Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review of Alan Bray’s THE PUPPET’S TATTERED CLOTHES

The Puppet’s Tattered Clothes
Alan Bray. Bartleby Snopes, $9.99 paperback (45p) ISBN: 9781312331495


In The Puppet's Tattered Clothes, Alan Bray has written a modern day fable where hope and despair are intricately entwined and ever present. True to fabulist form, many of the life-lessons in this tale stem from the inanimate players. A small and seemingly lifeless troupe of marionette puppets inspires and threatens the outcome of our protagonist’s fate.

Familiar with disappointment and fearful of history repeating itself, Kevin is a young man who has learned to cope with the world’s cruelty through daydreaming of far off places where abandonment and abuse are a distant memory. It is his vivid imagination and child-like curiosity however that end up threatening his chances for a life far removed from his lonely existence in the North side of Chicago.

After completing a day’s work for his benevolent employer and only friend, Kevin heads off toward another dreary night alone. On his way home he meets the daughter of a renowned family of touring Marionette puppeteers. A friendship is immediately formed and validated by a contrasting yet mutual sense of displacement in their worlds. Intrigued by the apparently magical inner workings of the puppets, Kevin accidentally causes irreparable damage to one of the wooden creatures, sabotaging his chances for a new life.

The Puppets Tattered Clothes is an eloquently written book, warm with charm and grace that deserves to be read in your favourite spot on a rainy afternoon without interruption. The well-meaning characters are elegantly formed in this endearing story about the delicacies of love and hope. Bray’s pages are bursting with bright imagery that will stimulate the imaginations of young and old alike. In just 33 pages this slim volume delves into and explores both the ugly and beautiful sides of human nature. This book is symbolic of so many aspects of everyman’s struggle while remaining subtle enough to be enjoyed as a straightforward, good old-fashioned yarn. (July 2014)

Purchase The Puppet’s Tattered Clothes HERE.

Reviewer bio: Matthew J. Hall is a writer who lives in Bristol, England. His poems have been published in various literary mags and he regularly highlights new and exciting writing within the small press on his blog screamingwithbrevity.com

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of Ben Tanzer’s ORPHANS

Orphans
Ben Tanzer. Switchgrass Books, $15.95 paperback (158p) ISBN: 9780875806952

"I would prefer not to, but..."

That is the excuse at the heart of Tanzer's well-executed science fiction tale. Which at first seems odd for the author, but it is very Tanzer-esque. He's cut his teeth writing real-world stories of guys who are inept in their own skins. Men who aren't quite ready for the maturity required in a real relationship. Or definitely not prepared for fatherhood. And they'd rather just bury themselves in a pair a headphones and smother all those problems with a soundtrack that brings back all the good memories of the past (rather than the ever-encroaching present). So at the heart of his first and only science fiction novel, Tanzer is covering similar ground. The guy has an oeuvre. But he's also smart enough to know the best science fiction tales are, at their core, simple. They are meant to reflect our own foibles.

In the futuristic Chicago of Orphans, there are still hapless guys who need to provide for their families. For Norrin Radd, the protagonist, there are bills to pay and a family to feed and sacrifices to be made to achieve both goals. Society has fallen under the control of a single Corporation. If you want to work, you play ball. Or you get cast out. You can provide for your family and live in one of the sanitized districts (enforced by constant surveillance and black helicopters) or you can live on the streets with the unemployed. They have E.C.'s (electronic concierges) and Terraxes (robot labor) to handle the menial jobs. The latter work tirelessly until one day they malfunction and keel over, only to be recycled. Hence the constant refrain of "I would prefer not to, but...". Radd goes along, but not without consequences. He winds up having to travel back and forth between Mars, selling real estate to one-percenters who want to be 'pioneers,' and quickly growing weary of spending all of his time with sweet-talking E.C.s who only serve as reminders of how much of a sucker he is after all. Meanwhile, back home, a carefully programmed Terrax is filling in with his family. And all those insecurities about what happens while he is away start creeping into Radd's brain.

