Book Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

If you’re looking for an excellent classic mystery, I highly recommend The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. It was first published in serial form in 1859-60, in Charles Dickens’ magazine All Year Round and in Harper’s Weekly and in book form in 1860. So it’s an old book, set in Victorian England, but don’t be put off by that because the plot is so clever and varied and the characters surprisingly relevant and modern, I never felt bogged down. I should mention that the book is also very long: the print version is 720 pages.

We’ve gotten away from reading long books, don’t you think? We live in a world in which there’s too much content to absorb and talk about. I feel like it all has to be done in the fastest time possible so we can move to the next book, show, movie, song, etc. I’m just as much a victim of that mentality as everyone else, but I also feel myself shifting to a different reading attitude. When readers were first enjoying The Woman in White, they were reading it a chapter at a time and looking forward to the next installment. Just like TV shows that used to be weekly and gave us time between to look forward to what might happen next. Now everything is a binge. Okay, rant over, time to talk about the book!

Set outside and in London, the story begins with drawing instructor Walter Hartright who accepts a position to tutor two young women at their estate (Limmeridge House). Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie are half sisters and they live with Laura’s reclusive and uncle, Frederick Fairlie. The night before Walter leaves for Limmeridge House, he meets a mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum. She asks him to help her and he agrees.

At Limmeridge and as predicted, Walter falls in love with the beautiful Laura and she with him, but the relationship cannot be acknowledged because Laura is betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde, an arranged marriage. Meanwhile, the mysterious woman in white, Anne Catherick, who looks a lot like Laura, is seen around Limmeridge. While that’s one of the mysteries readers will need to be patient about, we learn early on that Anne had local connections and was taken under Marian’s mother’s wing for a short period of time. Now it’s getting complicated, but wait! In a plot to get Laura’s money, Sir Percival and his closest friend, the slick-talking Count Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco from Italy, concoct a scheme with shocking results. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll leave the rest out. There are plenty of twists, close calls, and dramatic scenes to keep you wanting more.

I do need to note that Marian Halcombe is one of the best and most likable characters in the story. No surprise that one of the book’s major themes is about women’s rights, as Marian is a strong woman with a smart mind. I also enjoyed Fosco’s character. You can’t trust him, but he’s extremely accommodating and pleasant and so fun to observe.

Besides being about women and their rights during the mid-1800s, the story is also about class, titles, money, inheritances, land rights, deception, suspicion of foreigners, international intrigue, love and friendship. The book begins and ends with Walter Hartright’s narration, but Collins includes substantial testimonials by Marian Halcombe, Frederick Fairlie, Fosco, solicitors, housekeepers and other minor characters. The last section reads like a detective novel and helps solve the mystery.

I highly recommend The Woman in White. If you don’t have time for the book, there are plenty of adaptations to enjoy.

Have you read this classic? Are you interested now? What’s your opinion of long books and the rush to consume content? Leave a comment.

Interested in more books by Wilkie Collins? Read my review of The Moonstone here.

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Book Review: Tommy’s Mommy’s Fish by Nancy Dingman Watson

Hi Everyone! In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m sharing this updated post from 2014 about a book that was a favorite with my kids and made me sentimental about my own childhood. It was published in 1996, but you can still get it online and maybe at your library!

Tommy’s Mommy’s Fish
Nancy Dingman Watson

Illustrated by Thomas Aldren Wingman Watson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When my kids were little, we found this book at our local library. It was on display and there was something that pulled us to it. We loved the cover picture of a young boy on the beach, holding a fishing rod, dog at his side.

In this special story, Tommy lives with his family on the ocean beach and he wants to give his mother a birthday present, all from him. His older brother and sisters are busy making their own gifts for their mother. Cammie is making a bayberry candle, Caitlin is making beach-plum jelly and Peter is cutting a pile of locust logs to fit the fireplace. They let him help. “You can help me, and we can give it to her together,” Caitlin offers. Cammie and Peter make similar offers, but Tommy says no, “I wanted it to be a present all from me,” he tells us.

