Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Windy City Blues: A Book Review

The Rolling Stones have recently returned to their blues roots and that means the legend of Chess Records gets a fresh airing. Timely indeed for author Renee Rosen, whose latest novel revolves around the rise of the storied business.

WINDY CITY BLUES wraps fiction with fact. A lot of fact. Dry as toast fact. It's a habit of the author, to use every scrap of research, to the point that you just want to tell her you don't need detailed directions that include every street the character must cross to get from her home to the Chess Records headquarters.

The novel is set against a backdrop of Jim Crow prejudice in Chicago after the Second World War, featuring fictional characters Leeba (white, Jewish) and Red (black, Christian). She's working with old pals Leonard and Phil Chess, helping build up their record business behind the scenes, and falls in love with an up and coming bluesman from the Deep South.

But there is so much more going on, what with the opening salvo of the civil rights movement sprouting and the Chess brothers producing what were called 'race' records to fill a niche in the black entertainment sector, making money and discovering talent and shifting as the industry turned to rhythm and blues.

It is a complex tale with many threads, to say nothing of the name dropping that fits in with the assortment of dry facts mentioned above. It often feels quite contrived, requiring a reader to do some serious suspension of disbelief.

The characters are relatively one-dimensional, the story-telling a bit wooden. The spark of life is dim in this novel, as if Ms. Rosen is relating a story like a news reporter rather than a novelist. Such is her style, however, and it may work for some readers.

Loose ends are tied up at the end in a way that falls flat because it feels too artificial, the author driving the narrative rather than the characters. The ending is a happy one for most of the participants, Leeba rubs elbows with both the Rolling Stones and Dr. Martin Luther King, she saves an orphan black child, and her husband finds his purpose at radio station WVON. Which was founded by the Chess Brothers when they began to burn out from the stress of running Chess Records.

Well-researched, with a tendency to plod along as the timeline marches on, WINDY CITY BLUES is a bit of a slog, but with some interesting elements for those interested in Chicago history. I often struggled to keep my eyes open while reading, but I wasn't sorry that I stuck with the book and finished it to the end.

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