Fiction Review: “The Fugue” by Gint Aras

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Lovers of Chicago-area literature have a new book to add to their nightstands: Gint Aras’ novel, “The Fugue,” which has been called “an homage to the urban grit of Nelson Algren and the family sagas of Leo Tolstoy.” Aras sets his novel in Cicero, Illinois, spanning the era of World War II to 2001. He focuses on several displaced refugees and their children and keeps the reader eagerly turning pages.

Aras riffs on the fugue motif in multiple ways. The novel itself unfolds like a fugue. It opens with young Orest in hiding with his mother, grandfather and baby brother in 1940 war torn Western Ukraine. It develops with interwoven stories and voices of characters related in some way to Orest, and the novel closes with a recapitulation, a return to Orest’s story in Western Ukraine. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Sex and Death” by Ben Tanzer

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Though Ben Tanzer’s new collection of short stories is mostly set in domestic spaces and everyday places like homes, airplanes, baseball fields, school events and Facebook, in noir fashion, “Sex and Death” is rife with femme fatales, con games, affairs, jealous spouses, pasts which characters can never entirely leave behind, and even some riddles, wrapped in mysteries, inside enigmas.

Most of Tanzer’s characters claim to be just “fine,” but they are simultaneously imprisoned by binds that tie, harried with work, and hellbent on not becoming their parents, “waiting for an opening, a weakness, something you can grab hold of, and then twist, pull, prod and arrange into something different and useful.” These openings are often made way by ennui, curiosity and unresolved pasts. A married man suddenly finds himself in unfamiliar sheets with “the moist smell of sex still lingering in the air” after seemingly-innocuous-though-ultimately-flirtatious exchanges with a married woman from his kid’s school. A widow considers reaching out to her late husband’s mistress, “the only other person in the world who might be able to mirror [her] feelings of love and loss.” A man flashes back to boyhood and tries to put certain recurring memories together to make sense of his parents’ failed relationship. A married woman, unsure if she wants to stay with “the husband who sometimes feels like a sibling or friend,” reconnects with an old flame on Facebook for a little excitement, until things get strange. Read the rest of this entry »

Superconducting Super Colliders and the Simplicity of Overlooked Love: Chrissy Kolaya Discusses her Debut Novel, “Charmed Particles

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Chrissy Kolaya (photo Nina Francine)

Chrissy Kolaya/Photo: Nina Francine

By Natalie Black

Poet and writer Chrissy Kolaya’s debut novel, “Charmed Particles,” combines the political and the personal, using the conflict around possible expansion of a Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Nicolet, Illinois to examine the lives of people living around the proposed expansion area. Two families, the Mitals and the Winchesters, bring this conflict to life. Abhijat and Sarala Mital are Indian immigrants, he a theoretical physicist bent on winning a Nobel prize, she a traditional housewife; together, they have a gifted daughter, Meena. The other family is the Winchesters: Randolph and Rose who also have a daughter, Lily, who is just as brilliant as Meena. Randolph, like Abhijat, puts his career before his family, and lives for glory as a world explorer as much as for the joys of traveling. “Charmed Particles” examines human nature through community conflict but, more importantly, it is a study of self-realization. Read the rest of this entry »

The Poetics of Mona: Parsing Jen Beagin’s Excellent Debut Novel, “Pretend I’m Dead”

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By Christine Sneed

Jen Beagin’s novel “Pretend I’m Dead” is an enviably accomplished debut. It’s full of brilliant language and many instances of laugh-out-loud, frequently self-mocking humor. The novel’s four sections all focus on Mona, a young woman whose adventures take her to places such as Lowell, Massachusetts and a small New Mexico town near Taos. Wherever she goes, she always manages to meet a number of characters as memorable as she herself. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Home by Nightfall: A Charles Lenox Mystery” by Charles Finch

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Home by NightfallAuthor Charles Finch’s latest mystery, “Home by Nightfall,” features Finch’s British, upper-class detective Charles Lenox pursuing clues to two crimes, one in London and one in the country town of Markethouse where he and his brother, Sir Edmund Lenox, grew up.

