While explicitly probing the politics of otherness, this debut collection of 26 stories from Chicago writer Castillo (So Far from God, 1993, etc.) also concerns itself with the universal patterns of love. The varied permutations of love and lust--gay, straight, or familial--probed in these tales, most of them told from the viewpoints of Latino men and women, reflect a kaleidoscopic view of life in el None. Castillo has an unobtrusive tone, believably capturing the voices of her characters, who range from smooth-talking hustlers to exotic fortune-tellers like the turbaned, one-eyed Miss Rose. The longest and most fully realized piece, ""La Miss Rose,"" follows this hectic woman of magic powders and erratic advice after she adopts two women she believes to be in desperate need of her guidance, dragging them from the desert to Chicago for a steamy summer of adventures. Comic and endearing, it and the ""Christmas Story of the Golden Cockroach"" are the most purely enjoyable stories here. In ""Cockroach,"" contemporary Chicagoans attempt to breed (with explosive results) a very special variety of roach to help ease their winter hardships. Though often amusing, the majority of the stories consider the less magical and blithe aspects of life. The title piece, a powerful narrative of lost love, is narrated by a woman watching two boys make out in a bar while she pines for the lover who has abandoned her. In ""Vatolandia,"" the beautiful and independent Sara Santistevan lists, categorizes, then dismisses all of the crazy, mixed-up men in town, choosing to remain alone. And in ""Maria Who Paints and Who Bore Juan Two Children,"" the title character, who has left her husband, watches in despair as he takes her children to a survivalist retreat. Only occasionally missing the mark (there are some failed narrative experiments), Castillo offers a substantial and noteworthy first collection, both honest and witty in its portrayal of love among the exiled.