Tommy is determined to give his mother something special and decides to catch her a fish, “And it isn’t going to be any little old sand dabber or a funny-looking thing like a goosefish or a sea robin. It’s going to be a STRIPED BASS.”

Tommy stands at the surf with his pole and waits. Gulls pass, the sunlight fades, the moon makes a “bright golden path over the water.” Tommy knows that patience is best when he finally hooks a big fat silver bass, but who will win the battle in the surf?

My kids loved this picture of the fish. The artwork in this book is terrific!

tommy's fish
Little boys love pictures that are a little bit scary!

I love this book for a couple reasons. First, the story is just plain nice. I love family stories with dynamics between brothers and sisters. I love how these kids aren’t buying their mother anything, they are thinking of things to make, things that she will like. The second thing I like is the hard-to-explain, but very real way the book makes me feel, especially when Tommy faces the big fish. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I love Tommy’s narration of this moment.

So if you’re looking for a nice “old-school” kind of book, with a warm family feel, check this out, even if there aren’t any little ones around!

Nancy Dingman Watson
Nancy Dingman Watson

Nancy Dingman Watson (1933-2001) was an American author of more than 25 children’s books, novels and poetry books, including Blueberries Lavender, When Is Tomorrow and Tommy’s Mommy’s Fish, which was illustrated by her son and re-released in 1996.

Ms. Watson was born in Paterson, New Jersey and grew up in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. She attended Wheaton College and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Smith College. She married Aldren Watson in 1941 and made a home in Putney, Vermont where she spent thirty years raising eight children. In the sixties, Ms. Watson wrote for the column “One Woman’s View.” She was a two-time finalist in the Allen Ginsburg poetry competition, and wrote an award-winning musical, Princess! Later in her life, she sailed across the Atlantic with her second husband, Dutch sailor Fokke Van Bekkum, in their 32-foot sailboat.

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Book Review: Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there! I originally posted this review in 2014 and I’m sharing an updated version today. Such a terrific children’s book!

Make Way for Ducklings
Written and illustrated
Robert McCloskey

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Here’s a simple story about Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, who settle in Boston to raise a family. Mrs. Mallard causes quite a stir when she leads her eight ducklings through the streets of Boston, across town to meet Mr. Mallard on the pond in the Public Garden!

This is a wonderful picture book for little children and for young elementary school kids. The illustrations are great, and they complement McCloskey’s warm and humorous story. Mr. and Mrs. Mallard aptly name their cute ducklings Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and, of course, Quack and the way they scamper through the pages will make you smile.

Here’s one of my favorite pictures from the book, but they’re all great!

How cute!

Make Way for Ducklings was published in 1941 and received the Caldecott Medal in the same year. Despite the years, I think the appeal of this book is timeless.

Robert McCloskey
Robert McCloskey

Robert McCloskey (1914-2003)

Robert McCloskey was an American writer and illustrator of children’s books. He was the first person to be awarded the Caldecott Medal twice, once in 1941 for Make Way for Ducklings, and also in 1957 for Time of Wonder.

McCloskey was born and raised in Hamilton, Ohio. Before becoming an artist, he had a great many interests. He studied music and played the piano, harmonica, drums and oboe. He loved mechanics and electronics and spent a lot of time as a child inventing different gadgets, including elaborate lightings for the family Christmas tree. He discovered art in high school and won a scholarship at the Vesper George School of Design in Boston. McCloskey also studied art at the National Academy of Design in New York. McCloskey wrote and illustrated eight of his own books, and illustrated twelve additional children’s books.

He married Peggy Durand, daughter of the children’s author, Ruth Sawyer. They settled in upstate New York and spent summers in Maine and raised two daughters.

