Tuesday, April 24, 2018

NO WAY HOME :: Tyler Wetherall

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

Tyler Wetherall is spending her 12th birthday in St. Lucia with her father and older sister when the ever-looming phone call comes—authorities have tracked their fugitive father to his not-so-secret location and the girls need to escape back to their mother in London immediately. In No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run, editor and creative writing instructor Wetherall artfully shares her life in pieces—from early days living as something resembling a family unit to adolescent years filled with secrecy and surveillance while separated from her on-the-run father and finally her adult efforts to learn and come to terms with the family legacy.

The first half of Wetherall’s memoir reads like emotionally-exhausting spy fiction. By age nine, she has lived in thirteen houses in five countries on two continents, yet knows nothing of fake identities or legal problems. Reliving the accounts of the three siblings as they begin to suss out the family secret is thrilling and gut-wrenching. Filled with clandestine phone calls, dark sedan tails and surprise visits from black-coated authorities, Wetherall, a journaler from a young age, infuses her early memories with a riveting presence of thought and perception.

Neither Wetherall nor the reader know her father’s true story until after his arrest. Aided by his 300,000-word prison treatise, Wetherall reveals the ongoing saga behind the screens her parents employed to protect their children. Although lacking the emotional resonance of Wetherall's childhood account, her father's impact on the relationships, dynamics and paths of the family lends completeness to an undeniably fascinating work.

STREET SENSE: In a memoir worthy of the big screen, the author shares insight and details into her family's life on the run as her father is pursued by the FBI and Scotland Yard. A breath-taking first half slows down in the present-day retelling from the author's father's perspective, but the whole is an incredibly worthy endeavor.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  While on the run, Mom used to travel in a floor-length pink fake fur coat. She argued that no one could suspect a woman dressed so outrageously of having anything to hide. She looked formidable with her five-foot-ten-inch height in a blaze of fuchsia topped by her now-blond cropped hair, yet so thin, the brittle birdlike bones in her neck pushed tight against her skin, making her look like a sorrowful bird of paradise.

(Here's a bonus quote since I loved Wetherall's mother and this is some of the best life advice ever: "Mom said it was important to do laundry badly or people might expect it from you, and if a man ever asked us to iron his shirt, we should immediately burn a hole through it, so he'd never ask again.")

COVER NERD SAYS: I found this cover somewhat intriguing despite a color palette that doesn't really speak to me. It does speak to a broken film frame, which I appreciate, but for some reason that pinkish color at the bottom does me in. Totally subjective, I'm just not a pink person and for me it doesn't evoke all the great stuff inside this book. I also thought the subtitle should, in this case, have been a bit bigger, since it's the pull and the payoff. Apparently I'm cranky(er) today, as this cover is really quite fine, just not in my wheelhouse. I'd still pick the book up from a display table, so the artwork did its job, even on this curmudgeonly non-pink person.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

I'LL KEEP YOU SAFE :: Peter May

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

While in Paris for an international fabric fair, Niamh Macfarlane accuses her husband and business partner, Ruairidh, of having an affair with fashion designer Irina Vetrov. He vehemently denies being unfaithful and storms out of their hotel, only to be picked up by Vetrov and driven away in her Mercedes as Niamh looks on. Distraught, Niamh rushes to chase after them and is rocked by an explosion that obliterates the Mercedes.

Niamh is dumbstruck by the bombing and its odd aftermath, including missing belongings, mysterious phone calls and a sudden visit from a long-estranged friend and business associate. Her return home to the Hebrides does not bring normalcy, and clues to Ruairidh's death are cleverly woven into the timeline via flashbacks to the couple's shared childhood and tragic inter-family drama. 

I'll Keep You Safe, a standalone thriller from Peter May, starts with a bang, and continues as a twisty slow burn that explores decades of history between Niamh and Ruairidh, their families, associates and friends. May treats his readers as intelligent and curious, writing in English, French and Scots Gaelic, and using local jargon, adding to the atmosphere and authenticity.

