Thursday, May 12, 2016

Front Porch Books: May 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.

Champion of the World
by Chad Dundas
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

The clowns came to get him when it was time for the hanging. I can’t remember the last time I came across an odder, more intriguing first sentence of a novel. Fellow Montanan Chad Dundas sure knows how to get a story cranking right from the get-go. And if you read the plot description which sums up all the sentences to follow, you’ll see Champion of the World has plenty more hooks—in fact, the novel is a veritable fishing tacklebox full of lures.

Jacket Copy:  In this stunning historical fiction debut set in the world of wrestling in the 1920s, a husband and wife are set adrift in a place where everyone has something to hide and not even the fights can be taken at face value. Late summer, 1921: Disgraced former lightweight champion Pepper Van Dean has spent the past two years on the carnival circuit performing the dangerous “hangman’s drop” and taking on all comers in nightly challenge bouts. But when he and his cardsharp wife, Moira, are marooned in the wilds of Oregon, Pepper accepts an offer to return to the world of wrestling as a trainer for Garfield Taft, a down-and-out African American heavyweight contender in search of a comeback and a shot at the world title. At the training camp in rural Montana, Pepper and Moira soon realize that nothing is what it seems: not Taft, the upcoming match, or the training facility itself. With nowhere to go and no options left, Pepper and Moira must carefully navigate the world of gangsters, bootlegging, and fixed competitions, in the hope that they can carve out a viable future. A story of second chances and a sport at the cusp of major change, Champion of the World is a wonderful historical debut from a new talent in fiction.

Opening Lines:  The clowns came to get him when it was time for the hanging.
     He met them outside his trailer; a half dozen of them all dressed like cops, looking soiled and road-weary in their baggy blue uniforms, soda siphons hanging from their belts instead of guns and cuffs. No one spoke as they walked him down to the gallows, moving through the narrow alleys between the powerhouse trucks, costume tents and animal cages, heading for the spot on the infield grass where the white tops of the carnival’s seven performance pavilions lifted like billowing clouds. With ten minutes left before intermission a few of the candy butchers had already returned their covered pushcarts to the backyard area. They stood leaning against them, smoking cigarettes in orange and white coveralls, bored expressions on their faces. At the back door of the big tent he stopped to bounce a minute on his toes, a light dappling of rain blowing in off the bay, pricking up goose pimples on his bare arms and legs.
     One of the clowns made a sour face. “You all right?” His lipstick smile almost touching the corners of his eyes. “You’re looking a little chunky.”
     He ignored it but the truth was, he was overweight. The night before, the ache in his bad leg had kept him up, and after the two-and-a-half-hour jump from Monterey to San Francisco, he snuck down to the pie car and ate three pickles wrapped in ham. The pickles tasted good but didn’t fill him up, so he’d had a square of apple cobbler for dessert. He shouldn’t have done that, and in the morning forced himself to vomit before spending an hour jogging around the backyard area in a heavy overcoat. Now, as he stood there surrounded by the clowns, his belly was empty, and cold fear gripped his heart. He hoped he wasn’t about to go out there and break his goddamn neck.

Blurbworthiness:  “Here’s one of the finest first novels in years, a gritty tale involving professional wrestling, bootlegging, and the byzantine strategies of cold-blooded conmen and desperate grifters. If the subject matter strikes you as too quirky, think again. My advice to anyone who loves brilliant storytelling is this: read Chad Dundas’ Champion of the World.”  (Jeff Guinn, author of The Last Gunfight)

The Mathews Men
by William Geroux

Growing up, I frequently heard the term “Merchant Marine,” but I don’t think it was until I received a copy of William Geroux’s new book the other day that I fully realized what it meant: sailors who risked their lives to deliver supplies to combat troops, fighting off everything from torpedoes to sharks. The Mathews Men opens with a Cuban fisherman cutting open a shark to discover human remains, and ends with this quote from a Merchant Marine looking back on why he did what he did: “Men all over Mathews County kept going to sea like they always had. They didn’t do anything different during the war. The torpedoes just got in the way.”

