The Masters Review Blog

Oct 21

New Voices: “Observation Tube—McMurdo Station, Antarctica” by Justin Herrmann

We are thrilled to present the honorable mention from this year’s Flash Fiction Contest: “Observation Tube—McMurdo Station, Antarctica” by Justin Herrmann. What exists just below the ice? What exists just below the surface of our interactions, those words both said and unsaid? Feel the chill of Herrmann’s world in this breathtaking flash.

A flask inside the big pocket of his coveralls digs into his sternum. He brought it intending to drink, but, given their situation, decides better of it. She points out a tiny jellyfish, no bigger than a thumbnail, floating before them. While the two of them try to shift into a comfortable position, she notices dozens more jellyfish in every direction. No heart, no brain, no eyes, she says. He imagines they’re similar in size to what’s growing inside her.

A half dozen Weddell seals lay in the distance like giant slugs baked on pavement. Six austral summers at McMurdo, Mike has seen seals appear and disappear on the gray sea ice, but has never seen one actually move.

This season Station installed an observation tube on the sea ice that extends fifteen feet below the surface. Mike’s with Laura, a first-season Dining Attendant with a degree in decorating cakes. They sign in at the firehouse for their turn inside the tube. They’re given a radio, a key, and a check-in time. One minute late reporting back, the dispatcher says, we send Search and Rescue.

A twenty minute walk from Station, the tube, from above, looks like something out of a Mario Bros. game, huge PVC pipe leading to another world. They spread their heavy Station-issued parkas on the ice so they’ll fit together in the tube. Mike undoes the lock, lifts the lid, sets it aside, goes down first. Laura follows. They descend metal handholds until they reach the part surrounded by thick clear plastic on all sides, and then down a rope ladder the last few feet.

From below, the ice glows children’s-toothpaste blue under the intense Antarctic sun. The bottom of the ice is covered with sharp slivers protruding all directions like thousands of frozen urchins.

To continue reading “Observation Tube—McMurdo Station, Antarctica” click here.

Oct 18

New Writing on the Net: October

The theme for this month’s New Writing on the Net is, what else? spooky stories. Collected below are new stories and essays that invoke the holiday of horrors in ways that are both familiar and new. And when you’ve finished reading these and are inspired to write your own, be sure to read Amber Sparks’s essay on writing horror: “A Horror Tale is a Fairy Tale Turned Inside Out”.

“A Thousand Words of Burning Alive” by Serrana Laure | X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, October 9, 2019

The black hole where his face should have been shifted, looking up at her. She tried to empty her brain, prepare herself. The shadow’s machine spurted torrents of orange and crimson, and the wood beneath her feet burst into heat. It felt good at first. The warmth was some small relief to her frozen toes and she was transported, for a moment to a happier time. A time when they had stumbled in from the snow and he had pulled her boots off near the fire and held her frostbitten feet between his warm palms and they had laughed and smiled and everything had been comfort and heat between them. A time when things had been stable and he had been kind.

“Conversation With My Father” by Mark L. Keats | Waxwing, October 2019

“Do you want something to drink?” I ask.

He puts his hand up to signal that won’t be necessary. You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here, he says.

“I’m not sure how you found me,” I say.

Oh, that, he says and smiles. Well, it’s easy when you’re dead. You kind of just have a sense about things. He lets out a small laugh. Shall we sit, he asks.

I nod. That’s the one way we know how to communicate.

“The Men in Paris Always Wanted” by Amber Sparks | Jellyfish Review, October 14, 2019

At dinner tonight, Cocteau told the same story he always told, about the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps. Brilliant chaos, said the dapper little man to her left, smiling. Like the pagan gods themselves were taking over.

And when the performance was finished, Cocteau continued, myself and Stravinsky and Nijinsky and Diaghilev — we all drove out — in the early morning, it was so late! — to the Bois de Boulogne, Diaghilev madly quoting Pushkin between sobs as the sun climbed into the sky.

It’s not true, whispered the little man, still smiling. He’s been spinning that yarn for years — don’t you believe it.

“In The Dark” by K. Swallow | The Rumpus, October 10, 2019

As a child, I imagined my stepfather to be many things. I knew about evil stepmothers but nothing of stepfathers. Storybooks seldom mentioned anything about them and so I made characters for him myself.

He was a volcano and I was the city in the valley below. He was Jekyll and Hyde, except his outbursts were not caused by strange science but by his own volition. He was a werewolf whose rage made me stand not on eggshells but on broken fragments of glass. Or, he was a dog, unbearably loving at one moment and then snapping his jaws at your jugular at another.

In reality, he wasn’t evil. He raised me and cared for me and I made Father’s Day presents for him at school and called him Dad. But I was so afraid of him that I was unafraid of anything else. My lack of fear unsettled my mother, who saw the same sides of him that we did but let her love blind her. It unsettled my siblings, too, who took solace in his good days when his love shone down on us like the heat from the sun. It was only me standing alone in the shade even on those glorious days, for fear of being burned.

He was the creature under the bed, the ghost in the attic, the monster in the closet.

“Haunted Mansion” by D.S. Levy | Coffin Bell, October 2019

In a story, a character must want something; there must be a dilemma or problem to be solved. In this case, we know two things: 1) Rose wants to get the hell out of this haunted mansion, and 2) the ghost wants something of her.

But first.

The things you want.

