Monday, September 10, 2018

FOLLOW THE SUN :: Edward J. Delaney

A version of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.

Edward J. Delaney's Follow the Sun opens with a funeral for a missing man, "reduced to objects. In lieu of a body, just left-behind things." Quinn Boyle had been "in hand-to-hand combat with Peace" since he was a kid; a lobsterman from the age of 17, "mud-footed in obligations he could not shed." Following years of addiction and a stint in prison, Quinn was clean and free, yet imprisoned by his history, responsibilities and the "daily grip of his work." One day, Quinn and his lone crewman, a longtime adversary, fail to return from the sea.

Older brother Robbie is once again forced to take up Quinn's slack while trapped in his own morass of exes, part-time fatherhood and thankless work. Torn by survivor's guilt and the relief of Quinn's absence, Robbie's fragile peace is rocked by a report that his brother's crewman may be alive, sparking his need to investigate what happened on Quinn's last run.

Delaney (Broken Irish) writes with well-honed grit and artful description, be it the "obvious misery" of lobstering, withdrawal, or a daughter trying to know her father by using library books on handwriting analysis to study his birthday card notes. It is a very masculine perspective, the women tending toward henpecking support-seekers and foils, yet the men aren't painted pretty. Everyone seems smothered by the atmosphere and hard-knock life of a small fishing town with few available dreams or modes of escape. Delaney is wonderfully adept at working that atmosphere on his characters with compelling results.

STREET SENSE: This is one of those books where the atmosphere and/or characters may make you squirm, you might not like them much, but it just doesn't matter. The themes of family and responsibility are, if not recognizable in this specific form, generally universal, and Delaney explores them well.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  We think we make an imprint in the world and then find out it's so small, as small as crab's feet at the edge of the ocean, washed away by each pulsing wave.

Eh, I liked this one, too, so what the hell, you get both:

Waiting on a boat isn't like waiting for a man to emerge from a prison, where the date is determined and the time must be passed with patience, but also with calculation. Waiting for a boat is like waiting for something to happen imminently, when it then does not...Waiting for a boat is different. It's a thousand false sightings and a rising anxiety in which you tell yourself you're overreacting. But then it turns out, sometimes, you're not.

COVER NERD SAYS: As an ocean nerd (and also, yet less of, a sailing nerd) along with a cover nerd, this one spoke to me. There's nothing supremely striking about it, no image or font that screams "Pick me!" It may miss an audience that interprets what's here as more seriously "maritime-ish" than this book is, an audience that would fall for the family drama. Then again, I suppose normal people (not me) read cover copy and will hopefully figure out this one IS more than its cover.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

WATCH THE GIRLS :: Jennifer Wolfe

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.

One can't help but become ensnared by Watch the Girls even before the first chapter opens. Starting with Jennifer Wolfe's dedication to her agent, "for liking it weird," followed by a John Updike quote, "Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face," Wolfe's nods to the odd are spot on, and the creepiness of the thriller is utterly engrossing.

Fifteen years after her youngest sister's disappearance, former teen star Olivia Hill (now Liv Hendricks) has distanced herself from her family, been fired from the Scooby-Doo-esque reality mystery show Bullsh?t Hunters and crowdfunded her own web series to explore unsolved mysteries. This lands her in the small central California town of Stone's Throw, secretly hired by local horror film auteur Jonas Kron to investigate the disappearance of several young blonde women from aptly named Dark Road just outside of town. The secluded mountain village is as quaint as it is bizarre; home to apple orchards, a film festival, a wolf sanctuary and the lore of the Ulv Konge ("Wolf King"), a nightmarish creature created by Kron.

Wolfe, who also writes YA as Jennifer Bosworth (Struck), twists together a wide spectrum of themes on an action-packed track through Crazy Town. With dark woods, missing women, eccentric locals, unsettling wolf masks, secret messages and nighttime stalkers, Watch the Girls has all the nightmare fuel of great horror movie camp mixed with an absorbing mystery. Although it strays into implausibility as Liv's past timeline converges with her present, there is no denying Girls is "nervously-eat-an-entire-box-of-cookies-without-realizing-it" good.

STREET SENSE:  Wolfe handles the mixed genres in an impressive manner and there is no doubt this is a compulsive read. Those factors help with the stretching of credibility that goes on, but if it's realism you're looking for, horror/camp-ish titles aren't your bag anyway. This one is just straight creepy fun, with some scenes that might be skip-worthy for the squeamish.

COVER NERD SAYS: I definitely appreciate the simplicity of this cover. The camera eye, along with the title, surely evoke the creepiness within. I wasn't altogether sure what girls were being watched by whom, but this cover really made me want to find out.


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

ON THE JAVA RIDGE :: Jock Serong

A version of this review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.

