Thursday, January 26, 2017

Front Porch Books: January 2017 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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.

See What I Have Done
by Sarah Schmidt
(Atlantic Monthly Press)

We begin this month with axe murders. Specifically, the most famous axe murders in history: Lizzie Borden and her “forty whacks.” I was initially drawn to Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel by its startling cover design. I have no idea what decapitated pigeons have to do with the story, but I simply cannot look away from that unblinking red eye. Pretty cover art notwithstanding, it’s what’s inside that really counts and from what I’ve read so far, See What I Have Done doesn’t disappoint. You can say I came for the cover but I stayed for the words.

Jacket Copy:  On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell―of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence. As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Opening Lines:  He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed Father.’ I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I looked at Father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. ‘Daddy,’ I had said. ‘I’m giving this to you because I love you.’ He had smiled and kissed my forehead.
      A long time ago now.
      I looked at Father. I touched his bleeding hand, how long does it take for a body to become cold? and leaned closer to his face, tried to make eye contact, waited to see if he might blink, might recognize me. I wiped my hand across my mouth, tasted blood. My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop, as I looked at Father again, watched blood river down his neck and disappear into suit cloth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I walked out of the room, closed the door behind me and made my way to the back stairs, shouted once more to Bridget, ‘Quickly. Someone’s killed Father.’ I wiped my hand across my mouth, licked my teeth.

Blurbworthiness:  “This novel is like a crazy murdery fever dream, swirling around the day of the murders. Schmidt has written not just a tale of a crime, but a novel of the senses. There is hardly a sentence that goes by without mention of some sensation, whether it’s a smell or a sound or a taste, and it is this complete saturation of the senses that enables the novel to soak into your brain and envelope you in creepy uncomfortableness. It’s a fabulous, unsettling book.”  (Book Riot)

Unearthing Paradise
Edited by Marc Beaudin, Seabring Davis and Max Hjortsberg
(Elk River Books)

These days, we talk a lot about protecting our public lands―the crown jewels of the continent, the sacred treasures of our wilderness areas―but sometimes you have to put your pen where your mouth is. Kudos to the dozens of writers who did just that by contributing to this anthology of short fiction, poems and essays that are designed to be, as the book’s subtitle tells us, in “defense of Greater Yellowstone.” A partial roll call of the contributors: Terry Tempest Williams, Edwin Dobb, Michael Earl Craig, Greg Keeler, John Clayton, Amanda Fortini, Russell Rowland, Shann Ray, Jim Harrison, Elise Atchison, Tami Haaland, Doug Peacock, Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, and Rick Bass. On Twitter, we talk about doing #smallacts to combat the post-election tide of racism, mysogyny, and anti-environmentalism. Why not make buying Unearthing Paradise your Small Good Act of the day?

Jacket Copy:  An anthology of essays, fiction and poetry by 32 Montana writers celebrating and honoring the unique environmental, aesthetic, cultural and economic value of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, especially the regions of this ecosystem that fall within Montana: The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Paradise Valley, the Gallatin Range and the federal, state and private lands that connect these regions. The book calls for the withdrawal of mining permits within the GYE; in particular, for preventing two gold mining threats in Park County, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. In addition, it strives to raise awareness of the need to stop short-sighted, destructive development of any kind on these lands.

Opening Lines:  It is hard to imagine a gold mine within view from the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, but given the state of the world at this moment in time, it is possible. Whatever legislation may be in place from the Obama administration could be undone by the zealotry of the incoming administration committed to placing our nation’s public lands in the hands of private interests. Never have our lands, our water and the health of our communities in the American West been more at risk, and in the case of Montana, pressure continues to build around more mining for gold, copper and coal. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is vulnerable.

Blurbworthiness:  “The most important book you’ll buy this year, or maybe any other, Unearthing Paradise, is not only a call to action, it’s a beauty in its own right. Calling together so many of Montana’s writers, how could it not be? In this day, when so much is threatened by so many, I hope that beauty can, for once, override a bit of the greed. Get it, pass it around, spread the word, let Unearthing Paradise be an awakening, not a swan song.”  (Pete Fromm, author of If Not for This)

Stephen Florida
by Gabe Habash
(Coffee House Press)

Much has already been written about the cover design for Stephen Florida (and for good reason―Karl Engebretson’s design using George Boorujy’s illustration of a wildcat might very well be the Cover of the Year), but I’m drawn to the plot as well. I’m trapped like a hare under a paw. It’s not often I say that about a book whose central character is a college wrestler, but there you have it. I’m pinned to the mat by this one.

