Love Letters to the Dead: A Novel

Love Letters to the Dead: A Novel

by Ava Dellaira

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It begins as an assignment for English class: Write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more -- though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was -- lovely and amazing and deeply flawed -- can she begin to discover her own path in this stunning debut from Ava Dellaira, Love Letters to the Dead.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374346683
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 283,501
Lexile: 790L (what's this?)
File size: 942 KB
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Ava Dellaira is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago. Love Letters to the Dead is her debut novel. She currently lives in Santa Monica.

Ava Dellaira is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago. Love Letters to the Dead is her debut novel. She currently lives in Santa Monica

Read an Excerpt

Love Letters to the Dead

By Ava Dellaira

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 Ava Dellaira
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-34668-3


Dear Kurt Cobain,

Mrs. Buster gave us our first assignment in English today, to write a letter to a dead person. As if the letter could reach you in heaven, or at the post office for ghosts. She probably meant for us to write to someone like a former president or something, but I need someone to talk to. I couldn't talk to a president. I can talk to you.

I wish you could tell me where you are now and why you left. You were my sister May's favorite musician. Since she's been gone, it's hard to be myself, because I don't know exactly who I am. But now that I've started high school, I need to figure it out really fast. Because I can tell that otherwise, I could drown here.

The only things I know about high school are from May. On my first day, I went into her closet and found the outfit that I remember her wearing on her first day—a pleated skirt with a pink cashmere sweater that she cut the neck off of and pinned a Nirvana patch to, the smiley face one with the x-shaped eyes. But the thing about May is that she was beautiful, in a way that stays in your mind. Her hair was perfectly smooth, and she walked like she belonged in a better world, so the outfit made sense on her. I put it on and stared at myself in front of her mirror, trying to feel like I belonged in any world, but on me it looked like I was wearing a costume. So I used my favorite outfit from middle school instead, which is jean overalls with a long-sleeve tee shirt and hoop earrings. When I stepped into the hall of West Mesa High, I knew right away this was wrong.

The next thing I realized is that you aren't supposed to bring your lunch. You are supposed to buy pizza and Nutter Butters, or else you aren't supposed to even eat lunch. My aunt Amy, who I live with every other week now, has started making me iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise sandwiches on kaiser rolls, because that's what we liked to have, May and I, when we were little. I used to have a normal family. I mean, not a perfect one, but it was Mom and Dad and May and me. Now that seems like a long time ago. But Aunt Amy tries hard, and she likes making the sandwiches so much, I can't explain that they aren't right in high school. So I go into the girls' bathroom, eat the kaiser roll as quickly as I can, and throw the paper bag in the trash for tampons.

It's been a week, and I still don't know anyone here. All the kids from my middle school went to Sandia High, which is where May went. I didn't want everyone there feeling sorry for me and asking questions I couldn't answer, so I came to West Mesa instead, the school in Aunt Amy's district. This is supposed to be a fresh start, I guess.

Since I don't really want to spend all forty-three minutes of lunch in the bathroom, once I finish my kaiser roll I go outside and sit by the fence. I turn myself invisible so I can just watch. The trees are starting to rain leaves, but the air is still hot enough to swim through. I especially like to watch this boy, whose name I figured out is Sky. He always wears a leather jacket, even though summer is barely over. He reminds me that the air isn't just something that's there. It's something you breathe in. Even though he's all the way across the school yard, I feel like I can see his chest rising up and down.

I don't know why, but in this place full of strangers, it feels good that Sky is breathing the same air as I am. The same air that you did. The same air as May.

Sometimes your music sounds like there's too much inside of you. Maybe even you couldn't get it all out. Maybe that's why you died. Like you exploded from the inside. I guess I am not doing this assignment the way I am supposed to. Maybe I'll try again later.

Yours, Laurel

* * *

Dear Kurt Cobain,

When Mrs. Buster asked us to pass our letters up at the end of class today, I looked at my notebook where I wrote mine and folded it closed. As soon as the bell rang, I hurried to pack my stuff and left. There are some things that I can't tell anyone, except the people who aren't here anymore.

The first time May played your music for me, I was in eighth grade. She was in tenth. Ever since she'd gotten to high school, she seemed further and further away. I missed her, and the worlds we used to make up together. But that night in the car, it was just the two of us again. She put on "Heart-Shaped Box," and it was like nothing I'd ever heard before.

When May turned her eyes from the road and asked, "Do you like it?" it was as if she'd opened the door to her new world and was asking me in. I nodded yes. It was a world full of feelings that I didn't have words for yet.

