A Review of Santa Tarantula by Jordan Pérez

Published on February 1, 2024 by University of Notre Dame Press.

Upon discovering Jordan Pérez’s award-winning poem “Santa Tarantula,” my immediate instinct was to share it with every poetry-enthusiast I know. Pérez’s command of hypnotic alliteration and masterful weaving of technical language from the fields of arachnology, religion, and capital punishment create a haunting statement on womanhood. Her debut collection, Santa Tarantula, mirrors the themes encapsulated in its eponymous poem: the connection between women and the natural world; the oppression that occurs in Biblical narratives, patriarchal governments, and intimate relationships; and the urgent need to dismantle the legacy of silence.

Divided into three sections—”Smallmouth,” “Dissent,” and “Gospel”—Santa Tarantula guides readers on a journey of healing alongside the speaker’s search for autonomy and self-love. In the collection’s opening poem, “Smallmouth,” Pérez asserts that what is left unsaid “demands to be / known.” This becomes the central motif of Santa Tarantula, urging readers to confront uncomfortable realities. Pérez’s award-winning poem “Deadgirl” does this brilliantly through the speaker’s observation of how a brown mushroom sprouting from the soil looks like the knee of a dead girl. The rain comes and mushrooms sprout everywhere, impossible to ignore, but eventually, the mushrooms disintegrate back into the earth. Indeed, the dark underbelly haunting this collection is the way violence committed against girls is suppressed. The speaker is left with lingering silence and feels dangerously unsafe in her own girlhood, “the [same] way [she] couldn’t be sure / which house in the neighborhood held the man // who touched little girls, and so in every house / is the man who touches little girls.” The omnipresence of femicide and sexual abuse is spine-chilling and heartbreaking, yet real—this tangled web of suppressed cultural and generational trauma is the reality Pérez “demands to be / known.”

With these wounds left unhealed, the collection moves into Part II: Dissent. Women align themselves with hissing tarantulas as they warp an ode to a Cuban government that sends dissidents and marginalized citizens to work camps. Biblical women start finding ways to escape their objectified existence as fruit, “swell[ed] with sugar, / [resting] heavy in [the] unloved palms” of their God. Women starve, left empty not only due to lack of food, but by the lack of justice. However, a woman’s desire to quell her hunger does not come without consequence; in “Santa Tarantula,” women ally themselves with the tarantula once again, and both are exalted to sainthood: “Praise / the tarantula woman still alive at forty.” But sainthood rarely comes with respect during one’s lifetime: the speaker swiftly shifts from praising tarantulas to a bone-chilling directive for men who long to domesticate them: “This is how you kill a tarantula. / Cover her, and hope to God she suffocates.” Reading this line for the first time felt like a punch to the gut, and a painful reminder that women are always in danger. However, Pérez leaves a glimmer of hope in the final line: if the tarantula survives, its assailant will face consequences. Still, the speaker persists, and the final poems in this section consider different ways women successfully voice their dissent, like taking communion with open eyes.

This hope bleed into the collection’s final section, Gospel. In addition to extending the Biblical allusions, the word “gospel” urges us to think about what truths need to be shared, or even worshipped. Though an undercurrent of danger remains bubbling beneath the surface of this section, the poems overall are lighter in tone, carrying the radical power of healing, love, and freedom. In “Asymptote,” the speaker’s mother reminds her that the body is a temple, but all the speaker can think of is when “a man / is burning [a temple] in the news.” Despite this, when a man asks the speaker how she can be touched after everything she’s been through, she poignantly asserts, “I refuse / to die having not been pressed to someone / else’s heart, having not come into the fullness of myself, / having not said this is my blood. This, my body. Saying no / or yes, and liking it.” Pérez’s masterful use of enjambment in this section amplifies the speaker’s longing for autonomy: whether she refuses or accepts to be touched, the choice is hers, and hers alone.

The speaker also finds power in herself in the ghazal “I Was Named for the River of Blessings.” The ghazal, a musical form that often contemplates love, spirituality, and loss, is one of my favorite forms of poetry. Pérez chooses the words “halleluiah” and variations of the word “name” as refrains to contemplate the speaker’s origin, struggles with gendered violence, and desire to sing hymns of her female loved ones. The last couplet of a ghazal typically includes a name, usually that of the poet. Instead of explicitly providing a name, Pérez links the speaker’s growth to the Jordan River—a symbol of freedom to the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt, and the site of many Biblical miracles and baptisms: “Bigger than I am, he touches each growing blackberry, naming / even the greenest ones. Oh, river of blessings. Oh, halleluiah, halleluiah.” These lines gorgeously portray the pure joy of healing, as the speaker experiences a symbolic baptism and flourishing rebirth.

