Cast into the underworld after an act of shattering betrayal, Mayana and Ahkin must overcome unimaginable odds if they are to return home and reclaim the throne of the Chicome. A river of blood and demons disguised as children are only two of the challenges standing in their way. Fortunately, they are not unequipped. Mayana’s royal blood controls the power of water, and Prince Ahkin wields the power of the sun itself. Ometeotl, the Mother goddess, provides them with other gifts—and an ominous warning that one of them may not survive. But can the goddess be trusted?
“At least as much at peace as was possible sleeping behind a pile of bones on the outskirts of the City of the Dead.”
— Lani Forbes
Back in the lands above, Mayana’s best friend, Yemania, has survived the empress selection ritual—but her next challenge may be more than she can bear. The new empress of the Chicome Empire demands she become High Healer. Yemania has no interest in serving in the palace; she wants to use her healing ability to help the common people. More than that, her heart is no longer her own. She has met an enchanting stranger—Ochix, one of the feared Miquitz people who are ancient enemies of the Chicome.
As Mayana and Ahkin move ever closer to confronting the lords of the dead, Yemania and Ochix must hide their forbidden romance or face the wrath of both their empires. Meanwhile, the new empress has made a dangerous alliance that might destroy everything they hold dear.
Four young people risk their lives to save the world from a looming apocalypse in this captivating sequel to The Seventh Sun. Based on ancient Mesoamerican legends and mythology, The Jade Bones is a compelling and romantic adventure that builds to a heart-stopping climax.
“Without another word, she turned and marched straight into the dark interior of the mountain without him.”
Have you ever had a book that surprisingly stuck with you? Like you read it, fell in love, but then continued to think about it when you didn’t think you would? Well that was what happened after I read The Seventh Sun last year. So, to say I’ve been waiting for this book for a while is a bit of an understatement. I just HAD to know what happened next in this world and I just wanted to dive right back into the rich magic and culture.
“Our blood. The blood of the gods.”
— Lani Forbes
And one thing that I am so happy for is that this book didn’t disappoint. So often we see second books fall into the sophmore slump, but The Jade Bones just expertly expanded on the first book while still holding what I fell in love with from the first. Plus we get some new characters, a boatload of character development, and (gasp) my favorite: epic world building. Things just start coming together in this book, you know?
“The empire needs you. It can survive without me.”
— Lani Forbes
Now, I sped read this book so make sure you have some time set aside for this one. I mean, I sped read it because I missed a tour stop (I hate life, my calendar decided to delete my day for this tour, why is February turning out like this?) BUT I also would have sped read it even if I wasn’t a failure and late. It was just that good and I continue to look forward to seeing what Forbes produces next.
About the Author
Lani Forbes is the daughter of a librarian and an ex-drug smuggling surfer (which explains her passionate love of the ocean and books). A former teacher turned trauma counselor, her passion is showing readers the transformative and encouraging power of story on the human experience. She helps others process anxiety, depression, and complex PTSD, both in her stories and in real life. A California native whose parents live in Mexico, Lani now resides in the Pacific Northwest where she stubbornly wears flip flops no matter how cold it gets. She is a proud nerd, Gryffindor, and member of Romance Writers of America and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Nemesis and the Swan by Lindsay K. Bandy Publisher: Blackstone Publishing Release Date: October 27th 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Historical, Fiction, France
“But this is no place for sleeping. It’s a place for itching and stinking, waiting and remembering, hoping and praying.”
— Lindsay K. Bandy
From her prison cell in revolutionary Paris, nineteen-year-old aristocrat Hélène d’Aubign recalls the events that led her to choose between following in her parents’ unforgivable footsteps or abandoning the man she loves.
“Was anyone in Paris sleeping that night?”
— Lindsay K. Bandy
Despite her world of privilege, Hélène is inspired early on by the radical ideas of her progressive governess. Though her family tries to intervene, the seeds of revolution have already been planted in Hélène’s heart, as are the seeds of love from an unlikely friendship with a young jeweler’s apprentice. Hélène’s determination to find true love is as revolutionary as her attempt to unravel the truth behind a chilling set of eye-shaped brooches and the concealed murder that tore her family apart.
As violence erupts in Paris, Hélène is forced into hiding with her estranged family, where the tangled secrets of their past become entwined with her own. When she finally returns to the blood-stained streets of Paris, she finds everything-and everyone-very much changed. In a city where alliances shift overnight, no one knows who to trust. Faced with looming war, the mystery of her family’s past, and the man she loves near death, Hélène will soon will find out if doing one wrong thing will make everything right, or if it will simply push her closer to the guillotine.
“The child of murderers, liars, cheaters, lunatics, and thieves. Unwanted, forgotten, and never good enough. I belonged nowhere and to no one. There was no way out.”
What’s the best type of historical fiction? A historical fiction set in France during the Revolution of course! This book is an easy to read amazing look into the time period. It truly just drew me in and I didn’t want to put the book down for a minute. The writing and the story are just so beautiful and engaging.
“I was walking in a dream – a good one, for once.”
— Lindsay K. Bandy
This is one of those historical fiction stories that takes you back in time and plops you right into the middle of the streets. But it doesn’t fall into the trap of being a dry story or overly focusing on telling us the history. This is most definitely a story above all of that. And there are many tangled and shocking histories between the characters in these stories. I’d definitely say a lot of them fall into that morally grey category, so I of course took to them all immediately.
“I etch a line of my own: my first.”
— Lindsay K. Bandy
Paris will always hold a special place in my heart with me, so I automatically HAVE to read anything set in this beautiful city. Even if it wasn’t necessarily so beautiful during the revolution and maybe a bit more bloody than anything. But I truly enjoyed this one!
About the Author
Lindsay Bandy writes historical and contemporary young adult fiction as well as poetry. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with her husband, two daughters, and two cats, and currently serves as the co–regional advisor of the Eastern Pennsylvania region of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
God Storm (Shadow Frost #2) by Coco Ma Publisher: Blackstone Publishing Release Date: October 20th 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
The only weapon I’ve become is my own.
Everything has a price.
Let’s see how many more doves you’ll kill before bedtime.
In the kingdom of Axaria, a darkness has fallen. After defeating the evil mother who summoned an immortal demon to kill her, newly coronated Queen Asterin Faelenhart should have every reason to celebrate. Her kingdom is safe, forbidden magic eradicated, and her friends are alive. Except Asterin’s triumph has come at a devastating cost – forced to choose between a lifelong friend and true love, she’s lost both. But the shadows in Axaria have begun to stir once again, and no one is more starved for vengeance than Asterin….
Yet it soon becomes clear that the shadows plaguing her kingdom are just the beginning. Another realm coexists with the mortal world – the beautiful, nightmarish Immortal Realm ruled by the wicked God of Shadow, King Eoin. When their paths entwine, Asterin realizes that Eoin possesses exactly what – and who – she seeks most. And the fates of all those that she holds dear – Orion, her missing Guardian; Luna, the friend she could not save; Harry, the demon who saved them all; and Quinlan, her beloved broken prince – ultimately rest in the god’s hands.
But in a world of magic, not everyone is always as they seem. When shocking discoveries threaten everything and everyone Asterin has sworn her life to protect, she won’t be the only person forced to make a choice…a choice that will change the mortal world forever.
And maybe even destroy it.
My life is yours. I vowed to protect your life with mine, and I will never forsake that promise.
Where do I even begin with this review? Because this book was just *muah* chefs kiss. It has delectable characters. Show stopping plot. And absolutely enthralling writing. So yeah, one could argue that I really really loved this book and I wouldn’t tell them they were wrong. I’d probably correct them and say that I’m actually obsessed with it.
Option the Second
1. Immediate death.
Can we just take a minute to discuss Coco Ma’s writing style? I know this is not necessarily about the book, but really it is. There are some books that I love because I fell in love with the worlds, and other books I love because they contain so many snarky characters for me to fawn over, but this book/series I love because of the writing. Every now and then I find an author that I immediately add to my favorites mental pile because the writing is so engrossing and meticulous and witty and I just salivate because it just lures me in and snares me.
Just because I’m not interested in sexual intimacy doesn’t mean I don’t understand what it means to love.
