A patchy, occasionally predictable collection, but Simpson and her material are, at their best, a perfect match.

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IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT

STORIES

Relationships, death and motoring connect 11 pithy stories by a celebrated British doyenne of the form.

The first, “Up at a Villa,” sets the tone of anxious middle-class discontent, when a struggling wife with a new baby and an unsympathetic husband are glimpsed by interlopers in the garden of an idyllic French summer retreat. Elsewhere, there’s a powerful undercurrent of mortality: a sudden heart attack; cancers of lung, breast, brain; even—with characteristic black humor—someone literally falling under a bus. In both “The Year’s Midnight” and “The Green Room,” Christmas equates to reminders of depression, disease and death, as well as perpetual family discord. “The Door” is narrated by a woman whose fears concerning a recent burglary mask deeper emotions involving the recent death of her lover, whose wife doesn’t know she existed. Everywhere, unions are exposed to the author’s sharply skeptical scrutiny: “structural flaws” are surveyed by an architect in “The Tree”; “the marital Black Dog” is contemplated in one of the best tales, “Early One Morning.” Middle-England’s preoccupations, like Central European au pairs and the health service, color the background, while, behind the wheel, men (often boorish) and women (often unhappy) crawl along in first gear or speed out of control, as in the title story. In Simpson’s world, a radical thought is imagining a man, a woman and their children “living happily together, justice and love prevailing, self-respect on both sides.”

A patchy, occasionally predictable collection, but Simpson and her material are, at their best, a perfect match.

Pub Date: May 21, 2007

ISBN: 0-307-26522-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2007

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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EXHALATION

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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