Oct 17

Interview: R.L. Maizes

This past July, at age 56, R.L. Maizes saw her lifelong dream of publishing a book come true with the debut of her collection, We Love Anderson Cooper. Next summer, Celadon Books will also publish her novel, Other People’s Pets. We’re grateful that she took time to correspond with The Masters Review reader Lynda Montgomery about her writing.

Lynda Montgomery: The stories in We Love Anderson Cooper are well populated by animals: parakeets, cats, and dogs.  Many writing workshop maxims warn about including animals (and babies) in fiction. How do you balance the pros and cons of having pets populate your stories as much as they do in our real lives?

R.L. Maizes: In some of my stories, the animals have more agency than the people. The animals are often focal points for conflict, too, which saves them from being precious. Structuring conflict around animals allows me to approach classic themes, such as jealousy and loss, from a fresh angle. “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee” is about a cat that transfers its affections to its owner’s girlfriend. The man’s jealousy over a cat might seem absurd, but it’s no less painful to him. With the cat as the focus, the story can approach infidelity in an offbeat manner.

LM: Tell us about how you came to put this collection together. Did you write later stories to harmonize with ones that you already knew would be included? How much did the collection change over the course of life into a published book (pitching to agents, working with editor, etc?)

RLM: I curated the collection around the idea of the outsider, drawing on stories I had written over a ten-year period. An earlier version of the manuscript had a different theme, but an agent who read it suggested that the stories were in essence about outsiders, and I realized that was something I returned to regularly in my work. Another agent who read the collection suggested leaving out one particular story and I did. By the time the book reached the agent I signed with and my editor, it was in a form very close to the published version.

LM: One of the most fascinating elements of the collection’s title story is the portrayal of the characters’ relationships to media and social media.  The protagonist Markus gets his idea to come out at his Bar Mitzvah from a viral video; his parents try to convince Markus that they understand his identity by invoking Anderson Cooper; and a video taken at the Bar Mitzvah creates waves in the Markus’s social world.  Talk a little about how current media milieu operates in the story—did you find those aspects to be challenging?

RLM: So many of us are living our lives on social media today. Steve Almond has described it as a life directed outward at the expense of a more inward life, and one that prizes online validation over real-life relationships. I explore some of that in the story, as Markus’s dream to go viral derails his real-life relationship. I don’t think his situation is unusual. So no, I didn’t find it challenging to write about that because we’re all—including myself—living with that tension.

LM: Can you speak about your development as a writer, particularly being an emerging writer in mid-life?

RLM: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until my mother died suddenly when I was close to 40 that I realized none of us has forever and that if I wanted to write, I had to start. So I did start, and I wasn’t very good, which was frustrating. But I went to a reading at a bookstore and heard a writer say that early drafts are not supposed to be good, which may be obvious to many but was eye-opening for me. She also said that when you’re writing a piece you have to write far more material than will end up in the piece. Her advice pointed to a way forward. Eventually I started sending work out and getting a lot of rejections. But some editors were kind and encouraged me to send more work. I went to writing workshops and met writing teachers and equally important other writers who like me were dedicating themselves to the craft.  In writing my novel and my collection, I worked with writing coaches and developmental editors.

We Love Anderson Cooper is my first book, and I’m old enough that I no longer qualify for most emerging writer awards. My age didn’t come up with my agent or publisher. The work was what interested them.

I am sometimes envious of writers who got an earlier start. But I don’t believe it’s ever too late to begin. And the good news is that the rewards are inherent in the work. So even if you don’t publish right away, which most people don’t, doing the work is meaningful from the moment you put pen to paper or its electronic equivalent.

LM: We met through The Binders, an online community of women and gender non-conforming people on Facebook. As a person who works outside the traditional literary world, those relationships, mostly virtual, have been tremendously valuable to my development as a writer and literary citizen. How do you balance being in community (IRL and on social media) with making space to write?

RLM: I’ve gotten so much from online literary communities. I’ve discovered wonderful books I might have missed otherwise. I’ve learned about opportunities to publish that took my work to new readers. I’ve met fantastic people who labor every day to create art, whose efforts and end products inspire me. That said, if you’re not careful with social media it will swallow your life and rob you of time you want to spend writing. I try not to let that happen.

TLR: Where do your stories usually begin?

 RLM: There’s not one way that stories begin for me. I’ll usually come in contact with something that sparks my curiosity or moves me, an object or an image that I want to investigate either because it seems to contain more than what is on the surface or because I wonder why it has struck a chord. I want to understand it better and also let my subconscious play with it.

 “Tattoo” came from a news article I read about a tattoo artist who tattooed nipples on cancer survivors who had breast reconstruction surgery. “Couch” was inspired by furniture I inherited my mother who was a therapist. “Better Homes and Gardens” came from a glimpse of another singular object. It’s helpful if I don’t know too much about what inspires the story because then my imagination has room to create something new. And the story always ends up being different from whatever inspired it.

LM: What are you reading currently?

RLM: I’m reading the The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal and rereading some of the funnier lines aloud to my husband. I’m also reading Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., which is a book that delivers on the promise in the title and is full of wisdom. Some other books I’ve enjoyed recently are Jennifer Wortman’s This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love., a dark, beautiful collection, and The Yid, a fantastic novel by Paul Goldberg.

LM: What is your writing habit? What advice about process has been most helpful to you?

RLM: These days, I write six days a week, all morning. If you write first thing, you reduce the risk of finding yourself too tired at the end of the day, or of other priorities interfering with writing. I take a break for lunch and to walk the dog. While walking, I think about places in my work where I’m stuck. There’s something about walking that nearly always helps me discover solutions. Then, I write for another hour or two in the afternoon. I’m grateful to be writing full time now, but when I started writing, I wrote whenever I could carve out time, in the evenings and on weekends. The important thing for me was to be regular about it.