There is much more to write about Pérez’s incredible debut, like her precise execution of form, including a subversive mixed-up sestina, a haunting reverse diminishing verse, poignant prose poems; her feminist reinterpretation of Biblical stories; and her recurring references to insect and reptilian eggs to represent the simultaneous fragility and regenerative power of womanhood. My only wish is that there were more poems in this collection exploring how the legacy of Cuban labor camps lives on in survivors, or that the poems already exploring this were more seamlessly woven into the collection. As with any themed collection, many poems explored the same motif using different forms and language, so it’s natural for the lasting impression to feel like a blended collage. Because Pérez compellingly links predominant narratives (such as those from the Bible) to the intimate struggles of women, I found myself longing for the specter of cultural trauma to linger more in my final impression of Santa Tarantula. Poems like “Mixed-Up Sestina,” “O God of Cuba,” and “Dissent,” which explore the haunting impact of an unjust government on its subjects, were some of Perez’s strongest, adding more nuance to Santa Tarantula’s project to weave a web between historical and personal traumas.

Overall, what most impressed me about Santa Tarantula is its unflinching honesty and urgency to shake its readers out of complacency. It’s a collection that not only conveys the importance of looking at the dark history humanity pushes into the shadows, but also compels us to imagine possibilities for rebirth that are grounded in radical compassion. I am surprised that Santa Tarantula is Pérez’s debut; her poetic finesse, unique use of language, and thought-provoking metaphors make this debut a poignant and unforgettable exploration of societal injustices and the resilience required to overcome them. I will never forget these poems, and I am so excited to follow Pérez’s career as a poet.

A Review of Hope Ablaze by Sarah Mughal Rana

*SPOILER ALERT *This review contains plot details of Hope Blaze.

Published February 2024 by Wednesday Books.

“I am a pent up ball of energy / I will find my escape like a cosmic explosion / all starry rays before darkness claims me, / hope ablaze.”

For Nida, a young Muslim teen, poetry is an outlet for her deepest feelings and experiences. But after her poem about being illegally frisked at a Democratic candidate’s rally accidentally wins a national poetry competition, Nida becomes embroiled in the center of a political scandal. Hope Ablaze is a young adult novel by Sarah Mughal Rana that deftly criticizes the bigotry and hate facing Muslim people in America today and empowers teens to find their own voice in a country aiming to silence them.

Books confronting social and systemic issues can be difficult to write and even more difficult to publish. What I love about this novel is its unflinching exploration of American culture and politics and how these systems continue to harm Islamic people and communities. In Hope Ablaze, neither of the two featured politicians support Muslim people, yet Nida and her community still choose to vote in hopes of creating a path towards a future that supports their people in America. In doing so, Rana highlights how the bipartisan system in America doesn’t work when both parties are against one’s very existence. I’m sure it’s difficult to write a novel like this, and I hope this story helps to pave the path for more Muslim authors to write with the support of the mainstream.

In a story that deals with heavy, topical themes, Rana did an excellent job of creating balance between the pain that comes with bigotry and systemic oppression—especially when in the public eye—and the unconditional love and support that pours in from your communities. There are numerous small moments when this support becomes evident—through characters like Aunty Farooqi and Rayan—but there are also significant moments when the power of community and solidarity becomes starkly evident. After Nida receives public backlash for her poem, especially after it is reported her uncle is in jail due to “terrorist activity,” her mother’s catering business is hit hard: customers cancel their orders, and it becomes difficult for her family to sustain themselves financially. Soon enough, however, the Muslim community bands together to support Nida’s family, and they begin receiving new orders.

The characterization and dynamics of the characters surrounding Nida were wonderfully executed. Relationships never felt forced and characters, for the most part, felt fully fleshed out. However, I did have a little trouble with Nida’s characterization throughout the novel. To me, the heart of Nida’s conflict is not that she doesn’t know how to use her voice, it’s that when she does use her voice, she is silenced.

