From Publishers Weekly
With the money he makes burning down houses as part of an insurance scam, Julio Santana, 29, a reluctant professional arsonist in Spanish Harlem, strives to make a better life for himself and his parents in this heart-on-its-sleeve novel of urban Latino life by Quiñonez, author of the critically acclaimed Bodega Dreams
(2000). Despite his ambitions to make good—he's also in night school and working an above-board demolition job—Julio is wary of the gradual gentrification of his beloved neighborhood, which takes a personal turn when white girl Helen moves in downstairs. Her swings from condescension to belligerence are rather jarring (and not entirely credible), but Julio falls for her and embarks on a doomed relationship. Meanwhile, his old friend Maritza is running a church on the ground floor of his building, which she uses as a front for anti-AIDS crusading and shady immigration dealings. Erratic plotting jolts the reader from one neighborhood drama to the next, as Julio wrestles with questions of identity and ethics. But when he's blackmailed by his boss into doing one last arson job, a plot twist lets him (and Quiñonez) take the easy way out. Quiñonez has a comfortable familiarity with his turf and the catchy Spanglish most of his characters speak, but he tackles too much in this sometimes preachy, sketchy novel.
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"New York City, like the country it's in, is a place that promises you everything but gives you nothing," contends Julio Santana. So the young man struggles to save his crumbling piece of Spanish Harlem even as he works for Eddie, an insurance-fraud specialist responsible for destroying much of Julio's neighborhood. Hanging onto the notion that "in America, it's where you end up that matters, not how you get there," Julio hopes to pay for night school and fix up the apartment building floor he owns by setting fires for Eddie and watching over the old man's unacknowledged son. Soon, though, the flames from Julio's hidden life threaten to consume everything he has worked for--along with his parents; his Santeria priest friend, Papelito; and gallery owner Helen. In his searing portrait of a community at the tipping point, Quinonez ably illuminates the sordid politics of gentrification and the unexpected places new immigrants turn to for social and spiritual support. His exploration of the often misunderstood Santeria--the title references the religion's trickster god, Chango--proves especially fascinating. Frank SennettCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved