Wednesday, July 10, 2019


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

Casting into the Light: Tales of a Fishing Life is the memoir of teacher, taxidermist and surfcaster Janet Messineo's 40 years of fishing, adding a distinct new voice to the choir of sportswriters. As a girl, she was captivated by the lure of the striped bass, the most prized migratory fish in the Northeast due to the degree of difficulty in catching the crafty ocean night-feeders. Now a respected surfcaster, Messineo spent years teaching herself the sport and breaking into the inner circle of colorful Martha's Vineyard locals.

A fascinating story of fish and their predilections, as well as the high art of the hunt (and sometimes hijinks and tricks of the trade), Messineo's story is intimately personal. She shares her rough beginnings, fishing for food and money while relationships burned and burned out. In no small part due to the restorative influence of nature, she continues to conquer her demons.

Messineo never loses sight of the fact that perseverance and dedication to her craft remain at the whim of the fish, the sea and her tools. The dream of landing the big one, whether in the famed Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby or alone on a dark beach, keeps her casting against the odds, her line compulsively in the water. Messineo's voice is passionate and she's an enthralling storyteller concerned about the environment and continuing the traditions of the individual fisherman. Humor, zealousness and adoration more than smooth some minor disjointed thoughts and repetitions, making this memoir a prize catch.

STREET SENSE: As a kid, I fished with my dad (mostly catch-and-release, he was a big softy). As an adult, I'm a vegetarian. But I like reading stories of those who have differing views to get their insight. The thought of someone hooking an ancient fish and not setting it free bothers me, I'm not going to pretend it doesn't. Yet I know it happens and will continue to happen. I appreciate reading about people who feel the "gravity" of their sport in their bones and do it for sustenance while recognizing the impact on the environment (bad and not bad). I had respect for Janet Messineo, who fishes while also not hesitating to berate anyone she sees keeping a fish against the rules or without proper respect for the life taken. See quote below.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I deeply feel the ultimate paradox of wanting so badly to hook and land the biggest fish in history, but then I see myself standing over a magnificent creature and feeling compassion for all the years it evaded other fishermen, and I make the decision to set it free.

COVER NERD SAYS: Mixed feelings about this one, alternating between the artful beauty and simplicity of it and the nagging feeling that it's a bit too casual. I like the fact that the image mostly speaks for itself, but perhaps a slightly larger or less "straight and narrow" font would have given it a bit more oomph. Tough for me so say as I'm usually a "less is more" fan, but in this case just a hint more might be called for.

Monday, July 8, 2019


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

"They're kids, for heaven's sake. What have they got to be fearful of?" Perhaps more than anyone knew. In 1992, sisters Ruth, Hannah and Cordie Van Apfel disappeared during Tikka Malloy's skit in their school's Showstopper production. Twenty years later, Tikka returns to Australia to face her sister Laura's lymphoma diagnosis and her own decades-long haunting.

Tikka and Laura knew things they didn't tell in 1992. What Tikka knew, or thought she knew, has gnawed at and unsettled her ever since, with false Cordie sightings continuous as a tic. The detective told them to "sit tight"--he would find their friends. But Tikka can no longer sit tight, compelled to address the past and whether her family did enough to help their neighbors.

Australian journalist Felicity McLean's The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is a well-layered puzzle with unexplained pieces to spare. At the core of this gripping debut novel are the uncertain perceptions of young Tikka and 2012 Tikka, still partially trapped in her 11-year-old self.

McLean's often striking prose swirls deftly between the two Tikkas as suspicions begin to emerge--about the Van Apfels and their violently pious patriarch, Cordie's broken arm, and the school's first male teacher. A slow burn that maintains an electric current of dread, the narrative is also cleverly colored by the underpinning of the infamous Chamberlain case. Although more than 30 years later it was confirmed that Lindy Chamberlain's baby was indeed snatched by a dingo, the Van Apfel girls may get no such closure.

STREET SENSE: Fans of ambiguous mysteries will dig this one. I love an author who has the guts to leave questions unanswered, or at least up for interpretation. There is some beautiful writing here, and I loved young Tikka's relationship with her father.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I'm a sucker for writers who can pull off a long passage and a quick, down-and-dirty beaut. Some of my favorites by McLean contain spoilers, but here are a couple of safe bits:

Then Mr. Van Apfel appeared, stepping forward with his arms outstretched and his palms to the sky as if coming in from the Lord’s outfield.

They had six femurs, ninety-nine vertebrae, three skulls and thirty fingernails. Six kneecaps, forty-eight carpal bones, and more than three million strands of blonde hair, all tinged alien-green by the chlorine in their pool which, up until the day they went missing, we’d swum in almost every single day that summer. And yet all these things vanished—just evaporated in the heat. Not a single sign was left for us.

