Friday, January 22, 2021

PICNIC IN THE RUINS :: Todd Robert Petersen

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

A murdered, self-taught archeologist dentist, a National Park ranger, a disillusioned German dermatologist, an assassin named Scissors, two hapless brothers (one "tall and thin and off-kilter," the other resembling a "burnt stump"), a Japanese video game designer, a Princeton doctoral candidate, a conspiracy theorist recluse, sister wives and numerous other intriguing characters converge near Bryce Canyon National Park in Picnic in the Ruins, Todd Robert Petersen's darkly comic, madcap thriller with overarching social themes.

When artifact collector Bruce Cluff is killed, several maps are stolen from his home. What the maps show and who wants them is the greater plot arc, supported by a series of underlying threads that add to the mystery and lunacy. Sophia Shepard is researching her thesis on the ethics of preserving ancient artifacts ("One person's artifact is another person's ancestor"). Tourist Reinhardt Kupfer, disillusioned with the U.S. and his tour group, departs on his own "quest." Paul Thrift, park ranger and Sophia's semi-romantic friend, takes her on an outing to one of the secret map locations where she learns things she doesn't want to know. Not long after, they find themselves in a shootout and on the run with Reinhardt.

Unsurprisingly, Petersen (Rift) teaches creative writing and screen studies at Southern Utah University. Picnic is wildly creative and easily envisioned. The cultural appropriation and preservation lessons are thick, but they come by an honest need to avoid being engulfed by the blackly humorous, action-packed adventure. This fun caper stands up to some needed mindfulness.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

A CROOKED TREE :: Una Mannion

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

"The night we left Ellen on the road, we were driving north up 252 near where it meets 202 and then crosses the Pennsylvania Turnpike." Una Mannion's debut novel opens with this unsettling event, setting the stage for a coming-of-age story infused with a desperate tension and threat of vengeance that amplify its emotional wallops. A Crooked Tree is poignantly narrated by 12-year-old Ellen's older sister Libby, 15, full of normal teen angst while also struggling with her father's death, her mother's neglect and her oldest sibling Marie's impending departure for New York.

After being forced out of the family car by her angry mother, Ellen shows up bloodied and shell-shocked at the home where Libby is babysitting. She reports jumping from the car of a disturbing man with waist-length white hair and long fingernails, having asked him for a ride up Valley Forge Mountain. Fearful of being separated if authorities discover how they live, Libby tells only Marie. But three people knowing a secret is two too many, and soon the man they dub "Barbie Man" has reason to return for revenge.

As the plot swirls towards a showdown, Mannion deftly weaves the varied plot threads into a magnificent whole. Like the crooked tree near the fort built with her best friend, Libby's mettle is bent and tested by forces spinning out of control as she tries to keep her family safe. A tale of trust, friendship and valor set against a backdrop of wicked apprehension, Mannion's work is spectacularly accomplished. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

PICKARD COUNTY ATLAS :: Chris Harding Thornton

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

In a town with "three dozen jobs, give or take," the history of each Madson, Neb., homestead permeates the land and its denizens. Deputy Harley Jensen patrols every night, "absently tick[ing] off names of passing tracts like reading a plat map in an old atlas." The events at his abandoned childhood farmhouse are inescapable, often reflected in the eyes or words of his community, and Harley always speeds past. But as Chris Harding Thornton's dark and brilliant debut, Pickard County Atlas, opens, Harley pulls in and finds Paul Reddick there.

The Reddicks were scarred by a 1960 tragedy that remains part mystery. Paul, then four, remembers his family only as broken. In the 18 years since, he's been involved in numerous violent events and run-ins with Harley, who likens him to a bad penny, though "you turn up often enough--wrong place, wrong time--you seem less like an omen than a reason."  

Thornton immediately sets a country noirish stage, dropping clues that smolder through the pages as she reveals each family's past. Paul's parents are long-divorced and shells of their former selves. Brother Rick is married with a young daughter, his family a tinderbox of desperation. Though the plot appears male-centric, the women are its true, complex heart. Thornton's expert prose and turns of phrase beg for repeat reading ("cooked like those hobos her mother once told her had roasted in a freight car") and the character work is full of depth and detail that astonish; a dazzling display of literary prowess.

Friday, January 8, 2021


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

"The alleyway was quiet tonight, the perfect setting for the conveyance of secrets" as an unidentified woman confides one she's held for seven years. This shadowy intrigue permeates the opening of T.A. Willberg's debut, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder, sucking readers into a fun and fast-paced story filled with murder, mystery, lies and Bondian gadgetry in 1958 London.

The how and who of the transmission plunges the narrative into the bowels of the city, where myth and history reside. Behind a loose brick, a carrier cylinder connects with miles of underground pneumatic piping. The piping system, like a "magical, invisible postman," routes hundreds of hidden mailboxes to one location--the Filing Department of the Inquirers, nameless sleuths who guard the city. Because the department operates outside the legal system, no one is sure it exists, only that justice is often mysteriously served.

