fiction · romance

Book Review: The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer

Jewish romance? Yes, please.

Jewish romance where the heroine has chronic medical problems? WHAT?????? SIGN. ME. UP.

Diversity in fiction, which has grown the past decade, means many things, but it’s rare that I see so much of myself in fiction. I’m pretty sure that I learned about The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer (MIRA, 2021) from either a list on Twitter or a list on Alma (and of course slapped it directly onto my TBR), but when my friend Sharon mentioned reading it and enjoying it, I knew it had to switch statuses to ‘Currently reading’ soon. And it finally appeared at the library, and I let out a little yelp of joy as I spotted it and yanked it off the shelf. Because I am entirely normal and that is a completely normal way to behave in the library.

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is carrying a lot of things in her life. The daughter of the well-known Rabbi Goldblatt, her myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, rules her whole life, from her daily activities to her career. Which…no one knows, but Rachel, Jewish daughter of a famous rabbi, is the woman behind Margot Cross, the bestselling author of a series of Christmas romance novels. Rachel loves Christmas…but no one can know, just as she refuses to let her agent and editors know about her ME/CFS. But there’s a problem: her last few books aren’t selling well. Christmas is out, and diversity is in. Rachel’s team wants her to write a Hanukkah romance. What’s a Jewish Christmas romance novelist with limited physical resources to do?

Enter Jacob Greenberg, Rachel’s camp nemesis and one-time tween boyfriend. He’s now a bigtime millionaire event planner, and he’s swinging back into town to throw the Hanukkah event of the millennium: the Matzah Ball Max. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s single and wayyyyyyyy easy on the eyes.) His attendance at her parents’ Shabbat dinner gives Rachel an in, and she manages to finagle a ticket to the Matzah Ball by – gulp – agreeing to volunteer (with her ME/CFS a constant presence? YIKES). What better way to get the Hanukkah novel inspiration she needs? But Jacob’s reappearance in her life strikes up some feelings – for both of them, and they’ll both have some deep Yom Kippur-style reflection to do if they want to move ahead in their lives…maybe even together.

LOVED THIS.

LOVED THIS SO MUCH!!!!!!!

While my medical issues are different from Rachel’s, I saw so much of myself in this book. The constantly having to tailor your entire life to what your body demands; other people not understanding what’s going on with me medically; love of Judaism; writing. It’s all there, and I felt so represented on almost every page of this! I love that chronic illness is showing up in more and more novels.

Rachel can be blunt and a little brash at times, but she knows what she needs and is a good advocate for herself (and who can blame anyone for dealing with constant pain and fatigue and/or other medical issues and being a little crabby? Well, lots of people, but I digress…). Jacob is a swoonworthy hero. He’s not without his flaws; he’s still grieving the loss of his mother and how his father walked out on the family, and despite his success in life, he still has some growing up and learning to do – about lots of things. He and Rachel make a good fit, and the constant slight pushing from their families to get together only adds to the fun of the story.

I am 100% here for Jean Meltzer’s next novel. Already on my TBR, and I’m poised and waiting. (No pressure. Just excited!) Her writing style is fun and light, serious when it needs to be, but still keeping the overall tone enjoyable and never too serious. It’s exactly what I’m looking for in fiction, and I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Visit Jean Meltzer’s website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Intimacy Experiment (The Roommate #2) by Rosie Danan

I’m 100% always in the market for good Jewish representation in contemporary fiction, especially romance. There’s not a ton of it, so when I find it, I get pretty excited. That’s how The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan (Berkley Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. But sometimes books aren’t what we hoped for, and this was one of them. And that’s fine. Not every book is for every reader. Here’s the gist of it.

Naomi Grant is a former professional sex worker, star of many, many adult films, and now head of her own company whose aim is to teach people how to have good sex. Over the years, she’s developed the tough skin necessary for people who work in such a controversial industry. She wants to move into teaching in-person crowds, but no one wants to hire someone who’s known mainly for being in pornography.

Rabbi Ethan Cohen needs to get more people into his struggling synagogue with an aging congregation. What better than to invite a former adult actress to teach a series on modern intimacy? The board will LOVE that!