As always, May brings a glorious sense of place to the narrative. To read Peter May is to believe Mother Nature invented the Hebrides for him to describe them. His storytelling overshadows a few errant plot arcs and some bent boundaries of believability, resulting in an entrancing tale of romance and intrigue.

STREET SENSE: Decades of tragedy and romance unfold as the backdrop to the mysterious death of a husband accused of betrayal. This is not my favorite of May's works and while I loved the family history and mystery aspects, it took off on some arcs that just weren't for me. Overall, it's still Peter F'ing May.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  This passage is part of a description of a house built by Niamh and Ruairidh with curved windows that overlook the ocean:

In architect had been concerned by the size of the windows that Niamh and Ruairidh demanded. In the end he had come up with a design that divided the view into five still-life paintings which together framed the panorama. Except that these paintings were never still. They spooled an ever-changing movie of seascape illuminated by sunlight or moonlight, dramatized by a sky that sometimes raged, sometimes smiled, and often glowered.

COVER NERD SAYS: The covers of Peter May's work have become so distinctive that one could cover up the words and make a fairly educated guess who wrote the book. In this instance, that's a good thing, as the black and white images, usually of the Hebrides, are normally fantastic. Even on those occasions when a color image is used, the stark, haunting effect remains.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

THE CITY WHERE WE ONCE LIVED :: Eric Barnes

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

Allowed to continue unchecked, climate change and growing lack of compassion could most certainly play out as they do in Eric Barnes's prescient third novel, The City Where We Once Lived. Barnes has constructed an intricate apocalyptic world that frighteningly mirrors present-day reality.

Ravaged by weather and industrial decline, North End is down to 2,000 stalwart residents who did not relocate to thriving South End. North End is viewed as a lawless land of isolationists and scavengers stripping it to its core; its people cultivate that fa├žade to discourage trouble-seeking South Enders from traversing the remaining overpass into their peaceful domain.

Barnes provides a haunting portrait of the future through the eyes of a narrator who spends his days memorializing North End for the eight-page newspaper. Living in a deserted hotel, the narrator describes his daily excursions and increasing interactions with new people in the area. Some evoke hope, while others threaten the order--evidence South End may not be as stable as it appears.

When tragedy strikes, the haves are forced to rely on the have-nots, further bridging North and South Ends in a way neither populace desires. Through stark yet intimate prose, Barnes explores themes of separatism and displacement and how the lenses we look through are often distorted by lack of connection and empathy. He offers a cautionary tale about a world that feels a hair's-breadth away.

STREET SENSE:  An intimate glimpse into a near-future "quiet Armageddon," where neighboring cities are threatened by changing climate, exposure to toxic chemicals and the decline of purpose and value. I loved the underlying messages in this book so much. I requested the assignment because of the cover and was blown away by the innards.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE (OR TWO):  The people of the South End aren't aware that their own community is dying, too, that their existence is colorless and indistinct, filled with tasks like navigating traffic and making money to pay for bigger plastic homes farther from the crowded neighborhoods they already want to leave behind as they keep pushing to build new places even farther to the south, always shutting down their own failed neighborhoods and driving good people away.

Even now we are subject to the failings of the South End. First their combined decision to give up on this place where we still choose to live. Then their collective effort to forget us. And now the weakness of the community they've built as a replacement to the North End leaves these kids with no purpose and no value, pushing them across the overpass not to explore but to cause trouble. To finally wreak havoc on anyone they find.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I wanted to know about the titular city as soon as I got a look at this cover. That's good cover work. The change in tones and font color only added to the attraction. You just know there is something haunting inside.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

BACHELOR NATION :: Amy Kaufman

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

How did a reality-based television show that pits 25-30 media-defined perfect people against each other to "win" (i.e., become engaged to) a person of the opposite sex after six weeks of "dating" capture the cultural zeitgeist? There are varied answers to that question, but the one unshakable fact is that The Bachelor franchise (The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise, etc…) is still going strong in its 16th year (35 seasons of bachelors and bachelorettes combined).

