CommonSpace book critic Chiara Bullen reviews the latest releases out in February
Hotel Du Jack, Dan Brotzel
Short Stories | Sandstone | £8.99 | Buy Here
A woman granted a superpower discovers it’s more trouble than it’s worth. A neighbourhood forum becomes the setting for a bizarre ghost story. A children’s entertainer wrestles with problems that are nothing to joke about. A harassed dad attempts to meet the challenge of the primary school cake competition.
When it comes to the short story, Brotzel is clearly a master of the form. Experimental structures greet the reader at almost every turn and many stories leap around the page, the uniqueness of a few snippier ones (such as Who Is My Neighbour? told through the lens of a neighbourhood group chat) keep things from becoming repetitive. Each tale presents bright and vivid characters and more than a few moments to chuckle over. However, it reads like ‘yer da’s short story collection’ – whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you. A few portrayals of women and relationships in particular felt like a missed opportunity; the narrative bursting to show its awareness of various issues whilst doing little or nothing to explore them with depth or nuance.
Monster Slayer, Brian Patten (Illustrations by Chris Riddell)
Children’s (8+) | Barrington Stoke | £6.99 | Buy Here
One dark night , the sound of music and singing wakes a terrible monster from his sleep in a foul swamp …
Warrior after warrior comes to slay the monster, but no one can outwit Grendel. Only the great hero Beowulf stands a chance, but even he is not prepared for the horror that lies in wait.
A wonderful addition to Barrington Stoke’s Little Gems series, Monster Slayer packs the epic and ancient Beowulf tale into a punchy, illustrated little book. It’s wonderfully accessible and the perfect gateway to get your young ‘uns into fantastical fiction. The illustrations from the esteemed Riddle are the perfect balance of eerie and quirky, his distinct style working in perfect harmony with the sinister yet fun story. It’s a little on the gory-side at times, but Patten has skilfully skimmed over the more gruesome aspects of the story. The pacing is quick and action is constantly around the corner – it will keep even the most distracted readers entertained.
Fate, Jorge Consiglio (Translated by Carolina Orloff & Fionn Petch)
Literary Fiction | Charco Press | £9.99 | Buy Here
Karl and Marina have been together for ten years and have a young son, Simón. Karl is a German-born oboist at Argentina’s national orchestra, and Marina is a meteorologist. On a field trip, she meets fellow researcher Zárate, and what might have been just a fling starts to erode the foundations of her marriage. Then there is Amer, a dynamic and successful taxidermist. At a group therapy session for smokers, Amer falls for the younger Clara. While the relationship between Karl and Marina disintegrates, the love story between Amer and Clara is just beginning – or is it already at an end?
Reading this book is like wandering in a daze through those small yet significant instances of everyday life. Consiglio makes the insignificant irresistible in Fate. You’ll want to drink up every last drop of his characters as they grapple with the enormity of those chances, those crossroads, we experience almost daily but barely even notice. The prose is simple yet dream-like, and as you slip through the poignant, poetic narrative you’re aware of the existential dread creeping in from the edges, coming for the characters as they face new directions in their life. A captivating, essential read.
The Great Pretender, Susannah Cahalan
Non-Fiction | Canongate | £16.99 | Buy Here
For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness – how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people – sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society – went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry’s labels. Forced to remain inside until they’d ‘proven’ themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment.
Rosenhan’s watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever. But, as Cahalan’s explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?
This is an outstanding and outrageous insight into the U.S. Mental Health system, exposing its fraught history and it’s most influential – and now perhaps its most fraudulent – study. Having narrowly escaped a misdiagnosis that could have led to irreparable damage ten years ago, Cahalan drives this investigation with impossible determination and drive, fearing for those lost in the system destined to meet with the very fate she lucky side-stepped. As we live through a time where the emphasis on mental health awareness is paramount whilst little is actually done to improve these services, this is a truly frightening read – but it is also an urgent one.