Monthly Archives: December 2015

CBR’s Top 10 Posts of 2015

CBR_Logo2Dozens of book reviews, a bunch of features, previews of local literary events … it’s been another year of all-books-all-the-time here at Chicago Book Review. Earlier this week, we posted CBR’s Best Books 0f 2015, a great complement to another fabulous list we posted this month: Chicago’s Favorite Books of 2015, a collection of a dozen beloved titles as rated by local literati. Both of these lists, and a few others, quickly proved to be among our readers’ favorite posts of the year.NYE books—photo by Patrick Ryan

With that, we’re looking at CBR’s Top Posts of 2015, a mix of book reviews and features highlighting the local lit scene—authors, publishers, and organizations doing what they do to support and promote Chicago’s literary community.

That community is a strong one, and we’re grateful to the many authors, publishers, readers, and other literary types who help keep us going. We’re especially grateful to the reviewers who keep CBR active, reviewing dozens of books every year. Chicago Book Review is a labor of love, and we couldn’t do it without our reviewers—or without all the books we receive from local publishers and authors. Together we’re able to bring to readers reviews of books they might not otherwise discover—because Chicago Book Review reviews Chicago’s books.

ankerwyckeDuring the year, we’ve again been lucky enough to review books from a variety of local and regional publishers, from indie houses and imprints like Ankerwycke, Chicago Review Press, and Dream of Things to large academic houses such as University of Chicago Press, University of Illinois Press, and University of Wisconsin Press. (You can learn more about local and regional houses by exploring the list over there on the left of your screen.) We’ve highlighted organizations such as Chicago Book Expo and Midwestern Gothic. And we’ve reviewed some great books by local authors such as Mary Kubica, Erik Fassnacht, and Robert M. Marovich.

Middle_West_Logo_hiresWe’re grateful to our fans and friends, too, readers from Chicago and the Midwest, as well as across the United States. We also count among our followers readers from around the world—the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, as well as Colombia, France, Germany, India, and Italy, the way to Croatia, Georgia, Micronesia, Réunion, and Tunisia.

2016 promises to be another year full of great books from local and regional authors and publishers, and we plan to review as many as we can for readers near and far. In the meantime, we close 2015 with a look at the most popular posts of the year, a collection of reviews and features that will give you some great ideas for how to spend those bookstore gift cards you received over the holidays.

CBR’s TOP 10 POSTS OF 2015pieces of my mother 9781492615385

  1. CBR’s Best Books of 2015
  2. Chicago Book Review’s Summer 2015 Preview
  3. Brutally Beautiful
  4. Chicago’s Favorite Books of 2015
  5. CBR’s Fall 2015 Preview
  6. You Shall Uphold Him
  7. Preview: Chicago Book Expo—
    ‘Something for Every Literary Taste’
    Remedies cover
  8. Much More Than Half
  9. War Must Ensue
  10. Doorways to the Domestic Scene


nyeHappy New Year!
—and Happy Reading!



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CBR’s Best Books of 2015

CBR_Logo2It seems we always have more books in hand than we have reviewers and time—a happy problem, to be sure—but, even so, here at Chicago Book Review we reviewed dozens of books again this year in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Our favorites—the books we loved and those we really liked—are listed here, in CBR’s Best Books of 2015.

Some of these fine books were written by local authors. Some were published by local houses, large, small, or indie. Some cover local subject matter. A few even hit all three—a local triad, as it were. Our Best Books of 2015 includes local authors like David Berner, Rebecca Makkai, Frances McNamara, and Patricia Skalka, as well as local publishers including Ankerwycke, Northern Illinois University Press, Sourcebooks, Triquarterly Books, and Twelve Winters Press. Some of these fabulous books cover local history or are set in Chicago or the Midwest—books like Blood Runs Green, A City Called Heaven, Living Black, and Midwest Maize.

All of these are in keeping with our mission of highlighting the books coming from Chicago and the Midwest, because Chicago Book Review reviews Chicago’s books—and we’ve read a lot of great books this year (and since we launched in 2013). We hope that the reviews and features here have helped you discover some new authors and publishers that you might not otherwise have heard of—great books that deserve to be read and recognized.

As you explore these titles, we hope you #ReadLocal and #ShopLocal by visiting your favorite local bookstore and picking up copies of some of the Best Books of 2015 from local authors and publishers. Chicago’s literary community is a rich one, full of clever authors and creative publishers. Check out some of these books and discover the good work that is coming out of Chicago and the Midwest.

Happy Reading!



Four-Star Review

Alchemy’s Daughter: A Novel
alchemy's daughterby Mary A. Osborne

Death at Chinatown: An Emily Cabot Mystery
by Frances McNamara

Death at Gills Rock: A Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery
by Patricia Skalka

A Desperate Fortune: A Novel
by Susanna Kearsleyskalka death gills rock

Gideon’s Confession: A Novel
by Joseph G. Peterson

Haymaker: A Novel
by Adam Schuitema

The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath: A Novel
by Kimberly Knutsenmeet me halfway

Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories
by Jennifer Morales

Music for Wartime: Stories
by Rebecca Makkai

The Orphan Sky: A Novel
by Ella Leyaprinciples of navigation

Principles of Navigation: A Novel
by Lynn Sloan

Remedies for Hunger: Stories
by Anara Guard

Twilight of the Idiots
by Joseph G. Petersontwilightcover1200

The Waxen Poor
by J. D. Schraffenberger

A Winsome Murder
by James Devita


Three-Star Review

A Big Enough Lie: A Novela-big-enough-lie
by Eric Bennett

Extinguished & Extinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist
by John McCarthy (Ed.)

