Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

 If you read enough, I suppose, odd coincidences take place. For some reason, all three books I checked out from the library this week turned out to be written by British authors. So we'll just dub this the British Invasion Trifecta, and wrap it up with Charlie Stross' latest Laundry File adventure.

Bob and Mo are in a bit of a rough patch in their marriage, and their dinner together simply turns into an argument instead of a path to making up, so Bob heads in to the office for a while to take his mind off of things. He gets a bit more than marriage troubles when one of his colleagues summons a major dweller from another dimension and nearly destroys the New Annex of The Laundry, and when his side project investigating the probability that vampires actually exist bears more fruit than it should have.

This one has a number of good twists and turns, and the usual Stross humor, with Bob getting a "promotion" at the end of the messy affair, but the ending made me very upset. I'm not sure how I feel about going on with this series at this point.

A couple of amusing lines:

"(Zombies)...don't do unease:they're placid as long as they've got some flesh to embody them and the occasional hunk of brains to munch on (Any old slaughterhouse brains will do: they eat them for the fatty acids. At a pinch, you can substitute a McDonald's milkshake.)"

"We use committees for all the ulterior purposes for which they might have been designed: diffusion of executive responsibility, plausible deniability, misdirection, providing the appearance of activity without the substance, and protecting the guilty."

2014 Recap

The grand total of books read and reviewed for 2014 - 142. That's a bit off of my normal total, but it's been a busy year, filled with travel and other things. Maybe 2015 will be a record-breaker.

Awards

#1 Urban Fantasy Novel - Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop
#1 Science Fiction by a new author - Andy Weir's The Martian
#2 Science Fiction by a new author - A Darkling Sea by James Cambias
#1 Fantasy Novel - Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
#1 Non-Fiction - The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray
#1 Thought Provoker - Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance
#1 Travel Book - Rick Steves' Postcards from Europe

Monday, December 29, 2014

How to Make Friends with Demons by Graham Joyce

 I wasn't quite sure what to make of this book. It was billed as Fantasy, but it just barely qualifies, even as Urban Fantasy - more urban than fantasy. Nevertheless, it was a very well-written and entertaining, in a very British and sarcastic manner, at least for a while, after which it became a little dark for my taste, though still eminently readable.

William Heaney works for the government. Not as some sort of secret agent or occult investigator, but merely a middle management functionary who attends endless meetings and serves on multiple committees. He does, however, have a heart for the downtrodden, and manifests his support by donating heavily to a shelter in London called GoPoint, run by a saintly woman named Antonia. Oddly, the source of his large gifts is a mildly illicit scam that he and his friends, Stynx and Jaz, together run on book collectors, selling them counterfeit antique books.

William has been dealing in antique books since his college days, which is when he became inadvertently involved in the results of a ritual that left him able to perceive the "demons" who flock around humans, though few others around him can see them.

"I had no intention of visiting it (GoPoint's library). Firstly, GoPoint was infested with demons for obvious reasons...It was while they were out of the building seeking purpose that the demons became most active in their prowling, relentless search for a new host. Secondly, demons do tend to cluster around the yellowing pages and cracked spines of second-hand books. I've no idea why."

A neat turn of phrase here and there, such as,

"I think that was when I first learned the glorious cost-free feeling of righteousness that comes with defending other people's reputations."

"What was all this gibberish about fun? Fun wasn't really something I went in for. Fun and I had parted company on the high road of life at about the time my hair started to thin and my knee joints lost all compression, quick handshake, no fuss, farewell."

and,

"My heart sank. Well, not quite sank, but took on water, gurgled, listed to one side, tried to recover steam."

William likes to drink his red wine. He's a bit of a connoisseur. I like how Joyce describes his tipple as,

"a beaker of the rubicund relief and rescue" and "red-robed oblivion".

So, the book seems to meander about, sightseeing through London on its way to a semi-sweet conclusion, as Heaney fights with his ex-wife, deals with his non-resident children, tries to keep the latest scam from falling apart, gets involved in a "terrorist" bombing, and fights against "the fraudulent demon of falling in love" when he meets Yasmin, who may have the ability to pull him out of his bureaucratic rut, in the end.

What it is not, is fantasy, even though Charles deLint says it's so. A good enough story, but not quite my (English Breakfast) cup of tea.



Friday, December 26, 2014

Autism Spectrum Disorders by Ana Maria Rodriguez

 Written for USA Today's readership, this book scans at  perhaps a middle school reading level, but that works out well, as I was really only interested in getting a basic picture of the subject of ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorders, diagnoses of which seem to have grown in leaps and bounds over the last few decades. The book explains that this phenomenon isn't a symptom of greater incidence of the affliction, but rather of an expanded definition and acceptance of a wider suite of symptoms by psychological authorities.

"In fact, the majority of the scientific community agrees that no autism epidemic exists. Expert Dr. Eric Fombonne at McGill University in Canada has worked in several autism prevalence studies. Frombone says that one of the main factors behind the rise in the number of case is that the medical definition of ASD has expanded over the years."

At the most severe end of the spectrum is classical autism, while various shades of Asperger's Syndrome are at the less disabling end.

"People with an autism disorder in any degree of its severity have developed a mind that works differently than most people's minds. In consequence, they do not see the world, learn from the world, and think and act in the world in the same way most people do."

To be diagnosed with ASD,

"an individual must show some mild to severe impairment in all three of the following areas: 1) Communication, 2) socialization, and 3) repetitive behaviors and restricted interests."

Sounds a great deal like the guest list of a typical party in my best friend's basement in the 70s.

There are some peripheral symptoms which also may occur:

"...25 percent of people with ASD also have developmental delays. Epilepsy...is present in nearly one-third of individuals with ASD. Other conditions associated with ASD include digestive problems, immune problems, and a reduced ability of the liver to eliminate toxins."

Autism was first identified as a psychological disease in the 1940s by Leo Kanner, who worked with children at Johns Hopkins. In 1944, Hans Asperger published a report about what became known as Asperger's syndrome, but it wasn't widely available in the U.S. until it was translated from German in 1981 (coincidentally the start of the "epidemic"). The main difference between Kanner's autistic children and Asperger's children was that Kanner's children "either lacked speech or had an unusual way of using it, such as reversing pronouns or echolalia (repeating back what others have said to them without understanding the meaning)."

Autism affects more boys than girls.

A very rare condition called Savant Syndrome is sometimes associated with autism, as depicted by Dustin Hoffman's character Raymond in Rain Man.

Lots of good information here for people who suspect their children might be affected by ASD on getting diagnoses and treatment. My interest was more one of casual curiosity.

ASD appears to be genetically caused, and linked to differences in the development of the brain in children, especially in the amygdala, which in children with ASD grow faster but have significantly fewer neurons than in normal children. Other areas in the cerebellum may also be affected.

"When people without ASD perform this task (shape recognition) a particular group of neurons on the cortex fires an electrical signal at the same time. Researchers record this brain electrical activity as a gamma band (a pattern of brain waves) in an EEG.

As people practice a task, they get better at it. And when they get better at it, the brain activity changes. The gamma band in their EEG becomes smaller. This shows that fewer specialized neurons have become involved in distinguishing between shapes. The brain becomes more efficient at finishing the task.

In people with ASD...the gamma bands do not get small as the tasks are practiced. Instead, the bands stay the same."

An interesting new term I just picked up here - theory of mind.

"The awareness that other people have beliefs and desires different from our own has been called theory of mind...refers to a cognitive process that allows people to understand someone else's perspective, or point of view."

Many teens with autism lack the theory of mind.

Researchers have proven that autism is primarily genetic, with some environmental factors that contribute. The idea that vaccinations cause autism has been pretty thoroughly debunked, shrill celebrity advocates of the theory notwithstanding.

A good book to read for a layman's perspective on ASD. Quick and easy to follow.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Around the Web

A book review over at The Boogie Man is My Friend.

