My sweet boyfriend, knowing my penchant for all things Neil Gaiman, bought me Fragile Things almost the moment it came out. The book is a collection of stories, poetry, and whatnot that I have to recommend incredibly highly -- but you have to be ready for things to be not quite what they seem and for the need to actually think as you read. I happen to love how he turns stories on their heads and always has a twist that you're not precisely ready for. Of course, the difficulty for me in reviewing these stories is to show their brilliance so you'll go read them, without giving away any of the fun of reading them.
First, I've got to say that I'm entranced by the cover, which is translucent white paper over a white cover with, well, fragile things on it, such as a butterfly, a snowflake, and a human heart. Notice how that last one sneaks up on you? What a perfect warning (or appetite whetting) for how Gaiman's stories sneak up on you.
As a fan of his earlier work, American Gods, I started with the novella "Monarch of the Glen," which picks back up with Shadow, the main character of that novel. Shadow's been doing some travel and has ended up in middle-of-nowhere Scotland. As you might imagine if you've read American Gods, someone improbable asks Shadow to take a job as a, well, let's call it security enforcer. Except of course that the castle in which he's supposed to perform this task for a large party of very wealthy people isn't on any of the survey maps. Add to that a woman named Jennie who isn't what she seems and doesn't want Shadow to take this job, and we're already on the way to another scrunched up forehead, feverish reading moment.
In "Sunbird," we get to meet the members of the Epicurean Club, including Augustus TwoFeathers McCoy (and his daughter Hollyberry NoFeathers McCoy), who ate and drank enough for many men; Professor Mandalay, who one was never quite sure was really there; Jackie Newhouse, a descendant of Casanova; Virginia Boote, a now-ruined beauty; and, of course, Zebediah T. Crawcrustle, the poorest member of the club, who'd been around since, well, nobody's quite sure. At the moment when the club is sure they've tried every food there is to try, from vulture, to beetle (although not quite every kind of beetle), to panda and mammoth, Crawcrustle suggests that grilled Sunbird hasn't been done in a long time, and they would definitely enjoy it. So, they make preparations to go catch and eat the Sunbird (one has to go to Cairo to do so, you know), but Crawcrustle may have left out one or two small details in how the whole process works.
Don't miss Gaiman's take on the legend of Bluebeard in "The Hidden Chamber." One of my favorite types of book or story to read is one that takes a myth, legend, or tale that we all know, in one version, and goes farther or deeper with it. I think part of what I like is knowing some background - I like feeling intelligent after all -- but not reading exactly the same story over again. Gaiman is a master at this -- "Monarch of the Glen" does it in more ways than even the obvious one of the Norse legends that Shadow and his boss Wednesday arose from, "The Problem of Susan" and "Inventing Aladdin" do this in another way, and "The Hidden Chamber" takes yet another direction in re-imagining Bluebeard.
Many of the stories are not brand new, although they've not been collected together before and you would have had to go far and wide to capture them all. One favorite example is "The Problem of Susan," which pays homage to, and deals with some difficult issues in, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. I also enjoyed getting reacquainted with "A Study in Emerald," which combines Gaiman's sense of humor and the irrationality (as he puts it) of H.P. Lovecraft, with the utter rationality (again, Gaiman's sense) of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. The story won a Hugo, which was quite enough recommendation for me, but also evokes a just slightly not our Victorian England in a way that made me think of the best of "Doctor Who" or Robert Heinlein.
In any case, all the stories I've savored have been delicious and the Epicureans would've been coming back for seconds or thirds had this been on their plates. Enjoy.