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on 27 August 2011
At what cost do we have delusion and mental illness? The personal cost is exorbitant.

The main character Alex, is haunted deeply by his past. By his choices. By the pressure he put on his wife. In a heart wrenching tale, his brilliant mind is lost in gossamer spaces between realities, and his heart is breaking as he watches the love of his life slipping away. Slipping away in front of his eyes, going so far as to boldly play footsie under the table at a couples dinner for 4.

Alex is stuck in paranoia. His therapist isn't helping, and every sense he has is warning him they're plotting together, to lock him up and throw away the key.

Oh sure, every therapist says "they're just trying to help", but Alex isn't hedging his bets, he rethinks every answer during their sessions, constantly on the lookout for the trick question to seal his fate.

But then his reality starts to dissolve, he has the most lucid visions, taking him on a quantum trip, the trip where anything is possible, and he's living his deepest dream, he's in space. He's understanding everything the masters hypothesized.

The twist in this book is so unexpected. You think you're reading an impossible tale which borders on delusional fantasy, when the author deftly snaps the rug from underneath you.

This book will make you angry, it will make you sad, it will make you ponder on the fragility of sanity, and then when the truth is exposed, you will cry for the main character.

Standing on the shores of the cosmic oceans, the only thing you will find, isn't water on a beach, it's memories left in the sand, it's a horizon belonging to the past, the past you buried so deep, because if you faced it, life would just be too hard.

This is a brilliant novel! It's intelligent and deep, and so poignant, it's breathtaking!

5 out of 5 stars - no hesitation!
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on 18 November 2011
I knew what to expect, because I had seen an early draft of this book when it was on HarperCollins' website Authonomy. I remember feeling ambivalent about it; I could tell there was much going for it, but also things that bothered me.

Now I have read the entire book in its final form, called Quintessence, and Andrew Meek has put together a really strong debut novel.

Alexander Staalman, physicist, husband, grieving man, an altogether human character, takes us on a tour of mental breakdown, quantum physics, cosmology, and the deepest questions possible: what is this thing called Life, and how can we, conglomerations of atoms consisting of mainly void space, be able to think about it?

The eminent plus points of the book are (in no particular order) depth, honesty, force, intellect, inquisitiveness and beauty.

By depth I mean the way Meek has invested countless hours and massive effort to write a book that manages bind together quantum physics and cosmology, as well as everything that walls in between these two extremes. Staalman ponders believably and interestingly how it can be possible for humans to think - it's just electric current flowing between synapses that are mere atoms in close proximity. And is thinking real? If someone has a thought, is that thought real? Is anything actually and verifiably real?

Honesty is apparent in Staalman's anguished quest to set right a horrible injustice rendered on his beloved wife, Millie. The guilt he experiences over the pain he caused her is rendered in such detail that the reader is wishing to absolve him all the time, but the need for Staalman to correct past deeds, which is of course not possible in our concept of time, forces him to think about time in terms of non-linearity. This is where the book gets to be somewhat challenging, but the author invests sufficient time and space to illustrate his ideas, and all becomes clear at some point.

The force of the book is in the mental breakdowns Stallman experiences. I have often wondered what it must be like to have one of these, and after reading this book I can safely say I wish such events happening to no one. Meek writes with such terrifying clarity of what it's like to feel sanity slip away that the text actually had me shivering more than once.

Intellectually this is one of the most challenging books I've read in a while. Sure, I am a longtime fan of Carl Sagan and cosmology, and I have read all the reports on quantum teleport and how Schrödinger's Cat must be doing these days, but man... this book gets you going really. Meek binds together thought experiments and real-life science so effortlessly that I found myself checking Wikipedia every five pages. I have nothing but admiration for his capability of bringing all of this together.

Inquisitiveness is a natural part of this book. We all wonder about life from time to time and then check to see what's on the telly tonight, but Andrew Meek sets the table for a full feast of questions. How can it be that when he thinks, then writes, then sets to type, uploads the book, and as I download it, I get to see what he thought? But surely all is just electric charges between our synapses! There can't be anything more than electric signals - or is there?

And the beauty... there is beauty in this book. It's in the way electrons spin around the nucleus, and how these atoms self-assemble into molecules, substances, cognitive humans, solar systems and ultimately galaxies. All is from the same source, and yet, nothing is alike to another substance. Alexander's and Millie's love story is hauntingly beautiful too, and even if this seems weird to say, I'll say there's beauty in Alexander's madness.

