Cover Image: A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens

A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens

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Member Reviews

Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton and NetGalley for the arc.

I had been invited directly to this arc, and think this is just not the book for me. I am not connecting with the characters or the story. Thank you for the opportunity.

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While the actual "haunting" parts of the store weren't as creepy as I'd wanted, the exploration of Hugo's complicated relationship with his late wife was excellent. Even though I preferred the non-horror aspects, this was a solid debut, and I'd be interested in reading more by this author.

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This sounded like it would be a really interesting, emotional story and the writing style had a lot of potential, but I struggled to get into the story and actually caring about the characters.

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After the demise of his wife Meli, Hugo Contreras finds himself drowning in debt from her medical expenses. Hugo works at the Miami Botanica & Spa and though he doesn’t quite believe in the practice, has perfected the art of putting on an elaborate act of a Babaláwo ( priest of Ifá), decked in his tunic, his ceremonial orisha hat and his beaded amulets, learning much of what he knows from his employer Lourdes who is well-versed in spiritual practices and respected for her knowledge. When Alexi Ramirez, the debt collector who is pursuing Hugo’s case, offers to clear Hugo’s debt if he can cleanse his house of the spirit who is haunting his home, Hugo takes him up on his offer. Unbeknownst to him the spirit haunting Alexi and his family has a deep connection to Hugo and his past in Bolivia and it will take more than Hugo’s signature trickery to keep everyone safe and he will be compelled to embark on a very personal journey, take stock of his life and confront the traumatic memories that have haunted him throughout his life.

I found the premise of A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens by Raul Palma to be remarkably interesting. The novel is well-written., tight-knit and well-paced and I liked how Hugo’s backstory was incorporated into the narrative. The author touches upon several important themes including colonialism, migration, discrimination, family trauma and how debt- both monetary and emotional - can wreak havoc on a person’s life. The author injects a healthy dose of humor to balance the depressing and traumatic events described in the novel. Hugo is an interesting protagonist and though I did not quite like him as a person, I did sympathize with his plight. Though I enjoyed the descriptions of the spiritual and supernatural aspects mentioned in the narrative I feel that the author could have incorporated more information on the traditions and rituals referenced in the story. I was also more than a tad disappointed with the ending, which left me with several questions, which is why I could not give this novel a higher rating.
I did feel that footnotes and/or an index for the Spanish words/phrases used in the novel would have made the reading experience smoother for those not fluent in the language.

Many thanks to Penguin Group Dutton and NetGalley for the digital review copy. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

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A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens is a deep exploration of debt- the debts we owe to our family and friends as well as that owed to predatory lenders and creditors.

Bolivian expat in Miami, Hugo takes on a job as a babaláwo to exorcise a demon in his creditor's house in return for cancelling his debt. Hugo needs to exorcise his guilt about his girlfriend's and brother's deaths.

This stunning book ties guilt and debt together in a delightfully dark way.

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What this book exemplifies is how diverse the genre of horror is becoming. Some traditionalists might resist the expanded definition and influx of non-traditional horror books, but the more people read a genre the more books we get in said genre.

That being said, this is one of those that fits into the expanded definition of horror- it's not a stay up all night with the lights on read, but more of a psychological/ magical realism.

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A huge thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for gifting me a copy of this ARC!

Based on the synopsis, this book did not end up being what I thought it was. It was very depressing and when I expected it to take a turn to be more fast-paced with action, it took more of a soft curve instead. There were some laughable moments, but overall it felt like I was reading the jumbled pieces of three separate stories that did not link together - the only common thread was the main character.

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This book is truly haunting! I requested this book because of my friends at Ithaca college who have had Professor Palma as an instructor and just raved about him. Now I see why! Not only is he a great instructor but his passion and talent shines through in his writing. This book is so psychological and really makes you think while reading it, but it's still fun to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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This novel was not what I was expecting, but in a good way. The pacing took me awhile to get into the book, but for a book that tackles the complex reality of debt it felt accurately haunting.

As a debut novel, I cannot wait to see what Palma writes next.

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Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today
People, corporations, and governments will manipulate, lie, steal, enslave, and murder just to get it. For some, it's the accumulation of wealth they crave, but, usually, it's what they can get with it. And, what is money, but just the means to exchange one thing for another? How often do we give up something we love for something else and vice versa? And, how often do we sacrifice, not for an object or a state of being, but merely for an illusion. These are just some of the themes hiding within the pages of A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens by Raul Palma.

