Tuesday, July 17, 2018


This review previously ran in Shelf Awareness and appears here with permission.

Adrienne Celt, novelist, cartoonist and delightfully self-described "friend to imaginary people and animals," proves an equally good friend to the living with Invitation to a Bonfire. An intimate character study and twisted psychological saga, Bonfire is wrapped in the distinctive atmosphere of 1930s Russia and the East Coast American upper class.

An opening note identifies the work as the project of an elite New Jersey all-girl boarding school, told through a compilation of documents posthumously donated by a benefactor--diary entries of a young Russian refugee and letters from an infamous Soviet author to his wife. The note cleverly teases the death and deception to follow as the paths of the two cross with fatal consequences.

Zoya is a war orphan smuggled into the United States and dropped at the Donne School with threadbare clothing and $10 to her name. Zoya's 1931 diary exquisitely recounts her difficulties fitting in while surrounded by cruel girls from wealthy families. Leo Orlov is steered to literary success by his calculating wife, Vera ("[s]harp as a tack...[c]old as a Frigidaire"), ultimately landing at Donne as a visiting professor and seducing Zoya. When Leo temporarily returns to Russia, his wife and mistress undertake a manipulative friendship, partially at his behest.

Celt (The Daughters) writes in beautiful detail, particularly within Zoya's diaries, which exhibit a detached coolness that renders her captivatingly enigmatic. Leo's letters to Vera are adoring, yet cunning in their own right. Filled with characters of unreliable passion and motive, Bonfire smolders with intrigue through the final reveal.

STREET SENSE:  This is a twisted love triangle involving a young Russian woman, her famous author lover and his calculating wife that plays out to a tragic end in 1930s New Jersey. If smoldering character studies are your thing, this will be a good pick.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Those girls, they liked me so easily and so much the second they saw me as one of their own...A girl from their same world, where houses got drafty from size instead of poor craftsmanship, and your uncle came by just to take you and your girlfriends out for chocolate milkshakes, which you sucked up through colored straws. Where you slept in on Saturdays, and could accomplish anything you set your mind to, and where you were given a bright red bicycle with streamers on the handlebars, which whistled as you rode. They'd never known how to make do, to sew the covers back on old schoolbooks. To sneak into the cloakroom at restaurants and gather tobacco from men's coat pockets in order to make a cigarette with which to bribe the greengrocer. To watch their parents turn into strangers before their eyes, and then be told by those strangers that they didn't deserve any more than what others had, because why would they? The girls didn't want to know those things. And they were equally afraid of the fact that I did, and that I could shed the appearance of knowledge so quickly. Like slipping out of a skin.

COVER NERD SAYS:  The best selling point of this cover is really the title, which I find intriguing enough in its own right to make me pick this up off a shelf/display table. There are also several design aspects to the cover I like, but it doesn't knock my socks off. The image of the envelope adds to the intrigue and shows up much better on the final copy than my version. I also appreciate the blue v. red imagery of the title font, but I think I would have preferred something more aligned with the envelope and title. The elements are good, I'm just not sure they fit together perfectly to suit the atmosphere of this novel.

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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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