Lately, I've been listening to you again. I put on In Utero, close the door and close my eyes, and play the whole thing a lot of times. And when I am there with your voice, it's hard to explain it, but I feel like I start to make sense.

After May died last April, it's like my brain just shut off. I didn't know how to answer any of the questions my parents asked, so I basically stopped talking for a little while. And finally we all stopped talking, at least about that. It's a myth that grief makes you closer. We were all on our own islands—Dad in the house, Mom in the apartment she'd moved into a few years before, and me bouncing back and forth in silence, too out of it to go to the last months of middle school.

Eventually Dad turned up the volume on his baseball games and went back to work at Rhodes Construction, and Mom left to go away to a ranch in California two months later. Maybe she was mad that I couldn't tell her what happened. But I can't tell anyone.

In the long summer sitting around, I started looking online for articles, or pictures, or some story that could replace the one that kept playing in my head. There was the obituary that said May was a beautiful young woman and a great student and beloved by her family. And there was the one little article from the paper, "Local Teen Dies Tragically," accompanied by a photo of flowers and things that some kids from her old school left by the bridge, along with her yearbook picture, where she's smiling and her hair is shining and her eyes are looking right out at us.

Maybe you can help me figure out how to find a door to a new world again. I still haven't made any friends yet. I've actually hardly said a single word the whole week and a half I've been here, except "present" during roll call. And to ask the secretary for directions to class. But there is this girl named Natalie in my English class. She draws pictures on her arms. Not just normal hearts, but meadows with creatures and girls and trees that look like they are alive. She wears her hair in two braids that go down to her waist, and everything about her dark skin is perfectly smooth. Her eyes are two different colors—one is almost black, and the other is foggy green. She passed me a note yesterday with just a little smiley face on it. I am thinking that maybe soon I could try to eat lunch with her.

When everyone stands in line at lunch to buy stuff, they all look like they are standing together. I couldn't stop wishing that I was standing with them, too. I didn't want to bother Dad about asking for money, because he looks stressed out whenever I do, and I can't ask Aunt Amy, because she thinks I am happy with the kaiser rolls. But I started collecting change when I find it—a penny on the ground or a quarter in the broken soda machine, and yesterday I took fifty cents off of Aunt Amy's dresser. I felt bad. Still, it made enough to buy a pack of Nutter Butters.

I liked everything about it. I liked waiting in line with everyone. I liked that the girl in front of me had red curls on the back of her head that you could tell she curled herself. And I liked the thin crinkle of the plastic when I opened the wrapper. I liked how every bite made a falling-apart kind of crunch.

Then what happened is this—I was nibbling a Nutter Butter and staring at Sky through the raining leaves. That's when he saw me. He was turning to talk to someone. He went into slow motion. Our eyes met for a minute, before mine darted away. It felt like fireflies lighting under my skin. The thing is, when I looked back up, Sky was still looking. His eyes were like your voice—keys to a place in me that could burst open.

Yours, Laurel

* * *

Dear Judy Garland,

I thought of writing to you, because The Wizard of Oz is still my favorite movie. My mom would always put it on when I stayed home sick from school. She would give me ginger ale with pink plastic ice cubes and cinnamon toast, and you would be singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

I realize now that everyone knows your face. Everyone knows your voice. But not everyone knows where you were really from, when you weren't from the movies.

I can imagine you as a little girl on a December day in the town where you grew up on the edge of the Mojave Desert, tap-tap-tap-dancing onstage in your daddy's movie theater. Singing your jingle bells. You learned right away that applause sounds like love.

I can imagine you on summer nights, when everyone would come to the theater to get out of the heat. Under the refrigerated air, you would be up onstage, making the audience forget for the moment that there was anything to be afraid of. Your mom and dad would smile up at you. They looked the happiest when you were singing.

Afterward, the movie would pass by in a blur of black and white, and you would get suddenly sleepy. Your daddy would carry you outside, and it was time to drive home in his big car, like a boat swimming over the dark asphalt surface of the earth.

You never wanted anyone to be sad, so you kept singing. You'd sing yourself to sleep when your parents were fighting. And when they weren't fighting, you'd sing to make them laugh. You used your voice like glue to keep your family together. And then to keep yourself from coming undone.

My mom used to sing me and May to sleep with a lullaby. Her voice would croon, "all bound for morning town ..." She would stroke my hair and stay until I slept. When I couldn't sleep, she would tell me to imagine myself in a bubble over the sea. I would close my eyes and float there, listening to the waves. I would look down at the shimmering water. When the bubble broke, I would hear her voice, making a new bubble to catch me.

