Labyrinth Lost: #Ownvoices Magic

Brujas caught my interest for the first time when I actually saw the male version in True Blood (and boy am I glad I actually did research outside of that). But the idea of cultural specific customs, rituals and what not related to magic has always piqued my interest because it demands that we look outside our normal conceptions of how ideas work. I’m a huge fantasy reader and the magic when I was growing up usually went one way. There wasn’t a great deal of variety in the magic systems, the rituals attached to them and who actually got to use this magic.  Even today, while things are much better, I have to make active efforts to find books that exist outside these norms. LABYRINTH LOST is such a book and the brujas in it are interesting as hell.

Alex is the main character through which we view the world. She’s not exactly enthused about her powers and is in fact looking out of ways to have them at all. As this is a YA story, it’s not surprising that the main character feels a bit awkward and like a freak amongst their family. But it doesn’t feel rehashed or dry in this story. Her anxiety is actually based in some very real concerns that I think a lot of children in single-parent homes can relate to. She does a lot of growing up in this book which is of course expected in YA, but this maturation feels earned. Alex really does go through some things to come out stronger on the other side.

Lula kind of starts off a bit trope-ish too with the pretty, older, popular sister thing she has going. That particular trope has always made me snarl a little because I’m the oldest and was never any of those things, but that’s just a personal thing.  Anyway, Lula definitely defies that trope in some interesting ways. She’s really invested in the bruja way of life and is trying desperately to instill that same kind of belief into her sister. From Alex’s POV, Lula seems well adjusted to things but I don’t think that’s the case. In many single parent homes, you find that the oldest child can sort of take on the secondary parent role. I think Alex has done that and her seeming “ease” with the bruja life is just her trying to step up to the plate and take responsibility where one parent has failed. And you can see how much having to take on that responsibility bothers her in how easily she lashes out at Alex for refusing it.

Alex’s Mom isn’t on the “screen” a whole lot in this book but it doesn’t take much for us to get a full idea of who she is.  I see in this woman so many of the single mothers that populate my life. They work tirelessly, love their children endlessly and spend too much time hiding their pain. All of these things are peppered here and there throughout the story, but it makes the Mother such a powerful background figure. The love she has for her children isn’t something that we as the readers have to just assume.  It’s put right there on the page for us.

Nova is the bad boy love interest that we have seen so many times in so many different ways. But to this book’s credit a couple of different things are done here.  Yes, he’s alluring and attractive but there are some very ugly parts to this guy and the story never lets you forget it.  Just when you start to get misty-eyed about him, he does something that reminds you of his complexity and not to just romanticize him.  There’s a lot about him to ponder and most important of all, his place at the end of the story isn’t typical to where you see characters like his end up.  Definitely towards the end of the book, you can feel the story’s defiance of the trope he would usually represent.

Rishi is the light of this story.  She’s really at its heart and is such a breathlessly diverse character. Like she exists and I love it.  Her identity unfolds beautifully throughout the text and there’s such a genuine warmth to her.  I don’t think the hero’s journey in this book would have carried half as well without Rishi around. She’s beautifully intersectional and I just want more characters like her to flood every YA book.  I can hear some screaming “identity politics” in reference to this character, but screw those people.  Rishi is exactly what we need more of.  She isn’t a bruja but that is precisely what makes her so important to the narrative.

The Devourer is a case of power gone wrong.  She’s symbolic of the everlasting need of the powerful to always seek more power. Her corruption is absolute and she seems to be completely aware of this hunger she will always have. But like an addict, she can’t help herself but to want more no matter how much damage it’s doing to her.  How timely and fitting is that in today’s present world where we’re having to deal with a President who seems intent on destroying everything around him.

But if this story is any kind of beacon, it’s that even when things seem to be right at their end and there’s nothing good left, hope finds a way. I highly recommend this book and can’t wait for more stories set in this universe.


The Amado Women by Desiree Zamorano

Amado Women by Desiree Zamorano

When I finished this book, I immediately hugged it.  Kind of ridiculous I know, but it felt necessary because the book ended so completely and so powerfully I felt like that was the only way to release all the emotions pent up in me.  Amado Women is the Latina’s Waiting to Exhale.  Much like that book showed the ups and downs of both womanhood and being black, this book shows the ups and downs of being a woman and Latino.  The writing style is addictive, having an almost perfect rhythm.  It’s sparse where it needs to be and knows exactly when to deliver its punches.

