Last Stories and Other Stories, by William T. Vollmann

Last Stories and Other Stories,
by William T. Vollmann
Publisher: Viking
ASIN: B00G3L0ZV4
692 pages, eBook
Published 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
I –
“Escape” (Sarajevo)
“Listening for the Shells” (Sarajevo)
“Leader” (Mostar)
II – 
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich” (Trieste)
“The Madonna’s Forehead” (Trieste)
“Cat Goddess” (Trieste)
“The Trench Ghost” (Redipuglia, Tungesnes)
III –
“The Faithful Wife” (Bohemia and Trieste)
“Doroteja” (Bohemia)
“The Judge’s Promise” (Bohemia)
IV –
“June Eighteenth” (Trieste and Queretaro)
“The Cemetery of the World” (Veracruz)
“Two Kings in Zinogava” (Veracruz)
V –
“The White-Armed Lady” (Stavanger)
“Where Your Treasure Is” (Stavanger, Lillehammer)
“The Memory Stone” (Stavanger)
“The Narrow Passage” (Stavanger)
“The Queen’s Grave” (Klepp)
“Star of Norway” (Lillehammer)
VI – 
“The Forgetful Ghost (Tokyo)
“The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” (Nikko)
“The Camera Ghost” (Tokyo)
“The Cherry Tree Ghost” (Kyoto, Nikko)
“Paper Ghosts” (Tokyo)
VII –
“Defiance Too Late” (Unknown)
“Widow’s Weeds” (Kauai, Paris)
“The Banquet of Death” (Buenos Aires)
“The Grave-House” (Unknown)
(Unknown)
(Toronto)
“When We Were Seventeen” (USA)
“The Answer” (Unknown)
“Goodbye” (Kamakura)

 If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.
Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.
Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.
The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.
I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.
If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Mr. Tall: Stories, by Tony Earley

Mr. Tall: Stories, by Tony Earley
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 0316246115
224 pages, eBook
Published 26th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands”
“Mr. Tall”
“The Cryptozoologist”
“Yard Art”
“Have You Seen the Stolen Girl?”
“Just Married”
“Jack and the Mad Dog”

Like Margaret Atwood’s recent Stone Mattress, this wonderful collection of novellas could easily be described as a selection of “tales”. With a confident style and unadorned dialogue, Earley effectively combines literary exploration of the marriage relationship with aspects of the Southern American folk tale. The stories range from the conventional side of the spectrum to the wild, fantastical side that would be at home in a genre anthology.
“Just Married”, a set of character relationship portraits, and “Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands” fall toward the conventional side. “Haunted Castles…” is a particularly strong opening to the collection, showcasing Earley’s talent at writing two characters dealing with life/relationship shifts. In this case concerning a wife and husband visiting a daughter now off at college, leaving the couple together in the isolation of a struggling relationship that contrasts the scenic, natural romanticism of the barrier islands they drive past on the way home. “Jack and the Mad Dog” falls at the other end with a clever play on a classic fairy-tale told with a meta fictional twist.
Earley’s most powerful tales fall in the middle of the spectrum. “The Cryptozoologist” and the best novella in the collection, “Mr Tall”, are special because they clearly combine the struggles of relationship at the crux of the protagonist’s being with the fantastic or symbolic elements of a folk tale. In “The Cryptozoologist” the loss of a spouse and the yearning to again feel the beauty of marriage and love becomes tied in time and place to a fleeting glimpse of a mythological creature and the burning desire to recapture a glimpse at its unique wonder.
“Mr Tall” fittingly gives this collection name. It conjures thoughts of the “tall tale”, and although the collection as a whole doesn’t really fit this form of folk tale, “Mr Tall” presents itself as a crafty twitching of the tall tale hallmarks. The historical story involves a young, naive, newly married woman whose devoted, but hard-working husband warns her not to visit their reclusive and seemingly dangerous neighbor, or approach his land. With certain unfulfilled feelings, general curiosity, and the boredom associated with being young and childless in the era, the wife ventures out exploring to learn more of this mysterious neighbor nicknamed Mr. Tall.  Exaggeration is subtly present in the town mythology surrounding Mr. Tall. And the wife is filled with a light-hearted optimism that one can find in a tall tale. Yet this tale is grounded in reality that is not entirely pleasant, and the story serves to illustrate the maturing of the protagonist from blissful naiveté to greater caution and fear. “Mr Tall” is a tremendous story with richly developed characters who show genuine aspects of humanity both positive and negative.
I haven’t read Tony Earley’s first collection, but it is going on my list of things to gladly read. I enjoy this kind of mixture of literary with genre, and it is particularly rare to see it done with the American folktale in my experience at least as a reader. I also need to reread “Jack and the Mad Dog”, for I fear I missed too much the first time, not ready for its unconventionality, and I think additional insights into the other novellas could come from rereading, a testament to the quality of this collection.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cooking Allergy Free: Inspired Meals for Everyone, by Jenna Short

