Thursday, February 20, 2020

Fresh Ink: February 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.

Where You’re All Going
by Joan Frank
(Sarabande Books)

Jacket Copy:  In her quartet of novellas, Joan Frank invites readers into the inner lives of characters bewildered by love, grief, and inexplicable affinities. A young couple navigates a strange friendship and unexpected pregnancy; a woman recalls the bizarre fallout of her former lover’s fame; a lonely widow is drawn to an arrogant young man; a wealthy spiritual seeker grapples with what wealth cannot affect. Witty and humane, Frank taps the riches of the novella form as she writes of loneliness, friendship, loss, and the filaments of intimacy that connect us through time.

Opening Lines:  They’re not true, you know. The platitudes.
       God, the itching. Tops of my hands. Base of my skull. Possible symptom of hyperstrong coffee―guilt to match.
       Platitudes, Pleiades.
       He’s in a better place. Who says? Who knows?

Blurbworthiness:  “Each of these novellas is as satisfying as a whole book, but what I really love is the way, together, they tell a much bigger story―about love and loyalty and family and fear and joy. Where You’re All Going is full beauty and bounty.”  (Ramona Ausubel, author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Several years ago, I read the first of the novellas, “Biting the Moon,” bound in this collection. I was blown away by the story of a woman remembering her lover, a film-music composer, after his death. On that day, I became a lifelong fan of Joan Frank’s writing.

This Little Family
by Ines Bayard (translated by Adriana Hunter)
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  This astonishing debut inhabits the mind of a young married woman driven to extremes by disgust and dread in the aftermath of a rape. Marie and Laurent, a young, affluent couple, have settled into their large Paris apartment and decide to start trying for a baby. This picture-perfect existence is shattered when Marie is assaulted by her new boss. Deeply shaken by the attack, she discovers she is pregnant, and is convinced her rapist is the father. Marie closes herself off in a destructive silence, ultimately leading her to commit an irreparable act. In a first novel of extraordinary power and depth, Inès Bayard exposes disturbing truths about how society sees women and how women see themselves in turn.

Opening Lines:  Little Thomas didn’t have time to finish his stewed apple. His mother hadn’t given him the slightest chance. The speed with which the poison circulated through his blood simply meant he didn’t suffer when he died.

Blurbworthiness:  “Remarkable...Bayard’s writing is sharp, cold, precise, and sends chills down your spine. You read this novel with bated breath.”  (La Presse)

Why It’s In My Stack:  That first, short chapter is a startle of shock and heartbreak. It’s so good and hard to read that it ensures I simply cannot look away from what follows.

The Guest List
by Lucy Foley
(William Morrow)

Jacket Copy:  A wedding celebration turns dark and deadly in this deliciously wicked and atmospheric thriller reminiscent of Agatha Christie from the author of The Hunting Party. On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed. But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast. And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

Opening Lines:  The lights go out.
       In an instant, everything is in darkness. The band stop their playing. Inside the tent the wedding guests squeal and clutch at one another. The light from the candles on the tables only adds to the confusion, sends shadows racing up the canvas walls. It’s impossible to see where anyone is or hear what anyone is saying: above the guests’ voices the wind rises in a frenzy.

Blurbworthiness:  “I didn’t think Lucy Foley could top The Hunting Party, but she did! I loved this book. It gave me the same waves of happiness I get from curling up with a classic Christie. A remote, atmospheric island, a wedding no one is particularly happy to be at, old secrets—and a murder. The alternating points of view keep you guessing, and guessing wrong. I can’t wait for her next book.” (Alex Michaelides, author of The Silent Patient)

Why It’s In My Stack:  They had me at Agatha Christie—plus that wind-battered, darkness-plunged opening paragraph which sets the scene for a deadly wedding night.

The Mountains Sing
by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart. Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope. The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel in English.

Opening Lines:  My grandmother used to tell me that when our ancestors die, they don’t just disappear, they continue to watch over us. And now, I feel her watching me as I light a match, setting fire to three sticks of incense. On the ancestral altar, behind the wooden bell and plates of steaming food, my grandma’s eyes glow as an orange-blue flame springs up, consuming the incense. I shake the incense to put out the fire. As it smolders, curtains of smoke and fragrance spiral toward Heaven, calling spirits of the dead to return.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Mountains Sing is an epic account of Việt Nam’s painful 20th century history, both vast in scope and intimate in its telling. Through the travails of one family, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai brings us close to the horrors of famine, war, and class struggle. But in this moving and riveting novel, she also shows us a postwar Việt Nam, a country of hope and renewal, home to a people who have never given up.”  (Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Because I want to learn more about a country whose very name stirs strong emotion in many Americans even today. Because I like discovering new voices. Because, as Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn) says, “Good literature frees us from being trapped in our own skins by allowing us to identify with characters and see the world through their eyes. Reading this novel, I was moved by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s beautiful, even poetic, depictions of enduring courage. I came away with a deeper understanding of the war in which I fought.” Because there are always two sides to every story.

by Patrick Ness
(Harper Collins)

Jacket Copy: Sarah Dewhurst and her father, outcasts in their little town of Frome, Washington, are forced to hire a dragon to work their farm, something only the poorest of the poor ever have to resort to. The dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye, though. Sarah can’t help but be curious about him, an animal who supposedly doesn’t have a soul but who is seemingly intent on keeping her safe. Because the dragon knows something she doesn’t. He has arrived at the farm with a prophecy on his mind. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents in hot pursuit—and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself.

