Inaccurate Knowledge Is Worse Than No Knowledge

I hate bad nonfiction books—by bad, I don’t specifically mean boring (though I’m not fond of boring books, either), but books that contain major inaccuracies. I also hate it when people condescend to women, especially when it comes to finance. Unfortunately, I encountered both inaccuracies and condescension in a book I read recently. I had to trash it on Goodreads, but I’m sure there are many of you out there who don’t follow my Goodreads review. (I don’t follow most of the blogger I read on Goodreads, so I certainly don’t blame you!) Therefore, I just had to post this review on here in all its ranty glory. Enjoy!

The Financial Diet: A Total Beginner's Guide to Getting Good with MoneyThe Financial Diet: A Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Good with Money by Chelsea Fagan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If this book were simply useless to me, I could have given it two stars. I know it’s marketed towards young women who don’t know much about money. And that’s fine, because there are people who don’t know much and everyone’s got to start somewhere. I get that.

What made me give this book one star (i.e. the lowest rating allowed—I’d give it negative stars if I could!) was how some of the information was just plain wrong. Like criminally wrong. So wrong that if you followed it, other poor fellow unfortunate readers, you’d find yourself in deep trouble.

The first major error I’m going to talk about comes in chapter 5. Do not, do not, DO NOT ever buy a house with a down payment of less than 20%. One of the so-called “experts” “interviewed” (I use both those terms, experts and interviewed, loosely) says you can put 3.5% down for your house. NO. Do not ever do that. PMI (private mortgage insurance) will eat you alive. Your finances will be so messed up it isn’t even funny. I will note that other reviewers pointed this out, too, so it makes me feel a bit better that this mistake did not go unnoticed.

The next, and in some ways more egregious error (because you probably start investing before buying a house) occurs in chapter 2, the chapter about investing. This quote is so misguided that it’s obvious the author, Chelsea Fagan, has zero idea what she’s talking about:

Explore other low-risk investment options, such as mutual funds and index funds.

Continue reading “Inaccurate Knowledge Is Worse Than No Knowledge”

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Spoilerific Review of ‘Thrawn: Alliances’

You guys, I wrote my Goodreads review, as promised! It is full of spoilers—seriously, if you don’t want to know a lot about the story, don’t read this! I’ll say it again: there are a ton of spoilers in this review! Proceed with caution! 🙂

Thrawn:  AlliancesThrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been waiting for this book for a very long time. (Anticipation tends to make time drag out.) It did not disappoint.

Even though this book is a sequel to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn, you really don’t need to have read the first one to understand this. (You should read it, though, because it’s AMAZING. Seriously, Thrawn single-handedly turned me into a Star Wars fan.) Eli Vanto is mentioned once, and Commodore Faro showed up at the end of the previous book, but that’s about it. Instead, this book has references to some of the prequel trilogy, to other books, and to the TV shows Clone Wars and Rebels (I haven’t seen the shows, so I discovered that by looking up a few things I didn’t understand).

Random obscure references can be frustrating, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book. It’s excellent. I really enjoyed the interactions between Thrawn and his crew—he really is a good leader, so much so that I wish managers at work would emulate him more—as well as Thrawn and Vader, past and present. Yes, dear readers, it’s true: Darth Vader is in this book (he is a main character, as you can probably tell from the cover) and Zahn writes him well. I could hear all of his blunt, pithy statements being said in James Earl Jones’ voice from the movies.

I really enjoyed how Vader didn’t want to reveal his past. A few times, Thrawn makes reference to the fact that they met before, which Vader denies. By the end of the book, Thrawn knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Vader is Anakin Skywalker. Of course, the two of them don’t have some heart-to-heart about this. But I still enjoyed seeing this mystery play out.

Another unexpected part of this book was the inclusion of Padmé. I love Padmé! Unfortunately, her sections were the weakest, mainly because Zahn had so little to work with concerning her. The Star Wars canon has never done her justice, unfortunately. The good news is Zahn did the best he could with what he had—you’ve got to start somewhere.

By the end of the book, we discover a big secret about the Chiss—they navigate through hyperspace using Force-sensitive kids, whose strength in the Force diminishes as they grow older. These children, some of whom were kidnapped by the Grysk, a new species of alien, were the source of the disturbance Palpatine felt at the beginning of the novel. Thrawn and Vader have completed their mission and developed a grudging respect for each other. (Seriously, one of the most entertaining aspects of the this book is seeing Vader snipe at poor Thrawn for almost the entire time.) Vader promises to back Thrawn’s TIE Defender project. Thrawn says the emperor is interested in expanding the Empire to the Unknown Regions, something Thrawn is an expert in. The threads are all wrapped up by the end of this book, unlike in the prior one. I’m not sure where Zahn will go with a third book, if there is one (and I dearly hope there will be because MORE THRAWN).

