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Book Reviews

Wednesday
Jul052017

Book Review: Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side

Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side. Mark Dostert. University of Iowa Press, September 1, 2014, Trade Paperback and E-Book, 254 pages.

Reviewed by Marcie Hill.

It was a pleasure to review Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side by Mark Dostert. His first-person account as a children’s attendant at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, also known as the Audy Home, was truly enlightening. This book is a mixture of truth, humor, sarcasm and irony.

I don’t feel the title Up in Here tells us what the book is about, but the subtitle Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side and the cover photo speak volumes. Up in Here is a statement made by inmates to describe their confinement. I’m assuming Chicago’s Other Side refers to the south and west sides of the city, homes to mostly black and brown residents that make up the majority of the inmate population.

Poor Mark. He thought working as a children’s attendant would be similar to being a ministry volunteer. This well-meaning white male from a Texas suburb really wanted to make a difference in the lives of the tough black and brown children from the streets of Chicago at the Audy Home. He wanted to “humanize and attend to the inmates’ social and emotional needs . . .” He also wanted to “. . . be their remedy, to cheer them up and rebuild their humanity.” He tried his best to maintain his and the inmates’ dignity as best he could but that was not to be.

Nothing could have prepared Mark for his one-year journey at the Audy Home: not the job description, the new employee “training,” or help from his co-workers. Being new, white, and humanitarian in a facility where “7 out of 10 inmates are black” and most of the staff was black or Hispanic made him a minority on many levels.

Mark used vivid words to describe people, places, and events, allowing the reader to share the experience visually, mentally, and emotionally. From these descriptions, he details the names, features, and mannerisms of his co-workers and the young men with which he interacted. Although he encountered many staff members and members at the Audy Home, he only mentioned a few. I assumed these people had the greatest impact on him.

He provides insight into the inner workings of the system, things only staff and administration would know. For instance, he describes the bird shirts inmates wore, how shifts were assigned, written and unwritten rules, and how different attendants disciplined the children.

Here’s what I enjoyed most about Up in Here: Mark’s honesty about his naiveté, insecurities, pride, ignorance, and lack of confidence throughout the book. He admitted not knowing about dysfunctional urban youth, about feeling like “a worthless humiliated failure,” and doubting his manhood.

I appreciated the statistics and facts he shared, especially the history of the Audy Home. In the early days of the facility, cells and cellblocks were called beds and bunkrooms. There was only one cellblock for ATs (automatic transfers). Today, all cellblocks hold ATs except one. At one time, the Audy home housed fewer than 350 inmates; when Dostert worked there, the facility housed up to 700 inmates.

With each instance of disrespect, humiliation, and rejection, Mark wanted to quit, but his pride and desire to make a difference in the inmates’ lives would not allow him to leave before he reached one year of service. However, his feelings did change the closer he got to that one-year mark. He started to hate the people he wanted to help. 

After his resignation and move back to Texas, Mark kept tabs on the troubled youth in Chicago. Although they are jailed and sometimes forgotten by their families, the communities, and people that never have personal contact with them, Mark will never forget Kids On Chicago’s Other Side.

 

Tuesday
Jul042017

Book Review: Depth of Lies

Depth of Lies. E.C. Diskin. Seattle: Thomas & Mercer, September 26, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-Book, 278 pages. 

Reviewed by Renee James

E.C. Diskin's third mystery, her most ambitious yet, introduces us to a clutch of suburban women whose long-standing friendships have been shaken by the death of one of their own. When beautiful, flirty Shea Walker drowns in a bathtub, a shocking combination of drugs and alcohol in her system points to an accidental death or suicide. Shea's closest friend, Kat Burrows, finds everything about her death hard to accept and takes it upon herself to ferret out the facts about what happened. With each question she explores, new ones pop into view, and the deeper Kat digs, the more closely held secrets she discovers in the lives of Shea and their circle of friends.

Depth of Lies is an elaborately constructed mystery that combines a cerebral whodunit plot with an exploration of the lives of a group of empty-nester women, each of whom is experiencing anxiety in her personal life that is not apparent on the surface. Kat's investigation of her friend's death reveals each woman's secrets in turn, including Shea's. 

