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Voices That Need to Be Heard

CBR_Logo2“It’s getting down to crunch time.”

So says Jeff Pfaller, cofounder of Midwestern Gothic, a journal “dedicated to featuring work about or inspired by the Midwest, by writers who live or have lived here.” Pfaller is talking about the 2015 Voices of the Middle West literary festival, a one-day event cohosted by MG and University of Michigan’s Residential College.

Middle_West_Logo_hiresThis is the second year of the festival, which this year will be held March 21 in Ann Arbor. The festival originated in a brainstorming session with some of the journal’s interns. Pfaller and the MG staff instantly loved the idea. “It sounded phenomenal and right up our alley,” he says. “It just made a lot of sense as a natural extension of our mission.”

With its mission to generate conversation about Midwestern voices and shine a spotlight on the region, the lit fest has proved a terrific avenue to do just that. The festival will bring together authors and readers, writers and publishers, and students and faculty from the University of Michigan. Among the day’s events are various panels about publishing and writing, storytelling sessions, an open mic event, and a keynote address from award-winning author Stuart Dybek, a writer and poet whose latest works include Ecstatic Cahoots, Paper Lantern: Love Stories, and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. Dybek, who is Writer in Residence at Northwestern University, will be joined during the day by a variety of literary folk, including Peter Ho Davies, Laura Kasischke, and Marcus Wicker.

Portrait Stuart Dybek

Author Stuart Dybek, 2015 Voices of the Middle West keynoter

In addition to featuring a number of Midwestern authors, Voices of the Middle West will highlight the work of a variety of local and regional publishers. Attendees can browse the pop-up bookfair, which will include exhibitors from such journals as BathHouse Journal, Fortnight, and Michigan Quarterly Review as well as publishers Curbside Splendor, Dzanc Books, and Switchgrass Books, among others.

Also featured during the festival will be 826Michigan, a nonprofit writing center with which MG partnered to publish Tell Me How It Was, an anthology of stories written by middle school students. It’s a project that is near and dear to MG’s heart, Pfaller says, not least of which because it provides a venue for young writers to be heard.

“Someone in middle school gets to say they’re a published author,” Pfaller notes. “These are thirteen-year-old kids. We got some stories about sports heroes and everyday things, and we also got students who were commenting on bigger events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. They were nuanced, funny, and heartbreaking stories. We were really happy with what came out of the project.”

The anthology will be launched during an afternoon session, and it is just one of the projects that will be highlighted during the day. In fact, Voices of the Middle West is designed to expose readers to the work that is coming out of the region, whether literary journal, indie press, micro press, or university press, whether print or digital. Pfaller and the MG crew believe that the time is right for just such exposure.

“There’s been a renaissance in Midwestern literature in the past several years,” Pfaller says. “Several presses and publications are focusing on it. More authors and writers are happy to identify that they’re from the Midwest.”

It’s a theme that seems to resonate with authors, writers, publishers, and readers alike. Last year’s festival attracted about a thousand attendees, and attendance is expected to double this year. That’s due not only to more publicity and some great word-of-mouth marketing but also to the fact that this year’s bookfair is double the size of last year’s and because the festival has attracted panelists from across the country.


Attendees browse and mingle at the pop-up bookfair

The event also attracts attendees from far and wide. Although most attendees are locals—fans of Ann Arbor’s thriving literary scene—Voices of the Middle West attracts folks from across Michigan, from Wisconsin, and from the Chicago area.

Voices of the Middle West is a “celebration of the Midwest voice,” and it seems to be tapping into an audience hungry for writing with local flavor that appeals to readers of all tastes. In bringing together a stellar collection of writers, poets, and publishers—and readers, of course—the festival is helping to build the literary community in the region. It’s one that Pfaller says is ready for some attention.

“It’s a thriving, vibrant community with so many presses in the area,” he says. “It’s a great community. The audience is already ripe for it. Hopefully this will show that the Midwest has a lot to offer.”

—Kelli Christiansen

Voices of the Middle West runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 21 at University of Michigan, East Quadrangle, 701 E. University Ave., Ann Arbor. For information, visit

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Fantasy? Or Formula?

CBR_Logo2Chicago, The Windigo City
A Novel
by Mark Everett Stone

Mark Everett Stone delivers an action-packed espionage thriller, or so the cover of Chicago, The Windigo City claims. While the fourth installment in the “Files of the BSI Series” does in fact speed right along, the novel falls short of a thriller rating and even shorter of originality.

Everett’s star character, Agent Kal Hakala, narrates a small portion of Everett’s story, handing the storytelling over many times to friends, colleagues, and a faerie who’s come to warn the Bureau of Supernatural Investigations of humanity’s impending doom via otherworldly cannibals. These Windigo creatures (after whom the book is named) don’t make an actual appearance until very late in the novel. The narration falters quickly as chicago windigoit jumps through centuries of time, back again and forward again with a few pages in between, and a new narrator at every turn.

First, the agents fight werewolves, then bad faeries and many unnamed alien-like creatures. Alien-like because their origins are rarely discussed in detail. They explode into the scene, fangs dripping, sores seeping, and hunger raging. They are the epitome of fear and strength, surely the most formidable foe ever to threaten mankind. Just as quickly, they exit without much more than a swing of a hunting knife by the hero. The novel forgets them until the hero needs an ego stroke, recounting their acts of Herculean strength to newbies in the agency, or just to themselves when bored and reminiscing. But the novel treks on and, with the token apocalyptic doom approaching, best friends Kal and Canton fight alongside witches to save the fate of humanity.

