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Swing Time

Zadie Smith. Penguin Press, $27 (416p) ISBN 978-1-59420-398-5

At a dance class offered in a local church in London in the early 1980s, two brown girls recognize themselves in one another and become friends. Tracey has a sassy white mum, a black father in prison, and a pink Barbie sports car. The other girl, the narrator of Smith's (NW) powerful and complex novel, remains unnamed. Although she lives in the same public housing as Tracey, she's being raised among books and protests by an intellectual black feminist mother and a demure white father. As with Smith's previous work, the nuances of race relations are both subtle and explicit, not the focus of the book and yet informing every interaction. The girls both love dancing, but this commonality reflects their differences more than their similarities. Whereas Tracey's physical grace is confident and intuitive, the narrator is drawn to something more ephemeral: "a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind, and this was exactly the quality I loved," she thinks. The book tracks the girls as they move in different directions through adolescence and the final, abrupt fissures of their affection; it also follows the narrator into adulthood, where she works for a decade as the personal assistant to a world-famous (white) pop star named Aimee. In this role, she's able to embody what she admired about dancers as a child: she travels constantly, rarely sees her mother, and has lost touch with everyone other than her employer. Once Aimee begins to build a girls' school in an unnamed Muslim West African country, the novel alternates between that world and the London of the girls' youth. In both places, poverty is a daily struggle and the juxtaposition makes for poignant parallels and contrasts. Though some of the later chapters seem unnecessarily protracted, the story is rich and absorbing, especially when it highlights Smith's ever-brilliant perspective on pop culture. Agent: Georgia Garrett, Rogers, Coleridge and White. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Home

Harlan Coben. Dutton, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-525-95510-8

Edgar-winner Coben's action-packed 11th thriller featuring sports agent Myron Bolitar (after 2011's Live Wire) blends family drama with a twisty plot. Six-year-old Patrick Moore and his classmate Rhys Baldwin are abducted from Rhys's New Jersey home in the middle of the day by two men who leave the Baldwins' Finnish au pair tied up in the basement. After a ransom is dropped off but not retrieved, the parents of Patrick and Rhys spend a decade without any leads as to their children's whereabouts, until Win Lockwood, Rhys's first cousin once removed, gets a tip that takes him to London, where he sees someone resembling Patrick being roughed up by three toughs. Win, whose dapper attire conceals the skills of a trained assassin, dispatches the assailants with ease, but he loses track of the teenager. Myron, Win's best friend, agrees to help him in his search, which ultimately ends with a reveal that few, if any, will anticipate. This page-turner is sure to please Coben's many fans. 5-city author tour. Agent: Lisa Erbach Vance, Aaron Priest Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Manhattan Lockdown

Paul Batista. Oceanview (Midpoint, dist.), $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-60809-197-3

At the start of this fast-moving if unconvincing terrorist thriller from Batista (The Borzoi Killings), New York City's mayor, Roland Fortune, is celebrating his birthday at the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a series of bombs detonated in food carts along Fifth Avenue claim hundreds of lives, including that of his significant other. As Manhattan is placed on lockdown, Fortune's police commissioner, Gina Carbone, the NYPD's first female leader, scrambles to find those responsible for the outrage, even as the terrorists strike elsewhere. Unlikely developments, such as the U.S. president flying into the city without the NYPD being told he was en route, could have been dispensed with without lessening the drama inherent in the book's premise. None of the characters have any depth, and odd turns of phrase (the doctor attending to an injured Fortune is described as a "sober man with the weight and presence of a rabbi") further detract from what could have been a suspenseful look at a plausible scenario. (July)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Alamo Theory

Josh Bell. Copper Canyon (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (82p) ISBN 978-1-55659-399-4

