Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Front Porch Books: March 2016 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. 

We’ve Already Gone This Far
by Patrick Dacey
(Henry Holt)

Let’s start off this month’s roundup with one of my most-anticipated short story collections of 2016 (along with Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink, which I finished reading a couple of weeks ago). From the title to the cover design to the first sentence of the first story, Patrick Dacey’s debut collection has been on my radar since I first heard about it last year. Now I can finally settle in with his words and his characters. I’m hanging a Do Not Disturb sign on my door.

Jacket Copy:  In Patrick Dacey’s stunning debut, we meet longtime neighbors and friends--citizens of working-class Wequaquet--right when the ground beneath their feet has shifted in ways they don’t yet understand. Here, after more than a decade of boom and bust, love and pride are closely twinned and dangerously deployed: a lonely woman attacks a memorial to a neighbor’s veteran son; a dissatisfied housewife goes overboard with cosmetic surgery on national television; a young father walks away from one of the few jobs left in town, a soldier writes home to a mother who is becoming increasingly unhinged. We’ve Already Gone This Far takes us to a town like many towns in America, a place where people are searching for what is now an almost out-of-reach version of the American Dream. Story by story, Dacey draws us into the secret lives of recognizable strangers and reminds us that life’s strange intensity and occasional magic is all around us, especially in the everyday. With a skewering insight and real warmth of spirit, Dacey delivers that rare and wonderful thing in American fiction: a deeply-felt, deeply-imagined book about where we’ve been and how far we have to go.

Opening Lines:  During the war, most of us in Wequaquet hung up a flag to support the troops, though it was clear some of us did it because others were doing it. We pulled out our flags from the last war or went to Hal’s and bought a new one. Hal sold out pretty fast, and good for Hal, because usually no one goes to Hal’s anymore, the way he charges, though he says he has no choice if he wants to compete with MegaWorld.

Blurbworthiness:  “Patrick Dacey is one of my favorite young American writers. The stories in We’ve Already Gone This Far are dangerous, funny, sometimes savage (the phrase lyrical hammers comes to mind), but underneath it all beats a strangely kind and hopeful heart. Dacey is channeling both a terrifyingly dark view of America, as well as a movingly optimistic one, and he shows us that the truth of who we are lies in that very juxtaposition. Fast, poetic, edgy, full of tremendous affection for the things of the world.”  (George Saunders, author of The Tenth of December)

Scary Old Sex
by Arlene Heyman

Frightening intimacy between geriatrics? Or, a more cautionary take on “good ol’ sex”? Either way, the stories in Arlene Heyman’s debut collection promise piercing insight into the ways we live, we love and we learn. She wastes no time getting into it, either. Witness the first sentence in the book: “Would you like to make love?”

Jacket Copy:  A woman goes about certain rituals of sex with her second husband, sharing the bed with the ghosts of her sexual past. A beautiful young art student embarks on an affair with a much older, married, famous artist. A middle-aged woman struggles with the decline of her mother, once glamorous and still commanding; their fraught relationship causes unexpected feelings, both shaming and brutal. A man finds that his father has died while in the midst of extra-marital sex and wonders what he should do with the body. And a boy sits in his Calculus class, fantasizing about a schoolmate’s breasts and worrying about his father lying in hospital, as outside his classroom window the Twin Towers begin to fall. In this stunning, taboo-breaking debut, Arlene Heyman, a practicing psychiatrist, gives us what really goes on in people’s minds, relationships, and beds. Raw, tender, funny, truthful and often shocking, Scary Old Sex is a fierce exploration of the chaos and beauty of life.

Opening Lines:  “Would you like to make love?” Stu called out to Marianne as she entered their apartment. She walked toward his office. It was mid-Saturday afternoon and Stu was still in his purple pajamas at the computer, a mug of coffee on the cluttered desk. He had a little wet mocha-colored stain under his lip on his beard, and his wiry gray hair stood up thinly around his large bald spot. He looked at her shyly for a moment, then looked back at the computer screen.

