Wednesday, March 20, 2019


Murder Once Removed was the bigass winner of the 2017 Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery award. I'm sure you're all thinking "Why would a curmudgeony fan of violence and grit be looking at domestic mysteries?" Because THIS one is written by the inimitable S.C. ("Rodeo Sandy") Perkins, that's why. And give that cover a gander, why don't you? #Winning.

The star of Murder Once Removed is smart, sassy, Mexican-food-enthused genealogical expert Lucy Lancaster, who resides in Austin, Texas, and makes her living tracking ancestral histories for her clients.*

Lucy's company, Ancestry Investigations, is currently working for one of Austin's most prestigious families. Billionaire gentleman and "stubborn, opinionated old coot" Gus Halloran has asked Lucy to track his lineage. Lucy being Lucy, she also sticks her nose into the suspicious 1849 death of Gus's great-great-grandfather and comes up with new information that proves he was murdered and said murder just may be linked to another prominent Austin family, the Applewhites.

The Applewhites and the Hallorans have done their best to one-up each other over the generations, with sitting U.S. Senator Daniel Applewhite currently facing Pearce Halloran in a heated upcoming election. Lucy's discovery of the murder and potential involvement of the Applewhite family comes to light; which is, of course, when all the sidewalk cracks start bearing weeds, leading to mayhem and murder.

The story is a cracker and educational to boot. Perkins did an incredibly admirable job of explaining "once-removeds" and "great-great-greats" to this remedial maroon. The mystery is well done on its own, though any story is hard-pressed to outshine feisty Lucy, her incredible friends, her frenemies, the parties, the food (if Big Flaco's Taco's doesn't exist this world is a darker place), and Neil Patrick Housecat. The repartee is reminiscent of a screwball comedy and if you don't want to hang out with Lucy and the gang when you're done I'll eat a 10-gallon hat. Perkins's character work is fabulous.

Murder Once Removed is fast-paced, yet Perkins includes historical tidbits that make Austin feel like a place the reader has to visit, if only to get a look at a building shaped like nose-hair clippers (and eat the food). I Googled it, Perkins's assessment is spot on and the insight and humor she shows on all fronts is a delight. This book is charming as all get-out and I highly recommend it.

If you'd like a more in-depth sense of S.C. Perkins, her sense of adventure, and where Lucy sprang from, please head on over to Pop Culture Nerd's site, where we put Stephanie through the wringer of our weirdo Q&A.

Happy debut, Stephanie, here's hoping for many more!

*(side note: I have never wanted to do this, as I know I come from a long line of Australian convicts and Slovenian bootleggers and it can only get worse from there, but the packages Lucy puts together for her clients are enough to make me wish she was real and maybe I could buy the history of Cary Grant or someone cool and interesting. The details Stephanie includes are fantastic and never overwhelm the narrative, a tough win when you're dealing with complex issues such as genealogy.)

Friday, March 15, 2019


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

"What's the difference between a vigilante and a superhero?" Questions of superhero lore have historically been the subject of comics, graphic novels and movies--full of color, spandex suits and a deluge of action through imagery. In The Reign of the Kingfisher, T.J. Martinson novelizes the superhero comics form with such a meticulous yet fluid style, readers may forget there is no artwork.

Following the death of the Kingfisher, an enigmatic, larger-than-life sentinel who dealt with bad guys outside the confines of the law, Chicago's violent crime rate steadily increased. Thirty years later, the mystery of the Kingfisher is given new life via a ransom video. Disguised as a member of the hacker protest group Liber-teens, a man threatens to kill hostages until the cops release the Kingfisher's unpublished autopsy report and admit they helped fake his death.

Retired journalist Marcus Waters is brought in to view the video since he spent his career writing about the Kingfisher. When he provides a big clue the police seem less than anxious to pursue, Marcus's reporter gut and desire to save lives spur him to investigate, aided by a brilliant Liber-teen hacker and a disgraced cop.

