Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Blogger Hop - June 29 to July 5

Time again for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop
Today's question: Blogging Question: Do you have a keeper shelf for books you loved? What books are on that shelf and why?

My answer: It's called my library, and it contains hundreds of feet of bookshelves. An entire room of my house is devoted to it. I've kept probably 90% of all the books I've ever acquired, though in recent years I've re-gifted quite a bit.
Funny, though, there are books that I absolutely loved thirty years ago, that I now just can't read again. My perspective has shifted over the years, and the story just doesn't engage me on an emotional level any more, I guess.

The Drop by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch is back, busily raising his daughter by himself, while working in the Unsolved crimes division of LAPD. The unit routinely subjects old evidence to new technology and techniques, like DNA testing, and when a match appears on a blood sample from a thirty year old case, he and his partner, David Chu, get assigned to investigate. The odd thing is that the sex offender whose blood matches would be perfect for the crime, except for the fact that he was only eight years old when it occurred.

Just as they are diggin into the case, Harry gets pulled away to investigate the apparent suicide of George Irving, son of city councilman Irvin Irving, with whom Harry has a history of conflict. It seems that Irving believes he can trust Harry to follow the investigation wherever it might lead, as he has always done in the past, without regard for the consequences.

Though the intitial investigation team has ruled it a suicide, Harry and Chu discover some evidence of a struggle in the hotel room from which George jumped to his death, and begin to pursue the thread of a murder investigation. Young George was a political influence peddler, who traded on his dad's position with the city, charging people a fee to get city contracts approved, zoning requirements waved, etc. Along the way, he has made some enemies, and it seems at first that one of them helped him out the window to the pavement.

In the lulls between events in that investigation, Harry and Chu continue to work on the cold case, which leads them to track down a serial rapist and killer. Harry gets romantically involved with a psychiatrist working with sex offenders, Hannah Stone, along the way, which leavens the professional plot with a bit of the personal, as does his relationship with Maddie, the daughter he is raising after the death of his ex.

The twists and turns of the highly political murder/suicide investigation are pretty good, Harry is his usual stubborn self, and we hope he doesn't retire too soon.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Amateur by Edward Klein

I haven't read anything else by Klein, to see if he's an author who usually writes tell-all exposes or political biographies, or what, exactly, but my Mom gave me The Amateur to read over Father's Day weekend, and it proved interesting, at least. It could be considered highly partisan, as it attacks Barack Obama's qualifications as President, and has a number of derogatory things to say about his character and past associations, as well, so you can take it all with a grain of salt if you like.

It appears that Klein, however, interviewed Obama's past associates quite extensively, and there's a substantial list of his interviewees at the back of the book, including Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rev. Jesse Jackson, who threw some light on the subject of our Prez' tendency to throw old friends under the bus if it suits his political purposes. The book also includes more information about his personal life (though still slim) than our mainstream media has ever reported, which was interesting.

I'm not going to get into all of the charges against him in this book, just hit a few highlights that I found interesting, as most folks already have a pretty deep-rooted feeling one way or another about Obama, and the ones who love him will not read this book, while the ones who don't will merely have their biases confirmed, I believe.

On the subject of selling Obamacare to the U.S. people:

"To me," said a former staff director of a major Senate committee, "that signals inexperience, because as president Obama has not managed to get any benefit from the major piece of legislation that he's passed. It's almost as though he doesn't want to talk about it. He's not out there touting these things because he's not sure how he really feels about them...what will Obama bleed for? What will he go to the mat for? What does this guy believe in his core?"

Confirming a principle I've held to be true for a long time about work habits:

"Asked by a New York Times reporter about the behavior of young Obama officials who prided themselves on staying at the White House until late at night, (General Van) Jones snapped: 'Congratulations. To me that means you're not organized.'"

And you can draw your own comparisons between the current administration's foreign policy and this statement of our traditional policies by Douglas Feith and Seth Cropsey:

"American interests, rather than global interests, should predominate in U.S. policymaking. American leadership, as traditionally defined, is indispensible to promoting the interests of the United States and our key partners, who are our fellow democracies. American power is generally a force for good in the world. And, as important as international cooperation can be, the U.S. president should cherish American sovereignty and defend his ability to act independently to protect the American people and their interests."

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

I have pretty much loved everything I've ever read by Sharon Shinn, from her Twelve Houses fantasies to the Angel series, as well as a couple of stand alone novels, but I guess it was only a matter of time before she disappointed me. The Shape of Desire turns out to be a very thinly paranormal paranormal romance. And you know how much I despise romance novels.