Cursed by Benedict Jacka


Once again, I'm torn trying to decide if this is a Harry Dresden ripoff, a tribute, or something new and different. Jacka writes well, and is entertaining, however, so I suppose it's best to avoid invidious comparisons and just get on with reading his Alex Verus series.

Perhaps the best plot synopsis can be found in the text of the novel, itself.

"I needed to figure out who was trying to have me killed, and why. I needed to find out more about Belthas (one of the White Council Mages who hires Verus to locate some dark magicians performing a forbidden ritual) and Meredith (a lovely on the outside lass who manages to cloud Verus' mind with her charms) and what their goals were. And I needed to do something about Luna and Martin and the monkey's paw."

That last bit can be traced to the story Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs with which any student of weird fiction should be familiar. The monkey's paw of the tale grants its holder three wishes, which always seem to end badly for the wishee. Luna's boyfriend wannabe, Martin, absconds with a monkey's paw from Alex's shop and uses it to gain some important magic powers, believing that the ordinary rules can't apply to him, since obviously no one as smart as him has ever held the artifact. Hmmm...something familiar there...(whispers) political?

In the end, of course, it does end badly for Martin, even though the paw doesn't really have to twist his wishes, he gets exactly what's coming to him.

There's a great little comic series of pastiches on customers in Alex's magic shop, followed by his speech when he meets Martin.

"I don't sell spells, and I don't sell tricks. I don't carry illusions or marked cards or weighted coins. I cannot sell you an endless purse or help you win the lottery. I can't make that girl you've got your eye on fall in love with you, and I wouldn't do it even if I could. I don't have a psychic hotline to your dead relatives. I don't know if you're going to be successful in your career, and I don't know when you're going to get married. I can't get you into Hogwarts or any other kind of magic school, and if you even mention those sparkly vampires I will do something unpleasant to you."

One of the fun themes in this book is that the "good guys" don't always turn out to be good, and that Alex once again has to ally with the "bad guys" to thwart the latest power-mad mage's schemes.

Putting the next book in the series on my hold list.


Monday, December 22, 2014

The Ultimate Guide to Buying and Selling a Business by Ira Nottonson

 A very thorough treatment of the subject of buying and selling a business.

Sometimes, I even learn new terms.

 "Changing your profit and loss statement (P&L) from one used for tax purposes to one used for selling purposes is called reconstituting your P&L."

Note that this is not in any way a fraudulent procedure, but that there are certain legitimate deductions which are placed in a P&L for your tax returns which are not really "losses" from the point of view of the owner of a business, such as depreciation on real property and equipment, or the leasing of a business vehicle, among other things.

A good thing to remember about what the highest priority of a prospective business owner is and should be.

"Business-buying candidates are always looking for the largest income they an generate, which they usually equate with the largest investment they can handle."

On early negotiations, and the process of trying to put together a deal,

"Profit and loss statements, together with balance sheets and cash flow analyses, should not be necessary at this point (first meeting between buyer and seller). If you have a face-to-face conversation with the seller, you will resolve many questions."

This one I found interesting,

"Balloon payments were quite reasonable in real estate, because many people didn't live in the same house for more than five years. They normally sold their houses, which allowed them to pay the entire note before the balloon payment came due. In addition, the housing market is relatively stable and easily financed compared with the small business market."

Really? Ah...this was written in 2005 before the boom and crash of the U.S. real estate market.

Though very thorough, much of the information on franchising, business brokers, and the responsibilities of accounts and lawyers in the business acquisition process were sections I skimmed. The chapter on non compete and nondisclosure contracts was pretty interesting, however. I've signed some NDAs in my time, so it was good to get a professional's opinion on how these things are enforced, and stressed the importance of a good exit interview (of which I have never seen the point before) in setting expectations on that score for departing employees.

There's a good "wrap-up/review" section at the back of the book that reiterates some key concepts, such as the P&L statements, cash flow analyses on accrual and cash basis and other issues to consider when buying or selling a business.

Great resource for budding entrepreneurs.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs

Aren has finally shed her spinsterhood by marrying a much younger man, Daryn, When she sees a vision of disaster in the near future, but because mages are either enslaved by the powerful blood mages, or put to death - and definitely frowned upon by the normal villagers, she makes a bad decision not to warn him. When bandits come and kill him and the rest of her family as they work the fields later that day, she is able to hide in the cellar until they have finished ransacking the house. When the villagers arrive bearing the body of her husband, she decides to "out" herself to deliver a warning about what is coming.

At the same time as the bandit attack, there is also "a disturbance in The Force", where all sorts of magical bindings are dispelled, and huge earthquakes cause mountains to collapse, blocking most of the roads out of the village.

I've seen this plot beginning before, in one variation or another...bereft young woman leaves home and family, or loses home and family, to venture out into the wide world to discover her gifts, from Fawn in Bujold's Sharing Knife series to Paksennarion in Moon's chronicles.

The problem with this story is that it is painfully slow starting, with a mostly pointless scene where the Fallbrook village elders yammer and decide nothing and pages of Aren cowering in the basement dealing with her grief for a week. Eventually she sets of with Kith, a crippled ex-soldier, and Wandel, the harper on an expedition towards the mountain called The Hob, trying find out if there are any survivors from the next village over, Auberg, which was flooded after the earthquake blocked the river flowing through the valley.

Regular fantasy readers can probably figure out that, given the title of the book and the logic of magic realms, there is actually a hob on The Hob, and our intrepid heroine is likely to make a bargain with him. When Fallbrook is on the verge of being overrun by the bandits at last, Aren makes a solo trip to the mountain and brings back the hob who dwells there (the mountain is sentient, by the way) to help the villagers in their struggle. Of course, bargaining with a hob may be a bit like dealing with the devil, so...

The pace continues to be slow, as the villagers and the bandits have minor skirmishes, and the hob, CaerFaun, teaches Aren steadily how to use her magical abilities, which not only are good for visions, but allow her to communicate with the recently released spirits and other magic creatures, and control some of them to an extent. In the long haul, the Hob's Bargain turns out to be a win-win-win situation, for the hob, the villagers, and for Aren herself.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire

 After attending a Winter Ball at the court of Queen Arden, Toby is looking forward to a good morning's sleep, but she is shockingly awakened by the arrival of an unwanted guest - Duke Sylvester's brother, Simon Torquill, the villain who transformed her into a fish back at the beginning of this whole saga. Besides his unwelcome presence, he brings unwelcome news, which will shock Toby out of her slumbers and set her on a path towards...vengeance?

There's just no good way to talk about this story without spoilers, so be warned.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Modern Survival manual by Fernando Aguirre

So, I can't tell for sure how much this guy is for real, and how much is B.S. To me, he scans a little bit like those Special Forces wannabees who brag about how dangerous their lives are at parties, but turn out to be accountants IRL. The book also suffers from a lack of good editing, there's a lot of repetition of previous points which are not intentional and for emphasis, and some of the "prep" lists he makes seem severely impractical.

That said, there are a few points Aguirre makes that I thought ran counter to conventional wisdom which were good. For example, he debunks the whole idea of the countryside being more safe when the SHTF than being in a more populated area. It turns out that in an actual economic collapse, groups of bandits prefer isolated targets with no nearby neighbors, where they can rob, torture, rape and murder without worrying about anyone coming around to investigate or help the victims.

He debunks the idea, as well, that a barter economy will take over, and those who hoarded ammo and canned goods will get rich quick, using real world experiences from the Argentinian crisis to illustrate his points. One thing that happened in Argentina was that laws were rapidly passed banning the sale of ammunition by private parties - all sales had to be done by licensed firearms dealers. That could easily happen here, despite all 2A concerns, if the government doesn't let the crisis go to waste. Many weapons were confiscated during Katrina, and it could certainly happen on a larger scale in a national emergency.

