Book Review: Because of the Sun by Jenny Torres Sanchez

 

Reviewed by Nazahet Hernandez

Because of the Sun CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Dani Falls learned to tolerate her existence in suburban Florida with her brash and seemingly unloving mother by embracing the philosophy Why care? It will only hurt. So when her mother is killed in a sudden and violent manner, Dani goes into an even deeper protection mode, total numbness. It’s the only way she can go on.

But when Dani chooses The Stranger by Albert Camus as summer reading for school, it feels like fate. The main character’s alienation after his mother’s death mirrors her own.

Dani’s life is thrown into further turmoil when she is sent to New Mexico to live with an aunt she never knew she had. The awkwardness between them is palpable. To escape, Dani takes long walks in the merciless heat. One day, she meets Paulo, who understands how much Dani is hurting. Although she is hesitant at first, a mutual trust and affection develop between Dani and Paulo, and Dani begins to heal. And as she and her aunt begin to connect, Dani learns about her mother’s past. Forgiving isn’t easy, but maybe it’s the only way to move forward.

MY TWO CENTS: Dani Falls has a complicated and fractured relationship with her mother, Ruby Falls, who in Dani’s eyes is a not good mother in any regard. In fact, for dozens of pages, Dani often explicitly states that she hates her mother because she has always felt unappreciated, unloved, and ignored by her. By Dani’s account, we are led to believe that Ruby is objectively a selfish and neglectful mother. It is all Dani has known, and because she is the narrator, we are inclined to empathize with her side of the story. Dani believes she knows who her mother really is deep inside, that her ugliest aspects are the real her. But what Dani doesn’t know is that she really doesn’t know her mother at all.

In the Author’s Note for Because Of The SunJenny Torres Sanchez states that Albert Camus’s The Stranger inspired her novel. In The Stranger, Meursault’s mother dies early on in the story, and his emotionless and detached reaction made Torres Sanchez curious about his mother. Was she a terrible person or simply an imperfect individual?

Like Mersault’s mother, Dani’s mother also dies early in the novel, tragically. She is inexplicably attacked by a black bear in her own backyard. The grisly story shocks the neighborhood, but readers see the aftermath play out through Dani’s perspective, which is bleak, detached, and emotionless. The way Dani deals with the trauma of her mother’s death is fascinating, though often hard to read, and readers may wonder if Dani’s cold reaction is warranted. But people cope with tragedy differently, and we don’t know all the details of her and her mother’s relationship. So it’s best to read on without passing any judgment on Dani.

As she has no family left in Florida, Dani must move to New Mexico to live with an aunt, Shelly, she never knew existed. This is only one of many secrets Dani’s mother kept from her. For weeks, Dani lives with her aunt, but seldom leaves the house and rarely speaks more than two words at a time. This part of the novel is slow and contemplative, when Dani is at her lowest. Hours, days, and weeks blur into each other and become indistinguishable. The language and mood of the book during these pages are bleak and stifling. One wonders if Dani will ever find light in her life again.

But one day, Dani wanders out into the scorching New Mexico sun and walks for miles, until she comes across a gas station. There, she meets Paulo, a young Mexican-American boy who aspires to be a filmmaker. It is after she meets Paulo and his grandmother, Doña Marcela, that the potential for hope and light enters Dani’s life.

It is important to note that Dani is not Latina, a fact that is not explicitly stated until she meets Latinx people at her new school, who make references to her whiteness almost immediately. This happens about a third of the way through the novel, after which Latinxs play a regular and important role in the story. It is Paulo, and especially Doña Marcela, who provide moral and emotional support for Dani when she needs it most. Paulo is ambitious and kind; Doña Marcela is brave and loving. Together, they provide Dani with examples of what healthy familial relationships can look like, and show her that people are allowed to care for and love each other. That Latinx characters are the most positive influence on the novel’s protagonist is worth noting. I certainly appreciated it.

Eventually, Dani connects with her aunt Shelly, who reveals the tragic secrets of her family’s past. Dani then realizes that she never really knew her mother and must face the fact that she hated a woman she only knew on a surface level. This understandably makes Dani resent Ruby even more, for shutting her daughter out all her life. But her budding romance with Paulo, the strong role model she found in Doña Marcela, and her growing bond with Shelly — these relationships teach Dani that there are things to appreciate in the world. Perhaps the trauma of her mother’s death and their lack of closure will always follow her, but Dani has met people who can help her move forward with her life, even if progress is slow.

