I don’t know about you, but for me the seasonal change foretells an autumnal slouch into semi-hibernation—and I love it. Lounging around in my smoking jacket reading books all day is what the darker months are all about.
This month atHeadquarters we sent our feistiest reviewers on a scouting mission for the most apt autumn titles. You know the kind—you get an early snow day, you take a mental health day, or it’s just one of those times when caffeine and the alarm clock can’t rouse you from your suburban malaise. The spoiler: Four titles are great. Two are “eh.” There’s one total shitwad.
On that note, it’s fun to pan titles that will be universally deplored. But the real question is: why is this crap ever released? Some people spend their entire lives trying to get a book published. For every log of excruciation like (ahem) one of the seven titles below, perhaps there’s an unpublished David Gillham or Doyce Testerman somewhere? I know librarians have to Give ‘Em What They Want, Then Give ‘Em the Good Stuff: Why We Can’t Afford to Focus on Small Press, but why does The Publishing Industry piss on my shoes and tell me it’s Red Rain?
Doig, Ivan. The Bartender’s Tale. Riverhead. 2012. 400p. ISBN 9781594487354. $27.95. FIC
In the early 60s this kid named Rusty (or something like that. I’m just going to make up names as I go) is 12 and living in semi-misery with his aunt in Phoenix but then WHOOOOOSH! his Pop comes and whisks him back to Montana. While Pop works tending bar at the Medicine Lodge, Johnny mooches about in the back room with comic books, model planes, and his imagination. Though he doesn’t say it, Billy feels “found”; indeed, as he develops from larvae to grub, his personality overwhelmingly manifests a need for stability. And while Spanky’s whole journey is likeable and he’s a super kid and it’s heartwarming to see hearty male-centric bonding, readers are going to get impatient because it is crawlingly slow. Are we going somewhere? If so, will that be, like, today? When this chick Proxy and her kid Francine lay claim to a surprise post-halftime plot development, it gets complicated for young Jimmy. With passages such as, “Any kid is a master spy until that talent meets itself in the mirror during the teen years and turns hopelessly inward…” this isn’t exactly sentimental but definitely tends toward the dewey-eyed side of the spectrum (it’s “hindsight-driven,” shall we say). A coming-of-ager in which life is black-and-white-not-grey will appeal to those who insist, “Ah, but life was simple then.”
LaManna, Ross. Acid Test. Ballantine. 2003. 365p. ISBN 9780345439925. $19.95. FIC
When you read or watch the news, do you despair that the world is disintegrating into a melty, poop-flavored popsicle frozen to a stick that used to be a tree in the rainforest? Then try this big-ass ripsnorter—it has no connection to reality and will buck up any vestigial testosterone that you might have left, pronto. The Trans-Altaic Alliance is a consortium of Asian countries that form a power bloc; theoretically, it sounds pretty cool. The problem is it’s led by a raging megalomaniac named Batu Khan, who’s hell-bent on bringing the US of A to its knees. Khan’s got a few tricks up his deel: first, he doses his soldiers with a kickass type of LSD developed by a rogue Californian scientist; under the right circumstances they morph into berserker-esque killing machines. Also, Khan has stolen some nukes, pointed them at us, and started ‘em up to coincide with his dudes’ invasion of Washington, D.C. If things weren’t bad enough, there’s trouble at the White House—WTF is going on with the weird-acting president? It’s left to Air Force counterintelligence agent Matt Wilder to stop the whole freakin’ thing. As tropishly “Good” as Khan is “Bad,” Wilder lives through outlandishly implausible situations, such as vaulting from one ship to another in the vacuum of near-space, or fully waking up at 3:00 a.m. sans coffee. LaManna’s long descriptions of high-tech weaponry read like military porn. Like America herself, this is long on heart, a little shorter on brain, and with all of the requisite explosions. Turn off the bullshit meter and enjoy.
