Usually, when an author finds a successful formula, they stick with it. Now, most may not churn out a dozen books in a single series, but they often tend to write stories that feel similar to one another. Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood duology is a layered dark fairytale, in which characters from a storybook realm known as the Hinterland are not just alive but capable of crossing into the real world. (It’s also excellent if you haven’t read it.) So it’s natural that we might have all expected Albert’s next novel to be something in a similar vein, another fairytale deconstruction, or at least something with a familiar vibe.
Well, the joke’s on all of us. Her latest novel, Our Crooked Hearts, couldn’t be further from the world of The Hazel Wood and The Night Country. Yes, it’s a book that deals with magic and the supernatural, but its contemporary setting, twisty plot, and the complicated history of witchcraft that binds the women of the main narrative together feel like something different from the author’s previous work in fresh and exciting ways.
A story told across two timelines and multiple POVs, Our Crooked Hearts is a story of a mother who keeps secrets from her daughter, a daughter who is desperate to figure out who she is, and how their fraught choices indelibly impact one another’s lives.
Here’s how the publisher describes the story.
THE SUBURBS, RIGHT NOW . . .
Seventeen-year-old Ivy’s summer break kicks off with an accident, a punishment, and a mystery: a stranger whose appearance in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, heralds a string of increasingly unsettling events. As the days pass, Ivy grapples with eerie offerings, corroded memories, and a secret she’s always known—that there’s more to her mother than meets the eye.
THE CITY, BACK THEN . . .
Dana has always been perceptive. And the summer she turns sixteen, with the help of her best friend and an ambitious older girl, her gifts bloom into a heady fling with the supernatural, set in a city of magical possibilities and secret mystics. As the trio’s aspirations darken, they find themselves speeding toward a violent breaking point.
Years after it began, Ivy and Dana’s shared story will come down to a reckoning among a daughter, a mother, and the dark forces they never should’ve messed with.
Our Crooked Hearts will be released on June 28 from Flatiron Books but we’re thrilled to be able to share an exclusive excerpt from the first chapter of the book with you right now.
We were going too fast. Too close to the trees, weeds feathering over our headlights, whisking away.
“Nate.” I gripped the passenger seat. “Nate.”
Fifteen minutes ago we were at an end-of-year party, jumping up and down with our hands on each other’s shoulders, and all the time I was thinking, I should break up with him. I should do it now. I have to break up with him now. Then he cupped my face in his hands and told me he loved me, and I was too startled to tell even half a lie.
I followed him out of the house, over the lawn, into his car, still saying all the useless things you say when you’ve bruised someone’s ego and they think it’s their heart. He slammed too hard into reverse, then sloshed over the curb peeling away, and still it took me a block to realize he was drunk.
At a stoplight he fumbled with his phone. For a few taut seconds I considered jumping out. Then he was off again, an old Bright Eyes song blasting and the wind tearing it into pieces. The music stuttered as he swerved onto the single-lane road that wound through the forest preserve. Trees closed in and my hair whipped to fluff. I closed my eyes.
Then Nate shouted, not a word but a sharp, surprised syllable, cutting the wheel hard to the right.
The moment between swerving and stopping was weightless as a roller coaster drop. I rocked forward and my mouth clashed hard with the dash.
When I licked my teeth I could taste blood. “What the hell!”
Nate turned off the car, breathing hard, craning to look past me. “Did you see that?”
He opened his door. “I’m getting out.”
The car was sprawled across the narrow strip between the road and the trees. “Here? Are you serious?”
“Stay if you want to,” he said, and slammed the door.
There was a Taco Bell cup in the center console with an inch of meltwater in it. I swished it over my teeth and swung my legs out of the car, spitting blood onto the grass. Already my lip felt swollen, tender in the loamy air.
“Hey!” I called. “Where are you going?”
Nate was slipping into the trees. “I think she went this way.”
“How did you not see her? She was standing in the middle of the road.” He paused. “Completely naked.”
My breath caught. I considered the paths you could take to ending up in the woods at three in the morning, female, naked, and alone. Toothy grasses trailed over my shins as I waded in behind him. “Did you recognize her? Was she hurt?”
“Shh,” he said. “Look.”
We stood on a rise above the creek that ran through the trees, which could be shallow as a pan or deep enough to kayak in, depending on the rains. Just now it was somewhere in the middle, waist high and churning along beneath a gibbous moon. I knew it was about that high because the girl we were following was kneeling in it, submerged to her shoulder blades.
