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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This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno

The blurb for This Thing Between Us is somewhat misleading. After reading it, I went into this novel expecting to be a tale about this couple who buy a possibly evil home smart speaker only to discover that said home speaker is a mere speck in the story and that the events described in the blurb don’t really happen on the page but have already come to pass by the start of the novel. This Thing Between Us opens with Vera’s funeral. Her death leaves her husband, and narrator, Thiago bereft. He refers to Vera as ‘you’, a stylistic choice that might as well appeal to other readers, but one that does zilch for me. I find this device gimmicky at the best of times and in this case it contributed nothing to the story or it did not help in making ‘you’ (aka Vera) into a fully dimensional character. Maybe this was intentional, after all, she’s dead by the start of the novel so we never truly ‘meet’ her, however, I would have still preferred it if her character had been fleshed out (flashbacks, for instance, would have helped). Anyhow, Thiago is definitely not doing so well after her death, a death which turns out was very much a public affair. The media and various political parties try to spin her death in their own favour, or try to use it to further their agendas. Thiago couldn’t care less, he just wants to be left alone. Other people’s grief and sympathies alienate him further and he finds himself increasingly aware of a sense of wrongness in his house. He eventually leaves Chicago for a remote cabin where, surprise surprise, things take a turn for the worst. Here the story definitely brought to might The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones.
This is yet another horror novel that did not really affect me all that much. I wasn’t creeped out or horrified or even preoccupied. Part of it is because Thiago as a character bored me. I found him very generic and despite the majority of the narrative constituting his internal monologue, well, I did not feel as if I knew all that well. The guy is grieving for sure, but I would have liked to see more of his personality (other than he’s sort of an introvert). His voice didn’t captivate me nor was I invested in his character. While the author does dedicate a lot of time to Thiago’s grief and grieving process, he seems to lose focus of Vera. She’s very much a blank, and I wish that her death had not happened off-page prior to the beginning of the story.
The horror/paranormal angle of the story was also ultimately a letdown. As I said above, I thought this would be more about Itza, the speaker, but, turns out this was more of a supernatural/cosmic horror kind of tale. At times I was reminded of Pet Sematary (but lite). The lack of secondary characters also made the story harder to get through. So much of the narrative revolves around Thiago, a guy I was not particularly keen on. In the latter half of the novel things pick up somewhat but I found a lot of the events predictable. I was hoping it would subvert certain horror tropes but it ends up dishing out the same tired horror stuff (your protagonist has a dog? guess what happens…). The gore was eeh…not quite as gratuitous as other horror novels but nevertheless unnecessary if you ask me. Having those scenes didn’t upset me, however, they made me roll my eyes once or twice.
If you want to read this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you, like me, added this to your tbr thinking it would be about a knock-off Alexa gone bad, I suggest you look elsewhere because this book has very little to do with technology (but rather it gives us the same ol’ cosmic horror).

my rating: ★★½

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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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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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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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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Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“No one had ever taught me how to love. And perhaps, in that department, I was uneducable.”

Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is heartbreakingly beautiful collection of short stories. These stories have Benjamin Alire Sáenz written all over them: Mexican-American boys and men struggling with their identity (not feeling Mexican or American enough), their sexuality, their self-worth, and who have complex relationships with their parents. There is a focus on the dynamic between fathers—of father-like figures—and sons, on family history, on trauma, on feeling lost and disconnected.
I read a review criticising this collection because the stories aren’t varied enough, and I guess that they are narrated by boys and men in similar positions. They are conflicted, hurting, and confused. They have parents who are troubled (by depression, addiction, trauma). Most of the narrators also like thinking of the meaning of words and doing creative things. Yet, in spite of these similarities, these stories never blurred together. But if you do prefer collections that offer a wide-range of different styles and themes, maybe Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club won’t appeal to you. I just happen to be the ‘right’ kind of reader for these stories. Sáenz’s subtle yet striking prose always gets to me. I love Sáenz’s empathy, the tenderness he shows to his characters, the thoughtfulness he demonstrates in discussing trauma, addiction, and abuse. I also liked the Kentucky Club would pop up in each story as did discussions concerning Juárez.
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is a moving collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Sáenz.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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After Elias by Eddy Boudel Tan — book review

49218727.jpgFrom its heartbreaking first pages, to its lump-in-your-throat epilogue, After Elias is an emotionally charged novel.

