The Masters Review Blog

Sep 25

The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews—Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang and Riots I Have Known By Ryan Chapman

Double feature! This week’s The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews brings comments on two books published in 2019: Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection Home Remedies and Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known. How were these two books received by Brandon Williams’ class?

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

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

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

Home Remedies, Xuan Juliana Wang

Quick Synopsis: A short story collection exploring the Chinese and Chinese-American millennial experience.

Xuan Juliana Wang’s stunning debut with her book, Home Remedies: Stories, has provided a fresh look on immigrant life and experiences. Through her themes of family, love, and time and space, Wang traverses the path of Chinese youth in modern times. Wang sought to capture the experiences of those who go through dislocation as being an immigrant. The life of an immigrant is something that is hard to visualize from a perspective foreign to the experience of being one, and is extremely prevalent in the U.S., let alone California. From the perspective of children living in a tense household, to Olympic divers on the verge of friendship and something more, to the pure fascination of a child encountering a man of many abilities, Wang is able to take the magic of being able to take the magic of being an immigrant and at the same time, incorporate the meniality of being a human along her documentation of their memoirs.

Kritika Srinivasan


Home Remedies brings together stories of Chinese and Chinese-American millennials, their struggles, and their lives. Some stories (“Echo of the Moment,” “Future Cat”) involve fantastical plots, but her characters and their lives are at their most extraordinary when set against a mundane backdrop: “Vaulting the Sea” in particular, wherein Taoyu, an Olympic Diving hopeful, explores his complex feelings for his diving partner. Wang’s lyricism and skill are at their best here, allowing eroticism, fear, fatigue, and hope to exist together in the physical act of synchronized diving. While not all stories reach the same level, her lyrical phrasing and characterization are welcome throughout.

Daniel Mazzacane


As a first book, Home Remedies, by Xuan Juliana Wang, is a short story collection of twelve that dwells on the experiences of Chinese youth, who all find themselves between love, family, time, sexual orientation, social status, and immigration. The book jacket makes each story seem amazing, with characters having “unusual careers, unconventional sex lives, and fantastical technologies” and undergoing some kind of realization in their life. However, the majority of the stories had no plot; most of the characters in these stories, if not all, are reflecting on themselves in the world. I think for a debut book, it was okay, despite its weird and odd book jacket, which didn’t really match what the stories much.

Overall, the variety of stories is what sets this apart from other short story collections. Each story, while some are filled with magical realism, and others could use a bit more work, has a fresh and unconventional voice. However, the language is simple and doesn’t really pack a whole lot of punch. This is a debut book, so I didn’t have as high of an expectation going into it, but I still expected some layers of complications, which I feel like I got in some of these stories, like “For Our Children and For Ourselves.”

Cherish Yang


Riots I Have Known, Ryan Chapman

Quick Synopsis: As a prison riot rages, the unnamed editor of the prison’s literary magazine sequesters himself in a computer lab to finish working on his Editor’s Letter, an official account of the events that led to the riot which may or may not have any truth it in at all.

I think the author did a really good job writing a book that was a more stream of consciousness type of story. Personally, I think that is a challenge because you have to consider multiple things, the most obvious one is that the writer is aware of what they are writing but they have to pretend to be like they aren’t aware. It becomes challenging because you have to make it sound like the person is letting their mind wander, but it is not forced. But this is just my personal opinion.

Anyways, I had a lot of trouble trying to understand what the book was trying to do. I knew that the guy was in prison and I assumed that he was probably just talking to himself, but then he went on to say that he was writing this and that the reader might think this and I was just confused. It finally occurred to me like around page 30 that he was just writing what was going on around him and talking about the prison riots and reminiscing about his past. There is no traditional plot which is probably why I was thrown off. I was freaking out for a bit because I was like, Where are the chapter breaks?

This next part is something I thought a lot about and am still thinking about: the character’s name, or lack thereof. It is mentioned from the very beginning that he is unnamed and I thought it was both a good and bad choice. I think the writer was trying to go for a sense of mystery and how this character could be anyone, even someone you know. I get it. I like it. Here’s what I have learned: When a character is important, they are given a name. If they seem important then there must be a reason why they are nameless. I was partially wondering why the character wasn’t given a name, then, because it seems like he was important. So when the riot happened—I am assuming he was killed—we were supposed to care. I only cared for like, a second. The only thing that I can argue is that he was actually a nobody. He wanted to be somebody, so he pretended to be writing to an audience. Wow, that was dark.

Daisy Matias


Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman is a novel surrounding one prisoner’s perspective on jail and remembrance of his life as the jail embarks through a journey amidst a riot.

The main character is known only as MJ: a robust and complicated character and the sole narrator of the novel. The story fulfills its duty when it comes to the intricacy of detail pertaining to the characters, especially the main character. The author focuses on the details that are backed up with the origins of the setting the character is in. However, this novel fails at capturing the essence of the story, which is apparently memorializing MJ’s experience in an effective way that readers can understand. While this book strives to be comedic, it often becomes messy and confusing to follow (though I think the author made it this way on purpose).

Chapman did a wonderful job establishing MJ’s character throughout the book. After watching Orange is the New Black, I definitely had my own perception of prison that MJ hilariously debunked or even supported in certain aspects. There were many comments that one would generally not make on a regular basis that added that extra kick of spice to MJ’s character. MJ is an extremely smart character with extensive knowledge in multiple subjects including Freudian theories and principles which is interesting considering he was a simple doorman here in the US. While MJ has an affair with his Warden he also captures the raw feelings he has in his mind in terms of his relationship which is true for a character in Orange is the New Black as well. After noticing these similarities it can be assumed that Chapman has also extensively observed pop culture’s experience and perception of a jail and has added his own sarcastic humor through the main character. Overall, Chapman’s book is definitely a unique and different book for today’s readers.

