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.

Rules of Civility

On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both in late middle age, attended the opening of Many Are Called at the Museum of Modern Art – the first exhibit of portraits taken by Walker Evans in the late 1930s on the New York City subways with a hidden camera.

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles, Sceptre 2011

As with my previous review, this novel can be summarised in one sentence. The characters however, can not.

Young woman in NYC 1940s moves up through class-levels while learning things about society and what she wants.

Just like in his following novel, Amor Towles manages to make a lot out of a little, without rocking any kind of boat in any way. A little less sofa, that’s all. You’re not completely detached, but never manage to break the surface either. Towles makes it feel like this is how he wants to be, in complete control of the story/stories.

It’s only about that, and do with it as you will. If you want.

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

Frankissstein

Lake Geneva, 1816

Reality is water-soluble.

Now, what to think and say about this one? Unlike The Body in Question, I’m struggling because I’m thinking too much about this story. It’s bewildering, it’s scary, it’s also kind of soothing with showing you how humans and their ideas about identity, life and death have always been around and probably forever will be (in whatever shape).

This isn’t a retelling of Frankenstein, or maybe partly, or maybe only inspired by it. Mary Shelley gets a plot, so does Ry and Victor Stein. There’s layers and century-deep connections, but never in a Gotcha!-way.

Winterson surprised me with a memoir I liked (which doesn’t happen often, as recently mentioned), but I didn’t know what to expect with a novel of hers. After Frankissstein, I still don’t. I find it hard to believe that she could write something like this again, if it’s even a ‘this’.

I’d recommend this novel to everyone who allows themselves to be taken along for a ride. I’d also recommend it because I still don’t know how to place this story and would love to pick other people’s brains. While still in their heads, of course.

Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Cape London 2019

Castlevania

22 x 30 min

castlevania posterI know it’s based on a game, but to me it felt – from time to time – like it could have been part of the same world that The Sandman Chronicles play out in. It’s bleak and gruesome but also beautiful in the Gothic way and the story telling comes first through spare, solid story lines that aren’t endlessly muddled with side plots.

Castlevania is about vampires, but not really. Or just kind of. It’s about a sad Dracula, vicious vampire women, monster hunters, magical monks (sort of?) all played out in a greyish and brownish Eastern Europe. Maybe. The castle moves around, after all.

If you want lore, mythology, beautiful animation, snarky yet terrifying vampires and their ilk plus quite a quick fix (those 22 episodes are three seasons), you should try it. If you don’t like gore in any way, and prefer your shows bright and bubbly – better you pass this one.

Castlevania, Netflix 2017

The Dutch House

The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs.

I changed my mind on this book maybe three – four times. Pretty cover -> meh summary -> positive reviews -> where is this story going? -> Oh. Oh wow.

Wasn’t that an exciting trip to go on?

This book is the house it’s about, but at the same time its story never gets as bright and colourful as the interior of the house. Even before the big thing that changes everything happens, there’s a thick gray layer over not just the people of this story, but the story itself.

It doesn’t make the story less appealing, but it did make me long towards that version of the story: if Ann Patchett would halfway flip to the owners under whom the house prospered, I wouldn’t even have minded and this coming from the woman who despises different times – same houses stories.

Still, the story as it is found its way under my skin. On family, on bitterness, on deciding what you need for yourself instead of for someone else. And in the end – yes: oh wow.

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett, HarperCollins 2019

Girl Runner

This is not the love song of Aganetha Smart.

I can point out the different disappointments in this book clearly: the biggest one being the obvious twists to prevent explaining a plot line. This can happen maybe once or twice and should be done well – not something that basically amounts to ‘BUT FIRST’.

For starters, I’m not too fond of two story lines in different times, especially not when brought together through a seemingly random connection. Jump through time or let people age; it’s not that hard. In this case I accepted it because I was curious about the subject: first long distance female runner at the Olympics. Canadian history. Canadian writer. Bring it.

But it’s Aganetha young and very old, and a story line tacked on that isn’t explained – and just barely – until the last ten pages. With Aganetha not being the most charming protagonist, it doesn’t make caring easier. Give me more about the world she grew up in if you can’t or won’t sell me on your main character.

All this creates the feeling of “this could have been more”, which might be more frustrating than this entire novel is.

Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder, Harper 2015

Just One Damned Thing After Another

There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.

Time travel! Dinosaurs! Bad guys and unlikely heroes! First book of a series!

Yes, I know, I will forever be overly bitter by the fact that a standalone fantasy novel is hard to find. Sue me (don’t sue me).

On the other hand – I’m a sucker for time travel and will accept a lot for the sheer fact of time travel being involved. It’s just a convenient genre: you get history, adventure, romance (often), sometimes science fiction – all in one book.

Just as in this case. Just One Damned Thing After Another has the scrappy heroine with the dodgy history, very villain-y villains, dinosaurs and mentions enough historical events to make sure you don’t forget the time traveling part. Jodi Taylor provides the majority of this with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, which (might) make(s) the reader more acceptable of the times when things get a bit too trope-y. Is that me complaining about getting everything I wanted from this kind of story? Yes.

If there wouldn’t be sequels, there wouldn’t have been several set-ups that took (a bit) too long to pay off. Without the scrappy heroine-background, there would have been less time spent on moping and self-pity.

So, yes, this is what to expect from the genre. I was just hoping for more.

Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor, Accent Press 2013

There Will Come a Darkness

In the moonlit room overlooking the city of faith, a priest knelt before Ephyra and begged for his life.

Am I going to say it? I’m going to say it. This is another ‘I thought this would be a stand-alone fantasy YA’ failure on my part. Of COURSE it’s part of a series, rookie mistake!

The nice thing is that you don’t really notice until it’s too late. The question of ‘how is this going to be cleanly rolled up in so little pages left’ doesn’t show up until 3/4 into the book, and even then Katy Rose Pool doesn’t use neon-light warnings to guide you to the open ending. The ending isn’t even that open, which to me – avid hater of open endings – is a relief.

Except for the ages of the protagonists, it’s not very YA either (little romance, little teen-specific issues) and the fantasy part delivers. Scary cult, people with gifts, threatening apocalypse, royals et cetera. The world-building makes you wonder if this is supposed to be our past or our distance future: just look at the map used.

With five protagonists it sometimes feels a bit like some get more time in the spotlight than others; it also makes it easy to quickly get a preference. Maybe in the next book(s) the attention will shifts and you might feel more for other characters.

All in all, a nothing-wrong-with fantasy. If I’d see the sequel in the library, I wouldn’t ignore it.

There Will Come a Darkness, Katy Rose Pool, MacMillan 2019