Today on the site, we’re revealing the cover of Bleeding Heart by Brittany M. Willows, the second and final installment in the Cardplay Duology, an anime-inspired YA urban fantasy series that follows four young adults imbued with extraordinary power as they navigate a world where magic has come roaring back from myth to reality. It releases May 11, 2023, and here’s the story that follows up BloodySpade:
Spade, Heart, Diamond, Club.
Four legendary Suits.
Four chosen Keepers.
One world at stake.
Today is a bit of a starry-eyed moment for me, because I get to reveal the cover for the newest book by Ann McMan, author of my very first lesfic read, the fantastic Dust! This new book is a historical mystery set in the south called Dead Letters from Paradise, and it releases from Bywater Books on June 28, 2022! Here’s the story:
The year is 1960, and Gunsmoke is the most popular show on TV. Elvis Presley tops the Billboard charts, and a charismatic young senator named John F. Kennedy is running for president. And in North Carolina, four young Black men sit down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and demand service. Enter Esther Jane (EJ) Cloud, a forty-something spinster who manages the Dead Letter Office at the Winston-Salem post office. EJ leads a quiet life in her Old Salem ancestral home and spends her free time volunteering in the town’s 18th-century hortus medicus garden.
One sunny Spring morning, EJ’s simple life is turned upside down when the town’s master gardener unceremoniously hands her a stack of handwritten letters that have all been addressed to a nonexistent person in the garden. This simple act sets in motion a chain of events that will lead EJ on a life-altering quest to uncover the identity of the mysterious letter writer―and into a surprising head-on confrontation with the harsh realities of the racial injustice that is as deeply rooted in the life of her community as the ancient herbs cultivated in the Moravian garden.
When EJ is forced to read the letters to look for clues about the anonymous sender, what she discovers are lyrical tales of a forbidden passion that threaten to unravel the simple contours of her unexamined life. EJ’s official quest soon morphs into a journey of self-discovery as she becomes more deeply enmeshed in the fate of the mysterious letter writer, “Dorothea.” Her surprising accomplice in solving the mystery of the letters becomes one, Harrie Hart: a savvy, street smart ten-year-old, wielding an eye patch and a limitless supply of aphorisms. Together, Harrie and EJ make seminal pilgrimages to the tiny town of Paradise to try and uncover the identity of the mercurial sender and, ultimately, learn a better way to navigate the changing world around them.
But wait, there’s more! Read on for your first glimpse inside Dead Letters from Paradise by Ann McMan…
After walking Harrie back to Fay Marian’s, I resolved to make it an early night. I changed into my nightgown and robe and sat down in Daddy’s chair with my book. I had only a few chapters left to read, and I was determined to finish it this evening. But I was finding it hard to concentrate. Every time Della Street appeared in a scene, I thought about Fay Marian’s “sultry” comment. And that naturally led me to recall the passage of the letter I’d read earlier.
Her intimate touch was like the first bright bloom of Angelica . . .
It was uncanny. Angelica was one of the herbs we cultivated in the hortus medicus. The Moravians had revered the plant for its numerous healing properties. According to Evelyn Haas, its uses went beyond compounds that treated typical maladies like catarrh, dyspepsia, and insomnia. In his vast colonial-era compendium, Philadelphia apothecary Johann Sauer had noted the herb’s special ability to “bring down the menses” for distressed women facing problem—or unwanted—pregnancies. Evelyn once winked and confided in me that Angelica was also compounded into a topical cream that proved efficacious for treating premature ejaculation.
“So, one can say the early Moravians had everything covered—coming and going.”
Evelyn had an almost preternatural fascination with rumors and legends that hinted at a few more lurid aspects to early Moravian communal life—including veneration of homoerotic worship and obsession with the wounds of Christ. And she loved to draw parallels between those whispered stories and the eclectic healing properties of some of the herbs cultivated in the hortus medicus.
Angelica, with its explosive globe-like clusters of flowers, was no exception.
Of course, Angelica had also been used to ward off witches. In my mind, that attribute went hand in hand with Evelyn’s colorful description of the herb’s more prurient uses.
I forced my attention back to the novel. Della Street was busily engaged using her . . . charms . . . to wrangle information out of a distracted travel agent.
Its slender tendrils reached deep inside and laid claim to all my hidden longing.
In frustration, I put the book aside. It was ridiculous. I drummed my fingers against the big, rolled arm of Daddy’s chair. Reading the rest of the letter would accomplish nothing. And bringing it home with me, even unwittingly, was a serious breach of protocol. And even if that hadn’t been true, giving in to an unseemly impulse would make me no better than . . . than a child, blowing a tin whistle to torment a neighbor’s dog.
And yet . . .
Before I could talk myself out of it, I got to my feet and strode across the room to retrieve the letter from my bag. I stood there in the near dark, tapping it against my hand as I deliberated.
Trust me, Lottie had said. You need to read this. Twice. Maybe more.
Even though I feigned offense, I knew exactly what Lottie had referred to. I did withhold myself from the realm of sensual experience. It wasn’t something I intended to suppress—it just seemed to happen naturally. I wasn’t a prude. Not really, I thought. I’d had many friends during my years at Salem College. And I’d learned firsthand about the carnal exploits of some of my female classmates—including the lonely aftermath of nonconsensual sexual encounters, panic-inducing pregnancy scares, and even tales of their occasional Sapphic experimentations with other girls. The more I learned, the less engaged I became. For me, it was tied more to a loss of control than it was to any innate fear of the experience. It wasn’t that I was unaware of how vast and prevalent the forbidden realm of sensual experience was: it was more that I passively chose to ignore it.
But now I was finding it impossible to ignore the letter I held in the dim light of my small foyer.
I had two choices. I could return the letter to its resting place inside my bag and go watch Adventures in Paradise. Or I could give in to yet another impulse and read the rest of the letter.
It was the irony of the TV show Adventures in Paradise that finally tipped the scales for me. I carried the letter back into the living room and sat down to read it. Only this time, I didn’t sit in Daddy’s chair. That felt vaguely . . . unseemly.
I unfolded the pages and resumed reading from where I’d left off earlier.
Its slender tendrils reached deep inside and laid claim to all my hidden longing. Together we became one with the garden. Our fresh young bodies twined together amidst the rows of young plants, feeling the warmth of the early summer sun on our backs and inhaling the sweet, intoxicating fragrance of the White Rose of York—the sacred smell of heaven. We surrendered the first fruits of our youth, vitality, and promise to each other. And as I tasted her freshness, laid bare before me in perfect harmony with all of nature, I imagined I was at last seeing the face of God.
Why, Mary Ann, would you allow me to know such completeness—such blissful perfection—only to deny me its fruition? What possible good can now be served by the fate you have prescribed for me? Why withhold all meaning, possibility, and happiness from me, Mary Ann? Why?
I carefully refolded the pages and returned them to the envelope before realizing that my hands were shaking. I sat still for the next half hour, waiting for my head to clear and my agitation to subside.
Who was Dorothea? And what power over her did this mysterious Mary Ann have?
None of it made the least bit of sense. The only possible connection between the letter and the garden appeared to be the plants where the two women had . . .
I could scarcely allow myself to name what Dorothea had described.
Had had whatever kind of encounter the writer was describing.
Clearly, Dorothea had some kind of unfinished business with the woman named Mary Ann—and with the other, unnamed woman who’d been her participant in those passionate encounters.
But Evelyn insisted there had never been a Mary Ann affiliated with the gardens. So why did Dorothea send her letter there?
