M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman: A-

misformagicFrom the back cover:
Master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a breathtaking collection of tales for younger readers that may chill or amuse, but that always embrace the unexpected:

* Humpty Dumpty’s sister hires a private detective to investigate her brother’s death.

* A teenage boy who has trouble talking to girls finds himself at a rather unusual party.

* A boy raised in a graveyard makes a discovery, and confronts the much more troubling world of the living.

In the style of Ray Bradbury, who collected selected short stories for a younger audience into the anthologies R is for Rocket and S is for Space, Neil Gaiman presents M is for Magic. Most of the stories are available in other compilations—namely Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things—but there are a few exceptions. The stories cover a wide variety of topics, from fairy tails to Arthurian legend, from graveyard denizens to awkward teens, and employ a variety of styles, like the hard-boiled detective narrative of “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds” or the story-within-a-story structure of “October in the Chair.”

I don’t consider myself much of a fan of short stories, so it was no surprise when some of these failed to thrill me. The aforementioned hard-boiled story was not a favorite, for example, since I don’t much care for that genre and stories that try to be clever by citing lots of fairy tales irritate me for some reason. I also found “Sunbird,” the tale of an Epicurean club in pursuit of meat they’ve not yet tasted, to be rather long and boring, even though its ending very nearly made up for that.

Some, though, are really great, and I’ll take them in ascending order of awesomeness.

1. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”
Shy Enn and his more suave friend, Vic, are on their way to a party, but they’ve left the directions behind. They end up finding a party, though it’s not the one they’d wanted, and Vic encourages Enn to chat up some girls, which he tries to do. This story’s fantastic twist is that each girl seems to be the embodiment of a concept, like “the universe” or “poetry,” but it also works as a metaphor for how incomprehensible the world of girls can seem to an inept teenage boy. I particularly like the bits where one girl is going on about being an alien tourist or something, and the whole time Enn’s just wondering if he should dare to put his arm around her.

2. “Troll Bridge”
At the age of seven, a young boy encounters a troll who announces his intention to eat the boy’s life. The boy bargains for his release, promising to return once he has experienced more of life. The boy encounters the troll twice more and the culmination of their final meeting is great. I admire that Gaiman allows the protagonist of this one to be a bit of a jerk, offering his first love to the troll in exchange for himself and eventually realizing that he’s incapable of loving anyone. As in “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” Gaiman works human truth and keen observations into his fantastic works.

3. “Chivalry”
A widow makes a weekly pilgrimage to the Oxfam shop, and one day picks up a golden goblet that would look swell upon her mantel. Shortly thereafter, she’s visited by a knight on horseback, who claims to be Galahad on a quest for the Holy Grail. He offers many treasures in exchange for the grail, but none would look so fine upon the mantel in the widow’s eyes, so she refuses. Eventually, he tempts her with a fruit that would promise eternal youth and, wanting him to go away, she finally accepts some very powerful stones that would make lovely knicknacks and sends him away. I love this one for the subtlety of the widow’s reaction to the promise of the fruit and her quiet decision to resist it and continue to pursue her quiet existence.

4. “October in the Chair”
The first description of this story that comes to mind is “bloody brilliant.” We begin with a gathering of the twelve months of the year, sitting around a bonfire and telling each other stories. Each month has got a particular personality, like February, who’s a stickler for the rules, or April, who’s both cruel and sensitive. When it’s his turn, October, who is in charge this month, tells a story of a boy who’s teased by his brothers, runs away and encounters a ghost, and then possibly chooses to live a ghostly life himself. October’s story has no definitive end, which may bother some, but I thought both tales were excellent. The concept itself is supremely creative, too, and reminds me a bit of the Sandman comics.

Even though there were a few stories that didn’t do it for me, on the whole, the collection is so good that I’ll probably be checking out the compilations from which these stories were selected. I guess if anyone could make me into a short story fan, it’d be Neil Gaiman.

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