Source of book: Audiobook from the library
My kids have really loved the two previous Neil Gaiman books we have listened to: Coraline and The Graveyard Book. They requested I find another one if possible.
M is for Magic is a collection of short stories. Our library put it in the Young Adult section, and I can see why. Two of the stories are definitely more YA than Children’s stories. Depending on the specific parents and kids, of course. My kids have had their sex education, and I do not freak out if there are references to body parts and periods and making out. Your mileage may vary. The rest of the stories are generally suitable for kids, although a couple are pretty creepy. Which is a plus for my kids.
As I have done for some previous collections, I’ll review the individual stories one at a time.
“The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds”
The best way to describe this one is as a nursery rhyme sendup of hard-boiled detective fiction. “Little” Jack Horner is the detective, hired to find out who killed Humpty Dumpty. Yeah, this probably has been done before, but Gaiman handles it with skill, getting both the atmosphere and the quirky details of the nursery rhymes right.
This one is definitely YA. It is also a bit of a dark tale, about a troll that wants to eat the narrator’s life. I would say it is very Neil Gaiman, however, to find a way of capturing the longing of childhood for a long and good life ahead and the teenage desire to be with the opposite sex, using fear and a troll to make them more real. It’s one of the things I really like about Gaiman: his ability to use the fantastic and the unworldly to make sense of the very real psychology of us humans. It is the use of fantasy in the best possible way, not as a mere escape from reality but as a way to make the real more real and more understandable.
“Don’t Ask Jack”
This is a very short about a sinister toy - and also the passage of time. The evil Jack-in-the-Box is disliked by everyone, from the toys to the children who would otherwise play with him. So he sits in the corner of the old house. As time goes by, the children grow up, have families and problems, and grow old. A good example of how to distill an idea into a very few short pages.
“How to Sell the Ponti Bridge”
This story is firmly in the tradition of the Tall Tale, and also a nod to Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker Club. The members of the club in this case are intergalactic scam artists, who gain membership through their ingenious schemes to separate marks from their money. In this story, an elderly member tells the tale of how he sold the “Ponti Bridge,” a fictional bridge made of jewels held together by magic. (Ponti is of course a reference to the Italian word for bridge, and the bridge itself seems related to landmarks in the Arabian Nights.)
The twist in this case is exactly how the scammer manages to profit off of a bridge that everyone knows is owned by the government - and sells his scam to highly educated and knowledgeable victims by leveraging their greed.
“October in the Chair”
There is a story within a story in this story. The framing device is a scene in the forest where the personifications of the months tell tales as part of a tradition. The seasons are given personalities to match their, well, personalities. Eventually, October, who is presiding, gets to tell his tale, and that is the one we here. I believe this story was written before The Graveyard Book, and it presages some of the ideas in the latter. A boy runs away from a home he is not welcome in (yet another lonely kid in a Gaiman book…) and ends up making friends with a boy in a graveyard. The boy is, naturally, a ghost. Unlike in The Graveyard Book, there is the implication that in order to join the ghosts, the boy must become dead himself. The story ends before it is resolved, leaving the other months unsatisfied with the ending.
This is one of the two best (in my opinion) stories in the collection. The elderly Mrs. Whittaker, resident of a sleepy town in England, has her routine and her carefully ordered life and is content. And then, one day, she is shopping as usual at the local thrift store, and calmly notices that the Holy Grail is there, next to the other bits of bric-a-brac. She buys it, and places it on the mantle between a picture of her late husband, and a china basset hound.
Not too long after, Sir Galaad (Gaiman’s spelling) shows up, very polite and all, looking for the Grail. At first, she won’t let him in. He is, after all, a stranger and a man and all. However, after she asks for ID, and he produces his commission from King Arthur showing he is on a “high and noble quest,” she lets him in. (The ID was, after all, much more official looking than a silly card with a photo on it.)
Galaad wants to repossess the Grail, but Mrs. Whittaker really, really likes how it looks in her collection, and is loath to part with it. Galaad offers gold, but she isn’t impressed.
Later, however, having quested and travelled the world, he returns with three treasures: the philosopher’s stone, a phoenix egg, and the apple of life. This proves to be enough to tempt Mrs. Whittaker - mostly. She decides that the stone and the egg will be exchanged for the grail - two for one is a good deal, and the new additions will fit her collection. However, the apple, and its promise of renewed youth frightens her. While she remembers her youth with pleasure, she decides she would rather remain as she is - an old lady with her mundane, everyday life.
I loved the gentle humor of this story, and its treatment of old age. Gaiman is nowhere near pessimistic in this story, and grants age a realism and dignity that it deserves.
This one is a creepy horror story about a cat that adopts the narrator - and turns out to have a secret life fighting off the Devil at night.
“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”
This is the other YA oriented story. The narrator is friends with another high school aged boy. While the narrator is shy and awkward around girls, his friend is a true man-about-town, who has girls at his beck and call whenever he wants. The two friends decide to go out and crash a party in the neighborhood, but discover that it is, well, a bit unusual. At first it seems pretty normal. A bunch of young people, some underaged drinking, and snogging. Except that as the narrator starts actually talking to the girls, he finds out that they are, well, foreign. And not in the sense of exchange students from the continent, but as in from other worlds. The conversations become increasingly bizarre, until his friend - who had been trying to make out with the prettiest girl - comes down in a panic, and they flee.
You can read the whole story here, on Gaiman’s website. The story is certainly an interesting twist on the fear of girls at a certain age - and the way they seem to be from a different planet.
“Sunbird” is my other favorite story in the collection. The story was written for Gaiman’s daughter, and is “in the style of” science fiction writer R. A. Lafferty, supposedly. (I’ve never read Lafferty, so I would have no idea.
The Epicurean Club is devoted to eating everything possible. New tastes are all, and they have sampled everything from endangered species to flash-frozen mammoth and mastodon from thousands of years ago. And they are now suffering from ennui. It has all been eaten, all tasted, and there is nothing but boredom awaiting.
The oldest member, however, has a suggestion: they should travel to Cairo, and eat the Sunbird in Heliopolis. A few of the other members have a vague premonition of doom about the whole thing, but they can’t figure out why. What is the Sunbird, and why is it not mentioned in the minutes of the Club? And why is there a page missing which appears to have been burned? And, for that matter, why is the oldest member continually eating coals?
I won’t spoil the ending, but it is delightful.
“The Witch’s Headstone”
I won’t say too much about this one. It was made, nearly word for word, into a chapter in The Graveyard Book, which I reviewed earlier this year. In fact, don’t bother reading this story, just go straight to the full length book.
This final one is a poem. It is a collection of advice for navigating a fairy tale or myth or legend. Throughout are references to tropes from the world of fantasy - including Gaiman’s own stories. You can find an annotated version here.
As with the other audiobooks by Gaiman that we have listened to, the author himself narrates. Gaiman is delightful to listen to, and has a pleasant yet creepy voice. The title of the collection is a tribute to Ray Bradbury, and his collections R is for Rocket and S is for Space. Gaiman was an avid reader of short stories as a child, and Bradbury was one of his favorites.