The Masters Review Blog

Oct 19

New Voices: “Fire Season” by Vincent Chavez

In today’s New Voices, we are excited to present “Fire Season” by Vincent Chavez, an honorable mention for our 2020 Flash Fiction Contest. Written in the second person, “Fire Season” comes to us as “California is on fire again.” Dive into Vincent Chavez’s magnificent flash below:

As a child, your mother walked into kindergarten on her first day of school, pigtailed with no backpack, and a blonde barbie in hand. Her skin was browner than yours. Her name was browner than yours. Her older sister didn’t tell her that the teachers would force her to change her own name. How her heart would still race twenty years later when she considered what name she’d use to introduce herself, seconds before interviewing to teach at the same school.

The scorch is the first thing you look for on the drive home after the long flight across the country. It’s Thanksgiving break. It’s fire season in California. Phone calls and satellite images can never articulate the damage that’s been done. Last fall, a national newscaster described your neighborhood and the explosion of mustard scattered across the hills rolling behind it as fuel.

In the backseat of your father’s F-150, you lay your head on your mother’s shoulder. Dostoevsky and Faulkner are buried deep within your luggage. A composition book filled with poems and waspy reading glasses with plastic lenses are tucked within a blazer next to them. Somehow, your mother’s shoulder is bonier yet softer. You smell a cheap lavender detergent. The faded yellow huipil she’s insisted on wearing to every graduation ever since your fifth grade promotion is starchy as it rubs against the prickly whiskers sprouting from your chin. She wore it when you first flew away. She’s worn it every time you’ve promised you’d return home again.

No, I think it’s pronounced jacondra, your mother says to you on Thanksgiving Day. She is sitting across from you at the dinner table. The usual suspects are gathered round. Your father sits next to you and dives face first into a tower of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy. He has a heart condition and his arm is in a sling, but he continues on with his third serving. It’s because he’s Mexican. He’s a man. Your father cooked the turkey. So he will eat the turkey. Your father prides himself upon being the second oldest roughneck at his drill site. He is incapable of doing the math.

To continue reading “Fire Season” click here.

Oct 17

Reading Through the Awards: Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, recent winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever. A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.”

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a work of historical fiction that calls its readers to visualize the life of Shakespeare’s family in Warwickshire, imagining how they might have grown to live without him after he ventured off to London to become a playwright. This story, however, never states his name. It’s not to keep it a secret, as kernels of truth are the foundations that historical novels, including Hamnet are built upon. Lovers of Shakespeare will be able to put the pieces together, as there are plenty of markers that will guide them to that conclusion, and it takes but a look at the epigraphs in the beginning of the book to note that it is the author of Hamlet whose family this is, a family in reality that hasn’t been given much thought as they stand in the shadow of their successful patriarch. Never mentioning Shakespeare’s name directs readers away from the history we know, these clues only gestures that show he is not the focus, and it encourages readers to dive into this speculation, complexity, and tragedy of the family that was almost forgotten.

O’Farrell conducts prose in a mystic sort of cadence; she has a mastery of sentence and phrase variation that quickens time, slows response, illustrates confusion and panic, composes beautiful images, describes grief and sorrow through actions alone as she wills it. However, while Hamnet is formatted like a story to read, I find it is not that kind of story. It’s a story that’s meant to be listened to. Narrated by Ell Potter, the beauty of O’Farrell’s prose is given new wings. The haunting, quiet, and lilting way Potter takes to narration has O’Farrell’s tale weaving like poetry, wispy and solemn. Potter gives Hamnet the energy it requires so readers can feel every moment, every pause, every emotion.

That said, through O’Farrell’s imaginative writing and the beckoning voice of Potter, readers experience Hamnet. We struggle alongside Hamnet’s mother Agnes as she goes through childhood grieving and motherless. We struggle with her as she goes through motherhood essentially husbandless, as the husband she loves passionately is off working in London, visiting only a few times a year. Agnes’s origins are weaved into the present day in a way that gives readers insight on her history and how it affects her present so heavily she suffers under the weight. She’s used to knowing what to do in her past. She’s used to being a diviner of illness and a healer. Yet in her present, that knowing is tested when her youngest children, Judith and Hamnet both fall ill with the plague. Where one recovers, the other falters quickly, and loss is imminent. The novel in itself is a chance to imagine how a woman who has spent all her life finding the right answers has powers beyond her skill bat her hands away, especially in the moment where she succeeds, only to lose again. We grieve with her when she loses her mother, and we grieve with her again as she loses her son in the place of her daughter.

Julienne Parks

It takes a brave author to tackle a fictional account surrounding the great William Shakespeare, it takes an even more daring author to tackle writing grief with the loss of a child. To craft a story surrounding the loss of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet through the lens of his wife Agnes—well that takes a powerful understanding of human experience, a little bit of brevity, and exemplary literary skills. All of which are beautifully executed by Maggie O’Farrell in her eighth novel Hamnet.

O’Farrell’s take on the tragedy surrounding Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son is a refreshing take on historical fiction. The novel wasn’t so much about Shakespeare (as he remains unnamed throughout) more so it’s a brilliant take on how grief can create art, how life’s challenges test a marriage and the intensity of monumental life moments such as childbirth. As a reader, this novel stands as a testament to characterization, and I appreciated the authenticity each was crafted with. Moreover, the backdrop of the bubonic plague reads raw and timely as we continue to live in this “new normal” of pandemic life.

Whether historical fiction is your cup of tea or if you have any interest in Shakespeare for that matter, neither are necessary to sink your teeth into this enjoyable and sure to be classic read.

Cassandra Wagner

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is pretty. Her writing is filled with gorgeous sentences and heartbreaking moments, not afraid to linger and dig and describe. Hamnet is about the death of Hamnet, the only son of William Shakespeare—a man O’Farrell goes to great lengths to never directly name in the novel—and how his parents work through their grief. Or, that’s what the book jacket tells me. The novel instead spends the majority of its 305 pages slowly building up to Hamnet’s death. During the first two-thirds of the novel, each chapter switches between the present moment centered around Hamnet, who is more concerned with his ailing twin sister’s health, and the past moment centered around Hamnet’s mother, Agnes, as she grows up and eventually marries her famous husband. Hamnet never tries to hide that its titular character dies. O’Farrell reminds us constantly that it will happen, with characters often recounting how they would have changed a moment or interaction if they had only known, so it doesn’t come as a shock but rather as a “finally.” By the time Hamnet actually begins to deal with the death of its titular character, it’s almost over.

