Category Book Reviews

Check out book reviews of titles from independent publishers and university presses on the NewPages Blog.

Bite-sized Bit of Literary Horror

25 Trumbulls Road - Christopher Locke

Book Review by Katy Haas

Christopher Locke’s 25 Trumbulls Road, 2018 Black River Chapbook Competition Winner, is twenty-two pages of eerie enjoyment. The chapbook reads like five short horror films. Each story is called a “case” and is labeled with a date, which makes them feel a little more real despite remaining firmly planted in the surreal and fantastic. The cases are then broken up into numbered “exhibits,” some of which have been redacted. These redacted sections further steep the stories in mysterywhat has been removed and why?

Each story, except one, starts similarly: a family moves into a new home and begins to experience unexplainable events. A woman comes to the newcomer in a dream and leads her into the woods, characters hear source-less voices, objects thrown away return as if tethered to the homeowners. Sure, these are tropes we’ve seen in horror movies for years, but there’s something fresh and poetic about Locke’s little stories. There’s no reliance on special effects or visual jump scares. The horror is all in our imaginations, brought to life by Locke’s straight forward prose. With the short length of the stories, we’re immediately plunged into the darkness with little room to catch our breaths before another tale is introduced.

I read the chapbook while in public, during the middle of the day, sure that if I saved it for my bedtime reading, I’d be too creeped out to sleep soundly. And this is exactly what I want out of a book like this: to be both creeped out and impressed. Locke manages to do both in limited space. 25 Trumbulls Road is a perfectly bite-sized bit of literary horror.

25 Trumbulls Road by Christopher Locke. Black Lawrence Press, February 2020.

About the reviewer: Katy Haas is Assistant Editor at NewPages. Recent poetry can be found in Taco Bell Quarterly, petrichor, and other journals. She regularly blogs at:

‘Her Sister’s Tattoo’ by Ellen Meeropol

Her Sisters Tattoo - Ellen MeeropolBook Review by  Jacqueline Sheehan

I’ve been a fan of Ellen Meeropol’s novels for ten years. Her three previous books merged personal drama with social justice. But not until Her Sister’s Tattoo has Meeropol so masterfully grasped the political strife in our country since the 1960’s. And as a true novelist can do, she allows us to experience the turmoil through the intimate lives of two characters whom we come to know and understand.

Rosa and Esther Levin are caught up in the passion and violence of the anti-war protests of 1968 in Detroit. When protest marchers are bloodied by the mounted police, the sisters spontaneously take an action to distract the police that would seem innocuous, even childlike. They hurl apples at the police. But a horse is spooked and a police officer is horribly injured. In that one moment, their lives change in unimaginable ways, driving a brutal wedge between the two sisters that will endure for decades. The dynamics of loyalty to family and one’s conscience become the battleground for a truly American novel.

Late in the book, (I’m not giving anything away here) a character says, “The Levin sisters taught me it’s not your family that determines who you become. It’s not even your abilities. Your choices define you.”

We all make choices every day that define us, but some of us make choices with more lethal consequences. Will our loyalties reside first with our loved ones, or should we sacrifice even our freedom to a larger belief in what is right? Meeropol pulls back the curtain on the lives of two sisters in the midst of this and by doing so, pulls back the curtain on a history of political activism that reverberates through time. For those with an eye for politics and fiction, Ellen Meeropol’s novel will not disappoint.

Her Sister’s Tattoo by Ellen Meeropol. Red Hen Press, April 2020.

About the reviewer: Jacqueline Sheehan, is a New York Times Bestselling author and a psychologist. Her novels include, The Comet’s Tale a novel about Sojourner Truth, Lost & Found, Now & Then, Picture This, The Center of the World, and The Tiger in the House. She also writes essays including the New York Times column, Modern Love. She is one of the founders and former president of The Straw Dog Writers Guild in Western Massachusetts. She teaches workshops at Writers in Progress in Northampton.

’50 Miles’ by Sheryl St. Germain

50 Miles by Sheryl St. GermainBook Review by Karen J. Weyant

Sheryl St. Germain opens her newest book, 50 Miles, with a simple statement: “My son was born into a family cursed with substance abuse.”

It’s this curse St. Germain explores in her collection of intertwining essays that examine the life, the struggles, and the eventual death of her son, Gray. Along the way, she also looks at her own clashes with addiction, struggles that mirror the demons that haunted many of her family members including her father and her brother. Continue reading “’50 Miles’ by Sheryl St. Germain”

‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong?’ Edited by Richard Peabody

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Book Review by Katy Haas

As a writer who is very prone to anxiety and stage fright, I’ve always turned down the opportunity to participate in readings. I can’t help running all the worst case scenarios through my head. This led me to picking up my copy of What Could Possibly Go Wrong? the pocket-sized anthology edited by Richard Peabody, featuring 36 writers sharing their own readings gone wrong.

