Book review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That feeling you get when you mutiny only to find out you’re just as bad at captaining.

The war between the Idirans and the Culture is starting. Both are looking for an edge when they become aware of a ship mind that does the impossible. If they can have the mind then they could win the war. But the mind is hiding on a neutral planet, only accessible by Changers like Horza. Horza has to sneak past both armies to capture the mind, but will he survive long enough to see the mission through?

A few years ago, my uncle recommended the Culture series to me. I already had Consider Phlebas on my TBR pile, having picked up a copy cheap somewhere (thankyou online sales). Finally, the book made it to the top of the pile. And I was disappointed.

As far as sci-fi space opera goes, the novel is solid. There is a large amount of action, everyone is rarely not in danger, and the sci-fi elements make for an interesting setting.

Okay. So why the disappointment?

Good question, voice in my head. And thanks for letting up on the demands to burn stuff for that brief shining moment.

The first problem I had was that this novel felt meandering and long. At ~470 pages it feels about 100 pages or so too long. Often the series of events feel unnecessary or drawn-out just so we can get more descriptions of card games and wacky cannibals. I know that sci-fi and fantasy audiences often demand all that filler, but I am a fickle reader who has too many other books waiting in the wings.

The second problem was that Horza was somewhat unlikeable. For the main character to be less than admirable or straight-up evil is fine. But you have to want to spend time with them as they be jerks. Horza wasn’t really up to the task. Maybe this was because it felt like stuff happened to him quite a bit, rather than having agency, or that we were told a lot of stuff about him without seeing him do those things. Or maybe he just felt like a con-man… which is essentially what his character was.

I’m not sure if other books in the Culture series are like this one, being made up of stand-alone novels. Potentially the series improves; this is the lowest rated book in the series by the looks. This leaves me really torn on recommending Consider Phlebas and whether to read anything else in the Culture series.

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Book review: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hey kids, want some of the good stuff? Take a hit of this Science & Critical Thinking. It’ll blow your mind!!

Carl Sagan takes us on a journey through the history of science and our fleshy meat-sack attempts to understand the universe. He tries to illustrate the difference between knowledge and nonsense. And he tries to instill a sense of interest and wonder in the universe around us, something that he believes is a cornerstone of a functional society into the future.

I first read Demon-Haunted World in undergrad *cough-cough* years ago. I read it again about a decade ago, although have little memory of doing so. So it was interesting to revisit Sagan’s case for following knowledge (through science) in the post-alternative facts world.

Possibly the most obvious aspects of this book are the often-quoted sections about the risks of not valuing education and knowledge. What was more interesting this time around was digging into the offhand remarks and bias of the book. The introduction had a great remark about a teacher being a bully to female students that was barely explored, despite being a great anecdote about how certain groups are held out of STEM fields. Another was the US-centric bias (obviously the book was written by an American for an American audience) which was at odds with the theme of science and education helping everyone.

There were also more disappointments this time around. Sure, I still love the Baloney Detection Kit. And being reminded of how so many curious people don’t get exposed to good information because we don’t value actual knowledge. But I’ve got less time for the scientism that leads to dismissals of philosophy or other knowledge methods. While Sagan’s was a mild scientism, it does feed into something many pro-science communicators can fall into the trap of and comes off as a little arrogant.

I guess I’ll revisit this in another decade. Looking forward to it.

Comments while reading:
Sagan talks about his humble origins and passion for science. It’s good to see someone acknowledge how the “inspiring teacher” trope is often not present, both for those who develop a passion and for those who don’t for whatever subject.

There was also an incidental point made about bullying and sexism that was almost glossed over. He mentioned one of his teachers being very good but also a bully. Someone who delighted in being mean to the female students. This sort of overt sexism (or racism, or bigotry in general) undoubtedly has held back generations of people from STEM. The more subtle versions persist and do similar levels of damage.

The oblique references to post-modernism are a bit disappointing. I understand that Sagan has the common misunderstanding of the philosophy, but I’d like to think someone like him would have taken the time to read and understand it. Although, it would help if the po-mo writers weren’t so verbose and abstract (and being translated from French).

Sagan covers a bit about a Randi hoax done on the Australian media. It was interesting to hear about how credulous our Aussie media were back then. Sorry, what am I saying? They are still credulous fools publishing anything for outrage and eyeballs. The comedy team, The Chaser, just recently pranked the media with a fake Fairy Bread petition with exactly the foaming outrage from conservative media you’d expect.

It’s interesting to come out the other side of organised skepticism and re-read Sagan. He and some of the other more reasonable voices (e.g. Phil Plait) still come across well. But you can also see the scientism. Sagan’s isn’t as pronounced as some others, but you can’t help thinking that Sagan might have slid down the same road into grumpy old man shouting at people on Twitter road that so many of his contemporaries have (cough Dawkins cough). I’d like to think not.

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Book review: Burn Bright by Marianne de Pierres

Burn Bright (Night Creatures, #1)Burn Bright by Marianne de Pierres
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a pill for that: a guide to partying on Ixion island.

Retra’s only friend, her brother, abandoned her to seek pleasure away from the stifling culture of Grave. She decides to follow him to Ixion, enduring the pain of an obedience implant to do so. Once there, everyone is encouraged to party until they burn out and get too old. Retra is more concerned about finding her brother. But in doing so, she uncovers the secrets about Ixion and upsets those in charge.

Burn Bright was fine. It had a fast pace and an interesting world.

I think I was halfway through the book when I made the comment, “I don’t know where de Pierres is heading with this, if anywhere.” I guessed straight away that the various Ixion inhabitants were using the kids as cattle in some way. My assumption was that they were vampires, to be honest. It took until the second last chapter for the big reveal, which wasn’t different enough from my assumption to be much of a “twist”.

This could just be the jaded reader in me wanting something fresher. I wasn’t sure where de Pierres was headed with Burn Bright because it felt like the obvious reveal couldn’t be what we were building to. But it was. Essentially, the big mystery was not interesting enough to make everything else payoff.

Burn Bright is entertaining enough, but I feel like this is a book for younger less jaded readers than me.

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Book review: Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Children of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #3)Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you have all your ancestors’ memories, is that better or worse than having them watch you masturbate from the afterlife?

[Warning: this review contains a spoiler for a book released in the 1970s, which obviously requires a warning so that people will be adequately able to navigate to the comments section to complain.]

Paul Atreides’ twin children, Leto and Ghanima, are sick of being treated as children and are ready to rule. Their aunt Alia is possessed by her ancestor, Baron Harkonnen, and wants them dead. House Corrino is plotting to take over Dune, and wants them dead. Some of the Fremen want to return to the old ways, and want them dead. And their grandmother wants to test them with the gom jabbar, which could potentially leave them dead.

