Tuesday, January 18, 2022

POETRY AND VERSE

As I continue to dive into poetry, lead only by an uneducated poetry brain and my well-tuned cover gut, it's amazing how often I hit on work I connect with, in whole or in large part. I say this not because of any lack of "worthwhile" poetry, but the exact opposite problem - we are surrounded by a heavenly wealth of authors of all backgrounds writing fantastic things. 



The problem is, as always, mine. Poetry is the hardest thing for me to read. I would guess it is one of the harder forms to write. So I don't always get the connections or see/understand the symbolism. But I also rarely pick up a collection that doesn't teach me SOMETHING. Maybe if I collect enough golden nuggets my reading ability will be honed. A girl can dream. The three titles in this post ran the gamut in form and substance and also hit the spectrum of how much I could connect.



Me (Moth), Amber McBride

I had not heard of this work when a trusted book friend went nuts over it and highly recommended it to me. It was my first read of 2022 and all I can say is "WOW." Starting the year with your socks blown off is pretty fantastic. 

Two summers ago our car broke in half like a candy bar on the freeway & we all spilled onto the pavement as crumbled as sticky caramel-peanut filling.

Black teenager Moth lost her entire nuclear family in a bad accident. Who is she now, without her family to define her? Where she previously found solace in dance, to do so now feels too joyful and greedy. Moth is struggling with her identity and grief, feeling alone and uprooted. One day she meets a Navajo boy named Sani, from a differently-fractured family but also struggling with depression and uprootedness.



Sani and Moth set out on a road trip out West, technically to his father's home on the reservation, but in reality a zigzagging tour to find themselves and save the other. McBride's verse is gold that shines so brightly you need to sit with eyes shut and reflect on it. She sucks you in and grabs your guts and twists the story into something that both breaks your heart and fixes you. For grades 8 and up, this book is and should be for everyone. I don't do ratings, but this one gets every star in the universe.



I Must Belong Somewhere


Dawn Lanuza
   

Every once in a while she is convinced that she doesn't belong here anymore.

Yet she doesn't know where she should be just yet. 

She finds herself where she is because she doesn't know where else to be.

 

These first lines in the second piece very much hit home (or someplace home is waiting) for me. A lovely yet inquiring collection that deals with themes of longing, loneliness, home, exploration, suicide (and living with someone who is suicidal - "I've never read your suicide letters. I've lived with them instead."), surviving v. living, and various other branches that spring from these thoughts. From a few lines to a page, each packs a personal, thoughtful wallop. 



Beautifully done, I highly recommend this collection for anyone who wonders or searches for SOMETHING - love, connection, meaning. The end of the piece quoted above is where I felt the poems connected, even though it's the second in order:


Sometimes, when she's in a new place, wandering and learning its streets, she just hears herself sighing, I must belong somewhere.

She hasn't found it yet, 

but she hasn't given up on the idea of it.


Coffin Honey, Todd Davis



This cover is a work of art and I could not turn away. I also assumed (which is much of the cover gut operation) this collection would be steeped in nature, which it was. It was also a collection that, while quite patently excellent, was over my head a bit. Even when I don't "get" poetry, there are always lines/passages that resonate, oftentimes quite deeply. This bit, for example, about virus-ridden deer victims of the automobile:

The pastor of grief and dreams waves them into the road, a suicidal gospel written on warm macadam.


Davis's nature is not all about beauty, and he writes the brutal side, human and animal, with prose that is lovely but doesn't mask the horror. A hunt, pedophilia, lynching, death, racism, immigration, man's destruction of the natural world--all laid bare without apology for the monsters we can be.


[W]ithout any shame, we construct machines that make a mountain disappear, no regard for the memory or souls of trees.
 

                                                    *  *  *


White men stole black bodies to chain below deck, the only light seeping in where chinking failed. Unlike them, Ursus learned to share the one soul the world gives freely.


