Literacy 2022: Book 6: Mexican Gothic

Does exactly what it says on the cover, and it does it really well

Book
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Synopsis
Set in the 1950s, young socialite Noemí Taboada is summoned from her home in Mexico City to respond to a desperate letter sent by her recently-married cousin Catalina. She travels to the family home of Catalina’s new husband, an aging gothic mansion next to a silver mine in Hidalgo. There, she’s haunted by increasingly disturbing nightmares as she uncovers secrets about the family’s dark past, and she suspects that Catalina’s illness and apparent mental breakdown might be caused by something more sinister.

Pros

  • Stylistically fascinating. The prose itself is straightforward language that rarely gets too flowery or poetic, but often gives the sense of poetry via rhythm and repetition. Details are withheld to stretch out intrigue and give passages forward momentum. Words and ideas are introduced as innocuous foreshadowing, and then repeated with increasing frequency as the idea grows more urgent.
  • Noemí is an outstanding protagonist. The aspects of her personality that would usually be characterized as “flaws” in a less nuanced (or frankly, more misogynistic) story — her impulsiveness, vanity, stubbornness, youthful arrogance, and manipulative streak — are instead acknowledged as essential parts of who she is, and they even become assets. She’s an extremely intelligent and ambitious character who happens to enjoy the kind of life that shallow people also enjoy.
  • The author deftly presents an extended metaphor for colonialism embedded in a story that explicitly deals with colonialism. Instead of feeling redundant, it feels as if the details of Mexican history pre- and post-Revolution refuse to sit inert as factual history; they’re given more emotional weight and made to feel more present by seeing the manipulation and abuse played out in a more supernatural Gothic horror.
  • Steadfastly anti-racist and anti-sexist without ever feeling stridently so.
  • The author’s notes, along with her essays about the history of gothic romances, and the real Mexican town that inspired the setting of the book, are more interesting and valuable than 99% of novels’ after-words tend to be. They show how much thought went into crafting this book.
  • It doesn’t descend into pastiche, and it isn’t a deconstruction or a re-interpretation of a Gothic Horror or Gothic Romance novel; it is unabashedly and unashamedly a Gothic Horror/Romance novel. All of the standard elements are used to great effect, without feeling like re-tread or parody. Overall, it feels like a novel written by someone who understands the appeal of the format and its tropes, and is able to counteract the genre’s limitations without also losing what makes it appealing in the first place.

Cons

  • One decision in terms of pacing the book was extremely jarring and killed my enthusiasm for getting back into it for a day. I was loving the build-up and ever-increasing sense of dread for the first half of the book… and then, a scene happened right after the halfway point that I still believe should’ve been left closer to the climax. I understand the reasoning behind it: stretching it out for much longer would’ve made Noemí seem like a simpleton, because things had developed long past the point of hiding or overlooking the sinister. Still, it felt jarringly sudden.
  • As a result of the above: an entire chapter is just devoted to exposition, with a character explaining everything that had happened before. I wish that this had been stretched out longer, with Noemí discovering these details and more actively piecing them together, instead of having it all spelled out for her.

Verdict
A truly excellent, compelling horror novel that proves genre fiction can be intelligent, and that familiar tropes can be applied to novel settings. Even with my one big reservation about the climax happening too early, I think it sticks the landing. The resolution had the satisfying feeling of checking off all of the ideas and all of the details that had been set up over the first half of the book. As a white American with little knowledge of Mexico beyond a bunch of random, unsorted facts about its history, I’m really looking forward to reading more by Moreno-Garcia.

Literacy 2022: Book 5: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit is a classic for a reason

Book
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Synopsis
Ten strangers are called to a house on a secluded island, invited by a person they’ve never met. When the first death comes right after dinner, the other guests start to realize they’re all being murdered, one by one.

Pros

  • Stylistically, it’s much more interesting than I remembered from reading it in high school. The narration jumps around freely from person to person, switching between inner monologues and dialogues, so it never feels quite like a novel but not a screenplay, either. It’s more like someone telling a story to you in person, and they can’t wait to get to the next part.
  • It’s been decades since I last read it, and almost a century since it was written, and surprisingly little of it feels dated (now that they’ve changed the awful original title and framing nursery rhyme, two times over).
  • My copy has an author’s note taken from Agatha Christie’s autobiography, in which she essentially says that she wrote And Then There Were None mostly to prove that she could do it. Which is unquestionably a baller move.
  • The setup is so intriguing that it’s easy to see why it inspired countless homages and outright rip-offs.
  • I liked the structure at the end, of having a chapter of recap and then an epilogue laying out the entire mystery. It invites the player to be completely engrossed in the mindset of the characters while the mystery is still happening, and then go back and reconsider the clues after the events have finished.

