The Salt Grows Heavy is a horror novella about a mermaid and a plague doctor who end up in a strange village where children are hunted, harvested, and remade. A mermaid who was mutilated by her husband is now freed from him and travelling with a genderless plague doctor, when they find children hunting another child. What they uncover is three strange surgeons, known as ‘saints’, who have the power to cut people up and put them back together, and the children seem doomed for this to happen forever, unless the mermaid and the plague doctor can disrupt the cycle.
I wouldn’t normally necessarily go for a mermaid story, even a horror one, but having read Khaw’s earlier novella Nothing But Blackened Teeth I was intrigued by this one. There’s some The Little Mermaid vibes in it, though it’s really the central relationship and the story with the village that are most memorable, rather than the mermaid elements. The relationship between the mermaid and the plague doctor was my favourite part of the book, both with similarities in their pasts and their existence, and by the end, closely bonded despite the horror. The prose is filled with imagery and it might be an acquired taste, particularly as being a novella means that little is explained, but I quite liked how alongside the body horror you end up with something quite weird and unusual, sometimes even confusing.
Though it is pretty disorienting at times, The Salt Grows Heavy is also a good example of how the length of a novella can be good for horror, removing the need to really go into detail about how and why and rather focus on weird body horror and some strange characters. The dreamlike fantasy vibe of it wasn’t what I’d usually enjoy, but I did like the character of the plague doctor and the weird horror of the story.
Such Sharp Teeth is a novel about a woman who returns to her hometown to help her pregnant sister, only to get bitten by a werewolf. Rory moves back from New York City to stay with her pregnant twin sister, Scarlett, even though she wishes she was far away from the past. When she runs into the guy who had a crush on her in high school, Ian, things could be looking up, but then she hits something with her car, and she’s attacked. When she wakes up, she feels different, and it starts to become clear that she is changing into someone else, someone who transforms once a month.
This is a book I’d describe as a werewolf novel, as it doesn’t really fit any other genre: there’s hints of horror, romance, and comedy, plus exploration of trauma and anger and body horror. Told from Rory’s first person perspective, it moves between a narrative of becoming a werewolf and trying to reconcile your previous life with what you can do now, and a story of returning to your hometown, facing the past, and reconnecting with people. The clever thing is that the way these are entwined, particularly around the twins’ respective experiences with werewolfism and pregnancy, works really well, focusing on what happens when your body doesn’t feel the same any more and you are facing a future very different to what you first imagined.
The characters are fun, the book combines humour with a look at trauma, anger, and relief, and it doesn’t shy away from the body horror elements of both being a werewolf and childbirth. Such Sharp Teeth shows that you can create a gripping book that’s hard to put down which explores a lot of powerful stuff whilst also being a fun werewolf comedy and love story. I love books that put supernatural creatures in a really normal setting and explore what it means to deal with that, and this book does it well.
Termush is a novella from 1967 that tells the story of rich survivors after a disaster, living in a luxury hotel with special radiation shelters. The narrator, one of the guests, tells the story of what happens after they emerge from the shelters after the disaster to live in the hotel, with management keeping watch, security men and doctors and servants keeping them safe and well, and other guests arguing about what to do. As survivors from outside of Termush keep coming, hoping for shelter and medical treatment, the wealthy residents must decide what to do about them.
This dystopian novella published by Faber Editions with a new introduction by Jeff VanderMeer, which explores the book’s themes and how it fits into 20th century dystopian fiction, as well as its relevance to the modern day. In fact, the modern relevance of the novella is almost on the nose, with radiation fear replaced by virus fear, and the fact that there is a lack of technology in the book due to the time period (and the fact it isn’t written as something far in the future, but focuses more on the human reality) makes it feel more timeless anyway. It isn’t necessarily the most different dystopia by now, as there’s been so many and lots that explore similar questions, but it is unnerving how true it still feels.
As VanderMeer says in the introduction, it does feel like somewhere between other, cosier 20th century ‘after the disaster’ type dystopias and J.G. Ballard type dystopias in which people turn on each other and morality and capitalism are thrown into the spotlight. Termush doesn’t let you forget that the narrator and the other residents are wealthy and paid to be survivors, and some of them care mostly about maintaining this status of privilege against other survivors who want to be let in. It is easy to see how this questions the mindset of the wealthy even without a presumably nuclear disaster, and how systems are designed to allow people to keep themselves privileged over others’ need.
As a novella, the book is tight and gripping, not focusing on claustrophobic mundanity but a dreamlike quality, in which the narrator combines facts about bad things happening with dreams and visions. It feels like a good companion to a lot of the recent ‘rich people isolate themselves’ fiction like Glass Onion and The Menu, but Termush is also a classic dystopia that doesn’t quite let you know what happened, but allows you to imagine a similar scenario for any horrifying apocalypse.
