Hilario Peña – Juan Tres Dieciséis


My rating: 4 1/2 stars

Hilario Peña’s Tijuana is a place where danger lurks around every corner, corruption is rampant, relationships are complex and often secret, loyalty is a rare commodity, and love conquers all.

Tomás Peralta is older and wiser than the tough kid who was chased out of Sinaloa a few years ago in Peña’s earlier novel Malasuerte en Tijuana. He has established himself as a private detective, and he needs all of his experience, instinct and luck to handle the cases he takes on in Juan Tres Dieciséis.

Juan Tres Dieciséis is a rising boxing superstar who has the good, or perhaps bad, fortune to be named after the bible verse John 3:16. His wife was recently murdered, and he is the prime suspect. It looks like an open-and-shut case for the police, but he hires Tomás to find the real murderer. There are many distractions along the way, though, that take Tomás from the highest to the lowest levels of Tijuana society. There are murderers, conniving women, revolutionaries, corrupt government officials and doctors with questionable ethics. Lorena Guzmán, the eponymous Mujer de los Hermanos Reyna, Peña’s terrific earlier novel, makes a memorable appearance. She has done well for herself, and is still unrelentingly sexy, and profoundly corrupt.

Peña never gives me what I expect, and that’s why I always enjoy his books. What started out to be a routine genre novel detoured into a skillfully written memoir of an up-and-coming young boxer, with some of the most riveting action sequences I’ve ever read. The author clearly loves the sport. From there, the book returns to the detective story, but it’s far from routine. The plot complexities and character development are laid on layer by layer, and build to a truly unexpected climax.

Juan Tres Dieciséis is a gripping noir novel, liberally laced with laugh-out-loud humor and that cynicism tempered with hope and optimism that is so unique to the Mexican sensibility.

I had a great time reading it.

Hilario Peña – Chinola Kid


My rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Rodrigo is trigger man for a big-time Tijuana gangster, but he’s going through a career crisis. When he realizes his boss has manipulated him into one last job in a backwater town in his native Sinaloa, Rodrigo’s career crisis blossoms into a full-blown identity crisis. After displaying his prodigious criminal talents while reclaiming his hijacked SUV from the young prince of a local crime family, Rodrigo is ready to ride off into the sunset. But the town makes him an unexpected offer… to become the local sheriff.

That’s the call to action in Hilario Peña’s “narco-western,” Chinola Kid. It’s a wonderfully observed tribute to the traditional western novel, and classic Hollywood westerns such as High Noon.

Devastated by the ongoing turf battle between the families that hold the local heroin and marijuana franchises, Rodrigo sees an opportunity to embrace his inner good-guy, and clean up the town. Deadly earnest, he posts the new rules, starting with a 100 peso fine for spitting in the street, another for using bad language in the presence of women, and so on through an escalating list of offenses. His is a zero tolerance system of enforcement.

As we explore Rodrigo’s successes and challenges as the local law man, Peña gives us a cast of vivid characters, and makes them real through extensive use of colorful dialog.

Enforcing black and white rules in a gray world is not destined to last forever, despite Rodrigo’s refusal to be discouraged by betrayal, or to grasp opportunities for corruption. The climactic showdown becomes inevitable, but Peña uses it as an opportunity to ponder the very nature of power. I came away with the observation that nobody is ever really the boss, because every boss in turn has his own boss.

A well-constructed fun read, filled with memorable characters.


Desde Amazon:

“¡Vaqueros vs. narcos!”

Los habitantes del Tecolote apenas pueden creer el cambio que ha sufrido su pueblo en los últimos meses, el cual pasó de ser la población con más asesinatos por metro cuadrado en el mundo, a convertirse en un verdadero ejemplo de bonanza económica para el país. Uno de los factores que contribuyeron a este nuevo estado de las cosas podría ser la determinación de un comisario elegido democráticamente por sus gobernados para hacer cumplir su ley, que no admite transgresiones de ningún tipo.

Rodrigo Barajas es su nombre y la primera impresión que uno se lleva al mirarlo es la de encontrarse frente a uno de esos alguaciles del Viejo Oeste, de pocas palabras y mucha acción, con su bigote a lo Wyatt Earp, su sombrero Stetson, y esa mirada serena, reflexiva y sabia que pertenece a una especie de hombre en peligro de extinción.

Apreciable lector, en sus manos sostiene un auténtico narcowestern, una “vieja historia del Nuevo Oeste” en deuda con las películas de Kurosawa, Howard Hawks y el libro vaquero; construida sobre valores perdidos como el honor, la valentía y la decencia, ideales para combatir el cinismo de los días que corren.

