Review: Efren Divided

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Review for "Efren Divided" by Ernesto Cisneros (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Woww…this one’s a tearjerker. A powerful and timely middle grades fiction novel about a relevant issue that affects so many children and their families in America.

Efren Nava is a likeable middle schooler living in Los Angeles with his parents and two younger twin siblings. Though the family lives modestly in a one-room apartment, their warmth and togetherness is cherished by Efren, who marvels at his hardworking father and the way his mother makes milagros (“miracles”) happen with little money. Although Efren and his siblings are citizens, his parents are undocumented and he knows that they face an uncertain future if their status is discovered. He keeps this fact a secret from everyone, including his closest friends and teachers.

Efren’s life is upended when he leaves for school one morning and returns to discover that his mother has been taken in a sweep by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and that she has been deported to Mexico. His father begins working non-stop to hire a coyote to bring her back. Efren is left in charge of his siblings, often late into the night. He is overwhelmed and in a constant state of anxiety, his school demeanor suffers. Eventually he and his best friend stop talking, crushed by the fact that he is afraid to reveal his parent’s status to anyone outside of his home.

I won’t reveal the end of the book, other than to say that there is no happy ending here. I respect the author for doing this, because the fact remains that nothing good comes out of separating parents from their children and splitting up families. Whether its Border Patrol placing children in cages in a detention center or ICE rounding up their parents in widespread sweeps, the damage of separation and deportation is devastating and irreparable.

I loved this book because it highlights the struggle of what it is truly like to live as an undocumented person, constantly looking over your shoulder and expecting the worst. There is no political rhetoric, just a child’s story that calls on readers to be compassionate and understand what they are going through. This is definitely a must-read in 2020 and a perfect book for both children and adults.

Review: The New David Espinoza

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Review for "The New David Espinoza" by Fred Aceves (2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“The New David Espinoza” is a very well written book about a topic that’s rarely explored in YA fiction. The story centers around David, a Latino teenager dealing with past trauma, specifically, the recent death of his mother. Compounding his troubles is the fact that David is relentlessly bullied in school due to his small size. When a viral video surfaces of him being assaulted by classmates, David decides that he’s had enough and begins to change his diet, work out obsessively, and join a gym. He gives himself one summer to build his physique and ‘unveil’ his tougher, more muscular look to his peers. His path takes a dark turn when he befriends another aspiring bodybuilder and gets involved in steroid use to achieve his transformation.

Once again, I liked this book because it explores a topic that’s rarely explored in a lot of YA books I’ve read. Body dysmorphia is very real, yet a lot of books don’t explore the male side of this highly misunderstood psychological disorder. There’s also a lot of very thoughtful explorations on bullying and toxic masculinity here that I think teens will benefit from.

This is the second book I’ve read from Fred Aceves. I will continue to read his work in the future.

Four and a half stars.

Review: Children of the Land

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Review for "Children of the Land" by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Children of the Land” is Mexican-born poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s personal and familial experience with immigration and becoming an American citizen. Castillo first came to the U.S. with his undocumented parents as a child. They settle in California, where ICE agents frequently raided their home and his father was deported back to Mexico. To ‘become invisible’ to arrest and detection by authorities, Castillo does well in school and learns, in his words, “perfect” English. He goes to college and eventually receives American citizenship through the DACA program, first set into place under the former President Barack Obama.

Through DACA, Castillo is able to visit his father in Mexico. Although their relationship is strained, he assists his father in the long, fraught process of getting a green card. While this attempt proves unsuccessful, it is only after his father is kidnapped by a violent drug cartel that Castillo is able to help his parents seek asylum in the U.S.

This book is raw and spares no details of America’s dehumanizing immigration system. I would certainly recommend this over “American Dirt” because it is a represents a Latinx view of the lives of the undocumented and the myriad of dynamics (social, familial, personal) that come with it.

Review: Ordinary Girls

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Review for "Ordinary Girls" by Jaquira Diaz (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I loved this book fiercely. I was pretty much hooked from the first page, a done deal.

Jaquira Diaz was born on the island of Puerto Rico, living in the housing projects there until her family moved to Miami Beach when she was a little girl. There, Diaz witnessed the dissolution of her family: her father sold drugs and became emotionally distant, her mother’s declining mental health cause her to eventually descend into severe drug use. There is also physical violence present in the home, mostly from her older brother and her drug-addicted mother. The only stability Jaquira finds is in her paternal grandmother and her younger sister, who is stuck in the same hellish familial nightmare that she is in. In addition to all of this, there’s the quagmire of young Jaquira trying to figure out her racial identity. Even though she is proudly Puerto Rican, her mother (blonde haired and green eyed) is White, her father is dark skinned, curly haired, and unapologetically Black. This causes much family conflict, as Jaquira recalls, with her maternal grandmother mocking her darker skin color and the first in her life to call her the n-word.

As a teenager, Jaquira channels her family dysfunction into full-on rage. After a suicide attempt at 11, she is stuck in a cycle of going nowhere: fighting with other girls, getting suspended from school, drinking, drugs, and running away. After several stints in juvenile for violent behavior, she drops out of high school at 16 (though she later earns a GED). Married at 17, she eventually enlists in the Navy, though her attraction to women doesn’t earn her any friends there either. After more family dysfunction and personal strife, Jaquira finds her voice as a writer.

Once again, I loved this book. The writing here is organized thematically and less around a structured, linear narrative order. This is all ok though, as I think it takes the most extreme level of courage to even begin to write like this. Diaz does not flinch or shy away from some very deep, dark truths.

