Wednesday, April 27, 2016
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: 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.
by Adrien Bosc
Part coroner’s report, part high drama involving multiple characters, part poetic meditation on fate and circumstance, Adrien Bosc’s debut novel about a 1949 plane crash fascinates me and I can’t stop staring at it from its place at the top of the To-Be-Read stack. I’ll admit I’ve been attracted to soap-operas-on-planes ever since I saw the 1970 movie Airport based on Arthur Hailey’s novel. All those various lives confined in a small metal tube that’s headed for disaster—who couldn’t find something to love about that? I’ll be ready to board Bosc’s short novel soon.
Jacket Copy: On October 27, 1949, Air France’s new plane, the Constellation, launched by the extravagant Howard Hughes, welcomed thirty-eight passengers aboard. On October 28, no longer responding to air traffic controllers, the plane disappeared while trying to land on the island of Santa Maria, in the Azores. No one survived. The question Adrien Bosc’s novel asks is not so much how, but why? What were the series of tiny incidents that, in sequence, propelled the plane toward Redondo Mountain? And who were the passengers? As we recognize Marcel Cerdan, the famous boxer and lover of Edith Piaf, and we remember the musical prodigy Ginette Neveu, whose tattered violin would be found years later, the author ties together their destinies: “Hear the dead, write their small legend, and offer to these thirty-eight men and women, like so many constellations, a life and a story.”
Blurbworthiness: “Sublime, haunting, exuberant, Constellation turns a tragedy into a miracle. In reviving the victims of a doomed 1949 Air France flight, Adrien Bosc writes beautifully about coincidence and fate, including the greatest coincidence at all—that we are alive on earth together for a short time. Constellation is a novel of profound humanity.” (Nathaniel Rich, author of Odds Against Tomorrow)
by Frank Soos
(University of Washington Press)
Full disclosure: Frank Soos is a good friend of mine. In fact, he’s a little more than that: he’s my mentor and the one writing instructor I can point to in my life and say, “That man there? He was my guidepost, my mile marker, my billboard that promised the relief of food and gas at the next exit.” Frank was my professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and I owe a great deal of what comes out on my pages to his wisdom and encouragement. That being said, I look forward to Frank’s books enthusiastically and without bias. Though their appearances are often few and far between, Frank’s stories and essays are dependably thoughtful and rich in imagery. This new collection of essays is subtitled “Considerations of Difficult Questions,” but for me, there’s no question I’ll be digging into this book very, very soon.
Jacket Copy: Even from upside-down in his recently flipped truck, Frank Soos reveals himself to be ruminative, grappling with the limitations of language to express the human condition. Moving quickly―skiing in the dark or taking long summer bike rides on Alaska highways―Soos combines an active physical life with a dark and difficult interior existence, wrestling the full span of “thinking and doing” onto the page with surprising lightness. His meditations move from fly-fishing in dangerously swift Alaska rivers to memories of the liars and dirty-joke tellers of his small-town Virginia childhood, revealing insights in new encounters and old preoccupations. Soos writes about pain and despair, aging, his divorce, his father’s passing, regret, the loss of home, and the fear of death. But in the process of confronting these dark topics, he is full of wonder. As he writes at the end of an account of almost drowning, “Bruised but whole, I was alive, alive, alive.”
Opening Lines: It is dark outside. I’m alone in the ski hut, adding layer on layer to my ski clothes. Though some trails at the university in Fairbanks are lighted, I will take the longer, darker path through the woods. The last thing I do is strap on my headlamp, feeding the battery pack down my back under all my clothes so it will stay warm next to my skin. This may be crazy, setting out alone when it is already twenty below. But I know these trails so well that when I cannot sleep one of my tricks to overcome insomnia is to ski them in my mind.
Blurbworthiness: “What is a successful life, a life worthy of the improbable gift of consciousness? And how does one maintain courage and purpose under the shadow of mortality? These are the difficult questions that Frank Soos ponders most intently in these lucid, candid, witty essays. Whatever thread he follows―fishing, lying, playing basketball, telling jokes, building a canoe, rolling a truck, watching his father die―it leads him to reflect on the finiteness and preciousness of life.” (Scott Russell Sanders, author of Earth Works: Selected Essays)
by Pamela Erens
(Tin House Books)
As Publishers Weekly notes, labor and childbirth stories are as old as Eve delivering Cain, but in the hands of the exceptionally-talented Pamela Erens, Eleven Hours—a slim novel that will take you less than the titular time to read—promises to be a fresh take on OB-GYN.
