Saturday, May 30, 2020

SHEPHERD :: Catherine Jinks

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

Catherine Jinks's Shepherd takes place over several days in 1840 New South Wales, and the gritty cat-and-mouse thriller evokes emotions that linger. Tom Clay was 12 years old when he was nabbed for poaching and shipped to Australia to serve his sentence working for Mr. Barrett. Tom is reliable despite his age, and Barrett sends him to a remote shepherds' hut to help guard the flock.

A boy among rough and violent men, Tom has been failed by most everyone in his life. Trained to silence by his father, Tom keeps his own counsel, sharing himself only with his beloved dogs and fiercely tending the sheep he has named. Menace lurks in the form of Dan Carver, a former shepherd and "black-hearted villain" whose motto is "No witnesses." When Carver returns for vengeance, Tom goes on the run with Rowdy Cavanagh, a handsome no-hoper with the gift of gab that Tom wants nothing to do with.

Tom comes from the best poachers in Suffolk County, and his and Rowdy's lives now depend on his wit and skill. To beat Carver, he'll also need to share his burdens and trust others. Multiple award-winner Jinks (Evil Genius) steps out of her middle-grade norm and crafts a breathtaking pursuit novel full of brutality and tenderness. Painting the reality of the frontier colony, where "the blacks" were feared but the true treachery lay elsewhere, Jinks highlights a world of unfair punishment, where one must endure it, but the weight is lighter with a friend to share it.

STREET SENSE: In the fashion of True Grit, a boy and his unwanted companion navigate harsh territory to outwit a vicious man trying to kill them.I loved this book. It was a great "in peril on the run" story with tons of grit and heart. Picked it because of the Aussie author, will definitely go back for more of Jinks's work.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This rustic look with a highlighted pitchfork (which I can never view as a tool of innocent farming work) was a no-brainer for me. Still not a fan of cover blurbs, but at least this one, while lengthy, is tucked away somewhat unobtrusively. The layout is pleasing and the various font sizing and placement is also great on the eyes. But if I'm honest it had me at pitchfork.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


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

As contrary as it seems to reference charm and murder in the same sentence, Kylie Logan's The Secrets of Bones blends them wonderfully. The second in Logan's Jazz Ramsey series (The Scent of Murder) finds Jazz recovering from large life losses. She finds solace in her Airedale puppy, Wally, who she's training to be her next Human Remains Detection partner, and her job as administrative assistant to Sister Eileen Flannery, principal of St. Catherine's Prep Academy for Girls.

Assembly Day at St. Catherine's is a yearly highlight, with prominent women professionals giving talks to the girls. When one presenter doesn't show, Jazz is pushed into service, borrowing a trained HRD dog, Gus, and putting on a performance on the allegedly haunted and always locked fourth floor. During the demo, Gus finds more than Jazz bargained for, signaling at the access door to an old heating system. Behind the door are human remains, desiccated and partially plastic-wrapped, wearing the cross of Bernadette Quinn. Bernadette, a staunchly religious and difficult teacher, sent a resignation letter to St. Catherine's three years ago and never returned.

With Sister Eileen in the crosshairs, Jazz tries to find the truth of Bernadette's disappearance and death, bringing her back in contact with homicide detective Nick Koselov, her former lover. The lack of much on the dog front is offset by winning characters, an intriguing mystery in the traditional style, fun dialogue and a pace that makes this small town in Ohio, even with a murder, a charmingly entertaining place.

STREET SENSE:  Were it not for the SIP, I might not have discovered this series. I hadn't read the first. Other than having a dog on the cover, it seemed in the traditional subgenre, not my usual wheelhouse. But I was feeling like something less dark than my usual fare and the cover palette of this cover attracted me, along with the synopsis of the story. Cover gut for the win again, because I really enjoyed this one and will go back to read the first. Smart protag, sassy head nun, not too much romance, interesting mystery, what's not to like? Nothing. Go start it.

COVER NERD SAYS: My Corona cover nerd spidey senses were set off by this one. Dog, great color mix (despite being Seahawk colors), some fog around a cemetery, and only half a woman and she doesn't seem in distress. All pluses in my book. Or on my book. Ha. See what I did there? HEY! Times are hard!

Saturday, May 16, 2020

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS :: Stephen Graham Jones

Seeing a deer or horns on a cover is like seeing a horse, I'm instantly drawn and usually can't resist. When I saw the rack on The Only Good Indians, I was instantly intrigued. I've also heard good things about Stephen Graham Jones's work and had wanted to read something of his for some time. Cover gut wins again, because The Only Good Indians knocked my socks off and is my first five-star book of the year. (I don't really rate with stars, but it seems like the easiest way to get the point across that this book kicks ass.)

Lewis is of the Blackfeet Nation, but he's been off the Reservation for a decade, living happily with his white wife. One day while up on a ladder fixing a temperamental light fixture, Lewis thinks he sees a young elk through the blurry spinning blades of the fan, lying on his living room floor. "And Lewis knows for sure she’s dead. He knows because, ten years ago, he was the one who made her that way."

