Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology by Nancy C Atwood (Editor), Roger Atwood (Editor)

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They will tell you that the depth of that meanness often depends on what life has done to a person, on the impressions left by brushes with people different from you, on those rare times when the parallel universes came close enough to touch. -Rick Bragg from All Over but the Shouting 

Growing up in working class America takes the spotlight in this non-fiction collection of excerpts from memoirs written in the 1980’s to 2014. The many voices within encompass more differences than their ethnicity, each life experience despite location is it’s own microcosm. The readers themselves are brushing up against parallel universes here. Some grew up with parents who were immigrants, wanting desperately to gain an education, no matter how limited their options. “I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” This from Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  For so many immigrants their limited language skills in their new country has them working jobs far beneath their skill and education level, naturally children growing up in such homes have to help their family out, to stay afloat even working as young as nine as Luis J. Rodriguez did. Child labor wasn’t new to the Rodriguez family, his own mother a cotton picker. Maya Angelou herself wandered the streets, living in an empty car in a junkyard for days. There lies a pulsing heart full of determination, at such a tender age. Something about struggle lends wisdom, feeds talent, some gain strength from adversity they face but there wasn’t really a choice, not where living in poverty is concerned. You do what you have to do.

We talk about race and inequality, but reading about it from another’s perspective is a different experience entirely. This excerpt from Joe Queenan’s Closing Time: A Memoir, speaks volumes about how sheltered our world views often are when we are young and surrounded only by what we are taught and experience in our own environment. “Until our paths crossed, I had no idea that people with dark skins were even allowed to be Brides of Christ.” Poverty and abuse too, it is inspiring to read about the mountains others have traversed, that even when it seems fate is against them, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and fought their way to what they wanted, a better life. It’s not enough to be smart, conformity is often the beast one had to embrace, danger, racism, and discrimination. Class, coming from nothing you have to learn how to fit into those grand, distinguished places you find yourself in, places others navigate with ease, born to it. It’s not enough to ‘make it’, you have to survive and figure out where you fit and how. It’s rebelling when you need too, conceding when you have to. We like to think we’re above class in the Western World but it’s just as alive here as anywhere else. Maybe you don’t enter places where your social standing is tested, your education, your wealth or maybe such doors are closed to you, but they exist all the same.

Alcoholism and how children grow up in the midst of it, the fighting over money and lack thereof. The things mothers and fathers keep from each other, a game children are not yet well versed in and the disastrous consequences as shared in an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir (and a personal favorite of mine) The Liar’s Club. Mothers of divorce who get lonely and try on a man and his family, blended families not quite mixing. Salvation that is almost as bad as loneliness, trying to become a part of a new family like Tobias Wolff. Hanging with kids on the city streets, all rough and tumble. Friendships with boys whose homes become refuges where some mothers play piano and fathers have excellent libraries, an eye into different worlds. Homes where bigotry is just as natural as breathing, where mother’s get beatings and crying “Don’t hurt my teeth”, is her only defense as her son watches on afraid momma will be killed. (Rick Bragg,  All Over but the Shoutin’).

This collection is varied and wonderful, even in the darkest corners there is light. It offers up meaningful moments in some of the most ‘hardscrabble lives’ as told through memoirs that will likely inspire readers to read the full books.

Available Now

University of Georgia Press

 

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The Beekeeper of Aleppo: A Novel by Christy Lefteri

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I am scared of my wife’s eyes. She can’t see out and no one can see in. 

Beekeeper Nuri’s wife Afra (a talented artist once full of joy, laughter like gold) is disappearing to a dark place deep inside after horrific tragedy in Allepo obliterates every speck of life they created. It’s better not too see, there is safety in blindness when you live in a world brutal, hateful, ugly. This is war, it cares nothing for the land nor it’s people.  Things are getting more dangerous, if they stay they will die, how can Nuri get the blind Afra to see this? How can Nuri convince her that emotions must be corralled, logic must be the only guide for now? How can Afra leave this land, it holds the blood, the remains of every breath of life she existed for? Leave they must, but they will take the wasteland with them, inside their hearts. For Afra isn’t the only one whose mind has been ravaged by grief, Nuri may have his vision but he sees life as a version he can stomach, as a way to keep his feet moving so he can have a dream to hitch them to.

