Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Front Porch Books: August 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 News From the End of the World
by Emily Jeanne Miller
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The author of Brand New Human Being returns with what looks like a terrific, engaging story of a family drama that plays out over four days on Cape Cod. I love the way this novel seems to glow, from the cover design to the opening paragraphs.

Jacket Copy:  Vance Lake is broke, jobless, and recently dumped. He takes refuge at his twin brother Craig’s house on Cape Cod and unwittingly finds himself smack in the middle of a crisis that would test the bonds of even the most cohesive family, let alone the Lakes. Craig seethes, angry and mournful at equal turns. His exasperated wife, Gina, is on the brink of an affair. At the center of it all is seventeen-year-old Amanda: adored niece who can do no wrong to Vance, surly stepdaughter to Gina, and stubborn, rebellious daughter to Craig. She’s also pregnant. Told in alternating points of view by each member of this colorful New England clan and infused with the quiet charm of the Cape in the off-season, The News from the End of the World follows one family into a crucible of pent-up resentments, old and new secrets, and memories long buried. Only by coming to terms with their pasts, both as individuals and together, do they stand a chance of emerging intact.

Opening Lines:  In Vance’s dream, nothing is the matter. He’s home with Celeste, it’s sunset, and the sky through the west-facing windows of their living room glows pink. Celeste, fresh from her post-run shower, sits on his lap, straddling him. She looks sleek and lovely, with flushed cheeks and her wet hair combed straight back, and there’s music playing—her music, sitars, singing bowls, bells. She’s holding a glass of wine and teasing him with it, tipping it toward his lips and, just before he can taste it, taking it away.
     And then she’s doing other things, odd things—kneading his cheeks roughly, tapping her fingernails against his teeth—and when he asks her to stop, the dream changes: darkness descends, Celeste dissipates. He tries standing up but he can’t, there’s a great weight on him, something heavy holding him down.
     When he opens his eyes it’s dark, and it takes a few moments for him to remember where he is—that he’s not at home, not with Celeste. He’s in his brother’s attic, sweating under an itchy army blanket that smells of mothballs, of the past. Only the heaviness he felt in the dream is real. As his eyes adjust he sees that the thing holding him down is a person: his niece, Helen, is sitting on his chest.

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone
by Sequoia Nagamatsu
(Black Lawrence Press)

He had me at Godzilla. Sequoia Nagamatu’s debut short story collection delves into the ancient myths and modern pop culture of Japan in a fresh and exciting way. I like the way Black Lawrence Press has packaged the book, too—starting with a terrific cover design of a businessman’s ascent to the moon while papers flutter from his briefcase, and continuing with large-print introductions to each story with things like a recipe for a Placenta Bloody Mary, a “Technique for Deep Sea Diving,” and “Ten Things You Should Have Known Before You Died [Text Unavailable to the Living].”

Jacket Copy:  “You should be here; he’s simply magnificent.” These are the final words a biologist hears before his Margaret Mead-like wife dies at the hands of Godzilla. The words haunt him as he studies the Kaiju (Japan’s giant monsters) on an island reserve, attempting to understand the beauty his wife saw. “The Return to Monsterland” opens Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture. In “Rokurokubi,” a man who has the demonic ability to stretch his neck to incredible lengths tries to save a marriage built on secrets. The recently dead find their footing in “The Inn of the Dead’s Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost.” In “Girl Zero,” a couple navigates the complexities of reviving their deceased daughter via the help of a shapeshifter. And, in the title story, a woman instigates a months-long dancing frenzy in a Tokyo where people don’t die but are simply reborn without their memories. Every story in the collection turns to the fantastic, the mysticism of the past, and the absurdities of the future to illuminate the spaces we occupy when we are at our most vulnerable.

Opening Lines:  Mayu called me from the train car that Godzilla had grabbed hold of—no screaming or sobbing, no confessions of great regrets, no final professions of love. She did not ask to speak to our five-year-old daughter, who was unknowingly watching the news coverage of her mother’s impending death, as the train crashed into the side of a skyscraper and through a set of power lines. My wife spoke of feeling the radiation of his body coursing through her own, the view down his cretaceous mouth, an atomic breath swirling in a maelstrom of blue light. And then, before there was nothing but a roar and static, she said: “You should be here; he’s simply magnificent.”

Blurbworthiness:  “A combination of the mystical, magical, and marvelous, Sequoia Nagamatsu weaves a collection of bold, hysterical, and moving tales into an unforgettable debut. From shape-shifters, to star-makers, to babies made of snow, the characters in Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone form a community of longing, of the surreal, of wonder. What a joy it is to read each and every story.”  (Michael Czyzniejewski, author of I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories)

All Back Full
by Robert Lopez
(Dzanc Books)

What we talk about when we talk about books that snap expectations like sticks over our knees: Robert Lopez’ new book (coming in early 2017) looks like a novel but reads like a stage play. I’m eager to see what he’ll do with a heavy reliance on dialogue and “stage directions” as he describes one day in the life of a marriage.

