Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A NEGRO AND AN OFAY :: Danny Gardner

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

Screenwriter Danny Gardner is a professional comedian, but his debut novel, A Negro and an Ofay: The Tales of Elliot Caprice, is no joke. Gardner's powerful themes are infused with just the right humorous undertones, rendering A Negro and an Ofay historical crime fiction at its hardboiled best. 

The tale of Elliot Caprice has been a mixed-bag from the jump. Son of an interracial couple who can pass for white, Elliot was abandoned to his black uncle and taken under the wing of a Jewish loan shark in his hometown of Southville, Illinois. Elliot's shady background and self-doubt combine with his military and Chicago PD service to leave him with a foot on both sides of the line and no safe space to reside.

Returning home in semi-disgrace in 1952, Elliot finds his uncle lying ill in a flophouse and the family farm in foreclosure. Determined to keep the property, Elliot takes a job as a process-server. Given the opportunity for a large payday on the side, Elliot ends up embroiled in the multi-faceted fight over a powerful businessman's estate.

Elliot's story is told from his perspective and is mostly about men--blends of friend, foe, hero and villain--yet women are really at the heart of the matter, beginning with Elliot's mother and what her departure meant for her son. Raw and intimate, violent and intense, Gardner's dialogue buzzes with authenticity, highlighted by Elliot's chameleon-like code-switching. A fast-moving crime novel with a soul, Gardner's coming out party is a dead-bang winner.

STREET SENSE:  A great new addition to the crime fiction family. I'm looking forward to more of Elliot's tales, but especially more of Gardner's kickass women characters.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Frank had performed the heavy lifting all by himself, moving all the furniture back to its proper place. The last thing he moved was the sofa, which he collapsed upon from exhaustion. His long legs hung off the edges. He wanted to continue working out of gratitude, figured he would only catch a breather, but in seconds, he snored softly. It was a quiet murmur of comfort, his dangling feet not cousin to hands draped across prison bars, but brother to young legs swaying off a porch swing. 

COVER NERD SAYS: The first reason I wanted to read this book was Danny. I wanted to find out what that mind would put on paper. The second reason was the cover of the book. What a beauty. Maybe I'm a sucker for things that look aged and/or from a simpler time (and yet, things are never really simpler and buying used things creeps me out--go figure), but I would have been drawn to this cover in any bookstore in any universe. This is a piece of art I would hang on my wall. A-plus. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

CELINE :: Peter Heller

Rarely do I finish a book and grieve it. As much as I may love a book, I'm ready and able to move on to the next potentially wondrous reading experience. This time, it was different. When the number of pages in my right hand started to get smaller, I got bummed out. I did not want to leave this book. I wanted to crawl in it and hang out for...who knows, maybe not the remainder of my days, but an appreciable period of time. I don't keep Top Ten lists, but if I did, Celine would have to be on that list.

What follows is a version of my review of Celine that previously ran in Shelf Awareness. It is re-posted here with permission.

Flawless art is arguably unattainable and most certainly in the subjective eye of the beholder. Through that lens, Peter Heller's Celine is utter perfection. Debatable hyperbole aside, when a knockout mystery is the least fabulous element of a novel, something exceptional is afoot.

Celine Watkins is simply sublime. Born into American aristocracy, she's lived life outside that box. As comfortable in Jackie O sunglasses as a Glock shoulder holster, Celine is a 69-year-old recovering alcoholic with emphysema and a mysterious history in government work. The epitome of an old-school movie dame, she's wickedly sharp and does not suffer fools.

A private investigator with a soft spot for lost causes, Celine's specialty is reuniting families. One day a stranger named Gabriela shares the story of her beloved father, long believed dead. Celine and Pete, her perfect counterweight of a husband, are sufficiently intrigued to set out in a borrowed camper to investigate.

The investigation is backdrop to larger themes about art, despair, loyalty, obligation and privilege, illuminating Celine's colorful history and deeper motivations along the way. Heller's writing is smart and clever, rich and intimate, the depth and vitality of his characters second to none.

No reader expects perfection, so when something like Heller's Celine unfurls page after page, when the characters are so rich one doesn't want to break the bond by turning the last one, it's a privilege to have inhabited their world. Pete summarizes it best: when one moves through the world with Celine, it's simply more fun.

