Thursday, March 20, 2014

Front Porch Books: March 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.

Hyde by Daniel Levine (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  Contemporary novels told from the viewpoint of classic literary characters have long been in vogue (Wide Sargasso Sea, Ahab's Wife, Wicked, anyone?), but Levine's debut novel narrated by Robert Louis Stevenson's "monster" is especially intriguing and, thanks to some wickedly cool packaging by HMH, feels fresh as the drops of blood spattered around the cover.  Jacket Copy:
"What happens when a villain becomes a hero?" Mr. Hyde is trapped, locked in Dr. Jekyll's surgical cabinet, counting the hours until his inevitable capture. As four days pass, he has the chance, finally, to tell his story--the story of his brief, marvelous life. Summoned to life by strange potions, Hyde knows not when or how long he will have control of "the body." When dormant, he watches Dr. Jekyll from a remove, conscious of this other, high-class life but without influence. As the experiment continues, their mutual existence is threatened, not only by the uncertainties of untested science, but also by a mysterious stalker. Hyde is being taunted--possibly framed. Girls have gone missing; someone has been killed. Who stands, watching, from the shadows? In the blur of this shared consciousness, can Hyde ever be confident these crimes were not committed by his hand? 
Blurbworthiness: "Prepare to be seduced by literary devilry.  Go back to Victorian times to find a very postmodern whodunit.  Visceral prose, atmosphere you could choke on, characters who seem to be at your very shoulder." (Ronald Frame, author of Havisham)  Opening Lines:
      Henry Jekyll is dead.
      I whisper the words and then listen, as if I’ve dropped a stone into a well and await the plunk and splash . . . But inside my head there is only silence. All around me a chorus of celebratory noises fills the void: the simmering pop of the coals in the stove, the nautical creak of the whole wooden cabinet, and a faint, high-pitched cheeping from beyond the windows that sounds almost like baby birds. Here I sit in Jekyll’s chair by these three encrusted casement windows, with his mildewed overcoat draped about my shoulders like a travelling cloak. My journey’s end. The transformation has never felt so smooth before. No spinning sickness, no pain. Just a gentle dissolution: Jekyll evaporating like atomic particles into the air and leaving me behind in the body. This time for good.
As a bonus, the publisher has also included the complete text of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--nicely positioned in the book after Levine's re-imagined tale.  Never having read the classic, I'm torn as to which one I'll read first.  You might even say I'm of two minds...

