Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book review: Matt de la Peña’s “The Living”

the+living+matt+de+la+penaShy, the main character in Matt de la Peña’s The Living (Delacorte), is not having a good week.

The 18-year-old cruise ship worker watched a passenger jump to his death. Some of his family members have fallen sick. His crush is engaged to another man. And, oh yeah, a catastrophic earthquake has hit Los Angeles, leading to a tsunami that upends the ship and leaves Shy stranded in the ocean with some sharks.

“ ‘What the hell!’ he shouted, angrily pushing himself off one of the corpses and sloshing through the water to pick up the raft oar. Now he was pissed. On top of everything else he had to deal with this? He stood and started beating at the ocean and screaming down the sharks: ‘Get your asses away from here!’”

The Living combines the drama of 90210 with the adventures of Yann Mantel’s Life of Pi and the mystery of the TV show Lost.

The book has multicultural appeal with Shy and his friend, Carmen, boasting Mexican roots and coming from border towns in the San Diego area. de la Peña has an easygoing style, with relatable characters and language (including a few curse words) that will draw teens, including reluctant readers.

Although the exposition and some parts of the book could have been speedier, the last 40 pages provided a great plot twist that kept me riveted. The ending made me wish that I didn’t have to wait until fall 2014 for the sequel, The Forgotten, to come out.

The Living is one heck of an adventure.

Matt de la PenaMore about Matt de la Peña: de la Peña is the author of four other novels, including Mexican White Boy, Ball Don’t Lie (which was made into a 2008 movie), We Were Here and I Will Save You. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Classic book review: José Saramago’s “Blindess”

BlindnessJosé Saramago’s Blindness (Harcourt Brace) grabs you from the first page and doesn’t let you go.

The 1995 novel by the late Portuguese author is one of the most acclaimed works in literature. Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998 and Entertainment Weekly named it one of the 100 greatest novels ever. The book was made into a 2008 movie with Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gabriel García Bernal.

The novel begins in an unnamed city when a man is suddenly struck blind while driving in traffic. Soon, everyone he meets, including an eye doctor, becomes afflicted with “white blindness.” Hundreds become blind and are quarantined in a mental hospital. People are left starving or are shot if they approach those who can still see. Chaos erupts in the ward and the city.

“In a downpour like this, which is almost becoming a deluge, you would expect people to be taking shelter, waiting for the weather to improve. But this is not the case, there are blind people everywhere gaping up at the heavens, slaking their thirst, storing up water in every nook and cranny of their bodies, and others, who are somewhat more far-sighted, and above all sensible, hold up buckets, bowls and pans, and raise them to the generous sky, clearly God provides the cloud according to the thirst.”

But one woman — the doctor’s wife — retains her vision and is able to see the destruction around her. She leads the way for a small group to find some sanity.

None of the characters are given names or any details about their lives. At times, I would have liked to have known more about them, but I understand that Saramago did this intentionally to focus on their present circumstances.

I was intimidated by this book, but it proved to be a gripping read, even though Saramago writes in long paragraphs and uses very little dialogue. (The book’s translators, Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa, deserve credit for a great job.) The novel contains some disturbing images, including a scene in which a group of women are brutally raped. But that chapter also ends with a moment of great humanity.

Blindness is an extraordinary book, a novel that makes you hate and believe in humanity at the same time. You will never forget this novel, even after you’ve read the last page.

JOSE-SARAMAGOMore about José Saramago: Saramago‘s other books include The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which drew controversy for its anti-religious views; Cain, a retelling of Biblical stories; and Raised From the Ground, which depicts the lives of Portuguese peasants.

Source: I checked this out of the library.

And that’s a wrap of my series of classic Latino novels. Check out my other list of classic novels by Latinas.

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Book review: Daniel Alarcón’s “At Night We Walk in Circles”

AtNightWeWalkinCirclesIn the Daniel Alarcón novel At Night We Walk in Circles (Riverhead), Nelson is a young man who decides to jolt his life by joining a political theater troupe that tours an unnamed South American country. The experiences changes his life in ways he could not imagined. Or, as the narrator, puts it: “And that is when the trouble began.”

Nelson seems to come to life as he performs in the play with Henry Nuñez, a former political prisoner, and Patalarga, a theater operator. Both men are a generation older than Nelson and hope to revive  political activism in the country through their performances.

“What, Henry argued, is a play without an audience? Isn’t a script simply potential energy until that magical moment when it becomes something more? Isn’t alchemy like that only possible when the words are made real, when the actors step out from behind the curtain (or the tarp, in this case) and perform?

But Nelson is saddened by some big news given by an ex-girlfriend that he still pines for. Then the trio  stops in one small town and Henry meets with a family who once played a significant part in his part — and Nelson ends up having to give the greatest performance of his life.