STREET SENSE: Run, don't walk.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I admit it, I usually have little patience for landscape descriptions. But Peter Heller is one of those authors who does it in a way that makes me want to go back and re-read it (he and another Peter, Peter May, both have that gift). So this is one of those, It was to do with the ocean, which also endeared it to me, even if it was the scary side of the ocean:

It was the next wave and it was the second in a set and he watched it as if in slow motion: the wall lightening to green as it rose, rising impossibly tall, the guarding boulders out in the cove dwarfed beneath it, the quivering top frayed by wind and then a piece of it curled and collapsed and the wall fell: a surge of whitewater chest-high roared in over the black slack water of the inner cove and he was slugged and knocked over, his shoulder and neck hit rock, he came up lunging out of ice foam to see the tumult sucking back.

COVER NERD SAYS: The advanced reading copy I read has a very different cover. While I may have initially liked that one more, I think this one is a better representation of the book. Green isn't up there on my list of favorite colors, but being a fan of brevity (which I realize rarely shows in my writing--maybe that's why I'm a fan) I like this cover. It feels right, which is really what cover art is all about. The font variance also lends itself well to the many different faces of Celine. This book could have been written in a number of different fonts and I couldn't have complained. I'm not sure a cover could ever live up to the innards here, and while this one is not going to make my year's favorite cover list, it does its job well.

Friday, March 31, 2017

LOYAL :: Rebecca Ascher-Walsh

Those of us lucky enough to have a dog (or two, or more), particularly a therapy or service dog, are so used to being surrounded by the cocoon of support the relationship provides that we begin to become inured to just how special those bonds can be. It's not that we take them for granted, it's that we semi-forgot what it's like to be without them.

We can all stand to be reminded just how far and wide the bonds between canine and human can be stretched. Dogs are infinity, and in Loyal: 38 Inspiring Tales of Bravery, Heroism, and the Devotion of Dogs, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh provides 38 fabulous reminders of just how lucky we humans are to have such willing and capable companions.

Journalist Ascher-Walsh is also the founder of the Deja Foundation, an organization that works with rescue groups to assist with the adoption of dogs from high-kill shelters. In writing the prequel to Loyal, a book entitled Devoted: 38 Extraordinary Tales of Love, Loyalty, and Life With Dogs, Ascher-Walsh learned that dogs do more than provide comfort to individuals at the end of a long day. Dogs connect us and bring us together as a larger community. Loyal was borne of that ideation.

Using stories about more than fifteen different breeds (or mixes) of dogs scattered across 21 of the United States (with stops in Puerto Rico and Australia for good measure), Ascher-Walsh shows how dogs better our lives by helping us create better and more diverse communities in myriad ways. Dogs provide assistance that allows a wide variety of individuals to gain (or regain) ground previously unavailable, including kids and adults limited by medical conditions, emotional needs, or physical restrictions. And they guard penguins to boot.

Dogs also help prove we all have a place in the world. The dogs highlighted in Loyal are not all perfect breed standards or dogs raised and trained to provide service. They are also dogs thrown away and found in high-kill shelters, dogs with deformities and physical limitations of their own, dogs trained by prison inmates and dogs who simply proved a knack for a service that could not be denied (i.e., honing in on people who have cancer).

The most fervent dog fan will still learn something from Loyal. If you knew about Conservation Canines, raise your hand. This program at the University of Washington turns rescue dogs into detectives helping to locate endangered species for identification and study. If you knew that one, I know I'll stump you with PHARM Dog USA, a Missouri non-profit that trains dogs to work with disabled farmers. The boundaries of the dog/human connection seem boundless, but Loyal is a great cross-section of the realm of possibilities.

The book itself is really well done, what we have come to expect from a National Geographic publication. It's what I would consider a coffee table book despite it's somewhat diminutive size, perfect for a corner display where it can be flipped through at leisure. The glossy pages are full of color photographs and numerous side columns containing breed facts or general dog-related information. Loyal would be a perfect gift for a special dog person in your life, or anyone who is interested in the world of human-animal connections.

I was lucky enough to be asked to be part of a the blog tour for Loyal set up by Trish at TLC Book Tours. A list of all the bloggers who are chiming in on this lovely book can be found here.

