“What It Seems” by Emily Bleeker

Read in: December 2019
Edition and format: Lake Union Publishing 2019/digital advance review copy
First published: March 2020

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Big thanks to Lake Union Publishing for the ARC I received via NetGalley.

What It Seems is a fast-paced page-turner that launches us into the troubled head of a twenty-year-old girl who has been living with Mother for twelve years, convinced that her biological family had given her up when she was eight.
Mother puts a roof over her head and food on the table. Mother is there to protect her against the cruel, unforgiving world. Mother can be kind when she feels like it, but that comes at a price.
Physical and mental locked doors keep Tara tucked away in her room, and Mother’s countless rules are like the bars of a cage against which she stopped throwing herself a long time ago.
All she has are her few friends and her computer, her window to the world. It’s behind this screen that the Feely family lives. If she could only be normal and happy like them, surrounded by loved ones, taking part in tickle wars, mixing slime, always having someone to hug! Is this what real, caring families are like? Because it’s all she’s been craving during the twelve years in her prison.
Then, an unusual video posted by the Feelys changes her life forever. Tara was used to have everything decided for her, but now she is going to have to make decisions of her own, and they’re not going to be easy…for how could she leave her Mother?
Written in the gripping, immediate first person, this book will have you begging to know what happens next in no time at all. Ms. Bleeker is capable of writing about serious, traumatising things in a steady, relatable way.
I would have rather seen Angela getting to know the Feelys with all their virtues and flaws more gradually and subtly, and it would have been nice to give the kids more screen time. But I guess I’ll just leave that in the YouTube comments.
This book is a highly entertaining and emotional read, and it won’t let you go easily.

“Free from the World” by John Johnson

Read in: December 2019
Edition and format: Troubadour Publishing Ltd. 2019/digital advance review copy
First published: November 2019

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First of all, I’d like to thank Troubador Publishing Ltd. for the ARC I received via NetGalley.

Free from the World is a neat thriller that takes you into the world of a psychiatric hospital and gives what seems to me a rather detailed account of the way it works on the inside. There is some little, but valuable social commentary too, which really enriches the narrative. It means a lot to have a strong and capable woman as the leading character, and we do spend a lot of time in her head and get to root for her. The commentary on how difficult it must have been for a woman to assume her role due to the social backlash is especially on point. It would have been nice to see other female doctors at Black Roding or at another hospital for comparison.
I would have also liked to know more about some of the other patients, since Ruth and the story both focus on Richard so much, but of course his own story is really interesting on its own.
Personally, it seemed to me that the end was a little abrupt, somewhat out of proportion with how drawn out the rest of the story was, but I guess it still worked. There were also many hints and glimpses into Richard’s thoughts, and that took some of the thrust away from the big reveal in my opinion. However, I see how difficult it would have been to write everything from Ruth’s perspective.
As it is, the story is really entertaining and worth reading. I particularly enjoyed comparing the attitude towards mental illness and the treatment options then and now, because that part seemed stunningly well researched.

“The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon

Read in: March through August 2016
Edition and format: Scribner 2011/e-book
First published: 2000

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“I lost a great innocence when I understood that I and my mind were not going to be on good terms for the rest of my life.”

It is going to be dashed difficult to separate the experience of reading this book from the experience of living with depression, just as it was impossible for the author to separate writing about it from living with it.

The great innocence lost that is referred to in the first quotation taken from the book is the sense of being able to rely on your own mind, at least, even when you feel like you can’t rely on anything or anyone else. And finding that this mind has a mind of its own and can work against you instead of for you is probably the bitterest disappointment and letdown that I don’t wish on anyone.

Therefore, I’d like to argue that the most authoritative voices on depression are those of sufferers themselves. Andrew Solomon tackles the subject from a variety of perspectives, ranging from the deeply and painfully personal to the medical and societal, all told with grace and depth.

We are introduced to the many ugly faces of depression, and more importantly, the many voices of depressed people, because each case is different from the rest, and in each case a different combination of factors has conspired to bring about the unwanted result, politics/policy and poverty amongst those Solomon explores.