Jacket Copy:  Act One: At a kitchen table, a husband and wife discuss the news, nudists, and lie to each other about the ways they no longer connect.
     Act Two: At a kitchen table, a man and his friend discuss the weather, the state of public transportation, and lie to each other for the sake of something to say.
     Act Three: At a kitchen table, three people discuss, mostly, nothing, and watch the threads unravel as their lives come apart at the seams.
     Told in a genre-defying style that melds the depth of the novel with the honesty of the stage, All Back Full charts one day in a marriage at once usual and unusual, exploring what we say to each other when we say nothing, and the ways we speak to each other without words.

Opening Lines:  The setting is an ordinary setting. A kitchen. One table and four chairs. A counter with a sink. Cabinets across the room from the table and chairs. A door that opens into the kitchen.
     The principals are at the table. They are married to each other.

by Ian McEwan
(Nan A. Talese)

Ian McEwan, Booklist writes, “can be counted on to make the implausible plausible and the outrageous reasonable.” Well, the outrageously implausible is hard at work in his new novel, Nutshell: a murder mystery narrated by a fetus. Okay, you can pull your eyebrows down from your hairline now. I’m reserving judgment until I can read the whole of this short novel, but the opening lines carry the promise of all the good things I’ve come to expect from McEwan in books like Atonement and On Chesil Beach.

Jacket Copy:  Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She’s still in the marital home—a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse—but John’s not there. Instead, she’s with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy’s womb. Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world’s master storytellers.

Opening Lines:  So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.

Blurbworthiness:  “Short [and] smart...The murder plot structures the novel as a crime caper, McEwan-style—that is, laced with linguistic legerdemain, cultural references, and insights into human ingenuity and pettiness. Packed with humor and tinged with suspense, this gem resembles a sonnet the narrator recalls hearing his father recite: brief, dense, bitter, suggestive of unrequited and unmanageable longing, surprising, and surprisingly affecting.”  (Publishers Weekly)

In the City of Falling Stars
by Chris Tusa
(Livingston Press)

Paranoia threads its way through Chris Tusa’s new novel In the City of Falling Stars. Stars aren’t the only things falling in these pages: birds do, too, as well as the main character’s tolerance for idiots. What’s rising, though, are my expectations for a great read. Any time you combine bird flu, terrorism, murder, ulcerated stomachs, and the Second Coming of the Lord, I’m bound to be hooked and booked.

Jacket Copy:  Dead birds are falling out of the sky and Maurice Delahoussaye suspects the air in New Orleans may be unsafe. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries claims the birds were poisoned, while meteorologists suggest they were killed by a sudden change in temperature. There’s even talk of terrorism, Bird Flu, West Nile Virus, or high levels of mold spores left over from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Gradually, Maurice becomes increasingly fearful that the government is hiding an ominous secret, and when he begins having strange religious premonitions suggesting that his wife is pregnant with Jesus Christ, he becomes convinced that the dead birds are a sign from God. In the City of Falling Stars is a tragicomedy that examines the increasing paranoia following the September 11th attacks, as well as a commentary on the devastating psychological scars that the storm left on the city of New Orleans.

Opening Lines:  For the last few days Maurice Delahoussaye had been thinking of ways to kill Michael. He’d considered poisoning him, planting a bomb in his car, stabbing him, pushing him off an overpass, drowning him, electrocuting him, slitting his throat, even setting him on fire. When he finally decided that shooting him was the best option, Maurice climbed into his car and drove to New Orleans East, toward a dilapidated Six Flags amusement park on the edge of the city.

Blurbworthiness:  “Chris Tusa knows New Orleans, from post-Katrina fallout to the NOPD, junkie hoodlums, and Commander’s Palace. His second novel, In the City of Falling Stars, follows the uncertain progress of a slowly unhinging man, Maurice Delahoussaye, whose troubles range from family issues to the growing conviction that the whole world is closing in on him, like “a silver plague of stars.” Tusa’s tough lyricism captures it all, lingering in the mind long after the last page.”  (David Galef, author of My Date With Neanderthal Woman)

The Outrun
by Amy Liptrot
(W. W. Norton)

How to Rapidly Engage Readers:
Rule #1: Write an opening sentence that has conflict, intrigue, and tension.
Rule #2: Include a newborn baby in that opening sentence.
Rule #3: In that opening sentence, casually mention a strait-jacketed man is being pushed in a wheelchair across an airport runway.
Rule #4: Throw some spinning helicopter blades into the mix.