It was a ganglion, Macedon Close. A ganglion. (I got “ganglion” from our extension spelling list in week five of term two, back when we did “The Human Body.”) That’s what our cul-de-sac was: a lump that grows in some place it shouldn’t and nobody’s really sure why.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I was attracted to this cover the instant I saw it, despite never having been a big pink person. I'm not even sure when I sat and tried to figure out the image in the font, or how long it took me. The image is there if you look, but the girl has really disappeared into the font, just like the Van Apfel sisters. Clean and striking, this cover does a great job with a title that could be tricky, and thankfully didn't fall prey to the overused theme of girls/women seen from behind running into dark woods, which could easily have been done here. Kudos. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2019


I was honored to have a starred version of this review run in the June 28th Stonewall anniversary issue of Shelf Awareness, a one-time-only-all-queer-books-all-the-time sort of deal. This version is republished here with permission.

As a gay, Muslim, South Asian boy from South Yorkshire, Tan France grew up with a multitude of conflicting emotions. Sure of himself and "weirdly world wise" from watching mature television dramas, France faced racism and homophobia that left him doubting whether his differences would ever be accepted. He fantasized about "being a white kid," and pretended to "give a shit about watching football on TV when I clearly just wanted to watch reruns of Golden Girls and hang on the lanai, eating cheesecake with those broads."

In Naturally Tan, a thoughtful memoir full of attitude, heart and bravado, France shares how he became one of the "Fab Five"--a handful of design, fashion and culture experts who transform everyday "heroes" on the Netflix series Queer Eye. A "very few fucks given" kind of guy with an affinity for personal style, France forged a path to success at a young age, building several wildly successful fashion brands by his 30s.

France has a knack for straight talk peppered with feistiness and humor, and his conversational style makes for an entertaining read. Naturally Tan is a series of short, contemplative pieces on sexuality, diversity, media, celebrity, marriage and business that deftly mix in anecdotes and tips on fashion, dating and life. One of few South Asians on "such a grand stage," France is constantly referred to as "the gay, British Muslim." Despite the pressures and labels, he has learned how to be visible and shine as his refreshingly and unapologetically authentic self.

STREET SENSE: A fun, heartfelt and informative memoir from one of the Queer Eye experts that shares his personal history through entertaining, candid essays on fashion and life. Queer Eye has turned into something different than it was, and while the "old" version was fun, this one is more inclusive (gay men, lesbians, straight women, anyone can be nominated) and is all about helping the "heroes" feel good about themselves in ways that are unique to them, not necessarily what is thought to be mainstream or "proper." I admit it, I've shed a tear.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  It's almost impossible to top the Golden Girls on a lanai, so I went with something a bit more serious:

Straight people love to ask, “When did you know you were gay?” Maybe some people do have an epiphany. I am not that person. For me, when somebody asks me this question, it’s the same as someone asking, “When did you know you were a boy?” or “When did you realize you were a human?” Because I breathe. I’ve always known. It sounds cliché, but I never had that Oprah aha moment. I always knew that women weren’t for me. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve always loved women, in that I wanted to surround myself with females, and they are the people who have molded who I’ve become, but there was never a time when I thought it was a viable option for my romantic future. I also never thought that a man was not an option. Even when I was very young, I assumed I would get married one day and it would be to a man. Why wouldn’t it be so? It was men I was attracted to and loved, so it stood to reason that I would eventually marry one.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Nothing to complain about here. It's simple and straight-forward with a nice palette. You're know what you're getting when you see it. Also, I could really use the Queer Eye treatment, but even *I* know that's a great suit and awesome hair. The gray tee I've got covered. 

Monday, July 1, 2019



Anthony Bourdain's death hit me hard. I'm not even sure I can explain why. I'm as far from a foodie as you can get. I was not a religious viewer of his shows. But there was just SOMETHING about Tony that you knew, if you listened to the man for any length of time, was infinitely more than food and television. When I saw a galley of Remembering Anthony Bourdain I didn't even hesitate, just whispered an internal "Hell yes."
Had I looked more closely, I might have thought twice, so I'm glad I didn't. Bourdain worked for CNN and following his suicide the network established a social media portal that allowed fans to send in their thoughts, memories and thanks. The book is full of quotes from fans and famous collaborators, including Barack Obama, Eric Ripert, Ken Burns, and Iggy Pop to name just a few of the varied well-knowns.

At first it seemed a bit cheesy. The e-format did it no favors and it looked as though it had been hastily thrown together. Text didn't line up, photos were offset, you get the picture. Then two things happened. First, I read the book was originally created as a keepsake for Bourdain's daughter Ariane and his estate agreed to share it publicly. That made it seem less like a profit venture for CNN. Second, I saw a physical copy in my local indie. That's when I knew how much the e-galley really did it no favors. Because on nice stock, formatted correctly, it's really beautiful. I leafed through it all over again standing in the store and will definitely be buying a finished copy for my table.

