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Malice at the Palace: A Royal Spyness Mystery

Rhys Bowen. Berkley Prime Crime, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-425-26038-8

Bowen's ninth Royal Spyness mystery (after 2014's Queen of Hearts) is the best yet in this lighthearted series set in 1930s England. Queen Mary summons amateur sleuth Lady Georgiana "Georgie" Rannoch, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, to the palace, where she learns that the king's fourth son, George, is engaged to marry Princess Marina of Greece. Georgie is pleased to accept a royal offer to serve as Marina's companion and guide before the wedding day, since that duty gives her a much-needed place to live in Kensington Palace. It also affords ample opportunities for Georgie's maid, Queenie, an anti-Jeeves who leaves disaster in her wake, to break objects and protocol. The legends of ghosts infesting Kensington Palace appear to have substance, and Georgie sees a strange glow just before she happens upon the corpse of party girl Bobo Carrington. Unfortunately for Prince George, he was one of Bobo's beaus, leading to fears that he directly or indirectly caused her death. The solution to the murder is both clever and logical. Agent: Meg Ruley, Jane Rotrosen Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Wet

Toni Stern. Circle Star, $16 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-0-692-32877-4

Stern adopts a conversational, intimate, and humorous tone in this poetry collection, distilling broad concepts into sparkling little gems. Relatable and engaging, Stern is most successful in her numerous brief poems and manages to do a lot in a condensed space: "January,/ and the roses/ are shivering." At times, she embraces a more serious affect, though without the benefit of a songwriting collaborator—as in her formative time working with singer-songwriter Carole King—the poems read closer to doggerel: "The rock stars are planning a concert,/ The poets are writing a poem./ Each and every one of us/ Forsaken and/ Alone." Still, while these offerings lack the charm of her more successful poems, they possess some substance and appeal. There are a number of occasions where Stern's poems border on kitsch, unnecessarily employing strange fonts and symbols to make her points. The collection is a mixed bag, but fans of her lyric work in the '60s and '70s might find it worthwhile. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Trouble Sleeping

Abdul Ali. New Issues (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (73p) ISBN 978-1-936970-32-2

This muscular, lyrical debut from Ali, winner of the 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize, recounts family history and struggle as well as the joys and hardships of single fatherhood. Varied in their formal elements and musicality, Ali's poems consistently engage black history and pop culture as windows into more personal, yet deeply political, realms: "Begin with a shooting,/ a controversial art exhibit, a mob throwing dung at the Black Madonna." Though packed with thoughtful references to cultural and political movements, the work is most successful when Ali addresses family: a dysfunctional childhood, an alcoholic mother, an absent father ("I didn't really have a father. Only a ghost that would appear/ each time I looked in the mirror"), and his own love and wonderment at his young daughter. "I can single out your voice from a playground of two hundred/screaming laughing five-year-olds, twenty sharing your name. I'm/learning this fatherhood script," he writes. The raw materials of emotion, fear, and anger burst through to confront oppression: "this lacerated tongue/ thirsts to remember// the names of all the faces/ hidden behind the barrel of a gun// loaded blasted/ into national memory// becoming caesuras." Ali's willful, complex collection marks him as a poet to watch. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Touch%C3%A9

Rod Smith. Wave (Consortium, dist.), $18 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-940696-08-9

Smith (Deed), an editor, publisher, and bookseller with three decades' worth of textual experiments to his name, sets new poetic challenges with these flirty, agile, and occasionally sarcastic poems. Sometimes he makes fun of the digital age: "Loops of the small bowel/ fight spam on the Internet." Sometimes he opens up a pair of words to find hidden import: "Between tortoise and torture you'll/ find and analyze a repetition fetish/ & accidental death." Coherence is something his "wholemeal halfwits in the bunker silo's/ frontal sinus palate polojama" have to seek, and not always something they find. Instead, alert or adrift in their linguistic games, Smith's pages imitate a kind of anarchy, delighting in chaos and inviting us in: his "house/ has a learning & the house/ has a viewfinder—the best/ thing in the house though/ is an anklet," he muses. His jazzy absurdities talk back to the Flarf poets and the earlier L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, but their freewheeling aims bring them at least as close to earlier kinds of aural experiment. Smith's all-over-the-place phrases and apparent stochastic effects will repel some readers, but others will certainly feel at home, saying—along with the poet—"we are the unlikely beings/ & our secret/ is not to// talk about any one thing." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Truth Is We Are Perfect

Janaka Stucky. Third Man (Consortium, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-0-9913361-1-1

"In spite of my flesh colored shadow I have no arms to hold," Stucky, publisher of indie house Black Ocean, announces near the end of this passionately direct poetry collection, his first full-length volume after two chapbooks. Stucky's raw works, sometimes composed as fragments or litanies, give a dreamlike power to an antinomian religion of erotic love: "I eat your footsteps in my sleep/ I wake from my animal dream a legend," he announces, in one of many poems entitled "Recreating a Miraculous Object." Buddhist ideas of reincarnation collide with notions of sexual abandon; Stucky expects to "drown beneath the blood that drips/ From your unnamable tongue," and promises himself, or his lover, or the reader, that "Our honest desire will eventually destroy us." His lines—sometimes reminiscent of European surrealism—even revel in that destruction: "When the oracle says you/ I punch the sun." Readers who treasure subtlety and realistic detail above all else might look elsewhere, but those who want to be blown away by love and death, by fear and sublimity, can stay right here. The volume's status as the first single-author publication from the rock star Jack White's Third Man Books (an outgrowth of Third Man Records) could boost the attention it is sure to receive. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Room Where I Get What I Want

