Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele

 This book reads like a pastiche or homage to several of Heinlein's juvenile works, and a couple of his novels for adult readers, too, such as Between Planets, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Thet Menace from Earth, right off the top of my head. Jamie, Melissa and Jan are the children of a scientific bureaucrat within the international space agency who signed a petition to keep the Helium 3 resources out of the greedy claws of the current Vice President of the United States. When the President dies suddenly, allegedly assassinated by PSU (Chinese) agents, and the VP takes power, he realizes that he is in danger, and that his children can be used as leverage against him, so he sends them off - to the Moon - for safety.

This is a heavily disguised blessing for Jamey, who was born on the Moon, but who has lived his life on earth up to the age of sixteen in a powered mobile (read wheelchair) since his bones and muscles are not strong enough to support him on Earth unassisted. So, though it is emotionally traumatic and all very suspenseful, Jamie really blossoms...or perhaps soars is a better term, when he arrives at the lunar colony of Apollo. Jamey's best friend, Logan, is also along for the ride, as are the two children of another family of scientists, , one of whom is developmentally disabled, which turns out to be a brilliant gadget whereby Steele can do some expository work, explaining simple things about the Moon and its colony. At the last minute, before they board their shuttle to the Moon, Jamey's older sister, Jan, is replaced by Hannah "Smith", who arrives suddenly in a limousine, accompanied by Men in Black. It's all very mysterious to Jamie, but not so much to the rest of us.

After that, it's all mostly a coming of age novel, set in lunar orbit, complete with bullies, teenage angst and know-it-all atttitude, and a tale of rebellion against tyranny where boy gets girl in the end.
A good, innocent read. Steele has written so many great books over the years, and this one adds to his legacy.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews

 The action ramps up rapidly in this book. The Beast Lord Curran leaves town to visit with a potential ally out in the deep woods north of Atlanta, while leaving the Consort Kate to deal with the Conclave between The People and The Pack. When Kate, with her complement of badass bodyguards arrives, they are somewhat surprised by the arrival of Hugh D'Ambray, Roland's henchman, at the conference. D'Ambray produces evidence that the Pack is guilty of murder of one of the top Masters of the People, and things go crazy. The Pack delegation is attacked by vampires, and they flee under fire back to their Stronghold, fighting all the way.

The scent and fur evidence on the murder victim indicates that it was indeed a Pack member who committed the murder, so Kate and her allies must try to find the culprit before war breaks out. They try to sneak into the People's territory to the bordello where the murder took place, and end up fighting a long running battle all the way in and out again, though they do discover the identity of the murderer. When D'Ambray and the People arrive a day or two later to demand the murderer be turned over, he is frustrated when Kate turns the murderer over to an incorruptible county sheriff instead of to Hugh or his pet police force.

Betrayal from within the Pack, however, ends up with Kate teleported to an inescapable prison far away, where D'Ambray intends to keep her until she consents to ally with him in Roland's service. When Curran finally arrives to rescue her, the next several chapters read like the description of one of the best FPS games of all time, and the action continues to get more intense until the last couple chapters, which are curiously anticlimactic, in my opinion. It will be interesting to see where Andrews goes with this new plot twist.

Slam-bang, thank you gang, action!

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Children of Possibility by Thomas T. Thomas

 I first encountered the fiction of Thomas T. Thomas several decades ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I bought nearly every novel he published, and then he disappeared, quit being published. In those pre-Amazon years it was difficult to find out what happened, but quite frankly I though he'd passed away, like many of my favorite authors were doing for a while there. When I stumbled upon Mr. Thomas' web site a few weeks ago, and found that he had been writing science fiction, among other things, all along, but just not getting published until the recent wave of Amazon self-published works became available, I was delighted. I rushed out (figuratively) and bought one of his novels, to see if his new stuff is fun to read, too.

The Children of Possibility is all over the map, temporally speaking, from the far future to the Devonian era. There is a corps of time travelers known as the Jongleurs who voyage from the far future into the past to fix problems here and there, and to repair the meddling of other sailors in the stream of time. About this future society:

"Their direct ancestors, who were now the progenitors of most humans alive on Earth, had started by cleaning their children's embryos in vitro of all known disease mutations. Next, they rearranged their chromosomes and eliminated redundancies - or engineered new ones, where having backup copies and variations of a gene made sense...Finally, they redesigned the entire organism for metabolic efficiency and longevity, with the ultimate goal of a human that had no natural life span - people who were potentially immortal."

The main story lines follow Merola, a Jongleur who goes off the reservation, so to speak, in order to save her sister from a financial crisis (whatever happened to the cashless society of Star Trek?) and Rydin, her mentor, who has to track her down when she is ambushed by a coven of renegades, and loses her capability to return to her own time.

