Monthly Archives: January 2015

Fantasy? Or Formula?

CBR_Logo2Chicago, The Windigo City
A Novel
by Mark Everett Stone

Mark Everett Stone delivers an action-packed espionage thriller, or so the cover of Chicago, The Windigo City claims. While the fourth installment in the “Files of the BSI Series” does in fact speed right along, the novel falls short of a thriller rating and even shorter of originality.

Everett’s star character, Agent Kal Hakala, narrates a small portion of Everett’s story, handing the storytelling over many times to friends, colleagues, and a faerie who’s come to warn the Bureau of Supernatural Investigations of humanity’s impending doom via otherworldly cannibals. These Windigo creatures (after whom the book is named) don’t make an actual appearance until very late in the novel. The narration falters quickly as chicago windigoit jumps through centuries of time, back again and forward again with a few pages in between, and a new narrator at every turn.

First, the agents fight werewolves, then bad faeries and many unnamed alien-like creatures. Alien-like because their origins are rarely discussed in detail. They explode into the scene, fangs dripping, sores seeping, and hunger raging. They are the epitome of fear and strength, surely the most formidable foe ever to threaten mankind. Just as quickly, they exit without much more than a swing of a hunting knife by the hero. The novel forgets them until the hero needs an ego stroke, recounting their acts of Herculean strength to newbies in the agency, or just to themselves when bored and reminiscing. But the novel treks on and, with the token apocalyptic doom approaching, best friends Kal and Canton fight alongside witches to save the fate of humanity.

If a reader should decide to pick up this novel in hopes of learning more about Chicago, those hopes would be in vain as less than half of the setting involves the “Windigo City.” This novel skips over the architecture, the diverse neighborhood life, the food, and even the sandy beaches of the real Windy City. In brief scenes that enter Washington Heights, Chicago seems a stinky afterthought—a city whose smells can’t be forgotten, apparently because the stench of the city is the only sensory description given, unless clustered traffic is considered.

Chicago is not alone in receiving only a surface description, however. Setting itself stays nearly non-existent throughout the novel; even in an exotic place such as Egypt, Everett reduces that interesting and varied landscape to a description of hot and dry. These missed opportunities to fully engage the reader plague the novel and keep the story skimming the surface of actual emotion, in the end arriving at less than a sitcom level of entertainment.

Hope does exists inside the pages of Everett’s latest work, and it’s clear he has some talent: his standalone novel, The Judas Line, (2012) earned a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and was a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in the Fantasy Category. He has won something of a loyal following for his series as well. His characters can be funny, and his pacing is usually spot on. Also in his favor: The novel doesn’t take itself seriously (so the reader should strive not to, either). If approaching this novel with mind shut off and eyes wide open—maybe with a little drool escaping down the chin and a club in hand—the reader might enjoy the ride as one would America’s Funniest Home Videos, the crotch-hitting clips in particular.

Zero-Star Review

January 2014, Camel Press
Urban Fantasy
$14.95, paperback, 288 pages
ISBN: 9781603819299

—Reviewed by Mindy Jones

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A Life of Apathy and Oomph

CBR_Logo2Gideon’s Confession
A Novel
by Joseph G. Peterson

Gideon’s Confession tells the story of a recent college graduate without a plan or any particular hope for the future. It is the late 1980s, and Gideon is wasting his time in Chicago bars and at the racetrack. His “confession” relates many questionable activities, including having sex in a church and sleeping with his brand-new girlfriend’s friend. But he is not boastful; nor is he ridden by shame or guilt. His real moral failing might be his profound apathy.

gideons confession coverThis may or may not be the result of generous monthly checks he receives from a doting uncle. Gideon has a devoted girlfriend, a nice liberal arts degree, and nothing in particular against which to rebel. But despite his easy lifestyle and opportunities for achievement, he cannot make up his mind to do anything. When asked, “Where’s your oomph?” he replies, “The oomph gene is something I was born without.” He admits he is drawn to a dangerously romantic notion of “free-falling:” “I always wanted to leap from a plane … and fall as long as possible while the earth, a patchwork of farms below, comes rushing toward me.”

An interesting psychological wormhole lies at the heart of this narrative as Gideon’s Confession mingles autobiographical fact and fiction. Gideon, like author Joseph Peterson, grew up in Chicago in a working class family, attended the University of Chicago, and worked in an aluminum mill. But unlike the author, Gideon has yet to live. The reader often hears two voices. There is the companionable but uncertain young narrator who speaks casually of his past and present, with his future wide open before him. But there is also the silent, established Chicago author subtly suggesting how crucial this moment is, and how close Gideon comes to living a lonely, pointless life.

