Velvet Was the Night

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I am a big fan of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and I love following her across all her genre hopping: Gods of Jade and Shadow was a breathtakingly dreamlike and philosophic fantasy novel, Certain Dark Things an engrossing and gritty vampire/mob suspense novel, and Mexican Gothic a beautifully atmospheric and bizarre gothic (of course). And now, Velvet Was the Night is a picture-perfect noire in every way!

In the acknowledgement, Moreno-Garcia mentions that noir is a proud tradition in Latin America, and she has certainly done it proud with every character, scene, and even the descriptive tone of the writing. Velvet Was the Night centers around two very distinct protagonists: an apolitical, daydreaming woman stuck in a secretarial job she loathes, and a young thug hired to infiltrate and repress (i.e. beat) student and/or communist protests. Moreno-Garcia teases out throughout the book how similar they are to each other, regardless of their wildly different circumstances, as well as how each of them incrementally matures through the events that push them outside the ruts of their daily lives.

Like all good noirs, Velvet Was the Night connects the daily lives of these two individuals and the people around them to the wider scope of politics. In this case, the politics of 1970s Mexico are complicated and literally foreign to me, and yet Moreno-Garcia somehow manages to spin it out in a way that I could understand and follow along to, starting small and generalized and building up the complexity of the different factions along with the plotlines. It felt like some kind of magic trick and I have no idea how she kept me tracking all the twists and turns!

The Twenty Days of Turin

By Giorgio De Maria

Written in 1977, The Twenty Days of Turin has been a cult favorite in Italy that only got an English translation in 2017. I was intrigued when I read reviews saying that this short novel (only 144 pages) depicts a proto social media far more accurately than any early cyberpunk authors. It’s not a spoiler to explain the setup: before the start of the novel, several young adults established “The Library,” where citizens of Turin could submit and read anonymous personal diaries. It was intended to help lonely and isolated individuals find connection with their neighbors, but quickly devolved into mean-spirited diatribes and grotesque confessions. Stunningly familiar, right?

After several mysterious, violent murders, The Library is closed down and most of the contents are burned. The novel is narrated by a local author several years later, attempting to investigate the unsolved murders and their connection to the library for a new book he is writing. He interviews several key people, and uncovers deeper levels of conspiracy in this cross between a noir mystery and a horror/fantasy novel. The conclusion ties in surprisingly with another current social debate, but elaborating any more would be a full spoil.

The pacing is odd, with long philosophical discussions between the narrator and his interviewees mixed with growing suspense and sudden outbreaks of violence in a very disconnected, dreamlike way. The narration did not always focus on what I expected to be the most interesting parts: there is less about the actual library than I’d have liked, and more description and backstory of each person interviewed than I felt was necessary. I wasn’t sure if the disconnect for me came from it being Italian, almost 50 years old, or in a genre I’m not overly familiar with.

I recommend it because it is short, interesting, and different, though not as mind-blowing or entrancing as I’d hoped on the first description. My library edition also came with two shorts, a supernatural short story featuring Lord Byron and some A+ satirical writing, and a somewhat dry essay on the new pop-rock music of the 70s and its cultural significance. Both were also very odd but entertaining in their different ways.

As an aside, the descriptive blurb on the novel says it was written during the height of domestic terrorism in Italy, and it made me wonder if in forty years the 20s would be considered the “height of domestic terrorism” in the U.S. For more context, I recommend this Goodreads review by Luca Signorelli, acknowledged in the translator’s notes as a key figure in bringing about the translation.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

By Joan Lindsay

Picnic_at_Hanging_RockI took a rather winding road to get this book: Nicole Cliffe, who’s newsletter I’ve recommended before, linked to a 2018 list of the 100 most influential horror movie scenes. For the longest time, I thought I didn’t like horror, since I don’t particularly like the slasher movies that were the fad when I was a teen. However, I love both old-school Hitchcock suspense and our current heyday of psychological horror, and I found the evolution of the horror genre in the article fascinating.