Books by Robert McCloskey:

Lentil (1940)
Make Way for Ducklings (1941) Caldecott Medal
Homer Price (1943)
Blueberries for Sal (1948) Caldecott Honor
Centerburg Tales (1951)
One Morning in Maine (1952) Caldecott Honor
Time of Wonder (1957) Caldecott Medal
Burt Dow, Deep Water Man (1963)

Thanks to Wikipedia and the The New York Times for this information.

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Book Review: Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Breathing Lessons
Anne Tyler

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I’m on the wait list at the library to read French Braid by Anne Tyler and in the meantime I borrowed one of Tyler’s earlier books, Breathing Lessons. Published in 1988, this Pulitzer Prize winner is set in Baltimore and Pennsylvania and takes place during one day. It’s a story about marriage, family, disappointments and growing older.

The story begins when Maggie and Ira Moran set off to attend a funeral. Maggie wants to console her best friend, Serena, whose husband has just died, but she has an ulterior motive. Just before they leave, Maggie is sure she’s heard her ex-daughter-in-law, Fiona, announce on a radio show that she’s getting married again, this time for security. Why not swing by Fiona’s place and visit their only granddaughter, Leroy, whom they haven’t seen in years? Maybe Maggie can talk to Fiona and help her reconcile with their son, Jesse.

At this point, readers begin to get an idea of what Maggie is all about. She’s a wild card! Good intentioned, yes, but she has a habit of telling little lies to make people do what they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Maggie and Ira bicker, a lot, but it seems good-natured. They’re a settled, middle-aged couple. But as Tyler fills in the details of their marriage and the relationships between the family, the story becomes more complicated.

We learn about Jesse, who dropped out of high school to form a rock band and his sister, Daisy who will leave for college the next day. And we learn more about Ira and his lost dream of becoming a doctor, instead taking over his father’s framing store. Now he supports his father and his two sisters who live above the store.

Maggie may just be able to pull this one off as long as her little lies don’t catch up with her, as they usually do.

This may sound like a light story and it’s filled with amusing situations, but beneath the surface is a couple that has faced disappointments, separately. Maggie mourns her youth and feels jealous over the “power of the young.” She wonders how she will cope with old age and an empty nest. Ira feels lonely and tired and unsure what to do with his feelings about his children. He’s disappointed in his son and feels like his daughter doesn’t think much of him.

I enjoyed this very readable book because of how Tyler describes real people, full of flaws. The one thing I would say, though, is that it seems a little dated. Maggie and Ira seem so old, but she’s only forty-eight and he’s just turned fifty! Other than that small thing, definitely a great read.

I have read a lot of Anne Tyler’s books and I’ve never been disappointed. You can check them all out here.

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Book Review: Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel

Susanna Daniel

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I enjoyed Daniel’s Sea Creatures so much, I went back to read her debut novel which begins in the same community of stilt houses in the sand flats off Miami’s coast. This is also a story about marriage, family and relationships. It was interesting to read Stiltsville after Sea Creatures because I can see the where her unique writing style and character development begins.

When Frances Ellerby and Dennis DuVal meet at the DuVal family’s stilt house in 1969, they are twenty-somethings playing at being adults. Sparks fly and Daniel chronicles their relationship and marriage for thirty years. It’s not a perfect union, however, and they face many of the typical the pitfalls of married life.

I liked a lot of things about Stiltsville because I like reading about the ocean and boats. The author spent much of her childhood at her family’s stilt house and it’s obvious she knows what she’s talking about.  In addition, the stilt house community has a lot of draw because it is so different. Daniel does a great job describing the stilt houses and the dangers that exist, things people on land wouldn’t even think about. I think her other strength is in portraying the tensions and conflicts these characters face as they start their adult lives. I especially liked reading about Frances and Dennis’s early years because there’s a certain excitement in the time before things happen. That shows.

There’s a definite slow-down as time passes, however, and there are a few undeveloped story lines that would have been fun to know about. Frances’s friendship with Marse begins with a lot of tension and I think the early Marse is a great complex character. As the years go on, however, her personality mellows and becomes a little stereo-typed.  I also would have liked to have learned more about their daughter Margo, who struggles in her teens and during college, and about her marriage to Stuart, who has the potential to be one of the more interesting characters. 

