Librarian's note: An alternate cover edition can be found here
A literary fantasy about love, music and sorcery, set against the background of Mexico City.
Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends -- Sebastian and Daniela -- and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love...
Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of several novels, including Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow and The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. She has also edited a number of anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (a.k.a. Cthulhu's Daughters). Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination.
My debut novel SIGNAL TO NOISE will be out again in a new edition this September 2022. A drama that flips back and forth in time, it centers on Meche, who in 1980s Mexico City learns to cast magic spells using vinyl records.
Review copies are now at Netgalley.
"The book is this rich, elaborate symphony of awesome that defies simple definitions.” – Kirkus
I just love it when I find a book I've never heard of and know nothing about and it just totally takes me by surprise and wows me. Such is the case with Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Signal to Noise, a heartfelt, nostalgic look at music, love, family, a little magic, and the friendships of our youth which never quite leave us.
Mercedes ("Meche") is growing up in Mexico City in 1988. She's a smart girl and obsessed with music—her father is a DJ, so she thinks of everything in terms of different songs. She and her two best friends, Sebastian and Daniela, form their own little band of outcasts, no matter how hard they try to fit in, and escape their broken families (at least Meche and Sebastian's). And truly, in many ways they are just your average teenagers—Daniela has a crush on one of their teachers, while Sebastian and Meche are both infatuated with the most popular and attractive guy and girl in their class, and neither pays them much attention.
But Meche is determined to change the course of their lives so things go in their favor. When she discovers she can cast magic spells using particular songs, she enlists the help of her friends to help the spells hit their target. And while their success starts changing their lives slowly but surely, they realize there are many potential downsides—the intoxicating power that turns good intentions into bad, and the way that their friendships, particularly Meche and Sebastian's, are changing because of the magic.
"Meche and Sebastian were used to each other, comfortable in their proximity. They folded and kept their dreams in the same drawer, spun fantasies side by side, lived in the easy harmony of youth which did not know the need for tall walls and sturdy defenses."
More than 20 years later, Meche returns to Mexico City, which she fled after everything in her life changed. Her estranged father has died, and she reluctantly attends his funeral, and once again encounters both Sebastian and Daniela. So much was left unsaid back then, so many feelings were unexpressed, except the resentment that each of them feels, particularly Meche. As Meche deals with all of her damaged relationships, she turns to music again, and wonders if it will help her coast through the tumultuous times the way it used to, or if she will have to confront all of the emotions she has bottled up for so long.
It's amazing how relationships can turn on a simple act, a simple misunderstanding, a simple word said in anger. This is even truer in adolescence, as the stress of friendships and relationships is compounded by the usual teenage angst. Signal to Noise explores the delicate yet fiery nature of these relationships, as well as the hurts that our family can cause us as well. Betrayals are never taken lightly, especially when they come from those we're closest to.
Being a huge music fanatic for most of my life, I easily identified with how music shaped Meche's life. And I remember the intensity of the friendships of my teenage years, and how utterly awful betrayal—real or imagined—felt. Moreno-Garcia has captured this time in life, these emotions, these passions so vividly, and while the thread of magic in the plot is a little fantastic, it doesn't detract from the story. So much in our life can hinge on the things that are and aren't said, and this book mines that vein very effectively.
At its core, this is a story about a teenage girl and her two friends who are all outcasts in 1980's Mexico City. They don't fit in at school or at home, and one day, when Meche (a.k.a. Mercedes, our protagonist) discovers she can perform magical spells with the help of vinyl records, they plan to make things right for themselves.
Unfortunately, many aspects of this novel felt underdeveloped. All of the elements were there to make an amazing book, but they didn't go far enough to pull me in.
Setting: I was really looking forward to reading a book set in Mexico, but very little attention was paid to the setting; the author utilized only a few names of people and places along with Spanish phrases to set the stage.
Characters:I also thought the characters were rather flat. Each had their own interests and problems, but that was all we knew of them and saw very little growth throughout the story. Even though the book jumps between 1988 and 2009, the characters feel the same at all times. I found it hard to imagine that, especially with everything they went through, these characters would speak and behave the same despite a 21 year gap in time.
Writing: And I think a lot of that is due to the writing style. The author tells, rather than shows, everything the characters are thinking or feeling. ("Sebastian felt offended. He felt hurt. He felt f***ing angry." Or "When Meche hung up she felt giddy with excitement.") Also Sebastian slides his hands into his pockets all the time. It was things like this that could've been edited and made for a much stronger story.
Plat: Finally, the plot doesn't really know what it wants to be. Coming-of-age? Romance? Revenge plot? Like our main character, it felt confused and trying too hard to be too many things. The magical realism aspect of the story also felt like a convenient way for the author to solve things or cause conflict without having to provide an explanation. Because it's magic, it's written off as inexplicable, but that doesn't make for a very satisfying read. Maybe that's just a personal preference though; I like magic that has some sort of structure, even if it's simple, to follow along and be able to pinpoint why and how a character can make something happen.
I really wanted to like this book. I'm honestly sort of baffled because I know quite a few people who love this one, but that's the great thing about books—there's something for everyone. This one just wasn't for me.
