Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Books

Only 89 books this year. Perhaps I'll get myself back on pace in 2016.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Dead Wrong, by Richard Phillips

This is a sequel to Mr. Phillip's enjoyable "Once Dead." In the first book, our hero, Gregory, is an ex-CIA agent who was saved by an alien force that goes on to inhabit his mind. In this one, Jack has to rescue an prisoner in South America and prevent an ancient alien artifact from falling into the wrong hands (which is to say anyone's hands). Meanwhile a bunch of folks want him dead.

This is all good fun and an interesting story.

Dead Wrong (The Rho Agenda Inception)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Einstein Prophecy, by Robert Masello

Oh my.  Imagine a book set in Princeton NJ in 1944. Imagine Einstein making a critical last minute design fix to Oppenheimer's work on the atom bomb.  Further imagine this having been orchestrated by demons to increase evil in the world.  Now, because what novel would want to avoid implausible sex at first sight love angles, imagine a brilliant and pretty part-Egyptian gal falling for the hero. Did I mention, oh my?

Now imagine that you're going to ignore all historical facts that might otherwise make this work of fiction more believable. Like: carbon dating techniques (not used in 1944) or the sacking of Cairo by Rommel (he didn't get to Cairo). But frankly the ridiculous love affair between the Egyptologist and the hero bothered me more than the demons. And that's saying quite a bit.

This will probably be made into a movie. A bad one.

The Einstein Prophecy

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

City of Echoes, by Robert Ellis

This is a well written, interesting, but quite depressing mystery novel.  Our hero is Detective Jones, in his first assignment on LAPD's Homicide squad. He finds pervasive corruption -- so much so that it seems everyone with whom he works is either in on it or flat out eager to kill him.

Much as I'd like to recommend it for the writing, I won't because of the tiresome and fatiguing depressing morass of a plot.

City of Echoes (Detective Matt Jones)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Omega Exile, by Stephen Arseneault

This is a very enjoyable sci-fi novel. Our hero is Knog, a detective who is caught up in the corruption of his time but who will not waver from his moral compass. Interestingly, Knog is not a human although many other of the book's characters are. Highly recommended.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Money Land, by RS Guthrie

I quite enjoyed this modern Western. When cartel -based crime shows up in a small Wyoming town, our hero, Sheriff Pruett handles things in an effectual, pragmatic fashion.  This is stripped down writing and very effective.

Money Land: A Hard Boiled Murder Mystery (A James Pruett Mystery Book 2)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Brain Web, by Douglas Richards

In this thriller, our hero Nick has brain implants that allow him to use the internet from his mind. Oh, he also can read the thoughts of others.  As the author says in his promotional blurb, "Based on actual research on thought-controlled Web surfing..." Okay, if you can get past that, read on.

It actually isn't bad!  The plot is interesting and the writing is good.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

In Her Name - First Contact, by Michael Hicks

This is a prequel to Mr. Hicks' "In Her Name" trilogy (the first novel of which is the excellent "Empire").  It is also an outstanding read. This book is the first of the prequel trilogy. And it is stand alone: you needn't have read any of the later books to enjoy this one, and if you have read them, you won't be disappointed by this either.

Mr. Hicks starts us off with an Earth -based survey ship discovering inhabited planets and scary alien creatures who massacre their victims. One survivor, Sato, tries to explain to the rest of Earth the nature of the threat facing their species.

I don't want to say more except that this book is at the same high standard of excellent writing and superlative pacing as his others.  If you're into sci-fi, I expect that you would really enjoy this series.

In Her Name First Contact

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

I have liked Mr. Stephenson's novels. Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite books. In fact, this is the first of his books that I did not much enjoy.

All of Mr. Stephenson's books are lengthy.  The problem here is that only about 300 of the 880 pages in this book interested me.

The story line is good: the moon is broken apart and within a short time will rain destruction on the earth. It won't be safe on the surface for thousands of years. Add ons to the International Space Station become a hope for mankind's long term future. Drama ensues initially, and later in the book, as we fast forward 5,000 years, drama ensues again.

Overall too much detail about uninteresting things.

This could have been a multi-volume work, with shorter and more interesting discussion of mine- and submarine -based survivalists, along with the first parts of the story about the space station, and a dedicated book about the far future situation that better develops the human interest aspects of the political structure that evolved.

