Monthly Archives: March 2015

War Must Ensue

CBR_Logo2Haymaker
A Novel
by Adam Schuitema

A sleepy tourist town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula awaits a coming invasion. Haymaker thrives on tourists who visit in the winter for an opportunity to tackle nature and those who visit in the summer to hike the dunes, soaking up some Lake Superior sun. The local Haymakes, as Schuitema names them, appreciate these tourists with a tight smile as they pass through, dropping funds along the way. The locals know that they need these strangers, and they accept this because these strangers leave. But a group of outsiders, joined by a common belief, have their eyes set on Haymaker as their potential utopia.Haymaker 719-5

A group of libertarians migrate in a pack, calling themselves the Black Bears, and head to Haymaker. These individuals have families, careers, and lives that they’ve decided to uproot because they have an inherently American belief: Freedoms should not be tread upon. Haymaker has a history of small government, self-reliance, and free markets. Haymaker has land for sale and few zoning laws. Haymaker could be their headquarters.

However, while the Black Bears raise the common flags of rattlesnakes and freedom, they orchestrate a military-like invasion of a small town, planning to overtake the small government by force of majority. By sheer numbers, they claim, they will win elections. Local Haymakes will come around.

Backed by a scripture-quoting billionaire who may have ties to the federal government, this group plans for resistance in Haymaker, not peaceful integration. They send out flyers and recruitment ads, trying to gain in numbers what they may lack in local acceptance. Their plans proceed until a small few realize that their actions, however good their intentions, do not align with libertarianism, and that the locals are not signing over their town easily. The voice of reason in the Libertarian group is a family man, Josef Novak, who wants to integrate with the locals, understand them, and enjoy their already-libertarian lifestyle. Haymakes describe Josef as a vanilla moderate; he’s a hard guy to hate, they say. But Josef must quiet the extremists in his midst, while battling vandalizing locals, for this migration to be successful.

In Adam Schuitema’s Haymaker, a setting develops that becomes as real as elephant ears and sticky fingers at a Michigan town fair. While this sleepy community comes alive in Schuitema’s descriptions of the Shipwreck Cafe, year-round Christmas shop, and breathtaking heat along the dunes of Lake Superior, the novel takes heart within characters such as Josef, as the best stories often do. Schuitema’s complex story of a tense and changing political landscape in small-town USA simplifies and settles into the story of a mayor expecting her first child with a mentally unstable husband. It resonates the most, however, with a community member named Theodor Roosevelt.

switchgrass niu logoCalled “the cowboy” because of his taste for all-white dusters, Stetsons, and cowboy boots, Haymakes consider Roosevelt an outsider, too, although he’s been a resident for many decades. As a transplant, Roosevelt seems to watch Haymaker from above. He mingles with the locals, but many avoid him because of his transplant status and eccentric ways.

Roosevelt acts as the voice of reason. A welcome voice that speaks of compromise, Roosevelt is a party line-toer who claims no concrete allegiances. He is also a kind, grandfatherly man with an intricate past of his own. His past is an open book, he claims, if anyone cares to ask instead of speculate. This tall, white-haired man cuts a figure wherever he goes, but few approach him. He lives alone on the shoreline of Lake Superior in a house he cares for greatly and in solitude, which he treasures as well. When battles break out on the streets and in the homes of Haymaker, Roosevelt becomes an anchor for the town. If any of Schuitema’s characters embody the freedom-seeking self-reliance of libertarianism, it’s Roosevelt, a calm and rational man who claims no party.

The events, while at times slow-moving, that occur in Haymaker outline the tensions between extremes. Without flexibility on both sides, war must ensue. Schuitema writes a relevant story of current events that makes Haymaker’s name seem flexible, as if it could become that of any small town across America. A read to pair with classic works of Paine, maybe a bit of Orwell and most certainly with Rand, Schuitema’s first novel resonates as a real-life American example of the current and changing state of democracy, and what real American’s across demographics believe that term to mean. Yet, it reads as an engaging short story with a weaving, character-driven plot and not a word out of place.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, Switchgrass Books/NIU Press
Fiction
$17.95, paperback, 300 pages
ISBN: 978-0-87580-719-5

Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones

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Charting the Course of a Marriage Under Water

CBR_Logo2Principles of Navigation
A Novel
by Lynn Sloan

The hopes, dreams, and expectations of marriage: How often do romantic abstractions fall victim to the tricky realities forced on a couple living together day in and day out, dealing with everyday pressures, unexpected disappointments, and devastating heartache?

