Tuesday, November 14, 2017

THE SAVAGE :: Frank Bill

When Frank Bill writes something new I pay little attention to what it is, I just sign up and strap in. When I cracked open The Savage, I was immediately taken aback and gleefully entranced. Frank Bill, master of the nitty-gritty here and now of working class America is taking on the nitty-gritty of a future gone horribly awry. It's a very timely look at an America that might have seemed untenable a mere year ago, but now feels like an all-too-near fork in the road.

A follow-up to the bare-knuckled badassery of Donnybrook (currently being made into a motion picture, praise 9 pound, 8 ounce sweet baby Jesus), The Savage is set only several years on but light years away. The U.S. dollar is worthless, the power grid useless and power-and-land-hungry hordes are savaging what and who remains.

Against a kill-or-be-killed backdrop, Bill explores the competing interests of (mostly) men living in the madness and how they survive in light of their histories and what type of men their respective fathers taught them to be. One of the things I love about Frank Bill is the reverence he pays to those who work with their hands and ply a trade. The theme of how sad and dangerous it is to continue to destroy and leave that part of us behind runs deep in his writing.

The Savage is soaked in vengeance and unapologetic violence, and Bill easily holds the World Record for the number of different ways to describe a bullet separating mind from matter. His form and cadence vary like jabs and hooks and stray gloriously from the "norm," always with a sure foot beneath them. As cliche as it is to say Bill has a unique voice, I have a hard time describing his style. The best I can do is to liken it to watching Ali fight or listening to him speak. It is a savage ballet that twists your brain with its creativity and leaves you in wonderment. 

STREET SENSE: If you're a fan of the grit lit, do not hesitate, Frank Bill is a master.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I really want to list a few of my favorite bullet-meets-bone descriptions, but those should not be spoiled. I used almost a full tin of book darts marking passages in this book, and to avoid having to make a difficult choice I'm going to quote from the opening, which provides a look at what goes down for the next (almost) 400 glorious pages.

They wanted change, so they'd taken out the grids, the world's power switch, eliminating lights, sounds, and anything that warranted electricity and what followed was the images of men being kneeled in front of women and children, homes besieged by flame, a pistol or rifle indenting a face enraged by fear, hurt, and anger. Trigger pulled. Brain, skull, and hair fertilizing the soil with departure. One man's life taken by another without mercy.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I was pulled to this cover at first sight. It's simple yet piques the curiosity. I'm always a fan of clean, stark imagery, and this cover does that superbly while also pairing well with the paperback cover of Donnybrook. I might have been able to nail this as a Frank Bill book just by looking, and that's a good thing.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I CAN'T BREATHE :: To Review or Not Review?

I Can't Breathe is an expose that details the before and after of Eric Garner's murder at the hands of the NYPD. The author delves into myriad issues impacting police culture in New York in general and Staten Island in particular. Politics, culture, race and money all worked together to create a perfect storm of injustice that cost Eric Garner his life.

It's an even-handed account--Garner is not portrayed as a saint. He was as flawed as any man, but one who was almost universally liked and non-violent. Garner worked hard to provide for his family (often to his own detriment) and was a neighborhood fixture on Bay Street where he sold smuggled cigarettes. It's an important story, impressively researched and very well written considering the scope it undertakes.

So what's the problem? The problem is that as I sat down to write a review I saw this article about the author, who worked as a journalist in Russia many years ago. He was apparently also a ginormous asshole, misogynist and perpetrator of sexual assault (and maybe more) against women and perhaps underage girls. His antics are all proudly documented in a memoir he wrote with another journalist about their time in Russia.

He may now claim the memoir was satire, but I'm not sure I care and I'm not buying it regardless. Even as satire it was a supposedly non-fiction work that glorified the assault and denigration of women and children. A quick look-see on Twitter evidences a history of harassment and misogynistic behavior on the author's part since the memoir's publication, which pretty much brings the lie to the satire claim, methinks. So. Here I sat, stuck between the rock of promoting the work of an asshole and the hard place of not promoting an important piece of non-fiction.

