Monthly Archives: November 2015

CBR’s 2015 Holiday Reading Guide

CBR_Logo2This year has gone by so quicky. Here we are coming up on Thanksgiving weekend, and then it’s Chanukah, and in just a month it will be Christmas, and then Kwanzaa, and then New Year’s …


Between now and then, a lot of people will be doing a lot of shopping, and we hope that a lot of that shopping means a lot of book buying. Whether that means you take advantage of this weekend’s Small Business Saturday, during which a number of local bookstores will be hosting special events, or whether you’ll be buying books from big-box bookstores, or whether you’ll be doing your shopping online, there is no shortage of new books to explore for everyone on your list (and, of course, to add to yART-Books-copyour own wishlist!). Indeed, by some measures, more than 300,000 new titles will be published before the end of 2015 in the United States. That’s a lot of books.

Among those hundreds of thousands of new books are titles written by local authors, titles published by local publishers, and titles that tackle local subject matter. Here at Chicago Book Review, we focus on those very titles, shining a light on some titles that might otherwise go undiscovered. We’ve reviewed a bunch of them so far this year, some we’ve loved, some we’ve … well … not loved. We’ve also shared info about forthcoming titles in our Summer 2015 Preview and our Fall 2015 Preview.

Any (or even all) of these books could well make for great reading for the bibliophiles on your list. And, so, to that end, we offer our third annual Holiday Reading Guide, a collection of fiction and nonfiction titles that will help you ReadLocal deep into winter.

So, have fun shopping. Enjoy your holidays. And enjoy a good book. Share one with someone you love. Because we kind of need some extra love these days considering all that’s going on in Chicago and around the world.

Happy Holidays!


winsome murder     knutsen_promo_jkt         alchemy's daughter

A Big Enough Lie by Eric Bennett
Chicago, The Windigo City by Mark Everett Stone
A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley
The Far End of Happy by Kathryn Craft
Gideon’s Confession by Joseph G. Peterson
Haymaker by Adam Schuitema
If You’re Not the One by Jemma Forte
The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath by Kimberly Knutsen
The Orphan Sky by Ella Leya
Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica
Principles of Navigation by Lynn Sloan
An Untimely Frost (or, The Authoress) by Ted Morrissey
Weeping With an Ancient God by Ted Morrissey
Whiskey & Charlie by Annabel Smith

Death at Chinatown: An Emily Cabot Mystery
by Frances McNamara
Death at Gills Rock: A Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery by Patricia Skalka
Honor Above All by J. Bard-Collins
Scroll Back: Travel in Time … to Seek Eternal Life by Jay Stamatis and Steven P. Stamatis
State of Horror: Illinois Jerry E. Benns, Editor
A Winsome Murder by James Devita

Music for Wartime
by Rebecca Makkai
Remedies for Hunger by Anara Guard
Twilight of the Idiots by Joseph G. Peterson

Young Adult
Alchemy’s Daughter
by Mary A. Osborne
Panther in the Hive by Olivia A. Cole


extinguished cover
Extinguished & Extinct:
An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist John McCarthy, Editor
Hearsay by Christopher Ankney
The Waxen Poor by J. D. Schraffenberger


weeds north america ucp 9780226076447     blood runs green 9780226248950     hamster dashboard
Weeds of North America
by Richard Dickinson and France Royer

Midwest Maize:
How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland by Cynthia Clampitt
Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers by Anna M. Lewis
A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War by Ronald K. Fierstein
Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded-Age Chicago by Gillian O’Brien
The Neighborhood Outfit: Organized Crime in Chicago Heights by Louis Corsino

There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard:
A Life in Pets by David W. Berner
Pieces of My Mother: A Memoir by Melissa Cistaro

Music History
A City Called Heaven:
Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music by Robert M. Marovich

The Creative Activist
: Make the World Better, One Person, One Action at a Time by Rae Luskin


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A ‘Winsome’ World of Lies

CBR_Logo2A Winsome Murder
by James Devita

Chicago Police Detective James Mangan has a heavy case load—“two rapes, a North Side drive-by, a robbery gone bad with a baseball bat, and a dealer thrown off a roof in the projects”—when he is handed his next investigation.

