New Release – See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

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I was lucky enough to read an ARC of Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done back in May, and since it was published this month I wanted to take this chance to recommend it. This is a creepy, historical fiction mystery with a trace of psychological thriller. It’s one of those eerie books that sticks in your mind for long after you’ve finished reading. (I docked one star for a few minor critiques, but keep in mind that I am a very picky reader.) I really loved this book, and I hope other people do, too.

Here’s my full review:

4/5 stars.

I’m not gonna lie, this caught my eye on NetGalley because it had a pigeon on the cover and—long story short—I really love pigeons and think they are underrated birds that deserve more love. When I read the description I was a bit confused about what pigeons had to do with Lizzie Borden, but super intrigued by the premise.

See What I Have Done is a fascinatingly twisted and beautifully written book. It tells the story of the dysfunctional family behind the real-life horror story, about the messy relationships between Lizzie, her sister Emma, and Mr. and Mrs. Borden (their father and stepmother).

This book grabs you from the first page, with Lizzie’s vibrant, chaotic voice and chilling description of her father’s gruesome remains. (I should add that this book does contain some pretty gory and disturbing scenes, so if that’s not something you’re okay with this might not be for you.) That opening chapter gave me goosebumps, and I knew I was in for a psychological roller coaster ride with her. The chapters are written in multiple POVs that create a rich, overlapping narrative, allowing the reader to piece together the events leading up to and immediately following the murder. One of the biggest problems that multiple-POV narration often runs into is that the voices tend to blend into one another, but I’m happy to say that that is not the case here. Lizzie, Emma, Bridget (their maid), and Benjamin (a young man who gets caught up in the events of the crime) each have a distinct voice and uniquely compelling way of telling their story.

The way all of the characters’ lives and wishes and frustrations were all tangled up together was intense and pretty fucked up sometimes, but utterly fascinating to read about. The only character I didn’t particularly care about was Benjamin: I could see how his chapters were important, but there were several times when I found myself skimming them, wondering when we would get back to the main plot. The ending also felt a bit dragged out. A lot of the historical information about the arrest and trial was kind of dumped on the reader via Benjamin’s POV, and I feel like the plot could have wrapped up more concisely. The pacing just seemed odd, but it was all still interesting enough that I never really got bored.

This was a haunting and intriguing book about the ugly things families do and say to each other, and the impossibility of truly knowing what the ones you love are capable of.

Favorite quotes: (basically the whole book was a fav quote bc it was all beautiful, but here’s a few that really show off Schmidt’s stunning writing style)

All the little strings that hold a body together threatened to undo.

I woke to a morning that was half awake. I looked around my room, had that feeling that someone had reached inside my body and pulled me out backwards, had left me with nothing but animal noises dripping from behind.

Night carved out the moon. Things became quiet.

She made my teeth want to sink into her flesh and eat her out of my life, made me want to swarm her mind and sort through all the thoughts she had of me, that I was being too stubborn, I was being too secretive, I was being bad, I was, I was. I felt her nastiness crawl over my skin, tiny deaths that made me want to become nothing.

Every adult that had ever held me as a baby was dead and no one would ever carry me again.

I received an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This review was also posted on Goodreads.

On Leaving

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I’ve gotten good at packing in the last two years. So good that sometimes I feel as though I should add it to my resume. Professional packer: experienced and efficient at cramming entire life into one 50-pound suitcase and a carry-on duffel bag. It doesn’t look like much right now, sitting on the floor in a corner of my room. Worn out sneakers, cozy sweaters, tubes of makeup, tangled chargers………and of course, a pile of books and fuzzy socks.

It’s been two years since I’ve spent more than four consecutive months in the same country. My life is a crazy progression of new places and people and foods and languages, and I love it more than I thought possible. I’m insanely fortunate and grateful for these experiences. But that doesn’t mean leaving gets any easier.

I thought I’d be used to it by now. After all, I know what outfits I’ll need, which hair products aren’t available in other countries, how many books I can take without having to pay overweight baggage fees. I’ve memorized the tetris-like puzzle of organizing my belongings into my bag so they’ll be easy to find when I need them.

I’ve become incredibly adept at going through the physical motions of preparing for a trip. The mental and emotional preparations, though…those aren’t quite as simple to master.

