Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in the Rear View Mirror

Once again, the year ends with approximately 160 books read. Perhaps this is to be my "normal" number now. I think it has something to do with the amount of traveling I'm doing. Out of town for two weeks in New Zealand, then five days in Omaha, another two weeks in Quantico for the holidays, multiple shorter trips to the cabin in the woods, steelhead fishing, and so forth. I just don't finish as many books when I'm on holiday; my routine is disrupted.
The year's winners:

#1 Urban Fantasy Novel - Frost Burned, by Patricia Briggs, trailed by Ever After by Kim Harrison
#1 SF Series by a new author - The Maxwell Saga by Peter Grant (book 3 out in January)
#1 Science Fiction Novel - Midst Toil and Tribulation, by David Weber
#1 Fantasy Novel - The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch, closely followed by Limits of Power, by Elizabeth Moon, and an honorable mention to Imager's Battalion and Antiagon Fire by L.E. Modessit, Jr.
#1 Non-Fiction - No, They Can't by John Stossel
#1 Thought Provoker - The Enemies Trilogy, by Matt Bracken
#1 Travel Book - Tents and Tent Stability, Chris Lown

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Eye of Moloch by Glenn Beck

 This book is the sequel to The Overton Window by Beck. Molly's little band of freedom fighters are on the run from government forces, and not likely to make it to any safe haven soon. Ben has been imprisoned for a while, then conscripted into the armed force pursuing them, though he has no stomach for it. His father's organization continues to manipulate the government and people of the U.S. through its control of the media narrative. As they said in The Princess Bride, "It would take a miracle..."

This story seems pretty unrelentingly dark throughout, which is what the author is going for - to convey the sense of hopelessness that Molly and her bodyguard Thom Hollis and Ben all are feeling against the overwhelming odds.

A great deal of the book is spent exploring the points of view of the bad guys, like white supremacist George Pierce, and Warren Landers, the leader of mercenary corporation Talion, Arthur Gardner's right hand man, and Aaron Doyle, the shadowy figure at the top of the pyramid of Earth's secret masters.

A quote from the lips of Warren Landers, to George Pierce:

"In your own language, then, abortion on demand has murdered seventeen million blacks, and counting...We've normalized the voluntary termination of their babies into just another form of birth control - and a sacred civil right of liberated, empowered women. That's the illusion we've created to make another genocidal weapon in the race war you've always wanted."

Interesting perspective on abortion on demand, eh?

And another interesting bit:

"This 'kill list' to which Mr. Landers referred was a relatively new development, at least among governments that still tipped their hats to the rule of law. Together with a small contingent of advisors the President would regularly meet to nominate and then pass judgement on foreign (and now domestic) 'militant' individuals deemed eligible for termination without the benefit of due process."

If you're not too sure this can actually happen in this country, check out Beck's afterword at the back, with references to all of the scary scenarios he describes in the book. See the National Defense Authorization Act, which legalizes martial law in the U.S., allows the military to indefinitely detain people without trial, and authorizes drone strikes on American soil, if the person is determined to be "engaged in combat" against the U.S. We've already killed American citizens without benefit of a trial overseas, it's a slippery slope to do it here, too. Maybe you trust the current administration not to do it, but what about the next? It's very seldom that the federal government voluntarily limits or recants its powers.

I hope and pray that it never comes to the state of affairs described in this book, but it's just a hop, skip and a jump away if we're not careful about the erosion of our freedoms.

Not quite as good, perhaps, as the first book, so we'll see how things wrap up in the final installment of the trilogy.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Pet Peeves.

Time for another pseudo rant. Might as well sneak one in before the end of the year, eh?

Several years ago, after traveling overseas, I decided that it would be advantageous for me to buy an e-reader, so I don't have to carry around a stack of paperbacks in my luggage (I took five books on that two week trip). My friend, Stef, had done a great deal of research on readers, and had concluded that, at the time, the best option was the Barnes & Noble Nook. One of the selling points was that it had a feature which allowed you to loan a book to another person who had a Nook, and we were always swapping books back and forth, so I pulled the trigger and bought one.

Even farther back in the mists of prehistory, Baen Books - Bless their souls! - had created the Baen Free Library where their stable of authors could post downloadable versions of their novels (usually the first in a series, or a stand alone). I had used this quite a bit over the years to sample new authors, using the html version they posted. Possibly the best thing about this site, apart from it being free, was that they posted all of the books in as many formats as they possibly could, e.g., Kindle, Epub, Mobi, HTML, etc.

So, no matter what gadget you were using to read, you could enjoy the offerings. No barriers to entry, so to speak.

Later, Baen began to include, in a back pocket in their hardbound books, a Baen Free Library CD that had a collection of novels, often all of the novels currently published in the series that the book you'd just bought belonged to, like all of the Honor Harrington stuff by Weber, or all of the Vorkosigan stuff by Bujold. It was FANTASTIC! Baen was a true visionary, and his passing a tragedy to the world of publishing.

By the time I bought my Nook, there were slightly more than 400 novels which were either available on the CDs, or through the free downloads in the Library, and it made my new Nook immediately usable the moment I unwrapped it on Christmas morning.
With the addition of mountains of free books available on Project Gutenberg, and the occasional free book from Barnes & Noble, I acquired slightly over 700 science fiction and fantasy titles, most of which I already owned in hardback or paperback editions, that I can take with me when I travel. On top of that, I've purchased new titles as they came out from B&N by my favorite living authors, and I have about another 80 or so for which I paid full retail prices.

By the way, kudos to Kim Harrison for regularly releasing $1.99 or $2.99 versions of her Rachel Morgan novels. The last few books I've paid full prices as they came out, but I've been able to add the early books in the series to my Nook collection quite economically. Since I already owned the physical editions, it's a bit less painful to do this than having to pay full price. I see now that Amazon has a program where you can get the ebook version of a hardback you're buying, in a package deal, for a similar price. Just wish they'd make it retroactive.

The most recent statistics I was able to find on Ebook market share show that Amazon, with its proprietary Kindle format, has about two thirds of the market, with Barnes and Noble in second place with between a fifth and a quarter, and the rest tagging along behind. So, I can understand why, in terms of bang for the buck, independent authors are taking advantage of Amazon's easy self-publishing and putting their electronic books up on that site. Perhaps Amazon even demands exclusive rights to sell the books, and the authors can't also place them on B&N.

The problem I have, if I want to try out new authors, is that I can (for the most part) only get their books in Kindle format, which does not work on my Nook. Easily solved, you say, "just get a program to convert them from one format to the other. Have you heard of Calibre?" Well, folks, I've had Calibre installed on my laptop for a couple of years. I got it when I started getting books from Project Gutenberg, as they sometimes didn't have all file formats available. I subsequently have used it to convert a few Kindle books to Epubs, but...

First, if an author doesn't specify with Amazon that the book is to be sold with "Lending Enabled", Amazon puts DRM protection on it and Calibre will not convert it. And sometimes, even when Amazon lists the book as "Lending Enabled" it actually still has DRM enabled, and cannot be converted - this second one really pisses me off, since I won't find out it can't be converted until after I've paid for and downloaded the book. I had that happen, in fact, with the third book in a series I was enjoying. All three books said "Lending Enabled" but the third one Calibre simply wouldn't convert - it said DRM was present. Amazon is pretty good about refunding promptly when you make a purchase by mistake, but ...I wanted to read the book! When this happens, I am actually able to read it on my laptop with an installed Kindle app, but it's really not what I desired - I want it on my Nook so I can take it with me anywhere I travel.

But, "Jon" you say, "just go and download DRM remover XYZ".

Suffice it to say that I've googled DRM removers and haven't been too happy with the options of downloading a non-commercial application that may or may not skirt little legal issues with either the ethics or legality of DRM stripping, plus the fact that I have no idea just who these people are who wrote the software that I'm downloading to install on my personal system. When I finally get up the courage to download one that someone recommended to me, it doesn't work - its plugins won't install with Calibre as advertised, and the software developer's site doesn't have anything in the FAQs about that particular error (and I made sure all the other possible install issues didn't apply), and there's no way to simply email him my question.

In summation, it's all a big, hairy PITA. For no productive results.

