Thursday, January 24, 2013

Front Porch Books: January 2013 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.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): For me, the moth-to-the-bug-zapper attraction begins with the title.  Cinnamon and Gunpowder.  What an odd combination.  Then I'm drawn even closer to Brown's novel by the cover: a female pirate, copper-colored hair all aflame, waves a pistol, smoke curling from the barrel to form the letters of the title (a brilliant move by FSG's jacket artists), while a man dressed in white cook's clothes stands next to her, hands bound and looking like he's about to walk the plank.  According to the Jacket Copy, this could very well be the case:
The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by the ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot. He will be spared, she tells him, as long as he puts exquisite food in front of her every Sunday without fail.  To appease the red-haired captain, Wedgwood gets cracking with the meager supplies on board. His first triumph at sea is actual bread, made from a sourdough starter that he leavens in a tin under his shirt throughout a roaring battle, as men are cutlassed all around him. Soon he’s making tea-smoked eel and brewing pineapple-banana cider.  But Mabbot—who exerts a curious draw on the chef—is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur hidden on her ship, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. As Wedgwood begins to sense a method to Mabbot’s madness, he must rely on the bizarre crewmembers he once feared: Mr. Apples, the fearsome giant who loves to knit; Feng and Bai, martial arts masters sworn to defend their captain; and Joshua, the deaf cabin boy who becomes the son Wedgwood never had.  Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a swashbuckling epicure’s adventure simmered over a surprisingly touching love story—with a dash of the strangest, most delightful cookbook never written. Eli Brown has crafted a uniquely entertaining novel full of adventure: the Scheherazade story turned on its head, at sea, with food.
So far, so good.  Then I turn to the Opening Lines and I'm pulled right into that bug-zapper light:
This body is not brave.  Bespeckled with blood, surrounded by enemies, and bound on a dark course whose ultimate destination I cannot fathom--I am not brave.
One other thing to note about Cinnamon and Gunpowder: its chapters have esoteric, Dickensian "In which" subheads--which I happen to love very much--and put Brown's cheekiness on full display.  For instance, Chapter 10: "Sauerkraut and Theater: In which cabbages and history are mistreated as we cross the Equator."

The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom (Grove Press):  My curiosity was piqued as soon as I received Grove/Atlantic's Spring catalogue and saw Kent Wascom's debut novel prominently (and properly) touted as a lead title: "One of the most powerful and impressive debuts Grove/Atlantic has ever published, The Blood of Heaven is an epic novel about the American frontier in the early days of the nineteenth century. Its twenty-six-year-old author, Kent Wascom, was awarded the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for fiction, and this first novel shows the kind of talent rarely seen in any novelist, no matter their age."  Okay, now I'm sitting up a little straighter in my chair, ears all a-perk.  And here comes the Jacket Copy:
The Blood of Heaven is the story of Angel Woolsack, a preacher’s son, who flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father, falls in with a charismatic highwayman, then settles with his adopted brothers on the rough frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries plotting to break away from the young United States and create a new country under the leadership of the renegade founding father Aaron Burr.
Okay, fine--that's all well and good, but I need to taste the proof in the pudding.  So I download an advance copy from NetGalley and turn to the first page.  Boy howdy!  To paraphrase Willie Nelson in The Electric Horseman, Mr. Wascom's writing can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.  Here are the Opening Lines, which take place in New Orleans in 1861:
Tonight I went from my wife's bed to the open window and pissed down blood on Royal Street.  She shrieked for me to stop and use the pot, but below I swear the secession revelers, packed to the streetcorners, were giving up their voices, cheering me on.  They're still out there, flying high on nationhood.  Suddenly gifted with a new country, they are like children at Christmas.  I saw their numbers swelling all the way to Canal, and in this corner of the crammed streets the celebrants were caught and couldn't escape my red blessing.  A herd of broadcloth boys passed under my stream while a whore howled as I further wilted the flowers in her hair and drove her customers off; and yawping stevedores, too drunk to mind, were themselves bloodied even as they tried to shove others in.  And if I could I would've written out a blessing on all their faces, anointed them with the red, red water from my Holy Sprinkler, and had them pray with me.