While Naomi’s series grows in popularity, she and Ethan grow closer, but a rabbi and a porn star becoming a couple? Naomi wouldn’t do that to Ethan’s life and career, and Ethan is wary of placing the demands of his career on anyone. And surprise, the synagogue board isn’t happy about having a porn star teaching classes…

This really didn’t work for me. Naomi’s entire personality is brash, angry, and unpleasant. She was rude even to her friends and co-workers, and while the whole point was that she was defensive and lashed out first before other people could attack her, it made her tiresome to read and I had a hard time believing anyone would enjoy spending any kind of time with her.

Ethan was fine as a character, but I didn’t quite buy his whole, ‘Being a rabbi is too difficult for anyone to marry me!’ shtick; so far, I’ve met one single rabbi, and all the rest have been married. I understand that being married to someone who is clergy isn’t always the easiest position; the hours are constant and it’s incredibly demanding. But for Ethan to act like it’s impossible? Especially as someone who is apparently super attractive and has women throwing themselves at him constantly? Nah. Not buying it.

I liked Ethan’s open-mindedness and his sex-positive attitude (Naomi’s as well, but as she seemed so damn angry about it, it was harder to enjoy anything about her). His gentle pushing of his congregation to be more modern was entirely believable. But overall? I kind of had to push myself in order to get through this, which is a clear sign for me that this book just wasn’t the one for me. It happens. : )

Visit Rosie Danan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · New Adult · romance

Book Review: When It’s Real by Erin Watt

The celebrity/normal person trope in romance is my absolute favorite. Which is kind of funny; I’m not much of a celebrity watcher at all, so I don’t harbor any fantasies about running away with the current hottie-of-the-month. But there’s just something about this trope that pulls me in, and that’s how When It’s Real by Erin Watt (Harlequin Teen, 2017) ended up on my list. And there it sat until I finally decided to tackle all those ebooks on my list.

Oakley Ford is one of the hottest musicians out there, but he hasn’t come out with an album in a few years. His team decides that not only does he need to keep his name out there, he desperately needs to revamp his bad boy image. Enter Vaughn, the sister of an employee at Oak’s agent’s office. She’ll be perfect as his fake girlfriend- smart, pretty, a fan, and raising her two brothers with her older sister after their parents died in an accident a few years ago (this is a New Adult book; you didn’t think you could get out of a New Adult without some dead parents, did you?). Agreements are made, contracts are drawn and signed, and that’s that: for one year, Oak and Vaughn are legally a thing.

Things are rocky at first; despite being a fan and being super attracted to Oak, Vaughn doesn’t appreciate Oak’s immaturity and his self-centeredness. His fishbowl life doesn’t appeal to her, and it’s hard managing her real-life boyfriend’s whininess about her relationship-for-pay-that-her-family-truly-needs around the demands of her solely-for-show relationship with Oakley. But as the two get to know each other, a different side of Oak emerges, one that’s more mature and more real than what the public has seen so far, and the two begin to fall in love. But can they keep it together?

This was okay. Solid enough. I liked Vaughn. She’s stressed to the max, what with trying to help her older sister (I would’ve enjoyed a book about her!) raise their two younger brothers and deal with all the financial and emotional repercussions of losing their parents so young. She’s trying to figure out what to do with her life and struggling with the demands and pressures of a boyfriend who doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than himself. She felt pretty real.

Oakley…he was immature. Obnoxious. Self-centered. He was better than W, Vaughn’s whiny boyfriend, but he was still way more self-serving in the beginning than I would’ve liked, and he wasn’t someone I would’ve been attracted to, simply because of his attitude. He did grow and improve throughout the novel, thanks to Vaughn, but I would’ve liked to have seen more of those changes come from him, rather than from their relationship.

I felt like their physical relationship- which wasn’t even an actual dating relationship at that point- went from nothing to ‘You’re doing what now???’ out of nowhere. That kind of surprised me and made it feel like this was actually two books smushed together. I felt as though there should have been more build-up to this, rather than throwing it in what felt like randomly.

So this was okay. Not the best New Adult I’ve read, nor the best celebrity/normal person trope, but it was a decent read and I have no regrets.

