Tuesday, January 9, 2018

LULLABY ROAD :: James Anderson

Character, character, character. It says something about how well James Anderson writes character that I would pay good money to spend a day with his leading man, Ben Jones. That might not seem odd, there are loads of interesting protagonists out there. But Ben Jones has what might seem to be an interminably boring vocation. He owns a trucking service that delivers necessities to the "desert rats and eccentric exiles" of the remote Utah desert, spending his days on State Highway 117, traveling "through the heart of a hundred miles of nowhere." Snooze-fest, right? Ha. Not even close.

Ben is intriguing in his own right. A half Jewish, half Native American orphan raised by Mormons, he seems hard-pressed to avoid trouble. Well known by local law enforcement and hospital staff, Ben is simply guided by a strong moral compass that sometimes requires a little blood be shed. (There are also times Ben feels his face has been mistaken for a suggestion box.)

Add in the aforementioned "eccentric exiles" (a preacher who wanders the highway toting a huge wooden cross on his back, an oft-married dirt house-dweller whose manner and manner of dress "made you afraid to get too close for fear of attitude contamination, and your own good hygiene," a Rolls Royce-driving "countess" who moved to the area in an effort to avoid the FBI--a not uncommon reason, the owner of Ginger's Glass, Whatnots, Handmade Soap & Ballroom Dance Emporium, who abandoned her Subaru and its "Just Divorced" sign at the city limits when she arrived, and a gun-toting entrepreneur who has invented the doghouse of the future, to name a few) and you've got yourself a trucking route bursting with great stories.

James Anderson mines these stories to perfection, with language so lovely I often read passages multiple times and the wonder never ceases. The dialogue is often so smart or funny I marvel at it, wondering how it is people aren't screaming about it from the rooftops. Lullaby Road is the second in a planned trilogy about Ben and the inhabitants of Route 117 and it more than lives up to the remarkable series starter, The Never-Open Desert Diner. I highly recommend the series, and also starting with TNODD. Lullaby Road picks up after the events in the first book and there is backstory you won't want to miss or have spoiled.

Lullaby Road finds Ben unexpectedly saddled with two young children, one of whom is a mystery and potentially in danger, all while trying to come to the aid of a local icon in trouble and deliver necessities to his customers in the midst of a raging winter. Filled with charm and despair, humor and grace, Lullaby Road is another perfect piece in what will surely end up as one of my favorite series of all time.

STREET SENSE: Lullaby Road is part mystery, part lesson in the mastery of character, dialogue and atmosphere, and part contemplation of what it is to be human. I can't speak highly enough of Anderson's work, which always ends up making me feel more alive and glad to be a reader.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  So many to choose from, beginning with a couple as short and "simple" as these:

With the reflecting sun tumbling off the red mesa behind us, I felt as if I had been given the chance to walk into a painting of a life I had never known.

Some men die in childbirth.

To glorious passages such as:

I went back inside and moved the end table in front of the window and put the lamp on it and turned on the lamp. The shade threw silhouettes of devils and pitchforks against the bare walls. I liked what it did to the room, though I knew there were real devils, real evil, in the world, and Ginny and Annabelle would run across them in time and they wouldn't always look like demons or carry pitchforks. They would look like friends, husbands and wives, and lovers and cops and grocery store clerks and foster parents. It would be nice if they carried pitchforks so you could identify them. Or you had a true friend to help you decide which is which--then be there when you made the wrong choice.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover didn't wow me, I'll be honest. It would have played more to my sensibilities if it had consisted solely of the photograph of the desert road at night. Which also would have been a super match with the cover of TNODD. But it's not an objectionable cover at all and the cutout image stands out enough that it would catch my eye on a display. And to be totally up front and fair, I'm about as far from a church person as you can get and even in image of something nice like an angel sometimes makes me think twice about whether what's inside is for me. On this occasion, is it blasphemous to say "Hell yes it is!"?