Though it’s not without flaws, there’s much to like and commend in Because Of The Sun. Jenny Torres Sanchez writes Dani’s story in haunting, beautiful prose that creates an atmosphere that aptly approximates Dani’s bleakest moods and lowest moments. There are several dreamlike sequences in the novel reminiscent of magical realism that stand out as the strongest parts of the story. Reading Because Of The Sun is a singular and somber experience that will resonate with teens who understand the complexities of love and loss.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jenny Torres Sanchez is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. She is the author of The Downside of Being Charlie, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, and Because of the Sun.

To find Because of the Sun, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

Read Diverse BooksNazahet Hernandez is a book blogger who cares passionately about diversity in literature and promoting books written by and about people of color and other marginalized voices. He loves creating reading lists, recommending diverse books to people, and tweeting while at work. He lives in the wonderfully vibrant city of Austin, TX. You may contact him on Twitter (@_diversebooks) or through his blog ReadDiverseBooks.com.

Weaving Truth and the Imagined: A Guest Post by Author Jenny Torres Sanchez

 

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Top: My grandmother Elena (left) and my mother Miriam (right) Bottom: My mother in law Martha (left) and my grandmother Zoila (right)

 

By Jenny Torres Sanchez

I visited New Mexico for the first time about twelve years ago. My in-laws live right on the border of Columbus, New Mexico and Palomas, Mexico. I was there for a funeral and it was a sad, somber time. Maybe that was part of the reason why it seemed such a lonely place to me, so desolate and bare.

On our way to the graveyard, I remember much walking and dust. There were rocks on tombstones to cover graves because there is no grass. And my husband’s family members took turns, while weeping, to shovel dirt upon their loved one’s grave. I felt then that I had come to a place of great despair. But also of great beauty. And I knew I would someday write a story that took place there.

Because of the Sun CoverYears later, a story did come to me about a boy named Paulo living on that border. I tried writing it, but it never panned out and I abandoned the idea. Years later, another story came to me about an empty and unfeeling girl named Dani. Her story merged with that long ago abandoned one about Paulo. They meet as Dani is walking in the desert. He sees in her something he knows well: tragedy. And he feels drawn to her in that way we sometimes are to those who might share a similar pain. So he helps Dani and introduces her to his grandmother, who also helps her.

Paulo’s grandmother is an interesting character to me because she is someone I have always known. In her I see my mother who came to the United States all alone after her mother died. I see my grandmothers, women whose faces I have imagined in those hot, dusty countries where they were born and lived unimaginably hard lives. And I see my mother in-law, an immigrant from Mexico, with her own share of stories of a hard life. She is the one who introduced me to teas and instilled in me a belief that different ones can cure different ailments and remedy almost anything.

I’ve been raised, nurtured, and surrounded by these strong women, women who are equal parts hard and loving. They’ve had to survive great hardships, broken dreams and tragedies. But they survived, thrived even. And I’ve elevated them to goddess-like statures. To me, they are magical in that there is nothing they can’t do, nothing they can’t endure and overcome. Paulo’s grandmother is a culmination of the women I love. She is someone who has survived and helps others survive, who can bring back the dead even. She is always there, appearing even in dreams. Just like the women in my life.

I think it’s interesting how stories are woven, how truth becomes inspiration that merges with lies and the imagined. I love seeing that thin thread of the real in my stories. I love seeing the people in my life, in some way, in some form or transformation, make their way into my stories. And while their stories are not the focus of mine, their influence is never far.

 

JENNY TORRES SANCHEZ is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. She is the author of The Downside of Being Charlie, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, and Because of the Sun.

Book Review: Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie GarciaBy Cindy L. Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: How do you know someone after they’re gone? Frenchie Garcia didn’t know she would be the last person to see Andy Cooper alive. She barely knew him. So why did he choose to be with he before he committed suicide? Her imaginary pal Em (a.k.a Emily Dickinson), who Frenchie visits regularly at her favorite place–the cemetery–is the only one who knows about her last hours with Andy. With guilt and confusion mounting, can Frenchie pull off the one thing that could give her closure?

