Tuesday, August 15, 2017

TWO-CENT TUESDAY

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.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

TWO-CENT TUESDAY

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

Girl in Snow :: Danya Kukafka

The credit for putting this gem on my reading list all goes to the pitch. I had never heard of Danya Kukafka when I received an email about her debut, so her name didn't swing me one way or the other. I admit to being a cover nerd and am highly persuaded by them (in both directions). This one is half creepy (eyeball), half awesome (font and non-eyeball design). What easily won me over was this phrase in the description: "misfit characters are richly drawn." Thankfully, that turned out to be absolutely true.

The murder of 15-year-old Colorado high-schooler Lucinda Hayes is at the core of Kukafka's story, but it's not the center of attention. Rather, it's the jumping off point for three varied and exceptionally well-drawn perspectives. Fellow student Cameron is the prime suspect, as it's well known he had a "thing" for Lucinda, some even going so far as to call him a stalker. I won't give much about Cameron away here, but Kukafka's portrayal of a young outcast who spends most of his time in his head, with his sketchbook, or watching Lucinda through her window is one of the best "misfit" character studies I've read in some time.

Cameron has a historical connection to the police department and one of the officers investigating Lucinda's death. Russ, whose perspective is also highlighted, is wrangling with a faltering marriage, his dedication to his former partner, and the potential implication of his brother-in-law in the murder. Rounding out the trifecta of POVs is Jade, another student who knew Lucinda and had a history with her boyfriend. Jade's voice is strong, jaded (no pun intended), and sprinkled with excerpts from her play, "WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY BUT CAN'T WITHOUT BEING A DICK, A Screenplay by Jade Dixon-Burns."

Girl in Snow is a murder mystery wrapped in three splendid character studies that combine to create a compelling and well-paced plot. Although we don't learn much about Lucinda, this really isn't her story, but that of a few of her small town neighbors and how her death impacts their lives. I liked Kukafka's take and was impressed with how she carried it out.

The Perfect Stranger :: Megan Miranda

After becoming too personally involved in a story and making a decision that costs her a job, journalist Leah Stevens feels the need to get out of Boston. One night she runs into old friend Emmy Grey at a bar and they decide to set out together for rural Pennsylvania for dual fresh starts.

Leah gets a job as a teacher and the two settle into an old house outside town. Leah isn't always sure what Emmy is up to as their paths don't cross too often at home. Emmy appears busy with several odd jobs and a new man. One morning a woman is attacked near the house and a co-worker of Leah's, with whom she has a less-than-friendly history, is investigated as the potential attacker. Leah also becomes worried about Emmy, who she realizes she hasn't seen in several days. As Leah gets drawn into (and involves herself in) both resulting investigations, it becomes clear her assessment of those closest to her has missed the mark.

There is a lot to like here. Miranda does a super job with character, no small feat when the reader has to spend most of a book inside one character's head. Leah doesn't become over-wrought and secondary characters are given multiple layers through her POV. Leah's past is used as the perfect tool to give her insertion into the multi-fronted investigation more credibility. Despite a multitude of plot arcs and visits to past timelines for history and relationship details, the story keeps its keel and doesn't get confusing or bogged down. I'm rarely a fan of law enforcement/witness relationships and that held true here, but I do give Miranda credit for the way she carried the arc out. Overall, a solid and engaging read, and I'll definitely go back and read Miranda's debut, All The Missing Girls, about which I've heard great things.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

HUNGER :: Roxane Gay

If Roxane Gay's Hunger doesn't sear empathy into the core of your being, you likely didn't have the capacity for it to begin with. Gay boldly and baldly describes "the before" and "the after" of her relationship with her body following the horrific trauma that bridged the two and created "the girl in the woods." 
Don't let the title (or gorgeous cover) mislead you. The secret here is in the subtitle, "A Memoir of (My) Body." Although Gay's size evidences her difficult relationship with food, a literal appetite for fuel is not the focus of this work. 

