Bookmarks Issue: 

A Tale Told in Turns of the Card

A-CarambaNat and Sway, 20-something small-town belles, abandon the Big Cheese Plant in Lava Landing, California, for the open road. Their mission: to motor to Mexico in a 1963 El Dorado and save the soul of Don Pancho, Sway’s father, stuck in Purgatory for womanizing and drunkenness. En route, they encounter a witch, a garbage man Mariachi, a misty-eyed, transsexual "woman under construction," and a doomsday cult. Kitsch and pop icons rule the roost in this graphic novel, adorned with 83 fiesta-inflamed color illustrations. Martinez structures the book like a game of loteria, a popular past-time resembling bingo with numbered cards.
Knopf. 384 pages. $24.95.
ISBN: 0375413758

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"… as mesmerizing as acrobats in Cirque du Soleil and as rich as a double-fudge chocolate cake. … The term magic realism is often used to describe Latin American novels, but ¡Caramba! could be better described as magical." Marta Barber

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"This first novel is a wild, wonderful, comedic tale of female empowerment and road trips. ... It wouldn’t be hyperbole to state that ¡Caramba! may be the most entertaining, hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience many folks will have this year." Dorman T. Shindler

San Antonio Express-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The images and the text interact on several levels, and ¡Caramba! challenges readers to discern that the words and images have very sophisticated relationships with one another. ... Martínez boldly asserts that common place pop icons have stories, too." Patricia Trujillo

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… a triumph of whimsy and imagination—Monty Python meets One Hundred Years of Solitude. … Martinez writes in a mock heroic and often deliciously funny Spanglish that comes to dominate more and more as the book capers on to its end." Barbara Quick

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Nina Marie Martinez’s first novel is at once delightful and frustrating. … [But] Martinez’s plot moves very circuitously and one might even say slowly. Her characters just don’t get very far in their loves or journeys, and this rhythm of delay works against the author." Paul Kafka-Gibbons

San Diego Union-Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Martinez is marvelously inventive, and someday, when she delves more deeply into the joy and pathos that grip noble people in ignoble straits, she will write an astounding book. ¡Caramba! isn’t quite it. Great novels may embrace vivid cultures, but they do not lean on them for support." Kate Callen

Critical Summary

Martinez strikes a fresh, feisty pop-culture pose here, resembling a cross between Gabriel García Márquez, John Irving, Tom Robbins, and Monty Python. Critics admire her exuberance, but comment that it often veers into slap-dash slapstick. Splashy references to Cal-Mex music, dance, and cuisine, combined with vivid illustrations, richen the skimpy characterization and somewhat plodding plot (akin to Thelma and Louise without the push-up bra). Some readers found the Spanglish clear in context, but others demanded a dictionary. Nevertheless, critics expect big things from this debut author, an alumna of UC Santa Cruz’s Creative Writing program. As they point out: the best of her work is yet to come.