Devastatingly brilliant, Jock Serong's On the Java Ridge is an emotionally grueling mix of high-octane action, life-and-death political maneuvering and, at its heart, an anguishing portrayal of worldwide refugee crises. On the eve of federal elections, Minister for Border Integrity Cassius Calvert discloses a new policy regarding unannounced boats in Australian waters--no unidentified vessels will be offered maritime assistance.
 
Meanwhile, two phinisi (Indonesian-built sailboats) head toward Australia. The Takalar is packed with asylum seekers--men, women and children of varied ethnic backgrounds trying to escape the terror of their homelands. The Java Ridge, owned by a charter surfing company, is full of white Australians headed for legendary remote island waves.
 
The boats' trajectories result in an ill-fated meeting, and the Australian government becomes aware of a phinisi in potentially dire straits. Willing to sacrifice foreign lives to keep the favor of the electorate, officials stand behind the new policy. Even when Calvert suspects Australian lives may be at stake, he's ordered to stand down and maintain plausible deniability.
 
Serong (author of The Rules of Backyard Cricket and 2015 Ned Kelly Award-winning Quota) writes masterfully from varied perspectives, crafting haunting characters struggling to survive in a raging sea of human horror and callous partisanship. Life aboard each boat is depicted in detail that highlights the dichotomy like a red-hot poker to the gut--cavalier tourists relieve themselves over deck rails as refugees struggle to maintain their dignity while living in their own waste. Beautiful, mournful, infuriating and brimming with tension, On the Java Ridge is utterly incomparable. 

STREET SENSE: This book. Man, oh man. My favorite read of the year thus far, hands down. I was moved to tears multiple times, and while this erstwhile curmudgeon admits to something of a soft spot deep down, that is a rare reading occurrence for me (something I probably chalk up to my own lack of imagination). But this. Damn. As a half-Aussie, I try to read Australian authors on a regular basis Serong jumped to the top of my list when I picked up The Rules of Backyard Cricket, which I loved. Java Ridge tops that great work and leaves me all the more anxious for Preservation  (publishing in October of this year in Australia). Just go take a gander at this one and make an old crank happy.ADDED BONUS: Pet chicken. Seriously, how can you resist?

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  She thought about this as they'd traveled. So many people out there, out the windows of buses and on the streets. So many different people, fighting with each other over the complex disagreements they had. Maybe the only way it could all be sorted out was by the rise and fall of terrible things. The war was a terrible thing, so probably there were other terrible things, like maybe a great upwelling of the ocean that smothered a whole country. It would be sad for the children, because they weren't involved in the war. And it would be sad for their parents, because they would miss their children. It made her feel confused, paralyzed, to think of all this: such thinking surely wasn't the way of the Prophet.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover is both right smack in my wheelhouse and perfect for the book--moody, beautiful and powerful. As soon as I saw the image I wanted to know what was going on inside. Perfection. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

IF WE HAD KNOWN :: Elise Juska

A version of this review previously ran in Shelf Awareness and appears here with permission.

As mass shootings continue unchecked in the United States, the crisis is often reflected in works of fiction. Elise Juska (The Blessings) takes a notable approach in her latest novel, contemplating post-shooting fallout from multiple perspectives, none of which is the shooter or anyone at the scene. The narrators and secondary characters in If We Had Known may be on the periphery of the tragedy, but the ripples in their lives are no less engrossing.

Maggie Daley teaches English 101 to all Central Maine State freshmen. Maggie's sense of self is inextricably intertwined with being a professor, and she prides herself on the trust fostered in her classroom. When she realizes the shooter is a former pupil, she digs up an essay he wrote and begins to question her memories of and reactions to him from four years earlier.

Another former student writes a Facebook post mentioning the "really weird" paper from Maggie's class. Social media comments pour in, adding recollections of the shooter viewed through a newly skewed lens. When the essay becomes public, the maelstrom threatens Maggie's career and her perception of her relationships, including that with her fragile daughter.

Juska's compelling narrative tackles complex issues about society's judgment of and responsibility for others. Can we accurately predict violent acts? Who is responsible for intervening? Are we oblivious to the signs or do we ignore them? Maggie's relationships with her lover, ex-husband and daughter are evidence that we all miss signs every day, even when those closest to us are sending them.

STREET SENSE: An interesting take on the mass shooter scenario that delves into larger issues of responsibility for and judgment of others. If you find these issues interesting, Juska's narrative will likely appeal.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  That, he thought, was the Internet in general: a lonely landscape, a largely barren place but with these rare bursts of not-loneliness, these moments of connection that made it worthwhile sometimes.

