Cleareyed observations and a unique cast improve this predictable collection.


From Avery (A Curious Host, 2016, etc.), a macabre collection of short stories that meanders into sci-fi territory.

Vivid characters from the fringes populate these pages. Readers meet Dr. Henry Woodridge, a dentist “hemorrhaging any affection he may have once felt” for his wife of 32 years in “When the Magic Disappears.” In “The Fortune Teller,” Maria has her fortune read by a Roma who predicts she’ll become an Osteomorph, a fantastical creature that “must have bones that are light and free from density.” “The Captain” follows a Navy vet who longs to set sail in his own boat, so he builds one…only to discover it won’t fit through the door frame. Nature is a recurring theme. “The Frog” contemplates how an amphibian rose to the top of the forest animals’ administration, while “A Morning Spill” speaks from the perspective of the bay, the sun, and a gull. The author also plays with form, crafting an obituary to a Siamese fighting fish in “Good-Bye Mr. Fish” and using letters from one woman to another, sans responses, in “Letters to Kay.” Avery paints an impressive picture of the natural world with atmospheric descriptions, like “the day dripped gray all morning” and tree leaves that “curl as crisp as pork rinds.” Character descriptions are equally sharp. Miss Geller’s “narrow red lips extended into a scarlet crinkle,” and Gary “smelled like bologna from breakfast.” Unfortunately, many of these stories lack surprise. In “Hungry Hill,” a woman’s Himalayan kitten disappears under suspicious circumstances after she leaves it with several ne’er-do-wells. In “When the Magic Disappears,” Dr. Woodridge plots to poison his wife with radiation only to discover something the reader may too easily guess. The handful of prose poems proves diverting enough but doesn’t add to the overall narrative.

Cleareyed observations and a unique cast improve this predictable collection.

Pub Date: July 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-54393-184-6

Page Count: 140

Publisher: BookBaby

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2018

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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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