Thursday, July 14, 2016

Front Porch Books: July 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.

Angels of Detroit
by Christopher Hebert

It may not be a rule that a novel about Detroit should contain an automobile in the first sentence, but in the case of Christopher Hebert’s new novel, the first two words “The car” seem wholly appropriate and foretell good things to come. Angels of Detroit is a big book, as in “epic big,” and I’m looking forward to settling into the passenger’s seat in the months to come.

Jacket Copy:  Once an example of American industrial might, Detroit has gone bankrupt, its streets dark, its storefronts vacant. Miles of city blocks lie empty, saplings growing through the cracked foundations of abandoned buildings. In razor-sharp, beguiling prose, Angels of Detroit draws us into the lives of multiple characters struggling to define their futures in this desolate landscape: a scrappy group of activists trying to save the city with placards and protests; a curious child who knows the blighted city as her own personal playground; an elderly great-grandmother eking out a community garden in an oil-soaked patch of dirt; a carpenter with an explosive idea of how to give the city a new start; a confused idealist who has stumbled into debt to a human trafficker; a weary corporate executive who believes she is doing right by the city she remembers at its prime—each of their desires is distinct, and their visions for a better city are on a collision course. In this propulsive, masterfully plotted epic, an urban wasteland whose history is plagued with riots and unrest is reimagined as an ambiguous new frontier—a site of tenacity and possible hope. Driven by struggle and suspense, and shot through with a startling empathy, Christopher Hebert's magnificent second novel unspools an American story for our time.

Opening Lines:  The car was a late-model Oldsmobile, the interior dank and musty, and the driver bore the distinctly sweet, rotting smell of overripe bananas. Lucius was his name. Thick dark hair sprouted from his knuckles in wild tufts. They were in southeastern Kansas, heading east as Patsy Cline quavered through a pair of broken speakers.

Blurbworthiness:  “A Dickensian collection of Motor City characters bent on personal survival and rebuilding what they can...Ambitious, well-paced, observant—Angels of Detroit is a first-rate novel of flawed but admirable characters who want a brighter future in what one of them calls the new Old West.”  (Shelf Awareness)

We Show What We Have Learned
by Clare Beams
(Lookout Books)

I’ve harvested a bumper crop of short story collections this month; so many good-looking ones keep turning up on my front doorstep...much to my delight. Chief among them is this debut by Clare Beams which comes with a front-cover endorsement by Joyce Carol Oates (“wickedly sharp-eyed, wholly unpredictable, and wholly engaging”). I am wholly ready to enter these stories (one of which, “World's End,” I already read—and loved—in One Story).

Jacket Copy:  The literary, historic, and fantastic collide in these wise and exquisitely unsettling stories. From bewildering assemblies in school auditoriums to the murky waters of a Depression-era health resort, Beams’s landscapes are tinged with otherworldliness, and her characters’ desires stretch the limits of reality. Ingénues at a boarding school bind themselves to their headmaster’s vision of perfection; a nineteenth-century landscape architect embarks on his first major project, but finds the terrain of class and power intractable; a bride glimpses her husband’s past when she wears his World War II parachute as a gown; and a teacher comes undone in front of her astonished fifth graders. As they capture the strangeness of being human, the stories in We Show What We Have Learned reveal Clare Beams’s rare and capacious imagination—and yet they are grounded in emotional complexity, illuminating the ways we attempt to transform ourselves, our surroundings, and each other.

Opening Lines:  “A transformational education,” the newspaper ad had promised, so we went to the Gilchrist School to find out whether that promise could include me. With its damp-streaked stone and clinging pine trees, the school looked ideal for transformations, like a nineteenth-century invalids’ home, a place where a person could go romantically, molderingly mad.

