American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I’ve read both negative and positive reviews of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The controversy piqued my curiosity and I read the book. After finishing, I have to say that some of the outrage by the Latino community was warranted, but that didn’t make it a horrible read. 

The action begins right from the first page. A shoot-out at a quinceanera barbeque—ok, stop right there. Anyone who knows anything about Mexican culture will tell you that relegating the formal pageantry and coming-of-age ceremony of a quinceanera to a backyard barbeque, with potato salad no less, is sacrilege. 

The cartel, naturally, is the aggressor, the target, a journalist’s family. Since Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, the scenario seems plausible. However, describing the shooters as “the modern bogeymen of urban Mexico”, well, the boogeyman isn’t a Mexican creature, but maybe the author meant El Cucuy. 

Mexican currency at the time American Dirt was written.

Lydia and her 8-year old son Luca are the only survivors of the massacre. Knowing she can’t rely on the police, Lydia flees with just a few things she takes from her mother’s house. She pays the hotel’s 4,000 pesos deposit with four pink bills—hold up. The pink bills are each worth 50 pesos each, so she actually pays 200 pesos. The color of money is mentioned again when Lydia needs to pay 10,000 pesos. She lays down 7 pink, 2 orange, and one blue bill, so that would be well, I don’t know. Are we playing Monopoly here because there aren’t any orange bills in Mexican currency?  Maybe the orange ones are the 100 peso bill? 

The head of the cartel that Lydia and her son must hide from is known as La Lechuza, who according to Lydia’s husband could have been the next Bill Gates–really, what’s wrong with a reference to Carlos Slim here? Yes, the criminal leader of the big bad cartel organization is called La Lechuza, just like the popular children’s song, although there is no reference to this song in the story at all. Since the song is about putting people to sleep, it would have certainly added a creep factor if nothing else. 

Lydia comments that La Lechuza is a terrible name since owls aren’t scary. However, it’s common knowledge in Mexico that la lechuza is often a precursor of death, a bad omen, certainly no laughing matter. But again, none of this was mentioned in the book. 

There were more references that just took away from the authenticity, an Italian meal in San Miguel de Allende (not carnitas), ginger ale (not Coca) stored in the Abuela’s basement (who has a basement?), police officers dreaming about pot roast (not tacos), a girl from Honduras looking like an Aztec (not Maya) warrior, the journey measured in miles (not kilometers), using the word vertedero (not basurero), drinking water from the tap (just not done) and so on. 

However, despite it all, I have to admit it was an engaging read. From the get-go I was invested in the outcome, as implausible as some of it seemed. But then again, it was a work of fiction, a fantasy of sorts, so it was ok. Anyway, if you are looking for something that not only provides an exciting adventure but also tests your knowledge of Mexican culture in an alternate universe since it depicts neither an authentic Mexico nor a typical migrant experience, well then American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is just the ticket. 

Calling Myself Home: Living Simply, Following Your Heart and What Happens When You Jump by Robin Rainbow Gate

There were several things that resonated with me personally in the memoir Calling Myself Home: Living Simply, Following your Heart and What Happens When You Jump by Robin Rainbow Gate. Although I didn’t have her more privileged childhood, I too, heard the call to Mexico and found myself home in this rural, brilliantly colored land. 

The author studied herbal lore extensively, learning at the feet of some amazing herboleras (herbalists) on both sides of the border. The book thus is divided into sections that coincide with the concept of the Medicine Wheel, as understood by the Native Americans and Mexicas. 

There is considerable time devoted to the author’s childhood and early memories. At first I was frustrated, ready to get to the journey in Mexico. However, as I read, I realized that in order to understand how the author came to be where she was, it was important to see where she had been. 

The author’s life as she settled and embraced Mexico was as fulfilling as you’d expect. She described her wanderings in mountain villages, frustrations with a new way of learning, experiences with unknown sights, sounds, and tastes and her gradual growth as a person as a result of these things. 

Delightfully, at the end of the book, there are self-reflection questions so that the reader too can devise a plan to live life more fully. Honestly, there aren’t many women who would or could follow in the author’s footsteps. However, we each have our own path to follow, some of which cross the mountains and deserts of Mexico. The questions provide an excellent starting point for anyone looking for a more authentic life. Perhaps you’ll too find Mexico calling.

Click here to read more about Robin Rainbow Gate.

Yucatán with Kids: A Travel Guide

Mexico Cassie has done it again. The author of Moving To Mérida: How To Successfully Move To Mexico As A Family has created an excellent guidebook to exploring the Mexican state of Yucatán with kids, naturally called Yucatán with Kids: A Travel Guide. 

This book includes pronunciation assistance for the Mayan place names you will be visiting. It highlights the best beaches, cenotes, and archaeological sites to take your kids. It does a great job of giving pertinent information, like how difficult the cenote is to access, so that you can plan accordingly. It also includes information on haciendas, natural spaces, caves, and inland cities and towns you can take your children, including Mérida and Valladolid. 