Some days I feel as though I’m constantly saying goodbye to the people and places I’ve grown to love. Although the internet certainly makes it easier to keep in touch, it’s never quite the same. The price of moving around so much is knowing that the people I love are scattered across the globe, and I can never be sure when I’ll see them again.

It feels lonely to think about sometimes. It’s so tempting to want to grab all of these people and hold them tight, to kiss them on the forehead and never let them out of my sight. But we are each our own person, with our own ambitions and responsibilities to follow. I miss my friends and family, but I’m proud of the places they’re going and the work they’re doing.

There’s very little that’s permanent in this world, but our capabilities for love and adventure are endless. There are so many wonderful people out there in this strange world. I’ve been lucky enough to meet quite a lot of them, and I know there are still more whose paths I have yet to cross. I leave for China in less than two weeks, and I’m excited for what’s to come, even as that faint undercurrent of nerves begins to hum inside my chest. I pack my bags, snack on my favorite comfort foods, hug my friends goodbye. I’m excited and a little stressed and a whole jumble of other things, but I’m happy with the place my life is at. And just a little bit sappy. And I felt like sharing that with you.

So thank you, for following along with my ramblings about stories and places and all of the thoughts and feelings I have about them. 💙

ARC Review – The Goblins of Bellwater by Molly Ringle

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DNF at 30%.

I’m not rating this, but I couldn’t see myself giving this higher than 2 stars if I’d gone on with it.

This book wasn’t for me. I want to start off by saying that I rarely read contemporary, and although I love fantasy on the whole, the subgenre of urban fantasy can be kind of hit-or-miss for me. The Goblins of Bellwater had a unique premise—creepy goblins that lure people into the forest + mysterious kidnappings and quests—not to mention a GORGEOUS cover. Unfortunately, the story itself was a bit too heavily focused on the banalities of ordinary life in the town for my taste, and I struggled to connect to the characters. I think this book could be a great read for some, but I never really got into it.

I don’t have much to day about the plot or world or writing, because there was nothing about them that stood out to me, but I do have a few things to say about the characters.

Kit just wasn’t interesting or compelling to me in any way. Which I was frustrated about, because I really wanted to like him as a character. He’s a mechanic who makes driftwood sculptures on the side and also is the resident goblin-liaison of his town…..that sounds like a recipe for a fascinating character, right? Wrong. I just couldn’t get over how….ordinary and plain he was. Like pasta without any salt.

ALSO: let’s not forget the fact that from the very second he met Livy he immediately sexualized her in a way that I honestly found repulsive.

…she was an older babe with a nice rack and blondish hair that curled in a way he liked, and sweet pouty lips.

Have we not moved past the point where female characters must be grossly objectified every time they’re introduced to a man??? Up until that point the book had felt like a pretty standard urban fantasy, but when I read this line it felt like I’d been catapulted face-first into a skeevy, poorly-written romance novel. It was like “oh, wow, better go check off unnecessary overobjectification of women on the list of required douchey male character traits that I should have expected.” Maybe Kit has a character arc that allows him to grow past it, but I just didn’t care enough to keep going and find out.

Livy wasn’t much better, and I had a similar issue with the way she talked about her sister’s depression.

Why would Skye be depressed? She was a resilient, happy person, with so much going for her and plenty to look forward to. It made no sense.

I know this is only one line, and Skye isn’t actually depressed, just enchanted by goblins, but I think it’s important to point out that that isn’t how depression works. You don’t need to have a horrible life to be affected by depression, it isn’t brought on by a series of predictable causes. The idea that depression can’t happen to people with what appear to be perfect lives is ridiculous and even harmful. Livy also tells people that it probably has to do with Skye being an artist and having a “moody temperament.” I do know the author has stated that Livy was intentionally portrayed as somewhat ignorant of mental health issues. Since I haven’t finished the book, I can’t speak to how this ultimately treated. However, I’ve seen a few reviews since from readers who didn’t feel this was handled especially well. (If you’ve read the book and have an opinion on this matter, I’d be very interested to hear what you thought!)

