[Blog Tour + Giveaway + Playlist + Review] THE EDGE OF ANYTHING by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, 5 out of 5 stars

About the Book

Title: The Edge of Anything
Author: Nora Shalaway Carpenter
Publisher: Running Press Teen (March 24, 2020)
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Fiction, Mental Health
Find it on: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Kobo | Google Books

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Blurb

Len is a loner teen photographer haunted by a past that’s stagnated her work and left her terrified she’s losing her mind. Sage is a high school volleyball star desperate to find a way around her sudden medical disqualification. Both girls need college scholarships. After a chance encounter, the two develop an unlikely friendship that enables them to begin facing their inner demons.

But both Len and Sage are keeping secrets that, left hidden, could cost them everything, maybe even their lives.

Set in the North Carolina mountains, this dynamic #ownvoices novel explores grief, mental health, and the transformative power of friendship.

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Len

The first thing Len noticed was the floor. That was always the first thing these days, her eyes constantly scanning the places her feet had to touch. Unless she jumped about four feet, there wasn’t a single clean tile to step on.

She didn’t remember noticing them last year—all the streaks and brown bits littering the hallway—but that seemed impossible. Had she simply not cared?

“Move it, loser,” someone muttered behind her. She didn’t recognize the voice, but it didn’t matter. Len was used to the insults. She didn’t take her eyes off the floor.

“Weirdo,” the kid said. “Seriously, hurry up. Varsity’s already started.”

Len’s chest cramped as she tried to decide where to step.

“Come on!” Someone else groaned, and Len forced herself to move up in line, one foot, then two. The sole of her boot tracked through a dark brown streak, and she told herself it wasn’t dog shit. Someone else would have noticed if it was dog shit, right? And why didn’t anyone else seem to care?

The slick squeaks of soles on hardwood echoed from the gym. It’s just mud, Len thought again, repeating the word like a mantra. Mud, mud, mud.

“Three dollars, please. Four if you want the raffle.”

Len blinked at the librarian. When had he started taking ticket money? And what was Len even doing here? She didn’t like volleyball, not really.

The librarian held out his hand. “You coming in, Len?”

“I—uh . . .” Heat speckled her face and neck. Had she always had such trouble making decisions? She turned to leave when the memory of why she’d come to the game jolted her. The phone, ringing, ringing. Seven p.m. on the dot. Fauna.

Len couldn’t go back home. Not yet.

“Jesus, Lemon,” said the first voice. “You in or out?”

Len shoved her cash onto the table and pushed her way into the gym.

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Chapter Two

Sage

THWOPP!

Sage started forward, even though there was no way the ball would reach her. Probably wouldn’t even make it over the net. That hollow thud meant a too-slack hand, a poor serve. Still, she crouched low, weight on the balls of her fire-orange Asics, in case she needed to sprawl.

The ball kissed the net, skimmed a few feet sideways along the top then dropped back on the opponent’s side, sending Sage’s bench into near-hysterics. Sage’s Southview Rams hadn’t defeated their hometown rival Asheville High in three seasons, and that missed serve kept her team alive.

Go time. Sage walked back to the server’s box as the scoreboard ticked 13-14. Varsity matches went best out of five, and this one had gone to the last game. Match point for Asheville. Again.

Kayla Davis ran up to her. “You got this, Sage,” she said. “You got it.”

Sage nodded. The line judge tossed her the ball.

Coach Craig held up four fingers beneath his clipboard, but Sage wouldn’t have needed the signal. She knew Asheville’s weak-side hitter was just that—weak. Even if she hadn’t studied the game tape for the past three nights, a few plays into the match revealed who was most likely to shank her serve.

From the bench, her teammates shouted themselves horse.

“Pound it, Sage!”

“They can’t touch you!”

“Come on, baby!”

Sage twirled the volleyball in her hands, then bounced it once, her ritual. She heard the cheers, but also didn’t, like a person knows she’s breathing without thinking about it. She extended the ball onto her left palm.

If she mis-served, her rivals won.

The referee whistled, signaling her.

Sage stared down the opposing setter, making her think she was the target. Then she tossed the ball and hammered a topspin directly at position four. The girl barely had time to protect her face before the ball hit her elbow and ricocheted out of bounds.

The Rams’ bench almost lost its mind. On the court, Sage performed the celebratory Ace ritual with her teammates—two stomps and a clap—but her face stayed stone flat. The ref tossed her the ball. Coach Craig held up another four.

This time Sage backed against the wall. She tossed the ball high, then leapt to meet it in a jump serve—more intimidating than her topspin, but not as fast. Asheville’s receiver got a better handle on it, but the ball shot into the net and dropped to the ground before her setter could even touch it.

15-14, Rams advantage. Unlike the first four games that went to twenty-five points, the fifth game of a match only went to fifteen. But you had to win by two. This was it, then. Or could be. Sage walked back to the service line.

“Timeout!” Asheville’s coach called. Kayla slung her arm around Sage as they joined Southview’s huddle. “You got this,” her best friend said, squeezing her shoulders. “I know you got it.” Sage allowed a tight nod.

“One point and they’re back in it!” Coach quieted the bench with a look. He pointed at Sage. “They’re trying to ice you,” he said, like she didn’t know. “Hit six this time.”

Sage made a face. “Four’s shanked it twice. I’m in her head.”

“She knows you’re coming for her. She’ll be ready.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Sage. “She can’t hit it.”

Coach raised his eyebrows, daring her to continue arguing. Last year Sage had ignored a call, and Coach had benched her, star player or no. It probably cost the team the game. “Six,” he repeated. The whistle blew.

Sage held his gaze to let him know she disagreed, then cracked her neck and walked back to the server’s box.

“Just one more, Sagey.” Ella Cruz smacked her hip as she trotted past.

Only Ella could get away with calling her Sagey. But then, nobody fed her sets like Ella.

Sage picked up the ball, the team’s energy thrumming though her. Most of her teammates, good as they were, wouldn’t trade positions with her for the world. She sensed this instinctively, the same way she intuited when a player was going to tip almost before the player did. With the game in the balance, her teammates didn’t want the serve. Didn’t want the risk of failure. That was the difference between Sage Zendasky and the rest: these were the moments she felt most alive.

Sage slapped the ball with her palm, her mouth twitching a faint smile just to mess with Asheville’s players. This was why she showed up early to their three-hour practices and why she often stayed late. Why she played in an off-season travel league. Why she spent practically all of her free time with a volleyball in her hands.

The whistle shrilled. Sage tossed the ball . . .

and crushed it.

Asheville’s back middle—position six—dug the serve perfectly. Sage had a heartbeat of indignation—told you Craig—while she raced to position in the back row. She sunk down as Asheville’s hitter connected with the ball.

“Me, ME!” Lyz Greer called, causing Sage and Nina Marto to scissor away from her.

“THREE!” Ella shouted, flipping a short set to the middle. Kayla drilled it, but Position Six made another perfect dig. Five times the ball exchanged sides, Asheville’s hitters clearly avoiding Sage.

Come on, thought Sage. One time.

“Short!” screamed Ella, as Asheville’s middle flicked the ball over the blockers. Hannah Wainwright dove backwards, managing to punch it up with her fist, but the ball rocketed towards the back wall.

Asheville’s bench erupted as Sage took off. The ball was nearly a body length in front of her, but high, and she just might . . .

the wall . . .

