Thursday, June 9, 2016

Front Porch Books: June 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.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall
by Matt Bell
(Soho Press)

Let the bells ring! There’s a new Matt Bell book in town (or will be when the marvelously-titled A Tree or a Person or a Wall is released in September). I look forward to the release of new work by the author of Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods with all the fervor of the devout listening for cathedral bells on a Sunday morning calling them to worship. To stretch this metaphor to its end, let me just say this collection of short fiction is the answer to our prayers.

Jacket Copy:  A Tree or a Person or a Wall gives us Matt Bell at his most inventive and uncanny: parents and children, murderers and monsters, wild renditions of the past, and acute takes on the present, all of which build to a virtuoso reimagining of our world. A 19th-century minister builds an elaborate motor that will bring about the Second Coming. A man with rough hands locks a boy in a room with an albino ape. An apocalyptic army falls under a veil of forgetfulness. The story of Red Riding Hood is run through a potentially endless series of iterations. A father invents an elaborate, consuming game for his hospitalized son. Indexes, maps, a checkered shirt buried beneath a blanket of snow: they are scattered through these pages as clues to mysteries that may never be solved, lingering evidence of the violence and unknowability of the world. A Tree or a Person or a Wall brings together Bell’s previously published shorter fiction—the story collection How They Were Found and the acclaimed novella Cataclysm Baby—along with seven dark and disturbing new stories, to create a collection of singular power.

Opening Lines:  Even before the man with rough hands brought the boy to the locked room, even then there was always already the albino ape sitting on the chair beside the nightstand, waiting for the man and the boy to come.

Compartment No. 6
by Rosa Liksom
(Graywolf Press)

How about some chilly Russian literature for your summer reading? Rosa Liksom’s highly-acclaimed novel looks like it will be just the ticket. From the outside at least, Compartment No. 6 looks like it will marry the snowy vistas of Doctor Zhivago with Chekhovian intimacy on the relationship between two strangers in a train compartment. Liksom’s book, which is making its American debut in a translation by Lola Rogers, was previously published in 2011 in Finland and won the Finlandia Prize.

Jacket Copy:  In the waning years of the Soviet Union, a sad young Finnish woman boards a train in Moscow. Bound for Mongolia, she’s trying to put as much space as possible between her and a broken relationship. Wanting to be alone, she chooses an empty compartmentNo. 6.but her solitude is soon shattered by the arrival of a fellow passenger: Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a grizzled, opinionated, foul-mouthed former soldier. Vadim fills the compartment with his long and colorful stories, recounting in lurid detail his sexual conquests and violent fights. There is a hint of menace in the air, but initially the woman is not so much scared of or shocked by him as she is repulsed. She stands up to him, throwing a boot at his head. But though Vadim may be crude, he isn’t cruel, and he shares with her the sausage and black bread and tea he’s brought for the journey, coaxing the girl out of her silent gloom. As their train cuts slowly across thousands of miles of a wintry Russia, where “everything is in motion, snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people and thoughts,” a grudging kind of companionship grows between the two inhabitants of compartment No. 6. When they finally arrive in Ulan Bator, a series of starlit and sinister encounters bring Rosa Liksom’s incantatory Compartment No. 6 to its powerful conclusion.

