Flash Boys – in case you thought maybe the market wasn’t rigged

Flash Boys by Michael LewisFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
by Michael Lewis; narrated by Dylan Baker

Flash Boys is two books at once.  First, it’s a fascinating tale about a few different innovators working in the financial markets.  These men spotted an opportunity to create a better wall street, to fix a problem that the market would, hopefully, reward them for.  Second, it’s another reminder that the primary motivator on Wall Street is for the people who work on Wall Street to make money, and that the money invested there by the rest of us is just a prop they use to do so.  In case you didn’t learn that lesson from The Big Short.

A brief precis: Lewis tells the story of High Frequency Trading (HFT) through a few stories about people fighting to undermine it.  Essentially, HFT is a market trading style that uses the inherent latency in the space between the different stock exchanges to make money.  Here’s an example of the most basic way this happens: Say you want to buy 100,000 shares of Apple.  Your broker goes to the first exchange and finds 10,000 shares on offer, including 100 shares being sold by a HFT.  After you buy up the 10,000 shares there, your broker’s pokey computer sends a request to the rest of the stock exchanges looking for the other 90,000 shares.  In the 1/3 – 1/2 of a second it takes for your order to move through the market, HFT computers have rushed ahead and bought up all the shares, and are now selling them for a tiny fraction more (say, 1 penny per share).  You buy the shares from them, and they’ve just made money off their speed advantage in the market, without adding any value to the exchange.  Now multiply that by every trade made on every stock market in the US, and you can see how they’re making billions of dollars, basically by cutting in line where most people don’t know there’s a line to cut in.

A few thoughts:

  • The first lesson Lewis teaches us in the story of this burgeoning force fighting against High-Frequency Traders is that regulation usually only solved the problem it’s meant to.  But it almost always creates new loopholes through which different ways to cheat can be exploited.  And since the incentives on Wall Street are so massive, someone will always exploit said loopholes.
  • The second lesson is a reminder that banks are there to make money, not to serve the good of the market or even of their own clients.  The level to which the banks and the exchanges have altered how they do things to make it easier for the HFTs is appalling.
  • The book has some hope, though, unlike The Big Short, which just feels depressing.  The new exchange being created throughout the book (which opened this year) seems like it has the potential to change things as the clients, the investors who’re paying a speed tax to HFTs, notice what’s going on.

Once again, Lewis does a fantastic job telling a complex tale in a gripping way.  Dylan Baker’s performance is quite strong, and adds great nuance to the tale. Highly recommended read.

See also: The Big Short, Moneyball, Panic!

The Podcast Summer

I love my music ! by Shiv Shankar Melan Palat

I have a recurring and growing struggle with myself over how to use my “listening time.”  When I’m walking to and from work, or washing dishes, or doing home-improvement projects, I like to listen to things on my iPod. I used to listen to podcasts and audio books in roughly equal numbers.  But lately, I’ve pulled a few extra podcasts into my feed, and while I’m enjoying them immensely, I now have no time to listen to audio books.

I know, “The Horror…,” right?

Anyway, this was a particularly podcast-y August and September since I had to catch up on all the episodes from July that I missed while we were traveling.  Anyhow, here’s my current podcast loadout, in the order that I listen to them:

  • Judge John Hodgman
  • Wham Bam Pow
  • Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me
  • International Waters
  • Jordan, Jesse, GO!
  • Ask Me Another
  • Planet Money
  • On the Media
  • Throwing Shade
  • WTF
  • This American Life
  • Radiolab
  • the memory palace
  • The Moth Podcast

To keep from eating bandwidth from podcasts I don’t have time to listen to anymore, I’ve stopped downloading

  • Escape Pod
  • Starship Sofa
  • The Drabblecast
  • Cory Doctorow’s Craphound

So I ask you, my loyal readers, to what do you listen, and how do you balance those competing demands on your time?

May Music Roundup

Each month, I build a playlist to listen to while I work.  This is a review of last month’s playlist.