I actually find it so funny that I have grown to love this series so much because for the longest time I deprived myself of anything that had the words princess/prince/king/queen. Shockingly horrifying I know, but before I did this I went over the deep end on a binge of epic proportions of court related books that it needed to be done. And I’m really glad I had that palette cleanser because I’ve been able to go back now and really select the ones that I know will blow me away, much like God Storm did.
About the Author
Coco Ma is a Canadian author and pianist. At the age of fifteen, she wrote the first book of the Shadow Frost Trilogy and hasn’t looked back since. After learning the piano during her childhood, she has performed on some of the world’s greatest concert stages and graduated with a precollege diploma in piano performance from the Juilliard School in New York City. Currently, she studies at Yale University.
At this point, she wishes she could mention having a dog or a small dragon, except pets (and happiness, apparently) are tragically prohibited at her dormitories. When she isn’t writing, practicing piano, or wreaking havoc, you might find her bingeing Netflix or eating cake. Lots of cake.
The Cup and The Prince (Kingdom of Curses and Shadows #1) by Day Leitao Release Date: October 15th, 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Romance Age: 15+
It was part dream and part agony as she contemplated her own human limitation.
One prince wants her out.
Another wants her as a pawn.
Someone wants her dead.
Zora wants to win the cup and tell them all to screw themselves.
Oh, yes. My dream is to be a guy’s play thing.
Yes, 17-year-old Zora cheated her way into the Royal Games, but it was for a very good reason. Her ex-boyfriend thought she couldn’t attain glory on her own. Just because she was a girl. And he was the real cheater. So she took his place.
Now she’s competing for the legendary Blood Cup, representing the Dark Valley. It’s her chance to prove her worth and bring glory for her people. If she wins, of course.
But winning is far from easy. The younger prince thinks she’s a fragile damsel who doesn’t belong in the competition. Determined to eliminate her at all costs, he’s stacking the challenges against her. Zora hates him, hates him, hates him, and will do anything to prove him wrong.
The older prince is helping her, but the cost is getting Zora entangled in dangerous flirting games. Flirting, the last thing she wanted.
And then there’s someone trying to kill her.
That’s too kind of you, and definitely not true.
Disclaimer: Mentions of cheating, and alludes to virginity and sexual relationships. No steamy content.
The Cup and the Prince is a fast paced read filled with morally grey characters. Plus it has an absolutely to die for cover! Every now and then I seem to crave a story about a sassy take no bull heroine that I can quickly devour, and this one fit that bill! AND because it’s on the shorter side, when I say I was able to devour it I mean that I was able to sit down and read it in one big binge.
The Blood Cup. That’s going to be my husband. No risk of breaking my heart.
While I appreciated how short this book was, I also loathed it as well. I’m one for lengthy descriptions and epic world building, but that just couldn’t fit into this little start to the series (*wink, wink, nudge, nudge – make the second book longerrrrrr*). But that little personal frustration aside, I did really love how pretty much none of the characters were really “likeable.” I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved them. But they’re not all sunshine and rainbows. They’re raw and twisted and real. Which is probably one of my favorite ways for characters to be in a book.
‘Life is boring when you don’t fall in love, don’t you think?’
‘No. I have other exciting challenges.
This one definitely reminded me of a combo of The Shadows Between Us (writing style wise) and Throne of Glass (MC/plot wise). It was a great start to a new series and I look forward to seeing where the author takes it and how the world and characters continue to develop. So I will definitely be impatiently waiting for the next installment.
About the Author
I’m originally from Brazil but I’ve been living in Canada for over 10 years now. I have some influence from Brazilian writers and Brazilian culture, but I also read popular books in English. I watched some Anime as a kid, my favorite being Yamato. I’m a longtime Star Wars fan and I’m active in the fandom podcasting at Lords of the Sith as Denise.
I’ve always loved to write stories, and I like to always include romance, action and humor in my writing. I think stories can touch us deeply. I live in Montreal, Canada, with my son.
Unlike regular dreams, which faded away as soon as she would wake, this one was always crisp as a fresh memory.
The Opal Amulet (The Forbidden Gems of Regalia #1) by Victoria Drozda Publisher: BookBaby Release Date: October 14th 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Fantasy
To begin this book, speak of what question you seek, and it will show you the answer.
Fourteen year old Emberly Tollens doesn’t dream often but when she does its never a good sign, especially when its the same dream. Some nights she would dream of the sweet nothingness of time. Other nights the voices would get louder, the running faster, and the staff colder. Ice cold. But this is just the beginning of her problems.
Things get even stranger when she finds a dangerously beautiful opal necklace lying on the ground at school. Not strange at all. And definitely not strange when your once kind of nice teacher turns into a fire-breathing creature from the past, right?
Now with the help of her hazel eyed friend named Olive and a cute mysterious fire throwing boy. They’re going to discover that there’s a lot more going on than what they think.
That’s like Secret Keeping 101: make sure no one can over-hear you!
This was such a cute and fun book! There’s a lot of action, fun, and fantasy! And it’s just the middle school level book I wish was out there when I was just discovering these types of books. But I mean it’s still a great read for me now, so at least I didn’t miss out! Plus look at that gorgeous cover!
We’ll be two peas in a pod of craziness called life!
This book splits between a few different perspectives, and while I don’t always love this I think it worked really well with this story! I enjoyed getting the various sides to the story and learning a bit more about each of the main characters. Plus there was a lot of action throughout the story to keep the story moving.
Well, at least if I die, I don’t have to take the test!
Now, since this was a middle grade book I didn’t always connect with the characters but I still really enjoyed this book as a whole! It was a fun quick read that took me on a fantastical adventure. OH! And a special shout-out to the titles of the chapters! They were honestly the star of the show and always managed to make me giggle!
About the Author
Victoria Drozda started The Opal Amulet (book one to The Forbidden Gems of Regalia series) in the summer of 2016 before her freshman year of high school and later finished the book in 2020. She is an upcoming college student and enjoys spending her time reading, drawing, baking and of course writing. She currently resides in California and is eagerly working on the next book in the series.
Shadowspeak by Raven Eckman Publisher: Fox Pointe Publishing Release Date: January 2021 Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Once there was a girl who spoke to shadows…
Rune’s mother is uncaring and her brother is too young to protect her, so when Rune’s father sells her to the depraved city of Wraith at the young age of ten, no one stops him. His last words to her are of a debt he cannot pay. The shadows who’ve kept Rune company as long as she can remember seem to know what he speaks of and yet they keep their silence.
And so Rune grows up living in servitude to Wraith’s brothel and its manipulative mistress, Agata, all while having only the faintest recollections of her forgotten childhood. Years later when she finally escapes Wraith, a wild place wrapped up in hedonism and old world ritual, she vows to never return…
When a child prince is kidnapped by a masked killer in a neighboring kingdom, however, Rune no longer has a choice. Joined by Weylin, her old love and a fellow Wraith runaway, she returns to the accursed city and the shadows of her past.
Not all is as it seems as threads of memory begin to unravel, revealing old lies and dark secrets.
I am a wreck, I am drowning, I need to be saved from myself.
Lira and Reyker have lost everything. Including each other.
Lira of Stone watched her home burn and her clan fall beneath the sword of the warlord known as the Dragon. She believes the man she loves, a warrior who defected from the Dragon s army, is dead. Alongside her exiled brother and his band of refugees, she will fight the forces that conquered her island. But the greatest danger may come from Lira herself with the blood of banished gods running through her veins, she s become a weapon, and no one is safe from the power of her wrath.
Reyker Lagorsson thought he was done being a Dragonman. That was before he saw Lira leap from a cliff and vanish into the sea. Determined to honor her memory by protecting her people, Reyker must feign loyalty to the warlord, undermine him at every turn, and seek alliances with renegade soldiers without succumbing to the battle-madness that threatens to possess him once more.
When the Fallen Ones offer Lira a chance to defeat the Dragon, her quest leads her to a place she never expected Iseneld, the warlord s homeland. Her journey into the heart of the Frozen Sun will put her on a collision course with Reyker, costing both of them more than they ever imagined, and leaving her with a terrible choice: to save their countries, she must forsake everything she loves.
Death’s second lesson was about many things. Patience. Desire.
Even though this is the second book in the series it didn’t leave out the action! Starting off where the first book ends we’re tossed right back into the thrill of everything going on. And as always, it’s still a brutal world in these pages. So, be prepared and grab yourself a bunch of caffeine because you won’t want to put this one down!
