Mexican Gothic – New Faces, Familiar Fates

Mexican Gothic CoverHaving read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, I was expecting another genre-bending experience when I read Mexican Gothic. But that is not how this story goes. The book reads like the well-loved gothic tales of old, and it will absolutely delight fans of this particular genre. This is not a bad thing whatsoever, I only want to admit that my reading experience was off-kilter because I was expecting a totally different story. Because of this, I found myself swirling in the slow, formulaic plot. But don’t let my misfortune bring you down. Gothic-literature stans rejoice, don your most billowing dress, and prepare for the dramatics because I have the perfect book for you.

Noemí Taboada is a socialite living a fun, fast life in Mexico City. She attends parties, flirts with men, and pushes the limits of her father’s patience. Her carefree lifestyle comes to a halt when she receives an odd letter from a cousin who had quickly married an Englishman and moved to the Mexican countryside. Concerned for the cousin’s wellbeing, Noemí’s father tasks her with visiting the cousin’s new home at the isolated High Place manor to get to the bottom of the strange situation. Noemí arrives at a decrepit house filled with strange inhabitants. She plans to get answers but ends up with terrifying questions as her cousin’s new family brings their dark secrets to the light. 

When I say gothic tropes were transplanted to Mexico, I literally mean that a storybook manor with all its textbook characters was picked up from the fog-laced hills of the English countryside and placed in Mexico. The traditional manor is foreboding, its occupants are shifty, and the same dreary weather clouds the landscape to obscure a cemetery. The traditional elements of this genre were all present, but Moreno-Garcia also uses the setting in Mexico to layer on even more terrifying themes. The native people are exploited by the foreign English family in horrifying ways. The family is also very interested in Noemí’s heritage, but I can’t go into much detail because…spoilers. There were several moments I forgot the story took place in Mexico because we’re trapped in that dreary English manor most of the time. I would have loved to see more of the Mexican culture but that would have been a different story entirely. 

I anticipated that a gothic-inspired story would produce a meandering plot, but this one dragged too much for me to enjoy it fully. Mexican Gothic progressed like some linear video game, Noemí forever followed one arc and each character dutifully popped up to push her forward. It resulted in a story that was a little too controlled for my taste as it never gave me the freedom to unravel mysteries on my own. The information was vague and doled out sparingly, which quickly extinguished my spark of curiosity. I would liken my reading experience to a 5 mph Doom Buggy ride through The Haunted Mansion. There’s a creepy story slowly unfolding around me, but I’m not actually a participant. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great ride, just don’t expect to take the controls and go off the track.

I also didn’t find the characters particularly exciting, as they fit snugly within their tropes. However, Moreno-Garcia did craft an interesting dynamic between the effervescent Noemí and the family’s endearingly shy Francis. Their interactions stood out among the repetitive nature of Noemí’s dealings with the other family members. Surprisingly Noemí’s cousin, who is the sole reason for visiting High Place, is a rare sight throughout the book, so much so that I forgot her name (It’s Catalina, and yes, I had to Google it). Noemí’s character was hard to pin down. She was depicted as more than a socialite with a clever mind. However, I found that her ingenuity was rarely showcased, and most of the time she responded like a spoiled city girl. She was TOUGH for sure and stuck to her guns when needed, but her character could have been more fleshed out to display her brilliance. 

Mexican Gothic commits to traditional themes which may enrapture some and disappoint others. I found the plot to be conventional. And although the setting may be in a unique region, the majority of the story keeps you locked away from the Mexican culture. I was expecting a modern twist on a classic and then found it hard to bridge the gap when the reality of the story unfolded. While it wasn’t necessarily for me, I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a slow build and who doesn’t need to actively search out the story’s mysteries. Gothic lit fans, I have a good feeling you will eat this up, just stay away from the mushrooms. 

Rating: Mexican Gothic – 6.0/10
-Brandee 

 

The City We Became – New York Really Said Catch These Hands

The City We Became CoverI have been to New York City exactly one time. I took a red-eye flight from Las Vegas and spent a week walking city blocks during a heatwave. I thought I knew enough about NYC that it would be familiar and welcoming. I was wrong. And the trip mirrors my rocky introduction to The City We Became. It was a difficult book to jump into and N.K. Jemisin’s first title in The Great Cities series has a chaotic start. The story has no build-up and things got super weird quickly. This may be exactly what you want in a book – diving in and getting to the good stuff! However, my confusion after getting thrown into the story was getting in the way and slowing down my reading at first. It was like a tourist standing in the middle of the sidewalk (oh god, is that a selfie stick?) playing defense against New Yorkers on their way to work. I had to make a conscious decision to stop trying to understand every detail and roll with whatever Jemisin threw at me. Only then did I begin to appreciate this unique story.