Emusic:

  • Bhi Bhiman, The Cookbook: Bhiman’s soulful voice and good sense of humor makes this album a winner for me.  Several songs have a narrative component like “Equal in My Tea,” and all brim with poetic language worthy of the best.  Other songs from this album I really like: “Up in Arms” is a great meditation on race and war; “Talkin’ NASCAR” is funny, if somewhat grim (mocks the conservative GW Bush perspective with lines like “Terror, Terror, Freedom, Freedom, W, W, NASCAR NASCAR/ Terror is the word I use instead of saying Muslim people”); “It’s Cold Out Here” depicts the heartbreak of a man whose mother is dying of cancer, brutally; “God is a Warrior’s Fan” (a hidden track at the end of “Jaffna Town”) is hilarious with its bile for Kobe Bryant. The whole album is great.
  • The Mahones, Here Comes Lucky.  A guitar-driven celtic rock band reminiscent of the Pogues with an occasional twinge of country along the lines of Tom Petty.  I prefer the more rockin’ songs like “Queen and Tequila” or “Going Back to Dublin,” and “Whisky Devils.” “Raise Your Hands” also has a nice anthem-y feels to it.
  • Tom Lehrer, “In Old Mexico,” “Clementine,” “Oedipus Rex.” – The first is pretty dated (including its casual use of the racist slur wetback), the second was a cute novelty song that doesn’t hold up to many listens.  The third is a pretty funny discussion of Oedipus and his life.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mScdJURKGWM]

Soundsupply:

  • The Deer Hunter, The Color Spectrum – The album name certainly represents the sonic landscape of this album — perhaps an experiment in different genres by the same group.  Some songs have an alt-rock feel reminiscent of Bush or Tool, a sound exemplified by “Deny It All.”  But they also have a lighter sound, like “She’s Always Hiding” and “Things That Hide Away.”  I particularly like the ballad “Lillian.”  A decent experiment, but it would be hard to really like this album as it feels more like a compilation than a single work.
  • The Get Up Kids, There Are Rules –  Fast paced rock music with hints of brit influence (“Regent’s Court” sounds a lot like something The Killers would record).   Not bad, per se, but this album didn’t do a lot for me.

Other Music:

  •  Daytrotter top songs of 2012 (18 songs)- Another set of catchy songs.  Among the highlights this time: “Midnight Sun” by The Pines reminds me of Bill Morrissey with a nice meditative sound; “Baby” by Natural Child sounds like a Rolling Stones song;  “White Hat” by Big Harp is my favorite this month, a jaunty folk song sung by a man with a deep voice.
  • DanC Best of 2012 – My buddy Dan‘s best of year album which ends up being my infusion of dance/pop music.  On the roster this year were 20 songs, most of them catchy (annoyingly so, sometimes).  Of the songs I’d heard before, I like “Starships” by Niki Minaj (it’s a dang fun song) and “Good Time” by Owl City.  I also was so tired of “Call Me Maybe” that I un-checked it so it wouldn’t play any more.  Of the songs I hadn’t heard, I particularly liked “Girl Gone Wild” by Madonna and “We Won’t Ever Be Rich (But We Could Be Happy)” by the Candle Thieves.  The winner of the bizarre but delightful song for the year is “Let’s Have a Kiki” by Scissor Sisters.  The only songs I actively disliked were “Pontoon” by Little Big Town, which crosses that nebulous line into “too country for my taste” and “Gang Bang” by Madonna which is strange and weird and off-putting.

Overall, a good month for music.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoTehEqvoVM]

April music: Brian Setzer, They Might Be Giants, HelloGoodbye

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lekhjkMNxI]

emusic

  • Brian Setzer Orchestra, The Ultimate Collection [Live] – a fine collection of nostalgic big-band swing music.  It’s good, but there’s nothing here that stands out for me, perhaps because it’s too nostalgic.  I am very fond of his rendition of “Summertime Blues,” though.
  • They Might Be Giants, Nanobots – TMBG are very good at coming up with the musical version of bon mots.  They have distilled this skill down to a precise and sharp point with Nanobots, in which they craft 25 two-minute songs, each with its own little bit of joy.  Favorites: Nanobots, Lost My Mind, Circular Karate Chop, Destroy the Past, 9 Secret Steps and You’re on Fire.  Winner of the weird award: Darlings of Lumberland.
  • Tom Lehrer, 3 songs – “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” is a classic from Dr. Demento so that was familiar and pleasant; “Bright College Days” hasn’t aged well; “The Elements” is great.  I wonder if he can still perform it.