The reader knows Nelson is doomed. The narrator — who has a small connection to Nelson and the story — foreshadows the events that kept me riveted and wanted to know what happened.

Circles is an excellent read thanks to Alarcón’s artful plotting, beautiful writing and astute observations.

Daniel AlarconMore about Daniel Alarcón: Alarcón, a native of Peru, also is the author of War by Candlelight and Lost City Radio. He also runs the Radio Ambulante podcast.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Classic book review: Oscar Hijuelos’ “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love”

MamboKingsPlaySongsofLoveOn a Saturday night in East Harlem or the Bronx, N.Y., Cesar and Nestor Castillo would perform songs from their homeland of Cuba. Clubgoers would mingle as Cesar sang and played the drums and Nestor performed the trumpet, and life’s troubles would disappear as they danced into the night.

Then the sun would rise and reality would set in.

The lives of the Castillo brothers are depicted in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (HarperPerennial) by Oscar Hijuelos. Released in 1989, the book won critical acclaim and Hijuelos become the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And, perhaps more significantly in the realm of pop culture, it became a 1992 movie that made Antonio Banderas a star in the United States.

The brothers immigrated from Cuba to New York in the 1950s. Working by day, they play by night, getting gigs around the East Coast, releasing albums and landing a spot on I Love Lucy.

Hijuelos’ writing comes alive when he describes the brothers’ performances.

“He’d get up on the stage, dancing before the microphone while his musicians took the music forward. The glory of being on a stage with his brother Nestor, playing for crowds of café-society people who jumped, bounced, and wriggled across the dance floor. While Nestor soloed, Cesar’s heavy eyelids fluttered like butterfly wings lilting on a rose; for drum solos his hips hook, his arms whipped into the air: he’d take backwards dance steps, gripping his belt with one hand a crease of trouser with the other, hiking them up, as if to accentuate the valiant masculinity therein; outline of the big prick through white silk pantalones. Piano taking a ninth chord voicing behind a solo, he’d stare up into the pink and red spotlights, giving the audience a horse’s grin. Woman in a strapless dress dancing a slow, grinding rumba, staring at Cesar Castillo. Old woman with her hair coiffed upward into a heavenly spiral, starting at Cesar. Teenage girl, Miss Roosevelt High School Class of 1950, thin-legged and thinking about the mystery of boys and love, staring at Cesar Castillo. Old ladies’ skin heating up, hips moving like young girls’ hips, eyes, wide open with admiration and delight.”

Cesar is the definition of machismo. He almost seems defined by his “big thing” in the book’s frequent depictions of his sexual conquests. He devours sex as much as food and alcohol.

Nestor has a stable family life, but he’s more melancholy and introverted.

“Nestor tried, heaven helped him … After six years in the United States, he was still living with a growing dread of things. It wasn’t that he feared one thing in particular; he just had the sense that things weren’t going to work out, that the sky would fall in and lightning would strike him as he walked down the street, that the earth might open up and swallow him.”

Hijuelos is such a natural and beautiful writer that the book is easy to read, but sometimes it drags on too long. (We get it. Cesar likes to have sex.)

But as the book ends, Cesar realizes how his life has taken a toll on his body and his soul.

“The thing about one’s body coming apart was that, if anything, you felt more.”

And that’s the brilliance of Hijuelos’ writing — he can make you feel like you’re dying or dancing.

OscarHijuelosMore about Oscar Hijuelos: Hijuelos, whose parents immigrated from Cuba to New York, also wrote the books Our House in the Last World, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, Empress of the Splendid Season and Dark Dude. His most recent book is his 2011 memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

This book is part of my series on classic Latino novels. Up next: Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.

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Book review: Patricio Pron’s “My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain”

myfathersghostMy Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain (Knopf) by Partricio Pron has a premise as intriguing as its title.

The first part begins somewhat mysteriously, with the narrator, returning to his native Argentina from Germany, remembering scraps of his and his family’s past — drug abuse, a car accident, his father’s illness. (“My father was lying beneath a tangle of cord like a fly in a spiderweb.”) The sections are not numbered in correct order (1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10).

The second part deals with the disappearance with a father’s friend, Alberto José Burdisso, in 2008. The son finds a collection of articles and pictures saved by his father, who only knew the man briefly in primary school.  This leads to several questions, such as:

“Who would want to kill some sort of Faulknerian fool, poorer than a church mouse, in a town where his disappearance would be noticed immediately, a town, where, moreover, many people would know who Burdisso was, what he had done and who was with him in his final hours?”

And why does his father, a journalist, take such an interest in this poor man’s death?

Pron builds up an compelling storyline — and the answers lies in Argentina’s haunted past and the father’s role in politics, even though the man’s death occurred decades after the Dirty War.

