Nov 3, 2009

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

It only took the very first paragraph for me to fall in love with Magic for Beginners. Let me show you why:
I used to go to thrift stores with my friends. We’d take the train into Boston, and go to the Garment District, which is this huge vintage clothing warehouse. Everything is arranged by color, and somehow that makes all of the clothes beautiful. It’s kind of like f you went through the wardrobe in the Narnia books, only instead of finding Aslan and the White Witch and horrible Eustace, you found this magical clothing world—instead of talking animals, there were feather boas and wedding dresses and bowling shoes, and paisley shirts and Doc Martens and everything hung up on racks so that first you have black dresses, all together, like the world’s largest indoor funeral, and then blue dresses—all the blues you can imagine—and then red dresses and so on. Pink-reds and orangey-reds and exit-light reds and candy reds. Sometimes I would close my eyes and Natasha and Natalie and Jake would drag me over to a rack, and rub a dress against my hand. 'Guess what color this is'.
Is that not a marvellous description? Doesn’t it make you want to read on? It’s the opening paragraph of “The Faery Handbag”, the first of the nine stories in Magic for Beginners and almost my favourite—“almost” because I can’t quite decide; they’re all so good.

“The Faery Handbag” is the story of a young woman whose grandmother, Zofia Swink, emigrated long ago from an Eastern European country that no longer exists. How exactly that country ceased to exist involves a handbag and more than a little bit of magic. It’s also a story about longing and loss, about the people who walk away from our lives, and about saying goodbye.

“Catskin” is a sort of fairy tale that begins with the death of a feared Witch, and with her younger son having to learn to look after himself (even though, the narrator tells us, this “younger son” is not as young as we would think). Like the hero of “Puss in Boots”, he has the help of a feline companion, but his path doesn’t quite lead him to princesses or ogre’s fortunes.

I suppose that if pressed, I would hesitatingly say that “Cat Skin” was probably my favourite story in the collection. There was much I loved about it: the fairy tale tropes, the darkness, the sheer strangeness. But what set it apart was the narrative voice and its occasional asides, such as this:
The dollhouse chimney had broken off and fallen on the ground. One of the cats picked it up and carried it away, like a souvenir. The cat carried the chimney into the woods and ate it, a mouthful at a time, and passed out of this story and into another one. It’s no concern of ours.
If “Cat Skin” was the most enjoyable, then “Stone Animals” was the creepiest—but in the best possible way. It’s the story of a family that moves to upstate New York, to a country house with two strange stone animals by the gates. Shortly after they move in, they realize that there’s a large group of rabbits that comes to stand in their lawn and stare at the house. Strange, no? But that’s not the strangest thing that happens. I loved “Stone Animals” for the sheer originality of the premise and the deliciously eerie mood, but most of all for the characterization and family dynamics

I also want to highlight the title story, “Magic for Beginners”, which is about a teen named Jeremy Mars and his friends, all of whom are obsessed with a TV show called the The Library. The Library is not like other shows: nobody quite knows when or where it’s going to be on. The identity of the show’s writers is a mystery, and the cast rotates the roles they play every episode.

The story isn’t just about the show, of course: it’s also about Jeremy’s life, about the quiet girl he loves and the girls who love him, about his parents’ marriage and what is making it fall apart, about a book that Jeremy’s father, a horror writer, recently wrote… I could tell you more, but I’ll leave you with one tip: when you’re done with the story, read the first paragraph again, because it’s possible that the first time around what you read there won’t quite sink in. And you want to let it sink in, because it puts a twist on the whole story.

I could easily go on about each of the other stories in Magic for Beginners, but I’ll stop here. As you might have guessed by now, I love them all. They’re all strange, yes, and they leave questions unanswered, but that only makes them more memorable. They’re dark, but occasionally funny too, and a complete joy to read. The tone and mood are always spot on, as is the characterization, which is something I imagine is not easy to do this well in short stories.

The good new is that Magic for Beginners is available as a free e-book. Sadly, the web version is missing “The Faery Handbag” and “Magic for Beginners”, but you can read “Cat Skin”! If you're anything like me, that story alone will make you want to get the book.