COVER NERD SAYS: There's a lot to like about the concept of this cover, but I have a couple issues with it. Mostly, I have to admit, the title. This may have more to do with the fact that my brain is fossilizing, but I could never really remember the title of the book. That's a problem. "If We Had Known," "Should We Have Known," "We Should Have Known," all different variations would go through my head as I tried to pull the correct version out of my sieve-like nooks and crannies. I think the cover image is great, particularly the bullet hole through the "O," but the overall cover might have been stronger without either (1) such a long title or (2) a less stark color contrast. I'm obviously picking nits and being cranky, but hey, no one is surprised by that. I like this cover a good deal, just don't love it. (NOTE: Though now that I look at it months after writing this review, I like it a bit more. Go figure.)



Friday, July 20, 2018

BABY TEETH :: Zoje Stage

I double-dog dare you to read Baby Teeth if you have a small child/children at home, because you may end up tempted to drop them off at the nearest fire station and run for the hills. This psychological family drama with flavors of The Omen and We Need to Talk About Kevin is a creep-fest of epic proportions.

Seven-year-old Hanna has had CT scans and MRIs, but the tests provide no medical explanation for her muteness. Hanna's mother, Suzette, is at her wit's end; on top of Hanna's issues, she's dealing with her own chronic illness (Crohn's disease), questioning her mothering skills (based, in part, on her own dysfunctional relationship with a narcissistic mother), and missing her working partnership and prior close relationship with husband Alex.

That alone might be enough for an interesting family drama, but Zoje Stage isn't content with "interesting" and ratchets the issues up to a super sinister level. Because while Hanna may be mute, her devious and intelligent mind is working a mile a minute, all in furtherance of her adoration of Alex and desire to be rid of her mother so she can have her father to herself.

While Hanna may be non-verbal, she isn't void of means to communicate. Her violent barking and growling behaviors have been successful in getting her kicked out of every school where Suzette tries to enroll her; and of course no babysitter will ever come back. Despite her knowledge that the silence is driving her mother crazy, Hanna eventually starts talking. But even that is part of her diabolical plot--she speaks only in front of Suzette and in the threatening voice of  Marie-Ann Dufosset, a young French girl from the 17th Century who was accused of being a witch and subsequently burned at the stake.

Stage does a fantastic job alternating between the points of view of Suzette and Hanna. I'm not sure which was more uncomfortable--being in Hanna's head as she plots against her mother or in Suzette's as she tries to figure out if she's losing her mind or Hanna really is as evil as it appears. Each narrator makes the reader question her reliability, making the trip to the ultimate showdown all the more suspenseful.

There are times when Hanna's behaviors feel above her age capabilities on a mental and/or physical level, but I found these instances easy to overlook I was so weirded out yet entranced by Hanna. The worse she gets (or the better she gets at being worse), the more the cycle between the three characters spins in intensity. Stage really pushes the boundaries of deviance, particularly in a child, and I was impressed by that since it was certainly taking a risk. For me, the risk paid off, I loved every squirmy minute of Baby Teeth.

STREET SENSE: If you like to be creeped out, this is the book for you.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I picked several for this section, because I didn't want to lose track of the fact that this book is not just sinister fun, but is also thoughtful and well-written.

Hanna kept her words to herself because they gave her power. Inside her, they retained their purity. She scrutinized Mommy and other adults, studied them. Their words fell like dead bugs from their mouths. A rare person, like Daddy, spoke in butterflies, whispering colors that made her gasp.

*  *  *

Sometimes Mommy was an octopus with a sharp blade in each hand. It seemed fair to Hanna that when Mommy bruised her heart, or made her feel all icky crumbly inside, that she should be able to hurt her back.

*  *  *

“For fuck’s sake, Hanna. Why don’t you ever listen to me?” The girl stood there, arms loosely at her sides, considering her mother. Then her eyes rolled back until they were solid white. Dead nothingness in the sockets. “Because I’m not Hanna,” the girl whispered. [IS THIS AWESOME, OR WHAT??]

*  *  *

She could kill Hanna. No, she couldn’t. She could. She’d never. She might.

*  *  *

Now, the Hula-Hoop lay forgotten and Hanna stood just on the other side of the glass, inching along as Suzette sprayed and rubbed, stepped to her right, sprayed and rubbed. With a certain glee she was able to spray it on Hanna’s face without actually damaging her. But a sense of disappointment remained that with all her effort and rubbing, she couldn’t make her daughter dissolve with the dust and oily smudges.

COVER NERD SAYS: I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw the cover. At this point I can't even recall if candy or a lollipop has anything to do with the plot, but it just doesn't matter. The simple image that can be seen as an innocent sucker or the detritus from an act of violence fits this book like the fabulously eerie cover it deserves. A+

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

INVITATION TO A BONFIRE :: Adrienne Celt

This review previously ran in Shelf Awareness and appears here with permission.