She sprawled instinctually, hurling her fist upwards. It connected, sending the ball sailing back to the court.

“MEEEE!” called Nina.

Sage heard Nina the moment before her momentum took her into the wall. Concrete met her cheek as her ankle turned awkwardly. She cursed, but pushed herself back to position to see Nina’s free ball cross the net.

Asheville was disorganized, clearly thinking they’d won the point when Hannah shanked. They managed to get the ball back in three, but with an easy free pass right to Sage. Ella’s eyes lit as she set Sage’s perfect pass to Kayla.

Asheville formed a double block, but Sage saw the hole behind it.

“Q!” She shouted the code letter. “Kayla, Q!”

Kayla attacked the net like she hadn’t heard, but at the last second pulled back her swing and tipped the ball into the gap behind the blockers.

The ball floated—movie-style-slow—and dropped to the floor.

“AHHHHHHHHH!” Sage screamed so her heart wouldn’t burst. Her teammates echoed her, high-fiving and jumping on one another. Kayla thrust her chest out, nodding like a pro-footballer while Ella punched the air.

“You!” Sage said, rushing Kayla. “That was perfect!”

“YOU!” Kayla said, shaking her. “I thought we were dead. Did you hit the wall?”

“Yeah, she did,” said Ella, slapping her back. “She be crazy.”

Sage smiled, light headed from the high of victory. Hannah raced toward her, and forgetting her ankle, Sage leapt to meet her in a shoulder bump. As she peaked, she registered it all simultaneously: Kayla’s whoops; her teammates converging; Coach’s wide and seldom-shown grin.

The thrill of it twitched her heart as she reconnected with the ground . . .

and fainted.

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Official Book Playlist

Check out the The Edge of Anything playlist, created by Nora Carpenter herself.

Young as the Morning, Old as the Sea by Passenger (Len)

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The Fighter by Gym Class Hero (Sage)

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Head above Water by Avril Lavigne (Len)

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Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys (Sage)

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Don’t Look Down by Ivan B (Len)

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Lash Out by Alice Merton (Sage)

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Breaking Down by Florence + the Machine (Len)

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Champion by Fall Out Boy (Sage)

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Everything I Wanted by Billie Eilish (Len)

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Wounds by Kid Cudi (Sage)

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Warrior by Demi Lovato (Len)

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Fight Song by Rachel Platten (Sage)

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Review

After a tragic incident, Len knows something’s gone wrong with her. But she can’t let anyone know, especially her parents. They barely make ends meet and she doesn’t want to add to their current emotional baggage. Sage knows exactly what she wants — to be a pro volleyball player. But after learning about her rare heart condition, she loses touch with family and friends. Sage meets Len and she is curious all of a sudden. She knows Len is being weird for a reason and wants to help her. The courage to push through brings them together and an unforgettable friendship starts.

This is not your typical YA read. It does a wonderful job of educating people and erasing the stigma on mental health and homosexuality. It’s heavy from the very beginning and lightens a bit toward the end. Carpenter does a good job in creating Len and Sage; they are opposites but similar. The story alternates their points of view and it’s amazing how Sage’s fast-paced narrative complements Len’s slow revelation. Touching hearts in many ways, this book teaches one of the most basic rules in human nature: always think about what you say and do, because they affect others more than you’ll ever know. It also shows how acceptance does not always heal, but it sure helps in dealing with the pain. Trigger warnings include bullying, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, dementia, OCD, panic attacks, and miscarriages.

Thanks to NetGalley and Running Press for giving me a copy in exchange for an honest review.⁣⁣ For more bookish content and honest reviews, check my sidebar: follow me here and on the rest of my social media accounts.

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Favorite Quotes

“Life wasn’t just unfair. Sometimes it was downright malicious.”

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“When you’re creative, your heart is more open. Your body’s more sensitive and alive. We feel everything deeper, even the bad things.”

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“We call our destinies to ourselves.”

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“Good intentions were worthless when no one knew what to do with them.”

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“And while the lie didn’t feel awesome, it made everyone happy.”

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“I don’t think I’ll ever be ready. But I’m going in.”
“You know that’s the definition of courage, right?”

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“Maybe people got more than one lifetime. Maybe she thought she only had one because she simply hadn’t found another.”

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About the Author

Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram

Nora Shalaway Carpenter holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Before she wrote books, she served as associate editor of Wonderful West Virginia magazine and has been a Certified Yoga Teacher since 2012. Originally from rural West Virginia, she currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband, three young children, and one not-so-young dog.

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Giveaway

Win a hardcopy of THE EDGE OF ANYTHING by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, a character art postcard by Kelsey Lecky of K. A. K. Lecky Illustration, a bookmark, and a pop-open card from Thoughtfulls (US-only). This giveaway runs from March 24 until April 7, 2020. Click here to enter.

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Tour Schedule

Click the banner below to learn more about this Fantastic Flying Book Club blog tour. For more bookish content and honest reviews, check my sidebar — follow me here and on the rest of my social media accounts.

[Review] THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel, 4 out of 5 stars

About the Book

Title: The Glass Hotel
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (March 24, 2020)
Find it on: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | Book Depository

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Review

Vincent’s life is full of surprising twists. She is a product of a forbidden love, with her mom falling in love with a married man. In her early teens, her mom suddenly disappears, leaving everyone asking if she drowned or committed suicide. Moving forward in her mid-twenties, Vincent now works as a bartender in Hotel Caiette, and helps her problematic half-brother get a job there too. One night, she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a wealthy man more than twice her age, and a relationship blooms based on conditions and convenience. What she thought was an easy way through the kingdom of money ends in a fiasco impacting many sorrowful lives.

This literary fiction with a hint of paranormal keeps a slow pace. While telling the story in a non-chronological order is necessary for the suspense build-up to make sure the revelations come at the right time, this writing style proves to be confusing at times. A lot of things are happening and you need to look out on several characters, but the ending explains everything and is unexpectedly satisfying.

A feminist book with a diverse set of characters, The Glass Hotel is sure to capture the imagination in a gripping way. Trigger warnings include drug abuse, multiple deaths, cheating, sex, blood sugar problems, financial scam, depression, drowning, and suicide.

Thanks to Edelweiss+ and Alfred A. Knopf for giving me a copy in exchange for an honest review.⁣⁣ ⁣For more bookish content and honest reviews, check my sidebar: follow me here and on the rest of my social media accounts.

[Blog Tour + Giveaway] NOT ACCORDING TO PLAN by A.M. Madden

About the Book

Title: NOT ACCORDING TO PLAN
Author: A.M. Madden
Pub. Date: March 23, 2020
Publisher: Entangled Publishing, LLC (Amara)
Formats:  Paperback, eBook
Pages: 400
Find it on: Goodreads | AmazonKindle | B&N | iBooks | Kobo

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Blurb

For one night of my life, I dared to do something reckless.

My birthday. A bar. Karaoke. And a man so hot he could melt the sun.

Sparks flew. Lust took over. For one night of my life, I felt alive.

Then I was back to my “boring” life. Career-driven. Goal-oriented. Always planning ahead.

But nothing could have prepared me for the positive pregnancy test. We weren’t that reckless.

There goes my “boring” life. And what happens when I tell the father?

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Excerpt

When a firm hand clamped my shoulder, I realized Nate had plopped down on the stool beside me. “What the hell are you doing here? Why aren’t you home in your fortress, avoiding people who like having fun?”

