Monthly Archives: June 2015

Exploring Life’s What-Might-Have-Beens

CBR_Logo2If You’re Not the One
A Novel
by Jemma Forte

What if …?

It’s a question so many of us ponder about various aspects of our lives. What if I’d gone to a different university? What if I’d taken that other job? What if I’d stuck with that other lover? Where would I be now? How might my life have been different?

Londoner Jemma Forte ponders this question—and the possibility of alternate realities—in her novel If You’re Not the One, published in the United States this month in paperback by Naperville-based Sourcebooks.

if you're not the one 9781492607892If You’re Not the One follows several alternate-reality paths of one Jennifer Wright, a not-quite-forty mother of two who gave up a promising career to raise her daughters after marrying a man she met at a party, to which she had gone with a boyfriend she eventually threw over. Several years into her marriage to Max, the guy from the party, Jen finds herself existing (barely) in a stale, virtually sexless marriage, working a part-time job she doesn’t love, and raising two energetic, demanding young girls—the kind of routine suburban existence she never expected for herself.

A string of accidents sends Jen and her daughter to the hospital emergency room within a few days of each other, the daughter with a broken arm and Jen in a much more serious condition: a coma that lasts several weeks. While trapped in this coma and unresponsive to the outside world, Jen realizes that her subconscious is actually more than responsive and is, in fact, providing her with an usual gift: the ability to see what life would have been like had she chosen a different path for herself.

While comatose, Jen’s mind explores several alternate realities, examining relationships she’d had with other men during her life and what would have happened had she stuck with those men. Each of the men is wildly different from one another: one a cold, successful tech entrepreneur; one a charismatic, drug-dealing rogue; one a supremely kind momma’s boy.

This exploration of Jen’s what-might-have-been paths doesn’t come from nowhere. Unhappy in her marriage and wondering “what if …?” Jen’s subconscious takes over during her coma to explore the questions and issues that, awake, she avoided, questions that would have been painful to confront, with answers that might have forced some serious decision-making.

If You’re Not the One addresses some pretty heavy questions with a light, humorous touch, providing a perfectly balanced look at love and marriage and how relationships change over time. Forte tackles love, sex, and infidelity as well as friendship and parenthood. The book also looks at how we balance our personal and professional lives and how choosing motherhood affects women and their careers.

This romantic dramedy could easily have veered into kitsch or melodrama, but Forte keeps it light and funny while exploring the kind of real-world issues that many readers will find it easy to identify with. Putting the lead character into a coma could well have slipped into soap opera-territory—and some readers might well find the tack a little too gimmicky—but the notion of having lucid, productive visions of one’s alternate realities is irresistible (think It’s a Wonderful Life or Sliding Doors). Forte makes the most of the shtick she’s chosen to employ, carefully guiding the readers through time, into Jen’s past, back into her present, and into the possible futures she might have lived through had she made different choices in her life.

Whether this ability to see her alternate realities is a positive or a negative for Jen remains a question, and the book concludes on a question mark. There are no easy answers here. This, too, is to Forte’s credit: a perky, facile ending would have rendered the book too fluffy. Instead, If You’re Not the One leaves things a little messy—just like real life.

Filled with likable characters, If You’re Not the One is lively and engaging without becoming too heavy or dramatic. Readers on this side of the pond could likely do without some of the Britishisms (the book has not been Americanized), although this probably won’t bother fans of Bridget Jones or even Jane Austen. In addition, some readers might find this book too light, casting it aside as breezy chick lit. But there is something more here for those who choose to look a little deeper, and those who do will find that this charming book is as thoughtful as it is thought-provoking.

Three-Star Review

June 2015, Sourcebooks Landmark
$14.99, paperback, 408 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4926-0789-2

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

1 Comment

Filed under fiction

Preview: Printers Row Lit Fest 2015

CBR_Logo2I don’t know how it got to be June, much less June 5—and this weekend is Printers Row already! It seems like I just got back from BEA in New York, which, in fact, I did. And then I put CBR’s Summer Preview together. And suddenly the weekend is upon us, and it’s Printers Row Eve, which I think should be a holiday.

