Category: Reviews

Midwestern Gothic Issue 23 (Fall 2016)

Midwestern Gothic Issue 23 Fall 2016It’s that time of year, when Midwestern Gothic goes all nonfiction for an entire issue. It’s flooded from cover to cover with essays and creative nonfiction inspired by the Midwest.

This time around, it’s a little more unique. It’s our last quarterly issue! Next year, we’re going semi-annual, and also featuring nonfiction in every edition of the journal. We’re super excited to be able to share some amazing nonfiction work on a more regular basis, and also a little nostalgic at the change. The magazine has looked a certain way and come out on a certain schedule for over five years. But now we’ll be able to share the beauty of the Midwest in new ways, and also create more room for MG Press titles, which we’re also super geeked about.

To commemorate the event, I’ll share an excerpt from one of my favorites from Issue 23, “Off Trail” by Dave Essinger, about a Midwesterner doing a trail run in the Montana Rockies.

The end-all be-all goal for the typical road marathoner is the Boston Marathon, and that summer I was training obsessively to qualify, because it’s the one big marathon you can’t just sign up for. For decades Boston has been limited to those who meet tough age-based qualifying times at another marathon, and I needed to take a good twelve minutes off my previous best time to make the cut. I’d started a very aggressive training plan; Alice was already easily qualified by the women’s standard, and I was determined not to have to navigate our daughter’s stroller through the epic Boston crowds of spectators while Mommy ran the race.

Twenty miles of treacherous trail was no part whatsoever of this training plan. So what exactly was I doing on this trail, on this mountain, a thousand miles from home, with an ankle growing plumper and more purple by the minute? A road-runner perilously far from any road? What part of me had thought this would be a good idea, or a fun thing to do?

Trying to answer takes me back at least ten years. I had lived in Bozeman, more by circumstance than by design, for a few months after college, and had heard of this “insane race over the mountain, that’s like fifteen miles, and everyone who finishes is just all beat up, as in, bleeding everywhere.” Naturally, my reaction then was, I want to do that, but being in rotten physical shape at the time (college the way I attended it will do that to you), and not suicidal or at least not that energetically so, I thought nothing more of it then.

Shop for Midwestern Gothic Issue 23: Fall 2016 Now!

Star Wars: Chewbacca and Princess Leia Review

Star Wars: ChewbaccaStar Wars: Chewbacca – 2 of 5 Stars
Headed into this book, I was curious to see how they’d treat dialog from the titular character. It seemed like it’d be tough to keep the signature wookie roars and not have it get in the way of the story.

Turns out, that’s just what happened.

As a secondary character, Chewie’s dialog is both endearing and comic relief. We can fill in the blanks for him, or let whoever he’s sharing the scene with translate for us. In a main character role, it gets a little repetitive when Zarro, the plucky girl Chewbacca befriends, has to hold up both ends of the conversation.

Plenty is lost in translation, however. For instance, I had to re-read the first few pages a couple of times to figure out why Chewie was even helping Zarro with her plan to escape the larvae mines with her father and eventually prevent the Empire from gaining a foothold on her planet.

Chewie never really gets elevated above hired muscle status – he’s big, hairy, and knows how to fight. That’s about it.

Star Wars: Princess LeiaStar Wars: Princess Leia – 4 of 5 Stars
Leia’s one shot takes place immediately after the medal ceremony in Episode IV, where we find out helping to destroy the Death Star isn’t quite enough to earn a woman respect, even in the Star Wars universe. Her people think she’s an “ice princess” because she didn’t shed a tear over Alderaan, or even her mother and father’s death.

Leia’s struggle to embrace her heritage and win over what remains of her people serves as the main arc of the comic, as she travels the galaxy to find pockets of Alderaanians before the Empire can hunt them down and wipe them all out.

Some are naïve and lost in their new harsh world. Some are cynical and racist. Some are mixed race, and unsure about their identity.

This was probably one of my favorite entries into the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It explored how Leia balances her sense of duty, femininity, desire for adventure, and royal upbringing in a practical way that’s messy and imperfect. You begin to see how these types of experiences help shape and transform her into General Organa in later episodes.

