Monday, March 25, 2019

Front Porch Books: March 2019 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.

The World Doesn’t Require You
by Rion Amilcar Scott

Jacket Copy:  Deftly spinning genres of his feverish literary invention, Rion Amilcar Scott creates his very own Yoknapatawpha County with fictional Cross River, Maryland. Established by the leaders of America’s only successful slave revolt, the town still evokes the fierce rhythms of its founding. Among its residents are David Sherman, a struggling musician who just happens to be God’s last son; Tyrone, a ruthless PhD candidate, whose dissertation about a childhood game ignites mayhem in the neighboring, once-segregated town of Port Yooga; and Jim, an all-too-obedient robot who serves his Master. Culminating with an explosive novella, these haunting stories of the denizens of Cross River serve to explore larger themes of religion, violence, and love―all told with sly humor and a dash of magical realism. Shattering rigid literary boundaries, Scott is “a necessary voice in American literature” (PEN Award citation), a writer whose storytelling gifts the world very much requires.

Opening Lines:  God is from Cross River, everyone knows that. He was tall, lanky; wore dirty brown clothes and walked with a limp he tried to disguise as a bop. His chin held a messy salt-and-pepper beard that extended to his Adam’s apple. Always clutching a mango in His hand. Used to live on the Southside, down under the bridge, near the water. Now there is a nice little sidewalk and flowers and a bike trail that leads into Port Yooga. Back then there was just mud and weeds, and He’d sit there barefooted, speaking softly, preaching His word. At one time He had one hundred, maybe two hundred—some say up to five hundred or even a thousand—people listening to Him. But the time I’m talking about, He’d sit with only one or two folks. Always with a mango, except during Easter time, when He’d pass out jellybeans to get people to stop and listen.
       He lived on the banks of the Cross River until one day, He filled His pockets with stones and walked into the water and sank like a crazy poet. He wasn’t insane. It was all part of God’s plan. Last time He was crucified, this time drowned.

Blurbworthiness:  “In the midst of a renaissance of African American fiction, Rion Amilcar Scott’s stories stand at the forefront of what’s possible in this vanguard. Funny, sad, and always moving, these stories explore what it means to call a place like America home when it treats you with indifference or terror. The people in these stories are unforgettable, their lives recognizable, their voices, as written by Scott, wholly original.”  (Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman)

White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination
by Jess Row
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  White Flights is a meditation on whiteness in American fiction and culture from the end of the civil rights movement to the present. At the heart of the book, Jess Row ties “white flight”—the movement of white Americans into segregated communities, whether in suburbs or newly gentrified downtowns—to white writers setting their stories in isolated or emotionally insulated landscapes, from the mountains of Idaho in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping to the claustrophobic households in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Row uses brilliant close readings of work from well-known writers such as Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Richard Ford, and David Foster Wallace to examine the ways these and other writers have sought imaginative space for themselves at the expense of engaging with race. White Flights aims to move fiction to a more inclusive place, and Row looks beyond criticism to consider writing as a reparative act. What would it mean, he asks, if writers used fiction “to approach each other again”? Row turns to the work of James Baldwin, Dorothy Allison, and James Alan McPherson to discuss interracial love in fiction, while also examining his own family heritage as a way to interrogate his position. A moving and provocative book that includes music, film, and literature in its arguments, White Flights is an essential work of cultural and literary criticism.

Opening Lines:  These essays are about race in the imaginative life of Americans from the end of the civil rights era to the present. They’re about fiction in the proper sense of the wordnovels, short stories, film, playsand also the larger, boundaryless, improper sense, in which our collective life is a series of overlapping fictions, fantasies, dream states. They’re about the ways fiction in the first sense reflects and sustains the fictions of the second.
       Because it couldn’t be otherwisebecause I couldn’t write it any other waythis is also a book about the dimensions and complications of my own racial identity, and particularly about my life as a white writer, and how I learned, without consciously learning it, to represent whiteness and identify with whiteness, while at the same time believing I was practicing something called “imaginative freedom.” I’m trying to undertake what Wayne Koestenbaum calls autoethnographya way of writing that should never take itself entirely seriously. Because whiteness is a category that is both laughable and lethal. Writing about race as a white man means I have to move beyond the understanding of what words like “sincerity,” “earnestness,” and “dignity” mean. The worst thing a book like this could be is polite.