Anyway, the description for the film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock made me laugh: “notable for the absence of violence or even a conventionally advancing narrative.” As my friends and family can attest, I have seen (and imposed on other people) my fair share of movies lacking “conventionally advancing narrative.” I don’t have as much patience for them as I used to, so wasn’t super interested in seeing this movie, but when Bookbub recommended the novel to me the next day, it felt like fate.

And I absolutely loved it! Four schoolgirls wander off from a picnic party to get a closer look at the titular Hanging Rock, and only one returns, hysterical and incommunicative. The impressive thing is that we, the reader, are with them the whole time, too (or at least with the returning fourth girl). We ‘see’ the three girls walk deeper into the rock of their own volition, while the fourth seems to just freak herself out and run away from them. She can’t describe what happened because nothing did happen, and that’s what’s so unnerving!

There is no act of violence or even maliciousness. For a novel about the disappearance of schoolgirls, it is almost unbelievably serene. After the build up to the disappearance and then the subsequent panic of the search, the novel deals almost entirely with the ripple effects, both good and bad, this one event has on the details of daily life for the surrounding characters. It reminded me quite a bit of On The Beach, another Australian novel I loved and that focuses entirely on mundane details during a cataclysmic event.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

mysistertheserialkillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer
by Oyinkan Braithwaite

This book was very good and I highly recommend it, but it was also not at all what I expected even though I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. I’ll start by saying that it’s Nigerian noir. I haven’t read very much Nigerian literature or very much noir, so I’m not sure if it was one of those aspects or something entirely unique to the author that had the characters and their interactions fall into a sort of odd uncanny valley for me. It was unnerving and I was never quite sure what to expect. And despite it being less than two hundred pages, I had to take multiple breaks to relieve my poor nerves, as I walked around the house going, “oh no…., oh, no….”

The premise is pretty much exactly what the title says: at the beginning of the book, Korede’s sister Ayoola has just killed her third boyfriend “in self defense.” One time, sure: that’s terrible but good for her for defending herself. Two times, is terrible, how can these things keep happening to her just because she’s so beautiful. Three times, though, three times, Korede feels is just increasingly unlikely to be self-defense.

Then Ayoola shows interest in dating the guy Korede has a crush on. And events proceed.

The book was very factual and never gory but it sure ramped up the uncertainty of events as they happen while at the same time revealing in bits and pieces events from the past.

Anyway, I highly recommend this not only because it’s excellent but also because I desperately want to hear someone’s take on it. I’ve now read a bunch of other reviews online, but this is pretty much the perfect book for a bookclub where the members can get together later and talk about it with a lot of waving hands and inarticulate noises of amazement and distress.


By Daphne du Maurier

Book Cover: RebeccaI’d tried reading Rebecca years ago, but it starts off with a lengthy dream sequence that is just a description of a decaying estate, and that is a lot to get through right off the bat. I was inspired to try again by the “Rebecca” chapter in Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre. (I received two copies of this for Christmas, which was good, because it meant that my cousin’s wife didn’t have to steal my copy. This is also the second classic it has inspired me to read.)

The thing is, Rebecca makes me feel old. Perhaps if I’d read it when I was 22, the age of the unnamed second wife and narrator, I’d have been full of righteous indignation about what an awkward situation she’s in and how much more difficult everyone around her is making it. But, instead, I find myself sympathizing with the disdainful and bullying housekeeper, who loved and respected Rebecca, the first wife, and now has to deal with this shrinking child who can’t seem to do anything but apologize for her existence.

As soon as her much older husband starts showing exasperation, though, I’m all in her corner, and she gets somewhat less cringing as the book goes on and she even starts to show some personal agency. Also, du Maurier has a real skill at building a suspenseful atmosphere, so I was still invested in the scenes when not totally invested in the characters.

It took me a few chapters to realize something, but once I did, I was able to enjoy the book even more: I’d had a vague sense that this was a ghost story, either literal or metaphorical, but it is in fact a mystery, and unnamed second wife is not unlike Nancy Drew (in that she behaves like an exceptionally naïve teenager). Rebecca died under mysterious circumstances, and there are hints that she was not exactly as people thought she was. Reading the unfolding of that is actually quite satisfying, and I was even surprised by the series of big reveals at the end, which is always nice.