There is an evil entity from another dimension attacking New York City. A giant white tentacle rises from the ocean and destroys the Williamsburg Bridge, and frond-like substances are attaching to everything in the city. Problem is, only a handful of people can see these events unfolding. NYC is a living, breathing thing in need of protection, so it seeks out individuals to defend its existence. The main characters of this story (Manny, Brooklyn, Aislyn, Bronca, and Padmini) become avatars for the city, and they each represent the borough where they live. But nothing is ever easy in the city that never sleeps. The avatars have no idea what they are or what they need to do, and the enemy is one step ahead. 

There is very little worldbuilding. I never fully understood why things were happening or what the evil entity was. There are no established guidelines or rules. There were glimpses of the avatars channeling a ‘power’ to combat the enemy, but it was described vaguely. At one point Manny weaponizes a credit card. Padmini completes a math equation in her head and jumps through time and space. Also, King Kong shows up. This all sounds like the makings of a bad book, but I promise it’s not. It needs to be approached from a different angle. I think The City We Became is more about the characters and their New York-ness and less about the events pushing the story forward. Honestly, the avatars were as clueless as I was, so we were tackling the weird together.

I fell in love with the story through the well-realized avatars. Jemisin characterized the boroughs of NYC and described the city through the eyes of people of varying races, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. It was a powerful experience hearing stories from people who are so often neglected. Diversity was an integral part of the book, and the villain often exploited prejudice and fear to accomplish its goal of taking over the city. And while this interdimensional creature was the main conflict, I was way more intrigued by the characters, their life experiences, and the culture that shaped them. I enjoyed the granular elements of NYC that Jemisin used to describe each borough and how it shaped its avatar and their personalities. This aspect of the book was insanely creative.

Unfortunately, not every avatar was given time to shine. The POVs are not weighted equally, so some of the avatars were fully fleshed out while others were just kind of there. The most love was given to Bronca, who easily became my favorite because she had depth and a colorful perspective. At the extreme end, there was Padmini who tagged along and contributed her concern now and then. She was apparently insanely good at math but I got, like, a New York minute’s worth of detail about that. There were a lot of interesting elements we could have explored with each character, and I mourn for the avatars I didn’t get to know as well. 

This book was one of the most unique stories I’ve read in a long time. A city was literally brought to life before my eyes. You might stumble a little at the beginning (What? Like keeping up with New York City is supposed to be easy?), but The City We Became is worth it. This story is more than urban fantasy. It’s about a city, its people, and the diverse cultures infusing its bones. It’s wild and weird and will make you see New York City in an entirely new light.

Rating: The City We Became – 7.0/10
-Brandee

 

 

The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires – No Sparkles, But It Shines

The Southern Book Club's Guide To Slaying Vampires CoverI can’t even start talking about vampires without saying this first: No, I was not obsessed with Twilight. Honestly, my exposure to stories with these bloodsuckers is limited, and it’s hard to tell what’s out there when the hypersexual versions of vampires cast a shadow on everything else, despite, you know, vampires not having real shadows. At a base level, I get that vampires aren’t necessarily supposed to be good, but I was completely unprepared for how terrifying they could be. That is until I encountered Grady Hendrix and his sweet tea tale of The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires.

Patricia Campbell is a stay-at-home mom in a sleepy southern town. Her husband spends all his time at work vying for a promotion. Her kids, Korey and Blue, run free in that blissful era of the late ‘80s. When she’s not busy mom-ing, Patricia meets with her book club to read true crime novels featuring serial killers like Ted Bundy. Outside these stories, Patricia’s life is pretty boring, and she longs for a little excitement. However, things start to get weird when James Harris moves next door. The handsome stranger effortlessly charms his way into the lives of Patricia and her book club. There are some strange occurrences, but it isn’t until several children go missing that Patricia decides to take matters into her own hands. Unfortunately, she discovers James’ terrifying secret. Armed with unbelievable information, Patricia must convince her well-mannered book club to prepare for the fight of their lives.