Blurbworthiness:  “An elegant and assured debut, packed with confident prose—and stories with novel-like wholeness in the way of [Alice] Munro and [John] Cheever. The stories are imaginative and flecked with darkness and subtle societal commentary in the manner of Margaret Atwood; the characters are complex and rendered with psychological acuity. Smart, savage, and compulsively readable.”  (Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Almost Famous Women)

Monsters in Appalachia
by Sheryl Monks
(Vandalia Press)

Skimming through the first lines of Sheryl Monks’ stories, one thing becomes very clear: this is an author strong with voice (that impossible-to-be-taught quality good writers bring to the page, the je ne sais quoi of style). Here are just a few, randomly-chosen openers from Monsters in Appalachia:
     It had come a sudden shower. 
     This old girl wasn’t much to look at, but she took a shine to me that wore me down after a while. 
     She hears the dogs coming round now, bugling louder as they draw near, bawling out in unbridled rapture.
Indeed, I’m expecting plenty of “unbridled rapture” in the pages to come. These are stories I can take a shine to.

Jacket Copy:  The characters within these fifteen stories are in one way or another staring into the abyss. While some are awaiting redemption, others are fully complicit in their own undoing. We come upon them in the mountains of West Virginia, in the backyards of rural North Carolina, and at tourist traps along Route 66, where they smolder with hidden desires and struggle to resist the temptations that plague them. A Melungeon woman has killed her abusive husband and drives by the home of her son’s new foster family, hoping to lure the boy back. An elderly couple witnesses the end-times and is forced to hunt monsters if they hope to survive. A young girl “tanning and manning” with her mother and aunt resists being indoctrinated by their ideas about men. A preacher’s daughter follows in the footsteps of her backsliding mother as she seduces a man who looks a lot like the devil. A master of Appalachian dialect and colloquial speech, Monks writes prose that is dark, taut, and muscular, but also beguiling and playful. Monsters in Appalachia is a powerful work of fiction.

Opening Lines:  All the children had been given away, and now Darcus Mullins found herself driving the curving road up toward Isaban to look again at the burning slag heap.

Blurbworthiness:  “A fresh, new voice in contemporary fiction, in stories of teenage angst, bonds of family, motherhood, and contradictions of middle age. Always surprising, these stories conjure both sorrow and mystery with intimate, loving detail.”  (Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek)

A Bloom of Bones
by Allen Morris Jones
(Ig Publishing)

In the past, I’ve sent out literary APBs for authors whose early works I loved but who then seemed to fall off the publishing radar. I was about to issue one for Allen Morris Jones because I loved his debut novel Last Year’s River and thinking about it conjures up something like the fireworks excitement with which a shy wallflower-y teenager remembers the taste of a first kiss. I should add that Allen lives less than 100 miles from me, just over a mountain pass, and I see him frequently at book events around I know he has fallen off the radar; but it has been too long of a dry spell between novels from him (perhaps Allen feels the same way himself). And thenBOOM!an e-galley of a new novel (his first in 15 years) landed on my Kindle, courtesy of Edelweiss. A Bloom of Bones shoots straight to the top of my TBR queue. The literary cops can ignore that APB and head on back to the donut shop.

Jacket Copy:  Eli Singer, a rancher and poet in remote Eastern Montana, sees his life upended when a long-buried corpse—which turns out to be a murder victim from Eli's childhood—erodes out of a hillside on his property. This discovery forces Eli to turn inward to revisit the tragic events in his past that led to a life-changing moment of violence, while at the same time he must reach outside himself toward Chloe, a literary agent from New York whom he is falling in love with. In the tradition of such classic western writers as Thomas McGuane, James Lee Burke, Ivan Doig and Jim Harrison, A Bloom of Bones is a poignant and moving exploration of family, community, and the echoing ramifications of violence across generations, as well as a genre-subverting literary mystery.