In her expose, Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America's Favorite Guilty Pleasure, Los Angeles Times staff writer Amy Kaufman, herself a proud devotee, delves into the hows and whys of a wildly popular guilty pleasure. Kaufman interviewed former contestants and production members to provide first-hand behind-the-scenes details about what goes on during pre-production, under the lights (and sometimes the covers) and in post-season fallout.

There are many intriguing facets to reality television and Kaufman skillfully hits a sweet spot between breadth and depth. Bachelor Nation provides insight into the beginnings of reality dating shows, their evolution over the decades and how an audience of tens of millions rationalizes its dedication to a genre that mostly horrifies critics.

Knowing her audience, Kaufman smartly provides salacious details fans yearn for while still addressing complex issues such as historical male and female stereotypes, the somewhat inherent conflict between female viewership and feminism, producer manipulation and the role dopamine may play in how events unfold. A must for members of Bachelor Nation, Kaufman's work will also appeal to students of the sociology of television.

STREET SENSE: A fun and interesting look inside reality dating television, its fandom and fallout from the point of view of a pop culture professional and genre insider.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: So what's going on here? Are the contestants who go on the show--and the millions who watch them--really so wildly different from the so-called average young American? I don't think so. Because while the rules of the dating world may be shifting, the media--for better or worse--still propagates the idea that your worth as a woman is cemented when a man loves you enough to marry you...Then, on the other hand, there's all this single-ladies stuff and a celebration of independent women and not necessarily needing a man...I think women are straddling a set of contradictions here that are much greater than [those that] many generations had to navigate.

I laughed out loud at this tidbit (mostly because it's so damn true) from one of the short guest entries by celebrity viewers:

It's kind of awful to watch the show. And it's the thing I most look forward to every week. It's fucked up. ~Amy Schumer

COVER NERD SAYS: What other cover image would work here? Smart, clean, eye-catching. This is great cover work, particularly when, considering the subject matter, it could so easily have been way overdone.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

FORCE OF NATURE :: Jane Harper

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

Australian Jane Harper took the mystery genre by storm with her debut, The Dry, which won numerous awards (Gold ABIA Book of the Year, Gold Dagger Crime Novel of the Year and Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction to name a few) and is being made into a motion picture. With Force of Nature, the stellar second entry in her Federal Agent Aaron Falk series, Harper has swerved about as far around a sophomore slump as one can get.

The briefest dip into the prologue results in stomach-tightening anticipation that begs the reading to continue: "Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No-one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you." Alice's failure to make the rendezvous point following a corporate retreat in the vast Giralang Ranges outside Melbourne--"land that was reluctant to let anything escape"--is of keen interest to Falk and his new partner; she is the key to their high-pressure investigation into her employer.

Still smarting from the events of The Dry, Falk heads to the dense forest to observe the search and interview the co-workers who returned without Alice, each with their own version of events. Although Falk is mostly outside the hunt and remains enigmatic, Harper skillfully uses him and retreat-participant flashbacks as perfect story lenses. Energy and atmosphere infuse the narrative as professional and personal relationships are mined for clues to determine Alice's ultimate fate.

STREET SENSE: I was impressed with Harper's use of her main protagonist mostly as an observer in the investigation which is the center of the book. I found it an interesting and somewhat ballsy choice, especially in the second book of a series, where the audience is still getting to know the character and there's so much to mine within him alone. The story didn't suffer one iota, and Harper still revealed more of Falk's innards, which keeps him as a developing character readers will want to revisit.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  This last bit of the book's prologue helped hook me: In the chaos, in the night, it was impossible to say which of the four women had asked after Alice's welfare. Later, when everything got worse, each would insist it had been them.

COVER NERD SAYS:  The cover is both nothing spectacular and eye-catching at the same time. It didn't tell me a lot about what might be inside, but the image, color palette and strong fonts are sufficient to intrigue. What I like most about the cover is that it goes well with The Dry, below, which is a great way to bring reader recognition to an ongoing series.


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

TWO-CENT TUESDAY

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.

