“Feliz Navidad.” Growing up this was my mother’s favorite song. And not only the classic José Feliciano version but the Charo version and the Boney M. version, too. Mom would sing that golden chestnut herself. And not just during the holidays. It was her favorite song period and she sang it all goddamned yearlong. In the shower. Over breakfast. Stoking the woodstove. In the car. During my track meets. In later years, the Three Tenors and Garth Brooks filled our ears with marvelous pleasure. Can you imagine growing up in that house? What sorts of awesomeness and joy were there?
What else is awesome and joyful? Books. And there are books of all kinds out there, dude. This month, Books For Dudes reviews an unthrilling thriller, an unromantic romance, sips a cuppa tea in the rocker with a Cozy Corner read, “discovers” an already famous talent, and more. Including one that can teach you (yes, you!) how to survive in the woods.
Block, Lawrence. Hit Parade. Harper. (Keller, Bk. 3). 2007. 336p. ISBN 9780060840891. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780061807619. F
Job description: candidate must be a diligent self-starter, comfortable working independently. Must be able to exercise good judgment. Cautious yet able to take risks when needed. Confidentiality a must. Also, able to kill people in a variety of ways, including bare-handed. In other words, holy shit I just discovered writer Block¹ through Hit Parade, the third book in this series about a hit man who receives assignments from his friendly contact named Dot. This compendium of short tales sees Keller dispatching an aging Memphis baseball player (think former Red Sock underperformer Jack Clark), some muckety-mucks behind corporate shenanigans in Indiana, a retired businessman, and six others. Like anyone, he’s concerned with retirement and his chief hobby (stamp collecting). Like anyone, he muses on life—including sociopathy and psychopathy, incidentally showing readers that he has neither. Save for one trait, Block proves Keller an absurdly normal dude and propels his assignments with slight variations. In Indianapolis, for example, Keller learns that he’s being set up and turns the tables 180 degrees on his clients, making a remarkable amount of money in the process. Each turn of events makes him all the more human, more real. Best of all, there are no gruesome bits, no bloodbaths, and all targets are dispatched sans gore, anger, emotion. It’s like mowing lawns—or cataloging books (in fact, it’s just like cataloging books. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, tech services librarians?). VERDICT Timeless and truly excellent, this is crime fiction written by a master of the form, up there with Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain.
Canterbury, Dave. The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, & Cooking in the Wild. Adams Media. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9781440598524. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781440598531. SPORTS
I know, “wild” to you means going to Piggly Wiggly and not Whole Foods. If you think that maybe Raisinettes grow in the woods, this primer might prove useful as it touches on pretty much everything to which the title refers. The 23 chapters cover food (purchased and foraged), cooking, fire, tools and utensils (purchased, created, and improvised), living off the land by hunting, trapping, butchering, foraging, making stuff like solar cookers. The most interesting bits are quite fun, such as “insects you can eat and insects you shouldn’t eat” and cooking using your car’s engine. All delivered with a dry, sardonic wit: “Without fire we are at the mercy of the sun to do our cooking unless we happen to be camped on a lava field….” It goes from simple stuff (e.g., making a rock broiler, recipes for cowboy coffee) to complicated projects that take forever (I would love to meet anyone who has ever caught any edible thing in a suspended deadfall trap). Question: Who reads this? Answer: Dunno. The dudes that I know who are most into this stuff can already make a bow-and-drill kit. They do so while on break from training eagles to kill dinner. They know that Mulberry is just as good as Bur oak for the fire and make funnel nets for fun. If you’re not that dude but want to be, this will help, similar as it is to Winter in the Wilderness: A Field Guide to Primitive Survival Skills. And to think this whole trend started with The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. VERDICT Someone much smarter than I summed this up perfectly: For all your dried acorn and fried squirrel needs.
Cleeves, Ann. Cold Earth. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. (Shetland Island, Bk. 7). Apr. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9781250107381. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250107398. Mys
Scottish detective inspector Jimmy Perez is working way the hell up and gone in the Shetland Islands when he finds a body after a landslide, discovered to have been murdered. Most of this book’s first part is devoted to identifying the victim, an attractive lady wearing an incongruously elegant red dress. In Perez’s head, she’d been trying it on for her lover, making sure she would look good for the following evening, preparing dinner: “Something spicy and Mediterranean, made with peppers and tomatoes as red as the dress.” Ridiculous? Yes, and Perez recognizes his overactive imagination as such, yet he still can’t stop himself from taking a far-too-personal interest in the woman. Does he miss his recently deceased gf too much? Well, duh—we even see him wanting “…to be the person who breathed life into the woman.” When confused, Perez tends to call in his boss DCI Willow Reeves; he calls her a lot. There’s a vague spark there, but this feels awfully comfortable, as though Cleeves is making a pastiche of the story and the characters, including the bumbling Barney Fife–type who serves as sad-sack comic relief. Suspects come and go, Perez ponders and puzzles, and it all moves along pretty well. Many fans praise Cleeves’s ability to paint the Shetlands, and while she sprinkles the text with a few regionalisms, it’s nothing special. You want setting, try some Louis L’Amour. On the whole, this is just okay, and life is too damn short to read “just okay” books. VERDICT This is the seventh book in Cleeves’s serviceable series of Shetland slow burners. The chief draw seems to be Perez, as women goggle and enjoy “how handsome he was, dark like a storybook pirate.” The story lacks pop and is destined for the pulp mill instead of the canon. Plus, this one rushes the ending.