Towards the end of the book, Cassie includes two road-trip suggestions for traveling in Yucatán state and surrounding areas. There are notes on food, national festivals, safety and tips for traveling with children. As a guidebook for families with children exploring the area, it can’t be beat.

There were some editing issues that kept me from giving this book the highest rating, however. These are probably things that won’t bother the average reader, but I’m picky. First, the author says she wasn’t going to include pictures because most people would be reading an e-book version. What’s a guidebook without pictures? Since the majority of locations were places the author herself has visited with her family, I’m positive she has oodles of lovely images. And you can absolutely use pictures in e-books. It takes more time formatting, but it would have taken this book over the top.

Note from the author: Photos to accompany the book are on my website, a formatting decision that may not work for everyone but makes the book more affordable and given that most travel books are now sold as ebooks, works well.

Then there were some terms that were mistranslated, although they were understandable errors. The first was Río Lagartos which she informs her readers means Alligator river. No, it doesn’t. The word lagarto translates as lizard in English. Since the crocodiles that live there do indeed resemble very large lizards, Lizard River was an apt name. 

Note from the author: The story about crocodiles and alligators does not come from me but is something told by guides and locals in Río Lagartos.

Another term that caught my attention was the word sarteneja which the author said translated as cistern. The Spanish online dictionary defined sarteneja as another term for bache (pothole). Further research informed me that sartenejas were crevices of naturally found water deposits. So I expect this is a Mayan term that originally referred to areas where water collected and now is used to talk about the structures that hold water. In my area, these are called aljibes and in areas more central in Mexico, I’ve heard the term pila. 

The third mistranslation was concerning the local sun god, Kinich Ahau. The author goes through the etymology of the word, stating kin means sun, ich means face and ahau means lord or priest. However, ich translates as both face and eye in Mayan. As most representations of the sun god have a sun literally in the eye of the carving, k’inich is thought to be more accurately translated as sun-eyed, rather than sun-faced. 

There were also some proofreading errors that should have been corrected before this book was released. In some places río (river) and ría (estuary) were used interchangeably and lacked accents. Then, when listing culinary delights, she mentioned chicharra and castacán as pork dishes. Well, castacán is indeed a local pork dish. However, chicharra is the word for cicada. While cicadas are, in fact, a delicacy in Mexico, they taste more like shrimp than pork, according to sources who have tried them. I believe the word she meant to use was chicharrón, pork rind. 

Note from the author: It is necessary to point out that chicharra is, indeed, a correct term for chicharron in Yucatán.

Towards the end of the book, it felt like I was reading the author’s travel notes rather than a guidebook. Sentences were incomplete, months and days were abbreviated, capitalization and accents became randomized and well, it felt rushed. There were some items that could have been explained a little better. For instance, she mentions Pueblos Mágicos. Anyone living in Mexico would know that she referred to select towns that received revinalization money in recent years to encourage tourism. However, travelers to Mexico might not have that information. 

All of these petty little negatives should not take away from the fact that as a guidebook for families with children who wish to travel in Yucatán state, Yucatán with Kids: A Travel Guide is top-notch. Available on Gumroad and Amazon.

I received an ARC from the author.

Ordinance 53 by Sarah Flores

Ordinance 53 by Sarah Flores is a collection of nine short stories that certainly entertain the reader. The subjects range from mundane office life and free doughnuts to a supernatural painting in an abandoned house. The endings are often abrupt and unexpected, making you blink in surprise and go back to reread the story. 

I would love to see these stories turned into novelettes. The descriptions are vivid. The dialogue (both internal and external) is realistic. The themes are unique and unpredictable. More! More! More!

What did the little girl in Happiness do next? How did Nancy get through her day? What happened during the meeting in Promotion? Where did all that blood come from in Camping? And what happened to Saint Peter and the doberman lady in that room? These stories gave me so many things to imagine, which I imagine was the author’s intent. 

If you are looking for a quick and imaginative read, then Ordinance 53 by Sarah Flores is for you.

You can read more about Sarah Flores here.

Travels with Grace by Erma Note

Travels with Grace by Erma Note is an excellent introduction to Mexico City for children. Its vivid illustrations are captivating. The story revolves around Grace, a bilingual girl living in Mexico City who shows her American cousin, Connor, around town. 

Everyone can learn about central Mexico’s food, culture, attractions, and language with Conner. Teachers will appreciate the discussion questions at the end of the book for further reader engagement. 

Travels with Grace will make a great gift for the young explorers in your life!

Click here to read more about Erma Note.

A Love to Mend Her Broken Heart: A Historical Western Romance Novel by Etta Foster

I wouldn’t have picked A Love to Mend Her Broken Heart: A Historical Western Romance Novel by Etta Foster up to read had the author and I not shared a name. In an effort to meet my 2020 Reading goals (although now 2021), I thought I’d give it a try. 

Daisy Monroe decides that marrying a rancher through a mail-order bride service will help her family’s finances. En route, a stage coach robbery traumatizes Daisy. The first on the scene is handsome Henry Thomas. When Daisy finally gets to town, her intended isn’t the type of man she would have chosen as a husband, but a deal’s a deal. Before the wedding date, romantic feelings between Henry and Daisy bloom. But Daisy has a secret that she isn’t sure an upstanding man such as Henry would want to know. 