But now when I try to imagine myself over the sea, the bubble pops right away. I have to open my eyes with a start before I crash. Mom is too sad to take care of me. She and Dad split up right before May started high school, and after May died almost two years later, she went all the way to California.

With just Dad and me at our house, it's full of echoes everywhere. I go back in my mind to when we were all together. I can smell the sizzle of the meat from Mom making dinner. It sparkles. I can almost look out the window and see May and me in the yard, collecting ingredients for our fairy spells.

Instead of staying with Mom every other week like May and I did after the divorce, now I stay with Aunt Amy. Her house is a different kind of empty. It's not full of ghosts. It's quiet, with shelves set up with rose china, and china dolls, and rose soaps meant to wash out sadness. But always saved for when they are really needed, I guess. We just use Ivory in the bathroom.

I am looking out the window now in her cold house, from under the rose quilt, to find the first star.

I wish you could tell me where you are now. I mean, I know you're dead, but I think there must be something in a human being that can't just disappear. It's dark out. You're out there. Somewhere, somewhere. I'd like to let you in.

Yours, Laurel

* * *

Dear Elizabeth Bishop,

I want to tell you about two things that happened in English today. We read your poem, and I talked in class for the first time. I've been in high school for two weeks now, and so far I had been spending most of the period looking out the window, watching the birds flying between phone wires and twinkling aspens. I was thinking about this boy, Sky, and wondering what he sees when he closes his eyes, when I heard my name. I looked up. The birds' wings started beating in my chest.

Mrs. Buster was staring at me. "Laurel. Will you read?"

I didn't even know what page we were on. I could feel my mind going blank. But then Natalie leaned over and flipped my Xerox to the right poem. It started like this:

    The art of losing isn't hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

At first, I was so nervous. But while I was reading, I started listening, and I just understood it.

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn't hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn't hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

    —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
    the art of losing's not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I think my voice might have been shaking too much, like the poem earth-quaked me. The room was dead quiet when I stopped.

Mrs. Buster did what she does, which is to stare at the class with her big bug eyes and say, "What do you think?"

Natalie glanced in my direction. I think she felt bad because everyone was looking not at Mrs. Buster, but at me. So she raised her hand and said, "Well, of course she's lying. It's not easy to lose things." Then everyone stopped looking at me and looked at Natalie.

Mrs. Buster said, "Why are some things harder to lose than others?"

Natalie had a no-duh sound in her voice when she answered. "Because of love, of course. The more you love something, the harder it is to lose."

I raised my hand before I could even think about it. "I think it's like when you lose something so close to you, it's like losing yourself. That's why at the end, it's hard for her to write even. She can hardly remember how. Because she barely knows what she is anymore."

The eyes all turned back to me, but after that, thank god, the bell rang.

I gathered up my stuff as quickly as I could. I looked over at Natalie, and she looked like maybe she was waiting for me. I thought this might be the day that she would ask if I wanted to eat lunch with her and I could stop sitting at the fence.

But Mrs. Buster said, "Laurel, can I talk to you a moment?" I hated her then, because Natalie left. I shifted in front of her desk. She said, "How are you doing?"

My palms were still sweaty from talking in class. "Um, fine."

"I noticed that you didn't turn in your first assignment. The letter?"

I stared down at the fluorescent light reflected in the floor and mumbled, "Oh, yeah. Sorry. I didn't finish it yet."

"All right. I'll give you an extension this time. But I'd like you to get it to me by next week."

I nodded.

Then she said, "Laurel, if you ever need anyone to talk to ..."

I looked up at her blankly.

"I used to teach at Sandia," she said carefully. "May was in my English class her freshman year."

My breath caught in my chest. I started to feel dizzy. I had counted on no one here knowing, or at least no one talking about it. But now Mrs. Buster was staring at me like I could give her some kind of answer to an awful mystery. I couldn't.

Finally Mrs. Buster said, "She was a special girl."

I swallowed. "Yeah," I said. And I walked out the door.

The noise in the hallway changed into the loudest river I've ever heard. I thought maybe I could close my eyes and all of the voices would carry me away.

Yours, Laurel

* * *

Dear River Phoenix,

May's room at my dad's house is just like it always was. Exactly the same, only the door stays closed and not a sound comes out. Sometimes I'll wake up from a dream and think I hear her footsteps, sneaking back home after a night out. My heart will beat with excitement and I'll sit up in bed, until I remember.


