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.
Brat Pack America
by Kevin Smokler
(Rare Bird Books)
Continuing my binge of 80s pop culture (after swigging down Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond like it was a cardboard box of Hi-C Ecto Cooler), I’m ready to go back in time to hang out with the Brat Pack. Kevin Smokler’s “Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies” looks like the perfect ticket to go back to those days. DeLorean not included.
Jacket Copy: From the fictional towns of Hill Valley, California, and Shermer, Illinois, to the beautiful landscapes of the “Goondocks” in Astoria and the “time of your life” dirty dancing resort still alive and well in Lake Lure, North Carolina, ’80s teen movies left their mark not just on movie screen and in the hearts of fans, but on the landscape of America itself. Like few other eras in movie history, the ’80s teen movies has endured and gotten better with time. In Brat Pack America, Kevin Smokler gives virtual tours of your favorite movies while also picking apart why these locations are so important to these movies. Including interviews with actors, writers, and directors of the era, and chock full of interesting facts about your favorite ’80s movies, Brat Pack America is a must for any fan. Smokler went to Goonies Day in Astoria, Oregon, took a Lost Boys tour of Santa Cruz, California, and deeply explored every nook and cranny of the movies we all know and love, and it shows.
Opening Lines: It broke my heart that I couldn’t visit Hill Valley. It seemed like such a nice town to grow up in, even if it’d had a run of bad luck since 1955. Still, I was pretty sure that if stood near the clock tower right as the high school let out, I’d see Marty McFly rolling by on his skateboard. I’d yell “Hey, McFly,” but in a nice way, and thank him for being a weird kid from a weird family with a pretty girlfriend and a band and a mad scientist for a best friend. If I could visit Hill Valley, California, which I guessed was somewhere around the bend in the state’s elbow, maybe I could tell Marty McFly, “When I’m seventeen, I want to be just like you.”
by Tim Pears
And if I want to go even farther back in time, I’ll turn to the pages in Tim Pears’ new novel (available in the U.S. in February). The Horseman, set in rural pre-World War I England, is the first in a trilogy of novels featuring the titular equestrian Leo. I’m ready to go for a ride.
Jacket Copy: From the prize-winning author of In the Place of Fallen Leaves comes a beautiful, hypnotic pastoral novel reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, about an unexpected friendship between two children, set in Devon in 1911. In a forgotten valley, on the Devon-Somerset border, the seasons unfold. Twelve-year-old Leopold Sercombe skips school to help his father, a carter. Skinny and pale, with eyes as dark as sloes, Leo dreams of a job on the Master’s stud farm. As ploughs furrow the January fields, the Master’s daughter, young Miss Charlotte, shocks the estate’s tenants by wielding a gun at the annual shoot. Spring comes and Leo is breaking a colt when a boy dressed in a Homburg, breeches and riding boots appears. Peering under the stranger’s hat, he discovers Charlotte. And so a friendship begins, bound by a deep love of horses, but divided by rigid social boundaries—boundaries that become increasingly difficult to navigate as they approach adolescence. Suffused with the magic of nature, this hallucinatory, beautiful tale of a loss of innocence builds with a hypnotic power. Evoking the realities of agricultural life with precise, poetic brushstrokes, Tim Pears has created a masterful pastoral novel.
Opening Lines: The boy, Leopold Jonas Sercombe, stood by his father at the open doorway to the smithy. Jacob Crocker’s younger son, the gangly one, fed a circle of metal into the furnace. Outside, behind the boy, the earth was frozen. His feet were numb and his arse throbbed with the cold but he could feel the heat on his face. His father’s gaze was rapt and hawkish, he’d come to scrutinise, for these wheels were for the great waggon and he’d let naught shoddy by. Merely by his presence he gave Jacob Crocker to know that if Albert Sercombe found fault, nothing would please him more than to reject the lot for the master.
Death: An Oral History
by Casey Jarman
I once wrote a terrible poem which began like this:
We are none of usAnd so on, until the final breath of the last stanza. Though its literary merits are debatable, one thing is true: we all think about death, we all try to prepare for death, and we’re all completely lousy in our predictions of when it will come for us. That’s one reason why Casey Jarman’s oral history of The End is an appealing read. The book won’t have the answer to my own personal finality, but it will be interesting to get a fresh perspective on the subject from a chorus of voices.
Given x number of days.
The heart will seize and stop,
Abrupt and rude as a slammed door.
You will choke in a restaurant
Filled with people who always intended
To take that Red Cross course.
