Find reviews of literary magazines, stories, poems, essays, and books from independent publishers and university presses on the NewPages Blog.

Book Review :: God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland

God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland published by HarperOne book review by Jack Bylund book cover image

Guest Post by Jack Bylund

In God is a Black Woman, author and professor Christena Cleveland confronts the faults of the mainstream Christian deity, whom she refers to as “whitemalegod.” A perpetrator of endless wrongs in society, the whitemalegod that Cleveland interrogates is found at the heart of racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and toxic masculinity, among others. Cleveland makes her case for mainstream Christianity’s role in these issues succinctly and effectively, providing compelling evidence from recent events and her own upbringing in Christianity; stories drawn from her life prove as compelling and honest as they are tragic and too common.

All the while, Cleveland presents a narrative of her travels through France on a pilgrimage seeking out Black Madonnas—statues of the Virgin Mary throughout the world who are Black. In her efforts to connect with these works of art, she enumerates the multifaceted ways in which Black Madonna—the titular figure of the book—contrasts with and rejects the white supremacist ideals of whitemalegod. She applies Black Madonna ideology to modern issues and rhetoric. Most of all, Cleveland gives hope for people in need of a God who truly loves amid the post-Trump rise in Christian hatred and nationalism.

God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland. HarperOne, February 2022.

Reviewer bio: Jack Bylund teaches and studies English literature and fiction at Utah State University. He loves contemporary lit, Panda Express, and books about the end of the world.

Book Review :: Cost of Living by Emily Maloney

Cost of Living, essays by Emily Maloney published by Henry Holt and Co. book cover image

Guest Post by Jackie Martin

Emily Maloney’s memoir, Cost of Living, is an exploration of “an expense that’s hard to bear.” In the sixteen essays that make up the collection, Maloney introduces readers to a roster of memorable characters and generously shares stories that explain – but never excuse – the financial and metaphorical costs of the American healthcare system. Maloney employs a surgeon’s precision to cut into the business of health, revealing unethical prescribing, inequitable resources, medical sexism, inadequate mental health care, and other malignancies that hide beneath the surface. Her insights come from time spent as a patient as well as an employee: her background includes such varied work as an emergency room tech “expected to guard against the depletion of resources,” an EMT trainee who learned “it was never about the patients themselves,” and a “medical publications manager” who was tasked with schmoozing doctors at conferences. Though Maloney’s essays inspire a multitude of reactions from melancholy to righteous anger to utter disbelief, her writing is never preachy or overwrought. Her personal stories serve the greater narrative, reminding us that there are real people behind the bloated price tag of even simple curative procedures. With an artful, sardonic humor and a refreshingly straightforward perspective, Maloney stitches medical facts together with personal experience and observation to investigate the “enormous cost” of trying to stay healthy in America today.

Cost of Living by Emily Maloney. Henry Holt and Co., February 2022.

Reviewer bio: Jackie Martin is a writer and teacher from the Boston area. Her stage plays have been produced around the U.S. and published by Heuer, Applause, and others. She is currently pursuing her MA in English at Bridgewater State University.

Book Review :: Lightning Flowers by Katherine E. Standefer

Lightning Flowers by Katherine E. Standefer published by Little, Brown Spark book cover image

Guest Post by Elizabeth Robin

“On the last morning of my first life,” are the words that haunt the second chapter of Katherine E. Standefer’s debut memoir, Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life. In her early twenties, Standefer is confronted with the ghosts of her past — a genetic heart defect hidden within her bloodline for generations (called Long QT syndrome) — and must now learn to navigate young adulthood while simultaneously trying to reconnect with her body which, she states, has “become a stranger.” This book is as much about the grief of a life-changing diagnosis as it is a biting criticism of the broken medical system housed under capitalism, which holds “inordinate power” over a vulnerable population. Standefer, who begins her Long QT journey uninsured, finds that she’s unable to afford the life-saving care that she needs without significant help from her family, friends, and charitable doctors; she writes that she “was paying in other ways” as by having to rearrange her life around her symptoms and medical appointments. As an activist, Standefer feels hesitant about getting a doctor-recommended defibrillator, which could be made from conflict metals. She is then forced to question if her life is worth more than those who work to mine the metal. Standefer’s work portrays the intense and complex feelings of having a chronic illness, and the desperation of an American bound to a broken system. However, there is hope and love found within these pages, too. Through this journey, Standefer grows closer with her family and her own sense of self. It serves as a reminder that there is “hard work that lies before us,” and it is our responsibility to change a broken system.

