These are low-key stories of great acuity, precision, and poignancy.

Canadian story-writer Willis' second collection, following Vanishing and Other Stories (2010), confirms her debut's promise and extends its range.

The 13 stories collected here include two free-standing but related tales featuring Eddie, a cable installer who in the first, "Todd," finds himself—recently banished and without custody of his 10-year-old daughter—sucked into a bewildering domestic partnership with a crow, a partnership that ends in explosive violence and sorrow. There's also a final triptych, "Steve and Lauren: Three Love Stories," in which Willis makes deft, delicate use of the unreal or magical (a literal hole in the living-room carpet, an extramarital infatuation that literally stops a watch from ticking, an enchanted time-traveling nap) first to defamiliarize a long and apparently stable, loving marriage—to make it strange—and then to persuade the reader to believe in it deeply, in all its messy particulars, and to find it heartbreaking. "Girlfriend on Mars" delivers just what its title promises: it is the first-person lament of a bereft young man, a cultivator of hydroponic marijuana, who discovers only belatedly that his girlfriend and business partner has tried out for a reality-show competition whose prize is the right to blast off (and never return) as one of the first two permanent settlers on the red planet. Other stories belong to a more traditional realist mode. As was the case in Willis' previous collection, several—for instance the title piece and "Welcome to Paradise," about two teens who break into houses for the brief, thrilling feeling of occupying someone else's life—center on female friendship, especially intense adolescent ones looked back upon in celebration and lament.

These are low-key stories of great acuity, precision, and poignancy.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-393-28589-5

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 25, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016



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



Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013