I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Secret Lives and this book certainly did surprise. Vandermeer explains the origins of Secret Lives in the introduction and as for the actual content, this is a collection of various shorts 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 formula even if the premise of the collection requires one to do so. 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 could have been arbitrary yet they aren't and there is a distinct rhythm and purpose when it comes to the sequence. Personally, I liked the latter part of the book as that's 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 Vandermeer still has his edge and this is one of the books that you take as a whole rather than focusing on its individual stories.
1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.