Thursday, January 16, 2020

Fresh Ink: January 2020 edition


Fresh Ink* 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.

[*Since I have recently moved into a new apartment, sans an actual front porch, I decided to rename this monthly feature formerly known as Front Porch Books.]



Morningside Heights
by Joshua Henkin
(Pantheon)

Jacket Copy:  When Ohio-born Pru Steiner arrives in New York in 1976 after graduating from Yale, she follows in a long tradition of young people determined to take the city by storm. But when she falls in love with Spence Robin, her hotshot young Shakespeare professor, her life takes a turn she couldn’t have anticipated. Thirty years later, something is wrong with Spence. The Great Man can’t concentrate; he falls asleep reading The New York Review of Books. With their daughter Sarah away at medical school, Pru must struggle on her own. One day, feeling particularly isolated, Pru meets a man, and the possibility of new romance blooms. Meanwhile, Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage has come back into their lives. Arlo, a wealthy entrepreneur who invests in biotech, may be his father’s last, best hope. Morningside Heights is a sweeping and compassionate novel about a marriage surviving hardship. It’s about the love between women and men and children and parents, about the things we give up in the face of adversity, about what endures when life turns out differently from what we thought we signed up for.

Opening Lines:  Growing up in Bexley, in the suburbs of Columbus, Pru had been drawn to the older boys, thinking they could take her far from home. Her father was from Brooklyn, her mother from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but they met in the middle of the country, in Ann Arbor, at a freshman mixer in 1944. Pru’s father was studying engineering, and when he graduated he went to work for GM. But he wasn’t cut out for the auto industry, for its assembly lines and economies of scale, and Pru’s mother didn’t like Detroit, where there was Ten Mile Road and Eleven Mile Road and Twelve Mile Road, everything measured in a car. But Pru’s father liked the Midwest, and when an opportunity arose in Columbus, he settled on it.

Blurbworthiness:  “Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people.” (D. G. Myers, Commentary Magazine)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Well, that cover design is killer, for starters. But it’s the focus on marriage and how things don’t always turn out as its partners hope for that really draws me closer.



Universe of Two
by Stephen P. Kiernan
(HarperCollins)

Jacket Copy:  From the critically acclaimed author of The Baker’s Secret and The Curiosity comes a novel of conscience, love, and redemption—a fascinating fictionalized account of the life of Charlie Fisk, a gifted mathematician who was drafted into Manhattan Project and ordered against his morals to build the detonator for the atomic bomb. With his musician wife, he spends his postwar life seeking redemption—and they find it together. Graduating from Harvard at the height of World War II, brilliant mathematician Charlie Fish is assigned to the Manhattan Project. Working with some of the age’s greatest scientific minds, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, Charlie is assigned the task of designing and building the detonator of the atomic bomb. As he performs that work Charlie suffers a crisis of conscience, which his wife, Brenda—unaware of the true nature of Charlie’s top-secret task—mistakes as self-doubt. She urges him to set aside his qualms and continue. Once the bombs strike Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the feelings of culpability devastate him and Brenda. At the war’s end, Charlie receives a scholarship to pursue a PhD in physics at Stanford—an opportunity he and Brenda hope will allow them a fresh start. But the past proves inescapable. All any of his new colleagues can talk about is the bomb, and what greater atomic weapons might be on the horizon. Haunted by guilt, Charlie and Brenda leave Stanford and decide to dedicate the rest of their lives to making amends for the evil he helped to birth into the world. Based on the life of the actual mathematician Charles B. Fisk, Universe of Two combines riveting historical drama with a poignant love story. Stephen Kiernan has conjured a remarkable account of two people struggling to heal their consciences and find peace in a world forever changed.

Opening Lines:  I met Charlie Fish in Chicago in the fall of 1943. First I dismissed him, then I liked him, then I ruined him, then I saved him.

Blurbworthiness:  “Stephen Kiernan has pulled off the nearly impossible, reminding us by wrapping a war story in a love story that although we hold the power for our own extinction, we also have the power to redeem, heal, and save. The most tender, terrifying, relevant book you’ll read this year.” (Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Thoughtful novels about war and conscience will always find a place on my shelves.



