Thursday, June 11, 2015

Front Porch Books: June 2015 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, independent bookstores, 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 here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.  I should also note that, in nearly every case, I haven't had a chance to read these books.  I'm just as excited as you are to dive into these pages.

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!
by Jonathan Evison
(Algonquin Books)

Hey! I like book titles that end with an exclamation point! And I really like books by authors whose names end with Evison! Given how much I loved West of Here, I guess this one is shooting straight to the top of the To-Be-Read pile!!

Jacket Copy: With her husband Bernard two years in the grave, seventy-nine-year-old Harriet Chance sets sail on an ill-conceived Alaskan cruise only to discover that she’s been living the past sixty years of her life under entirely false pretenses. There, amid the buffets and lounge singers, between the imagined appearance of her late husband and the very real arrival of her estranged daughter, Harriet is forced to take a long look back, confronting the truth about pivotal events that changed the course of her life. Jonathan Evison has crafted a bighearted novel with an endearing heroine at its center. Through Harriet, he paints a bittersweet portrait of a postmodern everywoman with great warmth, humanity, and humor. Part dysfunctional love story, part poignant exploration of the mother/daughter relationship, nothing is what it seems in this tale of acceptance, reexamination, forgiveness, and, ultimately, healing. It is sure to appeal to admirers of Evison’s previous work, as well as fans of such writers as Meg Wolitzer, Junot Díaz, and Karen Joy Fowler.

Opening Lines:  (November 4, 1936: Harriet at Zero)  Here you come, Harriet Nathan, tiny face pinched, eyes squinting fiercely against the glare of surgical lamps, at a newly renovated Swedish hospital, high on Seattle’s First Hill.

Blurbworthiness: “Has all the wonderful snap and sizzle we’ve come to expect from Jonathan Evison’s work, and as much heart as any novel I’ve read in recent years. [He] packs an entire life--many lives--into this fine book, and does so with the empathy and insight of a writer at the top of his game.” (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

by Ernest Cline

I still haven’t managed to squeeze Ernest Cline’s previous book, Ready Player One, into my reading queue (I guess this player isn’t quite ready), but there’s something about the first line of Armada (see below) which immediately fires up my cylinders. Maybe it’s the flying saucer.

Jacket Copy:  Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe. And then he sees the flying saucer. Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders. No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it. It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar? At once gleefully embracing and brilliantly subverting science-fiction conventions as only Ernest Cline could, Armada is a rollicking, surprising thriller, a classic coming of age adventure, and an alien invasion tale like nothing you’ve ever read before—one whose every page is infused with the pop-culture savvy that has helped make Ready Player One a phenomenon.

Opening Lines:  I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.

Gateway to Paradise
by Matthew Vollmer
(Persea Books)

As if the title of Matthew Vollmer’s previous short story collection (Future Missionaries of America) wasn’t enough to engage me, there’s the opening paragraph of the first story (“Downtime”) in this new book to fully capture my attention. And let’s not overlook the excellent cover design of a pizza box opening onto a forested landscape. The promise of weirdness abounds.

Jacket Copy:  Men and women looking for escape from the excess and sham culture in which they live―junk food, souvenirs, and hype (whether for religion or sex)―are led by the power of their own imaginations to places of danger and self-reckoning. In these gritty, imaginative stories set in the mountains and small towns of the South―often in motels, theme parks, or resorts―men and women find themselves at the mercy of an inspiration gone wrong: a man on a tryst is seduced by a ghost; a woman conducts a test to discover who is her true best friend―her husband or her dog; a beleaguered young writing professor goes one step too far while chaperoning the famous writer he finds darkly alluring. In the title story, an ex-high-school basketball player living an uneventful life in her small hometown as a cashier helps her boyfriend rob a lottery winner, and finds herself on an epic journey of fear, deceit, and betrayal.

Opening Lines:  In the atrium of the Park Vista hotel, a glass elevator rose from a fern-shrouded vestibule. Its windows rattled, and its lights—softball-sized bulbs bordering its tinted glass—flickered. Ted Barber, who had been standing on the tenth floor watching a boy on the seventh toss paper airplanes into the lobby, didn’t notice the elevator until it stopped on his level. Then, like a man returning to the material world after having disappeared inside a prayer, he raised his head, blinked rapidly, and zeroed in on the the elevator’s sole passenger, who, he was surprised to realize, he recognized. It was his wife, Tavey. She didn’t look good. Then again, she was dead.

