Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Front Porch Books: January 2012 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 and Edelweiss.  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.

The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard (Bellevue Literary Press):  The beauty of Pritchard's short story collection begins with the cover design, which depicts the corner of what looks like a natural history museum with large, frightening fish.  Inside, there's an equally unusual collection of tales, most of them taking the reader to distant lands, distant times.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In each of these eight genre-bending tales, Melissa Pritchard overturns the conventions of mysteries, westerns, gothic horror, and historical fiction to capture surprising and often shocking aspects of her characters’ lives. In one story, Pritchard creates a pastiche of historical facts, songs, and tall tales, contrasting the famed figures of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, with the real, genocidal history of the American West. Other stories are inspired by the mysterious life of Kaspar Hauser, a haunted Victorian Hospital where the wounded of D-Day are taken during WWII, the courtyard where Edgar Allan Poe played as a child, and the story of Robert LeRoy Ripley, of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” and his beguiling “odditoriums” as seen from his life-long fact checker.
Blurbworthiness: “Pritchard's best stories are ambitious, lush and even thrilling. She takes risks, different risks in different stories.  Can she write a segment in the form of a comedic Shakespearean dialogue?  She can.  Does a story evolve into epistolary form?  It does.  Will she be able to build a story around the format of an old newspaper feature?  She will.  Can she do it all with poetic, vivid prose?  With one hand tied behind her back.  Is Melissa Pritchard someone whose short fiction should be well known?  Do you even have to ask?” (Los Angeles Times)

The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson (Dutton):  A galley of Halverson's debut novel has been sitting near the top of the queue on my Kindle for several weeks doing the electronic equivalent of drumming its fingers on the table.  I hope to get to this one very soon.  Really, I promise.  This novel has all the hallmarks of a bestseller--especially among readers who enjoy the fiction of writers like Caroline Leavitt, Marisa de los Santos, and Jodi Picoult (I say this without having read Underside, so don't sue me if those comparisons are a little off).  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Set against the backdrop of Redwood forests and shimmering vineyards, SerĂ© Prince Halverson's compelling debut tells the story of two women, bound by an unspeakable loss, who each claims to be the mother of the same two children. To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. Yet one summer day Joe breaks his own rule--never turn your back on the ocean--and a sleeper wave strikes him down, drowning not only the man but his many secrets. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known and has believed that their biological mother, Paige, abandoned them. But when Paige shows up at the funeral, intent on reclaiming the children, Ella soon realizes there may be more to Paige and Joe's story. "Ella's the best thing that's happened to this family," say her close-knit Italian-American in-laws, for generations the proprietors of a local market. But their devotion quickly falters when the custody fight between mother and stepmother urgently and powerfully collides with Ella's quest for truth. The Underside of Joy is not a fairy-tale version of stepmotherhood pitting good Ella against evil Paige, but an exploration of the complex relationship of two mothers. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars-both physical and emotional-to the families' deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during World War II and postpartum psychosis.  Weaving a rich fictional tapestry abundantly alive with the glorious natural beauty of the novel's setting, Halverson is a captivating guide through the flora and fauna of human emotion-grief and anger, shame and forgiveness, happiness and its shadow complement...the underside of joy.

Home by Toni Morrison (Knopf):  Morrison's Beloved cemented my fanboy love for her work--lyrical, unnerving, engrossing--and her forthcoming novel holds the promise of another winner.  The Jacket Copy:
An angry and self-loathing veteran of the Korean War, Frank Money finds himself back in racist America after enduring trauma on the front lines that left him with more than just physical scars. His home--and himself in it--may no longer be as he remembers it, but Frank is shocked out of his crippling apathy by the need to rescue his medically abused younger sister and take her back to the small Georgia town they come from, which he's hated all his life. As Frank revisits the memories from childhood and the war that leave him questioning his sense of self, he discovers a profound courage he thought he could never possess again. A deeply moving novel about an apparently defeated man finding his manhood--and his home.
The galley of Morrison's book isn't too far behind Halverson's in my Kindle queue.