SoundSupply

  • HelloGoodbye, Would It Kill You? – I like the pop/rock sound of this band.  They remind me quite a bit of Rodeo Ruby Love in many ways, and of Vampire Weekend in style and vocal timbre.  “The Thoughts Give Me the Creeps” is my favorite, but this album is generally very good. (Oh man, seeing the video, I realize these guys are SUPER HIPSTERS. Oh well.)

Other

  • Daytrotter songs (more of the 200 songs I downloaded from Daytrotter last year) – “Alcohol” by Golgol Bordello is a great cover (and has lots of ‘o’s in its name!); “We Ok” by The Very Best has an anthem-y dance-y groove sound that’s reminiscent of slow fun. songs; “Heartstring Freestyle” by Macklemore feels authentic and casual, with a slightly Caribbean feel and a ukelele.
  • Rolfe’s MNix tape, a collection of four mini-eps from a buddy of mine – Loin Groove is a ska band from the 1990s and sounds like it: “Numb” is my favorite here; Surahoolies is alt-pop that reminds me a little of Toad the Wet Sprocket: “Buried Stockings” has a delightful Indian beat to it; The Blue Up? is an alt-rock band with female singers, not too dissimilar from 90s era Juliana Hatfield with the vocal stylings of The Pretenders: “Spoons for Seven” has a trippy almost Bjork-ian sound to it; Woodpecker is a guitar and banjo folkie band and my favorite of the four EPs: “Matt & Ben” is an amusing indictment of the indie music scene, “Scrabble Duet” is a nice romantic song, “Nothing Gets Chix Hot Like a Guy Who Cares a Lot” is a funny little peep of a song.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2979lZ5yh_4]

You mean, like in the Simpsons Movie?

Under the Dome
Under the Dome

Under the Dome by Stephen King; narrated by Raul Esparza

What would happen in a little Maine town if it were suddenly cut off from the outside world by an impenetrable invisible barrier, a dome stretching across the town and trapping the residents inside?  Things would devolve pretty quickly, apparently.  A few thoughts:

  • I’ve always thought Stephen King is a good storyteller, but not a great writer.  This book reinforces that perspective for me.  King does an excellent job building characters you can love and characters you can loathe.  He knows how to make them dance and make you seethe.  People act foolishly in ways annoying and somehow realistically.  But his use of language is pedestrian and unmemorable.  Consider, for example, how his writing compares to James Lee Burke’s skillful use of language.  That said, I liked Under the Dome quite a bit.
  • One of the main plot points is the rise of the second councilman, an ambitious scumbag with a mean streak and a hypocritical view of the world.  King gives him the same method of rising to power as Hitler, and just as you’re starting to notice the similarities, members of the community notice it themselves and start referring to his helpers as brown-shirts.  It works well.
  • King is also very good at making horrible and horrifying things happen in his tales.  We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we know no one is safe from the bloodshed that weaves through his books like a snake.
  • All that said, I’d like to think things wouldn’t devolve into chaos so quickly the way he suggests they might.  But we saw what happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and I hate to think how long it would take people to lose their shit in my town if we got cut off.  None of us would have generators, and the people per acre count is far higher, so we’d run out of supplies much more quickly.  Yikes.
  • Most challenging about King’s work are the ultimately malevolent and terrible causes that he eventually provides for the horrors tracking through the stories.  This was true in The Regulators, in Desperation, in Dreamcatcher, and in Under the Dome.  There are bad things out there in the night and we don’t have much hope against them.  It’s a grim view of the world.

Raul Esparza does a good job with the book, creating creditable distinct voices for the different characters and keeping the pace reasonable.  However, I listened to the first half on CD and then absent-mindedly returned it to the library without finishing it.  When I was able to get it again, it was on a piece-of-shit MP3 player.  The sound quality was TERRIBLE and I will encourage my library NEVER to buy any of these pieces of junk.

