Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Fresh Ink: March 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.

The Last Bathing Beauty
by Amy Sue Nathan
(Lake Union Publishing)

Jacket Copy:  Everything seemed possible in the summer of 1951. Back then Betty Stern was an eighteen-year-old knockout working at her grandparents’ lakeside resort. The “Catskills of the Midwest” was the perfect place for Betty to prepare for bigger things. She’d head to college in New York City. Her career as a fashion editor would flourish. But first, she’d enjoy a wondrous last summer at the beach falling deeply in love with an irresistible college boy and competing in the annual Miss South Haven pageant. On the precipice of a well-planned life, Betty’s future was limitless. Decades later, the choices of that long-ago season still reverberate for Betty, now known as Boop. Especially when her granddaughter comes to her with a dilemma that echoes Boop’s memories of first love, broken hearts, and faraway dreams. It’s time to finally face the past—for the sake of her family and her own happiness. Maybe in reconciling the life she once imagined with the life she’s lived, Boop will discover it’s never too late for a second chance.

Opening Lines:  Any other bride might have gazed into the mirror, stepped away, and then glanced back over her shoulder for another peek. Not Betty. She hadn’t looked at herself once today, and in fact she’d avoided her reflection all week. She knew the person looking back from the mirror would not be her. Betty Claire Stern no longer existed. She wanted to say she died, but Betty was mindful of her reputation for melodrama.

Blurbworthiness:  “In this reimagining of Dirty Dancing, Nathan demonstrates expert storytelling when we meet the charismatic Betty ‘Boop’ Stern as a young woman, and also as an eighty-four-year-old as she looks back on a difficult choice that altered the path of her glittering future. Told with empathy and lyrical prose, The Last Bathing Beauty is a winning tale of friendship, regret, and second chances with a ring of endearing and spirited women at its heart.” (Heather Webb, author of Meet Me in Monaco)

Why It’s In My Stack:  It’s spring, there’s rotten snow clinging to the mountains in Montana, and I’m ready for something summery with beauty pageants, beach balls, and broken hearts. Even if that beach is in Michigan and not Atlantic City.

That Left Turn at Albuquerque
by Scott Phillips

Jacket Copy:  A hardboiled valentine to the Golden State, That Left Turn at Albuquerque marks the return of noir master Scott Phillips. Douglas Rigby, attorney-at-law, is bankrupt. He’s just sunk his last $200,000—a clandestine “loan” from his last remaining client, former bigshot TV exec Glenn Haskill—into a cocaine deal gone wrong. The lesson? Never trust anyone else with the dirty work. Desperate to get back on top, Rigby formulates an art forgery scheme involving one of Glenn’s priceless paintings, a victimless crime. But for Rigby to pull this one off, he’ll need to negotiate a whole cast of players with their own agendas, including his wife, his girlfriend, an embittered art forger, Glenn’s resentful nurse, and the man’s money-hungry nephew. One misstep, and it all falls apart—will he be able to save his skin? Written with hard-knock sensibility and wicked humor, Scott Phillips’s newest novel will cement him as one of the great crime writers of the 21st century.

Opening Lines:  Heading up the 5 and in a hyper-enervated state, he stopped in Mission Viejo at Manny’s Liquor and Variety Store, where he knew a working pay phone was attached to the brick wall outside. Scored and pitted, covered with graffiti and rust, for all Rigby knew it might have been the last one in Southern California. Next to it stood a skeletal derelict with a week’s growth of beard and stiff, ancient jeans gray with filth, looking as though he was waiting for a call. Rigby decided to go inside and buy a celebratory bottle, in case the tweaker decided to shove off on his own.
       This might be the seedier side of Mission Viejo, but that still meant a fine selection of champagnes and a patronizing sales clerk. “We have a nice Veuve Clicquot here for sixty-four ninety-nine,” he said, nostrils flaring, eyeing him sidelong. “I imagine that’d do you nicely.” Minus the condescension, that would have been fine for Rigby’s purposes, but he felt compelled to put the salesman in his place.
       “That’s white trash booze,” he said. “How much for the Krug?”
       “That’s vintage. 2003.”
       “Swell. How much?”
       “Three hundred nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents.”
       “Great, and stick a bow on it.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Many writers bill themselves as noir, but if you want to experience what the word truly means, in its finest expression, then pick up That Left Turn at Albuquerque, a brutally funny, wickedly clever nightmare that heralds the triumphant return of Scott Phillips, the twenty-first century’s greatest purveyor of crime fiction.”  (Blake Crouch, author of Recursion)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m a huge fan of Phillips’ debut, The Ice Harvest; HUGE: as in, cut me with its pages and I bleed like a stuck two-timing embezzler caught with his red hands trying to hold his pants up. And my blood is black, noir black. I’m looking forward to suffering from many more cuts as I toss the pages to the left in That Left Turn at Albuquerque.