Antonio Ortuño – La Fila India (Indian File)


My rating:  5 Stars

Every Central American immigrant to the United States has to pass through the entire length of Mexico to get there. On the way, they are routinely subjected to abuse, first by their own countrymen, and then by Mexicans. They are often robbed, extorted, raped, beaten and murdered. The process is highly organized, probably protected by corrupt officials, and decent Mexican citizens apparently turn their heads and look away. We hear about the most egregious cases, like the mass graves found in Tamaulipas a few years ago, but it is a daily occurrence, and the victims are human beings.

This is the subject of Antonio Ortuño’s novel La Fila India (Indian File).

The story focuses on Irma, a government social worker sent to help quietly clean up the political embarrassment of a massacre involving Central American immigrants who were supposedly under the care of an aid organization. Irma arrives in the fictitious southern town of Santa Rosa with her young daughter, prepared to march in “indian file” behind her superiors, following the party line… until the situation gets complicated.

Irma’s job is to expedite compensation of the families of the victims, and repatriation of the survivors. In the course of her work, however, she gets to know a young woman who narrowly escaped the massacre, and begins to wonder why there is no effort to find those responsible for the murders. This concern grows as she develops sympathy for the investigative reporter she is supposed to be discouraging. Dragged along in the whirlwind of the young victim’s desire for revenge, and the reporter’s passion for justice, Irma finds herself at the center of a situation far larger and more dangerous than she could ever have dreamed.

The main characters are vividly imagined, and richly developed. Irma is distracted by caring for her daughter, and carrying on a telephone battle with an angry ex-husband, but finds time for a flirtation with a handsome young man at the office. The husband and the young man develop into complex characters who move the plot and the underlying theme in unexpected ways. Supporting characters include another Central American woman who is subjected to a different kind of abuse, the oddly controlling café owner, the head of the government delegation, and characters from the local underworld. And, of course, the investigative reporter, who has a surprising lack of people skills.

The themes of the book are very powerful. It is largely a story of racism, opportunism and corruption, but it goes much deeper, making us look at our own complexity, and the darkness that lies somewhere in all of us. The desire for truth is balanced with the urge to turn and look away. Finding justice competes with the urge for revenge. The instinct to help the helpless conflicts with a deep-seated inclination to take advantage of them.

Ortuño is a journalist by background, and has turned to fiction more recently. This is a hugely successful merging of journalistic coverage of an important subject into the form of a very entertaining and compelling thriller. The book has received a lot of attention, and has been on everyone’s top ten list for 2013. Absolutely justified, in my opinion.


A fin de repatriar a las víctimas de una masacre, una joven funcionaria es enviada a un pueblo perdido en el sureste de México. Primer error: mudarse allí con su hija de siete años. Segundo: abrirle las puertas de su casa a una sobreviviente. Tercero: averiguar que un grupo criminal se ensaña contra los migrantes centroamericanos. Y cuarto: tratar de resolver una sencilla pregunta: ¿por qué a nadie parece importarle? Compuesta como un caleidoscopio que registra todos los tonos del sarcasmo, La fila india es la novela de madurez de Antonio Ortuño. Una historia apasionante, a medio paso de la novela negra, que nos ofrece un grupo de personajes inolvidables, una prosa difícil de igualar y la mirada de un autor que registra cómo se descomponen las relaciones entre un individuo cualquiera y el país en que vive.

Liliana V. Blum – No Me Pases de Largo (Don’t Pass Me By)


Short stories are not usually my favorite format. In my experience, either they lack depth, or they’re so abstract that they leave me saying Whaaaaat? Either way, I tend to find them unsatisfying. On the other hand, I’ve loved many of Paul Theroux’s novels, even though they are really short stories addressing specific themes. That’s what Liliana Blum has done in her collection No Me Pases de Largo… and I was very satisfied.

I was curious that the stories are named after Beatles songs, and the cover art features the Fab Four, even though I didn’t see an obvious connection. Later, I was embarrassed to learn that the collection is very appropriately named after the song from Sergeant Pepper “Don’t Pass Me By.” Meanwhile, I found myself singing “All you need is love…” and that made a light bulb turn on in my head. The stories are about love – finding love, losing love, looking for love, running away from love – but these are most definitely not love stories.

The common characters in each of the stories are friends Noelia and Moira. Taking turns at front and center or in the background, we see a complex relationship developed over many years between two very complex 30-something women. This is what really connects the stories, and we see the various ways they support each other and protect themselves through a confrontation with a lover’s wife, the realization that an early love affair was a sham, the loss of “Mister Right” due to a foolish indiscretion, and dealing with the long-term effects of an earlier love affair.

