Happy Like This by Ashley Wurzbacher

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The rest of her life: looming, open-mouthed. She was heading straight for it on autopilot but couldn’t recall having chosen or engineered it.

This is an incredibly engaging debut collection of stories, which I devoured! My only complaint is it ended too soon, I wanted more. The writing is beautiful, it brings light to dark thoughts, it speaks of the intelligent minds of women and their choices. The happy pink cover betrays the depth of the female characters within perfectly, just like the world does. I do love the cover though, it’s simplicity, it reminds me of doodles in a journal. There is a line in the very first story, Like That Sickness and Health, that shocked my insides, there are mothers like this (some can’t help themselves really and others are a whole other nightmare) “…her mother, for some reason, making problems in the few places in her life where there weren’t problems already-“, I know there are women out there who feel that like a boulder in their stomach. Mothers can make things so much harder sometimes. Sickness as a study, what afflicts one afflicts in some ways all. Ashley Wurzbacher absolutely pins the female psyche in place for perfect study from the start. This has become one of my favorite short stories collection, and I can’t wait to see what this author rustles up in the future. There is something rich about pain for women, these college girls in particular, how they use it or ignore it and soldier on- this is one of the best short stories I ever read. Pain as expression, a language for what we can’t or won’t say. As  Mia works on her dissertation, “A Qualitative Study of the Effects of Factitious Disorders on the Social Lives of College-Attending Females”, she learns more about herself in the midst of these needy, suffering girls and their ‘exaggerated symptoms’.

What does happiness look like? Ambition? Love? Women make choices, sometimes just to feel moments, not to erase what already is. Not everything has to build and intensify, though often they do grow out of our control, these desires. In Happy Like That, Elaine tries to understand her dead friend’s secret affair. How she misses Lillian’s raw honesty, her ‘ease’ that Elaine longed to ‘soak up’. A friendship of opposites, the sort that pulls at you to judge the world less harshly.

I was absolutely charmed by Like This American Moon, “the foreign girl is coming”, it smacks of expectations and the ridiculous assumptions so many make about foreigners, more so when you’re stagnant and haven’t seen anything of the world. Take heart! Those of us who have been abroad and visited by family from other countries know full well over there, wherever there may be, hilarity over how they imagine Americans are can ensue too. Americans aren’t the only ones making outlandish assumptions, though we do make an art form of it. How does author Ashley Wurzbacher manage to tickle me with her characters humor and at the same time knock me senseless with sorrow? Some people never go anywhere, not because they are lost in a swamp of ignorance but because they are forced into a limited existence, so often born into it. You can love a way of life, even while you are dying inside. I think twelve year old Jean has a lot figured out before her time, and largely due to the disappointment adults dish out to her, I warmed to her fast.

I can’t crow loudly enough to do this collection justice, it’s not just for the women, though it is about them. Is it the world breaking us, or are we the ones doing the breaking of our own spirit? It depends on circumstance. To be young again and desperate to understand just who you are now, who you are going to be, to feel the rush of first moments like love as if it’s bound to cleave you in two, how do we figure out anything? When do we? How do we get to a point where we fizzle out, or lack ambition? When do we get scared of all the dangerous things that can happen, like Robin in The Problem With You Is That? Why must women so often be the villain, forced into taking a stance to keep others safe? This isn’t a collection about what women are supposed to be, marching together in perfect harmony cocksure about life and their place in it, oh no- these are women who haven’t figured things out, or young girls hungry for identity or sick with expectations and wanting to curl up in the comfort of illness. Women who are just trying to keep people safe, or life together, or figure out what direction the wind is going to blow them next time. Age isn’t the identifier of wisdom, a young girl can be shrewd in the assessment of where she stands socially in the world. She can understand her damaged father more than her mother, who long ago left. Women are wise creatures, but we are a bit faulty sometimes and maybe it’s because the world demands so much of us. Hell yes, read this collection! I have a new favorite author!

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

University of Iowa Press

 

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The Art of Regret: A Novel by Mary Fleming

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This meant that all the thoughts, all the feelings, all the half-remembered things stayed trapped in my brain. Like birds in an overcrowded cage, they flapped wing against wing with nowhere to go.

