Wednesday, April 1, 2020

CITY OF MARGINS :: William Boyle

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

William Boyle's City of Margins is a marvelously nuanced study of light and dark, infusing the gritty, melancholy detachment of The Lonely Witness with a dash of the "screwball noir" abounding in A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself. The early 1990s Southern Brooklyn denizens in City of Margins muddle through thinly partitioned lives, toting their loss, hope, desperation and yearning. When chance encounters increase their overlap, perilous links form between people who might otherwise have rubbed against each other without consequence.

Donnie Parascandolo is the epicenter, an emotionally wrecked cop who lost his son and then his wife, Donna. Donnie is connected to Mikey Baldini by a 1991 night of violence that resulted in the death of Mikey's father and left widowed Rosemarie Baldini with a crushing gambling marker held by Big Tommy Ficalora. Two years later, Donnie has been thrown off the force. His surprising new emotional attachment to widow Ava Bifulco is jeopardized when Ava's son recognizes Donnie. Nick dreams of writing the next great mobster screenplay and sees Donnie, rumored muscle for Big Tommy, as his meal ticket. The web of connections thickens when Mikey finds a note leading him to Donna and his ultimate discovery of the explosive truth behind his father's death.

Boyle's love of books and movies that blend crime and comedy wonderfully informs both his style and the bonds among his characters. The arts bridge generations, start conversations and, in Boyle's masterful hands, provide softening, wide-angle lenses to the broken and tortured souls of the margins.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020


Below are a few (somewhat) brief, $.02 opinions about several books I've read or listened to recently but don't have time to review in full. Their appearance in this recurring piece generally has little to nothing to do with merit. Many of these books I enjoyed as much or more than those that got the full court press. I hope you'll consider one or two for your own TBR stack if they strike your fancy whether they struck mine or not.

                                                 Great Audio:

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, by Tom O'Neill

A great, knowing pal (thanks, 7!) gave me a copy of this treatise. I'd really wanted to read it, but finally went with the audio so I could get to it sooner. A fun, wild ride for anyone who is into conspiracy theories, the Manson murders, Hollywood of the Sixties, and just plain old-fashioned nutbaggery. Tom O'Neill dedicated so much of his life to this story you'll begin to wonder about his sanity. Then your own. Then everyone's. Much intense fun.

Superb Noiry Darkness:

My Darkest Prayer, by S.A. Cosby

Ashamedly, I've waited way too long to write about this fantastic gritty noir. Shawn Cosby is a hell of a writer. His protagonist, Nathan Waymaker (a man who "knows how to handle the bodies"), is a former Marine and Sheriff's deputy currently working in his cousin's funeral home. When a local minister is found dead, his followers feel the police aren't taking the case seriously. Since Nathan has a rep as someone willing to help out when times are tough, they ask him to take a look at the case. Great humor, snappy dialogue, characters to root for. Read this before the next installment, Blacktop Wasteland, comes out on July 14.

Dry County, by Jake Hinkson

Jake Hinkson writes great small town grit, and Dry County is no exception. A mix of politics, religion and a man willing to do anything to retain his power, it's a stark look at how people just keep digging even when they're in a hole. Richard Weatherford is a preacher in small town Arkansas who has grown his following and perfected the optics of his life with his wife and five kids. Things go south when a blackmail scheme threatens to take down everything Richard has built, and he'll go to great measure to put an end to it. Great stuff.

Interesting, but Disconnect:

The Town, by Shaun Prescott

I really wanted to love this one by Aussie Shaun Prescott, and for the most part I did. In a super cool premise, Prescott's unnamed protagonist shows up in a town in the rural Outback. He's writing a book about Australian towns that are disappearing. Then the town he's in begins to literally disappear as large holes to nowhere show up. People who get near them are sucked in never to be seen again. They keep getting bigger. It's about connectivity and belonging and ostracism and many other interesting concepts. Unfortunately, the conclusion also seemed to disappear. I wasn't entirely sure where Prescott ended up with this one. Maybe that was the point. Maybe I missed the point. There's great writing here, I was often transfixed, but ultimately the conclusion lost me.

