THE HALF LIFE OF STARS by Louise Wener

stars  Three siblings move to Miami, Florida from England when their dad gets a building design job there.  Mom is underthrilled with their apartment in a not-so-great apartment complex, but dad is happy with his job.

There are undercurrents, for sure.  [See what I did there?  Undercurrents, ocean, Miami?] Try to keep up.

Fifteen year old Daniel, a dedicated runner and space and cosmos aficionado, and his father take a ‘bonding’ trip together to Cape Canaveral to watch the Challenger launch.  It is clear that Daniel is really pissed at his dad.   But for what?  And then the Challenger explosion.  On the way home, stuck in non-moving bumper to bumper traffic, dad appears to have suffered a heart attack.  Daniel leaves the car to race back a few miles to an ambulance they had passed to get help.

Fast forward to the present.  The three, Daniel, Claire and little sister Sylvie, plus a remarried, hypercritical mom, are living once again in London.  Claire is divorced from some musician about whom one wonders why she married him in the first place, Sylvie earns her university fees by doing phone sex at home, and Daniel ….. prosperous, successful Daniel just went missing.  His wife is frantic.  As are the rest of the family.

Claire’s ex husband is hanging around, and she finds out through some clever sleuthing [don’t you just love the word ‘sleuthing’?]  that her brother may have actually gone to Florida, and the ex offers to go with her, so off they go to Miami where they meet up with an old musician buddy of the ex, who puts them up in his apartment.

The friend and his girlfriend, and the psychic card reader, and the mafia guy on the pier and the …… oh, forget it.  It is a fun and complicated story, all about choices, regret, and a Japanese system for spiriting people away from their lives they don’t want,  which may or may not actually exist.

You can read this as seriously as you wish, because in spite of the campy characters, they all have heart and pain,  or you can just read it as a crazy romp.  Either way it works.  It has a satisfying ending, where Claire tells us

We are a family subtly shifted; uniquely altered and changed.  But underneath the surface, deep below the skin, our atoms have fractured and realigned.  The patterns we’ve spent a lifetime sewing into place have slowly begun to unravel.  We don’t refract the light in quite the same way that we did, our center of gravity has shifte.  Where did they go to, those people we were last year?  Try as I might, I can’t keep hold of us.

I’m not exactly sure where the title comes from.  Sometimes I need an author to smack me in the face with the obvious.

Mz. Wener has a couple of other books, ….. and a band.  OK.

MURDER ON THE DOWNLOW by Pamela Samuels-Young

Murder  This was really a great story with two major themes running through it.

Here’s how it starts.  A good looking, really nice African-American wealthy ob/gyn has ‘lunch appointments’ out of the office.   We are privy to a part of one, and it is clear that it is a regular meeting — in a hotel room — with another man!  GASP!

As he is parking his car in the parking garage when returning to his office, he is shot dead by a small caliber gun.

Change the scenery to a funeral for a African-American woman who dies of pneumonia.  At least that is what everybody thinks, until her bff and cousin, Special,  (yes, that’s her name), pushes up to the podium at the funeral and announced that Maya died from HIV, which she caught from her fiance, Eugene, who was secretly having sex with men.  It is called being on the down low.  Apparently, Oprah even had an episode on this featuring J. L. King who wrote On the Down Low all about this subject.

Two other friends of the deceased Maya are lawyer ladies, and another is a police detective.  When the police lady gets a call at the funeral repast about the homicide of the doc, the cover begins to come off of this whole issue.  Because there was another Black professional who was mysteriously shot the previous week.

Several more Black professional men are murdered, and our lady cop, C.J. uncovers the connection.

Meanwhile, back at the funeral, etc., Special is frantic with grief and anger about seemingly straight men, husbands and boyfriends, leading a double life on the down low and endangering their women, and starts a war on Eugene, Maya’s HIV boyfriend.

And soon is targeted as the murderer of the other men as she made a wild attack on Eugene at the courthouse in front of all kinds of news cameras.   Then Eugene is murdered.

So it is a mystery in that we do not know who did kill these men,  it’s a page turner as we watch the two lawyer friends try to defend the emotional Special, it’s a primer on the down low issue and HIV and the Black and Hispanic community,  and is a delight to read because it is about the upscale, professional African-American community, and does not portray all African-Americans as druggies, poor, violent and slum dwellers.

Just an all around great book.   There are three more in the Vernetta Henderson series, and there is another two-book series, and a couple of stories.

