Monday, May 14, 2007

Underneath It All

Book Review and Author Profile

By Daniel A. Olivas

Margo Candela deserves the lion's share of accolades for her debut novel, Underneath It All (Kensington Books, paperback $14).

She is, after all, the one who put in the hard work to create her smart, successful and sexy protagonist, Jacquelyn "Jacqs" Sanchez, the fictional personal assistant to the wife of a fictional San Francisco mayor.

Candela also went through the arduous task of finding a literary agent who was a good fit for her. And let's not forget the time and energy spent creating a Web page to introduce herself to the world.

But Candela also can thank one other thing for her success:


Not Candela's insomnia, though she might have suffered a few sleepless nights along the way to getting published.

One evening, Sulay Hernandez, Candela's eventual editor at Kensington Books, couldn't get to sleep, so she decided to do Internet research. That's how she "stumbled" upon Candela's Web page at 3 a.m. Hernandez liked what she read, sent an e-mail to Candela, and within a few days obtained the manuscript from Candela's agent, Jenoyne Adams. Hernandez loved the book, and Kensington bought it a short time after.

Though Candela says that her characters are purely fictional, her cultural background as the daughter of Mexican immigrants imbues her novel with a realistic flavor. The California locales also ring true, which is no surprise: Candela, the middle of five children, was born in Los Angeles and then headed north to San Francisco to attend college. She eventually moved back to Los Angeles, where she now lives with her husband and son.

Aside from insomnia, Candela owes much to her mother, who spent part of her childhood in El Paso before settling in Los Angeles as a young woman (Candela still has relatives in El Paso and other parts of Texas).

"I wasn't sure how to translate wanting to write into an honest job," Candela said. "When I mentioned this to my mother, she wondered why I wouldn't do something in the realm of writing, since I seemed to enjoy it so much."

Her mother's gentle but insightful suggestion took root. When it came time for Candela to transfer out of junior college, she enrolled at San Francisco State University and majored in journalism. This put her on the road to becoming a published author.

Underneath It All is fast-paced and funny, the literary equivalent of "Sex and the City" meets "The West Wing" but with a decidedly Latino flavor.

Candela's protagonist is by no means perfect. Yes, Jacqs has the brains, beauty and fashion sense to maneuver through the political and personal shenanigans of her boss, a former soap opera star turned big-city mayor's wife. But Jacqs still suffers the pain of a failed marriage and just can't help looking for love in all the wrong places. And then there's the culture gap between Jacqs and her more traditional parents back home in Los Angeles.

What advice does Candela offer to aspiring writers? "Treat the whole experience as a business," she said without hesitation. "You have to invest time and effort and also make sacrifices to get anywhere in life, and writing is no different.”

"A healthy dose of pragmatism doesn't hurt either, but aim high."

Hernandez, Candela's editor at Kensington, obviously knew a good thing when she saw it: "What I loved most about Underneath It All is that it's so many things -- it doesn't have a formula. It's funny and yet touching. There were so many aspects of the heroine and family that reminded me so much of my own life."

While Hernandez might still suffer from insomnia, Candela shouldn't lose any sleep worrying about what readers will think of her novel. Underneath It All is a winner, pure and simple.

[This review/profile first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

◙ In yesterday’s El Paso Times, I reviewed two new books. First, the University of Texas Press brings us What Wildness Is This: Women Write About the Southwest ($19.95 paperback) edited by Susan Wittig Albert, Susan Hanson, Jan Epton Seale and Paula Stallings Yost. The other book is Elena Poniatowska's Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution (Cinco Puntos Press, $12.95 paperback). Both books are powerful and compelling in their own specific ways.

◙ Also in yesterday’s El Paso Times is Rigoberto González’s cautionary essay on an endangered species: the Sunday book review page. González notes that the “National Book Critics Circle has launched a campaign to bring notice to a devastating trend: the reduction, or even the complete removal, of the book review page from the country's newspapers.” He continues: “The campaign was made especially urgent with the Atlanta Journal Constitution's recent decision to downsize its book reviews section, eliminating the role of acclaimed book review editor Teresa Weaver, and diminishing the communication between writers, critics and readers.” If you are concerned about this trend, please read González’s article to learn more. González has been reviewing books for the El Paso Times since 2002. He is serving a three-year term on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

◙ In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Gustavo Arellano (of “Ask a Mexican” fame) reviews Sam Quinones' latest collection of chronicles, Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration (University of New Mexico Press, $24.95 hardcover). Arellano notes, in part:

“The book jacket includes a quote by author Luis Alberto Urrea praising Quinones as a ‘border legend.’ The phrase would be overkill if it weren't true. Over the last 15 years, he has filed the best dispatches about Mexican migration and its effects on the United States and Mexico, bar none. His first book, ‘True Tales From Another Mexico’ (2001), features Popsicle kings, drag queens and the late Chalino Sanchez, the norteño singer from Sinaloa who transformed Mexican music from his new home in a Los Angeles suburb and remains the most influential but unknown Angeleno of the past 25 years. This new collection continues in that vein, focusing on Mexico's outcasts, the men and women who can't find an honest chance in their mother country and chuck it all away for the promise and danger of El Norte.” Visit Quinones' website for more information.

◙ Speaking of the Los Angeles Times, David Ulin, book editor for the Times, offered a mixed but thoughtful review of Columbian writer Laura Restrepo’s new novel, Delirium (Nan A. Talese, $23.95 hardcover) in the Sunday Book Review.

◙ All done! So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro!


Manuel Ramos said...

Daniel: great post, as always. In regards to your note about Rigoberto Gonzalez's article about the demise of the newspaper book review page, readers might also check out the May 6 issue of the Pluma Fronteriza blog. Ray Rojas has an interesting take on reviews and reviewers, especially of Chicano/a Lit. Ray points out that other media are replacing the traditional newspaper book review role, but he also makes a case for what he calls "tougher" and "more courageous" critics.

Anonymous said...

there was also a fine review by dagoberto gilb of quinones' book on the front page of the books section of the sf chronicle two weekends ago.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Daniel, another one out of the ballpark! Can't wait to get my hands on the Poniatowska book...and the link to your reviews are really appreciated.

I also agree with Manuel about the importance of the Gonzales mention...I think that Ray Rojas might find some of those courageous columnists here....

Anonymous said...

Escribe en español, que horror escribir en inglés. El español es mucho mejor y más bonito, y más si se es de origen latinoamericano (afortunadamente), tía.