Book Reviews


Book Review: The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan

The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan. Steve Wiley. Chicago: Lavender Line Press LLC, February 24, 2017, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 233 pages.

Reviewed by Jose Nateras.

At the start of Steve Wiley’s first book, The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan, the author introduces the reader to Richard K. Lyons, who is an unhappy man living in a Chicago simultaneously familiar and fantastically alien. Successful in many ways, in others Richard is a mess; he has some obvious substance abuse issues and is in the midst of a self-destructive spiral. It’s at this point that he stumbles upon a young homeless girl he can almost remember from a night long ago, when he was just a boy called Rich. She takes Richard on a journey into his long forgotten childhood and beyond as he remembers an adventure they shared one night, decades before.

Wiley manages to craft a story that, just like the world he creates, straddles two worlds—those of a miserable, disaffected adult and the wide-eyed boy he once was, along with the cold, urban metropolis of Chicago and the fantastical, fairy land of his fictional “East Side” of the city. Even in terms of the language, Wiley achieves an almost storybook-like vernacular, similar to what one would find in a children’s book, while exploring ultimately adult experiences, often with the sort of adult language one definitely wouldn’t find in a children’s book. All of this, combined with twists on Chicago history and fantastical insights into uniquely Chicagoan phenomenon, such as the reason Malort tastes so bad, make for an entrancingly magical journey that’s half Midwestern Miyazaki, half Mad Men, and all Windy City.

While engaging throughout, there are a few times when the spiraling narrative can be hard to follow. Moving through time, memory, senses of reality, and various narrators and storytellers, can and does disorient the reader. This sense of disorientation occasionally works, however, resonating with both Richard’s drug-addled headspace and the younger Rich’s daze of wonder as an outsider in the fantastical, fairy-realm of Chicago.

Illustrations by Chris Cihon augment the story throughout. Visually reminiscent of the sort of drawings a young person might make in sketchbooks or the margins of their homework, the images also add to the feel of Wiley’s novel as a sort of storybook for adults. It’s easy to imagine young Rich subconsciously remembering Francesca and the adventures they shared, drawing such pictures until the images faded away from his memory.

For many adults, the realization that one’s childhood is firmly in the past can be a sad one. The sudden notion that we are no longer the children we once were can make people look at the current state of their lives and the world around them, and ask: how did we get here? Would a younger version of ourselves be proud of the life we have? It’s so easy to lose the wonder with which we saw the world as children, to forget to look at our lives and appreciate the wonder that is there, just beneath the roar of the ‘L’-car rushing by and bills that need to be paid. Overall, Wiley’s The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan provides a fun exploration of such themes and is a worthwhile read for any grownup Chicagoan who used to love reading fairy tales as a kid. 



Book Review: Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago

Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago. J.B. Rivard. Spokane, Washington: Grey Dog Press, April 17, 2016, Trade Paperback, 233 pages.

Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti

Chicago politics have never been boring. Chicago in 1933, dense with the influx of immigrants that began around the turn of the century, fostered a strange and powerful sub-rosa world of colorful characters and ethnic crime families. In Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago by J.B. Rivard, the author drops the reader dead center into the city of big shoulders and shows us that daily life during a seemingly simpler time involved real danger, pain, alienation, missed opportunities, and fear.

The novel begins with the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the wounding of Anton Cermak, Chicago’s Mayor. As Cermak lay dying, the city’s crime families kick into high gear, scrambling to repair the political machine. A down-on-his-luck but likable magician, Nick Zeitner, takes a shady side job retrieving personal property that was stolen from the safe deposit box of a rich and powerful man. First, he has to find out who robbed the bank, and then he has to find out if he can negotiate a deal. Nick takes the job thinking he is just a simple go-between, but he soon finds himself deeply involved.

Nick is a magician of some skill, yet the nature of show business is such that he must float from contract to contract at the big ex-vaudeville venues to make a living. The depression is dragging on, and Prohibition is likely to be repealed in order to refill the nation’s empty tax coffers. Nick wants things to turn around, but he doesn’t know how to make that happen. Connie, Nick’s long-suffering wife, is tired of being poor, so Nick accepts a job from Liver Jack, Connie’s brother, a precinct captain. At first, the job seems easy; all he has to do is stick a toe into Chicago’s underworld and deliver a ransom for some old stolen photos. But as time goes on, the job becomes more complicated. Is it magic that protects Nick from the underground world of crime he can only imagine, or is his safety simply an illusion?

Rivard deftly weaves themes of romantic love, easy murder, and the power of jazz throughout the novel, which is told from the points of view of the people who live in this world of illegal activity and who make decisions based only on survival. The language contains a hard truthfulness and colorful phrases from everyday people trying to defend their little piece of turf. For example, Liver Jack tells Nick, “Listen. You gotta be practical. There’s nobody out there to replace him, even if we held an election. And Alderman Chessrina’s running so hard to replace him he’s sneaking breaths from Cermak’s oxygen tent just so he’ll look alive.”

