Book Review: We Unleash the Merciless Storm by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

Review by Cris Rhodes:

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Being a part of the resistance group La Voz is an act of devotion and desperation. On the other side of Medio’s border wall, the oppressed class fights for freedom and liberty, sacrificing what little they have to become defenders of the cause.

Carmen Santos is one of La Voz’s best soldiers. She spent years undercover, but now, with her identity exposed and the island on the brink of a civil war, Carmen returns to the only real home she’s ever known: La Voz’s headquarters.

There she must reckon with her beloved leader, who is under the influence of an aggressive new recruit, and with the devastating news that her true love might be the target of an assassination plot. Will Carmen break with her community and save the girl who stole her heart—or fully embrace the ruthless rebel she was always meant to be?

MY TWO CENTS: In this action-packed follow-up to her debut novel We Set the Dark on Fire, Tehlor Kay Mejia continues her revolutionary queer romance with a bang. Picking up moments after We Set the Dark on Fire ends, We Unleash the Merciless Storm shifts vantage points from Dani, the Primera wife whose secret identity as an undocumented immigrant from beyond Medio’s rigid borders complicates her life and causes her to tenatively join the resistance, to Carmen, who seemed to embody the social mores of Medio’s stratified and exclusive world, but is actually an undercover operative for the revolutionary group La Voz.

Readers will need to be familiar with We Set the Dark on Fire to fully grasp the extent of We Unleash the Merciless Storm. I found myself returning to the previous book to remember the intricacies of Medio’s social codes and to remind myself of character names and traits. This is not a stand alone book, and, I would wager, it’s a sequel best enjoyed immediately following reading (or rereading) the first novel.

The switch to Carmen as the main character proves an interesting counterpoint to Dani’s narrative in the first novel. Whereas Dani is largely unaware of the mounting resistance to Medio’s restrictive government, Carmen is deeply involved in the resistance. Carmen seems superficial and catty in the first novel, but We Unleash the Merciless Storm unravels that narrative, posing Carmen as an astute and powerful member of La Voz. But, her relationship with Dani was an unforeseen complication to her mission to unravel Medio from the inside.

It would be a typical narrative maneuver to have Carmen torn between her love for Dani and her loyalty to La Voz, but Mejia resists that stale plot. Rather, Carmen sees her loyalties to both Dani and La Voz as intertwined. Mejia’s explorations of Carmen’s motives seem authentic and they reflect the complex and competing emotions of resistance and love. Those who are looking for nonstop action may be frustrated with Carmen’s frequent reflections on her relationship with Dani, but these thoughts don’t seem out of place for someone like Carmen who was undercover for the majority of her formative years. Not only is Carmen contending with the loss of her love, but she’s also relearning how to be a part of La Voz after years away. Carmen’s wondering also reveals important questions about revolution. Is a political uprising necessarily violent? Can change be made without pain? As Carmen grapples with these questions, her loyalties to La Voz are questioned and she must prove herself while also remaining true to her values.

As with my feelings toward We Set the Dark on Fire, I found We Unleash the Merciless Storm to be the kind of novel that I longed for as a teenager (and, frankly, enjoyed immensely as an adult). The romance is there, of course, but it’s not the entire focus–and it shouldn’t be! I love a good romance, especially a queer romance, but the complexities of Medio’s government and La Voz’s revolutionary ideals give contemporary teens an important counterpoint to our own global politics.

 

Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Photo  Editing: Adrian King

Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Photo

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Tehlor Kay Mejia is the author of the critically acclaimed young adult fantasy novel We Set the Dark on Fire and its sequel, We Unleash the Merciless Storm, and the forthcoming Miss Meteor (co-written with National Book Award nominee Anna-Marie McLemore). Her middle grade debut, Paola Santiago and the River of Tears, releases from Rick Riordan Presents in 2020.

Her debut novel received six starred reviews, and was chosen as an Indie’s Next Pick and a Junior Library Guild selection, as well as being an Indiebound bestseller in the Pacific Northwest region. It has been featured in Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and O by Oprah Magazine’s best books of 2019 lists.

Tehlor lives in Oregon with her daughter, a dog that matches her hair, and several rescued houseplants. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tehlorkay.

 

 

 

Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.

Book Review: Shame the Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

 

Reviewed by Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

Shame the Stars CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Eighteen-year-old Joaquin del Toro’s future looks bright. With his older brother in the priesthood, he’s set to inherit his family’s Texas ranch. He’s in love with Dulceña and she’s in love with him. But it’s 1915, and trouble has been brewing along the US-Mexico border. On one side, the Mexican Revolution is taking hold; on the other, Texas Rangers fight Tejano insurgents, and ordinary citizens are caught in the middle.

