A promising, and at times powerful, debut that explores the nuances of race, class, and sexuality with considerable aplomb.


A sensitive portrait of life among Houston's struggling working class.

At the center of this debut collection is a preternaturally observant, unnamed Afro-Latinx boy who narrates many of the stories. His philandering father eventually abandons the family, while his mother's pain at this betrayal permeates the home even after the father's disappearance. His brother, Javi, is a neighborhood drug dealer who reacts to this dysfunction with mean-spirited aggression against the narrator; his sister, Jan, distances herself from the family. Amid this domestic strife, our narrator begins to discover his sexuality through a string of encounters with other neighborhood boys. This is difficult for the narrator, whose brother is an intensely disapproving and homophobic figure. In the title story, the narrator recounts that "Javi said the only thing worse than a junkie father was a faggot son." When the narrator's sexuality isn't met with disdain, it is mostly obscured in silence, in his family's collective inability to recognize who he is. But we don't get much of a chance to know him, either: Though he is the collection's epicenter, he functions more like a reader stand-in than an actual character, providing us access to his world. The collection ripples outward from his perspective, using story to bring Houston's myriad cultures to life. In "Alief," we're introduced to Aja, a married Jamaican immigrant who begins a torrid affair with a local white boy—much to the chagrin of the Greek chorus–like neighbors. Their nosy disdain sets a tragic denouement in motion. In the collection's centerpiece, "Waugh," a sex worker named Poke and his pimp, Rod, deal with the profession's inherent dangers; rather than painting a portrait of abjection, however, Washington gives us the story of a tightknit community of marginalized people who cling to one another for safety and support. For all of this, however, there's something airy about this book. Despite its aspiration to represent a city, its prose often feels maddeningly abstract. "Elgin" begins this way: "Once, I slept with a boy. Big and black and fuzzy all over. We met the way you meet anyone out in the world and I brought him back to Ma's." This vagueness characterizes many of the stories' voices, such that they are often indistinguishable from one another. The collection sometimes feels more like a collection of modern fables than the hard-nosed, realist stories it wants to be. Still, Washington writes with an assurance that signals the arrival of an important literary voice.

A promising, and at times powerful, debut that explores the nuances of race, class, and sexuality with considerable aplomb.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-53367-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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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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