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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Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy The Last Thing He Told Me at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Shelf Control #267: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Shelves final

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 Familiars
Author: Stacey Halls
Published: 2019
Length: 344 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.

Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Rich and compelling, set against the frenzy of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, this novel explores the rights of 17th-century women and raises the question: Was witch-hunting really women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Grey and the other characters are actual historical figures. King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside (even woodland creatures, or “familiars,” were suspected of dark magic) by capturing “witches”—in reality mostly poor and illiterate women. 

How and when I got it:

I bought the e-book sometime in late 2019.

Why I want to read it:

They had me at “witch trials”! I just read another book about accusations of witchcraft in the 1600s (although set in Boston in the Colonies, not in England), and the topic is just so fascinating. I love that this one is focused on real people from the period, and that it delves into the issue of witch-hunting being a facade for systemic misogyny.

I picked up a copy of The Familiars after seeing a few glowing reviews from book bloggers whose tastes tend to be in sync with my own. I’m glad I “rediscovered” this book on my dusty old virtual bookshelf — bumping it up to must-read status!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

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!

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now: Amazon – Book Depository – Bookshop.org

Book Review: To Sir Phillip, With Love (Bridgertons, #5) by Julia Quinn

Title: To Sir Phillip, With Love (Bridgertons, #5)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2003
Length: 383 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sir Phillip knew from his correspondence with his dead wife’s distant cousin that Eloise Bridgerton was a spinster, and so he’d proposed, figuring that she’d be homely and unassuming, and more than a little desperate for an offer of marriage. Except . . . she wasn’t. The beautiful woman on his doorstep was anything but quiet, and when she stopped talking long enough to close her mouth, all he wanted to do was kiss her…

Eloise Bridgerton couldn’t marry a man she had never met! But then she started thinking… and wondering… and before she knew it, she was in a hired carriage in the middle of the night, on her way to meet the man she hoped might be her perfect match. Except… he wasn’t. Her perfect husband wouldn’t be so moody and ill-mannered. And he certainly should have mentioned that he had two young – and decidedly unruly – children, as much in need of a mother as Phillip is in need of a wife.

Bridgerton books have become my go-to comfort reads, and an absolute must for long plane trips. They’re sweet, light, and easy, but never fail to entertain. Let’s dive in.

Since watching Bridgerton on Netflix, I’ve had a soft spot for Eloise — that’s the letter E, which makes Eloise the 5th Bridgerton child and the 2nd girl in this large family. TV Eloise is awesome — independent, outspoken, intelligent, and not too wound up in societal niceties.

In book #5, many years have passed since we first met Eloise. Here, she’s 28 years old and a spinster. She hadn’t minded her spinster status so long as she had her best friend Penelope to keep her company, but now that Penelope has gotten married, Eloise suddenly isn’t so content any more.

As the story opens, we learn that Eloise has been in correspondence for a year with a man named Sir Phillip Crane, the widower of her deceased 4th cousin Marina. After sending Sir Phillip a note of condolence after Marina’s death, the two have continued to write and to get to know one another via letters. Finally, Phillip suggests that she come to his country estate for a visit to see if they might suit one another for marriage.

Eloise being Eloise, rather than accepting the invitation and traveling with her mother’s permission and a suitable chaperone, decides to just go, and sneaks off while her family is busy at a soiree so she won’t be missed right away. She shows up unexpected on Phillip’s doorstep, and the two do not suit at all at first glance. He’s gruff and unwelcoming and taken aback by her arrival, and she’s tired, talkative, and unimpressed by his lack of hospitality. She’s even less impressed to learn that he has 8-year-old twins who are out-of-control hellions — whom he completely failed to mention in his letters.

He’s clearly looking for someone to take control of his children, and assumed a spinster would be grateful for marriage to a man with wealth and an estate. Eloise, meanwhile, having turned down six previous offers of marriage, has always hoped for a love match (after seeing her parents’ loving marriage, as well as the romances of her four older siblings). She’s not willing to settle, and is already contemplating her escape back to London — but as she and Phillip slowly start to become acquainted, there’s something holding her there, making her want to at least give him a chance.