S. Whitney Holmes. Black Ocean (SPD, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-939568-10-6

A controlled chaos percolates within Holmes's debut collection—poetry filled with fantastic frenzy, a silent revolt. "I ache to perform," she writes, "Mother is saying, don't touch, don't touch,/ in time with the pulsing blender." Indeed, this poetry is a wild and captivating performance, one characterized by intimate sharing as much as a distance that leaves readers guessing. This distance is created by Holmes's phantasmagoric world, which bursts with bombastic and absurd imagery: "On an interminable loop,/ that was spring. Birds committed suicide to get back at me, flung/ beak-first to the pavement at my feet. See what you've driven us to. See." A sense of crisis and agony radiates tangibly: "The best animals made me/ flinch, their bodies' flit, fitting together to prove they were alive." Occasionally, Holmes's poems stumble over their own metaphors, which become awkwardly overt; these slips seem out of place in her otherwise subtle work. Also, while her attempts at political expression are laudable, they lack the complexity found elsewhere in the collection. These breaks, fortunately, are rare, and Holmes's kinetic poetry reverberates with energy and emotion. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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North of Order

Nicholas Gulig. YesYes (SPD, dist.), $16 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-936919-15-4

With words scattered like seed across the page and slashes signaling breaks in the landscape, Gulig's debut dances on the fault line between ecopoetics and postmodern love as he dredges up harrowing poetry in the tension between the two. The staging of the ambiguous drama in Gulig's poems hearkens less to Jorie Graham than it does to Charles Olson, and one can even hear Gulig's fragments being read over snapshots of the natural world in which they occur: "No one sung/ to me of me except the shore I sung to." Gulig's poems are both elegies to the past—a time in which "we spoke in/ wind"—and emblems that mark that past as definitively over. The heart of this debut is the poet's conviction that he can pinpoint a way of living in the world as it is now, a fact made "harder now that there are centuries// before us." Part of this restorative process is forming new words, such as "burnfield" and "earthwarmed," out of physical and linguistic natural resources, but another aspect is speaking the truth that our emotional and natural landscapes can never, and should never, be static. As Gulig phrases it in his own particular idiom, "here, the ground is where there isn't." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Names of Birds

Daniel Wolff. Four Way (UPNE, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-935536-52-9

Wolff's first poetry collection since 2001's Work Sonnets is a transcendentalist map of the human self, produced through the study of birds. Season by season, beginning with fall, he describes the mating patterns, calls, and daily rituals of over three dozen birds. Asking readers to consider their wildness as reflected in human personalities rather than the typically anthropocentric envisioning of human traits in wild animals, Wolff captures the moody antics of a mother Blue Jay, the aggressive lovemaking of ducks, and the "drunken dance" of a Hooded Merganser. He imagines that human sorrow follows migration patterns like those of birds—going south and following an "inner compass," but inevitably returning. In his most curious poem, Wolff searches for a connection between what is seen and what is heard, conceiving for instance that the speckled pattern of the Downy Woodpecker is an outward indication of how it alternates between silence and loud tapping. Wolff transforms sensory experiences into a string of neverending questions, each subjectively answerable by assimilating the subtle truths of the natural world. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Making Maxine's Baby

Caroline Hagood. Hanging Loose (SPD, dist.), $18 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-934909-46-1

Hagood follows her self-published debut collection, Lunatic Speaks, with a brave and innovative poetic exploration of the grotesque yet mystical universe of Maxine, an educated woman in New York City who copes with the trauma of sexual abuse by leaving society to live in the subway. The book's narrative begins with chilling musings on suicide as Maxine searches for novelty and meaning in the world around her. She considers the parallels between horror and wonder, decides that understanding one's trauma cannot undo its damage, and proclaims that it is her recluse life—her "separateness"—that "saves her." Hagood meticulously expresses Maxine's contemplations with empathy and urgency. However, she also sets her audience up for estrangement by obscuring Maxine's view of her own existence with overdone metaphors and wordplay ("feed your plants and water your children"), by not explaining Maxine's journey of undoing, and by endowing Maxine with maudlin sensibilities (for example, she wants a baby in order to "fill this hole in her"). But even though the work falters on these accounts, Hagood took a worthwhile risk in attempting to empathetically express the beauty within such a disrupted mind, a mind that "wonders whether the streetlight that glows through her, leaving her half holy, half insane, is an affliction or a benediction." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Angel Park

Roberto F. Santiago. Lethe/Tincture (Ingram, dist.), $13 trade paper (106p) ISBN 978-1-59021-090-1

Santiago's debut collection reads like the hidden history of a family, full of the sort of stories normally relegated to whispers in secluded corners of gatherings—or stories that disappear into graves, untold or forgotten. In three sections, Santiago traces childhood through early adulthood. The poems drift close to early-1990s confessional style but are more in the vein of persona poems, though they retain a strong unified voice. In sections titled Home, Away, and FarAway, readers follow a pan-gendered person(s) as they move from a confining traditional upbringing toward personal fulfillment. An older brother runs away from home and becomes a "staged collection" for the enjoyment of older men; a high school dean refuses his Hispanic students access to an important test; a bride defiantly walks the aisle at her wedding though her family disapproves of her fiancé. Through deceptively simple language, these anecdotes map the history of ignored and silenced people; the simple act of existing outside any normative mold becomes a sort of performance art, whether it's during a simple interaction on the subway or in imagining a secret transgender history of Queen Elizabeth I. Santiago's poetry explores queerness in all of its forms, a taste of the past on the tongue. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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