Great, but Dry:

Our Wild Calling, by Richard Louv

I love me a good nature book. Subtitled How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives, the premise of this one grabbed me at the start. Within, Louv explores our powerful bonds with nature and animals and how they can "transform our mental, physical, and spiritual lives, serve as an antidote to the growing epidemic of human loneliness, and help us tap into the empathy required to preserve life on Earth." Unfortunately, the writing felt more like a textbook or treatise than a narrative. I realize it's non-fiction, but putting a story to a non-fiction premise makes it more accessible to those who aren't necessarily part of the sciences. A good and interesting work, but perhaps not for everyone.


Where There's a Will, by Emily Chappell

I have to take a good part of the hit on this one. I was really looking forward to this memoir by Emily Chappell, relaying the epic story of her efforts to win the Transcontinental bike race, a 4,000km trek across Europe, unassisted. During her first attempt, she failed, regaining consciousness lying on her back in a field. I love stories of people fighting against the elements and the limits of the human mind and body. For some reason, the start of this one (with Chappell coming to in the field) was really confusing and I had an immediate disconnect. Again, I think this was me and I picked this up at the wrong time, but the entry was not a smooth one. I'll give it another go one of these days.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

THE OTHER MRS. :: Mary Kubica

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

"I'm not going to tell you everything. Just the things I think you should know." These thoughts from the mind of a Mary Kubica character perfectly encapsulate her maddeningly tantalizing style. The Other Mrs., her fifth standalone thriller, solidifies Kubica (When the Lights Go Out) as a master of the multi-perspective mind-twister.

Sadie and Will Foust leave plenty behind in Chicago when they relocate to Portland, Maine--most of it bad: Will's affair, Sadie's legal problems at work and oldest son Otto's expulsion from school. Unfortunately, their "fresh start" is marred by its own troubles. The home bequeathed to them by Will's sister, who hung herself in the attic, comes with his openly hostile teen niece. There's history they just can't shake, including threatening messages, inklings of Will's infidelities and Sadie's random disappearing acts. When a neighbor is murdered, all signs point to something amiss in the Foust home.

Kubica dangles bits of bait only to yank them from view and replace them with three more. Despite the swirl of characters and activity, past and present, the narrative always feels under control. Its outlandishness is a purposeful, compelling level of chaos that Kubica deftly manipulates. Through the voices of Sadie, Camille (Will's former mistress) and a mysterious, mistreated girl nicknamed Mouse, Kubica doles out a psychological whopper of a tale. The Other Mrs. is a roller coaster with tracks that dip from view and turn unexpectedly, creating unease enhanced by a compulsion to race forward for an answer to the burning question: "Who is Mouse?"

Friday, March 13, 2020

WHEN YOU SEE ME :: Lisa Gardner

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

Hang on tight, the branches of Lisa Gardner's literary family tree are becoming wonderfully twisted. After more than 15 years of writing about (mostly) female law enforcement protagonists, Gardner (Never Tell) still finds new ways to push the boundaries of her series and characters. When You See Me features Gardner's most prolific heroine, Boston Homicide Detective D.D. Warren. Flora Dane, introduced as an abduction survivor in one of D.D.'s recent cases, continues in her third straight entry as an informant, providing insight to D.D. from the "victim" perspective.

New to this mix is FBI Agent Kimberly Quincy, who has appeared in other books, solo and with her father, part of the Quincy & Rainie Profiler series. The joining of so many characters is plot-specific and feels organic. Quincy's investigation into a set of human remains uncovers a connection to Flora's infamous abductor. D.D. and Flora's knowledge is an incredible asset, so Quincy assembles the team in the hills of an insular Georgia town to find answers and deal with long-hidden demons.

Gardner presents the case through the lenses of D.D., Flora, Kimberly and a wonderfully rendered mute girl in peril. The author melds and shifts perspectives superbly to move the investigation forward. The final push is rushed and a touch theatrical, but her powerful character work carries the day. Despite extensive history, these women are always evolving. Gardner brings them together in a tour de force and provides answers to questions from prior cases while still masterfully generating a yen for more.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

SMACKED :: Eilene Zimmerman

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

Eilene Zimmerman was fooled. Not foolish--family and friends of countless addicts don't see the signs, or accept their more inoffensive explanations. How could a wildly successful, professional father of two fall prey to addiction? In her intensely raw memoir, Smacked, Zimmerman proceeds through her denial step by painful step, leading up to the morning she finds her ex-husband dead on his bathroom floor. Even then, her eyes don't take in the bloody hole in Peter's arm or the drug detritus strewn about his bedroom. It takes reviewing the pathology report and police scene photos for his hidden reality to smack her in the face.

