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.