The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published March 14th 2017 by Simon & Schuster

Susan Perabo’s The Fall of Lisa Bellow is very on trend at the moment. By this, I mean that she joins the ranks of so many other (novel debut) authors writing their version of the same topic: What happens to an otherwise normal family after a child abduction? The past few months have yielded so many of these novels—the recently reviewed The Trophy Child included—that you can only stop to wonder how long this wave of like novels will continue—and who’ll do it better.

But, let’s turn our attention specifically to Lisa Bellow, shall we?

Perabo started this novel at a walk and never really picked up a lot of speed. In fact, this novel started off with a lull that bordered on boring. Though Meredith’s chapters were believable from a middle schooler’s POV, they were just sort of blah. Essentially, uninteresting chapters describing an “unremarkable” kid, as she claimed of herself early on. Perhaps this was a stylistic tool, but it bored me to skimming. The only thing about those first few chapters that I appreciated was the mother’s outlook on marriage and motherhood. Though it came from a place of cookie-cutter middle-class suburbia—and read as such, with family breakfasts, family games and singalongs described—her reaction to her life, in the context, read as real, and that DID interest me.

However, this novel’s 3-point shots—you know, those pivotal scenes that make a reader gasp for more, desperately turning the pages to become so engrossed in the story that they can’t bear to put it down; yep, those scenes—were not brilliantly handled by a long shot. And those, of course, are the ones that HAVE to be handled well. In the interest of *no spoilers*, I won’t point out specific scenes, but I will say that they weren’t presented with the drama or tension that they needed, that they deserved. It was almost like, “Oh, by the way, that just happened.” I actually had to re-read at least one of the scenes, thinking, “Surely, that’s not how we’re leaving it! Really?”

In all honesty, it’s difficult to really react to this novel, because it was kind of like cardboard—sturdy but bland. There was a unique idea here, but there wasn’t much by the way of thrilling—or even engrossing—about it. It was yet another cozy family thriller—The Trophy Child meets The Most Dangerous Place on Earth + a mug of Earl Grey tea and some fuzzy socks. If that’s what you’re looking for in your next read, CHOOSE THIS NOVEL! But, it didn’t work for me.

Was The Fall of Lisa Bellow deficient in its display of actual writing skill? No, not really. Did Lisa Bellow attempt to put a spin on an inside look at a typical family and what happens when tragedy strikes? Yes, it did. But I never particularly felt anything for these characters or the outcome of their lives. But, by a little over halfway through, I was screaming, “Can we get on with it already?”

***SPOILER*** And, the one person’s life that I did care about was NEVER resolved!***

Picture this: You’re presented with a plate beautifully smeared with a delicate pea purée—BUT that’s it. There’s no meat, no potatoes, nothing to really sink into to feel satisfied by the end of it (excuse the Southerner in me, if you will). I love a delicate purée, but not when there’s nothing else holding it up. And that’s what I got from Lisa Bellow. What am I going to do with all of these details–subtle little details that could have meant so much–if I don’t care about the people experiencing them? I didn’t need the attempted nuances of learning about Meredith’s favorite place to sit in the family car or the mother, Claire’s, perspective on watching her son grow up. Why? Because all of this was just fodder for filling and really amounted to nothing by way of an actual plot.

***SPOILER*** (Fingers to nose bridge) And I really can’t even discuss how this novel was resolved. Just can’t. Just…sigh…the novel just sort of slipped away into oblivion, so much so that I literally kept turning the pages, as if there would be something more there at the end—like that bonus scene at the end of the movie after the credits roll.***

Susan Perabo’s The Fall of Lisa Bellow did nothing for me and, unfortunately, earned little more than a ‘Meh, I coulda done without this one.’ **

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog here, on Twitter @thenavireview and at Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published May 5th 2016 by Chatto & Windus
It is set for a US release in February 2017

I received a copy of The Woman Next Door from its publishers, Chatto and Windus, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino have been rivals for decades, though they’ve lived on the other side of a hedge from each other for all those years. In post-apartheid South Africa, one is black and one is white; what they have in common is their spunkiness in old age, that they’ve both been recently widowed and that they both feel a certain superiority from the successful careers they once had. They’ve become comfortable sniping at each from across the way, antagonizing each other over racial differences and otherwise at neighborhood meetings, but when unexpected life circumstances hit them both, will they be willing to set their differences aside and find friendship within each other?

