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Thursday
Jan172019

Book Review: Acre’s Orphans

Acre’s Orphans. Wayne Turmel. Las Vegas, Nevada: Achis Press, January 21, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 332 pages.

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds.

In his previous book, Acre’s Bastard, Wayne Turmel introduced us to Lucca Le Pou. His ten-year-old protagonist is a street-smart scapegrace who knows the back alleys of his home city of Acre like the back of his hand. Lucca has already survived more than most adults, including the disastrous defeat of the Christian forces at the Battle of Hattin. But as much as he hopes to go back to his old life, that wish is not to be realized.

Acre’s Orphans opens in the aftermath of Hattin. Acre, now virtually defenseless, is awash with fear as it prepares to surrender to the Muslim armies of Sal ad-Din. A mysterious outsider is stirring up resentment for the defeat. Lucca and Brother Marco, his mentor who was a former knight and occasional spy, soon realize this unrest is part of an effort to discredit a powerful Christian nobleman. Brother Marco dispatches Lucca to Tyre, where the nobleman resides, to warn him of the threat. Lucca, who has only been beyond the walls of Acre once, must travel through leagues of war-torn countryside. His only companions on this trip are a slightly older Druze girl, a leprous nun hoping for refuge from the Muslims, and a Hospitaller knight of dubious reputation.

Acre's Bastard was an exploration of the seamy side of the Crusades, and this second installment of the series takes the reader into the shifting political and military landscapes of the Holy Lands in the 12th century. Lucca must navigate his way through the uncertainty around him while both doing his best to keep his companions safe and to accomplish the task given to him by Brother Marco. As he does this, the scared boy he was begins to melt away and the young man people will follow begins to emerge. 

I enjoyed reading Acre’s Orphans enough that I finished it in three days. I found Lucca Le Pou to be an engaging character, as are the supporting characters. Their interactions feel like those of real people, with none of the stilted set-piece scenes some stories fall into. The landscape they move through is believable enough that you feel you could almost trace their path. The plotting is good, and the pacing keeps you turning the page. In other words, it’s a good read and well worth your time.

In his closing notes to Acre’s Orphans, Wayne Turmel tells us Acre’s Bastardwas originally to be the only book about Lucca. That changed when his daughter indicated she wanted to read more of his character’s adventures. I am glad she changed his mind, because I too am looking forward to reading more of Lucca’s story. I suspect others will look forward to further installments as well.

 

Wednesday
Jan092019

Book Review: Post-Apocalypticon

Post-ApocalypticonClayton Smith. Dapper Press, October 24, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 269 Pages. 

Reviewed by Jose Nateras.

In “The Apocalypticon Trilogy,” Clayton Smith has crafted a world readers will find both familiar and drastically changed by the events of the apocalypse. 

The trilogy’s first installment, Apocalypticon, centers on best friends Patrick Deen and Ben Fogelvee. Doing their utmost to survive in post-apocalypse Chicago, the two set off on a cross country road trip to Disney World that quickly goes south. Throughout his character’s tragi-comic, nail-biting quest, Smith somehow manages to fuse the bleak landscape of works like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, with the lighter zom-com fare of movies like Zombieland, creating a world as brutal as it is funny; a world more than worthy of a return visit to this, the next entry in the series.

In Post-Apocalypticon, the second book in the trilogy, Smith picks up not long after the events of Apocalypticon. Ben has taken over the training of the Red Caps—the security forces for the post-apocalyptic-wasteland-reinforced train that is conducted by returning character, Horace. In the first years after the apocalypse, Horace’s train safely transported valuables between the few monied survivors still willing to pay to transport goods from place to place. Now, among the goods that Ben and his bumbling trainees are safekeeping is something particularly valuable indeed—a sealed case with contents that could change the world. When Ben’s advice goes unheeded and the train ends up snared in a less-than-subtle trap, Ben finds himself launched on yet another danger-filled adventure across a wasteland full of bandits and other baddies, setting the stage for the forthcoming conclusion to the trilogy. 

