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Book Review: Trial: A Memoir

Trial: A Memoir. Wendell A. Thomas. Independently Published, July 27, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-Book, 301 pages.

Reviewed by Bob King.

Writing a 300-page memoir is no small feat. This one is written in a conversational and mostly grammatically correct style, and is an easy read. It is the story of how the author’s relationship with his neighbor, a patent lawyer, went awry, and the author’s disgust with the legal system’s inability to adequately punish his neighbor’s misconduct.    

It all started after the author had conceived ideas for two products. He asked his neighbor, a patent lawyer, to draw up patent applications for these ideas. The lawyer accepted money from the author and said he would get the patent application filed. In fact, the lawyer did nothing, and when asked about the application’s status, he lied and falsified documents to make it look like the application had been filed. The author also engaged some software designers to assist in the development of one of the ideas, but when the software designers failed to complete the assignment, he fired them and asked the same lawyer to sue them for his money back. The lawyer said that he would do so, but no such lawsuit was filed, and the lawyer again lied when asked as to the suit’s progress. 

Ultimately, the author discovered these falsehoods, hired another lawyer to process the patents and pursue the software designers, and decided to file a complaint with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee (“ARDC”), the organization authorized by the Illinois Supreme Court to oversee the admission and discipline of lawyers in the state. Although the process was slow, ultimately the ARDC formally charged the neighbor with three violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility. The neighbor admitted the offenses, and he was suspended from practice for 60 days. This result greatly disappointed the author, who believed that the lawyer should have been disbarred for life for his offenses, and left him convinced that the ARDC was more interested in protecting lawyers than the public. While the ARDC complaint was pending, the statute of limitations to sue the lawyer for malpractice expired—another unfortunate happenstance.

Not surprisingly, the neighbor, not happy with being suspended from practice, then seemingly plotted to get revenge against the author. He surreptitiously complained to the local police about supposed misconduct by the author, including fabrications suggesting the author was a pedophile, and then proceeded to file for an order of protection against the author. A hearing occurred. The judge found the neighbor’s testimony not credible and denied the order.  The author began building a case against the lawyer to seek an order of protection. Initially, the court seemed receptive to the author’s position, but the court ultimately denied the author’s order of protection, expressing the view that granting the order could imperil the neighbor’s law license and destroy the neighbor’s ability to support his four children. This, too, the author found to be unacceptable—an example of the “lawyers’ club” looking out for their own, rather than protecting the public. 

Full disclosure requires that I admit that I am a practicing lawyer, so I read Trial with a more sophisticated understanding of the legal processes than would a layman reader, and as a member of the “club” the author dislikes. As a writer, I admire the time and effort that went into this book. And as a lawyer, I am embarrassed by the neighbor’s terribly negligent conduct toward the author. 

In the end, I did not enjoy the book because it seemed petulant and designed primarily to excoriate those the author perceives to have wronged him—his neighbor, the ARDC, and ultimately the court system—and not recognizing his own responsibility for perpetuating the feud with his neighbor.



Book Review: Title 13

Title 13. Michael A. Ferro. Harvard Square Editions, February 1, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 486 pages.

Reviewed by Michelle Burwell.

Michael Ferro’s debut novel, Title 13, weaves a story of an outdated, incompetent government agency with a lost, skeptical, and beleaguered protagonist. Heald Brown, an alcoholic misanthrope, is working for the Chicago Regional Census Center when classified government documents go missing. Even if he didn’t doubt the agency’s ability to find the documents, he is less concerned with the missing paperwork than with his internal turmoil and the anxiety that threatens his relationships with his family, his coworkers, and the women in his life. The novel reads a bit like an old spy novel in that everything feels dreary, outdated, dejected and generally broken, including the main character himself.