A Good Family: A Novel
by Erik Fassnacht

Hearsay AnkneyHearsay
by Christopher Ankney

If You’re Not the One: A Novel
by Jemma Forte

State of Horror: Illinois
Jerry E. Benns, Editor

Weeping With an Ancient God: A Novellawhiskey charlie 9781492607861
by Ted Morrissey

Whiskey & Charlie: A Novel
by Annabel Smith



Four-Star Reviewcity heaven 9780252080692

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

Pieces of My Mother: A Memoirtriumph genius
by Melissa Cistaro

A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War
by Ronald K. Fierstein

Weeds of North America
by Richard Dickinson and France Royer

Three-Star Review

Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded-Age Chicagoblood runs green 9780226248950
by Gillian O’Brien

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

Living Black: Social Life in an African American Neighborhood
by Mark S. Fleisher

Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartlandliving black
by Cynthia Clampitt

There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard: A Life in Pets
by David W. Berner


Here’s wishing that 2016 is a year full of great books from great authors and great publishers! Happy Reading!


Filed under feature

When Understanding and Tolerance Trump Assumptions and Stereotypes

CBR_Logo2Living Black:
Social Life in an African American Neighborhood
by Mark S. Fleisher

Mark Fleisher, a balding, middle-aged, white Jewish man, spent six years conducting research in “Little Chicago,” an African-American neighborhood on the north end of Champaign, Illinois, not far from the campus of the University of Illinois. An ethnographer by trade, his assignment was to be a local evaluator for a project designed to study gangs and violence as well as intervention and prevention. Fleisher was tasked with interviewing hundreds of adolescent gang members in the North End.

Fleisher spent six years hanging out in the North End, usually the lone white person in the neighborhood. During those six years, he came to know many of the area’s residents, several of whom feature prominently in his reportage of the area and its people, Living black

Published by the University of Wisconsin Press within days of the release in Chicago of the Laquan McDonald video, the timing for this book and its topic couldn’t be more relevant.

Living Black takes readers inside a neighborhood most of us likely would never willingly venture into, a neighborhood marked by gangs and violence and poverty and unemployment and drugs. It’s the kind of neighborhood that many people would avoid at all costs, the kind of neighborhood that, if they had to drive through for whatever reason, they would lock the doors, roll up the windows, and floor it through stop signs and red lights. The kind of neighborhood most of us would assume to be dangerous.

That was not, however, the neighborhood that Fleisher found.

Rather, he writes, “the North End was a quiet, low-income residential neighborhood … No homeless folks panhandled by day and slept by night on sidewalks or under bushes. No bag ladies pushed swiped grocery carts packed with heaps of plastic bags. Street corners didn’t harbor drug sellers, and local gang youth didn’t hold court there or in parks.”

What Fleisher found was a community of friends and family with deep connections and a rich social life. What he found were children playing in parks, mothers gossiping with friends, and families holding birthday parties for their children. He found a community where people didn’t chastise, scold, belittle, or judge their peers.

Did he find this community among convicts and felons? Yes. Among unwed teenage mothers whose baby daddies were nowhere to be found? Yes. Among young gang members who sold weed? Yes. But he also found this community among mothers and grandmothers and cousins who stuck together, generations bound by blood and history.

In many ways, Living Black is a book about dichotomies. Fleisher writes, for instance, that “the North End had two faces, one soft and welcoming, the other hardened, portending the area as a dangerous place. The North End I saw in the 1990s was a peaceful, sleepy enclave of black and white neighbors. The North End I heard about was an angry, gang-ridden, segregated community.”

One community, the latter, based on hearsay and assumptions; another community based on experience and reality. Fleisher took the time to get to know the residents of the North End, to move beyond assumptions, to listen to them, and to withhold judgment.

Coming on the heels of a year of protests and violence in Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, and so many other cities and neighborhoods across the country, Living Black opens a window on a world that so many of us make assumptions about, succumbing to stereotyping without actually having any real experiences or relationships on which to base those assumptions and stereotypes.

Where so many of us assume poor, African-American neighborhoods to be ghettos rife with cold, hard violence, Fleisher reveals a community full of residents who care about and take care of each other. Where so many people assume the residents of these neighborhoods to be drug-dealing laze-abouts who cash out on welfare, Fleisher reveals resilient, self-sufficient members of a community doing whatever it takes to earn a living, put food on the table, and keep a roof over their heads.

And he does so with little editorializing or commentary. Although it’s not perfect, at times redundant and occasionally too academic, Living Black is thoughtfully observed. It is written with compassion, more objective than not, although not completely impartial: Fleisher himself admits to sticking his nose where it didn’t necessarily belong, having become close with many of his interview subjects. Weighing in on the love lives of his friends/subjects and trying to get jobs for them might be outside the purview of an ethnographer. But it isn’t outside the purview of a human being.

And, above all, Living Black is a human story, not necessarily an account of white vs black or haves vs havenots. This timely study offers a glimpse into a part of society that many of us choose to ignore. At a time when tolerance and understanding seem in short supply, Living Black should be required reading for anyone who could benefit from a look outside their own world into the world of others. Which is most of us.

Three-Star Review

November 2015, University of Wisconsin Press
Sociology/Current Events
$29.95, paperback, 160 pages
ISBN: 978-0-299-30534-5

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war
that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood
can never become a reality…
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love
will have the final word.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.


Filed under nonfiction