The 31st Annual Printers Row Lit Fest will take place in the usual location: Dearborn between Congress and Polk, and along Polk between Clark and Plymouth. The weekend features more than 200 authors on various stages, including Ian Belknap, Susanna Calkins, Jac Jemc, Parneshia Jones, Rebecca Makkai, Lori Rader-Day, Joseph Schwieterman, Megan Stielstra … the list goes on and on and on. Some of the events are ticketed. You can find a list of author appearances here.

printers row lit festThe festival also features dozens of exhibitors, including local publishers like Agate Publishing, Allium Press, Fifth Star Press, Haymarket Books, Moody Publishers, Northwestern University Press, and Triumph Books. Also exhibiting are scores of local organizations, including Chicago Black Authors Network, Chicago Public Library, Chicago Writers Association, and Illinois Woman’s Press Association. You can find a list of exhibitors here.

More than 125,000 people are expected to attend the festival, which is the largest free outdoor literary event in the Midwest. Of course, it’s not really just one event—it’s dozens of them on several stages. And, of course, no one can be everywhere at once, so we thought we’d highlight some of the readings, panels, discussions, etc., that feature local authors and local publishers, which, as you know, is what we’re all about:

—First Fiction: Cyn Vargas, Alex Gordon, Karin Lin-Greenberg and Monica McFawn moderated by Frank Tempone
Saturday, 10–11 a.m. Jones College Prep/Classroom #5006. Tickets required.

—Writing Workshop: Prompt-A-Palooza with Jill Pollack, Director StoryStudio Chicago
Saturday, 10:30–11:30 a.m., Jones College Prep/Classroom #5038. Tickets required.

—Young Chicago Authors’ Check the Method poets and Wreckshop emcees team up for “Wreck the Method”
Saturday, 11–11:45 a.m., Center Stage

—Columbia College Chicago Department of Creative Writing Faculty Reading with David Lazar, Nami Mun and Jenny Boully
Saturday, 11–11:45 a.m., Arts & Poetry Stage

—Reading: 826CHI Presents: Around That Age, I Liked to Play with Fire
Saturday, 12:05–12:35 p.m., Arts & Poetry Stage

—Fiction: Midwest Culture Clash: Julie Iromuanya in conversation with Walton Muyumba
Saturday, 12:30–1:15 p.m., Jones College Prep/Classroom #5030. Tickets required.

—Chicagoland Poetry Out Loud Champions, hosted by Stephen Young
Saturday, 12:40–1:10 p.m., Arts & Poetry Stage

—Young Chicago Authors’ Chicago Beat Book Release and Podcast Showcase
Saturday, 1:15–1:45 p.m., Arts & Poetry Stage

—Chicago Originals: Tony Fitzpatrick and Bill Hillmann in conversation with Rick Kogan
Saturday, 3–3:45 p.m., Harold Washington Library Center. Tickets required.

—Chicago Living: Adam Mack, Joseph Schwieterman and Dean Jobb in conversation with Gary Johnson
Saturday, 3:15–4 p.m., Jones College Prep/Classroom #5010. Tickets required.

—Chicago Blues and Gospel: Robert Marovich and Wilbert Jones in conversation with Mark Guarino
Sunday, 11–11:45 a.m., Jones College Prep/Classroom #5034. Tickets required.

—Chicago Writer Challenge: Reema Amin, Danette Chavez and Rebecca Brink moderated by Mason Johnson
Sunday, 11–11:45 a.m., RedEye Stage

—Chicago Portraits: Mike Zajakowski and Chris Walker
Sunday, 1:30–2:15 p.m., Jones College Prep/Classroom #5034. Tickets required.

