Book Review: Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DECRIPTION OF THE BOOK: A room locked for fifty years. A valuable peacock ring. A mysterious brother-sister duo. Paloma Marquez is traveling to Mexico City, birthplace of her deceased father, for the very first time. She’s hoping that spending time in Mexico will help her unlock memories of the too-brief time they spent together. While in Mexico, Paloma meets Lizzie and Gael, who present her with an irresistible challenge: The siblings want her to help them find a valuable ring that once belonged to beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Finding the ring means a big reward — and the thanks of all Mexico. What better way to honor her father than returning a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to his favorite artist! But the brother and sister have a secret. Do they really want to return the ring, or are they after something else entirely?

MY TWO CENTS: Paloma Marquez does not want to travel to Mexico City. But thanks to a literature fellowship awarded to her mother, Emma, at a Mexican university, she is left with little choice. She will miss out, she laments, on her familiar Kansas City summer: fireworks, reading by the pool, shopping at the mall with friends (all things she can do in Mexico, too, of course). Upon their arrival, she remains pouty and pessimistic, exasperating even her mother, who tells her, “Seriously Paloma…you’re the only one who complains about a free trip to Mexico.”

Her attitude slowly begins to change on their first night in Coyoacán, when Paloma and her mother attend a party at Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s former home turned museum. Paloma cannot help being absorbed by the vivid colors, mariachi music, delicious guanábana drinks, and the intriguing artist whose images permeate the museum. It certainly doesn’t hurt that very cute boys are in attendance, like Tavo, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Farill, the wealthy benefactors of her mother’s fellowship, or Gael Castillo, an aspiring artist, who along with his sister, Lizzie, a talented trumpet player in a mariachi band, recruit Paloma to seek out Frida’s peacock ring. Her encounter with these characters at Casa Azul is no accident. The location is at the heart of the unfolding mystery, not only because it is the scene of the crime, but because all the characters have a connection to it. And, just like Casa Azul houses secrets beneath a vibrant exterior, Paloma soon finds that the outward charm of her new acquaintances belies their true intentions.

Before Paloma decides to join the Castillos in their investigation, she dreams about Frida, who tells her, “It’s true I am missing something…But you’re missing something, too.” Although Paloma is half Mexican (by way of her father, who died in a car accident when she was a toddler), she is disconnected from her heritage, and experiences a bit of culture shock when she first alights in Mexico. She worries about “all these kidnappings going on” and the “drug trafficking kingpin dude.” Her mother, who is white, dismisses Paloma’s concerns as “nonsense,” but admits, “I haven’t done a good job of exposing her to her Mexican heritage.” Cervantes parallels Paloma’s cultural development with the mystery plot, fittingly, since her own identity requires piecing together memories her mother shares of her father, and jotting them down on notecards. It is through Frida, though, that Paloma begins to explore her Mexican side independently. She connects with the icon’s life and art, including her mixed heritage and penchant for self-portraits (likened to selfies in the text). Her exposure to Mexico also serves as exposure for some readers, who may have little to no familiarity with the nation. Although the focus remains on Frida and not Mexico at large, it is a positive step toward creating more positive associations of Mexico for a wider readership.

Although Paloma is initially apprehensive about her possible role in solving a mystery, she cannot help but be intrigued. After all, she is a big fan of mysteries herself, and cannot pass up an opportunity to flex her sleuthing skills. She constantly emulates her favorite literary crime solver, Lulu Pennywhistle, who is both an acknowledgment of the middle grade mystery canon (think Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden), and a subtle commentary on it. Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, is one of very few titles to feature a young protagonist of color, take place in a Latin American city (if any), and focus on the legacy of a female Latinx artist (none; please correct me if I’m wrong). But here now is Paloma Marquez, with keen eyes and note cards in hand, to inspire a new generation of mystery buffs. Art history itself is a favorite subject of the mystery genre for children. Many titles, like the classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, and more recent fare like Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett and Under the Egg by Laura Fitzgerald depict novice investigators exploring the history of an artist or artwork to ultimately save the integrity of the art itself, the adults too naive or cynical to do the job themselves, and sometimes even their own fates.

