Title: Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein
Published by Atria Books
Published: June 23, 2020
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The past seven years have been hard on Avery Abrams: After training her entire life to make the Olympic gymnastics team, a disastrous performance ended her athletic career for good. Her best friend and teammate, Jasmine, went on to become an Olympic champion, then committed the ultimate betrayal by marrying their emotionally abusive coach, Dimitri.
Now, reeling from a breakup with her football star boyfriend, Avery returns to her Massachusetts hometown, where new coach Ryan asks her to help him train a promising young gymnast with Olympic aspirations. Despite her misgivings and worries about the memories it will evoke, Avery agrees. Back in the gym, she’s surprised to find sparks flying with Ryan. But when a shocking scandal in the gymnastics world breaks, it has shattering effects not only for the sport but also for Avery and her old friend Jasmine.
I have loved every single one of Hannah Orenstein’s books since her debut Playing With Matches, and I have it on good authority that I will love every single book she’ll write, too. Head Over Heels follows the (now-alternate universe) trajectory of Avery, a former gymnast with the Olympics in view, becoming a coach to an up-and-coming gymnast when Avery moves back to her hometown after a breakup and a need to start fresh in some way. However, when Avery returns home, she feels like she’s living in the shadow of her former life. Reconnecting with her past and reconciling the future that never was, Avery has to confront everything she has tried to leave behind — her childhood friend who ended up going to the Olympics and doing everything she dreamed of doing, her parents, her former coach, her former crush, and all of the intricacies and difficulties associated with what she has tried to leave behind.
One thing that Orenstein does really well in each of her books is a balance between that perfect rom-com fluff and an engaging amount of emotional and thematic depth. To me, the characters and their reactions and responses to the world in which they live seem true and well-balanced. The settings in which these characters exist and the world created for them feels like something I could watch on a big, cinematic screen and in which I could get lost for a few hours. I don’t know the first thing about gymnastics aside from a casual viewing here and there whenever the Olympics are on television, but Orenstein makes you care and makes you want to know more, and it’s obvious this is a subject dear to her heart. She tackles the heavier subjects and the #metoo movement within the gymnastics sphere incredibly well and with a lot of grace, and that’s something I think is difficult to achieve.
This is a well-rounded contemporary romance that kept me hooked from the first page, so if you’re looking for a bright summer romance with a lot of heart, check out Head Over Heels, and then read the rest of Orenstein’s fiction if you haven’t yet!
Many thanks to Atria for sending me an advance reader’s copy; all opinions are my own!
Title: This Earl of Mine by Kate Bateman
Series: Bow Street Bachelors #1
Published by St. Martin's Press
Published: October 29th 2019
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Introducing the Bow Street Bachelors―men who work undercover for London’s first official police force―and the women they serve to protect. . .and wed?
WILL A FALSE MARRIAGE
Shipping heiress Georgiana Caversteed is done with men who covet her purse more than her person. Even worse than the ton’s lecherous fortune hunters, however, is the cruel cousin determined to force Georgie into marriage. If only she could find a way to be . . . widowed? Georgie hatches a madcap scheme to wed a condemned criminal before he’s set to be executed. All she has to do is find an eligible bachelor in prison to marry her, and she’ll be free. What could possibly go wrong?
LEAD TO TRUE AND LASTING LOVE?
Benedict William Henry Wylde, scapegrace second son of the late Earl of Morcott and well-known rake, is in Newgate prison undercover, working for Bow Street. Georgie doesn’t realize who he is when she marries him―and she most certainly never expects to bump into her very-much-alive, and very handsome, husband of convenience at a society gathering weeks later. Soon Wylde finds himself courting his own wife, hoping to win her heart since he already has her hand. But how can this seductive rogue convince brazen, beautiful Georgie that he wants to be together…until actual death do they part?
A wealthy heiress who needs to marry and become a widow to run her business in peace? YES. Georgiana chooses a prisoner on death row to marry, though little does she know she’s chosen an earl. I’m not entirely up to par on writing about romance since I had avoided the genre for too long, but I really enjoyed the chemistry between Georgiana and Benedict. The dance they do after Georgiana figures out he’s not only a prisoner, but an earl working as a Bow Street runner, feels realistic and drew me in immediately.
When I had requested and been approved for To Catch an Earl, I hadn’t realized it was the second in the series, so I borrowed this from the library as soon as I could! I read it in like two sittings because I wanted to know how everything developed and resolved, and I was left completely satisfied.
Title: To Catch an Earl by Kate Bateman
Series: Bow Street Bachelors #2
Published by St. Martin's Press
Published: June 30 2020
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A case of secret identities finds reunited lovers on opposite sides of the law in this fun, flirty Regency romance.
