The Eighth Life: For Brilka by Nino Haratischwili

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And, in tracing the path of this ghost, she hoped to find redemption, and the definitive answer to the yawning emptiness inside her.

This is the book I have been needing to steep myself in all year. It’s about the revolution of the Janish family, which really begins with a secret, irresistible, seductive hot chocolate recipe that tastes like a blessing but bleeds into their lives like a curse. Surely a cup of warmth that fills the belly with such promise can fix an entire empire and yet how could they possibly know what destructive forces a red century has in store for them all? That they will become knots in a horror story of sorts, isn’t history full of those? Who is ever truly spared the cruelty of wars, within a country or a family? The beautiful Anastasia “Stasia”, ‘who came into the world already dancing’ is oblivious to the power the secret recipe her father (a famous chocolatier) gives her. “He guarded it like a secret of war.” He makes her promise to never allow the recipe to leave the family nor use it lightly, it is meant only for rare, special occasions. Does she heed his warning? From the moment it touches her tongue “it was like a spiritual ecstasy”, her fanciful dreams of life as a ballerina in Paris dissolve, but that is the least of the miseries and sorrows to come. In marrying a friend of her father’s, lieutenant of the White Guard Simon Jashi, she is bound not for Paris but for the cold climate of Russia- a country troubled with unrest. Meant to join her husband who left ahead of her, things run amok and fate teaches her a lesson.

There is no time for innocence nor clumsy dreams. It is only a relative that keeps her alive and later, when everything sours and the October Revolution thunders on, tragedy strikes. Fleeing destruction and death she finds her husband and gets pregnant with their first child ( Brilka’s great grandfather), returns back to Georgia “to the bosom of her family”, only to see the Chocolaterie fall into the state’s hands. Joined together again, she and Simon live in the countryside as a family where her life no longer feels like her own. Her sister Christine comes of age, blossoms and makes a very successful marriage. Stasia’s family grows as she gives birth to a daughter, and refusing to visit her husband in Moscow, instead moves into her father’s halved house. Later, she and her children live with her beautiful sister Christine and her husband Ramas. Christine catches the eye of her husband’s superior, the Little Big Man, awakens his animal urges, and sets in motion a horrific chain of events that will near destroy their entire family.

Then there are the children, Kitty and Kostya and how their lives play out. They both find themselves tied up in Andro’s own future, the son of Stasia’s dangerous friend, Sopio. How did I keep up with every character without notes? That’s how enthralled I was with the family and I began to feel like I was living through it all alongside them. This is a novel rich with history but nothing is more domineering than the fate of these characters. The dust never settles, the devil always seems to be at someone’s heels. But just which devil? There is no monster nor darkness more terrifying than human beings. Betrayal, starvation, treason, infidelity, war, dictators, torture, pogroms… and “Men always want to be in charge of you. What kind of life is that? I may as well have been born a dog; even as a dog I would have more freedom.”  It’s not only women who ‘Little big men’ are in charge of, but countries full of doomed people. It’s as if another character may as well have been death, because it’s a constant presence.

If you’re unfamiliar with Russian, German, Georgian history then you will be better informed after reading this novel. I can’t imagine a reader unfamiliar with it being able to understand the choices made nor the traps the characters all fall into. It makes for a more involved investment not all readers are interested in making. I, however, ate these pages. The horror of the times isn’t lost on me, my family has a history rife with Russian occupation and bullets, after-all Russia invaded Hungary. Poverty, hunger, cruelty, war, death, civil unrest- it feels like my own family history. Choosing which side your loyalty lies in a divided country is like choosing your own poison. People talk big who don’t understand living in fear and this novel certainly sheds light on the terror of the powerless.

There is a line about Kitty branded in my head, ‘she was a survival artist’, and the truth is every woman in the Jashi family has to be with their rotten circumstances or curse… “tomato, tamahto”.

I was riveted from the start and urge readers to dig into this novel full of riches. You can’t shake more story out of it. I was exhausted with all the emotional hijacking and I loved every moment of it. I won’t gush in a long winded review, because you need that precious time to invest in this novel. The characters fall into such a deep abyss that it’s a wonder there is a descendant (Brikla, for whom this is all told) that made it through her family’s traumas at all. It’s hard to feel sorry for myself looking back on history.  I don’t say this often, but Nino Haratischwili is a hell of a writer. How do her characters occupy her head space, with all their desires, regrets, rage? Yes, read this book! Remember you have been warned, it is not a light read.

