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Understanding the Alacran

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-Silver Medal Winner of the 2017 FAPA President's Awards (Contemporary/Literary category)

Trying to escape the oppression leading him to drinking, drugs, and despair, 22-year-old William James rejects a teaching position offer at a prestigious Buffalo high school and moves to Mexico to find freedom in its beaches, mountains, and culture.

But soon, this freedom becomes oppressive as well as William finds himself unable to avoid the pull of the wild party scene in the small town of Lila where he lives. He continues a downward spiral until he meets a complex and compassionate Mexican woman whose love inspires him to face the question he's been avoiding: Is this trip a desperate search for life or a slow death?

A dark but humorous coming-of-age novel, Understanding the Alacrán explores many of the questions that haunt young people searching for love and their place in this world, and offers a poetic look at the raw beauty and healing power of Mexico.

*Understanding the Alacrán is the third book in a loosely-linked series with Hammond and The Summer of Crud as books one and two, and Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story and The Soul City Salvation as books four and five. Each novel can be read independently of the others.

422 pages, Paperback

First published August 23, 2017

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About the author

Jonathan LaPoma

7 books336 followers
Jonathan LaPoma is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, songwriter, and poet from Buffalo, NY. In 2005, he received a BA in history and a secondary education credential from the State University of New York at Geneseo, and he traveled extensively throughout the United States and Mexico after graduating. These experiences have become the inspiration for much of his writing, which often explores themes of alienation and misery as human constructions that can be overcome through self-understanding and the acceptance of suffering.

LaPoma has written five novels, fourteen screenplays, and hundreds of songs and poems. His screenplays have won over 160 awards/honors at various international screenwriting competitions, and his black comedy script HARM FOR THE HOLIDAYS was optioned by Warren Zide along with Wexlfish Pictures (AMERICAN PIE, FINAL DESTINATION, THE BIG HIT) in July 2017.

LaPoma's novels have been recommended by Kirkus Reviews and Barnes and Noble (B&N Press Presents list), have hit the #1 Amazon Bestseller lists in the "Satire," "Urban Life," "Metaphysical," "Metaphysical & Visionary," and "Religious & Inspirational" Kindle categories (USA, Canada, and Australia), and have won awards/honors in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award, the 2016 and 2017 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President's Awards, and the 2015 Stargazer Literary Prizes. He lives in Mexico City.

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5 stars
14 (41%)
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10 (29%)
3 stars
6 (17%)
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2 (5%)
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Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews
Profile Image for Archit.
823 reviews3,227 followers
February 23, 2018
A Striking prose!

The scorpion is unusual and not your typical aggressor. The sting comes from the back and how.

This coming of age of our male lead opens up with the fancy words of liberation and self reliance shining in his head. But as all hormones, the adrenaline sweeps away and begins the downward abysmal phase.

The characters are immaculately hilarious to say the least. The male lead is accompanied by folks with names that crack you up in timely intervals.

One thing is that moves a bit slowly. You are waiting for the moment when it comes to the theme. The corner on the road where you expect to see what you are looking for. The story for me really opened up in the final third. Not that the first two-thirds were damp, but it could have been a bit faster. The initial phase builds up the setting, delves into melancholy and comes up with hope.

The guy, Will, ran away from the US to explore the better side of teaching or life in general and lands up in a town where all he does is party. Sort of. That's it. That's the basic premise. Not much in it. Just the average book I would pick up on a cheap paperback stand.

Plus this book came with the onus of doing justice to Developing Minds. We have a tendency of hating sequels because they don't match up. What woke me up in the initial pages itself has to be the writing style. The humorous drift to serious situations, characters not fitting in a good or bad black and white frame, faulty relations and the transient nature of "living in the moment".

The person, Will, is for sure not a hero by any means. He has got his troubles with alcoholism and over spending. But it brings out the misogyny residing deep within him. His outrage towards the fairer sex is evident and unabashed. The author gets good marks from me for not making me dislike the character leading to disliking the story and dropping the ball in the mid 200s.

The vernacular of spanish is enriching with the vivid descriptions making you live and breathe with Will. The eloquence of putting pen to paper and shaping out complete characters in his friends and the alpha woman finally are commendable.