Clearly, we all know where this is going to end up, and that Eloise and Phillip will end up falling madly in love after all. The fun is in getting there.

Eloise speaks her mind and thinks for herself, and makes it clear that Phillip needs to step up and be a better father as well as a better companion if he’s going to be worthy of her. She’s a delight.

The best scene in the book, in my humble opinion, is when Eloise’s brothers descend en masse to make sure that this oaf hasn’t ruined their sister. Seeing four big Bridgerton brothers ganging up on Sir Phillip is awesome. But hey, at least they don’t actually strangle him, so he comes out of it okay. They’re there to make sure a marriage takes place, no two ways about it, and really, the couple is left with no choice.

I did really enjoy To Sir Phillip, With Love, but didn’t find it quite as entertaining as some of the other books in the series. For as much as I love TV Eloise, I felt that her book personality here was a little more generic than I’d expected, making her just a little bit less quirky and unusual. Still, she’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed seeing the growing connection between her and Phillip, as well as her developing relationship with his children — who, it turns out, are less awful and more suffering from lack of attention than Phillip realizes. (And of course, Eloise is the guardian angel who heals the rift between father and children.)

Will I keep going with the Bridgertons? Of course!

That’s five Bridgerton children happily married, three more to go!

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Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy To Sir Phillip, With Love at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

The Monday Check-In ~ 5/3/2021

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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.

Wheeeeee…..

Back on the East Coast for another quick family visit!

Apparently, my new airplane habit is reading Bridgerton books! On all three flights I’ve taken so far this year, I’ve finished a Bridgerton book each time. They’re great for passing the long hours, even while cramped into a crowded economy seat!

What did I read during the last week?

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Loved it! What a great adventure! My review is here.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim: Such a lovely book! This was my book group’s pick for April (very appropriate), and we all loved it. I didn’t get a chance to write up a review yet, but I may wait until I watch the movie version (from 1991) and then write something about both.

To Sir Phillip, With Love by Julia Quinn: The 5th Bridgerton book! Review to follow.

Puzzle of the week:

Yes, I did one! I zipped through it — quite fun.

Pop culture & TV:

I have just two episodes left of Last Tango in Halifax — such a good show! Check it out if you have a chance.

Fresh Catch:

No new books this week!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave: Just starting — but I’ve heard good things so far.

Now playing via audiobook:

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams: Book #2 of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. I’m so close to my library due date — will I finish in time???

Ongoing reads:

  • My book group’s classic read is part 2 of Don Quixote. Continuing onward, 3 chapters per week. Current status: 91%. Only 8 chapters to go!
  • Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart: I haven’t made any progress in a long time, so I’m moving this back to the TBR pile. It’s interesting, but since it’s set up in encyclopedia format, rather than a narrative, it’s not something that builds any momentum or needs to be read in sequence.
  • Starting today, Outlander book group 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 1 – 5.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Title: Project Hail Mary
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian–while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.

Wow. This was a great read!

I had a few worries about starting Project Hail Mary. Even though I loved The Martian, I had to stop and think — was I really in the mood for a novel full of equations and science? Could I see myself sticking with it for 500 pages?

Well, thank goodness I decided to jump in. I loved this book!

Right from the start, the suspense is high. The narrator wakes up, and doesn’t know where — or who — he is. He’s greeted by a robotic voice asking him questions, before he falls back to sleep again. As he becomes more and more alert, he starts to recognize some basics: He’s in some sort of bed, he has tubes and medical monitoring devices all over, and he’s being tended by robotic arms. Once he makes it onto his own two feet and takes out the tubes, he’s able to explore his immediately surroundings — an oddly shaped room with a ladder, and two beds containing corpses.

He can’t make much more progress, because the robotic voice won’t open sealed doors for him until he can identify himself… and he still doesn’t know his own name. But as he looks around, bits and pieces start to come back to him.

