Recent Reads

Mexican Gothic

From the Blurb:

“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.”

Review:

One of my Halloween reads for 2020 was the highly acclaimed horror noir novel Mexican Gothic by Mexican-born Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Mexican Gothic is set in 1950s Mexico and follows female protagonist, a wealthy young socialite Noemi Taboada. After a mysterious letter arrives from her cousin, Catalina, newly married a year but moved to her husband’s estate in a remote village in rural Mexico, Noemi goes to check on Catalina as her father’s envoy and hopefully procure permission of Catalina’s husband, Virgil Doyle, to take Catalina back to Mexico City for psychiatric care. But within moments of arriving at High Place, Noemi is uneasy within the old house and near-abandoned village below serves as a brutal reminder of the once flourishing community, now gone. Despite Noemi finding that Catalina seems much improved, now claiming a case of tuberculosis and suffering an odd listlessness and occasional lapses of paranoia. Unsatisfied with this uncharacteristic behaviour of her cousin, Noemi starts visiting the traditional healer once-frequented by Catalina. There she learns the dark and tragic history of murders, epidemics and murder-suicides that have dominated High Place since Virgil’s grandfather first arrived from England. Now aged and dying, Harold Doyle is still the master of High Place, and is a cold, repellent man Noemi cannot abide and also fears.

Certain the aggressive and ever-present house staff are keeping Catalina in a constant drug-induced sleep, Noemi finds Catalina’s husband to be as cold and unpleasant as his grandfather. Virgil’s true character is revealed in his increasingly threatening and lecherous behaviour toward Noemi. Out of options to save her cousin but unwilling to leave Catalina behind at High Place and to the mercy of Virgil, Noemi finds an unlikely ally in Virgil’s younger brother, Francis, a kind, awkwardly shy man who is everything Virgil is not.

Slowly, Noemi’s grasp on reality starts to fade and the haunting atmosphere of High Place begins to affect her just as it did Catalina, dominating her waking fears and nightmares. Noemi becomes sure of a malevolent presence within the house itself and starts seeing apparitions, hearing the voice of the now-dead daughter of Harold Doyle, who committed a murder-suicide, killing her family except for Virgil, Francis and Harold Doyle. In the quickly escalating events, Noemi discovers how Harold Doyle bears the responsibility for cursing his lineage and how his cruel and vile actions gave life to a malevolence within the very fabric of High Place.

My Thoughts:

Mexican Gothic was a dark twist on the disturbing greed of colonial dominated Mexico and the ideals that allowed racism and classism to flourish. The interesting history of anthropological sciences, the history of eugenics provide the foundations for an unusual re-imagining of a haunting, making Mexican Gothic a ghost story in the Lovecraftian fashion of weird fiction.

My Conclusion?

Recommended for anyone who appreciates historical noir fiction, the gothic noir of The Crow Garden and classics like Frankenstein and A Turn of the Screw.

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The Bee and the Orange Tree

I read The Bee and the Orange Tree by Australian author Melissa Ashley. A wonderful historical fiction set during the early stages of the French Revolution but focused on the female literary circles surrounding Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy established as an author in her own right after successful publication career of several novels and fairytale collections. The darker, more disturbing undertone throughout the novel is that of female oppression during the reign of the French King Louis XIV, where the fairytales of young heroes and heroines overcoming impossible odds is a glittering hope for the oppressed women and subjugated peasants of France.

The Bee and the Orange Tree follows Angelina, Marie Catherine’s daughter, raised in a convent with barely any contact with her mother or father. Angelina is recalled from her only known world of the convent, to aid her ageing mother as an assistant. Soon, Angelina finds herself among the literary salons of Paris, attended by some of the most talented writers and poets but also many wealthy or noble families. Angelina is disheartened to discover the popularization of the craft and art her mother worked hard to establish herself and which Angelina greatly enjoys. Angelina is quickly confined by the existence of a respectable woman, suddenly missing the relative freedom of the convent especially as Marie Catherine has not written a single word after suffering an unusual form of writers block.

