"Swift River" by R. C. Binstock

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In Swift River author R. C. Binstock uses the tender, inchoate voice of a young girl to speak for the doomed Swift River Valley in Depression-era Massachusetts. The valley is doomed because the thirsty residents of Boston need water, and the valley – families and farms and factories of long standing – will be inundated when Boston gets its reservoir. The eloquent and plaintive diary entries of Polly form the perfect canvas for witnessing the mounting weight of loss; they are stunning, unforgettable, and captivating. This character and her brave suffering are truly precious inventions, not to be missed.

 Swift River shares with Mr. Binstock’s other work a fearless willingness to cite and decry the greedy or rapacious aspects of human nature. As in his well-received Tree of Heaven, Mr. Binstock never fears to plumb the depths or heroics of human nature. 

In this book, Polly McPhee of the Swift River Valley in Massachusetts starts a diary as she approaches her 12th birthday. A seeming world away in Boston, the state Legislature passes a law that will destroy her farm, her family, and her way of life. Hers and three other towns will be permanently inundated under a new reservoir so that Boston can have water. Polly’s brief but heartrending diary entries propel the story, along with snippets from other sources. If it isn’t always obvious what or who these other sources are, finding out or already knowing the answer is one of the many sources of delight here. One very powerful device drives a certain narrative energy as well: the author sets up a contrast between Polly’s elegiac diary entries and the ponderous, self-satisfied bureaucratese of how Polly and her family will be ground under the state’s heel. 

Polly’s diary entries, which form the book’s main framework, give us a glimpse into a young girl’s mind and heart as her world’s ripped asunder. Loss does form the backdrop for her narrative, but we do see the lively, developing teen and young woman, who blesses the world with her good heart in spite of all the odds stacked against her. In her entries, Mr. Binstock manages unerringly to capture the hope and wonder and fear and daring of this marvelous fictional invention – this Polly. 

The lead character carries the narrative forward, obviously, but she does so in a way that’s equal parts endearing and awe-inspiring. She’s forced into adulthood far too quickly, but at the same time sees the beautiful rural landscape of her home valley, the awkward, mostly unwelcome advances of boys, the blessed community of school, the solace of study, the necessity of chores – all of these she faces with a proud and resourceful innocence that place her in the first rank of characters.  

I have spent a lot of energy on Swift River’s protagonist, and with good reason. It is with Polly’s development that this novel reaches its highest achievement. By no means let this book pass you by. Unreservedly I add it to my pantheon of masterpieces. Take it up!

"Fractured Legacy" by Charles B. Neff

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The ambitions of a jealous, maniacal entrepreneur join tender romance and political trench warfare to give Fractured Legacy its powerful emotional punch. Labeled a thriller and set in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, Legacy doesn’t boast the heart-pumping suspenseful denouement of many thrillers, but instead concludes in equal parts romance and realism. Its thrills derive from the drama of underfunded and less-powerful forces taking on the high and mighty. Its touching and hopeful nature flows from an unexpected chance at love between two very unlikely people. These characteristics take nothing away from this book’s thrilling nature; in fact, they definitely enhance it.

In one thread, Jeff and Sara Winter’s marriage appears doomed: since injuring his hip, Jeff isn’t able to help run their outdoor adventure business, and sharp, decisive Sara has lost patience. She meets powerful businessman Grant Tomson, with whom she begins to hatch a plan for a new venture, and doesn’t worry about its possible effect on Jeff. However, this all occurs after the apparently accidental death of Grant’s twin Will, and the halting, unproductive police investigation that follows. The most intriguing character here, and the one with the most intimate and sympathetic story is Bebe Sorensen, curator of a museum in town, who helps the police investigation, and discovers a world of romantic possibility in the process. Some citizens suspect Grant of subterfuge and much worse, and resolve to halt his development ambitions for an idyllic wilderness lake, and his reaction to this threat is a main driver in the story.

