From the author of novels Norma Jean the Termite Queen (1975) and Imaginary Crimes (1981) come ten story-meditations on death and life that prickle with a tragic-comic energy in the first half but deflate into talkiness in the second. Two of the pieces (""Untitled--Ink on Paper"" and ""Perpetual Care"") return to characters from Imaginary Crimes as a young woman ponders, with a captivatingly satiric eye, what she should do with her father's ashes (he died on a mountainside and wasn't found for five years), deciding whether to place them with her dead mother's grave in Seattle or return them to the mountain where he died (she does the latter). A handful of following pieces, too, hang on to a tone that's capable of sending off engaging sparks of recognition and wit. In ""Mourning Henry,"" a woman frequents a graveyard in California, where she finds a lingering sense of purpose in the implied continuity between death and life (""The thing I like about this place, it never changes and it doesn't go away. It's the only thing they can't tear down to make a freeway""). ""Flaubert in Miami Beach"" (a family travels from California to visit grand-parents) snaps brightly with its narrator's outraged sense of loss at the banal artificialties of America (""There are thousands of people here in Disney World today and not one of them is cynical like me. He's probably right--I should see a doctor""); and ""Letter to John Lennon"" keeps a brightly deadpan humor that buoys it up effectively. From here, though, the pieces become meandering and uninventive. ""Key Largo"" is about putting an aged mother in a retirement home. while the closing three pieces (""You Are Here,"" ""Letters to the Darkness,"" and ""Life on Earth"") are a woman's chronicle of her husband's kidney failure, near-death, and tentative recovery. Ballantyne treats her themes of fear and loss head-on, without the leverage of tone or irony that can brighten her better work into a self-standing narrative vitality--resulting in a case-history quality combined with poetic rhapsodizing as she grasps for a dramatizing -metaphor but delivers flat notes, as if defeatedly explaining what the story ought to be showing (""All that's left is loving him, and knowing that you can't--and the tensions this creates""). Half good, from a writer whose distinctive voice is missing after the first lap.