Opening Lines:  I said, “That big bullet went right on through, didn’t it?” It was too cold to snow but still it was snowing; a thin sheet of gauze twisting around the porch light.
     Buddy kicked through frozen marbles of blood, scattered them, swept them aside with his boot. He knelt and rose, hoisting the body across one shoulder. Voice muffled by a wool scarf, he said, “Leaking?”
     “Is he leaking anywhere?”
     “I don’t see it.”
     “All right then.”
     “That big bullet went plumb through, didn’t it?”
     “Will you quit with the goddamned questions? Just for once?” A gentle man, Buddy rarely cussed, seldom rebuked, never raised his voice. I stood abashed, one breath from tears. He inhaled hard through his nose, shifted the body on his shoulders. “Let’s just get this done.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Allen Jones’s A Bloom of Bones is simply riveting. Always lyrical, often wise, filled with vitality, and the promise that love and loyalty can surmount the darkness in our lives. I couldn’t put it down.”  (Mark Spragg, author of An Unfinished Life)

by Bonnie Nadzam
(Grove Atlantic)

At the start of her new novel, Bonnie Nadzam tells us, “There were never any lions.” No, but there is some gorgeous, evocative prose in those opening lines which describe a decayed town in Colorado (see below). By the promise of those sentences alone, this will be a haunting, memorable novel to savor.

Jacket Copy:  Bonnie Nadzam—author of the critically acclaimed, award-winning debut, Lamb—returns with this scorching, haunting portrait of a rural community in a “living ghost town” on the brink of collapse, and the individuals who are confronted with either chasing their dreams or—against all reason—staying where they are. Lions is set on the high plains of Colorado, a nearly deserted place, steeped in local legends and sparse in population. Built to be a glorious western city upon a hill, it was never fit for farming, mining, trading, or any of the illusory sources of wealth its pioneers imagined. The Walkers have been settled on its barren terrain for generations—a simple family in a town otherwise still taken in by stories of bigger, better, brighter. When a traveling stranger appears one day, his unsettling presence sets off a chain reaction that will change the fates of everyone he encounters. It begins with the patriarch John Walker as he succumbs to a heart attack. His devastated son Gordon is forced to choose between leaving for college with his girlfriend, Leigh, and staying with his family to look after their flailing welding shop and, it is believed, to continue carrying out a mysterious task bequeathed to all Walker men. While Leigh is desperate to make a better life in the world beyond the desolation of Lions, Gordon is strangely hesitant to leave it behind. As more families abandon the town, he is faced with what seem to be their reasonable choices and the burden of betraying his own heart. A story of awakening, Lions is an exquisite novel that explores ambition and an American obsession with self-improvement, the responsibilities we have to ourselves and each other, as well as the everyday illusions that pass for a life worth living.

Opening Lines:  If you’ve ever really loved anyone, you know there’s a ghost in everything. Once you see it, you see it everywhere. It looks out at you from the stillness of a rail-backed chair. From the old 1952 Massey-Harris Pony tractor out front, its once shining red metal now a rust-splotched pink, headlights broken off. No eyes.
     Picture high plains in late spring. Green rows of winter wheat combed across the flat, wide-open ground. The derelict sugar beet factory, its thousands of red bricks fenced in by chain-link clotted with Russian thistle. Farther down the two-lane highway, the moon rising like an egg over the hollow grain elevator, rusted at its seams. To the north and west, the sparsely populated town. Golden rectangles of a few lit windows floating above the plain.
     They called it Lions, a name meant to stand in for disappointment with the wild invention and unreasonable hope by which it had been first imagined, then sought and spuriously claimed. There were never any lions. In fact there is nothing more to the place now than a hard rind of shimmering dirt and grass. The wind scours it constantly, scrubbing the sage and sweeping out all the deserted buildings and weathered homes, cleaning out those that aren’t already bare. Flat as hell’s basement and empty as the boundless sky above it. The horizon makes as clean and slight a curve as if lathed by a master craftsman. Nothing is hidden.