I was really looking forward to reading this novel by Omotoso and had it on my to-read list before I knew that I could get in on NetGally. However, The Woman Next Door was a bit of a disappointment for me. For me, the conflict never came across as organic or authentic. The build-up of their long-time feud seemed rushed, superficial and underdeveloped. With this being the very foundation for the way that the novel unfolded, the novel never came together for me. It never grabbed me or moved me in any way. In fact, I found it difficult to even finish. The characters seemed to only be developed based on stories told to each other in dialogue and narrative passages that never delved deep enough into their background for me to feel that I knew them or to sympathize or identify with them. I found the writing to be threadbare, just enough to tell the story, but not enough to feel complete, certainly not enough to hold my attention as a reader.

With that in mind, I’m giving this novel 2 stars because there were elements of the plot that worked well and could have really made this novel a delight, but I can’t give Omotoso more than that because I honestly felt it wasn’t well executed at all. 2 stars **

Death Unmasked by Rick Sulik

Paperback, 2nd, 264 pages
Published December 1st 2015 by Christopher Matthews Publishing

I was given this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Firstly, let me state that Death Unmasked has a thrilling premise: What if we really could continue on in another life, meeting and interacting with the same people but in different forms and circumstances? Fun idea, the premise of which alone could make for an exhilarating read! I didn’t mind the idea and playing out of reincarnation here at all as others may have. But it didn’t necessarily deliver on the promise thrill that it offered on the back cover, so to speak.
This novel jumped into the story right out of the gate; no piddling around here. By the end of page two or three the action had begun. This novel is broken into three sections: the first of which depicts the Holocaustal genocide where Laura and Emil perish. This section, in itself, would have been a wonderful novella if it had been filled out more. Honestly, it could have stood alone as a brilliant work in itself had it had the fleshing out that it deserved. The second section follows these characters reincarnated, Emil being a police detective, and it all culminates in section three, where the star-crossed lovers are reunited.
However, I wasn’t sure of what exactly I was reading at the start; the setting wasn’t set properly at all. Why were they running? Who were they running from? Even, what year is it and where is this set? The term “ethnic cleansing” was used to explain why the village people had been rounded up, but never elaborated on. Was this fantasy—an imaginative ethnic cleansing in a faraway world—or an apocalyptic event? I had no idea, because the feeling of setting and locale was not properly built out, unfortunately. There was the violence of rape, beatings and genocide to start this one off, which didn’t bother me at all. I felt that that aspect of the novel actually made it more real, more 3-D, and that 3-dimensionalizing made the read far more real.
However, the dialogue did Death Unmasked no favors at all. For me, it definitely felt stilted, unnatural and forced. It didn’t flow well at all from the very beginning. And the littering of italicized thoughts didn’t help either because the thoughts weren’t realistic, particularly not under the circumstances that the characters were in. One wouldn’t—I don’t believe—rail on and on about the hate in the soldiers’ hearts and the injustices around them (in short, prophesizing and intellectualizing) while there is literally mass murder, the shooting of babies and raping of innocent women going on before one’s very eyes! No, you’d be looking for an exit, ready to fight, terrified, shocked! I found myself literally pulling back from the pages and thinking, “Who talks like that?!”
Do keep in mind that this one presented poetry and did so in a lovely way. The incorporation of poetry throughout—and the theme of dark poetry itself—gave Sulik’s work another layer for the reader to appreciate and tie the story together. The poems were dark and faintly macabre in a way that offered just enough theatrics and made the novel a stronger read. But, the author’s hand definitely showed throughout this one. The oft-italicized philosophical rants definitely should’ve been either cut down or better incorporated. And while the middle section was jam-packed with good information and thorough details that only an experienced cop—an author who was obviously of that world before becoming an author—would be able to accurately offer, there was little finesse to it, and it came out like info vomit that pulled me as a reader away from the story line at hand to wade through piles of information that were often stoically presented. The ending wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could see where he was going with it. The idea of star-crossed lovers is one that’s been done to death, so I wasn’t particularly impressed with the way that this one ended (me hating bow ties and all), and I wished that it had been done in a new way. Though, I will admit, the novel itself did attempt a new mold with a fresh and exciting premise.
Reincarnation, big-city detective work, crimes of past and present and karma all played a role in this one and, believe me, the idea of all of that could make for quite the thrilling read! But it needed a more steady and experienced hand to flesh it all out—this one could have easily stood up to another 200 pages and been fine if done well, making it more of an “epic” sort of read—and a different editor, one who knew how to better play the game of Red Light, Green Light. Stop the prophesizing word vomit here; go with more setting there, ect. So, while the idea and the plot line were wonderfully realized, that can never carry a read all the way on its own. In this novel, inexperience peeped around the edges at times and was glaringly obvious and annoying at others. If this wasn’t inexperience at play but the author’s true writing style on display, it needed to be more evident; it needed the deliberateness of a sure hand backed by a read that was complete (enter setting, better characterization, ect.). I give this one two stars. **

