Monthly Archives: July 2012

Classic book review: Lorraine López’s “The Realm of Hungry Spirits”

Marina Lucero is having a stressful week.

In the first 50 pages of Lorraine López’s 2011 novel The Realm of Hungry Spirits, Marina has to comfort friends who lost their newborn baby; helps a neighbor being abused by her husband; puts up with two young adults crashing in her home; and ponders an offer to have her home cleansed in a Santeria practice.

“It’s like you’re host to a whole realm of hungry spirits,” one character tells her.

But Marina, a divorced teacher in the Los Angeles area, turns to Buddhism to practice compassion for others. It’s something she’s needed for a long time.

“(I wonder) why my life has to be this way: long stretches of mundane nothingness interrupted by a succession of tortuous days,” she says.

This book has plenty of drama, including one stunning twist at the end, but Hungry Spirits is actually a funny, fast-paced book that reminded me of Denise Chavez’s Loving Pedro Infante.

Take this line when an old man looks up her skirt.

“My palm tingles, so strong is the impulse to slap the lewd grin from his ancient face, but striking an old man is surely no way to attain Buddhahood.”

Or this:

“A small crucifix dangles from a slender gold chain around her neck, and I marvel anew at the way Christians blithely display artifacts commemorating the sadistic torture and murder of their founding leader. I know, I mean Christ is supposed to have died for their sins and all that, but still, adorning oneself with his crucified body, doesn’t that strike anyone but me as weird?”

My one complaint is that the book is stuffed with so many characters that I should have created a chart to keep up with everyone.

But López does a great job of showing the importance – and annoyance – of family in Latino life and, in a nice touch, she also mentions a few Hispanic authors.

A special nod should go to the book’s publisher, Grand Central Publishing, which has published several terrific novels by Latinas in the past few years – including Julia Amante’s Say You’ll Be Mine; Leila Cobo’s The Second Time We Met; and Gwendolyn Zepeda’s recently released Better With You Here.

Like Hungry Spirits, these are easy to read books that women will relate to and enjoy.

More about Lorraine López:

Lorraine López is the author of the short story collections Soy la Avon Lady and Other Stories and Homicide Survivor Picnic and Other Stories, the young adult novel Call Me Henri and the novel The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters. She teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Source: I purchased this book through Amazon.com.

Note: This book is part of the series of classic books by Latina authors. Next up: Pamela Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising.

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Book review: Gwendolyn Zepeda’s “Better with You Here”

In Gwendolyn Zepeda’s Better with You Here (Grand Central Publishing), single mother Natasha Davila can’t catch a break.

In the opening chapter, she’s competing with her ex-husband’s new girlfriend and dealing her son’s damp underwear.

“Fifty percent of my job as a mother is cleaning up bodily fluids… And then the other 50 percent is worrying,” she says.

Just when Natasha is getting some good luck – finding a decent babysitter and making friends with two other women in her Dallas apartment complex – her ex-husband demands full custody of their children, Alex and Lucia.

Better is a great read thanks to a fast-paced plot with a few interesting twists. But it’s strength lies in Natasha’s voice. She speaks matter-of-factly when she’s recounting her woes, not feeling sorry for herself. When she’s angry, she’s on fire and Zepeda’s words just flow.

“… I picked the wrong man to marry, which is what brought me to this point tobegin with.

What was the last thing I did right? If I had a time machine, how far back would I have to go to undo all the mistakes I’ve made?

This is stupid. Stop thinking this way. Why would I go back and undo anything? I wouldn’t want to live my life again without having Alex and Lucia, would I? No. And there’s no such thing as a time machine, so shut up. Get back to reality. Plan your next move.”

Zepeda is also terrific at describing the little things – such as the way the women struggle to make ends meet. In one scene, Natasha reveals her biggest loss since her divorce.

“That’s what I miss most about being married – my washer and dryer.”

Two other narrators are featured in the book – her 8-year-old son Alex and her friend Sara. Sara’s voice shows her smart-ass attitude (“I can’t stand church. It’s too damn boring.”), but a few of her lines are confusing and annoying.

Still, that’s one of the few weaknesses in this compelling book. Better with You Here makes a great summer read.

More about Gwendolyn Zepeda:

Texas native Gwendolyn Zepeda is the author of Houston, We Have A Problema and Lone Star Legend, as well as the children’s books Growing Up with Tamales and Sunflowers.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Meet novelist and poet Linda Rodriguez, author of “Every Last Secret”

Linda Rodriguez is the author of the recently released mystery novel Every Last Secret, but she’s also one of the most passionate advocates for Latino literature and other writers of color. Rodriguez’s blog features “Books of Interest by Writers of Color” and interviews with writers such as Joy Castro. She is also vice president of the Latino Writers Collective in Kansas City.

