Review: White Supremacy is the Real Horror in the Pulp Fiction Lovecraft Country

Summary

Author: Matt Ruff
Setting: Chicago, 1950s
Genre: Horror
Published: February 14th 2017 by Harper Perennial
Summary: Science Fiction aficionado Atticus Turner, a Black World War II veteran, undertakes a dangerous journey to find his estranged and kidnapped father. Strange events place Atticus and his extended family in the snare of the Order of the Ancient Dawn, an occultist group with a legacy of white supremacy as entrenched as America’s.

Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This review does not contain spoilers.

Review

If at one point the working title of Lovecraft Country was Weird Tales from Lovecraft Country, Vol. 1 or something similar, I wouldn’t be surprised. Matt Ruff has divided Lovecraft Country into a series of short stories told from the varying perspectives of two Black families terrorized by twin versions of white supremacy—one mundane, the other arcane. None of their stories would be out of place in Weird Tales (1923-1954), the quintessential pulp magazine that published strange short stories from likes of Ray Bradbury and the eponymous HP Lovecraft.

Except that, as far as I can tell, vintage Weird Tales didn’t really publish “race fiction”—that is, fiction told from the perspective of sympathetic Black or other non-white characters.* In that way, Lovecraft Country is almost alternative history. Imagine an America where infamous racist HP Lovecraft had to, at the very least, share a platform with authors—white authors, like Matt Ruff, and, more poignantly, authors of color—who literally demonized Jim Crow era white supremacy and its many injustices.

What we do have is a 2017 novel that functions more like several interconnected short stories than a single, complete narrative. The stories are told in a spare prose that largely externalizes characterizations, yet the characters remain compelling in their journeys. My favorite story belongs to Hippolyta, who experiences perhaps the weirdest tale of the bunch. The most affecting stories, for me, belong to Ruby and Montrose.

One aspect of the short story format that didn’t work quite as well is the villain. Because Lovecraft Country is based on short stories, there needs to be a dramatic through-line, and Caleb Braithwhite serves that shiftily evil purpose. The side-effect is, too often, Caleb is a white privilege Deus ex machina.

As large as Caleb looms, he doesn’t overshadow Atticus, Letitia, Montrose, George, Hippolyta, Horace, and Ruby, whose stories are ultimately of growth and empowerment under oppressive conditions. Lovecraft Country offers high-concept pulp that speaks not only to the racism of its 1950s setting but also its impact on the present day, most viscerally in the police brutality depicted.

*Total aside, the contemporary incarnation of Weird Tales made strides toward inclusivity but failed big time in 2012, as these posts from NK Jemisin and Jeff Vandemeer describe.

Review: Atomic Love Has All the Subtlety of its Title

Summary

Author: Jennie Fields
Setting: Chicago, 1950
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: Published August 2020 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Summary: Five years after her work on the Manhattan Project and her romance with fellow scientist Thomas Weaver ended in catastrophe, Rosalind Porter, the heroine of Atomic Love, lives in Chicago and works behind a jewelry counter. At the request of FBI agent Charlie Szydlo, Rosalind agrees to spy on her former lover who is now expected of selling atomic secrets to Russian spies.

Rating

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I received an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in return for a candid review. This review does not contain spoilers.

Review

In the first chapter or so, I thought I had a handle on the tone of Atomic Love. The number of times heroine Rosalind remarks on the color of FBI Agent Charlie Szydlo’s eyes in a single paragraph clued me in—this, I thought, was a romance novel masquerading as women’s fiction. As someone who adores and defends the romance genre whenever possible, this was by no means a detrimental assumption. But, as I kept reading, I found none of the charms of romance. Nor did I find the tension of noir, which often uses romance tropes to deliver subversive messages about society. Instead, Atomic Love sort of split the difference, becoming too dour to be a satisfying romance and too conventional to be an engrossing noir.

The author certainly does not shy away from heavy themes. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski. Japanese prisoner of war camps. Geopolitics at a time when authoritarianism was happening at home and abroad. But the characters and prose Fields crafts aren’t weighty enough to bear this history. This is a novel where people say whatever pops into their head, usually in the most dramatic way possible. This is a novel where “Noooooo!” is rendered on the page (six o’s in no—I counted). This is a novel where the romantic lead–despite the attempt at a love triangle, we know he’s the romantic lead because we get his point of view–thinks things like, “Women. He’s so bad at this,” but his base-level misogyny is fine because he loves his sister and has a comically evil ex. 

