Month: April 2011

Shelf Unbound – Now Free!

I’ve been a big fan of Shelf Unbound magazine since its inception last year. Publisher Margaret Brown and her team of literature and pop-culture enthusiasts do a wonderful job of bringing their readers, among other things, the latest news from the indie scene. Fans of Small Press Reviews will especially enjoy their coverage of new books from small and independent presses. And the best thing of all is that the magazine is now available for free! The latest issue focuses on music writing and also includes an interview with author Edwidge Danticat. Enjoy!

Black Swan

After taking a brief break from his Sam Acquillo Hamptons mystery series with last summer’s glorious paean to the Jersey shore, Elysiana, Chris Knopf returns to form with a whodunit as smart and insightful as it is gripping and intriguing.

Black Swan opens with a bang as Acquillo battles gale-force winds and rough seas to pilot a friend’s sailboat safely to harbor. Yet no sooner does the reluctant amateur detective dock in the exclusive resort town of Fishers Island, New York, than he finds himself entangled in a murder plot of epic proportions. The victim, it turns out, was a partner in a major tech firm poised to reap billions from the launch of the latest version of its trademark software. The only problem is that the product is riddled with bugs — and the only programmers who can fix the problem are prime suspects in the case.

Adding to the pressure are the facts that Fishers Island has all but closed down for the coming winter, the remaining denizens would like nothing more than for Acquillo to disappear, and an autistic programming prodigy has gone missing, taking with him the only real clues in the case. To top it all off, a massive hurricane is about to slam the island, thus ratcheting up the urgency of Acquillo’s investigation. That the man spends much of the novel sucking down vodka and longing for a cigarette is, to say the least, understandable.

As with all of the titles in the Sam Acquillo series, Knopf maintains tight pacing throughout Black Swan while simultaneously combining the best elements of noir and gothic mystery fiction. Many reviewers have noted an affinity between Acquillo and such iconic detectives as Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Robert Parker’s Spenser. Moreover, by isolating Acquillo and company on Fishers Island, Knopf also evokes the claustrophobic tension of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. What really sets this novel apart, however, is its smart yet subtle commentary on our growing dependence upon technology and the ways in which it is changing the nature of humanity. Though Acquillo deftly brings his murder investigation to a satisfying end, the larger question that haunts the novel still remains: Have we, at long last, been reduced to slaves of technological progress, or do we still have control over the machinations we’ve set loose upon our world?

With Acquillo in our corner, there’s always hope.

Track This: A Book of Relationship

Track This: A Book of Relationship by Stephen Bett is an emotionally generous collection of stylistically spare poetry reminiscent of the work of Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings. As the title of the book suggests, the poetry collected therein tracks the evolution of a single relationship, but it does so in ways that will likely challenge the casual reader to rethink conventional notions of language.

(Parenthetical statements, for example, tend to open without closing. A commentary on the nature of relationships, perhaps? On the contingency of the ties that bind? We enter into these deals with other human beings without knowing how or when or whether they will end. We hope, for the most part, that they will go on forever, but…

(Ah, yes, he uses ellipses, on occasion, too. And, to be sure, some of his parenthetical expressions both open and close.)

All of this is to say that by toying with the conventions of language, Bett draws attention to the ways in which language and relationships are given to the same types of uncertainty. More to the point, his poetry suggests that just as the uncertainty of language — the inability of words to capture the ineffable, the sublime, the exact essence of a moment or feeling or heartbeat — does not stop us from attempting to communicate, the unlikeliness of ever connecting one’s soul to that of another will not stop us from trying. We love because we want to connect, the poems in this volume suggest, and it’s in the attempt, in the grappling we do in the dark among the interstices of communication and amidst the firing of neurons, that we find the agony and ecstasy of all that makes life worth living.

My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse

In My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse, Will Nixon offers a collection of poetry that vividly recalls the suburbia of his youth and traces the trajectory of innocence to experience. Throughout, Nixon meditates on the minute, hidden, secret details that make up a life: the “loose teeth that became nickles,” the crawlspace beneath his mother’s bedroom, the coins laid out on railroad tracks. From here, he takes us on a journey through young adulthood — a “first rubber,”  the poet sipping sherry with his mother in his late teens (her valiant attempt to inoculate him against the temptations of harder mind-altering substances), college, sex, drugs, snorkeling, and television (not necessarily in that order). And at the far end of the spectrum (not to mention the other end of a life), we find the poet meditating on pollution, golf balls, life, death, and reincarnation. Thematically, the collection echoes such small press works of fiction as Kermit Moyer’s The Chester Chronicles and poetry collections as Anthony Buccino’s American Boy Pushing Sixty. All told, a detailed and loving vision of life in all of its stages.

