Friday, August 21, 2020


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

Becky Mandelbaum's debut novel, The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, is a fabulous entry to long form after her stunning and multi-prize-winning story collection, Bad Kansas. Mona Siskin kicks off a long-coming reckoning when she steals the Fuller brothers' pro-Trump sign. Soon after, Mona's estranged daughter, Ariel, reads a headline that knocks her cold--"Fire at Animal Sanctuary Ruled Arson." Antisemitic messages were also left on buildings and on Lady Madonna the pig. The suspect, Sydney Fuller, was Ariel's only friend growing up, the lone ally she unintentionally betrayed.

Worse is the news Mona has to sell the Bright Side, the sanctuary where Ariel was raised and that cost her family so much. Her father left one day without a word. Her mother, so busy caring for the animals, made Ariel feel more like hired help than a daughter. Six years earlier, Ariel also silently snuck away, to attend college against her mother's wishes. She left her home, the animals and her first love, Mona's ranch hand Gideon.

Insightful and cuttingly funny, Mandelbaum has a grand knack for character depth and point of view. The author handles rudderless Ariel's return to a marvelously complex mother masterfully; she doles out each woman's unspoken emotional history and trauma with precision and affection. Trailed by her hapless fiancé, Dex, Ariel also has to face Gideon and his girlfriend, Joy, both steady ships in the storm. The Bright Side is a thorny family drama filled with edgy humor and snappy prose, with love and dogs at its heart.

STREET SENSE: I fell in love with Mandelbaum's writing when I covered Bad Kansas for Shelf. Who could pass up a title like that? It was a very pleasant surprise and I couldn't wait to see what Mandelbaum did in the long form. I'm signing up for whatever she writes in the future.

COVER NERD SAYS: This beautiful cover amps up my desire to run away to a simpler place, even though what Ariel gets when she gets home is far from simple. But how could you not want to step into this cover image?

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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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