He does support keeping a certain amount of precious metals on hand to use as "currency", but stresses highly being careful not to let anyone know you have a stash, and only to change small amounts as necessary. It's probably better to have some scrap 18K gold jewelry to sell in a crisis, as then you can pretend it was Grandma's heirloom ring that you're reluctantly parting with, and not part of a greater cache. It sounds as if silver never became widely used as a holder of value in the Argentinian situation, so you might bear that in mind if you're planning for massive inflation in the U.S. at some point eroding the value of your paper money. Also, paper money will not simply become "toilet paper"; it will still be used, but will not buy what it used to buy as cheaply.

He also promotes the "gray man" concept. In a social situation where people are desperate, and many have turned to crime, it is best to not a) fit any victim profile, such as by being too well-dressed or appearing rich and b)to simply go quietly unnoticed by criminals, or considered a "hard" target. There's some good stuff here on situational awareness, too.

He seems to me to spend far too much time talking about various methods of "active" self defense. Street-fighting tactics and the ability to make anything into a weapon are all very well and good in their place, but as a middle aged man, I'm not likely to take up Thai boxing and become proficient any time soon, or become an MMA champ, so aside from making note of the dozens of ways to kill a man in a knife fight, I pretty much skimmed this whole section.

I really picked up this book on a recommendation from someone whose opinion I respected, hoping to learn more about the financial crisis in Argentina (which sparked Aguirre's interest and need to learn more survival skills) and how to handle potential events like runaway inflation or the devaluation of the dollar. The "financials" section was quite small, and appeared near the end of the book.

It did contain a good section on haggling, which most Americans could stand to read, if they ever intend to buy souvenirs in the second or third world, never mind applying it if the SHTF in our country.

You definitely will have to dig for the "nuggets" here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Around the Web

Andrew Klavan has a book review on PJ Media.

The Witch with No Name by Kim Harrison

 I struggled with this novel a bit. Perhaps it's because the series is ending, but for some reason I came to the point with The Hollows where the thrill was gone, and I didn't care all that much about what happens to Rachel, Ivy, Trent and Jenks. Sorry. So, I picked it up and put it down multiple times while trying to finish reading it, getting through several other books in the meantime.

Cormel's vampire minions finally bring things to a head when they try to kill Ivy. When Rachel confronts him, he agrees that if she will bring the vampires their lost souls, he will free Ivy and relinquish the debt Rachel owes him from some previous misadventure (Harrison doesn't refresh our memories here). Fortuitously, Rachel figures out where the lost souls have gone all this time, just about the time things hit the fan, so she is able to cobble together the right spells and rituals to do the job, with the help of the evil elf leader, Landon.

She captures Felix' soul and returns it to his body, which of course creates a whole new set of problems when Cormel withdraws his protection and a rival vampire faction which opposes the soul-returning faction attacks her home/church, forcing Rachel and Trent to play dead for a while. From that point forward, it's chapter after chapter of leaping from frying pan to fire as Trent and Rachel deal with the return of the demons to mundane reality, Ellasbeth's ongoing manipulations to wrest control of Ray and Lucy from Trent, Cormel's insistence on giving all the vampires their souls, Rachel trying but failing to stay under the radar vis a vis the Godess' mystics, and Ivy and Nina's tumultuous relationship. About the only faction that hasn't gone crazy seems to be the weres.

Everything seems to get wrapped up nicely in the end, and I wonder what Harrison will be up to next, now that the Hollows has reached completion.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

 I like that old time rock n roll, that old time religion, and that old time science fiction. The Martian brings brings back that feeling I used to get when I read "hard" SF by Clarke or Asimov when the world was yet young. Goodreads bills it as a cross between Castaway and Apollo 13, and they're not too far off. My cousin first recommended this to me six months or so ago, and I put it on the virtual TBR pile, then when a colleague of mine also mentioned it, I pulled it to the top of the pile and picked up a copy from the library. It was a welcome break from some of the drivel I've seen lately. Don't get me started.

I've often mentioned that you have about ten pages to get me hooked, and to care about the characters in your story, and I think I was hooked from the first sentence, "I'm pretty much f**ked." I mean, what do you do with a line like that?

When the crew of the Ares 3 manned mission to Mars encounters a ferocious sandstorm which threatens to destroy their habitat, SOP is to abandon the mission and head back to Earth in the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle). When one member of the crew, Mark Watney, is impaled by an antenna blown off the habitat and apparently dead, rather than waste time hunting down his body in the sandstorm, Commander Lewis gives the order to lift off. But Mark, as the saying goes, is only "mostly dead."

He recovers to find himself alone and abandoned on Mars, with limited resources but a Robinson Crusoe-like ability to scrounge and repair and make things work with duct tape and canvas. His mishaps, maladies and misadventures are one of the most interesting tales around.

Weir, in his novel debut, does a great job of getting us into Watney's head, but also creates a small host of believable characters who step on stage as needed in later portions of the tale. The crew members, the NASA techs and bureaucrats, and even a few Chinese engineers all come with just the right amount of flesh, blood and background info, and not an ounce to waste.

I stayed up too late the first night, getting halfway through, and too late again the 2nd night, to find out how it all turned out and whether Mark made it home after all.

Hope we see some more from Mr. Weir.

A couple of quotes I loved.

"'Why does Elrond mean secret meeting?' Annie asked.
'Are we going to make a momentous decision?' Bruce Ng asked.
'Exactly,' Venkat said.
'How did you know that?' Annie asked, getting annoyed.
'Elrond,' Bruce said. 'The Council of Elrond, from Lord of the Rings. It's the meeting where they decide to destroy the One Ring.'
'Jesus,' Annie said, 'None of you got laid in high school, did you?'"

"Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped."

You'll have to discover your own favorites. Enjoy.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Postcards from Europe by Rick Steves

This doesn't happen often...a trifecta of non fiction, with no SF or Fantasy read and reviewed in the meantime. Maybe next week I'll go all fiction, ok?

I've been a big fan of Rick Steves' travel shows for a long time, and at least one of his guides was extremely useful when we traveled to Portugal a few years ago. This book has been out for about fifteen years, and contains some of his reminiscences and insights on European travel. I've obviously watched too many of his shows, because when I was reading this I could hear him narrating it, in his own inimitable style the entire time.

Steves begins in Holland, and works his way south through Europe to Germany and on to Italy and France, then Switzerland in this tale.

An interesting quote about business in Germany follows.

"Looking exhausted and burnt out, he (hotel owner Kurt) says, 'It's the new cook. He's always sick. A cook costs me four thousand deutsch marks [$2500] a month. He gets one month paid vacation and up to six weeks paid sick time. Doctors say the best way for a German employee to stop being sick is to start his own business.'"

and a new German proverb for you,

"German men say a man without a belly isn't a man. A German saying is, 'Better to have a big belly from drinking than a broken back from working.'"

Venice is definitely one of Steve's favorite places to visit, closely followed by Florence.

On comparative gastronomy:

"Ilaria says, 'For me the French cheese is the Italian cheese with mold. If we have cheese that nobody buys, it gets moldy. After some days, it becomes the perfect French cheese.'
Raising my glass of wine I offer a toast to Italian food. 'To la cucina Italiana.'
Manfredo follows that, saying magnanimously, 'To bacon and eggs.' We all agree that American breakfasts are unbeatable.
'Omelets, hashbrowns,' Roberto reminisces. 'On my last visit to New York, I gain four kilos in three weeks.'
Raising our glasses, we make another toast. 'To American breakfasts.'"

This is not a travel guide, but more of a series of vignettes which tells us a great deal about Rick Steves and his attitudes about travel.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Everything Store by Brad Stone

 I have been playing around on Goodreads, adding as many of the books as I can recall having read to my shelves, aided by the list of books that are actually present in my personal library. Fairly often, I've run across authors whose works I absolutely loved, and was following closely, and realize that I missed the last few (or more) books in a series.

