Bunn’s compelling stories are at their best when navigating chaotic landscapes, whether emotional or literal.




In this wide-ranging collection, characters must cope with changing, hazardous landscapes and wrestle with fundamental truths about themselves.

The stories in Bunn’s collection are a disparate bunch, ranging from realistic period pieces to studies of intimacy and sexuality to fundamentally altered takes on history. “When You Are the Final Girl” riffs on horror-film tropes, as its protagonist’s reaction to past trauma is to become knowingly monstrous, while “How to Win an Unwinnable War” taps into Cold War fear to tell the story of a teenager channeling anxiety at his parents’ crumbled marriage into simulations of nuclear war. Bunn also ventures into less realistic territory with “Griefer,” largely set in the final days of an online role-playing game slated for shutdown—though the juxtaposition of this with ripples in its narrator’s marriage leads to one of the book’s neater conclusions. “Ledge” takes the opposite approach: What begins as a story of nautical intrigue and repressed desire around the time of Queen Isabella’s reign in Spain slowly becomes something far more mysterious, playing off the reader’s expectations of history and realism. Some of this collection’s most impressive moments come when delving into emotionally messy terrain. The protagonists of “Everything, All at Once” and “Curious Father” deal with the implosions of their marriages in very different ways: in the case of the former, via investigating her mother’s romantic history; in the case of the latter, via a late-in-life reckoning with his sexuality. 

Bunn’s compelling stories are at their best when navigating chaotic landscapes, whether emotional or literal.

Pub Date: April 28, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-06-236261-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2015

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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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Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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