In the beginning of the novel, Nida channels her feelings about injustice and her desire for change into her poetry. We learn that she didn’t understand her mother’s paranoia until her uncle was imprisoned for performing his poetry, which occurs prior to the start of this book. Because of this fear, Nida doesn’t voice any of her thoughts about her faith or her politics outside of her immediate community. But after she wins the poetry competition and her words are twisted in the media, Nida attempts to deal with the situation in good faith—going on news shows to share her side or meeting up with politician Mitchell Wilson to find a solution—only to realize these people are exploiting her for their own narratives. I don’t quite understand why she trusted them to begin with, especially after everything she went through with her uncle. Nida is also caught between the expectations of her mother and uncle. Nida’s mother wants Nida to stay silent to prioritize her and her community’s safety, while her uncle wants her to speak up, use her voice, and preserve her poetry as an act of creativity and tradition. All of these people talking over Nida causes her to feel silenced.

The introduction of the blue thread , which silences Nida and prevents her from writing poetry, makes sense with this context. But rather than helping her find her voice and allowing it to thrive without being twisted by others, it reveals her family’s history—something she’s already connected to—and helps her understand the importance of poetry in her family. This knowledge of family history allows Nida to understand her mother and reclaim her authentic voice.

The ending worked, because the heart of the story is about Nida finding her voice—one way or another—but the way we got to the ending felt unfocused and tangential from the conflict that existed in the beginning.

On a craft and narrative level, I also felt that there were numerous opportunities to strengthen the power of the novel even further. For example, I really enjoyed the way the narrative moves between prose and poetry. I thought it was a fun and interesting way to play with structure and a great opportunity to explore Nida’s interiority and the complex, powerful emotions she had: “Eyes cast black as crow feathers. / The British weren’t knights but hawks, / circling above / ready to pounce. // These colonial regimes / live on through history,”

Yet, other poems felt lackadaisical at times. Some seemed like they were included for the sake of narrating through scene transitions and moving the plot forward rather than being used to explore Nida’s interiority: “Mr. Wilson’s attorney sat to the right, / in an identical crisp black suit. / A costume of diplomacy. / After Zaynab’s email, Mr. Wilson’s attorney wanted to discuss our options,”

However, all these technical aspects develop with time and experience. This is Rana’s debut novel, and I have confidence this is something that will only improve with her subsequent publications. I love the vision she had for Hope Ablaze, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Rana delivers to us next.

A Review of The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard

*SPOILER ALERT* This review contains plot details about The Other Valley.

Published February 2024 by Atria Books.

In a world where the layers of time must coexist simultaneously, Odile Ozanne faces a choice that could rewrite the future or seal her friend’s fate in the past.

Scott Alexander Howard’s debut, The Other Valley, is a captivating speculative-fiction novel nuanced with philosophical questions about the delicate balance of time and the nature of free will. The first half is a coming-of-age story complicated by secrecy and moral turmoil. Odile is a clever and introverted sixteen-year-old who resides within a valley nestled amidst an array of identical, repeating valleys. To her east lies a valley twenty years ahead in time, while the valley to the west is twenty years in the past. The exclusive authority to grant passage across their guarded borders rests with the Conseil, which Odile is on the verge of joining as an apprentice. When two visitors from the future come to Odile’s valley on a mourning tour, she recognizes them as the parents of her cherished friend, Edme. Odile is left at a crossroads with her mind and heart divided. Should she keep this knowledge a secret, preserving the integrity of the timeline? Or should she risk warning Edme, whose impending doom inches closer every day? As her bond with Edme deepens, the weight of her moral dilemma grows heavier, casting a dark shadow on her destiny.

Howard’s storytelling is marked by his deft use of Odile as the first-person narrator. Narrowing in on Odile’s coming-of-age narrative, Harold seamlessly eases readers into the speculative realm of the novel. He opts for a gentle immersion that begins with mundane aspects of the story, rather than a jarring, action-packed scene. I appreciated this approach because it set the tone for a more dimensional narrative to unfold at a measured pace alongside Odile’s character growth.

The novel begins in Odile’s school as she stands at the precipice of transitioning into the workforce. The last school year marks the apprenticeship level, during which students apply to different vocations. It isn’t until her teacher, Pichegru, instructs her to write an essay to earn a spot in the Conseil’s vetting program that the speculative nature of the story comes to light. Pichegru asks, “If you had permission to travel outside the valley, which direction would you go?” This question becomes the gateway to Howard’s intricate exploration of a world where everyday citizens, despite their awareness of neighboring valleys, remain bound by cautionary folklore that deters them from venturing out. Odile’s journey slowly unveils the enigma shrouding the valleys and sheds light on the Conseil’s vital role in safeguarding reality. As she learns more about her world and strives to find a place within it, I was increasingly lured into the narrative and the mounting gravity of her situation.