More sophisticated readers of the genre may foresee the revelation of the story’s villain, but the lack of suspense is offset by the fantasy of slipping into the role of crime solver, just as Paloma experienced. And indeed, her discoveries about herself are as integral to the narrative as the whereabouts of the ring. When readers catch a glimpse of Rafael Lopez’s stunning cover art for Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, they may not think they are holding a mystery at all. No dark doorways or creepy staircases. No pointed flashlights or magnifying glasses. Instead, there is Paloma gazing directly at the viewer, evoking Frida’s signature portraits, framed by lush, floral elements, and of course, a peacock (although there is no real peacock ring, Frida was famously an animal lover). She is inviting readers to take a look at all she has uncovered.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela Cervantes is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Gaby, Lost and Found and Allie, First at Last. Angela is the daughter of a retired middle-school teacher who instilled in her a love for reading and storytelling. Angela writes from her home in Kansas City, Kansas. When she is not writing, Angela enjoys reading, running, gazing up at clouds, and taking advantage of Taco Tuesdays everywhere she goes.

Click here for a recent Q&A with Angela Cervantes.

 

J_AgudeloABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Agudelo is a Children’s Librarian at the New York Public Library. She has served on NYPL’s selection committee for its annual Best Books for Kids list, and is currently a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews of English and Spanish language books for School Library Journal and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and born and raised in Queens, NY.

Book Review: Proof of Lies by Diana Rodriguez Wallach

 

Review by Elena Foulis

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Anastasia Phoenix has always been the odd girl out, whether moving from city to international city with her scientist parents or being the black belt who speaks four languages. And most definitely as the orphan whose sister is missing, presumed dead. She’s the only one who believes Keira is still alive, and when new evidence surfaces, Anastasia sets out to follow the trail—and lands in the middle of a massive conspiracy. Now she isn’t sure who she can trust. At her side is Marcus, the bad boy with a sexy accent who’s as secretive as she is. He may have followed her to Rome to help, but something about him seems too good to be true.

Nothing is as it appears, and when everything she’s ever known is revealed to be a lie, Anastasia has to believe in one impossibility. She will find her sister.

MY TWO CENTS: It is not often that we find books written by Latina women that are outside of the traditional coming of age stories, biculturalism, bilingualism, or exploring patriarchal dominance within their culture and religion. In Proof of Lies, author Diana Rodriguez Wallach gives us a fast-paced, mystery and detective-style novel that has us turning page after page to discover how Anastasia Phoenix will make sense of her parents’ death, her sister’s disappearance, the untangled webs of half-truths and the untrustworthy adults in her life. Proof of Lies is a fast novel, full of twists, and with three strong female characters. Keira is Anastasia’s older sister; she is her guardian after her parents die in a car accident. She works, studies to be a nurse, and is the not-always responsible adult presence in Anastasia’s life. Charlotte is a friend who lives with them, she is tech-savvy and a hacker; she helps Anastasia find information when Keira goes missing, leaving only a bathtub full of her blood the morning after their home party. Anastasia, our protagonist, constantly criticizes her sister for having too many loser boyfriends, yet their sister bond is so strong that she spear-heads the quest to find her across the world. Anastasia is about to enter her last year of high school, when she finds herself looking for answers regarding her sister’s disappearance and her parents’ true identity. She enlists the help of Charlotte, Marcus—a Spaniard boy who just moved into her neighborhood— and the financial resources of her parents’ old boss Mr. Urban, the CEO of Dresden corporation.

When the local police refuse to give her information regarding her sister’s whereabouts, Anastasia takes matters into her own hands and travels all the way to Italy. She follows tips and clues from people who knew her and her family, fights and chases thugs, and isn’t afraid to confront whoever can help her find Keira. Rodriguez Wallach’s female characters are strong, and the novel offers the hint of romance, too. But what keeps you turning the page is the fact that everyone seems suspect, everyone seems to be hiding something, and Anastasia, like the reader, begins to question who might be withholding information that might lead her to her sister, or knows the truth about who their parents really were. Rodriguez Wallach offers additional information regarding some of the historical references and characters she uses in this novel. For example, the last pages of the book include information about the real Department D, an entity who has had considerable impact on world affairs and was involved with the KGB and Czech STB during the Cold War. There is also information about Lawrence Martin-Bittman, who the author met when she was a student at Boston University and who is a character in the novel, under a different name. Such attention to detail gives the author mastery of the narrative line and provides the reader with additional “clues” about the authenticity of events. To know that there was an agency in the business of disinformation makes us question our own reality, and it certainly keeps us wanting the second and third book on the Anastasia Phoenix series. As a teaser, the author includes the first chapter of the second book series titled, Lies that Bind.

