Tag Archives: Allium Press

A Week in a Life Forever Changed

CBR_Logo2The Reason for Time
A Novel
by Mary Burns

The summer of 1919 was a dramatic one, even by Chicago standards: a dirigible, the Wingfoot Express, crashed in the Loop; riots broke out after a racial incident at the 29th Street beach; six-year-old Janet Wilkinson went missing; strikes and lockouts broke out across the city; and the Spanish Influenza continued to claim victims here, across the country, and around the world.

burns reason for timeGary Krist told the tale of these “12 days of disaster” in his highly acclaimed 2011 book, City of Scoundrels. Author Mary Burns tackles this remarkable stretch in her latest novel, The Reason for Time.

Set over the course of a matter of days in the summer of 1919—July 21 to July 30—The Reason for Time is told by one Maeve Curragh, an Irish immigrant living with her sister Margaret in a shabby boarding house for women. The novel opens as Maeve witnesses a blimp fall out of the sky and crash into flames, right into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, killing thirteen people. Maeve, walking nearby on Jackson Boulevard among the throngs leaving work for the evening, suffers a cut on her neck from some sort of debris, leaving her with a story of her own on that notable day.

A news junkie, Maeve scours late and morning editions for news of the crash—as she does for the rest of the week, which has no shortage of alarming headlines: the blimp, the riots, the strikes, the Wilkinson story. As it turns out, the week is a momentous one for Maeve as well.

Where Krist reported the events of the time, Burns takes a different tack, imagining how the week unfolded during the life of one individual. It’s a compelling angle. That week in July was much more than just the story of the thirteen who lost their lives when the blimp crashed into the bank, much more than the story of the transit strikers who risked their jobs, much more than the story of the hundreds of rioters who tore through the streets of Chicago, even more than poor Janet Wilkinson’s story. Indeed, millions of Chicagoans had their own stories of that week.

Maeve drives this story, recounting the strange days that would forever change her life. From her goings-on while working at the Chicago Magic Company to her involvement with the charming streetcar conductor Desmond Malloy, Maeve lives her own life—a life at once ordinary and remarkable—while the city reels in tumult.

Burns blends fact and fiction in The Reason for Time, a day-by-day account of these strange days colored by attention-grabbing headlines that heighten the tension. Maeve is drawn to these loud headlines, shouted breathlessly by newsboys hawking their wares. At the same time, she looks inward, contemplating the events that are shaping—and have shaped—her own world. As such, the story is both fevered and thoughtful as the days unfold, a well-paced work that ebbs and flows with just the right amount of tension.

Packed with detail, The Reason for Time is told in Maeve’s Irish dialect, full of contemporary idioms. Maeve’s voice has a distinct rhythm all its own, which can be difficult to decipher at first, but in the end lends the story a rich authenticity. Maeve herself feels real as well, a complex character full of hope and savvy, flawed but not too flawed, doing whatever it takes to survive the immigrant life in a tough, dirty, bustling big city. A spirited, spunky young woman, Maeve is not perfect. But she is likable, and her story is compelling… Compelling, if not a wee bit predictable. One might say predictable with a twist. It’s not too difficult to see where Maeve’s story will end, although Burns somehow manages to make the ending still feel surprising. Even if some readers might be a step ahead of the plot, The Reason for Time is still satisfying.

Full of history, local color, compelling characters, and a complex storyline, The Reason for Time is a quick read, but one that lingers and makes one wonder about the many other stories that could be told of that tumultuous summer of 1919.

Four-Star Review

April 2016, Allium Press of Chicago
$16.99, paperback, 216 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9967558-1-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen




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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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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


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