The very short and dirty review for this collection could be — when it is good it is very, very good. But when it is bad it is horrid.
I did not love all these stories equally. In fact, several verged on epic fail for me. Which is not hard to do. I am probably the worst reader of short stories. However, those that did work sent me into such shuddering, paroxysms of delight there are no words to express my infinite admiration. My favorites worked so exquisitely on a sub-atomic, cellular level that I immediately wanted to catch a red eye to Vegas and marry them no questions asked, no pre-nup, with Elvis Presley looking on curling his lip in approval. Thank you, thank you very much. My five stars is the only way I can think of to reflect that boundless joy. Is it for every story? Absolutely not. But I have no problem letting those five stars stand.
My first introduction to Kij Johnson was in June 2011 when I read her short story Ponies. It tickled something very profound in my imagination and gave a real goose to my pleasure center (at least the part of my brain that perpetually craves dark and disturbed). Funny thing is, I picked up this collection based solely on the cover and title. I didn’t even notice that the author is the very same author who had impressed me with her little diddy about prepubescent girls and their pet ponies. When I finally put the two together in an “a-ha, duh” moment, saying I was pleased would be quite an understatement.
Kij Johnson is a bit of a mad scientist in her approach to storytelling. There is folklore, magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, fable, myth and legend. That sounds messy and confusing, and it should be. It should be a disastrous, alchemical experiment that blows the whole meth lab sky high. But somehow she makes it work, each story its own landscape playing by its own rules. She blends things in ways that made me think of how van Gogh saw sunflowers and starry nights. Even where I floundered, and did not appreciate the final destination, her prose ran like silk across the neurons of my brain, stroking them into a blissed out reader high.
Kij Johnson is on my radar. I will most definitely be keeping my eye out for more of her strange and wonderful words.
My two favorite stories of the collection are available online for free:
Ponies: If you haven’t already, read this weird and deranged tale about youthful female rites of passage and the more brutal realities of fitting in. This is a macabre spin on the innocence lost theme delivered with cutting precision that slices deep.
26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss: This one made me laugh with its whimsy and weep with its melancholy. I don’t even know how to describe everything it made me feel actually. Aimee becomes the proprietor of 26 monkeys and a series of circus acts. Her biggest trick is that she makes all the monkeys vanish onstage. Where do the monkeys go? She does not know. All Aimee knows is that they return to her a few hours later bearing little trinkets from wherever they have been. The ending? Perfection in eight little words.
Honorable mentions must go to:
Names for Water – a phone call from unknown origin that whispers like water. I don’t know if everyone will love the resolution here, but it gave me goosebumps.
Fox Magic – an Asian-themed fable about love’s blindness. A fox falls in love with a man and lures him away from his human life.
Dia Chjerman’s Tale – short, almost purely science fiction tale with apocalyptic overtones. There is a vibe of dread here that I really grooved on.
At the Mouth of the River of Bees – I’m usually not one for magical realism (sometimes I’m not even sure if I’m applying the term correctly), but there’s a real dreamy quality to this one that almost hypnotized me. A woman follows a literal river of bees to its mouth. What will be waiting for her when she finally gets there? I’m thinking pet owners (and dog lovers) will find this one especially poignant.
This review has also been posted to Goodreads.