I have an irrational fear of humans crawling on their hands and feet. It’s unnerving. I also hate cockroaches. BOTH of these fears came to life in The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires. And that is only the beginning of the many horrors within these pages. There are even vicious R.O.U.S.es, but the Dread Pirate Roberts (insert fangirl sigh) wasn’t there to smolder all my fears away. I was expecting this story to zero in on the vampire and his dastardly deeds, but there were so many other disturbing scenes. The pacing of the book was fantastic, it made me uneasy enough to be wary but still found ways to shock me over and over again. Hendrix casually drops little elements of horror throughout the entire story, and it made my skin crawl. There was a simplicity in the way he wrote these moments. Hendrix got straight to the point and hit on the details that would ignite your base-level fears. This book is a guaranteed frightening read. 

In case you couldn’t tell from the back cover, James Harris is a vampire. All creepy signs point to him immediately, and it’s obvious what role he plays. What form he takes is a horrifying note I’ll let you discover for yourself. Have fun and don’t forget your flashlight! This book is scary, and yeah, the vampire-ness freaks me out. But what’s worse is that Hendrix created a supernatural psychopath. It’s this extra, almost human, layer that James possesses that keeps me up at night. Hendrix crafted a creature so evil and cunning I felt powerless when reading. This isn’t a vampire who solely relies on his abilities to get his way. No. He meticulously seeps into the book club’s lives and manipulates their families all while victimizing Patricia in agonizing ways. This is where the story’s true terror lies. His actions are all too real, mirroring accounts of violence and abuse we see in the real world. It disturbed me to my core, and I appreciate Hendrix building out this character to be something more to fear outside the supernatural.

The one part of the book that felt out of place was Patricia’s son, Blue. There are a lot of periphery details about Blue’s obsession with Nazis. This is a topic that Blue and James bond over, but it’s mentioned in an offhand way. Hendrix may have intended to draw parallels between invasive Nazi ideologies and James’ insidious integration into the households. However, it’s not a clear connection, and much of the framing for James’ character is established through a true crime lens. Patricia relies on the knowledge she has gained from her book club and the killers making headlines to inform her decisions about James. Blue’s concerning idolization felt out of place and disrupted the story. I’ll file this away as another horror element Hendrix included to push me off-kilter. 

There is so much more to The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires than its horror elements. It’s a love letter to mothers, their tenacity, and the great lengths they are willing to go to keep their families safe. Don’t underestimate the homemakers who spend their days managing life behind the scenes. They’re the only ones that see what’s really going on, and we need them to keep the vampires at bay. 

Rating: The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires – 7.5/10
-Brandee

 

Soundtracking A Story

If there’s anything I love as much as books, it’s music. When I read, there are melodies that play quietly in my head. When I listen to music, each lyric often captures a character or moment in a story. For me, music can embody the essence of a book. It becomes an extension of the story that exists off the page. I like that I can easily revisit a fictional world by listening to a song. Much like a book’s back cover, I believe songs can also summarize a story. Lyrics easily portray characters or themes in the story, but other elements found in music can replicate it as well. What if you picked your next book, not by judging its cover but by its song? Give these books a listen and find your next read

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House Cover“Is There More” by DrakeThe setting of Ninth House might take place on the distinguished Yale campus, but this book isn’t a classical performance piece. This is a story that takes place in the shadows, and only the strongest survive when the rules are broken. Listen to the tone and lyrics of “Is There More,” and you will find a great representation of the main character, Galaxy “Alex” Stern. Drake is questioning, yet confident. Much like Alex’s balancing act between her vulnerability and strong will. The lyrics are powerful and convey a sense of perseverance that resembles the driving force pushing her forward throughout the book. “Still I rise, Maya Angelou Vibes. 
When life comin’ at you from all angles and sides.” Drake spins this familiar line of poetry into something more, and Leigh Bardugo does something similar by expanding our perception of Yale in more sinister ways. The music itself elicits an otherworldly feeling that perfectly captures the mysterious ongoings of Yale’s secret societies. The haunting, repetitive note that can be heard in the background complements the story’s supernatural elements. The entire song is a compilation of the book’s spooky vibes and grit. It’s unsettling and inspiring and most definitely plays in the background when Alex takes matters into her own hands.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Black Leopard Red Wolf Cover“Alligator Blood” by Bring Me The HorizonThis is a violent tale steeped in myth and the powerful will of men and monsters. The only song bold enough to capture the chaos, schemes, and tricky magic of this story is one with roots in metalcore. The volume, intensity, and heaviness embody the brash protagonist, Tracker. He even takes after the term “alligator blood” which describes a fierce poker player who keeps skin in the game no matter how the cards are dealt. The vicious lyrics give away the story’s political machinations and untrustworthiness that infect the characters. “Tell me, who will make it out alive?” This song might be a little too much for you. But guess what? That means Black Leopard, Red Wolf is too much for you too. “Alligator Blood” is as brutal as the acts carried out in this book, and it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

