The Houseguest: And Other Stories by Amparo Dávila

Whenever an author is compared to Shirley Jackson, I feel compelled to check their work out. More often than not, upon reading their stuff, I end up rather perplexed by the comparisons to Jackson. In the case of Amparo Dávila, well, this comparison isn’t wholly unearned. Jackson and Dávila’s approach to the horror genre certainly share similarities. Their stories are imbued by a surreal, almost fantastical, quality that seems to blur the line between reality and fantasy. Their characters are paranoid to the point of being delusional, but there are times when their fears are not wholly unfounded and that the people, places, and situations that cause them to feel such anxiety and terror are not wholly normal. I appreciated that Dávila sets many of her stories within a household or building, rarely venturing beyond their thresholds. This ‘restricted’ setting augments the oppressive atmosphere of her stories and often worsens her characters’ paranoia. Dávila upsets normal family dynamics and every day activities by introducing sinister guests and entities within her characters’ homes. Alienation, loneliness, madness, and despair are running motifs throughout this collection. Sadly, the stories ended up blurring together somewhat. The characters are thinly rendered and often interchangeable with one another. The writing was at times repetitive and there were instances in which certain descriptions & dialogues came across as stilted (i read the eng. translation so that may be why). There was also an overuse of ellipsis which made many scenes rather dramatic. I found myself wishing for Jackson’s humor as I found myself completely unamused by Dávila’s stories. Compared to contemporary horror authors such as Samanta Schweblin, well The Houseguest doesn’t quite come on top.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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It Is Wood, It Is Stone by Gabriella Burnham

Aside from its pretty cover It Is Wood, It Is Stone doesn’t have a lot to offer. It is one of those novels that is very much all style, no substance. Plot and character development are sacrificed in favour of gimmicky narrative devices and flashy metaphors. I finished this less than a week ago and yet I have retained almost nothing about its story or its characters. Not a great sign.

The novel is narrated by Linda, a bland American woman who follows her husband, a professor (?), to São Paulo after he’s given a yearlong teaching position there. Linda refers to Dennis as ‘you’, a gimmick that gets old fast (the kind of literary stunt that is more suited to a creative writing class). Anyhow, Linda isn’t sure if she still loves her bland husband but she nevertheless follows him because why not. In Brazil, Linda has to adjust to having a maid, Marta, an older woman she finds fascinating because of reasons. She then meets a woman in a bar and allegedly falls for her. More navel-gazing ensues with a few sprinkles of a half-hearted social commentary. The narrative doesn’t really provide much insight into issues of class, race, and sexuality. It thinks it does but really, the author is more intent on impressing their vibrant language on us (which often consists in clichéd imagery involving blood or the abject body and fake-deep realizations). The author doesn’t do much with her setting either. Much of the novel takes place indoors, which could have worked if our protagonist Linda had been an interesting narrator but her observations managed to be both dull and predictable. The author’s portrayal of marriage dynamics also failed to engage me. The author doesn’t maximise her story’s domestic setting, and rather than painting a convincing portrait of an increasingly disaffected married woman she presents us with a series of digressions (on the body, dreams, sex) that amount to nothing. The affair she has with this woman was rendered in such a vague manner that I never really bought into it. It seemed a plot-device more than anything.

There is nothing subversive or original about this novel. If you don’t mind affected and purply language, maybe you will find this more rewarding than I did.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Eat the Mouth That Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza

An exceedingly underwhelming collection. The cover and title of Carribean Fragoza’s debut collection succeeded in making me want to read it. After reading the first three stories, however, I found myself feeling rather underwhelmed by Fragoza’s storytelling. I, later on, decided to give this collection another shot, hoping that I would find the other stories in it to be more to my liking but alas no such thing happened. The stories in this collection struck me as the product of a creative writing assignment; they weren’t necessarily bad but the way these scenarios are presented to us struck me as contrived. The language tries hard to impress its importance on us, often through the use of showy metaphors that did not come across as particularly imaginative or clever. The prose has a sticky cloying quality that I find particularly unappealing but may very well appeal to other readers.

Many of these stories have domestic settings and centre on Mexican-American characters. These stories are permeated by an oppressive atmosphere. Characters feel trapped by their home life, the presence of their families and or friends does little to abate their fears and anxieties. Quite the opposite, in fact, these people often pose a threat to their physical and mental well-being. Through these stories, the author explores alienation, loneliness, paranoia, and otherness.

