Tuesday, November 22, 2016

NIAGARA MOTEL :: Ashley Little

"There's nothing fair about life. Not one single thing. You just have to get through it the best way you know how."

Writing in the voice of a child is a tricky and perilous thing. It's also a thing Ashley Little knocks clean out of the park in Niagara Motel; readers will fall madly in love with Tucker Malone. It's no surprise Tucker is wiser and more world-weary than any eleven-year-old should be when his mother, Gina, is a peripatetic, narcoleptic stripper. Yet Little brilliantly blends Tucker's street smarts with his innocence, and his voice never feels anything but authentic.

When Gina's narcolepsy leads to tragedy, Tucker is forced to leave their current residence, the Niagara Motel, to stay at Bright Light, a home for older, troubled kids. A boy forced to deal with a grown-up situation under less-than-stellar circumstances, all Tucker wants to do is find the man he believes to be his father--Sam Malone from the television sitcom Cheers.

Tucker is drawn to fellow housemate Meredith, sixteen and pregnant. "We were a strange match as far as friends go, but magnets don't need to understand how magnetism works; they just repel each other or stick together." 

Stick together this odd duo does, through life's dramas and one of the more oddly fascinating road trips ever. It is so wildly inventive it's almost distracting (in the best of ways; go in blind and have Google handy). 

It's a testament to the strength of Little's characters and dialogue that the story never loses its focus or heart--the inimitable Tucker Malone. Ashley Little, Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize winner for Anatomy of a Girl Gang, has another winner in this tale of friendship and the hard lessons learned while making a life out of lemons. 

STREET SENSE: Tucker Malone is a young boy who can break your funny bone as quickly as he can stop your heart like arterial plaque. I'm a hard sell when it comes to first person narratives from a child's perspective, but I love every single minute I spent in Tucker's head. Funny and heartwarming through the hard spots, this will be one of my favorites of the year.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: At first I'd been nervous that maybe Dee was one of the weirdos that Gina had warned me about. But after about half an hour, I knew that Dee was not one of those weirdos. Even though she was different, she was just like everybody else. She wanted people to like her. She wanted people to see her for who she really was inside. I started to understand what Meredith meant about feelings she gets about people. But, I think for me, it wasn't the feeling I got about a person, it was how the person made me feel about myself. Dee made me feel kind of...fabulous.

Bonus passage!

Did people steal moms? I knew they stole kids. They probably stole moms, too. Moms would be more useful actually, come to think of it. If you were going to steal a person, you might as well steal a mom. Then she could make your dinner and do your laundry and help you fix your sweaters. A kid would just want to watch TV and eat chips all day.

COVER NERD SAYS:  The title and cover image don't give much away about the innards of this one, but still it intrigues. It gives you a little hint that the story might not take place in present day (it's set in the 90s), but other than that, all you've got it whatever a motel sign brings to your mind. For me, the image is a good one, but I can't say I would buy this one based on cover alone. I would certainly pick it up off a bookstore table, though, and the copy on the back would sell me instantly. The son of a narcoleptic touring stripper who thinks his father is Sam Malone? Sold. Happily so. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

COCKROACHES :: Scholastique Mukasonga

Scholastique Mukasonga has done something extraordinary with her autobiographical work Cockroaches. In straightforward prose over a mere 165 pages, in a binding approximately the size of a 5x7 family photograph, she harnesses four decades of devastating imagery and emotion emanating from the genocide of the Tutsi people in Rwanda. From the heartrending dedication to the last page, Mukasonga holds the reader's aghast but rapt attention through the hardships endured and resilience shown by her family and their fellow refugees.

Mukasonga was three when the pogroms began in 1959 and her family was expelled from their village, exiled to an unpopulated savanna overrun with tsetse flies and wild animals. Hutus relegated hundreds of thousands of Tutsis there, rendering them Inyenzi--cockroaches, something to be stomped on and eradicated.

Despite the daily regime of terror, the Tutsis sustained their proud culture as a means of bearing witness, believing they would die in their hellish exile. They worked, grew food and, perhaps most importantly, they read. Education was Mukasonga's way out and, thanks to books, she "sensed that the world was far bigger than we could imagine....Sometimes I dreamed of an impossible thing: having a book all to myself."