STREET SENSE:  Anyone who was either touched by Anthony Bourdain or wants to feel what it's like for one man to touch so many people should open this book and start perusing.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: This book is nothing but lovely sentiments, which makes it a bit more difficult to pick a favorite. Here are a few that highlight how Bourdain inspired people to travel, inspired people who couldn't travel, and opened the world to tolerance:

 "My mother had passed away, and one night I was watching him. Feeling lost and alone, I decided I was buying a plane ticket to Asia, one-way, packing a backpack, and going off the grid. I was going to eat with locals, and see the parts of Asia that I thought would only be a dream. I was going to find peace in losing my best friend and mother through travel and food. I would like to think if he would have ever known my story, he would have been proud of a fifty-year old single woman leaving the East Coast (US) and finding my way to new friends and an open mind to try anything even if I did not know what I was eating or even where I was going on a seven-week trip."

"I discovered Anthony Bourdain by accident and since then I have never missed an episode. My husband and I have a disabled son, so we will never get to travel the world, but with his show we got to see all these beautiful countries through his eyes. He has inspired us to be more open-minded."

"Anthony Bourdain traveled to Colombia (more than once) when people were still afraid to go there. He told our stories with respect, honesty, and kindness. He made me feel like Colombians mattered. I had fought the stereotypes of who we are in the US for so long. He showed the beauty and the pain we had gone through. Gracefully. He was my living room friend. An advocate. I am devastated by the loss of his voice."

"I regularly showed the Iran and Nigeria episodes of Parts Unknown in my high school comparative politics course. In Iran, he celebrated the beauty of ancient traditions that exists alongside religious fundamentalism and the oppression of journalists. In Nigeria, he painted a complicated portrait of cosmopolitanism and emerging economic power with extreme poverty and government corruption. Yes, he loved to sample the world’s food and drinks, but he used food and cooking and eating to explain some of the most basic sources of joy and meaning and pride that people can get out of life. Through these shows, he challenged Westerners (especially Americans) to question our perceptions and judgments of other cultures, to acknowledge history, and to embrace our common humanity."

I could go on. Just go get the book.

COVER NERD SAYS: The soul in those eyes.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

THE SIXTH MAN :: Andre Iguodala

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

Andre Iguodala is one of the talented few who have made it to the National Basketball Association. More remarkably, he has multiple defensive awards, an Olympic gold medal and three NBA championships on his résumé. When his Golden State Warriors won in 2015, Iguodala was the Finals MVP coming off the bench.

In the fittingly titled The Sixth Man, Iguodala reveals components of his success. It helps to be talented, hard-working and six-foot-six, but Iguodala wasn't always the tallest kid on the court. Having to change his game to deal with growth spurts of competitors was just one hurdle to becoming elite, a level he maintains even 15 years after being drafted ninth as a 19-year-old in 2004.

Iguodala's memoir is not a recitation of important games through his career, but rather the tale of the people and events that challenged and shaped him along the way. From his strong upbringing in Springfield, Ill., guided by his mother and grandmother, to the teachers, coaches, teammates and systems that honed him, Iguodala imparts insight and wisdom in a conversational yet expert style suffused with confidence and heart.

Iguodala also has had to deal with racism, which he experienced early on, after a seventh-grade teacher assumed he was lost when he showed up to honors class. Iguodala's story is a compelling and important one that provides a glimpse into what people of color face, from little boys to the height of stardom, in a country "designed to wreak absolute havoc on the confidence of black people."

STREET SENSE: Whether or not you're a basketball fan in general or a Warrior fan specifically, Iguodala's story should resonate with anyone interested in sports, competition, community, and how to rise to the top.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  As Americans, we are led to believe that this in and of itself should be the path toward complete satisfaction. If we make enough money, have enough success, then we should be free from all struggles--or more accurately, our struggles are no longer valid. But what most of us find after a while, and much to our surprise, is that even with all the cash and prizes, the question of purpose remains. Pain and suffering still remain. Anger and frustration still remain. It would seem that most people who gain some measure of what we think of as material success have experienced this truth, but the effect is amplified for black people. Because of our shared destiny, it is not possible for one of us to be completely free and happy while our collective people are subject to violence, oppression, and dehumanization. Or rather, the only way for such a thing to be possible is if that person makes a conscious decision to turn their back entirely on their people. And that cannot be me.

COVER NERD SAYS: You know this one had me at black-and-white portrait against a clean background. Great fonts, sneaky-smart use of Warrior jersey colors, and handsome don't hurt this cover's game at all.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

MAN OF THE YEAR :: Caroline Louise Walker

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

Crowned "Sag Harbor Citizen of the Year," Dr. Robert Hart is at a fancy soiree with his wife and son, Elizabeth and Jonah. The one thing sticking in his craw is the presence of Jonah's visiting college friend, Nick. Although Nick has been good for Jonah, Robert's gut is telling him something about the kid isn't quite right, and he bristles when Elizabeth wants Nick included in the family photograph on Robert's big day.

