Monday, March 20, 2017


Disappointment, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Kait Heacock, publicist at Feminist Press, explores its vast chasm in her debut story collection, Siblings and Other Disappointments. Sad in myriad ways, these stories dissect disenchantment from a variety of viewpoints--between husbands and wives, parents and offspring, siblings, neighbors, crewmates and, often most excruciatingly, within oneself.

Heacock writes about difficult subjects with a smooth grace that acts like a salve, taking some of the sting out of recognizing and relating to them. Living, often simply existing, is painful:

"Peter was an agoraphobic. He couldn't explain what that was a year ago, but he could describe now what it was like to stand by the front door and feel the heat radiate off the knob, so sure it could burn you if you touched it.... He never would have guessed when he rented this one-bedroom basement apartment that it could become his waking coffin, that he would let her death bury him alive."

Heacock sometimes balances the hurt with slivers of salvation. Peter finds solace in the peregrinations of his insomniac upstairs neighbor. An artistic young man finds a small mercy on the fishing boat where he's sent to toughen up. As in life, however, not every story includes an emotional Band-Aid, and Heacock doesn't hesitate to wield her words like a knife. To be human is to wound and be wounded, and the 12 gritty stories in Siblings and Other Disappointments cut to the core.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reposted here with permission.

STREET SENSE:  A debut collection worthy of getting a little guts spilled on your rug.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  She didn't ask her dad how things were going at the store or what he had been up to lately. His absence was more active than her mother's, richer and more full of anger. It was hard to hate someone who's dead; the living took the blow.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This is a frustrating cover because I'm not sure I can even put into words why I like it as much as I do. But the color scheme, the font, the repetition, the art work, all of it fits squarely into my wheelhouse. Covers for short stories must be difficult, with so many different emotions and characters and slices of life requiring a piece of the pie. But really, what's more disappointing than a sink full of dirty dishes (or the messy life it symbolizes)? Great cover work, maybe even more so because I can't be more clear about why.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

THE ANNIE YEAR :: Stephanie Wilbur Ash

The following review first appeared in Shelf Awareness and is posted here with permission. I had never heard of this title or the author when I spied the description on the Shelf list for the month. It sounded so bugnuts insane I knew I had to request it and am so thankful I had the opportunity to read and review it. A wonderful, fun read, this book also contains one of the best "jokes" I've read in some time (particularly since I have the mind of an 8-year-old). Full review below.

Stephanie Wilbur Ash is a hoot, and The Annie Year is the raucous debut novel from the former editor at Mpls.St.Paul magazine. Reading The Annie Year feels akin to pulling into a remote diner and having a lifelong local recount town history nonstop for hours, in intimate detail and regardless of subject matter sensitivity or personal embarrassment. The story is told so engagingly--caustic, awkwardly hilarious and full of the joy and anguish of everyday life--it's impossible to do anything but settle in, a willing hostage to the saga.

Tandy Caide is the CPA of a small Midwestern town. Married to a man she's rarely intimate with, charter member of the Order of the Pessimists and patron of the arts, Tandy feels stuck. Raised to take over her father's business, she never had an opportunity to spread her wings. After sharing a moment with the new vocational-agriculture  Are teacher at the high school production of Annie, Tandy's life takes a careening, two-wheels-off-the-pavement left turn.

With his ponytail, man-clogs, freshly-mown-ditch scent and multi-colored beaded belt, the Vo-Ag teacher lights a fire in Tandy that creates fallout across town. The havoc affects both a former lover and the daughter of her estranged best friend, forcing Tandy on a voyage to find her true self.

Through Tandy's first-person narrative, Ash has created a voice often cringe-worthy, full of introspection and admittedly fallible under the pressures of perfectionism. Readers will find Tandy's serpentine journey by turns familiar and foreign, but always entertaining.

STREET SENSE:  A smart novel with plenty of humor and life's insults, this is one to just pick up, hang on and enjoy the ride.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  [This quote comes from Tandy's first-person narrative while bowling with the Vo-Ag hunk. It's short, and really not one of the more meaningful passages, but I wanted to give you a flavor of Ash's sense of humor, which hit just the right smart/childish notes with me.]

