Thursday, June 17, 2010

Review: Efrain's Secret by Sofia Quintero

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 3/15

I've been dying to post about this one for almost a week now. I discussed some of it with Ari of Reading in Color on Twitter after she finished, but I wanted to get my Nerds Heart YA decision up first so I could make some comparisons between The World is Mine and this, which I coincidentally read shortly after.

Efrain has one goal in life: to be accepted into an Ivy League school. He knows it's an uphill battle: he has no college fund; he's Latino; and even though he's poised to be Valedictorian at his Bronx high school, does class rank really matter when your school doesn't even offer calculus? But the final nail in the coffin appears to come in the form of his SAT score - 1650, far below the average score for Harvard's incoming Freshmen. With a mother that works around the clock just to keep a roof over his and his little sister's heads and a deadbeat dad who moved in down the street with his mistress, Efrain feels like he's at a dead end. Until his old friend Nestor, a high school drop out and current drug peddler, offers to hook Efrain up with a job like his. It's hard work, long hours, and fraught with danger from the cops and rival dealers, but the cash is tax free and it's all for the noble goal of escaping epidemic poverty, so it's okay, right?

Complicating Efrain's life even more are his relationships with his best friend Chingy and potential girlfriend Candace, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina with an overprotective mother. Efrain knows neither would approve of where he's getting his cash, and chooses to keep both in the dark, hoping to keep his secret until he has enough cash to pay for an SAT prep course, re-take the test, and start paying for college with the help of loans. But once he starts peddling drugs, working up from marijuana to the harder stuff, will it really be that easy to get out?

Oh Efrain, Efrain, Efrain. So many times I just wanted to grab him by the shoulders and tell him that no matter how daunting life seemed, selling drugs just wasn't the way to solve his problems. Of course, then there wouldn't be much of a story, would there? Quintero keeps this from falling into a re-hash of an after-school special with dynamic dialog and engaging characters. Nestor, who paves the way for Efrain to join him in the drug peddling business, is an absolutely terrific character. He's neither a stereotypical street kid nor a thug with a heart of gold - rather he's somewhere realistically in between. He alternates between being goofy and serious, a buddy to Efrain and a no-nonsense dealer. I almost want a book about Nestor's story!

The comparison I wanted to make between this and The World is Mine all comes down to the dialog. There are a lot of differences between these two books, but one major thing they have in common is the use of lots of slang. However, The World is Mine called a lot of attention to the slang by interpreting it for the audience, which drew me out of the story constantly and seemed to make it clear the book wasn't actually intended for anyone who might really speak that way. Efrain's Secret, in contrast, hardly translates anything at all. There are even short bursts of dialog in Spanish that go untranslated for an English-speaking audience. Since I speak about three words of Spanish, I had to rely on the context and character reactions to even have a clue what was going on, but it really added another layer of authenticity to the story. It reminded me of one of the things I loved best about the early seasons of Lost, when parts of Jin and Sun's conversations in Korean would go un-sub-titled. It was a great storytelling device then, and it works just as well in Efrain's Secret.

Efrain's Secret is a solid story that jumps up a notch on the basis of great characters and an engaging and immersive writing style.
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