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Smaller than Most
Kristine Ong Muslim
Philistine Press, 4009 words

Smaller than Most
Kristine Ong Muslim
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of the flash fiction collection We Bury the Landscape (Queen's Ferry Press, 2012) and the forthcoming poetry collection Grim Series (Popcorn Press). Some of her chapbooks include Insomnia (Medulla Publishing, 2012) and Doll Plagues, Doll Lives (Thunderclap Press). The storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2011 and the Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions 2012 (selected by Dan Chaon) included her tiny tales. Her work also received Honorable Mentions in Ellen Datlow's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4. She garnered multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Dzanc Books' Best of the Web 2011, and the Science Fiction Poetry Association's Dwarf Stars Award and Rhysling Award. She is the poetry editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction.

Kristine Ong Muslim Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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When I edited poetry for Abyss & Apex and Kristine Ong Muslim's poetry slipped through the transom, her tightly woven imagination floored me. I hadn't encountered such magic carpets so idiosyncratic since those of Russell Edson. "Who is Muslim? Why have I never heard of her?" I combed the internet to find out. Upon finding her website, I fished around her back-inventory and learned she had only recently [back then] become striking.

Since then, Muslim has only gotten better. Who do you think of when you think of unique voices? Kelly Link, Margo Lanagan, Aimee Bender -- major voices in contemporary fantasy. Add a new name -- full of oddities and dark bittersweet ironies -- to slide up on that shelf: Kristine Ong Muslim.

She released three modest collections in 2012, and I've been sitting on them for a year. The better the book, the harder it is to review: How do I capture what this writer does so well? May the Almighty Muse grant me this gift as I attempt to do so.

The first for review is the chapbook Smaller than Most, which is subdivided into "Little Bigheads" and "Little Horrors," filled with a baker's dozen of short shorts. Part of the fun of a well-put-together collection is seeing how they fit under their headings. Except to say one group has to be assembled opposite from the other, I'll leave the assembly to you, dear readers.

The first tale treats us to peer inside a factory where "Bigheads" or children (a name that is merely implied until the end) are radiated to "Maximize the growth potential of your offspring." Muslim gives us an ironic look at the lengths that today's helicopter parents will go to make their children better, but are parents helping?

"Jack's House" is where anything can happen. It is a universe of its own, with volcanoes, mammoths, bacteria, and humans -- heated by light bulbs and cooled by the refrigerator.

"Why We Never Missed Russell" sounds like it is a laundry list of reasons why Raymond's brother Russell won't be missed. Instead, Raymond shows us a family that makes us understand why he fled.

A subtle look at decisions (or the lack thereof), "Before the Homerun" unravels a once-glamorous life in reverse to a point when things might have been different if one had thought differently.

A more interstitial piece (although most of these could be called such), "Out of Place" examines a life that wants to fit into the corporate world, but the self and the small cruelties of one's fellow man steps in the way. The understated oddness appears in this last paragraph that takes what seems so ordinary into territory that is even stranger than strange because it is so restrained:

  "Somewhere, a postcard is folded against the grain. You ache with your remaining left hand and you snap with your fist. That déją vu buzzing. That disconnect happening once again."

If you read that paragraph too quickly, it doesn't seem strange, but look again: remaining left hand, snap with your fist. When you read the strangeness, the disconnect hits: I am out of place.

After visiting the optometrist to get his eyes, the "Bad Egg" models his life after the defiant Humpty Dumpty. His little brother pleads for him not to go.

 

"How They Make Skins" opens with a journalistic-style lead about a girl who meets little green men who convince her to do things to her family and herself that will supposedly make her life better but only makes things worse. This captures well the voice of a young girl.

"Carnage & Co." is a devilish tale of a young man who keeps finding various severed parts of his body. And then comes the kicker.

"Prodigal" is a daughter (later, wife) to the same kind of indifferent alcoholic man, which leads to the narrator giving birth to Josie, who is precocious and impish -- in a way that causes someone to be killed, with perhaps another on the way.

Alluding to T.S. Eliot's thought on how the world ends, "But with a Whimper" is a voodoo mood-piece that ends on a crescendo-ing interrogation.

"The Taxidermist and the Girls Made out of Dead Things" examines Escher-like what the title suggests: The Taxidermist makes girls out of dead things. By cutting them, they grow in number and property.

Perhaps the most bitter and poignant of tales is "Flowers, Secrets." A woman is able to undo her enemies into her garden, but who is undone? It also takes the prize for the most fantastic opening line:

  "Home was always the most inappropriate place to start one's life."  

The final piece, "The Collage Artist" combines elements of the above. While it ties together the collection, this one feels the weakest of the lot, but only because it shares too much in common with stories near it. Probably it would gain strength in a different context.

You can check out a sample over at Amazon or Smashwords. If you've read this far, it's likely a collection you'll want to read.

Copyright © 2013 Trent Walters

Trent Walters teaches science; lives in Honduras; edited poetry at Abyss & Apex; blogs science, SF, education, and literature, etc. at APB; co-instigated Mundane SF (with Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd) culminating in an issue for Interzone; studied SF writing with dozens of major writers and and editors in the field; and has published works in Daily Cabal, Electric Velocipede, Fantasy, Hadley Rille anthologies, LCRW, among others.


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