More bits I liked:
Batu had spent a lot of time reorganizing the candy aisle according to chewiness and meltiness. The week before, he had arranged it so that if you took the first letter of every candy, reading across from left to right and then down, it had spelled out the first sentence of To Kill a Mockingbird, and then also a line of Turkish poetry. Something about the moon. (From “The Hortlak”)

The Witch vomits up mud, fur, glass buttons, tin soldiers, trowels, hat pins, thumbtacks, love letters (mislabelled or sent without the appropriate amount of postage and never read) and a dozen regiments of red ants, each ant as long and wide as a kidney bean. The ants swim across the perilous stinking basin, clamber up the sides of the basin, and go marching across the floor in a shiny ribbon. They are carrying pieces of Time in their mandibles. Time is heavy, even in such small pieces, but the ants have strong jaws, strong legs. (From “Catskin”)

Jeremy comes home from school, feeling as if he has passed the math test, after all. Jeremy is an optimist. Maybe there’s something good on TV. He settles down with the remote control on one of his father’s pet couches: oversized and reupholstered in an orange-juice-colored corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture. This couch looks as if its hobby is devouring interior decorators. Jeremy’s father is a horror writer, so no one should be surprised if some of the couches he reupholsters are hideous and eldritch.
(From “Magic for Beginners”)
(Okay, so these are a bit long. Can you tell I’m in love with her writing?)

Other Opinions:
A Book a Week
An Adventure in Reading
Boston Bibliophile
Bookshelves of Doom

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. Sold!!
    You should get commission for the books you review. I love the descriptive passages. The first one about the clothes was marvellous, but I really enjoyed the one about the sweets being put in different orders. Now going on my list.

  2. This sounds great, even though I usually don't go for short stories. I had been wanting to hear about it ever since I saw it in your TBR picture a while ago. And you do pick the most wonderful passages. I've got to get this book for no other reason than to find out about what the rabbits are up to!

  3. I'm not one for short stories, usually- but this one sounds really good, and the quotes you've included are enticing me!

  4. I can certainly see why it only took one paragraph to fall in love!

  5. I've heard of her! I'd completely forgotten about her, but as soon as you mentioned it was available as a free e-book, I remembered, I have totally heard of her! I have heard lovely things about her! Oh when will I learn that it's never a good idea to close out the editing portion of my TBR page before I have read your most recent review...

  6. I read Link's first collection earlier this year, which you'll probably want to get a hold of, considering that you enjoyed this one so much! It's also available free online, and I know that I included a link to it in my review. I personally felt that collection was a bit hit & miss, as some stories I really liked, and other ones very much left me completely confused... not necessarily a bad thing, but I wasn't really able to take anything away from those stories, so I liked them less. I do really like the fairytale aspect to her writing.

  7. LOL...not only does that first paragraph make me want to read on, it definitely makes me want to find that thrift store! :D

    I've only ever read one story by her (The Surfer), but I really liked it. Goes without saying, this book is now on the old wish list, too.

  8. Kelly Link is a wonderful writer and a fabulous editor who has gathered some great story collection. Did you hear the Tender Morsels just won the World Fantasy Award?

  9. That does sound wonderful and Vivienne is right, authors should be queuing up to have you review. General reviews create interest, but when you slice into the story and let us all have a little look you show us the details that make books great.

  10. That does sound wonderful and Vivienne is right, authors should be queuing up to have you review. General reviews create interest, but when you slice into the story and let us all have a little look you show us the details that make books great.

  11. Glad you enjoyed this! Great review. :)

  12. I am SO there. It has been promptly added to my wish list. I only recently have come to love short stories, and these sound thoroughly enchanting! (You will laugh, but when I first read your review, I thought that little excerpt at the beginning was your description, not the authors. I was sitting here with my mouth hanging open, saying "Ana you need to freaking write a book!" I am so dense sometimes!

  13. I'm most interested in the cover, which is so clearly based on daVinci's Lady with an Ermine!

  14. It seems like you've been reading FABULOUS books recently, Ana! I will definitely download this ebook :-)

  15. These do sound like great stories. They're going on my list, too.

  16. Thanks for giving us the first paragraph - it really does make me want to read on! I discovered this book on my friend's shelf on Saturday, so now I know I really need to borrow it.

  17. I've read a lot of good things about Kelly Link, but haven't yet got a chance to read one of her books. Based on that paragraph you posted, I think this will be the first one I try. Great review, you have made me want to go rush right out and grab this book! Thanks!

  18. Much like a lot of commenters, I'm sold on that first paragraph. I've heard gorgeous things of Kelly Link (us bloggers talked about her books at our meet-up recently!) but i haven't yet read her work. i'll definitely put this on hold and give her a try.

