Monthly Archives: November 2014

CBR’s 2014 Holiday Reading Guide

CBR_Logo22014 marks Chicago Book Review’s first full year of reviewing books by local authors, books from local publishers, and books about local subjects. During this past year, we’ve reviewed dozens of fiction and nonfiction titles, some of which we loved, some … well, not so much. But that’s okay—just because our reviewers might not have liked something doesn’t mean you won’t.

With that, we invite you to peruse our 2014 Holiday Reading Guide, a list of more than four dozen titles that might make perfect gifts for someone you care about—or additions to your own wish list. Click on the Fiction and Nonfiction links to find reviews for each of these books.

Too, visit our Fall 2014 Preview, which includes dozens of additional titles (a number of which we have not reviewed) that might be of interest.

While you’re clicking away, take a look at the list on the left of the screen here. There you’ll find links to dozens of Chicagoland bookstores. We encourage you to explore these fabulous indies and shop local.

Shop local. Read local. Support your local authors and publishers and discover what wonderful books they’re writing and publishing for you.

Happy Holidays!


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Bird by Crystal Chan
Butterfly Stitching by Shermin Nahid Kruse
The Confessions of Frances Godwin by Robert Hellenga
The End of the Book by Porter Shreve
The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai
The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch
O, Democracy! by Kathleen Rooney
Ruler of Demons by Scott A. Lerner
Shadows the Sizes of Cities by Gregory W. Beaubien
This Is Where It Gets Interesting by John H. Matthews
Upload by Mark McClellanddoor county cover
Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos
When Bad Things Happen to Rich People by Ian Morris
A Winged Thing, and Holy by Mary Gray Kaye

Death Stalks Door County by Patricia Skalka
The Green Line by E. C. Diskin

Stories & Essays
Animals in Peril by Ryan Kenealy
Inspired Every Day by Patricia Crisafulli
The Man Who Built Boxes by Frank Tavares
Quality Snacks by Andy Mozina



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Arts & Culture
Bigger, Brighter, Louder by Chris Jones
Capital Culture by Neil Harris

Influencing Hemingway by Nancy W. Sindelar
Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea by James W. Grahamimage

Attitude—The Cornerstone of Leadership by Pat Sullivan

The Green City Market Cookbook by The Green City Market

Gardening with Perennials by Noel Kingsbury

The Negro In Illinois edited by Brian Dolinar
Pedestrianism by Matthew Algeo
Sitting on Top of the World by Steven L. Richards
Women Heroes of World War I by Kathryn J. Atwoodfamous ski hills cover

Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin (And Other Delusions of Grandeur) by Scott Jacobs

Local/Regional Interest
999: A History of Chicago in Ten Stories by Richard B. Fizdale
AIA Guide to Chicago by American Institute of Architects;
Along the Streets of Bronzeville by Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach
Chicago River Bridges by Patrick T. McBriarty
Chicagoscapes by Larry Kanfer and Alaina Kanfer
Exploring Chicago Blues by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
Exploring Nature in Illinois by Michael Jeffords and Susan Post
Graveyards of Chicago by Matt Hucke and Ursula Bielski
Illinois Wines & Wineries by Clara Orban
Locally Brewed by Anna Blessing

Good in a Crisis by Margaret Overton
Grand Crossing by Jack McGuire
The Most Beautiful Girl by Tamara Saviano
Song of the Fool by Hunter Sharpless
Worth Fighting For by Rory Fanning

Wisconsin’s Door County by Thomas Huhti


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A Summer for Satire

CBR_Logo2When Bad Things Happen to Rich People
A Novel
by Ian Morris

Nix Walters is a struggling writer with a failed novel under his belt and a non-tenured teaching job that has just about zero potential for professional advancement. He lives in a hovel of an apartment in Wicker Park, steps away from drug deals and drive-by shootings. He survives paycheck to paycheck with his wife Flora, who seems to be just about the only bright spot in his life.