Sigurdardottir, Yrsa. The Day is Dark. Minotaur, February, 2013. 370p. ISBN 9781250029409. pap. $15.99
BFD staff are big fans of Sigurdardottir; I think the editorial board even went so far as to call her the Reykjavikian Rhapsodist. Or perhaps it was the Impressive Icelandic Inkspiller. In any event, she’s Iceland’s answer to Sweden’s rebuttal to Norway’s riposte about the whole damn American Southern Literature thing . Like her Ashes to Dust, this  features attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir getting hands-on in a case that brings her from sunny Iceland to remote Greenland. There she’s part of a team investigating weirdness at a mining work camp where about a dozen workers have abandoned ship and no one knows WTF happened. It’s not an actual mine, you understand, it’s a pre-mine office-and-quarters space where drillers dig up samples and scientists analyze the hell out of them looking for molybdenum . Among what they find are hostile natives with a cultural history marked by starvation, tupilaks, and human skeletal remains in “most” of the office drawers. I’d rechristen the place ‘CreepyLand’ and bug out, but the yeoman-like Thora digs into (heh. Get it? With the mining? Oh, nevermine) the mystery. Readers will be deeply satisfied with this fresh title’s direct frankness and deliberate pacing.
Stine, R.L. Red Rain. Touchstone. October, 2012. 384p. ISBN 9781451636123. $24.99. FIC
The good news is that Mr. Goosebumps got an iPhone 5; the bad news is that he let Siri write this piece of crap. Lea is a self-employed travel writer who feels that blogging about her trip to a remote island off South Carolina is a good way to increase her readership. Her writing—“The road was lined on both sides by amazing cabbage palmettos. Their clusters of long leaves gleamed, even in the darkening light of the sky. Talk about magic!”—as well as her description of the island’s voodoo-zombie bullshittery is insipid. But at least a hurricane moves in and destroys the island (leaving Lea untouched, naturally). She wanders around for two days describing various horrors, leaving nothing to the imagination (think: Haitian earthquake). In the aftermath, she is compelled to blithely bring allegedly orphaned twin boys home to Long Island where she lives with her husband, two kids, stepsister and nephew. Oh, sure, Lea—that dog’ll hunt! Do you think these strange boys might have a secret? Something to do with mayhem and murder, perhaps? Mmmm. Stine’s lazy blog conceit falls apart immediately (who blogs in novel form?). Readers won’t care about these sloppily-drawn characters, will see through the tiresome plot, and will marvel that a professional writer could present such disjointed scenes and crudely drawn scenarios. The whole thing is slapdash, insulting pap with no attempt at realism or characterization. It’s an R-rated Goosebumps with some really disturbing scenes.
Wong, David. This Book is Full of Spiders. St. Martin’s. October, 2012. 416p. ISBN 9780312546342. $25.99 FIC
This profane, upsetting, compelling, enjoyable, energizing, zany, slightly immature book also features horror, sci-fi, and (I quote) “Goliath Fucking Bird-Eating Spiders.” Perfect, in other words . In it, hero/narrator Dave and his best friend John (who possesses “a genetic defect that makes him walk toward danger” investigate an epidemic of squirrel-sized spider-bug things infesting the townspeople with nasty, fast-paced death; it happens first to a cop named Franky, whose “broken arm was moving, twitching, the bones tearing free of the skin and curling like tentacles.” Wong excels at chaotic fun, a writerly Rosencrantz to the Guildenstern of orderly, even-paced authors such as John Grisham. Also, Wong’s pithy descriptions of Stuff Dudes Know are spot-on. From broken stereos “where there should have been a volume knob, [but] there was only an empty hole, not even a little shaft that you could maybe grab with a pair of needle-nose pliers” to the noise a monster makes when it’s coming for you: an “…irregular rhythm…a smacking, sticky sound, like a person loudly eating pasta right next to your ear.” The chapter detailing an alien’s pursuit of Dave through a turkey farm needs to be read to be believed. As a sequel (originally titled John and Dave and the Temple of X’al’naa’thuthuthu) to Wong’s (née Jason Pargin) immensely popular John Dies at the End (Thomas Dunne, 2009), demand will be high.
