Days of the Dead by Kersten Hamilton

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Papi held me tight and told me Mamá’s depression was a sickness. We aren’t ashamed when people die of cancer or pneumonia. We can talk about it and cry. He said mamá had been too sick to understand how much her leaving would hurt us.

It’s been a while since I’ve read children’s books, as my son and daughter are adults now, but sometimes I see books that grab my attention. In Days of the Dead, Glorieta Espinosa is trying her best to move on from her mother’s suicide even accepting her father’s marriage to a white Texan woman, Alice. That doesn’t mean she has to accept Alice’s nightmare of a daughter, Lilith. Since she’s stormed into her life, she’s done nothing but rip off her friends and spread her cruelty. Angus, her new step-brother isn’t so bad, even if he sometimes thinks he is a truck. When she isn’t dodging Lilith’s twisted games, Glorieta is devising plans to convince her Tía Diosonita (the town patron) to allow her mother’s ashes to be buried with the rest of her family.

Tía Diosonita is a strict Catholic, she refuses to see the souls of her ancestors, their people, be stained with a suicide in their midst even if she loved Glorieta’s mother as her own. Glorieta doesn’t have a chance to see her mother’s spirit during los Días de los Muertos if she is kept out of the cemetery. Her mother will have no company in the afterlife, no chance to reunite when it’s Glorieta’s time to die. Tía Diosonita won’t even talk about her mother! Could there be things she doesn’t know, shame her own Tía carries with her about what happened to her mother?

How can she convince her Tía of anything when poisonous hatred is collecting in her own heart, soul? She wants nothing more than to see her tormentor, step-sister Lilith get her just deserts! After an incident with immigration officers she is traumatized, then raging but she must keep her word as an Espinosa to never reveal Lilith’s true nature, having struck a deal. That all changes when Glorieta goes above her Tía Diosonita, which feels like an unforgivable betrayal, a sin! Accident or not, it’s caused a crack in her family, one she isn’t sure she can ever mend. She feels cast out, as doomed as those in Fool’s Field, where the dead were too sinful in life to sleep (be buried) in consecrated ground.

This is when Glorieta will be tested, and discover if she is weak or strong.

This was a wonderful story about love, compassion, tradition and immigration. It would be perfect for 6 grade and up.

Available Now

Skyhorse Publishing

 

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The Caregiver: A Novel by Samuel Park

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In America, there  were no metaphors. If a woman trusted her partner she didn’t say that she would set her hand on fire. When a woman had all the power, she didn’t say she had a knife and a piece of cheese in her hands. When she didn’t like an offer, she didn’t tell it to go back to the sea. 

It isn’t lost on me that I read this novel while going through my own health scare, mine is intestinal. Books find us when we need them, without a doubt. It deeply saddens me to learn the author passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 41, more so after reading at the end of the book what he wrote in 2017 for the New York Times Sunday Review. “I had a 9 Percent Chance, Plus Hope.” It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.

Samuel Park surprises me with how perfectly he could write from the perspective of female characters. Getting into the female mind is no easy feat my friends. Mara Alencar adores her mother beyond life itself, Ana is her gravity and is willing to do anything to put food in her daughter’s belly and a roof over their heads. Life is hard, but she never shows the exhaustion and sadness her single mother status puts on her shoulders. Working as a voice-over actress, a beauty herself, it’s not nearly enough to keep them afloat and this is just one of the many reasons Ana finds herself entangled in a dangerous scheme. With bravery, or stupidity, she becomes involved with young rebels out to take down the corrupt Police Chief, holding captive their friends in Rio De Janeiro. No one is a better actress than Ana, a talent that they sorely need to distract the Chief. Chaos ensues when their plan takes a dangerous turn, and nothing will be the same for Ana and Mara. The child sees more than her young mind can process.

Mara doesn’t know who her father is, but has always lived a happy life in the light of her mother’s love. Lately, her mother has changed and paranoia overtakes her, the threat of the Police Chief a shadow over their future. As Mara comes of age, she becomes as impulsive as her mother, and it is in her forceful nature that she falls in love for the first time. The boy of her chosing a dangerous pick. Mara acts out in desperation to save her mother, and through terrible loss learns that what she thought she knew about her mother may all have been lies.

Mara escapes to America and works as a caregiver in Bel Air for Kathyrn, a woman dying of stomach cancer. Living as an immigrant who works for a wealthy woman is an eye-opening experience, considering her apartment is a shared one in the ‘not-so-nice part of Hollywood.” Ten years after first moving to America, Mara still finds herself surprised by her new country. The vast wealth, in comparison to Brazil, never fails to amaze her where even those who are poor, ‘look expensive’. There is a certain charm in all the little things Mara notices that we Americans take for granted.

