Recently a female colleague asked me what I was reading. After I told her about this column, she replied, “Well, why would I read it? I’m not a dude.” Her comment made me think—and not just about our respective fiddly bits. See, while I think dudes will be attracted to and enjoy (or, in the case of some, be repelled by) these books, I don’t really think I write just for dudes. It’s not like BFD is as exclusively male as the Hair Club for Men. “Dude,” for me, is a state of mind, an attitude, a mode of living. Dudes live life large, drink deeply and passionately in our experiences, and make every effort to have a lot of fun doing it. As another colleague of mine (a dude) is fond of saying, “If it ain’t fun, why do it?” That’s the perspective through which to read these humble recommendations. In your fetid, psychopathic little minds, that is.
Grafton, Sue. W Is for Wasted. Putnam: Penguin. 2013. 496p. ISBN 9780399158988. $28.95. F
Like V.I. Warshawski and Anna Pigeon, Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone is a fixture in the world of female sleuths. And it’s not just her five-foot, six-inch, 118-pound frame that makes her so attractive to dudes, she’s also independent, straightforward, calm. Unfortunately, she’s wasted (hah!) in W, kicking very little ass and wandering aimlessly through a bloated story that sacrifices quality for quantity. After a stumblebum dies with Kinsey’s business card in his pocket, she makes IDing him her raison d‘être; this takes a tortuously long time. Another—far better—part of the story focuses on Pete Wolinsky, a fast-talking, shady PI with Marfan syndrome who manipulates clients out of cash by cooking false receipts and general dissembling. While Grafton’s skill at creating a sympathetic character out of such a deadbeat is masterful, it can’t save the book, and readers will be impatiently waiting for Kinsey to tie the two threads together. Occasional bits of Kinsey’s insight, as when she describes the state of death: “His features had been softened and flattened in death, angles worn as smooth as stone over which water has poured for thousands of years” are more than offset with dreary, pointless details like the “…seven options in the way of temperature control: Heat: off or on. Cold: off or on. Fan: on, off, or auto.” VERDICT An uncompelling, bloated snoozer in the alphabet series.
Lee, Patrick. Runner. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Feb. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9781250030733. $24.99. F
Remember playing chase when you were young? That’s this, start to finish. A wild coincidence quite literally smacks a fugitive, freakishly gifted young girl named Rachel into exactly the hero she needs: Sam Dryden, a Delta Force–level former black-ops expert who specialized in abducting people.Sam needs someone to protect and Rachel, who feels Sam’s energy as “…the warmth near a fireplace…like arms around her,” needs a protector. Sam quickly determines that Rachel has memory issues, and also notices her “unreal” senses; it turns out she’s been genetically enhanced for military purposes, at such a level that two competing contractors will kill her if they can’t control her.These monstrous corporate villains are surprisingly authentic for an action novel, if a bit myopically focused on “the mission.” Yes, it’s a plot “right out of a conspiracy theorist’s worst nightmare,” but it’s also zippy with bursts of gallows humor. As the two flee pursuers and reconstruct Rachel’s life, readers get harrowing glimpses of other, sadder human weapons who are biologically manipulated to respond to triggers broadcast by handlers. The happy ending is complicated when Rachel is caught in an ambush sprung by figures from her cloudy past. Occasional glimmers of insight, such as when Sam describes grief as a kind of duty, are held in check to favor the action. VERDICT Note-perfect at introducing creepiness and plot twists at just the right moment, this thrill ride is compelling and brilliantly paced. Runner will satisfy most dudes, reluctant readers, and thrill seekers, and those tired of rereading all the plot twists and jam-packed action of Marcel Proust.
Lewis, Tim. Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team. Velo. Nov. 2013. 276p. ISBN 9781937715205. $24.95 BIOG/HIST
Those who can stomach reading some awful details of the civil war (1990–1993) that, unfortunately, defines Rwanda will be rewarded with an interesting, unlikely cheerful story of hope for a country that sorely needs it. Though the narrative skips around among various focal characters (e.g., Olympian Adrien Niyonshuti), Lewis places cycling at the heart of Rwanda’s changing fortunes by stitching together various stories and providing excellent, cogent synopses of the political and social history of the country. Bikes dominate commerce in Rwanda; they can alternately serve as a means of recreation, status symbols,and,most importantly, provide economical transport for the country’s agricultural workers.When cycling legend and bike designer Tom Ritchey (see homage here) visited in 2005, he was looking to press “restart” on his life. Inspired by tchukudus—Rwanda’s rudimentary, wooden “no-tech pickup trucks”—Ritchey came up with an affordable, reliable bicycle-esque vehicle to help farmers and transporters get their massive cargoes from place to place effectively. The vehicle could support “…at least 150 kilos—two bags of coffee cherries, two adult goats or three children—and probably much more.” VERDICT Lewis’s intelligent, thoughtful social history can seem a little scattershot, but its tone of hope and cast of optimistic people (e.g., “we have built a mechanism to cope with the situation,” says one) doing their best to move society forward makes this a winner.