I wanted to stop him. To show him I could. To touch the man who thought himself untouchable.
I love how different and unique this world is. And even when we get backstories and world building the adventure continues to build. And the characters! Phew! I love me some morally grey characters and we have plenty in this story! Even the bad guy has me going, wellllllll, I mean *shrugs*. So be prepared for some more darker themes and all the fun that goes along with that!
This is the war. It is where we make our stand. Where we end his reign.
So, be prepared for this book. If you’re just as invested in these characters as I am you just need to be ready. And that’s all I’m going to say on that. But wow, I kind of need the next book ASAP but you know, I GUESS I’ll wait. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.
About the Author
Jill Criswell is a writer of Young Adult Historical Fantasy. She was born and raised in the swamps of northeastern Florida. She earned degrees in English and Psychology and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. Her greatest passion, besides reading and writing, is traveling the world; she’s visited fifty countries across six continents, falling in love with places like Iceland, Namibia, and Cambodia. She works as a university English teacher and lives in South Carolina, near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with her husband and daughter (who is named after a volcano in Iceland).
Don’t give them a reason to say anything more; that’s all you can do.
Lifeline to Marionette by Jennifer Waitte Publisher: Madim Larcy Literary Release Date: September 22nd 2020 Genre: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
She felt herself fading away.
A lonely childhood, a haunted past, a secret, and a life controlled by others–she is a woman at the end of her rope, without hope.
Alaina Michelle Sekovich is the daughter of Europe’s most famous living composer. Once his prodigy, they are now estranged. To the world, she is Michelle Seko, a multimedia star and valuable asset of the film and fashion industries.
Michelle was a gifted yet troubled child who sought only to see the suffocating world of her father’s overbearing tutelage. She thought she could change her life by becoming someone else. But when her world becomes herself looking back at her and the face that is her own is a monster she does not know, she finds there is no place she can go, nowhere she can hide, because what she wants to escape from most is the one thing she can never be truly free of–herself.
Lifeline to Marionette is a story about what life under a microscope can do to the soul. It is a story about a young woman whose every move is determined by the people who control her. Their strings are fine but unbreakable, and they pull her painfully in opposing directions until she can no longer bear their tension.
Lifeline to Marionette begins where Michelle’s life is nearest its end. It is a story of exploitation, greed, death, drugs, and secrecy, of familial bonds and human frailty. It is a story about cutting strings and accepting the fall.
And what had he done? Not enough. Not nearly enough.
This is one of those books that I probably would’ve passed over for a long time and then kicked myself for doing so. So I’m extremely happy I had the chance to be on this tour and read this soulfully dreary yet beautiful book! A close look at the stress and strain that stardom can bring and the spiral that accompanies the slow descent.
There are two intentions written into music. How it should sound and how it should feel.
This is a poignant book that shares a deep look into the psyche of a person trying and failing to thrive in life. This book is definitely more focused on the characters versus the plot. And that’s what a story like this needs to do. These are stories that give us a glimpse into someone in an ethereal and thought provoking manner.
She started to waver and her hands floated up, like the hands of a marionette being pulled by their strings.
This is one of those books that will leave you reeling and then haunt you long after you read it. It will leave you questioning how someone got to that point and how your life might have been different given different circumstances. This cast of characters will stay with you for a long time. Overall, Lifeline to Marionette is a thought provoking and haunting story that will take you back to the simplicity of looking at the person more than the adventure.
About the Author
Jennifer Waitte is an award-winning journalist, editor and author. She is a graduate of California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo, and holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
For 15 years, Waitte worked as a writer and editor for numerous lifestyle, equine and equestrian sporting magazines. She has won many awards for her writing, editing and editorial direction.
Waitte is an avid equestrian. She competes in the sport of long-distance horse racing and dressage. She lives in Napa, California, with her husband Barry. They own Tamber Bey Vineyards, a boutique winery located in Napa Valley.
The Hive Queen (The Bond Trilogy, #2) by Robin Kirk Publisher: Blue Crow Books Release Date: September 1st 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, SciFi
It’s for her daughter, we’ll say. For the future. For love.
In the second book in the INDIE-award-winning Bond Trilogy, warrior Fir leads his brothers on a quest for salvation that will threaten everything he holds dear.
As you know, I love surprises.
After the battle that toppled the Weave, warrior Fir leads his brothers east to escape servitude, or worse—death at the hands of rival warriors. They search for the fabled Master of Men who promises freedom for men in the Weave. But their quest leads them to a foe more dangerous than they could have imagined.
When the beautiful Hive Queen, Odide, bespells Fir, he’s compelled to betray his brothers—and risks dooming them all to an unspeakable fate. To survive, Fir must choose between his loyalty to his brothers, his allegiance to the Queen, and his love for Dinitra.
But salvation is not what it seems. When the worlds of the Hive and the Master collide, it triggers a devastating betrayal that leaves Fir with an impossible choice: can he sacrifice his brothers for the love he thought he could never have?
We’re going to find this Master, find a home, no matter what stands in our way.
This series is one of those series that’s got a little bit of everything and is still expertly done. ANDDDDD, THERE’S A MAP! You know it’s an automatic win for me when there’s a map in a book. Plus this map is so cool. I’m not going to spoil it though, so you just need to get these books so you can see it. But anyways, I also really loved the switch in perspective in The Hive Queen over to Fir. I think it really added even more depth to the series.
I vow: not one brother more will die because of me.
The second book takes us on an even grander adventure than the first. And the world building stands up as well. Much like the first book, Kirk takes what we know of this world, flips it on its head, and takes us even deeper than ever imaginable. Yet through all of this world building the story doesn’t slow down in the slightest. There’s just action followed by more action and topped with a dash more action.
For us, there’s no going back.
The writing style of this book is so unique and I’m not quite sure how to describe it. In a sense it’s very bare, but not in a way that makes you feel as if you are missing out on anything. It almost has a sort of ephemeral quality, which pairs really nicely with the story and the concept of the world.
About the Author
Kirk is the author of The Bond, the first in a fantasy trilogy published by Blue Crow Publishing. Foreward Reviews awarded The Bond its Bronze award for best YA in 2018. Book II, The Hive Queen, is due out in August 2020. Kirk’s other books include More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia (PublicAffairs) and The Monkey’s Paw: New Chronicles from Peru (University of Massachusetts Press). She coedits the The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University) and is an editor of Duke University Press’s World Readers series.
Kirk is a Faculty Co-Director of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and is a founding member of the Pauli Murray Project, an initiative of the center that seeks to use the legacy of this Durham daughter to examine the region’s past of slavery, segregation and continuing economic inequality. An author and human rights advocate, Kirk is a lecturer in Duke’s Department of Cultural Anthropology.
More of Kirk’s work is available on her Scribd site. Kirk can be reached at robinkirk.com, through her Facebook Page or on Twitter at @robinkirk.
Six Angry Girls by Adrienne Kisner Publisher: Feiwel & Friends Release Date: August 18th 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT, Feminism, Queer, Realistic Fiction, Gay, Asexual
A person didn’t want to se all the library magic too quickly. It might melt the books or something.
A story of mock trial, feminism, and the inherent power found in a pair of knitting needles.
Who invented the system where you had to figure out what you wanted to do with the rest of your life before you could vote or buy a vibrator?
Raina Petree is crushing her senior year, until her boyfriend dumps her, the drama club (basically) dumps her, the college of her dreams slips away, and her arch-nemesis triumphs.
Things aren’t much better for Millie Goodwin. Her father treats her like a servant, and the all-boy Mock Trial team votes her out, even after she spent the last three years helping to build its success.
But then, an advice columnist unexpectedly helps Raina find new purpose in a pair of knitting needles and a politically active local yarn store. This leads to an unlikely meeting in the girls’ bathroom, where Raina inspires Millie to start a rival team. The two join together and recruit four other angry girls to not only take on Mock Trial, but to smash the patriarchy in the process.
Competition was life. What did you possibly do for fun if you didn’t compete? Knit, I guessed.
Ah, this book came at the perfect time since I just started a ton of knitting projects and FINALLY taught myself how to crochet. It also made me sentimental and miss living in an area where yarn shops were galore and you could just pop in and hang out with a group of like minded (or should I say like hobbied?) individuals. But alas, living in Florida is not the most knit friendly seeing as you get MAYBE one good month to fit in all of the spectacular knitted clothing and accessories.
