Most of the stories in this collection are very short. Flash fiction short as well as shorter side of short story short. As such, while I've done my usual thing of comments after finishing each story, there was often not much I could say without spoiling the entire story. Most of them — except for the one novella — are of the quirky "punchline" variety, meaning there's some twist at the end often casting the story in a new funny or creepy light. I am generally a fan of that sort of story (blame Asimov) and I think it's a winning formula for flash fiction in general.
Of the stories a few stuck out for me as being memorable for different reasons. "Mrs Claus's Christmas" stuck in my mind in part because of the food-related ick factor as well as my general amusement at Santa being one-upped. "The Hungry Man" is probably the scariest story, but I'm not sure I can say why without spoiling it. I also quite liked "Charlie the Sheep" and "Axed". And the novella "Lucy's Wrists" is an interesting trip into a psych hospital with a doctor experimenting on some of his patients.
All the stories had male protagonists and with a lot of them (mostly not ones mentioned above) I felt like they just weren't written for people like me. Which is fine since this is a single author collection and the author can write whatever he wants, it just wasn't my sort of thing a lot of the time. And I should point out I didn't find any of the stories to be particularly sexist — I mean, some of the characters were, but that's different — they just struck me as often quite... masculine. I think that's part of the reason I enjoyed "Charlie the Sheep" more than some of the others; the farmyard animals were significantly more androgynous. Even "Lucy's Wrists", in which one of the four point of view characters is female and in the title, focussed much more on the stories of the male characters than on Lucy. That said, it wasn't as though Lucy had to be female for the story to work, so that's a plus.
There was also a lot of food ick factor, which is just something I do not like. In fact, I suspect I've classified some stories as containing food ick when other people wouldn't necessarily see them that way, like "Mrs Claus's Christmas".
Overall, I didn't hate this collection but a lot of the stories were just not my thing. I suspect others might enjoy it more than I did. I would recommend it to fans of short short and flash stories who also enjoy dark fantasy and surreal horror. Although more of the stories fit into horror than dark fantasy I think. And with some of them, although I didn't find them scary or creepy, I'm not sure what to call them if not horror. Notes on individual stories follow.
Ain't No Ordinary Ham — An odd story about a bloke with a strange ham attachment. Couldn't decide if being a vegetarian while reading was a pro or a con.
Saying Goodbye — A man drawn to a house he hasn't lived in for a while, suffering from unusually strong nostalgia.
Pre-emptive Strike — A man describes why he thinks his brother is a sociopath and possibly a serial killer.
Mrs Claus's Christmas — the titular character wants a go at running Christmas. Not only are her ideas a bit extreme, but she also has to get Santa out of the way first.
Axed — A hilarious story about a guy who realised he's life is a sitcom, laugh track and all. One of my favourites so far.
The Magic Secret Book — Very amusing. The story of how a homeless man became terrified of money.
Hungry Man — A more horrific, gruesome story.
Letter to the Living from Dead City — Dark fantasy with necromancers and a wizard. Didn't entirely do it for me, including the "punch line".
Dhayban — (Mystical) snakes and a main character with minimal self-preservation instincts.
The Frog Story — A giant frog appears in Toby's lounge room and he must deal with it.
Job Interview — of hellish doom.
Lucy's Wrists — A much longer and more substantial story than those that went before it. Without checking the word count, I think this is a novella. Diel, Tristan and Lucy are patients in a psychiatric hospital. One of the doctors is experimenting with a new drug intended to promote psychic powers, covertly giving it to the three patients. The story follows Diel mostly, as he deals with the new voices in his head and other consequences of the drugs. Not a bad read although a slightly confusing one to put down and come back to. It was a relief to have something meatier after all the very short stories.
Charlie the Sheep — A quick story about farmyard animals and their views on the farmer-as-servant. I liked it. Ending the collection on a high note. (Well, not for the sheep.)
3.5 / 5 stars
First published: May 2013, Harper Voyager
Format read: eARC
Source: The publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Horror Reading Challenge