Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Front Porch Books: February 2017 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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.

by Brian Van Reet
(Lee Boudreaux Books)

I have been a fan of Brian Van Reet’s writing since reading his brilliant short story “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” in the anthology of war fiction Fire and Forget (in whose pages one of my own short stories resides). And now along comes Brian’s debut novel about war, prisoners and tipping points. I can’t wait to read the Spoils of war.

Jacket Copy:  The Kite Runner meets The Things They Carried in this explosive debut which maps the blurred lines between good and bad, soldier and civilian victor and vanquished. It is April 2003. American forces have taken Baghdad and are now charged with winning hearts and minds. But this vital tipping point is barely recognized for what it is, as a series of miscalculations and blunders fuels an already-simmering insurgency intent on making Iraq the next graveyard of empires. In dazzling and propulsive prose, Brian Van Reet explores the lives on both sides of the battle lines: Cassandra, a nineteen-year-old gunner on an American Humvee who is captured during a deadly firefight and awakens in a prison cell; Abu Al-Hool, a lifelong mujahedeen beset by a simmering crisis of conscience as he struggles against enemies from without and within, including the new wave of far more radicalized jihadists; and Specialist Sleed, a tank crewman who goes along with a “victimless” crime, the consequences of which are more awful than any he could have imagined. Depicting a war spinning rapidly out of control, destined to become a modern classic, Spoils is an unsparing and morally complex novel that chronicles the achingly human cost of combat.

Opening Lines:  She is the most dangerous thing around. The best soldiers are like her, just on the far side of childhood. Their exact reasons for fighting don’t matter much.

Blurbworthiness:  “Clear, authentic and beautifully written, Spoils is a book about war for people who don’t like books about war. Van Reet gives us a thriller that is not a thriller, but a grave and fierce description of the moral battlefield behind the headlines from Iraq.”  (Anne Enright, author of The Green Road)

Love is No Small Thing
by Meghan Kenny
(LSU Press)

Even as Valentine’s Day recedes in the rear-view mirror, I want to keep the sweet, boozy-blood feeling of love going, stoke its red fires with some literary fiction that puts me vicariously in the hugs and kisses of imagined people. After all, what do we come to stories for if not to feel? The short fiction in Meghan Kenny’s debut collection may not always be hearts-and-flowers amorous, but from the few pages I’ve skimmed, I can already tell I’m predisposed to love this book.

Jacket Copy:  Meghan Kenny’s debut collection, Love Is No Small Thing, gives readers an assembly of keenly drawn characters each navigating the world looking for an understanding of love in its many forms and complexities—be it romantic, parental, elusive, or eternal. A father may teach his teenage son “Hearts break easy,” but as Kenny’s characters discover, knowing an important truth about love is no substitute for experiencing it. In the title story, a woman learns of her boyfriend’s infidelity on Halloween night and contemplates lost years, concealments, and the difficulty of walking away. An Idaho cameraman and his cross-dressing, sky-diving son try to find common ground in “All These Lovely Boys.” A first date at the Corkscrew Swamp Bird Sanctuary becomes something else altogether in “Sanctuary,” and in “Heartbreak Hotel,” a father swaps stories of disappointments and losses with his daughter and an unwanted passenger on a cross-country road trip. Throughout this collection, Kenny’s characters try to bridge the gap between what they expected of their lives and what they have received. They struggle to understand their own identities and the value of the relationships they have or want, with results that are funny and poignant in equal measure. Employing minimalist language and character-driven storytelling, Meghan Kenny grapples with love in all its messiness and uncertainty, revealing vital truths about the vagaries of the human heart and establishing Kenny as a vibrant new voice in the American literary landscape.

Opening Lines:  It was Halloween night and I was dressed as a 1980s prom queen—white satiny dress with a diagonal hem, bangs sprayed hard as a rock and feathered like a tidal wave, light blue eyeliner and zinc-pink lipstick. I didn’t look hot. Val was Jimmy Connors in tight white terrycloth shorts and an Izod tee, terrycloth wristbands, a black bowl-cut wig, and a cheap Prince racket he found at the Youth Ranch. We drank peach schnapps and vodka and were fuzzy warm from the booze and from jumping around to Men At Work in honor of my costume.

Blurbworthiness:  “The stories in Meghan Kenny’s splendid debut are spiky, funny, and devastating meditations on the innumerable forms love can take in a life—and how the search for love can prove to be both saving and ruinous.”  (Laura Van Den Berg, author of Find Me)

A Little More Human
by Fiona Maazel
(Graywolf Press)

I never know what to expect when I open one of Fiona Maazel’s novels. There’s an edge-of-the-precipice feeling when I read Woke Up Lonely and Last Last Chance. As Slate magazine notes, “Maazel writes with a kind of ecstatic swagger―freewheeling and cocksure, intelligent and loopy and funny as hell.” That pretty much sums up everything I love about Maazel’s fiction. This new novel looks like it will continue my cocksure, freewheeling, loopy ride through her imagination.

