Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Front Porch Books: December 2015 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly 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: many 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 mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books. 

Montana, Warts and All
Scott McMillion, editor
(Montana Quarterly)

I’ll begin this month’s list with a gift-book suggestion (actually, when it comes down to it, every edition of Front Porch Books is just one big gift recommendation). If you or someone you know has always longed to get a taste of Montana’s places and people, this compilation of articles from the first decade of Montana Quarterly magazine is a good place to start. As an avid reader of the handsome publication, I can vouch for the quality of the writing in these pages (I hope to give myself the gift of time in the near future so I can read the book in its entirety). By now, over the past two centuries, every state in America has produced a compilation or two (or two hundred) of good writing from within its borders (yes, even Rhode Island has at least one state-centric collection), and the Big Sky state is abundant with anthologies. This new paperback assembled by editor Scott McMillion is especially rich in local color, with many of the essays and articles zeroing in on the small towns and residents which make this landscape so unique. Here, you can visit snowmobile-rich Cooke City (“a one-horse, 140-horsepower town,” writes Jeff Hull), Ryegate (where, four miles north of town, “a highway sign announces the end of pavement”) or the Jimtown Bar (“the kind of place where the whupass can is always open,” McMillion writes). No, it’s not all rosy sunsets and amber waves of grain in here—I mean, the title does have the word “warts” in it, after all—but the way the writers approach their home turf can often be beautiful. The bulk of Montana, Warts and All is non-fiction, but there’s a very nice section of fiction at the end, with stories by the likes of Pete Fromm, Craig Lancaster, Malcolm Brooks, Glen Chamberlain, and Allen Morris Jones.

Opening Lines (from “Butte’s Bad Cops” by Ted Brewer):  One evening in May 1980, Mickey Sullivan pulled a ski mask over his face, put on a pair of mirrored sunglasses, and walked into the Medicine Shoppe pharmacy on Harrison Avenue in Butte. Brandishing a .45, Sullivan forced the owner, his mother and two employees into a bathroom and propped a snow shovel against the door to lock them in. Customers watched as he filled a denim drawstring bag with prescription drugs and then pounded on the locked electronic cash register. That’s likely what set off the alarm, connected to the police station. Had he been at work that day, he would have heard the alarm at the station because Mickey Sullivan was a shift commander in the Butte-Silver Bow Law Enforcement Agency, a lieutenant. But it was his day off.

You Have Never Been Here
by Mary Rickert
(Small Beer Press)

Take a minute to admire that cover design. Notice how, through the magic of perspective, this woman seems to fly right at you with a pair of hands serving as wings. (The photo by Emma Powell is called “Angel.”) It’s the kind of off-putting, and yet beautiful, reaction one can get from reading Rickert’s fiction, short stories designed to scrape the skin from within. I first encountered Rickert earlier this year when I was doing my annual Halloween Read and came across her story, “The Chambered Fruit” (included here in this collection) in the Library of America anthology American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940’s to Now, edited by Peter Straub. So, it was with a tingle of delight (and delicious dread) that I opened a package from Small Beer Press last month to find this collection of “new and selected stories.” I can’t wait to be freaked out.

Jacket Copy:  Open this book to any page and find yourself enspelled by these lush, alchemical stories. Faced with the uncanny and the impossible, Rickert’s protagonists are as painfully, shockingly, complexly human as the readers who will encounter them. Mothers, daughters, witches, artists, strangers, winged babies, and others grapple with deception, loss, and moments of extraordinary joy.

Opening Lines (from “Memoir of a Deer Woman”):  Her husband comes home, stamps the snow from his shoes, kisses her, and asks how her day was.
     “Our time together is short,” she says.

Blurbworthiness:  “Rickert’s latest collection contains haunting tales of death, love, and loss. In stories that are imbued with mythology, beasts, and fantastical transformations, Rickert captures the fanciful quality of regret and longing....Rickert’s blend of dark and whimsy is reminiscent of Angela Carter. Perfect for readers looking for something unique, melancholy, and fantastical.”  (Booklist)

The Beautiful Possible
by Amy Gottlieb
(Harper Perennial)

Amy Gottlieb’s debut novel opens with an attack on an apartment in Berlin in 1938 which is startling and gripping and makes me want to immediately race through the rest of the book to find out what happens. I have high hopes for the beautiful possibilities of Gottlieb’s story of a war-torn love triangle.

