Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Review: Life In A Fishbowl by Len Vlahos

My father had to be operated on last October to remove a tumor from his pituitary gland. During that operation, he had a deep brain stroke and over three months later he has a long road toward recovery ahead of him. With that in mind, I think it's safe to say that books about fathers, daughters and medical trauma are on my mind right now. Life In A Fishbowl further grabbed me with the idea of combining this with reality tv. I hate reality tv with a burning, fiery passion, so I figured no good could come of this.

But do you want to know what sold me on reading this book hook, line, and sinker? Glio. That's what--or who?--made this have to be the first book I read in 2017. The idea of a brain tumor actually getting its own POV was such a crazy concept that I simply couldn't resist?

Was Life In A Fishbowl as good as the sum of its parts? Read on and find out!

(Summary From Goodreads)
Fifteen-year-old Jackie Stone is a prisoner in her own house. Everything she says and does 24/7 is being taped and broadcast to every television in America. Why? Because her dad is dying of a brain tumor and he has auctioned his life on eBay to the highest bidder: a ruthless TV reality show executive at ATN.

Gone is her mom's attention and cooking and parent-teacher conferences. Gone is her sister's trust ever since she's been dazzled by the cameras and new-found infamy. Gone is her privacy. Gone is the whole family's dignity as ATN twists their words and makes a public mockery of their lives on Life and Death. But most of all, Jackie fears that one day very soon her father will just be . . . gone. Armed only with her ingenuity and the power of the internet, Jackie is determined to end the show and reclaim all of their lives, even in death.
This book was every bit as unique as I thought it would be. Unfortunately, I mean that in both the best and worst ways possible. Let's start with what I liked:

Glio -- The extremely weird, why-the-heck-is-this-a-thing POV 100% did not disappoint. Despite any flaws this book has, it's not one that I'm going to forget thanks to this 'guy'. Why did he work? Well, the connection between his POV and Jared's allowed the author to continue to express Jared's emotion even as his disease consumed him and essentially stripped away who he was. I don't think this 'character' will be for everyone and it might even set some people off, but I feel his inclusion was for far more than mere shock value.

The way characters were introduced. This book had a ton of narrators and one of the things the author did to help the reader know we were getting another brand new one was to theme the first two lines of each new POV's opening. For example:
The high-grade glioblastoma multiforme tumor liked Jared Stone's brain. It liked it a lot. In fact, it found it delicious.
An intro like this happens for every major and minor character POV throughout the novel, tailored to what is important to that individual. I feel that this helped to solidify a massive cast of POV that could have gotten really confusing or fallen apart otherwise.

The overall flow of the plot kept things moving and was written interestingly enough that I was never bored with the story. The style had a breezy feel to it that kept me tapping to turn the page of my Kindle with no hesitation at all.

Okay, then. What went wrong?

First and foremost, I don't feel that this book is really YA. I think that it features a few teen characters and that they do get to do some important things in the narrative, but this is the most adult-focused YA novel that I have ever reviewed on this blog. The villain is a TV producer that our heroine has little hope of really taking down. And far more disturbingly, when we get glimpses into his POV some of the things we find out are that he likes to use his secretary as a prostitute and that secret cameras were installed in the Stone family's bathrooms and that the TV crew liked watching the mother and her 13 and 15 year old daughters shower.

If either of the two examples I just gave had actually really factored into the story in any direct and tangible way, we wouldn't be having this conversation. But no. They are here for shock value, and unlike Glio they do not work.

Another thing that drove me crazy was that this book, which initially felt like it was written in third person past tense, would occasionally decide that it wanted to switch to omniscient POV without warning. I found this very jarring and it was generally to tell the reader things they would probably have been better off not knowing, like the part about the villain's secretary that I listed above.

My next issue comes with the fact that at about half way the book gets a split narrative between the teenaged heroine finding a way to stop the TV people filming her family, and her mother finding a way to perform euthenasia on her husband. We end up seeing the final results of both of these situations in full detail. To be clear: my issue has nothing to do with being for or against assisted suicide. My issue is that such a core part of the book, which will undoubtedly make a lot of readers uncomfortable--should have been addressed somewhere in its marketing. That it was not is irresponsible of both the author and the publisher.

Lastly, there was a violent and unnecessary dog death about half way through the book. Unlike my other complaints, this is a personal pet peeve. If I felt it had served an actual purpose I wouldn't be as annoyed, but as it stands I'll stick to my reaction when I read it: "Really? You're gonna kill the dog?". *eyeroll*

So, should you buy Life In A Fishbowl? My feelings on this are very mixed. There is a good book among all of the flaws that I have listed, but this is definitely not a read to go into blindly. If books were roads, this one would be full of pot holes. Watch your step. 


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