Available Now

Scribe

 

 

 

 

 

Let the Willows Weep by Sherry Parnell

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With her voice long hardened from smoking Kent cigarettes, she spat out commands and insults that tore at your heart. I guess my father left before there was nothing left of his.

Children are victims of their parents circumstances, more often than not. The leaving between their parents feels more like abandonment of them, particularly when left behind with the domineering person one parent fled. I love a good southern fiction, and the willows will weep for Birddog Harlin, whose own mother has endured a rage that hardened her when her own father fled her mother’s meanness long ago. A slamming door echoes through the decades, turning a little girl into a hard woman who doesn’t have empathy for her own child, Birddog.

Birddog is nothing but a disappointment to her mother, protected by her beloved older brother Denny ( who seems to give the only scrap of niceness in her life), more often than not she is dodging her  rival, other brother Caul’s inborn meanness. Naturally the boys can do no wrong; the sun rises upon their shoulders, Denny’s in particular. Birddog adds to her mothers worries, fighting with boys, often covered in mud, her messiness the reason her mother can’t invite respectable ladies over for tea. Nothing like her beautiful mother, who her father admires so, despite her disappointment with the meager life his job as a miner gives them. Certainly not the low down job she ever wants her boys to do. Her adult life is just as tough as her youth was, slaving all day with chores, feeding her family, raising an impossible, disobedient, little girl are just some of the complaints that fill the air between she and her husband. Birddog knows her father feels shamed by her mother, but at some point her rage will always turn to her instead. When he defends his daughter Birddog it only strengthens her wrath.

Her mother wants nothing more than to enjoy tea with the ‘refined ladies’ of the town, just another thing a miner’s pay will never afford her. Worse, the gossip she is positive her shameless daughter inspires with her unladylike behavior makes that an impossibility. Birddog knows the truth of how things stand, as well as her father does. That just they don’t even exist in the eyes of polite society. If not for Daddy’s intervention, life would be nothing but darkness. Mother’s desire for better makes it impossible to feel and see just how much her husband adores her, and after a tragic turn of events, it’s too late to change things.

Weighted down by a deep blanket of grief, the children now have to step into adult decisions to keep the family afloat. Choices narrow for Denny as steps into his father’s shoes, Birddog’s mother is still jealous of the bond she had with her father, and a parting gift seals the distance between them. Caul comes into his own and seems to sail further from them, everything changes and mother fears all her children leaving. On the same breath, afraid of being left alone, she rips into Birddog- who still can’t live up to the sort of daughter she desires. Laziness won’t be tolerated, and soon Birddog is forced to take a job working for Ms. Tarmar who will teach her more than sewing, share her wisdom with her and have more room for compassion than her own mother.

Love finds her older brother Denny, and it finds Birddog too. Nothing is more doomed than forbidden love, as she will soon learn when she meets a caretaker named Samuel and his sweet, childlike brother Diggs. If only one could love away from the eyes of their ‘own kind’. This is another shame she’ll bring upon her family, and no one will forgive it. For a time, this man will open her eyes and heart to genuine love and kindness. But as he tells her, “there ain’t no place for that kind of love in this kind of world.” They don’t know how true his words are, and what love will cost both of them, body and soul.

This is how people become hardened, the world will beat you down, if you don’t know how to rise. No one escapes the pain loving brings, and maybe Birddog isn’t so different from her mother after-all.

Let the Willows Weep is about poverty, love, intolerance, shame, racism and family dysfunction. Rage is a circle that even the wisest who wish to escape can become trapped in. How is one to hope when life just keeps bringing you nothing but grief and loss? Love takes such strange shapes, it gives and takes indiscriminately in this sad tale. For those who love southern fiction with enough grit to make your eyes water.

Published October 2019

 

 

Take Me Apart: A Novel by Sara Sligar

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That was how it was sometimes, in the archive. Big discoveries sandwiched between trash. The day-to-day touching the phenomenal.