Image: The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard

I was most impressed by Howard’s remarkable talent for crafting a heart-wrenching narrative that masterfully explores metaphysical quandaries. He builds a world that lays bare the fragility of reality and identity. This metaphysical contemplation shines through the Conseil’s vetting program, where Howard’s background in philosophy comes to life in the character of Ivret, Odile’s mentor. Her eloquent explanations provide profound insight into the perils of tampering with the valley to the west. Interfering with the past does not create simple absences in the present valley, rather, whole existences and facts are undone and rewritten. Howard writes, “A person goes west, he interferes, and then time rolls over him like a wave, leaving nothing behind.”

Intriguingly, visitation to the other valleys is allowed, but gaining approval from the Conseil is difficult. Guided by Ivret, Odile and her peers grapple with a series of tests in which they approve or deny mock visitation requests. Their decisions must balance compassion for human grief while weighing the risk of the bereaved potentially tampering with the past or future. Ethical dilemmas persist beyond the vetting program, allowing the theme of morality to remain present throughout the novel. I felt the Conseil’s presence served to underscore a utilitarian perspective prioritizing the welfare of the majority over the happiness of an individual. However, Howard also evokes empathy for characters who prioritize their personal interests over the greater good. He further pushes the boundaries of morality by suggesting that those put in harm’s way through the tampering of time might be erased from existence. I found myself contemplating whether the immorality of their actions could be excused if those affected never truly existed in the first place.

The second half of the novel follows Odile in her mid-thirties. The narrative sharply shifts from the optimism of her adolescence to a more somber tone, revealing the stark disparity between the life she had hoped for and the bleak reality she faces. I wish that Howard had offered a smoother transition, as there is no immediate explanation for the position Odile finds herself in. I had to resist the temptation to peek ahead for signs of her youthful self returning because I couldn’t accept that the promising sixteen-year-old we initially encountered was gone so suddenly. I mourned the loss of Odile’s hopefulness and innocence, finding it difficult to adjust to her colder perspective as an adult. The transition, while frustrating, proves necessary to lend her character greater depth. As the novel progressed, I realized that Odile’s emotional detachment was her coping mechanism for regret and the consequences of her past choices. However, just as she begins to accept her circumstances, she reconnects with old friends and sets forth on a path that surpasses her wildest imagination.

The stakes presented in Howard’s novel are undeniably unsettling and beckon readers to ponder weighty philosophical questions. As Odile struggles with a choice that could rewrite the lives of everyone in her valley, Howard leads the reader through a narrative that compellingly explores the intersection of fate and free will. The Other Valley is an enthralling emotional and intellectual journey that lingers past the final page.

A Review of Immortal Longings by Chloe Gong

*SPOILER ALERT* The following review contains plot details about Immortal Longings.

Once a year, the streets in the kingdom of Talin are bathed in blood and flashing lights as eighty-eight of its citizens fight for glory, riches, and a chance to appear before the king. While King Kasa lives lavishly, never leaving his castle, those living in the kingdom’s capital twin cities, San-Er, have to make do with the dismal conditions around them. For those outside the cities, life is not much better. And so, for many, the annual bloodbath is their only chance at a better life. 

Chloe Gong’s makes her adult fantasy debut with Immortal Longings, in which we see the start of a love story inspired by Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra blooming in this everyone-for-themselves environment. The first book in a trilogy, Immortal Longings builds an incredible world in which readers squeeze among clustered buildings, run from opponents, and jump from body to body alongside the characters. Gong’s Antony takes the form of exiled aristocrat Anton Makusa, who strikes up a contentious yet compelling relationship with treacherous princess Calla Tuoleimi, herself an evocation of the Ancient Egyptian queen. Though worlds apart in motivation, the two must come together and do all they can to ensure their own survival, a goal further complicated by the presence of Calla’s cousin, August Shenzi. While neither Anton nor Calla truly trust August—or one another—the three of them form a tentative alliance. Their victory is dependent on their fighting skills and the power of their qi, which allows their consciousness to jump from their own body to another’s, roaming around with a different face while keeping their mind as their own. As one might expect, it’s not long before their team falls apart. 