Cooking Allergy Free; Inspired Meals for Everyone, by Jenna Short
Publisher: Taunton Press
ISBN: 1627103961
288 pages, Hardcover
Published 21st October 2014
Source: NetGalley

With family and close friends with myriad food allergies I am always on the lookout for new recipes of yummy dishes that spark inspiration and could conceivably made by the average home cook. While many of the dishes in this cookbook appear delicious, however, it isn’t the allergy-free recipe cookbook I expected it to be, and I didn’t find it personally useful. However, this cookbook is excellently designed and could be very useful for the right kind of person/home cook.
The purpose behind Cooking Allergy Free is to provide relatively simple and healthy ‘gourmet’ food that can be adapted to an eater’s particular dietary restrictions among the major 8 food allergens: nuts, wheat (gluten), soy, dairy, eggs, shellfish, fish, and corn. The key word here is ‘can’. The recipes collected by Short here (which cover salads, soups, sides, entrees, deserts, sauces, and baking) are for the most part NOT inherently allergy free. Most of these types of recipes could be found in a regular everyday cookbook without the ‘allergy-free’ theme.
What Short does here, however, is clearly highlight for what diet(s) each recipe is appropriate. This is done at the top of the recipe with consistent, colorful icons, and recipes are indexed at the end of the cookbook according to diet. In addition to allergy restrictions, the dishes are also classified by icon as vegetarian or vegan where appropriate. The design of this book therefore would be exceptionally useful for someone who isn’t remotely familiar with allergens, recipes, or when/how recipes could be altered according to dietary restrictions. As comparison, I could see this book fulfilling a role similar to the “Idiot’s Guide” of technology books.
The highlight of this cook book is really how it looks and the easy navigation/interpretations allowed by the design. You can tell that Short has experience and talent in design. The photographs of the food are high quality and whet the appetite for trying out the dish. These are important considerations for a cook book, but excelling just in these categories doesn’t hold up if the overall purpose or recipes don’t meet your need.
For me the biggest problems come down to that fact that so many of the recipes contain many allergens in them still. It is important to note that a key feature of the book is that variant instructions are offered at the bottom of each recipe (with icons) to highlight how the dish could be altered to make it fit the needs of additional allergy restrictions.
One issue is that not all of these substitutions will work particularly well for the dish in question. For example, not all grains can be substituted well with quinoa to make something gluten-free. Quinoa could be used, but the dish isn’t going to have the same flavors, texture, or basic experience. This issue becomes most prominent in the baking section – where gluten-free flour just simply can’t serve as universal substitute across the board.
The second issue is that so many of the recipes contained allergens for no logical reason. If you are writing a book with ‘allergy-free’ in the title, why would you include recipes with peanuts? Really? One of the worst offending allergens? Why would you garnish something with nuts and then put in the ‘alternate’ instructions ‘Omit the nut garnish’? Why not make the recipe nut-free and then at the bottom say that nuts could be added if you DON’T have a nut allergy. Another recipe mentioned that people with nut allergies often had soy allergies, so the recipe could replace soy with something else – but the recipe also included almonds.
In the end, if you are looking for a book of allergy-free recipes, go find books specific to the dietary restriction(s) in question. If you could use a lovely designed book of recipes with mostly well laid-out guidelines on how to adapt them to a particular diner’s requirements while keeping the food still taste decently acceptable, then this is worth looking into.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats, by Sandra Markle

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery,
by Sandra Markle
Publisher: Millbrook Press
ISBN: 1467714631
48 pages, Hardcover
Published: 1st Sep. 2014
Source: NetGalley

