Book Review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan Perabo (2017)

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

An insightful and sometimes uncanny story about relationships, trauma, and the darkest corners of our secret selves.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

There were still little green ribbons covering Lisa’s locker, but every morning some would have fallen down overnight, scattered like tiny leaves, and she would pick them up and toss them into the bottom of her own locker. How long would they let that locker, 64C, sit there, unused? How long did missing-person ribbons stay up? Was there an expiration date, some point where they officially became irrelevant, a day when the fall of Lisa Bellow became the winter of someone else, as Evan had predicted from the start?

“You’re popular,” Jules said. “I can’t believe it. Of all of us, I didn’t think it would be you first.”

Maybe they were all bitches, Claire thought. Maybe that was all there was to be in eighth grade. Maybe you didn’t have any choice. Maybe your only choice was figuring out what kind of bitch you wanted to be.

One crisp October afternoon, thirteen-year-old Meredith Oliver stops by the Deli Barn on the way home from school, to treat herself to a root beer soda for a job well done on her algebra test. Ahead of her in line stands her arch nemesis, Parkway North Middle School’s resident Mean Girl, Lisa Bellow. Her presence so unnerves Meredith that she almost turned tail and ran – that is, until Lisa caught her eye through the door. She couldn’t show Lisa any weakness, not with so much at stake.

As the sandwich farmer* is taking Lisa’s order (overly complicated, natch), a masked man strides in and robs the cashier at gunpoint. He forces Meredith and Lisa to lay down on the sticky floor of the restaurant while he walks the cashier to the back of the store, in search of a safe that doesn’t exist. When he comes back – alone – he forces Lisa to her feet and leaves with her. Traumatized, Meredith stays on the floor for another eleven minutes (“eleven glorious minutes”), until another customer walks in and find her. Even then, it takes a group of paramedics and “a needle full of Thorazine to peel her from her cherished spot.”

The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a strange and wonderful book. It’s about how Meredith copes with the trauma of the robbery and kidnapping, yes; but hers is not the only trauma we bear witness to. Meredith’s mother, Claire; her seventeen-year-old brother Ethan; Lisa’s mother Colleen; and Lisa’s friends Becca, Abby, and Amanda – all of them are working through their own “stuff,” not all of it related to Lisa’s disappearance. Yet the ripples of her kidnapping and likely murder reverberate through all their lives.

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Audiobook Review: Afterward, Jennifer Mathieu (2016)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

A surprisingly gentle story about trauma, recovery – and finding support in the most unexpected of places.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape/childhood sexual abuse.)

Caroline

Maybe it’s Jason McGinty’s weed or my own desperate, clawing attempt to try to do something to help Dylan, but I get an idea. The beginning of one, anyway. Something hazy and weird and probably screwed up.

Ethan

Groovy notices the brush in my hand and flips over, squirming in excitement. His tail even wags. I’d have to be a pretty big asshole not to brush this dog right now.

Eleven-year-old Ethan Jorgenson is out riding his bike one warm Texas afternoon when a car runs him off the road. Before he can even process what’s happening, Ethan finds himself crammed on the floor of a truck, surrounded by cigarette butts and Snickers wrappers, a gun pressed to his head. For the next four years, Ethan is held captive by a middle-aged man named Martin Gulliver.

Though Ethan’s abduction is big news in Dove Lake, the police have zero leads to go on. That is, until Marty snatches another boy, eleven-year-old Dylan Anderson, meant to be Ethan’s “replacement.” Shortly before he went missing, Dylan’s neighbor noticed the boy walking around outside, alone – which is unusual, since Dylan has low-functioning autism and never goes out unsupervised. Around the same time, she spotted an unfamiliar black pickup truck with severe damage to the rear bumper. The police traced the vehicle to Marty’s workplace in Houston, a hundred miles away; when they approached him, he slipped out the back of the restaurant and shot himself in the head. When they searched Gulliver’s apartment, they were shocked to find not one, but two missing boys: Dylan and Ethan.

This story is about what happens afterward: the slow and painful recovery that comes after an unimaginable trauma.