The Last Summer of Ada Bloom
by Martine Murray
(Tin House Books)

Jacket Copy:  In a small country town during one long, hot summer, the Bloom family is beginning to unravel. Martha is straining against the confines of her life, lost in regret for what might have been, when an old flame shows up. In turn, her husband Mike becomes frustrated with his increasingly distant wife. Marital secrets, new and long-hidden, start to surface―with devastating effect. And while teenagers Tilly and Ben are about to step out into the world, nine-year-old Ada is holding onto a childhood that might soon be lost to her. When Ada discovers an abandoned well beneath a rusting windmill, she is drawn to its darkness and danger. And when she witnesses a shocking and confusing event, the well’s foreboding looms large in her mind―a driving force, pushing the family to the brink of tragedy. For each family member, it’s a summer of searching―in books and trees, at parties, in relationships new and old―for the answer to one of life’s most difficult questions: how to grow up? The Last Summer of Ada Bloom is an honest and tender accounting of what it means to come of age as a teen, or as an adult. With a keen eye for summer’s languor and danger, and a sharp ear for the wonder, doubt, and longing in each of her characters’ voices, Martine Murray has written a beguiling story about the fragility of family relationships, about the secrets we keep, the power they hold to shape our lives, and about the power of love to somehow hold it all together.

Opening Lines:  Ada found a forgotten windmill. She was walking with PJ in the patch of bush between her house and Toby Layton’s. She was already nine and still wearing her jumper back to front. PJ was old and broad as a wombat, with three legs that worked, so he waddled along and Ada often had to stop and wait for him. She swished a stick, absentmindedly whacking at the teatree and singing over and over again, “Did you ever come to meet me, Farmer Joe, Farmer Joe?” She couldn’t remember the next line. She wasn’t sure the words were right, but because she was alone, and because it was her traveling-along song, she sang as loudly and confidently as a trumpet.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Bloom family will absolutely have your heart. Ada Bloom is a sweet, precocious girl traversing that strange territory on the edge of childhood. Her sister Tilly and brother Ben are testing the waters of adulthood, each in their own way. Their parents, Martha and Mark, are both tempted by people in their lives, old and new, in disastrous ways. Readers will be spellbound by this honest and tender accounting of each Bloom family member, told in a chorus of voices, revealing a intimate and flawed family portrait that leaves you feeling connected to everyone around you. Martine Murray's stunning debut is a true delight.”  (Julia Fierro, author of The Gypsy Moth Summer)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Frankly, just about anything Tin House Books decides to publish will get an automatic look from me. Their taste is impeccable and never disappointing. This debut novel looks especially good at glueing eyes to the page. A brief skim through the chapter openings assures me there is some good, tight writing waiting for me behind the deceptively-sunny cover.

A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth
by Daniel Mason
(Little, Brown)

Jacket Copy:  From the bestselling, award-winning author of The Winter Soldier and The Piano Tuner, a collection of interlaced tales of men and women facing the mysteries and magic of the world. On a fateful flight, a balloonist makes a discovery that changes her life forever. A telegraph operator finds an unexpected companion in the middle of the Amazon. A doctor is beset by seizures, in which he is possessed by a second, perhaps better, version of himself. And in Regency London, a bare-knuckle fighter prepares to face his most fearsome opponent, while a young mother seeks a miraculous cure for her ailing son. At times funny and irreverent, always moving and deeply urgent, these stories cap a fifteen-year project. From the Nile’s depths to the highest reaches of the atmosphere, from volcano-racked islands to an asylum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, these are tales of ecstasy, epiphany, and what the New York Times Magazine called the “struggle for survival....hand to hand, word to word,” by “one of the finest prose stylists in American fiction.”

Opening Lines:  Born a winter child in the Bristol slums, in the quayside heap known only as “The Rat,” Jacob Burke, who would come to battle the great McGraw on that fateful day in 1824, was a son of the stevedore Isaac Burke and the seamstress Anne Murphy. He of Bristol, son of James, son of Tom, son of Zebedee, lifters all. She of Dublin and the cursed Gemini of Poverty and Fertility: Jacob was the twelfth of eighteen children, the third of the eight who lived.
       It was a common quayside childhood, of odd jobs and shoe-shining; of quinsy, croup, and the irresistible temptation of diving from the piers. He grew up quickly. Thick-necked, thick-shouldered, steel-fisted, tight-lipped, heavy-on-the-brow, the boy knew neither a letter nor the taste sweet until his tenth year, when, in the course of a single moon, he learned to sound out the rune on the shingle at Mulloy’s Arms and stole an apple from a costermonger on the road to Bath.