The Devil At Your Door, by Eric Beetner

The final installment in the Lars and Shaine trilogy finds Lars leaving Shaine behind in Hawaii to perform one last hit. This time, it's about as personal as hits can get, with Lars determined to take out his former employer and the man behind the death of Shaine's father. That job is the reason Lars and Shaine ended up together, but Lars isn't sure how great that result was for Shaine. Maybe taking Nikki out will be a satisfying final act in Lars's professional life. Of course things go sideways and Beetner takes readers on another fun and violent ride through a gauntlet of bad actors. You think you might know how it all turns out, but you can never trust that Eric isn't going to pull a crazed rabbit out of his bag of tricks. The Devil At Your Door is a fitting end to a fun series, complete with snazzy new cover work.


Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?, by Alyssa Mastromonaco

I was not too familiar with Alyssa Mastromonaco when I decided to read this one, but it didn't take long to figure out she's a badass despite her mastery of self-deprecation. Deciding early on she wanted to be involved in public service, Mastromonaco started working for Barack Obama in his Chicago days and spent more than a decade with him, eventually holding the position of Deputy Chief of Staff (seemingly by the time she was about 12-years-old); this woman is seriously fabulous. She's also hilarious and glaringly open. Some of the fixes she found herself in feel straight from a situation comedy, yet she had to go through them with the President, White House staff and often the whole world watching. Super smart and inspiring, it's also a little depressing. It made me miss Barack Obama and wonder what the hell I was doing with my life when I might have thought about taking a shot at reading People magazine on a road trip with the President. At least now I can do it vicariously.

The Man In The Crooked Hat, by Harry Dolan

I've long been a fan of Harry Dolan, so I'm not sure why I was reluctant to read his latest. The cover, title and cover copy didn't really speak to me, but thankfully I let my history with the author do the talking and gave it a go. Dolan is a master plotter and this is one twisty ride. Former cop Jack Pellum's wife was murdered and the only clue he thinks he has is the sighting of a man in a crooked hat near the scene. Working privately, Jack is determined to find her killer. It may seem impossible to pull off an investigation with such a vague clue (probably part of what made me hesitant), but Dolan succeeds fantastically. I don't think I gave this even one minor eye-roll, which is no small feat when the plot is quite intricate and Dolan lets his readers know who the murderer is early on. He proves it's all in the getting there, and this is one great ride.

The 57 Bus, by Dashka Slater

This Young Adult non-fiction offering was on my radar for two reasons. First, it took place in Oakland, California, the city neighboring my own. Second, it deals with violence against the LGBTQ community, a subject that, while difficult to read about, screams to be given a voice. Subtitled A True Story of Two Teenagers And The Crime That Changed Their Lives, The 57 Bus is where the paths of high school students Richard and Sasha crossed each day for a matter of minutes. Richard is black and attends a public high school in a tougher neighborhood, but still in one of the most diverse and tolerant cities in America. Sasha is white, middle-class, and attends a small private school. Sasha, who is agender, is wearing a mix of clothing that includes a pageboy cap and a gauzy white skirt. What might have caused Richard to put a lighter to the edge of that skirt on a particular afternoon and the fallout from his crime is the subject of this emotional account of a senseless, random, and seemingly out-of-character act that changed numerous lives.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

BRASS :: Xhenet Aliu

Brass /bras/ Def: Brazen self-assurance. Syn: audacity brashness cheek chutzpah confidence effrontery gall impertinence impudence insolence presumption.

I've been so effusive about the 2018 titles I've read thus far my curmudgeonly street cred is taking a hit. All of them, however, have been deserving of the praise, none less so than Xhenet Aliu's striking debut, Brass.

 Aliu hales from Waterbury, Connecticut, a town that attracted large waves of Eastern Europeans while its brass factories were humming along in the late 20th Century. Her father was Albanian, her mother Lithuanian American.

The author's background heavily informs the characters in Brass, set in Waterbury after the economic downturn of the 70s and 80s. A two-fer on the kickass coming-of-age front, Brass opens with 19-year-old Elsie, who lives with her alcoholic Lithuanian mother and younger sister. Desperate to rise above in a town no one seems able to escape, Elsie works as a waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, owned and operated by a local Albanian family. There she is drawn to Bashkim, with his sweet talk and money-making schemes, despite the wife he has back in his homeland.