If only men could see the beauty without museums, the dismemberment, the displays of paws, claws and eyes outside of sockets, bodies stuffed and set on wired legs, caricatures of the real thing. 

Friday, December 24, 2021

END OF YEAR THRILLS

As we close out 2021 and head into another abyss, for some reason it's beginning to feel as though I'm getting my reading legs back. To that end, I immediately jumped into my backlist to hit a book from Ryan Gattis I have been really excited about, and a couple of raves from the book tribe, one of which panned out greatly, the other simply panned.



The System, Ryan Gattis



Gattis's All Involved was so fantastic I was anxiously awaiting his next work. Which, sadly, had been languishing while I get my brain back, but wow was the wait worth it. Written in the same real-time format as All Involved, The System unsurprisingly delves into our justice and penal systems. When a gang hit goes down, an addict witness, the dropped weapon, a predatory parole officer and the young man who lives with the beautiful woman the officer covets all combine to allow Gattis to display the power (and misuse thereof) and grind of the system. Gattis utilizes his characters to pointedly show what happens when a power vacuum occurs on the outside while the guilty and innocent sit inside, and the system the incarcerated are forced to quickly learn in order to survive and/or thrive.  Tense and fast-paced, Gattis has another winner that educates without preaching. 



I Am Not Who You Think I Am, Eric Rickstad

I have seen Rickstad's name quite a bit and have admittedly whiffed on reading his work, because if this piece is any indication, he's a highly entertaining thriller writer. I listed to this title on audio and my walks got longer and longer because I didn't want to stop listening. The format was also quite clever - someone has written a letter to the Vermont authorities and once they check it out, they release it to their community. The story (through the note) is told by Wayland Maynard who, at 8 years old, saw his father commit suicide. He also found a note in his father's writing which said "I am not who you think I am."

At age 16, Wayland is still troubled by his father's death and comes to believe the man he saw shoot himself that day was not his father. As he investigates, sometimes with the help of friends, Wayland begins to uncover family lore that no one is expecting or prepared for. Rickstad keeps the pace up and surprises coming and while we are all rooting for Wayland, his hands are also not clean by the end of his journey. It's a tense ride with wonderful Gothic undertones. There is certainly an awesome creep factor to the investigation and the history behind it. 

No One Will Miss Her, Kat Rosenfield

I usually don't post mostly-negative reviews, but this one made me mad. The cover caught my eye, and then I was swayed by word-of-mouth raves and a starred trade review. I must have read a different book. The plot was interesting and the writing engaging. My problem is the entire plot hingeing on stupidity. Stupidity to the extent that I couldn't write it off for the sake of story. Using Gorilla gluing to attach body parts to fool the authorities, who were (apparently) too stupid to catch it and also too stupid to do DNA tests at a murder scene. Maybe I'm too much of a stickler, but I couldn't get past it. 


 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

TWO-CENT TUESDAY

Well, here we are, four months (egads) since my last post. I have nothing to blame but wellness (or lack thereof), pandemic brain and malaise, family emergency and probably just sheer lack of gumption. I have a ton of catching up to do and I don't want to let good titles get short shrift because my act hasn't been together, so...



Below are a few (somewhat) brief $.02 opinions about books I've read or listened to recently. This first catchup set happens to include some of the best books I read this year. I hope you'll consider one or two for your own TBR stack if they strike your fancy.



Who Is Maud Dixon?, Alexandra Andrews

The title and cover intrigued me enough to check this out, and the synopsis I read (I try to avoid them for the most part) sealed the deal: low-level publishing worker Florence Darrow thinks she is the next great American author. When she tries some tricks of the trade to leverage a publishing deal, she ends up out on her ass, but soon the opportunity of a lifetime comes her way. She is asked to work as the assistant to the brilliant, best-selling author known as Maud Dixon, a pseudonym hiding one of the biggest secrets in the industry. These two women, both complicated and wily, end up as the basis for a twisty psychological thriller filled with "Oh hell no!" moments. I truly enjoyed every minute, which has been hard to come by this year (and last). I recommend this whole-heartedly.