Kritika Srinivasan


Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams

Sep 23

New Voices: “The Danbury Firebirds” by Andrew Erkkila

What would a losing streak drive you to? Would you lean into a pitch? Quit the team? Get a vasectomy? In Andrew Erkkila’s “The Danbury Firebirds,” an unusually long losing streak leads to unusual reactions. This absurd story will stick with you all week. Read on below:

God is the light and we’re all looking through a kaleidoscope at him. God is everywhere, he said. God is our team and their team. Drunk on metaphor, the priest kept going.

Hold on, father, I said. Let’s not get carried away. If you start telling our team that the other team are their equals in God, they’re going to lose all their fighting spirit.

There’s only so many fiery pep talks you can give when the talent isn’t there. Sometimes that’s life. There’s no victory in sight. You just pray for a miracle.

I try to put the games St. Regis lost behind me and focus on right now. Bottom of the ninth, two outs. Down by two. Bases loaded. With zero wins and thirty-eight losses, we need a success to hit the reset button.

Danny Fierce is on the mound, a long-armed sniper. Though really, he’d never hurt anyone. He’s an outspoken pacifist, a factor that seriously complicates my plan: If I can just convince Rusty to step into the pitch, we can get to the top of the lineup and clean house. We need a win bad.

The first pitch flies, and Rusty chops the air. Strike one.

I call time and gesture him over.

Rusty, I want you to step into the pitch.

Coach?

It’s our last shot. Do you want to be the reason we lost our last game of the season?

You’re insane, he says.

Look if you get hit, what’s the worst that can happen? We charge the mound. We can kick their asses. We need the morale, Rusty. Now listen, you have to make it look like an accident, otherwise it’s a strike.

That’s a nice bit of info, he says.

If not for me, do it for the nuns.

He looks over. They’re doing the wave. They’re nowhere near as encouraging as real cheerleaders, but they’re less distracting.

You’re really sick, he says.

If being a sick is an illness, I tell him, winning is the cure.

He steps back to the plate, shaking his head.

To continue reading “The Danbury Firebirds” click here.

Sep 20

New Writing on the Net: September

September’s edition of New Writing on the Net comes to us from The Masters Review reader Jen Dupree. She writes, “I recently read Miranda July’s The First Bad Man and it’s such a physical book, so much about the body, that I couldn’t sop thinking about how physicality is conveyed in literature. This list reflects that.”

“Stories We Tell Now” by Jennifer Swift | The Sun, Sept. 2019

“We think of the girl, all the rules she’d been taught: be pretty, be liked, be good, be careful. We walk into the room with her, feel her confidence, her thrill at the attention. We want to tell her, It’s not what you think—the boys’ adulation is not a promise they will keep. We believed we were special, too, that because they wanted us we had power we could wield. We didn’t know that because they gave that power to us, they could take it away. But we go with her into the dark room with the boy. We flush at his touch, our fear quickening as we’re overpowered. Before it’s even over we realize we’ve been tricked. How stupid we’ve been.”

This is a perfect story for the me-too movement, an indictment and not-indictment, both a reckoning and a looking away.

 “Someone Will Come and Get Us” by Treena Thibidous | The Rumpus, August 28, 2019

“Rock climbing hollows out my stomach, a sensation not dissimilar to the uterine suck in the last irrevocable moment before an orgasm. It always feels like I’m making a mistake on purpose.”

A woman wants to stray, her husband wants her devotion. They go rock climbing together and something bad happens and in a way, they both get what they want. This is a subtle reckoning, a painful desire.

“The Last Rite of the Body” by Sophie Mackintosh | Granta, August 19, 2019

“My ex-boyfriend dies, and we all gather to put our hands into his body. There is not enough room so our own bodies take it in turns. We allow ourselves to move on everyone else’s currents, and nobody makes eye contact. When we’ve finished touching the skin, the skin is removed. When the skin is removed and carefully folded on the birch racks, we touch him again. After a while, his mother has the honour of putting her hands on him, a signal for us to stop, and we dip our own bloody hands into the tub of soaped water, respectfully. Our hands touch under the foam.”

I love weird, and this story is viscerally weird. There’s no way you won’t feel this in your body.

 “No Matter” by Kendra Fortmeyer | Lightspeed, August 2019

“’Thank you,’ you said, and turned to go. I looped my arm around my husband’s waist, hoping—what? To make you uncomfortable? You twisted back just before disappearing over the hill and looked back at my husband, your face laced with complicated regret. I felt like somebody was intruding on something, but I wasn’t sure what.”

This is science fiction that really speaks to human nature—obsession, desire, doubt—and how those are the real things we need to fear.

Curated by Jen Dupree

Sep 18

The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews — The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

This week’s The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews covers the fantastic The Other Americans by Laila Lalami, published in March of 2019. This series presents reviews of contemporary novels written by college seniors in a class led by our very own Brandon Williams. Read on to see how they received The Other Americans.

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

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

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

The Other Americans, Laila Lalami

Quick Synopsis: After a Moroccan immigrant is killed by a car, his daughter and multiple members of the community attempt to unravel the threads of his life and death.