Trevor is an American, the United States his true home and this is the one permanent, solid fact of his childhood. Possibly the only fact he remembers correctly. It is in America that his family structure crumbles after incredible loss and from that moment on changes the meaning of home, both physically and emotionally. Silence serves to disrupt the natural process of grief, and France becomes his family’s destination all because mother had once ‘spent a fun year in Paris’. So much of his youth is buried, things never discussed, questions never posed, everything figured out on his own when he is just a boy which sadly Trevor builds his memory upon. As soon as he is all grown up, he will return to America! That is the driving force of his youth and everyone knows it. And yet…

We find him in his thirties, running a Parisian bicycle shop that he ‘inherited’ from the prior owner. Nothing about the old shop has changed, much like the rest of his life, here too Trevor is  ‘just passing through’ and has no plan to alter anything, leaving the shop much as it was when the previous owner Nigel was alive. It isn’t really his, that seems to be the one thought that pervades his life, the feeling that nothing belongs to him- not country, family, lovers nor business. The bike shop is barely surviving until he has a turn of luck when transit workers go on strike, paralyzing the train and subway system fighting for social security reform. Suddenly, his bike sales are kicking up, eviction lo longer looming but it was never his dream. Just another thing that ‘fell into his lap’, not much of a choice. He is the black sheep of his family, and when love presents itself, it’s going to be yet another threat to the shaky relationships he maintains with his brother and mother. Trevor finally feels something worth holding tight to, sordid or not, this attraction is impossible to deny and why should he? He feels electric with it!

His relationship with his brother Edward is one of punishment, rejection and regret. Wildly opposite of each other, both chose to process the tragedy of their childhood in different ways, one that distanced them as siblings and challenged loyalty (at least to Trevor’s mind). But how much of what we believe and build our morality upon is ever factual? How much do we destroy on our ‘self-righteous path’, forcing us to stop seeing our own blood as people with feelings too, doing their best to have a life? The danger in keeping the past locked up tight is how much love we push away, and all the mistaken beliefs that are given life. Trevor has always felt that his mother too is suspect, the careless whims leading them all to Paris, forcing her children into a brand new life in a foreign country, making a ghost of the family they once were, not realizing how much it will haunt Trevor into adulthood. Maybe the very things that drives him from his family began with her or at least his invention of who she is, rather than knowing the truth. It may not just be all ‘appearances’ his mother cares about, like any of us, she too has her reasons.

We often decide on our own facts within the family, and carry that into relationships we build or deny. There in lies the germ, how we invent everyone, rather than seeing them as they are and as we see with Trevor, we do it with ourselves as well. He spends so much time holed up in his own world, not wanting to let anyone in, especially his family.

What happens after the fall may be the making of Trevor, finally. Can family ever mend, from the biggest betrayals? Trevor has a lot to learn, his myopic view of everyone in his life alienates him, of his own accord. Tragedy slips in again and I felt choked up, which doesn’t happen often in fiction for me. I sometimes wanted to punch Trevor as much as his brother does. It all began with his mother and ends with her too, and all I can think about is how much we destroy our families when we stubbornly decide things, based on weak assumptions. How often it is our own lack of effort at fault, we ourselves who cause so much damage to our happiness, and that of others.

For a brief time the reader lives like a true Parisian, and it’s lovely but for me it truly is a novel about the art of regret, the ways we shock ourselves with our choices, behavior. If Trevor is lucky he will make amends before it’s too late. If he could just stop seeing himself as a victim that the whole world, or more his family, is against. I read it with a heavy heart, but the city of Paris was a balm.

Publication date: October 22, 2019

She Writes Press

 

What I Lived For by: Joyce Carol Oates

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Always Jerome Corcoran would recall how nothing that is has the power to evoke what was.