The writing style is the perfect combination of conversational and figurative language. If you wanted, you could totally avoid mining the themes in the book and just enjoy it for the fun ride it is. Even the polarizing topics are never preachy or heavy-handed, and you never feel weighed down by the sadness. But, how my heart broke for Hugo! Especially when he was reliving the mistakes from his past. But, the humor! It ranged from dark to political to just plain silly, and I loved every bit of it. The author even referenced one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Pineapple Express!

Hugo isn’t always likable, but he’s human. The circumstances of his past led to bias, one of the very flaws he rails against in others. And who hasn't said or done things that they regret and wish they could take back?

There are flashbacks sprinkled throughout the book and moments when the line between dream and reality begins to blur, but I liked the way the author handled the transitions. There is quite a bit of Spanish in the book and references to Latinx cultures. With my limited knowledge of the language, I was able to infer the gist of most of the phrases, and I enjoyed learning more about the history and how the different communities within interact with each other.

And, the ending! That is how you write an ambiguous ending. It’s clear enough to feel satisfied, but there is still room for interpretation and to imagine what will happen next.

Being invited to read this book was such an awesome surprise, but so was how much I ended up loving it! I read it in one day, and I just wish I had gotten to it sooner. Thank you Dutton Books for the copy to read and review.

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This book has a really relevant theme about being indebt in more ways than just financial that can easily keep its story as a timeless one in the future. Hugo is no saint and isn’t above tricks or lies, but it’s hard not to empathize with him for his situation and because of the guilt for his wife. I wouldn’t call this horror, but there are some clear hauntings that made this so much fun. A great Halloween-season read.

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A book that is unique within its own genre. This story forces readers to look many political issues in the eye and face them head on. An unexpectedly great read.

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Solid mystery book that tackles themes of guilt and touches on race in America. It was a little slow for me and not particularly atmospheric, but an interesting perspective on exorcists and ghosts.

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I loved this book, it gave me everything I wanted as a reader and more. I am a sucker for a cover and fell in love with the storyline and characters. Well written and kept me engaged :)

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What does it mean to be indebted to someone? Does it mean that you have to rid them of their ghosts? Well written and meaningful.
Many thanks to PENGUIN GROUP Dutton and to Netgalley for providing me with a galley in exchange for my honest opinion.

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This was such a unique book. It follows the story of Hugo, a Bolivian American immigrant who has become hugely indebted to a collection agency following his late wife's cancer and medical bills. He works at a botanica as a babalawo, even though he doesn't believe in spirits or their exorcism. When Alexi Ramirez, his debt collector, calls one day about a haunting, Hugo strikes a deal: he will help Alexi if he will wipe his debt.

This is a strange book, but I was so captivated by the writing and the multiple was it explores the idea of a haunting. Hugo is haunted by his childhood, by multiple poor decisions, by his wife's medical debt, and by literal demons. I loved the way the author looked at the way metaphorical demons can become physical ones. I was also very impressed with the palpable sadness of Hugo's life that the author was able to express.

Thank you to PENGUIN GROUP Dutton and NetGalley for the free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Thanks to Netgalley for an ARC of this book. I hate when I get to the end of a story and I’m not quite sure whether I understand what just happened. This is nowhere near as bad as “Triangle of Sadness,” a movie which I cannot emphatically enough caution you not to waste your time watching. However, there is something very unsatisfying about reading an ending that isn’t clear. I’m still giving the book five stars because it is so well written. And on the bright side, it’s not a cliffhanger.

The themes of this book are guilt and indebtedness—monetarily, emotionally, socially, psychically, and any other -ally word I can’t think of at the moment. Hugo, the main character, is beset by guilt and a gnawing sense of indebtedness that never seems to go away. He feels guilty because of the death of his wife, Meli, and much of the story is spent reliving his life with her and where he feels he messed up. Another part of the story is spent lamenting the death of his brother when he was still quite young himself, as well as people he lost touch with over the years—people who loved and cared for him growing up. He blames his feelings of indebtedness on Alexi Ramirez, the man who owns the company that purchased all of Hugo’s financial debt (some of which was incurred through medical bills when Meli was combating cancer), and he harbors great animosity toward him. Some of the descriptions of the indebtedness that Hugo feels are inspired, with a level of personification that is impressive:

“...he’d feel his indebtedness drop into bed with him, this invisible thing. Sometimes it would take hold of his hand, kiss him, then wrap itself around his chest so that it hurt to breathe, or it would slap him awake and demand attention. It was impossible to sleep. It was impossible to imagine a future.”

