she never could have imagined. A double-edged and satisfying story with a strong female protagonist, a thrilling plot, and a creeping sense of the apocalyptic, Sweet Lamb of Heaven builds to a shattering ending with profound implications for its characters―and for all of us.

Opening Lines:  When I insisted on keeping the baby, Ned threw his hands into the air palms-forward. He looked like a mime climbing a wall—one of the few times I’ve ever seen him look clumsy.

by Matthew Griffin

On the domestic flip side of Sweet Lamb of Heaven is this tender love story set in North Carolina just after World War Two between two men who are forced by society to literally hide their affection for each other. This novel slipped quietly onto my front porch, but I heard it and I’m paying attention when it whispers, “Read me.” Hide goes to the top of the stack.

Jacket Copy:  Set in a declining textile town in North Carolina, Hide is the love story of Wendell Wilson, a taxidermist, and Frank Clifton, a veteran of World War II. They meet after the war, in a time when such love holds real danger. But, severing nearly all ties with the rest of the world, they carve out a home for themselves on the outskirts of town and for decades the routine of self-reliant domesticity—Wendell’s cooking, Frank’s care for a yard no one sees, and the vicarious drama of courtroom TV—seems to protect them. But when Wendell finds Frank lying motionless outside at the age of eighty-three, their carefully crafted life together begins to unravel. As Frank’s physical strength deteriorates and his memory dissolves, Wendell struggles in vain to keep him healthy and to hold onto the man he once knew until, faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion, the sacrifices they made for each other, and the different lives they might have lived—and most especially the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had. Impossibly tender, gently funny, and gorgeously rendered, Hide is a singularly powerful debut.

Opening Lines:  Lord knows how long he’s been lying out there: flat on his back in the middle of the vegetable garden. I see him through the smudged window over the kitchen sink as I’m carrying the groceries to the counter, the day burning bright all over him. I wasn’t gone but an hour. I set down my bags and hurry out the back door. I’ve got two more waiting in the car.
     “Frank,” I yell. “Are you all right?”
     He doesn’t say a word, not until I’m looming right over him, my shadow draped across his chest and following the wrinkles in his plaid shirt before falling flat onto the dirt. He looks up at me, not even squinting against the sun. Three or four of his tomato plants are crushed underneath him, their silver furred vines curled about his arms and knees like something that wants to pull him into the earth.

Blurbworthiness:  “Tough but compassionate and beautifully observed, Matthew Griffin’s debut novel is an unflinching look at the cost of isolation in an intolerant society and a moving story about the persistence of love.”  (Maggie Shipstead, author of Seating Arrangements)

Zero K
by Don DeLillo

Need I say any more than this: DeLillo, cryogenics, and “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth”? Nope, I think that’s all I need to say.

Jacket Copy:  The wisest, richest, funniest, and most moving novel in years from Don DeLillo, one of the great American novelists of our time—an ode to language, at the heart of our humanity, a meditation on death, and an embrace of life. Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body. “We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?” These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book’s narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth.” Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.” Zero K is glorious.

Opening Lines:  Everybody wants to own the end of the world.
     This is what my father said, standing by the contoured windows in his New York office—private wealth management, dynasty trusts, emerging markets. We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors. I studied the art in the room, variously abstract, and began to understand that the extended silence following his remark belonged to neither one of us. I thought of his wife, the second, the archaeologist, the one whose mind and failing body would soon begin to drift, on schedule, into the void.

Blurbworthiness:  “Lush in thought and feeling...Intently observant and obsessively concerned with language and meaning, Jeffery is a mesmerizing and disquieting narrator as he describes the “eerie and disembodying” ambiance of the Convergence and its ritualized, morally murky amalgam of mysticism and science, from the “post-mortem décor,” punctuated by unnerving sculptures and violent cinematic montages, to the sarcophagus-pods containing naked, cryopreserved voyagers to the unknown...DeLillo infuses the drama with metaphysical riddles: What of ourselves can actually be preserved? What will resurrection pilgrims experience in their cold limbo? With immortality reserved for the elite, what will become of the rest of humanity on our pillaged, bloodied, extinction-plagued planet? In this magnificently edgy and profoundly inquisitive tale, DeLillo reflects on what we remember and forget, what we treasure and destroy, and what we fail to do for each other and for life itself.”  (Booklist)