Jacket Copy:  Foxcatcher meets The Art of Fielding, Stephen Florida follows a college wrestler in his senior season, when every practice, every match, is a step closer to greatness and a step further from sanity. Profane, manic, and tipping into the uncanny, it’s a story of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark.

Opening Lines:  My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them. I was supposed to have a twin. When the doctor yanked me out, he said, “There’s a good chance this child will be quite strong.” This is the story my parents always told me, but I never really believed it.

Blurbworthiness:  “In Stephen Florida, Gabe Habash has created a coming-of-age story with its own, often explosive, rhythm and velocity. Habash has a canny sense of how young men speak and behave, and in Stephen, he’s created a singular character: funny, ambitious, affecting, but also deeply troubled, vulnerable, and compellingly strange. This is a shape-shifter of a book, both a dark ode to the mysteries and landscapes of the American West and a complex and convincing character study.”  (Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life)

The Coming
by David Osborne

Like Lizzie Borden (see See What I Have Done above), reams of paper and gallons of ink have been spent on the exploits of Merriwether Lewis and William Clark, both in fact and fiction. Of course there’s Stephen Ambrose's classic Undaunted Courage and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian K. Hall, but if you’d like to see a perspective of the 1804 expedition from a slightly different angle, David Osborne’s The Coming might be a good place to start.

Jacket Copy:  The Coming is an epic novel of native-white relations in North America, intimately told through the life of Daytime Smoke―the real-life red-haired son of William Clark and a Nez Perce woman. In 1805, Lewis and Clark stumble out of the Rockies on the edge of starvation. The Nez Perce help the explorers build canoes and navigate the rapids of the Columbia, then spend two months hosting them the following spring before leading them back across the snowbound mountains. Daytime Smoke is born not long after, and the tribe of his youth continues a deep friendship with white Americans, from fur trappers to missionaries, even aiding the United States government in wars with neighboring tribes. But when gold is discovered on Nez Perce land in 1860, it sets an inevitable tragedy in motion. Daytime Smoke’s life spanned the seven decades between first contact and the last great Indian war. Capturing the trajectory experienced by so many native peoples―from friendship and cooperation to betrayal, war, and genocide―this sweeping novel, with its large cast of characters and vast geography, braids historical events with the drama of one man’s remarkable life. Rigorously researched and cinematically rendered, The Coming is a page-turning, heart-stopping American novel in a classic mode.

Opening Lines:  William Clark tucked his head down as the rain dripped off his hat. He was a large-boned man, with a long, reddish face and nose and a high brow. It was a rough face but confident, accustomed to command.

Blurbworthiness:  “The destruction of the Nez Perce, who were obliterated like other Native American tribes all across the American frontier during the 19th and early 20th centuries, makes harrowing history....This work of fiction reaches a level of truth that history cannot in depicting the collision between two civilizations.”  (Publishers Weekly)

Girl in Snow
by Danya Kukafka
(Simon and Schuster)

We meet Lucinda Hayes, high school golden girl, in the early pages of Danya Kukafka’s debut novel. She’s sprawled on a school playground carousel, snow drifting down, covering her body. She’s dead, the titular young female at the heart of what looks like an absorbing, addictive reading experience. As the opening lines below attest, Kukafka’s prose is of the Rice Krispies variety: plenty of snap, crackle and pop. Dig in and don’t look up until you’re done.

Jacket Copy:  As morning dawns in a sleepy Colorado suburb, a dusting of snow covers high school freshman Lucinda Hayes’s dead body on a playground carousel. As accusations quickly spread, Lucinda’s tragic death draws three outsiders from the shadows. Oddball Cameron Whitley loved—still loves—Lucinda. Though they’ve hardly ever spoken, and any sensible onlooker would call him Lucinda’s stalker, Cameron is convinced that he knows her better than anyone. Completely untethered by the news of her death, Cameron’s erratic behavior provides the town ample reason to suspect that he’s the killer. Jade Dixon-Burns hates Lucinda. Lucinda took everything from Jade: her babysitting job, and her best friend. The worst part was Lucinda’s blissful ignorance to the damage she’d wrought. Officer Russ Fletcher doesn’t know Lucinda, but he knows the kid everyone is talking about, the boy who may have killed her. Cameron Whitley is his ex-partner’s son. Now Russ must take a painful journey through the past to solve Lucinda’s murder and keep a promise he made long ago. Girl in Snow investigates the razor-sharp line between love and obsession and will thrill fans of Everything I Never Told You and Luckiest Girl Alive. Intoxicating and intense, this is a novel you will not be able to put down.