Bell (No Planets Strike) tackles difficult matters of contemporary politics and society in his second collection, scattering throughout the book a series of poems that appropriate the persona of former Mötley Crüe front man Vince Neil. Readers should prepare to chew on every word; Bell has a tendency towards sprawling lines, dense prose poems, and unanswerable questions. He also addresses his material obliquely. "All night long I think I've been wearing a certain hat," Bell writes in "Your Prime Minister Speaks." He continues, "But by now it should be obvious to you, as it is not obvious to me, that I am actually wearing a different hat altogether," asking, in effect, whether those in power know what they are doing and whether it matters. "And who are you/ out there saying," he asks, "that the language/ is still your friend?" For all the collection's sensory overload, the less showy shorter poems pack the most power: "Even then,/ in that silence that seemed almost/ a silence, sadly we were not/ alone." The shifts between the surreal and the earnest can be jarring, even if they fit their 21st century social context. Perhaps that's the point. And one way or another, whether it's Bell's brief flashes of insight or his long-winded verbosity, readers will be left breathless. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Opposite of Light: Poems

Kimberly Grey. Persea (Norton, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-0-89255-471-3

Grey raises a wall of sound while meditating on love, power, and control in her debut collection, winner of the 2015 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry: "Built your truss, built your small back,/ all I could muster, all cheek and luck." Grey lures readers into a world full of clever language and heartfelt metaphor. "Love is not an actual helmet. It is/ fashionable. We wear it to feel heavy/ with gold," she writes. As Grey posits lively dichotomies, those ups and downs bleed through the text to enact the movement of relationships through time. In the aptly named "Fragments of Time," reality sets in; "I want to tell you how it splits/ me how I am so sad for/ what strays you fix your hair you leave." Memories of experience, unfocused and non-linear, make brief, star-like appearances. "What we'll always have becomes something we lost,/ becomes something we want, becomes sadness," Grey writes. In the face of the inevitable death—and subsequent mourning—that comes with love, she presents readers with words that are immediate and alive. Excavating her own shared, mundane experiences, Grey finds both deep truths within those fleeting joys and a fresh way to present a very old idea. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Bees Make Money in the Lion

Lo Kwa Mei-en. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, $16 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-0-9963167-3-6

Exuberant, verbally crowded, even chaotic, it can be easy to get lost in the odes, couplets, pastorals, and fantasias of this second outing from Mei-en (Yearling). Some lines nod to, or simply are, science fiction, with sentient arthropods and interstellar conflicts refracting social necessities. No wonder Mei-en quips "I have a futurist's job." Other pages depict an intense present; a moment of passionate, sexual self-destruction or self-creation: "my clear blown heart on clear cut flowers, a gin// jacket flashing shut on the wasteful night." Still other lines consider the frustrations of new Americans and the ambiguous boundaries of a nation: "my anthem a swollen scratch, a rift// of footwork out of the nation that sold her." Mei-en composes effusive reverse alphabetical acrostics, whose key nouns slide from Z back up to A; rhymed couplets; and echo-rich stanzas that recall (but are not) sestinas. Her density and surface difficulty mark her as modern, though suffused with a hint of Romanticism. Occasionally Mei-en's swarm churns so greatly no figure stands out, but more often than not it's a pleasure: "How I love to feed the lion, though her body be unbearable// and treacherous light." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Devil's Paintbrush

Desir%C3%A9e Alvarez. Bauhan (UPNE, dist.), $16.50 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-0-87233-218-8

Mythical and magical, this debut collection from painter and poet Alvarez portrays human behavior as an interconnected aspect of nature's kingdom. Alvarez slowly, steadily peels back onion-skin layers of history in order to uncover elements of the sublime. Often structuring her poems as series of declarative statements, she utilizes sharp language that never distracts from the central mood or atmosphere. She recounts history, whether personal or cultural, not with judgement or criticism, but with tenderness. In the poem "Djinn," Alvarez becomes a displaced warrior, juggling feelings of desire with the dissatisfaction of unfulfilled purpose. She confesses, "I remove my hands from the wire hive of sleep./ I am afraid of myself." Later, in the poem "Indian Elephant," she cleverly uses the animal subject as an extension of the speaker. The elephant is depicted as an unfortunate captive, victim to her environment, isolated and alone. Like the speaker, the elephant is constantly on display and at the mercy of a man. In addition to historical inspiration, Alvarez looks artists such as Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and paintings such as Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World." smartly using other artists, art, and history as inspiration without being hackneyed, repetitive, or predictable, Alvarez moves through various perspectives with the ease of water. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Remembering Animals