But it is what it is, and that is, the first of Mr. Stephenson's books that I actively recommend against reading.

Seveneves: A Novel

Friday, December 11, 2015

30 Pieces of Silver, by Carolyn McCray

Garbage.  Poorly written, uninteresting plot, nothing at all believable. And the author has the chutzpah to compare her novel with the DaVinci Code.  Oh please.  Just say no.

30 Pieces of Silver

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Amid the Shadows, by Michael Grumley

I'd thought this was a suspense thriller, but learned after a few chapters that it was also a para-normal novel as well. So if you like the idea of suspense novels with angels, demons, implausible bad guys and wonderful albeit secretive good guys, you might enjoy this one. It was, after all, well written and the plot was interesting. Still, I just wanted a good old fashioned good guy / gal saves the day book without the complicated angel angles.

Amid the Shadows

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Death in Sweden, by Kevin Wignall

This spy novel was more of a mystery tale, albeit with more violence than one might expect.  The hero, Dan, used to work for the CIA and now freelances by finding fugitives. He gets caught up in trying to figure out the background of a man who died in Sweden saving a young girl. The story is quite interesting.

A Death in Sweden

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Patriot & Assassin, by Robert Cook

Why did I bother reading this book? A formulaic novel isn't necessarily a poor one unless the level of plot and character development are as immaturely formulated as is the case here.

Why waste my time with more words about this book? The bad guys are really bad, with a really bad weapon, led by a really bad and, of course sexually perverted, evil genius. The hero is brilliant, rich, handsome, a former Marine, and has Bedouin family ties. The female interest is brilliant, rich, and beautiful. The writing is uninteresting, ill informed, and tedious.

Patriot and Assassin

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

This novel ended up being excellent and compelling reading. It started out slowly for me: I like to ease into a new vocabulary and conceptual framework of a science fiction book and was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the first several pages. Had the book not been recommended by a friend, I'd probably have quit it within the first 25 pages.

I'm so pleased that I kept at it. Towards the end, I despaired at the slim number of pages left, not wanting the story to end too soon. As it did. Good news: there are three more volumes to the series.

Which isn't to say that I understand what is going on. I am clueless on several fronts.

The general notion is that there's a time travel structure on a place called Hyperion; there's also a murderous being (the Shrike).  There's an enemy race (that may not be deserving of being called the enemy), an AI structure, and a multi-world government of uncertain morality.

Seven travelers are called to a pilgrimage to Hyperion to engage with the Shrike. En route, six of them tell their life stories. That is the bulk of this book.

Mr. Simmons indicates a sometimes annoying fondness for the poet Keats. (Not coincidentally, I suppose, Hyperion is the name of an unfinished poem in Keats' collection, "Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems." Sadly, I'm a barbarian who doesn't appreciate poetry.

Things that confuse me: I don't quite understand the meanings of the many poems (both Keats' as well as Mr. Simmons'). (But that's certainly on me and not Mr. Simmons.) I don't understand what the Shrike is, or why. I don't understand the AI and its context in the universe that Mr. Simmons describes. I don't understand why many things happened or didn't happen. And yet, I really enjoyed this novel. Go figure.

I guess I'll have a shot at understanding as I read through the subsequent volumes. Meanwhile, thanks for the recommendation Jon!

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Independence Day, by Ben Coes

In sharp contrast to the brilliantly written "Palace of Treason," this spy novel suffers the typical trite memes of the "special forces operator acts as spy to save the world" genre. The stoic hero dresses and stitches his painful knife wound while driving through the Russian countryside. The evil, politically corrupt CIA leader is revealed, and then dismissed as though edited out of the story line. Even worse, this "NY Times best selling author" can't find an editor to save him from errors like, "Another gunmen stood..." [p313]. Sigh.

I'm no fan.

Independence Day: A Dewey Andreas Novel

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Mask, by Taylor Stevens

This is another in Ms. Stevens' series featuring hero Vanessa Michael Munroe. Monroe is a murderer and investigator. She passes easily as a man and uses her middle name, Michael, in both her personas.

In this episode, Michael seeks romantic stability, joining her boyfriend Miles where he's working as a security consultant in Japan. She is bored because she's not working, but makes the sacrifice in her attempt to develop a normal relationship. Then Miles is arrested. Michael goes to work to clear him, a non trivial task in the arcane Japanese legal system.

