Ah, February, mother of all transitional periods, when the post New Year/pre-springtime chill keeps us indoors reading. Reading about what, you ask? Murder, conspiracies, demon purging, and Cincinnati fire kites! Last month BFD featured Sex Pistol’s Matlock (not Andy Griffith) and Kosmatka’s Prophet of Bones. February’s picks promise to satisfy every dude’s craving: freedom from winter ennui; whiter teeth; a cleaner colon; a soothed and amused mental state; and a consideration of the Biosphere experiment from the early nineties. I may not feature books with as many swear words as the ones in Rollie Welch’s Word on the Street Lit, but dammit man I have spud launchers and cozy wintertime reads!
Gurstelle, William. Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices. 2d ed. Chicago Review. 2012. 240p. ISBN 9781613740644. pap. $16.95. DIY
Superbowl 47 is over gentlemen; start your potato cannons. Gurstelle’s (The Practical Pyromaniac; The Art of the Catapult) improved edition of an already-awesome first will instruct budding engineers, rocketeers, geeks, and Just Plain Fun Having Folk in the gentle art of making stuff that ‘splodes. Who hasn’t fired a tennis ball mortar? Or launched a “Jellyfish of the Sky” (a dry cleaning bag fueled by canned heat)? Somewhat gleefully, Gurstelle notes that his book “is about being creative in the name of science and experimentation,” adding that, “you might learn something while you’re at it.” A baker’s dozen of chapters detail instructions and tips for building and launching mellow fire-fueled projects. Notable breakthroughs are discussed throughout, including Alfred Nobel inventing dynamite and using the proceeds for peace. The diagrams and pictures are expressly clear, which will help readers like me who are all thumbs. While Gurstelle provides obligatory safety advice, he eschews overprotectiveness with a tone that will inspire responsibility.
VERDICT A 100 percent win for dudes who like safe, accomplishable blueprints for flame-filled fun at a reasonable price.
Joyce, G.B. The Code. Pintail: Penguin. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9780670066902. pap. $16. FIC
This sporty, dudely tale features ex-pro hockey jock Brad Shade, a ham and egger puckster with too few prospects, too much bitterness, and too many issues, though still reasonably intelligent. He has a huge bitter streak: he’s divorced and his retirement nest egg was scrambled by some bean counting horror (grr). Without many shekels to rub together after a stint as a PI, he finds work as a hockey scout. When a job scouting a wunderkind syncs with an old-timer’s game, Shade goes all in. The bad news is that he goes scoreless despite being the youngest man on the ice. What’s worse is the double homicide: Red Hanratty, the “beating heart of Oldetime Hockey” gets iced along with the team doc. When Shade starts poking his nose into the situation, he finds that his prospect might have a possible career-ending injury and that dudes who commit double homicides in parking lots aren’t afraid to mix it up with washed-up nobody hockey scouts. Code is slow to start, and murky for readers unfamiliar with hockey terminology and Canadian place names. Readers will, however, enjoy Shade’s sourpuss sense of humor and a character who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
VERDICT The hockey here is more milieu than plot; there’s no bashing or toothless grins. Push through the first 30 pages before you decide if you like it or not. I’m betting it grows on you…like a locker room fungus.
Meade, Glenn. The Romanov Conspiracy. Howard: S. & S. 2012. c.496p. ISBN 9781451611861. $25. FIC
Whatever happened to the youngest Romanov? Remember her? Yeah, Tzar Nicholas II’s daughter, Princess Anastasia, who was always running around in tiaras and ball gowns, tripping the servants and dipping her finger in the caviar dish. I thought she married Jimmy Hoffa in the end zone at Giant’s stadium. Here Meade (The Second Messiah; Web of Deceit) stretches the sagging pachydermatous skin that is the Romanov saga into a story far better than its separate parts would foretell. When two bodies are unearthed in the present-day Russian city of Ekaterinburg (where the Romanovs were killed by the Bolsheviks) an elderly Russian named Yakov promises, “It’s not the story the history books will tell you.” A plethora of plotlines and characters boil down to this: a Canadian named Joe Boyle and a cast of thousands try to rescue the Romanovs as Russia disintegrates. As the story skips around Russia and the rest of Europe, Meade keeps things lively by featuring the local unhappiness du jour and sparks of romance. This sprawling epic is often overly detailed, with routine dialog and wildly uneven characters (many Boris Badinovs), and most of the historical background is as dry as the cinnamon challenge.
