Monthly Archives: July 2015

Mystery and ‘Honor’ in Chicago

CBR_Logo2Honor Above All
A Novel

by J. Bard-Collins

In Chicago during the late nineteenth century, when the ashes from the Civil and American Indian wars still drifted through the air, tensions simmered just below boiling point. Soldiers transitioned into civilian work wherever they could, into trades, police forces, militias, and politics. Some ran food stands on the streets, and some collected coins in cans from the absentminded passersby. Army ranks faded, alliances formed between immigrants, and these groups developed heritage neighborhoods. With aimless men flooding into the city seeking refuge and work, two things rose from the dusty postwar streets along Lake Michigan: crime and buildings. J. Bard-Collins writes of both in her first novel, Honor Above All, a work labeled historical fiction, but perhaps with a case of mistaken identity.

honor above allGarret Lyons joined the army at the age of fifteen. Serving under General Stannard as an apprentice, he rises quickly in ranks due to his aptitude for planning, a bit of courage, and an overabundance of confidence. Yet when the devastation of the battle of Powder River clears, Lyons seems the only man left standing, putting a target on his back and discharge papers on his bunk. Now in his mid-twenties, Lyons looks for a way to get by using the only skills he has: those of a soldier. Luckily, the United States remains a lawless country, and he finds sanctuary in the services of Allan Pinkerton, founder of what would become the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Lyons leads a life of turmoil, carrying grief from years of soldiering and mourning the loss of his home with General Stannard. His service with the Pinkertons allows him to forget, for a time, that the war has ended for him. Yet, when an unknown assailant guns down his partner, Lyons returns to Chicago to hunt his killer and reunites with the General in an unexpected turn of events. These events begin the novel, leaving the reader feeling that much of the action happened before he was invited along.

Familiar names from history appear throughout Honor Above All,* giving the mystery a historical-fiction slant. Lyons finds a coconspirator and partner in Louis Sullivan. He mingles with the likes of Burnham and Root while the plot spins out around Montauk Block. Bard-Collins begins each chapter with a bit of Chicago history, lending to the atmosphere and setting of her world. She finds her stride in setting, detailing quick-moving clouds over a rising city that eventually touches the sky.

Yet, with a history lesson beginning each chapter, the plot slows to a forgetful pace. The characters become faded photographs of distant people from a long-ago time instead of a living community of entrepreneurs, artists, and tradesmen. With most of the novel told in a retrospective narrative, the past stifles the present. Each time the author ventures into the historical realm, the plot weakens and another genre takes lead: biography.

Bard-Collins gives her readers vivid, interesting vignettes of 1880s Chicago, so engrossing that they distract from the make-believe story at hand. While many novels cross genres successfully, few survive an author at cross purposes. As a biographical work of Chicago’s architects, its politicians, and its people, the novel shines. As a work of mystery, the suspense hangs stale in the wake of the more interesting, historical nonfiction.

Two-Star Review

November 2014, Allium Press
312 pages, Paperback, $17.99
ISBN: 978-0-9890535-7-0

Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones

*Silver Award winner for the IBPA Ben Franklin Award in the Mystery/Suspense category and Silver Award winner for the ForeWord Reviews IndieFab Awards in the Mystery category


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The Road to Hell …

CBR_Logo2Pretty Baby
A Novel
by Mary Kubica

Pretty Baby, the second novel from Chicagoan and bestselling author Mary Kubica, centers on a few days in life of the Wood family, whose Matriarch, Heidi, has invited an enigmatic homeless girl, Willow, infant child in tow, into their Lakeview home. What begins as an act of goodwill on Heidi’s part slowly morphs into something much more sinister. Willow’s and Heidi’s tragic pasts are slowly revealed through a mixture of flashbacks and a police interrogation, uncovering a complicated web of ulterior motives and dark secrets.

The fascinating disparity between the family’s surface and subconscious intentions is perhaps Kubica’s biggest achievement with Pretty Baby. Heidi, for example, in practically her every action is simultaneously unreasonably selfless and insufferably selfish. She spends her life helping others, never taking a day off from her work at a non-profit, going above and beyond to help those much less fortunate than herself, much to the chagrin of pretty baby kubicaher husband and daughter, too often pushed to the periphery of Heidi’s life in favor of whichever unfortunate soul seems to be occupying her attentions at that moment. Indeed, it is in Heidi’s selflessness that her selfishness resides; her constant need to help others is often, whether she realizes it or not, unmistakably self-serving. Particularly when it comes to inviting Willow into her family’s home, completely disregarding how her family may feel, not because it’s the right thing to do, but, as it turns out, because it gives her a chance to raise that second child she always dreamed of, but due to personal tragedy (read: cancer), was never able to make a reality.

Kubica does a fantastic job of developing Heidi’s relationship with Chris into one that has depth in its complications and conflicts, and is much more than the simple “opposites attract”-type couple they appear to be on the surface. While Heidi, the goodwill martyr, works for a non-profit, Chris is an investment banker, a job at which he spends the majority of his waking hours. He is adamantly opposed to his wife’s unshakable philanthropy in inviting a stranger into their home. Yet, in a familial sense, it is Chris who devotes his life to others. He is unhappy with the job he does because it keeps his wife and daughter in the comfortable life they have become accustomed to. For example, Heidi makes outlandish demands for items such as a $1,000 gold chain from which to hang her father’s wedding ring, and Chris laments that the money could have gone toward a family vacation. He also worries for his wife’s and daughter’s safety when Heidi seems to have lost the ability to do so, to the point where he demands they all sleep together in the same bed. And, even in his moments of unfaithfulness, the long-suffering Chris still remains devoted to his wife.

