Boys Come First by Aaron Foley

Three gay, Black, millennial men in Detroit face romantic, professional and existential challenges together in this deeply engaging novel about the importance of friendship.

With Boys Come First, Aaron Foley (How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass) offers a delightful novel about romantic and career ambitions, friendship and the particular charms of and challenges faced by gay Black millennial men in Detroit. Chapters alternate perspectives among a lovable trio of friends.

Readers first meet Dominick as he departs New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in a fluster: the start-up advertising firm he’d taken a chance on has just failed, immediately before he walked in on his boyfriend of eight years with another man. Dom flees home to Detroit to lick his wounds and reconnect with his old friend Troy. Troy teaches sixth grade at a charter school, eschewing his father’s considerable wealth in favor of giving back to the community, but he’s frustrated in his relationship with a domineering boyfriend, and the school’s charter is now under threat. Feeling a little stagnant, Troy has just picked up a mild-to-moderate cocaine habit. Meanwhile, Troy’s college friend Remy has styled himself as “Mr. Detroit,” a real estate prodigy and local celebrity: outwardly successful, but struggling to find meaningful connection with a partner who wants more than sex. (Remy oozes style, so it suits his character that his chapters are the only ones written in first person.) Remy likes sex, no mistake–each of the friends does, but each is also in search of something more meaningful.

Dom and Remy hit it off, and the boys’ club is complete. With group texts and happy hours around town, they support each other through messy hookups via dating app, professional disappointments and workplace microaggressions, heartbreaks and more. That is, until Remy’s latest development opportunity conflicts with Troy’s local advocacy. In Dom’s mind, “when you’re Black, gay, and thirtysomething, time always feels like it’s running out,” and these men feel both in-common and individual pressures to which any reader can relate.

Boys Come First is rich in flavor and detail, benefiting from Remy’s comprehensive knowledge of Motor City neighborhoods, Troy’s hyperlocal concerns for his school and Dom’s perspective as he returns from afar. The changing demographics of contemporary Detroit, by class but most pointedly by race, are front and center. Foley’s novel shows range, with its fun, silly and pathos-filled handling of the love-and-sex storylines, serious commentary on social issues and an endearing representation of sincere (if troubled) friendships. Unforgettable characters, madcap fun and mishaps converge in this sweet and, finally, aspirational story.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 glasses of Lambrusco.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I was blown away by this novel, which absorbed me totally in the life of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who lives in the United States for some years during and after college and then returns home to Lagos. It is large and sweeping in its considerations of cultural differences and personal relationships but also retains its focus on one life.

Ifemelu and her high school boyfriend Obinze have a deep and intense relationship, and no doubts about one another, but they both know – as everyone around them seems to know – that it is necessary to get out of Lagos and into the West, where there will be more opportunity to learn and study and earn money and build a life beyond the limitations of their home. Ifemelu is able to get to the United States to attend college in Philadelphia, where she struggles to scrape by, and to navigate a race and class system that is new to her. She has one strong family connection in the states, her aunt and younger cousin Dike. Her path is not easy but she eventually establishes a proper and “successful” life for herself, finally in New Haven, which is where we meet her in the opening chapter. Meanwhile, Obinze is unable to get papers to the United States, eventually traveling to London and overstaying his visa to live a hidden, undocumented life there. Each of them faces unique dangers, and after a particular trauma, they fall out of touch. The novel follows Ifemelu but occasionally checks in with her childhood sweetheart until the two eventually reconnect.

