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Reviewed by Kristine Hall for Readers' Favorite
“Only when you’re a little lost can you start to find direction.” In Rafael Blotta's We Were Kings, Robert Bartholomew doesn’t know he’s lost; he is living his own life as a writer in Guatemala, far from his South Philly upbringing and the family and neighborhood ties he found a little too binding. Robert has nothing in common with those people, especially his brother who has become a guitar god on the rock scene. Good riddance, Robert tells himself. He has happily moved beyond his days as Robbie from Gloucester City and has no plans to look back -- that is until the arrival of the invitation to come home for his father's fiftieth birthday party. Robert begrudgingly finds himself on an airplane back home, then facing his past which, alarmingly, is his present. Robbie soon realizes that families are bonded by things that distance can't break: love, acceptance, and understanding, and perhaps those aren't such bad ties after all. Rafael Blotta tells a poignant story about family and friendship and the perspective on them that comes only with maturity.
Blotta has a real gift for depicting reality, and his writing flows in a natural, unshowy way. His characters are fully fleshed-out and easily imagined as people readers have known or met. I appreciated the adjusted phonetic spellings to help the readers "hear" the strange, exclusive Gloucester City accent described as, "the only accent of its kind in the entire world, a strange mix of South Jersey Irish-American descendents [sic] combined with a South Philly Italian intonation, all wrapped together with the slur and mindset of the dockworkers that had first made their homes here over a hundred years ago.” Blotta uses beautiful, descriptive language and also some colorful figurative language that perfectly illustrate his characters. For example, in describing his great-grandmother, he says, “She had a penchant for sprinkling the truth with flavorful bullshit.” This short description speaks volumes about the character, and really illustrates the overall impression of We Were Kings: Rafael Blotta’s story speaks volumes in just a few pages.