Columbus Day – TwoMorePages Book Review

Columbus Day – TwoMorePages Book Review

This was a pretty fantastic book. I mean, obviously, since I’m writing this review. You’ve probably noticed by now that I don’t generally write reviews for books that I’m “meh” about.

The writing style of this book was particularly amusing. The protagonist tells the story as though he’s recounting a tale, complete with asides to the reader, which I found pretty fantastic. And the introduction of Skippy was absolutely amazing – the book flew by once that happened.

I can’t really talk more about this book without starting to spoil things, so here we go!

Skippy!

I feel like this was basically two different books in one. Part I of the book details the invasion of Earth, and Earth’s response to it; and Part II is SKIPPY-TOWN!

I loved Skippy-Town haha. Yeah sure, it’s kind of cheating to introduce an AI that’s smarter than all the other species in the book combined to help out protagonist, but the way he interacts with everyone, especially Bishop, our protagonist, is extremely well done.

Several times, it’s shown that Skippy is not in fact omnisicent / omnipotent. He just is very smart, and doesn’t think the way that we do. For instance, he can totally take over a Thurasian star carrier by himself, but he forgets that we meat bags can’t survive in vacuum. Whoops haha.

But more importantly, the way the author wrote Skippy’s personality was AMAZING. One liners here and there and everywhere. The banter between him and Bishop MAKES the story, especially when you contrast it to the interactions between him and other people in the story. I especially liked the poignant moment where he describes why he and Bishop get along so well – namely, that Bishop is the only person who’s treated him as an equal rather than a machine. And his illustration of that point? That Bishop constantly calls him out and points out that he is an asshole. TROLLOLOL.

Once he enters the story, the game sort of becomes a videogame, where Bishop, as the antagonist, gets to play almost on God mode. Skippy can disable weapons (except the Lizard weapons), and take over entire starships. That’s cool.

Ordinarily, that would be really hard to write in a way that keeps the audience interested, because how interesting is it really to go around murdering everyone when they don’t really have a chance?

But the author did a great job here as well, introducing tension by showing that the good guys can indeed get hurt *and die*, even with God mode enabled. So kudos to that.

I loved every bit of Skippy-town. He made the story for me.

Part I

Oh, right, I said there was a Part I to this saga, right? Despite the amusingness of Part II (Skippy-town), Part I was actually pretty dark. You follow Bishop as he gets shipped off to an alien planet, presumably under the guise of protecting Earth from the Ruhar (the hamsters), only to see him first get stuck on what he considers babysitting duty, and then to see him learn that maybe he’s on the wrong side of this war after all.

Actually, it’s worse than that. I felt like the analogy that Bishop talks about in the book is pretty spot on. Earth is N. Africa in WWII. Both the Allies and the Axis don’t really care about the native people, and said native people get slaughtered because they are so far behind the major fighting powers technologically. So what’s Bishop to do? Just be sad? Earth has essentially been conquered by the Lizards; the Hamsters, while objectively better, do not necessarily care about liberating Earth, and have killed several hundred Earth soldiers.

Part I gets *dark*. Bishop talks about how he feels shooting down the two Hamster dropships, ostensibly killing 1,000 Hamster soldiers in the process. He describes the nightmares he has where he thinks he saw the pilot of one of the dropships look straight at him and ask “Why?”

He also sees a young pilot who refuses to shoot a Hamster school get reprimanded by basically getting executed by having the power cut off in her plane, forcing her to crash. Her last words and thoughts were basically “I didn’t have control of the plane. I didn’t mean to shoot that school full of kids.”

After he gets reprimanded and jailed for refusing to kill Ruhar civilians, he ends up in jail, where he learns that because the Kristang (the Lizards) don’t value female lives, the women soldiers who also willfully disobeyed orders to murder civilians were being raped, tortured, and hung while the male prisoners were merely being sentenced to death. He learns later too that since he’s a guy, he got to eat, while the women prisoners were starved during their ordeal.

This is some truly dark stuff for a book that ends on such a light-hearted note. It’s a weird contrast and I sometimes wonder if the author meant to change the tone so drastically when Skippy was introduced.

Conclusion

Anyway, this is an action book. There isn’t a lot of time spent on character development; heck, you can argue that *nobody* grew as a character, not even Bishop, our protagonist.

But it is extremely entertaining. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. I wonder if it will do what The Atlantis Trilogy did, where each book has the same writing style, but each book is also a different kind of story? Or if it will be more of a continuation of the adventures of Skippy and the paisley, no wait, the paramecium pirates (you’ll get that joke after you read it the story haha).

The Atlantis World – TwoMorePages Book Review

The Atlantis World – TwoMorePages Book Review

Hoooh boy, we finished the series! I will say I’m a little sad it’s over, and I felt like A.G. Riddle could have made this two books, considering how much stuff we learned in the last say 20% of the book.

This book was decidedly sci-fi, taking a very different turn from the other two books, which you could conceivably describe as action (book 1) or action/mystery (book 2) with a little sci-fi thrown in. We learn about the enemy that General Ares is so very worried about; we learn about the backstory of the girl Atlantean scientist that saves us as a species way back when; we learn about Atlantean society as a whole!

There are some things that, in retrospect still don’t make 100% sense, but I suppose anything in the sci-fi genre never will make 100% sense.

Okay, enough non-spoiler talk. Here we go!

 

Dorian Sloane

So…about that theory that I had that Dorian Sloane would turn out to be a hero for humanity. I was…kind of right? I rather dislike the way his character went out. It seems so out of character for him to just space himself. In his mind, he was the good guy; he was trying to save humanity. Humanity is in shambles back on earth; surely he would have tried to find a way back to try and save what was left? Bah, oh well.

