Book Review: Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise Book Cover Signal to Noise
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
February 10, 2015
Prix Aurora Awards packet

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?

I’m having trouble processing the fact that I’ve already finished my first Aurora read. Certainly, at 272 pages, Signal to Noise isn’t a huge book, but it’s packed with all kinds of action.

In 1988, Meche is a fifteen-year-old girl with an obsession for music and an affinity for computers. She comes to realize that she can use her vinyl records to compose magical spells, and attempts to use this gift for both fair and foul reasons.  She’s at that age where she hasn’t fully matured, yet she’s not a child any longer. While other girls are pretty and popular, she’s dealing with pimples and social awkwardness. Her two best friends are similarly challenged and dealing with the pressures of their school’s social hierarchy. In addition, her parents are on the cusp of divorce. The only stable force in her life is the grandmother who tells her stories of magic and witches.

Fast-forward to 2009 and Meche returns to Mexico for her estranged father’s funeral. She has to confront her feelings about him and his abandonment of her family. She also has to face the friends she abused and some nasty home truths that have been keeping her from truly moving forward in her life.

The story is fast-paced and the characters are vividly realized. I started reading Signal to Noise a couple of days ago while recovering from a migraine. I blazed through the rest of it tonight. You give me a compelling enough story and I have trouble putting the book down. Dishes? What dishes?

As I’ve been doing my own reading and research into the art of writing, one of the major factors that keeps being mentioned is ‘voice’, both on a narrative level and a character level. If this story has one huge star quality, it’s the voice.

While I was reading, I was hearing a Spanish/English rhythm to the language, from the everyday English sentences to the occasional Spanish word or phrase. I don’t know how many people hear accents when they read, but I’m definitely one of them. Never let anyone tell you that a second-language class isn’t worth it — I made good use of my own high school Spanish education (sadly atrophied, but still useful).

Music is another huge aspect to this book, and as a music nerd, I appreciated the little touches that mentioning songs from specific eras lent to the story. Whether it was invoking the sultry tones of jazz or the pop-candy of Dead or Alive and Cyndi Lauper, the narrative and setting stayed firmly in focus depending on the music. My aforementioned high-school Spanish classes? The teacher totally had all us girls swooning over Luis Miguel. Thanks Mrs. Xander. Thanks.

As an aside, my grade-school French teacher tried the same tactic with a couple of Quebecois bands/singers, but he missed The Age of Hormones by about three years and it didn’t work out quite as well for him. Quel dommage.

In the end, Signal to Noise is a story of growing up, of forgiveness, and redemption. We see the mistakes made due to miscommunication, or the petty jealousies that feed immature selfishness. We see the sacrifices the more mature characters are willing to make, and in the end, it’s up to Meche to come to grips with the life she’s made for herself and see that she needs to move beyond the choices she’s made.

Wonderful story. Earns all my stars.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I probably have some dishes that need washing…