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Chelsea Bieker. Catapult, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-948226-48-6

Religious fanaticism, environmental disaster, and gender inequality form the core of Bieker’s propulsive, ambitious debut centered on 14-year-old Lacey May and her drought-stricken hometown of Peaches, Calif. After Lacey’s mother abandons her, she’s left at the mercy of her widowed grandmother, Cherry, a devoted zealot under the spell of enigmatic cult leader Pastor Vern. Vern wears shiny capes, has convinced most of Peaches that he is God and can bring back the rain the area so desperately needs, and convinces a group of girls, among them Lacey, to become pregnant. When his plans for the babies become clear, Lacey’s life is thrown in a harrowing direction and leads her to discover her own resilience and salvation. Bieker straddles the line between darkly comic and downright dark, and excels in portraying female friendships—mother-daughter duo Daisy and Florin, who run a phone sex operation and step in to help Lacey, are particularly memorable—and the setting, a town full of abandoned shops and concrete canals and surrounded by dusty fields. Delving into patriarchal religious zealotry, Bieker’s excellent debut plants themes seen in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale into a realistic California setting that will linger with readers. (Apr.)