It's hard to feel warmth from these stories; passions are mitigated or tamped down. But the writing is clever and skillful...




In her debut short story collection, McFarlane (The Night Guest, 2013) limns the hidden spaces of relationships.

It's impossible to say, at the onset of any of these stories, how grounded they will stay in the familiar. Some are entirely realistic. "The Mycenae" follows a humble Australian couple on vacation in Greece with their patrician American friends and plumbs the emotional disconnect. "Cara Mia" employs an even lighter touch to glimpse the inner life of a young Australian teen with a subtly complex family life. "Those Americans Falling from the Sky" has a similar flavor, but its wartime setting and the fate of some stationed American soldiers tinge it with mortality. Death has a larger presence in "Exotic Animal Medicine," which traces an unconventional wedding day in England; "Man and Bird" incorporates death as well as the sublime. Several of the stories levitate into surreal planes with very different moods. "Buttony" reads like sci-fi horror, while "Violet, Violet" is playful in its exploration of loneliness and the question of an uncanny bird. "The Movie People" does the same for connection and escapism—townspeople involved in a local film shoot refuse to let the magic go—and is quite funny. The title story is brutal and biblical. "Unnecessary Gifts" is a bit of an outlier, an exercise in suspense that teases readers’ expectations. Yet all these feats are pulled off while never technically escaping reality. McFarlane writes with a deceptively plain hand, and her style gives shape to the unanswered questions of how well we can ever know each other or ourselves. What she leaves out is more telling than what she describes.

It's hard to feel warmth from these stories; passions are mitigated or tamped down. But the writing is clever and skillful in spades.

Pub Date: May 10, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8654-7804-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 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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