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books):  The release of a new novel by Caroline Leavitt is always cause for celebration. So, come May, there should plenty of dancing in the streets when Is This Tomorrow arrives.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In 1956, when divorced working-mom Ava Lark rents a house with her twelve-year-old son, Lewis, in a Boston suburb, the neighborhood is less than welcoming. Lewis yearns for his absent father, befriending the only other fatherless kids: Jimmy and Rose. One afternoon, Jimmy goes missing. The neighborhood—in the era of the Cold War, bomb scares, and paranoia—seizes the opportunity to further ostracize Ava and her son. Lewis never recovers from the disappearance of his childhood friend. By the time he reaches his twenties, he’s living a directionless life, a failure in love, estranged from his mother. Rose is now a schoolteacher in another city, watching over children as she was never able to watch over her own brother. Ava is building a new life for herself in a new decade. When the mystery of Jimmy’s disappearance is unexpectedly solved, all three must try to reclaim what they have lost.
Here are the novel's Opening Lines:
      She came home to find him in her kitchen. She was in no mood, having spent the whole morning arguing with a lawyer, but there he was, her son’s best friend, Jimmy Rearson, a twelve-year-old kid home from school at three on a Wednesday afternoon with too long hair and a crush on her, reading all the ingredients on the back of a Duncan Hines Lemon Supreme cake mix, tapping the box with a finger. ”Adjust temperature for high altitudes,” he said, as if it really mattered. She felt a pang for him, a boy so lonely he feigned interest in how many eggs and how much sugar a cake might need. He unabashedly leaned over and turned on her radio, and there was Elvis crooning, “Heartbreak Hotel,” the words splashing into the kitchen.
      “How’d you get in here?” Ava asked, reaching over to turn down the music. No one, except for her, locked doors in the neighborhood.
Blurbworthiness: "From the lockstep '50s into the do-your-own-thing '60s, Caroline Leavitt follows her cast of lonely characters as they grapple with the sorrowful mystery of a missing child.  'Are any of our children safe?' one asks, and of course the answer is no, no one is.  Like Mona Simpson's Off Keck Road, Is This Tomorrow is an intimate meditation on time, loss and destiny."  (Stewart O'Nan)

Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason (Simon and Schuster):  The only thing I'm going to say about Jamie Mason's novel is this: if you have any sort of pulse, you'll be burning rubber down the streets of your neighborhood on February 12 to be the first in line at your independent bookstore to get a copy of Three Graves Full.  You will definitely want to find out what happens after these Opening Lines:
      There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard. Jason Getty had grown accustomed to the strangling night terrors, the randomly prickling palms, the bright, aching surges of adrenaline at the sight of Mrs. Truesdell’s dog trotting across the lawn with some unidentifiable thing clamped in its jaws. It had been seventeen months since he’d sweated over the narrow trench he’d carved at the back border of his property; since he’d rolled the body out of the real world and into his dreams.
      Strangely though, it wasn’t recalling the muffled crunch of bone that plagued him, nor the memory of the cleaning afterward, hours of it, all the while marveling that his heart could pound that hard for that long. No. It was that first shovelful of dark dirt spraying across the white sheet at the bottom of the grave that came to him every time he closed his eyes to sleep. Was it deep enough? He didn’t know—he wasn’t a gravedigger. Then again, in his mind he wasn’t a murderer either, but facts are facts.
Okay, I'll throw in a little of the Jacket Copy, just to really set the hook in your mouth:
More than a year ago, mild-mannered Jason Getty killed a man he wished he’d never met. Then he planted the problem a little too close to home. But just as he’s learning to live with the undeniable reality of what he’s done, police unearth two bodies on his property—neither of which is the one Jason buried.

The Raven's Gift by Don Rearden (Pintail Books):  I first met Don Rearden about ten years ago when we were both students at the University of Alaska.  Don was working on a screenplay about Bigfoot, which was eventually turned into a movie titled Clawed (also known as The Unknown).  Don and I fell out of touch with each other until recently, when I learned that his novel The Raven's Gift had found a publisher in Canada.  And now, to my delight and excitement, it's making its way to bookstores south of the border, courtesy of Pintail Books, an imprint of Penguin.  In The Raven's Gift, Reardon imagines a sort of post-apocalyptic Alaska in which a virus threatens to wipe out an entire village.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
John Morgan and his wife can barely contain their excitement upon arriving as the new teachers in a Yup'ik Eskimo village on the windswept Alaskan tundra. But their move proves disastrous when a deadly epidemic strikes and the isolated community descends into total chaos. When outside aid fails to arrive, John’s only hope lies in escaping the snow-covered tundra and the hunger of the other survivors—he must make the thousand-mile trek across the Alaskan wilderness for help. He encounters a blind Eskimo girl and an elderly woman who need his protection, and he needs their knowledge of the terrain to survive. The harsh journey pushes him beyond his limits as he discovers a new sense of hope and the possibility of loving again.
Blurbworthiness: "The Raven's Gift has a winning plot, characters we've never met before, and intriguing details of a world most of us will never venture to--creating a read that opens our eyes and finds the fault lines of a heart in one breathless sitting."  (Jodi Picoult)