Visit Erin Watt’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Rookie Move (Brooklyn Bruisers #1) by Sarina Bowen

I love hockey, though I haven’t been able to follow it at all during the pandemic (I have no desire to watch players and fans get COVID in real time, thank you very much). So when Smart Bitches, Trashy Books recommended Sarina Bowen as an author, I decided I wanted to read something of hers and started digging through what my library had to offer. And lo and behold, she had a hockey series! Onto my list went Rookie Move (Brooklyn Bruisers #1) (Berkley, 2016). It took me a while to get to it, though. Thanks to one of my New Year’s resolutions being to finally read all of the ebooks I’d been saving on my TBR, now was the time! (I adore my kindle; the ebooks just got pushed to the side in part because of worries about the library closing again and my needing to save something from my TBR in case that happened. No worries, though; I have a plan if that does go down!)

Georgia’s life is going pretty well these days. She’s the temporary head of PR for Brooklyn’s new hockey team, the Bruisers. She wasn’t quite planning on her father signing on as head coach, but they’re close, so it’s all good. She’s sharing a tiny apartment with a friend she loves. Sure, she hasn’t really dated much at all in the six years since she walked away from her high school love after having survived being raped while on a college tour, but everything else is perfectly fine. Georgia is finally feeling safe in her life.

Enter the team’s newest player, straight from the minor leagues: Leo Trevi, who just so happens to be Georgia’s high school boyfriend. Both are absolutely floored to see each other. Leo’s ready to pick back up where they left off; he never got over Georgia when she dumped him out of the blue six years ago. For Georgia, Leo’s reappearance in her life begins to dredge up old feelings she thought she’d moved past, and she’s not so sure about moving forward with him. But Leo’s patient, and Georgia’s feelings for him aren’t quite as over as she thought.

This is really a great, solid sports romance. Obviously there’s a content warning for rape; the subject comes up often (though never in any kind of detail) and is an integral part of the storyline, so if reading this would be difficult for you, it’s okay to choose another book. Be kind to yourself. Leo is gentle and patient at all times with Georgia; her moving on from him has nothing to do with his reaction to her attack, only her own misinterpretation. Georgia is strong and independent, but she’s lonely and still hurting, though she covers it well.

The romance in this novel absolutely sizzles! WHEW. I was rooting for the two of them the whole way, because they have some serious chemistry. And Sarina Bowen’s writing in the hockey game scenes is utterly top-notch. I was on the edge of my seat and could barely handle reading the tension. Who would win, who would score, the potential for serious injury, it was all perfectly paced and described. Ms. Bowen obviously knows hockey and has talent in spades for letting her love for the sport shine on each page.

This was a fun, fun, FUN book to read, and I’m looking forward to reading more from Sarina Bowen in the future.

Visit Sarina Bowen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn

A while back, I did a search through my library’s card catalog (from home. My older readers, remember when physical card catalogs existed? I have a scar on my left hand from dropping the H drawer on it. My library tattoo, if you will…) for Jewish books. There’s not a ton of fiction out there with a Jewish theme (beyond the hordes of Holocaust books, that is. Though there has been more non-Holocaust fiction lately, and I’m thankful for that!), so I was happy to stumble across Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn (Walker & Company, 1992). A historical romance with a Jewish bent? Sign me up!

Miriam’s parents want to marry her off, but she’s shocked by the pale, nerdy Torah scholar they’ve chosen for her and immediately proclaims her intentions to travel through Europe with her doctor uncle instead of marrying that guy, shocking everyone in the room and humiliating the young man. A decade later, her uncle has passed away and Miriam is stuck in France, thanks to the war between France and England. A deal struck with Jacob Rothschild to return her home teams her up with Isaac Cohen, a fellow Jew, and Felix, an antisemitic British aristocrat fallen on hard times. They’ll be smuggling some gold back into England on their long journey home, and the tension between the three- for various reasons- is enormous.

Difficulties befall the group constantly while traveling across France, and Miriam and the two men begin to work out their differences- kind of. She develops affections toward both of them, but in the end, she’ll have to make a choice- if they get home safely, that is.

Miss Jacobson’s Journey turned out to be a really entertaining read. Felix and other characters’ antisemitism was, obviously, unpleasant to read, but it was necessary to both further the plot and in order to be historically accurate. Historical fiction, oddly, can sometimes not age well, but despite having been published when I was twelve, this seemed just as fresh as though it were a new release. Carola Dunn’s voice reminded me distinctly of Tessa Dare, and this book was an enjoyable read the whole way through.

