I had never read anything by Matthew Johnson before but I was excited to tear into “Irregular Verbs and Other Stories.” I enjoy short stories and think that it is sad that they are so overlooked in the modern world in which novels get most of the attention from publishers and fans alike. I also knew that there was going to be some quality fiction inside the somewhat strange and disturbing cover of this book since I know that I can trust ChiZine Publications to only print the best fiction with a twist of the bizarre.
“Irregular Verbs” is a rather lengthy collection with no central theme except all of the stories spring from the mind of the author. As with all collections and anthologies, there is some variance in the quality of the stories but all of the stories in this book are well written and thought provoking. Johnson rarely hits a sour note in these tales and even the ones that I did not like as much made me sit back and think. There are some very heavy topics covered in this collection yet Johnson manages to keep the stories entertaining throughout. Rather than touching on all of the stories, I will instead take a closer look at a couple of my favorites.
“The Dragon’s Lesson” is the tale of a man who learns the secrets about dragons and how he can use them to become rich and successful. The man is wise in his handling of the secret and uses the secret to become a successful trader. He is content with his new life as it is a great step up from the poor man he used to be but those around him become jealous and greedy. He at first gives in to their demands out of friendship but then finds that those who are closest to him are actively working against him as they seek even greater wealth and influence. This is a very good precautionary tale of the dangers of wealth and how money is not the most important element to happiness as many have come to believe.
“The Coldest War” is the tale of two men who are forced to live on an uninhabitable island (rock) in the middle of the ocean just so their government can lay claim to that small piece of land and the ocean passage that it offers in the summer. These men have essentially given up a year of their life to fire a flare gun twice a day to be seen by satellites and prove that someone lives on the island year round. This is a tale of psychological terror that can be viewed and enjoyed in that simple light but it is also a tale of the folly of men and the stubbornness of governments that often leads to tragedy both on a personal and global scale.
My favorite story in the collection is “Written by the Winners” which touches on a subject that has always fascinated me: history. The saying that history is written by the winners is a common saying and a topic that I have been intrigued in exploring for a long time now. In this story, a man who spends his life going through different media to ensure that only messages sanctioned by the government are left has a secret life outside of work in which he collects “alternate history” items (the things that the government does not want anyone to know ever existed). This is a strong science fiction work that deserves a spot among works such as “Fahrenheit 451” or “1984” for its conspiracy-laden topic and strong writing that hammers the point home. The cost of the collection is well worth it for this one story alone and you can consider everything else a bonus.
These are only three of the stories that are in this collection but I think that they are a good sampling of what the reader can expect in this book. I can say that “Irregular Verbs” rarely misses a beat and I enjoyed every one of the stories in the collection which is a rare occurrence. Matthew Johnson handles each story with an appropriate angle that shows the depth of his talent. To succeed in so many stories whose only similarity is the strength of Johnson’s voice is something that does not happen too often. I am not surprised since I know just how good the other short story collections published by ChiZine Publications have been but this is definitely another gem to add to their library.
I would like to thank ChiZine Publications and NetGalley for this review copy. “Irregular Verbs and Other Stories” is available now.