Tag Archives: Chicago

Three for the Read

The Dress in the Window: A Novel by Sofia Grant (William Morrow, $15.99, 368 pages)

dress in the window front

The time is post-World War II and the location is a rundown mill town outside Philadelphia.  Three brave ladies are struggling to make ends meet.  Sisters Jeanne and Peggy are victims of the war – Jeanne has lost her fiance and Peggy is a widow with a small child.  They live with Peggy’s mother-in-law in a bare bones existence eking out a living designing and sewing outfits for the more well-heeled ladies of the town.

Readers are treated to insights about the fabrics being fashioned into unique garments designed by Jeanne and crafted by Peggy.  The novel covers several years following the war’s end as the sisters work to better their lives and resolve their personal issues.  The chapters are laid out from the various character’s perspectives which make for a well rounded tale.

dress in the window back

The book is billed as a debut effort by Sonia Grant.  However, a bit of sleuthing by the reader – could it be a pseudonym? – will put that notion to rest.

Well recommended.

A Season to Lie: A Detective Gemma Monroe Mystery by Emily Littlejohn (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 290 pages)

a season to lie

Gemma Monroe is a police officer who also happens to be a new mother.  Gemma narrates her experiences in Cedar Valley, Colorado during the snowy month of February.  The discovery of a frozen corpse at the local private high school begins a very baffling search for the murderer.

Author Littlejohn crafts a fascinating story of small town secrets that may keep her readers from putting down the book until the very last pages.  Her smooth writing is enchanting and some paragraphs could be poetry.  This is a follow-up Gemma Monroe mystery.  The first was Inherit the Bones.  Let’s hope another installment will follow in the not-too-distant future.

Highly recommended.

The Trust: A Novel by Ronald H. Balson (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 356 pages)

the trust

This time the narrator is Liam Taggart, a private investigator in Chicago, Illinois.  Liam left Northern Ireland 16 years ago after some messy business that involved politics and the CIA.  A reader who knows very little about Irish politics, AKA, this reviewer, will be fascinated by the fierce loyalties and grudges that span decades – no, even centuries, in this divided country.

Liam’s uncle Fergus has died and left explicit instructions with his attorney regarding the disposition of his estate.  There is a secret trust and Liam is named the sole trustee.  It’s a daunting task for Liam to unravel the mystery behind Fergus Taggart’s life and death.  Author Balson is a trial attorney based in the Windy City who makes good use of his legal knowledge and experience in spinning an international novel worthy of the elegant dust jacket.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

 

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A Hit and a Miss

dignified-dead

For the Dignified Dead: A Commander Jana Matinova Thriller by Michael Genelin (Brash Books, $14.99, 359 pages)

The woman was already dead.  I didn’t need to spend much time with her.

The dead don’t want us to saunter in, then quickly leave.

Brutality permeates the most recent installment of the Commander Jana Matinova international mystery series written by Michael Genelin.  Returning readers will travel across international borders through a bleak winter landscape as Commander Matinova seeks justice for a murdered woman found encased in the ice of the frozen Danube River. The weapon of choice is an icepick, truly appropriate considering the weather.

The antidote is Matinova’s intense caring and commitment to solving the crime.  Her biggest obstacles are her staff’s indifference to the victim and the endless paperwork and stalling by the bureaucrats both at home in Slovakia and in the neighboring countries.  She manages to maintain a crisp professional demeanor while experiencing a deep sense of responsibility to her role as head of homicide in Bratislava.

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Author Genelin is a master at creating voices that reflect the people and cultures portrayed in his novels.  As is his style, the tale is fast paced and multifaceted.  Everyday police issues are blended seamlessly with danger and intrigue.  One need not be a veteran of international travel or the convoluted structure of bureaucracy to appreciate the wealth of detail Genelin has infused into this most engaging tale.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

dont-you-cry-amazon

Don’t You Cry: A Novel by Mary Kubica (Mira, $26.99, 320 pages)

Mary Kubica’s third novel shows some early promise but fizzles.

Don’t You Cry is structured such that the story is told through the lens of two different characters, Quinn and Alex, in alternating chapters.  (I sense trouble already.  Ed.) 

Quinn picks up a guy in a bar in downtown Chicago and wakes the next morning to discover that her roommate, Esther, has disappeared.  Alex is a dishwasher in a town an hour outside of Chicago who becomes fascinated with a woman who suddenly appears at the place he works.

The story moves along well enough in the chapters in which Quinn is narrating.  Elements of the mystery and an unexpected twist keep the reader interested, but the chapters with Alex interrupt the flow, and these unfold so slowly that the momentum wanes.  It takes too long to find out why we should care about the characters and their relationships, and Alex’s back story turns out to be irrelevant.