If you're a new author, and you want the final third of the ebook market to buy and read your books, you - in my not-so-humble opinion - need to remove as many barriers to doing so as you possibly can. Don't make us jump through hoops; arrogant jerks who are getting six figure advances can do that.

Even just having to convert via Calibre makes me hesitate to buy a book. Possibly having to strip off DRM makes me even more nervous. I'm taking a risk every time I read a new author that I've wasted my money. Please don't make it harder.

More another time on Kindle vs. Nook issues - far too much to cover here.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Killer Critique by Alexander Campion

 If asked, most people who know me well would say that I'm a bit of a "foodie". That is probably one of the reasons why I enjoy the Capucine Culinary mysteries so much. They provide me with the vicarious pleasure of experiencing haute cuisine in a land long reputed to be the be all and end all of cuisine - La Belle France. When it comes down to brass tacks, however, I probably wouldn't eat in the same types of establishments described in the books, nor would I order the courses lovingly depicted.

My tastes are really quite a bit more basic than that. I tend to enjoy a good plate of fresh-baked biscuits and country gravy, or a simple eggs Benedict with freshly made hollandaise, rather than something with a delicate and complex blend of spices; a hearty and bold Albondigas or Basque paiella rather than a consommé simmered to the point of perfection; a savory bacon and lamb fry pie in a country café instead of an elaborate construction of duck a l'orange at Chez Mitterand.

But I digress.

It's rough being a critic. In fact, it's a killer. One by one, the restaurant reviewers are being snuffed out. Some similarities here between this story and 1978's movie Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe perhaps? The first murder yields a short list of suspects when Capucine discovers that the murder weapons was a curare-soaked poison pellet, and that the Brazilian embassy is missing some indigenes' darts after a reception, and the intersection of the guest lists (think Venn diagram, my math-ee friends) is a small set of Paris' celebrities.

One of the suspects is a childhood friend of Capucine's, which makes things a bit complex, and things become more difficult for her when the juge d'instruction on the case forbids her to interview any of these "delicate" witnesses.

Campion coins a nice turn of phrase when he has Capucine's cousin Jacques say that the first victim was "in flagrante critico" and weaves a wonderful word picture describing Jacques' dinner party guests, "They had all whetted their epigrams well and the conversation tintinnabulated like rapiers ringing against each other at a duel." He also introduces a wonderful new character to the mix this time in the person of Vavasseur, a homeless psychiatrist whose "couch" is behind a police barricade on the banks of the Seine.

The murders hit close to home in the first place because the victims are within Capucine's husband Alexandre's circle of friends, and she also fears that he may end up as a victim as a matter of course. In the end, a serial killer is caught, a blackmailer revealed, and Capucine triumphs once more.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Around the Web

A book review at Sipsey Street Irregulars

Breakthrough by James O'Keefe

 I had been aware of O'Keefe's "sting" videos that exposed the amorality of the ACORN staffers, which subsequently caused Congress to cut off its funding, but I hadn't heard much about some of his organization's, Project Veritas, other capers, which he describes here. O'Keefe seems to have taken a lot of heat for his attempt to expose fraud and and misbehavior at both government agencies and supposed independent organizations that receive government support. It seems that when you offend the powerful and their pet media mouthpieces, being right is no protection from persecution or prosecution.

O'Keefe is seen as a tool of the Right, but he has this to say about it:

"If my targets seem to skew 'left,' it is for a reason. The left makes huge claims about government and its capabilities. Those who manage the government and other publicly funded social services all too often persuade themselves of their virtuousness, even if their virtue is subsidized with other people's money. Given their idealism, they refuse to cast judgment on their mission and tolerate almost no judgment from others.
Our target has never been the people who consume the benefits, whether they be unwed mothers or crony capitalists. Our target is the system that provides the benefits."

In a section on exposing the flaws in a voter registration system that requires no positive form of identification, there's a quote from Minnesota Representative Mary Kiffmeyer:

"If you have no system that deters and detects fraud and you don't determine the identity of voters, the electoral system cannot inspire public confidence."

It seems to me that this principle applies equally well to many other government "freebie" programs. If the voters as a whole are not confident that welfare fraud is being promptly detected, medicare cheaters are swiftly prosecuted, and disability fakers are kept off the rolls, then how can we support those "safety nets" wholeheartedly?

After O'Keefe's minions exposed "holes" in the voter registration system in North Carolina, the Board of Elections instituted some training for its poll personnel:

"They're talking about O'Keefe right now - exhibit about the video is on the screen at today's statewide, several hundred person training. They're using it as an example of 'red flags' for officials to look out for - lederhosen and arm casts. The recording inside polling stations issue has come up repeatedly..."

Typical government response, attack the superficial symptoms of a problem rather than the problem itself. It reminded me of an anecdote told by Richard Feynman about how he demonstrated the lax security on the Manhattan Project by showing the brass how he could "crack" any safe in their offices. Rather than put in place policies to increase security, the dictate was "Keep Feynman out of your offices."

Friday, December 20, 2013

Come and Take Them by Tom Kratman

Tom Kratman once again delivers a great story of warfare between the nations of Terra Nova. Left to themselves, the Tauran Union leadership might be content to merely restrict the freedoms of the people of Balboa by imposing various economic sanctions and hoping that their barbaric moral philosophy leads to their downfall in the end. Unhappily, UEPF high Admiral Wallenstein isn't willing to wait that long, so she bribes and cajoles the Taurans into provoking a war with Carrera's Legion.

There are still a few honest men left on the Tauran side, and their supreme commander, works directly with Carrera to stand down from the first provocations, hoping to achieve an uneasy peace once more. That hope is shattered later when a group of women from the Tauran Union are captured, tortured and killed, and the video released showing that Balboan security forces were responsible. So, the war begins.

Carrera has spent years preparing for this conflict, setting up multiple lines of ambush and surprise to use when it all hits the fan. We get to see some of the preparations, though only a portion of those become relevant in Come and Take Them, so it is likely that they'll be revealed in all their sneaky glory in another installment of this saga.

There are a couple of "cameo" appearances from primary characters in The Amazon Legion here. The action in that novel is going on in parallel with this one, and some of it becomes crucial to the outcome. The book is pretty clear at the end that this is just the beginning of the war, and there are at least a couple of interesting plot threads left dangling; what's going to happen with Carrera's son, Hamilcar, and his harem who worship him as god? and how is the traitor within Wallenstein's staff going to affect the outcome of things?

One quote I found amusing:

"...do we do well on those (standardized) tests because we are bright, or despite the fact that we're bright? Because most of the people who do well on standardized intelligence tests are, as near as I can figure, incompetent, arrogant morons who are ruining our world. Whatever those tests measure, it is not intelligence, and whatever the schools are delivering that those tests get people into, it is not competence."

If I had a quibble with this book, it's that it jumps around so often that I really had to stop and think and concentrate to keep track of who, when and where things were happening. In a way, I suppose, it was a bit like the fog of war, and I really couldn't be certain at any given time who was winning, in the big picture. I also missed the quotations from History and Moral Philosophy that appeared in earlier books.

Pulling no punches, this is a tough war novel, forget the science fiction.

On the positive side, I finally got to find out what Alex Kilgour of the Sten novels "reeking lums" were. On the negative side, I had to wait too long for it, subjectively speaking.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

 So, according to Charlaine Harris' website, this is supposed to be the last of the Southern Vampire novels about Sookie Stackhouse. I expected that she'd be left truly dead in a gutter at the end of the book, somehow, especially as her old enemies all begin to gather and head back to town, with vengeance in mind. But Harris seems to me to have left the door open at the end for Sookie to have a figurative, if not literal, resurrection, and have more profitable (for the author) adventures some day. Of course, you can't trust a popular character to remain safely dead (or undead) these days, just look at Harry Dresden, for example.

Sookie once again gets the opportunity, living in interesting times in Bon Temps, to find out who's really got her back, versus who's just waiting to plant a blade in it. She and Sam Merlotte, her former boss and now partner in the bar, struggle to figure out what their new roles are going to be, especially since Sam is trying to get used to being alive after his untimely demise in the last Sookie misadventure. Eric is hoping somehow to keep his love affair with Sookie alive, even if he has to divorce her and wed a vampire queen in a prearranged marriage, ordained by his master, Felipe. But Sookie isn't thrilled with the prospect of being his sub rosa mistress for what's left of her life, before Eric decides to "turn" her for her own good - and preserve her youthful beauty, of course.