The first puzzle is where did a brilliant German pianist named Muller disappear to after a concert he gave? He seems to have vanished into thin air, since no one saw him leave the concert hall, and there have been no sightings of him in London. In addition to this disappearance, a countryside mystery forms in the town of Markethouse when minor transgressions like small thefts and the inexplicable drawing of a young girl on a newcomer’s steps culminate in a knife attack on Markethouse’s mayor. Read the rest of this entry »

Defiant Women: Karen Abbott’s “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War”

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Karen Abbott/Photo: Nick Barose

From the author who gave us “Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul,” which centered around Chicago’s famed brothel, the Everleigh Club, Karen Abbott now gives us “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.” In her new book, Abbott once again proves herself a masterful storyteller able to entertain and inform with such intelligence and ease that the two become indistinguishable.

“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” follows four women through the course of the Civil War. Rose O’Neal Greenhow is a Confederate woman living in Washington D.C. who gets close to Northern politicians in order to gather information she can then pass back to the Confederates. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Van Lew was on the side of the Union but living in Richmond where she helped spy on the Confederacy. Belle Boyd is a young confederate who we first meet when she shoots a union soldier in her home at the age of seventeen. Emma Edmonds is another young woman who disguises herself as Federal soldier Frank Thompson as a means to help out in the war and escape an unfortunate home life. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Good Neighbor” by Amy Sue Nathan

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the good neighbor“The Good Neighbor,” the second book by “The Glass Wives” author Amy Sue Nathan, is largely about a lie and its repercussions. Recently divorced high-school counselor and single mother Izzy Lane one day invents a fake boyfriend named “Mac” to write about on her blog and save face in front of her ex-husband. Her best friend Jade, who owns a small but growing blogging platform, decides to pick up Izzy’s blog so she can tell steamy stories about her new, supposedly successful relationship and give dating advice to singles over forty. Izzy’s lies continue to snowball, and the only people who know the truth are her gay brother Ethan and her elderly neighbor Mrs. Feldman, both of whom demand she come clean. Izzy proceeds to drag her feet. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Beat: Renée Rosen Crafts a 1950s Chicago Journalism Tale with “White Collar Girl”

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Renee Rosen, author, Dollface

Renee Rosen/Photo: Charles Osgood

By Liz Baudler

Renée Rosen made a national name for herself by spinning tales of Chicago, from gangsters to the Gilded Age. Her latest book, “White Collar Girl,” finds Tribune reporter Jordan Walsh in a 1950s newsroom, railing against her “sob sister” billing and making a bid to become an ace female investigative reporter. Rosen spoke with Newcity about what she learned while writing “White Collar Girl,” and why she’ll always write about Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Grant Park” by Leonard Pitts, Jr.

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“Grant Park,” the third novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. centers around Malcolm Toussaint, a black newspaper columnist who has consciously decided to torpedo his career by sneaking a vehement screed into the newspaper on the day of the 2008 presidential election, announcing his exasperation with white America. Read the rest of this entry »

Necessarily a Mother-Daughter Conflict: Bonnie Jo Campbell Discusses “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters”

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Bonnie Jo Campbell BW Headshot

Bonnie Jo Campbell/Photo: John Campbell

By Brendan Buck

Bonnie Jo Campbell, a Michigander by birth, is a short story writer and novelist known for her grit and talent, not all of it in the field of writing; she’s also a mathematician. Her last story collection, the National Book Award nominated “American Salvage,” showcased the scrappy, hard-fought lives of those in the rural Midwest. And her much anticipated new collection of short stories, “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” likewise features tough Midwesterners, but this time she focuses her gaze on a selection of determined but frequently compromised women navigating a sexualized world filled with men who seek to exploit, abuse and abandon them. Read the rest of this entry »