“Shut it. I needed a drink.”

“In here?” he asked, an amused smirk on his face. “You despise this place when there’s a game on.”

“Yeah, well, temporary insanity.”

“So, what’s going on with you?”

“Isn’t that a loaded question?” I quipped without thinking.

“You okay?” he quickly asked.

“Long story.”

At that moment, Brad came back, slinging a dishtowel over his shoulder. Typically, the females in the vicinity began giggling and whispering at seeing identical triplets in one location. Ignoring it, Brad said, “Did you tell him?”

“Not yet.”

“Tell me what?”

I held Nate’s gaze, but the words caught in my throat.

Brad took my silence as an opportunity to blurt out, “We’re going to be uncles.” Nate’s expression mirrored Brad’s from when I told him, and it had nothing to do with our likenesses. “Jade is pregnant.”

“Say what?” Nate said. When Nate then said, “Who the fuck is Jade?” Brad lost his shit.

“Someone I met.”

“How did you meet?”

The grin on Brad’s face caused a scowl on mine. “Jade is the beauty I rigged him to meet at my bar on Kismet Karaoke Night. He needed to get laid, dude.”

“So, this is actually your fault?” Nate accused with an eye roll and sigh before turning back to me. “And you slept with her that night?”

“Yeah,” I said like a child being scolded. Predictably, my brother, always the counselor, listened intently as I explained the chain of events that led to where Jade and I were now. Once done, his silence continued to stretch. “Say something,” I prodded.

“How well do you know this woman?” The question should have irritated me, but I couldn’t blame him for playing devil’s advocate.

“Well enough,” I said, knowing it was a weak explanation.

“Great answer,” he grumbled, shaking his head. “Shit, I leave you two for a few weeks and all hell breaks loose. I’d expect this from him,” he accused, thrusting a thumb at Brad. “Not from you.”

“Fuck off.” Brad flipped him the bird. “Hey, I have a stupid question,” he said. “Did you use condoms?”

“Of course, I did.”

“Gold Shields?”

“Yeah. What’s your point?”

“Dude, there was a massive recall on them. It was all over the news.”

My gaze flicked to Nate. “Is he shitting me?”

“Afraid not. You didn’t know?”

“What the fuck? Cars get recalled, not fucking condoms. Don’t they realize they’re playing with people’s lives?”

“Yeah. Thus, the recall,” Brad offered with a chuckle. “Obviously, you don’t have sex enough to keep on top of these things.”

“Fuck.” I didn’t know which was more unbelievable—a recall on condoms or the fact that Brad was right.

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About the About

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Pinterest | Amazon | BookBub | Goodreads

USA Today’s BESTSELLING ROMANCE AUTHOR

A.M. Madden’s romance debut is The Back-Up series, consisting of Back-Up, Front & Center, and Encore.

A.M. Madden is a wife, a mother, an avid reader of romance novels and now an author. In Back-up she aspired to create a fun, sexy, realistic romantic story. She wanted to create characters that the reader could relate to and feel as if they knew personally.

A self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, she loves getting lost in a good book. She uses every free moment of her time writing, while raising teenage boys.

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Giveaway

One lucky winner will receive a $15 Amazon Gift Card, International. This giveaway runs until March 30, 2020. Click here to enter.

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Tour Schedule

3/23/2020BookHoundsInterview
3/23/2020once.upon.a.romance.blogReview
3/23/2020Sandra’s Book ClubReview
3/24/2020Eli to the nthReview
3/24/2020Fun Under the CoversReview
3/24/2020Books_andPoetriiExcerpt
3/25/2020Alphas Do It Better Book BlogReview
3/25/2020Comfort BooksReview
3/25/2020She Just Loves BooksReview
3/26/2020Bookgasms Book BlogReview
3/26/2020A Dream Within A DreamExcerpt
3/26/2020momfluensterExcerpt
3/27/2020Two Chicks on BooksInterview
3/27/2020I Write, You ReadReview
3/27/2020The Reading CafeReview

Click the banner below to learn more about Rock Star Book Tours. ⁣For more bookish content and honest reviews, check my sidebar: follow me here and on the rest of my social media accounts.

[Blog Tour + Giveaway] SPARROW by Maria Cecilia Jackson

About the Book

Title: Sparrow
Author: Mary Cecilia Jackson 
Publisher: Tor Teen (March 17, 2020)
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Find it on: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | iTunes | Book Depository | Kobo | Google Books

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Blurb

In the tradition of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a devastating but hopeful YA debut about a ballerina who finds the courage to confront the abuse that haunts her past and threatens her future.

There are two kinds of people on the planet. Hunters and prey.

I thought I would be safe after my mother died. I thought I could stop searching for new places to hide. But you can’t escape what you are, what you’ve always been.

My name is Savannah Darcy Rose.

And I am still prey.

Though Savannah Rose―Sparrow to her friends and family―is a gifted ballerina, her real talent is keeping secrets. Schooled in silence by her long-dead mother, Sparrow has always believed that her lifelong creed―“I’m not the kind of girl who tells”―will make her just like everyone else: Normal. Happy. Safe. But in the aftermath of a brutal assault by her seemingly perfect boyfriend Tristan, Sparrow must finally find the courage to confront the ghosts of her past, or lose herself forever….

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Excerpt

1

March

Running down the hall, phone pressed to my ear, I raise my eyes to the huge clock above the library doors. It offers no hope.

“Where are you, Birdy?” Lucas says. “Levkova’s going to slaughter you! She’s already doing that thing where she’s standing near the piano with her arms crossed, looking at us like we’re a bunch of zoo animals.”

I take a corner too fast and my elbow hits the lockers. I run faster.

“Are you seriously talking to me in the studio? Put your phone away, or she’ll murder you before she even gets to me!”

“I’m not that stupid. I’m in the hall, but even out here I can see her eyes turning all frosty. You know how they get, like freaky little balls of ice.”

“Oh my God, it’s almost two forty. I’m going to have to drive like a fiend to get changed in time.”

I’m breaking the Eleventh Commandment, incised into our brains for the last three years: Thou Shalt Not Be Late for Ballet Class.

“Holy crap, Birdy, you’re still at school? You’ll never make it! You know you won’t get in if you’re late. She loves locking that door at three o’clock, hearing the cries of the damned on the other side.”

“I’m going as fast as I can! Try to stall her.”

“Oh, right. Like that’ll work. She’ll turn me to stone with her ice-ball eyes before I even get close. I’m telling you, she’s in a mood. She just told Charlotte to stand up straight, that orangutans moved with more grace. Why are you so late?”

I turn the last corner, backpack slipping off my shoulder, dance bag banging against my hip. I can feel my bun falling out of its knot, hear the tiny metallic pings as bobby pins hit the floor behind me.

“Ugh, Coscoroba kept me after class. He wanted to talk about my term paper. You know how you can never get away from him, right? I mean, he’s nice, but God, once he gets going you can’t get a word in. Today he had to tell me the entire story of Prometheus and his super-unfortunate liver. I swear he never took a breath the whole time.”

“Gross! Okay, look, she sees me out here,” Lucas whispers. “I don’t want to die a horrible death, so I’m going in. Good luck! If you don’t make it, I promise I’ll cry real loud at your funeral.”

