Saint Death: A Review

“Each of us dies the death he is looking for.”

“Don’t worry where you’re going, you’ll die where you have to.”

Saint Death by Marcus SedgwickArturo is scraping by living in Anapra on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico. He can see El Norte from his small shack but America feels distant compared to his reality spent hauling things at the auto shop and trying to avoid the notice of gang members and the cartel who have carved Juarez into their own sections of territory.

Arturo’s childhood friend Faustino reenters his life preparing to use stolen money to send his girlfriend and their son illegally across the border. With his gang boss on the verge of discovering the theft, Faustino is desperate for help to replace the thousand dollars he has taken. Arturo reluctantly agrees to try to win the money playing Calavera but as with most card games, things don’t go according to plan.

Looming over Arturo’s story, and Juarez itself, is Santa Muerte–Saint Death. The folk saint watches impassively as people in the border town struggle in the face of a vicious drug trade, dangerous trafficking, corruption, and income inequality. It’s possible that Santa Muerte might help Arturo if he prays hard enough and proves himself. But it’s also possible she’ll watch as Arturo heads toward his tragic ending. The outcome doesn’t really matter, everyone comes to her in the end in Saint Death (2017) by Marcus Sedgwick.

To call Saint Death ambitious would be a gross understatement. This slim novel complicates a deceptively simple story about one young man and uses it as a lens to examine the world on a much larger scale.

Arturo’s story, as related by an omniscient third person narrator, alternates with commentary from nameless third parties on conditions affecting Mexico and Juarez specifically including The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), climate change, the city’s founding, and even the worship of Saint Death herself.

The formatting and language Saint Death underscore that this is a book about Mexican characters who live their lives in Spanish. There are no italics for Spanish words and dialogue is formatted according to Spanish language conventions with double punctuation for question marks and exclamation points (one at either end of the sentence) and no quotation marks for dialogue which is instead indicated with dashes.

Saint Death is simultaneously an absorbing, heart-wrenching read and a scathing indictment of the conditions that have allowed the drug trade and human trafficking to flourish in Mexico. Eerily timely and prescient this ambitious story is both a masterful piece of literature and a cautionary tale. Add this to your must-read list now. Highly recommended.

If you want to know more about some of what’s mentioned in the book and a bit about Sedgwick’s writing process, be sure to check out his blog posts about the book as well.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough,The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle,The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, American Street by Ibi Zoboi, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the March 2017 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Week in Review: April 22

missprintweekreviewThis week on the blog you can check out:

This week was Spring New Books which has been consuming my work life for most of this month. I’m happy to report that the training went really well and got great feedback on evaluation forms! During non-work hours I got to hang out with Estelle which was fantastic (of course) but too short.

I’m trying to dominate in Pokemon Go. I’ve been powering up my Gyrados like nobody’s business and taking over gyms when I can. I have been shopping for sandals which feels a bit like an exercise in futility because it hasn’t actually been warm enough to try out said sandals.

I can’t believe it’s almost May! I have a lot of fun things happening next month (BEA, SLJ Day of Dialog, publisher previews, JENNY HAN’S LAUNCH FOR ALWAYS AND FOREVER LARA JEAN!!!!) but I’m also going to try to make time for a day at the Met soon. I miss it and there are some great exhibits right now.

This week I read Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler and I totally loved it. It reminded me a lot of In Some Other World, Maybe which is great because I’m always looking for read-a-likes to that title. I’ve also started When Dimple Met Rishi which is quite fun so far.

Here’s my latest from Instagram:

If you you want to see how my month in reading is shaking out be sure to check out my April Reading Tracker.

How was your week? What are you reading? What else do you have on deck?

Let’s talk in the comments.

Poetically Speaking about Antigonish [I met a man who wasn’t there] by Hughes Mearns

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking. Check back every Friday in April to chat about poems with me.

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

 

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

 

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

Antigonish by Hughes Mearns is the kind of poem that I feel like everyone knows. It’s catchy, just a bit creepy, and it’s been long enough to worm its way into its fair share of popular culture.

Mearns wrote this poem in 1899 as part of a play. According to the Internet it was inspired, apparently, by reports in Antigonish, Nova Scotia of a roaming ghost. In some ways it makes perfect sense that the poem is meant to evoke a ghostly presence. The cadence and rhyme scheme are just a little eerie as is the concept of a man who isn’t there.

Interestingly, the poem feels much more whimsical and childlike when read in its entirety whereas reading the first stanza in isolation feels much more sinister and seems to refer to more than a mere ghostly presence.

Rhyming poetry can be a bit controversial. People either love it or they hate it. Rarely is there any kind of in between. I’ve always been a big fan and I think this poem is a good example of the versatility that can be found even within the restrictions of an ABAB rhyme structure.

