Friday, January 18, 2019

FAREWELL, MY ORANGE :: Iwaki Kei

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

"Wow, women are really something!" Expressed through one tiny line of dialogue, this sentiment nevertheless forms the foundation of Iwaki Kei's Farewell, My Orange. Reflective of Kei's own journey, the novel is set in Australia, where the author emigrated from her native Japan 20 years ago, and spotlights the experience of immigrant women.


Salimah fled ongoing conflict in Nigeria with her husband and sons, in fear for their lives. Although safer, Australia is strange. With her different language and skin color, Salimah feels great weight on her shoulders as she labors daily cutting and packaging meat.

Similarly adrift is Sayuri, despite arriving under different circumstances. She and her professor husband moved from Japan for his career, and she is expecting their first child.

Over the course of several years, Salimah and Sayuri attempt to bid farewell to the known sunsets of their homelands and make way for the new women they are wrestling to become. Through third-person narrative and letters from Sayuri to her writing teacher in Japan, Farewell, My Orange beautifully renders the women's ebbing and flowing strength through suffering. As their paths cross in English-language classes, the twists of life bring joy, pain, success and tragedy that further hone their experiences and relationships.

Kei's work won the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize, created by publishing house Kodansha to honor Nobel laureate Ōe and promote Japanese literature worldwide. Translation to English (wonderfully done here by Meredith McKinney) is part of the prize, and the poignant turns of this slim volume are worthy of a broader audience.

STREET SENSE: A difficult and tender look at the lives of immigrant women from varied backgrounds as they forge new lives in Australia. Includes some beautiful twists.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: You know, I'm rather like a dog. I wear a collar called 'loyalty,' and the chain that's attached to it can never be severed from the native land that is my master. The day I grow so skinny and decrepit  that the collar slips from my scrawny neck, the day the rusted old chain suddenly snaps, will probably be the moment I leave this world, when for better or worse I'm freed of my native land and lost to patriotism.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I didn't see this cover until the book was published and thus had no preconceptions. However, I would have been drawn to this lovely cover art had I seen it. I love the imagery, color and symbolism all wrapped up in the simplicity.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

HERO DOGS :: Wilma Melville

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

The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., killed 168 people. When retired teacher and grandmother of six Wilma Melville showed up with her search-and-rescue dog Murphy, there wasn't much to be done. At the time, there was a woeful nationwide shortage of search teams--only 15, a fraction of what was needed. Knowing more dogs would save lives, Melville created the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation with an unspoken goal of certifying 168 SAR teams--one for each soul lost in Oklahoma City.

Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America's Greatest Disaster-Search Partners is the astonishing story of how one tenacious woman, helped by a legendary dog trainer and some willing firefighters, fashioned a three-dog pilot program that revolutionized disaster response. Without funding for selectively bred dogs, Wilma was forced to turn to the rejected and allegedly defective. Though she "[doesn't] exactly share their sense of humor," Wilma ended up with three golden retrievers--a twice-rejected guide dog that terrorized wheelchair users, an abused stray and a washed-out field trial competitor.

With co-author Paul Lobo, Melville shares her story in straight-talking prose that evokes the tension and emotion reflective of the high stakes. She is also slyly funny, ironic considering her position on golden retrievers. When the pilot teams are thrust into the national limelight during their first real-life disaster on 9/11, the results are both triumphant and throat-closing. A fascinating read for animal lovers, thrill-seekers and rescue-hounds alike, Melville's work is proof that some good can rise from the ashes of catastrophe.

STREET SENSE: Even as a lifetime dog lover, owner and trainer I was not really expecting to be as fascinated with this book as I was. It goes a little deep into training, but I don't think one has to be interested or proficient in dog training to "get it," particularly with the the stakes at hand. Despite Wilma's tough-as-nails veneer, she cracked me up regularly, intentionally or not. (For example: "So I did what anybody does when you need a meeting with one of the highest-ranking OES officials in the state--I kidnapped him.") This is one I'll keep on my shelf.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: When they weren't searching, the dogs became the face of relief for the other rescue workers. They were the unofficial therapy dogs of Ground Zero. When you traverse a landscape of destruction for twelve hours a day, where everything wants to cut you and a misstep could mean serious injury, a soft, warm creature is a welcome sight. When your daily mission involves scouring destruction trying to find anybody alive, a friendly snout and a soul who will do nothing but sit by your side is more powerful than any medicine. The dogs provided hope and a return to normalcy.