Jerome Andrew Corcoran, “Corky” is a 43-year-old real estate developer and broker, a city councilman with a future in politics. He is also so much a MAN that you almost have to wonder, have you ever had a mother? Do you even like women? I tried to like him, I tried but it’s hard!  His mother did fall apart after his father’s murder, surely that did something to him. Childhood trauma absolutely molds us in some way. Oates brings her characters alive, down to the disgusting things that go through their mind. With Joyce Carol Oates you have a guarantee the characters she creates are never censored beings. There is nothing diluted in Corky, and he isn’t better for it, no sir… but he is more believable. “He is a man in motion. No sooner gets to one place and loves it then he’s restless and bored and can’t bear to stay another minute.” He is exhausting, intolerable and unapologetically what other men used to believe exemplified manliness. A man who would, to my way of thinking, smell of smoke, whiskey, sweat and the lingering expensive perfume of his last lover. What made him this way, is it the horrific tragedy from his childhood when “God struck swiftly and without warning. No Mercy.” Did something die in him or worse, was some misery born out of the grief? Is it the tragedy of knowing and not knowing what you should know?

Union City, New York is his! Democrat, businessman, popular guy! “Forty-three years old. Not young but anyway not old.”  This Irishman has got plans and time is on his side, he is sure Christina Kavanaugh is his but then he is sure of a lot of things isn’t he, Mr. Cocksure? He’s high and mighty now, nothing of the boy with humble beginnings and the air of tragedy hanging about him. The past is behind him, where it will stay. The women love him, but Thalia, his ex-step daughter with ex-wife Charlotte Drummond (11 years that one lasted) is one female that knows how to play games with him. A young woman of “unpredictable moods”, who leaves a message that she needs help, it’s serious and then nothing. Unreachable. But he can’t think about that, his mind is on Christina and he’s hot for her now! Corky’s not one for thinking about the whys of his own life, ‘he’s not a guy comfortable inside his own head’, and let’s face it, many of us won’t feel comfortable in his head-space either but damn if I wasn’t engaged poking around in there.

He has made it, all I kept thinking is ‘he’s a mover and a shaker’ and of course there is going to be corruption and betrayal in every corner! Power welcomes it. All those smiling people, maybe for all the screwing he is up to it’s Corky being screwed, not the women. In the beginning there is a traffic jam, caused by a young woman’s suicide, strange that yet another tragic death will again be a pivotal moment in his life, just like his father’s murder. He’s middle aged and haunted by his past, he tries to fill himself up on success and sex and women. If you can control everything, than tragedy can’t touch you, right? Neither can age. Is he a pig? Yes and no, maybe he has something redeemable, you have to stick with the novel long enough to find out. How is Thalia tied into all of this, what has she done? What does she know? We all want to be seen as who we profess ourselves to be. The only difference here is we are privy to Corky’s deepest thoughts, to the things that stir him, even shameful desires. We see behind the closed door, when he erupts, hitting his woman. Yeah, like I said, he isn’t exactly the guy you want to love. Women, he knows, you can get away with anything, even the worst things about a man, ‘if they love you, you can’t lose’ and such women will find terrible things sexy, forgivable. It pisses you off, because there are plenty of people who think just this way! Worse, it is sometimes true!

With Thalia, “by Corky’s request she never called him anything other than “Corky”, she was obviously kept at a distance, no ‘daddy’ aspirations, fuzzy father daughter intimacies he can remind her of. The resentment she feels for him as fresh as yesterday, likening him to her grandfather seemingly disinterested herself in all her wealth, the very power and success he needs. He thinks he has her figured out, like all women but maybe it’s she that has him pegged. His hunger, knowing he probably is sexually stirred by her too. Maybe he has tried to remain unaffected, but Thalia is in a bad way, which begs the question, what will he do about it? Who the hell can he trust? All those mighty people rubbing shoulders and the terrible rotten things they do. Will he be a hero? Shouldn’t he, of all people, understand injustice?

All of Oates’ work speaks for itself, even if you find a character repulsive or more human than you want to admit, it can’t be denied she can really get into the mind of anyone she so chooses. While not my favorite, I always find her work meaty.

Publication Date: July 23, 2019

ECCO

HarperCollins

The Man Who Saw Everything:A Novel by Deborah Levy

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“Yes,” older Jennifer said, “I knew I had to get away from your love as fast as possible.”

