Friday, September 16, 2016

Front Porch Books: September 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.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow
by Susan Perabo
(Simon & Schuster)

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, nearly 800,000 children are reported missing each year. That’s more than 2,000 a day. Susan Perabo’s new novel is about one of those kidnappings, but—most intriguingly—it’s seen from the point of view of the girl who wasn’t abducted. It’s a terrific setup for what looks like an absorbing story: “What happens to the girl left behind?”

Jacket Copy:  A masked man with a gun enters a sandwich shop in broad daylight, and Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself ordered to the filthy floor, where she cowers face to face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in her eighth grade class. The minutes tick inexorably by, and Meredith lurches between comforting the sobbing Lisa and imagining her own impending death. Then the man orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith the girl left behind. After Lisa’s abduction, Meredith spends most days in her room. As the community stages vigils and searches, Claire, Meredith’s mother, is torn between relief that her daughter is alive, and helplessness over her inability to protect or even comfort her child. Her daughter is here, but not. Like Everything I Never Told You and Room, The Fall of Lisa Bellow is edgy and original, a hair-raising exploration of the ripple effects of an unthinkable crime. It is a dark, beautifully rendered, and gripping novel about coping, about coming-of-age, and about forgiveness. It is also a beautiful illustration of how one family, broken by tragedy, finds healing.

Opening Lines:  Sometimes in the morning, while she waited for her brother to get out of the bathroom, Meredith Oliver would stand in front of her bureau mirror, lock eyes with her reflection, and say, “This is me. This is really me. Right now. This is me. This is my real life. This is me.”

by Steve Erickson
(Blue Rider Press)

The Twin Towers as black monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey? Yes, please. Steve Erickson’s novel, coming our way in early 2017, has just the right kind of off-beat vibe that tickles my WTF Just Happened?! fancy.

Jacket Copy:  When the Twin Towers suddenly reappear in the Badlands of South Dakota twenty years after their fall, nobody can explain their return. To the hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands drawn to the “American Stonehenge”—including Parker and Zema, siblings on their way from L.A. to visit their mother in Michigan—the Towers seem to sing, even as everybody hears a different song. A rumor overtakes the throng that someone can be seen in the high windows of the southern structure. On the ninety-third floor, Jesse Presley—the stillborn twin of the most famous singer who ever lived—suddenly awakes, driven mad over the hours and days to come by a voice in his head that sounds like his but isn’t, and by the memory of a country where he survived in his brother’s place. Meanwhile, Parker and Zema cross a possessed landscape by a mysterious detour no one knows, charted on a map that no one has seen. Haunting, audacious, and undaunted, Shadowbahn is a winding and reckless ride through intersections of danger, destiny, and the conjoined halves of a ruptured nation.

Opening Lines:  Things don’t just disappear into thin—
     ...but she hangs up on him before he finishes. “What the...?” he says, staring at his cell phone in dismay and trying to remember if she ever hung up on him before. As he finishes filling the tank of his truck and replaces the pump’s nozzle, Aaron ponders how this became the kind of argument where his wife hangs up on him. He hauls himself back up into the driver’s seat thinking maybe this is really the kind of argument that’s about something other than what it’s about.

Blurbworthiness:  “Jaw-dropping. In Shadowbahn, Steve Erickson weaves a playlist for the dying American century with his usual lucid-dreaming prose. I’ve read every novel he’s ever written and I’ll still never know how he does it: A tour-de-forcer’s tour de force.”  (Jonathan Lethem, author of A Gambler’s Anatomy)

Searching for John Hughes
by Jason Diamond
(William Morrow)

I’m in the early pages of Jason Diamond’s memoir, but I can already tell it’s going to be one of those books that stays with me for a long time after I turn the last page. Diamond rakes the ashes of his memories of growing up in Chicagoland in the 1980s and uncovers some horrific, heartbreaking scenes of abuse and neglect in his broken family. Balanced against this are the bittersweet movies of John Hughes playing at the mall cineplex at the time. Hughes not only seemed to have his finger on the pulse of Diamond’s adolescent angst, he also provided what could be a roadmap out of a shitty childhood. As Diamond writes: “He was taking a lot of what I was seeing from car windows and giving it to the world in movie form. His movies offered the sense that things were supposed to be normal where I grew up, that the road could get bumpy but ultimately it would get better.” I plan to pair this with Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore), which came out earlier this summer. And of course I’m indulging in my own John Hughes film fest in my screening room at home. To paraphrase Some Kind of Wonderful (my personal favorite of his movies), These books look good wearing my future.