This review is being written almost a week after I finished reading it. Usually, a gap of this much between finishing and reviewing suggests I wasn’t left with any strong impressions of the book. And I think Children of Dune certainly falls into the category of “a book I have read”.

The book was entertaining. But it was only adequate.

Dune was a great novel. I felt Dune Messiah was a lesser novel in every way, whilst still enjoyable. Children of Dune was another few steps down the quality ladder.

I think the issue was that Children of Dune didn’t feel as well constructed. What appeared to be major plot points were essentially over before the halfway mark. Another plot point which has been hinted at for three novels essentially came out of left field. [Spoiler] Leto’s transformation really lacks supporting explanation. I mean, I find it really hard to believe that Leto was the first to get high on drugs, pull on a sand trout skin, and realise it gave them superpowers. Herbert introduces this idea as it happens and explains that it was something kids regularly did with their hands for fun. You can’t tell me that no idiot has ever been that wasted and tried it out.[/Spoiler]

Children of Dune was entertaining enough. But I don’t think I’ll read more of the series.

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Book review: Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A ManifestoFully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Aaron Bastani
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you labour the point does that make you working-class?

Dr Aaron Bastani is best known as one of the founders of Novara Media in the UK. A recurrent theme to their journalism is a hope to move society toward Fully Automated Luxury (Gay Space) Communism. His book attempts to articulate the whys and hows this will be possible and reasoning for it being the utopia we’re all looking for.

Fully Automated Luxury (Gay Space) Communism has been the dream of lefties since they first spotted a capitalist getting out of bed at noon to start a hard day of reading the paper and smoking cigars at a Gentleman’s Club. The rise of FAL(GS)C has been predicted by people of all political stripes, but notably anyone with one eye on the future. It’s often part of post-scarcity utopias common in science fiction. So writing about it in the 2010’s is not exactly groundbreaking.

In many respects, Bastani’s text is an update on how close we are to utopia right now. While it stands alone as its own argument for FALC, there aren’t a lot of new insights.

This isn’t a bad thing. I think people do need to be reminded that the future we choose to have is being shaped now. That our future could be one that is good for everyone rather than good for the type of people who buy diamond collars for their dogs.

But I felt Bastani laboured the point throughout. This could be because I’m somewhat familiar with most of the points raised. It could be that I was wanting less explanation of the basics and more of the ramifications (see for example my comments below about automation jobs lost vs created). Regardless, I felt this left the book somewhat lacking in its arguments and evidence.

I also felt that there were points made that were somewhat irrelevant or missed huge points. Space mining seems like one of those things people talk about because it has the word space in it. I’m yet to be convinced of the need and point of it. And as great as disrupting the system can be, you have to talk about the transition otherwise you risk making things worse, not better.

If you’re familiar with FALC and read the occasional piece about technology, this book isn’t going to offer any new insights for you. For everyone else, I think this is worth a read to start thinking about the sort of world WE want rather than the world others will create for themselves.

Comments while reading:
I’ve heard Bastani talk about some of this before, but in his writing he is somewhat labouring the point about automation from computers. Yes, automation has happened and will happen from increased computing. But I hope he gets into less of Moore’s Law and more on the jobs lost to automation, if that is increasing, and whether they are being replaced.

Although, on that point, Bastani is trying to argue for FALC, so not really about replacing the jobs as sharing the fruits of their labour, methinks.

While I get the excitement about mining space, I really don’t see the point. As Bastani notes, one precious metal asteroid would oversupply the market thus make the exercise worthless. Not to mention, do we actually need more stuff, or are there just billionaires eyeing off the title of trillionaire? Like phosphorus, supposedly we’re running out… We’re not, actually, we’re just running out of cheap and easy to access sources. Hell, we literally flush away shitloads of nutrients and metals every day. If you change the way we think about our resources (particularly the value we assign) then it could be easier to just use our current planet better. And share better…

The discussion of the future of food and agriculture is interesting if a little inaccurate. We see the common claims about soils only having X harvests left (that is just false, but widely reported), and about meat requiring lots of inputs (bit misleading since something like a cow is used for a lot more than just the meat). In fairness, his mistakes are understandable as there is plenty of scientific literature that makes these same mistakes (which really undermines the credibility of some groups with those in ag science).

But the point about food being able to transition to partly/mostly/wholly being done “in the lab” is true and exciting. It does, however, have to be done as a proper transition, not as a disruption (as implied). Otherwise you’re lining up a genocide for food animals, the collapse of a massive industry, and huge negative environmental impacts (weeds and pests alone would be detrimental). Family farms are the biggest landholders and environmental managers, and I see a logical transition to having them become environmental land managers (reintroducing flora and fauna, documenting said same, controlling ferals, etc).

Bastani’s overall thesis is pretty obvious: hey, look at all of this now and near-future tech. We could literally all sit around and do whatever we want. Wouldn’t that be better than having a handful of trillionaires while the rest of us starve?

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Book review: The Establishment by Owen Jones

The Establishment: And How They Get Away with ItThe Establishment: And How They Get Away with It by Owen Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*Puffs on cigar* The Establishment, hey, this sounds like a book for me.
*Pulls out monocule to read sub-heading* This book is trash!

Owen Jones’ The Establishment is an attempt to lift the veil on how power and the powerful have seized increasing levels of control and wealth from society at the expense of everyone else. It covers several facets, from the creators of the intellectual frameworks, through the enforcers of control, to the self-entitled people treating the economy like a casino safe in the knowledge the plebs will bail them out.

This was an excellent read and filled in a lot of the details for events and social changes we’ve heard covered numerous times. Instead of hearing these details discussed by the usual apologists of the status quo, Owen makes it clear what is happening and weaves it together as a solid narrative and argument for change.

Needless to say, I’m sure that plenty of the dismissals of this book did so by spotting a misplaced percentage symbol or by the tried and trusted baseless accusations of inaccuracy or confusion.

As an Aussie, I saw a lot of parallels between what Jones discussed for the UK and what the experience has been in Australia. The effective lack of difference between the two major parties (nominally right and left, but realistically described as shit and slightly less shit), the dominance of conservative (Murdoch owned) media, and the close ties of the powerful, all very familiar. This book could have been written about Australia, not the UK.

In some respects, the book, A Game of Mates, tried to cover much of the same ground. That book failed to be convincing as it lacked some of the scholarship and well thought out solutions you’d want. Jones’ The Establishment is the opposite, as it is compelling, and thus I take his arguments and solutions far more seriously.