The story unravels haunting slices of the depression meat - the inertia that stops you from uprooting the situation that so desperately desire to. It plucks like a vulture on the wantons of a young man who sought freedom but got too much of it.

For the sheer delight of beautiful vernacular, unanticipated flow of writing and the faulty protagonist's faltering swag - I notch one star up to make it 5.

The scorpion of pessimism is a worthy successor.
Author 0 books249 followers
March 15, 2020
I loved how each of these books are dealing with education system and exploring the alternatives.

This book was an explosion, full of culture, nature and scenic beauty in imagination. There is a lot to learn from this book such as value of friendship, love, adventure and hanging to your morals. I got to experience a culture and language miles away from me. As it happens in the author's work, the writing is exceptionally lyrical, making the words flow calmly and pages turning themselves. Wonderful and engrossing characters are an added bonus to the party. A fresh plot with diversity of cultural background made the work informative for me.
Profile Image for Eslem Behouri Kehila.
41 reviews9 followers
February 17, 2018
I am glad that i took my time with such vivid story. From the moment i entered that bus station for a journey in Will's memory until i found myself back in it for the big revelation,the sound structure of the characters and the colorful scenes beautifully described by the author me. This book reveals LaPoma's profound knowledge when comes to Mexico's culture, people, and cities. this story come in a time where the gaps are as wide, and the walls are as high as they can ever be. But with his social and political awareness the author leads us to a journey of our own. It's a journey that engrave on our minds the simple truth that all Human beings are equal. and therefore urges us th take down the imaginary walls we tend to build around ourselves.
Profile Image for Maddie (HedgehogBookReviews).
103 reviews41 followers
June 29, 2017
You can also find this book on Hedgehog Book Reviews!!

“I think that, maybe, you get too close to things that are ugly because you want to make them beautiful. I see that you are suffering. But you have a gift. I don’t think you realize how special you are.”

After seeing the darker side of teaching in the US, Will moves to Mexico to escape what could turn into a drug problem. Though he has a limited amount of savings that quickly dwindles, he manages to have some good times there. Most of Will’s days are filled with excessive drinking, partying, flirting with girls, and more drinking. He sees a pattern with the girls he gets involved with—they all leave him after a few days of fun. In a time of darkness, Will meets a woman who changes the way he views himself and the world.

-I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review-

The first thing that I want to mention is that I really, really disliked the main character, Will. This is not completely a bad thing, because it means Jonathan LaPoma wrote him as a very developed and multifaceted character. In the first few chapters, Will is meh, for me. He is just a young man trying to run away from a dark lifestyle that almost consumed him. As the story goes, his true colors of misogyny come out. He continuously treats women badly, hooks up with them, and then thinks horrible things about them once they dump him. He’s in this thought pattern of “woe is me, women are monsters and won’t give me a chance”, even though he has many preconceptions of different women before he meets them. I mean, this guy is super unlikeable. As I said, this means that he was written well and is a dimensional character.

I think the most important part about Understanding the Alacran is that it illustrates the ugliness of alcoholism. Will is obviously an alcoholic. He binge drinks almost every single night. There is a scene when he’s traveling with a woman who really wants him to stop drinking for a little while because they’re riding a bus with strangers. Will basically laughs at her and drinks excessively the whole trip. In addition, he also spends all his traveling money on beer and forces his angry companion to pay for his bus ticket. Blowing all of one’s money on alcohol and not caring how it affects other people is a sign of a drinking problem. There are also multiple times when he tells himself that he will not drink as much on certain nights. Without fail, Will always breaks his promises and gets blackout drunk. Not keeping promises that one sets for oneself is another sign of alcoholism. Describing traits of a drinking problem without trivializing it is important for education. I’m glad Jonathan LaPoma wrote about alcoholism in a responsible way and put this work out there for the public to learn from.

One thing that I didn’t like about Understanding the Alacran was the pace of the story. I remember at page 255, I was still wondering when I would get to the point of the book. Most of the book was just describing a man’s life without a big picture or purpose. The first 53% (I remember checking the percentage on GoodReads) really dragged on and I considered putting the work down completely. I’m really glad I didn’t, but the temptation was there. I wish the book had been 2/3 the length and left out some of the superfluous details of drunk nights and parties.