Although the story wasn’t exceptional, the idiomatic expressions the author used were riveting. Flannelmouth, nailed the matter to the counter, acknowledged the corn, having a hog-killin’ time, bone orchard, threw up the sponge and countless more made deciphering the dialogue a bit of a puzzle. These terms certainly added to the feel of authenticity of this Western love story. 
So, despite the tired old story of a mail-order bride who finds love, I found A Love to Mend Her Broken Heart: A Historical Western Romance Novel by Etta Foster an interesting read after all. Perhaps you will too!

Saving Cassie by by L.A. Remenicky

April’s 2021 Reading Challenge was a paranormal romance. While I expect those Vampire/Mortal romances would fall into this category, I went with Saving Cassie by by L.A. Remenicky. There are no vampires, shapeshifters, or witches in this small-town romance. On the other hand, there are demons, ghosts, and a seer or two. 

Cassie Holt returns to Fairfield Corners, where everyone, except the new Deputy, knows her. Strange things are happening in the house she grew up in and inherited from her grandmother. Her best friend, the Chief of Police, lives next door with his family, but even he is unable to protect her from supernatural death threats. All of the current problems stem from a cult leader that killed Cassie’s parents when she was just six years old. Even though that man is dead, a demon has been unleashed and is stalking her. A romance blossoms between Cassie and the new Deputy, but will he be strong enough to save the woman that he loves?

I appreciated that this book was a romance, rather than just a paranormal book. It kept the gore to a minimum. Without the supernatural element, the book follows the girl returning to her hometown and falls in love plot. There were a few lurid sex scenes and some tense paranormal interactions. Overall, it was a light and easy read.

I would have liked more descriptions of the town, grandma’s house, and the bookstore. The action moved along quickly, perhaps a little too quickly in parts. Some sections seemed a bit rushed. But, for a small town romance with a twist, you can’t go wrong with Saving Cassie by by L.A. Remenicky.

An Inkling, A Backpack and All the Time in the World–Traveling on a Whim by Tamara K. Bryant

An Inkling, A Backpack and All the Time in the World–Traveling on a Whim by Tamara K. Bryant was one of the more innocent backpacking stories I’ve read. Although partying was high on the author’s list of accomplishments as she traveled through Southeast Asia and Australia, she wasn’t looking to hook up with randomly met individuals or get high. Cute little drawings could be found throughout the story, but no pictures of the amazing things she saw.

There were ​just a few editing issues that should be addressed. A number of words had apostrophe ‘s when they should be s indicating plural. Then there was the repetition of the author’s introduction “mat backwards” which was cute the first time, but the joke got old fast. Another unnecessary repetition was the author’s sense of superiority when people scrambled to get off the plane. Just because the author had all the time in the world and could miss a connecting flight or ride from the airport on her leisurely travels didn’t mean everyone had that luxury.

As with most backpacking chronicles, the author enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow travelers. However, her immaturity was evident. Dumping a glass of water on a person in her hostel room because he complained about her 6:00 am noise certainly broke the unwritten consideration laws. Not recognizing the fact that one of her travel companions was interested in being more than friends is another example.

Some of her off-the-trail adventures could have been disasters. A female solo traveler can find herself in dangerous situations even when she takes precautions that the author didn’t even consider. The author was fortunate in her choice of travel partners and locations.

Overall, An Inkling, A Backpack and All the Time in the World–Traveling on a Whim by Tamara K. Bryant was a fun read. The author has a personable storytelling ability. The places she visited were unique. It’s hard to resist her zest for adventure. It’s a nice gap year narrative, which in the current limited travel situation we find ourselves in because of COVID-19, makes a pleasant armchair adventurer book.

I received an ARC from the author for this review.

Hidden by Lisa Sell

For decades, Jen Taylor believed she had killed her classmate Kelly in an altercation on the railway tracks. An email from Kelly’s mother reawakens all that Jen thought she had buried. Jen reluctantly agrees to look into the matter for the dying mother. This means revisiting her own childhood trauma, something she has attempted to avoid at all costs.

The story leaps back and forth between the present and the past, not necessarily in a linear manner. Clues to what really happened to Kelly are scattered like breadcrumbs throughout the narrative. Even if you think you have it pieced together, odds are you won’t get it just right. I know I didn’t. 

Having experienced the 1980s myself, I enjoyed the attention to detail that the author employed—references to songs, artists, current events, devices, and even clothing styles. Not being British, I also appreciated the cultural explanations, especially at the beginning of the book when describing Rembrandt Estates. 

I had some difficulty keeping track of the children and their parents in parts of the story. I’d have loved a genealogy or even a map of the housing development and its relation to the train tracks to help me keep everyone straight. But then, I’m a visual person. Other people might not have this problem. 
Hidden by Lisa Sell is a mystery you’ll enjoy solving alongside Jen.