Final verdict: if you’re a Star Wars fan, a Thrawn fan, a Vader fan, or all of the above, you will enjoy this. I wasn’t very happy with some of the references I didn’t understand, but those are few and far between and do not take away from the story.

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‘Thrawn: Alliances’ Was As Good As I Expected

Cue the music, everyone. Perhaps the Imperial March from Star Wars is appropriate, because the book I’ve been waiting for since last October is here.

At long last, Thrawn: Alliances was released into the world this past Tuesday (four days ago). The library copies arrived and were processed into the system, so on Thursday morning, I went to the library to collect the copy I’d reserved.

Here it is sitting on my coffee table!

I read it and finished it already! I’ll probably write a spoilerific review on Goodreads at some point, but my overall impression is that it’s decent. Timothy Zahn took the story in a direction I didn’t expect, but that’s not a bad thing.

I expected the book to be a direct sequel to Zahn’s prior book Thrawn, but that wasn’t really the case. In fact, I think you could easily read Thrawn: Alliances without having read Thrawn, which I find very odd. I was hoping some of the unresolved problems from Thrawn would be explained, but that didn’t happen. Perhaps there will be a third book to tie it all together. (We can hope!)

Edited to add: According to this interview, Zahn has pitched two sequels! Thrawn: Alliances was one of them, so there could be a third book in the future!

Another thing that was unexpected about Thrawn: Alliances is it’s not a very good entry point into the Star Wars universe. I read Thrawn without ever having read a Star Wars book. I hadn’t seen most of the movies, either, but it still made perfect sense. I didn’t get that same feeling with Thrawn: Alliances. If you try to jump into the Star Wars universe with this one, you’ll probably be confused. I was confused about some references, to be honest.

So was it worth the wait? I’d say yes. Seeing Thrawn and Darth Vader sniping at each other (okay, let’s be honest, most of the sniping is coming from Darth Vader’s side) was pretty funny. And this dedication is priceless. I even took a picture of it because it made me laugh.

I’m so glad Timothy Zahn has a sense of humor!.

As scary as this sounds, I’ve worked with people more horrible than Darth Vader was in this book. Just pointing that out, in case anyone was wondering. There was a reason I left my previous toxic job…

2017: My Year In Books

I meant to write this post ages ago, like at the end of December so it could be scheduled and published towards the beginning of January, but that didn’t happen. Still, it’s better late than never, so I figured I’d write about my favorite (and least favorite) reads of 2017.

First off, I read a fair amount of books in 2017. 105, to be exact. That is fewer than the 2016 number of 126, thank goodness. Reading-wise, 2016 felt very stuffed to me. I didn’t like feeling stuffed. Books are good, but reading to the exclusion of other fun things, like knitting, is not good. If you’re interested, I wrote a post about my 2016 reads last year.

But back to 2017. Goodreads has a nice little summary of everything I read that you can access here. (Note: if you’re a Goodreads user and you want to share your own summary, you have to use the share links at the top right. Don’t just copy the URL because that URL doesn’t have your unique user ID and therefore people will not be able to see your unique summary!)

If the books I read in 2017 had a theme, I’d have to say it was very much a science fiction and fantasy theme. I haven’t actually gone back and counted, but I feel like I read a ton of fiction in general, especially science fiction and fantasy. I don’t think I read much nonfiction at all. In fact, I think I’ve read more nonfiction so far this month than I did all of 2017. I’m not sure why that happened—I didn’t deliberately plan that!

Anyway, to get into the details: out of everything I read, here’s what stood out, both good and bad.

Best general fiction

I think this one has to go to Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester. I rarely buy brand-new books, but I snapped this one up as soon as I saw it in the book store because I am a Jane Eyre enthusiast. It did not disappoint. I think you have to read Jane Eyre first to fully appreciate it… but if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, what are you waiting for?!

Best science fiction

If you don’t know my answer to this, you probably haven’t been reading this blog for very long! 🙂 Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn was by far the best science fiction of the year. It’s one of my favorite books, period. And there is a sequel coming out that I’ve posted about (and have a countdown for on this blog—only four more months to go!), so go read this book if you haven’t already.

Best historical fiction

This book, Mary Doria Russell’s Doc, was a surprise hit for me. I thought it was just going to be okay. It was fantastic. It focuses on one year in Doc Holliday’s life (though it mentions a lot of other parts of his life as background) and the quality of the writing is fantastic. I finished it months ago and sometimes I still think about it. To me, that’s the mark of a good book. I’d never heard of the author before I picked it up, but I will have to read more of her work.