Patricia Wants To Cuddle is a horror comedy novel in which dating show contestants find themselves on a remote island and don’t get the season finale they were expecting. Renee is one of four contestants left on The Catch, a TV dating show, but she’s really pretty apathetic towards Jeremy, the man whose attentions they are meant to be competing for. The other three contestants—a Christian good girl, an influencer, and a model—seem determined though, fighting to win even as they start seeing a strange figure on the island, known for being a queer haven, that they are staying on to film the next episode.
From the opening, you know this is going to be a fun ride. The book combines the perspectives of a range of characters, mostly the four contestants, alongside blog and forum posts and letters, to slowly set up the mysterious story whilst taking a satirical look at TV dating shows, before the horror element suddenly ramps up at the end. The characters’ personalities are purposefully over the top (sometimes making the style of the writing over the top too), but the book really does delve into how reality TV treats its contestants, stars, and crew alongside a wild plot line that offers some satisfyingly queer monster horror. It’s a short book that doesn’t overstay its welcome and could easily be adapted into film or TV, playing up both the comedy and horror.
There always needs to be more queer monster horror, but I didn’t expect adding reality TV to the mix would make such an enjoyable read.
This Is My Body, Given For You is a collection of short stories that explore body horror and ways in which the body can be changed. The stories combine gothic and gruesome elements, exploring various depths of humanity and finding sources of power from within, sometimes in a monstrous way. The collection opens with a tale about a girl whose menstruation goes awry and ends with a choose your own adventure story about a man and his wife’s choices, and in between that, there’s a real range of topics, but a focus on outsiders, bodies that won’t behave, and bodies that change when people need them to.
I really liked the way this collection is structured, with sections containing one or more stories that have wry summaries of the themes of that section in a way that feels like you are being guided through the book. It also gives a sense of being offered something by the writer, which unnervingly echoes the title. The stories themselves explore a range of bodily transformation and alteration, some of which will make people wince, and a lot of them are very playful, even when they are dark. I particularly enjoyed ‘Husband into Hen’, about a wife’s reaction to her husband waking up as a hen, which tells a great story in a small space and has the kind of surprise final moments that can really make a short story memorable.
This is a great collection for people who enjoy weird stories that play with body horror. I like how it purposefully shifts tone and style, as signalled by the different sections, and sets up reader expectations as you move through the stories, and the final interactive story really embeds the reader as complicit in the spectacle that is the characters’ bodies and selves.
Our Hideous Progeny is a novel that picks up after Frankenstein, as Victor’s great-niece tries to recreate his work using Victorian palaeontology. Mary was raised by her grandmother, never allowed the Frankenstein name after the death of her father, but with the knowledge that her great-uncle disappeared in the Arctic a long time ago. She’s escaped that now and fights to make a living with her husband in the palaeontological world in London, but they lack money and influence. When Mary uncovers the letters sent back to her family about Victor and his creation, she realises that following in his footsteps may bring her and her husband the discovery they need.
The book doesn’t so much as retell Frankenstein as provide a sequel that explores similar themes, particularly around ambition, pride, and obsession, and draws out some of the complexities of motherhood that can be read from Mary Shelley’s book. It is deeply situated within Victorian London’s scientific life, especially the first parts of the novel, and I appreciated how well it followed on from Shelley’s own interest in the science of the time around when she was writing Frankenstein, updating the stuff around electricity to also consider fossils and changing ideas about life and death. The philosophical ideas within the book also take up some of the elements of Frankenstein, particularly in Mary’s relationship to her own Creature, and this was one of my favourite elements of the book.
The narrative itself is pretty predictable, following an adventure story with a clear villain and some commentary on the lives and freedoms (or lack thereof) of women in the period, and I did expect more twists and turns at the end (in particular, I thought that Mary’s discoveries might end up being used for something more desperate and potentially monstrous), but the conclusion of the novel does seem to leave scope for a sequel, which may be the intention. It perhaps had a bit more historical adventure and a bit less of the ideas (scientific/philosophical/queer/etc) than I would’ve liked as someone who is more of a fan of Frankenstein than historical fiction, but I think that makes it suited to people who enjoy historical novels that explore some ideas of feminism and queerness without necessarily having to have read Frankenstein.
I appreciated that, in the author’s note, McGill says they didn’t enjoy Frankenstein when they first read it as a teenager, but later grew to like it more, as I had a similar experience and feel like it is a book that is sadly pushed upon teenagers who really need more of the scientific and literary history of the time to actually understand why Frankenstein feels slower and more contemplative than what they’ve heard. This book is quite different, with a slow pace at times due to the amount of historical detail, but more of an adventure focus, and something you could read alongside Frankenstein to think about how “retellings” might leave an original work as is and run with its ideas in another way. It also might just convince some people to give Frankenstein another go.
