A bit off-kilter as a coming-of-age story, but it succeeds as an account of an American abroad trying to escape—and see...

UNDERSTANDING THE ALACRÁN

A recent graduate ditches Buffalo, New York, for a monthslong stay in a Mexican college town in this novel.

William James dreads the thought of a workaday life as a teacher, so at age 23 he accepts an invitation from his friend Salvatore Juarez and heads down to Mexico. The plan is to party, fall in love, enjoy the warm weather, and escape Buffalo. But, as Will wryly notes, “No one truly leaves Buffalo.” In the tropical town of Lila, he moves into a scorpion-infested house and immerses himself in the local expatriate scene, which largely comprises students, volcanologists, and an inordinate number of Germans. His life becomes one of nightly parties, awful bars, sketchy street festivals, and massive amounts of alcohol. Will fights through the horrors of his Roman Catholic upbringing to overcome shame and self-doubt, helped by Luz Oscura, a head-turning college student who becomes his girlfriend. With funds running low, Will gets inconsistent work teaching English but still manages to travel, visiting quaint Guanajuato and pricey Puerto Vallarta. Luz, unfazed by his volatile lifestyle and moments of irrationality, plays just enough games to keep the boorish yet insecure Will hot on her trail. Will wants to see Mexico from the inside, and he largely succeeds in experiencing its wonders, though he remains hampered by significant gringo bashing. As he plots a final trip around the country with Luz, he feels his future is more up in the air than ever. LaPoma (Developing Minds, 2015, etc.) obviously knows Mexico well, framing the nation not by its problems but by the hearts of its people. Will is hardly perfect, but his job teaching English to children shows him at his best and most dedicated while also giving insights into the economic issues that plague the country. The numerous party scenes tend to bog down in detail, but the descriptions of Mexican locales are as vibrant, colorful, and illuminating as the novel’s unique characters (“There were great open fields of tall grass with fires burning in the distance, whose flames leapt off the world like brilliant localized solar flares”). The author can write about serious things with humor, and Will’s tale shows an understanding of Mexico that goes beyond the ordinary.

A bit off-kilter as a coming-of-age story, but it succeeds as an account of an American abroad trying to escape—and see beyond—the tourist traps.

Pub Date: Aug. 23, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9988403-0-7

Page Count: 456

Publisher: Almendro Arts

Review Posted Online: May 2, 2017

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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