Review Issue 3
Despite All Odds
Review by Morgan Carson
Jacob and the Mandolin Adventure is a book of historical fiction for ages 8 to 12 by award-winning writer Anne Dublin. It recounts the journey of Jewish children from an orphanage in impoverished Mezritsh, Poland, to a farm-school in Canada. The children play in a mandolin orchestra, and their travel is funded by a mysterious American benefactor. In the Historical Note, the reader learns that in 1918, Mezritsh had a Jewish population of roughly 20,000. By 1947, after the mass-murder of Jews by the Schutzpolizei (German police) and Polish “Blue Police,” there were forty-seven Jews remaining in Mezritsh. The story takes place in 1927, twelve years before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The memory of the Great War (1914-1918) hangs heavily over the Jewish community of Poland. Jacob, the central character, is a modest and intelligent boy who preserves the spirit of friendship and faith among the fellow orphans as they travel through a strange land. He incarnates the principle expounded by Yahweh in Exodus 22:21-22, “You shall not oppress a stranger nor torment him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not oppress any widow or orphan.” Jacob is the moral anchor of the book, always solving problems as they arise and compromising his own interests for the sake of his peers.
The psychological delicacy of childhood troubles is skillfully rendered through internal monologue. Jacob is constantly rebuking himself for negligence or doubting the rightness of his feelings. He is a charmingly scrupulous little lad, and the reader can feel an affection for him and the other orphans.
Jacob also has fits of stage-fright. Each time the orphans give a performance, the butterflies return to Jacob’s stomach. However, each time he performs, he forgets his nervousness and simply delights in playing. If I had read this story as a child, I think I would have had a hard time believing how easily Jacob forgets his nervousness, but perhaps I didn’t have the courage of Jacob, whose namesake wrestled with an angel all night for the sake of a blessing. It is uncertain if the author uses Hebraic names to evoke certain themes from the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, containing the Old Testament of the Bible), but if so, it is pleasantly apt.
A particularly amusing episode occurs in which David, the most pious of the orphans, professes an inability to sign his name on a piece of paper that will allow him to board a train. “S’iz Shabbos. It is the Sabbath,” he says. It is a Sunday, and he cannot work on Sunday. Signing a paper falls under the category of work, so he cannot sign it. The comic befuddlement of the group is resolved when Jacob suggests David wait until Sabbath is over and then sign his name. The humor and irony consist in the music instructor’s loss of patience with David. He is indignant and fails to come up with any plan that might honor David’s piety as well as satisfy the demands of expediency. Jacob, of course, with that curious mixture of patience and ingenuity, sometimes vouchsafed to children alone, does precisely this.
This book appeals to many different groups of readers. As I read the book, I often imagined a parent reading a chapter a night to her children, perhaps eight to twelve years old, to equal satisfaction of both parent and child. A parent may find plenty of fun doing distinct voices for the orphans, their tutor, and the music instructor. The dialogue is designed for this part-reading because each character’s voice is distinct.
The Mystery of Windy Lake
Review by Des Lord
The Case of the Burgled Bundle is the third book in the Mighty Muskrats Mystery Series by Michael Hutchinson. Hutchinson is a Misipawistik Cree citizen who grew up in the Treaty 5 territory north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has worked for the Indian Claims Commission in Ottawa as well as the director of communications for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba. He has also produced mini documentaries for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). He brings his life experience and knowledge to life in the Mighty Muskrats Series, where four cousins called the Mighty Muskrats solve mysteries around their home of Windy Lake First Nation. The story is told from a third-person omniscient perspective, with a focus on the four young cousins.
In The Case of the Burgled Bundle, the National Assembly of Cree Peoples has gathered in Windy Lake for a traditional ceremony. The Muskrats’ grandfather, called Grandpa throughout the novel, is the head of the Windy Lake Elders Committee and heavily involved with the proceedings of the ceremony. After he tells the Elders of Butterfly Narrows a teasing joke that falls flat, he enlists the help of Elder Leon Shining Deer, a Bundle Holder for the Treaty 12 area. Elder Leon arrives, but before the bundle can be brought to the Elder leaders, the bundle goes missing. The Muskrats help their Uncle Levi, an investigator familiar with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), solve the mystery when it becomes apparent the RCMP will not help. The story introduces a slew of different suspects: men from Butterfly Narrows tasked with guarding the bundle; Pearl, an old nemesis of the Muskrats who was involved as a suspect in previous investigations; and even an Elder from Butterfly Narrows, Elder Lone Man, who took offense to one of Grandpa’s jokes.