Giving obvious nods to Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, Tanzer keeps the story focused on human frailty. We can make advances in science, but we're still the same at heart. Radd would prefer not to, but.... While this might feel like well-trod ground for Tanzer, the story is smart and absurd and even eerie in parts, which is a new bent for the author. The SciFi elements never go off the deep end — they always feel believable, trusting the reader to grasp everything without all the details. Tanzer is a confident enough storyteller that he doesn't need to produce a Total Recall like standoff at the end. Some folks might hate that, but Radd's ultimate fate rings true. The world is bigger than Radd and he could play the hero, but....

(November 2013)

Purchase Orphans HERE.

Reviewer bio: Ken Wohlrob is the author of the novel No Tears for Old Scratch and two short story collections. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review of William Taylor Jr.’s THE BLOOD OF A TOURIST

The Blood of a Tourist
William Taylor Jr. Sunnyoutside Press, $13 paperback (92p) ISBN: 978-1-934513-48-4

            Taylor’s collection of poetry is darkly beautiful in its portrayal of everyday life. The truth, Taylor believes, is found in the weakest, saddest moments, but that’s also what makes it so wonderful. In the simplest form, he dissects everyday existence line by line, metaphor by metaphor. Whether it be sidewalks, alley ways, or studio apartments The Blood of a Tourist takes a view of the world from the bottom up. Taylor depicts the lowest aspects of life within his lyrics in an elegiac and aesthetic way: “As the luckless search, through garbage bins, for some scraps to salvage, from the day. But the sky’s still up there, and such a beautiful gray.”
            The quickness of each poem keeps you turning the page, hungry for more: “Wise men say, it’s good to know, when to let go of things, but I bet they never saw you, in that dress.” Those who choose to pick up The Blood of a Tourist will be pleasantly surprised by the gritty silhouettes of alcohol, sleep, dreams, and love. Taylor deserves praise for simply bringing to the foreground the not-so-pretty parts of life and making them alluring. Taking from the title of one of the poems, there’s ‘A Certain Light’ in the darkness of the work. (November 2014)

Purchase The Blood of a Tourist HERE.

Reviewer bio: Meaghan Ayer, a lover of the ocean, yoga, and photography, is a senior at the University of New Hampshire. She is hoping to pursue a career as an editor, but for now is focusing on school and planning a trip back to her beloved city of Florence after graduation. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review of Luke Goebel's FOURTEEN STORIES, NONE OF THEM ARE YOURS

Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours
Luke Goebel. FC2, The University of Alabama Press, $16.95 paperback (184p) ISBN: 978-1-57366-180-5

Despite its billing as a novel, Fourteen Stories…is more a kinetic collection of connected short stories about loss and grief. Using urgent prose, Goebel introduces us to an emotionally damaged, unreliable narrator attempting to reconcile his heart and mind: “Bottom line, I’m suffering from lost love. I’ve waited till I was about thirty to do more than have sex.” Haunted by a woman who broke his heart and raw from the sudden loss of a sibling, the narrator stumbles and grapples to find meaning and to fill the void through throwaway relationships, travel, and peyote. He’s both macho and insecure and not above fantasizing about murdering his betters. Early on the writing runs rough when Goebel forces his hand and allows the oft aggressive narrator too much grandstanding, though things smooth out in “Tough Beauty” and “Apache” where the beauty of the prose does all the heavy lifting: “From the rain would come blanket flowers, Mexican poppies orange across the hills, hibiscus, lupine, wild onion, owl’s clover—names of flowers Apache had said over again, pointing to the dry dead earth on their first rides, blue fiesta, brittlebush, creosote flower, signaling what would go where, as if by the magic of names he could summon colors from the earth’s palette covering the land of dry dust, horses from his very heart, women from his very loins, bones from his bad hand, life from life, simply by naming, so great were his stocks in the whole thing.” Winner of FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction, Fourteen Stories…exists on the fringe of convention and thus challenges the reader to adjust. Throughout, the narrator acts as a shape-shifter, plunging in and out of the text with varying degrees of intensity. Readers who enjoy stream-of-consciousness writing will get their fill in the chapter “Out There”, though readers seeking a defining, overall arc best look elsewhere. What holds everything together is the narrator’s sense of urgency and grief, and as an expression of grief Fourteen Stories…is everything readers can reasonably expect: unpredictable and wild, pensive and longing. There is no shortage of wow moments in terms of interesting turns of text, though for every firework herein there exists its less dazzling counterpart. The work is at its best when Goebel plucks the microphone from his narrator’s hand and allows the writing to finds its balance where it often yields a perfect mixture of churning, chugging focus and manic imagination. (September 2014)

Purchase Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours HERE.