Americanah is first a story about people. It’s also about race and class in America, and about Nigerian and American cultures, and others (especially the multitude of “Non-American Black” cultures Ifemelu encounters in this country). While stateside, Ifemelu makes a career for herself as a blogger about race in America (she is clear that she wasn’t black till she got here). But it’s also just people, in the loveliest, messiest way, the ways in which we can be ugly and beautiful and complicated. There is some romance; but I take issue with the materials that describe this as a book about Ifemelu and Obinze, or an ‘intergenerational’ story. Although it’s true that Obinze is present for much of the book, and that there are multiple generations in it, I would say that this is a book firmly about Ifemelu, and the life she leads and everything it exposes about race and class and culture – Ifemelu as an individual, not a symbol or a device. This book is beautifully written and completely captivating; it’s the quickest nearly-600-pages I’ve taken in in a long time.

Ifemelu’s blog does provide Adichie with a mechanism for communicating pointed and explicit observations about race; but this is still far from polemic. Ifemelu mostly tells anecdotes from the world she encounters, which is a very approachable or accessible way to have these conversations (points to both Ifemelu and her creator). “…she began, over time, to feel like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of people’s stories for something she could use. Sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.” Now, look, I have no reason to conflate the character in these sentences with the writer Adichie, but I do think any time a writer writes about writing, we should consider that relationship. And I will certainly say that I relate to Ifemelu’s challenges here as a writer.

There is plenty of heaviness here, but it was also a pure delight to spend time with Ifemelu, a gorgeously self-assured, thoughtful character. While there is much here that is culturally foreign to my experiences, I always found it easy to sink into and to follow. I strongly recommend Americanah and admire Adichie.


Rating: 9 fried plantains.

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

This one was more difficult for me than Gingerbread was. Still intriguing, but more mysterious, more opaque. When we meet her, Jessamy Harrison, age 8, lives in England with her white English father and her black Nigerian mother. She struggles socially and in school, and feels most secure hiding in the dark. When her family moves for a time to Nigeria, to live with her mother’s father and extended family there, she makes her first friend: a girl apparently her own age, hiding out on the premises of the family compound. TillyTilly is an enigma, and insists that Jess ask no questions. When Jess’s family returns to England, TillyTilly finds a way to follow, and this is when things get weird.

I’ve seen The Icarus Girl labelled as a horror novel, which makes a certain amount of sense, but it doesn’t feel like its primary goal is to frighten me – frightening though it is, by the end. Instead, it feels chiefly concerned with Jessamy’s identity and her difficulty finding a home in a world that doesn’t make sense to her. She is scared most of the time, but mostly without reason, and more or less knows this doesn’t make sense. She is bullied at school, and reacts in rages or tantrums. She’s never had a friend, and neither of her parents knows how to relate to her. Therefore she’s ripe for the affections of a (perhaps equally strange) friend – her first ever! – to hold great influence.

There’s a fair amount of Yoruba culture and language baked into the novel’s themes. There are a lot of pairings and contrasts, first in Jessamy’s dual English/Nigerian heritage and racial/ethnic makeup, and the story’s back-and-forth travel between the two locations. I don’t want to give anything else away, but doubles are important.

I found Gingerbread more accessible, and more easy to enjoy. Certainly, this one offered more horror, and significantly less whimsy and humor. It kept my attention, though, and I have the distinct impression that there’s more going on in its layers than I’m equipped to grasp. Impressive? Yes.

I’m super curious about Oyeyemi’s other work.


Rating: 7 books.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

This book found its way onto my bookshelf and lived there a while before I picked it up, at which point I didn’t even know what it was about. I purposefully avoided even flipping it over to read the back-cover blurbs and went in thoroughly blind. Early on, it’s about a family of immigrants from Cameroon to New York City, beginning to make their way there, and I began to have a bad feeling – for a novel to work, there has to be conflict, right? I wanted things to be easy for this family (a couple and their young son), but I just knew (because of how stories work) that something had to go wrong. I was tempted to flip the book over, but I resisted, and I’m really glad they did. That’s going to affect how I write this review: I’m glad I kept my ignorance and experienced the story as an innocent, so to speak, and I want that for you too. I absolutely recommend this book.

