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 »
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 »
By Sarah Cubalchini
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 »
By Kelly Roark
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 »
Thea 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 »
By Alli Carlisle
Chicago author Jerry Brennan recently published his book “Resistance,” an epic WWII novel about the Czech assassination plot against the little known but pivotal Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. Brennan studied history at West Point and journalism at Columbia, and now works in telecommunications here in Chicago. He writes short stories and poetry as well as novels, occasionally under a pseudonym, working on projects and contributing to a literary review he co-edits with a friend when he’s not working his day job.
Like many other authors, Brennan found the traditional publishing industry somewhat less than receptive, so he took a practical approach: he started his own publishing company and put out the book himself. With $6,840 he raised on Kickstarter.com, Brennan financed the creation of Tortoise Books and the publishing of “Resistance,” which launched at the Printers Row Lit Fest last June. The Kickstarter video features Brennan and his pregnant fiancée engaged in a staged argument over how they’ll have enough money to finance the wedding and the baby—they take turns looking straight into the camera in ghostly deadpan, affirming that they would never use their pregnancy to wrangle sympathy donations. Read the rest of this entry »
I’m likely not Kathryn Born’s intended reader. The drug novel genre leaves me cold, I’m picky when it comes to dystopian worlds, and it takes a special kind of YA book to ignite my passion. Still, even I can see that “The Blue Kind” has its moments.
A richly imagined and socially provocative debut, “The Blue Kind” centers around unreliable narrator Alison. An ungrateful immortal, she has spent eons doing drugs to dull the pain of living forever, a puzzling conceit. After an undefined period spent “Over,” Alison returns to find that conditions in Neom, a metropolis in which the laws of physics have been failing, have grown more dire. While her partner in immortality, Cory, has moved up in the drug trade’s complex hierarchy, as a woman Alison’s only hope of survival is to be “chained” to her man. Read the rest of this entry »
“A Working Theory of Love” opens with a supposedly self-sufficient old man carried from his apartment by paramedics. Flailing at walls and banisters in attempts to stop his descent, “I’m sorry, Neill,” he tells the narrator, a newly divorced bachelor who lives below.
Self-sufficiency, Neill fears then, is just a positive spin on surviving alone. Neill knows something about loneliness, perhaps more than your average San Francisco transplant. Hired by Amiante Systems to help train a sophisticated computer program to pass as human, Neill’s job is colored by his father’s suicide. The computer, dubbed Dr. Bassett after Neill’s father, uses twenty years of Neill Bassett Senior’s diaries as personality fodder. Neill’s boss (arguably the only self-sufficient single in the book) is determined that the computer pass the Turing Test, a sort of Gold Standard for denoting artificial intelligence, so Neill spends his days engaging in simple Q and As with the facsimile of a father whose mechanical essence evokes the same incomprehensibility Dr. Bassett evinced in life. Read the rest of this entry »
By Naomi Huffman
Sergio De La Pava’s “A Naked Singularity” is an ambitious and colossal work in scope, theme, philosophy and even physical presence. “What is that?” I was asked (absurdly, all the time, as if the two covers and 678 pages in between weren’t a dead giveaway) as I carried the book with me on the El during my morning commute to work, while on a bus trip back home, to various cafes and while grocery shopping. The book does, indeed, beg for attention—the cover is a black-and-white optical illusion that makes the eyes swim, and bears the author’s name in magenta font.
After reassuring the inquirer that I was only carrying a book, the next question, notably more difficult to answer, would be, “What’s it about?” Read the rest of this entry »
I’m a sucker for books about prep schools, maybe because I never went to one, or perhaps because due to a teenage obsession with “The Catcher in the Rye.” Salinger’s magnum opus is, of course, the novel by which all emotionally volatile teenagers (by which I mean all teenagers) are compared. I’m particularly fond of of Marisha Pessl’s excellent “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” from 2007, in which newcomer Blue van Meer integrates with the precocious Bluebloods. Older books like Robert Cormier’s 1974 “The Chocolate War” and John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace” from 1959 make strong impressions on teenage readers, even if they’re slightly outdated today. Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2005 “Prep” may be dreary, but it exemplifies the standard plot device of the prep school novel: Outsider joins elite institution, attempts integration, exposes inherent inequalities/dangerous secret societies/cholate-based economies therein, risks becoming an outsider again, retains integrity. Read the rest of this entry »