Check & Mate
Grade : A-

This is Ali Hazelwood’s first YA novel and it is so good! Mallory (Mal) Greenleaf has not played chess in years. Her best friend is leaving for college and asks Mal for one last favor – to play on her team in a charity chess tournament. She reluctantly agrees to compete and then ends up beating Nolan Sawyer, the bad boy of chess and top player in the world! After such an exciting start, I was on the edge of my seat to see what would happen next and, as I kept reading, I really didn’t want to put the book down.

Mal was a chess prodigy when she was fourteen, but after a tragedy in her family, her father, who was a chess grandmaster (GM) is gone and she quit playing chess. We don’t find out what happened to her father until later in the story and it’s sad. Now it’s the summer after high school graduation and she’s working as a mechanic to help support her family. Her mom has rheumatoid arthritis and is struggling. She needs better medicine and Mal is determined to be able to afford it. Mal also helps care for her two younger teen sisters, Sabrina and Darcy and there’s a lot of snarky banter between them.

After she beats Nolan she is offered a chess fellowship that helps players trying to go pro and it’s enough money to change her family’s life. She begins studying chess strategies and competing and even wins some cash prizes. There was just enough detail given about the chess matches to keep me engaged without being overwhelmed. Mal keeps her chess playing a secret from her mom because when she was younger, her mom worried about the ‘hyper-competitive environment’. She tells her mom she has a new job working at a senior center.

Meanwhile Nolan is eager to play chess with Mal again and comes to her home. Mal introduces him as a work colleague from the senior center and there is a lot of humor when he ends up staying for dinner, devours her mom’s meatloaf, and meets Mal’s feisty sisters. Over the meal, Darcy is quick to share that Mal is bi and we later find out that Nolan hasn’t really dated much (maybe demi?). Nolan also suffered a tragedy when he was a teen and he self-emancipated himself from his family. He lives in his grandfather’s penthouse apartment and his grandfather was a famous GM. Nolan and Mal comfort and help each other with their grief and feelings of guilt.

There are wonderful secondary characters like Nolan’s friends and Darcy’s sisters along with Oz and Defne, Mal’s chess mentors. There are tons of references related to gen z, like Morphy Game, Riverdale, Timothée Chalamet and how Nolan was on the cover of Time magazine with the caption ‘a gen z sex symbol’, and more.

I thought the story felt more like a New Adult than a YA. While it does fade to black so we don’t see explicit scenes, there’s a lot of touching and conversations about sex in the book, also Mal is eighteen and Nolan is twenty.

Mal navigates her relationship with her family, her friends, and with Nolan as she finds herself both attracted and infuriated with him. Nolan is wonderful to Mal. I was frustrated that Mal waited so long to tell her mom about the chess tournaments and sometimes she was a little bit of a drama queen but I admired her brilliance and her loyalty to her family and friends.

This story has a great plot, sweet romance, complex family relationships, and fun, nerdy characters. I highly recommend it!

Reviewed by Kayne Spooner

Grade: A-

Sensuality: Subtle

Review Date : November 7, 2023

Publication Date: 11/2023

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Kayne Spooner

Kayne Spooner is a retired science teacher, dog owner, and proud grandma who lives in beautiful Colorado. While she's an avid reader of all genres, romances have always swept her off her feet. Kayne gravitates toward stories with humor, swoon-worthy love interests, and memorable furry sidekicks, although really, if there's a happy ever after, she's here for it! She loves sharing her passion for books with the romance community and connecting with fellow readers.
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