What do you think? Is this poem as much a part of the zeitgeist as I think? Do you think it’s creepy or funny? Let’s talk in the comments.

Pretending to Be Erica: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle PainchaudErica Silverman was kidnapped when she was five years old and she hasn’t been seen since. Two other girls came to Las Vegas to pretend to be Erica and try to steal her life. They were both caught. But they didn’t have Violet’s father Sal backing them.

Sal knows that Erica is gone and he has something none of the previous con artists did: Erica’s DNA. He also has been training Violet to con the Silvermans since she was five years old. Violet shares Erica’s blood type and has undergone plastic surgery to make sure her face matches the age projections of Erica. She isn’t going to make the same mistake the other Ericas made. Violet isn’t there to stay; she doesn’t need to become Erica forever.

All Violet has to do is keep up the charade long enough to steal the coveted Silverman Painting. It should be easy. Except the longer she spends as Erica, the more Violet wants the stability and comforts of Erica’s life for herself. Violet knows why she is living with the Silvermans, she knows exactly how to sell the lie, she knows the endgame. The only thing Violet doesn’t know is what to do when she wants to believe the con herself in Pretending to Be Erica (2015) by Michelle Painchaud.

Pretending to Be Erica is Painchaud’s debut novel. Violet narrates her time impersonating Erica in the first person while flashbacks to her childhood as Violet are related in third person.

While the writing is sleek and sharp, this novel really shines with its protagonist. Violet has no idea what a real family or a true friend looks like before she arrives at the Silverman home. Affection and basic comforts are alien concepts to her and even the friends she begins to make when Erica returns to high school feel strange and dangerous. Against the backdrop of her con, Violet begins to understand that she’s allowed to want more than a precarious life built on lies and tricks.

Pretending to Be Erica has all the earmarks of a traditional thriller or heist mystery. Tension is high as the stakes increase and Violet’s carefully drawn lines between her real life as Violet and her fake life as Erica begin to blur. Suspense and the numerous moving parts of the con come together for a high action conclusion.

Pretending to Be Erica is the perfect choice for readers who like their heroines to be as intense and unexpected as their mysteries. A fast-paced yet introspective story about a con, a heist, and a girl doing the best she can to save herself when it start to feel like she could lose everything.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, Thieving Weasels by Billy Taylor, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud was one of my favorite reads of 2016. Raised by a conman who is the only father she's ever known, Violet has been preparing to become Erica for almost as long as she can remember. Now the time has come. Plastic surgery has smoothed out the differences in their appearance, years of practice and preparation do the rest. Becoming a dead girl is surprising easy once Violet is returned to Erica's family. All Violet has to do now is keep the lie going long enough to steal the Silverman Painting that every Vegas criminal has dreamt of scoring themselves. Violet thought she was ready to become Erica. But it turns out pretending to be someone else is much harder when you want the lie to be the truth. Pretending to Be Erica is an engrossing thriller and a sleek heist story. But it's also a story that's all about a girl learning to be kind to herself and forgive herself. You can also see the beautiful card here that @thatsostelle made for me this year (including an appropriate pep talk to cut myself more flask!). I've framed the card and the book is on my shelves already, but I love seeing them together here. Definitely add this backlist title to your to read list if you're a mystery fan. #bookstagram #bookishfeatures #goodreads #instabook #instareads #igreads #booknerd #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #bookaddict

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March: Book Three: A Graphic Novel Review

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate PowellThe March trilogy is a graphic novel series telling the story of John Lewis’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. When March: Book Three (2016) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell begins in September 1963 with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Although this novel focuses on Lewis’s experiences with him as the narrator and, of course, biographical information from his own life, this story also takes a wider lens to look at the movement as a whole. Lewis is the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whose younger members are feeling disillusioned with the more mainstream activists who often take credit for SNCCs moves while sidelining their role. SNCC is on the verge of fracturing from within, and violence is increasing in the south as Lewis and others make plans for Freedom Vote and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

March: Book Three is a thoughtful and engrossing conclusion to a trilogy that is already being hailed as a modern classic. This final installment was the 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature and the 2017 Printz Award winner.

Although it is the third part of a trilogy, most of this story makes sense on its own. Readers with a basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and history of the time may have an easier go diving into this story than those without that background. Because this book is so visual, I will admit that I had a hard time identifying key characters early on which, I think, is partly from coming to this book without reading the earlier installments.

Lewis and Aydin have worked together to create a narrative that focuses on Lewis’s life experiences and his own changing feelings about SNCC and the movement as a whole. At the same time, the scope and breadth of the movement–the far-reaching hopes and the devastating violence–are also emphasizes both with the narrative text and with Powell’s moving illustrations and dynamic panel layouts.