For those of you who are too young to comprehend how something like this could happen, who were born too late to recall how things were, B.A. (Before Amazon), let me tell you how things were, back in the olden days. Unless you lived in a major metropolitan area, most cities had perhaps two or three family-owned small bookstores, that had to be careful how much inventory they brought in, because if it didn't sell, it mostly counted as a loss (I'm not going to get into strip-covers here). If you were lucky, and the book store owner either liked the same authors that you did, or you were tied into fandom well enough to be fully aware of what books your favorite authors were coming out with next, you might get new books via special order, otherwise you ended up pretty much at the mercy of random chance in finding works by authors you liked, unless they were bestsellers - not a common occurrence in Science Fiction and Fantasy in those days.

I recall how, when I moved away from my home town and discovered the amazing phenomenon of used bookstores out in the wide wide world, I went plum crazy, buying tons of books that I never saw back home in the local stores. My book collection grew exponentially during those early years, but it was still pretty random whether I could find a particular author's latest works by anything other than pure serendipity. Amazon changed all of that...forever.

Biographies come a number of flavors. There's the hit piece, where the author tries to dish on all the dirt about the celebrity - think Kitty Kelly, and there's the puff piece, where the author shows us how wonderful their subject is. There are also the dry, historical and scholarly works, like a recent biography of Heinlein I recall, and there are also some that are meant to be amusing and entertaining. I think Stone strikes a good balance here between assassination and puffery, as well as showing that while he admires Jeff Bezos' accomplishments, he still sees a flawed and often controversial human being.

So, at this point, we're all aware of just how massively the 800 lb gorilla called Amazon has influenced the publishing and internet marketing businesses. Bezos' success is not a surprise, though it wasn't always that straightforward, and required some out-of-the box thinking.

"One early challenge (1995) was that the book distributors required retailers to order ten books at a time. Amazon didn't yet have that kind of sales volume, and Bezos later enjoyed telling the story of how he got around it. "We found a loophole," he said. "Their systems were programmed in such a way that you didn't have to recieve ten books, you only had to order ten books. So we found an obscure book about lichens that they had in their system but was out of stock. We began ordering the one book we wanted and nine copies of the lichen book. They would ship out the book we needed and a note that said, 'Sorry, but we're out of the lichen book.'""

I learned a couple of new terms early on,

"He (Bezos) later famously admitted to thinking about how to increase his "women flow," a Wall Street corollary to deal flow, the number of new opportunities a banker can access."


In a 1997 speech to HBS students, Bezos said,

"I think you might be underestimating the degree to which established brick-and-mortar business, or any company that might be used to doing things a certain way, will find it hard to be nimble or to focus attention on a new channel."

Especially with the rapid pace of change we are seeing today, you've got to be flexible to adapt and survive, much less to anticipate the trends and to remain profitable.

Regarding work/life balance for Amazon employees,

"The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority. That is the DNA of Amazon. If you can't excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you."

One of the most difficult times for Amazon was right after the dot-com boom. One thing that many people forget is that the dot-com boom was also accompanied in all of the high tech industries by the "tech boom". Computer and network hardware manufacturers couldn't keep up with the demand, nor could any of their suppliers, so huge amounts of manufacturing capacity were brought online, and cutthroat hiring practices abounded, until things fell apart in 2001.

"There were several immediate reasons for the stock market's reversal. The excesses of the dot-com boom had begun to wear on investors. Companies without actual business models were raising hundreds of millions of dollars, rushing to go public, and seeing their stock prices roar into the stratosphere despite unsound financial footing...nudged along by other events over the course of the next two years, like the collapse of Enron and the 9/11 terrorist attacks."

Bezos gained a reputation as a ruthless competitor, and demanding customer.

In negotiations with UPS, Amazon's people threatened to go to Fedex if their demands weren't met, and UPS officials tried to call their bluff.

"In twelve hours, they went from millions of pieces a day to a couple a day. The standoff lasted seventy two hours and went unnoticed by customers and other outsiders...UPS execs caved and gave Amazon discounted rates."

I've noticed recently how, even when you don't select the "rush" type of shipping from Amazon, items still arrive far more quickly than estimated.

In 2003  "click-to-ship time for most items in the company's FCs was as minimal as four hours. The standard from the rest of the e-commerce industry at the time was twelve hours."

Why doesn't Amazon get called out like Wal Mart does over worker issues? In their distribution centers temporary workers only make $10 to $12 per hour, with high pressure to deliver and a point system which penalizes workers for minor infractions.

"The number one thing standing in the way of Amazon unionization is fear. Employees are afraid they'll fire you - even though it's technically not legal. You're the one who has to fight to get your job back if they do."

There are several great chapters on the rise of eBooks towards the end of Stone's book, which explain a number of things I've found puzzling about the industry. I remember the early faltering times, and I've been pleasantly surprised to see where things have gone so far, though costs are still, in my opinion, too high.

A good read. Even if you hate Amazon, I wouldn't bet against Bezos and his team.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Around the Web

Another couple book blurbs at The Boogie Man is My Friend.

A troublesome inheritance : genes, race and human history by Nicholas Wade.

 In some ways, this is a troublesome book to read and review. My evangelical friends may strongly oppose some of the ideas conveyed within it, while my more progressive friends may oppose those same ideas, for diametrically opposed reasons. Evolution and the influence of genetics upon human lives are often found to be inflammatory topics, though I have found them both fascinating and enlightening, and find in those subjects, as well as astrophysics and cosmology, more evidence of a glorious and ingenious Author and Creator, and less of blind probabilities.

I agree with Wade to a certain extent when he says,

"...despite the personal failing of some scientist, science as a knowledge-generating system does tend to correct itself, though often only after considerable delay. It is during these delay periods that great harm can be caused by those who use uncorrected scientific findings to propagate injurious policies. Scientists' attempts to classify human races and to understand the proper scope of eugenics were both hijacked before the two fields could be fully corrected."

although my concern for the politicization of scientific theories may take a slightly different tack.

Interesting to note that many of the ideas that Hitler used to justify his extermination of "lesser" races and "defective" human beings had some quite respectable proponents around the world in the preceding decades.

"The fact that antecedents for the ideas that led to the Holocaust can be found in the American and English eugenics movements of the 1920s and 1930s does not mean that others share responsibility for the crimes of the national Socialist regime. It does mean that ideas about race are dangerous when linked to political agendas. It puts responsibility on scientists to test rigorously the scientific ideas that are placed before the public."

At the root of scientific humanism and current evolutionary theory, of course, is the idea that Man is simply a more highly evolved ape, and not a special divine project, so the study of human evolution needs to start in the "cradle of life."

"A fierce drought gripped Africa from 6.5 to 5 million years ago, and the forests shrank, giving way to open woodland or savannah. This was perhaps the event that forced the (chimplike) population into two groups, one of which led to chimps and the other to humans."

I found the following bit an interesting supposition:

"Follow an institution all the way down, and beneath thick layers of culture, it is built on instinctual human behaviors. The rule of law would not exist if people didn't have innate tendencies to follow norms and punish violators. Soldiers could not be made to follow orders were not army discipline able to invoke innate behaviors of conformity, obedience and willingness to kill for one's own group."

Perhaps...though Calvinist doctrine supposes that people are innately law-breakers, rather than followers, although there is a deep need for belonging to a group within us. Also, creating obedient and effective soldiers is a far more complex task than what Wade imagines, especially for elite forces, who must have their learned behaviors completely broken down and stripped away before they can be molded (some might say brainwashed) into warriors willing to sacrifice their lives for their brothers and for a cause.

"A hunter-gatherer society consists of small, egalitarian bands without leaders or headmen. This was the standard human social structure until 15,000 years ago."

How do we know that? Is there archaeological evidence that proves that all hunter gatherers were leaderless? It's been my experience that in any group of people, leaders and dominance arises. If evolutionary theory is to be believed, the chimps from whom we descend have hierarchies, why would hunter-gatherers suddenly be egalitarian? I just don't buy that hypothesis.

"(after the invention of agriculture) ...people skilled in farming and in operating in larger communities prospered and left more children; those whose only skill was in hunting did less well and placed fewer of their children and genes in the next generation."

Ok, that makes a certain amount of sense. My son-in-law, however, has a theory about Black Friday shopping satisfying a deep seated urge in a nation of farmers and merchants to "hunt" in packs.

