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Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman

Strange snippets and magical moments from a tantalising talent

Fragile Things is subtitled "Short fictions & wonders", which pretty much gives a flavour of this compilation. Neil Gaiman has from time to time written conventional short stories, often for particular slots in books or else online. "Goliath", included here, was commissioned as part of the online publicity campaign for the then-forthcoming movie The Matrix, and it's a lot better than the two sequels to that film. But he has also dashed off snippety little things to go with Tori Amos CDs, or concert tours, or as Christmas cards and (late) birthday presents for his daughters, which then get shared with the world.

Gaiman is sometimes like the schoolboy who, when set homework that involves writing a story or a poem, turns in a poem because it takes much less time and effort. I always picture the frozen smiles of gratitude on the faces of editors who ask him for "something for an anthology", and get a thin poem back by return. It's not that the several poems included here are not very good: they read aloud very well, but slip past like a snack. But the rare stories tend to be precious, as well as fragile. A busy all-round writer like Gaiman doesn't often get to sit down and hone his short fictions. When he does, they tend to be extraordinary, complicated, hilarious, melancholy and terrifying.

The stand-out stuff here includes "A Study in Emerald", a distinctive essay in a form of pulp pastiche that Gaiman acknowledges, in a worthwhile introduction, has been shaped by other writers: Philip José Farmer, Alan Moore, and - ahem - Kim Newman. It intermingles the worlds of Sherlock Holmes and Great Cthulhu, but turns the assumptions of Arthur Conan Doyle and HP Lovecraft inside-out.

"The Problem of Susan" is another literary footnote, to the Narnia books, in an affecting, half-regretful, chiding manner. "Bitter Grounds" and "Keepsakes and Treasures" are horror stories that feel like the beginnings of novels, but leave off at exactly the point where they should. As for "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" and "Closing Time", these are Twilight Zone-ish stories rooted in the lost worlds of the recent past, and snapshots of English lives recalled from another country.

And in "Sunbird" and "The Monarch of the Glen", Gaiman retells old stories in new ways that get to the heart of his project: the eternal persistence of the magical and the strange, in a world that isn't as disappointing as it seems.