The book centers around the women of the Amado clan.  There’s Mercy, the recently divorced mother who is beautiful in so many ways but harbors far too much guilt and pain.  The oldest child, Celeste, who is successful in her career and has the finances to back it up.  But in the eyes of her youngest sister, Nataly, that success has made her cold and distant.  Nataly is a starving artist who doesn’t quite seem to know where she’s going in life despite knowing exactly what she wants.  Then there is the middle child, Sylvia.  She’s the only one of her sisters with children (two daughters) and is trying to navigate her way out of an abusive marriage.

There are men in the novel and how they relate to the women is a part of the story, but the author avoids making the men the central to these women’s lives.  They’re there and they are important, but how these daughters and their Mother relate to one another is where the heart of the story lies.  If I have to say, I think the story of Mercy is the most powerful one in the entire novel to me.  I’m a momma’s boy so I’m always a sucker for a good mom overcoming in a story and that’s exactly what Mercy does.  What the author really excelled at in writing Mercy was showing her children that their Mother was only human.  It’s a lesson that we kids don’t really learn until we’re much older and I think there will always be a part of us that still thinks they’re invincible anyway.

Sylvia’s story arc is a delicate one because it tackles the very controversial and sticky subject of domestic abuse.  The author doesn’t get into gory details, but the emotions of Sylvia on display as she goes through this is enough to horrify you.  She doesn’t shy away from the unfortunate role that children sometimes play in domestic abuse and the shame and resentments that crop up from that.  There’s a lot of pain to be dealt with here, but the author does bring it up to a satisfying resolution.

This novel has all the trappings of a late-night soap opera with all the tragic reality of everyday life.  It’s a roller coaster, but if you don’t read this book for ANY other reason then please read it to get to the end.  I promise you that you’ll get to the end and smile.  There’s just no way around it.  How this story concludes is reason enough to pick up this book.  I hugged that book because it was the only way I could hug those characters.

The Valley by Rolando Hinojosa

If I didn’t know that Belken County was a fictional place before opening up this book, I would have been looking to make a trip to it after I was done.  Mr. Hinojosa brought to life this place with such unapologetic reality.  Trying to sum up his work would make it sound dull because it’s really just an examination of everyday life, but it’s so much more than that.  Its layers of culture, history, and small town politics embedded into this story.  I walked away from it feeling like I could p go up to a stranger and make them actually believe I was from Belken County.  That was the depth of the richness that the author gave us.

Once in college while discussing Faulkner, one of my professors pointed out how so often writers are hated in their hometowns.  At the time, I was going to college in Columbus, Georgia and that city happened to be the source of what the great Carson McCullers drew from.  And true enough, she was reviled by the older generation in Columbus.  I always felt it was because she exposed ugly truths, but not in the way that an activist or journalist might.  They were exposed through the art of a timeless story and I think that sticks more in people’s craw than anything else.  The fact that this story won’t ever really go away.

I can’t help but to wonder if it is the same for Hinojosa and it was a thought that stuck in the back of my mind throughout my reading of the entire book.  My imagination couldn’t help but to wander and wonder if people he knew felt a certain character was inspired by them.  Did they become mad?  Did they tell everyone or did they keep it secret out of embarrassment?  Was the book passed around as gossip?   It’s not a fate I would wish on any writer because it is a hard thing to be hated by a place you love.  But at the same time, it puts Hinojosa in the company of Faulkner and McCullers.  I suppose any writer can tolerate a few jeers for that.

Someone who doesn’t understand the art of the writer might walk away from this story thinking that Hinojosa hates whatever inspired Belken County.  That is a superficial reading of the story and misses the greater depth of it.  When a writer tells a story as honestly as Hinojosa has here it has nothing to do with hate or negativity.  That is a work of love to breathe life into every facet of existence from the mundane to the difficult to even the beautiful.

What about the story moved me the most?  I think it was the older veterans who had survived so much and decided to make their homes in Belken.  Being a military brat, I have seen older men of war gather around to tell their tales and watch the world in that way only they can.  The Old Revolutionaries struck me as a treasure that not everyone around them realized they had.  But isn’t that always how it goes with our elderly.  We so often view them as old vessels and not the bridge to the past that they really are.   Their tales stuck me and I imagine will always have some part of them in me.

The story of the Cordero Family stuck with me too but for a different reason.  Hinojosa broke my heart while spinning out their life.  These people seemed so good and really seemed to be just trying to get by but one horrible thing after another lumped themselves on the family.  I imagine that is how it is for many people, but no less tragic to watch unfold on the page.  The entire time I kept hoping and wishing for something good to happen to these people.  For some kind of miracle to come their way and it never came.  A hard lesson in the unfair cruelties of life.