I have mostly good things to say about Understanding the Alacran, but the slow first half of the book bumped my rating down to a 3/5 stars. This book comes out in August, so be on the lookout for it! I recommend it to people who want to read about the reality of alcoholism. I want to thank Jonathan LaPoma for sending a copy of his work in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Ashlynn.
129 reviews12 followers
March 24, 2018

Disclaimers: The synopsis section is ©Goodreads but the rest of the reviews are completely my words and of course the quote section is obviously from the book reviewed.
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in return of an honest review.
Also on my blog

4.5/5 ⭐

I've expanded my vocabulary in such little page time. (Alacran, Trivial, Reefer, Reticent, ect.)

It has been quite humorous and relatable. The description is bulletproof and incredible. "I watched him cook up, pierce his skin, milk blood, and empty the evil liquid into his arm." The weave of friendship encounters are certainly authentic. Easily enjoyable, for sure!

It flows really well, and is jam packed with useful detail which makes it easy to visualize. I really enjoyed reading it as male lead. I got insight into a guys brain, his thoughts, feelings, ect. It's neat as a woman to be able to almost first-hand see what he's like; as a male. If that makes sense?

The nicknames cracked me up! I couldn't help but laugh throughout the chapters. I wasn't the biggest fan of Sal (side character) honestly, I just couldn't pace with him. There was a disinterest for me. Although this book was full of legitimate humor, it was full of truth as well.  

The characters weren't flat, they had shining personalities, and easily pictured.

I really loved this book, it just wasn't great at keeping my attention. I couldn't focus while reading this, I wasn't really connected. The plot and everything was perfect and I wanted to just get my attention together to read it but it was difficult.

(I received this in like May? So it's been a while. I feel TERRIBLE for taking so long, honestly.)

Other than that, this book was really good and funny, sometimes we need a good laugh. This book will definitely give you that!!

Thank you so much for sending me an ARC of this : Jonathan LaPoma

Short Girl Out, Signed;
Profile Image for Lisa M.
94 reviews6 followers
September 27, 2017
Thank you Jonathan for sharing a truley interesting adventure! I could feel a connection with the characters. It had the right amount of humor, love and friendships to keep me interested. As an added bonus I’ve learned the Spanish word for Scorpion!
Profile Image for Grady.
Author 50 books400 followers
August 28, 2017
‘Banda was basically a Latino version of polka and, along with mariachi, was teeming with cultural significance for the Mexican people.’

California author Jonathan LaPoma not only writes novels (three to date) but also screenplays, poetry and songs! He earned his BA in history and a secondary education credential from the State University of New York at Geneseo, gathered ideas or seeds for future novels from his travels both the US and Mexico, began writing and winning awards for his works, and now teaches secondary school in San Diego. The handsome young artist explores themes of alienation and misery as human constructions that can be overcome through self-understanding and the acceptance of suffering. His new novel UNDERSTANDING THE ALARCAN (in ways, a prequel to his DEVELOPING MINDS) won the silver medal in the 2017 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President's Awards (Contemporary/Literary category).

To assuage the conundrum of the title, alacrán is the Spanish word for scorpion. Jonathan places this story in Mexico, and as background he offers a paean to that country ‘I’d arrived in Mexico four months earlier. The trip was long and an experience in itself. I flew from Buffalo to Cleveland to Houston to Guadalajara, and in Guadalajara I took a wild cab ride to the central bus station where I boarded a bus to Lila. The bus ride was peaceful and helped to dilute several of the nagging voices of ‘reason’ I hoped to dissolve in whatever solvent the Mexican people had to offer. The bus itself was comfortable and would have been empty if not for the two giggling girls sitting to my right. My attention, however, was focused through the window to my left. It was late, but the dying amber sun held on just long enough to cast a bronze hue on the lush fields and jagged mountains beyond them— a cordial greeting for this strange white man. For hours I stared at the small fruit stands and taquerias and auto garages that lined the highway. The dusk had drawn the people from the protective cover of their homes. Shoeless jugadores played soccer matches on dirt fields lit by streetlights, while others worked on cars and smiled. Others stood talking, laughing over god knows how many beers, while elderly men and women sat in lawn chairs, quietly basking in the company of those around them. There were great fields of tall grass with fires burning in the distance, flames leaping off the world like brilliant, localized solar flares. There were big gorgeous mountains on the horizon, and every so often a moonlit river would cut through a forest of towering palms as if for nothing other than to please the hungry eyes my inadequate soul had been so longing to satiate. The girls to my right would shoot me intermittent glances, then whisper and giggle. Their hushed words weren’t necessary. Even if I could have understood them, I don’t think I would have paid them any attention.’ Throughout this fine novel LaPoma shares insights into the Mexican people as well as any writer today. He dissects the anguish of coming of age, drugs, the struggle for freedom, despair and its antidote – hope. All this he delivers with eloquence and humor.