I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as the others because I was confused by the way Miles treated his relationship with Michael. And at the end, confused by Michael's implied interests going forward.
But the action was good and the plot interestingly complex. 

The Mask

The Annihilation Score, by Charles Stross

The first obstacle of this novel is the first chapter: so poorly written, so not edited, so puerile and confusing that anyone who progresses through the second chapter deserves a reward. It is as though there were two authors, and thankfully the first one quit early on.

The story got interesting as it progressed in spite of itself. Here's what I mean: the hero is Mo (Dominique), a PhD, a musician, and an agent with a secret security service of the British government called the Laundry. Their mission is to deal with occult threats.  Mo's weapon is a violin made of bone and infused with some sort of creature who works symbiotically with Mo to kill demons.

Okay, let's skip past all that for a moment. Mo's husband is also in the secret service, also deals with supernatural threats, and their combined workload and other aspects of their jobs has put their relationship at a crossroads. Mo is in her 40s and often time feels invisible, especially in the male dominated bureaucracies of British rule.

If we take the supernatural topic out of the mix, this is still an interesting novel. With it, it is interesting primarily to folks who enjoy (or can tolerate) stories in this genre. The book is told by Mo and I'm surprised the author is male.

I'd give this book three stars (out of five) if it weren't for the terrible opening chapter and the continued annoyance of THE USE OF ALL CAPS throughout the text. So net my review down to two stars. Still, I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it.

The Annihilation Score: A Laundry Files Novel


Friday, November 20, 2015

The Young Elites, by Marie Lu

This is an intriguing novel; imagine X-Men set in the 14th century.  Our hero is a young women who ended up with the physical indications of supernatural abilities, even though she can't exhibit them. Until she does, at which time things get exciting.

What I liked about this book: Ms. Lu doesn't waste time building a mythical location in which to set events, she instead focuses on the people and their experiences. Also, the hero is - well, let's just say a dark hero.  I enjoy that there's no predictability and that things are allowed to go horribly wrong.

I'm eager to read the next in Ms. Lu's series, The Rose Society.

This novel made this year's top ten candidates list. So I'm probably not gushing about it as much as I should. It is a really fast fun read.

The Young Elites

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Lethal Misconduct, by CG Cooper

Mr. Cooper's series features Cal, a former Maine who runs a private security firm that behaves as an unsanctioned police force killing presumed enemies of the state.

I don't so much enjoy the premise of ignoring the constitution in the name of heroics. The book is typically unbelievable with plenty of jumping the shark moments.

Lethal Misconduct (Corps Justice Book 6)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Under Fire, by Grant Blackwood

Mr. Blackwood, it seems, has licensed the Tom Clancy character Jack Ryan Jr. in order to continue writing Clancy-esque suspense novels.  Ryan is son of the President and is a spy for a private organization with the cover story of being an international investment banker.

I don't want to bother saying more about this novel because a simple "meh" will suffice.

Under Fire (Jack Ryan Jr. Novel)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Palace of Treason, by Jason Matthews

The best spy novel I've read in decades. Instead of relying on a hero's absurd capabilities or connections, or on unbelievable plot bridges, Mr. Matthews wrote an intelligent and captivating story. There's terrific character development and well paced suspense.

The stars of the book are CIA agent Nate Nash and his covert spy, Russian Intelligence Service's Dominika Egorova. Apparently there's a prior novel with the back story on Egorova and Nash, but not having read it did not get in my way at all. Egorova hates the kleptocracy of modern Russia, and has no issue revealing secrets to the US. Many of the Russian characters are portrayed as pigs, and many of the CIA brass are also portrayed as incompetent fools who are in place only due to political reasons. There are heroes on both sides; Mr. Matthews takes shots at Russia's leadership and crooked oligarchy, but not its people.

(Probably a Russian novelist could draw the same dreary picture of US Congressmen in the pockets of their lobbyists and PACs, or awkwardly crooked deals like the President's placement of the former attorney for the railroad industry as the head of the Federal Railroad Administration... but I digress.)

There is ample suspense. It is quite difficult to put down, so I recommend allocating a long session to read the book through.

With the right handling, this would make a terrific movie.

Palace of Treason: A Novel

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The President's Shadow, by Brad Meltzer

I had no idea what was going on in this novel. Right up to the last page. My sense is that if I'd read the other books that feature the same main characters I might have had a chance of keeping up.