“Sometimes I wish I could see my brain. I’d like to know what marks have been carved in it. I imagine it grey, damp, elaborate. I think of it sitting in my head, and sometimes I feel as if there’s me, who is living life, and this strange thing stuck in my head that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. It’s very odd. This is me. This is my brain. This is the pain that lives in my brain. Look here and you can see where the pain scratched this thing, what places are knotty and lumped up, which places are glowing.”

Among other new and fascinating things, this book introduces one of the most captivating theories for the cause of depression: the explanation of depression as a relic of evolution. It all serves to show admirably that this condition is valid and should be as visible as physical ailments, because the forces at work behind it are very real and cause almost unimaginable suffering to an unimaginably high number of people.

However, not all is bleak, because, as any good Wikipedia article will tell you, depression is highly treatable, and experience with it will teach you how to live with it. Nobody is happy all the time, not even those who, fortunately for them, don’t add depression to their list of medical problems. On the converse, however, nobody can be sad all the time either. There’s much comfort in the thought that feeling bad all the time is just physiologically unsustainable. The rain and the sun, you know, and all that rot. But, once again, Solomon makes a good point in explaining it:

“The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when sad.”

Vitality in the face of being unable to get out of bed yet again. Just because life is low doesn’t mean it stops. Depression is here to stay. So what? Like moving in with a new flatmate, your best bet is to get to know them. And now they have an entire atlas written about them.

Highly recommended for depressed people, those who think they might be, as well as their family and friends.

“Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey

Read in: June 2014
Edition and format: Penguin UK 2014/digital advance review copy
First published: June 2014

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Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red.

First of all, I’d like to thank the lovely people at Penguin for my advance review copy received via NetGalley.

It is always an immense pleasure (in every possible meaning of the word: from instinctively animalistic, to casually mundane, to Barthesian) to see a brilliant idea brought to flawless execution in literature.
Let us do away with the adjectives of praise – at the risk of their sounding trivial and faded – “Elizabeth is Missing” is an insanely intelligent, poignant, and enchanting book.
Admittedly, the text requires a careful, close perusal and honest, concentrated efforts on the part of the reader in order to unveil the many precious subtleties and layers and lead to a better understanding, and so may prove a bit of a challenging read in that respect. However, the dedication and patience are well rewarded, and isn’t that one of the greatest things about reading?

The idea is that of a mystery spanning across decades, interlaced with a more recent burning question that troubles the mind of our unforgettable narrator, Maud. Here, in my humble opinion, lies the answer to what makes this book so unique and appealing. Maud’s voice feels painfully genuine and realistic, her interactions with her surroundings so rich in sensuous quality, that the reader soon forgets at what point they ceased to be a mere observer and became a highly sensitive, alert, throbbing little bit of tissue behind Maud’s eyes.

An interchange of two timelines, or, more accurately, two types of fragments soon begins, both narrated by Maud in the first person; one is an account of her present-day antics, told in the present tense, the other an assortment of episodes, flashbacks of her life as a girl during WWII, narrated very neatly in the past tense. The two are always helpfully separated by a line of blank space, and yet they don’t really feel like separate fragments, in spite of the striking contrast between them, which I will detail presently. The transitions occur with a mesmerising fluidity, often triggered by a tiny detail that jogs Maud’s memory, so that they seem like identical beads on the same necklace, the only difference in the colours that alternate. Especially haunting are the frequent references to Tenysson’s “Come Into the Garden, Maud”, the full implications of which are enough to send shivers down one’s spine, in time.

The present-tense narrative is dominated by the search for Elizabeth, and the mastery of the writing here is that the progression of the plot (i.e. the search for clues) is hindered by Maud’s condition, which is in turn reflected in the ever-more-frequent blurs and blanks in the narrative itself, as our heroine struggles to remember. We witness the worsening of her condition very intimately, as the text itself spirals into decay and the past-tense episodes become more and more frequent. The past is taking over and the past seems to be the key. Those memories are narrated in a rather clean-cut, matter-of-fact way, relative to the present-tense narrative, and so appear to be the only reliable clues. As the novel progresses, those memories permeate Maud’s present-day life, each time with a renewed vehemence, and get jumbled up in the process. But will she be able to untangle them enough to find answers?