Title 13 is a dive into a depraved and yet likeable mind more than it is a mystery. While the missing documents are always a looming concern, the novel is more a depiction of a troubled mind than a troubled governmental agency. We follow Heald through the city of Chicago and to his home in Detroit, painting a picture of a slow-moving, Midwestern region mostly devoid of the technological annoyances that dog us today. The story is not a thriller in which there is a prominent and clean conclusion; it is more satisfying than that. Instead, we follow a government employee who doesn’t trust the agency and yet more importantly, doesn’t trust himself.

Ferro has crafted a novel with a setting that seems separate from modern day technology; a setting that feels sadly accurate for a big and unwieldy government agency working with outdated tools. Ferro uses vivid and compelling descriptions; he describes a futon as being “as comfortable as a sack of broken hammers;” of his protagonist who is suffering through a movie he hates in an effort to impress a girl, Ferro writes simply, “He was horny, annoyed and wanted to throw up.” On the demise of Detroit, Ferro writes, “These giant pillars of concrete and metal now jutted high like extended index fingers from broken and casted hands, pointing toward something they would never touch.”

In the end, the novel is less about the missing documents and more about what is missing for Heald, and I like it that way. The reader is left feeling less concerned about the documents and more concerned with Heald, who seems to have lost all control. But even though Heald is a pessimist, the reader gets a sense in the end that there is hope for change in his future and that is a satisfying conclusion. I would especially recommend TITLE 13 to those who enjoy a tormented narrator.



Book Review: Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains

Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains. Greg Borzo and Julia Thiel (Photographer). Southern Illinois University Press, May 10, 2017, Hardcover, 224 pages.

Reviewed by Stephanie Wilson Medlock.

Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains could have been titled The Precarious History of Chicago’s Fountains. for as this fascinating book reveals, for every Chicago fountain that was designed, placed in its intended location, and maintained for public enjoyment, there is one that has been dismantled, moved to an obscure site, or left to suffer in sad disrepair.

Author Greg Borzo divides the book into sections by type of fountain, including first fountains, iconic, plaza, park, drinking, and forgotten. His text is enhanced by the lovely photographs of his collaborator, Julia Thiel. Each section reveals something about the history of Chicago, as well as the businessmen and politicians who were often at the center of fountain development.

For example, we learn that the city’s oldest surviving fountain is named after entrepreneur Francis M. Drexel, who never even visited Chicago. An Austrian immigrant, Drexel became one of the nation’s most successful bankers. His sons ran a branch of his bank in Chicago. After his death in 1863, his sons, Francis A. and Anthony Drexel, donated a street to bear his name, and then in 1881 paid the princely sum of $50,000 ($1.2 million today) to have a fountain installed with a statue of their father on top. It sits at the end of Drexel Boulevard on Chicago’s South Side. Although the Drexel Fountain was unveiled with great fanfare in 1883, it was not properly maintained and languished inoperable until the 1990s, when it, and the neighborhood around it, underwent a renovation.

Borzo does ample justice to the city’s major fountains, such as the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain and the much more recent and instantly popular Crown Fountain, with its faces of Chicago spitting water onto the surface of the street in Millennium Park. But he also digs up material on the whimsical, strange, and downright odd fountains that dot the city. The Shit Fountain, for example, features an enormous bronze coil representing dog poop. It sits on Wolcott Avenue, in front of the residence and studio of artist Jerzy Kenar. “I hoped it would motivate dog owners to pick up after their pets,” the artist reportedly said.

According to Borzo, many fountains have a short life, even the most popular ones. The Olson Rug Waterfall, for example, opened in 1935 on the southwest corner of Diversey and what is now Pulaski Road. Created within a park for the enjoyment of Olson Rug Company employees, it became very popular with the public because the impressive waterfall was thirty-five feet tall and emptied into a lily pool at the rate of fifteen thousand gallons per minute. Unfortunately for fountain lovers, Marshall Fields bought and closed the whole park in the 1970s to make room for a parking lot. Such was the fate of a treasure that topped the Chicago Tribune’s list of the city’s “seven lost wonders.”

