Book Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Genre : Magical Realism, Fairy Tale
Date Published :
July 23rd, 2019
Publisher : Penguin Random House

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own. 

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

As per usual, I first heard about Gods of Jade and Shadow during one of my grad school classes. But the thing is, I didn’t know that it was the book being discussed. We were sent off into pairs to read a description of a book (given no author name, no title, no clue as to if it was an actual, published book) and were tasked with coming up with an elevator pitch for it – a 30 second speech that would convince someone to buy it. So my partner and I eventually came up with something along the lines of, “It’s like Percy Jackson, but set in 1920’s Mexico with Percy accidentally teaming up with Hades.” However, after reading Gods of Jade and Shadow (once discovering it was, in fact, a real book), all I can say is that Moreno-Garcia has created something that stands entirely apart from other mythological-themed books, and her story was a delight to read!

The story starts out rather simply, introducing us to Casiopea – a girl who dreams of having more and being more. Her mother married for love, rather than money, but once Casiopea’s father died, the two had no choice but to return to her grandfather, who has oh so graciously given them room and board under the agreement that they heed his every whim. This, along with her evil cousin Martín watching her every move, makes Casiopea’s life seem like every part of a Cinderella-esque fairytale. Where it diverges, however, is when Casiopea opens her grandfather’s locked chest and reaches inside, unknowingly releasing the Mayan god of death – Hun-Kamé.

“With a furious clacking, the bones jumped in the air and began assembling themselves into a human skeleton. Casiopea did not move. The pain in her hand and the wave of fear that struck her held the girl tight to her spot. In the blink of an eye all the bones clicked into place, like pieces of a puzzle. In another instant the bones became muscle, grew sinew, In a third blink of an eye they were covered in smooth skin.”

Chapter 2, page 21

That exact moment is when I knew that this book was going to be everything that I needed it to be. I mean, where else will you find a book where a skeleton puts itself back together, grows muscle and skin, and then introduces itself as the god of death (and a very ~attractive~ god of death, as Moreno-Garcia quickly clues us into)? Upon awakening Hun-Kamé, Casiopea finds herself with a piece of his bone lodged into her finger, and this is what forces the plot into action. Hun-Kamé tells her that it will drain her life force unless he pulls it out – which of course he won’t do until she helps him retrieve his jade necklace, his left eye, ear, and index finger (which, er, yeah, he doesn’t have, cause his evil brother Vucub-Kamé stole them before imprisoning him).

And thus Casiopea and the reader embark on a dazzling journey of magic and demons and gods. And it is not the typical, expected European mythological landscape that has pervaded much of fantasy literature. Moreno-Garcia fills the world with indigenous American legends, and the magic that exists is given a rich history that has been changed by colonization and modernity. The world-building, plot, and language of the book are all spectacular, and I promise that you won’t know what to expect whenever you turn the page.

And of course, what would the story be with the evolving relationship between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé? This too, was fantastically done by Moreno-Garcia. The added detail that not removing the bone shard from Casiopea’s thumb also has an affect on Hun-Kamé – making him less of a god, and more of a human man – was a more than welcome addition to the story. I don’t want to give too much away in regards to this aspect, but I loved their relationship throughout the book, and I loved Casiopea’s final choice about it at the end!

I cannot recommend this book enough. And if you pick it up and like it as much as I did, Moreno-Garcia also has two other novels – Signal to the Noise (about magic and music), and Certain Dark Things (about vampires in Mexico City) – as well as a short story collection titled This Strange Way of Dying. I for one, will definitely be grabbing one – if not all – of these!

My rating: 8.5 Jade Necklaces out of 10

-Sara

Book Review | Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Genre : Fairy Tale, Fantasy, Magical Realism
Date Published : March 5, 2019
Publisher : Riverhead Books

I was first introduced to Helen Oyeyemi during my junior year of undergrad in a course titled “The Novel and its Secrets.” We read a short story from her collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, and I knew after that singular story that this was an author I needed more of. So I bought her entire collection of short stories, along with two of her novels, White is For Witching and Boy, Snow, Bird and devoured them all within a couple of months. If someone were to ask what I look for in a story, I would shove all of Oyeyemi’s books into their hands.

If you talk to me long enough about books or publishing in general, I will eventually get to the topic I tackled in my thesis – that the Horror/Gothic genre has the capacity to do more than simply scare you; it can also heal you. (Not that it always needs to do that – sometimes it’s good to have an old fashioned scare every now and then). This is something that Oyeyemi not only exemplifies in her work, but something that she excels at. In White is for Witching, Oyeyemi starts off with the classic haunted house set-up, but then gives the house its own narrative chapters which helps to tie its appetite to entrap its occupants to one of the characters, Miranda, who has an eating disorder called pica. In Boy, Snow, Bird, she takes the fairy tale of Snow White and adapts it into a story about the lasting effects of parental abuse. Oyeyemi has a strong grasp on the what the Gothic has the potential to do, and she manages to pour something new into the genre with each book she writes.

Keeping with Oyeyemi’s trademark, Gingerbread takes a recognizable element of a fairy tale and twists it into something even more unsettling, while breathing new life into it at the same time. In the original Hansel and Gretel tale, the parents leave their two children out in the woods because they don’t have the resources to feed them. In Oyeyemi’s take on the tale, she writes a story that, beneath the various descriptions and manifestations of gingerbread (which are more than unnerving at times), looks at how a family could be put into that kind of situation in the first place.

