Thursday, December 8, 2011

Front Porch Books: December 2011 Edition

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, 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.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (William Morrow): Any debut novel that's compared to Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and carries the endorsement of writers like Ernest J. Gaines and Bobbie Ann Mason, is like a fishhook in my eye; I'm going to be reeled in--or, in the vernacular of Cash's novel, I reckon I ain't gonna pass this one by.  A Land More Kind Than Home pivots on the death of an autistic boy at a North Carolina church led by a snake-handling ex-con-turned preacher named Carson Chambliss.  The boy's death is witnessed by his nine-year-old brother Jess, whose voice is one of three narrating this literary thriller which, according to the Jacket Copy, is "thick with stories and characters connected by faith, infidelity, addiction, and a sense of hope that is as tragic as it is unforgettable."  Opening Lines:
I sat there in the car with the gravel dust blowing across the parking lot and saw the place for what it was, not what it was right at that moment in the hot sunlight, but for what it had been maybe twelve or fifteen years before: a real general store with folks gathered around the lunch counter, a line of people at the soda fountain, little children ordering ice cream of just about every flavor you could think of, hard candy by the quarter pound, moon pies and crackerjack and other things I hadn't thought about tasting in years. And if I'd closed my eyes I could've seen what the building had been forty or fifty years before that, back when I was a young woman: a screen door slamming shut, oil lamps lit and sputtering black smoke, dusty horses hitched to the posts out front where the iceman unloaded every Wednesday afternoon, the last stop on his route before he headed up out of the holler, the bed of his truck an inch deep with cold water. Back before Carson Chambliss came and took down the advertisements and yanked out the old hitching posts and put up that now-yellow newspaper in the front windows to keep folks from looking in. All the way back before him and the deacons had wheeled out the broken coolers on a dolly, filled the linoleum with rows of folding chairs and electric floor fans that blew the heat up in your face. If I'd kept my eyes closed I could've seen all this lit by the dim light of a memory like a match struck in a cave where the sun can't reach, but because I stared out through my windshield and heard the cars and trucks whipping by on the road behind me, I could see now that it wasn't nothing but a simple concrete block building, and, except for the sign out by the road, you couldn't even tell it was a church. And that was exactly how Carson Chambliss wanted it.
Blurb-worthiness: "This novel has great cumulative power.  Before I knew it I was grabbed by the ankle and pulled down into a full-blown Greek tragedy."  (Gail Godwin, author of Evensong)

Waking by Ron Rash (Hub City Press):  Tarrying in North Carolina for one more minute, I should also mention another book which came across my desk this month: Ron Rash's new book of poems.  To be honest, I wasn't aware the author of Serena and Burning Bright was a poet; but, dipping into this collection, I've been pleasantly surprised by what I've found.  Waking takes us to places like Watauga County, Goshen Creek and Dismal Mountain (which lies "gray and still as any gravestone").  Jacket Copy:  "In his first book of poetry in nearly a decade, Rash leads his readers on a Southern odyssey, full of a terse wit and a sense of the narrative so authentic it will dazzle you.  As we wake inside these poems, we see rivers wild with trout, lightning storms, and homemade churches, nailed and leaning against the side of a Tennessee mountain."  Serena was one of my favorite books of the past decade (and perhaps even has a spot on my Top 25 Books of All Time), so I come to Waking with great expectations.

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw (Simon and Schuster):  Take one wedding reception, add a car filled with stoned, drunk, and sleepy guests, then stir in a dark road and a little girl.  Mix well and bake for 270 pages.  Anshaw's new novel has all the ingredients of a gripping domestic drama, one which spans twenty-five years in the lives of Carmen Sloan and the other revelers at her wedding reception as they deal with the tragedy of that night.  Judging by the Opening Lines, the language here is precise and lovely:
So Carmen was married, just. She sat under a huge butter moon, on a windless night in the summer of 1983, at a table, in front of the remains of some chicken cordon bleu. She looked toward the improvised dance floor where her very new husband was doing the Mexican hat dance with several other large men, three of them his brothers, other Sloans. Matt was a plodding hat-dancer; his kicks threw the others off the beat. In spite of this lack of aptitude, he was waving her over, beckoning her to join in. She waved back as though she thought he was just saying hi. She was hoping to sit out this early phase of her marriage, the mortifying dances segment.
Blurb-worthiness: "Reading this book, I felt like I was watching someone cross a tightrope with the same relaxed, assured stride they would use on solid ground.  Anshaw is in such graceful command that her story about three gifted, wounded siblings almost doesn't feel like fiction.  The traumatic accident that derails the characters' lives as young adults is a sort of echo of the childhood damage they've already lived through.  The ways that they do and don't survive this are variously tragic, stark, and beautiful, but always utterly convincing.  Along the way, the generous Anshaw doles out psychological acuity, antic humor, cultural critique and profound wisdom as the merest casual asides.  It can't be as effortless as she makes it look, but it's a pleasure to soar with her, for a while, on that high wire."  (Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home)

Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins (Engine Books):  Since its debut earlier this year, the small-but-scrappy Engine Books has proven to be one of those publishers who seek out quality fiction which might have otherwise not found a market of readers.  Like a vinter who only bottles a few pressings of wine each year, publisher Victoria Barrett is a true believer in quality over quantity.  Not since Dzanc Books came on the scene have I been so excited about a new indie press.  You probably won't find books like Collins' debut novel in the front-window display of your local bookstore or featured on Amazon's home page--you'll have to do some legwork to track down Echolocation, but I assure you it will be well worth the effort.  I'm lucky enough to have an uncorrected proof of Echolocation sitting in front of me and, reading the Opening Lines, I find myself immediately drawn in to the story of two sisters and their dying aunt:
      When the slip of saw through trunk was buttery, liquid, and verging on gentle, Geneva was moved to tears. Her body felt as though it were cutting through the tree: the rings, the history of droughts and hailstorms, the sap that could have been her own blood, dripping, weeping at her feet. It felt like a betrayal, this taking of saw to tree. But Clint was out of work again. They needed money.
      She was down by the quarry, just off the old logging road, claiming a patch of ground Auntie Marie had given her for a wedding present--her dowry. "Don't tell him, though," Marie suggested about the wooded acre. "Keep that land to yourself." Geneva had thought of using the trees for sugaring as Auntie Marie had proposed but now it was too late. She was taking the trees for cheap firewood to sell to tourists at a road-side stand. Such a waste.
After only two paragraphs, Collins has already established a domestic tension which seems like it will carry readers through the rest of this short novel.  My engines are already revving.

Wayward Saints by Suzzy Roche (Hyperion Voice):  Like Myfanwy Collins' Echolocation, Wayward Saints is a novel with characters who brashly break that old Thomas Wolfe rule and discover they can go home again.  Written by a member of the sister-trio The Roches, this debut also has the zesty spunk of another garage-band novel which recently landed on my front porch: Tyler McMahon's How the Mistakes Were Made.  Check out the Opening Lines:
It was a Tuesday night at Crud, a club on the outskirts of the city, and the place was packed with skinheads and their girlfriends. Donal Hogan had said it was "a bit dungeonesque," but worse than that, it was a piss-hole toilet.
Here's the Jacket Copy which further highlights the quirky delights of Wayward Saints:
Mary Saint, the rule-breaking, troubled former lead singer of the almost-famous band Sliced Ham, has pretty much given up on music after the trauma of her band member and lover Garbagio's death seven years earlier. Instead, with the help of her best friend, Thaddeus, she is trying to piece her life together while making mochaccinos in San Francisco. Meanwhile, back in her hometown of Swallow, New York, her mother, Jean Saint, struggles with her own ghosts. When Mary is invited to give a concert at her old high school, Jean is thrilled, though she's worried about what Father Benedict and her neighbors will think of songs such as "Sewer Flower" and "You're a Pig." But she soon realizes that there are going to be bigger problems when the whole town--including a discouraged teacher and a baker who's anything but sweet--gets in on the act.

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont (St. Martin's Press):  My advance readers' edition of Dermont's debut novel carries the weight of endorsements from literary power-hitters Justin Cronin ("a hymn to the bittersweet glories of youth") and Marilynne Robinson ("there is a vibrant lucidity to her language, a daring music").  While I'm impressed by the blurbs, the proof of the pudding is how well Dermont dances to that "daring music" on the page.  I read the first paragraph.  Then I read the first chapter.  I was hooked.  Get on board when the book releases in March and you'll see what I'm talking about.  In the meantime, here's the Jacket Copy:
Jason Prosper grew up in the elite world of Manhattan penthouses, Maine summer estates, old-boy prep schools, and exclusive sailing clubs. A smart, athletic teenager, Jason maintains a healthy, humorous disdain for the trappings of affluence, preferring to spend afternoons sailing with Cal, his best friend and boarding-school roommate. When Cal commits suicide during their junior year at Kensington Prep, Jason is devastated by the loss and transfers to Bellingham Academy. There, he meets Aidan, a fellow student with her own troubled past. They embark on a tender, awkward, deeply emotional relationship, until a major hurricane hits the New England coast and Aidan’s battered body is found on the beach in its aftermath. School officials rule her death a suicide, and Jason is horrified to draw the parallels between Aidan and Cal. He gradually realizes that Aidan’s death was neither suicide nor accident, and is determined to uncover the terrible secret that has been buried by the boys he considers his friends. Set against the backdrop of the 1987 stock market collapse, The Starboard Sea is an examination of the abuses of class privilege, the mutability of sexual desire, the thrill and risk of competitive sailing, and the adult cost of teenage recklessness.