Blurbworthiness:  “Heyman has been described as [Bernard] Malamud’s muse. Judging from these stories, he may have been hers as well. The stories in this keenly observed collection lay bare truths--some comforting, others uncomfortable--about love and sex, aging and acceptance.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness
by Julie Riddle
(Bison Books)

I have a rule that says any book which opens with a father lowering a drill into his daughter’s thumb must go right to the top of the To-Be-Read pile. Julie Riddle’s memoir about growing up in rustic conditions in Montana’s wilderness during the 1970s neatly fits the bill. In the very first pages, we read--hand clapped to mouth--about how Julie accidentally smashes her thumb while trying to close a window. The thumb swells. Her 11-year-old body throbs with pain. The next day, her father says, “Let me see your hand.” He grabs her wrist, “appraising my thumb as though it were a bent framing nail that he was deciding whether to hammer true.” He tells her to follow him down to his gun shop in the basement where he puts her hand on the metal plate of a drill press:
     He gripped the lever and lowered the spindle, the spinning bit a blur, the bit puncturing my thumbnail, my father raising the lever with expert timing, as though piercing a piece of construction paper without scratching the surface below. The bit lifted and blood spurted in a small black plume, and my thumb’s throbbing pain disappeared. “Put a Band-Aid over it for a couple days,” he said, handing me a paper towel. “The nail’ll fall off before long.”
     “Thanks, Dad,” I said, examining my thumb with wonder.
I think I’m more shocked by the young girl’s wonder-filled appreciation than I am about a father drill-pressing his own daughter’s hand. At any rate, I’m guessing the rest of the book holds up just as well as these opening pages. Hel-lo, TBR stack!

Jacket Copy:  Everything changes when Julie Riddle’s parents stumble across the wilderness survival guide How to Live in the Woods on Pennies a Day. In 1977, when Riddle is seven years old, she and her family—fed up with the challenges of city life—move to the foot of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwestern Montana. For three years they live in the primitive basement of the log house they are building by hand in the harsh, remote Montana woods. Meanwhile, haunted by the repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse, Riddle struggles to come to terms with the dark shadows that plague her amid entrenched cultural and gender mores enforced by enduring myths of the West. As Riddle grapples with her own painful secrets, she discovers the world around her and its impact on people—the demands of living in a rural, mountain community dependent on boom-and-bust mining and logging industries, the health and environmental crises of the W. R. Grace asbestos contamination and EPA cleanup, and the healing beauty of the Montana wild. More than simply a memoir about family and place, The Solace of Stones explores Riddle’s coming of age and the complexities of memory, loss, and identity borne by a family homesteading in the modern West.

Blurbworthiness:  “Heartbreaking, courageous, and written with rare beauty. The Solace of Stones will be a Western classic.”  (Mary Clearman Blew, author of All But the Waltz)

Maisie at 8,000 Feet
by Frederick Reuss
(Unbridled Books)

Talk about a book with a bird’s-eye view! From wingsuiters to Superman to Peter Pan, we all dream of flying (sans airplane). But in Frederick Reuss’ new novel, he puts us at 8,000 feet with a young girl named Maisie who soars through the clouds above the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. It’s a great plot setup and the language, from what I’ve read of it, is as magical as flying fairy-dust or a red cape. Up, up, and away....

Jacket Copy:  Maisie at 8,000 Feet is the story of an eight-year old girl who can fly and her idyllic summer in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey that ends in a moment of catastrophic loss. Following the death of her mother, Maisie travels the Pine Barrens with her artist/archaeologist father; meets his cousin and confidante, Sally, who wants to repair the little girl’s heart; and flies over it all trying to see how her life could have taken such a turn. Many years later, her son gone to college and her marriage ended, Maisie struggles to reconnect with the aging Sally. Doing so, she hopes to understand why her father didn’t raise her, what that long-ago summer was all about, and whether she has ever really been attached to anyone in any place. Seen from the heights of Maisie’s childlike imagination and the rootless perspective of the woman she becomes, the fractures in her life reveal the slippery connection between childhood and identity—and between remembering and forgetting.

Opening Lines:  Maisie was over the Hackensack River when a Pan Am Boeing 707 passed less than a thousand feet above her. She dipped her shoulder and banked to the left, away from the flight path of the big jet coming out of Newark, then turned south, keeping the orange ribbon that was the New Jersey Turnpike to her right and the vast blackness of the Atlantic on the left horizon.

