Crime Studies: The Story Behind Lori Rader-Day’s Campus-Set Debut, “The Black Hour”

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By Brandie Rae Madrid

First-time novelist and Chicago transplant Lori Rader-Day’s “The Black Hour” is set in a prestigious university in a fictional Chicago suburb. After an inexplicable attack by a student shooter, Professor Amelia Emmet returns to work, albeit with a cane, a new anxiety about her students, and a slew of faculty who think she must have brought the crime on herself somehow. Told from two perspectives—that of Emmet and her new teaching assistant Nathaniel—the novel explores the aftermath of a violent crime that is becoming all too common on campuses today.

You’re originally from Indiana? What brought you to Chicago?
I am. The central Indiana area just northwest of Indianapolis near a town call Lebanon. Lots of people pass by it and may not stop.

We came to Chicago in 2001. I had gotten a job, and I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to come up here with me, and he responded by asking to marry him. So my fiancé and I came to Chicago together, and we got married about two years later. So, a good job, but also just trying to find adventure.

Chicago and its history end up being a big part of this novel. Can you speak a little bit about that and how that came about?
I can’t say that I’m an expert in Chicago crime history, but I think it’s really interesting to live in a town with so much rich history of all kinds. And then Chicago has such interest in its own history that I just love, but it also has an interest in its own crime history. I was thinking about what would draw Nathaniel in the book to Chicago once he’s there—because he’s interested in what happened to Dr. Emmet. But I thought he would have this sort of dark interest in crime, and of course Chicago is a good place to study crime if you’re going to do it. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Young God” by Katherine Faw Morris

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RECOMMENDED YoungGod

Regarding her brutal, minimalist masterpiece “Play It As It Lays,” Joan Didion has said that she wished “to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it.” Many have mimicked this literary wind-knocking technique, but where others have produced accidental parodies, Katherine Faw Morris delivers a brass knuckled gut-punch with her debut novel “Young God,” a piece of pure, uncut psychobilly fiction. Writing with a narcotized numbness and rawboned brevity reminiscent of early Bret Easton Ellis, Morris follows the travails of Nikki, the most hardcore thirteen-year-old you’ll ever want to meet. After her mother’s death, she barely bats an eye before breaking into—and quickly dominating—the narcotics trade in her rural southern town, which is captained by her father.

This kind of bumpkins-behaving-badly premise might sound a tad familiar. Recently, America seems to have turned to backwaters, bayous, and trailer parks for entertainment fodder, gorging itself on books, shows, and movies spanning every strata of taste, from the high (“True Detective”), to the middle (“Hunger Games,” “District 9″), to the low (“Duck Dynasty”). But this is something different. Rather than merely riding the coattails of her best predecessors (or becoming borderline exploitative like the rest), Morris ups the ante. In her world, good is not pitted against evil. There’s not even moral ambiguity. Years of isolation, addiction and deprivation have obliterated bourgeois decency, and life is nasty, brutish and short unless you fight like hell for no one but yourself. Nikki is no Katniss Everdeen. She’s a new breed of heroine who reeks of authenticity. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Old Neighborhood” by Bill Hillmann

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TheOldNeighborhoodCOVERBill Hillmann is a man who’s led many lives—a feared street brawler, an elite bull-runner in Spain, a gang affiliate, a Union construction laborer, a Chicago Gold Gloves champion, and the founder of the Windy City Story Slam. A charismatic and powerful Chicago storyteller, Hillman’s debut novel “The Old Neighborhood” has just been released by local indie press Curbside Splendor. In a promotional interview with Curbside senior editor  Jacob Knabb, Hillmann says that he “…wanted to write about violence and the effect it has on people, especially kids.”  No small task, this is what Hillmann accomplishes in “The Old Neighborhood.”

Set in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood in the 1990s, “The Old Neighborhood” follows Joey Walsh, a member of a large, multiracial family with strong and violent ties to their community. Joey grows up while racial tensions are high and the future of his neighborhood is uncertain. The Edgewater Joey and his family knows is changing and the neighborhood street gangs are willing to do whatever they think is necessary in order to gain full control of their community.

