Monthly Archives: December 2014

CBR’s Top 10 Posts of 2014

CBR_Logo2AS WE CLOSE 2014, we’re looking back at where we’ve been. Earlier this week, we posted CBR’s Best Books of 2014, a round-up of our favorite fiction and nonfiction titles reviewed during the past twelve months. Today we’re looking at the Top 10 Posts of 2014, a mix of reviews and features highlighting authors and publishers from Chicago, from Illinois, and from the Midwest. Chicago Book Review reviews Chicago’s books, and we love that we’re able to stick to that mission thanks to the fact that authors and publishers in Chicago and the region are publishing so many faexploring chicago blues coverbulous books. We’ve reviewed dozens of books this year—and we hope to review even more next year and in the years after that.

Chicago Book Review continues to build a community of loyal readers. We attracted readers from nearly a hundred countries this year, mostly people from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but also readers from far-away places like Australia, Brazil, Germany, and India, and even Bulgaria, Czech Republic, and Finland.

We’ve reviewed books from dozens of publishers, some local houses such as Agate Publishing, Curbside Splendor, Fifth Star Press, and Lake Claremont Press; some regional university presses such as Switchgrass Books/NIU Press, SIU Press, University of Chicago Press, University of Illinois Press, and Terrace Books, an imprint of University of Wisconsin Press; some national and international powerhouses like Atheneum/Simon & Shuster, Berkley chicagoscapes 9780252034992Books, Bloomsbury, St. Martin’s, and Viking; and some smaller indies like American Roots Press, MG Press (an imprint of Midwest Gothic), and TitleTown Publishing.

Whether fiction or nonfiction, CBR’s reviewers have been reading myriad titles from a variety of subjects and genres. We chatted with some interesting authors for Local Author Spotlights, and we’ve examined some growing segments of the publishing industry. In fact, one of the all-time most popular posts is one that focuses on children’s publishing in Chicagoland.

So take a look at these Top 10 Posts of 2014. Then poke around the site a little bit, browsing the fiction reviews, nonfiction reviews, and features we’ve posted during the year. Check out our Events page, too, which lists author readings, live lit events, and book signings at bookstores, libraries, community centers, and other great places in and around Chicago.

Orban WineriesWe want to thank all the authors and publishers who share their books with us so that we can help readers discover new titles, often titles that don’t necessarily garner reviews in other publications. We hope that readers will continue to turn to Chicago Book Review to find out about new books so they can #ReadLocal (and that they buy those books from local bookstores so that they can #ShopLocal, too). We also want to issue a big shout-out to all the reviewers who work with us, volunteering their time, energy, and insight in order to write thoughtful reviews. Chicago Book Review is truly a community of readers, writers, and publishers, all of us working together to make something magical.

So thanks to one and all for a great 2014, and all good wishes for good books and good reading during 2015.

CBR’s TOP 10 POSTS OF 2014

1. CBR’s Best Books of 2014titanic

2. Chicago Book Review’s Fall 2014 Preview

3. A ‘Titanic’ Achievement

4. A Very Good ‘Crisis’

5. A Melodious Memoir of Grit and Healing

6. A Happy Voyage

7. Chicago Publishers = Book Lovebutterfly stitching

8. CBR’s 2014 Holiday Reading Guide

9. Beauty and the ‘Butterfly’

10. A Novel Approach to Illinois Politics


Happy New Year!


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CBR’s Best Books of 2014

CBR_Logo2As 2014 comes to a close, we’ve looked back at scores of book reviews to highlight our favorites—the books we loved and those we really liked. These four-star and three-star titles represent a variety of subjects, from architecture to photography, from travel to regional interest, from history to memoir. Fiction, too, is represented—literature, poetry, short stories. These are Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of 2014.

During the past year, we’ve reviewed dozens of books, new titles from local publishers like Agate Publishing, Chicago Review Press, Lake Claremont Press, University of Chicago Press, and University of Illinois Press. We’ve also reviewed books from local writers including Kathryn Atwood, Tricia Crisafulli, Rebecca Makkai, Ian Morris, and Kathleen Rooney. Our reviewers also have tackled books set in or written about or featuring Chicago and the Midwest, titles like Good in a Crisis, Capital Culture, and Death Stalks Door County.

Chicago Book Review reviews Chicago’s books, and we’re so happy to be able to bring to our readers reviews of so many titles from local authors and local publishers. We hope we’ve been able to help you discover some new titles you might otherwise never have heard of, and that we’ve provided some critical insight that has prompted you to add at least a few interesting books to your reading wish lists.

As we continue to build the Chicago Book Review community, we remain ever so grateful to the authors, bookstores, publishers, readers, and reviewers who have helped us spread the word and grow our audience. We encourage you to continue to support the many local publishers and local booksellers who add so much to Chicago’s literary culture (check out the lists of local resources to the left of your screen). And remember to #ReadLocal and #ShopLocal when looking to buy some of CBR’s Best Books of 2014.


