Book Review: The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren

Title: The Soulmate Equation
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Single mom Jess Davis is a data and statistics wizard, but no amount of number crunching can convince her to step back into the dating world. Raised by her grandparents–who now help raise her seven-year-old daughter, Juno–Jess has been left behind too often to feel comfortable letting anyone in. After all, her father’s never been around, her hard-partying mother disappeared when she was six, and her ex decided he wasn’t “father material” before Juno was even born. Jess holds her loved ones close, but working constantly to stay afloat is hard…and lonely.

But then Jess hears about GeneticAlly, a buzzy new DNA-based matchmaking company that’s predicted to change dating forever. Finding a soulmate through DNA? The reliability of numbers: This Jess understands. At least she thought she did, until her test shows an unheard-of 98% compatibility with another subject in the database: GeneticAlly’s founder, Dr. River Pena. This is one number she can’t wrap her head around, because she already knows Dr. Pena. The stuck-up, stubborn man is without a doubt not her soulmate. But GeneticAlly has a proposition: Get to know him and we’ll pay you. Jess–who is barely making ends meet–is in no position to turn it down, despite her skepticism about the project and her dislike for River. As the pair are dragged from one event to the next as the “Diamond” pairing that could make GeneticAlly a mint in stock prices, Jess begins to realize that there might be more to the scientist–and the science behind a soulmate–than she thought.

Funny, warm, and full of heart, The Soulmate Equation proves that the delicate balance between fate and choice can never be calculated.

When you pick up a new Christina Lauren book, you know you’ll get crazy good chemistry, unlikely pairings, great banter, and lots of clever plotting. The Soulmate Equation is no exception — yet another really fun modern romance with a few tricks up its sleeves.

Main character Jess, on the cusp of 30, spends all day, every day at a local coffee shop, working on her freelance statistics jobs alongside her best friend Fizzy, a successful romance writer. They use the free wifi, buy snacks and drinks every 90 minutes so they’re not just mooching, people watch, get work done, and enjoy one another’s company. And they always notice the arrival of “Americano”, the surly yet gorgeous businessman who arrives every morning exactly at 8:24, orders the exact same drink, and leaves without making eye contact with a single person.

Jess is getting by, but she has constant worries. She needs to keep and attract more clients to feel financially secure, and as the single mother of a 7-year-old, she’s only too aware of how precarious their situation could be. One dropped client could mean no ballet lessons for Juno, but one more could mean she’d be able to save for braces. Fortunately, Jess and Juno live in the same complex as Jess’s Nana and Pops, the loving grandparents who raised Jess, and their love and support makes a huge difference.

Everything changes one day when Fizzy learns that “Americano” is starting an online matchmaking business, which the friends just can’t believe. He is so stern and buttoned-up! Fizzy, being her usual effervescent self, stops him in the coffee shop and asks him, and while he says it’s not exactly a matchmaking service, he does leave a card and invites them to learn more. Never one to waste time, Fizzy insists that they go check out the office same day.

Lo and behold, “Americano” is actually Dr. River Pena, a geneticist and found of GeneticAlly, a company that uses DNA analysis to assess compatibility and match people biologically determined to be likely soulmates. It all sounds a bit crazy, but Jess is reluctantly fascinated by the statistics quoted during their presentation, and Fizzy just wants a chance for some reasonably good hook-ups. Fizzy submits a sample, and Jess eventually does too, after a day when she feels particularly down about how unchanging her life feels.

Things truly get crazy when Jess is urgently called back to the GeneticAlly offices. Her tests have come back, and she’s matched at a 98% compatible score, something never seen before. The company reps are thrilled, especially at the idea of the great press they’ll get ahead of the company’s IPO… all except Dr. Pena, who, it turns out, is Jess’s match. But how can this be? They can barely tolerate one another!

You can see where this is going, right? Jess agrees to spend time with River for the sake of the company, even though she knows the data must not be right. How can numbers predict who you’ll fall in love with? An even scarier thought for Jess is, what if the numbers really are true? Can science say you’ll fall for someone even when all first impressions say the exact opposite?