Jacket Copy: In this illuminating collection of oral-history style interviews, Casey Jarman talks to a funeral industry watchdog about the (often shady) history of the death trade; he hears how songwriter David Bazan lost his faith while trying to hold on to his family; he learns about cartoonist Art Spiegelman using his college LSD trips to explain death to his children; and he gets to know his own grandparents, posthumously. These are stories of loss, rebuilding, wonder, and wild speculation featuring everyone from philosophers to former death row wardens and hospice volunteers. In these moving, enlightening, and often funny conversations, the end is only the beginning.
Opening Lines: I grew up with photographs of my grandparents, but no actual grandparents. They all died before or shortly after I was born. None of them held me as a baby, or told me about the old days, or passed on family secrets from a bygone era. My folks told me stories about those mysterious figures from worn old photographs, trying to create some sort of bond between us—but all of the stories just swirled together. “Was it Grandpa Frank who owned a butcher shop? Or was that Mom’s dad? Wait, no, he was a preacher, right?” Cue the look of disappointment in my parents’ eyes. “I wish you could have known them,” they still say.
Blurbworthiness: “Casey Jarman, one of my favorite Northwest journalists, is becoming the Studs Terkel of his generation.” (Willy Vlautin, author of Lean on Pete)
All Grown Up
by Jami Attenberg
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
If I wasn’t already primed and ready to add Jami Attenberg’s new novel to my To-Be-Read stack, this description of the main character from the jacket copy would be enough to make me bark a “Oh God, gotta read that!” without hesitation: a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh. But novels (most novels, anyway) are more than just the sum total of their characters. They’re about plot and style and art at the sentence level—and how all those elements come together in the bubbling stew of a book. Jami Attenberg has delivered plenty of tasty soup in the past and I expect more of the same from All Grown Up. I’ve got my spoon ready.
Jacket Copy: Who is Andrea Bern? When her therapist asks the question, Andrea knows the right things to say: she’s a designer, a friend, a daughter, a sister. But it’s what she leaves unsaid—she’s alone, a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh—that feels the most true. Everyone around her seems to have an entirely different idea of what it means to be an adult: her best friend, Indigo, is getting married; her brother—who miraculously seems unscathed by their shared tumultuous childhood—and sister-in-law are having a hoped-for baby; and her friend Matthew continues to wholly devote himself to making dark paintings at the cost of being flat broke. But when Andrea’s niece finally arrives, born with a heartbreaking ailment, the Bern family is forced to reexamine what really matters. Will this drive them together or tear them apart? Told in gut-wrenchingly honest, mordantly comic vignettes, All Grown Up is a breathtaking display of Jami Attenberg’s power as a storyteller, a whip-smart examination of one woman’s life, lived entirely on her own terms.
Opening Lines: You’re in art school, you hate it, you drop out, you move to New York City. For most people, moving to New York City is a gesture of ambition. But for you, it signifies failure, because you grew up there, so it just means you’re moving back home after you couldn’t make it in the world. Spiritually, it’s a reverse commute.
Blurbworthiness: “Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up is one part Denis Johnson, one part Grace Paley, but all her. Every sentence pulls taut and glows—electric, gossipy, searing fun that is also a map to how to be more human.” (Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night)
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White
by Melissa Sweet
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
One of the bigger revelations during my recent trip to Maine was the fact that it was where E. B. White lived most of his life. I’m sure this comes as little surprise to anyone familiar with the Charlotte’s Web author or Maine literature in general, but for me it was a wonderful footnote to an already glorious vacation to the Pine Tree State (my first time there). Right around the time I was walking along a mile-long path to a lighthouse along the coast, Melissa Sweet’s new young-reader biography of White was hitting bookstores. This exquisitely-designed book—every page is a collage of photos, drawings and artifacts (you can see a sample page below)—immediately found a home on my shelves. I plan to pair it with a long-overdue visit to my old friends Charlotte, Stuart and a certain trumpeter swan.
Jacket Copy: “SOME PIG,” Charlotte the spider’s praise for Wilbur, is just one fondly remembered snippet from E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. In Some Writer!, the two-time Caldecott Honor winner Melissa Sweet mixes White’s personal letters, photos, and family ephemera with her own exquisite artwork to tell his story, from his birth in 1899 to his death in 1985. Budding young writers will be fascinated and inspired by the journalist, New Yorker contributor, and children’s book author who loved words his whole life. This authorized tribute is the first fully illustrated biography of E. B. White and includes an afterword by Martha White, E. B. White's granddaughter.
Opening Lines: Elwyn Brooks White became a writer while he was still wearing knickers. He was seven or eight years old when he looked a sheet of paper “square in the eyes” and thought, “This is where I belong, this is it.”
Blurbworthiness: “What elevates this book to the stratosphere is the art. Practically glowing, it turns a very fine biography into something original, creative, and marvelous.” (NerdyBookClub.com)