Treating a Sick Animal – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

I’ve been looking forward to diving deep into Timothy Gager’s title Treating a Sick Animal for a while now, and I curse myself for the time I’ve lagged on doing so. I started the book thinking I’d swallow bits and pieces in between layovers and during road trips. On the contrary, I started and couldn’t stop. One of his opening shorts “In and Out” sucked me into a vortex, and I couldn’t escape until I finished the book from cover to cover.

“In and Out” left me understanding many things, among them, passive-aggressiveness and yet, a conveyed need for distance:

“My bones are on the inside…Don’t fall in love with me,” he said…

“It’s been a week and I’m not,” she said.

My favorite piece of the book, “mangiare per vivere e non vivere per mangiare,” a short story with prose that read smooth and even, then morphed into a voice such that of a ranting blog:

“In the past few months, I’ve been more depressed than the people I have to deal with. It’s not like I can’t get out of bed, because I can. It’s not like I’m weeping in public, because I don’t…”

Flash to:

“I recently wrote a novel I didn’t finish. It was called, ‘After my Funeral, I Wanted to Kill Myself.”

This piece was like a gourmet steak served with a side of fast food fries (which I adore), ending with a platter of tacks for dessert.

Then there are the pieces in the book that knock you out from the start with titles like “Your Vasectomy Journal,” its opening line striking again, “Do it because neither of you wants children ever again.”

Each flash fiction piece within Treating a Sick Animal left me with a heart-heavy opinion of lust, abandonment, sadness, fear. Keep in mind, Gager doesn’t write the gushy love ridden stories of the warm and fuzzy type, but more from the point of view of a dismally jaded suburbanite on the verge of a nervous breakdown induced by loss of all types: an unborn child, a lover, a wife.

My takeaways from this book: Gager is a tortured yet talented writer who’s produced a great book of flash fictions delivered through natural humor and an unparalleled contemporary voice. His writing is honest and richly detailed that I wonder how much of this compilation is actually “fiction” and how much if it has come from some deeply forgotten place in Gager’s subconscious. In his piece, “The Short Marriage of a Bride and Groom,” Gager talks about wedding cake and certain doom of newlyweds with such precision that, like the movie “Unfaithful,” it makes me shiver at the thought marriage. No, he doesn’t talk about murder, but he does deglamorize the “happily ever after” fable, unveiling all the pain and ugliness behind fairy tales society has marketed as “perfect love.”

After reading Treating a Sick Animal, I consider Gager one of our most talented indie contemporary fiction writers, and it would truly be my loss had I put off this book for any longer.

-Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Oh Terrible Youth

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for anything set in the Philadelphia of my childhood, and Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz‘s recently re-issued collection of poetry Oh Terrible Youth captures that time and place perfectly. Aptowicz, it turns out, is a Philadelphia native, and her poetry speaks not only to the peculiar challenges inherent in coming of age in the City of Brotherly Love in the 1980s, but also to the forces of uncertainty that young people across the country confront during any era as they cross over into the choppy waters of adulthood.

The collection does a wonderful job of blending humor and pathos with a touch of sentimentality. Early on, Aptowicz recounts a number of “worsts” of her childhood: worst games (“Let’s see who can be the quietest” and “Regular Battleship when all your friends have Electronic Battleship” chief among them) and worst Halloween costumes (including “birthday present,” “Santa Claus,” and “homemade Ewok”). Later in the collection, she looks back somewhat wistfully on all that she took for granted in her childhood, as in “Apologies to My Childhood Dog” and my favorite piece, “Estephania,” which distills, among other things, the essence of being “best friends.”

While the poems in Oh Terrible Youth are largely about childhood, they’re also poems that only an adult could write. Throughout the collection, Aptowicz manages to strike a balance between the raw uncertainty of adolescence and the (relative) self-assurance of maturity. We laugh with her as she recalls the kinds of things that kept us all up at night as we muddled through our teenage years, yet we also smile with compassion for the children we were — trying to make sense of the universe, trying to make sense of ourselves, trying to convince everyone that we did, in fact, have it all together when, at the end of the day, we knew for sure that we didn’t.

An excellent collection. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever been a teen.

-Review by Marc Schuster