The clock on the mantel chimed. It was a quarter past 10 p.m. I’d been sitting in the living room for more than an hour. And tomorrow was a workday—a workday in which I’d have to confront more of Lottie’s shrewd scrutiny. She’d know I’d read the letter. And now it seemed inevitable that we’d have to read them all. Just the thought of that filled me with an emotion I couldn’t identify. But it certainly wasn’t anything approximating ease.
I returned the letter to my bag and turned off the lights before heading to bed.
In the midst of so much confusion, the only thing I was sure about was that sleep would not come easily.
Ann McMan is the two-time Lambda Literary Award-winning author of twelve novels and two short story collections. She is a four-time Independent Publisher (IPPY) medalist, a Foreword Reviews INDIES medalist, a nine-time recipient of Golden Crown Literary Society Awards, and a laureate of the Alice B. Foundation for her outstanding body of work. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Obviously I can’t say no to revealing the cover of a book that has a major character with my name, but when a book sounds as good as the supernatural thriller Unrelenting by Jessi Honard and Marie Parks, which releases on April 19, 2022 from Not a Pipe Publishing and has an ace MC, why would I want to?? Here’s the story:
A glowing symbol painted on a crumbling wall. Sentient smoke that chokes and burns. An ancient magic, long hidden from the world.
Bridget’s most important job has always been protecting her younger sister, Dahlia. But as adults, Dahlia pushes her away, determined to live her own life.
Then, Dahlia vanishes. When her car is found submerged in the river, the authorities tell Bridget to prepare for the worst. Nine months later, everyone has given up hope.
Everyone except Bridget.
When a former classmate of Dahlia’s comes forward with a new lead, Bridget takes matters into her own hands. She ignores the dismissive detective’s warnings and launches her own amateur investigation.
The search leads Bridget to something far more sinister than a typical missing persons case—a carefully-guarded plot tied to powerful, age-old magic. To uncover the truth of what happened to her sister, Bridget must confront this dangerous world, even if it means putting her own life on the line.
But wait, there’s more! Read on for an excerpt of Unrelenting!
“Ms. Keene?” It was the officer at the front desk. The fluorescent lights of the police station gave his skin a too-bright pallor, especially compared with the evening gloom outside. “Detective Ivanova is ready for you. Come on through the metal detector.”
Her legs felt stiff as she stood from the hard plastic chair and handed her purse to him. He gave the inside of her bag a cursory glance before returning it to her. “Through those doors, second room on the left.”
Bridget nodded, though the officer was already turning back to his phone. Typical. They’ve got a missing person case on their hands, and all he can do is play games.
She let herself through and into a high-ceilinged hallway, the sound of her boots bouncing off the sterile white walls. Most of the offices were closed for the night. The room she was looking for, however, was lit up.
Bridget stopped outside and watched Detective Ivanova at her computer, focused on the screen. She was a thin, short woman with high cheekbones and dark hair pulled back into a tight bun. She was young for a detective, and she wore a permanent scowl. Her simple cardigan and slacks gave her an air of harmlessness, but Bridget knew better.
She cleared her throat, and the detective looked up. “Sit down, Ms. Keene,” she said in a severe voice before turning back to the computer.
Bridget took the empty seat opposite the desk. “Thanks for meeting me tonight.” She set her purse on her lap.
“Could’ve waited until morning,” Detective Ivanova pointed out, fingers still moving over the keyboard. “You’re not my only case, you know.”
Bridget bristled. “This is important. That video is the first new lead in months.”
The detective finished typing and turned to face her. “Have you learned anything new about it that couldn’t be shared with a simple email? What was so important you got on an airplane?”
Bridget’s shoulders stiffened. She hadn’t come halfway across the country to be dismissed outright. “You haven’t done anything with the lead. I’m here to ask why not.” She looked to a corkboard on the detective’s wall. Ivanova had tacked on news clippings and photographs of other missing persons: an older Black woman, a middle-aged blond man. Along the edge of the board, Dahlia’s section stared Bridget down. She recognized several articles about her sister’s disappearance, pinned alongside her senior picture.
Bridget studied Dahlia’s frozen smile. There was a resemblance between Dahlia and Bridget, but most of it was subtle—the curve of their lips, the shape of their cheekbones, the arch of their eyebrows. As half-sisters, their coloring was completely divergent. Contrasting Dahlia’s dark hair was Bridget’s blond. Brown eyes to blue. Petite frame to tall. Bridget felt like the foil to her sister in so many ways.
The detective spoke again. “We don’t know that it’s your sister in the video. All it showed was a dark-haired girl in an alleyway. Please don’t get your hopes up.”
“It was Dahlia.” Bridget’s fingers tightened around her purse strap. “I want to know when we’re going to investigate.”
The detective scoffed. “We? I’m going in the morning. You’re not going anywhere. I told you not to come back to Cleveland until I sent for you, Ms. Keene. It’s a waste of your time.” There was an implied and mine.
Bridget straightened in her seat. “But I can help.”
“Absolutely not.” Ivanova leaned forward in her seat, hazel eyes narrowing. “Not only is it against regulations, but I’m here to protect you and your mother during this investigation. Let me do my job. Stay away.”
“You can’t keep me from this. The only reason we even have a new lead is because I set up that website.”
The detective sighed in exasperation and dropped her arms to the desk’s surface. “I appreciate your determination, and I know you’re eager for news. If I find anything, I’ll give your mother a call.”
Bridget’s face grew hot. “My mother? I’m the one who sent you the lead. I’m the one who’s been keeping this investigation going.” She pressed a finger down against the desk as her voice rose. “I’m not a child! We’re supposed to be in this together. Aren’t you on my side?”
Ivanova met her gaze. “Ms. Keene, please calm yourself. Of course I’m on your side.”
“But you’re not listening. Dahlia needs me.”
“Ms. Keene, it’s hard to lose a loved one. I know. And I assure you, I will follow this lead. Something may come of it, or it could be another dead end. Regardless, you are not the detective here. You’re slowing down my investigation. All of them.” She pointed to the board.
I’m the one pushing you on, Bridget thought, fists clenching. “I didn’t lose her. And if you’d let me help—”
“No. End of discussion.” Ivanova reached into her desk and pulled out a notepad, pushing it towards Bridget. “Write down the dates you’re in town. I’ll be in touch tomorrow afternoon.”
Angry tears burned Bridget’s eyes as she wrote down the information and shoved the pad across the desk. It was clear from Detective Ivanova’s expression that their brief meeting was at an end.
Bridget lurched to her feet. “It was Dahlia in that video. I know it.”
Ivanova took the notepad. “I’ll keep you up to date,” she said, voice level. Her eyes turned back to her computer screen.
Bridget struggled to bite back a retort. She stalked out of the office, past closed office doors. It was all too obvious that Ivanova, like everyone else, had written Dahlia off.
Bridget was the only one who still cared. The only one who still hoped. She was finished with fighting red tape and dismissive detectives.
Cold, damp air slapped her cheeks as she stepped into the night. She cinched her jacket around herself. I will find my sister, she thought. And I’ll do it my way.
Jessi Honard and Marie Parks are best friends, hiking and camping buddies, and unabashed nerds. They’ve been co-writing speculative fiction since 2009, and their 2022 contemporary fantasy debut, Unrelenting, was a finalist in the 2020 Book Pipeline Unpublished Manuscript contest. Jessi lives in the Bay Area of California with her partner, Taormina, and Marie lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Today on the site I’m delighted to reveal the cover for yet another Neon Hemlock novella, Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver, which releases on May 17, 2022! Crowdfunding will begin on March 14th on Indiegogo as part of the 2022 Novella series crowdfunding campaign, so in anticipation of that, let’s get to the story:
In the 1920s gothic comedy Uncommon Charm, bright young socialite Julia and shy Jewish magician Simon decide they aren’t beholden to their families’ unhappy history. Together they confront such horrors as murdered ghosts, alive children, magic philosophy, a milieu that slides far too easily into surrealist metaphor, and, worst of all, serious adult conversation.
