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[Book Review] Agave Blues by Ruthie Marlenée

by A.E. Santana

Maya Miller, née Hildalgo, is the strong, independent woman who has built a life on hard work, dedication, and ignoring her problems—including her failing health. Yet the worries and issues she has been disregarding finally demand her attention when her teenage daughter living in Mexico calls to let her know that Maya’s father has died. Relying on her strength (and stubbornness), Maya returns to Jalisco, Mexico, to deal with her father’s death and legacy, her inner demons, but may also find the salvation she has been avoiding.

Agave Blues by Ruthie Marlenée is a novel steeped in magical realism that deals with themes of grief, trauma, forgiveness, and faith. Marlenée works these themes into Agave Blues as the story moves along, serving up Maya’s history and how she came to be so detached from her family and herself—and her journey of self-discovery and healing. Agave Blues is also a ghost story and a love story wound together by the landscape of rural Mexico.

A beautifully flawed character, Maya’s emotional walls can only be broken by the supernatural occurrences she experiences. This allows for the magical realism to have a true place in the story, pushing Maya and the plot forward. The fantastical elements also assist in highlighting topics of dysfunctional family dynamics, skeletons in the closet, and grief. Grief and healing are at the heart of this book, which Marlenée does an incredible job of squeezing into almost every character, including Maya’s daughter, Lily, and Maya’s love interest, Antonio.

The setting creates a place for Maya to experience growth, community, and support. With landscape being such a large part of the story, Marlenée’s descriptions produce a breathtaking image of the Jalisco countryside. This imagery spills over to the way the characters talk about the landscape, with reverence, awe, and love. The setting solidifies the structure and foundation that Maya has been missing, constructing a magical backdrop to the painful realizations Maya must accept about herself and her family.

Marlenée also effectively incorporates Spanish into her prose and dialogue. Language, like the landscape, is an integral part of the characters’ lives. While Maya has turned away from the pain of her past, la sangre atrea—the blood calls you back. The use of Spanish blends Maya’s two worlds: life in America as a high-powered lawyer, and the Mexican small town and agave farm she grew up on.

Agave Blues is a novel with poignant and relatable themes, especially for readers who are of Latin descent or have struggled with their own trauma and family histories. So, while this book is recommended for those who are interested with Latinx voices, ghosts of the pasts, family dramas, and magical realism, readers should be aware of—content warning—topics of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

An ode to magic realism and the storytelling that permeates Latin American culture, Agave Blues tackles complicated themes wrapped up family, faith, and healing.

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A.E. Santana is a Southern California native who grew up in a farming community surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. A lover of horror and fantasy, her works can be found in Latinx Screams and other horror anthologies. She is the managing editor for Kelp Journal & Books and the moderator for The Thing in the Labyrinth, a horror book club. A.E. Santana is a member of the Horror Writers Association, a board member of Full Circle Players in Riverside, California. She has participated in several horror panels, including "No Longer the Scream Queen: Women’s Roles in Horror." She received her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Riverside's low-residency program. Her perfect day consists of a cup of black tea and her cat, Flynn Kermit.


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