Daniel also introduces several historical events into the plot which I think must be very hard to do.  There’s a shift in her writing style as this happens and I prefer when Frances returns to her thoughts about her own life. These events help bring authenticity to the Miami time and setting, however, and help to make the story whole. But the book is otherwise well-constructed and if you like to have the details of your story tied up in the end, you will enjoy this.

If you read both Stiltsville and Sea Creatures, you will be interested to see how Daniel experiments with themes and the ideas of marriage and family in Stiltsville. The mixed attractions of danger and the beauty of the stilt house settings are apparent in both. She also introduces the Stiltsville hermit in her first book – I enjoyed that!  And of course, the forces of nature play in both books.

This is an easy entertaining read with a relaxed and contented ending.  I’m looking forward to what comes next!

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Book Review: Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures
Susanna Daniel

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Susanna Daniel does something very different in Sea Creatures, a novel set in Miami, Florida. She has written a great story about love, marriage, family, death, art, weather and the sea and the disabling effects of sleep disorders and selective mutism. Reading this combination of words, I wonder how she did it. Sea Creatures is a very well-written novel. Georgia and Graham and their young son Frankie have returned to the area after a scandal involving Graham’s parasomnia, a severe wakefulness and sleep-walking condition which has caused three-year-old Frankie to stop talking. They buy a houseboat and anchor it off Georgia’s father’s dock.  The story begins and unfolds during the summer of 1992.

A great deal of the plot takes place in Stiltsville, a community of about a dozen stilt homes, built on sand flats about a mile offshore. These homes actually exist and the author spent many of her own childhood in her family’s stilt house. Her first novel is actually titled Stiltsville and is the winner of the BEN/Binhgam prize for outstanding debut work published in 2010.

stiltsville house pic
Here’s a picture of one of the stilt houses. Only seven remain.

Daniel has a very talented way of telling a story. We get to know her characters through Georgia’s perspective and watch as her marriage founders. Georgia’s job as an errand-runner for sixty-one-year-old Charlie Hicks, a stilt house hermit, turns into something quite different for Georgia and Frankie.  And while Graham is on an extended assignment studying hurricanes, her life begins to change in unlikely ways.

The characters are so different; you might want to call them quirky. But they aren’t and their appeal grows as the plot develops. In addition to my long list of what this story is about, Daniel has created thematic layers, in which the main characters try to make meaning out of loss. Did they act quickly enough and do enough at the important hour? Did they say the right things? Did they treat the family who was left fairly? When regret surfaces, what do they do? She also shows the impact of reckless behavior and makes you wonder why certain people are drawn to these risks. And how much risk is too much – where do you draw the line? Daniel also shows how the powerful forces of nature and Hurricane Andrew can change everything.

Her characters also have that real quality of not being one hundred percent likable. Georgia is a loving mother, but she makes foolish choices. Charlie has a wonderful way of communicating, but has behaved badly. Georgia’s father Harvey seems to retreat during crucial times, but redeems himself at the end.  And Graham – he’s so troubled, but you want to help him, even when Georgia doesn’t.

The plot develops nicely. Seemingly unimportant events and facts, mentioned throughout, help tie characters and events together. Daniel’s descriptions of the water, boats and Stiltsville are easy to imagine and make the story flow.

There’s a lot to think about in Sea Creatures, an easy, but intelligent read. Daniel is currently at work on her third novel. Meantime I think I’ll be checking out Stiltsville!

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Book Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

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Shuggie Bain
Douglas Stuart

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I couldn’t stop reading this award-winning debut novel about a young boy, his alcoholic mother and the family’s efforts to either set Agnes Bain straight or run away fast. Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize and was a finalist for several other awards including the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. In 2021, the American Library Association named it a notable book for adult fiction.