Robert's antennae tingle further when Elizabeth suggests her stepson's friend stay in their guest house for the summer. As Nick accepts fresh towels from gorgeous Elizabeth, Robert's mind is assaulted by the possibilities. He knows what Elizabeth is capable of--the two met and carried on an affair while married to others. Is this the thanks Robert gets for rescuing her from a dreary existence?

Caroline Louise Walker takes readers deep inside the mind of an increasingly obsessed man, mining the depths of power, insecurity, image and assumption. Robert slowly swirls from semi-reasonable to outright paranoid as his suspicions about Elizabeth, Nick and his own son drive him to distraction and dangerous exploits. Tragedy leaves the survivors swirling with doubt, secrets and mistrust.

Man of the Year is an impressive slow burn that builds suspense and cracks the whip at the end, widening the lens from a Robert-centric narration to include the "truth" from other points of view. A debut redolent with menace and ego, Walker has expertly taken on the complex family dynamic. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

STREET SENSE: A doctor with an image to protect loses his perspective to dangerous ends when he feels his family is threatened by an outsider. Fans of domestic drama and characters spiraling out of control should get a blast out of this one. Robert's arc pushing the bounds of realism a bit was offset by the varying points of view at the end, which I thought was a great finish.

COVER NERD SAYS: Wood, booze, good lighting (though if I was to pick a total nit, I'm not sure where that blue tint comes from). I was in before I had a clue what this book was about. Added points for good fonts that are appropriately sized and don't distract, a blurb that is at least tidily tucked away unobtrusively at the top, and this is a total win.

Friday, June 21, 2019

TRACE :: Rachael Brown

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

Australian crime journalist Rachael Brown's grandparents taught her "questions are a precious way to show care." When Brown discovered seeming contradictions in a cold case that left two brothers without answers for more than three decades, she started asking questions. Brown's inquiry into the brutal murder of Maria James is recounted in Trace, the gripping account of her search for a killer. It's also the name of her acclaimed true-crime podcast, which aired during her investigation, allowing the public to contribute.

Mark and Adam James were boys when their mother was murdered in the home attached to her Melbourne bookshop in June 1980, stabbed 68 times. As Brown pours through old files and the minds of those who worked or had connections to the case, she digs up long-buried horrors. Startling key evidence comes from painful secrets held by those closest to Maria, suggesting either a "huge cock-up" or widespread conspiracy.

Trace is a brilliant and compelling look into a horrific crime that affected countless lives. Brown struggles with the knowledge that reopening such a case takes "haunted people on a rollercoaster ride." It is, indeed, such a ride, emotionally, procedurally and forensically. As the Trace podcast ended without definitive answers, Brown responded to disappointed listeners: "This is not a show, folks. This is someone's death. And I can't invent an ending--it's real-life nonfiction. I want to scream, 'Imagine how the James boys feel?' " Regardless of the ultimate outcome, Brown's work enthralls while never forgetting the burden of care.

STREET SENSE: My desire to read this stemmed from the fact that I like to read and support Australian authors whenever possible. I had not heard of this case or the podcast, but Brown's recitation of both is well worth your time. I didn't speak too much to the plot to avoid spoilers, but whether cock-up or conspiracy, there's enough anger to go around. Maddening.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I read a quote recently, that asked, 'What if the word "victim" could be redefined into something closer to "hero," recognising that the path some have tread will spare others from the same?

[I picked this quote because it resonated not only within this case but also with much of what our world is dealing with today. A vision of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford leaps to mind, as well as the many others who have been and keep speaking out about the violence perpetrated against them. Heroes, even if we're not very good at listening.]

One more, because this one also resonates:

"Sometimes the truth can never be fully told, because it breaks your heart forever."

COVER NERD SAYS:  This cover has some fantastic elements--the fingerprints on the word "Trace," the puzzle pieces, and, mostly (a surprise to me since I usually dislike them), the subtitle. When I try to consider why it didn't speak to me, I find it too busy and distracting. Each of the three colored puzzle pieces includes additional text and/or photos, there's a blurb in addition to the subtitle (in fairness, any Aussie author would be hard-pressed to resist putting a quote from Helen Garner on their cover). It's overwhelming. Separately, I understand each piece (the podcast tie-in, Helen Garner, publisher name--though that last one gives me pause), but I don't think as a whole they do the cover any favors. I would have lost the photograph, the quote, the podcast line and the publisher name, made the three puzzle pieces black and left Rachael Brown's name in the lower right. THAT makes me want to know what's missing. This cover doesn't let those missing puzzle pieces "breathe." I'm being exceptionally hard on this work, probably because I liked the book so much, so take it all with that grain of salt.

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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