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  • Written by Jen Bryant
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  • The Fortune of Carmen Navarro
  • Written by Jen Bryant
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780375895463
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Written by Jen BryantAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jen Bryant


List Price: $8.99


On Sale: November 09, 2010
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-375-89546-3
Published by : Knopf Books for Young Readers RH Childrens Books
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Carmen Navarro rings up customers at the Quikmart, bored to tears. It’s a job, and she needs it. But Carmen’s true love is music: she dropped out of high school to sing with the Gypsy Lovers and land a recording contract, someday.

Just a few miles away, Ryan Sweeney hunches over his books, a studious cadet with his eye on West Point. There’s not a single girl at the Valley Forge Military Academy, and that’s fine by him.

But when Ryan, on a day pass from campus, spots Carmen, with her shining black hair and snake tattoo, his pulse quickens. Carmen, who normally rolls her eyes at the stiff Academy soldados, can tell this one is different. She slips him a note: “Come hear my band.” A romance begins, unlikely, passionate . . . and quickly imbalanced. In an enthralling narrative of obsessive love, the novel builds to a stunning close.

Inspired by the novella and opera Carmen, Jen Bryant creates a strong-minded and alluring heroine in this contemporary tale of tragic love.

From the Hardcover edition.



We have the whole afternoon off--no drills, no guard duty, no practice, no parades. Free. So Ryan and me, we decide to get lunch at the convenience store and then walk around town--maybe see a movie or take the bus up to the King of Prussia Mall.

We're not even fifty paces from the Academy's front gate, and already Ryan's telling me how he's got to put in extra time on Sunday at the library so he can ace his American history test. Well, I'm in that class and I have that same test, but you won't find me in the library on Sunday. No way. I'll be shooting hoops in the gym or trying to find some poor plebe who'll stand guard for me on Monday so I can smuggle in some cigarettes from Paulie the janitor. Paulie's leaving after next week, and that's a problem for me, see, 'cause I've built up quite a good business among the cadets; some of them'll pay me big bucks for a carton of Marlboros. It's my one little rebellion against the good ol' Valley Forge Military Academy, or the V, as we like to call it. Everything else, I pretty much go along. But no Paulie--no contraband. Not sure what my plan is after he leaves. I may have to shut things down until I can find another supplier.

Anyway, I'm thinking about this, and Ryan's rattling on about how he needs to score at least a 95 on this test to keep his GPA above a 3.8. Yeah, that's right--a three-eight . . . as in weight of the world (which is what he always looks like he's carrying before the end of the semester and that report card gets mailed home to Papa Sweeney); as in hate to tell you, Ry, in two years it won't matter a lick what you get on this test or on your report card, and in the meantime, you could be enjoying your life a whole lot more. But, whatever. Back home in Springfield, I'd spent enough time around his old man to know that imperfection was not an option for Ryan. So I try to listen as he rattles off his Sunday study schedule, figuring it's the least I can do for my best friend.

We get to the convenience store around one-thirty and go right to the deli, hungry for anything that doesn't taste like it's been made for a military-school cafeteria. We place our order at the sandwich counter, and kind of at the same time, we notice the girl behind the register up front. Actually, what I notice first--and I'm pretty sure I can speak for Ryan here, too--is her shirt: a tight blue T-shirt with the gypsy lovers in bold red print across her chest, the S letters in the shape of snakes. Everyone else in the place is wearing these dull maroon-collared jobs, little plastic name tags pinned over their hearts. So I figure she's either the store manager or the resident rebel (and since she's looking way too young to be manager material, I'm betting the second). She's hot all right. A sight for sore eyes, especially if your eyes are used to looking at textbooks and military cadets.

I decide I need a better angle. I go behind the snack island and find a good spot between the potato chips and the rows of different-flavored Gatorades, and as I'm walking around the end of the display, I come face to face with Ryan. He pretends he's just looking through the snacks, too, but hey--even shy guys like Ryan have eyes. I poke him and tilt my head toward the front counter. "Nice, huh?"

Ryan turns red and shrugs. The girl at the sandwich counter calls us back for our orders, and then she's yelling something in Spanish that makes Gypsy--her dark eyes dancing and her perfect mouth stretched open--laugh out loud. I glance over at Ryan, who is still blushing and seems unable to move his feet. I grab his arm and we go over to get our lunches, then up to the front, where Gypsy waits to ring us up.

"Hey there, soldiers," she says, flicking her hair off her shoulder and squaring up to face us. "And did we find everything we were looking for today?" Her almond-shaped eyes meet mine directly, not flinching, no hint of shyness.

"Actually . . ." I hesitate, pretending to consider one of the long-stemmed roses in the jar next to the register. I weigh my risk-benefit carefully: Paulie's leaving and I need a new source. Everyone always says I look at least eighteen. The older guy behind the counter (he must be the manager) has moved toward the back. I decide to try: "Carton of Marlboros, please."

She studies me carefully while her hands place our sandwiches in a bag. Behind me, Ryan whispers his warning, but I ignore it. Gypsy's eyes shift to Ryan and she smiles slightly, giving him the once-over. She moves to the other register for a minute, opens the drawer for some change, glances to see if the older guy is still close by. Then she comes back.