Watching Jess and River get to know one another and start to acknowledge their developing chemisty is quite fun. Jess is an amazing and responsible mother, so she’s very cautious about letting River into her life. Meanwhile, River is a serious scientist who’s never made time for love, but he’s staked his entire career on this company and absolutely believes in it — so if he denies that their results mean that they’re meant for one another, what does this mean for his faith in his own work?

The flirtation and courtship and physical attraction between these two is adorable, and I love how they each open up to one another, allowing the other person to see and understand their vulnerabilities, their past experiences, and their hopes and fears. They’re incredibly sweet together, and if you don’t melt during some of the scenes of River helping Juno with her homework, then you have no soul. (Too harsh? Sorry.)

One thing I always appreciate in Christina Lauren books is how smart and competent and professional their female characters are. Jess is a statistician — how cool is that? And it’s not just a throwaway. Not that I understand her work, but I liked reading about her projects, her thought processes, and how she applies her knowledge of data and statistics to understanding River’s work and GeneticAlly’s match results.

Fizzy is an awesome best friend, and I love that she’s a romance writer. There are a few lines about her work that made me think she’s standing in for the author duo and proving wrong (in the funniest way possible) every lousy, ill-informed comment about writing romances that they’ve ever been subjected to. Fizzy is funny and supportive and silly, and I’d love to read even more about her!

The Soulmate Equation is a lot of fun, and it’ll leave you with all sorts of warm, fuzzy feels. I read it over the course of two gray, drizzly days, and it made me feel like the sun was shining again! If you enjoy smart contemporary romance that feels authentic even when it’s funny, don’t miss this one!

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Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

The Monday Check-In ~ 5/17/2021

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My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

It’s been a busy, crazy workweek — but what else is new? I actually have a day off today, and I’m so looking forward to doing nothing at all…

In blogging news, I finally tackled a project I’ve been putting off for a while now. For the first several years of blogging, for whatever reason, when I posted book reviews, I used the book title but didn’t include the author name in the post title. I’ve been meaning to go back and fix this, but it seemed like a daunting task. But, this week, I finally did it — I went back through HUNDREDS of posts and added the author name to each post title… and I feel like I accomplished something!

What did I read during the last week?

When He Was Wicked by Julia Quinn: The 6th Bridgerton book, read on my flight home last weekend. My review is here.

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith: Powerful, engaging contemporary fiction. My review is here.

Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses by Kristen O’Neal: I loved it! My review is here.

The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory: Terrific sci-fi mash-up! My review is here.

Pop culture & TV:

I just finished Shadow & Bone on Netflix. I’m not sure how impressed I am — a lot of it feels like a retread of typical YA fantasy tropes. But, I know there are tons of fans out there. Should I read the books???

Puzzle of the Week:

Back to puzzling! A sweet, fun, kind of simple one this week:

Fresh Catch:

One new book this week — thank you to Orbit for sending a review copy of this gorgeous book! Can’t wait to start it:

And book-related… I made an impulse purchase on EBay that arrived this week! I’m out of shelf space, yet again, and thought a library cart would make a cute addition to my book room. With special thanks to my son, who assembled it for me while I was in a long Zoom meeting.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren: A new book by this author duo is always reason to cheer!

Now playing via audiobook:

Golden Child by Claire Adam: My book group’s pick for May. I’ve made almost no progress, but I’m determined to get through it before my book group discussion.

Ongoing reads:

  • This is it! After over a year, we’re finishing Don Quixote this week!!! Only two chapters to go.
  • Outlander Book Club is doing a speed-re-read of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, #8 in the Outlander series. We’re doing 5 chapters per week. Let me know if you want to join in — the more, the merrier! This week: Chapters 11-15.

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory

Title: The Album of Dr. Moreau
Author: Daryl Gregory
Publisher: Tordotcom
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Daryl Gregory’s The Album of Dr. Moreau combines the science fiction premise of the famous novel by H. G. Wells with the panache of a classic murder mystery and the spectacle of a beloved boy band.

It’s 2001, and the WyldBoyZ are the world’s hottest boy band, and definitely the world’s only genetically engineered human-animal hybrid vocal group. When their producer, Dr. M, is found murdered in his hotel room, the “boyz” become the prime suspects. Was it Bobby the ocelot (“the cute one”), Matt the megabat (“the funny one”), Tim the Pangolin (“the shy one”), Devin the bonobo (“the romantic one”), or Tusk the elephant (“the smart one”)?