I don’t really have anything to say about Skye or Grady. They seemed slightly better, but the developing romantic relationships were pretty meh as well. I didn’t feel any chemistry, and there was ultimately nothing to keep me reading past the first third.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

This review was also published on Goodreads.

ARC Review – Nyxia by Scott Reintgen

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1.75/5 stars.

I didn’t go into this book with any real expectations, yet somehow it still managed to disappoint me. I didn’t outright hate it, but I spent almost the entire time I was reading this bored out of my mind. I just have such apathy towards this book that I don’t even want to write a review, but just because my bitter ass can’t resist the chance to be salty I’ll leave you with a mini rant.

Nyxia is a YA sci-fi novel that follows the journey of Emmett Atwater and nine other teens as they travel through space on their way to an alien planet. Sounds cool, right? *monotone laughter* That’s what I thought, too. The story begins with a bunch of rich businesspeople telling a bunch of poor, desperate kids that they’re special snowflakes who are getting sent on this super-important mission to the recently-discovered planet of Eden. Said children are then entered into a cutthroat competition, which consists of various mind-numbingly dull tasks that stretch on and on and on, interspersed with occasional attempts at character development and weird love triangles. I cared about nothing and would genuinely rather solve calculus equations than read this again.

Some of the main things I didn’t like/couldn’t be bothered to care about:

  • repetitive training descriptions that had me feeling like I was in a cardboard cutout version of the Dauntless initiation training from Divergent
  • everyone losing their shit over this random material called nyxia (aka the Mary-Sue of fictional sci-fi substances) that is essentially the evil stone from Black London in ADSOM
  • Emmett’s whole “filing things away under letters of the alphabet” thing……I get that there was supposed to be a meaningful explanation behind it, but it felt kind of lame and gimmick-y to me
  • weird romance that popped up out of nowhere and had zero chemistry
  • Kaya’s random aura-sensing power had no explanation or real development???

Overall, though, I think the biggest disappointment to me was the sense of missed potential. I got so excited at the beginning of this book when we were introduced to the cast of characters. There’s so much diversity—the characters have been recruited from countries around the world, and they use these super-cool automatic translators to communicate with each other (someone needs to buy me one of those, like, yesterday). Unfortunately, it felt like the book tried too hard to give all of the minor characters equal page time, and as a result they were all woefully underdeveloped. I kept mixing up their names, and I never felt emotionally attached to any of them. As I mentioned, this setup was similar to Tris’s experience in Divergent, but the reason Divergent worked for me and this didn’t had a lot to do with the poor characterization. I feel like this book could have really done great things with such a wide range of character nationalities, especially if the intercultural dynamics between the characters had been used as a starting point to examine the inherently problematic nature of traveling to a foreign planet to exploit its people and resources.

I ended up skimming through most of the last third of the book because I was so mentally checked out already. I’m sorry to say that I wouldn’t recommend this.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This review was also posted on Goodreads.

Book Tag – The Unpopular Opinion

This is my first book tag post, but considering what a picky reader I am this seems like a topic I’m well-suited for. (If you follow my reviews on Goodreads, you’ll know that I have no shortage of salt when it comes to reviewing a book I dislike.) Before I start, I’d like to thank Solomon for tagging me and appreciating my bitterness (even when it results in me ranting about some of his favorite books).

1. A popular book/series you did not like:

Wintersong. Oh man, this book……I’m just gonna come right out and say it, it’s been three weeks and I’m still bitter over how badly this book catfished me. It kept popping up in my GR feed with that pretty cover and all those glowing five-star reviews from my friends…I was so ready to love this. And I was enjoying it at first, until it abruptly devolved into one of the cringiest romances I’ve ever read. I’ve already spent enough time bitching about this one on GR, so I’ll just link to my review if you feel like catching up on just how hard I trashed it.

2. A popular book/series that is hated but you love:

Hmmm, this is one of the trickier questions. Obviously, there are always going to be negative reviews for books you enjoy, but I feel like this has most often been the case for me when it comes to some of my favorite classics. Both The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby are two of my favorite books of all time, but I know a lot of friends who’ve really disliked both. These are novels that feature deeply flawed and hypocritical characters, characters who can, at times, be frustratingly apathetic towards their situations. I can see why so many other readers struggle to enjoy them, but to me these stories are beautiful because of how contradictory and deeply human their characters are.

