Friday, February 28, 2014

Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

So, if one believes in reincarnation, when you die, your soul goes into a big waiting room in the sky, until it gets reborn into some tiny baby or small animal somewhere on the planet. If Heinlein's soul was hanging around, it could very well have been too big for ordinary people, and have ended up having been split into smaller pieces of pie, and injected into multiple rebirths. If that's the case, I think there are a couple of candidates for channeling the soul of mid-career Heinlein out there right now - Peter Grant and Marko Kloos. They are both writing brand new stuff very much in the style and spirit of the Grand Master of SF, and I'm enjoying the heck out of it.

Andrew Grayson has grown up in a densely populated welfare enclave on Earth. Since his parents' divorce, both his mother and father have been trapped there, living on the public dole, and his fate would seem to be more of the same, aside from the opportunity afforded him by his good test scores to join the North American armed forces. If he completes basic, and serves his five year enlistment honorably, then he will be given mustering out pay which will probably be sufficient for him to relocate to one of the suburban areas where people have jobs, businesses, and lives which are not dependent on government largess.

Earth has established dozens of colonies in far away star systems, which are divided between those controlled by the NA alliance and those which are owned by the Sino-Russians. The two factions of Earth are constantly skirmishing against one another, fighting proxy wars in the colonies. Recruit Grayson hopes to become a part of the Space Navy and to serve out among the stars.

Much of the early portions of the story are familiar to anyone who has ever experienced basic training, or had a child or spouse go through basic training, and eventually Grayson graduates, and immediately is assigned to the TA or Terran Army, responsible for keeping the peace on Earth, rather than past the outer limits. He is disappointed at first, but finds out rapidly that the job is not as boring as he thought it would be, especially when they are called on to dispel a riot in one of the welfare cities. The rioters turn out to be far better armed and organized than anyone had expected, and Grayson's platoon comes under heavy fire, taking major casualties, while trying to rescue the air crew of a downed shuttle (think Black Hawk Down) before the mob can get there.

In order to take out some of the rioter's crew-served weaponry, Andrew ends up firing a rocket into the top floors of an apartment building, presumably causing some "collateral damage". He is seriously wounded, himself, while half carrying his platoon sergeant back to friendly lines, and ends up recovering in the hospital for a while. Some of the rear echelon officers have ideas about hanging him out to dry for his war crime, but the sergeant he rescued knows about some skeletons in the brass closets and gets him reassigned to the Space Navy, instead, right where he wanted to be in the first place.

Andrew is a good kid, a hard worker, who just did what he had to do to save his buddies from near certain death, and he does just fine in his new assignment, and has a number of interesting adventures by the time the book is through, including being part of the mission that encounters a hostile alien race for the first time in history. A read that was hard to put down, even when my eyelids got heavy.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rex Regis by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Rex Regis appears to be the final installment in the Imager Portfolio, which is a little sad, as I was truly enjoying the series. I'd hoped, however, that it would go back to the future, and continue where Imager's Intrigue left off. In this book, Modesitt goes about methodically wrapping up loose ends in the war with Bovaria, so that Bhayar's rule over the combined realm of Solidar can proceed smoothly, and so that Quaeryt can become the first maƮtre of the Collegium.

Quaeryt and Vaelora leave Antiago behind and ride slowly north back to Variana, stopping along the way to meet with high holders and factors and to impress on them the importance of being loyal to their new ruler, Bhayar. Once they arrive, Quaeryt and his imagers begin the constructive (rather than destructive) work of building and repairing roads and structures in the new capital of the empire, and also constructing the new home for the Collegium on the Isle of Piers. Bhayar appoints the couple as his chief administrators, with the power to get the business affairs of the new country on a firm footing.

The only fly in the ointment seems to be a couple of Bhayar's senior commanders who have ideas of their own about how things should go now that Rex Kharst has been eliminated. All the other minor plotters can be dealt with quickly, but Quaeryt eventually has to be dispatched to make sure the plot is real and to defuse it if he can.

Not a lot of action or tension in this book; it's just a wrap up and deals with mundane issues that Modesitt needed to get off his chest.

