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Book Review: Writing Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale

Writing Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale, Second Edition. Philip Martin. Milwaukee, WI: Crickhollow Books, November 15, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 168 pp.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

Philip Martin has written a book that shows, rather than tells, authors how to create a good story by framing his techniques against one of his own stories.

Story should rise above narrative, Martin writes; more than groups of words, more than a series of events. Telling a story is also an art form. Quoting liberally from ancient to modern works, Martin employs his background as a professional gatherer of stories and histories to show how story works across culture and time to draw listeners in to a communal experience. Writers are more than purveyors of phrases. Writers offer a promise and provide a worthwhile payoff.

As an experienced editor of advice books for writers, a former editor for best-selling, mainstream authors, and the director of Great Lakes Literary, Martin shares his advice and techniques for creating memorable works that attract agents and editors. He takes a three-pronged approach, and so this book is divided into sections. Start with a quirky hook; keep the middle more than readable by using delicious details; and finally, provide a satisfying ending.

Martin is not a fan of plot. Plot, as a mechanism for writing a book, will make your work mechanical, contrived, agenda-driven, and unimaginative. His emphatic dissing of the term throughout the book is actually a rebellion against formula-writing. Martin teaches that stories need structure, whether an author uses it for a flexible framework around which to build a tale, or discovers it after the story is complete. Structure works to create commonality or shared experience. Too many authors use plot as a controlled formula, which Martin insists must be avoided.

Whether cyclic, arced, or linear, a story has a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s the promise of a fine meal initiated and fulfilled. Start with a desire or a want. Bait your hook with enticing morsels. Help the reader invest. Establish resonating characters in intriguing environments. Give them a problem to work on. Create anticipation and offer satisfying surprises. “Delightful details” keep the reader’s interest and should build upon the premise. “Detail should triumph plot,” Martin says. Even while he dismisses plot, Martin embraces theme. “Theme should tell you what the ending should deal with,” he writes. Don’t try to find it until you’re well into your story. Theme is a message that answers why the story is important. The end of your tale should let the reader know this journey has been worthwhile, that he has returned better for having taken it with you, the story teller.

The book is well written with an easy-to-appreciate style. As mentioned above, he spins a story to show us how to create interesting characters with interesting problems who need interesting solutions to achieve desired outcomes. Martin also shares examples from well-known work to illustrate his points. While geared specifically to writers, those who practice oral story-telling would certainly benefit from reading and studying Writing Your Best Story. The premises and examples Martin lays out in the book apply to all kinds of writing, from short story to full length novel, and even on a certain level to non-fiction. A full quotation source list and recommendation to read the original material in context is included.



Book Review: South Side of the Glass Wall

South Side of the Glass Wall. Dr. Naomi C. Roberson. GEM Publishing, November 2017, Trade Paperback, 235 pages.

Reviewed by Opal Freeman.

South Side of the Glass Wall is a heartfelt book written by Dr. Naomi Roberson. In it, she details her personal and professional lifelong lessons gained during her childhood in the 1950s on the south side of Chicago and her experiences as an adult. The author also provides some history about the struggles of slaves, domestic abuse, and why our nation is so divided.

As the seventh child of eleven, the author describes her day-to-day life with two parents and ten siblings amidst heightened levels of racial tension. The chapters provide clear descriptions of emotions, incidents, people, and scenery. The reader clearly learns how, amidst life’s challenges, Roberson was raised, how she was educated, how she obtained professional achievements, and why she chose to never give up hope.

The story reveals history of the African American slave, disruption of the family, the general population, and mistreatment. The reader’s awareness is raised by learning from descriptive and lengthy details of incidents related to African Americans. These details include abuse, alleged killings, generational activities, hatred, illiteracy, laws, missed-opportunities, and racism. The occurrence of this history may not be pleasant to read, but it is written with an educational intent. A recommendation is given to create an action plan to break a vicious cycle that has been happening for many years.

The effort to provide unity to our nation is very important, and some action needs to take place. What about creating a method to help break some racial barriers and cultural differences? Roberson’s proposal for an Ethnic Day is an excellent solution to help resolve our cultural communication problems. The combination of food and conversation is universal. The engaging activity can translate into a lifetime experience.

In her book, Roberson provides a descriptive walkthrough of her childhood, adolescence, and adult life. Throughout her life, she experienced family, growing up, education, work, and world changes. While searching for personal destiny, she never gave up hope. I enjoyed her history of growing up in Chicago, and I appreciate the lesson she is passing on.



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.