It is difficult to ascertain early in the story any evidence of why Esther and Quinn were close, which makes it difficult to be concerned about Esther’s disappearance.  But because of Kubica’s flair for storytelling, the reader sticks with the tale.  Halfway through, it gets interesting.  But by the time the mystery comes together, almost absurdly quickly in the final chapters, it’s difficult for the reader to put the various pieces together.

The flaw is not Kubica’s imagination or writing style, but due to the way she elected to structure this story the effect of any “aha” moment – when all is revealed, is significantly diminished.

Dave Moyer

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the greater Chicago area, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel of love, life, baseball, and Bob Dylan.

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Don’t You (Forget About Me)

searching-for-john-hughes

Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned From Watching ’80s Movies by Jason Diamond (William Morrow, $15.99, 285 pages)

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

“It was time to start paying attention, because I didn’t want to miss anything else. I didn’t find John Hughes, but instead I found the things I really needed.” – Jason Diamond

It’s rare to read a book about someone’s unsuccessful attempt to write a book. But that’s what this memoir is about. Jason Diamond spent years researching and writing a book about 80s film director and producer John Hughes. He eventually gave up his quest – which took most of his twenties – literally a couple of days before he believed he would meet Hughes in person. Then, to make things ever more tragic and dramatic, he learned that Hughes had died of a heart attack.

Hughes died not in Chicago, where Diamond was headed at the time, but in New York City. Diamond lived in Brooklyn. So the gods had clearly determined that Diamond’s hip biography of Hughes would never be published.

This would seem to mean that there’s not much of a story for Diamond to tell here. Oh, but there is. It’s the story of a person – all too common these days – overflowing with self-effacing feelings. All Diamond ever wanted to do was write, but his efforts never seemed to pan out. So he placed all his hopes and fears into producing “the book” that was to turn his life around. Of course, there were a few problems and obstacles along the way – chiefly that neither Hughes nor any of the actors in his films ever agreed to meet or be interviewed by Diamond. (As might occur in a bad film, Diamond did come into awkward contact with some of these actors in New York City.)

There was also the fact that the man who said he would be Diamond’s book agent never signed a contract to fulfill that commitment, never did any actual work on Diamond’s behalf, and left the business before Diamond’s bio draft was completed.

Diamond had to learn the hard way that one cannot spend one’s entire life waiting for something that may never arrive. It was only when he erased all of his work on the ever-unfinished Hughes bio that his life actually began. And, yes, this was a good thing.

While Searching for John Hughes does not in fact live up to its ambitious subtitle – it may have been more properly subtitled as My Search for the Ghost of John Hughes – kudos go to Diamond for summarizing the philosophy of Hughes’s work in brief fashion:

Life is full of constant sadness and the world can be a cruel place. Yet what Hughes offers in his films is the idea that one single day can be great, and that’s all you need if you live in the moment. That one day can turn into a second, and third, and many more consecutive great days. There will be pitfalls here and there, chemicals in your brain, tragedy that you can’t prepare yourself for, or tyrannical vice principals trying to hold you down, but the trick is to open yourself up to the idea that great things can just happen, that the good is just as much a part of life as the bad.

And Diamond summarized his own early adult life in this succinct way:

One day you think you have a great idea, then five minutes, hours, days – or in my case – years later you finally realize that it’s time to put it away. Sometimes you have to fail in order to succeed. If you don’t slow down, if you let your obsessions and anger and fear stop you from looking around, you could miss some really important things.

This is a quite enjoyable work by writer Jason Diamond. I very much look forward to reading his next release.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Searching for John Hughes was released on November 29, 2016.

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Much Ado About Nothing

Ghost Network

The Ghost Network: A Novel by Catie Disabato (Melville House, $16.95, 282 pages)

“Molly Metropolis captured her imagination… (Taer) wanted to know everything about Molly’s secret life. Taer’s Molly Metropolis idolatry was already the embodiment of pop star fixation, but with the added hook of a mystery, it developed into a full-blown obsession. Over the next few weeks, she investigated Molly’s secret activities and the deeper mystery of her disappearance. As Taer sunk into her obsession, she too became progressively more secretive, until she also disappeared on a rainy weekend in Chicago.”