In the midst of this, her old friend, Arlene, who betrayed Sookie and would have seen her literally crucified, gets out on bail and comes for a visit. Someone decides she's more useful to them dead, and frames Sookie for the murder, so she gets to model an orange jumpsuit for a while. But she gets more support from the community than she expected, and her supernatural allies rally to help her beat the rap, while they also must hunt down the true killers and figure out why our heroine is being targeted.

Unlike what you'd expect from the title, it doesn't wrap up tidily and happily ever after for Miss Stackhouse, but at least the current crop of criminals is disposed of for a time. I'd put the odds of a new novel in the series appearing within three to five years at better than even.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Around the Web

A book review on Nobody Asked Me.

Swords & Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

My friend, Mynx, likes to assert that all "buddy" movies are exploring latent homosexual longings between male partners. As I began re-reading, after many years away, the tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, it came to me that I'd seen this pair of characters more recently, in Jennifer Roberson's tales of Tiger and Del, the Sword series, and I thought that perhaps Roberson had read Leiber's stories and wondered, "what if the Mouser was a woman, and from their first meeting there was always this sexual tension between them?"

In Swords & Deviltry, we get to follow the stories of the adventurous pair from their humble beginnings. Fafhrd comes from the frozen North, where the women weave icy enchantments around their husbands and sons to control them. But Fafhrd has always had an unfortunate fascination with "civilization" in the lands to the South, and when either opportunity presents itself in the form of a damsel, Vlana, in distress, or his "mommy issues" simply become too hard to bear, he breaks away from his roots and journeys to the city of Lankhmar to seek his fortune, and help his lady love to avenge her past there. Though Fafhrd is a callow youth, not at all respected by his barbarian kinsmen, he acquits himself well in a fight against older, stronger members while making his getaway, and uses those and other skills throughout the ongoing saga.

The Gray Mouser began as an apprentice to a hedge wizard, who tried to teach him the whiter magic of life and living things, but he had an unhealthy attraction to the dark side, which serves him well when the local Duke has his men kill the wizard and burn down his hut. The Duke's daughter, Ivrian, also liked to associate with the hedge wizard, and she and the Mouser may have had a bit of a romance budding before the tragedy, but Ivrian's unwitting betrayal of their master makes them enemies for a time, when the Duke's men capture and torture him, until the Mouser's dark magics help him kill the Duke and flee with her to Lankhmar. Where....he meets Fafhrd.

When the pair both target a particular set of thieves from the Thieves Guild for assault and robbery, they immediately recognize a kindred spirit, and set off to celebrate their good fortune together at the Mouser's lair which he has furnished in the heart of the slum to keep Ivrian in something loosely resembling the style to which she was once accustomed. The pair grow boisterously drunk together, and end up being dared by Vlana to invade the Thieves Guild hall and get vengeance on its master, Krovas. They succeed in making their way within, and get an audience with the head thief, but unbeknownst to them, the Guild's black wizard has already sent death stalking the streets to their hideaway, to steal back the jewels from their earlier heist.

I was surprised on re-reading the stories at just how "adult" they were. Many of the tales published in the fantasy genre were G-rated in order to get published. These must have danced around the censors' sensibilities to survive the cutting room floor. Unlike some other books I've revisited, these weather the test of time quite well, aside from a rather florid style that Leiber affects when telling the tall tales of high fantasy. Looking forward to grabbing their next adventure off of my shelves and visiting Lankhmar and points beyond with this inimitable duo.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The New American Expat by William Russell Melton

 This is a great reference book for anyone who is considering spending time overseas working. The author has decades of experience doing exactly that, and brings a great perspective to the table. If you've already done some international travel, some of it is perhaps a bit basic, but you can go ahead and skim on to the meaty bits.

I think perhaps some of the best material is regarding some of the attitudes and expectations, i.e., The Right Stuff, that Melton feels a successful expat must have in order to thrive during the experience:

  • Good communication skills
  • Adaptability/Flexibility
  • Openness
  • Tolerance/Patience
  • Sense of Humor
  • Humility
  • Creativity/Resourcefulness
  • Decisiveness
  • Commitment/Perseverance
  • Independence/Self Reliance

His list of reasons folks often become expats:
  • Professional. Career advancement, career expansion, job promotion, more money, increased knowledge of international markets, professional development, resume enhancement and building an international network...
  • Inquisitive. Personal (or family) growth, interest in expanding your personal experiences, interest in expanding your knowledge of the world, adventure, and desire to experience new and different challenges...
  • Remedial. Running away from a difficult personal situation or financial problem...a perceived boring and pointless life...
An amusing bit,
"I found it amazing that most Germans actually obey Walk/Don't Walk signs, whether or not a vehicle is approaching. As a New Yorker, I have always viewed these signs as merely advisory."

A handy tip,
"it is not uncommon in some countries for the lessee to be liable for the cost of repairing appliances if they break down or for routine maintenance costs that are traditionally paid for by the landlord in the United States".

There are some great appendices filled with reference web sites and recommended reading, though much of it seems a bit old, so perhaps updated editions?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Crime Fraiche by Alexander Campion

Despite the amount of reading which I do, I'm not really a literary sort, familiar with the classics and lesser works of the pantheon of Western Lit, so I completely missed the homage to Madame Bovary in the story until it was revealed by Campion about two thirds of the way through the story. Perhaps those of you who are more attuned to such things will catch it on first sight.

So, now that we've experienced crime and punishment along with gastronomic excess in the heart of Paris, Campion takes us out to the countryside, for more rustic fare. Capucine and Alexandre journey to chateau Maulevrier to visit her favorite uncle Aymerie (Jacques' father) at his country estate. It's the heart of the hunting season when they arrive, and their visit falls shortly after a tragic shooting accident, when the manager of a neighbor's beef cattle ranch is killed on a partridge hunt. Though Alexandre is at first not comfortable outside the city, he soon begins to act like a true country squire, strutting about with his walking stick with a flask of spirits concealed in its knob, and hunting partridges and rabbits with the rest of the gentry.

When that death is followed rapidly by several other shootings, Capucine is convinced by Oncle Aymerie that she must bring her Police Judicaire skills to bear and find the guilty parties, thought the local gendarmes have dismissed the deaths as merely the typical toll of the sport of the local nobles and peasantry. At the same time, Capucine's brigade of investigators in Paris are faced with capturing a beautiful thief, dubbed a modern day Robin Hood by the press, who steals from rich artists after gaining their sympathies by fainting of hunger in a public place.

We get to experience simpler dishes at country inns, such as "a tangy dish of marinated herrings cooked with shallots, coriander leaves, herbes de Provence (Jacques Pepin mentioned these on his show last night) , and bay leaves, served on a bed of tiny, round ratte potatoes sautéed in the herrings' oily marinade" or "a carpaccio of raw beef sliced so thin it was translucent, seasoned only with salt, pepper, a trickle of excellent olive oil, and a few drops of lemon juice". Those darned French! It all just sounds too good.

Capucine learns a few things about navigating the political landscape of both the country and the city when she reaps the negative consequences of pulling a few (family) strings to go over the head of the local police and get herself assigned to the case. Some of the old gendarmes turn out to be sharper than you'd expect. It all boils down to the world's oldest motives, sex and money, in the end, but the meandering nature of the investigation gives us plenty of time to savor the hunt - literal and metaphorical.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Once We Were Human by Randall Farmer

 Though it appears to be a new and fresh idea, the central premise of this series, the transformation via a disease into something no longer exactly human, has been used before - the crystal singers' transition in McCaffrey's Killashandra stories comes to mind. The "monsters" need to get "juice" from a special type of transform also reminds me of the Sime/Gen novels from several decades back by Jacqueline Lichtenberg (gotta re-read those one of these days).

We start with the story of a woman who has experienced the transformation unexpectedly, which results in her killing her best friends and her own daughter, and being shackled and led to semi secret research facility where monsters like her are studied and perhaps taught to live with their new powers, if they cooperate and prove useful to the powers that be.

