Capable social comedy laced with pitiless wit.




British novelist Stevenson (The Empress of the Last Days, 2004, etc.) returns to the novella form of her first book.

Three short fictions make up this new work, each focused on the shortcomings of its female central character, as ironically pointed out by the title. None of these heroines is conventionally good, although the first, Freda, is highly skilled in bed. Stevenson treats them all with a degree of disdain, differentiating their failings in stories distinguished by brisk narration, old-fashioned craft (and content), a dash of predictability and a cool attitude to all concerned. In each, the home symbolizes money, class and social striving, and is the setting for brooding mischief before an explosive finale. “Light My Fire” is narrated by architect David, whose all-consuming affair with Freda leads to marriage and the purchase of a ruined, 16th-century Scottish tower-house, the refurbishment and sale of which will fund the couple’s move to London. But the union splits apart with a bang after Freda commits an act of folly. “Walking With Angels” showcases another ruptured household, this time the less affluent home of Wenda and Derek. When Wenda starts to see angels—or are they hallucinations brought on by a mental disorder?—and wants to set up a New Age business to channel their positive energy, the dilemma of who holds the purse strings brings about a violent rearrangement. “Garden Guerrillas” sees a slight softening of attitude as Stevenson returns to the middle class, with widowed Alice rediscovering her decisiveness when resisting her son and pushy daughter-in-law’s attempts to oust her from the valuable family home and its beloved garden. Alice retaliates by planting invasive roses and bamboo supplied by an old flame.

Capable social comedy laced with pitiless wit.

Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2006

ISBN: 0-618-46217-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2005

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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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