BOOK REVIEW: Head Over Heels, by Hannah Orenstein

BOOK REVIEW: Head Over Heels, by Hannah OrensteinTitle: Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein
Published by Atria Books
Published: June 23, 2020
Genres: Romance
Pages: 336
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

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!

BOOK REVIEW: Death by Shakespeare, by Kathryn Harkup

BOOK REVIEW: Death by Shakespeare, by Kathryn HarkupTitle: Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: May 5, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, History, Science
Pages: 368
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

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.

BOOK REVIEW: Sin Eaters, by Megan Campisi

BOOK REVIEW: Sin Eaters, by Megan CampisiTitle: Sin Eater by Megan Campisi
Published by Atria Books
Published: April 7th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 304
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

The Handmaid’s Tale meets Alice in Wonderland in this gripping and imaginative historical novel about a shunned orphan girl in 16th century England who is ensnared in a deadly royal plot and must turn her subjugation into her power.

The Sin Eater walks among us, unseen, unheard Sins of our flesh become sins of Hers Following Her to the grave, unseen, unheard The Sin Eater Walks Among Us.

For the crime of stealing bread, fourteen-year-old May receives a life sentence: she must become a Sin Eater—a shunned woman, brutally marked, whose fate is to hear the final confessions of the dying, eat ritual foods symbolizing their sins as a funeral rite, and thereby shoulder their transgressions to grant their souls access to heaven.

Orphaned and friendless, apprenticed to an older Sin Eater who cannot speak to her, May must make her way in a dangerous and cruel world she barely understands. When a deer heart appears on the coffin of a royal governess who did not confess to the dreadful sin it represents, the older Sin Eater refuses to eat it. She is taken to prison, tortured, and killed. To avenge her death, May must find out who placed the deer heart on the coffin and why.

“A keenly researched feminist arc of unexpected abundance, reckoning, intellect, and ferocious survival” (Maria Dahvana Headley, author of The Mere Wife) Sin Eater is “a dark, rich story replete with humor, unforgettable characters, and arcane mysteries. It casts a spell on your heart and mind until the final page” (Jennie Melamed, author of Gather the Daughters).

The Unseen is now seen. The Unheard is now heard. The sins of your flesh become the sins of mine to be borne to my grave in silence. Speak.

Megan Campisi’s Sin Eater defies genre. It is historical fiction, but not completely; it’s fantasy/fabulist¹, but not completely. This indefinite quality adds to its appeal. Sin-eaters did exist, but sin-eaters still remain more in folkloric history in which not much is widely known about them and their practices. Campisi brings an alternate speculative look at Elizabethan England that is rich and detailed, and I wanted more from the world she created. The comp titles listed with this are wide and varied, and for the most part I don’t know if they particularly fit, aside from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the sense that this is a character study of a young woman in a society that prefers she stay in her place and not question anything. If anything, my comp would be The Handmaid’s Tale meets Parasite in an alternate Tudor England as this is very much about class, violent deception, and the fear that rules institutionalized religion.

May Owens, the fourteen year old girl sentenced to become a Sin Eater after stealing food, is the perfect set of eyes through which to experience this world, because like her, we are unfamiliar with a lot of the customs outside of our immediate recognition. May’s isolation and loneliness are present on the page, along with her discomfort and estrangement at her own acceptance of her life’s chosen path. When she delves into the mystery surrounding her mentor’s death, May discovers that the court for which she is performing the sin eating is rife with manipulative and deceptive people, and nobody can be trusted but herself, and even then she’s not entirely sure she can trust herself.

This is an excellent intrigue of a novel, grim and gruesome with a lot of heart, and it’s a contender to be one of my favorite reads of the year.

Thank you to Atria Books for a review copy! All opinions are my own.

¹ I’ve begun using “fabulist” for something that isn’t quite “real” and not quite “fantasy” in terms of genre, as “magical realism” is a style specific to Latin American literature.

BOOK REVIEW: To Have and To Hoax, by Martha Waters

BOOK REVIEW: To Have and To Hoax, by Martha WatersTitle: To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters
Published by Atria Books
Published: April 7th 2020
Genres: Romance
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

In this fresh and hilarious historical rom-com, an estranged husband and wife in Regency England feign accidents and illness in an attempt to gain attention—and maybe just win each other back in the process.

Five years ago, Lady Violet Grey and Lord James Audley met, fell in love, and got married. Four years ago, they had a fight to end all fights, and have barely spoken since.

Their once-passionate love match has been reduced to one of cold, detached politeness. But when Violet receives a letter that James has been thrown from his horse and rendered unconscious at their country estate, she races to be by his side—only to discover him alive and well at a tavern, and completely unaware of her concern. She’s outraged. He’s confused. And the distance between them has never been more apparent.

