Book Review: The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer

Title: The Matzah Ball
Author: Jean Meltzer
Publisher: MIRA
Publication date: September 28, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is a nice Jewish girl with a shameful secret: she loves Christmas. For a decade she’s hidden her career as a Christmas romance novelist from her family. Her talent has made her a bestseller even as her chronic illness has always kept the kind of love she writes about out of reach.

But when her diversity-conscious publisher insists she write a Hanukkah romance, her well of inspiration suddenly runs dry. Hanukkah’s not magical. It’s not merry. It’s not Christmas. Desperate not to lose her contract, Rachel’s determined to find her muse at the Matzah Ball, a Jewish music celebration on the last night of Hanukkah, even if it means working with her summer camp archenemy—Jacob Greenberg.

Though Rachel and Jacob haven’t seen each other since they were kids, their grudge still glows brighter than a menorah. But as they spend more time together, Rachel finds herself drawn to Hanukkah—and Jacob—in a way she never expected. Maybe this holiday of lights will be the spark she needed to set her heart ablaze. 

This Hanukkah-themed romance was a nice winter treat, with surprising depth amidst some of the goofier shenanigans.

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is the daughter of a prominent Long Island rabbi. She’s an observant Jew… and a secret writer of bestselling Christmas romance novels. She’s spent her life in the public eye, always being monitored by her father’s congregation — is she following all the traditions? is she living a good Jewish life? is she a dutiful daughter? — so how would the congregation react if they knew about her hidden obsession with all things Christmas?

When her publisher declines to renew her contract for more Christmas romances, instead requesting a Hanukkah romance, Rachel panics. To her, Hanukkah is yet another Jewish tradition, nice, but not evoking that sparkly holiday magic like Christmas. But if she’s going to get a contract for a new book, she’ll have to find a way to find the magic in Hanukkah as well… and for inspiration, she’s needs to get a ticket to the sold-out Hanukkah blowout, Matzah Ball Max.

Matzah Ball Max is being produced by Jacob Greenberg, a famous and very successful producer of massive celebrity parties and music festivals and the like. But now, for the first time, Jacob is looking to reconnect with his Jewish background, as well as his problematic family history, by throwing the Hanukkah party of the century.

Back when Rachel and Jacob were twelve, they attended Jewish summer camp together, where they were each other’s first loves and first kisses — but a major conflict left them holding lifelong grudges against one another. Still, Rachel needs a ticket to the Matzah Ball, and reconnecting with Jacob may be her only hope.

The Matzah Ball deals nicely with Rachel and Jacob’s respective backstories and current challenges. For Rachel, this means exploring how she lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — yet another part of her life that she tries to keep secret. For Jacob, it’s coming to terms with his late mother’s years of chronic illness and his father’s abandonment, which led him to teen years full of acting out and resentment toward everyone who cared about him.

As adults, Rachel and Jacob are cautious when they encounter one another again after so many years, but their old connection is still there, and each reluctantly recognizes that their feelings may be more than just dislike and old hurts. They have to be willing to be honest and open up in order to deal with the past and move forward, and this proves difficult for both of them.

There’s a lot to love about The Matzah Ball. For me, well, they had me at “Jewish summer camp”. As the author explains in the notes following the story, she grew up in an Ashkenazi Jewish family in the Northeast, and so much of what she describes absolutely rings true for me. And as for the summer camp piece, all I can say is that if you grew up attending a Jewish summer camp, you’ll get it. The lifelong friendships, the way those brief summers become life-shaping experiences… yes, yes, yes, so true!

I also really loved the warmth with which the author describes Jewish traditions and home life. She’s clearly lived all of this, and while I was afraid initially that the book would include too many stereotypical Jewish-isms, it’s all conveyed with respect and appreciation.

The romance is sweet, and builds nicely along the course of the novel — with the usual amount of miscommunications and nearly-impossible obstacles that you’d expect in a romance novel. Also very well done is the portrayal of Rachel’s chronic illness, shown with sensitivity and compassion — again, based on the author’s own real-life experiences. Here, Rachel’s CFS informs every aspect of her life, and while she’s not looking for pity, she’s also very much aware of how her illness keeps her from living the life she once thought she’d have.

On the downside, there are some slapstick-y scenes that I’m sure were intended to be humorous, but to me, they were just cringey. Putting Rachel in an awful matzah ball costume, having her get stuck in doorways, and colliding with a giant menorah? Just, no.

I also didn’t love a scene with Jacob’s grandmother, in which she shares her Holocaust experiences with Rachel as a sort of pep talk for getting out there and facing her fears. I appreciated hearing about Toby’s experiences, of course, but didn’t like how something this tragic was being spun as a device for getting Rachel to go after Jacob when all hope appeared to be lost.

