The Masters Review Blog

Oct 31

New Writing on the Net: October 2020

Happy Halloween! In this month’s New Writing on the Net, reader Rebecca Williamson shares her favorite new fictions and essays published online in the last month. Find your weekend reading list right here.

Shadows and Light” by Meg Pacelli | Everyday Fiction, October 7

I want more of her smell, and as I pull shirts from the closet, bringing them to my face and greedily breathing it in, I see that the closet floor is lined with gifts. They are wrapped in brown paper, and carefully labeled — with my name. There are nine. One for every year we’ve been apart.

Outpouring” by Vin Maskell | Hobart, October 13

I learn to hold each bottle at arm’s length and let the amber liquid fall to, and seep into, the dirt, the soil of my parent’s retirement house. The liquid bubbles momentarily as it soaks in, creating a darker hue of soil. There is a rhythm to the process. A fluidity. And rather than just memories, there is gratitude. You can never thank your parents enough because you can never fully appreciate all they have done for you.

My Mother in Seven Superlatives: A very brief memoir” by B.G. Firmani | Southeast Review, October 22

My mother’s past seemed mythic to me, so different from what I saw as the diminished present that we were stuck living in when I was little. In some ways I saw my mother’s past as still happening, or in fact only waiting for her so that it could resume again. In my mind it was separated from the present by a kind of river that she could swim in order to get back to it; if I were lucky, I’d swim it with her.

Leaning into the End of the World” by Matthew Hawkins | The Normal School, October 14

Jude stroked Nathaniel’s full unibrow, like one would a caterpillar in the wild, and told him that he’d killed three people and only two of them were after the election. When Jude said this, he spoke slow and elongated his syllables, like it hurt. This didn’t bother Nathaniel. He believed in second chances. He thought about how Jude’s voice sounded like a hymn. Deep down, Nathaniel felt like they were fulfilling some sort of fucked up prophecy by being in that bed in a discarded Motel 6, outside of Atlanta, together—an afterthought to the world. With everything considered, Nathaniel still had faith things happened for a reason.

“#CampusClear# by Rebecca Chase | Scoundrel Time, October 20

My stomach is not good at digesting so much death. Sometimes I have to lie down on the floor. Sometimes I have to teach a class, and even though the students’ screen are dark I keep talking. I’ve been present for one death and two births in my life, not counting the births of my own two children. They say hearing is the last of the five senses to go; we keep singing to the dying until the body clicks out.

Border Funeral” by Victoria Blanco | Kenyon Review, October 2020

Five years after Abuelita’s death, I asked my mom what she thought Abuelita meant by “las flores son para los vivos, no para los muertos.”

“I guess she was trying to express that we should enjoy the time we have with her now, and also honor her death wishes,” my mom replied.

Fine lines etched my mom’s face; she was now in her seventies. Later, over dinner, she asked me to spread her ashes at the base of the Franklin Mountains, the shadow of which she has lived under since she arrived in El Paso as a young doctor. The thought of her death made my chest tighten. When I had collected myself, I argued with her. I don’t like the idea of my mom’s ashes scattered across the hard desert floor. “Where will I bring you flowers?” I asked her.

Curated by Rebecca Williamson


Oct 30

Interview with the Winner: Amanda Jean Akers

On Monday, we published Amanda Jean Akers’s third-place finalist, “Heirlooms,” selected by Sherrie Flick. Today, we are excited to share with you this interview, in which Melissa Hinshaw asks about meaning and image. Dig in below:

This story, more than most we read in the flash contest, befuddled us as much as it enchanted us. Is it a mournful piece, begrudging the inevitable, or a celebratory piece, revealing growth and connection? I think both, but tell us more about how those factors—or others—play a role for you in your writing.