And here’s the dreamy cover, created by the amazing Marlowe Lune!
But wait, there’s more! Read on for an excerpt of Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver!
Three days after I was expelled from the Marable School for Girls, our poor Simon arrived. My mother told me to expect him, so when the bell rang, I opened the door onto a gloomy November sky, a gloomy November street, and a gloomy November of a boy. (And boy he was, only twenty years old to my sixteen.) He was short and nicely strong, wiry, with tanned cheeks and big dark eyes. Not at all like his father—but on second glance, there did lurk a spectre of Uncle Vee in his prettyish face, down which a raindrop gently rolled. He’d already doffed his hat; those slick curls of his would be ruined.“You’re Mr. Wolf,” I said. “Or is it Mr. Koldunov now?”
The car behind him hadn’t left yet. I saluted the Koldunovs’ driver, Tom, to let him know everything was well, he’d safely delivered the goods, he needn’t subject himself to the weather. Simon and I could surely handle his single, very sad suitcase. Tom returned my wave and drove away.
“Er,” said our guest. “Mr. Wolf will do. You’re Miss Selwyn-Stirling?”
“When I care to answer to it, but don’t call me miss around the Koldunovs. They’ll tease you, and not in the nice you’re-one-of-us-now way.”
“Thanks for the advice,” he said, and he continued to stand on our doorstep, looking about and letting himself be drizzled upon. I wondered why until I realised, oh no, he was waiting for me to invite him inside, at which point I decided I would walk to the moon and back for my new friend.
Grandly, I bowed him into the front hall. As he was taking off his wet things—he clutched his coat and hat until I nodded at the rack, strange boy, it was right there—Muv appeared on the first floor landing, at the top of the stairs.
You’d have thought Simon was a bird that’d biffed itself against a window instead of a student meeting his new mentor, though he wasn’t wrong to find Muv intimidating. From his point of view, I’d have seen not only a small, brisk woman whose bobbed auburn hair absolutely guillotined her jaw, whose freckles foxed her face like that rust on old books, whose black suit cut her body into clean ink lines, but the most ruthless magician England had ever borne. And she was a pretty ruthless mother, too.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Wolf,” she said. “You may address me as Lady Aloysia, my lady, or ma’am.” It was her way of trying to set him at ease, laying out the protocol, only she was always so dreadfully blunt about answering questions you hadn’t asked. More embarrassing still, Simon’s nod became a strange half-bow.
“Oh, don’t,” I groaned.
“Julia will show you around the house.” Muv fixed an eye on me. “His room first, please. You will not make him haul his luggage everywhere. Is there more?”
Simon’s hands tightened around the handle. “No, ma’am. Just the one.”
“Very well. We will meet for dinner three hours from now. Do tell me whether I’ve correctly understood your dietary needs.”
“Muv, honestly, you needn’t be the lepidopterist pinning butterflies. You can ask him these things like you’re both human people.”
She gestured for me to take the suitcase. I hefted it before Simon could object.
“I—thanks, Miss Sel—er, Lady Aloysia, ma’am, no, it’s—” Simon grasped uselessly at the air. “Thanks, but you don’t have to do all that.”
Muv tapped her elbow. “I see. Julia, after you help Mr. Wolf get settled, please inform Beth the week’s menu may remain as it is. I asked,” she continued, both addressing him and chiding me, “because I would not put it past Madam Koldunova to serve you roast pork every day.”
“It was every other day,” said Simon.
Muv blinked down at him. He blinked up at her. Silence could be loud indeed. An entire three-second opera played out as I started to drag the suitcase upstairs.
Simon’s footsteps came in a flurry after me, and, generous girl that I was, I let him take charge of his own belongings. When we reached the second floor, he turned back with a perplexed look, but Muv had disappeared into her laboratory. He couldn’t have expected hugs and smiles, not from the Lady Aloysia Stirling, not with her reputation, though I knew for a fact he’d received colder welcomes: I had the whole of it from Marie and Adele Koldunova. After three weeks with the Koldunovs, Muv ought to seem downright tropical.
“Er,” Simon murmured, “did you see—?” Though I tilted my head, yes, do go on, he shuttered himself. “Never mind.”
“These games are unnecessary, you know. You don’t have to keep secrets, and you don’t have to doubt your eyes. I can help! I did grow up here. Muv never fails to keep a thread in her needle, not that I pay her magic any mind. It is so tedious when your mother always knows where you are and what you’re thinking, but you’ll find out soon enough. I didn’t see anything. What did you see?”
“A woman,” Simon said, startled into answering. “Not your mother, but tall and blonde. A bit, er, bony. And bleeding.”
“Oh, well. I should have expected you’d be a medium. Come along!” I bounded up the stairs. “The ghosts will wait.”
About the authors: Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver live in Saint Paul, Minnesota with their two small birds. Emily is a Twin Cities bookseller whose reviews have been published in The Riveter magazine. Find her on Twitter @eudaemaniacal. Kat’s short fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Lackington’s, Timeworn Literary Journal, and elsewhere. She is a senior fiction editor at Strange Horizons. Her art can be found at kathrynmweaver.com and on Twitter @anoteinpink.
About the press: Neon Hemlock is a Washington, DC-based small press publishing speculative fiction, rad zines and queer chapbooks. We punctuate our titles with oracle decks, occult ephemera and literary candles. Publishers Weekly once called us “the apex of queer speculative fiction publishing” and we’re still beaming. Learn more about us at neonhemlock.com and on Twitter at @neonhemlock.
Today on the site we’re revealing another cover for a Kevin Craig YA, and this time it’s Book of Dreams, a horror/thriller releasing from Interlude Press on May 24, 2022! Here’s the story:
Gaige’s curiosity gets the better of him when he discovers a bookstore on an abandoned street where no bookstore should be. He steps inside and is immediately enthralled by its antiquarian sights and smells. But one book in particular calls to him. It isn’t long before he gets a bad feeling about it, but it’s already too late. The store’s aged bookseller gives him no alternative: once he touches the book, it’s his—whether he wants it or not.
The book leads Gaige on a horrific descent into the unknown. As he falls into the depths of its pages, he loses blocks of time, and his friends become trapped inside ancient cellars with seemingly no means of escape.
Gaige soon learns that the ancient bookseller is a notorious serial killer from previous century, and fears that he has fallen into a predicament from which he may not escape. When all seems lost, he finds the one person he can turn to for help—Mael, a sweet boy also trapped inside the book who didn’t fall for the bookseller’s tricks. Together, they race against time to protect Gaige from joining a long string of boys who vanished without a trace inside the Book of Dreams.
But wait, there’s more! Here’s the excerpt from Chapter 1 of Book of Dreams!
I’m a book addict. There. I said it. It will one day be my downfall. And, the older the better. Give me an old book and I’m in nirvana. Mr. Clancy says I’m a dying breed. I may be seventeen and stupid, but even I know books will be around long after the apocalypse hits. Yep, books and cockroaches. And that old relic guy from the ancient band with the big lips, Keith Richards.
I walk inside and the first thing I see is an all-white cat sprawled on the hardwood floor. He stretches inside a thin shaft of the last bit of sunlight coming in through the front window. Spreading away from—or drifting toward—the dirty old thing is a line of dust motes. It looks like both the cat and the motes are fighting for the dying light.
The cat lifts an eye in my direction long enough to telepathically say, ‘Don’t screw with me, I’m busy here.’
