Monthly Archives: January 2016

Beautiful and Painful ‘Sex and Death’

CBR_Logo2Sex and Death
by Ben Tanzer

Because now here you are, wondering what comes next, but no longer wondering how you got here.

Award-winning author Ben Tanzer has packed Sex and Death, his small, powerful collection of short stories, with some insightful, evocative lines like this, lines that gently peel open and then tear at your heart.

sex&death.coverThis little gem of a book, measuring just 4½” x 6” and coming in at just over 70 pages, packs an outsized punch as Tanzer delves gently though unflinchingly at some of our sharpest emotions: love, lust, longing, ecstasy, anxiety. These short stories are populated with memorable characters who often go unnamed but whose feelings are so deeply felt that they practically vibrate with every page.

Tanzer, a Chicagoan whose many roles include director of acquisitions at Curbside Splendor, has in these pages captured and relayed passions at once unique and universal, tapping into emotions so many readers have experienced, feelings simultaneously isolating and invigorating, specific and common. There is a lot of pain in these stories, pain associated with love and longing and anger and fear. But Tanzer has a way in this collection of delivering that pain gently, with compassion and without judgment.

That he does so in each of these nine stories, some of them not much more than about 500 words, is remarkable. These are quiet stories, thoughtful and sympathetic. But they are not whispered. Many are written in a stream-of-consciousness style, internal thoughts barraging the narrator, often in a vicious circle of longing and fidelity.

Easily read from cover to cover in one sitting, Sex and Death takes us into the minds and hearts of tired parents, cuckolded spouses, crass teens discovering the difference between sex and love. Although each story is home to a different narrator and a new set of characters, the tone remains somewhat constant throughout, lending the collection the feel of a concept album. Each story makes sense on its own, each is compelling alone. But taken together, the collection is even more formidable, like a series of rolling waves crashing upon the shore again and again and again, soaking the reader in emotion.

As such, it’s easy to understand Tanzer’s status as a local favorite and as an award-winning writer. Sex and Death is a quick read, but it is a lasting read, with stories and characters and situations that settle in and don’t let go. It’s a gorgeous collection, carefully curated and lovingly told. A true must read.

Four-Star Review

January 2016, Sunnyoutside
$13, paperback, 72 pages
ISBN: 978-1-934513-50-7

Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the author and his work.


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Gritty but Ultimately Good-Hearted

CBR_Logo2Box of Rain
A Street Stories Suspense Novel
by Debra R. Borys

Box of Rain is the third in a series of “Street Stories” suspense novels focusing on the gritty side of Chicago. In this briskly paced story, Debra Borys weaves together two narratives: one about a young black man falsely suspected of murder and on the run from police, the other about a reporter on the case as she grapples with her father’s dubious past.

Borys draws on years of experience volunteering to help vulnerable youths and adults in Chicago. Apparently, nothing is ever quite what it seems to be in this hard luck world. Serious issues regarding race and law enforcement lend some weight to this otherwise lively whodunit.boxofraincover-small

When an innocent young man stumbles across a gruesome crime scene, he chooses to avoid the police. He fears he will not be believed. He has no parents or family to help him. He could turn to community volunteers, foster parents, friends, or kind-hearted individuals. But as it turns out, this network of care can be a labyrinth for young people in distress.

The characters are lightly but clearly sketched in their precarious situations and there are several nuanced angles to the story. For instance, not all of the people striving to help these young men are thoroughly “good.” Many show traces of both compassion and stubbornness or even ruthless greed. The young men themselves are far from perfect. The police show both concern and callousness. The reporter has more than her share of doubts about the young men; she is not their unfailing champion. Personal problems leave her irritable and sharp-tongued—a possible hindrance in her investigation. All this adds up to poor odds for a young man mired in a major criminal case.

Borys skillfully switches between perspectives at a rapid pace while maintaining a solid narrative structure. Though it is part of a series (with the reporter Jo Sullivan and her family mystery binding everything together), the story of Booker T Brooks is self-contained and reaches a satisfying conclusion. There are just a handful of editing missteps, most notably the habitual use of “must of” and “would of” (for “must’ve” and “would’ve”). It is regrettably unclear whether the author means to reflect how the characters think it should be spelled or whether their oral elision has been transcribed incorrectly; in either case, Borys perpetuates this woeful grammatical error unnecessarily. On the whole however, the prose is clear and effective; the dialogue, which is sometimes watered down, has at least an air of authenticity.

With recent news of the deaths of Laquan McDonald and many others, some may notice that police brutality in this novel receives relatively little attention. It feels like an opportunity missed, but it was clearly by design. This quick-paced, sometimes dark, but ultimately good-hearted novel aims for light entertainment with a straightforward message, not unlike the spirited Chicago detective novels of Sarah Paretsky. Box of Rain will not surprise those familiar with the problems between young black men and law enforcement. But with its tightly knit plot and a few good twists, this novel may be recommended for YA and general readers curious about how unconscious biases can lead to vicious cycles of distrust.

Three-Star Review

March 2015, New Libri Press
$14.95, paperback, 223 pages
ISBN: 9781614690450

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

Learn more about the author and her series.


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