Maybe I could be a librarian. A really theatrical librarian. Or a theatrical law librarian.
But anyways, this was such a fun and clever and witty and oftentimes awkward read. So, you know, something I would (and did) really enjoy! I could easily see myself in these six angry girls growing up… well, and to this day, it’s not like my personality has changed THAT much. And while I found myself laughing frequently throughout the story, there was still such a powerful female message throughout. I mean, these girls got done what they set their minds to and refused to allow any male to tear them down. So, GIRL POWER!
We are classy, classy people.
This book does diversity in all the right ways. Each of the characters are unique in their own way and it isn’t a forced uniqueness, if you know what I mean. There is meaning behind every person being their own person and there is also a sense of finding oneself along the way. Because humans are fluid and while we inherently remain “us,” we do often have some stumbling blocks along the way of self-discovery.
About the Author
Adrienne Kisner has lived her entire “adult” life in a college dormitory working in both Residence Life and college chaplaincy. (She prefers the term “dormitory” over “residence hall.” Don’t @ her.) She went to school for a long time so that now she gets to swoop around in a fancy robe and silly hat (like at Hogwarts). She also has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts (a place like Hogwarts). Adrienne is a birder and knitter with more heart and enthusiasm than actual skill. Her debut novel DEAR RACHEL MADDOW won a 2016 PEN New England Susan P Bloom Discovery Award and was one of YALSA’s 2019 picks for Best Fiction for Young Adults. Her second novel, THE CONFUSION OF LAUREL GRAHAM, will be released in June of 2019. Book three, SIX ANGRY GIRLS, is due out in the spring of 2020. She loves her current home in Boston but will always be a Pennsylvanian at heart.
Everything was great, actually, until Brandon had to go and ruin my life.
School was back in session from winter break, and I was ready to live it up in my final semester at Steelton High. I’d killed it as Katherine Minola in the Stackhouse Players’ winter production of Taming of the Shrew. (Everyone said so, including the reviewers in This Town: Steeltown and the Tribune Republican. And nothing usually impresses those people. Nothing.) The admissions department at Carnegie Mellon had caught wind of my performance and everyone said they’d be fighting NYU and even Juilliard for me, even if I hadn’t applied to Juilliard. My evenings were filled with talks with my best friend, Megan, about theater craft and Brandon and college and Brandon and method and Brandon. (Brandon and theater were kind of tied together for me, since he’d been the one to encourage me to audition for my first play in elementary school, way before we were even going out.) At the end of last year, I’d just been elected Drama Club president to replace Cate Berry, who got cast in a movie and moved to LA. I’d narrowly edged out the awful Claire Fowler by two votes. She’d been my chief rival since she won the lead at fifth-grade summer camp (and every blasted summer after that), but I’d finally triumphed over her. Life had hit perfection by New Year’s Eve, and it was only going to get better.
Or it would have, had it not all come crashing down because of dick Brandon.
I came back to school on day one of the new term ready to persuade Mr. Cooper that we should ditch Almost, Maine (which we had done for the spring production two years in a row) and perform Radium Girls instead. I had notes and a USB-saved PowerPoint. We had a full hour for clubs and sport meetings right after lunch, thank you, Football Boosters, so I planned to corner Mr. Cooper before he got an earful from Claire about Arsenic and Old Lace or, God help me, fucking Our Town.
I practiced my pitch on Megan between bites of my sandwich.
“Almost, Maine sucks!” said Megan. “Isn’t Arsenic and Old Lace done everywhere? We need something different.”
“Well, Radium Girls is super popular, too, but we’ve never done it here,” I said. “And I want it for my portfolio.”
“Yes. Heaven forbid we not have something in our portfolio,” said Megan.
(She might have been hearing about said portfolio since Claire first bested me at aforementioned camp.)
“You need to show diversity—”
Megan held up her hands. “Yes, yes. For Carnegie Mellon’s competitive drama department. I know, I know. You’ve convinced me. Down with John Cariani. Ring in the reign of D.W. Gregory to Steelton High’s spring production.”
“Yes,” I said, but I was pleased she had been listening to my presentation. The PowerPoint had crashed her laptop.
“Go get ’em, tiger,” said Megan as the bell rang.
I strode out of the cafeteria and down the hall with a purpose. This was my year. We were going to do the play I wanted, and everyone would thank me for it. Even Claire. I rounded the corner by the guidance office to hit up my locker before my date with Mr. Cooper. I practically exploded with joy to see Brandon standing there.
“Hey!” I said, rushing over to him. Before he could say anything, I threw my arms around him and pressed my mouth to his. That was not allowed in our sacred hallways of learning, but if you were fast the teachers didn’t say anything.
The asshole even kissed me back.
“I thought you were doing some fancy extra chem lab today?” I said.
“Oh yeah. Mr. Bower is out sick, and the sub didn’t want any active flames. Something bad happened in his past involving eyebrows. I don’t know. I’m going to stop in to Mock Trial. New session is upon us. We have so many members this year, we might have a whole crew dedicated to researching for the competition team.”
“Awesome,” I said.
I meant it. Brandon had wanted to be a lawyer ever since we started going out in eighth grade. He was the only kid I knew who read Supreme Court decisions for fun. His passion for law stuff kept me going in theater, even when I wanted to try something else like debate or Mock Trial myself. But Brandon said it was better to stick with one thing. He always said it’d distract him if I branched into his activities. I respected that. I could be incredibly distracting. Though I always thought I’d kill it up there in front of a real judge.
“I’m going to convince Mr. Cooper that we can’t have yet another year of Almost, Maine—”
“Listen, Raina?” he said, putting up his hands. “Can I just stop you right there? I actually need to talk to you.” He looked at the floor. He dug the toe of his loafer into a gray hole in the dirty hallway linoleum.
“Uh. Sure. You okay?” I said. Oh God, did his grandma die? She’d been sick since shortly after her ninetieth birthday party. Brandon’s mom was stressed about it every time I ate dinner over at his house. “Is it your grandma?”
“No, no. Nan is fine. It’s just … well, you know how I went to Model UN camp this last week?”
“Yes,” I said. He hadn’t been home for New Year’s Eve, but I’d made the best of it with Megan.
“Well, some stuff happened there I didn’t tell you about. Because I didn’t think it mattered and because of your Stackhouse show and everything. But now…” He trailed off.
Dig went his shoe. Dig, dig.
“Stuff? What stuff?”
“Ruby Carol and I hooked up.”
His dialogue came out all wrong. Rushed. Forced. No emotional connection at all. I didn’t believe it.
“Ruby Carol. From Model UN,” I said.
“You hooked up,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“But you were happy to see me. You were really happy to see me just this Sunday,” I said. I hadn’t been ready to sleep with him until this year. But once we got started, woooo boy. Brandon’s parents both worked late on Sundays, so we had his house to ourselves and believe me—I always got a great start to the week over there.
“We were safe. I would never…”
“You were safe?” I said. My voice bounced off the silver lockers and the diversity mural and the skylight outside the auditorium. “You had sex with her?”
“That’s what I said.” He glanced around. “Maybe you should lower your voice…”
“No, you … there are a lot of meanings to ‘hooked up.’ And you can shove my loud voice up your ass.” I stepped toward him, forcing him to back up against my locker. “Why are you telling me this shit in the hallway? Between classes? Before drama period?” I said.
“Apparently there are pictures of me and Ruby. My buddy Kyle—well, you know he’s an idiot—he posted them someplace. And I’m tired of it being a secret. She wants to go to Duquesne, too, so we wouldn’t have to break up in May, even. We’re together.”
His blocking was all off. The movements were slow. Labored. Rehearsed.
“But we’ve been together for five years. CMU and Duquesne are in the same city. What about last Sunday?” I gasped.
The bell rang. I could feel the staring eyes of the people who were trying to pretend they weren’t milling around in the hallway to watch the fight.
“Five years is a long time. We’re just not in the same place anymore,” he said. “We were both bored, Raina. Admit it.”
