Earlier this year I had the pleasure of corresponding with author K.J. Bishop and was fortunate enough to read the manuscript of her new anthology, That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, prior to publication. She was kind enough to mention me in her acknowledgements, and I’m thrilled to finally be able to write this review and hopefully steer you to Amazon (it’s available in Kindle format in the US and UK, and soon in paperback) to immediately purchase it.
It’s no secret how fond I am of the writing of K.J. Bishop, or of Kirsten herself, who is a pretty nifty human. It seems almost inadequate to dub her an author. She’s more like an artist of prose, but nothing so mundane or harmless as painting with letters. More like carving with an alphabet sword. There’s a quality about her writing that feels like wandering through a green garden overgrown with curious plants and bizarre structures: Here’s a bush trimmed in the shape of a lion with the head of a goose. Here’s a stone well full of stars instead of water. And here, strangest of all, is a misty path that endlessly leads back onto itself like a Mobius strip, bringing back versions of the same you, all slightly changed and speaking a different language.
Yes, that’s exactly how it is.
Fans of Bishop’s The Etched City (nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 2004) will be excited to read more about Gwynn in his full, black-hearted glory in The Art of Dying, and a somewhat toothier version of him in She Mirrors, both stories touching on the past and future of one of the most interesting not-villains of Bishop’s worlds.
One of my favorite stories of the collection is a very short one titled Last Drink Bird Head.
“Last Drink Bird Head didn’t fit in at school. When the others were candles, she was lemons. When doors closed she was on the wrong side. She hated the flavour of milk and cellophane. When she jumped rope she was a merry-go-round horse with an orange face. She couldn’t sit down anywhere, not even on the toilet, without saying ‘Last Drink Bird Head’ three times. When it was her turn to feed the goldfish she fed them glitter and they died.”
It’s all a bit insane, isn’t it? Beautifully, dreadfully so. While some of the stories – like the delightful cyberpunk Beach Rubble, or the upside-down apocalyptic The Heart of a Mouse – are fully-realized tales, others are like snatches of nightmare or the conversations of a fever dream. Mother’s Curtains is one such fragment, and packs a big punch for being so brief. There must be some kind of magic to that.
I believe I’ve begun to think of Bishop’s writing as a gleeful vacation from reading the way you’ve been taught you’re supposed to read. Rules here are about as necessary as pitchforks for soup. Here’s a temptation to take the analytical shades off and walk barefoot through alleyways and prisons, velvet-curtained brothels and the edges of black cliffs. Take the invitation, but watch your back when a citizen of her world passes by, because they’re all a little touched.