Shimmering sands, sparkling ocean, swaying palms . . . the West Coast beckons. But like anywhere else, the region has plenty of grit among the gorgeousness, a truth that is abundantly evident in these two striking new novels. Despite the ever-bright sunshine, there’s darkness lurking—and in these pages, savvy and smart Latinx women navigate obstacles literal and metaphorical in an effort to achieve balance and, just maybe, justice.
For 18-year-old Viridiana, life in 1979 Desengaño, a small seaside town in Baja California, Mexico, feels endless and unrelenting—like the blazing sun, like the vast ocean. The notion of play or creativity is frivolous, and planning for a different future is scoffed at. Instead, she muses in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Untamed Shore, “There was always duty. Mind-bogglingly dull duty. Duty without rhyme nor reason.”
Still, Viridiana is bright and industrious, finding purpose where she can. She works as a translator and guide for tourists, fulfills her endless duties and dreams of escape—perhaps to Mexico City, where her father fled long ago, perhaps to Hollywood to live among movie stars. For now, she bats away her mother’s disapproval, watches fishermen pile shark carcasses on the shore and plays chess with a local named Reynier, a Dutchman of great intellect and local business connections.
Reynier has a job for Viridiana with three rich Americans taking a summer rental: Ambrose is writing a book and needs a secretary; his much younger wife, Daisy, and her brother, Gregory, want a tour guide. Viridiana moves into the grand home with them, and as she plans day trips and types letters for them, she’s drawn into their daily lives and domestic dramas. Daisy’s mood swings are jarring but exciting, and Gregory’s seductive gazes and alluring promises seem genuine.
Thanks to Moreno-Garcia’s finely crafted writing, readers will find themselves lulled into the sluggish yet poetically described rhythms of Viridiana’s days—and then growing ever more tense as her naiveté and longing render her vulnerable to the tourists’ psychological games, underpinned by menace that observers can feel but the young woman cannot see. When an intoxicated Ambrose takes a deadly tumble, that danger comes into sharp relief. Who will the corrupt police favor, the wealthy tourists or the willful local girl?
Untamed Shore is a fever dream of a thriller, a coming-of-age tale set amidst disturbing and dangerous circumstances, in which doing the least worst thing today in service of a better tomorrow might just be the best option. Viridiana is a dreamer who wants to build herself a different life in this fresh, empathetic take on an unreliable, very determined narrator.
The similarly determined Alice Vega of Louisa Luna’s The Janes is a former bounty hunter, now private investigator, known for her skills in locating missing people and her relentless drive to find answers no matter the method (which readers will remember from Luna’s first Vega novel, Two Girls Down).
When two Latinx teen girls are found dead near the Mexican border, a commander from the San Diego police department hires Vega to identify the victims and find any other girls who might be missing as part of a sex-trafficking operation. What made him think of Alice? Well, her aforementioned skills, her willingness to stay out of the spotlight—and the fact that one of the girls had a piece of paper in her hand with Vega’s name written on it.
Vega calls Max “Cap” Caplan, whom she worked with in Two Girls Down, and offers him $10,000 to help her. He’s a calm and thoughtful retired detective who trusts her completely, even when things get (more than) a little wild. Together, the two make an intelligent, innovative team that gets results, whether using the serial numbers on IUDs to track down sex-trafficking perpetrators or intuitively and masterfully improvising when interviewing wary criminals.
That’s why it’s decidedly odd that, once they go to the commander with suspects and theories about the workings of the crime ring, he tells them to back off—he’ll update the DEA and SDPD, and handle it from there. Not surprisingly, Vega and Cap do the opposite of backing off. Instead, they push even harder, diving into dangerous situations with glee (Vega) and reluctant optimism (Cap), determined to roust the bad guys and expose wrongdoing no matter where it lives.
Luna skillfully balances tragedy and humor throughout, via blood-pressure-raising fight scenes and stressful suspense, plus hints of romantic tension between Vega and Cap. She also offers a fascinating and disturbing look at how a criminal enterprise might work, pulling in various complex threads while crafting a story that’s wholly believable and sad.
The Janes is a superbly entertaining read, especially for readers who are already fans of the amazing Vega, whose Jack Reacher-esque sense of justice offers reassurance that, no matter how long it takes, no bad deed will go unpunished.