Tag Reviews

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

Book Review :: Razzmatazz by Christopher Moore

Razzmatazz a novel by Christopher Moore book cover image

Guest Post by James Scruton

If you need a beach read to get you through high summer, look no further than Razzmatazz, Christopher Moore’s follow-up to his hilarious page-turner Noir. (Make it a full vacation and read both novels.) This time out, our hero Sammy, his main squeeze Stilton (don’t call her “the Cheese”), and their unlikely roster of demi-monde pals must dodge both gangsters and cops to solve a double murder, locate a rich nob’s runaway daughter, and retrieve a mysterious relic before even more chaos ensues in late-1940’s San Francisco. In true noirish fashion, most of the action takes place in the wee small hours, when, as Sammy relates, the fog has “swallowed the city like a damp woolen crocodile.” Zany, with devious plotting and enough wise-cracking dialogue to fricassee a Maltese falcon, Razzmatazz is another healthy serving of Moore’s signature recipe: equal measures of screwball comedy, hard-boiled mystery, and X-Files-like otherworldliness. (Don’t skip the “Afterword and Author’s Note.”)

Razzmatazz by Christopher Moore. William Morrow, May 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.

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Book Review :: Don’t Know Tough by Eli Cranor

Don't Know Tough a novel by Eli Granor book cover image

Guest Post by Ira Smith

Eli Cranor’s debut novel, Don’t Know Tough, published by Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, is not your typical football novel. Rather, it depicts a brutal slice of life in rural Arkansas, where high school football is king and is all that matters. The protagonist, Billy Lowe, is the archetypal angry young man. An ignorant high school senior and star of the football team, Billy’s anger is compounded by his mother’s abusive boyfriend, who lives with them in their trailer in rural Arkansas. After being beaten by the boyfriend and hitting him back, Billy takes his anger out on a teammate during practice, injuring him. Then, his Mom’s abusive boyfriend is found murdered, and Billy becomes a suspect. From that point, the novel hurtles at breakneck speed to its surprising conclusion. I could not stop reading Don’t Cry Tough. Cranor’s writing is riveting, and his characterizations are perfect. Despite my initial impression of Billy as simple and stupid, as the book goes on, the author skillfully transforms him into a complex human being I actually cared for. As for the setting in rural Arkansas, I could picture the trailers, the woods, and the poverty-stricken homes where some of the characters live. The football scenes were quite well done, and rightly so as the author did play professional football. Despite the twists and turns, all the plot lines were brilliantly resolved. This is Eli Cranor’s first novel, and I already can’t wait for his follow-up.

Don’t Know Tough by Eli Cranor. Soho Crime, March 2022.

Reviewer bio: Ira Smith is a retired physician for whom reading has been a lifelong passion. Favorite genres are science fiction, noir, and history.

Book Review :: Let’s Not Do That Again by Grant Ginder

Let's Not Do That Again a novel by Grant Grinder book cover image

Guest Post by Cindy Dale

In Let’s Not Do That Again, Grant Ginder, himself a former political speech writer, has concocted an entertaining, immensely satisfying romp of a novel that definitively proves that just when you think things can’t get worse, you are very, very wrong. They most certainly can.

Tolstoy famously wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same can be said of dysfunctional families, and it applies in spades when that family is in politics. Introducing the Harrisons. Mom, a NY congresswoman who inherited her seat from her long-dead husband, is now running for US Senate. Add her two semi-adult children to the mix—Nick, a gay, adjunct at NYU who’s working on a musical based on the works of Joan Didion on the side—and Greta, who, though a Yale grad, is currently living in a hovel in Brooklyn and working part-time at the Apple store. Greta manages to hook-up with the wrong guy, Xavier, on an online gaming site. Xavier lures her to Paris. He, of course, turns out to be a neo-Nazi anarchist, and sparks (as well as champagne bottles) soon fly—literally and figuratively. The dysfunctional son is soon dispatched to Paris to rescue the dysfunctional daughter and, hopefully, save the floundering election in the process.