Parker, Michael. Talk with Your Kids: Conversations About Ethics, Honesty, Friendship, Sensitivity, Fairness, Dedication, Individuality, and 103 More Things That Really Matter. Black Dog & Leventhal. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9781579129484. $14.95. PARENTING
Starting with the question, “Your child may be smart, but is he or she good?” Parker presents an Ethics 101 course for families with this effective,helpful tome. The 109 scenarios eschew right-or-wrong, black-or-white answers, instead serving as launch pads for discussion. They range from pretty easy (e.g., “Is it okay to tell white lies?”) to pretty frigging hard (e.g., “Is torture ever acceptable?”) and hundreds of realistic scenarios between those extremes (e.g., your BFF wants to blow up mailboxes, what do you do?). All will help spark discussion about handling conundrums that can go from imaginary to real all too quickly (e.g., unsupervised choices at parties, firecrackers and frogs). This is real meat and potatoes for parents with kids approaching the age at which they need to start thinking for themselves and reasoning things out. Because let’s face it, doing this on your own can have unintended consequences. My own product, the BFD Virtual Ethics Simulator (it resembles the Wayback Machine), saw me happily shoplifting, climbing into the free candy van, and promising lots of money to charity only to blow it on librarian toys (book pockets and intricate ILS systems). VERDICT This will certainly find an appreciative audience among parents concerned with more than just making sure the lunch box is filled and the kid isn’t dirty. Dudes who follow the “family first’ golden rule will appreciate the help this provides in making your kid an actual, thinking human being.
Ryan, Hank Phillippi. The Wrong Girl. Forge. 2013. 368p. ISBN 9780765332585. $24.99. F
Like a Byzantine crockpot on the 24-hour setting, this is a sloooow, complex cooker. Reporter Jane Ryland’s friend Tuck is adopted and suspects that the Brannigan adoption agency has misidentified her biological mom. Ella Gavin works for Brannigan and realizes strange things are afoot. After Ella spends a Sunday going through the files, her boss Miss Finch shows up dead. What’s up with that? Back to Jane—she’s hot for detective Jake Brogan. Who’s he? Lead on a murder case involving an unidentified woman who left behind two little kids and, most disturbing, an empty crib. Jake is also hot for Jane, but it’s all sparks and no action. Oh, and Jane as reporter gets assigned that story. Tired yet? Ella and Tucker tell the same story from different perspectives; similarly, Jake and Jane are working the same case from different ends. Both are clever plot devices, though the double whammy adds levels of duplication to the narrative. I’ll give you one chance at guessing where the threads connect: if you said, “the empty crib,” you win five points. I don’t think dudes will dig this, but I’ve been wrong many times (just ask my mom. And my ex-wife). Ryan is an award-winning novelist who also has won 28 Emmys and 10 Edward R. Murrow Awards. I ask you, can such a winner be wrong? VERDICT Damned if I know. It’s a sure bet for Bostonite mystery fans and will also appeal to those who enjoy non-procedural mysteries.
Sherman, Derek. Race Across the Sky. 2013. Plume: Penguin. 384p. ISBN 9780452299061. $16. F
First-time author Sherman’s novel presents two brothers reconnecting after years of estrangement. We meet the first, Caleb Oberest, at mile 65 of the Leadville 100, the hundred-mile foot race (yes, you read correctly) on the crazy-hard trails of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Caleb belongs to Happy Trails, a running commune-cum-cult. Shane, Caleb’s younger brother, sells drugs (pharmaceuticals, OK?), is a devoted husband, and will be a first-time dad any minute now. When Caleb invites him to visit after a ten-year silence, Shane is thrilled and hopes to “get Caleb out of there.” These efforts leave Caleb, to whom running is a sacred activity, aghast. As Shane finally realizes that his brother is happy and free, Caleb tells him why he really called—it’s an SOS on behalf of Lily, the ailing infant daughter of the woman he loves. Since Shane is in pharma/biotech, can he help? Let’s hope so, because Lily’s vulnerability will make any reader with a heart wince. VERDICT Sherman’s imaginative tale offers deeply drawn, affecting characters learning about themselves and the world at the intersection of altruism and selfishness.