Maria Devane has been involved with a man named Dante since she was in college. Dante is a shape-shifter, whose shifting is not really under his control, so he turns into a random animal of his approximate body weight at irregular intervals, which are gradually growing longer and more frequent, so that, fifteen years later, he is only human for three or four days at a time, and then gone for several weeks, as he roams the wilds in his animal shape.

Maria has never told anyone about Dante and her love affair, not even her family or coworkers. When one of her coworkers is being victimized by her abusive husband, Ritchie, and there is a confrontation between he and Dante, and then Ritchie turns up dead, later, mauled by some unidentified wild animal, Maria fears that her lover is to blame. A very mild tension builds in this book over whether he will be found out, and what will happen to the two of them.

Mostly, the whole story reads like an cross between Sex and the City and The Office, without the humor, and the final "reveal" of the killer is pretty anticlimactic. I certainly hope Shinn returns to her strengths, soon!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Blogger Hop - June 22 to June 28

Time again for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop
Today's question: Blogging Question: Do you immediately write a review upon finishing a book or do you wait and write multiple reviews at once?

My answer: You know, it just depends on what's going on elsewhere in my life - Yes, I do have one. If I get time, and feel the urge, I'll write the review right away. If not, the completed books will stack up next to my laptop until I get some down time, usually on a sunday morning, and I'll knock out two or three. I think the most reviews I ever wrote in one sitting was five, so I try not to get too far behind.

Dzur by Steven Brust

Vlad finds out that his wife (or ex), Cawti, is having problems in South Adrilankha. He gave her his Jhereg interests in the area when he left town, and left the rest of his business to his long time lieutenant, Kragar, but when she began to try to clean up the corruption in the area, she lost control of things, and now other Jhereg are trying to move in. The situation is complicated further by the death of the head of the Jhereg Council, so there is  a succession war in play.

So, Vlad returns to the city where anyone who recognizes him can earn a hefty reward for turning him over to the Jhereg, or an even heftier one by killing him, permanently. Vlad's only new advantage is the great weapon he acquired, which he has named Lady Teldra, and which has some interesting new abilities in protecting him from enchantments and other spells. He's also acquired a new ally, in the young Dzur, Telnan, sent to him by Sethra Lavode, as sort of an apprentice, I suppose.

The story is actually two tales, intertwined, and I'm not sure which one is more important. Brust has occasionally leavened his tales of Vlad with digressions on the subject of properly prepared meals and appropriate wines and brandies to accompany them, but he expands that in this novel to encompass a multi-course meal served to exquisite perfection at Vlad's favorite restaurant in Adrilankha, Valabar's. Every course is lovingly described, as the staff there caters to Vlad and Telnan, and the two of them converse on the nature of heroism, and cooking principles that probably apply to assassination and other important things in life.

An excerpt from the meal:
"Transitions are important in a good meal, whether the next flavor has only the most subtle differences from the previous, like between the fish and the goslingroot, where the butter and the lemon defined the flavor, or drastic differences, like between the salad and the chicken.
In this case, it was the wine that provided the continuity, and reminded my mouth that, however much things changed, and however one moment was completely unlike the one that preceded it, they were both still moments in an endless stream, the product of all that has gone before, and the producer of what will follow; the lingering chill of the wine, now partaking of the fullness of a red, now of the elegance of a white, making us step back a bit from the irresistible now of the chicken, and declaring an eternal context of life, or meal."

And so, Vlad jumps right into the middle of the brewing conflict in South Adrilankha, with little idea what's going on, and lacking the intelligence he used to have Kragar obtain for him. Somehow or other, he needs to come up with a viable plan to save Cawti's people from the Jhereg's exploitation. A familiar line, uttered by Vlad's familiar, Loiosh,  on the nature of Vlad's planning:

"How about the one where you stumble around until something happens, Boss? And then you almost get killed, and have to be rescued by...."

And Vlad finally finds out about something that Brust has been hinting at in sidelights for a couple of books now, Cawti bore him a son after he left town, whom he has never seen. A bittersweet ending on this one.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