Wanting to teach her estranged husband a lesson, Violet decides to feign an illness of her own. James quickly sees through it, but he decides to play along in an ever-escalating game of manipulation, featuring actors masquerading as doctors, threats of Swiss sanitariums, faux mistresses—and a lot of flirtation between a husband and wife who might not hate each other as much as they thought. Will the two be able to overcome four years of hurt or will they continue to deny the spark between them?

With charm, wit, and heart in spades, To Have and To Hoax is a fresh and eminently entertaining romantic comedy—perfect for fans of Jasmine Guillory and Julia Quinn.

I have very much been in the mood for reading romances because they’re light and fun and take you away from the world for a bit, and To Have and To Hoax is a fun regency romance in which a husband and wife suffer from misaligned communication and miscommunication, and now resort to playing games with each other to try to win each other’s attention and affection. And of course none of it goes as planned.

The main characters are immature, stubborn, and insufferable, but it is a delight to read because the situations in which they found themselves resulted in witty dialogue and believable chemistry. For me, I thought that the games they played went on a little too long which made the middle of the book drag a bit, and I thought the chapters could be too long and possibly better broken into shorter ones, especially when the point of view changed. The core of the argument that drove Audley and Violet apart was not revealed until well into the book, leaving you guessing as to what could possibly drive two people apart for four years other than sheer stubbornness and an inability to talk about it. Otherwise the pacing was good and kept me interested to find out what shenanigans the characters got up to next.

Ultimately, I think my favorite parts of the entire book involved Violet’s friends and how each of them were involved in Violet’s schemes, and I hope Waters writes more about them, because I think their stories would be just as entertaining to read!

If you are in the mood for a more modern twist on regency romance, definitely check this one out.

Thank you to Atria for sending me an advance reader’s copy; all opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Bonds of Brass, by Emily Skrutskie

BOOK REVIEW: Bonds of Brass, by Emily SkrutskieTitle: Bonds of Brass by Emily Skrutskie
Series: The Bloodright Trilogy #1
Published by Del Rey Books
Published: April 7th 2020
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 304
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley, Publisher
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

A young pilot risks everything to save his best friend--the man he trusts most and might even love--only to learn that he's secretly the heir to a brutal galactic empire.

Ettian Nassun's life was shattered when the merciless Umber Empire invaded. He's spent seven years putting himself back together under its rule, joining an Umber military academy and becoming the best pilot in his class. Even better, he's met Gal Veres--his exasperating and infuriatingly enticing roommate who's made the Academy feel like a new home.

But when dozens of classmates spring an assassination plot on Gal, a devastating secret comes to light: Gal is the heir to the Umber Empire. Ettian barely manages to save his best friend and flee the compromised Academy unscathed, rattled both that Gal stands to inherit the empire that broke him and that there are still people willing to fight back against Umber rule. As they piece together a way to deliver Gal safely to his throne, Ettian finds himself torn in half by an impossible choice. Does he save the man who's won his heart and trust that Gal's goodness could transform the empire? Or does he throw his lot in with the brewing rebellion and fight to take back what's rightfully theirs?

One of the things I love about Emily Skrutskie’s work (and I have only read two of hers, and now obviously need to fix this) is that she makes you immediately care about the characters and throws you right into the action without feeling as if you’re missing any information. Bonds of Brass plays with familiar sci-fi and romance tropes (big galactic empire heirs, omg they were roommates) while breathing new life into them all while taking you on a wild space chase through the galaxy. It also throws a handful of references to those of us who like a particular Star Wars ship, and it felt like Skrutskie said, if Star Wars won’t do it, I will. And she did.

The book opens with Ettian defending Gal, his roommate, from an attack from schoolmates; and after this, Ettian begins to struggle reconciling the truth about Gal’s identity, his feelings for his roommate, and the status of the galaxy at large. Gal’s the heir to the Umber Empire, the very same empire that shattered Ettian’s home, the capital city of the former Archon Empire. During their escape, Ettian and Gal meet Wen, a scrappy scavenger, who reveals that an Archon resistance exists, and she might be the only way for either of them to get home, wherever that home might be.

Without revealing any spoilers, the last third of this book is incredibly action-packed and a complete free fall of revelations that shift everything you as the reader knew about Ettian and Gal and the empires to which they belonged, and the final reveal occurs at the end of the book that will leave you desperate for the sequel. I can’t wait to see how each character continues to come to terms with the annihilation and violence the empires have wrought and to see how the relationships among all of the characters develop. Overall, this is a fun sci-fi title that makes you feel things.

When I first heard about this book, I was certain it was marketed as YA, but it’s published by an adult imprint. This first installment does read a little bit like YA, so it’s definitely a crossover, but I’m hoping with the rest of the trilogy, Skrutskie takes it as far as she’s able to really explore the depths this galaxy has to offer.

Thank you to Del Rey for the giveaway and the advance copy to read!