What I admired so much about the Immortal Longings universe, and the interactions between these three characters, was how the author created a narrative in which the readers could easily insert themselves. Chloe Gong describes each environment so well it felt as though I was sitting next to the characters: jumping with Anton between bodies, scheming to overthrow the King alongside August, and trying to keep my identity a secret just as much as Calla. I could clearly imagine the bustling market stalls, the close-pressed apartment buildings, the overcrowded, clinical yet uncaring atmosphere of the hospital Anton visits, and Calla’s sparse apartment that serves as a reminder she is still on the run. As the omniscient narrator shifts their focus from one character to another, Gong highlights that even the best-laid plans can fall apart when you encounter something that matters to you as much, if not more, than your initial cause. 

Alongside this, the novel also beautifully focuses on the disconnect people can often feel with their own bodies. In Talin, jumping from one body to another is not uncommon; even though the practice is technically illegal, those with a powerful qi will always take advantage of its possibilities. Some, like Anton, abandon their birth bodies forever, while others never jump, like Calla, even though she does not feel like herself in the body she’s inhabited her entire life. As readers learn more about the process of jumping, the power one needs to either possess or lack, and how easy it is to be invaded, we see how physical bodies are meaningless to some and vital to others, and how a spiritual body can hold far more value. The novel demonstrates that a birth body can be just as foreign as a stranger’s body, and that many people prefer to choose the body they live in rather than keep what they were assigned. Calla herself thinks about people who were born in bodies of a sex or gender that is not truly their own. The act of jumping can relieve them of the pain—both emotional and physical—they experience in their birth bodies. Though brief, Calla’s thoughts remind us how many people in the world outside the book are stuck in bodies that do not truly feel like their own.

Though I was slightly disappointed that Calla was willing to compromise what she fought for in order to keep Anton in her life, I admired how determined she was to stay true to her herself while allowing her guilt and isolation to recede enough for love to become an option. Calla truly falls in love with Anton but knows that if she doesn’t kill the King, nothing will change. While their love distracts her from her task a bit, she remains steadfast in her belief that she is the only one who can truly bring change to the twin cities. And even as we root for her and Anton’s love story to end in anything but blood and flames, Chloe Gong has made us long for a better life for the citizens of Talin, the same life many long for in the real world too.

With elements of historical fiction, an incredibly strong and independent female main character, and supernatural abilities linked to the origin of the universe, this is the perfect read for those who adore their fantasy and historical fiction told from the perspective of the underdogs. While the romantic relationship takes a backseat in this story—even if it does influence Calla’s choices somewhat—I found it incredible how the novel focused on the strength of individuals, their reliance on their identity and physical body, and the difference an unexpected friendship can make. There is no doubt that I will be gifting myself multiple copies of this book, recommending it to anyone who will listen, and anxiously awaiting the second and third books while re-reading the first. In my opinion, Chloe Gong has achieved something often missing when writing a series: the creation of a world and characters so awe inspiring, you never want to leave the pages.

For more on Chloe Gong’s work, read Dani Hedlund’s interview with the author.

A Review of As If She Had a Say by Jennifer Fliss

*SPOILER ALERT* The following review contains details about As If She Had a Say, published July 2023 by Curbstone Books.

There are at least two ways to interpret the title of Jennifer Fliss’s second story collection. “As if” can connote both denial and imagined possibility, an acknowledgement that her female characters’ lives were far from freely chosen and the hope that that might change in future. Hope, in fact,characterizes the closing note of many of these pieces, which favor ambiguity over neat endings and easy answers–and are all the stronger for it. 

The stories vary by genre, combining the fabulous (women turning into water, tiny women who inhabit fridges, a shop where you can buy new hands) with realistic pieces, and some experimental formats (one story is written in the passive-aggressive voice of an eviction notice). However, as with writers like Carmen Maria Machado, with whom Fliss has been compared, reality is not being twisted here for its own sake, but in order to show its many facets more clearly. For all its formal diversity, the collection is bound by clear, recurring themes. Many characters have lost a partner or a parent, and Fliss’s fascination with how grief manifests differently for all of us is evident. In “Pieces of Her,” for example, we see a recently widowed man find a lock of his wife’s hair in the shower and tape it to the bathroom wall, while in “The Cresting Water,” an older woman refuses to abandon her home in the face of flood warnings, believing a reunion with her late husband is imminent. In Fliss’s hands, the private, taboo-like nature of grief and loss proves to be rich material, with fiction providing a space to say the unsayable. 

