Saying Mallory Greenleaf's relationship with chess is complicated would be an understatement. She loved the thrill of examining the board and anticipating her opponents moves far enough in advance to beat them, but the sport led to the destruction of her family four years ago and now she's sworn to never play again. Besides, she has enough to worry about - looking after her two younger sisters, caring for her mother when she's sick, working a dead-end job at a garage to provide for her family, and worrying about whether her best friend will forget about her when she heads to college and Mallory... doesn't. But when she's roped into playing at a charity tournament by said best friend, she maybe accidentally inadvertently... wipes the floor with reigning world champion Nolan Sawyer. Soon, Mallory is swept back into the chess world, when a fellowship to train and compete in tournaments lands in her lap, and she slowly starts to regain some of that joy from playing the game as a kid. There is maybe also some interest in the enigmatic world champion, who, for some reason, gives her butterflies and tries to find any excuse to play against her again. But the sport brings up painful memories, and as Mallory climbs the ranks of the leaderboard it becomes almost impossible keep her love for the game she used to hate a secret.
After the last few weeks I've had, I knew I needed to pick up something cute and fluffy yet still engaging, and Check & Mate delivered on all fronts. To start, I've never been one who followed the world of chess, or really understood much about the game itself, but Hazelwood makes the story approachable for readers of all levels of chess knowledge, and while she does take some creative liberties, and cuts some matches short in order to move the plot forward, it still felt incredibly well researched. The book also touches on sexism within the league, and how many of the male players underestimate Mallory's skill simply because she is a woman - it was great to see that sexism challenged by both Mallory herself and other players that want to see the future of chess become a more welcoming place. I love how protective Mallory is of her family, and how those sibling and parent dynamics felt authentic and heartwarming while still allowing for some sister drama to take place. Both Nolan and Mallory had been playing chess at a young age, thanks to the influence of family members, and while both encounter tragedy they work through their own grief and move forward in different ways - Mallory blames chess, and herself, for the destruction of her family and vows to never play again, and Nolan learns everything there is about the game, stands tall, and becomes the top ranked player in the world. Speaking of Nolan, I knew immediately after his on-page introduction he was a character I was going to love. His passion, his knowledge and dedication to chess, and his determination to prove everyone who still sees him as the little boy with a temper wrong are so evident throughout the book. Another aspect I appreciated was depicting the fear of losing a close friendship at the end of high school - even the strongest platonic relationships can fizzle in the transition period after high school, and it's important to remember that relationships of any kind take work, and if you want the other person to remain in your life you need to fight for it [though I will add that if they'd made it clear they do not wish to partake in the relationship any longer, you need to respect their boundary]. One important note to consider is that this book includes a lot of pop culture references. These are pretty common in YA contemporaries, and they do not bother me much, but I know that other readers can have strong opinions against them, and so if that's not your thing I would recommend sitting this one out.
As there can sometimes be discourse surrounding the topic of sex in young adult novels, I just want to highlight how I think Ali Hazelwood handled it extremely well in Check & Mate. It's clear from the beginning that Mallory is sexually active, and has partners of varying genders. When asked, she explains how she sometimes feels comfort in the physically closeness to another person, and usually doesn't feel a very strong emotional connection to the people she sleeps with. This isn't something she's ever ashamed of. Conversely, we learn that Nolan has never had sex before. He's someone who would much rather play a chess match against a reigned grand master than spend the night getting laid. I'm not sure he's ever kissed anyone either (it may be discussed as well, I'm just blanking on the conversation right now). He's never felt any desire to engage in this kind of activity, until he met Mallory. But that isn't something that he's ashamed of either. While I think it's incredibly important to include discussions about sexual activity in young adult books, as I know many teens are engaging in it, I also think it's equally as important to showcase teens who don't quite feel ready yet, or know they don't experience attraction the same way as their peers. I love that in almost every Hazelwood book, she includes characters who experience sexual, romantic, and/or emotional attraction in different ways, and it's always without judgement.
In conclusion, I think I'm just drawn to the type of books Ali Hazelwood writes. Her signature humor, her grumpy misunderstood heroes, her strong-willed heroines, her friendship dynamics, and her well-rounded romances just make me swoon every time. I know her books aren't for everyone, but consider me a fan, and I can't wait to see both what readers think of Check & Mate and what's in store for Hazelwood's future books. *Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers / Penguin Teen for the e-copy, all thoughts and opinions are my own.*