It will be interesting to see what series he tackles next.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff

 What does a gunnery sergeant do when there's no longer a war going on, and she's been set loose on the universe? Well, Torin Kerr thinks she's going to enjoy a "peace dividend" of a long space cruise with her salvage operator boyfriend, Craig Ryder, introducing him to her family, getting to know his family and friends, learning the trade of CSO. Not so fast, there! No idyllic, out-to-pasture lifestyle will be forthcoming in this novel. When pirates attack a pair of salvage operators and steal a sealed Marine armory full of advanced weaponry reserved to the military, things get unpeaceful real quick.

Matters are further complicated when Craig and Torin follow a bum tip from an incognito member of the pirate crew and are attacked in the middle of a huge debris field full of good salvage material. Torin is knocked out by an explosion, and the pirates kidnap Craig in order to force him to help them unlock the CSO seals on the armory. They've already tortured one old salvage operator to death trying to get the information, so both Torin and Craig are aware that whether he decides to help or to resist, he could end up in a world of hurt either way.

The pirates, of course, haven't yet connected retired gunny Kerr with Craig's girlfriend whom they left unconscious in space, and it may prove to be a fatal mistake. When she recovers and drags herself back to Craig's ship, she starts a new and intense mission - find Craig and destroy the people who have captured him, no questions asked, no quarter given. She recruits Presit the journalist, who is very nearly one of Craig's friends by this point, to help, as well as a trio of her former marine buddies, and the pirate base is not going to have any idea what hit it shortly.

Great adventure and a good time is had by all...of the good guys.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Ahead of the Curve by Philip Delves Broughton

 When Philip Broughton arrives at Harvard Business School, or HBS, to study for his Masters in Business Administration, or MBA, after ten years as a journalist, he's in for some culture shock. Quantitative analysis of business cases stretches his computer and math skills to their utmost, and only his extensive travels have prepared him for the mixed bag of fellow students with whom he must team to succeed.

Broughton gives us some background on his upbringing and his journey from England to Massachusetts to attend Harvard, and a bit of history on the school, as well, before jumping into a narrative about each of his classes covering two years of study.

Random takeaways:

A bit of advice we could probably all benefit from in our lives, "HBS is not about letting everyone do everything. It is about forcing you to make choices. What are your ambitions? What are your obligations? Do they tally? If not, what should you do to change one or the other? How should you spend your time to get what you want?"

My first time encountering the Forer Principal, "In 1948, the psychologist Bertram Forer created a personality test for a group of students and then gave them an analysis based on its results. He asked the students to rate the accuracy of the analysis on a scale of zero to five, with five being a first-rate description of their personality. The average rating was 4.26. But Forer had played a trick on the students. He had given each one exactly the same analysis, once he had cobbled together from various horoscopes."

Think of that next time you're taking one of those Facebook personality quizzes.

An interesting bit about why Microsoft's balance sheet was always cash-heavy, "Bill Gates said...'The thing that was scary to me was when I started hiring my friends they expected to get I soon came up with this incredibly conservative approach that I wanted to have enough money in the bank to pay a year's worth of payroll, even if we didn't get any payments coming in."

We could all learn something from Gates about having a decent emergency fund for the tough times.

A passage I found amusing from his description of his journalistic experience in covering the G8 summit in 2003,

"It was a sunny day and everyone sashayed along to reggae and chants of 'Kill George Bush.' Among the twenty five thousand marchers were Zapatistas from Mexico, Maoists from Italy, French high-school teachers, Palestinian nationalists...a large British contingent organized by the Socialist Worker newspaper...furious about the war in Iraq... A Belgian kid in a Jacque Chirac rubber mask said he was there to celebrate the 'good dope coming out of Afghanistan' since the American invasion..."

And if you're looking for a sign as to where the stock market is headed,

"Ray Soifer...had been keeping track of the relationship between the condition of the American equity market and the percentage of Harvard MBA graduates choosing careers in financial services. Ten percent or less was a long-term buy signal. Thirty percent or more was a long-term sell."

I'll let you do the research to see where we are right now.

A book that left me feeling as if I'd gotten a mini-MBA myself. Interesting glimpse into life on the other side.

