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Playing for the Devil's Fire

Kirkus Review
Full of grim and shocking violence, Izayoc here represents a demoralizing reality perhaps already too familiar. … Childhood at its most hopeful and heartbreaking; readers seeking lighthearted, sanitized fare should turn away.
In photojournalist Diederich’s harrowing debut novel, 13-year-old Liberio “Boli” Flores endures the effects of narcoviolence sweeping Mexico. Brutal change comes to the pueblo of Izayoc when the townspeople discover the severed head of a teacher. Soon, new cars with California plates appear in the village, driven by men in flashy clothes. After another body — a woman’s — turns up in a field, Boli and his village suspect the worst: “Something was going on.” Boli’s parents go to nearby Toluca to request assistance from the federal police. Meanwhile, life goes on, and Boli and his best friend, Mosca, shine shoes to scrape together enough money for a wrestling event at a fair. When his parents fail to return, Boli longs to uncover the truth behind their disappearance, as he solicits help from El Chicano Estrada, a washed-up, jaded luchador. Though he filters this narrative through Boli’s starry-eyed perspective, Diederich doesn’t hold back in his depiction of corruption and loss. Full of grim and shocking violence, Izayoc here represents a demoralizing reality perhaps already too familiar. Boli and Chicano’s investigative efforts expose nothing but bad news: “We are a country built on lies. Listen, forget the illusion that the world is a good place. It’s not.” The conclusion provides only a dubious sense of closure. Childhood at its most hopeful and heartbreaking; readers seeking lighthearted, sanitized fare should turn away.
- February 9, 2016  Visit Website
Publishers Weekly 1 Stars
As this grim murder mystery unfolds, 13-year-old Boli and his best friend Mosca become reliant on a luchador named Chicano, a masked wrestler working the amateur circuit, as a real-life hero and protector after Boli's parents go missing, and the body count mounts. … Diederich (Sofrito) portrays Mexico with a stark intensity and raw emotional turmoil as Boli navigates a mercilessly cruel world. 
Playing For The Devil’s Fire
Phillippe Diederich
A severed head in the town square is the first sign of trouble in the small Mexican town of Izayoc, where new money is moving in with bloody force. As this grim murder mystery unfolds, 13-year-old Boli and his best friend Mosca become reliant on a luchador named Chicano, a masked wrestler working the amateur circuit, as a real-life hero and protector after Boli's parents go missing, and the body count mounts. The boys' lost innocence is represented with a game of marbles, which dovetails and overlaps with the disillusionment and loss of the entire community, Chicano's transformation from caped crusader to mere man as he ditches the affectations of his theatrical profession, and a host of new responsibilities for Boli, including helping to run the family business and care for a grandmother whose mind is slipping. The narration and dialogue are shot through with Spanish words and phrases, readily discernable through context, and also collected in a glossary. Diederich (Sofrito) portrays Mexico with a stark intensity and raw emotional turmoil as Boli navigates a mercilessly cruel world. Ages 12–up. Agent: Stephany Evans, Fineprint Literary Management. (Mar.)
- February 15, 2016  Visit Website
The Huffington Post
It’s that rare book that addresses moral issues and current events in a story that never stops tugging at the reader’s heart. … We need these kinds of books so different minorities can see themselves in the pages, but also so that other realities can be experienced and perhaps understood by a general audience.
Occasionally, a book comes along that strikes a chord that reverberates across genre and its own intended audience. Phillippe Diederich’s novel Playing for the Devil’s Fire (Cinco Puntos, March 2016) could easily leap from the young adult shelf to general fiction. It’s also that rare book that addresses moral issues and current events in a story that never stops tugging at the reader’s heart.

Playing for the Devil’s Fire is the story of Liberio Flores (nicknamed Boli) whose parents disappear after drug traffickers move into their small town in Mexico. Through Boli’s eyes, we see violence and corruption as it slowly infects the town of Izayoc (the place of tears). We experience Boli’s confusion at the sudden changes, as he learns about corruption and sees his friends and neighbors being lured by the newcomers. Drugs, narcos, gangsters—those words are never used, but we know they are there, changing the dynamics of the town just like Narcos and the war on drugs have changed Mexico in real life, turning it into a violent and dangerous place.

When Boli befriends a has-been luchador and recruits him to help find his parents, we experience the kind of moral exchange between Boli’s loss of innocence and someone who gave up long ago on believing that people are inherently good. While there is certainly a battle between good and evil, there is also a battle of trust and a quest for redemption.