MY TWO CENTS: Frenchie goes on a road trip with a super-cute new “friend” Colin to make sense of what happened the one and only night she hung out with Andy Cooper, the boy she loved from afar through high school. Frenchie is haunted by the usual questions when grieving: Why? Why him? What could I have done to help him? Could I have stopped him? The last two questions are most painful because she was the last person to see Andy before he died, and, therefore, feels responsible. Sanchez easily blends heart-wrenching grief with regular teen angst, serious moments of conversation with quips like, “Get up, Loser!”from Robyn, Frenchie’s friend who knows something is wrong, but isn’t sure what. Also, Frenchie Garcia is a Latina protagonist in a book that isn’t about being Latina. Frenchie is an artist who likes punk rock and Emily Dickinson; she’s a young Latina who doesn’t speak a single word of Spanish in the novel. Some readers/writers/bloggers have asked for more books with diverse characters who are not dealing with issues of ethnicity, culture, race, etc. This is a good example.

TEACHING TIPS: What student wouldn’t fill an entire notebook about a day they’d like to do-over? This is a perfect before-reading activity that could be revisited and added to as the novel continues. As Frenchie leads Colin through her last night with Andy, students could write about their chosen “do-over” night, what they’d do differently, and what they’d discover. By the end, students have read a cool book and written a personal narrative!

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is made for close reading, which is all the rage with the new Common Core State Standards. Students could read and re-read any of Dickinson’s poems featured in the novel. Close, multiple readings allow students to analyze work down to the word level to gain deeper meaning. In this case, students would gain a deeper understanding of Dickinson and Sanchez’s novel, as they could discuss how the poems fit with the novel.

LEXILE: N/A

AUTHOR: Jenny Torres Sanchez lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband and children. Before writing her debut novel, The Downside of Being Charlie, she taught high school for several years. She credits her eclectic students for inspiring her to write young adult novels.

Her other YA novel is:

The Downside of Being Charlie

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, visit your local library or book store. Also, check out Running Press BooksIndieBound.org,  GoodreadsAmazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.com.

Author Jenny Torres Sanchez & Her Characters Are Inspired by the Arts

By Jenny Torres Sanchez

When I was in school and I’d read a story in my English textbook, many times there was a photo or an art piece that went along with it. And there’d always be a question at the end of the story that would ask how the art piece and story go together. Some people hated that question.

I loved it.

I’ve always loved the idea of art going together. It makes sense to me, the way they connect. The way one piece of art can inspire another piece of art, or how you can see a story in a painting, or how a story can paint images in your head. I LOVE that. I guess that’s why I find a lot of inspiration in other forms of art. Not only do I enjoy them for what they are (a striking painting, a haunting photo, a song that you can’t get out of your head), but I also enjoy them because of the stories I see in them.

CharlieMusic? Listen to the lyrics; there’s a story there. Paintings? Full of story, either of the subject or the artist. Photography? Setting. People. Captured moments. It’s kind of like an artist is setting me up for a story, igniting that spark that helps me write. For me, all art is striving to make a connection, with the reader, with the listener, with the viewer. It’s striving to ask you to look inside yourself, or outside yourself, and really wonder and think and feel. And I think you really need to feel to write, so for me the two go hand in hand.

But I also think art can be more than inspiration.

In my books, my characters often turn to art in some way while they’re going through a difficult time. In The Downside of Being Charlie, Charlie finds he can make better sense of the world through the lens of a camera. He is incredibly vulnerable and scared and unable to express himself or deal with his family issues. But in photography, he finds a way to do that. Actually, with Charlie, photography becomes this way of seeing things, exposing things no one else around him wants to see. So, photography also becomes this very powerful and empowering thing for him.

FrenchieIn Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, Frenchie is fascinated by Emily Dickinson’s poems, specifically those about death because she’s is in a dark place in her life. Her high school crush has just committed suicide after an amazing night of adventure with her. Dickinson’s poetry reflects Frenchie’s own feelings, and helps her to come to terms with something that just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t set out to make my characters artsy but they usually end up that way. I think it’s because I also see the arts as something that can save us (I hesitate to use the word save, I really do, because I think ultimately, we choose to save ourselves). But I truly believe music, art, writing, stories can offer us a safe haven and inspiration. A place to hang out for awhile, sometimes as an escape, sometimes as a place to make better sense of whatever it is we are going through. Sometimes it is conscious, and sometimes, not so much. Either way, the arts really can be a sort of salve for anyone who has gone through tough times. I like salve better than save. Add the L.

Overall though, art is pretty amazing in any medium. It asks us to feel. It offers us comfort and understanding. And that can’t be bad.

Jenny TorresFrom the Running Press site: Jenny Torres Sanchez lives in Florida with her husband and children where she currently writes full time. Before her debut novel The Downside of Being Charlie she taught high school for several years, where she credits her eclectic students for inspiring her to write young adult novels.

On Thursday, her second novel, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia will be featured on our Libros Latin@s post.