It is 1988, Saul Adler is a beautiful, young Historian thinking only about his glamorous girlfriend Jennifer, a photographer who is planning to take a picture of him crossing Abbey Road just like the Beatles album cover for his host’s sister Luna, who adores the Beatles. In three days he is meant to leave for East Germany (GDR) to research “cultural opposition  to the rise of facism in the 1930s at Humboldt University”. Granted permission  into the archives for promising to ‘engage sensitively’ and ‘focus on education, healthcare and housing for all it’s citizens’, subjects of which he had discussed with his own father before he died.  Here Walter Müller will be his translator but right now his mind is stuck on Jennifer when he is nearly run over in a zebra crossing (pedestrian crosswalk) falling back instead on the curb. The car that comes seemingly out of nowhere and nearly hits him is driven by a man in his sixties named Wolfgang, and so follows a peculiar interaction, the novel itself is a peculiar interaction with the reader and yet compelling for this very reason. Looking back on his notes from the night before, his hip sore from the fall, he thinks about his dead father who was a tyrant much like Joseph Stalin. He remembers how his brother doled out the punishment for their father, for Saul being so fragile, so much like his dead mother, for not being the right sort of son, his father offended always by his ‘sublime beauty’.  Beauty that can seem to the reader like a blessing and curse. His relationship with Jennifer is crumbling and he isn’t really sure why.  Jennifer feels she isn’t really seen by Saul, does she wish to be seen beyond her beauty, is that why describing her with words is verboten? But does she see him beyond his ‘sublime beauty’ or care about his mind? He is confused by her adamant complaints that he doesn’t see her, doesn’t know anything about her art of which, by the way, he is the subject, but she is all he sees! He would marry her! She wants to end things, ‘you will always be my muse‘ and so with the death of his father and relationship ending he is ready for great change.  It is in GDR that his life splits and forks when he meets his translator Walter Müller and Walter’s sister Luna. Told not to say ‘everything was grey and crumbling’ in his report, the truth is Walter is a relief, spending time laughing in his company, finding pleasure in someone who isn’t about ‘material gain’ frees Saul. Censorship here, he knows, isn’t any different than Jennifer’s censorship of his thoughts and feelings for her.

Something strange is happening, objects look familiar like the tiny carved wooden train Walter is holding. There are new desires too, who knew mushroom hunting could be such a pleasurable experience. With his father’s ashes in tow, the haunting memories of his past too have hitched a ride. People he meets become consumed by him, Saul always the center of others. Luna is no exception. “Your hair is so black. Like the birds in the fields.” There is a lot he doesn’t see in GDR too, truths about Walter, Luna, and Walter’s colleague Rainier. Just who is Rainier really, with his acoustic guitar and interested questioning? It’s not just about communism, country, family, sex or love. It’s all those things. It’s about time and memories, about how our version of reality can be a fiction we tell ourselves. We are all haunted houses, in a sense, age at times bringing more questions, regrets like phantoms.

The past, present and future come at us fast and we are all splintered beings. Saul’s love is fluid, and not any easier for it. We are really not the stars in anyone’s lives, not even our own. When told to ‘go back to your world’, which world is that? People are suddenly older, and Saul knows everything but not how or why. His story is shattered, time is slippery and faces, people are blurring and blending. It’s how we fail to be there, how we destroy others being entrenched so deeply in ourselves. Everything is a weight, even the things we think we shucked off.

This is like a drunken read I don’t believe I would have understood were I younger, fresher and less jaded. It’s horrible and beautiful because it reveals cracks in human beings, I think. You get lost in the tangle, the shame, joy, pain, love and confusion of Saul’s life. Missing so much like you will in your own, if you live long enough for regrets, for a long hard look in a fractured mirror reflecting the many versions of you. I like that the Abbey Road photograph is the beginning of this story, we have these photographic memories of ours that never tell the whole tale, only hint at what is happening. These flashes of ours, wondering what’s outside the photo, who is the eye, what are the subjects thinking and feeling behind what we can behold. This novel put me in a weird frame of mind.

This is certainly an engaging read, but it is dizzying. In the beginning you are like a newborn baby trying to make sense of weird occurrences, not understanding up from down.

Deborah Levy’s writing can unsettle you, but I enjoy her work for that reason.

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

Bloomsbury Publishing

 

Maggie Brown & Others: Stories by Peter Orner

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Amazing what our bodies are designed to take.

