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Book Reviews

Wednesday
Apr042018

Book Review: Under the Birch Tree

Under the Birch Tree: A Memoir of Discovering Connections and Finding Home. Nancy Chadwick. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, June 19, 2018, Trade Paperback, 243 pages. 

Reviewed by Susan Fox.

The word journeymost commonly implies a destination. To “take a journey” evokes a sense of distance, of miles traveled. Some might describe a journey as a movement, as in the passage from childhood to adulthood, or from a state of confusion to making sense of things. Some journeys have a circumspect goal: graduating from college, finding a job. Some are a movement away from a painful past. 

An inner journey does not cover physical distance, nor does it have a preconceived goal. But the journey to “Know Thyself,” as Socrates observed, may be the most important expedition any of us embark upon.

Such is the journey undertaken by Nancy Chadwick in her memoir, Under the Birch Tree. The story begins as a little girl grows up in a suburb of Chicago. Her life is ordered, almost to the point of perfection. She revels in a perfectly decorated bedroom, plays on a manicured lawn, and attends a private school. The perfection tarnishes, however, with a mother who is needy and insecure, and a father who is distant and unaffectionate. As her family becomes increasingly dysfunctional, the author feels drawn to a grouping of birch trees in the corner of the yard. She feels connected to them, to their beauty and grace, but most of all to the fact that they are rooted—planted in this place she calls home. 

When her parents ultimately divorce, Ms. Chadwick moves away from the only home she has ever known. She misses the birch trees—the silver peeling bark, the shade in summer, and the branches overhead. She misses the sense of place they gave her, the security she felt under their rustling leaves. She wonders how she will ever return to that place of belonging, and so her journey begins.

She wobbles through a new high school with little support from her family. Her father remarries, and her mother becomes even more distant and self-absorbed. There are times the author feels she is the caregiver for her mother and so misses out on many of the usual high school activities, adding to her sense of isolation. She finds her way more solidly in college at Marquette University. She is on her own now, and majors in Journalism. She makes friends and finally begins to feel that she is a part of the world around her. Just when she is comfortable with herself, however, she faces graduation and the prospect of finding a job. Daunted, she seems to be starting all over again.

Her journey continues from Chicago to San Francisco, through relationships, job changes, and new apartments. She learns to be alone but not lonely; that it’s not selfish to take care of herself, and that she cannot be responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Each time she comes across a birch tree, she is reminded that even though she is uprooted, she has completed the most significant passage of all: the journey of self-discovery. 

 

Monday
Apr022018

Book Review: An Authentic Experience

An Authentic Experience. Kelly Wittmann. Sara Camilli Literary Agency, February 13, 2018, Trade Paperbook and E-book, 252 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

I apologize for starting out with a cliché, but honestly, the teen angst is palpable in Kelly Wittmann’s coming-of-age story. Silver’s fifteenth summer provides our young protagonist with more authenticity than she dreamed of, as well as the opportunity to grow into herself.

Milwaukee is a good setting for An Authentic Experience, as the city is a contrast of old and new, tradition and experiment, music and culture of everywhere, alternative and straight-and-narrow. Silver, named for her father’s favorite song, is being parented in a trendy style: grandparents who are the bedrock of family and parents who are divorced in marriage though not in roots and appreciation for what they share. Despite all the crazy options for education, they agree on homeschooling their daughter to provide her with what they term authentic lifestyle experiences.

Silver is typically teen at the outset of the story, crazed over a particular neighborhood boy who she later learns hails from a very traditional, two-parent family. She longs to experience tradition over her smothering Italian bakery grandparents and former rock ’n roll musician parents, whose current lives of medical trauma—which explains a lot—and desperation for the good old days, are the only normal she knows.

Getting what you want shows the depth of one’s personality and tends to hone idealism. Silver is forced out of her nest when she must spend the summer at her father’s apartment while her mother needs to leave their apartment, to recuperate under the supervision of her parents. As a young teen, Silver is on the cusp of womanhood and sets out to explore femininity and maturity with the boy of her dreams while learning to see beyond, or perhaps through, her family’s weakness, strength, and depth of love.

By the end of summer, Silver’s hopes and dreams, her understanding and appreciation of normal and authentic, have replaced her childhood fantasies.

Told through Silver’s eyes, the story is lovingly drawn, deep and not easily forgettable. While certainly the language and sometimes shocking adventures of the music scene are necessary to create an authoritative setting, I found the amount of casually tossed-about foul language distracting from what was otherwise a beautifully told tale. A legal issue that was tantamount to the story was unrealistically quickly solved, and no more than a passing mention that could be overlooked at an abruptly wrapped ending.