Kate Aitken, now an ex-journalist (copy editor), has a chance for a clean slate, it’s time to leave New York, which has become contaminated for her. Kate’s life has imploded, and a very important man has taken measures to make sure she does not find work anywhere. When Theo Brand, son of famed photographer Miranda Brand, hires her to archive his late mother’s work it is a chance for her to start fresh- in California. Her aunt is there, which is both a good thing and trying. It won’t be easy, not with a woman whose death is surrounded by mystery and rumors, many that follow Theo like a dark shadow. He confesses his mother was a bit of a pack rat, so one never knows what treasure or trash Kate will uncover. Theo himself isn’t the easiest man to figure out, nor the warmest and it certainly doesn’t help when her own aunt is sure he is worse than the locals say. That maybe he was involved in his mother’s mysterious death, despite being a child when she died.

Her own life in a tailspin of sorts, Kate wonders if taking this job makes her vulnerable to danger. Sifting through the house most people would kill to snoop through, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Could the many rumors and conspiracies be born from truth, isn’t that often the case? Doesn’t her own life have its own secrets and lies? Hasn’t she learned that a man can hide his dark nature behind his success, wealth and name? Is she attracted to Theo, or are the intense emotions, racing heart she feels around him a warning? After-all, she knows that attraction and panic often set off the same feelings within a person. Could he be as bad as everyone claims?  It’s hard to think so seeing him interact with his children, even if her presence seems to upset something in him.

Excavating Miranda Brand’s past is an emotional journey. Despite her awe inspiring talent, behind the artist was a woman who was falling apart, questioning herself, coping with the fragility of her mind. Everything Kate discovers feels like an exposure of a woman who wanted her private life to remain sealed. Art should stand alone, not be influenced by the person behind it. Instead of a contained woman, Kate discovers confessions, and painful admissions. Here was a woman who found mothering challenging and her marriage no better as it was under intense strain. A woman lacking much needed compassion and support, instead had a husband who seemed both exhausted by her needs and competitive over her work. Miranda missed who she was before the life she and her husband Jake created together. What made her decide to leave it, in such a dramatic, horrific fashion? Will Kate uncover more than Theo wants her too?

Their relationship is unbalanced already, Kate arrives with her own future in ruins while Theo appears to be a man who has his life together. There belies a coldness in his desire to wrap up his mother’s life, now that his father is gone and he is free to take charge of the past and all it’s dirty secrets. For Theo, Miranda wasn’t a famous artist who died at the height of her career, she was his mother, at times a distant star physically and mentally. Why does he resent her? Seem to hate her?

Answers may lie in Miranda’s diary, a discovery Kate intends to keep from Theo. It soon becomes obvious he has ulterior motives, could well be misleading and using her- but why? Her own wounds are fresh, the remnants of her own therapy sessions are a lifeboat to cling to as she sorts through Miranda’s past. Kate’s own narrative is as elusive, a thing we glimpse in starts and stops. Everything Miranda was suffering, particularly sensitive information that got out in public, is easy for Kate to relate to- however uncomfortable it feels. There are so many ways a woman is stripped of her armor.

Two women, decades separating them, face metamorphism of the self. This is who I wanted to be, this is who life demanded me to become. For Miranda, her husband is unforgiving, treating her after her unraveling as something he is chained too. Kate’s fall from grace is a different sort of humiliation, an utter failure of the self. There are abuses both women suffer at the hands of men with the upper hand. For women, it is all about how people interpret you, be it your behavior, decisions, weaknesses, mental state or refusal to give in when it’s demanded of you.

Death is silence, but Miranda could still have the last word. Does that frighten Theo? What if the truth challenges the story men, like he and his father, have controlled? What about Kate and her own voice, her own past? Is it wise to get tangled in desire for Theo? What if… what if Miranda was murdered?