Throughout Post-Apocalypticon, Smith makes the task of maneuvering through drastic tone-shifts look easy. Going from laugh-out-loud snark, to wince-inducing gore and violence can be tricky. Yet Smith manages to consistently tap into the black-humor and a jaded-by-the-end-of-the-world inspired snark that allows for any tonal-whiplash to feel fun. He takes his readers on a rollercoaster ride that can make an anecdote about accidentally killing your buddy with a machete into a running joke, highlighting the need to train new Red Caps with nothing but pool noodles for battle prep. Keeping that in mind, Smith’s ability to consistently evoke glimmers of humanity and pain amidst all the violence and laughs is quite impressive. His dialogue is sharp-witted and stylized in the vein of Joss Whedon; his characters as jagged and broken as you’d expect of survivors of the apocalypse. Yet jagged and broken or not, they haven’t lost their sense of humor, making it impossible for readers not to root for Ben Fogelvee as he journeys across the post-apocalyptic desert.

Post-Apocalypticon is a worthy second installment in a trilogy fans will surely be chomping at the bit to see completed. Genre enthusiasts are sure to get a kick out of Smith’s use of familiar motifs from the realm of end-of-the-world fiction, just as they are sure to be entertained by the fun that is far less common to a sub-genre known for its typically dour tone.

 

Monday
Jan072019

Book Review: Aviation Chicago Timeline

Aviation Chicago TimelineMichael Haupt. Chicago: Aviation Chicago Press, November 18, 2018, Hardcover and Trade Paperback, 468 pages.

Reviewed by Greg Borzo.

At first, I was reluctant to review Aviation Chicago Timeline because I thought that the more than one thousand entries would read like a long list of rambling and disconnected people, places, and things. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to see that the parade of events holds together, offering a comprehensive overview of the vital role Chicago played in aviation history.

This 450-page tome is a reference book, a chronology searchable by date or through a comprehensive index. It provides definitive information about how the Windy City took to the skies, influenced the city’s growth and development, and how it was and continues to be a center of aviation innovation, advancement, and business success.

In addition to being a reference book, Aviation Chicago Timeline is also a good read. One could read it cover to cover without getting bored or bogged down. The book addresses inventors, promoters, manufacturers, airlines, and professional organizations, and it doesn’t stop there. In addition, there are a galaxy of fascinating things that fly, from hot air balloons to blimps, rockets to drones, and bi-planes to jumbo jets.

Readers will learn a wealth of information about women in space, inflight refueling, and cockpit voice recorders. They will also read about crashes, spy planes, and preparations for war. Closer to home, readers will learn about local unions, airport restaurants, Midway and O’Hare airports building and expansion, security measures, and Italo Balbo, who recently hit the headlines when the name of Chicago’s Balbo Street was almost changed.

Many of the entries list detailed events, but you never know when one will strike a chord. For example, I was surprised to learn that Chicago once touted the tiny Ravenswood Airport, at Ravenswood and Touhy avenues, from 1928 to 1962. It was also fascinating to learn how the city of Chicago was able to annex that thin strip of land—on which the little airport sat and that connected it to O’Hare Airport—by giving Rosemont a 45-inch-diameter water main to carry precious Lake Michigan water to that suburb.

In the introduction, Haupt notes more than half a dozen other books about Chicago aviation and asks, “Why another book?” He answers that question correctly by saying that Aviation Chicago Timeline would “piece together the rich tapestry of Chicago’s aviation history.” The book admirably succeeds in doing so. The author also solicits feedback by stating: “If you see something, say something.” He even promises to publish corrections online at www.aviation-chicago.com before the next edition of this book is printed. In that spirit, I offer a few suggestions.