I had decided to do nothing, but as I sat with that decision, the inaction bothered me. If this was a work of fiction, the answer would be easy. But it's not. It's an in-depth investigative report on a state of affairs in this country that is costing lives. What I decided to do is this: I am strongly encouraging you to read the book. I'm also encouraging you, even more strongly, not to buy it. Support your local library and borrow a copy instead.

It's no mistake I don't mention the author's name in this "review." That was intentional. Probably silly, particularly since it's right there on the cover image, but it's my own minor protest. In the end, we're all adults and you can make your own determination as to whether you want to put your money into the furtherance of this author's work. On my scorecard, he is a special kind of heinous that shouldn't be rewarded. Once again Eric Garner deserved better.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

NOMADLAND :: Jessica Bruder

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

In preparation for writing Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder immersed herself in a new American subculture: the houseless. These "vandwellers" are individuals and families who for myriad reasons have ended up on wheels. Far from carefree RVers, these are folks for whom the American dream has been proven a con, and they make ends meet by doing itinerant work across the country.

The practice of giving up real estate for "wheel estate" has increased exponentially in recent years, following stock market crashes, the housing crisis and increasing economic risks faced by American families. Having to choose between food or electricity, health care or warm clothes, these nomads live in converted vans, campers, even Priuses. Many thrive while surviving day-to-day, but being a "workamper" is no easy ride.

Skewing older (many are in their 60s or 70s and have lost their retirement funds) and subject to "harsh migrant labor treatment," they are nevertheless sought-after workers due to their experience and reliability. Amazon has unsurprisingly taken advantage of this shadow economy, setting up company towns and recruiting its own "Camperforce," for whom long, difficult hours and low pay are the reward.

Joining them in Halen--a converted van (the subculture is strong with vehicle puns)--Bruder became intimately knowledgeable about this often heartwarming mobile community that blurs class lines. She writes with a steady and thoughtful hand about the frightening consequences when long-held social contracts are breached and upheaval becomes the new American normal, and exposes their underbelly with grace and heart.

STREET SENSE:  A well-written and researched look at a microcosm of Americans who have taken up a life on wheels in order to survive national economic crises. High recommended.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  [F]or them--as for anyone--survival isn't enough. So what began as a last-ditch effort has become a battle cry for something greater. Being human means yearning for more than subsistence. As much as food or shelter, we require hope. And there is hope on the road. It's a by-product of forward momentum. A sense of opportunity, as wide as the country itself. A bone-deep conviction that something better will come. It's just ahead, in the next town, the next gig, the next chance encounter with a stranger.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover is perfection in my book. The art work, the color palette, type face and spacing are all pleasing to the eye and give the viewer an at-at-glance idea of what they might get inside. Although the whole does not address the community many nomads experience on the road, the constant shift and upheaval does provide an overwhelming sense of solitariness that is exemplified in this image. This is one of my favorite covers of the year.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

BAD KANSAS :: Becky Mandelbaum

A version of this review previously ran in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission. Bad Kansas published on September 15, 2017 and is available in paperback now.

The first stories in Becky Mandelbaum's Flannery O'Connor Award-winning collection Bad Kansas ingeniously lay the foundation for the yearning and disconnect that weave through the compilation. In the openers, California is seen as nirvana, superior to Kansas in every way. Being in Kansas is akin to missing a better life; better food, politics, weather and people.

In her insightful and sometimes darkly comic pieces on loving and being loved, trying desperately to attain love or deal with its elusiveness, Mandelbaum uses disparate geography as a metaphor for the interpersonal divides love can't always conquer. A Kansas couple's incompatibility is only highlighted by a move to the supposed Golden State; a teen new to Wichita learns cliques are universal and flyover states not immune to class structure; and a man who relocates to be with a woman discovers his Kansas self isn't who either of them wants.

With an assured style, mixing in lyricism, wit and black humor, Mandelbaum dissects the mindset that "nicer" places bring nicer things and unhappiness is tied to where rather than who you are. The author also slyly works in moments that turn the initial premise on its head: a Kansas woman disenchanted with California's "perfect" weather likens mountain snow to a museum relic: "I want it to actually snow…I want the sky to do something." Another Kansan, familiar with a multitude of insects, is undone by a "Kafkaesque" California cockroach.  Engaging from start to finish, Bad Kansas is a smart, insightful debut.