Set in Glasgow, Scotland during the post-industrial 1980s, this autobiographical coming-of-age story follows young Shuggie Bain and his working-class family over a period of eleven years. In 1981, Agnes, her husband, Shug and their three children live with her parents in a cramped tenement apartment in Sighthill. Catherine and Leek, teenagers from Agnes’s first marriage, are desperate to escape. Agnes drinks, Shug drives a taxi on the night shift and cheats on her between fares. Agnes’s parents look back at the mistakes they made with their only child. And Shuggie, at five, already knows he’s different but he can’t articulate why. And he can’t distance himself from Agnes. He needs his mother.

Shuggie is six when the family moves to public housing in Pitthead, an abandoned mining town. With no work, the men drink and the women struggle to feed their large families. Agnes, however, thinks herself better than the other women. And although she’s careful with her appearance and keeps the house clean, inside, she drinks away their weekly benefits. On the days when Shuggie goes to school, he comes home to find her slumped in a chair, with empty cans of lager wedged in the seat cushions.

Can you say you loved such an ugly and depressing story? I don’t know. All I can say is that I became completely invested in the characters. Like Shuggie, I hoped that Agnes would pull herself together and that he would be okay. I felt sad when the neighborhood children and his classmates abused him for being a “poof,” a term he didn’t even understand, let alone his own sexuality.

Ironically, Agnes has taught him to hold his head high, something that contributes to his resilience. When Shuggie calls a cab to retrieve her from a drunken party, the driver remarks at how put-together he is for an eleven-year-old. He asks him if he’s headed to a party. “Well, kind of. I also just think it’s important to always look your best,” he tells the man.

And later, with nowhere to go, Shuggie turns to Leek who gives him some hard advice. “How am I meant to raise you? What have I got? No one can help you, but you, Shuggie,” he says.

The author tells an unforgettable story in Scotland during a period of great hardship in which factories, mines and industries were shut down, during Margaret Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister. A divide between Catholics and Protestants also contributed to tension and violence in Scotland. So a story in a story, another mark of an excellent book. This book reminded me of the memoirs Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Educated by Tara Westover. So if you liked those you would like this one.

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Book Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic
Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I picked up Mexican Gothic because of its beautiful cover and because I liked the title, knowing little about the book. Wow, what a story and even more so when you know the back story!

Mexican Gothic is set in 1950 in the fictional ghost mining town of El Triunfo and is based on the actual town Real del Monte. Before the War of Independence in 1810, mines in Mexico were run by the Spanish who used cheap Indigenous people for labor. After the war, the British arrived and took over the mines. Mexican Gothic is about the English family, the Doyles, who have owned El Triunfo’s silver mine for generations and live in an English-styled mansion called High Place. The estate has fallen into decay, however, because the mine has been closed, due to floods and a recurring epidemic that killed most of the workers. From the get-go, readers know there is something strange about this reclusive family.

The story’s main character, Noemí Taboada, is a debutante from Mexico City, sent by her father to check on her cousin Catalina, who has recently married the handsome Virgil Doyle. Catalina had sent the Taboadas a strange letter, claiming she was being poisoned, yet Virgil replies that Catalina is fine and not to worry.

Noemí arrives at High Place and is struck by its eerie atmosphere and the condition of the house. A persistent fog engulfs the place and mold is everywhere: on the walls, in books and possibly in the air. In addition, there’s an air of secrecy about the family’s history. Her cousin Francis seems okay, but his mother, Florence tells her right away about the rules. No talking at meals, no hot showers, no leaving the place and no smoking. In addition, the place is mostly in darkness, lit by only a few bulbs. Virgil seems okay. Noemí had always thought him charming, but something is off…

More alarming is the ancient Howard Doyle, the family patriarch who on the first night tells Noemí all about his interest in eugenics. He’s in poor health due to an unnamed old injury and spends most of his time in his bedroom. Despite his physical absence, Howard’s influence is everywhere. What’s that buzzing sound in the walls and what is up with the scary Doyle crest that is everywhere, a snake eating its tail? Catalina looks mostly okay, but the things she says convince Noemí that something bad is going on.