One of the most interesting pieces of social history Borzo’s book reveals concerns drinking fountains. Today, we hardly think of a concrete block with a bubbler on top as a “fountain,” but when drinking fountains were first established, they had an entirely different social and aesthetic function.

Chicago’s first drinking fountains were designed to provide water for people, especially the poor, who had less access to clean drinking water. Horses, and often dogs, were other important patrons of such fountains. These fountains had metal cups attached with a chain to a wide upper bowl. Passersby could scoop up the water that was also available to horses. A bowl at sidewalk level provided water for dogs. These fountains were often elaborately decorated and beautiful. The Illinois Humane Society placed sixty of them around the city in the early 1900s. Once people understood the dangers of germs, the metal cups were removed and more sanitary bubbler systems were installed. Only two of the Humane Society fountains remain, near Michigan and Chicago Avenues.

Although drinking fountains have gradually disappeared, fountains in general are having a moment in Chicago. Major Richard M. Daley initiated a fountain-building program in the 1990s, and many of the corporations that make Chicago their home have added impressive indoor and outdoor fountains around downtown. Why? Because fountains are important. They bring people together and refresh the spirit. In the words of Chicago architect John David Mooney, “Chicago is what it is thanks to water, and fountains can help us to remember that.”

Borzo’s wonderful book is well-researched and exuberantly written. This is a book to give for the holidays. It’s a book to be savored. The author provides a map to all the fountains he describes, and I hope that some entrepreneurial soul will offer Chicago fountain tours in the near future. I’m ready to sign up now.



Book Review: The Finder of the Lucky Devil

The Finder of the Lucky Devil. Megan Mackie. Independently Published, May 29, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 427 pages.

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds

Megan Mackie classifies her novel, The Finder of the Lucky Devil, as a work of urban fiction/fantasy. If you can imagine a story about a corporate-run government in a dystopian future with the noir feel of a ‘50s crime movie, set in a world where magic is real, you would have an idea of what this story encompasses.

Her protagonist, Rune Leveau, is a woman who is both on the run and undercover. The story opens with her being “sprung” from a corporate prison facility by her aunt, one of the most powerful magicians of her time. That corporation wants her back and has no intentions of stopping their search for her. At the same time, she is a Talent, someone with magical powers of her own. Those with Talent are required to register their powers, but Rune is not registered, making her twice an outlaw.

Rune’s aunt gives her a new identity and makes her heir to the bar she runs, The Lucky Devil, a hangout for magical and normal people alike. Rune’s magical power is Finding. Be it lost keys or a missing person, she can Find it. She worked with her aunt to hide her Talent, but her aunt has recently died. Now, Rune faces the task of keeping the bar out of the hands of corporate loan sharks while keeping her real identity and power concealed.

A well-dressed stranger, St. Benedict, enters the situation with a job offer. He needs someone found, and he's willing to pay enough to address Rune’s financial problems. But there’s a catch, and it’s a significant one: The person Benedict wants to find is the woman Rune used to be. Rune turns the offer down, but Benedict isn’t one to take no for an answer. He leaks the fact that Rune might know the location of her former self, and soon every corporate police force and petty thug in Chicago is after her.

When the people who work with Benedict are taken, Rune and Benedict team up in an uneasy partnership. Together, they embark on a journey through a Chicago both familiar and strange, one featuring the gritty alleys and dead-end openings between buildings familiar to any city dweller, along with magically created passages open only to those who know of them. As the pair work together, Rune discovers that she has far more power than she ever imagined, and that her role in Chicago’s magical world is more important than just the possession of an unusual Talent. 