Opening Lines: On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957—the very day, in fact, that Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath of office for the second time as President of the United States of America—Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm.

Why It’s In My Stack: Every now and then, I fancy reading a book whose pages have been singed by dragon-fire.

by Michael Christie

Jacket Copy:  It’s 2038 and Jacinda (Jake) Greenwood is a storyteller and a liar, an overqualified tour guide babysitting ultra-rich vacationers in one of the world’s last remaining forests. It’s 2008 and Liam Greenwood is a carpenter, sprawled on his back after a workplace fall, calling out from the concrete floor of an empty mansion. It’s 1974 and Willow Greenwood is out of jail, free after being locked up for one of her endless series of environmental protests: attempts at atonement for the sins of her father’s once vast and violent timber empire. It’s 1934 and Everett Greenwood is alone, as usual, in his maple-syrup camp squat, when he hears the cries of an abandoned infant and gets tangled up in the web of a crime, secrets, and betrayal that will cling to his family for decades. And throughout, there are trees: a steady, silent pulse thrumming beneath Christie’s effortless sentences, working as a guiding metaphor for withering, weathering, and survival. A shining, intricate clockwork of a novel, Greenwood is a rain-soaked and sun-dappled story of the bonds and breaking points of money and love, wood, and blood—and the hopeful, impossible task of growing toward the light.

Opening Lines:  They come for the trees.
       To smell their needles. To caress their bark. To be regenerated in the humbling loom of their shadows. To stand mutely in their leafy churches and pray to their thousand-year-old souls.
       From the world’s dust-choked cities they venture to this exclusive arboreal resort—a remote forested island off the Pacific Rim of British Columbia—to be transformed, renewed, and reconnected. To be reminded that the Earth’s once-thundering green heart has not flatlined, that the soul of all living things has not come to dust and that it isn’t too late and that all is not lost. They come here to the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral to ingest this outrageous lie, and it’s Jake Greenwood’s job as Forest Guide to spoon-feed it to them.

Blurbworthiness:  “Ingeniously structured and with prose as smooth as beech bark, Michael Christie’s Greenwood is as compulsive as it is profound. A sweeping intergenerational saga that explores trees and their roots—from the precious evergreens that become commodities in the entertainment business of the future to the intricately tangled trees of family—all of it is dazzlingly delivered in a framework inspired by the actual growth rings of a tree. Every one of Greenwood’s characters burrowed their way into my heart. Beguilingly brilliant, timely, and utterly engrossing, Greenwood is one of my favorite reads in recent memory.”  (Kira Jane Buxton, author of Hollow Kingdom)

Why It’s In My Stack:  This will be the second book on my forestry must-read list for 2020; the top position is (still) held by The Overstory by Richard Powers, which has been there in the upper branches for two years. If everyone would just leaf me alone, I’d have time to read all of these novels.

The Women I Think About at Night
by Mia Kankimäki (translated by Douglas Robinson)
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  In The Women I Think About at Night, Mia Kankimäki blends travelogue, memoir, and biography as she recounts her enchanting travels in Japan, Kenya, and Italy while retracing the steps of ten remarkable female pioneers from history. What can a forty-something childless woman do? Bored with her life and feeling stuck, Mia Kankimäki leaves her job, sells her apartment, and decides to travel the world, following the paths of the female explorers and artists from history who have long inspired her. She flies to Tanzania and then to Kenya to see where Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame lived in the 1920s. In Japan, Mia attempts to cure her depression while researching Yayoi Kusama, the contemporary artist who has voluntarily lived in a psychiatric hospital for decades. In Italy, Mia spends her days looking for the works of forgotten Renaissance women painters of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and finally finds her heroines in the portraits of Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, and Artemisia Gentileschi. If these women could make it in the world hundreds of years ago, why can’t Mia? The Women I Think About at Night is part travelogue and part thrilling exploration of the lost women adventurers of history who defied expectations in order to see—and change—the world.

Opening Lines:  I’m M. I’m forty-three years old. On countless nights over the years I’ve thought about women—and it has nothing at all to do with sex.
       I’ve thought about women on those sleepless nights when my life, my love, or my attitude is skewed, and it seems there is no end to the dark night of my soul. On those nights I have gathered an invisible honor guard of historical women, guardian angels to lead the way.

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m intrigued by the interesting set-up of this travelogue-memoir-history lesson. The variety of places and eras is just enough to spark my interest and encourage me to book a trip through these pages.

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