Lalami’s The Other Americans is exactly what one would expect it would be. A story that focuses on the “other Americans”. The book takes place in California, where a crime was just committed. The book opens with an elderly Moroccan immigrant being killed in a hit and run incident just outside his business. It is afterwards that an investigation takes place, and we get to know more about this man and others that were tied to him in some way.

The book jacket suggests this book as a mystery novel, even though it is actually so much more than that. The novel homes in on several themes such as immigration, prejudice, family, and love. Each character is complex, has their own distant personality, ethnic background, and personal experience in America. I do feel like many of these characters were believable and didn’t feel stale or bland.

If there is one criticism, my classmates and I noticed that there weren’t enough events in the actual narrative. A good majority of what happens in this novel is through memory. Now, this wouldn’t be so bad if handled normally. What the author tends to do is show conflict that happened in the past as conflict is going on in the present scene. This was something I at first didn’t have a problem with until the class pointed it out. In short, I feel like this is a story more theme and character based than plot based.

Breona Taitt


The Other Americans succeeds in wasting no words while simultaneously ensuring each of its nine narrators feels distinct. However, in its rush to tell each character’s story, most sections end just as they feel they are beginning. The prose is given no time to linger and explore its own ideas. Instead, it favors moving on to the next character, then the next. Unfortunately, for a story that is about its characters, their community, and connection, it never feels like we truly get to know any of the individuals beyond a surface-level understanding.

Becca Calloway


The Other Americans by Laila Lalami is a novel that creates twisting perspectives and encourages the reader to view the novel in a different way. There is no single protagonist within this novel which could potentially be seen as troublesome. However, Lalami introduces each character’s perspective as a way to interweave the plot . The main premise of this novel is figuring out the death of Nora’s father and being able to piece life together after his passing. The beginning of the novel invites the reader into the home life of the Guerraoui family and how a single life is connected to many people.

The most invigorating aspect of this novel is the method in how Lalami connects each character together. Granted, there are some perspectives that give the reader no real depth to story, but each part is engaging and leaves room for questions. By keeping the story engaging and provoking, Lalami has created a way that allows the reader to piece together their own version of the timeline unfolding before them.

Kelsey Schieman


In Laila Lalami’s novel, The Other Americans, she deals with important topics of discussion in fictional prose. One major issue this book took on was that of racial prejudices against one of the main characters, Nora, and her father’s business. Through the lens of Nora, the reader can see how this racial discrimination towards her family caused a sense of complacency; they wanted to blend into the new world they found themselves in. This is something Laila Lalami does often in this piece: bring attention to issues that some may find easier to turn away from. This novel definitely forces the reader to see the real-world translations this novel has. That racial discrimination and violence is still alive in the world today, even though some people are complacent and turn a blind eye. This novel forces the reader to look at their own actions and see how they can affect other people: a call for empathy.

The structure of the novel isn’t unique, but it is impactful given the plot. By giving the story from the point of view of a different character in each chapter, the reader is given the chance to get a much larger version of one story, mimicking real life. This allows readers to perceive all sides and get to know each character on a deeper level than if it had been told in exclusively third person. Getting the first-person point of view from all of the characters was a great choice made by Lalami that helped her characters stand alone as unique individuals with specific experiences and feelings. This novel is powerful in the fact that the reader is taken along several different character arcs. All of the character’s and their transformations throughout the novel collide into a thought evoking, enjoyable read.

Bailey Powell


While the novel attempts to establish this sense of isolation that many Americans feel throughout their lives, the presence of so many conflicts weaken the ones set before it. Because there are so many characters, the themes of the story are stretched thin; Lalami attempts to cover many topics through her characters—the female and minority identity, explored through Nora and Coleman, the immigrant identity, explored through Efrain and Driss and each of their respective families.

Apart from attempting to cover an array of themes through an abundance of characters, Lalami also juggles countless conflicts in her novel (which may actually be a result of the many different characters who exist). The result of doing so makes the conflicts and stakes of certain characters lose strength. While this is not a crime novel, the abruptness of the murder conflict receives no proper climax nor closing, instead letting the dangers and the prejudice minorities and immigrants in America face exist merely as an inconvenience rather than a real issue.

Despite the many things The Other Americans attempts to talk about, too much is working on any given moment to allow individual themes to be observed in each character. As a result, themes as they relate to the minority and immigrant experience are overshadowed by other themes. Additionally, the existence of so many conflicts means key characters, such as Nora, who would otherwise be limited to a few conflicts suddenly have so many additional issues to juggle. While it is an achievement in and of itself to attempt to open conversation about so many relevant topics, ultimately the overabundance of both intertwining conflicts and characters means no singular character can ever truly receive the attention needed to completely embody whatever issue they are trying to represent.

Alejandro Cortez


The Other Americans is at its best in its consideration of its characters. Much more than a sterile examination of racial tensions in a post-9/11 America, The Other Americans elucidates the intricate, fragile bonds of community that bind and further divide a small town in the Mojave. However, as rich a cast of characters as is gathered, the novel suffers from overcrowding. The detail and care put into the nine first person narrators leaves readers, perhaps, wanting more. Driss’ infidelity, or Efrain’s navigation of his American life, warrant stories in their own right, and the constraints of The Other Americans’ page count feel at odds with the dedication to character enacted therein.

Daniel Mazzacane


Laila Lalami’s novel, The Other Americans, sets an expectation of reading about other Americans’ experiences in America, and how they are treated. In this multi-perspective book filled with different perspectives of about six to seven characters, all of their lives have changed or intermingled with one another because of one hit and run victim, Driss Guerraoui. In addition, grief takes most of the characters to seek something further—love with an old friend, or coming to terms with family.

