RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksIn her debut novel, Tegan Nia Swanson asks a lot of her readers. The initial pages of the book offer a list of characters and a map, and footnotes accompany the reader throughout, but it is nevertheless easy to become disoriented in this layered, complex story that fuses the fantastic with the heartbreakingly mundane. Narrators vary. Timelines splinter and loop. Fractured events filter through shifting lenses. And yet, Swanson creates a powerful, polyphonic story of survival and healing that gives in return as much as it asks ... The documents Lena collects reveal not just events surrounding Marietta, but also the stifling atmosphere of Beau Caelais, a small town so viscerally rendered that it is just barely fictional ... Lena’s journey is labyrinthine, but its twists and turns clarify rather than complicate. This is true of the book’s murder mystery—its motives and logistics slowly surface as Lena’s investigation continues—but far more compelling is how Swanson’s recursive revelations blend stinging realism with a profound metaphorical exploration of trauma ... Swanson’s unflinching, finely detailed attention to wounds and to damage—both environmental and personal—is unsettling and often uncomfortable ... By allowing Lena’s meticulous pursuit of the truth to transcend the physical and mental barriers imposed on her, Swanson creates beautiful possibilities of real healing unconstrained by the premise of \'reality.\' As Lena also discovers, it takes work to get there: a suspension of expectations and of disbelief, an acceptance of uncertainty, an openness to following an unconventional path through pain. But these are certainly worth the revelations they give rise to.
RaveChicago Review of BooksEustace...shines a revealing spotlight ... Her multi-layered exploration of the far-reaching consequences of this crime reveals forgotten treasures in America’s attic ... She painstakingly sketches in the details of eighteenth-century colonial America ... As plentiful and evocative as these details are, they are not merely set dressing. Instead, Eustace uses these items to unveil the mechanisms of colonialism ... Details like these do paint a picture, but Eustace tells even better than she shows. She draws from dozens of primary sources and hundreds of secondary ones, yet seamlessly weaves them into a cohesive, compelling narrative full of intrigue and pathos. Sailing smoothly across the surfaces of ledgers and meeting minutes and treaties and treatises, she anchors us to these antique texts with occasional well-chosen quotes but always goes deeper to reveal the motivations, assumptions, and stratagems lying beneath the words. Her commentary both offers essential context for the book’s events and infuses them with energy ... Eustace manages to maintain the narrative tension ... Savvy ... Revealing.
RaveChicago Review of BooksKeith O’Brien offers a panoramic perspective of the galvanizing incident that resulted in the passage of the 1980 Superfund Act ... O’Brien’s voluminous sources for this sprawling story include contemporary news reports, primary sources, documents obtained via FOIA requests, and extensive personal interviews. His narrative style is similarly thorough, pivoting with prismatic frequency among the perspectives of the many people involved in this complex story ... O’Brien offers occasional glimpses into their personal lives, but his focus is less on developing an emotional landscape for his \'characters\' than it is on tracking their motivations and interests. This approach underscores the fundamental issues that arose from the Love Canal disaster: Who was responsible for this, and perhaps even more importantly, who would pay? ... O’Brien’s narrative seems oddly timeless. This is in part due to his spare, clean prose and minimal references to groovy cultural touchstones. But it also may be because this story’s themes are timeless: environmental exploitation, corporate greed and irresponsibility, and the power of grassroots activism to create change. That Paradise Falls can be so easily mapped on to our present is both disappointing and inspiring.
RaveChicago Review of BooksJust like the show its title references, Ten Steps to Nanette is honest, incisive, self-referential and very funny, with the author’s wry humor threaded throughout its pages, her trademark asides transformed into frequent footnotes ... Within the parameters Gadsby lays out, she creates a lush landscape around a remarkable hour of performance that adds to its already considerable depth ... These threads of context intensify the show’s pain, but they also enhance its humor ... In Ten Steps to Nanette, Gadsby also offers more technical contextual details for the show itself that its fans will savor ... Any artist, any creator should value the chance to examine the composition of this revolutionary work, and the context from which it came.
RaveChicago Review of BooksGarcía captures this singular aspect of his father’s death in a quiet stream of revelations ... García manages to balance the vast scope of the loss of the writer with the achingly intimate particulars of the death of a father, which, though they may differ in detail, are nevertheless recognizable to anyone who has lost a loved one. García weaves the details of his own story into a constantly fluctuating chiaroscuro of the banal and the profound ... He also offers personal glimpses of his father in his earlier days that will delight even those readers already familiar with the writer’s biographies ... Alongside these gems, he also gives heartbreaking insight into García Márquez’s struggle with dementia.
RaveChicago Review of BooksBeautifully interwoven with the spare but piercing lines of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem \'We Real Cool,\' Punch Me Up to the Gods nevertheless unravels the complicated realities of being Black and male and gay ... a revolving, prismatic narrative that offers readers a searing initiation into his experience ... The book’s thematic organization makes its structure unpredictable, though its depth and resonance steadily increase with each chapter. Broome’s sentences can also end up in unexpected places. While some are light and silky smooth, others snap at the end like a bullwhip, provoking a mental double take, a yelp of laughter, or a twist of anguish (sometimes all three) ... This is a visceral book. Broome writes about his body in a way that you will feel in your own. His powers of kinesthetic communication first become clear in his descriptions of the violence that permeated his youth ... Broome’s stories about his life as a gay Black man balance this stinging honesty with intelligence, compassion, and wit. Though these stories may be all he has to show for his earlier quests for others’ approval, they are themselves worthy of the kind of love and appreciation Broome struggled to find in his younger days.
