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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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