The main downfall for this book was the slow development for some of the characters. For example, Nora and Jeremy. While they were built to have some problems with family, friends or themselves, there were no chances for them to grow. The book took more of an interest in their romance, which filled the majority of the pages. In addition, the author may have wanted Nora to be complicated, however, she just wasn’t developed enough. I do like that she has some problems with her mother, but other than that, her other problems are a distraction from the central conflict.

Cherish Yang


This book was in my top three of the ones that we read for this class. This one was number two. Was this book perfect? No. But what made this book so interesting was the complexity of the characters. This book is told in multiple first-person perspectives with the name of the person you are following at the top of the page. If, Then tried doing this but it did it in third-person and the actual execution was poor. With this book, changing the perspectives added more to the plot because it would introduce a new character or have a character try to justify their actions.

Aside from the writing style, the reason I enjoyed reading this book was because this book had a few unexpected turns. The book jacket sets up that the death of the father is the main focus of the book. I thought that the death would occur somewhere in the middle but it happened early on. Once that happened, all these secrets started to unfold and that’s when it started to get interesting. There was the right amount of drama and the switching of perspectives made me want to know what was going to happen next. This book is a case of different sides to the same story.

Daisy Matias


Curated and Edited by Brandon Williams

Sep 17

Flash Fiction Finalists!

Drum roll, please… The winners are in! Please help us congratulate Kathryn Phelan, Felicity Fenton, and Kevin Leahy for being selected as our Flash Fiction Contest finalists by Flashmaster Kathy Fish! In addition to the monetary prize and publication, these three writers have earned a spot in Kathy Fish’s online Fast Flash workshop! Congratulations!

Winner:

“Homecoming” by Kathryn Phelan

Second Place:

“The Remains” by Felicity Fenton

Third Place:

“Simple Physics” by Kevin Leahy

Honorable Mention:

“Observation Tube — McMurdo Station, Antarctica” by Justin Hermann

Sep 16

New Voices: Premonition by Emily Dyer Barker

In Emily Dyer Barker’s “Premonition,” Paloma measures and compares the sweetness of oranges by the time of the day. The story opens with this grounded statement, but quickly eddies into a something like a hallucination. Barker’s writing takes on a dreamlike quality without ever losing its sense of place or character. Read on below:

The fish shivered. Her scales shimmered with joy, Yes, this is a good thing. Eat the fruit of the tree with the veined leaves, you will see the night more often—the stars will swim for you. 

The oranges were sweetest in the afternoon, around 3:00pm. Paloma knew this. She’d tried the fruit at various times during the day and kept a record in the notebook God gave her. More than the sweetness of the oranges, the notebook helped her realize how much time she had. There were many points of the day. Morning—noon—afternoon—. There was a luxuriance of blue sky.

To be honest, it was difficult to remember what had happened because the points of day were more like lines—going on in every direction. It was difficult to keep track of the shapes they made between them, how long each went on forever. She wrote things down in her notebook as best she could which is where she found the conversation with the fish. The note reported she’d washed her hair in the lake because it had been a warm day. Her hair wasn’t dirty, she just wanted to feel her own fingertips on her scalp, the way the water moved it in heavy sections when fully submerged.

She met the fish while sitting in the sun on a black boulder waiting for her hair to dry. This moment exists forever in many directions, but one of the things she wrote down is that the fish said, Salutation. Paloma said nothing. The fish’s scales looked warm. They were bright copper and green. Greet me, it said. Paloma said nothing.

To continue reading “Premonition” click here.

Sep 13

Notes from the Slush: 2019 Flash Fiction Contest

The winners of our 2019 Flash Fiction Contest will be announced next Tuesday, which means it’s time for one of our favorite series! Our editorial team had a hard time narrowing the shortlist down to only 15 stories, so we can only imagine how tough it was for Kathy Fish to make her selections. After our discussion, we recapped the common things we noticed in the stories on the shortlist and why the ones that didn’t make the cut just missed.

COLE MEYER: A couple weeks have passed since we sent our shortlist to Kathy Fish for the Flash Fiction Contest. I’m anxiously waiting for her decisions, and I’m sure she’s going to have a difficult choice ahead of her. The three of us had a really good discussion about the 40 or so pieces that were on our longlist. A lot of pieces that ultimately didn’t land on the shortlist came pretty close for us. What were some of the things that we saw happening in those that maybe held them back in the end?

BRANDON WILLIAMS: The thing that really stood out to me was how well-aligned we were. While we all had our personal favorites, the top 15 or so were pretty close to unanimous (I think we only had two or at most three that we disagreed on), and then the next grouping were, as you said, all very close. At least to me, these twin truths (our unanimity, and the closeness of the next batch) suggests that the successful pieces managed to wield all of the following: an interesting and/or new conceit; strong writing; engaging characters; and incredible writing. At least the way I’m remembering them, the pieces which ended up not quite making the cut were doing one or a few of those things amazingly well (I’m thinking of a couple pieces that built an incredible premise, and at least one or two that blew me away on a writing level), but some of the other elements weren’t quite as well-tuned. We read quite a few, for instance, that were almost entirely static on a plot level, where a character sat around thinking about the stuff they were telling us had happened before, and that lack of tension was enough to push them down into the “We love it but we probably can’t take it” category. Also, a whole lot of narrative summary, which is something that is often overused in longer stories, but really stands out in flash where there’s already so little space—allotting page time to summaries and therefore sinking the propulsion/tension of the piece was one of the big issues we (okay, I probably yelled the loudest about it) kept citing in our very last cuts, in our final choices one way or the other.