As far as advice goes, a teacher of mine once said he couldn’t think of any student who stuck with writing over the years, working at it and honing her craft, who didn’t find success. I love this because it shows that writing isn’t an inborn talent that either you have or you don’t. Instead, writing is a skill that you develop over time with great effort.

Interviewed by Lynda Montgomery

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 16

The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews—Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger

Our penultimate edition of The Novel of Now series features Lost and Wanted, Nell Freudenberger’s New York Times Best-Seller. The novel was published this April and was one of the 9 books included in Brandon Williams’ class, The Novel of Now. Read on to see how Brandon’s class responded to Lost and Wanted.

In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.

As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.

After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.

Lost and Wanted, Nell Freudenberger

Quick Synopsis: When a world-renowned scientist gets a text message from her recently-deceased best friend, she finds herself questioning the rules of reality that she has always known.

In Nell Freudenberger’s novel, Lost and Wanted, the reader is taken through the perspective of Helen, a successful physicist whose longtime friend, Charlie, just recently passed away. On top of grief, Helen has to deal with the fact that she is also getting messages from the presumably stolen phone of Charlie. Who can she tell? What does this all mean? Is it a ghost or somebody playing games with her? Those around her don’t seem to think anything of the situation, but Helen knows deep inside the messages sent to her had to mean something more than just a scammer who was able to make it look like Charlie’s email address.

This novel is filled with references to the struggles that Charlie, a young Black woman at an Ivy league and then eventually Hollywood, had to deal with in her life. From a director wanting her to write the script for a Black character based on her “experiences” to when she began acting, she would be told that the character she was auditioning for wasn’t “ethnic” and that she didn’t have the right look for the part. These types of assumptions and discriminations against women of color are still ever relevant in the world today. This novel is a light source that focuses reader’s attention to some of the larger issues in the world, racial prejudices, and how the people put in those situations choose to adapt, even though they shouldn’t have to. Charlie was a great character that Freudenberger uses to highlight assumptions made about African Americans in modern society and this allows the reader to then have a larger take away from the novel.

However, the reader is taken along Helen’s life in the aftermath of Charlie’s death when the book jacket made it seem as though the novel was going to be a ghost story where a rational woman is going to try and come to terms with or rationalize what is happening and cannot. Continuing along in the novel, belief in ghosts is continually squashed as it is brought up and repeatedly pushed against. This may be taxing for the reader, as all of the characters were convinced this wasn’t a ghost at all and just somebody on the other end of the phone who has stolen it. The book jacket reads, “She is forced to question the laws of the universe that had always steadied her mind and heart.” Well, halfway into the novel there was no sign of any questioning happening on Helen’s part. If the characters don’t believe there is a ghost then why should the reader? At that point the hook is dissolved and the reader is left wondering why they should even read on. One could argue that she humored the idea only momentarily, and then her reasoning kicked in and the ideas were swiftly swept away. However, it isn’t as interesting to read about an individual just confirming their own beliefs over and over again for 150 pages. Where are the events that propel the plot forward?

Bailey Powell


The class had the same reaction with this particular book: One, the cover was aesthetically pleasing; and two, this book was not the best. The problem with this book was that the plot was weak and the characters lacked personality. The plot was about how Helen lost her best friend and she is getting texts from her best friend who is supposed to be dead. Instead of reacting like how a regular person would act, she just ignores it. The problem wasn’t that this was wrong or immoral, it was just unusual. Most of us were expecting this to have a significant impact on the main character but it doesn’t.

Another problem that everyone in this class had was that half of the book’s pages did not contribute to the plot. These pages are just about the world of physics. There were times where it seemed like it was trying to intertwine with what was happening by using physics as a metaphor. However, it mainly sounds very dense to a reader who is not interested in this kind of subject. This deviates from the actual plot so the reader might forget what the focus is supposed to be, or they stop caring.

Daisy Matias


In relating physics to the world, Lost and Wanted, by Nell Fruendenberger, does the job at exhibiting how the main character, Helen, makes sense of the world and her emotions around her. The main problem I had with this book is the lack of plot concerning Helen and her character. Nothing truly extravagant has upended her life to have filled the pages to what they are now. Helen gets a call from an old friend, Charlie, one whom she hadn’t had contact in several years or so, then finds out she had passed away, then wonders who has Charlie’s phone. Helen doesn’t have a reason to be involved to the people who had known Charlie, but somehow, she is pushed into this force.

Much worse, Helen, as a character, seems so detached from her emotions, and so over in her head. Never once did I feel that Helen was grieving, but this could be because of the excessive scientific terms used to explain how Helen sees herself and the world around her. She also has a son but doesn’t seem to care about what he wants. For whatever reason, Fruedenberger adds a slight love interest, but I didn’t see the point of this love interest, seeing as we only see them through flashbacks, and barely see them interact in the present timeline.

Another thing that bothered me is the character, Charlie. She’s dead, but she’s the center of attention in this book. I never got to understand her or know her unless it was through Helen’s flashback. Even then, Charlie never developed as a character for me—though this is true for all the characters in this book. I think Charlie seems to be built as this perfect and hardworking girl, but this is never really seen in the book. This book is not terrible, but it’s definitely not one I would pick up or would be interested in picking up, seeing as the book jacket would probably deter me (I’m not one for grief stories).