As tensions grow, Joaquin is torn away from Dulceña, whose father’s critical reporting on the Rangers in the local newspaper has driven a wedge between their families. Joaquin’s own father insists that the Rangers are their friends, and refuses to take sides in the conflict. But when their family ranch becomes a target, Joaquin must decide how he will stand up for what’s right.

Shame the Stars is a rich reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set in Texas during the explosive years of Mexico’s revolution. Filled with period detail, captivating romance, and political intrigue, it brings Shakespeare’s classic to life in an entirely new way.

MY TWO CENTSWhile a comparison to Romeo and Juliet may draw readers in, the iconic story compares very little to Joaquin’s story. As a young man trying to make sense of his adulthood, Joaquin has to grow up abruptly when the Mexican Revolution begins to take hold of South Texas. Political ideologies between their families divide Joaquin from his love, Dulceña, so they must find a way to continue their courtship, but the political climate grows and seeps into their lives creating more obstacles for them. Both Joaquin and Dulceña are politically conscious about the community conflict with the Texan Rangers and the plight of those fleeing the Mexican Revolution. But with that consciousness comes a responsibility of taking action to protect their communities and each other. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, the couple battles to gain agency over their relationship and their surroundings making their story less of a tragic romance.

Shame the Stars does justice in presenting the multiplicity of identity that exists in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and the community that arises from that multiplicity — one that was even more prevalent during a time of tension and reformation of identity after Texas’ addition to the Union. The book highlights that his American citizenship does not break the bond that Joaquin poses for his Mexican and Tejano identities and his brethren within these communities. The book is well researched and uses real events and incidents to drive the narrative of the story. Whether it be the tension that existed between Texan Rangers and Tejanos, the actions of Mexican Bandits, or racial injustices, the stories within Shame the Stars are a close reflection to life in South Texas. This book is an important read for students in not only presenting an overlooked part of American history, but also as a reminder that many connections, experiences, and relationships factor into the Latinx identity in the borderlands.

TEACHING TIPSShame the Stars can be used to discuss a variety of topics with students. The book can be used as supplemental material to a discussion of the annexation of the southern United States — the assimilations that occurred, the tensions that were present, and the political opposition that was present even years later, such was the case with the Plan of San Diego. The different responses among the del Toro family to the rise of conflict in Monteseco could be a jumping point to a discussion on identity in the Latinx community. Each member of the del Toro family felt a different connection or responsibility to the many political movements happening in Monteseco. These connections highlight not only political identities but also cultural and ethnic identities showing how it is never as clear cut to be on one side or another.

RECOMMENDED READING:

  • Anglos & Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1987 by David Montejano, University of Texas Press, 1987
  • From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth Century America by Vicki L. Ruiz, Oxford University Press, 2008
  • Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans by Benjamin Heber Johnson, Yale University Press, 2005
  • River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands by Omar S. Valerio- Jimenez, Duke University Press Books, 2013
  • Canicula by Norma Elia Cantu, University of New Mexico Press, 1997
  • Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Oscar J. Martinez, University of Arizona Press, 1994

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Shame the Stars, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

author2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist, received the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Literacy Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011, among many other accolades. Her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction award, was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her poems for children have appeared in The Poetry Friday Anthology, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. Garcia McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems). She is currently a high school English teacher in San Antonio.

 

professional-picABOUT THE REVIEWER: Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries.She has an MA in history and MLIS from Simmons College where she focused her studies on the role of libraries and archives in the cultural preservation of the U.S.-Mexican border. Additionally, she holds a BA in Ethnic Studies from Brown University.  Her research is greatly influenced by her hometown of Laredo, TX which has led her to work in serving immigrants and underrepresented communities. Her current work involves exploring cultural identity through oral history in her project, Third Culture. You can find Araceli on Instagram. 

Book Review: Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Estefania “Stef” Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tia Perla, her family’s taco truck. She wants nothing more than for Papi to get a normal job and for Tia Perla to be a distant memory. Then maybe everyone at school will stop seeing her as the Taco Queen.

But when her family’s livelihood is threatened, and it looks like her wish will finally come true, Stef surprises everyone (including herself) by becoming the truck’s unlikely champion. In this fun and heartfelt novel, Stef will discover what matters most and ultimately embrace an identity that even includes old Tia Perla.