The Bro-Magnet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted:  There's something beguiling about a novel which begins with an Opening Line like this: "Right from the start, I've been a disappointment to women."  Baratz-Logsted, author of The Thin Pink Line, certainly knows how to snag a reader.  I'm resisting lame jokes about eye-magnets, but the truth is, I'm already hooked on this book's style before I've gone more than two pages into it.  I'm even willing to accept the fact it has a character with the unsubtle name Helen Troy.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Women have been known to lament, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride." For Johnny Smith, the problem is, "Always a Best Man, never a groom." At age 33, housepainter Johnny has been Best Man eight times. The ultimate man's man, Johnny loves the Mets, the Jets, his weekly poker game, and the hula girl lamp that hangs over his basement pool table. Johnny has the instant affection of nearly every man he meets, but one thing he doesn't have is a woman to share his life with, and he wants that desperately. When Johnny meets District Attorney Helen Troy, he decides to renounce his bro-magnet ways in order to impress her. With the aid and advice of his friends and family, soon he's transforming his wardrobe, buying throw pillows, ditching the hula girl lamp, getting a cat and even changing his name to the more mature-sounding John. And through it all, he's pretending to have no interest in sports, which Helen claims to abhor. As things heat up with Helen, the questions arise: Will Johnny finally get the girl? And, if he's successful in that pursuit, who will he be now that he's no longer really himself?  The Bro-Magnet is a rollicking comedic novel about what one man is willing to give up for the sake of love.

Obedience by Jacqueline Yallop (Penguin):  I'm a big fan of Ron Hansen's slim, exquisite novel Mariette in Ecstasy.  And so, when I received a copy of Yallop's novel, read the first page, and then skimmed the back-cover plot summary, the comparison to Hansen's book was enough to draw me in.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Set in contemporary and World War II France, this is the story of Sister Bernard: her forbidden love, her uncertain faith, and her guilt-ridden past. A once-bustling convent in the South of France is closing, leaving behind three elderly nuns. Forced, for the first time, to confront the community that she betrayed decades ago, Sister Bernard relives her life during the war. At thirty, Sister Bernard can hear the voice of God--strident, furious, and personal. When a young Nazi soldier, a member of the German occupying forces, asks her to meet him in the church in secret one evening, she agrees. And so begins the horrifying and passionate love affair that will deafen the heavens and define her life, tempting her into duplicity. Obedience is a powerful exploration of one woman's struggle to reconcile her aching need to be loved with her fear of God's wrath.
And here are those pitch-perfect Opening Lines:
Mother Catherine knew the devil. He was twisted and dwarfish; his clawed hands were gnarled. His neck was short and his legs bowed. He had a hump on his back, heavy like a sack of walnuts. He was crafty, she knew that; she had heard how cunning he could be. But surely he could never stretch over five shelves of jars, pickles and conserves to take down the coffee and tempt her nuns?
(That "devil" in the pantry, by the way, is a German soldier who has set up camp in Sister Bernard's refectory.)  Need more convincing evidence that Obedience is a good read?  Okay, here you go.  Blurbworthiness: "An intensely imagined novel about one of the defining questions of the century just past: where and how we choose to draw the line between innocence and guilt, ignorance and complicity. Obedience also asks us to consider what ghastly harm is committed in the name of love. It's rare to find a book that is seemingly so simple, but is really ambiguous and thought-provoking." (Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall)  And this: "The character of Sister Bernard is a Madame Bovary of the convent world. Her fantasy and insatiable need for love prove to be far greater than her ability to analyze character. While superficially simplistic, her relationship with God is complex and she is capable of battling God with the strength of Joan of Arc. These contradictions in her character are seamless and a complex and unforgettable character emerges."  (Catherine Gildiner, author of After the Falls)

Norumbega Park by Anthony Giardina (Farrar, Straus & Giroux):  This new novel by the author of White Guys looks to have a little Franzen dust sprinkled on it.  That's a compliment, by the way.  I'm very much looking forward to reading this novel about ambition and dashed dreams.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Norumbega Park begins with a vision. Richie Palumbo, the most prosaic of men, gets lost one night in 1969 while driving home with his family. He finds himself in the town of Norumbega—a hidden town, remote and gorgeous, at the far edges of Boston’s western suburbs. He sees an old, venerable house there, and without quite knowing why, decides he must have it. The repercussions of Richie’s wild dream—to own a house in this town—lead to a forty-year odyssey for his family. For Jack, his son, Norumbega becomes a sexual playground, until he meets one ungraspable girl and begins a lifelong pursuit of her. For Joannie, his daughter, the challenges of living here lead her to pursue the contemplative life. For Stella, Richie’s wife, life in Norumbega leads to a surprising growth as both a sexual and spiritual being. Norumbega Park is a novel about class and parental dreams, sex and spirituality, the way visions conflict with stubborn reality, and a family’s ability to open up, for others, a world they could never fully grasp for themselves.