Over time, he remembers who he is — Ryland Grace, a junior high school science teacher — and figures out that he’s on a space ship of some sort. But why? He’s just a teacher. Granted, he’s a teacher with a Ph.D. who left academia after a poorly-received paper… but still. Why would he be on a spaceship? And why is he here with two dead people? As he’s overset by grief, he realizes that he cared about these people, and that they were his crewmates, but he still doesn’t know why they’re in space, why he was in what appears to have been a lengthy coma, and what it is he’s supposed to be doing.

The computer finishes its boot process and brings up a screen I’ve never seen before. I can tell it means trouble, because the word “TROUBLE” is in large type across the top.

As the book progresses, Grace’s experiences on the ship, the Hail Mary, are interwoven with his returning memories. Through his memories, we learn that Earth faced an extinction-level event, and that the Hail Mary was sent into space to find a solution. Grace was roped into the project early on as a researcher thanks to his expertise in molecular biology, and through his involvement, we get to see the global scientific community’s desperate race to save the planet, all leading up to the Hail Mary‘s launch.

On the ship, Grace is seeking answers, but first he needs to figure out the questions, such as where he is, what he’s looking for, and what tools his has at his disposal. And the biggest questions too — what problem is he trying to solve, and why him? He’s not an astronaut. He’s a science teacher, gosh darn it! (His avoidance of swear words is a funny running bit throughout the book…)

As in The Martian, author Andy Weir uses very smart people to solve problems with SCIENCE. And also as in The Martian, there were plenty of times when the science whooooooooshed over my head. But that’s okay. Even if I’m not up to speed on measuring gravity and can’t explain relativity and infrared light, I followed enough to stay engaged and intrigued and, I admit it, more than a little impressed.

Finding a spaceship “somewhere outside the Tau Ceti system” is no small task. Imagine being given a rowboat and told to find a toothpick “somewhere in the ocean”. It’s like that, but nowhere as easy.

Ryland Grace is a fun main character, even in the direst of dire straits, so even as he’s panicking or confused or feeling angry or hopeless, he’s always entertaining and never dull. He’s quippy and sarcastic, and when he has an idea, it lets us as readers feel like we’re on the sidelines watching a master in action.

“Coffee.”

The arms dutifully hand me a cup of coffee. It’s kind of cool that the arms will hand me a cup when there’s gravity, but a pouch when there isn’t. I’ll remember this when writing up the Hail Mary‘s Yelp review.

I’m sure plenty of reviews are going to talk about a particular character and how utterly amazing he is… and yes, he is utterly amazing… and I would have been pissed to know much about him in advance or how he fits into the story, so I won’t say anything! But trust me, the story takes a turn I didn’t expect, then builds on it in really fantastic ways, and I loved every moment.

“I am happy. You no die. Let’s save planets!”

Start to finish, Project Hail Mary is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat read with lots of smart science and some unforgettable characters, as well as an ending that… well, I won’t say, but WOW.

I’m over the moon (ha! space joke!) after having read Project Hail Mary. This is going to be THE hot book for May — don’t miss it!

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Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Shelf Control #266: When You Read This by Mary Adkins

Shelves final

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: When You Read This
Author: Mary Adkins
Published: 2019
Length: 400 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

For fans of Maria Semple and Rainbow Rowell, a comedy-drama for the digital age: an epistolary debut novel about the ties that bind and break our hearts.

For four years, Iris Massey worked side by side with PR maven Smith Simonyi, helping clients perfect their brands. But Iris has died, taken by terminal illness at only thirty-three. Adrift without his friend and colleague, Smith is surprised to discover that in her last six months, Iris created a blog filled with sharp and often funny musings on the end of a life not quite fulfilled. She also made one final request: for Smith to get her posts published as a book. With the help of his charmingly eager, if overbearingly forthright, new intern Carl, Smith tackles the task of fulfilling Iris’s last wish.