Cherish Yang


Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams

Oct 14

Featured Fiction: “Under the System” by Adrian Van Young

We are so pleased to have the chance to publish another excellent story from Adrian Van Young. “Under the System” comes to us just in time for the Halloween season, flush with the living dead and overly cheery meteorologists. Van Young’s story strikes hardest in its ending—but why let us spoil it? Read “Under the System” in full below:

Yes that’s what you think it is, folks! Graveyard earth, which our town’s risen children have dragged from death with them in more or less the same circumference as the storm system hovering over us now.

Well hi there, folks!

It’s your friendly neighborhood meteorologist Stuart Smalls here, checking in from the WRAL Weather Center downtown with a few updates on that big, nasty storm system everyone’s been talking about. Now remember, folks, these reports don’t control the weather, they only predict it, but current models show this storm with the potential to produce 60 mph gusts, hail more than an inch in diameter, flash flooding in low lying areas and possible supercell thunderstorms.

Yikes!

See this animation here? See this cloud of swirling red?

Everyone should have a plan. I’ll go ahead and share mine with you!

After I went to the store for supplies, I spent the day getting my property ready. I masking-taped cardboard to cover my windows, I trimmed my trees and bagged my bushes. I took in everything outside that the wind could pick up and slam into my house, even though lots of it, Natalie’s things, I’d put into storage or given away. I charged my devices: computer and cellphone. Readied my flashlights and non-perishables. I leaned a fire-ax near my door and then I checked it all again.

* * *

Well, folks, it’s been a tense few hours as we wait for this system to pass overhead, but now that it has we’re all somewhat confused?

See, our WRAL radar, which is 99.98% on the nose, recorded the storm passing into our county as models predicted right down to the minute, but still there’s not a drop of rain. The sky is an unclouded bowl.  It’s eerily calm, folks, but look at your screens, you can still see the shape of that storm system hovering.

I passed the time shut in my house, the light barely filtering in through the cardboard; it looked like my palm with a flashlight held to it, like my late daughter Natalie’s palm (miss you, sweetie!) when we would shelter in her forts in the dim of the living room, some rainy day.

Now, in my living room, tracking the storm, I heard a light knock on the door.

I got up.

To continue reading “Under the System” click here.

 

Oct 11

Common Revisions Suggested by Brandon Williams

One of our favorite offerings through our submissions is the Editorial Letter option. This selection allows us to pair a submission with a dedicated reader who provides in-depth, focused feedback on ways the writer might improve their work. Brandon Williams has written a lot of feedback in this form over the last year. Below, he’s compiled a list of the most common revisions he’s suggested.

In the last year, I’ve read and written critiques for a whole lot of stories, many of them through The Masters Review.  Whether for our New Voices section, our summer and winter contests, every imaginable genre of fiction, flash, nonfiction, a couple accidental submissions of children’s books or one 300-page collection of poetry, I’ve seen some great stories and quite a few that could still use some work. Here are a few of the places that I’ve found myself most often suggesting revisions.

The Hook

Many stories take way too long to get going, filling space with non-essential description or action to help us get to know the character or the world before we dive into the meat of the story. As an example: probably a quarter of the stories I review start with some variation of a character’s daily ritual—if Melanie wakes up and does five crunches before she gives up and just eats some Captain Crunch like the rest of us (am I sharing too much with you?) then takes a shower and puts on her makeup, that’s great, but that might not be the most important or interesting thing with which to start a story. Especially not if she then gets in her car and gets stuck in a traffic jam that keeps her from making it to work on-time, which turns out to be the one thing that saves her life when the earthquake brings her building down and she discovers that all of her coworkers are now dead. The Captain Crunch instead of crunches had nothing to do with the car, or with her lateness, or with the earthquake, so why start there?

I’m not saying that kind of starting point can’t work for the right story, but as a general rule of thumb: Every moment you put into a story should have some effect on the events that come after. If they’re simply there for ambiance, that’s not enough of a justification. We don’t have room, and readers don’t have much patience, for narrative throat-clearing. Get us to the stuff that matters, as quickly as possible. The quicker we get there, the quicker we’ll be invested in your pages.

To continue reading “Common Revisions Suggested” click here.

Oct 9

The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews—Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

This week’s post in our The Novel of Now series features Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan, a novel set in an alternate 1980s London, which interrogates the morality of artificial intelligence. Check out what Brandon’s class thought of this new novel from the British writer.

In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.

As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.

After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.

Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan

Quick Synopsis: In alternate 1980s London, Charlie buys an early version of a brand-new synthetic human being and finds himself embroiled in a love triangle of his own devising.

The characters in Machines Like Me hold very little nuances to be considered unique enough in the world they find themselves in. This is particularly true of the protagonist, Charlie, whose character seems to embody an old, outdated way of thinking while trying to embody the youth of today’s culture. The contrasting characteristics that Charlie embodies make his character feel unreal and unrelatable in any way. Though perhaps it is intended, Charlie is an unreliable narrator, and as a result many of his actions seem to follow no coherent logic. Additionally, unlike many other characters in the novel Charlie’s beliefs remain stagnant and unchanged. This results in a character that is otherwise flat and that cannot fathom any reasonable train of thought to perceive the dangers he might be facing at times despite how clear those dangers might be.

