Other Voices Bookshelf

by Stacy Bierlein

Appears in Other Voices #36

Review of No Thanks and Other Stories by Sarah Jane Smith

New Issues Poetry and Prose


When we think of Michigan, we think immediately of the deep blue “small seas” that surround it. Michigan has more lake shoreline than any other state, thanks to 10,083 inland lakes, as well as the Great Lakes. It is near the shores of these smaller, rougher, inland lakes—some said to be bottomless, others said to have bottoms like quicksand—most Michiganders find themselves living and loving.

In Sarah Jane Smith’s No Thanks and Other Stories, Clara becomes our guide to rural southwestern Michigan’s Magician Lake community, to people at once aroused and destroyed by the land around them. Her mother, Valerie, devotes herself to the farmland she inherited, and the madness it inspires within her. “We should have never left Saginaw,” Clara’s father remarks on more than one occasion. He seems to be saying, nothing in that environment consumed us; I knew who we were in that place.

Clara feels the same pull to her family’s land. Nothing—her mother’s suicide, her father’s alleged indifference, her new life three hundred miles away—can make her leave it entirely. “I can name all the weeds in Michigan” she says, “the wildflowers that grow in the pastures, beside the lake and the channel backhoed through the huckleberries. I know the voices of crows…the flowering crabapple.” Like Valerie, Clara understands that the land is her soul.

The magnetic force of place startles, wounds, then reappears. “Stars touched the woods. The moon seemed like a stilled boomerang, and the sky dragged by it. I hurled my body through the fields. Corn shucks straggled in the wind. I clutched at the corn and ran, the cobs like posts in my hands… There was (the mare), plunging into the water. No. My mother was dissolving into the still, silvery lake.” So tension brings new boundaries. Relationships ebb away.

The twelve linked stories in this debut collection prove vivid and relentless, full of clarity. Each presents, resists, and ultimately resigns to the idea of lives reinvented. Smith takes a deep look into family, the way people, like bodies of water, must shift and change to survive.

Stand out stories like “No Thanks,” “My Father Weeping,” and “Metamorphose, Oboe” vibrate with emotional intensity. Each seems to weigh more than its predecessor, to remind readers of an essential, compact power of short fiction—the reason we breathe long and hard at the end of certain works, return to them again and again, and selfishly ask their author for more.



Review of The Way Home by Allison Johnson, Five Star Press


The title of The Way Home, a first novel by journalist Allison Johnson, refers to the idea that going home is the only way to mend old wounds. Johnson whirls us through the wind farms of Southern California’s Palm Desert, into the life and homeland of Carolyn Sayles, a thirty-seven-year-old financial analyst.

Carolyn’s ailing father, Edgar, provides the novel’s forward momentum and most vibrant scenes. When Edgar bites an aide during dinner at Desert Rose Retirement Home, Carolyn is called from her high-power job in Los Angeles to collect him. Instead of feeling embarrassed by his behavior, Edgar seems thrilled for the possibility of his daughter’s attention. Edgar is not troubled, so much as trapped and bored. A casino-bound escape from Desert Rose proves, to his great regret, his only impressive ramble.

The charming, elderly, present-day Edgar provides an interesting contrast to the father of Carolyn’s memories—a distant, drinking man she could not force herself to love. With Edgar stirring her emotions, Carolyn grieves again the loss of her mother, and realizes how close she’d come to losing track of her own history. When her efforts to relocate Edgar to an alternate retirement home fail, she must move her life to his, her present to her past.

Throughout the story, desert heat demands the true Carolyn. “Cicadas buzzed in nearby trees, electric, alive…as the desert released something from within her.” The tough, no-nonsense, practical businesswoman she had forced herself to become in Los Angeles fades into a mischievous, innocent girlishness. Friends attach instantly to this new/old Carolyn, especially Rex, a cowboy turned windsmith, her unlikely and inevitable new interest.

Although Rex believes in their union immediately, it takes him some time to get through to Carolyn. At first she tries to convince herself that “star gazing and slow dancing make one lose perspective, and she couldn’t afford that right now.” Their moving into love is more a slow glide than a fall. In fact, readers attracted by the words “contemporary romance” on the book jacket may find themselves impatient, surprised at times by the shyness of these adult lovers.

As Carolyn salvages a relationship with her father, Rex reconnects with his estranged children. The landscape seems to make all kinds of love and healing possible. Their lives link and expand. “Like the coils in (a woven) basket…the circle they made was inescapable.” Carolyn and Rex remain aware of mountains in the reachable distance; of Tahquitz Canyon, named for a temperamental Indian spirit who can be heard as the wind.

And windmills keep turning. “You get a great view from the nacelle—the housing at the top,” Rex says. “Feels almost like you’re flying.” For anyone who has ever driven the desert and been held in awe by the sight of wind farms, the miles of perfectly spaced white mills, more than four thousand of them, turning in what we can only perceive as harmony, this novel is a must-read.



