Monday, November 9, 2015


"This is the amazing mystery you've been waiting for!" ~ Liberty Hardy, Book Riot

A couple months ago, I was invited to try the new Book of the Month Club. This iteration operates a bit differently than your grandfather's Book of the Month Club. A panel of fantastic individuals ("judges") from all different arenas of the literary world offer recommendations from which members can make their monthly selection. (Other books are available for purchase at a reasonable price. You can learn more about the club and meet the judges here.)

I was a bit trepidatious about accepting the invitation. I'm not much of a joiner, nor am I one for being obligated to buy or read any book in particular. But in only my second month I discovered a novel so outstanding it will easily be in my top picks for the year. Without Liberty Hardy's Book of the Month Club recommendation, I likely wouldn't have found it at all. Which would be a shame, because F.H. Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles is one of the smartest and most thoughtful books I've read this year, crime fiction or otherwise, and I fell in love with its characters wholeheartedly.

Manila, 1977. A difficult time in the Philippines, rife with poverty, corrupt officials, lazy or uncaring law enforcement, and a Catholic church closing ranks to protect its own. Some families are so poor their children leave school and instead scour the local dump for food to bring home.

When someone begins preying on young, at-risk boys, leaving their horrifically mutilated bodies in the dump, Jesuit priest and forensic anthropologist Gus Saenz is asked by the Director of the National Bureau of Investigations to help with the case. Father Gus, along with his former student and mentee Father Jerome Lucero, now a psychologist, throw themselves into the case with their hearts and their heads.

Of course, there is more than a killer getting in their way. Not everyone cares that young boys on society's fringes are being victimized. Not everyone wants the Director to succeed. Not everyone likes Father Gus and his "meddling" ways.

The brilliance of Batacan's storytelling is that these facets, nothing new to crime fiction, don't feel like retreads. Everything fits, the plot and characters are all drawn so well the whole feels very, very real indeed. There is no wasted prose here. I was amazed how quickly Father Gus and Father Jerome became a duo I was wholly invested in and knew I would crave more from. I knew these characters, and Batacan let me know them in the most intimate way - not by spending time describing them, but by shining a light on their souls through their words and actions. It was really beautiful to feel so powerless to avoid investing in these characters and their plights.

Wanting to know more about Batacan, her background, and other potential work, I looked her up, only to discover Smaller and Smaller Circles has quite a history. It was first published in the Philippines in 2002 as a 35,000-word manuscript, and acknowledged as the Philippines' first crime novel. It was critically acclaimed, winning the 1999 Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for best English-language novel (known as the “Philippine Pulitzer”), the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award in 2002, and the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award for Fiction in 2003.

The University of the Philippines Press’s ten-year publication license expired in 2012. At that same time, Soho Press Associate Publisher Juliet Grames was invited to the Manila International Literary Festival, where she picked up a copy of the book. Blown away but knowing “the format was not quite what the global crime fiction audience expects in a novel—it was rather short," Grames approached the author to see if she would be willing to tell more of the story. Batacan has previously considered expanding the story, did just that, and the final Soho edition was published this past August.

I hope Smaller and Smaller Circles meets with as much critical acclaim world-wide as it did in the Philippines. It's more than worthy, and I for one want to see more from Batacan and more about Gus and Jerome.

STREET SENSE:  A lean, mean, fighting machine of a crime novel, built on the shoulders of a story well-told and supported with characters who get under your skin. The crimes are grotesque, but there is no lingering on the details, no effort to shock, just the facts required to tell the story and investigate the crime. The story is also infused with warmth and humor that help balance the dastardly deeds being investigated. I will buy the next Batacan title without hesitation and I recommend you give Smaller and Smaller Circles a go. This is crime fiction at its very best.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  After the rain, life - earth, foliage, frogs - momentarily reclaims human attention from those things which are not life. Everything else - the cars, the buildings, the dingy shop signs and crumbling waiting sheds, the garlands of electrical wiring that line the streets, the rusting metal and concrete and plastic that jut out singly or in masses to stab the city air - everything else recedes into a damp and quiet dullness. The dead things know their place.

COVER NERD SAYS: For the first time in a very long time, I didn't buy or judge a book by its cover. I selected Smaller and Smaller Circles as my BotM pick because the other choices weren't really in my wheelhouse and because Liberty made it sound interesting. Frankly, I would normally not be inclined to buy or read a book focusing on two priests. But because I had to pick a book, I picked this one without much thought to the cover. I'm not sure whether this cover would have attracted me from a book store table or not. It's certainly bold in imagery and color. The question would be whether I would have seen the cross as a cross or just an image. Frankly, the texture of the cross looks like the surface of a basketball, which would be more likely to grab my attention than a cross. But judging this one in hindsight is tough. the cover is nothing spectacular, but I can no longer think about it objectively, just as the cover of a fantastic read. Perhaps that alone is enough to keep it in the "well done" column.

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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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