Mukasonga eventually graduated and moved to France, but kept abreast of the continued evisceration of her people, returning in 2004 to witness what remained of her village. Cockroaches is a haunting love letter to the lost, beautifully written and imbued with controlled emotion, a story to which we should all bear witness

STREET SENSE: A survivor of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda revisits her life, her family and her people in this compelling memoir. To say this is a difficult subject is a vast understatement, but these words should be read.

COVER NERD SAYS:  The story jumped out at me here before the cover did. In fact, the cover didn't catch my eye at all, I was only able to see a small image of it when I requested the book. It's a cover that became more beautiful after I finished reading, and now it's one of my favorites of the year. It's somewhat dark and yet hopeful, seeds being carried by the wind to better places (if I'm reading it right, but that's the visual I get here). Most of the people in this book did not end up in better places, but on these pages they live and breathe and are remembered.

A version of this review previously ran in Shelf Awareness.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

COFFIN ROAD :: Peter May

Peter May returns to the Outer Hebrides, the setting of his mesmerizing Lewis Trilogy, with his new standalone novel Coffin Road. The Hebrides is rugged land that takes on a life of its own in May’s masterful hands, and one morning its churning ocean spits a man onto the beach after taking his memory. With few clues, he has to figure out who he is, what he's doing on the Isle of Harris, and who doesn't want him doing it.

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, a troubled young girl digs into the cause of her father's suicide and a detective investigates a bludgeoned body found at a remote lighthouse station. Soon the amnesiac, the detective and the teenager are caught up in high stakes mysteries fraught with the potential for violence and a fascinating (and non-preaching) environmental issue at their core.

May is second to none when it comes to sense of place. He writes landscape so artfully even paragraphs-long descriptions don't detract from the pace of this thriller:

"And now I am aware of the wind. Tugging at my clothes, sending myriad grains of sand in a veil of whisper-thin gauze across the beach in currents and eddies, like water."

May's lyrical writing brings full color to the scenery and the narrative intrigues from start to finish as the three arcs begin to intertwine and race to a final showdown. Coffin Road is an atmospheric thriller that delves into issues of identity, sacrifice and the greater good.

STREET SENSE: With Coffin Road, May has gifted his readers with another engaging mystery infused with the personality of the Hebrides as only he can write it.  

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: With the rain running down my face, it would be hard to tell if I was crying. And if I were to cry, they would be tears of pure frustration. Along with the return, perhaps, of fear. For the rock of certainty on which I have built my hopes turns out to have been the same of self-deception.

COVER NERD SAYS: When a friend (hi, Shaina!) saw this book reviewed in Shelf Awareness she thought to herself, "Hmm, this looks like a book that Lauren would review." Which is both totally uncanny and cool and also tells me perhaps I'm a bit too easy to read. It's no secret I like the dark stuff, so it's not going to shock you to learn that I love this cover. All of May's covers, actually, since the publisher has started giving them all a similar look. I think this is a smart move, creating a cover theme that readers can look at and recognize as an author they enjoy. This one is as dark and brooding as its innards and I'm looking forward to the next time I can spot one like it in upcoming releases. (Disclosure: It feels like it's 8 million o'clock right now, so that is quite rambly and perhaps doesn't even make sense, but there you have it.)

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

LEADFOOT :: Eric Beetner

I am woefully behind on my personal reviews due to the state of the universe at the moment, but I didn't want to miss the release of Eric's new entry in the McGraw series, Leadfoot. You can peruse my love of the McGraw drama here, where I discuss the first book, Rumrunners. This series is high-octane family fun, and Leadfoot is out TODAY, so go get yourself a copy.

"Why do I feel like I'm a pilot on the Enola Gay?"

Leadfoot heads back to 1971 Southeast Iowa to share a bit of the lore about how the McGraws became THE MCGRAWS. Calvin has already established himself as a reliable transporter for the Stanley family criminal empire (by Iowan standards), but his nineteen-year-old son Webb is just getting his feet wet in the family business.

When a transport ends up with bullets flying and a Stanley employee taking a hit, the family hits back at their rivals, the Cantrells. Of course, poor Calvin, who just tries to do his job and stay out of the way ("Never open the package" is the McGraw motto) ends up in the crosshairs of a crime family war.