Parental bonds also feature heavily, with parents trying and often failing (or not even trying at all) to connect with their children. In “Losing the House in D Minor,” a child is reunited with her mother but realizes that, “…it wasn’t me that my mother cared about. It was baby-me…the me she’d held onto when I cried as a toddler. […] the living-and-breathing me, she wanted nothing to do with.” In another story, “Winter Rebirth,” we see something similar from the perspective of a mother who is breastfeeding her newborn and wondering if its father will ever return: “The mother, in that moment, feels like a mother, but then she looks away and doesn’t.” The world of these stories is one in which parents are not always reliable caregivers. The worst of these fathers embody a type of abusive male who uses caregiving to mask the exercise of coercion and neglect, as in “Splintered,” where a woman recalls her father seeming to relish the mutilation of her young body in order to save her from a splinter: “You might have to get amputated, he’d said. Cut it off completely or it will become infected. He had come at her with a sharp object, its tip and his eyes glinting.” Throughout, Fliss is attentive to the more subtle, everyday sleights of hand by which men make women feel objectified. 

Still, even in the stories which should be the most depressing, she finds a way to gesture towards hope, however small and tentative. In one piece, a rape victim showers in her clothes after the event because “you cannot imagine looking at your body as you once did. As your own.” Through this act, however, she comes to realize “there are corners and crevices of your body that are inaccessible, for you alone to reach.” This is a fairly typical ending for Fliss, which manages to avoid cheerful, lazy optimism while grounding hope in uncertainty and counter-narrative. Elsewhere, we find men capable of reflecting on their blind spots vis-a-vis women and adopting a more inclusive, less male-centric worldview. On finding a tiny woman living in the fridge of his now ex-wife, Amos asks: “Were there always women in the corners and crevices in the world that directed life? Was their purpose to go unnoticed? But he had noticed her.” A male writer loses most of his hearing and finds the usual ties between specific words/concepts and sexes/genders has dissolved: “you’ve decided that it’s not a bad world to live in: a world where men and women don’t always do what you expect them to.” Selective hearing abounds in how these men deal with the women in their lives, but it need not be so.

Inevitably, not all of the stories are as satisfying as the best among them. There were times when I sensed the author holding back from explaining things or drawing connections, perhaps for fear of making a story seem too neat or formulaic. Sometimes, as alluded to earlier in this review, this openness worked brilliantly, but on other occasions I would have appreciated just a little more hand-holding. “The Cresting Water,” one of the longer pieces in the collection, ends with a last-minute twist that seems to upend what the reader has been led to believe, but the minimal justification given for this left me feeling confused. At other times, the balance seems tilted a little too far in favor of neatness. The ending of “The Potluck”– a story clearly indebted to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” – suggests small-town life continuing as normal after a horrific event, which its participants know will have to be repeated, but there is something too convenient about the way this is summarized, especially given that the story is narrated by one of the participants who admits to having “devised plans to escape.“ Yet writing fiction of this length–some are flash, some a little longer, though none of them very long–always involves making fine judgments about “completeness” within tight constraints, so it must be to this author’s credit that so few pieces here felt incomplete. 

This is an engaging, sharply observed collection dealing with womanhood and masculinity, grief and recovery, voice and silence. If you are looking for smartly written, inventive stories that find time to be playful and serious, then I heartily recommend.

Want to learn more about Jennifer Fliss’s work? Check out our interview with her.

A Review of Love Letters from an Arsonist by David van den Berg

Setting and self are at the center of David van den Berg’s poetry collection Love Letters from an Arsonist. Van den Berg’s poems are rooted in a southern gothic tone borrowed from generations of people who have been contained by their environment, just like the fantasy creatures he describes lurking in the dark shadows. The metaphysical and mystical are both misfigured by the surroundings of the Florida outskirts as van den Berg tries to process the environments around him: natural, unnatural, and familial. 

The collection is divided into three parts. The first two sections examine the anger in feeling powerless and the immobility found in the South. The third section travels past the self-righteousness of places rooted in traditional values when resisting the benefits of modernization, and moves on to confront the act of self-loathing. Each section excavates and explores loneliness until the only option is to rise above our environment and change the story, rather than continue the same narrative of previous generations.

Salt River Blues is the first section of poems and takes a closer look at the underbelly of what haunts us when reflecting on our monstrous selves. Among immobile people wishing for less enlightened times, it gives a sense that America has moved past the ancient deities—but some immortal legends such as European mythical creatures, voodoo spells, and Lovecraft tales still wander these backroads. There are allusions to this in the title poem of this section, “mudcats sing ‘bout mermaids what grow whiskers and choose tobacco over princes.” Van den Berg’s poems also give the sense of growing up around people pushed to the fringes of commercial society. The men are portrayed as sons of Argonauts, landlocked in trailers, narrating dated folklore around campfires. The women, on the other hand, appear as daughters of Circe who know the unspoken ways of dealing with problems. 