Hamnet’s main flaw is that it can’t decide what it wants to be about—Hamnet’s death or Agnes’ life story. I found myself getting more and more frustrated as I kept reading because of this indecisiveness. During the more engaging Agnes chapters, I was frustrated knowing they had little relevance to the Hamnet chapters. Then, during the Hamnet chapters, I was frustrated because they tended to lack Agnes, who was the character the novel seemed most interested in because she’s the character that others are most interested in. The chapters individually are not poorly paced, but they do interrupt each other. Each time a new chapter starts, it means a new time period and point of view and set of struggles, which means it loses the momentum of the previous chapter because they do not interconnect. Instead of the sections flowing together or building concepts on top of each other, it’s more like reading two different books that got stitched into the same cover. I kept wanting the novel to just pick a time and stick with it. Hamnet only really hits its stride in the last third, when it loses the distraction of Hamnet’s story and is forced to focus only on Agnes. When working toward only one goal, working through Hamnet’s death rather than building up two separate stories, the writing comes together and is cohesive and engaging. The last third of the book deals with the grief and absence very well, it just takes so long to get there because the novel keeps tripping over itself with its dueling interests. And that’s the biggest frustration of all: the early sections themselves are not dull. They’re very good on their own merits. It’s just that the sections are focused on different things that don’t have much to do with each other aside from Agnes being in both, and Agnes is not strong enough by herself to be the thread to tie them all together seamlessly.

As frustrating as I found the novel’s indecisiveness, I also read this book in one sitting because O’Farrell’s writing is that engaging. She could make anything seem interesting—such as the journey of a flea on a boat that eventually infects a young girl with the bubonic plague, a plague that spreads from her to the titular character. O’Farrell’s writing is immersive. She explores the town, the nearby forest, and the farms that Agnes grew up in, that Hamnet ran through, that Shakespeare inhabited with details and moments that had me rereading them just to appreciate the writing. Even during an almost glacial build-up, it was something I endured because the writing itself promised that another moment was coming, that it would be worth it to stick around for another few pages. So, yes, Hamnet might be a bit confused on what it wants to be about, but O’Farrell’s writing makes it worth every frustration.

Rebecca Calloway

Curated by Brandon Williams

Oct 16

Litmag Roadmap: Ohio

Buckeye State, here we come! Ohio is our next stop on our Litmag roadmap, and I hope you’ve packed for a long trip, because there are so many great journals to look at!

The main things you need to know about Ohio are that it was home to the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World” (before the collective heart of America took that title in 2020) and that it hosts a whole slew of literary magazines. That’s a joke, sorry. At the time of writing, Cedar Point is re-opening safely, so don’t miss that if Ohio does land on your actual road trip list should you dare crawl out of quarantine and into your Sprinter van knockoff in the near future. Not ready for that level of action just yet? No problem at all, because these eleven outstanding literary magazines are ready for you 24/7, pandemic or no, whether you prefer to read your cares away or submit until your heart’s content.

The Kenyon Review

Imagine being such an esteemed journal that you only need to open submissions for two weeks out of the year. Those of us who missed this year’s Sept 15 – Oct 1 window can block it off on our calendars for next year and get to work. KR remains open—albeit extremely competitively—to book reviews, along with individual contests in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry throughout the year. Enjoy a wealth of high-quality content online in the meantime, and perhaps put one of their renowned workshops (including translation and young science writing!) on your post-pandemic bucket list.

The Antioch Review

Affiliated with Antioch College (not to be confused with Antioch University in Los Angeles, California, who publishes the lit mag Lunch Ticket) and celebrating over 75 years of publishing “the best words in the best order,” this review is a forward thinker that rolls old school. They still only accept snail mail submissions, so get that SASE ready! If you need a quick heart-warmer, just look over their homepage suggestion to read to someone during “these trying times”—the first responder bit sent actual tears careening out of my tearducts.

Artful Dodge

A 20-year-old lit mag based out of the University of Wooster with an impressive roster of past contributing authors, AD is currently undergoing some administrative and vision changes and not open to submissions. However, their considerate and thorough explanation of these changes —plus the busy-beaver vibes of staff past and present—suggests they’re worth subscribing to and bookmarking for when the next submission window opens. Fun bonus Easter egg: their Forged Letters section imagines the likes of Poe and Dickens writing to and about their magazine.

The Journal

Named as a tongue-in-check reference to its host, The Ohio State University (you have to say it like that—THEE Ohio State…. THEE Journal), this lit mag publishes diverse work in diverse fashion: two online editions and two in print each year. There’s something for everyone, including plenty to read and catch up on while you await their yes or no (they’re adjusting, like many of us, to a new pandemic rhythm—submissions are open, but no response time is promised and patience is requested).

Whiskey Island Magazine

Cool name, right? Does it refer to a) an island in a lake of whiskey b) an island on which there is plenty of whiskey, or c) a sweet lit mag based out of Cleveland State University, which resides on a former island (now peninsula) that was once home to a nineteenth-century distillery? If you guess C but enjoyed thinking about A and B, then you are super right! They appear to be on hiatus despite a submission window that usually ends November 15, but wasn’t that all fun to learn about?

New Ohio Review

Are you tired of reading about cancellations and postponements online and too tired to figure out how to buy stamps and manila envelopes and just want to click on something you can submit a story to right now already? Then look no further than Ohio University’s New Ohio Review! Submissions at NOR are open and waiting for you. Lots of cool, quick stuff to get your juices flowing on their online version as well.

Cincinnati Review

A relatively new publication (begun in 2003 out of the University of Cincinnati), this review is a rolling stone—it’s gained significant esteem in a short amount of time and is maintaining momentum despite the 2020 odds. Open for submissions between September and January, fall is the perfect time to submit. Their weekly online flash series miCRo is really worth checking out as a reader, and open to submissions on an ongoing basis as well.

Mid-American Review

Another lit mag that’s on hiatus due to 2020 shufflings but worth paying attention to due to a) free submissions b) their upcoming online winter writing festival and c) a brief history of doing art contests in response to published writing pieces, which is cool as heck. Published out of Bowling Green State University.

Mock Turtle Zine

An independent publication / labor of love based out of Dayton, Ohio that seeks to integrate with the community beyond computer screens and magazine pages. We really dig their “Words From Home” virtual poetry series, a response to shelter-in-place. Submissions are currently open via email through November 6 of this year.