Young readers in the middle grade range (8-12 years old) who enjoy mysteries will love this book for all the Muskrats’ antics. On the way, they learn important lessons about trust, family, and tradition. Older readers will enjoy the imagery and setting that Hutchinson evokes, making this story a true family-friendly, fantastic piece of literature.
The ending of the story will surprise readers, and the journey the Muskrats take to get there is full of mystery, laughs, tears, and what might be the most important benefit to non-Indigenous readers: education in the ways of a tribal culture. Hutchinson is a master of creating a world in which non-Indigenous readers can immerse themselves without much knowledge of Indigenous culture, but he is also careful. He keeps some of the details vague, such as what happens during the Cree ceremonies. He does this in order to respect the privacy of the real communities Windy Lake is based upon. Through Sam, the city boy who grew up outside of Windy Lake, Hutchinson also gives the perspective of someone who has lived in a more colonized and white-washed community. Sam’s frustration with the culture around him, as well as curiosity about the secrecy and tension between the different Cree tribes, offers an opportunity for non-Indigenous readers to understand some of the ways in which Indigenous populations are impacted by the larger culture surrounding them.
"By the time I came to the closing chapter, my heart was racing, my thoughts colliding, and I couldn’t wait to see what happened next."
The Secrets That Remain
Review by Cassidy White
Ginger Eager’s debut novel, The Nature of Remains (2020), tells the story of a woman scorned and scared. When her lover, Bird, confesses they must end things because his wife has fallen fatally ill, the dominos begin to fall. Fighting for her career and the affair she’s kept hidden for decades, Doreen Swilley must turn to her dirtiest tactics yet to secure her place as Bird’s secretary, whether he likes it or not. Told from the perspective of Doreen and her son, Johnathon, this piece shows us how one secret can ruin an entire family.
What we might view as irrational in the actions of these two characters, they see as justified. Doreen isn’t simply fighting to save her job; she’s a woman fighting to survive. Johnathon isn’t simply a grown-up child with a drinking problem; he’s a man fighting to answer his lifelong questions. People like Doreen, those in their forties who were not afforded the educational advantages many take for granted, must do whatever they can to keep afloat. Her biggest fear, aside from worrying about her son being a drunken abuser, is how to survive on her own.
Nearly halfway through the novel, Doreen thinks about the soul and what it means to be human. Her journey to destroy Bird’s world to keep her job has her questioning morality and how we shape our world. Doreen states, “Perhaps, like a crystal, a human soul is best understood not in the context of a single human lifetime, but in vaster spans, something closer to geological time: centuries of familial struggle, millennia of human suffering. The mind makes the soul impossible to know.” This stood out to me on a metaphysical level, as a deep way of questioning the limits of ordinary morality. Such a long view of time isn’t typical of American thinking but is common in some Eastern cultures, where a single lifetime is just one small step in the development of a soul. Although bucking conventional judgment, Doreen does what she believes is right.
One secret becomes many secrets becomes too many to hide. Every time the reader believes this story has gotten as dark as it can, another plot twist comes in and takes them on another rollercoaster ride of intensity, angst, and mystery. For example, a farm owned by Doreen’s lover becomes the breeding grounds for almost every dark secret, and it feels as though the truth doesn’t stop rushing out until the very last page of the book.
There’s plenty of suspense and mystery to keep the reader turning the pages. When you learn of the body buried on the abandoned farm, of the truth behind Johnathon’s marriage, or how far Doreen is willing to go to protect herself, you’ll never want to put the book down. By the time I came to the closing chapter, my heart was racing, my thoughts colliding, and I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Finding the closing chapter to consist of only a single paragraph was shocking, but those final words stuck with me. Those last few words carried much more emotional weight than I could have expected from a long chapter.
Change of Climate
Review by Eva Monhaut
Parts Per Million is the debut novel by Julia Stoops, finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The story takes place in 2002 in Portland, Oregon, where Stoops herself has lived since 1994. Divided into eighty short chapters, the narrative alternates between the perspectives of three independent climate activists: John Nelson, Irving Fetzer, and Jen Owens. Through the visual sketches of the three narrators, Stoops evokes vivid details of the Portland area, drawing the reader into the landscape.
Owens, Nelson, and Fetzer are part of a group known as Omnia Media. Jen Owens is the hacker and computer whiz of the group. John Nelson is a climate activist who joined the group after abandoning his government job. He often speaks at events and writes crucial articles for the group's web page. Fetzer is a recovering veteran of the Vietnam War. The group produces a radio show where they fight back against mainstream media, governmental forces, and talk about political activism.