While I appreciated the themes that dominate Fragoza’s storytelling, I was unable to fully ‘immerse’ myself in her stories. Her affected prose irked me and I found the weird and grotesque elements to be predictable and not particularly engaging. Perhaps readers who haven’t read a lot of collections of horror stories be able to appreciate this debut more than I did. These stories weren’t as morbid as Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fireor Brenda Peynado’s The Rock Eaters. They lacked the surreal humor that characterizes Shirley Jackson’s work and the prose wasn’t as solid as say Samanta Schweblin’s in Mouthful of Birds. Some of the imagery succeeded in being grotesque but I did not find any of these stories to be particularly disturbing. This collection basically reads like a lite version of Enríquez’s’s ones.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova


When she left Ecuador for good, she learned how to leave pieces of herself behind. Pieces that her descendants would one day try to collect to put her back together.

In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, Zoraida Córdova combines an intergenerational family drama with magical realism, and the end result will certainly appeal to fans of Alice Hoffman and Isabel Allende. Not only does Córdova’s dazzling storytelling complement the fantastical elements within her story but her prose often brought to mind the language you encounter in fairy tales.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina follows a dual timeline. The one in the present opens with the formidable matriarch Orquídea Divina Montoya inviting her progeny to her funeral. Over the years her children and grandchildren have left her house in Four Rivers, and many of them have not returned since their departure. When they flock back to her home they find out that Orquídea has undergone a drastic change. In this part we are introduced to a lot of characters, many of them don’t even get a speaking line. The house is very crowded and arguments and disagreements inevitably come to pass. No one knows about Orquídea’s past, and some have come to resent her for it. Odd and inexplicable things have always happened to the Montoyas, and maybe, now, on her ‘deathbed’ Orquídea will finally reveal some of her secrets…except that she doesn’t. The narrative jumps seven years ahead where we learn that many of the Montoyas have been dying sudden and bizarre deaths. Someone, or something, maybe after them, but why?
The other timeline gives a glimpse into Orquídea’s Cinderellaesque childhood in Ecuador. Told from birth that she would have bad luck Orquídea finds herself growing apart from her mother once she remarries. Her stepsiblings bully her, her stepfather shows her no kindness. Additionally, Orquídea is tasked with various house chores and with looking after her youngest sibling. One day she goes to the circus and finds herself falling in love. The following chapters of her story follow her ill-fated romance.

I liked the first chapters, in which we are introduced to the various Montoyas (some more in-depth than others) and see their reactions to Orquídea’s ‘transformation’. The prose is gorgeous, the magical realism on point, and the mystery around Orquídea’s past intriguing. We then get a time-skip of 7+ and I’m afraid that I wasn’t particularly keen on it. We never get to properly know the majority of the Montoyas nor do we truly delve into the experiences of Marimar and Rey, our main characters. I think that much of this novel, especially once we’ve passed Orquídea’s death, relied too much on telling. Marimar was a bit of a generic lead while Rey very much existed for comic relief and many of his lines did seem to make him sound a bit like a stereotype (‘bitchy’, man-obsessed, etc.). He’s basically the gay best friend. The chapters set in the past were somewhat disappointing as I thought they would give us an overview of Orquídea’s life, as opposed to just focusing on her late teens/early 20s. I think her journey and early years in America had the potential of being quite interesting. I mean, she had several husbands and they barely get mentioned. Orquídea herself was hard to like. Having a Cinderella-like sob backstory doesn’t necessarily make you into a sympathetic or complex character. Still, I did find her intriguing and by the end, I did feel on her behalf (kind of). As I said, I wish that more of the Montoyas had been fleshed out. There were some deaths in the story and they had little to no impact because we didn’t know that characters who die all that much (they basically were included to be killed off). The ‘big bad’ was disappointing and at times the story gave me Disney vibes. At one point Córdova describes curls as ‘worm-like’ and that gets a minus from me.
In spite of these things (story+characters being kind of meh) I still thought that this was a good novel. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to those who are looking for character-driven stories or nuanced family sagas, however, if you happen to be a fan of the authors I mentioned above or of the magical realism genre, well, you should definitely consider giving this novel a go. The story is fairly compelling, the author’s prose is lovely, and the fantasy elements were great. Atmospheric and spellbinding The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is an engaging story about love, family, heartache, and fate.