“Stop it, Lucas! I’m running as fast as I can!”

Lucas hangs up, and I shove my phone into my bag. The halls are empty, echoing with the sound of my feet pounding the tile floor, the ragged gasp of my breath. I hate disappointing Madame Levkova. She is my rock star, the sun at the center of my universe. Today she’ll give me the look that tells me I’ve let her down, remind me that people who are late are lazy and inconsiderate, and I’ll feel like crap for a week. If I rush in just as she’s locking the door, she may not even let me dance today. Depends on how irritated she is.

Juggling books, bag, and backpack, I burst through the massive front doors and breathe the cold winter air into my lungs.

The student parking lot is practically deserted, which would be a little weird for a Thursday, except it’s been a tough winter. After the last bell, people scurry home, like rabbits to their burrows. A few cars are left, probably yearbook kids, or people staying late for tutoring. My car is all by itself, in the corner under a huge maple tree, now bare of leaves, empty branches silhouetted against the leaden sky. Some people hate winter in Virginia, but I like how spare it is, cold and clean and uncluttered. I raise my face to the sky. There’s snow on the wind.

A car squeals to a stop inches from my left hip. I fall to my knees, dropping everything, spilling notebooks, pens, and all my ballet stuff across the asphalt. I’m so terrified I can’t even breathe. I count to nine in my head, trying to slow the panic. When my hands stop shaking and I can breathe again, I look up and see the grille of a huge black Mustang. I smell exhaust, feel the relentless percussion of heavy metal.

I know this car.

Tristan King, white in tooth, blond in hair, rich in parents. Hollins Creek High School’s highest deity, star of the track team, lusted after by anyone with a pulse. Delaney and I have been swooning over him since middle school.

“Oh my God, did I hit you? Are you hurt?” He and all his gorgeousness come flying out of the car, wearing the dark gray suit and crimson tie all the athletes had to wear for the awards assembly this morning. He kneels down to help me collect my things.

“No, no, I’m fine,” I manage to croak. “I’ve got this, really. It’s okay.”

“I am so, so sorry! Oh no! Your knees are bleeding!”

“Really, it’s nothing, honestly.” I hold my hands out to keep him away. “They don’t even hurt.” I’ve torn huge, gaping holes in the knees of my black tights, and the skin underneath is scraped and raw. Blood trickles slowly from the cuts and soaks into the ragged edges.

My pointe shoes, tied into their nerdy mesh bag, are under his car, along with my books and notebooks. But all the truly awful stuff—deodorant, tampons, panty liners, body spray, Dr. Scholl’s blister pads and foot powder, even the dryer sheets I stuff into my dance bag so it won’t reek of sweat and BO—is right out there in the pale winter sunlight. All the embarrassing, disgusting detritus of my life. My own personal Museum of Mortification.

I pray for a sudden sinkhole to swallow me whole, a bolt of lightning to fry me to ash, an alien abduction. I’m straight up dying of embarrassment. Dying. Like I-can’t-breathe-and-my-heart-hurts dying.

Tristan looks at my knees and says, “Hang on a second. I’ll be right back, okay? Don’t go anywhere.”

I stumble around, gathering my things, surreptitiously trying to wipe away the blood. I lied. My knees hurt like a stinker. I give up and sit down on the curb to assess the damage.

Tristan comes back holding a first aid kit. Kneeling down in his perfect suit, paying no attention to the dirt and gravel, he says, “I’m so, so incredibly sorry. At least let me fix you up.”

“You actually carry a first aid kit in your car? Do you run over a lot of people?”

He laughs, and the sound is low and sweet, like soft notes rising from a cello. His teeth are dazzling up close, straight and impossibly white, probably representing a small fortune in orthodontics and bleach. Even his eyebrows are gorgeous.

“Nah,” he says. “You’re my first attempt at roadkill. If you think your knees are messed up, you should see mine. Bruises and scars like you wouldn’t believe. I run high hurdles, and sometimes I miss.”

He gently wipes the blood from my knees and brushes away stray bits of gravel. He’s so close that I can smell his hair. Lavender, I think. Or rosemary. I breathe him in as deeply and quietly as I can while he dabs Neosporin on the scrapes and covers them with Band-Aids.

When he leans forward and kisses each bandage, I have to work hard not to gasp. Once, when I was really, really small, my mother did the same thing, and for a moment I’m lost in the memory. The way her long hair fell like a dark waterfall over her shoulder as she knelt on the bathroom floor in front of me. Her polished fingernails peeling the wrapping from the bandages. The softness of her lips as she kissed my scraped knees. And though I know it’s impossible, for a few seconds I swear the fragrance of my mother’s lily of the valley perfume dances in the cold air.

“There,” Tristan says, looking up at me. “Now you’ll heal faster. Kisses always make things better, don’t you think?”

I’m not thinking at all, because my brain has stopped working. I should stand up and push him away. I should tell him he’s way out of line, and call him a presumptuous Neanderthal. But his strong hands, his lips on my skin, are making me shiver, and I feel all hot and floaty and liquid, like warm honey is flowing through my veins. I don’t want him to stop. I want him to do it again.

“Yes,” I whisper, mesmerized by the depth of his gray eyes, the color of a mourning dove’s wing. “Kisses always help.” I wonder if he can hear my heart pounding.

He stands and helps me to my feet, holding on to my hands for longer than seems necessary. Standing so close, I feel the heat of him, how alive he is. I have the completely bizarre urge to rest my head on his chest, wrap my arms around his waist, and draw that warmth, that life, into myself. I shake my head, tell myself to snap out of it. Me: Amoeba. Him: Tristan King.

Still holding my hands, he pulls me a little closer, then reaches out to tuck a stray curl behind my ear. Looking into my eyes, he smiles and says, “Better now? Will you be okay? Want me to drive you home?”

I nod, never taking my eyes from his face. “I’ll be fine, really,” I whisper.

I don’t want him to let go. With my hands in his, I feel safe, as though he’s standing between me and the entire rest of the world, like my own personal knight, complete with sword and shield, sworn to protect me. He is so impossibly beautiful.

He gathers up all my books, places them carefully in my backpack, and zips it. Then he crawls under the car for my pointe shoes.

“Your suit,” I say, as he wriggles back out. “It’s all dirty now.”

He shrugs and smiles. “Doesn’t matter. Assembly’s over, pictures are done.” Cradling my pink satin pointe shoes in both hands, he holds them out like an offering, as though he knows how precious they are to me.

“I’m glad I ran into you, Sparrow.”

“You’re hilarious.” I take my shoes from him and stuff them into my dance bag. I feel like I’m moving in slow motion, my heart, my body unwilling to let this end, my brain knowing that it will, and that when he’s gone, it will feel like none of it ever happened. I try to fix all the details in my brain, right now, so they’ll be there later. So it will be real.

“Thanks. I do what I can.”

“So, anyway,” I say. “Thanks for not killing me, but I need to run. I’m unbelievably late for ballet.”

I head toward the ancient Volvo that my dad lets me drive to school and ballet but nowhere else. Tristan runs after me and grabs my hand.

“Wait, Sparrow. Don’t go. Not yet.”

It feels like my heart has jumped straight up into my throat.

“You sure have changed a lot since we were in geography class together,” he says.

“That was fifth grade, Tristan. We’ve all changed. The last time you spoke to me, you said nobody likes ballerinas and ballet was stupid.”