Where Wade becomes controversial, I suppose, is when he shows evidence of evolution not being quite the slow, eons long process which we all expect, but first, much more recent, and second, much more rapid, than accepted theory.

"The process of organizing people in larger and larger social structures, with accompanying changes in social behavior, has most probably been molded by evolution, though the underlying genetic changes have yet to be identified. This social evolution has proceeded roughly in parallel in the world's principal populations or races, those of Africans, East Asians and Caucasians."

"In the case of both ants and people, societies evolve over time as natural selection modifies the social behavior of their members. With ants, evolution has had time to generate thousands of different species, each with a society adapted to survival in its particular environment. With people, who have only recently dispersed from their ancestral homeland, evolution has so far generated only races within a single species, but with several major forms of society, each a response to different environments and historical circumstances."

The key idea being that,

"Races develop within species and easily merge back into it. All human races, so far as is known, have the same set of genes. But each gene comes in a set of different flavors or alternative forms, known to geneticists as alleles. One might suppose that races differ in having different alleles of various genes. But, though a handful of such racially defining alleles do exist, the basis of race rests largely on something even slighter, a difference in the relative commonness, or frequency, of alleles..."

I wondered, briefly, about the concept of "race" as it might apply to other types of animals than humans. How would you define a "race" of sparrows, or iguanas, or gazelles. Can we even go there?

"Once the human population had spread out across the globe, it was subject to a variety of strong evolutionary stresses in the form of a radical makeover of human social organization and population movements that swept over the original settlement pattern. These population shifts were caused by climate change, the spread of agriculture and warfare."

So, there's a note of Social Darwinism in all of this, based on the idea that the people who survive and thrive within a particular type of culture or society actually have a different set of dominant...allele distribution? And if they thrive, then they are more likely to reproduce, as are their progeny. While those who don't have the genetic makeup to thrive will fail to reproduce?

In that case, why do eugenicists always have to start by sterilizing or aborting those human groups whom they have determined to be society's failures?

It is, perhaps, revealing that Wade has no axe to grind (nor funding to obtain) as regards Global Warming, so he doesn't censor his historical data. Climate change has been going on for thousands, nay millions, of years, folks. The anthropogenic hypothesis is a recent aberration.

"When our distant ancestors lost their fur, probably because bare skin allowed better sweating and heat control, they developed dark skin to protect a vital chemical known as folic acid from being destroyed by the strong ultraviolet light around the equator. The first modern humans who migrated to the northern latitudes of Europe and Asia were exposed to much less ultraviolet light - too little, in fact, to synthesize enough vitamin D, for which ultraviolet light is required. Natural selection therefore favored the development of pale skin among people living in high northern latitudes."

In researching a gene which may be responsible for some of the differences between Caucasian and Asian populations characteristics, such as thicker hair and smaller breasts:

"The mice also had smaller breasts than usual"

Which summer intern got to say, "I spent the summer measuring mouse breasts."?

"...the two sets of chromosomes that a person has inherited, one from their mother and one from their father, are lined up side by side, and the cell then forces them to exchange large sections of DNA...
The swapped sections, or blocks, may be 500,000 DNA units in length, long enough to carry several genes. So a gene with a beneficial tendency will be inherited along with the whole block of DNA in which is is embedded...Generation by generation, the block of DNA with the favored version of a gene gets to be carried by more and more people. Eventually, the new allele may sweep through the entire population...the favored blocks of DNA eventually get whittled down ...because the cuts that generate them are not always made in the same places...After just 30,000 years or so, according to one calculation, the blocks get too short to be detectable. This means that most genome wide scans for selection are looking at events that occurred just a few thousand years ago, very recently in human history."

So, the concepts above were definitely new to me, and if the calculation mentioned in the paragraph are true, then it would mean that we are still evolving today in response to our environment, which should give some of us hope. Of course, if the primary end result of evolution is merely survival, it might be that the traits selected for might not be ones we'd wish to see, if we were in charge. Think about it.

"People have an intuitive morality, which is the source of instinctive knowledge that certain actions are right or wrong."

Very interesting. C.S. Lewis mentions this in Mere Christianity, as evidence of our Creator's plan.

Explained away by the evolutionist, of course,

"A major function of religion is to provide social cohesion, a matter of particular importance among early societies. If the more cohesive societies regularly prevailed over the less cohesive, as would be likely in any military dispute, an instinct for religious behavior would have been strongly favored by natural selection."

Religious behavior, perhaps...right and wrong so strongly correlated across all human cultures...maybe not so much.

My favorite quote of all really has nothing to do with Wade's theories,

"Turning up punctually for work and enduring eight hours or more of repetitive labor is far from being a natural human behavior."

"...the principal drivers of the civilizing process were the increasing monopoly of force by the state, which reduced the need for interpersonal violence, and the greater levels of interaction with others that were brought about by urbanization and commerce."

Dangerous visions here.

"many researchers...make accusations of racism against anyone who suggests that cognitive capacities might differ between human population groups. All these positions are shaped by leftist and Marxist political dogma, not by science."

It can so easily be observed by anyone paying attention, that it seems to me to be insane to deny the facts or call it racist.

"The Utah researchers note first that Askenazi IQ, besides being high, has an unusual structure. Of the components of IQ tests, Askenazim do well on verbal and mathematical questions but score lower than average on visuo-spatial questions. In most people, these two kinds of ability are highly correlated."

I must have some Askenazi Jew blood in me. I've always been good with readin', writin' and 'rithmetic, but I can't fold a piece of paper into a swan to save my life.

All in all, a very very interesting read, without being so deeply technical as to make it impenetrable.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Ballad of Irving

For those of you, like me, driving over the river and through the woods...I bring you the type of music you usually hear at 3 AM on AM radio on a dark desert highway.

He was short and fat, and rode out of the West
With a Mogen David on his silver vest.
He was mean and nasty right clear through,
Which was kinda weird, 'cause he was yellow too.

They called him Irving.
Big Irving.
Big, short Irving.
Big, short, fat Irving.
The hundred and forty-second fastest gun in the West.

Find the rest at DMDB.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Around the Web

From The Boogie Man is My Friend.

It's Turkeys all the Way Down

Once again I find myself lacking the time and motivation to write the reviews I should be writing - they're stacking up. Hopefully, I'll get some time this weekend to wind down and get them published for next week.


Enjoy Thanksgiving with your family and friends. I plan to.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins

For several decades, I owned a copy of Semi-Tough, and its follow-on novels, Dead Solid Perfect and Life Its Ownself. It was just one of those light hearted tales that stuck with me, and prompted me to read it over and over. Recently, while going through my library, though, I couldn't find it or any of Jenkins' books, so I must have loaned them out to someone who needed them worse than I - or they would have returned them, right?

So this...review...will be from memory.

By the way, there was a movie called Semi-Tough that starred Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and Jill Clayburgh, I think. It wasn't nearly as entertaining as the novel, though one scene really cracked me up - the one with the Motorman's Friend. Other than that, it was a snoozer for me.

Semi-Tough is the story of the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl from the point of view of Billy Clyde Puckett, quarterback from Fort Worth, Texas, starring his two best and oldest friends, Marvin "Shake" Tiller, wide receiver, and the only girl who ever really "got" them, Barbara Jean Bookman, whose daddy is in the "oil bidness".

This novel meanders along a crooked path, making fun of racial prejudice, the NFL, Texans, the oil bidness, and what passes for high society in Forth Worth. Bill Clyde's team has to play "the dog-ass Jets" for the championship, and there's no love lost between the squads. Having been written in 1972, it's well seasoned with sex, drugs and rock and roll - or perhaps rockabilly country western. By today's standards, the novel is pretty tame, and would only be offensive to the stridently politically correct, I suppose.