If you’re game for just a little more information, here are some observations in white text (highlight to read): The father/husband figure in this story feels very fortunate to get work as a chauffeur for an important figure at Lehman Brothers. Well, that name alone tells us a lot about where the plot turns, doesn’t it. Near the end I found myself strongly reminded of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (a book that’s very important to me). There’s a hint there, too. These remarks are only as spoiler-y as the back-cover blurbs, FYI.

I will say that our central characters are Jende and Neni Jonga, the Cameroonian immigrants, and eventually their counterparts, Clark and Cindy Edwards, who are white New Yorkers of great wealth. The two families become somewhat intertwined, and it is to Mbue’s great credit that despite enormous differences, they conflate as well. A Q-and-A with the author at the back of my paperback tells us that Mbue didn’t necessarily set out to do this work, and did not find empathy for the Edwardses easy. It’s not empathy that lets anyone off of any hooks either, though.

It might be said that this is a book about immigration politics (or any number of other capital-I Issues: capitalism, race and American racism), but I think it’s true – and I think it’s a strength – that it’s about the Jongas first (and secondarily the Edwardses), and about those Issues only because they are the ones that the Jongas live through, if you will.

It’s a beautifully told, absorbing story to get lost in. Each character has a distinctive voice, and even though none is a saint, they all earn our compassion. Mbue is an impressive writer and I was pleased to spend this time with her characters.


Rating: 8 bacon-wrapped shrimp.

The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water by Cameron Barnett

I bought this book when Barnett visited my MFA program as a guest writer and lecturer a few years ago, and as I read these poems I heard them in his voice, which I remember as unassuming and powerful. They share a humility, an honest, open, vulnerable, questioning attitude. Their concern is not always about race, and in fact the poet (or the persona?) often resists or resents that that should be his expected work – which is fair – but there is a frequent question of whether there’s a right way to be Black, and some very strong writing in indignation and in rage at what it is to be Black in this country. “Post-Racial America: A Pop Quiz” is fiery. Several poems for Emmett Till are extraordinary and still just what we need. In “Notes on Cameron Barnett” (a bio, as it were, in poem form!), he writes: “Another black poet told me he liked my poem / for Emmett Till despite His story being overdone / For weeks I fantasized about switching out / the murderers’ names and putting in his.” Whew. I also appreciated the water theme throughout (as in the title, which is also the title of an astonishing, perfect poem), which can do so much good, diverse work. “Muriatic” does that strong, water-and-fire work, and then is immediately followed by “Bishop on a Slant,” which is about family. Likewise, “Firefly” honors the imperfect father-son relationship, finishing with this wisdom: “I want to take everything you think you taught me and teach you / what I have learned.”

I was also gratified to find again Barnett’s memorable contribution to Psalms for Mother Emanuel.

The book is structured in three parts, I and III each containing a number of individual poems, while II is marked ‘from The Bones We Lose.’ The design of these sections eludes me, and in general I find these poems harder to respond to than I did Duffy’s, that I reviewed recently. Inarticulate though I may be, there were many moments here that made me stop and think and whose beauty or truth stay with me. I had to move more slowly.

Beautiful.


Rating: 7 word problems.

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

This is the story of how my best friend disappeared. How nobody noticed she was gone except me. And how nobody cared until they found her… one year later.

Our narrator is Claudia, who returns home to Washington, D.C. from Georgia (where she spends summers with her grandmother) to enter eighth grade, and finds her best friend Monday has vanished. Monday hasn’t returned Claudia’s letters all summer, and now she can’t track her down by phone or at home. The timeline shifts between a few points before Monday’s disappearance – so that the readers gets to see their friendship – and the time after. Claudia’s first-person narration is heart-breaking: her angst, the drama and despair of teenagerhood, her isolation after losing her only friend (otherwise, social settings like school are not particularly kind to her, at least in her own view), and feels authentically like a fourteen-year-old’s voice. I found it a well-written book in general, with good pacing and tension and a sense of momentum; these 400+ pages flipped easily by.