To borrow a bit from the book’s plot synopsis, ‘Trying to escape the oppression leading him to drinking, drugs, and despair, 22-year-old William James rejects a teaching position offer at a prestigious Buffalo high school and moves to Mexico to find freedom in its beaches, mountains, and culture. But soon, this freedom becomes oppressive as well as William finds himself unable to avoid the pull of the wild party scene in the small town of Lila where he lives. He continues a downward spiral until he meets a complex and compassionate Mexican woman whose love inspires him to face the question he's been avoiding: Is this trip a desperate search for life or a slow death? A dark but humorous coming-of-age novel, UNDERSTANDING THE ALACRÁN explores many of the questions that haunt young people searching for love and their place in this world, and offers a poetic look at the raw beauty and healing power of Mexico.’

That is a fine summary, but what it does not allow is to feel the beauty of Jonathan’s writing style and the infectious manner in which he pulls us into this mélange. Conversations are raw, turgid, and right on the money, and just when the reader feels this is all dark comedy, Jonathan waxes poetic – and the change is seamless. This is yet another brilliant book from a very promising new author. He is one to watch.
Profile Image for Soniya.
19 reviews1 follower
September 15, 2020
The book is wonderful. The starting was great. I like that the book deals with the evils of drinking, drugs, sex, racism and other unpleasant stuffs. The main character Will moves from US to Mexico in request of his old friend Sal to explore new possibilities in foreign land. At first, I didn't like Sal, he was a jerk to his friends but as the story proceeded he realised that he may not be that bad.
The pace of story is a little slow and there's nothing of much happening. There's lots of partying, drinking, dancing. Will has a serious drinking problem and no matter how hard he tried he didn't seem to get over it as all his friends are as alcoholic as him. I wasn't expecting the love interest to last that long but I'm glad that it did.

The side characters are fun too. Will may have darkness inside him he didn't fail to make me laugh. I remember having good amount of laughter in certain parts. The writing is so good. The description of the places is well done that I was imagining myself there, the volcanoes, the pyramids, the beaches, etc. I definitely want to go to Mexico some day. The book is amazing in its own way. I'm glad that I got to read it.
June 30, 2018
The book is wonderful. The author is incredible. I recommend reading all books by this author. reading this book is wonderful from start to finish
Profile Image for C.A. Lear.
Author 2 books15 followers
April 11, 2018
When I decided to read UNDERSTANDING THE ALACRAN, I wanted to be engaged and intrigued by a fresh story, an original voice, and an interesting perspective. Well, I got all that and loved it!

Mr. LaPoma’s wonderfully descriptive, gritty, and often amusing prose transported me to Lila, Mexico, where he portrays the wilder and often uglier side of young men from the perspective of William/Will—letting loose to party and rage and act badly among back-alley locals in a foreign land. The research of Mexican culture is especially deep, as many cities, sites, peoples, and festivals color the latter chapters.

I would not categorize this as an ordinary coming of age story. The plight of Will hardly evolves beyond the unruly child-man as he hurls himself toward the brink of self-destruction time and time again. Like Salinger’s Holden, LaPoma’s Will should resonate with young men who feel misunderstood, unappreciated, and lost in their own culture. As Will’s addictive personality reeks havoc on him and those near him, he still maintains a fanatical, artist-like persona, chasing beauty without really knowing why. In the end, he finds beauty in a young woman who gives him what he’s never had and shows him the way back.