By the time he graduates, he still hasn't found a job, disdaining some of the financial services, banks and consulting firms as "soulless", and I have to wonder what he found to offset the $175,000 cost of getting his MBA, aside from writing a novel and this non fiction work.

Many times, while reading one book, the author's comments or direct references points me to another. In this case I've put One Smart Cookie about Mrs. Fields and Michael Porter's Redefining Health Care on my want list at the library

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Adapt and Overcome by Peter Grant

 Perhaps one of the most enjoyable things about this third installment in the Maxwell saga is what it is NOT. It is not an urban fantasy with a wounded female ass-kicking protagonist who reluctantly learns to trust her friends and family, like 99% of what is being published today. No, Steve Maxwell was raised in an orphanage, but emerged as a strong, whole person who places trust in the trustworthy, makes friends and allies easily, and who operates with an internal moral compass that makes his decisions, while not easy, at least clear, quick and un-agonizing.

I'm not sure what it was that Peter Grant was working on so long in his rewrites and edits, but I don't see anything terribly different, from an enjoyment standpoint, from the earlier books in the series, save perhaps that he listened to those beta readers who thought he was doing too much world-building. He's trimmed down  to less than the amount of info dumps in previous iterations, though obviously massive amounts of information, well-delivered, certainly are no barrier to book sales...ahem...David Weber.

When Steve becomes the sole witness to an attempt at evidence tampering by a superior officer in the midst of a crash investigation on his latest assignment, his commanding officer decides to get him off planet and away from the newsies, so he is assigned temporary duty with the system defense forces of Rolla, helping them train shuttle crews. He manages to get his old buddy from OCS, Brooks Shelby, who is now a Marine lieutenant, assigned to the training team as well. While he is staying at Brooks' place temporarily between assignments, Brooks and his girlfriend introduce Steve to a lovely young officer, Abha Sashna (you see where this is going, of course) and the two of them fall immediately and hopelessly in love. The trio troops off to Rolla, and more military adventures shortly ensue.

Steve and his friends soon get a chance to demonstrate their martial skills when some old pirate enemies come to call, and the tension ratchets up a notch. His cool, calm competence and ability to anticipate the worst case scenario serves Steve well in these battles, and in the simulated ones at the command school he attends a bit later in the book. All work and no play has made Steve (perhaps in the eyes of the beta readers) a tiny bit of a dull boy, and Grant actually includes some passages detailing how Steve spends his down time, which gives us a glimpse of him in a more personal, less military, setting.

A good story, a likeable hero, and Grant leaves me anxiously awaiting the next book.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Callahan's Con by Spider Robinson

I discovered a "new" thrift store the other day, and while browsing its treasures I came upon the only novel in Robinson's Callahan's series that I didn't previously own. For 89 cents, whaddaya gonna do?

Jake and his wife, Zoe, and their teleporting, time-traveling daughter, Erin, are enjoying life at Jake's Place in Key West, with many of their old friends living in the various bungalows that surround the place. Unfortunately, a couple of serpents invade their paradise - a bureaucrat form the state board of education who needs to determine if Erin's home schooling meets department standards, and a mobster called Little Tony Donuts, who is trying to run the old protection racket on Jake's pied a terre.

For Spider's old fans, this book will have plenty of everything that makes his work fun and entertaining - puns, spoonerisms, wordplay, shaggy dog stories, and all that jazz (literally, Jake & Fast Eddy do a couple of numbers). But it's not really breaking any new ground. If you've read the last few Jake's Place stories, you've read them all. Lots of Irish coffee, a couple of telepathic linkups, and a time-traveling teleporter seem to be able to solve any problem, and everyone gets to lay (literally) around the cabana once more. Glad I've got the complete set now, but it's just a can of lite beer compared to the single malt whiskey days at the old Crosstime Saloon.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valor's Trial by Tanya Huff

 One of these days, I'm going to have to go back and re-read and review all of the other Huff books in the collection, the "Smoke", "Blood", and "Keeper" series. She's been turning out good tales for an amazingly long time. Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr gets a fresh assignment to take the greenest troops from Sh'quo Company into a brand new war zone against the Others. The battle doesn't last long, as some unknown party deploys a new type of weapon which vaporizes the entire battlefield and all of the troops from both sides...except for Kerr and a select few.