Please add a glossary. Acronyms pile up and most are not spelled out, except in first references, which are often pages or chapters earlier. And please add images and maps, which would liven up this book. Also, please lengthen entries that are the most germane and shorten those that are marginal to the main topic, such as entries about the Beatles, da Bears, public housing, Lenny Bruce’s arrest for obscenity, etc. That said, some entries that might initially appear peripheral end up being germane. For example, an entry about the beginning of Prohibition seems marginal until one reads that airplanes became a preferred means of smuggling hooch into Chicagoland. As one bootlegger put it, “An airplane costs less than a good speedboat.” 

Finally, for the next printed edition, please put the page numbers and dates on the outside edges of the pages rather than buried in the gutter margin and close to the binding, which renders them difficult to use. 

I spotted very few errors in this authoritative work. Chicago’s first elevated train could not have “begun operation between Congress Parkway and Wabash Avenue” (as stated on page 5) because those two streets run perpendicular to each other. A look in the lengthy and laudable end notes credits the Chicago Architecture Foundation Member Magazinewith this information. There are better sources, including The “L”—The Development of Chicago’s Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932,by Bruce Moffat. 

In any event, the exhaustive end notes and bibliography are commendable and bear witness to the author’s meticulous attention to detail. 

No one will appreciate or remember all the many facts and figures, names and dates, found in this book. But readers will come away with a keen sense of what it took to put wings on men and why Chicago can correctly claim the moniker of an “aviation capital.”

 

Thursday
Jan032019

Book Review: Pushing the River

Pushing the RiverBarbara Monier. Northfield, IL: Amika Press, August 3, 2018. Trade Paperback and E-book, 249 pages. 

Reviewed by Caryl Barnes.

Pushing the River is Barbara Monier’s well-received third novel. It reflects Monier’s continuing interest in how families, particularly mothers, react to change. The story focuses on Madeline, a woman living alone in a large house, empty since her children left home and a traumatic divorce. For various reasons, six family and non-family members, including Dan, a new lover, move into her house for stays of varying lengths. Living again in a full house delights Madeline but also alarms her. As she says in the opening sentence, “I have lived in the company of ghosts.” Madeline’s ghosts had been well-behaved; even the ghost of her traitorous husband existed in a cozy, head-of-the-household space in her hazy, timeless, dream family.

Ghosts should stay in the past, not burst forth into the present. A mixed-bag of people crowd into Madeline’s nine-room house: her medical school daughter, Kate; her son, John and his dog; her daughter-in-law, Clare; Clare’s fifteen-year-old pregnant sister, Savannah; Clare and Savannah’s mentally ill mother, Billie; and Dan, the new lover. All bring their own histories, emotions, and problems, and Madeline tries to understand each person and care for all. As one Amazon reader put it, the book “illuminates that tricky place so many of us live in, the interactions where our desire to remain rooted in the past collides with the need to move forward into the unforeseeable future.”

The book is well written in a straightforward style, and the characters are complex and interesting both as individuals and through their interactions. Kate hates Dan on sight, Dan can’t stand Madeline paying attention to anyone but him, and Billie and her two daughters erratically buzz around each other. Dan leaves in petty fury, but in the end, the other characters are more closely connected in love than they were at the beginning.

There is one scene in the book that affected me, a non-mother, powerfully. Savannah does not understand how to nurse her newborn son, Dylan, so Madeline shows her. I had been curious about this myself although I assumed it somehow just came naturally. There is much to it, I learned, and enjoyed the bond Madeline created with Savannah and the baby and how she helped Savannah create a bond with her own son.

As I read the book, I puzzled over the meaning of the title. I didn’t see how Madeline or any other character “pushed the river.” I saw the people struggling to keep afloat, not trying to rebel or strike back at fate. At the end of the story, however, I understood: the point of the title is that you can’t push the river! Madeline, sitting contentedly alone with Dylan on Christmas Day while the others have escaped to a movie, murmurs to the baby. “It turns out I can’t really push the river; I can’t make it go in a different direction than it’s going to go. I have no idea what crazy twists and turns your life may take. All I know is that you’re here and that matters. All I have to offer, all I’ve ever had to offer, is love. My messy, flawed, crazy-ass love. I will do the best I can. I will.”

