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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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: ★★☆☆☆

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

As riveting as watching paint dry.

I wasn’t planning on reading this as I wasn’t all that enthused by Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow. But, as I don’t like to write off authors on the basis of just one book & earlier this week I was in the mood for a gothic-kind-of-read, well, I decided to give Mexican Gothic a shot after all. And…yeah, my reading experience of Mexican Gothic was not a great one. The only reason I managed to finish it was because I listened to the audiobook at 1.75x speed.
If you liked this novel, ben per te. If you are thinking of reading it, I recommend you check out some more positive reviews as I have very few good things to say about it.

Let us begin with the supposed plot/story which takes place in 1950s Mexico (although dare i say, the historical setting was exceedingly generic). Noemí Taboada, our heroine, is a ‘spunky’ and ‘stylish’ young woman who enjoys going to parties, flirting with boys, and pursuing whatever she wants to pursue. Her father, a wealthy man, receives a letter from his niece and Noemí’s cousin. Catalina makes some alarming claims in her letter, hinting at some Big Bad™ and pleading for help. So Noemí’s father sends his daughter to High Place, Catalina’s husband’s family home where the newlywed couple resides. Once there, Noemí, so smart is she, notices that something is afoot. Almost every person in High Place is creepy af. We have Virgil, Catalina’s brutish yet handsome husband, who not only shows little concern over his wife’s malaise but he’s prone to making unpleasant passes at Noemí and seems the human embodiment of baseness (the villainous guy is indeed villainous? quelle surprise! ). His father, Howard, is even creepier than he is. He’s decrepit looking and into eugenics (don’t tell me…he’s also a baddie? no! i am shook). Then we have this woman called Florence who is also part of the family and seems a mere rip-off of Mrs Danvers. Her son, Francis, seems the only ‘nice’ person in the household but, as Noemí reminds us time and again, he’s so frail and shy, always doing his family’s bidding.

Nothing seems to happen. Noemí is sort of spooked but not really. She has bad dreams that she brushes off (i wonder if they really are dreams…or wait, don’t tell me, they are not ‘merely’ dreams? i am gobsmacked!). The house is creepy. Kind of. Noemí ‘disobeys’ the family’s rules by smoking indoors and taking off to the nearby town/village. There she comes across a character who serves the role of explainer, as she recounts the Doyles’ family history and of how the miners they employed died a mysterious death (or something along those lines). Despite knowing this and her cousin’s ravings about the house & her ‘new’ family Noemí doesn’t really cotton on to the situation. She is presented as this subversive modern Gothic heroine who doesn’t take shit from anyone and swears (such a badass, isn’t she?) because she isn’t afraid of being rude and gets indignant about the racist/sexist/generally offensive remarks made by this remarkably deranged family…and yet, in spite of all of these things, she struck me as frustratingly passive and, worst still, una vera cretina. And, one could say that it is understandable, she was being ‘gaslighted’ by those twisted and nefarious Doyles and by the house itself…but the thing is, she was also getting some pretty clear messages from beyond the veil (and she wasn’t the sceptic type who totally writes off the supernatural and she wasn’t the only one experiencing this ‘disturbing’ stuff so…).

The storyline was uneventful, filled with scenes that seem lifted from other works of Gothic: shifting shapes/people in the walls? The Yellow Wallpaper; incest? The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Flowers in the Attic, Crimson Peak; female mc is concerned because her newly married sister/cousin seems to have fallen mysteriously ill and her husband is clearly after her fortune? The Woman in White; Haunted house? Puh-lease, anything Shirley Jackson; inclusion of hard-hitting topics such as the horrors of ‘post-Enlightenment scientific racism’? Beloved.

This novel consists of Noemí having the same tedious conversation with the same boring characters. She gets the heebie-jeebies, does nothing about it. Her sleuthing? What sleuthing? She sort of figures things out towards the end but not really. More often than not ‘stumbles’ her way through this supposed ‘mystery’. And then we just had to have the villains explain things to her in their diabolical villainous monologues.

I did not find Noemí to be an engaging character. The way she comported herself struck me as overwhelmingly anachronistic. Someone ‘cool’ modern audiences can root for. Look at her, she gets angry when insulted! She swears! What a riot! An icon! A real feminist!

