Thursday, January 23, 2014

Front Porch Books: January 2014 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 Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan (Scribner):  This debut collection of essays and short stories might almost be too sad to read--not necessarily from the content itself (though it might be laced with melancholy), but for the story behind the story.  Marina Keegan's star was on the rise when she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at The New Yorker.  She wrote an impassioned essay for The Yale Daily News in which she urged her classmates to embrace life and not let competition and anxiety hold them back.  Marina Keegan, by all appearances, was in love with life.  And then, five days after graduation, she died in a car crash. As her grieving family, friends, and classmates held a memorial service for Marina, that last essay for The Yale Daily News, "The Opposite of Loneliness," went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits.  It's always hard to lose a promising writer at so young an age (like Amanda Davis, for instance).  And so, reading this book will undoubtedly be a sad experience.  I mean, it's impossible to read this paragraph from the title essay and not feel moved:
But let us get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us. They’re part of us and they are set for repetition as we grow up and move to New York and away from New York and wish we did or didn’t live in New York. I plan on having parties when I’m 30. I plan on having fun when I’m old. Any notion of THE BEST years comes from clich├ęd “should haves…” “if I’d…” “wish I’d…”
From the little I've read so far, The Opposite of Loneliness also promises to be rewarding.  Blurbworthiness: "Illuminates the optimism and neurosis felt by new grads everywhere....Like every millennial who's seen irony elevated to an art form, Keegan brings self-awareness to the collective insecurity of her peers even as she captures it with a precision that only comes from someone who feels it too. How unfortunate that she will never know the value readers will find in her work." (Publishers Weekly)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (The Penguin Press):  There's a Lovely Bones vibe to Everything I Never Told You right from the get-go: "Lydia is dead.  But they don't know this yet."  Dead girl, grieving family, questions without answers--sure, we've seen this before, but I am looking forward to Ng's debut novel with undisguised hope and glee.  There's an attention to detail to be found even in the Opening Lines:
      Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May third, six-thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with a small tick. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial towards WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, Lydia’s taking a long time today.
      Upstairs, Marilyn opens her daughter’s door and sees the bed unslept in: neat hospital corners still pleated beneath the comforter, pillow still fluffed and convex. Nothing seems out of place. Mustard-colored corduroys tangled on the floor, a single rainbow-striped sock. A row of science fair ribbons on the wall, a postcard of Einstein. Lydia’s duffel bag crumpled on the floor of the closet. Lydia’s green bookbag slouched against her desk. Lydia’s bottle of Baby Love atop the dresser, Lydia’s faint sweet smell still in the air, powdery and soft, a little-girl, loved-baby scent. But no Lydia.
Just look at how much we already know about the girl after only two paragraphs: a neatly-made bed contrasted with the mess of the clothes, a science nerd, a hard-working student. I'm really drawn to Ng's authority over her characters.  Here's more about the book from the Jacket Copy:
[In] this exquisite debut novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio, Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party. When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened. A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash (William Morrow):  This new novel by Wiley Cash (who also wrote A Land More Kind Than Home) opens with an epigraph from Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood:
Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place...Nothing outside you can give you any place...In yourself right now is all the place you've got.
That's about as spot-on perfect an epigraph as I've read in a long time because Cash's novel focuses on both a sense of displacement and self-reliance on the part of two young girls, sisters Easter and Ruby Quillby.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
When their mother dies unexpectedly, twelve-year-old Easter Quillby and her six-year-old sister, Ruby, are shuffled into the foster care system in Gastonia, North Carolina, a little town not far from the Appalachian Mountains. But just as they settle into their new life, their errant father, Wade, an ex-minor league baseball player whom they haven't seen in years, suddenly reappears and steals them away in the middle of the night. Brady Weller, the girls' court-appointed guardian, begins looking for Wade, and quickly turns up unsettling information linking him to a multimillion-dollar robbery. But Brady isn't the only one hunting him. Also on the trail is Robert Pruitt, a mercurial man nursing a years-old vendetta, a man determined to find Wade and claim what he believes he is owed.
In addition to having a crackerjack corker of a plot, This Dark Road to Mercy is shot through with a strong sense of character and voice, which is apparent from the Opening Lines narrated by Easter:
Wade disappeared on us when I was six years old, and then he showed up out of nowhere the year I turned twelve. By then I’d spent half my life listening to Mom blame him for everything from the lights getting turned off to me and Ruby not having new shoes to wear to school, and by the time he came back I’d already decided that he was the loser she’d always said he was. But it turns out he was much more than that. He was also a thief, and if I’d known what kind of people were looking for him I never would’ve let him take me and my little sister out of Gastonia, North Carolina, in the first place.