“People can bring you pain, but nothing will hurt more than the pain you inflict on yourself.”

Grief, guilt, regret, and fear dominate Tan’s narrative. Coen Caraway and Elias Santos are meant to have a fairy-tale wedding and live happily ever after. One week before their big day, the airplane piloted by Elias crashes into the Arctic Ocean, leaving Coen, who had just arrived on the idyllic Mexican island that was meant to host their wedding, bereft.
When the authorities begin speculating whether the crash wasn’t accidental, Elias becomes a prime suspect. His cryptic final words, “Pronto dios” (“soon god”) disconcert an already grieving Coen.
While his family and friends plead for him to return home, to Vancouver, Coen refuses. His stay on the island however does not keep his doubts at bay. In spite of his insisting that “he is fine”, Coen finds himself spiralling. In the passing days he tries to make sense of this unimaginable tragedy and of his own relationship with Elias.
As the narrative moves from past to present, readers begin to gain a picture of both Coen and Elias.

“Life is nothing more than an elaborate house. It starts out small, a simple shelter. Then we build upon it, room by room, believing in the necessity of every expansion, every renovation. By the time we realize it is no longer a shelter but a tomb, it’s too late.”

Coen’s grief, confusion, and uncertainties feel strikingly authentic.Tan allows his readers to witness and understand the depth and magnitude of Coen’s discordant feelings. Coen’s thoughts, emotions, and impressions are articulated in a subtle yet lyrical language.
I was often surprised, and spellbound, by Tan’s arresting imagery.

“The only sounds in the room are my pounding heart and fitful breathing. I am Lazarus returning from the land of the dead, a corpse trapped by life.”

Tan renders Coen’s pain with exceptional compassion, without sensationalising Coen’s—and other characters’—grief and desperation. What particularly struck me was how ‘real’ Coen felt. His fears and anxieties are depicted with incredible authenticity. The way he simultaneously wants and doesn’t want to confront the darkest aspects of his relationship with Elias, his dormant yet inherent conviction that he will never be happy, his inability to express how he feels…everything about him felt real.
Other characters, such as his two best friends, Vivi and Decker, his brother, Clark, the hotel’s bartender, Gabriel, are just as believable. Decker in particular has a complex relationship with Coen, one that will undoubtedly make some readers tear up (I certainly did). These characters are flawed yet capable of change. While readers may not come to know them as well as they do Coen, they will get an impression of what kind of person they are (or want to be).

Although Tan doesn’t provide lots of descriptions when it comes to the appearance of his characters or the island itself, his narrative is remarkably atmospheric. Tan’s discerning prose relays the mood or quality of a certain conversation or moment.
The distinctive and deceptively dream-like setting of the island, as well as Coen’s own dreams, reminded me of certain novels by Ann Patchett, in particular State of Wonder and The Magician’s Assistant. The way in which Tan approaches painful themes bear resemblance to Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s own approach in his more adult novels, such Last Night I Sang to the Monster and In Perfect Light.

Through his prose, which is in turns lucid and opaque, Tan showcases his capacity for empathy and compassion. He offers insights into grief, loneliness, abuse, mental illness, and trauma.
After Elias is an artful and heart-wrenching novel. Although it doesn’t make for ‘easy’ reading material, its cathartic narrative and underlying message of hope are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

PS: I’m so grateful to NetGalley for having accepted my request to read After Elias. I’m not sure I would have ever read this novel if I hadn’t spotted on NetGalley’s ‘recently added’ page.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — book review

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In spite of the beautiful attention that Gods of Jade and Shadow pays to the function of myths and deities in our everyday lives…this turned out to be an unexpectedly juvenile read…