Looking back at “Heirlooms,” I ‘d have to agree with you. I don’t normally choose to write with aspects of my personal life in mind, but what had inspired me were three things: tomatoes, salt, and my grandmother. I kept fiddling with the image of her, sitting at the white kitchen table, eating a plump tomato like an apple, salting in between bites—her favorite. But that’s as far as I got. For a long time, I kept getting stuck on words. Nothing felt good enough for me, for my grandmother, so I stopped. Then, the story took a turn when I went to the dentist. My own dental visit brought me the beginning of “Heirlooms.” I was told something similar to the character in this piece, and it brought me to tears. I was embarrassed and needed an outlet and salted tomatoes were all I could think about it. During this time, I was in the process of moving from the Midwest to South Korea. My mind was scrambled, and I did not have the time to process most things going on around me. My writing was at a standstill. I had been struggling with writer’s block for years and had forced myself to make something good out of bits and pieces. I did not feel like myself. Or, maybe I didn’t know who myself was. Toward the middle, I thought of my younger sister. I may not have inherited my grandmother’s love for heirlooms and cherry tomatoes, but she did pass down her rosacea to my sister. Near the end, the character became someone else. “Heirlooms” began in my bedroom in Ohio and was finished in my first apartment in Seoul. I felt like someone new—still do. The base of my story went from my grandmother, to myself, to my sister, to someone. I do not know who the main character of my story is. Maybe there is a part of me in her and we’re getting to know one another and I still don’t know what to do with my hands.

So much of this story’s power lies in objects and images. You squeeze so many into the first short line alone! How was the process of writing this story for you—did the images and objects come first as an idea, or was this more concept driven?

I love details. Like most of my other pieces, this one was image driven. Sometimes that image is a color, a word floating in my head, a sound, or a single line. It starts as a thought I can’t let go of and grows. When I write, I focus on the colors, the emotion of the image. I like to immerse readers with words, encouraging them to live through my writing. My work tends to be short. I only have a few lines to pull someone in and really get their blood flowing. My rejection pile deserves all the credit when it comes to my first line, attention-grabbers. You’ve only got one shot to make a good first impression. And, with writing, sometimes that’s less than a mouthful of words.

I love the well-chosen signals that we’re in a contemporary story despite potentially the otherwise fabley, magical realist language: “Bloody Mary,” “third-date-lipstick stains,” “TUMS.” What writers or other influences have helped shape this style of writing for you?

My degree is in creative writing with a focus in magical realism. I tend to read a lot of Haruki Murakmi, Jorge Borges, and, of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Writing about the mundane and putting a spin on the “what-if” is what I most like to do.

Looking back on this piece, it’s hard to imagine it without the dentist, and yet it feels so arbitrary and unrelated to tomatoes when I think of them outside the context of “Heirlooms”. How did you find that connection or inspiration when writing this?

I may have rambled a little earlier on about this, but what inspired me to write about the dentist was my own dental appointment I had gone to when I was conceptualizing this piece. I felt the dentist gave the story substance, a little more grounding. He’s a character who most people have come into contact with at some point in their lives, someone that may leave you with a bit of uneasiness. That’s where I was at that point in my life.

If you had to expand this piece of flash into a novel, what might be one or some of the main plot threads?

To be honest, I don’t really know. For me, the piece is over. But, I have been stewing on the thought of a girl whose head is turning into an onion, because her hair has been falling out and she heard onion juice promotes new growth. Maybe they’d meet, introduce themselves, and carry on.

Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw

Oct 29

New Voices Revisited: “Demonman” by Julialicia Case

In this month’s edition of New Voices Revisited, we look back on the winner of our 2017 Summer Short Story Award, “Demonman” by Julialicia Case. We wrote then that “This is a story that will stay with you,” and “We have never read a story quite like this powerful piece,” both statements that are still true to this day. The narrator of “Demonman,” eleven-year-old Amelia, communicates with her sister Laura, the victim of the serial rapist Demonman, by text and emoji with her sister, trying to find a way back in.

I text Laura the girls with their matching bunny ears, as in, come back. Come back to me. I watch her pick up her phone, and I wait for her to turn around, but after a few minutes, she hoists herself back onto the belt, and then she runs for a long, long time.

I am eleven the spring Demonman comes, first to the alley behind the Kroger, where the dumpsters reek like fermented orange juice, then to the train tracks by the boarded-up video store, then to the Harding mansion, still for sale, then to a snot-colored van with flattened tires. He comes to our nightmares, our whispered worries, to newspapers and televisions and notices in the post office. He’s called something else, a different name, although, of course, he is still Demonman. Since the shootings upstate, the police struggle with the race riots, but they claim to be searching for him, following the leads.

“We are confident,” police say on the news. “We are narrowing in.” But everyone has seen cell phone videos of crazy police shootings. They are as afraid and angry as we are.

“The world is ending,” my mother says. She hangs raspberry leaves for drying, and looks to my father who dreams of robots.