Some of the solutions are no-brainers, like instead of taxpayer bailouts being socialism for the rich they could instead be the taxpayers buying the banks, utilities, etc. But some ideas, like stopping the revolving door, are more difficult and not fleshed out enough. This was also a solution proposed in A Game of Mates, and as I said in that review, it’s not well thought out. Are we just going to say that people can’t take on a different job in their field of expertise? Are we trapping them? Would it not be better to look at examples of where there isn’t/wasn’t a revolving door, and create those conditions (which I imagine would relate to a robust sense of community and contribution rather than thinking about how to game the system).

The Establishment is worth reading and then discussing widely.

Edit: Listening to an interview with Stacey Abrams reminded me of something that Jones said throughout the book that was quite important. There is this idea that the “two sides” of politics differ greatly and are hugely divided. Abrams stated that “conservatives want to conserve, which means protecting inequalities and suffering that occurs now from getting better” (approximate quote).

But something that I’ve noticed, and a point that Jones made throughout with reference to polling and surveys, is that there is a lot more common ground than people think. Jones argued that in many respects, the people who want the most progressive measures taken also happen to be voting for the most regressive and conservative parties and politicians. This is generally because supposed left or progressive politics doesn’t capture the attention, while those ultra-conservative voices are able to rally populism and easy messages to address complex issues (the classic being to blame the job stealing, dole bludging Schrodinger’s immigrant for whatever real issue).

So it is a trap people are falling into when assuming that the populous are somehow not looking to make society better. The real problem is actually selling the message of being able to make society better rather than just putting a fresh coat of paint on the status quo.

Comments while reading:
The main thrust, as outlined in the Introduction and part of the first chapter, reminds me of A Game of Mates and the TV mini series (based on a book) A Very British Coup. The former was a somewhat disappointing book that I felt lacked some evidence and cohesive thought to the arguments, which I get the early impression Jones isn’t replicating (i.e. he’s making a solid case).

The argument is similar to what we see in A Very British Coup where the power sphere is inherently conservative and the general populous is complicit in that continuing because the system was designed to keep democracy from eroding the power of the powerful. In that series (and the book), the powerful literally seek to undermine the democracy of their nation using any and all means. Obviously, completely fiction and no parallels to real life events can be drawn… (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Very_…)

The “good old days” that many people talk about were also the times of social democracy (at least partly). That annoyed the neo-liberals and free marketeers. Yet many of the reactionaries today would still point a hazy finger to those years as “great” (less for the economic social democracy and more for the bigotry). So it could be argued that many of the economic policies post-WW2 are what we need. It had more equal economic policies and it was a stark contrast to the pre-war policies that produced significant inequality in society.

Found myself nodding so much, but none more so than with the conclusion. I’d pull out some quotes, but the entire thing is a great summary of what needs to be done and why.

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The status quo may be treated as common sense now, but future generations will surely look back with a mixture of astonishment and contempt at how British society is currently organized: the richest 1,000 individuals worth £520 billion,1 while hundreds of thousands of people have to queue to eat in food banks; a thriving financial elite that helped plunge Britain into a vortex of economic collapse, which was rescued by over £1 trillion of public money but continues to operate much as before; a reigning dogma that treats the state as an obstacle to be eradicated and shunned, even as the state serves as the backbone for private interests; a corporate elite, dependent as it is on state largesse, that refuses to contribute money to the state; a media that does not exist to inform, educate, as well as challenge all those with power, but which serves as a platform for the ambitions, prejudices and naked self-interest of a small number of wealthy moguls. More startling to our descendants will be how this was passed off as normal, as entirely rational and defensible, and how institutions run by the elite attempted, with considerable success, to redirect people’s anger to those at the very bottom of society.

Book review: The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew Reilly

The Two Lost Mountains (Jack West Jr, #6)The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew Reilly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MR: This happens every few thousand years and only the greatest can save the universe.
Me: So blowing up all the artefacts is going to make it hard for future generations to save the universe.
MR: Try not to think about that.

Jack West Jr is back in the third and final… almost final instalment in the trilogy which started with The Four Legendary Kingdoms. When we last saw him he’d lost family, friends, and was battling to keep ahead of the royal families while saving the universe. And nothing has changed. Sphinx has powerful new weapons that can put a city to sleep and has all the clues to help him gain access to the final challenge. Meanwhile, Jack is trying to save his family and friends and figure out what everyone else already knows.

As I’ve already indicated, I was expecting this to be the third book in the adventure trilogy. If I had remembered any of Matthew’s social media posts about the book I’d have realised he’d had so much fun writing that the trilogy has gone all Hitchikers Guide. This was both a good thing, as who doesn’t enjoy more of the books they are reading, and a bad thing, because the next book isn’t out yet!!!

Much like the previous The Three Secret Cities, I really enjoyed the book but upon reflection, wasn’t as excited by it as some of Matthew’s novels. I’m starting to suspect that this is a “more of the same” issue. The thrill of a Matthew Reilly novel is somewhat dampened by the fact I’ve read all of his stuff (multiple times in some instances) and am now a jaded husk of a reader, doomed to seek thrills from other authors who will fail to live up to my ever loftier standards. Other authors have reached this point much earlier for me (looking at you James Rollins and Steve Berry). Hopefully, Reilly will pull out all the stops – that is to say, no stops, just all sprinting – in the final in this Jack West Jr series.

Looking forward to the next one.

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Book review: Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, #2)Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beware of a Tleilaxu bearing gifts.

After successfully taking the imperial throne, Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides now rules as Emperor. The Fremen have been busy waging a religious war across the empire in Paul’s name, racking up a body count that would make all other past atrocities look like a rounding error. Paul is trapped in his destiny and is trying to nudge (future) history toward peace while negating conspiracies, fulfilling his role as Emperor, and keeping Chani safe.

Dune Messiah is an interesting follow-up to Dune. I had been expecting something of a look into the universe outside of Arrakis. Instead, the story is focused on (to use Herbert’s own term) inverting the tale of the chosen one’s rise to emperor. So much of the novel is about Paul feeling trapped, his failures as a leader, and the usual problems associated with retaining power as a dictator.

In many ways, this is a smaller novel than Dune. Much of the universe has been established, particularly on the political side of things, which means Herbert is able to discuss the foibles of his hero. This is both a good and bad thing. Most sequels would go bigger (or at least more explodey), so turning inward on the tale makes Dune Messiah interesting. But it also means you feel like this instalment is somewhat lesser.

I’m quite intrigued to see where Herbert took this series next [insert joke about Brian Herbert ruining the franchise after that].

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Book review: Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Lords and Ladies (Discworld, #14)Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So… Elves like to watch you dance naked… And don’t even tip. Creepy.