At one literary circle, Angelina is introduced to her mother’s protege, a young talented writer named Alphonse. Although unsure of her feelings toward Alphonse, Angelina is soon aware that Alphonse’s attempts to court her are only aimed at gaining Marie Catherine as a potential benefactor. This revelation hardens Angelina’s mistrust of Parisian society, which only deepens further when Marie Catherine’s good friend, Nicola Tiquet is accused of adultery and attempted murder. The subsequent trial of Nicola Tiquet, an independently wealthy and powerful woman without the need of a husband to support herself, becomes a focal point for Angelina’s realization of the oppressive nature of French society and the discrimination against women and any of unequal status. Against this is the greater landscape of the early French Revolution and the the determination of the powerful to hold onto power. Throughout these dramatic social challenges, Angelina learns disheartening truths about both her parents, discovering both are willing to sacrifice for their own aims and Angelina soon finds she has more in common with Alphonse than she imagined.

The Bee and the Orange Tree was an engrossing, complex historical fiction where the stories of each of the characters were as much the focus as the development of the fairytale literature and women’s rights in France during the eighteenth century. A wonderful read and highly recommended!

Recent Reads

Beauty in Thorns

I just finished reading historical fiction novel, Beauty in Thorns by Australian author Kate Forsyth. Beauty in Thorns was inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite movement during the mid-to-late 1800s. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was initially founded by the painters William Holman-Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the late 1840s. The movement expanded to later include socially conscious artists such as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones , with Dante Gabriel Rossetti still acting as a unifying figure even after his death. The concepts utilized by the Pre-Raphaelites was to combine representations of medieval chivalry with religious and nature motifs thereby rebelling against mass-produced items where increasing mechanical technology of the Industrial Revolution was considered a social malaise. Beauty in Thorns focuses on the women involved in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the wives, mistresses and relatives who were somewhat removed from the praise of the male pre-Raphaelites. Beauty in Thorns follows three prominent women of the pre-Raphaelite movement, where interconnected storylines of Elizabeth Siddle, Jane Morris and Georgina Burne-Jones are contrasted with the more historically famous lives of their male partners. The overarching scope of Beauty in Thorns captures the conception, development and final triumph of Edward Burne-Jones’ series of paintings ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ inspired by the Grimm tales of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. The grand sweep of the saga details the interconnected lives of Gergiana Burne-Jones and her enduring love and acceptance of the sacrifices made for her husband’s art to flourish. The contrasting figure of Elizabeth Siddle who struggled to be recognized on the same level as male artists and like her own lover and eventual husband, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti. The final story follows Jane Morris who married the wealthy artist and socially conscious William Morris but who through societal prominence was granted more liberty than either Georgina Burne-Jones or Elizabeth Siddle, even when she remained married to William Morris but was the mistress to Dante Gabriel-Rossetti.
Beauty in Thorns had complex intersecting storylines that linked Elizabeth Siddle, Jane Morris and Georgiana Burne-Jones, where the common struggle of social oppression was reflected differently depending on social class. It was such a pleasure to read Beauty in Thorns. I definitely recommend it!

Recent Reads

Goddess

Goddess by Australian author Kelly Gardiner is a witty, complex and beautiful novel re-telling the life of French historical figure Julie d’Aubigny in the seventeenth century. Julie’s character is fiercely portrayed and utterly fascinating, the famous (and infamous) woman who boldly defied social convention instead honouring the truth of herself. Julie d’Aubigny was a remarkable woman who lived during the era of the Sun King’s court at Versailles, France. A woman who was intelligent, educated and trained to sword-fight before becoming an esteemed opera singer, she was the lover of Europe’s powerful men and women and beyond equal. Not surprisingly, it was Julie’s wit, razor-keen intellect and volatile personality that often led to social conflict, duelling and other escapades. Although these seem only consequences of passion to d’Aubigny, Julie never succumbed to social convention. While being hunted with imminent execution, Julie d’Aubigny follows her lover, a nun, within a convent, where still in hiding, Julie dies aged 33. Despite this lonely end, d’Aubigny appeared a woman who lived vibrantly, acknowledged regret but not remorseful for its existence.
Goddess is a novel sparkling with a sense of wonder, empowerment and freedom.

Recent Reads

The Wild Girl

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth proved greater than expectations for a recounting of the romance behind the classic collection of fairy tales for which the Grimm brothers’ found fame.While The Wild Girl recounts the friendship and romance of Dortchen Wild and Wilhelm Grimm, the enduring romance provides a space apart from the bleak reality of Hesse-Cassel during the Napoleonic Wars. The darker aspects of life in war-ravaged Europe are abundantly clear in the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, too poor to travel throughout Europe and collect folktales for their scholarly volume, instead relying on pieces donated from many sources. Dortchen, the middle daughter of the apothecary next-door, is one source and provides many of the most vivid and loved tales in the collections.
The Wild Girl is a rich historical tale, revealing the dark elements of Napoleonic Europe, the silent history behind the classic fairy tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the untold story of Dortchen Wild.