She was, in fact, nude. Hair center-parted and long enough that the moving water tugged her head back. I couldn’t see her face, but the rest of her was an almost electric shade of pale. There was nothing nearby to signify she hadn’t dropped to Earth from a star, or risen from a crack in a hill. No shoes on the shore, no cell phone on a balled-up shirt. The sight of her was out of a dream, almost.
Her hands were moving over her skin in this profoundly unsexual way, squeezing it, slapping it, like she was beating the feeling back in. She was making these guttural sounds I had no words for. Crying, I guessed.
I’d almost forgotten about Nate when he dug an elbow into my ribs and grinned, mean and quick. He thumbed his phone’s flashlight on and held it out like a torch.
Her head twisted and I saw that she was around our age, maybe a little older, eyes dilated and mouth still curling around the end of a smile. She hadn’t been crying. She’d been laughing.
Nate meant to make her feel exposed, but I knew he was really doing it to me, because it was shitty and he wanted to be shitty to someone right now. I could’ve left him, but if I were her I’d be more scared of a dude by himself. And she might need help. I was ready to offer it when she spoke first.
“Come out.” Her voice was low, smudged and hardened by some unplaceable accent. It rose into a singsong. “Come out, come out, whoever you are.”
She rose like a backwoods Venus, dirty creek water running out of her hair, down her body, beading through her serious seventies bush. She whistled, piercing and clear. “I said show yourselves, motherfuckers.”
She was naked, she was alone, she couldn’t even really see us, but just like that we were the ones who were afraid. I felt the tremor in Nate as he saw how this was gonna go. “Fuck this,” he muttered.
The girl stepped onto the bank. She was large-framed and underfed, her hair a sticking mermaid curtain, but the thing I couldn’t look away from was how she held herself, without the barest awareness of her body. Like she was a baby, or a bird.
With a blunt suddenness she raised her arms, conductor style with their palms held flat. We flinched, both of us, because it seemed like something was supposed to happen. When nothing did Nate tried to laugh. It came out dry.
She dropped into a crouch. Eyes turned in our direction, feeling along the ground until her fingers found a fallen branch, thick and a few feet long. Hefting it, she stood. Nate cursed, shoving his phone into his pocket, and the girl stopped mid-stride. With its light gone she could see us, too.
“Ivy, let’s go,” Nate growled.
The girl repeated my name. The word in her mouth was heatless, heavy. I squinted at her, confirming she was a stranger.
“What’s wrong with you? Come on!” Nate yanked my arm hard enough that my shoulder burned. Then he was stumbling away, swearing at every tree branch that swiped him, every divot in the ground.
I was wearing a tank top, and over it a washed-thin flannel from Community Thrift. I slipped free of the flannel and tossed it in her direction before following him.
“Thank you, Ivy,” she said, when I was almost too far to hear.
When I reached the road, Nate was back in the driver’s seat. He drummed his hands impatiently on the wheel. “Get in.”
I was cranked up and weirded out and scared enough to listen. The music restarted when he turned the key and we both reached to slap it off, then snatched our hands back as if the contact might burn.
I didn’t speak till we were out of the trees. “That girl. Did you hear the way she said my name?”
He shrugged, barely.
“Did she know me?” I persisted. I didn’t think I’d forget meeting a girl who looked like that, the colors of a lemon sucked dry.
“How am I supposed to know?” Nate asked sullenly.
I pulled the mirror down to inspect my lip and cursed softly. Already it stuck out like the peeled half of a stone fruit.
We drove the rest of the way in sticky silence. When Nate stopped at the end of my drive, I reached for the passenger door. He locked it.
I reared to face him. “What?”
He flicked the dome light on and sucked in through his teeth. “Oh, man, that looks bad. Look, I’m really sorry. Are you okay?”
“I’m awesome. Let me out.”
“Okay, but—” He swallowed. “What are you gonna tell your mom?”
I gaped at him. Cigarette behind his ear, peeping at me through those eyelashes that made older women smile and say, What a waste, on a boy. I started, helplessly, to laugh.
His posture went rigid. “What’s so funny?”
“You. You’re scared of my mom, aren’t you?”
“So what?” he spat. “You’re scared of her, too.”
I turned away, face burning. When I flipped the lock again, he relocked it. “Nate! Let me. The fuck. Out.”
Somebody banged their fist on the driver’s side window.
Nate jumped, eyes going wide. I think he expected to see my mother out there. But it was my neighbor, Billy Paxton.
I peered up at him. Billy lived across the street from me, but we’d never really talked. Especially following a painful incident back in junior high, memories of which still had the power to make me stop what I was doing and wince. He’d been at the party Nate and I came from, and I’d pretended not to see him.
Nate rolled the window down, touching behind his ear to make sure he hadn’t dropped his cigarette. “What do you want, man?”