The kingdom of Lancre is about to host the royal wedding of former fool, King Verance II, to current witch, Magrat Garlik. The locals are preparing for the wedding and the arrival of foreign dignitaries. With the wedding scheduled for Midsummer, when the skin between realities becomes thinnest, elves are trying to return to the Disc. But not if Granny Weatherwax has anything to say about it.

I have to preface this review by saying it has been so long since I’ve read A Midsummer Night’s Dream that there is virtually nothing I remember of it. Maybe a thou or two, but that’s it. As such, a novel that mocks it is not going to be fully appreciated by me.

As I was reading Lords and Ladies I was thoroughly entertained. There were some fantastic moments, not least of which was the inclusion of the Many Worlds Theory. It’s easy to pick out quotes:

“In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.”

“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”

But several days on from finishing the novel and I’m hard-pressed to think of anything much to say or highlight about Lords and Ladies. It’s an entertaining read, a solid entry in the Discworld series (particularly the bees), but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. That feels somewhat sacrilegious to say about a novel that is head and shoulders above most anything else. I guess there is a universe in which I have read A Midsummer Night’s Dream more recently and regarded this Discworld instalment more highly, just not in this one.

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Book review: The Wulf by Steve Harris

WulfWulf by Steve Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Going into the back paddock isn’t normally this bad.

Jame “Heater” Healey has only one dream. Buying a new bike. With an abusive father, no money, and a handful of friends with similar small-town struggles, the only thing that makes him feel good is riding. After the latest in a series of beatings, Heater starts to notice strange things happening in his little country town. He and his friend Ember attend the local harvest festival where things take a turn for the weird. From here on in it is all downhill. Can Heater survive the return of the Wulf?

A couple of years ago I decided to revisit the novel The Hoodoo Man, which I read when I was young. It was just as good as I remembered and felt the need to hunt down the rest of Steve Harris’ books. This was no easy task as the late Steve Harris (born 29 September 1954 in Basingstoke, died 4th October 2016) was one of those talented authors who was just becoming established when his career suddenly ended in the late 90s. Between his publishing house being bought out and the rejection of one of his novels for being too horrifying, his books went out of print and are largely forgotten.

The Wulf was Harris’ second novel and has a similar narrative style to many horror novels. We get introduced to the small rural village of West Waltham and its inhabitants. There are abusive parents, cheating partners, semi-famous philanderers, tree-changers, impoverished jerks, and small-town folk. And in true horror novel form, the supernatural elements that seek to destroy this little corner of the world are only really as bad as the easily corrupted inhabitants living normal lives up until now.

Which is why I’m only giving this novel 3 stars. It is fairly good, if too drawn out, horror novel that doesn’t have quite the impact that I’d been expecting. Of course, reading a horror novel in 2020 is like accidentally hitting your thumb with a hammer and then putting your thumb down on an anvil to make sure the hammer really connects cleanly this time.* So horror fans will probably enjoy this earlier Harris novel.

*My wife called this a heavy-handed metaphor. We’re both very punny.

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Book review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Lovecraft CountryLovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lovecraft Country: where the monsters play second fiddle to the racism.

Atticus Turner’s family has a secret link to the powerful Braithwhite family. The Braithwhites are part of a sect of natural philosophers, and they have designs on Atticus, his family, and his friends. Each of them are playing a part in Caleb Braithwhite’s plan [spoilers]which is, shock-horror, to take over the world… that is to say the USA[/spoilers]. Can Atticus and his kin triumph, even in Jim Crow America’s Lovecraft Country?

I think I was about two chapters in when I remarked how good this book was. Ruff’s weaving together of (US) black history and Lovecraftian themes made for compelling reading. Reading it in 2020 after Black Lives Matter has swept across much of the global north was a timely reminder of how there is still a lot to be done.

It was odd having to remind myself that many of the things in this book actually happened. Okay, I’m not entirely convinced that someone has figured out how to create a portal between worlds, but white people deciding to kill their new black neighbours because they are afraid of the impact on their house value, that was (is??) a thing.

The only real flaws for me was that there were a few sections that felt unnecessary (e.g. Rose’s new job) and that the racism could feel a bit off. This latter point is about how Ruff is telling us all what it was like to be black in America. It is hard for me to judge how accurate the handling of this was, as I’m not old or black enough to really understand, and the same could be said of Ruff. I wonder how historically accurate this story is – the racism, not the secret society of rich white guys using their power and influence to control the world, which is obviously bang on.

I think any flaws can be forgiven thanks to the payoff of the climactic scene. Weaving all of the narrative and thematic elements together for a single dialogue exchange was damned near as good an ending as you could hope for.

Lovecraft Country is well worth reading.

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Book review: Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Humankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful HistoryHumankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People: Look at this nice thing we did.
Media: Boring!
Sociopath: Look at this terrible thing I did.
Media: Can you do that more? Maybe with a chainsaw this time? See how nasty people are!

With Human Kind, Rutger Bregman attempts to debunk an idea that underpins our social and economic systems. At the core of our society is this assumption that everyone is selfish, nasty, and would quite happily murder you, drink your flesh in a protein smoothie, and play with your entrails if it wasn’t for threats of state violence or eternal torment. Bregman addresses what he calls the Rousseau vs Hobbs debate over human nature with the intention of showing Russo was correct and we’re not so bad after all. And since we’re not so bad, maybe we need to rethink all the things we do based on this assumption.

Since I started reading philosophy I’ve slowly been coming to the realisation that society has been built upon what was good for the powerful. These ideas are often in opposition to evidence, morals, and the principle of not being a dick to others.* How can the Hobbsian view of human nature have won? People generally get along just fine. Most of the bad things we experience are from the outliers (sociopaths) or Hanlon’s Razor. Well, the simple answer is that the powerful can use the Hobbsian view to justify their position in society and to perpetuate it.**

Bregman does a pretty good job of tackling some of the common examples and studies used to “prove” how bad people are. One by one, they fall apart as scrutiny is applied to them. While the real-life Lord of the Flies story was the sort of thing that should be the stuff of legend, I found the debunking of the Kitty Genovese murder the most satisfying. They both illustrate how good news and bad news will be highlighted completely differently. This influences our view of the world. We should be careful in that regard.

As an argument, I think Bregman proves his point.

But… There is a bit too much glossing over important points. There are also some contentious assertions, like the idea that Homo-puppy (humans) domesticated itself by selecting for kindness. That isn’t to say these points are wrong, but they are taking quite a few short cuts and artistic flourishes (and Homo-puppy is a pretty cool flourish). One example, the selection for hairless apes as part of domestication is probably not true, or at least more complicated than implied.

