Come Sundown by Nora Roberts (2017)

As I have mentioned many, many times on this blog, I have been a fan of Nora Roberts ever since I discovered her as a teenager and I have read (although it seems unbelievable) every book — more than 200 — she has every written. It is safe to say I am a super-fan. However, in the past two years, I have been disappointed by Roberts’ books. They have lacked energy, felt recycled, and I have had to work hard to finish some of them.

I am so happy to report that Come Sundown feels like a return to Robert’s best style of writing. This book contains all of the elements that make her works best-sellers: in Come Sundown readers find a missing person story, a murder mystery, and a series of steamy romances, all of which unfold against the stunning back-drop of rural Montana. Altogether, these elements make for a story that is equal parts exciting and terrifying…and altogether enjoyable.

In this novel, our main character is Bodine Longbow, the sexy and ultra-competent CEO of a luxury resort and ranch in Montana, which is run by her extended family. Her family is tight-knit and fiercely loving, but scarred by the disappearance of Bodine’s aunt Alice almost 25 years prior.

All at once, Bodine’s world is rocked when girlhood crush, Callen, returns to work on the ranch at the same time an employee of the ranch is found murdered. Shocked at the brutal crime, the community at the ranch tries to pull together but mistrust and suspicions run wild. Bodine’s family finds that the murder of the employee, and then the second murder of a local girl a few weeks later, stirs up their sadness and anger over her aunt Alice’s disappearance all those years ago.

Soon, Bodine is managing the ranch, a hot romance with Callen, and the growing unease that the killer has not been caught. She is a smart woman, more than up for the challenges that life throws at her, even when they grow more and more deadly.

Overall, a return to Nora Roberts at her best; perfect for a pool-side read.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick (2016)

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is a wonderful story– kind and heart-warming — about one man’s brave attempts to restart his life after losing his beloved wife. One year after his wife’s death, Arthur Pepper is cleaning out her closet when he finds a locked box containing a never-before-seen charm bracelet that, “was opulent and gold, with chunky round links and a heart-shaped fastener…with an array of charms, eight in total: an elephant, flower, book, pant palette, tiger, thimble, heart, and ring.” 17

Puzzled that his wife would own something so out of character, he believes, but also keep it locked away, Arthur considers discarding it. Curiosity wins out and a closer examination reveals a phone number hidden on the elephant charm. Ignoring his instinct to leave secrets in their locked places, Arthur calls the number and his journey begins.

The call reveals that Miriam had a past, filled with travel, adventures, and thrills that Arthur had never heard one word about in his more than forty years as her husband. Shocked, betrayed, and scared, Arthur begins to doubt that he knew his wife at all. He considers retreating, ignoring the other charms and their stories and collapsing back into the shadows of his grief…but somehow, Arthur cannot. He realizes the charm and its story brought Miriam momentarily back to life, restoring her to him for just a bit longer, and he decides that even if what he learns is painful, he would be thrilled to have just a few more memories of Miriam to claim.

Spurred on by the story of the elephant charm, Arthur goes on a quest, searching out the story behind each and every charm and learning about his wife’s life before their marriage. While some of the stories are hard to learn, and some make him doubt that his wife was as happy in her married life as Arthur thought, he journey’s onward. Finding that memories of her that live on in the people he travels to meet allow him a few final moments of connection to Miriam.

What is more surprising is what Arthur learns about himself when he travels to Paris, London, and around the UK tracking down the charms and their meaning. He learns that he is smart, capable, and brave; that the quiet life he has lived so far can be made better with new experiences and new knowledge. He learns that he wants to move beyond the crippling grief and to go on living, and living well.

Reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, http://wp.me/p6N6mT-gd , this novel takes a light-hearted — and at times funny — approach to the search for meaning and purpose after the loss of a partner; and about the need we all have, once in a while, to go on a quest that challenges the way we look at the world.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (2012)

the girl you left behind

I spent a lovely rainy day re-reading the wonderful book The Girl You Left Behind, for an upcoming book club meeting. I am a fan of Jojo Moyes books (you can click on the “Jojo Moyes” tag on the right-side of this page for a list of all of her books that I have reviewed) and always enjoy her novels, some I have read several times, since she always tells a compelling story that has a happy ending…and sometimes you need a happy ending.