If a reader should decide to pick up this novel in hopes of learning more about Chicago, those hopes would be in vain as less than half of the setting involves the “Windigo City.” This novel skips over the architecture, the diverse neighborhood life, the food, and even the sandy beaches of the real Windy City. In brief scenes that enter Washington Heights, Chicago seems a stinky afterthought—a city whose smells can’t be forgotten, apparently because the stench of the city is the only sensory description given, unless clustered traffic is considered.

Chicago is not alone in receiving only a surface description, however. Setting itself stays nearly non-existent throughout the novel; even in an exotic place such as Egypt, Everett reduces that interesting and varied landscape to a description of hot and dry. These missed opportunities to fully engage the reader plague the novel and keep the story skimming the surface of actual emotion, in the end arriving at less than a sitcom level of entertainment.

Hope does exists inside the pages of Everett’s latest work, and it’s clear he has some talent: his standalone novel, The Judas Line, (2012) earned a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and was a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in the Fantasy Category. He has won something of a loyal following for his series as well. His characters can be funny, and his pacing is usually spot on. Also in his favor: The novel doesn’t take itself seriously (so the reader should strive not to, either). If approaching this novel with mind shut off and eyes wide open—maybe with a little drool escaping down the chin and a club in hand—the reader might enjoy the ride as one would America’s Funniest Home Videos, the crotch-hitting clips in particular.

Zero-Star Review

January 2014, Camel Press
Urban Fantasy
$14.95, paperback, 288 pages
ISBN: 9781603819299

—Reviewed by Mindy Jones

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A Happy Voyage

The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea
by James W. Graham

Perhaps it can’t be explained, this endless fascination so many of us have with the Kennedys. Thousands of books have tackled the subject, whether through the wistful eyes of nostalgia for Camelot or the relentless tragedies overcome by one of America’s most enduring dynasties or the intersection of politics, power, celebrity, and glamor. It seems that so much has been written about this one family that little of particular import could be added to the literature, which in itself has become something of a cottage industry in publishing: most books about one or other or all of the Kennedy family is almost certain to strike gold.

imageVictura is no exception. This lovingly told history of the Kennedy family—from Joe and Rose to Joe Jr. and Jack and Bobby to Ted and Chris and Patrick and all the Shrivers—examines the crew from the vantage point of the sea and their love of sailing.

Written by James Graham, who served as a senior advisor to former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar and the Illinois House of Representatives, Victura offers a fresh perspective on the history of a family that would otherwise seem to have been told countless times already. But Graham manages to put a new spin on familiar events, chronicling the highs and lows the family has enjoyed and endured by revealing how they have consistently turned to the sea and, most notably, one of their favorite vessels, the Victura, a twenty-five-foot Wianno Senior.

In his acknowledgments, Graham thanks Christopher Kennedy and other Kennedys and Shrivers for granting interviews and sharing their stories of the Victura and sailing and the sea, and the research he has put into the book is evident. Graham, who sails out of Wilmette Harbor north of Chicago, displays clear affection for both the extended Kennedy family and for sailing. Victura the book seems very much a labor of love, an intersection of at least a few great interests: politics, sailing, and the Kennedys.

Victura the vessel also seems a labor of love, a sloop the Kennedys sailed for roughly five decades, surviving lightning strikes, hurricanes, fire, and countless races fought hard for by the highly competitive Kennedy clan. Often sailed with JFK at the helm, the vessel became at times more than a sporty get-away as journalists, photographers, politicians, and celebrities were invited along on outings, often as a means to further the Kennedy brand, as much exercise as an exercise in publicity.

Graham deftly moves among family history, political history, and sailing lore to present a compelling story that is at times exciting, heartbreaking, and fascinating. Although rife with sailing terms and phrases (as one might expect), the book is accessible even to landlubbers, despite a few bits that go unexplained (e.g., “stepping the mast” might well confuse readers who spend most of their time on terra firma).

Politics, history, sports—there’s something for just about anyone in these pages, whether those already steeped in Kennedy lore or those coming to the family history for the first time. Readers also will find much about literature and poetry, thanks in large part to Jackie Kennedy’s influence on the family, as well as about nature. Graham refers often to nature writer Henry Beston, a man whose reputation grew at the same time the Kennedy children were coming of age. Some of these references to Beston’s work feel like tangential interludes, but they distract only mildly from the book.

A bit more troubling are some copy editing misses that mar the otherwise lovely text: “then,” for example, appears more than a few times when the correct word should be “than.”

Such misses are made up for by Graham’s lively take on the Kennedy clan, a warmly told story rich in imagery and inspiration, wrapped in a beautifully designed book that combines with the author’s text to make for a great package.

Throughout Victura, Graham makes mention of the highly competitive nature of the entire Kennedy clan. Joe Sr. was one of those folks who thought that second place is nothing more than first loser. What Graham has here is a winner—a first-rate effort well worth the read.

Four-Star Review

April 2014, ForeEdge/University Press of New England
$29.95, hardcover, 266 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61168-411-7

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


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