 With bat decorations just around the corner for Halloween, now is a perfect time to check out this wonderful nonfiction science book with any curious young scientists in your life.
The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats is about the recent fungal infections (white-nose syndrome) that has decimated brown bat populations in North America.
As a biologist and bat lover myself, I appreciated the way that Markle told this scientific story of epidemiology in an engaging way that can introduce children to diverse concepts: the wonders of nature, the effects of the microbial world on larger familiar organisms, the process of scientific investigation, the power of curiosity and creativity, and the importance and benefit of research.
Markle relates these rather complex ideas with straightforward language that is ideal for a middle school (or even late elementary) aged child, all in the format of a ‘scientific mystery’: the observation that something is wrong with bats and the steps that were taken to try and discover what was causing the problem. Only then, with dedicated research and understanding can the problem be addressed, a mystery must be solved.
Apparently this book is part of an entire series, so I’ll have to look into the other titles offered. Although I could only look at this on a Kindle, the photos and illustrations are plentiful, bright, and well-done. I should note that given the topic of a deadly disease of bats, there are illustrations that may be considered ‘gross’ or ‘uncomfortable’. I appreciate the honesty that the text and photos show in just how awfully devastating disease can be for any organism and the price that must be paid to try and determine its cause and treat it. I also really appreciated the realistic images of scientists just simply doing their work in the lab, the latest equipment at hand.
This book is really a great opportunity to expose a child to the wonder of nature and the appeal of science. It makes complex, and perhaps even frightening realities accessible to children and may help inspire curiosity or dreams in a future scientific researcher.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385538081
224 pages, eBook
Published: 16th September 2014
Source: NetGalley

 “[The] unapologetic portrait of a woman cutting a precarious path through early adulthood.” sums up Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back rather well. Marie is a young single mother whose existence is defined by her ever-shifting jobs as a restaurant server and is consumed by relationships with fellow employees. Diving in with a brutal power, the novel never relents in the raw emotions of its narrative.
Already unfairly derided by conservative critics for glamorizing an ‘immoral’ sexuality and drug use, Love Me Back is not so banal or simplistic, despite appearances of its plot or protagonist. One wonders whether some of the more vocal critics have even read it. And as usual, these critics would refuse to permit portrayals of reality that they’d rather pretend doesn’t exist.
To me, Marie recalls the suffering saints featured in some of my favorite works from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc to Bernanos’/Bresson’s Mouchette to the Dardenne’s Rosetta. The name itself reflects this trait, though here the character has no connection to any religion, just that aspect of devotion that religion can hold. Marie represents the ideal worker in the serving industry. Throughout the novel she is giving herself completely, most obviously in her body, but also through her mind and position of power. She gives herself to society, to individuals, to drugs, not for pleasure, but for the mere reason that she is just so good at it. Almost like this is what she is naturally inclined and meant to be. Paradoxically by losing herself in self-destructive behavior, she is also fulfilling her self purpose or servitude, of giving into the desires and whims of others. She loves them in that she sacrifices everything of herself in their service, and any wish of being loved back seems remote and unattainable.
Tierce does not pain Marie’s existence as glamorous, nor judge the acts of sex, drugs, abortion, or childcare in any way. They just are presented as aspects of her character, and reflect powerfully the actual reality of people all over the world and the jobs that are held in the food service industry. Marie can be seen as a victim at the hands of those around her who take advantage of who she is, yet there is also the sense that victimhood doesn’t fully define her, for she apathetically accepts and even pursues her predicaments.
Short, but perhaps difficult to get through due to the intensity of subject matter, Love Me Back is a complex and finely written literary work that may not be an ‘enjoyable’ read, but certainly is a significant and worthwhile one that will impress in its unflinchingly frank honesty.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Paper Magician,
by Charlie N. Holmberg
Publisher: 47North
ASIN: B00HVF7OL0
226 pages, Kindle Edition
Published: 1st September 2014
Source: Amazon Kindle First