His eyes widen and he puts his hand over his heart and staggers backward, like he’s had a sudden shock. “Seriously? I said that?”

“You did. I remember every word.”

“Wow, I was kind of a jackass, wasn’t I?”

“Yeah, you kind of were.”

“I was wrong. And ballet is awesome.”

I can’t help it. I laugh.

“Right. Have you actually been to any of our performances? You don’t exactly seem like the kind of person who’d be wild about ballet.”

“Okay, totally busted. But my mother’s on the conservatory board, and she’s always talking about you. She showed me that article that was in the paper last year. She says you’re mad talented.”

That article is still taped to the refrigerator. My father refuses to take it down. He even highlighted the line about me being “the rising star of the Appalachian Conservatory Ballet” and called me “Superstar” for a week. It was mortifying.

I feel myself blushing, the red stain creeping all the way up my neck and into my cheeks. Now my freckles will look awesome. “You should come see a performance with your mom sometime.”

“Maybe I will,” he says softly. He reaches out and cups my face in the palm of his hand, stroking my cheek with his thumb. “You’re blushing.” He’s so close I can feel his warm breath on my skin.

My knees go all rubbery, and I picture myself falling down right where I’m standing, fainting like a Victorian maiden in one of my aunt Sophie’s romance novels.

When I speak, my voice comes out all shaky and whispery.

“Listen, really, thanks for the Band-Aids and everything. But I’ve got to go. We get fined five dollars every time we’re late for class. I’m sorry I ran out in front of you. Hope I didn’t give you a heart attack or anything.”

He smiles and pushes his sun-streaked hair out of his eyes. He has deep dimples on both sides of his mouth. “Have dinner with me on Saturday. Please. Let me make up for almost killing you.”

Approximately five thousand thoughts rush through my head. Me at dinner with Tristan King, holding his hand at a candlelit table, sharing a dessert. Kissing him at my front door. Wondering why he’s bothering with me, when he’s had tons of girlfriends, some of them even college girls. How tightly Sophie will hug me, how she’ll whisper that she’s happy I’m finally getting out of the house and, even better, going on an actual date. Best of all, telling Delaney. She’ll completely lose her mind and scream the scream she reserves for all miraculous occurrences.

“Ummm, that would be great, but I can’t. I have rehearsal most of the day on Saturdays, and then—”

“And then what? You’ll go home and sit by your window, crying sad little ballerina tears and wishing you’d said yes. You have to eat. I’ll take you wherever you want to go, even if you want, I don’t know, a gluten-free, vegan, pizza-free pizza. Come on, say yes. Please. Otherwise I’ll never get over the guilt.”

I hesitate. This will require all kinds of explaining and promising to my father. I’ll have to get Sophie to run interference. If we start tonight, it’s possible that we can get my dad to cave. My heart beats a little faster. This could actually work.

“Sparrow, come on. I’m sorry I was a jerk in fifth grade. I’m sorry I almost ran you over. Let me make things right. It’s just dinner, some pasta and bread, maybe a glass of sparkling water if you’re feeling fancy. It’s not like I’m asking you to donate a kidney.”

I melt, fast and gooey, like a marshmallow in a campfire. “Okay, yes. But I eat like a normal person, just so you know. It’s a total myth that ballerinas live on celery sticks and bee pollen.”

He laughs. “Point taken. We’ll have cheesecake and ice cream, too. I’ll pick you up at seven.”

“Just be prepared for my dad. No way he’ll let me walk out the door without grilling you. He’s a trial attorney, and he almost always wins.”

“Got it. Beware of kick-ass lawyers. I heard about his big murder case.”

“Yeah, everybody says he’s ferocious in court. And he’s going to treat you like a hostile witness, so gird your loins.”

“I’ll suck up hard-core. Maybe he’ll let me off easy.”

“I wouldn’t count on it.”

Laughing, he walks to his car and gets in, gunning the engine and waving as he peels out of the parking lot.

Levkova has definitely locked the door by now. I may as well go straight home and scrape up five bucks to put in the Jar of Shame she keeps on the piano. I’ll do an adagio barre in my room and give myself corrections. I’ll be alone, but maybe it won’t suck so much today.

I throw my dance bag on the passenger seat and sit for a minute while the heater groans. My knees hurt, and my hands are so cold I can’t even feel them, but I can’t stop smiling. I resist the urge to text Delaney about what just happened, because I want to hear her laugh when I tell her how my tampons were scattered all over the parking lot like candy from a piñata. I want to see the look of utter disbelief on her face when I tell her I have an actual date. With Tristan King.

It always surprises me, how life can change in an instant, how everything can turn upside down on an ordinary winter afternoon. In my heart, I feel the cautious flutter of hope.

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About the Author

Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram

Mary Cecilia Jackson has worked as a middle school teacher, an adjunct instructor of college freshmen, a technical writer and editor, a speechwriter, a museum docent, and a development officer for central Virginia’s PBS and NPR stations. Her first novel, Sparrow, was an honor recipient of the SCBWI Sue Alexander Award and a young-adult finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest. She lives with her architect husband, William, in Western North Carolina and Hawaii, where they have a farm and five ridiculously adorable goats.

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Giveaway

Win a copy of SPARROW by Mary Cecilia Jackson (US/CAN Only). This giveaway runs from March 17 to March 31, 2020. Click here to enter.

For more chances of winning, you may also join the giveaway on Instagram. Follow @books_andpoetrii and check my Sparrow post.

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Tour Schedule

Click the banner below to see the complete schedule for this Fantastic Flying Book Club blog tour.

[Blog Tour + Giveaway + Review] ALL YOUR TWISTED SECRETS by Diana Urban, 5 out of 5 stars

About the Book

Title: All Your Twisted Secrets
Author: Diana Urban
Publisher: HarperTeen (March 17, 2020)
Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Suspense, Contemporary
Find it on: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | iTunes | Book Depository | Kobo

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Blurb

This thrilling debut, reminiscent of new fan favorites like One of Us Is Lying and the beloved classics by Agatha Christie, will leave readers guessing until the explosive ending.

Welcome to dinner, and again, congratulations on being selected. Now you must do the selecting.

What do the queen bee, star athlete, valedictorian, stoner, loner, and music geek all have in common? They were all invited to a scholarship dinner, only to discover it’s a trap. Someone has locked them into a room with a bomb, a syringe filled with poison, and a note saying they have an hour to pick someone to kill … or else everyone dies.

Amber Prescott is determined to get her classmates and herself out of the room alive, but that might be easier said than done. No one knows how they’re all connected or who would want them dead. As they retrace the events over the past year that might have triggered their captor’s ultimatum, it becomes clear that everyone is hiding something. And with the clock ticking down, confusion turns into fear, and fear morphs into panic as they race to answer the biggest question: Who will they choose to die?

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Excerpt

My pulse raced as I stared at the syringe of poison and the bomb atop the gleaming silver platter. Within the hour, you must choose someone in this room to die. If you don’t, everyone dies.

“That’s one sick prank,” said Robbie. “Who the hell would do this?” He grabbed the note from me, his eyes darting across the page. Diego leaned against the edge of the table, studying the bomb.

“Wait, wait, wait.” Sasha clutched her throat. “Does that mean . . . if we don’t kill one of us, that bomb will go off in an hour?”

Scott burst out laughing.

“What the hell is so funny?” asked Sasha.