Five stars. I’d read this again if I could.

Review: Dominicana

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Review for "Dominicana" by Angie Cruz (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Dominicana” is the story of a teenage girl named Ana, growing up with her parents and siblings in a rural part of the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960’s. Trujillo’s reign of terror has ended, yet economic stability has not yet returned to the country. She is proposed to at the age of eleven by Juan, an older man more than twice her age. At 15, her parents finally consent to the marriage–not because their daughter is in love with Juan, but to give him permission to someday build on their land, and give themselves better prospects of gaining an American visa through Ana’s sponsorship.

For Ana, the “American Dream” comes at a hard price. She hates the cold weather of NYC and misses home and has trouble adjusting to her new life. Her mother constantly asks her to send money that she doesn’t have back home. Juan hits her, often leaves her in their tiny apartment alone, and doesn’t let her go out to talk to anyone. Juan is also having an affair with another woman, who regularly calls and harasses Ana. Life is drudgery until Juan leaves the US to return to the DR on business, leaving her under the watchful eye of his brother, Cesar. With Cesar, Ana begins to experience something like a fulfilled life–taking English classes, going to the beach, making her own money, and dancing at local ballrooms. She falls in love with Cesar, and eventually must decide her fate.

I found this book to be very well written and intensely readable. Ana is 15 and stays that way, and her viewpoints and her actions accurately match her characterization. However, there is a strong anti-Black sentiment among some characters in this book. Ana’s husband, now living beside Blacks, Jews, and other minorities in the US, speaks of Black Americans throughout the novel as “trouble” and “lazy.” Although I have no doubt that his prejudice is an accurate portrayal of the attitude of some Dominicans, it’s jarring and off-putting. Another complaint is the end, which I didn’t care for at all.

The biggest theme in this novel is the same with most immigrant novels, and that is one of the pursuit of the American Dream. What does it mean? How will Ana achieve it? Ana is ever-industrious and thoughtful, when one plan fails she does not hesitate to simply create another. It’s the classic “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” American tale.

Four stars. Definitely worth reading.

Review: The Affairs of the Falcons

Pardon my absence, I’ve been ill for a few weeks. Part of this is neglecting my diet and habits toward self care, the other part of that is a genetic component to my life that I need to be more cognizant of. If you’ve never had large kidney stones I hope that you never get them (or have to have surgery to remove them), and that you take loving care of your kidneys and your health in general.

The good news? I did a lot of reading while I was at home recovering.

Ok. On to my review…

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Review for "The Affairs of the Falcons" by Melissa Rivero (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book was so-so. I liked the premise of it, the execution, however, not so much.

“The Affairs of the Falcons” is the story of Anita Falcon, an undocumented immigrant from Peru. She lives with her husband’s cousin’s family in Queens in a cramped apartment. Anita is married to Lucho, has two young children, and works as a seamstress in a factory. Her husband drives a cab, but when the story begins, we learn that he has lost this job due to his undocumented status.

As you can imagine, money is very tight in this family. Most of this book revolves around the subject of money–getting it, losing it, and borrowing it from others to pay back the loan sharks who smuggled the family into America. Due to her status as undocumented there is no access to banks, and Falcons are always limited in terms of what kinds of jobs they can get. Housing is also an issue, internal conflicts in the home push the Falcons’ welcome with Lucho’s family to the limit. Also depicted here are the ways in which class and race play into the lives of a Latinx family (Anita is rural and indigenous, Lucho is lighter skinned, well educated, and from Lima). Lucho’s family remind Anita often of her despised, lower status among them.

Despite the external pressures, Anita is not a weak character, though she does makes questionable choices throughout the book. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, my reason for the 3 stars is because I found the book to be less than compelling. There are tons of books out there on the immigrant experience, and I don’t really feel this book will stand out much within that group. There is not much that happens here that we haven’t read before, especially if you are familiar with this sub-genre of books.

I definitely recommend reading this book though. I’d also be open to reading more from this author in the future.

Review: With the Fire on High

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Review for "With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After reading and immensely liking “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, I knew I had to read this. Although I liked this one as well, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as her first.

Emoni Santiago is a high school senior and mother to Emma, her 2 year old daughter. She is also an aspiring chef, integrating her own unique twists on traditional home cooked Puerto Rican recipes. In addition to her parental and school responsibilities, Emoni works hard at a burger restaurant, has a supportive best friend, and a kind grandmother who helps to raise her daughter. This novel is mostly the story of Emoni’s senior year of high school, in which she begins to nurture her love of cooking by taking a culinary arts elective at school. The class requires a trip to Spain, and Emoni, a single mom of modest means, is faced with the burden of raising money to go. In addition to this, there is some minor drama with Emma’s father, as well as unresolved issues in her relationship with her father.

Although I liked this book and its short chapters make it intensely readable, the main problem here is that I felt it lacked a conflict. Yes, Emoni does struggle, but she eventually gets what she wants. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, she’s a great character who I empathized with and desperately wanted to win. Buuuuttt…it just made for a kinda blah narrator. The romance is reluctant and felt forced, there was never a point in the book where I didn’t know that things would improve. It’s perfectly put together and predictable.

Still, I won’t go less than 4 stars here. I love Elizabeth Acevedo, and I think her writing about Afro-Latina character is super-important, particularly with all of the discussion in lit circles these days about diverse books. I also think that her choice to feature a urban teenage mother of color that is not a caricature or a stereotype was a very brave one that should be commended. The cover art is cool too (is that Alicia Keys??) Woooooww…