Category Archives: South American

Ripper by Isabel Allende, translated by Ollie Brock and Frank Wynne

RipperJust as her latest book was hitting shelves, the near-deified Isabel Allende opened mouth, inserted foot during an interview on NPR and set off a firestorm of negative reaction. On mysteries, she intoned, “I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke.” Uh-oh. Two-and-a-half weeks later (after at least one bookstore returned all copies to her publisher), she was out apologizing, insisting her own comments were the joke. They say no press is bad press, but …

Having already loaded Ripper on my iPod before her ‘joke’ grabbed headlines, curiosity made me hit that ‘play’-button. I would have loved a studio sneak peek to see what sort of faces narrator Edoardo Ballerini must have made while recording what became the final 14.5 hours; to his credit, except for briefly stumbling over a Scottish accent, Ballerini admirably slogs through the almost-500 pages.

“My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd,” Allende revealed in that infamous interview. [Call me wrong, but Amanda seems to be 17 here, referenced thusly on pages 30, 146, and 190.] “My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.”

What Allende should have also warned was that she was throwing in just about every stereotype: the ex-vet Asiaphile who can’t satisfy his dragon-lady S&M girlfriend (because he couldn’t finish that “manual” with “something beige in the title – or maybe it was gray”), the arrogant old rich man who falls for someone of the wrong net worth, the innocent good girl corrupted by the popular big-boy-on-campus, the Asian houseboy (although he has the glorified title of ‘butler’ – so that at least one person can say, ‘the butler did it’; he didn’t), and on and on! Oh, she even adds ghosts (magic realism made Allende mega-famous, after all) – including one named Sharbat, “like the girl with green eyes on the famous National Geographic cover“!

So that ‘nerdy’ sleuth, Amanda, and her grandfather/”henchman,” Kabel (an acronym of his real name Blake), regularly play a computer-facilitated game called Ripper with a group of motley teens scattered around the world. They’re the first to discover that the gruesome murders plaguing San Francisco are the work of a serial killer, long before Amanda’s father – “deputy chief of homicide detail” – and his team catch on. Meanwhile, Amanda’s long-divorced mother Indiana – that “plump” protagonist – is caught between two men, leaving her rather oblivious to the rest of reality; after eight murders, she goes missing …

Mystery/thriller aficionado I’m not, but I had the whodunnit figured out as soon as the character appeared, with hours upon hours to go as yet. Because the murderer was so obvious, I convinced myself I couldn’t possibly be right, so I gritted it out to the bitter end; thank goodness at least I was multi-tasking because I’m never, ever going to get those hours back! Finally finished, I guess I can only claim temporary insanity.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Latino/a, South American

Numeralia by Jorge Luján, illustrated by Isol, translated by Susan Ouriou

NumeraliaAlphabet and counting books are understandably so predictable as to often be interchangeable in their sameness. ABCs and 123s are really immutable … or are they? To stand out in such a saturated genre is a rare, welcome occurrence – so don’t dare miss the ingenious, utterly unique Numeralia.

Yes, of course, you’ll find the numbers 0 through 10 here. But what you’ll remember most with each numeral is uncountable whimsy and surprising delight. Jorge Luján – an award-winning Mexico City-based author, poet, architect, musician (!) – provides the cleverly layered, uncommon ideas, which Isol – winner of the 2013 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (the world’s richest children’s book prize!) – magically, artfully renders on the page. Talk about dynamic duo!

Let’s take “2 is for the duckling who is not so ugly after all”: that purposefully singular ‘ugly duckling’ is actually a small child wearing a silly mask, standing at the front of a boat that gives him that shape similar to his curious aquatic companions; meanwhile the aviary reflections of two ducklings in the water create mirror images of the upside-down numeral 2.

The number 6 also gets reflective representation: “6 for musketeers alongside their reflections” – which makes six figures on the page, in addition to the 6ish promontory in the distance, and the six bubbles the swordfish leaves in his wake.

The best comes last with “10 for a student’s thoughts lost in daydreams”; the corresponding illustration you’ll have to carefully, gratefully explore on your own (no more spoilers!).

Go head, give into curiosity: consider Numeralia as an inspiring investment in your child’s imagination. Learning numbers was never quite this original.

