Recent Reading: 5 Reviews in Brief

Book Blogger Review

I haven’t written a review for a little while, because not everything I read gives me enough to say without spoilers. However there are a few books I have read recently that I feel are particularly worthy of mention, so I’ll share them with you here.


Fever Dream – Samantha Schweblin 

This book was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s a small book, and with less than 200 pages it is readable in one sitting. This also adds to its rather disorientating effect. 

It’s about a woman in hospital, telling the story of how she ended up there to a little boy at her bedside (who may or may not actually be present). The boy is adamant that she is missing a vital detail that could save other lives in the village, if not her own, and tries to guide her towards discovering it. It is a frantic story of motherly love, desperation, and the way we select or reject sound reasoning. 

Fever Dream left me feeling as though I had been given a box of puzzle pieces, that no matter how I tried I could not quite piece together. It stayed with me for a long time, and eventually the point of the book just clicked. One of the reasons I didn’t review this in full is that the pleasure of the book is in figuring out the meaning for yourself.  


Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness – Bruce Rosenblum

I was half expecting this book to be another attempt to shoe-horn quantum physics into someone’s idea of spirituality: there are too many pseudo-scientists out there who either misrepresent quantum theory, or apply it completely out of context. However I have to say I was pleasantly surprised here. 

Quantum Enigma is very readable, yet it successfully explains the roots of quantum theory, its possible applications and the gaps that still exist in our understanding of it. There were some minor annoyances: for example the authors spend far too much time repeating what they are going to show us and how it will blow our minds, but all in all this is the best explanation I have received on the topic, and will no doubt keep referring to it. 


Shark – Will Self

Similar to my feelings on J G Ballard, I have a lot of respect for Will Self, but I can’t say I’ve loved everything he has written. I am still addicted to picking up his books though, because I know they will give me an experience; they will stir something in me, be it joy or disgust.  

Shark is technically the second book in a trilogy, though I don’t believe they need to be read in a particular order. It is a stream of consciousness from multiple points of view, presented as one long paragraph, starting and ending mid-sentence. Although the style is reminiscent of Joyce, this is a whole lot more accessible and flows beautifully. I found it very difficult to put down, not only due to the struggle in finding a natural stopping point, but because I really got into the heads of the characters and their trains of thought. 

Plot-wise, Shark is about a ‘concept house’ identical to that set up by R D Laing in the 60s as an experiment in the treatment of schizophrenia. The doctors are on an accidental acid trip with their patients, which plays with their lucidity and comprehension of their personal situations. One of the patients we get to know is an ex-serviceman, traumatised by the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and the subsequent shark attacks upon the men of the USS Indianopolis as it sunk. We also see through the eyes of Jeanie/Genie, a drug addict with an overbearing mother; and Kins, a ‘conscientious objector’ during the Second World War. All of these characters have very distinct perspectives, but are cleverly linked. I now can’t wait to read Self’s new book Phone which is the final book in the series.  


The Gift Garden – Kenny Mooney

The Gift Garden is a novelette written by indie author Kenny Mooney. At 80 pages, this is another book that is easily and best read in one sitting. It is a dark and claustrophobic look into one man’s mind: a mind which is apparently unraveling, eating itself away with gloom and distraction. 

The story is set in an apartment, which is the protagonist’s world. We watch him writhe and struggle with abstract elements: the mould in the walls, a tree growing in his garden, and an ethereal female offering fruit. I took the story to be one long metaphor for the protagonist’s mental state, mixed with smatterings of his reality. This is a concept I love, as anyone who reads my fiction will know. 

Although I didn’t quite know what to make of it at first, the fact that The Gift Garden’s mood stuck with me for so long afterwards I believe is the mark of a powerful read.


Astronauts & Other Stories – Ash N Finn

This is a collection of very short stories by fellow WordPress blogger Ash N Finn. There’s a bit of everything here: laughter, sadness, surprise, clever symbolism, and mild horror. Every character is well thought out and has a voice of their own, and every setting is described with skill, so that even in such short segments the reader is fully immersed. 

Although some stayed with me more than others, there isn’t a weak story in this collection. If you enjoy reading in short intense bursts, this book comes highly recommended.  
*****

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Broken Sleep – Bruce Bauman (6/10)

Book Review Blog


Broken Sleep came up as a recommended read for me, presumably due to Bruce Bauman’s association with one of my favourite authors Steve Erickson. It is described as an experimental, kaleidoscopic epic, encompassing art, madness, philosophy and identity, which sounds like exactly the kind of book I enjoy.