Jacket Copy:  Meet Phil Snyder: new father, nursing assistant at a cutting-edge biotech facility on Staten Island, and all-around decent guy. Trouble is, his life is falling apart. His wife has betrayed him, his job involves experimental surgeries with strange side effects, and his father is hiding early-onset dementia. Phil also has a special talent he doesn’t want to publicize―he’s a mind reader and moonlights as Brainstorm, a costumed superhero. But when Phil wakes up from a blackout drunk and is confronted with photos that seem to show him assaulting an unknown woman, even superpowers won’t help him. Try as he might, Phil can’t remember that night, and so, haunted by the need to know, he mind-reads his way through the lab techs at work, adoring fans at Toy Polloi, and anyone else who gets in his way, in an attempt to determine whether he’s capable of such violence. A Little More Human, rife with layers of paranoia and conspiracy, questions how well we really know ourselves, showcasing Fiona Maazel at her tragicomic, freewheeling best.

Opening Lines:  He came to on the back of a horse. Weeping into his chest. The dreams he’d had, the man he was. Where was the hurt today. The throb in his balls was disco. The throb in his head was science: a hangover in which he felt like hell. Believed in hell. And there in the sky: a bird, a plane, or just the drone of his fantasy life taking flight.

Blurbworthiness:  “Fiona Maazel is an explorer, a risk-taker, a mad scientist―an artist, in other words―and A Little More Human is her most brilliant and uncompromising novel yet. Take this book home and read it right away, preferably in your superhero suit.”  (John Wray, author of The Lost Time Accidents)

I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking
by Leyna Krow
(Featherproof Books)

Yes, there’s the title (which is surely one of the best we’ll see on a book cover all this year); and, yes, the cover design is terrific (look beyond that big bold beautiful title font to the swimming pool, the giant sea monster, the befuddled astronaut); but really it’s the words inside which matter most, right? Spokane writer Leyna Krow hits the jackpot with 15 short stories about, as Greg Spatz says, “wise slackers, lovable smart alecks, squids, voyeurs, cob snakes, astronauts and amateur astronomers, octopi, clones, tigers, rebels and octopi. Did I mention the octopi? Welcome to the spectacular, funny, vivid world of Leyna Krow’s short stories! So completely original in voice and concept—smart, humorous, poignant, clear and meaningful.” This is high on my personal list of Most Anticipated Books of 2017.

Jacket Copy:  In I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking the strange and the mundane collide. These are stories of strange experiences set in familiar places, and of familiar experiences set in strange places. Many of the pieces in I’m Fine take place close to home, in suburban neighborhoods, or rural communities. The settings are conventional, yet something unexpected, or even magical, is occurring. In one piece, a couple speculates about random objects that appear without reason in their backyard. In another, neighbors try to figure out if a local meth dealer is keeping a live tiger captive on his property. In other pieces, it’s the setting that’s fantastical, but the characters’ reactions that remain ordinary, like in the titular story where a journalist lost at sea and hunted by a mythical ocean creature admits to struggling with loneliness and isolation in much the same way he does even when he’s safe at home. Although they are not directly linked by any specific character, the pieces in this collection are bound through reoccurring imagery and a shared theme of protagonists in emotional peril. There are unexpected appearances and disappearances, movement of inanimate objects, the search for something lost, the finding of something unusual. There are prophesies, dreams, unidentifiable creatures, and environmental catastrophes on a scale both large and small. There are action figures and octopuses, sullen teenagers and missing cats. At their core, these stories are imbued with mystery, oddity, humor, and empathy. They each stand on their own, but mean considerably more when read together.

Opening Lines:  From the notebook of Captain C.J. Wyle, February 1
      It’s just me, Gideon, and Plymouth now.
      Strangely, the Artemis seems smaller with only the three of us onboard. At ten people, our 112-foot trimaran felt spacious, with plenty of room for everyone to go about their respective tasks. There was a constant human hum, but we weren’t on top of each other.
      Now Gideon and I can’t seem to escape ourselves and Plymouth is always under foot. His barking echoes through the narrow hatchways. Shrunken―that’s how this whole arrangements feels.

Blurbworthiness:  “Leyna Krow’s stories range far and wide―from outer space to the ocean depths to the distant future―but they are bound by a crackling wit, an inventive vitality, a laser eye for the silent currents between people, and a sneaky emotional power. I’m Fine But You Appear to Be Sinking is a wildly imagined debut, a blast of fleet power.”  (Shawn Vestal, author of Daredevils)

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