STREET SENSE: A fun, feel-good, and informative look into the world of canine assistance and how dogs allow us to create better communities.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I loved this passage about pit bull service dog Jericho, since it is a myth-buster when it comes to the way many people unfortunately view the breed:

When Smith's Maryland home was invaded in the middle of the night, Jericho alerted Smith to the fact that something was wrong. Since Jericho was naturally a quiet dog, Smith had had to train him to bark. So when Jericho barked that night, Smith knew something was wrong. Smith went to the door, and a man started pushing his way into the house. "We were fighting--I was beating him with my crutch, and it was getting louder," Smith describes. "Jericho ran behind my wife and peed on the floor."

COVER NERD SAYS:  Spare and to the point, the cover image of a gorgeous black lab is tough to fault. The theme does feel a bit patriotic to the United States (blue background; red, white and blue collar and red, white and blue ribbon with stars on it), which may provide a bit too much of a military feel to it, particularly since most of the stories don't deal with the military or law enforcement and some of the dogs highlighted are located outside the U.S. But I'm picking nits, the cover is of a beautiful dog and who can find fault in that?

Monday, March 20, 2017


Disappointment, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Kait Heacock, publicist at Feminist Press, explores its vast chasm in her debut story collection, Siblings and Other Disappointments. Sad in myriad ways, these stories dissect disenchantment from a variety of viewpoints--between husbands and wives, parents and offspring, siblings, neighbors, crewmates and, often most excruciatingly, within oneself.

Heacock writes about difficult subjects with a smooth grace that acts like a salve, taking some of the sting out of recognizing and relating to them. Living, often simply existing, is painful:

"Peter was an agoraphobic. He couldn't explain what that was a year ago, but he could describe now what it was like to stand by the front door and feel the heat radiate off the knob, so sure it could burn you if you touched it.... He never would have guessed when he rented this one-bedroom basement apartment that it could become his waking coffin, that he would let her death bury him alive."

Heacock sometimes balances the hurt with slivers of salvation. Peter finds solace in the peregrinations of his insomniac upstairs neighbor. An artistic young man finds a small mercy on the fishing boat where he's sent to toughen up. As in life, however, not every story includes an emotional Band-Aid, and Heacock doesn't hesitate to wield her words like a knife. To be human is to wound and be wounded, and the 12 gritty stories in Siblings and Other Disappointments cut to the core.

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

STREET SENSE:  A debut collection worthy of getting a little guts spilled on your rug.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  She didn't ask her dad how things were going at the store or what he had been up to lately. His absence was more active than her mother's, richer and more full of anger. It was hard to hate someone who's dead; the living took the blow.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This is a frustrating cover because I'm not sure I can even put into words why I like it as much as I do. But the color scheme, the font, the repetition, the art work, all of it fits squarely into my wheelhouse. Covers for short stories must be difficult, with so many different emotions and characters and slices of life requiring a piece of the pie. But really, what's more disappointing than a sink full of dirty dishes (or the messy life it symbolizes)? Great cover work, maybe even more so because I can't be more clear about why.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

THE ANNIE YEAR :: Stephanie Wilbur Ash

The following review first appeared in Shelf Awareness and is posted here with permission. I had never heard of this title or the author when I spied the description on the Shelf list for the month. It sounded so bugnuts insane I knew I had to request it and am so thankful I had the opportunity to read and review it. A wonderful, fun read, this book also contains one of the best "jokes" I've read in some time (particularly since I have the mind of an 8-year-old). Full review below.

Stephanie Wilbur Ash is a hoot, and The Annie Year is the raucous debut novel from the former editor at Mpls.St.Paul magazine. Reading The Annie Year feels akin to pulling into a remote diner and having a lifelong local recount town history nonstop for hours, in intimate detail and regardless of subject matter sensitivity or personal embarrassment. The story is told so engagingly--caustic, awkwardly hilarious and full of the joy and anguish of everyday life--it's impossible to do anything but settle in, a willing hostage to the saga.

Tandy Caide is the CPA of a small Midwestern town. Married to a man she's rarely intimate with, charter member of the Order of the Pessimists and patron of the arts, Tandy feels stuck. Raised to take over her father's business, she never had an opportunity to spread her wings. After sharing a moment with the new vocational-agriculture  Are teacher at the high school production of Annie, Tandy's life takes a careening, two-wheels-off-the-pavement left turn.

With his ponytail, man-clogs, freshly-mown-ditch scent and multi-colored beaded belt, the Vo-Ag teacher lights a fire in Tandy that creates fallout across town. The havoc affects both a former lover and the daughter of her estranged best friend, forcing Tandy on a voyage to find her true self.