In terms of other characters, such as Adam and Miranda, they themselves embody a sort of immature way of thought about what humanity is. As is repeatedly shown in Miranda’s case, it would seem that women are incapable of any other goals other than sex and parenthood, which is completely problematic. As she exists, she is also at times portrayed in a rather melodramatic way, which again is a problematic way to portray women in novels. Much of what happens to her is forced upon her by other characters such as Charlie and Adam which, in combination with her portrayal, results in a character with little agency and rational thought, therefore making her very basic as a character overall. In regards to Adam, his development as a character is limited because of his simple way of thinking about human nature. While this is understandable because he is a robot, it becomes an issue when he degenerates into a singular identity: the synth in love with Miranda. It is particularly problematic when the only reason Adam loves Miranda is because of the sex he had with her and not any other meaningful connection This in turn reinforces Miranda’s position, thus making both her and Adam as supportive characters just as flat as Charlie.

Though the characters lack any depth, the setting certainly does not. Unlike in the lives of the characters, the surrounding world has clear stakes and faces considerable losses that challenge the established order, particularly as they relate to political issues revolving around military and social issues. While the characters fail to interact with one another in a meaningful way, the existence of this world allows a more meaningful, but nonetheless still limited, interaction between the characters and the world.

Alejandro Cortez


Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan follows Charlie and is set in an alternative reality of London in the eighties. McEwan tends to go off on rants that stretch across pages about the history of the town they’re in or other seemingly unimportant details which pushes the main narrative to the sidelines often. The world is described extremely vividly, which most readers can appreciate. However, when the book jacket boasts the likenesses of two artificial humans, the reader expects a story about artificial humans. Now this isn’t to say that isn’t what this story is, it just takes McEwan a little while to actually get there. However, when the reader finally gets some details about Adam the story begins to pick up pace.

McEwan is an amazing writer; he challenges the way things are usually said in original and unique language that draws readers in. His imagery and description of setting really pulls the reader’s attention to the page and forces them to have a mental movie. However, this novel falls short in the way McEwan chooses to let the story unfold. There will be moments that further the plot (Charlie begins inputting personality traits for example) that are then followed by paragraphs, sometimes even pages, of what seems to be world building. This is extremely distracting from the main plot line and seems to be a bit unnecessary considering the fact that the only difference between this world and the actual world is they are far more advanced technologically, but the rules of the universe seem to be the same. The novel would have really flourished without the unneeded mini novels of minute details and side tangents scattered throughout the larger plot, and the plot that the reader mostly wants to read.

There also seems to be a lack of trust in the reader on McEwan’s part. He doesn’t hesitate in overexplaining, and like stated earlier, going on tangents when the reader could have gathered these facts from scene or not even needed it at all. The lovely voice and great imagery got clouded and diluted with word vomit.

Bailey Powell


In this alternate reality where artificial intelligences have been created in the late 20th century, Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan has reused the common trope of artificial intelligence. In this installment, a self-centered man named Charlie has bought an artificial intelligence, and finds himself at odds against this superior intelligence, Adam, who can do everything better than Charlie could ever. Going into this book, I thought it would somehow be weird, seeing as how the cover is of Adam, who is shirtless in the cover, but as horrendous as the book cover may be, the book itself was pretty decent. In a way, the story was weird through Charlie’s perspective.

The plot is simple: human versus artificial intelligence. For whatever reason, Charlie likes Miranda, and Adam likes her, too, but Miranda isn’t anyone special of the sort. If anything, she’s probably the least fleshed out in the book, and exists solely for the purpose of Charlie’s love interest, and perhaps, for Adam’s strong sense of justice. Charlie and Adam are foil characters, each one representing the good and evil of humanity. I think the beef and wits between Charlie and Adam are entertaining, due to Charlie having arguments he could never win against Adam.

Cherish Yang


Collected and Curated by Brandon Williams

Oct 8

Craft: “A Horror Tale is a Fairy Tale Turned Inside Out” by Amber Sparks

October has long been one of our favorite months. The weather turning, the leaves changing colors, but most importantly: Halloween. The month of October is perfect for a good ghost story. We’re thrilled to share this essay today from Amber Sparks on the art of writing a spooky story: “A Horror Tale is a Fairy Tale Turned Inside Out.”

Do you know how to write a fairy tale? Then you know how to write a horror story, too. A horror story is, more or less, a fairy tale turned inside out.

The fairy tale and the horror tale are both very old, and both have similar origins: they’re rooted in warnings, in advice, in the idea that you need to know the consequences. The fairy tale is rooted in a warning heeded, and a reward or a wonder at the end. But a warning not heeded? A warning can bend, can rot, can turn on you. A story can be one thing, or two – good or bad, nightmare and dream. As Brian Evenson’s narrator says in his horror tale “Windeye:” ““It is important to know that a window can be instead a windeye.” It is important to know that wonder can turn to horror, and it’s not as hard as you might think to twist it. It might scare you how easy it actually is.

The elements are very much the same.

Let’s start as fairy tales do, with the “once upon a time;” in contemporary horror stories it might be long ago, or it might be a now that’s not quite like our own. There always something set apart, something fable-like about the place and time of a horror story. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” for example, could be a fairy tale at the beginning; it starts out in a village that could be contemporary, but could also be just about anywhere, anytime, Anytown. The stories in Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas have a set apart, once-upon-a-time feel. The setting in horror is often more contemporary, but there’s something off about the now.

To continue reading “A Horror Tale is a Fairy Tale Turned Inside Outclick here.

Oct 2

The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews—Normal People by Sally Rooney

The focus of this week’s The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews is Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Find out what Brandon’s class thought of this sophomore novel from Sally Rooney below:

In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.

As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.

After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.