Gordon Square Review

A lit mag published by the literary nonprofit Literary Cleveland (a super cool community effort, click around), GSQ is open twice a year to poetry and prose submissions from writers all over the world—but asks that Northeast Ohio writers make a special note in their cover letter about their hometown status. Cool bonus feature: every editor selects one piece of writing from each submission period and works with the author in a mentorship program to sharpen and revise the piece for publication.

Story Magazine

Last but definitely not least, this publication has a bumpy history proving its tenacity and drivenness: 1931 to 1967, then re-started in 1989 but closed again in 2000, had a brief but fiery reprise from 2014-2016, and has been back at it since March 2019. With ties to quite a few big names in American literature—and a name that symbolizes what we writers are all very literally in pure pursuit of—it doesn’t seem that anything, not even a pandemic, could realistically knock Story out of publication forever. Published triannually, they just opened their 2020 Story Foundation Prize—so get off the internet and get after it already.

by Melissa Hinshaw


Oct 13

Craft Chat: What We’re Looking For in Chapbooks

In this Craft Chat, our editors discuss a few of the endless possibilities that chapbooks represent for us. We’re hoping to read great writing, of course, and we always do! But this contest offers something new that our other contests don’t. We can’t wait to see what y’all have in store for us!

Cole Meyer: Our very first Chapbook Contest has been open for a few weeks, and I’m so encouraged by the submissions we’ve had come in so far. But I thought it might be helpful to have this chat about what we’re hoping to see submitted for this contest. The kinds of work, not just in content, but in form and style, too! This is a chance for us to publish an emerging writer in a way we haven’t in the past. What are y’all hoping to read from this contest?

Melissa Hinshaw: Two things come to mind right off the bat. The first is clearly a personal bias / psychological need I have for my own self: work that spans this gap of “really intense thing happening that narrator/author clearly has firsthand knowledge of” and “sort of quieter or otherwise enjoyable story that has no awareness of greater social issues but does its own little arc nicely.” Work that has seemed successful to me in this regard in the past is work that kind of gives itself a project, something obscure or random that manages to break from the normal cycles of life but also ask bigger moral questions through this project, but also manages to not be melodramatic. Tall order I know! This is something I struggle with personally as I writer and a person— how do I reconcile the huge awful dramatic things going on around me with my pretty quiet little personal experience sphere?—so it’s absolutely a selfish request. Teach me your ways, o submitters!

The second thing is just more strange forms and styles—glad you said that, Cole. I want to stress that form and style does not mean section breaks or just no quotation marks in dialogue. Push harder! “Taco Bell it” as they say (er, okay just as I say)—think outside the bun. We do not see enough weird forms and styles. Often I think this means go shorter for individual works—10-15 pages max? You don’t have to commit that hard to a form experiment, just try something new for a few pages and I can almost guarantee it’ll come out better than you anticipate.

CM: I think chapbooks offer folks an opportunity to do more of that experimentation, which is exciting. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails about the kinds of things we’ll consider: novellas (I think novellette is probably the right term for something around 40 pages); flash chapbooks; drama, even! The only thing we’re not considering, basically, is poetry. Send us your weird, wacky stuff you can’t find a home for.

MH: It would be so cool to see a chapbook or two that was like— different riffs on the same story or idea, different forms of the same thing.

CM: Oh, that’s an interesting idea! Kind of like Danzy Senna’s “Triptych” which takes the same plot three times—a young girl coming home from college after her mother’s death—but in each, the protagonist’s race has changed.

MH: What! This is amazing. Yes! I love books/collections/even stories where things are all versions. Dave Eagleman’s SUM comes to mind, too.

Brandon Williams: I think it’s really interesting that we’re essentially talking about the form as self-aware of its own exploration, or basically metafiction— the experiments we’re bringing up remind me instantly of Calvino. I assume this is because, if y’all are anything like me, you don’t yet have a set expectation for exactly what a chapbook should be in the same way that a “novel” or “short story” sorta defines itself. I keep thinking about how cool it was the first time I read If on a winter’s night a traveler, and this feels like something similar, like possibility exists in ways I don’t really know where to expect. I’m so excited to see where that exploration takes our submitters, and I’m hoping to find something like an argument of and for the form itself in these submissions; not necessarily in the winning submission, or not in it exclusively, but in the process of reading through these. I want to know what a chapbook can do. I love the idea Melissa presented of little experiments, or of riffs in multiplicity, and I can certainly imagine some more traditional plays on POV or character shifts around a single scene, but I’m certainly ready for something totally surprising. All of which is to say, I don’t really have anything set that I’m expecting, and that in itself is my hope.

CM: I definitely agree—I’m ready for anything. I think that’s true for most of our contests, especially. Since we don’t do themed contests, and our guidelines don’t insist on any particular style or genre, I’m always looking for something innovative and surprising. But as you said, we’re used to reading in our pre-defined forms. The chapbook is something new for us, and that newness is exciting. There are so many possibilities for where our submitters can take us. I can’t wait!

For the full Chapbook Contest details, check out our Chapbook Contest page, or click the button below to submit by Nov. 15th!


Oct 12

New Voices: “Trucker’s Notebook” by Nicole Roché

We are so excited to share Nicole Roché’s “Trucker’s Notebook,” our New Voices nonfiction work for this week. “Trucker’s Notebook” takes us on the Big Sky highways, through the Flathead valley, past the big pink pig and into the world of trucking. “Once you start seeing cars as death machines,” Nicole writes, “you can’t unsee them that way.”

Driving in Montana meant seeing roadside crosses everywhere, painted white, like specters. It meant to be shown, and reminded of, every traffic-related death since the inception of the Montana American Legion White Cross Highway Fatality Marker Program in 1953, deaths now numbering in the thousands.


That summer, my new boyfriend said he could get me a job at one of the upscale bars in Missoula, Montana where a friend (his ex-lover) worked. Apparently the tips were so good there you could make rent in a week’s work. I had done some bartending back home, and yes, I needed the money. Plus I wanted to be that cool new girlfriend, the one who could work side-by-side with the old one, learn to rely on her, become trusted confidantes. I wanted that, but I had my doubts. Then, one afternoon, my boyfriend, who in addition to a slew of other part-time jobs worked in the warehouse at the growers’ coop, struck upon a new scheme. That was when he asked me, out of the clear Big Sky, “How would you feel about driving a truck?”


On our first date, Lee had taken me to The Pearl, the French bistro that was either the nicest restaurant in town or the only nice restaurant in town, depending on who you asked. We ordered appetizers and soup and salads and entrees and dessert and it all piled up because we could not stop talking.