Zoo City

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, narrated by Justine Eyre

Beukes’ startling novel imagines a world where murder causes a kind of cosmic guilt that spawns an animal companion which the guilty must then tend on pain of his or her own peril.  A dead companion animal causes a whirlwind of danger not unlike the ghosts that come for bad people in Ghost.  But getting an animal also gives one a magical power.  Our protagonist, Zinzi December, can find lost things or reconnect lost things with their absent owners.  This talent gets her in all manner of trouble.  A few thoughts:

  • Beukes has constructed a bizarre alternate world with a convincing set of changes to accompany the rise (starting in the mid-90s) of animal companions.  They’re a stigma, sure, but also a provocative addition.  The book takes place in South Africa, so the mixed social, economic, and cultural elements also complicate the book.
  • Zinzi is a compelling protagonist, funny and heartfelt but also jaded by the mistakes of her past.  Her companion animal, a sloth, is an amusing counterpoint to her wry and cynical approach to the world.
  • Beukes introduces each chapter with pieces of news accounts, letters, and other written detritus from the world.  My favorite was the chapter that began with a library list of books about “animaled” people, including a scholarly treatise reinterpreting Philip K. Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in light of the animal phenomenon.
  • The story follows a missing-person mystery case, and evolves in surprising and interesting ways.  It’s not totally unpredictable, but not by any means obvious.
  • Eyre does an excellent job narrating the book, giving Zinzi verve and voicing the other characters steadily.

Overall, a very good read.  Well worth your time.

Music roundup MEGA EDITION, part 2

I haven’t done a music roundup since, ahem, October.  This does not mean I haven’t been listening to new music each month.  I just haven’t been writing about it.  Today I present the second half of a list of the music on those playlists and brief notes on the albums.

December

In December I always load up my playlist with holiday music, because nobody tinsels a tree like me.  Emusic:

  • Jonathan Coulton & John Roderick, One Christmas at a Time – A whole album of Christmas novelty songs, all originals.  I really like “2600,” all about the desire for a video game system (An experience I remember having three different times.)  I also love the title track, which suggests optimism even in the face of a terrible life. (“I couldn’t find Teddy Ruxpin anywhere this year, but I know they’ll still be popular next year, so when I find a stash, I’m going to buy ten.”)  Last, “Christmas in Jail” is heartbreaking and funny at the same time.
  • MXPX, Punk Rawk Christmas – A rockin’ Christmas album of mostly new songs.  “You’re the One I Miss This Christmas” and “Christmas Night of the Living Dead” are both amusing, while “Christmas Only Comes Once a Year” works really well too.
  • Paul and Storm – “Grandma’s Christmas Dinner,” “Christmas Eve Eve,” “The Way-Too-Early Christmas Song” are all great.  “Grandma’s Christmas Dinner”  should, by all rights, become a classic.  But it’s probably a bit too far over that line.  You know the one.
  • Misc songs – I grabbed a few random songs from a variety of Christmas albums as well.  The highlights were “Santa Has a Mullet” by Nerf Herder and a cover of “Sleigh Ride” by fun.

I also got a few new christmas tunes via stores or downloads or whatever.

  • She and Him, A Very She & Him Christmas – A solid showing of their kind of music.  I like “Blue Christmas” best, with a close second awarded to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in which Zoe Deschanel sings the traditionally male part and M. Ward sings the traditionally female part.
  • Santastic & Santastic 2 – two original collections of Christmas mash-ups.  All are enjoyable, but I most recommend “Santa Benz.”  But really, all of these are great.

January

Back to conventional music. My emusic subscription yielded solid stuff:

  • The Lumineers, eponymous – Another of the popular folky albums, but really very enjoyable.  “Flowers in Your Hair” is great, and I really like their single “Ho Hey.” I also really like “Stubborn Love” and “Submarines.”  Worth your time, if you like this kind of music.
  • Squirrel Nut Zippers, selections from Hot, Perennial Favorites, and The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers.  I filled in gaps in my SNZ collection with songs from different albums.  My favorite of the songs from this month was “Got My Own Thing Now.”
  • Paul & Storm, “Better off Dead” is a pretty good song in the key/style/voice of Randy Newman. “Lame Monster Party” emulates the Bobby “Boris” Pickett songs like “Monster Mash.”  Good, but not as funny as “Werewolf Bah-Mitzvah.