The Girl You Left Behind is two stories intertwined into one novel — the first story is a historical fiction tale about a French woman living through the German occupation of her small town in rural France during WWI; the second story about a young widow struggling to hang on to her memories of her late husband, while simultaneously trying to move her life forward.  The two tales are connected by the most unlikely of reasons…that they both have been the owners of the same painting, only one hundred years apart.

The books opening chapters find our first heroine, Sophie Lefevre, cold, starving, exhausted, and fearful. She, her sister, brother, niece and nephew has been imprisoned in their small town, living under the cruel and terrifying rule of the occupying German army. With her husband and her brother-in-law off fighting in the trenches, Sophie and her sister Helene are trying their best to keep their family safe and healthy despite the horrific conditions the Germans have imposed on their village. Sophie is a pillar of her community, constantly risking her life with acts of resistance against her German oppressors: sharing food, passing news, hiding family heirlooms, saving lives of allied soldiers, and more…all acts that could get her and her family killed or interned in a work camp.

When a new German Kommandant — a cultured man — comes to town, he becomes taken with Sophie, fascinated with both her fiery protection of her townspeople, but also with her pre-war life as the wife of a famous artist, Edouard Lefevre. In fact, it is a portrait of Sophie painted by her husband, one of her few remaining possessions not requisitioned by the army, that seems to most captivate the Kommandant.

His fascination with Sophie leads the Kommandant to create more and more ways for their paths to cross. While this makes Sophie family a target of rumors and anger; it also means that for the first time in years there is extra food for the children, firewood in the winter, and more protection from the unruly soldiers in town. Sophie and the Kommandant enter a delicate truce, his affection makes her life easier, and her presence brings him comfort. Sophie leads her family down a dangerous road, where their safety becomes more precarious than ever.

Fast-forward to London, circa 2012, where the portrait of Sophie, titled The Girl You Left Behind, hangs on the wall of Liv Halston’s home. The painting is a beloved souvenir from Liv’s honeymoon with her husband David, who died just four years after their wedding.  Liv is struggling to move past her grief and — one night — takes a risk on a man, Paul. The two begin a love affair that is stopped in his tracks when Paul, an recovery agent for art stolen by Nazis — sees The Girl You Left Behind and recognizes it as stolen.

Soon Paul and Liv are on opposite sides of a legal battle for the painting, Paul argues it must be returned to Sophie Lefevre’s ancestors and Liv arguing it was purchased in a legitimate sale and is rightfully hers. Soon both of them are delving deep into Sophie’s story to find out what happened to her and The Girl You Left Behind. The more she learns about the woman in the painting, the more Liv becomes determined that she must hold on to the painting, both as a reminder of David and to protect the legacy of a brave woman who lost everything in the act of trying to save her family.

The book is an excellent, if emotional, journey into the realities women face during wartime, and the risks that women sometimes must take to protect the people and things they love.

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda (2017)

the perfect stranger cover

Summer thrillers are plentiful at the library and I have been reading one after another, and have been pleased with almost all of them. The Perfect Stranger is the first book I have read by Megan Miranda — I picked it up on an impulse at the library — and I found it to be a great read, just right for a poolside afternoon.

Leah Stevens is a former investigative report who has been forced out of her job at a Boston daily after a piece she wrote was found to include falsified information. Devastated and aimless, she meets up with a former roommate — Emmy, running from a failed relationship — and together, the two women relocate to a rural Pennsylvania town.

A few months later, Leah finds herself an outsider in town, teaching at the local high school, still reeling from the loss of her former life. Over the course of a few days, Leah life is turned upside down once again when a woman’s body was found — nearly dead, and the victim looking unsettling similar to Leah –near her home and her roommate, Emmy, disappears.  While the local police do not think the two events are related, Leah’s investigative instincts kick in and she is almost certain they are connected.

Leah finds herself drawn into the police investigation, largely because the main suspect is a fellow teacher Leah has accused of stalking her and she remains part of the investigation as more and more clues link Emmy to the beating of the mystery woman and — just a few days later — to Emmy’s boyfriend’s death.