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David van Reybrouck (Ecco):  I grew up in a time (the 1960s) when parts of Africa were still referred to as "deepest, darkest" and there was still an aura of exoticism surrounding the continent--remnants of the Age of Exploration (which, in some cases, was also the Age of Colonialism and Racism).  My pop culture was peopled by everyone from Abbot and Costello to Stanley and Livingstone.  And so, when I received this big, meaty book of the Congo's history, my mind immediately flashed to British men in safari hats and white apes yodeling along jungle vines.  I am sure, however,  that author David van Reybrouck will set me straight on the true history of this nation.  Jacket Copy:
Hailed as "a monumental history . . . more exciting than any novel" (NRC Handelsblad), David van Reybrouck's rich and gripping epic, in the tradition of Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore, tells the extraordinary story of one of the world's most devastated countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Epic in scope yet eminently readable, penetrating and deeply moving, David van Reybrouck's Congo: The Epic History of a People traces the fate of one of the world's most critical, failed nation-states, second only to war-torn Somalia: the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Van Reybrouck takes us through several hundred years of history, bringing some of the most dramatic episodes in Congolese history.  Here are the people and events that have impinged the Congo's development--from the slave trade to the ivory and rubber booms; from the arrival of Henry Morton Stanley to the tragic regime of King Leopold II; from global indignation to Belgian colonialism; from the struggle for independence to Mobutu's brutal rule; and from the world famous Rumble in the Jungle to the civil war over natural resources that began in 1996 and still rages today.  Van Reybrouck interweaves his own family's history with the voices of a diverse range of individuals--charismatic dictators, feuding warlords, child-soldiers, the elderly, female merchant smugglers, and many in the African diaspora of Europe and China--to offer a deeply humane approach to political history, focusing squarely on the Congolese perspective and returning a nation's history to its people.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books):  Imagine a mousetrap baited with the most pungent, flavorful cheese: golden-orange, rich with milk and smokey spices, shimmering waves of aroma practically visible to the eye.  Something impossible for even the most iron-willed mouse to resist.  Now, in place of the cheese, imagine a novel about a bookstore, an abandoned baby, and a curmudgeonly bookseller ...and, SNAP!, you've got an instant bestseller--at least among the passionate society of book vendors and readers.  Gabrielle Zevin's new novel is already a #1 Indie Next Pick and will no doubt enjoy a flurry of handselling when it's released on April 1.  From the little I've read in its pages, it deserves every chime of the cash-register bell.  Only a few pages in, and I felt the snap of the mousetrap bar across my neck.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Gabrielle Zevin’s enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books--and booksellers--that changes our lives by giving us the stories that open our hearts and enlighten our minds.  On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World."  A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.  A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be.  His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen.  Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island--from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude.  Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him.  These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.  And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore.  It’s a small package, but large in weight.  It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew.  It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.  As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.
Here are those click-bait Opening Lines:
On the ferry from Hyannis to Alice Island, Amelia Loman paints her nails yellow and, while waiting for them to dry, skims her predecessor's notes. "Island Books, approximately $350,000.00 per annum in sales, the better portion of that in the summer months to folks on holiday," Harvey Rhodes reports. "Six hundred square feet of selling space. No full-time employees other than owner. Very small children's section. Fledgling online presence. Poor community outreach. Inventory emphasizes the literary, which is good for us, but Fikry's tastes are very specific, and without Nic, he can't be counted on to hand-sell. Luckily for him, Island's the only game in town." Amelia yawns--she's nursing a slight hangover--and wonders if one persnickety little bookstore will be worth such a long trip. By the time her nails have hardened, her relentlessly bright-sided nature has kicked in. Of course it's worth it! Her specialty is persnickety little bookstores and the particular breed that runs them. Her talents also include multitasking, selecting the right wine at dinner (and the coordinating skill, tending friends who've had too much to drink), houseplants, strays, and other lost causes.
Blurbworthiness: “The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a breezy, big-hearted treat, especially if you've ever wondered about the inner workings of America's national treasures--neighborhood bookstores.”  (Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf):  Earlier this year, Emily St. John Mandel Tumbled about her next novel:
Station Eleven went into production yesterday. The final draft was labeled v26. There weren’t actually 26 successive versions of the book, probably there were only about ten complete drafts in total—every draft gets a new version number, but also I copy the Word file and give it a new version number every time I make a major change—but still, the point is we spent a lot of time together, the book and I. Both exciting and a little sad to let it out of my hands.
It may be sad for Emily to relinquish the book, but her melancholy is our gain.  Station Eleven looks like it will be every bit as good as The Singer's Gun, The Lola Quartet and Last Night in Montreal.  It also marks the first book of Mandel's which won't be published by Unbridled Books here in the U.S.--it will be published by Knopf in the U.S., HarperCollins in Canada and Picador in the UK.  Emily also Tumbled about that trinity of editors: "I wondered how this arrangement would work at the outset, but they confer amongst themselves and get their stories straight before they email me so that their notes don’t conflict, and the result—three sets of excellent and thoughtful notes from three very talented editors—is extraordinary. The final draft of this book will be vastly better than the draft that went out on submission, and it will be because of them."  Here's the novel's Jacket Copy:
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
Station Eleven also has a great Opening Line: "The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored." From there, we go right into 51-year-old Arthur Leander's on-stage collapse in a scene so vivid I could practically hear the squeak of unoiled seats in the theater and the sweet perfume of pancake makeup on the actors' faces. Mandel always creates the most interesting worlds for us to live in for the space of the time it takes to read her pages.  I for one can't wait to explore more of Arthur's universe.

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (Knopf):  Speaking of great Opening Lines, Nick Harkaway's new novel has one of the best I've come across this year: "On the steps of the old mission house, the sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican."  There are so many captivating hooks in that one sentence, I don't even know where to begin.  And that's before I even get to the Jacket Copy:
Lester Ferris, sergeant of the British Army, is a good man in need of a rest. He's spent a lot of his life being shot at, and Afghanistan was the last stop on his road to exhaustion. He has no family, he's nearly forty, burned out and about to be retired. The island of Mancreu is the ideal place for Lester to serve out his time. It's a former British colony in legal limbo, soon to be destroyed because of its very special version of toxic pollution - a down-at-heel, mildly larcenous backwater. Of course, that also makes Mancreu perfect for shady business, hence the Black Fleet of illicit ships lurking in the bay: listening stations, offshore hospitals, money laundering operations, drug factories and deniable torture centres. None of which should be a problem, because Lester's brief is to sit tight and turn a blind eye. But Lester Ferris has made a friend: a brilliant, internet-addled street kid with a comic book fixation who will need a home when the island dies - who might, Lester hopes, become an adopted son. Now, as Mancreu's small society tumbles into violence, the boy needs Lester to be more than just an observer. In the name of paternal love, Lester Ferris will do almost anything. And he's a soldier with a knack for bad places: 'almost anything' could be a very great deal - even becoming some sort of hero. But this is Mancreu, and everything here is upside down. Just exactly what sort of hero will the boy need?
Looks like Knopf has another winner on their hands here.  Roar!

