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Review: The Living Wills

The Living Wills by Brendan Sullivan and Rick Kaempfer, available in soft cover from Eckhartz Press or in e-book for Kindle, Nook or Sony Reader.

Review by Megan Renehan

In The Living Wills, Sullivan and Kaempfer tell a story of interconnected lives and the consequences of split-second decisions.  The novel follows five main characters: a parking garage attendant, a barista, a toilet salesman, a lawyer, and a corporate executive, ultimately connecting their lives in deep and unexpected ways.  The story is structured in short chapters alternating between the main characters' points of view.  Rich with emotion and local detail, The Living Wills is a story that stayed with me long after I had closed the book. 

In the preface, the authors note the novel's structure is influenced by the Harold, an improvisational theater form created by Del Close.  While the novel does not exactly follow the form, the interwoven stories lend themselves to the influence of improv.  Sullivan and Kaempfer set themselves up for a challenge by telling the stories of five main characters each through a different point of view, but each of the story lines is unique, all the characters are clearly drawn, and there is no confusion for the reader.  Short chapters  advance the plot quickly and keep the reader engaged. 

What struck me most about this novel was its sweetness.

What struck me most about this novel was its sweetness.  Sullivan and Kaempfer navigate issues of love, loss, and family dynamics with a care that is crucial to the success of the novel.  The straightforward, unadorned prose does no work to convey the depth of emotion in the novel; that job is reserved solely for the characters, and they carry the load well.  Though each of the characters trend slightly towards the stereotypical, the reader is able to accept them as individuals thanks to Sullivan and Kaempfer's well-placed personal details.  Delmar, the toilet salesman, is a salesman to his core, and his application of sales principles to his romantic relationship is at once comic and endearing.  Similarly, the scenes in the parking garage with the executive and the attendant are injected with emotion when we learn that “Reed went through the usual charade of offering a smoke to Henry, who always pretended to consider it before declining.”  These details elevate the novel from cliché to something much deeper and more satisfying for the reader. 

As difficult as it is to wrap up intricately woven narratives, Sullivan and Kaempfer succeed there, as well.  However, for me, the final section, “Justice,” seemed more like an afterthought and negated the balanced ending that the authors had achieved for the primary characters.  “Justice” was the giant bow on an already beautifully decorated package – it wasn't needed and detracted slightly. 

The rich details about Chicago only add to the novel's appeal, and I find myself thinking of Henry, Reed, and Delmar when I pass Waveland Bowl or a parking area on lower Wacker Drive.

On the whole, The Living Wills was a pleasure to read for Sullivan and Kaempfer's deft characterization and effective structural choices.  The rich details about Chicago only add to the novel's appeal, and I find myself thinking of Henry, Reed, and Delmar when I pass Waveland Bowl or a parking area on lower Wacker Drive.


Review: Have You Seen Me?

Have You Seen Me? Katherine Scott Nelson; published by Chicago Center for Literature and Photography; 2011; Price: $20.00 (cotton sheets), $15.00 (recycled sheets), pay what you want (electronic).

Review by Kent McDaniel

Have You Seen Me? Tells the story of Chris, a gay teenage boy growing up in Springhill, Nebraska, a small town gone to seed. At summer’s start, the police come to question him about the disappearance of his best friend, Vyv, a Goth girl and a cutter who’s run away from home. 

He tells the cops he knows nothing about it, and he hopes they believe him. He has enough problems already: A gay teen in the rural Midwest, Chris also has unemployed parents, whose  unemployment checks are about to stop. His mother is managing to cope, but his father is clinically depressed and when not lying in bed, makes one birdhouse after another in the backyard. Chris’s grandfather, a WWII fighter pilot and Chris’s childhood hero, has developed dementia. Secretly Chris is exchanging emails with Vyv, using a computer at the town library. 

Chris lucks into a summer job with Albert, a stranger in Springhill, with whom Vyv had been intrigued. A loner, Albert has inherited a small farm. Working there not only gives Chris cash, it lets him discover that Albert is a back to nature anarchist and junk collector, who’s writing a book about his philosophy. Dolls heads and a gorilla mask are impaled on the fence posts around Albert’s place. Pit traps and snares lie all around the farm to ward off intruders. Albert hunts game with a homemade bow and arrow, dreams of bombing dams, and grows pot in the woods. 

If all of this sounds good, it is. But the novella Nelson weaves around it falls short of its potential.

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Review: Dartboard

Dartboard by J.D. Gordon (The Little Things Publishing, 2011) is available at Amazon.com and bn.com

Review by Randy Richardson

During the long, cold winter months, when the icy winds whip at my face, burning my dry, Midwest-pale skin, when I’ve trudged home through knee-high snowdrifts, I want nothing more than to plop down on the sofa recliner with a cup of hot cocoa, a wool blanket and a book. Not just any book, though. I crave a book that lifts me out of the winter doldrums and drops me in a place that might inspire a Jimmy Buffett song.  

Thankfully, J.D. Gordon has come to my rescue once again. Gordon, who penned the Eddie Gilbert tropical adventure series featuring Island Bound and Caribbean Calling, is back with a new protagonist but the same winning formula.

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Review: Fabulous in Flats

Fabulous in Flats, by Mary T. Wagner, iUniverse, is availabe at Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.

Review by Serena Wadhwa 

As a therapist, I spend many hours listening to the stories of others. I'm passionate about the stories we tell, as it gives me information about how one of my clients make sense of their life and what clinical struggles to work with.  

When the request came to review Fabulous in Flats by Mary T. Wagner, I was delighted. An opportunity to walk with someone in their story without analyzing it.  Another passion. I was eager to read this collection of personal essays, Wagner's third, following on the heels of Heck on Heels and Running with Stilettos

With keen observation, wit and a space to be vulnerable, Mary relates ordinary experience that provide information about her strength, courage and human experience. 

Wagner captures ordinary events and creates the experience of what it's like to walk in her shoes, flats mostly, in this collection. With keen observation, wit and a space to be vulnerable, Mary relates ordinary experience that provide information about her strength, courage and human experience. She explores the diverse experiences of divorce, raising children, trying new things and rediscovering yourself at any age....with various kinds of shoes. 


Review: Ghosts in the Yew

Ghosts in the Yew by Blake Hausladen, Rook Creek Books, is available at Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.

Reviewed by Ophelia Julien

Do not make the mistake that I did by starting to read Blake Hausladen’s Ghosts in the Yew without enough time to finish the book in one large satisfying bite, or at least in consistent tasty nibbles on a daily basis. Though the set-up takes a little time, and rightfully so since this is a complex tale told from the points of view of four main characters, once the story begins to unreel there is no option of putting the book down.

The story is set in the unhappy and decaying kingdom of Zoviya.  The ruling family has been in power for two generations and their government cares little for the kingdom’s citizenry beyond the labor and taxes that can be squeezed from them. Nearly equally powerful is the Church of the god Bayen, whose priests have the power to heal with a warm blue light but who are also rigid, autocratic, and unforgiving.

Prince Barok, one of the Lord Vall’s

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