Jurassic Park

I feel like there was a large opportunity lost here in not exploring the dome on the ship more, the one that held the biosphere with the invisible carnivores. I was very surprised that it was over with in what seemed like just a few chapters. When it was first introduced, I thought for sure that would be the unique thing in this book, much like the journal was in The Atlantis Gene and the whodunnit was in the The Atlantis Plague.

But not so much! No big deal though, I did very much enjoy the adventures of our protagonists (and antagonists!) as they had to navigate this foreign world basically, with invisible creatures trying to murder them.

One of the more common criticisms about this series of books is that it didn’t describe the scenery well enough, that it was too plot driven. Not so with this section of the book! I could vividly see the action happening in my mind as Kate and David went through the jungle, as Dorian scanned left and right with his laser scope, trying to find the invisible animals that had butchered his men.

 

Crap, I let too much time pass before finishing this review

So um, here’s where the review is going to get a lot more unspecific. Alas, I let like 2.5 months go by before I picked it back up, and now I only remember the large impressions that the book made and am significantly less excited than I was before. You can probably tell from the tone now vs the tone above haha.

If you read about this book elsewhere, you will notice a common theme running through them. Whether or not people liked the book (and there were definitely opposite sides on that), they all felt like the story was rushed at the end. Alas, I do have to agree with that assessment. The denouement came so quickly at the end to wrap everything up. We definitely could have had a second book to deal with that, but oh well.

 

Backstory Flashbacks

That being said, I do like that we get to have the entire universe and backstory fleshed out. Like book 1, A.G. Riddle chose to show how we got to this point with the use of flashbacks, both from the perspective of Kate and Sloane’s Atlantean counterparts.

General Ares was obviously built as the antagonist throughout the entire story, and we get to learn why he’s such a hardass. He experienced the genocide of most of his race, rebuilt it, only to see if fall back into ruin because while he remained a hardass, he saw his society get soft. And then saw it fall again. So in his mind, the downfall of his race was tied to the softness than he never lets himself feel anymore.

And we get to learn so much more about Kate’s Atlantean counterpart, Isis. You kind of got the impression that Isis accidentally messed everything up in the past (with the best of intentions!) in the past few books. This time, you get to witness it firsthand along with Kate. She’s the one who accidentally damns her society with gene therapy. Whoops. The road to hell is paved with good intentions…right?

 

The End

So, alas I don’t remember a ton about the ending now that I have almost 3 months rust on me. I remember thinking that things were rushed, and that stuff didn’t 100% make sense, but oh well. For instance, the Atlantean faction that Isis helped are the ones that end up saving the day, but they arguably are the weakest force around compared to the Sentinels and the Serpentines. How does that work?

And it’s revealed that Ares’s plan all along was to mess up Earth so badly that the new bad guys will want to come and assimilate all the people on the planet, thinking that everyone on the planet will willingly join the ~~Borg Collective~~ the Serpetines. Um, what? This entire time, I thought we were training a race of super soldiers to go and fight some bad guys. That’s what Dorian Sloane sold me on. What? You could have messed up the planet in other ways than that. It…didn’t quite make sense to me.

But oh well. Not everything ends the way you want it to. And overall, I was entertained by the overarching story. I will still fight anyone who says the first book, The Atlantis Gene, is not a good book haha. And I rather liked the second book, The Atlantis Plague. Too bad the author has said we won’t revisit this world at all, but it was nice spending time in it nevertheless.

The Atlantis Plague – TwoMorePages Book Review

The Atlantis Plague – TwoMorePages Book Review

Allrighty, we’re back for round 2 of the Atlantis Trilogy, with A.G. Riddle. Oftentimes, you’ll see sequels fizzle out, but not in this case! We get to continue the adventures with our characters from book 1, this time seeing the effects of the plague that was unleashed in Book 1 and seeing the Immari and the major world nations duke it out in a world where well…99% of people are going to die because of the plague.

I once again enjoyed the fast pace of the action like in The Atlantis Gene, and this time we even got a mystery to solve! Trying to figure out who was the double agent in the midst of our protagonists was very enjoyable for me, and, in true Atlantis fashion, the reveal surprised me.

We got to see David Vale being a badass, which he only got to show flashes of in The Atlantis Gene, and we got to see Kate do things on her own without the help of Captain America nearby.

The ending felt a little rushed, but oh well. That happens when you write a story that goes at full speed 100% of the time.

It was nice that the book delved further into sci-fi though, focusing heavily on the science when talking about how the Plague worked and how the protagonists had to go about tyring to deal with it. The talk of 80% of our DNA not having any sort of recognizable purpose and the fact that we each have faint personal radiation signatures I thought was pretty cool. Yay for science!

Allright, that’s about all I can say without getting into spoilers, so off we go!

Whodunnit?

So while The Atlantis Gene had a cool story within a story, The Altlantis Plague has a mystery embedded within it. For ⅓ to ½ of the book, the protagonists and we are stuck knowing that someone in the group has betrayed us, but not knowing who. For my part, I was 90% sure it was Janus the entire time, and actually trusted Shaw. Doh.

My thinking was that if Shaw wanted Kate, he had her way back at the Immari facility in Spain; he didn’t have to go around killing Immari folks to help get her out. I suppose I didn’t take into account the fact that Sloane wanted some information from Kate first, and would need to allow her to get it first. So, I mostly ruld out Shaw.

But here was Janus, who somehow magically can swim way better than anyone else when they’re getting rescued from the drowning ship; who is a super smart geneticist who seems to actually be better at trying to find a cure for the plague than Kate herself. I was 100% sure he was the traitor.

So when the reveal came that well…the traitor was Shaw, but Janus isn’t necessarily a good guy either, I was very surprised. Chalk up another turn I didn’t see coming on A.G. Riddle’s wild ride. Haha.

David Vale and Cueta

Another cool thing in The Atlantis Plague is that we got to see David Vale in action, being a badass again. We kind of saw it in The Atlantis Gene, but we really get to see his cunning in this book. For instance, when he gets captured at Cueta, his ability to try and bluff his way out of his situation I thought was extremely entertaining. We geven ot see his thought process along the way.