There's only one case Bow Street agent Alex Harland, Earl of Melton, hasn't cracked: the identity of the mysterious woman who stole a kiss from him before he left for war. He's neither forgotten—nor forgiven—her for leaving him wanting. When he starts investigating the Nightjar, an elusive London jewel thief, he keeps running into the alluring Emmy Danvers, who stirs feelings he hasn't felt in years.
Even though Emmy's loved Alex for years, she can’t risk revealing her heart, or her identity as the Nightjar. With Alex on her case, Emmy knows that her secrets are in danger of being discovered. Their cat and mouse game heats up with every interaction, but when Emmy’s reputation—and life—is at risk, will Alex realize that some rules are made to be broken for love?
The second of the Bow Street Bachelors was not as strong of a connection between the main characters as I felt there was with the first. Emmy, for a jewel thief, wears a personalized signature scent even when she’s thieving, and it seems a little obvious that if, narratively speaking, she excels at this work she wouldn’t wear such an obvious tell? Alex, having inhaled that scent four years previously, is driven to distraction by that scent in his memories until he meets Emmy again.
The tension and connection didn’t seem as polished or as well developed as I felt it was in the first in the series, but the twists and the plot otherwise kept me engaged! The enemies to lovers trope didn’t play out as promised on the cover copy, and I felt Alex had it figured out too soon (with little reaction between both of them about it until much later), so I felt like it dragged in some places as well because of that. It’s an enjoyable read nonetheless and sets up for the third in the series.
An advance reader copy was provided by the publisher and Netgalley; all opinions are my own.
Title: Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Published: March 17th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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From the bestselling author of The Wives of Los Alamos comes the riveting story of a stranger’s arrival in the fledgling colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts―and a crime that shakes the divided community to its core.
Ten years after the Mayflower pilgrims arrived on rocky, unfamiliar soil, Plymouth is not the land its residents had imagined. Seemingly established on a dream of religious freedom, in reality the town is led by fervent puritans who prohibit the residents from living, trading, and worshipping as they choose. By the time an unfamiliar ship, bearing new colonists, appears on the horizon one summer morning, Anglican outsiders have had enough.
With gripping, immersive details and exquisite prose, TaraShea Nesbit reframes the story of the pilgrims in the previously unheard voices of two women of very different status and means. She evokes a vivid, ominous Plymouth, populated by famous and unknown characters alike, each with conflicting desires and questionable behavior.
Suspenseful and beautifully wrought, Beheld is about a murder and a trial, and the motivations―personal and political―that cause people to act in unsavory ways. It is also an intimate portrait of love, motherhood, and friendship that asks: Whose stories get told over time, who gets believed―and subsequently, who gets punished?
Nesbit’s Beheld offers a glimpse into the lives of the Plymouth settlement ten years after their arrival told through the eyes of some of the women who lived there. I don’t really recall reading much historical fiction about the early Plymouth settlement, but I loved the imagery and the tension Nesbit explores in this novel. It’s a short novel, but it’s filled with the right amount of empathy for each of the women’s situations. The Plymouth settlement is fraught with disagreements, underlying and unresolved emotions, and flat out hatred that’s often glossed over in popular history’s retelling of a perfect new world for religious freedoms. At least for me, anyway. It wasn’t until I was an adult and in college that I began to really learn about the realities of Plymouth settlement.
Nesbit’s strength in this is making you care for and understand each of the women’s perspectives, even when they clash with someone else’s views. I understand why each of the women made the choices that they did and didn’t, and each of the characters felt so real to me. For me, sometimes characters in historical fiction almost feel like standees or caricatures, but characterization and character development is where Nesbit excels.
Beheld is a short historical crime novel that packs a punch and will leave you thinking about it and the early American settlements long after you’ve finished reading.
Thank you to Bloomsbury and Netgalley for an advance reader copy! All opinions are my own.
Title: The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer
Published by Tor Books
Published: April 7th 2020
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The Glass Magician
A gilded menagerie rules a Gilded Age: Bears and Bulls are not only real, but dominate humanity in The Glass Magician, an amazing historical fantasy by Caroline Stevermer
What if you could turn into the animal of your heart anytime you want?
With such power, you’d enter the cream of New York society, guaranteed a rich life among the Vanderbilts and Astors, movers and shakers who all have the magical talent and own the nation on the cusp of a new century.
You could. If you were a Trader.
Pity you’re not.
Thalia is a Solitaire, one of the masses who don’t have the animalistic magic. But that is not to say that she doesn’t have talent of another kind—she is a rising stage magician who uses her very human skills to dazzle audiences with amazing feats of prestidigitation. Until one night when a trick goes horribly awry…and Thalia makes a discovery that changes her entire world. And sets her on a path that could bring her riches.