There are some nice historical touches and Rosalind, though she never gets to do any science on-page, does maintain a love for it. The author’s note makes it clear that the novel is meant as a celebration of female scientists and the city of Chicago, and those aspects do come across. Though not enough to make up for the tonal inconsistencies and lack of tension. This is not a subtle novel. It’s the kind of story I could see working okay on screen with actors good enough to sell the illusion of characters thinking deeply about the traumatic and weighty subject matter (or going the opposite direction and selling an effervescent pastiche of it). Not so much when we’re in the characters’ heads realizing there’s nothing going on under the surface.

Review: Mexican Gothic is a Stylish, Anticolonialist Homage to Classic Horror

Summary

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Setting: Hidalgo, Mexico, 1950
Genre: Gothic Horror
Published: June 30th 2020 by Del Rey
Summary: Mexican Gothic is a horror story lent elegance and panache by its heroine, socialite Noemí Taboada. In exchange for a promise to attend university, Noemí agrees to check up on her cousin, recently married under mysterious circumstances. As Noemí discovers, the Doyle family and their High Place residence live up to the lurid promise of the Gothic horror genre.

Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review

My sky-high anticipation for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic was borne of a number of factors—the genre, the period, that cover, this author. I really enjoyed Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things (2016) and The Beautiful Ones (2017), so to see that she’d taken on a preternatural Rebecca (1938) was a real treat. So it came as no surprise to me that I devoured this book in essentially one sitting.

It was one hell of a ride. Get your tickets now.

What makes this an outstanding-four-star rather than perfect-five-star read has to do with some conventions of the genre that, through no fault of the author’s, have become a bit stale for me. The “Gothic” elements were so strong that the “Mexican” elements fell away rather quickly. The metaphorical and explicit condemnations of colonialism are strong, but we spend so much time with Noemí trying to understand the Doyles, I found myself more interested in the glimpses of the residents of the town. The author based the location after a British mining town nicknamed “Little Cornwall,” so no doubt the total Englishification was very much intentional. 

Moreno-Garcia is an excellent visual writer with a real talent for zipping the reader along with the story. The horror elements are memorably rendered while paying homage to the classics. The gorier elements that happen in secret, in the dark, are incredibly disturbing, but, in many ways, no more so than the very “genteel” conversations about race happening at the dinner table. That Noemí is not shy about naming the horrors she is put through and acting out against them makes her a compelling and sympathetic horror heroine.

This is definitely a book I’ll be returning to for a second, slower read after I absorb some relevant history and interviews with the author. Be sure to follow the link below to the Goodreads page for Mexican Gothic, where the author answers questions and links to a glorious Spotify playlist, bonus paper dolls, and a book club kit. 

Review: A Deception at Thornecrest is a Solid Entry in the Amory Ames Series

Summary

Author: Ashley Weaver
Setting: Rural England, 1934
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Published: September 9th, 2020 by Minotaur Books
Summary: A Deception at Thornecrest is the sixth full-length novel in the Amory Ames cozy murder mysteries. The series follows a level-headed British socialite and her handsome husband, a pair who find themselves in the midst of murder a lot. The setting here is the Ames family seat, Thornecrest, and the plot involves horse racing, jilted lovers, surprise relatives, and village secrets.

Rating

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I received an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in return for a candid review. This review does not contain spoilers.

Review

The first book of the Amory Ames series, Murder at the Brightwell (2014) was my foray into the contemporary cozy mystery genre. I read the book in one gulp while traveling and was transported, gleefully, into the glamorous world of an RKO picture. My delight with the series has, sadly, dimmed with each installment as the atmospheric touches and witticisms have become scarce in favor of sparer and simpler prose.

Like most, I’m drawn to cozy mysteries by three things—charming characters, clever puzzles, and immersive atmosphere. Amory and Milo are charming, together more than apart. There are some fun exchanges between the two, as well as a particularly touching scene that shows the couple’s devotion.

But with each book, Amory’s characterization and her ability to solve mysteries become less clear to me. She focuses on intuition born of semblance and sometimes she’s right and sometimes she’s wrong. Fallible characters are great, but when the mystery comes together, I’m left with no satisfying character-driven reason for Amory to have solved it.