I’m also working my way through a bunch of music from soundsupply releases and other places:

  • All Get Out, The Season – Straightforward current alt-rock.  Decent, but not amazing for me.  “My Friends” is a pretty good song.
  • Cut Teeth, Televandalism EP – Not really to my taste.  A bit more heavy than I usually like.
  • Cover Lay Down, Mumford and Sons – A few covers by the band, and a few covers OF them.  I particularly like their cover of “Not In Nottingham.”
  • Daytrotter best 100 tracks of 2013, selections – I particularly liked “Too Many Moons” by Owen, “Tonight’s the Kind of Night” by Noah and The Whale, and “Say Anything” by Say Anything.

Music roundup MEGA EDITION, part 1

I haven’t done a music roundup since, ahem, October.  This does not mean I haven’t been listening to new music each month.  I just haven’t been writing about it.  Today and next Saturday I will include a list of the music on those playlists and brief notes on the albums.

October

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jp-gX5C3vZI]

Emusic

  • Mumford & Sons, Babel.  This album deserves all the albums it won.  It’s very similar to their old work, but great nonetheless.  “Whispers in the Dark” is my favorite.
  • Dinosaur Jr, Beyond. A solid DJ outing, something I hadn’t encountered in a while.  “We’re Not Alone” is my favorite.
  • Tom Waits, Alice.  A fantastic album, as always.  Each time I get a TW album, there’s at least one song that sticks in my craw and hangs out for a long time.  On this album it’s “Kommienezuspadt”
  • Flight of the Conchords, “Carol Brown,” “You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute,” “Friends,” “Angels” – all four are enjoyable.  But Carol Brown fits the genre of the “list of lovers” song, similar to Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover,” except that it’s Jemaine who’s being left.
  • Pete Seeger, “Wreck of the Old 97,” “E-ri-e Canal” – I like Seeger’s jaunty singing about the most awful things.

Other

  • Harrison Hudson, American Thunder – A strange sound, sort-of late 1950s, but not without inflections of all the sounds since then.  I particularly liked “Run My Way” and “Sadly Sad”
  • Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Let It Sway – Guitar-driven indie rock.  Solid stuff. “Sink/Let It Sway”
  • Asobi Seksu, Fluorescence – A decent rock band, but the music didn’t really click with me.
  • Born to Run – More selected tracks from the Car Talk album.   Nothing popped out at me this time
  • Bon Iver, Daytrotter Studio session, I can see why people like this artist, but his high singing voice gets on my nerves.  I like the song “Creature Fear.”

November

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjkXXjxINVU]

Emusic

  • The Replacements, Let It Be – Early punk music.  It was fine, but I guess I was hoping it would click with me the way the Clash did.  Not so.  Interesting to learn that “Androgynous” was not a Crash Test Dummies original.
  • Tally Hall, Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum. I like this album a lot. It’s a weird mix of styles with a wry grin, somewhere between Barenaked Ladies and Moxy Fruvous in approach.  I liked “Good Day,” and “The Bidding.” “Two Wuv” is a funny paean to Mary Kate and Ashley, while “Mucka Blucka” is just awesomely weird.  (It was The Soup‘s featuring of this song that made me seek out TH in the first place).
  • Paul and Storm, songs from Do You Like Star Wars? “Hippie with a Djembe” is particularly silly.

Other

      • Aficionado, eponymous – A bit more rock and roll guitar than I usually prefer.   I really liked “Permanent”
      • Sister Suvi, Now I Am Champion – Kinda shouty in singing style.  Good guitar work, but the songs are generally longer than they need to be.
      • Doc & Merle Watson, via Cover Lay Down – Solid bluegrass songs, nothing that stands out.
      • Born to Run – More selected tracks from the Car Talk album.   Nothing popped out at me this time
      • Pete Seeger, more songs –  I still like Seeger’s jaunty singing about the most awful things.
      • The History of Apple Pie, Daytrotter Studio session – Their sound reminds me of Juliana Hatfield. In a good way.
      • The Mountain Goats, Echo Mountain Recording– “This Year” is an amazing song.  Apparently it’s eight years old.  Anyhow, it’s new to me.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii6kJaGiRaI]

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre
Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
by Ben Macintyre, narrated by John Lee