From Wikipedia, about the Vlad Taltos novels

I just wanted to put this up here for reference, regarding the Vlad Taltos series, as I often wonder what the chronological order of the books should be.
There are currently 13 novels in the series (19 are planned).
  1. Jhereg (1983)
  2. Yendi (1984)
  3. Teckla (1987)
  4. Taltos (1988)
  5. Phoenix (1990)
  6. Athyra (1993)
  7. Orca (1996)
  8. Dragon (1998)
  9. Issola (2001)
  10. Dzur (2006)
  11. Jhegaala (2008)
  12. Iorich (2010)
  13. Tiassa (2011)
Chronological order of novels:
  1. Taltos (1988)
  2. Yendi (1984)
  3. Dragon (1998)
  4. Tiassa, section 1 (2011)
  5. Jhereg (1983)
  6. Teckla (1987)
  7. Phoenix (1990)
  8. Jhegaala (2008)
  9. Athyra (1993)
  10. Orca (1996)
  11. Issola (2001)
  12. Dzur (2006)
  13. Tiassa, section 2 (2011)
  14. Iorich (2010)
  15. Tiassa, section 3 (2011)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ran across some reviews of Cline's book online a while back, and placed it on hold at the library, as it sounded like fun. I have to say, this book is definitely the middle-aged geek's dream - filled with gaming trivia, old science fiction and fantasy movie memories, and 80s pop music icons. In a rather dystopic future, the  majority of the world population has retreated into OASIS a massively multiplayer online multi-world environment created by an obsessed genius, James Halliday. When he died some years before this story takes place, he reveals that he has created an "egg" within the game, and that the person who finds it will be the heir to his $260 billion fortune. Many have tried to find the treasure since then - they are known as "gunters" -  from "egg hunters", but none have succeeded.

I feel like Cline took the lazy road to creating the environment for Ready Player One. Rather than create a detailed world of his own imagining, he decided to steal a page from the environmental movements' playbook and merely regurgitate the party line. The world is collapsing because of anthropogenic climate change, causing major disasters and poverty, and our ravenous use of energy has finally left us in a world with major shortages.

"Our global civilization came at a huge cost. We needed a whole bunch of energy to build it, and we got that energy by burning fossil fuels, which came from dead plants and animals buried deep in the ground. We used up most of this fuel before you got here, and now it's pretty much all gone. This means that we no longer have enough energy to keep our civilization running like it was before. So we've had to cut back. Big-time. We call this the Global Energy Crisis, and it's been going on for a while now.
Also, it turns out that burning all of those fossil fuels had some nasty side effects, like raising the temperature of our planet and screwing up the environment. So now the polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and the weather is all messed up. Plants and animals are dying off in record numbers, and lots of people are starving and homeless. And we're still fighting wars with each other, mostly over the few resources we have left."

Sounds like something cribbed from a junior high geosciences textbook, almost.

Another mildly annoying liberal "meme" Cline uses is the idea of an evil corporation, IOI, whose only goal is profit through domination of the OASIS system. They're so evil, in fact, that when the hero of the book defies them, they blow up his family's home in a trailer park, attempting to murder him. Later, they throw another gamer out the window of his high rise apart ment to keep him from beating them in the quest for the next key to reach the treasure - wouldn't it have been simpler just to cut the power to his gaming console? Well, I guess Cline wants us to know that these bad guys are really bad, not just "mostly bad".

One little oddity about the evil corporation, when Wade goes undercover as an indentured employee for them.
"At the next station, a bank of machines gave me a complete physical, including a battery of blood tests. (Luckily the Genetic Privacy Act made it illegal for IOI to sample my DNA.)"

If they were willing to kill someone to get their way, would a law against DNA sampling stop them from doing it?

Other than those minor quibbles, Cline does a pretty good job of telling an interesting and entertaining yarn, told from the point of view of a sixteen year old gunter named Wade. Wade and his best friend Aech, along with girl gunter, Art3mis, and a couple of Japanese adventurers, Shoto and Daito, are trying to find the egg hidden by Halliday before the legions of corporate clones do.

Possibly the best thing about this book is that, for those of us who came of age in the 80s, nearly every page is filled with one of those "Hey, I remember that!" moments, from the movie War Games, starring Matthew Broderick, to the music of Rush, with leader Neal Pert on the 2112 album, to classic video games like Zork, Joust and Tempest. The "puzzles" that they have to solve aren't all that complicated, the key to finding the keys is understanding what '80s references the riddles refer to.

The technological aspects of the gaming universe called OASIS are very richly imagined, and the whole concept of a MASSIVELY multiplayer game plays well. Nothing deep here, just a great trip down memory lane for middle-aged geeks.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Issola by Steven Brust

In Issola, Brust returns to the top of his game, with the great snappy dialogue, sarcastic wit, and intriguing action that made the first few books in this series such winners. Vlad is still technically on the run from the Jhereg, who would love nothing better than to kill him, but when Lady Teldra finds him in his wanderings and tells him that Aliera and Morrolan have disappeared, he cannot resist the call of duty, and returns to Dzur Mountain, lair of Sethra Lavode, to confer, consult and conspire.