Wednesday, January 3, 2018

THE IMMORTALISTS :: Chloe Benjamin

I'm a sucker for a tree. When I started this book, the beautiful cover is only thing I could remember about it other than the praise I read somewhere (thank you, whoever won me over with their words). Other than the main concept, I had no clue what I was heading into and damn if it didn't almost make me cry (I am not a book crier).

New York, summer of '69. The Gold siblings (Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon) hear tell of "The Woman on Hester Street" with fortune-telling powers. Specifically, she can foresee the date of one's death.

So this is how it started: as a secret, a challenge, a fire escape they used to dodge the hulking mass of their mother, who demanded that they hang laundry or get the goddamn cat out of the stovepipe whenever she found them lounging in the bunk room. The Gold children asked around. The owner of a magic shop in Chinatown had heard of the woman on Hester Street. She was a nomad, he told Klara, traveling around the country, doing her work.

Of course, the Gold kids track the woman down and knock on her door. Individually, they meet with her to learn the day they will die, a date they are told to keep secret. Over the course of the next several decades and hundreds of pages, Benjamin delves deeply into the lives of each sibling and how the words of the Woman on Hester Street impacted their futures and choices.

I was immediately immersed in the world of the four Gold kids, their family and the people they encounter on their wildly varied paths through life. Each is deeply and intimately drawn. This is one of those books I was drawn to read and couldn't wait to pick up each day. This is in no small part due to the lovely writing of Chloe Benjamin:

About the Golds' father, Saul, a tailor, who "works with total absorption, as if what he is sewing is not the hem of a men's pant leg but the fabric of the universe..."
About their mother, Gertie, who "sits shiva with a devoutness Simon did not know she could muster, for Gertie has always believed in superstition more than any God. She spits three times when a funeral goes by, throws salt if the shaker falls over, and never passed a cemetery while pregnant, which required the family to endure constant rerouting between 1956 and 1962. Each Friday, she observes the Sabbath with effortful patience, as if the Sabbath is a guest she can't wait to get rid of.
On cool days, breeze from the window ruffled the family trees and old photos she keeps taped to the wall beside her bed. Through these documents, she tracks the mysterious, underground brokering of traits: genes flicking on and off and on again, her grandfather Lev's rangy legs skipping Saul for Daniel.

It's details like these that paint a full portrait of the family straight to the very edge of the frame and then some. Watching each Gold sibling take off on his or her individual path while influenced by their parents, siblings, and knowledge of their supposed date of death was joyous and heartbreaking. Diving into issues of family, love, friendship, destiny, fate and self-actualization, Benjamin has penned a wondrously beautiful story full of life, even though steeped in issues of death.

STREET SENSE: After I finished reading, I saw this billed somewhere as The First Great Novel of 2018. I can't disagree, it blew my socks off. If you like character-driven plots full of adventure and thoughtfulness, this will be right up your alley.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: In New York, he would live for them, but in San Francisco, he could live for himself. And though he does not like to think about it, though he in fact avoids the subject pathologically, he allows himself to think it now: What if the woman on Hester Street is right, and the next few years are his last? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.

COVER NERD SAYS: I mentioned sucker for a tree, right? I was powerless over this art work. The tree even works its way through the letters, binding everything together. Symbolism, schmymbolism, it's just plain purty.





Wednesday, December 20, 2017

FAVORITE TITLES OF 2017

Tons of great reading this year, as we've seen in other posts throughout 2017 and in the numerous and varied best of/favorite lists coming out this time of year from a wide range of folks. I've broken my lists down into Fiction, Crime Fiction and Non-Fiction. I limited each list to six picks in no particular order. Some of these could arguably overlap, but fell where they fell for reasons it would take too long and be too uninteresting to explain. I was going to do a favorite cover list, but strangely most were already represented on this list (See: Where The Sun Shines Out, A Negro And An Ofay, Hunger, Nomadland, Ash Falls, Breaking Bad 101).