Billy ignored him. “Ivy, you okay?”
I leaned around Nate to see him better. “Uh, yeah? I’m fine.”
He put a hand to his mouth. There was a stripe of white paint over his forearm. “Did he do that to you?”
“Are you for real?” Nate squawked.
I felt, suddenly, like I might cry. It was the pain, I told myself. The adrenaline, fizzing away. “No, no. It was a . . . car thing. I’m good.”
Billy watched me a little longer. He was too tall for it, bent practically in half to see into the car.
“Okay. I’ll be right there.” He pointed at his porch. “Just so you know.”
“Thank you for your service,” Nate said sarcastically, but not until Billy was up the drive.
I wrenched the door open, slammed it behind me, and turned. “We’re broken up.”
“No shit,” Nate said, and gunned it down the street.
I lingered on the curb. My lip was throbbing, my body pounding with exhaustion, but it was laced with the featherlight euphoria of being free.
Billy cleared his throat. He was perched tensely on his porch, still watching me. Embarrassed, I lifted a hand.
“Sorry about that,” I told him.
“Sorry for what?”
He said it quietly enough that I wasn’t sure I was meant to hear. I almost let it pass. Maybe it was the pain in my mouth—needling, insistent—that made me turn.
“I’m sorry you thought you had to step in,” I said, more sharply than I intended.
Billy stared at me. Then he stood, shaking his head. “Won’t happen again,” he said, and disappeared into his house.
My eye went to the darkened second-story windows. One of them lit up a minute later and I looked away, regret and bottom-shelf vodka muddling queasily in my stomach. Time to get in bed, I figured. Before my night found one more way to go to shit.
Slow and steady I unlocked the front door, holding my breath as I opened it just wide enough to slide through. Then I let it all go in a strangled yelp, because my mom was sitting on the stairs, waiting for me.
“Mom!” I dipped my head, bringing a hand to my lip. “Why are you awake?”
She leaned into the patch of moonlight falling through the window over the door. Her bright hair was tied up, her eyes safety-pin sharp. “Bad dream,” she said. Then she snapped to her feet, because she’d seen my mouth.
“What happened? Were you in an accident?”
My lip beat like a second heart. “No! I’m fine. I mean—it wasn’t really an accident . . .”
The beam of her focus felt physical. “Tell me. Tell me exactly.”
“Nate—swerved,” I said. “His car went off the road.”
I thought of the stranger in the woods, slapping at her chalk-colored skin. “Then nothing. Then we drove home.”
“That’s it? That’s all that happened?”
I gave a shallow nod.
“Okay.” Her unnerving intensity was draining. The corners of her mouth twitched up, conspiratorial. “But Nate was drinking tonight, wasn’t he?”
I swayed a little, trying to think. She’d seemed less dangerous a moment ago, when she was outright pissed. “Um.”
She gave a curt, I knew it nod. “Go to your room. Now.”
I edged past her, up the stairs, and into my room. Skipping the lights, I fell onto my pillows and closed my eyes. When I opened them she was above me, pressing an icepack to my mouth with her scarred left hand.
“Did you hit your head?” Her usual reserve was back; she could’ve been asking for the time. “Do we have to worry about a concussion? Tell me the truth.”
I leaned into the icepack’s chill. When was the last time she’d tended to me like this? When I tried to remember, blankness pressed in like an ocean.
“My head’s fine,” I mumbled. I’d entered that terrible purgatory place where you’re still drunk yet somehow already hungover. “I told you, it wasn’t a big deal. Nate’s not even hurt.”
“He’s not hurt.” Her voice was soft, and veined with rage. “While my kid looks like a prizefighter.”
“Dana.” Suddenly my dad was there, hand on her arm, his steady shape blocking the light. I fought to keep my eyes open as he stepped forward and she retreated, out of sight.
“We taught you better than this,” he was saying. “What made you get into a car with a drunk driver?”
“I don’t know.”
A heavy Dad sigh. “I’m getting a little tired of your go-to response. Do you have any idea how much worse this could’ve gone?”
My eye kept catching on the ceiling fan spinning over his shoulder, trying drowsily to count the blades. “I don’t know,” I repeated. “Lots?”
I wasn’t being a smartass, not that he believed me. His voice went on and on, patient and pissed. By the time he’d finished impressing my stupidity upon me, I was half asleep. I dropped into blackout land and stayed there till morning, kicking off the first day of summer break with a hangover and a busted lip.
And a mystery, waiting on ice in the back of my brain. But days would pass before I’d see the girl in the water again.
Our Crooked Hearts will hit shelves on June 28 and you can preorder it now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.