Las Vegas Detective Luce Delgado has only twenty-four hours to solve a case that goes all the way back to the secret science barge where the WyldBoyZ’ journey first began—a place they used to call home.

This book is so weird… and I loved it.

In The Album of Dr. Moreau, we meet the WyldBoyZ — the world’s most adored boy band, who sing in perfect harmony, have killer dance moves, and have the physical appearance of very interesting animal/human mixes. These five pop stars are genetically engineered animal-human hybrids, and they’ve taken the world by storm.

As the book opens, their ethically-challenged, manipulative manager Dr. M. has been found brutally murdered in his Las Vegas suite after the Boyz’s final tour performance and blow-out afterparty. Who wanted Dr. M. dead, and who had opportunity? As Detective Luce Delgado quickly establishes, all of the Boyz had motive, and any one of them could have had access.

Meanwhile, the case is complicated by the WyldBoyZ’s wild celebrity, as well as by their rabid fan base, referred to as zoomies (which true fans consider offensive — they prefer zoomandos, thank you very much). Zoomies dress in elaborate animal costumes, so as Luce and her colleagues review the video footage from the party, it’s pretty much impossible to tell who’s who beneath the unicorn, gopher, chipmunk, and other furry costumes.

As Luce investigates, we get to know each of the Boyz, and learn more and more about their backstory, where they came from, and what they’ve had to endure. I absolutely loved her interviews with the band members, seeing their personalities, their habits, and their quirks… and how not weird she tries to make it as she’s sitting and having a conversation with a human-pangolin hybrid, as one example.

This book is short, but so jam-packed with goodness that there’s no wasted space. I was entertained and hooked from page one, and adored every moment. The wacky idea of a human-animal-hybrid boy band is so out there, and it’s perfect.

I happen to have read The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells last year, and that made reading The Album of Dr. Moreau extra amusing as a point of comparison — but don’t worry if you haven’t read the Wells classic. It’s not necessary for enjoying this book, since they don’t really have anything to do with one another except as a passing reference… but if you’re curious, it’s worth checking out.

The Album of Dr. Moreau is so much crazy fun. My only complaint: I really, REALLY, want to see a video of the WyldBoyZ in action. Please, someone, make it happen!!

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Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

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:

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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Buy Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Audiobook Review: This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith

Title: This Close to Okay
Author: Leesa Cross-Smith
Narrators: Kamali Minter, Zeno Robinson
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: February 2, 2021
Print length: 311 pages
Audiobook length: 9 hours, 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From the award-winning Southern writer who Roxane Gay calls “a consummate storyteller” comes a cathartic novel about the life-changing weekend shared between two strangers: a therapist and the man she prevents from ending his life.

On a rainy October night in Kentucky, recently divorced therapist Tallie Clark is on her way home from work when she spots a man precariously standing on the side of a bridge. Without a second thought, Tallie pulls over and jumps out of the car into the pouring rain. She convinces the man to join her for a cup of coffee, and he eventually agrees to come back to her house, where he finally shares his name: Emmett.

Over the course of the emotionally charged weekend that follows, Tallie makes it her mission to provide a safe space for Emmett, though she hesitates to confess that this is also her day job. But what she doesn’t realize is that he’s not the only one who needs healing — and she’s not the only one with secrets.

Alternating between Tallie and Emmett’s perspectives as they inch closer to the truth of what brought Emmett to the bridge’s edge — as well as the hard truths Tallie has been grappling with in her own life — This Close to Okay is a vibrant, powerful story of two strangers brought together by wild chance at the moment they needed each other most.

In this moving, surprising, dual-narrator novel, we meet two damaged souls who find solace and hope through their accidental meeting.

When Tallie sees a man poised to jump off a bridge, she immediately tries to intervene, gently using her words and music to encourage him back from the brink, then continuing to provide companionship and support in the hours and days that follow. She doesn’t approach Emmett as a therapist, although she is one — instead, she offers caring and compassion, as well as shelter and a safe space.

Over the course of their time together, each slowly opens up to the other, but at their own pace, and keeping secrets even while sharing hopes, fears, and past hurts. They each also cross boundaries, aware of infringing on the other’s privacy but somehow justifying this through good intentions.