FICTION



 CRIME FICTION


















NON-FICTION







Wednesday, December 13, 2017

KILL THE NEXT ONE :: Federico Axat

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

I lagged a little getting this post to the site. Kill the Next One was published in December 2016 and was one of my favorite reads of last year. I thought I would wait until the paperback release to run the review, but there doesn't seem to be one on the horizon. Thus, you get the full-court press on the hardcover (or library) edition of this whackadoodle of a novel.

Argentinian author Federico Axat followed a complex recipe for his first work translated into English: create a compelling mystery, then wrap it in layers of uncertainty. Throw in some violence, a dash of a secret suicide club, a pinch of adultery, a mental hospital and enough repressed memories to ice the whole shebang. Don't forget the side order of demonic opossum. Write some scenes twice, changing them just a hair. Cut into pieces and mix, leaving your protagonist and readers to question their sanity for more than 400 riveting and agonizing pages. The result is a spectacular mind-meld of a psychological thriller, Kill the Next One.

Poor Ted McKay is trying to commit suicide when he's interrupted by an insistent knock at the door. His visitor is a stranger who makes Ted an offer he can't refuse: kill a murderer who went free and a second man who is suicidal like Ted. In return for those two deaths, someone will kill Ted so he can die a heroic victim rather than by his own hand.

As Ted tries to carry out his mission, the world tilts on its axis. It's unclear what is real, who is telling the truth and how Ted was chosen for his semi-nefarious deeds. As his mind fractures, memories start to leak through, bringing frightening clarity with them. Axat brilliantly creates an environment permeated by doubt and the anxiety it perpetuates. The story is chilling, but Axat has the skill to infuse it with humanity while maintaining the nightmarish atmosphere. Kill the Next One is a recipe baked to perfection.

STREET SENSE: If you love a full plate of well-plotted mind-fuckery, do not hesitate.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: When you've decided to take your own life--it doesn't matter whether you have any doubts about your decision--those final minutes will test your will.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This one is a bit middle-of-the-road for me. It's not a turn-off, per se, but there's nothing about it that really attracts me other than its weirdness. I do like the font and the way the text is organized. The fact that it's odd certainly goes with the content. One reason I was looking forward to a paperback edition was to see if the would change the cover. Hopefully that day will come, particularly since I think it will open this book up to more readers, which it deserves.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

THE DIRTY BOOK CLUB :: Lisi Harrison

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

A dirty martini will make you admit things to other people, but a dirty book? That will make you admit things to yourself…Each time you uncover one of these truths, a brick falls from the facade you've built around yourself and leaves a hole for the light to shine through. Men are wonderful, but wood alone can't cultivate that light. You need fire. You need girlfriends.

Gloria Golden and her three twenty-something girlfriends throw a potluck every full moon, complete with cigarettes, martinis and Neil Sedaka "spinning on the Magnavox." In 1962, they follow the tenets of marriage columnist Miss Matrimony and the publication Prim: A Modern Woman's Guide to Manners.

One evening, the women begin to question their truths and repressions, spurred by Gloria's marital woes and TWA stewardess Marjorie's latest Parisian souvenir, The Housewife's Handbook to Selective Promiscuity. Over the next 54 years, the group explores and pushes their boundaries by secretly reading evocative books. Against this glorious backdrop, four present-day women become the chosen successors to Gloria's generation. Disparate women who barely know each other and often don't even like each other, they all need to participate or the club will fold.

In The Dirty Book Club, Lisi Harrison charms with a kick-in-the-pants narrative replete with a Golden Girls/Maude vibe that is far from superficial despite its sublime sauciness. Harrison (Monster High) dissects relationships and self-determination in eight unique voices full of attitude and soul; smart and raucous dialogue will have readers rooting for her distinctive characters in search of their authentic selves. 