There are eight rows of thick wooden shelves, all filled with books that look older than Great-Gram Imogene. If that’s even possible. She’s like ninety or something.
I go right to the first shelf and start to look at all the books, caress their spines.
I get this spooked-out feeling as I peruse the shelf, though. What bookstore isn’t jam-packed with color? Everywhere I look there are various tones of only two colors: brown and black. And with all the dust motes floating around wherever the dying sunlight hits, it looks like there’s this low-lying fog throughout the store.
On those rare occasions when I’m forced into fishing outings with Dad, low-lying fog is apparently a good thing. Brings the fish out for a feeding frenzy, or something like that. What do I know? I’m so not a sporto. While shopping in a bookstore, low-lying fog? Not so much a good thing.
I have my hand on an old smacked-down mud-dragged copy of a Russian classic—The Brothers Karamazov—when I hear a rumbling throat clearing that sounds like stones in a washing machine or a cat stuck up in a car engine when the ignition turns over. I’ve never heard a death-rattle, but Dad has joked about them and I’m pretty sure something behind me just made one.
“That’d be a good pick right there, son.”
The hairs on my arms reach away and I clench my head into my neck like a turtle, only I can’t make my head disappear down inside my shell. His voice is way worse than his throat-clearing. The cat agrees. It snarls and hisses at the old man like he isn’t its friggin’ owner.
Just as I’m about to tell him I already read everything by Dostoevsky, my eye catches something shiny. In a store as dull as this one it’s almost a eureka moment to discover something that stands out so much.
The old man, who’s not yet in my sightline, scurries toward me. I can see him move up the aisle in my peripheral vision. As my hand reaches out to grab the book’s spine—anything shiny in the dull dark ocean of books, dust and derelicts—he steps between me and it.
“You don’t want that one, son,” he says, already objecting to my choice before I even have a chance to touch it. His voice comes out in a hiss this time.
Who tells a kid that? Of course it automatically becomes the only thing within a twelve block radius that I do want. And I still haven’t even seen the title.
I deke around him and make a grab for the shiny-shiny.
“Ooh! The Book of Dreams! Sounds awesome. Is this like the Tibetan one?”
“Young man,” he says. “I’m going to have to ask you not to touch that particular book.”
My hand lingers by the gold spine. As I move to haul it out of its slot on the shelf, though, the old man’s hand engulfs mine. My first visual, a disembodied hand as white as bone and, well, also extremely bony. And cold. And covered with those age spots that all old people have. The hair already standing up on my arms now electrically stands up. Ice courses through my veins, as though his touch actually lowers my body temperature.
Who the hell is this old coot to tell me what books I can or cannot touch? It’s for sale, dude. If it’s on the shelf in plain view—in a bookstore—it’s for sale. End of story.
I wrench myself away from his skeletal grip and step back from the shelf, finally with the book in hand.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Gaige,” the old man says as he turns and heads back to the front of the store. I think I hear him tsk. “Just know, son, some books opened can’t be unopened.”
“What the hell does that even mean?” I ask. Now I feel brave. I won the standoff. I have the book in my hand. Dude is too weird, though. I watch his back as he moves up the thin aisle toward the counter, He’s impossibly tall and skinny. Like a basketball player who has just returned from a ten-year stay on a deserted island where he lived off insects and water. Like, he-should-be-dead skinny.
His all black suit is three sizes too big for him and covered in dust. His aura itself is dust. It mingles with the motes that fill up all the empty sun-lit spaces in the store. And what is with the long greasy hair? Dude totally creeps me out.
I turn my back on him and make to crack open the gold book cover. My heart races, and I’m desperate to see what’s inside.
“You read the title wrong too, son. Take another look. It’s MY Book of Dreams.”
I stop what I’m doing and return my gaze to the cover. MY Book of Dreams. Huh? Don’t know how I read it wrong. I’m certain it read THEBook of Dreams. I’m positive, even.
What was it Shakespeare said? “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” I think he also said, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” Thankfully, my thumbs have not yet been pricked. Between scary giant, his pissed-off cat, the dust motes, the fog, and the book, my Spidey senses are telling me to get the hell out.
But I’m also intrigued. Too intrigued. Like I said, I’m a bibliophile. And this book is so calling my name. There’s something about it. It’s a four-car pileup and I’m a rubbernecker.
I spot a chair at the end of the aisle and take my prize over to it. I sit down to open the book.
He just called me Gaige.
“Hey wait,” I say. “How did you know my name? You just called me Gaige.”
“If you haven’t looked inside that book yet, you can still leave it be and pick another. The Russians are fine reads, if you ask me. You still have prerogative on your side, Gaige. You can even leave empty-handed if you wish. It’s not too late. Choose wisely.”
Talk about creeping the hell out of a kid. What the hell is even wrong with this dude?
“How the hell do you know my name?”
But I don’t wait for an answer. None of the alarm bells that should ring in my head are doing their job. At least not properly. They’re ringing, I’m just not listening, I guess. He has suggested a forbidden-ness about the book and I have never been one to take to that kind of shit very gently. I dive into it.
After I turn the first couple pages, though, I turn away. They’re empty and a rotten smell emanates from them. It’s like the book hasn’t been opened for decades and all the badness that has ever lived in this ancient bookstore has come to rest within this one book’s yellowed pages.
“It stinks,” I say more to myself than to the man, who now seems too far away to carry on an actual conversation with. Like I would want to. He totally gives the creeps a bad name. “Why does it smell so bad?”
Apparently, he’s listening. From the front of the store, he says, “That’s a question you really have to ask yourself, young man. You have things to hide in that little head of yours? You have things to be ashamed of? You sure that smell ain’t coming from the inside of yourself? Skunk smells his own stink first, Gaige.”
I stand and walk toward him, book in hand.
“Stop saying my name. How do you know who I am, anyway?”
“I’m just saying that book knows you better than I do. I’m a silly old man who tried to warn you not to dance with the devil. Now you’re dancing, young fella. Now you’re dancing.”
Kevin Craig is the author of several young adult novels. Their most recent title, The Camino Club, was the 2021 Silver Winner of the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Benjamin Franklin Award. Kevin is a five-time recipient of the Muskoka Novel Marathon’s Best Novel Award. As a playwright, Kevin has had twelve plays produced for the stage. Kevin lives in Toronto, Canada. As an avid explorer, they can also be found traveling the world with their significant other, Michael.
As a huge fan of People Like Us, I’m thrilled to help reveal the cover for Dana Mele’s sophomore YA, Summer’s Edge, a paranormal thriller with bisexual and lesbian protags releasing May 31, 2022 from Simon & Schuster! Here’s the story:
I Know What You Did Last Summer meets The Haunting of Hill House in this atmospheric, eerie teen thriller following an estranged group of friends being haunted by their friend who died last summer.
Emily Joiner was once part of an inseparable group—she was a sister, a best friend, a lover, and a rival. Summers without Emily were unthinkable. Until the fire burned the lake house to ashes with her inside.
A year later, it’s in Emily’s honor that Chelsea and her four friends decide to return. The house awaits them, meticulously rebuilt. Only, Chelsea is haunted by ghostly visions. Loner Ryan stirs up old hurts and forces golden boy Chase to play peacemaker. Which has perfect hostess Kennedy on edge as eerie events culminate in a stunning accusation: Emily’s death wasn’t an accident. And all the clues needed to find the person responsible are right here.
As old betrayals rise to the surface, Chelsea and her friends have one night to unravel a mystery spanning three summers before a killer among them exacts their revenge.
And here’s the striking cover, designed by Lizzie Bromley with art by Nicole Rifkin!