Blurbworthiness:  “Frederick Reuss bestows the Pine Barrens of New Jersey with the gently haunting texture of a French movie. Maisie at 8,000 Feet is a supple, moving meditation on landscape, and how place takes up real estate in our imaginations.”  (Lisa Zeidner, author of Love Bomb)

by Saleem Haddad
(Other Press)

On the back cover of my copy of Guapa, there is a single paragraph, boxed in bronze above a laudatory blurb. That short paragraph (seen below in Opening Lines) was enough to pull me closer to this debut novel about a young gay man in the Middle East who just wants to get through a single day with his life and dignity intact. I’m entranced, intrigued, piqued. Nicely done, opening paragraph!

Jacket Copy:  Set over the course of twenty-four hours, Guapa follows Rasa, a gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, as he tries to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political and social upheaval. Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room. One night Rasa’s grandmother—the woman who raised him—catches them in bed together. The following day Rasa is consumed by the search for his best friend Maj, a fiery activist and drag queen star of the underground bar, Guapa, who has been arrested by the police. Ashamed to go home and face his grandmother, and reeling from the potential loss of the three most important people in his life, Rasa roams the city’s slums and prisons, the lavish weddings of the country’s elite, and the bars where outcasts and intellectuals drink to a long-lost revolution. Each new encounter leads him closer to confronting his own identity, as he revisits his childhood and probes the secrets that haunt his family. As Rasa confronts the simultaneous collapse of political hope and his closest personal relationships, he is forced to discover the roots of his alienation and try to re-emerge into a society that may never accept him.

Opening Lines:  The morning begins with shame. This is not new, but as memories of last night begin to sink in, the feeling takes on a terrifying resonance. I grimace, squirm, dig my fingers in my palms until the pain in my hands reflects how I feel. But there is no controlling what Teta saw, and her absence from my bedside means that she doesn’t intend, as she had promised, to file away last night’s mess in a deep corner of her mind.

All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer
by Brian Castner
(Arcade Publishing)

In war, there is Us and there is Them; there is Over There and Back Here; there is the Before and the After. Few writers know how to bridge all of those canyons with as much clarity and compassion as Brian Castner. As a veteran of the Iraq War, Brian has been There and Back and wrote a memoir about his experience on both sides called The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows which told of his rocky readjustment to civilian life after spending a tour of duty as bomb disposal expert in Iraq. That book earned all kinds of acclaim and was even turned into an opera. Now, Castner returns to our bookshelves with an equally personal story about the hunt for his friend’s killer. It’s on the shortest of my short lists of Books to Read in 2016. I strongly urge you to add it to your own reading queue. Who knows, you just might learn something, here and there.

Jacket Copy:  The EOD—explosive ordnance disposal—community is tight-knit, and when one of their own is hurt, an alarm goes out. When Brian Castner, an Iraq War vet, learns that his friend and EOD brother Matt has been killed by an IED in Afghanistan, he goes to console Matt’s widow, but he also begins a personal investigation. Is the bomb maker who killed Matt the same man American forces have been hunting since Iraq, known as the Engineer? In this nonfiction thriller Castner takes us inside the manhunt for this elusive figure, meeting maimed survivors, interviewing the forensics teams who gather post-blast evidence, the wonks who collect intelligence, the drone pilots and contractors tasked to kill. His investigation reveals how warfare has changed since Iraq, becoming individualized even as it has become hi-tech, with our drones, bomb disposal robots, and CSI-like techniques. As we use technology to identify, locate, and take out the planners and bomb makers, the chilling lesson is that the hunters are also being hunted, and the other side—from Al-Qaeda to ISIS— has been selecting its own high-value targets.