3. A hateable OTP:

I’m gonna go with a cliché one here and say Romeo and Juliet. It’s been a few years since I read the play, but I still can’t get over what awful, melodramatic characters they were. I have a rather low tolerance for angst-ridden romances, and these two are basically the original Angsty Teen Couple™. Can we talk about how the new Beauty and the Beast movie called them out though??????? Because the beast is ME and I’m still not over how fantastic that moment was.

4. A popular genre you hardly reach for:

Contemporary romance. I very rarely read anything in either of those genres, so the combination of the two is usually something I avoid like the plague. It’s a genre that—at least in my experiences—is fraught with some of my least favorite tropes and themes: angsty relationship drama, unnecessary love triangles, and another one I’ll discuss in #7, to name a few. (Having said that, I don’t mean to criticize anyone who enjoys reading romance. Everyone is entitled to love the genres they love!) When I do pick up something that fits into this category, it’s usually because the book has some kind of unconventional element that appeals to me (reflections on social issues, great sense of humor, diverse representation, an especially unique premise, etc.).

5. A beloved character you do not like:

Mariko, from Renee Ahdieh’s Flame in the Mist—although Celaena from Throne of Glass and Agnieszka from Uprooted deserve honorable mentions. I don’t know that Mariko is exactly beloved…….after all, there are plenty of one-star reviews of that book in addition to my own. Still, she’s definitely the most infuriating protagonist I’ve come across in the last year or two, and I really struggle to understand what some readers saw in her. My GR review is mostly an extended trashing of Mariko, and I’m quite proud of it.

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6. A popular author you cannot get into:

You know, I’ve really been trying to think over this one and I just can’t come up with an author whose work I universally dislike. I’m tempted to say SJM because I’m still bitter about the mess that was ACOWAR, but that wouldn’t be exactly true because I did enjoy ACOTAR and ACOMAF. Generally, if I really dislike a book I won’t pick up anything else by that writer. Maybe Diana Gabaldon? I definitely have no interest in continuing the Outlander series.

7. A popular bookish trope you’re tired of seeing:

The overpossessive, overprotective, hypermasculine, borderline-abusive love interest. This is 1000% my least favorite trope of all time, and it’s often the main reason I lose interest in a lot of contemporary and paranormal romances. Romanticizing characters who fit this description is something I find repulsive and 10/10 will result in me wanting to throw the book across the room (even though I could never actually harm any book without it weighing on my conscience for the rest of my life).

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8. A popular series you have no interest in reading:

Throne of Glass. I’ve actually read the first book in this series, and let’s just say I was not its biggest fan. This seriesand this authorhave such a massive fan following, and I don’t fully understand it. I went into ToG expecting an exciting story and a badass heroine, but all I got was some boring girl whining about her love interests and getting told how pretty she was every five minutes.

9. A movie/T.V. show that’s better than the book:

Mockingjay. I did really like the book, but I remember struggling with the first half because of how unexpectedly slow-paced it was. I thought the movies did a really incredible job of amping up the action and stakes, while staying true to what the book was about. The book itself has a lot of mixed reviews, but in my opinion it was a perfect conclusion to the trilogy. The first two books were dramatic and entertaining, thanks to the unique dystopian world and the setup of the games themselves…..but when it came to Mockingjay, the series took on a more serious tone. It’s a raw and honest book about war, one that doesn’t shy away from portraying just how devastating conflict can be and explores the moral gray area of choices people are forced to make.

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Let me know if you agree/disagree with my opinions in the comments below! I’m pretty new here and don’t want to tag anyone who might have already done this, but if you’re reading this and feel like you have a lot of salt to get out…consider yourself tagged. 🙂

Travels Close to Home

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Flowers at the edge of Seneca Lake.

I spent about five hours on the highway last Monday, driving in and out of thunderstorms as I made my way back down to southern New York State. After a few days away, I had some thoughts to reflect on.

See, I spend a lot of time outside of my home country. I’ve been studying and traveling, living in places and meeting people whose ways of life are often quite different from my own. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have these experiences, especially since they’ve come with an awareness of a certain irony. I’ve spent time in ten countries over the last year, but as it turns out, I know so little of my own state.