The swift storytelling found in Gods of Jade and Shadow might not appeal to those readers who prefer slower and more in depth narratives such as The Song of Achilles. Here there is a focus on the action or better yet on the quest undertaken by our protagonist. Scenes rarely featured the same backdrop since the various characters keep moving from one location to another which in turn leads to underdeveloped settings. The various places and characters-human and non-encountered by our protagonist(s) are often breezed through so that they have little time to leave an impression on the reader. Having finished this book a few days ago I recall not one of the characters that Casiopea and Hun-Kamé encounter…which isn’t a good sign.

The story is predictable and follows a repetitive pattern in which our cinderella-like main character Casiopea unwilling joins a former god, Hun-Kamé, who will be able to regain his rightful role as ruler of Xibalbla only after he finds certain ‘items’ (which are conveniently stored in places he knows of and that are fairly easy to reach). The story in its simplicity seems more fitting in a middle-grade novel rather than an adult one, and in fact, I would have actually preferred it if this book had been clearly aimed at a younger audience.
Another criticism I have is that it should have been more decisive in its tone, darker as Valente’s Deathless, or as tantalisingly ingenious as Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series, or even as satirical and fun as Zen Cho‘s Sorcerer Royal duology. But the tone in Gods of Jade and Shadow remained rather inconsistent, which is a pity since there are many occasions where Moreno-Garcia’s writing style does really echo that of a skilled storyteller. The narration at times evoked that of a fairytale yet in certain instances this omniscient narrative seemed rather simplistic and often reached clichéd conjectures.

The setting only comes into focus when the narrative explicitly addresses some of the trends of the twenties…mentioning a couple of times the popular dances and haircuts from this period does not render the time in question. At times it did so by literally blurting out these trends on the page:

Mexico City in the 1920s was all about the United States, reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace. Charleston! The bob cut! Ford Cars!”

I wanted more of the vernacular (which I know is difficult since the characters are not speaking in English but I’m sure that there are differences between contemporary Yucatec Maya and the one spoken in the 20s). The story could have easily had a modern setting as the only thing that truly emerges from this historical setting is that our protagonist as a woman has little control over her life.
Another thing that detracted from my overall enjoyment of this story was the over use of exclamation marks (“It was not possible. He was ruler of Xibalbla now! Nothing could change this, nothing could ruin his plans.”) or when the narrative used expressions such as ‘oh dear‘ (“That might be a relief, since she did not understand what they were supposed to do in the city, and oh dear, she wasn’t ready for any of this.”).

Perhaps this was done to lend immediacy to the events narrated or to give urgency to certain moments or thoughts but it seemed a bit contrived and was not handled all that well.
As the story focuses on the quest, the characters seemed rather flaky. Casiopea was the typical heroine of certain YA fiction, she is kind and just yet has endured many wrongs (alienated from the rest of her family, made to their bidding, etc…). Much was made of her ‘temper‘ so much so that I kept excepting a trace of it but found none. I’m not sure why her will was emphasised so much, and in often such cheesy lines:

She was wilful, daggers hidden beneath her muttered yeses, her eyes fixing on him, slick as oil.

The romance was unnecessary and ‘blossomed’ out of nowhere. It made a potentially interesting character into a love interest, turning yet another dark and powerful death god into little more than eye-candy.
In spite of all these flaws I still enjoyed those passages which solely focused on reiterating Mayan mythology. It was in those moments that the narrative really brought into focus the events and figures it spoke of. And there were certain descriptions that had a nice rhythm but these were far too few.

There was the slim veneer of civilty to his actions. He spoke unpleasantries, but in the tone of a gentleman.

Overall, I’m not sure I do recommend this one.
Cho’s fantasy-romp series (Sorcerer to the Crown & The True Queen) offers a similar type of fast-paced storytelling but with much more historical detail, while N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season creates a much more complex and compelling narrative that addresses dynamics between humans and divine beings.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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