Kerr awakens in a cave complex which turns out to be a prison for Confederation Marines, monitored and run in some automated fashion by indeterminate parties - everyone knows that the Others do not take prisoners. The area where the gunnery sergeant awakens has descended into an anarchic situation where a strongman, "Colonel" Harnett, and his cronies have taken over, and rule over the weaker prisoners. Wounded arrivals are killed and robbed, and the survivors are kept in a state of near starvation to keep them cowed and suppression any sign of rebellion. Kerr arrives like a force of nature and single-handedly kills nine of the oppressors, puts the camp under command of the ranking genuine officer there, and proceeds to try to find a way to escape.

Other areas of the cave prison complex have actually managed to maintain military discipline, though most of the prisoners who have been there any length of time have been subtly drugged into complacency and are not interested in escaping. Kerr gathers a small band of those who have the will to leave and leads them on an adventure through the caves, cave-ins and earthquakes to an entirely new section, where they discover that there are Others imprisoned here, as well. She and the NCO from the enemy band, who have also been recently captured and still have the will to escape, manage to keep their troops from killing each other and pragmatically join forces to attempt to get out of the caves, off planet, and back to their home bases.

The wrap up to this story is pretty predictable, in my opinion, and I've suspected as much since about the third novel in the series. I won't spoil it for you here. This is another fun read that kept me up way too late finishing it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Deathless by Catherine M. Valente

 I can't recall who recommended Valente to me, but I had her on my to-read list for a while before I put Deathless on hold at the library. The story begins well, a charming tale about a young girl, Marya Morevna in post-Revolutionary Soviet Russia, who lives in a house with her formerly bourgeois parents and finds herself perceiving things around her a bit  differently from others. She sees birds dropping from the sky and becoming her sisters' husbands, and after the authorities force more families to live in the house (we can't have a single family using a big house that belongs to the People, you know) she discovers the hidden realm of  house goblins - domovoi - who have come along with the families to stay in the house, as well.

After a bit, though, the whole story takes a darker turn, and Marya is claimed as the bride of Koschei, the Deathless. He treats her to his psychotic brand of love and cruelty, and takes her away to the forest to live in a dacha with his servants. Marya becomes a bullying and vapid, well...witch is the kindest term, and I lost any feelings of affection I had for the character, and had to push myself to pick the book up again to read further. Gave up before I reached 100 pages. Maybe I'm missing a great turnaround and redemption, but the things that made the story charming and fun were gone, and life is short.

Read at your own risk.

Kindle Deal

Marko Kloos recently released the second book in his Frontlines series. I never quite got around to reading the first one, but I was definitely interested, and the "buzz" was all good. However, the price for the Kindle version seemed a little steep for "entry" to a new author, so I've held off.

Today, however, I noticed that the prices of both novels in Kindle format had dropped, to $2.99 and $4.99! So I jumped out on Amazon and downloaded them. Here's the links, if you've been thinking about buying and trying. Reviews will follow in a couple of weeks, most likely, as I work my way through my virtual TBR pile.

Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines)
Lines of Departure (Frontlines)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Obama Zombies by Jason Mattera

 Mattera tells us all about how a media fully "in the tank" for candidate Obama, paired with an incredibly well run multimedia marketing campaign, put their man in the White House. In the runup to the 2012 election, democratic operatives and their strategies simply overwhelmed the republican campaign with a well-targeted message and relentless assault, combined with tactics from a high tech playbook.

Personally, during the campaign, I was struck by how many people I had previously known as rational individuals went out of their minds on the subject of finally having the opportunity to see a black man as president of the U.S. Mattera gives a number of examples of the typical Obama Zombie attitude.

A Tennessee State University student in an interview with MTV said, "It is a big issue with black women, whether we want to [vote for] a woman or an African American. I would love to see a joint ticket."

Mattera says "Here's an idea. How about we vote for the one with the best ideas. Groundbreaking, I know. Let it be said, I don't care if your name is Juan Carlos, John Smith, or John Wong, I will vote for you if you have the right ideas. Diversity is, um, irrelevant. The best thing about multiculturism is the food."

