Denizens of the grungier side of life dominate the assured stories in Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker (Godshot). The protagonists portrayed here, most of them California women, lead lives dominated by addiction and despair and are often unaware of the implications of their actions. These are stories of women with unrealistic dreams who turn to God to provide solace, mothers and children with difficult relationships, a "lady bartender" who snorts cocaine and hopes to "get me a job doing up ladies' faces at the mall" and a brothel madam whose mother was kidnapped and never found. Readers also meet boyfriends wedded to the notion that they have to be so-called real men and husbands who throw their wives into trash bins--or are given dishes rather than paper plates to eat from so they'll have something to destroy besides their wife's clothes.

Sound depressing? It could have been, but with Bieker's gift for apt descriptions, readers will likely be enthralled instead of downcast. Uses of the vernacular, as with the woman who had "never seen purple eyes on no person" like the hot cowboy she meets while working at a feedstore, make these pieces sparkle with rough glamour. The lady bartender falls for a hydroelectric miner, who tells her, "It's fun to make people think you're one way and then boo! You're another." Stories by good authors pull off that conjuring trick all the time. Bieker shows how satisfying it can be. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer

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