His orchestration of the takeover of Cueta I thought was cool, and the way that it was revealed to the reader I thought was a nice touch. Instead of being inside David Vale’s head while he plans the assault, you get the view from the Commander’s point of view, and only see things as they unfold.

One thing I didn’t actually understand though was the tribesmen – were they the people that went backwards genetically, or people that went forwards, but didn’t organize the way the Immari did? The fact that they are able to reason with Vale and orchestrate an attack suggests the latter, but in the begining, they are described as the former.

The Immari

So we talked in the last review about how I wasn’t 100% convinced that the Immari were wrong. That belief didn’t really change here, as I personally think that if I was a plague survivor that was still high functioning, I would also be of the opinion that the plague was a good thing and that the strong would survive. I’d probably join the Immari, and as they seem like a stable force in the world, and don’t force me to live in Orchid concentration camps.

I mean, as the reader, I know that they’re not really on the up and up and that if I didn’t choose to join them voluntarily, I would end up dying on a plague barge, but I don’t think it would ever be in a position to know that really. I’d buy the line that the Immari are here to change the world hook line and sinker.

One very puzzling thing though is that the supposedly genetically superior survivors, people who should be smarter and stronger than people were before, are so very easy to kill. The guards around Kate are easily dispatched. David Vale and his old friend are able to easily trick or kill several Immari soldiers. They just seemed like anyone else to me. And yet they’re described as these amazing superhumans.

The Gene Therapy

Okay, I thought it was way cool how the plague wasn’t a virus or bacteria in a traditional illness sense – it was re-activating dormant DNA, and so normal medicinal procedures wouldn’t help. In fact, things like medical quarantine couldn’t even contain the plague since it wasn’t transmitted through normal illness means.

The tie in to the actual scientific fact that nobody knows what 80% of our DNA supposedly does I thought was extra poignant. Much like I enjoyed the linkages to the real world in The Atlantis Gene, I very much enjoyed this linkage back to the real world in The Atlantis Plague.

I’m going to gloss over how feasible it would be to change the DNA in a person (the proposed therapies that the protagonists used to address the plague), because well…if I didn’t, I wouldn’t enjoy the rest of the story, and I wanted to haha.

Dorian Sloane

Another thing I enjoyed in this book was how Dorian Sloan changed from almost being a cartoon villain to being a nuaced villain that I could relate to.

His struggle as he realizes that a lot of the menacing parts of his personality are derived from that of General Ares is very interesting. He tries to save his pilot; he tries to have feelings for his psuedo-gf; he tries to save his brother. But in the end, he ends up abandoning his struggle to do each and every one of those things, to embrace the softer side of him, arguably to embrace himself (instead of becoming more like Ares).

I’ve mentioned before that I’m still not convinced that the Immari are cartoon bad guys in all this. They’re just trying to do what they think is best to save the species, genetically vault us forward in intellect and physicalness so that way we can stand toe to toe with this indescribably powerful enemy that took out the Atlanteans. I wonder if A.G. Riddle is setting up Dorian Sloane to be a hero in book 3. It certainly looks like it.

Conclusions

The Atlantis Plague delivered along the same lines as The Alantis Gene: fast paced action, unpredictable story turns, relatable protagonists, tie ins to the real world, and one core gimmick that the book revolved around: in this case the mystery of who was the traitor

Just like the first book, I found myself delving back into the story as often as I could, even on vacation when I should have conceivably been doing something else. A.G. Riddle’s writing style has me hooked for sure.

Sure, he may not be George R R Martin, but I don’t like that much elaboration in a story anyway. Sometimes I just want cool (unpredictable) things to happen, in ways that make sense in retrospect.

The Atlantis World, here we come!

The Atlantis Gene – TwoMorePages Book Review

The Atlantis Gene – TwoMorePages Book Review

Woooh, this book was an amazing adventure! It’s definitely my favorite fiction work not associated with The Expanse that I’ve read all year. And phew, it came just in time, since the last few fiction books that I’ve read were a little well…let’s just say under par.

The pacing of the book I think was my favorite part about it. Oftentimes, stories take awhile to build up before coming to a climax where everything happens. Not with this book! We’re thrown right into the action from the get go, and we learn about our characters as we go. This approach also lead to we, the readers, not knowing who the protagonists are initially, and I loved that. You don’t know who the main characters are vs the side characters; you don’t even know who necessarily is the good guy or bad guy; heck, you don’t know who lives or dies (and at least one person who I thought was a protagonist straight up DIES).

I’d go so far as to say this isn’t really a sci fi book, though it has sci fi elements. It is an action book, and we’re along for the ride.

But more than that, the other major things I loved about this book were its unpredictability, and the fact that it referenced real life historical events, explaining them pretty reasonably with sci-fi elements in the book. The Spanish Flu? The Dark Ages? The fact that almost every culture on earth has a story with a huge flood as part of it? Even 9/11? All weaved right into the story.

And the creme de la creme? The little story within a story that we get, as one of the protagonists reads a journal, and how the events within that journal come full circle back to the main storyline. It was perfectly executed, and I loved it.

Okay, let’s get spoiler-y. Do NOT read the rest until you’ve read this book

The story within a story

My favorite part of this book was Kate’s dad’s journal, how it helped to explain what was going on, and how the events in it ended up tying back to the main story. I was in the middle of a vacation in the national parks of the US when I got that section, and I found myself stopping on hikes to read “just one more chapter.”

It was a nice break from the nonstop action that David and Kate were experiencing up to that point. The journal was riveting, and helped to fill in the backstory of what exactly was going on, talking about the Immaru / Immari split and to help flesh out the motivations of the Immari, the main antagonists in the story.