Before he can do so, though, he must get the approval of Iris’ big sister Jade, an haute cuisine chef who’s been knocked sideways by her loss. Each carrying their own baggage, Smith and Jade end up on a collision course with their own unresolved pasts and with each other.

Told in a series of e-mails, blog posts, online therapy submissions, text messages, legal correspondence, home-rental bookings, and other snippets of our virtual lives, When You Read This is a deft, captivating romantic comedy—funny, tragic, surprising, and bittersweet—that candidly reveals how we find new beginnings after loss. 

How and when I got it:

I bought the e-book about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

I happen to love epistolary and other types of non-traditionally formatted novels, and this book sounds terrific! I’m really curious to learn more about the blog posts left behind by Iris and how they affect Smith’s life moving forward. The book sounds very moving, although since it’s described as a romantic comedy, I’m assuming the focus is on finding love after loss.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

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!

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now: Amazon – Book Depository – Bookshop.org

Top Ten Tuesday: Animals from Books

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 Animals from Books. I did a TTT post this past November about great pets in fiction, so I may have some overlap here.

My top 10 animals from books:

  1. S.T. (crow) from Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
  2. Rocinante (horse) from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  3. Crookshanks (cat) from Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
  4. Rollo (dog) from Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
  5. Adso (cat) from Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
  6. Rosie (elephant) from Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen
  7. The owls in Hoot by Carl Hiaassen
  8. The Adelie penguins in How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior
  9. Buck (dog) from The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  10. Carl (dog) from Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi (represented here by the dog flying a plane, in case you’re wondering…)

What animals in books do you especially love?

Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

The Monday Check-In ~ 4/26/2021

cooltext1850356879

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.

Just another super-busy workweek! But hey, at least the weather finally cooperated enough for me to get a few walks in.

What did I read during the last week?

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gorgeous and dramatic – a 5-star read! My review is here.

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock: A wonderful collection of interconnected stories. And isn’t that an awesome title? My review is here.

The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan: Sweet, funny thoughtful romance. My review is here.

Pop culture & TV:

I finished watching Staged this week — and if you haven’t had the pleasure, you absolutely have to check it out! I’ve also been continuing my way through Last Tango in Halifax, which is really good — even though I expected something on the lighter side, and it actually gets quite heavy.

Fresh Catch:

I received a paperback ARC of The Quiet Boy, which sounds terrific, and I treated myself to one more L. M. Montgomery book!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Only a few chapters in, but I like it so far!

Now playing via audiobook:

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim: I’m almost done! I think I need just one more long walk, and I’ll be finished. A week late for my book group discussion, but that’s okay. It’s a lovely book, and this week we’re all going to watch the movie version too.

Ongoing reads:

  • My book group’s classic read is part 2 of Don Quixote. Continuing onward, 3 chapters per week. Current status: 90%.
  • Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart: Gotta be honest, I haven’t touched this book in a few weeks now. But it’s still on my nightstand, so I’m still considering it an ongoing read!
  • Coming soon: Starting next week, Outlander book group is doing a speed-re-read of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, #8 in the Outlander series. We’ll be doing 5 chapters per week. Let me know if you want to join in — the more, the merrier!

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Book Review: The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan

Title: The Intimacy Experiment
Author: Rosie Danan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Naomi and Ethan will test the boundaries of love in this provocative romance from the author of the ground-breaking debut, The Roommate.

Naomi Grant has built her life around going against the grain. After the sex-positive start-up she cofounded becomes an international sensation, she wants to extend her educational platform to live lecturing. Unfortunately, despite her long list of qualifications, higher ed won’t hire her.

Ethan Cohen has recently received two honors: LA Mag named him one of the city’s hottest bachelors and he became rabbi of his own synagogue. Taking a gamble in an effort to attract more millennials to the faith, the executive board hired Ethan because of his nontraditional background. Unfortunately, his shul is low on both funds and congregants. The board gives him three months to turn things around or else they’ll close the doors of his synagogue for good.

