Tenderly portrayed and sharply observed. A rich collection.


Sneed follows her recent novel (Paris, He Said, 2015, etc.) with a new, wide-ranging collection of short stories.

Bad behavior is a touch point for the stories in Sneed’s new collection—not scorchingly bad behavior but the potentially more interesting acts at the borders of societal decency. Often, the questionable quality of her characters’ choices is something that comes to light as the story progresses, either to the characters themselves or to a close observer. “Beach Vacation” tracks a mother as she recognizes, with despair, the entitled attitude of her teenage son. “Couplehood Jubilee” centers on a young woman whose loved ones are warmly indulgent of her entitled ideas. Protagonists in “Clear Conscience” and “Words that Once Shocked Us” are possibly complicit witnesses to infidelity. Both also share a sense of having reached middle age only to find themselves emotionally stunted by recent minor disasters, a theme that is present in much of the collection. The vulnerable girls in “Five Rooms” and “Older Sister” are in need of guidance and care that they find hard to attain. Many of the stories hint at the ridiculous or otherworldly; the title character from “Roger Weber Would Like to Stay” is in fact a ghost, but everything else in the story is perfectly mundane. “The First Wife,” “The Prettiest Girls,” and "The Virginity of Famous Men" are each narrated by a Hollywood-adjacent character and hint at an entire culture with a different moral code, the title story revisiting the family at the heart of Sneed’s first novel, Little Known Facts (2013). A melancholy floats through the collection like Roger Weber through walls. Though most stories stop short of promising hope, readers will find themselves invested in these worlds and lives.

Tenderly portrayed and sharply observed. A rich collection.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-620-40695-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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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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