MY TWO CENTS: Jennifer Torres doesn’t waste any time introducing the readers to Stef and the people in her life, including Papi and her best friend Arthur in the first scene outside of their Catholic middle school. She notices Papi in his taco truck – known as Tia Perla for the rest of the book – and she gets angry because he had originally promised to let her meet him at a nearby gas station. This is the first of many conflicts Stef has with her parents about maturity at the seventh-grade level. The conflicts are about issues that come up in many houses of middle school students.

One of my favorite scenes of the book is in chapter 3, when Stef reminisces about the early stages of Tia Perla being in her family’s life. From what Torres describes as “kitchen-table whispers” about the kinds of beans and salsa it’ll feature (“nothing from a jar,” insists Mami) to learning the origin of the name (Stef’s pick), the entire scene was sweet and a key part of the story. The chapters in the entire book are short but detailed enough for readers of any age to get a glimpse into Stef’s life.

Despite the joy Tia Perla once brought to Stef, she feels anything but joy about the beloved truck as the book goes on. She tries to be nice to former-friend-turned-popular-girl Julia by offering her a ride home in Tia Perla, but Julia turns around and calls Stef the “Taco Queen” behind her back. This comes after Julia makes a scene before the start of their English class by announcing she has tickets to see local pop sensation Viviana Vega in concert. Torres then takes the readers into more of Stef’s life at Saint Scholastica School – trying to fit in and leave Tia Perla in the dust. Stef’s favorite day of the week is Tuesday, which she realizes is not common, because it’s when she has her art class. “And in art class,” Torres writes, “I never hear Mami’s voice telling me I’m too young, or Papi’s nagging me to be careful. I am in charge of the blank piece of paper in front of me, and I can turn it into something as vivid and adventurous or as quiet and calm as I want.” This part of the story stuck out to me because of the way Torres compares making art with wanting independence.

Stef spends every Saturday helping her Papi and Tia Perla during their busiest day of the week. They travel to farmers markets, parks, and other outdoor common areas in their city to feed the crowds with the scrumptious food they’re known for. Even though Papi seems grateful every time Stef helps him out, she still wants nothing to do with Tia Perla, especially when it gets in the way of her independent life she’s trying to create.

During a stop on one of Tia Perla’s routine Saturdays, Stef visits her other best friend, Amanda, after her soccer game. While the two are cooling off with the help of strawberry soda, they listen to the radio and eventually win concert tickets to see Viviana Vega. Stef is cautiously optimistic about her parents letting the two attend the concert alone – until they say no, despite her papi giving her a cell phone she thinks is to check in with them at the concert.

The book then turns its focus to two more complex and meaningful issues previously introduced before Stef’s blowup with her papi. Stef and her classmates decide to work together in a unique way to get more art supplies (hint: a school-wide event is included). And, in a move that impacts Stef more than she realizes, Papi’s business (and Tia Perla) is threatened by new proposed city rules that would impact all food trucks in the area, specifically the taco trucks. Stef seems more mature than others her age when she mentions translating important notes for her papi and others from English into Spanish.

The book ends with a couple of different twists that I didn’t see coming, but I believe both twists worked really well to help bring the story to a close. Stef learns to love all of the parts that make up her identity – even Tia Perla.

Torres does a wonderful job describing the characters and each place they’re in throughout the book. I felt like I was following Stef and her family and friends through their adventures. The book addresses many important topics that may be tough for some kids and families to discuss, but I believe the issues were written in a way that kids can understand. I felt for Stef during some of the scenes with her parents.

There are some basic Spanish words and sentences in the book, most of which are italicized except for one – Orale! That word appears several times in the book with several different meanings, which I loved. It helped set the tone for each of the different chapters, especially when Stef described each way it was written for each scene.

Overall, Stef Soto, Taco Queen is a wonderful read. It’s recommended for kids in grades 4-7 (ages 9-12), but I would suggest it to anyone looking for a story about a girl trying to find herself in this crazy world.

TEACHING TIPS: This book could be used to discuss the idea of working together to help solve problems, especially in the face of adversity. Stef’s art teacher, Mr. Salazar, helped his class raise money to bring in more art supplies, even though he was skeptical about their idea at first. The book could also be used in a way to discuss local politics for students. Not many middle-school students get involved with politics in such a way that Stef did, but I believe the book would be a good way to teach students how to make a difference in their community.

jtorresABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book’s back cover): Jennifer Torres was 17-years-old–a senior at Alverno High School in Sierra Madre, California—when the first time a story of hers was published in a newspaper. The story was about making tamales with her family, but it was also about love and tradition and growing up. She went on to study journalism at Northwestern University and the University of Westminster. Today, she works as a freelance journalist and is the author Finding the Music, a picture book from Lee & Low. Jennifer lives with her husband and two little girls in central California. Stef Soto, Taco Queen is her debut novel.