The plot weaves to and fro, and Thomas gives us a few new wrinkles on the theory and practice of time travel. I liked Merola and Rydin, and I kept going back to the book to find out how they got out of their messes, but I really liked Rydin's AI the best. Just had that wonderful snarky way of expressing itself that reminded me of the entities in the Culture series by Iain Banks.Glad to see the return of an interesting and thought provoking author.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

 This book came highly recommended by a couple of ladies in my small group. I borrowed a copy from one of them, and spent a couple of weeks reading it. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who, in the 50s, contracted cervical cancer and, while undergoing ultimately futile radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins, had a biopsy taken of the cancer cells. This sample, for some unknown reason, was the first cell culture ever to thrive and survive in laboratory conditions, and it ended up becoming the HeLa cell line, which was distributed to thousands of researchers around the world over the next six decades, and was ultimately responsible for many of the vaccines and cures which are available to us today.

After Henrietta Lacks' death, her family never were told that her cells were still alive, and never participated in the financial profits from their use. The family seemed to assume that it was due to Henrietta's race, but subsequent events and court cases have proved remarkably color blind in denying patients the right to profit from discoveries made with bits and pieces removed from their bodies, even now that researchers are patenting genetic material, which seems like something a person would "own" if anything was.

Lots of interesting issues raised and discussed in this book about medical ethics, some fascinating history of the exploitation of American blacks in medical research, and a portrait of a horribly dysfunctional family, to boot. Great stuff, though it dragged on a bit past the point of satiation.

Friday, September 19, 2014

In the House of the Wicked by Thomas Sniegoski

 This is possibly the darkest book in the series yet. On the surface, things are going well. Remy has gotten past the grief for his ex-wife enough to begin dating a nice woman, Linda, finally, and he has nearly integrated his dual nature as a seraphim once more, accepting the power when it is needed to right wrongs, but not letting the vengeful, warrior nature overcome his human niceness.

The group of fallen angels called the Grigori, whom we've encountered before, have joined forces with the most powerful individual in a cabal of sorcerers in a plot which endangers millions of people around the world, and another powerful sorcerer kidnaps Remy's neighbor girl, Ashley, who watches Marley when he has to go out of town. When Remy journeys to the shadowland where Ashley is being held captive, the magician and his golem minions drain the angel of nearly all of his seraphic powers, and leave him weakened to nearly the level of a normal human. Despite this handicap, Remy presses on trying to save the girl and the world.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Green Letters by Miles J. Stanford

 While flying to Omaha last Spring, I fulfilled a divine appointment with a gentleman on the plane who is deeply involved in ministry to veterans all around the country. Our conversation led him to send me a couple of interesting devotional books to read, and this one fell through the cracks for a while. Stanford evidently carried on a lively minsterial correspondence for about five decades with a large following, and this is one collection of his studies on spiritual growth. I read it slowly and carefully; it's jam packed with key concepts about our walk as Christians, and made note of a few things that leaped off the page at me.

Being one of those people who can be extremely self-critical when my performance isn't up to my exacting standards, this tidbit was particularly stinging.

"To be disappointed with yourself is to have believed in yourself."

As Christians, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, our strength, power and true accomplishment comes from God, and God alone, not from our own skills and abilities. Anything we do in the flesh is vanity, and allowing God to work through us, despite our weakness, is the only thing in which we should glory.

Even in evangelical circles, where we know, at least in our heads, if not in our hearts, that our salvation comes through faith and not by works, we often work like crazy to be good enough for God to love us.

"Let us cease laying down to the saints long lists of 'conditions' of entering into the blessed life in Christ; and instead, as the primal preparation for leading them into the experience of this life, show them what their position, possessions, and privileges in Christ already are. Thus shall we truly work with the Holy Spirit, and thus shall we have more, and much more abiding fruit of our labors among the people of God."

Positionally, once we are saved, we have been given by God the full inheritance of Christ's position at his side, and gifted with everything necessary to fulfill His purpose in us. But we often forget this, and spend our lives chasing proficiency in "being godly."

For those of us constantly struggling with sin,

"You believe the Lord Jesus died for your sins because God said so. Now take the next step. Accept by faith the further fact that you died with Him, i.e., that your 'old man was crucified with Him'"

Our bondage to sin was broken, and its body buried with Christ, we are risen new and free.

"Sin need have no more power over the believer than he grants it through unbelief. If he is alive unto sin it will be due largely to the fact that he has failed to reckon himself dead unto sin."

I've had, for a number of years, an aversion to the addiction some churches have to the "altar call".

"How often the average congregation is put through this routine. How often the individual believer is maneuvered down front to consecrate and reconsecrate, surrender and re-surrender, commit and recommit himself to Christ! Why is it that after awhile the believer comes to dread such meetings and messages?"