It's funny that Moreno-Garcia's debut novel was the last I needed to read. And it's great- very much in line with what I've seen from her other work thematically and in terms of characterization. Signal to Noise is set in Mexico City following timelines in 1988 and 2009 with magical realism. It's largely a novel about coming of age as a misfit, and about messy family dynamics and grief.
in 1988 Meche is an awkward fifteen year old girl, obsessed with vinyl records and hanging out with her best friends Daniella and Sebastien who are also social outcasts. Her parents marriage is falling apart and she longs for the attention of the school hottie. Meche is often angry, prickly, and unlikeable, which is a hallmark of many heroines Moreno-Garcia writes. But that doesn't make her any less human underneath or in need of tenderness. And I think seeing women like this represented is really important. She's not nice, she doesn't always make good decisions, but she's interesting and real.
Sebastien is a similarly complicated character. He is straight but faces homophobic bullying because he's bookish and nice and doesn't live up to this masculine ideal of machismo. He is crushing hard on the prettiest girl in school, who is on and off dating the hottest boy in school. (because of course)
Sebastien and Meche have this intense relationship and a lot of the book is their blindness to the true nature of their friendship. Because when you're fifteen, social capital and wanting to be desirable and cool can get tangled up with attraction and a desire for intimacy. The novel really captures the experience of being socially awkward at that age really well. And when you add the discovery of magical power to the tumultuous nature of being a teenager with a lot of pain and anger, things are bound to get messy.
In 2009, Meche is back in Mexico City for the first time in years because her father has died. We know from the start that she hasn't spoken with her father or Sebastien in many years, but not why. She holds a grudge like armor around her heart, but now she's being pushed to finally deal with things.
This is a fantastic, powerful debut novel and it's interesting to see how Moreno-Garcia has progressed through her career.
In talking about it you realize that Moreno-Garcia takes common themes and makes them better. To say Meche is stubborn is just another throw-away adjective used describe a pantheon of YA protagonists but is so much of what makes up Meche. She is unlikeable in the way so many teenagers are - filled with contradictions and big emotions. The duo of Meche and Sebastian, two friends so comfortable in their own skins with each other yet attracted to absolutely the wrong people, all but telegraphs the subsequent plot but right away we’re challenged when we jump 20 years to the present and a grownup Meche who hasn’t been with, much less even talked to Sebastian for the past 2 decades. Now it becomes the mystery of what happened. It takes what could have been a standard YA magical fantasy into something more considered and moving. Magic has a price.
Signal to Noise is flatter than a pancake, and not nearly as tasty even if you drizzle the book in maple syrup. WHICH I DEFINITELY DIDN'T TRY, OKAY? I mean where would I even GET maple syrup? The grocery store? Uh yeah you realize I live on a tropical island don't you? Haha just kidding. I don't live on a tropical island. The tropical island lives in me.
But where was I?
Ah yes. Tropical islands. They say, "No man is an Island." I say, "He is also not a volcano, an isthmus, or a hedge maze." No wait, that's not where I was. Not tropical islands. Pancakes. Book review. Jeez, self. Focus.
Signal to Noise is a magical realist literary YA set in Mexico City, both in 1988 and in 2009. It follows unlikeable protagonist Meche as she navigates high school as an awkward, unattractive teenage girl – not a barrel of fun I can imagine - alongside her equally awkward best friends Sebastian and Daniela. These chapters are juxtaposed with Meche returning twenty years later to deal with her father's BLAH BLAH BLAH. Read the Amazon summary, I'm here to talk pancakes.
This book was so flat. There weren’t enough changes in elevation, so to speak, to even hate it. It was ho-hum dol-drum. It was a straight shot stroll through the rather unremarkable landscape of a standard coming-of-age family drama. Peaceful, perhaps, but I demand greater ambition in my literature. This one says nothing new about relationships, family, teenage angst, etc that I haven’t read many times before. Unfortunately, there is nothing beyond that either. Its explorations of magic, music, and Mexican culture are minimal, to the say the, uh, minimum. If you had changed a couple proper nouns, you could have easily set this in Detroit. It offers the standard music-as-escape and music-as-connection trope, but shows no awareness of the paradoxical nature of those tropes. The “magic” is pure plot element, instead of a deeper exploration of what we might call “the physics of spirituality.”
Even beyond these thematic concerns, I didn’t find the book particularly well-constructed at the surface level either.
Un momento. *puts on professor hat*
I have this litmus test for literature that I’m going to call the “desire test.” While the occasional story is the exploration of a milieu, most literature focuses on talking monkeyshuman beings talking monkeys, okay? Even if the characters are cowardly dinosaurs or gourmet rats or what have you, they embody talking monkey traits and values. Now, talking monkeys are composed of three movements: desire, routine, and fear. Routine is momentum, desire attracts, and fear repels.
Literature is no more or less than a talking monkey attempting to change its routine by navigating a maze of desire and fear. And the degree to which we empathize with talking monkeys is really just a measurement of how well we understand their desires and fears. It’s impossible for us to root for a talking monkey if we don’t know what that talking monkey wants. It’d be like a watching a game of Laser Eyegouge Tongue-twist Necrolick Ball. What even is that? You don't know the rules, you don't know the players, you don't know the stakes. And therefore you don't care. Yeah, me either and I don't really wanna know (lol jk yes I do).
Well my “desire test” goes something like this: as I’m reading, I ask myself, “What do these talking monkeys want? What do they fear? Do routine, fear, and desire come into conflict? How long does it take for their first major clash to occur?”
Okay. Literature lesson over.