COVER NERD SAYS: I'm not sure how I feel about this cover, which probably means it lands in the category of "accurate and serviceable but the content called for more." I'm not sure there's anything about this image or the font to set the book off from another dog book. The rubble pile is dramatic, the dogs beautiful, but perhaps a more urgent skyline would have given it some pop. Despite the sometimes difficult subject matter, it is a story of hope and resilience, so maybe that was the aim. It's a solid cover, no doubt, I just wanted a bit more for these incredible creatures.

Friday, January 11, 2019

BOOM TOWN :: Sam Anderson

Admissions:

1. I don't have anything approaching rabid interest in Oklahoma. No offense to the Sooner State. I know all the words to the songs of Oklahoma! and can do jazz-hands while singing them (and am strangely compelled to do so, thanks to Craig Ferguson). I have driven across the state numerous times and enjoy the lovely Will Rogers Turnpike. Heck, some of my favorite people have Oklahoma roots (James Garner, Meg Gardiner--age before camaraderie). Generally speaking, however, I would not pick up a book about Oklahoma. Yet I did.

2. Even with the f'ing snappy-as-hell mouthful of a subtitle, "The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, its Chaotic Founding, its Apocalyptic Weather, its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis," I likely would not have given Boom Town a second glance if the cover was just another retread dust bowl photograph. Yet it is not. And thusly was born my first aces read of the year.

This is a kickass cover. I had no clue what to expect when I plugged in and was blown away (no tornadic pun intended). Sam Anderson, former book critic for New York magazine and now a staff writer at the New York Times magazine, was sent to OKC in 2012 to write a piece about the Thunder, the basketball team with an engaging if recent history in OKC and its improbable run at a title. What he discovered was so much more.

From the story of the city that was created in a day, April 22, 1889, when the Oklahoma Land Run brought 5-digits worth of residents (non-native residents; again, another story), Anderson has created a fascinating, emotion-packed trip through an otherwise boring civics lesson.

Woven through the story via the Thunder is Oklahoma City's heart--its beloved weather forecaster, urban renewal and decline, quirky NBA general manager and superstar players, civil rights heroes, local rock legend oddball, gas and oil issues and, yes, terrorism.

Often laugh-out-loud funny, Anderson is a master at mixing things up and throwing curveballs of emotion. I was so enthralled in his retelling of the Buffalo Bills' multi-Super Bowl run (stick with me, I know Buffalo is not in Oklahoma) that I did not see the gut punch that was coming until he threw it. Well played, Sam Anderson.

STREET SENSE: Even if you're not a fan of history, non-fiction, sports, or Oklahoma, I recommend this one. Which says a lot.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I listened to the audio version, which was well done, if a tad stiltedly, by Anderson himself. I was laughing so hard at the start I almost switched to the hardcover version on my shelf to really immerse myself, but I'm glad I stuck with the audio, it was performed with love. This does mean that I have no real quote, since I'm way too lazy to bookmark audio passages and write them down. Suffice to say, it would have been some hilarious bit about James Harden's beard (a character unto itself) or something that would have made me cry.

COVER NERD SAYS: I didn't even know I wanted to read this book until I saw the cover.


Monday, December 31, 2018

Favorites of 2018

I don't really do resolutions as I subscribe to the theory of "Aim low and you may pleasantly surprise yourself." However, one thing I would like to do is write more in this space. For god's sake, my Shelf Awareness reviews are already done and I couldn't find the energy to transfer them here. I did just delete about 12 "draft" reviews I transferred from Shelf, so I THOUGHT about it several times; maybe in 2019 I can do better on follow-through.

In any event, I also thought about doing categories, but sometimes you have trouble fitting books into categories, or have too many choices for one category, so I just picked books and then figured out a category for them. My blog, I can cheat if I fucking well want to. 

Overall Favorite - ON THE JAVA RIDGE by Jock Serong


Favorite Poetry - DON'T CALL US DEAD by Danez Smith


Favorite 'Kid is Way More F'd Up Than Me" Story - BABY TEETH by Zoje Stage


Favorite Memoir - WHITE HOT GRIEF PARADE by Alexandra Silber
 

Favorite Non-Fiction, Science - PLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD by Matt Simon


Favorite N-F, Don't Fuck With This Kickass Woman - SHRILL by Lindy West


Favorite N-F, True Crime - I'LL BE GONE IN THE DARK by Michelle McNamara


Favorite Audio - CALYPSO by David Sedaris


Favorite Debut - BRASS by Xhenet Aliu


Favorite Short Stories, Non-Fiction - AMATEUR HOUR by Kimberly Harrington


Favorite Short Stories, Fiction - RETABLOS by Octavio Solis


Favorite "Crime Fiction" - AMERICAN BY DAY by Derek Miller





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. 

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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