Readers: Children

Published: 2006, 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Translation, Latin American, South American

Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash | Marisol McDonald y la fiesta sin igual by Monica Brown, illustrated by Sara Palacios, Spanish translation by Adriana Domínguez

Marison McDonald and the Clash BashIn case you need an introduction to the “unique, different, and one of a kind” Marisol McDonald, check out her 2011 debut here: Marisol McDonald Doesn’t MatchNow that she’s starring in her second book, I hope that means Marisol’s got her own series going, so we can look forward to more of her irrepressible, energetic adventures from award-winning author Monica Brown and her co-conspirator illustrator Sara Palacios.

Marisol is turning 8 – “which rhymes with ‘great,’ no less! – and she “just know[s] [her] birthday will be fabulous, marvelous, and divine.” Marisol’s only birthday wish, though, has nothing to do with princesses, unicorns, or even pirates. Marisol just wants to see her grandmother who lives far away in Peru. Two long years is too long to be separated from “Abuelita’s smiling face.” Alas, not only is the plane ticket expensive, but as Marisol’s mother explains, a visit entails getting the right papeles – visas. “I don’t understand,” Marisol wonders. “Why does Abuelita need papers to see her own family who miss her so much?” Why indeed?!

As her birthday quickly approaches, Marisol prepares for her celebration by making “a unique, different, one-of-a-kind invitation” for each of her friends. She welcomes them with delighted glee when they arrive in mismatched costumes. “Welcome to my Clash Bash birthday party,” she tells her friends as she “show[s] off [her] soccer-player-pirate-princess-unicorn self.”

As she’s about to enjoy her birthday cake, her parents pull her into the study … where they’ve prepared a most unexpected surprise. Abuelita might not have been able to deliver birthday hugs in person, but technology gifts Marisol the next best alternative. Certainly can’t call Abuelita a Luddite!

Brown, who is herself “the bilingual daughter of a North American father and a South American mother” – hence the dual English/Spanish text on these pages – draws on her own experiences: “Like Marisol, my family was spread across two continents, and like Marisol, I missed my family dearly,” she writes in her ending “Author’s Note.” Brown shares how her mother surprised the family by using her first real estate commission to fly her Abuelito from Peru to the U.S. for a longed-for reunion. “This book celebrates a family’s love, all that is unique about each of us, and all that is still left to discover.” Here’s hoping Marisol’s unique series continues to offer many more gleeful discoveries indeed!

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, Hapa, Latino/a, South American

Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende, translated by Anne McLean

Maya's NotebookI’ve never seen, but have read about (no surprise) the international popularity of telenovelas, but I imagine that if this, Isabel Allende‘s latest novel, was transferred to the little screen, it would fit quite well in what seems to be a rather histrionic genre with many (many!) socio-politically-correct messages. Although I avidly read Allende’s earliest works (The House of the Spirits, her debut and possibly still her most lauded title, I (contrarily) found to be a lacking imitation of Gabriel García Márquez; with Of Love and Shadows she seemed to have found her unique voice; Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna remain my favorites among her titles), I found over the decades since that too many of her later stories just wouldn’t keep my attention enough to read to the final pages. Choosing the audible route this time (narrator Maria Cabezas is especially adept in treading a fine line between innocent youth and corrupted experience) helped greatly to ferry me to the very end.

I admit I chose Maya’s Notebook specifically for its title, hoping it might somehow (magical thinking!) be remotely related to Eva Luna and her Stories [in case you, too, were wondering – no such relationship exists that I discovered]. The cover should have been a clear message; indeed, a nose ring and the oversized tattoo are just two obvious details that Notebook is a distinct departure from Allende’s more historical, magic realism-infused, dare I say (?) … literary novels.

Before she’s even 20 years old, Maya Vidal is running from the law. The death of her beloved grandfather, Popo, destroys the foundation of her stable Berkeley life, and she eventually finds herself mired in the violent underworld of Las Vegas, molested, addicted, and bound to a volatile boss who makes her an accomplice to too many crimes. When she manages to return to her grandmother’s fiercely loving embrace, her Nini saves her shattered life by secreting Maya off to a remote Chilean island where she will be able to tell her story to her eponymous ‘notebook.’

Cell phones, the internet, contemporary challenges including eating disorders and self-harm/mutilation, and more, all suggest that Notebook seems to want to be a 21st-century morality tale. Meshed with glimpses of Allende’s signature magic realism (Popo’s posthumous presence, Nini’s mystical strength, an island coven of ‘good’ witches) and her political(-ly correct) history (Popo and Nini’s then-shocking racial and socioeconomically-crossing marriage, the historical horrors of Chilean dictatorships, the corruptibility of legal systems), the final result seems to be… well … something akin to a convoluted telenovela. Maya Vidal’s name even seems to concur: as Maya herself explains about her “Nini’s soft spot for India,” ‘Maya’ in Hindi, could mean “‘charm, illusion, dream,’”; ‘Vidal’ has Latin roots meaning ‘life.’ Ultimately, Maya’s Notebook indeed reflects the disjointed confusion of an illusive, dreamy life.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Latino/a, South American

Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

After surviving the Korean War, Yohan spends another year in a prisoner-of-war camp south of the new border that splits the country in two. Rather than return north, where no one awaits him, Yohan begins life anew in a faraway coastal Brazilian village as a Japanese tailor’s apprentice. As the years pass, “He wondered what choice there was in what was remembered; and what was forgotten.”

Damaged by war, Yohan’s life before and after is circumscribed by quiet relationships – first with his widowed father and a childhood friend, then with the tailor Kiyoshi, the church groundskeeper, and two parentless children: “that in their silences there had been a form of love.” Having already lost family, friends, language, and country, Yohan slowly sheds his solitude when gentle Kiyoshi dies and opens up to the possibility of attachment and love.

Verdict: Yoon’s debut novel began as a 500-page draft pared down to about 200 pages that reveal the same shimmering, evocative spareness of his 2009 collection, Once the Shore. The result is that rare, precious gem, with every remaining word to be cherished for the many discarded to achieve perfection. One of this year’s best reads.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 1, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean, Korean American, South American

What a Party! by Ana Maria Machado, illustrated by Hélène Moreau, translated by Elisa Amado

What a Party!In the same delightful, sequential fun of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie – if you do x, then y happens – Brazilian überauthor of more than a hundred books, Ana Maria Machado, puts on a party of epic proportions.

“If a few days before your birthday your mother should say, ‘I think I’m going to bake a cake and buy some juice. Why don’t you ask one of your friends to come over to play?’” You welcome your Mother’s suggestion, but ask for a little more: “‘Well, could Jack bring someone and maybe some food too?” When your distracted mother answers, “‘Of course. Invite anyone you’d like,’” well, then … there’s all the permission you ever needed! And you write the invitation just so: “Come to my party. It’s my BIRTHDAY. Bring along whoever you want and whatever you like to eat.”

Jack and his brother Larry bring cookies. Jack tells Beto and Antonieta who can’t bear to leave their parrot home, and arrives with pineapple, mangos, and passion fruit. Of course, Antonieta had to tell her best friend Fatima, who tells her brother Djamel, so their mother sends tajine with olives and pickled lemons. Tony will want to bring cousin Carlo, with pizzas and gelato to share. Which means Hannah and her little brother will come with their canary to meet Antonieta’s parrot, along with a Black Forest cake and springerle, too. Maria is their neighbor, so she shows up with her macaw, as well as flan and cod cakes. Carmen brings paella, and Tamio brings sushi. Along with so many friends and such festive eats, the backyard fills with salsa dancers and a reggae band … and suddenly, “your birthday party could turn out to be the craziest, wildest, funnest party ever!”

Author Machado, who won the 2000 Hans Christian Andersen Award – the world’s highest international recognition for kiddie book writers and illustrators – knows how to party, bringing together all the different friends, families, cuisines from around the world into one multi-culti celebration. Machado’s artistic comrade-in-colors, Hélène Moreau, gives delicious vibrance to every part of the party preparations, gathering friends, foods, animals, and eventually even the parents who just can’t stay away. Machado shows us just how easy every day could be party day … no excuses necessary to gather, laugh, and dance …!