But here's what's worse: I didn't care. I didn't care about any of the characters, including the heroes. And the plot, as best I could figure it out, was incredible, as in not credible. Also rather horrible.

I'm not going to summarize it because I disliked it.  This one is just not recommended reading.

The President's Shadow (The Culper Ring Series)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

When to Rob a Bank, by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

It turns out that if I had been reading the authors' Freakonomics blog all along, I'd have had no reason to read this book. It is a sampling of 132 blog entries.  But ha! The last laugh is on the authors, as I read a copy of the book borrowed from my local public library and not purchased! (See also their blog entry, "If public libraries didn't exist, could you start one today." [p14.] I guess they're okay with it either way.)

When to Rob a Bank: ...And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thief, by Mark Sullivan

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. The genre is "hero ex special forces operator does good deeds," but Mr. Sullivan found a unique angle which he executed quite well.

Our hero is a thief: Robin Monarch, who grew up in the slums of Buenos Aires and was rescued from a gang life by Sister Rachel, a nun and physician. She got him into the US Army, and after a career there and in the CIA, Monarch became a freelance thief who splits his ill gotten gains with the Sister's charity. Of course she believes the money is earned honestly. And similarly, the Robin Hood -like hero only steals from bad people.

If you go for this sort of book, you're likely to enjoy this one. I anticipate a sequel from Mr. Sullivan and I look forward to reading it.

Thief: A Robin Monarch Novel (Robin Monarch series)

Sapiens, by Yuval Harari

Sub-titled, "a brief history of humankind," Sapiens is a macro level view of the origin of our species. It is one of the more interesting of such books that I've read because Professor Harari has a great writing style and keeps things on pace. He does have a transparently cynical nature though, which comes through repeatedly. The general tone is, with all our cognitive ability and technological ability to harness materials in innovative ways, humans are trending towards destroying the earth rather than towards improving the planet.

Even the agricultural revolution, which you might think of as a positive because it increased the amount of available food, had the cost of population explosions (with resultant health disasters due to poor hygiene and overcrowding) and the formation of a class system ("pampered elites") thus leading to an oppressive society rather than the egalitarian one of nomadic subsistence.

I've made is sound as though Professor Harari beats one over the head with a hammer with this sort of stuff and that is not the case; he uses a small and painless mallet for these occasional comments. But at the end I found that he'd made quite the case. Not that I'm eager to collect nuts and berries, but from a planetary macro perspective, he may well be right.

In my view it is worth reading.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Collision, by William Cohen

Mr. Cohen came to fiction writing as a tertiary career; he'd been a Congressman and Senator and was President Clinton's Secretary of Defense. He writing, then, is what you might expect: competent but not phenomenal. He makes up for that with good plot line and reasonably strong character development.

The hero of this novel is a former Senator and national security advisor to the President, and current practicing attorney, named Sean Falcone. Falcone was a POW during the Vietnam conflict. (Yes, that puts our hero in his mid-60's. No ageism here.)

The book was surprisingly credible: no conveniently enabled super hero stunts per the typical suspense genre. Even Falcone's access to the upper reaches of US Government seems reasonable given the background of his character.

All in all, not fabulous, but I'll read Mr. cohen's next novel to see if he's improved with practice. But only if I can get it on loan from the public library; he doesn't pass the "I'm eager to pay for it with my hard earned cash" test. Yet.

Collision: A Novel

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Janson Equation, by Douglas Corleone

Apparently the characters in this novel originated with the late Robert Ludlum, so his name gets a large font billing on the cover of this book.

The first chapter of this book was a test: given such poor writing, is it worth going on?  The writing mysteriously got better. Or maybe I became inured to it. The plot movement is fast. It is the standard super hero spy can do anything kind of novel.

Let me justify my condemnation of writing style. The first sentence of this novel ran 93 words. Yes, in one sentence. And it wasn't a great sentence. Here's a sample from page two:
"Lynx fished around the inside pocket of his jacket and plucked out a small key to open the lock on his bicycle, then walked the bike away from the compound before lifting his right leg over the frame and straddling it."
Perhaps I'm too demanding. Why did the reader need to be told that the key was small, that the right leg went over the frame first, that the rider ended up straddling the bike? Still, this was a way better sentence than others (and yes, I'm too lazy to retype the first long line of the novel).

Having just finished the masterfully written "Fifth Gospel," my standards have been set high due to brilliant craftmanship. Maybe that's why reading this novel was so jarring.