Jacket Copy:  Mathews County, Virginia, is a remote outpost on the Chesapeake Bay with little to offer except unspoiled scenery—but it sent an unusually large concentration of sea captains to fight in World War II. The Mathews Men tells that heroic story through the experiences of one extraordinary family whose seven sons (and their neighbors), U.S. merchant mariners all, suddenly found themselves squarely in the cross-hairs of the U-boats bearing down on the coastal United States in 1942. From the late 1930s to 1945, virtually all the fuel, food and munitions that sustained the Allies in Europe traveled not via the Navy but in merchant ships. After Pearl Harbor, those unprotected ships instantly became the U-boats’ prime targets. And they were easy targets—the Navy lacked the inclination or resources to defend them until the beginning of 1943. Hitler was determined that his U-boats should sink every American ship they could find, sometimes within sight of tourist beaches, and to kill as many mariners as possible, in order to frighten their shipmates into staying ashore. As the war progressed, men from Mathews sailed the North and South Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and even the icy Barents Sea in the Arctic Circle, where they braved the dreaded Murmansk Run. Through their experiences we have eyewitnesses to every danger zone, in every kind of ship. Some died horrific deaths. Others fought to survive torpedo explosions, flaming oil slicks, storms, shark attacks, mine blasts, and harrowing lifeboat odysseys—only to ship out again on the next boat as soon as they'd returned to safety. The Mathews Men shows us the war far beyond traditional battlefields—often the U.S. merchant mariners’ life-and-death struggles took place just off the U.S. coast—but also takes us to the landing beaches at D-Day and to the Pacific. “When final victory is ours,” General Dwight D. Eisenhower had predicted, “there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” Here, finally, is the heroic story of those merchant seamen, recast as the human story of the men from Mathews.

Opening Lines:  One night in late July 1942, a hardscrabble Cuban fisherman hauled in a hulking shark from the Nicholas Channel off Cuba’s northern coast. He gutted it and tore open its stomach with a knife. Out into the humid air spilled a mass of human remains. The fisherman, whose last name was Carillo, would have been surprised but not shocked.

Blurbworthiness:  “Vividly drawn and emotionally gripping, The Mathews Men shines a light on the mostly forgotten but astonishing role the U.S. Merchant Marine played in winning World War II. It brings back to life a breed of men who repeatedly risk all for their country. It chronicles the sagas of families that stoically endured heartrending losses. It honors a community that pulled together to support its sons as they set out—again and again—on deadly seas. And it reminds us how much we owe to the legions of ordinary Americans who quite literally saved the civilized world in the 1940s.”  (Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat)

by Ann Patchett

Rejoice, all ye with ears to hear and eyes to read! Ann Patchett has a new novel and, from the first sentence onward, it looks to be a great one. In an interview last December, Patchett said Commonwealth is one of her most personal novels to date: “It’s a book that has a lot to do with my family. I’ve always written books that are very far removed from my own life. This book, it’s not true, but it’s close to me. I’m very happy with it, and I think it’s much better than my other books. It’s the one I’ve always wanted to write. My father died in February, and though I wrote it while he was ill, it’s the book I couldn’t have published when he was alive.” Commonwealth arrives in bookstores in September—at which time, there will be great rejoicing throughout the land.

Jacket Copy:  One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families. Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them. When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another. Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

Opening Lines:  The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.

The North Water
by Ian McGuire
(Henry Holt)

I came for the story (a murderer roams the decks of a nineteenth-century whaling ship), but I stayed for the language. Check out the Opening Lines below and see if you don’t agree that Ian McGuire immerses the readers into the vibrant grit and grime of the 1800s with sharply-focused details. These first paragraphs alone make me want to set everything else aside and plunge headfirst into these icy, bloody pages.

Jacket Copy:  A nineteenth-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard in this dark, sharp, and highly original tale that grips like a thriller. Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage. In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring. With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire’s The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.

Opening Lines:  Behold the man.
     He shuffles out of Clappison’s courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth. At the end of Charterhouse Lane he turns north onto Wincolmlee, past the De La Pole Tavern, past the sperm candle manufactory and the oil-seed mill. Above the warehouse roofs, he can see the swaying tops of main- and mizzenmasts, hear the shouts of the stevedores and the thump of mallets from the cooperage nearby. his shoulder rubs against the smoothed red brick, a dog runs past, a cart piled high with rough-cut timber. He breathes in again and runs his tongue along the haphazard ramparts of his teeth. He senses a fresh need, small but insistent, arising inside him, a new requirement aching to be met. His ship leaves at first light, but before then there is something that must be done.

Blurbworthiness:  “Riveting and darkly brilliant...The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”  (Colm Toibin, author of Brooklyn)

Every Man a Menace
by Patrick Hoffman
(Atlantic Monthly Press)

Here’s another case where a first sentence lured me, like a trail of breadcrumbs, into its dark forest of words. Just as he did with his debut novel The White Van, Patrick Hoffman enticed me with the opening page of his new novel about ex-cons, duplicitous women, and drug running. I’ll gladly get lost in these pages.