Miriam is a delightful character, headstrong and independent, curious about the inner workings of her religion/ethnicity that have been denied to her by dint of having been born female (it wasn’t considered proper for women to learn Torah back then and Miriam’s curiosity and Felix’s ignorance of anything Jewish make for interesting educational bits that help further the plot). Isaac is sweet and proper; Felix, while being a smarmy oaf, makes decent strides in becoming a better person. And journeying through France in the 18-teens made for a wonderful literary field trip while being stuck in the house due to freezing temps and Omicron.

Visit Carola Dunn’s website here.

fiction

Book Review: The Simplicity of Cider by Amy E. Reichert

I’ve cleared out my email recently and have been back to reading the constant onslaught of emails from places like BookRiot. This, as you can imagine, is not great for my TBR! It was in one of those emails that I learned about The Simplicity of Cider by Amy E. Reichert (Gallery Books, 2017). I don’t often pick up a book solely because of its setting, but this one intrigued me because the story is set in Door County, Wisconsin. My mother and my kids and I visited Door County a few years ago, well before the pandemic, and we had an absolutely wonderful time, so I was looking forward to taking an armchair vacation back there (you can read about our trip- lots of pictures!- over at my other blog). Unfortunately, the book fell a little flat for me.

Sanna Lund’s family has been growing apples in their orchard in Door County, Wisconsin for five generations now. It’s just her father and her; her mother skipped out when she was six, and her brother decided farm life wasn’t for him and reacts with disdain to everything about the orchard. Sanna’s new venture, creating hard cider from the heirloom trees, is her obsession, but financially, things aren’t great; the orchard isn’t pulling in nearly enough money to make ends meet.

Enter Isaac; he’s come to Door County with his young son Bass. Bass’s mother died and Isaac isn’t sure how to tell him; instead, he’s trying to give Bass one last summer of being a carefree kid. Isaac takes a job at the orchard (putting Bass to work as well), and pretty soon the sparks are flying between him and Sanna. But trouble is brewing; trees are being damaged around the orchard- purposely- and Sanna’s brother is obsessed with trying to get her to sell the land to a waterpark developer. There’s a lot more to creating cider than just sitting around waiting for apples to grow, and the orchard will be in trouble if Sanna doesn’t figure out a way to save it.

The orchard itself made this a nice setting for the book, but I didn’t find much of the story that gave it a real Door County feel, likely because 95% of the book took place at the orchard or the house on the orchard where Sanna and her father lived. Other than a few mentions of how isolated the community becomes in the winter, especially during times of heavy snow, the book could have been set in an orchard in just about any state. While the setting was pleasant, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for when I picked the book up; Sanna is an incredibly bitter character who doesn’t want much to do with the community around her, and her lack of community ties made her kind of…boring.

Isaac is a whole mess. His ex-wife was an addict who died of an overdose, and instead of telling his son, he hightails it out of the state, death certificate in hand (but without actually dealing with his ex-wife’s remains, as a phone call from his mother later makes clear), unsure of how to tell his son that Mom is dead. He’s immediately attracted to Sanna, although she’s so distant and crabby that it’s hard to understand why. I didn’t connect with their romance at all, and the mystery of who was vandalizing the orchard was solved in a kind of bizarre, out-of-the-blue manner.

This one had potential, but didn’t quite make it for me. It may be a me problem, that I didn’t quite connect with the book in the way I wanted; there’s no major issues with the writing, I just wasn’t feeling it. And that’s fine. Not every book is for every reader, and this wasn’t mine.

Visit Amy E. Reichert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words (Chai Masala Club #1) by Annika Sharma

When someone mentioned Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words (Chai Masala Club #1) by Annika Sharma (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2021) on Twitter a few weeks ago, I immediately added it to my TBR (this is why I can’t get my TBR down any further, y’all!). I love books with characters who come from different cultures or sub-cultures than I do, and the premise of a series centered around a friend group whose members are all different versions of Indian (two are Indian American, one is British Indian, and another was born and raised in India but lives in America now) intrigued me. Seriously great Indian rep right there. There was a lot to enjoy here, but the story itself fell a little flat for me.

Kiran grew up in a small village in India, the daughter of parents who sacrificed her whole life so that she could be educated and successful. Her older sister Kirti was disowned after her wedding to a man from a lower caste; her village didn’t approve, and thus to avoid the shame it would bring on the family and the lessening of Kiran’s chances in life, the family banished her. Kiran has since become a successful engineer in New York City, but she’s weighted down by her responsibilities and her parents’ expectations.