‘There are many dimensions of ‘reality’ we don’t understand. Odd things occur that can’t be explained. That does not make you a candidate for a mental breakdown. I believe in what can be proved and I’m agnostic on what cannot be disproved. I do not subscribe to past life memories, extraterrestrials, time travel, ESP, or any other speculative sci-fi concoctions. That doesn’t rule them out for eternity. It rules them out for now. There’s more in here – he pointed to his head and then to the heavens – than there is out there.”

It is written from three different perspectives; two of which are first person an one is third. Salome Savant is a sex-obsessed artist who has been in and out of psychiatric care for most of her life; Moses Teumer is the son she believes was stillborn, who is now seeking a bone marrow transplant from his biological family; and Ambitious Mindswallow is bassist for rock superstars The Insatiables and a close friend of Salome’s beloved son Alchemy.

Despite the head-jumping, this isn’t at all difficult to follow. The characters are colourful and relatable (with the possible exception of Alchemy the rock star who can do no wrong), so the technique succeeds in giving a multi-faceted view of events. I don’t consider it to do anything ground-breaking in terms of style though, and its tendency towards anecdote over immersing the reader in a scene is a little disappointing. The character back stories are interesting for sure, but I was expecting a gripping plot to be laid over them and unfortunately that never comes.

Strangely, Broken Sleep as a title seems to have very little to do with the content; the Savant family do share a tendency to slip into daydreams and sleep poorly, but this is alluded to only sporadically and I didn’t consider it a key part of the story.  

Politics, art, medicine, corruption, the press, the music industry, insanity, and family life are all incorporated into Broken Sleep. The multiple points of view enable us to see each of these from hugely varying perspectives, which is a big task to take on as a writer. For example we are shown the formation of a left-wing political party beside the musings of a former Nazi officer with no regrets. Elsewhere, we observe someone who does not believe in time living every moment to the full, beside someone who is running out of time but never using what he has to make it count.  

The problem perhaps is that the themes are too broad to be meaningful in any one area. It almost has something to say about nature vs nurture, and it almost has something to say about the impact of personal relationships vs the impact of politics on our lives and our sense of control: but not quite.

“Inside every human, without exception, resides the essence of what moralists call evil. Herbert Spencer, in classic English linguistic perfidy, declared this drive to be ‘survival of the fittest’. I witnessed this exhibition of spirit by the delighted participation of women and children in acts of murder and debauchery. This empowering drive to vanquish and control is encoded in our blood and far outweighs courage or human generosity, or, for Christ’s sake, loving the enemy.”

What it does manage to demonstrate, I think, is how subjective life is. Everyone thinks their own logic is perfectly defensible, and everyone thinks they are the ones who need to wake others up to truth. Everyone tries to protect their loved ones in the best way they can, and everyone is torn apart by being lied to and having their worldview turned upside down.   

Reason is powerless to repair the ruptured heart.’

I did enjoy Broken Sleep on the whole. Although it is hard to justify the length (620 pages), it is a straightforward read with short chapters, and I kept turning the pages once I’d picked it up. It’s just unfortunate there is very little in the way of suspense, or even open questions to make the reader desperate to go back for more. 

The Drowned World – J G Ballard (5/10)

Book Review

I have a complicated relationship with the novels of J G Ballard. I am drawn to his concepts; they always sound like stories I will love, but there is something in his style that deeply unsettles me. I come away feeling defensive, as though I have been spoken to in an arrogant and assertive manner, and sometimes even physically sick, but somehow I always end up reading more.

Now I have read The Drowned World, I believe I have identified the root of this strange feeling. I tried hard to find a particular quote from C G Jung at this point: I know it is in Memories, Dreams, Reflections but short of re-reading the whole book I couldn’t find what I was looking for in time for this review. Somewhere in that book, Jung refers to the voice of the unconscious mind coming across as pompous and blunt. That is what I think J G Ballard’s trick is; he speaks from, and to, the unconscious mind.  Continue reading “The Drowned World – J G Ballard (5/10)”

Eating Robots – Stephen Oram (9/10)

Dystopian future fiction and sci-fi short stories

Imagine being a hedonist forever’…

Eating Robots is a collection of 30 short stories, offering bite-sized future visions based on technological advances, while holding up a mirror to our current social tendencies.