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Book Review :: Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser

Scary Monsters: A Novel in Two Parts by Michelle de Krester book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Michelle de Kretser’s novel tells two stories, one narrated by Lyle, the other by Lili; which one you read first depends on which side of the book you begin with. Neither story has an intricate plot: Lili’s follows her year as a teacher at a high school in France, while Lyle’s tells about his experience in an Australia in the not-too-distant future. While the two narratives seemingly have nothing to do with one another, they are held together by the question of who or what the scary monsters are. Both main characters are not native Australians, having relocated from what sounds like a Southeast Asian country, Lili when she was younger and Lyle as an adult. These monsters could simply be those who look down on them for their racial and ethnic difference. De Krester explores that idea, but she has broader concerns. Lili struggles with the daily fears of being a woman in a patriarchal society; though nothing violent happens to her, she knows it could. Lyle’s skin is slowly changing to white, a representation of the sacrifices he’s made to assimilate, possibly becoming a monster himself. Ultimately, the systems of power that go unnoticed are the monsters underneath the proverbial beds of the main characters and perhaps the readers, as well.

Scary Monsters: A Novel in Two Parts by Michelle de Kretser. Catapult, April 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 kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.

Book Review :: In Love by Amy Bloom

In Love: A Memory of Love and Loss memoir by Amy Bloom book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Amy Bloom’s memoir relates her husband’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and their struggle to find a way for him to die as he chooses rather than suffer through years of mental decline. Bloom weaves chapters from the past — as she realizes what’s happening to her husband and the revelation of his diagnosis — with those of Brian’s final days in Switzerland, as well as chapters on the challenges those who want to end their life face. Bloom writes movingly about her love for Brian, consistently reminding the reader through scenes she describes, in addition to her reflections, that her helping him die comes out of that love. As soon as he is diagnosed, Brian asks Bloom to help him, as she has always been the planner in their relationship, and he has begun to lose the ability to do that type of work. This book is a testament to their marriage and their love as much as it is an exploration of why someone would want to end their life and why the person who loves them most would want to help. It is, as the subtitle states, a memoir of love and loss, and the reader feels both equally.

In Love: A Memory of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom. Random House, 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 kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.

Book Review :: The Book of I.P. (Idle Poems)

The Book of IP (Idle Poems) by Chris Courtney Martin book cover image

Guest Post by Nicholas Michael Ravnikar

This eclectic book from Chris Courtney Martin foregrounds commodified intersections of American culture in light of spiritual awakening. Reclaiming Hollywoodspeak IP to refer to poems written during “idle” time, Martin questions the very idea of value creation. Deploying the true American musical habits of blues (viz “Black Betty” and “Hellhound”) and jazz, these syncopations and melodies transmute the cannibalized, dollar-driven kitsch rituals and artifacts of Americana into talismans for meaning-making. Independent Black cinema is never far from mind, as Melvin Van Peebles and Rudy Ray Moore, for instance, were both threats to and sources for the status quo. Readers dance from piece to piece as rhymes and measures suggest expectations to upend. Consider the first (and last) stanza of “Intuition”:

Who are you?
I been knew.
Who am I?
I, too, fly.

Here’s verse to echo Dickinson, Brooks, and Blake. And Martin’s spiritual grasp can perhaps match theirs, with topics that span Kundalini awakening, paganism, tarot, and hoodoo. There’s depth, too, in Martin’s excavation of how our society manufactures us in the mainstream, particularly in the concluding essay. Therein, these “Idle Poems” suggest the “Intellectual Property” beneath the mirror of any reader’s encounter with art. This is fun, prophetic stuff.

The Book of IP (Idle Poems) by Chris Courtney Martin. Alien Buddha Press, June 2022.

Reviewer bio: Blurring the lines between understanding and overthinking since 1982, Nicholas Michael Ravnikar is a neurodivergent dad/spouse/poet who writes kids books for grownups. He hasn’t made anything from NFTs yet. After working as a college prof, bathtub repairman, substance abuse prevention agency success coach, copyeditor and marketing specialist, he’s been disabled and unemployable following a nervous breakdown. In his spare time, he lifts weights, meditates and plays pickleball. Join him on social media and read more at bio.fm/nicholasmichaelravnikar

Workshop Review :: Writer Mind Marketing Mind

Allison K Williams head shot

I recently attended “Writer Mind Marketing Mind” virtual workshop with Allison K Williams [pictured] hosted by Jane Friedman. And – no – this is not a paid ad. In fact, I paid to attend and am only choosing to run this review because the session was so good along with some absolutely ridiculous elements I can’t help but share.