I wish I’d thought to live blog this one because just every scene is so full of craziness: the costume ball that goes predictably but still agonizingly wrong! The demonic housekeeper trying to hypnotize our narrator into suicide! The shipwreck unearthing secrets of the deep! (Another horrifying reveal that is too spoilery for me to discuss here, but that all the characters took in much better stride than I did!) It is not unlike The Shining, really, with an unbelievably passive woman feeling oppressed by a building and her emotionally distant husband, and would have been fun to go through chapter by chapter, but I was also able to read the book in under a week, which makes a bit of a rush job out of live blogging.


2-sentence horror stories

In honor of approaching Halloween, I present you with some short horror stories.

The background is: about a year ago, a Reddit user asked “What is the best horror story you can come up with in two sentences?” The response was tremendous and there are currently 3397 comments in that chain (admittedly, a lot of them are responses to the responses, so there are fewer than 3K stories, but still.)

To see nine of them, nicely formatted, go here.

To see all of them, with the original formatting, go here.

Warning: these really are terrifying. Oof. Who needs sleep anyway?

The Yellow Wallpaper

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Rebecca linked to The Toast in an entry a while ago, and since then, I’ve become a complete Toast convert, going to back and trying to read just about every entry. One of my favorite series is the “Texts From…”, which is imagined text dialogues involving famous authors or characters.

Texts from The Yellow Wallpaper was so particularly good that I was inspired to read the original, a 6,000 word story first published in 1892 and available on the Kindle for free. It was so good! The story is narrated by a woman confined to a room for her health, and it is considered an early feminist narrative, which didn’t actually increase my desire to read it, since I find that capital-F feminist writing can be overly sincere for me. However, the writing and characterization are so subtly creepy that it was really just a terrific suspense story first, with feminist commentary second, and it can all be read in just an hour or two.

Oh, and I haven’t had a chance to properly explore this, but Rebecca insisted I mention it. The Toast recently promoted another website that reviews works that are on the public domain:

It is understandably somewhat overwhelming, since that is a lot of content, but it should also be hugely interesting and worthwhile.


Apple Tree Yard

First of all, if anyone reading this hasn’t seen Anna’s post from May 26, stop right here and go read that immediately, because Anna is amazing. I know that this blog is usually all about YA fiction and torturing ourselves with Atlas Shrugged, but Anna’s post is a good reminder of why we chose the name for this blog, and how important books have been and continue to be for all of us.

And now for a book review that is neither YA or Ayn Rand.

I’ve already raved here about how much I loved Gone Girl, and Anna has written about enjoying another Gillian Flynn book. For the past couple of years I’ve seen a great deal of discussion about what would be “the next Gone Girl,” and one of the suggestions that came up was the English book Apple Tree Yard.  Apple tree yard–doesn’t that sound pretty and pastoral, peaceful almost? Yeah, that not what this book is at all. But if you’ve liked any of Gillian Flynn’s creepy mysteries, I bet that you’ll enjoy this one as well.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but from the beginning you understand that the main character, a British woman in her 50s, is on trial for something bad that went down when she was having an affair with a mysterious man who isn’t names until late in the book. The real story is the process, the downward spiral of exactly how the affair happened and what went so terribly wrong. The whole thing is very grim, and everything in the main character’s life–marriage, work, children–seems to have a dark cloud hanging over it. In fact, each time I closed the book I found myself feeling a bit disappointed in people and in life. Here was this woman who seemed to have made such good decisions and have such a nice life, and yet things were just rotten underneath it all and everyone and everything was sort of horrible. Much like the Gillian Flynn books, I sort of wanted to take a shower after reading.

Although there’s not a single huge twist as in Gone Girl, I found myself frantically turning pages to learn how things all went so wrong. The book also offered a nice look into the English justice system, which is a bit different than we’re used to seeing on American TV. And for the record, Apple Tree Yard is the name of a tiny London side-street where something unseemly happens. So, definitely not pastoral, but very gripping.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Dark courtroom drama

You might also like: Lionel Shriver’s books, which also tend to be grim, women-centered books about the tragedy of everyday life in modern England. The Post-Birthday World has been my favorite of hers so far.