Did You Ever Have A Family
by Bill Clegg
(Simon & Schuster)

Recovering crack addict, powerhouse literary agent, bestselling memoirist, and now debut novelist: Bill Clegg touches his book with lightning-tipped fingers and leaves the reader singed from Chapter One when a pot-smoking dude named Silas wakes to the sound of sirens and looks out his bedroom window to see an oily cloud of smoke rising in his neighborhood. I may just rip a few hastily-turned pages as I plow right through this one.

Jacket Copy:  On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s life is completely devastated when a shocking disaster takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke—her entire family, all gone in a moment. And June is the only survivor. Alone and directionless, June drives across the country, away from her small Connecticut town. In her wake, a community emerges, weaving a beautiful and surprising web of connections through shared heartbreak. From the couple running a motel on the Pacific Ocean where June eventually settles into a quiet half-life, to the wedding’s caterer whose bill has been forgotten, to Luke’s mother, the shattered outcast of the town—everyone touched by the tragedy is changed as truths about their near and far histories finally come to light. Elegant and heartrending, and one of the most accomplished fiction debuts of the year, Did You Ever Have a Family is an absorbing, unforgettable tale that reveals humanity at its best through forgiveness and hope. At its core is a celebration of family—the ones we are born with and the ones we create.

Opening Lines:  He wakes to the sound of sirens. Many, loud, and very near.

Blurbworthiness:  “The force, range, and scope of Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family will grab you with its opening lines, and won’t let go until its final one. I can’t recall another novel that so effortlessly weds a nuanced, lyrical voice to an unflinching vision of just how badly things can go for people. I read it deep into the night, all the way through, telling myself it was getting late, I could finish the book in the morning. I finished it that night, however, slept a few hours, and then, in the morning, started reading it again.” (Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours)

The Heart of the Order
by Theo Schell-Lambert
(Little A)

I’m not much of a “sports guy”—don’t watch it, don’t play it, heck, I don’t even know how to spell ESPN—but I’ll read about players and their games every now and then. Especially baseball. I do enjoy a good run around the bases and a satisfying dirt-slide into home. Theo Schell-Lambert’s debut novel looks like it could be on par with some of my favorites: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, The Natural by Bernard Malamud, and the criminally under-read High and Inside by Russell Rowland. Play ball!

Jacket Copy:  Blake Alexander—“Xandy” to his teammates and fans—is the starting left-fielder for the Carolina Birds of the National League South, until a knee injury in Cincinnati leaves him facing a summer of rehab and a career in doubt. Eager to occupy himself around game time, Xandy trades his glove for an Acer laptop, and each night before first pitch, he settles into a lounger behind his borrowed house to write. What emerges from Xandy’s patio sessions is a series of reflections on the game he loves and beyond—from losing streaks to bullpen phones to his beguiling physical therapist, Jenn, who (like a third base coach) keeps giving him signs he can’t quite read. A winning narrator, with an observational style honed over years spent judging the spin on fly balls, Xandy shines as a fresh and memorable voice in American fiction.

Opening Lines:  I remember it clearly. Is that too obvious to mention—a useless way to begin? Were you in doubt that a man who makes his living with his arms and legs, his ankles and hands and rotator cuffs, would recall the moment that one of those—a cruciate ligament, they told me later, the doctor said point guards have problems with them—made a loud noise and quit working, in front of 22,471 men, women and children? See, I even remember the crowd size. They’d just announced it, answer B on the JumboTron quiz.

Blurbworthiness:  “It’s an entertaining display of our once and future national pastime’s allure—with all its minutiae and arcana—for the contemplative mind.” (The Daily Beast)

Half an Inch of Water
by Percival Everett
(Graywolf Press)

Percival Everett.  Short Stories.  Coming Soon.  ’Nuff said.