*removes professor hat*
In the case of Signal to Noise, we haven't the slightest clue what the 2009 Meche fears and desires. And this isn't a good mystery. It's not a Christmas present mystery, where you suspect you're going to get that miniaturized dog-sized elephant you always wanted. It's a different type of mystery. A bad mystery. Like when you open the fridge to discover someone - or something - has relocated every single scissor and knife in your entire house into your fridge's produce drawer.
My guess is that the author intended the 1988 Meche to highlight the 2009’s desires and fears, and that’s sorta what happens (but too late to make the chapters fun to read). And it’s a terrible writing strategy anyway, as it means that, in twenty years, Meche manages zero growth or change. More yikes than a bike factory run by someone who can't spell!
The 1988 Meche fares a little better, but not hugely. Signal to Noise is a romance in which the main characters pursue people they’re not even that interested in. They like em cause they’re popular and pretty, and yeah, I get it. That happens. But it’s incredibly dull. And yet that is the surface action. The plot is ultimately about other things, but Meche and Sebastian’s pursuit of their crushes provides the actual movement. Again, more yikes than a trike factory... FILLED WITH SPIKES. Not to mention the YIKE TRIKE SPIKE BIKE COMBO-BREAKER caused by the fact that they even engage in love spells, which is the fantasy equivalent of RAPE. But would it surprise you to know that the author shows no awareness of this common understanding of the love potion? Nopee.
As for the final prong of my "desire test," the first skirmish between fear, desire, and routine occurs on page 149. That’s right. You haven't suffered a micro-stroke and lost the ability to count (probably). Half the book is over before the first truly interesting thing happens, which is a kiss, and then Meche’s fear of rejection conflicts with her desire for companionship and appreciation, thereby causing one of the book’s rare peaks of emotion. And then, in a stunning maneuver, it’s more or less promptly forgotten. They go RIGHT back to pursuing their crushes on people they don't even like. Yeah, okay, whatever.
This lack of desire becomes even more problematic because Meche is an unlikeable protagonist. Which is fine. But she’s unlikeable in the worst sort of way. Hell, DALEKS from Dr. Who are more likeable than Meche, the reason being that their pursuit of EXTERMINATION is almost childlike in its intensity and purity and we can jive with that intensity, even if we (hopefully) don’t agree with the notion that all lifeforms should be EXTERMINATED. (Just the people who disagree with our opinions on abortion! amirite? or am I right?)
So that’s how you make an unpleasant character likeable: You give them an improper desire and make them GOOD at pursuing it – as with the Daleks – OR you give them a noble desire and make them BAD at pursuing it, as with Severus Snape’s protection of Harry. But Meche falls under neither of these categories. She has no noble desire (until the very end and SURPRISE it’s another of the few moments the book achieves an emotional peak/valley) and she’s not good at pursuing her improper desire of her crush, Constantine. Instead, Meche comes across as mean-spirited. She represents one of the worst sort of people in the world. Someone with no real ambition or desire, who constantly craps on those of others.
Wait a second... *ponders* Am I...?
Hm. Yeah. I suppose I could have someone airlift maple syrup to my tropical island. Yeah that coulda worked! Jeez, why didn't I think of that to begin with!?
But anyway, in short, the characterization is a mess, the pacing is glacial, and the thematic underpinnings as mundane as they come. Alas, I cannot recommend this book to the average reader.
With that said, I’m giving it two stars which means I can possibly conceive of someone liking it. If YA, family drama, and music are your cup of tea, Signal to Noise may hit the spot. If you do read it, I recommend you first cover it in maple syrup. And possibly maybe listen to the music referenced within.
A reissue of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s first book, an unusual variation on a coming-of-age story that probes into friendship, grief and the fracturing of family. It alternates between timelines, opening in 2009 when Meche (Mercedes) returns to Mexico City for the first time in 18 years, here for her estranged father’s funeral. Returning stirs memories of the final months of 1988 and early 1989, the moments that undid everything important to her, severing her closest ties. Meche was a teenage misfit, the sort that’s the staple of teen movies, struggling academically and routinely bullied at school, her only friends are also outsiders, bookish, pseudo-punk Sebastián and good-natured Daniela whose chronic illness marks her out as ‘different’. The three are inseparable but they long to be part of the popular circle that dominates their school. Then a chance event unlocks Meche’s latent magical abilities, inextricably tied to the music she loves, and suddenly it seems that the three might have a chance to gain the power they desperately desire.
I’ve been wanting to try something by Moreno-Garcia for a while now but I’m not sure this was the best place to start. Like many debut novels it’s quite an uneven piece, with some strands that felt awkwardly spliced together – particularly the sections told from the perspective of Meche’s flailing dad who’s never fulfilled his early promise. But there were a number of promising, compensating aspects: the detail of everyday life in Mexico City in the 1980s; the intimate portrayal of friendship, betrayal and loss. And the story overall could be fairly compelling and entertaining. I also enjoyed the references to film, books and particularly the music of the era which run through the story – there are numerous, online playlists available inspired by Moreno-Garcia’s book that are worth exploring. So not destined to be a favourite but decent enough to make me want to explore Moreno-Garcia’s later work.
Thanks to Netgalley and publisher Solaris Books for an ARC
I picked up this book because I'd read one of Moreno-Garcia's short stories in the 'Dangerous Games' anthology, and really enjoyed it.