Enter Nash, a blond psychologist who just moved to the city from- of course- Nashville. He’s Kiran’s new neighbor with family drama of his own, and as they strike up a friendship, Kiran feels like she might be falling in love for the first time. Which is big time not good, since Nash is white and American- definitely not on her parents’ approval list. Her friends are there for her when she struggles with her options, and there for her when her parents cast her away as well. It’s only when an emergency happens thousands of miles away that everyone learns the power of family, forgiveness, and love.

I loved the premise of this, the closeness of the friend group, and their diversity of experience (both in terms of work experience and life experience; so many different and beautiful connections to India); their support for Kiran and each other; their constant text messages; and the fact that there’s a GUY in this friend group! (I’m super curious as to what Akash’s love story will look like.) Kiran’s sense of duty to her parents, especially in the light of what happened with her older sister, is admirable; her struggle with that sense of duty is realistic and relatable. I did want her and Nash to work out as a couple, since she obviously loved him, and I was pulling for them.

Nash is…a little on the bland side, to be honest. For having a doctorate in psychology, he seemed deeply unaware of how to handle cultural differences and unable to fully grasp most situations from Kiran’s point of view. For someone so highly educated, I would have expected him to start delving deeply into some cultural studies and making an effort to understand what made Kiran the woman she is, where she came from and what life was and is like there, but nope, nothing. He just…fumbled here and there. Not exactly my ideal hero. And really, he has no excuse. Nashville, for its being a blue dot in a red (RED RED RED) sea, is a deeply multicultural city. I lived on the outskirts for five years and was constantly in Nashville proper, where my husband worked. There are multiple synagogues; a large Muslim population; a Somali community; and among many, many others, an Indian community. There are many excellent Indian restaurants in Nashville (two of my favorites were within walking distance of Vanderbilt, where Nash graduated from (and where my husband worked, so I’m intimately familiar with the area. He 100% would have known about them; they’re both really popular. I often say those two restaurants are the only thing I miss about living there). If Nash was as oblivious as he seemed, it wasn’t because he lived in Nashville and attended Vanderbilt University; he would’ve had to work pretty hard to avoid the cultural mosaic around him.

It felt to me as though the story went from cutesy-first-butterflies scene to Nash and Kiran admitting their feelings and ending up immediately in bed (all fade-to-black; zero open door scenes) very quickly; I never got a good sense of why they liked each other and had a hard time feeling much chemistry at all between the two. This may be because I didn’t feel like I connected with the writing style well, but I also felt that the writing itself lacked sparkle. Too much telling and not enough showing for me.

This was just okay; I had hoped for a little bit more, to be honest.

Visit Annika Sharma’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Love at First by Kate Clayborn

I’m trying to think back to where I learned about Love at First by Kate Clayborn (Kensington, 2021). Most likely it was mentioned on an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast (which I really need to catch up on!). Most of my romance novels come from there, whether they mention the book directly, or just the author, and I decide she sounds like someone I want to read (and then prance off to my library website to see what’s available. I have a Sarina Bowen on my list coming up soon that ended up there for exactly this reason!). Anyhow, I’d been checking the library on a few past trips, but this was always checked out. Last time, it was in!

Will and Nora first meet as teenagers in a way that Will remembers for the rest of his life, for both good and tragic reasons, but they don’t meet again until they’re adults, Nora grieving the death of her grandmother, and Will, now a doctor, struggling to figure out what to do with the apartment he inherited from an uncle he only met once. Their connection is instant and nearly palpable, but things are tense: Nora’s apartment building is her family, the people in it standing in for the close-knit relatives she didn’t have beyond her deceased grandmother, and Will wants to fix up and rent out his unit as temporary lodgings. Nora and the other residents are aghast; Will can’t understand why this is such a big deal.

But as they get to know each other, each begins to soften to the other’s point of view, and the distance between them softens and the pain of the past comes to light. Nora and Will need to learn to compromise and trust- easier said than done, but they’ve got a whole building of family rooting for them.

Sweet little romance novel without a ton of drama. Nora is having a hard time moving on from her Nonna’s death, stuck in her grief and needing to keep everything in the apartment (and apartment building) just as it was, no matter how inconvenient, in order to hang on to the last vestiges of Nonna. Will, who lost both parents by 18, has nothing to hang on to, and he’s been living his life based on a sharp remark about himself that he overheard his distant uncle make the one time he met him years ago. It’s served him well in some ways, but in others, it’s made it impossible to truly live…and that’s a problem when he starts falling for Nora.

