Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (2016)

“For anyone who has wondered what their life might be like at the end of the road not taken” — The dedication, Dark Matter

dark matter

What if you knew in advance that in making one single decision you could alter the course of your life forever, in ways you could not predict and were potentially irrevocable? Would you take greater care in making your choice, follow your instincts, or would you make one choice but spend the rest of your life obsessing over the path not taken? That questions burns at the heart of Dark Matter, a whip-smart science fiction thriller with surprising emotional depth and a rich, well-developed plot.

Jason Dessen, our main character, begins the novel as an average man, on a average night. A physicist of great promise turned mid-level professor of no real acclaim, Jason is struggling with envy over the news that his former roommate (and to Jason’s mind, a lesser scientist) has won a prestigious international prize. The news has rattled Jason, who is happy with his wife Daniela and teenage son Charlie; living an ordinary life in Chicago. But he cannot help, as he walks to a bar to a party to celebrate this colleague, think that he could have been him, that he could have done great things and changed the world…if only he had not chosen to marry Daniela and raise their son.

Beyond all possibility and reason, that exact night Jason is forced to see exactly what the “path not taken” looks like, when he is kidnapped, beaten, and drugged by a masked man who demands intimate details of Jason’s life and — just as he leaves him for dead — asks Jason, “are you happy with your life?”

What follows is a wild sci-fi roller coaster; filled with mind-bending physics experiments, inter-dimensional travel, cutting edge psychotropic drugs, as well as betrayal, lies, and murder. Jason is torn from his life and thrust into another, where he is — and is not — himself. He is presented with alternate versions of who he could have been and what he might have accomplished, if he had walked away from Daniela all those years ago.

While science fiction often tends to be emotionally removed; choosing to sacrifice plot for details of the world the author trying to create, Dark Matter goes in another direction. Crouch delves deep into the emotional landscape of Jason’s life and the wild turn it has taken. Jason’s deep and abiding love for his wife and son are the center of the story, propelling him away from the “alternate” versions of himself and back toward the family he so desperately longs to rejoin. He knows with certainty the path he has taken, not the one he has not, is the perfect choice for him.

 

 

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.

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear (2017)

Note: Other books in this series, and stand alone books by Winspear, can be found using the tag “Winspear” on the right hand side of this site’s main page. This post may contain spoilers for earlier books in this series.

in this grave hour

In This Grave Hour, the thirteenth installment of the fantastic Maisie Dobbs Series, opens on a somber note on September 3, 1939 at the very moment that the British government declared war on Germany and entered World War II. On that same morning, Maisie Dobbs — a “psychologist and investigator” in London — is assigned a new case: find a murderer who is targeting Belgian men who came to England as refugees during the first World War.

After years of personal turmoil, including losing her husband and baby, and working as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, the summer of 1939 finds Maisie Dobbs returned to London and Kent: her city-based investigative business thriving and her weekend life in the country with her father and in-laws stable and contented. However, the declaration of war changes everything immediately: children removed from their city homes and relocated to the live with strangers country; London bracing for bombings; and everywhere young men enlisting, terrifying their parents who still keenly remember their loses in WWI.

Against that back-drop, Maisie follows the trail of a handful of WWI Belgian refugees who came to England as orphaned boys and stayed to build a life after Armistice, men who are now turning up dead, executed one-by-one. Together with her two assistants, the local police, a Secret Service agent, and a Belgian diplomat; Maisie begins to uncover the connection between the then boys, now men, and their murderer and the reasons for these apparently long-delayed executions.

Told in Winspear’s signature style — calm, methodical, precise, and rich with historical details — In This Grave Hour is yet another mesmerizing investigation unfolds and more hints about the future in store for Maisie Dobbs are revealed. Wonderful!

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.