Jacket Copy:  For all fans of John Hughes and his hit films such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sixteen Candles, and Home Alone, comes Jason Diamond’s hilarious memoir of growing up obsessed with the iconic filmmaker’s movies—a preoccupation that eventually convinces Diamond he should write Hughes’ biography and travel to New York City on a quest that is as funny as it is hopeless. For as long as Jason Diamond can remember, he’s been infatuated with John Hughes’ movies. From the outrageous, raunchy antics in National Lampoon’s Vacation to the teenage angst in The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink to the insanely clever and unforgettable Home Alone, Jason could not get enough of Hughes’ films. And so the seed was planted in his mind that it should fall to him to write a biography of his favorite filmmaker. It didn’t matter to Jason that he had no qualifications, training, background, platform, or direction. Thus went the years-long, delusional, earnest, and assiduous quest to reach his goal. But no book came out of these years, and no book will. What he did get was a story that fills the pages of this unconventional, hilarious memoir. In Searching for John Hughes, Jason tells how a Jewish kid from a broken home in a Chicago suburb—sometimes homeless, always restless—found comfort and connection in the likewise broken lives in the suburban Chicago of John Hughes’ oeuvre. He moved to New York to become a writer. He started to write a book he had no business writing. In the meantime, he brewed coffee and guarded cupcake cafes. All the while, he watched John Hughes movies religiously. Though his original biography of Hughes has long since been abandoned, Jason has discovered he is a writer through and through. And the adversity of going for broke has now been transformed into wisdom. Or, at least, a really, really good story. In other words, this is a memoir of growing up. One part big dream, one part big failure, one part John Hughes movies, one part Chicago, and one part New York. It’s a story of what comes after the “Go for it!” part of the command to young creatives to pursue their dreams—no matter how absurd they might seem at first.

Blurbworthiness:  “Both funny and heartbreaking, Diamond’s memoir is not just an account of how one director’s films impacted-and perhaps saved-his life. It is also a memorable reflection on what it means to let go of the past and grow up. A quirkily intelligent memoir of finding oneself in movies.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

by Joshua Mohr
(Two Dollar Radio)

Another memoir high in my always-growing ever-teetering To-Be-Read pile (aka Mt. NeveRest), is Joshua Mohr’s story of redemption from years of hard living and substance abuse. Sirens has been on my radar for a year, ever since I read Mohr’s Buzzfeed essay about his congenital heart defect which almost killed him. As I said back then, “Go here. Read it and weep.” Okay, guys, I’m ready with the Kleenex.

Jacket Copy:  Acclaimed novelist Joshua Mohr provides a captivating and complicated account of his years of substance abuse and culpability in his non-fiction debut. Employing the characterization and chimerical prose for which he has been lauded, Mohr traces his childhood swilling fuzzy navels as a latch-key kid, through his first failed marriage, parenthood, heart-surgery, and his everyday struggle against relapse.

Opening Lines:  It’s six in the morning on New Year’s Day and Ava cries from the crib, which means my wife says something to me like, “Your turn,” and I say something whiny like, “Bottle, fine,” and stumble into the kitchen and spill milk on the counter and don’t wipe it up, leave it for later, after coffee, after the caffeine makes my mind fire right. I tuck the bottle in the waistband of my drawers so I can hoist Ava up with both arms, and she says, “Let’s play,” a new phrase for her, and I carry her back into our bed and lay her in the middle and get back in myself, Lelo and I flanking her, the three of us lying like a happy family, and for twenty seconds that’s what we are.
     Then the numbness starts.
     I notice it first in my right arm, then realize it’s creeping into my leg, too. That’s weird, I think, two limbs falling asleep at the same time.
     Soon there’s no feeling on that entire side of my body, from shoulder to toes.
     I shift positions, rolling onto my back, so blood can flow freely.
     Five seconds. Ten. Twenty.
     Still numb.
     Fear spills out of me like the milk rolling down my daughter’s chin. I shake my dead hand back and forth, back and forth, and say to Lelo, “Something’s wrong,” and she says, “What?” and I say “911.”

Blurbworthiness:  “To the short list of genuinely great addiction memoirs we can now add Sirens, a searing and at times hilarious account of Mohr’s lost years in the dive bars and gutters of San Francisco. Like Mary Karr and Jerry Stahl, there is no line Mohr won’t cross, either in his erstwhile quest for self-immolation, or his fearless honesty in reporting back from that time. But what sets this book apart is Mohr’s unwillingness to traffic in pat notions of redemption.”  (Ron Currie Jr., author of Everything Matters!)

American Ulysses
by Ronald C. White
(Random House)

Ronald C. White’s biography of Abraham Lincoln has been gathering dust on my bookshelf for far too long. I keep meaning to pull it from its place and dive into the life of The Great Emancipator, but something (another book...or two, or three) always seems to get in the way. Now, White’s newest biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s eventual successor, arrives on my Kindle, prodding me to clear some time for 19th-century American politics. This, I think, would be the perfect time to read nearly 2,000 pages of how it’s supposed to be done in the White House.