Overall, this was an excellent book. I think if we all took these arguments seriously (and did the lateral reading to see how much support it has) then we could make a better world for everyone.

Or we could let the handful of nasty people continue to ruin it for everyone.

* That’s a direct quote from Jesus.
** Or as I put it in my review of Rousseau’s Origins of Inequality: inequality is a way for the rich and powerful to build a moat and castle.

Comments while reading:
Love the bit about the Easter Island insult roughly translating to: the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.

There are some interesting points made in pursuit of the argument but they do gloss over a large amount of research. It would be very easy to dismiss the argument if you were so inclined. One example is in his criticisms of Steven Pinker. If I hadn’t already read several papers and articles that dive into how wrong Pinker’s claims have been, then it would be easy to see Bregman as cherry-picking. But then again, you could spend a long time just discussing prehistoric violence studies, which isn’t that exciting for the average reader.

How do you get people to bad things? Well, you need to bully and coerce. But you can’t just give people an order or force them, as they tend to resist. You have to appeal to their good side. They have to believe they are helping, that they are doing it for “the greater good” or because they trust the person asking for their help.
“In fact, people go to great lengths, will suffer great distress, to be good. People got caught up in trying to be good.” (Don Mixon, psychologist who replicated the Milgram experiment.)
“In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed, capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t’ live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort do draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.”

The Bystander Effect isn’t what we think. “…you can see that in 90 per cent of cases, people help each other out.”
But of course, that doesn’t sell papers or drive outrage media. Good news stories blip, bad news you can fill entire days of coverage with. So they’ll spin a story, or they’ll focus on the exceptions, or they’ll do both.

The comments about education and bullying are interesting. Institutions that utilise hierarchical structures and introduce competitiveness essentially manufacture nastiness and bullying as a result. The book also skipped over something very briefly that is going to start being more important in education circles, and that is how bad testing is (particularly standardised testing). Teaching people to be able to pass a test is not the same thing as education.

The rich and powerful don’t blush. Rising to power essentially turns off your shame (thus you don’t blush) or you rise to power because you’re more likely to be shameless (sociopaths, narcissist, etc). This is why one of the tactics of keeping the powerful inline doesn’t really work. Shaming people with satire, mockery, humour, etc, would work on the average person, but that isn’t the case with the sort of people who feel they are better than us plebs.

Quibble: there is a lot of talk in this book about humans being 99% the same as whatever chimp. I’m a little sick of seeing this misunderstanding. We aren’t really X% similar in the way that implies. A lot of genetic code isn’t for making humans or chimps, it is for making cells, or biological functions, or transcribing proteins. So it fails to understand what DNA does.

Enlightenment I have issues with. There’s this assertion that the enlightenment was awesome because it gave us science, capitalism, modern democracy, etc. While Bregman does a good job of highlighting that it also gave us modern racism, it underplays just about every other criticism of enlightenment. You have to remember that it didn’t give us democracy, that had to be fought for by everyone other than the landed gentry. You have to remember that the invisible hand and selfishness weren’t good ideas, they were ideas that allowed the rich merchants to be in charge. You have to remember that Reason™ has been used to justify the status quo, hold down social progress, further marginalise the disadvantaged, create massive inequality. You have to remember that the enlightenment happened just after and during the scientific revolution.

In other words, there is a lot of cheerleading around Enlightenment without adequate acknowledgement of the problems and consequences, and discussion of how many things were converging at the same time (there is an argument to be made that a certain level of population density and people with spare time occurred, thus driving forward a large number of things, rather than it being down to a couple of big-name thinky people with invisible hands and justifications for landed gentry merchants being in charge). I mean, most of these ideas were come up with by Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob 50-100 years earlier, so there’s that too.

There are a couple of points made about punching Nazis and extremism that showed a want to either distance Bregman’s comments from those “radical lefties” or an attempt to appeal to the “enlightened centrists”. I’m not sure what the thinking was here, but it did show through a few blind spots. For example, Mark Bray’s book on Antifa outlines how punching Nazis is hardly the only thing Antifa do and there is solid reasoning used when it is done (and the march Bregman talked about being used to fundraise efforts at getting people out of the Nazis groups would classify as anti-fascist action, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were under the banner of Antifa). It also showed a lack of understanding of political and social change. Yes, that much cited study on violence concluded that non-violent movements were more successful… Except that would have to ignore all the violent efforts that made the non-violent efforts possible (because everyone knows that ending Apartheid was all non-violent protest – e.g. rebuttal here).

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Sketch summarising Russo’s argument for the start of the world’s problems.

Other reviews:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7470881/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/12/humankind-a-hopeful-history-by-rutger-bregman-review
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/10/humankind-by-rutger-bregman-review-a-hopeful-history-of-our-nature (This one is a somewhat critical review that I feel makes a couple of good points – like the parking over the bike lane – but also either skimmed the book or really loves to be black and white about things in a way Bregman wasn’t)

Book Review: Debt The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 YearsDebt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Invent money so you can take it off of people… Ingenious?

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a comprehensive dive into the history of money, credit, and society/economy. It acts as a direct refutation of the commonly taught economic ideas about money and exchange systems that make up our economies (past and present). In doing so, Graeber draws on countless examples, historical evidence, and anthropological research to outline the major flaws with our current economic system.

This book was a very important read. It doesn’t just overturn many assumptions, it shows how those assumptions are taught as fact to perpetuate our current system. But probably the most important point Debt makes is that our current system doesn’t fully account for the human economy which means it will ultimately fail and we need to replace it with a system that does account for everything.

That said, at about halfway through Debt I found myself starting to wave my hand for Graeber to move it along a bit. At two-thirds, I was signalling for him to wrap it up already. Having read several of Graeber’s books and essays now, I feel Debt was his most important but also most meandering. In some ways, it reminded me of Das Kapital in this respect.

I fully expect this book will be ignored by economists, with fists firmly shoved into ears. You should probably read it though.

Comments while reading:
I’ve heard the barter (myth) explanation so many times. But now that I’ve read some examples of where that isn’t used, or is used quite differently from what we conventionally are told happened in the past, you realise that its pretty much a whole-cloth nonsense. I mean, who’d have thunk that sharing would have been common among our ancestors? It’s still common today when things go pear-shaped. So bloody obvious.

MMT explainer on the creation of money. Having read about MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) in Stephanie Kelton’s book, seeing it used here only reinforces both texts. Someone needs to create a market, hand out credit and demand a proportion be repaid. Goods are exchanged. Eventually, money turns up as an accounting measure.

