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Book Reviews

Friday
Feb172017

Book Review: The Perihelion

The Perihelion. D. M. Wozniak. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, January 26, 2017, Hardcover and e-book, 560 pages.

Reviewed by T. L. Needham.

The Perihelion by D. M. Wozniak takes place mainly in Chicago, now known as Bluecore 1C in the year 2069, on January 3rd—the eve of the perihelion (the point in the planet’s orbit when it is nearest the sun).

The story opens in what is a dystopian future for many. It is a utopian future for others, mainly the wealthy, powerful, and highly successful. The major cities in the nation have been enclosed into high tech enclaves called Bluecores. The outlying areas, called Redlands, remain rooted more in past customs and traditions. 

Bluecore 1C is a future world populated with a limited number of human hybrids that are 99 percent human and one percent the DNA of a certain animal or insect, giving each 99er unique traits. The author takes pains to develop each character in depth—their motives, backgrounds, fears, phobias, desires, and missions—and all are artfully rendered. 

The world they live in is vividly described for the reader. High tech devices such as surveillance drones, embedded IDs, driverless cabs, stun-gun weapons, palm-print locks, and more, all seem like logical extensions of modern emerging technology.

This 560-page story is a daunting undertaking for a reader. Early on, we meet six protagonists, each as fascinating as the next, set in a background that is rich in visual details and imagery. This pulls the reader forward, totally immersed in this unusual future world and it is fascinating. 

As the story unfolds, a mystery emerges when someone tries to kill off certain 99ers, actually by loving them to death. Those hunting for answers to this mystery become the hunted. At the same time, one 99er with very unique abilities is trying to take down the entire high tech structure holding the Bluecore 1C society together. This fast paced drama brings the six main characters together on a collision course to a final outcome. The pace quickens brilliantly to a conclusion that is stunning, profound, disturbing, and thought provoking. You will find yourself craving a sequel to learn what happens next. 

This is a long and challenging story, weaving six character plots around the evolving central plot. It will require the reader to be focused, patient, and fully engaged. And, do not skip any pages because every page contains essential elements. Not many writers could pull this off. Well done, Mr. Wozniak. Brilliant.


Thursday
Jan262017

Book Review: The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods

The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods. Pat Camalliere. Amika Press, August 21, 2016, Trade Paperback and e-Book, 372 Pages.

Reviewed by Sue Merrell.

Don’t you love reading books that describe places where you’ve been and reveal a side of those places you never imagined? That’s what you’ll find in Pat Camalliere’s latest historical novel, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods.

Although I didn’t read her first book, The Mystery at Sag Bridge, the new book makes enough references to the first that it’s easy to see this as the continuing adventures of Cora Tozzi, who, like the author, lives with her husband in Lemont, IL, and is active in the local historical society. In the latest tale, Cora and her friend, Frannie, join with a young Native American scientist, Nick Pokagon, to write a book about Nick’s ancestor, Wawetseka, a nineteenth century Potawatomi woman who lived in the Lemont area.

Formatted as a book within a book, the 1817 tale of Wawetseka is the shining heart of the action, opening with a line that ensures you can’t put it down: “The dead man arrived in autumn, swept by rising floodwaters…” Wawetseka’s son is charged with the murder of the white man. To save her son, Wawetseka must uncover the real murderer and bring him back to face charges.

Camalliere does an excellent job of describing the Des Plaines River Valley of 1817, which would have been one of the main highways to Fort Dearborn where Chicago is today. The plucky heroine, Wawetseka, reminds me of television’s MacGyver as she comes up with rustic inventions to cross a river or set a broken leg. But there’s a strong element of supernatural as well to help Wawetseka and add a little magic to the story.

Old Indian legends of the water panther and wolf spirit return to life two centuries later as Cora, Frannie, and Nick realize someone or something is trying to prevent them from publishing Wawetseka’s tale. The modern-day portions of the book are not as fast paced and tend to get bogged down in internal monologues. Nevertheless, the characters face a couple of exciting moments including a stormy finale that ends with a body tangled in a tree in the Des Plaines River, not much different than the body that started Wawetseka’s tale in the first place.

As a former resident of the area, and a big history buff, I really enjoyed all the details about Isle a la Cache and the I&M Canal, as well as references to Argonne National Laboratory. The parallels between the 1817 story and modern day reveal interesting remnants of history in the area, which are still available to explore. 

 

Thursday
Jan262017

Book Review: The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan

The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan. Steve Wiley. Chicago: Lavender Line Press LLC, February 24, 2017, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 233 pages.

Reviewed by Jose Nateras.

