Book Club Picks, a Literary Detective Story, and More | Books for Dudes

The best fiction can make the possible probable. And this month we have some of it in this Books for Dudes column, along with some total crap that you’re not going to want to read, and two books that I can totally see as reading club faves—Rae Meadows’s I Will Send Rain and Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door.

The good thing about BFD? The time savings. Can you think of anything more precious than time? Me neither, but former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli did—”Time is precious, but truth is more precious than time.”

Disraeli was a dude who knew how to stretch his own boundaries, though. Did I hear you say, “Just like comedian Don Rickles!”? Yes, just like that. To stretch your boundaries, you should always be open to the unexpected, the lesser known, the underdog, the unlikely. Who doesn’t love a surprise (other than all the Democrats on November 9, 2016)?

Eve. Shintarou’s Way. M/M Romance Group @ Goodreads. 2015. 22p. URL http://www.mmromancegroup.com/?p=277630. ePub/Mobi/PDF. Free. romance
If you’ve read the BFD column even a couple times, you’ll know that it demands readers continually challenge themselves with works outside their comfort zone. Stuff you wouldn’t ordinarily read, writing that requires an open mind. Work that brain! So I stumbled upon an entry from an old Goodreads contest—”Love Is an Open Road”—an exercise put on by the M/M Romance Group in which members write a short story inspired by a picture. This one is set in feudal Japan and focuses on Aiko, a young shapeshifter who spends most of his time in his dog form. He’s solo, exiled from his pack because he’s gay. Living unprotected on the streets, frequently hungry, and with trust issues, Aiko has a tough life. Readers quickly feel his isolation, and while not overselling his hurt feelings and semidesperation, author Eve effectively sets the hook for rooting for this kid. Enter the titular Shintarou, a vampire, similarly damaged many years ago, who finds Aiko and gradually gains his trust. He admits his ulterior motive, which isn’t rocket science: a pack animal yearning for a pack + an alpha looking to lead = young/old M/M relationship with BDSM undertones. Eve keeps this angle tame and, I must say, classy. The focus is on the positive togetherness, feelings of relief for two lonely souls. I admit I got a little uncomfortable in places, but the story lacks prurient details. VERDICT In an admirable economy of language, Eve manages to sketch out a lot of details about surroundings and convey a wide breadth of feeling. Well done.

Koul, Scaachi. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays. Picador. May 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781250121028. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781250121073. LIT
Readers of BFD will immensely enjoy Koul’s (Buzzfeed Canada) well-written, somewhat alien, snot-blowingly funny, and occasionally wise autobiographical essays. What immediately stands out are her observational techniques, which combine a striking, funny brand of self-loathing. I learned about all sorts of superinteresting things reading these pieces, such as the awkward phase that 11-year-old girls go through, even though I’ve had one of my own (daughters, that is—not girl phases). Another essay fearlessly sums up a ten-page odyssey of the author losing a Holy Grail skirt, “[i]f you have never experienced the sensation of your naked labia rubbing up against freshly washed denim as you manoeuvre through a subway car with broken air conditioning…” you’re lucky. A maudlin tone occasionally peeps in, as when she points out that children of immigrants are “taught to hide.” Yet, throughout she writes with assured sass and maturity, both of which become apparent when she forgives her online harassers and deconstructs her online persona; “[t]he internet rewarded all the parts of my personality that the tangible world didn’t: sarcasm, cynicism, and a refusal to enjoy almost anything.” VERDICT Absurd. Interesting.

Lamprell, Mark. One Summer Day in Rome. Flatiron: Macmillan. Aug. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781250105530. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250105554. F
Damn! This romance-y book has foiled my attempts to remain impervious to romance-y type books! The story follows three parallel tales. One concerns Alec and Meg, an unhappily married American/Australian couple too busy grumping at each other to smell the roses. Another is about aristocrats Lizzie and Constance, sprightly septuagenarian British sisters-in-law on a mission to spread the ashes of Henry, their husband/brother, respectively. The third revolves around a heavenly beautiful ginger named Alice, wallflower timid until her art professor instructed her to “…go have a ‘voosh’ experience.” All make their way to Rome where Lamprell has created a clever guiding force/oracle of romance, “…a genius loci—a spirit of place—assigned to inspire and challenge the people within it.” The characters are uniformly charming (except for Meg—she’s a bitch on wheels). Though all of the characters share quick wits and a strong sense of self (Alice’s is just beginning), each is refreshingly distinct. Scenes are sharply, if lightly, sketched, ranging from ebullient (e.g., when a boy so gobsmacked by Alice’s beauty drives a Vespa down the Spanish Steps) to forlorn (e.g., when the discouraged Alec says “I’m tired of being at war” to Meg who immediately begins to mock the poor bastard). Lamprell (The Full Ridiculous) even manages to keep the mood light in odd, harrowing moments (e.g., when Alec and Meg are assaulted). VERDICT Will secrets be revealed? Will love triumph? Will Lizzie and Constance get their own book series? One hopes. Warm and breezy, this is an enjoyable, romantic adventure.