Perhaps less related to your question, but something I’ve been thinking about: The thing that I keep learning every time we do this flash contest is how good flash fiction has to at least feel like it’s in perfect control of everything at all times. I can recall a few larger stories in previous contests that we’ve passed forward knowing that one element of the piece isn’t as strong as we’d like, but we’ve fallen in love with the characters or the plot or the conceit of it and that holds us through multiple pages. In certain ways, a larger piece can get away with good writing rather than great, or with a plot that meanders for a bit, or characters that are just the slightest bit stock, or a conceit that we’ve seen before, because there’s so much space and time for us to get wrapped up in something else, plot or character or setting or language or thought. That leeway simply doesn’t exist in flash: If everything isn’t firing in those first 100 words, it’s hard to get back on track for the next 100.

CM: You’re so right—I didn’t feel like there was much disagreement as far as our top 15 went. We had different ideas about how well certain pieces were functioning on one level or another (be it plot, character, language, etc.), but largely we agreed about which pieces were successful overall. Often in these contests when we’re deciding our shortlist, there’s a piece or two where we say Oh I hope the the judge picks this one! but for this contest in particular, there were several up there in the top tier (so to speak) that I felt very strongly about. So many of the stories on our shortlist stood out in a way that others didn’t. We had a lovely story set in Antarctica; we had a story in which two children in rural Minnesota, living in a house with a bunker, find the strength to fight back against their father; and still another story featured a man dissolving—literally—as he crawled backwards into the ocean. This is to say that no story on our shortlist was remotely similar to another in tone, character, setting or plot. That’s what I love so much about the fact that we have no defined preference or style (though I do recognize that it can be frustrating for submitters): We always get such a wide array of excellent submissions.

To your second point, I absolutely agree. Flash is deceptively challenging to write. Just like how short stories don’t have the same opportunity for “fluff” that novels do, flash is even more restrictive than short stories. The piece has to be firing on all cylinders to really make an impact. I’m thinking of one story in particular which we all agreed was quite polished in its language, but the plot and characters were forgettable. It got left off our shortlist, despite being one of the most well-written (mechanically, at least) of the pieces on our longlist.

MELISSA HINSHAW: Hey gang. First off, flash is such a RELIEF to read through. This is more a tip for regular submitters than flash submitters, but when you open a piece and see it’s 20 pages long your heart just kind of sinks and you subconsciously click over to another tab on your browser before you eventually mosey back to what you were supposed to be reading—this never happens during flash contest season! It makes me think about why we love good flash: It has all the power and feeling of longer works packed into one tiny space. It’s truly the art of the Twitter era and a culture that wants a pill-to-fix-everything, and while those things might be problematic, the successful fiction coming from this moment is beautiful and epic (can you say epic when something isn’t long?). This is also why flash fiction poses such a great challenge to writers, as we’ve all pointed out already: it’s very easy to write that much (or that little); it’s very, very difficult to make it great.  Since successful flash commits so hard, so our final selections usually look a lot different from one another. Some span one second or moment, “Bullet in the Brain”-style; others span years. Some get deep in the mind or heart of one character; others touch on a whole crowd. Some are hyperreal, some feel like dream sequences, some are straight grit. What we love from a good batch of them—like our final 15 here—is this feeling of being truly unable to choose, that pieces are so so disparate but so so enamoring we can’t cut or compare.

The thing that trips me up the most when reading is separating a vignette from flash fiction. A lot of pieces that feel like they’re working really well and do make me feel something or connect or engage like we’re talking about cause me to ask, “Wait a second—could this be just a page of a novel? Or the beginning of a movie script?” If I can answer yes, that’s what makes me decline those pieces that come really close. Because as nice and full-feeling as they are, they’re still lacking something that our finalists pieces aren’t. This is a mistake I make when I write flash myself: ah yes, it’s beautiful, but what is it completing? Has it set up and solved some problem? Has it shifted from one question to another? Pieces that stick on one question or problem can feel like meditations or homages or elegies, which are often very lovely or poignant, but aren’t what I’m looking for specifically. Ooh, talking about this makes me want to do very specific contests for just those thing instead.

BW: Oooh, I agree with your last point really heavily. For this contest, I want to feel like the story itself is contained entirely in the piece. If it feels like the first page of a story, even a story that I desperately want to read more of (we had this conversation at least twice when deciding), it’s really hard to argue that as a successful piece of flash. We only have the page in front of us, and that has to be the entire journey of the story in this specific moment.

CM: Seconded! (Or thirded?) I’m thinking back to our winner from last year, “How to Spot a Whale“. That piece grabbed us from the start because it was all of these things: It was a moment, but it was something bigger. It had a clear arc on the page but there was an arc suggested beyond the piece itself. We wanted to read more, yes, but the story on the page was compelling on its own. And this makes sense: In her interview, Jacqui Reiko Teruya says the idea for the piece came struggles she was having with a longer story she was working on. She knows the arc that’s suggested beyond the story, and even though that never makes it onto the page, it’s quite evident to a reader that the author knows.

Thanks as always for having this chat with me, folks! Our winners for this contest will be announced next week. I can’t wait!

 

Sep 11

The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews — Phantoms by Christian Kiefer

The second installment of The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews covers Phantoms by Christian Kiefer, published in April of 2019. This series presents reviews of contemporary novels written by college seniors in a class led by our very own Brandon Williams. Get their take on Phantoms below.