 

Sunday
Dec302018

Book Review: Lost Restaurants of Chicago

Lost Restaurants of Chicago. Greg Borzo. The History Press, December 3, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 224 pages.

Reviewed by Stephanie Wilson Medlock.

It may not surprise anyone that so many of life’s important moments take place in restaurants. Perhaps especially in earlier decades, when Americans did not eat out as much as they do now, a restaurant was often selected for the proposal dinner, the graduation celebration, the luncheon after the funeral, the Easter brunch, or the Mother’s Day family reunion. Restaurants represented occasions we all remember, and we particularly remember the restaurants where they took place.

Lost Restaurants of Chicago will evoke that feeling of nostalgia and memory in anyone who has lived a couple of decades in that city, long enough to have enjoyed and then lost a cherished eatery. 

But Lost Restaurants of Chicago is much more than a list of restaurants by category that have disappeared. It represents a cultural history of Chicago from a gastronomic point of view, from wonderful details about the first taverns and inns that provided probably awful grub to travelers in 1838, to descriptions of the influx of various immigrant groups who brought their own cuisines with them and opened the restaurants that honored their heritage. Packed with wonderful photographs of these lost eateries and written in Borzo’s signature energetic style, the book examines restaurants that lasted a century, as well as those that disappeared after only a few seasons.

For example, according to Borzo, the city’s first luxury hotel, the Lake House, opened in 1835, and with it came the first restaurant with white tablecloths and fine food, including oysters transported “from New England by sleigh.” 

The development of the railroad, and later public transportation, was key to the growth of Chicago eateries. Around 1875, The Harvey House Restaurant opened at Union Station catering to travelers. It was the nation’s first chain restaurant, eventually operating at eighty train stations around the country.

As more men and women worked farther from their homes, because they could take buses or trains to commute, Chicagoans began to eat their midday meal in restaurants, rather than returning home. Coffee shops, lunchrooms, and sandwich shops all emerged to provide quick lunches at affordable prices. Thompson’s Cafeteria, for example, opened in 1891 on State Street and soon added other locations. It is credited with developing the “cafeteria line” concept to speed up the service of lunch to workers with limited time.

Lost Restaurants of Chicago describes how restaurants reflected the gradual emancipation of women (who were not at first allowed in taverns or saloons, or welcomed in even fine dining establishments unless accompanied by a man), the Civil Rights movement where black-owned restaurants became centers for political rallying, and even the impact on restaurants of the early years of commercial airline travel. Imagine the mid-1950s at Midway Airport, where The Cloud Room on the second floor and the Blue and Gold Café on the first served food with spectacular views of the runway. Few would pay for that privilege today.

Borzo divides the book into sections devoted to the early history of Chicago restaurants, the development of fine dining, strange and unusual restaurants, and then examines the ethnic restaurants as they emerged onto the scene. Of course, he also features delis, diners, and hot dog stands, and, finally, memorable restaurant entrepreneurs.

The section in which he profiles dining establishments whose cuisine, flamboyant owners, or other interesting attributes made them memorable for a time, is particularly entertaining. Most eccentric in that list was Flo’s Restaurant and Cocktail Parlor, which in the 1960s and ‘70s featured a trapeze artist who performed out of doors in front of the building at 17 W. Randolph Street. 

In its French food section, Lost Restaurants describes the Chicago obsession with French food, once considered the highest of all cuisines. Of the restaurants profiled, Jacques, a French eatery at 900 North Michigan that featured a lovely faux garden at its center with a retractable glass roof, was a memorable establishment for this reviewer. On a special date in 1967 while still a teenager, I went to Jacques with my boyfriend, and we ordered crab crepes and a bottle of wine. The bill for the two of us came to fifteen dollars. We nearly passed out at the expense of it!

This book will no doubt evoke similar memories in any Chicagoan who is over forty. It is an ideal gift for the local resident of a certain age, and anyone who enjoys examining how changes in cultural attitudes affect the way we eat out.