Hunger is about longings that stem from Gay's very soul; those that, to a degree, are a cause of the symptom of "hunger" for fuel. It is about the very human hunger to be seen, to be able to show our true selves to the world, to somehow conquer the defensive use of our bodies as tools to keep the world at bay. Because let's be real, the easiest way to keep the world away is to be fat. Invisible, yet too visible at the same time. Unseen unless simply by existing someone else feels inconvenienced.

Reading the words of someone in pain is, as it should be, difficult. To call this work heartbreaking is a vast understatement. To shout about its courage and importance is only the beginning. There is (appropriately) no yardstick to measure the atrocities suffered by women or where any one woman falls on the trauma spectrum. Gay turned her unspeakable trauma inward and spent the decades that followed mastering the never-ending construction of a suit of armor using her own body as material. 

I would venture that the vast majority of women, wherever they may fall on the trauma or body-type spectra, will find themselves somewhere in Hunger. I did. The event that flipped my switch wasn't even in the same galaxy as Gay's, yet the ideas and emotions she expresses so eloquently hit like the knowing gut punch too many women give themselves every day. Gay knows she's not alone and yet there is an obvious solitary nature to the struggle, a self-imposed exile fed by feelings of shame, inadequacy, disappointment, and society's judgment.

It is that societal judgment that needs to change, not Gay's (or anyone's) body. If I disagree with anything in Hunger it is Gay's assessment that she is neither brave nor heroic. Fuck those notions. Hunger discusses issues usually suffered in silence, issues that deserve to be heard and seen. Let's face it, the world at large can always stand to be schooled on issues of empathy and whether or not you find a kindred wounded spirit in Hunger, you should be knocked to your knees by the lack of basic human dignity often heaped upon the overweight and perhaps make a change in your own perceptions or judgments.

STREET SENSE: A must-read. A book of mostly short, interrelated essays, Hunger can be read in small snippets quite easily, but I would bet a pretty big sum you will have a hard time putting it down.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  So many; settled on this one:

I am hyperconscious of how I take up space. As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space. I live in a contradictory space where I should try to take up space but not too much of it, and not in the wrong way, where the wrong way is any way where my body is concerned. Whenever I am near other people, I try to fold into myself so that my body doesn't disrupt the space of others. I take this to extremes. I will spend five-hour flights tucked against the window, my arm tucked into the seat belt, as if trying to create absence where there is excessive presence. I walk at the edge of sidewalks. In buildings I hug the walls. I try to walk as quickly as I can when I feel someone behind me so I don't get in their way, as if I have less of a right to be in the world than anyone else.

COVER NERD SAYS: Absolute gorgeous perfection. I would have bought this book for the cover alone. In fact, before I bought it, I didn't have any idea about the emotional depths Gay would traverse inside. I'm grateful that the perfect cover led me to the even better prose and person inside.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

GRACE :: Paul Lynch

If the purpose of reading is to get from the first page of a book to the last in something of a steady fashion (let's say for the sake of this post "steady" means "in excess of the rate of continental drift"), then reading Paul Lynch is a god damn exercise in futility. Every sentence begs to be read again. Y'all know I'm sweary, but I literally sit and swear to myself at the impossibility of his writing. It's as if he has his very own language the rest of us can enjoy but are not conversant enough to use. I had five book darts on the first two pages, and that was an attempt to show restraint.

Me reading Paul Lynch:

Read a line.
Sit in disbelief at the turn of phrase.
Reread the line.
Read the line again.
"Oh, hell no."
Book dart the line.
Look around for people to read the line to.
Swear again because I don't have my phone to share the line on social media.
Lather.
Rinse.
Repeat.
Grow a really long beard.
Get sunburned.
Start to become malnourished.
Die (but happy, with a great book in my hand).


Grace is both the name of Lynch's fourteen-year-old protagonist and what she struggles to find on a treacherous journey across Ireland at the start of the Great Famine. The opening is vintage Lynch, dark and shocking, yet so wonderfully phrased it softens the blows to velvet hammers. At early morning's light, Grace's mother rips her from sleep, "arm-hauls" her outside, "force-sits" her on the killing stump and draws a blunt knife.

