Sunday, November 1, 2015

Dia de los Muertos / Sugar Skull by Denise Hamilton


History of Day of the Dead ~ Dia de los Muertos

The following information is from MexicanSugarSkull.com.
Day of the Dead is an interesting holiday celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the chilly days of November 1 & 2. Even though this coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Soul's & All Saint’s Day, the indigenous people have combined this with their own ancient beliefs of honoring their deceased loved ones.
They believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.
Mexico, abundant in sugar production and too poor to buy fancy imported European church decorations, learned quickly from the friars how to make sugar art for their religious festivals. Clay molded sugar figures of angels, sheep and sugar skulls go back to the Colonial Period 18th century.
There is a lot of information at that site. Please check it out. The FAQ page has information on how sugar skulls are made and about the Day of the Dead.


Sugar Skull, the second book by Denise Hamilton featuring Eve Diamond, LA Times reporter, starts out a few days before Dia de los Muertos. The celebration features prominently in the plot.

The review at Publisher's Weekly provides a good overview:
[F]eisty Los Angeles Times reporter Eve Diamond is anxious to advance from the Valley to a more prestigious desk downtown. She gets her chance when, while writing the roundup of weekend murders, she's confronted by a man frantic to find his runaway daughter. Then the nude body of beautiful socialite Venus Della Viglia Langdon, wife of mayoral candidate Carter Langdon III, turns up in the couple's pool. These two seemingly unconnected occurrences reverberate across the vast urban sprawl that is home to one of the country's most diverse populations. The Mexican Day of the Dead festivities are in progress, and the little sugar skulls given to mark the occasion appear in the strangest places. Eve is soon immersed in the down and dirty worlds of runaways, a high-powered political campaign and the exploding Latin music scene—and caught up in a torrid affair with Silvio Aguilar, son of a music-industry tycoon and Venus's brother.
What I liked:
  • The depiction of Los Angeles and surrounding areas.
  • The portions of the story that dealt with teenage runaways.
  • The portrayal of a strong female character with flaws.
  • The pacing. Kept me entertained and interested.
  • Not cozy at all but not depressing or downbeat either.
I enjoyed reading this book mainly due to its depiction of LA: the culture, politics, crime, and the Mexican-American community. And I think that part of it is excellent. The author lived there, she grew up there, and she was a reporter for many years. Yet, I have a hard time connecting with Eve Diamond and her propensity for getting involved with the people she interviews for stories. I have never found journalists as sleuths a very believable scenario. Nevertheless, I plan to read all of the Eve Diamond books.

The first book in the series, Jasmine Trade, is about "parachute kids," the rich Asian teens who live alone in California while their parents run businesses in Hong Kong. Last Lullaby is set in the world of international adoptions and drug smuggling. Savage Garden explores the theater scene. The fifth book in the series, Prisoner of Memory, is set among L.A.’s Russian immigrant community. I think all of those topics are going to be interesting.

I am fascinated by Denise Hamilton's background and how she has used it in her books and shared her knowledge of LA.

From an interview at The New Mystery Reader:
I’m a first generation American. My mother was a Russian/French immigrant and we spoke French at home. My husband’s parents were immigrants. His mother lives with us and we speak Spanish at home because she’s more comfortable with that language. So a multicultural, multi-ethnic society is second nature to me. Plus living in LA, in a suburb that is majority minority -- heavily Armenian, Russian, Korean and Latino  -- it just feels right. As to poverty, we didn’t have much money and I had academic scholarships all through school or I wouldn’t have made it, so I know that world too, though certainly not the dire poverty of some of my characters. Still, it’s never escaped me that so many people on this planet struggle just to survive, and that our materialistic society often overlooks these people, at least in popular culture. I know that what I write is popular culture – if my books don’t entertain you and keep you up way past your bedtime, then I haven’t done my job. But while I’m writing page-turners, I’m also interested in talking about marginal characters whose struggle is utterly compelling to me, whether it’s caused by poverty, race, class, ethnicity, crime or a mixture of these.
 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Scribner, 2003 
Length:       295 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Eve Diamond #2
Setting:       Southern California
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.


Photo by Nathaniel C. Sheetz at Wikipedia Commons. 


18 comments:

  1. TracyK: The images of sugar skulls are striking. Have you seen any in real life?

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    1. Bill, to my knowledge, I have not. I have seen the Dia de los Muertos altars, and they may have had sugar skulls, but if so, I do not remember. I would love to see a real one.

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  2. Tracy, I can see why you don't prefer journalists as sleuths unless, of course, their investigative reporting helps them solve cases. It has to be convincing in order to be believable.

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    1. Prashant, I have problems with amateur sleuths in general in mystery fiction. I think that journalists would find information that the police would not find and I think their curiosity would lead them to further investigation. So I think the abilities are there but somehow those types of mysteries never seem realistic to me. I will not stop trying them, though.

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  3. My daughter used to work for Union Settlement, a social service agency in Spanish Harlem and we got to experience this one year. Great food, souvenirs, singing. And thousands of those sugar skulls.

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    1. That sounds great, Patti. The big event here has a lot of music and I think too loud an crowded for me. The college I work at used to have several days where altars were prepared and displayed, but they did not do that this year. I need to research where in the community I could go that would not be large crowds of people.

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  4. I think I totally forgot about this author. She hasn't written anything for a bit. I believe that I read Jasmine Trade a long time ago. It sounds sort of familiar. And I'm pretty sure that I read her last standalone - Damage Control (2011). Your review makes me want to go back and try her again, starting with Jasmine Trade and continuing. Thanks for reminding me about Denise Hamilton!

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    1. I hope you do try them again, Kay, and enjoy them. Damage Control is one I am really interested in, but I figure I should not skip the others.

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  5. What an interesting-sounding story, Tracy! And I like it she has such a solid context for the novel. Thanks, too, for sharing the information about Dia de los Muertos. It's a very big event where I live, and it's always good to have solid information about it.

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    1. Well, Margot, I learned a lot doing the research this year, and from the novel. I never realized the celebration covered two days and why.

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  6. Thanks for the detail on the festival which I've heard of and seen portrayed in film or TV, but don't know too much about. I guess I'll pass on the author and her books - time constraints (and financial)! I used to think you could never have too many books, but I might be eating my words.

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    1. This series might come closer to your tastes than some I read, Col. Plenty of crime and Southern California atmosphere. But I know you don't need more books. Neither do I for that matter....

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  7. I'm having some trouble with commenting so changed up to see if this will get through:
    I've heard of Denise Hamilton and have had her books for years. Thanks for the review and the overview of her novels, Tracy. I hope to read her one day. Looks like her last novel was published in 2011.

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    1. Glad your comment got through, Keishon. I have a lot of authors like that, where I have had their books for years and still not read them. I does look like she has not had a new novel published recently.

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  8. Thanks Tracy - I really like the sound of the various themes and communities being explored - another new author to seek out!

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    1. This book has almost an overwhelming picture of the various cultural groups in LA and also how they are changing over time. And even though I don't care for journalist as sleuth, I like the picture of the newsroom and the interactions of the people working there.

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  9. I'm always fascinated by the Day of the Dead, and the accompaniments. I haven't read this author, but am very struck by the 'personal statement' you quote, and really want to read her now.

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    1. I also enjoy reading about Day of the Dead. Not as many mysteries that focus specifically on that, but I am going to seek them out. I do think the author has a mission in her writing, not to preach or even educate, but to share more knowledge about various communities and the mix of cultures.

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