Fiction Review: “Brilliance” by Marcus Sakey

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Like dystopia? Like thrillers, and like them smart? Marcus Sakey’s newest title “Brilliance” more than lives up to the title. It’s 2013 (but not ours), and government agent Nick Cooper is fighting an epidemic of savants. In the mid-1980s, children started being born with “gifts”— things like advanced insight into computer code, strategy, computation and, for Cooper himself, reading body language. The “brilliants” are isolated, sent to special schools and ostracized. Society tends to look at them askance. Random gifted terrorist attacks don’t help their case with the “normals” and Cooper’s job is to find the gifted terrorists before they strike—and kill them.

In the wake of the NSA scandals, “Brilliance” seems prescient. Longtime readers of Sakey will be thrilled that his high-stakes plotting hasn’t deserted him—terrible things happen early and just get worse. And he chose a fascinating subject—intelligence—to build a dystopia upon. Read the rest of this entry »

Lit 50: Who really books in Chicago 2010

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Illustration: Pamela Wishbow

A strange and unpleasant wind blows through the literary land. Our obsession with technocultural toys, whether iPhones, iPads or Kindles, makes the foundation of thought almost since thought was recorded, that is ink on paper, seem increasingly destined to be twittered into obsolescence. And it’s not just mere media frenzy, either. Massive upheaval among major publishers these last few years has left some of Chicago’s finest writers stranded in a strange land: that is, the work is finished, but no one is around to put it out. Who knows, maybe in two years when this version of Lit 50 returns, some, if not all, of our authors will be publishing mostly, if not entirely, in the digital realm. If that’s the case, let’s enjoy an old-fashioned book or two while we can. Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Preview: Literary Rock ‘n’ Roll/Metro

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You can always count on Columbia College’s Story Week to provide some against-the-grain programming—its annual “Literary Rock ‘n’ Roll” evening, traditionally held at Metro, is usually the highlight of the festival. (Though one could imagine Joyce Carol Oates, this year, would be tough to beat.) Tonight features three authors—”Love & Obstacles” and “The Lazarus Project” scribe Aleksandar Hemon, pretty much the face of Chicago lit these days; Bonnie Jo Campbell, who penned the excellent 2009 short story collection “American Salvage”; and local crime author Marcus Sakey, whose most recent novel, “The Amateurs,” is a sharp, gritty read that you could take down in one sitting. On top of the live words, The Bread and Puppet Theater perform, and Joe Shanahan and Don De Grazia spin. Did I mention it’s free? Yeah, it’s free. (Tom Lynch)

March 18 at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, (773)549-0203, 6pm. Free.

Literary Events Preview: Columbia College’s Story Week

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The 2010 edition of Columbia College’s week-long festival kicks off Sunday and through the next seven days offers an array of readings and discussions with highly acclaimed authors, local and beyond.  At Martyrs’ on Sunday night, Randy Albers, Kim Morris, Sam Weller and more read as part of “2nd Story.” On Monday, literary legend Joyce Carol Oates examines her work as part of two separate discussions at the Harold Washington Library. Later that night, Sheffield’s Beer Garden hosts the “Down and Dirty Grad Reading,” with Jeff Jacobsen, J. Adams Oaks and Alexis Pride. On Tuesday evening at the Harold Washington Library, authors Achy Obejas and Alexandar Hemon discuss “Genres from Afar,” with John Dale and host Patricia Ann McNair. Wednesday afternoon at Harold Washington Library, Joe Meno hosts “Genre Bending—The Faces of Fiction” with Mort Castle, Maggie Estep, David Morrell and Kevin Nance; later that evening at 6pm Sam Weller hosts a similar discussion at the same location. Events continue through Friday, with appearances by Marcus Sakey, Rick Kogan, Sean Chercover, Stephanie Kuehnert and more. More details can be found on Newcity’s lit events page. (Tom Lynch)

Columbia College’s Story Week runs March 14-19 at various venues. The festival’s official website can be found at

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2009: Books

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Top 5 Bookschronic_city
“Chronic City,” Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday)
“War Dances,” Sherman Alexie (Grove Press)
“Generosity: An Enhancement,” Richard Powers (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)
“Ruins,” Achy Obejas (Akashic Books)
“Inherent Vice,” Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press)
—Tom Lynch

Top 5 Local Books
“Ruins,” Achy Obejas (Akashic Books)
“Her Fearful Symmetry,” Audrey Niffenegger (Scribner)
“How to Hold a Woman,” Billy Lombardo (OV Books)
“The Way Through Doors,” Jesse Ball (Vintage)
“The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,” S.L. Wisenberg (University of Iowa Press)
—Tom Lynch Read the rest of this entry »

The Good Word: Chicago’s Open Books arrives with a mission

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By Micah McCraryOBOOTeamPicAug2009

“More than fifty percent of the people in our city have low or limited literacy skills,” says Erin Walter, Literacy Director of Open Books in Chicago. “And sixty-one percent of low-income families nationwide have no children’s books at home.” Walter sits alongside Becca Keaty, Director of Marketing and Public Relations, and Stacy Ratner, Executive Director, in the soon-to-be-opened bookstore, which will house between 40,000 and 50,000 books by its grand opening November 21-22.

