Monday, August 10, 2015


"'Perhaps you will find this work tedious,' The Person with Bad Breath said. 'It is also highly confidential. Not to be discussed with anyone at all. Including him.' The 'him' added almost aggressively."

I like the way Helen Phillips thinks. She's an out-of-the-box writer and I appreciate that, whether a particular book hits on all cylinders for me or not. With The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Phillips has written a mystery within a mystery, shrouded in mystery.

Joseph and Josephine have moved from "the hinterland" ("hint of land, the term they used to dismiss their birthplaces, that endless suburban non-ness") to a big city. It felt like New York to me, but who knows? Part of the enigma enveloping The Beautiful Bureaucrat is that the reader doesn't really know where or when the book is set. It felt like dystopian New York to me, but I could be so far off base I'll get picked off from center field.

Our intrepid couple are also broke and a bit demoralized, having been evicted from their apartment, left sitting on the curb with their possessions. Josephine finds a mystery job after meeting with The Person with Bad Breath (who also lacks a definable face), entering information into a, you guessed it, mystery Database.

Josephine's curiosity can't be dampened, she "carried the Database around inside her; it floated in her brain like a net for catching and killing any glistening idea that came along." Her interest is also piqued by her workplace itself, full of locked doors, inaccessible floors, and other weirdness:

She noticed a dark smudge on the pinkish ill-colored wall. Her fingers fell away from the keyboard, reached over to touch it. s her gaze moved outward from the smudge, she realized it wasn't just years of tack holes and tape that made these walls look so tired. These were scratches, smears, shadowy fingerprints, the echoes of hands.

Her co-workers, or seeming lack thereof, are also shrouded in mystery, with one larger-than-life exception, Trishiffany (whose parents couldn't decide between Trisha and Tiffany):

When she finally slid the lock and opened the stall door, Josephine was shocked to find a petite bright-blond woman who looked to be in her twenties, a bubble-gum-pink suit straining against disproportionately large breasts. It hadn't occurred to her that other young women might work here. She'd assumed, based on the handful of dark-clothed, bureaucrats she'd seen scurrying around a corner or darting into an office, that all the employees must be half dead, like The Person with Bad Breath.

Josephine is also perplexed by her personal life. As she and Joseph move from sublet to sublet, she receives cryptic notices of package delivery attempts, although no one knows where they live. Even Joseph himself, her love and rock, begins to add to the oddities of her life with some out-of-character behavior.

The reader is taken along with Josephine on her peculiar trip as she tries to figure out the meaning behind the Database. Phillips is a fun writer, making the trip a pleasant one despite the multi-layered story and some strange writing elements. This is a weird one, to be sure.

Some of that weirdness blends with the plot, some components I couldn't make fit, some fit but felt a bit forced, as if they were added to mix in some social commentary, or symbolism (pomegranates and cockroaches, anyone?), or simply to pull off a plot twist. Josephine, for example, tends to think in anagrams, many of which aren't really anagrams. Is this just a personality quirk Phillips decided to give a character, or was it solely a tool to bring about a (somewhat major) revelation to Josephine? I prefer the former, but it almost felt like the latter. The book was replete with passages such as this (when we're in Josephine's head):

The ceiling began to undulate.
Undue late.
Ulna duet.
Luau dent.
Dual tune.
Do la nu.
Duel aunt.
Laud tuna nut.
A dune lute.
"Please," Josephine begged. "Silencio!"
Ice in sol!
Lice is no!
Slice eon!

If you're like me, you won't be sure which oddities fit and which are just odd until you finish the book. It's a very fast read, and really quite engrossing. Although the main mystery isn't too difficult to decipher, there are enough questions here that you won't lack for an impetus to keep the pages turning, even if only to figure out what the hell it's all been about. In the end, I really loved the main mystery, but some of the extraneous elements missed the mark.

STREET SENSE: Part mystery, part dystopian thriller, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is an engaging read with a unique premise that defies categorization. Which, in my book, is a great thing. It's an outside-the-box read that had me wondering and curious and glued to it despite of and because of its weirdness. While I wanted to adore it, it fell a bit short of that. There's symbolism here aplenty and perhaps I missed something that would have added to the oomph, but from the perspective of the thriller element the end was a bit of a fizzle rather than a crescendo. I would have liked more of the elements to find their place in the end and wanted a bit more substance to Joseph. If you are a fan of an interesting mystery shrouded in the bizarre, this one is for you.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE (or two):  The files mocked her, their voices whispery as paper cuts.

A woman with a name like Esme Lafayette Gold had to have a more dramatic life than someone named Josephine Anne Newbury. She pictured metallic green eye shadow and satin dresses in gem hues and tragic loves, before chiding herself for falling into cliches; Esme could just as well be a first-grade teacher who always wore muted colors and went to bed at 8:30 p.m. Or maybe she was a first-grade teacher who wore metallic-green eye shadow

COVER NERD SAYS: The cover is what initially attracted me to The Beautiful Bureaucrat. Which is somewhat curious, as the artwork doesn't really (I don't think) have any relevance or meaning until you've read the book. I'm not even a fan of pomegranates. Bugs I can take or leave depending on the number of legs and biting capacity. But this cover art is truly art. It almost reminds me of one of those old rustic posters advertising milk or baking powder. I love the palette, the font, and for sure the mystery background. Well done.

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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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