Normal People, Sally Rooney

Quick Synopsis: Marianne and Connell deal with the vagaries of high school and college, while finding their emotional orbit constantly circling around each other.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People was pitched as a romantic novel about two young undergrads named Connell and Marianne. The story has the simple popular boy and unpopular girl meet in high school and start to like each other plot. However, due to their differences in social status they fall out, only to meet again and reignite certain feelings, but then something happens that tears them apart. Thus, the cycle continues.

I suppose on the surface you can call this a love story: It has all the average love story tropes. Two individuals who are in love but too afraid to express their feelings, misunderstandings that break them up, family/friends as obstacles, and all those other cliché romance tropes. So the question is: How does this novel stand out? I suppose one could argue the characters are somewhat interesting. Well, at least one of them was interesting. The female protagonist, Marianne, stuck me as a very complex and well-developed character. Without giving anything away, throughout the book she seems to surrender a lot of agency within her relationships, especially in her relationship with Connell, because even Connell notices the power dynamic in their relationship.

Throughout the book, I cared more about Marianne than Connell. Since she seemed the most developed and suffered the most abuse. I was hoping by the end of the novel she would grow more and gain more agency in her relationships. But I suppose this isn’t one of those kind of books. If you are going into this hoping for a decent drama/romance, this book will do the trick. If you are looking for a book with a new spin on romance and two charming leading characters, then this may not be the book to read.

Breona Taitt


In the novel Normal People by Sally Rooney, the reader follows the love story of Connell and Marianne, starting when they are in high school.

This book focuses extremely on the psychological aspects of each of its characters which allows Rooney to create very complex and detailed characters. Not only do psychological factors play a role in the way this story unfolds, but so does economic and social class. Connell is from the lower class with a single mother and Marianne is from the upper class with a widowed mother. Throughout the novel it seems as though Connell believes that this is partially a reason why the two don’t necessarily work out. This subplot seems to be less fleshed out than the psychological aspect of the narrative.

As the pair ages and goes through different life events, so does their dynamic. Connell is definitely the less mentally damaged of the two characters, but still damaged nonetheless. This novel shows the different psychological outcomes that can come from mental and physical abuse, an absent father, and social and economic class and a real-world smoothie perfectly blended on the page. Rooney’s voice is clear and consistent throughout the novel and easy to understand. Rooney also goes into great detail about each of her characters so the reader is left with a feeling that they know who these people are and what they would outside the context of this narrative.

Bailey Powell


Sally Rooney’s Normal People offers a nuanced portrayal of young love in all of its complication and confusion. Following Marianne and Connell through five years of their on-again-off-again relationship, Rooney provides a deft portrayal of intimacy, lending the reader a first-hand example of how our lives can be drawn toward, tethered to, and changed by another person. Continuing in the tradition of Conversations with Friends, Rooney showcases an astute understanding of the psychological complexities surrounding love and sex—particularly in one’s formative encounters. The writing in Normal People presents Rooney as a master of small-intimacies. Her scenes are packed with a vertiginous sweetness that, despite all of the complexities presented by social, economic, and personal tribulations, lends itself well to the novel’s epigraph: “…to many among us, neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some particular personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.” Rooney, too, subdues her reader into receptiveness, inviting them into such a convincing portrayal of intimacy that they feel almost a part of it themselves.

Josh Olivier


Out of all the young adult books I’ve read, I would say Sally Rooney’s Normal People relates the most to the youths of today’s generation. This book is more of a twist on the usual romance novels, because it has concerns about lust, abuse, drugs, and the phases that college teenagers, Connell and Marianne, go through. I didn’t like this book going into it or finishing it, but this isn’t a terrible book either—it’s an all right attempt at the subjects and themes above. The reason I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted to is because this book doesn’t really have a plot, or any direction for that matter.

What filled the pages for this book are the switching back and forth between Connell’s and Marianne’s perspective, through which, we see the differences between social classes, gender roles, and their attempts at trying to fit into society. The story is more interested in the character’s reality than the plot. However, these characters don’t have specific motives. Another reason why I didn’t like this book is because of the physical and emotional abuse that Marianne goes through… It seems like it is romanticized throughout the book, because Marianne’s character is built to have this fascination with abuse.

At best, Rooney makes an effort to have the characters as complicated as they can be in relation to the things surrounding them. Otherwise, Connell is an asshole, who never seemed sorry for his actions around Marianne. Why Marianne likes him at all is beyond me.

Cherish Yang


Sally Rooney’s Normal People is particularly character driven in that its characters have a unique identity in comparison to those around them. Rather than have unchanging attitudes and beliefs, it becomes evident that the two leading characters, Connell and Marianne, have many grievances with the lives they lead and with who they are as persons and as two romantically involved individuals. It becomes evident that both of their self-destructive behaviors, which manifest later in the novel, are a result of their past experiences with both one another and those around them. This is evident in how differently Connell and Marianne interact with their peers and family early in the novel compared to how they interact with them later.

While the characters are complex and do have nuances that set them apart from everyone else, more emphasis is placed on their romantic relationships than is placed on their individual mental issues. While their romantic relationship benefits greatly from the focus on it and complexifies what exactly Connell and Marianne are as a romantically involved pair, their mental health issues aren’t treated the same. In doing so, the lack of focus on mental health issues, at times, results in a simple way of thinking about mental health that is detrimental to the overall development of both characters. Each of the characters’ choices in what they want helps mitigate this issue, but it is still prevalent enough that a degree of both Connell and Marianne isn’t available to readers. True, the relationships they adopt later in the novel are powerful enough to represent these issues, but in choosing to represent them in a social context the mental issues both Connell and Marianne face become isolated events rather than private ones, which means there is an absence of another potential lens from which to view Connell and Marianne’s development which could have otherwise strengthened even more the issue both characters face.