If you like your books thought-provoking, interesting, fact-laden to the hilt, this is for you. On the other hand, if you are up for an easy read, pass this one by. I definitely hope you will be of the former kind and give this book a serious attempt.

If I may nitpick, I would say this book would benefit from one more run-down by an experiences editor. There's a smidgen too much of stuff in it, and some typo issues. None of this is critical; it is much more important to just read the book.

HarperCollins, are you paying attention?
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on 29 August 2011
Quintessence is a novel of rare depth and an astonishing piece of work from a writer in love with language. That's meant as a compliment, by the way. The science is beyond my ken, but that doesn't matter in the slightest as the words flow like honey, drawing the reader ever onward into the storyline. Easily one of the best books I've read this year. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
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on 23 October 2011
Quintessence by Andrew Meek ~ a review of one of the most original books I've read in years.

I've been slower than I like in my quest to find literature that bucks the trends and hacks out new paths; not so much the finding of them but the finding of time to read and then review them. I've also found that amid the vast array of new, often independently published literature, there are extraordinary works of genius that shine out like gems on a pebbled beach. But like any beach of pebbles, the shoreline constantly shifts and the gems become covered and lost to view.
Quintessence is such a book. The rate at which new books appear means that the modest launch went more or less unnoticed and authors more willing to shout about their work got heard and this extra-special book has been left to be buried beneath the scores of pebbles. I am hoping that I can encourage my readers to give this one a try and discover something that defies both genre and description. But beware: if you're looking for a beach read or something to simply entertain you for a few hours, this is not for you. This is for folks who think, who ask questions and who are open to discovery.
Ostensibly the book is the story of a man, Alexander Staalman, recovering from mental breakdown and the fear that he is losing his wife to his best friend. It is not. That said, this heart breaking narrative will draw you in, and hook you totally, but this is not the real story. Alexander has conversations with people who are dead, with Seneca and with Einstein and others; he knows full well they are not real and yet, the conversations are so enthralling that you begin to wonder quite what IS real and what is Alexander's damaged mind filling in the blanks. Alex is a physicist and his deep love of this subject comes through with the enthusiasm with which he explains his theories and his work. This too is not the real story.
Like an onion, you peel this novel back, layer by layer until you reach the very core of it and it will rock you to YOUR core when you get there. I read it while on a camping holiday, during the short time in the evenings before we went to the pub for dinner. The fading light was my enemy, and I read until the light was gone, desperate to uncover some more. It made me feel not so much like a physicist but like an archaeologist scraping away layers of years before getting back to the very earliest and deepest part of the story. I can tell you that when I finally got to this shocking centre, my jaw did drop, and yet, all the clues were there, patiently pointing the way.
It's a very unsettling novel, in some ways, but in others, deeply comforting and inspiring. The author has produced something that is so far beyond the run-of-the-mill novel that I think it may take more than run-of-the-mill readers to truly grasp the full scope and vision of the tale. The only work I can even remotely compare it too is Robert Pirsig's Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and even here, the comparisons are tenuous. Yet the scope of the vision is there, and the character who has had a brilliant mind and a total breakdown is there. But Meek takes it further, to a truly staggering conclusion and there, I must step back and simply say, Go read it. You'll either get it or you won't; what you get from the novel is unique to you, and that is one of the most incredible aspects of it. It speaks to the individual and your level of experience and depth of understanding will govern quite how deep you are able to engage with the issues. At a most basic level, it's a mystery, a story that draws you into it and out the other side; at a different level, it's an exploration of what being human and mortal actually means.
Quintessence is available via Amazon UK and Amazon USA but not yet as a paperback, though if we all nag enough, perhaps Andrew might consider this option. What more can I say? Go and read it!
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on 20 July 2012
This book is as intense as it is intellectual. It is sort of a Stephen King meets Lewis Carroll, by way of Michio Kaku.

What is reality? What are we? What us the definition of sanity? If these questions are not exactly answered in this well-crafted thriller, they certainly loom large on the horizon.

As pleasurable to read as it is stimulating. Join Andrew Meeks for a tour de force that will keep you guessing until the very end.
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