Although Calvin is tied up trying to stay alive while dealing with messes created by one or more of the Stanley brothers (I'm talking to you, Kirby), Hugh Stanley still has jobs to get done. The need for more McGraws means Webb is about to get his first transport job: go to St. Louis to pick up a girl and bring her back to Hugh.

Naturally, and thankfully, everything goes haywire, and the McGraws all have to rely on their skills and moxie to make sure they come out on top. Leadfoot is full of fast-driving, gun play, explosives and a little bit of torture thrown in for good measure. But it's the theme of family winding through Leadfoot from start to finish that gives it its heart. The Stanleys and the McGraws are very different kinds of families, but each a family that does what it has to do to survive.

I loved Leadfoot's peek into the McGraw homefront. It brought a lot of depth and sweetness (sorry, Eric) to the fray and Calvin's relationship with his wife Dorothy was a great way to shine further light on the McGraw innards. The McGraw men may be the outlaws, but it's Dorothy - "early forties, housewife, General Hospital fan" - who is the most kickass of the McGraws.

STREET SENSE:  Leadfoot is a fast and fun second chapter in what this reader hopes is a long book of McGraw stories from all eras.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Near the river, in a flat industrial square made of brick, a half dozen men were about to die. They made the mistake of taking a job as criminals and as such they followed orders and set up shop in a state not their own. Calvin crossed a small bridge, saw the cluster of abandoned storage facilities and one-time factories, and wished these kids had just stayed home in Nebraska.

COVER NERD SAYS:  280 Steps does a fantastic job with their cover work. I loved the cover of Rumrunners and love the cover of Leadfoot, which carries the theme through in great measure. These are great pulpy covers that provide a perfect feel for what's inside. They are artworks that evoke a bit of a movie poster and and I would happily hang them on my wall.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

HELL FIRE :: Karin Fossum

"It was always the small things, the links between people and where they could lead."

Karin Fossum is one of crime fiction's gems, and Hell Fire continues the stellar Inspector Konrad Sejer series set in her native Norway. By all accounts, Bonnie Hayden is simply a single mother eking out a living as a caretaker, beloved by her elderly clientele. But someone was enraged enough to butcher Bonnie and her young son in an abandoned camper, and Inspector Sejer must apprehend the monster with little in the way of evidence.

Alternating between the investigation and the months before the murders, Sejer's perspective is deftly woven with those of Bonnie and the Malthes, Mass and her co-dependent twenty-one-year-old son Eddie. Eddie, though not formally diagnosed, is troubled and obsessed with death. He searches the internet for execution methods, dreams of frying newborn chicks and tries desperately to find his father's grave. A connection between the families may begin to seem ominously obvious, but Fossum is crafty enough to create doubt.

Fossum doesn't normalize violence, and while Sejer takes a secondary role in the plot, he is used effectively to show the impact of brutality on those in its wake. Hell Fire is more a compelling study of character and hardscrabble living than a strict procedural, and even the most dismal scenes and mundane tasks are absorbing. The plot is a tight, slow burn that details the hardships of two mothers and their sons, putting them through the wringer as the date of the murders approaches and their lives intersect.

STREET SENSE: Hell Fire reads like a documentary view of life on society's fringes. I appreciated Fossum's real-world view. There are no superheroes here, no fantastical discovery or event that makes this story sensational. It's gritty reality, from both ends of the murder. This is the first of Fossum's Inspector Sejer series that I've read, but it certainly won't be the last.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Bonnie looked at his large white ear, and thought suddenly that it reminded her of a beautiful conch shell. She wondered, if she put her ear to his, whether she would hear the sound of his long life. Which was over now.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Hell Fire's cover is somewhat plain and basic, yet the fire image remains provocative. I think Fossum's name might be the biggest draw here, so couldn't argue with a larger font on that front, even though I really like the way her name sits on this cover. The fiery image alone would probably get me to pick this one up, but wouldn't be enough to get me to purchase it without knowing more.

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

Thursday, September 22, 2016

BLOOD WEDDING :: Pierre Lemaitre

"I am afraid. The dead are surfacing. In the darkness. I can count them one by one. In the darkness, I see them sitting at a table, side by side. In the darkness."

Pierre Lemaitre has one of the most wonderfully twisted minds of crime fiction and the psychological thriller. On the heels of his award-winning Commandant Verhoeven trilogy (Alex, Irene and Camille, two of which won the prestigious CWA International Dagger Award), Lemaitre has written a tremendous standalone novel in Blood Wedding.

