From British writer Mackay (Dunedin, 1993, etc.), an uneven collection of short stories that graphically expose the cruel realities of daily life. Set in the British wasteland of stopped drains, overgrown gardens, and stale fried fish that has become the preferred literary turf of contemporary English writers grappling with a national malaise, the stories range from the macabre to the downright nasty. A single woman's uneasy relationship with an immigrant shopkeeper ends in a bizarre murder (``Bananas''); Claudia, an aging writer living in the country, plans to kill her neighbor's children on Halloween (``The Thirty-First of October''); and a woman visiting her father in a nursing home dies during a struggle over a knife about to be used to cut pizza (``A Curtain with the Knot in It''). Three tales are particularly unpleasant: ``Angelo,'' in which an aging poet and beauty is brutally assaulted on her way home from her first lover's funeral; ``Perpetual Spinach,'' whose protagonists—a pair of kindly senior citizens injured in an accident—are neglected by yuppie neighbors who covet their house; and ``The Most Beautiful Dress in the World,'' a portrait of a distraught woman who murders the gas man in her despair. The best works in this collection are the title story (the only one that has appeared previously in the US), which shows a mystery writer suddenly recalling her own murderous past, and ``Cloud Cuckoo-Land,'' the chronicle of a do-gooder, accused of being out of touch with reality, who fears that he may be just ``an empty tracksuit filled with air.'' Taken as a whole, however, the constant parade of defeats and disasters gets pretty wearing. Much good writing, but not enough to make these tales of the down and out transcend schematic plotting and overworked emotions.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1994

ISBN: 1-55921-121-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1994

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