A Few Extra Comments for Runners: At first glance I was sure that this was another elite enduro-maniac racer’s autobiography full of braggadocio about muscling his way through an insanely long event; Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra (2012) comes to mind. But no, this is a novel in which two brothers reconnect after years of estrangement. We meet one at mile 65 of the Leadville 100; he’s doing well but has to push through his limits (dehydration with uncontrollable puking) at mile 90. Nonetheless, he finishes eighth (!). How? Training! Caleb belongs to Happy Trails, a Colorado-based running cult who live communally in “…a simple house made of planks and beams” two hundred yards from the base of South Boulder Peak. In addition to drinking lotsa beer and smoking a lot of hash, HTers use freakishly unorthodox training methods that build better, stronger athletes who get results; they eat twice a day, sleep four hours a night, and use sex for training. Sherman gets some of the details wrong—a daily eight-hour run? Running up a 70-degree ascent? Going 240 miles at the 24-hour Desert Solstice event? Nnnnno. Still, these are hard-core folk; in the words of their whack job leader, Mack, who believes he can heal people with waves of kinetic energy, these trail races ain’t “…no bullshit Iron Man, watching dudes jog down a highway” (intrigued, iron men?). The rest of the plot gets in the way of the training. VERDICT Endurance freaks, unite! Happy Trails is either a form of Eden or one of the circles of hell.
Schickler, David. The Dark Path: A Memoir. Riverhead. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9781594486456. $27.95. MEMOIR
Shick, a young, sincere Catholic boy especially concerned with hearing God, is likable from the start. He describes communion as waiting “…for God to bloom to life in my stomach, to give me muscles or wisdom. God doesn’t seem to do this, but I’m hoping that one day He will.” Vulnerable and innocent, the boy finds comfort in the titular dark path near his home where he gazes into trusted, wooded shadows that he feels “were put on earth so that I wouldn‘t miss out on something special.” As he grows out of charming, fantasy marriages to his secret boyhood crushes and into actually sleeping with women, Shick worries about his purity and still yearns to hear God’s voice. His tame college experiences include late-night masses and finding “a new quiet, a new stillness”; he ponders taking Jesuit orders, terming his yen the “priesthood ache.” After school Shick grows even more timid, worried, and confused while also shot though with unabated, impatient fervor; “I want to hear God’s voice irrationally, totally, the way I want sex.” This eventually turns depressive, and he struggles with his dual roles of teacher and author (Kissing in Manhattan, 2002). The memoir ends on a dizzyingly happy note, however. VERDICT The author’s questing honesty and his bravery in relating it create a powerful intimacy with readers. Though this autobiography is penned from a (very) Catholic perspective, any spiritual reader can remove the term “God,” replace it with their word of choice, and still enjoy this wonderful search of self. With wisdom like, “…your life is a competition between you and the strongest version of yourself,” Shick’s journey will doubtless inspire others.
Sincero, Jen. You Are a Badass. Running Pr. 2013. 254p. ISBN 9780762447695. $16. SELF-HELP
I was the print LJ self-help reviewer for 21 years (in dog years) and only rarely did a self-help book as kick-ass as Sincero’s come down the pike. Readable, funny, and profane, this is ultimately a very real and helpful tome in which Sincero sincerely (!) encourages readers to move from wanting to change to deciding to do it. Once that line is crossed, she writes, there’s no stopping a person’s potential. This book is fun, funny, and straight shooting, speaking directly to readers; though it boils down to solid, straight advice (e.g., “Become aware of your subconscious beliefs”), it’s presented in an oh-so-palatable candy coating that is refreshingly direct. For example, Sincero echoes what many dudes think about inspirational quotes: they’re “a bunch of crap,” adding, “I also didn’t understand what the hell they were talking about” for good measure. Underneath the zippy humor is solid advice about laying claim to your actual potential. “The trick,” Sincero writes, “is to have…energy and action working in unison.” VERDICT Jam-packed with pithy excellence. Any book that accomplishes in two direct sentences what some authors take entire books to tell you (e.g., “All this is to say that it’s not your fault that you’re fucked up. It’s your fault if you stay fucked up”) is worth its weight in gold. Perhaps you’d like to stop “eating dollar tacos by [your]self every night?” Give this a shot.