Don’t get me started on the other characters. If the story hadn’t taken itself so seriously I could have almost appreciated them (in a, look at them, they are clearly so OTT). But the story does seem to present them as these figures we should ‘fear’…speaking of fear. Was this meant to be horror? Not once was I creeped out or scared or anxious. If anything, I found the prose, dialogues, and character interactions to be so corny that there was no way I could feel apprehensive on the behalf of Noemí (who, truth be told, i did not care for in the least).

While the imagery and atmosphere did occasionally strike me as effectively Gothic, the setting and story would have benefited from more descriptions. The house in particular is depicted in such vague terms that I had a hard time visualising it (from its architecture to its interior decor). In my humble opinion, Gothic tales featuring haunted houses necessitate more evocative descriptions.
The whole mushroom/gloom thing was preposterous. It made the story all the more ridiculous.

So, to recap, this is why I did not like this:
Storyline: nothing interesting happens, there is barely any suspense unless you believe that one-dimensional creepy characters who act creepy from the get-go are a source of tension (personally i don’t).
Characters: clichèd? Not even in a fun way? They were really uninspired. Noemí wasn’t as annoying as the heroine from Gods of Jade and Shadow (who was very much a cinderella sort of figure) but she was so thick. The spooky family was laughably ‘evil’. And I can’t say that I like it when male characters who are physically described as frail-looking, not very ‘masculine’, are made into weak cowards (yeah, the guy here ultimately steps up but for the majority of the novel he is basically a carpet).
Dynamic/relationships: very surface level? Especially between the various family members. We get very few interactions between them and they seem to regard each other as strangers. Also, the interactions between these characters seemed so stilted, theatrical even.
Gothic elements: I know this genre is known for being derivative, for sticking to the same tropes etc…but this was written in the mid-to-late 2010s…surely, the author could have subverted some of these tropes? Her supposedly ‘spunky’ heroine is as hapless as an Ann Radcliffe one.
Ghosts/Haunting: banal? As uninspired as everything else about this book?
Historical setting: uberly generic. Thrown in a ‘women had it worse than now’, a few quaint phrases/expressions, some good ol’ racism/sexism/bigotry….and there you have it, historical vibe achieved!
Prose: simple, silly, and dramatic yet trying now and again to be ‘edgy’ and serious.

Also, I know this is not an entirely ‘valid’ criticism, but this is the second novel that I’ve read by this author and the lack of queer characters is…disappointing.

I think that this novel has confirmed that Moreno-Garcia is not the author for me. I’m happy other readers can appreciate her work, I, however, cannot in good faith count myself among her admirers. Maybe one day I will try something else by her…maybe (tis’ unlikely).

my rating: ★★½

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Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

In spite of its lively premise and its lovely cover art Sea Monsters is one of the most lacklustre books I’ve read this year. Thankfully, Sea Monsters is a slight novel, just around 200 pages. Then again, those 200 pages are a drag.

The summary for this novel is somewhat misleading as it promises the kind of surreal story that one could expect from authors such as Kevin Wilson or Samanta Schweblin. Sadly, Chloe Aridjis novel is far from being an inventive or subversive coming-of-age tale of a runaway girl. This work is tedious, uninspired…it lacks a spark. The traveling troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs mentioned in its summary are a mere red herring. They capture the readers’ attention but it turns out that their presence in the story is just a gimmick. Our narrator decides to run away with a tall lanky dark-haired boy who isn’t like other boys. She says she wants to find this troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs who seem to have ‘escaped’ from the circus they were employed by. The narrative consists in our protagonist having not so deep thoughts about life. Her tiresome and affected navel-gazing dominates her narrative. She relates her experiences or the conversations she with others in a way that adds little to no immediacy to her story (because of this the book earns the criticism of ‘too much telling, not enough showing’). Our main character mopes about nothing in particular. She seems vaguely intrigued by a guy she nicknames ‘the merman’ but this storyline lacks the zing of Schweblin’s ‘The Merman’ short story (here the guy is not an actual mermaid).
The 1980s setting seems to take precedence over character or story developed. While I appreciate the references to the genres, bands, and artists of the time (I mean, even Klaus Nomi gets a mention) they did not make up for the novel’s many shortcomings.

This book is just ‘meh’, lukewarm. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t like it, it didn’t really inspire any strong feelings in me. It was occasionally mildly frustrating but other than that…I just did not care for it.
Nevertheless, as with any of my less-than-enthusiastic reviews, I encourage you check out some of the more positive reviews.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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