STREET SENSE: Some of the language in this book had me howling (and endlessly sharing naughty bits with Pop Culture Nerd; i.e., things dropping "like a hot testicle," cleavage described as "crevasse-deep...like an oversized change purse positioned to receive pennies from heaven."), yet it didn't lose its depth or turn into fluff (despite what the eventual cover art might say - see below). I really wanted more of the older generation and could have read an entire account of their club history and complex relationships. This may be simply because I'm old, but there was also much more substance to mine there. I fear this book may be categorized as "chick lit," and while I don't have anything against "chick lit" per se (other than that moniker, which kind of drives me nuts), it usually isn't in my wheelhouse. I personally wouldn't necessarily label this book that way and, even if so, still highly recommend it to those of you who, like me, think that genre isn't their bag.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I should quote something deep here, because Harrison's writing has plenty of layers along with wonderful character moments and growth, but I just about swallowed my tongue laughing at this one and couldn't pass up sharing the following gem from the ladies of the older generation. You'll see why I loved them so.

[A car honks outside]

"Hold on a minute," Jules said. "Are you really dating a horn honker?"

Confused, Addie nodded.

"Oh, shugah, you can't. That man needs to go to cotillion and learn some manners."

"As long as he hits clit-illion first, I don't care where he goes," Addie said, fluffing her cleavage and then turning to leave.

COVER NERD SAYS: The Advanced Reading Copy I received displayed the cover on the left, which I adore. What better than a plain brown wrapper to enclose a book about women reading (and speaking) sexy literature? Plus that brown/blue combo is a knockout and they key sparks thoughts of a mystery. That cover is a winner. Then they had to go ruin it with the final cover on the right. Ugh. To me it reads as fluff and that is not what this book is. I was super disappointed. Perhaps even though I loved the book I'm not its target audience and the final cover is related to the publisher's thoughts on a specified market. However, I would stop for the first cover every day of the week and pass the one on the right without a second glance. Thoughts?

 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

BREAKING BAD 101 :: Alan Sepinwall

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

A television drama with a ludicrous premise (a dying chemistry teacher cooks and sells methamphetamine to build a nest egg for his family), Breaking Bad was rejected by major networks and shuffled off to cable. From humble beginnings, it became not only a critical darling but a top-rated, multi-Emmy-winning water cooler sensation. In Breaking Bad 101, longtime television critic Alan Sepinwall (The Revolution Was Televised) dissects a show so successful at captivating an audience that Sepinwall watched "the greatest hour of dramatic television ever made" (Ozymandias, S5, E14) from a hospital bed after nearly dying from a burst appendix:

By that point in the series, though, the only thing that would have prevented me from covering 'Ozymandias' (and the two concluding episodes that followed) live would have been something worse than appendicitis. It wasn't just professional dedication making me do it, but a kind of fever equal to the one that, because the appendix burst before doctors removed it, kept me hospitalized for almost two weeks.

From its focus on the "in-between moments" to its use of cinematography to show rather than tell, Breaking Bad is a model of successful storytelling. Many plots would crumble from the fragile framework upon which creator Vince Gilligan and his crew built their masterpiece, but this one grew to epic proportions on the strength of its foundation--the writing (and some admittedly happy accidents). Sepinwall reveals how the writing held millions of viewers in suspense while a year of real-time story was spread over several often glacially-paced seasons of television in a masterful display of craftsmanship. This is even more staggering when you learn how often the writers were "winging it." Says Gilligan:

We actively try to paint ourselves into corners at the end of episodes--at the end of seasons, at the end of scenes, sometimes--and then we try to extricate ourselves from those corners.
The book includes updated show recaps supplemented with insightful details about all 62 episodes, interspersed with sidebars of insider facts and backstories, commentary from the actors and creators, and brilliant black-and-white comic-style artwork that exemplifies the show's dark humor. Breaking Bad 101 is incredibly fun, but truly shines when Sepinwall explores the elements that elevated an impractical story to awe-inspiring success.

