Tag Archives: sci-fi

Cheeky, Charming Cannibals in Chicago

CBR_Logo2Panther in the Hive
A Novel
by Olivia A. Cole

Chicago author Olivia Cole sets her novel Panther in the Hive about seventy years in the future just after a bio-technological snafu has transformed people with implanted healthcare devices into cannibalistic zombies. The main character, Tasha Lockett, is a Wusthof-wielding young woman nearly addicted to make-up and fashion. She must make her way to Chicago’s South Side to look for the one man who might help her escape to California. The concept is outrageous but amusing, and Cole does a good job of pacing this horror-suspense narrative.

Cole makes references to Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler, whose 1993 novel Parable of the Sower is also about a young woman traveling through a post-apocalyptic world. But little here matches the power and sobriety of these authors’ works. Cole’s novel, described as a “coming-of-age story,” offers a panther in the hiveyouthful, cheeky perspective that can be both charming and frustratingly immature. Gore and devastation are consistently checked by absurdity but also by persistent junior high-level worries, such as Tasha’s concern for her hair and mascara. Humor often makes up for a lack of psychological complexity. The cannibal-zombies do not growl or shriek; they bark. They are just stupid enough to make fighting them off seem fun. The action calls to mind fight scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its sharp choreography and feisty, improbable quips. “I loved this shirt, you asshole!” Tasha yells during a hair-raising attack. Amid this catastrophe, she is still just a vulnerable, loopy young woman, at one point wondering “what her voice would be if it were a fruit. A kiwi?”

In Cole’s vision of Chicago’s future, the crisis in health care is turned on its head and spun into a national disaster. Those who could afford health care are now crazed cannibals. Due to income inequality, the South Side has been cut off from this lethal privilege. The dichotomy is clever, if a bit crudely drawn. To be fair, though, Cole illuminates some crudely drawn stereotypes of the South Side in turn (in the future just as much as the present). Tasha observes astutely that the South Side appears in the news mainly as a locus of violence; yet this bears little resemblance to the poor but “homey” residential neighborhoods, which now offer a measure of safety. The South Side is seen in a softer light, as a community of kind, sensible people just trying to survive.

There are a few intriguing descriptions of the future, including the Volamu, a moving sidewalk that has all but replaced cars in the city; superstorms (though climate change denialists still exert influence); and billboard advertising that responds—insidiously—to people walking down the street, recalibrating its images to reflect a supposedly better, more attractive version of the target pedestrian. Yet mention of transparent computing devices known as “Glass” will thrill no one, and it is hard to believe that California is a future oasis, with no mention of droughts, water rationing, desalination debates, or desiccated farmlands. Instead, Tasha dreams of her sister digging in her California garden’s “damp earth.” Tasha also has a convenient interest in older films and an influential grandmother, which makes it just plausible—and disappointing—that all popular cultural references allude to earlier periods (Oprah, Jaws, Predator, Baywatch, ninja turtles). There are no invented future artists, writers, film-makers, or fleshed out new political factions. There is no “worldbuilding” in this science fiction. The future is defined solely by its rampant commercialism run amok. This is “affluenza” taken simply, and bizarrely, to the limit.

This self-published work (nicely printed with a beautiful jacket design by Scarlett Rugers) is essentially free of typos. However, it could have used one final edit. Nothing can excuse the following belabored circumlocution: “Tasha is prepared to walk alongside Z as she wanders through the cycles of wondering that Tasha has already roamed through.” Distracting hyperbolic or unconvincing similes also appear: “The words sound like a wicker chair being strangled by a witch.” A few convoluted observations spring up as well, such as, “Their eyes are doors within her left swinging open,” or “The guilt is an onion of tears.” Such poetic nonsense tests a reader’s patience. That said, there are fewer than a dozen problem sentences in the novel; the rest of the prose is straightforward and does not disrupt the narrative.

For a novel set in Chicago, very few cultural landmarks are described, which seems an opportunity missed. The zoo is featured in a state of chaos, but there is no meditation on the threat to the Art Institute or the Museum Campus, the Newberry, or the Chicago History Museum. As Tasha treks to the South Side, no mention is made of President Obama’s house, Jackson Park’s Wooded Island, the Museum of Science and Industry, or the DuSable Museum. Were all such sites leveled and turned into malls before “The Change”? One does not know. To Tasha, “Chicago is nothing but bones.” She is sad to leave her apartment and family photos, but the city as a center of culture and history seems never to have meant much to her. This is perhaps the result of the character’s age and background. She has been stuck working at a vulgar, high-end pet shop. But the story would have gained depth with some acknowledgment of how relentless commercialism destroyed not just a few giant malls but the city’s cultural heritage as well.