In their respective designated chapters, Kubica reveals with expert pacing the tensions of their marriage that slowly ferment below the surface, setting up a gripping interplay between Chris’s lusting after a coworker and Heidi’s heartbreaking jealousy and mistrust rooted in the loss of her child, a loss which she never got over, a loss through which Chris lost his wife to unending sorrow.

However, somewhat to its detriment, this conflict between Heidi and Chris makes up a teasingly small part of the story, which, as it gains momentum, concentrates more on the tragic circumstances of both Heidi’s and Willow’s pasts, as the seemingly endless depths of their despair are revealed. The extent of the horror and sadness Kubica’s characters endure becomes overwhelming by the novel’s end; particularly as it seems an attempt to absolve Heidi and Willow of their wrongdoings, nullifying any complexities in their actions. By the end of the novel, Willow, at just sixteen, has experienced a life about as horror-filled and harrowing as any other character in literature, while Heidi has suffered a family death from which she never recovered, cervical cancer, a life-saving abortion, and a hysterectomy.

Mary Kubica, author "The Good Girl"

Author Mary Kubica

These woes anesthetize the characters against any questioning of their actions. Of course these characters would snap, of course they would lose the ability to make sound judgments on the morality and repercussions of their behavior, of course they’re going to do something completely beyond the realms of reason and sanity; it would be strange if they didn’t. Surely, these characters would have much more depth of complexity were they not struggling under a ton of tragedy, were all their actions not simply explainable with a wave of the hand: “They’ve had hard lives.”

Undeniably, the novel is remarkable in places, and aside from the prose, which is, in places, lackluster at best, with confusing metaphors littering its pages (early in the novel, an El train is described as slowing “its way into the loop, careening around twists and turns”), it can be said Pretty Baby is a gripping literary thriller. However, Kubica spends too much effort on keeping the reader turning the pages, as opposed to giving them something to remember; it becomes too melodramatic, the characters are pushed too far beyond the realms of reason, and the most memorable aspects of the novel—the everyday struggles in response to those tragedies—are left by the wayside.

Two-Star Review

July 2015, MIRA
$24.95, hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-7783-1770-8

—Reviewed by William Wright

Learn more about the author and her novels.

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Storytelling for Our Time

CBR_Logo2Music for Wartime
by Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai is already renowned for her books The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House. Her debut collection of short stories, Music for Wartime, will no doubt produce (and has already attained) similar acclaim. Makkai, a local author whose work has been published in four consecutive editions of The Best American Short Stories, is able to intricately weave stories together to present a compendium of tales that seem like a tribute to storytelling itself. There is a palpable need expressed in this collection for stories to be told, understood, digested, and passed on. In addition, three stories in the “legends” section are based on Makkai’s own family history in 1930s Hungary.

music makkai 9780525426691Some stories in this collection are little snippets, from only two pages, to overarching stories of seventeen pages long. There are stories that focus on a single moment (“A Bird in the House”) to stories that span multiple generations (“The Worst You Ever Feel”). The first story, “The Singing Women,” sets the tone. It’s a tale of war in an unknown country, with similarities to World War II with characters like “the dictator” and three surviving women. A composer is desperately trying to record the women’s language and songs, as they are the last known survivors of a dialect. The first story has the feel of a fairy tale, and the narrator confirms this at the end: “(But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I? I’ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number.)”

Music for Wartime shows the power of storytelling in delicate and traumatic times. Narrators in this book include a boy coming to terms with his father’s past while playing a duet with a renowned Romanian violinist, and a narrator living in Chicago, trying to save a friend from inevitable failure, by having him perform at the Art Institute of Chicago. There is a desperation in these characters to tell these stories, to share them with anyone who will listen, either to relieve themselves from overwhelming guilt or to run away from, or rationalize, indescribable trauma.

Explaining and overcoming trauma is at the core of the story “Everything We Know About the Bomber” where the collective “we” narrator describes a man who committed a terrible crime. The details range from the obvious to the trivial. “He was someone’s son, and then he was not … He had a beard, and then he did not. His sister understood him, and then she did not.” The story becomes increasingly desperate, the narrators trying to explain the event to the reader as much as to themselves. “We plan to learn more. We plan to keep updated. We plan to look for patterns.” Makkai’s use of language and rhythm in this story makes it as poetic as it is emotionally jarring.

Music for Wartime is an impressive collection that focuses on the art of storytelling and the significance of history (both world history and personal/family history). Makkai expertly utilizes structure and pacing to make every word count. The two-page stories are just as powerful, arguably if not more so, than the expansive stories. This diverse collection will no doubt show audiences the need to learn and recognize history, the power of the short story form, and how important it is to pass these stories on.

Four-Star Review

June 2015, Viking
Short Fiction
$26.95, hardcover, 240 pages
ISBN: 978-0-525-42669-1

—Reviewed by Lyndsie Manusos

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