I’ve never read any urban fantasy novels before, but if the genre has half the appeal of Megan Mackie’s book, I may have to delve into it more. The book takes a few pages to really get going, but once she gets it into motion, the story of Rune and Benedict’s flight from one cliff-hanging adventure to the next keeps you reading. The author also doesn’t give any hint of the ending until you get there, which is something I appreciated. Megan gives you characters that have depth and nuance; even the “supporting cast” who only appear for a few pages have the feel of being real people. It’s a good story, and Megan gives herself the opening to write more about these characters, which I hope she does. 



Book Review: Double Kiss

Double Kiss. Darren Musial. Self-published/CreateSpace, Dec. 18, 2017, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 218 pages.

Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti.

The title of Darren Musial’s third book, Double Kiss, comes from the pool term for a cue ball that hits two balls at once. Max Deacon, Musial’s loyal and capable hero, is right at the point of the kiss as two crime families put this match into play. A nasty turf war causes the thugs to careen off of one another, and we dearly hope that each will be put away with a satisfying smack. Our pool expert Max Deacon is a man of high morals, well-equipped to handle a variety of dangerous situations: fit, fast, and firearm savvy. But a good day for him includes working out, having a few drinks with friends, and managing Dougie’s pool hall.

Max Deacon is the kind of guy that will do anything for his friends. After all, they are as close to him as his only brother, Stan, a Chicago detective. Their danger is, by extension, Max’s danger. When he accompanies his work mate Sharon on a nebulous mission to the Palmer House in downtown Chicago, his interest is piqued by some nefarious gangster types who detain him in the lobby bar. Max’s curiosity sends him off to retrieve his friend, who is on another floor conducting some kind of business.

Max finds out the next day that Sharon had been arrested for a triple murder at the Palmer House Hotel the previous night. Now the cops are looking for him as an accomplice. This is a high stakes murder, with a mob boss and his associates gunned down. Max knows Sharon had nothing to do with the murder but that she’s still keeping a secret that involves the gangsters. She eventually tells Max that she’s trying to buy her half-sister’s freedom from the gang’s drug and prostitution ring. Max cannot stand idly by. The balls are waxed, racked, and ready, and when the action begins it never stops until one way or another, Max has run the table. 

It isn’t often that we find a good guy like Max trying to make things right. He’s not a do-gooder looking for some kind of salvation through good works. He’s not a hard-boiled pessimistic detective out to crack a few skulls, nor is he an effete puzzle solver garnering kudos for his intellect. Max just knows when things are messed up and is willing to put himself on the line to make them right again. He may not be flashy or funny, but he is determined and true to his friends. Perhaps his greatest skill is his ability to think his way out of situations by doing the unexpected with only a pocket knife and his intuition.

Max is engagingly human. He is also the rarest of friends, thoughtful and kind. When a sworn enemy is in a car crash, he stops his own car to pull the thug from the burning car as he fears it will blow up. Sure, he wants them gone, but not like this. There are more instances in which he uses lesser force, or only what he feels he needs to stop the violence. He takes his licks as well as gives them, but he protects his friends at all times. He is an honest man, a regular guy with heroic abilities and little artifice.

A book with such an intimate view of Chicago—its ethnic minorities, streets and stores, and good and bad people—can only come from a native of the city. Musial’s Chicago is not hard and mean but a city that reflects both the best and the worst of its residents. An innocent-looking ethnic neighborhood of hard working laborers provides cover for the worst sort of drug and human traffickers. Behind every storefront there is a story of struggle on the right or wrong side of the law. His description of a Polish delicatessen is so good that I wanted to go get a giant ham sandwich on pumpernickel with a huge pickle. 

From angle of incidence to angle of reflection, Double Kiss is a believable thriller. Max Deacon is a good guy with a lot of violent skills, but he knows that the more violent the response, the more violent the recoil. He’s in this business not to create as much chaos as possible but to make everything smooth again with good friends, good workouts, and good pool. If he brings down a gang family or two in the attempt, so be it. This is an exciting read that builds the suspense and shares some real characters and situations with the reader, but it is also about using what skills you have to help a friend because it’s what friends do for one another, no questions asked.