Silver learns that being authentic does not mean wishing bad things away, or that they never happened. It does not mean trying to do everything for everyone else. Being real does mean trusting family with the really big things in life and sharing events that should not be secret.

While I have no doubt most readers of any age will handle the different types of trauma Wittmann, an educational writer who lives in Chicago, portrays in the story, I suggest parents read the story first.

An Authentic Experienceis recommended for an audience who appreciates the power of attaining self-identity and surviving the minefield of the contemporary teen scene.

 

Monday
Apr022018

Book Review: Damaged Souls

Damaged Souls. Sandra M. Colbert Chicago: Windy City Publishers, October 11, 2017, Trade Paperback,225 pages.

Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport. 

Ultimately, there are two kinds of detective novels: compelling and complacent. Damaged Soulsby Sandra M. Colbert is a heart-pounder. This story of a horrible crime and its impact is a highly enjoyable read.  It will keep you on the beach compulsively turning the pages long past the protection of your SPF lotion. 

Damaged Souls is the second novel in the Kate Harrison detective series, and it is far better crafted than the first.  After many years on the Phoenix police force, Kate is haunted by a particularly dark crime, the murder of an infant, and as a result has left her job. She has relocated to the northern Illinois town of Harley, where she is on a Chicago commuter train when a man is discreetly murdered.  Although she doesn’t know the victim, he knows her; in fact, he’s left multiple messages on her cell phone. Thus, the murders begin in this gnarled tale of a crime wrongly then correctly solved.  It is the sort of depraved saga that even a Jacobean theatergoer would appreciate—pitiless revenge, drug-induced insanity, pervasive corruption, sexual enslavement, and desperate fear, among other tragic delights—and the emotional slashes that result from all these that cannot be forgotten or removed. No one in this novel has been spared a damaged soul.

Colbert is on her way to mastering the crime genre. The prose is lean and driven, the plot is forceful, and transitions in time and place are handled with ease. The characters are well-delineated and distinct. There is, perhaps, one formal element of the book that might trouble the purist.  That is the resolution of a romantic subplot, which, though written convincingly, continues long past the resolution of the crime. But this is a relatively minor matter and may even be enjoyable for the reader who reads crime fiction for character as much as plot. 

Damaged Soulsis a deliciously dark crime novel that any reader who enjoys this genre will savor.  I look forward to the next book in the series—and the one after that.

 

Saturday
Mar312018

Book Review: The Elixir: A Bud Hutchins Thriller

The Elixir: A Bud Hutchins Thriller. J.B. Michaels. Independent/Harrison and James Publishing, September 9, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 178 Pages.

Reviewed by Stephanie Tilton.

In the second novel of the Bud Hutchins series, readers will get caught up in action and adventure. J.B. Michaels’ novel, The Elixir, is a flawless combination of suspense and sci-fi, with a touch of fantasy. The novel is set in Chicago and follows Bud Hutchins and his android assistant Bert on a whirlwind adventure. Maeve, a monk of the Order of St. Michael, is Bud's friend. She obtains damaging supernatural powers that could cause her annihilation. Bud sets out to find a cure for her ailments and bring her back to her former state.

While awaiting help for Maeve, Bud receives a call to investigate a murder at the Chicago Metro University. The only witness to the crime, a student named Ivy, agrees to help Bud search for the murderer. During their investigation of the campus, they stumble upon a secret laboratory full of ancient artifacts and the beginnings of a mysterious concoction. This concoction could hold the answer Bud has been seeking and the cure for Maeve’s ailments.

In the midst of the murder on campus, a poltergeist wreaks havoc on Chicago. First assuming the identity of Al Capone, it wounds Maeve while she is helping two policemen on duty. It then continues to hunt Maeve by taking the identity of Resurrection Mary. Bert comes to Maeve’s rescue, but she is severely injured after the two battles. Now, the race is on to find a cure before it’s too late.

Using the Sears Tower as a makeshift laboratory, Bud hopes he can save Maeve. His attempt at a Dr. Frankenstein experiment is unsuccessful. The resulting failure leaves Maeve in danger and short-circuits Bert. Now, the damaged android is racing through the city destroying anything he perceives as a threat. Bud must stop him before he injures more people.