VERDICT If you overlook the convenient plotting, cardboard characters, and papier-mâché landscape, Meade’s magic as a writer manages a totally unexpected A minus.
Pyper, Andrew W. The Demonologist. S. & S. Mar. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9781451697414. $25. FIC
A mysterious, thin, and smelly woman visits Columbia professor David Ullman the same day his life turns into what the French call “canine ejection.” On this day his colleague, with whom he is intimate in every way but sexually, reveals that she has terminal cancer, his marriage finally ends, and the the smelly chick offers him “a pile of dough” to visit a horrible place. As a Milton scholar, Ullman sees demonic beings as literary-based constructs of the human mind. Then he becomes the titular demonologist and a sad sack. When the mysterious woman comps Ullman a trip to Venice, he takes his daughter Tess with him, to whom he is devoted. After romping around the city, Tess relaxes while Ullman observes a man possessed by a disturbing and very personal demon. After the demon latches onto Ullman and then claims Tess, a freaky odyssey to save her begins. This is anything but a rehash of occult elements glurped up by the ‘Demon-Book-O-Matic.’ Pyper’s (Lost Girls) skill at creating sympathy for Ullman makes for a special unpleasantness as he gets the crap tortured out of him. Good writing and a clever plot keep things churning, but the psychological and physical threat of “the Adversary” under various guises (e.g., a hitchhiker, a priest) and Ullman’s descent into guilty madness is distressing.
VERDICT An intense journey that will have readers craving a happy ending. Creative and clear like Thunder small-forward Kevin Durant, it quietly, but emphatically, makes its point.
Stebbins, Erec. Ragnarök Conspiracy. Seventh St. Bks. 2012. 343p. ISBN 9781616147129. pap. $15.95. FIC
I like smart plotting more than anything except chicken parmesan, and while this book has all the ingredients of a smart, ballsy thriller, it comes off a bit undercooked. Led by Agent John Savas, Intel 1 is a squad unit of backstage FBI charged with making sense of disasters by sifting through data and secret intel. When the team uncovers a “…string of assassinations of Islamic radicals” and terrorist attacks on Saudi embassies that are carried out by an army of ruthless commandos using coded messages, they’ve stumbled onto Something Big. Savas’s first real clue comes in a necklace with a pendant of a “harsh face of a bird carved in its side.” It’s a Norse symbol referencing Ragnorök, “…the Armageddon of Norse legends, a final battle between good and evil to settle the stewardship of the world.” Like all Stebbins’ characters, Savas is a trope: an over-dedicated workaholic with a Dark Past. He’s divorced, slightly paranoid, and decent looking. He sweats over a laptop trying to write the Chuck Norris-est of all interoffice memos. Readers will relate to him as he hunts a bazillionaire who is hell-bent on erasing Islam, but will they sit through a tricky, drunken plot as it reels among meetings, car rides, explosions, and ground strikes?
VERDICT Stebbins has ambition, but the book’s problems outweigh its potential. The result is a weakened version of what could have been a tight, timely thriller.
Steele, John. The Watchers. Blue Rider:Penguin. 2012. 560p. ISBN 9780399158742. $26.95. FIC
Steele delivers the moment you wonder how the author is going to thread together disparate strands of plot. In this wild, weird book featuring a high-class hooker, an amnesiac fixer, and a Quasimodo, Marc Rochat is among the bell-ringer profiles not on LinkedIn, working at Switzerland’s Lausanne Cathedral in French-speaking Swiss Romande. Deliberate, gentle, and devoted, Marc cares for the church and (though he doesn’t realize it) tends to lost angels. Enter British PI Jay Harper who doesn’t remember anything except what he likes to drink. Working for the International Olympic Committee, his search for a Soviet with knowledge of a doping scheme (a “potion with debilitating psychotropic side effects”) goes kaput and he’s at a loose end. Harper moonlights by investigating some nasty murders at the cathedral, using an ancient Jewish religious text as a reference guide, and before long the cynical Katherine Taylor is involved. Soon the three characters are struggling against evil forces (Marc calls them “bad shadows”) threatening the cathedral. Recommended for fans of treasure hunt/Dan Brownesque mysteries, or the Book of Enoch.
VERDICT This half crazy, semi-chaotic read is made enjoyable by Steele’s three skillfully drawn main characters.
Watson, Larry. Montana 1948. Milkweed. 1993. 175p. ISBN 9780915943135. $18.95. FIC
I grew up in rural Connecticut and have always wondered about life in an even more rural place and in an earlier era. Award-winning Watson’s (In a Dark Time; Leaving Dakota) 12-year-old protagonist David Hayden describes a slow, boring existence as he experienced the familiar Waiting for Something to Happen. What happens in his world is racial discrimination, secrets, and victimizations, Dr.-vs.-Sherriff, old-school-vs-civil-rights struggles within his own family. A scandal breaks involving David’s physician uncle when he’s accused of molesting Native American women—including David’s nanny/housekeeper—and is arrested by his own brother (David’s father). It’s a sad situation, though Watson writes with restraint and class amid lots of glowy, purplish language about sunsets, skin, and pretty trees. And though David’s righteous outrage about the unjustified crap going on around him is cool, Watson uses that most manipulative authorial trick: sensitive hindsight.VERDICT There are better Westerns, better Bildungsromans, and better ‘Social Injustice’ fiction tracts than this mash-up.
Allen, John. Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2. Synergetic. 2009. 336p. ISBN 9780907791379. $39.95 BIOG
Alling, Abigail et al. Life Under Glass: The Inside Story of Biosphere 2. Biosphere. 1993. 254p. ISBN 9781882428076. $16.95. SCIENCE/ECOLOGY
I’ve been fascinated by Biosphere 2 (B2) for years, and I recently stumbled onto not one but two books on the subject. B2 was, basically, a huge vivarium: three acres of geodesic domes and enclosures built in the Arizona desert as an experiment to see wtf would happen if eight people lived in and cared for five distinct biomes (e.g., a rainforest, mangrove wetlands) for two years. Life Under Glass, written by three participants, marks September 26, 1991 as the “day of closure.” For the biospherians it was the first of 730 days when their environment would be “…a separate entity from Earth. No free flow of atmosphere, people, plants or animals, food or supplies would pass between the Earth and the inside of the biosphere again.” The authors provide gloriously nerdy laymen explanations covering, for example, the rising amounts of trace gases from “the glue used to seal PVC pipes.” Though they ate a lot of vegetables—which were a lot of work to farm—they had African pygmy goats for milk, chickens for eggs, and Ossabaw hogs for, eventually, roasts, and Bushbabies for I don’t know what. The main thing normal dudes wonder about (sex) doesn’t crop up; apparently these were pretty dull people and it wasn’t the MTV Real World drama it would have been if astronaut Lisa Nowak was involved. John Allen’s hella fun MatB:AMbtIoB2 is a larger, coffee-table friendly tome with beaucoup pictures. It’s hard to believe that the serious, scienc-ey Biosphere 2 (B2) was created by such a wild-ass dude, who’s kind of an Augie March-esque cross between Albert Einstein and William Burroughs. Allen was a Harvard Business School MBA who quit his suit-and-tie job to ship on a freighter to Tangiers. His lifelong life-long quest for excellence in three completely disparate areas—“enterprise, theater, and biospheric geology” came to fruition with B2. Allen’s brilliant, wanderlusting mind spouts some interesting reading. His diary epitomizes all massively successful American dudes in that he’s an unapologetic megalomaniac, though few of those types are as charming and genteel as Allen, who seems genuinely interested in everything. Allen’s enthusiasm for his subjects results in a big, fat, beautiful mess, which nonetheless manages to warmly meld the worlds of an artsy scientist, capitalistic bioethicist, and megalomaniac dreamer. Life Under Glass, though listed as being from Biosphere Press, is available from Synergetic, and its other titles look pretty cool to me, too, like Terry Wilson’s Perilous Passage and Birth of a Psychedelic Culture by Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner. VERDICT While Allen’s irrepressible curiosity and drive can sometimes come off a bit flaky, it certainly is interesting to read the musings of such a brainy, enthused dude. Life Under Glass feels a bit sanitized—perhaps even hermetically sealed—but it certainly is a clear picture of the inside scoop, what life was like, and what the six scientists did all day.
 like BFD favorite Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.