Mostly I talked about how before moving to Missoula I’d lived in a cabin in the woods in Northeast Kansas, and how it was so serene and beautiful and complete it made me want more for myself, which meant I had to leave. I wanted that again. Not the cabin necessarily—though that would be nice—but the feeling.

I didn’t talk about the man I lived with there. How my ex had been a joy and then a problem. How after his motorcycle accident I talked him out of shooting himself with the gun his friend kept in the unlocked bike shop next door. How when I went home for Christmas I was so relieved to see him, so happy and sad and confused that one night we ended up sleeping together, and only afterward did I realize, in horror, that he still had the port for his feeding tube in his stomach. How in the subsequent months since I’d saved his life (as he put it) he’d been texting more and more across that thousand-mile chasm between Kansas and Montana, across that incalculable distance between who we were five years ago and who we were now, after the breakup, after the accident, and how I kept responding.

Which stories do we tell about ourselves and why? What is a story and what is a fiction and what is a lie?

“No way,” said the man sitting on the other side of all that fancy food. “I grew up in a cabin in the woods.”

To continue reading “Trucker’s Notebook” click here.

Oct 7

Craft Book Recommendations from The Masters Review’s Readers

A few of our new volunteer readers are here to recommend their favorite craft books (alongside a recommendation from our editor-in-chief)! If you’ve been looking for help with voice or character or any number of craft techniques, look no further!

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

My favorite craft book is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming A Writer. Becoming A Writer is a wonderful book that does not only consider the technique aspect of writing, but also focuses on what it means to be a writer. In the first few chapters, Dorothea writes about the different kind of writers that there are, what writers are like; in the following chapters she tackles the topic of craft. One rare thing about Becoming A Writer is how it contains very plain and direct instructions on becoming a better writer. Brilliant tips that I haven’t found in any other book: on finding one’s voice, on harnessing the unconscious, on building a habit of writing. It’s a book I think every writer should read, especially new writers.

Ernest Ogunyemi

The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV by David Corbet

Creating a complex character with real, human-like qualities is a significant ingredient in how readers connect to a story. Corbett provides writers the tools to dig deeper into their protagonist by examining different traits, characteristics, desires, and relationships with secondary characters through examples and exercises. Passages about choosing a point of view, establishing voice, and writing dialogue are also helpful for development of the character and the story. This text gives writers of any prose genre the key to bringing a character to life.

Rebecca Williamson


The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood

The Writer’s Room is a series of interviews with twelve well-known Australian writers, conducted and compiled by prize-winning author Charlotte Wood. Each interview offers insights into the writer’s process, quirks and attitudes. Authors discuss rejections and failure along with acceptances and triumph. There is great wisdom in this book, such as (from Joan London): ‘Too much ambition can distract you from the work, or from the real nature of your material. It’s truth that matters…”

Fiona Robertson


A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on their Craft ed. by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi

A Kite in the Wind collects essays from 20 masters of fiction, who’ve all taught at some time or another in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers: from Charles Baxter, to Debra Spark, to Anthony Doerr and Michael Martone. The essays are collected into four distinct parts: “Narrative Distance and Narrative Voice”, “Revealing Character”, “Seeing and Setting” and “Pattern and Shape”. It’s a wonderful resource for jumping in at any point, reading the essays collectively or individually. The collection is a tool for the writer wondering,  as the editors put it in the introduction, “Isn’t there an easier way to do this?”

Cole Meyer

Oct 5

New Voices: “Not Dead. Yet, (Golem Father)” by Nathan Szajnberg

In “Not Dead. Yet, (Golem Father)” by Nathan Szajnberg, this week’s New Voices entry, Szajnberg reflects on his father’s life, a survivor of Auschwitz, in the years since his mother’s death. “My father does not live in America,”  Szajnberg writes. “Never did. Only his body, a Golem, roams its streets.”

At night, the guard would let me clean the floors on my knees. Then, polish them with sandpaper. For this, he would give me the privilege to dish out the soup next day. Why, you ask, a privilege? If you dish out the soup, you get the scoops from the bottom with more solids. Sometimes I had enough even for two bowls for myself. I shared one with the guy in the bunk above, even though he would delouse at night and drop the lice down on me. Where I learned from polishing floors on your knees!? From Kemp.”

Kemp. He was a guest of the Nazis in Auschwitz.

“I go nowhere without de mamme!” my father—tatte he prefers—proclaims, your mother, stubbied index finger poking, tattooing the heavens above. Restaurants, dinner parties? Not unless they go together, “Mit de mamme!”  Movies, for sure, not without her. Concerts, of course not. Baseball games, never…even with her.  To shul only, each morning 6:45 a.m. alone he drives, weaving crabwise around manhole covers to protect the car shocks. Alone.

Ten years ago, she died.

“Come to California to visit me,” I ask. And I dare not add, “To alleviate your loneliness.“

“Not without your mamme!”

She, now dead ten years, moldering.

My father does not live in America. Never did. Only his body, a Golem, roams its streets.

The Golem was sculpted by a medieval rabbi—Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who was the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. Bezalel, his patronym, means “in the shadow of God,” named after the First Temple’s architect, who hid in the shadow of God as He intoned the dimensions of the Temple. This Pragueish Rav Bezalel made from clay and mud of the River Vistula the Golem. Placed the name of God in his lips, which brought him to near-life. Like God breathing into Adam’s nostrils.  But the Golem goes awry, wreaks havoc on the Jews, regrets his life, which is snatched from his lips by the Rabbi. “Why,” the Golem might have wondered but could not speak, “Why did you give me life?”

In 1951, my father arrived from a German Displaced Persons Camp to Rochester, NY, home to Kodak, later, even Xerox, where he stayed to this very day.  Xerox moved to Greenwich, Ct.; Kodak collapsed into itself, like some dying star, of its own weight. But, my tatte roams, haunts, emptied streets.

To continue reading “Not Dead. Yet, (Golem Father)” click here.

Oct 1

An Interview with Jessica O’Dwyer, Author of Mother Mother

In her next interview for The Masters Review, Courtney Harler corresponds with Jessica O’Dwyer, whose debut novel Mother Mother publishes on October 1. Courtney and Jessica discuss the writing and publishing processes, as well as the joys and perils of motherhood.

Jessica, I am just thrilled to see your novel publish! When we met at Bread Loaf in 2016, I instantly knew your book had the potential to make its indelible mark on the literary world. I do recall, however, that our fiction workshop, guided by Luis Alberto Urrea and Naomi Jackson, struggled with questions of identity and agency, and not just with your novel excerpt. Our group, and rightfully so, seemed particularly concerned with the way a writer might co-opt other voices. I can see the way you’ve balanced the book with the dual narration—but how did you come to this successful format of the “testimonial”? What other narrative techniques had you attempted, and how did you overcome any lingering reservations?