I would not. I could not honestly say that, ever. I loved Brandon. His blue eyes, his blond hair, his crooked nose, his round ears. And his brain. I loved his brain. He remembered everything, even stupid details like your favorite cartoon from when you were a kid or that you didn’t like coconut. He first asked me to the movies under the apple tree in Central Park on September 4. We had our first kiss on the day after Thanksgiving at the mall. We’d talked every day since then. He laughed at my jokes. He ran lines with inflection and improvised blocking. He said he believed in me and my talent.
“I’m not bored,” I said. “I love you.” I balled my hands into fists and willed myself to breathe slower, steady breaths. “You said you loved me, too. Every day. Until now,” I said.
“I did. I do. But it’s just not the same, Raina.” His eyes pleaded. For what? Forgiveness? Understanding?
“But…” I said. My nose was starting to burn and my eyes to throb. I was standing next to a “Six Foods Teen Bodies Need to Thrive” poster. And the love of my life was shitting all over my heart.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I’m sorry,” Brandon said. How did he manage to sound like he actually meant it?
I stared into his crystal blue eyes, looking for the gag. The joke. The prank that this had to be. A tiny part of me grew pissed off that this asshole was ruining the color blue for me.
“If you see the pictures, I’m sorry.”
I just stared. Mouth open. Comic, exaggerated features. Jagged little shards of my heart poked against my chest.
Brandon edged his way to the side, until he slipped outside of my reach. He straightened his sweater and ran a hand through his hair. He walked away and didn’t look back.
I put one hand on the wall, another on the locker. Tears threatened. Tears of shock, rather than grief or sadness. I’d studied how my face felt when angry or sad or excited, so I could replicate the feelings needed in a given scene. But now—only shock.
Breathe in, breathe out, I told myself. From the diaphragm. Shallow breaths reduce vocal power. Brandon turned the corner. But I knew he heard my scream.
JANUARY 7: ANSWER AND NEW MATTER
I didn’t do much in the few days after Brandon stomped my heart into dust. Mom only let me stay home from school one day, saying that since life would continue on, I had to, too. Mom wasn’t a sit-at-home-and-cry type. She was a night nurse at a retirement community and took care of a lot of people whose minds and bodies no longer did what they were supposed to. It gave her too much perspective to be able to put up with much from me. And since Dad was away most of the year hauling dairy freight, it wasn’t like she had any backup in the daily-life department.
She patted me on the head before leaving for her shift. “There are plenty of other boys, Raina.”
“We were together for five years,” I said. He knew I collected teddy bears. He knew exactly when to put his arm around me at scary movies. I let him know everything about me, even things I wouldn’t admit to Megan. He was another part of my body. A limb. An internal organ you couldn’t just donate to some other girl without a thought.
“You are babies. You have nothing but time and chances. Use this in your art.”
“Are you kidding?” I said.
“No. I know it hurts. But there are worse things. Find a new boy,” she said. “Or a new whoever. Maybe we should get a pet. I’ve always thought having a cat would be nice.”
She’d never liked Brandon much. She said that he was too pretty and that the pretty ones take what they want and then leave when they want. I hated how she might have been right about that.
Mom left to go work a double, and I buried my face in the old, overstuffed fuzz of the couch.
Still mourning? Megan’s text buzzed my phone.
No one cares. No one understands, I texted back.
I care. I understand. Want company? she wrote.
Yes, I texted.
Megan brought chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream and slightly more empathy than Mom.
“I saw them today,” I told her. “Making out by the gym. You’d think he’d have some respect for me, in our shared space.”
“Yes. Surely the dude who broke up with you for two weeks sophomore year so he was single for his spring-break trip to Cancún would have some consideration,” said Megan.
Megan didn’t like Brandon much, either.
“Was I this unsympathetic when you broke up with Todd? Or Kevin? Or Jack?”
“Jake. Most recent one was Jake,” she said. “And mostly. But I was only with them for about a month each.”
“I will never get over this,” I said. “I feel like I’m going to barf if I even hear his laugh.” I had, in fact, barfed twice just from hearing his laugh. I’d made it into the bathroom, but each time had been a close call. I didn’t even know what I had to throw up, since I’d barely eaten.
“You know what I think you need? Professional advice,” Megan said.
“Like a shrink?” I said.
“Oh, maybe. Your mom has health insurance, doesn’t she? She’s a nurse.”
“Yeah. But it’s super expensive. We have the probably-will-keep-you-from-dying plan. I don’t know if it’d cover much. Maybe I could go to the guidance counselor.”
“Oh. Maybe,” said Megan.
“What do you have against him?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing. He’s a nice guy. I went for my college-application stuff. It’s just…” She chewed on her thumbnail. “Ruby is a student volunteer in that office.”
I stared at her. “You aren’t serious.”
“I am. I saw her sitting at the desk, folding brochures.”
“Well, forget that,” I said. “I don’t want to go anywhere near her.”
“Yeah,” said Megan. “Well, how about here?” she said, digging through her backpack. She unearthed an Oprah magazine.
“You think I should call Oprah?” I said. “A shrink would probably be cheaper, even without insurance.”
“No! Well. I mean. If only. No—I think you should write for advice. They have life coaches in here. And money coaches and relationship people. You don’t have to do the Oprah staff. Write to that woman from the Tribune Republican who does the Two Hearts column. Bet she’d be all over this. She loves heartbreak.”
I glared at Megan.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “This is her job.”
“What are her qualifications?” I said. I sniffed back tears that always lurked anytime we started talking about Brandon the dick.
“You are worried about the newspaper lady’s credentials?” said Megan.
“I just don’t want someone who is going to mess me up more,” I said.
“Okay, okay, here,” she said, picking up my phone. “I’ll look at her blog online.” She tapped on the screen. “Here’s a good one. ‘Dear Hearts, I have been with my boyfriend for two-and-a-half years. Recently, I flew to France with him to meet his family. I thought it went well. His sister and I really hit it off, and his mother and father were so sweet and kind. When we flew home, we talked about shopping for an engagement ring! Everything seemed perfect. But then fast-forward to a few months later, and things seem to have fallen apart. He barely calls, cancels plans, and asked for my key to his apartment back because “repair people” will be doing work in his place soon. When I asked what is wrong, he says it’s “family stuff,” and nothing more. I don’t understand what is happening. Did I insult his parents? Am I missing signals I should understand? Help?! Sincerely, Confused Constance.’”
“Ouch,” I said. “What’s the answer?”
“‘Dear Constance,’” Megan read. “‘That sounds so hard. You think you are on one route, and then the plane turns in the middle of the sky and heads off into the clouds in another direction. I wouldn’t read into the family visit—it sounds like that went well. It might be related, but since the behavior is more recent, it might be tied to something else. Perhaps your boyfriend was caught up in the excitement of the visit when he started the marriage conversation and is now pulling back. I would encourage you to sit down and have an honest talk about where you both want your relationship to go and the pace at which you want to pursue that vision. Take heart, he could be acting this way for reasons completely separate from you. But the only way to find out is through open, honest communication. Readers—do you think the French family made her boyfriend want to say au revoir? Comment below!’”
“She didn’t tell her that the boyfriend was probably banging Ruby since sophomore year spring break,” I said. “So how could she help me?”
“Well, that wasn’t what the question was about. There are others that are more related to your situation. Read those.”
I flopped over onto her lap, knocking the phone out of her hand.
“Or you could continue to imitate a wounded orca,” she said.
“Why does no one feel my pain?” I said. “This is the worst feeling in the world.”
“I know,” said Megan. “It sucks. It really does. I hate Brandon. I want to cut off his balls.”
“Good,” I said from her lap.
She stroked my hair for a second. “But it’s still your senior year. You’ve lost the beginning of your last term to this dick. I don’t want you to lose spring theater auditions. Or Carnegie Mellon auditions. None of it. Say it with me. Not because of the dick! Not because of the dick!”
“Not because of the dick,” I mumbled.
“There you go. You are on your way toward healing. Which is good, because my mom is texting me to pick up groceries on the way home.”
“Mmph,” I said, rolling onto my furry throw pillows.
“Read the column, Raina. Write to this woman. It couldn’t hurt, right?”
I lifted my head. “I guess not.” I plopped back down onto the pillow.
Megan tried to give me a hug before she got up and went home, though I refused to stop lying prone on the bed.
I turned over and stared at the ceiling for a while. It was seven o’clock. Usually at seven, I’d text Brandon and he’d tell me all the latest gossip from Mock Trial, and I’d tell him what Claire had said that day, before our exchange devolved into eggplant and peach emojis.