Strieber, Whitley. Alien Hunter. Tor. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780765331533. $25.99. SF
Oftentimes writers can disguise the complete unlikelihood of their plot—or at least slather it in enough action so that readers don’t notice. Not so here, where the clumsy writing only highlights a towering inferno of inconceivability. After Texas cop Flynn Carrol’s wife vanishes, he concludes that she’s been “taken” by a highly skilled “perp.” Even though her case is dead cold, Flynn implausibly keeps searching for the next seven years. After a few similar instances around the country, “…the most beautiful woman Flynn had ever seen in his life strode through the dead-silent squad room…She might as well have ‘Bad News’ tattooed on her forehead in big red letters”(clumsy). Though this woman, Diana Glass, tells him practically nothing, Flynn winds up joining her super-duper covert investigative team. For a day or two things go well; there’s high-tech tools and macho action (e.g., “they drove off into a rampage of snow”). Then, Strieber reverts to form: While staking out a house, most of the team is killed by the perp who uses a “…trained lion and helicopter with a silent wing.” At least it’s consistently awful, with one scenario that has the two hunting this Siberian tiger through the hallways of Las Vegas’s Sands hotel. VERDICT If you’re determined to read this, start on page 117; I promise you won’t need to flip backwards to figure anything out.
Old Age, Ungoodness, Grudges: Books We Won’t Be Fully Reviewing This Month
Billingsley, ReShonda Tate, and Victoria Christopher Murray. Friends & Foes. S.&S. 2013. 271p. ISBN 9781451608168. $15. FIC
This Christian novel, by two authors each with three names, features…two protagonists, each with three names! Two rival chicks are forced, nemesis-style, into an uneasy partnership when they are bound together to serve a higher purpose: the American Baptist Coalition. I’m not a Baptist, and I wouldn’t have thought there could be so much politicking and backstabbery in a church hierarchy. It’s not the wacky high jinks of The Odd Couple, but hey, Neil Simon could only write so fast. VERDICT The male characters here are as fleshed out as flensed carcasses, the dialog reads like nine seven-year-old girls trying to play with three Barbie dolls, and the backdrop of religiosity lends an unseemly, grimy feel to the enterprise.
Hosseini, Khaled. And the Mountains Echoed. Riverhead. 2013. 416p. ISBN 9781594631764. $28.95. F
There are certain things that a dude will only grudgingly admit, one of which is that Hosseini is a superb writer. This will surely add to the accolades and untold millions of dollars that Mr. H., author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, already has. This book is wonderfully told with a delicious sense of pacing and sensuality. What you might not know is that Hosseini is my nemesis; he stole every good idea in all his books directly from me. But I’m not jealous (the hell I’m not), nor do I hold a grudge (yeah, right). VERDICT Dudes, focus on the good news: you’re free to read KH without fear of being called a milquetoast.
Marr, Melissa. The Arrivals. Morrow. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780061826962. $24.99. F
This takes place in an in-between-time land known as the Wasteland, similar to but not identical to our own world, where “good” forces battle “bad” forces in a fight for supremacy. Three main lead characters, including one new to this world, takes turns patrolling, guarding, and watching the bad guys (demons and monks). But if Eric Foner’s astute America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (2001) taught me anything (OK, I really learned it from Star Wars), it’s that good and bad are relative terms depending on who wins. VERDICT Marr’s concept is pretty cool, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, kind of like the Ford Nucleon; it is more properly a sf/western/soap opera cross. The hook never really sets, feeling all the while like a tale told backwards.
Stedman, M.L. The Light Between Oceans. Scribner. 2012. 384p. ISBN 9781451681734. $25. F
This has been on my “to be read” pile for a year now. It reminds me of high school, where on the playground it was a given that any one person could arbitrarily change any rule once per game to his advantage by simply screaming, “Australian rules!” Thus, a football could be passed forward twice, a kickball runner could be tackled, or a basketball could be kicked for a rugby-style goal. Bend the rules to win. The book, then, describes an Australian-rules adoption, meaning that when a baby shows up at the Janus lighthouse in a boat, accompanied only by a corpse, the baby-yearning couple that lives there get to keep her. When the husband protests, asking his wife what she’s suggesting, she replies, “I’m suggesting kindness. That’s all. Love for a baby.” Set right after World War I, this title shows how a snap decision like that has consequences that are both uplifting and world shattering, sometimes to the same people. VERDICT Great stuff, try it. You’ll know right away if you like it or not.