Screen Reading

Mini reviews of current issues of online literary magazines

Reviews by Kirsten McIlvenna

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Ascent :: Blue Lyra Review :: Chagrin River Review :: Compose :: Lines + Stars


Posted December 10, 2013

Compose CoverCompose

A Journal of Simply Good Writing

Issue 2

Fall 2013


Compose has a wide variety of writing to enjoy from fiction, to nonfiction, to poetry, to a couple of features. The artists conjure up images of a widow-bearing tequila bottle that sits on the kitchen table, mermaids that “swim the high school pool,” mussels and clams and a bonfire, “Lint from your best-loved old jumper / sprinkled with grains from your childhood / sandbox,” and 26 tea lights in memory of those lost in the Sandy Hook shooting.

Lori Horvitz’s “Little Pink Hatchling” is the coming-of-age story of a twenty-something in New York City, battling a relationship with a boyfriend who could have treated her better. Yet, it is him that leaves and her that is left behind feeling alone and scared, not to mention annoyed by the pigeons that are relentless in building a nest on her window ledge. The end uses the common symbolism of the baby birds taking off to fly, but the image of the falling nest is what drives the story home.

In “Hot, Hot, Heat,” Keith J. Powell writes a fictional piece about the perceived world from global warming, starting out:

Our gooses were cooked. Our ducks and our swans, too. And not just our waterfowl either, it was all the birds, even the canaries . . . The air had become too blistering for them to fly, the water too piping for them to swim, and so the birds, either too stubborn or too proud to go without their plumage, baked in their feathers right there on the pavement, done in by their own vanity and the heat.

In an interview by Debra Eve, author Marion Roach Smith discusses her time management skills for writing. She says that you can’t quit your life to become a writer, but you have to incorporate time in each day to write, but she also says that spending time doing practices isn’t going to get you anywhere:

Morning pages and exercises and prompts are like playing against a tennis pro who hits every shot to you. You think you’ve got it nailed and then you try to play with somebody else and you can’t get a game going. So pick your form. Learn your form. Master your form. Write your form.

I appreciate the variety that Compose offers, but I also appreciate a very unique part to the site: the blog. It isn’t the typical journal blog that announces updates, but instead it takes an inside look at individual pieces that were published in the issue where you get to see the inspiration the author had for the piece. And with the quantity of quality writing here, it’s hard to believe this is only Compose’s second issue.

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Blue Lyra Review ScreenshotBlue Lyra Review

Volume 2 Number 4

October 2013


This issue of Blue Lyra Review has a special theme: “Stories We’d Rather Not Tell.” This, of course, is a little contradictory considering if the authors didn’t want to tell the stories, they wouldn’t submit. But it’s intriguing nonetheless, and I dove right in. I was instantly drawn in to the nonfiction section, eager to hear those stories first, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Debra Fox’s story made my heart melt. It’s the struggle a mother has when her youngest son is missing a small piece of his 10th chromosome and so doesn’t fully mature and develop. “He Doesn’t” is certainly an important piece, but what makes it enjoyable to read is the strength with which it was written. Throughout run lines starting with “he doesn’t,” which points out the things that he doesn’t notice, doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care about. Fox is able to master the classic “show not tell” that could be hard with such a personal piece. The entire piece is illustration after illustration, allowing us to really connect with the characters.

Carla Sarett’s piece is one that I gather the whole family would rather not tell as throughout the piece she uncovers more and more family secrets. “Sam’s Will” shows a dynamic struggle between husbands and wives, parents and children, and the truth and the perceived truth. “In every family, there’s a story about a will,” it begins. “No matter how little is left, there’s a petty fight about money, a greedy relative who crawls out of the woodwork at the last minute. Whether it’s a Picasso or a dismal-looking vase, we wrangle endlessly about who gets what. Every bit matters, at least at the very end.” The story has me wondering what secrets my own family has laying underneath the woodwork.

Michelle Auerbach’s “Geriatric Safe Sex” entertains some interesting characters: sexually active and partner-swapping folks in a retirement home. In this fiction piece, Dottie calls into the AIDS hotline as a precaution: “Intercourse yes. And oral sex, but dear it’s not just me, its all the girls.” But the narrator, the woman on the other end of the call, is discouraged: “Why is it that gay boys get to do it, the old folks get to do it, and the lesbians are so behind the times?”

But mentioning these pieces is only scratching the surface of what Blue Lyra Review has to offer. There’s plenty more nonfiction, fiction, and poetry to uncover, more stories to be revealed. I’d highly recommend investing some time in this fascinating issue.

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Chagrin River Review CoverChagrin River Review

Issue 3

Fall 2013


Chagrin River Review, now in its third issue, publishes fiction and poetry, leaning toward the more traditional styles, nothing extremely experimental or flashy, just good writing.

The first fiction piece, Mark Jacobs’s “Notes Toward a Revised Definition of Myself,” is all about power. After her husband cheats on her, Felicity must decide what to do and how to handle her hurt. Throughout the piece, she takes notes for a piece of nonfiction that she will write:

“All the notes I’ve been taking, the things I’m seeing. They have to do with power. Who has it, and who doesn’t. How it makes people behave.”
You like being in charge, Karl had said. But that was not quite right. She liked seeing how things worked, she liked understanding. But she did not care to be in charge of anyone, not even her own wayward self.