Readers: Children

Published: 2013 (Canada, United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Translation, South American

Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

The words “A Novel” adorn the top of the cover of Chopsticks – but that’s definitely a debatable label. No such limits necessary here! A hybrid creation by novelist/short story writer Jessica Anthony and book designer/creative director (for Farrar, Straus, Giroux, who is not Chopsticks‘ publisher, in case you were wondering) Rodrigo CorralChopsticks melds together photographs, tchotchkes and mementos, pictures and paintings, music scores, letters, and texts to create an enticing narrative that might or might not be reliable … [You can also further extend your reading/listening experience with videos and more on the book's dedicated website, too!]

Without giving too much away (because the book is truly a journey of discovery …), allow me to offer a skeletal overview of the story. “World famous pianist Glory Fleming is missing,” shouts the breaking news a few double-page spreads into the book. The wayward teenager has escaped from Golden Hands Rest Facility, “an institution for musical prodigies,” according to a follow-up newspaper clipping which then leads to “18 months earlier” towards the who, what, where, why, and how … all of which you’ll have to piece together through remnants and clues, memories and expressions.

Glory is talented. Her medium is the piano. She doesn’t have a mother, but she does have a lonely, demanding, protective father. She thinks she’s found a soulmate in the newly arrived boy-next-door, Francisco, who’s moved to New York from Argentina. Francisco is talented, too – especially with blank canvases and color (as well as black and white), not to mention compiling fascinating mix-tapes (on CDs, as this is the 21st century after all). He’s struggling with academics and social life at his new school where his only welcome sign is a scrawled “Go Home Spic” taped across his locker.

Even more talented are the lovers’ creators. The theme song throughout is “Chopsticks” – which starts with the repetition of two notes together, F and G, then moves outward until the fingers eventually come back together. Are you getting this? The possible variations – together and apart, apart and together, repeat, repeat – are endless.

Francisco and Glory, Glory and Francisco: their resulting love story proves to be quite the mystery … perhaps one you may never quite solve. Did I mention something about variations? You’ve been warned. Now go experience their story for yourself …

Readers: Young Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific, South American

River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

Being always a dozen or so titles behind, a confluence of certain events seem to need to happen for some posts to finally get from my brain to the … uh … the virtual world.

First things first: River of Doubt is absolutely riveting! But for me to tell you that, I had to be reminded to do so by sitting through two-plus soporific hours in a chilly theater last night watching (the usually enchanting) John Lithgow stumble and scream through a couple of decades of journalist Joseph Alsop’s life – Alsop’s grandmother, Corinne Roosevelt, was Teddy Roosevelt’s younger sister and appears sporadically throughout River. Then I opened an email this morning from a Smithsonian APA Program colleague about only reading fiction, so just to be contrary, here I am …

Teddy Roosevelt’s third bid for the presidency in 1912 was a spectacular failure. Having survived a sickly childhood by taking on impossible adventures out of sheer will, Roosevelt refused to quietly retire, and instead headed to South America to undertake what would be the greatest physical challenge of his life: to chart the unknown waters of what was then known as the Rio da Dúvida, or the River of Doubt, which winds through Brazil and eventually flows into the Amazon.

Former National Geographic magazine editor/writer Candice Millard tracks the grueling journey through journals, letters, and articles not only of the former President, but also of his tenacious co-participants, including Roosevelt’s son Kermit, Brazil’s most famous explorer and expedition co-commander Colonel Cândido Rondon, and legendary American naturalist and explorer George Cherrie. Before the expedition actually reaches the River (possible spoiler alert here), Roosevelt will have had to separate from the incompetent outfitter Anthony Fiala and the arrogant and racist Father John Augustine Zahm.

As much as the expedition’s human participants are the book’s heroes (and villains both), Millard’s most excellent adventures are enhanced by ever-so-graphic descriptions (or nightmares, if you will) of the flora and fauna throughout the uncharted territory (no spoilers here, ahem … except to mention that piranhas ain’t got nothin’ on candiru!).

