Abbott sticks the landing and delivers a perfect 10

You Will Know Me ★★★★★
Megan Abbott
Little Brown, 2016

 

“Take my hand when I falter, for I cannot make this journey alone. I do not know you, but you will know me.”
~Nadia Comaneci, Letters to a Young Gymnast

youwillknowmeIf, like me, you’ve lived a life of inexplicable obsession fascination with the world of competitive gymnastics, this latest by the Mighty Megan Abbott is going to rock your world. If you’ve never given competitive gymnastics a single thought what is wrong with you — this book is going to rock your world anyway.

In recent years, Abbott has taken the domestic thriller, suburban noir and made it her bitch. She’s often writing about the interior lives of adolescent girls because she’s proven time and again what deep, murky waters run there, what unsettling truths there are to be found when innocence is lost and a sexual awakening is found.

You Will Know Me is more focused on the family unit this time, though its teen protagonist — 15 year old Devon Knox — certainly plays a major role. Devon’s compulsive, all-consuming journey to be the best, to be a champion, has also consumed her family — mom Katie, dad Eric, and little brother Drew (who just about broke my heart). Most of the book unfolds from Katie’s viewpoint as she strives to be the perfect support and anchor for her prodigy daughter, while keeping the domestic front of chores, groceries, wifely duties and a freelance job on track. Katie also has a quiet, patient, introverted little boy to nurture who sees much but says very little.

nadia2

Nadia Comaneci, 1976 Olympics

Down into the rabbit hole of competitive gymnastics Abbott takes us, the sacrifices required of a family to raise an Olympic competitor, because the young female gymnast could never get there on her own. But Devon’s quest to reach Olympic level competition will be threatened by the tragic death of a handsome young man, a death that comes like a nuclear bomb dropped into the middle of a perfectly, rigidly balanced life of discipline and routine. The Knox family are left reeling, seeking answers, and fearing truths. Secrets will out, and in the light of day they will come to realize that those we often feel we know the best, we don’t really know at all.

This is a twisty book, and Abbott has a few surprises up her sleeve, but not of the Gone Girl variety — that’s not what she’s up to here. I figured it all out several times, and knew where she was headed, but that in no way diminished from the sense of tension and inexorable suspense. If anything, knowing amped it all to eleven. As readers we’re watching the train leave the tracks in slow motion as the main characters move closer to unbearable discovery. And I felt the point wasn’t really figuring out what happened, the point becomes what characters do now that they know.

Abbott is at the top of her game here — I had no hesitation awarding all five stars. This one you will not want to miss.

Recently, Abbott wrote an article for Elle in which she attempts to answer: “Why Are We So Obsessed With Gymnasts?” As a companion piece to this book, it’s worth checking out.

“Because now, of course, these gymnasts are girls but also, and foremost, powerful and blazingly talented women. Perhaps that is the paradox that keeps us rapt. Biles, four feet nine inches tall, in a pink, crystal-studded leotard and with that cherubic face, radiates girl. And yet the instant she takes glorious flight, she is beyond reckoning, defying gravity, logic, reason.
~Megan Abbott, “Why We are So Obsessed With Gymnasts”

The hush at the end of the world

Good Morning, Midnight ★★★★
by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Random House
Available: August 9th 2016

goodmorningGood Morning, Midnight is the quietest apocalypse book you’re ever likely to read. From the stark, icy silences of the vast Arctic, to the soundless black infinity of outer space, this introspective book is about loneliness and isolation, not bombs, or germs or zombies and fighting like a dog over the last can of beans.

If your reader’s desire is to immerse yourself in a well-constructed and deftly explored end of the world scenario then you just might be disappointed here. Getting into the nitty gritty details of an apocalypse — the whys and wherefores — that’s not this book.

Instead what we have here is a thoughtful and poignantly written contemplation on the ways humans can cut themselves off from other humans, can so easily become trapped in their own inability to connect and build lasting relationships, moving through life untethered — on the outside of everything, apart from everyone. The two vividly described settings — the Arctic and outer space — are perfect metaphors for our disconnected protagonists to move in. Our genius astronomer Augustine is stationed at the top of the world in a remote Arctic research station when the world ends. Our intrepid female astronaut Sullivan (or Sully) is on a round trip back to Earth from the outer reaches of Jupiter, confined in tight quarters with the rest of her crew.

