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M is for Magic    by Neil Gaiman order for
M is for Magic
by Neil Gaiman
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2007 (2007)
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Neil Gaiman has always loved short stories: 'tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.' Gaiman, who has been writing short stories for a quarter of a century, admits that 'something that's finished and over in a weekend or a week, is pure fun'. M is for Magic includes eleven shorts.

A PI narrator renders his classic detective story on the streets of Nurseryland. The midget PI (referred to as 'short stuff'), Little Jack Horner, is visited by a dame, Jill Dumpty, who claims her brother's death was not an accident. Her brother - who else but Humpty Dumpty? Humpty was killed before he handed over an envelope of photos. The cop's underworld informant - Bernie Cock Robin - tells him the victim had his fingers in 'too many pies'. Sergeant O'Grady of All the King's Men confirms that 'Humpty was a bad egg'. This fairy tale includes extortion, robbery, and the black market, as well as a mention of the time Horner found the perps who raided Ma Hubbard's Cupboard.

In the Troll Bridge saga, the storyteller is seven years old. During summer vacation, Jack discovers a path through the woods, passes a boarded-up manor, and finds a shady fairyland. Approaching a red-brick bridge with a 'carved arch over the path', he hears: 'I'm a troll ... Fol rol de ol rol'. The big troll threatens to eat Jack, who bargains that he will be much bigger and tastier when he gets older. Well, Jack grows older and bigger, and promises to return ... more than a few times.

In How to Sell the Ponti Bridge, we meet members of the Rogues Club in the Seven Worlds, such clubs dating back 70,000 years. The favorite is the original 'Rogue Club in the city of Lost Carnadine', whose select membership includes Lord Niff. The narrator disdains scams that self-respecting rogues would not touch, like 'selling a tourist the Ponti Bridge', stating that such a person wouldn't get membership. That claim is overheard by another member, who queries it. Introducing himself as Stoat, he explains - with intelligence and aplomb - how he accomplished such a scam.

Mrs. Whitaker, who regularly visits the post office to pick up her pension checks, stars in Chivalry. In the Oxfam Shop, she spots a silver goblet priced low, and buys it ... just knowing it is 'the Holy Grail'. Knight Gaalad arrives at Mrs. Whitaker's door, time and again, with varied offerings in exchange for what sits on the widow's mantelpiece - he insists he must complete his quest. Mrs. Whitaker is finally convinced to trade for the ancient item, and on her next jaunt to the Oxfam Shop, she almost purchases ... an old shiny lamp!

In How to Talk to Girls at Parties, shy teenager Enn has a best friend named Vic (who is not at all shy). An invitation to a party-mixer comes from an unknown female. There, Vic immediately picks out the girl he wants, while Enn meets shy Wain, Wain in the conservatory. But they converse easily. She refers to her six-finger deformity, and whether she would be 'retained or eliminated' as not perfect. When Enn returns to the conservatory with a glass of water for Wain, she is nowhere to be found. Soon, Vic runs down a flight of stairs, grabs Enn, telling him that they are at the wrong party. (This chiller is narrated by Enn forty years later.)

The Sunbird composition begins at an Epicurean Club meeting of five distinguished members - the Club founded by Augustus TwoFeathers McCoy's great grandfather. The group discuss a mammoth that had been on ice for a 'millennium or two'. They expound on 'real taste', ventures, and a while back, a human on the menu, to which one adds, 'only after it had been electrocuted'. The discussion turns to what hasn't been tasted by the group as yet. Aha! the Suntown Sunbird found in Egypt, aka the 'Phoenix of Heliopolis', a delicacy which literally burns the years off of you!

In The Witch's Headstone, we meet Nobody Owens, 'Bod' for short, the 'live boy' within the graveyard boundaries. His parents warn him to keep away from the witch's burial site. Sensing that he's not heard the whole story, Bod sets out with guardian Silas to learn the meaning of 'unconsecrated ground'. Venturing on his own, Bod accidentally meets the witch, Liza Hempstock, who sports no grave marker. Liking and befriending Liza, Bod determines he'll buy the witch a headstone. This gripping, out of this world story is unique with its mixed cast of 'living, dead, and buried and otherwise'.

Neil Gaiman's M Is for Magic is a marvelous compendium of entertaining skullduggery in short story form, encompassing mixed storylines and messages, puzzling endings, and mostly leaving readers to ponder the outcome or purpose of the story. Gaiman's genial creativity lends to varied tales that tease and tantalize every reader's taste. Gaiman speaks lyrically (at times in riddles), as if from somewhere else. Teddy Kristiansen's illustrations - thin lined, delicate pencil sketches - add to the eerie atmosphere of Gaiman's stories.

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