The store’s multicolored walls with inspirational and clever quotes like “He that loves reading has everything within his reach” resemble a painting of easter eggs, and ubiquitous shelves of purple, orange, green, pink and blue stand in ordered chaos, all of which can hold up to 60,000 books in total. In the children’s section, which is divided off by a standalone wall built to look like the front of a house, book clouds—donated books that have been painted to look like clouds in the sky—hang from a cerulean ceiling. A faux fireplace lounge hosts a wall covered by tiles purchased, customized and donated by both volunteers and by others who support the literary venture of Open Books. Read the rest of this entry »

Chasing the American Nightmare: Author Marcus Sakey turns Chicago’s shadows into his dream life

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By Tom LynchSakey_Headshot_378

Marcus Sakey suggests we meet at the Starbucks at Clark and Belmont, just across the way from The Alley. Late afternoon on a weekday, the place is packed. Nowhere to sit, line out the door. Better idea—wanna get a beer at the L&L instead?

“Now you’re speaking my language,” he tells me, and we head over to the bar. Nobody wants to interview a crime writer in a Starbucks anyway.

Sakey grew up outside Flint, Michigan. His dad worked in the auto industry. He always loved to read and write, but didn’t study it at school. After college he landed an advertising job in Atlanta and spent years in that world, developing skills he jokingly says are “perfect for a crime novelist.” Met a girl at his office, married her.

Remember that scene in “Fight Club” when Tyler Durden turns the car into oncoming traffic and asks the passengers what they wish they would’ve done before they died? Sakey’s asking me. He says that’s what the moment was like when he decided to write books, or, at least, that’s how he would’ve answered that question. He left the advertising and marketing world, moved to Chicago and started to type. Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Preview: Story Week 2009

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One of the city’s top literary events of the year, Columbia College’s Story Week begins on Sunday, and as usual features the best of the bunch-students and faculty-of the school, plus some high-profile outsiders, at various events scattered throughout the city. This week kicks off with the “2nd Story: Storytellers” event at Martyrs’ on Sunday night, featuring readings by CP Chang, Molly Each, Deb R. Lewis and Doug Whippo. Saturday features a Q&A with “Blue Angel” author Francine Prose at the Harold Washington Library, plus a reading at Sheffield’s Beer Garden by local crime guy Marcus Sakey. The Nelson Algren Tribute, Tuesday at the Harold Washington, features appearances by Joe Meno, Billy Lombardo, Stephanie Kuehnert, Bayo Ojikutu and J. Adams Oaks. On Wednesday at the Spertus Museum, Rick Kogan discusses Studs Terkel in a tribute to the man, with Donna Seaman, Bill Young, Alex Kotlowitz, Don De Grazia, Drew Ferguson and Ann Hemenway. And that’s just the first half of the festival. (Tom Lynch)

Story Week 2009 runs March 15-20 at various venues. Visit for complete details.

Fiction review: The Good City

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If time has been on anyone’s side for the past two years, author Marcus Sakey is our best bet. After meeting outstanding reviews from literary crime fiction’s largest critics with 2007’s “The Blade Itself,” Sakey has yet again sent his critics on parade with his latest contribution to the genre. Recounting a young married couple’s ascent into an obscene amount of money that places them at a stand-off between time, each other and, not to mention, some of Chicago’s most astute criminals, Sakey’s “Good People” boasts a surreal brush with financial fate gone entirely wrong and relinquishes a series of close encounters with the law and, better yet, his protagonists’ own demise. But Sakey has set a pace for the work, which generates a magnetically horrifying effect on this fiction from all standpoints—ours included. Just as Tom and Anna Reed are dragged from their monotonous existence by a lump sum of cash, they are immediately tailed by one that is both more turbulent and more persistent and are left with only each other and their hopes of reestablishing normalcy. Before long, our familiar “Sweet Home Chicago,” despite genuine description, exchanges its trademark quaintness for modulated indifference to the characters’ predicament, and Sakey accomplishes this well. Chicago’s trademark flair becomes daunting: Navy Pier’s Ferris wheel—the city’s second hand; Lake Shore Drive—a continuous funeral procession for the passing of the future into the past. Merely midway through the novel, the desire to reach the story’s conclusion makes page-turning a slightly terrifying endeavor. (Elise Biggers)

“Good People,” Marcus Sakey, Dutton, 323 pages, $24.95

411: The Book Itself

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The New York Times, Esquire and Ben Affleck have all agreed: local author Marcus Sakey’s tale of two South Side criminals caught in a circumstantial crossfire in his first book, “The Blade Itself,” is an instant classic. Read the rest of this entry »