Each is struggling with a loneliness they can’t quite define, a torment that only becomes amplified and more crushing as the terrifying realization begins to crystallize that the world might just have ended. From space, Sully and her crew are disturbed at the utter hush of zero communication coming from Earth. What sort of cataclysmic, inexplicable event could have happened to the home planet they are speeding toward? Augustine’s Arctic life is just as silent, save for the company of a mysterious young girl left behind after the research station is evacuated.

The real strength of this book (especially considering its modest length) is the striking descriptions (at times breathtakingly rendered) of life in space and in an Arctic research facility. The attention to detail put me RIGHT THERE, I could see, taste, touch everything. I lived on the Aether and experienced the excitement, the boredom, the claustrophobia, the anxiety, the fear. The challenge of meals, and going to the bathroom, and sleeping, and staying in shape. I came to know the frigid wind of the Arctic wanting to rip my face off, and the despair of feeling swallowed up by a white frozen landscape void of humans and seemingly hope. Until the sun rises. And the descriptions — often eloquent — are not plodding or heavy. No word is wasted. The prose is so sharp and so observant.

Our protagonists Augustine and Sully — though they keep themselves busy and strive for ways to normalize a far from normal situation — will have a lot of time on their hands, empty hours that will torment them, and force them to confront painful truths about themselves and the life choices they’ve made. What lies on the other side of the apocalyptic silence is a mystery that won’t be solved, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t answers to be found.

An advanced reading copy was provided through Netgalley.

Short stories to make you shudder with delight

At The Mouth Of The River Of BeesAt the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories
★★★★★

Kij Johnson
Small Beer Press, 2012

The very short and dirty review for this collection could be — when it is good it is very, very good. But when it is bad it is horrid.

I did not love all these stories equally. In fact, several verged on epic fail for me. Which is not hard to do. I am probably the worst reader of short stories. However, those that did work sent me into such shuddering, paroxysms of delight there are no words to express my infinite admiration. My favorites worked so exquisitely on a sub-atomic, cellular level that I immediately wanted to catch a red eye to Vegas and marry them no questions asked, no pre-nup, with Elvis Presley looking on curling his lip in approval. Thank you, thank you very much. My five stars is the only way I can think of to reflect that boundless joy. Is it for every story? Absolutely not. But I have no problem letting those five stars stand.

My first introduction to Kij Johnson was in June 2011 when I read her short story Ponies. It tickled something very profound in my imagination and gave a real goose to my pleasure center (at least the part of my brain that perpetually craves dark and disturbed). Funny thing is, I picked up this collection based solely on the cover and title. I didn’t even notice that the author is the very same author who had impressed me with her little diddy about prepubescent girls and their pet ponies. When I finally put the two together in an “a-ha, duh” moment, saying I was pleased would be quite an understatement.

Kij Johnson is a bit of a mad scientist in her approach to storytelling. There is folklore, magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, fable, myth and legend. That sounds messy and confusing, and it should be. It should be a disastrous, alchemical experiment that blows the whole meth lab sky high. But somehow she makes it work, each story its own landscape playing by its own rules. She blends things in ways that made me think of how van Gogh saw sunflowers and starry nights. Even where I floundered, and did not appreciate the final destination, her prose ran like silk across the neurons of my brain, stroking them into a blissed out reader high.

Kij Johnson is on my radar. I will most definitely be keeping my eye out for more of her strange and wonderful words.

My two favorite stories of the collection are available online for free:

Ponies: If you haven’t already, read this weird and deranged tale about youthful female rites of passage and the more brutal realities of fitting in. This is a macabre spin on the innocence lost theme delivered with cutting precision that slices deep.

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss: This one made me laugh with its whimsy and weep with its melancholy. I don’t even know how to describe everything it made me feel actually. Aimee becomes the proprietor of 26 monkeys and a series of circus acts. Her biggest trick is that she makes all the monkeys vanish onstage. Where do the monkeys go? She does not know. All Aimee knows is that they return to her a few hours later bearing little trinkets from wherever they have been. The ending? Perfection in eight little words.

