“Sisters” by Daisy Johnson


Genre: Gothic fiction
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group 
Pub. Date: August 13, 2020


The cover suggests a story about mental illness, which it is.   However, it is also has a gothic plot, and I do love my gothic reads. Still, I think will I need a break from twisted plots for a while. One can suggest that the novel is part horror and part mystical. A mother and her two teenage daughters are fleeing their home because of an unspecified tragedy that happened while the girls were at school. They move from Oxford to a broken-down house on the Moors.  The sort of house that gothic reads are made of, “The empty house, owned by the girls’ aunt, is ramshackle, and not in a charming way: It sags and bulges, “squatting” in a mess of broken roof tiles, old scaffolding, thorn bushes, and sheep excrement.”  I found the writing style a nice surprise. Because this is a dark read, I was not expecting the writing to often be filled with stream-of-conciseness verses. “Sleep is heavy, without corners, dreamless…My throat is dry like sand. I swallow and swallow. Peel myself up.”  “Sisters” is a hard read filled with domestic abuse between the sisters. If you can get through that, you will be able to enjoy the ending’s “shocking” twist.  I did guess it when the girls lose their virginity, but I was never sure until I finished the book. If you do read this one, let me know if you too guessed correctly.

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“Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Genre: Gothic Mexican Gothic
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date:  June 30, 2020

There is nothing like a good gothic novel to escape to an eerie yet romantic world. “Mexican Gothic” has all the key gothic components; the damsel in distress; the cruel husband, the decaying mansion, creepy servants, an unwelcoming family, and a landscape that influences the characters’ behaviors.  In “Wuthering Heights,” it was the winds found in the moors.  Here it is the vapors in the walls. The novel is even complete with a female antagonist that could give Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca” a run for her money. Still, this novel, although a good one, to my disappointment, is not a straight gothic read. It is a mixture of gothic, horror, and sci-fi.

The tale starts with a delicious gradual rise of dread. Noemi is a 20-something privileged socialite living in Mexico City in the 1950s.   Her father receives an urgent letter from her newly married cousin who lives in the countryside of Mexico.  Her letter is irrational and hard to comprehend.  She sounds mentally unstable. So, off Noemi goes to check out just what is happening  at her cousin’s house called High Place (naming the house is yet another wink at the gothic classics).  It doesn’t take her long to figure out that her cousin, as well as life in general, at High Place, is odd, off, and just plain weird.  The family crest, which is located everywhere, is of an ouroboros, which is an ancient symbol of a snake eating its tail. Yes, you are supposed to think of self-cannibalism. Soon Noemi is questioning her own sanity as well as her cousin’s.

All gothic stories have elements of horror.  Sometimes the horror is in the form of gaslighting the virgin bride.  Other times it takes the shape of Mary Shelly’s monster.  But, the second half of “Mexican” goes from gothic/horror to a horror/sci-fi theme that focuses on (spoiler) an unnatural rebirth. But, unlike Frankenstein, the tale begins to read like a campy supernatural novel. The gradual rise of dread does peak into all-out terror, yet written in such a way that I wondered “should I be wearing 3D reading glasses to finish the book?”  I have heard that “Mexican” is to be praised as a new style of gothic gone twisty. I know other reviewers, who I respect, who loved this novel. Heck, the book is already in development to become a TV series. Maybe it’s my age. I grew up with Jane Eyre. I prefer my gothic literature to have more dark romanticism and less Sigourney Weaver from “Alien.”

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“All Things Cease To Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage

So many different thoughts went through my mind while reading this novel.  First, I All Things Cease To Appearresigned myself to read another contemporary thriller (not my fav) that needs to be reviewed.  Then early in the book I thought “this is very well written,” more literary than bestseller-like.   Next, the story became Gothic, a genre I do enjoy.  Plus, it also has a noir feel which is another genre that I love to get lost in.  So, to my surprise, I am pleased that I read this book.  It is not until the very end of the story that I find criticism with the tale. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with a short chapter describing an old farmhouse and all the people that once lived there.  The first family that we meet is a married couple with three sons trying to keep the farm alive in horrendous conditions born from poverty.  The parents die in the house and the boys are left orphaned.  The next family who moves into the house is a young married couple with a little girl.  They buy the farmhouse for almost nothing since it went into foreclosure.  The town’s people held that against the young couple.  The new owners are city people who move to the country for the husband’s job as a professor at a small college.  The “whodunit begins in the first chapter when the professor comes home from work and finds his wife murdered in her bed.  The three sons who first lived in the farmhouse are in all other chapters of the book.

There are no quotation marks anywhere in the novel.  The author expects the reader to be smart enough to know who said what.    I enjoyed this style of writing it keeps me on their toes.   There are many characters in this book that can feel overwhelming, but they are tied together nicely, and I enjoyed each one’s part in the plot.   It read similar to “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, where the characters were interconnected short stories.   In addition, the author adds a large dose of irony into her novel.  The professor’s boss is a big fan of Emanuel Swedberg who is best known for his book on the afterlife, “Heaven and Hell” written in 1758.

The last chapter focuses on the little girl who is now all grown up and in her last stages of  training to become a surgeon.  The reason why the ending is a bit of a disappointment for me is that I thought the author was attempting to add romance into the plot.  In hindsight, it may have been karma (if I explain it would be a spoiler).   Still, all in all, this is a literary spellbinding page-turner that is a ghost story, as well as a psychological thriller.   Was I displeased with the ending? Yes, that is true.  Did I need to sleep with the lights on?  Yes, that is also true.  Read the book and see if you cease to appear.

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In The Shadow of Lakecrest” Elizabeth Blackwell

Pub. Date:   February 1, 2017shadow

Historical fiction is my favorite genre.  I am not sure why this book is labeled as historical fiction.    Although the story takes place in the 1920s, I didn’t see any history in the plot (except for references of flappers.)  The story revolves around a poor young woman, with a shady past.  She marries a rich man that she meets while she is employed as a governess.  It turns out that her hubby’s family is just as shady as hers.

“Lakecrest” has potential.  The heroine’s new home is an creepy isolated old mansion, complete with scary gargoyles.  She inherits a mysterious unwelcoming new family with a mother-in-law from hell.  She learns that her gentleman husband has his own demons.

This could have been a good psychological thriller with a Gothic “Rebbeca” theme, but the writing is dull and not believable.   I know I am telling and not showing which makes for a boring book review, maybe my review is emulating the book, a Gothic wannabe that poses as historical fiction.

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“Arrowood” by Laura McHugh

Publisher:  Random House

Publication Date:  August 9, 2016

I am always a sucker for an old-fashioned Gothic tale, which is how I would describe this novel.  The story takes place in present times.   Toddler twin sisters disappear and are believed to have been kidnapped.  Their older sister, who is now a young woman, has never stopped looking for them since the bodies of the twins were never found.

Arrowood is the name of their home, really a mansion, which has been in the family for centuries.  Her parents moved out a year after the disappearance for the memories there were too hard to bear.  Two decades go by and our protagonist, the elder sister, inherits her childhood home that may or may not be haunted (think Wuthering Heights.)

Once she returns to Arrowood, as expected there are many twists including a love affair.   After all, what would Jane Eyre be without Mr. Rochester?  The author never reaches the Bronte sisters heart stomping Gothic yarns, but all in all this is a good summer read.