With his cousin Mustafa waiting for him in the UK, he will do everything it takes to begin anew, but first they must live as refugees where their very lives are dependent on trusting others, proving themselves as worthy of getting to Great Britain. They will meet others just as damaged as them along the way, with broken dreams and tortured memories. “These things are in the past. They will evaporate soon, like the river..”, but the past has it’s hooks inside Afra, and Nuri too. He must be strong, for Afra’s fragile state makes her vulnerable and her heart cannot take much more.  Afra doesn’t want the past to evaporate, she doesn’t want to see the future, for it died that day in Syria.

Nuri feels he has lost Afra, and loss seems to be all he knows anymore. Their world in ruins, through the journey they will inch closer together and drift apart, can they keep their love alive, is there any hope of beginning anew, will anything give Afra the desire to heal? Maybe Afra isn’t the one who needs healing. Would that they could be like Nuri’s beloved bees, that “small paradise among chaos”. There isn’t a sanctuary from the ravages of war, it’s impossible to return to what was, the only hope is in finding something new to live for, and with memory and love keeping what was from being erased.

So many of us are protected by the happenstance of our birth, and will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We won’t have to alter our ways to fit into another country, and abandon our very culture, it’s traditions. Leave behind all the people who were a part of the landscape of our days and wonder if they are still alive. Hope for word from the very person you are running too, unsure if they are still waiting for you. We won’t be living our lives in between places, wishing for a place that is gone. If tragedy opens our doors, most of us won’t be forced to leave our homeland without family to comfort us, with time against us and the chance to grieve a luxury we can’t afford. We won’t have the barrier of language to scale. It is only through stories, films, and memoirs that we can even scratch the surface of such tragedy and yet still, I repeat, you will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We have our miseries, of course we do, but there are not enough words to express the abyss of war. We can feel compassion, but I’m not sure we have the capacity to fully comprehend it as those who live through it have no choice to.

We sometimes overlook people living in different parts of the world, it’s easy enough to do when it isn’t affecting us. We forget to see them as human beings, we do it sometimes in our own families as well, it’s human nature. This story gives life through Nuri and Afra, something to connect with, a bridge of sorts, something beyond the news that we can just gap at in horror and turn the channel, go on our merry way. There are lives beyond the headlines, people with emotions and children, partners, battles to wage. How easy it is to forget.

There is hope and love between these pages, between Nuri and Afra, despite the fear he has of his wife’s eyes. Fear of what their loss has done to her, the state it’s left her in, fear she may never come back to him and be the woman he loved with an easy, deep affection. Yet, there is no room for surrender if you want to live, it takes strength beyond measure to survive. Survive they will, but with sacrifice of immense proportions. There is beauty in moments, but it is a heavy read.

Publication Date: August 27, 2019

Random House

Ballantine Books

The Red Daughter: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz

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She survived her life, which maybe under the circumstances is maybe sort of heroic.

John Burnham Schwartz takes liberty with his fictions, imagining the life of Josef Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, as she defects from the communist state to America in 1967, leaving behind her son and daughter, carrying with her the stain of her father’s infamy. Always thereafter to be ‘a foreigner in every sense of the word’ having left her homeland, a terrible mother to the two children she abandoned, that even Americanizing herself through marriage, now Lana Peters can never remove the blood that runs through her veins. Though there is an electric current that runs between Svetlana and her young lawyer Peter, loosely based on the author’s own father, the meat of the novel is in the tragedy of being Stalin’s daughter, it is a poisonous legacy. The cruel truth behind her mother’s erasure, the rest of her people ‘exiled or in prison by her father’s decree’, aunts and uncles arrested and executed, even her own brother Yakov captured by the Nazis wasn’t worth a prisoner trade. Her father controlled her life, who she was permitted to fall in love with, the state too ever a watchful eye reporting back to Stalin, there wasn’t an emotion felt, a movement made that wasn’t under scrutiny. A caged child, fed a diet of lies, not even knowing the truth behind her mother’s death. Daring to fall in love with a Jewish filmmaker, which her father forbid it seems no shock he was sent to labor camps. There was an arranged marriage, producing her daughter Katya. There was a deep love for an ill Indian man, whom she met while in hospital for her own treatment, of course she wasn’t allowed to marry him. Within the novel as in life, she journeys to India to scatter his ashes upon his passing. With her father’s death, the only release was to make a new home, to become someone else and remaining in her homeland was an impossibility.