ps: while the cover is by no means ugly I do think that it doesn’t really suit the tone of the story. Additionally, it is the kind of cover that would be better suited to YA novel, not an adult one.

my rating: ★★★½

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Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

DISCLAIMER: as I did not like Velvet Was the Night my review will be, alas, a negative one. If you are a fan of SMG or you happen to love this novel, congratulazioni. Please, don’t @ me just because I don’t feel the same way as you do, I get it, YMMV. If you are interested in reading this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

I think this novel is confirmation that SMG’s books are not for me. I want to love what she writes but so far, I find her books to be a source of great frustration. Her female characters strike me as an amalgamation of Not Like Other Girls/Mary Sues/Cinderella-like-figures, there tends to be a total lack of female solidarity (in the case of mexican gothic we barely get any scenes featuring the two female characters who are supposedly meant to be close), and, out of the three books I’ve read by her, there have been no queer characters.

After seeing that Velvet Was the Night was going to be a noir novel I found myself actually looking forward to reading it as I happen to enjoy noir books, such as the ones penned by Walter Mosley. The cover, title, and premise of Velvet Was the Night were certainly alluring. I mean, covers like this one are pretty much my Achilles’ heel. My expectations weren’t that high given my history with SMG’s works…and yet, even so, I still ended up being fairly disappointed by Velvet Was the Night.

BRIEF OVERVIEW
In this foray into the noir genre, SMG once again transports her readers to 20th Mexico. This time around the action takes place in Mexico City during the 1970s, aka during Mexico’s ‘Dirty War’, a period of civil unrest, with student demonstrators and civilians clashing against and being persecuted/disappeared/massacred by the government.
30-something Maite is a plain, dowdy, and downtrodden secretary who dreams of adventure and romance. Not only does her family care zilch for her (because , of course, ), but everyone seems to overlook her. Her one joy is reading Secret Romance comics. Through these, she can briefly escape her ‘miserable’ existence. She spends most of her time fantasizing about the kind of romance, passion, drama that fills those stories & playing her own teensy-tiny violin. She occasionally gets a thrill by stealing people’s belongings (such a bad girl), but for the most part, she’s a quiet, bookish, plain jane. When her beautiful neighbour, artsy student Leonora, disappears Maite sets out to find her. Not out of concern, but because she was tasked with cat-sitting Leonora’s cat and she isn’t planning on doing so gratis (this line…“Maite would be damned if she was going to also be paying for meow-meow’s cuisine.” meow-meow? wow, sick burn maite). Her ‘detective’ skills leave a lot to be desired. She spends the remainder of her narrative going on about how plain and pathetic she is, how much she loves Secret Romance, how every other woman has it better than she does (i mean, she can’t afford to get her car repaired!) and imagining herself being with the two guys who happen to have been involved with the missing neighbour. One of them is more handsome than the other. That’s it.
We also get chapters following Elvis, a thug who isn’t like other thugs. You see, whereas his fellow goons enjoy beating people up, he doesn’t. He’s part of an enforcer group with ties to the government. As suggested by his nickname Elvis adores ‘the King’, rock ’n’ roll. He also likes old-timey movies. He’s just a nice guy really. His boss tells him to find Leonora as she may have some incriminating photos. As he’s looking for her, Elvis also observes Maite, and eventually becomes vaguely infatuated with her.

(MINOR SPOILERS BELOW)

Before I move to the reasons why I did not vibe with this, I will try and mention a few positive-ish things:
✓ the cover and title get top marks
✓ I do admire SMG for switching between genres rather than sticking to one and for bringing her own style to said genre
✓ the atmosphere at times was on point (even if it did try too hard to be gritty and edgy)
✓ the music (SMG included a playlist with some really solid choices)
✓ some of the descriptions were actually pretty great and certainly fitted in with the noir aesthetic
✓ the sense of place & time were fairly strong
✓ the political commentary
✓ the ending’s open-ended nature