Brenda Iijima. Nightboat (UPNE, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (174p) ISBN 978-1-937658-49-6

Iijima (Early Linoleum) weaves biology, taxonomy, and eugenics with news reports, philosophy, and satire in a powerfully dissonant text that is concerned with inter- and intra-species barbarity. She investigates the different connotations of violence—including war, where "one man's safety is another man's living hell," and slavery as well as more subtle aggressions, as in a society where "health is an elite status [reserved for the rich]." The central issue here, however, is violence against animals: selective breeding, captivity, factory farming, endangerment, and extinction. A dismal section in the voice of a dairy cow concludes "brides coat their lips with our hooves." These forms of violence constantly intersect, as humans treat each other like animals and animals are used by humans to oppress other humans. Visual elements—pictures, computer icons, and jarring typographical shifts—heighten the discord and quicken the pace, and quotations bring such disparate voices as those of Assata Shakur to George W. Bush into the conversation. Some of Iijima's language is pure political rhetoric, a call to "repudiate capital" and "eradicate the industrial, military, prison, complex," but the shrill tone is part of the point. This is meant to be a visceral, even unpleasant read, and Iijima delivers a stirring and uncomfortable truth: "we once were animals and now we are animals." (May)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Service Porch

Fred Moten. Letter Machine (SPD, dist.), $14 trade paper (140p) ISBN 978-0-9887137-7-2

Moten (The Little Edges) fuses high and pop culture in a new collection that is as varied and malleable as his vernacular. The poems often feel like disparate fragments stitched together and can initially appear impenetrable. But the work is anything but haphazard and it becomes clear that the needlework was done with care and attention to detail. These are snapshots of blackness amplified by personal history, set in varied forms and structures: here a long, rhythmic line; there a series of choppy fragments. Many of the poems are driven by the musicality of speech and song. For example, "cuba and mt. tabor," aims to capture the natural dialect of its subjects. The conversation acts as a reflection of the subjects in place of descriptive imagery or literary tricks, "Where your wife? I heard she was Anglo-Saxon. Bad as you used to talk about white folks? Naw, for real, what is she? Eyetalian?" Still, Moten notes, "the sound won't show me/ nothing till the voice throw image." Where many of the poems are driven by an impulse toward beat and rhythm, much of the collection's later poems are concerned with the practice of art-making, "the constantly renewed syllabus of a new composers guild in the middle of enjoying itself." Like a great musician, Moten translates a hazy, fleeting vision into a beautiful noise. (May)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Zama

Antonio Di Benedetto, trans. from the Spanish by Esther Allen. New York Review Books, $15.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-59017-717-4

Available in English for the first time, this 1956 classic of Argentine literature presents a riveting portrait of a mind deteriorating as the 18th century draws to a close. Zama is a provincial magistrate of the Spanish crown, obsessively seeking elevation to "a stable position in Buenos-Ayres or Santiago de Chile." But his service to the Gobernador goes unrewarded, and as the 14 months of his posting stretch into nine years, Zama's connection to his distant family frays and then vanishes. He moves from an unconsummated affair with the wife of a nobleman to impregnating "an impecunious Spanish widow" and on to a "stunted, monstrous woman." Zama's mind degenerates along with his romantic prospects, and it's in the nearly imperceptible transmutation of Zama's fixation on "soft, mild love" into a fascination with the existential "horror of being trapped in absurdity" that Di Benedetto proves to be a vital master. Zama makes a last-ditch effort to secure a "better destiny" by joining a legion venturing ominously into the country to capture a former bureaucrat accused of fomenting "rebellion among the Indians." The final images of the novel are haunting and unforgettable. This extraordinary novel, whose English translation has been so long in coming, is a once and future classic. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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