So is this worth reading?  If you can get it at a steep discount, it is a good airplane book. You can leave it behind or at a hotel for the next traveler to pick up.

Robert Ludlum's (TM) The Janson Equation (Janson series)

The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell

This is a fantastic novel. It is a mystery, but really more than that. Mr. Caldwell's writing is exemplary, his plot line entirely believable, and his character development is outstanding.

The hero, Father Alex Andreou, is a Greek Catholic priest who works at the Vatican. Greek Catholic means that he can be married (and was, and has a child, and is a single parent as his wife left him) and still be follower of the Pope. (Unlike Greek Orthodox priests who can be married but who have disdain for the Pope.)

His brother Father Simon is a Roman Catholic priest, and gets into trouble as he reported the death of his friend Ugo Nogara in a dark unused park. Why was Nogara killed? Who did it? Why is Simon investigated by the Vatican (in a civil proceeding) for the murder?

The story is narrated by Alex. His role as a single parent is never abandoned as he pursues the mystery both on physical and also intellectual terms (as in, what secrets did Nogara discover in his reading of the Diatessaron gospel and his investigation of the Shroud of Turin).

You needn't be Catholic nor Greek Orthodox to appreciate this novel. It is simply great literature.

The Fifth Gospel: A Novel

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Make Me, by Lee Child

This is the 20th book of Mr. Child's featuring hero Jack Reacher.  I admit to mixed emotions when I started it: on the one hand I was pleased that the library notified me that it was my turn to read (I'd forgotten about having requested it quite a while ago). On the other hand, I was unsure I wanted to bother, since the story was going to be predictable (the standard Jack Reacher formula).

I did read the book, and after only a chapter or two I was pleased that I did. Reacher's age seemed less an issue in this book. The rest of the distinctive characteristics of Mr. Child's novels were present. Reacher still isn't much for inter-personal relationships. Press journalists seem to have extravagant budgets. There are no consequences for murdering bad guys. But hey, that's part of what you get when you read this sort of story.

Summary: a small town in Oklahoma called "Mother's Rest;" Reacher gets off a train to explore it just because he's curious about the story behind the name. He meets a woman who sweeps him up into her situation just because Reacher is bored.

Then there's quite a bit of expensive travel. Some magic around the dark web is exposed by a conveniently cooperative geek. The reporter with a seemingly unlimited budget gets involved. Bad guys are killed off by the bucket load.

Make Me: A Jack Reacher Novel

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Code of Conduct, by Brad Thor

This is the 14th book of Mr. Thor's featuring hero Scot Harvath. As is the norm, Harvath is the super operative who saves the world by disregarding the US Constitution wherever it suits his sense of purpose to do so. As a consequence he always gets the bad guys (and the nice girls), and promulgates the notion of selective interpretation of rights.

Maybe I'm overly sensitive; I watched the GOP primary debate on CNN last night and heard Governor Huckabee suggest that one needn't really follow a directive from the Supreme Court of the United States if you really really really know deep in your heart that theirs is a bad decision.

And on top of that, today is Constitution Day! I guess I'm in that minority who feels as though if one doesn't respect the entirety of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in how we treat our citizens then we've lost the fight.  The Patriot Act -- terrorists win. NSA wiretapping US citizens without prior warrant -- terrorists win. Occasionally overzealous TSA agents acting out the theater of air safety -- terrorists win. Whenever we give up our rights, whenever we act in fear, and whenever we dramatically alter our normal daily behavior -- the terrorists win.

The notion is that the Bill of Rights matters -- primarily when it suits those in power.  Governor Christie's comments at that same debate fall into the same category: he embraces the 10th Amendment ("The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."). Except for when doing so gets in the way of his views, in this case, horror at states choosing to legalize marijuana. Sigh.

Boy did that debate make me cranky!

Oh well, enough of that. It was a good action novel.

Code of Conduct: A Thriller (Scot Harvath Book 14)

The Little Book that Beats the Market, by Joel Greenblatt

** Updated 09-17-2015 **

In this magazine article packaged as a book, Mr. Greenblatt does a fine job of explaining the basic concepts of value investing. (That is, buy low and sell high.) He then promotes his "magic formula" approach which is to screen stocks for high return on assets (ROA), low price to earning ratio (PE). His formula is that by purchasing the 30 US domestic non banking stocks that are both the highest ROA and lowest PE, and resetting the purchases every year, one can dramatically out perform the S&P 500 or similar indices.