Beautiful by Anita Waller

Kindle Edition, 316 pages
Published August 31st 2015 by Bloodhound Books

This novel was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This was a novel for the gentle of spirit and of mind. Waller managed to craft a solid idea but the writing did not read as either fluid or gripping. It read in a jolty, staccato sort of manner that did not enhance the novel but irritated me with its knack for telling instead of showing and jumping from scene to scene without properly filling out for the reader what had even happened. Without spoiling it, the end was exactly this, which made for quite the anticlimactic read as a whole. To come through over 400 pages to be rushed through the end (the end scene was literally comprised of one page of text, the epilogue only a sentence or two)? I found that to be quite the annoyance.

At the start, Beautiful was neither innovatively written nor particularly insightful. I struggled with each turn of a page because there was no meat of substance. Sure, there were twists to the plot within those pages, but they were so swiftly presented with no “meat on the bone,” no climax of suspense, that it was as if I were reading the author’s outline of events, not the intended finished outcome. Amy’s mental and emotional hang-ups are completely realistic in theory, but were not eloquently portrayed so as to elicit the intended reaction out of me as a reader. In all honesty, I had difficulty even finishing this one. I was spurred on by the plot line fundamentally, not by the writing or the execution of said plot line.

In addition, a big show was made of the era in which this novel was set, with the years of the setting at the start of each chapter. Yet, there were almost no references to the era whatsoever. No mention of what these characters may’ve worn, what they would have driven; there was no setting at all really aside from a few scattered cameo mentions and television or disk that may have alerted one to what decade it was. There was no world to be immersed in.

What Beautiful did have was good intentions. I could see where the author was trying to go but never felt that I’d actually arrived. I never read the other reviews for a work before I write my own, but this one made me curious because I felt that surely I’d missed something that others must have seen. However, what I found was that for those who seemed to rate the novel highly, they all commented on how “shocking or difficult” the subject matter was, which makes me believe that this is a wonderful read for those who have never experienced hardship or malice of any sort in life themselves, hence the opening line here.

What I felt was lacking was depth of character and emotion. The presence of the subject matter alone cannot carry the story for those readers who are not easily shocked and who expect more. For those of us in this category, this one merely scratched the surface, softly. Oh, there were wonderful elements to this story that could have really soared if properly filled out, but they instead were one-note and one-dimensional. Here you can find sexual abuse and the emotional trauma that comes along with it, love, murder, sex—the makings of a thrilling work. However, the volume was turned down so low here that it was nearly mute in impact, assuming that the mere presence of the subject matter would carry the novel. For some, that may work as a great read—and it seems that it did; for others, more is needed to make such a work stand out on the shelves, to make it worthy of digging into your pocket and spending your hard-earned money. I, myself, would not have gone into my wallet for this one. Two stars for the plot of this one. 2 stars **

 

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published May 12th 2015 by Simon & Schuster

This novel was a trumped up work packaged and sold as the must-read of summer 2015. Of course, publishing houses are very good at packaging and selling—that’s what they do—but this one must’ve had the PR agent from heaven! When it appeared on the NYT with its fashionable blurb, I instantly reached for it (all hail the power of sales), but upon reading it, I quickly found it to be an awkward collision between The Devil Wears Prada (though quite the lesser, copy-cat sort of version of it) and Columbine. Yes, try for a moment to imagine that!