STREET SENSE: A smart and pointed debut story collection about love and happiness viewed through the geographic lens of Kansas, its inhabitants and transplants.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Take it from a born and bred California girl who had to spend a few years in Kansas. I had no choice but to share this oh-so-true gem:

The old man laughed. "You can't take a girl from California and stick her in Kansas. It'd be like putting a fish in a tree."

COVER NERD SAYS:  I asked to review this book based on the title and cover alone and it turned another of those occasions where my gut paid off. Then this weird thing happened. I was sitting outside reading it and, having not seen a grasshopper in over a year (at least), this guy kept following me around. You'll have to take my word for the fact that there's a grasshopper in that little circle there. Creepy.

Monday, October 9, 2017

INHERIT THE BONES :: Emily Littlejohn

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission. The paperback edition comes out on October 24, 2017.

"This town loses more good boys than it keeps."

Fair warning: this book includes a clown. The clown is good and dead, if that helps, and it's Deputy Gemma Monroe's job to figure out who killed him in Emily Littlejohn's fantastic debut mystery, Inherit the Bones. When the identity of the traveling circus performer is discovered, the small town of Cedar Valley, Colorado is rocked by secrets that have been buried for decades.

In the summer of 1985, young cousins Tommy and Andrew McKenzie disappeared. That same summer, a woman's body was found dumped on a riverbank. Neither mystery was ever solved. More recently, the mayor's son slipped off a cliff and vanished into the raging water below, there one minute and gone the next. The dead clown is simply the newest addition to Cedar Valley's tragic history:

When tragedy strikes a small town, it leaves a scar that never heals. Months and years may pass and the scar may fade, but it never goes away. It becomes part of the town, marking it as different, a permanent reminder of what may have been, what could have been.

Along with a partner she doesn't fully trust and a freshly minted recruit, a very pregnant Gemma must mine the town's past crimes in order to solve its most recent. There's always danger to be had when digging up old secrets in a small town, and the investigation will heap more misfortune on everyone attached to them before it's over.

Inherit the Bones is a super debut that will leave readers wanting more from Littlejohn's impressively diverse cast of characters (including a Native American deputy, a female medical examiner of Iranian descent and a Latino Chief), each presented with intriguing depth without distracting from the action. Littlejohn's prose deftly moves the investigation forward, yet is often laced with moments of insightful beauty:

Most of what remained of the posters were small corners and narrow strips of paper, the glue and tape pressed so hard to the telephone poles and storefront windows you could feel the panic and urgency with which they had been plastered up.

The story arcs grow perilously in number, and I was a bit concerned the whole was going to lose its boundaries and get muddled. Although a few plot lines still felt a bit extraneous, as if setting the stage for further installments in the series, Littlejohn did pull the mysteries together in fine fashion. This a group of characters I am anxious to revisit.

STREET SENSE: Debut mysteries are like mysteries inside mysteries. Is the author's writing style going to speak to me? Will the plot hold up substantively while keeping me interested? Will I want to invest in the characters? The answer to all of these questions in this instance are a resounding "Yes." Emily Littlejohn is an author that stays on my list.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  The poster quote above is actually my favorite, but this one is also a good'un (maybe simply because I hope it's true):

"The world is full of monsters. It always has been. For every monster, there are a hundred heroes. Mankind simply could not survive if the bad guys outnumbered the good guys; you know that, you live that truth every day in your chosen field."

COVER NERD SAYS: This was a rare instance where I didn't pick the book by its cover. I hadn't seen the cover when I received it, but I think it's one that would have caught my eye. There's not much unique about a person/woman standing in the woods (the woman running from behind is actually getting a little tiresome in cover land), but I like the lack of focus in the image that evokes movement--not just movement, but urgent or frantic movement. It's the kind of touch that can turn a simple picture of a person in the woods into something interesting, making me want to crack the cover and see what's inside.