Jones slowly teases the events of ten years ago, though their import is abundantly clear. Lewis and his three best friends broke tribal rules and entered a hunting ground reserved for elders. In a truck no less. The details are spooled out over the course of the book, but they are sufficiently bad to feed Lewis's growing paranoia and belief that the elk has returned for revenge. As he becomes convinced those around him are the elk in disguise, things get bloodier and more horrific. Watching things spiral as the hunted becomes the hunter is a bit magical in Jones's hands. It's just brilliant on so many levels.

The story itself is a gas, and while deeper themes run all through the narrative they are never heavy-handed. Of course there is basketball, because basketball and Reservation are nearly synonymous. I love that Jones's best hoopers are female, as are the best and smartest fighters.

Jones's work is billed as horror and while I get that point, genre labels can be restrictive and keep people away. I usually don't read horror per se, but there is horror that I really enjoy. Please don't let that label keep you away if you don't think you're a horror fan. It is gritty, don't get me wrong. Gird your loins, but dig in.

STREET SENSE: What Entertainment Weekly calls "One of 2020’s buzziest horror novels” should really be billed as "One of 2020's buzziest novels." I didn't know there was buzz when I picked it up. Buzz can be misplaced. In this case it's spot on. And when this is how the author describes himself, how can you resist: "Stephen Graham Jones is a Blackfeet Native American author born and raised in Texas. An NEA Fellow, and Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Award–winning author, Jones is the Ivena Baldwin Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder. Jones is into werewolves and slashers and zombies. If he could, he would wear pirate shirts and probably carry some kind of sword."

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: The door on Lewis’s side opened like a whisper, like fate, and when he committed his right foot down to the powdery surface that ended up being two feet deep, he just kept falling, his chin stopping a hand’s width into the powder the front tires had churned up. His forward motion never faltered, though. He crawled ahead like a soldier, pulling with his elbows, his rifle held ahead to keep the barrel clear. And—that was when the frenzy washed over him.

COVER NERD SAYS: I picked this by the cover. I have now bought all the rest of SGJ's work. I'd say that was a success. Intriguing, appropriately dark, a little creepy.

Friday, May 15, 2020

THE COMPTON COWBOYS :: Walter Thompson-Hernandez

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

"Streets raised us. Horses saved us." Growing up in Southeast Los Angeles, Walter Thompson-Hernández wondered why there were no black cowboys. Then one day in Compton, he saw a show-stopping group of black horsemen riding down the street. "The cowboys had an allure to them that went beyond words. They seemed ethereal--like superheroes on the backs of mystic creatures who, I imagined, communicated in a language unknown to me."

Now a reporter for the New York Times, Thompson-Hernández reached out to the present-day Compton Cowboys. Many have ridden together since the 1990s and all started in the Compton Jr. Posse. Founded in the 1980s, the nonprofit was formed to provide at-risk youth an alternative to drugs and gangs, teaching them to care for themselves through caring for horses.

In The Compton Cowboys, Thompson-Hernández traces the roots of Compton, the organization and its members, providing heartrending insight into their varying paths to the Posse. They continue to challenge stereotypes and ride with "a free and rebellious spirit." While carrying the legacy of Compton's black cowboys, there is an effort to make the Cowboy culture accessible and cool--designer clothes, Air Jordans--and allow the armor that keeps them safe within their present realities. "Being black cowboys was as much about having a community where you could be your unapologetic self as it was about riding." Compelling and transforming, The Compton Cowboys is a story of history, race, tradition and pride, given life by Thompson-Hernández's insight and care.

STREET SENSE: History, culture, social commentary. This book has them all. But it's the stories of the riders, varied  and evocative, that make this a fascinating read. The inherent conflict of merging tradition and current culture to save at-risk youth is all important in a city with one of the highest death-by-gun rates in the country.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Just about anything with a horse on the cover at least grabs my initial attention. But cowboys in Compton? I was hooked. Smart placement and sizing of the title, which doesn't try to be smart or snazzy. Along with the powerful cover image, it quickly lets you know what you're going to find inside. Well done.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

THE GOLDEN FLEA :: Michael Rips

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

Michael Rips grew up viewing most objects as contaminated: "The antique was a cesspool, and flea markets its tributary." His wife's family enjoyed garage sales, and one weekend he was forced by the heat to leave the car where he was waiting. The poster he discovered at the sale began his transition from artifact abhorrer to dedicated denizen of the famed market in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, the subject of his fascinating memoir, The Golden Flea.

To understand Rips's journey, one must understand the history and allure of "the flea." A staple in New York, the constellation of secondhand markets is among the best known, "widely regarded for the treasures to be found there." It rose from the vacuum left by the garment industry, which filled with the underground clubs, prostitutes, artists and junkies that flowed into the neighborhood in the '60s and beyond.