I picked up my phone from the floor. The screen lit up with the Two Hearts column still open.
“‘Dear Hearts,’” I read out loud. “‘My fiancé of two years recently announced he no longer could live with my four cats…’”
They were all like that. Dudes changed their minds. Women got cold feet. Nonbinary partners decided that their person’s crippling debt was too much to take on. Two Hearts really brought home the reality that love sucked for everyone and forever was a lie.
Two Hearts just tells people to keep going and honestly communicate their feelings. If I communicate my feelings in the way I would like, I think I’ll be arrested, I texted Megan.
She didn’t text back. She was probably getting ready for bed. She had the annoying habit of getting up for swim practice at five a.m., so she was never awake much past nine.
I got up to pee. I wandered around the quiet, dark house. I kept picking up my phone, expecting Brandon to live-text some video games or MSNBC on a really wild night.
But nothing came.
Around midnight, I sat down at my computer. My screen flashed to life, a picture of Brandon and I last homecoming. I went into my settings and changed it to a plain blue purple screen. I opened up a Word doc.
“Dear Two Hearts,” I said, typing the letters.
What? I just turned eighteen and thought I’d marry the first boy I ever kissed? How pathetic that seemed. But it was true. I led with that.
I loved him, and he dumped me out of nowhere, I typed. No explanation, other than he had moved on before even breaking up with me in the first place. And now I’m alone and I don’t know what to do. I finished with a flourish. I didn’t reread it, I didn’t edit it, I just copied and pasted it and emailed the remaining slices of my pride to the email address on the bottom of the Two Hearts page. I closed my computer, fell into bed, and dreamed of Ruby and Claire chasing me with giant knives.
JANUARY 8: RELEVANT PARTIES AND ENTITIES
I barely woke up to my alarm. I stepped into the shower and leaned my head against the freezing morning tile. The water ran over me, pointing out that my body still had nerves that fired and my brain still registered touch. Stupid brain. I half-heartedly blotted my hair with my towel and pulled on old jeans and a hoodie. There was no one to look cute for at school anymore, so why bother?
Megan tried to poke me into action before school and at lunch, but what was the point of laughing? Before drama, Brandon and Ruby passed me in the hall. Neither of them paid attention to anything other than each other, hand in hand, laughing at some joke only they knew. That joke was probably me.
I reached the drama room where Mr. Cooper stood in the front, deep in conversation with Claire and two sophomores I didn’t know very well. They usually kept to the stage crew. I sat down in the front row of rickety chairs and folded my arms across my chest. Breathe, Raina. Diaphragm. In and out. I focused on the white board in front of me, the swaths of old marker arching like rainbows where an eraser just couldn’t rid it all.
“Raina?” said a voice. I looked up. Claire stood over me.
I didn’t answer.
“Did you hear us? Mr. Cooper called you.”
I looked over and nodded at him.
“Are you okay?” she said. “Do you need to go to the nurse? You don’t look so good.” She backed away from me, as if significant-other abandonment was contagious.
“Fine,” I mumbled. The story of Brandon dumping me by my locker was all over our small school within an hour. Claire had to know.
“Mr. Cooper asked you to come up to see him. Over there.” She pointed to his desk.
I got up and walked over.
“Raina, did you hear anything I just said to the group?”
Mr. Cooper had been talking? Drama had started? It probably wasn’t a great look that I hadn’t been paying attention.
“No,” I said. I tried to make eye contact with him. I’d blubbered in Mr. Cooper’s office about Brandon more than once in our three-plus years of knowing each other. Three of those times had been in the last week alone.
“It’s okay. Listen, we are voting on the spring production. Do you want to call people to order?” he said.
“Spring production?” I said. The words bounced around my head like a foreign language I used to understand. “Voting?”
“Yes, it’s today. We determined the three selections on Tuesday and so we are going to vote—”
Tuesday. The day I sat at home hiding under my pillows after dick Brandon …
“As president,” Mr. Cooper went on, interrupting my grief spiral, “it’s your privilege to lead the process. Are you … are you feeling up to it?”
I glanced at the board. Even though I’d been concentrating hard enough on it to crack it, I hadn’t notice the names of three plays written there: Almost, Maine; Twelve Angry Jurors; and fucking Our Town.
“Our Town?” I said. “These are our choices?” A small part of my brain registered Twelve Angry Jurors. I’d never been in that play, either. I’d seen a part of it at a festival once. That could be interesting.
“We had several members suggest that enthusiastically,” said Mr. Cooper.
“I thought Radium Girls…” I said softly. But on Monday after Brandon broke up with me, I’d cried in the bathroom until Megan found me and persuaded me to go home. I skipped Tuesday and just zoned out in drama Wednesday and Thursday, and Mr. Cooper kindly let me. I’d never even suggested Radium Girls to anyone.
“All of these are by men,” I said.
“So they are,” said Mr. Cooper. He clapped his hands. “Okay, everyone, listen up!”
The twenty or so people in the room filed over to the folding chairs. Curious eyes stared up at me.
Mr. Cooper handed me the chalk. “Ready?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I just walked over to the board.
“All for Almost, Maine?” he said. One hand went up.
“Yeah, it was a good run while it lasted,” he said. “Twelve Angry Jurors?”
Claire’s hand rose. Mine went up, too.
“Two for number two,” said Mr. Cooper.
Claire and I exchanged a surprised glance. We never agreed on anything.
“So that leaves…” Mr. Cooper didn’t even get a chance to finish. Everyone’s hands shot up.
“Our Town?” Claire cried. “You can’t actually be serious.” She turned and glared at the group. “Everyone everywhere does this tired, old play. We should do something relevant. Something fresh.”
Twelve Angry Jurors was from the 1950s, but I didn’t have the energy to point that out. It was still more contemporary than something written in 1938.
“It’s what we want,” said Ben, a junior.
“It’s a classic. It’s time this department puts it on. Besides, maybe we can put our own spin on it,” said Jane, a freshman.
Heads nodded around her.
Claire turned back to me. “Excuse me, new Drama Club leader? Are you really going to let this stand?”
The eyes turned back toward me.
“We voted,” said a sophomore girl. “You could have said something before, but you didn’t. This is what we want.”
“Fair and square,” said someone else.
The group cheered as Claire scowled. I tried to pay attention to it all, because fucking Our Town, but I kept flashing back to the beginning of the week, when everything seemed set and perfect.
“All right, then,” said Mr. Cooper, clapping his hands and snapping me out of my daze. “I’ll order the scripts tonight!”
The bell rang as I placed the chalk on the grooves next to the board. Our Town. God. My chest twinged with a weird burning sensation. I was either having a heart attack or being assigned this production felt like Brandon dumping me for Ruby again.
I drifted into the hallway without saying goodbye to Mr. Cooper. I felt an arm on my shoulder. I turned to find Claire looking over me.
“What the hell was that?” said Claire. “You just caved to fucking Our Town. Do you know how many schools are going to put that on in the greater Steelton area this semester alone? Probably, like, six. We could have done anything. But you let that happen, Madam President.”
A familiar exercise-and-stress-induced asthmatic cough sounded next to Claire. Brandon, Ruby-free for a moment, stood next to her arm. A look of confusion crossed his face, as if his instincts were telling him he was meant to intervene with a sarcastic comment right at this very moment. But his dick brain also registered that I was no longer technically his concern.
“Uh. What? Hey,” he managed.
Claire turned toward him. “Oh, don’t think I don’t know that this is your fault, you unfaithful dirtbag. Everyone knows that. I swear to God you better leave this hallway right now, and never let me see your stupid pimple-free face for the rest of the year. Because of you I have to compete to be Emily Webb or some shit. Leave. Now.”
Because Claire was about two inches taller and a third more muscular than Brandon’s skinny five-foot-seven frame, he listened. I watched him retreat down the hall as fast as regulation permitted him. Claire tried looming over me, as well. But all the fight I once held had just run toward the science wing.
“Look, I’m sorry about the moron. But this is bigger than him. Bigger than both of us. This is Drama Club. Don’t you care?”