Jacket Copy: From the critically acclaimed author of The Virgins, Eleven Hours is an intimate exploration of the physical and mental challenges of childbirth, told with unremitting suspense and astonishing beauty. Lore arrives at the hospital alone―no husband, no partner, no friends. Her birth plan is explicit: she wants no fetal monitor, no IV, no epidural. Franckline, a nurse in the maternity ward―herself on the verge of showing―is patient with the young woman. She knows what it’s like to worry that something might go wrong, and she understands the distress when it does. She knows as well as anyone the severe challenge of childbirth, what it does to the mind and the body. Eleven Hours is the story of two soon-to-be mothers who, in the midst of a difficult labor, are forced to reckon with their pasts and re-create their futures. Lore must disentangle herself from a love triangle; Franckline must move beyond past traumas to accept the life that’s waiting for her. Pamela Erens moves seamlessly between their begrudging partnership and the memories evoked by so intense an experience: for Lore, of the father of her child and her former best friend; for Franckline, of the family in Haiti from which she’s exiled. At turns urgent and lyrical, Erens’s novel is a visceral portrait of childbirth, and a vivid rendering of the way we approach motherhood―with fear and joy, anguish and awe.
Opening Lines: No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt. Her birth plan says no to fetal monitoring.
These girls with their birth plans, thinks Franckline, as if much of anything about a birth can be planned. She thinks girl although she has read on the intake form that Lore Tannenbaum is thirty-one-years old, a year older than Franckline herself. Caucasian, born July something, employed by the New York City Department of Education. Franckline pronounced the girl’s name wrong at first, said “Lorie,” and the girl corrected her, said there was only one syllable. Lore.
Blurbworthiness: “Written with incredible clarity, the third novel from Erens is a wonder, shifting between two protagonists with ease to tell a deeply personal narrative of childbirth, complete with tension, horror, and deep mature emotion. This novel does not sentimentalize the delivery of a child, but rather examines the surprise—mental and physical—that accompanies it. Labor stories are as old as time, but Erens’s novel feels incredibly fresh and vivid. An outstanding accomplishment.” (Publishers Weekly)
The Stopped Heart
by Julie Myerson
There are first lines, and then there are first lines. I defy anyone to read the opening paragraph of Julie Myerson’s new novel and put the book aside with a shrug and a “ho-hum.” The remainder of The Stopped Heart promises to do the opposite of its title, too. My heart’s already racing from that first page alone.
Jacket Copy: Mary Coles and her husband, Graham, have just moved to a cottage on the edge of a small village. The house hasn’t been lived in for years, but they are drawn to its original features and surprisingly large garden, which stretches down into a beautiful apple orchard. It’s idyllic, remote, picturesque: exactly what they need to put the horror of the past behind them. One hundred and fifty years earlier, a huge oak tree was felled in front of the cottage during a raging storm. Beneath it lies a young man with a shock of red hair, presumed dead—surely no one could survive such an accident. But the red-haired man is alive, and after a brief convalescence is taken in by the family living in the cottage and put to work in the fields. The children all love him, but the eldest daughter, Eliza, has her reservations. There’s something about the red-haired man that sits ill with her. A presence. An evil. Back in the present, weeks after moving to the cottage and still drowning beneath the weight of insurmountable grief, Mary Coles starts to sense there’s something in the house. Children’s whispers, footsteps from above, half-caught glimpses of figures in the garden. A young man with a shock of red hair wandering through the orchard. Has Mary’s grief turned to madness? Or have the events that took place so long ago finally come back to haunt her?
Opening Lines: It was a sunny day. The sky was thick and high and blue. Addie Sands was standing in the lane and she was screaming. There was blood everywhere. On her skirts, her wrists, her face. A dark hole where her mouth should be. There were no words. Nothing but the black taste of her screaming.
by Margot Livesey
A horse, an optometrist’s wife, an obsession: Margot Livesey’s new novel stirs these disparate ingredients into a story that sets a fishhook deep in my attention span, pulling me closer and closer with every page. Mercury is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing books on the 2016 Fall list.
Jacket Copy: Donald believes he knows all there is to know about seeing. An optician in suburban Boston, he rests assured that he and his wife, Viv, who works at the local stables, will live out quiet lives with their two children. Then Mercury—a gorgeous young racehorse—enters their lives and everything changes. Viv’s friend Hilary has inherited Mercury from her brother after his mysterious death—he was riding Mercury late one afternoon and the horse returned to the stables alone. When Hilary first brings Mercury to board at the stables everyone there is struck by his beauty and prowess, particularly Viv. As she rides him, Viv dreams of competing with Mercury, rebuilding the ambitions of grandeur that she held for herself before moving to the suburbs. But her daydreams soon morph into consuming desire, and her infatuation with the thoroughbred quickly escalates to obsession. By the time Donald understands the change that has come over Viv, it is too late to stop the impending fate that both their actions have wrought for them and their loved ones. A beautifully crafted, riveting novel about the ways in which relationships can be disrupted and, ultimately, destroyed by obsession, secrets and ever-escalating lies.
Opening Lines: My mother called me after a favorite uncle, who was in turn called after a Scottish king. Donald III was sixty when he first ascended the throne in 1093. He went on to reign twice, briefly and disastrously. As a child I hated my name—other children sang “Donald, where’s y’er troosers?” in the playground—but as an adult I have come to appreciate being named after a valiant late bloomer: a man who seized the day. Of course most Americans, when I introduce myself, are thinking not about Scottish history but about a cartoon duck.