The flea was a meeting place for the various elements of Chelsea, where rare yet inexpensive items could be found to decorate apartments or provide inspiration, and people could display, create and re-create themselves. The colorful history of the neighborhood, the flea and the items sold there almost pale in comparison to the sellers, pickers and buyers that populate it. These people became part of the fabric of Rips's life, even as he needed to step away for a time due to more than a tinge of obsession. Discovering the flea through Rips's experience is magnificent, but the human influence on the transactions (Q: "Do you know what this is made of?" A: "It's made of get-the-fuck-out-of here.") give it true beauty.

STREET SENSE: This book is nutty in the best possible way and it makes me kick myself for not hitting this market while in New York. The wares sound crazily varied and fabulous (and sometimes fabulously bizarre), but the people and community make it spectacular. Some of the conversations in this memoir had me rolling. I know nothing about art or antiques other than what I like, so don't let you keep that away, that's not what this book is about. It's a look at the people, place and things that made New York City's Chelsea flea market one of the most famous (and outrageous) in the world.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This cover attracted me despite my lack of art knowledge. I love the color and though I lack art sense I love frames. It made me curious. This is a hard book to describe through a cover, yet this did a pretty good job.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020


Below are a few (somewhat) brief, $.02 opinions about several books I've read or listened to recently but don't have time to review in full. Their appearance in this recurring piece generally has little to nothing to do with merit. Many of these books I enjoyed as much or more than those that got the full court press. I hope you'll consider one or two for your own TBR stack if they strike your fancy whether they struck mine or not.

Fabulous Recent Audio:
The Lady From the Black Lagoon, by Mallory O'Meara

This was one of those times where a book smacks you upside the head about a topic you didn't even know you were interested in. O'Meara's narration of this fantastic true story increases its grip on the reader as her passion shines through. This multiple-award winner addresses the life of Milicent Patrick, who was one of the first female animators at Disnely and "the only woman in history to create one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters." As the designer behind the Creature in The Creature in the Black Lagoon, Patrick nevertheless had much, if not all, of the credit taken by the men around her. Maddening, engrossing and educational, this one is a winner whether or not you're a fan of old horror movies. 

The Way I Heard It, by Mike Rowe

One of Mike Rowe's early career stops was on San Francisco's Evening Magazine, and his great pipes were music to my ears even way back when (the 80s, I believe). So when I saw this book available on audio, I grabbed it, figuring I could at least listen to something soothing for a few hours. Rowe is also a very entertaining character, and this book is a collection of his favorite episodes of the highly rated short-form podcast of the same name, as well as some of his thought and memories about a variety of topics. He's charming, witty, funny and insightful, making my fears that he may be a Trumper all the greater. But until I know (he seems very secretive about it, which gives me hope he's "just" a republican and perhaps does not support the asshole-in-chief.

Me, by Elton John

Narrated by Elton, Me  is his own life story in his own words. Searingly open about some difficult topics, it was fun to revisit the glory years and learn more about his philanthropic work. He delves into many relationships. career issues, personal issues and the like. If you're a fan of Elton or just enjoy music biographies, this is a great read.

The Majesties, by Tiffany Tsao

The only fiction title in this group, I was lured in by this oddly beautiful cover. Turns out the story is also oddly beautiful. It's summarized as the story of "two sisters from a Chinese-Indonesian family grapple with the past after one of them poisons their entire family," which is accurate and reinforced my interest from the cover. It's also much deeper than that. There's a bizarre business run by one of the sisters, a mysteriously disappeared aunt, shifting family loyalties, all the drama that makes for a great story. The audio was great as well.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

THE DOG :: David Alderton

This book is billed as "Finding Your Forever." First, it's a well put-together book, easy to use, beautiful photos on slick pages. Second, please, please, please don't use this book to pick your forever dog.

This book is easy to use, which is great. But finding the right dog isn't as easy as turning to the "Family Friendly" section or the "Good Mixers" section. The latter, for example, sends the reader to, among other dogs, the Spinone Italiano. Granted dog lovers may be acquainted with the breed, and the book does point out its "stamina must be appreciated." But to put a working dog in a section for "good mixers" and then provide some details in the fine print doesn't seem fair to the looker or the dog.

Ease of use does not mean proper use. Finding the right breed shouldn't be easy. So if you use this book, it might be a great place to start, but it shouldn't be your decision-maker. The quizzes at the end, intended to send people to some recommended breeds based on answers to certain questions, would have me own a German Shepherd. I love Shepherds, but they would NOT be the right dog for me, especially at this point in my life.

Pointing new dog searchers to the Lagotto Romagnolo (an Italian truffle-hunting breed) doesn't do anyone any favors. If you're curious about breeds and stats, rifle through this. There is some good information and great pictures. But use it as a jumping off point, don't take a short quiz and go shopping. And my ultimate recommendation? Think hard about what you want in a dog and visit your local rescues.(The book does, to its credit, discuss mutts). They often have foster programs and those people know what their dogs are like. Want a running partner? A dog you can leave alone at home? Kid friendly? They'll usually know if you have a reputable company. I love purebreds. I've had several. I've also had numerous rescues and I've loved them all. There are hard parts and easy parts to each. It is, or should be, a lifelong decision. I'll get off my box now, but I'll be honest that this book irked me a bit.

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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