A Review of A Tide Should Be Able to Rise Despite Its Moon by Jessica Bell

When I first received my copy of A Tide Should Be Able to Rise Despite Its Moon by Jessica Bell, I was taken aback by its lightness—its thin pages, unadorned vocabulary, occasional playfulness, and digestible plethora of one-page poems. Despite that, Bell packs so much feeling, admission, and sincerity in the conciseness of this collection without dancing around the messages she desires to communicate. Threading motherhood and everyday life with the string of struggle on a personal and larger level, the character of the boy becomes central, often directly modeled after Bell’s own son, who inspired her to write this assemblage of poetry, her first in almost a decade. As the boy becomes the mother’s world, so too, does the larger world fluctuate to introduce moments of uncertainty and reflection that pervade this collection of untitled poems. 

That intersection of boy and world emerges from the very beginning. The first poem opens with a peaceful image of nature as a one-line stanza: “A breath of earth hides in shallow water.” But then, the breath can’t hide for long, as Bell writes in the following stanza, “A small boy disrupts its peace as he plucks it / from its bed of black sand / to use as a skipping stone.” Already the boy acts as a force of change. As the skipping stone skids across the body of water, the presence of the mother and father introduces itself later in the poem, but not in the physical sense. In fact, Bell writes, “It lands next to a shell / that shimmers with the dreams / of the boy’s mother and father. // They dreamed he would live in the colours / of a rainbow, and smile. // The boy looks up. // The clouds part.” The connection between boy and world and an accompanying shift reappears in the clouds’ response, but in this final moment of innocence, the uncertainty of the dreams sunken in the water (though it shimmers) lasts beyond the end of the poem. This poem sets up the rest of the book well by encompassing what Bell seeks to explore: the seemingly small, in-between moments of life that hold in their gravity the uprooting of change and the lessons that follow.

Take, for example, the poem on page 30, a poem where the boy is not present, but his attitude and perspective are. Bell begins by writing, “Yucca leaf shadows / spread like fingers / across the balcony. // They yearn for sunshine / and stretch their limbs / toward the scorching light.” With the personification of the yucca leaf shadows, a sense of childlike curiosity exists in the way they grow on the balcony and tend toward the light. Bell eventually establishes tension in the second half of the poem when she writes, “In summer the balcony drowns in shadows, / but not human ones. / In winter it longs to be stroked again, / with their feather-like souls. // Sometimes, / I try to cast mine. // But the trees seem confused, / and the dragon flowers hide.” The speaker shows the same attitude of curiosity when she, too, seeks to cast her shadow as if it were a game, almost a tug-of-war with the yucca leaf shadows. This game, however, fades away due to a lesson remembered in the last stanza: “Humans and nature / are not great collaborators.” Such is an example of how Bell sustains the voice of experience amidst change. 

For poems like the aforementioned, risk abounds in the absence of the son, and the poem may feel disconnected from the rest of the collection. Even with the noticeable, sporadic detachment of a select few poems (like one that focuses on writing after drinking red wine), vulnerability blankets each piece. Bell achieves this through simple, clear language that spotlights her reflections and emotions. The potency of this vulnerability and the structure of some of the poems contribute to the feeling that we readers embody the role of a close friend. The simplicity and clarity of the language never wavers, which left me wondering about missed opportunities for experimentation with more complex language and sentence structures to mirror the intricate reflections lying underneath the surface of each moment. This language, then, can lean toward being too safe, familiar—even occasionally cliché—but this simultaneously nurtures the vulnerability and the reality of motherhood and sheer humanity that is the backbone of Bell and this book. After all, who can deny the love evident in the following lines of the poem on page 49: “He turns to face the window, / pressing his cheek / to my breast. / His baby smell a memory. / Or perhaps…not just yet.”

A Tide Should Be Able to Rise Despite Its Moon fully displays a mother’s honest love as it contends with her growing son, a changing world, and her shifting attitudes and beliefs. While the language left me wanting, this collection of poems still proves resonant in its weaving of themes and emotions, which brings me to a reflection on the book’s front cover. The boy, the sun, and the tidal waves are not as separate as I initially thought. All three rise and fall in one way or another, and they keep doing so as time passes, highlighting a type of change that is more patient, alluding to the little moments that build this change. In the poem on page 41, Bell understands this fact when she writes, “How long does it take / to live in the moment? // One second.” The following question might be, “Do we ourselves understand this?”

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.