Jacket Copy:  After a childhood spent on an island in northern Scotland, and shaped as much by her father’s mental illness as by the cycle of the seasons on their sheep farm, Amy Liptrot longed to escape her remote life. When she moved to London, she found herself in a hedonistic cycle. Unable to control her drinking, she gradually let alcohol take over. After more than a decade away, Liptrot returns home to Orkney, struggling to come to terms with what happened to her in London and trying to heal. Spending early mornings swimming in the bracingly cold sea, her days tracking Orkney’s wildlife―puffins nesting on sea stacks, arctic terns swooping close enough that she can feel their wings―and her nights searching the sky for the Merry Dancers, Liptrot makes the journey toward recovery from addiction and begins to come alive again.

Opening Lines:  Under whirring helicopter blades, a young woman holds her newborn baby as she is pushed in a wheelchair along the runway of the island airport to meet a man in a strait-jacket being pushed in a wheelchair from the other direction. That day, the two twenty-eight-year-olds had been treated at the small hospital nearby. The woman was helped to deliver her first child. The man, shouting and out of control, was restrained and sedated.

Blurbworthiness:  “This is a luminous, life-affirming book, and I have no doubt I’ll be pressing it into people’s hands for years to come.” (Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City)

The Midnight Cool
by Lydia Peelle

When someone mentions “mules” and “war” in the same breath, the first thing I think about is Francis, the Talking Mule (yes, my life is soaked in obscure, mid-20th-century trivia). But the hybrid horses in Lydia Peelle’s debut novel are about as far from sitcom jackasses as one can get. The Midnight Cool begins with its main character and a mule named Sonofabitch Number Two belly-deep in mud just outside the Argonne Forest in 1918 and promises to get even better from that point forward.

Jacket Copy:  Lydia Peelle, the Whiting Award—winning author of the story collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, delivers her enchanting debut novel, set in 1916 Tennessee: a rich and rewarding tale of two flawed yet endearing grifters who pursue women, wealth, and a surprisingly valuable commodity for the troops in Europe—mules. A middle-aged Irish immigrant, Billy has a gift for illusion—making damaged objects look new. His companion, Charles, the smooth-tongued teenage son of a prostitute, is a natural salesman, just like the mythical father he’s never met. Longtime horse traders and partners, they’ve recently turned their talents to trading mules. But in the summer of 1916, these seasoned grifters skilled in the art of the underhanded deal have just been swindled themselves. They’re saddled with the one thing they may not be able to unload: a gorgeous, murderous black mare named The Midnight Cool. Charles should have listened to Catherine, the beautiful, rebellious daughter of Leland Hatcher, the richest man in Richfield, Tennessee, and the former owner of The Midnight Cool. The horse would be worth a fortune—if she weren’t a verified man-killer who attacks on sight. Charles and Billy are rooted in this muggy town until they can miraculously retrain their recalcitrant mare, and in the shadow of the growing inevitability of war, their bond begins to fray. Falling in love with Catherine—and under the spell of the deceitful, wealthy Leland, the vision of himself he’d like to be—Charles pulls away from the older man. Despite their growing distance, Billy and Charles find their business thriving when the war in Europe pushes the demand for mules sky-high and the United States enters the fight. But when a trade goes terribly wrong, Charles is forced to reevaluate his allegiance to his country, the moral implications of his lifestyle, his relationship with Catherine, and, ultimately, his mysterious and surprisingly deep connection to Billy. Populated by spirited, memorable characters, The Midnight Cool is a startlingly profound tale of aspiration, loyalty, and love—and the eternal search for something lasting in a transitory world.

Opening Lines:  Another shell explodes in the distance. Charles and the mule are stuck, mired in the mud. It is dawn, and the sky is the color of mud, the earth is mud, the whole world is mud. The only thing that is not mud is a stand of wasted trees ahead. Beyond those trees the rest of Charles’s unit moves towards the Argonne Forest along a road that is a river of mud, studded with nails and barbed wire the Germans scattered to slow them.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Midnight Cool was written a hundred years after the events it describes, but it reads with the force and charisma of a writer describing her own time. It plunges you into the Tennessee of the 1910s, into the First World War, into high-stakes mule-trading, most affectingly into the ardors and errors of the people caught up in this extraordinary story. It makes you feel the urgency of every choice they make. The authority of Peelle’s prose is total.”  (Salvatore Scibona, author of The End)

That Hidden Road
by Rocco Versaci
(Apprentice House)

I’ve often thought about giving two weeks’ notice at the Day Job, hiring a catsitter for Ash and Cinder, and, chucking all domestic responsibility, grabbing my wife to head out on a cross-country bike ride. The thought of saddle sores and loss of major income are really the only things stopping me. What I dream, Rocco Versaci does. Not too long ago, the 42-year-old put his bike tire in the Pacific Ocean, then turned to face eastward and started pedaling. The result is this intriguing memoir that I’m adding to my must-read shelf. Maybe I’ll read it while walking on the treadmill in my basement, pretending that I’m walking across the United States with Mr. Versaci.