 
Lemon, Kwon Yeo-sun

This unassuming novel (spare cover, a brief 160  pages) knocked my socks clear to the other side of the room. Billed as Parasite meets The Good Son, I didn't hesitate when the publisher asked me to take a look. I love a short book that packs such a punch, it really is an art I hold in the highest esteem. Here, Kwon revisits the 17-year-old murder of Kim Hae-on, known as The Beauty School Murder, through chapters from the perspectives of Kim's younger sister and two of her former classmates. While uncovering the reasons for and perpetrator of the crime is certainly part of the story, Kwon writes brilliantly about jealousy, privilege, appearance, repercussions, and trauma. Kwon's first novel translated to English from her native Korean, here's hoping there are many more.


In The Quick, Kate Hope Day

I'm not one of those folks who is immediately all-in on a space story, but this cover left me powerless. Turns out the insides are just as fabulous, centering on June, whose Uncle Peter was famous for his fuel cell inventions. Then something went awry and he wasn't. June is difficult for her Aunt to raise alone following Peter's death, so she is sent to the National Space Training Program named after her uncle. Decades younger than her school peers, June struggles and flourishes. Even as she is ultimately given a coveted position on a space station, June is haunted by the spacecraft that went missing when she was twelve. Her intellect and belief in her uncle drives her to prove the craft is still out there and its crew alive, even after all this time. More than I expected in the best of ways. 

My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Stephen Graham Jones

If SGJ's 2020 book, The Only Good Indians, hadn't lured me with its cover and set me off on a SGJ marathon (instantly a must-read author for me), the cover of 2021's offering would have gotten me. SGJ is often billed as horror, but I'm not sure that entirely fits. Certainly there are horror components, but his work defies genre for me. Heart is certainly a thrilling love letter to slasher films and its protagonist, Jade Daniels, writes all of her English papers based on the theme (one of the coolest parts of the book). Jade is also certain her town of Proofrock is a place destined to become a horror movie - where the masked killer comes back to seek revenge. She even has all the normal slasher film "roles" cast with locals. But of course when things start to go wrong, no one will believe her. This book is difficult to describe in worthy words, so I'm simply going to encourage you to give it a try if you have even the slightest warm spot for slasher films. 

The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward

Just as a few poets sent me down my recent(ish) poetry rabbit hole, Stephen Graham Jones sent me down something of a horror trek. I'd heard nothing but raves about this one, so when it came across my desk I was curious and anxious to dig in. Man did it blow my expectations out of the water and spun my head around (heck, even Stephen King was blown away). Ted lives in his boarded up family home with only his part-time daughter (Lauren) and a cat (Olivia). Or does he? Dee believes Ted is hiding her long-vanished sister Lulu inside and is bound and determined to get her back. What you think you know, you don't. Some of what you guess might be right, but it doesn't matter because (1) there will be layers and layers on top of it and (2) Ward goes about peeling back the truth in such a loving, horrific, suspenseful way that you will want to read it all over again when you've finished, just to read it with that new education. By far one of the best books I've read this year and another stellar work that has me on the steadfast path to more "horror."



Tuesday, August 10, 2021

TWO-CENT TUESDAY

Below are a few (somewhat) brief $.02 opinions about books I've read or listened to recently but don't have the opportunity to review in full. Many of these titles I enjoyed as much or more than those that got the full court press. I hope you'll consider one or two for your own TBR stack if they strike your fancy whether they struck mine or not.