The book shifts point-of-view between Tallie and Emmett, and through their alternating chapters, we learn about the events in their lives that brought them both to this particular moment. Each has been through hurts and suffering, and while Tallie shares the pain of her husband’s betrayal and subsequent divorce, Emmett keeps his past largely to himself, hiding the source of his desperation and suicidal impulses, and even hiding his true identity.

The beauty of This Close to Okay is in getting to know these complex characters and seeing how the different struggles in their lives have contributed to where they are as the story opens. It’s lovely to see their interactions and how they each affect the other in deep and meaningful ways. The story is not action-packed — it’s really about the characters and how they connect, and that’s probably why it resonates on such an emotional level.

Sure, there are some elements that I could quibble with. Tallie takes a huge risk by bringing Emmett into her life and into her home, and it’s hard to believe that a modern woman in this day and age would potentially compromise her own safety in such a dramatic way. Yes, Emmett is trustworthy and respectful and safe, but she really couldn’t have known that up front, could she? Likewise, I have a bone to pick with Tallie’s decision to not share with Emmett that she’s a therapist. She knows that her professional obligation toward an official client would be to refer him for treatment and report an attempted suicide, but she rationalizes that Emmett is not her client as part of her decision to just spend time with him and offer him a place to rest and regroup. She has compassionate impulses, and since this is a novel, it all works out, but looking in from the outside, this feels like a very risky and unprofessional path to take.

The audiobook made for a great listening experience. I appreciated the expressiveness of the two narrators and how they voiced the characters and the more interior moments. I did struggle a bit with the male narrator’s lower vocal register, which made it hard for me to catch all the words clearly, but that may be more about my own hearing than the actual narration!

Overall, I did love This Close to Okay. Despite my disagreement with some of the plot points, I was completely caught up in the story, and felt my heart break over and over again as more is revealed about Emmett’s painful past. I will say as well that I was pleasantly surprised that this book does not fall into the common romantic tropes that pop up so often in contemporary fiction. The characters’ development and well-being is the point, and the plot supports this very well without making romantic entanglement the dominant focus.

Side note: I always love when fictional characters are revealed to share some of my geeky loves… so when Tallie pulls her copy of Prisoner of Azkaban off the shelf to read to Emmett, I just about swooned!

This Close to Okay is a moving story about two sympathetic people, and I truly enjoyed getting to know each of them. By the end, I felt very invested in their lives, and loved how beautifully the author conveyed their journeys.

Highly recommended!

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Buy This Close to Okay at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Shelf Control #268: The Last Human by Zack Jordan

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Last Human
Author: Zack Jordan
Published: 2020
Length: 448 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Most days, Sarya doesn’t feel like the most terrifying creature in the galaxy. Most days, she’s got other things on her mind. Like hiding her identity among the hundreds of alien species roaming the corridors of Watertower Station. Or making sure her adoptive mother doesn’t casually eviscerate one of their neighbors. Again.

And most days, she can almost accept that she’ll never know the truth–that she’ll never know why humanity was deemed too dangerous to exist. Or whether she really is–impossibly–the lone survivor of a species destroyed a millennium ago. That is, until an encounter with a bounty hunter and a miles-long kinetic projectile leaves her life and her perspective shattered.

Thrown into the universe at the helm of a stolen ship–with the dubious assistance of a rebellious spacesuit, an android death enthusiast on his sixtieth lifetime, and a ball of fluff with an IQ in the thousands–Sarya begins to uncover an impossible truth. What if humanity’s death and her own existence are simply two moves in a demented cosmic game, one played out by vast alien intellects? Stranger still, what if these mad gods are offering Sarya a seat at their table–and a second chance for humanity?

The Last Human is a sneakily brilliant, gleefully oddball space-opera debut–a masterful play on perspective, intelligence, and free will, wrapped in a rollicking journey through a strange and crowded galaxy.

How and when I got it:

I downloaded a review copy from NetGalley toward the end of 2019.

Why I want to read it:

I think I originally downloaded a “read now” copy of The Last Human after getting a promotional email from NetGalley. And honestly, I think the cover was what made me say “yes, please!” I mean, it’s just so cute — it clearly doesn’t present itself as a book that takes itself very seriously.