Reporter Joe Klein wrote,

"There aren't very many people - ebony, ivory or other - who have Obama's distinctive portfolio of talents....He transcends the racial divide so effortlessly that it seems reasonable to expect that he can bridge all the other divisions - and answer all the impossible questions - plaguing American public life."

As we've seen in the five years following, rather than bridging the racial divide, Obama has stoked the flames of racial conflict.

The most interesting part of this book was the section about how the Obama campaign totally outclassed the McCain campaign, using every technological weapon available to create a veritable e-blitzkrieg.

"As a McCain-Palin online adviser self-deprecatingly observed, 'Memo to self: next time get the co-founder of Facebook on your team.'"

"Oprah Winfrey addressed a rally of twenty-nine thousand people in South Carolina, campaign officials asked the crowd to text 'SC' to a specific Obama number. Thousands of cell phone numbers, just like that!"

This tactic was repeated at rallies all across the country to build a huge database of followers in every area of the country, that could be readily accessed and motivated to recruit others, to vote, and to work for the campaign.

I suspect that this book was merely an expansion of a paper or column that Mattera wrote which appeared elsewhere, detailing the Obama campaign's incredibly effective electoral tactics, and the remainder of the book was "filler", which sounds like most every other book I've read critical of progressive policies and candidates in the past half dozen years.

He outlines the Obama Zombies Talking points:
  • Anti-war
  • Global Warming
  • Health Care Crisis
  • Economic envy
I found nothing really new in any of this, just some affirmations of long held beliefs.
My progressive acquaintances have shouted for some time now "the free market doesn't work, it's time for something else!"

Mattera states well something I've believed for ages.

"The problem is that a free market (in health insurance) where consumers and providers freely partake of each other's services does not exist. Governments work hand in glove with arrange a package of services (mandates) that we are forced to buy - it's corporatism at its ugliest."

I did pick up a couple of definitions that had previously eluded me, and which explain a big portion of the huge disparity in health care costs. Community rating means that insurance companies cannot charge higher premiums to policy holders based on whether they are healthy or chronically ill. Guaranteed issue means that policies cannot be denied on basis of preexisting health conditions. Mattera discusses the obvious (to me, anyway) results.

"New one of three states that have both 'community rating' and 'guaranteed issue.' ... In New York, for instance, insurances is roughly two to three times higher than the national average."

And I learned a completely new term - climate justice. Climate justice is a vision to dissolve and alleviate the unequal burdens created by climate change. My mind boggles at the mere idea.

Mattera also talks extensively about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, which is where most twenty-somethings get what they perceive to be news. I've watched no more than a handful of their broadcasts in my life, and wasn't terribly impressed.

Mattera proposes a six point battle plan for the Republicans to win again. The book was written in 2010, so we all know how that turned out.

1. Back to Basics, find a strong conservative candidate who can convey the message
Well, that was an epic fail!
2. Attack the Stimulus
The Republicans' economic plans were about as exciting as Perot's charts and graphs.
3. Promote Capitalism as a method to effect charitable change
The Republicans couldn't overcome the progressive class warfare mantra.
4. Frame the message - freedom to live life without government interference
It appears the progressives had a better message once more for the young folks, "you can live in daddy government's basement for life."
5. Twitter - use social media effectively
The definitive term in Grand Old Party is "Old"
6. Old conservatives - donate money. Obama spent $750 million in 2008 campaign.
I have no idea how the funding battles went in the last election. No amount of money in the world is enough to overcome a mediocre candidate and nonexistent message.

Happy Birthday to Me!

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. It certainly hasn't become the commercial success I thought it might be at the beginning; it's not even self-supporting through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Alibris links. The traffic I do get appears to come mostly from Russian spambots, but I do appreciate all of the folks who stop by every so often to check out the reviews and leave comments that aren't trying to sell me penny stocks or SEO.

