Monday, April 28, 2014

A Review from Boswellian Mel: The Old Neighborhood by Bill Hillmann

Every once and awhile, I come across a book that captures the tone of a time and place in a pitch perfect way. It resonates with the clarity of the original moment, but it happens to someone else, in the space of fiction, and it's written so well that I think "yes--that's it." Better than I could have remembered it. Better than I could have captured the moment myself in writing. Bill Hillmann's incredible debut novel, The Old Neighborhood, is one such book.

Three friends--Joe, Angel, and Ryan--navigate adolescence in the early 1990's against the jagged backdrop of Edgewater, an economically depressed neighborhood in Chicago. Joe grows up the youngest of the boys in the Walsh house. He has two younger sisters, both adopted from the Dominican Republic. His grandfather ran with the Thorndale Jarvis Organization, or TJOs, a "stone greaser gang" that sprouted up in the 1960s (24). This gang acted as heavies, keeping the neighborhood safe from outsiders while controlling drug trafficking. For a generation, the TJOs helped the neighborhood find prosperity and peace--and then the burden falls to a new generation of young men.

Joe Walsh's father, a union laborer, lives in Edgewater, but does not truck with the TJOs. Instead, the torch skips a generation and is thrust into his eldest son's hands. TheOld Neighborhood opens with the transition of Patrick, the oldest Walshson, into "Pistol Pat." This is a scene that Joe cannot shake. Before Pistol Pat is hauled off to jail, the next eldest, Rich, is the victim of a vicious assault that alters the course of his life. Regardless of the protection of the TJOs, the Walsh men struggle through life, often slammed by wave after wave of violence, utterly ravaged by hard luck. The landscape is bleak, but not hopeless. Despite being beaten down at every turn, somewhere amidst his family trials, the urban decay, destiny to fail, among the toil, poverty, violence, gang colors, spent bullets, addiction, and an unyielding color line, Joe Walsh finds beauty and loves deeply.

In an early scene, after a vicious fight spurred by racial tension, Joe lies in bed at home, crying. His sister Jan comes in to comfort him and Joe wonders if her dark skin makes her the ugly word he heard on the street that day. The thought had never occurred to him—she had only ever been Jan, his sister, and he yearns to tell her he loves her:

"[s]trings of agony coursed down my throat and planted in my heart. She stayed beside me, silently strumming her fingers gently through my hair. My love for her, my sister, like a giant, deep lake with bright yellow sunlight streaking its peaking surface. I went to say it—to say it all—but it got caught in my throat as the exhaustion billowed up and encompassed me in a heavy, warm fog, and I sank into sleep." (47)

The Old Neighborhood is reminiscent of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, re-contextualizing the classic coming-of-age narrative in a diverse neighborhood in the heart of the city. Chicago author Bill Hillmann susses out rhythms from the cacophony of the city and weaves them in fluid, honest prose. Bill Hillmann is the Cormac McCarthy of the streets. A welcome addition to the modern literary landscape, Hillmann's distinct voice captures the confusion of adolescence with stunning accuracy, while transmuting growing pains into soul-stirring poetry.

The Old Neighborhood is Sons of Anarchy meets The Wire, pulsating with an urban vibe built upon complex, unique characters that follow their own moral codes. Hillmann writes strong male characters that are violent and quick-tempered, yes, but at the same time warm, vulnerable, and not afraid of their emotions. One of Hillmann’s talents is his ability to write human paradox without vilifying characters. All of his characters are round and dynamic, flowing in and out of each other's lives like fish in a school, individual, yet part of an important collective. Like the Faulknerean town, the Edgewater of The Old Neighborhood is a profound character in the narrative, shaping the lives of its denizens in a variety of ways.

Another strength Hillmann demonstrates in this singular debut is the ability to run characters through trials that help them develop, without exploiting their suffering. This is no simple task for a writer: there is a delicate balance between showing what the character goes through and reveling in their demise. Hillmann retains the utmost respect for his motley crew of thieves, junkies, and outlaws, and it’s palpable on every page. 

As Bill Hillmann said in an interview with Jacob S. Knabb, Senior Editor of Curbside Splendor: “We are all battling within…We can’t defeat our demons alone.” This is a statement from someone who knows. As a Union Construction Laborer, Chicago Golden Gloves Champion, and one-time gang affiliate, Bill Hillmann has lived this truth. And it’s a truth that calls out from the pages of The Old Neighborhood. I crave stories in which characters go through hell to show me how I, too, can pull through: this is one such book. The Old Neighborhood is a story I can put into someone's hands when they're looking for answers and needing hope. Thank you Bill Hillmann and Curbside Splendor: I'm happy this book exists.

Bill Hillmann is an award-winning writer and storyteller from Chicago. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Newcity,, and has been broadcast on NPR. He’s told stories around the world with his internationally acclaimed storytelling series the Windy City Story Slam. Hillmann is a Union Construction Laborer and a bull-runner in Spain. In the not so distant past, Hillmann was a feared street brawler, gang affiliate, drug dealer, convict, and Chicago Golden Glove Champion.