Mr. Greenblatt refers to his backtest (over 17 years in the older version of the book that I borrowed from my local public library) which confirmed that although there may be years during which his approach fails, in the long run it always succeeds. In his backtest he achieved an average return of 30.8% per year, compared to 12.4% per year for the S&P 500 in the same period.

This sounds great. I am, however, skeptical.  Primarily because Mr. Greenblatt did not provide any of his data sets. I'd really like to look at the stocks he chose and their underlying financial information.

To move forward, Mr. Greenblatt points the reader to his website,, from which you can get a screened list of stocks that meet his criteria. For free. So I checked it out. There were some surprises.

I generated a list of 50 stocks with a market cap over $50M (that's a universe that includes very small cap firms all the way up to very large cap firms). Unfortunately the list is presented in alphabetic order. So you can't figure out (without substantial manual labor) which firm has the best combination of {ROA,PE} and which has the next best, etc. Also, there no financial data on the list. Just the firm's name, ticker symbol, market cap, date of analysis, and date of quarter from which the data for the screen was extracted.

So which was the number one stock on this list? Well, we don't know! But we do know that the first one on the list, by virtue of the letter A, was Apple.  At least it is in the top 50 of firms out of the thousands in this screen. So let's think about Apple (AAPL).

On page 136, Mr. Greenblatt says that the minimum ROA should be 25%. As of this writing (per Apple's ROA is 17.09%. Its trailing PE is 13.47, which does seem low relative to the S&P 500. But I'm having trouble understanding how this combination of information put Apple on the top 50 list.

In the appendix, Mr. Greenblatt discusses return on capital, measured by pre-tax operating earnings (or EBIT) divided by the sum of net working capital and net fixed assets. And yield, as the ratio given by dividing EBIT by enterprise value (EV). I didn't compute the return on capital this way, but did look at EBITDA divided by EV; 11.6%. These are a bit different from the simple screen that Mr. Greenblatt explained earlier in the book, but pretty close.

Still surprised by Apple on this list, I looked at three other standard value screens. Historically, EV/Sales should be around 1.4; Apple's is 2.99. That's high (i.e., expensive).  Similarly, yield should be around 11%. That's okay here. Finally, Price/Book Value should be around 2.6 to 2.3; Apple's is 5.28 (i.e., too high).  Gosh, I'm still having trouble with Apple on this list.  And to be clear, I have nothing against owning Apple and I do believe that at current valuations it is a buy. But it is very difficult to imagine that it is one of the 50 best values out of the thousands of stocks from high-micro through small cap, mid cap and large cap, per Mr. Greenblatt's criteria.


The (to me) inexplicable presence of Apple on the screen continues to nag at me. Now I'm obsessing.

So I used the Google Finance screen (which isn't really sophisticated enough to replicate Mr. Greenblatt's model, but is at least a simple, free start) to look at domestic stocks with market cap greater than $460M, low PE ratio, high ROA.  The first one on their (ordered) list was Alliance Holdings (AHGP), a coal industry firm. This firm does not appear on Mr. Greenblatt's site, and clarity about why AAPL does and why AHGP doesn't would be super helpful.

AHGP's ROA is 14.11% and trailing PE is 7.92.  So on just the simple "magic formula" screen of PE and ROA, this sure seems a winner.  Against my other quick checks, it continues to look pretty good with yield at 27.5% (EV/EBITDA is 3.64) and EV/Revenue of 1.27.  Only the Price/Book ratio is high, at 3.63. 

The point of all this is, while I don't understand the coal industry well enough to know if Alliance is a good bargain at its current price, it certainly seems a likely candidate. The book should have sufficient information in it for me to discern why Apple and why not Alliance.

**End Update**

Bottom line: if this were just a magazine article about value investing, I'd have clipped it and shared it with my kids. But the "magic formula" to beating the stock market indices, even if it is completely accurate and repeatable, is not sufficiently well explained to convert me to play with my own money, nor to convince me this is a book worth recommending to others.

I guess if I could easily build the screens myself I might be more generous in my view, but that, even with tools like Value Line, requires effort.