I have never been more attracted to anyone in my entire life. It was like he bowled directly into my ovaries.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I didn't find this cover particularly engaging or symbolic of what is going on inside. I did find the font matched well, and it's not a font that would normally attract me. This isn't a bad cover, I'm just not sure it does justice to the insides, which are so alive that a cover more colorful and engaging (or outlandish) would have better served.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

DESPERATION ROAD :: Michael Farris Smith

A butterfly squirms in a web. Even if it escapes, remnants of the entanglement will hang on to cripple all efforts to survive. This early scene in Michael Farris Smith's Desperation Road is mere paragraphs, but Smith never relents in the masterful casting of an unrelenting web over his characters through almost 300 bleak yet dazzling pages of life struggle.

Returning to McComb, Mississippi after 11 years in prison, Russell Gaines is trying to assimilate. Despite the support of his father, the web pulls on him in the guise of his former fianceƩ and the vengeful family whose lives he changed irrevocably.

Maben is a woman on the run. She seems to have been born in a web, and though she tries desperately to break free and create a life for her young daughter, another clash with violence has had its way with her.

Russell isn't looking for redemption, but as his troubled path intersects Maben's disastrous one, he finds meaning in the idea that "the things he could put his hands on needed someone to put out those hands." But rough lives only get rougher, and the slightest breeze could push them further into disaster.

Smith is incredibly gifted; emotion and poetry soak his straight-forward prose, the ease of the flow masking the precision behind every word. He imbues the everyday slog of difficult lives with reverence and grace, painting the faintest glimmer of hope in opportunities lost and prices paid for flying too close to the web. 

STREET SENSE:  Rivers was one of my favorite books the year it was published, so it was with excitement and anxiety I awaited Smith's next work. No letdown here, Desperation Road is the same fabulous writing that leads to marking and rereading (and rereading). 

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  She had discovered that once things started to go bad they gathered and spread like some wild, poisonous vine, a vine that stretched across the miles and the years from the shadowy faces she had known to the lines she had crossed to the things that had been put inside her by strangers. It spread and stretched until the vine had consumed and covered her, wrapping itself around her ankles and around her thighs and around her chest and around her throat and wrists and sliding between her legs and as she looked down at the girl with her sunburned forehead and her thin arms she realized that the child was her own dirty hand reaching out of the thicket in one last desperate attempt to grab on to something good.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Beautiful. Dark and mysterious, with the title font semi-hidden in the trees. Who knows what's behind those lights coming up the other side of the rise? 

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Allen Eskens is dastardly. In The Heavens May Fall, he gives us two upstanding, likable, root-for-til-the-end characters--criminal law professor Boady Standen and his best friend, Detective Max Rupert--and puts them at odds. Boady and Max have played roles in Eskens' prior novels (The Life We Bury, The Guise of Another), but they take center stage in this dogfight over the murder of a wealthy foundation director, each bringing personal demons to the legal battle that threatens to end their relationship.

The victim's husband, Ben Pruitt, is Boady's former law partner, and Boady agrees to represent him despite having retired from practice following a devastating loss. Max and Ben also have a history, but it's far from warm and fuzzy. Boady is certain his friend is innocent; Max is burning to prove Ben's alibi is not as airtight as it seems. Though he's zeroed in on Ben as the killer, Max may be falling victim to tunnel vision and the emotions raised by the anniversary of his wife's death.

Two heroes working at cross-purposes on a high-profile case ingeniously ratchets the tension over where the chips will fall. One of these good men is wrong. The story is told from competing perspectives, with Boady and Max each working steadfastly toward what he believes is justice. Eskens keeps the pace brisk, the plotting tight. His criminal law acumen is evident in compelling courtroom scenes. The short chapters in this thrilling mystery will have readers just-one-more-ing well past bedtime.

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

INSURRECTIONS :: Rion Amilcar Scott

"My man God doesn't have holy rent and holy bills to pay."

Rion Amilcar Scott's Insurrections is a short story collection that embodies the every man and woman getting by in the fictional town of Cross River, Maryland. Young and old, the working and the unemployed, those beset by demons and the ones who try to help them, even if they themselves don't have the wherewithal to do so. The stories in Insurrections are about people, relationships, and the cracks and fissures that make each one unique, in strength and weakness alike.