Thank you, Courtney. Our Bread Loaf experience was enlightening and memorable. I’m glad we met there.

The “testimonial” (or testimonio in Spanish) is a genre of storytelling throughout Latin America. It’s a story told in first person by an individual to an audience, about a subject critically important to the speaker—a subject with high stakes. Here’s a dictionary definition: “[A testimonio] is a story that has gone unheard but will no longer be ignored. In this way, testimonio is sometimes classified as ‘resistance literature.’”

The most famous testimonial may be the one told by Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú and recorded by Elizabeth Burgos-Debray in I, Rigoberta Menchú. Other compelling testimonials were offered by Ixil women and other survivors during the genocide trials of Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rios Montt.

I witnessed my first testimonial years ago at an orphanage where I volunteered. At that point, I was unfamiliar with the form, but quickly grasped its power. A young man stood up and told his life story, a gripping tale which began with being abandoned to the streets of Guatemala City. Soon after, I heard a testimonial by a middle-aged woman from the highlands whose family had been terrorized during the country’s 36-year civil war. She talked of being a little girl and hearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night. The army killed almost everyone in her village. Her family survived by hiding in a forest.

This was how Rosalba’s voice came to me. Clear and straightforward. Direct. I tried writing her in close third, but she felt too distant. Rosalba’s voice was insistent. She was going to tell her own story. Even so, I had reservations. I asked myself if I should be allowed to speak from an indigenous birth mother’s point of view. I struggled with how to respect the brave women of Guatemala. Ultimately, I decided the only way to convey truths I believed after nearly two decades of lived experience as an adoptive mother was through Rosalba’s testimonial. Other writers will come forward to express their own truths, and I welcome them.

You’ve also written and published a memoir called Mamalita. Many new writers hope to “translate” life experiences into memoirs or novels. How would you characterize writing the memoir in juxtaposition with writing the novel? Was one “easier” than the other? Did you feel like you needed to write the memoir before the novel, to sort out your own “story,” so to speak? Or, has the novel been longer in the making, if only in your mind and not on the actual page? Also, Mamalita seems to take a more critical view of the entire adoption system, as opposed to Mother Mother, whose main character, Julie, seems more concerned with becoming a mother by any means possible. Would you agree with that particular assessment, and why or why not?

Writing any book is hard, in my opinion. The process in both is similar because, although you “know” the story in memoir, you still need to establish stakes, write three-dimensional characters, and drive the action. What was different about the novel was the element of serendipity. I had outlined the main beats, but often scenes and subplots came to me in dreams. The book took off in directions I hadn’t anticipated.

I never considered writing a novel until after Mamalita was published. The novel grew out of the memoir. Because of Mamalita, I was invited to speak at adoption camps, agencies, and book clubs, where I met many people who told me their stories—accounts filled with secrets and turmoil and love and fear. Everywhere I went, I seemed to meet someone who was adopted, or had an adopted sibling, or who had relinquished a child. People who wanted to search for their child’s birth mother, or people who had searched and discovered treachery. People who wondered about the birth mother’s side of the story. The subject was so huge and so deep. Then you had the overlay of the history of Guatemala.

I’d read novels that used adoption as a theme, but they seemed barely to scratch the surface. I remembered the Toni Morrison quote: “If there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s how I started.

From what I observe, most people who wish to become parents—women and men—dedicate themselves fully to the goal. Julie exemplifies this total commitment. In her mind, Jack is meant to be her son, and she’ll stop at nothing to become his mother.

Memoir really does have the benefit of hindsight. As I wrote Mamalita, I came to understand my own complicity in the system. In Mother Mother, I deliberately created a character who is not me. Julie is living in real time, busy overcoming obstacles, not pausing to reflect. She hasn’t yet learned what I’ve learned. The arc of her journey ends with the beginning of her understanding.

Your debut novel makes very clear that being a mother is not easy, and no matter what “kind” of mother, be it a “first” mother or adoptive mother. In fact, I think, from my experience, that being a mother is often much harder than being a father, especially in traditional families. Even in non-traditional families, wherein both mother and father work and “promise” to split childcare and homecare 50/50, it still seems the greater portion of parenting falls to the mother. For example, in your book, Julie is seen most often in the parental role, and her work suffers. Mark, on the other hand, works late and takes extra me-time to workout, among other pursuits.

Another result of mothers devoting more time to their children than typical fathers is that the children are more familiar, more at ease, with the mother on a daily basis. This ease results in more closeness, but also, frankly, more bad behavior. It’s as if the child is more comfortable misbehaving for the mother. I don’t know about you, but I have often felt taken for granted by my children in the past. They are both older, 15 and 20, but that feeling persists even as they mature and grow. I’m glad they feel close to me, but I also wish I could garner the same respect and deference their father has seemed to earn as a (somewhat) absent parent due to his career. In your book, Jack, the adopted son, has some pretty stellar meltdowns, but mostly with Julie. How would you explain this phenomenon—this different treatment of mothers and fathers—and how do you think we can create actual equality between parents in modern households?

With parenting, the adages “Familiarity breeds contempt” and “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” definitely apply. But in the novel, Jack’s behavior exceeds typical lack of respect and deference. His meltdowns are manifestations of a theory described by adoption psychologists as “the primal wound.” The primal wound posits that a natural bond exists between biological mother and child and severing that bond leads to serious consequences, including fear of abandonment and inability to trust. Jack repeatedly tests the parent he’s most terrified of losing: his mother, Julie.

The intensity of Mark and Julie’s relationship with their son can never be equal because Jack needs his mother more. Viewed from this perspective, one answer to your question is that couples should make every effort to divide tasks, while accepting that emotional parity may never be possible. Fathers may wish to step up household contributions to compensate for a mother’s greater emotional requirement.

You wrote that ninety agents passed on this manuscript, but then you found success with Loyola University’s Apprentice House Press, who did not require an agent for novel submission. Could you tell us more about your path to publishing? Everyone’s path is different, but yours is particularly unique. Tell us first about your novel’s struggle to find its way in the literary world, and then tell us about its triumph in finding a home. You can ignore this question if you find it too flippant (although I am in earnest here): Did you find any instructive parallels between the international child adoption process and the book publishing process? Perseverance, obviously, but I know a book baby can’t compare to a human baby, no matter how intensely writers feel. I guess I am asking to hear your lessons here: What wisdom can you now impart, given your particular experience and earned knowledge and honed skillset, to other would-be novelists?