There's a great descriptive piece about Sethra, the undead enchantress:

"...there she was; tall, pale, undead; she had forgotten more of sorcery, even the forbidden sorcery of the ancient world, than anyone else would ever learn. She was a vampire, but it didn't seem to bother her much; and to those who told stories of her it was almost superfluous, like hearing that the guy who is going to cut your heart out plans to kick you in the shin when he's done. Her origin was in prehistory, and some had come to believe that she was the living personification of the world itself, that it would end when she ended. I doubted this myself: I mislike the idea of a living personification of being undead.
Her features were those of a Dragonlord, except that, if one looked for it (as I did), one could see hints of the Dzurlord in the shape of her ears and her eyes. She dressed in black, black, black - the only hints of color upon her today were a red stone about her neck, a yellow stone on a ring on her right hand, and the blue hilt of Iceflame at her hip. She wore enigma as if it were her due."

Aliera and Morrolan turn out to have been abducted by the Jenoine, a mysterious race which used to inhabit the world and who are responsible for the genetic manipulation that created the Dragaerans and Easterners from the same stock. They have a plot in play to regain power, and the opening gambit has been played. Vlad and Teldra journey together to the pocket universe where the Jenoine hide out, and Vlad takes on the most dangerous commission of his life, a contract to kill a goddess.

Of course, nothing ever goes exactly as planned around Vlad and his friends, and the plot goes seriously astray before the Jenoine are defeated. Along the way we get to know Lady Teldra far more deeply than we ever expected. This is a neat bit on Brust's part, as Teldra has just been a bit player throughout most of Vlad's story, appearing at Morrolan's front doors to greet his guests and make them feel comfortable. Vlad has an astonishing revelation when he finally finds out why it is that Teldra treats everyone she meets so courteously, making them feel as if she really likes them (even Easterners like Vlad) - she actually truly likes people! How astonishing.

We get a great history/mythos lesson on the world of Dragaera, delivered by Sethra when Vlad demands more background before he commits to the latest foolish and dangerous quest, whic, explains a few things about earlier events, but leaves some new questions unanswered. The "key" event in this book, which will probably play out in later installments, is the creation of the great weapon, Godslayer, which is meant for Vlad to carry. Vlad also is really turning the corner on becoming a hero, rather than the antihero we began with.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Blogger Hop - June 15 to June 21

Time again for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop
Today's question: Blogging Question: Do you belong to a book club, either online or in real life?

My answer: Quite simply, No, neither, never. I'm just not a joiner.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Though this book came highly recommended by A Dribble of Ink, I'm afraid that I wasn't able to finish it. I got about halfway through the novel and hadn't really developed any great sympathy for the protagonist, Yeine. Yeine is the daughter of the heiress of the Arameri, who rule the hundred thousand kingdoms. Yeine's mother gave it all up for the love of a man, and ran off to one of the smaller, weaker kingdoms to marry him and bear his child. Yeine's mother is dead, as is her father, and her grandfather, Dekarta, has now summoned her to the capitol, to take her place among the rival heirs to the kingdom - or so it would seem on the surface. There's quite a bit of plotting and backstabbing going on in the capitol, including even the gods that the Arameri are somehow able to control through their hereditary powers. Unfortunately, I found the whole pace to be too slow, and the intrigue not terribly...well...intriguing.

Dragon Revisited

I just finished re-reading Dragon, by Steven Brust. Wrote a review, and then when I double-checked, found that I'd written a review on it back when I first read it. As there was nothing significantly different in my impressions this time around, I will merely direct you to my previous post.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Around the Web

A book review on In Search of the Tempestuous Sea.

Orca by Steven Brust

It seems inconceivable to me that I could have purchased a book in a series that I love, with a protagonist I'm attached to,  placed it in the TBR pile, and then failed to read it for several years, but that is what appears to have happened with Orca. I began re-reading it (or so I thought) and came to the realization slowly that none of it seemed at all familiar, and the surprise ending was indeed a surprise. So I must either conclude that I failed to read it when it first came out and I bought it, or my memory has finally slipped into the abyss.

Orca takes place about a year after the events of Athyra. Vlad has been wandering around, avoiding the Jhereg, and trying to find someone to help poor Savn recover from the effects of his battle with Loraan. Vlad ends up in Northside, seeking the aid of a sorceress who has had some success with people who have had magical brain injuries. She's a rather gruff old woman who is being evicted from her lifetime home, and Vlad makes a bargain with her to help her stay on her land if she will cure Savn.

In his investigation, Vlad stumbles upon a far larger problem - an Orca named Fyre has been murdered, but the representatives of the Empire sent to investigate are involved in a cover-up, as it turns out that his shady business dealings, if brought to light, could cause the collapse of multipe banks and several Houses within the Empire. Vlad enlists the aid of his old friend, Kiera the thief, to steal some papers from Fyre's estate (in both senses of the word) so that he can begin to figure out what's really going on, and Kiera's curiousity keeps getting her more deeply involved as the plot thickens.