Ben Macintyre has a strong sense for storytelling, crafting a tale full of vital details that bring it to life while providing the reader a strong sense of the history involved in his tale.  This book, Operation Mincemeat, tells the true story of a secret British operation to dupe the Nazis by dropping a corpse carrying fake secret documents in the water off the coast of Spain in efforts to mislead the German hierarchy.  A few quick thoughts:

  • This book gives a better sense than any I’ve read previously about just how the intelligence service worked in Britain during the war.  This reflects, no doubt, on the paucity of reading I have done on the subject. But Macintyre threads the needle by providing just the right amount of information to keep us interested without overwhelming us.
  • The level of detail and the complicated machinations of both sides in the espionage service was quite thrilling.  These tales were made even more exciting by Macintyre’s solid storytelling, making real effort to give us a sense of the people involved in this plan.
  • That said, the biggest flaw for me was the life stories of the principles.   Whenever the book took a detour from the expanding narrative of the plan in order to give us the someone’s background, I found myself grumbling.  I’m not sure how Macintyre could have handled these parts differently and I think they belong in the book, but I was still eager to learn how things turned out and found the biographies to be more detailed than I needed.

Narrator John Lee does an excellent job bringing his refined English voice to the tale’s telling.  In particular, Lee is very good at pronouncing Italian and Spanish names, something I learned the first time I encountered him during my “reading” of Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.

Operation Mincemeat is well worth the read, very entertaining and thrilling, but with a solid core of history, both new and familiar.

Gun Machine

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis
Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Ellis’ latest novel follows the investigation of a burned out homicide detective in New York who accidentally uncovers an elaborately-built cache of guns in a tenement apartment.  His life gets much more complicated when it turns out that every one of the dozens of guns he found have been used in unsolved New York homicides.  A few thoughts:

  • The novel carries Ellis’ trademark ability to stamp the dark and gritty on a story.  As Detective Tallow drives around the city, he listens to the police scanner and discovers all manner of grotesquerie and mayhem.  It’s a grim city populated and policed by madmen.
  • I love the notion of Tallow being an outcast, in part, because he likes to read.  His book and car overflow with books and magazines.
  • The killer is a less compelling figure than I would have hoped.  While I liked the book very much, the denouement isn’t as strong as I would have liked given the fantastic premise that set up the story.

I am dithering about whether my book club would like this book.  On the one hand, they would probably like the characters and the mystery, on the other hand, I’m not sure they’d like the gritty aspect of the city.  As a Warren Ellis fan, I can heartily endorse it.

Books you missed while I was busy (4) – Non-fiction

 Even though I stopped my regular blogging in mid-October, I didn’t stop reading.  I certainly don’t have time to go back and write reviews of all the stuff I read, but I do like to keep track and I know you need to know what I’ve been reading.  So here are the last of the books I read since mid October when I stopped blogging.
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling
A detailed account of the way the most famous sculptor of his day ended up working in an extremely difficult medium that he didn’t consider himself an expert at.  Both the Pope and Michelangelo come off as pretty petulant.  The biggest takeaway of the book, for me, is the delicacy and exactitude required for fresco, which is an unforgiving medium.  Also, he would have stood and bent backwards, not lay on his back on a scaffold.
The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases
This book would have been better if it had been shorter.  Capuzzo does a great job documenting the adventures of these elite profilers, but the sheer number of cases (and the ever-growing gruesomness of them) got to me after a while.  There are only so many sicko serial killers I can read about before I’m ready to be done.
Bad Signal, Volume 2 Bad Signal, Volume 2
More highlights from Warren Ellis’ Bad Signal email list in the early 2000s.  It’s an interesting snapshot of the mind of a good writer, watching how Ellis works through certain ideas over time and proposes notions that challenge comics industry gospel.  Not for the general reader, but the Warren Ellis fan will appreciate it.

…And now you’re all caught up.  We now resume regular programming.

Books you missed while I was busy (2) – Audio fiction

Even though I stopped my regular blogging in mid-October, I didn’t stop reading.  I certainly don’t have time to go back and write reviews of all the stuff I read, but I do like to keep track and I know you need to know what I’ve been reading.  So here are some more books I read since mid October when I stopped blogging.