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Meditations, Anti-Fragile, and The Skeleton Tree: Rapid Fire Book Reviews

Meditations by Marcus AureliusMeditations by Marcus Aurelius: 4 of 5 Stars
This book is short, compact, and filled with so many lessons that a 2nd reading is probably necessary. Some lines need to be read several times in order to extrapolate their meaning and apply it to the here and now of your life. The letters penned by the aging Roman Emporer were never intended to be read by anyone. But this density also comes from clarity of thinking paired with lack of context. Some work needs to be done to connect musings from the battlefield to personal development, business, or whatever you choose to apply them to. But once you do, you’ll find the wisdom from hundreds of years ago is just as applicable today.

Anti-Fragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: 5 of 5 stars
If approached with an open mind, this book is one of the rarities that can physically shift your ideology and broaden your place on the political spectrum.

The main message of the book is that we need to build ourselves and our systems (financial, political, cultural, you name it) to be antifragile. Meaning, we embrace conflict and small shocks to the system, because it ultimately makes everything stronger. Delaying or trying to prevent these conflicts only creates negative “black swan” events, like the 2008 financial crisis.

The print is small, the book is dense, and some of the concepts are tough to wrap your head around. But nowhere have I seen the case for anti-interventionism and eliminating the tendency to fear failure so thoroughly and effectively argued.

The Skeleton Tree by Iain LawrenceThe Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence: 4 of 5 Stars
I received an advance review copy of this book from the author’s agent at the Chicago Women in Publishing event. When they described it as “Hatchet-like,” I was instantly positively triggered and would have bought it immediately.

While Hatchet sets a high bar, the Skeleton Tree carves out its own tale incorporating themes about family, boy vs. wilderness, and even elements of supernatural lore from the Pacific Northwest.

I enjoyed that the story balanced the line between giving the two shipwrecked boys just the right mix of luck, personal growth, and perseverance necessary to survive. The author believably set up ways for the boys to scavenge through junk on the beach, struggle to find food, and survive encounters with the wild.

I passed this book on to my son with little hesitation, as I know he’ll enjoy this archetypal survival tale with its own set of twists.

Book Review: Lords of the Sith

Lords of the Sith2 of 5 stars

This was my first foray into the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, after checking out two of the graphic novels. Lords of the Sith takes place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, after the fist of the Empire has closed around the galaxy and the seeds of the rebellion are being sown.

This story is about Darth Vader’s reputation being born. People have heard the name, but have yet to take the measure of the man. Throughout the book, he accomplishes unbelievable feats with the Force, some with the aid of the Emporer. But since the Emperor only uses his significant power in secret, the credit for all of these feats serves to build Vader’s legend.

The entire book centers around a planned attempt on the Emporer and Vader’s life by a band of freedom fighters on Rythos. A remote spice planet that has changed owners often, but never had its own independence. The novel is a fast read, because nearly 75% of it is told at the pitched pace of the attack.

Unfortunately, that’s the novel’s primary weakness. When everything is frenetic and action-packed, nothing is. There’s very little character development (and what is there has little to do with the story) and a plot that’s fairly straightforward, (rebels attack, have to change their plans, fail, succeed, fail, succeed, etc.). Aside from being set in the Star Wars universe and being Star Wars action-porn, there’s not a whole lot to this novel.

Hopefully, my next foray into the universe will contain more than blaster fire and light-sabers.

Buy Lords of the Sith

Happy Pub Day to The Good Divide!

The Good Divide by Kali VanBaaleMy first thought after reading the manuscript for this book was “I’ll regret it if we don’t get to publish this.”

Luckily, Kali VanBaale was just as excited to trust us with her work. After lots of time love and energy, thanks in no small part to Robert James Russell, as always, Michelle Webster-Hein, Jessica Dewberry, Lauren Crawford, and the rest of the Midwestern Gothic team, The Good Divide is finally able to be read.

In the lush countryside of Wisconsin, Jean Krenshaw is the ideal 1960’s dairy farm wife. She cooks, sews, raises children, and plans an annual July 4th party for friends and neighbors. But when her brother-in-law Tommy, who lives next door, marries leery newcomer Liz, Jean is forced to confront a ten-year-old family secret involving the unresolved death of a young woman.