Now, for the things that were no good to me:

storyline
I’m all for slow-burn narratives but here the pacing never really took off. The plot consists of a series of incredibly repetitive scenes. Maite is with man numero 1 or man numero 2. She’s irritated by him, no, wait, she actually wants him. She comes across activists and grows slightly more aware of the world around her. That’s it. Elvis spends his portion of the story tailing Maite or others and dissing his ‘colleagues’ (who unlike him, a heart of gold do not have). While the author does address how fraught this period of time was in Mexico, I wanted more out of the story. I would have liked more interesting characters and more diverse interactions between them (instead of getting the same two characters speaking to each other).
The narrative is also repetitive when it comes to reiterating the same information about the characters. SMG already established early on what Maite and Elvis are like: Maite is plain and Elvis kind of wants out of the crime life. Yet, time and time again we read the same stuff about them. Maite goes on and on and on about how much she likes Secret Romance and how unsatisfied she is by her lamentably unromantic existence. Elvis just wants someone who shares his musical taste and maybe also a way out of his rather lonely lifestyle. I got this in the very first 20% of the book. Yet, I was confronted with this same info throughout my reading of this novel. I found them to be really insipid. They were, for the most part, passive. Things happen to them. Their arcs were as flat as their personalities.
The missing woman aspect of the storyline was similarly underwhelming. Leonora’s disappearance lacked oomph. I never felt any apprehension on her behalf because Maite doesn’t give two shits about her (so why should i bring myself to care?). She was also portrayed in such a snidey way….
Sadly, overall, I found this story to be dull & predictable. Nothing of note truly happens and I felt little to no suspense. I would have liked it more if the story had had a more tangible air of mystery. The story also felt vaguely vanilla? There is some violence and some swearing but other than that…eh, the tone of the story seemed rather juvenile. The narrative is very much intent on impressing upon us that tis’ noir. Sometimes, this works, but, sometimes it just struck me as a tad overdone and distracting almost.

characters
Maite maite maite….why why why did you have to be such a woe-is-me whinging whiner? Her character actually had potential I believe. I was hoping that the author would subvert this trope of the ‘plain and lonely secretary dreaming of romance’ but she sadly does not. The cover made me think that along the way Maite would slowly or drastically transform into a femme fatale or would become more self-assured and proactive behaviours. She does neither of these things. She remains very much the same by the end. She doesn’t grow or regress. To me, she was still recognisably the same Maite we met on the very first pages (note: emphasis on the ‘to me’). Very early in the narrative SMG establishes that Maite is overlooked by her family with a very ‘subtle’ scene in which her mother bakes or buys a chocolate cake for her birthday even if she knows that Maite doesn’t like chocolate. She’s served for last (if i recall) and given a small slice or something. Her mother also doesn’t care about helping her out with her car repair payments and compares her unfavourably to ‘your sister’ (who is married & with children). These scenes were meant to make us feel sympathetic towards Maite but they just succeeded in irritating me.
Maite isn’t beautiful or charismatic, nor does she have any friends (because of course). She spends most of her time envying other women, making judgy comments about their appearance (often implying that they lead easier lives than she does or have more luck). Other women are sexy, slim, provocative, without a care in the world. Maite isn’t that interested in politics and prefers reading comics or romance books. Someone describes them as syrupy or sappy or whatnot and she gets all flustered saying that they aren’t. Look, I’m all for escapist reads. But, there is no denying that the stuff she reads is sappy. Why pretend otherwise? It would have been more satisfying if in her defence of these comics/books Maite had pointed out how horrible and violent the ‘real’ world is, and why shouldn’t she wish to ‘escape’ it? And so what if she likes sappy love stories?
The fact of the matter is: I disliked her. She was that special brand of annoying that always acts like a victim. Everyone else is mean to her. They are either taking advantage of her (like leonora and her ‘men’) or mistreating her (her family). I would have loved her if she had been explicitly written as unlikeable. She could have been a modern Emma Bovary. Someone who is so determined to make her daydreams into her reality that she’s ready to sabotage her own marriage and reputation to do so. Emma is a bitch, but I love her. The narrative is quite clear in pointing out that she’s selfish and vain. Emma’s nastiness was quite subversive & refreshing. But here, well, Maite is just a crybaby, a nonentity. She claims that she’s pathetic and boring but then we have Elvis pointing out how ‘interesting’ she seems. The narrative seemed intent on making her seem ‘different’ and ‘more relatable’ than other women.
Maite did not strike me (again, emphasis on ‘me’) as a deep or fleshed out character. Yet, she was presented as being this complex woman who is caught in a ‘dangerous’ web. I wish she’d been written as being a wholly superficial and self-serving individual. Someone who is only concerned in making her fantasies into her reality. Or, as I said above, as someone who goes from being a tremulous meek & mousy woman who is unsure of herself, to a femme fatale type of figure. In scenes of ‘tension’ (when she is fighting with that guy) she either makes petulant remarks (which were frankly cringy given that he’s still a student and she’s in her 30s) or acts like the classic ‘fragile’ and ‘hysterical’ woman who can’t defend herself or speak up or use her brain to figure out stuff.
Elvis…I don’t have much to say about him. I could not take him seriously for the most part. Suffice it to say that he struck me as the type of male character female authors write. He isn’t particularly smart or kind, but really, he isn’t all that bad given that, unlike his ‘mates’, he doesn’t love violence. Also, he’s into music…clearly, that makes him deep…right?
The secondary characters are very much cardboard cutouts. The women are all horrible and catty. The men are either thick, douchebags, or fuckbois.

