Mystery Book Exchange Review:Geek Love and The Thirteenth Tale

Posted 5 August, 2010 by Danny in / 3 Comments

It’s baaaaack! Yes, dear reader, I’ve roped another unsuspecting friend into doing the Mystery Book Exchange. WOOT!!!

The lovely Susie from Apples N Feathers has graciously agreed to read one of my favorites, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, and in exchanged challenged me to read one of her’s, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Both books are dark and full of mystery, so, without further ado, here are the reviews….

Geek Love

Author: Katherine Dunn
Published: March 1989
Links: Goodreads, Amazon (NOT available as Kindle edition)
Borrowed from library


Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family whose mater- and paterfamilias set out–with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes–to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. There’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious–and dangerous–asset.

As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.


When I read the synopsis of this book, I was excited…it looked dark and edgy and I normally enjoy that. Plus the fact that it was a National Book Award finalist means something to me…solid writing. But what I wasn’t counting on was just HOW dark this story would turn out to be.

Reading it was often difficult. Every single character in this book is flawed. Horribly, cruelly flawed. They represent the darkest parts of humanity…hate, greed, jealousy. And they manipulate one another in horrendous ways. More than once I had to put the book down, my stomach in knots, because I couldn’t see how the story was going to transition from the amount of pain and foreboding of the section I was reading into SOME form of redemption.

But, I stuck with it because the writing is so good and the story, while frequently making me cringe, was still truly fascinating. And a lot of the parts that were hard for me were for personal reasons (I have small children and anyone who is easily offended by perceived cruelty to children may have the same difficulties I did). But the last 100 pages were truly wonderful. And the redemption I so desperately wanted these characters to find, in any form, did arrive, finally and unexpectedly.

This was definitely a challenging read, one that took me out of my comfort zone and made me think about things I don’t normally think about, but I find that to be a compliment to the author’s prowess as a writer. It has all the intensity of Greek tragedy translated into a very modern metaphor for family and society at large. And the moments of beauty and harmony definitely shine all the more beautifully for the darkness that surrounds them.

Bottom Line

I will quote the review from the Chicago Tribune on the back cover which I think best sums this book up: “Unrelentingly bizarre…perverse but riveting…Will keep you turning the pages.” If you think you can stomach something on the darker side of life, you’ll find yourself much rewarded for having read this truly wonderful book.

I give it a 4 out of 5 books.
Final Note

I found this wonderful depiction of the Binewski family over on Picture Book Report, a delightful site that teamed up 15 different illustrators in the effort to bring back a love of illustrations in conjunction with books. Here’s what the illustrator, Laura Park, had to say about her inspiration for the picture:

It was a hard time choosing how to start this project. There’s a wealth of inviting images to pick from. The main tragedy of Geek Love is the loss of family, and I thought it best to start off with an image of better times. So here they are, before things got complicated. Papa Al, the dreamer surrounded by his dreamlets.

The Thirteenth Tale

Author: Diane Setterfield
Published: September 2006
Links: Goodreads, Amazon (available as Kindle edition)
Borrowed from library


Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise–she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.

Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still.


Luckily I trust Pushy and her taste of books because this one didn’t disappoint me. To be honest I was kind of intimidated by the structure at first and thinking thank God this was a challenge book because the beginnings moved fairly slow and didn’t pick up. But when Vida Winters opens her mouth and begins her life story, let’s be honest, I fell in love.

The main characters of Vida Winters,the reclusive novelist, and her freelance biographer Margaret build a beautiful relationship throughout the novel and it reminds me slightly of the relationship that builds over the years with Vera and Dolores Claiborne (Dolores Claiborne, Stephen King). The smaller characters, especially those bit players of Vida’s past weave around the head of Margaret as Vida spins her story.

The smaller characters are what really bring this story to life with their haunting history. As it unfolds with twists and turns that spellbind you with each chapter. I didn’t expect it to be so dark and twisted. I don’t think Pushy realized that I love twisted books(although I’m sure she does now since the book I challenged her with is one of my darkest ones) but The Thirteenth Tale gets an A for awesomely twisted that’s for sure!

What I enjoyed the most about this book is how it’s written. Some of the chapters could stand on their own just like a little storybook because that’s exactly how Vida tells her life, like a mysterious ghost story unveiled before Margaret to pick a part.

I was so hypnotized by the tragic tale of Vida Winters that after I read it I had to go back and read it again simply because she hid little tidbits of the mystery throughout the whole book but all the gems aren’t revealed until the end. It was kinda like watching The Sixth Sense for the first time and then going back and watching it again to catch all of the hints. It’s a book for people that love to hear a good story, spun tale, or a moralistic fable.

Pushy and I unintentionally swapped books that the main core of the story is about family and the dark side that unravels between siblings and the bonds these twisted families have.

Bottom Line

Thank you, Pushy, for giving me something excellent to read and hope I can challenge someone else soon!

I give this twisted tale 4.5 out of 5 books.

So now it’s time for you to tell us what you think!! You know what to do…and thanks for stopping by!

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3 Responses to “Mystery Book Exchange Review:Geek Love and The Thirteenth Tale”

  1. Susie

    Erica both books are seriously worth the read! Danny honestly I picked this book because it truly is my favorite book ever. I didn't think Pushy would think I was a freak for loving it and knew the dynamic of the Binewski's would pull her in just like it did me years ago. I've read that books so much its worn out lol. Thank you again to Pushy and the rest of the Bookworms for involving me in the mystery book challenge and I am all up for doing it again soon! Just zip an email by me and we'll work it out!

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