Four-Star Review

Above All Men by Eric Shonkweiler: “revelatory”Godwin 9781620405512

Animals in Peril by Ryan Kenealy: “a delightful experience”

Bird by Crystal Chan: “evocative and moving”

Butterfly Stitching by Shermin Naheed Kruse: “exquisitely penned”

Confessions of Frances Godwin by Robert Hellenga: “a masterful effort”

Death Stalks Door County by Patricia Skalka: “well wrought”Finch 9781250018717

The End of the Book by Porter Shreve: “a winning combination”

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: “witty, inventive, nuanced”

The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch: “achingly beautiful”


Three-Star Review9780778316558_RHC_SMP.indd

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica: “an addictive page-turner”

Inspired Every Day by Patricia Crisafulli: “thoughtful and thought-provoking”

The Man Who Built Boxes by Frank Tavares: “a meaty sampling of stories”quality snacks cover

O, Democracy! by Kathleen Rooney: “a winning tale”

Quality Snacks by Andy Mozina: “plenty of food for thought”

Ruler of Demons by Scott A. Lerner: “creepy and fast-paced”

Titanic by Cecilia Corrigan: “wild, engaging, mysterious, and bold”

Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos: “a charming, funny, lively, breezy novel”9780425261392_UndressingMr_CV.indd

Upload by Mark McClelland: “a truly memorable story”

When Bad Things Happen to Rich People by Ian Morris: “darkly comic”

A Winged Thing, and Holy by Mary Gray Kaye: “a drama-filled romance”


Four-Star Review

999: A History of Chicago in Nine Stories by Richard B. Fizdale: “beautifully designed, highly informative, and wittingly penned”GoodInACrisis_PB_Cvr_cat

AIA Guide to Chicago by American Institute of Architects: “packed with hundreds of visit-worthy architectural sites”

Bigger, Brighter, Louder by Chris Jones: “a treat for avid theatergoers … like an extra helping of ice cream”

Exploring Nature in Illinois by Michael Jeffords and Susan Post: “the authors hit their target audience exactly”

Gardening with Perennials by Noel Kingsbury: “superb photographs … a handy, portable reference guide”signs youre in chicago

Good in a Crisis by Margaret Overton: “rewarding and uplifting … perfectly balanced”

Good Old Neon by Nick Freeman: “delightfully charming”

Graveyards of Chicago by Matt Hucke and Ursula Bielski: “a broad study of the area’s burial grounds”

Illinois Wines & Wineries by Clara Orban: “an easily digestible history of Illinois’s wine-producing roots in this handy guide”image

The Most Beautiful Girl by Tamara Saviano: “achingly grim and courageously inspirational”

Poisoned by Steve Shukis: “meticulously researched,” “finely written,” “riveting”

Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea by James W. Graham: “a first-rate effort well worth the read”


Three-Star Review9780226067704

Along the Streets of Bronzeville by Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach: “a rich, artistically oriented micro-history”

Ashes Under Water by Michael McCarthy: “page-turning material”

Capital Culture by Neil Harris: “a remarkably researched piece of history … interesting and enjoyable”famous ski hills cover

Chicago River Bridges by Patrick T. McBriarty: “a lovingly told and thoroughly researched history”

Chicagoscapes by Larry Kanfer and Alaina Kanfer: “atmospheric and moody”

Exploring Chicago Blues by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates: “a quick, interesting read filled with colorful details”

Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin by Scott Jacobs: “wonderfully engaging, wickedly funny writing”

The Green City Market Cookbook by The Green City Market: “little slices of inspiration”locally brewed cover 1

Locally Brewed by Anna Blessing: “an interesting tour through some fascinating breweries”

The Negro in Illinois by Brian Dolinar (Editor): “a rare, inside glimpse of” the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project

Pedestrianism by Matthew Algeo: “comprehensive,” “amusing,” “approachable”

Sitting on Top of the World by Steven L. Richards: an “earnest, meticulous presentation”cover_wisconsinsdoorcounty1e

Terminal Town by Joseph P. Schwieterman: “a unique take on Chicago’s history”

Wisconsin’s Door County by Thomas Huhti: “reliable” and “on target”

Women Heroes of World War I by Kathryn J. Atwood: “an inspiration, particularly to younger girls”



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Politics and Poison

Chicago 1907, a Corrupt System, an Accused Killer, and the Crusade to Save Him
by Steve Shukis

A charismatic, resolute Catholic priest takes on Chicago’s corrupt, turn-of-the-twentieth century political machine in Poisoned, a meticulously researched, true-life account of the fight to save a self-professed-innocent death row inmate.