Leah cooperates with the police, providing as much information as she can about Emmy, her life in Boston and in Pennsylvania, and about the teacher who has been stalking her. One the side, Leah begins her own investigation into what has happened, unclear why it seems that she and Emmy have been drawn into a string of crimes in a town they have just relocated to.

It takes Leah a little while to catch on to the fact that she is not a prime witness in the case, but a prime suspect; both because of her connection to Emmy but also because of her tarnished reputation in Boston, where she was linked to another set of unsolved crimes. Suddenly, rather than helping the police, she must thwart their investigation while she using her reporting skills to find out what is really going on.

Using interviewing skills, old contacts, computer sleuthing, and impersonating the injured woman’s sister, Leah gets closer to the real course of events than the police. She knows she can solve the mystery, assuming she can keep herself out of jail long enough to do so.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (2017)

12 lives

This wonderful novel seamlessly weaves together three distinct stories — a present-day thriller, a coming of age drama, and a reflection of one man’s troubled past — into one well-written and utterly unique book.

In the opening chapters of the book, we meet our twelve-year-old narrator, Loo, and her father Samuel Hawley, who have settled down in a small Massachusetts town after a life of many changes, many moves, and almost no personal connections to anyone but one another. Hawley finally feels his troubled past is no longer a threat and wants a normal life for his daughter. He chooses the town where his dead wife was raised, hoping to give both he and his daughter some connection to her.

Loo is both glad to have a more stable life and miserable to be — yet again — the new kid with the weird habits and nothing in common with other kids her age. In her early years in town, she is shunned by her maternal grandmother and relentlessly bullied by the kids in town. As she ages over the five years covered in the book, she comes to realize that the secrets surrounding her father’s past and her mother’s death are getting in the way of her really feeling like she has the answers she needs, and without those she has no sense of who she is or how she can be happy.

In the alternating chapters our other narrator, Samuel Hawley, tells us of his reckless, tragedy-filled past in twelve very specific flashbacks; each one is a story of how he acquired one of the twelve bullet-wounds that scar his body. He discusses the events that led up to each shooting, the gun fights that left him wounded, and the ways that each incident changed his life forever. These chapters paint a portrait of a troubled young man whose limited choices led him to a risky life that continues to haunt him even now.

Hawley lives in fear that his past sins will bring harm — or at least heartache — to Loo, but as his daughter grows into a teenager, his secrets begin to drive a wedge between the two. Even after four years in their small town, Hawley still worries they will have to run at a moment’s notice and so he attempts to stop Loo from forming friendships. This forces Loo to begin to keep her own dangerous secrets and to covertly look into her father’s checkered past, determined to find the answers he will not give her. The lies between them multiply and the tension builds as the novel reveals more and more of Hawley’s past lives and the dangerous enemies who might still be after him. In order for their family to finally live a peaceful life, the past must be revealed and the secrets brought into the light before they tear them apart.

The author skillfully gives us the point of view of a teenage girl trying to make sense of her life without losing her closeness with her father. In her alternating chapters, she easily changes voices and gives us a look into the thrilling, dangerous life — filled with guns, murders, lies, and betrayals — that transformed Hawley in the secretive, overly protective man he is now. As these parallel stories unfold, we get glimpses into Hawley and Loo as they fumbled their way forward, forming an unconventional but loving family of two…a family that stands to be torn apart by secrets.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (2017)

into the water

Paula Hawkins follows up her best-selling novel, The Girl on the Train, with Into the Water, a thriller that is more compelling, faster paced, and just as intensely intelligent…sure to be an instant best-seller. I read the whole book in one afternoon and loved it.

In the English village of Beckford, the river that winds through the town casts a deep spell over the local residents. Dating back to the witch-hunts of the 1600s, the river has been the sight of dozens of documented — and countless undocumented — murders and suicides: almost all involving women. These women, the women of the Drowning Pool, continue to haunt Beckford.

Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a successful photographer who spent her childhood summers on the river in Beckford, returns to the town to complete a book and photography art exhibit honoring the women who have died at the Drowning Pool. Nel has harbored a life-long obsession with the murders and suicides that have happened on the river and wants to tell the stories — the real stories — of the women who died.

Nel’s project, and her relentless obsession for stirring up past town scandals, immediately riles the local residents. When her project is linked the the tragic suicide of a local teenage girl named Katie, Nel herself becomes a target for violence. Within a few months, Nel’s body is found in the Drowning Pool and many in town feel that she got what was coming to her.

Enter Julia “Jules” Abbott, Nel’s estranged sister, who has been suddenly thrust into the roles as executor of her sister’s estate and the guardian to Nel’s fifteen-year-old daughter Lena. Jules’ relationship to Beckford is not one of deep interest (as it was for Nel), but remembered as a place of fear, grief, and violence. In fact, events that happened in that very town when the girls were young are the source for the rift between the sisters. “What struck me is how well I remembered. Too well. Things I want to remember I can’t, and the things I try so hard to forget just keep coming. The nearer I got to Beckford, the more undeniable it became, the past shooting out at me like sparrows from the hedgerow, startling and inescapable.” 11

There is nothing clear-cut about Nel’s death, nor the suicide of Katie Whittaker which Nel is blamed for causing, and everyone in town seems to be attempting to find answers. Jules, Lena, Katie’s family, the local police, and even the town witch — a descendant of the first woman believed to be murdered in the river, persecuted for witch-craft — are all searching for the truth.

These investigations delve into suicides and murders stretching back far into the town’s history, all spurred on by Nel’s book notes which seem to suggest very few of the deaths that have happened at the Drowning Pool could be seen as suicides…but rather acts aimed at “getting rid of troublesome women.”

The novel that follows is fast-paced, nerve-wracking, and deliciously scandalous! Filled with Hawkin’s signature misdirection, half-told truths, and out-of-order sequencing: the story slowly reveals not one, not two, but many, many crimes that are lurking under the serene surface of Beckford and its river.

The Girl Before by JP Delaney (2017)

In this brand new thriller, JP Delaney presents us with a story of trauma, heartbreak, betrayal, lies, and — ultimately — murder. Enlivening all of these familiar story elements is the unique plot twist which makes the location of the story — One Folgate Street, London– the main character of the story.

One Folgate Street is an architectural icon, as famous as the brilliant, eccentric architect Edward Monkford, who designed it. Created to be a house of the future, it is simultaneously a work of art and a technological marvel: state-of-the-art security, entirely automated, responsive to the external environment as well as its inhabitants. The cost to those interested in renting the house is not financial, but rather personal. In order to be chosen to live there, renters must undergo a rigorous screening, agree to live by intensely restrictive rules, and allow the architect and his firm to collect constant data on their day-to-day movements.

Enter Emma, identified as the story’s “then” narrator and Jane, the “now” narrator. Then: Emma moves into the house with her boyfriend after a break-in at their old flat. Emma is drawn to the remote location, high-end security, and hopes that the austerity of the house (no color, no personal items, no art) will help her pull her life back together after being attacked. Now: Jane moves in after a heart-breaking loss, hoping a simple, regimented life will allow her to create the mental space she needs to heal.

Soon both Emma and Jane find that the house, and its designer Edward, will control far more than their decor. The house will begin to dictate how they sleep, eat, work, and make love. At first, the freedom from choice and the sensation of being cared for by the house make it a source of comfort. But soon, information about the house, its past residents, and the uncomfortably close relationship Edward has to the property leads both women to question whether Folgate Street is as safe as it seems.

The story moves back and forth, twisting and turning, with the characters revealing themselves a bit more with each chapter; and with those revelations growing more and more shocking as the book unfolds.

It should be noted that I truly enjoyed the book and found the story exciting and the plot ingenious. That said, it must be noted that The Girl Before feels heavily influenced by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins Girl on The Train, with a tiny hint of Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains.” While the story still is compelling and quite readable, the similarities to other works did distract a bit from this thriller’s overall uniqueness. That said, I am sure it will be a best-seller and turned into a movie with Reese Witherspoon in no time at all.