In portraying a gripping race against time and into history, Martinson packs the narrative with details that set the stage minutely yet organically. On its face a breakneck thriller, Kingfisher also delves into themes of morality and vigilantism, corruption and justice. Martinson's debut is compelling, artistic and, quite simply, a blast.

STREET SENSE: While comic fans should love this one, you don't have to be one to enjoy it. At its core there is a compelling mystery and nice character work. Action, conspiracy, crime, betrayal, a madman threatening to kill innocent people, what could be better? 

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Heroes are named by history and judged by the future.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I like this cover. A lot. But this is one of those times a book synopsis is really what won me over. It sounded so different, like a graphic novel in non-graphic form, and I wanted to see if that could be pulled off. The answer is yes, and I think the "superhero-ish" theme of this cover serves the book well. Also dig the color palette.

Monday, March 11, 2019


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

Rena Ruggiero was a good Brooklyn mob wife. A regular churchgoer, she stayed out of Gentle Vic's business and has lived a quiet life since he was gunned down. Then Enzio, with "earlobes that dangle like melted coins," makes a pass at her. After fighting back, she steals his impeccable Impala and flees. Rena runs to the Bronx, to the home of her estranged daughter, Adrienne, and 15-year-old granddaughter, Lucia. Rejected, Rena is invited in by fireball neighbor Lacey Wolfstein, a former x-rated actress who moved in across the street after a stint hustling cash from rich men in Florida.

Things go spectacularly sideways when one of Wolfie's old marks shows up, as does Richie Schiavano, Vic's former right-hand man, who has knocked off a mob sit-down and stolen a briefcase full of cash to fund a future with Adrienne and Lucia. The confrontation at Wolfie's gets deadly when a sledgehammer-wielding gangster comes after Richie. Believing in the titular Robert Louis Stevenson quote, "A friend is a gift you give yourself," Wolfie takes Rena and Lucia under her street-smart wing and on the run.

William Boyle's work (Gravesend, The Lonely Witness) is some of the finest in crime fiction and while he ticks every box each time out, the emphasis changes. Character and nonstop action are gloriously on the rampage here, as three very different women join forces to survive high-speed car chases, crashes, shootings, violent men and general bedlam. Boyle's dialogue snaps and his sense of place is top-notch. This roller-coaster madcap tragicomedy is a great gift to give yourself.

STREET SENSE: After writing this review, I saw William Boyle describe it as "screwball noir," and now I'm bereft I didn't think of or use that phrasing, because it's perfect. This unusual trio of women on the run after an evening gone awry is well worth checking out

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  There are so many great quotables in this book, both long and short. Some had meaning to the plot, others to me specifically, many just life in general. I pulled a couple short ones that stuck:

Praise be random adventures. Praise be survival. Praise be not having a plan.

*  *  * 

We're all unfinished wreckage. Whatever's not dead is fixable.

COVER NERD SAYS: Huge fan of this cover and Boyle's covers in general, which are now very thematically similar. If they keep with this format, I will recognize a William Boyle book on a bookstore table or shelf without even reading the words. Lean, mean, smart and gorgeous.

Friday, March 8, 2019

SAY NOTHING :: Patrick Radden Keefe

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

Say Nothing ticks all the boxes of a remarkable work of nonfiction. This particular story of the political and nationalist conflict in Ireland (the Troubles) highlights a handful of spellbinding individuals whose actions changed the course of Irish history. Through meticulous reporting captivatingly relayed by investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing offers a thrilling history lesson told through the lens of an unsolved mystery.

Murders were part and parcel of the Troubles, with more than 3,500 killed between the late 1960s and '90s. But only 16 were "disappeared"--abducted, murdered and secretly buried. Among them was Jean McConville, a 38-year-old mother of 10 when a gang of masked intruders took her from her home in Belfast in 1972. It took 30 years to recover Jean's remains.

The hows and whys of her death are spun through decades of violence, jailbreaks, movie star romance, former-felon politicians, hunger strikes, and double- and triple-agents of the IRA and British police. Most incredibly, a secret cache of IRA confessionals lies waiting in the special Treasure Room enclosure of a Boston College library. Truth is undoubtedly stranger than fiction.