The Little Book That Still Beats the Market (Little Books. Big Profits)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

It IS About Islam: Exposing the Truth About ISIS, Al Qaeda, Iran, and the Caliphate, by Glenn Beck

Mr. Beck's book is in three parts. The first is a thoughtful and reference -laden overview of Islam and in particular, Islamism. The second is a primer of the "13 lies" about Islam (and Islamism) that are considered politically correct or appropriate speech.  Again, although the word "lies" might seem inflammatory, the material is thoughtfully presented. Finally, the third part is what he recommends Americans do going forward. I found it the least compelling section of the book; perhaps it just needs more explanation and detail.

So overall, is this book worth reading? Realize that Mr. Beck is a media personality who is known for both his ultra conservative views and for supporting restraint on the free actions of Americans who have views that differ from his personal religious beliefs (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, etc.).

This doesn't make him a person you might intuit to be a fair and balanced narrator of a book about Islamism. Consider that the group People for the American Way (which exists "to shed light on the activities of right-wing political organizations") characterizes Mr. Beck as "a full-blown apocalyptic End Times preacher."

Well, as former Texas Governor Rick Perry points out, even "a broken clock is right once a day." Well, maybe even twice. The point is, no matter what you may think of Mr. Beck's political slant, my take is that he was diligent in writing an objective, fact-based book.

So the answer: yes, I absolutely recommend this book. In fact, the more the title offends your sense of political correctness, the more interesting it would be for you in particular to read.

It IS About Islam: Exposing the Truth About ISIS, Al Qaeda, Iran, and the Caliphate (The Control Series Book 3)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training, by Karen Pryor

This book isn't really about dog training.  I don't own a dog and don't plan to. The only reason I read this book was that it was recommended by Tim Ferriss (in a podcast, blog post or tweet - I can't recall which). So if you don't have a dog or other pet please don't let that get in the way of reading this really interesting and entertaining book.

What it is about is behavioral training. She uses her experiences training all sorts of creatures (from fish and aquatic mammals to horses, fish and humans) using only positive reinforcement. She covers the gamut of methods to stop unwanted habits (but only recommends a few of them).

By the end of the book her messages all come together in a better understanding of the use of a clicker in animal training and insights into the positive only training techniques that she endorses.

This book seems a good read for anyone, pet owner or not. Highly recommended.

(By the way, there's a newer edition of the book than the one I borrowed from my local public library.)

Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training

Escape, by David Baldacci

Another in Mr. Baldacci's "John Puller" series.  I enjoyed it greatly; stayed up way to late at night to finish it.

Hero John Puller is a Warrant Officer in the Army's criminal investigation division. Prior books in the series have made reference to Puller's brother, in military prison for espionage. In this novel, the brother escapes, and Puller is surprisingly assigned to find him.

This was very entertaining even if you might guess there'd be a hero's ending.  My big complaint is in that regard: the epilogue was too abrupt and too extreme to just sit without further explanation.

The Escape (John Puller Series)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Primal Reckoning, by Jack Silkstone

In the first volume of Mr. Silkstone's series, a wealthy young businessman in the Emirates decides to fund a group of former military special forces ops to build his own vigilante organization.  My blog entry for it says, "Sketchy plots, impossible saves, and a general disregard for the law."
In this volume the good guys face corruption and a drug cartel in Mexico.  Oh, and evil forces within the CIA.

So once again I can say, sketchy plots, impossible saves, and a general disregard for the law.

PRIMAL Reckoning (Book 1 in the Redemption Trilogy, The PRIMAL Series Book 5)

(R)evolution, by PJ Manney

The concept of this book is the power of nanotechnology. The hero, Peter, invented nanorobots to cure disease. Someone stole his work, tens of thousands die and his work is blamed, and he becomes a pariah. Peter doses himself with nanobots to enhance his personal capabilities.

Then the book turns from science fiction towards political thriller. He joins the Phoenix Club, a powerful and potentially malevolent cabal.

Not bad, but for me, a C+.

(R)evolution (Phoenix Horizon Book 1)

Final Battle, by Michael Hicks

This is the final volume of Mr. Hick's trilogy featuring Reza as a human soldier trained by the alien enemy Kreelan forces.  More political than pure action, Reza tries to save both the human and Kreelan societies.  Mr. Hicks managed to keep my interest throughout all three books.