“I noticed it had started to rain again, and I told myself I would write that story because what my parents and their comrades had done didn’t deserve to be forgotten, and because I was the product of what they had done, and because what they’d done was worthy of being told because their ghost — not the right or wrong decisions my parents and their comrades had made their spirit itself — was going to keep climbing in the rain until it took the heavens by storm.”

Pron is a great writer. The 212-page book, which was translated by Mara Faye Lethem, is simply written with evocative language and a plot that kept me reading. My Father’s Ghost shows the effects of the Dirty War though generations and years.

patriciopronMore about Patricio Pron:

Pron, an Argentine native who lives in Madrid, has written three short story collections and four novels. He has won the Juan Rulfo Short Story Prize and the Jaén Novel Prize.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Book review: Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s “The Sound of Things Falling”

Sound of Things Falling After a game of billards with his friend Ricardo, Antonio Yammara walks out into the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, and gunfire rings out. Antonio is injured and Ricardo dies. The incident haunts Antonio for years until he decides to find out why Ricardo was killed.

The Sound of Things Falling (Riverhead) by Juan Gabriel Vásquez shows how the drug war affected the lives of the people in Colombia. Two of the characters recall how they learned of the fatal shootings of government officials and politicians just as Americans remember where they were when President John F. Kennedy or civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. were shot.

Antonio’s investigation into Ricardo’s death draws him closer to Ricardo’s family and his country’s history. Antonio even makes a visit to the abandoned home of drug lord Pablo Escobar, where a rhino still roams the land. Throughout the novel, he uses the imagery of flight — I won’t reveal anymore than that — to symbolize the characters’ emotions.

It’s these vivid details, along with some beautifully written passages, that make Sound a terrific read. His work reminded me of Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, And The Mountains Echoed). Like Hosseini, Vásquez is able to convey his country’s trials on a personal basis with a compelling plot and simple, accessible language so I was drawn to the story without feeling lost or confused. (Translator Anne McLean deserves a great deal of credit.) Vasquez also eloquently conveys the tragedy and puzzle of life, as demonstrated by this passage:

“Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps evens depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has. When it arrives we receive it without too much surprise, for no one who lives long enough can be surprises to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s will, with little or no participation from our own decisions. These long processes that end up running into our life — sometimes to give it the shove it needed, sometimes to blow to smithereens our most splendid plans — tend to be hidden like subterranean currents, like tiny shifts of tectonic plates, and when the earthquake finally comes we invoke the words we’ve learned to calm ourselves, accident, fluke, and sometimes fate.”

The Sound of Falling Things is an unforgettable read.

juan-gabriel-vasquezMore about Juan Gabriel Vásquez:

Vásquez was born in Bogotá and has lived in France, Belgium and Spain. His first two books were The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana.

Source: I purchased this book.

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Classic book review: Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

100 Years of SolitudeGabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Harper Perennial) has been named frequently on literature’s all-time greatest book lists. It also ranks high on Good Reads’ “didn’t finished” list. I can see how it made both lists.

Solitude defeated me once before. I attempted to read it when Oprah Winfrey put it in her book club, but I quit when I couldn’t keep up with all the characters. (I was able to complete and enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera.)

This time, I was prepared, ready to take notes and absorb this greatly loved story.

The book has an aura about it. It was released in 1968 during the Latin American boom in literature in the 1960s. The novel helped García Márquez win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. The book has numerous fans — including former President Bill Clinton — and it even makes an appearance in the Tom Hanks movie Turner and Hooch.

The novel covers the Buendía family over four generations in the town of Macando, founded by José Arcadio Buendia. García Márquez is an innovator of magic realism, so the villagers experience insomnia together and its rains endlessly for years. But the characters also experience real life — love, heartache, work, illness, death.

“It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.”

García Márquez writes in long sentences and paragraphs that makes the book seems longer than its 421 pages. The book, translated by Gregory Rabassa, demands intense concentration as García Márquez gives long descriptions and plenty of action, but little dialogue. Fortunately, the book had a family tree that I frequently referred to since so many characters share similar names.

Readers are rewarded with beautiful language — rich in description, humor and theme. And the stories are wonderfully crazy. One character, a colonel in the the military, insists no one come more than 10 feet of him. One woman kills men with her beauty. And, near the end, one shocking incident happens that uses both magic realism and hard core reality.

Solitude can be a challenge, but it’s a terrific challenge.

Gabriel Garcia MarquezMore about Gabriel García Márquez:

Born in Aracataca, Colombia, in 1928, García Márquez is one of the best beloved writers in the world. His other books include News of a Kidnapping and Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

 Source: I purchased this book.

Note: This review is part of my series of classic Latino novels. Up next: Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

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