Jacket Copy:  On a Wednesday morning in May of 2010, 42-year-old Rocco Versaci dipped the rear tire of his bicycle into the Pacific Ocean and began to pedal, alone, across the country. He had what he thought was a simple idea-to sort out the story of his life, which had taken a couple of unexpected detours in recent years. That Hidden Road is a memoir of the two months he spent crossing the country by bike. It’s a story of burning saddle sores, heart-popping climbs, and unleashed dogs with a taste for ankle. It’s a story of America’s less-traveled roads and the people who live there. And it’s a story of rebuilding a life from fragments, the spirit of the whole journey captured in a question most of us ask at one point or another: Can I find my way home? Blending travel writing, memoir, and even comics, That Hidden Road—like Kerouac’s On the Road, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild—is an unforgettable story of being lost and found on the road in America.

Opening Lines:  “Linda thinks you’re dead.”
     The words came to me slowly. It had been a rough morning, so just before lunch I decided to take a quick twenty-minute nap that stretched into an hour and a half, and now I was struggling to reenter the world. I tried to will my eyes to stay open, but they kept dropping shut as if I’d been drugged. My limbs felt like rubber and my face was gummy. I should have just let the call go to voicemail, but my hand somehow reached the phone and my fingers somehow opened it and my mouth somehow said “Hello?” and they my cousin Cathy told me that our other cousin Linda thought I was dead.
     “She saw the card and started crying,” Cathy said.

by Alan Moore

Why, in the name of all that is holy, when I am already feeling overbooked, would I want to undertake the task of reading a 1,266-page novel, nearly 4 pounds in the hand, that’s sure to bend and possibly break my mind? Simple answer: because the name Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, From Hell, Watchmen, et al) is on the cover. And because the thousand-plus pages are filled with what the publisher calls a “dizzyingly rich cast of characters” including “the living, the dead, the celestial, and the infernal.” Sure, Jerusalem is a heavy, potentially months-long commitment, but I think I’m up for the holy challenge, other books be damned.

Jacket Copy:  In the epic novel Jerusalem, Alan Moore channels both the ecstatic visions of William Blake and the theoretical physics of Albert Einstein through the hardscrabble streets and alleys of his hometown of Northampton, UK. In the half a square mile of decay and demolition that was England’s Saxon capital, eternity is loitering between the firetrap housing projects. Embedded in the grubby amber of the district’s narrative among its saints, kings, prostitutes, and derelicts, a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-colored puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them. Employing, a kaleidoscope of literary forms and styles that ranges from brutal social realism to extravagant children’s fantasy, from the modern stage drama to the extremes of science fiction, Jerusalem’s dizzyingly rich cast of characters includes the living, the dead, the celestial, and the infernal in an intricately woven tapestry that presents a vision of an absolute and timeless human reality in all of its exquisite, comical, and heartbreaking splendor. In these pages lurk demons from the second-century Book of Tobit and angels with golden blood who reduce fate to a snooker tournament. Vagrants, prostitutes, and ghosts rub shoulders with Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce’s tragic daughter Lucia, and Buffalo Bill, among many others. There is a conversation in the thunderstruck dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, childbirth on the cobblestones of Lambeth Walk, an estranged couple sitting all night on the cold steps of a Gothic church front, and an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters. An art exhibition is in preparation, and above the world a naked old man and a beautiful dead baby race along the Attics of the Breath toward the heat death of the universe. An opulent mythology for those without a pot to piss in, through the labyrinthine streets and pages of Jerusalem tread ghosts that sing of wealth, poverty, and our threadbare millennium. They discuss English as a visionary language from John Bunyan to James Joyce, hold forth on the illusion of mortality post-Einstein, and insist upon the meanest slum as Blake’s eternal holy city.

Opening Lines:  Alma Warren, five years old, thought that they’d probably been shopping, her, her brother Michael in his pushchair and their mum, Doreen. Perhaps they’d been to Woolworth’s. Not the one in Gold Street, bottom Woolworth’s, but top Woolworth’s, halfway along Abington Street’s shop-lit incline, with its spearmint green tiled milk-bar, with the giant dial of its weighing machine trimmed a reassuring magnet red where it stood by the wooden staircase at the building's rear.

Blurbworthiness:  “Staggeringly imaginative...bold readers who answer the call will be rewarded with unmatched writing that soars, chills, wallows, and ultimately describes a new cosmology. Challenges and all, Jerusalem ensures Moore’s place as one of the great masters of the English language.”  (Publishers Weekly)

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