Mythical creatures are pickled and morphed while God drinks moonshine from empty mason jars as we transition into the second section, The Midnight Gospel, which has a more biblical approach with the poet as seeker. Here he is confronting the mystical head on—instead of it being an unknown entity—to explain the surroundings outside mainstream society. As the poet is a seeker on the way to understanding the self, he is no longer looking into the deep pools and caves of myth. Instead, he finds God and ends up disappointed that the almighty is like him, searching for reprieve in shallow liquor glasses. This leads to the realization that we need to face our own flaws. If God is man, then God is fallible. In the poems in this section, God is questioned in bars or whichever dirty dive the deity is found in and the answers received come short and direct like shot glass wisdom. In “Prayer For Peace,”the deity’s response to the question of peace is, “he asked if we had tried killin’ other peoples’ kid”, and“he said maybe if we kept it up we’d figure things out”, while walking off with his drink.

The third section, Pinecone Son, is about learning to lean on ourselves to make the changes we are looking for in life. The title of this section comes from the poem the book is named after. It borrows from Love Letters from an Arsonist’s opening line, “daddy was a wildfire burned hisself inside out / spat out pinecone sons what can only grow in flames’,which define how this section deals with the poet working to replant himself in a nontoxic environment and rise above the smoke screen of others to see the world clearly with his own vision. The poems hereare about breaking the cycle of parental expectations, overcoming the limitations of where we grew up, learning to set expectations for ourselves, and being open to help from strangers. The poem “Fly United”  appreciates a man from the Ivory Coast experiencing and expressing joy on an airplane with his plea, “and if you have that light in you, i ask you now share it just a little more often for those like me who live in darkness and spend our lives without”. “Mithras Rising” is about an unseen stranger helping someone after a night of drinking as “he stumbled out the door at 2 am,” and wakes up on the beach afterwards, discovering“next to the pants he found a full bottle of water and an unopened pack of crackers and on the bottle were three words, written in sharpie: ‘love yourself more’.”It gives the reader a sense that the poet has found a way out of the trap of generational patterns and that he can close the door on the past to start finding peace in the present.

Love Letters from an Arsonist is a poetry collection that can be read multiple times. David van den Berg has put much thought into how these pieces connect, and how they flow together not only as we read them in succession, but even when they are divided across three sections. Each part also portrays stories about where we come from, where we are going, or the consequences of staying immobile at the crossroads of indecision yet circumventing ‘The Fates’ of becoming immortal through passed-down stories. This last part the poet accomplishes by writing about breaking the cycle of family stories to tell our own, and how to cut off from the bad branch of the ancestral tree and not become another infamous character in local lore. 

I would recommend this collection for anyone haunted by their past and in search of their current self. In its whole, Love Letters from an Arsonist is a poetry collection that puts on paper a roadmap of growth for both a poet and a person.

Love Letters from an Arsonist is available now from April Gloaming.

A Review of Black Candle Women by Diane Marie Brown

Black Candle Women is a magical debut by Diane Marie Brown. Over 50 years ago, Augusta, affectionately called Nanagusta by her descendants, is cursed by her angry mentor, Bela Nova. Why? Well, that would be telling, but suffice to say the woman was angry enough to ensure anyone Augusta and her descendants fall in love with dies. Told from the perspectives of all the Montrose women, Augusta (the great grandma), her grandchildren Victoria and Willow, and Victoria’s daughter Nickie, the story switches between modern-day California and flashbacks to Nanagusta’s youth in New Orleans. When Nickie brings home a boy, blissfully unaware of the curse, she sets in motion a chain of events that reveals the secrets and lies cloaking the Montrose women. 

Secrets play a key role in the story, as the thing that the Montrose women believe will protect them. Although Nickie is 17, Victoria never warns her about the curse or fully explains the place of hoodoo in the women’s lives. Willow practices hoodoo behind Victoria’s (“the chosen one”) back, slipping remedies to her sister’s clients to more directly fix their problems. She also brings their estranged mother, Madaleyn, to California, hoping to repair their relationship. Nanagusta perhaps holds the biggest secret of them all—one that, if revealed, would alter her family’s estimation, and perhaps love, for her. Although they are under a literal curse, secrecy and lies become another generational curse as the things that they keep from each other become another means of isolation. 