From The Bottom of the Heap
Every month Library Journal gets hundreds of books for review. Maybe even thousands! From these hundreds of thousands  of books only a teeny fraction get reviewed. For the discards, it’s usually just ‘Tough’ and good luck with that critique from the Canton Cherokee Tribune.
But now, for the first time, we at BFD HQ debut a new feature: From the Bottom of the Heap, a Last Chance Saloon where a dedicated BFD staffer will review a book formerly destined for the Dumpster of Books that Will Remain Forever Unreviewed and instead present it to you, our dearest friends and constituents.
Manheimer, Eric. Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital. Grand Central. 2012. 368p. ISBN 9781455503889. $26.99. AUTOBIOGRAPHY/MEDICAL
Eric Manheimer, medical director at Bellevue Hospital, has been “in the business” so long that he has become concerned with more than just the medical end of things—he sees a larger picture in which social welfare meets medicine. The overall “healing” needs of patients encompass much more than the physical and the titular 12 provide a platform for the good doctor’s ponderings and conclusions. Consider J.G., a cancer-stricken prisoner convicted of minor drug possession. Sure, Manheimer discusses J.G.’s treatment, but he also considers the man in terms of his candidacy for compassionate release. And as an example of a massively expensive, taxpayer-funded medical case. And as a pawn in a justice system that equates him with violent criminals. Each case has facets beyond the strictly medical that necessitate a larger, perhaps more holistic, consideration. And Dr. Eric has seen it all. “If there is a laboratory experiment in how to create people at the margin of functionality by eliminating all resources and social supports, education, medical care, and community involvement,” he writes, “these are the guinea pigs who have been dumped out of their cages and turned loose on the streets.” Dr. Eric makes effective points, but in the end his opinions are just that: opinions, albeit absurdly well-informed ones. Whether or not readers agree with Dr. M is immaterial. Rather the import of this book is in acknowledging the big, fat, systemic issues that need tending, not disregarding.
Shamrock, Frank, with Charles Fleming. Uncaged: My Life as a Champion MMA Fighter. Chicago Review Press. October, 2012. 288p. ISBN 9781613744659. Cloth. $24.95. AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Dudes, Shamrocks’s mixed martial arts (MMA) autobiography will totally heal you from sitting through that Diane Keaton movie your wife made you watch. Stylistically dry (were you looking for lyricism and panache from the MMA?), Shamrock shares his chaotic, cruel childhood; his adolescence of substance abuse, trouble-makin’, and juvie; and experiences as a ward of the state of California. Though careful to point out his high IQ, the author willingly—and winningly— pokes fun at himself with unflagging humility; “I might have been gifted and talented,” he writes, but “…[w]hat kind of idiot steals cheese samplers?” Perhaps it was grace that landed him at the Shamrock Boys Ranch under the direction of Bob Shamrock (who later adopted Frank and provided his surname). Though he initially flourished under the structure and discipline of the ranch system, drug problems and the pressures of teenage fatherhood overwhelmed Shamrock. After a 3-stretch in prison, he became involved in hybrid wrestling and spent time in Japan learning submission fighting and its spiritual aspects. This led to a career in MMA, and most of the book chronicles his training and fights. Shamrock picks apart matches, acknowledges mistakes, and respects worthy opponents. This compelling material reads like you and he are drinking beer and armchair quarterbacking DVR’d bouts. And they completely make up for subsequent chapters filled with boring, repetitive details about murky, late-career business dealings and forwarding his brand . Though his retirement from fighting brought more substance abuse, it also brought Shamrock the opportunity to contextualize fighting as his raison d’être. Though he doesn’t openly state it, Shamrock’s life can be characterized as a series of fights against demons both corporeal and psychological. And to his immense credit, he never gives up. ” Failures become opportunities to improve, successes must be seen relative to their merit. I will probably stand solo in the book review community in considering this chronicle as anything more than a warts-and-all autobiography: It is a quintessential, rags to riches, local-boy-done-good success story of a new America.