The story of Monday’s disappearance is a mystery, even though the opening lines (quoted above) foreshadow at least one important element of the final solution. Monday’s Not Coming could fit into a few genres, including amateur detective story, as Claudia searches relentlessly for her friend even when everyone around her encourages her to give up. She begs her parents for help, tries a police detective – even Monday’s older sister tells her to just leave it. The reader slowly becomes aware of some issues Claudia herself faces, which bear on the unique relationship between the two girls – almost a codependence, in fact. Where we come to see that Monday was a strong student, Claudia struggles with her schoolwork, but has an intuitive feeling for color and design; she is a dancer, an artist and a creative thinker. “We lived in our own world,” she recalls, “with our own language and customs. We lived inside a thick, shiny bubble that no needle was sharp enough to pop.” A few reveals keep the plot moving neatly along. I have to say, though, that a final big reveal in the book’s last 50 pages felt like one step too many for this reader. I think it was gripping enough and this may have taken it a hair into the incredible. I don’t think the story needed that final complication.

Back-cover blurbs and promotional copy for this novel point out that its plot is “straight from the headlines,” in which girls of color do indeed disappear with scarcely a ripple in cities like D.C. In this regard, Monday’s Not Coming is firmly rooted in fact. How does a teenaged girl truly vanish without anybody noticing? Well, for one thing, it’s not quite that nobody notices as much as nobody seems to care, which is not less horrifying. It is to Jackson’s credit that the unbelievable is made believable in this narrative (even if I wasn’t a fan of the final wrinkle).

Claudia is a very real and painfully struggling young person, and a compelling narrator; it was an excellent choice to make hers the perspective for this story. Monday is a little bit of a shifting target. We mostly see her, obviously, through Claudia’s eyes, and Claudia comes to doubt her own truth; we are offered an idea that there was another version of Monday than the one Claudia knew (which I think is generally true of humans). Regardless of the ability of a teenaged girl – or any of us – to present multiple faces, Monday is a tragic figure and one we will mourn alongside her best friend. I was disappointed with some of the adults in this story (unavoidably), but they felt real, too. It certainly sheds a light on a very sad real-world issue, as intended. Alongside society’s failings of young women of color, Monday’s Not Coming touches on issues of class, gender representation, sexuality, and various cultural norms. I think it’s a strong choice for discussion groups (classrooms, book clubs) for these reasons.

I really enjoyed reading this one – well, ‘enjoy’ may be the wrong word for such a sad story, but I admired Jackson’s work.


Rating: 7 shades of red.

The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales told by Virginia Hamilton, illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon

I got this title from Well-Read Black Girl, although the cover was familiar enough that I wonder if I had it as a child at some point. (I definitely recognized some of the characters, like Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, if not these particular stories.) In a larger format, with a number of rich, grayscale illustrations, it offers a selection of folktales passed down as oral tradition from the Americas’ earliest Black residents: enslaved Africans and their descendants. Virginia Hamilton has done good work in compiling these stories, of course, but an equally important contribution is her brief notes about what each one represents and where it falls in the larger scheme of storytelling traditions in time and geography. (I really appreciated the occasional personal note, too.) She notes the families each story falls into and her choice to use more or less dialect, and the global traditions that contribute to each.

These stories appear in sections, headed by a title story and then grouped by type: animal stories, tales of the supernatural, tales of the real, extravagant, and fanciful, and slave stories of freedom. This last section finishes with the title story, “The People Could Fly,” and I think it’s the right note to end on. The illustrations really did add something – just look at that cover, where I find the facial expressions evocative; I feel like it conveys the movement and inspiration of the title story.