Evanston resident Lynn Sloan explores the trajectory of relationships in Principles of Navigation, a tender, thoughtful story of a couple whose once happy marriage dissolves amidst the stress of infertility and infidelity—and unmet expectations.

principles of navigationSet in Indiana, Principles of Navigation focuses on Alice and Rolly Becotte, a couple whose once-loving marriage is unraveling. Alice, a small-town reporter, longs desperately for a child, which she believes will somehow complete her and make her whole, filling an indescribable gap. Rolly, a professor in that same small town, wishes he were a better artist, the kind of artist whose work featured prominently in well-known galleries. The kind of artist who didn’t have to teach uninspired students at a nondescript Midwestern college in order to pay the mortgage. A child is not among the things he wishes to create. When we meet them, it’s clear that, although they once were a good team, Alice and Rolly are no longer even playing the same game. Alice is focused on motherhood while Rolly has no desire to list fatherhood among his accomplishments. Their hopes, dreams, and expectations are no longer shared between them, and they both want more—much more than either can give the other.

Sloan, who earned a master’s degree in photography from the Institute of Design, has crafted a visual, evocative story rich in vivid characters and realistic settings. Carefully written with a gentle touch, Principles of Navigation expertly captures the anguish of infertility, the thrill of illicit desire, the shame of infidelity, the anger of heartbreak. We see in these pages different faces of love—between man and woman, between mother and daughter, between friends—and we feel with Sloan’s characters the highs and lows that mark relationships as they ebb and flow through good times and bad.

Infused with so much emotion, it would be easy for the story to devolve into insipid sap, full of saccharine cliché. But Sloan handles the task with ease, expertly capturing (one might even say corralling) a wide range of feelings with grace and subtlety. Dialogue, both spoken and inner, feels real and appropriate, even when characters are lost in their own thoughts as when, for instance, Alice sends Rolly an email that seems to veer into stream-of-consciousness writing: “In these past months,” she writes, “I’ve made a million mistakes. … It’s as if too much of my brain is somewhere else, probably trying to figure out what I want.”

Existential angst is no stranger to fiction, but Sloan handles it deftly and in a way that feels at once fresh and familiar. Principles of Navigation could easily turn in to a hackneyed story of a dysfunctional couple, full of expletive-ridden arguments, tawdry, back-stabbing affairs, or facile “a baby would save our marriage” clichés. But it doesn’t, much to Sloan’s credit.

Not that the novel is without imperfections. Setting the story at the turn of the millennium seems unnecessary; the related discussions of the Y2K fears that were for naught has little bearing on the main thrust of the story. An interesting subplot and minor character, a sullen Virgin Mary-seeing teenager, seems merely a crutch for explaining Alice’s newfound spirituality cum superstition, especially when that character disappears with little explanation.

But in a story so full of emotion, so evocative of place, so rich with interesting characters, these are but minor quibbles. Principles of Navigation is quietly compelling. It is by no means a heart-pounding page-turner, but it is a page-turner nonetheless, a subtle story that gnaws and needles long after the cover is closed.

Four-Star Review

February 2015, Fomite Press
Fiction
$15, paperback, 274 pages
ISBN: 978-1-937677-93-0

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Rivalry and Redemption & Family and Forgiveness

CBR_Logo2Whiskey & Charlie
A Novel
by Annabel Smith

Writers and readers have been compelled by stories of sibling rivalry since time immemorial. One of the Bible’s most famous stories, that of Cain and Abel, tells of one so fierce it ended in murder. The pull of a story of two people with simultaneous feelings of ever-enduring love and unbearable hate for one another, it seems, will always be impossible to resist for a plethora of readers and writers.

Annabel Smith is no different. Her novel Whiskey and Charlie, originally published in 2012 by Fremantle Press in Australia, has been picked up by Naperville-based Sourcebooks. The story revolves around the relationship and rivalry between two identical twin brothers: Whiskey, the one who can’t help but to find success at every turn, and Charlie, the one who has been jealous of his happier, more outgoing, more successful brother since whiskey charlie 9781492607861before he reached his teen years. When Whiskey is hit by a car and plunged into a coma from which it seems he will never wake, Charlie looks back on his life and the relationship between himself and his brother, which at the time of the accident, seemed damaged beyond repair.