Marion Lane longs to escape from under the thumb of her grandmother, who disapproves of independent women having their own lives. Marion's life changes drastically when an old friend of her deceased mother offers her a job at Miss Brickett's Secondhand Books and Curiosities. But Miss Brickett's has no customers, and Marion soon understands she's been recruited as an apprentice Inquirer.

Willberg creates an exceptional sense of place, and her diverse (and expansive) cast of characters makes for a long list of suspects when receipt of the secret results in murder. Marion and her cohorts race against time, villains and devilishly entertaining contraptions to throw a wrench in an evil plot. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020


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

"Terroir" is a "somewhat controversial concept with an unsettled definition." It is essentially a French descriptor for how crop flavors are influenced by the environment (soil layers, topography, climate, etc.). As master distiller at Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., maker of the TX Whiskey brand, Rob Arnold is spellbound by terroir. And Arnold himself is a study in terroir--almost all of his mother's side of the family worked in bourbon.

Arnold undertook a years-long process to educate himself about how environment affects product, ultimately writing a Ph.D. dissertation for Texas A&M's plant-breeding program on "how genetic and environmental forces influence corn-derived flavors in whiskey." In an industry that commonly uses co-op and commodity sales, TX Whiskey is one of a rising number of distillers sourcing grains from one farm to understand better environmental impact on flavor.

Arnold's thesis research forms the backbone of The Terroir of Whiskey, an in-depth look at crop growth, fermentation, distillation and aging of wine and whiskey. The wine industry--known for using terroir--was where Arnold began his immersive journey to show a correlation in whiskey. His world travel to wine and whiskey producers, discussions with makers, tastings, analyses and conclusions make for heady reading. Arnold smartly and capably writes for the distiller, educated taster and novice alike, breaking issues into lay language as necessary (even using Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the Tasmanian Devil to explain). Arnold provides specifics for the reader to taste along with him, resulting in a full sensory educational experience. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

THE WRONG FAMILY :: Tarryn Fisher

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

When Juno Holland semi-accidentally winds up locked in the Seattle home of Winnie and Nigel Crouch while trespassing, she decides to take advantage of the opportunity to help them secretly. At 67, Juno has few pleasures left in life. Seriously ill and homeless after losing her family and her counseling practice, she wants to do some good before she dies. In The Wrong Family, Tarryn Fisher (The Wives) takes the unreliable narrator theme to a fascinating place as readers experience the Crouches, their teen son and extended family through Juno's damaged mind.

Nigel and Winnie are obviously at odds. As Juno overhears their late-night fights and accusations from her hidey hole, her curiosity and inner therapist begin to get the best of her. Confined to the house by the alarm system during the day, her food and drink forages expand to include snooping in drawers and on the computer. What she finds convinces her there are past wrongs that need to be set right--by any means necessary.

Fisher deftly weaves Winnie's experiences with Juno's, providing another viewpoint that keeps the puzzle pieces turning, searching for the sweet spot of the truth. The "perfect" life Winnie has cultivated can't erase the horrible thing she did that keeps her and Nigel forever bound yet separated by an emotional chasm. Unknown to Juno, Winnie's entire family is a powder keg; unknown to Winnie, Juno is working to bring the past into light. The combination makes for an explosive conclusion as the pieces fall into place. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

DO NOT DISTURB :: Claire Douglas

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

Working chronologically through an evening marked by middle-of-the-night screams and a woman kneeling over a bloodied body, Claire Douglas's Do Not Disturb is a twisting tale of secrets that threaten to implode a family's fresh start. Kirsty and Adrian Whitehouse leave London with their young daughters for her native Wales to escape a rough 18 months. Adrian's problems are hinted at, but Kirsty is also fulfilling a dream by purchasing a guesthouse with the help of her emotionally distant mother.

Beginning two months before the night of violence, Douglas (Local Girl Missing) deftly introduces family members and history that has affected their lives. As the inn opens, Kirsty is furious that her cousin Selena is coming to stay. The two were once like sisters, but Kirsty cut off Selena years ago because of her lying ways. Selena is escaping what she claims is a bad marriage, hiding out with her medically incapacitated daughter, but soon her hoodlum childhood boyfriend shows up. Then Kirsty's brother Nathan and his wife arrive, increasing the tension with their apparent personal troubles and Nathan's long-held torch for Selena.

When a body ends up at the foot of the stairs, everyone is wound so tightly the suspects are hard to narrow down. Spooky goings-on and rumors of past violence at the inn add to the unease. The subplots are numerous, and some are left hanging. Douglas's ambitious narrative makes those fairly easy to forgive as hidden truths come to light, leading to partial resolution and a stunning furtherance of deceit. 

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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