Naomi and Ethan join forces to host a buzzy seminar series on Modern Intimacy, the perfect solution to their problems–until they discover a new one–their growing attraction to each other. They’ve built the syllabus for love’s latest experiment, but neither of them expected they’d be the ones putting it to the test. 

In author Rosie Danan’s follow-up to The Roommate, the story focuses on Naomi Grant, who we meet as a supporting character in The Roommate. Here, Naomi takes center stage, and really, she’s a fabulous main character.

Naomi is a sex worker with an advanced degree — a former adult performer (aka porn star) who has shifted her career by becoming co-CEO of a wildly successful sex-positive online platform, Shameless. Naomi sees her calling as being a voice for sex-positivity and helping people experience love, intimacy, and sexual expression in ways that are fulfilling and empowering. However, her very public background means that she can’t get a teaching job at any of the local colleges, no matter where she applies.

Enter Ethan. After meeting at an education conference, Ethan sees Naomi as a potential partner for his project of bringing new members to his floundering synagogue. Ethan is a young rabbi (formerly a physics teacher) with energy, enthusiasm, and compassion. His synagogue, like so many, is largely populated by an older crowd, and without an infusion of members, it won’t be able to survive. Ethan hears Naomi speaking passionately about her goals in education, and approaches her with a proposition — to teach a course on modern intimacy, sponsored by his synagogue.

After some doubts, Naomi agrees. Naomi is a fearless, hard-edged woman who never backs down from a challenge, but she also remembers her early life as Hannah Sturm, a Jewish girl raised without much formal religion who abruptly left her past behind after a disastrous public shaming that left her with some deep-seated scars (and which directly led to her embracing the porn industry). Naomi can’t really believe that a respectable rabbi would want to be associated with her scandalous personal brand, but Ethan thinks it’s a perfect match.

Together, they build a curriculum for a seven-part series that covers everything from courtship and first dates, to satisfying sex, to how to break up. With each new lecture, the course draws more and more participants, but it’s not without controversy: The stodgy, traditionalist synagogue board members think associating their shul with someone like Naomi Grant is damaging to their reputation and goes against their core values, and give Ethan some increasingly dire warnings intended to push him to cut ties with Naomi. But Ethan, despite his warmth and patience, also has a backbone, and he’s not going to back down from what he believes is the right thing to do.

Needless to say, alongside their professional partnership, Ethan and Naomi have instant chemistry, and the more they work together, the more they realize that it’s not just physical. Yes, they’re wildly attracted to one another, but they also connect on a deeper level, and find that their feelings are growing in ways that neither expected.

There’s a lot to love about The Intimacy Experiment. First off, this book is way more Jewish than I would have expected! As someone who grew up around synagogues and JCCs, I was tickled pink every time there’s a mention of something I could relate to. It was really intriguing and surprising to discover how much the plot is driven by the very real challenge facing synagogues today — how to reach and engage unaffiliated Jewish young adults and bring them into organized religious institutions at a time when synagogues and religion may be viewed as ultra-conservative relics of the past.

Before starting the book, I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of seeing a rabbi as a romantic lead, but I got over it! Ethan is smart, sweet, and compassionate, and his spiritual journey is described in very meaningful ways. And yes, there are sex scenes, but by the time the book gets there, I’d gotten to know Ethan as a person, not just as his title, and it didn’t bother me.

If you’re familiar at all with The Roommate, you’ll know that that book — while a great read — is also very explicit when it comes to sex. The Intimacy Experiment has sex scenes as well, but they don’t permeate the entire book they way they do in The Roommate. Instead, The Intimacy Experiment focuses on — as the title promises — intimacy, as we see the developing feelings between Naomi and Ethan and see how they apply Naomi’s lecture topics to their own relationship.

Beyond a really engaging plotline, The Intimacy Experiment has the clever and funny writing that the author excels at. While the book has heavier, more serious moments of introspection and processing earlier trauma, the overall tone is lightened up by the banter and frankness of its characters.