“The Old Neighborhood” flourishes when Hillmann describes Joey’s Edgewater and focuses on Joey’s daily interactions with family and friends. Like when Joey describes spending time with his Grandpa at their family’s summer house, or when Joey and his father are driving out of the city and toward the Skyway, “past Comiskey in that canyon-like valley,” or the novel’s opening scene in the beer garden at St. Greg’s Parish carnival, or those afternoons when Joey and his best friends Ryan and Angel watch over the neighborhood and shoot the shit from the windowsills at Edgewater Hospital. It’s during scenes like these that Joey’s voice is the strongest and  his world most alive. Read the rest of this entry »

Rewriting the Adolescent Narrative: Megan Milks on “Kill Marguerite”

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photo: Megan Milks

Photo: Megan Milks

By Anne Yoder

I first encountered Megan Milks’ work when we were both fledgling critics for PopMatters. Her writing stood out as intelligent, daring and quite promiscuous in its range of ideas. She went on to found the zine “Mildred Pierce” and contribute to the avant-lit blog Montevidayo. And I’m still reading her today.

Milks’ stories in her debut collection “Kill Marguerite” draw influence from cultures both high and low, from Homer and Joyce to video games and teen magazine columns. They never sit quietly, but rather unsettle convention and defy expectation. In fact, the moment you think you know what’s happening, the story opens into an unexpected black hole, thrusting you into a passage that devours and reconfigures expectations. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Bedrock Faith” by Eric Charles May

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RECOMMENDED BedrockFaith2-533x800

Eric Charles May and James Baldwin share more than skin color and writing passion. They are masters of the complicated operas that unfold in a particular place, of the complexities and frailties of mankind. “Bedrock Faith” is May’s first novel, and since approaching Baldwin is no idle feat, one only hopes he’ll write more.

Parkland is a proud, entrenched African-American community on the far South Side of Chicago, just touching Blue Island. The characters we hear from have owned their homes for generations, pillars in their close-knit community. All of it goes to hell the day Stew Pot Reeves comes back from prison. He’s no average neighborhood terror; in his younger days he decapitated a cat and lit a garage on fire. But now, he’s a Christian—a very devout Christian who has lost none of his old fondness for meddling. In short order the neighborhood, already tense, nearly explodes into uproar. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Last Days of California” by Mary Miller

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RECOMMENDED lastdaysofcalifornia

There are plenty of apocalyptic young-adult fiction books these days, but Mary Miller’s debut novel, “The Last Days of California,” has a fresh approach to an end-of-days story. Jess and her family are driving from Alabama to California for what her father believes is Armageddon. Based on the prediction of a prophet from their unspecified church, Jess’ father envisions a scenario of bodies floating up into heaven, as in the “Left Behind” series of books. Fifteen-year-old Jess wavers in her belief as they travel across the country, not quite sure if she’s about to experience the rapture, or even whether she believes in God or the teachings of her church at all.

Sitting next to Jess in the backseat is her sister, Elise, newly pregnant. Although only a few years older than Jess, the world-weary Elise is cynical beyond her years and firm in the belief that the end is nowhere in sight. Her only fragility is her inability to acknowledge her pregnancy, aside from telling her sister and then seemingly forgetting about the topic entirely. Miller’s pacing of the novel is really important, considering what is practically the closed set of the family car and a few motel rooms. While she’s unfolding Jess’ relationship with her family and her evolving ideas about religion, she’s rather brilliantly tied the awakening of a young girl to a ticking clock in the background. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Race Across the Sky” By Derek Sherman

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RECOMMENDED raceacrossthesky

You’ll be running through the chapters of Derek Sherman’s debut novel “Race Across the Sky.” An addicting read, the “Race Across the Sky” unveils the effort of two estranged brothers to save the life of an infant suffering from a terminal genetic disorder. Both find themselves risking everything they have in a poignant story about conviction, family and what it means to sacrifice one’s life out of love.

