Tag Archives: Midwest

The Ties That Bind Us

CBR_Logo2A Good Family
A Novel
by Erik Fassnacht

Ahh, family.

You can’t live with ’em. You can’t live without ’em.

So might be the guiding principle of Erik Fassnacht’s debut novel, A Good Family, a tale of four adult family members learning what it means to stick together while remaining individuals.

good family 9781250059284Fassnacht, who grew up in Elmhurst, has set his novel in Chicago and its western suburbs, taking the reader from Lakeview to Downers Grove, where the Brunsons live, still in the house where they raised their children. Everyone except the father, that is. Patriarch Henry Brunson, a narcissist going through something of a midlife crisis, has abandoned his suburban home for a single’s life on the Gold Coast, despite the fact that he hasn’t actually divorced his wife—instead he’s just left her hanging, hoping that the husband she once knew will come back into her life. His two grown sons are somewhat bewildered but accepting, although angry, about the entire situation, which has thrust their mother, Julie, into a suicidal depression.

Neither of the sons is living a perfect life, either. Charlie, the eldest, has just returned from Afghanistan, where he experienced some deeply troubling things—things that led to his discharge from the Army, things he doesn’t want to talk about and doesn’t know how to talk about. He has moved back into the house his father left, trying to not go all Christopher Walken à la The Deerhunter while figuring out what the rest of his own life should look like. Barkley, the younger of Harry’s and Julie’s two children, is embarking on a new job as an English teacher at a Catholic school, despite the fact that he has barely a religious bone in his body.

And so the stage is set. The PR materials for the book call the novel a story about “what family can—and cannot—be.” In many ways, however, the story is less about the Brunsons as a familial unit as it is about the individual lives of four people who happen to be related by blood. Indeed, each of these four main characters—Harry, Julie, Charlie, and Barkley—is treated in almost equal measure. Although the flap copy focuses on Harry, it is Barkley who steals the show.

Barkley emerges as the glue that holds the family together. When a life-changing event strikes Harry, it is Barkley who deals with it, keeping Harry’s secret until he can no longer do so and then breaking the news to Julie and Charlie. It is Barkley, too, who seems to take the most interest in this strange new Charlie who has arrived home from Afghanistan. And it is Barkley about whom we learn the most, from his failed attempts at becoming a writer to his inexpert efforts at being a boyfriend to his newfound self-confidence that springs from his fledgling career as a high school teacher. Poor Barkley seems to have an awful lot going on in his life—some good, some bad, some yet-to-be-determined—and he emerges as the most sympathetic character in the novel.

erik fassnacht

Author Erik Fassnacht

But all of these characters—the Brunson family and the supporting cast—are fighting for attention in The Good Family. As such, there is a lot going on here, and it can be difficult to root for the Brunson family as a whole when each member of the foursome is treated so separately from the other.

That said, the characters in these pages are richly drawn, and their experiences are wrought with feeling. At times laugh-out-loud funny, at times heartbreaking, The Good Family is absorbing. Fassnacht does well conveying real emotion, bringing his characters and their story to life without much in the way of trite clichés or facile metaphors. Furthermore, he does so in a way without belittling the suburban life that so many of us lead. Although Harry Brunson forsakes his home in Downers Grove for what he thinks will be a hipper, cooler, more exciting life in Chicago, Fassnacht never veers into sneering judgment by mocking family life out in the ’burbs in the single-family detached home with the full, finished basement and the two-car garage and the big backyard. Indeed, some readers might even sense in these pages a little bit of love for the suburbs. Whether readers outside of the Chicago area will be able to feel the sense of place as well as local readers can is debatable, but, either way, Fassnacht has been careful to avoid formula or satire when drawing the setting of this ambitious story.

And ambitious it is. But The Good Family also is carefully observed, capturing people doing what people do as they stumble through life, making it up as they go along. In this story, pretty much everyone lands on their feet, bright futures ahead of them as they’ve worked through various issues with varying levels of success. Despite being on the longer side of many novels, the ending, however, actually feels a bit rushed and even a bit too easy, pretty much wrapped up all nice and tidy. This might leave some readers feeling like there’s little left to chew on, despite having devoured so much in so many pages. Even so, The Good Family is a compelling read, an authentic look at life and family and the lives we live, with and despite each other.

Three-Star Review

August 2015, St. Martin’s
$26.99, hardcover, 432 pages
ISBN: 978-1-250-05928-4

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


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Scary Short Stories Hit Close to Home

CBR_Logo2State of Horror: Illinois
Jerry E. Benns, Editor

Ghosts and zombies, abundant nods to real-life, presumed haunted and cursed places in Illinois, serial murder, a flesh-eating toilet, and a phantom Chicago pizza parlor are just some of the elements that come together in State of Horror: Illinois, a spine-tingling, geographically inspired collection of original horror tales.

State of Horror: Illinois was the first in what is now a series of similarly titled, state-based horror anthologies. Recent releases include Jew Jersey, North Carolina, and two volumes set in Louisiana. Upcoming installments in the State of Horror series are set in Tennessee and California.

state_of_horror_ilDrawing on the eerie associations with the number thirteen, there are thirteen short stories in State of Horror: Illinois, ranging from about five to about fifteen pages long.

The storytelling found in these pages is of variable quality, though mostly good to high quality, and are well varied, with stories about teens and adults and skipping around the state, from Chicago, to Springfield, to Alton, to historical Vishnu Springs. The authors take us to haunted train tracks, remote lakes and natural areas, abandoned towns and crumbling houses, and neglected, century-old cemeteries. We go up military watch towers, down inner-city alleyways, and through the tall heights of an upscale, residential, downtown Chicago high rise.