“I’m wondering,” he says, “whether self-driving cars let you sit in the driver’s seat.” He spins a micro-screwdriver around his thumb.

Then Demonman comes to our bike path and our forest, to the white pines with the biggest pinecones, between the first bridge and the second one. He comes to the place where my sister, Laura, and I learned to rollerblade, where our mother gathers red clover for sunspot salve, and where our father pretends to go with his recumbent on Saturdays. Demonman comes when Laura is running, practicing for cross-country, when the sun is out and the glint of other people’s windows shines through the trees. The laughter at the duck pond is loud enough she can hear it, and she screams and claws and throws up on her shirt. Demonman wins. Of course he wins.

“Were you wearing headphones?” the policewoman asks her. “Were you by yourself?”

Laura goes into the room with the metal door. She gives them her sports bra and her fingernails. Then she doesn’t speak again. Demonman keeps her voice, and my parents buy me a phone.

“At all times,” my mother says. “I want it with you at all times.”

All the girls have phones like mine, now, sudden gifts from our parents. We have two kinds of hearts: fire hearts and water hearts. The water girls stay inside with their computers and magazines. They write in their journals and read us their poems. They want to walk us home, want to whisper in suffocating groups. They get flooded up and take turns crying. The fire girls cannot sit still. We wriggle at our desks. We fingernail our pencil erasers into scraps of rubber. We break bottles and rip paper, spend satisfying hours demolishing bubble wrap. Our bicycles call to us. Surely our meadows and pastures would not turn against us. We feel Demonman watching in the late spring thunderstorms. His eyes flicker and flash with the lightning. He doesn’t care what’s inside our hearts.

To continue reading “Demonman” click here.

Oct 28

November Deadlines: 9 Contests and Prizes Ending This Month

Do you have your Halloween costume ready to go? No? Only a few days left to decide! Thankfully, you have a little extra time to get your manuscripts in submission shape for these contests that are closing in the next month!

FEATURED The Masters Review Chapbook Contest

Our inaugural chapbook contest, judged by Steve Almond, is closing this month! The winning writer will be awarded $3000, manuscript publication, a subscription to Journal of the Month, and 50 copies of their winning manuscript. We’re seeking to celebrate bold, original voices within a single, cohesive manuscript of 25 to 40 pages. We’re interested in collections of short fiction, essays, flash fiction, novellas/novelettes, longform fiction or essays, and any combination thereof, provided the manuscripts are complete (no excerpts, chapters, works-in-progress, or other incomplete work), and function cohesively. We’ve published a (brief) list of our favorite chapbooks, and had a conversation with the editors about what kind of chapbooks we’re hoping to find in our submissions! Full submission details here.

Entry fee: $25 Deadline: November 15

FC2’s Innovative Fiction Contests

Two contest deadlines wrapped into one! FC2 is offering two manuscript prizes: the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest, and the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Both contests have a November 1 deadline. The Sukenick is open to US writers who have not published with FC2 previously. The final judge for the Sukenick this year is Vi Khi Nao. The winner receives a $1,500 prize, and publication by FC2. The Doctorow is judged this year by Joyelle McSweeney and is only open to US writers who have published at least three books of fiction previously. The prize for the Doctorow is $15,000 as well as publication by FC2. For both contests, FC2 is looking specifically for fiction considered “too challenging, innovative or heterodox” for traditional publishing. Take a look!

Entry fee: $25 Deadline: November 1

So to Speak Contests

So to Speak‘s annual contests in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and visual art are open until November 10 this year! For poetry, the journal of language + feminism + art is looking for 3-5 of your best poems. The winning poem will be award $500 and up to three finalists could also be selected for publication. The judge for poetry this year is Roya Marsh. In fiction and nonfiction, judged by Natalie Lima and Sophia Shalmiyev respectively, So to Speak is looking for up to 4,000 words of your best work. In visual art, the journal is looking for any form. The past winners have included photography, paintings, digital media, sculpture and more. The winner will be awarded publication alongside the $500 prize. Sheilah and Dani Restack are this year’s judges. And special this year: the submission fee is waived for Black and Indigenous writers. Learn more here.

Entry fee: $10 Deadline: November 10

Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel

The Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel is awarded to one unpublished manuscript a year, with a $2,000 prize and publication by Southeast Missouri State University Press. The prize is open to English-writing, US residents who have not published a novel. The deadline for this year’s contest has been extended to November 13, so you have a few extra weeks this year to polish up your manuscript. Find out more.