Applying a suspension of disbelief is required when reading fiction. But The Ghost Network requires a suspension of disbelief that hits 10 on a 10-point scale. This is the story of a pop-rock star, Molly Metropolis (think Lady Gaga), who disappears in the middle of a major tour. And it’s the story of a journalist who attempts to find out what happened to Metropolis who also disappears. And it’s the story of the writer, Catie Disabato, who attempts to solve the mystery of these strange disappearances relying on both real and fictional clues and facts. Oh, and the story has a lot to do with the Chicago subway system and some radicals who loved Charles Debord, “the leader of the avant-garde both logistically and ideologically.”

As if this were not enough, Disabato adds various scholastic style footnotes to the telling – some real, some fictional – to make things more confusing. There are enough characters and plot twists, none of which feel real, to require colored flow charts for the reader.

Sadly, the 275-page story ends on a note that’s no more credible than the rest of the story. While unique and occasionally clever and engaging, The Ghost Network delivers a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

The Good Boy (nook book)

The Good Boy: A Novel by Theresa Schwegel (St. Martin’s Press, $15.99, 368 pages)

“And they tell me you are crooked and I answer; Yes it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.” Chicago, Carl Sandburg

A Solid Writer Delivers an Average Book

The Good Boy is Theresa Schwegel’s fifth novel. The Chicago native won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel for Officer Down. In her latest, Officer Pete Murphy and his partner, the dog Butchie, get caught up in a traffic stop gone bad that involves bad people with whom he has a not-so-pleasant past. This leads to a police cover up, revelations of an alleged affair between Pete and a judge he was assigned to protect during an ugly trial, and a civil suit against him.

Pete’s strained marriage and problem child daughter, McKenna, take center stage soon enough, and before one can say, “Freeze,” Joel – Pete’s young son, takes Butchie on an escapade related to McKenna’s shenanigans. This compulsive act takes him through virtually every Chicago neighborhood as he becomes mired in the middle of a revenge plot against Pete.

It seems that most contemporary novels requite some form of family dysfunction and troubled children, so that formulaic prerequisite aside, the writing is pretty good. However, despite being well constructed, the plot fails to be compelling enough to make this more than a run-of-the-mill cop story. This being said, readers who favor stories of this genre will likely find it to be an enjoyable read.

Longtime fans of author Schwegel – used to reading her award winning caliber books may, however, be disappointed in this C-level release.

Recommended, for some.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Music Review: “Chicago XXXVI: Now”

Chicago Now

This is the band Chicago’s first true album – album of new material – since Chicago XXX from 2006. As Chicago XXX was quite a good release, I had high hopes for Chicago XXXVI:Now. Let’s see if the hopes were realized.

Chicago XXXVI: Now opens with the title song (“Now”), which was clearly inspired by Chicago’s touring with Earth, Wind and Fire. It’s overly derivative – more imitation than tribute, and its lyrics are like a reinstatement of “Feel” from Chicago XXX. A problem arises here that affects the entire album, as the horns sometimes sound real and sometimes sound synthesized, ’80s style. It’s hard to tell when the band members are playing actual instruments and when the sounds have been computer-generated.

“More Will Be Revealed” sounds like a Terry Kath song (“This Time” from Chicago XI) but the horns are synthetic. They sound positively middle-of-the-road (MOR) on “America,” a trite song with trite lyrics: “America is free/America is you and me.” “Crazy Happy” is a boring ’70s/early ’80s style track. Where is Peter Cetera when you need him?

On “Free At Last,” Lou Pardini delivers another Terry Kath-ish vocal. But it’s on top of a start/stop multi-rhythm track that goes nowhere. And the lyrics are painfully bad: “Here’s to the future/here’s to the past….” “Love Lives On” is a ballad that might have been written by Bryan Adams – or Ryan Adams, and then set aside: “We were more than each other’s cheap attraction….” It goes on for five and a quarter minutes; it should have run no more than three and a half.

“Something’s Coming I Know,” will make the listener wonder if 1977 has returned. Tony Manero might like this, but I didn’t. “Watching All the Colors” is a Robert Lamm composition that might have fit well on Chicago or Chicago III, if it were not executed in such a boring fashion. The brass sounds like Muzak.

Fortunately, we’re getting close to the conclusion of this 50-minute album. “Nice Girl” seems to be two songs awkwardly joined together. This is the type of track one listens to once but never again. “Naked in the Garden of Allah” features an interesting Middle Eastern opening – which calls to mind Bruce Springsteen’s “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” on The Rising, but the song that follows meanders around with no apparent destination. This 11-song album concludes with “Another Trippy Day,” the best track of the eleven, but it’s a sad case of too little too late.