Amazing what our hearts and souls are designed to take too. This is a hell of a collection of connected stories by Peter Orner. I was blown away by all of the characters because they resembled reality too much, the pain of being alive, our insecurities, our curiosity about family members closest to us, our assumptions about others that diminish them as people. There are stories about the fire of youth and the desires that flow beneath our skin, how hungry our hormones make us, how did we survive all that want? Later in life, the ache of it all, the self-pity. You can’t feel too sorry for the characters because when you do, you are snapped back into reality by lines such as this “He’d grown up poor, he said. That’s novel? The mass of humanity lives a world away from a hot bath.” I am always hungry for short stories that throw the reader right into a town, a house, a family, any situation where I can immediately understand the score because the writing is saturated with insight and emotions, the atmosphere rich, going between light and heavy. This line “He’d written, he told her, about flower children because they made him laugh. Spent my life trying to get clean and these kids can’t get dirty enough.”  That is gold, it sums up so much with a few choices words. Writing at its best. Truly, I was hooked.

My heart could break, my breath catch with a line describing our narrator’s mother, about her hands while she played the piano because he humanized her so tenderly in The Case against Bobbie. We dance through time, through our own hearts, first memories, beginnings, endings and all the decisions we face each day simply because we exist. How we live with what remains when death decides to court us. Wealth to poverty, love to the absence of it, youth to old age, and the curiousness of the parts we all play in between. Why do some images stick while some are diluted or fade away entirely? How strange to be a human being, what imperfect creatures we are.

Yes, yes add this collection to the top of your TBR list! These short stories swallowed me as much as a full length novel.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

 

We Will Tell You Otherwise: Stories by Beth Mayer

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You have to count your blessings. Or pick your poison. And for God’s sake, not every single thing means some other terrible thing. But that I keep to myself.

This collection of stories by Beth Mayer will play with your emotions, is it dark? It can be, human behavior isn’t always pretty. It is moments of people at their best and worst. The very first story can break your heart as in Tell Me Something I Don’t Know a father tells us about his mother’s visit to give he and his wife a break, trying to get through the heavy days of their little boy Ethan’s chemo for his brain tumor. How do you grab happiness watching your child suffer, how do you break out of the fear that something worse is waiting around the corner?

In When The Saints Tell Their Own we’re left to wonder who is broken, when Blue (the narrator’s brother), checks himself into a hospital because ‘something is wrong with him’ but she is the one talking to the saints. Each story has fractures, I loved Let Her Tell The Way. It is the summer of 1978 and a family of four is meant to go on a vacation but the father (Bill’s) loyalty is always his clients (he owns and runs a funeral home). But this time, Peggy (wife/mother) is going to go on the trip as planned, of course her eldest child and headstrong daughter is going to test her. “The girl thought of herself first (always) and it was ugly.” What stuck to my guts is the disappointment, their trip is closer to reality than all the happy ads we see about how great getting away is. You take your family issues with you. Even the little ones can’t rally enough happiness to make it work, “The children bore too much.”  There is a short little story too from the “summer people” who really don’t mind the old bachelor whose family has been on the lake for generations… no, not at all. They tolerate the locals.. sure they do. If they don’t stay long they won’t be infected by whatever miseries visit the locals, right?

The lump in my throat remained from Don’t Tell Me How This Story Ends, it’s for imperfect families, the ones who have a revisionist in their midst. Truth is malleable for some, the convenience of old age or ‘forgetting’ to suit your own conscience… it hit hard for me. The most difficult family member (here it’s a father) but it can be anyone, grandparent, mother, sibling, uncle… that their fragility humanizes them, the unfairness of it all, when it seems they should be punished for the cruelty they spread. Life doesn’t play out like that though does it? Not always.

A young boy seeks council about his future through his classmate Suzy, a man fancies old-fashioned ways until his world is rocked by a mysterious girl who will help him navigate the technology he hates and a young girl finds a best friend in the beautiful Cha Cha McGee who the whole town may want to mark just as badly as Lady Pearson, the harlot, witch…  These stories are all about human nature in its many forms. This is an author to watch.