If you run across a copy, pick it up and read it...or send it my way. Mine is still AWOL.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hawk by Steven Brust

 So, Vlad has returned to Adrilankha, hoping to visit his son by his estranged wife, Cawti. But those pesky Jhereg assassins just won't go away, and in addition to having her house watched, they keep attempting to kill our old friend. Finally, he decides he's had enough, and a random conversational tidbit from Daymar sends him off down a convoluted path to redeeming himself with the organization. It will take all of his sneakiness and all of the help his old friends can provide, but it will be worth it to finally stop living life looking over his shoulder.

There's really nothing terribly new and exciting here, aside from a hint that Vlad's love life might eventually get better. Aliera's mysterious daughter puts in a cameo appearance, we get to find out a bit more about Vlad's old sidekick, Kragar, who now runs his area for the Jhereg, and Lady Teldra reveals some of her new Great Weapon powers.

What is this now, book fifteen of a planned nineteen? I hope Brust gets back in form at some point and starts writing a more inspired handful of books to finish things off, or the whole series will die with a whimper, not a bang.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Broken Soul by Faith Hunter

Second effort...I had written a couple of paragraphs about this book, when it all disappeared in a horrible keyboarding accident. Laptops and my big clumsy fingers, despite our constant contact, do not get along well.

Jane is finding her way with her new status, having been replaced as Leo's Enforcer, while still acting more or less in a consulting role. The breakup with Rick is still affecting her emotionally, but she seems poised, at the beginning of the novel, to explore a new relationship with Bruiser, Leo's former Onorio.

The European vampires are coming soon for a visit, and things are tense around vamp HQ, as preparations are made for their visit, which will probably be bloody. Jane gets plenty of opportunities to use some of her newfound skills in combat, real and practice. The bond with Beast has sped up her reflexes and increased her strength, which surprises people who think they can beat her. There's also her new gift of slowing down or stepping outside of time in a crisis situation to play around with.

In the middle of the usual crises, a deadly trio of two vampires and the leader's blood servant come to town, trying to acquire the magical artifacts that Jane has in safe keeping, and also to exploit a deep dark secret which Leo has been keeping to himself.

Lots of action, odd plot twists, and some interesting new "monster" lore.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hiatus

Sorry, but I'm totally buried with IRL chores, no time to write reviews, though I'm still plugging along reading when I get a scrap of free time. Talk amongst yourselves. I'll be back.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Poison fruit by Jacqueline Carey

 So, this is supposed to be the final book in the Agent of Hel series by Carey, and I'm  reading along, noticing that Daisy needs to find out why the demon spawn lawyer is trying to buy up all the real estate in Pemkowet, get over her love affair with Cody the were-sheriff and hook up with the ghoul, Stefan, and dispose of the Night Hag which is attacking people in their sleep, plus determine at last whether to remain on the side of the good guys, or claim her demonic heritage and all the powers that entails. How in the world can Carey wrap it all up in one book? I had to just read on to find out. Parenthetically, I'm also wondering what's next for Carey. It would be wonderful if she'd get back to Terre d'Ange. But I digress.

Yes, she did manage to wrap up all the disparate threads of the story. She may have left the door open a crack to return to Pemkowet at some point.

In order to rid the town of the Night Hag, Daisy has to dream her worst nightmare, breaking the world by claiming her demonic birthright and powers, which leaves her repeating the dream and worrying about its implications even after the hag is gone. Her breakup with Cody is messy and prolonged, and twisted, and made even more complex when the head of his clan convenes a "mixer" for prospective mates which Daisy is required to attend as Hel's representative.

The lawyer, acting for a mysterious client, has all sorts of tricks up his demonic sleeves, and drags the city fathers (and mothers) of Pemkowet into court to face a class action suit which results in them being forced to deliver the land where Hel's demesne is located to another minor deity. Daisy has to gather all of the eldritch forces she has obtained favors from in order to fight a losing battle to defend Hel's reign.

Her love affair with Stefan starts slowly and builds to a dangerous level, as her heightened emotions could, at any time, trigger his Outcast ravening. She, and we, learn a lot more about his past and the plight of the Outcasts through this story.

It all resolves into a neat little bundle at the end of this series. Let's see if Carey gets back to some serious and epic writing again, or if she continues to put out these light confections.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Around the Web

A book review on Alphecca.

How Rich People Think by Steve Siebold

 A while back, I read an article with excerpts from Siebold's book online, and found it so interesting, that I put it on my TBR list, waited for ages for my local library to get a copy, then even longer before my hold came to the top of the list. Now that I've finally started reading it, I think the article cherry-picked the best points out of the book, as I'm finding a great deal of it repetitive and, well, the best adjective is perhaps... "unsupported" as if he just pulled some assumptions out of thin air and run with them.

The format of the book is a series of paired statements beginning with "The middle class..." and "World class..."comparing the two groups. "World class" appears to be used interchangeably with "the rich" and "middle class" with "the poor", but he doesn't really define "world class" very well, though a partial definition appears twenty one chapters in, when he attempts to separate the "upper class" or ruthless rich, from the world class rich,

"Are some rich people ruthless? Of course, but that type of people we define as 'upper class.' Upper class consciousness is an ego-based level of thinking rooted in fear and scarcity, and some people operating at this level become rich. The world-class level of thinking is spirit-based with its roots firmly planted in love and abundance."

I agree with Siebold in his assumption that - all other things being equal - the difference between financial success and failure is largely (he would say entirely) a product of how a person thinks about money. I firmly believe that any citizen of the U.S. has the opportunity to rise above their circumstances and become as successful as they want to be, if they will quit listening to the lies told by their friends, family, the news media, their local politicians, their schoolteachers, and coworkers, and be set free by the truth. That said, I also firmly believe that the results, as in pretty much everything else in life, will probably fall into a bell curve distribution, with a very small upper "head" succeeding beyond their wildest dreams, the vast majority landing somewhere in the middle, and a narrow "tail" bringing up the rear in abject failure. This is simply the nature of the world as we know it.

One of the best features of this book, from my point of view, is its function as a virtual bibliography of books on finances and success. At the tail end of each chapter there is the title of a relevant book for all you "world class" thinkers to read. I'm taking notes and putting a number of them on my wish list at the library.

Some pertinent quotes that I liked:

"Identify the biggest problem in your business or industry, that if solved, would earn you a fortune. Then go solve it."

I like that thought.

"While the masses are memorizing box scores and batting averages, the world class is directing the same amount of mental energy into revenue producing ideas."

and

"While the masses are playing video games, watching television and surfing the internet, champions are setting goals and designing strategies to make them a reality."

Not to mention the masses' wondering what is happening with the royal babies, and actually caring about Brittany Spears' latest trip to rehab, or falling for the latest conspiracy theory.

"Middle class earns money doing things they don't like to do...World class gets rich doing what they love."

I'm sorry, the first may be true, but the second is, once again, a perpetuation of the idea of "do what you love and the money will follow." The only people statistically speaking who are getting rich off this idea are the ones writing books touting such foolish advice.

I have yet to get rich by reading science fiction and fantasy books or, for that matter, by writing about what I've read. There's simply not that much of a market for my opinions. I could make a decent living running my own restaurant, or a catering business, but it's highly unlikely that I'll become a million- or billionaire doing so. Now, if I had figured out that there was a huge market for people to buy science fiction and fantasy online a decade or so ago, I could have founded Amazon, but my last name is not Bezos. One of these days I'll have to read his bio, but I'm pretty certain it wasn't a love of reading that got him to where he is today.

The question has yet to be answered, "Can you become rich/wealthy by doing something you hate well enough and long enough?"

"Don't let the opinions of the average man sway you. Dream and he thinks you're crazy. Succeed, and he thinks you're lucky. Acquire wealth, and he thinks you're greedy. Pay no attention. He simply doesn't understand." Robert Allen

Great stuff there.