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Book Review: Listen to Me, Hannah Pittard (2016)

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Nope, no thanks, not for me.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

Mark and Maggie’s annual drive east to visit family has gotten off to a rocky start. By the time they’re on the road, it’s late, a storm is brewing, and they are no longer speaking to one another. Adding to the stress, Maggie — recently mugged at gunpoint — is lately not herself, and Mark is at a loss about what to make of the stranger he calls his wife. Forced to stop for the night at a remote inn, completely without power, Maggie’s paranoia reaches an all-time and terrifying high. But when Mark finds himself threatened in a dark parking lot, it’s Maggie who takes control.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

Surely I can’t be the only one envisioning a Roaring Rampage of Revenge after reading this description? Picture it: months after being mugged at gunpoint and knocked unconscious in an alley, Maggie once again finds herself in a perilous position. Only this time’s she’s ready. Prepared. Expecting it, even, thanks to the PTSD and anxiety and depression. And she fights back. Kicks some serious ass. Maybe comes to her husband Mark’s rescue. Mark, the same guy who’s spent the better part of a year tiptoeing around her, walking on eggshells, maybe even scoffed at her paranoia, once or twice, when he thought she wasn’t looking. Bonus points if he’s entertained fantasies about how he would have protected HIS WOMAN, if only he had been there when it happened. But now that he is, he’s paralyzed with fear, unable to protect himself, let alone his wife. Yeah. That’s what I’d expected, going into Listen to Me.

As it turns out, this is the most misleading yet still dead accurate book description I’ve seen in a while. Maybe ever. Certainly in recent memory.

Here are three reasons why I disliked Listen to Me, from least to most spoilery:

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Book Review: Gena/Finn, Hannah Moskowitz & Kat Helgeson (2016)

Monday, June 20th, 2016

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to throw the book across the room.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

I’m telling you this, Evie, because stories change in memory and in the retelling, and because you write and rewrite them until they’re what you want them to be, but this is one story I want you to remember the way it happened. I want you to remember the people we are now, the times I was there for you and the times I let you down. I want you to love me weak like I loved you crazy, and when we’re both on top again we’ll remember that we did it.

the truth is
your heart is stronger than you think it is
the truth is
loving someone isn’t a period
it’s a semicolon
and the choice you make is what comes on the other side
maybe it’s a picket fence and a subaru and 2.5 kids
maybe it’s a fantasy world that lives in your computer
maybe it’s a guild
maybe it’s a fandom
maybe it’s the last thing you ever expected

Gena/Finn is the story of two young women who might never have met, if not for their shared love of a cheesy cop drama called Up Below (whose emotionally tortured, pathologically codependent male leads are highly evocative of Sam and Dean Winchester). They meet online and strike up a tentative friendship via email, IM, texts, and comments left on one another’s fan blogs. A once-in-a-lifetime bargain allows them to meet IRL, at the annual Up Below con in Chicago – and a surreal chance encounter draws them even closer. With Gena struggling in college and Finn questioning her long-time relationship with high school sweetheart Charlie, the girls turn to each other for solace and support. And then tragedy strikes and things really go sideways.

I’ll be honest: for the first dozen or so pages, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy this book. It’s what I like to call a “crafty” book (filed under “crafty book is crafty”), artsy and told in an unconventional way, through a series of blog posts and comments; emails, IMs, and text messages; bulletins and reports; and even the odd post-it note and governmental doc. This wasn’t the problem, though; I usually read more traditional novels and thus welcome the occasional creative deviation. Rather, it was the fandom that got me. While I can relate on a general level, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about Up Below. Since the story is kind of Up Below-heavy at the beginning, I worried. But as Gena and Finn’s relationship evolved and took center stage, the issue became moot. Sure, I skimmed the episode recaps (and inevitable arguments over who’s hotter, Jake or Tyler) later on, but these are few and far between.

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Book Review: In Wilderness: A Novel, Diane Thomas (2015)

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

A Twisted Anti-Romance Set Against an Unspoiled Forest Wilderness

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Trigger warning for rape, suicide, and racist and sexist language. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

Dr. Third Opinion sighs. He leans back in his creaky chair, stares past her into some middle distance to her left. “A hundred, hundred-twenty years ago, we used to tell patients like you, patients we had no hope of curing, to go west, move to the country, take the Grand Tour of Europe. Anything. A change of scene. After all this time, we can’t do any better.”

“Were they healed? The ones who went away?” Hates her voice’s horrid, hopeful whine.