The 70-or-so-minute workshop was the epitome of the cliche ‘hit the ground running.’ From start to finish, Williams kept an incredible pace of information flowing smoothly from her experience and expertise as social media editor for Brevity and as an editor and writing coach for writers, having helped guide authors to deals with Penguin Random House, Knopf, Mantle, Spencer Hill, St. Martin’s and independent presses among many other publishing experiences. Jane Friedman was also present, helping to manage the session and contributing at different points. If you have not yet read Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer, that’s your first order. She is totally no-nonsense about the reality of writing and publishing, both encouraging and providing much-needed slaps upside the head for anyone who thinks the “business” of publishing is not the responsibility of the writer. It is. Period. This philosophy was echoed throughout “Writer Mind Marketing Mind” – hence the title – but in addition to expressing what writers need to equip themselves with to enter into the business aspects, Williams was also no-holds-barred on what doesn’t work and the misperceptions writers have about those. Much to the satisfaction, I might add, of many in attendance who seemed relieved to let go of those false notions.

As I indicated, there were several ridiculous components to this workshop. The first is that it only cost $25. I’m a bit of a virtual workshop pro by now, and I can say for certain that this is an outrageously low fee for what I got from the session. In addition to all the information that was shared live, participants get access to a recording of the event for a month, we get the full PowerPoint presentation slides, the complete speakers’ transcript, the Zoom chat transcript, a workbook filled with resources that Williams references throughout the workshop, and a separate document with every question that was asked with the answer if it was given during the session as well as answers that were added after the session. And I don’t mean we get some limited access to all of this for a month and then it’s gone. We got access to download and keep ALL of these materials. Additionally, Williams is working on a kind of marketing tracking document that she calls the Marketing Launch Sheet which basically maps out an itinerary for marketing a writing project. This is one step away from being its own app, and it will utterly revolutionize writers’ marketing work. While I say that all of this is ridiculous, it is actually in keeping with Friedman’s philosophy to keep education for writers realistically accessible, and Williams shares in this with her supportive mentoring approach. The concept of community is alive and well here.

The content of the workshop itself opened with misperceptions of marketing that hold writers back, which is where Williams clearly released a number of participants from these impediments as they exclaimed, “Thank goodness!!!” and “Ok, now I love you.” and “I love this webinar already” – and this was just within the first ten minutes. Williams also covered the concept of setting a mission, defining your personal and public self, understanding how writing and selling are both time-consuming activities, which markets are best for your work, what is PR vs. marketing and which are worth your time and/or your money, social media, and various ways to reach readers.

I am personally not looking to market my own writing, but, of course, I have an interest in the business of writing and being a part of the community this creates. For any writer looking to be published, Jane Friedman and anyone connected with her work are going to be your best teachers. Visit Friedman’s website and sign up for everything free that she offers and check out the upcoming workshops. Keep a lookout for where Williams will be presenting next, including another workshop with Friedman, “Why Is My Book Getting Rejected” and writing retreats and intensives with more info at her website www.rebirthyourbook.com. She will also be teaching a novel structure class for James River Writers in October, and a class on “Beautiful Beginnings, Brilliant Endings for Creative Nonfiction” in August, with information on those events not yet posted online. Williams is also the author of three writer’s guides: Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book; Seven Bridges: Platform for Authors Who’d Rather Be Writing (forthcoming); and Get Published in Literary Magazines.