Lose You to Find Me is a young adult novel about a seventeen-year-old boy with a job as a server in a retirement community who is trying to get into a top culinary school, but gets distracted by the reappearance of his childhood crush. Tommy desperately wants to go to the culinary school that his dad went to, as cooking was the thing they bonded over before his dad passed away, but to do that, he needs a recommendation letter from his tough boss, Natalie. She wants him to train up the new server, Gabe, who Tommy knew as a child over one summer and then never saw again. As Tommy is distracted by Gabe, who he know realises was his first crush, will he be able to balance everything and work out what he is doing after graduation?
I was interested in this book as I enjoyed Brown’s previous YA novel, All That’s Left in the World, though this is a very different book to that one, with more of a focus on romance and getting into college than the apocalypse. What makes this book stand out, however, is the plotline, and the way in which it offers a more compelling story than many queer YA romances. Though I guessed where the book would end up, I also hoped that would be the case, as the narrative gave the characters space to make mistakes, change their mind, and see that decisions you made when you’re a child don’t have to be lasting ones, especially around your future.
The retirement community element is a highlight, with a large cast of fun characters appearing and a sense of community amongst staff and residents that, despite Tommy’s drama whilst working there, is a rosy look at the job. In general, there’s also lots of friendship (and Tommy’s surrogate queer grandparents amongst the residents) in the book alongside the romance and it has that feel good, people are there for you sense that lots of people like in YA fiction.
I’m not the target audience for this book, but I enjoyed the narrative, especially where the romance plot went, and the focus on, as the title suggests, finding yourself and letting your dreams change with you.
What We Lost in the Swamp is a collection of poetry exploring youth, growth, being a queer teenager, nature, and jealousy, amongst other things. The poems have a straightforward style and some memorable imagery (I think “holding out own internalized / homophobia like great big onions / in our hands” was my favourite, or at least the one I remember most now), but for lots of people will have relatable moments encapsulated within. The nature imagery in a lot of the poems is more direct than a lot of poetry that uses nature as imagery and metaphor, which may or may not be your thing, and some of the poems I found didn’t quite work for me in their simplicity, but that’s often true in collections. I liked the poems about being a queer teenager at school the most, especially the opening poem ‘When I Realised I Was a Green Tree Frog in Another Life’, as these really hit home and make you consider your own experiences at school.
Your Therapist Says It’s Magical Thinking is a collection of poems that explores mental health and ideas of reality, moving through three sections: “Coping Strategies”, “Surrey Girls”, and “Alternate Timelines”. The first part explores a lot of the bad advice people give about mental health (the titles are all suggested coping strategies”, and the poems are written in a way that is readable and full of wit, satirising what people say about mental health whilst delving into some of the realities of their bad advice.
The second part, “Surrey Girls”, is based on historical photographs that were taken as part of the treatment of mental illness, written in the voice of different girls with multiple short poems for each. These poems really created different voices for these women and though I wouldn’t usually choose to read poems based around historical material like this, I really liked them. The third part, “Alternate Timelines”, worked less well for me, as I found it hard to engage with some of the poems, though I really loved ‘Fast Food Breakfast’, a poem about an everything bagel that truly has everything, and I appreciated the surreal nature of many of these poems.
The collection is varied, with each section feeling like a discrete part, and there’s a lot inside to think about on the treatment of mental illness and ways of seeing the world. Plus, the book has a truly hilarious cover which feels like a great representation of the title and the first section of the collection.
The Long Form is a novel about the novel and also a novel about a day in the life of a woman with a new baby, combining literary criticism with a critique on caring structures and forming connections. Helen is on maternity leave, caring for her new baby Rose, and the copy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones that she ordered online has just arrived. As the day progresses, she starts to read Tom Jones, and the narrative explores the story of Helen’s day, of Tom Jones, and of the novel form.
This book is a fascinating mix of a highly literary style, bringing in literary criticism and stylistic digressions, with a very human narrative of a day in the life of a new parent, covering the sorts of large and small struggles that might not typically be in such a literary-reference-heavy novel. Despite the immediate style and the constant returning to the plot of Tom Jones as well as theorists on “the novel”, The Long Form was surprisingly readable, building up a real sense of connection with Helen and Rose and the interplay between them and the texts referenced. The book ends with a list of referenced and relevant works, which is useful for people reading this without a particular background in literary criticism (the works aren’t just about the novel form either – I noticed Full Surrogacy Now in there as well).
Aside from the literary criticism and references, the book also explores how one woman and one baby exist within society, and the kinds of security or lack of security that can bring. There’s a particular focus on the roles of friendship and family, especially in terms of what is expected of someone with a new baby, and the snippets of Helen’s friendship with Rebba were one of my favourite elements of the book, arguing for the importance of their relationship in their lives and suggesting how this might clash with society’s idea of the hierarchy of human connections.
The Long Form surprised me with how much it could say and the way in which the different elements of it could be so well entwined. For some people, it might be too much of a literary experiment to be enjoyable as a novel, but as someone who did an English degree I appreciated how it managed to keep the literary criticism parts accessible within the novel itself, allowing the book to question what a novel is whilst also telling a compelling story.
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