Eight well-crafted, tough-minded stories of fractured lives that occasionally slip into caricature and repetition.



How the urge to find wholeness in one’s life can drive people down unexpected, sometimes destructive paths is the overriding theme of this debut collection.

All the stories center around children in Kentucky’s Bible Belt, many of them emotionally at risk. For newcomer Pneuman’s characters, religious practice is a fact of life taken for granted. Oddly, the title story is the weakest, relying too much on shock value. The narrator’s mother, distraught over her ex’s upcoming marriage, first neglects her daughter’s strep throat, then fails to notice the child’s potentially disastrous fascination with a deranged babysitter. The stories that follow are less extreme but more resonant. In the most heartbreaking, “Borderland,” another child of divorce competes hopelessly not only for her father’s affection but for the affection of the seemingly perfect father of a classmate. In “Holy Land,” a bookish young girl visits her non-religious grandparents with her angry mother after her father leaves them because he believes he’s become divine. In “All Saints’ Day,” a spunky minister’s daughter, whose mother suffers acute depression, risks punishment to help a little boy whose missionary parents believe he’s inhabited by a demon. A new recruit into the Salvation Army struggles against her own psychological demons while visiting her more stable sister in “The Bell Ringer,” one of the few stories in which the child is almost peripheral. The 13-year-old minister’s daughter in “Invitation,” a natural worrier, fears that she’s the first pregnant virgin since Mary. Two overweight 15-year-olds in “The Beachcomber” find their friendship unraveling when only one attracts a boy’s attention. The final story, “The Long Game,” in which a teenager’s father is dying of cancer, intertwines the crises of burgeoning sexuality, a parent’s mortality and the inevitable love-hate daughters feel for their mothers.

Eight well-crafted, tough-minded stories of fractured lives that occasionally slip into caricature and repetition.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2007

ISBN: 0-15-603075-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2006

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Superb stylist L’Amour returns (End of the Drive, 1997, etc.), albeit posthumously, with ten stories never seen before in book form—and narrated in his usual hard-edged, close-cropped sentences, jutting up from under fierce blue skies. This is the first of four collections of L’Amour material expected from Bantam, edited by his daughter Angelique, featuring an eclectic mix of early historicals and adventure stories set in China, on the high seas, and in the boxing ring, all drawing from the author’s exploits as a carnival barker and from his mysterious and sundry travels. During this period, L’Amour was trying to break away from being a writer only of westerns. Also included is something of an update on Angelique’s progress with her father’s biography: i.e., a stunningly varied list of her father’s acquaintances from around the world whom she’d like to contact for her research. Meanwhile, in the title story here, a missionary’s daughter who crashes in northern Asia during the early years of the Sino-Japanese War is taken captive by a nomadic leader and kept as his wife for 15 years, until his death. When a plane lands, she must choose between taking her teenaged son back to civilization or leaving him alone with the nomads. In “By the Waters of San Tadeo,” set on the southern coast of Chile, Julie Marrat, whose father has just perished, is trapped in San Esteban, a gold field surrounded by impassable mountains, with only one inlet available for anyone’s escape. “Meeting at Falmouth,” a historical, takes place in January 1794 during a dreadful Atlantic storm: “Volleys of rain rattled along the cobblestones like a scattering of broken teeth.” In this a notorious American, unnamed until the last paragraph, helps Talleyrand flee to America. A master storyteller only whets the appetite for his next three volumes.

Pub Date: May 11, 1999

ISBN: 0-553-10963-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1999

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