Packer's debut collection of ten stories previously published in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, Prize Stories 1992: The O. Henry Awards, etc., reveals a sharp eye for the myriad ways humans deceive themselves, though her humor can be smothered by her 30- ish, middle-class protagonists' very prosaic lives. In ``Mendocino,'' a single woman visiting her brother and his irritating Northern California girlfriend is forced to confront the end of their shared childhood and the beginning of her sibling's life as a man. ``Nerves'' shows a New Yorker transplanted to San Francisco licking his wounds after his wife abandons him for her boss. In ``Babies,'' an unmarried advertising copywriter's growing case of baby lust overwhelms her professional and personal lives. The narrator of ``Horse'' recalls her attempt the year her father died to transform herself from a brainy, introverted ninth-grader into a popular pompom girl. The characters in these and Packer's other six stories tend toward the earnest and serious, although their attention to routine often blinds them to the subterranean feelings that ultimately redirect their lives. In her strongest pieces—including ``Mendocino,'' ``Horse,'' and ``The Glass House,'' in which a newlywed obsesses over the suicide of her home's previous owner—Packer's clear, steady prose peels back surface layers to reveal the mechanisms behind pain and sadness. Her few weaker tales—``Ninety,'' a chronicle of the traditional outdoor birthday bash thrown for an elderly man by his family; and ``Hightops,'' in which a young drifter witnesses the dissolution of his friends' marriage—never manage to reveal the human emotions underneath inconsequential conversation. Still, often arresting, in spite of the bland surroundings.

Pub Date: July 1, 1994

ISBN: 0-8118-0629-4

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Chronicle

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1994

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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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Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

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A gathering of short stories by an ascended master of the form.

Best known for mega-bestselling horror yarns, King (Finders Keepers, 2015, etc.) has been writing short stories for a very long time, moving among genres and honing his craft. This gathering of 20 stories, about half previously published and half new, speaks to King’s considerable abilities as a writer of genre fiction who manages to expand and improve the genre as he works; certainly no one has invested ordinary reality and ordinary objects with as much creepiness as King, mostly things that move (cars, kid’s scooters, Ferris wheels). Some stories would not have been out of place in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and ’50s, with allowances for modern references (“Somewhere far off, a helicopter beats at the sky over the Gulf. The DEA looking for drug runners, the Judge supposes”). Pulpy though some stories are, the published pieces have noble pedigrees, having appeared in places such as Granta and The New Yorker. Many inhabit the same literary universe as Raymond Carver, whom King even name-checks in an extraordinarily clever tale of the multiple realities hidden in a simple Kindle device: “What else is there by Raymond Carver in the worlds of Ur? Is there one—or a dozen, or a thousand—where he quit smoking, lived to be 70, and wrote another half a dozen books?” Like Carver, King often populates his stories with blue-collar people who drink too much, worry about money, and mistrust everything and everyone: “Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.” Best of all, lifting the curtain, King prefaces the stories with notes about how they came about (“This one had to be told, because I knew exactly what kind of language I wanted to use”). Those notes alone make this a must for aspiring writers.

Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1167-9

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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