With stark and swift prose, The Good Divide explores one woman’s tortured inner world, and the painful choices that have divided her life, both past and present, forever.

“VanBaale presents a vivid portrait of one woman’s lifelong struggle to find peace with what she has rather than what she desires. Fiction doesn’t get more real than this.”
Publishers Weekly

“[VanBaale] creates an intriguing story that handles difficult topics as well as a narrative of struggle and conflict in a skillfully crafted nonlinear timeline.”
—Morghen Tidd, Cultured Vultures

“Spine-chilling.”
—Kelly Fordon, The Common

“VanBaale’s precise prose and esoteric Midwestern stoicism makes The Good Divide a delightful read.”
—Aram Mrjoian, Book Riot

Shop for The Good Divide Now

Ghost County by John McCarthy

Ghost County by John McCarthyWe launched a new poetry collection!

MG Press only puts out one or two books a year. So when one does get published, it feels extra special because we’re super-selective about the manuscripts we move forward with, and because we put so much energy into each title.

Ghost County by John McCarthy is his debut, but you wouldn’t know if you read it or see him read live. His energy floods the pages and saturates the air when he breathes a meditation on traversing the midwest in a pickup truck to life.

Here’s some of the early press it’s been getting:

“In John McCarthy’s arresting debut, the middle of America reveals itself to be a belly full of opportunities and frustrations.” —Adrian Matejka, author of The Big Smoke

Ghost County…is a book that never stops opening up.”
–Adam Clay, author of Stranger and Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World

“[I]n these gritty poems, McCarthy exposes a grimmer reality tainted by drugs, alcohol, poverty, and violence. [T]his is a hardscrabble life where time stretches past into future, back into the past, and all seems predetermined to remain the same. McCarthy’s poems pay close attention to a darker middle life, and they do not flinch.”
—Sandy Longhorn, author of The Alchemy of My Mortal Form

Check out Ghost County by John McCarthy

Book Review: Lonely Planet New Zealand’s South Island

Lonely Planet New Zealand's South Island Travel Guide4 out of 5 stars

I’ve never used a guidebook to plan a trip.

Granted, I haven’t done a multi-destination international trip since high school, where every step was already plotted out for me. My first instinct was to go to the internet.

Before barely any time at all, I was paralyzed.

There were too many sites. Too many options. Too many different perspectives. I spent days poking around without making any real decisions.

A few days later, I had lunch with a friend who had just visited New Zealand for two-weeks. She introduced me to several guidebooks she and her sister used to plan something that was the envy of everyone she knew on social media.

I decided to narrow my sources down to three things. The Lonely Planet Travel Guides, NZFree Guides, and a Lord of the Rings resource for movie locations.

First up: The Lonely Planet New Zealand’s South Island Travel Guide. It’s over 600 pages filled with tips on activities, places to stay, and things to eat. This book has a little bit of everything for all the major regions and cities of note in New Zealand, with short 3-4 line write-ups of each. You won’t really get a good sense of the place from this limited info, and there are precious few pictures. It still left me with way too many options, but at least I had narrowed it down to a few dozen points of interest.

Each region has a quick visualization of the 8-10 highlights it has to offer. The book makes it easy to quickly get a feel for what each one is about (Queensland: Adventure. Fiordlands: Jaw-dropping Mountains.).

I didn’t use any of the recommendations on places to stay and eat (I’m planning on using Air BnB), but there were hundreds. The back half of the book was a super helpful logistical guide – what outlets they use, what time of year to visit, how to avoid causing an international incident on the island, etc.

With my list of “maybes”, I can dig in further on the internet and the other books. The ZNFree South Island book will help me make sure I don’t miss any “off the beaten” path sights.

My end goal is to plot everything on a map, see where my clusters of ideas are, and then plan my 5-6 days on the South Island around that.

Buy Lonely Planet New Zealand’s South Island

Book Review: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko4 out of 5 stars

And now, for something completely different.

I’ve been bingeing on Tim Ferriss’ podcast for a few months now (Seth Godin and Scorpion founder Walter O’Brien will straight up blow your mind). Every episode he asks his guests which books have been most influential to them, and which one they give most often as gifts.