Opening Lines:  When they told him Lucinda Hayes was dead, Cameron thought of her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs.

Blurbworthiness:  “Girl in Snow is a haunting, lyrical novel about love, loss, and terror. Reading it felt like entering another world, where things—and people—were not as they at first appeared. The world Kukafka so masterfully creates is suspenseful and electrifying; I was willing to follow her wherever she took me.” (Anton DiSclafani, author of The After Party)

Universal Harvester
by John Darnielle
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Once upon a time, I worked in a video store in Alaska. It was a quaint, small-town Mom-and-Pop kind of store that, at the time, only rented VHS. Blu-Ray was still in the future (and, if you’d asked us, it sounded like laser guns used by the good guys in sci-fi movies). Every now and then, a customer would bring back a tape, claiming there was “something wrong” with it. After allowing disappointed viewers to pick out a replacement movie, our job as video store clerks was to go in the back room and play the questionable tape, fast-forwarding to the “something wrong” part. We never found anything juicy―no homemade porn, no creepy or cryptic messages spliced into the tape by demonic forces, not even a mother somehow recording her baby’s first steps. The problems were easily diagnosed: a foot or two of crinkled tape someone’s dirty VHS machine tried to eat, or greasy smears from a grilled cheese sandwich some toddler tried to insert into the door flap of the tape deck, or distinct and sometimes still slobber-wet tooth marks from a dog. This is where my experience and John Darnielle’s unsettling new novel part ways. The characters in Universal Harvester do indeed find some very wrong things on the videotapes customers return to the store, but grilled cheese is not the culprit.

Jacket Copy:  Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town in the center of the state―the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and even if the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: it’s a job, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck. But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets―an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store―she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns a different tape, a new release, and says it’s not defective, exactly, but altered: “There’s another movie on this tape.” Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious, but he brings the movies home to take a look. And, indeed, in the middle of each movie, the screen blinks dark for a moment and the movie is replaced by a few minutes of jagged, poorly lit home video. The scenes are odd and sometimes violent, dark, and deeply disquieting. There are no identifiable faces, no dialogue or explanation―the first video has just the faint sound of someone breathing― but there are some recognizable landmarks. These have been shot just outside of town. So begins John Darnielle’s haunting and masterfully unsettling Universal Harvester: the once placid Iowa fields and farmhouses now sinister and imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. The novel will take Jeremy and those around him deeper into this landscape than they have ever expected to go. They will become part of a story that unfolds years into the past and years into the future, part of an impossible search for something someone once lost that they would do anything to regain.

Opening Lines:  People usually didn’t say anything when they returned their tapes to the Video Hut: in a single and somewhat graceful movement, they’d approach the counter, slide the tapes toward whoever was stationed behind the register, and wheel back toward the door. Sometimes they’d give a wordless nod or raise their eyebrows a little to make sure they’d been seen. With a few variations, this silent pass was the unwritten protocol at video rental stores around the U.S. for the better part of two decades. Some stores had slots in the counter that dropped into a big bin, but Nevada was a small town. A little cleared space off to the side of the counter was good enough.

The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
(Harper Collins)

Want me to click with a book right away, before I’ve even opened to the first page? Just say the words “Victorian,” “sea serpent,” and “shades of Charles Dickens.” Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent has all that―and more―in spades. I’m in.

Jacket Copy:  An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love. When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.

Opening Lines:  A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. He’s been drinking the old year down to the dregs, until his eyes grew sore and his stomach turned and he was tired of the bright lights and bustle. “I’ll just go down to the water,” he said, and kissed the nearest cheek: “I’ll be back before the chimes.” Now he looks east to the turning tide, out to the estuary slow and dark, and the white gulls gleaming on the waves.

Blurbworthiness:  “ can feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Hilary Mantel channeled by Perry in some sort of Victorian séance. This is the best new novel I’ve read in years.” (Daily Telegraph)

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