Cons

  • The epilogue wasn’t strictly necessary, and just felt more like Christie justifying how she’d plotted the whole thing.
  • I kind of call foul on it as a whodunnit, since the clues were pretty weak. I can understand Neil Simon’s frustration when he calls out detective novel writers in Murder By Death for making clues too obtuse or pulling plot developments out of thin air.

Verdict
It’s an intriguing concept, told in a really engaging way. You can totally see why it’s become such a classic. I’m not convinced that it’s that great as a murder mystery, but if you instead read it as a horror story, it almost feels contemporary.

Literacy 2022: Book 4: Star Wars: Brotherhood

A flashback to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s partnership before everything took a bad turn

Book
Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen

Synopsis
Set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, explains what Anakin and Obi-Wan were talking about with “that business on Cato Neimoidia.” Obi-Wan is sent alone to an unfriendly planet to investigate who was behind a catastrophic terrorist attack.

Pros

  • Brisk reading with the right scope and focus, trying to convey a galactic conflict in terms of how it affects a small number of characters
  • New characters like a cynical Cato Neimoidian sniper, and an extremely Force-sensitive Jedi Initiate, are memorable additions among all the familiar characters
  • Sticks to a philosophy that’s somewhat unusual in Star Wars, which is that war is bad, actually, and Obi-Wan is most interested in de-escalation
  • The format of devoting each chapter to the perspective of a single character is a neat structure and is perfect for this story in particular

Cons

  • Some of the characters tend to be two-dimensional, or just illustrate their one identifiable character trait over and over again
  • Lots of words are devoted to describing Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship, and how it’s changing from master-and-apprentice to genuine friendship, but it would’ve been stronger to show that actually happening in action moments, instead of just resorting to internal monologues
  • There’s quite a bit of repetition, making it feel like a short story that had been stretched out to novel length
  • The demands of licensing and continuity make this often feel more like a novelization of an episode of The Clone Wars animated series, rather than a standalone novel

Verdict
The book accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is give the reader more time with some characters they like from the movies and animated series. I wish it had shown a little more insight into the characters’ motivation or a more nuanced or complex characterization, but I don’t think it aspires to be a character study.

Literacy 2022: Book 3: Death Comes as the End

Lots of Deaths on the Nile

Book
Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Synopsis
Christie translates her “rich people being murdered in a British manor house” formula to ancient Egypt. A wealthy and peaceful-but-dysfunctional family is beset by evil when the head of the household brings home a new concubine.

Pros

  • Christie’s fascination with Egypt and Egyptology is evident throughout, and the references rarely feel forced or “too contemporary.”
  • While there are two all-knowing detective types (in a sense, a less-eccentric Poirot and a meaner Miss Marple), they’re secondary characters. The actual protagonist is a young woman trying to forge an identity for herself.
  • I was vaguely aware that Christie had also written romance novels under a pseudonym, but this is an interesting combination of genres: detective novel, romance novel, and semi-historical fiction.
  • Instead of just laying out the facts of the mystery, much of this story is delivered through the inner thoughts of the protagonist and her love of her home. It gives the sense of a woman implicitly defying an even more patriarchal society than the one in England in 1944, simply by wanting an identity of her own.
  • Has all the comfort-reading qualities you’d expect from an Agatha Christie mystery.

Cons

  • Likely just due to over-familiarity with Christie’s formula, the mystery part of the story isn’t all that compelling. (Although she does allow herself to go further into the supernatural, which is interesting).
  • Since so much of the writing is in the inner mind of a young woman struggling with her own thoughts, it can come across as repetitive and the character as even a bit simple-minded. (Which is itself something that the book mentions).
  • All but a few of the characters are so unlikeable that it’s difficult to feel much of anything as horrible stuff keeps happening to them.

Verdict
The most remarkable thing about this book is that it even exists. It seems like such a big swing for Christie to move so much of the things that made her successful into a genre that’s outside of her comfort zone, and then to have it work so surprisingly well. But once you get past the exotic setting, it feels exactly like what you’d expect from a mid-tier Agatha Christie mystery, for better and for worse.

Literacy 2022: Book 2: Star Wars From a Certain Point of View

An anthology of short stories from people I almost definitely followed on Twitter 10 years ago

Book
Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View by various authors

Synopsis
An anthology of short stories focusing on obscure tertiary characters, or unseen background events involving the major characters, from the first Star Wars movie.