STREET SENSE: An episode-by-episode companion to arguably the greatest television drama of all time, with content to satisfy artists, casual fans and series aficionados. If you haven't watched yet, doing so along with reading this book would be a great way to dive in. If you have watched, five'll get you ten this will make you want to start all over again.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: This is a toughie, both because so much of the writing is spoilerish if you haven't watched the series and because great writing about great writing is so infinitely quotable. There's the bit about how Sepinwall's fixation and fever over Breaking Bad is all the more amazing because at first he wasn't even sure he would like the show, which is exactly how I felt on both ends. There's a great piece on growth, decay and transformation. I almost took from the fantastic Foreword by Damon Lindelof, who praises Sepinwall's craft and soul despite Sepinwall's oft-times less than positive reviews of Lindelof's own show, Lost. In the end, this heavily redacted bit won out, mostly because it perfectly describes the breath-holding experience of watching Breaking Bad, which feels both slower and faster than real time, turning the process into something otherworldly:

Nearly twenty minutes of screen time pass from the moment [redacted] to the closing credits.  More than fifteen minutes pass from the moment Walt arrives at [redacted] to the closing credits, and more than ten minutes pass from the moment we return from the final act break and Walt is prepared to [redacted]. I know this only because I went back, multiple viewings later, to clock it all. In the moment, the action seemed to be simultaneously taking place in an instant and over an eternity. A parade could have gone by my window and I wouldn't have noticed. I'm sure I inhaled and exhaled, if only because I'm alive right now writing these words that you're reading, but I'll be damned if I was aware of any contracting or expanding of my lungs as [redacted] all converged on the spot where [redacted]--the same spot where the arrival of [redacted] made it clear to both Walt and us that nothing on Breaking Bad would ever go as expected. 


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE :: Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng is pretty good evidence in support of reincarnation. How else is it possible she writes so many varied characters with such remarkable insight without having lived their lives and walked in their shoes? Having grown up in the locale of which she writes provided Ng a base of realism, but the character profiles in Little Fires Everywhere are up there with the best I've read, and that's all hard work and talent.

The Richardson family of Shaker Heights, Ohio, is outwardly living a life that exemplifies the Utopian principles established by the town's founders. As part of that sought-after perception, Elena Richardson has historically rented the family's second home in a less perfect part of town to someone she feels is in need. It makes Elena feel good to think she's giving people a helping hand. Most recently, the Winslow Road residence is occupied by Mia Warren, an itinerant artist, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Pearl.

Little Fires Everywhere grabbed me from the get-go with the Richardson home ablaze, thanks, according to Elena, to youngest daughter and Richardson black sheep, Izzy:
It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she'd known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there.

Book titles vary in their actual relation to the text and I appreciated how Ng made hers absolutely relevant on two levels. Following the immediate literal interpretation, Ng goes back in time to explore the many metaphorical fires that burned the Richardson and Warren families and singed those around them. As the characters' lives became increasingly intertwined, new and old secrets mixed with judgment and assumptions, straining their relationships. When prominent family friends of the Richardsons set out to adopt a Chinese-American baby, the ensuing custody battle breaks those already fragile bonds and has far-reaching consequences.

STREET SENSE: Little Fires Everywhere is a brilliant look at broadly important issues (race, culture, privilege) through the lens of two very different families in a small town founded on the premise of perfection. If you're a fan of deep character profiles, this is your jam. All of the characters were well-drawn, but Elena Richardson really grabbed me as one of the most fascinating. That may be because I've known people like her, but the psychology of the self-proclaimed do-gooder is one I find particularly intriguing.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Mornings, Mrs. Richardson sailed into the kitchen in high-heeled pumps, car keys and stainless-steel travel mug in hand, saying, "Pearl, so nice to see you again." Then she click-clacked down the back hall, and in a moment the garage door rumbled open and her Lexus glided down the driveway, a golden pocket of coolness in the hot summer air. Mr. Richardson, in his jacket and tie, had left long before, but he loomed in the background, solid and impressive and important, like a mountain range on the horizon. When Pearl asked what his parents did all day, Moody had shrugged. "You know, they go to work." Work! When her mother said it, it reeked of drudgery: waiting tables, washing dishes, cleaning floors. But for the Richardsons, it seemed noble: they did important things.

COVER NERD SAYS: This one was so good I already raved about it in the body of the review. A+.

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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