Book Review: Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

MY TWO CENTS: There are few authors writing at the level of poetic brilliance and crushing emotional complexity as Anna-Marie McLemore does with each novel. I’m a huge fan of Wild Beauty and When The Moon Was Ours, so I was eager to fall into another lush, layered world. McLemore writes in the tradition of magical realism, but manages to make each of her stories feel so vastly different from one another. Weaving together four distinct points of view, she captures the challenge the del Cisne sisters face: at some point in their life, one of them will be claimed by the swans and become them. Blanca, who has fairer skin and yellow hair, is expected to survive the curse, and Roja, who is darker-skinned with red hair, believes that she’s bound for an inevitable fate. But this thrilling element provides a chance for McLemore to delve deep into themes teenagers will find compelling: Love. Acceptance. Colorism. The terror of changing bodies, the fear of isolation. The del Cisne sisters love one another so much that they vow to save the other, no matter the cost to themselves.

Yet each new chapter builds the complexity of this novel, which borrows from a number of traditional fairy tales and myths, such as Snow White and Swan Lake. Two mysterious boys—Paige and Barclay—become wrapped up in the del Cisne’s attempts to outwit and manipulate the swans, and they are both fully-realized, unique characters. I love a book where I am eager to read every character’s POV, and McLemore accomplishes this with ease. It helps that this book is so effortlessly diverse, in skin color and culture, in gender identity and fluidity, in showing us just how many different ways you can love another person. It is one of the most outwardly queer books I’ve ever read.

And the writing is just stunning. This novel manages to balance realistic, modern dialogue with a hypnotic and lyrical prose that is overflowing with sentences and scenes that broke my heart. Made me laugh. Made me yearn for more words, more chapters, more of every bit of this gorgeous book. I thought I knew what I was in for because it was a retelling of stories I’m familiar with, but Blanca & Roja establishes an entirely different kind of tale, one that is distinctly from the mind of McLemore. I expect this book will appear on a lot of lists by the end of the year, and it deserves to be. The young adult world needs more books that are challenging, odd, and imaginative, and you can tell from reading this one that the author deeply respects her readers.

Embark on this journey. It’s worth it.

TEACHING TIPS: Blanca & Roja is the perfect novel to analyze for a lesson on metaphors, as there are so many fantastic ones utilized by McLemore to explore issues surrounding sexuality, gender, colorism, and familial ties. It would also serve as a fantastic chance to talk about retellings and how an author goes about making a story feel like their own, even if some of the pieces are taken from something else. But more than anything else, I was drawn to the story of Page, who alternates between using he and she pronouns throughout the book based on what they feel most comfortable with at the time. It’s a fantastic example of gender fluidity, and I highly recommend reading the Author’s Note upon finishing.

Anna-Marie McLemoreABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is the author of THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Debut Award, 2017 Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award, WILD BEAUTY, a Fall 2017 Junior Library Guild selection, and BLANCA & ROJA, which released October 9, 2018.

 

 

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and TV series. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015, and is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors. When not writing/recording reviews or editing, Oshiro engages in social activism online and offline. Anger is a Gift is his acclaimed debut YA contemporary fiction novel, and his follow-up, planned for 2019, is a magical realism/fantasy novel about self-discovery.

Generational Trauma and Learning to Love in Anna-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty

 

“Every woman in this house had inherited it, the same way they had inherited the loss and the broken hearts written into their blood” —Anna-Marie McLemore, Wild Beauty

By Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

Estrella Nomeolvides refers to her and/or her family as being poison ten times throughout the novel. The Nomeolvides women grow flowers by digging their hands into the earth and allowing the magic inside them to pour out making gardens of the land around them. Generations of Nomeolvides women live in La Pradera, a land that, although owned by the white and affluent Briar family, has its own powers and resentments. The Nomeolvides women ended up at La Pradera after being chased out of other places having been accused of witchcraft and of making men disappear. Now, they can die if they refuse to grow flowers in the land because then the flowers will just grow inside them and they can die if they try to leave La Pradera.

Estrella and her cousins are heirs to the generational trauma born out of a history of displacement and dispossession. For most of the novel, the trauma is associated with the men the land has literally taken from them. They understand this trauma, they might challenge it and refuse it, but, for the most part, they accept it as their burden to bear. The Nomeolvides women are convinced that La Pradera will take whomever they romantically love thus they fear loving someone too hard.

The story is propelled by the cousins’ desire to protect their shared love, Bay Briar. Once they all find out that each one of them is in love with Bay they fear what their collective love might do to her. The cousins bury something special to each of them in the earth in exchange for Bay’s life. It seems to work, but the mysterious appearance of a young man they name Fel forces them to unearth their past and the secrets buried in the land.

Wild Beauty is a novel about the stories, lessons, and warnings that are passed on from one generation of women to the next. The older Nomeolvides women share stories of the other women in their family who have left and have died, who have tried to deny their gifts only to find themselves surrounded by unruly flowers, and of women who have learned not to love as deeply. The sharing of these stories, lessons, and warnings, both in the novel and in real life, is a political act. When women exchange knowledge in this way, it is, among other reasons, for survival’s sake because it is likely that there are larger systemic oppressions that threaten their daily lives—as is the case for the Nomeolvides women. As a result, trauma can also be passed down from one generation of women to the next.

Estrella calls this trauma a poison that runs in the blood of the women in her family. However, when she speaks of the poison as it impacts all of the women, she talks about it in a very transactional way. She says, “Sorrow was a family heirloom, written into their blood like ink on a will” (262). In this quote, and in the epigraph opening this essay, sorrow, loss, and broken hearts connote significant value and exchange. Heirlooms are special and are worth enough to be passed down. Heirlooms are taken care of and cherished so that they may be passed down. Inheriting an heirloom suggests that one has taken over the responsibility of taking care of said heirloom. Wills are a very typical way to exchange the ownership of an heirloom from one party to another. This reading suggests that, at least at some level, Estrella understands that this poison was inflicted on her family and that it wasn’t necessarily a choice.

The idea of the writing in the blood like ink on a will continues to develop in the novel as the cousins fight to take La Pradera from the Briar family and as it’s revealed that the Briar family built an estate over a collapsed quarry where many men died: “They were the immigrants, the underaged, the ones left off the role sheets. And they had been caught [in the quarry], in the ages they had been when they died, freed neither by being found and given burials, nor by their families hearing what had become of them, nor by the truth ever being told” (288). Estrella sees that the contracts, the wills, and the legalese that protected the Briars are fraught. Therefore, if the ink on a will can be challenged, then so can the poison written in the blood. In other words, Estrella realizes that La Pradera took their men not because they are cursed but because their gardens helped to further hide the truth of what had happened on that land. So, at the end, the women are not poison.

This truth, however, does not free Estrella because while she might have settled her family’s inheritance of sorrow, loss, and broken hearts, she is still convinced that she is poison. The narrator says of Estrella: “Her heart was poison. It was a close tangle of thorns. Even when it held love, that love came sharp, and she didn’t know how to offer it to anyone except with the edges out” (285). This particular moment in the novel is as important as it is beautiful because it touches on the realities of what it means to unearth our traumas. In other words, giving names to the trauma, pinpointing their origin, revealing truths about the traumas does not equal closure, peace, or complete healing. Instead, it is often the case that learning truths about our trauma means there’s a lot more self, familial, and community healing left to do. The description of Estrella’s love brought these questions to mind: What do we do when our identity has intertwined with the trauma? What do we do when the truths about the trauma are too much? How do we learn to love when the trauma is ongoing?

Wild Beauty offers two answers to these questions. First, the narrator says of Estrella, “If she apologized for her own heart then she would make it tame, and small. But like this, it was wild, and limitless” (282). At this moment in the novel, the description of Estrella’s heart is about her love for her family, her desire to follow her heart, her heart’s inclination to love men and women, and of her fear of loving too deeply. She won’t apologize for who she is, trauma and all, and she can see that her heart isn’t poison but is instead “wild and limitless.” Her heart is capable of simultaneously holding love and hurt. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Feeling that our heart is full of hurt doesn’t mean that there isn’t any room for love. And, feeling all the love imaginable doesn’t mean we are immune to getting hurt again. The second answer Wild Beauty provides comes toward the end of the novel when the narrator says, “They had to rip out their fate by the roots” (311). Generational trauma doesn’t need to define us or determine our future. It is something that needs to be acknowledged so that we may rip it out and create more possibilities for ourselves.

McLemore creates a wonderful and beautiful world in Wild Beauty. The Nomeolvides women are sincere, and flawed, and complicated. Their desire to love wholeheartedly but being unable to, for whatever reason, will resonate with many readers. The villains are too familiar. The underlying story of exploiting the land for profit, often times at the sake of disenfranchised bodies, is extremely important. The connection that McLemore makes between generational trauma and the land is also significant. At the end, Wild Beauty encourages us to not be afraid to love.

CLICK HERE for an interview with author Anna-Marie McLemore about Wild Beauty.

 

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Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez teaches composition, literature, and creative writing as an Assistant Professor at LaGuardia Community College in NYC. Her research focuses on Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Follow her on twitter @mariposachula8

 

Book Review: North of Happy by Adi Alsaid

 

Reviewed by Cecilia Cackley

North of Happy CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Carlos Portillo has always led a privileged and sheltered life. A dual citizen of Mexico and the US, he lives in Mexico City with his wealthy family, where he attends an elite international school. Always a rule follower and a parent pleaser, Carlos is more than happy to tread the well-worn path in front of him. He has always loved food and cooking, but his parents see it as just a hobby.