"You can get yourself in trouble asking for things that you shouldn't," she whispers, handing me the bag and my change. She looks again at Ryan, who still seems frozen. "You'd better go eat now," she says, "before he falls over."

"Good idea," I say, thankful that she didn't embarrass me by asking for ID.

I pick up the bag, and as I turn to leave, Gypsy takes one of the long-stemmed roses, leans as far as she can over the counter--and hands it to Ryan.


They come in through the side door, walk right over to my counter. The tall one, he is good-looking but a little stiff and serious. His friend is more relaxed--not quite as handsome, but cute enough. These military types, they are polite: "One turkey and tomato on wheat with extra mayo; one ham and Swiss on rye, lettuce, brown mustard . . . and could I, please, on that . . . could I get an extra slice of cheese . . . Great . . . Thanks." (I think at the Academy they must do drills for their manners, too.) So I take down the bread and the knife, I start slicing and slapping on the mayo, the mustard, the cheese. But when I look up to ask if they want onions or peppers (the manager, Frank, he gets angry if we don't ask because it's an extra twenty cents for each), they are gone.

I take a sideways step so I can see between the bins of plastic forks and spoons. . . . Ah, yes, there they are! Two crew cuts and crisp white shirts circling the little snack island in the middle of the store, pretending to pick out their chips and their drinks. But of course, I know what they are really doing: they are looking at Carmen. I see them watching her stack the shelves with cigarettes, flicking her black hair over her shoulders and laughing at something our manager, Fat Frank, is saying.

I go back to making sandwiches, smiling to myself because this is what happens all the time. It is like watching a movie you have already seen before: you know some of the lines and most of the scenes, but still you watch to see what happens. This is because Carmen is the magnet to which guys are drawn like so many pieces of steel. It doesn't matter if they want it to be that way or not. They are drawn. Like bears to honey. Like thirsty travelers to water. Like addicts to a fix. One glance and boom--they are hooked!

I wrap the sandwiches, put them on the counter for pickup. "Hey, you two soldados! Put your eyes back into your heads and come get your lunch!" but I say that last part in Spanish, and Carmen hears me and laughs, and I think she has already--a girl with eyes in back of her head--checked out both of them. When they go to pay, she flirts with the shorter blond one, and while Frank is not looking, I see her card-dealing trickster hands slip something into his bag. I can see, too, that the tall, serious one, he has already put one foot in her snare.


"Rich college kids. Military cadets. Soccer mommies. And a few CPAs who always count their change--that's who your customers will be," the manager, Mr. Ted, told Maggie and me when we were being switched over to the Valley Forge store. "Not like here--men with hard hats and dust on their shoes and little kids saving their dimes for bubble gum," he said, erasing our names from the blackboard in his office. "But you'll do all right there, you two." He hands me my check, smiling at the snake tattoo on my wrist. "No. I don't worry about you."

And now we are two weeks at the Quikmart Valley Forge, and already I can tell you who goes to Villanova (collared shirts, flip-flops--the expensive kind) and who goes to Haverford or Swarthmore (Birkenstocks, faded jeans, Vegan wrap to go, please). The accountants have the best silk ties and the nicest watches, and they do count their change, ¡ay bendito! every penny. The mommies in minivans are very tan and always in a hurry. Mostly, they don't even look at me, just jabbering away on their cell phones to the nanny or the husband at the airport and shoving the twenty at me like maybe they have so many they need to get rid of this one quick.

Our new manager, Mr. Frank, he tells us the military academy is only a half mile away, but during our first few shifts, we don't see a single cadet. Then today these two crew cuts come in through the side door looking like naughty puppies who just escaped the leash.

"Always in pairs," Mr. Frank tells me as we restock the shelves above the counter with cigarettes. "It's a rule. Can't leave campus alone unless they get special permission."

I watch them, the two cadets, and I'm thinking they are both kind of cute in their own way, and I'm also thinking that once you are in the military, maybe you always walk a little bit stiff like they do, like there is some invisible drillmaster in your head who counts out one-two, one-two, left-right, left-right, even when you are in khakis and buying hoagies at the deli. The taller one, he reminds me a little of Maggie's brother Raúl: dark and serious and a little skinny, but good-looking. He gives Maggie his order, and I see his hands opening and closing like he's not sure--like maybe it's some kind of test and he's thinking something bad will happen if he gets it wrong.

His friend is blond, not so nervous. He thinks I don't see when he goes behind the drink-and-snack display to get a better view of me. But I do see and so does Maggie: "Hey, you two soldados!" she says. "¡Pongan los ojos en sus cabezas y tomen su comida!" And those two Anglos, of course they don't know what Maggie says to them, and this is a good laugh between us.

And then here comes the blond one with the sandwiches and his money and his nice smile all ready. So of course I am not surprised when he asks me for smokes. And of course I know that he knows we have video in the store and that he is not eighteen, and there is no way I can let him buy cigarettes with my manager close by putting coins in the safe and filing receipts and those cameras pointed down at the counter. So the blond crew cut and me, we are passing this information back and forth with our eyes when the taller one with the handsome face and nervous hands leans in from behind. "Will, man, don't make her do that," I hear him whisper. "She gives you cigarettes, she gets fired."