writing
While at times I liked SMG’s prose, her style strikes me as passive. That is to say that when she recounts something I feel very much at a distance from what she’s recounting (even if that thing is happening there and then).

good vs. evil/morality
Clearly bad characters are revealed to be in fact bad. While our good characters have one or two ‘reasonable’ flaws (she steals now and again, he’s working for the ‘baddies’) that are meant to humanise them, said flaws don’t change the fact that they are very much the good ones. Our MCs were not the morally grey characters I’d hoped they’d be (esp. given that the noir genre lends itself well to ambiguous characters).

All in all, this novel was a vexing read. The story was boring and clichéd and the characters thinly rendered caricatures. As mentioned early on, the lack of female solidarity and lgbtq+ characters also frustrated me (can we stop pitting women against each other?).

I give up with SMG’s books. I wish the author nothing but the best and I’m happy to see that many other readers can appreciate her work in a way I’ve so far been unable to. Her novels are just not for me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Rock Eaters: Stories by Brenda Peynado

The Rock Eaters: Stories will probably appeal to fans of macabre tales, such as the ones authored by Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, and possibly even Yōko Ogawa. This collection of speculative short stories is a highly metaphorical one. Brenda Peynado uses magical realism, aliens, dystopian and fantastic scenarios, to discuss immigration, xenophobia, and class disparity. While I appreciated the issues Peynado tackles within her narratives these stories seemed often allegorical to the point of distraction. Much of the imagery was repetitive and the grotesque elements embedded within these narratives came across as unnecessarily garish and sensationalistic.

Peynado’s fabulist tales are certainly more successful than those stories that venture into the sci-fi/dystopian realm; they either read like knock-off Black Mirror episodes or as incredibly derivative of other works. There is one story, in particular, that seemed to rip off Memory Police, and another one—starring aliens being persecuted and oppressed—seemed a bit too reminiscent of films such as District 9.
While the author certainly plays around with different genres the tone and style of these stories weren’t all that varied. They are incredibly depressing and negative. The characters blur together, seeming to share the same kind of generic personality. The author often uses a choral perspective, ‘we/us’, and this struck me as the classic stylistic device used in creative writing classes (‘experiment’ with ‘perspective’ and all that). It just didn’t work for me. I also found that these stories didn’t have much to say about anything other than underlining how crap everything is. There seems to be not one ray of hope within these tales. The lack of lgbtq+ characters also seemed a bit annoying (one story has a same-sex relationship). I also did not care for the way in which these tales handle mental health and diseases (that one where people fall asleep for years, or the one with the wife in a come).
I can think of many other books that discuss similar topics with much more depth (The Undocumented Americans, works by Patricia Engel and Edwidge Danticat). In this collection, the author seems to sacrifice character and story development to style. This may indeed work for other readers but it did zilch for me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun by Jonny Garza Villa

“And I think about how Dad gave me everything I could need. Except for the one thing that shouldn’t have terms or conditions. That should be a given. That should be so easy. Acceptance.”