Also, and I can’t stress this enough, Naomi’s no-bullshit, no-shame approach is hilarious:

Naomi wondered how many women who got asked to be maid of honor used to fuck the groom, and on camera no less.

Ethan does manage to keep up, though.

“You don’t kiss like a rabbi,” Naomi said, her voice full of furious accusation, as she tugged him past the innocent bystander hunting for their lost keys.

Ethan focused on exhaling. “How many rabbis have you kissed?”

Naomi brought her fingers up to her swollen lips. “Evidently, not enough.”

While I really enjoyed this book, I did find myself annoyed by its use of the standard romance trope of miscommunication/bad assumptions — the point in the plot where a couple who are totally into one another end up fighting or breaking up because they misunderstand the other’s intent or feelings. Here, Naomi and Ethan each assume that the other deserves better, but don’t discuss it. For two intelligent, articulate, aware characters, it seems unrealistic and just there because a standard romance needs this type of plot element.

My other quibble with the book may stem from my own lack of knowledge, but in one scene, Ethan takes a selfie at an Oneg Shabbat at the synagogue following Friday night services, and in another, he has Shabbat dinner at his mother’s house, where a dish with butter is served alongside a dish with meat. Ethan is a Reform rabbi, and I grew up in Conservative Judaism, so I may be off-base, but it seems to me that a rabbi of any branch of Judaism would keep kosher and observe Shabbat. But, since the book seems to get so much right in its Jewish elements, I can’t help wondering if I’m just assuming things that aren’t universally true.

All in all, The Intimacy Experiment is a really enjoyable read, with an engaging romance and a surprisingly rich level of food for thought. Based on my experience with her two books so far, Rosie Danan is an author to keep an eye on!

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Buy The Intimacy Experiment at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Also by this author: The Roommate: AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Book Review: Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

Title: Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town
Author: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Publisher: Random House/Wendy Lamb Books
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Young adult – short stories
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A lyrical and heartfelt collection by an award-winning writer that connects the lives of young people from small towns in Alaska and the American west. Each story is unique, yet universal.

In this book, the impact of wildfire, a wayward priest, or a mysterious disappearance ricochet across communities, threading through stories. Here, ordinary actions such as ice skating or going to church reveal hidden truths. One choice threatens a lifelong friendship. Siblings save each other. Rescue and second chances are possible, and so is revenge.

On the surface, it seems that nothing ever happens in these towns. But Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock shows that underneath that surface, teenagers’ lives blaze with fury, with secrets, and with love so strong it burns a path to the future.

In this collection of interconnected short stories, a varied group of teen characters each face the challenges and rewards of small-town life. Through ordinary events, showing brief moments in the characters’ lives, we see their inner struggles, how they deal with pain or boredom or being left behind, and how they find new paths and moments of healing.

Set in the mid-1990s, the stories are set in Alaska and in small towns scattered across the American west. We meet hitchhikers, kids with reputations, girls who grew up wild and free, siblings who’ve suffered loss. Some common threads are apparent across multiple stories — the early warnings of a wildfire in one story turn into an out-of-control inferno in another; the aftermath of certain events are sprinkled throughout several characters’ lives, but we only get the full picture in a seemingly unrelated story later on.

I loved seeing the way the characters’ lives intersect and have impacts big and small on other characters’ lives, even when there’s no obvious connection. In fact, these characters for the most part will never know the threads that connect them, even though we as readers are treated to the bigger picture and have the pleasure of seeing where all theses lives overlap.

The author’s first novel, The Smell of Other People’s Houses, is one of my favorite books, and is a must-read. In Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town, we’re once again treated to her simple yet affecting approach to language, the realistic-feeling dialogue, and the tour of the inner workings of teen minds and hearts.

I wouldn’t normally be drawn to a short story collection, but I picked this one up because of the author, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a slim, lovely book, and I’m sure I’ll read it again to gain new appreciation now that I know how the very different pieces all fit together.

Highly recommended.

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Buy Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Also by this author: The Smell of Other People’s Houses: AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org