Overall, though, I did really like The Matzah Ball. Despite its occasionally cornier scenes, there’s a sweetness and warmth that shines through, and I loved the portrayal of Jewish family life as a vibrant way of experiencing the world. This was a very enjoyable read, and I’ll be on the lookout for more by this author.

Book Review: Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses by Kristen O’Neal

Title: Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses
Author: Kristen O’Neal
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: April 27, 2021
Print length: 383 pages
Genre: YA/horror/contemporary
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Teen Wolf meets Emergency Contact in this sharply observed, hilarious, and heartwarming debut young adult novel about friendship and the hairy side of chronic illness.

Priya worked hard to pursue her premed dreams at Stanford, but a diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease during her sophomore year sends her back to her loving but overbearing family in New Jersey—and leaves her wondering if she’ll ever be able to return to the way things were. Thankfully she has her online pen pal, Brigid, and the rest of the members of “oof ouch my bones,” a virtual support group that meets on Discord to crack jokes and vent about their own chronic illnesses.

When Brigid suddenly goes offline, Priya does something out of character: she steals the family car and drives to Pennsylvania to check on Brigid. Priya isn’t sure what to expect, but it isn’t the horrifying creature that’s shut in the basement.

With Brigid nowhere to be found, Priya begins to puzzle together an impossible but obvious truth: the creature might be a werewolf—and the werewolf might be Brigid. As Brigid’s unique condition worsens, their friendship will be deepened and challenged in unexpected ways, forcing them to reckon with their own ideas of what it means to be normal.

For a book with such a cute, light-hearted cover, Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses touches on some heavy and important topics — and it works amazingly well.

Main character Priya sees her premed dreams yanked away after becoming debilitated by Lyme disease. Her illness and constant pain force her to take a leave of absence from Stanford and move back home, where she has to deal not just with her illness and treatment, but also with living in her parents’ home again and her loss of independence. She’s depressed by how she feels physically and by her doubt that she’ll ever be able to become a doctor, knowing her levels of exhaustion, pain, and brain fog will prevent her from being able to put in the hours and study needed. She misses her college friends, and wonders if any of them even think about her anymore. It feels like life has just passed her by in a big way, and meanwhile, her painful joints and lack of stamina are here to stay.

Luckily, she has her on-line friend Brigid and a group of other people with chronic illnesses, who form a virtual group (called, adorably, “oof ouch my bones”). The group share stories about their diagnoses, treatments, and fears, but also plenty of laughs and unconditional support. Priya and Brigid are particularly close, and when Brigid fails to show up for a scheduled chat, Priya decides to step way out of her comfort zone and go check on her.

As you won’t be surprised to learn at all, since it’s all right there in the book’s title, Brigid’s chronic illness is lycanthropy. Once a month, she changes into a big, scary, hairy, teeth-y creature — and normally it’s under control, because she locks herself into the basement ahead of time. But lately, her changes have been coming more frequently and with no advance warning, and Brigid fears that before too long, she won’t be herself at all anymore.

Priya decides to help Brigid, and the two embark on a quest to find out why Brigid turns and if there’s a cure. Along the way, they’re joined by the cute local animal control guy who helps Priya when wolf-Brigid gets loose and terrorizes her small town. Hijinks ensue, naturally… but would you believe me if I told you that Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses is also very empathetic and touching?

Through Priya and Brigid’s experiences, as well as through the conversations with the online group, we are shown first-hand what chronic illness can do to a person’s life. Priya is a wonderful point-of-view character, and the author lets us inside Priya’s heart and mind, letting us witness her fears, pain, disappointment, and stress.

As the parent of someone with a chronic illness, I felt that so much of Priya’s experiences rang true. The author really captures the way a chronic illness diagnosis can feel like a life’s been upended and derailed, and how the knowledge that the symptoms and risks will linger a lifetime can feel overwhelming, like nothing will ever be the same. I really felt for Priya, who at the beginning feeling hopeless and that her life will have no greater purpose, and was really cheered when she slowly starts to discover that living with a chronic illness may mean that she has to adapt her dreams, but not abandon them.

Of course, the werewolf escapades are quite fun, and Priya and Brigid’s friendship is wonderful. So much of their communication is online, through texts, blog posts, and group chats, and it’s all very quirky and cute, and often very, very funny.

I’m so grateful to Quirk Books for approving my ARC request! I’m not sure that I would have stumbled across this book without seeing it on NetGalley, and I’m so, so glad that I read it!

Tiny little grumble: Because of the formatting of the texts, chats, etc, I read this ARC in PDF format rather than on my Kindle, and while I thought I was highlighting great lines and funny passages, apparently none of my highlighting stuck. So… sorry for not being able to share quotes, but trust me, this book has plenty of seriously funny ones!

I enjoyed this book so much. Don’t miss it!


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