I try never to speculate on other work that an author may undertake, or what he or she intends, but Fractured Legacy has the definite feel of something to be followed up with a sequel. The first-blush realization of the nature of the businessman/developer has not resulted in anything but dark suspicion.
No building has proceeded in the wilderness, no land-grab has occurred, and romantic realization for one couple and possible rapprochement for another are still to come.  If there is a follow-up volume, I definitely want it, because I definitely want a chance to see these characters through.

This book has outstanding pace, exceptionally realistic political infighting, and a highly appealing budding romance. Of all things in a thriller, I expected only the pacing; I did not bargain for the other pleasures. Indeed, this book has a great deal to offer the discerning reader, and I for one am not ashamed or embarrassed to hope for a sequel. Rewarding, crisply done, top flight. Highly recommended.  

"When Mystical Creatures Attack!" by Kathleen Founds

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When Mystical Creatures Attack! won this year’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa, and it’s damn easy to see why. The writing is a splendid and arresting combination of irreverence, counterculture rebellion, and gallows humor. It portrays a Catholic upbringing – complete with nuns – in the heart of Texas, which as I always suspected, is another country altogether.  It also deals with juvenile delinquency, unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, mental illness, and suicide. In case you were thinking its humor makes it light reading.

These short pieces are linked very closely together, moreso than usual in a short fiction collection, although they can certainly be read independently. The experience would be very different in that case, although not as deep or affecting. I have to honor and thank the Simmons award committee for singling out this multifarious work, because it clearly, clearly deserves the recognition. Besides all the adjectives above, in main it’s a moving, disturbing, topical collection.

The narrative threads follow Laura, an inexperienced high school English teacher in her early 20s, and her student Janice, whom Laura calls “a feral raccoon devoid of impulse control,” in honor of her excessive eye shadow. The two are not enemies, however, or even adversaries, for very long. They unfortunately share too many toxic and alienating influences in their lives: distant and/or suicidal mothers, deep and dangerous problems with men, drug use – in Laura’s case, coerced, in Janice’s, not so much. These two vivid creations come packaged up in a raucous, rebellious, frightening, hysterically funny set of stories.

And the stories are worth every bit of their award.  Consider the fanciful: a giant squid that hugs you until your unwanted pregnancy goes away, a wood nymph who could save the environment, a wax figure battle at a museum that pits George Washington against Moses. Or the plain bizarre: Laura is confined to a psychiatric treatment program in which she must try to earn negotiable “Wellness Points™” which purport to measure her progress, but are really punitive and counterproductive. Consider the all-too-real: young women trying to navigate through a universe that might be indifferent if it weren’t so treacherous. Through all the wisecracks and comic effects, Mystical Creatures has a serious, compassionate soul, and I am quite impressed. Do take it up, you won’t regret it for a minute.

"The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons" by Heather A. Slomski

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Congratulations to Heather A. Slomski for winning the Iowa Short Fiction Award this year for The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons. This collection amply shows Ms. Slomski’s talent in her craft, and her deep expertise around the human heart. She renders a series of tableaux in a melancholy palette, but always combines subtly new hues from one story to the next. While it’s a careful balancing act, there’s also a highly assured quality to all the entries, and a ranging ambition: to illuminate subtle tells between lovers, to aspire to fairy tale, and to plumb the depths of serious delusion.

There are fascinating entries here: the woman whose lover returns to her in the form of a cricket – or that’s her belief, anyway; the retail clerk who converses with, and offers to run off with, a store mannequin. Some snippets capture the seemingly inevitable strife between two strangers, particularly the brief “Octaves,” while others deal with the issue in a lengthier form, especially “The Neighbors.” The finest entry in the collection, “Corrections,” a highly satisfying and beautiful story, captures a couple’s halting, ineffective attempts at intimacy, using the stunning symbolism of Douglas Miller’s drawings. 

This is a series of stories written in the key of the blues, but without music’s cathartic release. They show unerringly the clumsy and short-sighted self-interest that thwarts love’s connecting impulse. What’s left is simply loneliness. Sensitive, observant, and thought-provoking in the extreme, this collection adds Heather A. Slomski’s very able stories to all the other prize winning short fiction emerging from the University of Iowa.