Honorable mentions must go to:

Names for Water – a phone call from unknown origin that whispers like water. I don’t know if everyone will love the resolution here, but it gave me goosebumps.

Fox Magic – an Asian-themed fable about love’s blindness. A fox falls in love with a man and lures him away from his human life.

Dia Chjerman’s Tale – short, almost purely science fiction tale with apocalyptic overtones. There is a vibe of dread here that I really grooved on.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees – I’m usually not one for magical realism (sometimes I’m not even sure if I’m applying the term correctly), but there’s a real dreamy quality to this one that almost hypnotized me. A woman follows a literal river of bees to its mouth. What will be waiting for her when she finally gets there? I’m thinking pet owners (and dog lovers) will find this one especially poignant.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

Review: A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash

A Land More Kind Than Home ★★★★★
Wiley Cash
William Morrow, 2012

Trade Paperback

Trade Paperback

This book has everything I love — a Southern setting, secrets, family tragedy, religious zealotry run amok, and strong narrative voices. If I had read it, it would have been an easy four stars. But because I listened to it, and the audio version is one of the best I’ve ever heard, it’s getting five stars.

This is a debut novel — is it flawless? No. But you know what? I didn’t care. I don’t think you will either. I got so swept up and carried away by the story I was being told I was living it. I was right there in that small town watching it all go down with a flutter of anxiety in my stomach, and a lump of sadness in my throat.

What really made me love this story as an audiobook is that we have three narrators read by three different readers– 1) Jess Hall, a precocious nine year old who has a penchant for spying and will eventually see something he wishes he hadn’t that will change his life and the life of his town forever 2) Adelaide Lyle, a feisty old woman who has born witness to much of the town’s history and dark secrets and 3) Clem Barefield, seasoned Sheriff with a painful past who must confront the evil that has taken hold of his town like a cancer.

Getting the story from these three very distinct voices and points of view is fantastic. It makes what is essentially a simple and straight forward story feel richer, more layered and emotional. I loved the reader for the Sheriff. What a fantastic performance. That voice married to the author’s prose is a match made in heaven. In the best ways it reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones’s performance in No Country for Old Men.

A Land More Kind Than Home is set deep in the heart of snake-handling country where you better hope that when the preacher arrives in town, he ain’t the devil in disguise.

Read this book — and if you do the audio thing — listen. You won’t be able to stop, I promise.

And since I have a thing for book trailers, this one does a great job of capturing the edgy, southern Gothic mood of this novel that’s so portent with revelation, betrayals, and tragedy.

This review is also posted to Goodreads.

Recommended Readalikes:

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter | Tom Franklin
The Devil All The Time | Donald Ray Pollock
The Scent of Rain and Lightning | Nancy Pickard

Going up the country – the rise of rural lit (and why you need to be reading it)

I just came across a great online piece written last year by Keith Rawson called: It’s More Than Just Meth Labs and Single-Wides: A Rural Noir Primer. First of all, that’s a great title. More importantly, if the terms rural noir, country noir, country crime, or hick lit don’t mean anything to you, then listen up. Maybe you’re already reading it and just didn’t know what to call it (neither does anyone else really, hence all the grab bag terminology). If you’re not reading it, I’m here to convince you of why you need to start.

american salvage

American Salvage: Stories
Bonnie Joe Campbell

These are tales about ordinary folk trapped in dead-end places in dead-end lives who don’t even have the wherewithal or wisdom to get the hell out of Dodge even if it means chewing their own goddam leg off to do so. No matter how beautifully written — the stories reveal a kind of brutalization lined with a deep and abiding sadness. People are desperate — or deranged — and behave accordingly. Sometimes it’s because of crushing poverty, other times it is because of inheriting a mantle of family violence that stretches back countless generations. I don’t know what that says about me that this sort of visceral reading experience appeals to me, but it does. Perhaps it’s the cold comfort that no matter how bad my life seems at any given moment on any given day, it will never be as bad as that.