The most helpful wisdom I can impart is simple: Never give up. Many, many people will tell you no. Keep moving forward anyway.

The first year I attended the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference, one of the speakers said you need to be rejected by 100 literary agents before going to plan B, which is to find a small press or self-publish. “A hundred rejections?” I thought. “Impossible!” That was, of course, before I started pitching this book. The handful of agents who even responded said, “You’re a talented writer, but this project isn’t for us.”

Which was fine. Which was great. Because with each rejection, I went back to the manuscript to look for ways to improve it. I rewrote the beginning. Slashed 12,000 words. A sentence didn’t flow? I agonized over it. A scene was slow? Gone.

After rejections from 90 agents, I started to research independent presses that accepted un-agented work. I found Apprentice House, sent in my manuscript, and promptly forgot about it. Because why would I remember? I assumed they’d reject me like everyone else. The call came on a Friday night. My kids and I were roaming the aisles of Target when an unfamiliar number flashed on my phone. I started jumping up and down, screaming. My son rushed over and grabbed me. “Mom, stop,” he said. “You’re on the security camera.” The three of us fell into a group hug. I was literally sobbing. I love that my kids witnessed my moment of victory because they’d seen me endure so much failure.

After I became a mother through adoption, I realized every decision I’d made in my life, every action I’d taken, had led to the formation of our particular family. And it feels like the right family.

I feel the same about Loyola’s Apprentice House Press. Everything that came before led me to them. I couldn’t be happier or more grateful.


Interviewed by Courtney Harler

Sep 30

New Writing on the Net: September 2020

After last night’s debate, I think we all need a breather. Thankfully, there’s been great new literature published online this month! If you need to step away from your world, if only for a moment, let these stories and essays take you somewhere new.

The Spirits of the House by Sheila Black | Kenyon Review, September 2020

Sometimes where we lived it did not rain for a hundred days, though you would often see virga—sheets of dark rain in the sky that evaporated—or how I loved this word—sublimed before they hit the earth.

I’ve Always Felt More Like You: On Disability and the Second Person by James Tate Hill | Brevity, September 2020

The perceptions of others hover constantly above the disabled, casting long shadows. You are blind; you are deaf; you are the special child. You cannot do this; you cannot be this; you are, to the many who choose not to know you, invisible.

But in your writing, you are only you: author, narrator, protagonist.

For a Good Time, Call by Natalie Lima | Guernica, September 2020

I hear the solid jingle of her car keys hitting the floor. Then the screaming starts, from both of them, and I think: How did I end up with this Jerry Springer drama at home? With this telenovela shit? I am not religious, but once, when I was riding bikes with friends, one of my Mormon neighbors told me that in her church they believe we all choose our families. That before we were born, God let us choose our gender and our mother and father, too.

“Wow, God is a fucking idiot then,” I’d said.

My Mormon neighbor isn’t allowed to be around me anymore.

Dirty Thirty by Shanna Merceron | Cleaver Magazine, September 2020

My girl was looking at me. It only makes sense that she was looking at me because I’d been looking at her for so long, watching her socks and her nipples and her ocean skin. I met her gaze and her expression was interested but disinterested and I did my best to look the same. I was curious about her, about the place, about what kind of women came here. I kept staring at her. I learned that if you look away too soon, it means that the gaze meant something to you. I didn’t want this gaze to mean anything.

Bread and Circuses by Samantha Liu | The Lumiere Review, September 2020

The worst part of anyone’s day was always the kidnappings. But they happened quietly and discretely enough that nobody really cared much for them.

Curated by Cole Meyer

Sep 29

October Deadlines: 10 Contests and Prizes Closing This Month

Is it too late to say that we’re living in unprecedented times? Many of our favorite magazines and contests have had to take a hiatus, but here are all of the opportunities still waiting for you to share your voice!

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

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 Paisley Rekdal, offers $1000, a reading at the festival, and publication. The fiction contest, judged by Minrose Gwin, gives $1500, a reading at the festival, accommodation for the festival, and publication to the winner. Finally, the very short fiction contest, judged by Leigh Camacho Rourks, awards the winner with $500, a reading at the festival, and publication. There are many 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 Téa Obreht, winner of the Orange Prize and finalist for the National Book Award. 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 13

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 Joyce Carol Oates. Submit here!

Entry Fee: $25 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 Jeffrey Harrison! Details here.

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: October 31

Black River Chapbook Competition

Black Lawrence Press presents a great opportunity for poets and fiction writers with short manuscripts! The contest is open to new, emerging, and experienced writers, whose entries will be read blind by the panel of editors. The winner is awarded $500, publication, and 10 copies of their book. Guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: October 31

Creative Nonfiction Prize

If you have an unpublished creative nonfiction piece, this could be your big break! Indiana Review and Indiana University Press are currently accepting submissions for this prize. An entry of outstanding merit will be selected, less than 5000 words, and the winner will receive publication and $1000. The final judge will be Bassey Ikpi. Do it!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: October 31

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 Molly Gloss. Rules here!

Entry Fee: $18 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 60 to 90 pages. Once chosen by judge Christopher Buckley, the winner receives $1000 and publication. Submission guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: October 31

by Kimberly Guerin

Sep 28

New Voices: “Escaping” by Tom Lakin

In one breathless sentence, Tom Lakin’s “Escaping” takes us on the road, pedal to the metal, escaping north, through the trees and the years to a destination you can’t foresee. With the first clause, Lakin sets the scene: “It was the middle of July and they were fleeing north from the city in a stolen Ford Explorer…”

It was the middle of July and they were fleeing north from the city in a stolen Ford Explorer…

It was the middle of July and they were fleeing north from the city in a stolen Ford Explorer, the radio going full blast and the girl’s bare feet up on the dash, crossed on the fake leather, her toes painted green and shining like bits of glass in the glare slamming in through the open sunroof and the old rattletrap car doing seventy on the highway though it felt more like a hundred-and-seventy, the doors clattering each time Dave stomped the gas or jerked the gearshift and the body of the car heaving beneath them like a startled horse, the sticky seats rattling at their backs, empty cans rolling this way and that across the floor as on either side of them the road streamed past, trees and signs and glacier-carved cliffs with the solemn craggy faces of old men, exits blurring by and the numbers on the signs rapidly climbing as they accelerated north toward their new dealer, an opiate need already asserting itself in her blood and spreading across her shoulders like a thousand cruel spiders, her fists clenched and her mind on the cash in the glove box beside the pistol, Dave’s old service sidearm, a Beretta M9, heavy and black with a straight polished barrel and a hole at one end like an all-seeing eye, the cash and the gun sliding back and forth as Dave cut across lanes, pounding his palms on the steering wheel and screaming into the blasting wind, Wooooo, the long repeated vowel uncoiling from his lips like a ribbon, Wooooo babe, can you believe this shit? we’re doing it, we’re off, here we fucking coooooooome, the wind yanking his words up and out the open sunroof like smoke as another exit sign blew past and there in the seat she felt it, the first stirrings like an itch inside her skirt, a faint spreading pressure in her bladder that grew until suddenly, undeniably, it overtook her, and with the back of her left hand she whacked Dave on the shoulder and said, Look can you pull over, I’ve gotta pee…

To continue reading “Escaping” click here.

