Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Carlos Hernandez; Anthony Rey Perez, narrator (Listening Library 978-1-98484579-5, $27.50, digital download, 9.5 hr., unabridged) March 2019.
Once again, I’m bending the general rules for this column to review a middle-grade book; suffice it to say that adults will not regret spending time engaging with it, whether or not they have tweens in their lives.
Twelve-year-old Sal, a clever aspiring stage magician, has just moved to Miami with his father and “American Stepmom” and enrolled at a wonderful middle-grade school for the arts (we all wish we could go to Culeco Academy, trust me). For better or for worse, after he’s confronted with a bully, Sal falls back on the one trick that goes beyond mere prestidigitation: Sal can reach into an infinity of parallel universes and pull stuff out of them. The appearance (and subsequent disappearance) of a dead chicken in the bully’s locker disturbs the more superstitious students, who now believe he’s a brujo (witch), and stirs up the relentless investigatory zeal of Gabi Real, student council president. Can Sal keep a lid on his power, which also keeps calling up different versions of his dead mother and might also be slowly destroying the fabric of spacetime? Is Gabi a dangerous enemy… or potentially the best friend he could ever ask for in any universe?
I hope that many people will have the charming experience of attending a live reading by Hernandez, particularly if he’s accompanied by his wife, author and audiobook narrator C.S.E. Cooney, who enacts the role of the locker with the chicken. But those who aren’t fortunate enough to witness such a performance will be more than satisfied by this rendition of the novel by narrator Anthony Rey Perez, who ably handles various flavors of both American English and Cuban Spanish. Perez provides believable kids’ voices, which I always think is the hardest skill for a narrator to master. I also enjoyed his rendition of unflappable custodian Mr. Milagros’s slow and cautious, “Bue… no.” This is a book in love with language, that’s stuffed with expertly targeted monologue and dialogue, which is even better when read aloud. Not only will listeners pick up some great Cuban Spanish vocab, there are also plenty of new and appealing kinds of invented English slang to be had. I think we all should get in the habit of calling an idiot a “sandwich,” and a truly colossal idiot a “submarine sandwich.”
The book is part of an imprint headed by Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson books, which is dedicated to publishing diverse books from a variety of cultures. This particular volume is a genuinely feel-good novel that is not saccharine in any way. I especially admire the way that Hernandez smoothly incorporates a polyamorous family into a middle-grade book: Gabi’s mother and many “Dads” are simply delightful and accentuate the book’s message of how love and acceptance can support a person through even the toughest of situations.
Sal’s home universe isn’t perfect: bad things do happen. But I think I’d like to live there, if offered the opportunity.
This review and more like it in the July 2019 issue of Locus.
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