For the 21st century urban dweller, roots firmly embedded in concrete and steel, the rural landscape has become mysterious and alien (and a little unsettling). As the Coen brothers were quick to point out in the tagline for their Oscar-winning film Fargo: A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. What we’re seeing is a rising breed of novelist that seeks to show us exactly what that looks like. Patterns begin to emerge of settings devastated by economic collapse and shrinking populations. Communities no longer able to thrive by farming, factory or mining work are left vulnerable to a sad litany of drug dependency, alcoholism, violent crime, domestic violence, depression and suicide.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the genre is distinctly an American one, being written post 9-11, post wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and post the financial meltdown and government bailouts. There’s been a human cost to all of this, that’s manifesting itself in some very heartbreaking and frightening ways in rural settings noted for their isolation. What all this doom and gravitas adds up to is some phenomenal writing by extremely talented authors. The work may not always be uplifting, but it never stops being compelling.

Check out Country Noir on Goodreads
and the Rural Noir board on Pinterest.

I’ve been adding these books to a shelf called ‘Good Country People‘ named after the short story by Flannery O’Connor (you can read it here). There’s still so much I have yet to explore, but here I will offer my thoughts on several five star reads to get you started. Writing doesn’t get any better than this, in any genre.

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winters boneWinter’s Bone ★★★★★
Daniel Woodrell

Woodrell is a master of his craft. His prose is poetry and grit. Winter’s Bone is a stinging portrait of impoverished life in the Ozarks, where kin saves as often as it condemns. The hill people of Ree’s world live by their own laws separate from that of the state — of paramount importance, don’t be a snitch and mind your own business. Bad things happen to anyone who talks too much or asks too many questions. Unfortunately, sixteen year old Ree has a lot of questions that need answering with only her to ask them. Left on her own to protect a shattered mother and two helpless kid brothers, Ree is desperate to uncover the whereabouts of her meth-making father. She must venture into the cold and ice and pass over hostile thresholds where she is neither invited nor wanted.

Woodrell is not out to romanticize this hill life or the hardscrabble characters living it. He wants us to see the ugly, to feel it in our bones, but for all of that there is tremendous beauty here as well, in the simplicity of a proud people who do what they must to survive in an environment that does not forgive weakness or stupidity lightly.

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devil all the timeThe Devil All The Time ★★★★★
Donald Ray Pollock

Pollock writes gritty, raw, uncompromising prose that snaps and bites at your soft spots. Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, Pollock’s debut novel is a tangled web of tales about a desperate father who cannot save his wife from the grave, whose grief will derange him; his young son who grows into a man haunted by his mother’s death and his father’s insanity; a psychopathic couple cleaved together through sex and violence haunting the back roads of America hunting for their next perfect victim; and a spider handling preacher with a wheelchair bound partner on the run from the law and a dark past of their own.

Pollock is able to juggle multiple narrative threads, do each of them justice, and have them collide and intersect with one another in a convincing, satisfying way. He makes it look so easy. This is a dark novel, full of dark deeds that promises neither redemption nor offers any hope. I found parts of this novel very difficult to read, and not because Pollock is explicit in his descriptions, because he isn’t. He refrains from showing the reader everything, leaving room for what you can imagine. But his prose is vivid nevertheless, and there are scenes from this novel that I will never forget.

knockemstiffAlso not to be missed is Pollock’s collection of short stories Knockemstiff. What can I say? It knocked me flat on my ass. The writing is lean, mean and precise. I’m amazed how quickly Pollock was able to drop me into any story and feel like I’d been reading about the characters for hundreds of pages already. Also adding to the overall reading experience here is the fact that many of these stories interconnect so that a character from one will reappear in another, usually older and even more damaged than when we first meet them. This gives the collection a kind of coherency where the sum is far greater than the individual parts. And of those opening sentences? Here are a few of my favorites. By reading these I think you’ll be able to tell whether this collection is for you or not.

Real Life: My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.

Hair’s Fate: When people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely. Daniel liked to pretend that anyway. He needed the long hair. Without it, he was nothing but a creepy country stooge from Knockemstiff, Ohio–old people glasses and acne sprouts and a bony chicken chest.