Blurbworthiness:  “These are brilliant, sweeping, intimate delights―and afterward, you may never read the same way again.” (Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel)

What the Women Do
by Adam Braver

Jacket Copy:  In What The Women Do, three trailblazing women face private decisions that redirect their lives—and also shape history. In these powerful novellas, Adam Braver imagines life-changing encounters away from the spotlight, hidden inflection points that capture how these remarkable groundbreakers engaged the world around them. When Eleanor Roosevelt rushes to her son’s hospital bedside, she’s stopped short by Miss Ethel duPont, his fiancée and the embodiment of everything she’s always resisted. In the crush of World War II, Kay Summersby lives and works alongside General Eisenhower, building a loving domestic sanctuary that’s dismantled in victory and that shadows the life she later builds for and by herself. And in a small shop in Reykjavik, Bobbie Gentry, the reclusive 70’s pop star, fights to preserve her anonymity. Or maybe it’s her doppelgänger: her refusal to engage with an ambitious reporter recasts the entire prospect of knowing these women’s lives at all.

Opening Lines:  Outside of the private hospital room in Phillips House, before she’s even seen her son, Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States, listens to Dr. Tobey, an Ear, Nose, & Throat man, try to explain what he believes is happening inside her son’s body. Because she’s hardly had any sleep, having just arrived in Boston on the 12:45 AM Owl out of Grand Central Station, it takes all her will to focus on the details.

Blurbworthiness:  “I’ve loved Adam Braver’s work for many years. What The Women Do is one of his finest books yet. These novellas offer radically different takes on the lives of three women about whom we know much less than we sometimes like to think. Braver’s bravura narration—stealthy and startling—confirms my long-held opinion that he’s one of the best fiction writers in the country. One of the best artists, period.”  (Steve Yarbrough, author of The Unmade World)

We Were Killers Once
by Becky Masterman

Jacket Copy:  In 1959, a family of four were brutally murdered in Holcomb, Kansas. Perry Smith and Dick Hickok were convicted and executed for the crime, and the murders and their investigation and solution became the subject of Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood. But what if there was a third killer, who remained unknown? What if there was another family, also murdered, who crossed paths with this band of killers, though their murder remains unsolved? And what if Dick Hickok left a written confession, explaining everything? Retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn and her husband Carlo, a former priest and university professor, are trying to enjoy each other in this new stage in their lives. But a memento from Carlo’s days as a prison chaplain—a handwritten document hidden away undetected in a box of Carlo’s old things—has become a target for a man on the run from his past. Jerry Beaufort has just been released from prison after decades behind bars, and though he’d like to get on with living the rest of his life, he knows that somewhere there is a written record of the time he spent with two killers in 1959. Following the path of this letter will bring Jerry into contact with the last person he’ll see as a threat: Brigid Quinn.

Opening Lines:  Little Brigid Theresa Quinn, with a Band-Aid on my knobby knee from jumping out of a banyan tree on a dare, and a ponytail of red hair that should have been washed four days ago—I’m only six years old when I first hear about the murder of the Walker family on December 19, 1959. Though the decades pass, and I have witnessed even greater horrors than were described that night, I still can’t see a Christmas tree without feeling the crime scene, the tree with its ornaments, the glittery packages, the bodies in the living room.

All the Water in the World
by Karen Raney

Jacket Copy:  Maddy is sixteen. Smart, funny, and profound, she has loyal friends, a mother with whom she’s unusually close, a father she’s never met, devoted grandparents, and a crush on a boy named Jack. Maddy also has cancer. Living in the shadow of uncertainty, she is forced to grow up fast. All the Water in the World is the story of a family doing its best when faced with the worst. Told in the alternating voices of Maddy and her mother, Eve, the narrative moves between the family’s lake house in Pennsylvania; their home in Washington, DC; and London, where Maddy’s father, Antonio, lives. Hungry for experience, Maddy seeks out her first romantic relationship, finds solace in music and art, and tracks down Antonio. She continually tests the depths and limits of her closeness with her mother, while Eve has to come to terms with the daughter she only partly knows, in a world she can’t control.

Opening Lines:  A lake is a black hole for sound. The wind, the crack of a hammer, the cries of birds and children weave a rim of noise around the water, making its silence more profound. When a turtle or fish breaks the surface, the sound appears to come from within. Maddy, who is a natural philosopher, would want to know whether it really is sound, or just the possibility of sound, that issues from such breaches. I mention Maddy because to have a child is to have a twofold mind. No thought or action belongs to me alone. This holds true more than ever now.

Blurbworthiness:  “An extraordinary achievement for a first novel: tender, heartfelt and heart-breaking.”  (Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill)

Ducks, Newburyport
by Lucy Ellmann

Jacket Copy:  Peeling apple after apple for the tartes tatin she bakes for local restaurants, an Ohio mother wonders how to exist in a world of distraction and fake facts, besieged by a tweet-happy president and trigger-happy neighbors, and all of them oblivious to what Dupont has dumped into the rivers and what’s happening at the factory farm down the interstate―not to mention what was done to the land’s first inhabitants. A torrent of consciousness, narrated in a single sentence by a woman whose wandering thoughts are as comfortably familiar as they are heart-rending in their honesty, Ducks, Newburyport is a fearless indictment of our contemporary moment.

