Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Front Porch Books: August 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.

A Slant of Light
by Jeffrey Lent

Jeffrey Lent’s new novel came out this past April, but I’m including it here because: A) a copy from the publisher just landed on my front doorstep a week ago; and B) I’m such a die-hard fan of Lent’s work (Lost Nation, in particular) that I will never skip an opportunity to share his work with others. Set in western New York just after the Civil War, A Slant of Light opens with a scene of violence so shocking--blood spills all over farmer Malcolm Hopeton’s dusty courtyard by page 3--that will either turn readers away from the novel or send them spiralling into the rest of the pages. Me, I am definitely in the latter camp.

Jacket Copy:  At the close of the Civil War, weary veteran Malcolm Hopeton returns to his home in western New York State to find his wife and hired man missing and his farm in disrepair. A double murder ensues, the repercussions of which ripple through a community with spiritual roots in the Second Great Awakening. Hopeton has gone from the horrors of war to those far worse, and arrayed around him are a host of other people struggling to make sense of his crime. Among them is Enoch Stone, the lawyer for the community, whose spiritual dedication is subverted by his lust for power; August Swarthout, whose wife has left earthly time and whose eye is set on eternity; and a boy who must straddle two worlds as he finds his own truth and strength. Always there is love and the memory of love--as haunting as the American Eden that Jeffrey Lent has so exquisitely rendered in this unforgettable novel. A Slant of Light is a novel of earthly pleasure and deep love, of loss and war, of prophets and followers, of theft and revenge, in an American moment where a seemingly golden age has been shattered. This is Jeffrey Lent on his home ground and at the height of his powers.

Blurbworthiness:  “A somber and breathtaking Hardyesque vision of a little-known American past, Lent’s newest epic unfolds with the assured timelessness of a classic...Many sentences demand rereading for their sheer beauty, and each love story--some tragic, others newly born--has a poignant emotional charge. Lent offers eloquent insight into what makes his characters tick, yet enough unknowns remain to keep the novel unpredictable through the final pages.” (Booklist)

I Was a Revolutionary
by Andrew Malan Milward

At first glance, they look like clouds--burnt orange by sunset and piled high as peaks of whipped cream. But when I look closer at the jacket art for Andrew Malan Milward’s short story collection, I realize those clouds are actually plumes of billowing smoke. Which leads me to think these pages burn with intensity, and not just in the book’s first story “The Burning of Lawrence.” Smoke gets in my eyes...and I like it.

Jacket Copy:  A richly textured, diverse collection of stories that illuminate the heartland and America itself, exploring questions of history, race, and identity. Grounded in place, spanning the Civil War to the present day, the stories in I Was a Revolutionary capture the roil of history through the eyes of an unforgettable cast of characters: the visionaries and dreamers, radical farmers and socialist journalists, quack doctors and protestors who haunt the past and present landscape of the state of Kansas. In these stories—which have appeared in Zoetrope All-Story, The Best New American Voices, FiveChapters, Story, American Short Fiction, and Ninth Letter—the award-winning writer Andrew Malan Milward crafts an epic mosaic of the American experience, tracing how we live amid the inconvenient ghosts of history. “The Burning of Lawrence” vibrates with the raw terror of a town pillaged by pro-Confederate raiders. “O Death” recalls the desperately hard journey of the Exodusters—African-American migrants who came to Kansas to escape oppression in the South. And, in the collection’s haunting title piece, a professor of Kansas history surveys his decades-long slide from radicalism to complacency, a shift that parallels the landscape around him. Using his own home state as a prism through which to view both a nation’s history and our own universal battles as individuals, Milward has created one of the freshest and most complex story collections in recent years.

Blurbworthiness:  “Spanning a hundred and fifty years in the history of Kansas, the eight vivid and masterfully linked stories in I Was A Revolutionary are a stunning example of the importance of ‘place’ in literature. Without a doubt, Andrew Malan Milward is one of the smartest and most inventive writers working today.” (Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff)

Opening Lines:  In the photograph from 1912, taken forty-nine years after the raid, the remaining men kneel, sit, and stand in wide rows three deep. As I count it, there are nearly fifty men in all. The photographer had to move the camera so far back that their expressions are only the ghosts of expressions. You can tell they are hardened, though—gaunt and weathered; these are faces upon which to break firewood. Some look as though they might be smiling, others grimacing. By virtue of their posture and the positioning of their heads, one gives off an air of pride while his neighbor communicates shame. By this time they were old men in suits with canes and prickly gray beards. Before the raid they had been farmers, had survived the bitter fighting of the Civil War, and now they found themselves in a new world, with Europe fixing to blow like a powder keg. These men survived the raid, but they weren’t survivors of the raid. They were what was left of Quantrill’s band of 450 men who rode through Lawrence, Kansas, in August of 1863 and murdered most of the men and boys in town.

The Hundred-Year Flood
by Matthew Salesses
(Little A)

I’ve been a fan of Matthew Salesses ever since I read The Last Repatriate, his novella from Nouvella. His short story collection with the terrific title, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, is on my short-list to read. So now I’m adding his first full-length work of fiction, The Hundred-Year Flood, to the list of books I’ve made it my mission to read in 2015. Talk about “most-anticipated”!

