A memorable debut: each of these stories is as original and multidimensional as the characters who inhabit them.

A varied cast of mothers, miners, school kids, and mountain folk grapple with desire, poverty, and, yes, even monsters in 15 stories set across Appalachia.

Monks’ stories are so wide-ranging—from all-too-real portrayals of the horrors of adolescence to deep dives into the fantastical—that they’re difficult to classify as a whole. What most of them have in common are characters trying to do the best they can in a landscape often dark and unforgiving. In the opening story, “Burning Slag,” a woman who's lost her son to foster care spies on him from her car and employs a most disturbing strategy to try to get him back. Told in retrospect, “Merope” is about a young man’s kind-of-sweet, kind-of–mean-spirited flirtation with a girl who “wasn’t much to look at.” Poverty is a theme throughout. In “Little Miss Bobcat,” a young girl hopes to “win a genuine quartz crown” by soliciting the most contributions for her school fundraiser, despite her family’s own lack of money. An encounter between a shop owner and a mother using food stamps to buy groceries is the seemingly mundane premise behind the masterful “Clinch.” While many of the stories here are rooted in the everyday, the speculative offerings are equally satisfying. “Rasputin’s Remarkable Sleight of Hand” features a carnival magician who knows, in the age of cellphones and selfies, that he needs to up the “razzle-dazzle” in his act, and he attempts it in a way few readers will anticipate. In “Black Shuck,” a man who tends to and then gives away a stray dog becomes obsessed with the idea that misfortune will befall him if he can’t get it back. And in the hallucinatory title story, inner demons are substituted with actual ones, as an older couple is forced to contend with monsters.

A memorable debut: each of these stories is as original and multidimensional as the characters who inhabit them.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-943665-39-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Vandalia Press/West Virginia Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 22, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2016



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




A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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