Then we jump to the story of a man who is living in the shadows, and has the ability to consume the dregs or waste product of the "juice" rather than subsist on the juice, itself. He is homeless, and hopeless, but then he is helped by another monster just like himself, who gives him a hand up and some good advice on how to survive in his new life.

Then I thought, "I have more interesting things to read" and I have no idea how it all turns out. Though there are plenty of sequels, I find no motivation to follow up here.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Draw One in the Dark by Sarah Hoyt

So, I read According to Hoyt, Sarah's blog, nearly every day, and I find her commentary thoughtful and interesting, but I must confess that so far, though I've read Darkship Thieves, the first 50 pages or so of Ill Met by Moonlight, and a collection of her short stories titled Crawling Between Heaven and Earth, I have yet to find a series novel by her that leaves me thinking "Oh my gosh, I gotta read the next book!"

Kyrie is a waitress in a small café in Goldport, Colorado, who hears a scream in the parking lot out back one night, and steps outside to a scene that totally changes her world, probably forever. For most of her life, since adolescence, she has been able to convince herself that her memories of shifting to the form of a great black panther are merely hallucinations or extraordinarily vivid dreams, but when she encounters a bloody, mauled body outside, her visceral reaction to the blood scent is to immediately shift to her animal form, where she is surprised to find she is not the only shifter on site, there's also a huge Nordic dragon who, in human form, is Tom, a hard luck case that the owner of the restaurant, Frank, hired to cook there. As Kyrie is trying to get a rather stunned and blood soaked Tom away from the crime scene, a third shifter shadows them for a time, in the form of a great golden-maned lion, who later turns out to be a police officer, Rafiel.
(Sorry, folks...missing some paragraphs as originally written here. The following makes no sense without them. Darned laptop touchpad messes things up all too often.)
I kept pushing on through, though, as I really want to give Sarah a fair shake. The dragon triads keep after Mark, and then Sarah, and they eventually force Mark's estranged father (a sleazy lawyer) to try to track him down and convince him to give up the magic jewel, which Mark has hidden in a rather creative location. We later encounter a were-coyote murder victim, and then some were-scarab beetles (what's up with the clues on the identity of the scarabs? The first clue was plenty, she didn't need to show one of them sparing the life of another insect; are they really related, and then should all were-mammals band together to stop killing Bambi?), which for me is where it went even further off kilter. Are there actually any non-shifter humans left in the world, or does everyone have a shifted shape that they merely haven't been forced into yet. Were-slugs? Were-poodles? Were-bunnies?

I love Sarah as an astute observer and blogger, I really wish I could find her books nearly as readable as her essays. I pushed through to the happy ending, but I'm not particularly motivated to find out what happens to Kyrie and Tom and their friends.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich

 I think this book was recommended by Alan Caruba, a prolific writer of political columns, and reviewer of multiple genres of books, but I can't be sure at this point. The book reads more like a novel than a bio, with some pretty solid recreated dialogue, well-appointed interior and exterior scenes, and a third party omniscient point of view throughout, although the thoughts and motivations of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, remain obscured here.

It becomes obvious fairly quickly, however, that Mezrich's main sources were all of the "friends" that Zuckerberg screwed over on his way to becoming one of the youngest billionaires ever. The first to bite the dust were a trio of upperclassmen at Harvard who attempted to hire him to develop a social media web site with them, targeted at the dating world. He seemed to agree to work with them, then spent his time developing theFacebook.com, the earliest version of the famed site, limited to Harvard students, instead of working on their idea. He put off their requests for progress reports until his own site was launched, then claimed he'd never agreed to work with them and that their site was substantially different than his own project. Some years later, as a result of a lawsuit they brought, he settled with them for millions of dollars, according to this book.

Perhaps the worst betrayal described in the book was the one he dropped on his best friend at Harvard, Eduardo Saverin. Eduardo was in from the beginning with Mark, and even put up his own money in order to rent servers and support the business in the early days. While Eduardo was in New York between semesters, trying to scare up advertisers for theFacebook, Zuckerberg moved to California and was seduced, so to speak, by the high flying tech star, Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, into the world of venture capitalists. The company was restructured, and Eduardo's 30% interest was diluted away by stock offerings to early employees and Parker, himself. Of course, Zuckerberg screwed Parker over, too, a short time later.

I can neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of any of this, but it's an interesting take, anyway, on one of the billionaire bad boys of the era.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Grave Gourmet by Alexander Campion

 The Grave Gourmet is one of those mystery novels that foodies like me, as well as Francophiles, are going to love. Capucine is a young member of the Police Judiciare in Paris who has up to this point been relegated because of her family background and education to investigating financial crimes, and she really really wants to be a "real" flic, investigating murders, robberies and such.

Her husband, Alexandre, is a noted food critic in Paris, so when a murder takes place in a three star restaurant, the commissaire reluctantly decides to assign her to the case, since his main homicide detective is off at a conference in Nice, and her "in" with the restaurant crowd might make this an open and shut case, quickly solved. The victim is the president of Renault, and the probability slowly emerges that his death had something to do with industrial espionage. Fortunately, Capucine also has a cousin, Jacques, who works at the DGSE, one of France's intelligence agencies, who can guide her through that murky world, if she can ignore his feigned? lecherous advances.

We get fun descriptions of menu items like "Hand's version of a BLT-Batavia lettuce, watercress, heirloom tomatoes, and grilled pancetta on a brioche roll delicately anointed with balsamic mayonnaise" and Jacques' sartorial splendor in "a brilliantly striped Turnbull and Asser shirt that fit his torso so perfectly it could only have been made to measure, gold cuff links in the shape of decorative nautical knots, and a solid navy blue tie of rough silk transfixed by a gold hunting pin"or a "cashmere and lamb's wool-blend suit from Lavin and bespoke John Lobb shoes from an Hermes atelier".

I even had to look up a vocabulary word for the first time in a while, and now I know what a "solecism" is, though there was enough context to keep moving along in with the gist of things - I just like to expand my horizons every so often.

Reminiscent of Peter Mayle's mysteries, we get a wonderful sense of French culture, though they tend not to be the sort of story where you are provided the clues at the beginning, and are slowly led to the conclusion, as in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but are perhaps more like a true investigation that meanders gradually around the landscape, eventually flowing to a conclusion that's not too unbelievable.

Campion's first Capucine novel is followed by Crime Fraiche and Death of a Chef, which I hope will be just as savory as this tale.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Frommer's Washington DC Day by Day

 One of the things I really like about the Day by Day series by Frommer is that they contain several sections with lists of the "must-sees" in a particular city, sorted by whether you have just one day to spend there, two days, or three days. This really helps to prioritize things when you're visiting. They also have some other sections sorted by interest. If you're an art lover, you can focus on the artsy or cultural attractions. If you're a history buff, the museum section will help. There is a special section for attractions for kids, and another for outdoorsy folks.

Of course, these days, one of the best things you'll find, compactly, in these sort of travel books, are the URLs of important sites you can bookmark and visit as you prepare for your trip, or even once you've arrived. I always try to grab a handful of these out of each travel book I check out. This particular version of Frommers' guide is a pocket version, and even contains a city map that may be handy, and will certainly mark you as a tourist when you whip it out on the National Mall.

I highly recommend the Day by Day guides, in general, and this one in particular, to anyone getting ready for a visit to a new city.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inversions by Iain M. Banks

 Whatever you may say about Iain Banks, he most certainly can weave a compelling tale, whether it's technically science fiction or not, and Inversions seems to me to be only marginally SF. The only reason why I even think that is that one of the main characters in one of the two intertwined tales in this book appears to be someone from an advanced culture, slumming for some odd reason on a backward and barbarian feudal and feuding planet.

And the reason I say that this character, called the Doctor, a female physician, a thing unheard of in this male dominated realm, is from an advanced culture, is that she introduces modern methods of treating injury and illness into the middle of a medical wasteland of leeches and blaming diseases on ill humors. She combines disinfecting and bandaging wounds with potions and powders made from local herbs, demonstrating a knowledge of herbalism and biochemistry in a low tech area.