From that one previous experience of her writing (a modern Lovecraft tribute), this book wasn't quite what I expected - however, it won me over.
Alternating between scenes set in 1988 and twenty years later, the novel introduces us to Meche.
In 1988, she's a teen in Mexico City. Her family doesn't have much money, and she's an unpopular, nerdy girl. However, she's got two friends, Sebastian and Daniela. The trio often seems inseparable. And she's got her music, a world which her dearly beloved father introduced her to.
In 2009, Meche is a successful computer programmer based in Oslo. After years away, she's visiting Mexico and the old neighborhood after her estranged fathers death. To the reader, it's at first inexplicable why she's so very strongly opposed to seeing either of her old friends - and what happened to the relationship between her and her father.
As the book progresses, the answers are gradually revealed. It all has something to do with a discovery of witchcraft: objects of power and wishes come true. But more, it has to do with the long, slow process of growing up; about decisions and regrets. Choices have consequences; some things, once broken, can never be mended. But some things, perhaps, can.
The magic here is powerful and believable, integrated seamlessly with daily life. However, although the magic is an integral part of the story, the kernel of the book is about love and hate: interpersonal relationships.
Moreno-Garcia's writing is excellent, and she excels at drawing fully-rounded, complex characters. Mexico City came to vivid life under her pen. If I had to point to one thing I would change, though, I'd say I wished I was given a little bit more a a grounded sense of what Meche's life in Oslo is like - we don't actually see Norway at all in the books, so it feels a bit dreamlike when she talks about living there: like her family members that have never left Mexico, we can't even really imagine it. Perhaps that's intentional, though.
This is a young author to watch - I expect further great things from her.
Many thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book. As always, my opinion is my own.
I read an advance copy of Mexican Gothic earlier this year and immediately had to grab every book written by Moreno-Garcia. I chose to begin with Signal to Noise and I’m so glad that I did!
It’s the end of the 80s in Mexico City and fifteen-year-old Meche is an awkward kid who is rough around the edges. Lucky for her she has two best friends, Sebastian and Daniela, and crates of vinyl records to keep her from becoming completely jaded. Her parents’ marriage has been falling apart for ages and she can’t quite put into words what she’s feeling for Sebastian. The three friends navigate the intricacies of their families, their relationships with each other, and their futures with a touch of magic that can only be found in music.
Fast forward to 2009 and Meche has returned for her estranged father’s funeral. Now she has to cope with her mother and the memories of 1988 that explain to readers how her relationships fell apart.
This is an unusual and powerful coming-of-age story that has touches of magical realism/urban fantasy. I identified with this story on several levels because at 15 I had a couple close friends and it felt like it was us against the world. I remember using music as a secret code to explain all the things I hadn’t figured out how to say yet. Music made me brave; I gave it power and in turn it felt like it gave me power.
Full of nostalgia, plenty of 80s music pop culture, and the all-too common story of heartbreak due to failed communication; Signal to Noise delivers an authentic look at being a teenager and includes some lovely symbolism that was easy for me to relate to and appreciate.
I recommend this book to readers who appreciate YA with hints of magic realism.
This was very good. The story is a pretty well told one--three misfit teenagers form a witches' circle and start doing magic, but power goes to their heads. What makes it stand out is partly the clear-sighted view the story takes of the teens--they're selfish and horrible and idiotic in their inability to understand their own or anyone else's feelings, but that isn't anything to do with magic, it's just the nature of the beast. The magic warps Meche but not in a way her own personality didn't lean towards: money or social power would have done a similar job.
The other aspect is the sub plot line of her deadbeat father who introduces her to music but leaves, and whose death twenty years on is the catalyst for her return to Mexico City. This is completely realistic, and again clearsighted, a portrayal of a man failing at life without ever meaning harm.
Well written and compelling, with a surprisingly optimistic theme of forgiveness and letting go.
One part High Fidelity. One part The Magicians. Add in lots of originality and you have Signal to Noise. This book has just so many elements to it that were so in my wheelhouse that it would have been slightly worrying if I didn’t love it so much. Set in Mexico City in 1988, the story follows a 15-year-old girl named Meche who is extremely unpopular, and her two equally unpopular friends Sebastian and Daniela. One day, Meche realizes that she is able to cast spells with the aid of music and vinyl records, which she quickly realizes can change the lives of her and her friends. Flash forward to 2009, Meche is returning to Mexico City after her father passes away and is forced to confront her past, which includes her broken friendships with Sebastian and Daniela after a falling out that happens in 1989. Silvia Moreno-Garcia perfectly captures a realistic teenage voice, which includes all of the optimism and confusion and annoying traits that all teenagers have. Music is also heavily but well integrated into the storyline, which I absolutely adore. This little indie release deserves all the attention. –Rincey Abraham
Ahoy there me mateys! I shouldn't be surprised that SMG's debut is a five-star read. I do understand how many of the crew consider this book to be their favorite. This novel has dual timelines, 1988 and 2009, and follows Meche in Mexico City. Fifteen year old Meche and her two friends, Sebastian and Daniela, are social outcasts who find themselves thrown together by lack of other options. Later, thirty-six year old Meche is back in her hometown for her father's funeral and has to confront what happened 20 years before. Magic was involved. Things went very wrong. Maybe Meche should have listened to her grandmother's warning. Maybe not.