But even the way the piece is written is about power as the narrator writes about herself in the third person, distancing herself from her story—perhaps as a way to try to take control of her own life.

In Rod Siino’s “Smooth,” the symbolism throughout of chapstick was rather heavy and a little too much, but it pays off with an ending that really works: a great scene where Dave coats himself in tubes of his wife’s chapstick then goes out into the rain, protected. Ultimately, he peals it off with his fingernails, exposing himself, and yelling “let it in.”

Trish Hopkinson’s “Footnote to a Footnote” is a list of holy things, but they aren’t what you may initially imagine. “Jacuzzis are holy. / Garage door openers are holy. / Back-up cameras and recycle bins—all holy,” it begins. The delight in reading it is the language and sounds as well as the surprising “holy” elements. And in Jay Robinson’s “Home Movies,” the short lines move quickly as the narrator remembers “snuff films,” noting that “Someday . . . someone / is going to watch these // and write a PhD thesis / in disappearing ink.”

And while based out of Ohio, and publishing works with Ohio connections, Chagrin River Review could easily be from any other city in the country, focusing more on the good writing than on the author’s connections.

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Lines + Star CoverLines + Stars

Issue 16

Fall 2013


This issue of Lines + Stars is the perfect introduction to winter, as in some poems, the snow has already fallen and is already deep, and in others, it has only just begun. Many of the pieces are reminiscent of the holidays, with the sounds, smells, and tastes of the seasons. They all have vivid imagery that brings the poetry to life. See, for example, these lines from Dan Ferrara: “dancing red from ice and vodka, / juggling knives and strangling accordions.” And:

Heard the caps and bottles,
bone drums and cymbals of Sandwich Isles,
smelled the poppies and cloves that Marco wore
in Dadu, led a prayer in the runic smoke
on the mast of a Norse lord’s funeral.

In Dan Pinkerton’s “Electromagnet,” autumn is slowly slipping into a scarf store as winter comes with a soft snowfall. The narrator says, “I could only think of what had been abandoned and what lay up ahead, always moving, never static.” But in Marlena Chertok’s “Buffalo 3,” the snow has already heavily fallen, “snow high enough now for him to walk next to tops of cars.” But luckily, the “he” in the poem has already learned the ways: “knew he should get his boots out when the air turned dry / and put the shovel in his bedroom so it was easier to find.”

My favorite is “Nom de Plumes” by Marie Abate. It begins:

Tonight I dream of airplanes landing,
ironed scrolled doorways locked in icy fog,
me sipping vodka tonics at an airport bar,
you drinking a lovely spot of whiskey and flying
through the air. Maybe you’re en route somewhere.
Maybe we are both on a sinking ship
of bad metaphors . . .

It goes on with memories and dreams and stark imagery. The narrator longs for a place where the two of them can be together, imaginary or otherwise: “I still dream of you finding your way back to me, / of both of us falling through air, earth, heat, and sea / . . . where you will reach for me until my body breaks.”

The issue also features Jeff Encke, Quinn White, James Grinwis, Hanna Elson, and Joseph Harms.

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Ascent ScreenshotAscent

October/November 2013

Updated Regularly

With a url such as “,” Ascent offers up some high expectations. While I’m not certain how to qualify any writing as “the best,” there is no argument that Ascent really does publish quality writing.

B.J. Best’s poem “catchy door and sticky drawer” is imaginative, full of descriptions that perfectly describe everyday domestic items. It begins:

in our house lives a god
of domestic things:  the scorched end
of the spatula, the basement door so pregnant
with humidity it no longer shuts.

But it’s also insightful:

sometimes at night she would sing:
it’s better to have had your wish
than to have wished you had
.  my grandfather
watched clouds.  he said:
catchy door and sticky drawer,
coming rain will pour and pour.

The most recent essay, “At the Root of It” by Heather Corrigan, takes the reader to Abu Dhabi where the narrator is in some serious need of dental work but is scared to go to anyone close, fearing the doctor won’t have any Novocain. In traveling by plane to a “better” doctor, she learns about herself, and the reader with her, about how she is silly to think that she is resilient from the accidents and tragedies around her:

It is not pretty, this yellowish stained behemoth of a tooth, but I’ve grown fond of it. Occasionally I feel the mildest rustle—it is more like the ghost of a toothache than a toothache—at the base of my jaw, something my dentist referred to as a kind of phantom limb pain, the body’s muscle memory of something no longer there. I like to think that it is less a memory than a reminder: a reminder of my courage, shame, and most of all, the futility in believing that anything can last forever.

Jessica Treadway’s fiction piece about a woman coming to terms with why her husband left her all those years ago is breathtaking. Jean, still angry, receives a call on her birthday from her ex-husband’s second wife, requesting that Jean come visit her on her deathbed. Against her own wishes, Jean accompanies her daughter to Florida only to discover the real reason she is so mad:

When, and how, had she stopped being the kind of person who cried to see people waving at trains? She did not know, except that with her hands closed hot around the old ticket stubs, she understood for the first time that it had been before Walter left, and not after. Not because he left. Months after this visit, she would be able to admit to herself that it was why. He missed, too much, the woman he’d married.

Because it is updated regularly, there is unfortunately no telling when new content will be up, but I can say that what's up there right now is well worth the read.

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