I was born and raised in the metropolitan area around New York City, and it’s where I still reside during the few months a year I return to the U.S. I know what the state of New York looks like on a map, that it stretches from the Long Island Sound all the way up to Canada and the Great Lakes, but I’d never given very much thought to what lies north of my small corner of the state. I knew there were mountains and lakes and farms up there, lots of small towns interspersed with a few major cities.

I’ve always been more of a city person, so I think I assumed that there was nothing interesting to see beyond NYC. I love being surrounded by people, by the activity and excitement of busy places. As much as I enjoy having time to myself to read and write, I thrive off the energy of loud, chaotic environments. But the more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve come to appreciate visits to rural areas, getting to spend time in a different environment and gaining a better understanding of different ways of living.

So last weekend was a weekend of firsts for me: my first trip upstate, the first time I visited a drive-in movie theater, the first time I’d been surrounded by so many cornfields, the first time I painted an angry narwhal on a friend’s ceiling (long story, but you can see the finished piece here if you’re curious). I spent time with lovely people who I hadn’t seen in a while, went for walks along the shores of massive, peaceful lakes, and got to know the place where one of my very good friends grew up. It was an adventure closer to home than I’m used to, but no less enjoyable or important to me.

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Exploring the creek behind a friend’s house.

Book Review – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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4.5/5 stars.

I feel like this book repeatedly murdered me and alchemically raised me from the dead, because let’s be honest, it pretty much took over my life for a few days. It’s fun and smart and well-written and thoughtful and diverse and I just wish I had a physical copy so I could hug it because my heart feels so warm and full right now thinking about these characters and their stories.

I went into this with pretty high expectations—considering the hype it got from ALL of my friends—and I was not disappointed. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue follows the story of Henry (“Monty”) Montague, his best friend and secret crush Percy Newton, and his younger sister Felicity. The three teenagers set off on a Grand Tour of Europe, which is basically the eighteenth-century equivalent of rich kids taking a gap year before college to go backpacking. In theory, they’re meant to be having a life-changing educational and cultural experience…but in reality, there’s a lot of drinking and poor life-decision-making. As you might imagine, the characters—well, mostly Monty—manage to get themselves into a series of misadventures and nearly cause an international incident, all the while learning more about themselves and each other AND having some really top-notch and honest conversations about gender, disability, and sexuality!!!!!!!

Trigger warning for: alcoholism, parental abuse, homophobia, racism, ableism, and epilepsy.

THE CHARACTERS

I love these three fictional humans with all of my alchemically dead heart, so this section will be a largely incoherent collection of some of my thoughts on them:

Monty

  • an obnoxious shit, but I love him anyway
  • “I’m unencumbered with excessive stature” is my new favorite euphemism for “I’m short.”
  • has cute dimples and is not afraid to use them
  • gets called out by his sister and friend for being incredibly ignorant of his privileged whiteness, maleness, and wealth
  • despite his privilege, the struggles he faces with abuse, PTSD, and homophobia are not downplayed: the book makes a point of showing that nobody’s suffering is invalid

Percy

  • is so relentlessly kind and thoughtful that he deserves all of the hugs in the world
  • has hands that are described as the human equivalent of puppy paws so if that doesn’t prove how soft and nice he is idk what does
  • is a music nerd
  • lives with epilepsy, but his illness does not define him or have to prevent him from having a good life
  • “it takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends” (he’s nice but that doesn’t mean he lets people walk all over him or let his friends get away with saying offensive/problematic stuff)

Felicity

  • pretends to read smut at the breakfast table, iconic
  • also reads pretty much everywhere, relatable
  • sews her own wounds shut with no anesthetics and no complaints
  • is only fifteen but has her shit together way more than I ever will
  • grabs eighteenth-century gender norms by the throat and tells them to gtfo

THE PLOT/SETTINGS

I absolutely LOVE books that combine travel and history (*cough* Passenger), and I was especially excited to see how some of the cities I’ve personally visited were represented in eighteenth-century historical fiction. The plot intertwined with all of the different locations in fun and interesting ways, and ended up being much more intriguing and mysterious than I’d expected. There were a few moments around the middle of the book where it seemed to drag a bit (this may have also been a side effect of the reading slump I was in at the time), but the characters still held my interest, and it wasn’t long before it picked back up again.