Following the devastating discovery of Peter's body, Zimmerman goes back in time to their meeting, courtship, marriage and eventual divorce. The early details, initially feeling superfluous, eventually make sense as part and parcel of the warnings of and particulars behind Peter's deterioration. Zimmerman deftly paints the portrait of a complicated and tortured man, essential to understanding addicts as fellow flawed humans.

Zimmerman keeps herself and her children afloat through their grief and guilt by trying to understand how they could have been so "blind." She talks to other survivors, clinicians and white-collar addicts, delves into addiction and occupation studies, and sheds important light on the toxicity of the law, technology and other high-pressure careers. Professionals finding it increasingly easier to kill themselves (via drugs and/or suicide) rather than quit their jobs is a current societal trend Zimmerman lived through, investigated and shares bravely.

Friday, February 28, 2020


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

Joan Didion has long been a symbol of literary and cultural cool. Marked by a pervasive sense of place, particularly her native California, Didion's writing created what style and culture writer Steffie Nelson felt as a "visceral pull" to Los Angeles. Nelson, former editor-in-chief of Pasadena magazine, further sensed Didion's impact while organizing a literary event examining the "promise of the West." Conversations with other writers "who had also migrated to the City of Angels with their creased copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (Didion's 1968 collection of pieces on California counterculture) buttressed Nelson's belief that "every writer in Los Angeles probably had something to say about Joan Didion." She has now gathered them together to say it.

Slouching Towards Los Angeles contains 25 essays by writers, editors and journalists, 20 of whom are women, "a ratio [Didion] helped make possible." Wide-ranging in subject, "perhaps even a little schizophrenic," these entries speak to the influence Didion's multi-faceted legacy had on each author's personal encounters with the Western United States. Whether contemplating a particular Didion essay, a public interaction, a lesson learned, an architectural marvel, an iconic photograph or a '60s benchmark (the Manson murders make multiple appearances), the pieces reflect Didion's depth of substance and unflappability.

Didion enthusiasts will experience themes through sharp and clever new lenses. Newcomers to the canon will likely be moved to acquaint themselves. Nelson's "love letter and thank you note, personal memoir and social commentary, cultural history and literary critique" is an eccentric trip through Didion's California.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

MOLLY BIT :: Dan Bevacqua

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

Dan Bevacqua's Molly Bit is the stunning portrait of a young artist who has "it," the price she pays to triumph and the personal sacrifices of her success. Everyone at her college wants to be famous, including Molly Bit. At 19, she sees signs from the universe that she's one of the chosen and makes a promise to herself to "chop off the old, dead parts and come out new, to burn them off, if need be, like she was a house fire."

Told through third-person narrative installments that leapfrog through her timeline (college in 1993; dues, 1997; success, 2001; etc.), Molly is well-drawn but also inaccessible--readers know her, yet she could be almost any aspiring celebrity on the rise. Molly's stardom breeds the need for bodyguards. Bevacqua is her literary bodyguard, using the arm's length he's constructed to masterful effect as Molly's life widens and contracts simultaneously. As tragedy befalls her ("You can't escape the confines of a traditional narrative story arc in a life like Molly Bit's"), the point of view shifts to one of Molly's oldest friends and the mystery of her demise.

Bevacqua's debut novel is compelling on multiple fronts. A pseudo-character study, it is a deeper examination of moviemaking, fame, violence and power, balanced by Bevacqua's wit. With descriptors that often reflect the celebrity absurd ("Finals exhaustion had lifted like a face peel." "A golden retriever bounded through the snow as if auditioning for a catalogue."), Molly Bit captivates as it lays bare the often-high costs of entertaining.

STREET SENSE: This is a quirky one - a character study, relationship piece and a look at Hollywood with a mystery wrapped in. I liked how Bevacqua told the story in pieces. I'll definitely check out his next offering.

COVER NERD SAYS: If you can pass up a clever take on the Hollywood sign at sunset, you're a stronger reader than I.

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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