But wait, there’s more! Read on for your first glimpse of the book in this exclusive excerpt!
SUMMER OF EGRETS
The lake house hasn’t changed in the 91 years of its distinguished existence. Solid, stately, a relic of the Rockefeller and Durant era, it has survived three hurricanes, countless termite infestations, and a flood. It’s survived death itself. A bold claim if you can make it, but in this case, it happens to be true. Last summer, it burned to ashes with Emily Joiner trapped inside, and it was simply resurrected in its own image by its benefactors. It’s indestructible. Impervious to death and all that nature and beyond can summon. I’ve always thought of the lake house as a special place, but staring up at it, risen from ruin a year after its demise, flawless, the word that comes to mind is miraculous.
Has it really been a year?
To the day.
I pull the stiff, custom-made postcard from the pocket of my faded army green capris, a pair that Emily designed herself. On the front of the card is a gorgeous snapshot of the house. It was built in the Adirondack architecture style—a million-dollar mansion with a rustic stacked-log-and-stone aesthetic, a wraparound porch featuring delicate columns of hand-carved trees with branches winding up to the roof, and a sculpted arch of briar framing the door. Out back is a killer view of Lake George, a serene little corner exclusive to the handful of neighbors scattered sparsely along the coast. Completely secluded by majestic pines, the lake house is something out of a fairytale, a lone cottage in a deep dark forest. Sometimes it almost feels alive.
I do think it gets lonely. I would.
The house is in its own little world, buffered from civilization by the wilderness and a strict back-to-nature philosophy—no internet, no cable, no Netflix, satellite, or cell service, just peace, quiet, sun, swimming, boating, and plenty of misbehavior. It’s been our summer haven for the past ten years. Me, Emily, our best friend and my ex-girlfriend Kennedy, Emily’s twin brother Ryan, his best friend Chase, and as of two years ago, Chase’s girlfriend Mila. Last year should have been the last year because that was the year of the fire. The year we took things too far. The Summer of Swans. The year Emily died.
But then, the postcard came.
I flip it over and read it again. It’s a hot day and my car is like an oven. It only takes the interior of a car about half an hour to reach a deadly temperature when it’s in the mid-sixties outside. The gauge on my dashboard reads 81. I pull back the dark frizzy curls clinging to my neck and twist them into a bun on top of my head, yank the keys out of the ignition, and kick the car door open. A cool breeze sweeps off of the lake and touches my face, fluttering my t-shirt softly against my skin. It’s like a blessing from the lake gods. The sound of wind chimes rings softly, an arrangement of notes both strange and familiar, like a music box song. I imagine the sound of my name in my ear, a whisper in the breeze. I am home. I take my sunglasses off and close my eyes, shutting out the light, and allow the delicious air to wash over me. The scent of pine and soft earth. The promise of cool, clear water on my skin. The taste of freshly caught fish, charred on the grill, gooey marshmallow, melted chocolate, Kennedy’s lips, sweet with white wine. Our voices, laughing, swirled around bonfire smoke.
Jesus. I open my eyes and the bright sunlight makes me dizzy. Charred. Smoke. Just thinking the words gives me a sense of vertigo, even now. My mouth feels bitter, full of bile, and the phantom smell of smoke stings my nostrils and makes my eyes water. How could I think about fire in that way, here of all places, today of all days? Where Emily died. Where her bones were burned black.
I don’t know that for a fact. She may have asphyxiated. The rest of us were assembled on the lawn, in shock, immobile, separated from Emily. My parents wouldn’t let me know the details. I haven’t been allowed to find out for myself. It’s been a nightmare of a year. A year without my friends. A year without any friends. Any fun. Of seclusion, doctors, fucking arts and crafts and therapy animals. Which, yes, they’re cute, but it’s insulting. Five minutes petting a golden retriever before he’s ushered away into the next room does not repair an unquiet mind.
And witnessing your best friend die because of something you did—or didn’t do—is as disquieting as it gets.
You’re asking, okay, yeah, why go back then?
The answer is opening the door.
Dana Mele is a Pushcart-nominated writer based in the Catskills. A graduate of Wellesley College, Dana holds degrees in theatre, education, and law. Dana’s debut, PEOPLE LIKE US, was published in 2018 and shortlisted for the 2019 ITW Thriller Award for Best Young Adult Novel. A second YA thriller, SUMMER’S EDGE, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in Summer 2022, followed by TRAGIC, a graphic novel retelling of Hamlet from Legendary Comics.
Paula Martinac is back on the site today to reveal a new cover, this one for Dear Miss Cushman, a New Adult historical romance set in mid-19th century NYC, releasing from Bywater Books on December 7th! Here’s the story:
In 1850s Manhattan, 18-year-old Georgiana Cartwright witnesses the downfall of her father, a renowned actor who disgraces himself performing under the influence. When he deserts the family, Georgie is expected to save the day by marrying well. But she aspires to the stage, hoping to earn an independent living like her idol, the great actress Charlotte Cushman.
Hired as a supporting actress for a prominent theater company, Georgie launches her career with the help of a trio of young friends, including Clementine, a budding scribe determined to make her mark on the literary landscape—and to win Georgie’s heart. Early reviews garner Georgie the promise of a bright future, but then unwanted sexual advances from within the company threaten to derail her career.
Following Cushman’s lead, Georgie regains her footing in “breeches roles,” parts written for men but performed by women. A thrilling gender-bending turn in a Shakespearean role boosts her confidence—until her harasser renews his efforts. Will she be able to vanquish him and find success and love on her own terms?
And here’s the striking cover, designed by TreeHouse Studios!
But wait, there’s more! Here’s an excerpt for your reading pleasure…
New York City, 1852
When the audience began hissing, I knew Othello wasn’t going to end well. Their response jolted me. We weren’t at the Bowery Theatre, where the audience in the pit tossed apples and vegetables onto the stage if a performance didn’t please them. The Prince Theatre was one of New York City’s finest establishments, catering to the upper ten.
Worse, the actor they hissed at was my father.
I was attending my first theatrical performance ever. Incredible, given that my father was a renowned leading actor, but Mama maintained that theater wasn’t a place for young ladies. For my eighteenth birthday, she gave in to my pleading and permitted Uncle James to accompany me to my father’s performance of the Moor, one of his most acclaimed roles. Mama insisted I have a new dress, and my sister Maude oohed and aahed over the sky blue taffeta until I wanted to take it off and give it to her. I myself put little stock in puffy lady things, especially in pastel hues. Plus, the heavy horsehair crinoline the skirt required for shape made beads of sweat trickle down my stomach.
Still, I could abide these discomforts if it meant I got to sit beside my dapper uncle in his lushly adorned box, draped with red and gold silk, and marvel at the glistening gas-jet chandelier that lit the space. Best of all, I got to watch my father tread the boards as I’d imagined him doing, in full costume and makeup for the Moor and sporting his prize sword.
We were barely one act in when Pa dropped a few lines. Then more—even the ones I ran with him that morning “for good measure,” as he’d urged. He’d appeared in Othello dozens of times, but now the role appeared to baffle him. Although the movement made my stays pinch, I leaned forward, mouthing the words, willing them into his memory.
Taunts rose slowly through the cavernous parquet. Pa squinted toward the footlights in bewilderment, but then the leading gentleman and star in him recovered and soldiered on as if he hadn’t missed a cue. The drop came down on Act One, and Uncle James and I both exhaled relieved breaths.