RaveChicago Review of BooksMelissa Lucashenko’s novel Too Much Lip tells the story of stolen land and stolen children ... But this is not a story of suffering. This is a story of fighting back ... Lucashenko’s writing glides steadily forward even as it expands outward beyond Kerry’s point of view, moving smoothly from one character’s thoughts to another’s ... Lucashenko deftly voices these characters’ pain and rage, but her humor also crackles across the pages. The writing is consistently funny, but rather than serving to soften or balance, the humor instead lances and sharpens and reveals ... Vibrating with energy, both heartrending and hilarious, Too Much Lip offers a compelling multi-dimensional portrait of human strength in the face of human failure.
Sam J. Miller
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... not a laid-back read for a languid afternoon. No, this is a sit-up-straight book. Full of jarring juxtapositions, this book is as engrossing as it is challenging. While it requires your attention, The Blade Between rewards you with a heady, addictive mix of realism and wild creativity ... Miller’s depiction of gentrification is wrought in clinical but visceral detail. Gentrification’s interlinked consequences —evictions, displacement, loss of community, homelessness, poverty, and drug use—are drawn in clear, bright lines, effortlessly illustrating the facets of a complex social problem playing out in communities all across America ... rather than veering toward the ridiculous, the character of Ronan makes it all work. His open, probing intellect invites the reader to share all his turmoil and trauma and contradictions. So when he reacts to the revelation of ghosts and gods and time slips with near hysteria, it lessens the burden of suspending disbelief ... Miller’s careful construction of the book’s many other characters and their roiling, clashing needs and motivations makes it easy to believe that an entire city could be involved in a dark conspiracy, embroiled in a secret civil war that culminates in bloody unrest ... With all this going on, you may suspect that this story maneuvers like a barge, but instead it advances with speed and precision. The staccato rhythm of the chapters and the quick cuts between characters makes the narrative vibrate with energy. Even as the plot thickens—like, really thickens—and the characters accrue, the story’s pace somehow increases, hurtling us towards a breathless and breathtaking conclusion ... Though it occasionally flirts with chaos, The Blade Between maintains an exhilarating balance between verisimilitude and unshackled imagination. On the latter, Miller goes all in, and it’s a pleasure to follow.
PositiveChicago Review of BooksWilliams’s book is about language itself, and in it words are both the brush strokes and the bigger picture ... The connections between Winceworth and Mallory are impressively detailed, and echo neatly back and forth one to another, effortlessly collapsing the decades between them. But these characters and their concerns are frequently overshadowed by the dynamic role that language itself plays in The Liar’s Dictionary. Far from mere mechanisms of storytelling, Williams’s words constantly call attention to themselves. Throughout the novel, language romps and preens, serving as playful trickster and creeping villain, hapless blunderer and penetrating blade. The book’s baroque, self-referential writing style combines medium and message in a messy maelstrom that intrigues and occasionally overwhelms. Through this kaleidoscopic lens, Williams interrogates the charged nexus where language \'meets\' human experience—and the book’s humans’ experiences—and finds the connections there crucial, but faulty. While the book’s incisive meditation on language can make its human characters seem a bit fuzzy in comparison, The Liar’s Dictionary is not solely cerebral. Its esoteric leanings are balanced throughout with humor ranging from wry to ridiculous.
RaveChicago Review of BooksThe scope and structure of Carry is remarkable. Episodic and recursive, it addresses a dizzying range of topics in its examination of both the \'everyday violence\' and the \'extraordinary violence\' that Americans so frequently see in the headlines ... Carry’s rapid movement among the personal, the historical, the political, and the social can at times be overwhelming, but it’s never unclear because Jensen anchors the reader in language ... The value of Carry lies in its unique structure, its sparse, powerful prose, and in the stinging perspective it provides on events that are numbingly common. Until we see it as clearly as Jensen does, the lens she offers on gun violence in America will be relevant again and again and again.
RaveChicago Review of BooksThough the book’s setting is stark and its characters initially few, Clarke nevertheless finds a way to create an endearing, multidimensional character in Piranesi ... Clarke deftly creates a bifurcated perception of the House, allowing us to see it from both Piranesi’s worshipful eyes and also from a more detached perspective. Her descriptions at once evoke a sense of the House’s beauty and a sense of uneasy alienation that comes from its daunting size, its eerie emptiness, and the darkness it holds both in the anguished features of some of its statues and in the depths of its Drowned Halls. Clarke’s mesmerizing worldbuilding is particularly impressive in that it creates a concrete sense of such an esoteric place without diminishing its mystery ... The book’s ending and Piranesi’s fate are both poignant and satisfying, a thought-provoking exploration of our layered selves and a moving parable about mental health.