So, it becomes apparent as the story progresses that Kiera is far more than a simple thief, albeit a highly skilled one, working for the Jhereg. She displays a lot more knowledge about the clandestine operations of the Empire than seem likely. So, I began to suspect that she's actually an intelligence operative, working very covertly for the Empress. Then, there was one odd event that just didn't fit properly - a jigsaw piece out of place. Kiera thinks that she sees Devera walk past the front door of an inn. Devera is - or will be - Aliera's daughter, who has appeared in the Halls of Judgement and in dreams to Vlad several times. I wondered how in the world Kiera would know about Devera, let alone recognize her.

I as totally shocked by the answer when it showed up, which convinces me that I just now read Orca for the first time. I hope your first time is good for you, too.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial The Bell Curve, is back with another humongous pile of statistics and some observations and interpretations about what they all mean. Murray believes that our entire American culture and society has been split into two somewhat isolated segments over the last five decades - those who, by virtue of their genetics and upbringing, go to the elite colleges and universities, and those who do not, who end up being the working class. These two cultures have grown increasingly isolated from one another, and as the first group often ends up in positions of power and responsibility, its lack of comprehension of the other's way of life can lead to many policy problems.

"As the new upper class increasingly consists of people who were born into upper-middle class families and have never lived outside the upper-middle-class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgements about what's good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives."

Murray, a libertarian, has an interesting take on the nature of our nation, calling it the "American project".

"The American project consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems."

One thing he said in the early part of the book was a bit offensive to me,

"The people who read a book on American socioeconomic classes are self-selected for certain traits that put most of you in a position to have observed the new upper class at close hand."

Really, Charles? The only folks who are smart or perceptive enough to read your book are the upper class? How snobbish of you.

Hey, even Bill Gates can say something stupid once in a while. When asked who his biggest competitors in recruiting talent were, he said,

"Software is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we wont' have a future. I don't worry about Lotus or IBM, because the smartest guys would rather come to work for Microsoft. Our competitors for IQ are investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley."

Were you talking about the high IQ folks at the investment banks who ruined their companies at the crash of the mortgage bubble, Bill?

Murray also agrees with some of my thoughts about the futility of attempting to "tax the rich."

"Realistically, rolling back the disposable income of the new upper class in a major way is not an option. The American political culture doesn't work that way. The same Congress that passes higher marginal tax rates in this session will quietly pass a host of ways in which income can be sheltered and companies can substitute benefits for cash income in the next session. The new upper class will remain wealthy, and probably continue to get wealthier."

Murray also shows, statistically, that the new upper class isn't, as I'd always assumed, primarily populated by the liberal political class, but is actually fairly evenly split between conservative and liberal. That would seem to make the brawling between political parties in Congress almost a family feud, wouldn't it?

I had an idea about where Murray was going, in the first third of the book, but he suddenly appeared to change course, and began to talk about the founding virtues of our nation. I had assumed he was going to blame the increasing isolation of the new upper class, who live in high concentrations in what he identifies as "superzips", geographical areas filled with people in the 95th percentile or above in terms of education and accomplishment, near the centers of political and economic power, for the troubles we are facing as a nation, but he ended up surprising me.

From Ben Franklin,
"only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. AS nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters...The expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed."

While our founding fathers were often Deists, rather than what we would today call Christian, they believed strongly in the need for morality in society and religion as a bulwark of the freedoms present in our new republic. Murray identifies the founding virtues as industriousness - people's willingness to work hard to better their lives and the lives of those around them, honesty - the predisposition of a people to refrain from crime, to follow the rules, and to deal fairly with others, marriage - fidelity and permanence in our family relationships, and religiousity - the belief that moral values come from a divine, all powerful, omniscient creator of the universe.

As Jefferson writes, "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not violated but with his wrath?"

On the subject of marriage and child rearing, Murray mentions the fact that, though it is not politically popular to say so, all sociological studies done have shown that "the family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married. Divorced parents produce the next-best outcomes. Whether the parents remarry or remain single while the children are growing up makes little difference. Never-married women produce the worst outcomes." Presumably, a libertarian has no axe to grind on this issue, as matters of personal behavior are usually left up to each person to determine for themselves, in libertarian philosophy.

Interestingly, Murray and his colleagues' studies find:

"Religious worshippers and people who say religion is very important to them are much more likely than other persons to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art discussion and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups."

He points out that there has a been a sharp drop in church attendance over the last fifty years, and that far fewer Americans identify themselves as strongly religious these days. Oddly enough, however, it isn't the new upper class who have grown the least religious, but the lower, working class. This ties in with declines in marriage rates and longevity of marriages among the working class, while marriages appear to be happier and more durable in the superzips. Murray also attributes the apparent rise of fundamentalist Christianity to the decline in overall religiousity - the people who are left, when all those of little faith have fled, are those who have strongly held core beliefs about the nature of God and the bible - the fundamentalists.