Ultimately this novel involves coming-of-age and making bad choices and having to live with the consequences. I loved how the story unfolded. I spent most of the time trying to figure things out only to have an ending that felt surprising and yet inevitable. I love when that happens.
Meche is a hard character to sympathize with because she is selfish, prickly, and thoughtless. Sebastian is slightly better because he is thoughtful and caring but he is a pushover. I loved Daniela and thought she was the most compelling character. She is a dreamer and not smart but understood what friendship should mean. Ultimately this novel shows how many teenagers can feel fraught with emotion and filled with the wish to just fit in. The passing of time can add perspective and clarity to choices of the past. The only minor quibble is that Meche really didn't seem to ever improve or truly reflect on her bad choices. She remained as stubborn as ever.
Music is almost another character in the novel. I am not musically-oriented but can imagine that for those that are, this book could be even more magical. Highly recommended. I love this author's work so much. Arrrr!
This is a reprint of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel. We all know Moreno-Garcia can write well which was perhaps the only good thing about this book. The writing was vivid and atmospheric. Also, who doesn't like a warm Mexican setting? Right? As for the plot, it was just breadcrumbs from a coming-of-age YA teenage friendship/love story mixed with magical realism. This might sound wholesome but it wasn’t. The story was a tedious exaggeration of a teenage love story which was stretched way too far to the point of a migraine. There was so much redundancy that it literally pained me to continue reading and I was on the verge of DNFing this book more times than I could count. The characters were under developed and annoying; the plot was flat and there was literally nothing happening. It was basically a pretty two dimensional picture of three kids in Mexico. No layers, no development, no depth!
I wanted to like this, and if this wasn’t written by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I would’ve left this unfinished.
Thanks to Rebellion, Solaris and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for my review.
1.5/5🌟 (rounded up for the love of Silvia Moreno-Garcia).
Recommended for: * Music as magic and as the soundtrack of life * Friendship & magical realism in Mexico City * Twin story lines in the late 80s and the present
Signal to Noise alternates between scenes in two different time periods. Twin story lines are woven together beautifully. Both stories are interesting in their own right, and chapters are well paced between time lines. Each story enriches the other, giving depth without sacrificing story and emotional suspense. It makes for a fascinating, layered read.
Both story lines are filled with music, and will spark memories for anyone who was around during the 80s.Signal to Noise will appeal to fans of High Fidelity or Eleanor and Park, but the references are more mainstream and accessible than Ready Player One. And, you don't have to be a child of the 80s to enjoy the music references. Her dad's a DJ, so her influences include classics from the 60s and 70s too.
To get the most out of Signal to Noise, listen to the Playlist as you read. Some scenes are vivid enough you can feel lyrics running through your head anyway. Other references are too quick to identify, and it's nice to let a playlist fill in the blanks. Lastly, the mix of English and Spanish songs brings Mexico City to life in a way that's far more vivid than a photograph. For me, the soundtrack showed me there were more similarities in Meche's experience than I thought, and made me look for commonalities rather than differences.
Mexico City, 1988 Signal to Noise is a story about three friends growing up together in the late 80s. Meche is not always a likeable lead, but the relationship between the three friends is intense and engaging. Sebastian is quirky and funny, and kept me glued to the page even when I was fed up with Meche. And Daniela's easy-going independence is a perfect balance to Meche and Sebastian vying for dominance.
Magic is part of the story but not the entirety. It's subtle, in the tradition of magical realism. Meche works magic with her records, by finding the right song to match her desire. The three teens become more powerful as they learn the rules of their magic together. Folklore traditions from Meche's grandmother provide both clues and warnings.
Mexico City, 2009 But Signal to Noise isn't just about Meche as a teenager. It's also about living with mistakes and finding out if they can be fixed. It's clear something has gone horribly wrong. Meche is estranged from both family and friends, and lives halfway across the globe now.
It's a setup that could have made both stories anticlimactic. Instead, they work together to make you emotionally invested. You want the three friends to reconcile in the present, and you want to know how things went wrong in the past.
This is a story about friendship first, not romance. But Sebastian and Meche share an intense connection that makes you root for them to get together. It's unclear in both story lines whether they'll find their way to each other, and I won't give away what happens. But I would have enjoyed this story no matter how it ended. All three characters are so fully developed that I love them in their own right.
Someone in my book club in Cardiff mentioned Signal to Noise to me with some enthusiasm, and I’d already looked at it speculatively a few times, so I was quite eager to give it a go. Music and magic being linked is hardly a revolutionary idea for me: Orpheus, the enchantment of a good song, the Pied Piper… But this uses music like Bowie and Nina Simone; songs like ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. Popular music, recent music. It’s an accessible sort of magic, and the perfect kind of magic for a teenager to use.
The characters are very teenage: a mismatched group who don’t get along with other people so well, at least as teens; who grow apart, as adults, so that the first moment of recognition is a strange one. The pushy prickly leader and the gentle follower, the bond between a boy and a girl of understanding, of seeing a future… The teenage versions of the characters definitely work well, though as adults there’s still something so teenage about them — or at least about Meche, Mercedes, the main character.
