A coming-of-age tale that resists the usual clichés to focus on the telling details that reveal the essence of a life.



Bozak’s quiet, observant novel in stories touches down once a year into the life of young Shell, who grows up in the 1970s and '80s in a small town outside Toronto.

Shell is 5 when the novel opens. She’s the only child of two artists whose dedication to the counterculture, and opposition to all things American, makes them the subject of scrutiny by their neighbors. In the first story, they’ve moved into a new house, where they convert the garage into a pottery studio and the backyard into a vegetable garden. At this point, Shell is already wondering why her parents barely look at each other. Over the next stories—during which the “thirteen Shells” of the title emerge—their marriage breaks down, and Shell is left with her frazzled mother while her father moves to Toronto. But meanwhile, the little events of ordinary life accumulate, and Shell builds up a box of keepsakes related to them. She picks fiddleheads with her father to sell to a local restaurant, begins a tumultuous friendship with the girl who moves in next door, and hides her father’s dental plate so he won’t go out to an art opening without her mother. Her teenage years see her gaining weight, experimenting with drugs, reading William Blake, and falling in love with inappropriate guys. Bozak (El Nino, 2014, etc.) structures the novel with care, bookending it with Shell’s moves into and out of the family home, resisting big moments in favor of complex, smaller ones in which the choices Shell makes subtly reverberate into her future selves. Where many novels in stories fall into the trap of stitching together vaguely autobiographical stories and hoping they’ll make a whole, this one feels organic: the young woman who evolves from the little girl is the same person, just further complicated.

A coming-of-age tale that resists the usual clichés to focus on the telling details that reveal the essence of a life.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-77089-987-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: House of Anansi Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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