TEACHING TIPS: This novel can be taught in comparison with male-centered characters like in the movie series Bourne Identity or Taken, but also in conjunction with the Hunger Games trilogy. Although the novel is much less bloody, these movies can provide an interesting point of comparison of male vs. female leading roles or male vs. female centered voices. Given that the author is Latina, this novel can also provide a needed conversation about authorship and the freedom to write what one wants—not confined by gender, ethnicity or age. Although Rodriguez Wallach has written novels with distinctly Latina characters, she is not bound by them.

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

AuthorHeadshot_2015ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of the Anastasia Phoenix Series, three young adult spy thrillers (Entangled Publishing, 2017, ’18, ‘19). The first book in the trilogy, Proof of Lies, was named by Paste Magazine as one of the “Top 10 Best Young Adult Books for March 2017.” Bustle also listed her as one of the “Top Nine Latinx Authors to Read for Women’s History Month 2017.” Additionally, she is the author of three award-winning young adult novels: Amor and Summer Secrets, Amigas and School Scandals, and Adios to All The Drama (Kensington Books); as well as a YA short-story collection entitled Mirror, Mirror (Buzz Books, 2013).

In 2010, Diana was named one of the Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch by LatinoStories.com, and she placed second in the International Latino Book Awards. Diana is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses (Twilight Times Books, 2015), and she currently blogs for Quirk Books.

CLICK HERE to read Diana’s recent guest post: How I Broke Out of My Latina YA Box

 

headshot2016ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio.

Book Review: Who’s Ju? (Seventh Grade Sleuths #1) by Dania Ramos

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Image result for who's ju? book coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Justina ‘Ju’ Feliciano and her fellow seventh-grade sleuths are on the case! A sneaky vandal has damaged scenery from the middle school drama club production and the newbie detectives must catch the culprit before opening night.

But Ju faces a completely different kind of mystery when a genetics assignment forces her to investigate the cold hard fact that her frizzy blonde hair and amber eyes don’t match the shades of brown that run in her family. This is one case she wishes she didn’t have to solve. Only there’s no escaping the Blueprint of Life Project, so Ju searches the attic for family documents she needs to complete her schoolwork. Instead, she discovers strange clues that make her wonder if her parents are keeping a huge secret.

Ju’s amateur sleuthing and a confrontation with her parents finally lead to the cold hard facts about her past. And even though her life changes forever, she’s still the same mystery-loving girl she’s always been.

MY TWO CENTS: This book drew me in right away with the title of the first chapter (“DNA Malfunction”) and the first mini-paragraph – “It’s not hard evidence. Just a family photo stuck on our silver fridge with a teapot magnet. Case closed.” It may not be clear to some, but I knew I was in for a good read – and I was right.

As the book begins, Dania Ramos uses a great choice of words to describe the middle school setting and to profile the main character, Justina (pronounced Hoosteenah) Feliciano. She’s just a normal 7th grade girl who’s trying to survive the tumultuous times in middle school while trying to figure out why she doesn’t look like the rest of her Puerto Rican family. With her frizzy blond hair and light eyes, she stands out.

Justina – or Ju (pronounced Hu) for short – has her core group of friends, the Seventh-Grade Sleuths, and she’s not the most popular girl in school, so she’s surprised when former friend Sara asks her for help to solve a very important case. I loved how Ramos wrote the case of the vandalized scenery in a way similar to a decades-old cold case – because to Justina, Ig, and Gunther, it is that big of a deal.

The other conflict in the book involves a genetics assignment in Justina’s health class. Her mother is immediately against the assignment, and she wants to know why – so she finds out. Ramos’ writing compared Justina to Sherlock Holmes and other detectives, which I got a kick out of. I also loved how Justina was so determined to find answers, even when her parents weren’t okay with it.