The description makes the book sound like oodles of fun — “oddball” and “space-opera” and “rollicking journey” are all words/phrases that make me think this book was written specifically to my tastes! For whatever reason, I just haven’t gotten to it yet, but I still intend to.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Buy now: Amazon – Book Depository – Bookshop.org

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Nature on the Cover

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books with Nature on the Cover.

I thought I’d focus on flowers and plants, but a few landscapes and animals snuck into the mix as well!

  1. Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
  2. Orfeia by Joanne M. Harris
  3. The Familiars by Stacey Halls
  4. America Pacifica by Anna North
  5. Bleaker House by Nell Stevens
  6. The Thorn and the Blossom by Theodora Goss
  7. The Fall of Koli by M. R. Carey
  8. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  9. If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende
  10. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

If you did a TTT post this week, please share your link!

Book Review: When He Was Wicked (Bridgertons, #6) by Julia Quinn

Title: When He Was Wicked (Bridgertons, #6)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2004
Length: 426 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In every life there is a turning point . . .

A moment so tremendous, so sharp and breathtaking, that one knows one’s life will never be the same. For Michael Stirling, London’s most infamous rake, that moment came the first time he laid eyes on Francesca Bridgerton.

After a lifetime of chasing women, of smiling slyly as they chased him, of allowing himself to be caught but never permitting his heart to become engaged, he took one look at Francesca Bridgerton and fell so fast and hard into love it was a wonder he managed to remain standing. Unfortunately for Michael, however, Francesca’s surname was to remain Bridgerton for only a mere thirty-six hours longer—the occasion of their meeting was, lamentably, a supper celebrating her imminent wedding to his cousin.

But that was then . . . Now Michael is the earl and Francesca is free, but still she thinks of him as nothing other than her dear friend and confidant. Michael dares not speak to her of his love . . . until one dangerous night, when she steps innocently into his arms and passion proves stronger than even the most wicked of secrets . . . 

Another flight, another Bridgerton book! Book #6, When He Was Wicked, tells the story of the 6th Bridgerton child, Francesca — who spends much of the book series (as well as practically all of season 1 of the Netflix series) off-screen.

A rare glimpse of Francesca

We’ve heard about Francesca from afar during the previous couple of books. A year younger than her sister Eloise, Francesca is largely absent from the goings-on in the earlier books, at first being too young to be out in society, and later, already away from London.

We learn in book #4 (I believe) that Francesca is already a young widow at age 24. We hear of her through other family members, and know that she was married to an earl and lives at their estate in Scotland. That’s pretty much all we know, other than that she seems to never be around for family gatherings.

“It’s as if I don’t exist,” she said…

Finally, in When He Was Wicked, Frannie’s story takes center stage.

We start the book, however, not with Francesca, but with her husband’s cousin. Michael Stirling is first cousin to John Stirling, Earl of Kilmartin. Michael has a reputation as a terribly wicked rake (of course! don’t all the attractive men?), but he’s also loyal and devoted to John, who is more brother to him than cousin. Michael also has the bad luck and bad timing to fall head over heels in love with Francesca at first sight — which happens to be only a day and a half before John marries her.

Michael hides his feelings, and becomes a true friend to Francesca. The three — Michael, John, and Francesca — are inseparable, and best of friends. But two years later, when the unthinkable happens and John dies suddenly, Michael and Francesca are torn apart as well. Michael, as John’s heir, will step into his role as Earl. He feels horrible guilt over living what should have been John’s life, and cannot bear the idea of being close to Frannie and being her main support while knowing the guilty truth of his secret love for her. Michael flees to India as soon after John’s death as he can, and Francesca is left widowed, in mourning, suffering, and feeling abandoned by the person she most counted on.

Years pass, and Francesca realizes that she wants a baby. And of course, the only way to get a baby is to marry — so she leaves the estate in Scotland to spend the season in London and look for a suitable husband. Michael shows up as well, ready to fully assume his duties as Earl, which also means finding a wife.

As the widowed Countess of Kilmartin, Francesca takes up residence in the Kilmartin home in London, and so does Michael, where the two soon find themselves too close for comfort. After a series of misunderstandings and confrontations, there’s finally a kiss, and Francesca is shocked and embarrassed to realize that she feels attracted to Michael. And, as such things go in romance novels, she assumes it’s one-sided and flees back to the Scottish estate, only to be pursued by Michael, where things quickly become hot and heavy… and as the title lets us know, very, very wicked.