At the start of Steve Wiley’s first book, The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan, the author introduces the reader to Richard K. Lyons, who is an unhappy man living in a Chicago simultaneously familiar and fantastically alien. Successful in many ways, in others Richard is a mess; he has some obvious substance abuse issues and is in the midst of a self-destructive spiral. It’s at this point that he stumbles upon a young homeless girl he can almost remember from a night long ago, when he was just a boy called Rich. She takes Richard on a journey into his long forgotten childhood and beyond as he remembers an adventure they shared one night, decades before.

Wiley manages to craft a story that, just like the world he creates, straddles two worlds—those of a miserable, disaffected adult and the wide-eyed boy he once was, along with the cold, urban metropolis of Chicago and the fantastical, fairy land of his fictional “East Side” of the city. Even in terms of the language, Wiley achieves an almost storybook-like vernacular, similar to what one would find in a children’s book, while exploring ultimately adult experiences, often with the sort of adult language one definitely wouldn’t find in a children’s book. All of this, combined with twists on Chicago history and fantastical insights into uniquely Chicagoan phenomenon, such as the reason Malort tastes so bad, make for an entrancingly magical journey that’s half Midwestern Miyazaki, half Mad Men, and all Windy City.

While engaging throughout, there are a few times when the spiraling narrative can be hard to follow. Moving through time, memory, senses of reality, and various narrators and storytellers, can and does disorient the reader. This sense of disorientation occasionally works, however, resonating with both Richard’s drug-addled headspace and the younger Rich’s daze of wonder as an outsider in the fantastical, fairy-realm of Chicago.

Illustrations by Chris Cihon augment the story throughout. Visually reminiscent of the sort of drawings a young person might make in sketchbooks or the margins of their homework, the images also add to the feel of Wiley’s novel as a sort of storybook for adults. It’s easy to imagine young Rich subconsciously remembering Francesca and the adventures they shared, drawing such pictures until the images faded away from his memory.

For many adults, the realization that one’s childhood is firmly in the past can be a sad one. The sudden notion that we are no longer the children we once were can make people look at the current state of their lives and the world around them, and ask: how did we get here? Would a younger version of ourselves be proud of the life we have? It’s so easy to lose the wonder with which we saw the world as children, to forget to look at our lives and appreciate the wonder that is there, just beneath the roar of the ‘L’-car rushing by and bills that need to be paid. Overall, Wiley’s The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan provides a fun exploration of such themes and is a worthwhile read for any grownup Chicagoan who used to love reading fairy tales as a kid. 

 

Friday
Jan202017

Book Review: Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago

Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago. J.B. Rivard. Spokane, Washington: Grey Dog Press, April 17, 2016, Trade Paperback, 233 pages.

Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti

Chicago politics have never been boring. Chicago in 1933, dense with the influx of immigrants that began around the turn of the century, fostered a strange and powerful sub-rosa world of colorful characters and ethnic crime families. In Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago by J.B. Rivard, the author drops the reader dead center into the city of big shoulders and shows us that daily life during a seemingly simpler time involved real danger, pain, alienation, missed opportunities, and fear.

The novel begins with the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the wounding of Anton Cermak, Chicago’s Mayor. As Cermak lay dying, the city’s crime families kick into high gear, scrambling to repair the political machine. A down-on-his-luck but likable magician, Nick Zeitner, takes a shady side job retrieving personal property that was stolen from the safe deposit box of a rich and powerful man. First, he has to find out who robbed the bank, and then he has to find out if he can negotiate a deal. Nick takes the job thinking he is just a simple go-between, but he soon finds himself deeply involved.

Nick is a magician of some skill, yet the nature of show business is such that he must float from contract to contract at the big ex-vaudeville venues to make a living. The depression is dragging on, and Prohibition is likely to be repealed in order to refill the nation’s empty tax coffers. Nick wants things to turn around, but he doesn’t know how to make that happen. Connie, Nick’s long-suffering wife, is tired of being poor, so Nick accepts a job from Liver Jack, Connie’s brother, a precinct captain. At first, the job seems easy; all he has to do is stick a toe into Chicago’s underworld and deliver a ransom for some old stolen photos. But as time goes on, the job becomes more complicated. Is it magic that protects Nick from the underground world of crime he can only imagine, or is his safety simply an illusion?

Rivard deftly weaves themes of romantic love, easy murder, and the power of jazz throughout the novel, which is told from the points of view of the people who live in this world of illegal activity and who make decisions based only on survival. The language contains a hard truthfulness and colorful phrases from everyday people trying to defend their little piece of turf. For example, Liver Jack tells Nick, “Listen. You gotta be practical. There’s nobody out there to replace him, even if we held an election. And Alderman Chessrina’s running so hard to replace him he’s sneaking breaths from Cermak’s oxygen tent just so he’ll look alive.”

