Robyn Reviews: Velvet Was The Night

‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a historical noir novel set in 1970s Mexico, a place of student protests and massive political unrest. It provides an intriguing insight into a piece of history rarely portrayed in fiction, and like all Silvia Moreno-Garcia novels is sharply written. Noir isn’t a genre I read particularly often, but for fans or those looking for a taut piece of historical fiction this is a solid read.

Mexico City, sometime in the 1970s. The government is cracking down on student protests, often forcefully, with shadowy gangs enlisted to do the dirty work. Elvis – a pseudonym only – has found himself part of one of these gangs, roughing up reporters and stealing information for his boss. It’s not the life he dreamed of, but it got him out of his dead-end hometown and he’s determined to never go back. At first glance, Elvis has little in common with Maite – a secretary who lives for vinyl records and the comic series ‘Secret Romance’. However, the disappearance of a student protestor named Leonora sets both of them on a path to find her. Against a backdrop of violence, hitmen, and simmering secrets, their lives draw inexorably closer – and Elvis finds himself captivated by a woman who shares both his love of rock and roll and the loneliness in his heart.

‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a brutal story. Elvis is the ultimate anti-hero – a gangster beating up journalists and students just on his boss’s say-so. Moreno-Garcia does a wonderful job getting the reader to sympathise with him despite his violent actions. Elvis is obsessed with rock and roll and the West – idolising Elvis Presley- and dreams of success in a childlike, abstract way. He uses music to escape from the harsh reality of his life. Elvis is young and naive, and while he’s not always a nice character he’s one it’s easy to feel sorry for and root for.

Maite, on the other hand, is a self-deprecating woman to the extent it occasionally gets on the reader’s nerves. Just turning thirty, Maite adores romance – she troves through romantic comics, especially ‘Secret Romance’, and despairs of the fact that she still hasn’t found someone to share her life with. She has an independent streak, but – possibly due to the opinions of her family and society at large – hates herself for what she perceives as her inadequacies. She’s not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough at conversation. Maite is a perfectly average young woman and that drives her to despair. Like Elvis, it’s easy to feel sorry for Maite – but she’s harder to root for, especially as she inevitably makes terrible choices.

The best part of this book is the setting. Moreno-Garcia paints an incredible picture of 1970s Mexico, transporting the reader to a slice of history where danger lurks around every corner yet the mundanity of everyday life trundles on. There’s the constant fear of riots and the police, but also ordinary struggles like paying the mechanic and dealing with nagging parents. The dichotomy works beautifully, and whilst this is exaggerated pulp fiction its based on fact and those influences are fascinating.

The plot is entertaining. Most of the twists are easily guessable, but there are a few surprises, and this is intrinsically designed to be an easy-read book rather than one with too much hidden below the surface. It’s the perfect read after a long day when you want to switch off and not think too much. There are lots of references to the rock and roll scene – not something I’m familiar with, but fans will likely appreciate them.

The main weakness is a certain degree of separation between the reader and the characters. Maite and Elvis always feel like characters rather than fully rounded people. They’re a little too caricaturic – especially Maite. It’s still enjoyable, and it’s definitely a noir rather than a character study – but it would be nice if Maite was taken a little outside her romance-loving secretary stereotype.

Overall, ‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a solid noir novel with an intriguing historical basis and lots of references to the rock and roll music scene. It highlights once again Moreno-Garcia’s sheer versatility as a novelist, and provides a peek at a slice of history rarely referenced in modern media. Recommended for fans of noir and thriller novels along with those looking for a readable piece of historical fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley and Jo Fletcher Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

More Silvia Moreno-Garcia reviews can be found here: Mexican Gothic, The Beautiful Ones

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 17th August 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Beautiful Ones

‘The Beautiful Ones’ is very much a novel of manners – one sprinkled with fantasy elements, but far heavier on the romance. Like all of Moreno-Garcia’s books it’s beautifully written, but there’s an element of detachment from the characters that prevents it being a fully immersive experience.

Antonina Beaulieu, known as Nina, has travelled to the city for the season – and the opportunity to join the city’s elite, The Beautiful Ones, thanks to her well-connected cousin and his scheming wife Valerie. However, her debut has not gone to plan. A country girl at heart, she lacks the decorum expected by high society – not to mention, she keeps losing control of her telepathy, a flaw which has earned her the nickname The Witch of Oldhouse. Enter the famed telekinetic entertainer Hector Auvray. Nina is dazzled by his skill, and Hector intrigued by her innate ability. However, its not only Nina’s telekinesis that draws him to her – and as Nina falls in deeper, Hector’s secrets threaten to tear them apart forever.