He shrugs. “Who knows? I doubt most of their physicians ever heard from them again.”

Katherine Clopton had a blessed life: A loving husband, a nice house in Atlanta, a much-loved baby on the way, and a lucrative job at an advertising agency (even if she was forced to pass her creative work off as Tim’s. This was the “good ole days” of Mad Men, after all.) And then she lost it seemingly overnight. As quickly as a city pesticide truck could sweep through her neighborhood, Kate’s health took a nosedive; she suffered a miscarriage; and Tim up and left her.

Almost four years have passed, yet Kate’s not over any of it: her health problems least of all. What started out as migraines – crippling but not fatal – has snowballed into a mysterious constellation of symptoms: nausea, weakness, non-localized pain, lethargy, and forgetfulness. Her body is failing to assimilate food, her doctors say; she’s slowly starving. Given just six months to live, Kate impulsively purchases a rustic cabin in the Atlanta wilderness, sight unseen. Within weeks she’s sold her share in the ad agency, vacated her suburban home, and headed into the woods to die.

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Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, Emma Hooper (2015)

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

“…there are reasons to come home.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program.)

He didn’t ask, where are you going, or why are you going. He turned back around to face where the deer might be. She walked on, east. In her bag, pockets, and hands were:

Four pairs of underwear.
One warm sweater.
Some money.
Some paper, mostly blank, but one page with addresses on it and one page with names.
One pencil and one pen.
Four pairs of socks.
Stamps.
Cookies.
A small loaf of bread.
Six apples.
Ten carrots.
Some chocolate.
Some water.
A map, in a plastic bag.
Otto’s rifle, with bullets.
One small fish skull.

One morning, Etta Gloria Kinnick (“of Deerdale farm. 83 years old in August.”) wakes early, before sunrise, well ahead of her husband Otto (“Vogel. Soldier/Farmer.”), and decides that she wants to see the ocean. Specifically, the Atlantic. Born and raised in land-locked Saskatchewan, she’s never dipped so much as a toe in such a vast body of water; let alone the Atlantic, which has nevertheless managed to play a major role in shaping the course of Etta’s life from afar.

When her older sister Alma became pregnant – back in the “good old days,” when unwed mothers were to be shamed and pitied – she fled to a convent on Prince Alberta Island, in order to have the baby in secret and put him up for adoption. Etta never saw her again.

During Alma’s brief stint as a nun, she witnessed a wave of young men – boys, mostly – depart Canada’s shore, swarm over the island, and drift out to sea. Out to war, many of them never to return; the rest, finally coming home bloodied and broken. Among them was 17-year-old Otto – Etta’s former pupil and eventual husband. When he left, she promised to write to him – so he could practice his underdeveloped English skills. They fell in love from opposite sides of the globe.

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Audiobook Review: Stitching Snow, R.C. Lewis (2014)

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

A Futuristic, Sometimes-Sinister Retelling of Snow White

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. This review contains spoilers. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

It took me seventeen seconds to decide Jarom Thacker’s reputation as the sharpest fighter on Thanda had been exaggerated. At twice my size — and age — he was quick, forcing me to move or risk getting pinned against the cage, but he made a rookie mistake. Like everyone else who came through Mining Settlement Forty-Two, he aimed for my gut. So predictable.

Wouldn’t want to botch the pretty girl’s face, right? Idiot.

I blocked him on the left, but sweat stinging my eyes blinded me to his fist slamming into my right side. Pain flared through my ribs. The fire spurred me on, and I slipped Thacker’s grip when he grabbed at my arm.

Unlike him, I had no qualms about uglifying him further.

Princess Snow is missing. Or at least that’s what her father, the cruel and manipulative King Matthias, believes.

After a botched assassination attempt by her stepmother, Queen Olivia, “Snowflake” fled her home planet of Windsong, settling on the remote and icy Thanda. Here, Essie – as she’s now known – makes herself useful by “stitching” code to improve the mine’s conditions; she can often be found in the cage, beating miners twice her size to a bloody pulp for extra cash monies to fund her tinkering. It’s not much of a living, but at least she’s alive. Nearly ten years pass before her relative isolation is shattered by the crash-landing of a rogue, treasure-hunting Garamite boy in her backyard.

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