When his older brother, Felix—who has dropped out of college to live a life of travel—is tragically killed, Carlos begins hearing his brother’s voice, giving him advice and pushing him to rebel against his father’s plan for him. Worrying about his mental health, but knowing the voice is right, Carlos runs away to the United States and manages to secure a job with his favorite celebrity chef. As he works to improve his skills in the kitchen and pursue his dream, he begins to fall for his boss’s daughter—a fact that could end his career before it begins. Finally living for himself, Carlos must decide what’s most important to him and where his true path really lies.

MY TWO CENTS: I thought this was a very balanced book—the romance is sweet, while Carlos’ grief and struggle to assert himself adds depth, and the setting of the restaurant is fresh and engaging. It was also refreshing to read a book about a Mexican character that isn’t about immigration, drug wars, or poverty. My favorite parts of the book were the descriptions of Carlos cooking and his thought process as he selects ingredients or puts together a dish. Some readers may find this too detailed or dense, but (perhaps because I don’t spend a lot of time cooking in my life) I was fascinated. Emma’s character occasionally slid toward Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but I thought the decision she makes toward the end of the book was good and believable. The side characters were entertaining, and I liked the fact that there was no manufactured drama among the kitchen staff. Envy and hazing happened, but it wasn’t over the top.

The element of the book most likely to divide opinions is probably the character of Felix and what, exactly, he is doing there. Is he a hallucination, and should the book be talking more candidly about mental illness? Is he a ghost or a spirit, guiding Carlos toward a better life? I lean toward the spirit answer, perhaps because it brings the book a little closer to the genre of magical realism, which I enjoy. Although there are a few moments when Carlos considers the idea that the things he hears Felix say “…might just be grief doing strange things to my head,” he accepts the idea that his brother is sticking with him in ghost form pretty easily. Their relationship provides a lot of comedy, as Felix makes smart remarks, and pushes Carlos out of his comfort zone. For me, this points to the character being a supernatural or spiritual element, rather than a hallucination.

I enjoyed the way Spanish was incorporated into the book, not just spoken by Carlos but also various people he meets, and that it was left unitalicized. Altogether, this was a fun read, and it’s guaranteed to make you hungry so have a snack ready.

TEACHING TIPS: I think this would be a good book to read as part of a survey course, because it’s a good example of the variety found in the YA category. It’s a good choice for a teen book club, with lots to discuss and debate. This would be a great book to read for a potluck book club or as an addition to a middle or high school cooking club.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find North of Happy, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Image resultABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adi Alsaid was born and raised in Mexico City. He attended college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After graduating, he packed up his car and escaped to the California coastline to become a writer. He’s now back in his hometown, where he writes, coaches high school and elementary basketball, and makes every dish he eats as spicy as possible. In addition to Mexico, he’s lived in Tel Aviv, Las Vegas and Monterey, California. He is the author of Let’s Get Lost, Never Always Sometimes, and North of Happy.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Author Anna-Marie McLemore on Love in the Time of Preconceptions

 

By Anna-Marie McLemore

TWOFcoverWhen I met my husband—who I usually refer to online as the Transboy—I was a teen who’d only recently come out. A few months before, I had, as my best friend describes it, been so deep in the closet I was in Narnia. And with that depth of denial came a lot of homophobic thoughts, some of which, I’m sad to say, became words. When I met the Transboy, I was still shaking out of that, the hangover of my own self-loathing. I now recognize the self-hating place my homophobia had come from, but the habit, the instinct to make jokes every time I remembered I was falling in love with a boy with a female body, trailed me.

Marginalization has the potential to bring people together. It allows us to understand each other, to have empathy for where someone else has come from, and to drive us to stand strong for ourselves and those around us.

But it also has a frightening potential to drive people apart. Marginalization can scare us into being small, or quiet, or mean. And for as often as I’d felt out of place as a Latina, I was even more likely to make these mistakes when I realized I was queer.

The Transboy found a way to love me despite that. He had the patience to call me on the things I said while knowing that they came from a part of me I was, slowly, casting off. As much as he handled his own marginalization with graciousness, he understood the fear behind some of the things I once thought and said.

WTMWOcoverThe girls in the books I write make mistakes. Sometimes awful ones, informed by their own prejudices. In THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, Lace calls Cluck a racial slur she’s been taught growing up. In my fall 2016 book, WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, one main character misunderstands the other’s process of coming to terms with his own gender identity. At the heart of what I write are not just characters of color, but characters who go through the very real process of being torn apart and brought together by their own experiences of marginalization.

C.S. Lewis called the beginning of friendship that moment of realizing, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” And I believe that. For friendship. For building communities. For falling in love. And for the magic of seeing not only yourself in someone else, but them in you.

 

Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is a Lambda Literary fellow, and her work has been featured by The Portland Review, Camera Obscura, and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award, was released in 2015, and her second novel, WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press in fall 2016. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.