The black and white illustrations work extremely well to highlight the injustice the Civil Rights Movement was fighting. The lack of color in the illustrations also has the interesting effect of flattening a lot of the skin tones and underscoring how similar we all are. Powell does a good job filling each panel and page with movement and action. Some of the panels are a bit frenzied but it’s a deliberate choice at key moments.

Having March: Book Three framed as a story told in retrospect was also a very effective choice. Readers go into this story knowing that Lewis makes it through–he survives–and also seeing immediately how far things have progressed (and how much work remains). Reading this story through a different lens with more immediacy to the narrative would have been unbearable and often devastating in the wake of the loss and danger faced by Lewis and everyone else in the Movement. I read this graphic novel near the 2016 election and it was very poignant and bittersweet to see the power of the vote in action while also realizing how much was undone in 2016 and how much still must be done.

While this book functions as a larger history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it’s also important to remember that this series is also an autobiographical text in many ways. Because of that, this story does set aside and gloss over certain moments. This selective focus is a flaw of any biographical text and it makes sense in the context of this series as the focus is clearly and deliberately on the main events and players of the Movement. That said, it is interesting to note the way Stokely Carmichael’s comments about women’s only position in SNCC being prone was glossed over. I am sure it was seen as a joke by a lot of people then (and still) but the way it was sidestepped here just highlights how anyone, even with the best intentions does have an agenda and bias in terms of scope and how events are presented. It’s also worth noting that this story stops short of SNCC’s dissolution and Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

March: Book Three is a powerful conclusion to a trilogy everyone should read. This series deserves every bit of praise it has received. It is a rare series that occupies the space between academic reading for school and pleasure reading quite comfortably. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson, X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Week in Review: April 15

missprintweekreviewThis week on the blog you can check out:

Spring might finally be here! I may die of shock.

It was very nice to be able to walk around at lunch or after work. I am getting ready for my training next week and all is going to plan though it’s been the kind of week where I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough.

This week I read Scott Westerfeld’s new comic Spill Zone. It’s a lot of fun and if you want to read most of it early, the comic is being posted online in six page chunks here: http://www.thespillzone.com/

I also read Piper Perish which was charming. Right now I am halfway through Flannery by Lisa Moore. I think I’m liking it. The style is unique and it’s not as light as I had expected but it’s holding enough of my attention that I am going to finish it.

Here’s my latest from Instagram:

Now is the time for fearlessness. ✏️🖌✏️🖌✏️ Piper Perish and her best friends Kit and Enzo have been dreaming of moving to NYC for art school since they started high school. After years of feeling like she's been living in the wrong place, in the wrong decade, senior year is finally here and Piper's days in Houston are numbered. But after a disastrous New Year's Eve dance and a painful breakup, Piper's senior year isn't exactly going how she planned. As new challenges and obstacles threaten her hopes of following in Andy Warhol's steps in NYC, Piper has to find strength in her art and herself as she chases her dreams. ✏️🖌✏️🖌✏️ Piper Perish is one of Chronicle's biggest YA releases this year (and Cagan is one of the nicest authors if you see her at a signing). How far would you go for your dreams? ✏️🖌✏️🖌✏️ #bookstagram #goodreads #instabook #instareads #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #booktography #bookblogging #bookblogger #bookphotography #books #kaylacagan #piperperish #junofilter

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If you you want to see how my month in reading is shaking out be sure to check out my April Reading Tracker.

How was your week? What are you reading? Is it warm and springlike where you live?

Let’s talk in the comments.

Poetically Speaking about The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking. Check back every Friday in April to chat about poems with me.

Gliding through the still air, he made no sound;
Wing-shod and deft, dropped almost at her feet,
And searched the ghostly regiments and found
The living eyes, the tremor of breath, the beat
Of blood in all that bodiless underground.

She left her majesty; she loosed the zone
Of darkness and put by the rod of dread.
Standing, she turned her back upon the throne
Where, well she knew, the Ruler of the Dead,
Lord of her body and being, sat like stone;

Stared with his ravenous eyes to see her shake
The midnight drifting from her loosened hair,
The girl once more in all her actions wake,
The blush of colour in her cheeks appear
Lost with her flowers that day beside the lake.

The summer flowers scattering, the shout,
The black manes plunging down to the black pit —
Memory or dream? She stood awhile in doubt,
Then touched the Traveller God’s brown arm and met
His cool, bright glance and heard his words ring out:

“Queen of the Dead and Mistress of the Year!”
— His voice was the ripe ripple of the corn;
The touch of dew, the rush of morning air —
“Remember now the world where you were born;
The month of your return at last is here.”