Jacket Copy:  Percival Everett’s long-awaited new collection of stories, his first since 2004’s Damned If I Do, finds him traversing the West with characteristic restlessness. A deaf Native American girl wanders off into the desert and is found untouched in a den of rattlesnakes. A young boy copes with the death of his sister by angling for an unnaturally large trout in the creek where she drowned. An old woman rides her horse into a mountain snowstorm and sees a long-dead beloved dog. For the plainspoken men and women of these stories--fathers and daughters, sheriffs and veterinarians--small events trigger sudden shifts in which the ordinary becomes unfamiliar. A harmless comment about how to ride a horse changes the course of a relationship, a snakebite gives rise to hallucinations, and the hunt for a missing man reveals his uncanny resemblance to an actor. Half an Inch of Water tears through the fabric of the everyday to examine what lies beneath the surface of these lives. In the hands of master storyteller Everett, the act of questioning leads to vistas more strange and unsettling than could ever have been expected.

Opening Lines:  A spring-fed creek ran through the ranch and so even in the harshest summer weeks there was a narrow lane of willows and green grass. Moose and elk browsed and left deep tracks in the muddy banks. Sam Innis had grown up there with his mother, his father having died in the war in Vietnam.

Blurbworthiness:  “Everett is one of the most gifted and versatile of contemporary writers....His work takes hold of us of won’t let go.”  (Alan Cheuse, NPR)

Charlie Martz and Other Stories
By Elmore Leonard
(William Morrow)

Elmore Leonard.  New Stories.  Coming Soon.  ’Nuff said.

Jacket Copy: A collection of fifteen stories, eleven of which have never been previously published, from the early career of bestselling American master Elmore Leonard. Over his long and illustrious career, Leonard was recognized as one of the greatest crime writers of all time, the author of dozens of bestselling books—many adapted for the big screen—as well as a master of short fiction. A superb stylist whose crisp, tight prose crackled with trademark wit and sharp dialogue, Leonard remains the standard for crime fiction and a literary model for writers of every genre. Marked by his unmistakable grit and humor, the stories in Charlie Martz and Other Stories—produced early in his career, when he was making his name particularly with westerns—reveal a writer in transition, exploring new voices and locations, from the bars of small-town New Mexico and Michigan to a film set in Hollywood, a hotel in Southern Spain, even a military base in Kuala Lumpur. They also introduce us to classic Leonard characters, some who recur throughout the collection, such as aging lawman Charlie Martz and weary former matador Eladio Montoya. Devoted Leonard aficionados and fans new to his fiction will marvel at these early works that reveal an artist on the cusp of greatness.

Opening Lines:  The joint on Beaubien was a semi-Black and Tan, more black than tan. Any lighter element in the place, disregarding a few beboppers, was sure to be overdressed, on the greasy side and usually carrying a gun.

Blurbworthiness:  “Quirky, tough, humorous, and always surprising characters....There’s a reason Leonard has been labeled one of the best crime writers in America and why his clipped and witty dialog and economical writing style have found their way to television and film. He’s just a great storyteller.” (Library Journal)

The Centurions
by Jean Larteguy
(Penguin Classics)

On the top floor of my house in Butte, Montana, there are two bookcases devoted exclusively to my collection of black-spined Penguin Classics paperbacks. The books, by authors ranging from Andy Adams (The Log of a Cowboy) to Zola (Germinal), overspill the shelves. I always feel a tingling zip of electricity up my spine when I look at that dark, beautiful collection. The newest member is a classic piece of war literature which, I’ll admit, I'd never heard of until the good people at Penguin brought it my attention. It’s now at the top of my must-read list.

Jacket Copy:  When The Centurions was first published in 1960, readers were riveted by the thrilling account of soldiers fighting for survival in hostile environments. They were equally transfixed by the chilling moral question the novel posed: how to fight when the “age of heroics is over.” As relevant today as it was half a century ago, The Centurions is a gripping military adventure, an extended symposium on waging war in a new global order, and an essential investigation of the ethics of counterinsurgency. Featuring a foreword by renowned military expert Robert D. Kaplan, this important wartime novel will again spark debate about controversial tactics in hot spots around the world.

Opening Lines:  Tied up to one another, the prisoners looked like a column of caterpillars on the march.

Blurbworthiness:  “It might be defined as a French The Naked and the Dead written with finesse and sensitivity and taste that the Mailer book lacked, but revealing in many ways a similar pattern as the soldier attempts to fit back into civilian life.”  (Kirkus)

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