The second timeline belongs to Elsie's 17-year-old daughter Luljeta, "latest in a line of fatherless daughters." Luljeta lives with her mother and longs to get out of Waterbury just like Elsie before her. As Brass opens, Luljeta finds herself at a crossroads, having failed to get into NYU and feeling rage at the world. Her life was supposed to be about proving she's unlike her loser father and over-bearing mother and NYU's rejection serves as a stark reminder she can't beat nature.

Within these themes of difficult mothers and fatherless daughters, Aliu writes in two strong and brassy female voices I will not soon forget. Whether intentional or not, I adored the fact that I would occasionally have to remind myself who I was listening to, Elsie or Luljeta. As much as we try to break free and as hard as we may rail against our mothers, are we destined to become them? If this was on purpose, I found it genius. If not, then I may be a bit of a maroon, so I prefer to think the former.

Aliu's language is whip-smart whether it's inducing laughter or scooping out innards like a melon-baller. I had great appreciation for the title symbolism, the prose is full of more brass than Waterbury's factories ever produced. My favorite writing is a mix of short bursts of beauty or snark and well-crafted run-ons. Aliu nails that style. I had so many f'ing book darts in this one I'm going to make it easy on myself and give you some snippets from just the first thirty or so pages:

Some people won't be surprised at the fuckery of which you're about to prove yourself capable.

Your mother, of course, is the one who rails, because she's the railer, the kind of tough broad represented exclusively by natural brunettes in the movies. She could have a second career as the before picture in Botox ads, because even when she smiles, which she manages to do occasionally, the parallel lines etched between her eyes remain, making it clear which of the emotions dominate her life.

On the NYU rejection letter:

...the email you now understand as the universe's final hint you are not what you have been promised  by aspirational posters in the public library you could someday be...

After a school fight:

He remains behind in the nurse's office to bring down his blood pressure after you've been ice-packed, ibuprofened, and shuffled along to the assistant principal, where you sit alone for twenty minutes, hallucinating you're sitting behind one-way glass, waiting to point out Margarita to Jerry Orbach, who'll send her along to Sam Waterston, who'll get her to break down on the stand and confess to her theft of your math work sheet and her multiple abortions and her hate crimes against European camel jockeys, yelling that she would've gotten away with it, too, if not for you meddling kids. By the time you realize you're conflating Law & Order with Scooby-Doo, two syndicated shows you watch in succession every time you stay home sick from school, you're joined not by any members of New York's finest but by the assistant principal and your own mother. It's then that the warm opiate blanket covering your body's pain receptors is snatched off, and the fact of Margarita's practiced fist on your eye socket is fully realized. 
Seriously, kids, this is just stellar, stellar stuff. I read and reread and grinned like an idiot throughout. Don't get me wrong, the story is serious and difficult and thought-provoking, but it's done with such a sly grin on the side you can't help but enjoy the ride to the fullest. Brass is the debut of an astounding new voice in fiction.

STREET SENSE: If you like your writing strong and smart with an edge, you can't go wrong here. Plus, anyone who sneaks great pop culture references into their works gets extra points from me.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I cheated a bit by using a few above, but I really did use almost a whole tin of book darts to mark passages. I once again took the easy way out and randomly turned to a marker at the back of the book, which turned out to be perfect:

I'm sure she also said something like I hope someday you have a daughter just like you, and I probably rolled my eyes about it, that oldest of curses that, it turns out, is also the only one you need to be afraid of.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I almost made a fatal error. I saw the cover of Brass on NetGalley and it immediately caught my eye as a book that, if the cover art was on point, would be right in my wheelhouse. But my review schedule was busy, so I didn't request a copy. Then The Book Gods smiled on me and the publisher sent me a copy and you've seen how that panned out. I can't even really tell you exactly what it is about this cover that speaks to me. Maybe nostalgia. The dated cars and clothes (which are actually probably back in style by now, but that knowledge is above my fashion pay grade), the sepia tone, the body language of the young woman pictured. It all screams both soft and gritty, beauty and hard times. Most importantly, it is true to the content and I love everything about it.







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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