I'm hoping to find some more of Standish's correspondences in my wanderings amid the stacks at used book stores. I think he'll join C.S. Lewis on my shelves as worthy of keeping and re-reading.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Off Kilter

Sorry for the lack of reviews here lately. Between travel and home and garden chores to catch up with upon each return, I simply haven't finished reading anything lately. This, too, shall pass.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White

 I think I have purchased and read nearly everything that Steven Brust has written in the last couple of decades, beginning with Jhereg, and including Cowboy Feng's Space Bar & Grill, Brokedown Palace, and To Reign in Hell. I ran across this collaboration with Skyler White at the library and decided I'd better read it. Not a fatal error, but not exactly up to Brust's usual standards, either.

Several years back, my insurance agent inexplicably hired an office assistant who was horribly incompetent. Her sins were far too many to list here, but they led me to state on more than one occasion that she had to be either related to him or having an affair with him. I'm afraid that I'm left wondering the same thing about Brust's relationship to Skyler White, as there seems to be no other reason to screw up a perfectly good writing process which has produced masterpieces of fantasy fiction for many years. I will, however, give White the benefit of the doubt at this point and will try reading something else by her to verify my theory. You'll be the first to know, gentle readers.

The novel is just way too long on talk and too short on action. The premise is that there is a group of effective immortals who make "incremental" changes by influencing people towards or away from some course of action, making the world a slightly better place, one bite at a time, so to speak. They never try to make major changes, just little ones.

The narrative is split between the viewpoints of Phil, an incrementalist who has been on the job for over two thousand years, and Ren, the woman he has selected to replace a member who has died, who was (it seems at first) incidentally also his lover for the last two hundred years, in various incarnations. These folks don't possess physical immortality, but their memories and personalities can be passed on to new bodies, integrating the old with the new, more or less, depending on how dominant each personality is.

Phil is a professional poker player, participating in the WSOP, so everything happens in Vegas, and stays in Vegas. It turns out that his dead lover, Celeste, was far more skilled at the whole business of subtle influence and change than anyone realized, as it develops that she influenced Phil to pick her successor, and to fall in love with Ren, even when Celeste's personality doesn't appear in her new host as expected. Celeste is playing some sort of long game, which may be detrimental to the long term plans of the Incrementalists as a whole, and they spend endless chapters debating what to do about it, while Ren and Phil work out their various emotional issues.

It could be that this is the first book in the series, and after a couple hundred pages of setup, we'll be graced with some actual plot movement in the next one. Keep your fingers crossed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Embarking on another trip, I found myself searching for an audio book to keep us entertained. Life of Pi, a story about  Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry, and his shipwreck with a Bengal tiger, recently made into a movie, seemed like a safe bet.

To be a good long distance travel audio book requires a couple of things, for me. First, the narrator must be upbeat and entertaining, rather than droning in such a way as to put you to sleep. This book succeeded on that front. Second, the book itself must catch my attention and have a swiftly moving plot. I'm afraid it fails on that score.

The narrator, as Pi, goes off on long digressions about zoos and the animals in them, comparative religion - erroneously, I might add - and even historical swimming pools in Paris. We listed for several hours and never got to a point where we felt engaged, so we gave up and listened to XM Satellite Radio instead.

If you like long flowery descriptions and pointless pontification, go ahead and read - or listen to - this one.

Monday, September 8, 2014

War: What is it Good For? by Ian Morris

 This began as an interesting read, detailing the benefits of the art of War as it pertains to the building of civilizations, such as the Roman, Han and Mauryan Empires. However, it fairly rapidly just got far too detailed for me to keep my interest up, so I stalled out about 125 pages in, and never got my momentum back again.

Some interesting excerpts:

"War has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity. Ten thousand years ago, there were only about six million people on earth. On average they lived about thirty years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day."

"The good new is that we humans have proved remarkably good at adapting to our changing environment. We fought countless wars in the past because fighting paid off, but in the twentieth century, as the returns to violence declined, we found ways to solve our problems without bringing on Armageddon."

"Governments and laws bring their own problems, of course. "Formerly we suffered from crimes," Tacitus had one of his characters joke. "Now we suffer from laws." A government strong enough to stamp out wrongdoing...was also a government strong enough to do even greater wrong."

On the subject of the idyllic and peaceful existence of North American tribes before the scourge of the white man arrived on its shores,

"Excavations began at Crow Creek in 1978, and since then evidence for Native American massacres has come thick and fast. The most recent example (as I write) is at Sacred Ridge in Colorado, where a village was burned down around A.D. 800 and at least thirty-five men, women, and children were tortured and killed."

The effects of climate on civilization's rise are also discussed by Morris. He talks about the "Lucky Latitudes" where warmth, water and fertile soil allowed agriculture to develop on a large scale, leading to the rise of cities and societies larger than the nomadic tribes which had gone before. It's also interesting to note that the rise of civilization took place after Earth emerged from a series of Ice Ages, when the climate was conducive to agriculture, and that the Dark Ages took place during a cooling period when crop failures and famines made resources scarce.