Most often I find compilations of short stories a bit hit and miss: there are powerful pieces, but hidden among weaker ones. As such I end up stalling, and taking much longer than usual to complete a book. Eating Robots is not like that at all. It is a strong collection with no weak links, and I couldn’t put it down. The stories are very short, sometimes only a page, and yet even in such brief pieces Oram manages to make a big impact. Of course, there is little space for character and plot development, but it is the concepts that are important here and they are conveyed in an innovative and distinctive way.

How do you think the world might look if we had an electronic universal credit system, whereby everyone received the same income? Where everyone would have adequate funds for food and clothing? It sounds wonderful. And yet maybe there would still be social outcasts; maybe new prejudices and poverties would emerge, because maybe that’s the way the human race works.  Continue reading “Eating Robots – Stephen Oram (9/10)”

Deragon Hex: The Vipdile Key – Carlie Martece (9/10)

The Vipdile Key

I’ve been looking forward to Carlie Martece’s second novel since reading the wonderful Toxic Nursery a few months ago, and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed.

The Vipdile Key is written in the same fast paced, brutally honest style, and while it isn’t exactly a sequel, some of the themes from Toxic Nursery are expanded upon here. I certainly wouldn’t say it’s a pre-requisite that you read the books in order of publication, but knowing the background of some of the characters and their relationship to one another added dimension for me.

Deragon Hex is a dystopian future world where people are sealed in an underground network by a secret key code. Technology, social media and reality TV have all taken a step up in their influence, and now everything is under surveillance; the public may decide the fate of criminals and their victims using voting buttons, raping the unconscious is considered entertainment, and popularity is everything. Even research into medicine has taken an irrational turn:

“All thoughts create energy,” an oncologist is explaining to the narrator. “This new device harnesses the energy radiated when a so called ‘troll’ sends anonymous abuse over the com network to someone with severe depression. We’re investigating whether the frequency of this particular energy wave can slow the growth of cancer cells.”

In a world where justice is in the hands of the popular, how will Ash save and avenge their comatose best friend? Continue reading “Deragon Hex: The Vipdile Key – Carlie Martece (9/10)”

Fallen Standing: My Life as a Schizophrenist – Reshma Valliappan 

I first became aware of Reshma Valliappan (also known as Val Resh) from her blog here. She writes openly and honestly about mental illness, and offers online peer support via her Red Door initiative. She also raises awareness on issues of sexuality, and has spoken at several conferences.

Fallen Standing is a raw, personal account of the events leading up to her diagnosis, her experience of treatment, and her thoughts on how labels impact us in unseen ways.

When I read the introduction and note from the publisher, I expected this to be a lot more incoherent and without logical order. It takes the form of a series of e-mails, diary entries and letters written to a friend, mostly in first person but occasionally in third, but although the writing is a little rough in places I didn’t find it difficult to follow at all. The parts in which she simply writes down a stream of consciousness are among the most illustrative of the book, and are often very humourous too. There are also some wonderfully unique analogies and associations, showing that she is skilled with language but also prepared to be brutally honest.

‘(Voices in some cases only. Not necessarily applicable to all. Offer depends upon availability of dopamine stock.)’ Continue reading “Fallen Standing: My Life as a Schizophrenist – Reshma Valliappan “

Shadowbahn – Steve Erickson (8/10)

Twenty years after their collapse, the Twin Towers mysteriously reappear in the Badlands. Thousands gather to witness the sight, describing them as an American Stonehenge. What make this even more strange – and haunting too – is that music comes out of the buildings that no one can quite place, and is experienced slightly differently by everyone present.

Which ghosts are being summoned is unclear: the spirits of the Towers? Or the phantoms of the Badlands? Or do, within the buildings, the spirits of two decades previous meet the phantoms of more than a century past, and do they embrace in spectral communion, swap tales of their lives, commiserate and comfort each other over their deaths, display for each other photos and engravings of wives and husbands and children, some wrapped in animal skins and blankets and others donning Mets caps and The Blueprint sweatshirts?’

This event is the ‘landmark’ of the novel, and the blurb. But in itself, it isn’t really what the story is about. As I read it, the story is about the road not taken. Every person, event, and creation has a twin: a shadow which is essentially made of the same principle but has different situational factors acting upon it. Shadowbahn bravely explores this idea on multiple layers.

Continue reading “Shadowbahn – Steve Erickson (8/10)”