The big reveal

Undoubtedly, the big reveal in this book is where you figure out that it’s Kate’s dad that wrote the above referenced journal, and that several of the characters in the journal are alive and kicking in the current timeline, though under different names.

Maybe I’m slow, but I definitely did NOT see that coming. As I tried to piece together that Name A from the journal = Name B from the present, it did get a little confusing, but I thought it was really well done. Everything ties in together really well, and the motivations behind why people are doing what become a lot clearer. Certain Immari higher ups are driven by the desire for power; others are driven by the Immari core mission, to help protect humanity, no matter the human cost; others are slightly conflicted and are just here because they are making the worst of a bad situation. It really fleshes things out well beyond “The Immari are bad just ‘cause”

The Immari

Speaking of the devil, I really liked the Immari as group of antagonists. I have to say, without knowing what kind of evil they’re trying to protect us against, at least a small part of me understands what they are trying to do, and thinks that…well…maybe they’re right. Sometimes you have to sacrifice people to save the everyone. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and all that.

The book tries to paint them as evil, self serving eugenics folks that just want to kill a bunch of people in a misguided attempt to save the human race, but what if they’re right? What if the only way to fight back is to genetically progress the human race forward? Yes, millions will die, but millions will ALSO be saved! In fact, if the Immari are right, that makes David and Kate the antagonists in this story, dooming the human race, and it’s because of them that 7 million people (everyone) die instead of just 3-5 million people.

It’s an interesting concept, and I hope that the story explores it further in the next books. It would be quite the interesting turnaround if in fact the Immari turn out to be correct after all.

All the tie ins to world events

But perhaps what really drew me into the story was the references to real life historical events. So little is known about the Spanish flu, other than that “a bunch of people died and we don’t really know why”. Literally millions died. The Atlantis Gene proposes that it was an accident, that the Bell did it, and I find that fascinating. This fiction book actually motivated me to go and do some research about the Spanish Flu, something which I barely knew about at all before.

Ditto with the references to the Dark Ages. Entire centuries passed, and we went *backwards* as a species in terms of our development. That’s astonishing when you think about the difference between 2016 and 1996, let alone 1906, just 100 years earlier. But during the Dark Ages? Nope. Backwards. And there’s no real way to study it in real life because well…there’s so very little to study.

I especially found the tie ins to human development interesting. I knew that there were neanderthals and that we out-survived them, but I didn’t realize there were also a subspecies of primates called hobbits in real life, and that the more science delves into our origins, the more human subspecies that we find. It’s fun to learn real facts in my fiction books!

Unpredictable

One of the other things that I enjoyed most about this book was the story’s unpredictability. I predicted very little of what was to come, which honestly is very hard to do as an author. So Kudos, A.G. Riddle. I did not expect The Bell to be a time dilation device in addition to a murder device. I did not expect Kate’s dad to be the author of the journal. I did not expect to learn that both Dorian Sloan and Kate were actually born around WWI, and were stuck in the stasis/healing chambers until recently. I did not expect that David Vale would be betrayed by the person he trusted most in Clocktower.

The punches kept coming, and, once you knew the full story and the character’s intentions, made tons of sense. Even the little things were done well, like Dorian having had sex with Kate in the past and then leaving her as a sort of middle finger to her dad.

Conclusions

I read this book knowing in the back of my mind that this was a trilogy, but honestly, this book could be a stand alone book very easily. The loose ends are mostly tied up, the primary antagonist and one of the primary protagonists are well…dead, so you could easily end the story here on that bittersweet ending.

I know some reviews will say this book moved a little too quickly, didn’t flesh things out very well, and played out more like a movie than a book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed the unpredictability, the pacing, the motivations behind the antagonists, and the science-based explanations for major events in history. I already bought the other two books in the series, and am starting soon. This is going to be great!

Dark Pools – TwoMorePages Book Review

Dark Pools – TwoMorePages Book Review

This is hands down the best financial book I have read to date. It was even better than Flash Boys, by my favorite financial author Michael Lewis, the book which prompted me to read further to understand HFT (high frequency trading) better. Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that it is even better than Michael Lewis’s The Big Short , which everyone (including me) loves.

Compared to Flash Boys, It did a much better job of illustrating the problems associated with high frequency trading; why I, as a normal investor should care; and, best of all, helped to illuminate how HFT came about in the first place.

Major takeaways

What was extremely surprising was learning about the ironic nature of what happened: practices that were originally put in place to help the average investor by punishing and taking advantage of rent-seeking intermediaries (market makers and specialists on the floors of the NASDAQ and NYSE) eventually morphed to become the the very practices which now prey on average investors, acting as an unseen intermediary that drives costs up. At least before, you knew you were getting fucked because you were crossing large bid/ask spreads from market makers; the fucking was transparent. Now, you’ll put in an order to buy or sell across what looks like a thin spread, but then transact at worse than you expected. EVERY. TIME.

The other surprising, but extremely relevant takeaway from this book was the revelation that it’s not necessarily the speed in which HFT firms trade that is the problem. That’s what most people initially conclude: “Oh, well nobody can think in terms of fractions of seconds. That’s how HFT firms are taking advantage of me.” Rather, it is the special order types that HFT are allowed to use, combined with their speed, that gives them their alpha, their edge over you and me and any other investor. Instead of being limited to normal market orders, or limit orders, like you and me, HFT get to use special orders that most people don’t even know about: ones that allow the to provide liquidity only when they want to (when they’re going to make money risk free), and step out of the way all the other times whenever shit is going down (like during the flash crash).

Less surprising, and covered in Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, was the revelation that HFT firms basically front run all of us any time that we make trades. Because of delays between one exchange and another, they can tell when say, Fidelity is purchasing a lot of shares of a specific company (for their customers presumably), and can then pull their original offer to sell at $X , and then put in a new offer to sell at $X + some amount. So then Fidelity ends up paying more for the stock than they would have otherwise.