Every Last Secret won St. Martin’s/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition and was touted by Barnes & Noble as a mystery must-read for April. She also writes poetry and she recently edited Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriqueña Poets Look at Their American Lives (Scapegoat Press). She can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Q: Tell me about your latest book, Every Last Secret.

A: Half-Cherokee Marquitta “Skeet” Bannion thought she was leaving her troubles behind when she fled the stress of being the highest ranking woman on the Kansas City Police Department, a jealous cop ex-husband who didn’t want to let go, and a disgraced alcoholic ex-cop father. Moving to a small town to be chief of the campus police force, she builds a life outside of police work. She might even begin a new relationship with the amiable Brewster police chief.

All of this is threatened when the student editor of the college newspaper is found murdered on campus. Skeet must track down the killer, following trails that lead to some of the most powerful people in the university. In the midst of her investigation, Skeet takes up responsibility for a vulnerable teenager as her ex-husband and seriously ailing father wind up back on her hands. Time is running out, and college administrators demand she conceal all college involvement in the murder, but Skeet will not stop until she’s unraveled every last secret.

Every Last Secret is the first in a series with Skeet Bannion as the protagonist. Skeet, like most of us, has some internal issues she has to learn to deal with. Each book is a complete mystery novel in itself, but I see the entire series as a kind of meta-novel following Skeet’s growth as a person. I like Julia Spencer-Fleming’s categorization of “traditional mystery-thriller” as a description. Every Last Secret is, indeed, a traditional mystery set in a small town, but the small town is right outside a big, dangerous city, and there’s a darker edge to this character, this book, and the series as a whole.

Q: What inspired you to go into writing?

Writing saved my life. I had a troubled childhood with parental involvement in violence and substance abuse. I’ve seen the sad ends of many who came from similar backgrounds. Reading books and writing poetry and journals made a difference for me, I’m sure. I come from several long lines of storytellers. The oral tradition was rich in my family, though they were poor in so much else. Writing was a door that opened for me at a young age.

I write crime fiction because it’s one genre of literature that is looking at the problems in our society—where they come from and what they do to us. As a child, I lived at close quarters with evil. I know too well that the possibility for it is inherent in each of us. I’m interested in exploring why some people fall into it and others in the same circumstance don’t and what this society does to and for people.

Now that the second Skeet Bannion book is in production, I’m working on a new series as well. This one will look at the Chicano community in Kansas City. The Skeet books are about being a mixed-blood Indian living a life surrounded by Anglo culture and the difficulties of remaining Indian under those circumstances, circumstances that many live under in American cities far from the reservations and their people. The new series will look at a vibrant Midwestern Chicano community that few people elsewhere even realize exists. Its protagonists are living in the heart of their community, and although at times that frustrates them, they draw real strength from it, even as they are faced with questions of assimilation and success in the Anglo world.

Q: Your blog encourages readers to read writers of color. What can we do to encourage more people to read Latino literature?

The first thing we can do is to bring the names and work of more Latino writers to the public. I started the series, “Books of Interest by Writers of Color,” because as a member of the Latino Writers Collective, after our readings I was often asked by parents, teachers, and librarians how to find out about Latino writers for their kids and their own reading. These were people of good will, often Latino themselves, but they couldn’t find much beyond the big names like Sandra Cisneros and Junot Díaz.

Latino writers are not published as much and are not reviewed as much as Anglo writers. This is changing, but very slowly. We actually have a large number of fine Latino writers, but if they’re published, it will usually be by one of a handful of small presses or university presses. These presses deserve all our gratitude and support. But they usually don’t have the budgets or staff to do much in the way of promotion. So a relatively few number of people actually hear about these books when they’re published. Trying to make Latino literature more visible are a handful of projects like Letras Latinas and The Latino Poetry Review run by Francisco Aragón out of the University of Notre Dame and LatinoStories.com run by Jose B. Gonzalez—and of course, The Hispanic Reader. Also, we are fortunate to have the gifted writer and critic Rigoberto Gonzalez, who reviews many Latino authors and who campaigns for more Latino writers to review the books of others.

One thing readers can do is to tell others about good Latino writers when they find them. They can also go on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Goodreads websites and write short reviews of the books by Latino authors. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been reviewed in all the major review publications and over twenty newspapers across the country, but my publishers tell me that those reviews don’t sell as many books as a simple review on Amazon, B&N, or Goodreads. A third thing readers can do is to ask their library systems to order the books of Latino authors—and then check them out and get others to check them out. Also, support those small and university presses that have supported our writers, so they can continue to bring to us the best new Latino writers.

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Happy birthday, Pablo Neruda!

Pablo Neruda was born July 12, 1904, and died Sept. 23, 1973. He is Latino literature’s best known poet, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

He grew up in Temuco, Chile, where he knew future Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral, and started writing as a young boy. He wrote his poetry while serving as a diplomat and in the Chilean Senate. While best known for his love poems, Neruda’s Communist viewpoints are reflected in works such as Canto General.

