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Binti

Nnedi Okorafor. Tor.com, $2.99 e-book (106p) ISBN 978-0-7653-8446-1

Okorafor's sci-fi novella tackles sprawling ideas with little satisfactory resolution. Binti is a teenage girl from Earth, a member of the marginalized and disrespected Himba culture, and the first of her people to attend the prestigious Oomza University, located on a distant planet and home to the galaxy's finest academic minds. Midway through the voyage to the university, her ship is attacked without warning by Meduse warriors, and Binti must draw upon her unique strengths to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Okorafor draws from her rich knowledge of cultural warfare to craft nuanced commentary on how we mock "alien" peoples at our own peril; however, the plotting and characterization suffer from lack of authorial attention. Abstract concepts are introduced without warning and rarely defined to any satisfactory degree, while fascinating objects receive only the briefest descriptions, if any at all. For example, Binti's ship, a living being related to shrimp and the novella's primary setting, is never described from the outside and only vaguely on the inside. This overstuffed novella introduces too many concepts to process in a small space, muddying its otherwise laudable message. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dancing Through the Fire

Tanith Lee. Fantastic (fantasticbooks.biz), $24.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62755-645-3

Lee (A Different City) died in May 2015, and this collection, containing eight previously published short stories and four originals, is the last work she assembled. Lee's decadent, Gothic-inflected pieces range from delicate fantasias about the whims of a personified death ("Death Dances," "The Death of Death") to straightforward, suspenseful sword-and-sorcery featuring resourceful but outmatched thieves ("In the City of Dead Night"). Unfortunately, the older stories are usually better than the new. The collection's most emotional and most recent pieces are meditations on the power of art, and, with one exception, they tip over into the bathetic, as in the extremely purple "The Flame," which is more of a tract than a story. But it's difficult to read the stunning new piece "Burn Her," in which a dead painter's right arm refuses to either stop painting or succumb to fire, as anything other than Lee's graceful acknowledgement and defiance of her own mortality, a very high point in this uneven swan song. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Hope Harbor

Irene Hannon. Fleming H. Revell, $14.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-8007-2452-8

In this tender inspirational contemporary romance, Hannon delves into the messiness of loss and the power of forgiveness, including forgiving oneself. Michael Hunter, battling guilt and regret after the death of his wife, heads to Hope Harbor, Ore., for a two month sabbatical from the Chicago non-profit he runs. On his first day in town, Michael collides—literally—with Tracy Campbell, a female version of himself. Tracy leads a service organization and relates to Michael's feelings of remorse and culpability, having grappled with similar emotions after the recent death of her husband. Despite an obvious mutual attraction, neither is ready for romance. Circumstances, and a bit of planning, continue to bring the two together and hope begins to emerge, along with renewed faith that God can redeem broken lives. Hannon fleshes out the story with a strong supporting cast, including Tracy's Uncle Bud, who helps run the cranberry farm she loves; Anna, the town hermit, who opens her home to Michael; and Charley, a philosophical taco maker. All add to the small town ambience of Hope Harbor, a place of emotional restoration that readers will yearn to visit. Agent: Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Some Planet

John Mortara. YesYes (SPD, dist.), $16 trade paper (84p) ISBN 978-1-936919-29-1

As the title suggests, Mortara's debut collection floats through a murky celestial anywhere, a setting for time travel or for pondering alternate realities where "black holes/ hum b-flat/ 57 octaves down." The astronomy theme lends itself to captivating imagery and language, employed effectively in "blues for a red planet," a moving lament for a lost love (and nod to Carl Sagan's Cosmos). Mortara strikes an interesting tonal balance among the playful, the meditative, and the macabre: "the basement/ salivates like the nile" and "the two of us/ toss around in the stomach of your bedroom like/ we are rotten." Several poems have an element of the interactive; an "experiment" encourages the reader to flip a coin: "heads says you love her and tails says you don't/ flip again to decide the severity of your fresh emotions." Another suggests dividing the deaths listed on the nightly news into columns of "afraid this will happen to me" and "this could never happen to me." There are also poems that incorporate tables, flow charts, and even the design of a child's origami fortune-teller. Underpinning Mortara's games and science fiction gloss, there is a beating heart and an aching vulnerability that is powerful to witness. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Refusal of Suitors

Ryo Yamaguchi. Noemi (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (98p) ISBN 978-1-934819-41-8

Searching for precision in a poetic landscape, Yamaguchi's debut collection displays a cerebral poetics steeped in a dualism of the urban ("I jumped your turnstiles// and married myself to your multiple darks") and the idyllic ("a garden soaked/ in yeses").The poems alternate between short, taut blocks and spacious, long-lined reflections. Yamaguchi's principal preoccupation is naming and calculating; the solving of equations serves as an antidote to the shiftlessness that permeates the atmosphere. He also shows flashes of stark, alluring imagery, particularly concerning the weather and its whims, a common theme: "A dumb monstrosity// of cumulus clouds churned hard in the gap between skyscrapers." Moments of successful world organizing—"I found myself only after having asked, the asking/ so compulsive, everywhere"—dissolve into self-conscious admission: "I was stupid for pattern." In one version of the title poem, of which there are several, Yamaguchi perfectly captures the friction between that which can and cannot be measured or contained. "Consider the universe as an object,// something that can always be got at// with the right instruments," he writes, "I am waiting for you like I wait// for an emergency." Yamaguchi's collection can be difficult to enter at first, but readers who allow it to breathe will find much to savor. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Leave Your Body Behind

Sandra Doller. Les Figues (SPD, dist.), $17 trade paper (134p) ISBN 978-1-934254-57-8