Herman Billik acknowledged having a romantic fling with Rose Vrzal, a married mother of seven from Chicago’s ethnic Bohemian Pilsen neighborhood. But he vehemently denied poisoning her—and her husband and four daughters—with arsenic.

Poisoned coverDespite evidence that someone else may have committed the murders in 1905 and 1906—and that key witnesses later lied on the stand based on illegal interrogation and coercion by investigators—Billik remained incarcerated for a decade as a politically allied ring of officials from the Cook County coroner to the state’s attorney, to the trial judge, to the Chicago chief of police all the way up to the governor of Illinois, fought both actively and through intentional inaction to keep his conviction from being overturned.

The political landscape of the day ultimately becomes the story in Poisoned. That landscape was one in which decisions were based not on justice for the wrongly accused, but on damage control, especially in election years, with any admission of witness tampering, payoffs, and other illegal tactics tantamount to political suicide. It nearly supersedes in interest the actual facts of the Billik case.

Not that the facts are boring. Soap opera-like, the 1907 trial riveted the nation, and quickly became a bona fide media circus. With the proceedings on their doorstep, Chicagoans clamored for front-row seats.

In the summer of 1907, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox were top contenders for the upcoming World Series. “But the hottest ticket in town was for Judge Barnes’ courtroom,” Shukis writes. “Men in neckties and bowler hats, and ladies in floor-length dresses, their wide-brimmed hats decorated with feathers and ribbons, filled every seat in the room, and it would stay that way for the entire trial.”

The twists that should have—but failed to—save Billik are often jaw dropping. “Clues were brought forward, but only some were investigated,” Shukis writes.

Shukis notes that the depth of corruption was evident in the fact that an assistant coroner’s physician named Henry Reinhardt found no arsenic in the body of William Niemann. Niemann, a son-in-law of the murdered Vrzal family, died mysteriously in November 1907 while he was married to Emma Vrzal Niemann, a surviving daughter who many suspected was the true murderer. Had arsenic been found in Niemann’s body, a case could have been made to release Billik and to convict Emma of all of the murders. But after a cursory examination, Reinhardt reported no trace of it.

Reinhardt’s boss, Cook County Coroner Peter Hoffman, “clearly did not want poison to be discovered,” Shukis writes. “It would have cast an enormous cloud over Billik’s conviction and suggested that he, State’s Attorney Healy, Police Chief Shippy, and Judge Barnes had condemned an innocent man.”

Reinhardt “owed his job to Coroner Hoffman and the Republican cabal that ruled local government,” Shukis continues. “There was little incentive for Reinhardt to search very hard for poison when its discovery would only create problems for him and the rest of his own political organization.”


Author Steve Shukis

Shukis does an excellent job of organizing the book, weaving in short snippets of background and context throughout, which illuminate the points he is trying to make. He explains how arsenic poisoning affects the body and how, if given in small doses over time, arsenic poisoning can look like death from natural causes. He brings in the Republican National Convention of 1908, which was held in Chicago, to illustrate the power of the city, state, and national political machine. He discusses other murder trials, including that of serial killer Johann Hoch, who was hanged in Chicago in February 1906 on the same gallows later prepared for Billik, and happenings in Chicago and nationwide that affected and motivated those involved in the Billik case. And he points to other scandals, some years later, which embroiled officials involved in the Billik case, illustrating the dubious character of those people.

Although some readers familiar with Chicago history might already know the outcome of Billik’s case when they pick up Poisoned, for those new to the story, Shukis does a great job of not giving away the ending. It flows very much like a novel, building in page-turner intensity throughout. Nowhere in any of the cover matter is the fate of Billik or Emma Vrzal Niemann revealed, and the author successfully avoids excessive foreshadowing that would have wrecked the suspense.

The author also skillfully slips in his analysis of the story through the metered use, here and there, of a key word or two. When Cook County Circuit Judge Albert Barnes, in 1907, denies Billik a motion for a new trial, Shukis writes, for instance, that he “righteously declared that no man had ever received a fairer trial.”

Poisoned could have been improved with additional pictures. The 300-page book includes only about a dozen photographs, almost all of them posed individual shots of players in the Billik drama, mug shots of Billik, and images of family members appearing at inquests and at the trial. The author does a nice job of weaving into the text background on the Pilsen neighborhood and other tidbits about the era, such as the anarchist movement, Chicago baseball, and other infamous murder trials. Photos illustrating that background would have helped bring the story to life, and would have helped break up long stretches of gray text. It would have been nice to see, for example, historical newspaper images of the massive crowds that were drawn to public demonstrations seeking Billik’s pardon.

Despite these minor quibbles, Poisoned is a finely written, riveting indictment of Chicago’s early twentieth-century political machine, a fitting remembrance of the self-professed innocent man ensnared by it and of those who dared to stand up against it.

Four-Star Review

September 2014, TitleTown Publishing
$26.95, hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN: 978-099119381-3

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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