Written in a simple conversational style Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun is a tender love story, equal parts funny and heartfelt. Julián Luna’s voice is exceedingly authentic and it will be easy for readers to form a connection to him. Jules lives with his father in Corpus Christi, Texas, and he is in his last year of high school. He has a tight group of friends, most of them Latinx like him, and a supportive older sister. His relationship with his father however has become increasingly strained in recent years. Jules’ father has a fixed vision of what being his son should be like. His rather passè notions of manhood and masculinity lead him to abhor anything he perceives as ‘different’. He’s also quick to anger and is verbally and physically abusive towards his son.
Even if Jules is not ashamed of being gay he isn’t willing to ‘come out’ in this kind of environment. His plans to ‘lay low’ are however sabotaged by one drunken tweet. The author does a brilliant job in depicting the, shall we say, highs and lows of coming out. On the one hand, Jules feels as if he can finally be himself, and many of the people around him are incredibly supportive and ‘there’ for him (i particularly loved his bond with his sister and jordan). On the other, well, given that his father has always been outspokenly homophobic it is unlikely that he will have a sudden change of attitude.
As Jules goes through this particularly difficult period in his life he becomes close to Mat, who lives in Los Angeles and whom he ‘met’ via Twitter. Mat, also in his last year of high school, is an immeasurably sweet and empathetic guy and their texting was the perfect blend of cute, funny, and real. When they both start catching feelings they decide to try a long-distance relationship.
What follows is a touching coming-of-age. There are many light-hearted and romantic moments that balance out the more heartbreaking ones. The author demonstrates great empathy in the way they portray and address abuse and struggles faced by lgbtq+ teens. Jules’ story, however painful, is one that needs to be told. Sometimes the people you love the most are the ones who will reject you or hurt you just for being yourself. Jules’ makes for a relatable and likeable protagonist. The author articulates Jules’ insecurities (about being ‘out’, his future, his relationship with his dad and others) in a very realistic manner. I also appreciated how bilingual the novel is—through Jules’ inner monologues and his conversations with his friends/family.
The love story was probably my favourite part (was the moon/sun thing a bit cheesy? yes. did i care? no). While the story itself isn’t the most ‘original’, we have quite a few classic YA tropes, and some of Jules’ friends are rather one-dimensional, I overall really enjoyed this. Some of the pop culture references did go over my head, the kind of music the characters listen to in this novel is the kind that would make my ears bleed (just kidding), and having a character say “OTP” in real life is cringe, but whatever, these are minor things that probably won’t bother other people.
Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun will definitely appeal to fans of the YA coming-of-age genre and I would 100% recommend it to those looking for an engrossing story filled with romance, heartbreak, and hope.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade

“Is this what motherhood means? Being suddenly able to pity the adults in your life?”

Set over the course of a year in Las Penas, New Mexico, The Five Wounds is a novel about failure and progress. Unsentimental yet moving The Five Wounds details the everyday lives of three members of the Padilla family. There is Angel who is sixteen and pregnant. After her mother (who was also a teen mom) fails her in the worst way imaginable Angel moves in with her deadbeat father (who still lives with his mother). Amadeo is thirty-three, self-involved, jobless, and expects his mother to look after him. Yolanda, in her fifties, who has always been the family’s ‘rock’ has little time for either of them after receiving an end-of-life diagnosis.
The narrative focuses in particular on Angel and Amadeo. Angel is attending a special program for teen moms and hopes that she will be able to carry on her studies while also looking after her son. Yet, the adults around, even her loving grandmother, seems to be too occupied to offer her any real support. Her mother tries to make amends but Angel is unable to forgive her. She becomes close with Lizette, another girl from the group, who is in an even more disadvantageous position than Angel herself.
Amadeo spends most of his days blaming others for his less than stellar life. He drinks too much, does very little for other people, and acts like a child around his sister who is one of the few people who calls him out on his shitty behaviour. Amadeo is indeed proves himself time and again to be a bit of shit. He often calls women bitches, he’s blind to his mother’s failing health, and takes pleasure in knowing that if he wants he could get his sister off his back by appearing intimidating (and he knows that she was in an abusive relationship). In many ways, he was a Frank Gallagher sort of figure. We do see that he does try now and again to be there for his daughter, but as soon as things don’t go his ways he defaults to blaming others for his own failures and shortcomings. He feels some sense of purpose when he plays Jesus in the Good Friday procession but it does not last as it seems to briefly give him a conflated sense of himself (he habitually compares himself to Jesus, sometimes hilariously so: “Amadeo imagines windshield repair is a trade Jesus might get behind. It is, essentially, carpentry for the twenty-first century).

I appreciated that Angel is not made into a caricature of a teenager (even if the author makes the point of making all teen girls in this novel unable of applying makeup: their faces are caked with foundation, their lashes clumpy with mascara…). She clearly wants someone she can look up to, and she briefly thinks that Brianna, who is in charge at that teenage mother’s group, but more often than not she’s left disappointed. Even Lizette proves to be less than dependable and it was saddening to see how few people are there for Angel.