Fishing!
by Sarah Stonich
(University of Minnesota Press)

Jacket Copy:  Having fled the testosterone-soaked world of professional sport fishing, thirty-something RayAnne Dahl is navigating a new job as a consultant for the first all-women talk show about fishing on public television (or, as one viewer’s husband puts it, “Oprah in a boat”). After the host bails, RayAnne lands in front of the camera and out of her depth at the helm of the show. Is she up for the challenge? Meanwhile, her family proves as high-maintenance as her fixer-upper house and her clingy rescue dog. Her dad, star of the one-season Big Rick’s Bass Bonanza, is on his sixth wife and falling off the wagon and into RayAnne’s career path; her mother, a new-age aging coach for the menopausal rich, provides endless unwanted advice; and her beloved grandmother Dot—whose advice RayAnne needs—is far away and far from well. But as RayAnne says, “I’m a woman, I fish. Deal with it.” And just when things seem to be coming together—the show is an unlikely hit; she receives the admiration of a handsome sponsor (out of bounds as he is, but definitely in the wings); ungainly house and dog are finally in hand—RayAnne’s world suddenly threatens to capsize, and she’s faced with a gut-wrenching situation and a heartbreaking decision. First published in 2015 under a pseudonym, this first installment in a trilogy filled with hilarity and heartbreak unspools with the gentle wit and irresistible charm that readers of Sarah Stonich have come to expect. Fishing! eases us into unsuspected depths as it approaches the essential question: when should life be steered by the heart, not the rules?

Opening Lines:  When the conference room lights dim unexpectedly, RayAnne blinks in mild alarm, thinking of the scene in Dark Victory when Bette Davis goes so enchantingly blind. But it’s only someone fiddling with the dimmer—she’s forgotten the meeting agenda includes a screening of the new intro for the show. The rear screen projector descends and strains of accordion and steel guitar swell from nowhere. Under the table, she dribbles an orange Croc back and forth between bare feet until Cassi’s studded leather boot gently pins her instep. Of course she’s nervous—who wants to watch their own flawed self fumble around on-screen in high-def digital?

Blurbworthiness:  “A lighthearted, comedic novel for women that isn’t all about landing a man (fishing pun intended).”  (Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Three reasons: an unusual subject matter (at least, not one I've come across very often in literary novels), a writer who really knows how to reel in her readers, and characters that leap out of the water and land in my lap (all the puns intended).



The Night Watchman
by Louise Erdrich
(Harper Collins)

Jacket Copy:  Based on the extraordinary life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling of a master craftsman. Thomas Wazhushk is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new “emancipation” bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn’t about freedom; Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a “termination” that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. How can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans “for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run”? Since graduating high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Patrice, the class valedictorian, has no desire to wear herself down with a husband and kids. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that barely pays her enough to support her mother and brother. Patrice’s shameful alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children and bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn’t been in touch in months, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life. Thomas and Patrice live in this impoverished reservation community along with young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother Juggie Blue, her niece and Patrice’s best friend Valentine, and Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopelessly in love with Patrice. In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a majestic work of fiction from this revered cultural treasure.

Opening Lines:  Thomas Wazhushk removed his thermos from his armpit and set it on the steel desk alongside his scuffed briefcase. His canvas work jacket went on the chair, his lunch box on the cold windowsill. When he took off his padded tractor hat, a crab apple fell from the earflap. A gift from his daughter Fee. He put it out on the desktop to admire. Then punched his time card. Midnight. he picked up the key ring, a company flashlight, and walked the perimeter of the main floor.

Blurbworthiness:  “Erdrich’s inspired portrait of her own tribe’s resilient heritage masterfully encompasses an array of characters and historical events. Erdrich remains an essential voice.” (Publishers Weekly)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Over the years, my reading of Erdrich has been, frankly and ashamedly, scant (I’ve read Love Medicine and Shadow Tag, but none of her other books). Isn’t it about time I dove deeper into her body of work?



Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom
by Chera Hammons
(Torrey House Press)

Jacket Copy:  Anna and John, a master saddle maker, have created a quiet existence for themselves in rural Vermont, a rugged landscape where coyotes roam, bears threaten the livestock, and poachers trespass. When John is murdered in the woods near their home, chronically ill Anna hides his death in a desperate effort to ensure her own survival and suppress long–buried secrets.

Opening Lines:  The first thing John says when he comes inside is that he has seen blood in the new snow.

Blurbworthiness:  “Ominous from its opening image—blood marring cozy domesticity—Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom is a haunting beauty. Hammons’ prose is tight as a tripwire.” (Kelly Sokol, author of The Unprotected)

Why It’s In My Stack:  That opening scene with a husband and wife discussing blood on fresh snow is like a fish-hook in my eyes, tugging me deeper and deeper into this debut novel.