Opening Lines:  Moscow hunkered down into a dry, frozen March evening, sheltering itself from the touch of an icy sun setting red. The girl boarded the last sleeping car at the tail end of the train, found her cabincompartment number sixand took a deep breath. There were four bunks, the higher two folded against the wall above. There was a small table between the beds with a white tablecloth and a faded pink paper carnation in a plastic vase. The shelf at the head of the beds was full of large, clumsily tied parcels. She shoved the unprepossessing old suitcase that Zahar had given her into the metal storage space under the hard, narrow bunk and threw her small backpack on the bed. When the station bell rang for the first time she went to stand at the window in the passageway. She breathed in the smell of the train: iron, coal dust, smells left by dozens of cities and thousands of people. Travelers and the people with them pushed past her, lugging bags and packages. She touched the cold window and looked at the platform. This train would take her to villages of exiles, across the open and closed cities of Siberia to the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator.
     When the station bell rang the second time she saw a muscular, cauliflower-eared man in a black working-man’s quilted jacket and a white ermine hat and with him a beautiful, dark-haired woman and her teenage son, keeping close to his mother. The woman and the boy said goodbye to the man and walked arm in arm back towards the station. The man stared at the ground, turned his back to the icy wind, pinched a Belamorka, lifted it to his lips and lit it, smoked greedily for a moment, stubbed the cigarette out on the sole of his shoe, and stood there, shivering. When the station bell rang for the third time, he jumped on the train. The girl watched him walk towards the back of the car with swinging steps and hoped he wasn’t coming to her cabin. She hoped in vain.

Blurbworthiness:  “This unlikely couple...accompany one another across the plains as if progressing through a film by Andrei Tarkovsky.”  (Svenska Dagbladet)

The Loved Ones
by Sonya Chung
(Relegation Books)

As a long-time admirer of Sonya Chung’s whip-smart editorial work at The Millions and Bloom, I was happy to see the front-porch arrival of her new novel, The Loved Ones. I have not had the chance to read beyond the first few pages, but I have the sneaking suspicion that The Loved Ones, due to hit bookstores in October, is bookstore-vigil, be-first-in-line, and call-in-sick-to-work worthy. Read on to see why you should put the novel at the top of your must-read list...

Jacket Copy:  In this masterful novel of inheritance and loss, Sonya Chung (Long for This World) proves herself a worthy heir to Marguerite Duras, Hwang Sun-won, and James Salter. Spanning generations and divergent cultures, The Loved Ones maps the intimate politics of unlikely attractions, illicit love, and costly reconciliations. Charles Lee, the young African American patriarch of a biracial family, seeks to remedy his fatherless childhood in Washington, DC, by making an honorable choice when his chance arrives. Years later in the mid-1980s, uneasy and stymied in his marriage to Alice, he finds a connection with Hannah Lee, the teenage Korean American caregiver whose parents’ transgressive flight from tradition and war has left them shrouded in a cloud of secrets and muted passion. A shocking and senseless death will test every familial bond and force all who are touched by the tragedy to reexamine who their loved ones truly arethe very meaning of the words. Haunting, elliptical, and powerful, The Loved Ones deconstructs the world we think we know and shows us the one we inhabit.

Opening Lines:  The boy was six, the girl nine. Their father, Charles Frederick Douglass Lee, was himself one of five children; each had looked after the next while Charles’s mother worked night shifts and his grandmother worked days at the same corner store owned by a cousin. He’d come up fine and didn’t believe in babysitters. It was his wife, Alice, who insisted the girl was not old enough to be left alone with the boy. “What if there’s an emergency,” Alice Lee said to Charles. She often made statements in the form of questions. She said “emergency” in a near whisper.

Blurbworthiness:  “Sonya Chung’s prose is elegant, sparse, and heartbreaking in a way that reminds one of Elena Ferrante or Clarice Lispector. In this novel of two very different but interconnected families both named Lee, she tells the story of love against the twin inheritances of shame and grief. This book is a complication of the immigrant narrative in a way that is long overdue and necessary. A gorgeous and important second novel.”  (Nayomi Munaweera, author of What Lies Between Us)

Half Wild
by Robin MacArthur

After reading Jodi Paloni’s wonderful They Could Live With Themselvesshort stories set in VermontI find myself jonesing for more literature about the Green Mountain State. Robin MacArthur’s Half Wild looks All Great. I can’t wait to start exploring the terrain populated by her characters. Reviewers have compared her style to Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Weltyhigh praise indeedso that seals the deal for me.