Lim, Eugene. Dear Cyborgs. Farrar. Jun. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9780374537111. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9780374716417. F
This is a mellifluous, though impenetrable, little book. Early on, our unnamed narrator moves to Chicago and away from best friend Vu, with whom he shares a mutual love of comic books. What was a story that had a semblance of plot thereafter becomes disassociated. In what may or may not be imaginary subsequent interludes (is it an extension of a comic book adventure?), he becomes a kind of soldier and friend to a couple of obscure characters who may or may not be the titular cyborgs. There is a perpetual sense that something will happen; it doesn’t. Still, there is much good fun here, including Lim’s (Fog & Car) vocabulary, such as “codex culture” and “bromide,” and imagery: “[a]n ice palace surrounded by sick fish during a blood-red sunset,” both ever present. And his willingness to get silly is admirable, as in a ransom letter that demands, among many other things, “the adoption worldwide of a single-payer universal health care system.” At one point, a character named Muriel delivers an endless monolog describing the difficulty she’s having creating her art. While the condition of artists simultaneously requiring the returns of and resenting their work’s commercial value is as old as the hills, Lim describes it in refreshingly new ways. VERDICT Alluring and with a brevity that somewhat counteracts its discouraging aimlessness. Sometimes artsy fartsy is just that.

Magariel, Daniel. One of the Boys. Scribner. 2017.  176p. ISBN 9781501156168. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781501156182. F
The plot is simple: a father wins custody of his two boys by lying and falsifying evidence. Their move from Kansas to New Mexico begins a downward spiral of chaos and child abuse that lasts Two. Never-ending. Years. The drugged-out dad of our tween narrator is fucking nuts, makes “his own rules to his own game,” and abuses the boys physically and psychologically. “Our dad was an act with a single end. His trajectory: down, down, down.” As the sands of desperation shift, so do the allegiances of the unnamed man’s unnamed sons. Eventually, the narrator is imprisoned at home. Stark prose paints scenes quickly and skillfully, and this is an engaging, fast read. These are usually positive qualities in a book—yet the complete lack of any moral core overrides all in this novel. The only reason readers will continue is for a happy ending, and to save you the trouble, there isn’t one. This doesn’t moralize on opioid addiction or on manipulation/brainwashing of the boys. “She deserved it,” the narrator says of his abused mother, yelling “[f]uck you. We hate you” after the “…gash on the back of [her] head” indicates dad has “…ripped out a chunk of her hair.” even as the boy notes that dad “…was so good to us sometimes” (I think he bought them a sandwich). Readers will be left with one question: the fuck? Just because a book can be written doesn’t mean it should (ditto “published”). Nihilism is designed to evoke an emotional response: to throw up. VERDICT Absent moral ambiguity, this is simply an unnecessary narrative of child abuse. If the author is saying, “read this and think,” I encourage you to not read this—and think.

McGuire, Seanan. Down Among the Sticks and Bones. Tor. Jun. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780765392039. $17.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765392046. F
McGuire follows up her award-winning Every Heart a Doorway with a fable-esque story about twin girls, Jacqueline and Jillian (Jack & Jill), raised by caricatures of parents who coerce them into preformed roles (princess and tomboy, respectively). But this ain’t no Mary-Kate and Ashley choose-your-own-adventure tale. At age 12, the girls become vaguely aware of free will and take a tumble through the looking glass into an imaginary world. There they spend the next six years exploring and refining themselves in “the village.” The girls discover (gasp!) that adolescents make weird choices, too, as they grow in peculiar ways. Jack turns into a boyish, gay germophobe and Jill becomes a fancy brat tethered to a vampire. Though their medieval surroundings are dangerous, rife with sharp pointy things and poisonous potions, the twins’ primary jeopardy is the most dangerous of enemies—feelings. Alliances, choices, allegiances, indeed, anything other than “total independence” is risky. Both seek acceptance for themselvesm not for who they are perceived to be. Acutely descriptive, this has elements of both Mervyn Peake’s Ghormenghast and the British TV series The Prisoner and includes a few drawings amid dime-store spookery, such as Jill’s automaton servant and the resident mad-scientist-cum-naturalist-healer Dr. Bleak. VERDICT While a fairly imaginative read, the monotheme of Choices Are So Important is bludgeoned to death.