In the second act, Pa missed more lines. The second gentleman playing Cassio attempted to cover the flubs and cue Pa again, but my father fled downstage as if trying to escape. Turning too quickly, he slid first to one knee, then to both, and ended up crouching on all fours staring down at the boards. A shocked “Oh!” rippled through the audience in the parquet seats. Cassio tried to lift my father, improvising a line the Bard never wrote—“Come, on your feet, general!” But the actor couldn’t manage it alone, and my father remained hunched like an animal frozen in fear of slaughter until the drop came down again.
“Is that the end?” a lady in the box next to ours said.
“This isn’t the way it goes,” her gentleman escort complained. “The Moor doesn’t die this soon!”
The audience response crescendoed into boos. Uncle James colored crimson. “We’re leaving,” he announced, spittle collecting at the corners of his lips. He tugged me to my feet. “Now, Georgiana.”
I badly wanted to stay and support Pa after this debacle, but my youth and sex meant I didn’t get a say in the matter. We exited my uncle’s box and the theater to his brougham, waiting in a tidy line of carriages on Broadway.
“Bond Street, Louis,” my uncle directed his driver.
Pa used to be able to handle the drink and still speak his lines beautifully. He bragged about having a hollow leg, that he never felt the impact of whiskey no matter how much he imbibed. In the past year or two, though, his memory had pickled. When I ran through his prompt books with him to refresh his recall, he sometimes dropped whole pages, skipping ahead without realizing what he’d missed.
Mama didn’t speak of Pa’s mounting difficulties around me and Maude. For us, she put on a bright face, but it was hard to miss the growing chasm between them, as wide as an orchestra pit, their overheard exchanges sharp and brittle.
Uncle James confronted Pa openly, without caring who heard. As a theater investor, he was a regular at the Prince, and he warned my father, “He’ll let you go, Will. Worth was hired to whip the company into shape after Bumby drove it into the ground. Your contract will be worthless paper if you continue to perform badly.” He pointed out a clause in the Prince’s official rules, instituted by the new manager, stipulating that any actor “unable from the effects of stimulants to perform” would be docked a week’s salary on first offense and thereafter subject to discharge.
My father’s response had sounded characteristically haughty—that the Prince couldn’t afford to lose William Cartwright, who had drawn crowds to match all the luminaries of the day, like Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman. “That theater would collapse without me. Who would play my roles?”
“Worth’s a fine leading actor himself,” my uncle had noted.
Now, as our carriage clattered toward my home on Bond Street, Uncle James shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry you had to witness that, Georgie.”
My stomach twisted this way and that, and not from our jostling over the cobblestones or the stench of horse dung wafting into the carriage. If Mr. Worth sacked my father, how would he earn a living? He’d never done anything but act. Maybe he would get a place at the Bowery or Barnum’s—lower rungs on the theater ladder, but at least he’d have an income. On the short trip up Broadway, my emotions ricocheted from anxiety to rage. If the head of our family tumbled, we were doomed to go right along with him.
“What will happen to him?” I asked. What I really meant was, what will happen to us?
“I can’t say,” Uncle James replied. “But you’re a smart girl, Georgie. You know the situation isn’t good. All we can do is hope Worth gives him another chance.” He saw me to our front door but declined to come in when Aggie, our cook and housekeeper, answered with a surprised “Mr. Clifford! You’re back so early!” I assumed he wanted to dodge telling my mother, his older sister, why he’d brought me home from my special evening two hours too soon.
That unpleasantness fell to me.
Paula Martinac is the author of seven novels—Dear Miss Cushman (forthcoming, 2021); Testimony (2021); Clio Rising (2019), Gold Medal Winner, Northeast Region, Independent Publishers Book Awards 2020; The Ada Decades (2017), finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction; the Lambda Literary Award-winning Out of Time (1990; 2012 e-book); the Lammy-nominated Home Movies (1993); and Chicken (1997; 2001 reprint). She teaches creative writing at University of North Carolina at Charlotte and at Charlotte Center for the Literary Arts. Sign up for her mailing list at paulamartinac.com.
Eddy Boudel Tan is back on the site today, this time to share an excerpt from his new novel, The Rebellious Tide! Here’s the story:
Sebastien has heard only stories about his father, a mysterious sailor who abandoned his pregnant mother thirty years ago. But when his mother dies after a lifetime of struggle, he becomes obsessed with finding an explanation—perhaps even revenge.
The father he’s never met is Kostas, the commanding officer of a luxury liner sailing the Mediterranean. Posing as a member of the ship’s crew, Sebastien stalks his unwitting father in search of answers to why he disappeared so many years ago.
After a public assault triggers outrage among the ship’s crew, Sebastien finds himself entangled in a revolt against the oppressive ruling class of officers. As the clash escalates between the powerful and the powerless, Sebastien uncovers something his father has hidden deep within the belly of the ship—a disturbing secret that will force him to confront everything he’s always wondered and feared about his own identity.
Jérôme St. Germain had just moved back to Petit Géant after several years in Montréal. The people in town remembered him being a bookish boy, peculiar and reserved. They were surprised to see him return as an attractive young man with easy charm and a confident style. The town was happy to welcome an eligible bachelor.
Sebastien was freelancing for the local newspaper at the time, mostly shooting fundraisers and hockey tournaments. Jérôme found him peering through the viewfinder of his camera while on assignment at the local college’s graduation ceremony. The diplomas had been handed out, the mortarboards had been thrown. The young graduates now clustered together in spheres of optimism.
“I hear you’re the town’s star photographer,” Jérôme said with a smile. He appeared tidy and down to earth. His hair was a dense sweep of chestnut. Behind the thin frames of his glasses were two penetrating grey eyes tinged with blue like pools of rainwater.
“That is definitely an overstatement,” Sebastien responded. “I’m just the only guy in town who knows what an aperture is.”
The handsome stranger laughed. He crossed his arms and scanned the gymnasium, which was filled with electric blue gowns and bright faces. “I went to this school almost a decade ago. It hasn’t changed a bit. They still haven’t fixed that.” His head nodded toward a domed lamp hanging from the ceiling that was dark, unlike the others.
“I used to go here too. I remember you.”
Jérôme turned to him, surprised. “Aren’t you a few years younger?”
“You hosted an art show in the café to raise money for the class trip to Europe. You painted sea monsters. There was one that looked like a man with octopus tentacles instead of legs. I loved it.”
“I’m glad someone appreciated it. The genteel denizens of Petit Géant seemed more disturbed than anything else. I suppose that’s what I get for showcasing art in a cultural black hole.” He looked at the floor with a nostalgic expression before his eyes shot up to Sebastien. “No offense!”
He laughed. “None taken. I have no attachment to this place. It’s just a cage to me.”
Jérôme adjusted his wool blazer and looked at Sebastien with his rainwater eyes. “I have an offer for you.”
That afternoon, they went together to the same café that hosted the art show so many years earlier. Jérôme laughed when he stepped through the door, amazed how little it had changed. Sebastien didn’t know what to make of this man as they settled into a corner table, but he soon understood they shared something.
Jérôme explained that it hadn’t been easy leaving Montréal. The bohemian bars filled with artists and students teemed with ideas aching to be explored and expanded. Jérôme had found a place that felt like home. When his father fell ill and his mother became distraught, he knew the occasional weekend visit to Petit Géant would no longer suffice. He told himself it would be temporary.
When it was clear his father’s condition was only going to worsen before it got better, he accepted that his stay in town would be longer than he had hoped. He was a headstrong man, not one to sit on his hands. This was an opportunity for him to leave a positive imprint on his much-maligned hometown.
He decided to open a shop. Part gallery, part portrait studio, part camera store, it would be different from anything the town had ever seen. He wanted Sebastien’s help.
Although he had no wealth to invest, Jérôme treated him like a business partner. From branding to merchandising, all decisions were made together. They decided to name the shop Camera Obscura.