So, why do I care?

Now, that all may mean fuck-all to you in isolation. “Who cares if they make money scalping pennies here and there? I just index and buy every once in awhile through my 401(k). I’m too small for HFT to care about, and I trade so infrequently that it shouldn’t matter” is an initial thought that I had when reading this book.

But here’s why you and I should care: We’re the ones getting fucked. Let’s take an example: Your 401(k) buys stocks of Google. Mine does inherently, since I purchase shares of the S&P 500 broad market index, and google is part of that index. Your orders, plus mine, plus those of several thousand others all pool at our custodian, Fidelity. The Fidelity fund manager needs to buy say 10,000 shares of Google and sees on his trading screen that there are currently 50,000 shares of Google offered (available to buy) at $X. So he puts in his order, thinking that he’ll buy 10,000 shares at $X.

Well, because of the tiniest delays in communication between exchanges, HFT firms can detect that there is buying demand in the market once Fidelity (my 401(k) custodian) puts in that buy order. In that fraction of a second between when the buy order first hits an exchange, the original offers to sell at $X disappear, and re-appear at $X + $.01 or $.02 (or some other arbitrary adder). This happens again and again until the orders eventually fill at those higher prices. So even though Fidelity thought it would be able to buy at $X with plenty of liquidity (since, after all, that’s what the exchanges showed), it actually isn’t able to.

Well, our 401(k) purchase order is basically a market order, so we sweep the prices up, paying say $X + $.10 in the process, let’s say. Well, now we just paid $.05 more than fair value, more than we had to. All these little things add up.

In a world where costs very much matter (especially if you are an boglehead / indexer like I am), these costs are HUGE. My expense ratio in my S&P 500 fund at Fidelity says I am only paying .05% . BUT, if you factor in the slippage (how much more we paid for Google in this example over $X), our expense ratio actually ends up being MUCH MORE than we bargained for, which costs us, you and me, a lot in the long run, especially when factoring in compounding gains.

The story

Okay, so we addressed why you should care. Why else would you read this book? Well, for one, it is actually entertaining. Much like Michael Lewis, Scott Patterson does a really good job of illustrating a story when making his points. He does a great job of starting from the beginning, and then building on the reader’s building knowledge base. If you didn’t know anything about HFT when you started, you wouldn’t be at a disadvantage at all. The way he illustrates what is happening, both through his characters and the actions and motivations of said characters, is extremely easy to understand.

And remember, these aren’t fictional characters in a book he’s writing. These are real people. These were real stories. These things really happened.

Josh Levine and Island

The story of how Island got created takes up about ⅓ to ½ of the book, and for good reason. Island is basically the backbone that started HFT. It was the first matching engine that took people completely out of the buy/sell matching equation. Whereas before, you’d have to pass through a human broker or market maker in order to buy/sell anything, and run into human errors (or greed) along the way, Island gave people a way to instantly match buyer and seller with no middleman in the way to skim profits off the top. It was also perfectly scalable so that as more people got into the market of computerized scalping, the matching engine wouldn’t slow down, as the old NYSE or NASDAQ often did.

I do find it very interesting that Josh Levine basically made Island because he saw an extremely inefficient system where middlemen (market makers and specialists on the floor of exchanges) were skimming tons of money from regular people by basically standing in the middle of a buyer and seller and taking a fee. He thought that was inefficient and dumb, and sought to create a way where buyer and seller could find each other without having to cross large bid/ask spreads along the way. He was a strong proponent of decimalization, so that stocks could trade at $X.01, or $X.23 instead of only $X + ⅛ , $X + ¼, etc. I’m only 30, so I can’t remember living in a world where I’d have to buy stocks in increments of ⅛. That seems archaic and bizarre to me, and Josh Levine is a big reason why I don’t live in a world like that. That’s crazy.

But I digress. Basicaly, Levine sought to make a more efficient system, much like I used to try to do and continue to do when I encounter what I think are stupid and inefficient systems at work. And HE DID IT! And along the way, he tried to solve problems, like how to get more liquidity on Island. The result? The maker-taker fee system that the book goes on to describe as a major problem with HFT trades. It seemed to make so much sense at the time; whoops. Unintended consequences.

The story of Island to me is so interesting, both in describing how it came to be, how it unseated the business model of major exchanges like the NASDAQ and the NYSE, the problems it faced as it grew, and ultimately, what happened to its original senior management as it grew up and got bought. Moreover, the description of Josh Levine’s motivations, how he wasn’t motivated by how to make more money, but by how to mold an inefficient market into an efficient one (and bring down entrenched intermediaries in the process), was absolutely fascinating to me. I loved it.

Haim Bodek and special order types

Aside from Josh Levine, the only other person that could be considered a protagonist in this story (if it were fictional, which it’s not) would be Haim Bodek. His story is an interesting one in the book, showing how he ran a very successful HFT firm where he learned how the traditional limit / market orders that basically everyone uses will always lead to getting taken advantage of. His conclusion that you had to know about secret order types that the exchanges don’t publish info about in order to make money (either as a HFT or as a lay trader) is pretty damning.

Because of the special order types that HFT firms use, Haim Bodek concludes that all that visible liquidity is fake. They can step out of the way and cancel their order in the smallest fraction of a second between you submitting your buy/sell order, only to sell to you at a higher price (or buy from you at a lower price) than you had originally shown.

That’s precisely the problem that Michael Lewis describes in his book, Flash Boys. His protagonist trader notices that every time he tries to transact, he transacts at a worse price than he expects.

Bodek’s main conclusion is that it’s not the speed in which HFT firms can trade that is the problem; it is the secret order types that are, that allow HFT to basically make risk free profit at the expense of everyone else.