Or kill her.
is set in an alternative Gilded Age New York City in which magic exists beyond the stage performance. Thalia is a stage magician who realizes after watching a trick go horribly wrong for her and again on stage for someone else that there is more to her world than she knew before. It is a world of shape shifters tied by bloodline, and she is one of them after thinking she was a Solitaire (a human who doesn’t shape shift) for her entire life.
I ended up feeling rather so-so about the last third of the book because it felt both melodramatic and rushed at the same time. The magic trick at the end to reveal the true killer and motive didn’t seem to flow as well with the story as I would have liked, but I think that’s also to do with the world building. However, it did leave me hopeful that there would be more books set in this universe because the foundation has been laid for a lot more exploration and examination.
I enjoy “quiet” novels, stories that are a bit slower and softer than the usual fantasy fare of high-octane action. I loved the setting of an alternate New York City in the Gilded Age, and I imagined magic and magic tricks revealed and performed in gas-lit rooms and lush dresses of mint and lilac and rose contrasting with the darker elements of this society and the magic therein. Most of these thoughts were more of my own projections of my enthusiasm of the era, but I enjoyed this book for what it was. I think I was left wanting because I knew there could be more – from world building to character development to character interactions. So much of it felt like a superficial magic trick. Pretty to read and to look at, but I felt like I could see right through the tricks.
Thank you to Tor Books and Netgalley for the advance reader copy; all opinions are my own.
Title: Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: May 5, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, History, Science
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An in-depth look at the science behind the creative methods Shakespeare used to kill off his characters.
In Death By Shakespeare, Kathryn Harkup, best-selling author of A is for Arsenic and expert on the more gruesome side of science, turns her expertise to Shakespeare and the creative methods he used to kill off his characters. Is death by snakebite really as serene as Cleopatra made it seem? How did Juliet appear dead for 72 hours only to be revived in perfect health? Can you really kill someone by pouring poison in their ear? How long would it take before Lady Macbeth died from lack of sleep? Readers will find out exactly how all the iconic death scenes that have thrilled audiences for centuries would play out in real life.
In the Bard's day death was a part of everyday life. Plague, pestilence and public executions were a common occurrence, and the chances of seeing a dead or dying body on the way home from the theater was a fairly likely scenario. Death is one of the major themes that reoccurs constantly throughout Shakespeare's canon, and he certainly didn't shy away from portraying the bloody reality of death on the stage. He didn't have to invent gruesome or novel ways to kill off his characters when everyday experience provided plenty of inspiration.
Shakespeare's era was also a time of huge scientific advance. The human body, its construction and how it was affected by disease came under scrutiny, overturning more than a thousand years of received Greek wisdom, and Shakespeare himself hinted at these new scientific discoveries and medical advances in his writing, such as circulation of the blood and treatments for syphilis.
Shakespeare found 74 different ways to kill off his characters, and audiences today still enjoy the same reactions--shock, sadness, fear--that they did over 400 years ago when these plays were first performed. But how realistic are these deaths, and did Shakespeare have the science to back them up?
I love reading books that provide some kind of external context about other books or works — whether it’s historical context, criticism, and, in the case of Kathryn Harkup’s Death by Shakespeare
, scientific context. Death by Shakespeare
explores the many deaths in Shakespeare’s plays and provides insightful looks into how contemporaries handled disease and death, and Harkup explores these topics with clarity, empathy, and humor. Shakespeare’s body of work can be daunting and difficult for modern readers, but Harkup presents her research in an engaging way that is entertaining and in reach.
I loved the intersections of contemporary and modern medicine, as well as the examinations of how the deaths in the plays were (or weren’t) performed on stage. Death today seems so far removed from our society, yet in Shakespeare’s day, death was actively part of every day life. This was also something weird to read at this present time with the coronavirus pandemic because I’m confronted by death daily and still so far removed from it because no one I know has contracted it, but Shakespeare and his contemporaries confronted death in all its causes in such close proximity that it was difficult to ignore, even in his own work. The thing I loved most about Death by Shakespeare is the connection of the historical and everyday life with the science because it made everything feel so much more real. Like death, history seems something so far removed from us that we sometimes forget that history is populated by people living lives with emotional scope and depth as people live today, so in a way, putting Shakespeare’s plays into context like, along with any contextual criticism, this brings the humanity of these plays to the surface.
This is something that would be beneficial to anyone reading and studying Shakespeare as it provides an engaging and accessible look into the reasons why Shakespeare likely used certain kinds of poisons, murders, and avenues of death in his work. Personally, I know having this historical/literary/scientific context when I was taking my Shakespeare course in undergrad would have added so much to my enjoyment and understanding of the plays, but I’m glad to have read it now!
Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me an early copy to review! All opinions are my own.