Jacket Copy:  In the shadow of a looming flood that comes every one hundred years, Tee tries to convince himself that living in a new place will mean a new identity and a chance to shed the parallels between him and his adopted father. This beautiful and dreamlike story follows Tee, a twenty-two-year-old Korean-American, as he escapes to Prague in the wake of his uncle’s suicide and the aftermath of 9/11. His life intertwines with Pavel, a painter famous for revolution; Katka, his equally alluring wife; and Pavel's partner—a giant of a man with an American name. As the flood slowly makes its way into the old city, Tee contemplates his own place in life as both mixed and adopted and as an American in a strange land full of heroes, myths, and ghosts. In the tradition of Native Speaker and The Family Fang, the Good Men Project’s Matthew Salesses weaves together the tangled threads of identity, love, growing up, and relationships in his stunning first novel, The Hundred-Year Flood.

Blurbworthiness:  “A filmic, fast-moving, disjunctive ride, The Hundred-Year Flood rollicks through an exquisitely constructed plot to arrive at a surprising destination. Matthew Salesses writes taut, intelligent, lyrical sentences. He is definitely a writer to watch, and The Hundred-Year Flood is the novel to read right this moment.” (Robert Boswell, author of Tumbledown)

Upright Beasts
by Lincoln Michel
(Coffee House Press)

As a follower of Lincoln Michel on Twitter and an admirer of the editorial work he’s done at Electric Literature, I’ve been waiting for the release of his debut collection of short stories with all the anticipation of a kid standing outside the locked doors of a candy store just before it opens. I’m putting this Beast at the head of the line.

Jacket Copy:  Twenty-one genre-bending stories of bestial transformation, accidental murder, erotically-challenged dictatorship, and other tales of darkness, absurdity, and confusion. Children go to school long after all the teachers have disappeared, a man manages an apartment complex of attempted suicides, and a couple navigates their relationship in the midst of a zombie attack. In these short stories, we are the upright beasts, doing battle with our darker, weirder impulses as the world collapses around us.

Blurbworthiness:  “Lincoln Michel’s stories are strange, haunting and often very funny beasts. His prose is rich and also spare. He can kill you in two pages or take you for a long, dangerous, kooky ride—and then kill you. And by kill you, I mean thrill you. Savor this book and welcome Mr. Michel.” (Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask)

Opening Lines:  Time passes unexpectedly or, perhaps, inexactly at the school. It’s hard to remember what semester we are supposed to be in. Several of the clocks still operate, but they don’t show the same time. The red bells, affixed in every room, erupt several times each day, yet the intervals between the disruptions wax and wane with an unknown algorithm. The windows are obscured by construction paper murals. Consequently, the sun rises and falls in complete ignorance of those of us attending the school. Many of us participated in the decorations in some lost point of childhood. A few of us still have dried glue under our fingernails.
     In the room I sit in now, the windows are covered with a glitter and glue reenactment of the colonization of Roanoke by Sir Walter Raleigh. Outside of the window, who knows?
     (from “Our Education”)

The Sunlit Night
by Rebecca Dinerstein

As a former Arctic resident (I lived in central Alaska for nearly a decade), I know all about “sunlit nights,” those endless summers when sunsets are merely kisses to the horizon and then the big blazing ball of sun is back on shift for another “day.” It’s a surreal world that always threw my circadian rhythms off, even though I knew the near-24-hour sunlight season came around every year. So, I’m totally in tune with what’s going on in Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut novel (set not in Alaska, but on an island in the Norwegian Sea). It’s a novel about people, yes; but I’m sure the landscape will have some psychological effect on them, too.

Jacket Copy:  In the beautiful, barren landscape of the Far North, under the ever-present midnight sun, Frances and Yasha are surprised to find refuge in each other. Their lives have been upended--Frances has fled heartbreak and claustrophobic Manhattan for an isolated artist colony; Yasha arrives from Brooklyn to fulfill his beloved father’s last wish: to be buried “at the top of the world.” They have come to learn how to be alone. But in Lofoten, an archipelago of six tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea, ninety-five miles north of the Arctic Circle, they form a bond that fortifies them against the turmoil of their distant homes, offering solace amidst great uncertainty. With nimble and sure-footed prose, Dinerstein reveals that no matter how far we travel to claim our own territory, it is ultimately love that gives us our place in the world.

Blurbworthiness:  “Lyrical as a poem, psychologically rich as a thriller, funny, dark, warm, and as knowing of place as any travel book or memoir, The Sunlit Night marks the appearance of a brave talent.” (Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated)

Opening Lines:  In the moment after Robert Mason’s condom broke he rolled off me, propped himself on his elbow, and said, “What you do doesn’t help anybody.”