Skin&Earth by Lights

Skin&Earth Cover“Skin&Earth” by LightsThis one might be cheating because the goddess, also known as Lights, combined her musical and artistic talents to create Skin&Earth: the graphic novel and album. The story of Enaia Jin is told through two unique mediums as her emotions and experiences are illustrated by Lights’ hand, then portrayed by her musically. The album opens with a layered intro that echoes Jin’s introduction in the comic as the threads of her story begin to weave together. The comic really kicks off in Issue 1, Chapter 2 alongside the album’s first full-length song, “Skydiving.” This is the first of many instances the reader will find lyrics in the character’s dialogue bubbles. “It all starts here. With a rush of blood to the head, and I feel no fear.” The combo is exhilarating, and it doesn’t stop there. Each chapter coincides with a track, so the entire story can be experienced in both forms. Lights gave a voice to Jin in more ways than one, and it’s a masterpiece. You can listen to her story or read it, but of course, I recommend both because it’s a beautiful pairing.

The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

The House In The Cerulean Sea Cover“Euphoria” by BTS  – I’m guessing Korean isn’t your first language? Or second? That’s okay because music transcends language and conveys emotion marvelously. “Euphoria” paints a beautiful picture that encompasses the magic and love found in The House In The Cerulean Sea. It mirrors the plot and Linus Baker’s development wonderfully. You will hear how the song starts tentative and wistful like Linus’ initial apprehension as a by-the-books caseworker. Then it develops into full-blown awe and excitement just like when…oh right. Spoilers. The lyric translations are not exact when changed to English, but they still honor the story nicely. The words liken a special someone to the sun, and they conjure up childhood dreams for the K-pop phenoms. There is also a reference to hearing the sea and the euphoric clarity summoned by the sounds of the water. I wonder what Linus finds when he arrives at a house in the Cerulean Sea?

Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan 

Wicked Saints Cover“Faith” by The WeekndThe whole vibe of this song is troubling and expresses the doubt experienced in this gothic, bloody book. The characters are wary of one another, their magic systems, and the mysterious gods. Some of The Weeknd’s vocals have an echo effect, which makes the song especially eerie while conjuring the sound of a church choir. The duality of this effect mirrors the complexity of the story: blood magic and faith, selfish motives and devotion. Doubt seeds destructive behavior and emotional pain in both “Faith” and Wicked Saints. Nadya questions her gods, and it ignites her distress and poor judgment. “‘Cause I lost my faith
, and I feel everything. I feel everything from my body to my soul.” Serefin and Malachiasz doubt Nadya’s belief system, instead choosing painful blood magic which sows sadness and chaos. “Cause I lost my faith
, so I cut away the pain.”

The Invisible Life Of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue Cover“Fear and Loathing” by Marina and The Diamonds“Fear and Loathing” is sorrow, exhaustion, and hope. Marina’s musical expression in this song matches the cyclical emotions found throughout Addie’s 300-year existence. The song starts, quiet and low, like Addie’s quaint beginning in the small French village. The first piano chord is striking and mournful, noting Addie’s deal with the dark deity and her despair following this life-changing event. “Fear and Loathing” slowly builds in intensity, and it comes alive like the sun rising for Addie each day. The beauty of this song and Addie LaRue is that it’s human. All emotions are on display to tell a complicated story of living. “I lived my life in bitterness. And filled my heart with emptiness. Now I see, I see it for the first time. There is no crime in being kind.” Both the book and song are fluid and don’t rely on one feeling, capturing the good, bad, and ugly.