It would be a shallow conclusion to say this novel is about running. It is merely a context that is naturally beholden to the theme of sacrifice. “Race Across the Sky” aligns two radically different worlds: ultramarathoning and corporate pharmaceuticals. Ultramarathoning, an extreme sport that requires runners to race distances well over the standard 26.2 mile marathon, is the niche culture from which Shane, a new father and salesman for one of America’s most powerful biotech companies, wants to save his brainwashed brother Caleb. Ten years previously, Caleb had left his Manhattan consulting job to join Happy Trails Running Club, an ultramarathoner commune outside of Boulder, Colorado, lorded over by one of the sport’s most notorious gurus, Mack. A wiry, bearded and uncanny crackerjack of a man, Mack’s personality attracts runners from around the world to train under his draconian but grandmaster tutelage. Read the rest of this entry »

Free As A Bird: Debut Author Janice Deal on “The Decline of Pigeons”

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By Sarah Cubalchini janicedeal

Janice Deal’s debut, “The Decline of Pigeons,” is a short-story collection about broken people amidst the turmoil of loss, from a woman trying to rebuild herself after losing her arm to a man haunted by the memory of letting his daughter be bitten by a vicious dog.

Even though Deal was always interested in writing, it took enrolling in Fred Shafer’s Adult Continuing Education writing class at Northwestern University to start pursuing her fiction. When Deal received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for Prose, she took a sabbatical from her day job and went to Paris to focus on her writing. Ever since, she’s been publishing short stories in literary journals like The Sun, CutBank, StoryQuarterly, and The Carolina Quarterly. “The Decline of Pigeons” was selected as a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Read the rest of this entry »

Real Hell Holes: Debut Novelist Susan Nussbaum on Discrimination of the Disabled

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By Kelly RoarkNussbaum_author_LR1

Susan Nussbaum’s debut novel is eye-opening, devastating and laugh-out-loud funny. A group of young disabled people in a fictional Chicago institution tackle demons past and present. While Nussbaum exposes some of the very real horrors of the institutionalization of disabled persons, “Good Kings Bad Kings” is far from heavy-handed. Richly imagined diverse characters face the issue of institutionalization, and make changes in both small and dramatic ways to take control of their own futures. The winner of this year’s PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction joins us for a conversation about the types of institutions disabled persons often live in, her fantastic characters, and her reclamation of the word “crip.”

Are there a lot of institutions like the one in the book?
Yes, I don’t know the number in Illinois, but there are many thousands in the country. There may be more than a thousand in the state. There are nursing homes—they’re legion—everywhere, and then there are other facilities for people with mental disabilities, kids with various developmental disabilities. There are places where, if parents think they can’t manage or someone else can do better, there are certain pressures on families to institutionalize a disabled child. And there are certainly no financial breathers from how much it costs to have a disabled child. The government makes it very hard for a disabled person to survive in a way that is manageable, financially, because the institutions have big lobbies. Culturally, we’re also a people who feel it’s good to segregate people who make us uncomfortable. It’s a long tradition, going back way over a hundred years. Doctors really pushed to get these families to put their kids into facilities. Real hell holes. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Sunshine When She’s Gone” by Thea Goodman

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sunshineThea Goodman’s debut novel “The Sunshine When She’s Gone” is about many things. Love’s slow shift from transitory chemical high to enduring state. How giving birth can divide a woman from access to her own needs. And strangely, the importance of sleep.

When Veronica Reed refuses her husband John’s romantic overtures yet again, he wakes the next day, his discontent having reached an unconscious tipping point. Thinking to take their six-month-old daughter to breakfast, he winds up on a plane to Barbados instead. What follows is a brief yet significant marital hiatus during which both John and Veronica are reunited with their mislaid yet essential selves. For Goodman, this protracted separation provides a means of exploring the unique emotional adjustments John and Veronica have made to the medical ordeal of their daughter’s birth as well as each other in its aftermath.

An astute observer of relationships, Goodman dips into both Veronica and John’s points of view to provide a complex yet fair depiction of marriage. Also to this end, the book pulls from both past and present, offering snippets of the couple’s respective childhoods and snapshots of each’s family of origin. Yet somehow Goodman’s canniness isn’t brought as effectively to bear on the characters as individuals. John, for example, comes off as a bit of a buffoon, smoking pot, feeding his daughter diarrhea-inducing cow’s milk not once but twice, and carting her around Barbados in a stranger’s carseat-less Toyota. Read the rest of this entry »