THE ROMANCE

Alright, if any of you know anything about me, you know that I am incredibly picky about romance. I cannot stand poorly developed or overly cheesy relationships or *shudders* angsty love triangles, so you know when I say I ship it the romance has to be pretty good.

Percy and Monty’s relationship is basically a collection of so many romantic tropes (slow burn best friends to lovers, secretly in love the whole time, charming playboy in love with quiet friend, etc.) but they’re all SO well done. I don’t think I can really elaborate further without being spoiler-y and/or devolving into a puddle of feelings, just know that my face while I was reading looked something like this:

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Also, do yourself a favor and take a look at this beautiful work of art:

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(credits to Tori Ryan on Twitter)

THE THEMES AND DIVERSITY

One of this book’s greatest strengths is how well it portrays characters grappling with both their own and other people’s discrimination and biases. Monty struggles to understand Percy’s illness, the racial discrimination he experiences, and how to support his friend. Felicity strives to better comprehend Monty’s sexuality, and recognize that his attractions to both men and women are not something he can control. Both of the boys overlook the ways in which Felicity is barred from having a traditional education or professional career on account of her gender. All of these characters fuck up sometimes. They say things that are offensive or insensitive, and they lack the words or knowledge to easily articulate their own identities and situations. But they also learn from these mistakes. They never justify the discriminatory systems in place in their society, and they overcome their own prejudices to arrive at a place of mutual understanding and support. This is a rare historical fiction book about the people who are so often erased in both this genre and real-life historical accounts and narratives. It’s a reminder that LGBTQ+, disabled, and POC people have always existed, and their stories have always been worthy of telling.

THE WRITING

I usually feel like a book’s writing has specific strengths, certain aspects of the story that it feels better suited for—but in this book it’s fantastically versatile. Lee’s writing style has an authentic-feeling voice, dialogue that will make you both laugh and cry, and a sprinkling of beautiful descriptions that are powerful and sincere. I absolutely adored this book, and I can’t wait to read more from her in the future.

Favorite quotes: (minor spoilers)

The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story, and is tragic only for its single-sidedness. It is also not an epic monolith that has plagued me since boyhood, as might be expected. Rather, it is simply the tale of how two people can be important to each other their whole lives, and then, one morning, quite without meaning to, one of them wakes to find that importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth.

A small shift in the gravity between us and suddenly all my stars are out of alignment, planets knocked from their orbits, and I’m left stumbling, without map or heading, through the bewildering territory of being in love with your best friend.

Sunrise is a spilled glass of wine across the horizon, stars fading back into imaginary things.

My head’s higher than his, but we’re close enough that I can see the freckles beneath his eyes. If I had to pick a favorite part of Percy’s face—which would be impossible, really, but if held at gunpoint and forced to make a selection—it would be that small star-map across his skin. A part of him it feels as though no one else but me is ever close enough to see.

“I swear, you would play the coquette with a well-upholstered sofa.”
“First, I would not. And second, how handsome is the sofa?”

It is impossible to explain how you can love someone so much that it’s difficult to be around him. And with Percy sitting there, half in shadow, his hair loose and his long legs and those eyes I could have lived and died in, it feels like there’s a space inside me that is so bright it burns.

Percy blows a sigh from his nose. The single errant curl about his ear flutters. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go courting trouble, is all.”
“We’re not courting trouble,” I say. “Flirting with it, at most.”

Felicity looks over at me and scowls. “What’s that face for?”
“What face?”
“You look put out.”
“Just thinking about all that blood.” I nearly shudder. “Doesn’t it make you a bit squeamish?”
“Ladies haven’t the luxury of being squeamish about blood,” she replies, and Percy and I go fantastically red in unison.

The waves carry her skirts behind her like ink spilled from a pot.

We are not broken things, neither of us. We are cracked pottery mended with lacquer and flakes of gold, whole as we are, complete unto each other. Complete and worthy and so very loved.
“May I kiss you?” I ask.
“Abso-bloody-lutely you may,” he says.
And so I do.

This review also appears on Goodreads.