I enjoyed the storytelling very much in this book, and felt quite sorry for poor Frannie, widowed too young, facing a lifetime on her own, and longing so much for a family that she’s even willing to consider marriage without love if it’ll allow her to have babies. There are some very sweet moments between her and her mother Violet, in which they share thoughts on widowhood, losing the love of one’s life, and how to move on. Violet is open to Francesca in a way which we haven’t seen with her daughters in other books, probably because none have been as vulnerable as Francesca, and it’s lovely.

Michael is given equal time with Francesca as a point-of-view character, and I found his outlook refreshing and insightful. As is typical in romances set in this period, his sexual conquests aren’t seen as shameful (only women can be ruined by inappropriate conduct, not men), but at least we get to hear his perspective on all the women he’s been with and how they were all really just stand-ins for Francesca. Michael’s sorrow and guilt regarding his cousin seem genuine and heartfelt, so that as he and Francesca start to explore their attraction and growing feelings, it makes sense that Michael would be held back by his inner doubts even while yearning to be with the woman of his dreams.

I’m not sure that I loved Michael’s ultimate gambit for tying Francesca to him. He can’t make progress by words or wooing, so he sets out to seduce her, figuring he’ll make her want him even if she doesn’t love him. (Spoiler alert — she does love him!) The sexual advances and hot-and-heavy scenes are all entirely consensual — he asks her every step of the way — but I still felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of his using her arousal to push her into a relationship she might not otherwise be ready for.

He’d awakened the wanton within her, and she wanted her revenge.

It’s not a surprise that true love and a wedding and babies are the end game here — in that sense, When He Was Wicked is no different from the other books in the series. Still, the plot here is quite good, and I liked getting to know Francesca, and seeing a very different view of the social pressures of Regency society. Francesca is no virginal debutante — she’s a widow of means who has the social and economic power to remain unmarried and independent for the rest of her life, if she so chooses. In When He Was Wicked, we see marriage and courtship through a practical lens — if a young widow wants a baby, then how else is she to get what she wants but to find a suitable husband and make it happen?

I also found the chronology of When He Was Wicked interesting, as it overlaps with events from the previous two books, and I thought author Julia Quinn pulled off the interwoven events and details very well! Overall, this is another delightful addition to a series that becomes more and more addictive as it goes along. This many books into the series, it’s hard to stop.

That’s six Bridgerton children happily married, two more to go!

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The Monday Check-In ~ 5/10/2021

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My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Aaaaand… I’m back!

After a quick one-week visit to East Coast family, I’m back home again. It was a great week — I got to see my dad, visited with other family in the area, and met up with dear old friends. Plus, mostly gorgeous weather, so I enjoyed my outdoor time too!

Now, back to the grind… unpacking, doing laundry, back to work.

Sigh. Why can’t every day be a vacation day?

What did I read during the last week?

To Sir Phillip, With Love by Julia Quinn: The 5th Bridgerton book, read on my flight to New York! My review is here.

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave: Terrific read! I zipped through this book. My review is here.

Sorrowland by RIvers Solomon: A haunting, disturbing book that I can’t quite figure out how to describe. Review to follow, possibly, once I’ve had a bit more time to digest.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams: I finished the audiobook (narrated by Martin Freeman), and it was good, silly fun — but somehow, I seemed to run out of patience by the end. Probably my mistake was listening to two books from this series in a row. I think these books are best experienced in small doses!

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith: I just finished this moving, sensitive audiobook on Sunday. Highly recommended. Review to follow.

Pop culture & TV:

I watched I Care A Lot while I was away — so dark and twisty, and really fun!

I’ve been watching The Nevers on HBO, and after 4 episodes, I still don’t know if I like it. Great cast, but the story doesn’t actually make a ton of sense. And why “The Nevers” as a title? So far, I haven’t heard that term used once during an episode. Still, it’s entertaining enough that I’ll keep watching for now.

Fresh Catch:

One gorgeous new book arrived while I was away:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

When He Was Wicked by Julia Quinn: More Bridgertons! This is #6 in the series, and I’m loving it so far.