There aren’t a ton of ups and downs here; it’s not exactly the most exciting and dramatic romance novel I’ve ever read, but it’s sweet, and it made for a relaxing read in the midst of all the depressing nonfiction I’ve been plowing through lately. I did enjoy the quirky apartment residents. Ms. Clayborn really created a building full of people with distinctive personalities, without venturing into caricature territory- it reminded me a bit of all the Maeve Binchy novels I loved as a teenager. Her supporting characters are always a little off-the-wall and well-defined, and this gave me the same feeling. Despite its bizarre velvet hallway wallpaper, this is a building I would love to live in. (And can I just say, I LOVED that this was set in Chicago! It’s such a great city and there aren’t enough books set here.)

Cute read. I really liked Will as a hero. As someone who really takes other people’s criticism hard, I understood his motivation for shaping his life the way he did.

Visit Kate Clayborn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Majesty (American Royals #2) by Katharine McGee

When I finished American Royals by Katharine McGee, I immediately put its sequel, Majesty (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020) on my TBR, because I enjoyed it so much. The entire premise- what the country would look like if George Washington had been made king instead of president, and his line carried on- is so creative, and the series centers on the young adult royals who are set to take over and run the country. I was actually surprised when Majesty was available the first time I checked- it’s a bit past its original publication date, so there’s probably not a massive stampede for it, but I still felt like I got really, really lucky!

This review will contain some spoilers, so don’t read on if you’re wanting to read American Royals but haven’t gotten to it yet.

Majesty picks up where American Royals left off. The king has passed away, leaving Beatrice as America’s first queen. She’s young, she’s untested, and she’s not sure she can do the job. She’s engaged to a man she’s not sure she truly wants to marry, and the man who assisted her father his whole life is doing everything he can to make sure she feels as incompetent and powerless as possible. Sam, now the heir instead of just being the spare, still isn’t over her sister getting engaged to the guy she liked and takes up with a guy just as wild as she is from the west coast. Nina, heartbroken over her relationship with Jeff ending, falls into the arms of Ethan, his best friend, little knowing that this plot was orchestrated by Daphne, Jeff’s scheming, status-seeking ex-girlfriend.

There are a lot of suppressed emotions, social climbing, scheming, hard looks at the racism that still persist in the US (especially as an outcome of the poor decisions this country made throughout its past), and a lot of really fun and creative imaginings of what American royalty would look like. Beatrice’s grief over losing her father (and being promoted immediately into the role of America’s first queen) is palpable and may be tough to read if you’re also deep in grief, so take care with that. Her confidence grows as the novel goes on, which was lovely to see, although I really wished she had booted her father’s advisor immediately, as it was obvious what a trashbag that dude was.

I had a little bit of a tough time getting into this at the beginning; I don’t know if that’s because it started off slower (or because of me; that’s always a possibility!), or because it’s been a while since I read the first book in the series. I’m an impatient reader and don’t read a lot of series books solely because I don’t like waiting, especially since I don’t remember fiction as well and tend to forget the details while I wait for the next book to come out. I did feel like Nina got a little shortchanged in this book; I really liked her storyline in American Royals, but it felt like her storyline was less developed here. I did like her relationship with Ethan, however! Beatrice was as lovely as ever; Sam, her impulsive younger sister, began to come into her own in this book, which was nice to see.

Daphne, the scheming social climber determined to get her claws into Jeff, really shines. She’s an absolute villain, and I usually hate characters like her, but she’s fantastic in this book; Katharine McGee really has a knack for writing the perfect bad girl. From time to time, we see a flicker of morality float to the surface, and then Daphne stomps it back down and sharpens her claws again. The ending to her storyline is cold and depressing in many different ways, but it’s fitting with her character and her ruthless ambition. She was my favorite part of this book, which surprised me.

Majesty is a fun follow-up, and this series really made me appreciate all the work that goes into creating alternate histories. This book is the conclusion and it doesn’t look like there will be any more in the series, so I’m sorry to say goodbye to such fun, well-written characters.