The anthology starts off on a more serious note. Brett Axel’s reading devolves into a protest as police crash it, assuming the worst of teenage attendees. Abby Bardi’s publicity tour ends prematurely as it coincides with 9/11.

But a majority of these horror stories are less serious and more humorous. Mark Baechtel walks himself into a corner with one bad decision he commits to. Barbara Esstman has a selection of not one but four bad readings, and, luckily, she approaches each of them with levity. Alma Katsu is interrupted by a loud cheerleading practice. Both good weather and bad weather interfere with multiple readings. Tim Wendel must compete against the midnight release of his nemesis: Harry Potter.

Each writer presents their story with lightness and humor. Things didn’t go as planned, but they made it through and are still around writing and participating in more readings. I now find some comfort in the seemingly universality of readings gone awry. Sure, things might go wrong, but at least the experience will be there to laugh at (and possibly write about) later.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Edited by Richard Peabody. Paycock Press, 2019.

‘The Way of the Wind’ by Francine Witte

Way of the Wind by Francine WitteGuest Post by Arya F. Jenkins

In The Way of the Wind, poet and writer Francine Witte’s sparse but packed novella in flash, loss has a dozen names and belongs as much to the present as the past. After being dumped by her boyfriend of five years, the narrator, Lily, finds herself not only overwhelmed with grief but with the memory of other losses and, as she tries to work through them, takes the reader on a frantic, all-too familiar journey.

The Way of the Wind is divided into short, emotionally-charged chapters that grip from the start. Bitter wit provides respite throughout: “Love is a lot like tennis, you know? The ball is everything. Everything. If you’re not watching it, you might as well be sipping tea.”

As is true in the work of any masterful flash fiction writer, the only thing the reader can count on here is the unexpected. As Witte takes the reader on a bumpy ride full of emotional twists, highs and lows, the angst and dramedy feel familiar; the ache, all too real. Lily tries everything to escape her pain, going over the “ifs,” making excuses for the other, fantasizing to keep from acknowledging that her biggest fear—abandonment—has come to pass. The only way out of grief and loss, the narrator seems to suggest, is by uniting with what there is—other humans who care, and acceptance.

The Way of the Wind by Francine Witt. Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019.

Arya F. Jenkins is a poet and writer whose prose has been recently published in About Place Journal, Across the Margins, Cleaver Magazine, Eunoia Review, Five on the Fifth, Flash Fiction Magazine, Metafore Literary Magazine, and Vol. 1 Sunday Stories Series. Her fiction has received several nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Her latest poetry chapbook, Love & Poison, was published by Prolific Press in November 2019, and her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite, 2018) is here:

‘Wilderness of Hope’ by Quinn Grover

Wilderness of Hope - Quinn GroverGuest Post by Carly Schaelling

Quinn Grover takes readers into a landscape of rivers, wildness, and fly fishing in his essay collection Wilderness of Hope: Fly Fishing and Public Lands in the American West. His descriptions of Idaho, Utah, and Oregon rivers make the reader feel as if they can hear the current and smell the water. Central to this essay collection is a discussion about home, and he suggests that certain geographies can make us feel “young and old, safe and unsure . . . closer to those I love, yet perfectly alone.”

Through punchy short essays consisting solely of dialogue and moments of self-deprecating humor, Grover’s collection interrogates the meaning of wildness and the importance of public lands. One of my favorite moments in this collection is an essay called “The Case for Inefficiency.” Grover recounts a fishing trip that gets off to a rocky start—a forgotten sleeping bag, a popped tire. Instead of giving in to feeling inefficient, he asks whether it is possible to measure wasted time. If we walk somewhere instead of drive, but find ourselves outside breathing the air and being more patient because of it, is our time really wasted? To treat public lands well sometimes “requires us to blaspheme the gospel of efficiency.”

You don’t have to know anything about fishing to enjoy this book. You will escape to places you may have never been to and fall in love with them when giving this collection a read.

Wilderness of Hope by Quinn Grover. Bison Books, September 2019.

About the reviewer: Carly Schaelling is a creative writing student at Utah State University.

Why Book Reviewing Isn’t Going Anywhere

Inside-the-Critics-Circle.jpgA researcher explores the future of a changing practice By Scott Nover, The American Scholar.

