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.