Excerpted from Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira. Copyright © 2014 Ava Dellaira. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Begin Reading,

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Love Letters to the Dead 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 51 reviews.
Caroles_Random_Life More than 1 year ago
Wonderful YA novel! In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of this book at no cost from the publisher for review purposes. 5 Stars! I just loved this book. Even though I was a teenager half my life ago, this book is one of the reasons I still choose to read YA novels. There are no silly sparkly vampires seen here. There is really nothing sparkly seen here at all. This book is real. This book makes the reader feel. Laurel is just entering a high school at a new school. She is given an assignment in her English class of writing a letter to a person who is dead. While Laurel never turns in her assignment, she spends that year writing letters to famous dead people as a way of journaling her very troubled life. Through the letters, the reader learns everything that troubles Laurel but we learn them piece by piece. The biggest piece is the loss of her older sister and the subsequent effect on her family. Many pieces of the story do not come until the end of the book when Laurel is ready to deal with them. We watch her deal with pain and grief in stages as she is ready. The letters are address to people that I know well since I am older than the intended audience. I do wonder if the average teen reader will know who Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, River Phoenix and Janis Joplin are and whether than will have any effect on their enjoyment of the book. This book will probably be best for an older teen as drinking, drugs, and sex (plus other sensitive topics) are part of the story. We do see Laurel grow and deal with everything that has happened in her life. I have hope for her future. This is a story of a girl having the strength to overcome what life has thrown at her.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is one that will.. well.. it will make you laugh, cry, and quote it like crazy. Laurel is a well developed character that will make you form a close bond with her and see her through many different perspectives. I personally enjoy her realizations about different people through out the book. It makes her seem real because the author is putting so much detail into modern highschool events. Her writing style is full of metaphors and comparisons both morbid and beautiful. The author's idea of a freshman turning a writing assignment into a way to let her emotions out is lovely idea. Im expecting more successful work from her for yeats to come.
book4children More than 1 year ago
I was super excited to read this book. The cover is gorgeous and the blurb sounds really interesting. At first, it was everything I had been hoping for. Laurel is writing letters to dead celebrities as she tries to figure out her life. She is trying to cope with the fact that her mom ran away and her sister died. She's at a new school and makes some new friends. The writing is gorgeous and full of emotion. I love the way Laurel describes things, like the way she feels connected to the music of dead singers, or the performances of dead actors. About half way through, I started to lose interest. The beginning was so awesome, but then the same things kept getting rehashed over and over. The writing was still beautiful, and I really enjoyed Laurel's relationship with the dead people she keeps writing to. But the story had somehow lost it's spark for me. I didn't feel like I connected with the characters all that much. They were all pretty quirky, which isn't a bad thing, but it just wasn't MY thing. I'm not a teenager, so maybe that had something to do with it, but I can't be certain that I would have connected with the book even if I were a teenager. I'm chalking this one up to personal taste, because it really is a beautifully written book. Content: This one has a LOT of content. Underage drinking, sex between underage teens and older guys, drugs, smoking, passionate make out sessions with and without clothes, and quite a bit of language. Far too many F-words for my tastes. The Cover: I adore this cover! It is so gorgeous and it portrays the feel of this book really well. The cover was definitely a huge plus for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book now. I love it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book literally 15 minutes ago. I read the whole book in a day, i really liked this book. I was on the edge of my seat after every single page because there was never a page that was a drag on. It shows what she has been through and her obstacles that she faces after the death of her sister. I definitely recommend this book. 
MyndiL More than 1 year ago
This book was intense...I've seen some reviews that say it's all about the cute boy and very lame and cliche and to anyone who hesitates to read this book based on those reviews, please just continue reading. What starts out as the typical YA book about seeing a cute boy and wanting to make him the boyfriend, turns into a story of tragic events that have left a teen girl not knowing who she is or who she should be. She's afraid to talk to the living, breathing people who care about her because she's afraid of what will happen when she breaks her silence. She tries to turn herself into a person she admired and ends up pushing people who could have helped her away. Through her letters to these people who have passed on, she opens up and talks about what scares her, what she feels about what has happened to her. Eventually, this cathartic expression helps her to open up to people who can help her. There are some very touchy things in this book that could be triggers for some, but I think in the vein of books like "Speak" this could help young people open up about bad things that happen to them and know that people won't judge them and can and will help them through it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm in love with this book. I loaned it to my best friend and her older sister and they just can't put it down, they have weekly fights over it.
MysM More than 1 year ago