He leaned back in his chair. “It’s obviously a joke, and you fell for it like an anvil.”

“Doesn’t seem very funny to me,” muttered Robbie.

“Who would do this?” Priya cried. “Who would think up something so awful?”

“Did anyone see who shut the door?” I asked. Priya and Scott shook their heads.

“No.” Diego slumped back into his seat. “I didn’t see anyone.”

“Me neither,” said Sasha. “I was too busy talking to that creep.” She motioned toward Scott, and he scoffed.

“Someone probably stood behind the door and pushed it closed,” said Diego.

Priya visibly shivered. “Does that mean someone was hiding behind the door the whole time?”

“And are they still out there?” My voice shook slightly.

Robbie slammed the note on the table and scooted his chair back with a screech, making me jump. “This is ridiculous.” He rounded his chair and pounded on the door. “Hey! Unlock the door!” His jaw tightened when nobody replied. “This isn’t funny. Unlock the door now!”

“Oh my God,” said Priya. Sasha took slow, deep breaths, trying to keep calm, but her eyes darted around the room frantically.

“Robbie.” I rushed toward him, grabbing his hand. “Calm down. It’s just some morbid joke. I’m sure they’ll get bored and let us out.”

He shook me off and knelt, peering with one eye into the large keyhole below the doorknob. “There’s no key.”

“I didn’t hear a lock click or anything,” Sasha added.

“It all happened so fast.” I touched the oak door, the wood cool under my palm, and turned back to the group. “Think they’re still out there?”

Robbie shrugged. “Who the hell knows?”

“Hello?” I called out. “Is anyone there?”

“This is bullshit.” Robbie kicked the door. “What kind of sick psycho would—”

“Shhh.” I waved him off and pressed my ear against the door, but all I could hear was Priya muttering, “Oh my God, oh my God,” over and over again. “Priya, shut up,” I said. She clamped her lips shut, her eyes glassy.

I pressed my ear against the door again, straining to hear something. A voice. Footsteps. Someone breathing. Anything. But all I could hear were the muffled baritones and strings from the orchestral music playing in the main dining room.

“Nothing?” asked Diego.

I shook my head and knelt, peeking through the keyhole. My heart raced as I held my breath. Years of watching horror movies had trained me to expect an eyeball to appear on the other side. My whole body tensed, ready to leap backward.

But all I could see was one of the red-cushioned booths across the main dining room. There was no movement of any kind. “There’s nobody there.” I stood and turned back to the group. “I don’t see anything.”

“Damn, it’s so hot in here.” Sasha touched the back of her hand to her forehead.

“It really is.” I wiped my upper lip and scanned the walls. “Crap. The thermostat must be out in the main dining room.”

“It’s gotten worse since we got here.” Priya tugged on her hair. “I just want to go home.”

I gasped and bit my lip. Home. I forgot to text Mom when Robbie and I got here. “Oh, no.” I grabbed my phone from the table and raised it toward the ceiling, but I had no signal whatsoever. Sasha tried the same thing, stretching toward the windows facing the alley.

“Nothing,” she confirmed. “I can’t get anything.”

“Crap, crap, crap.” My chest tightened like a vise squeezing my heart. What if something terrible did happen here tonight? What was the last thing I said to my mother as I ran out the door? Did I tell her I loved her? When was the last time I told my parents I loved them? A chill tore through me despite the room’s warmth, and I shook the morbid thought away. This was just a prank. It wasn’t real.

“Oh my God.” Sasha hunched over, hugging herself around the middle. “This can’t be happening.”

“So what do we do?” asked Robbie.

Sasha straightened and rubbed her forehead with trembling fingers. “I can’t believe this is happening. What if we’re really going to have to do this? What if they really make us kill one of us?”

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Review

Amber and five of her friends have been selected for the Brewster Town Hall Scholarship. They get invited to dine with the mayor to celebrate this achievement. What they’re hoping to be a night full of warm smiles and delicious food turns out to be a disaster. The mayor doesn’t show up and they get locked up in a private dining room with no reception at all. What’s worse is that they are the only guests for the evening and there’s no way to escape.

On the table are a poisoned syringe, a note, and a bomb that goes off in an hour. The note says they have to pick someone to kill with the syringe, or the bomb goes off and they all die. They assume that this is just a prank but can’t help but panic as the countdown goes. What if it’s real? Secrets are spilled and true colors are revealed. Can one life be measured by success and appearance? Who’s to say that one life is more worthy of saving than the rest?

This YA mystery is fast-paced and hard to put down. The writing is crafty as the story mostly deals with six people contained in one room. That is hard to pull off but the interaction is balanced and no one gets left behind. It starts with the present and then flashbacks. The past reconnects to the present, and the pattern continues. Each chapter is a revelation; the characters are well-written and their backgrounds are realistic. This Breakfast Club/Saw/Mean Girls is highly recommended to all the mystery fans out there. TWs include bullying, suicide, car accident, hypoglycemia, abusive parents, drugs, gaslighting, and depression.

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About the Author

Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Pinterest

I’m Diana Urban, and I write dark, twisty thrillers for teens including All Your Twisted Secrets (HarperTeen, March 17, 2020). When I’m not torturing fictional characters, I’m a marketing manager at BookBub, a leading book discovery platform. Outside the bookish world, I live with my husband and cat in Boston, and enjoy reading, video games, fawning over cute animals, and looking at the beach from a safe distance.

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Giveaway

Win 1 of 2 copies of ALL YOUR TWISTED SECRETS by Diana Urban (US-only). This giveaway runs from March 17 to March 31, 2020. Click here to enter.

For more chances of winning, you may also join the giveaway on Instagram. Follow @books_andpoetrii and check my All Your Twisted Secrets post.

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Tour Schedule

Click the banner below to see the complete schedule for this Fantastic Flying Book Club blog tour.

[Blog Tour] THE MOUNTAINS SING by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

About the Book

Title: THE MOUNTAINS SING
Author: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Publisher: Algonquin Books (March 17, 2020)

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Blurb

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the BanyanThe Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.

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Praise for THE MOUNTAINS SING

“…lyrical, sweeping… In a subtle coda, Nguyễn brilliantly explores the boundary between what a writer shares with the world and what remains between family. This brilliant, unsparing love letter to Vietnam will move readers.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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“A sweeping tale of one family’s shifting fortunes in Vietnam across half a century. …invitingly and gracefully told. [Nguyen] is particularly adept at weaving in folktales and aphorisms to create a vivid sense of place. A richly imagined story of severed bonds amid conflict.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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“An engrossing story of family, adversity, war, loss, and triumph… Recalling Min Jin Lee and Lisa See, Nguyen displays a lush and captivating storyteller’s gift as she effortlessly transports readers to another world, leaving them wishing for more. This may be Nguyen’s first novel published here, but one can only hope it will not be the last.”

Library Journal (starred review)

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The Mountains Sing is an epic account of Vietnam’s painful 20th century history, both vast in scope and intimate in its telling. Through the travails of one family, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai brings us close to the horrors of famine, war, and class struggle. But in this moving and riveting novel, she also shows us a post-war Vietnam, a country of hope and renewal, home to a people who have never given up.” 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize

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“A sweeping story that positions Vietnamese life within the ​rich and luminous history of national epics like The Tale of Kieu and the Iliad. Expansive in scope and feeling, The Mountains Sing is a feat of hope, an unflinchingly felt inquiry into the past, with the courageous storytelling of the present.”