Don't miss your chance to hear the fascinating and entertaining Bill Hillmann as he swings by Boswell Book Company for a reading and signing on Saturday, May 10th at 7 PM!!!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Snicker of Magic is Spindiddly!

Both Jen and Hannah have read the new middle-grade novel, Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd and decided it was high time to have a blogversation about it.  

First, here's Hannah's review, so you have some context:
Felicity Pickle sees words and collects them in a blue notebook.  Her family just moved to Midnight Gulch, a town that has a history with magic.  As she gets to know people in town, Felicity realizes her family might have something to do with the disappearance of that magic. Can she figure out the mystery before her mom decides it's time to move again?  This is a tremendous, spindiddly, fabulous tale of friendship and family for fans of Three Times Lucky.

J: Hey, Hannah, I'm in the mood for some Stoneberry ice cream, you know the kind in Snicker of Magic that helps you remember the past.  How about you?
H: Well, I'm not sure I'm ready to have memories wash over me.
J: But there are good memories!
H: But do you get to choose?
J: If you try really hard.  Otherwise how about some Virgil's Get Out of My Face Fudge Ripple?!
H: That sounds delicious, just like this book.  What do you think about the character whose goal is to make everyone a little bit happier?  
J: You mean... The Beedle!!  
H: Yeah, would you ever take on that responsibility?  You strike me as Beedle-ish!
J: Yes, I would, if I could wear a cape.
H: Jen, the whole point of The Beedle is that no-one knows who The Beedle actually is.  Wearing a cape would give it away.
J: True, I guess I'll just have to wear my cape every day then.  You know the the little bird tattoo in the book, I think that's going to be the next hot literary tattoo.  It's hidden on the physical book!
H: I think you're right, especially because it stands for courage.
J: So who's your favorite character?
H: Hmmm, that's a hard one.  I think I like Aunt Cleo the best.
J: Me too!!  
H: We can't have the same favorite character!  
J: Fine, then the town is my favorite character.  Although, I do think it's good that we both like the sassy character.
H: Touche.  Good choice with Midnight Gulch.  I was just talking to two former children's booksellers who have both read Snicker of Magic, and they said they'd love to visit Midnight Gulch.
J: I would visit there after going to Hogwarts!
H: I would visit both those places and Tupelo Landing.
J: Send me a postcard!

Read the book, trust us, you'll want to visit Midnight Gulch too!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Weeeee're Baaaaack...Happy T-GIF from your Boswellians!!!

We took a break on T-GIF last week because apparently large files don't travel well on them there internets...but we're back!

We're so excited about season four of Game of Thrones that we made a display for it in the store. And as if the good-book gods were smiling upon us, a really cool pop-up book featuring some of the most popular settings in the books and on the show arrived just in time!

Here's a little pop-up book (with POPS!!!) to get you excited for this weekend's upcoming episode.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Children's Books to Look Out for with Boswellian Jannis

This month I've decided to focus on a beginning reader title and an intermediate title. I've felt for a long time that beginning readers are sorely overlooked, mostly because its dominated by formulaic series (Rainbow Fairies, Magic Puppies, etc.). 

But a few months ago My Happy Life by Rose Lagercrantz with illustrations by Eva Eriksson caught my eye. Dani is about to start school for the first time and couldn't be more excited. She's even got her brand new book bag ready to go. On the second day of school she meets Ella and the two becomes fast and best friends. Eventually Ella moves away and Dani is heartbroken. This is a beautifully written story of family and friendship with charming illustrations filling each page. This is a unique addition to the shelves of beginning readers and well worth a read. 

The second title is the intermediate book Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Just before Theodora Tenpenny's beloved grandfather dies he tell her to "look under the egg." These mysterious words send Theodora and her best friend Bodhi on a journey to uncover the truth behind a painting hanging in her house. Is it truly a Raphael? Or did her grandfather steal it from The Metropolitan Museum of Art? This is an intriguing mystery in the vein of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Chasing Vermeer

Thanks for checking out this months titles.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Hoppy T-GIF from Your Boswellians!!!!

Boswellian Amie noticed that the wind-up Fuzzy Bunnies and the wind-up Fuzzy Chicks had beef this week when the breakroom became the O. K. Corral...

Place your bets! 

Who will win?!

Poor Chickie. If only the bunnies didn't multiply so fast...or have fangs.

Pictured in the background: Battle Bunny, Little Chick, and Bunnicula.

Good thing we didn't throw Bill Hillmann* into the mix...

* Bill Hillmann is not only a former Chicago Golden Gloves Champion, he's also the author of the novel The Old Neighborhood and one heck of a talented storyteller! Don't miss him at Boswell on Saturday, May 10th at 7 PM!!! Here's a link to his fancy new book trailer.