The two plots run parallel: Meche, Daniela and Sebastian as teens, casting spells using vinyl, and then the same characters as adults, grown far apart — wrenched far apart, it turns out, by what happened when they were teens. That plot is kind of interesting, though I didn’t really feel Meche’s power trip. It got way too menacing too fast, and after that I couldn’t understand Sebastian and Daniela still wanting to be anywhere near Meche. Sure, the spells she wanted to cast were understandable — but also manipulative, and in one case, really dangerous. It doesn’t feel like Meche deserves Daniela and Sebastian’s patience and forgiveness, however close Sebastian and Meche were before.
I found it an overall entertaining story, but not as great as I’d hoped. I liked the fact that it was set in Mexico City, and the little flavours of food and stories which reminded you, every now and again, where the characters were and what shaped and constrained their lives — those subtle differences from the typical American teenagers. It’s not a hugely marked thing, though, now I think about it in retrospect — the story could be the same without the setting, I think.
Thank you to Rebellion and Netgalley for the review copy in exchange for an honest review. This does not change my opinion in anyway.
Over the last few years I've been reading a bit of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's work. And as I have noticed I have quite a bit of a preference for her newer work over her older work. So when I got the e-arc of this rerelease of Signal to Noise (originally released in 2015) I was a bit hesitant going in. I ended up really liking it.
Signal to noise is a combination of nostalgia, music and growing up that weaves the tale of Meche. We meet her as she returns home for the funeral of her father, someone who she has very mixed feelings about. Returning home sets up the rememberance of her time as a 15 year old, when she first discovered the magic of some music with her two friends.
The way the story is build up between the present and the past works well. We see Meche dealing with her grief over her father. A grief she is trying not to have because of what he did. She is working through his stuff and remembering what happened. And it helps to show not everything is as black and white as she thought. Not just her father but the falling out with her friends. Its someting she never really worked through but that she ran from.
It is just a beautiful self-contained story of the mistakes we sometimes make and how to deal with the fall out, even if it has been 20+ years.
I started this book not knowing anything about it, wondering if it would work for me and ended reading it in tears because I found it so moving. I'm so incredibly happy I picked this one up. It's truely romantic without being a romance. The writing is beautiful. I cannot wait to recommend this to everyone I know.
Between the setting (a rough sketch of impoverished Mexico City) and Meche’s taste in music (more than 50% stuff I didn’t know or haven’t heard), it was difficult for me to get immersed quickly in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise because I had to spend so much mental energy imagining or trying to draw parallels to my own life and hoping they were right. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the tone out of the gate – it came across as pretty harsh, with a lot of sharp, short, terse sentences and ugly language with liberal cursing. But as I went forward intending to skim the book for plot, I found myself reading word for word, and appreciating the tone and style as appropriate extensions of the characters. In the end, however, there are a number of elements about which I feel critical, despite the fact that there is a unique perspective and voice that deserves mention, as well.
First of all, Meche is one of the least likeable protagonists I’ve encountered in a while – that being a quality that typically leads me to avoid a book in the first place. She isn’t just cold or difficult at times because she’s defensive and scared (or a teenager). She really is an outright bitch a lot of the time – the most so to the people closest to her. It’s such a trope in YA and romantic books for one character to fall in love with another despite their fortress walls or porcupine quills, and I’m frequently on the verge of losing patience with it; but this story is that trope on steroids. Sebastian is an intelligent, sensitive, all-around nice and good person. Meche is a dictatorial bully even with her two “best friends.” And it goes way beyond bitchy when you use a hex to try to crash someone’s motorcycle. But it’s not sooooo bad because Meche explicitly doesn’t want to kill him, she just wants him to get hurt? No. No no no.
Another problem here is the passage of time. Because we don’t spend any time between 1989 and 2009, there isn’t much impact to the fact that in the second storyline Meche and Sebastian are reunited after 20 years. The facts that he’s been married and that she’s lived all over Europe seem as trivial as the fact that he wears a new kind of shirt and she cut her hair. As a reader, you don’t feel the weight and significance of those years apart and all of the experiences they’ve had at all, unless you bring your own life and experience into the story to draw a parallel.
It’s also a mega-trope in YA for the misfit leads to be hyper-cultured, and most of the time I end up finding it worthy of an eye roll or two, but I only want to punch someone in the face when the excuse the author gives for the character getting into whatever it is in the first place is way too flimsy, or when a playlist or reading list basically stands in for any other meaningful method of character creation. In this case we have a girl who is familiar with widely ranging music including jazz that not a single kid in my 2000+ person high school would have known, and a guy who reads for pleasure stuff that most people (adults and grad students included) don’t read or don’t like. It’s just a little too precocious to be believable; and while Meche believably got into vinyl via her DJ/musician dad, Sebos’ literary predilections as a kid from a violent broken home in Mexico City are never explained. But he is super smart and serious and soulful, and don’t you forget it.
The real shame about this book, though, is the lack of magic. These people can use records to do SERIOUS magic, but all that Moreno-Garcia sees fit to tell you is that records feel hot when they’re the right music to use for a spell, the characters dance about, and some gold threads are formed. Okay… And? You mean to tell me Meche doesn’t obsess over every detail of what it’s like to discover that she can do this, what it feels like to do it, what it feels like to share it with Sebastian and Daniella, and half a dozen other things? Moreno-Garcia doesn’t render the magic more mysterious and powerful with her reticence, she does it an outright disservice and occasionally makes it feels sort of banal or even ridiculous.