Blurbworthiness: “Mercury demonstrates Tolstoy’s dictum: all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. The Stevensons find themselves upended by a horse—a magnificent horse that sets off a chain of deceit and crime. This powerful novel reveals the fragility of life when tested by the shock of genuine passion.” (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)
In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper
edited by Lawrence Block
If ever there were a painter perfectly primed to have an anthology of stories inspired by his or her canvases, then Edward Hopper surely fits the bill. In Sunlight or In Shadow promises to be a remarkable collection of fiction, not only for the outstanding lineup of contributors but for the source inspiration as well. As editor Lawrence Block says in his Foreword, “Hopper was neither an illustrator nor a narrative painter. His paintings don’t tell stories. What they do is suggest—powerfully, irresistibly—that there are stories within them, waiting to be told. He shows us a moment in time, arrayed on a canvas; there’s clearly a past and a future, but it’s our task to find it for ourselves.”
Jacket Copy: Lawrence Block has invited seventeen outstanding writers to join him in an unprecedented anthology of brand-new stories: In Sunlight or In Shadow. The results are remarkable and range across all genres, wedding literary excellence to storytelling savvy. Contributors include Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, Michael Connelly, Megan Abbott, Craig Ferguson, Nicholas Christopher, Jill D. Block, Joe R. Lansdale, Justin Scott, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Warren Moore, Jonathan Santlofer, Jeffery Deaver, Lee Child, and Lawrence Block himself. Even Gail Levin, Hopper’s biographer and compiler of his catalogue raisonée, appears with her own first work of fiction, providing a true account of art theft on a grand scale and told in the voice of the country preacher who perpetrated the crime. In a beautifully produced anthology as befits such a collection of acclaimed authors, each story is illustrated with a quality full-color reproduction of the painting that inspired it. Illustrated with 17 full color plates, one for each chapter.
Opening Lines: “She went udders out.”
“No pasties even?”
“Like a pair of traffic lights.”
Pauline hears them on the porch. Bud is telling her husband about a trip to New York City a few years ago. Going to the Casino de Paree.
Her husband says almost nothing, smoking cigarette after cigarette and making sure Bud always has a Blatz in hand from the metal cooler beside him.
(from “Girlie Show” by Megan Abbott)
by Dinah Cox
Short Story Month begins in a few days and I can’t think of a better way to get things underway than this collection of short fiction by Dinah Cox. Midwestern stories hold a special fascination for me—perhaps because I grew up in Wyoming and now live in Montana—and these tales set mostly in Oklahoma seem to be especially full of Great Plains goodness.
Jacket Copy: Set within the resilient Great Plains, these award-winning stories are marked by the region’s people and landscape, and the distinctive way it is both regressive in its politics yet also stumbling toward something better. While not all stories are explicitly set in Oklahoma, the state is almost a character that is neither protagonist nor antagonist, but instead the weird next-door-neighbor you’re perhaps too ashamed of to take anywhere. Who is the embarrassing one—you or Oklahoma?
Opening Lines: A guy walks into Kentucky Fried Chicken and says, Gimme some chicken. Maybe he has a gun and maybe he has only his finger, shaking and sweating underneath the front flap of his jacket; either way, his demand is not for money but chicken. Two piece leg and thigh. Extra crispy. No one in his right mind asks for original recipe these days. And that biscuit had better be hot, don’t give him any of that hockey puck shit. Everyone is worried. Once, exactly a year ago today, a tornado ripped through town and blew out the restaurant’s front windows. Customers, clerks, managers, babies, and dead frozen chickens all huddle in the walk-in for safety. No one was hurt. But today is a different story. If the man with the gun/finger doesn’t get his chicken, he might shoot someone. He might kill someone.
“To go,” he says. “Didn’t I say to go earlier? I think I did.”
“You did, sir,” says the clerk. “Sorry.”
“Damn right you’re sorry.”
This is where the story begins and also where the story ends, because the guy took his chicken and left the store. Just walked right out. And no one called the police and no one posted about it on Facebook and no one tweeted or bleated or cared. The register didn’t even come up short because no money changed hands. But the best part of the story is that it at once represents what’s best about small towns and what’s worst about them. What’s best is that people in small towns will give one another chicken. For free. What’s worst is the tornado’s near miss, the broken glass all over the greasy floor, the children crying, the dead chickens in the freezer, and the people who want nothing more than to eat them.
Blurbworthiness: “Funny, disturbing, and unapologetically smart—the stories in Remarkable sneak into your heart and then break it. We meet Marcella who works at the Telephone Museum and hears imaginary conversations, and the B-movie star of Tumbleweed Town, a sort of Brokeback Mountain meets Deliverance meets The Monkees. The fictive people in this collection, iconoclasts of the Midwest, conjure their own idiosyncratic, surprisingly honest and tender worlds.” (Nona Caspers, author of Heavier than Air)