There's the process dubbed "caging" by a pair of rival sociologists - when people are trapped by their lifestyle of farming and cannot merely flee to other hunting grounds, as hunter/gatherer societies of the past could. "Caged" people "find themselves forced - regardless of what they may think about the matter - to build larger and more organized societies. Unable to run away from enemies, thei either create a more effective organization so they can fight back or are absorbed into the enemy's more effective organization."

In the "some things never change" department,

"Excavators at Xuanquan, a Han military post office, have found twenty-three thousand undelivered letters, painted on bamboo strips between 111 B.C. and A.D. 107 (many of them complaints about how unreliable the mail was)."

A Personal Demon by David Bischoff

 On my little demon kick still...the stories collected here, which are more novella length than short shorts, were originally published in Fantastic magazine, edited by Bischoff. They chronicle the travails of Professor Willis Baxter at Powhattan University, the "old P.U.", beginning when he summons up a naked and nubile she demon, Anathae, at a fundraising event. The target of the fundraiser, Norman Rockhurst, thinks that the demon is a stripper, part of Willis' magic act, and invites (or perhaps summons is a better term) him to a political rally taking place at his home several nights later. When Willis' dowdy girlfriend, Gertrude Twill, discovers Anathae the next morning, still a bit underclothed for the weather, at his apartment, she storms out and resolves in her heart to destroy him. His rival and fellow professor, Larry Hawthorne, wants control of the demon for himself, and covets the same promotion to head of the Literature Department that Baxter does, so the stage is set for conflict through several humorous episodes.

This book has the flavor of some of the Incomplete Enchanter series as written by DeCamp and Pratt at their prime (I may have to re-read and review that series one of these days). Light reading for an enjoyable weekend.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Azazel by Isaac Asimov

 Most of the stories in Azazel first appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine a few decades ago, and were all collected in this volume for the first time in 1988. I don't know who came up with the idea first, but it dates back to the story of the Monkey's Paw, at least, that one should beware of any wish fulfillment method, especially demons, and even sitcom genies' wish granting can have dubious results.

Asimov's friend, a 'Freddy the Freeloader" sort, George, has somehow or other summoned a very small demon, two centimeters tall, but far larger in the scope of his mischief. Against his better judgement - he has no better nature - George keeps trying to help his acquaintances to be smarter, stronger, wealthier, or more famous, as the demon is restricted from directly benefitting George with his wishes, and George keeps hoping that success will one day rub off on him, at least to the extent of the victims beneficiaries paying for drinks and meals.

The banter between George and Asimov's fictional self is bitingly satirical and quite amusing - I wish I could be so insulting without being crude - and the inevitable collapse of the demon's "improvements" is always quite innovative. I'm not sure whether it was more amusing to wait for these stories of Azazel to appear as long anticipated treats in the monthly magazine, or to gobble them up all at once in one long sitting.

Filled with bits like,

"His ex-mistress sang cantatas at the local church...I thought at the time that her morals didn't quite suit the surroundings, but Morrison said they made allowances for sopranos."


"I am, by nature, a courteous man, so I greeted him with a grunt and a glare, which he accepted in a calm way."

More fun than a barrel of...well, demons.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

I picked up the six CD version of this audio book at the library, having read nearly everything else Grisham has written over the years, hoping it would keep us entertained on our ten hour drive to the coast. It proved to be a witty and interesting story, not so much for the struggles of its protagonist, washed-up football player, Rick Dockery, but for the skillful way Grisham taught us all about Italy on the way to the Long Beach Peninsula.

Dockery has been cut from his sixth NFL team in eight years, after a disastrous series of interceptions in Cleveland's playoff game, when he single-handedly lost the championship for them and ended up in the hospital with his third severe concussion. His agent, Arnie, decides it would be best for him to get out of town - WAY out of town! - and finds him a job playing quarterback for a football team composed of has-beens and half-baked pigskin fanatics in Parma, Italy. At first it's just an escape and a very low-paying job, but eventually, as we might expect, Dockery begins to warm to Italy, its food, its people, and its culture.

Narrated in an upbeat style which didn't put us to sleep while driving, the book was fun, and managed to kill about half of the trip in either direction for us. We loved the descriptions of leisurely Italian meals, full of pasta, wine and loud, passionate conversations, and got a kick out of Rick's first immersion in  Italian opera, which left him hopelessly enamored of a beautiful soprano named Gabriella.

A few twists, a few turns, even a few familiar devices to stretch out the tension at times, definitely one of Grisham's more amusing works.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Hundred Words for Hate by Thomas Sniegoski

 This book is fourth in the Remy Chandler series, which consists of A Kiss Before Apocalypse, Dancing on the Head of a Pin, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Hundred Words for Hate, In the House of the Wicked, and Walking in the Midst of Fire at present.