Just under a thousand posts, and well under 100,000 visits over four years, the blog serves, for me at least, a couple of purposes:
  • I can check back here to see if I enjoyed a particular author enough to waste either time or money on their next book.
  • I keep track of my personal library online, so I'm able to check it from any antiquarian bookstore in the world, to make sure I don't double up buying something I already own.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Day of the Moron by H. Beam Piper

While my attention span was seriously diminished by a bout of the flu, I found myself browsing some of the old science fiction shorts on my Nook, and ran across this classic. The story has a theme or two in common with Blowups Happen by Robert A. Heinlein and The Marching Morons, by Cyril M. Kornbluth, which was adapted to screen in Idiocracy; the potential dangers inherent in atomic power plants and in the "morons" within our society.

The protagonist is in charge of a nuclear power plant which provides 100% of the electricity for the eastern seaboard. He becomes concerned with the consequences if one of the men staffing the facility should decide, while bored, to twiddle a dial or push a button just to see what happens. The evidence for this type of behavior is obvious in studies of other industries' disasters, so it must be taken into consideration here. He calls in a top notch psychologist to administer tests to the workers, and will use the results to weed out the personalities prone to that sort of thing - the "morons", if you will.

In the process, however, he gets crossways with the union goons on the job site, and the results are, shall we say, suboptimal.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Cemetery Girl: The Pretenders by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden

 So, I had no idea this was a graphic novel when I put it on hold at the library; I just saw that Charlaine Harris had something new out after ending her Sookie Stackhouse southern vampire series, and clicked the button. It's the first graphic novel I've ever read, so I can't even really tell you if it was any good or not. The illustration seemed good, about the same quality I remember from comic books back in my tender youth, and the story line was at least somewhat intriguing. But, at best, a graphic novel like this one has about the same nutritional value as a rice krispy treat.

The heroine of this tale is beaten, drugged, thrown in the trunk of a car and left for dead in a cemetery - and perhaps she was dead. She has no memory of who she is, or where she came from, and she adopts a new name from several different tombstones and the name of the cemetery which she begins to haunt. She is befriended, in much the same way as one tames a feral neighborhood cat, by the caretaker on the grounds, and an elderly widow living nearby. She fears most of all that the people who left here there will find her and finish the job, so she continues to hide out until the night she witnesses a murder in the graveyard. After her near death experience, she has gained the ability to see ghosts of the freshly departed, and when the ghost of the slain girl takes up residence in her head, she is forced to come out of hiding long enough to bring the killers to justice.

A light read, but not light reading, if you know what I mean.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Hardcase by Dan Simmons

 Simmons demonstrates his versatility in switching genres to mystery, with a leading man who is just about as tough as Child's Jack Reacher, Joe Kurtz. As the story begins, former PI Kurtz has just been released after a dozen years in prison for the brutal killing of the murderers of his partner and lover, Sam(antha). While he was there, he befriended the son of a mafia boss, "Little Skag" Farino, and he uses that connection to wangle a job with the boss, whose power appears to be on the wane, to investigate the disappearance of his accountant, and to figure out who is behind recent attacks on his business interests.

The phrase that comes to mind when describing this book is "It's not paranoia when they REALLY are ALL out to get you." Kurtz only has a few true friends left on the outside, his former secretary Arlene, whom he re-hires to start up his new business, a couple of old homeless guys who worked as his informants before he went to the pen, and a weapons dealer named Doc who supplies him with a couple of pistols. Everyone else in this book has their own agenda, and they all seem to involve shafting Kurtz in some way.

There's Don Farino's lawyer, Miles, who has been skimming off profits for years, plus a couple of hoods in the street gang that is ripping off the Don's shipments, Malcolm and Cutter. There's the Don's bodyguard, Carl, who takes offense to Kurtz' attitude and ambushes him later, and the dumb quintet of rednecks from the White Aryan Army of the Lord who try to invade his fortress of solitude in an old warehouse. There's the corrupt cop, Hathaway, who tries to frame him for murder and parole violations (oddly enough, his new PO keeps him out of jail on that one), and the brother of one of the people he murdered that got him put in prison in the first place. I might have missed someone, but you can see there's a whole queue of folks waiting for a shot at Kurtz.

He deals with most of them with brute and blunt force, while using his fox-like street smarts to get to the bottom of the mystery and survive for the sequel. Great, mindless entertaining violence.