Nina is undoubtedly the highlight of the book. Forthright and naive, Nina is entirely out of place in a society run on unspoken rules and appearances, but she’s determined to have a good time anyway. A keen naturalist, Nina cares more about beetles than she does about securing an appropriate husband, and while she frustrates everyone around her she’s a delight to read about. While she might seem innocent and childlike, Nina is also an intelligent woman, and she picks up on more than those around her believe. Really, Nina is too good for any of the other characters, but in this sort of novel you always know how it’s going to end.

Hector Auvray initially comes across as very unlikeable, but as the story unfolds, he starts to evoke more sympathy. Hector is a performer, very different to the high class Beautiful Ones, and he’s worked hard to get to his station in society. However, he’s also become so adept at hiding behind a mask to fit in that he’s forgotten who he is without it. Hector makes a lot of mistakes, and Nina deserves better, but he isn’t a bad man.

Valerie, on the other hand, is on the dark side of morally grey. Consummately selfish, she’s been forced into a situation that she hates and regrets with every fibre of her being – and she reacts by tearing down everyone around her. Valerie’s situation, simultaneously the height of privilege and a tottering precipice, is a reminder of how difficult society used to be for women – even the wealthy ones.

The plot is predictable, following the well-trodden tracks of regency-type romances since the days of Austen. That doesn’t make the twists any less powerful when they inevitably come, Moreno-Garcia’s writing beautifully evoking tension and feeling. However, she also chooses to write her characters in a very Austen style, maintaining a degree of propriety and distance from them. This will likely appeal to stalwart fans of the regency romance genre, but personally I prefer to feel closer to characters, and this posed a barrier to becoming fully invested in the story.

The fantasy elements are well-woven, fitting the story without playing a large role in it. However, their absence wouldn’t greatly affect the plot or feel. This is definitely a romance novel that happens to feature fantasy rather than anything else.

Overall, ‘The Beautiful Ones’ is a well-written novel of manners that will appeal to fans of classic romance, Bridgerton, and fantasy-lite. For Moreno-Garcia’s fans, it’s very different to her previous work, but still a worthwhile read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Jo Fletcher Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 27th April 2021

I review another of Moreno-Garcia’s books, Mexican Gothic, here.

Robyn Reviews: Mexican Gothic

“Open your eyes.”

Mexican Gothic is a beautifully crafted work of gothic horror. The writing is exquisite, the images created eerily beautiful, and reading it makes you feel uncomfortable yet unable to look away. It feels both original and a tribute to novels of the past – it could have come straight out of its 1950s setting. An absolute triumph of imagination and wordcraft.

The protagonist, Noemí , is a Mexican socialite, living a life of balls and luxury in Mexico City. Her father – the owner of a large dye company – would like her to marry, but Noemí  is too busy having fun to consider anything so serious. However, when her father receives a worrying letter from her newly-married cousin, Catalina, Noemí  finds herself sent to a crumbling mansion in rural Mexico where nothing is quite as it seems.

Noemí  makes an excellent protagonist – naturally inquisitive and with an impressive level of self-confidence and entitlement. She spends most of the book completely out of her depth but remains determined to find out what’s going on and ensure her cousin’s safety – an enviable level of loyalty. The supporting cast – Catalina, her husband Virgil, and her husband’s siblings Florence and Francis – are enigmatic and intriguing, but Noemí  remains the highlight.

It’s the imagery which makes this book. Moreno-Garcia weaves pictures which are simultaneously grotesque and stunning. She never quite confirms what is real, leaving it to the reader to make up their own mind. There’s a level of detachment from the characters, not allowing full understanding of what they’re thinking – but rather than making the characters seem underwritten, this maintains the air of mystery and illusion that makes the book so spectacular. It’s never clear what role any individual character plays or what their true motivations are, making it impossible to predict what’s going to happen next.

I loved the setting in rural 1950s Mexico. Mexico isn’t somewhere I’m familiar with, but it was interesting getting an insight into a place we rarely see portrayed in fiction. Noemí, used to a city with a stark class divide, is as new to rural Mexico as the reader, lending a fresh perspective.

The plot twists and turns. In many ways, Mexican Gothic is a classic haunted house story, but it avoids the pitfalls of predictability and horror for the sake of horror. Even at the end, some things are left unexplained – this is not the sort of book which needs to be tied up in a neat little bow.

If you like mystery, and horror, and books where nothing is as it seems, this is the perfect book for you – but maybe don’t read it after dark.

 

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 30th June 2020