Another aspect of the book that hit home for me was when Ju decided to change her identity – new clothes, new (blond) hairdo, and a new name. I tried a similar method in middle school myself, which I’m ashamed of now. But on the other hand, when you feel out of place in a way Justina does in the book, it’s an understandable move.

After a runaway scare (and reconciling with best friend Ig), Justina eventually finds out the truth – she doesn’t look like the rest of her family because she’s adopted. She’s heartbroken but is understanding, and even agrees to meet her birth father. Ramos wrote this part of the story in a way that was endearing and welcoming, which I enjoyed.

Overall, Who’s Ju? is a lovely read. I would say the question in the title is certainly answered, but I hope to see more from Ramos about Ju and her friends and family in the future.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be a great way for middle-grade students, especially girls, to learn about something that isn’t taught in many classes before high school – social sciences. It’s important for kids to learn that you are not defined by your skin color and that, like Justina, you can identify a certain way no matter how you look. The book would also help kids learn about adoption and solving crimes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Dania is an author, playwright, and teaching artist. Her middle grade novel Who’s Ju? won the 2015 International Latino Book Award for Best YA eBook and was a finalist for the ILBA Mariposa Award for Best First Book.

Dania’s stage writing credits include Mi Casa Tu Casa (Luna Stage, Dreamcatcher Rep, New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Stages Festival) and Hielo (developed through the Women Playwrights Project at Writers Theatre of New Jersey). Her plays have also been featured in the New Jersey Women Playwrights Series (co-presented by Writers Theatre of New Jersey and Speranza Theatre Company), Repertorio Español’s Nuestras Voces Reading Series, Writers Theatre of New Jersey’s FORUM and Soundings Reading Series, Luna Stage’s Short Play Festival, and the Maslow Salon Reading Series at Wilkes University. She’s been a finalist in the MetLife Nuestras Voces National Playwriting Competition and the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship.

Dania is a creative writing instructor and a theatre teaching artist. She has led arts residencies and workshops for organizations including New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Writers Theatre of New Jersey, Writopia Lab, and the New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts.

Dania is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, and Actors Equity Association. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and a BFA in Theatre Performance from Montclair State University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

Cover Reveal for When Reason Breaks, a 2015 Young Adult Debut

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

I’m really excited to reveal the cover for my debut novel, When Reason Breaks, which will be published 2/10/2015 by Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books. I’m equally thrilled to share it here because one of the main characters is Latina and the first blurb the novel received is from the wonderful, generous, super-talented Margarita Engle.

Before you scroll down to see the cover, here’s a description of the novel:

A Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her. Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl, with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal. Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy.

In an emotionally taut novel with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls grappling with demons beyond their control.

An extra tidbit for any big-time Emily Dickinson fans: Almost all of the characters represent a real person from ED’s life. Emily and Elizabeth represent Dickinson herself, sharing personal traits and experiences. Tomás Bowles represents Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Samuel Bowles, two important men in ED’s life, etc. You’ll have to read more in the author’s note!

So, now for the cover……………

*

*

*

*

Keep scrolling…(I was told to build suspense. Isn’t this suspenseful?)

*

*

*

*

TA-DA!!!!

*

*

*

*

WhenReasonBreaks_Comp

 

I love it for lots of reasons! The dark and light, focused and unfocused elements symbolize what the characters experience with their emotional and mental health issues. Same with how the letters start out solidly colored and then fade. Not seeing the girl’s face is also perfect since it’s a mystery as to which of the two girls attempts suicide. And here is the full quote from Margarita Engle, which will be included in its entirety on the back cover:

When Reason Breaks is infused with a rare blend of suspense and sensitivity, despair and hope. The poetic spirit of Emily Dickinson shines through the gloom of daily struggles faced by modern teens, as they discover the possibilities where they dwell.”

I’m so excited to share my debut novel with the world–starting now with a giveaway! One winner will receive a signed ARC of When Reason Breaks. Click on the Rafflecopter link below to enter. I’ll choose a winner in a week!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

CindyRodriguez150For more information about me and/or my debut novel, check out my website. You can also find me here on the About Us page and on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

When Reason Breaks is available for pre-order here:

Indiebound Barnes and Noble | Amazon Powell’s Book Depository | Books-A-Million