Meadows, Rae. I Will Send Rain. Holt. 2016. 272p. ISBN 9781627794268. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781627794275. F
The farm of Samuel and Annie Bell in 1934 Dust Bowl Oklahoma has had four inches of rain this year—16 are needed to grow wheat. Times are hard, gritty, dirty, nasty. Meadows’s (Mercy Train) sharp and powerful writing captures the physicality of details remarkably; it’s a testament to her ability that she finds the beauty in such bleak surroundings. Yet she uses these observations only to add allure to characters. So while readers vividly sense, say, an anthill, it’s the boy observing the ants who we get to know. A Bible with “…[a] cover [that] is cracked like the veins of a long dead leaf” is the object, but the man flipping the tissue-thin pages is who we relate to. The Bells’ austere marriage realistically mixes too-familiar thoughtlessness softened with flashes of tenderness—one pink-tinged moment sees Annie imagining “…wildflowers, trumpet vines, and pale green buffalo grass all around them.” The couple and their kids, Birdie (15) and Fred (8), each have tremendously distinct lives, and readers are offered various vantage points on their interactions and individual experiences. Fred, though happy, is mute and suffers from dust asthma, while dutiful Birdie has lost patience with life. Samuel is so freaked out about the anticipated rain that he begins building an ark, and lovely, neglected, isolated Annie becomes tempted. If four people are bound by blood only, are they still a family? VERDICT An author should be a thousand years old before she can write this well. It’s akin to using a machine-sharpened machete to cut butter; it doesn’t need to have this much horsepower, but it’s marvelous to experience.

Obregón, Nicolás. Blue Light Yokohama. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9781250110480. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250110497. M
I’m not breaking any scoop here cuz the cat’s already way out of the bag about Obregón’s masterly debut novel in the unlikely realm of “literary detective story.” Obregón’s refreshingly new voice absolutely rips apart the tired trope of “What do you do with the experienced but flawed detective you can’t fire? You put him on cold cases.” Inspector Kosuke Iwata is damaged goods. Now in his mid-30s, his wife is ill, and visits to her pain him. He can’t sleep, he has no allies. Worst is that he’s haunted by the titular song. His bosses want him to just go away. They assign him a grumpy female partner named Noriko Sakai who is similarly unbeloved by the brass. So what does Iwata do? Goes for broke. Their case involves the brutal murder of an entire Korean family, no leads. From scant clues, primarily a black sun smudged on the ceiling at the scene, the two suspect a cult fulfilling a ritual. Their investigation reveals connected deaths, long tentacles spreading seemingly everywhere, twists and turns and red herrings. VERDICT You’re likely a dude who appreciates craftsmanship, and Obregón struts his abilities a bit: “[a] mistaken bee butted against the window of a closed pharmacy.” Though it feels fitful at times, the dynamic writing and atmospheric qualities are compelling. Try it, you’ll know within 20 pages if you like it or not.

Omotoso, Yewande. The Woman Next Door. Picador. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781250124579. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781250124586. F
I hate getting older. Hate it! The worst thing about getting old isn’t physical, though. Nope. I can handle dimmed eyesight, bad hearing, and lower car insurance rates. The worst thing is the open-mindedness. There was a time when I wouldn’t even consider cracking this book. And yet here I am today enjoying it, seeing a bit too clearly what the talented Omotoso (Bom Boy) has created, setting up a South African–set story featuring two women who represent a kind of dichotomy and joining them together. Two old birds, set in their ways as hard as your ex’s broiled pork chops, slowly turn themselves to be on the same team. No explosions, no rockets, no fistfights. Just talking, thinking, feeling. Ludicrous you say. One can’t base a book on that! Well, what about Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog? The stage here stars two recent widows who share a hedge. Their longstanding, unspoken feud rears up during community meetings, fairly petty stuff. Hortensia’s indignation—righteous or not—is real, from a richly imagined old lady. Marion’s culture has dictated much of the course of her privileged life; it’s not her fault, not exactly. Which is what Omotoso makes you see and then deconstructs and rearranges via a beautiful narrative. VERDICT You might not know anyone like these two, but there’s no doubt they exist—Omotoso is that good. Open your friggin’ mind, dude.

Warner, Benjamin. Thirst. Bloomsbury USA. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781632862150. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781632862167. F
Warner’s debut novel starts as a seemingly well-written thriller/horror tale about an apocalyptic force that makes all the water in a town vanish and the power go out. Thirty pages in, the book has turned deadly dull. Eddie Chapman (who in my ARC is named Eddie Gardner) is caught on the highway at the time of the end-of-world event. He abandons his car and runs home. The most realistic detail is when Eddie injures his knee and kicks in the basement door to get inside his house. Throughout, his knee buckles, kinks, and aches. He searches for his wife, Laura, finding only other people shell-shocked and strangely silent. He eventually finds Laura, and while searching realizes that the situation isn’t local. Sans news reports or any kind of emergency services help, things devolve rapidly. People hoard food, supplies, and (obviously) anything liquid. Think that old jar of salsa in your fridge is worthless? Think again! Grocery stores are picked clean; people are freaking out, resorting to survivalist techniques, getting sick, and then getting sicker. No birds or animals stick around, people die. Unfortunately, this is pretty much all Warner has to offer. Characters speculate about what happened and struggle miserably against fatigue and illness. Eddie’s state of mind degrades and he gets more and more fuzzy about details and reality. This book sputters to an unsatisfactory close, and it’s difficult to care much about characters who haven’t really come to life. VERDICT All but the most devoted readers (or maybe those with the most time on their hands) will mark this as DNF—Did Not Finish.

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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.

Comments

  1. Elton Harsey says:

    Quite interesting. I believe you made beneficial and reasonable points with this writing. I agree with you totally and am thankful I had the chance to read this.

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