The doctor has ostensible journeyed from the faraway land of Delchen and ended up in the service of a reasonably good king. Her tale is told from the point of view of her apprentice, Oelph, who has also been assigned to spy on her and report to an unidentified noble in the court of the king. Intrigues swirl around the Doctor and Oelph, as various nobles conspire to either reduce her influence on the king or remove her from the kingdom entirely. I thought perhaps that she was sent from some agency of The Culture to influence the outcome of the geopolitics on this particular planet, but her motivations turn out to be something entirely different, in the end.

The second thread in the warp and weft of Inversions is the tale of DeWar, a bodyguard to The Protector, a general who committed regicide in a nearby kingdom, and brought a slightly better version of rule to that land. DeWar also seems that he may be from someplace far away. His origin and antecedents are hidden, and he seems to be far too competent at his task to have sprung from this culture.

DeWar commits the deadly sin of falling in love with an older concubine, who has fallen into a bit of disfavor with the Protector after she gained a withered arm while throwing herself in front of an assassin's blade. Rather short-sighted of the Protector to scorn her in favor of air-headed nubile youngsters, but that's a ruler for you, right? Nothing obviously inappropriate occurs between DeWar and the concubine, but it becomes obvious to both of them that there's more to their feelings for one another than just their mutual devotion to the Protector.

Again, lots of plots and counterplots swirl around the palace, and DeWar has no idea if there is anyone whom he can truly trust. A great surprise ending wraps this tale up nicely in the end.

As I said, not exactly science fiction, but gripping none the less.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn

 I'm beginning to sense a pattern here, we'll see if it gets out of hand eventually. Country bumpkin comes to the big city, finds out that they're the heir to something or other important. This second book in the Elemental Blessings series is the story of Rafe Adova, a handsome and devil-may-care professional gambler in the slums of Chialto. It takes place several years after the conclusion of Troubled Waters, and Zoe is happily married to Darien, the regent, with a child of their own to raise.

One night while Rafe is plying his trade, one of Zoe's sister-princesses, Corene, shows up, on the run from unknown pursuers, in the dive where he plays cards and rents a room (there ought to be a way to adapt Bogart's "Of all the gin joints..." line here). After chasing off some random thugs who just want to have some fun with the little lady, he offers her sanctuary, and hires a messenger to get word out to her relatives what has happened to her. The other sister, Josetta, runs a shelter for the homeless, hopeless and helpless in the slums, and she arrives shortly, then they both await the arrival of Darien while resting in Rafe's room. He's evidently mostly harmless.

As one might imagine, there's a bit of a spark between Josetta and Rafe, despite the vast gulf between their social stations, and they begin to spend time together, as Rafe visits her shelter and helps out with the cooking and serving there, when he's not busy fleecing innocent gamblers. He's not a card shark or cheater, just a very savvy natural card player, with an odd sense of honor - he'll advise young country bumpkins to go have fun elsewhere before they lose all their money to him.

There's an odd mixture of technology and elemental magic in Shinn's most recent world, with perhaps a bit of steampunk flavor to things - it's surprising the cover artwork doesn't reflect it. With the reward that Rafe received from Damien for rescuing Corene, he is able to invest in the factory owned by mad inventor and elemental Prime Kayle Dochenza -Josetta introduces them, where instead of the usual elaymotives (horseless carriages) Kayle is building Chialto's first flying machines. Rafe is fascinated by this, and soon takes a job as a test pilot at the factory, giving up his gambling career for something a little more risky.

A fun plot, sympathetic characters, nasty politics and some interesting twists, as Shinn reveals more and more of her world. Hope she keeps 'em coming.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Tents and Tent Stability by Chris Lown

 The first day spent recovering after recent surgery, I found a nice get well card from my Mom, and a copy of Chris Lown's delightful travelogue, with a note taped to it, "Prescription: Take as needed to stay recumbent as you convalesce." Great idea! Thanks, Mom!

When middle-aged, cantankerous Chris Lown's wife gets the opportunity to go on a Caribbean cruise with her best friend, he decides he should fill the time during her absence with a trip of his own, tent camping in each of Germany's sixteen states. His journey is described in Lown's chatty, humorous style, with a great attention to detail, seasoned, perhaps, with a dash of hyperbole.

Lown decides in the first place not to spend the big bucks for a top notch tent for his adventure, settling for a cheaper and, in the end, far less durable model. The series of unfortunate events (sorry Lemony) that befall his shelter steadily and inexorably erode its stability and degrade its appearance to a truly sad state. At one point, after offending a group of late night musical pretenders at a campsite, his tent is vandalized when he goes off during the day by having the word "Schwanz" (look it up) written boldly on its flank, and Lown has to be creative for the next few days concealing the offensive word while staying at family friendly campgrounds.

Each of the states that he visits are thoroughly described, and left me thinking that I need to move Germany a bit closer to the top of my travel bucket list. At the conclusion of each visit, he also delivers a report on the best beer and cheese selection he encountered there. The only time he abandons tent camping for more comfortable surroundings is when is when he visits his friends, Jan and Sophia, on their farm near Wittlich, and when Jan meets up with him on Lown's last day in Cologne (Koln). I gave up tent camping not too long ago, after my back surgery, but even at my best, I doubt I'd have maintained my equanimity through some of the crazy things that happen along the way - I'd have (literally) pitched the tent and moved to an inn long before the trip was through.

This one's going on my shelves permanently, to use as a reference when my wife and I finally do visit Germany. A great read, filled with the best medicine, laughter.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Foreign Enemies and Traitors by Matt Bracken

 Bracken manages, in the last installment of the trilogy, to include just about all of the fear-based memes of the folks who despair of the path our country has taken in the last fifty years. The action shifts back to our old acquaintance, Phil Carson, who has decided it's too hot down in South America and is returning to his native land with a cargo of real coffee beans and solar panels, both of which are in high demand in an economically strapped and energy poor United States, after one disastrous event follows another.

Phil, himself, can't seem to avoid tragedy, and instead of sailing to Texas - one of the last beacons of freedom in the country - he is blown off course by a tropical storm and shipwrecked somewhere on the coast of North Carolina. After he comes to land, we get to follow along with Phil on his journey to try to reach either Texas or the other "free" territory formed by several states in the Northwest. Martial law has descended on most of the South, as the federal government tries to get all those racist rednecks who are clinging to their guns and religion to accept pacification. In support of that effort, President Jamal Tambor has imported foreign troops from the former Soviet Union and Africa to help out, after U.S. soldiers refused to fire upon their countrymen.

Good 'ole Bob Bullard turns up once more, as a deniable liaison between the White House and the Kazaks pacifying Tennessee, where Carson runs into a few hitches in his journey, spending time in a relocation camp until he can ally with an Army doctor who is willing to help him on his way for the cargo on Phil's boat. There are still a few freedom fighters on the loose in Tennessee, and Phil joins them in their fight against the feds and their foreign allies.

A pretty good conclusion to the trilogy, but I hope Bracken gets around to writing about how things get put back together again someday.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Meltdown by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Woods provides an interesting narrative of the meltdown of the real estate and financial markets that happened early this decade, showing that the actions of the federal government, its quasi government agencies, Fannie and Freddy, and the Federal Reserve bear the bulk of the responsibility for the crisis. Additionally, he walks us through previous recessions and depressions usually blamed on the business cycle, showing that they, too, have been primarily caused by government meddling with the economy to suit its own purposes.

I, personally, have been convinced for some time that we haven't had a true free market capitalist economy for over a century, despite the rhetoric about robber barons and monopolies that comes out of history classes I took when I was young. Governments at all levels seem to have figured out how to reward their cronies and punish their enemies through the power of the purse strings, and have been doing so, to the detriment of the middle class taxpayer and the poor for some time now. Anyone who is truly honest and wants to help the little guys gets corrupted rapidly by the system in order to stay in power, and if they don't, they're out of power shortly.

One interesting thing that I found here was the following:

"It turns out that there was a larger percentage increase in adjustable-rate prime mortgages than there was in subprime mortgages, where all the trouble was said to be. This, too, explodes the myth that the mortgage crisis came about because of unscrupulous lenders preying on vulnerable people who for whatever reason couldn't understand the mortgage terms they were agreeing to. If that were the case, how did prime adjustable-rate borrowers get more bamboozled than subprime borrowers?"