So sets the stage for Ian Morris’s debut novel When Bad Things Happen to Rich People, a darkly comic satire that jabs at everything from Chicago and its leafy, lofty suburbs to business and capitalism to the fields of academia and publishing.bad things cover

Morris, who is the founding editor of local publishing house Fifth Star Press and is a lecturer in creative writing and publishing at Columbia College, has set his novel in 1995 during the stifling heat wave that oppressed Chicago for a week—and a deadly week at that: More than 700 people died during the heat wave.

Death does not come knocking in When Bad Things Happen to Rich People, but the book is full of plenty of other strife, which at first appears dressed up as opportunity. Toward the end of spring semester at the fictional downtown Carnelius College, Nix is approached with an offer to ghostwrite the memoir of a local publishing magnate, an older woman looking back at the trajectory of her life, perhaps through rose-tinted glasses. The offer comes with a generous fee—so generous, in fact, that it allows Nix and Flora to leave their dingy apartment for a charming bungalow, which is especially good news as the move comes just when the couple learn they are about to become first-time parents.

The writer’s fee, the house, the pregnancy—all of that should mean good news for Nix and Flora, but it does not. Nix soon finds himself dealing with a somewhat inscrutable subject in his ghostwriting project, cagey quasi colleagues and enigmatic office politics, the fear of impending fatherhood, and a marriage that seems to be sliding off the rails in slow motion.

Ian Morris

Author Ian Morris

There is much going on in these pages, and Morris has admirably balanced all the people and events that color When Bad Things Happen to Rich People. Nix is a particularly interesting character, whom Morris has drawn with subtle lines and shading. Dispirited by the failure of his novel, Nix seems to have permanently abandoned any notion of literary ambition, although it becomes clear that he does, indeed, wish to rise above the station of his parents, penny-pinching anti-capitalists who seem to have thrived on frugality. This desire to get ahead is one that Nix seems torn about, wanting it but feeling guilty about wanting it.

A likeable anti-hero, Nix is a complex character whose motivations aren’t always clear. Aside from the generous writer’s fee, what drives Nix to take on an assignment that he is obviously reluctant about? His hopes for the manuscript—and ultimate book—go unspoken, and the reader is left to guess. Other key characters suffer from similarly unclear motivations, notably Zira Fontaine, the woman whose memoir he’s ghostwriting. Why, for instance, a publishing magnate would select a failed novelist as her writer remains an unsolved mystery. Similarly, whether the story needs to take place during that brutal heat wave in 1995 is questionable. One might here question the author’s motive, particularly as the weather doesn’t seem much of an issue at all until the last half of the book when the heat wave and the unstable elements of Nix’s life come together.

Subtlety, complexity, clarity—these may be issues for some readers, but Morris balances them with spot-on dialogue, evocative places, and witty satire. At times laugh-out-loud funny, When Bad Things Happen to Rich People is also naggingly sad. A certain melancholy lurks in these pages as we watch Nix navigate his career, his relationships, and his aspirations, none of which is easy or simple. Just as in real life, there are no facile solutions to be found in these pages, no neat and tidy happenstances that combine for an ultimately happy ending. No, there is a smudgy messiness here, and it feels authentic.

When Bad Things Happen to Rich People is an interesting rumination on aspirations and motives. Satirical and funny, it is neither neat nor simple. For those who like to take a little bitter with the sweet, Morris’s debut novel is a good thing.

Three-Star Review

October 2014, Switchgrass Books/NIU Press
$16.95, paperback, 212 pages
ISBN: 978-0-87580-709-6

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Read more about the book.


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One for the Road

CBR_Logo2Song of the Fool:
On the Road with Stephen Kellogg
and the Sixers
by Hunter Sharpless

As a nineteen-year-old college student, Hunter Sharpless emails the manager of a little-known band and pitches to her a proposal: He would spend a few months on the road with them during one of their cross-country tours and write a book about them and his experience. Sharpless is surprised when he not only gets a response at all, but that the response is, in general, encouraging. He is even more surprised when, ultimately, he is invited to join the band on the road.