Visit Katharine McGee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein

The 2020/2021 Olympics are in full swing now, and I can’t watch. I just can’t. I love the Olympcs- love the races, the swimming, the diving, the gymnastics. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I was young, but this year, I have zero desire to watch anyone potentially get Covid with a camera in their faces, and the IOC has been so gross in so many ways this year that I don’t feel like supporting the Olympics is something I’m personally comfortable with. Which makes me really sad, because I’ve loved the Olympics for such a long time. But my disappointment was assuaged by diving into Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein (Atria Books, 2020), a novel set in a world where the Covid-19 pandemic never happened, and Tokyo 2020 went off without a hitch. Would that this could have been a reality…

Things haven’t gone so well for Avery Adams since her gymnastics career came to an abrupt, surgery-necessitating end during an Olympic Trials meet. She’s been floundering since then, partying her way through and then failing out of college, half-heartedly part-time coaching a girl’s gymnastics team, and sweatpants-and-ponytail-ing her way through a relationship with a professional football player. When he finally dumps her over her lack of ambition and direction, Avery moves back in with her parents, unsure of where to go and what to do with her life. Gymnastics was her only dream; she had never learned to or thought of wanting anything else. What does a former elite athlete do when there’s never been a contingency plan?

At home, Avery receives a phone call from another former gymnast. Ryan, who had made it to the Olympics, is now coaching Hallie, an Olympic hopeful. She needs help on her floor routine, and Ryan thinks Avery’s just the person to do it. Unsure of what else to do with her life, Avery signs on and finds that this is truly where she belongs. But the issues of the gymnastics world run deep: Hallie confides in Avery her discomfort about the sports medicine doctor she’s seeing, just before the news breaks that he’s been molesting other gymnasts, and Jasmine, Avery’s former gymnast friend, is now married to their shared abusive former coach. Along with helping Hallie grow as a gymnast and developing her relationship with Ryan, Avery realizes the responsibility she has to make things better, for gymnasts and the gymnastic community as a whole.

This is a really lovely book about not only the excitement of the gymnastics world, but the devastation it can wreak on young women. It’s not all critique; time and time again, Ms. Orenstein points out the positive changes that have occurred over the years, including how much  healthier the gymnasts look (I grew up in an era where gymnasts were rail-thin, eating disorders were pretty much guaranteed in the sport, and muscles were nonexistent. I can’t speak to the prevalence of eating disorders in the gymnastics world these days, but I’m in awe of how strong and powerful today’s gymnasts look). But the critique is definitely there, especially in abusive coaching styles and how ill-prepared most gymnasts are for a future that won’t be dominated by performance. Avery is a mess before she moves home, partying too much, having no goals or dreams for herself, just kind of existing as a professional football player’s girlfriend (Tyler, said professional football player, doesn’t exactly find this attractive). She’s blown away by Hallie’s post-career goals for herself, including college and possibly law school. Why doesn’t every gymnast have those kinds of plans?

Avery’s not afraid to call out the ickiness of her former friend Jasmine marrying their much older and abusive former coach, Dimitri, which I loved. She doesn’t just nod and smile for the sake of being polite; she full-on asks Jasmine what the heck she was thinking. Jasmine too had just sort of fallen into her post-gymnastic life; together, she and Avery begin to question how things could be different for these high-tier athletes, how the community could better support them, especially in the wake of sexual abuse scandals. And then they DO something about it, because what counts in this life is action. Things with Ryan get complicated, but Avery never lets that get her down, and she doesn’t let whatever their relationship is at the moment become her identity. So much growth going on in this quick-paced story, for everyone (including Ryan, who makes a bad decision at one point and who then spends a good portion of the rest of the novel making it right in a variety of ways. TAKE NOTE, MEN).

There’s a lot of social commentary in this book and it’ll hopefully raise a lot of questions in your mind, including what we demand from young athletes and what we offer them in return; what support looks like, what accountability looks like, what oversight looks like, whom insular communities protect and why, and what it means to be brave in the face of worldwide scrutiny. You’ll have Aly Raisman and Simone Biles and their teammates front and center in your mind as you read this, and you’ll be in awe of them for speaking out about the way they were abused and for what they need to be whole and healthy, and furious that that doctor wasn’t stopped sooner.

If you’re looking for some Olympic excitement and escapism, along with great writing and a strong character who turns things around not only for herself, but others (plus a lovely romance between two people who need to work out their own stuff before committing to building anything of substance together), this is a really fun and deeply thoughtful read.

Visit Hannah Orenstein’s website here.

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