—Ocean Vuong, 2019 MacArthur Fellow and author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

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About the Author

Born into the Viet Nam War in 1973, Nguyen Phan Que Mai grew up witnessing the war’s devastation and its aftermath. She worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to attend university in Australia. She is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction published in Vietnamese, and her writing has been translated and published in more than 10 countries, most recently in Norton’s Inheriting the War anthology. She has been honored with many awards, including the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Ha Noi Writers Association, as well as many grants and fellowships. Married to a European diplomat, Que Mai is currently living in Jakarta with her two teenage children. For more information about Nguyen Phan Que Mai, visit her at www.nguyenphanquemai.com.

[Blog Tour + Giveaway] THE DEEP by Alma Katsu

About the Book

The Deep
by Alma Katsu
Publisher: Transworld Digital
Release Date: March 10, 2020
Genre: Horror, Historical Fiction, Adult
Find it on: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | iTunes | Book Depository | Kobo | Google Books

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Blurb

Someone, or something, is haunting the Titanic.

This is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the passengers of the ship from the moment they set sail: mysterious disappearances, sudden deaths. Now suspended in an eerie, unsettling twilight zone during the four days of the liner’s illustrious maiden voyage, a number of the passengers – including millionaires Madeleine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, the maid Annie Hebbley, and Mark Fletcher – are convinced that something sinister is going on . . . And then, as the world knows, disaster strikes.

Years later and the world is at war. And a survivor of that fateful night, Annie, is working as a nurse on the sixth voyage of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, now refitted as a hospital ship. Plagued by the demons of her doomed first and near-fatal journey across the Atlantic, Annie comes across an unconscious soldier she recognises while doing her rounds. It is the young man Mark. And she is convinced that he did not – could not – have survived the sinking of the Titanic…

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Excerpt

Chapter One

October 1916
Morninggate Asylum,
Liverpool

She is not mad.

Annie Hebbley pokes her needle into the coarse gray linen, a soft color, like the feathers of the doves that entrap themselves in the chimneys here, fluttering and crying out, sometimes battering themselves to death in a vain effort to escape.

She is not mad.

Annie’s eyes follow the needle as it runs the length of the hem, weaving in and out of fabric. In and out. In and out. Sharp and shining and so precise.

But there is something in her that is hospitable to madness.

Annie has come to understand the erratic ways of the insane-the crying fits, incoherent babblings, violent flinging of hands and feet. There is, after days and weeks and years, a kind of comforting rhythm to them. But, no, she is not one of them. Of that she is certain.

Certain as the Lord and the Blessed Virgin, her da’ might once have said.

There are a dozen female patients hunched over their sewing, making the room warm and stuffy despite the meagerness of the fire. Work is thought to be palliative to nervous disorders, so many of the inmates are given jobs, particularly those who are here due more to their own poverty than any ailment of mind or body. While most of the indigent are kept in workhouses, Annie has learned, quite a few find their way to asylums instead, if there are any empty beds to keep them. Not to mention the women of sin.

Whatever their reasons for turning up at Morninggate, most of the women here are meek enough and bend themselves to the nurses’ direction. But there are a few of whom Annie is truly afraid.

She pulls in tight to herself as she works, not wanting to brush up against them, unable to shake the suspicion that madness might pass from person to person like a disease. That it festers the way a fine mold grows inside a milk bottle left too long in the sun-undetectable at first but soon sour and corrupting, until all the milk is spoiled.

Annie sits on a hard little stool in the needle room with her morning’s labor puddled in her lap, but it is the letter tucked inside her pocket that brushes up against her thoughts unwillingly, a glowing ember burning through the linen of her dress. Annie recognized the handwriting before she even saw the name on the envelope. She has reread it now at least a dozen times. In the dark cover of night, when no one is looking, she kisses it like a crucifix.

As if drawn to the sin of Annie’s thoughts, a nurse materializes at her shoulder. Annie wonders how long she has been standing there, studying Annie. This one is new. She doesn’t know Annie yet-not well, anyway. They leave Annie to the late arrivals on staff, who haven’t yet learned to be frightened of her.

“Anne, dear, Dr. Davenport would like to see you. I’m to escort you to his office.”

Annie rises from her stool. None of the other women glance up from their sewing. The nurses never turn their backs to the patients of Morninggate, so Annie shuffles down the corridor, the nurse’s presence like a hot poker at her back. If Annie could get a moment alone, she would get rid of the letter. Stash it behind the drapes, tuck it under the carpet runner. She mustn’t let the doctor find it. Just thinking of it again sends a tingle of shame through her body.

But she is never alone at Morninggate.

In the dusty reflection of the hall windows they appear like two ghosts-Annie in her pale, dove-gray uniform, the nurse in her long cream skirt, apron, and wimple. Past a long series of closed doors, locked rooms, in which the afflicted mutter and wail.

What do they scream about? What torments them so? For some, it was gin. Others were sent here by husbands, fathers, even brothers who don’t like the way their women think, don’t like that they are outspoken. But Annie shies away from learning the stories of the truly mad. There’s undoubtedly tragedy there, and Annie’s life has had enough sadness.

The building itself is large and rambling, constructed in several stages from an old East India Company warehouse that shuttered in the 1840s. In the outdoor courtyard, where the women do their exercises in the mornings, the walls are streaked with sweat and spittle, smeared with dirty handprints and smudges of dried blood. Luckily the gaslights are kept low, for economy’s sake, giving the grime a pleasantly warm hue.

They pass the men’s wing; sometimes, Annie can hear their voices through the wall, but today they’re quiet. The men and women are kept separate because some of the women suffer from a peculiar nervous disorder that makes their blood run hot. These women cannot abide the sight of a man, will break out in tremors, try to tear off their clothes, will chew through their own tongues and fall down convulsing.

Or so they say. Annie has never seen it happen. They like to tell stories about the patients, particularly the female ones.

But Annie is safe here, from the great big world. The world of men. And that is what matters. The small rooms, the narrow confines are not so different from the old cottage in Ballintoy, four tiny rooms, the roiling Irish Sea not twenty paces from her front door. Here, the air in the courtyard is ripe with the smell of ocean, too, though if it is close by, Annie cannot see it, has not seen it in four years.

It is both a comfort and a curse. Some days, she wakes from nightmares of black water rushing into her open mouth, freezing her lungs to stone. The ocean is deep and unforgiving. Families in Ballintoy have lost fathers and brothers, sisters and daughters to the sea for as long as she can remember. She’s seen the water of the Atlantic Ocean choked with hundreds of bodies. More bodies than are buried in all of Ballintoy’s graveyard.

And yet on other days, she wakes to find plaster beneath her fingernails where she has scratched at the walls, desperate to get out, to return to it. Her blood surges through her veins with the motion of the sea. She craves it.

On the far side of the courtyard they enter the small vestibule that leads to the doctors’ private rooms. The nurse indicates that Annie should step aside as she knocks and then, at a command to enter, unlocks the door to Dr. Davenport’s office. He rises from behind his desk and gestures to a chair.

