Thursday Reviews: All Our Yesterdays by Robert B. Parker, The 4% Universe by Richard Panek, The Concrete Maze by Steven Torres, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

All Our Yesterdays

Robert B. Parker

Robert Parker took a break from his Spenser series to craft this tale of three generations of Boston cops. Well, two are cops. One is a law professor who becomes a special prosecutor. It’s also the tale of two families, the Sheridans and the Winslows, bound by a fling during Ireland’s struggle for independence. Conn Sheridan is an IRA shooter with no love of the British. When he is hurt during an attack on the British Secret Service, he is nursed back to health by the beautiful Hadley Winslow of Boston. Hadley is married to a wealthy, but emotionally distant Boston Brahman, so a dalliance with a dangerous rebel shooter is just what she needs. But she betrays Conn to the British. He flees Ireland for Boston and ends up in his own loveless, mostly sexless marriage that produces one son, Gus. When, in 1945, Hadley’s son, Tommy, gets into trouble with his taste for little girls, Conn, now a decorated Boston police detective, Conn exacts two generations’ worth of revenge. He now possesses Hadley sexually, and keeps Tommy under Gus’s thumb once Gus joins the Boston Police.

But it’s Gus’s cover-up of Tommy’s deeds and his pride and hope in his son, Chris, that drive this story. In 1994, when Chris narrates the story during “voiceovers” as Parker calls them, a gang war breaks out that Gus tries and fails to stop. The ever-election-minded mayor cleverly names Chris, now a noted criminologist, as special prosectuor, hoping to neutralize his opponent, Cabot Winslow. Chris is living with Cabot’s sister, Grace, and none of them are aware of Thomas Winslow’s twisted proclivities.

This is not one of Parker’s latter Spenser books, where you can almost recite the dialog before you even crack open the book. The scenes in Ireland are especially well done, like Ken Bruen with an American accent. The pattern established for Conn and Gus that Gus wants his son to avoid is set early. Both men marry prudish Catholic girls afraid of sex and not understanding why their husbands are so distant. The wives of the Winslow men follow a similar pattern, and it’s Grace, by joining with Chris, who is the key to break the pattern for both families.

But rather than hit you in the face with relationship troubles, like Parker was wont to do from 1980 on, he weaves it into a sprawling epic that has a feel not unlike Mystic River. There also is a refreshing change in tone when you have characters that simply are and clearly are not coming back for more than one or two sequels at best. (There have been no sequels.)

The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality

Richard Panek

Cosmology has always been a contentious thing. Adherents to the old school of cosmology still fight holy wars over the subject. But the topic as science has been slowly coming into focus since Copernicus. Copernicus discovered the sun, not the earth, sat at the center of the universe, then Galileo turned his telescope skyward for proof. Newton realized there was this thing called gravity (though we still have no clue what it is, only that it makes things fall down). Einstein picked up the ball in 1901 and realized that everything was relative while a group of Germans discovered that really tiny things like atoms act strange, adhering to a set of rules dubbed “quantum mechanics.” Hubble discovered there are more than one galaxy out there. In 1964, they found the Big Bang actually banged when a Bell Labs crew stumbled onto its echo, the foundation of modern cosmology.

Which brings us to our tale, two teams looking at supernovae to determine the age of the universe. The teams were rivals, each racing to find out whether Einstein’s once-rejected cosmological constant actually existed. There was the Supernova Cosmology Project led by Saul Perlmutter and the High-z Supernova Search Team. And was the rivalry fierce. SPC, as Perlmutter’s team is still called, found a way to find distant supernovae “on demand” so to speak, by knowing where to focus on the sky, for how long, and what type of light. High-z worried more about quality than quantity, which made their job harder. But in 1998, the teams reached a conclusion that would shake the foundations of astronomy and physics: What we see in the sky and, indeed, in front of our faces, makes up only 4% of the universe. In 1998, the teams each announced that there was more than just atoms and molecules out there. Some particles were so small, they barely interact with anything around them, except by gravity (which we still don’t fully understand, an aspect of physics I find amusing.) They dubbed this “dark matter,” and it makes up another 20% of the universe. So what’s the rest of it? Why is the universe expanding faster and faster over time?

Dark energy. And yes, it does exist. “Dark” just means we can’t “see” it or understand its nature.

Panek does a good job explaining this in laymen’s terms. But simply saying there are things we can tell are out there, but we have a hard time seeing, is not like trying to explain something as complex as string theory (See my earlier review of Brian Greene’s book.) What he also does is paint how very human the men and women who discovered the true nature of the universe could be. There were egos involved and professional slights. And yet, one member from both teams, Alex Fillippenko, a regular on History’s The Universe, summed up the real problem. Each team wedded two previously separate sciences – particle physics and astronomy, which have completely separate cultures, even now that their focus overlaps.

Nonetheless, the team members, and many of their predecessors who laid the groundwork, can be proud.

The Concrete Maze

Steven Torres

Steven Torres is one of the most underrated writers working today. His novel The Concrete Maze is an example why. A man named Marc Ramos tells the story of his Tio Luis (Tio, meaning “uncle” in Spanish), who is searching for his daughter Jasmine. Jasmine disappeared from a Bronx skating rink. Luis and Marc find her soon enough, but the man who took her is keeping her out of reach. Pretty soon, the police, the people around Carlos (who kidnapped Jasmine), and even Luis’s own private detective question Luis’s right to search for his daughter. But it becomes very personal for Luis. Everyone, it seems, is lying to him, and the closer he gets to why Jasmine was kidnapped, the more desperate and afraid people get. Soon bodies start falling wherever Luis has been talking to people.

At the center of this story is white slavery and the lengths those involved will go to protect it. Basically, a little girl is tortured so large sums of money can change hands. The perpetrators cannot believe that a father will stop at nothing, not even murder, to get his daughter back. To them, Jasmine is a disposable plaything. To Luis, it is a call for revenge.

The Time Machine

H.G. Wells

An eccentric inventor, known only in the narrative as “The Time Traveler,” declares to his incredulous friends that he’s invented a time machine. Everyone thinks he’s lost it, so, on the day of his next dinner party, he takes a trip forward nearly 800,000 years. What he finds is that man has devolved into a gentle pleasure-seeking creature, his intellect all but gone. But there is a dark-side to this paradise at man’s twilight. Below ground live the Morlocks, also humans, who have become cannibalistic and find the above-ground Eloi as part of a nutritious breakfast. The Time Traveller ponders if this is the natural end to his Edwardian industrial society. Do the rich devolve into lazy, slow-witted pretty creatures while the workers become a pack of light-hating carnivores, taking the flesh of their masters as a wage for keeping the machinery of a long-dead civilization running? Wells is famous for his cautionary tales about war and technology (War of the Worlds, Shape of Things to Come). This short diatribe makes a nice counterpoint to Orwell’s 1984, written about 50 years later warning of communism’s rise.