With too many young mouths to feed in a time of dire straits, Sarah feels no choice but to send her young daughter on the road, both to earn money and to keep her from the roaming eye of a violent gentleman caller. Disguised as a boy and followed by younger brother Colly, Grace sets out across the ravaged land to find a job. Grace is the story of the characters, circumstances and challenges Grace meets on the road and what becomes of her as she blossoms from a girl into a young woman who can no longer hide behind her clothes.

Grace's story is compelling, though often as dreary and haunted as the ruined land, but Lynch's writing is the star:

Not yet the true cold of winter though the trees huddle like old men stripped for punishment and the land is haggard just waiting.

The rocks set into the mountain are great teeth clamped shut to listen.

Into the first leg she steps and then the other and she looks down at herself--such a sight, wishbone legs snapped loose into two gunnysacks.

In the lowlands the pass lazy beds that lie in ridges along the pale hillsides, like the rotting ribs of some dropped-dead beast, she thinks.

An old hawthorn like twisted rope leans out over the river in a statement of bitterness.

They are returning to an ancient wilderness, she thinks, as if nature were weeding the workingmen from her fields. 
Because Lynch writes about the dark and broken places, it's all the more stark, and welcome, when he injects humor into the mix. He does so sparingly, but with great effect. In Grace, he has given multiple characters persistent verbal tics, which I found distracted somewhat from his normal fluidity. This is a minor nit to pick, and overall the work is a master class in wielding words in a way that feels different than any other writer. When you are reading Paul Lynch, you know things will at least feel more beautiful.

STREET SENSE: Another beautiful piece of work from a master wordsmith. Grace is haunting and epic, full of characters, including spirits and the landscape, that set the stage for a daunting coming-of-age story.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Walking the however-long of another morning. The trees that drape their icy beggar-hands. A screaming oak on the slump of a hill and beneath it in a field she sees five digging men. They have turned a mound of snow and earth. The slow and heavy sway of a dead-cart moving towards them. The men spade at the ground and they gale their breaths into the frozen air, the ground like pitted teeth to their effort. And no wonder, she thinks. For why would the earth want to become a dead-house? You'd be stuck having to listen to the chatter of the dead complaining all the time about being lumped in together.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover struck me as odd, since Lynch's prior covers have felt similar and appeared to set the stage for future imagery recognizable as his. Grace's cover is different from the others, but the story also feels a bit different. Taken on its own, the image is a beautiful watercolor of the Irish landscape, and there's nothing bad about that. I would grade it well as a standalone cover, but found it a bit disappointing since I loved his prior covers so much.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

ONCE, IN LOURDES :: Sharon Solwitz

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

In 1968, Lourdes, Michigan is home to high school seniors Kay, Saint, CJ and Vera. The insular foursome hangs out in a park where they play bridge, listen to music and rail against issues both timeless and of the Sixties: Vietnam, God, sexuality, drugs, race relations and the eternal black hole of teenage angst. One day magnetic Vera, who wields a physical deformity like a weapon, challenges the friends to reveal their ugliest secrets. The dare leads to a pact so defining the group agrees to wait fourteen days to carry it out in order to ensure each member's dedication to the others.

Once, in Lourdes is Sharon Solwitz's deeply disconcerting portrait of four bonded, troubled teens on the verge of adulthood, struggling to keep afloat amidst the stressors that threaten to consume them. Through the perspective of overweight, sensitive Kay, Solwitz explores the pressures endured, risks taken and prices paid by each teen over the two week period of their pact, culminating in the night of its deadline.

Solwitz (Blood and Milk), English professor at Purdue University and National Jewish Book Award finalist, flays each character wide and exposes every soft corner of their cores. The story never loses its power or focus under her steady hand, despite the wide swath of emotions and multitude of dysfunctions working on her characters. A powerful tale of friendship, pain, anger, self-control and identity, Once, in Lourdes is every coming of age story ever told, yet one unlike any other.

STREET SENSE:  Fans of intense friendship and dysfunction stories will love to dig into this one.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: More than a singular passage, I enjoyed Solwitz's ability to turn a nifty phrase. A few that stuck out:

His steady gaze, the bass notes of his warm voice, made you think of good kings, wise rulers of nations--of people with power they didn't abuse.