With Paul Michael narrating, I found myself running the river trails with more than the usual alertness – hey, I’m in DC, I never know what sort of slimy surprise I might run into! Millard’s expert storytelling proves absolutely addictive – surely, the late President is shouting ‘bully!!’ for her debut effort from wherever his latest adventure might be.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2005

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific, South American

The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sís

“On a continent of many songs, in a country shaped like the arm of a guitarrista, the rain drummed down on the town of Temuco [Chile],” the invitingly dreamy Dreamer begins. Neftalí Reyes, the eponymous dreamer, is most content to live in a world of stories, ideas, and the smallest things that seem to overtake his never-resting imagination.

He lives in constant fear of his overbearing father, who seems to have nothing but hurtful insults and disappointed impatience for his younger son. Thankfully, Neftalí finds emotional shelter with his nurturing stepmother Mamadre, and his younger sister Laurita. But even they cannot guard against Father’s rants against anything but the practical: he’s already forbidden a music career for Neftalí’s talented older brother Rodolfo, trampling his soul. And Father is scathingly clear about the little regard he has for the brave journalism of Mamadre’s brother Orlando – whom Neftalí idolizes – with which Uncle Orlando is tirelessly fighting for the rights of the abused, indigenous peoples.

In spite of his father’s bullying, Neftalí manages to find moments of grace. He befriends a widowed swan, experiences first love, finds purpose in his first job helping his uncle in (and out of!) his newspaper office. He finds his own voice as a writer … and claims his identity as separate from his father when he names himself Pablo Neruda, “to save Father the humiliation of having a son who is a poet.”

Yes, Neftalí Reyes is the real name of the legendary Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. With spare evocative prose from Pam Muñoz Ryan and whimsical pointillist illustrations by Peter Sís, the dynamic duo use Neruda’s haunting, formative years to create a gorgeous biographical novel of remarkable depth. Young readers will surely experience Neftalí’s fear, his longing, his joy, his aching, his gratitude, his unconditional love … and, most of all, his hope that his words would eventually make “hearts eager to feel all that he could dream.”

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2010, 2012 (paperback reprint)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Latino/a, South American

The Island of the Dead by Lya Luft, translated by Carmen Chaves McClendon and Betty Jean Craige

An 18-year-old boy, Camilo, is dead, his youthful body prepared and confined forever in a coffin that now sits in a living room, attended by his estranged parents on either side. Through the course of the inaugural night that marks his sudden, violent passing, his surviving family members will reveal painful memories, distressing experiences, buried emotions, and devastating secrets. Amidst the grieving, Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin‘s painting “The Isle of the Dead” (referred to in the novel as having been “painted many years ago by a friend of [Renata's] father’s, a copy of an original that no one had seen”) both haunts and guides the narrative.

Camilo’s businessman father Martin and concert pianist mother Renata blame each other for their miserable lives. His twin sister Carolina lies upstairs drugged, but aware her symbiotic world is now shattered. His paternal aunt Clara awaits her ghost lover alone. His adopted grandmother whom everyone calls “Mother” busies herself caring for others. Mother’s daughter Ella – an enormous, mysterious mass of crippled humanity – looms in darkness.

A bestseller in its native Brazil, Island is novelist/poet/critic/translator Lya Luft’s first title available in English. The book’s original Portuguese title, O Quarto Fechado – literally, The Closed Room, surely a more apt description of the choking claustrophobia that stifles this house of mourning – is not the only detail lost in translation. The “Translators’ Preface” duly warns that “the two languages embody two distinct ways of constructing reality” and notes the difficulties in “mak[ing] the American reader aware of the strangeness of the original text and to bring across some of its ‘secret meanings.’” In that attempt to illuminate, the translators reveal far too much before even getting to the novel’s first page. One easy fix: read that preface only after the novel itself, and then you can see if your own secret-sleuthing was accurate.

Translation challenges aside, Luft clearly knows how to unsettle readers with disturbing glimpses of murder, rape, priestly abuse and other bewildering moments of evil. Then near book’s end, Luft unexpectedly, subtly pinpoints the single moment when all the action contained in the pages before could be, if not changed, then negated: “To forbid love was to forbid life … Was that it?”

When the morning finally comes, you’re faced with quite a readerly conundrum … about the story, about fiction, about writing: just how will you react?

Readers: Adult

Published: 1984 (Brazil), 1986 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, South American