Reviewer bio: Mel Bosworth is the author of the novel FREIGHT. Visit his website at melbosworth.com

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review of Redell Olsen’s FILM POEMS

Film Poems
Redell Olsen. Les Figues Press, $15 US paperback (173p) ISBN 978-193425451-6

Put crudely, Olsen’s films don’t do narrative realism, actors doing dialogue, all that kind of thing. Her essay on the poetics of the swoon in the film poetics of Abigail Child suggests some perspectives on her own aesthetics. Along with Abigail Child, a fondness for Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is evident in Olsen’s recent book Punk Faun. In search of other precedents, not least to articulate the fragility of film’s performance, one might cite Robert Smithson’s slide lecture, Hotel Palenque (1972) or Victor Burgin’s Between (1986). In Olsen’s work, however, the conceptual weave is distinctive in its emphasis on poetry. Her films rarely use the soundtracks of found film materials, preferring to create a soundscape that can exist independently, whether as printed text or in performance, and so as film poems. (Drew Milne, Selvage, rafts, and peaches: Redell Olsen’s Film Poems”)

Film Poems (Les Figues, 2014) collects British poet Redell Olsen’s “texts for film and performances from 2007-2012.” As Drew Milne opens his extensive introduction: “This book brings together five poetic sequences, proposing film poems as the compound title—genre even—for these different texts.” The works that make up this collection—“London Land Marks,” “A New Booke of Copies,” “Bucolic Picnic,” “The Lost Pool” and “S P R I G S & spots”—are curious in part simply because of the form in which she composes: not for the page or the stage but for the screen itself. Given the range and breadth of poetic composition, from performance poetry to visual and concrete poetry, it would seem curious that there aren’t more poets composing specifically for film or video (especially given the variety of videopoem festivals around the globe). Utilizing variations on the essay, lyric repetition, sound, description, prose and the prose-poem, and a variety of rhythms breathy and breath-less, the range and possibility of Olsen’s ouvre is immense, and quite impressive. As she writes in “Bucolic Picnic / or, Toile de Jouy, Camouflage”: “first as a painting / off cuts of brazen // dazzle of fabrics / forbidden threats // of elsewhere // sets sells sails [.]” Given the works were originally composed for the screen, how does one read them solely on the page?

say I and you London land marks

say I and you in London mark land

say London land is marked by you and I

say I and you make marks in London’s land

say I and you mark lands in London

say I and you marked by land

say London land marks

say long done land marks

say long done marks in land

say land in long marks in language

Film Poems is a good example of and reminder that the possibilities of freshness in experimental poetry are far more open than most practicing writers often credit, and even manage to reduce much experimental work into a series of works that are all pushing in similar ways, and in similar directions. Composed for performance and the screen, Olsen’s Film Poems breathe fresh energy into collaborations between and amid forms, and of a form so often laden-down with purpose, seriousness and sameness. (May 2014)

Purchase Film Poems HERE.

Reviewer bio: Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014). He regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review of John Carr Walker’s REPAIRABLE MEN

Repairable Men
John Carr Walker. Sunnyoutside Press, $13 paperback (120p) ISBN: 978-1934513477

            In his debut collection, Repairable Men, John Carr Walker offers ten portraits of modern manhood. Presented in another beautifully designed book from Sunnyoutside Press, Walker’s men are imperfect, and their stoic exteriors often mask anxieties and vulnerabilities they themselves are struggling to understand. These are not men in touch with their feelings; rather, they stumble through their days, blindly wrestling their demons, battles that often leave them battered, confused, yet sometimes, closer to grace.
            Relationships provide the touchstones of many of these stories. What better mirror does a man possess than the eyes of those he loves—or doesn’t love? The book opens with “Ain’t It Pretty,” a tale of how a man’s temper can turn him into an exile. “The Atlas Show” brings us a father and son forging a new territory after their shared dream has died. “Retreat” features a husband and wife who’ve grown apart after heartbreak and the loneliness that surrounds them when they need to make one of their lives’ most important decisions. Many of Walker’s men are haunted by their pasts. Their scars are hidden yet keenly felt. In this passage, a man attempting to reconcile with his brother recalls their upbringing:

“I can almost hear my mother’s voice. Reg and me, coming to the door caked in mud, open sores scabbed with mud, mud gelling in our hair and caking the grooves of our hands—Mom yelled but Dad was the punisher. Afterward, she would enter our room with the softest voice and talk about all the complicated ways he loved us.”