I love the animal stories, which perhaps felt most familiar – not only do I know Brer Rabbit, as mentioned, but these recall Aesop’s fables and many other storytelling traditions. I do love a tall tale, like “Papa John’s Tall Tale.” And I was pleased by the “grisly realism” of “The Two Johns” – just as a matter of personal taste, I suppose. There’s a general sense of rural settings close to nature, that I think comes of the enslaved experience (as Hamilton notes about the animal tales in particular); there’s a feeling common to all folktales and traditional storytelling, of trying to explain the world through stories. There’s something comforting about that effort, even when the resulting explanation is discomfiting.

I enjoyed the stories, but I think what makes this book special is Hamilton’s work, in her footnotes, to put them in context. I especially enjoyed the geography, or the references to global patterns in storytelling – that the opening story, “He Lion, Bruh Bear, and Bruh Rabbit,” for example, “ranges throughout North and South America, Europe, and Africa.” It’s pretty wild to think about how stories can encompass so much of the world: that they are that important and elemental.

With its moving illustrations, excellent and concise footnoting, and its range of fine stories, I think this is an essential book for any home library – for children and adults. Glad I came across it.


Rating: 7 clever rabbits.

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, ed. by Glory Edim

This is a lovely collection of a wide range of voices and experiences, refreshing and bracing and joyful and gloriously various. Glory Edim is the founder of the Well-Read Black Girl book club (and later, the same-titled online community and conference), and here she has solicited and collected essays by Black women about their reading lives and the literary voices where they found identity and inspiration. This means lots of different things, and that’s the beauty of this book, I think. I loved that the authors of these essays ranged so wildly, as do their lived and literary experiences and the books and writers that they highlight – I confess, Roald Dahl wasn’t one I’d expected, but aren’t surprises fun? Between essays appear reading lists, naturally: the book club’s selections; classic novels by Black women; books on Black feminism; sci-fi, fantasy, plays, and poetry by Black women; books about Black girlhood and friendship. An appendix also lists all the books in this book. If there’s one thing about readers, we do tend to like a list of books.

The contributors’ list is star-studded: N. K. Jemisin, Rebecca Walker, Jesmyn Ward (), Jacqueline Woodson, Tayari Jones, Lynn Nottage, and many more. Veronica Chambers’ essay “Why I Keep Coming Back to Jamaica” I will definitely be using in my Short Fiction class this spring to discuss representation, what it means and why it matters. Woodson writes, “It’s difficult to be a reader and not be a writer,” and I like that as an encapsulation of the intersection of the two pursuits that I feel helps to define this book. There are no readers without writers and no writers without readers. Jesmyn Ward writes, “I never found the book that allowed me entry, granted me succor in story, and a home after the last page until I wrote my own.” That’s about empowerment, also a key point of this collection. Jemisin writes,

In the future, as in the present, as in the past, black people will build many new worlds.

This is true. I will make it so. And you will help me.

And why haven’t I read any more Jemisin since The City We Became impressed me so much?? (I just checked – there still isn’t a second book in that trilogy. But I now have The Fifth Season coming to me from my local bookstore.)

Much to love here in celebrating Black women as readers and as writers, and recognition of how far we’ve come, never ignoring how far we have yet to go in terms of representation and opportunities. And plenty of fodder for our to-be-read lists. I’m thrilled I found Well-Read Black Girl.


Rating: 8 library books.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life centers around Wallace, a biochemistry graduate student in an unnamed Midwestern town. He feels unmoored and isolated despite having a group of “friends” (he’s not sure how true this term really feels) from school; he is one of the only Black people in this town, running from a traumatic past in Alabama. This novel takes place over the course of one weekend, when Wallace (who is gay) hooks up with one of his male friends (who insists he is straight), and tries to navigate this intrusion into his closely protected personal sphere alongside micro- and macroaggressions at work and among the friend group. The title refers to Wallace’s persistent worry that what he is living is somehow not “real life”; he is considering leaving graduate school but doesn’t know where to turn instead.

What gazes up out of the lapping black sea of his anger? What strange dark stones make themselves known to him?