Book Review :: Asylum by Nina Shope

Asylum a novel by Nina Shope book cover image

Guest Post by Stephanie Katz

Nina Shope’s Asylum is an entrancing, fictionized story of French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his patient Augustine. In the novel — as in real life — Charcot puts Augustine’s “hysteria” on display in public demonstrations. Through his touch, Augustine’s body convulses and contorts in sexual poses in front of a crowd. The novel vacillates between both characters’ perspectives in a twisted dichotomy of torture and desire. Charcot resists his attraction to Augustine and obtrusively attempts to quantify her illness through hundreds of photographs and measurements: “My body broken down into strange sets of numbers until I barely recognize myself. Everything measured—the time it takes me to raise my arm, the angle of my eye, the number of steps until I find myself at your side.” Shope deftly uses second person POV to show Augustine’s conflicting feelings for Charcot: “I remember years when I could not tell you from me, when you sat inside me as surely as my bones, wearing me from the inside out…There was no part of me not filled by you. Infiltrated as a body is by disease.” Asylum will compel readers to discover Augustine’s fate and learn more about the people who inspired this darkly compelling novel.

Asylum by Nina Shope. Dzanc Books, 2022.

Reviewer bio: Stephanie Katz is a librarian, writer, and editor. She runs 805 Lit + Art and is the author of Libraries Publish: How to Start a Magazine, Small Press, Blog, and More (Libraries Unlimited, ABC-CLIO, 2021). She writes about creative library publishing at literarylibraries.org and lives on an island in Florida.

Book Review :: Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service by Tajja Isen

Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service by Tajja Isen book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Tajja Isen’s collection Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service draws from her background as a Canadian woman of color. However, her writing doesn’t try to explain her pain or oppression, as she asserts in “This Time It’s Personal,” an exploration of the personal essay focusing on who tells their stories (and are allowed to tell their stories) in ways that reinforce that pain. Instead, she examines the systems she’s most familiar with — voice actors in animation, the literary canon and publishing, law, affirmative action, protest, nationality — and points out the ways they cause the pain and oppression individuals endure. She integrates her experiences, and she then critiques the hierarchies and structures that have led to those experiences. Her work reminds readers of the reality behind personal essays, pointing out that lives and essays don’t occur in a vacuum. Instead, people in power (mainly white males) design systems to reinforce their power and to keep other people (primarily people of color, especially women) from obtaining any power of their own. If, like me, you think you already know that to be true, Isen’s essays will help you see it in places you don’t expect and in ways you often overlook.

Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service by Tajja Isen. Atria, April 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 kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.

Book Review :: Writer in a Life Vest by Iris Graville

Writer in a Life Vest by Irish Graville book cover image

Guest Post by Deborah Nedelman

Iris Graville, author of the award-winning memoir Hiking Naked, lives on an island in the Salish Sea and writes as a citizen of the planet. Writer in a Life Vest as a collection of essays is a journey of discovery and an education about a delicate ecosystem which supports some of the world’s most iconic creatures. The first Writer in Residence on the Washington State Ferries, Iris spent a year riding the interisland ferry through the San Juan Islands of the Salish Sea. Readers cycle with her as the ferry glides and rocks through the home of the endangered resident orcas (killer whales) and meet scientific experts who are devoting their knowledge and energies to saving these rare creatures. As we learn about riding this ferry — including witnessing a moveable ukulele jam, where players board the ferry at various ports, play together for a while and move on — Graville teaches us about the current state of the sea’s health and our connection to it. The multiple essay forms Graville employs keep readers off-kilter, as if standing on the deck of a rocking ship, yet they invite us to hang on and to look deeper. Like Graville, I live on an island in the Salish Sea, though not in the San Juans, and I swim in the sea year-round. It is my concern for the fragile state of this body of water, of the resident orcas, and of our planet that has led me to write this review. Graville’s collection belongs in the genre of books alerting us to the precarious state of our planet, but it stands out by pointing our gaze toward hopefulness and action.

Writer in a Life Vest by Iris Graville. Homebound Publications, March 2022.

Reviewer Bio: Deborah Nedelman, PhD, MFA is co-author of two non-fiction books: A Guide for Beginning Psychotherapists (Cambridge Press) and Still Sexy After All These Years (Perigee/Penguin). Her novel, What We Take for Truth (Adelaide Press, 2019) won the Sarton Women’s Book Award for Historical Fiction. Deborah is a manuscript coach and leads writing and watercolor painting workshops.