Panther in the Hive leaves a lot of questions unanswered; a sequel will be necessary to wrap things up. Nevertheless, Cole provides a satisfying preliminary conclusion, which is not easy in a projected ongoing series. Chances are the author will continue, since she has a strong online following already. A sequel could alter the reader’s perception of this first installment, but for now the novel’s quick pace and sassy vibe lends itself mainly to casual readers of YA fiction interested in light sci-fi and horror with a spunky heroine.

Two-Star Review

April 2014, Fletchero Publishing
YA Fiction
$18, paperback, 461 pages
ISBN: 978-0991615506

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

Learn more about the author.

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Fantasy? Or Formula?

CBR_Logo2Chicago, The Windigo City
A Novel
by Mark Everett Stone

Mark Everett Stone delivers an action-packed espionage thriller, or so the cover of Chicago, The Windigo City claims. While the fourth installment in the “Files of the BSI Series” does in fact speed right along, the novel falls short of a thriller rating and even shorter of originality.

Everett’s star character, Agent Kal Hakala, narrates a small portion of Everett’s story, handing the storytelling over many times to friends, colleagues, and a faerie who’s come to warn the Bureau of Supernatural Investigations of humanity’s impending doom via otherworldly cannibals. These Windigo creatures (after whom the book is named) don’t make an actual appearance until very late in the novel. The narration falters quickly as chicago windigoit jumps through centuries of time, back again and forward again with a few pages in between, and a new narrator at every turn.

First, the agents fight werewolves, then bad faeries and many unnamed alien-like creatures. Alien-like because their origins are rarely discussed in detail. They explode into the scene, fangs dripping, sores seeping, and hunger raging. They are the epitome of fear and strength, surely the most formidable foe ever to threaten mankind. Just as quickly, they exit without much more than a swing of a hunting knife by the hero. The novel forgets them until the hero needs an ego stroke, recounting their acts of Herculean strength to newbies in the agency, or just to themselves when bored and reminiscing. But the novel treks on and, with the token apocalyptic doom approaching, best friends Kal and Canton fight alongside witches to save the fate of humanity.

If a reader should decide to pick up this novel in hopes of learning more about Chicago, those hopes would be in vain as less than half of the setting involves the “Windigo City.” This novel skips over the architecture, the diverse neighborhood life, the food, and even the sandy beaches of the real Windy City. In brief scenes that enter Washington Heights, Chicago seems a stinky afterthought—a city whose smells can’t be forgotten, apparently because the stench of the city is the only sensory description given, unless clustered traffic is considered.

Chicago is not alone in receiving only a surface description, however. Setting itself stays nearly non-existent throughout the novel; even in an exotic place such as Egypt, Everett reduces that interesting and varied landscape to a description of hot and dry. These missed opportunities to fully engage the reader plague the novel and keep the story skimming the surface of actual emotion, in the end arriving at less than a sitcom level of entertainment.

Hope does exists inside the pages of Everett’s latest work, and it’s clear he has some talent: his standalone novel, The Judas Line, (2012) earned a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and was a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in the Fantasy Category. He has won something of a loyal following for his series as well. His characters can be funny, and his pacing is usually spot on. Also in his favor: The novel doesn’t take itself seriously (so the reader should strive not to, either). If approaching this novel with mind shut off and eyes wide open—maybe with a little drool escaping down the chin and a club in hand—the reader might enjoy the ride as one would America’s Funniest Home Videos, the crotch-hitting clips in particular.

Zero-Star Review

January 2014, Camel Press
Urban Fantasy
$14.95, paperback, 288 pages
ISBN: 9781603819299

—Reviewed by Mindy Jones

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CBR’s Best Books of 2014

CBR_Logo2As 2014 comes to a close, we’ve looked back at scores of book reviews to highlight our favorites—the books we loved and those we really liked. These four-star and three-star titles represent a variety of subjects, from architecture to photography, from travel to regional interest, from history to memoir. Fiction, too, is represented—literature, poetry, short stories. These are Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of 2014.

During the past year, we’ve reviewed dozens of books, new titles from local publishers like Agate Publishing, Chicago Review Press, Lake Claremont Press, University of Chicago Press, and University of Illinois Press. We’ve also reviewed books from local writers including Kathryn Atwood, Tricia Crisafulli, Rebecca Makkai, Ian Morris, and Kathleen Rooney. Our reviewers also have tackled books set in or written about or featuring Chicago and the Midwest, titles like Good in a Crisis, Capital Culture, and Death Stalks Door County.

Chicago Book Review reviews Chicago’s books, and we’re so happy to be able to bring to our readers reviews of so many titles from local authors and local publishers. We hope we’ve been able to help you discover some new titles you might otherwise never have heard of, and that we’ve provided some critical insight that has prompted you to add at least a few interesting books to your reading wish lists.

