Magic for Beginners

Magic for Beginners

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something I’ve noticed over the course of my recent reading life is that, if you’re in the mood for weird, you should definitely look into short story collections. Some of the strangest and most memorable fiction I’ve read in the past five years or so have been short stories. This is not a format I thought I enjoyed, as I prefer to dig more deeply into a story than twenty pages or so can accommodate.

Honestly, I probably never would have given short stories the chance they deserved if it weren’t for the fact that I started writing my own, and the fact that Neil Gaiman reads his own collections in their audio format. For those of you who aren’t aware, Gaiman has an incredibly smooth, sultry, expressive reading voice, very similar to Benedict Cumberbatch in my opinion. Listening to him read his own work is a fantastic auditory treat.

Because I’ve enjoyed Gaiman’s short stories so much, I decided it was time to try out some other authors known for their short stories. After doing some research, I decided on Kelly Link, as she’s a big name in both the short story form and the literary fantasy and horror genres. I’m so glad I did. While I didn’t love every story in this collection, there were quite I few that I really enjoyed. Below I’ve given each story its own tiny review. Overall, I think they came together to create a strong collected work.

The Faery Handbag: 4.5 stars
This little tale was a great way to kick off this collection. It was grounded it reality but was also filled with a strangeness that was just taken for granted by the narrator. I haven’t been this enamored with a purse since reading about Hermione’s little TARDIS-like bag in the final Harry Potter book that was so much bigger on the inside. The handbag was the best type of magic, and it’s a lovely idea that will stick with me. There’s also a wildly memorable grandmother, a sweet love story, and an under appreciated use for Scrabble tiles. All in all, it was pretty close to perfect.

The Hortlak: 3.5 stars
This story really felt like it was pulled from the pages of a Gaiman collection. Not that it felt plagiarized, mind you, but the elements that made up the tale felt very reminiscent of his work. There’s a, odd little cast of characters, each obsessed with something random like pajamas, and a quiet apocalypse taking place in the background. You see, the entire story takes place in and around a little convenience store perched above a valley full of zombies. These aren’t violent zombies by any means, but they’re not ideal customers. My only complaint was that the characters, especially our perspective character, felt a bit hollow despite their interesting traits. There was an inability to connect that hindered my enjoyment.

The Cannon: 1 star
Good lord, why?! This was weird in the worst way. It was a jarring departure from the preceding tales, and hit me like a dissonant chord in a lovely song. Ick.

Stone Animals: 3.5 stars
There was something about this story that reminded me of Stephen King’s The Shining. A young family finds and moves into a new home, and it seems like the fulfillment of their dreams. But things start feeling haunted. Not the house itself, but things the family brought with them. It’s super weird. Things like a television and an alarm clock and a bathrobe, a purse and a toothbrush and a cat, suddenly inspire deep levels of discomfort. And it seems like the stone rabbits outside the door might have something to do with that, and with the oddly high numbers of rabbits camping out on their lawn. Things get weirder from there. While the family was fun and the haunted items were an interesting twist, the ending lost me. I still have no idea what actually happened.

Catskin: 4 stars
This tale felt like a throwback to fairytales, and I would have been completely unsurprised to find this story in a collection from Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. The views on witches and cats portrayed here were absolutely fascinating. Evidently there’s no such thing as a cat; they are all humans sewn into catsuits by witches. The idea that witches steal children because they cannot have their own, that their wombs birth houses instead of humans, was such an interesting idea. And beware of a witch scorned, because she will stop at nothing to get her revenge. The only downside to this story for me was that it was honestly kind of gross in places.

Some Zombie Contingency Plans: 4.5 stars
Another story that reminded me of Gaiman. Soap is such a sweet but enigmatic character, who seems to have no true grip on his identity. He becomes whoever others think he is to a certain extent. His current hobby of choice is party crashing, and this story takes places at just such a party. Learning about his backstory was fun, and I found the painting he keeps with him incredibly interesting. His need to create contingency plans for any and every situation, especially in regards to zombies, was endearing. I’m still a bit baffled by the ending, but by this point I’m starting to see a pattern with Link’s storytelling decisions. A short story stays with you longer if the ending is either open-ended or vague, and Link capitalizes on this.

The Great Divorce: 3 stars
“There once was a man whose wife was dead. She was dead when he fell in love with her…” How’s that for an opener? This was another clever concept on Link’s part. Imagine a world where the living become enamored with the idea of the dead, so much so that they marry then and have little ghost babies. The downside? The living still can’t see the dead. Their marriages rely completely on mediums, who now find themselves serving as therapists and marital counselors. It’s a bizarre idea, and it was interesting to see play out. But here again we have no real depth the the characters. This story reminded me of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which is a wildly popular novel that just didn’t really work for me. I can see this story in that same light; I appreciate it, but it’s not for me.

Magic For Beginners: 5 stars
I think this was my favorite story in the collection. I felt like I truly got to know Jeremy and his friends and parents, which immediately won me over. Jeremy Mars is a delightfully quirky teenage boy, and his friends and family are just as endearingly weird. I absolutely love the idea of the television show around which this story is based. The Library is a show that has no ties to a network, and no set day or time on which it airs. Fans have to remain constantly vigilant in order to find episodes when they air and alert their fellow fans. The show is such an interesting concept. It takes place entirely inside a library, but said library is mind-bendingly vast, with entire lakes and mountains and ecosystems housed within its various floors. In the first paragraph of the story, Link states that The Library “you’ve never seen on TV, but I bet you wish you had.” I desperately wish this show was real, and that I could watch and dissect episodes with Jeremy and his friends.

Lull: 4.5 stars
I’ve never read anything else quite like Lull. It’s a Russian nesting doll of a tale, a story within a story within a story, with the innermost story tying directly back into the outermost. It’s a fever dream, and I couldn’t stop reading it. We start with a group of friends playing poker and end with a Scheherazade worthy feat of storytelling. It’s in turn charming and disturbing, maudlin and fun. There was one segment of the story where time went backwards, from death to birth, and it provided me with some deeply philosophical pondering.

Overall, I thought this was a strong collection and a great introduction to the work of Kelly Link. There was only one story that I really disliked, and I enjoyed far more than I didn’t. If you like your fiction weird or literary or bite-sized or all of the above, I highly suggest giving this collection a try.

You can purchase a copy of the book here, with free shipping worldwide!

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