Thursday, October 17, 2019

Conclusion by Peter Robertson

Conclusion offers a clever, sci-fi, imaginative take on mortality. In it, 55-year-olds can be scanned and if the scan deems them healthy, they may choose to be “welded.” Upon welding, they won’t ever become sick, nor will they age. They’ll also get a payoff from the government. The tradeoff is that after twenty years, they’ll “conclude,” that is, they’ll simply die. Colin and Ruby chose the weld when they were 55 and now at 75, Ruby has concluded. Colin, being younger than Ruby, is bereft, confused, and not sure about his remaining time. 

Justin, a seemingly aimless man in his twenties, loses one of his jobs and decides to cut his ties with his current life. Taking only some cash and a few belongings, he heads for the Minnesota Boundary Waters area where he’d camped with a church youth group as a teen. 

When Colin spies a man he knows to be dead and is attracted to Angie, a younger woman who shouldn’t be healthy, he begins speculating on the possibility that the welding process has been manipulated. When Colin and Angie are threatened, they travel to Colin’s second home in Minnesota near where Justin is camping. 

The intersection of Colin’s and Justin’s stories with one contemplating mortality and the other considering the meaning of life in the great north woods offers a suspense-filled journey in the grandeur of the Boundary Waters. The protagonists tumble toward an ending that ambushes the reader yet is surprisingly satisfying.

Summing it Up: Conclusion is a wild ride through the Boundary Waters with three characters in search of answers. It’s at its best in the depiction of the threatened wilderness that campers and paddlers adore. If ever there were a book meant for discussion in a bar with great IPAs on tap, this is it.

Note: I’ve known the author for many years and my son’s best adolescent memories are of his trips to the Boundary Waters with his church youth group. I’m grateful to Peter Robertson for capturing the camaraderie and beauty of camping in that pristine wilderness so well.

If you’re in the Chicago area, catch the novel’s launch at these two events:
Saturday, October 19 at 3 p.m. at Bookie’s Bookstore in Chicago, IL
Sunday, October 20 at 3 p.m. at Bookie’s Bookstore in Homewood, IL

Rating: 4 stars   

Category: Chinese Carryout, Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Mysteries and Thrillers, Book Club

Publication date: October 1, 2019

Author Website:

What Others are Saying:

“[I]n essence a mystery . . . its SF trappings give it . . . genre-blending appeal. The novel delivers a fascinating exploration of an intriguing question: When death becomes not only inevitable, but something we can plan for years in advance, does it lose its power to terrify, or, alternately, does the known end date carry its own kind of terror? A smart and expertly written story.”  —David Pitt, Booklist

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Degrees of Difficulty by Julie E. Justicz

Degrees of Difficulty by Julie E. Justicz is a debut novel that asks insightful questions about surviving when one is thrust into a devastating situation requiring reserves of determination to handle the never-anticipated responsibility. Told from the points of view of parents Perry and Caroline and their children Ivy and Hugo, it details the excruciating difficulty of caring for their nonverbal, profoundly disabled child and brother, Ben. From a cursory reading of the plot summary, one might expect the novel to be sad and painful, but instead, it’s a hope-filled, humor-laced, page-turner of a novel that this reader devoured in one day.

Perry and Caroline search endlessly for the right residential placement for Ben, but despite their intentions, he’s always sent back to their home where he disrupts any semblance of normal family life. Caroline, Perry, and Ivy use various coping mechanisms to avoid the “degrees of difficulty” caring for Ben entails. Hugo, though, finds joy in spending hours with Ben in the family pool, watching endless kiddie movies on the couch in front of the TV, and in performing the time-consuming rituals of putting Ben to bed. Other than practicing diving, being with Ben is what Hugo does and who he is. Hugo is also arguably the best high school diver in the state of Georgia, but that doesn’t seem to be a result of his doing what his coach advises. Hugo knows something “he could never explain to Coach. It wasn’t enough to master the intricacies of the dive. It wasn’t enough to have nerves of steel in your performance. The truth of the dive, the whole self on display could never be assessed by degrees of difficulty multiplied by points, just as desire and commitment could never be quantified, only offered as a gift. You have to throw yourself off the board, as if your life or another’s depends on it. And wasn’t it Ben who first showed him how to take what life gives you and turn it, how to take pain and twist it, control and shape it—reverse and forward, backward and inward—how to take what you can do and transcend it? And underwater, in the sacred moment after a perfect dive, it would always be Ben he sensed first, never words of praise, of course, never any words, but something else, something stronger and more persistent: their shared hearts beating.”