 

PURGATORY by K. M. Stross

Purgatory   K.M. Stross, the author of the post apocalyptic  tale The Man in Black, The Woman in White  gives us something quite different with Purgatory.

Purgatory is a border town on the southern edge of Arizona surrounded by a dry patch of nothing and not much else.  (I copied that right from the book.)  The choice of Purgatory  as the name of the town is interesting, and after you read the book, you can decide for yourself whether it is appropriate, a metaphor for something deeper, or just what.

A priest walks into a bar…..  I bet you thought it was going to be a bar joke, right?  Actually, a priest walks into a cafe, and so it begins,  a town where nothing is as it seems on the surface, not even the priest.  He has come to Purgatory to act as Devil’s Advocate for the Church, which is in the process of canonization of the former priest of Purgatory, Father Aaron Abaddon.  You might recall that Aaron was Moses’ older brother the first high priest of the Israelites, and is remembered for the miraculous blossoming of his staff or rod.  At the command of Moses, he stretched out his rod in order to bring on the first of three plagues, the Plague of Blood.  You would do well to keep this in mind as you read.

No one in town wants our Devil’s Advocate there; they are all reluctant to talk to him.  The town has dwindled down to not much,  but what is keeping it alive are the illegals – the undocumented Mexicans who continually slip across the nearby border, and are hired by the local ranch owners, the only way they can make their ranches pay.  The Mexicans spend their money in town, and most of the shop keepers are glad to see them.  There is a memorial in the center of town to Father Aaron, which brings in pious Mexicans.  As one character says, the problem illegals go to other towns.  Purgatory gets the faithful.  The canonization of Father Aaron will do much for the town, in terms of tourists, and survival.  Everybody wants this to go through.

But now, wait.  We have a problem.  Three of them, actually.  Maybe more.  A prior priest disappeared.  No body found, no trace, no nada.  And then there was the priest after him who …. dare I say it? …. killed himself.  And we don’t actually know what happened to Father Aaron.  He seems to have just disappeared, after working a number of healing miracles in town, and is presumed dead, hence the canonization.  (You can’t make a saint out of someone still living.)

And then there is the church.  Locked up.  Unused now for several years.  And it’s spooky, and nobody likes going there.  The people say it is haunted.

Our protagonist Devil’s Advocate has an eye problem.  He has glaucoma in his left eye, worsening daily.  The future of his right eye is in doubt.  And as the story goes along, he begins to have hallucinations — but only through his left eye, the one with tunnel vision, and darkening vision.  If he closes that eye, and looks only through his right eye, all is normal.

Our Devil’s Advocate also seems to be searching for a particular person in addition to his Devil’s Advocate duties.  Or is that why he is there in the first place?  We begin to have the same problem as our protagonist,  darkening sight, seeing ghosts in the periphery of our vision.  But what we can see clearly is that his physical tunnel vision may also be a metaphor for his determined unwavering quest.

A complex story whose interwoven threads are only revealed to us little by little,  this bizarre tale with its religious underpinnings has the feel of some of the mighty biblical stories of evil and revenge, and bring to mind some pertinent bible verses:

Romans 12:19      Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.

Deuteronomy 32:35 `Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, In due time their foot will slip; For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them.’

Leviticus 24:17-21  ‘If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. `The one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. `If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him.

A kind of mystery, a kind of paranormal story, a kind of political commentary, a kind of dark view of the world.  Yeah.  That about sums it up, leaving us with the question:

Do miracles really happen in this day and age?

PICKING LEMONS by J. T. Toman

Lemons  You know, I almost didn’t snag this book because of the cover.  Not that I have anything against pointy pink cowboy boots, but because a light, cutesy cover usually signals a light cutesy book, and light cutesy is not usually my go-to kind of read.

But, whoo howdy, am I glad I downloaded it and actually read it!  So looking at the cover, we figure it is going to be about a kicky perky cowgirl,  academia, and ummmm lemons.

Almost.

The cowgirl is a tough-minded economics Ph.D at a prestigious Ivy League university in Connecticut, who after paying her dues in an all-male Economics department, primly attired in her charcoal  grey suits, hair back, attending every meeting, seminar, etc., finally achieves TENURE!   Yahoo!   Turns out, she is from a Texas ranch, and the day after her tenure papers are signed, the FIRST woman to be granted tenure in the Economics Department, shows up in those boots, a turquoise  skirt, and spangled cowgirl shirt.