Jacket Copy:  This epic, enthralling debut novel—in the vein of Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love—follows a postwar love triangle between an American rabbi, his wife, and a German-Jewish refugee. Spanning seventy years and several continents—from a refugee’s shattered dreams in 1938 Berlin, to a discontented American couple in the 1950s, to a young woman’s life in modern-day Jerusalem—this epic, enthralling novel tells the braided love story of three unforgettable characters. In 1946, Walter Westhaus, a German Jew who spent the war years at Tagore’s ashram in India, arrives at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he meets Sol Kerem, a promising rabbinical student. A brilliant nonbeliever, Walter is the perfect foil for Sol’s spiritual questions—and their extraordinary connection is too wonderful not to share with Sol’s free-spirited fiancée Rosalie. Soon Walter and Rosalie are exchanging notes, sketches, and secrets, and begin a transcendent love affair in his attic room, a temple of dusty tomes and whispered poetry. Months later they shatter their impossible bond, retreating to opposite sides of the country—Walter to pursue an academic career in Berkeley and Rosalie and Sol to lead a congregation in suburban New York. A chance meeting years later reconnects Walter, Sol, and Rosalie—catching three hearts and minds in a complex web of desire, heartbreak, and redemption. With extraordinary empathy and virtuosic skill, The Beautiful Possible considers the hidden boundaries of marriage and faith, and the mysterious ways we negotiate our desires.

Opening Lines:  Walter awakens to the smell of burning paper.

Blurbworthiness:  “I’ve never read anything quite like this lyrical and infinitely wise novel...It’s about faith and love and lust and mysticism and poetry and the eroticism of spices...Mostly, though, it’s about how a book can be a wonder. If books could shimmer, this one would.”  (Elizabeth Berg, author of The Dream Lover)

Goodnight, Beautiful Women
by Anna Noyes

Though I’ve never been there, I have a special soft spot for the Pine Tree State. Note to publishers: All you have to do is slap the word “Maine” on a book cover, and my knees buckle from the smell of Kryptonite. And it wouldn’t hurt if you included the kind of clear-cut, salty, cold-snap prose like I found skimming through the pages of Anna Noyes’ debut collection of short stories. Next year is already shaping up to be a good one for short stories and Goodnight, Beautiful Women is at the top of the heap.

Jacket Copy:  Moving along the Maine Coast and beyond, the interconnected stories in Goodnight, Beautiful Women bring us into the sultry, mysterious inner lives of New England women and girls as they navigate the dangers and struggles of their outer worlds. With novelistic breadth and a quicksilver emotional intelligence, Noyes explores the ruptures and vicissitudes of growing up and growing old, and shines a light on our most uncomfortable impulses while masterfully charting the depths of our murky desires. A woman watches her husband throw one by one their earthly possessions into the local quarry, before vanishing himself; two girls from very different social classes find themselves deep in the throes of a punishing affair; a motherless teenager is sexually awakened in the aftermath of a local trauma; and a woman’s guilt from a childhood lie about her intellectually disabled cousin reverberates into her married years. Dark and brilliant, rhythmic and lucid, Goodnight, Beautiful Women marks the arrival of a fearless and unique new young voice in American fiction.

Opening Lines:  Joni called the sheriff right after it happened. Her voice was clear and steady, and the line she gave was the right one. I believe my husband has drowned in the quarry by our house.

Blurbworthiness:  “Anna Noyes has the gift. Her sentences sing with a gentle perfection, almost as if to themselves, and her characters seem to enter the page cradling years of experience inside them. It is a joy—and the sweetest kind of heartache—to watch her making her swift way story by story to their hearts.”  (Kevin Brockmeier, author of A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip)

The Books That Changed My Life
Bethanne Patrick, editor
(Regan Arts)

Yes, compendiums of readers’ favorite books, lists of writer’s breathless you must read these recommendations, frequently pop up in bookstores these days. In a way, they’re sort of mini-advertisements for the books surrounding them on neighboring shelves, prompting browsers to leave the store with not just one or two books, but armloads (which is a good thing, of course). Bethanne Patrick’s gathering of cherished books holds more than the usual attraction for me, however. Not only is this a nicely curated list of contributors who come from all walks of the arts: writers, actors, fashion designers, and musicians, among others, but I also like the book picks which aren’t the usual suspects you find in collections like this. For instance, in here you’ll find Keith Carradine on The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow, Dave Eggers on Herzog by Saul Bellow, Emma Straub on Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, Andrew Solomon on Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg, Ron Charles on Straight Man by Richard Russo and—well, I could go on, but you get the gist. I don’t know about you, but I’m really interested in seeing how these books changed these particular readers’ lives.