The novel, which has received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, as well as favorable reviews from The Wall Street Journal and Library Journal, is the kind of book that reminds us of what the Diverse Book Movement has been saying all along: we need these kinds of books so different minorities can see themselves in the pages, but also so that other realities can be experienced and perhaps understood by a general audience.

Diederich, whose first novel, Sofrito, was also published by Cinco Puntos Press in 2015, said in an interview that he wrote the book for his son, who dislikes reading—especially fiction. “We’d go the library to find him a book to read and most of what we found in young adult fiction was romance, dystopian, fantasy, vampires, that sort of thing. I saw a big hole in the shelf where a realistic book for boys might fit,” Diederich said.

Diederich grew up in Mexico City and spent half a decade working there as a photojournalist. Perhaps that’s why the story rings so true to current events. The disappearance of 43 students from a rural teacher’s college in Guerrero two years ago would seem like the catalyst for Playing for the Devil’s Fire, but Diederich said he completed the book in 2013.

“I think anyone who lives in Mexico knows what’s going on. It’s been going on for decades. The drugs, the corruption, the poverty. I wanted to address those issues, but I didn’t want to write a book about drug dealers. I wanted to write a book about the victims and address what the corruption is doing to Mexico,” Diederich said.

Playing for the Devil’s Fire can be read on many levels. It is a story of good vs. evil, a coming of age story, it is social commentary and then some. It is also layered with symbolism and metaphors, most of which inform the reader that Mexico has a proud and glorious history. But most important, Playing for the Devil’s Fire, puts a face to the victims of Mexico’s Narco violence. The novel, as they say in Mexico, tiene mucho corazón, (has a lot of heart). When you finish reading and set the book down, it will be difficult to forget Boli and his friends. And it will be difficult to forget what is happening in Mexico.
- April 20, 2016  Visit Website
Horn Book Magazine
This fictionalized depiction of the real terror the drug war has brought to Mexican communities will have readers rooting for Boli as he tries, in vain, to save his town.
Boli is your average thirteen-year-old boy, concerned with winning at marbles, scraping together money to see the lucha libre, and pining over a beautiful older girl. But one morning, his life changes forever: “It was a hot Sunday morning when we discovered the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza”—the first sentence of this searing, violence-drenched novel. The small, sleepy town of Izayoc, tucked away in a valley west of Mexico City, is suddenly populated by well-dressed strangers driving late-model SUVs. Long-standing businesses close; people disappear; and one by one Boli’s friends find suspicious work with the newcomers. When his parents fail to return from a trip, Boli, full of dread, is certain they have been murdered and knows something must be done. In a town that seems resigned to its fate, Boli finds hope in an unlikely hero, El Chicano Estrada, a washed-up luchador who arrives with the fair. “Together we would fight whoever was destroying the town. And I knew, like all the great heroes of Mexican history, we would win.”

This fictionalized depiction of the real terror the drug war has brought to Mexican communities will have readers rooting for Boli as he tries, in vain, to save his town. A glossary of Spanish words and phrases is provided.
- April 6, 2016  Visit Website
De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children
Boli’s loss of innocence—as his initial belief that bad things happen to other people grows into the knowledge that there is no redemption, no miracle that will quickly disappear the violence, corruption and destruction all around—echoes the real situation in Mexico and much of Latin America. … Playing for the Devil’s Fire is highly recommended.
Some 500 years ago, conquest of this hemisphere was relatively easy: foreigners arrived, planted their flags, massacred the inhabitants and stole the land. Now, conquest involves massive CIA-financed drug trafficking via international cartels, mass murder and “disappearances” to soften up and terrorize the populace, rapid economic destabilization, and finally, “regime change” from elected governments to US-friendly fascist dictatorships.

In the Americas, the conquest and what appears to be never-ending colonialism create dire consequences for hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees—many of them unaccompanied children—who flee to El Norte to escape both state-sponsored terror and the murdering narcotraficantes. They flee, as a colleague told me, “into the mouth of the shark.” Even as they escape the issues in their own homelands, the conquest follows them into a lifelong struggle and lifelong trauma.

And, just this morning, the Obama administration announced a new series of raids to round up and deport families who have been seeking asylum here from violence and death threats in Central America.

As I read Playing for the Devil’s Fire, I’m thinking of all of these aspects of colonization, and, in particular, about the “disappearance” of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Teaching College in Mexico’s southwestern Guerrero State in September 2014. Here, the police, local politicians and everyone else in power acting in league with the gangsters, practiced business as usual.