As we continue to build the Chicago Book Review community, we remain ever so grateful to the authors, bookstores, publishers, readers, and reviewers who have helped us spread the word and grow our audience. We encourage you to continue to support the many local publishers and local booksellers who add so much to Chicago’s literary culture (check out the lists of local resources to the left of your screen). And remember to #ReadLocal and #ShopLocal when looking to buy some of CBR’s Best Books of 2014.

FICTION

Four-Star Review

Above All Men by Eric Shonkweiler: “revelatory”Godwin 9781620405512

Animals in Peril by Ryan Kenealy: “a delightful experience”

Bird by Crystal Chan: “evocative and moving”

Butterfly Stitching by Shermin Naheed Kruse: “exquisitely penned”

Confessions of Frances Godwin by Robert Hellenga: “a masterful effort”

Death Stalks Door County by Patricia Skalka: “well wrought”Finch 9781250018717

The End of the Book by Porter Shreve: “a winning combination”

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: “witty, inventive, nuanced”

The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch: “achingly beautiful”

 

Three-Star Review9780778316558_RHC_SMP.indd

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica: “an addictive page-turner”

Inspired Every Day by Patricia Crisafulli: “thoughtful and thought-provoking”

The Man Who Built Boxes by Frank Tavares: “a meaty sampling of stories”quality snacks cover

O, Democracy! by Kathleen Rooney: “a winning tale”

Quality Snacks by Andy Mozina: “plenty of food for thought”

Ruler of Demons by Scott A. Lerner: “creepy and fast-paced”

Titanic by Cecilia Corrigan: “wild, engaging, mysterious, and bold”

Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos: “a charming, funny, lively, breezy novel”9780425261392_UndressingMr_CV.indd

Upload by Mark McClelland: “a truly memorable story”

When Bad Things Happen to Rich People by Ian Morris: “darkly comic”

A Winged Thing, and Holy by Mary Gray Kaye: “a drama-filled romance”


NONFICTION

Four-Star Review

999: A History of Chicago in Nine Stories by Richard B. Fizdale: “beautifully designed, highly informative, and wittingly penned”GoodInACrisis_PB_Cvr_cat

AIA Guide to Chicago by American Institute of Architects: “packed with hundreds of visit-worthy architectural sites”

Bigger, Brighter, Louder by Chris Jones: “a treat for avid theatergoers … like an extra helping of ice cream”

Exploring Nature in Illinois by Michael Jeffords and Susan Post: “the authors hit their target audience exactly”

Gardening with Perennials by Noel Kingsbury: “superb photographs … a handy, portable reference guide”signs youre in chicago

Good in a Crisis by Margaret Overton: “rewarding and uplifting … perfectly balanced”

Good Old Neon by Nick Freeman: “delightfully charming”

Graveyards of Chicago by Matt Hucke and Ursula Bielski: “a broad study of the area’s burial grounds”

Illinois Wines & Wineries by Clara Orban: “an easily digestible history of Illinois’s wine-producing roots in this handy guide”image

The Most Beautiful Girl by Tamara Saviano: “achingly grim and courageously inspirational”

Poisoned by Steve Shukis: “meticulously researched,” “finely written,” “riveting”

Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea by James W. Graham: “a first-rate effort well worth the read”

 

Three-Star Review9780226067704

Along the Streets of Bronzeville by Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach: “a rich, artistically oriented micro-history”

Ashes Under Water by Michael McCarthy: “page-turning material”

Capital Culture by Neil Harris: “a remarkably researched piece of history … interesting and enjoyable”famous ski hills cover

Chicago River Bridges by Patrick T. McBriarty: “a lovingly told and thoroughly researched history”

Chicagoscapes by Larry Kanfer and Alaina Kanfer: “atmospheric and moody”

Exploring Chicago Blues by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates: “a quick, interesting read filled with colorful details”

Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin by Scott Jacobs: “wonderfully engaging, wickedly funny writing”

The Green City Market Cookbook by The Green City Market: “little slices of inspiration”locally brewed cover 1

Locally Brewed by Anna Blessing: “an interesting tour through some fascinating breweries”

The Negro in Illinois by Brian Dolinar (Editor): “a rare, inside glimpse of” the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project

Pedestrianism by Matthew Algeo: “comprehensive,” “amusing,” “approachable”

Sitting on Top of the World by Steven L. Richards: an “earnest, meticulous presentation”cover_wisconsinsdoorcounty1e

Terminal Town by Joseph P. Schwieterman: “a unique take on Chicago’s history”

Wisconsin’s Door County by Thomas Huhti: “reliable” and “on target”

Women Heroes of World War I by Kathryn J. Atwood: “an inspiration, particularly to younger girls”

 

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