The Earthquake Machine by Mary Pauline Lowry + e-book giveaway (ends April 20!)



The Earthquake Machine rocked my world. It will rock yours too. 

Serious summary of The Earthquake Machine by MAry Pauline Lowry: This tells the story of 14-year-old Rhonda. On the outside, everything looks perfect in Rhonda's world but at home Rhonda has to deal with a manipulative father who keeps her mentally ill mother hooked on pharmaceuticals. The only reliable person in Rhonda's life is her family's Mexican yardman, Jesus. But when the INS deports Jesus back to his home state of Oaxaca, Rhonda is left alone with her increasingly painful family situation.

Determined to find her friend Jesus, Rhonda seizes an opportunity to run away during a camping trip with friends. She swims to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and makes her way to the border town of Boquillas, Mexico. There a peyote-addled bartender convinces her she won't be safe traveling alone into the country's interior. So with the bartender's help, Rhonda cuts her hair and assumes the identity of a Mexican boy named Angel. She then sets off on a burro across the desert to look for Jesus.

Thus begins a wild adventure that explores the borders between the United States and Mexico, adolescence and adulthood, male and female, English and Spanish, and adult coming-of-age and Young Adult novels.  

Giveaway Time! 
Author Mary Pauline Lowry, approached me with her debut novel The Earthquake Machine for review. Seeing that colourful cover with Latin folkart, I had an inkling that this was going to be interesting read at the least. That is probably the understatement of the year!

Mary Pauline Lowry has also offered a copy of her e-book to give away to one of my readers! We still have a few days to go. If you haven't already joined in the giveaway, you can still put your name in for the draw on April 20. Just fill out the Rafflecopter [giveaway has ended].

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The book in one sentence: A young girl's adventure of self-discovery ... in all its glorious angst. 

A note about the covers: That illustration on the original cover is one of Catrina, which figures prominently during the Day of the Dead. I am Filipino, a culture which has been strongly influenced by the Spanish, so naturally the cover and the Latin references not only resonated with me, they captivated me. Add to that my fan huge fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his style of magical realism.
The original cover.
The new cover.

This may not be the popular sentiment but when I saw that new cover, I felt deflated. What happened? I can see how the new cover will definitely reach out to the YA market, but it doesn't quite capture the spirit or the depth the way the original cover does. Anyway ... read on for my thoughts ...

This is a novel of the adventure of self-discovery ... in all its glorious angst.
Remember how it was growing up? Growing up is such a complicated business -- the uncertainty, the vulnerability, and how overwhelming it all is. This is so vividly captured in 14-year-old Rhonda's character as she deals with so many changes happening in her life: her changing body, her nagging worry for her ill mother, her desire to break out and become her own person. 

Rhonda takes you hostage on her harrowing journey, making you privy to her rollercoaster ride of emotion and turbulence in such a short period of time. My heart just went out to her. It is an intense and honest read: Lowry writes with no filters, so don't read with blinders. That Rhonda comes out strong and with a newly discovered understanding of herself ... I couldn't help but heave a huge sense of relief upon finishing the book.

I'd sum up The Earthquake Machine as a more mature version of Are You There God, It's Me Margaret by Judy Blume, a 1970s coming-of-age which became a "challenged" book in the US. Upfront, I didn't realize that The Earthquake Machine was under the Young Adult genre. In fact there has been quite a bit of buzz about it being inappropriate under this genre because of explicit sex scenes bordering on erotica, an interesting take on boyhood sexual rituals, and some foul language. So tread with caution: this has sex scenes but they are not there for the sake of it, they are essential to the story. 

For those who love the YA genre, this is not your usual YA novel. I feel that a more mature reader will appreciate the beauty of this story. I personally would not let my 14-year-old read it (the daughter's not that age yet) but maybe later in her teens. However, if you feel that your teenage is mature enough to handle the subject matter, it may open up some very good conversations about sexuality and self-discovery.

The title alone should give you an idea of the germ of this book; it is used both metaphorically and literally. Yes, there is an actual "earthquake machine" in the book and discovering what it was just made me laugh!

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Lowry tackles some very complex themes in this book with her beautiful, fluid writing. I truly appreciate the layering of these themes, making for a rich and fulfilling reading experience. There are very interesting juxtapositions explored throughout, with Lowry often challenging these dualities:

Male and female.
Rhonda shedding her femininity and becoming the male Angel (pronounced Ung-hel in Spanish) put her in touch with her tougher side - she became Angel not just physically but emotionally. There are also some subtle commentary on the roles and the place of both men and women in society, and even challenging stereotypes.
Angel picked at her food. A struggle raged inside her. Her hunger urged her to eat, even if it meant filling out and inhabiting the cage of a girl body. - p. 199

Real or imagined.
There are extremely strong religious references, drawing mainly from Roman Catholicism and the devotion to the Virgin Mary, combined with Latin folklore and superstition. Then there are the drug-induced moments of "enlightenment." Rhonda explores her belief in the supreme being, in fate, in superstition, and in what she believes to be true.
"So you pray to her, like she's God, only she's a woman." Rhonda felt excited, as if she was on to something big, but she was also frightened by what she said. [...] God was male--that was one thing adults had always seemed sure of. - p. 82

Life, death, rebirth. The death of Rhonda, the new life of Angel, and finally the rebirth of Rhonda ... Rhonda's character comes full circle. Death and life is a recurring message.

Death had become the thing of wreck and ruin, the thing that came too soon. [...] Angel had been sure that death was always some unwelcome, premature demon. But looking at Genevieve, she could see that it was sometimes a blessing, an inevitability that one could crave like a sweet. - p. 221

Biological family and kinship. Where biological family does not translate to support and a sense of belonging.

English and Spanish cultures. Two very different languages, two different cultures, two different worlds with different beliefs -- shaping peoples' expectations, and aspirations.

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**Spoilers start here**
 
Loved:
  • The characters make this so memorable! Aside from Rhonda/Angel, I loved the feisty women bandits who took on names of vegetables (Cebolla sounds so much more romantic than Onion!) -- unforgettable characters who made me laugh and cringe all at the same time. Such a concise and metaphorical way of describing women! I also found the old woman Genevieve a wonderful way to show what it means to live life!
  • The are also many wonderful references to Mexican art and it's a treat to hear about Mexican folkart, art in general, and story of renowned mural artist Orozco.
Disliked:
  • The culminating sexual encounter because it was between a 14-year-old and a much, much older man. Though it was essential for closure, it disgusted me. However, being disgusted with the subject matter doesn't mean that I can't see the context for it.
  • That there are no translations of Spanish words - it didn't really bother me too much, but I can see some people struggling with this.  
**Spoilers end here**

First line: Everything in Rhonda's house was beige. Beige rooms, beige couch, beige table and chairs. Even the painters whose landscapes hang on the wall had been stingy with their palettes.

Last line: And when the sky began to darken to purple, they packed up their trash and folded the pink quilt Rhonda's mother had made for her. They left the Virgin glowing in the deepening dusk and walked slowly back to the car.

Verdict: A rich, nuanced and unfiltered recounting of a 14-year-old girl's adventure to self-discovery, exploring and challenging sexuality, religion and culture.

Check out Mary Pauline Lowry's website!

I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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