His popularity has made him the subject of two novels. In Antonio Skarmeta’s Il Postino, he inspires an Italian postal carrier to write poetry to woo a young lady. The book was made into the 1994 Academy Award-nominated movie. (The DVD includes a 30-minute feature about his life, with celebrities such as Madonna and Samuel L. Jackson reading his works.) In Roberto Ampuero’s excellent The Neruda Case, Neruda is shown in the last days of his life – reflecting on his past loves as he is dying of cancer and the Chilean government is about to be overthrown.

If you want to introduce children to Neruda, check out Monica Brown’s Pablo Neruda, Poet of the People and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s award-winning The Dreamer.

Read more about Neruda on the Poetry Foundation website and the Poets.org website.

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Book review: Diana López’s “Choke”

Windy Soto is an average eighth grade student when she gets to hang out with the popular crowd for the first time in her life. It’s an opportunity that puts her life in danger.

In Diana López’s young adult novel Choke (Scholastic Press), Windy becomes intrigued by Nina Díaz, the new girl who stands up to the cool kids – and acts nice to Windy. Windy even neglects her dorky best friend, Elena. But Windy soon learns that Nina has her friends play “the choking game,” in which teens choke each other until they pass out.

Choke is an easy-to-read book, although the exposition takes a little too long. López, a former middle school teacher who wrote the book after seeing her own students play the game, captures teenage angst well, especially in the opening paragraphs of the book:

“My middle school has the ‘in-crowd,’ the ‘out-crowd, and the ‘GP.’ ‘GP’ stands for ‘general public,’ just like the movie rating. The in-crowd works hard to stay out of the GP, while the out-crowd works hard to get in. I’m definitely GP, general public in every way. … Sometimes I like being GP because not one expects me to run for student council or compete in the academic decathlon. Being GP means being invisible … Being invisible has its benefits, but it can be boring, too. … I want to be part of the in-crowd. I want the keys to their golden lockers, the ones that decorated with streamers and ribbons on Spirit Day. The ones with mirrors on the inside door, mirrors reflecting beautiful faces and surrounded by pictures of beautiful BFFs.”

The novel, which takes place in San Antonio, features mostly Hispanic characters and the occasional nod to Latino life – such as barbacoa meals – but it should appeal to all middle school students. This book could even save a few lives.

More about Diana López:

Diana López, who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, is the editor of the Huizache literary magazine and teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Houston at Victoria. She also wrote Sofia’s Saints and the young adult novel Confetti Girl

Source: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher.

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In the news: New books, awards and news from Vargas Llosa, Díaz, Cisneros

It’s July! The month offers plenty of intriguing books to keep you cool during the hot summer days:

Just released: Choke by Diana López, editor of the Huizache literary magazine, features middle school students caught in a dangerous choking game so they can become “breath sisters.” The Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir by Domingo Martinez examines the author’s childhood in the Rio Grande Valley. In the novel The Frost on His Shoulders by Spanish author Lorenzo Mediano, a teacher in 1930s looks back on a romance that ripped a small town in the Pyrenees Mountains.

July 10: Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Prisoner of Heaven, the third in his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, follows a newlywed couple who must go back in time to 1940s Barcelona to uncover a terrible secret.

July 17: Joy Castro’s Hell or High Water features newspaper reporter Nola Céspedes investigating the world of violent predators in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Gwedolyn Zepeda writes about single mother facing a family crisis in Better with You Here.

Awards:

Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries won the California Book Award in the Fiction category.

Winners in the ForeWord Book of the Year, which honor independently published books, include Sergio Troncoso’s From This Wicked Patch of Dust, honorable mention, Multicultural Adult Fiction category, and Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, bronze, Essays; Lyn DiIorio’s Outside the Bones, second place, Literary Fiction; Blas Falconer and Lorraine M. López, editors of The Other Latin@, honorable mention, Adult Non-Fiction Anthologies; and Emerita Romero-Anderson, Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot, Bronze, Juvenile Fiction.

Other news:

The Guardian profiled Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, right, whose newest book is The Dream of the Celt.

Gabriel García Marquez, 85, is reportedly suffering from dementia, according to this Huffington Post article.

• A film version of the late Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz is in the works, reports the Word and Film website.

César Chávez’s The Words of César Chávez is the lone book by a Hispanic to make the Library of Congress exhibit, The Books That Shaped America.

• Here’s a video of Junot Díaz talking about his new book, This Is How You Lose Her, at last month’s Book Expo America. He also discussed the role of race in his writings to The Boston Review.

Luis Alberto Urrea talked about immigration to NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

 • Woo hoo! Sandra Cisneros has a new book - Have You Seen Marie? – coming out Oct. 2.

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