I haven’t read all of Liliana Blum’s work, but this is by far my favorite of her story collections. The good news is that it is in both Spanish and English. I read a couple of the English versions, and found Michael Parker-Stainback’s translation to be fluid and accurate.

Guillermo Arriaga – Un dulce olor a muerte (A Sweet Scent of Death)


Several years ago, I saw the film version of Un dulce olor a muerte at the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival. Starring a young Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también), it was oddly cast with actors from a wide variety of countries, and an equally odd conglomeration of accents. While it was incongruous to have such an international cast in a rural Mexican locale, the story was compelling and wonderfully executed, from a screenplay adapted by Arriaga from his novel.

We know Guillermo Arriaga from his writing of such films as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, but he has written a series of powerful novels, and wrote and directed the tragically overlooked film “The Burning Plain” starring Charlize Theron and (yes) Jennifer Lawrence. Un dulce amor a muerte is Arriaga’s first novel.

A young man is overcome with a variety of emotions when finds the naked body of a pretty girl in a field outside the village. Although he has only seen her a few times before, the villagers jump to the conclusion that she was his girlfriend, and Ramón is too distraught to correct them. Compounding the confusion, the girl’s family gives him her diaries, and he comes to believe that he is the secret lover she wrote about.

Meanwhile, the villagers and the police focus on who to blame for the murder. There is a surprising lack of interest in actually solving the crime, so it doesn’t take too many self-serving lies and exaggerations to settle on a guilty suspect. Nor does it take long to agree on the justice to be exacted, and that Ramón should be the instrument of that justice.

The tension mounts throughout the entire novel, as a headlong collision between an innocent man and a naive village becomes increasingly inevitable. Only a handful of people are in a position to change the course of events, but each has his or her reasons to stay silent. It comes down to the very last page to see the final outcome.

A tightly written, suspenseful story filled with well-realized characters.


Una mañana muy temprano, Ramón descubre el cadáver de Adela en unos campos de avena cerca de Loma Grande. Ramón apenas había visto a Adela en un par de ocasiones, pero en el mismo instante en el que el muchacho cubre con su camisa el cuerpo desnudo de la muerta, comienza a difundirse el rumor de que Adela era su novia. A partir de ese momento, los hechos se irán desencadenando irremediablemente y Ramón se verá obligado a vengar la muerte de la joven. Su corazón es quien le obliga actuar, su corazón y un pueblo entero que se convierte en el protagonista de la novela, en el creador de una ofensa y de una venganza inevitable. Un dulce olor a muerte es una novela fascinante en que la pasión y el orgullo dictan cada una de las decisiones de los personajes, la venganza se convierte en destino y la verdad se muestra en su faceta más ambigua y demoledora.

Juan Villoro – Arrecife


My rating: 4 1/2 stars

La Pirámide is the only successful hotel in a resort area that failed disastrously when all the others gave up fighting the engineering catastrophe that required constant import of sand from Cuba to replace the entire beach that washed away on a weekly basis.

The key to the resort’s unique success is “extreme tourism” in which visitors can engage in daredevil sports activities, but can also find themselves kidnapped and beaten by guerillas, or risk encounters with deadly snakes. The genius behind the concept is Mario Muller, but he has to be careful, because the hotel could easily be worth more to the owners as a money-laundering vehicle.

When Mario reaches out to his lifelong friend, ex-rocker Tony Góngora, and brings him to this fantasy land, Tony thinks he has found a safe refuge from reality, much safer than the drugged half-life he had been living for many years. Tony is holding on in the midst of the ruins of his life, much as the hotel is holding on in the midst of the ruined resort area. Even in this unreal environment, he still remains isolated, refusing to become involved, until an act of violence strikes rather close to home. And it turns out Mario has a much grander plan to up the ante, and force Tony into the bright glare of reality and personal engagement.

This is literary writing at its finest, as we have come to expect from Juan Villoro. It is a difficult task to make a story of a failed life in a failing environment interesting, even if the possibility of redemption lies at the end, but Villoro is more than capable of pulling it off. I first discovered him when a reviewer called his novel El Testigo “the great Mexican novel.” I’ve read many Mexican novels since then, and I know I’m not alone in placing Villoro at the very top of his profession.