Czerski, Helen. Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life. Norton. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780393248968. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393248975. SCI
Damn this book is disappointing because it sounds like it could be so good. It’s scattered, not centered, and feels disorganized. Czerski’s ’splainings aren’t so clear, skipping from point A to point B then to point Z in leaps and bounds. For example, she discusses the strength of air pressure through writing about Otto von Guericke’s vacuum pump demonstration for the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III in 1654. This segues into a discussion of the first attempts at mail by rocket, then space rockets generally, which she tries to sum up as “just molecules bumping into things.” The rest of the explanations are similarly reductive, chopped up, even discrete. VERDICT Isaac Asimov could teach through his writings (see Of Time, Space, and Other Things), and authors such as Mary Roach, whose personal approaches take the form of narratives, can be followed and learned from. Not so much with this book.
Malliet, G.M. Devil’s Breath. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. (Max Tudor, Bk. 6). Apr. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781250092786. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250092793. Mys
If you never thought you’d enjoy sitting down in a comfy rocker with a cup of tea and your smartphone over 50 feet away, think again. This charming “cozy corner” whodunit is quite enjoyable. Most books of this ilk begin with a ridiculously long setup (it’s part of some union deal I’m sure); here, the initial crime takes place on a yacht at sea where the aging yet still beautiful and emotionally needy actress Margot Browne is murdered and tossed overboard. The guests and crew soon find themselves quarantined in a hotel in Weston-super-Mare, and the locals call in Max Tudor for assistance. Although retired from the UK’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency MI5, Max is as young and handsome as Ewan McGregor. He has become the vicar of St. Edwold’s Church in nearby Nether Monkslip and searches for the villain the old-fashioned way: interviewing the guests—including the host, Romero Farnier, a powerful film director, a vulpine young yogi, a self-recriminating stylist, a temperamental chef, the Professor, and Mary Ann. Chapters examine suspects one by one, Agatha Christie, closed-circle style. Malliet proves especially good at that nifty trick of involving readers by keeping them guessing. All of the characters have opportunity and at least a little bit of motive. Throughout, the focus remains on this case but with an eye toward keeping the franchise alive. Tudor is described as having been “a uniquely intelligent, brave, and stalwart operative—their undercover superstar,” as “an extraordinary man of seemingly endless patience, knowledge, integrity and bravery.” Glowing terms aside, Max seems smart, self-effacing, and focused on “do-goodery.” VERDICT This is a cozy little addition to a cozy little series, a cozy little niche in the world of cozy corner mysteries.
Shelby, Ashley. South Pole Station. Picador. Jul. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781250112828. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250112859. F
Polies are a weird breed, and this novel focuses on one Cooper Gosling, 30, an artist who, in 2004, receives a grant that sends her to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The first pages are devoted to the question, “Why?”; her only answer is the lame, “I just want to paint at the bottom of the earth.” (Now don’t get judgy of her. She’s had a bad shock from her twin brother’s suicide and is casting about finding a new normal.) And first-time author Shelby doesn’t seem to be in any rush to find concrete answers for Cooper. Her laid-back writing style lacks definition, and Cooper’s experiences are suffused with vagary. After far too long a setup, this story’s conflict begins when winter arrives and everyone moves indoors for safety. Folks literally have no escape as the cruel season prevents any and all physical access to the outside world. The Polies separate into cliques like Beakers, who science things, and Nailheads, who do construction and maintenance. There are also, for some freaky-ass reason, many artists—writers, painters, and even an interpretive dancer (and yes, your taxes paid for that at the expense of closing your local library branch). Readers might be fooled into thinking that because the plot is so slow this is a story about a woman on a journey. But it’s not; Cooper bumps into a scientist backed by Congressional climate doubters out to disprove global warming. Frank is universally outcast, hated by all others at the Pole except for Cooper, who can’t bear to see a fellow human mistreated. There. That’s the novel. VERDICT A book with relationships working themselves out in a cabin-fever locale unfit for human survival.
Simsion, Graeme. The Best of Adam Sharp. St. Martin’s. May 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781250130402. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250130426. F
This is the tale of two Adam Sharps. The 1980s version is an IT worker by day, pub pianist and music-trivia expert by night. The 2017 one is an older gentleman still carrying a torch for “the girl who got away.” This breaks Simsion’s whimsical streak (see The Rosie Project starring Don Tillman who improbably bags an improbable spouse through an improbable romance) at two books. This much more conventional tale features an erstwhile musician who meets then loses The Girl. The story is even set to a crap original soundtrack which includes the Beatles and Juice Newton². The childless, directionless Sharp is definitely not an Ernest Hemingway, “Broken Ace,” “play-the-hand-you’re-dealt-and-shaddap-about-it” type; he’s a self-absorbed twerp who lost a rocket ship of a gal. Because he still misses her, he trades a comfortable Australian existence and marriage for a love triangle in France. Is the grass greener? Only over the septic tank, as the amazing Erma Bombeck famously wrote. Are you a baby boomer who has wondered about “the one who got away”? You’ll like this. VERDICT Dudes who read this unimaginative, paint-by-the-numbers snoozer will be reminded of when two vermin completely trash a pretty dollhouse in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice: “Then there was no end to the rage and disappointment of Tom Thumb Hunca Munca.” You want an alternative? Check out Colson Whitehead, John Updike, James Baldwin, Robert Coover, or Bryn Greenwood. For a romance, see J.P. Monninger’s ridiculously romantic The Map That Leads to You.