Murray spends some time pointing out the rise in crime and the decline in honesty in our culture. I'm certain that doesn't need much proving to anyone who's been paying attention the last few decades. He also discusses labor force participation, and shows that it had already begun a precipitous decline prior to the recent recession, displaying an alarming deterioration of the work ethic that used to drive American productivity, creativity and prosperity.

Murray sees a couple of ways in which we, as a nation, can proceed from here: first, that we adopt a European model and give up on the American project. Unsurprisingly, this option doesn't really appeal to him (or me). He opens with a quote from Jefferson's inaugural address:

"The sum of good government is a state that shall restrain men from injuring one another and shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement."

The advanced welfare state of  Western Europe provides a great deal of personal freedom, and very few economic freedoms. The citizens enjoy a great deal of (illusory, in my opinion) economic security, but have, in limiting the downside, eliminated the upside for the majority. By providing for people's needs while eliminating the possibility of failure, their governments have deprived them of the satisfaction of success, accomplishment, and self-actualization. We are in serious danger of approaching this state soon here.

On the other hand, the American model has traditionally encouraged the pursuit of happiness through self determination, self improvement, hard work to get ahead, and charting one's own destiny - knowing that you have left the world a better place through your efforts, when life is at its end. The new upper class actually practices this, but they have become reluctant to, as Murray says "preach what they practice" for fear of being thought judgemental.

"Liberals in the new upper class continue to support adoption of the European model, as they have for decades. Conservatives in the new upper class still contribute to conservative candidates, but they are no more willing to preach what they practice than are those on the Left. Those in the new upper class who don't care about politics don't mind the drift toward the European model, because paying taxes is a cheap price for a quiet conscience - much cheaper than actually having to get involved in the lives of their fellow citizens."

Ouch! Was that a burn, Charles?

Murray predicts the collapse of the European model, which we may be watching right now with the crisis in Greece and elsewhere.

"The financial bankruptcy is not anything that even the cleverest planner can avoid. As publicly financed benefits grow, so do the populations that find that they need them. The more people who need benefits, the more government bureaucracy is required. The more people who rely on support from government and the larger the government, the fewer the people in the private sector who pay for the benefits and for the apparatus of the state. The larger the number of people who depend on government either for benefits or for their jobs, the larger the constituency for voting for ever-larger government."

Hopefully, he believes, we'll wake up in time to avoid America's economic and cultural bankruptcy.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Book Blogger Hop - June 8 to June 14

Time again for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop
Today's question: Blogging Question: If you were to write a book, what type of book would you write?

My answer: Oddly enough, it wouldn't be science fiction or fantasy, or even fiction at all. I really am not a good storyteller. The most likely thing for me to write would be something like Dave Ramsey's books, teaching people common sense methods for dealing with their finances in a rough and tumble world. I also might write a cookbook. I spent about a dozen years in the restaurant business, and preparing meals for friends and family is something that I do effortlessly, compared to working dinner rushes or huge banquets, so I have some insights about how to fix tasty, nutritious meals without working too hard at it. A third area that I might write about would be organic gardening. It's turning into a hot topic these days, but I've been doing it since the late 60s, and again, I've got some simple approaches to gardening the lazy way I could share.

Athyra by Steven Brust

Athyra gives us our first glimpse of Vlad as a fugitive, on the run from the assassins of the Jhereg. The story is mostly told from the point of view of Savn, a peasant who lives on the lands of the Lord of Smallcliff, also known as Loraan, whom we've encountered before when Vlad rescued Aliera's soul and acquired Spellbreaker. Shortly after Vlad causes a stir by appearing in town, where Easterners are seldom seen, a man, Reins, is murdered, and suspicions fall upon the newcomer.

Savn was the first person in Smallcliff to encounter Vlad, and he doesn't think that our former Jhereg friend is the type to murder someone - ha! Occam's razor would tell us that if there's an assassin in town, and somebody dies, the assassin probaby has something to do with it - and he does, just not in the way most of the villagers suspect. Savn is apprenticed to the village physicker, Master Wag, and he gets some instruction in conducting an autopsy, which leaves neither of them with any more information than they started with.

It turns out, however, that Reins was the delivery man who got Vlad into Loraan's house in his earlier adventure, and he's been murdered to draw Vlad into a trap. Vlad lingers a bit too long in plain sight, and gets attacked by Lord Smallcliff's soldiers. When he teleports away, the entire village turns out to look for him, but only Savn has a clue where to find him, and he must decide whether to help or hinder our hero in his new quest to kill the sorceror before the sorceror kills him.