Now an assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University in Ontario, Chong researches how fiction book reviews come to fruition, trying to solve the puzzle of why some books get reviewed and why so many more are ignored. Her new book, Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times makes the case for the persistence of old-guard professional criticism even in the Internet age.

…It’s a really good question. No one said they were giving good reviews to really bad books, or bad reviews to really good books. It’s more a matter of degree: how much am I going to gush about a book I loved before I worry about sounding stupid and pull back, or how much am I really going to tear into a book before I worry about potential fallout and pull back. And those aren’t just questions about honesty or authenticity, it’s also about what’s the right professional tone to strike when producing cultural journalism.

‘We Are Meant to Carry Water’ by Carlson, Reed, and Dibella Seluja

We Are Meant to Carry Water

Guest Post by Kimberly Ann Priest

“Are we only bone, skin, and urge?” asks the speaker in The Great Square That Has No Corners. I am beginning to wonder if the answer to that question is affirmative. Yes. As I write this, I am sitting in my living room on a Tuesday afternoon in October, mid-way through another semester teaching, and realizing that, this autumn, I have over-committed myself . . . again.

As projects begin to pile up and my network grows, while responsibilities increase and my own poetry demands that I give it more of my attention, I have to let some things go. After four years reading and writing about new works by various authors and publishers, this will be my last review for NewPages. It’s time, once again, to listen to my body and check my urges. And, how fitting that I should end my review history with a review of a collaborative manuscript by three clearly very talented women who have written an elegant collection of poems on assaulted womanhood—a topic that continually shows up in my own work. Drawing from mythology, Tina Carlson, Stella Reed, and Katherine Dibella Seluja have woven a modern (though not modernized) conversation between Helen, Leda, and Lilith, and they have done so with such precision, such tastefulness, such raw beauty. Continue reading “‘We Are Meant to Carry Water’ by Carlson, Reed, and Dibella Seluja”

‘Night Sky with Exit Wounds’ by Ocean Vuong

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean VuongGuest Post by Andrew Romriell

Ocean Vuong’s collection of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is a masterpiece that illustrates the most vital and sincere hardships of humanity in astonishingly few words. Leaping from free-verse to prose poetry, from stringent format to broken syntax, Vuong fashions here a collection of inclusion.

We open on “Threshold,” a poem where Vuong introduces his themes of body, parenthood, sexuality, and history. He warns us from the very beginning that “the cost of entering a song—was to lose your way back.” Vuong asks us to enter into his words and lose ourselves there. And we do, poem after poem, until we close on Vuong’s book with the penultimate piece, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong.” In this poem, we read an assumed message from Vuong to Vuong where he tells himself “don’t be afraid,” and to “get up,” and that the most beautiful part of his body “is where it’s headed.” Before this, we’ve read pages of poetry full of pain, fear, and shattering, but here, Vuong embraces himself—and us alongside him.

“Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” like all the poems in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, rings with pain, wonder, regret, and history. Yet, there is also hope here, and I would say this is the theme of Vuong’s work: hope, inclusion, and change. Vuong takes us through a journey, shatters our expectations, holds our hearts, tells us to get up, and that, like him, we can survive the voyage.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. Copper Canyon Press, April 2016.

About the reviewer: Andrew Romriell is a creative writing student at Utah State University.

‘Out of Speech’ by Adam Vines

Out of Speech by Adam VinesGuest Post by Adrian Thomson

Adam Vines’s Out of Speech, a poetry collection comprised of ekphrastic poetry based upon famous paintings as well as personal experience, draws on Vines’s travels from southernmost Argentina to the Louvre. Each poem begins by naming the art piece it takes as a subject, then moves toward unpacking their visual elements often through fascinating uses of enjambment.

More than just describing the artwork, Vines peels away surfaces to encounter shavings of shocking humanity lying beneath. In “My View From Here,” a poem responding to Yves Tanguy’s Les Vues, Vines sees an abstract red vista of segmented alien pillars the cancer polyps hidden in a barstool acquaintance he meets by chance outside the gallery. “Holes and Folds,” based on the group portrait The Swing by Jean Honoré Fragonard, finds a narrator focused on the most innocent of the lounging young men in order to question his objectives as a hand slides up a woman’s dress.

Vines’s visual inspection of minutiae leaves his reader questioning the subjects presented in the paintings. Will the awoken businessman in Hopper’s Excursion Into Philosophy leave before his lover stirs? What has made his countenance so dour? What of the open book forgotten on the bed? Is his shoe slipping into, or out of the light? The reader feels unsure even after turning away, and Vines leaves them contemplating in silence.

Out of Speech by Adam Vines. LSU Press, March 2018.

About the reviewer: Adrian Thomson is a creative writing student at Utah State University.