Remy (Remiel) has finally listened to his friend's advice and begun to date once more, though he is still fighting with his grief over Madeline's death. He is forced to stand up his new belle, however, when he is contacted by one of the Sons of Adam...literally, one of Adam's direct descendants, who have survived through the centuries as an extremely long-lived cult whose sole purpose is to guard Adam, who is still alive thousands of years after his exile. As we immediately wonder, and are answered fairly quickly, "What about the Daughters of Eve?" Well, they turn out to still be around, as well, though they hate the Sons with a passion which has not dimmed through the millenia.

The author blends old Judeo Christian mythology about angels and the battle of Lucifer and his Fallen into the weave of this tale quite skillfully, and perhaps blasphemously, but it really turns out to be a marvelous story, with plenty of backstabbing and double-dealing from perhaps everyone but Remy.

It seems that the Garden of Eden, Man's original home, was cut loose from contact with earthly reality after the Fall of Man, and has been drifting out of contact ever since, but the signs and portents indicate that it is about to return, and be accessible once more. Each faction has some reason or use for the Garden, and Remy, who as it turns out was the angel assigned to seal the Garden away from everyone back at the time of Lucifer's rebellion, is caught up in the swirling mix of agendas, trying to do his angelic duty without assuming his angelic form and nature once more.

Another fine story in the series. I need to backtrack and find book #3, and then move on to five and six, which are evidently in print now.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Magistrates of Hell by Barbara Hambly

 Set in Peking, 1912, James Asher and his lovely wife, Lydia, are on the trail of dangerous supernatural "others" who prey upon both the living and the undead. Hambly wastes little time getting the action moving - during the opening scene of an engagement party at an embassy, the young bride to be is strangled, seemingly by her beau, the son of one of Asher's old colleagues, Hobart. Don Simon Ysidro is also in attendance at the party, though he mysteriously disappears just before the murder is committed, after James has queried him for just enough information about the others to whet his, and we gentle readers', appetites.

Asher agrees to do what he can to exonerate his old friend's son, Ricky, which turns out to be a minor, and mostly ignored, piece of the plot, wrapped up in a sentence or two at the end of the novel. The backstory to why he was framed for a murder is slightly more integral, but the main story is about how James, Lydia, and assorted unlikely allies band together to eradicate the undead menace before the powerful players in Peking are able to make use of them to gain even more power.

I don't recall Lydia ever displaying any great sense of adventure in earlier stories, so it may be that Hambly is doing a bit of character development with her. When their adversaries attempt to sideline James by accusing him of treason, he fakes his own death, and she is the only soul who knows he is alive. She does a splendid job of acting the bereaved widow, while pressing forward with the investigation on her own.

A good conclusion and a not-unexpected plot twist to wrap up this tale.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Equoid by Charles Stross

I was fortunate to find via Facebook post a link to a free novella by Stross. His Laundry Files stories are always amusing, while simultaneously being a bit horrifying in their Lovecraftian way. Stross interweaves love letters from HPL himself with not quite Top Secret shadowy government documents and Bob Howard's wry narrative for a most entertaining tapestry.

It's a slow day in the office, filling out forms, when Bob Howard is called to his boss's office and given the assignment to head out into the English countryside to investigate a rumor that there's a unicorn infestation. Bob's not much of a country boy, but he heads out to face the music just the same. Along the way he encounters not only the arcane and unsavory equoids, but a number of very very British characters, whom I'm sure I would appreciate more if I were properly British myself.

Phrases like, "a tie that appears to be knitted from the intestines of long-dead badgers" appear every so often in the tale, causing one to chortle uncontrollably.

One of the key things in this story is the revelation for most of us, I am sure, that unicorns are not sparkly creatures who give sweet virgins pony rides, but rather more dangerous beasts.

"But I do assure you, young feller me lad, that unicorns are very real indeed, just like great white sharks and Ebola Zaire—and they’re just as much of a joking matter. Napalm, Mr. Howard, napalm and scorched earth: that’s the only language they understand. Sterilize it with fire and nerve gas, then station armed guards.”

Stross is a master of novel descriptive bits, such as, "Greg, for his part, is suitably subdued: even his beard hangs heavy, as if it senses a thunderstorm-drenching in the offing."

Fun read, and free, too!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Poison Promise by Jennifer Estep

 It seems to me as if the Elemental Assassin stories, since Gin Blanco defeated the uber villain, Mab Monroe, has become much like 1960s Batman or Green Hornet serial tv - each week a new and somewhat mediocre bad guy appears, and needs to be dealt with. Instead of systematically dismantling the criminal organization after removing its head, in some sort of sisterly teamwork with Bria, Gin just deals with each minor crisis as it comes, when coincidentally she stumbles into a situation that rouses her white knight instincts (inappropriate for a professional assassin, by the way).