"The most frequently uttered comment of the middle class in reference to money is "I can't afford it". Rich people know not being solvent enough to personally afford something is not relevant. The real question is, "is this worth buying, investing in, or pursuing?" If so, the wealthy know money is always available because rich people are always looking for great investments and superior performers to make those investments profitable. The great ones are aware that it's easier to borrow ten million than ten thousand, a critical non-linear concept to know when raising capital." (emphasis mine)

This one is very very true. Dave Ramsey is right when he criticizes consumer loans as a bad idea. Paying interest to purchase a depreciating asset (which nearly everything we middle class buy is) is a bad bad investment. A number of very successful people I have known in my life, however, use other people's money, wisely borrowed on favorable terms, quite regularly in order to make sound investments in property, the markets, or business. Not going to go all Adam Smith on y'all, but ready access to capital has been the root of all success in the last couple of centuries.

An action step:

"Start telling yourself on a daily basis that money is your friend and a positive force in your life, and your mind will go to work to help you acquire more."

This one just gets me giggling. It reminds me of a  recurring SNL sketch for some reason.

Regarding the world class,

"Materialism is only part of their motivation, the strongest for most is the freedom to do what they want when they want."

Oh Lord, don't we all want that?

This one is worth reading for the nuggets of gold inside, and especially for the bibliography stuff.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Rods and the Axe by Tom Kratman

 Tom Kratman continues the ongoing saga of Carrera's war on Terra Nova here. There is a great deal of detail given relating to how his tercias continue to prepare and dig in for the anticipated attack from the Tauran Union and the Zhang Empire, some good political shenanigans, and some fun stuff from his "ministry of dirty tricks".

I've learned from watching BSU football games over the years that, even if you're known for having a lot of trick plays up your sleeve (like Carrera), you still have to have a good solid skill set of offensive and defensive strategies and tactics in order to win, and I think that the author is quite aware of that, while still providing enough exciting confusion and misdirection to keep the readers entertained.

Kratman may be the only author I can think of off of the top of my head in the military science fiction field, besides David Weber, who can pull off the massively multi-POV story well. I'm not terribly good at visualizing all of the locations on his world, or keeping track of all of the different officers and soldiers and government officials on the multi-front conflict, but he gives me just enough referents to keep moving along with it.

A good, solid step forward in the story line, which was only irritating in that it ended after four hundred pages or so with "To be continued..." Drat! I was really hoping to see the Zhang and Taurans brought to their knees at last.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Around the Web

A book review at Shiny Book Review. No surprises there, but it's very very snarky. Enjoy.

Mariner Valley by James Crawford

A while back I read, enjoyed and reviewed a novel for a new author. When he asked me to review his science fiction novel, it sounded like fun, so I had him ship me a copy, which I read while I was hanging out at my friend's mountain cabin, fishing for a few days.

Mariner Valley is a well-written tale with a classic story line. In fact, I'm fairly certain I've seen it in various incarnations a number of times, as a Western movie. A lawman from a frontier town is getting ready to move back to the big city, but when the daughter of local officials is raped and murdered, he is convinced to saddle up one last time to go hunt down the dirty rotten scoundrels who did the deed, then hightailed it for the border. He gathers up a posse and they ride out through the dust and the sandstorms and hostile conditions, encountering various obstacles along the way, until at last they catch up with the crooks and have a shootout.

Am I right?

Ok, so the small frontier town is on the planet Mars, and the lawman, Benjamin O'Ryan, is getting ready to return to Earth, when the powers that be beg him to take on the task of hunting down a gang of vicious criminals led by a man named Lansing. He gathers up a crew of auxiliary police force (deputies?) and a few regulars and they jump in rovers to chase after the gang, who are trying to reach Russian territory, where they believe they will be safe from prosecution.

There is just about the right amount of exposition about Mars, its moons, the environment on the surface so that it never bogs down, delivered by various methods, such as when one of the, er, posse members turns out to be an amateur astronomer and gives a short lecture in the midst of casual conversation, or when we learn all about the criminals in the gang when O'Ryan goes over their dossiers in a briefing with his people. There are a few other instances where the massive data dump is skillfully avoided, while giving us the information we need to believe we're along on this Martian expedition.

Some of Ben's crew have some authority issues, and one of them may be a secret drug addict, which could pose a security risk, and he stumbles into some extra complication when he and one of his deputies, Beth, manage to stumble into a relationship while on their mission. He also has to fight his people's and his own tendencies to take matters of vengeance into their own hands when they finally do catch up to the gang, as both we and they have been treated to further atrocities left behind by Lansing's men. There's even a good barroom brawl scene, just to add to the Western flavor.

A good read, a good first effort. Let's hope Mr. Crawford writes a few more, as I could definitely see a series in the works for Inspector O'Ryan.

Around the Web

A book review on Bookworm Room.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

And Falling, Fly by Skyler White

 Dark dark dark. Those beings that we call vampires are fallen angels, who subsist on the blood and emotions of their victims, Olivia, the Angel of Desire, believes that the only way she can be restored to her former, unfallen, state is if a human actually loves her for herself, rather than being merely infatuated and "in lust" with her. Other vamps seem to revel in their fallen state, and have no need for redemption.

Dominic O'Shaugnessy is a brain chemistry researcher in California who may or may not be victim of a curse which forces him to be reincarnated endlessly, with full "flashback" memories of all of the wives and children he has had to bury over the centuries. The team for which he works is trying to find a way to biochemically remove specific memories for trauma victims, and he has a vested interest in the success of the project, so when a wealthy benefactor is willing to give him millions for his research so that he can remove the "false memories" leading to her goddaughter's obsession with vampirism, he leaps at the chance.

White's prose is at times evocative, novel and creative.

"-but Adam's end-of-day reunion ritual dictates that we confess our grievances using the form of the employee's creed... I elect to berate The Client, the mysterious entity who pays our salaries and thus, in a market economy, is our superior and therefore, in American mythology, our inferior. Adam recites his day in the Idiot Boss variation..."

But....I just didn't quite frankly give a hoot about what happened to anyone in this book.

If you like it dark and twisted, give Skyler White a try.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Witchfinder by Sarah Hoyt

 Once again, I have nothing truly new to report on the subject of Sarah Hoyt's novels. Love the blog, just can't bring myself to like her novels. I try, I really do.

Witchfinder starts out to be a story about a Duke in the world of Avalon who travels between worlds to save the lives of witches in other worlds, who are often persecuted or killed outright. His job used to be an official one in the kingdom, but was outlawed recently, so he must do it in secret.

After that, it becomes a story about a lost princess, all kinds of improbable half breeds of fairies and humans, fairies and dragons, centaurs and humans, and a small group's insane ambition to rape multiple worlds of their magic, gold and power. All of the POV characters seem to do far too much soul-searching, and get teleported about madly while trying to get to the heart of the conspiracy, save the kingdom, and rescue the princess.

Once again, I had to force myself to push through to the end. Life is too short.

Ah well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

 Baseball is not a topic that interests me greatly. I don't play it, nor do I watch it on the Tube, and aside from the superstar celebrities of the sport that one can't help hearing about...on Jeopardy...I couldn't give you the name of a pro ball player if my life depended on it. However, Michael Lewis has a talent for making otherwise uninteresting or impenetrable topics come alive, as he has in several other works I've read, and they (the ubiquitous ones) made this book into a movie a while back, so I figured, "How bad could it be?"

After years of professional scouts determining who would be drafted to play professional ball, out of the hordes of high school and college players available, Oakland As manager Billy Beane finally decided to apply science and statistics to the process, and consistently produced a winning team on one of the lowest budgets in the league.

The way in which Lewis makes his writing more interesting than you'd think the subject would bear is in finding the backstories. He tells us about the baseball fanatics who first began to look at the statistics generated by major league ball and decide that something was missing, and that people who owned and managed teams were making decisions based on faulty assumptions, such as Bill James.

A quote from him I could relate to:
"I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communications of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say."

Another fan who wrote about the hidden art of baseball was Pete Palmer:
"Managers tend to pick a strategy that is least likely to fail rather than pick a strategy that is most efficient. The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move."