Opening Lines: When you are all sinew, struggle and solitude, your young – being soft, plump, vulnerable – may remind you of prey. The damp furry closeness in the crowded den sometimes gave her an over-warm sensation akin to nausea, or boredom. Snaking her long limbs as far as space permitted, she longed to be out on her winding path, ranging wide in search of deer. In her dreams she slaughtered whole herds. She sought that first firm clasp on a stag’s neck, the swift parting of its hide, her mouth filling at last with what was hot and wet and necessary.

(To read the start of that book-length sentence, which begins “The fact that the raccoons are now banging an empty yoghurt carton around on the driveway...,” visit this page at Biblioasis)

Blurbworthiness:  “Perhaps the most ambitious novel of 2019, a contemporary Molly Bloom soliloquy, a paginated lioness, a corrective, a challenge, a ‘Moby-dick of the kitchen’ in weird but sorta true ways.” (Josh Cook, Porter Square Books)

The Turn of the Key
by Ruth Ware
(Scout Press)

Jacket Copy:  When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family. What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder. Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant. It was everything. She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is. Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

Opening Lines:
                                                                                      3rd September 2017
Dear Mr. Wrexham,
I know you don’t know me but please please, please you have to help me

Three Flames
by Alan Lightman

Jacket Copy:  The stories of one Cambodian family are intricately braided together in Alan Lightman’s haunting Three Flames, his first work of fiction in six years. Three Flames portrays the struggles of a Cambodian farming family against the extreme patriarchal attitudes of their society and the cruel and dictatorial father, set against a rural community that is slowly being exposed to the modern world and its values. A mother must fight against memories of her father’s death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and her powerful desire for revenge. A daughter is married off at sixteen to a wandering husband and his domineering aunt; another daughter is sent to the city to work in the factories to settle her father’s gambling debt. A son dreams of marrying the most beautiful girl of the village and escaping the life of a farmer. And the youngest daughter bravely challenges her father so she can stay in school and strive for a better future. A vivid story of revenge and forgiveness, of a culture smothering the dreams of freedom, and of tradition against courage, Three Flames grows directly from Lightman’s work as the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance a new generation of female leaders in Cambodia and all of Southeast Asia.

Opening Lines:  Ryna had just finished putting a quarter kilo of pork and a half dozen rambutan into her burlap shopping bag, wondering if her husband would scold her for spending too much, when she saw the man who had murdered her father.

Blurbworthiness:  “Lyrical and poignant, Three Flames weaves the stories of three generations of a poor, Cambodian farming family as they struggle to survive and hold on to their humanity. Each family member, like a flickering flame, lights the hopes and dreams of the others, offering courage in the face of shattering heartbreaks and tragedies. Beautifully written and told with great compassion, Alan Lightman's novel gives readers a family that is rich in stories, history, and heart, proving in the end that love shines even in the midst of great darkness.”  (Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father)

by Susan Steinberg
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Susan Steinberg’s first novel, Machine, is a dazzling and innovative leap forward for a writer whose most recent collection of short stories, Spectacle, gained her a rapturous following. Machine revolves around a group of teenagers―both locals and wealthy out-of-towners―during a single summer at the shore. Steinberg captures the pressures and demands of this world in a voice that effortlessly slides from collective to singular, as one girl recounts a night on which another girl drowned. Hoping to assuage her guilt and evade a similar fate, she pieces together the details of this tragedy, as well as the breakdown of her own family, and learns that no one, not even she, is blameless. A daring stylist, Steinberg contrasts semicolon-studded sentences with short lines that race down the page. This restless approach gains focus and power through a sharply drawn narrative that ferociously interrogates gender, class, privilege, and the disintegration of identity in the shadow of trauma. Machine is the kind of novel―relentless and bold―that only Susan Steinberg could have written.

Opening Lines:  the water is deeper than it looks; and we’re not the worst swimmers, but it’s dark; we tend not to swim at night; no, we tend not to swim at night with guys; we all knew of the girl who drowned; she sank like a stone, they said; she was showing off that night, they said;

Blurbworthiness:  “Otherworldly, and every-other-line sublime, Machine reads like the text messages Laura Palmer might send back from the Black Lodge. It’s a timely reminder of why our culture remains haunted by dead girls, and of the different ways we find to drown them.”  (Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape)

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