So We Can Glow
by Leesa Cross-Smith
(Grand Central Publishing)

Jacket Copy:  From Kentucky to the California desert, these forty-two short stories expose the hearts of girls and women in moments of obsessive desire and fantasy, wildness and bad behavior, brokenness and fearlessness, and more. On a hot July night, teenage girls sneak out of the house to meet their boyfriends by the train tracks. Members of a cult form an unsettling chorus as they proclaim their adoration for the same man. A woman luxuriates in a fantasy getaway to escape her past. A love story begins over cabbages in a grocery store, and a laundress’s life is consumed by her obsession with a baseball star. After the death of a sister, two high school friends kiss all night and binge-watch Winona Ryder movies. Leesa Cross-Smith’s sensuous stories—some long, some gone in a flash, some told over text and emails—drench readers in nostalgia for summer nights and sultry days. They recall the intense friendships of teenage girls and the innate bonds between mothers, the first heady rush of desire, and the pure exhilaration of womanhood, all while holding up the wild souls of women so they can catch the light.

Opening Lines:  We’re not depressed all the time, some of us aren’t even depressed sometimes. We’re okay, our hearts, dusted with pink. When we cry in bathrooms together it’s about men or our mothers or our fathers or our bodies.

Blurbworthiness:  “The magic of So We Can Glow is that no matter who you are, no matter your circumstances, no matter your gender identity, when reading this book you become the girls and women in these pages. You hope their hopes, dream their dreams, fantasize and love alongside them. Leesa Cross-Smith is some sort of sorceress.”  (Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m hoping to up my short-story game in 2020—I slacked off by only reading nine volumes of short prose last year. So We Glow is first up in the stack after a quick, delicious skim through some of its contents.



A Good Man
by Ani Katz
(Penguin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Thomas Martin was a devoted family man who had all the trappings of an enviable life: a beautiful wife and daughter, a well-appointed home on Long Island’s north shore, a job at a prestigious Manhattan advertising firm. He was also a devoted son and brother, shielding the women in his orbit from the everyday brutalities of the world. But what happens when Thomas’ fragile ego is rocked? After committing a horrific deed—that he can never undo—Thomas grapples with his sense of self. Sometimes he casts himself as a victim and, at other times, a monster. All he ever did was try to be a good man, but maybe if he tells his version of the story, he might uncover how and why things unraveled so horribly.

Opening Lines:  The billy club arrived with the first shipment of Christmas presents that year, one package among several stacked on the front porch.

Blurbworthiness:  “Ani Katz is a brilliant writer. I sat down to read A Good Man and didn’t move until I’d finished it. This is a spellbinding work of psychologically potent art. I can’t wait to read what she does next. I loved this book.”  (Caroline Kepnes, author of You)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I am on the prowl for a good thriller right now. Maybe it’s the unrest of national politics, maybe it’s the upheaval in my own personal life (starting a new phase of my work life in a new city in a new dwelling in the new year), but I want to read something in which horrible people get their comeuppance. I don’t know if the narrator in A Good Man gets what he deserves in the end, but I’ll be along for every step of the unravel. Not to mention the fact that the first sentence of this book has a shout-out to (the former name of) this monthly books column itself!



Pax Americana
by Kurt Baumeister
(Stalking Horse Press)

Jacket Copy:  2034: Evangelical secret agents, fast food moguls, the voice of God in computer software, violence in the Bermuda Triangle! George W. Bush’s foreign policy vindicated by a quick victory in Iraq, lucrative invasions of Egypt and Syria followed, bringing unparalleled prosperity to America and setting off thirty years of right-wing rule. But when a war in Iran goes bad—and the resulting cover-up goes worse—the Democrats reclaim the presidency. This is the time of Pax Americana and its zealous anti-hero, government agent Tuck Squires. Reading the ironic silences between the lines of the thriller, and roaring like a jet engine, Pax Americana is a sacrilegious, conspiratorial monster; like a literary dogfight between Ian Fleming and Robert Anton Wilson, loaded with prophecy, Baumeister’s debut is an exorcism and an antidote for our era.

Blurbworthiness:  “Like an episode of Archer written by Kurt Vonnegut, Baumeister takes us into a hilarious and high-velocity world of espionage and global politics in this send-up of god, country, and the possibility of doing good in a world gone bad. It’s fast-paced fun, watch out for paper cuts as the pages fly by.” (Shya Scanlon, author of The Guild of Saint Cooper)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Though Pax Americana was first published several years ago, it recently landed on my desk with a surprising and comedic sort of sproing! sound. I love a good comedic futuristic thriller. This fits the bill. It sproings right into my to-be-read pile with a gleefully nasty giggle.