The Invisible Life Of Addie LaRue – I Remember You

The Invisible Life Of Addie LaRue is a book that belongs to everyone and no one because it doesn’t comfortably fit into any one genre. V.E. Schwab combines elements of fantasy, historical fiction, contemporary, romance, and even the supernatural in her newest adult release. I, for one, was looking forward to this story because mysterious gods making deals in the night is my idea of a good time. I’ve previously read both an adult and young adult title from Schwab’s library of work. Each experience was vastly different but neither rocked my world. Although my expectations for this story were tempered, I find myself reverently bowing to whatever forces are at work here. I made no promises to the gods, old or new, but I was spellbound by The Invisible Life Of Addie LaRueThe Invisible Life of Addie LaRue CoverOur main character Adeline is a dreamer grasping at freedom in a small village in 1714 France. As you can imagine, a place like this only fosters short, traditional, and simple lives. After 23 years of fighting conformity, Adeline is forced to marry a widowed man in town. Desperation propels her to run into the woods the night of her wedding and beg the gods to save her. The darkness answers Adeline’s pleas and makes a deal. While this magical contract grants her freedom and immortality, Adeline will never be remembered by anyone she meets. Her own name catches in her throat when she speaks and any mark she leaves is undone. The quaint existence of Adeline is destroyed, and so begins the long life of Addie LaRue, her entanglement with a powerful god, and an unexpected encounter with someone who actually remembers her.  

Addie LaRue immediately stands out due to Schwab’s gorgeous prose. Disregard all your previous experiences, good or bad, with her work because the writing in this story is next level. Sentences were strung together like a constellation of stars, with accounts of Addie’s joy shining bright against her oppressive loneliness. Each moment was detailed with captivating and poignant descriptions. Schwab artfully captures the time in space that Addie occupies and the fleeting impressions she makes on the world. I was both haunted and mesmerized by the events unfolding around me.

Much like Schwab’s Vicious, Mademoiselle LaRue’s life story is a balancing act between the past and present until the timelines converge. The nonlinear narrative approach is crucial to the plot’s revelations, and the extra work at the front of the book is paid off majorly in the latter half. The story can be repetitive, forever jumping between Addie’s old memories with the deity and the present day where she’s discovered that someone remembers her. I love the mix of stylistic foreshadowing and payoff between the alternating chapters, but I anticipate that some readers may become bored with the back-and-forth plot. 

The true beauty of this story lies in Schwab’s ability to capture the human experience within a supernatural setting. Addie was flawed and real and crafted so brilliantly. She exuded an elderly weariness, but she was also naive since her relationships never lasted longer than a day. She was 300 years old and still relatable. I was engrossed in her existence, unable to determine where her emotions began and mine ended. It’s nearly impossible to separate yourself from the story when Schwab easily taps into our most basic sense of self, dreams, desires, and the innate will to survive. 

There is only one issue with this book in my eyes. The rapid-fire conclusion was not fitting for the time I devoted to the tale. The plot’s climax and resulting actions quickly unravel within the last 60 or so pages. I didn’t sign up to read 400 pages of seemingly random moments of Addie’s life without any indication of their purpose, to have it all revealed in the last 60 pages. Schwab refusing to show her hand until the last possible second dampened the joy that I felt for most of the book. The ending was also a disservice to the deity, who is by far the most interesting character. I greedily read the small interactions he had with Addie. At the end, the complexities of this god are revealed in full, and I was robbed of his development for hundreds of pages. I very much love morally grey characters, and while I selfishly wanted more of this devious deity, the ending couldn’t have been more perfect. There are twists and turns that will totally knock you off your feet. It just left me wanting more

I’m half-joking when I say you should prepare yourself for an existential crisis when reading The Invisible Life Of Addie LaRue. This woman is centuries old with no one but a fickle god to remember her, yet she can’t stop loving life. You will question what’s important and what it means to live, all while riding the roller coaster emotions of a nameless girl starting over each day anew. It sounds terrifying, but it’s actually quite liberating. I have Schwab to thank for a fresh perspective on life. In the end, I like to think Addie bested the gods because her story is one I will never forget. 

Rating: The Invisible Life Of Addie LaRue – 8.5/10
-Brandee