What kept me reading was Miranda’s story and how she was mistreated, demeaned and misinterpreted- even after her death. Though the person hardest on her, as is often the case with women, was herself. What it nails is how narrative can alter lives, for better or worse. Sometimes the truth must lie in wait, but it will have it’s pound of flesh. Sometimes it pushes us to be more too. Kate was harder for me to bond with, but Miranda- I think Miranda echoes what many women go through and feel too ashamed to give voice. Theo was important, but he wasn’t the heart of the story for me anymore than the attraction between he and Kate. I was in it for Miranda. You could feel the pain of feeling judged, especially for things you cannot help. How easy it is to fall from grace for showing yourself as a fragile human being and why people try and hide when they feel themselves slipping. The breaking is so much worse when the one who is meant to be your anchor fails you. A strong character in Miranda if the others lacked substance. She was worth reading!

Publication Date: April 28. 2020

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

Your Ad Could Go Here: Stories by Oksana Zabuzhko

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“Every fear has its volume and weight…”

The women and girls in this collection of stories face hardships that are common to all women the world over and other tragedies that test their courage beyond boundaries some of us will never know. War is brutal, and sometimes women are a debt to be paid. Women choosing between actualized children and the unborn, suffer through interrogations by the KGB, how a mother’s phantoms can be visited upon the daughter. Reach further back still into the family history of ‘the camps’, the misery still chasing them.

In Girls, a grand and severe passion for another, “Like a dormant gene of an inherited disease”. Darka divulges of her first love, sexual awakening with another student named Effie, a desire that gets swept away in dishonor and maybe something more dangerous, an informer in their midst? A lesson in betrayal, out of jealousy, desire to possess. The scandal that unfolded Darka only finds out much later, and how girls are so easily ‘dishonored by the obscene’. For Darka, Effie always remains a longing for another life, another self, even long after who we were so long ago is no longer remembered clearly. Could the worst sort of ruin be conquered in the future?

One of my favorites is The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute, about a girl Olenka, born to good fortune. The firstborn is destined to become a princess, a queen, never could she be a common peasant. The second born intent on torturing the first, and so the rivalry begins, and intensifies when little Hannusia blooms herself. Gifted with skills of her own, jealousy to rival Cain and Abel consume the sisters. Is it the parents, the all seeing eyes of the village, the man come to court, or the matchmakers that birth such disharmony? Liberation in sin, ignorance in not heeding advice, women damned.

In I, Milena the surface hides everything, and all is not fine. Milena is a journalist of the finest sort, and she is in competition with herself for her husband’s affections. He is hungry for the Milena that is broadcast on TV, but there is a huge division between the onscreen and offscreen woman. Is she losing her mind?

Grannies who are made of sterner stuff, young men losing limbs, pasts mothers would rather bury,  daughters who don’t speak the same language as their experienced, hardened mothers, Russian bullets, barriers, national patriotism, and the rest of the world watching from the sidelines. Despite what happens in a country, the home and family is still it’s own battleground and sanctuary. War presses each of these characters between the pages of a photo-album, even war within themselves.

Publication Date: April 28, 2020

AmazonCrossing

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Summer of Ada Bloom by Martine Murray

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A foreboding had gotten inside Ada and she couldn’t get it out again. Something felt threatening and inevitable.

The Bloom family unravels during one summer, but the fault lines were there long before. If Ada and Tilly’s mother Martha is ‘straining against the confines of her life’ then Tilly is straining against the confines of youth. It may well be that the endless possibilities for her daughter’s future reminds Martha of her own failures and roads not taken that are closed to her now. At seventeen Tilly has ‘taken on grown up airs’ and the distance between the sisters makes Ada feel lonely. Observing her sister is like being tangled up in a mystery that is waiting around the corner for her too. Then there are boys who will take notice too. Martha still has Ada to mother, but life is one big dissatisfaction, she feels time rushing along and nothing to show for it all, with the exception of her three children. Martha knows they won’t need her for long and now her body is beginning to slowly ‘undo’. Her desire has plummeted, but she still loves her husband Mike, doesn’t she? The true test may come with the arrival of ‘an old flame’, but nothing is as it seems, and the biggest mystery may not be the shucking of their daughter’s youth but the turmoil that arises with his visit.