Sep 25

Reading Through the Awards: Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, recent winner of the British Book Award, is our next selection.


Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “Queenie Jenkins is a twenty-five-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.”

Candice Carty-Williams’ stunning debut novel, Queenie, takes us through a myriad of cultures, emotions, and moral viewpoints. From Jamaica to London, Queenie’s life comprises the ups and downs of a resilient, immigrant family. Her family’s success in America coincides with Queenie’s overworked grandparents, emotionally distant at times and far too concerned that Queenie’s decisions will bring shame on the family. As Queenie manages her strained relationship with her mom, we see her become her mother in all the ways she refuses to talk about. As an audience, we see how easy it is to become what you are running from, and can relate to being Queenie at some point in time.

From being too black for her white friends and too white for her black friends, Queenie’s story pulls at the heart strings of people worldwide, judged for how you speak and act. In our society, grammar determines ethnicity apparently. If you say, “What’s happening?” instead of “Was hannin’?” you’re suddenly ‘white-washed’. Queenie, myself, and many youth from a cultural background know the pain of words separating you from your culture, pushing you into the likes of a traitor when ‘white-washed’ is said; as if words hold a color. As if education, or ‘correct grammar’ is for White people, and slang is for everybody else. As if the words we say and how we say them matter more than, well, everything else.

What I love most about Queenie is her innocence. She was not the brazen, courageous character, like her best friend, Kyazike. She was more indecisive and unsure of herself, and that is just fine. We need more heroines whose superpower is their relatability! This book made myself (and many other millennials I’m sure) hear how our casual, unprotected sex stories really sound, as Queenie tells a doctor the full truth every two weeks. Likewise, this book makes the simple act of seeking therapy heroic. Williams puts the glory in the details: though Queenie deals with a break-up from a long-term relationship throughout the novel, her story does not end with her dream man walking her down the aisle, her ex sobbing into her old blouses. Her triumph is not on one page, but every page, until you reach the end. I love Queenie’s story, because I see myself in Queenie so clearly. Transformation is gradual, and the beauty truly is in the details.

Williams’ writing style builds a bridge between the audience and Queenie that is so personal, some pages feel borderline intrusive. There were multiple times that I was embarrassed with Queenie, or humiliated with Queenie. There were times I was excited and confident with Queenie. There were days Queenie’s sarcasm had me chuckling throughout my day. There were nights that I took Queenie’s problems with me to sleep, praying she would feel better when I opened the book next. I am grateful to say I now have a story to turn to when I feel misunderstood by the world. Queenie understands.

Imani Todd

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams brings a perspective to the quarter-life-crisis that is relatable to every woman in her mid-twenties, but demands that the reader sees the main character, Queenie, for the individual she is and the community she represents. Carty-Williams explores issues like depression and anxiety, cultural and generational differences, and the important balance of healthy relationships.

The way Carty-Williams writes about trauma, depression, and anxiety is tangible. When Queenie’s stomach flips, so does the reader’s. When Queenie can’t take deep breaths, neither can the reader. And when Queenie is confronted for her physical appearance, political beliefs and social viewpoints, the readers are angry alongside her. The point of view of a modern Black woman living and working in predominantly white areas is more important now than ever. While there’s still overt racism in the world, Carty-Williams shows the everyday casual racism toward people of color that white people either refuse to see or are ignorant to. Moments of passion are mistaken for aggression, her presence is questioned in mostly white places, and inappropriate comments are made about her body, skin, and hair. On top of that, there’s an important insight to the pressure people of color have from trying to figure out their personal lives, while also fighting for civil justice and change in the world.

Queenie’s character is written in a way that shows she was given the space and freedom to be her own person. She acted irrationally and impulsively, all in the conquest to find what would make her feel better. Behind her is a cast of characters who represent the many people who can make up a support team. While Queenie continually tries to find a solution to her problems, there are family members, friends, and doctors all trying to help her in their own way. The attempts range from comical to endearing to downright frustrating, but no matter what the heart is there. These relationships show how easy it is to blend the lines between leaning on friends and being dependent on them, as well as being open with people but not being honest about mental health. There’s also the generational and cultural gap between Queenie and her grandparents to unravel. As Tolstoy says, every family is unhappy in its own way. At the head of this family though is a strong, matriarchal grandmother who holds everyone together (sometimes forcibly) even as they all try to work through their differences.

There are countless lessons to be learned through Queenie’s experiences, and through all of these lessons the voices of the characters never lose their strength. Even as Queenie’s mentality wavers, her voice stays true to character. The minor characters are given short background and personality descriptions, but even then their dialogue and actions feel authentic and consistent with who they are. The world is constantly being reminded how important diverse and individual points of view are, and Candice Carty-Williams proves that true with Queenie.

Melanie Spicer

Candice Carty-Williams’ novel, Queenie, delves into the world of catastrophizing Queenie Jenkins, a twenty-five-year-old woman struggling to manage her way through life despite its shortcomings and inequalities. Candice effectively uses diction alongside her dialogue to create believable and dynamic characters, each fleshly meshed out as people the readers can believe in. With these two devices, Williams supports a distinct and original voice worth praising. However, when it comes to revealing and describing Queenie’s conflict of the self, as well as her motivation, showing over telling would have been more effective, especially from the beginning of the novel.