Many of Haim Bodek’s critics may attack him, saying that he ran his HFT into the ground because he couldn’t keep up with the times, and now his attacks on the industry are just sour grapses. Well, I don’t buy that. Any criticism I see of him tends to concentrate on him as a person and not on his arguments. In fact, the next book I’m reading is by Haim Bodek himself, where he tries to illuminate the problem and explain in further detail what Scott Patterson touched on in this book.

Conclusions

I used to be a proponent of HFT, saying things like “They provide lots of liquidity. See the bid/ask spread on that stock? It’s less than a penny, because of HFT. In the past, that would have been much larger.” Well, turns out I was wrong, and this book is a great tool to illustrate exactly why. More than that, it describes the history behind HFT and the problems inherent with it in an extremely easy to understand and entertaining way. It’s not a textbook that tries to explain things to you in a dry fashion; you learn through the eyes of the players in the story as it develops.

This is 100% the best non-fiction book that I’ve read so far this year. Kudos, Scott Patterson, for shedding light on something that isn’t really that easy to understand. I can’t imagine how hard it was to get the info to write this book.

Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Queda – TwoMorePages Book Review

Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Queda – TwoMorePages Book Review

Inspired to read this because of the author’s hilarious responses in his AMA on reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/4dxfoy/iama_former_cia_case_officer_who_recently/), I decided to take a detour from my normal sci-fi reading, and boy am I glad I did. This was an absolutely amazing, wonderful book. I finished it in less than a week because I could hardly put it down.

His writing in his book was even more entertaining than his responses in his AMA. I was truly engrossed in his stories. I celebrated as I read about his triumphs and accomplishments in the field as he developed his skills. I felt for him when he had to deal with problems back home because of his unique job and the fact that had to have a cover. I empathized with his frustration later in his career as the bureaucracy of the CIA stifled his efforts and work.

He really brought me into the story with his writing. It was amazing. I had to remember at times that this is not a fictional story. This shit happenedwhich makes it all the more amazing. Really puts things in perspective when I spend years trying to learn Chinese as an asian kid in America and I’m only barely competent conversationally, and this guy from the Midwest learns freaking Pashtu, and has to re-learn a different dialect of it on the fly when he is put on his first assignment.

The book really opened my eyes to the life of a case officer overseas, what he dealt with on a daily basis, but more importantly, what the landscape is over there. The media paints a picture of our enemies in the middle east as religious zealots that are motivated entirely by misguided notions of their religion, but the way that Douglas Laux tells it, a lot of them are just motivated by survival. And so he’s able to turn some of them into intelligence assets, including some very important ones in the Taliban structure, just by giving them money, earning their trust, and promising them and their families better lives. That’s mind boggling.

More than that, Douglas Laux’s perspective on the political climate over there was fascinating. It’s too bad the CIA censors got to some of his cooler revaluations, including one where he accuses a country (whose identity we can’t know) of openly being our allies to our face, but then directly funding our enemies and supplying them with IEDs and ways to kill our soldiers. My guess? Has to be Saudi Arabia, but I guess we’ll never know. This book has inspired me to learn more about the history and politics of the Middle East, especially since it seems to be the epicenter of so much of our world conflict nowadays.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone look for an entertaining read. His writing style is great (and sometimes hilarious!); you’re going to love it and the pages will just fly by. And bonus, you might end up learning something about a part of the world that most of us don’t think about even though it’s pretty damn important to world affairs.

Red Hope – TwoMorePages Book Review

Red Hope – TwoMorePages Book Review

“Red Hope. It’s a red liquid form of cyanide. The purpose of it was in case the crew had a life-threatening disaster and would not be able to return.”

When I read this line was when I first realized that this was not going to be a happy go lucky, survive against the elements of space and live happily ever after kind of novel, like Apollo 13 or something. There were hints before, like when more experienced astronauts decided to forgo the mission because there wasn’t enough preparation involved; or when the President unilaterally decided to make a totally unreasonable plan to get to Mars within a year without consulting the head of NASA first.

There was literally no reason to include a line like that unless well…everyone (or the majority of everyone) was going to die.

So I don’t know why I was so surprised when shit started hitting the fan and our heroes didn’t end up being well…all that hero-like.

This was a great story that I thoroughly enjoyed: aforementioned foreshadowing aside, there were plenty of events that I just didn’t see coming at all, but which made sense in the context of the story. More than that, we got flawed characters with real motivations that we could at least understand, if not empathize with.

The Boys

Keller, the “sugar daddy” of the group, playful millionaire who isn’t qualified at all to be on the trip, is entertaining in his own right. Between his stories of how he got to where he was, how he ended up totally going back on his word to the Russians, and his not-so-secret relationship with Molly, you got great insight into a character who had the best of intentions, but who definitely should not have been on the trip in the first place.

Adam, arguably the main protagonist in the story, is relatable while the story is on Earth. A devoted family man, he goes on the dangerous mission in large part to secure financial well being for his family, especially his wife who got life-changingly hurt last time he was in space. He wrote a book about his time in space, a spectacularly unsuccessful book, which ends up coloring his actions for the rest of the story. You, as the reader, learn that yeah, he went up into space to financially secure his family, but also for ego. In hindsight, it should have been totally obvious that he was going to totally betray Yeva in their agreement to simultaneously be the first people on Mars.

I’ll be honest and say that I was a little happy when I saw that Keller was going to betray him and leave him there to die on Mars. What a fitting punishment: first man on Mars (who wasn’t supposed to be the *sole* first person on Mars) ends up being the first man to die on Mars. Poetic, even.

But alas, Keller is not only a coward, but a dumb, out of shape coward who pauses at the doorway just long enough to let Adam murder him horribly and steal his air. Well, to be fair, Keller betrayed him first since they were supposed to share the air, but nevertheless…

The Girls

Yeva gets so totally fucked this entire story. First, she’s put on the mission only because Keller screwed over the Russian government and so they refuse to play nice with the US. It’s not really the best thing in the world to be forced onto people who don’t want you there. But okay, so she’s there, she’s competent, she trains, and…she wins the little lottery the crew have as to which 2 get to be first people on Mars. Sweet! Except…that shithead Adam preemptively jumps and beats her to the punch!