When one of Gin's employees at the Pork Pit is being assaulted by a trio of drug dealers, the Spider steps in and leaves the thugs sprawled and retching on the sidewalk. But these three were minor players in the drug kingpin Beauregard Benson's organization, and when Gin later witnesses one of them being terminated with extreme prejudice by the boss himself, she ends up even more involved. As might be expected, there's a new, dangerous, and highly addictive drug on the street now, which is somehow being juiced up by magical means.

Gin's newfound reluctance to kill people unless they deserve it, either for attacking her, or for attacking her friends or family, keeps her from doing anything about Benson until it becomes clear that he will kill both her sister and her employee to keep them from bringing a criminal case against him. When she dashes off to rescue them from an ambush by the thugs, she ends up being captured and tortured, as expected, but finds an unlikely ally in the drug lord's lair who helps her to escape, so she can live to fight another day.

Hopefully Gin will take a more aggressive stance on taking out the garbage in Ashland in the next book in the series.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

 As in his earlier books, Lewis tackles a subject that is probably mind-numbingly complex to most Americans, and turns it into an interesting narrative. In Flash Boys he digs into the story of high frequency trading, or HFT, and how its growth has created a hidden "tax" on all investors.

The basic idea is that sometime shortly after the advent of fiber optic cables which transmit stock trading information between brokerages, banks and exchanges some traders realized that the amount of time information took to reach its destination could vary, depending on the length of the path taken, and that "All optical fibers were not created equal; some kinds of glass conveyed light signals more efficiently than others." Therefor, if they  paid for connections to the exchanges with very short physical distances, they could see the information on price changes and orders being placed before anyone else, and take advantage of that information in various ways to make money.

"The race they (high speed traders) needed to win was not a race against the ordinary investor, who had no clue what was happening to him, but against other high speed traders."

For a vastly simplified example, a large investment firm might want to place an order to buy a million shares of Coca Cola stock, and as a prelude to that order, they would begin by placing a small order, just to find out what the current market price is. A high frequency trader who is in the position to see that small order being placed before any other sellers see it can immediately place orders of their own which drives up the demand, which drives up the price, and they make a profit on the spread between the two.

Brad Katsuyama, who worked for the investment arm of the Royal Bank of Canada, discovered that somehow "the market" seemed to be anticipating his stock orders, and between the time he got a price quote, and then actually placed the order, only seconds later, the price had risen. This was costing his bank and its clients a great deal of money. As he began to investigate things to try to figure out why this was happening, he uncovered the entire murky business of the high frequency traders, and embarked on a crusade to make the market "fair" once again for all investors.

If you're thinking that you shouldn't care, because it's just the big banks getting played, and they make lots of money anyway, you need to remember that every small investor with a 401K plan has their money with some brokerage firm or bank, and every time the mutual fund in that 401K buys and sells stock, it costs more and sells for less, because of the HFT folks. We all get skinned.

One little interesting tidbit:
"During World War II his (Brad Katsuyama) Japanese Canadian grandparents had been interned in prison camps in western Canada."

I thought only the big bad U.S. interned its own citizens during the war. You mean to tell me that other nations thought their foreign born citizens might be a security risk, too?

Lewis also talks about "dark pools" a bit. A dark pool is an internal stock exchange run by a big bank in which one client is able to sell to another client very quietly, without the public exchanges becoming aware of the transaction, while the bank takes a cut of the transaction.

"The amazing idea the big Wall Street banks had sold to big investors was that transparency was their enemy. If, say, Fidelity wanted to sell a million shares of Microsoft Corp. - so the argument ran - they were better off putting them into a dark pool run by, say, Credit Suisse than going directly to the public exchanges. On the public exchanges, everyone would notice a big seller had entered the market, and the market price of Microsoft would plunge. Inside a dark pool, no one but the broker who ran it had any idea what was happening."

I rather loved this quote from one of the Irish-born programmers, Ronan, who went to work with Brad in his crusade to take down the HFTs.

 "I'm making thirty-five and they're making a buck twenty and they're f**king idiots."

And in the spirit of the corruptocracy that our nation has beome:

"...more than 200 SEC staffers since 2007 had left their government jobs to work for high-frequency trading firms or the firms that lobbied Washington on their behalf. Some of these people had played central roles in deciding how, or even whether, to regulate high-frequency trading." 2011 RBC study

Talking about why Russians seemed to end up programming for the HFTs,

"Good Russian programmers, they tend to have had that one experience at some time in the past - the experience of limited access to computer time."

I remember those days, myself. We used to have to make our programs lean and mean, because they ran on shared resources, which we were allowed to use only in specific time slots. With apparently unlimited data storage space and massive amounts of RAM available on inexpensive computing platforms these days, it's no wonder code multiplies indiscriminately.