That’s what this book really is at the end of the day.  It’s a hard lesson in how the world works and why life can be so damn unfair.  But don’t let you scare that away because Hinojosa serves this lesson to you in beautiful fashion.

Pig Park by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez: Urban Decline and Cultural Identity

I was once told the most epic of books takes place in a small timeframe and that as a writer you shouldn’t try to span years.  You should try to confine your story to a smaller pace and Pig Park does that.  You are given a snapshot of urban life for a group of Hispanic-Americans in Chicago during one summer.  But in that one summer so much changes and grows that no one walks away from this story without being different.  At the center of this story is Masi Burciaga, a young woman who lives along with many others in the neighborhood of Pig Park.

One of the first things you immediately discover about this neighborhood is that it’s dying.  It’s an epidemic occurring across many urban neighborhoods and small towns in America.  One major company would provide the economic lifeblood and because of globalization the company closes its doors, leaving behind the many small businesses it once supported.  That is what happens in Pig Park as the American Lard Company has closed its door and crippled the neighborhood as result.  The only remnant of those glorious manufacturing days are the rubble and refuse the company left behind.

Of course no one wants to leave the neighborhood even though it seems like that would be the easy thing to do.  And I think it was important for the author to show the neighborhood solidify and really add a human element to it.  Why?  Because far too often the charge thrown at poor, urban minorities by whites is that they should just “leave” or “go where the opportunity is at”.  Such an easy thing to say when you don’t have to think about people leaving behind family legacies, best friends, and connections that run decades deep.

That richness spoke to me because I have seen firsthand how bone-headed such statements can be and how it misses the bigger picture.  White people can tie themselves to trees to stand their ground, but minorities fighting for their neighborhoods are seen as fighting a pointless battle.  Even worse, they’re seen as having brought the economic rot on themselves.  I’m glad this point in its quiet way rails against that.

So the crux of this book is the neighborhood trying to save itself and become what it once was.  That’s another aspect of the neighborhood I came to love throughout the book.  It showed the solidarity of the neighborhood and again, I think that is a quiet railing against a stereotype.  Far too often minority neighborhoods are seen as villainous death traps where everyone is against everyone and it’s a Darwinian struggle for survival.  Or even worse your perceived solidarity is turned into something dangerous like the fictional Muslim “no-go zones” that supposedly exist.  I applaud the author for making a statement about the good nature and true partnership that really exists in these communities.

Masi is right at the forefront, navigating through a potential divorce between her parents, seeming first love and a conspiracy all along the way.   Her parents were certainly more fleshed out than I have seen parents be in other young adult novels.  They have depth and they’re approached with fairness though I have to admit my personal feelings often left me angry with the Mother throughout the story.  Still, in the end I’m glad the author took a route that almost seems atypical when it comes to situations of divorce.  Again, I think the author is railing some more with that and I loved it.

Another truism of the young adult novel is the first love and Masi encounters what she believes to be hers.  I think the way the relationship of Masi and Felix plays out gives the character of Masi so much more agency than what you typically see in female protagonists dealing with their first real relationships.  It never felt like it was trying to push a message other than that a woman has as much and should always have as much say so in the direction of a relationship as a man.  A powerful message quietly snuck in there.

The conspiracy Masi uncovers is certainly the sinister element of this book and it makes me wonder if the author is drawing this from some true experience.  It certainly strikes me as a completely plausible.  The cultural humiliation that one of the antagonists tried to make the kids go through was so painful to read because I could feel their disgust.  I was disgusted for them and it made me realize just how seriously members of the Hispanic-American population take their status as Americans.  It was something I never really thought about.  As a black man, the circles I read and converse in often speak of pulling away from the American part of our identity.  So it surprised to see another minority group stand by it so strongly.  Definitely a learning experience for me.

So what did I walk away feeling like once this novel was over?  I have to say I felt hopeful and proud of the characters in that book.  They stood up for what they believed in even when they didn’t have much material reason to anymore.  I also high-fived the author in my head for all the moments when resistance against the “white default” was put into the novel.  Pig Park is a truer representative of poor urban neighborhoods than any I have read in a long time for that reason.  The author creates a neighborhood as it truly exists and not how Fox News would have you believe it exists.

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces: Necessary Intersectionality

So I walked into this novel not quite sure what to expect.  Not in terms of writing, but what to expect from myself.  Because to be quite honest; my knowledge of Mexican and Mexican-American (this book taught me there is indeed a difference) culture was surface level at best.  Yes, my list of friends include people of Mexican descent but that doesn’t precisely translate into understanding their culture, their history, and their struggles.  So I came into this book ready to learn.  And learn I did.