Summing it Up:
This is a novel about love, forgiveness, loyalty, family, responsibility, and redemption. It's a novel that will make you understand that it isn't the cards we're dealt that matter; what matters is taking pain and twisting it, shaping it, transcending it. Degrees of Difficulty is just what your book club needs for a deep and fulfilling discussion. It’s a paperback original so grab it now.

If you’re in the Chicago area, the book launch will be tomorrow, Friday, October 4 at Women and Children First in Andersonville. It will be a reading and a conversation with author Alex Kotlowitz.

Justicz will also be reading and in conversation with Alex Kotlowitz at 7 p.m. at the Oak Park Library on October 23, 2019. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Soul Food, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Interview with the Author: Fiction Writers Review -
What Others are Saying:
"Written with such tenderness and honesty, Degrees of Difficulty stole nights and weekends, as I found myself yearning to rejoin the journey of Ben’s family. What an astonishing debut.” - Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: A Story of Two Boys Growing Up and An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago 
"Julie Justicz asks 'Could a child ask too much of his parents? And…what should a parent ask in return?' Degrees of Difficulty is the totally absorbing story of the many kinds of devastation that can wrack a family, no matter its passion to survive intact. Justicz writes with deep feeling and saving wit about her characters who leap, alive and hopeful, off the page.” – Rosellen Brown, author of The Lake on Fire and Before and After

Friday, September 27, 2019

Small Towns, Dark Secrets at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book

What are you doing tomorrow morning? Day Two of the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book begins with several panels you’ll want to visit at 9 a.m.  I want to hear Terry Gamble, author of The Eulogist, an excellent multi-generational saga of the mid-19th Century, moderate a panel with the esteemed Amitav Ghosh, author of one of my long-time favorite novels, The Glass Palace, and Téa Obreht, author of Inland, an insightful and breathtakingly beautiful  tale of the American West. Because I can hear them on other panels, I’ll venture to the Harbor Springs Methodist Church to listen to the panel titled “Small Towns, Dark Secrets” where Chanelle Benz, Lydia Fitzpatrick, and Meagan Lucas will share the ways small town settings influence the characters and action in their novels. These three authors’ debut thrillers kept me up at night so I’m dying to hear what they have to say.

I reviewed Fitzpatrick’s Lights All Night Long here in July and her characters still have me under their spell. Benz’s The Gone Dead is my kind of mystery filled with racial tension, evil characters, and a look at the literary history of America. Read the Publishers Weekly review of it here. 

Meagan Lucas’s debut, Songbirds and Stray Dogs is an evocative and suspense-filled portrayal of small town secrets and the difficulty of escaping expectations. Jolene arrives in a quiet western North Carolina town pregnant and in need of a job. Chuck is searching for his addict sister and caring for her teen son when he’s threatened by one of his sister’s unsavory acquaintances. The ending of this debut rings true and while sad, it offers hope. Jolene, Chuck and the book’s minor characters are engaging and realistic.  Meagan is the second Good Hart Artist Residency author to appear at the Festival. She’s spending her residency here working on her second novel, Mercy. 

Explore the Festival schedule and find the right panel for your literary tastes.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Come to the Festival of the Book!

One of the best weekends for book lovers begins tomorrow 
morning in Harbor Springs, Michigan. It’s the Harbor Springs 
Festival of the Book.  If you’re within driving distance, be there. 
More than fifty amazing authors will be speaking, reading, 
discussing, and sharing ideas in one of the prettiest towns in 
America. Almost everything is free; simply show up and 
breathe in the magic. 

The festival's first event begins when I get to walk to the 
podium to introduce authors who will read selections from 
their books every fifteen minutes from 11 a.m. until 1:15 the Holy Childhood Community Center. The session is 
called Soup & Stories and while many have already reserved 
soup, bread, and dessert (sorry, reservations are closed), 
you may bring your lunch or just stop in to listen to your 
favorite author read. Can’t make it tomorrow, we’ll repeat it 
on Saturday from 11 to 1. In total, seventeen authors of all 
genres will read from their most recent books. Find the full 
schedule here. Below you'll see what’s happening at 
Soup & Stories on Friday. Hope you can join us and say hello.