Woods includes a great primer for those who haven't previously been taught about what money really is and how it is supposed to work, including the history of how we arrived at our currently unsound fiat currency. There's also a great section on Austrian financial theory, promoted by people like Hayek and von Mises.

Good stuff, perhaps a little dry, and gets you thinking, anyway.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Quiet Times

Sorry for the long silence, but I've been recovering from outpatient surgery for over a week now, and haven't felt very chatty. To make it up to you, this week I'll be posting three reviews:
  • Monday - Meltdown- an economic treatise by Thomas E. Woods

  • Wednesday - Enemies Foreign and Domestic - the conclusion of the Enemies Trilogy by Matt Bracken

  • Friday - Tents and Tent Stability - a marvelously humorous travelogue by Chris Lown

Monday, November 11, 2013

Domestic Enemies: The Reconquista by Matt Bracken

If you haven't read the first book in the Enemies trilogy by Bracken, you probably shouldn't read any further; big spoilers follow.

After a disastrous attempt to capture rogue Agent Robert Bullard and take down his renegade BATF team, Ranya and former Green Beret Phil Carson flee on Brad's sailboat to the Caribbean. Brad was shot during the raid, and bled to death on the Zodiac during the escape, and Ranya carries his child. Deciding she doesn't want her son born outside of the United States, she returns, but despite Presidential assurances of amnesty for her crimes, she is arrested, jailed, her son taken away from her, and sentenced to three years in a forced labor camp in the Midwest, which stretches into six years.

When the warden of the camp singles Ranya out for special favors in return for, you know, "special favors", Ranya goes along with the program long enough to spend time alone with the warden in her quarters, kills her, and escapes wearing the warden's uniform and driving her pickup truck. She makes her way southwest from there, having found out that her son was adopted by a married pair of FBI agents in Albuquerqe, New Mexico.

Speculative fiction can be defined as the sort of story that arises when we look at a particular trend or technology, and extrapolate, "what if?" from there. In this novel, there are two new factors which Bracken uses to form his alternate time stream - the effects of unrestricted immigration amnesty and loss of control of the southern border by the federal government, and the rapid devaluation of the U.S. dollar, as it is replaced sequentially by new dollars, then blue dollars, which buy less goods at every stage. Private ownership of gold is once again outlawed, and only outlaws will own gold.

In New Mexico, the situation has gotten very strange, indeed. The new immigrants from down south have decided to enforce the old land grant treaties of the 1800s, and to confiscate the ranches and homes of the gringos to distribute to the more deserving people who have recently arrived. Various semi-official armies have arisen to enforce these land grabs, and Ranya is captured by these revolutionaries, and feigns enthusiasm for the cause, joining the Zetas, led by Colonel Ramos. As one might expect from her history, Ramos takes a more than professional interest in her, taking her under his wing, so to speak. Her expertise with all things having to do with guns comes in handy when she is asked to train his troops in marksmanship and maintenance, and she plays along with the revolution until she finds an opportunity to escape and recover her son from his adoptive family.

Aside from the whole evading the crazed militia hunting for her thing, there's another wrinkle in her kidnapping plot. Her son's new parents are divorced, the wife has been granted full custody, and is moving to San Diego with her lesbian lover, who is transferring to the Homeland Security office there, run by...Director Robert Bullard. Her adventures turn out to be exciting and interesting, keeping me up way past my bedtime to finish the book. Lots of food for thought, in this purely "speculative" book.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis

 Some time ago, I read Lewis' The Big Short about the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage industry and subsequent crisis in the U.S. Lewis' research for that book led him overseas, as well, and the results are here in Boomerang. It is eerily reassuring to know that Americans aren't the only crazed fools who believed the real estate and financial markets could only go up, as this book travels from Iceland to Ireland to Greece to Germany in search of the roots of the boom and bust cycle.

In Iceland, a cohort of young people got their college degrees in finance, and somehow managed to convince their countrymen that it was a great idea to exchange the national pastime of commercial fishing (which the Icelanders are quite expert at) for foreign exchange currency trading. Much like the U.S., where I saw nearly all of my former colleagues laid off from manufacturing become mortgage brokers, property managers, and real estate agents, Icelanders quit fishing in droves (or perhaps schools) to indulge in this new sport. When it all collapsed, Iceland's currency traders and banks were suddenly broke.

In Ireland, the situation reminds me of the old story about a mining town after the Gold Rush in the 1850s. A group of Chinese moved to town during the boom to do the laundry for all of the suddenly rich gold prospectors. When the lode was exhausted and the miners all left, the Chinese stayed around and did each other's laundry and all became millionaires. All three major Irish banks either created or were sucked into a real estate boom, and lent huge sums of money to developers and builders, who built and sold commercial and residential projects, selling them to other Irish developers and property managers, for ever increasing sums, which the banks would also finance. When it all collapsed, the banks were broke and the government decided to use tax dollars to bail them out, so that the entire economy wouldn't collapse. It's deja vu all over again.

Greece has a somewhat different situation. It seems that the people there believed that they could indefinitely increase public sector salaries and employment, as well as social services, and as long as they increased taxes accordingly, everything would be fine. Unfortunately, as taxes increased, every citizen seemed to feel it was his duty to avoid paying them by any means possible. Nearly every Greek businessperson cheats on their taxes, mostly by failing to report all cash transactions, and property owners routinely falsify sales documents for parcels of land, or obscure their ownership through shell operations, so they don't have to pay taxes on their real estate. When the government put into place "austerity" measures demanded by the ECB in order to get loans from the EU, the people rioted. Same old story - everyone wants to receive government largesse, as long as someone else is paying for it.

In Germany - dear old solid "the trains run on time" Germany - the extraordinarily productive and thrifty populace are the folks who end up footing the bill for the excesses of the rest of the Eurozone. Their big banks also got suckered into buying the CDOs from the big U.S. brokerage houses which lost the majority of their value when the housing market collapsed. And yet, Germany is considered the most financially sound country in Europe...for the moment.

Lewis also takes a detour into a few California city government antics, which may have some very negative repercussions here in the U.S. before too long.

Always interesting, with bits of snarky humor here and there, finance junkies will enjoy Boomerang.
 Charles Kindleberger's Mania, Panics and Crashes (probably the 1989 version)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Enemies Foreign and Domestic by Matt Bracken

While  some may find Bracken's Enemies trilogy out there in the realm of tin foil hat, black helicopter conspiracy theorist alarmist rhetoric, I found the first novel in the tale quite engrossing, tightly written, and entertaining - albeit scary as being swept down river towards raging rapids. With just a bit of tweaking, our own time stream might look just like this cautionary tale.

When a group of overly enthusiastic BATF agents arrange a false flag operation where a veteran suffering from PTSD appears to massacre hundreds in a football stadium, the U.S. Congress decides, once and for all, that the public cannot be trusted with scary black guns, and completely outlaws the possession of semi-automatic rifles, first calling for voluntary turn-ins, then proceeding to raids (which rapidly turn deadly) and confiscation. Rather predictably, this doesn't sit well with a large segment of the population, sometimes derided as the "gun culture", but which in reality is composed of a quite sizable portion of the populace, and after the rogue agents stage a few more incidents targeting the "gun nuts" and innocent bystanders - blamed on gun nuts - battle is definitely joined.

One of the main heroes in this story is Brad Fallon, a thirty-something veteran of the Alaskan oil fields, who has seen enough of the erosion of American civil rights over the last couple of decades and is presently restoring a sailboat so that he can become a PT (Permanent Tourist) in more tropical climates. The boat is moored in the Chesapeake Bay area, and Brad has become as accepted as any outside in a small town can by the local shooting sports enthusiasts, especially after he won a regional target competition.

Our other hero is Ranya Bardiwell, daughter of Lebanese Christian refugee immigrants who have made a life for themselves in the small town. Her father is a gun dealer, supplying local sportsmen with guns, ammunition and gunsmithing services. Ranya grew up around the gunnies, and is an expert shooter with a number of small arms, as well as holding a black belt in martial arts. When her father's store is burned to the ground and he is murdered, she returns from her studies at UVA to mourn, and soon discovers evidence pointing to government agents responsibility for the crime.