Review of Killer Stuff by Sharon Fiffer, St. Martin’s Minotaur


In Killer Stuff, Sharon Fiffer surrounds us with vibrant, visual objects—glass frogs, ceramic dogs, stoneware jugs, maroon flowerpots, brass drawer pulls, hand-tinted post cards, ivory plaques, Bakelite buttons, old manual typewriters. She leaves readers so engaged with the poetry of these items, that she might skip storytelling altogether, leave us floating in this intriguing world of stuff. But a story emerges, strong, intricate, and expertly crafted, as a woman is murdered, as poetry becomes mystery.

Killer Stuff is Fiffer’s first novel, and the debut of hero Jane Wheel. Spunky and determined, Jane leaves her career in advertising to become a “picker:” an antiques hunter. She canvases estate sales and flea markets from her current home in suburban Chicago to her childhood home in Kankakee. It’s more than the stuff, Jane tells her father. “It’s the gold rush, the hunt.” Of course, in any hunt, there is choreography, the stalking, and an element of danger.

Jane finds her friend and neighbor, Sandy, dead in her own living room. Other neighbors recall Jane kissing Jack, Sandy’s husband, at a recent dinner party, and point to her as the number one suspect. Before Jane returns to the sales to find vintage Nancy Drew volumes, she must become a sort of adult modern-day Nancy herself.

With a vibrant cast of characters around her, including Detectives Oh and Miles, a flirtatious salvage dealer, a strange dog, her best friend Tim and his colleagues, and her parents, Jane searches out evidence, but the case becomes more bizarre and complex when a second dead body appears. Though all of this, Jane soothes herself with the safety of objects. “Cunning little doorknobs… They felt like cool metal eggs in your hand… When you looked at them dead on, they looked like the punctuation mark of a new language.”

She recalls the way her husband looked around their antique-filled kitchen and said, “How am I to compete with all of this?” In the middle of an estate sale, she realizes how right he had been to feel jealous. “The lust began low in her body and rose up, giving her arms a prickly, itchy sensation and reddening her cheeks. She ran her hand over the rosewood marimba, fingered each sharply cut prism in a box filled with lamp parts.”

As Sandy’s killer comes within reach, there is one element of this mystery for which Jane may not find a complete answer—the kiss. She cannot be sure if she leaned into Jack that night, or if Jack initiated the kiss on his own. She kissed him not from attraction, she realizes, but curiosity. Did her curiosity stem from a charm that Jack emanated, or from the beauty of the antique knives and trays surrounding him in the kitchen? So strong her obsession with things, and the unknowable history of their original owners, the other lives these things have decorated.

Fiffer details Jane’s obsession in the wise, vivid, and exciting prose for which she is known. With great physicality, spirited and openhearted characters, and a distinctive voice, she leaves readers anticipating the next Jane Wheel adventure.



Review of Soul Resin by C.W. Cannon, FC2


Soul Resin, the edgy debut novel by C.W. Cannon, resists classification. Historical novel, horror story, political mystery, Southern gothic, social commentary, love story—it seems all of these things, yet fits none of these categories exactly. Radical and resistant, this work is a welcome and stunning collision of forms. The novel begins with a footnote, the Mississippi rising, and our introduction to the concept “we now know to call soul resin.”

Mills Loomis Mills, a history-obsessed college drop out, stirs intuition into his research and arrives at a startling, horrific discovery—the arcane language of spilled blood. “It’s about the chemical make-up of shed blood and how it metamorphoses after… Some human mind dies by bleeding.” The bitter state of mind of the dying bleeder affects the blood, “prepares it, and also chains the soul in place and time.” After several decades, “the blood cycle is over, and a residue remains.” This residue can survive centuries if the original blood was not touched or molested by human hands. Soul resin is “like oil, a fossil fuel.”

So we follow Mills to historical landmarks and murder scenes, watch him instill fear in those around him. Mills never doubts his findings. (Research…toil, he says. What Ecclesiastes says our life is.”) Distinct sounds and smells continue to prove soul resin’s existence. “It sounds like moving air, like the rumbling sighs of trucks on a highway you didn’t realize was there.”

Locating soul resin requires Mills’ reckless determination. Noisy, pissed-off, anxious souls inhabit the New Orleans night. “You have to be able to shut these voices out and listen for the blood itself.” And these souls aren’t regular ghosts. “Regular ghosts are bloodless…freer to roam.” Mills comes to realize few people will brave the search or “smell the core of a night’s darkness and the blood and its coy lisping whispers there and what it can do.” He says, “It’s me or nobody. So it’s me.”

Mills’ story unfolds in three days, looks at one hundred and fifty years of Southern history, and comes to the reader in an expertly crafted assemblage. Letters his girlfriend wrote pre-death, excerpts from articles by Professor Rafe Vidrine, musings of a soul named Jessamine Marie DuClous Bascomb, the obituary of young Lucius Holt, song lyrics from Johnny Cash, and even reports from a guy named Charles Cannon, compliment, challenge, and expand upon Mills’ narration. The result is truly haunting.

At first, Soul Resin seems representative of the postmodern spirit. It travels zones between the real and unreal (or so we suspect) in a sort of discordant harmony, in a fine disregard for boundaries. Yet, in the end, the postmodern label is another that doesn’t work exactly. Everything reverberates, real and consequential. Ultimately, Mills demands truths from New Orleans’ convoluted histories. And these truths will continue to impress readers, long after they’ve put the book down.