Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre

Under the water (CC BY NC)

Photo (CC BY-NC): Aristocrats Hat

Jonás Ager is a photographer, restless in his work and recently separated from his long-term girlfriend. He is also a swimmer. His regular trips to the pool have become therapy, helping him deal with the challenges of an increasingly isolated life just as they once helped his young body heal from an incipient deviation in his spine.

It takes fifty pages or so for the plot to emerge in Azaústre’s novel, but in those first few chapters, following Jonás through his regular routine of laps at the pool and post-lap drinks with an old friend, we have time to get to know him; to figure out who Jonás is. Much of this insight comes refracted through the water of the swimming pool.

It’s when he comes into contact with the water and his body gains definition as it adjusts to the temperature of the pool, as he begins to sense his shoulders and back, his hands and feet, stimulated by the pressure, that his head begins to slowly clear. As he counts off the meters and time, another, deeper kind of time begins to swell up inside him, a time that moves in every direction at once: north and south of him, east and west of him, in a succession of dormant images which awaken then, only then, after this surreptitious contact with the water, and attach themselves to a meaning, falling into a sequence and gaining lucidity.

The language in The Swimmers is beautifully drawn. Azaústre has an eye for those small details which encapsulate a particular place or character. It would be easy for this style of prose to come across as detached, or at the very least a bit off-putting to non-swimmers, but it’s neither of those things. Azaústre’s light stylistic touch forms the core of a quietly hypnotic novel; it keeps hold of that early familiarity as the narrative subtly shifts and changes beneath the surface. This effect is partially due to the nature and structure of the book—a detective story at heart, made up of short chapters—but those early passages give us such familiarity with Jonás that it is easy to be carried along. This subtle naturalism lends enormous power to the unnatural events which gradually emerge.

No small amount of praise for this must go to Lucas Lyndes, who translated the novel from the original Spanish. The Swimmers was published earlier this year by Frisch & Co., a new publisher based in Berlin. Their focus is contemporary fiction in English translation and, interestingly, they publish exclusively in (DRM-free) electronic formats. This single-mindedness of form carries through into the well-thought-out design of the book itself: the physical act of reading it is a great experience.

The Swimmers isn’t perfect of course—there are a couple of scenes which feel tonally misplaced—but on the whole it’s easy to understand why this was sent to us for review. It occupies that fertile hinterland in-between literary and speculative fiction; a world at once familiar and at the same time increasingly strange. Superbly written, but not at the cost of an interesting story and authentic characters.

If you enjoy Structo, you will probably enjoy this book.

— Euan

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The Mixed Child With Pale Skin: a review of Rosebud Ben-Oni’s ‘Solecism’

Solecism

Solecism cover art © VAC/Rosebud Ben-Oni

One of the greatest shortages in contemporary literature, at least up until the immediate present, is the lack of unique, fresh perspectives. As the world, and especially the United States, becomes more and more integrated, so will the arts. The overwhelming number of single-race novelists and poets coincided with the obvious distinction between races. Luckily, the world has become more and more open, and the barriers between racial integration (literal and metaphorical) have been broken down. Thus, we are starting to see books like Solecism by Rosebud Ben-Oni that offer a refreshingly new perspective on what it was like growing up in the divide between extremely different cultures, and what it is like now.

Ms. Ben-Oni, the daughter of a Mexican mother and Jewish father, can not only speak from the perspective of two races that have their own distinct literary cultures and tropes, but she can also speak as a woman with a foot in each camp. In the poem titled ‘For the Mixed Child with Pale Skin,’ the author takes aim at the assumptions made about her by both outsiders of her cultures as well as the current state of each. She writes,

But now you’ve offended by writing this. You have to be careful
in conferences by ethnicities you half
belong to. Nothing sings how there is never unity for you.
Turn not to your parents: love still blindsides them.

In this poem, the author speaks honestly about her subject, telling the audience that even though some consider race to be a sort of trope that “is no longer taboo,” it is still a part of who she is. In other words, how can the truth of one’s emotions be considered passé?

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Review: More Sawn-Off Tales by David Gaffney

MoreSwanOffTales

Photo (CC BY 2.0): Structo

More Sawn-Off Tales is a collection of short stories, each exactly 150 words long. It’s a striking idea, and forms the follow-up to David Gaffney’s 2006 collection Sawn-Off Tales. The fact that a follow-up has been published at all should give you a clue to the quality of his writing.

In another life the Cumbrian author might have written his Sawn-Off Tales in verse, and their format is a fascinating aspect. Very short stories are hard to write well, and this is a master class, every piece a satisfying and (mostly) coherent whole. The stories manage to work structurally while at the same time being funny, or sad or disturbing—often all at once.