In Good Times, Walter saves the life of his upstairs neighbor Rashid, a young father torn between his love for his family and his thoughts of suicide. All Walter wants to do is enjoy his Good Times sitcom reruns, but he's continually interrupted by Rashid, distraught over his misguided efforts to be worthy of his family, visits that light a fire under Walter's own demons and threaten his relationship with his wife.

The impact of family tragedy is at the forefront of A Friendly Game, in which a once-proud mother and library assistant who read to the local children swirls into drug addiction following the death of her son. "Joan's husband came one day with tiny white rocks, a butane lighter, and a glass pipe. What a brief intense dizzying derangement. Slipping from yourself for a few moments. That's how she described it and little by little, each time, less and less of her returned."

Years later, Joan is a street lady, tortured by the very boys she read to, who now see her as nothing more than a means to debase and destabilize each other in their own struggles over women and stature.

The way years of abuse can alter a mindset is highlighted in The Slapsmith. Nicolette is so used to being mistreated she can't even recognize real help when she finds it. Or did she find it? "Men having fun could sure sound menacing sometimes."

As a whole, Scott's stories are well-crafted and aspects of them linger long after reading. Individually, they are sometimes odd, often sorrowful, every once in a while providing a glimmer of hope. To his credit, Scott engages the reader, this one at least, in circumstances that range from recognizable to foreign to almost inconceivable. These are stories of people constantly at odds, fighting to find their way. It's not a new premise, but Scott's delivery is well worth the trip.

STREET SENSE:  A  satisfying and moving collection of stories about those up against it. Written with grace and complexity with rich characters and brutality drawn bare, this collection is recommended for those who don't thrive on Hollywood endings.

COVER NERD SAYS:  As a fan of bird imagery, this cover spoke to me immediately. I'm not even sure if I can relate the cover to the material. The birds all seem to be flying in somewhat similar directions. The characters in these stories certainly are not. The birds are different in color. These stories are centered on the African American experience in the town of Cross River. But maybe, no matter what color bird we are or what direction we're facing, we're all in the shit together and wouldn't it be nice if we could all give each other a little draft? Ok, probably too deep and far afield. Let's just say I love this cover, deep imagery or not.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


"There's something about his eyes. He's an insane man, and in another country he'd be locked up."

The above quote from fellow actor John Larroquette fairly sums up Bill Murray. What is it about Murray that his antics render him American's beloved "modern-day trickster god" rather than an inmate at the nearest central lockup? That question is explored to hilarious and profound end by Gavin Edwards in The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment, and Party Crashing.

Contributing editor for Rolling Stone, Edwards believes Murray is "secretly teaching us how to live." Using the Ten Principles of Bill ("Invite yourself to the party" and "While the world is spinning make yourself useful," for example), Edwards shares decades of zany Murray antics. As a whole, however, the Principles indicate that Murray's madcap nature is a means to become the best version of himself while trying to make the world a better place.

Murray is the embodiment of the Fourth Principle: "Make sure everybody else is invited to the party." He might crash your get-together and give a toast, drag you from a retail establishment to pelt you with snowballs, or pull his shirt over his head, rub his belly and photo bomb your vacation. Because it's Bill, these encounters end with laughter and legend rather than handcuffs. The Tao of Bill Murray is a joy to read and a must for Murray fans, but it's also a heartfelt reminder that we're in this together, and together we can all enjoy the party.

STREET SENSE: A hilarious and entertaining trip down the Road of Murray, Edwards still presents the meaningful side of The Murricane. This book is great insight into just who Bill Murray is, and it's recommended for anyone who is curious as to which personal might be the real one.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  "So what's it like to be me" he asked. "Ask yourself: 'What's it like to be me?' The only way we'll ever know what it's like to be you is if you work your best at being you as often as you can--and keep reminding yourself that's where home is." Bill smiled. "That's where home is."

COVER NERD SAYS:  This cover doesn't light me on fire, and absent the grouping of images with the varying hats I'm not even sure I would know who this image was depicting without looking at the title of the book. But the images together with the hats DO tip it off, and it attracts me because I realize it's about Bill Murray. The cover itself not so much. To be fair, it pales a bit in comparison to the cover of last year's The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray:

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

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. 

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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