As if all the great things going on at Printers Row Lit Fest (#PRLF15 and @PrintersRowFest on Twitter) this weekend weren’t enough, Sunday, June 7, is also BrooksDay 2015, celebrating the anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks’s birth. This year marks the third annual event, sponsored by Guild Literary Complex, along with Third World Press, Poetry Foundation, and the Logan Center for the Arts. The day will feature readings and performances by Kevin Coval, Richard Steele, Andrea Change, Young Chicago Authors, Aurora Performance Group, In the Spirit, Rebirth, etc.

This is a great weekend for books. We’ll see you out there …

There’s so much more to a book than just the reading.
—Maurice Sendak

—Kelli Christiansen

Leave a comment

Filed under feature

Charming ‘Chinatown’

CBR_Logo2Death at Chinatown
An Emily Cabot Mystery
by Frances McNamara

Death at Chinatown by Frances McNamara is a good mix of mystery and history. It is a literary smoothie providing a sense of Chicago’s original Chinatown, politics with similarities to those of today, charges of murder against the wrong person, medical research, Western versus Eastern Medicine, immigration problems, and the struggles of women to balance family and work.

The book is the fifth in Frances McNamara’s “Emily Cabot” mystery series. During the summer of 1896, amateur sleuth Emily Cabot met two young Chinese women who had recently received medical degrees. One is accused of poisoning a Chinese herbalist, and Emily quickly finds herself in the midst of a murder investigation.

death at china townThe author captures the flavor of the late 1800s in Chicago, the physical as well as the social, with a charming, period-authentic style that is a refreshing break from the nonstop violence in much of today’s fiction. The story references a number of real people, including Dr. Mary Snow and Dr. Ida Kahn, the primary Chinese characters, as well as events in the forefront of community concerns at the time. The “Afterword” explaining McNamara’s research and the liberties taken on behalf of the fictional mystery is as interesting as the book.

Emily’s husband, Dr. Stephen Chapman, invited her to meet the two Chinese women at a surgical demonstration at which he was assisting. An early version of the Roentgen-ray was to be used to locate and remove bullets still inside a patient. The surgeon, Dr. Erickson, was known not to favor women in medicine. Suffering deeply from the recent death of his wife, he made a surprise move: He invited Dr. Mary Snow to do the procedure. He may have thought she would be afraid and refuse. However, she accepted the challenge and performed successfully.

The following day, while Mary and Ida were having tea with Emily, the Chicago police charged in and arrested Dr. Mary Snow for murder. A Chinese herbalist whose shop she had patronized had been poisoned. Someone had seen her there shortly before he died and accused her of killing him. Detective Whitbread, who made the arrest was a friend of Emily’s, with whom she had worked on department research projects, so her husband and the doctor’s friends urged her to become involved, help get Dr. Snow out of jail and find the real murderer.

In addition to her work with the police, Emily had a lectureship with the University of Chicago, to which she was expected to return. She had stopped to have a family and recently had been devoting all her time to her fifteen-month-old son and infant baby girl. Although she had a young woman available to help with the children, Emily seemed to have an almost irrational feeling of guilt or worry about being away from them for any length of time, so much so that she did not want to resume her work with the police. Although she had promised to return to the University, she had serious doubts about whether she would do that. Major pressure from her husband and others, plus the fact that Dr. Snow was arrested while Emily’s guest, finally moved her to investigate and find the truth.

In real life, Frances McNamara is a librarian at the University of Chicago, and her father served as Police Commissioner of Boston for ten years. She has built-in resources for crafting her historical mysteries, and she puts them to good use in Death at Chinatown.

It is interesting that in a time when bias against women having careers was much greater than now, Emily Cabot had achieved that. Viewed from today, her concern about returning to her work seemed a bit excessive but not a problem. On another note, if a surgeon today turned over the demonstration of a new technique on a patient to a newly minted doctor with no advance arrangement to do so, the tweets would fly.

Death at Chinatown by Frances McNamara is an enjoyable and educational read. The author is working on the sixth Emily Cabot mystery, Death at the Paris Exposition.

Four-Star Review

August 2014, Allium Press
$14.99, paperback, 226 pages
ISBN 978-0-9890535-5-6

—Reviewed by Betty Nicholas


1 Comment

Filed under fiction