Best when intimate and straightforward, yet often undermined by whimsy and impish urges to experiment.




A diverse collection of short fiction culled from 30 years of the author’s writing life.

Wide-ranging in style and subject, the 20 stories in this collection also vary wildly in quality. Several stories are stellar: The most successful piece in the collection, “Night Train to Cologne,” tells the tale of a man contemplating leaving his wife; it possesses an admirable introspective mood, as well as an emotionally suspenseful conclusion. Also poignantly rendered is the claustrophobic familial atmosphere in the title story. Several tales, particularly “The Jump,” are notable for their attempts to deal with characters gripped by crises that are as much spiritual as emotional. The prose is consistently solid, and Wright has a clear gift for small-scale, character-driven stories. Unfortunately, structural and stylistic experiments frequently dilute these strengths. “Seven Minutes’ Silence” and “The Bells of Khatyn” both employ motifs (a compressed time span in the former and the relentless ringing of a bell in the latter) that feel gimmicky, which detracts from the human impact. In the case of “The President Reminisces,” the collection’s sole foray into both sci-fi and satire, the humor is so broad as to be tedious. And yet, even the book’s failures can be intriguing. “Queen’s Grill,” a story with an unreliable narrator who may or may not have had a relationship with an unhappy film star on an ocean voyage, contains moments of levity and poignancy that contrast with the strained inclusion of the narrator’s doubting brother and the fussiness of the whole story being a confession to the character’s dead mother. In this story, the lovingly rendered details of ocean travel also cry out for a less frivolous production. Indeed, when viewed as a whole, many of the settings and evocations of vanished eras contain moments that will charm readers, even when the stories themselves aren’t fully successful.

Best when intimate and straightforward, yet often undermined by whimsy and impish urges to experiment.

Pub Date: March 15, 2012

ISBN: 978-1466900974

Page Count: 260

Publisher: Trafford

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2012

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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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A stellar collection for a year that hardly deserves it.


Award-winning Box, the spirit behind Joe Pickett, chooses “twenty perfect pearls” in the 24th entry of general editor Otto Penzler’s highly regarded series.

Box’s selections are surprisingly sunny considering the monster 2020 has turned into. Many of them celebrate human ingenuity. The title character in David Dean’s “The Duelist” bests a formidable opponent with scant bloodshed. An ambitious woman outwits a sleazy politician in Jeffery Deaver’s “Security.” A wily Texas Ranger rescues undocumented immigrants in James Lee Burke’s “Deportees.” A budding musician foxes her dead neighbor’s rapacious grandchildren in John Sandford’s linguistic tour de force, “Girl With an Ax.” Other tales highlight the strength of family ties, like David B. Schlosser’s “Pretzel Logic,” Michael Cebula’s “Second Cousins,” and Brian Cox’s haunting “The Surrogate Initiative.” Family ties don’t always mean blood ties. Tom Franklin shows a policeman going to the mat for his late girlfriend’s daughter in “On Little Terry Road.” And a surprising stepmom helps Sheila Kohler’s worried schoolgirl in “Miss Martin.” As Rick McMahan demonstrates in “Baddest Outlaws,” however, blood is still thicker than water, and a variety of other substances. The good guys aren’t always good guys, as Richard Helms suggests in “See Humble and Die.” And the bad guys aren’t always bad guys, as Robin Yocum’s aging mobster proves in “The Last Hit.” All in all, this year’s installment inspires hope that right will triumph, as it does in Pamela Blackwood’s aptly named “Justice.”

A stellar collection for a year that hardly deserves it.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-328-63610-2

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2020

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