This novel has a more serious tone than we've become accustomed to with Vlad as the narrator. Very little banter and sarcasm from this new protagonist, but I suppose we can live with that in a transitional piece.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sad news

We've lost a giant in the field.

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury

Phoenix by Steven Brust

Moving forward with the story line, the peasants are still revolting (thanks, Johnny Hart!), and Vlad and Cawti's relationship is still in limbo. The Demon Goddess Verra summons Vlad to the Halls of Judgement and gives him a commission to assassinate the king of Greenaere, an island kingdom a few days sailing away from Adrilankha. Vlad sees this as an opportunity to get away from the situation with Cawti and her rebellion (personal and public) and heads for the island, where he succeeds at the assassination, but fumbles the getaway pretty badly - a latent depressed death wish, perhaps?

The plot line in this one very skillfully weaves together some interesting elements, as the assassination triggers a war between the Empire and Greenaere, which is not nearly as powerless as one would think. The war serves as a distraction that could result in the success of the Teckla rebellion, or vice versa. Also, while Vlad is there, and when his friends are effecting his rescue, it turns out that the island and its people are protected from psionics and sorcery by a type of mineral that is native there - white phoenix stone. The phoenix stone becomes key at the end of this book, and in future installments, as Vlad is eluding the people in the Jhereg that want him dead.

Vlad continues to experience some personal growth, as he thinks seriously about the type of person he has had to become to be a successful killer and minor lord of the Jhereg. As I mentioned in my review of Teckla, I find this to be one of my least favorite in the series, as it drives the final nail in the coffin of his marriage, despite the heroic efforts Vlad puts forth to save Cawti from the dungeons of the Empire, after plotting by the leaders of the Jhereg lands her there. Call me an old softie, but I just hate it that they can't save their marriage.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

It seems that the urban fantasy genre started a while back with the vampires appearing on the modern scene in books like Interview with a Vampire by Rice and The Dracula Tape by Saberhagen, and rather rapidly spread, to the point where it's gotten difficult to find any classic, high fantasy these days. The vampires and werewolves seem to be the most popular legendary critters, perhaps because of their romantic vibes with the teen scene, but slowly just about every other denizen of lore has made an appearance in some author's work. McGuire adds a new twist or two here, with her introduction of diverse "cryptids" in a new series. The style and plot seem very similar to some of Larry Correia's Monster Hunter books, without (despite the title) the apocalyptic implications which seem to be his stock in trade.

Actually, the whole point of the book may just be McGuire's desire to write a novel about defeating monsters through the powers of ballroom dance. The protagonist, Verity Price, comes from a family of cryptozoologists - those who study the supernatural species which still linger in the cracks of society. She really loves ballroom dancing, and believes she can make a successful career of it, so she is living in New York on her own to prove to her family that she can protect and serve the cryptids there, as well as succeed in the cutthroat world of competitive dance.

She works in a stip club run by a bogeyman named Dave - neat little invention introduced here - "darks". He can turn on the darks in his office, instead of turning on the lights, resulting in various shades of darkness where he can be scary - a bogeyman's favorite pasttime. Most of the club's other employees are also cryptids, of the sort that can pass for human, including a dragon princess named Candy who is a fireproof bombshell blonde, a shape-shifting waheela (yeah, I never heard of one before, see the glossary at the back of the book)  named Istas who is a Goth Lolita, and Carol the gorgon, with uncontrollable snakes in her hair.

Someone is causing unattached female, presumably virgin, cryptids to disappear, and Verity decides it is her mission to find out why. The Price family originally belonged to an organization called The Covenant, which fanatically dedicated its time to wiping out all cryptids from the face of the planet, but at some point several generations ago, they realized that cryptids were people, too, for the most part, and deserved life, liberty and the pursuit of happinesss, as long as that happiness didn't involve harming other sentients. In the course of her investigations, Verity is caught in a snare set by a young member of the Covenant who has been sent to see if New York City requires a purge of its cryptid population, Dominic De Luca.

You can see this one coming a mile away, as Verity is immediately attracted to and simultaneously repelled by, Dominic's good looks and his fanatical devotion to wiping out cryptids. Coincidentally, I was reading a blog post about plot devices the other day that talked about romantic comedies - and Verity and Dominic's affair followed the plan perfectly. Also quite predictably...virgins being abducted for nefarious purposes...gotta be either a volcano or a dragon, right? Turns out there's a dragon snoozing beneath the city, and Verity and Dominic need to reach it before the bad guys succeed in rousing it, to create chaos in the Big Apple.