It’s at heart both an immigrant experience and a tender, moving story about a mother who just wants to give her child a good life and prospects for a better future. It is how the country we inhabit shapes our destiny, for better or worse. Yes read it, and don’t pass over “I Had a 9 Percent Chance , Plus Hope” at the end. The world is heavier with the loss of Samuel Park.

Publication Date: September 25, 2018

Simon & Schuster

 

A River of Stars: A Novel by Vanessa Hua

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Mama Fang held everyone’s wallets, passports, and their cash in the safe in her office, part of her pledge to take care of every detail. That meant Scarlett couldn’t pay for the fare and couldn’t leave the country. And if she asked Boss Yeung for a ticket, he’d refuse.

Scarlett Chen becomes pregnant by her lover and owner of the factory she works for, Boss Yeung. A self-made successful business man with three daughters and a wife yearns for what men in China want, an heir, a son to carry on his success. Daughters always end up being more like their mothers, belonging to them, then to another family. “When told they were having a boy, Boss Yeung had bowed his head and clasps his hands to his mouth, speechless.” When an ultrasound reveals Scarlett is carrying a treasured boy, he sends her to America so that his son will be born free, with every opportunity Americans have, a limitless future! Scarlett knows that she can’t risk telling her own Ma, who works at a family planning clinic that she, an unmarried woman, is pregnant. Not when one-child policies are enforced, pregnancies tracked. She would lose her job, the very job that despite its bitterness, afforded Scarlett and her mother a living, survival.

Through an arrangement with Mama Fang, who has her own entangled history, Scarlett stays at Perfume Bay with other expectant mothers eating terrible food, fighting with other women and thinking about Boss Yeung and her child’s future. Then a new sonogram gives her shocking news that she fears will change any love Boss Yeung has for her ending his support, it is vital she escapes before she gives birth, or the future she imagined will go up in smoke. One night she escapes, only to discover teenaged Daisy, another unwed mother, in the van she steals. Daisy, born in America but returned to Tawaiin when she was 2 months old, is suffering her own broken heart, kept from her child’s father William whom she met in Teipei during a summer language program. She wants nothing more than to get a message to him, being kept apart by her parents. What if, however, he never really loved her as much as she believed? Daisy is educated, and seems priveladed but her own reason for running is just as desperate. Despite their differences, both of their fates hinge on their cultures and the demands of others- both need each other desperately. In a sense, Scarlett mothers Daisy, and does everything she can with an interesting cast of characters to keep their American dream alive. It takes more than intelligence and hope, it takes humility and hard work, and the aid of strangers, a sort of make-shift family. They begin with nothing, invisible to people in San Francisco, fighting for their place within the community of Chinatown, where not everyone is eager to aid their own people. Old Wu and Scarlett build a unique relationship, which I really enjoyed more than her relationship with Boss Yeung. Scarlett using her own terrible cooking to persuade Wu to help her is funny. Always appeal to a man’s ego. Who knew food cart wars could be so dangerous, but when you’re hiding and can’t call attention to yourself for fear of deportation, well… Something that made me laugh and cringe with its pettiness was the flyer placed next to her food cart, a picture of her with wet hair, a photo of a blurry rat beside her and the accusation of ground rodent meat. You have to laugh at the inventiveness of street competitors, maybe as cut throat and fierce as big businesses.

Mama Fang isn’t one to crumble nor fall when any of her businesses collapse. Naturally Boss Yeung is shocked to find out the state of the place he had sent his lover, and find her missing. Mama Fang’s back story is maybe more heartbreaking than both Scarlett and Daisy’s. A woman as strong as her always has more ideas waiting in the wings, always several steps ahead of the game, the only way she has survived for so long. Boss Yeung has his own story of betrayal, and his daughter Viann born to a successful father has her own goals, certainly it doesn’t include being usurped by a bastard son? Everyone has secrets, rich and poor alike, each trying to outmaneuver equally wily foes. What if one’s enemy is a lover, family or best friend?

The criminal acts expose how immigrants in desperation put their trust, all their money and faith into the hands of dubious people. How those with power manipulate and abuse those with none. Certainly the world is full of opportunists that target immigrants as cash cows and see them not as real people escaping horrifying bleak futures. You can’t outrun those with money and power, despite what continent you are on. Each person wants nothing more than to build a life for themselves and their family, and even if people like Scarlett’s Ma or even Mama Fang don’t agree with the morality of their job, sometimes there is no choice but to comply. Whether it’s Boss Yeung coming up from nothing to become a wealthy man in his own country, or Scarlett changing the trajectory of her own life, each changed their fate. The ending is not quite as I expected, I think I expected more shock after all the build up but it’s a solid novel. There were slow periods but things always picked up. This is a story about cultural obligations and the immigrant experience, which is varied and can end in tragedy or glorious fortune. It’s strange to think about the lives of others, continuing alongside our own, that remain invisible for the most part. A River of Stars is just one such experience, a drop in the ocean of many.

Publication Date: August 14, 2018

Random House

Ballantine Books