Entry fee: $25 Deadline: November 13

Academy of American Poets First Book Award

This prize is open to any US citizen (or US resident for the last ten years) who hasn’t published a book of poetry. Formerly known as the Walt Whitman Prize, this award has been running since 1975. The winning manuscript, selected by this year’s judge Claudia Rankine, will be published by Graywolf Press and pay its winning writer a $5,000 prize. The winner also receives an all-expenses-paid six-week residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in italy Submit between 48 and 100 pages of original, English poetry, although submissions are limited to one manuscript per submitter. Check it out!

Entry fee: $35 Deadline: November 16

53-Word Story Contest

Hosted monthly by Press 53, the 53-Word Story Contest is looking for stories of, you guessed it, 53 words exactly. The winner is published in Prime Number Magazine and wins a free book from Press 53. And better yet, it’s free to submit! You’ve got nothing to lose! Take a look at previous winners and get cracking on your own. A note: There’s a monthly theme, so be sure to look out for that when the calendar rolls over to November officially. Details here.

Entry fee: FREE! Deadline: November 15

One Teen Story Teen Writing Contest

Once a year One Teen Story hosts its Teen Writing Contest, limited to writers ages 13-19 and looking specifically for fiction focused on the teen experience. Stories should have teens as their protagonists, as well, but there’s no limit based on genre. Honorable mentions will be made based on age groups: 13-15, 16-17, and 18-19. The winner will receive a $500 prize and publication in One Teen Story. Submissions should be no longer than 4,500 words. Submit now!

Entry fee: FREE! Deadline: November 20

Hayden’s Ferry Review

Hayden’s Ferry Review is seeking flash-length submissions for their online companion issue with the theme Haunted. They write, “The ‘haunting’ is often associated with the ethereal; ghosts and phantoms, curses and spells, creaky floorboards and shadowy apparitions. We pair hauntings with darkness, fairy tales, the spirit world. But the things that haunt us are often more complex—they are places, people, memories, objects, obsessions, systems.” Got a story or short poem that fits this theme? Great! No? Well, you’ve still got about a month to get writing. Find more here.

Entry fee: FREE! Deadline: November 30

Blue Mountain Review’s LBGTQ Poetry Chapbook Contest

This contest is open only to members of the LBGTQ community. Submit up to 20 pages of poetry to this contest for the opportunity to win $200 and 100 copies of your book. 2nd and 3rd place finalists also receive monetary prizes ($100 and $50 respectively). The judges for the contest this year are Nickole Brown, author of Sister, Fanny Says, To Those Who Were Our First Gods and The Donkey Elegies, as well as Jessica Jacobs, author of Take Me With You, Wherever You’re Going. Submit here.

Entry fee: $25 Deadline: November 30

by Cole Meyer



Oct 26

New Voices: “Heirlooms” by Amanda Jean Akers

The third place finalist for our 2020 Flash Fiction Contest, “Heirlooms” by Amanda Jean Akers will take root in your memory. “I love the unrealistic/realistic nature of this story,” writes guest judge Sherrie Flick. “The rooting is a little gross, but also reassuring as our narrator stands solidly in the train station at the end. The whole atmosphere is one of wet, organic decay—but from that there’s regrowth. A weird, wonderful story.”

Third-date-lipstick stains have been replaced by taproots. Fibers branch across the roof of her hard plate, embedding into her swollen tonsils.

She squeezes a tomato into an empty mason jar and thinks of her dentist.

“You’re missing roots,” he told her.

The pulp is left to stew with gnats in her kitchen window. On the third day, she looks closely at the white mold that has grown around the chipped glass, the dried-up juices. Light, sneaking through dusty blinds and water spots, she turns the jar toward the full sun. All the good seeds had sunk to the bottom. She digs. Spoonfuls of mush are flung into the food processor. Spoil smears her knuckles, barely red.

With salt, the waste is ground into just enough paste she can brush her teeth. The grit leaves behind a deep-clean-feeling. Fungi froth in her spit. Traces of seeds bury into her gums, wedging between her molars. She refuses to floss. They blend in with her plaque.

To continue reading “Heirlooms” click here.