Meanwhile, Ivy has discovered the creator of the secret concoction face down in his own scientific failure. He awakens with a split personality revealing even more about his identity and the connection to the murder. Ivy flees the scene, determined to save the Elixir. In one final conflict, Bud must once again make a life-changing decision. How far will Bud go to save his friend? 

J.B. Michaels keeps readers on their toes with his narrative and plot twists. Each page is action packed and full of mystery until the end. His writing showcases his extensive knowledge of history and science fiction events. His descriptions of the historical artifacts around the school are strong. This is a wonderful addition to the Young Adult genre and the perfect read for anyone who enjoys sci-fi thrillers. The story encompasses the compassion and bonds of true friendship.

 

Thursday
Mar292018

Book Review: Cubsessions

Cubsessions. Becky Sarwate and Randy Richardson. Eckhartz Press, March 31, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 178 pages.

Reviewed by Dennis Hetzel.

Famous people fascinate all of us. Don’t try to deny it. And there’s no shortage of famous people among the millions who follow the Chicago Cubs. That’s the premise of Cubsessions, a series of interviews with passionate fans who have achieved various levels of fame.

The anthology is an obvious labor of love for the co-authors, Becky Sarwate and Randy Richardson. The result is a start-of-the-season gift for every diehard Cubs fan. Here are a few of the nuggets the authors unearthed:

  • Author Sara Peteskey described how Cubs first baseman Bill Buckner was her role model for playing through pain. To everyone but Chicago fans, Buckner is best known for a tragic error that cost the Boston Red Sox a potential World Series title, overshadowing a great career in which he played through injuries that might have debilitated others.
  • Michael Strautmanis, who has worked with Barack Obama for many years, reflected that it was a lot cooler for a black man in 1990s Chicago to root for the White Sox—the team his mentor supported. Reflecting on the trials and tribulations of rooting for the Cubs, he once wrote “there’s nothing blacker than being a Cubs fan.” 
  • Scott Turow, master of the courtroom fiction thriller, recalled the agony of being a young fan as the Cubbies collapsed in 1969 and how he tried to hold his bat like Ernie Banks—right elbow parallel to the ground with fingers wriggling, waiting for the pitch.
  • Actor Joe Mantegna shared the back stories behind the famous play “Bleacher Bums,” about the memorable characters who occupied Wrigley Field’s bleachers during the team’s down years.

That’s a small sample of those interviewed, and Chicagoans will recognize many of the names, including Bob Newhart, Nick Offerman, Bob Sirott, Bill Kurtis, and Pat Brickhouse, widow of Jack, the late, iconic broadcaster.

For this reviewer—I’m such a diehard Cubs fan that I wrote two novels about them—my bond felt strongest with the performer Adrian Zmed, whose favorite Cub of the late 1960s was also mine—underappreciated second baseman Glenn Beckert. “I never lost that sense of magic,” Zmed remarked, no matter the tribulations the Cubs inflicted upon him (and the rest of us) until the magical rain delay of 2016 and the seeming miracle that followed. Scott Turow recalled how he screamed as loudly as he could at that moment: “It finally happened!”

The best part of the book might be the photos, many of them donated by those interviewed. My favorite was little Joe Mantegna sitting on his parents’ living-room floor, watching a Cubs game on a blurry 1950s black-and-white television. Second place goes to Pat Brickhouse, standing in front of a portrait of Jack with a proud, intoxicating smile.

Sarwate and Richardson wear their Cub credentials proudly. Both contribute to the Wrigleyville Nation website. Sarwate is a freelance writer for numerous publications and an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern Illinois University. Richardson is an attorney and award-winning writer of articles and two novels. He’s also a founding member of the Chicago Writers Association.

You’ll also be doing a good deed with your purchase. The authors are donating 100 percent of their proceeds from book sales to a collection of three charities: Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities (CBCC), Scoreboard Charities (SC), and the Chicago Baseball Museum (CBM).

The book’s main limitation is some inevitable repetition because, after all, no matter your station in life, Cub fans share similar memories. You don’t have to be NPR’s Scott Simon, actor Dennis Franz, broadcaster Len Kasper, or any of the other celebs to have purchased a ticket on the emotional roller-coaster that all Cub fans ride, to celebrate in the Cubs’ October 2016 success.

“We are a special society,” Mantegna told the authors. “That’s what being a Cubs fan is all about.” 

And that’s the point of Cubsessions. Cub blue is Cub glue in a time when we all need positive passions that bring us together.