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

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

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

Phantoms by Christian Kiefer

Quick Synopsis: A writer explores the novel he could never complete, based on a sordid family history of racism and betrayal, and attempts to put the various pieces of the long-hidden story through many years.

Phantoms, by Christian Kiefer, is a book with a character named John Frazier, who attempts to recreate a story of two women, Evelyn Wilson, and Kimiko Takahashi, who have had some fallout after the internment camp. This story is trying to be historical, and that’s okay—however, the story is centered about what happened to Ray Takahashi. Mind you, John is more like a third party person, writing about made-up events of Ray Takahashi and the relationship with Evelyn’s daughter, Helen.

One of the setbacks of reading this book is that this often goes back and forth between John’s telling of Evelyn and Kimiko, and the made-up events of Ray and Helen. Another setback was Kiefer’s attempt at building mystery to what happened to Ray. I liked the idea of mystery, but this enjoyment probably lasted for one-third of the book, seeing as Evelyn and Kimiko somehow trust John. Despite the above, I still enjoyed the story for its pacing of the details of events, and the attempt at building characters in a historical time such as this one.

Cherish Yang


Everyone had mixed feelings about the book and it mainly had to do with the way it was told. It starts out in a third-person perspective following a young man named Ray Takahashi who has just come back from fighting in WW2. He goes to his original home expecting to be welcomed with open arms but is instead confused as his former neighbor forces him to go away. Interesting concept for a first chapter.

That all changes with the second chapter which switches perspectives to a new character. The book jacket shows that there would be two main characters, but it made it seem as though it would go back and forth or something of the sorts. However, that does not happen since the second main character is telling the whole story. The problem with this is that Ray’s story is now being seen and told through another person’s point of view. The class agreed that this was probably not the best decision since the new character’s plot is not as exciting or important.

What I liked about this book was that it was a different way of storytelling compared to the other books we read. This was set around the sixties while the other stories were set in modern day which meant there was a limit on what the author could do. I would say that this story affected me personally because of everything that is going on in my life right now. My mother and grandmother keep telling me stories about their experiences coming to the states and how lucky they were to be able to come here. For me being a first generation college student reading about a story about a family struggling to survive affected me deeply.

Daisy Matias


Phantoms by Christian Kiefer was a novel focused on two settings, two main characters, and two families at odds. The first person we are introduced to is Ray Takahashi, a first generation Japanese-American that fought in World War II. Then in the next chapter, the story takes place a decade later and we are introduced to John Frazier. John is a young writer that just came back to America from fighting in the Vietnam War. It is through John that we find out more about Ray, his family, and their neighbors the Wilsons. This is a novel that touches on themes such as discrimination, war, coming back from war, toxic love, friendship, and vengeance.

One thing I admired from this novel was how it handles its characters. Mainly its secondary characters like the Takahashis and the Wilsons. From the beginning we find out more about these two families and how they are interwoven. We slowly discover their conflict with each other and are made to understand each character’s personality, motives, and family dynamic. As I read, I found myself caring and sympathizing with some characters while hating yet understanding others. I also wanted to find out more about them and loved when the story focused on them because that is where all the drama and story beats truly were.

If there was one thing I would have to nitpick with this novel is the author’s choice of perspective. The novel is mostly handled in John’s perspective, which I found very odd considering John has almost nothing to do with Ray, the Takahashi family, or the Wilson family. Ray seemed like the most complex and interesting character while John was just the observer. This limits what we know about Ray because the reader only knows what John has heard. Keep in mind John has never meet Ray. When my class and I sat down to discussed this we came up with a theory. Kiefer may have first went into this novel wanting to write about the Japanese American experience pre-WWII and post-WWII. However, since he’s a white male he may have come to the realization this may not be his story to tell. Thus, he created John and this suddenly becomes John’s story to tell by the end of the book. In conclusion, despite my conflicts I would say this was one book I did enjoy reading in class.

Breona Taitt


The novel Phantoms, by Christian Kiefer, chooses to focus on the post war life of both the narrator John Frazier and the mysterious Ray Takahashi. John is related to the Wilson family, whom the reader learns has extremely close relations with the Takahashi family, and is on the mission to discover what truly happened with the Wilsons and the Takahashis.

This book focuses largely on the politically-induced racial division in America post World War II and the war in Vietnam. Christian Kiefer’s writing style is extremely easy to read and understandable to any audience. He doesn’t seem to aim for any level of difficulty, but keeps the writing style simple which allows the material to be accessible to a wider array of audiences. He also does a great job of making characters very real in their actions. The novel takes a turn toward the mysterious, unexpected considering that isn’t how it was portrayed on the book jacket. The reader follows the narrator on the discovery to find out what exactly happened to Ray Takahashi. In the end, the reader learns exactly what happened to Ray Takahashi after the war, but what does that do for the novel as a whole? As the reader begins to get more clues to Ray’s whereabouts, thus getting more curious and hopeful for his safe return, the author uses this hope as a tool to speak yet again on the racial discrimination against Japanese people living in America after World War II.

Kiefer highlights racial discrimination which is an ever relevant topic today. It is a common theme throughout American history for this type of racial clumping to happen after a larger event. One bad person does something, but instead of being labeled as just a bad person, they are labeled by their race, religion, class, thus causing rifts between the unrelated individuals of their same race, religion, and class to the uneducated and biased individuals of the world.