 Ceony Twill is a talented young woman who, with the help of an anonymous benefactor and her own dedication, has beaten the odds of her disadvantaged background to graduate top in her class at a prestigious school of magic. Her abilities and promise argue that she should have preferred choice in her apprenticeship. However, in a world where magicians bind their abilities to one particular material, the greatest needs of society and the magician’s true inherent talents may not lie in the most glamorous material they yearn to work.
Ceony finds herself assigned to apprentice a mysteriously aloof paper magician who she knows nothing of, and she enters his home dreading the training that awaits her, certain that it will be nothing but uninspiring. Instead she rapidly finds herself enamored with the subtle art and potential power of paper magic and with her mentor, Emery Thane. Emery is charming, yet demanding. But, Ceony also sees Emery’s forlorn spirit, trapped in a past he keeps closely guarded.
Falling in love with her mentor and his trade, Ceony hopes to gradually open Emory up, but the sudden arrival of her mentor’s former lover threatens both their lives and the world of magic alike. Ceony takes it upon herself to help discover the secrets of Emery’s ailing heart, heal him, and save both her new mentor and magical society.
Holmberg’s The Paper Magician is an example of a fascinating premise that at first glance seems to hold tremendous promise as a symbolic and moving fantasy centered around love and the emotions of the heart. This universe that hails from an era with ‘historical novel’ airs and involves magicians bound to specific mediums is richly rendered, both familiar and intriguingly fresh.
I really adored the opening chapters of the novel, and both Ceony and Emery are fascinating characters.  Protagonist Ceony nicely has the active role of ‘saving’ the man rather than the traditional reverse gender roles of fairy tales or fantasy. Yet, their developing romantic attachment and the pure evil of Emery’s ex make their relationship simplistic and conservative where the female is still precisely defined by the male. This isn’t necessarily a strike against the story and characters, just a note that the story isn’t as subversive as a reader may first expect.
The appearance of Emery’s former lover is when the novel takes an abrupt turn with an arrival of threat, tragedy, and quest where Ceony enters a magical (and allegorical) journey into each chamber of Emery’s heart. The interesting, although more ‘academic’ portions of the early chapters where Ceony is learning her art and the reader is being introduced to this fascinating world give way to a straightforward, and increasingly dull quest. However, I did find the ultimate ‘showdown’ ending to be satisfying.
The novel thus has some great aspects, but also some real problems. Ceony is well written, but the initial promise of Emery vanishes when the plot shifts to portraying him solely via his unconscious emotions. The Paper Magician is a quick read, and the start to a series whose second volume is already available for advanced reading. I personally am not sure about continuing with the series. There is some promise here for quality and exploration of different magical fields (materials). But there’s also the good possibility of it continuing down a similar route where the story – or execution – veers to areas I wouldn’t really find interesting or fulfilling. Yet, readers that devour fantasy diversions or particularly like the genre flavored with a historical setting or aspects of the romance genre could find this really enjoyable.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this through the Amazon Kindle First program.

Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, Edited by Isiah Lavender III

Black and Brown Planets:
The Politics of Race in Science Fiction
Edited by Isiah Lavender III
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
ISBN:1628461233
256 pages, hardcover
Published 1st October 2014
Source: NetGalley

CONTENTS:

Introduction:
“Coloring Science Fiction” by Isiah Lavender III

Part One – Black Planets:
“The Bannekerade: Genius, Madness and Magic in Black Science Fiction” by Lisa Yaszek
“The Best is Yet to Come; or, Saving the Future: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Reform Astrofuturism” by De Witt Douglas Kilgore
“Far Beyond the Star Pit: Samuel R. Delany” by Gerry Canavan
“Digging Deep: Ailments of Difference in Octavia Butler’s The Evening and the Morning and the Night” by Isiah Lavender III
“The Laugh of Anansi: Why Science Fiction is Pertinent to Black Children’s Literature Pedagogy” by Marleen S. Barr

Part Two – Brown Planets:
“Haint Stories Rooted in Conjure Science: Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire” by Grace L. Dillon
“Questing for an Indigenous Future: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as Indigenous Science Fiction” by Patrick B. Sharp
“Monteiro Lobato’s O presidente negro: Eugenics and the Corporate State in Brazil” by m. elizabeth Ginway
“Mestizaje and Heterotopia in Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech” by M. Rivera
“Virtual Reality at the Border of Migration, Race, and Labor” by Matthew Goodwin
“A Dis-(Orient)ation: Race, Technoscience, and The Windup Girl” by Malisa Kurtz
“Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction” by Edward James (updated with additional reflections ‘Twenty-Four Years On”)

Coda:
The Wild Unicorn Herd Check-In: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction Fandom” by Robin Anne Reid

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.