The book is categorized as eco-fiction, a genre becoming more common alongside a growing consciousness of climate change issues. However, the story is character driven. It’s as much a story about unity, friendship, and love as it’s about socio-political, climate, and politics. When Nelson falls in love with a recovering addict and unexpected guest, Deirdre, the entire group's lives are changed. Deidre, a photographer herself, eventually finds herself tangled in the web of the group’s work and personal lives. A series of tragic life events causes the group to struggle to stay united as they battle grief, loss, and the dismantling of their home. They must work together to rebuild from the ground up.
Parts Per Million manages to highlight the politics and activism of the early 2000’s without seeming overtly political, or didactic, since it uses the differing inputs of the three characters. The result is a novel that is both intimate and personal as well as rich in the way it examines a crucial and recent cross section of our history.
Anyone interested in climate issues and politics through the means of media, journalism, photography, and reporting would delight in this book. Those who lived in the early 2000s would relate to the politics of the time. The book is also highly relevant today in an age where issues of climate change are only growing, and climate strikes are prevalent once again. In this way, I think this book is great for younger audiences who are part of the growing initiative to fight climate change and push back against the government on these issues.
Most readers will be drawn to the diverse ways in which the characters think and develop over time to approach tasks and problems that arise. A quote from Nelson encapsulates how this book is important to the socio-political landscape today within climate activism and encourages the reader to face the reality of climate change: “We have to do more than walk through the streets, then go home to our oil-heated houses to watch the news. We have to transcend, we have to tell a new story. One that says it’s not eccentric to get rid of the car...it’s not weird to avoid plastics. It’s normal. These things need to stop being charming and self-righteous; they need to become normal.”
Parts Per Million perfectly captures the fear, anger, and political fights of the early 2000’s while also highlighting today’s struggles. Wherever the reader may fit into the political spectrum, this book provides valuable insight into the importance of activism. In terms of climate change, this book attests strongly to the value of people banding together to stand up for change, reminding readers of the danger of staying silent. Nelson’s character sums this up well, inviting the reader to act and not let things fall apart: “What a tragic waste it would be. When we have the freedom and ability to make things better, and instead we destroy everything that’s so beautiful.”
Review by Josiah "Jo" Hackett
Enough to Lose is a linked short story collection focused on a generation of people in the thumb of Michigan from the 1980s to the 2010s. The author, RS Deeren, calls himself and the people of this book “Thumbodies.” While the characters are not based on any real people, the settings are, and they come to life immediately. This author exemplifies that old adage, Write what you know. This book represents an interconnected community of people who know one another superficially and who tend to make generalizations about each other. Most characters are oblivious to the secrets and inner lives of the people they thought they knew. The writer also respects these people, showing how they persevere through hardships, whether it is trying to hunt for food when the patriarch of the society says no in “Her, Guts and All,” or coping with a friend’s death many years after the fact in “Streaks of White and Color,” or trying to save a collapsing house in a flood in “The Mirror,” or selling chocolate bars out of a car in “Getting Out.” Each of these lives influences others in a myriad of ways. Each one has a different set of morals and takes a different path to reach their goals. And many of those goals and morals conflict, causing the reader to ask, Who is right? Who is wrong? Is there an answer to that?
One does not need a specific connection to this area of Michigan to appreciate the emotions this book tackles, feelings of depression, loneliness, and joy (albeit rare). There is a major theme of wanting to get out of the region, yet at the same time, the characters feel a pull, a magnetic pull to stay, to live in the place called home, the place that made them. The stories contain a multitude of characters, including vulnerable pregnant women, the Samaritans, mistreated but righteous, bridge lovers, accident prone drinkers, lawn care experts, the ostracized, cheaters, hairdressers, loving sons, grocery store stockers, ex-convicts, budding businesswomen, mourners, dead deer, and all those in between. There is someone in this book for the audience to relate to.
The way Deeren opens up these lives speaks to the gravity of our own. I appreciate how honest each narrator is in each piece. Deeren didn’t shy away from creating real life characters with real life problems. There’s a sort of realism there that cannot be faked. Whether these events happened or something close to them happened, we can easily relate them to something in our own lives. And the reactions and actions of the characters aren’t always wise, but they’re examples of what happens in real life—as in “The Mirror” where one of the main characters cannot let go of their house they’re losing in a flood. There’s no chance they will ever live there again, but that character risks everything because he’s so connected to their home and the things inside, like his grandmother’s mirror.