A

If there’s some good news associated with Chicago XXXVI: Now it’s that Lou Pardini – who is pictured on the far right in the photo, above – does a great job of channeling the late Terry Kath. But the band simply failed to show up this time around, and Tris Imbolden’s drumming is bland, boring and predictable. On Chicago XXX, the band displayed some guts on songs like “Feel (with Horns)” and “90 Degrees and Freezing.” That courage has dissipated and perhaps completely disappeared. How disappointing.

Joseph Arellano

This review originally appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-chicago-chicago-xxxvi-now/

This review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Music-Review-Chicago-Chicago-XXXVI-Now-5665766.php

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Coming Up Next…

Chicago Now (black and white)

A music review! We take a look at “Now” – Chicago XXXVI (36).

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High and Dry

Adam Richman’s new TV series, Man Finds Food, has been indefinitely postponed by the Travel Channel. The series was originally scheduled to debut this evening with the showing of two half-hour episodes. This preview/review – prepared before the postponement was announced, should give everyone a taste of what they’re missing.

Man Finds Food

TV Review: ‘Man Finds Food’ on the Travel Channel

If you’re looking for a zany, weird and entertaining program that makes a half-hour go by pretty quickly, you may want to check out the new program Man Finds Food on the Travel Channel. The show premieres on Wednesday, July 2, 2014, with two episodes, the first based in Los Angeles and the second in Chicago. The premise of the show: Adam Richman goes to quirky – and sometimes slightly dangerous, neighborhoods in major cities to discover some surprisingly good restaurants. There’s a specific focus on “secret food finds,” both off-the-menu items and outrageous dishes.

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Richman is funny but has the unfortunate tendency of channeling Guy Fieri. For many, including this viewer, a little bit of Fieri goes a long, long, long way; the same is sometimes true of Richman. Richman projects the personality of an immature, never-grown-up man who behaves as if he’s still in middle school. He often pretends that he and his crew are lost but I think this is just showmanship. There’s one humorous moment in which Richman and his cameramen and assistants are driving through L.A. and he asks a crew member why he’s never lived there. The crew member responds, “Because I hate the sun.”

I won’t cover every restaurant and sandwich featured in these episodes, as I dislike spoilers. But in L.A., Richman finds a New York steak with fixings that include eggs, bacon, cheese, toast, and potatoes. This ungodly sandwich is known as “Godzilla Destroys Skid Rokio.” He goes on to locate an inside-out grilled cheese sandwich on Melrose Avenue, a massive Mexican-Peruvian-Korean burrito in Alhambra, and The Jazzburger. The latter is a burger served with ten very spicy-hot Thai chilis, and the sandwich is found at a strip mall restaurant in East Hollywood.

The show is entertaining but not quite informative, for prospective chefs, as those preparing the food generally refuse to share their recipes and secret ingredients with Richman and his viewers. As you might gather from the limited descriptions found here, this is food that’s a million miles away from being heart healthy. In fact, if everyone were to dine on what Richman eats, cardiac surgeons would be billionaires and registered dieticians would go bankrupt. Another issue is that Richman loves sandwiches that include the rarest of rare cooked beef; if you like your meat cooked medium well or well done (and I plead guilty to that), it’s sometimes nauseating to watch Richman salivate over these pinkish-red concoctions.

In Chicago, Richman makes stops at Logan Square, Urkranian Village, West Town, and the Fulton Market District, which is located in the South Side. Among the “hidden gems” he discovers are a super-sized Mexican torta, a Shrimp Po-Boy, and a 3-pound Italian ribeye (rare) meat roast and potatoes combo. He also finds a hodgepodge bigger-than-enormous sandwich that includes short rib, skirt steak, sweetbreads, linguica sausage and chicken hearts. This is the episode where we are expected to believe that Richman and crew cannot find the A Tavola restaurant in West Town which is located in a home rather than in a commercial structure. OK, play along.

In future episodes of Man Finds Food, the show will visit Atlanta, Boston, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, Portland (Oregon), and San Francisco. This is a show that may literally represent an acquired taste. It’s entertaining but relatively harmless – unless, that is, you seek out the food that’s featured on the show. If so, you might want to find out when your local well-qualified cardiac surgeon can perform your heart bypass operation.

Joseph Arellano

This article was originally published by the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/tv-review-man-finds-food-on-the-travel-channel/

Preview DVDs were provided by the Travel Channel.

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Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)

A beer review: A look at two India Pale Ales.

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rubicon-ipa

Rubicon India Pale Ale from Sacramento is a High Quality Product.

India Pale Ales (IPAs) originated when English explorers had to transport hearty hops to the West Indies that could survive the journey, thus providing a flavor distinct from traditional pale ales. The West Coast of the U.S.A. has long been the forerunner in the craft beer craze, and Rubicon Brewing Company of Sacramento, CA, has brewed a fine IPA.

