Books for Dudes: Adventures with Frontlist Thrillers, Memoirs & Mysteries

Though I’ve “committed to incorporating more frontlist” in my columns, to quote my editor, I have to say: I never could tell my frontlist from my backlist.

Does currency matter to dudes? Other than sabre saws, for example, when the old tool is working just fine, you don’t really need a new one. Sure, I dive in the deep end when I find a book worth reading, but it’s the “worth reading” appellation that matters.

Quality is quality; I don’t need up-to-the-minute or breaking news‚ or even stop the presses. I’m just as happy with P.G. Wodehouse as I am with John Sandford’s books, Loretta Napoleoni’s Rogue Economics: Capitalism’s New Reality, or Michael Lewis’s Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. It’s about quality, not sell-by date.*

But qualifying‚ or even quantifying‚ quality is questionable, which is why Books for Dudes is a name you can trust. Eligibility in BFD’s Pantheon of Recommended Works requires titles to show a certain something, a certain je ne sais quoi**. And damn if I know what that is, but I can tell you we need more of it around here at BFD HQ.

Anyhoo, game on with six new titles.

BS110311BFDcarr(Original Import) BS10311BFDpenney(Original Import) BS110311BFDoconnell(Original Import) BS110311BFDwalsh(Original Import) BS110311BFDwortman(Original Import)

O’Connell, Carol. The Chalk Girl. Putnam. Jan. 2012. 384p. ISBN 9780399157745. $25.95. FCarr, Howie. Hard Knocks. Forge: Tor. Jan. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9780765326409. $24.99. F
Carr (The Brothers Bulger) gives us old school Boston; everyone is crooked, politics are closed door, and barrooms are sticky. The grit isn’t enjoyable long before an undercurrent of unapologetic racism became so distracting that I really couldn’t help wondering, “What is this crap?” Jack Reilly is a “Mr. Fixit” who makes your ugly problems go away for a price. Alas, he’s trapped in a no-win situation over some stolen Mob loot, and he’s also taken a job to help randy old city councilor-at-large “Slip” Crowley bring down a rival pol. These guys aren’t so concerned with what the Pulitzer committee is thinking; if Chang-Rae Lee showed up, he’d get some teeth broken. A typical wake-up call for Jack goes like this: “Knocko pointed a finger at me. ‘Don’t fuck with me!’ he said. ‘You fuck with me, you’re a fuckin’ dead man. You got that, you fuckster, you?'” Unfortunately, this is killed by too few of the titular hard knocks, Byzantine politics, and douchebaggy intolerance from the (ahem) fucksters, like when one grumpster sums up no-fault divorce: “Nowadays, if a broad catches her husband with a gal pal, he owes her a million bucks. If a guy catches his wife with a boy toy, he owes her a million bucks. It’s as simple as that. Worst deal in the world for white guys, worse than affirmative action, even.” Ex-wives aside, Real Dudes aren’t concerned with what color you are, only that you show up on time and swing your hammer straight.

After way too many false starts, this story eventually boils down to some New York City cops tracking down a serial killer. Chapters begin with cryptic epigraphs from one Ernest Nadler, who may or may not be a serial killer who kidnaps his victims and, uh, disposes of them in Central Park. Cliché’s aplenty clog the pages, including but not limited to:

  • the little orphan girl;
  • the fancy-pants psychologist-cum-expert-on-everything;
  • the street-wise Hispanic cleaning woman;
  • the shitload of swarming rats.

Chief trope is a deadly dull title character, a kind of female Dirty Harry/cowboy cop. She operates on instinct! The commissioner is in fits, but what can he do when she’s so good? She knows that departmental policies won’t clear this case! She’s one step away from getting jacked up by the captain! How much was that haircut anyway? Mallory’s badass powers are so supernatural that cops with guns are frightened of her, and the air is colder near her desk. And no one has any fun in this boring-ass book. Some options: Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books (fun), Elmore Leonard (unconcerned with hearing his own voice), and Ed McBain (entertaining). There’s plenty of new original work, too, like Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. [“O’Connell offers more than a suspenseful tale; she portrays a complex world of dark and light, corruption and love, in a New York City that retains its grittiness,” read the LJ starred review (coming in 11/15/11).‚ Ed.]

Penney, Stef. The Invisible Ones. Putnam. Jan. 2012. 416p. ISBN 9780399157714. hc. $25.95. F
Two characters alternate narrating chapters in this great read: JJ, a 14-year-old full-blooded gypsy, and Ray, a half gypsy, half gorijo (nongypsy) private investigator. JJ is unlike any teenager I know. Sweet and selfless, he loves his flawed family, especially his disabled six-year-old cousin. He is diligent about doing his chores and dreams of someday moving to France. Ray is a bit of a puzzle. Because he’s short on cash, he takes on a hopelessly cold missing-persons case looking for Rose; turns out she’s JJ’s aunt. Perhaps it’s in his blood, but, damn, if he ain’t clever at ferreting out information from Rose’s aloof in-laws who, counter to gypsy culture, keep to themselves. As the plot progresses, Ray and JJ’s worlds converge; the gypsy appeal waxes for Ray and wanes for JJ. I’d hazard a guess that, like me, you never considered gypsies any deeper than Stevie Nicks and Disney’s Hunchback. But here Penney skillfully presents “two different worlds, Gypsy and gorijo living side by side but not face to face” and wraps it up in an immensely enjoyable whodunit. Between this and Mikey Walsh’s Gypsy Boy (see below), I had a real edumacation. [“Another stunner from Penney; highly recommended,” said the LJ starred review.‚ Ed.]