I learned cultural perspectives I had never considered. I was forced to confront angles of racism that I had never really thought about.  Cultural nuances were brought to my attention.  In the midst of these different perspectives, I also found great points of commonality.  Points of shared hurt and disappointment.  In short, this book did what all good books should do.  It brought me into its world and made me comfortable staying in it.

So based on the title, it’s pretty obvious the focus of the book is the character of Gabi.  She’s a Mexican-American high school senior and like so many teens she is dealing with a whole host of things that she probably shouldn’t have to be dealing with.  She has two best friends; one is pregnant and the other’s gay.  Her Mother is a bit domineering and is always harassing her about something whether it’s Gabi’s weight or why she shouldn’t leave for college.  She has a Father who is a drug addict that keeps trying to get back into some kind of normalcy but isn’t able to get there.  And to top it all off she has to navigate the treacherous roads of sex and boys.  It’s a lot but it’s also incredibly and heartbreakingly normal.

An unfortunate criticism that book reviewers tend to lob at minority writers working in the field of Young Adult literature is that they throw too many problems in.  These reviewers can’t handle race, sexuality, and drugs all in one novel.  It’s too much for them and they want these writers to narrow their focus.  All that criticism proves to me is that we need more diverse reviewers.  Minorities in America understand intersectionality and don’t run away from it.  At no point did I feel overwhelmed by the number of issues thrown out in this book.  I have seen Gabi lacking self-esteem because of her weight.  I have known Gabi in his efforts to try and find her place in the world.  There are many like Gabi right now and their stories deserved to be told unabashedly.  This novel does that.

The author pulls you into these issues and never does it start to feel like she’s preaching or she’s trying to get you to agree with a perspective.  She simply puts it out in its most honest, raw form and leaves it out there.  Gabi’s thoughts about her weight and the relation to how her Mother makes her feel are laid out without judgment.  Sebastian’s journey through his sexuality thankfully stays away from a completely hellish scenario and is often dealt with humor and fun.  The Father’s addiction to drugs is brutal in physical details, but also makes sure the emotional response is as eye opening.

Never do I get angry with the people in Gabi’s life and that deserves a hefty round of applause for the author.  It’s easy in difficult situations like these, especially ones in which you can personally relate, to get angry with the characters.  Anger is an easy emotion and I think for that reason many writers in this field fall back on it.  This novel doesn’t do that.  Not once was I mad with anyone.  I felt disappointment, sadness, joy, hope, but never anger.  That’s a testament to the story’s ability to make you feel like the characters in this book are as much your family as they are Gabi’s.  Empathy is cultivated through the writing naturally.

Many of the details in this book were revelations for me.  As an African-American, I often thought it was just our community who would accuse people of doing things that meant they were “acting white”.  I almost laughed when I saw that Mexican-Americans do the same and often for some of the reasons African-Americans do.  My Grandmother often pointed out promiscuity as something that “white people” did.  It seems small, but it was the first detail that really taught me something in the book.  There was an intersection of culture there and along the way I found other things we have in common.  A love for cooking.  Families that sometimes seem too tight knit.  Drug issues.  Religion and the excesses that come along with it.  A strong rejection, unfortunately, of homosexuality.  I saw these things unfold in the book and each one brought me more into the story.  We were communicating, the story and I.

But for all the things I could relate, there were elements of the story entirely new for me.  It wasn’t until recently I really started to understand the large palette of skin tones that people of Mexican descent can come in.  Gabi’s struggle of being too light and seeming to not want it was something that took me a bit to wrap my head around.  I was so use to a world perspective in which lighter skin is upheld (erroneously of course) as being better.  Confusion gripped me trying to think why this would be a problem until Gabi quickly pointed out why.  Her skin color created an illusion of whiteness that allowed good ol’ American ignorance and racism to be brandished in front of her without abandon.  Then I got it and felt instantly terrible because racism is bad enough, but to be around in its purest form must be a painful experience.  I was shown a new side to racism I had never really considered before.  It made me think of my own ancestors and how awful the act of “passing” as white must truly have been.  The anger that must have simmered in their hearts was put on full display for me by Gabi.  So, in a way, the novel made me reflect and consider a new perspective on even my own history.  Bravo!

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is a wonderful young adult piece that properly shows how to handle intersectional identities while still keeping the writing level superb.  It successfully avoids the pitfall of being a school special and also dodges becoming something so depressing that you’re left empty afterward.  No, this story at its conclusion made me hopeful and privileged.  Hopeful that through these kinds of stories being told we let all the Gabi’s of the world see their worth.  Privileged because I think this novel left me better than when I began it.

PUBLISHER: Cinco Puntos Press (