Son Ben is the adored one, given far more freedom than Tilly, though he is only 15.  Ben even has his own Bungalow, being Martha’s favorite, which of course is heaven for him. It never sits well with Tilly, who knows if there were ever a threat, he’d be the first one saved. Martha is cold to Tilly, if love is an effort with her husband Mike, it seems more so when it comes to her eldest child. The biting words seem to escape of their own volition when she interacts with her daughter, her jealousy and regrets arising with the blossoming of Tilly. Martha is far more demanding with her, and the weight of her mother’s ugliness, evident in Tilly’s sadness doesn’t inspire shame or pity in Martha, but strangely more anger. It’s painful to witness, but the reasons Martha pushes Tilly away are more about Martha and her past. The stink of secrets we throw down the well of our past can easily be detected. Martha isn’t as indifferent as she seems. In her clouded mind, every single person in her mediocre life is failing her while she does her best to pretend that all is well.

Mike isn’t any happier, thinking of his wife and her severe ‘unnecessary scrutiny’ of all things, her disappointment with their conventional lives and Arnold’s swooping in and upsetting the balance. Why was his approval once so vital to Mike? Arnold who ‘had always been a silence between them.’ He is proud of his little life, of the family he made, but he is still a man who needs to feel the pulse of being alive. Why should he feel like he can live up to what Martha needs? Why isn’t what they have made enough?

Ada’s curious nature is fed by an abandoned well and rusted old windmill, all sorts of things can end up in that abyss. Maybe even the innocence of childhood. Ada sees something that changes the structure of her family, and burdens her with secrets that should never have to be shared. The adults are failing each other, and everyone in between. A story of family fractures, shame, regrets, betrayal and blossoming- sometimes you have to shed the old ways to be born into something new. But do they have enough hope in their hearts? Can you make good on all the pain you have caused to hide from your own shame?

Ada’s naivety took me back to that fragile time when you are on the cusp of understanding, when knowledge seems to spoil one’s carefree existence. It starts when she feels something is off, but doesn’t quite comprehend what she instinctively knows. The relationship between Tilly and Ada is tender, even if it feels like Tilly is drifting away. Even sisterhood can lose it’s balance, without ill intentions. It’s easy to be hard on Martha, but she is a mess trying to contain itself and Mike fails his children too, in a big way. Ben is self-centered, and of course it’s forgivable in a boy, especially as the favored son but for me the heart of the novel is born from past transgressions. Motherhood certainly doesn’t fit every woman like a glove, and sometimes the worst in us is so hard to overcome, as can be the things that happen to us. I really liked it, it is far more realistic than explosive dramas, it’s the silences between partners that make for the richer novels.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Tin House Books

The Quantum Theory of Love and Madness: Stories by Jerry Levy

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“In these grossly materialistic times, people are dying for some spiritual guidance. They want to nourish their souls. There’s a whole lost generation looking for itself.”

The stories in this collection from Canadian author Jerry Levy are engaging and at times bizarre. A welcome break in the routine of days, these tales are sometimes silly and other times make you uncomfortable just like my favorite, Butterfly Dreams. A lesson in letting go or holding tight, a man named Ashton makes himself at home in his ex-girlfriend Evie’s apartment when she isn’t there. Oh he is devious, creeping like a ghost, disturbing things just enough that an observant mind would notice. He’s the most clever spider building his web, until there is a snarl.

Starchild is about a one-of-a-kind sort of boy, a ‘lyric savant’. Why can’t songs stand in for normal conversation? Aren’t there enough songs to apply to every situation? He is a very special kid, but what happens to children who have to grow up and enter the real world that demands conformity? Maybe he is more than special, maybe he could look skyward?

Grotesque makes you think what is the most grotesque, a creature or a human. Sadly, sometimes it’s humans who are truly the wild animals. There is a hint of magical realism and the supernatural here.

There are chance encounters that fizzle out, a 6ft 2 man who lives above the ground on a high wire, trips that force a man out of his comfort zone, children who become orphans until one becomes a fire lover, what ifs, terrible poetry, and writers block. It is a unique collection that can be read in a short duration of time. Not all stood out for me, but those that did are memorable.

Publication Date: April 1, 2020

Guernica Editions

Godshot: A Novel by Chelsea Bieker

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I was thinking in glitter and gold. Thinking, with my hands raised in praise right there in the shower, of Vern’s original miracle, the way he’d cured the town of drought years before when I was just seven years old.

