The House of Broken Angels: A Book Review

As I have jumped head first into this whole “being a serious writer” thing, I’ve exposed myself to pretty incredible literature that I can’t believe I’ve been missing. I think I’ve mentioned before that I had a decades-old habit to only read old classics, or best sellers long after they’ve lost their new book luster. I think I had some twisted sense of responsibility to catch up somehow with all the books I’d missed before I read the new stuff. Like that makes sense, or is even remotely achievable. Along with featuring new publications in my book reviews, I’ve been listening to several podcasts about the current goings-on in the literary world and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been starving myself. Yes, the classic greats will always be great, but there are some truly incredible authors living right now, publishing right now, creating right now, that are simply too good to miss.

That is my disclaimer and poor excuse for never having read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea until now. Holy cow, can this dude write. I mean, it says “Pulitzer Prize Finalist” next to his name on the cover, so I should have known, but sometimes there’s a certain…pretentiousness in books with that honor…or books even close to that honor. There was nothing pretentious about this book. The House of Broken Angels is humble even in its striking beauty.

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The story spans two days with the De La Cruz family as they come together for a final birthday celebration for the ailing grand patriarch Big Angel. A week before the party, his mother passes away at nearly a hundred years old sweeping the family up in a blur of reminiscing and dreaming of what the future holds.The partitions between the aging generation that made their way to America from Mexico in their youth and the younger ones who barely speak Spanish are blurred, as the De La Cruz house bulges with familia and theatrics of emotion.

A slow read, its lingering sentences draw you to read them again just to bask in their light. This is a book you read a bit at a time, letting each moment sink in before you continue. The structure reminds me of music composition. The first third of the book serves as an overture, explaining the scope of the story, introducing themes and revealing backstories of the many players. You are then submerged in a dance of perspectives as you jump from character to character, what they see and experience in the forty-eight-hour period. You fall in love with their individualities, their simple pleasures and jagged pains, known, but not acknowledged by the others.

I felt entirely immersed in the culture of this family, each person so distinct but part of a powerful whole that leapt from the page. I stopped reading at one point and announced to my husband, “This man needs to write a screenplay.” The dialogue and simple painting of the picture are so pure and perfect I couldn’t help but make small exclamations of pleasure, adoring the very act of reading his work.

This is not what I would call an easy book, but it’s not hard either. The language is easy, the story is a meandering family fable with sharp gut-checking moments when a revelation hits true north. A stunning story that deserves to be savored for every delicious word. Luckily, it’s written in bite-sized portions, easily consumed in spare moments, but the words will follow you off the page to percolate through your mind long after closing the book.

As fate would have it, while I was reading The House of Broken Angels, I listened to another podcast, not literary-related, yet they referenced and quoted Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway as they spoke about the history of border control and immigration from Mexico. Just the small bits they read were enough to prove that this guy is not a one-hit wonder. I will be reading as much of Urrea’s writing as I can get my hands on.

Research

I have something of a love/hate relationship with the word “research”. On one hand, it can be quite thrilling to pull on the thread of a question into discovery and knowledge. On the other, it can be tedious, frustrating, and downright difficult. Research is a necessary part of writing, though, no matter what you’re writing about. We could go down the road of ethics and research, but I’ll save that for another time. Just suffice it to say, I am not a fan of cherry-picking.

It’s a running joke with some of my writer friends and me to compare the often hilarious and random things we’ve Googled in the name of research. In the age of data mining and internet surveillance, I’m just glad I have written proof of why I look up the things I do…like…data mining and internet surveillance.

Sometimes it’s in the process of pulling the thread that ignites inspiration. An answer to one question leads you to another you weren’t aware of before. And sometimes there isn’t answer readily available. That’s most frustrating when you feel like it’s because you’re not asking the right question. Then there’s the balance of what is worth pulling at, and what’s only serving as a distraction so don’t actually have to write.

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I’m working on a project in the realm of post-apocalyptic and I wanted to know how long the power grid would work without someone running it. I don’t know how that process works. Not a bit. How much is automated, how much requires that someone push a button, how often does that button needs to be pushed? I know I could run after the answers, but ultimately, for my story, I just needed an endpoint for the power. Texas has crazy weather, an entire tornado season. Residents are quite used to various power outages. The quiet heroes that rush out to handle repairs after a storm would get their belated appreciation if they were suddenly not around to fix things up again. Problem solved, research rabbit hole averted.

Other things are important enough to get nitty gritty with. For the same story, I’ve looked at how to siphon gas, and learned that most modern cars are incredibly tricky to collect from. But I understand the mechanics of how it would need to be done. I also know the most efficient way to butcher a chicken, if you’re green to animal husbandry and still want a degree of separation from what you’re doing. Yes, it’s still gross.