Rivard both wrote and illustrated Illusions of Magic, and his storytelling is enriched by both his background as an artist and his experience as a writer. His characters are reminiscent of the colorful men and women of Damon Runyon and the tough guys of Nelson Algren. Similar to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Rivard explores historic Chicago by illustrating how the events of that time affected and informed his characters. Rivard draws a vivid portrait of life in Chicago in 1933, with rent overdue and landlords scrambling just as much as tenants, and he craftily reminds us of the Eastern European mobs that operated on the South Side of the city. The novel is rife with historical and geographical references to buildings, companies, local streets, and restaurants, which makes the adventure more authentic.

The uncertainties of the political future of Chicago, Nick’s future as a magician, and the great illusion Nick creates to save his friends, make this adventure come together with a twist that is impressive and dramatically consistent with the sentiments of the time. Illusions of Magic is definitely an exciting read, rich with real Chicago references, dangerous criminals, forever friends, and genuine romance. Illusions of Magic is well worth reading for a thrilling trip back in time.

 

Tuesday
Jan102017

Book Review: Hey, Liberal!

Hey, Liberal! Shawn Shiflett. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, September 1, 2016, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 320 pages.

Reviewed by Charles Kuner.

Shawn Shiflett’s novel, Hey, Liberal!, is a memorable and fast-paced novel that pulls the reader into the story from beginning to end. I was so engrossed with the story and its characters that I almost read the whole book in one sitting. In his novel, Mr. Shiflett, an associate professor of creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago, chose to deal with Chicago’s public schools in the 1960s, which then were in a continuous state of turmoil. I can easily identify with the characters and situations—it was like living in the 1960s for the second time in my life.

Hey, Liberal! is set in the summer of 1969 in Lincoln Park right after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the subsequent riots in Chicago that spilled over into the schools. The novel follows 13-year-old Simon Fleming, a white student whose father is a civil-rights-activist minister. His parents send him to a predominately black school, Dexter High School, which is a replication of the current Lincoln Park High School. Simon is forced to navigate between gangs, drugs, violence, a failed student boycott, and race riots.

Shiflett has indicated that the plot was inspired by events from his own youth, but emphasizes that while inspired by true events, the novel is not autobiographical or a memoir. He wanted to write a book with humor, characters, and a plot, and he has succeeded beyond all expectations. Shiflett did attend Lincoln Park High School, which at the time was largely black and Hispanic, but now is mostly white. So, Lincoln Park High (the fictional Dexter High) was certainly not a love fest after the assassination of Dr. King. As the author says, “. . . it was just a very angry time. You were on the run a lot.”

There are two overarching themes in Hey, Liberal! The first comes from the Koko Taylor quote right before the novel begins: “Be what you be.” The author did not create one-dimensional characters. Some grow or evolve into what they are meant to be. Mr. Shiflett has stated that about half the characters are composites of people he knew. During my years at Marshall High and Farragut Career Academy, I also recognized teachers and students that were like some of the characters in this novel.

Simon’s personal journey begins when he feels charged by his parents to help the community in its struggle for school integration. He may have come from a home that strongly believed in peace, love, and understanding, but Simon’s constant exposure to and experience with guns and fists during the riots has an addictive draw for him. Shiflett states, “If I have been able to make readers share Simon’s internal reactions, including his stages of grief later on (especially when a friend of his gets killed), don’t readers walk away with a better understanding of how violence negatively impacts themselves and the world around them?”

The second overarching theme can be summarized in the phrase, “All was fair in an unfair world,” justifying gang and racial riots. For instance, Clark, the racist and brutal white cop at the Dexter School, takes the law into his own hands and kills a pedophile because the man was not convicted for his deviant sexual crimes. And there is John Lange, a white biology teacher at Dexter, who stirs up his students with his political radical agenda rather than teach his subject, and who then stays safely behind in his classroom while his riled up students put themselves in harm’s way during the riots.            

Shiflett has written an edgy, no-holds barred insider account of student life during the late-1960s racial turmoil, which is distressingly relevant to us today. It is also a very rich novel especially in his use of language and dialect, which is natural, authentic, and heightened by Shiflett’s technique. And it’s not stereotypical. This is a coming-of-age novel akin to Catcher in the Rye, for Shiflett presents important insights into the usual teen issues of acceptance and conformity.

Hey, Liberal! brings to light a very out-of-touch educational system accompanied by the universality of racial turmoil, as it was not only happening in Chicago but throughout the United States and the world in the 1960s. As a nation, we were moving at a snail’s pace toward what hopefully would be a more culturally diverse and inclusive future.