Coping with Teenage Loss I read about Love Letters to the Dead in a number of places on the web and the idea of it intrigued me. I didn't know if I'd like it or not but it kept niggling away at me from the back of my mind so I finally bought it. Once I got into it, I had to keep reading to the end. Laurel's first english assignment at her new school is to write a letter to someone who's dead. She's pretty sure her teacher wants them to write to some historical figure but she has a different idea. Her sister, May, had died the previous April. She had been high and took a dive off the railway bridge where they used to play a game called "Pooh Sticks" when they were younger. Laurel admired her sister and is lost without her. She decides to write letters to twelve famous people who died too young, who, like her sister, were terribly talented, charismatic, and somewhat messed up, looking for something but they didn't know what. Laurel addresses her first letter to Kurt Cobain because he was her sister's favourite musician. She tells him all about her insecurities about starting high school and how her sister May would have known exactly what to do. She talks about her english assignment from the only teacher she knows at her new school. In her second letter, she tells him that she didn't hand the assignment in because there are some things that are too personal to share. When Laurel writes to Amy Winehouse and Judy Garland, she tells stories about her current life, how her mom left, and things she used to do with her sister. She's looking for answers about why people do things that cause them to die, and for answers about how to live her life now, without her big sister. She writes to Janis Joplin and River Phoenix as well. But it isn't until she finds the courage to write about bad things that happened to her because May hadn't really taken good care of her that she realizes her sister wasn't perfect and that she can learn from May's mistakes and create a life for herself, that her memory of May could be more balanced without diminishing her love for May. When I finished reading Love Letters to the Dead, I was still a bit unsure how I felt about it. As a Christian, I felt there should be other ways to find answers and get your head on straight again, but I also saw the cathartic nature of writing your ideas and questions down on paper, even if you're writing to someone who can't answer your questions. This is Ava Dellaira's debut novel and it was a very interesting story — one with many surprises including the ending. I'd recommend reading it before giving it to a teenager in your family — it might not be for everyone, and a certain maturity is required, I think, for someone to not get mired down in it. None-the-less, a worthwhile read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ava Dellaira's "Love Letters to the Dead" fills readers with waves and waves of emotion. It relates mostly to teenagers growing up and realizing that the world isn't the perfect utopia that they thought it was when they were young. This novel touches hearts and searches deep inside a reader's soul, making them realize who they are and how they have changed. The narrator goes through many experiences, such as a first love, new friends, and above the surface information. But only the reader can look deep into this novel and realize that it isn't just about simple things in life. It teaches you to understand that certain events happen for a reason, and that you have to learn how to adapt and live your life to the fullest in dark times of your life. You learn more about yourself and your true personality as you continue reading. I honestly fully recommend this book to anyone who is even slightly interested in reading this. Believe me when I say that you will not regret it unless you don't understand the book and aren't willing to break down the words to find a true and deep meaning about life.
Oliviafar More than 1 year ago
Read it, just read it. That is all I can say. Read it and then pass it on. This book will saty with you long after your done reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The cover of this book does it so much justice. It makes it seem like something bittersweet, where you often have to remind yourself that she's writing to a dead person. Yeah, no. At first it starts out that way, but about halfway through, the main focus of the book shifts towards subjects like sexual assault and domestic abuse. Although these are important subjects, the book gave no warning to the matters until they all just became a huge part of the plot. This plot had so much potential, but I feel like the author didn't know what to do with it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love it! I can highly relate to this book, it's a book that anyone would love. I would give it more than 5 stars if I could
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It was quick read and I loved the way it was written. The only thing I didn't like was just that the ending was so happy and fairy-tale like. Overall a great read though!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book with my entire being
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was amazing! It was beautifully written, and I couldn't seem to put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing, the wording justbleme away at part cried but but my teacher told me that means they put effort in it so relates to the reader and it i love its
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is great for anyone struggling with a difficult time in their life, It speaks out to younger readers who are going through that confusing transition in life and it also can reach out to older readers who remember the confusing times they faced. This book is perfect for anyone who may have grown up to fast or wants to. 5/5 stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a really good read went straight to the heart strings ,it will keep you hooked till the end
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Simply beautiful. Lovable characters, a great story. Well worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For many is not a comfortable read since Daddy Long Legs. The present "dead" themes for youth books that include the very worst and depressing adult woes in grafic detail sends me back to louisa alcott at least beth dies without details meg has her twins and courting without grafics from the free book reviews there seem to be blank verse too. Another pass. By the way
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Defiantly one of my new favorite books!!!