Bailey Powell


Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams

 

 

Sep 9

New Voices: “1961” by Laura Demers

We feel so lucky to have the opportunity to share another brilliant story from Laura Demers, whose “Rogue Particles” was included in last year’s anthology. The truth is hazy in “1961,” to match its grimy setting. Demers’ prose is unforgiving and honest, as she explores how willingly and easily these men perpetrate their sexual violence.

Things were foggy, even then. Three hours before, he was in that dream-state of drinking, where nothing is real, but everything is good, fun. It was that stretch of drunkenness where you think nothing bad can happen and it’s all good fellowship. They ordered another round, and that’s when she came in. 

They had her out the window now, so that her neck lolled backwards. Her false eyelashes had come loose on one eye, giving her the look of a doll in a little girl’s clutches.

“Help me,” she called. Her voice was far away, down the end of a tunnel. Salvator wished he had a moment to sit down and figure this thing out.

It was Bert who held her against the window frame and Anthony who held up her feet. She grabbed onto the frame of the window, fighting them. She screamed again, twisting her neck to the beach below, but there was nobody out there. It was a grim, cloudy day, the wind whipping the curtains, the sound of seagulls in the distance. For a confused moment, Salvator caught sight of the pier in the distance. He thought of when he went there as a kid, the barnacles that cut his feet when he hung them over the side, the striped t-shirt he had loved.

“Jesus, bring her in,” he cried. No one paid attention to him, but she stopped screaming and her head jerked up. “Jesus Christ, you’ll kill her.”

Still, they pushed at her body. He noticed that two nails on her right hand had broken off where she gripped the window frame, the forefinger and the middle finger. Her nails were long and pink, maybe fake, but these two were bloody at the cuticle. She had kicked off her shoes, so that one lay near Henry, where he was curled against the dresser, fast asleep.

Salvator grabbed at Bert, and he came away easily, like rotten wood. Anthony, seeing this was the way things were going, let go as well, and the woman slid down on the floor, naked and crying.

“You sons of bitches,” she said. “I’m going to kill you.” But she had lost all fight and just curled up like Henry and sobbed and sobbed. “I’m going to kill you.”

To continue reading “1961” click here.

Sep 4

The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews — If Then, by Kate Hope Day

Introducing a new series: The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews! Over the next 8 weeks, we will be presenting the reviews of contemporary novels written by college seniors in a class led by our very own Brandon Williams. This week, Kate Hope Day’s If, Then.

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

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

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

If, Then, Kate Hope Day

Quick Synopsis: Four neighbors begin seeing alternate reality versions of their lives on the brink of a natural disaster.

If, Then is, as the title suggests, a book about what would happen if things were done differently. The book jacket makes it sound a lot more interesting than it is. When I first read it, I thought it was going to be about these characters that dealt with multiple scenarios that could have happened if they had done this instead of that. That was not the case. It was more about the characters seeing themselves in an alternate reality. It was less about it being an “if, then” situation and more about a “what if” situation. The common situation was about one of the characters who is pregnant and in one reality she has a girl and in another reality she has a boy.

This book was the first book that our class read so I saw this as a trial run to set up what was going to happen in the next few weeks. It was good to start with this book mainly because it was simple. The characters, in my opinion, were a bit stale. I was taught that as a writer the one question that a reader will ask when reading a story will be “so what?” which is a nicer way of saying, “why should I care?” This book made me constantly ask this question because the characters sounded as though they were just complaining about their problems. Not all of the characters deserve the depth (if you can call it that) that they receive. It is hard to feel sympathetic towards them because their problems seem very solvable.

Daisy Matias


Kate Hope Day’s novel, If Then, is a word play for the common “what ifs” that people often have about the possibilities of the future. However, this book is a poor attempt at showing the “what if” scenarios. The book jacket promises the everlasting effect of the natural disaster and alternate versions (or visions) of each of the characters: Ginny, Mark, Samara and Cass. The promise of a disaster—the central conflict—is a dud because three out of the four characters are not in the slightest aware of the natural disaster, except for Mark.

Day’s premise is interesting, as it is a strange and unknown phenomenon that is usually seen in movies and TV shows, somewhat near glances of the future. But this is the weak point in the story; it is never explained how this phenomenon works or how this connects to the natural disaster. Unfortunately, the piece seems more focused on the idea of this “other” reality than an actual plot. Much of the pages are filled with each character learning about themselves; however, most of these characters are flat.

Cherish Yang


If, Then by Kate Hope Day, was a novel with an intriguing title which lead me to believe it had promise. The back of the novel invites the reader to engage in a story that is invigorating and suspenseful. The book-jacket does the same as it talks about recent deaths, apparitions, mysterious text messages and increasingly disturbing visions. With the mentioning of these words and the weight that they carried, If, Then came across as a novel that was meant to have suspense and some thriller tendencies. Once reading the novel, these ideas were no longer prevalent. Instead of looking for things to create atmosphere and caution, the trajectory was changed to looking for immersion and captivation. It was not only the story, but the characters themselves. Ginny, the protagonist of this story, is meant to have the most character development and a substantial core that invites the reader into the story. Instead of inviting the reader, there was a disconnect between the reader and Ginny herself. Ginny’s character lacked in emotional development and her own drive to pursue the mystery at hand. Alongside Ginny is the development of her son and the children that he interacts with. The reasoning behind putting the children within the story is something that was never fully understood and one I still questioned now.