I nodded, but my face started the stupid burning thing. I closed my eyes, willing the tears to stay inside the ducts. Breathe. He wasn’t worth it. Breathe. Diaphragm. I gave Claire a small wave that I hoped she interpreted as “thank you for being mean to dick Brandon.” I headed to class. I didn’t want to flunk out, though I didn’t know if it mattered whether I did. It’s not like I could bring myself to audition for fucking Our Town. I could hear Carnegie Mellon laughing at the joke my chances had become all the way from Pittsburgh.
Drama was my life. But so was Brandon. Now it seemed like both had slipped through my fingers, and I hadn’t even realized I was losing my grasp.
JANUARY 11: MATERIAL WITNESSES
Today was the day.
I looked in the mirror for the twentieth time. I smoothed the deep ocher and sienna folds of my skirt. I bent down and straightened my new knee-high socks. My faux suede Mary Janes completed this look. So what if it was 11 degrees outside?
I was ready.
“Millie, hurry up already or I’m not driving you to school. You can walk.”
I couldn’t walk. It was four miles, a mile of it through woodlands with poorly maintained paths covered in snow to get to school. But Dad might make me take the bus, the experience of which was on par with wildlife and avalanches.
“Coming,” I yelled. One more look in the mirror. I turned and picked up my backpack next to my bathroom door and grabbed my coat hanging neatly on the hook just inside my room.
“Have a toaster pastry,” said Dad. He shoved a piece of toast in his mouth, narrowly avoiding sticking the sleeve of his suit coat in the butter dish.
“Dad, look out. You don’t have any other clean work clothes. Which reminds me, you need to go to the dry cleaner and pick up your work clothes.”
“Yes. Right. Where is the ticket?”
“In your briefcase, in the little pocket on the front. Where it was, oh, I don’t know, last week when we had this discussion.”
“Right, right. Thanks, baby. Are you ready?”
Oh heck yes, was I ever. I smiled to myself as we headed to the Jeep.
We drove down our driveway and the long, winding woodland access road in silence. Traditionally, Dad didn’t like conversation until we hit the highway. He needed to concentrate on not taking out a deer or raccoon or fox after hitting a patch of ice. Ever since Mom had left and then gotten remarried, the silence between him and me stretched the remaining miles and yards and feet until he stopped the car long enough for me to hop out in front of Steelton High.
I looked a lot like her, my mom. Same long dark hair, same dark eyes. I think that’s why Dad had a hard time with me. Maybe I should have gone to live with her in Ohio. She kept offering. But she had a new baby, and cute as he was, I hadn’t really felt like being live-in childcare or starting over in a new place my senior year of high school.
Besides, this was my year. Today I would gather my forces to make the most kick-butt Mock Trial team that Cambria County, the state of Pennsylvania, or our fine nation had ever seen. Mr. Darr, the Mock Trial teacher, had been at a conference last week when we got back from break, but now he had returned, and it was my time to take over. I didn’t know if many people would join up. Most of the old team had graduated or defected to Model UN, since the field trips were better. But Jeffrey would still be there, of course, and Brandon. I’d be the third lawyer, but we’d need to find witnesses. Last year we’d almost taken state, so maybe that would generate some interest. I’d heard rumblings before winter break that the boys had a plan to recruit members, but no one new had shown up to meetings yet.
New-term energy still buzzed around me as people danced like honeybees communicating the directions their new schedules had taken.
“Focus,” I said to myself. “Only you can manifest your inner power.” My affirmation app always seemed to know what to say.
Or at least what to tell me to repeat to myself.
“Millie, over here!” Claire called.
“Hey,” I said. The frenetic surge around me gave me life and made me nervous all at the same time.
“Look at you. You look hot,” she said, eyeing me up and down. “I don’t suppose…”
“Claire, we’d kill each other,” I said.
Claire legitimately pouted. “We’d be good together,” she said.
“No, you’d get sick of me in a week. Plus, as I have mentioned before about a hundred times when you bring this up, you like sex. A lot. You talk about that frequently. I do not. With anyone at all, maybe ever. It’s nothing personal,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah. I get it. Can’t blame someone for trying. I haven’t been on a date in a million years. And that really is an amazing skirt.”
I beamed. “Thanks! Mom sent it. Mom guilt is really helping my wardrobe. I asked if she wanted to FaceTime on the first day of my last term. She burst out crying and then the Zara box arrived five days later.”
“It sucks,” I said. “Kinda. But there are pros and cons to parents no matter where they are.”
“Tell me about it,” said Claire.
“What’s up for you today? Spring play discussions, right? You’ll be ruling VP style.”
Claire sighed. “Yeah, Raina didn’t choke on a strain of iambic pentameter in December, so I still have to deal with her. That girl has been bugging me in every play since The Food Pyramid almost a decade ago. She got to play the carrot, and I was stuck as the beet. And she was barely there last week so now I’m about to audition for fucking Our Town. Our. Town.”
“Yes, you mentioned that a few times over the weekend. I’m sure you’ll be great in it anyway. Break a leg!”
“I will be great in it,” Claire mumbled. She looked up at me. “Same to you? Do you need luck?”
“A little,” I said. “Let’s hope I don’t have to recruit people. I hate that.”
“I believe,” said Claire.
* * *
After lunch, I made my way down to Mr. Darr’s classroom.
“Hello, Millie! Have a good break?” he greeted me.
“Yes!” I said. I looked around the room. I counted the people slumping into desks and chairs. Jeffrey and Brandon nodded to me.
“Wow,” I said to Brandon. “Look at all these people. Who are these”—I strained my neck to look past him—“all these guys?”
“I emailed a few friends. So did Jeff. I knew we’d be short a few and didn’t want to put the burden on you to solve our witness problem.”
“Oh. Thanks!” I said encouragingly. Problem solved already. Perfect.
The bell rang, and Mr. Darr raised his hands to quiet us.
“Wow, there are a lot of you. How about we go around the room and introduce ourselves. I’ll start. I’m Mr. Darr.” All of us laughed.
“I’m Emilia,” I said. “You can call me Millie.”
They went around the room. I only really remembered Chad because he was the first. Or maybe that was Mike. I’d gotten them confused already. I made a mental note to study their faces.
Mr. Darr distributed the Mock Trial handbook, charter, and case materials for the district competition case. The papers burned fiery in my hands. This was the case that would send us to states in Harrisburg, and then the state case could send us to Pittsburgh for nationals. I’d committed 90 percent of my brain to knowing every inch of these documents (saving 10 percent for college applications, the rest of school, and talking Claire out of dating weird girls) since November. But this was the first time we would discuss it as a team, since the boys mostly kept to themselves or did other forensics competitions during the fall.
No one could want Mock Trial victories as much as I did.
None of the guys spoke or even looked up from their papers. I decided to take the lead. I stood and straightened my skirt. “Mr. Darr, if I may,” I said.
“In any given trial, there are at least six people. There are three witnesses and three lawyers. Others can be on the team for research and consultation. Or we can rotate people for various competitions until we make it to states. And we will make it to states. Any questions so far?”
They shook their heads.
“Mm-hmm,” murmured Jeffrey.
“Our season starts in about six weeks. We have one meet in February and one in March. Then districts are the week after that. Those are the three that we will focus on because we know for sure we’ll be competing. We win our district, we go to states. After states—nationals.”
“Thanks, Millie. Great summary. Everyone got it?”
Then Mr. Darr divided us into teams. Jeffrey, Brandon, two sophomores, and one freshman and I formed the first. There were two other teams of six as well.
“Three lawyers and three witnesses,” I said to Brandon. “This is great for the future of the program! We can rotate the sophomores and freshmen. And that one junior over there could be groomed for lawyer. Or, if you want to have a research team, those can be the guys who want lawyer next year.”
“Yeah,” said Brandon. He didn’t look up from doodling in his notebook.
His flippant attitude annoyed me. They supposedly led this team. I was just the secretary of the group. (I didn’t think the graduating seniors should have voted on the executive board officers of the club, since they wouldn’t even be here this year. Why did they get a say in secretary and treasurer, let alone president or vice president? But I didn’t have to be in charge. I’d learned freshman year that I could more effectively lead the team from behind the scenes, and Emilia Goodwin was nothing if not a team player.)
“Maybe we should swap out lawyers as well,” I said. “One per competition. Two of us with experience could be at each trial, right? We’d only miss one each. I think it’s important to get as many people participating as possible, because having this much interest in Mock Trial only bodes well for the future of government, don’t you—”
“Millie,” Jeffrey interrupted, “I’ve been meaning to address this issue.”