It’s important to know these things in detail because it lends authenticity to the story. One could argue that most readers wouldn’t know the difference, but I don’t think that gives your readers enough credit. I couldn’t explain half of the things Mark Watney pulls off in The Martian, but it was perfectly clear to me that the author, Andy Weir, knew what he was talking about. Without the research, his novel would easily have fallen flat. Shortcuts and loopholes are not the way to gain the trust of your audience.

What I’m getting at, is while research might not be the most glamorous part of creating, it’s still an irremovable part of good writing. The senses come alive when the details are true. The inner turmoil of battling your domesticity, years of buying fully clean and butchered meats from a refrigerated cooler at an air-conditioned grocery store, to feed your starving belly, to confront the death required for life — well, it doesn’t become real to the reader or the writer until you can smell the animal, hear it’s cry, feel the strain of muscle as a life is swiftly ended. It’s not always pretty, in fact, it rarely is. Life is messy, and good research aids in capturing the raw realness of it.

The magic happens when you can turn the facts and figures into movements and emotions. When you know how to butcher that chicken, but also how the character lives through it. You know the words she whispers over and over to talk herself into it. You know if she cried during the act, if she waited until she was poised to take her first bite of the bounty, or if she displaced the act entirely and never shed a tear.

Even the most apt writers of emotion and conflict have nothing to react to without the details of circumstance. The children of research and the fodder for creation, it’s all in the details.

I’ll end today by saying that I’ve no clue if any of this is interesting to you. It fascinates me. I could talk about all the tiny little bits of writing all the livelong day. So much of what I share here isn’t profound or even far beyond common sense, but I guess, if nothing else, it’s my perspective. It’s what makes me tick. It is a catalog of all the things I found engaging enough to comment on. So there.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find out how a generator runs and what can go wrong with one.

Children of Blood and Bone: A BONUS Book Review

This is a total indulgence, but I can’t help but talk about this book. It wasn’t what you guys voted for this month – that review is coming up next week – but after all the buzz, I couldn’t wait to read this one! I could hardly put it down during Spring Break, and I haven’t really shut up about it since. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is a debut novel and the first of the Young Adult trilogy, The Legacy of Orisha. It’s a fantasy novel inspired by West African culture, so it combines the familiar feeling of your favorite quest sagas with a refreshing new look at magic and how it works in this intricately created world.

Adeyemi is an incredible talent with deep wisdom and clarity that she steeps into every page. The symbolism is stunning and powerful and the characters are a force to be reckoned with. Perfectly flawed and wonderfully redeemable, you are cheering for these people not just because you fall in love with them, but because you come to care so deeply about their success. Each has their own motives and unique personalities that create a dynamic that feeds the fire from the first page.

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A quick summary: Magic has been dead in the land of Orisha since Zélie Adebola was six. Her mother was part of the magi, a people gifted with a variety of powers from the Gods, but when a vengeful king eradicates them, the whisper of magic fades into nothing.

Now a young woman with a knack for finding trouble, Zélie discovers a way to bring magic back to Orisha. She races against the threat of the King, and his dutiful Crown Prince to restore power to her people. With the help of her brother and a rogue princess, perhaps her deepest desire is finally attainable.

I went into this book expecting it to be decent, but how could it possibly live up to the hype? It far surpassed my expectations, and dare I say…this is the best YA I’ve read since Harry Potter.

You can watch the book trailer here. You can follow Adeyemi on Twitter @tomi_adeyemi and I highly recommend you do. She couldn’t be more charmingly enthusiastic about how her book is being received. There may or may not be a video of her dancing in a wombat suit when Children of Blood and Bone hit number one of the New York Times Best Sellers List…

Please check it out. I’m reluctant to even share that Fox has already bought the film rights because this is something that needs to be read. Adeyemi has told a story that needs to be heard with every bit of richness she brings to the page.

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Terminal A

There’s nothing quite like people watching in an airport. A quiet and cacophonous blend of lives in imagined privacy. The half-sentences muttered as they pass, the small child confused and pulling against their parents’ sudden urgency, the unabashed staring of those like me who sit and observe.

There are noses in books, fingers in noses, crumbs on chairs, and forgotten phone chargers. A gentleman is quietly speaking French to his wife on the phone. He laughs and makes a comment about his mother. I don’t speak French well enough to pick out the joke as he speaks rather rapidly, the ease of a native tongue quickening the tempo of his speech.

A woman produces a deck of cards from the depths of her carry-on to appease and entertain her young son. The hustle of the terminal and the anxiety of impatience eases from his face as the familiar game commences.

Another woman, with deeper lines of age, has an exceptional furrow creasing her face in concentration. She is cleaning the windows that look out onto the tarmac. The monotony of work has jaded the magic of the airport. The thrill most of us still feel at the nearness of travel has long since passed. The secrets of the brick and mortar responsible for the hum of excitement in the air is just that – brick and mortar. A concrete receptacle for her time and effort. She’ll punch the clock and drive away without a glance behind.

