Saturday, February 22, 2020

MOLLY BIT :: Dan Bevacqua

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

Dan Bevacqua's Molly Bit is the stunning portrait of a young artist who has "it," the price she pays to triumph and the personal sacrifices of her success. Everyone at her college wants to be famous, including Molly Bit. At 19, she sees signs from the universe that she's one of the chosen and makes a promise to herself to "chop off the old, dead parts and come out new, to burn them off, if need be, like she was a house fire."

Told through third-person narrative installments that leapfrog through her timeline (college in 1993; dues, 1997; success, 2001; etc.), Molly is well-drawn but also inaccessible--readers know her, yet she could be almost any aspiring celebrity on the rise. Molly's stardom breeds the need for bodyguards. Bevacqua is her literary bodyguard, using the arm's length he's constructed to masterful effect as Molly's life widens and contracts simultaneously. As tragedy befalls her ("You can't escape the confines of a traditional narrative story arc in a life like Molly Bit's"), the point of view shifts to one of Molly's oldest friends and the mystery of her demise.

Bevacqua's debut novel is compelling on multiple fronts. A pseudo-character study, it is a deeper examination of moviemaking, fame, violence and power, balanced by Bevacqua's wit. With descriptors that often reflect the celebrity absurd ("Finals exhaustion had lifted like a face peel." "A golden retriever bounded through the snow as if auditioning for a catalogue."), Molly Bit captivates as it lays bare the often-high costs of entertaining.

STREET SENSE: This is a quirky one - a character study, relationship piece and a look at Hollywood with a mystery wrapped in. I liked how Bevacqua told the story in pieces. I'll definitely check out his next offering.

COVER NERD SAYS: If you can pass up a clever take on the Hollywood sign at sunset, you're a stronger reader than I.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

THE WIFE AND THE WIDOW :: Christian White

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

In this gripping thriller, John Keddie's wife and daughter are left waiting and confused after his flight home to Melbourne has disembarked and there's no sign of him. Calls to John's office reveal he didn't attend a palliative care conference in London. In fact, John also concealed from Kate that he left Trinity Health's employ three months previously, after the death of an elderly patient hit him particularly hard.

Hours away, on Belport Island, Abby Gilpin, her property caretaker husband, Ray, and their two teens are struggling through the tourist off-season. Abby doesn't think much of it when she finds Ray's work boots and clothes in the trash and she simply moves them to the salvation bin. But Ray's whereabouts have been a bit mysterious lately, and Abby recently heard him crying in the bathroom.

Kate and Abby's individual points of view begin to merge after Kate receives a call that an alarm has been triggered at the Keddie holiday home on Belport and a body is found at the island's ferry terminal. Kate and her father-in-law head to investigate, putting all the story's principals on the island, but Australian author Christian White has plenty of clues to toss into the mix before the true connections between The Wife and the Widow are revealed.

White, Victorian Premier's Literary Award winner for The Nowhere Child, maintains a steady flow even as he nimbly uses history and secondary characters to create multiple potential scenarios. Misdirects and a terrific reveal midway through the novel add to the pleasure of White's second standalone thriller.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

CAT TALE :: Craig Pittman

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

Equal parts cautionary and alluring, Cat Tale is a story about which Craig Pittman warns, "This being Florida, there's going to be some weirdness sprinkled into this tale." The state's reputation as home to the bizarre is enhanced by Pittman's recounting of efforts to save Florida's official animal (and how that came to be is itself an oddity within oddities). A Tampa Bay Times journalist and author of several books about zany goings-on in his native state (Oh, Florida!), Pittman turns his environmentalist eye to the plight of the Florida panther.

Panthers (aka cougars, mountain lions, catamounts--all pumas) once ranged across North America, playing a crucial role in ecosystem health. As development expanded, so did conflicts between fierce predator, man and machines, until just between six and 20 big cats remained in the state. Those stragglers were in bad shape, and at risk of disappearing altogether by 2016. Cat Tale shares the extraordinary efforts of the individuals who set out to save the Florida panther from extinction.

As advertised, Pittman provides plenty of the peculiar, sprinkled liberally over absorbing science (and attempts to undermine it), dedication and courage (panther mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, anyone?), colorful heroes and villains, local lore and, naturally, political and governmental shenanigans. Pittman admirably distills decades of history and research with a reporter's acumen and a humorous soul. An enthralling story that begins with "a fussy archaeologist, a tiny wooden carving, and a wealthy playboy with a ninety-foot houseboat" ends up as a timely cautionary tale of what it takes to undo humanity's continuing ravaging of the Earth.

STREET SENSE: Florida. Need I say more?

COVER NERD SAYS: I'm not entirely sure why this cover is yellow/orange (Sunshine state? Oranges? Eye-catching?) Whatever the reason, the striking coloring along with the funky font makes this cover stand out and marks it as a little nutty. I love that the panther is rolling its eyes at its own story. That look was EARNED.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

CROSSROAD :: W.H. Cameron

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

"For the second time in as many weeks, I cross the spine of Shatter Hill at midnight and spot fire at the crossroad below." Melisende Dulac had a difficult past before moving from the East Coast to the Oregon high desert, where she transports bodies for the funeral home run by her disappeared husband's aunt and uncle. Now her present is treacherously close to eclipsing it.

What she saw at the scene of the first crossroad fire put Mel at odds with numerous locals, including the sheriff's department. Her precarious situation is further jeopardized by what she finds at the second: multiple cars and bodies, a gun, a horse, a head, a newborn baby and a glimpse of a woman who might be the Shatter Hill Spirit. Guided by the voice of her beloved brother Fitz, who died 17 years ago, Mel fights back against forces that have put her, an outsider, in the crosshairs.