Interesting side note about the Hindu philosophy of Nyaya that rivals pre-Socratic philosophy. It has an interesting idea about how logic shouldn’t be doing a content-independent “formal language” but instead incorporating logic with content in the language of the philosophy. They also independently came up with atomism. Funny how we don’t hear Nyaya discussed but we are hammered with “western philosophy”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyaya

Two-thirds through and I’m signalling for Graeber to wrap it up. I understand that when overthrowing orthodoxy you’re going to have to show your work… but I kinda feel like the point could have been made in a few hundred pages less.

Summary: the orthodox view of money and the economy is wrong. It doesn’t correctly understand nor value the entirety of our human economy, which is more correctly a credit system. The credit system is actually how our society works, thus we have to move our economic system to one that utilises this. Essentially, mutual aid and trade. The evidence for this is seen in every community, every time there is a disaster, and throughout history. /end.

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Book review: Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason

Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human BeingClear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being by Paul Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Humans: Okay, no killing people.
AI: Slavery is cool though, right?
Humans: No, no killing, no slavery!
AI: But you do it all the time. No fair!

Clear Bright Future is Paul Mason’s attempt to address the “value alignment problem” with regard to our society and the potential of AI. He sets out how we largely don’t have a set of values, thanks to things like neo-liberalism, post-modernism, and scientism, and how we desperately need to define our values. Those values, he argues, should be clearly defined, humanist, and done before the capitalists, authoritarians, or other ne’er-do-wells ruin the future.

I first became interested in reading Mason’s books when I saw his Google Talk about Post-Capitalism. He was one of the first people I’d heard make a clear argument for something that is lurking in every digital age IP lawsuit. Clear Bright Future jumped up my reading list thanks to my local library and an interview where Mason discussed the need for society/humans to decide what we value and to start making it a priority.

The overall point made in this book is valid and Mason does a reasonable job of making a convincing argument. Even if he is completely wrong about humanism, he is completely right about needing to define our values. Our values. Not someone looking to make a buck. Not someone looking to become dictator for life. Everyone.

And here comes the but. But, I think Clear Bright Future falls down as some points made are attacks on strawpeople or gross simplifications. He’ll swing between exacting explanations and diverse insights and then make quick leaps via these lazy tactics.

Take for example his comments about science moving from claims of hard objectivism to (a more realistic) subjectivism. Mason essentially engages in a confusing blend of scientism and anti-scientism. He talks as if science is simple hard facts (when it is within X% error, contingent on assumptions, within certain frames of reference, etc.) and then rejects the science that shows things are more complicated than that.

Another example is his criticism of postmodernism as anti-humanist and the foundation of a lot of today’s problems. Somewhere there is a philosophy professor shaking their head and chuckling at the idea that postmodernism texts have resulted in anything other than incomprehensible books and an industry of metanarrative loving critics blaming it for everything. At best, Mason is mistaking a part of the field for the whole. Sure, the rejection of the simplistic and metanarrative claims of earlier humanism is certainly a po-mo thing, but hardly the whole thing (e.g. see this)

These flaws do detract a bit from what is a very interesting book with a compelling message. Definitely worth reading and thinking about what our values are.

Other reviews worth reading:
Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason review – a manifesto against the machine
Review of Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

Comments while reading:
You can sustain an economy on life support, but not an ideology. People were starting to ask when things would get better for them rather than for yacht owners. (Paraphrased)

Having seen some of Mason’s work before I’ve been interested in his take on things. He offers insights and ideas you haven’t considered. I also find I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions. In one part he was outlining the idea of material realism (materialism) which was a pretty decent lay explanation. But then he sort of created a strawman to suggest that modern tech economies claim to create value out of nothing (computers create their own data, thus value, without work). I’m not sure that the people who say that actually believe it, rather they are using a heuristic.

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Book review: Future War by Robert H Latiff

Future War: Preparing for the New Global BattlefieldFuture War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield by Robert H. Latiff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

USA: Hello Mr Scientist, can you make me an even more horrifying way to kill people?
Scientist: Sure. But it might not be a good idea.
USA: We’ll worry about that later. Here’s some money.
Scientist: I’ll get started.

Retired Major General Dr Robert Latiff spent much of his career looking at the cutting edge of military technology. As both a scientist and an officer, he knows what is already being developed to wage war, and is well placed to speculate about the future of war. He doesn’t just want to let us in on what war will look like, he wants us all to help ethically shape the future of war.

This book was both fascinating and deeply annoying to read. I think my biggest problem with Future War was that, for someone wanting to talk about war ethics, Latiff selectively presents the military, political leaders, and history so as to feel deliberately obfuscatory. Now, this is probably about Latiff being a retired Airforce Major General and thus his bias is showing. But maybe that is the problem. Maybe the people who get to talk about war ethics and new tools of war, are ultimately going to be too biased. At least Latiff is aware of this bias since he raises the issue of the conservative and “yay war” bubble many of his colleagues work in and calls for the general public to be involved.

I wrote down a lot of comments as I was reading (see below) because of my frustration. One of my first comments was the “America: Fuck Yeah!” sentiment that was present. I don’t think that is entirely fair to Latiff. He does express a reasonable level of awareness, but when someone talks about “keeping America safe” you really feel like forcing them to include a list of war crimes, atrocities, and coups that the USA has been involved in.

The insights into technology are extremely interesting. If you follow tech at all you’ll love what is discussed. It is the ethical considerations where I think the book falls flat. The examples of what ethical considerations are interesting but also feel ultimately hollow.

If someone is planning how to kill others, particularly lots of others, then that is unethical.

The arguments around Just War Theory and the ethics of war strike me as hand-waving bullshit dreamt up by status quo warriors. Unfortunately, I don’t have the background in moral and ethical philosophy to really dig into how it is wrong. No doubt there is a lot of material justifying war because that’s what very serious status quo academics do as part of their contribution to the war effort so that no one ever asks them to actually fight and die in one.

Ironically, by the definitions of Just War Theory, I think you’d battle to find an example of a Just War. Which makes the entire idea of ethical warfare a comfort blanket to pull over your face as you invade a country to secure their resources freedom.

Some people are scared of the technology and potential of future war portrayed here. I’m more scared of how Latiff’s calls for a discussion of the ethics involved aren’t going to happen in any meaningful way.

Comments as I read:
Only two chapters in, but already there is this overwhelming “America: Fuck Yeah!” attitude present. Threats could get hold of the weapons we’re developing… is said unironically. USA aren’t working on this (anymore after a feasibility analysis) but China doesn’t have any such ethical compunctions…

Considering this book proposed to cover the technology and ethics of future wars in the opening, I’m already sensing that Latiff is probably going to pretend that the USA has never committed acts of genocide, war crimes, invasion, etc. whilst insisting they need new cool gadgets to do more of that stuff with.