Redeployment by Phil Klay (The Penguin Press):  It feels like I've been waiting a decade for this book to arrive.  In fact, it's been a couple of years--shortly after I first read Klay's short story "Redeployment" in the anthology Fire and Forget (full disclosure: one of my stories, "Roll Call" is also in that collection).  When I read the Opening Lines, it was as if a bomb had gone off in my chest:
      We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose and we called it "Operation Scooby." I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.
      First time was instinct. I hear O’Leary go, "Jesus," and there’s a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he’d lap up water from a bowl. It wasn’t American blood, but still, there’s that dog, lapping it up. And that’s the last straw, I guess, and then it’s open season on dogs.
By the time I reached the end of that story--a powerfully affecting narrative about a soldier's readjustment (or lack thereof) to domestic life--I knew I'd just witnessed the start of a great writing career.  I immediately set about e-stalking Phil Klay, hoping against all hope that "Redeployment" wasn't just a one-off affair and that he would be coming out with a book of his own which would get wide recognition.  Ladies and gentlemen, that day is here (or will be when the book is released in March).  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Phil Klay's Redeployment takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos. In "Redeployment", a soldier who has had to shoot dogs because they were eating human corpses must learn what it is like to return to domestic life in suburbia, surrounded by people "who have no idea where Fallujah is, where three members of your platoon died." In "After Action Report," a Lance Corporal seeks expiation for a killing he didn't commit, in order that his best friend will be unburdened. A Mortuary Affairs Marine tells about his experiences collecting remains—of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers both. A chaplain sees his understanding of Christianity, and his ability to provide solace through religion, tested by the actions of a ferocious Colonel. And in the darkly comic "Money as a Weapons System", a young Foreign Service Officer is given the absurd task of helping Iraqis improve their lives by teaching them to play baseball. These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy, comradeship and violence that make up a soldier's daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse, and despair that can accompany a soldier's homecoming.
Blurbworthiness: "Redeployment is a stunning, upsetting, urgently necessary book about the impact of the Iraq war on both soldiers and civilians. Klay's writing is searing and powerful, unsparing of its characters and its readers, art made from a soldier's fearless commitment to confront those losses that can't be tallied in statistics. 'Be honest with me,' a college student asks a returning veteran in one story, and Phil Klay's answer is a challenge of its own: these stories demand and deserve our attention." (Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!)

The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton (Ecco):  Here's another promising book of war fiction, set in another time and a place far from Iraq (though emotionally quite close, I imagine): World War Two on the western-most fringe of Alaska.  The Aleutian Islands were the scene for some pretty intense, though short-lived, hand-to-hand combat.  In his new novel, Payton plunks his protagonist down right in the middle of the action.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain:
A gripping tale of survival and an epic love story in which a husband and wife-separated by the only battle of World War II to take place on American soil-fight to reunite in Alaska's starkly beautiful Aleutian Islands. Following the death of his younger brother in Europe, journalist John Easley is determined to find meaning in his loss, to document some part of the growing war that claimed his own flesh and blood. Leaving behind his beloved wife, Helen, after an argument they both regret, he heads north from Seattle to investigate the Japanese invasion of Alaska's Aleutian Islands, a story censored by the U.S. government. While John is accompanying a crew on a bombing run, his plane is shot down over the island of Attu. He survives only to find himself exposed to a harsh and unforgiving wilderness, known as "the Birthplace of Winds." There, John must battle the elements, starvation, and his own remorse while evading discovery by the Japanese. Alone in their home three thousand miles to the south, Helen struggles with the burden of her husband's disappearance. Caught in extraordinary circumstances, in this new world of the missing, she is forced to reimagine who she is-and what she is capable of doing. Somehow, she must find John and bring him home, a quest that takes her into the farthest reaches of the war, beyond the safety of everything she knows.
Love and war always make a potent combination, but then you throw in the harsh environment of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and the literary stakes are raised considerably. The book begins in the middle of that plot synopsis, after John has crash-landed on the island. You've gotta admit, these are some pretty gripping Opening Lines:
      When John Easley opens his eyes to the midday sky his life does not pass before him. He sees instead a seamless sheet of sky gone gray from far too many washings. He blinks twice, then focuses on the tiny black specks drifting across the clouds. They pass through his field of vision wherever he turns to look. Last winter, the doctor pronounced them floaters. Said that by Easley's age, thirty-eight, plenty of people had them. Little bits of the eyeball's interior lining had come free and were swimming inside the jelly. What Easley actually sees are not the specks themselves, but the shadows they cast as they pass over his retina. To avoid their distraction, the doctor advised him to refrain from staring at a blank page, the sky, or snow. These are his first conscious thoughts on the island of Attu.
      He sits up straight. When he does, it feels as if his head has a momentum all its own, as if it wants to continue its upward trajectory. A dull pain jabs his ribs. He places bare hands in the snow to keep from keeling over. The parachute luffs out behind him--a jaundiced violation against the otherwise perfect white. Fog so thick he can't see the end of the silk. For a moment, he is anxious it might catch a breeze and drag him farther upslope.

Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird (Knopf):  Continue to travel west of Attu and you'll land in the geography of Sarah Bird's new novel.  Above the East China Sea is set on Okinawa and spans two generations--from World War Two to the present day.  The Opening Lines are a nice companion to those of Payton's novel:
      The choking black smoke from the fires raging below rises up, trying to claim me and my child. I climb higher. I must hurry. I must do what has to be done before the sun rises. The black stone tears at my skin. I ignore the cuts and drag us up and onto the top of the cliff.
      At the summit, I rise on trembling legs. The hundred thousand spirits who've gone before greet us with cries of joy, happy as a flock of crows at sunset hailing the returned. I see them. I see the women, the young girls, their kimonos fluttering above their heads like tattered banners as they plummet through the air. I see the emperor's soldiers, emaciated young men, caps flying straight up off their heads as they hurtle down, toward the sea.
      They had no choice but to jump. And, now, we have none.
I dare you stop reading after that.  I double-dog dare you.  Here's more about what you'll find on the rest of the pages from the Jacket Copy:
Set on the island of Okinawa today and during World War II, this deeply moving and evocative novel tells the entwined stories of two teenage girls--an American and an Okinawan--whose lives are connected across 70 years by the shared experience of both profound loss and renewal. Luz, a contemporary U.S. Air Force brat, lives with her no-nonsense sergeant mother at Kadena Air Base. Luz's older sister, her best friend and emotional center, has died in the Afghan war. Unmoored by her death, unable to lean on her mother, Luz contemplates taking her own life. In l945, Tamiko has lost everyone--the older sister she idolized and her entire family--and finds herself trapped between the occupying Japanese and the invading Americans whom she has been taught are demons that live to rape. On an island where the spirits of the dead are part of life and the afterworld reunites you with your family, suicide offers Tamiko the promise of peace. As Luz tracks down the story of her own Okinawan grandmother, she discovers that the ancestral spirits work as readily to save her as they do to help Tamiko find a resting place. And as these two stories unfold and intertwine, we see how war and American occupation have shaped and reshaped the lives of Okinawans.

The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown):  Megan Abbott continues to produce novels which prick, prod and provoke.  Dare Me was what Gillian Flynn called "Lord of the Flies set in a high school cheerleading squad;" The End of Everything centered around the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl in a small town; and Queenpin plunged readers into a noir-dark world of casinos, racetracks and seedy characters.  And now comes The Fever which is full of plague, family secrets and Abbott's trademark sharp writing.  Exhibit A: the Jacket Copy:
The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie's best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community. As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town's fragile idea of security.
Exhibit B: the Opening Lines, which playfully tease us with what could be double entendres...or perhaps something more sinister:
      "The first time, you can't believe how much it hurts."
      Deenie's legs are shaking, but she tries to hide it, pushing her knees together, her hand hot on her thigh.
      Six other girls are waiting. A few have done it before, but most are like Deenie.
      "I heard you might want to throw up even," one says. "I knew a girl who passed out. They had to stop in the middle."
      "It just kind of burns," says another. "You're sore for a few days. I heard by the third time, you don't even feel it."
       I'm next, Deenie thinks, a few minutes and it'll be me.

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