Now playing via audiobook:

Golden Child by Claire Adam: My book group’s pick for May. Just getting started.

Ongoing reads:

  • My book group’s classic read is part 2 of Don Quixote. Continuing onward, 3 chapters per week. Current status: 93%. Only 5 chapters to go!
  • Outlander Book Club is doing a speed-re-read of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, #8 in the Outlander series. We’re doing 5 chapters per week. Let me know if you want to join in — the more, the merrier! This week: Chapters 6-10.

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

Title: The Last Thing He Told Me
Author: Laura Dave
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller/contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We all have stories we never tell.

Before Owen Michaels disappears, he manages to smuggle a note to his beloved wife of one year: Protect her.

Despite her confusion and fear, Hannah Hall knows exactly to whom the note refers: Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. Bailey, who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.

As Hannah’s increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered; as the FBI arrests Owen’s boss; as a US Marshal and FBI agents arrive at her Sausalito home unannounced, Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey just may hold the key to figuring out Owen’s true identity—and why he really disappeared.

Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth, together. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realize they are also building a new future. One neither Hannah nor Bailey could have anticipated.

In Laura Dave’s unputdownable new novel, Hannah is happily married to Owen, and trying her best to get Owen’s 16-year-old daughter to accept her, or at the very least, to not actively dislike her. Owen and Hannah met and married and moved in together in his Sausalito floating home, all within the space of two years. But suddenly, their life is irreparably disrupted.

Owen’s tech company’s CEO is arrested for fraud and stock manipulation. It’s a huge scandal, but making matters worse for Hannah and Bailey is that Owen disappears as the news breaks. He hasn’t been arrested, and he hasn’t been directly implicated or accused of wrong-doing. Instead, he simply vanishes, leaving Hannah a scrawled note telling her to protect Bailey.

Hannah can’t believe that Owen is anything but a victim of circumstance, but his cryptic note confuses her. She’s even more disturbed when a Federal Marshal and then the FBI come knocking on her door, all looking for information on Owen’s whereabouts. With no way to reach Owen and no idea what he could be hiding, Hannah suggests to Bailey that they take matters into their own hands and go look for him instead.

Based on some loose memories of Bailey’s from her early childhood, as well as hints from some of Owen’s stories of his college days, they’re soon on his trail — but Hannah is horrified to discover that none of the history Owen shared with her seems to be true. Not his real name, not his family background, not his education… and if all of this is fabricated, then who really is this man she fell in love with and married?

Despite her own fears, Hannah realizes that she needs to honor Owen’s request to keep Bailey safe, even if Bailey seem to detest her and even if she doesn’t actually know what she’s protecting her from. But as they travel together to a new town and track down seemingly random facts and vague clues, they come to realize that they only have one another to rely on… and as they start putting the puzzle pieces together, Hannah becomes more and more certain that she may not like the answers she finds.

The Last Thing He Told Me is an intricately plotted web of misdirection and secrets. Through flashbacks, we see Hannah and Owen’s courtship and marriage, and learn the stories he shared with Hannah about his past. In the present, we see Hannah being truly there for Bailey, and Bailey’s grudging realization that Hannah might be the only person in the world she can fully count on.

There are deep, dark, dangerous secrets to be uncovered, and harsh truths for both Hannah and Bailey to confront. Ultimately, Hannah faces a decision that affects all of their lives, and only she has the ability to make sure that she’s choosing a path that carries out Owen’s wishes for Bailey.

I did not see where the story was going, and I was completely hooked on trying to figure out Owen’s secrets and why he behaved the way he did. Needless to say, the resolution was not what I expected! Kudos to the author for keeping me guessing all the way through!

In addition to the puzzle of the events of the story and the truth behind Owen’s disappearance, I really liked the developing trust and connection between Hannah and Bailey. I came to respect and admire Hannah very much — she’s put in an impossible situation, with no good options, and finds a way to do the right thing even when it feels like the worst choice in the world.

I picked up this book before it was announced that this would be the Hello, Sunshine choice for May. I’m delighted to see it getting so much attention! The Last Thing He Told Me is a gripping, fascinating read that practically demands to be discussed, and I think it would make a great book group selection.

Highly recommended!

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