FATAL FAMILY TIES, by S.C. Perkins

This third installment in the charmingest of the charming cozies is proof positive I'm a convert to the light side. Texas genealogist Lucy Lancaster's Flacos Tacos lunch is interrupted by her least favorite former co-workers. Camilla Braithwaite now needs a favor--a recent article accuses Camilla's ancestor Charles, a civil war corporal, of being a phony and a deserter rather than a hero, and Camilla wants Lucy’s help clearing his name. Of course, shenanigans ensue before Lucy can get to the bottom of the mystery. This series leaves me longing for more time with the recurring characters. Thankfully, we got some of Lucy's Grandfather and more of her delightful parents. That meant a little less of her office best friends and Neil Patrick Housecat, but their on-screen time is always fun. 



GUILTY ADMISSIONS, by Nicole LaPorte

A thoroughly researched and detailed account of the college admissions scandal that caught several big Hollywood names in its snare. I found the audio a great way to listen to the tale, and the meat of the story was fascinating. It started with a lot of background detail that seemed a tad superfluous, but overall I enjoyed this account of aholes aholing.




100 POEMS TO BREAK YOUR HEART, by Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch's Gabriel: A Poem was the work that got me started on a mission to read more poetry. It is a set of poems, longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award, about the life and death of Hirsch's son. When I saw Hirsch had collected this set of poems I was all in. Turns out it's much more than I bargained for. Not only does he lay out 100 poems, he analyzes them and assists in the reading and internalizing of them. Which means this collection is lovely, educational and lengthy. I'm still working my way through it in little snippets, but it came out some time ago and I didn't want to delay writing about it any further. A great place to start if you're trying to get more out of the poetry you read.

GOOD NEIGHBORS, by Sarah Langan

The premise had me really looking forward to this one, but it ended up a bummer. A picturesque neighborhood in suburban Long Island is thrown into chaos when the Queen Bee regrets telling one of the new, "misfit" neighbors a very personal secret. So she begins to sabotage the family. Which really makes no sense, but I went with it. As the Wildes are turned into outcasts and the tension builds, a sinkhole opens in the area. Not only does it keep widening without explanation, it sucks whatever gets close into its black hole, including the Queen Bee's daughter, leading to more accusations to...what end? I found the plot disconnected and a story written around issues and events the author wanted to address. I'm all for unlikable characters as I find them more interesting, but these left me cold. If I never read the word "bitumen" again I'll die happy.

FOOTBALL'S FEARLESS 
ACTIVISTS, by Mike Freeman

A fascinating and highly-recommended look at the story behind the protests of numerous Black athletes following the ongoing string of police killings of Black men, as well as the pushback they received from not only the fans but their own organizations and ownership. It's no secret 45 is shameful and to be honest I didn't expect much more from the NFL and I was still surprised by some of the reporting here. I'm glad there are athletes like these, who will risk it all for what's right. I did lose a little respect for the book when Barack Obama's name was misspelled twice. Once is a typo, twice is disrespectful. 

SHELTER, by Catherine Jinks

Jinks's The Shepherd blew me away last year and I was eagerly anticipating this title, which couldn't have been more different. Far from the sparse, cracking prose of the former, Shelter was told in a much more descriptive and "mainstream" hand. Which isn't bad, it was simply a much different experience. In Shelter, Meg lives alone in the bush outside town as a way to avoid her abusive ex. Knowing what it's like to try to escape that horrible situation, Meg agrees to provide shelter to Nerine and her two daughters. Of course all three are traumatized, but then odd things begin to happen. Not the least of which is Nerine asking Meg to get a gun (remember, this is Australia, where the people sensible about gun control live and this is no normal request or easy feat). Of course things spiral and questions come from all fronts, including Meg's past. Shelter is, if I have to label it, more domestic thriller than lean, gritty crime fiction. Thankfully, Jinks is a good enough writer to pull both off quite well. 
 





Tuesday, July 6, 2021

TWO-CENT TUESDAY

Below are a few somewhat brief $.02 opinions about books I've read or listened to recently but don't have the time, inclination, or opportunity to review in full. Their appearance often here has little to do with merit. Many of these titles I enjoyed as much or more than those that got the full court press. I hope you'll consider one or two for your own TBR stack if they strike your fancy whether they struck mine or not.