My stepmother's dagger voice pinned me to the cross on my dinner plate.

...a feeling so bad and good she wanted to have it always and at the same time wipe off the plate of her mind right into the garbage.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I was going to say I didn't pick this one for the cover, but it did pull me to read the synopsis, which then won me over. It's not one I would buy for the cover, but the cover did a fantastic job of making me immediately think of the Sixties. Something about the colors and that image just says "Peace, love and Bobby Sherman." It's not fancy, but still a job well done.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

UNSUB :: Meg Gardiner

Today is publication day for one of the summer's most anticipated thrillers, Meg Gardiner's Unsub. Raves have been flying in from all fronts, most noticeably from other thrill masters such as Don Winslow and Stephen King. If you love serial killer stories (which sounds horrible, but y'all know what I mean) or are an aficionado of the Zodiac killer case, this one's for you.

Detective Mack Hendrix hunted prolific serial killer The Prophet for five years. The Prophet didn't literally take Mack's life, but did cost him his job, his marriage, his sense of self and the childhood of his daughter, Caitlin. Then The Prophet disappeared.

Twenty years later, Caitlin Hendrix has followed in her father's footsteps, working narcotics with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. Following an intense raid, Caitlin is called back out to a murder scene. Why? Because it appears either The Prophet is back or a copy cat is taking over where he left off. 

Despite Caitlin's lack of time on the job, her experience with The Prophet is only topped by that of her father, and it will take both of them to get to the bottom of the new spate of horrific crimes.

Full of intense action sequences and a motivational puzzle that has eluded authorities for decades, Unsub is an intense ride down a twisted road full of pathology. Not for the faint of heart, but at least you've still got a heart. Plus, kickass cover: 








Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A NEGRO AND AN OFAY :: Danny Gardner

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

Screenwriter Danny Gardner is a professional comedian, but his debut novel, A Negro and an Ofay: The Tales of Elliot Caprice, is no joke. Gardner's powerful themes are infused with just the right humorous undertones, rendering A Negro and an Ofay historical crime fiction at its hardboiled best. 


The tale of Elliot Caprice has been a mixed-bag from the jump. Son of an interracial couple who can pass for white, Elliot was abandoned to his black uncle and taken under the wing of a Jewish loan shark in his hometown of Southville, Illinois. Elliot's shady background and self-doubt combine with his military and Chicago PD service to leave him with a foot on both sides of the line and no safe space to reside.

Returning home in semi-disgrace in 1952, Elliot finds his uncle lying ill in a flophouse and the family farm in foreclosure. Determined to keep the property, Elliot takes a job as a process-server. Given the opportunity for a large payday on the side, Elliot ends up embroiled in the multi-faceted fight over a powerful businessman's estate.

Elliot's story is told from his perspective and is mostly about men--blends of friend, foe, hero and villain--yet women are really at the heart of the matter, beginning with Elliot's mother and what her departure meant for her son. Raw and intimate, violent and intense, Gardner's dialogue buzzes with authenticity, highlighted by Elliot's chameleon-like code-switching. A fast-moving crime novel with a soul, Gardner's coming out party is a dead-bang winner.

STREET SENSE:  A great new addition to the crime fiction family. I'm looking forward to more of Elliot's tales, but especially more of Gardner's kickass women characters.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Frank had performed the heavy lifting all by himself, moving all the furniture back to its proper place. The last thing he moved was the sofa, which he collapsed upon from exhaustion. His long legs hung off the edges. He wanted to continue working out of gratitude, figured he would only catch a breather, but in seconds, he snored softly. It was a quiet murmur of comfort, his dangling feet not cousin to hands draped across prison bars, but brother to young legs swaying off a porch swing. 

COVER NERD SAYS: The first reason I wanted to read this book was Danny. I wanted to find out what that mind would put on paper. The second reason was the cover of the book. What a beauty. Maybe I'm a sucker for things that look aged and/or from a simpler time (and yet, things are never really simpler and buying used things creeps me out--go figure), but I would have been drawn to this cover in any bookstore in any universe. This is a piece of art I would hang on my wall. A-plus. 

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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