The result – I’ve got a huge backlog of non-fiction books to pore through. This one isn’t your standard NYT-bestseller-with-esoteric-title-and-person-in-mid-power-move cover.

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need reads like a manga, but without the backwards panels and page turns. It’s a quick read. For folks about to start their careers, it’s invaluable reading. Though without context, it may be hard for some of the situations and lessons to resonate.

This book is perfect for mid-level to senior professionals, who are probably hitting that 7-year-itch and asking themselves – why the hell am I doing all this?

For these nine-to-five warriors, the story arcs and illustrative examples Diana, a magical Asian genie of sorts, helps Johnny work through will seem pulled straight out of corporate America. The lessons are stripped down to their most essential parts. There is little waste and all the analogies are crystal clear.

For those who already have a healthy perspective on work and work-life balance, this book might feel superficial. But a refresher can never hurt. There may be something in the book that reinvigorates and inspires you. Or, you may only take one of the lessons away as valuable. Given how fundamental these notions are to happiness and career, just one lesson would be well-worth the price of admission.

Buy The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need

Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters

Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters4 out of 5 stars

I’m usually not a horror guy.

However, when a Dark House Press title showed up on my doorstep, I decided it was as good of a time as any to try something unusual.

“In this haunting and hypnotizing novel, a young woman loses everything–half of her body, her fiancé, and possibly her unborn child–to a terrible apartment fire. While recovering from the trauma, she discovers a photo album inhabited by a predatory ghost who promises to make her whole again, all while slowly consuming her from the inside out.”

Paper Tigers echoed The Others for me. DECADE OLD SPOILER ALERT: A protagonist caught in what they perceive is a haunted house. In reality, they are the intruders, the ones disturbing the undead. Walters doesn’t use the shocking twist, though. She gives her broken main character agency and uses the house as a metaphor for Alison’s struggle to heal herself.

The standout in this book was the authenticity, as much as you can have authenticity in a story about a predatory ghost trying to trap someone in a photo album. Alison’s introversion as a result of her horrifying scars felt incredibly crippling. The need to recharge alone after something so simple as taking a few steps outside. The desire to avoid human contact, even with someone you love dearly.

I particularly enjoyed the nuanced relationship with her mother, who had her own struggle between wanting to help Allison return to some version of the person she was before and failing to respect her daughters need for space and time to process.

While I appreciate a good surprise as much as anyone, Paper Tigers felt like it could have ended earlier. Without spoiling the end of the book, the main storyline that had already come to a close felt like a false ending. In the case of Paper Tigers, I think Walters didn’t go surprising enough, instead trying to rekindle story out of an otherwise satisfying ending.

Walters prose sucks you in with vivid descriptions that build setting around all the senses. The smell of tobacco, the tautness of scar tissue: many times I found myself simply enjoying the picture she was painting. In a critical scene near the end of the book, Walters delivers masterfully on what I expect horror to be – unsettling, uncomfortable, and placing a character on that delicate knife edge of escape and completely losing themselves.

As a casual horror fan, I found a lot to enjoy in this novel.
Buy Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters

Kickstart Gamut Magazine

Gamut Magazine

Past Midwestern Gothic contributor, consummate horror writer, editor extraordinaire and all-around good guy Richard Thomas is starting a new magazine I’m stoked about: Gamut.

Gamut is an online magazine of neo-noir, speculative and literary fiction, with writers like Stephen Graham Jones, Laird Barron, Brian Evenson, Usman T. Malik, Matt Bell, Damien Angelica Walters, and Letitia Trent already on board.

Before he can do that though, it needs to be Kickstarted. Why? Because he’s planning on publishing an absolute boatload of content (400K words) plus artwork, and wants to pay artists for all their work.

I can’t think of any better reason to justify raising money, especially if folks get four hefty novels worth of work that Richard has hand-selected as a bonus.

Rewards start as low as you want, but a measly thirty bucks gets you a subscription for the whole year, which is pretty awesome.

Why are you still here? Go do it!

Kickstart Gamut Magazine