By the time preparations for the grand opening were underway, they were spending nearly every morning, afternoon, and evening together. Their friendship was instantaneous. They shared a feeling of alienation—they were both outsiders in a town that enforced conformity—but Jérôme possessed an optimism that things could change.
It was late one night when they first kissed. It had been an exhausting day of painting the interior walls. Sheets of thick brown paper covered the front windows. Sebastien ran a paint roller down his friend’s back, smearing him from neck to rear with the same mint colour as the newly painted walls. Jérôme retaliated, and it wasn’t long before the two men were rolling across the newspaper-covered floor entangled in each other’s limbs. It was his first taste of a man’s lips, and he liked it. He let Jérôme do things with their bodies he had never done before.
“What got you into photography?” Jérôme asked as they lay on the floor beneath a blanket they had retrieved from the trunk of his car.
“My mother,” Sebastien said, wondering if the answer sounded childish. “We used to have a cheap thirty-five millimetre camera when I was a kid. We took pictures of everything over the years. There must be at least five big boxes full in her closet. Even now, she insists we print every shot to add to the collection.”
“Life passes by so quickly. Photos give us a way to remember it.”
Sebastien rolled onto his side and draped his arm across Jérôme’s stomach. “I love how cameras can freeze time. The shutter opens and the moment solidifies into something that will remain long after we’re gone.”
Jérôme leaned into him until their foreheads touched. “Where did you come from, Sebastien Goh?” he said with a smile.
The grand opening of the shop was a success: people actually showed up. Ruby arrived in her favourite red cheongsam. Jérôme’s mother pushed her husband’s wheelchair. They stayed for only twenty minutes, but he was happy to see them smile.
Half of the room was a gallery space displaying work from artists in the region, including several framed photographs of Sebastien’s. In the centre of one wall was Jérôme’s adolescent painting of the octopus man, which he had gifted to his new friend. Servers holding trays of delicate hors d’oeuvres circulated around the room while a quartet of jazz musicians performed in a corner.
“How fabulous,” Sophie said when she arrived with two friends. Sebastien kissed her on the cheek.
Sophie gushed about his new “project,” as she called it, but behind the smile was worry. Sebastien seemed different. There was something in the way he held himself that hinted at newfound contentment. It was unexpected. The weeks leading up to their latest breakup months earlier had been especially rocky. He was aimless and unfulfilled. She was sure he’d come back to her eventually.
Now, seeing the confident way he spoke to his guests and the smart clothes he wore, she felt the creep of uncertainty. Her eyes scanned the mint-coloured room and his new charismatic friend with suspicion.
Sophie found the photographs a month later. Sebastien had been careless. They were stored loosely in a desk drawer in the back room. He had asked her to watch the shop for thirty minutes while he and Jérôme picked up a set of new shelves. She wouldn’t have found them had she not been snooping, but she sensed something was being hidden from her.
The black-and-white photographs printed on glossy paper displayed the nude bodies of two beautiful men. Sebastien was alone in some of them, a suggestive look in his eyes and hair tousled even more wildly than usual. Both men appeared in most of the images. Foreheads touched. Fingers intertwined. Mouths met skin. They looked happy and in love.
Sophie’s hands shook as she reached for her phone. She didn’t know why she felt the need to capture these images and send them to her closest friend, Chloe. She would say she wasn’t thinking, that she just needed someone’s opinion, but she must have known what Chloe would do.
By the time Sebastien and Jérôme returned to the shop, the images of their secret affair were rushing through town like the torrents of a flood.
Eddy Boudel Tan is the author of two novels, After Elias (fall 2020) and The Rebellious Tide (summer 2021). His work depicts a world much like our own—the heroes are flawed, truth is distorted, and there is as much hope as there is heartbreak. As a queer Asian Canadian, Eddy celebrates diverse voices through his writing, some of which can be found in publications such as Gertrude, yolk literary, and the GL&R. When he isn’t plotting his next story or adventure abroad, he serves home-cooked meals to those living on the streets as cofounder of the Sidewalk Supper Project. He lives with his husband in Vancouver. Follow Eddy on Twitter (@eddyautomatic) or online (eddyboudeltan.com).
Today on the site, we have an excerpt from Jen Michalski’s upcoming women’s fic You’ll Be Fine, which releases from NineStar Press on August 2nd! Here’s the story:
After Alex’s mother dies of an accidental overdose, Alex takes leave from her job as a writer for a lifestyle magazine to return home to Maryland and join her brother Owen, a study in failure to launch, in sorting out their mother’s whimsical, often self-destructive, life.
While home, Alex plans to profile Juliette Sprigg, an Eastern Shore restaurant owner and celebrity chef in the making who Alex secretly dated in high school. And when Alex enlists the help of Carolyn, the editor of the local newspaper, in finding a photographer for the article’s photo shoot, Alex struggles with the deepening, tender relationship that blossoms between them as well.
To complicate matters, Alex and Owen’s “Aunt” Johanna, who has transitioned to a woman, offers to come from Seattle to help with arrangements, and all hell breaks loose when she announces she is actually Alex and Owen’s long-estranged father. Can Alex accept her mother and father for who they are, rather than who she hoped they would be? And can Alex apply the same philosophy to herself?
And here’s the excerpt!
The last time she’d seen Juliette was high school graduation. They hadn’t spoken for weeks, and their last names—Sprigg and Maas—ensured they’d be nowhere near each other in the audience of graduating seniors. Alex had told Owen and her mother to meet her in the parking lot after the ceremony. She had no intention of lingering in the high school gym, drinking fruit punch and eating sheet cake emblazoned with GO SENIORS and CONGRATULATIONS with the other kids who’d treated her like she was some highly contagious lesbian fungus.
She’d gotten through the first row of cars and spotted her mother in the fourth row, near the exit, leaning against their Subaru. Her mother wore Ray Bans and a black fedora, her arms crossed like she was the third Blues Brother or had materialized from some mid-80s new wave music video. As Alex raised her hand to wave to her, she felt another hand on her shoulder.
“Alex.” It was Juliette’s mother, Barbara Sprigg. She wore a floral print dress with a ruffled collar. A small crucifix hugged her thick neck. Her hair was red like Juliette’s but her face ruddier, plastered with freckles. She smiled. “You’re in a hurry! Congratulations!”
“Thanks.” Alex glanced over Mrs. Sprigg’s shoulder, saw Juliette, still in her graduation gown, lagging behind with her father and little sister. “My mom is taking us out to dinner.”
“Oh, I won’t keep you.” Mrs. Sprigg said, clasping Alex’s forearm as she did so. “You haven’t been by the house for a long time—Juliette says you’ve been so busy getting ready for Swarthmore. I’m sure your mother is so proud.”
“Uh huh.” Alex nodded. “I know Juliette is excited to go to Eastern Shore State.”
“Well, she’s⎯” Mrs. Sprigg glanced over her shoulder, “never been much of the academic type. I’m just glad I taught her to bake.”
“It’s a shame they didn’t let you guys supply the cakes.” Juliette’s mother ran a bake shop in town. Even now, she smelled faintly of sugar and frosting.
“Well, they wanted some asinine discount,” Mrs. Sprigg snorted. “Because Juliette is a student. Fine, but a 50% discount?”
“It was very nice to talk to you.” Alex tugged her arm away gently. “But I’ve got to go.”
“Is everything okay at home now, dear?” Mrs. Sprigg looked in the direction of the Subaru.
“Yes, why?” Alex glanced at Juliette again, her dark red hair, the few strands that stuck to her lip gloss. Alex wondered if the lip gloss smelled like mint, or strawberry. She wondered how Juliette’s hair would feel splayed between her fingers at that moment.