The Lost Time Accidents
by John Wray
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

John Wray might be one of the most unpredictable and, thus, most exciting novelists of our time. His debut, The Right Hand of Sleep, was set in Austria during a complex time between the two world wars; Canaan’s Tongue took a minor character from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (the “Redeemer”) and made him into a ferocious hell-fire preacher roaming the American South on the eve of the Civil War; and Lowboy (which I reviewed here) takes place almost entirely in the mind of a 16-year-old schizophrenic named Will who rides the subway and believes if he has sex often enough he’ll solve the problem of global warming. So, it’s with great curiosity and anticipation that I turn to The Lost Time Accidents, wondering what Wray will do next. There’s no telling.

Jacket Copy:  In his ambitious and fiercely inventive new novel, The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray takes us from turn-of-the-century Viennese salons buzzing with rumors about Einstein’s radical new theory to the death camps of World War Two, from the golden age of postwar pulp science fiction to a startling discovery in a Manhattan apartment packed to the ceiling with artifacts of modern life. Haunted by a failed love affair and the darkest of family secrets, Waldemar (Waldy) Tolliver wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from the flow of time. The world continues to turn, and Waldy is desperate to find his way back-a journey that forces him to reckon not only with the betrayal at the heart of his doomed romance but also the legacy of his great-grandfather’s fatal pursuit of the hidden nature of time itself. Part madcap adventure, part harrowing family drama, part scientific mystery--and never less than wildly entertaining—The Lost Time Accidents is a bold and epic saga set against the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century.

Opening Lines:  Dear Mrs. Haven—
     This morning, at 08:47 EST, I woke up to find myself excused from time.

Blurbworthiness:  “For a while now, John Wray has been writing as if let in on the secret history of the world, paying attention to moments we all know, but at the point where we’ve stopped looking. So of course only he would find the crazy quilt universe of sci-fi, war, mystery, doomed love and eerie foresight that was always lurking deep in the grand old novel in letters. This is literature as high wire act without the net; epic in scale, even bigger in heart.”  (Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings)

The Trouble with Lexie
by Jessica Anya Blau

Jessica Anya Blau doesn’t tiptoe into her novels, she smashes through the door with a battering ram, not even bothering to warn, “Police! Open up!” I mean, just look at the opening of Wonder Bread Summer. She does it again here in The Trouble With Lexie—those first lines are a startling door-kick—they shove the reader right into the flow of action. I want to read the next paragraph and the next and the next...

Jacket Copy:  From the beloved author of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and The Wonder Bread Summer comes the jaw-dropping story of Lexie James, a counselor at an exclusive New England prep school, whose search for happiness lands her in unexpectedly wild trouble. Lexie James escaped: after being abandoned by her alcoholic father, and kicked out of the apartment to make room for her mother’s boyfriend, Lexie made it on her own. She earned a Masters degree, conquered terrifying panic attacks, got engaged to the nicest guy she’d ever met, and landed a counseling job at the prestigious Ruxton Academy, a prep school for the moneyed children of the elite. But as her wedding date nears, Lexie has doubts. Yes, she’s created the stable life she craved as a child, but is stability really what she wants? In her moment of indecision, Lexie strikes up a friendship with a Ruxton alumnus, the father of her favorite student. It’s a relationship that blows open Lexie’s carefully constructed life, and then dunks her into shocking situations with headline-worthy trouble. The perfect cocktail of naughtiness, heart, adventure and humor, The Trouble with Lexie is a wild and poignant story of the choices we make to outrun our childhoods—and the choices we have to make to outrun our entangled adult lives.

Opening Lines:  The problem wasn’t so much that Lexie had taken the Klonopin. And it wasn’t even that she had stolen them. At thirty generic pills for ten dollars, the theft of a handful (two down the gullet, the rest down her bra) had to be less bucks? The problem, as Lexie saw it, was that she had fallen asleep in the bed of the owner of the Klonopin. And the owner of the Klonopin was the wife of her lover.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, that's my reading time sorted - thank you, David. I'm especially excited by the Don de Lillo. Good morning from London!