The writing was immature, though there were moments where it managed the humorous tone that it was seeking—No man feels very much compelled to rip your clothes off after you inform him, bitchily, that he left one lone turd floating in the toilet—is an example of both, offered fairly early in the novel. However, the juxtaposition between her old life and new was fairly amateurishly handled, and while Knoll tried to paint the picture of “girl with rough past makes it big,” the main character, Ani, really came off as whiny and spoiled and eye-roll-promptingly annoying. Unfortunately, there’s enough to read out there about the privileged white female, so while I have no qualms reading it when done right, generally, no one needs another whiny heroine who fawns over Choo pumps and pink nail polish.

I will give it this nod though, the Columbine-esque overture was handled decently—that entire sequence did prompt page turning, and TifAni’s past sexual experiences were relatable to female readers, I’m sure. We all know of someone who’s encountered something similar (and for similar reasons). In that way, TifAni’s school-age character came off a little of a cliché, but it was a cliché worth exploring because she exists for a reason. And the way that they happened allowed Knoll to reach out and touch an audience that was wide enough, it seems, to propel this novel onto the NYT Bestseller List. In fact, the “past” chapters carried the novel much farther than the “present-day” chapters ever could have.

With that in mind, this one would have been much better if she’d been able to carry that tone throughout because, in a lot of ways, TifAni’s voice was more mature than Ani’s, a regression in tone that irked me to no end and proffered only a snarky tone that often missed the mark and whininess that made her character the utmost annoying and hard to read, let alone like. 2 stars **

The Quiet Ones by Betsy Reavley

Kindle Edition, 215 pages
Published February 18th 2016 by Bloodhound Books

In my partnership with Bloodhound Books, I was given this book in exchange for an honest review.

This one started off a bit wobbly out of the gate, but turned out to be worth a closer look by the end of it. The prologue turned me off a bit, which is never a good start; the voice was so affected and juvenile that I wasn’t sure I hadn’t picked up a teen thriller. Many of the chapters were slow and little tedious, particularly at the start. At times, this method can be exhilarating, especially in thrillers—that slow build that the reader can feel without yet knowing where they’ll find the quick bend around the corner. Yet, the quick bend here didn’t arrive until roughly two-thirds of the way through the novel, so this build ended up being more of a slightly laborious read, filling in the everyday life of Josie and her husband right down to the color of her nails and the way she takes her breakfast. Such an intimate look at characters can be rewarding, but the way that it was presented in The Quiet Ones did not have the immediate payoff that I’d hoped for; the author wasn’t able to make me care (or give me anything to care about) throughout the first half.

Yes, there is the theme of abuse here, but the way that it was presented has been done before (countless times), so it came off as cliché—a prop for the main character’s issues and situations that was never really filled out and wasn’t helped by the flaccid dialogue surrounding the topic either. In fact, many of the themes and circumstances here weren’t properly filled out the way that we’ve come to expect today—they were just sort of placed there in the novel and then rushed through. Soph and her beau are great examples of this. She was painted as the stereotypical Perfect Patty, and that feeling that Josie had about the new boyfriend, this being a psychological thriller and all, never really panned out and felt limply handled once I realized that his last scene had passed me by and no deeper look at him had been presented. Was he a good guy? Did he have a secret? Was he after her money or did he truly love Josie’s friend? This was never explored.

The shift in voice was off-putting and sudden, again something that could have worked if executed better. I made a note at the start that the voice sounded just like the narrator’s just with a splattering of apostrophes and a few filthy words. I thought that this might play out later, but it seems that it was just the author’s attempt at displaying two voices in one work that fell flat.

Then there’s the glaring appendage of a loose end. I’ll leave that one at that.

All in all, this novel had a wonderful premise—honestly, the plotline of it had the makings of a really top-notch psychological roller coaster. But the execution fell short for me, probably because this one could have easily stood up to another 100 pages or so. That extra filling out of the characters and situations—not additional exposition about the peculiars of Josie’s day-to-day that did nothing to move the novel forward, mind you—would have been an immense help here. Don’t get me wrong—the last 45 pages or so had bite, but it could have been much sharper if done in a different way.

This one forgot that television exists. By that I mean it didn’t cater to the reader who’s “been there, done that;” it didn’t quicken the heartrate or pull me in the way that thrillers these days are designed to do. That can be a plus for some. If you’re looking for a slower read that attempts a cozier approach than other psych thrillers, one that carries your read more gently around the bend of suspense than many of the more fast-paced thrillers on the shelf at your local bookstore or on the NYT, this one may be a great one for you. Two stars. **