This book was both fascinating and a bit worrying. Lewis never does come right out and say, "Brokerage A and Bank B have the programs in place to not get taken advantage of by HFT" and I really wish he had, so I'd know where to place my bets.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The President's Dirty Little Secret by John Russell

Giving you a twofer today, with the 2nd in a pair of books I simply could not motivate myself to finish.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was sent a copy of this book, gratis, for review by the author because I had enjoyed an earlier published work. Also in the interests of full disclosure, I didn't enjoy this one nearly as well.

Though I am not a gun nut in most senses of the word, I was raised in a semi-rural area of Idaho and have a nodding acquaintance with firearms and gun vocabulary, so it bothered me right away when one of the police is asked, after an assassination attempt, what model of gun was used, and he replies "A Saturday Night Special". Saturday Night Special is slang term for a small caliber easily concealed handgun, arising out of the Jim Crow laws in the South, not a particular make or type of gun. It's as wildly vague as the current "assault rifle" and has pretty much fallen out of usage today, which leads me to the following:

Although the story appears to be "contemporary", it refers to an attitude about AIDS being a "gay disease" and a judgement from God on homosexual behavior that went out thirty years ago, for the most part. This and a Hinkley-like assassination attempt, with Secret Service agents taking wounds to the chest that are easily stopped with a Kevlar vest - standard issue today - makes me think this book was resurrected from a very early draft, after initial success with the author's other novels, with insufficient editing.

Too much trouble suspending my disbelief, and the protagonist, an alcohol sodden journalist, didn't engage either my interest or sympathy rapidly enough, so I gave up about twenty pages in.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

 This book appeared on a list recently of the most groundbreaking works of science fiction in the twentieth century. It turns out that I'd read all of them except this one, so I made haste to reserve a copy from my local library.

I think it's highly likely that the only reason this novel was so "groundbreaking" was because it was written by a black woman (in the 70s) about an explicitly black, female protagonist, exploring or deploring, not sure just which, past and present racism.

I have to admit that I'm nearly oblivious to race and racism, apart from being bombarded by accounts of it in the media, having grown up in an area which was overwhelmingly caucasian. I never got the news that I was supposed to judge anyone on the color of their skin; there was no opportunity to do so even if I tried. We did have native americans around, but most of the ones I knew were a) adults and b) customers at my father's business so I treated them just like anyone else in those categories, with courtesy and respect.

I suppose that this novel might have "grabbed" me immediately if I were more sensitive to race, but nothing about either the plot line - garden variety mystical time travel - or the characters, a modern black professional woman and a plantation owner's son whom I assume she's going to teach to treat black people as valuable human beings, not "niggers" got my attention. The writing is pretty much on a par with other stories from that era - sadly dated. We have much better writers to read these days.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Succubus Revealed by Richelle Mead

 I must confess, I knew where this story arc was eventually going to land about halfway through the first novel, but it was a long, strange trip getting there. Just when Georgina finally begins to believe she can enjoy some happiness with her lover, Seth, even though their affair has cost her her job at Emerald City bookstore, and most of her friends there. She's working part time as a Santa's helper at the local mall, trying to keep the Santa employed there from hitting the bottle too early and often, when she gets a formal notification from Hell of her pending transfer out of Seattle, to a much less sinful city, Las Vegas.

A great quote in the early going,

"...she (the archdemoness of Portland) demands we step up and prove what superior Hellish minions we are."

"How?" asked Hugh, looking mildly interested. "With a soul pledge drive?"
"Don't be ridiculous," said Jerome.
"'Then with what?" I asked.
Jerome gave a tight-lipped smile. "With bowling."

When she visits Vegas before her transfer, she finds that her old friend, the incubus Bastien, is there already, and the archdemon of Vegas, Luis, is one she has worked with before, and thinks is a great boss. There's a friendly and gregarious succubus there who welcomes her with open arms, and arranges for her to get a dancing job right away. It's just perfect.

In fact, it's too perfect. That gets Georgina, Roman and Hugh worried, and they begin to suspect that Hell has more serious and underhanded reasons for getting Georgina out of Seattle than either its natural capriciousness or her lackluster performance recently can justify. She also uncovers some evidence that points to Erik's death as a homicide by a Hellish assassin, rather than a burglary gone horribly wrong, and when a demon is involved in making Seth's sister-in-law suffer a relapse in her fight with cancer, well then, three times is enemy action.

When they finally get to the bottom of the matter it creates the crisis we've all been hoping for, to reveal what Mead has been up to with Georgina's story all along.

I have to admit, I seldom get teary-eyed over anything in urban fantasy, but this one had me a little misty at a few points. Good work.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Monster Hunter Nemesis by Larry Correia

 I didn't enjoy this installment of the Monster Hunter series quite as much as the earlier ones, though it at least gives us all a touch of the bigger picture, and a peek behind the scenes of some of the larger conflicts, and has a most puzzling twist in the last few sentences.