Her wrists clinked with bangles, and her long blonde hair swung loose.  She strode into a faculty meeting and watched her colleagues’ mouths hang open.  “Hi, ya’ll,”  she drawled in her natural Texas twang.  “Don’t let me stop you from telling your stories.  You know I just love a good ball-scratcher first thing in the morning.”

The Economics Department is filled with upward clawing, ambitious men.

“What is that great quote by Kissinger?  Something about the reason university politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so small.

And of those vicious, ambitions men, darn if one of them — arguably the most obnoxious of them — doesn’t get himself murdered.  Strangled with the hood of his academic gown.  Poetic justice at its finest, if you ask me.

C. J., our pink cowboy boots-wearing newly tenured protagonist, talks over the exciting mystery with her buddy, Betsy,

Betsy was an adjunct instructor the the Economics Department and had been for something like 30 years.  No one knew how old Betsy Williams was or how much she weighed, but those fluent in statistics considered that both numbers were high enough to make every breath she took an actuarial anomaly.

The top female grad student in C.J.’s class had a theory on how to discover the murder:

Is this like the market for second-hand cars?  Instead of trying to pick out the bad car from the good ones, we are trying to pick out the guilty person from the innocent people?   C.J. responds, “Your used car dealer has a bad car, a lemon as it were, but has polished it real nice, maybe even turned back that odometer.  It is therefore hard to know which is a good car and which is a bad car.  Same here.  The murderer is going to try and present himself as an innocent person, making it hard to tell who just didn’t like Professor DeBeyer and who is a killer.

And the rest of the book is all of us kicking tires, and looking at the paint job to see if it was in an accident.

Great read, well-written, nifty plot, and lots of fun characters.  We have 87-year-old Charles, a bit doddery and totally deaf, ruminating while seated at his new computer on the days of yore:

In those days, he used punch cards to write code, and (though he didn’t tell very many people this story), he published a paper with completely erroneous results as he had entered the punch cards backwards into the computer.  Charles hadn’t realised the error until years later.

We have the obnoxious head of the Department answering a faculty member’s concern:

Of course I am not guaranteeing your safety.  Whan an absurd concept.  You could walk across Knollwood to your office and get hit by a car.  I have no control over that.  Likewise, the murderer could meet you, be as irritated as I am now, and decide to do the world a favor by killing you.  I, also, cannot control that.  All I am merely saying is that, given the two victims thus far were pre-eminent economists doing cutting-edge, life-altering research, I think the probability that you, an economist of little value, will be murdered is low.

And lots of other great characters.   So in spite of the kind of hooky cover, if you like mysteries, if you like an academic setting, if you like ballsy female characters,  snag this one for yourself.

The author has a Ph.D. in economics, (from Yale, no less), and a degree in zookeeping .  Yeah.  Those two career fields go together.  I can see that.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick DeWitt

sister   A western, with the title The Sisters Brothers.  That gave me the first clue that it wasn’t going to be a John Wayne kind of western.  But then, just what does constitute a gen-u-ine western, anyway?  Guns?  Check.  We got those.  Horses?  Check.  We got those.  Wagons?  Check.  We got those.  Gold rush?  Check.  Got that, too.

Eli and Charlie Sisters, fresh from a hard-knock childhood of abuse and privation,  begin to work for a dark character known as the Commodore as … let’s call a spade a shovel, here …. hired assassins.

Told in first person formalized style of the literary western,  Eli gradually lets us have a peek at his growing disenchantment with the killing business.   He loves and admires his brother but is coming to the realization that possibly Charlie is using him, and Eli is beginning to feel the injustice of this.

The brothers are sent on an assignment to San Francisco to kill a certain Mr. Hermann Kermit Warm, for the only reason they are told, because he stole something from the Commodore.  The brothers never ask too many questions about their jobs.  The pay is too good, the adventure too good, and it is better just to get the job done and get paid.

Along the way from Oregon to their assignment, they meet up with a variety of odd characters, and even odder situations, and the Reader (that would be me), gets the feeling she has one foot in The Canterbury Tales and one in a story by Bret Harte.

We start to see the contrast between Charlie, pretty much psychopathicly (is that a word?) unemotional about killing people, and he does so with rather distressing regularity.  Eli, on the other hand, tries faintly to be a voice of reason and to keep the body count down.

They eventually track down their intended target, to learn that he has developed a formula that when dumped into a river, makes the gold in the riverbed glow, showing where to dig for the gold.   What happens from there on is almost destiny in spurs and ten gallon hat.