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

 

assertABOUT 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.

Book Review: Surviving Santiago by Lyn Miller-Lachman

 

23013839By Cindy L. Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Returning to her homeland of Santiago, Chile, is the last thing that Tina Aguilar wants to do during the summer of her sixteenth birthday. It has taken eight years for her to feel comfort and security in America with her mother and her new husband. And it has been eight years since she has last seen her father.

Despite insisting on the visit, Tina’s father spends all his time focused on politics and alcohol rather than connecting with Tina, making his betrayal from the past continue into the present. Tina attracts the attention of a mysterious stranger, but the hairpin turns he takes her on may push her over the edge of truth and discovery.

The tense, final months of the Pinochet regime in 1989 provide the backdrop for author Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s suspenseful tale of the survival and redemption of the Aguilar family, first introduced in the critically acclaimed Gringolandia.

MY TWO CENTS: As part of her parents’ divorce agreement, Tina Aguilar must travel from Madison, Wisconsin to Santiago, Chile, to spend the summer with her father, Marcelo, a leader of the democracy movement who was previously imprisoned and tortured by the government. The experience left him with permanent physical disabilities. He is also suicidal and an alcoholic.

At first, Tina’s summer is uneventful. She stays mostly in the house with her aunt and father, who barely pays attention to her. She decides she wants to go home early, but then she meets Frankie, a motorcycle delivery boy who gives her plenty of swoony reasons to stay in Chile. Tina and Frankie fall in love, but later–without giving too much away–she discovers he can’t be trusted and that she and her father’s lives are in danger.

Lyn Miller-Lachman does a beautiful job with creating a multi-layered narrative. The romance, family drama, and political intrigue are woven together seamlessly and each of the characters are fully developed. Because of Miller-Lachman’s extensive research and personal travel experiences, the descriptions of Chile are vivid. She captures both the physical landscape and the tense emotional atmosphere during the last months of the Pinochet regime.

One thing I especially appreciated was that Miller-Lachman allows the story to unfold. In other words, I have read so many young adult novels that literally start with a bang, following the “drop the reader right into the action” formula, that reading a narrative that didn’t start this way was a relief. I got to know Tina at home in Wisconsin before she started her journey, which allowed me to connect and sympathize with her before her struggles began.

TEACHING TIPS: This novel would obviously work well in an English classroom if the focus is historical fiction, stories from Latin America, and/or themes about survival or relationships in times of political strife. Surviving Santiago would also work well in cross-curricular way, with students analyzing it as literature in English class and then discussing the historical and political aspects in history class. Teachers could also use it as an option during literature circles with a focus on multi-generational or bicultural experiences. Surviving Santiago could be one of several books offered to students in which the protagonist has to return to her homeland or a parent’s homeland, which allows the main character the opportunity to reconnect with their culture or experience it for the first time.

An image posted by the author.ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): I grew up in Houston, Texas but left at age 18 to attend Princeton University, where I met my husband, Richard Lachmann. After living in Connecticut, Wisconsin, upstate New York, and Lisbon, Portugal, we recently settled in New York City. We have two children, Derrick and Maddy Lachmann.

I received my Masters in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and edited the journal MultiCultural Review for 16 years. In 2012, I received my Masters in Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I love teaching as much as writing and have taught both middle and high school English, social studies, and Jewish studies. Before moving to New York City, I taught American Jewish History to seventh graders at Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, New York and ran a playwriting elective for fourth to seventh graders.

I have lots of different hobbies because I love trying new things. In 2007, I became the assistant host of “Los Vientos del Pueblo” a bilingual program of Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history that currently airs on WRPI-FM, the radio station of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, on Sundays from 2-6 pm ET. I have also built a LEGO town, Little Brick Township, and create stories with my minifigures that I photograph and post on Instagram and my blog.

My husband and I enjoying traveling around the world. If I put a pin on a map for every place I’ve been, the map would have lots of pins. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in another place and time, and that’s one of the reasons I write historical fiction.

Lyn Miller-Lachman is also the author of Gringolandia and Rogue and the editor of Once Upon a Cuento, an anthology of short stories by contemporary Latin@ writers. She is also a team member for We Need Diverse Books.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Surviving Santiago, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.