The title’s “devil’s fire” is two things: It’s the diablito rojo, the rare, coveted marble every Mexican teenage boy dreams of winning. And, perhaps more important, it’s a metaphor for the carnage and conflagration sweeping much of Latin America.

Libero (Boli) Flores’ harrowing story begins as the 13-year-old narrator describes the scene in Izayoc (the place of tears), his sleepy little town near Mexico City:

It was a hot Sunday morning when we discovered the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped up on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza.

The head belonged to Boli’s teacher, who was a known activist, and a note has been found in his mouth: “He talked too much.”

Boli, an average teen—whose only interests had been winning at marbles and polishing shoes to earn some cash so he and his friend, Mosca, could attend the lucha libre—begins to notice the arrival of well-dressed strangers driving late-model SUVs with black windows, spinning silver rims and California license plates. They’re moving into town and building big houses. A new four-lane highway has been built—and townspeople start to disappear, businesses start to close, and Boli’s friends start to hang out with the newcomers.

There are whispers. The townspeople know what’s going on. But when Boli’s parents ask questions of those in charge, there are no answers. The police chief knows nothing, but he’s seen in the company of the strangers. The priest knows nothing, but his church has been beautifully renovated. And then Boli’s parents, on their way to Toluca to alert the federal police, suddenly join the “disappeared.”

Boli is certain that “something bad has happened.” Nevertheless, he puts his hope in an unlikely hero, a washed-up luchador named “El Chicano.” Boli sees him as larger-than-life—like el hijo del Santo, son of the world’s most beloved luchador; a superman who battles rudos in the ring and criminals on the outside; a crime fighter who rights wrongs and brings truth and justice to all those in need.

But the violence in the lucha libre ring and in the Santo movies is choreographed and scripted. What’s real is horrific and unpredictable. As El Chicano tries to warn Boli,

“Everyone’s giving you hope, telling you there’s a chance, that everything’s going to be okay. It’s all lies. We are a country built on lies. Listen, forget the illusion that the world is a good place. It’s not.”

Boli’s loss of innocence—as his initial belief that bad things happen to other people grows into the knowledge that there is no redemption, no miracle that will quickly disappear the violence, corruption and destruction all around—echoes the real situation in Mexico and much of Latin America. As with life in the region, there is no happy ending. After the last horrible murder, readers will see that the battle between good and evil truly exists, and the devil’s fire will continue to rage for a long time coming.

The secondary characters are real people as well: Abuela, who, in her mind, is able to return to the beauty of Veracruz; Boli’s no-nonsense sister, Gaby, who takes over the family’s panadería in their parents’ absence and whose business decisions reflect the trajectory of the town’s downfall; Jesusa, the Flores family’s maid, who knows the dual reality of soul-numbing poverty and terror; the beautiful Ximena, who, along with several other young women, throws in her cards with the gangsters; Boli’s best friend and alter-ego, Mosca, who suddenly disappears; and, of course, Father Gregorio and the police chief, Pineda, whose salaried job descriptions include pacifying the populace.

Both dialogue and narration are peppered with rough-and-tumble Mexican street-Spanish in all its permutations, and there’s a helpful glossary as well. Note to teachers: This is how boys and men in small-town Mexico—and in some cities as well—speak. Anything less would be a cultural erasure.

Make no mistake: Playing for the Devil’s Fire is not “just” about what is often referred to as the “drug wars.” Indeed, readers will not find the terms, “narcos,” “gangsters,” or “drugs” anywhere here; nor will they find “government complicity” or “colonialism,” either. Rather, what they will find is real people in a particular small town in a particular Latin American country—who have become collateral damage in a violent, murderous game of international dominoes—and for whom the message is: Sal si puede. Pack up your dreams if you have any left and get the hell out while you can.