Jacket Copy:  A powerfully authentic new literary voice debuts with stories that carve out a distinctive vision of the wildness and beauty of rural Vermont. Spanning nearly forty years, the stories in Robin MacArthur’s formidable debut give voice to the hopes, dreams, hungers, and fears of a diverse cast of Vermonters—adolescent girls, aging hippies, hardscrabble farmers, disconnected women, and solitary men. Straddling the border between civilization and the wild, they all struggle to make sense of their loneliness and longings in the stark and often isolating enclaves they call home—golden fields and white-veiled woods, dilapidated farmhouses and makeshift trailers, icy rivers and still lakes rouse the imagination, tether the heart, and inhabit the soul. In “Creek Dippers,” a teenage girl vows to escape the fate that has trapped her eccentric, rough-living mother. “Maggie in the Trees” explores the aftershocks of a man who surrenders to his passion for a wild, damaged woman—his longtime friend’s partner. In “God’s Country,” an elderly woman is unexpectedly reminded of a forbidden youthful passion and the chance she did not take. Returning to her childhood house when her mother falls ill, a daughter grapples with her own sense of belonging in “The Women Where I’m From.” In striking prose powerful in its clarity and purity, MacArthur effortlessly renders characters cleaved to the land that has defined them—men and women, young and old, whose lives are inextricably intertwined with one another and tied to the fierce and beautiful natural world that surrounds them.

Opening Lines:  “You want to jump in the creek?” my mother asks. It’s a Tuesday night in late July and we’re on the porch drinking Myers’s rum doused with lemonade. She’s wearing cut-off cargo pants and a Grateful Dead T-shirt full of holes; her cracked toenails are the chartreuse of limes.
     “No,” I say, to which she snorts and throws her cigarette butt into the wet grass, where it hisses before losing its flame. Mist rises from the field. Baby grasshoppers pop. Clouds drift.
     I don’t want to go down to the creek with my mom. Nor do I want to be living here at sixteen in this deciduous/coniferous northeastern no-man’s-land of Vicksburg where we were both born, forty square miles of intersecting roads, intersecting streams, failing farms, and rocky ledge.
     Populated by ghosts and animals and lonely women. Frickin' heaven, my mom calls these woods.

Blurbworthiness:  “MacArthur writes with the ear of a musician and a classic, pure command of the short story form, like a dispatch from Eudora Welty in the great north woods.”  (Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Almost Famous Women)

Froelich's Ladder
by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon
(Forest Avenue Press)

I can say, without hesitation, that Froelich’s Ladder is the most unusual book to come across my desk this past month. Too few novels these days involve ladders (not to mention the world’s fourth-tallest ladder!) and there’s certainly a lack of Confederate Army assassins, general store magnates and “unfortunately-named” girls named Lotsee in our contemporary literature. There is, indeed, a lot to see in this novel set in the fog-shrouded Pacific Northwest.

Jacket Copy:  Froelich nurses a decades-old family grudge from his permanent perch atop a giant ladder in this nineteenth century madcap adventure novel. When he disappears suddenly, his nephew embarks on a rain-soaked adventure across the Pacific Northwest landscape to find him, accompanied by an ornery girl with a most unfortunate name. In their encounters with Confederate assassins, European expatriates, and a general store magnate, this fairytale twist on the American dream explores the conflicts between loyalty and ambition and our need for human connection, even at the highest rungs.

Opening Lines:  It was November 1851 when Harald and Froelich arrived in Oregon Country. Disembarking at Fort Astoria, they journeyed inland by foot, hiking over the Cascades in a gale that swept off the ocean like an enormous push broom.

Blurbworthiness:  “From the first page to the last, Froelich’s Ladder brims with color, intrigue, and verve. At once a fantastical, madcap adventure and a poignant meditation on independence and solitude, it’s the kind of book that captivates you quickly and whisks you high into the atmosphere. I was in thrall to the surreal Oregon landscape, populated by tycoons and grifters, cross-dressers and hungry clouds. This debut is clever, irreverent, and ultimately unforgettable.”  (Leslie Parry, author of Church of Marvels)

The Girl in Green
by Derek B. Miller
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Wars are never fully left behind on the battlefield, are they? They’re carried home like burrs in a soldier’s clothing. And they prick and scrape the skin for years and years and years. In Derek B. Miller’s new novel, a soldier and a journalist each witness a terrible attack during Operation Desert Storm and carry those burr-like images with them long after they return home....until another war comes along and they finally have to confront their feelings about what they saw. As an author of a novel about Operation Iraqi Freedom, I get a steady flood of war literature cascading across my desk each month. The Girl in Green has managed to rise above the tidethanks to the tantalizing story and the promise of the opening lines on the first pageand I’ve put it near the top of my summer-reading pile.