Any retelling of the Troubles worth its salt is necessarily lengthy and complex. By sandwiching it between arcs on the Treasure Room, the mystery of Jean McConville and how all the secrets came unraveled, Keefe breathes new life into history. As evidenced by the nearly 100 pages of notes and secondary sources, this was no small feat. Keefe's work is both anguishing and triumphant.

STREET SENSE: The mystery of Jean McConville and how it unraveled was spellbinding. The middle was a little too detailed for my particular tastes and I lost my gumption a tiny bit. As noted above, however, it's tough to tell a down and dirty story that is so intertwined with the history of the Troubles and its various factions and participants. Understanding that, Keefe did a great job, it just resulted in a little speed-reading now and again. For those of you who love getting lost in the details, it will probably feel spot-on.

COVER NERD SAYS: I hate to admit this, but I was lured into this one by a PR statement from Gillian Flynn. I am not generally a fan of blurbs and usually ignore them, but (1) I don't see Flynn's name tossed around promoting many books and (2) it wasn't technically a blurb. This cover probably would have caught my eye regardless, minimalist lover of all things dark that I am. If anything, this cover might go a bit too stark and has a hint of the DIY look, but there's no contesting the image is compelling and makes up for what the font or spacing take away.

Monday, March 4, 2019

TACOMA STORIES :: Richard Wiley

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

An eclectic assortment of dive bar owners, staff and patrons constitute "sixteen characters in search of a play on St. Patrick's Day, 1968" in the opening of Richard Wiley's Tacoma Stories. Following its heyday, Pat's Tavern is coasting into oblivion in Tacoma, Wash. The 13 stories that follow the introductory installment, "Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die," examine the lives of the players as they branch into the acts of their lives between 1958 and 2012.

One woman, daughter of two famous parents, visits Tacoma because "it's comfortable, it's beautiful, and it leaves me alone," wondering if a town can replace people and "hedge against the unabated loneliness of the human heart." Although place infuses Wiley's stories, it's the longing and wounded hearts that give them full color.

The search for meaning and connection is a common thread. In "The Man Who Looks at the Floor," retired spy Jonathan can't leave his spook days behind, enlisting his wife to be a "mole" and befriend a suspicious disfigured man. When Millie takes to the stranger, Jonathan begins to understand he's been paying attention to the wrong people all along. In "The Dancing Cobra," Wiley uses an accidentally misappropriated vibrator with humorous and touching effect to explore the relationships of several teens and adults.

Winner of the PEN/​Faulkner Award for Best American Fiction (Soldiers in Hiding), Wiley shines in the short form, absorbing the reader in slices of one town and its inhabitants while rendering them universal.

STREET SENSE: For fans of intertwined stories of loves, losses and longings over a lifetime; Wiley doesn't steer you wrong.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Whenever Mary thought of Annabella Sciorra, she also tended to think about Sister Wendy Beckett, the British art-critic nun who said, "God did not give me the dangerous gift of beauty" on TV. Mary, who'd been in bed with Earl, her lover, drinking wine and eating crackers when she heard it, reacted as if Sister Wendy Beckett were speaking directly to her. She had the gift of beauty, dangerous or not, and this semi-cloistered art critic was asking her what she was going to do about it. It was a turning point for Mary, who pointed at Sister Wendy Beckett's television image. "What if she had  been beautiful?" she asked Earl. "How would it have changed her life, and how would the lack of beauty have changed mine? If I were Sister Wendy, would you be here in bed with me, Earl, drinking this wine?"

COVER NERD SAYS: Cover gut picked me another winner. Wood grain, bar coaster, hint of a night full of cigarettes and booze. Sign me up. I had a feeling there would be some good stories lurking beneath the wear and tear.

