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 Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches From the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA

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Thank You to W.W. Norton & Company for providing me with an advanced copy of Doug Mack’s The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Doug Mack’s The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, is part travelogue and part history lesson. Mack travels to Puerto Rico, The U.S. Virgin Islands, America Samoa, The Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam, to meet the people who inhabit these lands that are “not-quite part of America,” and to better understand their history and culture.

LIKE– I consider myself fairly knowledgeable when it comes to US History, but Mack has opened my eyes. I had no idea that the United States still has so many territories or that it is so darn muddled regarding the rights of the people living in these areas. I felt a little relieved, when early in his book, Mack, a travel writer, admitted to also being unaware of the full extent of these territories. This made me feel less clueless and in good company. I enjoyed tagging along with Mack, as he visits these islands. Mack’s sense of humor and his interactions with the locals, blends well with the history and politics of each island.

Admittedly, some of the politics and legal talk of territories can get a little dry and very confusing, however, Mack puts it out in layman terms, so if I read it carefully, I felt like I was gaining an understanding. My overall impression of the situation is that it is complicated and there is no one solution. I was surprised by the high number of people from the territories serving in the US armed forces, yet depending on where they live, they may not have very many rights. I was shocked by how the rights can vary dramatically from each territory, depending on status ( incorporated/ unincorporated, commonwealth, organized/ unorganized). Seeing how messy this all is, coupled with a general lack of interest or knowledge that most US Citizens have towards the territories, I doubt we will be adding any new states in the near future. It’s even presumptuous to think that people in the territories necessarily want statehood. Mack is perceptive with his noting how the idea of colonization is very distasteful and not politically correct, yet colonies are essentially what America still has, even if we call them territories and try to play “out of sight, out of mind.”

Some of the history, for example the connection between World War 2 and Guam, was familiar. Currently, with North Korea ramping up its nuclear capabilities, and other nations in the Pacific, feeling on edge, these small islands are becoming more valuable for their strategic positioning in future wars. Each country wants to grab what they can in the Pacific for their own security. Mack speaks of this towards the end of his book and it gave me the chills. Speaking of chills, I was gutted when I read about the thousands of Japanese citizens, including families with small children, committing suicide off of a cliff in Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands) after learning that they had lost WW2. I’m sure that story will forever stick with me.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Not-Quite States of America has left me a better informed citizen, it has given me a new perspective.

RECOMMEND- If you’re an American citizen, you should definitely add The Not-Quite States of America, to your reading list. Mack is an entertaining writer and his book is important.

My (Not So) Perfect Life

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Sophie Kinsella’s novel, My Not So Perfect Life, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Country girl, Katie Brenner has followed her dreams of moving to London to begin her career at a prestigious branding agency. She loves the excitement of London and the potential opportunity for creativity at her new job, but things are less than perfect. She struggles to make rent for a tiny flat that she shares with difficult roommates, and Katie’s boss, Demeter, is a tyrant. Katie tries to reinvent herself as “Cat” and uses social media to create a fictitious life of fabulous events and dining in amazing restaurants. When Katie is downsized at her firm, both her real and imaginary worlds start falling apart. Can Katie manage to keep it together or will she find a new way to reinvent herself?

LIKE – I’ve read many of Kinsella’s novels and I usually find her stories light-hearted and charming, classic chic-lit. My Not So Perfect Life, isn’t her best novel,  but it was a nice read for a rainy afternoon.

What I thought worked best, is the way Kinsella captured office politics and the “mean girls” attitude that unfortunately doesn’t get left behind in adolescence. I’ve seen the same cliquish behavior in every job I’ve ever had, and it gives me anxiety, especially as I’ve previously been a target. I felt anxious reading these parts of My Not So Perfect Life, which although not pleasant, was affecting. If a story is affecting, I know the writer is doing their job!

I liked Katie as a protagonist. It’s easy to root for the plucky heroine, who is chasing her dreams. Katie is smart and creative. She may be a bit in-over-her-head, but she’s also not a push-over. I liked that Kinsella took the story in a different direction than I was anticipating, making Demeter a fully realized character, rather than just the “evil boss”. At one point, I thought the story was heading in the direction of giving Demeter early on-set Alzheimer’s, which would have made for a dramatic turn, possibly a stronger story. It would have been a less obvious twist. My Not So Perfect Life has a bold message about not judging someone’s life based on their social media accounts. It’s relevant.