As I scribble away, noting the snippets of stories laid before me, the woman seated next to me collects her things and moves a few rows away. I wonder if she’s been snooping and found she doesn’t want to be part of my observances. Too late, lady. I’ve already made a note about you picking your teeth with the edge of your driver’s license. Kept it out after coming through security, I imagine.

My husband travels enough that I know the quiet thrum of anticipation doesn’t occupy his stomach before a flight anymore, but what a shame. How many places or opportunities do we have in life that ignites such wonder? Just another day of flying through the air in a metal machine with several hundred other people. You are infinitely intimate with these strangers for the duration of your flight. You are breathing the same air, eating the same snacks, hearing the same voices speaking louder than is polite in confined quarters. You flinch at the same jumps, gaze at the same incredible views, and sigh at the same rumble of a landing. Once the door opens, you stand in unison into a line that snails until it doesn’t and an avalanche of people rush forth, clipping their elbows and the wheels of their bags on the arms and legs of empty chairs. You disperse without any recognition of the closeness you shared just moments before.

Once you arrive at your destination, the building doesn’t hold the same magic it would, had you not just been hurtling through the air. No, now it’s just the air-conditioned portion of your long walk to the car that will whisk you away from the enchanted roost of the aluminum birds that carry travelers in their bellies for a steep price and stiff knees.

Alright, lady. I’ll stop. But you must understand, you are even more ingrained in my memory now and will most certainly make an appearance in my next book.

Favorite Books: A Wrinkle in Time

I recently took a rare vacation and spent four days with my husband and his family in an A-frame cabin tucked in the foothills of the Sierra Blanca mountains. Beautiful scenery and great company made for a fabulous trip full of adventures, bruises, and lots of reading tucked in bed with my three-year-old sprawled out between my husband and me after long days spent playing in the snow.

Y’all, I went skiing. I actually went snowboarding, too…except that’s generous. I tried snowboarding. Nope, let me try again: I failed to snowboard. I don’t know how people manage that skill. I never even got both feet strapped in…even after a 90-minute class. I managed about six feet worth of sliding prior to falling at my very best and barely stood up without toppling at my worst. It was not for me. Apparently, skiing is my snowy weather sport. It’s much more enjoyable to slide down a mountain with boards strapped to your feet when you can actually manage to steer and stop yourself. No, really. Steering and stopping are the best. All hail Steering and Stopping, forever and ever, amen.

We drove the nine hours to the cabin, so I had an abundance of reading time, which is my favorite part of traveling! As I’m sure you’ve heard, the film adaptation of the long-beloved middle-grade novel by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, was released last week. I’ve been itching for a re-read because it had been ages since my original copy wore out and had to be replaced. My new copy only got me about halfway to New Mexico between pit stops and assisting the threenager with her back seat entertainment, but I required more than a few nudges from my husband to pull me out of that sense-less reader cocoon where you honestly can’t hear the whining for another package of fruit snacks.

I’m hearing great things about the adaptation, and I’m looking forward to a date night with my son to go see it. Like most adaptations, I understand that it deviates from the book to some degree. The trailers alone, show the difference in how some of the main characters look, but the nature of the book allows, or even nurtures, this kind of change.

But enough about the movie, let’s talk about the book!

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I’ll estimate that I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was about ten or eleven. It was assigned reading at my school, something I generally saw as a treat. I loved being introduced to new literature and talking about it with all my friends. Books were not common conversation fodder for pre-teens at the time, and while I was fortunate to have some close friends as bookish, if not more so than I, it was always exciting to have more people to talk books with. In good company with The Hatchet by Gary Paulson and The Giver by Lois Lowry, A Wrinkle in Time was a fast favorite of the grade. It’s the kind of book that encourages even the most reluctant readers into a world of imagination.

L’Engle tells the story of Meg Murry, her brilliant little brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin with the perfect balance of description and ample room for the reader to invent and imagine. She explains just enough of theoretical physics to make the children’s mode of transportation believable without losing the magic of the adventure. The Murry children and Calvin follow a most wonderfully quirky stranger and her two companions on a quest to find the Murry’s missing father and maybe save the universe along the way. With themes ranging from overcoming “otherness” and the power of faith, this 1963 winner of the Newbery Medal is still very much applicable to today’s trials. Still fresh and exciting, with nary a dull moment, if you’ve never read this gem of a book, please allow me to help with that. The passions, fears, struggles, and triumphs of these rich little characters are sure to spark recognition in the parts of you where those same traits dwell.

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High on my list of forever favorites, this book was my first elevated look at fantasy, stepping up from the fairy tales of childhood with clear morals and virtues into something a little more mature. I’d recommend it to readers ten and up. There’s some elevated thinking in this book that may be a bit confusing for the younger reader. If you’ve read it before, but didn’t realize it was the first in a series (like I didn’t, until many years later), make sure to check out the rest in the Time Quintet: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book: “We can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”

Happy reading, friends.