This is what readers here, in the belly of the beast, need to see and understand. Playing for the Devil’s Fire is highly recommended.
- May 26, 2016  Visit Website
Booklist Online
Phillippe Diederich, who grew up in Mexico City, brings firsthand experience as well as tremendous compassion to this poignant coming-of-age novel.
Boli, 13, and his loving family live in a tiny rural village in Mexico, where his father is a baker. Although the town and Boli’s friends are quite poor, life is pleasant and easygoing; he spends afternoons playing marbles with his best friend and is excited by the upcoming visit of luchadores (Mexican wrestlers). Against this realistically poor but serene backdrop, Diederich inserts the drug wars: corruption in the form of newcomers flaunting money, currying favor with police and the village priest, and seducing high-school girls. When the schoolteacher’s severed head is found in the town square after Sunday mass, Boli’s parents decide to go to police in a larger town for help. They never return, and no one seems interested in helping find them, until a second-rate luchador with a drinking problem is taken in by Boli. El Chicano Estrada becomes the boy’s surrogate father and partner in fighting the graft now running rampant. Striking imagery and symbolism, along with the timeliness of the subject, make this title a natural for classroom discussion, and a Spanish glossary will aid English-only speakers. Diederich, who grew up in Mexico City, brings firsthand experience as well as tremendous compassion to this poignant coming-of-age novel.
- April 1, 2016  Visit Website
Midwest Book Review
Impressively well written and a consistently entertaining read from beginning to end, "Playing for the Devil's Fire" is very highly recommended for school and community library children's fiction collections for ages 12 to 15.
Thirteen-year-old Boli and his friends are deep in the middle of a game of marbles. An older boy named Mosca has won the prized Devil's Fire marble. His pals are jealous and want to win it away from him. This is Izayoc, the place of tears, a small pueblo in a tiny valley west of Mexico City where nothing much happens. It's a typical hot Sunday morning except that on the way to church someone discovers the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza and everything changes. Not apocalyptic changes, like phalanxes of men riding on horses with stingers for tails, but subtle ones: poor neighbors turning up with brand-new SUVs, pimpled teens with fancy girls hanging off them. Boli's parents leave for Toluca and don't arrive at their destination. No one will talk about it. A washed out masked wrestler turns up one day, a man only interested in finding his next meal. Boli hopes to inspire the luchador to set out with him to find his parents.

Impressively well written and a consistently entertaining read from beginning to end, "Playing for the Devil's Fire" is very highly recommended for school and community library children's fiction collections for ages 12 to 15. For personal reading lists it should be noted that "Playing for the Devil's Fire" is also available in a paperback edition (9781941026304, $11.95) and in a Kindle format ($9.56).
- June 1, 2016  Visit Website
Mom Read It
Philippe Diederich puts a very human face on the cost of the neverending war on drugs … I’d suggest this for upper high school, young adult, and adult readers, because it is a brilliantly written book that will make readers think, and hopefully, talk.
Photojournalist Philippe Diederich wrote his debut novel as a way of communicating his sorrow and anger at the brutual narcoviolence and corruption infecting Mexico. The brutal and gripping story follows 13 year-old Libero “Boli” Flores as he sees his town, Izayoc, crippled by the town’s new inhabitants: men who wear shiny guns, expensive clothes, and drive big SUVs; men who have a lot of money to spend, and men who don’t like to be questioned or crossed. When people speak out, they show up dead.
Boli’s parents know it’s no use to go to the local police, so they head to a neighboring town to seek help, but they never arrive. Boli waits for someone to bring he and his sister, Gaby, some kind of news. Hope comes, briefly, in the form of El Chicano Estrada, a small-time luchador that Boli sees at a wrestling match. Boli, a devoted fan of lucha, particularly the legendary El Santo, begs Chicano to help him locate his parents. Chicano sees the corruption and grim reality facing Boli and the people of Izayoc; it awakens something in him, and he tries to be the hero that Boli needs. But Chicano also knows a truth that Boli hasn’t learned yet: the world is not a good place.
This is a vicious, heartbreaking story about the end of childhood. It’s a grim, powerful, and beautifully written novel, with unforgettable characters: Boli and Gaby are two siblings struggling to move on with their lives in the most horrifying circumstances; their Abuela escapes into her memories of the past to cope; Chicano is someone who just wanted to get by until he found someone that believed in him. Diederich looks at the morality, or lack of it, using Boli as the lens.
Who do you turn to in a town when everyone can either be bought or murdered? This is the question at the heart of Playing for the Devil’s Fire, and it is a very real question facing many Mexican communities. It’s an eye-opening look into a reality many young people face. Philippe Diederich puts a very human face on the cost of the neverending war on drugs.
This is not a book for middle grade or middle schoolers. There is graphic violence (the story begins with a child finding a decapitated head), language, and overall content that is disturbing and upsetting. I’d suggest this for upper high school, young adult, and adult readers, because it is a brilliantly written book that will make readers think, and hopefully, talk.
Playing for the Devil’s Fire has received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
Philippe Diederich grew up in Mexico City where he played marbles in the streets and became a fan of lucha libre – pastimes he revisits in Playing for the Devil’s Fire. This is his first novel for young adults, but his short stories have been published in literary journals, and his mystery, Sofrito, is a culinary mystery that travels from Havana to New York City. His author website offers a newsletter and more information.
- September 13, 2016  Visit Website

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