A promising start to a new series, a little less serious than McGuire's October Daye novels.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Book Blogger Hop - June 1 to June 7

Time again for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop
Today's question: Blogging Question: What upcoming releases are you most looking forward to?

My answer: At this point, it's not even so much upcoming releases I'm looking forward to so much as just finally getting the time to read some of the new releases I've already purchased and loaded on my Nook, including new books by Seanan Maguire and Devon Monk. After that, I'm looking forward to reading the new Anita Blake, a new L.E. Modessit Imager Portfolio, something new in the Quadrail series by Zahn, and a fresh title from John Scalzi.  

The Battle by Arthur C. Brooks

At first, this book seemed a little fluffy...just some good old conservative bromides, but eventually Brooks got into some deeper concepts which left me with sticky notes all over the place. He really distills things down to the contrast between two groups of people in this country today; those who believe the government, especially on a federal level, should have more control in our lives, and those who believe the government's involvement in our lives should be as minimal as possible, and that we are all capable of determining our own destinies.

Now, I gotta admit that I have a short list of a few people (not the usual suspects) who really need some looking after to keep them out of trouble, but for the most part, I figure we can handle things ourselves, and get by with a little help from our friends.

One of the problems with the current debate about federal deficit spending is that the GOP did little to demonstrate that they were the responsible adults when they were last in power, during the Bush administration. Brooks says, "So Bush spent with abandon, and Obama went on to spend even more. Spending per se wsn't the real difference between the Republicans and the Democrats for voters. The difference was that the Republicans had no compeeling explanation for the crisis (real estate bubble and stock market bubble), seemed responsible for it, and had no obvious plans to fix it."

About time somebody admitted that G.W. Bush was not a fiscal conservative, and the congresses under his tenure spent like no one else before them.

The underlying cause of the housing bubble was not predatory lenders, nor gullible buyers, but the federal government's own policy, pursued for almost two decades, of encouraging home ownership, especially to people who had not previously been able to qualify for loans. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were right in the middle of this problem, buying up subprime and Alt-A loans like crazy, and repackaging them for investors to buy as if they were prime mortgages.

"By 1997, Fannie Mae was stimulating and buying subprime and Alt-A loans secured with nothing more than a 3 percent down payment. Four years later (by this time under the Bush administration) it was buying mortgages with no down payment at all...New government mandates required Fannie and Freddi to increase their low- and moderate-income loans to at least 55 percent of their mortgage purchases. From 2001 to 2006 subprime loans rose from 7 percent to nearly 19 percent of all new mortgages and Alt-As from just over 2 percent to nearly 14 percent."

When home prices fell, as none of the experts expected (How in the world could they call themselves experts...plenty of us laypersons out in the real world were wondering how housing prices could continue to rise forever?), the bottom fell out of the market. Government policies - however well intentioned - caused this crisis.

Seems like whenever the government comes up with a plan to stimulate the economy or help people out, it ends up with massive waste and/or fraud. For example, when it comes to the First-Time-Homebuyer Credit, put in place to stimulate the moribund housing market after the crash, "The U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that nearly 74,000 individuals who already owned a home claimed the  First-Time-Homebuyer Credit. And more than 19,300 claims were made by those who had never bought a home at all. The youngest of the 'taxpayers' to receive the credit were 4 years old."

Why am I not surprised?

He succinctly states something I believe at my core to be true:

"Progressive taxation dismantles the cause-and-effect relationship between working hard and achieving success. Everyone knows we need to pay taxes for key services. But taxes for the simple purposes of income all pain, no gain, when it comes to optimism."

I believe in equality of opportunity in this country, not federally mandated equality of outcome. When politicians like to talk about "fairness", we should bear the following in mind:

"Equality of income is not fair. It is distinctly unfair. If you work harder than a coworker but are paid the same, that is unfair. If you save your money, but still retire with the same pension as your spendthrift neighbor, that is unfair. And if you stay in your house and make the mortgage payments even when its value drops but your neighbor walks away from his without recourse, that is unfair.

Fairness is a system that rewards hard work, merit, and excellence...Real fairness does not mean bringing the top (earners and producers) down. It means giving the bottom a fighting chance to rise."

Another telling quote:

"I once interviewed an executive of a large fast-food chain about his hiring practices. I asked him whether he felt bad about creating 'dead-end jobs' that paid minimum wage and offered little apparent possibility for advancement. He was surprised at my question. 'The best route to management in this company is by starting in the kitchen at minimum wage,' he told me. 'Most of our executives started that way. The problem is that so many entry-level employees have terrible work habits. They create their own dead ends.'"

As a former employer, I can vouch for that.

All, in all a very enjoyable book and a quick read on some basic principles of free enterprise.