Jacket Copy:  In his time, Ulysses S. Grant was routinely grouped with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the “Trinity of Great American Leaders.” But the battlefield commander–turned–commander-in-chief fell out of favor in the twentieth century. In American Ulysses, Ronald C. White argues that we need to once more revise our estimates of him in the twenty-first. Based on seven years of research with primary documents—some of them never examined by previous Grant scholars—this is destined to become the Grant biography of our time. White, a biographer exceptionally skilled at writing momentous history from the inside out, shows Grant to be a generous, curious, introspective man and leader—a willing delegator with a natural gift for managing the rampaging egos of his fellow officers. His wife, Julia Dent Grant, long marginalized in the historic record, emerges in her own right as a spirited and influential partner. Grant was not only a brilliant general but also a passionate defender of equal rights in post-Civil War America. After winning election to the White House in 1868, he used the power of the federal government to battle the Ku Klux Klan. He was the first president to state that the government’s policy toward American Indians was immoral, and the first ex-president to embark on a world tour, and he cemented his reputation for courage by racing against death to complete his Personal Memoirs. Published by Mark Twain, it is widely considered to be the greatest autobiography by an American leader, but its place in Grant’s life story has never been fully explored—until now. One of those rare books that successfully recast our impression of an iconic historical figure, American Ulysses gives us a finely honed, three-dimensional portrait of Grant the man—husband, father, leader, writer—that should set the standard by which all future biographies of him will be measured.

Blurbworthiness:  “A fresh assessment of this enigmatic leader, who, like his Homeric namesake, failed at many things before he succeeded in engaging resurrection of Grant featuring excellent maps and character sketches.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

Kill the Next One
by Frederico Axat
(Mulholland Books)

If you want to know why Frederico Axat’s psychological thriller shot right to the top of my must-read pile for 2016, you need look no further than the opening lines (see below). And then the captivating plot set the hook and reeled me in.

Jacket Copy:  Kill the Next One is an audacious psychological thriller where nothing is what it seems. Ted McKay had it all: a beautiful wife, two daughters, a high-paying job. But after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor he finds himself with a gun to his temple, ready to pull the trigger. Then the doorbell rings. A stranger makes him a proposition: why not kill two deserving men before dying? The first target is a criminal, and the second is a man with terminal cancer who, like Ted, wants to die. After executing these kills, Ted will become someone else’s next target, like a kind of suicidal daisy chain. Ted understands the stranger’s logic: it’s easier for a victim’s family to deal with a murder than with a suicide. However, as Ted commits the murders, the crime scenes strike him as odd. The targets know him by name and possess familiar mementos. Even more bizarrely, Ted recognizes locations and men he shouldn’t know. As Ted’s mind begins to crack, dark secrets from his past seep through the fissures.

Opening Lines:  Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang. Insistently.
     He paused. He couldn’t press the trigger when he had someone waiting at the front door.

The Sleepwalker
by Chris Bohjalian

The arrival of a new Chris Bohjalian novel is always an event to be greeted with open arms...and open eyes. But his latest seems especially promising: a sleepwalker disappears under mysterious circumstances. Was she murdered or did she take a somnambulant stroll into the river? The puzzle is bound to keep us reading as we gather pieces until they all fit together.

Jacket Copy:  When Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, her children fear the worst. Annalee is a sleepwalker whose affliction manifests in ways both bizarre and devastating. Once, she merely destroyed the hydrangeas in front of her Vermont home. More terrifying was the night her older daughter, Lianna, pulled her back from the precipice of the Gale River bridge. The morning of Annalee’s disappearance, a search party combs the nearby woods. Annalee’s husband, Warren, flies home from a business trip. Lianna is questioned by a young, hazel-eyed detective. And her little sister, Paige, takes to swimming the Gale to look for clues. When the police discover a small swatch of fabric, a nightshirt, ripped and hanging from a tree branch, it seems certain Annalee is dead, but Gavin Rikert, the hazel-eyed detective, continues to call, continues to stop by the Ahlbergs’ Victorian home. As Lianna peels back the layers of mystery surrounding Annalee’s disappearance, she finds herself drawn to Gavin, but she must ask herself: Why does the detective know so much about her mother? Why did Annalee leave her bed only when her father was away? And if she really died while sleepwalking, where was the body? Conjuring the strange and mysterious world of parasomnia, a place somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness, The Sleepwalker is a masterful novel from one of our most treasured storytellers.

Opening Lines:  It makes all the sense in the world. You awaken and smell smoke and see that the cat at the foot of your bed is on fire.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Sleepwalker is more than a mystery: it’s a beautiful, wrenching novel of family secrets and the enigmas that link husbands and wives and lovers. And then that ending? Devastating and perfect.”  (Harlan Coben, author of Home)

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