Fish Sticks: It was the day before his cousin’s funeral and Del ended up at the Suds washing his black jeans at midnight. They were the only pants he owned that were fit for the occasion.

Bactine: I’d been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.

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crooked letterCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter ★★★★★
Tom Franklin

Franklin’s descriptions of human isolation and loneliness are so raw and uncompromising I forced myself to take breathers between reading sessions. I don’t think this is a book meant to be read in one gulp; it is made up of so much complexity and depth that it’s better to sip from its well, savor what you’ve tasted, and then go back for more.

This book had me at hello: it’s set in the American south, it features the mess of family dynamics, and secrets big and small stalk its pages. It is a coming-of-age story and at its center are two boys — Silas and Larry. Their lives intersect in ways neither could have predicted, and one of them must carry the pain and punishment of that connection his entire life. It is a heavy burden, but I will say not without redemption.

I love Larry Ott — not only is he a die-hard Stephen King fan, despite years of being ruthlessly cast as town pariah, Larry quietly goes on about his business. He is not consumed by bitterness, or enraged by the unfairness of the abuse that has been heaped upon him. That takes a strong man, and this is what probably made me the most sad is that Larry doesn’t know how great and kind a man he really is. Beaten down first by his father, then by the town, he is prevented from discovering his true qualities of inner strength and dignity. Read this book. It is beautiful. So very sad, but beautiful.

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Last but not least there’s the ferocious and insane Frank Bill. I have recently discussed both his collection of short stories and his debut novel Donnybrook. Clicking on the book covers will take you to my reviews.

Crimes in Southern Indiana donnybrook

All roads lead to the Donnybrook

We got no jobs, no money, no power, no nothin’, nothin’ to live for ‘cept vice and indulgence. That’s how they control us. But it’s falling apart. What we got is our land and our machines, our families and our ability to protect it all, to keep them alive. We got our hands. Ones who’ll survive will be the ones can live from the land. Can wield a gun. Those folks’ll fight for what little they’ve got. They’ll surprise the criminals with their own savagery.
~ Donnybrook: A Novel, Frank Bill.

donnybrookDonnybrook: A Novel ★★★★★
Frank Bill
FSG Originals, 2013
Available Now

I was already familiar with Frank Bill’s writing after surviving a close encounter with his debut — the short story collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. Upon finishing those stories, my only thought was: “Jesus Christ, this man is a lunatic” — and then immediately, “I want more!” For sure the stories are raw and unpolished, and perhaps a little too overeager to tell rather than show, but there is also an urgency, a ferocity to the writing that refuses to be ignored. It’s so in your face that at times it feels like an assault. I loved it!

So you can bet when I heard this guy was about to publish his first novel I became very afraid, and very, very obsessed with getting my hands on it to read it.

Usually my eyes tend to glaze over and ignore most book blurbs because they always seem so generic and at their worst, sycophantic. But at their best, book blurbs can capture in a few short phrases the very tail of the beast itself and show you its face. As much as I loathe the majority, there are some that do their job so well, they deserve to be recognized along with the book they’re blurbing. I only say this now to emphasize that Bill has attracted the attention of authors I love and respect and if you’re not going to listen to me when I say this guy’s the real deal, then maybe you’ll listen to them:

Donnybrook is vivid in its violence, grim in its grimness. It reams the English language with a broken beer bottle and lets the blood drops tell the story. — Daniel Woodrell, (Winter’s Bone)

With action like a belt across the face and vivid prose like a stroke up the neck, Frank Bill’s astonishing novel…renders you punch-drunk. Here’s the writer to watch: mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Megan Abbott, (Dare Me)

I also like this one by Bonnie Jo Campbell: “Don’t poke this book with a stick or you’ll make it angry.” And trust me — you won’t like this book when it’s angry. Goodreads friend Jacob writes in his review:

something this good should be illegal, because the act of hunting down a banned copy and hiding from the censors and morality police to read it is the only goddamn way it could get any better. Donnybrook is a relentless, no-holds-barred, total fucking mind-fuck of endless violence…

Frank Bill (author)

Frank Bill (author)

Yeah, like that. But now you’re looking at me tapping your foot impatiently saying: “Yeah, but what the hell is this book about?” I could give you the plot summary lowdown — about bare-knuckle fighting in the backwoods of Southern Indiana, about desperate family man Jarhead Johnny Earl who’s going to steal a thousand dollars to cover the entry fee into the infamous annual Donnybrook tournament.