Of course, as one might expect, Ranya and Brad fall in love, and despite Brad's previous commitment to get out of Dodge, he decides to aid her in her quixotic quest to find the men who killed her father and to bring them to justice. They are joined in their efforts by a revolving cast of patriots, old friends of Ranya's father who bring to the table a rather astonishing assortment of weapons of retail destruction. Suffice it to say that looking over a fruity drink with an umbrella at a Jamaican sunset isn't likely to appear in the couple's near future.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Glass God by Kate Griffin

 No one can keep up the humor indefinitely, not even Pratchett, and Kate Griffin is not at that level yet. Missing from this book were the vignettes from each of the anonymous magicals that were so entertaining, and some of the gimmicks which were amusing in the first book have grown stale when repeated too often.

One bit that I found rather inventive was the idea that dryads, once residents in trees, have now moved to the London street lamps. Other than that, nothing stands out.

When the Midnight Mayor goes missing, shaman Sharon Li is tasked with finding out what's become of him. Her investigation leads her and her pet druid, Rhys, into some pretty unsavory and quite smelly places, but leads us as readers nowhere in particular. Unfortunately, the pace dragged me down and I had to return the book to the library before I got round to finishing it to find out what happens at the end.

A writer with promise has lost me, I'm afraid.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Getting Out by by Mark Ehrman

 I think the wife and I have been watching too many episodes of House Hunters International. Surely, if families can just uproot their entire lives  on a whim and go to live in a foreign land, we can figure out how to retire to a warm and tropical destination, given a few years to plan it out, right?

Getting Out contains a wealth of information on all aspects of becoming an expatriot, from the financial to the political, housing to healthcare. After a meaty general introduction to the topic of leaving the U.S., for short or long term, there are individual chapters containing more specific details on over 60 countries, with their pros and cons, immigration policies, social and political situations, and costs of living. Each of those chapters also contains testimonials from folks who have actually made the leap, and are living in that country, describing their lives there, and the issues they have faced and overcome.

The last section of the book has a cornucopia of reference material, websites with resources written by and for expats. All, in all a good primer for getting out.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

God, Guns & Rock'N'Roll by Ted Nugent

  While I was hanging out at a friend's cabin, steelhead fishing, I picked up a copy of Nugent's book from the bookshelf, and ended up reading the whole thing by the time my trip was done. I'd read his more recent book, Ted, White and Blue, a while back and enjoyed it.

The old rocker rocks on with his tirades against alcohol and drug abuse, mourning the loss of many of his comrades in the music business whose lives were destroyed by their addictions. He waxes eloquent on the subject of hunting every type of game known to mankind, and seems to enjoy a spiritual connection while he stalks his prey in the wild. His rhetoric is outrageous, over the top, and quite amusing.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Under a Graveyard Sky by John Ringo

 A typical Ringo caper, aside from the lack of graphic sex, but there's plenty of grue and gore to make up for it. A synthetic virus has been released worldwide by malefactors unknown, which begins with flu-like symptoms, highly contagious, and proceeds to neurological effects, turning people into naked, shambling, ravening hulks, whose bites are also very contagious, and rapidly the world is facing the big ZA. One family of preppers gets early warning about the onslaught of zombies and rapidly evacuates from the mainland to a sailboat they have purchased in a hurry. The father, Steve, is an ex-special forces Aussie expat, and his wife, Stacey, is a competent engineer (shades of Heinlein's female characters). Their elder daughter, Sophia (knowledge) is a bit on the geeky side, and does a stint as a lab tech for a private entity creating a vaccine for its executives and their families and key personnel, while the younger daughter, Faith, is more of a gun geek, and turns into a zombie killing machine extraordinaire.

I feel like Ringo spends far too much time simply setting the scene for this tale. It starts fast, but then bogs down for a while while he recounts what's happening at the semi-evil megacorporation, the CDC, NYPD, and so forth. Of course, if Steve and his family didn't hang around the harbor and allow Sophia to work with the ex-CDC scientist developing the vaccine, they might not have the information about the methodology to trade later on in the book. There's also a great scene when the family and some security folks go out for dinner at a mafia hangout for one last Italian meal in NYC and end up doing a big Escape from New York routine, cutting their way through the hordes with full and semi-auto weaponry.

Once they're on the high seas, the "meat" of the tale begins to unfold, and we get a glimpse of where Ringo intends to take the series. Not sure why he's taking a hiatus from the science fiction Troy Rising series he was writing, but perhaps he's just cashing in on the zombie craze while it's hot and will get back to it when things cool down. We'll see how the zombie killing action holds up over time before rendering judgement on this one.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

 I have been eagerly awaiting the latest installment from Lynch in his Gentlemen Bastards series for quite some time and, all things considered, it was worth the wait - not that I'm encouraging him to take as long to write the next book. Lynch splits the tale of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen into a continuation of what's happening after their ill-fated adventure in Red Seas Under Blue Skies, the upshot of which is that Locke is fatally poisoned and dying slowly, despite the best efforts of every alchemist and physicker that Jean can beg, hire, or threaten, and snippets from his first meetings with Sabetha and their training together with the rest of the Blind Priest's "children".

In the middle of the flashbacks narrative, Lynch has managed to create a significant portion of a tragic Shakespearian play called The Republic of Thieves, which the five original Gentlemen Bastards are hired to perform, in order to help out an old friend of their thiefmaster, a director of such things.

Locke reluctantly finds a cure for his malady when one of the Bondsmagi (the mother of the one they tangled with in The Lies of Locke Lamora, whom they left mute and crippled) offers to magically remove the poison, in return for their service in influencing the election of a city council in Karthain, where the magi dwell. They are forbidden by their code from using magic to influence the outcome, and every four years each faction hires consultants to run their campaign. The kicker, for Locke and Jean, is that the other faction is being guided by Locke's old lover, Sabetha.

Romantic entanglements aside, the tangled web of dirty tricks that Locke and Jean conspire to play are well matched by Sabetha's street fighting. Too much fun!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Shadow of Freedom by David Weber

Weber is one of very few authors who can carry off the MMPOV (Massively Multiple Point of View) novel, and make me like it. Things bounce back and forth between the main protagonist, Michelle Henke, in command of one branch of the Manticoran fleet, and her various subcommanders, the heads of the Mesan Alignment, a brief cameo by Victor Cachat and Zilwicki, and the leaders of various rebellions on planets controlled by the Solarian League's Frontier forces.

Most of the action takes place concurrently with A Rising Thunder, I think. For the most part, the Sollies haven't really learned anything from their defeats at the hands of Manticore's latest military hardware, and Henke and her captains handily destroy even more antiquated fleets, usually allowing the opposing personnel to abandon ship if they aren't too stubborn. But there are some hints that the stupid admirals are being weeded out, and that some of the more intelligent ones are about to give Manticore a better battle at some point.

Waiting to see what happens when the PRH and Manticoran alliance really gets going.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Heart of Venom by Jennifer Estep

I think that Estep is focusing on her new young adult series. Heart of Venom is possibly the weakest book in the Elemental Assassin series. An old enemy of Jo Jo and Sophia has returned and kidnapped Sophia, nearly killing Jo Jo in the process, while Gin stands nearly helplessly by. Gin vows to get Sophia back. A recurring flaw in the world-building rears its head again here when they need to find someone to heal Jo Jo, and must turn to her boyfriend, an untrained (at least in the healing application) air elemental. Jo Jo is the only Air elemental healer in all of Ashland? Really?

Gin regresses to her earlier lone wolf exploits and goes off half-cocked to attack the bad guy, Harold Grimes, in his mountain lair. The attempt is only partially successful, and she is captured and tortured until she finally figures out a sneaky way to escape, nearly dying again in the process. The whole book seems to be more about her reunion with Owen and the resulting sex scene than much of anything else useful, except...Mab's heir appears on the scene at the end, setting the scene for the next book.

If you're following the series, you've got to read it to keep up, but there's not a lot of substance here.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Ruling Class by Angelo M. Codevilla

 This was a rambling, seemingly disjointed piece about how there is a "Ruling Class" of people who have taken over the governing of this country, who are somewhat disconnected from the concerns of ordinary Americans. Their groupthink crosses party lines, affecting Republicans and Democrats alike, and the bottom line is that they feel they know better how this country should be run than the folks in flyover country, the Country Class. It really seems like an opinion piece or blog post that someone told Codevilla should be expanded upon and made into a book.

