Tuesday, August 2, 2016


"Sometimes we don't have a choice. Even when we want one."

Neliza Drew's debut novel, All the Bridges Burning, is aptly titled. I have great appreciation for an author who doesn't shy from the dark places and isn't afraid to simply burn everything to the ground. Not that everything started out peaches and cream for Drew's protagonist, Davis Groves. Just the opposite. She and her two sisters grew up in a hostile, abusive environment.

Davis eventually got out, knowing she had to do so to save what remained of her mind and body. She thought she and her sister Nik left younger sister Lane in as good a position as possible, despite the fact Lane is still living with their unstable addict mother. In the time she's been away, Davis has continued working to make herself as invulnerable as possible, at least on the outside.

When she learns Lane has been arrested for killing a man, Davis is drawn back "home" to do what she feels she failed to do previously--save her sister. What she finds is an angry teen she doesn't recognize, a mother who insists Davis is dead, and years of ghosts, good and bad, coming out of the woodwork to throw wrenches in her works.

Davis has a powerful yet obviously damaged voice that seethes with authenticity. When you find yourself feeling (and wondering) how much of a story is autobiographical (either through self-experience or as a witness), you know an author has crossed into fearlessness and vulnerability.

Knowing things and being able to write them effectively are two different things. Drew is a second-degree black belt (maybe higher by the time I write this). Proficient as she is physically, describing an action scene is a very distinct and difficult task. In All the Bridges Burning, Drew proves she has a black belt with the written word. Her action scenes are tight, realistically brief, and non-fanciful. Her combatants suffer from their acts and don't miraculously recover with a little spit and polish.

Likewise, Drew's writing feels deeply on point when she's addressing difficult issues, whether through dialogue or exposition. She is able to channel her experience with troubled youth onto the page without missing a beat or moving into cliche. Even beyond the story itself, reading Drew's work is both enjoyable and an immersion into raw emotion that feels aptly uncomfortable.

As Davis takes on her past in order to save Lane, the story bends and twists and adds characters such that you need to pay attention. It all comes together, while leaving room for Drew to revisit Davis from a multitude of perspectives. Other than a flashback sex scene that took me out of the narrative for a moment, I was sucked in by Drew's writing from start to finish.

STREET SENSE:  All the Bridges Burning is an emotional and gritty debut that brings to life a female protagonist with plenty of edges to explore. Davis is authentic and multi-dimensional, wounded and fierce. This is crime fiction strong on character and I look forward to learning more about Davis Groves.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Unfortunately, Adobe Digital Editions decided to eat all my highlights, of which there were plenty. Drew has a great voice, and more than one turn of phrase had me re-reading. Thankfully, I wrote a few down, so I'm just going to go ahead and share those.

The opening sucked me right in:

The first time I saw someone die, I was almost thirteen years old and still naive enough to hope our mother, Charley, would keep us safe.

And this:

After he left, I sat in the car and looked at my hands. There was blood there no one else could see. A lot of it was mine.

In one scene, Davis is being patched up after a fight. Her friend Craig is applying bandages on fresh wounds, not commenting on "the melted whorls in the shape of a stove burner that refused to disappear."

I loved Davis's description of a public defender:

...a small man with a neck like a turtle who looked like he'd take any opportunity to duck down into his brown suit jacket and refuse to return.

And these of herself:

In my experience, sometimes people had personalities that just lent themselves to eventual execution or accidental death. Many would argue I was one of them.

The normal me I'd tried so hard to be had peeled away, like a costume left on the floor after a night of Halloween partying.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This cover is something special, because despite really being pretty far outside my wheelhouse, I kinda fell in love with it on sight. I love the color palette, and the images and text all fit together perfectly.

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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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