The act of making his “confession” is the first step on a better path. Gideon is not religious; he confesses because it is a useful tool for self-analysis. Honesty is paramount. He engages in no underhanded self-aggrandizement; one does not sense any gleeful exhibitionism. What he wants is simply to tell the truth about himself, if he can. His confession is significant not because of what he did, but because writing is the one thing he feels motivated to do. The possibility of desire and hope hangs in the balance.

Gideon’s Confession is quite short and reads extremely quickly—it could be finished in a day. This is the author’s fourth novel, and the fluid prose style here is direct and unadorned. Gideon’s apathy is frustrating at times, but it also is realistic. If his judgments still seem immature and impulsive (to be fair, of course, he is not alone in this), at least some purchase on a viable future has been gained as he begins to appreciate the mystery and promise of deeper connections with others.

Four-Star Review

April 2014, Switchgrass Books/Northern Illinois University Press
Fiction
$15.95 paperback, 130 pages
ISBN: 978-0-87580-702-7

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

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Doorways to the Domestic Scene

CBR_Logo2Remedies for Hunger:
Stories
by Anara Guard

Anara Guard’s second collection of short stories showcases the experiences and emotions of the domestic scene. The book’s cover is an array of windows and doors, which represents the content within. Guard explores the complexity, the weirdness, and the heartache of what happens in the home among family and significant others. She embraces how quirky and funny life can be but also mixes the humor with life’s inevitable sadness and disappointment. Reading these stories is like walking through the house next door, with its everyday miracles and betrayals, both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

Remedies coverGuard grew up in Chicago and attended the Urban Gateways Young Writers Workshop. Her story “Homecoming” contains recognizable Chicago tourist locations, bus routes, and roads. It is an emotional story of hard truths. The main character, Cathy, spends a hot summer day at Grant Park selling jewelry. Cathy is pregnant and living an unsteady life. After a betrayal, Cathy turns to her past: “But as she turned and left the apartment, retreating down the stairs, she could hear the word thumping on each step up through the soles of her bare feet: home, home, home” (130). “Homecoming” portrays how some people remember their childhood homes—like a fairytale—and the undeniable reality of how ephemeral and brutal those memories can be.

Guard’s other stories are on the shorter side, with some stories spanning only three pages, but every word counts. Guard packs each paragraph with moments, and each narrator’s voice is strong. Guard dives into the story in “Neighbors” with a rebellious narrator:

Don’t start with me. I know I should quit but I had worked the late shift again, Joe was after me the rest of the night, and I felt like my blood was jiggling inside my arms and legs. (19)

The narrator views her world and the family next door from the front steps. She is both daring and vulnerable, sturdy and tired. This story emphasizes windows and doorways and the way they serve as snapshots of life. “Neighbors” examines interesting questions about the revealing nature of daily activities, from getting dressed to sitting outside the front door. What stories do we tell our neighbors with our actions? How do doors and windows define us and our lives?

One of the strongest stories is actually the shortest. “Georgia” is a haunting story of family history and death. The sentences are clipped and without flowery details. The child narrator describes things as they are, pointing out how unsettling and poignant a child’s perspective of death can be. There is rhythm to this story, and the cyclical motion of it is dizzying and delightful to read. The scene where the narrator visits the cemetery consists of short sentences of mostly action, creating a beautiful moment:

When we visit, we all become quiet. Our father pulls rotting leaves out of the birdbath and drops them into a sad little pile. Some of the birdbath’s little tiles have come loose, leaving rough spots. We hunt around in the brown grass to see if we can find any. Our little sister tries to find the most. Daddy slips them into his pocket, bright squares of red and blue and green. (15)

Guard’s stories are a pleasure to read. These short stories are powerful and memorable, and although not long, they require time for reflection. Readers likely will recognize themselves in these stories, which evoke childhood memories that will feel familiar. These stories are luscious food for thought, and it will be very interesting to see how Guard continues to explore the domestic in her future work.

Four-Star Review

August 2014, New Wind Publishing
Short Fiction
$12, paperback, 140 pages
ISBN: 978-1-929777-06-8

—Reviewed by Lyndsie Manusos

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