Rivard both wrote and illustrated Illusions of Magic, and his storytelling is enriched by both his background as an artist and his experience as a writer. His characters are reminiscent of the colorful men and women of Damon Runyon and the tough guys of Nelson Algren. Similar to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Rivard explores historic Chicago by illustrating how the events of that time affected and informed his characters. Rivard draws a vivid portrait of life in Chicago in 1933, with rent overdue and landlords scrambling just as much as tenants, and he craftily reminds us of the Eastern European mobs that operated on the South Side of the city. The novel is rife with historical and geographical references to buildings, companies, local streets, and restaurants, which makes the adventure more authentic.

The uncertainties of the political future of Chicago, Nick’s future as a magician, and the great illusion Nick creates to save his friends, make this adventure come together with a twist that is impressive and dramatically consistent with the sentiments of the time. Illusions of Magic is definitely an exciting read, rich with real Chicago references, dangerous criminals, forever friends, and genuine romance. Illusions of Magic is well worth reading for a thrilling trip back in time.



Book Review: Hey, Liberal!

Hey, Liberal! Shawn Shiflett. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, September 1, 2016, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 320 pages.

Reviewed by Charles Kuner.

Shawn Shiflett’s novel, Hey, Liberal!, is a memorable and fast-paced novel that pulls the reader into the story from beginning to end. I was so engrossed with the story and its characters that I almost read the whole book in one sitting. In his novel, Mr. Shiflett, an associate professor of creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago, chose to deal with Chicago’s public schools in the 1960s, which then were in a continuous state of turmoil. I can easily identify with the characters and situations—it was like living in the 1960s for the second time in my life.

Hey, Liberal! is set in the summer of 1969 in Lincoln Park right after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the subsequent riots in Chicago that spilled over into the schools. The novel follows 13-year-old Simon Fleming, a white student whose father is a civil-rights-activist minister. His parents send him to a predominately black school, Dexter High School, which is a replication of the current Lincoln Park High School. Simon is forced to navigate between gangs, drugs, violence, a failed student boycott, and race riots.

Shiflett has indicated that the plot was inspired by events from his own youth, but emphasizes that while inspired by true events, the novel is not autobiographical or a memoir. He wanted to write a book with humor, characters, and a plot, and he has succeeded beyond all expectations. Shiflett did attend Lincoln Park High School, which at the time was largely black and Hispanic, but now is mostly white. So, Lincoln Park High (the fictional Dexter High) was certainly not a love fest after the assassination of Dr. King. As the author says, “. . . it was just a very angry time. You were on the run a lot.”

There are two overarching themes in Hey, Liberal! The first comes from the Koko Taylor quote right before the novel begins: “Be what you be.” The author did not create one-dimensional characters. Some grow or evolve into what they are meant to be. Mr. Shiflett has stated that about half the characters are composites of people he knew. During my years at Marshall High and Farragut Career Academy, I also recognized teachers and students that were like some of the characters in this novel.

Simon’s personal journey begins when he feels charged by his parents to help the community in its struggle for school integration. He may have come from a home that strongly believed in peace, love, and understanding, but Simon’s constant exposure to and experience with guns and fists during the riots has an addictive draw for him. Shiflett states, “If I have been able to make readers share Simon’s internal reactions, including his stages of grief later on (especially when a friend of his gets killed), don’t readers walk away with a better understanding of how violence negatively impacts themselves and the world around them?”

The second overarching theme can be summarized in the phrase, “All was fair in an unfair world,” justifying gang and racial riots. For instance, Clark, the racist and brutal white cop at the Dexter School, takes the law into his own hands and kills a pedophile because the man was not convicted for his deviant sexual crimes. And there is John Lange, a white biology teacher at Dexter, who stirs up his students with his political radical agenda rather than teach his subject, and who then stays safely behind in his classroom while his riled up students put themselves in harm’s way during the riots.            

Shiflett has written an edgy, no-holds barred insider account of student life during the late-1960s racial turmoil, which is distressingly relevant to us today. It is also a very rich novel especially in his use of language and dialect, which is natural, authentic, and heightened by Shiflett’s technique. And it’s not stereotypical. This is a coming-of-age novel akin to Catcher in the Rye, for Shiflett presents important insights into the usual teen issues of acceptance and conformity.

Hey, Liberal! brings to light a very out-of-touch educational system accompanied by the universality of racial turmoil, as it was not only happening in Chicago but throughout the United States and the world in the 1960s. As a nation, we were moving at a snail’s pace toward what hopefully would be a more culturally diverse and inclusive future.



Book Review: Acre's Bastard

Acre's Bastard. Wayne Turmel. Achis Press, February 8, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book.

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds.