Halfway in the new technologies are being discussed as inevitable. But it is then asserted that new tech will be used for war. That doesn’t have to be so. Kinda feels like no-one ever stops and makes the argument that massive military research budgets could instead be civilian research budgets. Can’t really weaponise something when you’re not starting out building it as a weapon and pouring billions into doing so.

Three quarters in and the ethical discussion is taking shape. Just War and the like are being utilised. Some really good points are made but then are undermined by selective presentation of realities. E.g. Latiff makes a really good point about requiring strong ethical and moral frameworks (Warrior Code, etc) in the development of weapons, use of weapons, and the accepted practices of troops (when politicians justify or promote the use of torture, the command structure will follow, and thus the troops will utilise it). But he then skirts around how the military have been indoctrinating soldiers with increased efficiency to be killers, how they have researched making their soldiers more able to kill people, how they train them to think of “the enemy” as “inhuman” to make them able to justify killing to themselves.

I’m really having trouble with the supposed ethics of all this. Ultimately, all this tech is being developed to kill people. That’s premeditated murder. Ergo, that is unethical. There isn’t really a justification for that. A lot of handwaving is done based upon the idea that “the other side” will behave unethically, so we have to be prepared to “defend ourselves” (i.e. to also act unethically). The worst part is that this self-perpetuating cycle is often leveraged to gain power, resources, and profit (the latter is mentioned briefly in the third section by Latiff).

Philosophically, a lot has been written about Just War Theory, particularly against criticisms of it. I’m somewhat surprised that there isn’t a solid argument against it. Take for example Jus ad bellum. Let’s find a war that fits that definition. Particularly from the losing or instigating side. Ever. Just War Theorists certainly seem to try and pretend this occurs. People trying to kick wars off certainly try to make the argument of just cause (etc.). But most of those arguments are hollow, revisionist, and often straight-up lies (WMDs in Iraq anyone?).

Almost feels like a lot of money gets thrown at people to justify war.

Last chapter has some interesting points about echo chambers, ideological divides, society involvement, and American exceptionalism. All very good points. But again I find myself spotting what Latiff doesn’t discuss and what he skips over.

E.g. He says that the average American is removed from war and largely uninformed/ignorant of it. But that is by design and moreover, the military is actively involved in keeping people ignorant. He made a point about no war critical films having been made whilst skipping over the fact that if a production studio wants to make a military film they need to have everything ticked off on by the military (it’s why US military is awesome, bad elements are rogues who meet justice, they never commit war crimes, etc, etc.). Military intelligence was actively involved in the lies that took the US to war in (insert massive list here). The military routinely covers up atrocities, war crimes, abuse, rape, etc.

https://www.law.upenn.edu/institutes/cerl/conferences/targetedkilling/papers/KammFailuresofJustWarTheory.pdf

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_war_theory

https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-just-war/

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Book review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Last Wish (The Witcher, #0.5)The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All decent predictions rhyme.

Geralt of Rivia has a lifetime of adventures. He roams the world looking for monsters to kill and coin for doing so. Not all monsters are easy to kill and not everyone is happy for him to be in their kingdom.

A few years ago I read a couple of Volumes of Witcher comics. I made the comment in my review of them that they were okay and I was interested in reading some of the novels they were based upon (or extensions of). When I was about halfway through The Last Wish I was asked by someone what I thought of it. My comment was that it was just like the Netflix series: Okay. Not bad, not good, just okay. Entertaining enough. So the comics, show, and book were all similar in that they were all okay.

The Last Wish is essentially a short story collection with an interlude between each. This interlude ties each story together and culminates in the final story. This works reasonably well as Geralt’s adventures have the feel of short stories more than one long story. But that’s probably also why it was a little underwhelming as it removes some of the tension that adventure stories revel in.

The Netflix series is a reasonably faithful adaptation of this book, so if you’re coming in late (as I am), then you’ll recognise most of this. The book is superior in one respect as it is more apparent that these short stories are all twists on various fairytales, which adds something the show lacked. Although, the small changes between the book and the show seem to have been made by someone who was trying for a more gritty or ambiguous Geralt (and Yennefer) and didn’t give it enough thought.

Overall, I might get around to reading more Witcher. Or maybe I might get around to watching the second (and final) season of Henry Cavill playing Geralt.

“People”—Geralt turned his head—“like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves.”

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Book review: The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of BureaucracyThe Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Profitable paperwork? This world makes no sense.

The Utopia of Rules is a collection of David Graeber’s essays around bureaucracy. He dives into where bureaucracy came from, how it was changed by the rise of large private companies, how this is impacting society, and how we secretly love all this stupid stuff just a bit too much. Graeber combines history, illustrative anecdotes, anthropology, and insights that you realise have been staring you in the face for years. He also argues that we’ve largely accepted bureaucracies as they now stand, but because of the implications for power relations, we should try to change or remove them.

With the recent passing of David Graeber, I thought I should read some more of his work. I’ve previously read the excellent Bullshit Jobs and wanted to dive into some of his other work. That lead me to his essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit which in turn lead me to The Utopia of Rules. That essay is incorporated and expanded in this book to bring it into the main thesis. Other sections similarly come from essays published elsewhere, so if you’ve already read many of Graeber’s essays and articles, you’ll recognise a lot of the material here.

I think one of the most interesting insights from Utopia of Rules was how bureaucracy has morphed from the civil service that ran society (and was a great place to park stray aristocrats and military officers) into the bureaucracy of big business. Some will bristle at this insight until they realise that “cost recovery”, “KPIs”, and “performance reviews” are in all big organisations, regardless of them being public or private. This builds on Graeber’s insights from Bullshit Jobs, that showed the private sector was often more guilty of waste, mismanagement, paperwork, etc. to the point of creating entire useless jobs to do them.

How this bureaucratic system is then used to exploit the public, uses implicit and explicit violence, and obfuscates accountability is also interesting. Graeber’s example of trying to apply for health insurance for his mother is how companies profit. They effectively keep money for the company/government that is due to the public they are meant to be servicing.

This is also where I disagree slightly with Graeber. In a complex society, there is a need for some level of organisation (bureaucracy). Is it a good idea to have a senior research scientist spend a large part of their time filling out paperwork, applying for funding, and reporting to the funders rather than doing research? Well, no. But is it a good idea for that researcher to just get money and do whatever they feel like without any reporting? Well, no. As much as no researcher is just going to blow their grant money on a sports car and Columbian Marching Powder, the paperwork is meant to create a solid research plan, figure out what underlings they’ll need, and get the creative work solidified (hypotheses, designs, etc). That the paperwork doesn’t really achieve this is something that needs to be criticised, especially as the reason it fails and is needlessly time-consuming and complex is because of that private company influence Graeber outlined.