Blurbworthiness:  “Here comes Lions: a glittering dust storm, spinning every fantasy of the West, of small town America, together with the truth of a set of lives as real and precise as our own. Sweep us, up, Bonnie Nadzam, we are all yours.” (Ramona Ausubel, author of No One is Here Except All of Us)

by Michael Chabon

My typical six-word response when I get my hands on a new Michael Chabon novel: “Hello, boss? I’m calling in sick.”

Jacket Copy:  The keeping of secrets and the telling of lies; sex and desire and ordinary love; existential doubt and model rocketry—all feature in the new novel from the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Moonglow unfolds as a deathbed confession. An old man, tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, tells stories to his grandson, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried. From the Jewish slums of prewar South Philadelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of a New York prison, from the heyday of the space program to the twilight of “the American Century,” Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week. A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional non-fiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir, Moonglow is Chabon at his most daring and his most moving.

Opening Lines:  This is how I heard the story. When Alger Hiss got out of prison, he had a hard time finding a job. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School, had clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes and helped charter the United Nations, yet he was also a convicted perjurer and notorious as a tool of international communism. He had published a memoir, but it was dull stuff and no one wanted to read it. His wife had left him. He was broke and hopeless. In the end one of his remaining friends took pity on the bastard and pulled a string. Hiss was hired by a New York firm that manufactured and sold a kind of fancy barrette made from loops of piano wire. Feathercombs, Inc., had gotten off to a good start but had come under attack from a bigger competitor that copied its designs, infringed on its trademarks, and undercut its pricing. Sales had dwindled. Payroll was tight. In order to make room for Hiss, somebody had to be let go.
      In an account of my grandfather’s arrest, in the Daily News for May 25, 1957, he is described by an unnamed coworker as “the quiet type.” To his fellow salesmen at Feathercombs, he was a homburg on the coat rack in the corner. He was the hardest-working but least effective member of the Feathercombs sales force. On his lunch breaks he holed up with a sandwich and the latest issue of Sky and Telescope or Aviation Week. It was known that he drove a Crosley, had a foreign-born wife and a teenage daughter and lived with them somewhere in deepest Bergen County. Before the day of his arrest, my grandfather had distinguished himself to his coworkers only twice. During Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, when the office radio failed, my grandfather had repaired it with a vacuum tube prized from the interior of the telephone switchboard. And a Feathercombs copywriter reported once bumping into my grandfather at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, where the foreign wife was, of all things, starring as Serafina in The Rose Tattoo. Beyond this nobody knew much about my grandfather, and that seemed to be the way he preferred it. People had long since given up trying to engage him in conversation. He had been known to smile but not to laugh. If he held political opinions—if he held opinions of any kind—they remained a mystery around the offices of Feathercombs, Inc. It was felt he could be fired without damage to morale.

Swimming Lessons
by Claire Fuller
(Tin House Books)

There are several mysteries at the heart of Claire Fuller’s second novel: Did the woman drown? If not, is she still alive and stalking her family? But if she did succumb to the waves, why did she leave messages on scraps of paper hidden inside books? I love novels that peel away layers gradually, like a literary onion, drawing readers deeper and deeper into the truth (or apparent truth). I can’t wait to start slicing into Swimming Lessons.

Jacket Copy:  From the author of the award-winning and word-of-mouth sensation Our Endless Numbered Days comes an exhilarating literary mystery that will keep readers guessing until the final page. Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband Gil about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides each in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan. Twelve years after her disappearance, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Sexy and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious and complicated truths of a passionate and troubled marriage.

Opening Lines:  Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.

Blurbworthiness:  “Claire Fuller is a master of the psychological mystery. In her most recent novel, Swimming Lessons, no one is running around with a gun and no physical violence occurs. And yet damage happens. Families are cut to the bone. And lingering wounds are left festering into adulthood. This is a work that explores the very nature of forgiveness: how much should be forgiven before it becomes a burden, or before it becomes a secret life inside you until you can’t even forgive yourself? It’s a deliciously written story within a story that isn’t over until the last page has been turned.”  (Pam Cady, University Book Store)

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