Engel’s portraits—especially of her main character—are edgy, perceptive and razor sharp.


A loosely concatenated narrative that features Sabina, a second-generation Colombian-American, as she grows up, has relationships and tries to make sense of her life and world.

Engel’s work could be considered either a series of stories or an “approximate” novel. The first story introduces us to 14-year-old Sabina, whose uncle has recently killed his wife. While this act casts a shadow on Sabina’s family of “foreigners, spics, in a town of blancos," she’s more preoccupied with Lucho, a boyfriend (of sorts) two years older. Lucho is charismatic, an accomplished smoker—and a practiced bad boy. One of the first traumas of Sabina’s life is having to deal with his death in an automobile accident. “Refuge,” the following story, takes place around 9/11. Sabina, now 22, is a receptionist at an investment bank. While her life is saved because she called in sick that day rather than showed up at her office in Tower One, Engel is interested in the small gesture, not the arc of terrorism. Once again, the focus is on relationships, in this case musician Nico, her irresponsible boyfriend, and Lou, a guitar teacher whose jealous wife keeps a close eye on Sabina. By the end of the story Sabina has learned her relationship with Nico is as doomed as the Twin Towers, and when it ends it is “uneventful, the way most life-changing moments are. You don’t see them happening." In the next story we learn of the death of anorexic Maureen, who’d gone to high school with Sabina and made her life unbearable. Here Sabina explores her own ambivalence toward this unlikable, pathetic and sad woman. The longest story (or chapter) is “Vida.” In it we find Sabina still wrestling with unfaithful boyfriends, yet she’s able to help a friend escape a failed relationship and “escape” back to Colombia.

Engel’s portraits—especially of her main character—are edgy, perceptive and razor sharp.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-8021-7078-1

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2010

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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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