Monday, February 25, 2019

NEVER TELL :: Lisa Gardner

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

Thankfully, Lisa Gardner chucked her career in food service after catching her hair on fire too many times, freeing her to become the author of 20-plus thrillers. Gardner's writing is ever-evolving as she adds new forms and actors to the mix. In the 10th installment of her Detective D.D. Warren series, Never Tell, Gardner gives equal time to a newly recurring character, survivor advocate and confidential informant Flora Dane, and to the suspect in the murder at hand, Evie Carter.

Evie is found standing over her husband with the smoking gun in hand. D.D. recognizes Evie as the grown version of the girl she investigated for shooting her father to death years earlier. When the new case hits the media, Flora shows up with shocking news--she recognizes the victim, Conrad Carter, from when she was kidnapped and held captive several years earlier (Find Her).

From the alternating and varied perspectives of these three fascinating and complex women, Gardner delves into marriage and family dynamics, power, perception and the lengths people will go to hide and protect their secrets. Her character work is beautifully done, and she deftly handles multiple narrators, timelines and plot arcs. Gardner strikes what feels like a perfect tone with 10 books of background to contend with, keeping the present fresh while providing necessary history. Never Tell is an excellent addition to the D.D. Warren series and proof it's never too late to draw in new fans. 

STREET SENSE: I was somewhat hesitant to take on this assignment, as I think I read the first D.D. Warren book and then for some reason did not continue with the series. Now I feel as if I want to go back and read the others. It's not necessary in order to understand anything from this book, Gardner played the history aspect really well, but I *want* to, despite not having a big desire to take on a new series. This was a super installment that didn't make me feel left out, just wanting more.

COVER NERD SAYS: I'm a bit tired of the "woman from behind" cover, whether it's a close-up or full-body shot. I don't really see a fit between this cover image and the content, other than there are three main women characters. I do find something compelling about the color palette, which is eye-catching. And certainly the focus is on the author here, since Gardner has been around long enough that folks will pick up a book because her name is on it. I also think the bold, hard-edged font balances out the "softness" of the cover image, which might give the impression, taken alone, that there is something soft about this book. I wish it was "more," but I suppose it doesn't really need to be. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

NORTHERN LIGHTS :: Raymond Strom

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

It was just by accident that Shane Stephenson stopped getting haircuts. His straight blond locks haven't even reached his shoulders the first time he's pushed into a wall and called names. Once he graduates high school in 1997, six months after his father's death, his disapproving uncle throws him out of the house. 

Heading to college in Minneapolis, Shane stops in the declining town of Holm to see the mother who abandoned him, only to find her gone. With his slim build and androgynous look, Shane finds plenty of foes in Holm, a "boys will be boys" place where folks celebrate their "heritage" with the Confederate flag, Timothy McVeigh is a hero, kids struggle to escape and the drug trade flourishes.

In Northern Lights, debut novelist Raymond Strom paints an aching portrait of a young man searching for a sense of self and belonging. While looking for clues in Holm, Shane finds a circle of friends and adversaries who push his boundaries and compel him to confront who he wants to be. When his closest companion comes up with a plan to take down the bigot tormenting Shane, the tragic fallout further shapes him and his future.

Strom creates a fantastic sense of place and how it works on his characters, particularly with respect to the gritty underbelly of substance abuse and financial straits. Shane is an unforgettable hero in his own story, both lost and possessing a vulnerable inner strength. Through him, Strom demonstrates how connections can be forged even in the unlikeliest of places.

STREET SENSE:  Fans of small-town drama (even the maddening kind) and nuanced character work should enjoy this impressive debut with a young protagonist you can't help but love and root for.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I could see side-by-side how my long hair had made me look like a girl. It didn't help me understand why it had led some people to the edge of their wits, but I could see the cause for confusion in a way that I hadn't before. I had always been me, as far as I could tell, the change in my hair so subtle from day to day that I had grown into my own vision of myself over the years it took to get that long.

COVER NERD SAYS: I was an immediate sucker for this cover. The spare sepia image and font evoke mystery and gritty character work, which is exactly what I got and more. I admit I'm a minimalist, but this cover is proof you don't have to be fancy to be attention-grabbing.

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.


  © Blogger templates Newspaper by 2008

Back to TOP