Opening Lines:  A western mountain warm spell had stolen the modest Christmas snows, and the home of Matthew and Jennifer Schwartz sat among bare trees and dying grass, a pale house on a brown lawn.
     The house was nearly empty. The girls were off at school. Jesus and his radiant Sacred Heart stared from the living room wall at a blank television and forgotten couch. Duke the chocolate Lab slept at the foot of the stairs. The only sound in the empty house was the mechanical hum of the treadmill and the regular beat of a runner’s footfalls.
     The house was often empty. A new pickup truck and trailer filled the driveway, camping equipment filled the garage, dirty dishes filled the sink, Duke shuffled and huffed about the backyard, the three girls laughed and sang songs, but Matt was gone, always gone, and the hole remained. A toothbrush here, a T-shirt there, the small reminders of him were strewn about the house like so many pretty gold rings, and she but the amputated stump of a hand with no fingers.
     That morning Jenny was finishing another long run on her treadmill. She had discovered running on Matt’s second tour. At the start of his deployments, she ran four or six miles. Now that he had been gone three months, she was up to ten and barely out of breath.
     Jenny had learned long ago not to pine by the phone; it only made the hours crawl. But she had also learned to save the last recording on the answering machine, not to delete the last email. Matt had been out on a long-distance patrol for over a week, and had managed only a quick and broken sat phone call. So more than anything, it was a last email that kept tumbling through her head. It bothered her that it read like a last email. Heavy zippered sweatshirts in the dryer, tumble, tumble, the email always in the back of her mind as she ran.
     Jenny was soaked when she got off the treadmill, dripping the sweaty, unwashed funk that comes from not having showered since, well, who keeps track of these things when your husband is gone and the girls need you? She paced and began her stretching routine, and the doorbell rang. Under no circumstances would she ever answer the door smelling like she did, but she did look out the window.
     She saw a sea of uniform blue hats stark against the dry Wyoming prairie.
     If I don’t answer the door, she thought, he’s not dead. He’s not dead yet.
     The doorbell rang again. Perhaps a third time. They weren’t leaving.

Blurbworthiness:  “In this book Brian Castner takes us through a kind of moral detective work, uncovering not only private griefs, but also the broader military and social context of our country’s response to such deaths. A brilliant, moving, and troubling portrait of modern American warfare.”  (Phil Klay, author of Redeployment)

by Shawn Vestal
(Penguin Press)

Just as Brian Castner straddles the divide between military and civilian, Shawn Vestal deepens our understanding of the Mormon faith. His prose is alive, electric and I love it so much I spent an entire blog post a while ago just talking about the first sentences of the stories in his first book, Godforsaken Idaho. I’ve been anxiously waiting for whatever he’d bring our way next. I’m delighted to report it’s a novel that, once again, explores the complexities of faith and family. The fact that he tosses Evel Knievel and hero-worship into the stew pot just makes this even tastier. If anyone can jump forty buses in a single leap while strapped to a revving motor of language, it’s Shawn Vestal.

Jacket Copy:  At the heart of this exciting debut novel, set in Arizona and Idaho in the mid-1970s, is fifteen-year-old Loretta, who slips out of her bedroom every evening to meet her so-called gentile boyfriend. Her strict Mormon parents catch her returning one night, and promptly marry her off to Dean Harder, a devout yet materialistic fundamentalist who already has a wife and a brood of kids. The Harders relocate to his native Idaho, where Dean’s teenage nephew Jason falls hard for Loretta. A Zeppelin and Tolkien fan, Jason worships Evel Knievel and longs to leave his close-minded community. He and Loretta make a break for it. They drive all night, stay in hotels, and relish their dizzying burst of teenage freedom as they seek to recover Dean’s cache of “Mormon gold.” But someone Loretta left behind is on their trail...A riveting story of desire and escape, Daredevils boasts memorable set pieces and a rich cast of secondary characters. There’s Dean’s other wife, Ruth, who as a child in the 1950s was separated from her parents during the notorious Short Creek raid, when federal agents descended on a Mormon fundamentalist community. There’s Jason’s best friend, Boyd, part Native American and caught up in the activist spirit of the time, who comes along for the ride, with disastrous results. And Vestal’s ultimate creation is a superbly sleazy chatterbox—a man who might or might not be Evel Knievel himself—who works his charms on Loretta at a casino in Elko, Nevada.

Opening Lines:  Evel Knievel Addresses an Adoring Nation
     When did we first think of jumping a canyon? It seems now that we always thought it. That it was always there for us to think. What do you call that, when the world guides you toward its purpose? We believed, America. We believed we could do anything we tried to do. We believed we could do anything we said we would do. We believed in ourselves and the things we were saying. We believed that in saying these things, we were already making them true.

Blurbworthiness:  “Shawn Vestal’s seductive Daredevils is part American Dream and part American Gothic. Gold, lust, cults, polygamy, broken bones, broken hearts, and the yearning for a possibly fatal freedom drive this book, which shares a few features with its character of Evel Knievel: it is lean, fierce, and dangerous. Read it with care.”  (Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer)

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