Jacket Copy:  One hundred of today’s most prominent literary and cultural icons talk about the books that hold a special place in their hearts—that made them who they are today. Leading authors, politicians, CEOs, actors, and other notables share the books that changed their life, why they love them, and their passion with readers everywhere. Regan Arts has teamed up with the literary charity 826National, which will receive a portion of the book’s proceeds to provide students ages 6–18 with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills. Contributors include Al Roker, Carl Hiaasen, Dave Eggers, Emma Straub, Eric Idle, Fay Weldon, Fran Lebowitz, Gillian Flynn, Gregory Maguire, Jeff Kinney, Jim Shepard, Laura Lippmann, Lev Grossman, Liev Schreiber, Margaret Atwood, Mayim Bialik, Nelson DeMille, Rosanne Cash, Susan Orlean, Tim Gunn, and Tommy Hilfiger, among others.

Opening Lines (from Margaret Atwood’s essay on Grimm’s Fairy Tales):  I had a reading mother. It’s the best thing. She did all the voices, and at one point we were living in Sault Ste. Marie and she would read to us each evening and she attracted an audience of all the neighborhood children. We would all sit on the porch and listen to her. She was basically broadcasting without radio or TV, to a rapt group of listeners.

The Never-Open Desert Diner
by James Anderson

Consider this: A soft-hearted trucker. A 100-mile stretch of lonely desert highway in Utah. A well-preserved (but no longer open) vintage diner that used to be the shooting location of Hollywood movies. The strange, irascible owner of said diner. A beautiful woman playing a cello with no strings in an empty house. A preacher dragging a large wooden cross along the highway. Relentless winds that scour the skin with sand. And mysteries upon mysteries upon mysteries. It seems there’s nothing uninteresting about James Anderson’s first novel. Open book. Read. Turn page. Repeat.

Jacket Copy:  Ben Jones, the protagonist of James Anderson’s haunting debut novel, The Never-Open Desert Diner, is on the verge of losing his small trucking company. A single, thirty-eight-year-old truck driver, Ben’s route takes him back and forth across one of the most desolate and beautiful regions of the Utah desert. The orphan son of a Native American father and a Jewish social worker, Ben is drawn into a love affair with a mysterious woman, Claire, who plays a cello in the model home of an abandoned housing development in the desert. Her appearance, seemingly out of nowhere, reignites a decades-old tragedy at a roadside café referred to by the locals as The Never-Open Desert Diner. The owner of the diner, Walt Butterfield, is an embittered and solitary old man who refuses to yield to change after his wife’s death. Ben’s daily deliveries along the atmospheric and evocative desert highway bring him into contact with an eccentric cast of characters that includes: John, an itinerant preacher who drags a life-sized cross along the blazing roadside; the Lacey brothers, Fergus and Duncan, who live in boxcars mounted on cinderblocks; and Ginny, a pregnant and homeless punk teenager whose survival skills make her an unlikely heroine. Ben’s job as a truck driver is more than a career; it is a life he loves. As he faces bankruptcy and the possible loss of everything that matters to him, he finds himself at the heart of a horrific crime that was committed forty years earlier and now threatens to destroy the lives of those left in its wake. Ben discovers the desert is relentless in its grip, and what the desert wants, it takes. An unforgettable story of love and loss, Ben learns the enduring truth that some violent crimes renew themselves across generations. The Never-Open Desert Diner is a unique blend of literary mystery and noir fiction that evokes a strong sense of place. It is a story that holds the reader and refuses to let go and will linger long after the last page.

Opening Lines:  A red sun was balanced on the horizon when I arrived at The Well-Known Desert Diner. Sunrise shadows were draped around its corners. A full white moon was still visible in the dawn sky. I parked my tractor-trailer rig along the outer perimeter of the gravel parking lot. The “closed” sign hung on the front door. To the left of the door, as if in mourning for Superman, stood a black metal and glass phone booth. Inside was a real phone with a rotary dial that clicked out the ten white numbers. Unlike the phones in the movies, this one worked—if you had enough nickels.
     Curiosity usually wasn’t a problem for me. I treated it like a sleeping junkyard dog. As a general rule I didn’t hop the fence. Jagged scars on my backside reminded me of the few times I had violated that rule. Just because you can’t see the dog doesn’t mean it isn’t out there. Sure, I look through the fence once in a while. What I see and think I keep to myself.