  19. I love that opening line! All of the stories sound so intriguing! I'm putting this on to my wishlist!! :D

  20. Hear hear! You picked out some of my favorite passages. I've read the title story four times, and I still can't get past the part about the hideous and eldritch couches without laughing. Isn't Kelly Link a master of detail? That sinister rubber band ball, the compulsive room painting--the images from Stone Animals are probably the ones that stayed with me longest, though the title story was my favorite. I just love how in the middle of those crowds of (to use her word) eldritch images, she can also present her characters with emotional delicacy and sympathy.

    I suspect they can't put all the stories in the free e-book because a lot of them have been reprinted in a big anthology called Pretty Monsters by another publisher, which is being marketed as "Young Adult." There's a really good new one in there that I think you will like if Cat Skin is your favorite.

  21. Another short story collection that I must try to get my hands on!!!

  22. This book sounds absolutely delightful! All fairytale-ish. I'd not heard of it until you mentioned it in your vlog. Now I must read it :o)

  23. I enjoy short stories and the stories in this book sound wonderful, heartbreaking and heartwarming, full of promise and magic...
    I am so sorry to say that I never made it to the Garment Districy wwhen I visited Boston numerous times in my college years. I would have loved that place. It sounds like you had a lot of fun there. I am sure they have beautiful things. If I ever get back to Boston maybe I'll stop there!

  24. Another wonderful review! And I like the cover -- reminiscent of Lady With the Ermine.

  25. I've read The Faery Handbag! It was in The Faery Reel anthology. I liked it okay but the "rhythm" kind of threw me off. I read somewhere that the author has talked about doing a sequel. I might have to pick this one up to try out some of the other stories by Link.

  26. Vivienne: Isn't that a GREAT one? :D It doesn't hurt that it mentions such a wonderful book.

    Jill: Remember what I said about how questions remain unanswered? So it is with those rabbits :P But the brilliant thing is that it's not unsatisfying!

    Jeane: Read it, read know you want to :P

    JoAnn: I thought you'd all understand :D

    Jenny, I hope you enjoy her stories as much as I have! She'd been on my radar for literally years, and now I wish I'd read her sooner.

    Steph: Even though I enjoyed them all in this case, that's normally what happens to me with short story collections - some are hits, others are misses. I'll download the e-book of her first collection and keep what you said in mind.

    Debi: I wonder if it exists! Is Boston near you? Can we go there when I go visit you? :P We could stalk Amanda Palmer while we're at it :P

    Gavin: I did! And Kij Johnson also won for "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" :D :D :D I did a happy dance for them both!

    Jodie: Aww, you are too kind! I have nothing against review copies, but I'm actually glad I'm not sent any...I like following my reading whims and don't deal well with pressure :P

    Kailana: I know you're not the biggest short story fan, so I'll refrain from recommending it to you :P

    Sandy: lol, if I wrote like that I WOULD write a book! You're not dumb, though - I wish the code to indent passages indented them a little bit more. I'm sure there's a way to adjust that in my template, so I just need to stop being lazy and look it up :P

    Jennie: I know! Isn't it wonderful?

    Aarti: I have! Except for Phantom of the Opera, but more on that later :P

    Bermudaonion: yay! Mission accomplished :P

    Jeanne: I hope you enjoy them!

    Lenore: I'm glad to hear you'll be able to borrow it, and I hope you enjoy the stories :)

    Zibilee: This was my first time reading her, but it seems that whatever you pick up it's hard to go wrong :)

    Lena: How neat that you talked about her! And most of all, that you got to meet :D

    Melody: yay :D

    trapunto: She REALLY is. I loved both the images and the unexpected touches of humour. And that's a good point about the free e-book version. I WILL get my hands on Pretty Monsters, as well as on her other collections!

    Staci: Yep :P

    Terri B: Yes you must!

    Amy: I've yet to make it to the US, but someday!

    Stephanie, isn't that an amazing cover?

    Ladytink: True, it is in The Faery Reel! Which I seriously need to read :P And I'd love a sequel! Though I liked the lingering mysteries too :)

  27. I have an ebook of this and I'm so excited, I will definitely read this sometime :)

  28. Great stuff, Ana!

    I first read about this book in October last year and posted a link for its free download. :D

  29. I recently read Pretty Monsters, another short story collection by Kelly Link. It includes "The Faery Handbag" as well as "Magic For Beginners," but not the others. I didn't particularly enjoy Pretty Monsters, so I'm not planning to read anything else by this author.

  30. This sounds really good. Thank you for the review!


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