Jacket Copy:  Patrick Hoffman burst onto the crime fiction scene with The White Van, a bank heist thriller set in the back streets of San Francisco and a finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. Now he returns with his second novel, Every Man a Menace, the inside story of a ruthless ecstasy-smuggling ring. San Francisco is about to receive the biggest delivery of MDMA to hit the West Coast in years. Raymond Gaspar, just out of prison, is sent to the city to check in on the increasingly erratic dealer expected to take care of distribution. In Miami, the man responsible for getting the drugs across the Pacific has just met the girl of his dreams—a woman who can’t seem to keep her story straight. And thousands of miles away in Bangkok, someone farther up the supply chain is about to make a phone call that will put all their lives at risk. Stretching from the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia to the Golden Gate of San Francisco, Every Man a Menace offers an unflinching account of the making, moving, and selling of the drug known as Molly—pure happiness sold by the brick, brought to market by bloodshed and betrayal.

Opening Lines:  Getting out of prison is like having a rotten tooth pulled from your mouth: it feels good to have it gone, but it’s hard not to keep touching at that hole.

Blurbworthiness:  “Every Man a Menace is everything you could want in a thriller—lightning pace, dead-on dialogue, and a twisting, high-torque plot. But, most of all, this novel is smart and authentic, a welcome jolt at a time when so much fiction reads like it rolled off an assembly line.”  (Carl Hiaasen)

Anatomy of a Soldier
by Harry Parker

There are books that tell stories. And then there are books that tell stories in such fresh and startling ways that make the reader in me sit silent, stunned and dazzled, and the jealous writer in me wish I’d thought of this idea before. In the case of Harry Parker’s debut novel, though, I’ll let the reader take over so I can sit back and let the book wash over me. Anatomy of a Soldier is a book about war which is narrated not by a flesh-and-blood warrior, but by all the material objects surrounding him, starting with a tourniquet in the novel’s opening lines (with your indulgence, I’ve quoted the entire first chapter below). Parker never lets the objects of war remove us too far from turbulent human emotion; I mean, just look at those three words that pierce our hearts with their economy: he was incomplete. It’s a clever stylistic trick, sure, but it’s backed by some headstrong language that rushes full force into the question of how to dress an old story in new clothes.

Jacket Copy:  Let’s imagine a man called Captain Tom Barnes, aka BA5799, who’s leading British troops in the war zone. And two boys growing up together there, sharing a prized bicycle and flying kites before finding themselves estranged once foreign soldiers appear in their countryside. And then there’s the man who trains one of them to fight against the other’s father and all these infidel invaders. Then imagine the family and friends who radiate out from these lives, people on all sides of this conflict where virtually everyone is caught up in the middle of something unthinkable. But then regard them not as they see themselves but as all the objects surrounding them do: shoes and boots, a helmet, a bag of fertilizer, a medal, a beer glass, a snowflake, dog tags, and a horrific improvised explosive device that binds them all together by blowing one of them apart—forty-five different narrators in all, including the multiple medical implements subsequently required to keep Captain Barnes alive. The result is a novel that reveals not only an author with a striking literary talent and intelligence but also the lives of people—whether husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter—who are part of this same heart-stopping journey. A work of extraordinary humanity and hope, created out of something hopeless and dehumanizing, it makes art out of pain and suffering and takes its place in a long and rich line of novels that articulate the lives that soldiers lead. In the boom of an instant, and in decades of very different lives and experiences, we see things we’ve never understood so clearly before.

Opening Lines:  My serial number is 6545-01-522. I was unpacked from a plastic case, pulled open, checked and reassembled. A black marker wrote BA5799 O POS on me and I was placed in the left thigh pocket of BA5799’s combat trousers. I stayed there; the pocket was rarely unfastened.
     I spent eight weeks, two days and four hours in the pocket. I wasn’t needed yet. I slid against BA5799’s thigh, back and forth, back and forth, mostly slowly but sometimes quickly, bouncing around. And there was noise: bangs and cracks, high-pitched whines, shouts of excitement and anger.
     One day I was submerged in stagnant water for an hour.
     I went in vehicles, tracked and wheeled, winged and rotored. I was soaked in soapy water then hung out to dry on a clothesline and did nothing for a day.
     At 0618 on 15 August, when I was sliding alongside BA5799’s thigh, I was lifted into the sky and turned over. And suddenly I was in the light. There was dust and confusion and shouting. I was on the ground beside him. He was face down; he was incomplete. I was beside him as rocks and mud fell around us.
     I was in the dust as a dark red liquid zigzagged towards me over the cracked mud. I was there when no one came and he was alone and couldn’t move. I was still there as fear and pathetic hopelessness gripped BA5799, as he was turned over and two fingers reached into his mouth, as his chest was pumped up and down and they forced air into his lungs.
     I was picked up by a slippery hand, fumbled back to the ground, then picked up again. I was pulled open by panicked fingers and covered in the thick liquid. I was placed on BA5799. I was turned. I tightened. I closed around his leg until his pulse pushed up against me. And he grimaced and whimpered through gritted teeth. I was wound tighter, gripping his thigh; stopping him bleed out into the dust.
     I clung to him while he was lifted onto a stretcher and he bit deeply into the arm of a man who carried him, when he no longer made any noise. I clung to him as we boarded the helicopter. I was wound again then, and gripped him harder.
     I clung to him as we flew low across the fields and glinting irrigation ditches and the wind rushed around the helicopter, when he pleaded with God to save him and metal pads were placed on his chest and his body jolted. And I clung to him when the machine read no output, when there was no pulse against me.
     I was there when they ran across to the helicopter and took us into the cool of the hospital.
     I was there when the doctors looked worried. I clung to him when he came back, when he had output and his faltering heart pulsed again. I was still there when they hung the bag of blood above BA5799 and they cut the remains of his leg away.
     And then I was unwound and loosened and I was no longer there; BA5799 no longer needed me.
     My serial number is 6545-01-522. I was at the bottom of a surgical bin and then I was burnt.