Complicated love—one finds it in abundance in these stories. Or perhaps the love is less complicated than its expressions, the imperfect words we offer one another, the gestures too little or too late.

            One of the rewards of reviewing is the discovery of new voices. Walker’s style is solid and his focus is keen. He peels back layers in a series of well-paced and precise observations, and by the end of many of these stories, we feel as if we’ve been on a journey of discovery, a journey not always comfortable but one that has led his characters closer to some kind of truth. Consider this final paragraph of “Candelario,” a story that examines how easy it is for a slighted man to turn to meanness and cruelty—and also how the grudges we hold can, if we’re not careful, end up defining us.

            “I’d been through that before, once, the year before Candelario first came to us. It poured on the crop and we almost lost our vineyard. What I didn’t know—still to this day don’t know—is if Candelario moved the world to protect or attack us? The crop stayed dry that year he danced over the fields and he hasn’t returned since. Years later, I took over the vineyard from my father and have two boys of my own. I wonder, sometimes, if by some miracle he’ll come back to pick my harvest. But why would he? He’s always known there are no repairable men.”

            “There are no repairable men”—this is the question that resonates through Wallace’s debut. True, his characters are damaged, too proud, too solitary, their deepest wounds self-inflicted. Yet most of his men are still searching, still asking questions, and in this light, I think, yes, perhaps they can still fix themselves. (October 2014)

Purchase Repairable Men HERE.

Reviewer bio: Curtis Smith's latest book is Beasts and Men, a story collection from Press 53. In early 2015, Dock Street Press will release Communion, his next essay collection. In 2016, Aqueous Books will publish his next novel, Lovepain.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of Amanda Earl’s KIKI

KIKI
Amanda Earl. Chaudiere Books, $20 paperback (130p) ISBN: 978-0-9783428-9-0

At first glance, Amanda Earl's Kiki appears to be a straightforward homage to the creative hub that was Montparnasse between the two world wars. But the poems within this book go far deeper than setting smoke-filled scenes, where Dadaists sip red wine and tap ash from non-filtered Gauloises while pontificating about their work and its muse. Earl's first full collection is as much an amalgam of tributes as it is a collection of poems. As the title suggests, Kiki, otherwise known as Alice Ernestine Prim, is the central figure, but this book has far too many layers to only be concerned with tipping its hat to the iconic muse, actor, artist, singer, writer and model that was the ‘Queen of Montparnasse’.

In order to fully appreciate what and who are being acknowledged within this collection it is worth considering the structural aspects of the work. It makes sense that the poet's chosen method for honouring a time and place of such ground-breaking art and artists would be presented in a style of writing that some consider synonymous with the surrealist movement itself. The cut up method has largely been attributed to Brion Gysin's influence on William Burroughs, but as Earl points out in her notes at the back of the book, “They say that Tzara inspired the cut up movement at a surrealist rally in the 20s when he offered to create a poem by pulling words at random out of a hat.”

Anyone can and many have cut up texts and stuck them back together in a worthlessly random fashion. Rehashing old words into a half-coherent order isn't anything particularly spectacular in itself. Whoever started this strange way of creating new context from old words is beside the point; what matters in this case is whether Earl's tribute breathes any new life into this literary tradition. Poetry is arguably the most subjective of all the art forms and its potential beauty will largely depend on its reader’s perspective. After all, it is in the magic that happens between the page and its interpreter that brings a poem to life. Having said that, there are obvious goals any forward-thinking poet should strive for: accessibility, relevance, individuality, a good sense of rhythm, honesty and so forth. By taking on the task of writing poetry about a time and place she can only know through research and study, Amanda has set herself a much more complicated goal. And it is a task she has clearly not taken lightly.