Now I am laughing inside because of two things: (1) I can get this boy a hundred cigarettes anytime, and (2) the dark, serious one thinks he's protecting me.

Mr. Frank is still busy with some receipts and I don't think he's really watching us. Just in case, I pretend to make change at the other register, but my hands (that can do a hundred card tricks and make a quarter disappear), my hands do what is needed where the cameras can't see. The whole time, I feel the tall one's eyes on me.

I turn around and give the blond his change and I don't know why--maybe I am thinking of Maggie's brother Raúl, who has always been nice to me--I hand the tall one a rose. I laugh when his handsome face turns as red as the flower in his hand. But then my wrist itches and I know I will see this dark boy again.

From the Hardcover edition.
Jen Bryant

About Jen Bryant

Jen Bryant - The Fortune of Carmen Navarro

Photo © Amy Dragoo for Daily Local News

1. You’ve written on a wide variety of topics. Where do you get your ideas?

Honestly, ideas are everywhere: in books I read, in people I talk to, in my own household and neighborhood. The challenge is to capture them and mold them into a story that will both entertain and inform my readers. I don’t have a standard method of choosing which ideas I will turn into books . . . it’s more like the ideas choose me! For example, my first novel, The Trial, began as I was writing a series of poems (which I intended to send to magazines) about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder case. Before I knew it, I had put everything else aside and was really delving into the facts and myths about the investigation and the trial. A brief visit back to my hometown of Flemington, New Jersey, where the 1935 trial took place, convinced me that I should try and tell the whole story in a verse novel.

2. You wrote more than a dozen biographies before turning to fiction. How did that experience affect your later writings?

I’ve always been fascinated with real events and real people–and I find them frequently more interesting and more bizarre than anything I could ever make up. I also love to research–and by that I mean I love to hunt for interesting and little-known facts. The research process is never boring! I travel to museums, archives, and small towns where significant events took place (such as the Scopes Monkey trial in Dayton, Tennessee); I go to plays and watch movies; I interview famous people and witnesses to history; I read historical documents, books, magazines, and web pages.

3. Your third novel, Pieces of Georgia, is a 13-year old girl’s journal about her dead mother, her still-grieving father, her athletic best friend, and her own desire to become an artist. How did you create this character–and why did you have her live on a horse farm?

Many aspect of my own life came crashing together in that book. When I was a teenager, I spent many Saturdays on a horse farm in central New Jersey, and I used those memories to create the setting for Pieces of Georgia. I also grew up next to a funeral home (my father and grandfather were undertakers), so I had a lot of opportunity to observe how grief and loss affect different people. I participated in three sports in high school, but still had a lot of free time to explore other interests. Now, however, sports have become year-round and hyper-competitive and so I created Georgia’s friend Tiffany to represent the difficulties that teens today must deal with if they’re into sports. Lastly, I didn’t go to school for writing, so I had to engage in a lot of trial-and-error to find my own style and voice. In Pieces of Georgia, that’s exactly how Georgia goes about learning how to draw.

4. Tell us about your recent novel Kaleidoscope Eyes.

The main plot involves three friends who stumble onto a set of maps they suspect may lead them to one of the buried treasures of the notorious pirate Captain Kidd. (I started this book long before the recent events involving modern pirates starting appearing in the news!) The story takes place in 1968, in a small town in southern New Jersey. The entire ‘60s decade was turbulent, but that year was especially so: we had the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the peak of the Vietnam War, and hundreds of antiwar protests and sit-ins. There were huge rock concerts and drug use was rampant. Civil rights and women’s rights were gaining momentum, but there remained many parts of society who were violently opposed to both. So–in a way, it’s a 17th-century pirate tale embedded in a 1960’s rock ’n’ roll era story. It was a lot of fun to research, and hopefully even more fun to read!


Where were you born?

Easton, Pennsylvania . . . but I only lived there for a few weeks. I spent most of my growing up years in Flemington, New Jersey.

Where did you go to college? What did you study?

I went to Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I majored in French and minored in German and Secondary Education. Jerry Spinelli–who is a good friend and one of my favorite authors–went there, too.

Where do you live now and who’s in your family?

I live in northern Chester County, Pennsylvania, with my husband, Neil; my daughter, Leigh; and our energetic springer spaniel, Sam.

What other jobs have you had besides being a writer?

I’ve been a waitress, a bank teller, a cross-country coach, a high school teacher, a college professor, member of a road crew, retail clerk, picture framer, and probably a few others I’m forgetting!

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

I visit our local YMCA almost daily to bike, lift weights, do aerobics or swim–and also to see people! (Writing is very still and very solitary.) At home, I enjoy wandering around our yard to fill the bird feeders, play with our dog, and occasionally do a little gardening. I also love to read good poetry, fiction, and biographies and to watch movies with my family. When I travel, I enjoy visiting museums–especially the smaller and more unusual ones. The Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore are two of my favorites. I am also a HUUUUGE Philadelphia Phillies fan and watch their games whenever I can!

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