Recent Reads

The Crow Garden

From the Blurb:

“When Nathaniel Kerner takes up his new position as a mad-doctor at Crakethorne Manor, the proprietor, more interested in phrenology and his growing collection of skulls than his patients’ minds, hands over the care of his most interesting case.

Mrs Victoria Harleston’s husband accuses her of hysteria and says he will pay any price to see her well. But she accuses him of something far more terrible . . .

Nathaniel becomes increasingly obsessed with Victoria and her condition: is she truly delusional or is she hiding secrets that should never be uncovered?”

Review:

I read The Crow Garden by UK author Alison Littlewood for my 2017 Halloween Reads.

Set in the bleak Victorian landscape amid asylums and seances houses, The Crow Garden follows Nathaniel, a young male psychiatrist on his posting to the North Yorkshire moors and the crumbling ruins of Crakethorne Manor. There, Nathaniel begins with high aspirations of curing what he considers some of the most-forgotten asylum patients in England. Nathaniel soon discovers the proprietor is more obsessed with the study of skulls, often those of former patients once they have died, than seemingly caring for their minds during life. The eerie garden feared by all the patients with its waiting crows and the seemingly endless supply of skulls alerts Nathaniel to a worrying suspicion of how the proprietor obtains his skull collection. Before Nathaniel can begin to focus on discovering the answer to that worrying question, a new patient is handed into his care. A very beautiful, young wife, Mrs Victoria Harleston is accused of hysteria by her husband. Any treatment and any price is acceptable for her recovery. But Mrs. Harleston accuses her husband of being every type of liar and scoundrel and despite her claims to of fraud and falsehood, she is accused of delusions and confined to Crakethorne Manor. But Nathaniel cannot let her case go so easily. Increasingly obsessed by her claims, Nathaniel walks a fine line between delusion and truth himself and for them both, the ever-present crows wait in the asylum garden, the grave plots slowly increasing in number.

Final Thoughts:

The Crow Garden is a challenging and often confronting tale of the darkness within humanity and the power of the past to haunt the present. The willingness of self-deception to avoid facing reality and the brutal reality for women who did not conform to the ideal social paradigm. A chilling and haunting tale.

My Conclusion?

A recommended read for those who enjoy historical noir, gothic folklore and Victorian gothic horror. Not for the faint-hearted! Modern gothic horror at its best.

Recent Reads

The Beast’s Garden

The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth is a meticulously researched historical fiction set in Germany during the rise and to the final days of the Third Reich. The protagonist for the novel is Ava, a German singer of gypsy heritage and daughter of a prominent Berlin academic and psychiatrist. Ava’s life-long and closest friends are siblings Rupert and Jutta from a Jewish family. Beginning in the underground scene of the gypsy jazz movement, Ava, her circle of friends and her family are increasingly constricted by the growing political and social conservatism of the Third Reich. Through the developing intrigues and resistance movements against the Third Reich, Ava finds herself in a desperate situation and an unlikely ally in Leo, one of Hitler’s intelligence officers. In desperation to save herself and her father, Ava marries Leo for the political protection he can grant her. Yet Ava mistrusts her husband and his secrecy. Unwittingly, Ava’s one involvement in the underground resistance movements planning to assassinate Hitler, Ava accidentally brings about Leo’s own incrimination in plans by Hitler’s Secret Intelligence Office to assassinate him.Leo flees Berlin but is soon captured and Ava finds herself without Leo’s presence and protection, struggling to survive in Berlin during air raids and growing deprivation. Determined to try to find Leo, Ava and Jutta escape Berlin. Ava intends to save Leo from execution and Jutta hopes to find Rupert, long-since taken prisoner to Birkenau concentration camp. As the Third Reich falls, prisoners of extermination camps are left to die or escape and among these desperate escapees is Rupert who is soon reunited with his sister Jutta. Ava rescues and is reunited with Leo, bearing the physical and psychological scars for betraying the Third Reich.
The Beast’s Garden is a tale of resilience, love and determination in the face of war. The title is taken from the Brothers Grimm folk tale, the iconic Beauty and the Beast, which the characters of Ava and Leo are clearly connected to the original Grimm tale ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’.