These stories manage the impressive feat of blending gritty realism with more surreal strands, making for a gripping read.

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HONEY IN THE CARCASE

In this tense collection of short stories, Novakovich (Heritage of Smoke, 2017, etc.) explores the nature of conflict—from people ensnared in civil wars to the uneasy bonds between humans and animals.

Surprises abound in Novakovich’s latest collection, which covers the lives of people in Eastern Europe grappling with authoritarianism, internal conflicts, and the pressures within their own communities. These are familiar themes, but Novakovich keeps things unpredictable from the outset: The title story, about a beekeeper living in the midst of a war zone, ends on a frenzied, surreal note that hints at the author's ability to both channel realism and, when the occasion demands, undermine it entirely. “Fritz: A Fable” is set at a time of war between Serbia and Croatia and centers around a couple, each with ties to one side. They own a dog and cat who are in constant conflict, which both echoes and eventually transcends the larger chaos around them. Much like the title story, “Wool” also involves animals and ends unexpectedly: In this case, a girl’s father procures a lamb for her, and she bonds with it—but soon, the father’s cynicism and abuse take things in a bleak direction. Even with that in mind, the ending comes off as genuinely shocking. This collection isn’t simply an immersion in human horrors, though: “Charity Deductions,” about a well-meaning, wealthy American whose good intentions backfire memorably, takes on a more overtly satirical tone. Novakovich expertly probes the minds of the virtuous, the menacing, and the self-deluded in equal measure; the ending of “A Variation on a Theme of Boccaccio,” in which the narrator realizes he’s hardly the hero of his own story, is particularly harrowing.

These stories manage the impressive feat of blending gritty realism with more surreal strands, making for a gripping read.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-945814-47-1

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Dzanc

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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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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