Joyful, doleful, artfully nuanced, and virtually flawless in voice and detail: this is as good as it gets.


Girl cousins watch each other grow up and apart while their combined families falter and fail: a remarkably knowing, edgy debut by an Arizona-based writer who raised five children and waitressed for 18 years before returning to school.

Ten-year-old narrator Rainey’s mother is the first to fall, when she breaks down under the stress of caring for a houseful of kids in upstate New York and is packed off to the mental hospital for electroshock treatment and a long rest. Taking Mom’s place is her red-haired younger sister Merle, who moves up from the Bronx with a hard-bitten attitude and a 13-year-old daughter. Joan, a child-woman who duplicates in spades her mother's foul mouth and rebellious streak, gets busy intimidating the cousins, especially Rainey. Meanwhile, Merle (“I’d shoot those little bastards”) is making the most of her time away from Uncle, the abusive fruit-vendor she left in the city with their delinquent son Wayne. She quickly makes the acquaintance of a local Native American photographer, stepping out to the roadhouse every chance she gets, while her daughter is winning the heart of his son, a fire-scarred loner with a horse Joan is just itching to ride. Rainey alternates between helping Joan and spying on her, but when Uncle arrives with Wayne, an already tenuous situation turns dangerous. The boy, a peeping Tom who develops a grudge against Rainey, ties her to a tree one winter's evening and leaves her to die. Then Uncle explodes in rage when he finds evidence of Merle's after-hours activity. Somehow, out of this maelstrom Rainey emerges with her sensitivity and goodness intact, although Joan pays a heavier price.

Joyful, doleful, artfully nuanced, and virtually flawless in voice and detail: this is as good as it gets.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2001

ISBN: 0-9673701-8-3

Page Count: 280

Publisher: MacAdam/Cage

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2001

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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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