Lightning Flowers by Katherine E. Standefer. Little, Brown Spark, November 2020.

Reviewer bio: Elizabeth Robin is a student at Bridgewater State University and a teacher. She live in the Boston area with her partner and their two cats.

Book Review :: The Slain Birds by Michael Longley

The Slain Birds, poetry by Michael Longley published by Wake Forest University Press book cover image

Guest Post by James Scruton

The late Seamus Heaney titled his first collection of poems Death of a Naturalist. Michael Longley, his friend and fellow poet from Northern Ireland, has devoted decades to just the opposite principle: celebrating the flora and (mostly avian) fauna of Carrigskeewaun, in County Mayo of the Republic. In The Slain Birds, Longley continues this project, his imagination sparked by bog asphodel and snowdrop, white helleborine and sneezewort, some of the flowers, like some of the townlands (Carricksnashinnagh, Barnabaun, Kinnakillew) sounding made up, invented—and yet, what names are not? Flowers, he declares, seem the “Secret of the cosmos,” some house martins “God-spark . . .dream birds.” But Longley’s practice is less an Adamic naming than an honoring, an affirming of love, family lore, and local custom even as he draws parallels from Homer, modern war, and recent pandemic. Whether his eye falls on lupine and catkin or follows the flight of plovers and godwits, whether his ear is attuned to the ”cheer-up-cheer-up” of nightingale or the “wind’s / Vocal cords,” Longley pays tribute. From the elegiac to the exuberant, the poems brought together here form a lyrical, joyous extension of a sparkling poetic career.

The Slain Birds by Michael Longley. Wake Forest University Press, 2022.

Reviewer bio: James Scruton is the author of two full collections and five chapbooks of poetry as well as dozens of reviews, essays, and articles on poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.

Book Review :: The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui

The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui published by Picador book cover image

Guest Post by Marc Martorell Junyent

The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui offers a particular glimpse into the drama of the Syrian Civil War. The author, a correspondent for the French newspaper Le Figaro in Istanbul, happened to find on Facebook a picture of two men in a library in 2015. The caption of the picture informed her that the library was located in Daraya, a suburb of Syria’s capital Damascus besieged by Bashar al-Assad’s troops since 2012.

Throughout numerous interviews conducted over Skype, which stretched for almost a year, Minoui got to know first-hand about the bombing and lack of food and medicines the inhabitants of Daraya had to endure. At the same time, however, Minoui learned more about the project a group of revolutionaries had managed to build in the midst of general destruction: a secret library with books rescued from the bombed ruins of Daraya. Minoui describes the secret library as “a hopeful page in the dark novel that is Syria.”

When interviewed by the author, Ahmad Muaddamani, one of the co-founders of the library in 2013, explained that creating a site of culture and sharing information about it on Facebook was a way to send a powerful message to the world. As he explains, “What better way to defy Syria’s leader than to contradict his narrative of a terrorist opposition? Another of the organizers of the library, Shadi Matar, tells Minoui how the group organized English lessons in the library and describes these moments as “a feeling of normalcy.”

The Book Collectors of Daraya is the result of Minoui’s conviction that, despite her inability to travel to Syria and cover what was happening on the ground, the story of the Daraya library deserved to be told. And the French author does so in a most convincing way.

The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui. Picador, March 2020.

Reviewer bio: Marc Martorell Junyent graduated in International Relations and currently studies holds a joint Master in Comparative Middle East Politics and Society at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen and the American University in Cairo. His main interests are the politics and history of the Middle East (particularly Iran, Turkey and Yemen). He has studied and worked in Ankara, Istanbul and Tunis. He tweets at @MarcMartorell3.