I liked the realism of it, the day to day toil and troubles, the generous dollops of discrimination, sex and sexism, arguing and brawling, and racism from all sides. This is quality literary fiction, and I look forward to Mr. LaPoma’s next novel.
Profile Image for Karla Kbooklover.
81 reviews22 followers
June 14, 2018

Will moves from Buffalo to Mexico to try to find some freedom while living with his friend Sal in a place called Lila. In Lila, besides the locals, he meets some people that like him are just looking for an escape and to explore Mexico.

Things are not easy for Will, yes there’s a lot of partying, drinking and meeting women but the cultural differences and the language barrier proves to be a struggle, especially at the beginning.

This book and Will’s experience while in Mexico shows how living on a budget in a different country can be a hardship, how prejudices can go both ways and the real weight of dealing with insecurities and society expectations.

The descriptions of the places Will visited during his stay in Mexico are good and it was a nice surprise to find out that I’d been to some of the cities mentioned in the book and, reading, made me go back to the times I visited some of them (like San Cristobal de las Casas, Guadalajara, Mexico City, Vallarta, Guanajuato and Puebla).

The writing is engaging, with the right flow and a dose of dark humor to make it an enjoyable read that I would recommend.

I found myself highlighting many parts of this book and next are some of my favorite quotes:

“And it was that very face that drew me - a beauty that could cut through any chaos without losing a hint of resolution”.

“It’s ok, Will. Keep writing. Maybe someday you’ll realize your ‘nothing’ is really something beautiful”

“The darkness had made its way back in full force. It was crippling and consumed me whole. I’d gotten away for a short time, but when it caught up again, it hit me with an extra viciousness - perhaps to punish me for running. Nobody truly gets away”.

“It was soft, and organic, and visceral. I felt alive in the darkness - alive and not alone. This was the Mexico I’d fled to see. The Mexico I’d invited to sweep me away”.

* I received a free copy from the author through a Goodreads Group.
777 reviews17 followers
January 8, 2018
I was excited about reading this book by a promising young author, primarily because I have lived in South Texas most of my life and appreciate any authors that writes about the residents that live below the Mason-Dixon line without treating them like congenital idiots. This book slowly lost my interest though as it is about a period where this young man from New York state goes on a drinking binge in Mexico which drags on and on. Partying in Mexico is not an anomaly for the residents of South Texas, so his drinking exploits didn't make for interesting reading for an entire book. When he got the point where he was describing the anus of a prostitute, I was out of there. I realize I am not the target audience for this book, but this author can do better.
December 29, 2017
Don't pay for this book!

I got this book on offer, fortunately. The early promise of insights into Mexican psyche and the author's personal development kept me going, but we got very very little of either. Mexico remains an alluring mystery, but I won't miss the 'hero'. A sort of cliffhanger emerged, we're waiting for a eureka moment, or even a slow evolution, but we're no further forward. Will's charmlessness continues unabated, and you're left thinking this was a wasted opportunity - he could have gone anywhere in the world to drink alcohol and be unpleasant. If you would enjoy reading a diary of a dreary and borderline alcoholic, you'll enjoy this. The writing style is good, it just needs a story.
Profile Image for Joshua Grant.
Author 20 books233 followers
March 10, 2019
Understanding the Alacran by Jonathan LaPoma explored a young man’s journey across Mexico. The travel aspect of the book was fun, and LaPoma does a great job of making you feel like you’re there, but it’s the emotional journey that’s most rewarding. It’s a little bit morose, but seeing how our main character changes over his travels is quite satisfying. This one’s good for anyone with the travel bug or wants to delve into some difficult emotions!
Profile Image for Helena.
122 reviews10 followers
September 18, 2017
Full review: http://semtudo.pt/2017/09/18/understa...

Will, the lead character, rejected a good job to escape from himself and the problems that surround him. He moves to Mexico, but at some point, he notes that nothing is changing. For me, this is the most important message from this book, he realizes the solution was not to run away from his problems because the problems go with you wherever you decide to go.

This history is pretty crazy with all the partying, but I liked Will and I understand that he was just trying to find his place in the world. But as I expected, he falls into a bad life (drinking, girls, and drugs).

One of the things I liked about this book was the descriptions of the places, it really puts you there. The author illustrates and captures the essence of Mexico, we can experience and have a mental image of everything. (...)
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