Mexican Gothic

The parties at the Tuñóns’ house always ended unquestionably late, and since the hosts enjoyed costume parties in particular, it was not unusual to see Chinas Poblanas with their folkloric skirts and ribbons in their hair arrive in the company of a harlequin or a cowboy.

Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Del Rey 2020

It’s always tricky to read a hyped book, I’ve mentioned this before. Is it a hype because people jumped on the band wagon, or does it really deserve all praise?

I wanted to say that I don’t know with this one, but I think I do. The promo laid it on thick that for once this wasn’t a Latin-American author writing magic-realism and that her scares were genuine. Magic-horror, terror, gothicness! I, far from a fan of horror, was curious because of the denial. I understand – no-one wants to be cornered as a one-trick-pony, but why not promote the story if it was So Different Than Any Other?

Maybe because it isn’t. Noémi moves to a scary, old house far away from civilisation to help a cousin that sent her a nerve-wrecking letter. Is it abuse, is it gas lighting or is it [add drums here] something else?

I won’t answer that question, but will say that Moreno-Garcia takes her time for a build-up only to throw everything at you in the last fifty pages.

It’s a nice roller-coaster ride, but nothing we haven’t experienced before.

Conservation of Shadows

It is not true that the dead cannot be folded.

Conservation of Shadows, Yoon Ha Lee, Prime Books 2020

Now that’s what I call fantasy. Or scifi. Maybe both. Either way, there is fantasy and there is science (fiction) and it’s mind boggling, eerie and beautiful (not just for linguistic and/or math enthusiasts either). Eat that, tropes.

Conservation of Shadows is a collection of (short) stories previously published by the author. It’s about colonialism, wars, music, writing, reincarnation or maybe only death.

Especially the first five – six stories tickled my imagination, but even when you get used to Lee’s style and subject choice the originality stays with you.

My only complaints are that some stories deserve entire novels and that – for an e-book – it’s almost too much, too dense. Experience this relic from a future time through paper, I’d advice.

Sex and Vanity

Dearest Lucie and Charlotte,

Sex and Vanity, Kevin Kwan, Doubleday 2020

Yes, the author of Crazy Rich Asians and the rest of them.

Is it fair to judge a book like this on more than its promise and if it’s delivered? Like a “real” novel? Well, there’s different kinds of judging of course, but what if I just mention what’s going on?

The plot is an enemies-to-lovers trope. Although the hate seems to be one-sided, and isn’t very clearly motivated. He wears speedos and looks good in them? He’s different from other men and makes her feel things? Okay, I guess?

But maybe that’s because of my next point: characterisation. It’s not great. For any of them. Every character gets one trait, and most are high in clichés.

Surroundings? World-building? Yes, ma’am! Here’s what we came for: Kevin Kwan is a who’s who and what’s what on riches, royalty, relationships and rumours. It’s lavish and lucious and enormously over the top all the time. It’s empty glitter filled with names you might not even recognise, but it all sounds very glamorous and filthy rich.

Just read quickly: there’ll be too much sparkles in your eyes to notice the things lacking.

Unreliable narrators and obsession

They must think I don’t have long left, because today they allow the vicar in.

Bitter Orange, Claire Fuller, Fig Tree 2018

I first saw Freya at my high school.

The Swap, Robyn Harding, Simon & Schuster 2020

New template, new way of posting? I read the second book to have something different from the first (because my previously planned book was also in a historic setting), turns out I got another portion of unreliable narrator and obsessive behaviour. Oh, well.

All protagonists are female, how often does the combination of unreliable narrator and obsession happens with male characters? Frances is close to forty, while Low and Jamie are a teen and a thirty-something. The set time period is different as well, but both books end in murder (or do they?).

The Bitter Orange covers up the thriller/mayhem part better, masquerading for a long time as a story of a woman as exciting as a dry black bean in technicolour surroundings. She has to evaluate gardens of a neglected mansion and finds people who have to do something similar, but don’t really do it. They make her think that she could be technicolour, instead.

The Swap on the other hand starts out with a clear manipulator; an ex-social media influencer for Pete’s sake. She twists everyone around her pinky finger, but some you don’t want around your pinky or other body parts…

Both stories have appealingly-written surroundings, dramatic characters and don’t attempt to make you root for them. It’s train wrecks waiting to happen, with an extra point to The Bitter Orange for a more subtle lead-up to the twist.

Neither are stories that will end up on your Best Of-list (probably), but they’re good for what they attempt to be.

This Lovely City

The basement club spat Lawrie out into the dirty maze of Soho, a freezing mist settling over him like a damp jacket.

The pretty cover will definitely throw you off: this isn’t a light, bubbly story about a fabulous time in black music history. This is a novel about black British history, and there’s little prettiness about that.

Jamaicans are ‘invited’ to come to the motherland, but England isn’t a loving mother. Black people are denied on every level of daily living, and when a baby is found, police and white citizens take it as an excuse to go full out racist.

Louise Hare shows the endless fear and frustration as well, making you move from ‘Why not just go back?’ to ‘Why don’t you stand up for yourself?’ and ‘Why is everybody such a wanker?’. Lawrie doesn’t want much in life, but because he’s black there’s a lot of people out there that actively sabotage him.

The Empire Windrush and their people aren’t fiction, nor was their treatment of them. So even though this is an interesting look at London after the Second World War, there’s no fun and bubbles to be found here.