Book Review :: Stone Junction by Jim Dodge

Stone Junction fiction by Jim Dodge published by Grove press book cover image

Guest Post by Colm McKenna

This year saw the re-release of Jim Dodge’s 1990 cult classic Stone Junction. While Fup remains the cornerstone of Dodge’s legacy, his first full novel is considerably more ambitious. Inexplicably, it is yet to be made into a film.

The story follows Daniel Pearse, a child taken in by AMO – Alliance of Magicians and Outlaws alongside his mother Annalee. Following her murder early on in the story, Stone Junction evolves into a bildungsroman, with Daniel being brought up by an eccentric cast of criminals and wizards. His unconventional education occurs alongside a search for his mother’s killer and an attempt to steal a supernatural diamond from the U.S. government.

Daniel and Annalee’s relationship is a driving force of the story, even after her death. Their situation is unusual, but their bond means they never feel unrelatable. Early on, Daniel offers his mother a piece of tear-soaked birthday cake he had just smashed; he was angry that she couldn’t tell him who his father was even if she wanted to. This moving scene of reconciliation takes place on a boat for magicians and outlaws, perfectly displaying the book’s capacity to juggle emotionally heavy themes and a more playful side.

With the recent success of literary adaptations (The Queen’s Gambit, Shadow and Bone, etc.), re-printing Stone Junction feels appropriate if a film is ever going to come. The novel appeals both to young and old readers; it is an emotionally intelligent coming-of-age story, but also engages with adult themes, ranging from grief to impotency. Dodge’s oeuvre has a minor place in 20th Century American Literature, and I hope this re-print of Stone Junction can help it receive the recognition it deserves.

Stone Junction by Jim Dodge. Grove Press, July 2022

Reviewer bio: Colm McKenna is a second-hand bookseller based in Paris. He has published and self-published an array of short stories and articles, hoping to eventually release a collection of stories. He is mainly interested the works of Joh Cowper Powys and a range of Latin American writers.

Book Review :: Out Here on Our Own by J.J. Anselmi

Out Here on Our Own: An Oral History of an American Boomtown by J.J. Anselmi with photography by Jordan Utley published by Bison Books book cover image

Guest Post by Raymond Jenkins

The spirited voices of Rock Springs, Wyoming come to life in J.J. Anselmi’s retelling of an American boomtown’s prosperous but turbulent history. Out Here on Our Own: An Oral History of an American Boomtown captures the history of Rock Springs by chronicling the town’s boom and bust cycles through personal narratives from locals alongside his own personal account of the coal-mining town.

Shining a light on the amoral history of Rock Springs, Anselmi reflects on the way of life of the residents impacted by the oil drilling industry that seized their community. The toils from the laborious coal-mining operation are gathered candidly from the voices of residents who shared witness to the troubles that plagued the area, such as widespread alcoholism and a disturbing increase of mental and physical health illnesses.

Out Here on Our Own offers a candid view of Rock Springs through honest words from people who call the boomtown home and are accompanied by Jordan Utley’s fascinating photographs. Words capture the stark truth and pain of living in Rocksprings during booms and recessions. The photos provide a glimpse of their reality, showing the bleak lifestyle of Rock Springs without denying the sheer beauty of the region’s landscape. Although Anselmi admits after moving away, “I may never be a resident of the town again . . . ” the fascinating stories from the residents of Rock Springs show that the value of the town is not from the coal-mining industry, but rather the reverence that persists in the people who choose to stay and tell their stories.

Out Here on Our Own: An Oral History of an American Boomtown by J.J. Anselmi; Photographs by Jordan Utley. Bison Books, October 2022.

Reviewer bio: Raymond Jenkins is a student at Bridgewater State University, in the English MA program with a concentration in Creative Writing. Raymond is an emerging writer residing in the Boston area. He enjoys long hikes with friends, binge watching tv shows and drinking tea during sunset.