I do like that this book featured a pregnant woman as the protagonist, since so often series wrap up when motherhood knocks or gloss over the pregnancy like it never happened. It’s also fun to see Amory use her perceived weaknesses as advantages.

A Deception at Thornecrest is a solid sixth installment (seventh, counting a novella) that offers the same mild diversions as the most recent previous installments, with enough lingering sparkle for me to still have interest in the next.

Review: Moonshine is a 1920s Take on 2000s Paranormal Romance Trends

Summary

Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Setting: New York City, 1920
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Published: May 11th 2010 by Griffin
Summary: Moonshine is book one in the Zephyr Hollis series, a reimagining of the social struggles of the 1920s in a world of Others. Zephyr is a hunter-turned-activist known around New York City as “the vampire suffragette.” At the behest of the mysterious and charming Amir, Zephyr takes on a case that gets her caught up in the business of the vampire mafia right when vampires are getting addicted to a new street drug.

Rating

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This review does not contain spoilers.

Review

As someone who enjoys the odd dip into paranormal romance, Moonshine had been on my radar for a couple of years. I lost track of it because it’s not available on Kindle or through my library system. But when I read the synopsis for Johnson’s upcoming release, Trouble the Saints, I was so enthused I had to track down this book from a decade ago. I discovered, surprise, this book does indeed feel like it was written a decade ago.

There is more than a passing resemblance between the plot of Moonshine and a certain Southern vampire mystery series. The vampires-coming-out-of-the-coffin premise makes for super fun paranormal fiction, and Moonshine does a great job of exploring concepts of Other prejudice while also highlighting real-life prejudices of race, class, and sex. But a full exploration of these weighty themes aren’t the purpose of this book—it’s a paranormal romance driven by action and adventure. 

Everything about Moonshine adds up to a reading experience I could’ve loved but ultimately just sort of liked. I found myself unable to connect with Zephyr because she’s too many types in one—like Sookie, she has a special immunity to vampire control and she used to be Buffy but now she’s more of a Hermione. And this doesn’t function as layers so much as plot convenience. We’re in Zephyr’s head the whole time, and her thoughts oscillate between charming 20s slang to super modern colloquialisms. The romance is the real draw to this genre but, lust aside, I didn’t buy the connection. The visuals around Amir’s Otherness are great, and I can see how the sequel would explore their connection in a deeper way, but I’m not sure if I’ll get there. The vibrancy promised by the premise didn’t quite deliver.

That said, it’s been ten years and this book is basically out of print. I have no doubt at all that Johnson has grown as a writer since publishing Moonshine, and a lot the writing gives me a ton of faith—I am still just as jazzed for Trouble the Saints.

Review: The End of My Heart’s Immersive Listening Experience Falters Near the End

Summary

Author: Gayle Forman
Setting: Ohio, 1946
Genre: Drama
Published: June 25th, 2020 from Audible Original
Summary: The End of My Heart tells the story of teenager Charlotte Oswald and the secrets she unlocks about her mother, Mary, who has begun a summer affair with her wealthy employer. Charlotte is obsessed with stories, particularly a radio serial called The End of My Heart. Sections done up as a full-cast radio serial add to the immersive listening experience.

Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This review does not contain spoilers.

Review

So much of The End of My Heart seems tailored to my interests. The postwar, Midwestern, class-divided setting. The loving descriptions of Hitchcock favorites staring my beloved Ingrid Bergman—Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946). A heroine who spends a lonely summer at the library and malt shop, who makes up stories to cope with hinted-at tragedy. Themes around the purpose of storytelling and the unreliability of memory. That delightful radio drama hitting all the right notes.

These aspects charmed me into a four-star rating. Without them, the anticlimactic Revelation of Secrets at the end would’ve fallen much flatter.

To be sure, there are genuinely clever twists awaiting the listener. They’re marred by unsupported red herrings and unsatisfying character choices. Most of all, they’re marred by an extended passage that is meant to be cathartic but strays too far into maudlin for this reader.

That said, the story highlights themes of prejudice and mental health. The narrative and narration are lush. The characters are sufficiently complex to give weight to the charm. I’m glad I spent an Audible credit on this listen and can even imagine myself revisiting it on a rainy day.