One of my OMG moments was when I read the following:

"Of course, no one in pro sports ever admits to quitting. But it was perfectly possible to abandon all hope of winning and at the same time show up every day for work to collect a paycheck. Professional sports had a word for this: "rebuilding." That's what half a dozen big league teams did more or less all the time."

Holy frijoles! My Broncos are in a "rebuilding" year.

As always, with a Lewis book, I learned something.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fated by Benedict Jacka

 It was difficult for me, at first glance, to determine whether this is a ripoff of the Harry Dresden books by Butcher, or should be considered a tribute to them. So much of the big picture remains the same. Alex Verus is a diviner who runs a small arcana shop in London, and most of the mundane folks around him don't have any idea that magic exists, and would make fun of him for saying it did. There is a world-spanning magicians' Council, with Dark and Light mages. Verus was the apprentice of a Dark mage, but escaped that life, and is not well regarded by the Council; he's just a bit of a renegade, and his little respect for authority. He has an apprentice, Luna, whom he tries to protect by not telling her much about what's really going on.

Starting to sound familiar?

Diviners, as a branch of magicians, have the ability to find out nearly anything, with the right technique and effort. When a Precursor artifact is discovered, both the Dark and Light want to control it, but it has been locked away with some major defensive spells, and when all the other Diviners make themselves scarce, Verus is the default go-to guy for all the factions. He resists getting involved at first, but eventually he is made an offer he can't refuse, and ends up trying to play both ends against the middle, since he realizes that (as the adage goes) anyone who wants the sort of power that the artifact will grant really shouldn't have that much power in the first place.

Of course, as is de rigeur in urban fantasy these days, he has to undergo some intense personal growth and deal with his memories of past traumas before he can move forward.

Looks like there are several more sequels available, so I'll have to throw them on the virtual TBR pile.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Blessing by Gary Smalley and John Trent

 Something I was reading must have pointed me to this book by Smalley and Trent. I've enjoyed reading Gary Smalley's books ever since I heard him speak at a Promise Keepers conference  a decade or so ago, but unfortunately this one was so dated that I had very few takeaways, and got about five or six chapters in before giving up on it as a waste of time for me at this point in my life.

Smalley and Trent begin with the concept of the biblical patriarchal blessing and stretch a point nearly to the point of breaking showing how children and adults are negatively affected by not being "blessed" by their parents and other loved ones.

Meh.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A PSA on Drug Expiration Dates

I've often wondered what, exactly, is supposed to happen to the chemical compounds in your prescription drugs or in those bottles of vitamins people are always telling you that you have to throw away on the expiration date. Unless they're a biological compound, or in a liquid suspension, which could possibly deteriorate, stable compounds don't simply disappear from a sealed plastic bottle, usually.

From a medical journal, I gank the following:

"It turns out that the expiration date on a drug does stand for something, but probably not what you think it does. Since a law was passed in 1979, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug.

Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration at the request of the military. With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing out and replacing its drugs every few years. What they found from the study is 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

So the expiration date doesn't really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical authorities state expired drugs are safe to take, even those that expired years ago. A rare exception to this may be tetracycline, but the report on this is controversial among researchers. It's true the effectiveness of a drug may decrease over time, but much of the original potency still remains even a decade after the expiration date. Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long-lasting as the ones tested by the military. Placing a medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years."

YMMV.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Revenant by Kat Richardson

 With this, the ninth in the Greywalker series, we suddenly find ourselves a long way afield with Harper Blaine when Quinton's father, James Purliss, turns up in the middle of a plot to gain supernatural power in Portugal. Harper calls upon the vampire, Carlos, for help in getting her out of the country without anyone who might be watching noticing that she's gone, and he has her shipped in a coffin to his family's home in Lisbon, in the heart of the Alfama district.

My surmise is that Richardson has recently enjoyed a trip to Portugal (it turns out in the afterwords that she planned it but had to cancel), and decided to make use of her research in this novel. My wife and I visited Portugal a couple of years ago, and so it's proven vastly entertaining as I read this novel to find myself recognizing and visualizing the places Harper and Quinton go, such as when they get on the train to Cascais, where we have family, and spent a great deal of our time, or talk about the castle of St. George, a lovely place to visit and picnic at the crown of a hill in Lisboa, or she mentions in passing the pilgrims crawling on their knees to the shrine in Fatima.

When Harper arrives, she finds out that Purliss has kidnapped his own granddaughter, Soraia, who has budding supernatural talents, and has given her to his allies, the bone mages, who are building a spell which will have apocalyptic results in Portugal, giving them vast power. Quinton, Harper, and Carlos must rescue the girl from the mages, and find a way to thwart their plans. When Carlos is nearly destroyed by the apprentice of an old enemy, one of the mages, Harper's desperate sacrifice to save his life leaves the two of them changed, perhaps in ways which will affect the path of the plot arc eventually.

A marvelous (hopefully temporary) finale to the Grewalker series.


Monday, October 6, 2014

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann

 Trying to get a handle on this thing they call Steampunk. Most of it seems to run in the Victorian era, with odd technological upgrades, mixed with odd bits of the supernatural. I suppose it beats coming up with a truly new and exciting fantasy realm, just like urban fantasy, which tends to operate by weaving modernity with witches, werewolves and vampires going bump in the night. Not to be confused with Cyberpunk, which I read a lot of back in the day. Now, of course, many of those futures are coming true before our eyes.

In The Affinity Bridge, there seems to be a plague of revenants bent on murder and cannibalism in Queen Victoria's London (which is oddly coincidental as the next book on my TBR pile is called Revenant). In the midst of the plague, Crown Investigator Sir Maurice Newbury and his assistant Veronica Hobbes become involved in investigating a series of murders by a glowing policeman in the White Chapel area of London, and the horrific crash of an airship which killed all on board, and which has political implications.

The plot, and the solving of the mysteries, is not really all that exciting, but there are some aspects of the book that might bode well for future plots. Veronica's sister, Amelia, is a psychic who can see visions of the future, but she has been locked in an asylum where they treat her for her seizures. Queen Victoria has been kept alive beyond her natural span of years by the machines created by Dr. Fabian, and he and his assistant, The Fixer, seem to have some interesting medical treatments up their sleeves. Newbury's friend, Scotland Yard detective Charles Bainbridge, demonstrates a nifty sword cane that works like a taser, so there may be some other cool inventions from the Victorian Q Branch, as well.

Not one of those "oh my gosh, I can't wait to read the next one", but probably worth following up on when things are slow on the TBR pile.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Islands of Rage and Hope by John Ringo

 Too much of the early going in Islands is devoted to the struggle Faith is having with acting as a Marine Lieutenant, being a 13 year old girl, mind you. Of course, after any marine sees her in battle, their respect for her borders on hero worship, so Ringo could have foregone all of this angst and moved the plot along a little more swiftly. The second flaw for me in this book was that the whole plot feels like a big wargame, "if we had to retake the entire world after a zombie apocalypse, where would be the best place to start, given the resources stipulated, etc." When the strategy gaming overwhelms the zombie killing, then you've really lost most of what holds my interest in this series. Third, for whatever reason, Ringo decided that the results of "what happens in the compartment..." would be a couple thousand pregnancies, and combined that with the statistics on pre-modern medicine mother and infant mortality, and devoted a big chunk of plot time to our heroes figuring out how to minimize the damages - the jury remains out at the end of the book.

That said, once things got rolling in the latter third of the book, there was plenty of whack-a-zombie for everyone. We finally get to find out who "Walker" was in his previous life, which is cool, too. I got to thinking about about Ringo's basic premises here, that there would be no land-based cities still active after a zombie plague, and while I get the idea of limiting the Vs in multi POV, here, I think it likely that there would be far more survivors in some of the rural areas, given their lesser dependency on technology in the first place, the lesser population density, and the fact that a ton of heartlanders have thousands of rounds of ammo for the guns to which they bitterly cling.

Anyway, I was glad I didn't pay over $20 to add this book to the collection, but borrowed it from the local library. I'm interested to see where the story goes next, but I hope it goes there without so much ado about nothing, this time.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele

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

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

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