The book does have some problems. Inconsistent proofing and editing, beginning with a garbled table of contents page and continuing with intermittent punctuation and usage errors, sometimes mars the reading experience. Some of the stories start on different pages than listed in the index, and, mid-way through, a succession of pages are all listed as “page 103.”

“Drowning in the Hazel,” by Eli Constant, about a scuba diver who encounters an underwater monster, stands out for its exceptional scene-setting. The author demonstrates an intimate, personal knowledge of scuba diving and the depths of a deep lake, which helps to bring the story to life.

Creativity soars in “In Chicago, the Dish Is So Deep No One Can Hear You Scream,” by Frank J. Edler, set in a phantom pizza parlor, complete with ghoulish waiters and talking, menacing food.

“My Porcelain Monster,” by Eric I. Dean, also follows a wonderfully creative direction, with a flesh-eating toilet in a home’s guest bathroom, which terrorizes a succession of families who live there.

Stories about ghost-ridden haunted houses pepper the book, all well written. Perhaps the strongest such piece is “Ritter House,” by A Lopez, Jr. It is a palpably terrifying tale with a wickedly good conclusion. Readers will feel like they are experiencing a night alone in a haunted house alongside the protagonist, who is a modern-day horror writer researching his genre.

The prize for the most horrifically realistic contribution goes to “Chicago Mike,” by Della West, about a serial killer’s repurposing of his victims’ body parts in a suburban mall costume shop. “The shopping public will, it seems, pay a great deal of money for a costume if the mask is incredibly life-like,” West deliciously pens.

Quality sometimes slips, however. “What’s Eating the Mob,” by P. David Puffinburger, sinks into poor taste as a story about flesh-eating zombies turns to genital mutilation and excessively relies on coarse language and heavy gore.

Many of the anthology’s tales are set in and around Illinois tourist destinations, and/or in places long said, in real-life, to be haunted. That makes State of Horror: Illinois a great road map for curiosity seekers and tourists looking to pad a summer road trip with some creepy side trips. More information about the actual places referenced in the State of Horror: Illinois can be easily found on the Internet.

The short length of each piece, and associated minimal time required to get through each, makes this a great backpack book, readable in quick spurts on a dark night in a tent, cabin, or around a campfire. The series is also available in audiobook, perfect for long car trips.

On a broader level, the series, set largely in the nation’s midsection, is collectively a great, scary, longer road-trip stepping-off point.

Overall, this is a collection that weaves together fun, terror, shivers, and usually just the right amount of gore to make you shudder but not blanch. Some fine authors and fine storytelling elevate State of Horror: Illinois to a well-worthy read.

Three-Star Review

August 2014, Charon Coin Press
Fiction/Short Stories/Horror
$12.99, paperback, 246 pages
ISBN: 978-0692-2737-6-0

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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Strength and Sensibility

by Christopher Ankney

A strong, bold voice pervades the poems of Christopher Ankney’s debut collection, Hearsay. The collection, winner of the 2014 Jean Feldmen Poetry Prize, must be considered a major accomplishment. The poems are successful and at their best when the poet is confident and capable. A handful of them could be considered too light or casual, but overall they fit together meaningfully and intelligently in this slender volume.

The vast majority of the poems in Hearsay have appeared inHearsay Ankney prestigious literary publications. (The author, who earned an MFA in Poetry from Columbia College in Chicago, has been published in the likes of Fourteen Hills, Linebreak, Prairie Schooner, and Nashville Review.) Collections of previously published work can feel disjointed or haphazard. Oftentimes, books like Hearsay are simply collections of poems, one page after another, with no underlying connection, but that is not the case here: There are several overarching, related themes at play throughout Heresay.

Among the related themes is that of family, and the father figure is a major premise of the book. The idea of the archetypal father, in fact, is the primary connective thread throughout the collection. The poet draws from personal experience to evoke images and scenarios both haunting and inspiring. For instance, in “To the Rivers,” Ankney writes:

My father, my mother says, had Indian in him
His history walks into you, too.

 In addition to the strong presence of a father figure, Ankney’s poems are firmly rooted in place. There is a strong Midwestern sensibility about them. The book is populated with rivers, tornadoes, cars, backroads, and the bleak realities of small-town life. A unique American gothic works beautifully, for example, in the “1988” series, which appears in Parts 1 and 3. In “1988: Suicide,” the poet writes:

The day before his thirty-third birthday
he vanished like Jesus.
Left us with myth.
Left us with dustless facts.

 In “1988: Accidental,” Ankney contemplates the incomprehensible:

Did he really breathe in fatherhood?
Was he fishing, or just fish food?

Christopher Ankney

Author Christopher Ankney


The second and third parts of the collection move more toward the personal and observational. There are reflections, insights, the occasional illumination, high culture mixed with low—the typical experience of our time. There also are epiphanies. This is shown, for instance, in a moment when the poet discovers himself through his child in the poem “Son:”

You counted three languages
on my hand to learn the world
is full of rhythms

This new life brings Hearsay full circle. The mystery of father and fatherhood becomes tangible, the fear and the dread, real. Through this journey the poet finds himself, and what better way to find oneself?

Hearsay is a well-written collection of poetry. The language and logic are consistent, and the imagery feels like a rolling landscape, making this volume well worth the read.

Three-Star Review

October 2014, Washington Writers’ Publishing House
$16, paperback, 96 pages
ISBN: 978-1-941551-01-1

—Reviewed by Nathan Prince

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