I liked how the title ties with Katie’s social media. It’s creative and an extra play on the theme of the story.

I read Kinsella’s books long before I married a Brit, but now I can read them and understand geographical references and British terminology. I don’t know how I felt previously, but now I feel much more clued in, “I’ve been to Somerset” and “I know what Limsip is”. et…there many examples, but now that I’m married to a Brit and have become somewhat immersed in his culture, I have clarity when reading British authors. I think there was a lot that I previously glossed over.

DISLIKE– You must have a huge suspension of disbelief while reading My Not So Perfect Life, the coincidences are outlandish. I did not like the love story between Katie and Alex. It felt rushed and didn’t enhance the story, which is really about staying true to yourself and sticking up for others. The story between Katie and Demeter is the real heart of My Not So Perfect Life, it didn’t need a love story. Plus, I just didn’t like Alex. He seemed slimy and not right for Katie.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I like Kinsella and would recommend her books, like the Shopaholic series. She’s the perfect vacation-read author with her comedic, fun stories. My Not So Perfect Life, was enjoyable, but not memorable.

Pretty Little World

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Thank You to Lake Union Publishing for providing me with an advanced copy of Elizabeth LaBan and Melissa DePino’s novel, Pretty Little World, in exchange for an advanced review.

PLOT – In a suburb of Philadelphia, three sets of neighbors living with shared walls, have developed deep friendship. Mark and Celia, with their large family, are beginning to feel that they need a bigger house, and they tell their friends that they will soon be moving out of the neighborhood. Their neighbors, Hope/Leo, and Stephanie/Chris, are distraught over this news. A possible solution presents itself, when the shared wall between Mark/Celia’s and Stephanie/Chris’ house develops a large hole. The couples decide to hire a professional to remove the shared wall and open up Hope/Leo’s wall, allowing the three families to share their lower floors, functioning as a larger family unit. Can this experiment work? Are they putting their friendships at risk?

LIKE– I was drawn to the concept of Pretty Little World. Whether fiction or non-fiction, I like stories of alternative lifestyles and family groups. Coming from an extremely small family, I like the idea of the importance of friends, and that friends are the family that you choose. In theory, I really like the idea of families choosing to live together and caring for one another. However, after reading Pretty Little World, I can see where this nice idea, has some major problems.

The issues that LaBan and DePino create for their characters in their new living arrangement are intriguing. For example, when living in a group, the couples found themselves shifting focus away from their own relationships and family units, in efforts to work as a team, this ultimately created friction. Rather than turning to their spouses, some characters turned to other people for emotional support, creating a distance from their spouse. There was a nice, subtle twist, with the realization that it is okay to have different types of connections with other people, but this only works when you put your spouse first.

Hope experiences a moral crisis when she is in charge of watching the kids play outside and a car narrowly misses hitting them. Hope reaches for her own daughter first, and this action makes her feel like she should not have the responsibility of caring for the other children, a revelation that crushes her. I thought this was one of the most riveting and honest moments in the story.

DISLIKE– The structure could have been stronger, perhaps starting, Pretty Little World, after the couples had already made the decision to live together, as their tight bond was very clear and the reason for their decision did not need to be drawn out with a long opening. Their leap to moving in together seemed too easy, rushed, which would have also been eliminated by changing the starting point. The concept and characters, kept me engaged, even though it was slow to start and had clunky moments.

Speaking of clunky, the subplots were uneven with regard to my level of interest. The story of Mark’s infidelity with a sexy, younger neighbor was one of the more interesting subplots, especially when his secret is discovered. I was less interested with Chris, who quite honestly, was the least memorable character.

There is a reoccurring fear that their life style will be discovered. I wasn’t sure why this was such a huge deal? There didn’t seem to be a real consequence from being “found out” other than some people might disapprove. This fear needed to have higher stakes or needed to be lessened. I could believe one character expressing worry over being discovered, but I didn’t believe the overall paranoia.

RECOMMEND- No. Pretty Little World, has an interesting concept, and was an okay read, but when there are so many amazing stories waiting to be read, okay doesn’t cut it.