WTF?!?!? In her shoes I would definitely have assaulted Adam in front of billions of people with a kick or a punch or something, mission results and international relationships be damned. For the rest of human history, his name will be the one everyone learns and remembers. Hers will be a footnote. And he has the gall to say things like “Remember your training, let’s work as a team?” Pffffft.

Yeah, I would say her sarcastic and pissed off attitude afterwards to Adam is about as muted of a reaction as you could possibly expect.

I did like her chapter where she finally got some happiness on Mars, as she realized that she was the first person to actually touch Mars while she frolicks in the sand next to the Big Turtle. Having her find happiness in making the best of a bad situation was heartwarming.

The Pacing

Aside from the characters, I think the thing I liked best about Red Hope was the pacing of events in the story. Lots of novels I’ve read lately feel…meandering, like they could have spent a lot less time to get to the point and tell me what happened. Red Hope definitely doesn’t have that problem. Hell, the nuclear apocalypse happens on Earth in the span of a chapter with almost no leadup to it. I remember thinking “Wait. WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!”

I can’t wait for the next novel. Between that and the new The Expanse novel that come out in Q4 of this year, I’m going to be one happy camper.

The Butcher of Anderson Station (Expanse Novella #1) – TwoMorePages Book Review

The Butcher of Anderson Station (Expanse Novella #1) – TwoMorePages Book Review

“They used me. They made it about sending messages to everyone that you don’t fuck with Earth, because look at the shit we’ll do just because you spaced an administrator on a nowhere station. They made me the poster boy for disproportional response. They made me a butcher.”

This novella was…a work of art. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it that much, since I didn’t feel particularly close to Fred Johnson in The Expanse, but boy was I wrong.

The juxtaposition of Fred Johnson being interrogated by Anderson Dawes / the OPA and the flashbacks to the taking of Anderson Station were done brilliantly, helping to demonstrate the change in his psyche between the two periods in time.

Moreover, the writing style of the flashbacks is done *really well*. I mean, it helps that I kind of already saw it happen on the show itself, but I didn’t really grasp what I was seeing the first time I saw it on screen. I couldn’t put the story down once the assault started on Anderson Station. You really feel the anxiety of Johnson leading his men, the remorse he feels as each green dot representing his men turns yellow. But more than that, you feel his regret in the aftermath of the assault when things just don’t add up – too many fortifications look stupidly built, too many people died trying to buy one of them more time. Why? He doesn’t get it, and neither do we, until…the big reveal at the end shows us that the the station thought they had surrendered. Only problem was *nobody told the assault commander*.

A nice bonus too was the characterization of Anderson Dawes. In the story, he doesn’t get nearly as much storytime as he gets screentime in the show. You get to see his calculated, intelligent moves, his thought processes as he tries to figure out “Why is this idiot trying to get himself killed? And can I get him to help me instead based on that motivation?” You get more insight into the Belter culture as he talks about how in space, you can’t afford to be wasteful, and how different that is from Earth.

Having just finished Nemesis Games, it also puts into perspective why Fred is so shocked that factions of the OPA are going after him *now*, of all times. They had their chance before; it’s so dumb that they would be doing so now that he’s in charge of shit and has real power and authority to get things done.

I honestly didn’t expect much from this The Expanse novella, but boy was I glad to be wrong. This was a great read. I’ve already started my next one.

 

The Phoenix Descent – TwoMorePages Book Review

The Phoenix Descent – TwoMorePages Book Review

 

The Phoenix Descent was a story that changed from one genre to another to another partway through. I thought I was reading a space story at first, then a zombie story, then a dystopian government story. Guess that’s my fault for not really reading much about the story before I dove in haha.

It was time well spent reading though. The two protagonists, Sif, and Litsa, were relatable, and up until the very end, the action was very unpredictable. More than once I had to double back and be like “Wait. Did that just happen?!”

The Prologue was very well written. I felt like I was reading something like the beginning of The Last of Us, a video game that I thoroughly enjoyed. Interesting that both of them had zombie-like things come from fungal spores. It definitely made me like the book right off the bat.

Okay, let’s dive in and get all spoiler-y, shall we?

The Premise

Like I said before, I really liked the book right off the back because of the similarities to The Last of Us. The Riy at their core were not that different from the zombies in that game; they were both fungal based, sent out spores to infect new hosts, had different specialized versions of infected that went out to kill people. Sure, there weren’t any clickers or bloaters, but there were jumpers! And drones are basically almost the same as runners!

So I strapped in for a limited supplies, everyone is dying but I have to murder the Riy somehow kind of world. And we got that with Litsa’s story, as we follow her attempts to keep her tribe safe.

But to juxtapose with that, we also get Sif’s story, naval aviator turned astronaut. We start the story with her and her crew trying to figure out wtf just happened since they thought they’d wake up around Mars, but they didn’t. The playful banter she has with her crewmates helps set the tone for her character, tough and resourceful, with a sense of humor. I pictured her like Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, honestly.

So the two go on their separate adventures until they finally meet up and Litsa almost kills Sif, and we get to combine the stories huzzah.

Twists and Turns

I honestly thought at the beginning of this book that the two would team up and then somehow find a way to kill the Riy. That seemed to be the obvious place the story was headed. But noooooope!

Burned a Riy hive to get it to leave your tribe alone? Did it successfully with basically no casualties? Sorry, no happiness for you. The Takers have arrived! …and now you’re kidnapped.

But more than that, the Takers are not immediately portrayed as the bad guys. When they first interact with Sif and Hunter, they’re portrayed as the good guys in fact. They’re not doing bad things with the indigenous people that they’re kidnapping; they’re just trying to move them out of the way of the ever expanding Riy. The locals just don’t understand because, well…they’re just not educated enough. A simple misunderstanding, really.