The plot of W.H. Cameron's Crossroad is a stellar foundation for all the splendid extras layered on top. The author splices in Mel's history at a pace that whets readers' appetite for more. But the true tour de force is Cameron's character work. Mel is exquisitely drawn, and Cameron insightfully cultivates a supporting cast that further defines her. Appealing in their own right, they help push past and present forward to a conclusion that is resoundingly satisfying. Crossroad is marked by dark humor, grace and seeds of connections that hopefully signal a path to more Melisende Dulac.

STREET SENSE: I love Bill Cameron's writing. His plots are always intriguing, but it's the thoughtfulness and character work that always knocks my socks off. He also puts sincere thought into his chapter titles, and I always appreciate the fun of feeling the penny drop as I read and figure it out. If you're a fan of character driven stories, try some of his work.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I grew up an orphan in my own home, a guest who had overstayed her welcome. There were days when all I wanted was to know if I existed--a question Cricket and Stedman would never answer. They'd forget to account for me at meals, to pick me up if I stayed after school. When they went out, I never knew when they'd return. I was nine the first time they left me an entire weekend. I ate cereal and read Katherine Paterson. 

A few short beauts in a book full of 'em:

"Desperation is forebear to many an unconsidered decision."

"You can't call yourself a mortician till you've slept in a casket."

People exhaust me. It's probably why I prefer working with the dead.

COVER NERD SAYS: Bill's books have some of my favorite covers and this one is no different. Usually dark and mysterious with a flash of danger. Fire, blood, some dangerous splash of what lies within. On this one, I love how the starry sky plays with the title font. Super well done.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

CANYON DREAMS :: Michael Powell

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

"Nothing about a basketball season is easy. Neither is life," says Raul Mendoza, who has coached "rez ball" for four decades, the only living reservation coach with a state championship ring. He heads the Wildcats of Chinle High School, the largest school on the Navajo reservation in Apache County, Ariz.

In Canyon Dreams, sports journalist Michael Powell recounts time spent with the Wildcats during their quest for a championship. Powell was drawn to the story after living near Chinle 25 years earlier, where he entered a pickup game and ended up feeling that he'd been "caught in the wrong lane with Olympic marathon runners."

Powell merges the profile of Mendoza with that of his players and their environs, set against the backdrop of the community and Navajo history. "The grip of hoops on the Navajo psyche" is plain, and the pressure and hunger to win comes across as an insistent, immutable ache. Some 4,000 people live in Chinle. On game nights, 5,000 crowd the Wildcat Den, seated in a hierarchy as formalized as a royal court.

Mendoza's job is bigger than coaching. He counsels teenagers "perched on that precarious cliff wall" between adolescence and manhood, soon facing the decision of whether to leave their Navajo world. Survival is a question on either side, with reservation life marked by alcoholism, unplanned pregnancies, domestic abuse, suicide and troubling bureaucracy. Powell's immersion in the people and their traditions is heartfelt and lyrical, tied to the land and culture that leave kids to ponder "Can I leave this? I don't know yet. It's my puzzle."

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

SNOW :: Giles Whittell

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

When Giles Whittell's mother read him Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, it made an instant, indelible impression, like "air conditioning in book form" for an eight-year-old in the thick of a Nigerian summer. As an adult, Whittell's fixation gave rise to Snow, a comprehensive look at the science behind, impact of and somewhat surprisingly vast cultural influence of flakes. "Snow irrigates. It gives skiers something to slide on. It covers mountains... like thick icing. It is the only thing on Earth that brings quiet to New York City, and it makes curlicues out of molasses."

From this soul-felt introduction, U.K. journalist Whittell shovels into heady science, including the mystery of snow's formation. "We can edit genes and create membranes a single atom thick, but we still don't know how snowflakes grow." Not that we aren't trying. Machines at Caltech create "the world's most perfect artificial snowflakes" for study. Who knew dust was a key? But why always six sides? The complex answer lies in angles, atoms, molecules and temperature.

Further evidence of the extraordinary nature of snow follows in chapters about snow's impact on the natural world (how polar bears came to be), culture (star of the most courageous stunt in cinema history) and transport (for survival and for chasing Olympic medals). Snow isn't all fun and games; it's big business, and a marker of seasons that some take for granted. Although our relationship with snow is "complicated and expensive," we must pay attention lest snow's retreat become irreversible.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

MIGRATING TO PRISON :: César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández

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

The U.S. is obsessed with locking up immigrants, says César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, lawyer and University of Denver professor, who has extensive knowledge about U.S. immigration and imprisonment. Migrating to Prison provides an eye-opening look at the origins of the system and how it operates, with family detention somehow viewed as a humanitarian response to family separation; particularly infuriating when separations result from the targeting of "criminal aliens." These fellow humans range from asylum seekers fleeing hardships to soldiers dealing with PTSD after fighting for the country that now disowns them.
García Hernández presents an abundance of facts and history in a passionate yet credible fashion that should raise the hackles of everyone. The tale isn't a new one. Targeted confinement dates back to anti-Chinese sentiment of 1800s California. It's no coincidence that selective imprisonment escalated following the civil rights movement--a substitution for racism that could no longer be expressed as openly. García Hernández posits that the system isn't broken, but is intended to marginalize minorities for political and financial gain.
The author argues that immigration law is like "a bouncer at a trendy nightclub" and Americans have "always used fear and race to imprison those we see as threats," allowing "white racists [to] find comfort against the prevailing winds of change." García Hernández makes a solid case for the situation as a "humanitarian catastrophe." By any stretch, "the promise that the United States welcomes 'anyone with the will and heart to get here' is flat out false." 

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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