Minor work from the author of The Courage Consort (2004, etc.), though animated by a polished, oddly engaging nastiness.




Eccentrics, misfits, sociopaths and outright criminals populate the cosmopolitan (Dutch-born, now Scottish) author’s sleek, disturbing, gruesomely funny short stories.

His second collection includes 16 brisk extended vignettes whose thinly characterized protagonists are cogs in varied familial, marital and bureaucratic machines. Orwell and Kafka are channeled in the misadventure of a disoriented homeless man who foregoes recovering his forgotten past, preferring “the gift of brute shelter” offered by the regimented comforts of “The Safehouse.” A divorced father returns his young daughter home from a visit to the house he shares with his male lover, until their interrupted train journey takes them in an unanticipated direction (“All Black”). In “Andy Comes Back,” a recovered comatose patient is briefly reunited with the family who had believed him lost to them forever—before choosing the life he knows he’s now meant to live. Faber creates memorably subversive images of embattled family dynamics in the plaintive story of an unfit mother attempting to shed self-destructive addictions and reclaim her young son from foster care (“Serious Swimmers”); an ironic look at a self-absorbed father’s imagined competition with his freedom-seeking teenaged children (the title story); and a horrific conte cruel in which a beleaguered new mother serendipitously discovers how to disable her newborn’s constant demands (“The Smallness of the Action”). Faber miscalculates in stories that do not fulfill the promises of their premises (a supermarket worker’s macho fantasies in “Less Than Perfect”; conventioneers driven to erotic frenzy by lectures on the physiology of the eponymous fruit in “Explaining Coconuts”). But echoes of Saki, John Collier and Roald Dahl are heard in depictions of an ailing dictator matching wits with the imprisoned woman surgeon who alone can save him (“Finesse”); an arrogant Scots couple unhinged by their flirtation with life in “the wild” (“A Hole with Two Ends”); and a violent thug whose compulsive mayhem leads him back to “Someone to Kiss It Better.”

Minor work from the author of The Courage Consort (2004, etc.), though animated by a polished, oddly engaging nastiness.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-15-101314-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2007

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