Publication Date: August 20, 2019

Black Hawk Press

Beth Mayer is the Hudson Prize Winner

for more information  https://www.blacklawrence.com/we-will-tell-you-otherwise/

Mrs. Everything: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner

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“This life,” Cal said. “You have to give up a lot, I have family who won’t see me. It’s hard. It’s not for everyone.”

In the beginning, it is older sister  Jo “tall and gangly and everything she did was wrong” and little sister Bethie ” chubbie and cute” a child who “always said exactly the right thing” that complete the makeup of the Kaufman family.  Where Jo is closer to her father, Bethie is Mommie’s perfect darling, a child who doesn’t behave in the unnatural manner her older ‘tom boy’ sister Jo does. It is 1950’s Detroit and their new home is surrounded by families just like them, “birds of a feather” all perfectly flocking together in rhythm and God forbid you are “different.” No one tests their mother more than Josette, who doesn’t mean to be so difficult and really cannot explain why things that come easy to others is so hard for her. She can’t help but be herself, even when she tries to be the good girl her mother desires, catastrophe follows and boy does her mother make sure she knows just how much she fails to be the daughter she wants.

It isn’t only within her family that her nature brushes against societal norms. Friendships with other girls mean more than they should, her wants and desires for her future are thwarted by the times Jo lives in, and will chip away at her dreams of freedom. An athlete, a writer, liberal minded coming of age in a conservative world will whip her into an acceptable shape. Through betrayal of those she loves most, and of course responsibility to her little sister and impossible to please mother, Jo (like countless women before her) will forget herself in order to fit in. Marriage, children… she is finally a good girl, right? The world isn’t ready to accept a woman like her, to let her live freely. It’s not safe to be her true self.

Bethie’s beauty should make her world a tasty confection and guarantee her most fevered dreams come true. Her mother knows she’s meant to be something special one day!  A girl who everyone loves immediately, the perfect lil’ helper, people pleaser, someone whose very nature charms everyone in her orbit, why… what could possibly derail her future? Sometimes, a girl with so much appeal attracts nothing but danger, through no fault of her own. Bethie learns nothing stays sweet in an ugly world, and before long becomes the subversive daughter that Jo once was, refusing to settle in one place nor with a man. There is so much to taste in the forbidden elsewhere! If Josette wants to spend her life being content, tied to convention… well bully for her. No one is going to tame Bethie. Let Jo pretend!

This is a book about women, their options, the opportunities and lack thereof. The shaming when a daughter, mother, sister dares to look beyond the plans other’s have made for her. The disapproval she will encounter when she strikes out on her own, against the will of her mother/father or husband. The ever looming threat of losing your family if you chose anything for yourself that isn’t ‘approved’. The lessening that is expected when one becomes a wife, mother. Before long, you’ve lost yourself. Too it is about the abuse that girls welcome (according to the world, at least) or have to accept for the sake of survival.

The sisters who once had to support each other drift apart, each denying themselves their true natures. Life happens, it brutalizes and punishes in unequal measure. From an early loss both find themselves sacrificing their dreams and even innocence. It is a story about sisterhood, motherhood and in a sense, self-hood and how every choice or the transgressions of others, and the demands the world puts on us makes us who we are, for better or worse. The question is, can we come back to the self we once buried in order to be accepted?

What is more heartbreaking than thinking about the deaths we suffer, internally, of our many selves? The times Josette and Bethie came of age in were full of strife and civil unrest. Children who questioned their parents ways, be it a mild irritation such as why the fuss of dressing like some cookie cutter family, or the heavy, senseless, shameful weight of their parents racism weren’t exactly the ideal child. Children didn’t question the ways of the adult world, period. Step out of line, and you will be tarred and feathered. You were not free to love where you wanted, with so many constraints, this is why free love (social, sexual movement) was born. Many people bucked convention. Yet children eventually want to please, to have their mother/father’s love, sadly at the expense of their real selves. Other little boys and girls, they get too much unwanted love from some adults. It’s hard to write about this novel without giving away everything that happens, but it truly is a novel full of heartbreak and hope. When it’s your turn to be a parent, despite promising yourself you will do better than your mother/father, you can bet a child will introduce you to your weaker self. Life happens, and comes full circle and at heart it is a tale of two sisters that find their way back to each other.

Publication Date: June 11, 2019  Out Tomorrow!

Atria Books