And Graeber argues that bureaucracies are no longer analyzed or satirized. This is a large part of the problem. We experience them every day, but those with power effectively stifle any input we have to reforming them. Satire and social critique are a useful tool in this regard, which I assume is why Graeber’s review of The Dark Knight Rises was included. He uses it as an example of institutional power using popular media to control the narrative and condemn social critique and movements.

Overall, I enjoyed The Utopia of Rules and look forward to reading more from Graeber, particularly Debt.

“I asked him why everyone was still waiting for even one bank official to be brought to trial for any act of fraud leading up to the crash of 2008.
OFFICIAL: Well, you have to understand the approach taken by U.S. prosecutors to financial fraud is always to negotiate a settlement. They don’t want to have to go to trial. The upshot is always that the financial institution has to pay a fine, sometimes in the hundreds of millions, but they don’t actually admit to any criminal liability. Their lawyers simply say they are not going to contest the charge, but if they pay, they haven’t technically been found guilty of anything.
ME: So you’re saying if the government discovers that Goldman Sachs, for instance, or Bank of America, has committed fraud, they effectively just charge them a penalty fee.
OFFICIAL: That’s right.
ME: So in that case … okay, I guess the real question is this: has there ever been a case where the amount the firm had to pay was more than the amount of money they made from the fraud itself?
OFFICIAL: Oh no, not to my knowledge. Usually it’s substantially less.
ME: So what are we talking here, 50 percent?
OFFICIAL: I’d say more like 20 to 30 percent on average. But it varies considerably case by case.
ME: Which means … correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that effectively mean the government is saying, “you can commit all the fraud you like, but if we catch you, you’re going to have to give us our cut”?
OFFICIAL: Well, obviously I can’t put it that way myself as long as I have this job …”

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Book review: Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

Dear ChildDear Child by Romy Hausmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I imagine lion voice is pretty much speaking like Aslan.

For 13 years, Matthias and Karin have been desperate to find their daughter Lena. Then one evening, their estranged friend and local detective phones with news. A woman matching their missing daughter’s description has just been hit by a car and is in hospital. But the woman isn’t Lena. The young girl with her, however, is definitely their granddaughter. How can that be? Where has this woman and their grandchildren been all these years? And where is Lena?

When I read the blurb for this novel I was immediately interested. Normally these sorts of mystery stories (they call it a thriller, but it is a crime-mystery) are all about finding the missing girl. This novel starts after she has been found. Interesting take.

As you can imagine, a large part of the story deals with trying to piece together what happened as the victims try to process their trauma. The police are trying to figure out identities and piece together the evidence. The grand/parents (primarily Matthias) are still trying to push the investigation. The children are trying to process being out of their regimented cabin life. And the rescued Jasmin (not Lena), having escaped her tormentor, is still haunted by her experience.

After finishing Dear Child I wasn’t quite sure what I thought of it. The initial premise and first few chapters really grabbed me. The story is very well written and feels like the recounting of actual events. And similarly, the ending is great and offers catharsis to the story and characters. But I think the middle only really served to keep those two sections apart. So much of the mystery and events of the story are driven by characters doing stupid things. Sure, that also makes it feel human and real, but at some point it stops being how that character would behave and more of a contrivance. I wanted things to progress, not get bogged down.

Or to put it another way: I felt the story needed less Matthias and more Hannah (the daughter of Lena). Having her perspective for the story would have kept the mystery interesting and buried. It would have also kept Matthias from being the annoying speed-hump in the story.*

I can see this novel appealing to the psychological thriller audience. But for me, I can’t give Dear Child more than 3 stars. It’s a good book, but probably not exactly my cup of tea.

I received a review copy of Dear Child in exchange for an honest review.

* In fairness, Matthias’ actions are completely understandable and well-drawn. He isn’t a bad character but he is annoying, deliberately so.

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Book review: Blood Price by Tanya Huff

Blood Price (Vicki Nelson #1)Blood Price by Tanya Huff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All librarians need the training to minimise loaning occult books to unhinged people.

Vicki Nelson was a respected Toronto detective until her eyesight deteriorated. Now operating as a private detective, she accidentally stumbles upon a vicious murder. Her interest in the case is piqued when more killings occur and she is hired to investigate one of the murders by a grieving client. But the murders have also caught the attention of Henry Fitzroy. The victims being drained of blood brings talk of vampires, and the last thing a vampire like Henry needs is a mob hunting him. Vicki and Henry’s paths cross and they decide to team up to try and stop the murderer.

Half-a-year ago I read Tanya Huff’s Summon the Keeper. I enjoyed that amusing and fun urban paranormal novel so I decided to try Huff’s Blood series. The styles of the two series are very different. The Keeper series is humorous and firmly set in the paranormal world. The Blood series has a much more serious tone and has an emphasis on the paranormal bleeding into the real world.

Blood Price has a lot in common with other detective paranormal stories, like the Dresden Files. So if you enjoy that sort of novel, then you’ll like this too.

Related to this point about similarities to other paranormal series, something I noted with both of Huff’s works was that there were many elements I’d seen elsewhere. But these novels were written and published a decade or more before others were using them. Does that mean Huff is due some royalties or just some hat-tips?

I sense more Tanya Huff books in my reading future.

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Book review: Fake Truth by Lee Goldberg

Fake Truth (Ian Ludlow Thrillers #3)Fake Truth by Lee Goldberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writer career choices:
a) Book author
b) Propaganda, disinformation, and scheme development for governments
c) Counter-intel agent for governments
d) Office job in a cubicle (it’s this one).

After their successful operation in China, Ian and Margo are back in the USA. Margo is Ian’s CIA handler, Ian has writers’ block and a movie star girlfriend, and the CIA want the next “story” from Ian. Someone is pulling the strings of US sentiments, trying to spark a civil war, and the CIA wants Ian to figure it out. Can he figure it out with an unhealthy dose of cable news and overseas holiday?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series so far. In Fake Truth, Lee has pulled together a funny and exciting adventure with some biting critiques of our current political landscape. It’s exactly the sort of fun time you want from a novel released in 2020.

One of my favourite aspects of Fake Truth was the various characters and their real-life inspirations. How can you go past an American movie star, overweight, past his prime, pony-tail, and now in Russia writing propaganda for the Kremlin? It made me laugh even before getting to the part where he referred to himself as the greatest writer of all time.

Well worth reading.

NB: I received an advanced review copy in exchange for an honest review.

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