Hubo un tiempo en que las playas eran un sitio de descanso. En la época del turismo extremo los viajeros necesitan otras emociones. El ex rockero Mario Müller descubre una visionaria posibilidad en el Caribe: los placeres del miedo. Y a orillas de un inmenso arrecife de coral edifica La Pirámide, resort que ofrece peligros controlados hasta que un buzo muere fuera del agua. Reflexión sobre los daños que elegimos para intensificar la vida, esta apasionante novela describe una nueva ecología: el cambio climático vacía los hoteles y el lavado de dinero los regenera como emporios fantasma. Pero Arrecife también es una historia de amistad, amor y redención. Villoro, uno de los mejores escritores latinoamericanos, otorga realidad a una utopía: los problemas de ese paraíso son las virtudes de una novela excepcional.

«Esas atmósferas ominosas que tanto nos recuerdan por momentos a las ficciones apocalípticas o fantasmagóricas de Ballard. Los diálogos tienen esa sequedad irónica de las mejores respuestas y observaciones psicológicas de un Chandler. Arrecife es una novela perfecta a la hora de sincronizar el desdén por la vida que se inflige el narrador y el esfuerzo casi titánico, agónico, de un moribundo Mario, el amigo capital, por indicarle la ruta de su salvación definitiva. En esta magnífica novela de Juan Villoro no hay tiempos muertos» (J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, El País).

«Lúcida y poderosa lectura del pasado y presente, donde el terror, el sacrificio de los dioses y el mito se confunden» (J.A. Masoliver Ródenas, La Vanguardia).

«La prueba irrefutable de que uno está ante un escritor de fuste reside en esa envidiable capacidad para cambiar de temas y registros cuando todo parecía dirigido a volver sobre lo mismo» (Ricardo Baixeras, El Periódico).

«Villoro se ha basado, para su libro, en ese fenómeno sadomasoquista de nuestra civilización que lleva a ciertos turistas del mundo desarrollado a disfrutar de un fin de semana en un campo de concentración o en una mazmorra de la Inquisición. Lo que él ha hecho es darle a su ficción unos tintes étnico-mítico-telúricos que la hacen totalmente verosímil… Una magnífica novela» (Iñaki Ezquerra, El Correo Español).

Bernardo Fernández, Bef – Cuello Blanco


My rating: 4 1/2 stars

Andrea Mijangos is back. Sadder and wiser, but still intensely loyal to family and friends, she’s intent on revenge, but this time she has the financial resources to do something about it. In her cross-hairs is Lizzy Zubiaga, the beautiful cartel leader who revolutionized the Mexican drug trade in Bernardo Fernández Bef’s lively previous novel, Hielo Negro. Cuello Blanco is a fun mix of genres, intertwining a gumshoe private detective investigating a very ordinary crime that may or may not have taken place, with busting a massive international money-laundering scheme with the dubious help of the American FBI and DEA.

The characters are outrageous, but at the same time well-realized. Former cop Andrea isn’t afraid to rough up a team of French flics, but also unwittingly stirs up the most basic instincts in the men she meets. “If you lived in the 1950s, you’d be a movie star” … “No, I’d be a wrestler, helping Santo fight mummies and vampires.” And Lizzy Zubiaga, while yet again revolutionizing Mexican organized crime, is into cosplay, extreme performance art and vicious murder, and has a truly frightening attitude to relations with the opposite sex.

The action is almost non-stop. There are murders – by gun, by knife, by explosion… even by sexual over-stimulation. There is a complex financial fraud, a Balkan arms deal, shocking performance art, a gang war and an explosive climax. You know, all the things you’d expect from a Bernardo Fernández, Bef novel.

A fun read!


Óscar Salgado, dueño de la casa de bolsa Blue Chip, es secuestrado y amenazado para obtener la información financiera de Lizzy Zubiaga, la reina de las drogas sintéticas. Ella decide entrar de lleno al negocio del lavado de dinero junto con Salgado y su socio, Alberto Suárez. Su plan: crear un banco internacional para criminales de alto nivel. La única persona que puede detenerla es la ex policía Andrea Mijangos, con su nueva agencia de detectives. Mientras tanto, al otro lado de la ciudad, un misántropo dibujante de cómics aparece muerto en un cuarto cerrado por dentro, sin aparente violencia ni móvil. Son los primeros casos de Mijangos como investigadora privada, quien sigue obsesionada por ver a Lizzy tras las rejas. Ayudada por el Járcor, su ex compañero de la policía judicial, y con la ambigua amistad de Henry Dávalos, agente de la DEA, Andrea se verá cara a cara con traficantes de armas rusos, bandas de asaltabancos armenios y traficantes de tabaco albaneses en la segunda entrega de esta trepidante serie. Con el estilo único de Bef (Premio Grijalbo de Novela 2011 por Hielo negro), que combina lo mejor del género negro con elementos de la cultura pop, Cuello blanco es una novela explosiva que estallará ante los ojos del lector.