This story is told through two points of view—Kat's, and Shea's. The alternating points of view take some getting used to because of the time difference: in Shea's story, she is alive and the story chronicles her life in the days and weeks leading up to her death, while Kat's story works backward from Shea's death to cover the same ground, but through the accounts of other people.

Along with the alternating points of view, the early pages of Depth of Lies are slowed by the introductions of a half-dozen important characters and the backstory of their relationships to each other. Don't be fooled, though—the plot starts picking up momentum fairly soon, and the momentum builds to a pulse-pounding level as Kat's and Shea's stories near their climaxes. The dual points-of-view are especially effective in ratcheting up the tension as the novel nears its climax. 

Depth of Lies is a fun mystery that starts out as a good read and builds momentum as it moves along, achieving can't-put-it-down, page-turner status as it builds to a great climax. Its plot is pleasingly complex and beyond the mystery, and its characters let us explore the trials and tribulations faced by many women in their fifties. E.C. Diskin has created a reading experience that is both pulse-pounding and intellectually engaging. 

 

Tuesday
Jun272017

Book Review: Called Out: A novel of base ball and America in 1908

Called Out: A novel of base ball and America in 1908. Floyd Sullivan. Amika Press, May 12, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-Book, 354 pages. 

Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport.

Let us doff our baseball caps to Floyd Sullivan, for he has written an almost perfect historical novel. It is the best novel I have reviewed by a member of the Chicago Writers Association.

Called Out, set during the 1908 baseball season, is about America’s favorite pastime as it struggles for maturity. The author, like many Chicagoans, appears to be a passionate fan of the game. Although the novel is full of baseball lore, it is highly enjoyable for someone with no interest in sports. The characters are robust, the plot is brisk, and the historical details are vivid.

The plot is complex, driven by the period’s restrictive social conventions and the idiosyncrasies of baseball during this time–“one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball history,” to quote the author. “Controversial, game-changing calls result in violent protests, riots, and death. The survival of the national pastime hangs in the balance.” In these impossible circumstances, Harry Pulliam, President of the National Baseball League, struggles with blackmail threats from disgruntled owners over his relationship with his lover, Ted. His secretary, Lenore, is caught up in both the deadly politics of baseball and Pulliam’s socially-driven sexual ambivalence. Ultimately, baseball survives, but Harry Pulliam doesn’t. 

In historical fiction, a writer inevitably presents a view of the past informed by the present. All authors struggle with how much to open the aperture, and no one gets it exactly right. Sullivan comes close.

In one particularly striking section, Ring Lardner–the sports writer who will later become a popular author–takes Harry Pulliam for a visit to the Everleigh Club, the legendary Chicago brothel. In a clever bit of fancy, Sullivan imagines how the sisters professionally handle a homosexual client who has turned up in their strictly heterosexual bawdy house. This masterful interlude highlights what may be the novel’s only (and very minor) flaw: the ease with which some of the team owners cast aspersions on Pulliam’s relationship with Ted might be read as reflecting a conversance with sexuality from a much later era.

Sullivan has written two works of non-fiction, but this is his first novel. It is an accomplished book, and we must hope for more fiction from Mr. Sullivan about baseball or anything else. If this reviewer can be excused the obvious baseball metaphor, Called Out is a home run at the bottom of the ninth with the score tied and the bases loaded.

 

Monday
Jun262017

Book Review: Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad!: An Illustrated History of Chicago Theatre 1837-1974

Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad!: An Illustrated History of Chicago Theatre 1837-1974. Pete Blatchford, Chicago, November 1, 2016, Paperback, 355 pages.

Reviewed by Jose Nateras.

Chicago is one of the largest and most diverse cities in the United States. It’s a hub of art (theatre in particular) and culture with a rich and fascinating history deserving of attention. In Pete Blatchford's Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad!: An Illustrated History of Chicago Theatre 1837-1974, the engrossing backstory of theatre in Chicago receives just such attention.

In his forward, Blatchford refers to his work as "an unabashed love note to Chicago and its theatre," and that is exactly what it is. Loaded with countless photos, illustrations, promotional posters, and maps of the city, Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad! allows its readers to get a clear image of what Chicago has looked like over the years and how the city and its theatre scene has changed, growing and developing with the passage of time.

Blatchford has a long history as a theatre artist in Chicago himself. As a playwright, he has written a number of plays, including adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo and The War of the Worlds, so his passion and experience in theatre go without question. His insight has clearly equipped him with the instinct to seek out and present the sort of information that any theatre aficionado would be interested in. Furthermore, his access to resources and storytelling experience has allowed him to create a tome that is more than the mere presentation of information and data; he is able to tell the story of the growth and development of theatre in Chicago with clear affection. 

Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad! contains the kind of stories one might expect in a historical account of Chicago theatre, such as the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, and the founding of such institutions as the Goodman Theatre and The Second City. However, Blatchford is also able to feature profiles on otherwise overlooked characters and companies from Chicago theatre's past.

Blatchford covers everything from the stage performances of the Booth family—father Junius, sons Edwin and John Wilkes (the one that assassinated Lincoln)—to Shirley Graham, key player in the Black Chicago Renaissance. Even in terms of stories that touch on familiar territory, Blatchford manages to really dig in; for instance, the Jeff Awards are a well-known annual celebration of achievements within the Chicago theatre community, akin to the large-scale Tonys that take place in New York every year. With two ceremonies (one for Equity theatre practitioners and one for those who are Non-Equity), few know that the Jeff Awards and the committee who grants them take their name from the actor Joseph Jefferson III. Even for those who do know the origins of the awards' namesake, Blatchford offers unique insight into Jefferson's career and his impact on Chicago theatre. Having made a major breakthrough in 1858 with his performance in Our American Cousin, Jefferson went on to play the titular role in Rip Van Winkle from 1860 through 1905.

Over the course of its 355 pages, the book manages to cover a lot of ground. Blatchford does a good job of exploring the history of Chicago theatre in an interesting, well organized, concise, and accessible way. As with anything, there could always be more information regarding some of the relevant and less-mainstream movements that are intrinsically linked to the historical and socio-economic development of Chicago, both theatrically and otherwise (people of color and queer artists receive less focus than they're due). Yet, overall, Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad! is a worthwhile and comprehensive history of Chicago theatre from 1837-1974.

 

Monday
Jun262017

Book Review: The Bricklayer of Albany Park

The Bricklayer of Albany Park (advance reading copy). Terry John Malik. St. Louis, MO: Blank Slate Press, August 22, 2017, Trade Paperback, 342 pages. 

Reviewed by Florence Osmund.

Terry John Malik’s The Bricklayer of Albany Park is the story of Chicago detective Frank Vincenti, charged with apprehending a uniquely disturbed serial killer. In his well-structured and well-written debut novel, Malik deftly paints an interesting, complex, true-to-life cast of characters.

While in college and during his early years as a detective, Vincenti learns from the best—retired Chicago detective Thomas Foster. While Foster’s unconventional teaching methods annoy some people, they enable Vincenti to become one of Chicago’s go-to detectives for solving the City’s bizarre murders. When a serial killer—who the press nicknames The Bricklayer—comes onto the scene, Vincenti finds himself turning to Foster for help to gain insight into the killer’s psyche. With his sanity and marriage at risk, Vincenti lives and breathes a relentless pursuit of the killer to put the horrendous killings to an end.

Alternating between two character points of views—Vincenti’s and The Bricklayer’s—the action builds in short snappy chapters populated by three-dimensional characters and artful, descriptive writing that makes for a compelling read.

The evening’s rain had turned the pavement from light grey to shiny black and brought with it a chill typical of a Chicago November night.

Malik’s skill in layering the elements of the story, dropping hints that deepen the reader’s anticipation of what lies ahead, and embedding subliminal clues will keep readers spellbound throughout this book. Skillful changes in pacing also contribute to a dramatic effect that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

There was no satisfaction in this kill, no muffled screaming, no wide-eyed look of terror in his eyes. No desperate pleas for mercy.

Despite the gruesomeness (which I generally steer away from in the books I read), there wasn’t much I didn’t like about this book. I was able to overlook the few technical errors I found knowing it was an uncorrected review copy that I was reading.

I found this book intriguing, memorable, and engaging. Malik’s fluid writing style makes it flow well and a relatively easy read. I can recommend it to eighteen and older readers who love a good mystery and aren’t faint of heart.