Rumpole Misbehaves: A Novel
Rumpole Misbehaves: A Novel – by John Mortimer
This time, Rumpole brings his aid to himself, working to get a violation of a court behavior order voided.  He also has to contend with a murder suspect who worries more about whether Rumpole has his senior barrister silks than anything else.
Harry Lipkin, Private Eye
Harry Lipkin, Private Eye – by Barry Fantoni
A really solid cozy mystery with an hard boiled sleuth pushing eighty five.  The narration fits the story perfectly, and makes the elderly detective come to life on the page.  The best part of it is that Lipkin keeps his craftiness even as he gets too old to do most of what he has to do.
Rumpole and the Reign of Terror Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Mortimer – Rumpole defends a Packistani man accused of being a terrorist on flimsy evidence.  She Who Must Be Obeyed also considers reading for the Bar herself this time around.  Rumpole discovers that she’s starting to place her affections elsewhere, but is either oblivious or too crafty to say anything.
Amped
Amped  by Daniel H. Wilson
Wilson is becoming the go-to near-future-tech adventure/apocalypse novel writer.  After Robopocalypse, he brings this solid follow-up that imagines the post-human world in which brain/body computers allow individuals to begin amplifying their meat bodies to do machine things.  The distinction between the two causes a little, ahem. friction.  Wilson’s choice to stick to a single protagonist works well.  Enjoyable and well-written.
Desperation
Desperation by Stephen King
This book was released at the same time as the Richard Bachman book The Regulators, and features overlapping character names and a similar monstrous premise at its core.  The novel was good, but really long, gory, and pretty creepy.  King does a great job of crafting believable characters in unbelievable situations.  The fiddleback spiders in this story were particularly awful.  Yeeacch.

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman

The Amateur Cracksman
The Amateur Cracksman

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman
by E.W. Hornung, read for Librivox by Kristen Hughes

Like many detective stories of the era (and still being written today), Raffles is told by an admiring sidekick, someone who knows the hero but isn’t able to see inside that big brain of theirs.  In many ways, Hornung’s story works much like a Sherlock Holmes story would, if Holmes were a cat burglar rather than a detective.  A few thoughts:

  • In the early stories, Raffles appears to just enjoy burgling for its own thrill, and only steals from the obscenely wealthy to maintain his own wealthy position.  In those stories, it’s easy to like the charming Cricketeer.  But later stories reveal Raffles to have an appalling amorality, something the narrator (whom Raffles calls ‘Bunny’) continually reacts to, though usually by saying “I don’t like this,” and then going along with it anyhow.
  • I like the slow development of the tenacious detective who tracks and baffles Raffles.  It adds tension at just the right moment when the stories were getting a bit repetitive.
  • The story reveals some of the pressure on the upper class, as Raffles and Bunny both resort to crime in order to maintain their good standing, as being poor (or rather, letting others know you’re poor) is just about the worst thing that can happen to them.
  • I also like how ‘Bunny’ continually puts his foot in it because Raffles hasn’t clued him into the plan.  SPOILER:  There’s one case in particular where Raffles switches a forgery for a valuable painting, and then Bunny, thinking Raffles has failed to steal the painting at all, chloroforms the victim and steals the forgery.
  • Several of the capers have amusing or interesting twists that helps them hold up even for a modern reader, or at least for a modern reader who enjoys turn-of-the-twentieth century writing.

Kristen Hughes does a great job with the narration of this book.  I’ll definitely be looking for more books from her.

A Princess of Mars

by Edgar Rice Burroughs, read by Mark Nelson for Librivox

A Princess of Mars book jacket
A Princess of Mars book jacket

Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy story about the adventures of Captain John Carter (of Virginia) among the six-limbed people of Mars is a rousing adventure in the old style, with tales of derring-do, sword fights, honor, and villainy.  Carter, succombing to a wound in a mystical cave in the American West, finds himself transported to Mars, where he falls in with a vicious warrior race (the Green men of Mars) and discovers the love of his life, a beautiful princess (of the Red men of Mars).  Because he was raised in the heavy gravity well of Earth, Carter has immense strength on Mars, making him a formidable warrior.  A few thoughts:

  • Having just read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I was particularly sensitive to this book’s depiction of the Native Americans in the West as vicious killers.  “John Carter,” I thought to myself, “you’re trespassing on their land!”  Of course, it’s not hard to read the two peoples of Mars as analogous to the two populations in nineteenth century America.  Burroughs depicts the green men of Mars as vicious killers living in a society based on violence and Communist ideas.    He explicitly explains their nomadic existence as a degradation due to their unwillingness to work hard.
  • By contrast, the Red men live in cities and do the essential work of maintaining the oxygen supply of Mars, without which everyone would die.  (I can’t help wondering how creatures requiring an oxygen-rich environment evolved in such a place, but Burroughs doesn’t go into that.  In fact, his suggestion that high civilizations from thousands of years ago had fallen away and left remnants all over the planet reminds me of a tale of far-future Earth, in which (perhaps) water purifying plants provide the only uncontaminated water in the world, or something like that.
  • There are quite a few science-fictional elements in the novels: hovering ships, rifles that can shoot two miles, bombs, shells that explode when sunlight touches their powder, and an air-refinery that services the whole planet.  Also? Everyone on Mars is psychic, including John Carter.  But while he can hear their thoughts, he can neither send them actively nor be heard by anyone passively.
  • The life cycle of the Green Men is incredibly slow.  Eggs are laid only once every five years, and they are left in sealed remote buildings.  After an additional five years, the tribe returns to break open the building and let out the hatchlings, who will have just hatched.  They are collected into families at random without– we’re supposed to gasp– any idea who their blood parents are.  John Carter suggests that this random parenting process creates the loveless violence that plagues the Green men.  At the same time, the green men have a habit of destroying any opposing incubators they find in their wanderings, thus cutting off another tribe’s young for at least five years.  It’s a particularly grim aspect of the Green Men’s culture, and one of the ways Burroughs helps highlight their vile nature.
  • Last, A Princess of Mars is a classic white messiah fable.  John Carter shows up among the green men and turns out to be a better warrior than any of them are.  Then he leads them to a civilized detante with the Red Men of Mars and teaches them about love and caring and friendship.  What a guy!

Mark Nelson does a great job once again, though something about his vocal styling tends to add an air of humor that I suspect some lines weren’t supposed to have.  That said, I’m continuing to enjoy my journey through Mark Nelson’s audio catalog on Librivox.

The Fire-Eaters

The Fire Eaters
The Fire Eaters

by David Almond

I listened to this short children’s novel during the epic Labor Day drive to Florida and back. The Fire Eaters follows a few days in the life of Bobby, a British boy who lives in a coal-mining town and has just started at a new school.  The novel takes place during the Cuban missile crisis.  A few thoughts:

  • At the core of the book are conflicts over identity.  Bobby is a working class boy whose educational prospects are high.  We get the impression that he’s destined for higher education.  By contrast, his friends seem already, at ten or eleven, to be approaching the end of their educational arc.  He wrestles with the shifting relationships and identities that emerge.
  • Along comes Daniel, the son of a professor and an artist, who provokes Bobby to think about the world a little differently, but who also brings his own prejudices and class arrogance to the town.  Daniel makes a project of calling out the vicious corporal punishment used at their school.  Between Daniel and Joe–Bobby’s best friend before school starts–lie a cultural gulf not easily navigated.
  • Bobby also has to deal with his affection for Ailsa, another working-class friend who has abandoned school for the traditional occupation of her family (panning for coal in the ocean shore of their town).  She and Bobby share a deep bond that comes under stress as the novel continues.
  • And Bobby’s father is ill, and has to go to the hospital for more and more tests.  And the world is on the verge of destruction in a nuclear holocaust.
  • Framing the story is the arrival of McNulty, a tattooed, maniacal fire eater and contortionist who prowls the market district demanding “Pay!” in exchange for his terrible feats.  It turns out McNulty is a damaged soul, tormented by his experience in World War 2.

The Fire Eaters is beautifully written and interesting, with solid characterization and evocative descriptions.  Like many such novels, there aren’t clear resolutions of conflicts, but the main character grows from his experiences and his position feels more settled by the end than it did at the beginning.  Definitely worth a read.

See also: Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, The Suspicions of Mister Whicher, Preparing for a Road Trip