Although I generally try to slip some books in here that I wasn't too thrilled with, that isn't the case this week. Whether I read a physical copy or listened to an audiobook, each of these titles was a winner. Some were known authors I knew were unlikely to let me down, a couple were shots in the dark based on my gut that paid off tremendously. 

We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy, by Kliph Nesteroff

I thought this would be an important, yet maddening, read. It was all that plus very well done and some great blasts from my past. It had me down a rabbit hole of old late night talk show clips (going back to Johnny Carson) to find old comedy bits. Look up Charlie Hill if you get the chance. He was the first Native American comedian to appear on The Tonight Show and also ended up writing for television. It is one of Hill's bits that inspired the title of the book: "My people are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York. We had a little real estate problem.” 

Nesteroff has been called "The Human Encyclopedia of Comedy" and "The King of Comedy Lore," and after a bit of a slow-moving start, the material kicks up several notches when it hits "modern day" comedy (i.e., when my old ass was alive). A highlight of the impact Native Americans have made on the comedy world despite their historical denial of representation, this is a great (and sorrowful) read well-worth the time and education. 

 
What's Done in Darkness, by Laura McHugh

Since I fell in love with her debut, The Weight of Blood, McHugh has become a must-read author. Her latest continues her hot streak. In this one, 17-year-old Sarabeth's abduction is less than believable since she had been rebelling against her strictly religious parents when she was allegedly taken and then released a week later. Despite her torment, the abduction does give her the chance to finally escape the Ozarks.

Five years later, FBI Agent Nick Farrow calls, asking for Sarabeth's help. Another girl has gone missing under circumstances Farrow thinks may be related to Sarabeth's abduction and her memories may help the case. 

Reluctantly, Sarabeth agrees to help, and delving into her own kidnapping releases memories and a past full of evil just waiting to be uncovered. McHugh is a wonderful writer who tells a great story. When those two elements come together, an intriguing read results, even if one might not be into some of the plot arcs (i.e., religion). It really doesn't matter, I'll read anything McHugh writes. If you've not read her work, I highly recommend it.

Local Woman Missing, by Mary Kubica

Mary Kubica is another author who blew me away with her debut, The Good Girl. I've read everything she's written since and have only been slightly underwhelmed once. She remains an auto-read and when I hit her latest on audio my mind didn't wander at all (which it almost always does when I'm listening to a book while multi-tasking). 

Meredith, a doula, and her six-year-old daughter go missing. Meredith's car is found at a local motel, where it appears she committed suicide. Her daughter is nowhere to be found. The anxiousness in the neighborhood is amped up due to the recent disappearance of another local woman who turns out to have been one of Meredith's clients. 

Told in the usual rotating timeline, alternating POV that Kubica does so well, this one is well worth a listen despite some far-fetched plot points.


The Mighty Oak, by Jeff W. Bens

I was won over by a cool cover and a short plot summary and found a true gem inside. Tim "Oak" O'Connor is a goon for the El Paso Storm of the West Texas Hockey League. As a hockey hitman, he's paid to be violent and his body is basically jelly held together by a skin suit. He's also been away from home for a long time; long enough to lose his wife to his best friend and miss out on his daughter's life.

When he returns to Boston for his mother's death, he begins to confront all he's given up for a sport he still can't imagine giving up, even as he crunches oxy to keep upright. He also makes new connections with a haunted attorney and a young boy facing issues of his own. Bens writes wonderfully and The Mighty Oak had me entranced from the start. 



Wednesday, June 30, 2021

JUNE GEMS

These titles are two of my favorite of the year and each will sit with me long after this year is over. One is crime fiction at its finest, filled with social themes that don't beat you over the head but work with the non-stop plot to sink into your bones. The other is flat out one of the finest memoirs I've ever read.  