This reviewer’s journey through craft beers has consistently led him to settle on IPAs as far and away the favorite. Usually, the hoppier the better. However, Rubicon’s IPA is neither excessively hoppy nor overly fruity. At 6.5% alcohol-by-volume (ABV), it is instead instantly refreshing. That is the initial impression on the taste buds.

I am told that Rubicon will now be releasing this beer in six-packs. I first sampled it in the traditional 22-ounce bottle. As a Chicago customer, I am not sure if it will be available in the region, but if one can get this on draught at a bar or restaurant, it is highly recommended. I am speculating, based on the regional pricing, that the beer would go for about $9.99 to $10.99 for a six-pack if available.

The ever reliable Beer Advocate website rates Rubicon IPA as an 83 on a 100 point scale.

Sam Adams Rebel IPA

By virtue of comparison, Boston Beer Company has recently released Samuel Adams Rebel IPA, it’s version of a West Coast IPA. Rebel is also 6.5% ABV. Upon release, my local store sold it for $13.99 per 12-pack – a steal and well worth the price. Now that consumers have had a chance to taste it, the price has risen and a six-pack of bottles goes for $8.99 (a fairly typical price for decent beer in this area). Beer Advocate ranks this beer as an 82.

Given a choice between the two, Rubicon is slightly better, though Rebel is no slouch. For a slightly higher price, Rubicon’s distinctive IPA is probably worth it, assuming you can find it. If not, Sam Adams’ latest effort – which is well recommended – will easily do the trick.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Note: The ugly, garish label on the Sam Adams Rebel IPA should cost it at least a few ratings points on Beer Advocate and elsewhere. (Joseph)

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Midnight Caller

The Dead Caller from Chicago: A Mystery by Jack Fredrickson (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 320 pages)

Dead Caller

“I’ve learned to hate Russians/All through my whole life.” Bob Dylan (“With God on Our Side”)

The Dead Caller from Chicago is the fourth in a series of Dek Elstrom novels by Jack Fredrickson. The first, A Safe Place for Dying, was a Shamus Award nominee (sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America) for Best First Novel. The second, Honestly Dearest, You’re Dead, was a Mystery Guild selection.

Frederickson’s bio admits only to a former career as a consultant, owner/manager of an interior design/commercial furnishings firm, and living with his wife somewhere west of Chicago.

Dead Caller starts with a phone call from Snark Evans who was reported dead decades ago. It takes place primarily in Chicago and the faux suburb Rivertown, though any reader who hopes to be drawn by a Chicago backdrop, imagery or traditions (other than corruption) will be disappointed, because there is little of that.

What the reader does get is a private investigator by the name of Elstrom, who becomes entangled in a “confluence” of circumstance that include the return of an ex-lover and news anchor, Jenny from San Francisco – who is equal parts hot for him and a story; an ex-wife who is kidnaped (and only seriously referenced 169 pages into the story); two murders; the disappearance of an old “friend”: an art heist; and, let’s not forget, Russian gangsters to boot.

Fredrickson is generally successful in balancing the construction of a plot, the need to move it along at a rapid pace, and the development of characters that have some pull for the reader. The second to last chapter explicitly ties all of the information together, which is probably good, because there are things that don’t hang together as well as intended.

The last couple of chapters more than hint at continued dalliances between Jenny and Dek, so expect that a fifth novel is in the works.

There is more promise than delivery in this book, but the novel is intriguing and has merit. The writing in engaging and solid, with the exception of too many “cutesy” lead-ins to the next scene or tie-ups of some type of situation or another. The repeated use of this device borders on annoying, yet can be overlooked on the whole as there are scenes that are very well done. There are several examples of the author capturing the reader’s attention, depicting an event or character well, or just plain advancing the plot effectively. But there are just a few too many times when this isn’t the case.

Examples from both ends of the spectrum include this resonant, succinct passage: “It had started to snow. I stepped out of the Newberry into great, sticky clumps of it, coming down as though some maniac upstairs were sitting in the dark, shedding wet, white felt. March was like that in Chicago.”

And these lesser attempts: “I bid a silent adios to the tattooed backsides at the bar and tumbled off to my room at the 8, sure to sleep well and safe.” “The Bohemian, that knower of all things, had done me well. Leo was in sharp, professional hands. Protected for now. Only for now.”

There are very few perfect novels. All nitpicking aside, this book mostly satisfies and will be enjoyed by fans of the crime novel genre.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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