“Svetlana’s entry into our marital orbit was something neither Martha nor I ever recovered from. Our own personal Cold War, you might say…”  of course the story fictionalized a romance between Peter and Svetlana, their intimacy a window into her unsettling life in America. It would be a spot of happiness were it true too. Here, she will never escape being her father’s daughter, not even by marrying Sid and giving birth to an American son. We follow her tortured path, living with rumors about her Russian children, Katya and Josef who have forsaken their mother (were barred really from speaking to her, as she was a traitor to the Motherland) and wonder will they ever reunite but knowing that if the ‘future has defected’, then the past keeps its grave hands upon her feet. We suffer with Peter, who can’t help but wonder at the woman behind the eyes and fall in love with her. A love cultivated in letters and visits. In 1984, Svetlana appears as a star of the international press conference at the Moscow offices of the Soviet Woman’s National Committee. With her son Yasha, she shockingly renounces her American citizenship. She was ready to unite her family at last, return to her now grown children, who needed her. It wasn’t to last, tumultuous winds were always blowing through her life and again she leaves her homeland.

It would do one good to research the real story behind Svetlana, but this was a fascinating novel regardless of how true to facts the author leaned. She did seek political asylum and she was invited by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow to visit the studio in Scotsdale, she did marry an architect and have a child with him, but it was a daughter named Olga not a son. Looking her up, she seems like a very fascinating woman too. John Burnham Schwartz tells us in his author’s note that he used his father’s ‘expansive Svetlana file’ with original material as his father ( lawyer Alan U. Schwartz) did travel under CIA cover to escort Svetlana Alliluyeva, the only daughter of Josef Stalin into the United States. She was a part of his family, that much is fact, but it is a fictional novel and his father did not have a love affair with her. Living in the shadow of such a father as Stalin (undeniable monstrous) , one can only wonder at what went on inside of her, stuck between cultures, unable to shed the horrors of her father, removed from her children… it’s a hell of a life.

Publication Date: April 30, 2019

Random House

Home Remedies: Stories by Xuan Juliana Wang

 

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It’s what Taoyu wanted, to disappear from Hai’s life completely, to leave a wound that would ache. That was the only way they could be equals.

Home Remedies is a gorgeous collection of stories about Chinese immigration, family structure, love, sex and the privilege of choices. The future for each character is never certain, and splits open guiding them to places they never imagined they would be. Home, some make their way in American life with ease, abandoning their old skins and sometimes their family too. Others cling to the old ways of a country they will never return to. One thing is certain, each person will make their own story, even if it means becoming someone other than what’s expected.

In White Tiger of the West, the world is weary of Grandmasters, there no longer seems to be a place for spirituality but for one obedient little girl Grandmaster Tu could be the very thing that awakens a tiger, and gives her the flight of freedom. Home Remedies of the old involved tonics, tinctures, herbs… but in one story remedies are cleverly applied to survive say, a “bilingual heart” and “self-doubt”. Olympic divers are one in Vaulting the Sea, but what love is equal? Just how much can you meld yourself to another? I thought this was a beautifully painful tale of love and rejection, if any story is about identity it was this one. My favorite and most heart-breaking is Algorithmic Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships. Logic as the meaning, the answer to all of lives obstacles simple application of algorithms “a theory that proves itself day after day” until a former professor, clueless father needs to solve the new problem of his daughter Wendy, who “I somehow managed to drive away from me.” My heart! By far the best story within!

