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.

 

 

Summer Movie Series — A Family Quest

hello sunshine

In our family, summer is a time to accomplish some serious reading. Yes, its true that we read all year long (a lot) and that reading is at the center of all of our down-time. But in the summer, all that glorious free-time beckons us to read, and read, and read…by the pool, at the beach, on car trips, on rainy days, during half-time at soccer games and boring stretches of baseball games and any other free moment that we can find.

While reading is a major part of our summer, we realized last year that it is a solitary past-time, one that we can only share occasionally. So we instituted a Summer Family Movie Series: a list of summer-themed movies that we can watch together (some just the adults) to be entertained and spend time together. We went on a quest to make a list of all of the movies we could think of that take place during the summer, or that for some inexplicable reason seem “summery,” and decided we would watch as many as possible during the summer…whenever the familiar refrain of “there’s nothing to do” was moaned, we would go to the list and watch one.

Our goal is not to watch them all, but to see as many as possible each year and to save these titles for summer viewing only. We find that their designation as summer movies that we don’t watch otherwise during the year make them seem more special.

I thought I would post a list of our favorite summer movies on the blog, and I would welcome suggestions from readers about their favorites that we might have missed.

Enjoy!

FOR ALL AGES

  • The Parent Trap — both the original, which I love, and the Lindsay Lohan version, which my kids prefer.
  • Earth to Echo
  • The Sandlot
  • Holes
  • Aliens in the Attic
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Phineas and Ferb the Movie
  • Camp Rock
  • Teen Beach Party
  • Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer
  • Cars and Cars 2
  • Finding Nemo and Finding Dory
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008 version)
  • Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012 version)
  • Bedtime Stories
  • Field of Dreams (this can be a bit boring for very young kids, but baseball lovers of all ages will enjoy it.)
  • All of the feature-length Scooby Doo Movies. My husband and I loved the show as kids and my kids all love it now. We own many of these movies and they are on a heavy-rotation every summer. (Side note: Scooby Doo Camp Scare takes place in summer.) Some of our other favorites include: Scooby Doo and the Samurai Sword, Aloha Scooby Doo, Pirates Ahoy, Blue Falcon, and Big Top. A full list of these movies can be found here http://www.imdb.com/list/ls070492058/

FOR TEENS AND UP

  • Super 8
  • Forrest Gump
  • Jaws — our teen is really into scary movies, this might not be a good fit for all teens. (Don’t be fooled by it’s PG rating, it was released before PG-13 designations were created.)
  • Jurassic Park 1, 2, 3 and Jurassic World
  • Indiana Jones 1-4 (our family favorite remains Raiders of the Lost Ark)
  • Independence Day and Independence Day Resurgence
  • Fever Pitch
  • Pirates of the Caribbean (our favorite remains #1)
  • A League of Their Own

FOR ADULTS (clearly some are more low-brow then others, but still watchable, some others which I watch alone because my husband refuses)

  • Rear Window
  • Endless Summer
  • National Lampoons Vacation and European Vacation
  • Before Sunrise
  • Die Hard with Vengeance
  • Dirty Dancing
  • Point Break
  • The Great Outdoors
  • Summer Rental
  • Weekend at Bernies
  • 50 First Dates
  • The Bird Cage
  • Stand by Me
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Friday the 13th (and to a lesser degree, Sleep Away Camp)
  • Thelma and Louise
  • The Hangover and Bridemaids — these are not an official pairing, but they are both wild wedding comedies that we seem to watch back to back every summer… definitely not for kiddos!!

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 Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (2017)

the stars are fire

In this somber novel, Anita Shreve paints a picture of one woman’s life of limitations and unmet needs that result from outdated and, at times, punishing social mores forced upon women in late 1940’s Maine. Our main character Grace is a women in her early twenties from a small fishing town on the coast of Maine, who — at the start of the novel — is a mother of two young children and the wife of a man named Gene. While Grace does all she is expected to for her husband, both in the home, for the family, and in the bedroom, her husband remains a cold and controlling man. Gene limits Grace’s activities, controls all of the family finances, and offers her nothing in the way of emotional connection.

This Grace realizes, is what a wife’s life is like, and she accepts — with some jealousy — that she will not have the passion or love some other young women seem to find with their husbands. She tries not to pine for a life with another purpose either; Gene would forbid her to work or spend much time outside of the house in any manner, and does not much care for Grace to read or listen to music. Grace tries not to panic at the thought of decades locked in this cold marriage, tries not to long for something more meaningful.

Then, wildfires race across Maine on hot and drought-plagued summer and everything changes. Gene leaves to fight the fires and Grace is left to make decisions about keeping her young family safe. When the fire consumes their town, Graces level-headed reactions save the lives of her and her neighbors. But they escape only with their lives, and absolutely nothing else. The house and its contents burned, all of the families papers gone, and Grace learns that her husband has never revealed even one hint as to their banking, insurance, or other information to her. Furthermore, as a woman her word is doubted by bankers and businessmen, and without proof of her marriage to Gene nor the fact that she is the mother to his children, their is nothing she can do to retrieve those funds.

After weeks pass with no sign that Gene survived, and sick of living like refugees, Grace takes her life into her own hands. What follows is not a easy path for her and her children, but one it which Grace is free to make decisions for herself and plot her own future, without having to consider her husband and his rules. Soon she is working, driving, and building a happy life for her family; something that seemed unachievable just a few months before she was widowed. What’s more, Grace is suddenly open to the idea that she might find the love and passion she so desperately longed for, now that her life is her own.

Shreve’s writing style is restrained and very solemn, and the characters in the story always feel on the edge of desperation; leaving the novel to feel rather heavy and intense. However, the struggles faced and the daunting circumstances are overcome, giving readers some sense of hope as the book concludes.

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.