The author’s style is very matter-of-fact but also capable of piercing observations or touching exchanges. The tragicomic tone succeeds in making occasional fun of the characters, Amadeo in particular, without belittling them and allowing us to sympathise with them and their efforts to be better or improve their circumstances. Some may not like that the story leaves quite a few storylines unresolved but I thought that it fitted with the novel’s realistic and dry storytelling. What lessened my reading experience was the way Yolanda was pushed on the outskirts of the narrative so that her presence in the story seems minimal. While I understand that the story was making a point, showing us how self-involved Amadeo and Angel are not to notice that Yolanda is also going through a difficult time, we could have had more chapters following Yolanda perspective. Instead, we get unnecessary passages centric on Brianna, one of the novel’s least believable and interesting character. Lizette’s portrayal too was a bit wanting (in particularly her self-harming) and I could have done without the adults drinking breastmilk scene (if I had a nickel for every time I came across this sort of scene in a book, I’d have two nickels, which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice).
Part of me also wishes that we could have had less homophobia (“He’s not gay. That’s gross”) or that at least the narrative could have challenged some of those comments. I get that it was ‘realistic’ but the story just seems to confirm that there can be no happy (or at least functional) queer couple.

Overall this was a realistic portrayal of a less-than-perfect family. The characters are flawed, they say and or do offensive/unlikable things, their circumstances are less-than-ideal, their relationships with each other can be frustrating and messy. The author succeeds in not only depicting the day-to-day lives of the Padillas but she also captures, for better or worse, their community in Las Penas. The novel’s religious undertones did not feel distracting nor did they take away from the narrative’s factual style. There was something about this novel that really brought to mind Showtime’s Shameless so if you a fan of that show you might want to give The Five Wounds a try.

my rating: ★★★½

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Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

However distressing, I appreciated the realities, issues, and themes Gabriela Garcia explores throughout her novel. Sadly, the author’s execution and writing style lessened my overall reading experience. I know that interconnected narratives can work well, and some of my favourite novels employ this technique (The Travelers and Travellers), but I would have probably preferred for Of Women and Salt to either be a series of short stories or to stick to two or three timelines/perspectives—such as Margaret Wilkerson Sexton does in A Kind of Freed
Take one of the firsts chapters, the one set in Cuba during the 19th-century in a cigar factory. That chapter bears no real weight on the novel, and it would have fitted a lot more in a family saga authored by Isabel Allende. The other chapters are mainly set in the present day and offer readers rushed glimpses into the lives of Latinx women living in America. Some of them are undocumented, and we see how vulnerable a position that leaves them in (there is the risk deportation, being forced to accept jobs that pay badly or are exploitative, no health insurance, racism, prejudice…the list goes on). We read of the horrifying realities and treatments undocumented individuals are exposed to daily. Garcia returns time and again to themes of motherhood and resilience. Garcia also shows us how devastating addiction is, both on the addict and on their loved ones.

A lot of the time I was unable to truly familiarise myself with a character or their situation because I found the author’s prose almost distracting. There were certain staccato sentences or oddly phrased phrases that brought to mind Joyce Carol Oates’ most recent work and I for one am not a fan of this style. I’m sure many other readers will find it a lot more rewarding than I did but I alas found it a bit contrived at times.
I wish the story could have exclusively focused on Jeanette and Carmen. Their fraught relationship was compelling. I could sadly relate to some of Jeanette’s experiences, and I am grateful to Garcia for the way she discusses sexual assault. We do have a tendency of dismissing groping or other forms of sexual assault as ‘minor’ as not ‘as bad as rape’. And at times it is difficult to articulate why someone’s words or behaviour made you feel so violated or uncomfortable.
There is a chapter in which Jeanette is fifteen or so and goes for a night out…and there was something about that chapter that I really did not like. Maybe it was the tone or the way the author described fifteen-year-old Jeanette but something just…rubbed me the wrong way. I also did not particularly care for the direction of her storyline (addicts can never recover etc.).
The few chapters focusing on Jeanette’s neighbour, who is detained by ICE, and her daughter felt a bit harried. I think the author should have expanded their stories more or simply not included them in this novel.