You might not believe yourself to be particularly interested in flash fiction (or microfiction or whatever it’s being called these days). You will be after this.

More Sawn-Off Tales was published in June by Salt Publishing.

Review: Finitude by Hamish MacDonald

Finitude by Hamish MacDonald

Photo: Structo (CC BY 2.0)

Hamish MacDonald is the author of four novels and the creator of the DIY Book podcast. It was this last that I heard of first a number of years ago, and it struck a chord. The idea of being in control of the publishing process right from the first germ of an idea through the writing and printing and binding all the way to selling the finished book online was (and is) an intriguing one. The project is now complete and the complete archive is accessible for free at the link above. I highly recommend you have a look if you’re interested in publishing your own writing.

It was with this background that a few of us met MacDonlad last year at the International Alternative Press Fair in London. I almost always leave events like the IAPF having spent our entire take on small press books and magazines, and that day wasn’t any different. One of the things I picked up was MacDonald’s novel Finitude, an adventure story set in the midst of catastrophic climate change. This year I’m supposedly catching up with my unread backlog, or at least making a sizeable dent in it, and so a few weeks ago I finally got around to reading Finitude.

I shouldn’t have waited so long — it’s a great little book.

Although set in an almost-Earth engulfed by the devastating effects of changing climate, it doesn’t read like a polemic. It remembers to be an entertaining story first; it’s a fable of climate change. It helps that MacDonald has Douglas Adams’ ear for dialogue. The world might be falling apart around them, but the characters in Finitude never sound anything other than human. Wittier than most of us, but human nonetheless. It is this bounding good nature that carries the episodic narrative through to the book’s beautifully gauged conclusion.

Even if this was a normal book I’d recommend it, but if you are interested in DIY publishing, you need to pick up one of MacDonald’s creations, if only to understand the kind of quality that is achievable by doing things on your own. Finitude is beautifully written, strongly edited (often a key failing of self-published books), well designed and constructed. I’ll be reading more, and so should you.

— Euan

You can read/listen to chapter one of Finitude, or buy a copy, here.

Destroying False Gods: An overview of the online magazine Squawk Back

Squawk Back front page

In an age where critics, writers, and businessmen are all announcing (and/or mourning) the death of print (and thus, the death of literature), there are some that will do all they can to prove that literary fiction and poetry can not only survive in modern culture, but thrive in it. The success of blogs like HTMLGiant and writers like Tao Lin prove that the future of literature is online, and that writers and readers have nothing to fear.

Squawk Back was formed in 2011 to publish a weekly online magazine of experimental fiction that doesn’t discriminate against any writer, regardless of age, sex, race, or social status. They are just as likely to publish a piece from an inmate or completely unknown teenager as they are to publish an established writer. In an interview with Xenith, Editor-in-Chief Zak Block says that not only does he love to challenge the publishing industry norms, but to “destroy false gods.”

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Review: Confronting the Danger of Art

In the sea of self-publishing, e-books, and enough self help books to bring even Socrates back from the brink, it’s always refreshing to find authors and presses that are finding new, innovative means of publishing. Especially in the poetry world, where wading through the endless stacks of chapbooks and small press poetry collections can seem like an unending task.

Sidekick Books is a London-based press that announced its presence in 2009 with a book of computer game poems by poets Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone. The press hasn’t looked back since, focusing on collaborations between poets and illustrators that are not only highly original, but also quite clever.

They have kicked off a new series based on UK government-issued pamphlets from the 1970s with the highly satirical Confronting the Danger of Art by poet Ian McLachlan and artist Phil Cooper. This little pamphlet kicks off with an epigram from Plato’s Republic, which famously sought to exile the poets from the ideal government, which should be run using reason and logic instead of the emotional and artistic mind of the poet. This sets the tone for the verse in this collection, which relies on the juxtaposition between McLachlan’s highly ridiculous, exaggerated verse and Cooper’s simple, yet evocative drawings on each page.

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Review: You Stumble Into A Room Full Of Poets

Reviewing new literary magazines should become a habit for this blog. There’s something incredibly contagious about a new editor’s enthusiasm, and the confidence in the stories and poems they present to the world just screams ‘Read this! We created an entire magazine just for these words!’

You Stumble Into A Room Full Of Poets is a slight magazine at 20 pages, but it’s a beautiful one, with an elegant cover and pages hand bound with thread. The magazine is based in London and according to the editor’s note it ‘brings forth collective writings from the four corners of the metropolis’. For this first issue, the collective writings comprise eight poems surrounding a single short story. The pieces are universal; it’s not a London magazine in the sense of being about London, but rather a glance into the mind of the city.

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