In this collection time stands still or rushes past. Characters are emerging into a bright future or retiring from their dreams, wearing clothes of the dead, or slicing through water in perfect sync. Sometimes they are just suffering through an “unremarkable period” of their life. It is stories about the youth, but the old have their say too, it’s like they live in different worlds sometimes. Moving, strange, exciting, biting… fantastic.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Crown Publishing

Hogarth

 

The Weight of a Piano: A Novel by Chris Cander

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“Now, stop with the crying before your misery becomes contagious.”

The Weight of a Piano is a heavy one in this latest novel by Chris Cander. The story begins with Julies Blüthner (maker and founder of Blüthner piano and factory in Leipzig Germany)  walking through the forest high in the Romanian mountains searching for the perfect tree for his creations. One such piano will be given to Ekaterina “Katya” Dmitrievna when she befriends a sad, elderly German musician. “The music was proof of his torment. He was a monster, a demon, and ogre. Katya loved him.” So too begins her passion for music, and her talent leads her to become herself a musician as she grows up in the Soviet Union. The piano becomes as much the love of her life as anyone. Then she meets Mikhail Zelden, whose studying civil engineering, ‘very important work’, and wonders “what would it be like to love him?” This love will take her to America, where the life she lived before resembles nothing like the one she and Mikhail are forced to make with their child. The piano is left behind in Russia, for a while, Mikhail promises, only until he can finagle a way to deliver his wife her beloved instrument which is no easy feat. The piano is the one thing that keeps Katya sane, that eases her suffering, the touching of keys an emotional release that’s become her lifeblood.

It’s 2012 and we meet Clara living in California , current owner of the Blüthner,  gifted to her by her father when she was only 12, the old thing  now collecting dust and unplayed in her guest bedroom until her relationship comes to an end and she must find another place to live. She is desperate to sell it, no room for the piano to go, it’s become baggage she’d be better off unloading, though it remains the only tie to her father, whose tragic death in a mysterious fire along with her cold, distant mother left her orphaned when she was young. What does she, a mechanic, need the Blüthner for anyway when she can’t  even play the thing, as her ex reminded her constantly. Where Katya found sanctuary with the piano, for Clara it was in her uncle’s garage, sent to live with he and her aunt after her parents deaths, burying her shocking grief by learning about the inner workings of automobiles, if only she better understood her own insides. Reluctant to commit to any boyfriend, she finds herself alone again, and worse she impulsively sold the Blüthner to a man named Greg Zeldin, whose already sent people from New York to pick it up. Striking a deal to rent it to him, she breaks her hand, making it impossible for her to work, at the worst time possible. Soon she finds herself journeying to Death Valley, where the photographer plans to complete a series of photos with the Blüthner as his main subject, her mechanic skills could be of use in the middle of nowhere, a handy excuse. Less than enthused about the plan, it may well be just what she needs to get her head on straight, pull her life into some semblance of order again.

Tormented by her childhood still at 26, the fights and silences between her parents,  her own mother’s mysterious bottomless dissatisfaction with their little family of three, Clara slowly opens up to Greg and discovers he too is haunted by his past. As his own story begins to take shape, it dawns on the reader why the Blüthner is vital to his work, cathartic even. As the two become closer they begin to find clarity and meaning in things that happened in their childhoods. Connections are made that can only be formed with an adult mind. What they learn of each other may be key to release them from the burden of their pain.

The story swims back and forth between Clara’s tale and Katya’s, from her time in Russia and the early days of her blossoming love and marriage to Mikhail, to the hardships of their lives as immigrants, it’s damning affects on their son. I enjoyed Katya’s story the most, I could have read a book about her and Mikhail and been just as sated. The ending was beautifully symbolic and I was surprised and proud of Clara’s choice. You don’t have to be interested in pianos to enjoy this novel, nor be a musician of any sort. It is a book about dreams that die beneath the brutal harshness of reality and destiny. One moment can change everything, even sour great love. It is a tale of family dysfunction, loss, grief, music, homeland and how our childhood can haunt us far into the future. Definitely a good read!

Publication Date: January 22, 2019

Knopf

Doubleday Publishing

Mother Country: A Novel by Irina Reyn

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She preferred to think of herself as an observer, a temporary traveler, someone waiting for a new life to begin, rather than who she really was: a worker executing an invisible task within the neighborhood’s complex ecosystem.

Nadia splits her time as a Nanny to the privileged little girl of a Russian born woman who demands she teach her child Russian, even if she cannot speak it well herself and as a caregiver at VIP Senior Care, tending to the elderly.  Often feeling invisible in the eyes of her employers  “That she had her own family on the opposite side of the world? That her life was far rounder than the reflection in the woman’s eyes?” she pushes on through her days, biding time until everything she has worked for finally comes to fruition. Relying on Skype, Nadia can keep contact with her beloved daughter Larisska whom she had no choice but to leave behind with her mother in Ukraine, a fractured country that has gone to war. Larisska, feeling abandoned, has her own acts of defiance, barely coming to the video call, refusing to answer her mother about her  level of health, to say whether or not she is keeping up with her insulin injections but even that is preferable to the dead silence of unanswered calls and the fear that they could have died, and if they are alive, how will she get her medicine if everything has ceased to function? Then there is no hope as America isn’t granting asylum, everything on hold thanks to Homeland Security.

There was a time when Nadia worked hard as a  successful bookkeeper in Ukraine, a diligent employee who caught the eye of the married midlevel manager at their manufacturing company. A place where she was respected, proud to do her work, had her own routines like meeting up with her childhood friend Yulia and their old schoolmates often, then the brief affair (if a moment of bliss and passion can be called an affair) that leaves her pregnant with Larisska. Understanding that he will never leave his wife and children for Nadia and their unborn child, or acknowledge Larisska as his, surely he must know she bore his fruit, Nadia is happy just to be in his charming, handsome presence. She is sure that each extra kindness he gives her is his way of showing he loves her and knows about Larisska. Then changes begin in her country, subtly at first. Storefronts altering signs from Russian to Ukrainian, government documents changing to the Ukrainian language, soon currency being phased out and then, payment at work in mandarins. How is Nadia, a single mother, going to keep her child and mother alive on mandarins?

Her daughter Larisska, ” such an adorably willful little thing,” a neighbor once told her of her newborn was stubborn from the start, refusing even to nurse from her breast. Then, the diabetes diagnoses when Nadia couldn’t possibly afford the insulin. Their only hope is America, but the years pass and when it’s finally Nadia’s turn and her application is approved, there is a flaw in the plan, Larisska at 21 is too old (has aged out) to be approved. Nadia makes the hard decision to go anyway without her girl, leaving Larisska feeling at once betrayed and discarded. To Nadia’s way of thinking, it is the only hope she has of keeping Larisska healthy, her medication supplied and she will get her daughter to America, once she herself is settled in. Larisska thinks they should stay together, it’s too late anyway to move away. Nadia knows America is the land of opportunity, the prize! It is a hard transition, a land with so many different people of many colors, some she had only read about before, and at first, she fears them all but she has no choice but to adapt if she is going to get Larisska there.  America, however, has other plans. Applications continuously get declined and Larisska’s life goes on without her. With the fighting between western Ukranians, separatists and Russians her fervent prayers that they leave her homeland aren’t enough to make it happen, soon access to medication stops, and Nadia devises a brilliant plan to save her Larisska after a night out on the town with her friends. With no man in her own life, her thoughts are never focused on her own loneliness, and instead of love for herself, she will find a man for Larisska, in America! Mother knows best, always.

This is a story about mothering when you’re pinned to a wall with threats coming at you in all corners. When you don’t have the luxury of choices and war turns your world upside down, when I love yous aren’t easy to utter because you are just trying to stay afloat, love is obvious in your actions, don’t need to be stated. That sometimes in trying to be your child’s salvation, you may just forget that they too have plans of their own and time doesn’t stand still when you leave. It is terribly missing your ‘Mother Country’ while trying to adapt to your adoptive one, because the country you left never remains the same nor do the people you had to leave behind. It is about sacrifice but will it all be worth it in the end, will Larisska ever make it to America? Will she continue to resent her mother? Will Nadia forever be stuck mothering someone else’s child while her own is sick on another continent in desperate need of her?