11:00     James Geary is the author of Wit’s End: What Wit is, 
How it Works, and Why We Need It. This book and his 
previous ones on metaphors and aphorisms offer insight into 
words and are the perfect way to begin the festival. If sitting 
at the round table at the Algonquin with Dorothy Parker is 
something you often wish you could have done, this is the 
reading for you. Plus, you’ll want to be there for James’ 
surprise talent.

11:15      Juliet Grames is the debut author of The Seven or 
Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, a wonder of a saga tracing 
Stella’s life from a small Calabrian village to the U.S. over 
100 years in which she survives seven or eight near-death 
experiences. This tale of family secrets and Italian-American 
traditions and superstitions illustratesthe effects of patriarchy 
on family love and rivalry. 

11:30    Cathleen Schine is the author of The Grammarians  
and ten other novels. She takes a tongue-firmly-planted-in-
cheek view of family relationships, particularly those of twins 
and the families rearing them. Laurel and Daphne love words 
and language and weaponize both to compete with one 
another. This droll treat is perfect for book clubs.

11:45      Mary Norris is the comma queen as noted in her 
previous book,  Between You and Me: Confessions of the 
Comma Queen.    She’ll read from Greek to Me: 
Adventures of the Comma Queen,  a blend of a charming 
travelogue of her escapades traveling alone to Greek islands 
and remote villages combined with a treatise on the origin 
of the alphabet and everything you ever wanted to know about 
language. The section on epithets is worth paying retail 
for the book.

Noon     Chanelle Benz is the debut author of The Gone Dead, 
a compelling thriller and a soulfully lyrical novel that explores 
racial tensions in the Mississippi delta. Billie James’ return to
the town where her poet father died when she was four turns 
deadly when she asks questions. The novel feels like a 
marriage of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Greg 
Iles’ Natchez Burning trilogy. Perfect pacing, characters with 
distinct and true voices, and a sense of urgency underscore 
Benz’s remarkable talent for bringing themes of justice, 
loss, and lack of hope to light. 

12:15     Ben Fountain is best known for one of the best novels 
bearing witness to veterans returning from the Gulf Wars,  
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  His new book Beautiful 
Country Burn Again, Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution  
examines the 2016 election and the historical context that led 
to the Trump victory. Fountain expertly explores every nuance 
of the campaign and why Trump won. Fountain lays out a brilliant 
thesis showing white supremacy as an undercurrent in our 
current trials. His searing insights challenge the reader.

12:30    Angie Kim is the debut author of Miracle Creek,
compelling courtroom drama that explores the meaning of truth 
and what the consequences of little white lies may be. In the 
small Southern town of Miracle Creek, Young and Pak Yoo own 
and run the Miracle Submarine—a pressurized oxygen chamber 
that patients enter for therapeutic “dives” with the hopes of 
curing issues like autism or infertility. When the chamber 
mysteriously explodes and two people die, everyone takes sides. 
Kim’s voice as a Korean immigrant, former trial lawyer, and 
mother of an actual submarine patient ring true in this thriller.

12:45    Steven Rowley is the author of The Editor, a charming, 
but not saccharine, novel based on a debut author having 
Jackie Onassis as his editor. James, the author, is the star of the 
book with Mrs. Onassis as his encouraging muse. This original 
concept makes for a poignant glimpse of mother-son relationships 
and what it might mean to have someone like Jackie O. in your 
corner as you try to find yourself and your novel’s ending. 

1:00     Téa Obreht is the acclaimed author of the Orange-Prize 
winning novel  The Tiger’s Wife. Her new novel, Inland, offers an 
accomplished tale of an Old West we’ve never seen in fiction. It’s 
a world where dying of thirst or heat exhaustion is more common 
than in war. Two disparate protagonists travel the diverse 19th 
Century Southwest trying to survive. Nora can’t get over the death 
of her first child and still talks with her daily. Lurie, also haunted by 
ghosts, is on the run when he joins an outfit herding camels in the 
desert. Exquisite language plumbs grief, fear, and ambition, 
but for this reader, the depiction of Burke, the camel, stole the show.