“Hugo’s indebtedness, which had been trying to latch onto him all day, slunk to the ground and pooled around his feet. Hugo stomped through it, kicking it so that it felt, for a moment, as if he’d actually conquered his dets once and for all.”

The story takes place in Miami and prominently features Cuban descendants of immigrants and their very conservative political and social views, combined with the old-world superstitions with which they grew up. Hugo, recently widowed, is a babaláwo, a kind of spiritual healer/exorcist who practices Santería, although he doesn’t actually believe in any of it. However, he does have his own superstitions, mostly related to the mountain god where he grew up in Bolivia. He works for Lourdes at a botanica where many people come for spiritual amulets and advice. She continually tells him that he has a power he doesn’t recognize, and that’s why she uses him as a healer.

As luck would have it, Alexi contacts Lourdes because he believes his home is haunted, and because Lourdes knows that Alexi holds Hugo’s debt, she sends him to perform the exorcism. In exchange for his services, Hugo negotiates a dismissal of all debt held by Alexi. But Hugo’s disdain for Alexi is difficult for him to overcome, and he can’t resist pushing him into doing humiliating things as his part of eliminating the bad spirits. Every time he sees Alexi, he has condemnatory and judgmental thoughts. The first thing he notices about Alexi is “...the outfit choice was fitting, but neither Alexi’s shirt nor his shorts fit him in the least…” And seeing Alexi’s home, he thought, “It was a lovely arrangement for someone as tacky as him…” And later, “Hugo felt as if he were inside the idea of a home and not a home itself.” Not only does this show how much Hugo doesn’t respect him, but it also represents the insincere and false persona portrayed by Alexi. At times, Hugo even begins to feel a small bit of empathy for the man, but he especially forms a connection with Dulce, Alexi’s young daughter. It becomes apparent that Hugo had wanted to have children of his own with Meli, but she never wanted any, so they didn’t. Although he undoubtedly loved her deeply, he also feels a lot of regret about their decision, and we see him watching children play with a sense of wistfulness and melancholy.

TLDR: Hugo is mentally and emotionally complicated due to his early childhood and this has persisted throughout his life. He is hounded by his feelings of guilt and indebtedness.

Hugo and Alexi’s interactions, told from Hugo’s POV are interesting. Hugo hopes for something terrible to happen to Alexi and “...he imagined the walls breaking away, and he imagined pushing Alexi out into the open air and watching him fall and fall, like a little bug, like a little dot on a matrix, not a person, just a statistic in some death report, in some digital archive—falling right into a blot of black ink on a spreadsheet.”

When invited to dine with Alexi and his family upon his first visit to their house, “Hugo felt at his mercy, a saltshaker at the dinner table. It reminded him of the way his indebtedness would seize his wrist and turn over his forearm, exposing the network of veins and capillaries along his wrist.”

Throughout the book, there are touching and evocative descriptions, and Hugo’s confusion and sadness are palpable. There are things he did which he regrets, and there are too many things he failed to do when he had the chance. Ultimately, even when his indebtedness is seemingly wiped away, he discovers a deeper one beneath that. Combined with his never-ending guilt, Hugo is impotent to fight against it.

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I found this book to be very interesting and intriguing. I would recommend this a friend because this is a book for everyone. I really enjoyed emerging myself into this book and it was just wonderful. This book evened my eyes to quite a few things and it’s one of those books that I’ll think about for quite awhile.

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This book was nothing like I thought it was. I was expecting a horror novel about a haunting and instead I got a rough retelling of the Christmas Carol. At first I was like oh its Christmas okay. But then it kept getting more like the Christmas Carol. I'm not sure if the author even intended that at all but it's what I thought of. The main character has 3 "visions" of people from his past and present. The book wasn't bad just not what I expected at all. Also Hugo was just a whiny baby.

Thank you NetGalley for the ARC!

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This Miami based literary horror novel has a haunting premise: “all devils dabbled in debt”—material and spiritual. The story centers on guilt-ridden widower Hugo Contreras, a santeria babaláwo, who has the opportunity to wreak revenge on his arch nemesis. After worsening Hugo’s suffering through his wife’s sickness and death, attorney Alexi Ramirez wants help ridding his ostentatious home of unruly specters. In this ingeniously executed debut, the twin torments of grief and regret are made fresh through twenty-first century challenges like an unequal medical system and debt. Palma’s tale is also distinguished by pitch dark humor and striking sentences. Hugo feels “impotent, poor in the world: a bee with its abdomen removed.” Each twist and incisive line is honed to maximal effect.

--Full review published on

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