They roll out all the stops for Sif and Hunter, treating them as welcomed guests, and giving them all the comforts of home – military command, clean clothes, food, shelter. Seems like a good setup, right?

Well, not so much. Player 4 has entered the game! Who’s player 4? The Resistance. Fuller risks everything to tell Sif and Hunter what’s really going on behind the scenes and…and…GETS MURDERED FOR IT. I did *not* see that coming! I thought he was going to be protagonist #3.  But nope; unceremoniously shot in the head and used as a plot device.

One thing that did rather annoy me was how the author had the characters figure out what was going on in the story before the reader. There are several chapters that fly by while you, the reader, are stuck in never never land, not knowing what the characters obviously know. I imagine it was to build tension, but honestly? It just felt annoying to me.

I will say I kind of saw what turned the Takers from good folks to bad folks coming. The whole “I’ve seen these people before, but I’m not sure why” vibe was just a little bit too large of a hint. Oh well. You have to make the antagonists wholly unlikable somehow if you’re going to murder them all, right? And what better way for that to happen than for them to commit atrocities to keep themselves alive, disgusting the protagonists and you, the reader, in the process.

The Tears

One thing I really did like though was the way that the final few chapters were written. Once you figure out why the Takers are bad folk, the story progresses very quickly to its climax. The pacing is done very well, underscoring the severity of the events unfolding and just how quickly they’re occurring. Plus, Sif’s banter with Shattuck is comedy gold. It’s like watching a cat play with an evil mouse before she kills it.

But of course, this is a dramatic story and things go wrong. The second that we find out there’s a problem with the navigational computer on the Resolute, I knew what was about to unfold. Of course Sif was going to run a suicide mission.

The chapters describing her descent and Hunter/Lucas/Litsa’s reactions to it were written exceptionally well. I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up some while reading it.

Honestly, I think the story would have fit better had she not miraculously survived by some deux ex machina at the end, but everyone likes a happy ending, right?

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed my time reading this book. Aside from the very end, I thought the story was very unpredictable, and honestly, even with the expected twists at the very end, I was still very entertained. The protagonists were relatable and fun to imagine; the pacing was very well done; and most of the book had unexpected events unfold that I did not see coming. Not everything is going to be at the level of The Expanse or Game of Thrones and that’s okay; doesn’t mean they’re not well written or not fun.

I’d recommend reading The Phoenix Descent, and I will probably get The Gemini Effect from Chuck Grossart as well. I like his style.

The Expanse – Mars and the MCRN get the shaft ALL STORY LONG

The Expanse – Mars and the MCRN get the shaft ALL STORY LONG

Let’s tell The Expanse story from the POV of Mars and the MCRN. They get totally shat on this entire story.

They’re chilling, doing their own thing, and then this random ass little ice hauler shuttle broadcasts to everyone, saying that Mars blew up their ship. From Mars’s perspective, they’re like “??? What? No we didn’t. What the F?”

So they go and save this stupid little shuttle who is broadcasting a distress signal and accusing them of murder. Fine. Whatever. They’ll get to the bottom of this.

They think the OPA did it, and what do you know, there’s a suspected OPA operative in Naomi Ngata on board. So they start investigating, interrogating. As far as actual interrogations go, they treat their prisoners excessively well. No torture (remember the gravity torture back on Earth with Avasarala???). Just piercing questions and paying attention.

BUT WAIT. THERE’S MORE. Stupid mystery ships attack and BLOW UP THEIR FLAGSHIP. All Martian hands lost. Hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

The Captain basically risks everything to try to buy time to launch one of their Corvettes in order to clear the air. The entire escort contingent of MCRN marines dies getting Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex to the Tachi. They’re supposed to go to Mars and tell them the story, clear the name of the Donnager and Mars.

Let’s just gloss over the fact that Holden basically trades MCRN lives for the lives of Naomi, Amos, and Alex since he refuses to be transported without them, endangering EVERYONE.

But what do these jerks do? They claim the Tachi as legitimate salvage, rename the ship the Rocinate and FLY OFF BY THEMSELVES. Thieves!

But wait, there’s more! Earth, full of a bunch of untrustworthy jerks, tricks the Martian ambassador into revealing the site of all of their stealth production facilities, compromising their military position. On top of that, Earth MURDERS HIM! Fuuuuuuuu.

And for what? Mars didn’t do anything wrong in all this! They were just chilling, minding their own business, arguably doing the right things and then…BAM, kicked in the nuts over and over.

MCRN for life.

(but wait, there’s more… BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD)

Caliban’s War

They have to fight Holden and Avasarala’s war, losing two ships in the process, even in victory. And then when they go to take out the facility housing the Protomolecule monsters, A BAJILLION MISSILES CONTAINING THOSE MONSTERS GET LAUNCHED FOR MARS, THREATENING THE ENTIRE PLANET’S POPULATION.

Nemesis Games

And then on top of that, they get TOTALLY OWNED by the discovery of the gates. Their entire purpose of being goes away since nobody wants to terraform Mars anymore when they can just go to other planets. Their society basically crumbles, and lots of their weapons/ships go unaccounted for.

And what seems like half their fleet goes AWOL burning for the rings. They have no discipline in their military ranks anymore since their fleet won’t listen to their prime minister. AND THEN THOSE IDIOTS GO AND GET THEMSELVES KILLED BY MYSTERY ALIENS IN ONE OF THE RINGS.

So here’s Mars. Society on collapse, with an impotent military, a governing body that seems to have no respect, and a population problem because nobody wants to stay. A ragtag bunch of terrorists calling themselves “The Free Navy” have now confined them planetside on a planet that can’t independently support life. Fuck their lives.

tl;dr Poor Mars. They’re just sitting there, minding their own business and then BAM, everything blows up in their face.