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Illuminated

Jackie Castle. CreateSpace, $12.99 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-1-4811-9462-4

In the first of Castle's White Road Chronicles, 17-year-old Alyra begins to learn who she really is. Captured as a child by the ruthless king Darnel, she has no memory of where she comes from. Only when she meets with a man that Darnel has captured, a messenger of sorts, does she realize that she is somehow significant; she carries a medallion that is worn only by those who have "stood in King Shaydon's presence." Armed with this knowledge, Alyra determines to overthrow Darnel's rule and return to the land of her origin. The Christian allegory is obvious: King Shaydon represents God and Jesus Christ, and Darnel the Devil or forces of sin. Alyra's story is both heroic quest and spiritual journey, and Castle sets up the story well for the sequels. While the Christian allegory is solid, other elements are flawed. The story is set in medieval times, but the dialogue is peppered with contemporary slang, and the prose is stilted at times. This may satisfy allegory fans, but as fantasy fiction it brings little new to the genre. (Dec. 2012)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Chilled to the Bone

Quentin Bates. Soho Crime, $15.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-61695-330-0

Bates's third novel starring Icelandic Police Sergeant Gunna Gisladottir (after 2012's Cold Comfort) gives American readers the flavor of another place, but without a truly compelling storyline. Gunna is called in when the corpse of Johannes Karlsson, a haddock baron, is found in a Reykjavik hotel, tied to a bed. Bates reveals the reason for the bondage early on, showing an attractive con artist named Hekla luring another S&M client to a different hotel room, and stealing his money. Meanwhile news that three men and a woman who disappeared from Germany two years earlier have turned up dead in Libya reaches one of the minister's political advisor, leaving readers curious as to how these storylines connect. The author tosses in an ex-con muscleman nicknamed Bigfoot as well, but the ultimate resolution of the storylines is disappointing, and Gunna proves to be a rather bland lead. (Dec. 2013)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Tooth for a Tooth

T. Frank Muir. Soho Crime, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-61695-318-8

The plot of Muir's third mystery featuring Scottish Det Chief Insp. Andy Gilchrist (after 2012's Hand for a Hand) feels more contrived than the previous books. Right after Andy's ex-wife passes away, he is saved from awkward contact with the man she left him for by a professional call reporting that a woman's skeleton was found concealed in another's grave, with its skull was bashed in. As Andy begins to tackle this cold case, he is approached by the notorious American psychic Gina Belli who wants exclusive access to his life story for her next book. Belli tantalizes Andy with hints that her powers have yielded information about the death 35 years earlier of his older brother Jack in a hit-and-run accident. The storyline takes another improbable turn when his brother's initials are found on a cigarette lighter discovered near the skeleton, raising the disturbing prospect that Jack was her killer. The combination of this discovery along the entry of Belli and her supposed paranormal gifts into Andy's life will likely suspend disbelief too far for many readers, especially among lackluster writing and a poorly paced plot. (Nov. 2013)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Soy Realidad

Tomaz Salamun, trans. from the Slovenian by Michael Thomas Taren and Salamun. Dalkey Archive, $14.95 trade paper (124p) ISBN 978-1-62897-088-3

Salamun (On the Tracks of Wild Game) commands a tremendous dance along the border of reality and absurdity in this new translation of his 1985 collection. His atmospheres feel real and almost lived-in, constructed pinch-by-pinch through the incorporation of foods, languages, war scenes, and religious ritual—signs of history and culture with a cosmopolitan air; rooted in post-WWII Europe, but reaching beyond it. However, Salamun enlivens his sturdy settings with elements of the fantastical or surreal, elevating the work above what could otherwise read as a fragmented memoir. For example, in "Poppy," Salamun builds on stark hardship before making an unexpected twist: "Cover the people when I step in the area. /Throw on them blankets, tents, and powdered milk./ Dig them into the earth, I am a hamster." Or "Sierra Nevada," where Salamun presents the bizarre image of "father, the one who puts his body hair in their/ mouths, so that they can swallow thin, polished hits of pool balls." Salamun's interplay between the actual and the invented results in a graceful synthesis of the traditional and the contemporary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Rome

Dorothea Lasky. Norton/Liveright, $23.95 (96p) ISBN 978-0-87140-939-3

Lasky (Thunderbird) opens her fourth collection with the phrase "Consume my heart" and proceeds to consume herself over the course of the book's 59 poems. From the beginning, the poems are concerned with death and self, But otherwise it's hard to see past the vague obsessions clouding the work. There is maybe a broken relationship, maybe a death, maybe depression. Each poem is concerned with pointing out that it is a poem, that the reader is holding a book of poems. The trope is occasionally interesting; "Horace, to the Romans," reaches passed the word to call out the reader for disliking poems about poetry. Unfortunately, that moment of meta-humor fades quickly and the book gets bogged down in repetition and reveling in its own melancholy. Lasky claims that people don't read poems because "speaking to the dead is not something you want to do," before turning around and saying that poems exist "Because of sound." Neither claim is really backed up in the work. Still, there are some great sensory images, as when Lasky reflects upon "the yellow light of the sun eating my face." You believe her and want to feel the same. Sadly, the book is unfocused and meanders for too long, the feelings she intends to evoke cannot get past the words on the page. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Red Juice: Poems 1998%E2%80%932008

Hoa Nguyen. Wave (Consortium, dist.), $22 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-933517-92-6