In hybrid-genre prose, writer and translator Doller (Man Years) draws on performance and memory to forge a text that is as surprising in its range of address as it is unexpectedly cohesive. From the opening pages, Doller establishes a syntax that throws language off-kilter while still welcoming readers along: "Twenty two years it took me—takes me—to make this for form from scratch." Onward, the text switches between stilted aphorisms and observations (strung together in paragraphs) and epigraphs from eclectic texts that address memory, gender, writing, embodiment, and technology, among other topics. The two modes play well off each other, with Doller's deft sentences performing a weird sort of memory retrieval while the epigraphs offer hints of the work's theoretical foundation. As a result, lines such as "In Great Falls a greatly state was made. A harboring device was used to track and trim it in" resonate not only for the pleasure of the language, but as an integral part of an enjoyable performative experiment. "Every moment recorded is a moment truly lost," Doller writes, propelling the text forward with barely enough time to ponder the aphorism's implications. There is room enough in Doller's work for a breadth of images and sly narratives; it's more expansive than most books, yet it remains unified. (May)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Hart Island

Stacy Szymaszek. Nightboat (UPNE, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-937658-34-2

Szymaszek (Hyperglossia), director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in New York City, offers a long meditation on the silent city that exists within greater New York City. In lines that are broken and jittery, almost nervous, readers explore what it means to exist anonymously in the world. Traversing Manhattan's East Village, Szymaszek's narrator gets the same breakfast daily, goes to work, goes home; the routine becomes a sort of erasure of self. Simultaneously, the narrator becomes aware of Hart Island, a small dot in Long Island Sound that serves as a potter's field where unclaimed bodies, and the bodies of those infected with terrible illness, are buried without notice by the inmates of Riker's Island. What are readers to make of a city that dumps its paupers and strangers unceremoniously on an island locked away from everyone but prisoners? The forgotten bury the forgotten. If New York City is a space where there are too many stories to pick out just one, does that mean every person is forgotten? Szymaszek's poetry is an attempt to answer these questions, but maybe this is too enormous a project. The broken lines offer glimpses, but the reader is on the other side of a locked fence, staring into the questions, and finding only silence. (May)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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(guns & butter)

Montana Ray. Argos (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (60p) ISBN 978-1-938247-16-3

In her debut collection, Ray reinvigorates the mostly abandoned technique of poésie concrète, crafting poems in the shapes of guns and even adding actual recipes to the mix. Ray replaces the standard unit of the line with the parenthetical, and each poem is a figurative gun loaded with ideas and images that play on the tension between the martial and the domestic. The poems are, as could be inferred from the book's title, overtly political, containing such declarations as "(politics of pregnancy) (is a phrase) (u just don't hear) (in Indiana)." The recipes should theoretically work as a counterbalance to the gun poems, but instead seem at best a form of Duchampian poetic readymades and at worst superfluous. The collection redeems itself with honest, sparse writing that is brazen and piercing as a bullet. Ray states, "(last we talked)/ (it was the Iran-Contra Affair)/ (& I'll always feel like Ronald/ Reagan) (when I say, I miss u)." Her juxtapositions are darkly humorous, evocative, and intimate. When she writes, "(& it was a raw year of phone weeping)/ (of weeping in public) (strangers offered to hug me)" such brief and self-contained statements draw readers into the poems. Though Ray's formal conceit tires quickly, the strong feminist themes more than hold the book together. (May)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground

Collier Nogues. Drunken Boat (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-0-9882416-2-6

Excavating poems by erasing words from a range of documents from the late 1800s to the 1990s, Nogues (On the Other Side, Blue) reaches for a different kind of understanding of WWII's Pacific theater. Okinawa becomes a space in which Nogues examines the slow build of interactions that led to war as well as the ways Eastern and Western culture meet. Each poem reads like a diary of war, though one full of doubt: "I should be sure// that our map/ is real." The poems come after the fog of war has lifted, yet the original documents from which these poems have been created feel both removed from conflict and laden with uncertainty. The history of Americans on Okinawa becomes a stand-in for the ways Western culture invades new spaces. Erasure poetry exists in the liminal space between original writer's intentions and those of the person with the eraser; Nogues, concerned with the reality of such spaces, struggles to find something permanent on which to stand. Each poem includes a QR code that links to its original document online, which feels gimmicky in the shadow of poems that are otherwise so steady in purpose, cohesive, and surprising. Though there are flaws in the delivery, Nogues has nonetheless crafted an important work. (May)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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I Mean

Kate Colby. Ugly Duckling Presse (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-937027-45-2

In her sixth book, Colby pairs a single long, eponymous poem with four essays on poetics, aesthetics, fraternity, and place. The book's parts function in tandem as tools via which the author, in various degrees of obsession, contextualizes and re-contextualizes her life, her experiences, and her work: "I mean the walls/ are braced/ against themselves// I mean brace yourself// I mean to take the house down/ with its own components." Using its title anaphoristically and clocking in at nearly 70 pages, the title poem is a tight, nimble, and wide-ranging work that manages to, in the author's words, "pile words up/ and wrap the referents around them" in a remarkably fun and conceptually virtuosic way. The essays also display an erudition that can be both heady and playful. Of a favorite personal anecdote, Colby writes, "That element of ontological mystery about something that feels so close to me is the crease that collapses me into myself." And of the linguistics of place: "What I've... realized is that ‘there' was a place of my own making and different from ‘here.' Here is where I am, no matter where and where else I'm pointing at." With verve and purpose, Colby plays trick after alluring trick to write herself in and out of meaning. (June)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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