Pros

  • Claudia Gray’s story about Obi-Wan being visited by Qui-Gon Jinn’s ghost was really good, making the implicit story of his exile on Tatooine seem less lonely
  • Glen Weldon’s story about a gay hook-up on the Death Star was a weird swing in Star Wars terms but totally in line with what you’d expect from Weldon’s work, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it
  • A story told from the perspective the dianoga in the trash compactor was another weird idea that shouldn’t have worked but ended up being an interesting take on the Star Wars universe
  • Most of the stories feel as if they were written by fans of Star Wars eager to work within the universe, instead of being from writers just cranking out licensed content
  • The stories involving established characters work pretty well, adding depth to familiar characters instead of trying to invent an inner world for a character that was only on screen for a few seconds

Cons

  • As with many anthologies, the quality of the writing is vary uneven. Here, though, some of the stories varied from over-written to completely insufferable, sometimes from writers whose work I tend to like elsewhere
  • Goes hard on fitting Rogue One into the timeline, which bugs me not just because I’m not a fan of that movie, but because it undercuts the significance of both the destruction of Alderaan and the attack on the Death Star
  • Some of the stories, even though they’re written by talented writers, just reveal the limitations of trying to get too much depth out of characters who are best left as visual designs or archetypes

Verdict
The premise seems like it’d be quad-laser-focused on me and exactly what I’d like, from subject material down to the choice of writers. But the end result has me even more convinced that so much of what made the first Star Wars so impactful wasn’t its exhaustive world-building, but in knowing what to leave implicit, letting the audience infer all the details about people and places we’re only seeing a glimpse of.

Literacy 2022: Book 1: Moonflower Murders

Anthony Horowitz’s sequel to Magpie Murders extends the premise of a murder mystery within a murder mystery

Book
Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Series
Book 2 in the Magpie Murders/Susan Ryeland series

Synopsis
Susan Ryeland has left her job as editor of the best-selling Atticus Pünd detective novels, settling into her new life running a hotel on Crete with her fiance. She’s pulled into another adventure when a wealthy couple from England hire her to help investigate the disappearance of their daughter. They believe that clues to her disappearance — and a murder that happened eight years earlier — are hidden in one of the mysteries that Susan edited.

Pros
Cleverly extends the premise of the series, as two separate but inter-related murder mysteries.
The Atticus Pünd story embedded in the book (Atticus Pünd Takes the Case) is a good, well-constructed, and satisfying “old-fashioned” detective novel on its own.
Good at subtly changing voice between the two books, making the “real” characters feel more complex and nuanced, without taking too much away from the characters in the book-within-a-book.
Expands on Susan’s personality as an actual character, instead of just the protagonist of the mystery.
Once again, makes the key break in the case something that Susan as an editor and devotee of murder mysteries was uniquely suited to find.
Avoids many of the elements that were starting to feel a bit formulaic and over-used — especially “hapless amateur detective gets in over their head” — after Magpie Murders and two of the Hawthorne & Horowitz mysteries.

Cons
The Atticus Pünd story is inserted into the middle of the book, after we’ve been introduced to all the players in the framing mystery. It feels like the intent was to invite the reader to draw comparisons between the two, but in practice it just meant returning to a murder mystery after forgetting all of the character names and clues.
Horowitz lampshades the absurdity of detectives in books gathering all of the suspects in one room to recount the events of the murder… but then does it anyway, without doing much to make it seem less absurd.
The denouement recaps everything as a multi-page information dump, when it seems like it would’ve been more satisfying to have Susan piece together most of these details earlier.
Even after that, the book goes on for most of another chapter to point out all of the clues embedded in the novel, which feel less like satisfying a-ha moments, and more like Horowitz wanting to make sure the reader appreciated how clever he’d been.

Verdict
Anthony Horowitz’s mysteries have all been extremely readable and cleverly constructed, even when the pieces don’t all fit together in a completely satisfying way. Like Magpie Murders, Moonflower Murders is another three-books-in-one: an old-fashioned detective story, a modern murder mystery, and a meta-commentary on detective mysteries themselves. It comments on the somewhat ghoulish dichotomy in trying to write “modern” murder mysteries, attempting to create more realistic, complex, and believable characters in stories that demand the reader to treat those characters’ lives and tragedies as nothing more than clues in a fun crossword puzzle. I hope the series continues, since they’re clever, fun takes on the Agatha Christie-style detective story.