The book details the lives of three generations of women – Margot, Harriet, and Perdita Lee, a family whose gingerbread recipe is passed down between them, although it quickly becomes clear that it is not a simple recipe. At times it seems more like a curse, especially when, early on in the book, Perdita re-creates the recipe with a mysterious ingredient that sends her into a coma. And this is where the book morphs into something readers won’t see coming, especially if they’ve never read Oyeyemi’s work before.

Upon waking, Perdita swears to her mother that what occurred was not a suicide attempt, but rather an attempt to reach Druhástrana – Harriet’s home country, which, you know, may or may not exist. Begged by her daughter and the dolls at her bedside (oh yeah, the dolls talk, ’cause why not?) Harriet launches into a story she has never told Perdita – how she escaped Druhástrana and made it to England. It is a story made up of a mysterious girl in a well, changelings, gingerbread shivs, and a corrupt gingerbread factory owner that pay workers with fake money.

“Harriet ate a piece of gingerbread and tingled all over. It was a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-spattered howl at the moon rolled into one.”

– Chapter 6, page 73

Actually trying to detail Oyeyemi’s plot feels like an impossible task. She has a talent with her storytelling and her prose that not only gets you to suspend your disbelief, but manages to get you to disregard it completely and allow Oyeyemi to lead you down the rabbit hole of a strange and bewildering adventure that, when you really think about it, doesn’t always make sense. But that’s what is so extraordinary and breathtaking about this book – the fact that it reads almost like a fever dream at times, and yet you find yourself nodding along and flipping to the next page with your breath held in suspense anyway.

It can be easy to fall into the cliches of Gothic Fantasy (although, give me a classic haunted house story and I am always 100% on board), but Oyeyemi manages to avoid this by twisting the typical themes and tropes into another shape, and by adding an element to her story that a lot of people don’t normally associate with the Gothic – light-heartedness. While the book is strange and dark at times, it’s impossible to not have affection for the characters. Readers learn that Harriet has adopted a habit of leaving five star reviews on books she hasn’t read simply because she likes the author photo, and she started doing this after learning her students do the same thing, but with one-star reviews instead. “Opposing random negativity with random positivity,” is how Harriet classifies the act in her mind. And then there’s one of the underlying messages of the story – that a person holds the power to create their own family. “Not some sham family, politely avoiding having to care about one another,” Oyeyemi writes, “but people who would share a surname and the task of weaving a collective meaning into that name. People would support and protect and staunchly cherish one another.”

This book proves that Oyeyemi is an author we can continue to expect greatness from. She’s creating a recipe of her own when it comes the Fantasy genre – and I for one will be along for the ride, purchasing whatever book Oyeyemi writes next. While Gingerbread might not be the best starting point for new readers (I would recommend starting with her short stories to get a feel for her storytelling that’s a little easier to navigate), it is more than worth any resulting confusion from all of the delicious reality bending.

My rating:

9 Gingerbread Recipes out of 10

-Sara

Book Review | Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Genre : Magical Realism, Horror
Date Published : October 3, 2017
Publisher : Graywolf Press

For my first ever book review for Sister Shelf, I decided to review a short story collection that means a lot to me: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I first picked up this collection in October 2018, right around the time I was getting back into writing short stories myself, and it reopened my eyes to how joyously weird writing can be. When the Feminist Sci Fi Book Club I recently started attending chose this collection as its February 2019 read – the same month Sara and I decided to start this blog – it seemed like the universe was shouting at me: review this strange and unsettling little book!!!

I knew only two things going into this collection: it was supposed to be 1) Super Spooky and 2) Super Queer. Machado did not disappoint. Through the lens of magical realism, Machado explores the many ways in which women’s bodies (in all their forms) are mistreated, exploited, and controlled. The stories in this collection are unique and expansive – a woman inventories her past lovers to keep herself sane during the apocalypse; two women make a baby (or do they…???); an epidemic causes all women on the earth to slowly fade away; and, of course, there’s the 272 (yes, that’s two hundred and seventy two) vignettes inspired by every single episode of Law & Order: SVU.

My favorite story in the collection is “The Husband Stitch” – a retelling of the classic folktale about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck. This story felt like it was being whispered to me by my best friend at a middle school slumber party while I, being the whimp that I am, alternated between telling her to stop when it got too scary and begging her to finish the rest. Machado seamlessly weaves countless fairytales and urban legends into this piece (the hook-handed man, the girl raised by wolves, the girl who dies of fright in cemetery) and by the end they all begin to run together with one common theme: women are punished for simply existing as women.

“He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet – ” (The Husband Stitch, p. 30)

On my reread of this collection, what I enjoyed most was the unabashed queerness of each and every story (on the first read, I enjoyed having my pants scared off me!!). The queerness present in Machado’s stories breathes life back into the sometimes unbearably violent collection. For all the horrible and unthinkable things that happen to women in this collection, Machado also gives them the ability to feel pleasure and joy. And, let me tell you, these stories are sexy. Super spooky, yes, but so so sexy (which, honestly, is such a #LifeGoal).

When we discussed this collection at book club in February, our usual hour-long meeting extended to over two hours, and we still had more to talk about. That’s how Her Body and Other Parties leaves me feeling each time I pick it up – that maybe, just maybe, if I read it again I will find some answers to life’s many questions. Or, at the very least, give myself a very good scare.

My rating:

9 Madwomen in the Attic out of 10.

-Emory