A first collection from the winner of the 1995 Willa Cather Fiction contest: 15 stories, some having appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Seventeen, and The Oxford Review, by a southern writer who excels at charting the minor victories that briefly relieve dreary lives. Though stories about the poor, the hopeless, and the psychically maimed have by now become as commonplace as Cheever’s suburbia, Spence invests these particular tabloid lives with an appealing freshness, and, neither condescending nor partisan, she writes in beautifully weighted prose about the blighted lives of small-town men and women. In the title piece, the most accomplished here, Spence describes in but a few pages the conflicting response—from gossip to sleuthing—evoked by the disappearance of three women in a tiny community where, eventually, the lost women come to live in people’s dreams as “bones cooling in the dark green woods.” In —Meals Between Meals,— a young woman dating a convict is trying to lose weight, but when a cousin’s pity for her plight becomes unbearable, she suddenly finds she’s no longer hungry; in —Once Removed,— a shy data- processor gets up the courage to help an unhappy co-worker. The story that appeared in Seventeen, —Isabella and Violet Are Good Friends,— tells of a mother who, as a recovering alcoholic, briefly reconnects with her alienated adolescent daughter. Elsewhere, Spence chronicles the growing understanding between a mother and her addicted son’s lover, an older woman (—She Waits—); the anguish of a grandmother who’s worried by her troubled granddaughter’s relationship with an unsuitable man (—The Water Man—); and two misfits who tentatively begin to make a life together (—A Nice Man, a Good Girl—). Short stories that write of life as it is, in language measured and sure. A promising debut.

Pub Date: July 20, 1998

ISBN: 1-57322-098-1

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1998

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet