Can Books Save Lives?

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I was walking around in the cultural district of downtown Portland, and discovered this on an electrical box. It was across the street from my apartment in the South Park Blocks.  Wise words.

Nine years ago, when my mom was cancer riddled, and just a few weeks from dying, I spent long days in the hospital with her, reading. The author that saved my life the most during this immensely difficult time, was Laurie Notaro. I read her “Idiot Girl” series aloud to Mom, and we laughed. We laughed, a lot. It gave us a break from everything else happening and created happy memories during a dark time. I’m so grateful to Notaro and to the power of a story well-told.

What books or authors have saved your life?

The Fall of Lisa Bellow

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Thank You to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advanced copy of Susan Perabo’s novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Eighth grader Meredith Oliver is a girl who exists in the middle. She’s neither completely unpopular or part of the “in-crowd.” Meredith and her friends both hate and emulate the popular girls, and in particular, their leader, Lisa Bellow.

Meredith and Lisa find their lives entwined, when they both happen to be buying sandwiches at a local deli during a robbery. Both girls are told to stay on the floor, while the deli’s employee is beaten. The thief decides to kidnap Lisa, leaving the employee unconscious and Meredith shaking on the floor.

In the days, weeks, months following Lisa’s kidnapping, Meredith tries to make sense of what happened to her classmate, and why she wasn’t also taken? Although Meredith was spared, her mother, Claire, cannot shake the thought that she is unable to protect her children from harm.

LIKE– Last year, I was introduced to Perabo’s writing through her fantastic short story collection, Why They Run the Way They Do. Perabo is a fabulous storyteller and I was eager to read her first novel.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow has an unusual and interesting narrative structure. A large chunk of the story, about 1/3, is told through Meredith’s fantasy of what both what she imagines has happened to Lisa, and what she imagines would happen if she had been kidnapped alongside Lisa. This fantasy is rich with specific details, including of the kidnapper, who in reality, was covered by a mask and could not be identified by Meredith. Meredith is so distraught by the robbery and kidnapping, that these fantasies become mixed-up with reality. She cannot distinguish the real details from her imaginary ones. They’re muddled. She is obsessed with this fantasy world and with Lisa. She creates a fictional reality for Lisa, but she also befriend’s Lisa’s popular friends, who now accept Meredith in the aftermath, and she even becomes close to Lisa’s mom. Lisa’s mom is desperate for anything that will remind her of Lisa, which includes encouraging Lisa’s friends to spend time at her house and hang out in Lisa’s bedroom. While Claire is afraid that she can’t physically protect her daughter, she is still losing Meredith to obsession and mental anguish.

Early in the story, we learn that Claire, a dentist, intentionally causes pain to one of her young patients, a boy that she suspects has been teasing her son. When Claire confesses her crime to her husband, he is horrified, and although Claire does not regret her actions (she poked a kid’s sensitive tooth for temporary pain, not long-term damage), she realizes that her husband does not trust her. This is compounded with an emotional affair that she had when her mother was dying, something else that she confessed and which instigated his initial distrust toward her. This makes Claire feel isolated and unwilling to share her feelings with her husband. The robbery is not the only incident that has damaged Claire’s children; her son Evan, had his promising baseball career ended, when an accident left him partially blind. The family had barely begun to recover from Evan’s accident, when the robbery happened. Claire’s unhinged and more than any other character, I wondered how she would cope.

Perabo has created flawed, isolated characters that are existing on the brink. The Fall of Lisa Bellow works because of its familiarity. You don’t need to have had a shock like surviving a robbery, to understand what it’s like to fall down the rabbit hole with regard to obsessing over other people and “what if” scenarios. You don’t have to lose your sight, to understand what it would mean to have your dreams crushed in an instant. You don’t need to have the power and an opportunity to hurt a bully, to understand Claire’s actions? The Fall of Lisa Bellow deals with extreme situations, but it’s relatable throughout.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Fall of Lisa Bellow had me hooked from page one.

RECOMMEND– Yes! If you’re not familiar with Perabo, you should be. I highly recommend The Fall of Lisa Bellow and Perabo’s short story collections. Her writing is powerful, both in novel and short story formats.

The Trophy Child

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Thank You to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an advanced copy of Paula Daly’s novel, The Trophy Child, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Ten-year-old Bronte Bloom, is overworked and stressed-out. Her mother, Karen, keeps Bronte on a tight schedule, shuttling her between various lessons and tutors, accepting nothing less than excellence. She insists that her daughter is gifted and exceptional, but even if that isn’t quite true, Karen believes that it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by pushing her daughter to work harder, or by hiring more qualified teachers.

Bronte isn’t an only child. She has an older teenage brother named Ewan, who is a slacker, and rather than finding a job or attending college, he spends his days playing video games and smoking pot. He is Karen’s son from a previous relationship, although the name of his father is a mystery. Bronte’s older half-sister, Verity, has moved into their home. Verity’s mother has multiple sclerosis  and was moved to a nearby live-in care facility. Verity and Karen do not get along. Verity is fiercely protective of Bronte, whom she feels is being pushed too hard. The family patriarch, Noel Bloom, stays on the periphery of the madness going on in his own home. He is unhappy in his marriage, yet afraid to take on the force that is Karen.

When Bronte goes missing for a day, the Bloom family is in a panic. Bronte has been so sheltered, that they fear she cannot survive on her own. When she returns the following day, happy, unharmed, and unwilling to talk about her disappearance, the Bloom’s are left feeling perplexed. Karen faces a public backlash for her parenting style and is even accused of giving Bronte a reason to run away. The backlash is so intense, that Karen gets harassing phone calls and written death threats. Karen vanishes a month later, her car found abandoned with splattered blood. Could Bronte and Karen’s disappearances be linked? Was Karen attacked for being too much of a “Tiger Mom?”

LIKEThe Trophy Child has two separate elements going on: It’s a family drama, but it is also a murder mystery. I preferred the family drama to the suspense/mystery elements of the story. As a drama, we have a blended family struggling to make it work, and that dynamic is compelling.

At the start of the story, we don’t know if Verity is an unreliable character. When we meet her, she is in trouble for choking her step-mother in a blind rage, and her private school is threatening to expel her, if she doesn’t attend therapy sessions. However, we quickly learn that Verity is incredibly protective of Bronte and through Karen’s rigorous demands of her younger daughter, she was physically hurting her. Yes, Verity was enraged, but Karen was also acting in an extreme manner. Verity is actually incredibly mature for her age and compassionate of others. Not only does she try to help her younger sister, but she is kind to her half-brother, Ewan and his mentally handicap friend, who is a frequent visitor to the house. Verity visits her mother, sneaking her in marijuana, which calms her mother’s tremors. She is even patient with Karen’s bullying parents, who accuse her of potentially harming Bronte and Karen, when each goes missing. Verity takes this all in stride, even though her life has been nothing but upheaval with factors out of her control. This makes her even more sympathetic than Bronte, and it’s hard to beat the sympathy factor of a abused child!

I love the setting of the Lake District in England. Having visited there ( it’s magical), I could easily picture the village and the houses. I could see Lake Windermere, which is the setting ofa pivotal scene in The Trophy Child. I have such good memories of my visit there, that I was delighted to revisit it in this story world, even if murder and shady characters were involved!

I’m intrigued by the helicopter parenting/tiger mom thing. I have step-children, but they do not live with us, so I don’t really have parenting experience, and my mom, although she pushed me, definitely didn’t fall under this category. I liked how Daly played with the backlash that Karen receives. Clearly, Karen thought that she was doing the best thing for Bronte, but she could not see or admit to the negative ways it was affecting her daughter. Certainly, Karen was extreme and doing Bronte harm, but Daly adds another layer of the community members being judgmental regarding her parenting, and the idea that you never quite know what is going on in someone else life.

DISLIKE– I’m on the fence about the murder mystery and the character of detective Joanna Aspinall. I didn’t find the budding romance between Joanna and Noel to be compelling or necessary. I kept expecting that this would have a large repercussion on Joanna investigating the disappearance of Karen, but other than a slight internal conflict, i.e.- she knew she should mention it to her boss, nothing came of it.

The very end of the story, in which the crime is finally resolved, felt like a very big coincidence. Too many pieces of the puzzle slid together neatly. Although the twist played out as far as me not realize the story would head to that conclusion, I didn’t feel that the twist was satisfying.

I think part of the problem with the crime aspect of the story, is it lost momentum when Bronte returned home and the mystery of her disappearance was quickly eclipsed by the disappearance of Karen. We do learn what happened to Bronte, but it doesn’t come until the end of the story, and it doesn’t have much of a link to Karen’s disappearance, other than it put Karen into the spotlight.

RECOMMEND– No. The Trophy Child was a quick read. Daly has a knack for writing family dynamics and conflict. I would be inclined to seek out other books that she has written, but The Trophy Child was an uneven read.

Quarterly Literary Box- Winter 2017

Yesterday afternoon, my Quarterly Literary Box for winter arrived. I had completely forgotten about my subscription to the Quarterly Literary Box, making it an even bigger surprise. Here in Portland, where it seems like winter will never end, I need books and coffee to keep my days sunny.

For those of you not familiar with Quarterly, they are a company that sends out seasonal subscription boxes on a variety of topics. I subscribe to the Adult Literary Box, but they also have boxes themed to YA lit, culinary, crafts, tech, et.. They have tons of different themes, and not all are book related.

What I love most about the Quarterly Literary Box, is each season, the box is curated by a different author. The fall 2016 box was curated by Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers, and this winter box was curated by Kayla Rae Whitaker.

Here is the included note from Whitaker.1486507718787

The featured item is an annotated copy of Whitaker’s latest novel, The Animators. The bad news is I have already read The Animators, having recieved an advanced readers copy. The good news is I absolutely loved Whitaker’s novel and I’m looking forward to reading through her annotations ( done specifically for Quarterly subscribers), before passing the book along.

Check out my review of The Animators.

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As curator, Whitaker picked two additional books by other authors to include in the box. I was not familiar with either book, however, I have read other books by Maggie Nelson. My Quarterly subscription is a bit like going on a blind date, but with books. I love it!

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The last inclusions were non-book items, yet related to the theme. For example, last month, Bennett included a mug with a quote from her book. Whitaker chose to include a bookmark and colored pencils. This works to the theme of her novel, with her main characters both animators. I’m not into crafts, but this was a fun addition, although I think I like how the bookmark looks in black and white. What’s a bit special about this bookmark, is its designer is  Julie Doucet, a cartoonist, or as Whitaker mentions in her letter “Trailblazing cartoonist”. I’ve never heard of Doucet, but it seems to be a well-thought out inclusion for her box. Besides, I can never have too many bookmarks.1486509181682

On a whole, I’m very happy with my winter 2017 Quarterly Literary Box. I can’t wait to read Whitaker’s picks and to see what comes in the mail for spring. I’m going to try to forget about my subscription, so that in three months, I have another “happy-snail-mail-surprise-day.”