Adrienne Celt, novelist, cartoonist and delightfully self-described "friend to imaginary people and animals," proves an equally good friend to the living with Invitation to a Bonfire. An intimate character study and twisted psychological saga, Bonfire is wrapped in the distinctive atmosphere of 1930s Russia and the East Coast American upper class.

An opening note identifies the work as the project of an elite New Jersey all-girl boarding school, told through a compilation of documents posthumously donated by a benefactor--diary entries of a young Russian refugee and letters from an infamous Soviet author to his wife. The note cleverly teases the death and deception to follow as the paths of the two cross with fatal consequences.

Zoya is a war orphan smuggled into the United States and dropped at the Donne School with threadbare clothing and $10 to her name. Zoya's 1931 diary exquisitely recounts her difficulties fitting in while surrounded by cruel girls from wealthy families. Leo Orlov is steered to literary success by his calculating wife, Vera ("[s]harp as a tack...[c]old as a Frigidaire"), ultimately landing at Donne as a visiting professor and seducing Zoya. When Leo temporarily returns to Russia, his wife and mistress undertake a manipulative friendship, partially at his behest.

Celt (The Daughters) writes in beautiful detail, particularly within Zoya's diaries, which exhibit a detached coolness that renders her captivatingly enigmatic. Leo's letters to Vera are adoring, yet cunning in their own right. Filled with characters of unreliable passion and motive, Bonfire smolders with intrigue through the final reveal.

STREET SENSE:  This is a twisted love triangle involving a young Russian woman, her famous author lover and his calculating wife that plays out to a tragic end in 1930s New Jersey. If smoldering character studies are your thing, this will be a good pick.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Those girls, they liked me so easily and so much the second they saw me as one of their own...A girl from their same world, where houses got drafty from size instead of poor craftsmanship, and your uncle came by just to take you and your girlfriends out for chocolate milkshakes, which you sucked up through colored straws. Where you slept in on Saturdays, and could accomplish anything you set your mind to, and where you were given a bright red bicycle with streamers on the handlebars, which whistled as you rode. They'd never known how to make do, to sew the covers back on old schoolbooks. To sneak into the cloakroom at restaurants and gather tobacco from men's coat pockets in order to make a cigarette with which to bribe the greengrocer. To watch their parents turn into strangers before their eyes, and then be told by those strangers that they didn't deserve any more than what others had, because why would they? The girls didn't want to know those things. And they were equally afraid of the fact that I did, and that I could shed the appearance of knowledge so quickly. Like slipping out of a skin.

COVER NERD SAYS:  The best selling point of this cover is really the title, which I find intriguing enough in its own right to make me pick this up off a shelf/display table. There are also several design aspects to the cover I like, but it doesn't knock my socks off. The image of the envelope adds to the intrigue and shows up much better on the final copy than my version. I also appreciate the blue v. red imagery of the title font, but I think I would have preferred something more aligned with the envelope and title. The elements are good, I'm just not sure they fit together perfectly to suit the atmosphere of this novel.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

THE ADDICTION SOLUTION :: LLOYD I. SEDERER, M.D.

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness and appears here with permission.

"Drug taking is a highly complex and variable human and social phenomenon...[that] is not going away." Material on addiction is seemingly limitless, and choosing who and what to believe can be treacherous territory when lives are at risk. Lloyd Sederer, M.D., chief mental health officer of the New York State Office of Mental Health, brings a prestigious pedigree to his perspective, The Addiction Solution.

Sederer engenders confidence on numerous fronts, particularly in acknowledging that drugs are winning the "War on Drugs" by a landslide; that current drug policies are actually institutionalized racism; and that there is no "one-size-fits-all" answer to a very individualized epidemic. Confining his discussion to illegal drugs and the abuse of legal drugs, Sederer presents a straightforward, plain-language overview of available options and best-care treatment scenarios.

He advocates the use of social values and family influence over "control and consequences," which he considers a "puritan approach" akin to tilting at windmills. Moreover, a community methodology emphasizes identification of risk and the importance of eliminating adverse childhood experiences. As Frederick Douglass said, "It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men."

Summarizing available methods and treatments, Sederer believes single-method recovery (i.e., 12-step) is not the road to maximum success. He recommends a multifaceted plan attacking addiction on multiple fronts that enhance one another. The Addiction Solution offers guidance; it is not a textbook or exhaustive treatise. It proposes tools to fight the disease and plainly, though not overly simplistically, suggests the best means to implement them.

STREET SENSE: A common sense overview of the various means and methods to fight addiction based on a community and multi-treatment methodology.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover didn't really float my boat and, frankly, didn't fill me with confidence. When I read the author's credentials I felt much better and the theories presented were actually quite valuable and well-presented. I wish the cover weren't so elementary, although I can see how a more "intense" or "serious" cover could lead one to think this was a treatise-type work and fail to attract the target audience. Tough call, but I would have liked to see something a bit more formal.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.

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