I kept reading on through it, waiting for the prescription at the end, and found that the solution proposed is that the ordinary folks in the Country Class should participate more in the governing process, and "take back" their government, starting with local school boards, city and county governments, and so forth. The problem with that is that the folks who are busy working for a living, raising their children, and just trying to get by seldom have either the time or the inclination to join the political process by standing for election, and unless they are willing to compromise their principles and be corrupted by the big money, they'll never rise very far in government, in my opinion.

If you just want a rehash of how badly things are going, now that we've elected a crop of fools to our national government, go ahead and read this.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stray Souls by Kate Griffin

 Though I haven't read any of his stuff in ages, I really enjoyed Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories, and that's probably what this novel by Griffin reminds me of the most strongly. A very quirky, and British, sense of humor gets this novel off to an amusing start, when Sharon Li, a novice shaman decides to form a Facebook group called Magicals Anonymous, and holds their first meeting in a community center in London.

Some of the attendees include an OCD vampire with germophobia, a necromancer with a skin condition and a druid with allergies, who couldn't handle the herbs and potions - failed his exams. Grendel the troll loves ethnic cuisine and a banshee named Sally wants to broaden her horizons taking community college courses in modern art. We also have were-pigeons. Sharon's mentor is Sammy the Elbow, a profanity spewing goblin.

It's difficult to sustain humor throughout an entire novel, but Griffin gives it a good try. Along the way, however, she builds an interesting new mythos surrounding and infusing the city of London, where the spirits of the past are often more real than the commuter at your elbow. This isn't your ordinary action-packed urban fantasy novel with a hack and slash tomboy heroine. When Sharon and her friends are called on to dispatch the villains of the story, their approaches are, to say the least, innovative.

Friday, September 27, 2013

I'm not dead yet (HT Monty Python)

This has been a tough year on my reading habits. I've been lucky to finish a book or two a week, on average. The most likely reason for it has been the amount of travel we've done. I simply don't read as much when I'm on the road. Hope to read and post more as winter approaches.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire

Toby is doing well in her relationship with the King of Cats, Tybalt, so it's inevitable that something major should go wrong. Too many changelings are becoming addicted to goblin fruit, which is fatal over the long haul, but which provides an incredible high in the meantime, and is immediately addictive on the first dose. It has become widely available on the streets of San Francisco and its Fae desmesnes. It is a harmless intoxicant to the Fae, but the half bloods and full humans are strongly affected by it. The worst thing is, it turns out that the Queen is the one who is providing it, and isn't dismayed at all at the changeling deaths - it's a feature, not a bug.

Toby makes the mistake of confronting her, and ends up banished from the kingdom. In her inimitable and rather unique style, she sets about finding the true heirs of King Gilad, and encouraging them to claim their rightful throne, which coincidentally should end her banishment.

Along the way we get to meet a Dog Sidhe (if there are cats, there must be dogs, right?), struggle along with Toby when the Queen's agents forcibly addict her to goblin fruit, which has some wild side effect for someone who can change their own blood to become more human, thus enjoying the intoxication more deeply. Going along with the usual theme these days in urban fantasy with female heroes, we get to learn who all Toby's allies really are, and how she can count on them to have her back.

This book appears to mark a transition in the series. It will be fun to see what's next.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Agenda 21 by Glen Beck

They just don't write dystopian fiction like they used to. Agenda 21 is the tale of Emmeline, who dwells in a compound run by the Authorities along with dozens? hundreds? thousands? (we never really know) of other folks who have been removed from their land and lives by the results of the UN's Agenda 21, a radical green program which forces most of them to walk on a treadmill most of the day producing enough energy to "pay back" the government for the cost of feeding and housing them. Others are assigned as transport workers, manually towing the carts that move people and goods from place to place, caregivers, who watch over the children in the Authorities' crèche, or gatekeepers, who keep track of all the people in each compound, and report all their movements to the Authorities.

Emmeline appears to be the only child who was actually raised by her parents, the rest have been educated by the state, and know an entirely different version of history than she has been taught. There are hints that there may be other "home schooled" around somewhere, as she is mocked a couple of times for being "one of them". The Authorities even control who will mate with one another, pairing fertile couples to keep the population steady.

I think Beck and his co-writer are trying to go for a Katniss Everdeen type of heroine here, but I'm not sure they got there. Emmeline's mother, we find out after she is taken away for some imagined offense and "recycled", left Emmeline some illegal and subversive materials concealed in her sleeping mat; a map of the United States, a knife, a bible, and some matches, as well as some relatively innocuous photographs of happier times. Emmeline finally goes rogue when her baby daughter, Elsa, is going to be taken away to be raised by the government elsewhere. This happens near the end of the book, and I think the authors are planning on some sequel action.

Don't bother.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Possession by Kat Richardson

I really like how Richardson infuses her Harper Blaine stories with local lore, mixed well with more geographically diverse legends. In this installment, the mystery hinges upon the spirit of an early serial killer in Seattle, adds a local native American figure, plus the catalyst of an old goddess, imported from Europe.

Harper's case begins with her trying to figure out why an improbable number of people, statistically speaking, have passed into vegetative states which are interrupted by the symptoms of old-time spiritualists' ghost manifestations, such as directed painting and writing, and ghostly writing in blood scratched on skin.

Her boyfriend Quinton's father shows up in this story when he's capturing supernaturals and suborning and studying them, and this brings in Harper's old allies, Cameron and Carlos, when the elder Purvis captures one of their dhampires.

As seems to be a common theme in urban fantasy this year, Harper finds out in this novel just how connected she is to her friends and family, and realizes that she has more allies and support than she ever thought possible.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Quality and Service

Going totally off topic now, I'm going to say some good things about a well-established company, Chicago Cutlery. In 1983, when my beautiful wife and I got married, someone gave us a set of Chicago Cutlery knives, with a knife block and steel included. I spent a dozen years in the restaurant business, and had plenty of good knives, such as Henckels and Forschner, that I worked with professionally, so I'd always thought when the Chicago Cutlery set wore out, I'd buy myself a set of professional grade tools.

Fast forward (or slow) thirty years. The Chicago Cutlery is still in fantastic shape, though it has been used hard, not just set out on the counter to admire. The only problem I've had is that a small crack appeared in the wooden handle of the 8" Chef knife about ten years after I got it, but the crack never really got any worse, mostly a cosmetic thing. But, what the heck, they're a working set of knives, and like me they're starting to show their age a bit, right?

So, a couple of months ago, I decided that the knives I had in my camp trailer up in the mountains were crap, and thought, "I'll just put the Chicago Cutlery stuff in the trailer, and buy myself some Henckels". The better half and I went out shopping one weekend, looking at various flavors of Henckels, and I just couldn't bring myself to spend the money on them, even with my 20% discount coupons at a noted housewares retailer. So, I took a look online at what Chicago Cutlery cost to replace my set, and it was about 1/3 of what the "pro" knives cost.

Sure, they perhaps don't have quite the "heft" and balance of the high end knives, and perhaps you have to work a little more often with the steel to keep a razor edge on them, but was it really worth the difference. While I was on CC's web site, I saw a comments/feedback area, and so I told my little story about how long I'd had the knife set and how pleased I was how it had held up thirty years (not many things do these days) aside from the minor crack in the handle of the chef's knife. Then, I decided to just order a small three knife set, with a chef, utility and paring knife, which was all I really need when we're camping (well, maybe a bread slicer).

The new set arrived quickly, and I took the old knives up to the mountains, put the new knives in the block at home, and have been generally pleased with the replacement knives, which seem a little lighter in construction than the old ones. I haven't decided yet if that's better or not, but the minor weight change hasn't thrown me off my stride.

Last week, out of the blue, and with no communication from Chicago Cutlery, I received in the mail a brand new 8" Chef knife. I'm assuming they read my comment and decided to apply their lifetime warranty. Wow! Great people, great knives, great customer service.

Now, I just have to retrieve the old knife from the mountains and put it in the box with the return merchandise authorization...might take me thirty years...