Despite some rough patches, a strong collection embodying the seasoned skill of a master.




Eleven new stories from MacLaverty (The Anatomy School, 2002, etc.) reveal the Irish-born, Glasgow-resident writer’s uncanny knack for elucidating character with telling phrases and homely details.

The title piece, delivered in two parts titled “Learning to Dance” and “Visiting Takabuti,” concerns lessons of loss. Two young boys stay with glamorous parental friends while arrangements for their father’s funeral are made. In “Learning to Dance,” the eldest brother’s perceptions deftly mirror the grief that well-meaning gestures seek to blanket; and “Visiting Takabuti” shows an elderly woman, who lost her only love in WWI, trying to demonstrate to her grand-nephews, by way of a museum mummy exhibit, the soul’s way of bidding adieu. In “The Wedding Ring,” the body of a sheltered Irish virgin killed in 1904 is found and discovered to have been secretly married. Although readers may cheer a woman’s cool-headed way of avenging her rape in “Up the Coast,” forays into her assailant’s skewed consciousness verge too closely to Cape Fear–type melodrama. The most moving story (“The Clinic”) imparts Chekhovian insights to a day of diabetes testing. “A Trusted Neighbour” exposes the naïveté of the narrator’s assumption that religious tolerance reigns in his Belfast neighborhood through the inexplicable treachery of the bland motorcycle-rider who lives next door. “A Belfast Memory” reads like nostalgic fluff until the bitter gall of a soccer team’s persecution bubbles up during a Sunday afternoon tea. Belfast is also the setting for “On the Roundabout,” which details a family’s rescue of a Protestant mistaken for a Fenian, and for “The Trojan Sofa,” about a scheme to burgle Orangemen’s homes. An aged woman is consigned “only temporarily” to a nursing home in “The Assessment,” a finely rendered tale marred by overly familiar subject matter. When a Scottish poet-in-residence at a Midwestern university gets lost in a blizzard (“Winter Storm”), unintended echoes of a Garrison Keillor riff and a pat ending undermine the subject matter’s gravitas.

Despite some rough patches, a strong collection embodying the seasoned skill of a master.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-393-05716-X

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 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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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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