Book Reviews

Life in a Fishbowl – Len Vlahos

Jared Stone liked his brain. He liked it a lot. 

Sure there were times – the monotony of the evening commute, the late innings of a lopsided baseball game, the comforting repetition of the weekly church service – when it would seem to shut down, switch to some kind of autopilot. But for the most part, Jared’s brain was hard at work. 

It helped him navigate the halls of the state capital where he was serving his fourth two-year term representing the good people of Portland. It told him how to read the inscrutable faces of his wife, Deirdre, and his two teenage daughters, Jackie and Megan; to know when they needed him or when he should give them a wide berth. It knew which foods tasted good, which women were attractive, and which colleagues had a problem with body odour. And it seemed, generally speaking, to know right from wrong. Jared’s brain, you could say, was his best friend. Which is what made it so herd to hear that his brain had a high-grade glioblastoma multiforme – or would’ve made it hard had Jared known what a high-grade glioblastoma multiforme was. 

 

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Finding the right words for this book is a difficult task. I got a review copy of this book through NetGalley, and I’ll just preface this review by saying that…I love this book.

The plot follows Jared Stone and his family after his diagnosis with a terminal form of brain cancer. He finds himself in the position that he cannot afford his medical bills and continue to support his family, so does what anyone would do; puts his life up for sale on eBay. According to the blurb (and we’ll get onto my opinions on that in a moment) the TV station is the highest bidder and their life becomes a reality TV show, with every moment captured on film for the entire world to see.

So whilst the blurb says this about the TV station being the highest bidder, this whole eBay storyline is where we get to meet a host of our recurring characters.

Hazel Huck is a school girl with an obsession with gaming, particularly WoW. She uses this platform in order to try and raise the money to bid for Jared’s life.

Sister Benedict Joan is, as her name would suggest, a nun. A very tech-savvy nun and one who runs a fairly successful blog called christscadets. She is obsessed with the idea of keeping Jared alive and therefore wants to bid on his listing so they can help him through his illness, either to help him recover or to make his journey to the other side much more peaceful.

Sherman Kingsborough is one of the best awful characters I’ve read in a long time. He’s rich, living off a trust fund from his dead father, and without contact with his mother he grew to enjoy a life of excess with very little of a moral compass. He has this incredible idea that if he does something bad he can always balance it out with a good deed. One of them described in his introduction is that he told a 15 year old girl he loved her so he could sleep with her, only to balance that out with cleaning gulls who had been caught in an oil tanker spill. His reason for bidding is much more sinister than the others. His is to fulfil one of his fantasies, having a hunger games fight to the death scenario.

Yet the one who really gets to control Jared’s life in the end is Ethan Overbee. He’s the deputy executive for programming at ATN and sees Jared’s listing on eBay. After discussions Jared takes the offer made by the network and his home becomes the set for a reality TV show where people would tune in nightly from the day it started, until Jared would die or recover.

What I think it is important to note it that, unlike how the blurb of the book would make it seem, this book has multiple perspectives, which is something I love in a contemporary novel. I feel that books like this need these perspectives because of the amount of people the issue effects. We get to see how Jared’s two daughters, Meg and Jackie both deal with the situation and how their relationship with both their parents and each other falters and rebuilds throughout the story.

Yet the most interesting perspective to me what that of Glio, the anthropomorphised tumour inside Jared’s brain. It looks at how the tumour affects memory and senses as well as movement, all without telling us how Jared is feeling. We see Glio eating these memories that Jared had of his family and you realise that this is no longer a memory that Jared has, and it’s such a sad moment when you realise that this character, who has such an interesting view of the world, is destroying one of your protagonists from the inside.

But most of all what I love about his novel is the way it looks at television versus the internet. It’s a very minor theme but I love it so much. Ethan and his team of producers and editors, are shown to be incredibly disreputable people who are more interested in their pay checks than people, often manipulating people and footage to show things that are contrary to the truth. Whereas Jackie, one of my favourite characters in the whole novel, is intent on showing the truth through a youtube series, showing the behind the scenes, which evolves into the uncovering of the truth behind the programme’s lies.

This whole storyline within the novel is so incredibly fascinating to me because we get to see this strong teenage female role model, finally, who is fighting back against something she doesn’t believe in. Hazel is the same in the way that they both utilise what they have to try and do some good in the world. Both have help from a young Russian called Max, but they instigate everything themselves. It’s nice to read about strong female characters like this.

The writing in this novel is stunning too. I know a lot of people feel that they can’t emotionally connect with a character through the 3rd person narration, but I feel that it lends itself very well to this novel, as we get the depth of knowledge about each character which then allows us to interpret them from that information, rather than from thoughts and feelings. I also feel that in places it would be wrong to connect with some of the characters. Sherman Kingsborough is not a character who’s head I ever want to be inside, thank you very much, and I like that the third person narrator is very clinical when discussing him because he’s not someone we should care for.

Overall this book is not the happiest of reads. Throughout I found myself tearing up, and I full on ugly cried at the end of this book, but it’s so poignant and relevant, letting us consider how much we value our lives and the topic of euthanasia as well as being a book dependent on family values and what we’ll do for love, be that of family, friends, God or ourselves.

Total pages – 336
Rating /5 – 4.5
Recommend – Yes
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