This one is all about agent Franks, short for Frankenstein, of the MCB. The rogue agents who are highly placed within the MCB have decided to go after former director Myers and Franks, his trusty sidekick, to gain control of the agency and to increase the "firepower" of STFU (the acronym still cracks me up) and its pet project, Nemesis. Nemesis started as a way to build super soldiers with powers much like Franks' but they got exactly what they bargained for, and not so much what they appear to have expected. The golems they built were inhabited by the Fallen, demons exiled to Hell after the rebellion against The Maker, and these soldiers have their own agenda, first to kill Franks and then to inflict misery on mankind.

Franks is framed for an attack on MCB headquarters and goes on the run as a fugitive, aided and abetted occasionally by those agents still loyal to Meyers. The over the top action is punctuated every so often by flashbacks to Franks' creation and history. After being hunted down by mankind for many years, he finally finds a home with the Hessian mercenaries prior to the Revolutionary War, but an encounter with General Washington and a "road to Damascus" moment puts him under contract with the fledgling country, keeping the monsters at bay.

I have a bit of a philosophical, or perhaps literary, problem with regenerative monsters, like the werewolves in the MH stories, or Franks and the Nemesis troops, as well as a few others. In a fight, they soak up damage, heal themselves from devastating injuries just up to the point where the plot requires that we move along...and then suddenly the damage becomes effective, and they collapse or die.

Worth the read, but not Correia's best.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff by Matt Kibbe

 I was expecting from the subtitle of this book to encounter a well-reasoned set of platform planks, derived from first principles, but didn't get that, exactly, just more of a litany of recent government actions that should make us favor a more limited government. Perhaps some of this stuff is unknown to those who don't like to be bothered with current events, but I've already viewed most of these with some degree of alarm.

There are, however, some well-written bits.

"We should always be skeptical of too much concentrated power in the hands of government agents. They will naturally abuse it. Outside government, an unnatural concentration of power - such as the extraordinary leverage wielded by mega-investment banks or government employee unions - is always in partnership with government power monopolists."

Kibbe writes about the trials of finding Ayn Rand's works in a bookstore before everything was available at our fingertips. I used to spend my days off trolling all the local bookstores looking for undiscovered science fiction and fantasy to add to my library, and took every opportunity while traveling to visit used book stores, as well.

"Back in the day, you couldn't just log into your account on and find it, or the multitude of books related to it. I looked in any bookstore, at every opportunity. It was difficult to find."

I think Kibbe and I might be contemporaries, as this passage rang some bells for me, taking me back to when I was making less than minimum wage working at the University of Idaho food service in the SUB.

"I was able to pay my tuition by clearing trees and washing dishes for the college (students were exempt from the minimum wage that had been such a barrier to my earlier entry into the workforce)."

So, if the Affordable Care Act is such a boon to mankind, why is every organization with political pull doing their best not to be covered under its provisions?

"...about 1200 businesses have been granted exemptions from the ObamaCare employer mandate...labor unions representing 543,812 workers and private companies employing 69,813 workers..."

I found the following passages rather amusing:

Nobel laureate James Buchanan's "The message of Keynesianism might be summarized as: What is folly in the conduct of a private family may be prudence in the conduct of the affairs of a great nation."


Adam Smith's "What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom."

On the individual mandate which represents another vast transfer of wealth from the working young adults to their grandparents:

"Why not respect young people enough as sovereign individuals to let them choose? Why not let young people save for their future health care needs tax free in exchange for voluntarily choosing a catastrophic health insurance policy?"

On the subject of imprisonment for drug offenses:

"The government should protect us from violence against other individuals. The sort of self-inflicted bad things that people can do to themselves, we should try to work as a society to minimize that, but putting people in jail for doing bad things to themselves is just not good for society."

The Manifesto

1. Comply with the laws you pass
"rather than craft narrow exemptions or even delay implementation...the Senate decided instead to exclude legislative and executive staffers from the online disclosure requirements of the STOCK act."

2. Stop spending money we don't have
3. Scrap the tax code
4. Put patients in charge
5. Choice, not conscription
6. End insider bailouts

Pelosi on TARP "It just comes down to one simple thing. They have described a precipice. We are on the brink of doing something that might pull us back from that precipice., I think we have a responsibility. We have worked in a bipartisan way."

7. Let parents decide
8. Respect my privacy
9. End the Fed monopoly
10. Avoid entangling alliances
11. Don't take people's stuff
12. Defend your right to know

All good ideas, but unlikely ever to be implemented, as the political and bureaucratic classes are far too enamored of their wealth and power and are entangled with the corporate special interests. Both major parties are in it up to their eyeballs, and dismantling the bureaucracy in Washington would take a Category 7 hurricane.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Shameless Plug

My best friend's wife and her writing partner have written a book, which is available on Amazon at the following link:

Cat o' Tales

Haven't had a chance to read it, but it's on the TBR stack.