So begins Sharpless’s musical and literary odyssey, which he recounts in Song of the Fool, part tribute, part music biography, part travelogue, part diary, part memoir.

sotf-front-coverThis thin volume is arranged in five parts, each part focusing on one of the four band members of Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers as well as on its manager. The book begins with Stephen Kellogg (aka “Skunk”), the leader and frontman of the band, whose roots are on the East Coast. Kellogg features prominently throughout the book, even those parts ostensibly dedicated to his bandmates. Perhaps this is because he is the frontman, perhaps because he might have a larger personality than the others, perhaps because the author might feel closest to him.

In focusing the book on each member of the band and its manager, Song of the Fool unfolds as glimpses into relationships with these individuals, four guys and one woman of varying ages from varying places, but all of whom are dedicated to the band and its music. Sharpless is, in more ways than one, the odd ball out. Not only is he only vaguely familiar with the Sixers when he pitches his road-trip idea, but he is not much of a musician to speak of, has never been on the road, and is far younger than the youngest band member.

And, yet, he somehow fits in. The members of the band become something like older brothers, guys in whom Sharpless sometimes confides, who sometimes confide in him. During their months on the road, they share stories about women, wine, and song. They share hotel rooms. They share cramped quarters in a dingy van nicknamed “The Bear.” It seems only natural that a certain intimacy would develop; indeed, it would have been odd if something like friendship hadn’t developed during the months-long, cross-country road trip.

Sharpless, who lives in Naperville, captures those relationships, noting how they evolve over the weeks and months they all share on the road. He tells, for instance, of his affection for “Goose,” of his fear of “Boots,” and of his admiration of Skunk. We feel Sharpless’s self-conscious awkwardness as he struggles to find his place among the band members, a temporary interloper who is not quite reporter, not quite groupie. We feel his youthful naïveté as he muddles his way through pick-up lines, watching as Boots ends up with the women he eyes while Goose urges him on. We feel his frustration when, after long drives and sleepless nights, he bickers with band manager Jessica about taking inventory of merchandise the band sells during its gigs.

Song of the Fool also serves as something of a backstage pass, revealing the band when it’s not performing, chronicling the hours spent in that cramped van, nights in mid-priced hotels, and poorly attended performances held in small music venues. We see the band loading and unloading and loading equipment again and again. We see them driving hours on end from one gig to the next, stopping at brightly lit gas stations in the middle of the night, tanking up on gas and filling up on Pop-Tars. We see them goofing around, witness to the brotherly banter of friends and musicians who have known each other for a long time.


Author Hunter Sharpless

What we don’t necessarily see, however, is much of a revelation or turning point that marks Sharpless’s journey as a young man or as a writer. We don’t necessarily see Sharpless evolve from awkward, unsure nineteen-year-old to a more confident, mature version of himself. We don’t necessarily see what drives Sharpless to take this strange trip or what he ultimately got out of it.

Although an interesting travelogue of a band on the road, Song of the Fool could have gone much deeper, reporting not just on the Sixers and their behind-the-scenes antics but examining more closely what this strange trip meant for and did to Sharpless. That’s not to say that this debut work is without merit. There is some honest, raw feeling here. There are some well-written scenes that expertly capture place and time and mood. But in the end, some readers might still wonder what Sharpless’s intentions were with this book. Was it to see what it would be like to travel across the country in a cramped van with a bunch of strangers? Was it to explore America in an unusual way? Or, was it just to write a book? Any book? To write a book so that Sharpless could, indeed, call himself an author rather than just an aspiring wrier?

Song of the Fool leaves the reader wondering what Sharpless hoped to get out of this adventure, but that doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth the read. Although this is no Almost Famous, fans of Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers will appreciate the backstage pass into the often lonely, sometimes silly off-stage world that colors the lives of so many musicians. Readers who are curious about what writers go through when aching to become published also will find some unique insight in these pages. Whether this Song is music to everyone’s ears, though, is, perhaps, another matter.

Two-Star Review

September 2014, Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers
$19, paperback, 147 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4982-0072-1

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the author and his work.

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