Jacket Copy:  From the author of Norwegian by Night, The Girl in Green is a novel about two men on a misbegotten quest to save the girl they failed to save decades before. In 1991, near Checkpoint Zulu, one hundred miles from the Kuwaiti border, Thomas Benton meets Arwood Hobbes. Benton is a British journalist who reports from war zones in part to avoid his lackluster marriage and a daughter he loves but cannot connect with; Arwood is a midwestern American private who might be an insufferable ignoramus, or might be a genuine lunatic with a death wishit’s hard to tell. Desert Storm is over, peace has been declared, but as they argue about whether it makes sense to cross the nearest border in search of an ice cream, they become embroiled in a horrific attack in which a young local girl in a green dress is killed as they are trying to protect her. The two men walk away into their respective lives. But something has cracked for them both. Twenty-two years later, in another place, in another war, they meet again and are offered an unlikely opportunity to redeem themselves when that same girl in green is found alive and in need of salvation. Or is she?

Opening Lines:  Arwood Hobbes was bored. Not regular bored. Not your casual, rainy-day, Cat in the Hat-style bored that arrives with the wet, leaving you with nothing to do. It wasn’t post-fun or pre-excitement bored, either. It was, somehow, different. It felt rare and deliberate, entire and complete, industrial and inescapable. It was the kind of bored that had you backstroking in the green mist of eternity wondering about the big questions without searching for answers. And it wasn’t in short supply, either, because it was being dispensed like candy on Halloween to Arwood and others like him at Checkpoint Zulu at the rim of the Euphrates Valley, in the heart of Iraq, by the world’s largest contractor of boredom: the United States Army.
     How long had he been bored? How long was he destined to be bored? Arwood couldn’t even muster the motivation to care as he melted over his machine gun under the hot, hot sun that was pressing down on the sandy sand around him without a raindrop in sight and no one offering to cheer him up.
     The M60 machine gun was the perfect height for leaning on. It was probably the perfect height for firing, too, but Arwood had no proof of that because he hadn’t fired the gun since qualifying on it, and there was nothing to aim at because everything was far away, apart from a camel; and while he did point the gun at the camel for a while, it ultimately seemed a mean thing to do, so he stopped. That was eons ago. Nothing fun like that had happened since. Even the camel had gone away.

by Alice Hoffman
(Simon and Schuster)

I’ll round out this month’s list of Most-Highly-Anticipated Books with the happy news that Alice Hoffman has a new novel on the horizon. Faithful will arrive in bookstores in November. And legions of the faithful shouted, “Amen!”

Jacket Copy:  From the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers comes a soul-searching story about a young woman struggling to redefine herself and the power of love, family, and fate. Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt. What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion—from dark suffering to true happiness—a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls—including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.

Opening Lines:  In February, when the snow comes down hard, little globes of light are left along Route 110, on the side of the road that slopes off when a driver least expects it. The lights are candles set inside paper bags, surrounded by sand, and they burn past midnight. They shouldn’t last for that amount of time, but that’s part of the miracle. On the second anniversary of the accident, a gang of boys creep out their windows and gather at two in the morning to see if Helene’s mother, Diana Boyd, drives along the road replacing each melting pool of wax with a fresh candle. They’re hoping to reveal a con in process and dispel the myth of a miracle, but after keeping watch for a while the boys all flee. In the early morning hours, safe in their beds, they wonder how much of the world can never be understood or explained.

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