Offer your ear to Nguyen (As Long as Trees Last) and she'll first whisper, then shout, then read to you from a list of facts about chemical infiltration of the water supply or tell you the wind is magic. Spanning the arc of a decade's work, these poems make repeated attempts at unearthing "the secret seed of the thing," where "bulbing words/ throb the way hearts do." Playful and urgent phrases, such as "life's absurd toad flaunts its nose," saturate these sparse poems with strangeness and humor—even as the speaker acknowledges the serious work of making: "I create you still push hard." As Nguyen's voice evolves across the three collections presented here, we "watch as nouns pile up/ piled in the thingified air"—nouns that range from bubble gum and poppies to babies and the Mona Lisa. In later poems, Nguyen grows increasingly concerned with exploring the simultaneity of domestic detail and global unrest: "Grey transformer box/ hulks in the backyard/ and we have the 60th anniversary/ of the bombing of Hiroshima// White refrigerator on/ all day." Though the subjects inevitably vary over a decade of work, this important poet is ever "laughing at the glass/ table that language isn't." (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Prelude to Bruise

Saeed Jones. Coffee House (Consortium, dist.), $16 (124p) ISBN 978-1-56689-374-9

In his debut collection, Jones has crafted a fever dream, something akin to magic. A dark night of the soul presented as the finest of evening gowns, these poems pulse with an elemental sensuality that recalls Rimbaud's "Venus Anadyomene" and the best of Southern Gothic writing. Using a personal symbology of femininity, violence, and the history of black America, Jones weaves a coming-of-age tale that is both terrible and revelatory. The open mouths of flowers become sex organs, screaming faces, and dying lovers. In one poem he juxtaposes a revelatory sexual experience with the coincidental collapse of a nearby building, as "First, a few loose bricks,/ then decades crashed to the street." Here, "there're always more/ corseted ghosts" haunting a land with the constant reminder: "YOU BETTER RUN/ IF YOU CAN READ/ THIS SIGN." The beauty this collection contains is overwhelming, with the potential to drown the reader even as it holds the promise of redemption. "There is a tornado inside," and at every moment it threatens to loose from the page into the world at large and take everything away with it. Solid from start to finish, possessing amazing energy and focus, a bold new voice in poetry has announced itself: "I am not a boy. I am not/ your boy. I am not." (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Precarious

Allan Peterson. 42 Miles (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (92p) ISBN 978-0-9830747-4-8

The quirkily hyperarticulate Peterson (Fragile Acts) now looks like a quintessential late bloomer: after decades teaching painting, he and his poems have finally won national attention. Peterson's fifth collection, with its shorter, often sonnet-sized work, makes a fine introduction to his style, in which minute observations unfold into good advice about an intricate, interdependent, imperiled natural world: "Normal so called could be a day when sparrows/ build a nest in the gutter or someone swallows/ a button battery." Astronomy, ecology, and consumer technology enter poems as matters of daily life, sources of the sublime ("my moon app showing me/ thin phases daily loading the vast black first"), but Peterson also thinks about people in groups, from families to destructive nation-states. If we have "no other world adrift/ in the hall mirror," he argues that we do well to admire this one, where "the common is not/ alike each time and is therefore misnamed," and a newborn (perhaps a grandchild) is "special-delivered with an onion skin letter from the shivering molecules." From quick lyric (a departure, for him) to extended meditations, Peterson manages to think hard about human failings, and yet to find ways to appreciate daily life, in words as refreshingly strange as what he says he sees. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness

CAConrad. Wave (Consortium, dist.), $22 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1940696-01-0

"Anyone who makes us remember we are naked animals under these clothes is dangerous," declares Conrad (A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon), and by that very definition the author himself is indeed dangerous. The poet, performer, and essayist has earned affection, applause, and imitation for books that combine his verse with short essays and exercises, an arrangement the poet labels "(soma)tics" and uses to instruct readers on the composition of poetry. Much of Conrad's work directly illuminates his politics, attacking the separation that he believes American culture creates between humans and the natural world. He presents at once a project of radical existential protest ("neckties/ lynch my spirit"), a back-to-nature agenda, and a goal of queer liberation. The verse itself can end up even more viscerally affecting, energetic, and raw than the programs that produced it, as evidenced by the line: "I have lost the will to grieve and need to find it/ back of your dream taller smarter more in love." As with Allen Ginsberg in his youth, Conrad's intensity may scare off some readers; nevertheless, he is a poet whose actions, not just his words, garner the spotlight. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Crossing the Line: A Paris Homicide Novel

Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9rique Molay, trans. from the French by Anne Trager. Le French Book (www.lefrenchbook.com), $16.95 trade paper (230p) ISBN 978-1939474148

For readers who enjoy a low-key approach with detailed—even gory—descriptions, Molay is just the ticket. She does a fine job in this fourth entry in the Nico Sirsky series (after 2012's Lunch on the Grass). The story begins shortly before Christmas in Paris, when dental students examining the severed head of Bruno Guedj find a message implanted in a molar: that this man's death will be due to murder. Is it a gruesome prank? After further speculation and the discovery that Bruno went undergone mysterious behavior changes in the months before his death, their evidence points them to homicide. But the motive remains elusive. The story's rather grim framework is humanized by the attention paid to Nico's personal life: his love of technology, his relationship with his son Dimitri and girlfriend Caroline as well as the personal demons he must keep at bay. Still, by the time the case is solved, readers will know a lot—perhaps more than they want to—about what happens when a body is donated to science . (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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