The story stumbles its way through many serious topics such as miscarriage, gentrification, police brutality, racism, microaggressions, sexual violence, childhood domestic violence and neglect, as well as the struggle of self-love. Throughout all of these conflicts, as readers, we struggle to figure out what the core conflict of the self is for Queenie and it isn’t until the therapy session at the end of the novel that we briefly are told what that this main conflict is. Queenie holds a trauma from her childhood which stems from the domestic violence she endured from Roy and witnessed towards her mother. Because of this experience, Queenie now struggles with many dysfunctionalities as an adult such as a lack of self-love, a loss of self-identity, and a negative association with black men. Unfortunately, this conflict of the self is revealed twenty-three out of thirty chapters too late into the novel for the readers to fully emotionally connect with, especially after sorting through all the previous conflicts. Not only that, but the reveal was told to the readers in a large amount of dialogue rather than shown to us through use of descriptive language and literary devices. For these reasons, as readers, we struggle to connect with what could have been an amazingly complex conflict for Queenie to explore and grow from, one in which deserved more attention from the writing. If this many conflicts are to be presented to the readers, and it is entirely possible to do so, it must be for a purpose and, as writers, we must successfully dissect them from the beginning and then, tie back to them in the end, otherwise they be used for their shock value. Showing over telling is extremely important not only to connect the readers to the main character’s core conflict and motivation, but also to keep the reader’s attention. We need all that descriptive language to better connect with Queenie’s conflict of the self. Instead, we’re only given a small, lovely description at the very end of the novel when Queenie describes her mother at the family dinner and their resolved relationship. Just as we begin to warm up and connect to this beautifully broken yet evolving mother-daughter relationship, it’s taken away from us and then the novel ends. The reader is left unsatisfied.

Queenie goes through many mental breakdowns, even passing out from her anxiety attacks, but through therapy she improves her mental health quickly, and just in time for the novel to end. As readers, we struggle to suspend our disbelief that she would improve her deteriorating mental health that quickly. Even with that beautiful mother-daughter ending, we don’t feel convinced we know where Queenie’s at right now. Uncertainty isn’t bad to end a novel with, but at least give the readers a description of something to believe in and hold onto. What we do know is that Queenie’s therapist tells us that life isn’t supposed to be normal, so we settle with Williams trying to convince us that Queenie is managing life the best way she can with the support of her friends, family, and newfound motivation to heal into a better, self-loving place.

Casandra Lopez

There’s a beautiful sense of nuance that comes from knowing your characters and the world they inhabit, but in Queenie, that subtlety is inconsistent on the page. Through her titular character, a black British journalist coping with mental illness and trauma, author Candice Carty-Williams explores perennial topics such as race, gentrification, and identity. But the smaller details, the pieces of development that would have allowed us to understand Queenie as a more fully-fleshed character in a more immersive world, feel like they were left on the cutting room floor.

Queenie’s voice is equal parts self-aware and oblivious as she spirals into deep anxiety after separating from her boyfriend, Tom. The fallout from their split pushes Queenie into a pattern of destructive behavior that Carty-Williams depicts with care, particularly the tension between Queenie’s mental health and her Jamaican family. Her grandmother rejects the very idea of psychotherapy, while her soft-spoken mother is a quiet reminder of Queenie’s childhood trauma. The problem is that we only get glimpses into this trauma, most of which come later in the novel through conversations with Queenie’s therapist. On the one hand, it tracks that Queenie’s abandonment issues and lack of self-worth would be difficult to address early in the novel because they cause her such pain; on the other hand, these issues are the crutches upon which Queenie bases her near-obsession with Tom, and because we don’t get any details until the end of the novel, the career-shattering effects of Queenie’s heartbreak don’t feel earned. That’s a problem because Queenie’s desire to go back to Tom, and her struggle with life without him, takes up a huge portion of the story. However, each flashback to their relationship makes the story subsequently more frustrating because there’s not a lot of reason to root for their relationship in the first place. Tom is clueless, his family is racist, and it’s not clear what Queenie gains from their partnership in the first place. That’s because Carty-Williams places the emphasis on the dissolution of their relationship, rather than developing the trauma that Queenie has to overcome—and how Tom, or the idea of Tom, interacts with Queenie’s past.

It’s worth celebrating how Carty-Williams brings Queenie’s anxiety to life on the page with care. Queenie tells her therapist, “I feel a bit like for a while I’ve been carrying ten balls of wool. And one ball fell, so I dropped another to catch it, but still didn’t catch it. Then two more started to unravel, and in trying to save those I lost another one. Do you know what I mean? Sorry.” These moments feel starkly real for Queenie, and they’re portrayed with sincerity on the page—but we miss that same sincerity when Queenie interacts with themes like gentrification and racism. Queenie comments on the “corporate-friendly burger bars” and boutiques that have replaced familiar Jamaican shops in Brixton, but these are just observations—not necessarily moments that carry weight on the plot. After she confronts a date after he compares her to chocolate, we learn that she spends two hours debating racism with him—but this scene only reiterates that the man is clueless, not that Queenie has grown as a character. In essence, these themes feel true to the author, but they don’t feel true to Queenie. They matter, and the mere presence of these underrepresented topics is significant. But I found myself wishing that the author had spent time unraveling these large themes and integrating them more deeply with Queenie’s development, much in the same way she integrated Queenie’s interaction and subsequent ownership of her mental health. Queenie is a compelling debut, and Queenie’s character is as vibrant as she is complicated. The end result is a jaunt of a novel that speaks to themes that are especially relevant today, but does so with broad strokes.

Rebecca Paredes

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams was marketed as Bridget Jones’s Diary meets Americanah. Having not read either of these books, these comparisons didn’t mean much to me—I went into this book with no expectations. However, after looking at the top reviews on Goodreads, I was surprised to see quite a few negative reviews from people who were disappointed, indignant, even, that the book was nothing like Bridget Jones’s Diary. Some even expressed that they felt they had been “tricked” by the colorful cover.

I don’t know what they were expecting—perhaps something lighter? Queenie is brutal to be sure. Despite occasional moments of comic relief, it is a non-stop journey of self-destruction. I found myself thinking of The Bell Jar—a smart woman unraveling as she’s faced with the unfair reality of the society she lives in. Tom’s inability to stand up to his racist family reminded me of Buddy’s sexual hypocrisy. Both Queenie and Esther use sex as an attempt to take control of their circumstances even as the men they engage disrespect them and, in Queenie’s case, fetishize blackness.

Crucially, though, Queenie is unlike anything I have ever read. It took me so completely into a world I knew nothing about—what it’s like being a Jamaican British woman in her 20s. This book is raw and real. I was rooting for Queenie the entire way, like one of her faithful “corgis.” As for the cover, it stands in defiance of Queenie’s struggle with trauma and mental health. It speaks to the book’s simple but powerful message: black women are enough.

Cassidy Colwell

Curated by Brandon Williams