Blurbworthiness:  “This debut novel chronicles a soldier’s maiming and recovery with an inventiveness that in no way mitigates war’s searing heartbreak—or the spirit’s indomitability... Parker’s storytelling device of using objects as his narrators intensifies the reader's focus on the human emotions.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

The Woman in Cabin 10
by Ruth Ware
(Scout Press)

If merely reading the plot description is enough to knot my nerves, then I have a feeling the actual words on the page will send me into suspense overdrive. In The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware sets her latest twisted thriller in the tight confines of a cruise ship where things are not always what they seem to be. Reader overboard!

Jacket Copy:  From New York Times bestselling author of the “twisty-mystery” (Vulture) novel In a Dark, Dark Wood, comes The Woman in Cabin 10, an equally suspenseful and haunting novel from Ruth Ware—this time, set at sea. In this tightly wound, enthralling story reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s works, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a dark and terrifying nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong...With surprising twists, spine-tingling turns, and a setting that proves as uncomfortably claustrophobic as it is eerily beautiful, Ruth Ware offers up another taut and intense read in The Woman in Cabin 10—one that will leave even the most sure-footed reader restlessly uneasy long after the last page is turned.

Opening Lines:  In my dream, the girl was drifting, far, far below the crashing waves and the cries of the gulls in the cold, sunless depths of the North Sea. Her laughing eyes were white and bloated with salt water; her pale skin was wrinkled; her clothes ripped by jagged rocks and disintegrating into rags.

Blurbworthiness:  “A classic “paranoid woman” story with a modern twist in this tense, claustrophobic mystery...The cast of characters, their conversations, and the luxurious but confining setting all echo classic Agatha Christie; in fact, the structure of the mystery itself is an old one: a woman insists murder has occurred,everyone else says she's crazy. But Lo is no wallflower; she is a strong and determined modern heroine who refuses to doubt the evidence of her own instincts.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

This Must Be the Place
by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel combines several ingredients that are promisingly tasty: sex, celebrity culture, secrets, a crumbling marriage (and its rebirth), a sympathetic husband, and a wife who is crazy (“not in a requiring-medication-and-wards-and-men-in-white-coats sense....but in a subtle, more socially acceptable, less ostentatious way”). I think I found the place I want to be this summer.

Jacket Copy:  An irresistible love story for fans of The Beautiful Ruins and Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place is a smart, sophisticated, spellbinding summer read that captures the collapse—and reawakening—of an extraordinary marriage. Daniel Sullivan, a young American professor reeling from a failed marriage and a brutal custody battle, is on holiday in Ireland when he falls in love with Claudette, a world-famous sexual icon and actress who fled fame for a reclusive life in a rural village. Together, they make an idyllic life in the country, raising two more children in blissful seclusion—until a secret from Daniel’s past threatens to destroy their meticulously constructed and fiercely protected home. What follows is a journey through Daniel’s many lives told in his voice and the voices of those who have made him the man he is: the American son and daughter he has not seen for many years; the family he has made with Claudette; and irrepressible, irreverent Claudette herself. Shot through with humor and wisdom, This Must Be the Place is a powerful rumination on the nature of identity, and the complexities of loyalty and devotion—a gripping story of an extraordinary family and an extraordinary love.

Opening Lines:  There is a man.
     He’s standing on the back step, rolling a cigarette. The day is typically unstable, the garden lush and shining, the branches weighty with still-falling rain. There is a man and the man is me.


  1. Thanks for all your work, David. These look particularly intriguing. As I write this, in the waning days of my vacation on gorgeous Sanibel Island, Florida, I'm staring at a pile of four novels I bought yesterday at each of the two (TWO!) independent book stores on this lovely island. And now I'm thinking of buying more. It's an incurable illness.

    1. That sounds like a lovely way to spend a vacation, Peggy. Happy Reading to you!