A Curveball Romance: Playing for Keeps by Jennifer Dugan

Playing for Keeps cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

A baseball pitcher and umpire definitely aren’t supposed to fall for each other, right? Especially not when star pitcher June and officiate-to-be Ivy are trying to go pro. Sometimes, life throws you a curveball, though. When Ivy is assigned as an umpire for June’s elite club baseball team, they instantly clash on the field, only to find they have something in common: grief. Soon, they become enemies to friends to far more, despite the rules that prohibit them from dating each other. Will romance get in the way of them following their dreams?

On the surface, Playing for Keeps seems like a fun, sweet young adult sapphic romance. The initial set-up gives us sharp, bittersweet enemies to lovers potential between a pitch and an umpire. Seems cute and fluffy, right? No one is that one-dimensional, though. Both Ivy and June are struggling with the loss of a loved one, balancing that on top of unrealistic expectations from their parents and the pressures they put on themselves to succeed. Add in the pressure you get from sports alone and it’s enough to make anyone crumble. Ivy and June find happiness in each other, through stolen moments as they date in secret, wary that the conflict of interest between them will tear them apart. There’s a potential for them to heal through one another, alongside one another, while learning how to navigate the external forces of loss while growing up.

I loved that both Ivy and June were pursuing career paths that don’t often make space for women. I would have liked to see more focus on that, though. It was sweet to see how the male players on the baseball team were quick to support June, but I expected to see more pushback (either from her team or other teams) to show (not tell us) how she struggled and still persevered.

Unfortunately, the story is so rushed, so many scenes time-jumped, emotions mentioned but not illustrated, that I didn’t FEEL anything while reading this story. With the topic of grief, whether a character is processing it or trying to avoid it, readers should have an easy time sympathizing with the characters. Instead, the grief feels like a plot point, a reason for potential enemies to connect and eventually become more.

Even with little jumps, the story lagged. Dugan has a tendency to pair selfless characters with less reasonable counterparts, which we certainly see between Ivy and June. Given that, it’s difficult to root for both girls. Yes, they’re both grieving, and yes, they both deserve happiness, but their actions are exhausting and (yes, I know it’s YA) juvenile at times. Though the two girls had so much in common, the miscommunication trope constantly tugged them in opposite directions.

Recommended for fans of Some Girls Do, Home Field Advantage, and Cool for the Summer.

The Vibes
⚾ Enemies to Lovers
⚾ Young Adult Romance
⚾ Sapphic Romance
⚾ Forbidden Love
⚾ Lesbian & Bi FMCs
⚾ Sports Romance
⚾ Grief
⚾ Pressure From Parents
⚾ Miscommunication


“Expecting it means I can prepare for it, plan for it, and figure out a way to keep my cool in its face. What I didn’t expect, though, was for there to be an extremely attractive girl throwing balls at about seventy-five billion miles per hour, striking out dumb boys left and right, like some kind of varsity, all-star Black Widow.”

“There’s a lot of pressure on girls to conform, to become nice women, to do what’s expected. Smile more, whiten your teeth, lose the weight, don’t be too loud or too funny or too much. Make yourself less so the boys can feel like more. Don’t wear spaghetti straps or you might tempt them. Hold yourself accountable for the both of you, so they don’t have to.”

Nat reviews Tailor-Made by Yolanda Wallace

Tailor-Made by Yolanda Wallace

I went looking for one of Wallace’s newer books at the library and, to my delight, stumbled on a few of her older books, which is always a nice surprise when you find a new author you like. Instant book list! Tailor-Made is an opposites attract, forbidden love romance with a lot of interesting dialogue on gender and bias, which while sometimes clumsily explored, shows good intention. 

Grace Henderson is a tailor working for her father, and set to take over the family business when he retires. Grace is a daddy’s girl, and still lives at home with her family, including her two sisters. It’s a full house with not a lot of privacy. Grace is out to her family, and while they’re church-going folks who care about their standing in the community, and who lean on the conservative side, they’re supportive in a conditional sort of way. As long as Grace is dating “respectable,” feminine women, they really don’t care about her sexuality. 

Enter Dakota Lane, bad boi lesbian and famous men’s clothing model. She’s butch, white, and always in the tabloids with a new woman. When Dakota and Grace have instant chemistry during a suit fitting, they try and fail to stay away from each other. Grace struggles with her undeniable attraction to a masculine woman and repeatedly tells herself Dakota is “not her type,” as her childhood posters of Janet Jackson prove. 

Gender presentation is a really important theme in the book, though there are some awkward moments during the exploration. One of these speed bump moments is courtesy of Dad, who is maybe a little out of touch in that boomer sort of way. There’s a moment near the beginning of the book that gave me pause, with Dad describing a new, transgender client as “a woman who used to be a man,” and it took a few more pages to confirm this was Dad’s voice and a tool to introduce the topic of gender identity, rather than a direct reflection of the author. A few more pages clears this up nicely, but I did tilt my head and brace for the worst. Grace realizes she has something to learn about the transgender community, pronoun use, and her unconscious bias toward masc of center women. This leads to some exploration of what it means to be visibly queer vs passing, and a well-placed, very real and uncomfortable scene where Dakota goes through an airport scanner and is misgendered. 

There are some issues and tension with one of Grace’s sisters that largely remain unresolved, not a huge deal as far as loose ends go as the sister wasn’t a main part of the plot, but she did introduce a healthy amount of negativity and resentment toward Grace. I think one of my larger disappointments came with how Grace handled her budding relationship with Dakota, which was filled with miscommunication. After a pep talk from her other, more supportive sister about not letting your parents dictate your decisions and life, she still didn’t really make the decision to embark on her independence both in terms of her career and romantic relationship without daddy’s approval. That irked me a little bit, even though things worked out for her—of course, it is a romance—I was really rooting for her to reach a point where she didn’t need her father’s acceptance to move forward. 

There could have also been a touch more groveling at the end after Grace and Dakota part ways in our third act conflict. Poor Dakota was way more forgiving than warranted considering how things go down (though that is a frequent complaint of mine in a lot of recent contemporary romances). Girl, make her work for it! Wallace’s Tailor-Made may not be the bespoke suit of romance novels, but it’s certainly a fun read to add to your list.