Book Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Mexican Gothic
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: June 30, 2020
Print length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic artistocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .

From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes “a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror” (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico—“fans of classic novels like Jane Eyre and Rebecca are in for a suspenseful treat” (PopSugar).

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

This creepy, disturbing gothic novel lives up to all the rave reviews!

Mexican Gothic takes place in 1950s Mexico. We first meet Noemi Taboada coming home from a fancy party. She’s the pampered, pretty daughter of a wealthy family, at odds with her parents who want her to marry well (and soon), while what she really wants is to enroll in university to pursue a masters degree.

As the story starts, Noemi’s father shares with her a disturbing letter from her beloved older cousin Catalina. Catalina recently married a man she’d only known briefly and moved with him to his family’s isolated mountain estate. In her letter, Catalina seems to be rambling and incoherent, talking about hearing things in the walls and begging for help. Catalina’s husband explains her ravings away as a side effect of tuberculosis, and insists that she’s getting good medical care. But Mr. Taboada is worried enough that he decides to send Noemi as his ambassador to check up on Catalina’s well-being and nurse her back to health — or bring her back to Mexico City, if needed.

Noemi’s arrival at the Doyle estate is shocking. High up an isolated, treacherous mountain road, the mansion, High Place, is shambling and neglected, shrouded in mist and in a state of disrepair. Noemi is greeted by Florence, cousin to Catalina’s husband Virgil, a domineering, strict woman who asserts herself in charge not only of the house’s routines, but of Catalina’s care as well.

The house is dismal, and so are its occupants. There’s a no-talking rule at dinner, Noemi is forbidden from smoking, there’s no electricity and cool baths are encouraged, and the place is altogether repressive and awful. The only bright spot is Florence’s son Francis, a young man about Noemi’s age, who appears to be sympathetic and supportive, eager to help Noemi and keep her company.

Noemi’s visits with Catalina are severely restricted, and Catalina seems to be kept drugged most of the time. The doctor who sees her once a week doesn’t think anything is wrong, and the family is dismissive of Noemi’s prodding to call in a psychiatric specialist or to get another opinion.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because man, is it good! The atmosphere is grim and creepy in all the best ways. Strange insular family? Check. Decrepit old house? Check. Windows that don’t open and mold on the walls? Check and check.

Like in any good gothic novel, the setting is mysterious and threatening, and our brave heroine has no easy means of escape as she’s drawn further and further into the sick and twisted family secrets that have entrapped her cousin and now seem to be pulling her in as well.

And those secrets? Well, gross and disturbing and menacing don’t even quite encompass what’s going on in that terrible house. I love the growing sense of terror, the sickness at the heart of the family history, the interplay between these wealthy English landowners and the people of the surrounding areas, and the desperation that drives Noemi as she comes closer and closer to finally seeing the truth.

The moodiness of the book put me in mind of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and even Angels & Insects by A. S. Byatt. If you’re a fan of creaky old houses with terrible secrets, this book should be right up your alley. It’s not blood and guts horror exactly — more of the quietly creeping chill that turns into growing terror as more and more awful things happen.

Mexican Gothic is so well written, so dramatic and well-plotted. I loved it, even thought it completely creeped me out and kept me turning the pages in a non-stop anxious frenzy. I can’t wait to read more by this author!

Book Review: The Vanishing

Book Review: The Vanishing by Wendy Webb

The VanishingJulia Bishop is left friendless and penniless after her husband is exposed as the “midwestern Bernie Madoff” and then kills himself. Faced with foreclosure, unpaid bills, stalkers, and death threats, Julia’s life is bleak indeed until a stranger shows up with a bizarre proposal: Adrian Sinclair offers Julia a position as companion to his elderly mother, famous author Amaris Sinclair — who supposedly died ten years earlier. If she accepts, Julia will be given a chance to escape her old life and live at Havenwood, a huge mansion in the wilderness of northern Minnesota. She’ll spend her days with the woman who first inspired her to write, and most importantly, she’ll get a fresh start just when her life seems utterly hopeless.

Havenwood is beautiful, elegant, and mysterious. Isolated in the woods, it’s the perfect hideout, but seems to be hiding secrets of its own. Why does everything seem so familiar? Why does Julia keep hearing strange voices? Whose footprints are in the snow? Why is the family so excited about Julia’s arrival? And who is that hot guy out by the stables?

As days go by, Julia realizes that the the strange occurrences at Havenwood may be sinister, and even dangerous. Despite her fondness for the family (and the hot guy in the stables), she suspects that her job offer may have strings attached that are not in her best interest. As the spookiness mounts, the only answers may lie in uncovering the past…

… and that’s about as much synopsis as you’ll get out of me!

The Vanishing sets a tone of gothic mystery and eerie supernatural goings-on, and at the same time tells the story of a seemingly ordinary woman whose life has gotten completely messed up and out of control. Havenwood is beautifully described, and made me yearn for my own wilderness adventure — in a gorgeous mansion, of course!

It’s hard to suspend disbelief throughout the story, as plot pieces begin to mount that don’t quite make sense. Really, Julia is willing to head off to parts unknown with a complete stranger, no cell phones or outside contact allowed? And really, she believes this stranger has just randomly selected her as a trusted companion for his mother because he feels sorry for her? And the instant sparks that fly between Julia and the hot stable guy? (Okay, his name is Drew, and he’s part of the family whose property it is, but still…) I thought insta-love was just a YA plot device!

Granted, a lot of these issues are ameliorated by the unraveling of the central mystery, but those answers come so late in the book that they don’t really outweigh the sheer lack of believability earlier on. Somehow, even though there are answers, I didn’t find them convincing enough to balance out my impatience and incredulity.

What really drove me crazy, though, was Julia’s insistence on behaving like a doomed female character from a horror movie. Oh, the power’s gone out and there might be an intruder? Gee, the hot guy told me to stay in my room and lock the door… so I think I’ll grab a lantern and explore the pitch-black hallways all by myself instead. Hmm, I’ve seen disturbing visions and heard scary noises in the library and east wing? Let me go back there and poke around some more! Just cut it out, Julia, okay?

Overall, as the story delves deeper into the history of Havenwood and its connection to the Spiritualist movement of the 1800s, it becomes both more interesting and more eerie. I enjoyed the use of historical documents and the recaptured memories of a fateful seance, which we first see in the book’s introduction, as well as the sharp contrast of an elegant manor house set in a dangerous and untamed landscape.

I never felt terribly engaged in the love story and had a hard time accepting many of Julia’s actions or beliefs. Still, while some of the plot elements felt far-fetched and not well grounded, The Vanishing held my attention and still managed to deliver a few good chills along the way.

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The details:

Title: The Vanishing
Author: Wendy Webb
Publisher: Hyperion
Publication date: January 21, 2014
Genre: Gothic fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hyperion via NetGalley