And still she did not speak, but turned again
Looking for answer, for anger, for command:
The eyes of Dis were shut upon their pain;
Calm as his marble brow, the marble hand
Slept on his knee. Insuperable disdain

Foreknowing all bounds of passion, of power, of art,
Mastered but could not mask his deep despair.
Even as she turned with Hermes to depart,
Looking her last on her grim ravisher
For the first time she loved him from her heart.

Sometimes finding a new poem is a bit like magic. My mom and I have a Tuesday night ritual: we watch mysteries on PBS. Recently that has included The Doctor Blake Mysteries which is set in 1959 Australia and follows the eponymous Doctor Lucian Blake as he investigates murders around Ballarat in his capacity as police surgeon. Anyway, it’s a great show and The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope was a pivotal part of this week’s episode. Despite being fascinated by the myth of Persephone since I was a teen, I had never encountered this poem (or the poet) before. I was relieved when I later found the entire thing online (having heard only the last stanza on the episode).

“The Return of Persephone” doesn’t focus on the usual part of the Persephone myth in that it doesn’t start at the beginning. We don’t see Hades get struck by one of Cupid’s arrows (at Aphrodite’s urging) and fall in love with Persephone. We don’t see him kidnap her although it is alluded to in the middle of the poem. We don’t see Demeter’s search for her daughter and the subsequent famine when she refused to allow anything to grow until her daughter is returned to her. Hope doesn’t even show Persephone eating a pomegranate seed forever binding her to the underworld for half of each year.

Instead Hope assumes readers have that knowledge coming into the poem beginning at what is typically the end of the story. The bargain has been struck and Persephone now splits her time between the underworld with Hades and the world above with her mother Demeter. Hermes is coming to bring Persephone back to the land of the living.

I really like that even with a knowledge of the myth, this poem feels unexpected. When I read it for the first time I didn’t realize we were starting with Hermes’ arrival and the revelation feels like a shock–the same jolt Hades and Persephone must have when they realize it’s time.

Hades is, to put it mildly, kind of awful. He kidnaps Persephone and holds her captive. Depending on the version of the story you read he also rapes her and then, to add insult to injury he forces her to eat a pomegranate seed to bind her to him forever. Hope hints at that here when Persephone looks back on Hades and thinks of him as “Lord of her body and being” while he watches impassively from her throne.

I also love the third stanza as it describes Persephone’s transformation back into the maiden of spring as she prepares to leave with Hermes and the way it seamlessly blends into the next stanza about her initial abduction.

And then we get to the end of the poem. Persephone is leaving with Hermes but she’s also watching, waiting, to see if Hades will try to stop her (again) or if he will react at all. And maybe it’s my abiding love for this myth or maybe it’s Hope’s deliberate choice, but it feels like Hades has resigned himself to this parting. He closes his eyes to it and let’s it come to pass. He’s used forced, he’s schemed, but he has to let Persephone go and now he’s left with only “deep despair” as she goes to Hermes and prepares to leave.

Writing this I’ve also realized that my love of Persephone’s story is all folded up with my fascination with Fire and Hemlock–one of my favorite books of all time. In it, Jones offers up a sly retelling of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer borrowing elements from various versions of the story. Like Hades in Hope’s poem, Polly–the heroine of Fire and Hemlock–has to make a choice to let someone go (though Polly’s intentions are purer and her choices stems from hoping to save Tom and not a mandate issued from the gods). As Polly let’s Tom go she realizes with striking clarity that it has to be forever because “To love someone enough to let them go, you had to let them go forever or you did not love them that much.” And Hades doesn’t do that, of course, because Persephone will be back in half a year.

But it still gives Persephone pause. “Looking her last on her grim ravisher  / For the first time she loved him from her heart.” I love this last couplet. It’s the reason I tracked down the poem after hearing it on Doctor Blake. Hope cuts right to the heart of the dynamic between Persephone and Hades–all of the problems, all of the reasons it’s such an enduring story–in those two lines. Persephone looks at Hades and she knows everything he has done, all of the horrible things that she can’t forget or forgive, but she also sees him letting her go and regretting their parting. For the first time she’s seeing that there might be more to him. Because of that choice to let her go and the vulnerability in watching it, Persephone cares for the first time. It’s such powerful imagery. I can’t stop thinking about it and it is but one of the reasons I absolutely love this poem.

Have you heard of A. D. Hope? Was this your first time reading “The Return of Persephone”? What did you think of it? Am I crazy for thinking Hades has some redeeming qualities (or at least the hint of some)? Let’s talk in the comments.