I always claim to be a big reader. I’m never out of Waterstones, trawling through the stacks to find something new. Motherhood has put pay to me devouring more than a book a week, but now Ted’s sleeping through the night, I’m getting back in my stride again. My actual ‘To Read’ list is reaching the kind of length that may never get fully crossed off, but I’m working on it. In that spirit, I’m going to take a couple of things I’ve read recently and urge you all to pick them up this September. They’re worth it, I promise.
Geek Love – Katherine Dunn
Every time I meet up with Lee, one of my closest and geekiest friends, we end up in the big Waterstones on Deansgate. It’s my paradise. I could spend hours in there – especially on Fridays when they have a lovely baby group and coffee morning. Books, coffee, and a way to knacker my child? Perfect.
Anyway, Lee and I were on one of our customary Waterstones-wanders when I saw this book facing out from the shelf. Snappy title. I’m a big old geek myself, thought I’d take a look.
NOT THAT KIND OF GEEK.
This is an American cult classic (apparently; I’d not heard of it before) about a family of sideshow entertainers. Matriarch Lil, a geek in the truest sense of the word (in other words, bites head off chickens) wants to bring more money to the family sideshow – so every time she gets pregnant, she doses herself with cocktails of drugs and radiation. Each of her children comes out perfectly imperfect: conjoined twins, a limbless megalomaniac, an albino hunchback dwarf, an angelic boy with telekinetic powers.
The story is narrated by the dwarf, and it’s honestly one of the most gripping books I’ve read in a long time. I’ve always been fascinated with old-fashioned sideshows and body horror (blame a certain episode of The X Files) and this didn’t disappoint. The narration is meandering and filled with love, which in itself lends an extra air of ‘disturbing’ to the text. You’ll see why when you read it.
Some of the very best parts of this book focus on a cult, something else I’ve always found eminently intriguing. The religion of ‘Arturism’ manages to expose so much about the human condition and how easy it is to be brainwashed, even into the most disturbing and ridiculous of things… I won’t spoil it, but it touched a nerve with me when I thought about the current state of the world, too. I couldn’t help but liken it to a prescient analogy for Donald Trump.
Strange Practice – Vivian Shaw
I picked this book up on a total whim. I’d been ambling around Waterstones with a view to spending the £10-off voucher I happened to have accumulated by way of a loyalty card (no commenting on how much money that means I must have spent, please) and, obviously, I thought a buy-one-get-one-half-price set would do nicely. I’d already spied one of the other books from my list and was idly looking out for another one.
‘Strange Practice’ wasn’t on my list. I’d never heard of it before, or Vivian Shaw. In fact, it’s pretty new; it only came out this year. I took it to the till and the bookseller got all excited, saying that although he hadn’t read it himself yet, he’d heard very good things.
He was definitely right.
This book is the first in a new series of novels about a doctor called Greta Helsing. Yep, ‘Helsing’ – not the first reference to traditional Gothic literature. This book openly references classic vampire novels; in fact, some of its main characters have come from the canon, and openly bemoan their literary portrayal.
Doctor Helsing isn’t an ordinary physician: she’s a doctor to the supernatural creatures that haunt London. I don’t just mean vampires – ghouls, mummies, witches and others are mentioned as if they’re the kind of people you’d just run into in your local Sainsbury’s (which reminds me, a fabulous scene is implied where a classic undead antihero who would look at his best on a windswept moor in a frilly shirt goes to Sainsbury’s and does a big shop).
So far, so good – I do love a good old supernatural story. But this book is so much more than that. It doesn’t come across as trying to be kitschy or even particularly comedic. There’s wit, most definitely, but it’s not overt, in no way try-hard. It’s certainly not a love story. It’s a good old fashioned mystery, and a beautifully written one at that. The prose just rolls over you while you read it, almost like reading poetry. That might seem a bit over-the-top to say, but it’s how I found it.
It’s such a clever book, too. It flits between metaphysics and theology within a single paragraph. It overlays a thumping good supernatural mystery with modern-day London in such a perfect way, it could easily fit in with classic Gothic canon. Its heroine is quirky yet believable, in no way a Mary Sue.
I was so, so pleased to see at the end that it’s the first in a series. I’m a sucker for alternative religious outlooks, and I’m very interested in the apparent fact that “things are a little fraught in terms of infernocelestial politics”, according to a certain rather important character.
Is there a more delicious phrase than ‘infernocelestial politics’?