This Lovely City, Louise Hare, House of Anansi Press 2020

In Five Years

Twenty-five.

It’s not often that you don’t know what you would have wanted when a story doesn’t go the way you want to. Usually I’m sure how things could have been better: this time I just knew that this wasn’t what I wanted.

I like ‘what-if’ a lot, and that’s a large part of In Five Years‘ starting point. Dannie has a premonition/hallucination/dream about herself in five years in an absolutely different situation from which she’s in right now. And she likes this situation, so she doesn’t want that other one.

Rebecca Serle doesn’t feel like using filler and jumps almost four years to get to that dream/premonition/hallucination, but in the meantime the protagonist doesn’t evolve or become a person. Dannie feels like she came from a character generator, and her boyfriend doesn’t fare much better.

Besides the key element, there’s little development that excites as well. The first twist can be seen coming from afar, and the second turns this magic realist pondering about in what ways we can influence our futures into something.. the Hallmark channel would love for their tearjerker category.

After that, all strength is gone and it’s a good thing there never was much investment in the main character(s).

In Five Years, Rebecca Serle, Simon & Schuster 2020

The Lovebirds

86 min.

Sometimes you have to experience a few duds before you can enjoy film time. Neither Berlin, I Love You nor Last Night managed to do it for me. The Lovebirds saved the night, easily.

Lovebirds filmBoth plot and tropes used are familiar. Squabbling couple gets involved with crime. I can remember some Tina Fey/Steve Carrell-thing I don’t even feel like looking the title up for. When the material used is (very) familiar, it’s up to the actors to carry it.
I mostly know Issa Rae from Insecure, while Kumail is only familiar for The Big Sick and some scary tweets. I like the first much more than the latter, so it says a lot about Rae and the writing that the male protagonist won me over as well.

Another pro is the speed of the film. Nothing feels like filler, while at the same time not pushing you into anxiety because everything is in a terrible hurry. It ebbs and flows, and there’s so many laughs that it’s a good thing you’ve got time to breath.

Originally, this film would have been in theaters and it would definitely have been extra fun with the right crowd. But this film doesn’t necessarily need a crowd to be more entertaining.

The Lovebirds, Netflix 2020

 

Feel Good

6 x 25

This had me feeling awfully tender; not solely because I recognise everything the main characters experience, but mostly because the camera never turns away. You never get a break from emotions, fights and awkwardness.

Feel Good posterFor a show that’s easy to summarise, it’s not easy to review. I liked it, a lot. The story of a young woman struggling with gender identity and addiction, romance and family and being a comedian in the way that Hannah Gadsby is one – way too honest. Protagonist and creator Mae Martin added (some) biographical elements to the show as well, which might another layer of discomfort.

It’s the lack of heaviness that just makes it all more genuine and heartfelt. No musical clues about how to feel, not a lot of explanatory dialogue, just Mae and her girlfriend stumbling through life while you try to get them into a different direction.

Still, it’s sweet, and funny. There’s not fanfare or shoulder-pats about showing and discussing Big Subjects – they just happen to be the elephants in the room that have to be discussed.

Maybe not for everybody, but definitely for those that are always interested in the human connection.

Feel Good, Netflix 2020

 

The Half of It

105 min.

And that’s how you do a coming-of-age, finding-your-way film for teenagers in a way that isn’t bubblegum colours, dubious voice-overs and an aggressive soundtrack.

half of it posterThat might make The Half of It dull for some people. Protagonist Ellie goes through life in the shadows and not in the Everyone Notices The Wallflower-way but really: in the background of everything. Her fellow pupils only notice her because of her essay writing skills, and one of them decides to use those skills for a more romantic endeavour. ‘Romantic’, as this is a teenage story and Cyrano de Bergerac-ing a relationship is never a good idea.

But that’s what happens, and Ellie is confronted with things that hang out with her in those self-chosen shadows. Do I make it sound too much like a horror film like this? I swear it isn’t!

Although looking at the poster.. that’s a bad poster.

Anyway, focus. The Half of It is a film for the children of immigrants, the half-orphans, those who have ever been confused with their identity, and those that didn’t view high school as the highest point of their life’s experience. It’s sweet in a cool way.

Worry it’s all too teenager for you? Watch Saving Face by the same director.

The Half of It, Netflix 2020

Airplane Mode

95 min.

Heel even in het nieuws omdat meer mensen dan verwacht het keken. Brazilianen – daar komt de film vandaan – begrepen het niet zo, zo goed was het niet. Alsof dat mensen ooit heeft tegengehouden.

airplane mode filmNuffig hoofdpersoon is Ana, influencer en vrouwelijke tiener met een social mediaverslaving. Dingen Gaan Fout waardoor ze moet afkicken bij haar knorrige opa. Daar Leert ze Dingen en komt ze een leuke jongen tegen. Zoals dat gaat.

Voor kleurigheid en flauwigheid is dit heel redelijk weg te kijken, maar het acteerwerk is voor een doelgroep jonger dan mij. De film is voor hen misschien weer iets te lang, en door Portugees als voertaal zal er waarschijnlijk gelezen moeten worden.

De Brazilianen hadden dus gelijk. Het ‘fish out of water’-plot kun je op vele andere plekken in betere versies vinden. De wijze lessen voor onzekere, met het-uiterlijk-geobsedeerde tieners ook.

Airplane Mode, Netflix 2020