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (Riverhead):  Despite the breezy title and the cover design of a couple floating in a turquoise-blue swimming pool, this might not be the most ideal book to pack in your suitcase for that Caribbean getaway.  The dark undertones of a seemingly happy family might hit a little too close to home for some readers who just want to escape "real life."  On the other hand, maybe The Vacationers is the perfect novel for that seven-day cruise.  Based on how well Straub brought a complicated Hollywood actress to life in Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, I'm guessing she'll hold up a sharp-edged mirror in these pages--one which we should all stand in front of for a good, long self-examination.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
For the Posts, a two-week trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca with their extended family and friends is a celebration: Franny and Jim are observing their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has graduated from high school. The sunlit island, its mountains and beaches, its tapas and tennis courts, also promise an escape from the tensions simmering at home in Manhattan. But all does not go according to plan: over the course of the vacation, secrets come to light, old and new humiliations are experienced, childhood rivalries resurface, and ancient wounds are exacerbated. This is a story of the sides of ourselves that we choose to show and those we try to conceal, of the ways we tear each other down and build each other up again, and the bonds that ultimately hold us together. With wry humor and tremendous heart, Emma Straub delivers a richly satisfying story of a family in the midst of a maelstrom of change, emerging irrevocably altered yet whole.
As a frequent-flyer reader, I can totally relate to these Opening Lines:
Leaving always came as a surprise, no matter how long the dates had been looming on the calendar. Jim had packed his suitcase the night before, but now, moments before their scheduled departure, he was wavering. Had he packed enough books? He walked back and forth in front of the bookshelf in his office, pulling novels out by their spines and then sliding them back into place. Had he packed his running shoes? Had he packed his shaving cream? Elsewhere in the house, Jim could hear his wife and their daughter in similar last-minute throes of panic, running up and down the stairs with one last item that had been forgotten in a heap by the door.
Blurbworthiness: "The Vacationers is a beautifully told story that walks the tightrope of family angst and connection with hilarity and truth. Get ready for the Post family drama, where the near empty nest collides with the dreams of the new generation. Emma Straub's writing is deft, clear and wise in ways that will surprise and delight you. It's a beyond the beach read. It's Ms. Straub at her dazzling best." (Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker’s Wife)

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Tin House Books):  From the sound of this Blurbworthiness, Sean Michaels' Us Conductors is one of those admirably ambitious novels that take big bites which always have me worried the author will be able to swallow the whole mouthful: "Us Conductors stretches its arms to encompass nearly everything— it is an immigrant tale, an epic, a spy intrigue, a prison confession, an inventor's manual, a creation myth, and an obituary—but the electric current humming through its heart is an achingly resonant love story. Sean Michaels orchestrates his first novel like a virtuoso." (Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena).  I like big novels that take chances, and so I'm looking forward to heaping my plate with Michaels' words. Here's the Jacket Copy:
In a finely woven series of flashbacks and correspondence, Lev Termen, the Russian scientist, inventor, and spy, tells the story of his life to his “one true love,” Clara Rockmore, the finest theremin player in the world. In the first half of the book, we learn of Termen’s early days as a scientist in Leningrad during the Bolshevik Revolution, the acclaim he receives as the inventor of the theremin, and his arrival in 1930s New York under the aegis of the Russian state. In the United States he makes a name for himself teaching the theremin to eager music students and marketing his inventions to American companies. In the second half, the novel builds to a crescendo as Termen returns to Russia, where he is imprisoned in a Siberian gulag and later brought to Moscow, tasked with eavesdropping on Stalin himself. Throughout all this, his love for Clara remains constant and unflagging, traveling through the ether much like a theremin’s notes. Us Conductors is steeped in beauty, wonder, and looping heartbreak, a sublime debut that inhabits the idea of invention on every level.
And here are those virtuoso Opening Lines:
      I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked termenvox. He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox--the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.
      I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to something. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termen, mouthpiece of the universe.

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