While the topics explored in this novel are important I wish that these could have been presented to us differently. The constant shifting of perspectives made it hard for me to truly immerse myself in what I was reading. It was a bit distracting and maybe it could have worked better if the novel and been longer. Then again, given my feelings towards the author’s prose maybe I would have still felt underwhelmed by it.
I encourage prospective readers to check out some more positive and/or #ownvoices reviews. If you like the work of Patricia Engel, Melissa Rivero’s The Affairs of the Falcóns, or Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford you will probably be able to appreciate Of Women and Salt more than I was able to. If you like me did not find Of Women and Salt to be a riveting read I recommend you read The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio which is a work of nonfiction that explores the realities of undocumented individuals.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For a work that was first published in 1998 Daughter of Fortune strikes me as something more suited to the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Isabel Allende’s work and she is one of my favourite authors, however, at the risk of coming across as an oversensitive zillennial, her mystification of China struck me as rather old-fashioned. The way Allende portrays other cultures and groups relies on clichés. Yes, some of these characters were, for the most part, ‘harmless’ stereotypes, but nonetheless, they did induce an eye-roll or two on my part (for instance, every indigenous woman from Chile is cuvacious and passionate).

As with many other novels by Allende Daughter of Fortune is very heavy on the telling. There are very few, if any, dialogues, which did occasionally distance me from the events Allende narrated. Still, her storytelling, for the most part, kept me engaged in the characters and their stories.
The novel begins in Chile during the 1840s. Eliza Sommers, a Chilean girl and the novel’s central character, is adopted by Rose Sommers, an unmarried Briton. Rose lives with her strict older brother and tries to raise Eliza as a ‘proper’ Victorian lady. Eliza, however, goes on to fall head-over-heels in love with a Chilean man of ‘dubious’ character. When her beloved is struck by gold fever and leaves for California, a bereft Eliza will risk her own life to be reunited with him.
The story definitely takes its time, and, the first few chapters are less focused on Eliza than a tertiary character, a certain Jacob Todd who travels to Chile after making a bet. He falls for Rose but she clearly does return his affection. We also read about his friends, Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz and his wife, whose role in the novel feels rather superfluous. During Part I we also learn more about Rose and her brothers and of Eliza’s childhood with them.
The remainder of the novel details Eliza’s epic journey to find the man she loves. During this time Eliza becomes acquainted with Tao Chi’en, a shanghaied physician who for a time worked as a cook on a ship captained by Rose’s other brother, John. Across two lengthy chapters, Allende recounts Tao’s life, from his early days to his marriage and, after his wife’s death, of his eventual disillusionment. Once in California Eliza and Tao grow closer and it is their bond that truly makes this novel. Allende, quite clearly, shows that Eliza’s feelings towards her paramour lead her to idealize this poco di buono man. Yet, her devotion towards him is such that she is willing to spend years of her life in search of him, passing as a young man in order to travel with more freedom.
The novel is certainly full of drama and Allende frequently falls prey to sappy platitudes (about love, destiny, desire, womanhood).
But whereas I could easily overlook Allende’s tendency towards the melodramatic, I had a harder time looking past her clichéd portrayal of China, its culture, and people. When the narrative is relating Tao’s youth, Allende, quite out of the blue, feels the obligation of using a metaphor involving rice (when describing a Chinese mother’s grief: “the little girl’s accident was like the grain of rice that makes the bowl overflow.”). Tao, who is in his thirties, is described looking as sometimes looking like a teenager, and, “ancient as a turtle”, so that “it was easy then to believe that he had lived many centuries”. Whyyyyyy do we have to compare the one Chinese character to a turtle?! And of course, because he is an East Asian man he has to have “delicate ” hands.
Allende includes many other stereotypes about China, and I just have very little patience for this sort of stuff. It didn’t help that Allende includes a plethora of clichés (such as prostitutes with hearts of gold, or Eliza ‘rescuing’ a Native American boy….come on Allende!).
Yes, there were many beautiful descriptions and Allende clearly researched this period of history but I had a hard time getting to like or care for her characters (who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgemental, anti-abortion). While it made sense, given that the story takes place during the 1840s, it made it difficult for me to actually relate or sympathize with the characters. Eliza was beautiful (in an unconventional way, of course), kind, and clever. The classic heroine. Her love for this guy was definitely of the insta-love variety, and while the narrative does point this out, I struggled to understand what possessed her to follow this guy whose blandness is such that I cannot recollect his name.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development between Tao and Eliza, and it was refreshing to see a Chinese man be not only one of the main characters but the heroine’s love interest. I wish the novel had focused exclusively on them, with less of the ‘will they won’t they’ subplot.
Overall, the novel is kind of cheesy and rather dated. Still, fans of Allende who are less ‘sensitive’ than I am will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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