Call it fanatical religion or a cult, it’s a fine line here my friends. Vern will bring the rain to this drought ridden land of Peaches, California. What was once a fruitful, prosperous place is dry as the devil’s heart. It is through ‘assignments’ that the rain will come, there will no longer be barren crops, for God has control and through faith and obedience the holy will be saved. The people are desperate and downtrodden, some proud men have even taken their own lives for the shame of it. Vern is their only hope for salvation, for he is the one who has God’s attention. He has proven he has the perfect holiness within him and 14-year-old Lacey May’s grandma Cherry was witness to it all, a devotee of Vern’s ever since.

Lacey May’s mother Louise Herd is an alcoholic, a disaster as a parent. She has her beauty though, a means to bring evil doers to the church, beauty as dangling carrots for such men. But like all women she must be clean, and boozing one’s days away, keeping a filthy house, taking up with wild men are just more marks against this stained women, already marked with a bastard daughter. In a moment of grand betrayal, chewing on  rotted memories of the many times her mother has failed her through selfishness, instability and her addiction, Lacey May chooses Vern, damning her mother in front of the congregation. They are all too happy to see her finally brought down, this evil woman who is ‘always out looking for the devil’. How could she know what the consequences would be, in speaking her truth? How could she have known her mother was keeping her safe all this time with silence, that despite her stained soul, it was Lacey May she was protecting? It’s too late now, her Judas kiss sets off a chain of events, her mother is banished and leaves with a man, a stranger.

Lacey May will find out what ‘assignments’ entail for young women like herself. As she searches to find out what happened to her mother, she comes in to contact with unholy people in the town, like the Diviners: A Lady on the Line (phone sex workers). Witches who would love nothing more than to strike men dead, if Vern and his people are to be believed. She longs for her mother, where is she? Why doesn’t her Grandma Cherry care about her own daughter’s fate? Now that enlightenment is dawning on Lacey May, she understands men are meant to lead the church and it will cost no one more than her. Everything that is expected of her, that she blindly agrees to, begins to feel wrong. It’s too late now, what’s done is done and there is no going back. Her own mother’s words were truer than she knew. “Get used to it,” she said. “Women have a long history of suffering.”

Girls don’t need their mothers, do they? But there is so much she hadn’t taught her yet, things a girl needs to know to make sense of the world, and themselves. All these terrible biting things she didn’t understand. In some ways, she is very much her mother’s daughter, filled with her passion. Could she too have a “natural disposition toward sin”, her Grandma Cherry will keep her on the clean, on the straight and narrow. Now her cousin Lyle is going to help guide her on the right path, help her with her bible studies. He gets closer to her as God shines upon him. There is a stranger come to town named Stringy, the lawn painter, someone who will notice her beauty now that her mother is no longer there to pull the eyes away. Power is humming beneath the surface, something big is coming, bigger than Vern’s first miracle. They must all remain humble servants, in order to receive the ‘perfect holiness’, from whatever vessel Vern deems worthy to deliver it.

There is blind faith and faith born out of witnessing miracles, or maybe it’s great timing? We believe what we need to. What can induce faith greater than feeling as though you are highly prized? Chosen? This is how we wrong our girls, our women, and it isn’t just the men partaking of purity. Sometimes a trapped bug prefers the burning light, because it promises such warmth. It’s easier not to question too many things, for how can anyone question what God asks of you, or your body?

It’s the girls who assure a congregation will grow in numbers. Fear is the way to get what you want, fear and blindness. But there comes a time when the cracks appear, the filth, the cheapness of it all, and that is when you truly see your life for what it has become. That is when the turning away begins, and it is all doomed to failure.

It’s painful to witness and not so far fetched as in times of mean desperation, people will cling to the wildest beliefs if they’re scared. Of course, somehow girls or women seem to be the ones sacrificing. Yes read it, get Godshot yourself with a dose of Vern and his delusional followers. There is no shortage on novel’s in this vein, cults (religious and otherwise) but here, with failing crops, drought it makes it easier to relate to why they fall under the sway of Vern.  It’s a solid story, when beliefs chafe against reality, you either close your eyes or accept you have been fooled. The writing is beautiful, I felt like I was in Lacey May’s confused little mind and body. Not always an easy thing to accomplish in a novel. Can’t wait to read more from Chelsea Bieker.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Catapult