Final Battle (Redemption Trilogy, Book 3)

Confederation, by Michael Hicks

This is the second book in Mr. Hicks' series and it was as entertaining as the first.  Our hero, Reza, has grown up -- albeit as a Kreelan warrior more so than as a human soldier. He becomes a Marine for the Human Confederation.  I don't want to say more in order to avoid spoilers. About to read the third volume next!

Confederation (Redemption Trilogy, Book 2)

Empire, by Michael Hicks

This is a fabulous story.  In a far future time, the Human Confederation battles the Kreelan Empire. The Kreelan are all female and although they have technology far beyond that of the humans, they prefer personal battle (swords and the like).

Our hero, Reza, is captured by the Kreelan. This book covers his development in their culture.

Great reading and I look forward to the second volume.

Empire (Redemption Trilogy, Book 1)

Darker Things, by Rob Cornell

The hero is Craig but he uses a different name now, to hide his identity. He used to work for a government agency chasing scary creatures like vampires, obviously a secret organization. He doesn't any longer, but is brought back into dealing with the paranormal when his 15 year old daughter, Jessie, finds him.  He had abandoned before her birth in order to protect her from nefarious forces (sounds fishy to me too). She's the real hero of the book.

This is the first in the series and I suppose I'll read the sequel.

Darker Things (The Lockman Chronicles Book 1)

Love Bites, by Adrienne Barbeau

This novel proves that I have to stop reading free Kindle books via BookBub and start paying for good books instead.

The hero is Ovsanna, a 450 year old vampire who is an actress and film producer. Her friend Peter is a police officer. Together they solve a crime involve weird creatures.


Love Bites: A Handsome Cop, A Glamorous Star, and Murder (Vampyres of Hollywood #2)

The Scythe, by Jonas Saul

This is the third in a series of novels featuring a hero named Kostas. I'm really pleased that I haven't read the prior books. In this one, Kostas feels threatened by a combination of Russian, Italian and Chinese Mafia gangs. So he uses his extraordinary skills to kill many of them.

For this book, "meh" would be an overstatement.

The Scythe (The Mafia Trilogy Book 3)

Assault or Attrition, by Blake Northcott

In this sequel to Arena Mode, our hero, Moxon, has won enormous wealth, surgically repaired the tumor that threatened his life, and is in hiding from the religious cult that developed around the Russian Sergei Taktarov whom he killed in the first book.

This novel is less exciting than the first; the writing is bumpier too. But I'm pleased with it and will read more of Mr. Northcott's work as it comes out.

Assault or Attrition (The Arena Mode Saga Book 2)

Beyond The Veil, by Pippa DaCosta

This book is what I deserve when I take a free Amazon Kindle deal. In retrospect, I'm surprised I made it through.

The hero is Muse. She's a half demon. Because of this the full demons don't like her. She was abused by a prior demon "owner" but now is free thanks to a demon named Akill. But she doesn't like him either.

Stuff happens. What's the right word to use that is just below "meh" to convey lack of interest?

Beyond The Veil: A Muse Urban Fantasy (The Veil Series Book 1)

The Unforgivable Fix, by TE Woods

This is a complicated book; perhaps it would have been less so had I read the prior novels featuring the main characters. Lydia is our hero, a therapist who is also the undercover serial killer (but only in the name of justice apparently) nicknamed The Fixer.

Mort is a local police detective and Lydia's buddy. And he knows her secret.

Allie is an unlikeable young woman who is the escort of a drug kingpin. She leaves him and needs to go into hiding, so her dad (Mort) gets Lydia to take her in.

Then things go downhill.

It isn't that the book is bad so much that the people in it are so miserable.

I'm not motivated to read the two prior books in this series nor will I read any that follow.

The Unforgivable Fix: A Justice Novel (The Justice Series Book 3)

The Copy, by Grant Boshoff

Our hero is on trial for murder. Turns out, he killed his clone. The book is primarily the back story on how this came to be.


The Copy: A Suspense Legal Thriller Novella

Unallocated Space, by Jerry Hatchett

The hero of this novel is Sam. He's a combination of special operative and computer hacker who runs a private firm auditing computer systems. He's hired to do this for Space, a futuristic Las Vegas casino.

The novel takes place in the future but near future, as most of the references are current.

It was interesting enough. This could have been a better book if Mr. Hatchett didn't make several scenes needlessly violent and brutal.

Advertised as the first in a series, I'm going to pass on the sequel.

Unallocated Space (Sam Flatt) (Volume 1)