I blinked at him. Oh, had he now? He could have mentioned this months ago, when I’d first asked about recruitment. Or last week. But this is how Jeffrey operated.
Jeffrey cleared his throat. “Excuse me, everyone?” He stood up and clapped his hands. “I have an announcement.” Everyone turned to look at him. Mr. Darr glanced up from the papers he’d been grading.
“It’s amazing that there are so many of us on the team this year. But as you know, only six people can actually participate in a trial as a lawyer or a witness. So, we’ve decided to have a competition team, some understudies, and a research crew.”
“What?” I said. “Why can’t everyone get trial experience? We could make it work.”
“No, this is the way it should be. We are going to audition for spots on the trial team,” said Jeffrey.
“Audition?” Heat crept under my sweater and blouse to the buckles of the latest mom-guilt brand shoes. “How long did you know about this?” I looked up at Jeffrey, who was still standing over me.
He smiled. “We’ve been knocking around a few ideas.”
“And who is this ‘we,’ exactly? Last I knew, I was still the secretary and had a say in these kinds of things.”
“We didn’t want to stress you out,” said Brandon. “You have a lot going on.”
I did? All I had going on was Mock Trial. I barely even saw my best friend anymore, as she was busy trying to take over the Drama Club from the president.
A gross feeling clawed its way up from my stomach. I fought it down. This might not be the end of the world. It sucked for the freshmen who’d be saddled with research. I’d been in that position. But preparation never killed anyone.
“Fine,” I said. Best for a team player to keep the peace. “What are we having these guys do, exactly?”
“Oh. Well. We’ll all be auditioning. Each one of us. Only the best people should be on the team, don’t you agree?”
I frowned. Yes, I agreed. But I also knew that the chances of the Steelers winning the Super Bowl after an undefeated season were higher than Jeffrey’s definition of “best” matching mine.
“So, Mr. Darr has found a case for us to argue, with some witness statements to practice and such. We’ll audition Wednesday.”
“One day to prepare?” I said. “One. Day. What? Mr. Darr, you knew about this?”
“I’m sorry, Millie. I thought you had agreed to this,” he said. “I would say we could hold off a bit, but we really should have the team set. The first trial isn’t that far away.”
My mouth dropped open. Brandon didn’t look surprised. Most of the other guys in the room didn’t, either. Had they planned this? Why wouldn’t they include me? Especially Mr. Darr? I was the hardest worker on this team. I’d single-handedly brought down the toughest witness Fogton Creek had to offer last spring. Was this some sort of horrible joke?
“You can grab the audition materials on the way out,” said Brandon.
“Why don’t we just use the actual case?” I said.
“It’ll be fine,” said Jeffrey. “I’m sure everything will work out the way it is supposed to.”
The last time I’d heard that, Dad had been trying to talk us both into the fact that Mom didn’t really want the divorce, that she’d leave her new contractor boyfriend and come home within the month.
She married the contractor exactly seven months later.
After the bell rang, I gathered my stuff and ripped the stupid audition case file out of Brandon’s hand on my way out. I hoped I gave him a paper cut that would get infected and his arm would turn bright green or something. I glanced over the sheets.
“A death-penalty case? Are you serious? We would never see a death-penalty case in competition,” I said.
“Talking to yourself?” said a voice.
I realized I’d walked straight to Claire’s locker. “Get this. There was a boy coup d’état. I have to audition for the team.”
“Welcome to my world,” said Claire.
I glared at her.
“Sorry, sorry. It’s just that ridiculous Raina is a mess. She isn’t even trying at all.”
“It was probably Brandon’s fault. The Mock Trial VP. Apparently, he likes ruining things.”
“Yeah,” said Claire, unable to hide her disgust. “Clearly.”
“I can help you run lines?” I said. That usually made her feel better.
“I don’t know if I can bring myself to speak this shit out loud.” She shook her script at the sky.
“Well, then maybe you can help me. Do you happen to know anything about lethal injection?”
Claire threw me a blank look.
“Yeah. Me either.”
A stone sank from my brain to my throat and settled somewhere behind my appendix. Several more rolled out of my brain and wedged themselves around internal organs until I felt like they filled my body from head to toe. I barely managed to lift my feet to get in the car and go home.
“Good day, baby?” asked Dad.
“Yeah, Dad,” I said. “Great.”
“Mock Trial going well?” he said.
“It’s going,” I said.
I leaned against the cool glass as we bumped our way home. The silence filled the spaces between my stone insides, its heavy loneliness spilling out my ears and raining onto the floor until it filled up my room. I could drown in this, here at the bottom of a pool in my own head.
JANUARY 13: DISCOVERY CONTROL PLAN
“You’ve got this,” said Claire. “You live this.”
“Yeah.” I tried to say it confidently, but my voice cracked on even that one syllable word. Who could be ready in one freaking day? This was a set up for failure, and I didn’t understand. Claire’s face would have melted off if she’d had one day to rehearse a new play.
“These guys aren’t going to get to you. You studied. You looked stuff up online. I ran lines with you. This is a complete role reversal, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. But in my heart, I know you are going all the way to nationals. I believe in you.”
I looked over at her. The soft tendrils of hair that escaped her headband floated up in the cold wind.
“Thanks,” I said. “Wish me luck on the prosecution.”
“Break a leg,” she said, squeezing my arm.
All through morning classes, I kept going over anything I thought could help in my “audition.” This whole thing seemed off, like Brandon and Jeffrey had a plan I just wasn’t in on. I hadn’t even known that Pennsylvania had reinstated the death penalty in 1976 and that three people had been executed since then. I didn’t like what I’d learned. I always saw myself moving on to fight voter suppression or kids being taken away from their parents at the border or something.
At tryouts, I watched two freshmen mumble their way through their arguments. Mr. Darr made notes. So did Jeffrey. Would he get to decide the team? How would that be fair? I didn’t have too much time to ruminate because I heard my name.
“Millie,” said Mr. Darr, “you’re next.” He smiled warmly, but he could have ended this whole fiasco before it started. I didn’t know whose side he was on, but it didn’t feel like mine.
“Um,” I started. Dang. That was like rule one of public speaking. “Ever since the Supreme Court, uh.” Double darn. I looked down at my notecards. Poop, card two was on top. I slid the back card onto the top. No, that was card nine. Where was card one? Did I leave it in my backpack? I should just wing it. I’ve been in more dire circumstances than these. Oh no. Had I been silent this whole time? Had it just been seconds? A minute? The freshmen dudes weren’t this bad.
“Can I start again?” I said.
“Sure,” said Mr. Darr.
Jeffrey and Brandon glanced at each other.
Focus on who you are. You are the best version of yourself right now, I thought.
“In 1995, punishment, um, arrived for a nearly fifteen-year-old murder in the form of lethal injection. I plan to argue … comment on the issues surrounding this form of execution.”
I stumbled my way through the rest of the cards. It had to be the worst presentation I’d ever done in my life, including the time I’d accidentally lost Claire’s pet rabbit at my fifth-grade talent show during my magician phase. (The bunny had been fine. We found him an hour later enjoying radishes in the sustainability garden.)
“What did you end up arguing, exactly?” asked Claire before our English class at the end of the day.
“I don’t even remember.” I put my hands against her locker and leaned my face into them. “I entered a fugue state.”
“Surely it didn’t go that badly.”
“It did. It did, it did, it did.”
“Would mozzarella sticks help?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“And even if this bullshit was the worst ever, they’ll make you a lawyer. They have to. You are a senior who has put in three years, and now it will be four. You’ve worked your ass off in everything I’ve ever seen you do. Especially this. They owe you.”
“Okay,” I said. “You mentioned fried cheese?” The thought of Pappy’s restaurant, a mere two blocks away, made life feel a little more bearable.
“Yes, I did. I’ll drive you home after.”
“Thanks,” I said. I texted Dad that he could stay at work as late as he wanted and that I’d bring him leftovers. I knew he’d love that.
I could get through the rest of this day. I could get through tomorrow if necessary. Eventually I’d find out that I was a lawyer, that Jeffrey, Brandon, and I could somehow work together to train the next generation of Steelton Mock Trial participants, and we could forget this messing around and get back on the path to winning.
Yes. I was sure of it.
Though I kind of dreaded whatever might be coming next.