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I do not consider myself a physically strong person. I have the upper arm strength of a third grader. Unfortunately, I do not have the body proportions of a third grader. The last time I tried to do a pull-up, it felt like my armpits were being shredded like cheesecloth. So defending myself from a physical attack—let alone initiating one—isn't something I spend much time thinking about. I've already accepted that if the zombie apocalypse happens, the best I can hope for is a swift demise.

Maybe the pleasure of vicarious living was the reason I enjoyed The Sweetheart as much as I did. I certainly couldn't relate to the protagonist, Leonie Putzkammer, in any meaningful way. Leonie, at almost 6 feet tall with lustrous blonde hair and curves that won't quit, is recognized in 1953 at the age of 17 as a perfect candidate for professional female wrestling. After demonstrating her tumbling ability right there in the middle of the Philadelphia diner where she waits tables, Leonie is swept up into a brand-new life: she becomes Gorgeous Gwen Davies, eventually one of the most notorious female wrestlers in the business.

Leonie quickly finds that the life of a professional wrestler isn't always glamorous. She gets roped into playing the part of a “heel,” equivalent to the villain in a vaudeville act. Her job is to make the crowds hate her—and they do, even if she wins, especially if she wins. Relations among the other wrestlers are tense on the road, particularly with her partner, Screaming Mimi Hollander, a veteran of the ring. Plus, sporting the body-baring suits the act requires demands a certain level of daring in her straitlaced era. Leonie loves the attention, but she also finds herself crumbling under the strain of it.

Leonie's adventures make for a fun, rollicking read, but Mirabella injects an unexpected dose of ethical ambiguity that elevates The Sweetheart above the level of frothy 1950s nostalgia. Leonie is far from a perfect angel, despite her golden appearance. She makes some questionable choices both in and out of the ring, and ends up suffering the consequences. She's likable without being one-dimensional. Sometimes it's cathartic to encounter a character floundering through life, making decisions on a whim and reaping regret.

But I will say, as a person who couldn't execute a roundhouse kick without falling on her face, it's also really fun to watch Leonie kick ass.

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I came to love basketball later in life than most fans. I was a junior in high school, and the University of Kansas had risen to the top of my list of college options. My grandma had been a KU fan for years, and her enthusiasm mixed with my own excitement at the prospect of heading to college, especially a school where basketball is king. Before I knew it, I had learned what a ball screen was, and I've spent every March since 2002 screaming at the TV.

So, as a basketball fan, I was really into Nina Revoyr's debut novel, originally published in 1997 and set in the mid-to-late '80s. The narrator is Nancy Takahiro, a standout forward on her high school team in inner city LA. As a six-footer with a quick first step, Nancy has been getting attention from college scouts for pretty much her entire high school career. She loves the game of basketball, and she knows it's her ticket out of Inglewood.

Nancy's life becomes more complicated when her father starts dating the mother of a highly-touted player from a different school, Raina Webber. Nancy has had feelings for Raina for a long time—feelings that Raina hasn't reciprocated. When their parents move in together, Nancy and Raina will have to navigate a minefield of issues, on and off the court. They're both incredibly fierce competitors, and emotions run as high and hard as the girls do in practice.

There's so much going on in this novel besides basketball. Nancy's father and Raina's mother have to deal with backlash from their friends over their inter-racial relationship (Nancy's father is of Japanese descent, while Raina's mother is African-American). Nancy has to find a way to swallow her jealousy every time she sees Raina with her girlfriend, Toni. Both their parents have good jobs, so the family isn't living in poverty, but life in their neighborhood isn't always easy or safe. And after all the high school games are finally over, Nancy and Raina are each going to have to choose a college, decisions that will have ripple effects throughout their entire lives.

The basketball scenes are well-placed, building tension throughout the book to a showdown that feels inevitable, though I never could have predicted the outcome. Those scenes on the court are where Revoyr's narration shines the brightest. I could see perfectly every pass, every shot, down to the last heartbreaking second. (Of course, if you don't have at least a basic grasp of the game, those scenes won't carry as much of a punch.) And I didn't live in LA in the '80s, but to my ear, Revoyr's dialogue rings true—exactly how I'd imagine players jawing to each other on the court.

I had to delve deep into the backlist for this one—it's not terribly often these days I'm reading books written in the '90s—but I'm so glad I did. And I'll definitely be checking out more of Revoyr's books in the future.