Bonnie
by Christina Schwarz
(Atria Books)

Jacket Copy:  Born in a small town in the desolate reaches of western Texas and shaped by her girlhood in an industrial wasteland on the outskirts of Dallas, Bonnie Parker was a natural performer and a star student. She dreamed of being a movie star or a singer or a poet. But her dramatic nature, contorted by her limited opportunities and her overwhelming love for Clyde Barrow, pushed her into a course from which there was no escape but death. Infusing the psychological acuity of literary fiction with the relentless pacing of a thriller, Bonnie follows Bonnie from her bright, promising youth to her final month of shoot-outs, kidnappings, and desperate car chases through America’s hinterland in the grip of the Great Depression, as the noose of the law tightened around her. Enriched by Christina Schwarz’s extensive research in the footsteps of Bonnie and Clyde and written with her powerful sense of place and time, Bonnie is a plaintive and page-turning account of a woman destroyed by a lethal combination of longing and love.

Opening Lines:  In the end, they still have the driving, her scar-shortened leg tucked under her bottom, his stocking feet caressing the pedals, the warm, moist air, like a swift current of dry water, rushing into the car. The cordoba gray V-8 remains a decent machine; the paint is dusty, but they haven’t wrecked any essential parts yet. Its big engine luxuriates in the gas he feeds it. Tires entrenched in well-worn ruts, the car whips around the bends, causing her stomach to rise and fall with the hills. Dallas is comfortingly within reach, but this piney pocket of northwestern Louisiana is softer, sweeter smelling, more often dappled with lacy shade, than any place she’s been in Texas.
       They’ve bought bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches and two bottles of Orange Crush for breakfast at the cafe in Gibsland. She struggles to unwrap a sandwich and keep an open bottle of soda-pop upright with the Remington in her lap and the Colt strapped around her good leg, but he won’t let her transfer the guns to the floor, even for half an hour. He doesn’t trust this place, with its narrow, rutted, curving roads, the way he does the squared-off farm roads of the middle states, where he can push the accelerator to the floor and leave any of the law’s four cylinder machines far behind.
       She, however, feels safe enough—the thick trees hide them from view and, if they’re spotted, plenty of crossroads offer getaways. She’s wearing a pair of spectacles, round with wire frames, that she found in the Ford's glove compartment and that happen to have just the right prescription to correct her nearsightedness. The sharpened, brightened view they offer is still new enough to amaze and delight her, and she is enjoying the illusion that she can see distinctly what lies ahead.

Blurbworthiness:  “Bodies fall, blood flies, Bonnie and Clyde sleep in stolen cars and can’t eat in restaurants but so long as they are in the headlines all is well. In Bonnie, Schwarz has created a mesmerizing portrait of a young woman who longs to live a larger life and who almost always acts in her own worst interests. A stunning novel.”  (Margot Livesey, author of Mercury )

Why It’s In My Stack:  Of course I loved the 1967 movie which forever cemented the outlaw pair’s slow-motion death in our imaginations; but I’m also a fan of Jeff Guinn’s terrific account of B & C’s Depression-era crime spree, Go Down Together. More to the point, I loved Schwarz’s earlier novel Drowning Ruth and, just based on the excerpt I posted here (the entire prologue to Bonnie), I’m looking forward to more of her excellent writing in these pages as she draws me in with sinuously-described details which tighten like a noose and hold me captive to the next page and the next.



Winter Counts
by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
(Ecco)

Jacket Copy:  Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s own nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop. They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost. Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.

Opening Lines:  I leaned back in the seat of my old Ford Pinto, listening to the sounds coming from the Depot, the reservation’s only tavern. There was a stream of Indians and white ranchers going inside. I knew Guv Yellowhawk was there with his buddies, pounding beers and drinking shots. Guv taught gym at the local school—football, basketball, soccer. But, word was, he sometimes got a little too involved with his students, both boys and girls. I was going to let him get good and drunk, then the real party would start. I had brass knuckles and a baseball bat stowed in my trunk, but those wouldn’t be necessary, Guv was a fat-ass piece of shit, with a frybread gut as big as a buffalo’s ass.

Blurbworthiness:  “Winter Counts is a gripping, richly textured thriller and an urgent dispatch from Indian Country. Crimes are solved, violence happens, and Virgil Wounded Horse, a hard-fisted, big-hearted, irresistible Lakota enforcer, guides us through the complicated realities of contemporary Native life on and off the reservation. Weiden writes with impressive authority and insight in this entirely original, enlightening, cliché-destroying novel.”  (James A. McLaughlin, author of Bearskin)

Why It’s In My Stack:  This one looks relevant, timely, gritty, and as in-your-face as a guy who shows up at your door wearing brass knuckles and hefting a baseball bat. Honestly, what choice do I really have but to submit and read?


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