Blurbworthiness:  “High, dry and severely beautiful that’s the terrain Ben Jones sees from the cab of his 28-foot tractor-trailer rig in The Never-Open Desert Diner, a wondrously strange first novel by James Anderson. Ben’s route is a 100-mile stretch of State Road 117 in a desolate section of Utah’s high desert. His customers are isolated cattle ranchers and ornery desert rats who depend on him for their bales of barbed wire and cases of chili. The best part of his run is always a stop at Walt Butterfield’s pristinely preserved but permanently closed vintage diner in the middle of nowhere. There’s a sad story behind that, but there are a lot of sad stories on Ben’s route (including his own), and Anderson tells them in a voice that’s...well, high, dry and severely beautiful. Ben’s dull life takes a dangerous turn when he happens on the model home for an unbuilt housing development and discovers an attractive woman inside, playing a cello with no strings. There’s a sad story behind that too, so let’s just say that Anderson is one fine storyteller.”  (New York Times Book Review)

Adios, Cowboy
by Olja Savicevic

I’m initially drawn to Adios, Cowboy by the magnificent cover design, which, upon learning more about the novel, seems to be a terrific reflection of the complicated, disjointed Croatian landscape against which it’s set. Like the zig-zag path we see in that artwork, Savicevic’s plot and characters promise no easy, straight-line answers. I’m ready to start walking on the diagonal.

Jacket Copy:  Dada’s life is at a standstill in Zagreb—she’s sleeping with a married man, working a dead-end job, and even the parties have started to feel exhausting. So when her sister calls her back home to help with their aging mother, she doesn’t hesitate to leave the city behind. But she arrives to find her mother hoarding pills, her sister chain-smoking, her long-dead father’s shoes still lined up on the steps, and the cowboy posters of her younger brother Daniel (who threw himself under a train four years ago) still on the walls. Hoping to free her family from the grip of the past, Dada vows to unravel the mystery of Daniel’s final days. This American debut by a poet from Croatia’s “lost generation” explores a beautiful Mediterranean town’s darkest alleys: the bars where secrets can be bought, the rooms where bodies can be sold, the plains and streets and houses where blood is shed. By the end of the long summer, the lies, lust, feuds, and frustration will come to a violent and hallucinatory head.

Opening Lines:  Summer 2009 came too early. This meant that ferocious heat had been building up ever since the beginning of May: the spring roses were expiring in the parks and stone troughs.

Blurbworthiness:  “The publication of this dazzling, funny and deadly serious novel will bring nourishment to readers hungry for the best new European fiction, and to those wondering where the new generation of post-Yugoslav novelists are...It shines...with the help of a flawless translation from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth...With this novel, which lodges itself in your chest like a friendly bullet, a glorious new European voice has arrived.”  (The Guardian)

The Fugitives
by Christopher Sorrentino
(Simon and Schuster)

This novel by National Book Award finalist Christopher Sorrentino would seem to have all the right elements to tickle my fancy: a tough and sexy detective, an unsolved theft, and a writer who leaves the big city for a small town so he can finish that novel which has been plaguing him for years. Especially that last part. Unfinished manuscripts. The story of my life. Or, I should say, the stories of my life. I’m just glad Sorrentino finished his, so I could read it. How very thoughtful of him.

Jacket Copy:  Sandy Mulligan is in trouble. To escape his turbulent private life and the scandal that’s maimed his public reputation, he’s retreated from Brooklyn to the quiet Michigan town where he hopes to finish his long-overdue novel. There, he becomes fascinated by John Salteau, a native Ojibway storyteller who regularly appears at the local library. But Salteau is not what he appears to be—a fact suspected by Kat Danhoff, an ambitious Chicago reporter of elusive ethnic origins who arrives to investigate a theft from a nearby Indian-run casino. Salteau’s possible role in the crime could be the key to the biggest story of her stalled career. Bored, emotionally careless, and sexually reckless, Kat’s sudden appearance in town immediately attracts a restive Sandy. As the novel weaves among these characters uncovering the conflicts and contradictions between their stories, we learn that all three are fugitives of one kind or another, harboring secrets that threaten to overturn their invented lives and the stories they tell to spin them into being. In their growing involvement, each becomes a pawn in the others’ games—all of them just one mistake from losing everything. The signature Sorrentino touches that captivated readers of Trance are all here: sparkling dialogue, narrative urgency, mordant wit, and inventive, crystalline prose—but it is the deeply imagined interior lives of its characters that set this novel apart. Moving, funny, tense, and mysterious, The Fugitives is at once a love story, a ghost story, and a crime thriller. It is also a cautionary tale of twenty-first century American life—a meditation on the meaning of identity, on the role storytelling plays in our understanding of ourselves and each other, and on the difficulty of making genuine connections in a world that’s connected in almost every way. Exuberantly satirical, darkly enigmatic, and completely unforgettable, The Fugitives is an event that reaffirms Sorrentino’s position as an American writer of the first rank.