It is a book of few joys, certainly. Rather, Wallace and his friends experiences large and small traumas and frustrations, hurting themselves and each other. It is a book of beauty, though, in its precise, quietly evocative writing and close observations. As Wallace carefully watches the miniscule creatures he breeds and destroys in the university lab, he likewise tracks the moves, desires and motivations of the people around him, from whom he feels removed. His tennis partner has just discovered that his boyfriend is on “that gay app” and may be cheating on him. A female friend is on the rocks with her Tolstoy-studying boyfriend. His colleagues are generally toxic, mildly if not overtly racist, except for the one woman of color, who is horrified that Wallace would consider leaving her there alone.

Gifted is the sweetness meant to make the bitterness of failure palatable–that a person can fail again and again, but it’s all right, because they’re gifted, they’re worth something. That’s what it all tracks back to, isn’t it, Wallace thinks. That if the world has made up its mind about what you have to offer, if the world has decided it wants you, needs you, then it doesn’t matter how many times you mess up. What Wallace wants to know is where the limit is. When is it no longer forgivable to be so terrible? When does the time come when you’ve got to deliver on your gifts?

A friend-of-friends is blatantly racist, and none of the group (all white) will speak up to even the most obviously offensive comments. We get the sense that Wallace would happily quit this scene if he could identify another option in the world.

The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.

These characters are compelling and memorable, and the writing is indisputably fine. If there is a final takeaway, perhaps it is that this is real life – all of life is – and that we are all more or less miserable, whether quietly or demonstrably. It’s an admirable book but not a pleasurable one.


Rating: 7 nematodes.

Yolk by Mary H. K. Choi 

This review from Shelf Awareness prompted me to buy and read this book, and it delivered. I felt fully involved and invested in the lives of Jayne and June Baek, Korean-American sisters born in Seoul and raised in San Antonio, Texas, now living as young adults in New York City. They haven’t been close for years, and now Jayne (our first-person narrator) avoids her sister’s phone calls as she does their mother’s, until June tracks her down on a disastrous third-wheel date and demands they meet. June is very sick. Outwardly, Jayne is the sister with more obvious problems – self-loathing, squalor, harmful sexual practices, generally low functioning as an adult (and some more serious issues that are only gradually revealed). Now that they are sharing increasing challenges, the estranged sisters might just come together again.

As an only child, I have always been fascinated by siblings, whose various dynamics I can only watch from outside, generally with jealousy. One of my favorite things about this novel is its intimate, insider look at the sisters’ relationship, which is troubled (but aren’t they all), love and dislike intertwined with violence and yearning. One of Yolk‘s great strengths overall is immediacy and intimacy, how close we feel to Jayne, in all her messes and flaws. I also really appreciated the writing about place. New York feels right to me, but what do I know; brief sojourns home to San Antonio I am in a better position to judge, and I think Choi (who shares geographical background with her characters) gets it just right. The humid night air and the big skies make me a little homesick, too. The tone of young twenty-somethings dealing with all the madness of life feels pitch-perfect.

Choi includes a brief note at the book’s beginning about some difficult subject matter, acknowledging that she shares some of Jayne’s difficulties and that “for those struggling with body image and food, this story might be emotionally expensive for you.” I had to pause at that phrase, emotionally expensive: I like it. “Sensitivity is a superpower,” Choi instructs us. It is not a novel with an overt message, but I appreciated this one.

I also need to note the loveliness of this hardback book as a physical object: I love the design, the dust jacket, what’s under the dust jacket, and the print on the edges of the pages that continues the image on both dust cover and hardcover. It’s a beautiful piece that feels good in the hand and I’m glad to own it.

Sensitive, funny, raw and often painful – I worried a little early on that I’d taken on something sadder than I needed at this time. But Yolk is a beautiful book about love and hope, too, and with a thread of unlikely romance to it as well. I found it delightful and do recommend.


Rating: 8 glasses of water.
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