Kelsey Schieman


I was under the impression that this was a story relying on the idea of alternate dimensions. The idea that there is a world similar to our own, with people similar to us, that live their own lives due to the different choices they’ve made. Now of course, the idea of another dimension isn’t a new one; yet, I started out this novel hoping the author would deliver a different and more interesting take on it.

The novel held up in some areas but not so much in others. For example, the manner that the author handles each character’s visions into the parallel universe is understandable and perfectly intertwined into the narrative. For example, one second a character could just be sitting at a table drinking coffee when in the next second they see themselves doing the exact same thing except with a loved one by their side.

However, like most books there were some noticeable flaws and plot holes. The most asked question my classmates, TA, and I had: Why are these four characters important? We only focus on this one single neighborhood and these four characters: Ginny, Mark, Cass, and Samara. Our class asked: Why we didn’t see how others were affected? My class argued that this story could have held up greatly if it focused on multiple people in this town instead of just the four. In other words, it was a large-scale phenomenon that the author tried to condense into a small scale setting.

Breona Taitt


Despite the urgency Day hopes to create in each of the characters’ stories, there never truly is any real risk any character faces in If, Then, making every recurring character in the story feel insignificant and emotionally flat. Much of what each character does is not to gain or prevent the loss of something, rather each character performs as their parallel self would or simply exists as a different self in comparison their parallel selves. Ginny, unhappy with her marriage with Mark, begins to long for Edith, no differently than her parallel self who has already left Mark for Edith. Cass, who gives birth in one reality to a baby girl which permits her to continue her studies into counterfactuals and, coincidentally, the possibility of parallel dimensions, is pregnant in another and thus unable to continue her studies (she later gives birth to a baby boy). Essentially, despite the possibility to explore the themes of marriage, family, motherhood, and much more, each character instead holds no stake in anything in their lives because they do not operate freely. The lack of character agency means the characters serve no other purpose than to perform actions which propel the plot forward, which begs the question: why are these characters the main protagonists of the story?

It should be noted that though the characters did little in of themselves, they were able to establish a sense of meaningful connection with one another at times. While more could have been done to explore the theme of family, the interactions between Mark and his son did actually display some significance at times. Likewise, Sam’s reaction to her father having sold all of her departed mother’s possession were appropriate and representative of grief to an extent. Nonetheless, the lack of interaction with one another not only results in a lack of character relationships but also makes the significant moments feel less so, particularly because these moments become isolated and, as a result, inconsistent.

Alejandro Cortez


Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams

 

Sep 3

New Voices: “Lost in Transformation” by Nicole Burdge

In New Voices today, we are proud to present “Lost in Transformation” by Nicole Burdge. Burdge holds no punches in her first published work, and the first line prepares the reader for the story they’re about to consume: “The house is drowning.” “Lost in Transformation” captures attention through its transforming, kaleidoscopic language. Read on.

Hello. My name is_________and I am an addict. I once traded my mother’s coveted onyx and white gold necklace for one weekend’s supply.

Flood

The house is drowning. Your bedroom with your bright patterned curtains. The floral wallpaper in the corner by the closet. It splinters and peels and dances among the bubbles. Weightless. Your clothes are wet and heavy. Drag you down like bottles tied to your wrists. Far below the surface where you won’t breathe or see or hear. The words drown before they reach you. Swallowed in carbonated waves. You drown and I drown and she drowns. We reach for each other but the current draws us away. Our fingers splayed and stretched. Pulled taut like rope. The dog is drowning. The oak table and its high-backed chairs. My glasses and your lipstick. Bubbles rise from the bottom and swim past your floating limbs. Feel like ants in your skin. The lava lamp and the movies we watched. Memorized. Recited. Rehearsed. Consumed in gulps before our eyes. Bent into impossible shapes. Pulled and twisted and knotted as they glide. The claw-footed bathtub and eyelash curler. Needle and thread pool behind the couch where we used to hide. Windows bow and threaten to break. She pours and we sink beneath the surface. She pours as we drown. And she drowns. Her bleary eyes open and her lips curved into a shapeless smile.

To continue reading “Lost in Transformation” click here.

Aug 31

Final Hours: The Summer Short Story Award for New Writers closes at Midnight!

Only hours remain to submit to our Summer Short Story Award judged by Tope Folarin! The winning story will be awarded $3000 and publication online. Second and third place stories will be awarded publication and $300 and $200 respectively. All winners and honorable mentions will receive agency review by: Nat Sobel from Sobel Weber, Victoria Cappello from The Bent Agency, Andrea Morrison from Writers House, Sarah Fuentes from Fletcher & Company and Samantha Fingerhut from Compass Talent. We want you to succeed, and we want your writing to be read. It’s been our mission to support emerging writers since day one.

Submit now!
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Guidelines:
  • Winner receives $3000, publication, and agency review
  • Second and third place prizes ($300 / $200, publication, and agency review)
  • Stories under 6000 words
  • Previously unpublished stories only
  • Translations allowed, providing the story has not been published in another language
  • Simultaneous and multiple submissions allowed
  • Emerging writers only (We are interested in offering a larger platform to new writers. Self-published writers and writers with story collections and novels with a small circulation are welcome to submit. Writers with novels published with a circulation of fewer than 5000 copies can also submit.)
  • International submissions allowed
  • $20 entry fee
  • Deadline: August 31, 2019
  • Please no identifying information on your story
  • All stories are considered for publication
  • If requesting an editorial letter, please indicate on your cover letter if the submissions is fiction or creative nonfiction
  • To view a list of our most commonly asked questions regarding submitting to The Masters Review, please see our FAQ page.

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