Sigurdardottir, Yrsa. Ashes to Dust. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Apr. 2012. 368p. ISBN 9780312641740. pap. $14.99. F
Among 1973’s many historical watersheds was Miami defeating the Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII (completing the NFL’s first perfect season), Skylab launching, Spiro Agnew resigning, and volcanic cone Eldfell erupting off Iceland, burning 400 homes and burying hundreds more. Fast-forward 30 years; attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir (Ms. G) represents a client staunchly opposed to excavating the house he grew up in. Why? Maybe it’s something to do with the three bodies in the basement, dead for decades. Or perhaps the gruesome contents of a box discovered down there? Either way, the shít is still hitting the fan with a fresh body count and Ms. G. acting all hands-on sleuth with her fat secretary as sidekick. As the murder cover-up/investigation moves along on a wonderfully unpredictable trajectory, Ms. S. skillfully interweaves Ms. G.’s personal story in measured, controlled amounts. The book is paced exceedingly well; by the time readers are exhausted or impatient with one thread, the other starts up. While Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past might be the Next Big Swedish Thing after Steig Larsssssssson, damn if Sigurdardottir isn’t the Icelandic version of Greenlandic literary powerhouse Kristian Olsen aaju (don’t even tell me you missed Kinaassutsip taallai: Kinaassutsip taallai sassuma arnaaniit angullugu Danmark halleluja anaana).

Walsh, Mikey. Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Feb. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780312622084. $24.99. BIOG
This pseudonymous autobiography is a surprising eye-opener to a culture both lyrical and brutal. Persons of Romani descent, gypsies live mostly in Europe, many in Spain. The only famous names I recognize are guitarists Ronnie Wood (Rolling Stones) and Django Reinhard. Though Walsh has since left The Life, his upbringing was totally wild-ass, with cockfights, pirated movies, and adventures in shoplifting with his Aunt Minnie. Food was mostly take-out, but Sundays featured Jimmy Grey, a dish of “swede, onions, animal fat, liver, beefsteak, chicken, and pork, all shallow fried.” After the grown-ups literally bored each other to sleep, kids drew on their faces. Cultural details abound, with Walsh holding that gypsy culture is superstitious (Dalmations are good signs), calls for scrupulously clean homes (mostly caravans, or trailers), and dictates that women work in the home. Ideally, men do odd jobs for elderly gorgias (nongypsies), charging criminally high sums‚ and thus frequently running afoul of Johnny Law. Unfortunately for Walsh, bare-knuckled fighting is heavily prized in gypsy culture, and his ex-champion dad forced him to “train” from an early age. This entailed lining up each morning to receive five to ten progressively harder gut punches, which routinely knocked him senseless across the room. An intriguing and affecting read.

Wortmann, Fletcher. Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Apr. 2012. ISBN 9780312622107. $24.99.
I read this over and over. Wortmann clearly and succinctly explains the exact nature of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), “the pathological intolerance of risk, however minute, and the surrender to protective ritual, however unbearable.” At least I think that’s what he wrote because I had to go run around the house three times and clap for 43 seconds before petting the dog. It’s something I do every day at 9:12 pm. Oddly, Wortmann makes it seem almost sensible to use ritual as a form of control. I mean, when I shave left handed with a right-handed razor facing north, the top of my head never blows off. Sure it’s “against probability and common sense,” but this shit works! Wortmann’s boyhood solaces (e.g., some wonderful pets) are sharply offset by various self-invented but very real tortures like an obsession/shame cycle about plastic Transformers action figures. You’d think that he’s describing the at-bat rituals of Major League ballplayers when he writes that “[e]ventually the behavior of the sufferer is entirely divorced from reality,” but he’s not. What little dark humor (akin to David Sedaris) there is can’t leaven the uncomfortably revelatory glimpses of discomfort and self-loathing that OCD has caused.

* Note: The same cannot be said of milk; expiration dates on milk jugs mean something.

** It’s this je ne sais quoi thing that explains why it’s much more enjoyable to spend 45 minutes reading Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Muscovite cop Porfiry Rostnikov carefully, solemnly repair plumbing in a dingy apartment complex (Tarnished Icons, 1997) than to suffer through even ten pages of The Chalk Girl.

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Douglas Lord About Douglas Lord

Douglas Lord has been reviewing books and audio for Library Journal since the earth was a molten mass. He is an Ironman athlete blessed with a family that sometimes finds him funny and puts up with him constantly reading aloud from advanced review copies. Books for Dudes focuses on books for curious, fun, time-crunched men.