Nigel Davenport is a young man. Annie likes him, has always felt he has the well-being of his patients in mind. She’s overheard the nurses talk about how difficult it is for the parish to get doctors to remain at the asylum. Their job is discouraging when so few patients respond to treatment. Plus, it’s far more lucrative to be a family doctor, setting bones and delivering babies. He is always nice to her, if formal. Whenever he sees her, he thinks about the incident with the dove. They all do. How she was found once cradling a dead bird in her arms, cooing to it like a baby.

She knows it wasn’t a baby. It was just a bird. It had fallen out of the flue, hit the hearth in a puff of loose feathers. Dirty, sooty bird, and yet beautiful in its way. She only wanted to hold it. To have something of her own to hold.

He folds his hands and rests them on the desktop. She stares at his long fingers, the way they fold into one another. She wonders if they are strong hands. It is not the first time she has wondered this. “I heard you received another letter yesterday.”

Her heart trembles inside her chest.

“It is against our policy to intrude too much on our patients’ privacy, Annie. We don’t read patients’ mail, as they do at other homes. We are not like that here.” His smile is kind, but there is a slight furrow between his brows and Annie has the strangest urge to press her finger there, to smooth the soft flesh. But of course she would never. Voluntary touching is not allowed. “Here, you may show us only of your own free will. But you can see how these letters would be a matter of concern for us, don’t you?”

His voice is gentle, encouraging, almost a physical caress in the stillness. Bait. She remains silent, as if to speak would be to touch him back. Perhaps if she doesn’t respond, he will stop pressing. Perhaps she will vanish into air if she is quiet enough. She used to play this game all the time in the vast fields and cliffsides of Ballintoy-the recollection returns with startling clarity: the Vanishing Game. Generally, it worked. She could go whole days drifting in the meadow behind the house, imagining stories, without ever being seen or spoken to. A living phantom.

The doctor stretches his neck against his high collar. He has a good, solid neck. Hands, too. He could easily overpower her. That is probably the point of such strength. “Perhaps you would like to show it to me, Annie? For your own peace of mind? It’s not good to have secrets-secrets weigh on you, hold you down.”

She shivers. She longs to share it and burns to hide it. “It’s from a friend.”

“The friend who used to work with you aboard the passenger ship?” He pauses. “Violet, wasn’t it?”

She starts to panic. “She’s working on another ship now. She says they are in dire need of help and she wonders if I would return to service.” There. It’s out.

His dark eyes study her. She cannot resist the weight of his expectation. She has never been good at saying no; all she has ever wanted was to please people, her father, her mother. To please all of them. To be good.

Like she once was.

My good Annie, the Lord favors good girls, said her da’.

She reaches into her pocket and hands him the letter. She can hardly stand to watch him read, feeling as though it is not the letter but her own body that has been exposed.

Then he glances up at her, and slowly his mouth forms a smile.

“Don’t you see, Annie?”

She knots her hands together in her lap. “See?” She knows what he’s going to say next.

“You know that you’re not really sick, not like the others, don’t you?” He says these words kindly, as though he is trying to spare her feelings. As though she doesn’t already know it. “We debated the morality of keeping you here, but we were reluctant to discharge you because- Well, frankly, we didn’t know what to do with you.”

Annie had no recollection of her own past when she was admitted to Morninggate Asylum. She woke up in one of the narrow beds, her arms and legs bruised, not to mention the awful, aching wound on her head. A constable had found her unconscious behind a public house. She didn’t appear to be a prostitute-she was neither dressed for it nor stinking of gin.

But no one knew who she was. At the time, Annie scarcely knew herself. She couldn’t even tell them her name. The physician had no choice but to sign the court order to detain her at the asylum.

Her memory has, over time, begun to return. Not all of it, though; when she tries to recall certain things, all she gets is a blur. The night the great ship went down is, of course, cut into her memory with the prismatic perfection of solid ice. It’s what came before that feels unreal. She remembers the two men, each in their turn, though sometimes she feels as though they have braided together in her mind into just one man, or all men. And then, before that: fragments of green fields and endless sermons, intoned prayer and howling northern wind. A world too unfathomably big to comprehend.

A terrible, gaping loneliness that has been her only companion for four years.

Surely it is better to be kept safe inside this place, while the world and its secrets, its wars, its false promises, are kept away, outside the thick brick walls.

Dr. Davenport looks at her with that same wavering smile. “Don’t you think, Annie?” he is saying.

“Think what?”

“It would be wrong to keep you here, with the war on. Taking up a bed that could be used for someone who is truly unwell. There are soldiers suffering from shell shock. Everton Alley teems with poor and broken spirits, tormented by demons from their time on the battlefield.” His eyes are dark and very steady. They linger on hers. “You must write to the White Star office and ask for your old job, as your friend suggests. It’s the right thing to do under the circumstances.”

She is stunned, not by his assertions but that this is all happening so quickly. She is having trouble keeping up with his words. A slow dread creeps into her chest.

“You’re fine, my dear. You’re just scared. It’s understandable-but you’ll be right as rain once you see your friend and start working again. It’s about time, anyway, don’t you think?”

She can’t help but feel stubbornly rejected, spurned, almost. For four years, she’s managed things so that she could stay. Kept her secrets. Was careful not to disrupt anything, not to do anything wrong.

She has been so good.

Now her life, her home, the only security she knows, is being ripped away from her and she is once more being forced out into the unknown.

But there is no turning back. She knows she cannot refuse him this, cannot refuse him anything. Not when he has been so kind.

He folds up the letter and holds it out to her. Her gaze lingers on his strong hands. Her fingers brush against his when she takes it back. Forbidden.

“I should be happy to sign the release papers,” her doctor says. “Congratulations, Miss Hebbley, on your return to the world.”

~

3 October 1916

My dear Annie,

I hope this letter finds you. Yes, I am writing again even though I have not heard from you since the letter you sent via the White Star Line head office. You can understand why I continue to write. I pray your condition has not worsened. I was sorry to read of your current situation, although, from your letter, you do not sound unwell to me. Can you ever forgive me for losing track of you after that Terrible Night? I didn’t know if you had lived or died. I feared I would never see you again.

~~~

About the Author

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Alma Katsu is the author of The Hunger, a re-imagining of the story of the Donner Party with a horror twist. The Hunger made NPR’s list of the 100 Best Horror Stories, was named one of the best novels of 2018 by the Observer, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books (and more), and was nominated for a Stoker and Locus Award for best horror novel.

The Taker, her debut novel, has been compared to the early works of Anne Rice and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for combining historical, the supernatural, and fantasy into one story. The Taker was named a Top Ten Debut Novel of 2011 by Booklist, was nominated for a Goodreads Readers Choice award, and has been published in over 10 languages. It is the first in an award-winning trilogy that includes The Reckoning and The Descent.

​Ms. Katsu lives outside of Washington DC with her husband, musician Bruce Katsu. In addition to her novels, she has been a signature reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and a contributor to the Huffington Post. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Program and Brandeis University, where she studied with novelist John Irving. She also is an alumni of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Prior to publication of her first novel, Ms. Katsu had a long career in intelligence, working for several US agencies and a think tank. She currently is a consultant on emerging technologies. Additional information can be found on Wikipedia and in this interview with Ozy.com.

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Giveaway

Win a finished copy of THE DEEP by Alma Katsu (US Only). This giveaway runs from March 10 to 24, 2020. Click here to enter.

For more chances of winning, you may also join the giveaway on Instagram. Follow @books_andpoetrii and check my The Degenerates post.

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Tour Schedule

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