I thought this was a wonderful novel, it is not solely about the immigrant experience, it is also about motherhood, and crumbs of love some people delude themselves into accepting, as we see with Nadia and the technolog (the manager who fathers Larisska). Nadia seems to spend much of her life making assumptions about people. She is a woman who really needs to learn to let go, that sometimes you have to just flow with what destiny has in store for you. Not easy when she has had to figure out so much on her own. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 26, 2019

St. Martin’s Press

 

Miracle Creek: A Novel by Angie Kim

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Did he think so much had already happened that nothing more could? But life doesn’t work like that. Tragedies don’t inoculate you against further tragedies, and misfortune doesn’t get sprinkled out in fair proportions; bad things get hurled at you in clumps and batches, unmanageable and messy. How could he not know that, after everything we’d been through?

This is a wonderfully written courtroom drama that not only tugged my emotional strings but had its twist at the end. Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine (pressurized oxygen chamber) that gives new hope to patients with varied maladies. All seems to be going swimmingly, until an explosion kills two patients within the chamber during a power outage. Others are also left with serious injuries. A trial asks, who had a reason to murder the victims because one thing is becoming more certain, it wasn’t an accident.

Young and Pak Yoo are Korean immigrants, striving for success in America. Pak had lived without his family at first, knows all about sacrificie and struggle. Surely he had more than his fair share of hardship, yet he should have known better than, on that fateful day, to ask “What could go wrong?” as if like a command, because to the universe, it’s a challenge. On opening day with all the fresh faces of hope never could those patients, and mothers have fathomed what tragedy awaited them all. With a daughter of their own about to head to off college, are they capable of committing murders for insurance money? Especially when Pak himself and their daughter Mary were also injured? Then again, why weren’t the Yoo’s present when everything went wrong? Why did they leave the patients unattended? It seems everyone has secrets, the distance between Mary and Young has been widening for a long time, like Pak says ‘you always think the worst of her’ but could she be right? Since the accident, she is much worse, but there were things before, like her daughter ignoring her, being too good to help with cooking, cleaning. This better American life didn’t include Mary stooping to that, oh no, that was all on Young’s shoulders. Now her daughter is healing, but something inside of her is tormented.

The trial seems to be focused on Elizabeth ( the defendant) mother of Henry, now deceased, with a list of disorders from Autism Spectrum to OCD. The most ‘manageable’ child of all the patients with disabilities yet the most overwhelmed, resentful, exasperated mother who everyone could see was cracking. It is true, she sometimes hurt him, it is also true she pretended to be sick and went to ‘have a smoke’ instead when the explosion happened. Is it wrong that Young feels relief that Elizabeth is the focus of the people’s fury, that she is absorbing all of the blame? What about Pak? Yes, he made a mistake, but whether he was there or not, it still would have happened, surely he can’t be blamed? Right? He can’t see everything he and his wife worked so hard for as immigrants, all to give Mary opportunity in America disappear! They need that insurance money desperately, or they won’t survive. Matt is called to witness, not so surprising as he understands better than anyone about hyperbarics, holding an M.D. as he does and he was present, after all, a patient himself, taking part in the dives to help with his infertility. He can explain how the ‘submarine’ works, to the court, the jury. He has his own deceptions to hide from his wife Janine, riveted by his answers on the stand. All of this is stirring up weeks he would rather forget, but why?

More than anything, this story is a chain of events, if you remove one action, could the outcome have been different? Is there really just one person to pin everything on or are so many others accountable? There are many roads to guilt, and it seems here every character is on one. Is the truth always the only choice? Are lies as ruinous as facing up to one’s sins? There is a lot to think about here and depending on who you ask about just such a scenario, you’ll get a different answer. Elizabeth’s situation, and Henry’s, was a very difficult read for me. I’m still gutted! This was a very touchingn novel and I look forward to Angie Kim’s next! Not all courtroom dramas can hold my attention, but Miracle Creek balanced what lead up to the trial and the aftermath perfectly.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton Books