Blurbworthiness:  “The language of The Fugitives is at once remarkable, startling and invisible. I was completely sucked into the worlds of these characters. It takes a master to make me forget I’m holding a book. Well, I forgot that for more than 300 pages. Brilliant.”  (Percival Everett, author of Half an Inch of Water)

Try Not to Breathe
by Holly Seddon

Here’s another arresting cover design. To say nothing of the plot. And those opening lines. Note to self: Keep breathing.

Jacket Copy:  For fans of Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, and Paula Hawkins comes Holly Seddon’s fiction debut—an engrossing thriller full of page-turning twists and turns, richly imagined characters, and gripping psychological suspense. Alex Dale is lost. Destructive habits have cost her a marriage and a journalism career. All she has left is her routine: a morning run until her body aches, then a few hours of forgettable work before the past grabs hold and drags her down. Every day is treading water, every night is drowning. Until Alex discovers Amy Stevenson. Amy Stevenson, who was just another girl from a nearby town until the day she was found unconscious after a merciless assault. Amy Stevenson, who has been in a coma for fifteen years, forgotten by the world. Amy Stevenson, who, unbeknownst to her doctors, remains locked inside her body, conscious but paralyzed, reliving the past. Soon Alex’s routine includes visiting hours at the hospital, then interviews with the original suspects in the attack. But what starts as a reporter’s story becomes a personal obsession. How do you solve a crime when the only witness lived but cannot tell the tale? Unable to tear herself away from her attempt to uncover the unspeakable truth, Alex realizes she’s not just chasing a story—she’s seeking salvation. Shifting from present to past and back again, Try Not to Breathe unfolds layer by layer until its heart-stopping conclusion.

Opening Lines:  Music thudded through Amy’s body and seized her heart. Music so loud that her eardrums pounded in frenzy and her baby-bird ribs rattled. Music was everything. Well, almost everything.

Blurbworthiness:  “A razor-sharp, fast-paced plot and wonderfully complex characters...Not since The Girl on the Train have I been so captivated by a work of suspense.”  (Tess Gerritsen, author of Playing With Fire)

The Mysteries of Paris
by Eugene Sue
(Penguin Classics)

Do I really need to read another 1,392-page, 19th-century novel about Parisians struggling to bridge the gap between rich and poor? Why, yes! Yes, I do! And that cover art? Ooo, la, la!

Jacket Copy:  This new addition to the Penguin Classics family is the first new translation in over a century of the brilliant epic novel that inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Sensational, engrossing, and heartbreaking, The Mysteries of Paris is doubtless one of the most entertaining and influential works to emerge from the nineteenth century. It was one of France’s first serial novels, and for sixteen months, Parisians rushed in droves to the newsstands each week for the latest installment. Eugène Sue’s intricate melodrama unfolds around a Paris where, despite the gulf between them, the fortunes of the rich and poor are inextricably tangled. The suspenseful story of Rodolphe, a magnetic hero of noble heart and shadowy origins, was spun out over 150 issues—garnering wild popularity, influencing political change, and inspiring a raft of successors, including Les Misérables and The Count of Monte Cristo. At long last, this lively translation by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg makes the riveting drama of Sue’s classic available to a new century of readers.

Opening Lines:  In the slang of murderers and thieves, a “joint” is the lowest sort of drinking establishment. Ex-cons, call “ogres,” generally run these taverns; or, when it is an equally debased woman, she is known as an “ogress.” Serving the scum of Paris, inns of this variety are packed with freed convicts, swindlers, thieves, and assassins. Whenever a crime has been committed, the police first cast their nets in this mire, so to speak. And here they almost always find their man.
     This opening should alert readers to the sinister scenes that await them. If they proceed, they will find themselves in strange places, foul urban abscesses that teem with criminals as terrifying and revolting as swamp creatures.

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