Blurbworthiness:  “An enchanting cabinet of curiosities and wonders... Mason is one of our best historical novelists, creating panoramas of rich detail, propulsive plot, and artful character development... In his first story collection, he shows how quickly and completely he can immerse readers in a foreign place and time... Nine tales of human endurance, accomplishment, and epiphany told with style and brio.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

Why It’s In My Stack:  The title hooks, but the contents reel me in. These stories have just enough variety in time and place to make me think I’m going to get a full package of entertainment in these pages. Register this one on my Must-Read List.

New Bad News
by Ryan Ridge
(Sarabande Books)

Jacket Copy:  In New Bad News, the frenetic and far-out worlds of fading celebrities, failed festival promoters, underemployed adjuncts, and overly aware chatbots collide. A Terminator statue comes to life at the Hollywood Wax Museum; a coyote laps up Colt 45, as a passerby looks on in existential quietude; a detective disappears while investigating a missing midwestern cam girl. Set in Kentucky, Hollywood, and the afterlife, these bright, bold short-shorts and stories construct an uncannily familiar, alternate-reality America.

Opening Lines:  These days he strums his guitar with an unregistered handgun in an alleyway at the Psychedelic Street Fair. The acoustics are astonishing.

Blurbworthiness:  “New Bad News is tenderness and mordancy awash with California moonlight and Kentucky ghosts, too. Ryan Ridge’s strange transmissions glow like buzzing neon in the dim and make us feel less weird and alone. This! This is a book of brilliant, zappy echoes we can touch.” (Leesa Cross-Smith, author of So We Can Glow)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Earlier in this space, I mentioned how my 2020 reading year was shaping up to be full of short stories (thus far, four collections have been added to the book log I keep). So what do the good folks at Sarabande Books do? They add balance another interesting-looking collection of short fiction at the top of the already teetering stack of my “must-reads.” In all honesty, I’m a sucker for flash fiction—the very very very short stories that are sometimes no longer than a few sentences (and occasionally not even that long)—and Ryan Ridge’s book looks like it’s full of some good quick-as-lightning, strong-as-thunder stories. The good news is I’ll be reading these soon.

The Mystery of Charles Dickens
by A. N. Wilson

Jacket Copy:  Charles Dickens was a superb public performer, a great orator and one of the most famous of the Eminent Victorians. Slight of build, with a frenzied, hyper-energetic personality, Dickens looked much older than his fifty-eight years when he died—an occasion marked by a crowded funeral at Westminster Abbey, despite his waking wishes for a small affair. Experiencing the worst and best of life during the Victorian Age, Dickens was not merely the conduit through whom some of the most beloved characters in literature came into the world. He was one of them. Filled with the twists, pathos, and unusual characters that sprang from this novelist’s extraordinary imagination, The Mystery of Charles Dickens looks back from the legendary writer’s death to recall the key events in his life. In doing so, he seeks to understand Dickens’ creative genius and enduring popularity. Following his life from cradle to grave, it becomes clear that Dickens’s fiction drew from his life—a fact he acknowledged. Like Oliver Twist, Dickens suffered a wretched childhood, then grew up to become not only a respectable gentleman but an artist of prodigious popularity. Dickens knew firsthand the poverty and pain his characters endured, including the scandal of a failed marriage. Going beyond standard narrative biography, A. N. Wilson brilliantly revisits the wellspring of Dickens’s vast and wild imagination, to reveal at long last why his novels captured the hearts of nineteenth century readers—and why they continue to resonate today.

Opening Lines:  “I have no relief, but in action. I am become incapable of rest...Much better to die, doing,” the hyper-energetic, over-sexed, tormented, exultant, hilarious, despondent Charles Dickens had written to a friend, thirteen years before he actually died.
       Dickens was good at dying. If you want a good death, go to the novels of Dickens.

Why It’s In My Stack:  If, at one of my public appearances, you have stood up and asked me to name my favorite author; if you have ever visited my home and spent any amount of time browsing my bookshelves; if you are a regular reader of this blog and have noticed that Charles Dickens is the most-tagged author in the ten-year history of The Quivering Pen, then it should be no mystery why A. N. Wilson’s biography of the great writer is in my stack. It is, in short, a rather big “duh.”