Book Review :: Double Negative by Claudia Putnam

Double Negative memoir by Claudia Putnam published by Split Lip Press book cover image

Guest Post by Mark Guzman

“The intimacy of housing another body and soul inside your own body and soul is indescribable,” writes Claudia Putnam in her debut nonfiction chapbook Double Negative, winner of the 2021 Nonfiction/Hybrid Chapbook Contest. In this short memoir, Putnam engages her reader with this connection of mother and child. It is an intimate portrait of a mother who welcomed her son, Jacob, into the world, only to see him pass so soon in his infancy. Putnam is cerebral but genuine, her prose approachable. She contemplates life and death, the soul, where and how it arrives and departs, the beforehere and the afterhere.

Putnam writes this some three decades after losing her son, Jacob, and what she would have done for him. “Hack and splice, sure. I would have let them cut out my heart if it would have cured my son. It would not have.” This willingness of Putnam to offer her own body in sacrifice for her son, her very heart, echoes the deep bond between mother and child, of souls interwoven even in death. Admitting that this sacrifice would not have saved him is harrowing. She leaves the reader to consider that even if Jacob was saved, his would have been a life of constant struggle and pain. Putnam wants us to consider what it must be like to live beyond the unimaginable.

Double Negative is a meditation on life and death, of parenthood, of the soul and spirit, of dreams and the often-harsh reality that comes with living. Putnam successfully invites us to reflect on the concept of how we live, oftentimes so close to death.

Double Negative by Claudia Putnam. Split Lip Press, March 2022.

Reviewer bio: Mark Guzman lives and teaches in Massachusetts. He is currently pursuing his Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree in English at Bridgewater State University.

Book Review :: When They Tell You To Be Good by Prince Shakur

When They Tell You To Be Good a memoir by Prince Shakur published by Tin House Books book cover image

Guest Post by David Sohboff

In his debut memoir, When They Tell You To Be Good, Prince Shakur traverses geography and time to answer a question that has “haunted” him since adolescence, “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?” There’s Shakur, a Jamaican immigrant, searching for a better life only to have his father murdered. There’s the closeted Shakur who faces his truth as well as his family’s violent proclivities. There’s Shakur, who travels the globe because, “If America could not deliver me what I deserved as a young and curious Black person, I deserved to try to find it where I could and not be overpowered by the kind of son or citizen I needed to be.” There’s Shakur, the revolutionary, who combats racism, homophobia, and colonialism. There’s Shakur, the humanist, who learns that “one of the best ways we can love people is to not be afraid of them.” There’s Shakur, the provocative writer who becomes “grateful for my body, my heart, my mind, and all the people who loved me and asked questions.” This speaks to the power of “Who Am I,” which Shakur asked early on and ultimately transcends to a universal query in this artful debut.

When They Tell You To Be Good by Prince Shakur. Tin House, September 2022.

Reviewer Bio: David Sohboff is an educator in Massachusetts and a student at Bridgewater State University, pursuing an advanced degree in English. 

Book Review :: Stay True by Hua Hsu

Stay True a memoir by Hua Hsu published by Penguin Random House book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

In his memoir Stay True, Hua Hsu explores identity through three different lenses: race/ethnicity, friendship, and music. Music is by far the dominant way Hsu defined himself when he was in college, the years he focuses on in this work. He uses his love of music partly to define himself as different than others—as a way to carve out an identity for himself—and to judge others—as a way to keep others at a distance. He becomes friends with Ken, a student unlike Hsu in almost every way, including musical tastes. Despite those differences, Ken becomes a friend who helps Hsu grow and change, slowly moving past his easy judgments about others. Ken and Hsu are both Asian Americans, but Ken is Japanese American. His family has been in the United States for generations, while Hsu is the son of Taiwanese immigrants, leading Hsu to feel less settled in his racial/ethnic identity. All of these strands help Hsu talk about who he was then and how that time has shaped him into who is, but the main concern of the memoir is a specific event in his relationship with Ken, one Hsu is still coming to terms with years afterward.

Stay True by Hua Hsu. Penguin Random House, September 2022.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or