Kingdom Come by J. G. Ballard (W. W. Norton):  While I'm only familiar with the late J. G. Ballard's work through the movies Empire of the Sun and Crash, his fans are rabid and many.  Kingdom Come, making its first appearance here in America, will likely send them into hysteria.  Which, coincidentally, is one of the novel's themes.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
A violent novel filled with insidious twists, Kingdom Come follows the exploits of Richard Pearson, a rebellious, unemployed advertising executive, whose father is gunned down by a deranged mental patient in a vast shopping mall outside Heathrow Airport. When the prime suspect is released without charge, Richard’s suspicions are aroused. Investigating the mystery, Richard uncovers at the Metro-Centre mall a neo-fascist world whose charismatic spokesperson is whipping up the masses into a state of unsustainable frenzy. Riots frequently terrorize the complex, immigrant communities are attacked by hooligans, and sports events mushroom into jingoistic political rallies. In this gripping, dystopian tour de force, J.G. Ballard holds up a mirror to suburban mind rot, revealing the darker forces at work beneath the gloss of consumerism and flag-waving patriotism.
And here are the Opening Lines:
The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world...

Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith (Fiction Studio Books):  For anyone who was of impressionable age or older in 1974, April 15 was one of those days which pressed its thumbprints into our consciousness.  That's the day Patty Hearst suddenly became more than a household name, she became legend when security cameras caught her toting an M1 carbine during a bank robbery.  Twelve days earlier, she'd released a videotape telling everyone to start calling her "Tanya."  We now know Hearst was likely suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and was under the sway of her kidnappers, the Symbionese Liberation Army.  At the time, however, we were just shocked and confused (yes, even 10-year-old David Abrams).  We were still reeling from the betrayal of Watergate, and now this?  That's the kind of America in which Leora Skolkin-Smith has set her new novel.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Set in the turbulent 1970s when Patty Hearst became Tanya the Revolutionary, Hystera is a timeless story of madness, yearning, and identity. After a fatal accident takes her father away, Lillian Weill blames herself for the family tragedy. Tripping through failed love affairs with men, and doomed friendships, all Lilly wants is to be sheltered from reality. She retreats from the outside world into a world of delusion and the private terrors of a New York City Psychiatric Hospital. Unreachable behind her thick wall of fears, the world of hospital corridors and strangers become a vessel of faith. She is a foreigner there until her fellow patients release her from her isolation with the power of human intimacy. How do we know who we really are? How do we find our true selves under the heavy burden of family and our pasts? In an unpredictable portrait of mental illness, Hystera penetrates to the pulsing heart of the questions.
Blurbworthiness: "Inside a psychiatric ward in the 1970s, Leora Skolkin-Smith's Hystera takes you on a ride through the wilderness of a young woman's emotional trauma and breakdown, and seizes upon the intricacies of mental health, our phobias, and fears around it.  Brilliantly envisioned, this story of passion, and familial dysfunction, bears witness to an exquisite reknitting of a young woman's soul, told in language that is brave, startling and ultimately tender and wise."  (Jessica Keener, author of Night Swim)