Oct 23

A Brief List of Our Favorite Chapbooks

Our new Chapbook Contest is still open just over three weeks! Sunday, November 15th is the deadline, so make sure to polish up those manuscripts and send them our way before it’s too late. If you’re still looking for some inspiration, check out our post on what we’re interested in reading for this contest or a few of our favorite chapbooks listed below. 

Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan by Rosie Forrest

We reviewed this fantastic chapbook in 2015 when it won the Rose Metal Press’s Short Short Chapbook Contest. Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan is populated by surprisingly destructive characters, searching for what one narrator calls a “shared brokenness.” Pamela Painter writes in the introduction, “Each flash story… evokes a startling, often dark, self-contained world. And each intriguing title sets a new tale into motion, unspooling with a mysterious, languid intensity. Join their company, but be forewarned that when each story ends, it stubbornly holds you in its grip awhile, until you are ready—brave enough, really—to venture into Forrest’s next luminous world.”

Autopsy and Everything After by Michael Chin

Slip into the world of semi-pro wrestling in Autopsy and Everything After, the winner of the Jeanne Leiby Award from The Florida Review. A linked collection, each flash within the chapbook introduces us to a new city, a new wrestler, a new move, a new relationship. “There is so much pathos and beauty and good humor in these pieces,” writes guest judge Juan Martinez. “I loved spending time with these people, how they surprised me, how much I learned about the itinerant wrestling world and how that world contains all of ours—our dead fathers, our lost exes, our fears and hopes.”



Together, Apart by Ben Hoffman

The winner of the (now defunct) Origami Zoo Press’s Chapbook Contest, Together, Apart was published in 2014, and reviewed right here at The Masters Review. “As the title suggests,” Sadye Teiser wrote then, “the stories in this collection transition rapidly between different modes of experience. The prose is by turns funny and sad. The narrators are cynical, then kind. The characters are constantly grappling with the difference between their desires and the realities they are presented with. It is in this impossible, transitional space that Hoffman’s stories flourish.”



The Third Elevator by Aimee Bender

Admittedly, this is not a traditional chapbook. It’s probably better identified as a novellette, but for our Chapbook Contest, we’re considering novellettes! In The Third Elevator, you’ll find a swan and a bluebird who fall in love; you’ll find a cloud that’s hatched from an egg; you’ll find an elevator that travels forty-five floors into the sky like an observation tower. You’ll find the magic and humor and fantastical storytelling that Bender is known for. “What in the god damn God Damn” are you waiting for?





This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

This list wouldn’t be complete without including a chapbook from our contest’s judge. This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey is part craft-book, part chapbook. In 30 microessays, Almond lays out what he has to say about the craft of writing fiction. The instructions are brief, barebones and too the point, but ring absolutely true. “Writing is decision making,” Almond writes in “Bullshit Detector”. “Nothing more and nothing less.” And there’s no way to talk about this chapbook without talking about its construction. Once you’ve finished half of the collection, you must flip the book over and upside down to read the other half, suggesting quite clearly that these are two books combined into one.

Oct 20

October Book Review: Jillian in the Borderlands by Beth Alvarado

Our October book review, written by Kathryn Ordiway, takes a look at Jillian in the Borderlands by Beth Alvarado, out today, October 20th, from Black Lawrence Press. Of the collection, Ordiway writes it is “a rich text that straddles culture not only in setting and character, but in speech.”

Beth Alvarado’s Jillian in the Borderlands is not a novel, though it often feels like one. It is “a cycle of rather dark tales,” to use the titular language, tales of varying length and constant strangeness.

Immediately, in the first tale, the reader is plunged into Jillian’s world, a hallucinatory one of ghosts and eternal knowledge, but also a familiar one, filled with deportations and racial injustice and men girls are told to stay away from. These tales are peppered with fantastical and average characters alike. There is Jillian (child at the beginning of the collection and woman by the end) who, at birth, was gifted (or burdened) with a vast amount of knowledge about the past, present, and future, along with a smattering of vocabulary in many languages. She is mute, she can see the dead, and she contains multitudes of pain, her own and others’. There is Angie—Jillian’s mother and a daughter and a lover and eventually a grandmother, but not a mystic or a seer. There is Juana of God and her spirit-summoning Chihuahua Junie; Marisol, who cleans house for Jillian’s grandmother and is at one point deported; and later Primero and Segundo, otherworldly twins.

Read more.

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.