Last Mission to Tokyo
by Michel Paradis
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  In 1942, freshly humiliated from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was in search of a plan. President Roosevelt, determined to show the world that our nation would not be intimidated or defeated by enemy powers, demanded recommendations for a show of strength. Jimmy Doolittle, a stunt pilot with a doctorate from MIT, came forward, and led eighty young men, gathered together from the far-flung corners of Depression-era America, on a seemingly impossible mission across the Pacific. Sixteen planes in all, they only had enough fuel for a one-way trip. Together, the Raiders, as they were called, did what no one had successfully done for more than a thousand years. They struck the mainland of Japan and permanently turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. Almost immediately, The Doolittle Raid captured the public imagination, and has remained a seminal moment in World War II history, but the heroism and bravery of the mission is only half the story. In Last Mission to Tokyo, Michel Paradis reveals the dramatic aftermath of the mission, which involved two lost crews captured, tried, and tortured at the hands of the Japanese, a dramatic rescue of the survivors in the last weeks of World War II, and an international manhunt and trial led by two dynamic and opposing young lawyers—in which both the United States and Japan accused the other of war crimes—that would change the face of our legal and military history.

Opening Lines:  How do you tell a man that he will be killed tomorrow? Sotojiro Tatsuta confronted this question on the evening of Wednesday, October 14, 1942. He had just gotten off the phone with his boss in Nanking. As the warden of the Jiangwan Military Prison, the Japanese Army’s brig on the outskirts of Shanghai, China, this execution would be his responsibility.
       Tatsuta gathered the three American prisoners who would soon hear this news together. Higher-ups had spared the five other Americans, who were still back in their cells. Only these three men would be shot through the head the next morning. Tatsuta’s job was to organize it all, and at this moment, his job was to tell them.
       A skinny man with a gold tooth that tended to flash when he talked, Tatsuta was conflicted. Yes, these men were his enemies—or at least the enemies of Japan. Yes, they had been duly convicted of atrocities against his people. And yes, only three men would have to die tomorrow, instead of all eight, thanks to the mercy of Emperor Hirohito. But these kinds of rationalizations, all perfectly good and reasonable, were hard to keep at the front of his mind as he looked at the still living, breathing, blinking young men—barely more than boys, really—whose every hope, dream, fear, ambition, and debt would soon be rendered moot. A single bullet was scheduled to break through their foreheads, scramble their brains, and leave nothing but paperwork.

Blurbworthiness:  “Last Mission to Tokyo is a thoroughly compelling true story of legal intrigue in the most unexpected of settings. Impeccably researched and beautifully written, it captures the reader with the first sentence and never lets go.” (John Grisham, author of Camino Winds)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’ve seen (and loved) the 1944 Spencer Tracy movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, but Paradis’ book adds an intriguing coda to the story of the mission with a courtroom drama that even has John Grisham applauding. And how about the final sentence of those opening lines I quoted above? Wowzers!

In the Valley
by Ron Rash

Jacket Copy:  From bestselling and award-winning writer Ron Rash comes a collection of ten searing stories and the return of the villainess who propelled Serena to national acclaim, in a long-awaited novella. Ron Rash has long been a revered presence in the landscape of American letters. A virtuosic novelist, poet, and story writer, he evokes the beauty and brutality of the land, the relentless tension between past and present, and the unquenchable human desire to be a little bit better than circumstances would seem to allow (to paraphrase Faulkner). In these ten stories, Rash spins a haunting allegory of the times we live in—rampant capitalism, the severing of ties to the natural world in the relentless hunt for profit, the destruction of body and soul with pills meant to mute our pain—and yet within this world he illuminates acts of extraordinary decency and heroism. Two of the stories have already been singled out for accolades: “Baptism” was chosen by Roxane Gay for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2018, and “Neighbors” was selected by Jonathan Lethem for The Best American Mystery Stories 2019. And in revisiting Serena Pemberton, Rash updates his bestselling parable of greed run amok as his deliciously vindictive heroine returns to the North Carolina wilderness she left scarred and desecrated to make one final effort to kill the child that threatens all she has accomplished.

Opening Lines:  They came at dawn, ground crackling beneath the trample of hooves, amid it the sound of chickens flapping and squawking.

Why It’s In My Stack:  This will be a good excuse to re-read one of my favorite books of the early 2000’s: Serena. As if I ever needed an excuse to read anything by the great Ron Rash.

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