And West Is West
by Ron Childress
(Algonquin Books)

There have been a few books about Air Force drone operators--those military pilots who kill by remote control--but Ron Childress’ debut novel is the one which has really captured my attention. Some of the chapters are short--letters from a father to his daughter--and the prose crackles right from the opening paragraph, so this one looks like it will be a thrilling flight, skimming low across the nap of the earth, hurtling toward the target of my imagination.

Jacket Copy:  Winner of the prestigious PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, And West Is West is an inspired novel about the devastating power of new technology to corrupt innocent lives. When Jessica, a young Air Force drone pilot in Nevada, is tasked with launching a missile against a suspected terrorist halfway across the world, she realizes that though women and children are in the crosshairs of her screen, she has no choice but to follow orders. Ethan, a young Wall Street quant, is involved in a more bloodless connection to war when he develops an algorithm that enables his company’s clients to profit by exploiting the international instability caused by antiterrorist strikes. Though only minor players, the actions of these two people have global ramifications that tear lives apart—including their own. When Jessica finds herself discharged from the service, and Ethan makes an error that costs him his job, both are set adrift, cast out by a corrupt system and forced to take the blame for decisions they did not make. Childress has crafted a terrifyingly real scenario in which characters navigating different worlds are bound together by forces beyond their control.

Blurbworthiness:  “I’m impressed with the ambitious scope and smart, sophisticated politics of this novel that put it squarely into the category of writing I want to reward with this prize. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. This writer can write; these characters are real; the story is crackerjack.” (Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible and founder of the PEN/Bellwether Prize)

Opening Lines:  They are twined, all but, she and Voigt. He is leaning over her shoulder, his forearm atop her chairback. His lips are so close to her ear that each breath he exhales roars like a gale. This is all she hears inside the dim trailer. The glowing screens before her keep them immobile. They are frozen except for the motion of her hand as she centers the camera. The moment is near. This time he is going to let her do it.
     “Aldridge. Are you ready for your first?”
     “Yes, sir,” Jessica tells Colonel Voigt. They are inches apart. But Sergeant Jessica Aldridge is also eight thousand miles away, ten thousand feet in the air, and so near to the figures on the ground below her that she might reach down and pick them up like dolls.

Darkness the Color of Snow
by Thomas Cobb
(William Morrow)

This is one of those instances where “I came for the jacket, but stayed for the contents.” Initially attracted by that frozen landscape of snow and road on the cover of Darkness the Color of Snow, it didn’t take long for me to realize the words of Thomas Cobb’s novel were equally bleak and beautiful. Something exciting is going to happen in these pages; and when it does, I'll be there.

Jacket Copy:  Like No Country for Old Men and Snow Falling on Cedars, a haunting, suspenseful, and dazzlingly written novel of secrets, corruption, tragedy, and vengeance from the author of Crazy Heart—the basis of the 2009 Academy Award-winning film—an electrifying crime drama and psychological thriller in which a young cop becomes the focal point for a community’s grief and rage in the aftermath of a tragic accident. Out on a rural highway on a cold, icy night, Patrolman Ronny Forbert sits in his cruiser trying to keep warm and make time pass until his shift ends. Then a familiar Jeep Cherokee comes speeding over a hill, forcing the rookie cop to chase after it. The driver is his old friend turned nemesis, Matt Laferiere, the rogue son of a man as beaten down as the town itself. Within minutes, what begins as a clear-cut arrest for drunk driving spirals out of control into a heated argument between two young men with a troubled past and ends in a fatal hit and run on an icy stretch of blacktop. As the news spreads around town, Police Chief Gordy Hawkins remains certain that Ronny Forbert followed the rules, at least most of them, and he’s willing to stand by the young cop. But a few manipulative people in town see opportunity in the tragedy. As uneasy relationships, dark secrets, and old grievances reveal themselves, the people of this small, tightly woven community decide that a crime must have been committed, and someone—Officer Ronny Forbert—must pay a price, a choice that will hold devastating consequences for them all.

Opening Lines:  Patrolman Ronald Forbert sits in Cruiser Four, starting and restarting the ten-year-old Crown Victoria to keep the cabin warm. It will run for five minutes before it stalls out. He’s just on the outskirts or Lydell, half a mile from the Citgo and two miles from the state line. It snowed early in the day, then melted, and now the melt is refreezing into black ice on the highway. He’s on duty partly to hang paper on the drivers speeding to or from the Indian casino twelve miles away, and partly to slow down drivers who aren’t aware of the icy conditions.
     He sees the one-headlight car come over a hill a few hundred yards to the east, then disappear. He turns the cruiser back on and waits for the vehicle to come over the hill just east of him that hides him from view. When the car crests the hill, he lights it up with the radar gun, drops the cruiser into gear, and hits the light bar. As the car, a beater Jeep Cherokee, goes by, he recognizes it. “Shit.”


  1. I'll be particularly interested to hear what you think of Darkness the Color of Snow, as it's received mixed reviews elsewhere.

  2. Agreed. The description brought to mind Larry Watson's WHITE CROSSES, a brilliant novel, but early reviews are mixed.

    On the plus side, I do have an early copy of I WAS A REVOLUTIONARY and may well dump MISLAID to start it on the morrow.