Mexican Gothic is exactly what the title says, but it’s also a supernatural horror story and uses all the tropes from these genres. I raced through the early chapters because of how easily it began and later because, well you just need to know what’s going on! What made me really appreciate the story is the way the author used Mexico’s history and setting to frame the plot. Themes of race, misogyny, women’s rights and women’s mental health also figure prominently.

I recommend Mexican Gothic to readers who like gothic and horror and anyone who likes a good story.

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Are you a catch-up reader?

I don’t know about you, but something happens when I don’t get around to reading a popular book right away. As time passes, the chance that I will pick it up becomes slimmer and slimmer. Part of me thinks, well if I read it now after all this time, no one will want to talk about it with me. Because it’s fun to talk about something you liked that everyone is buzzing about too.

I like to think I’m a catch-up reader, but I don’t know if I truly qualify. Here are ten fiction books I’ve been meaning to read, but haven’t. I still want to read them, but too many other books have gotten in the way. Should they be on a priority list or should they stay lost in my big pile of TBRs? I don’t know.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Are you a catch-up reader? What’s your strategy? Have you read any of these? Leave a comment!

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Book Review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

The Fall of Lisa Bellow
Susan Perabo

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In a psychological drama that begins with a robbery and an abduction, eighth-grader Meredith Oliver is the girl who was left behind on the floor of the convenience store, when an armed man in an oversized hoodie and ski mask takes Meredith’s nemesis, the popular and pretty Lisa Bellow. This story is about how Meredith, her family and Lisa’s mother, Colleen cope with the tragedy during an investigation that leads nowhere. Meredith may have been the lucky one, but she descends into unknown territory as she imagines where Lisa may be.

Dynamics change at school when Lisa’s friends invite her to sit with them at lunch. At home, Meredith’s father, Mark tries to cheer her up and her mother, Claire irritates her. Her older brother, Evan, despite a recent debilitating eye injury that has wrecked his promising baseball career, may be the only one who can reach her.

Perabo tells the story through both Meredith’s and Claire’s perspectives and shows the disconnect between them. One question that haunts Meredith is why she remained frozen on the floor of the store and didn’t look up to see what kind of car the man drove. And while Meredith enters a post-traumatic state, Claire turns the situation into something about herself. Readers also get a look at Claire’s faulty marriage and her disturbing and ego-centric thoughts.

This was an interesting book, although not what I expected. Despite opening scenes that suggest suspense or mystery, it’s a slow-moving drama about adolescence, families and marriage. Most of the characters are unknowable, as readers only get a look at their actions, like Colleen’s strange insistence on having Meredith and Lisa’s other friends hang out in Lisa’s room. Apart from a couple scenes in which Mark calls Claire out (possible game changers in their marriage), the author portrays Meredith’s dad as the cheerful and likable parent. Evan may be the only side character we get an inner glimpse of, as he struggles to overcome his physical injury and his efforts offer a nice parallel to Meredith’s trauma.

A few things bothered me a little about this story. The first was that I didn’t like Claire at all and that can be a problem in a book in which not much happens, which is the second thing that bothered me. While you can see how Meredith and her family progress and imagine how their next year may be, the improvement is slow. That’s probably intentional, because who can bounce back from a situation like that? But the book ends without much of a conclusion and I found that a little unsatisfying. And although the cover is very pretty, it gives the misleading impression of two friends falling into water.

That said, the writing is very good and I did fly through the pages, always a positive part of a book.

So if you like psychological studies and don’t mind a couple unlikable or frustrating characters, you would probably like The Fall of Lisa Bellow. I picked this book at random in the first of my Read, React, Decide YouTube videos in which I read a short passage from a book and decide if I want to read it.

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