The Evening Hour by Carter Sickels (Bloomsbury):  Okay, here's the deal.  My biggest internal torment--bigger even than the annual agony of buying the perfect birthday-anniversary-Christmas gifts for my wife, all dates within weeks of each other (the Bermuda Triangle of my marriage)--is the spiritual wrestling match I engage in every time another great-looking book enters my library.  I mean, I have a writing career of my own, I have a Day Job, I have marital responsibilities (see above)--how can I possibly read Every Great Book which arrives on my front porch?  It's not humanly possible.  And so, I pick and choose...and wrestle with my agonized self.  Many worthy and deserving books are forced out of the car, rolling and tumbling to the side of the road as I continue speeding down my personal racetrack of reading.  All this is a long way of saying that when Carter Sickels' book arrived and I started reading the first chapter, I was in torment because I wanted to read all of the 327 pages right away.  But I can't.  I'm already heavily invested in four other books at the moment.  And so I must leave it to you, dear blog reader, to rush out and buy The Evening Hour and then report back on whether or not my instinct proved right.  I'm not positive, but I have a sneaking suspicion this debut novel will prove to be one of my favorites of 2012.  Judge for yourself.  The Jacket Copy:
Most of the wealth in Dove Creek, West Virginia, is in the earth--in the coal seams that have provided generations with a way of life. Born and raised here, twenty-seven-year-old Cole Freeman has sidestepped work as a miner to become an aide in a nursing home. He's got a shock of bleached blond hair and a gentle touch well suited to the job. He's also a drug dealer, reselling the prescription drugs his older patients give him to a younger crowd looking for different kinds of escape. In this economically depressed, shifting landscape, Cole is floundering. The mining corporation is angling to buy the Freeman family's property, and Cole's protests only feel like stalling. Although he has often dreamed of leaving, he has a sense of duty to this land, especially after the death of his grandfather. His grandfather is not the only loss: Cole's one close friend, Terry Rose, has also slipped away from him, first to marriage, then to drugs. While Cole alternately attempts romance with two troubled women, he spends most of his time with the elderly patients at the home, desperately trying to ignore the decay of everything and everyone around him. Only when a disaster befalls these mountains is Cole forced to confront his fears and, finally, take decisive action--if not to save his world, to at least save himself.
And the Opening Lines:
Cole double-locked the trailer door behind him, then stood on the top rickety step for a moment, still waking up. Gunmetal sky, with the faintest hint of light rippling at the edges. There was a tight chill in the air on this early April morning, and he shuddered, rubbing his bare arms. The air smelled like sulfur and scorched earth.
Blurbworthiness:The Evening Hour could be a hymn sung out in a country church; when I finished it, I wanted to close my eyes, listen to its echoes, feel the power of its song. For that is what this beautiful book is: a sweet-souled, hard-eyed prayer for a beleaguered people and the beloved landscape they call home. With striking authenticity and admirable restraint, Carter Sickels brings both forcefully to life in his deeply moving, spiritually uplifting debut.” (Josh Weil, author of The New Valley)


  1. Love this monthly series, David, and I was pleased to see THE EVENING HOURS as it is on my radar. Hope you're also waiting for or have received THE COVE by Ron Rash, coming in April from Ecco. I continue to think his SERENA is one of the best novels written in the last five years.

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  2. Yes, "The Cove" is sitting here at my elbow even as I type this. I would have included it (and several others) in this month's roundup, but I was pressed for time and needed to get the January list out before the calendar flipped over to February. Look for "The Cove" to be featured here at the blog in the coming months.

    And I agree with you about "Serena." It was easily one of the best books I've read in the past ten years. Make that the past 25 years.

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