That investigation is launched when Mangan opens a manila envelope to find inside a photograph of a dismembered hand, a hand that had recently been delivered to a local magazine editor in a padded envelope just like so many padded envelopes that every day are added to his unending slush pile of article submissions. As it happens, the hand turns out to winsome murderbe quite a story in and of itself.

James Mangan, a somewhat offbeat, self-educated intellectual who hears voices in his head, knows in his heart that the owner of the hand is dead—and so begins the search for that individual in A Winsome Murder, a tightly woven detective story full of colorful characters navigating numerous twists and turns.

Set in Chicago and Wisconsin, A Winsome Murder features several gruesome murders along with a cast of interesting people, from police officers and detectives to hookers and pimps to waitresses and writers—not to mention a psychotic, vengeful misogynist. Many of the lives so vividly brought to life in these pages intersect in interesting ways, and author James Devita does an excellent job of weaving the reader in to the tight-knit circle of crime that unfolds in this mystery.

Devita, a New York-bred playwright and author who now lives in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has written a fast-paced, multifaceted story that is as absorbing as it is entertaining. Detective Mangan drives the story, and he is an intriguing, complex character with fascinating yet believable quirks. Although it seems that so many mysteries are home to detectives with oddball idiosyncrasies, Mangan doesn’t come off as a cliché. Yes, he probably drinks too much. Yes, he’s overweight. Yes, his wife is no longer in the picture. And, yes, he has a daughter who ends up in jeopardy. But Mangan somehow still feels like a fresh, new character—and one who could easily become part of a long-lived series.

As the bodies pile up in A Winsome Murder, Mangan heeds the voices in his head, usually from Shakespeare or Melville, and those voices help him focus his thoughts and tap into a kind of sixth sense that propels him toward a solution to the crime. Peppered with literary references, Mangan’s unique quirk lends the story a erudite bent, one that might well be appealing to closet mystery readers who think the genre somehow beneath them.

Although a quirky detective seems a prerequisite for a mystery, A Winsome Murder is far from formulaic. Expertly paced, the story is an intricate web full of complex characters acting unpredictably—just like real people do. Even at those times when the reader might be a half-step ahead of the story, the developments remain gasp-worthy, surprising even if not shocking.

In addition to a unique detective, a wholly original story, and some literary flair, Devita has filled these pages with some timely and biting social commentary, which does much to add to the real feel of this creative whodunit. A Winsome Murder is well written, well wrought, and well paced. It is well worth a read, a fun, enjoyable, engaging page-turner that draws you in and doesn’t let go until the last page.

Four-Star Review

June 2015, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
$26.95, hardcover, 189 pages
ISBN: 978-0299304409

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the book.

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A Heavenly Reference to Chicago’s Gospel Music History

CBR_Logo2A City Called Heaven:
Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music

by Robert M. Marovich

Transformative artistic movements don’t just appear, fully developed. They arise over time out of a complex web of interconnected people, places, history, circumstance, raw talent, and society’s readiness to accept them.

In A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music Robert M. Marovich ploughs deep and wide to connect all of Gospel’s variant threads from the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first centuries.

To say that A City Called Heaven is meticulously researched inadequately credits Marovich’s thoroughness. The nearly 150-page-long notes, index, and appendixes section is a good indicator of how much information the author troved and then masterfully knit together. The song index at the book’s conclusion lists about 400 titles, plus the page in the text that each heaven 9780252080692

This is a who’s who of international stars like Mahalia Jackson, who graces the cover, big congregations, and other major local and national industry players.

But its beauty and practicality as a definitive reference source on Gospel music lies in the book’s additional depth, in the attention also given to the unique contributions of countless small and medium-sized players and their accompanying details. Marovich strives to give credit to everyone—amateur, semi-professional, and professional singers; choir directors; accompanists; songwriters; musicians; quartets and quintets; sheet music arrangers and music publishers; music shop owners; television executives and personalities; and promoters who collectively used live appearances, records, radio, and ultimately television to share Gospel music with Chicagoland, the nation, and the world while developing it into a modern sound.

After a long and arduous, not-always-linear process, the world embraced it.

The text is densely penned, scholarly, and fact-laden. Readers will quickly lose count of the number of names, dates, and places chronicled.