It’s hard to deny that Whiskey and Charlie is strongly informed by the Cain and Abel trope, right down to the basis personalities of the two titular brothers. One could be forgiven for wondering whether it’s worth reading the novel at all, given the fact it’s likely the only subject explored more commonly is “forbidden love.” However, those who cast aside the novel prematurely miss an opportunity as Smith’s story quickly becomes engrossing. The characters in the novel are almost Salinger-esque in their depth; one could easily be fooled into thinking Smith is writing about her own family. Charlie in particular, is explored honestly and in intricate detail. He is frustrating, complicated, secretive bordering upon being dishonest, unforgiving, and at times, petty. He is his own worst enemy, tortured by his own indecision and passivity as every aspect of his life comes crumbling down around him after Whiskey’s accident. While he may not be completely likeable or relatable, he is understandable. Charlie is a complicated, realistic, truly human character, whose actions and outlook are informed by past experience; he is a character who seems not to have been created but simply transferred from real life to the page. So much so, one wonders why Smith chose to write the novel in third person, rather than first; the depth of Charlie’s character definitely warrants it, and one feels the importance of Charlie’s natural unreliability would have more impact if the reader were inside his head.

While not to the same extent, the other characters the novel touches receive the same treatment. Smith doesn’t merely assign characters names and traits for plot’s sake. For the most part, Smith draws the novel’s story, humor, and sorrow from them, rather than from the situation they’re in. The novel is so engrossing not because one feels the need to find out what happens in the plot, but to find out where the characters’ lives will take them next, and that’s an important difference.

Moreover, Smith is an expert in saying a lot while writing little. The most emotionally charged moments of the novel—some of the most important, integral moments—are illustrated simply: two grown men holding each other by a hospital bed, a young boy bowing to and walking away from his first love. The simplicity of the prose and the scenes it describe allow the reader to feel the full emotional weight of the moments without gravity being forced upon them. The same is true for the novel’s funnier moments; Smith knows exactly how much to write, when to zoom in, and when to pull back and sit by as the scene unfolds.

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Author Annabel Smith

However, while Smith’s prose and characterization carry the novel, they don’t completely mask its flaws. Despite the fact that the novel is centered around the idea of the bond between the twin brothers, the reader is only told—not shown—that Charlie and Whiskey were inseparable as children. Aside from learning about their playing together with walkie-talkies, there is no frame of reference as to just how close they were until the novel is almost in its third act. While this adds to the weight of Charlie’s emotional struggle and character arc, it also siphons away any emotional weight from the demise of the brothers’ relationship. And although the idea of writing the novel as a series of vignettes (each based on a letter of the NATO alphabet) is somewhat inspired, in the end this gimmick does little to convey the sense of depth to Charlie’s and Whiskey’s relationship that the novel so needs.

But perhaps the most difficult flaw to reconcile is that certain aspects of the novel’s plot come perilously close to slipping into the realm of melodrama. The self-referencing nature of the allusions to the soap-opera nature of some of the novel’s events don’t do enough to save it, and as the story begins to draw to a close, the bed-ridden brother in a coma, the constant affairs (both physical and emotional), long-lost family members, and overwrought sentimentality become a little overwhelming. The themes of forgiveness, importance of family, loving people for who they are—messages one hardly needs to search exhaustively to find in today’s media landscape—are treated with a heavy, overly sentimental hand, eventually becoming almost enough to induce eye-rolls. The ending itself almost lets down the entire novel, and it seems as though Smith fell too in love with her characters to hurt them by giving the novel the ending it deserved: one that is not only realistic but also emotionally and philosophically challenging. Instead, Whiskey and Charlie slips almost entirely into soap opera territory in its closing chapters.

However much Whiskey and Charlie is let down by its flaws, it is equally rescued by its strengths. It is a wonderful, introspective character study, constructed with care, attention, and love. Whiskey and Charlie defines itself by the strength of its characters, and that’s what makes it so riveting.

Three-Star Review

April 2015, Sourcebooks
Fiction
$14.99, paperback, 336 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4926-0786-1

Reviewed by William Wright

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