Alejandro Cortez


All of these books have their own strange plots but this one was one of the few that came off more as a weird drama. These characters are about my age so I could see myself maybe seeing them around campus. Would I be friends with them, probably not. The first half of the book is more of the introduction of characters, plot, etc. We get to know Marianne and Connell who in the first few pages hook up. That’s all they do throughout the book. The whole thing is just a will they or won’t they situation.

One thing that I noticed that Sally Rooney does, based on her last book, she does not use quotation marks. I think that is supposed to be a stylistic choice, which I think is a bit innovative because it does not seem as forced. The conversations are something could that happen right in front of you. It works so well. It works a lot better that there are only a few characters and they are built so well that it is easy to tell who said what. This story is good for people who are starting out on becoming writers because it is mainly simple language but well thought out characters. It is easy to mimic.

Daisy Matias


Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams

Oct 1

Fall Fiction Contest Now Open For Submissions!

The Fall Fiction Contest, judged by Anita Felicelli, is NOW OPEN for submissions through November 30th! Submit your very best fiction up to 6,000 words for the chance to win $2,000 and publication in The Masters Review. Fifteen stories will be honored on our shortlist, with the winning three selected by Anita Felicelli!

$2,000 + Publication! Submissions open from Oct 1 to Nov 30.

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Guidelines:

  • Submissions are open from Oct 1 – Nov 30
  • 6000 word limit
  • Fiction only
  • Emerging Writers only. (We are interested in offering a larger platform to new writers. Self-published writers and writers with story collections and novels with a small circulation are welcome to submit. Writers with novels published with a circulation of fewer than 5000 copies can also submit.)
  • $20 submission fee
  • International submissions allowed
  • Previously unpublished work only
  • Translations allowed, providing the story has not been published in another language
  • Multiple and simultaneous submissions are allowed, but please notify us if your story is accepted elsewhere
  • Winner receives $2000 and publication
  • 2nd and 3rd place stories receive $300 and $200 respectively, in addition to publication
  • Please no identifying information on your story
  • All stories are considered for publication
  • Dazzle us
  • To view a list of our most commonly asked questions regarding submitting to The Masters Review, please see our FAQ page

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Sep 30

New Voices: “It’s All Perfectly Natural” by Emily Chiles

After the birth of her child, all Maddie can think about is food. In this gorgeous and brief story from Emily Chiles, themes of motherhood, of role models, of hunger primal and innate are explored with deft prose. “You want to sort of just make a sandwich with your hand.”

I don’t even like Dez. He wasn’t even my boyfriend. I just remember how when I lifted my top and tossed it onto the floor, his face was like Indiana Jones discovering that vault of gold. I like that memory and I try and hold onto it while Barb tells me all about colostrum, liquid gold, how it nourishes the baby in ways scientists still don’t entirely understand.

“Okay, Maddie. What you want to do is make a C with your hand, like this.”

Barb the hospital lactation nurse grabs my left breast like it’s a sandwich. Maybe not, but I’m thinking a lot about food just now. I haven’t eaten since my water broke in my dad’s old Subaru twenty-nine hours ago, halfway home from my math final. Yesterday, which feels like last year, I put “community college student” under “Mother’s Occupation” on the admissions forms in the maternity ward. Father: unknown. I’m pretty sure it was this kid named Dez who works nights at Denny’s. His mom’s apartment, twin bed, grayish sheets, broken condom. For all I know he’s still playing hacky-sack in the Denny’s parking lot with his loser friends.

Six pounds, seven ounces. A girl with reddish fuzz on her head and a squinched up red face. All the nurses keep calling her “peanut.” When her eyes open they are a very dark blue. They look human but also not. She is mouthing my collarbone. She is in the world. I try to lift her towards me and make my best C. My breast reminds me of a seal lounging on a rock.

“Support the baby’s neck like this,” Barb says and shows me how.

“Like this?” I say. But I end up smooshing the baby’s face into my nipple, which is as big as Barb’s palm.

Barb shakes her head. She smells like ammonia and stale coffee. Her face is freckled and brown like my mom’s is. Was.

To continue reading “It’s All Perfectly Natural” click here.

Sep 28

October Deadlines: 16 Contests Ending This Month

We may be approaching Halloween, but nothing is scarier than the prospect of missing out on these amazing literary contests! Thankfully for you, we’ve gone ahead and laid out the deadlines in chronological order, so entering these competitions should be as easy as (pumpkin) pie!

American Literary Review Awards

In this threefold contest offered by American Literary Review, contestants can submit entries for short fiction, essays, and poetry! Submissions may be up to 8000 words for short fiction, 6500 words for essays, or up to three poems, and the winner of each contest receives $1000 and publication. Learn more here.

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: October 1

Anton Chekhov Award for Flash Fiction

Are your stories brief, brisk, and bracing? LitMag has the contest for you! All submissions need to be between 500 and 1500 words, and previously unpublished. Judged by the editors of the magazine, the winner receives $1250, publication, and agency review. Three finalists will receive $100 and consideration for agency review, and all entries will be considered for publication. Submit here.

