I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Strange Tales of Secret Lives and this book certainly did surprise. Jeff VanderMeer explains the origins of Secret Lives in the introduction: this is a collection of various short stories of (hopefully) fictional what-ifs of real people: a researcher is really a king, a pharmacist plans to live the double-life of a detective, etc.
I’m not a fan of flash fiction and most of the stories here definitely fall under that category yet VanderMeer manages to write it with such imagination and gusto that it becomes palatable, even when reading it all in one sitting. What VanderMeer does differently is that he doesn’t stick to a formula even if the premise of the collection seems to require it. He mixes things up, changes the pattern, inter-relates consecutive stories, and adds weird but relevant images to each piece. The order of the stories isn’t arbitrary — there is a distinct rhythm and purpose to the sequence.
I liked the latter part of the book best — where some of the meatier stories are.
Overall, Secret Lives is an interesting novelty book at best. Its strength is clearly its concept (where else would you buy a book compiling secret lives?) and while the writing is above average, it doesn’t strike me as a must-have unless you happen to personally know one of the people mentioned in the book. Still, as far as originality and imagination goes, Secret Lives proves that Jeff VanderMeer still has his edge.