“Okay. I’m glad.” Mrs. Sprigg nodded, and Alex wondered what Juliette had told her. There was a lot, she thought, she could tell Mrs. Sprigg about Juliette.
They embraced, a half, light, back-patting hug, their cheeks brushing.
“Stay away from my daughter,” Mrs. Sprigg murmured into Alex’s ear. Then, as if nothing happened, Mrs. Sprigg waved vigorously and went to join the rest of the Spriggs. Stunned, Alex watched them walk toward their Buick. Before they reached it, Juliette turned her head, her mouth parted, her eyes searching Alex’s. Alex wondered, for a moment, if she had been too hasty, too harsh, to Juliette, if there was something salvageable between them.
No, she decided. Her life after high school would be awesome, and she wouldn’t remember Juliette any more than their high school mascot or her mom’s boyfriend Lewis. She held up her hand to Juliette, as if to wave. Instead, she gave her the finger and joined Owen and her mother at the other side of the parking lot.
“Did you just flip someone off?” Her mother lowered her sunglasses. Her hazel eyes bored into Alex with an unwavering intensity of a gamma ray. “At graduation?”
“It was Juliette,” Alex murmured, shaking her head. In her new life, she would be more mature. She felt fears in her eyes. “I shouldn’t have. I just—”
“Are you kidding?” Her mother grabbed Alex by the shoulders and looked up at her. She grinned. Alex noted her mother had borrowed her lipstick. “I’m more proud of that than your stupid diploma.”
Her mother pulled a pack of Benson & Hedges out of her dark cotton blazer with the rolled-up sleeves and tapped out a cigarette.
“Smoke?” She held out the pack to Alex. “You’re almost eighteen.”
Alex shook her head. “I don’t want lung cancer.”
“Your choice.” Her mother shrugged, lighting hers. She took a drag, then exhaled with a flourish. “Welcome to adulthood.”
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water, The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press), a couplet of novellas entitled Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction. Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers, The Washington Post, and the Literary Hub, and she’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. She lives in Carlsbad, California, with her partner and dog.
I am absolutely flailing to get to reveal for you today the cover and a fabulous excerpt for Kosoko Jackson’s upcoming gay rom-com, I’m So (Not) Over You, which releases from Berkley on February 22, 2022! You may already know Kosoko from his gay YA time travel romance, Yesterday is History, but this is his first foray into Adult and I am ridiculously hyped. Check out this fauxmantic second-chance story and you’ll get get the hype too!
It’s been months since aspiring journalist Kian Andrews has heard from his ex-boyfriend, Hudson Rivers, but an urgent text has them meeting at a café. Maybe Hudson wants to profusely apologize for the breakup. Or confess his undying love. . . But no, Hudson has a favor to ask—he wants Kian to pretend to be his boyfriend while his parents are in town, and Kian reluctantly agrees.
The dinner doesn’t go exactly as planned, and suddenly Kian is Hudson’s plus one to Georgia’s wedding of the season. Hudson comes from a wealthy family where reputation is everything, and he really can’t afford another mistake. If Kian goes, he’ll help Hudson preserve appearances and get the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in media. This could be the big career break Kian needs.
But their fake relationship is starting to feel like it might be more than a means to an end, and it’s time for both men to fact-check their feelings.
And here’s the super shippable cover, illustrated by Adriana Bellet with art direction by Colleen Reinhart!
But wait, there’s more! Yeah, we’ve got an excerpt, so read on!
“…and that’s when I threw the drink on his face.”
A day and a half later, I’m far away from Hudson on the other side of town, sitting at a table meant for four but housing five people at The Patriot. It’s not often me and my brother Jamal get together; he’s too busy at Harvard triple-majoring in god knows what right now. Something impressive that’ll make him a capitalist shill, I’m sure.
But a monthly dinner has been on the books since he started at the Ivy almost two years ago, and we’ve only done it a half a dozen times. Maybe it’s fate, or that brotherly connection people rave about, after the mess with Hudson, we find a way to make it work.
“I’m sorry, you need to start from the beginning,” Divya says, tilting her drink back, downing the remainder of her Dark and Stormy. “Again.”
I take three swigs of water to fend off a hangover tomorrow, and to buy me some time. As if some god will pity me, and a drunk clown will burst into the bar, distract everyone, and I won’t have to repeat myself again.
But there’s no such luck because I, Kian Andrews, am not that lucky.
“He asked me to pretend to be his boyfriend. Said his parents are coming in from out of town, and he never told them we broke up and…” I take a deep breath and speak on the exhale, “…he needs me to cover for him.”
I repeat it to the table for the fourth time. The table consisting of Jamal, my brother, who brought his best friend Emily with him, plus Divya, who, and I quote, is simply obsessed with Jamal, so of course, she tagged along. And being the secret bleeding-heart Jamal is, Emily’s boyfriend Todd, an entrepreneur trying to start a brewery that specializes in using flowers as the flavor base (aka broke), is here for the free food.
“That’s insane,” Divya mutters.
“He’s bold,” Jamal chimes in.
“Or crazy—wait, we don’t use that word anymore, right?” Todd asks.
“It’s ableist, babe. Well? What did you say?” Emily asks, leaning forward with earnest. She’s an English major. Romantic misfires interest her far more than they should.
“Of course, he said no,” Divya scoffs at Emily, like it was the most ridiculous thing she could have possibly said. “Right?”
Which isn’t entirely accurate. Sure, I didn’t actually say the words, but throwing your coffee on a guy is just like saying no, right? Hudson is a smart guy; he got the message. And even if he didn’t, it doesn’t matter. I’ve officially blocked him on all platforms – again.
And I’ve been forbidden from returning to The Watering Hole—worth it.
“As you should have,” Jamal adds. He flags down the bartender from our spot, and through some secret code, orders us more drinks. Unlike me, Jamal has natural charisma. People like him—no—they adore him whenever they first meet. Making friends? Easy. Finding a posse? Easy. I feel, as the older, more awkward brother, I should be teaching him things when, in fact, it’s often the other way around.
“I wouldn’t have gone to see him in the first place,” Todd, Emily’s blonde, muscular Instagram Influencer-esque boyfriend adds while sipping his frothy IPA. “You can’t be friends with your ex.”
“Woah,” Divya chimes in, looking up from her phone. “I’m the president of the ‘I Hate Hudson Club,’ but that? False.”
“Look, I hate siding with a White Man, but I think Todd’s right,” Jamal adds.
“Thank you,” Todd chimes in.
“Don’t get too excited, Colonizer,” Jamal replies. “I just don’t think it’s possible. There’s too much baggage there. You two dated for what? Two years?”
“Year and a half,” I correct.
“Three if you include the overly dramatic and excessively long pining period,” Divya adds.
“No one considers that,” I remind her.
“I do and I’m somebody, so it matters,” Divya cheekily winks.
“See? That’s a long time,” Emily adds, chin still in her hand like she’s watching her favorite reboot of Pride and Prejudice.
“Right. And in gay years? That’s what? Two years?” Divya asks.
“Four,” Jamal and I say at the same time.
“I’m just saying; there are roots between you two. And to ask you to pretend to date him? That’s cruel,” Jamal closes.
Kosoko Jackson is a digital media specialist, focusing on digital storytelling, email, social and SMS marketing, and a freelance political journalist. Occasionally, his personal essays and short stories have been featured on Medium, Thought Catalog, The Advocate, and some literary magazines. When not writing YA novels that champion holistic representation of black queer youth across genres, he can be found obsessing over movies, drinking his (umpteenth) London Fog, or spending far too much time on Twitter.