The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley (William Morrow):  With a plot that can only be described as "gut-wrenching," Priscille Sibley's debut novel is sure to stir up passionate debate, making it ripe for book club discussions everywhere. Here's the Jacket Copy:
Matt Beaulieu was two years old the first time he held Elle McClure in his arms, seventeen when he first kissed her under a sky filled with shooting stars, and thirty-three when they wed. Now in their late thirties, the deeply devoted couple has everything—except the baby they've always wanted.  When a tragic accident leaves Elle brain-dead, Matt is devastated. Though he cannot bear losing her, he knows his wife, a thoughtful and adventurous scientist, feared only one thing—a slow death. Just before Matt agrees to remove Elle from life support, the doctors discover that she is pregnant. Now what was once a clear-cut decision becomes an impossible choice. Matt knows how much this child would have meant to Elle. While there is no certainty her body can sustain the pregnancy, he is sure Elle would want the baby to have a chance. Linney, Matt's mother, believes her son is blind with denial. She loves Elle, too, and insists that Elle would never want to be kept alive by artificial means, no matter what the situation.  Divided by the love they share, driven by principle, Matt and Linney fight for what each believes is right, and the result is a disagreement that escalates into a controversial legal battle, ultimately going beyond one family and one single life.
And here are the gripping Opening Lines:
      Late that night--on our last night--we lay in awe, mesmerized again by the Perseid meteor showers as they transformed stardust into streamers of light.  They were an anniversary of sorts for us, a summertime event Elle and I cherished, and we fell asleep on the widow's walk of our old house, my beautiful wife curled up beside me, her head resting in the crook of my arm.
      If only I stayed home in the morning--if only I looked over at Elle and realized nothing I could or would ever do was more important that keeping her safe.  If only--Jesus--
      I've heard patients' families play the "if only" game.  In the eleven years I've been a doctor, I've come to expect the denial and the bargaining.  But reality is cold and hard and, all too often, irreversible.  I did not stay home and neither did Elle.

Double Feature by Owen King (Scribner):  This is a big year for the King family dynasty.  September brings us patriarch Stephen's much-anticipated sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep; April sees the publication of son Joe Hill's new novel NOS4A2; and March delivers Double Feature, the debut novel by King's other son, Owen. With apologies to father and brother, Owen's big sweeping novel about Hollywood is the once perched atop my To-Be-Read hill of books, aka Mount NeverRest. (*And of course, I'll eventually read Doctor Sleep and NOS4A2, but Owen comes first.)  I've been diving nose-first into Tinseltown epics lately, starting with Emma Straub's wonderful Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures and continuing on through Juliann Garey's blistering Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See.  And now along comes King's Oedipal-flavored story of a father and son hashing out their relationship against a cinematic backdrop.  Chewy and delicious!  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Filmmaker Sam Dolan has a difficult relationship with his father, B-movie actor Booth Dolan—a boisterous, opinionated, lying lothario whose screen legacy falls somewhere between cult hero and pathetic. Allie, Sam’s dearly departed mother, was a woman whose only fault, in Sam’s eyes, was her eternal affection for his father. Also included in the cast of indelible characters: a precocious, frequently violent half-sister; a conspiracy-theorist second wife; an Internet-famous roommate; a family friend and contractor who can’t stop expanding his house; a happy-go-lucky college girlfriend and her husband, a retired Yankees catcher; the morose producer of a true crime show; and a slouching indie film legend. Not to mention a tragic sex monster. Unraveling the tumultuous, decades-spanning story of the Dolan family’s friends, lovers, and adversaries, Double Feature is about letting go of everything—regret, resentment, ambition, dignity, moving pictures, the dead—and taking it again from the top. Combining propulsive storytelling and mordant wit against the backdrop of indie filmmaking, Double Feature brims with a deep understanding of the trials of ambition and art, of relationships and life, and of our attempts to survive it all.
Blurbworthiness: “Sharp, hilarious, and irreverent, Double Feature is not only a love-letter to cinema, but also a moving exploration of what it means to be an artist.  This novel is brilliant, and Owen King is a magician.”  (Lauren Groff)

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