Then there’s meth-making brother and sister Angus (nickname Chainsaw) and Liz who put the F.U.N. in family dysfunction. They’ve just lost their last batch of dope and are determined to recoup their losses, no matter who gets in their way, even if it means each other. Like any great rural crime story, you’ve got the steely, determined deputy Sheriff following a trail of dead bodies into a trap he has no idea lays in wait for him. Last but not least, there’s Chinese “collection agent” Fu, who’s about as badass a dude as you’re ever going to meet. He is awesome.

This mad, manic mélange of murderers, misfits and miscreants will eventually descend upon the Donnybrook — a three day stint of brawling, booze and drugs run by a man named McGill, who makes the Governor from the Walking Dead comics look like Mr. Rogers. But it’s not about the final destination folks, but the journey to get there, and (to quote one of my favorite movie taglines ever): who will survive and what will be left of them. Reading this book I couldn’t help but be reminded of the lucid insanity of some of Tarantino’s best work — the ensemble characters, the multiple plot threads, and how it all comes crashing together in the end with defined, divine purpose. Hells yeah, people. This is the good shit. Heisenberg grade blue.

Frank Bill is a writer you want to watch. You can find out more about him at his blog House of Grit or follow him on Twitter @HouseofGrit. And as my mama always told me — never trust a man with two first names.

This review also appears at Shelf Inflicted.

Megan Abbott writes suburban noir cheerleaders

Dare Me ★★★★
Megan Abbott
Reagan Arthur Books, 2012

dare meI’ve read gobs of creepy books and watched heaps of horror movies, but nothing can run a spike of scare through me quite like a gaggle of teen girls. You knew these things already, didn’t you? Or at least suspected — the vicious, petty jealousies, the unchecked hormones, the cutting intelligence harnessed to manipulate and intimidate, the capricious cruelty, the fathomless insecurities, the abiding self-loathing … need I go on?

Teen girls are a tribe unto themselves, with their own language, dress code, rules of behavior, and very specific rites of passage. Every day is Lord of the Flies day for teen girls. They don’t need no stinking island to channel their inner savage, alright? Stephen King knew this when he has Carrie White cornered and bleeding from her first menses in the girl’s high school locker room while her classmates pelt her with sanitary napkins and tampons chanting: “Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!”

In Dare Me, Megan Abbott takes you deep into teen girl territory, so deep you will flinch, and grimace and squirm at all the things she’s going to show you. It’s a sordid voyeurism that will have you screaming for more. This isn’t a darkly humorous satire à la Mean Girls or Heathers. Not at all. This is a sober, penetrating look at the inner lives of a group of cheerleaders — their insular, isolated existence as members of a tribe within a tribe. Their rituals include starvation diets and brute, physical demands requiring near constant pain and risk of serious injury.

Into a volatile balance of power comes new Head Coach Collette French. Loyalties shift, boundaries are tested, trusts will be broken and amidst all the angst and perpetual drama, a body will be discovered. For Ms. Abbott isn’t just writing cheerleaders, she’s writing noir cheerleaders, with a rich cast of characters each vying for the role of femme fatale.

This is a story icky in parts dealing as it does in burgeoning, pubescent sexuality, obsessions and desires. For all of that it is bloody fascinating featuring an engaging plot that Abbott has exquisitely paced. I read this in one sitting. I was violently pulled into this world and held captive the entire time. This isn’t a happy story. You’ve been warned. Also, DO NOT make the mistake of assuming that because she is writing about teen girls, that Megan Abbott is writing Young Adult fiction. Her stories are very much Adult fiction written for adults, in themes, language and execution.

Related post: Megan Abbott knocks the wind out of me

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