I want to say this was a charming book, but it wasn’t really charming, what with all the shooting of people, and it was sad, what with poor Eli’s fumbling attempts to strike up a relationship with various female personages.  I would like to say it was funny, which it was sort of, in places.   I want to say it is a tough, no-nonsense western, but in spite of all the blood, it isn’t.

So I guess what it really is is a character study in a western setting.  The story moves relentlessly toward its inevitable end, and we are left with, while not exactly a satisfied feeling, at least a feeling of satisfaction of the rightness of the conclusion.

Wa’al, time to get on my horse and skedaddle.   Giddyap, Dobbin.

 

COOL BLUE TOMB by Paul Kemprecos

tomb   A P.I. mystery, set in Provincetown, Cape Cod , Mass.  Aristotle ‘Soc’   Socarides is a Viet Nam vet, was on the Boston police force, left that, and became a mix of wharf bum, cod fisherman, and part time private eye, living in a boathouse on the water.

His Greek family lives a couple of hours away where they operate a very lucrative wholesale pizza business.  What?  You never heard of Greek pizza?  Yeah, me neither.  But what do I know, I’m from New Jersey, land of the Sopranos and turnpikes.

Soc is contacted by a guy who wants to do salvaging of a 200 (or is it 300?) year old wreck  and is having some problems with the bureaucracy, having his paperwork all disappear. And a conflict with another salvage operation for the same site. And then there is that matter of the dead diver?  Oh, didn’t I mention the dead diver, caught up in fishnet, stuck until his air ran out and he drowned?  Must have slipped my mind.

THEN,  a classy, wealthy chick contacts our boy to trail her husband, whom she thinks is being followed, and she is afraid for his life.  What’s a classy, wealthy, totally gorgeous chick want with a low-market type P.I. like Soc?  Oh?  I didn’t mention she was totally gorgeous?  Must have slipped my mind as well.

Are these two cases related in some way?  Well, being the intrepid reader of mysteries that I am, I figure that, yeah,  they’re related.  Why else would they be in the same book?  But anyway, it takes quite a while to learn just how they are related.

Great mystery, really excellent writing, characters who will amuse you, and a setting that will make you want to move to Cape Cod — at least for three quarters of the year.  I think we can forget about the winter season there. And some nice info on the salvage industry, and some interesting history tidbits as well. What more can a reader ask of a P.I. Mystery?   Right?

There are five more books in the series, and if you like your P.I.’s more philosophical than hard-boiled, I recommend you check them out.

BIOCENTRISM -How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe — Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman

biocentrismRobert Lanza is a medical doctor, scientist, Chief Scientific Officer of Advanced Cell Technology and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Wake Forest University School of Medicine.  He has done some leading work in stem cell research,  and in 2007 published, along with Bob Berman, one of the most respected and widely read astronomers in the world, a new paradigm for thinking about consciousness.

It is our human impulse to see life as central to the existence of the universe, as in all mystical traditions.  It is so fundamental that it may be ingrained in the way our psyche evolved, like the need for meaning and the idea of a supernatural deity.   This theory of Lanza and Berman is no different in its focus on ME, baby, ME.     Combining biology, physics, quantum mechanics and astrophysics,  he puts together a really fascinating argument for the notion that it is consciousness that creates the physical universe, not the other way around.   You know, without US, universe, you are NOTHING.

He emphasizes the interesting fact from quantum mechanics and quantum physics that the observer is crucial to the observed.  That the wave form does no collapsing unless somebody is watching.   He insists that nothing exists, except as a fog of probability, until an observer looks at it.

He claims that space and time are not objects or things, but rather tools of our animal understanding.  He says we carry space and time around with us in our heads, and gives us the analogy of a DVD player and a DVD disc.   The music or film exists, but it is not visible until we use the player, and then we can see or hear it.  The universe is the same.  It is this possibility, this collection of probabilities only, this is only a probability until we turn our gaze on it, at which time it materializes.

He suggests that consciousness was present at the conception of the universe and we are tapping into it.  He puts out a lot of information supporting the idea that  all is One, and that when our bodies die, our consciousness carries on, possibly in another dimension.

If you are a follower of the Asian philosophies, much of this book will feel rather deja vu.  But it is not based on mysticism, religious beliefs, or any other New Age woo woo.  It has a sound basis in science, and like any new out-of-the-box thinking, takes some getting used to.  I mean, look what Galileo went through, right?

It is a complex theory, yet one that is accessible and understandable, but just not explainable in two or three paragraphs.  If the idea intrigues you, I suggest you read the book.  It is only a couple of hundred pages, every one of them darn interesting.