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo (Knopf):  I have yet to crack open any of Stieg Larsson's tattooed-dragon-girls-who-kick-flaming-hornet-nests novels, but from all I've heard, Jo Nesbo's dark Nordic mysteries will serve as a nice hors d'oeuvre in the meantime.  Here's the Jacket Copy for the newest Nesbo: "At the start of The Leopard, we find Inspector Harry Hole hiding away from the world, smoking opium in the squalor of Hong Kong's back alleys.  A pretty young police officer drags him reluctantly back to Norway to pursue another serial killer, this one more twisted and vicious than the Snowman" (of Nesbo's previous trans-Atlantic hit).  The Leopard certainly has some of the creepiest Opening Lines to cross my desk this month:
      She awoke. Blinked in the pitch darkness. Yawned, and breathed through her nose. She blinked again. Felt a tear run down her face, felt it dissolve the salt of other tears. But saliva was no longer entering her throat; her mouth was dry and hard. Her cheeks were forced out by the pressure from inside. The foreign body in her mouth felt as though it would explode her head. But what was it? What was it? The first thing she thought when she awoke was that she wanted to go back. Back into the dark, warm depths that had enveloped her. The injection he had given her had not worn off yet, but she knew pain was on the way, felt it coming in the slow, dull beat of her pulse and the jerky flow of blood through her brain. Where was he? Was he standing right behind her? She held her breath, listened. She couldn’t hear anything, but she could sense a presence. Like a leopard. Someone had told her leopards made so little noise they could sneak right up to their prey in the dark. They could regulate their breathing so that it was in tune with yours. Could hold their breath when you held yours. She was certain she could feel his body heat. What was he waiting for? She exhaled again. And at that same moment was sure she had felt breath on her neck. She whirled round, hit out, but was met by air. She hunched up, tried to make herself small, to hide. Pointless.
      How long had she been unconscious?
      The drug wore off. The sensation lasted only for a fraction of a second. But it was enough to give her the foretaste, the promise. The promise of what was to come.

The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman (Riverhead):  Big, chunky novels the size of family Bibles can go one of two ways: they can be an unendurable, unending slog through increasingly hard-to-turn pages; or they can be so engrossing that you're lifted out of time, space, and distraction, completely erasing the weight of that seven-pound book in your hands.  I'm not sure which Perlman's new novel will turn out to be, but given the pedigree of his previous bestseller, Seven Types of Ambiguity, I'm willing to give it a whirl.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Lamont Williams is a paroled felon looking to turn his life around, working as a street sweeper at a large city hospital and searching for his estranged daughter. Adam Zignelik is a struggling, nontenured professor, paralyzed by looming failure, his life falling apart around him. He discovers a cache of recordings of previously unheard voices reaching out from a horrific past, voices that can both save his career and bring him back to the woman he loves. At the same time, Lamont forges an unlikely friendship with a dying man, who, having lived through those horrors, has a crucially important story to tell and to preserve. The worlds surrounding these two men, their families, their pasts, their potential futures, swirl in and out of history as the forces of the Holocaust, the American civil rights movement, Chicago unions, and New York City racial politics combine in a thrilling cross- generational literary symphony. The acclaimed author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, Elliot Perlman weaves the narratives of Lamont and Adam-and their myriad connected friends, lovers, and families-into an ambitious, masterful depiction of the power that memory has over our lives.

The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis (Atlantic Monthly Press):  A divorce.  A dog.  A drowned brother.  A road trip.  These are the elements upon which Franklin-Willis builds her debut novel.  I'm susceptible to men in coming-of-middle-age novels.  Maybe I can relate to this period of re-evaluation and an unsettled view of the future because that's where I find myself standing these days.  When they're done right--flowing with beauty and craft--these novels spark a couple of wires inside me.  The Lost Saints of Tennessee looks like it just might start a fire in my soul.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Driven by the soulful voices of forty-two-year-old Ezekiel Cooper and his mother, Lillian, The Lost Saints of Tennessee journeys from the 1940s to 1980s as it follows Zeke’s evolution from anointed son, to honorable sibling, to unhinged middle-aged man. After Zeke loses his twin brother in a mysterious drowning and his wife to divorce, only ghosts remain in his hometown of Clayton, Tennessee. Zeke makes the decision to leave town in a final attempt to escape his pain, throwing his two treasured possessions—a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his dead brother’s ancient dog—into his truck, and heads east. He leaves behind two young daughters and his estranged mother, who reveals her own conflicting view of the Cooper family story in a vulnerable but spirited voice stricken by guilt over old sins and clinging to the hope that her family isn’t beyond repair. When Zeke finds refuge with cousins in Virginia horse country, divine acts in the form of severe weather, illness, and a new romance collide, leading Zeke to a crossroads where he must decide the fate of his family.
Blurbworthiness: "The gifted novelist, Amy Franklin-Willis, has written a riveting, hardscrabble book on the rough, hardscrabble south, which has rarely been written about with such grace and compassion. It reminded me of the time I read Dorothy Allison’s classic, Bastard out of Carolina."  (Pat Conroy, South of Broad)


  1. Good stuff here, great write-ups. ~ J.Goertel

  2. wow, a lot of exciting books to look forward here- have been looking forward to Echolocation, the Wiley Cash also sounds especially appealing.