Friday, September 22, 2017

THIS IS SPINAL CRACK :: Goodbye, Vitamin Edition

Pop Culture Nerd and I often talk books. Just as often, we talk about putting our discussions in written form. We've only managed that once...but wait, make that twice! We are on a literary roll (mmm, rolls) and this time we even have a new title for our feature thanks to Mr. Pop Culture Nerd, who is a genius and entitled to a huge share of our non-existent royalties.

We recently both read and loved Rachel Khong's Goodbye, Vitamin, which is now the inaugural entry in what we hope will be a continued column. Rachel Khong's debut is a stellar read that will make you laugh and "nail you in the sweet spot." Press HERE to read our inanity in all its glory. Enjoy.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Below are a few (somewhat) brief, $.02 opinions about several books I've read or listened to recently but won't have time to review in full. Their appearance here has nothing to do with merit, I often enjoyed them as much or even more than those that got the full court press. I hope you'll consider one or two for your own TBR stack.

The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo :: Ian Stansel

Powerless to resist this gorgeous cover and intriguing title, I was not disappointed in the writing - I loved this book and all its moody darkness. Silas and Frank Van Loy are raised at their parents Western stables in the horse country of Marin County, California. When they take over the business they decide to switch to English style lessons and boarding to tap into the moneyed locals.

Both horsemen, one with a better head for business and the other with cowboy and horses in his bones, the brothers have always been at odds. Their fractures become wider and greater across the years and death is the ultimate result of their decades of warring. The story begins with one brother on the run on horseback, pursued by the police and a widowed sister-in-law set on revenge.

I listened to this book on audio and it was, interestingly enough, narrated by a woman, Jordan Killam, who did a wonderful job. I am not the best audio listener as I tend to lose the narration to my own thoughts, but here I was held rapt from start to gutting finish by Killam and Stansel. I'm a bit loathe to compare authors, but fans of Larry Watson and Kent Haruf in particular might enjoy this gem. I liked it enough I'm going to buy a copy for my shelf.

We Are Okay :: Nina LaCour

We Are Okay is simply lovely. Sad and heart-rending, yes, but it also includes countless beautiful moments of people being good to each other (lord knows we could all use a bit more of that right now). There are so many warm moments and grand gestures, and yet each is so well done that it didn't surprise me when the smallest of the bunch (a college roommate-to-roommate kindness) was the one that moved me most.

I believe this is technically billed as YA, but it's one of many that can and should be enjoyed by readers of all ages. The focus is on Marin, who ran off to her first year of college early and abruptly following a family tragedy. She then arranges to stay in the dorms over winter break rather than returning to home to San Francisco. Even on the other coast her grief is overwhelming and she doesn't think she can face the reality of her former life. Her best friend Mabel, however, is a true blue, through-thick-and-thin friend who isn't going to let her get away with hiding from those who love her.

LaCour is a terrific writer and this book is full of grief and grace. It takes place over the weekend of Mabel's visit to Marin in the dorms and slowly doles out Marin's story, including what made her run, stay gone and cut off all ties to home. On top of the fabulous innards and beautiful cover, I fell a bit in love with the chapter title pages. We Are Okay is a win from all angles.

Deer Life :: Ron Sexsmith

I wanted to like this book so very much. I really enjoy Ron Sexsmith's music and was intrigued that he had written a book. The cover is a work of art. Unfortunately that's where the good ends, and ends hard. Deer Life is billed as a fairy tale, but it was difficult to get a sense of what it wanted to be. The writing feels as if it's written for children, with a maddening overuse of exclamation points. I suppose this was an effort to show or elicit excitement, but the exclamations were used where the matching emotion didn't exist. It's one thing to overuse punctuation, but to use it nonsensically is even more irksome.

I started to think this was written for children, but the mentions of booze helped me conclude that wasn't the reason for the childish prose. There are moments of humor, but everything felt so frustratingly inconsistent they didn't save the story. Small example: After Deer 1 introduces itself to Deer 2, Deer 2 argues that names are silly. But then Deer 2 proceeds to talk about other forest denizens by the names Deer 2 has assigned to them. What the hell, then? Are names silly or necessary? This example is rather trivial, but in the grand scheme of things those examples added up. Sadly, I recommend you enjoy the cover and move on.

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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