Wondering when singer Albertina Walker’s parents migrated to Chicago from Georgia? Marovich’s got that. (Between 1915 and 1920; she was born in Chicago on Aug. 28, 1929).

Or the date that the Gay Sisters—Evelyn, Mildred, and Geraldine—first recorded with Savoy Records? The cut from that session that reportedly sold a million copies? (March 21, 1951; “God Will Take Care of You”)

How old was Milton Brunson when he organized the Thompson Community Singers in the basement of St. Stephen AME Church? What year was that? How many members were in the original group? And what was the church’s street’s address then? (Nineteen; 1948; 40; 2000 West Washington Blvd.)

A City Called Heaven begins by laying out the parallel journeys of those who ran Chicago’s large, deliberative Protestant churches—that had classically-trained choirs and professional choir directors—and the migrant preachers and street-corner musicians who came from the South during the Great Migration and founded storefront, communal churches that encouraged exuberant congregational participation.

“The worship style of the established protestant churches in the urban north was dramatically different from what migrants practiced down South,” Marovich writes. “The northern worship style tended to reflect the refined tastes of its upwardly mobile middle-class membership.”

“Not finding a comfortable home in the Old Landmarks, migrants created their own ‘islands of southern culture,’ establishing churches that welcomed newcomers and encouraged congregational participation.”

By the 1930s, these two styles became interwoven. Marovich tells you who was behind that—in detail.


Author Bob Marovich

The author gives special credit to a “nexus” of five people—Thomas Dorsey, Malahia Jackson, Sallie Martin, Theodore Frye, and Magnolia Lewis Butts—for being at the forefront, in the 1920s and ’30s, of the melding of these two styles into a modern Gospel sound that incorporated the best qualities of both—emotive and stirring with deep African roots, but also polished and professional.

By the mid-1930s, “Ebenezer Baptist Church was filled to overflowing whenever its Gospel Chorus sang,” Marovich writes. Moreover, “migrants at other churches were eager to have gospel choruses of their own, and their influence was no longer insubstantial.”

Chicago’s deliberative protestant churches had no choice but to acknowledge Gospel’s popularity. If they were to grow their congregational ranks, they had to have a Gospel choir.

“… if indigenous folk music could help increase membership and tithing, it could not be ignored.”

In any industry, rising stars need to know someone who can get them a gig, or just encourage their emerging talent. In the twentieth century, if you were in Chicago and wanted to rise in the Gospel music industry, the people you needed to back you were often right down the street—worshiping every Sunday at your church or at a church within a few blocks’ radius. Mahalia Jackson, for instance, worked as a demonstrator for Dorsey, singing his sheet music compositions on Bronzeville street corners beginning in 1930 and later travelling the country with him “as one of his chief demonstrators.”

A City Called Heaven is a rich timeline of firsts, including groundbreaking moments like the formation of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which still exists today, at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in 1933.

Important mentions include that in 1926, classically trained singer and pianist Arizona Dranes recorded the first Gospel record at Chicago’s OKeh studios.

Marovich follows the evolution of Gospel’s accompaniment as first piano and then organ, guitar, and then drums backed singers. Similarly, the author traces the rise of gospel choirs in Chicago churches, followed by a move in the 1940s and ’50s to quartets and other small groups, and finally the movement back toward large choruses.

And Marovich traces the career trajectory of Gospel singers like Sam Cooke, who crossed the controversial line into secular music, which artists often did as a way of financially supporting themselves and their families. Born in Mississippi, Cooke migrated to Chicago with his family in the 1930s and went onto sing with Gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers. He founded commercial success in secular tunes like 1957’s “You Send Me.”

Finally, as the twentieth century progressed, Gospel stars from Chicago became part of the historical fabric of the Civil Rights Movement. Mahalia Jackson sang at both the 1963 March on Washington and at the 1968 funeral of Dr. Martin Lutheran King, Jr.

A City Called Heaven is a Bible of where Gospel and has been, where it’s going, and who’s been at the wheel in a century of melding and shaping. An essential new reference.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, University of Illinois Press
$29.95, paperback, 488 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08069-2

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

Learn more about the book.


Filed under nonfiction