Entry Fee: $16 Deadline: October 1

Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize

In this amazing contest offered by The Missouri Review, contestants can submit entries for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Not only do the winners in each contest receive $5000 and publication, but there is also a reception and reading in their honor! Make sure to choose the correct category when you submit, and good luck! More details here.

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: October 1

Mary C. Mohr Awards

All three of the Southern Indiana Review’s contests are ending this month, so enter now if you want to receive one of the three $2000 first-place prizes! Nickolas Butler is judging the fiction section, José Olivarez is judging the poetry section, and Sarah Perry is judging the nonfiction applicants. All of the winners and a selection of the runners up will be published! See more here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: October 1

Mighty River Short Story Prize

Southeast Missouri State University Press currently has two contests open, and both of them are perfect for emerging writers! Submissions to the Wilda Hearne Flash Fiction Contest must be less than 500 words, but there are no restrictions on style or content. The winner receives $500 and publication. As for the Mighty River Short Story Contest, there is a limit of 30 pages, with $1000 and publication going to the winner. Both contests are read and judged anonymously. Learn more here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: October 1

Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival

There are four writing contests being offered this year, and they cover a full range of wonderful challenges and prizes! The one-act play contest, judged by Peter Hagan, rewards the winner with $1500, a staging of the play, and publication. The poetry contest, judged by Beth Ann Fennelly, offers $1000, a reading at the festival, and publication. The fiction contest, judged by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, gives $1500, a reading at the festival, accommodation for the festival, and publication to the winner. Finally, the very short fiction contest, judged by Jac Jemc, awards the winner with $500, a reading at the festival, and publication. There are a lot more details here!

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: October 1

Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition

Founded by Francis Ford Coppola, Zoetrope: All-Story is meant to explore the intersections of story, art, fiction, and film. This contest is open to all genres of literary fiction, with no formatting restrictions! The entries need to be less than 5,000 words and previously unpublished, and will be judged by Tommy Orange, winner of the 2019 PEN/Hemingway Award and 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist. First prize is $1000, second is $500, and third is $250. All three prizewinners and seven honorable mentions will be considered for representation. Check it out!

Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: October 8

Emerging Writer’s Prize in Fiction

The Arkansas International is currently accepting submissions for their contest, but all good things will eventually come to an end. Entries are only open to writers who haven’t published a full-length book, and must be less than 7500 words. The winning prose piece will be chosen by Sigris Nunez, and will receive $1000 and publication. Don’t lose your chance!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: October 13

A Public Space Emerging Writer Fellowships

This amazing fellowship will be awarded to three writers, who will each receive $1000, six months of editorial support to prepare a piece for publication, mentorship, and a public reading in New York City. They’re looking for writers who have not yet published or been contracted to write a book-length work, and that could be you! Submit here.

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: October 15

Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship

There is no better chance for American poets who wish to travel than this opportunity, and it’s not too late! Applicants must send in an application and a 40-page poetry sample to the Trustees at the law firm Choate, Hall & Stewart, who will choose up to two recipients. The winner must then leave North America for an entire year, produce at least three poems, and will then be awarded $60,500. Find out more here!

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: October 15

Calvino Prize

Sponsored by the University of Louisville, their Creative Writing Program is searching for outstanding and experimental fiction, in the style of fabulist writer Italo Calvino. Take note, however, that entries ought to be inspired by Calvino, not merely imitating him! First place receives $2000, publication, and an invitation to read at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture (all expenses paid!). Judged by Kim Chinquee. Submit here!

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: October 15

Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Contest

Presented by Omnidawn Publishing, this competition is on the hunt for fiction that pushes boundaries! Fabulist fiction, in this instance, includes magical realism and the literary forms of fantasy, science fiction, horror, fable, and myth, as long as they’re written in English and don’t exceed 17,500 words. The winner receives $1000, publication, 100 free copies of their chapbook, and extensive advertising and publicity. Judged by Kellie Wells. Rules here!

Entry Fee: $18 Deadline: October 15

The SmokeLong Flash Fellowship for Emerging Writers

Given by SmokeLong Quarterly, this program is looking for a writer eager to work on their craft, and excited about the opportunity to work with the journal! Applications must include a short bio and three examples of your flash fiction. The winner will be considered the “writer in residence” for four issues, have the opportunity to work with staff, and receive $1000. There is also a free application for any writers who can’t afford the fee. Submit here.

Entry Fee: $8 Deadline: October 15

Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award

In honor of the poet Benjamin Saltman, Red Hen Press is looking to reward a previously unpublished original collection of poetry! Open to all poets, each manuscript must be a minimum of 48 pages, and submitted without any identifying material. The award is $3000, and also includes publication of the winning entry and a four-week residency at PLAYA in southern Oregon. Judged by Allison Joseph! Details here.

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: October 31

Blue Light Books Prize

If you have an unpublished short story collection, this could be your big break! Indiana Review and Indiana University Press are currently accepting submissions for this prize. A manuscript of outstanding merit will be selected, and the winner will receive a publication contract, a prize of $2000 against future royalties, and a public reading. The final judge will be Michelle Pretorius. Do it!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: October 31

Vern Rutsala Book Prize

Cloudbank Books was founded in 2000 by Peter Sears, the Poet Laureate of Oregon from 2014 to 2016, and this contest is dedicated to another great Oregon poet, Vern Rutsala! They are looking for a wide range of styles, forms, and aesthetics, from lyric poetry to flash fiction, although entries must be between 64 to 90 pages. Once chosen by judge Holly Karapetkova, the winner receives $1000 and publication. Submission guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: October 31