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