Through Tandy's first-person narrative, Ash has created a voice often cringe-worthy, full of introspection and admittedly fallible under the pressures of perfectionism. Readers will find Tandy's serpentine journey by turns familiar and foreign, but always entertaining.

STREET SENSE:  A smart novel with plenty of humor and life's insults, this is one to just pick up, hang on and enjoy the ride.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  [This quote comes from Tandy's first-person narrative while bowling with the Vo-Ag hunk. It's short, and really not one of the more meaningful passages, but I wanted to give you a flavor of Ash's sense of humor, which hit just the right smart/childish notes with me.]

I have never been more attracted to anyone in my entire life. It was like he bowled directly into my ovaries.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I didn't find this cover particularly engaging or symbolic of what is going on inside. I did find the font matched well, and it's not a font that would normally attract me. This isn't a bad cover, I'm just not sure it does justice to the insides, which are so alive that a cover more colorful and engaging (or outlandish) would have better served.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

DESPERATION ROAD :: Michael Farris Smith

A butterfly squirms in a web. Even if it escapes, remnants of the entanglement will hang on to cripple all efforts to survive. This early scene in Michael Farris Smith's Desperation Road is mere paragraphs, but Smith never relents in the masterful casting of an unrelenting web over his characters through almost 300 bleak yet dazzling pages of life struggle.

Returning to McComb, Mississippi after 11 years in prison, Russell Gaines is trying to assimilate. Despite the support of his father, the web pulls on him in the guise of his former fianceƩ and the vengeful family whose lives he changed irrevocably.

Maben is a woman on the run. She seems to have been born in a web, and though she tries desperately to break free and create a life for her young daughter, another clash with violence has had its way with her.

Russell isn't looking for redemption, but as his troubled path intersects Maben's disastrous one, he finds meaning in the idea that "the things he could put his hands on needed someone to put out those hands." But rough lives only get rougher, and the slightest breeze could push them further into disaster.

Smith is incredibly gifted; emotion and poetry soak his straight-forward prose, the ease of the flow masking the precision behind every word. He imbues the everyday slog of difficult lives with reverence and grace, painting the faintest glimmer of hope in opportunities lost and prices paid for flying too close to the web. 

STREET SENSE:  Rivers was one of my favorite books the year it was published, so it was with excitement and anxiety I awaited Smith's next work. No letdown here, Desperation Road is the same fabulous writing that leads to marking and rereading (and rereading). 

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  She had discovered that once things started to go bad they gathered and spread like some wild, poisonous vine, a vine that stretched across the miles and the years from the shadowy faces she had known to the lines she had crossed to the things that had been put inside her by strangers. It spread and stretched until the vine had consumed and covered her, wrapping itself around her ankles and around her thighs and around her chest and around her throat and wrists and sliding between her legs and as she looked down at the girl with her sunburned forehead and her thin arms she realized that the child was her own dirty hand reaching out of the thicket in one last desperate attempt to grab on to something good.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Beautiful. Dark and mysterious, with the title font semi-hidden in the trees. Who knows what's behind those lights coming up the other side of the rise? 

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Allen Eskens is dastardly. In The Heavens May Fall, he gives us two upstanding, likable, root-for-til-the-end characters--criminal law professor Boady Standen and his best friend, Detective Max Rupert--and puts them at odds. Boady and Max have played roles in Eskens' prior novels (The Life We Bury, The Guise of Another), but they take center stage in this dogfight over the murder of a wealthy foundation director, each bringing personal demons to the legal battle that threatens to end their relationship.

The victim's husband, Ben Pruitt, is Boady's former law partner, and Boady agrees to represent him despite having retired from practice following a devastating loss. Max and Ben also have a history, but it's far from warm and fuzzy. Boady is certain his friend is innocent; Max is burning to prove Ben's alibi is not as airtight as it seems. Though he's zeroed in on Ben as the killer, Max may be falling victim to tunnel vision and the emotions raised by the anniversary of his wife's death.

Two heroes working at cross-purposes on a high-profile case ingeniously ratchets the tension over where the chips will fall. One of these good men is wrong. The story is told from competing perspectives, with Boady and Max each working steadfastly toward what he believes is justice. Eskens keeps the pace brisk, the plotting tight. His criminal law acumen is evident in compelling courtroom scenes. The short chapters in this thrilling mystery will have readers just-one-more-ing well past bedtime.

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

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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