There is a lot going on in this novel, which I found to be both a strength and a weakness. I loved the elements of family history and betrayal—each woman had their own story, which reveals them to be both different, yet similar in ways they would never guess. All long for companionship, but in doing so, become victims of the curse. This sets a pattern of inheritance that plays along nicely with the idea of curses and family history.

However, the use of multiple perspectives is also a weakness at some points of the story. In alternating so much between characters, it sometimes felt like pieces of each woman’s story were undeveloped. For example, Nickie’s boyfriend, Felix, still feels a little distant to me as a reader. While their relationship plays a prominent role in the book’s events, I did not feel like I saw Felix consistently enough to care too much about him by the point in the story where Nickie fears for his safety. Additionally, much of the past and present events are told in summary, especially Nanagusta’s point of view. As a result, some of her past does not create the impact that it could, especially in the earlier half of the story. Since Nanagusta in the past is vastly different from the great grandmother of the present, it would have been nice to see her more under those terms, especially as her character in the past is key to the curse being cast in the first place. 

Overall, though, this was an imaginative, emotional story in which the love of family triumphs. All the women have their own issues, but together they are able to leave a new legacy: one in which isolation, both physical and metaphorical, is no longer allowed.

A Review of The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei

*SPOILER ALERT* The following review contains plot details about The Deep Sky.

The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei is everything you’d want from a whodunnit murder mystery set on a space station hurtling towards Planet X. Think Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li mixed with Dune by Frank Herbert. The world-building, the mechanics, and cultural nuance, all come together in The Deep Sky.

Asuka has woken up from a decade-long hibernation. Now, deep in space and 11-months into their mission, the monotony of the ship’s routines is setting in. The A, B, and C shifts of sleep, work, and study are starting to wear her thin. Add the complication that Asuka is supposed to be pregnant—very pregnant—by now in order to give birth before arriving on Planet X and this means she’s more than a little stressed. Her shipmates are pregnant, the captain included, but not Asuka. Not yet, and she doesn’t know why.

Asuka spent her early life on Earth training to be one of the chosen members of the Phoenix. Flashbacks throughout the novel give us glimpses of Asuka’s strained relationship with her mother and brother and the trauma that still lingers there. Her mother is a constant in the present narrative because of the letters that the DAR AI is constantly prompting Asuka to read. The novel explores themes and feelings of diaspora because Asuka is Japanese-American yet was chosen to represent Japan, despite not being fluent in the language. The trials and schooling to become one of the elite members of the Phoenix were grueling, and we see the political intrigue and investment of countries such as the US, China, and Japan when preparing the space station’s mission.

With her estranged familial relations, Asuka has sacrificed everything to be part of Phoenix. Readers are plunged into life on the ship by experiencing DAR, Digitally Augmented Reality. When Asuka’s DAR becomes buggy, we see the canvas beneath the virtual reality. White walls, endless sterile halls—the ship is colossal, but without the DAR Asuka starts to notice things, such as damaged dispenser hatches in the medical unit, and she starts to see into other people’s DARs. In a strangely intimate moment, Asuka can see what her shipmates choose to live in, day after day.

Alpha, the ship’s omnipresent AI, is part parental, part therapist, part organizational unit. Alpha is a constant voice in Asuka’s ear, programmed to be entirely confidential, and so Asuka trusts them. She confides in them and would rather speak to Alpha than her weekly therapy sessions.

When a mysterious object is detected on the outside of the ship, Asuka and her shipmate Kat are tasked with a spacewalk, so they go out into the dark. First, they are racing and making the best of life in space. Then, there is an explosion, followed by static, followed by running out of oxygen. Asuka barely makes it back to the ship alive. Others are not so lucky. Now, the Phoenix is damaged and pushed off course, Planet X is drifting further out of reach, and the question of who bombed the ship threatens the success of the mission and the survival of humankind. Asuka is thrust into action to find the bomber before they strike again.

It’s these stakes and the mysteries behind them that kept me reading late into the night. The pacing in this novel builds steadily as relationship tensions unfold and past traumas are triggered. I was keen to follow Asuka in both her past and present timelines in order to discover what was going to happen next. Readers who enjoy the heavy worldbuilding of science-fiction and the fast-paced thrust of a thriller, will not want to miss The Deep Sky.