Mexican Gothic (A Book Review)

True to its name, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia at its heart is a gothic story.

Like most gothic stories, it centers on an old house and a family with secrets in all its dark, secret passage. The story starts when the protagonist, Noemi Taboada, gets a letter from her cousin Catalina who recently married into the Doyle family and moved to their residence in The High Place. But something is wrong and Noemi goes there in an attempt to figure out what it is—a perfect gothic set up filled with mysterious potential.

I’m not sure what I expected when stepping into the book. I boarded the hype train with this one and thought I would settle into an unsettling tale in an unfamiliar setting. I also grew up on Gothic novels so I had some trope expectations that I was ready to check off. Beyond that, I had no clear expectations.

What I noticed first about the story was the dreamy way it was written. Noemi has a strong voice in the narrative, but the prose lingers on its descriptions. It starts a bit slow as it establishes the setting, making High Place as much a character in the book as the people who occupy it.  It also loves the big words that litter the narrative that the reader can trip over if they’re not used to it. (My favorite is “mandibular prognathism.)

As the story picks up, I became entranced. Its dreaminess is what I ends up hooking me into the story. This book has some excellent horror writing in its dream sequences. They’re filled with flesh like walls and other sorts of grotesque imagery that I won’t spoil here. Most of its horror of this grotesque nature. When night falls in High Place, the house seems to breathe and twist with the monsters that lie beneath.

And the monsters all around. I won’t say much on this point other than the characters in this book are really well written. Even as you detest them and they transform in every which way, I appreciated how they added to the horror.  There is some commentary on sexism, racism, and colonialism woven into this book’s themes. There’s discussions of control especially as it relates to the story’s female characters. This story does take place in 1950s Mexico. I’ll let that speak for itself.

If you like gothic or horror, I really think you should give this book a read. It’s admittingly slow for the first 30-50 pages, but if you’re patient you’ll be treated to something really special. This is one of my favorite books from last year and upon reflecting on the story and it’s themes, I feel that way more and more.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter [Review]

Strange CaseThe Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter was an okay book. It’s one of those reads that I came away with no extreme feelings one way or another. Not because it was bad (though there were questionable elements) but because it was familiar in a way that wasn’t in its favor. Particularly its plot construction and characters.

The plot was interesting. I’m a sucker for a good mystery and, if you make it engaging enough, I’ll let it take me anywhere. It’s why I struggled to put the book down when the plot really got going. It also helps that the book pays spectacular homage to some Gothic/Victorian stories. It was awesome seeing the children of Jekyll, Hyde, Frankenstein, Rappacinni, Moreau work along Holmes and Watson to solve this mystery. Every name referenced had me wondering if I heard it before and to have certain suspicions confirmed sent my Gothic lit geek heart soaring.

In other ways, however, the mystery was also somewhat predictable. It didn’t really feel like it had any weight—especially since (spoiler warning) I felt like none of it was ever truly solved. I mean, certain parts of it were solved but the actual meat of it was left kind of hanging there and left for sequel baiting (here’s a bias: not a big fan of that. If you set up a primary mystery at the beginning, solve that one!).  There were other story elements that really undermined it but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Another thing that the book did alright were its characters. Their exchanges were fun to read and there was some nice witty dialogue that kept me amused throughout. These monster girls were interesting. I loved learning about their backstory and how they viewed themselves in the world but there was something that felt rote in their construction.

The problem was that none of them really stood out to me. They were familiar character types (the uptight one, the wild carefree one, the quiet smart type, the rough and tumble “don’t give a bad word” type, so on and so forth). Familiar character types aren’t inherently bad (let’s make that clear) but if they’re not given the proper time to flex their character muscles to distinguish themselves from other similar characters, it’s really hard to get invested. I felt none of them were truly fleshed out enough to break outside their character molds.

My main issue with this book is how the book is constructed. It’s riddled with tangents. Action, dialogue, scenes are consistently broken up by character exchanges. I know that these dialogues are meant to give character to the story, clueing the reader into bits of background and foreshadowing. More often than not, however, it took me out of the story and spoiled the mystery at points. This element really undermined the suspense and plot at times. I learned to get used to it as the narrative progressed but the little pang of annoyance every time the characters cut into a scene never left me. It tended to endear me to the characters less (Get out the way of your own mystery!!!).

This book ended up being a solid three for me. I didn’t feel too strongly about it but I didn’t hate it either.

My Rating:

3 Star