After saying all of that, I want to say that it bummed me out to be critical of this book because there are so many thing about it that I would like to reward: especially depictions of characters who are passionate about music and books, honest depictions of the complicated feelings a lot of teenagers have (instead of airbrushed, sanitized, fantasy versions, or, conversely, versions with such extreme examples of bullying or self-harming behavior or alienation that they aren’t realistic to 97+% of the world, either), and magic (music-magic, no less!). Combine all of that with a title that I thought perhaps referenced the great Peter Gabriel song, and I just assumed this was a book for me.
But in the end, this was either not a book for me, or a book that tried to be for me and fell short. But seriously, who is a book about music-magic and intense feelings and love for, if not for me? Your demographic is getting a little too narrow if you were just aiming for Mexican girls who like Duncan Dhu, Arturo Márquez, King Crimson, and Sarah Vaughan; are into computer programming and math; have two problematic parents; and are total bitches 99% of the time. So, despite being a white chick who didn’t know who Duncan Dhu is, doesn’t like King Crimson, and doesn’t particularly need to hear any Sarah Vaughan (gasp! blasphemy! But really, “Body and Soul” is awfully… um… hyperbolic), likes math but has never taken to computers behind the screens, and tries not to be a bitch 99% of the time (Do I try to be a bitch that other 1% of the time or just not try not to be one? That’s for you to wonder!), I thought I ought to feel a sense of kinship with this novel… but every time I started to, something pulled me back out of it, and regardless of taste or perspective, I will stand by the objective criticism that the book skims the surface of a few too many of its meaningful elements – particularly the magic and the passage of time.
Music is magic, as any teen could tell you. In SIGNAL TO NOISE, the teen is Meche, who discovers she can work spells with her friends using vinyl records. Of course, the teens seek to change their miserable social lot through magic, with dubious results.
The teens' story is solidly set in 1980s Mexico City, expertly interspersed with chapters recounting adult Meche's return to Mexico City for a family funeral. The back and forth in time feels flawless, as deftly handled as the changes in point-of-view, which allow readers into all the characters' heads (teen and adult alike) without ever being confusing. While the teens' story ramps up to disaster, adult Meche's story is more about internal change. This is not to say the adult story is any less magical--even more so, perhaps. After all, it's easy to believe in magic when you're young. As we age, that faith gets kicked out of most of us.
Some readers will resist sympathizing with Meche, who has a prickly personality and tends to abuse her few faithful friends, even as an adult. But I enjoyed her strong identity and the fact that she is who she is. She grows and improves, but she remains fundamentally herself, which is an admirable feat for anyone, but especially for a female coming-of-age heroine. Her prickliness makes her moments of tenderness even more touching. For example, I loved her relationship with her grandmother, which was gentle but not sappy.
A subplot involving Meche's friend Daniela and a teacher, though completely believable, felt a bit pat to me. I would've preferred more focus on Daniela's self-perception as a person with chronic illness, especially when that illness seems cured, at least temporarily, by magic. But that's less a complaint than a desire for more of this world Moreno-Garcia has conjured. (Luckily, the author has provided a play list to let us live there a little longer: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list... )
SIGNAL TO NOISE conveys the raw emotions of the teenage years without slipping too far into nostalgia or downplaying the emotional struggles of adulthood. It's a marvelous balancing act. I can't wait to see what Moreno-Garcia does next!
If you don't like YA but you like coming of age stories, you'll like this book. If you DO like YA, I think you'll like this book. It hits that really sweet spot of being about young people and appealing to a wide audience.
Signal to Noise is a little bit Ready Player One, a little bit High Fidelity, a little bit The Craft, and also more than those. Meche, the main character, has been branded a "loser" by most of her peers; she runs with a crew of other misfits, but they love each other and they don't *feel* like losers. They want to fit in and they want to be accepted--or, at the very least, stop being bullied. Especially Sebastian, who loves to read and gets picked on constantly for that . . . I can definitely relate.
One day, a bully pushes Meche too far and she discovers that she has magic abilities. (Normally, this is the part where I'd groan and check out of a book, but I thought it was done well enough to suspend my disbelief.) The bully suffers an accident, and Meche knows it's because she wished it. She gathers her friends together and they start trying to figure out how the magic works--and they figure out it comes at a pretty steep price.
What I really loved about the book:
+ The characters were so. well. written. They were sometimes painfully real (in that awkward teenager way). I was happy to follow them on their journeys--so much so that I read the whole book in one day.
+ There were enough pop culture references to make me feel like I was back in the 80's, but not so many that I felt like it was just a fan wank. The story really shone through.
+ MECHE LOVES COMPUTERS! It was so great to see a female character who is passionate about math and science, and who actually goes after it.
+ It takes place in Mexico City. I love Mexico. Not in a "omg let's get plastered in Tijuana this weekend guyz" kind of way but in a "let's drive past the border towns to somewhere that barely has a road and never come back" kind of way. It also gave a whole other spin to the "disaffected almost-punk teen" story; in some ways, it was universal, but in others, it was very specific to Mexican culture.
+ The magical parts of the book were balanced really well with the "real" bits of the book. And the magic was handled well--it wasn't a panacea and the potential downsides to being magical were definitely displayed. It didn't feel like one of those books where the author said, "Oh hey, wouldn't it be fun to have magical powers and be able to DO ANYTHING I WANT?!" and then wrote a wish-fulfillment story.