Sophie Duguet is losing her mind. She's forgetting things (where she parked her car, the date she and her husband have theater tickets, items she put in her purse while shopping), becoming uncharacteristically unreliable, and spiraling into depression and paranoia. Worse, the visions she has of hurting people start playing out in real life.

When the bodies connected to Sophie start adding up, she goes on the run, changing her name and location repeatedly to stay ahead of the authorities. Safety is hard to come by when she doesn't understand what she's running from, but as Sophie looks back she begins to figure out she’s up against more than her own mind. Unsettling and smart, Blood Wedding is intricately plotted along parallel timelines, and the screws tighten skillfully as Lemaitre winds through Sophie’s nightmare and toward the ultimate reveal.

Lemaitre's work is inspired and disturbing and can't be trusted. With precise yet elegant prose, he manipulates and unnerves. Like Sophie, the only thing the reader can be sure of is that things aren’t what they seem. Although Lemaitre’s work is not normally for the faint of heart, Blood Wedding is more about psychology than violence and thus relatively safe for the squeamish.

STREET SENSE: If you are a fan of the psychological thriller, of being held in suspense along with your protagonist and not knowing what's happening under the surface, grab this one. If you like a bit of twisted with your thriller, grab this one. Lemaitre is a master. If you're into crime fiction, read the trilogy. Read any Lemaitre, an author this good should be more well-known here in the U.S.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Sophie never measures the years since she first went mad. It goes back too far. Perhaps because of the anguish involved, she feels the years count double. It began as a gradual descent, but as the months passed she be an to feel she was on a toboggan, hurtling downhill. Sophie was married then. It was a time before...all this...A therapist suggested a spell in the hospital. She refused, until death arrived, uninvited, to join her madness.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Lemaitre's covers are usually quite simple, a single image against a dark background. I'm not a huge fan of the single flower covers, which seem to have flooded the cover market as of late. However, I do like the fact that this dark red rose is tinged with black, and I love what they've done with Lemaitre's name. Overall I think the cover is ominously effective, I just wish the image was something other than a flower.

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Tom Rinaldi's The Red Bandanna is ample evidence that compelling stories remain to be told fifteen years after September 11, 2001. Following the attacks, survivors mentioned a man wearing a red bandanna who repeatedly led others to safety only to go back up into the inferno. They didn't know who he was, only that he saved their lives. One woman read about that man and knew she had found her son.

This remarkable story of selflessness is that of 24-year-old Welles Crowther, who dreamed of being a firefighter and carried that bandanna every day since he was 7. It is a story about what defines September 11--acts of compassion, sacrifice and heroism. It is the story of an extraordinary young man, those he left behind and the lives he saved, now forever bound by the man in the red bandanna.

During President Obama's speech at the 2014 memorial museum dedication, he shared a story of heroism and mentioned one name. That name was Welles Crowther. Reading Welles' story reminds us to bear witness, that in times of tragedy, heroes are among us, and perhaps even inside us.

Rinaldi, a reporter for ESPN, writes in a straightforward manner which feels rather staid for the first portion of the book. But as the story shifts to 9/11 and beyond, that tone is perfect, allowing the facts to communicate the drama without becoming overwrought. Grab a blanket, you're going to suffer more than one case of the chills as you work through this one.

STREET SENSE:  It's the emotion Rinaldi evokes that makes this a recommended read. And while one could argue any story of 9/11 would be evocative, a great story still needs a great teller with the right tone. Stick through the first half of background, the payoff is well worth it.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Young sat for what she believed was ten minutes, perhaps longer, paralyzed by fear. Then she heard a voice calling out, clear and strong. Instantly she turned toward the sound. "I found the stairs," the voice said. "Follow me. Only help the ones that you can help. And follow me."

COVER NERD SAYS:  I've never been a huge fan of the bandanna. If I hadn't known what this book was about, hadn't seen the subtitle (A life. A choice. A legacy.) I might have passed it by altogether. Perhaps if I was really perusing the bookstore shelves or tables the title might have intrigued me, but it wouldn't have been in the first group of books I went for. Now that I've read it, of course, the cover couldn't be anything else. I'm glad I didn't pass this one by.

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

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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