The people in these stories are flawed, weighed down by the pressures of life. I related to that. The stories don’t shy away from what makes us human: the struggle and the mess we create when we do try to wriggle free from our afflictions. In the book’s title story, "Enough to Lose,” Tim Darling, the main character, has this to say about life: “That’s how things go. I was used to the up and down just so long as I could punch a clock and get another day behind me.” That’s one way of understanding the crux of the human experience—going through the motions until the glory days are reached or never found. And this book encapsulates all of that within nine short stories from different perspectives, age groups, and ideals.
Review by Eva Monhaut
Adam McOmber is the author of a debut collection of short stories, The New & Poisonous Air (BOA Editions, 2011), and one novel, The White Forest (Touchstone, 2012). His work has also appeared in numerous journals, including Kenyon Review and Fairy Tale Review. In 2012, he was nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. My House Gathers Desires is his second collection of short stories. He has since published another novel, Ghostfinders (2021), and a third story collection, Fantasy Kit (2022).
The stories in My House Gathers Desires focus on themes of the macabre related to gender identity and sexualilty. Some stories rewrite traditional narratives such as fairy tales, biblical lore, and parables. The dark, haunting tone of the stories brings the reader into an ethereal, vivid, beautiful, and nightmarish world. McOmber’s writing about individuals’ identities works well with this haunting tone because it reflects how people often feel about sexuality. Furthermore, this can be an expression of how some feel society views them: as monsters. For readers struggling to show their true identities to society, these stories will resonate deeply.
One of my favorite stories, “Swaingrove,” follows a young soldier during the Civil War caught in the old house of an elderly man. This is the story from which McOmber derived the title, and it hints at the themes explored throughout the collection. This passage from the story was one of my favorites: “‘My house, dear boy, gathers desires...’ Some joint or brace deep inside the house began to squeal. It was an alarming sound, like a child in pain. And it seemed, for a moment, as if the whole house might suddenly collapse.”
Some of the stories read like a dream sequence or a dark possession, such as “Hydrophobia,” in which a young woman discovers the hauntings of the past near an old lake. She is drawn into a dark cave by a mysterious young boy she meets near the lake only to discover that some secrets are better kept hidden. "Petit Trianon'' follows two women visiting the Palace of Versailles who experience a haunting moment in Marie Antionette’s former safe haven. Hallucinatory and extremely palatable at the same time, these fantastical stories explore what it means to be human and to search for your identity and embrace one’s sexualilty in its most natural expressions.
The stories take place in various landscapes and points in time, all brimming with a vividness and lucidity of emotions. In these stories, that which is usually buried in the dreamscapes of the human mind emerges, inviting the reader to explore those same images and revelations independently. McOmber’s ability to portray unimaginable depth of human emotions while speaking about sexuality is quite evident in the story “Sodom and Gomorrah.” This story rewrites the traditional Old Testament view of the “sinful” cities, showing them in a new light and protesting the traditional storyline through vivid and ethereal descriptions that embrace sexuality. In the following passage, a mysterious, collective “we” which narrates the story overtakes two strangers, brings them to the center of town and falls upon them, forming a single body brimming with unnamed desire: “The strangers then are no longer like two men at all. They have undressed themselves, giving up the pretense of skin and becoming a denser part of the air. We are hungry for them. Ours is a sacred desire that was buried too long in our chests, like some city beneath the sand.”
Anyone who enjoys folklore, unique versions of popular fairy tales, the macabre, science fiction, and gender studies would thoroughly enjoy this collection. Since these stories are both oddly familiar but delightfully new, I think they will resonate with many readers. For those who take a personal interest in creative writing, these stories can serve as a strong example of how to use a thematic thread throughout a collection of short stories. One of the most striking aspects of this collection is each story’s ability to powerfully stand on its own while simultaneously building on emotional and thematic developments in previous stories. Diverse stories somehow meld together to form a whole. As a result, this collection is a tightly bound testament to many storytelling traditions as well as a fresh outlook on identity, gender, and the macabre.
Personnel for Issue 3
Josiah "Jo" Hackett
Dr. Joseph Chaney
Morgan Carson, Despite All Odds
Josiah "Jo" Hackett, Getting Out
Des Lord, The Mystery of Windy Lake
Eva Monhaut, Change of Climate & Rewriting History
Cassidy White, The Secrets That Remain