+ DAT COVER ART, THO
I would have given the book 4.5 stars, but I bumped it up to five (which I usually reserve for almost-perfect books) since it's super-new and indie press published. It's a really fun book that also tugs at your heartstrings.
You probably won't get this novel if you don't remember those times, those situations, where music can be magic. Not just nice to listen to, or even the pure emotional rush of it, but actual honest-to-goodness world-changing magic. And "remember" is indeed a key word here; just like music accesses some part of our brain beyond language, so do memories. Signal To Noise, therefore, takes place in two timelines: in 1989, when three outcasts at a Mexico City high school discover that they can use music to cast actual spells, and twenty years later, when Meche Vega returns home for the first time in 20 years to bury her estranged father and has to start sorting through her memories of what happened.
It's a novel about relationship and memories that doubles as playlist, or rather as mix tape; listening to the playlist (Spotify), a mix of old rock and jazz classics and somewhat cheesy, overproduced 80s Mexican pop, is almost necessary. It's not that I hear the magic in all those songs, or even that Moreno-García can always capture it in writing - but it still triggers something in me, a memory that doesn't have to go with that particular song. Our mixtapes are memories of untold histories, to quote a poet.
You might argue that the misunderstood-loner-in-high-school-discovers-magic-powers (though the magic bit is nicely understated, neither solving or spoiling anything by itself) plot is trite. Trite like an 80s pop song, that at one point meant everything and now gathers dust. Sure. You might even argue that it's hard to like (who decided we have to like fictional characters anyway) Meche, I still call her a bizarrely produced but brilliant single, all elbows, too loud drums and sharp notes. And while most of the action takes place in 1989, it's the distance - and the closing of that distance - 20 years later that makes the novel more than just a novelty. Sure it's been done before, sure all those drum machines and DX7s and teenage drama sound a bit silly today, but we lived through them, they changed our world, and it would be a lie to forget it.
This isn't kind of book I normally read, it's barely speculative fiction. It had only small touch of fantasy because the kids learned to cast spells using music as their method, but that's actually a small part of the book. It's really about those awkward, painful, miserable teenage years from fifteen to sixteen. Or at least half of the book is about that, more than half maybe. These kids were not popular and were longing for the most popular and beautiful kids in school. They were bullied. One of them was extremely poor. One of them had a drunk for a father. One of them had lupus. And a lot of stuff went down over the course of the book. The story went back and forth from 2009 to 1988-9, so it kept me eager to find out what happened in the past to lead to how the main character ended up in the "present" and how their relationships turned out the way they did.
The book made me wonder if we were that young in the eighties. I'm only three years older than these kids. We were more innocent, less experience and aware than kids are these days, but the kids in this book seemed more sheltered, more innocent. Maybe some of the difference between suburban kids (me and my friends) and a Mexico City neighborhood was that they really had a neighborhood, with gossips, and people looking out for each other, people who knew each other? Suburban kids can get away with more when houses are on separate lots (even when they're small), neighbors who barely ever see each other, and when no one knows what the others are doing. Not that my friends and I got away with much, we were good kids, a lot like the kids in the book. Whatever it was, how kids really were in Mexico City neighborhoods in those days or just the author's choices, the kids in the book seemed more naive than we were.
The main thing the book made me realize wasn't news: you couldn't pay me enough to be a teenager again. I don't understand people who romanticize their childhoods. I miss my family, and my mother's cooking. But not the angst. And I had it pretty easy compared to most kids. High school is always a huge emotional roller coaster and the author showed that well. The way the kids were searching, yearning, bonding, confused, lost, found, lost again, completely misunderstanding, being completely misunderstood, being unfairly dismissed, abused, neglected, loved, supported, manipulated, disappointed, brokenhearted, hopeful, angry, determined, and hurt, so hurt, always hurt, it made me ache for them. Honestly, you couldn't pay me enough. But the book wasn't heavy, it was an engaging read. I had fun looking up the music I wasn't familiar with, and playing a lot of the songs or albums mentioned as a background soundtrack. It made it feel like an interactive experience in a certain way, almost like I was communicating with both Meche (the MC) and the author on a certain level. So maybe I wasn't quite as blown away by the book as some people were because it wasn't quite my genre. But I enjoyed it quite a lot and will happily try any other book by the author in the future.
I actually rather enjoyed my reading - enough to finish the book without any difficulties. The double pace (now / 20 years ago) was confortable, the writing good, with personality (perhaps a little too much personality : the billion musical references was a tiny bit overwhelming). But the atmosphere was wrong, during all the book. The magic in it didn't convinced me either.
The characters were okay to begin with, but they didn't improved, were only outlined, never alive, except for the main one. And this one, Merche, was very unlikable, mean, cruel, egoist person, in an adolescent way that could be all right for a 16 years old girl (uncongenial but credible), but not for the adult Merche, 35 years old. I didn't understand what she ever did to deserve all this love and attention. She never learns from her mistakes, or only in a self preservation way. She should have evolved, but she didn't. She never seems to realise how horrid was her attitude toward her best friend (I won't spoil, but I'm speaking about psychopathic behaviour here!), and the author never choose to make her think about her past responsibility about her family and friends (especially her grand mother). There is some sense of unfinished psychology evolution which I find very uncomfortable and amoral. Meche is behaving like the sociopath she probably is, and is rewarded for it. A reading with some qualities, but a very feel bad book...