Clever, funny, sad…perfectly satisfying while at the same time generating a stomach-churning emotional struggle, heartwarming and heartbreaking…a beautiful, beautiful book!

“Sleeping Partners” by Alan Goodare

Read in: September 2014
Edition and format: Troubadour Publishing Ltd. 2014/digital advance review copy
First published: May 2014

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My immense thanks goes to Troubador Publishing Ltd. for my ARC via NetGalley.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Doctor, as I’m sure you know.”

An outstanding first novel. Immensely entertaining and well-structured, with all the loose ends tied up to satisfaction. The story is compelling, and even though it’s quite possible to roughly guess the direction in which it’s heading, the actual plunge into the world of secrets and spies is full of surprises, and as refreshing as an actual plunge into cold water.
The relatively slow introduction to the underlying themes is brilliant and helps establish the atmosphere of the novel, which is exactly as dark as it needs to be.
The writing style itself betrays instances of admirable character potrayal – a heightened sensitivity to all the details that comprise a scene: movement, dialogue, emotional depth, all of that is handled admirably.
What is particularly commendable is how the issues and conflicts that arise are studied from the viewpoints of all parties involved; here are round, complex characters tangled up in genuinely gripping matters of great momentum and lasting impact.
Introducing the reader to the underlying procedures and behind-the-scenes dealings of the various institutions involved is another dimension that works exceptionally well throughout the novel.
What I personally disliked just the tiniest bit were the fragments of foreshadowing among the internal monologue that did not seem to help build suspense, but they were too few, almost unnoticeable amid the overall successful application of the internal monologue as a method of propelling the plot onward.

I couldn’t shake off the amusing thought that I’d really like to see a film version of this, and perhaps even a sequel.
All in all, a highly enjoyable book that I’m happy to recommend to fans of the genre and to the uninitiated alike. Great work!

“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov

Read in: January 2015
Edition and format: Vintage 1989/Paperback
First published: 1955

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“My heart was a hysterical unreliable organ.”

So are the reader’s heart and mind when exploring this fascinating world of words. I’ve tried so hard to understand the character of Humbert Humbert, that I’m not sure if he was written to be understood anymore.
What I know is that I’ve rarely seen prose as powerful as this. I see Nabokov as a creature of words, always aware of their extraordinary potential, seeking to use it, turn it around, toy with meanings and associations, playfully challenging the reader and showing him the way into a dark and mysterious world of his design.

“While a few pertinent points have to be marked, the general impression I desire to convey is of a side door crashing open in life’s full flight, and a rush of roaring black time drowning with its whipping wind the cry of lone disaster.”

“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers

Read in: October 2017
Edition and format: Penguin Classics 2000/Paperback
First published: 1940

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Because in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons–throw it to some human being or some human idea. They have to.

Definitely a book to be savoured at a leisurely pace, time and time again. A brilliant study of the pitfalls of interpersonal relationships, of words thrown into the void – hopeful, excited paper boats left to float downstream with the heavy, eternal uncertainty of whether they will ever reach anyone at all.
The theme of failed communication and misunderstanding that drives people who have more in common than they can imagine to loneliness and despair is developed admirably. People’s lives start converging on Singer, who becomes a symbol of different things to different people and is assigned as many meanings as there are things that people dream of and lack. The discrepancy between his own flawed humanity and the lofty ideals that he comes to represent is the driving force of the novel.
The transition between points of view is subtle and smooth, and each chapter is finely tailored to the character on which it is focused. Each story is moving and engrossing, and they are intricately connected as they can only be in a small town in the Deep South.
A fine, fine specimen of the Great American Novel, whether or not it is officially referred to as such.