Razorblade Tears, by S.A. Cosby

A kickass plot filled with potential pitfalls, extraordinarily well carried out to avoid all of them. That's really all you need to know about Shawn Cosby's latest. I've read Cosby's other work (My Darkest Prayer and Blacktop Wasteland) and enjoyed both. Even more enjoyable is seeing a really good writer hone his craft before your eyes. Each outing is stronger than the last and I can't wait to see what follows Razorblade Tears, because it knocked my socks off. 



Two fathers avenge the deaths of their sons. That's a good enough story. But add to that the fact that the sons were a mixed race couple with a daughter. Both had difficult relationships with their fathers who, surprise!, had some issues with their sexuality. One Black, one white, Ike and Buddy Lee have only checkered pasts, their sons, and a need for justice in common. When the police investigation goes cold, justice turns to personal revenge. 



This story will translate beautifully to film. On the surface a fun, high-octane buddy story with two characters that feed off each other wonderfully. At its heart a well-painted picture of grief, regret, and social failings that lie so directly in the center of our society that they can separate families. If I had to find a quibble with this book, it's just a personal one -- my own weariness of the "family in peril" plotline. Yet Cosby also handles that well enough that I had to put my prejudice away.  



Punch Me Up to the Gods, by Brian Broome



I did not know who Brian Broome was when this gorgeous little face and intriguing title captivated me. I will now never forget him, as this is certainly one of the finest memoirs to ever torture me. It's the story, like so many others, of the perils of being a young, poor, Black boy, queer to boot, and his efforts to find a place in the world. The search for a path made all the more treacherous by his father, who was an angry, violent man who would rather kill his son himself than have him killed by a white person.



While one can hate the methods, Broome does a stellar job of explaining the undercurrents of raising Black boys. This is where the memoir skyrockets from uber-talented writing to genius -- the format through which Broome tells his story along with that of our societal failings. He begins with one bus ride he shares with a toddler named Tuan and his father. One of the first things Broome observes is Tuan falling headfirst onto the concrete while waiting for the bus. Out of fright and/or pain, Tuan begins to wail. At which point his father tells him to stop crying and be a man. Thus begins the chapters titled The Initiation of Tuan. 



Through these chapters, Broome observes ongoing interactions between Tuan and his father. Each chapter then feeds into Broome's own story and the way he learned those same lessons of hyper-masculinity. Through these alternating chapters, Broome tells his story and the story of young Tuan, both of which will empty your guts out like a rusted melon-baller. At turns hilarious and raw, Broome's ability and willingness to convey his innermost emotions are extraordinary. 




Thursday, June 24, 2021

SEEING SERENA :: Gerald Marzorati

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



Gerald Marzorati, retired editor of the New York Times Magazine, takes an intriguing approach in Seeing Serena. The project was not formally authorized by Serena Williams, nor did Marzorati have special access to the athlete or her camp. Rather, Marzorati wanted "simply and not so simply, to see her in all the ways [he] could: watch her, describe her, listen to her, follow her (in the new conditions of seeing created by Instagram, etc.), interpret her, situate her." The result is a captivating look at one of the world's most supreme competitors and cultural symbols.



Upping the thrill factor is the timing of Marzorati's focus on Williams--37 and just back on tour in 2019 following the birth of her first child, she is nagged by injuries and playing opponents sometimes decades her junior. If that pressure isn't enough, she is seeking her 24th Grand Slam singles title, a pinnacle reached only by Australian Margaret Court during a vastly different era.



Far from the young novice who was booed and ostracized along with her older sister, Venus, when they joined the tour, Serena Williams is one of the highest paid and most recognizable athletes in the world, a crowd favorite. She's no less of a force off the court: she has forged her personal brand on social media while creating a fashion line and investing in other ventures as an entrepreneur. Interspersed with looks back, Marzorati provides an enthralling view of the forces that he believes made Serena "the most consequential athlete of her time." 


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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