The subtitle to Wayne Turmel's Acre's Bastard is “Part 1 of the Lucca le Puc stories,” and I am already looking forward to further stories from this author about his engaging main character. Lucca is a literal bastard, an orphan living in the orphanage run the Order of the Hospital and St. John in Acre. The product of uncertain parentage, he lives during the chaos and violence of the Crusades, and as the story progresses, things go from bad to much, much worse.

The story opens with Lucca doing something consistent with his long history of getting into trouble. In this case, though, Lucca's antics bring him to the attention of a newly arrived member of the Hospitalier Order. The member’s attempt to punish Lucca takes a turn familiar to those following modern Catholic problems, and Lucca defends himself rather than submit. He chooses to flee the only home he has known rather than risk the repercussions of that resistance. Lucca fears he will be pursued for what he has done and what he knows of his assailant, but he finds refuge with a mysterious beggar.

Lucca soon learns that his benefactor, Marco, is a brother of the Order of St. Lazarus and far more than just a dirty street beggar. Marco is in fact a knight in that Order, and having been forced to give up the sword by leprosy, he now fights with his wits as a spy. He inducts Lucca into his world, a world the boy soon proves surprisingly adept at navigating.

The story follows Lucca as he journeys from the streets of Acre, which he describes as the most sinful city in the world, to the deserts of what is now Israel. We see him move from playing pranks to witnessing one of the most pivotal battles of the Crusades. Along the way, we meet characters, from Lucca's band of friends to the lepers inhabiting the hospital run by the Order of Lazarus, and even these supporting characters have none of the cardboard cut-out feel of many adventures. They have the feel of people we might have chanced to meet if we were transported to those hectic times. Through it all, the story carries the reader along and keeps him wondering what will come next and how Lucca will survive it all.

In his postscript, Mr. Turmel speaks of being inspired by adventures he read while growing up, novels like Treasure Island and The Three Musketeers. He has taken those earlier stories to heart, and in this novel has wrought a work that stands on an equal footing with them. Acre's Bastard is technically classified as Young Adult literature, but I think most adults will find it more than engaging enough to make it a worthy read.



Book Review: A Space Between Worlds Vol. 1: Conception

A Space Between Worlds Vol. 1: Conception. J.D. Woodson. Royal James Publishing, October 18, 2016, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 275 pages.

Reviewed by Hallie Koontz.

A Space Between Worlds is a story of life and death, reincarnation and regeneration. In a world—or rather, several worlds—of fantasy and shadow, the two principle characters must delve into pasts they did not know they harbored in order to save themselves from an endless cycle of death and forgetfulness. At least, this appears to be the goal. Although the concept of J.D. Woodson’s novel is original and captivating, it is not clear what exactly is gained when this cycle is broken or how remembering their pasts will help this goal.

Unfortunately, the lack of clear goal results in a somewhat directionless plot that is bogged down even further by the scant amount of exposition. For a book that revolves around a rich fantasy setting, the numerous fictional worlds lack detail, color, and depth, as well any distinctive or meaningful characters. Even the recurring characters seem unconcerned with relationships and goals unique to the settings they find themselves in, which renders the worlds almost meaningless. Only near the end of the book does a newly created world get a singular history, backstory, and folklore. While it is certainly one of the more enjoyable parts of the novel to read, all of that exposition is delivered in one twelve-page spread and the world it describes is one the reader never gets to truly see, as the book ends before any real interaction with it happens.

The dialogue, at times, can feel like a string of soliloquys more than interplay between characters, as much of it takes up a paragraph or more of one character speaking at a time. When questions are asked, many of the characters stall for a sentence or two by insulting the other character’s intelligence and expressing disbelief that they do not already know the answer to the question that was asked, which slows the pace. There are some clever deliveries and interesting personalities hidden in the dialogue, but it can be hard to find underneath the repetition, the vagueness, and the needlessly flowery language.

Fantasy novels can be excellent vessels for beautiful, archaic language, but A Space Between Worlds often tries too hard. J.D. Woodson is an eloquent writer, but when nearly every sentence is crafted to be long and rich in vocabulary, the effect is daunting and runs the risk of confusing readers. Many descriptions would have been better served by a straightforward delivery, and the dialogue especially would have been more effective if it had not sought to mimic the prose. With the exception of one character who was given a trademark phrase “I’ll say” and a lighter to play with in between dialogue, most of the characters sound the same. Many of the problems concerning the lack of exposition and distinctiveness might have been fixed with the tweaking of language.

J.D. Woodson has an enviable imagination and was clearly born to be a storyteller. A Space Between Worlds, Vol 1: Conception is his debut novel, and while it makes many missteps, Woodson clearly has the drive and the creativity for a bright future. A Space Between Worlds is for anyone who loves the interplay between past, present, and future, and for anyone with an appreciation for philosophy.


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