Most disappointing

Thus far, I’ve talked about books I like. Now I’m going to be a little less positive. One book I was really looking forward to reading was Sean Danker’s Admiral. The title is awesome, the cover is awesome, and the summary sounded awesome. Unfortunately, the book itself is not awesome. It starts off decently enough, but then devolves into an uninspired tale of first contact. The book is a first in a series and I don’t think I’ll be reading the other two books (I think it’s a trilogy but I’m not sure) because of my disappointment with this one. If you haven’t read it—well, let me just say there are better works of science fiction out there.

Best nonfiction

I don’t want to end this post on a negative note, so the last book I’ll spotlight is best nonfiction. As I said, I didn’t read much nonfiction in 2017, so this book didn’t have much competition… but even in a year where I read solely nonfiction, I think this one would come out on top. I’m talking about John Laughland’s Travesty: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic and the Corruption of International Justice. You know when you read a book and sometimes you have to go back and read things because they’re so amazing? And you learn so much from even just one sentence? And then as you read the book, you realize that the author is basically a genius and no matter what you do, you’ll never be able to come up with all the original thoughts and connections he (or she) has? That’s what happened to me when I read this book. Laughland is brilliant, there’s no question about that. I’ve been following Balkan history and politics for about ten years now and I have a very contrarian view. Laughland does as well, and his book makes you think.

So, that’s my year in books! What books did you like (or dislike) in 2017? What books are you looking forward to in 2018?

When To Quit Reading A Book

At what point when you’re reading a book and not enjoying it do you call it quits?

When I was younger, I never quit books. Even if I despised them, I kept reading and stuck it through to the bitter end. This was pre-Goodreads days, so I didn’t even get to do any cathartic venting online when I didn’t like something.

After I started working and had limited time to read, I started being more picky about what I read through to the end. Plus, I enjoyed the freedom of not being in school anymore. In school, I had to read a lot of books, many of which I didn’t like. But they were required for class, so not reading them wasn’t really an option. (Unless I wanted a bad grade, which obviously I didn’t.)

Suddenly, after I started working, I realized there were a lot of books I just didn’t want to read. Moreover, I realized it wasn’t a bad thing that I didn’t want to read them. If I started something and just couldn’t get into it, I would dump it.

I still do this. My local library has a fantastic ebook collection and I’ve started many books that I didn’t end up finishing. It’s actually liberating because it means I have more time to read what I want. This doesn’t mean that I don’t force myself to read difficult books. I’m slowly working my way through Jane Austen’s works. I think they’re difficult reads, but I still enjoy reading them.

At least the cover is cool?

No, the type of books I’m talking about quitting are ones like Red Queen. Years ago, everyone was talking about this book. I decided to read it last year—only to put it down in disgust after a few chapters. I just couldn’t get into it. I figured it wasn’t for me.

Earlier this year, one of my coworkers said her sister recommended it to her. My coworker hasn’t read it, but said her sister loved it. I decided to try it again. I made it a bit further than last time, but I still didn’t get very far.

Last week, I saw that the library had the audiobook version of Red Queen available. I’ve been somewhat getting into audiobooks lately, so I thought I’d give this book yet another try. Third time’s the charm, right?

You’ve got to give me some credit: I made it over halfway through this time. I still ended up abandoning this book, though. I just don’t care for it. I think the plot is dumb and the characters are like cardboard. I know it sold well, so obviously I’m missing something here. I guess it’s just not my kind of book. And that’s okay because I will spend time reading books that are my kind of books.

When do you quit reading a book if you don’t like it? Have you read Red Queen? If you have and you liked it, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. When I look at good reviews of it online, I feel like everyone who wrote a good review read a different book than the one I did!

Everything Wrong With Mark Henshaw’s ‘The Fall of Moscow Station’

At least the cover is nice…

Okay, the tile of this post is slightly misleading. There may be more wrong with this book—Mark Henshaw’s The Fall of Moscow Station—that I don’t know about because I stopped reading on page 70. (To put things in perspective, there are 338 pages in this book.) All of the inaccuracies have to do with Russia or the Russian language. They drove me so crazy that I could not finish this thing. I’d had really high hopes for it, too.

  • Page 24: A character says, “I am familiar with military tattoos. The one on the victim’s shoulder is not uncommon among soldiers of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate. You might know them as the GRU, the old masters of the Spetsnaz Special Forces.” Honestly, this isn’t wholly inaccurate—the Spetsnaz served in the GRU, but they’re also in other branches of the military and intelligence services. Perhaps the author knows this and omitted it from the book because it was beyond the scope of information we needed. However, I’ve been unable to locate any information about tattoos specific to the GRU or Russian military. I could be wrong, but I feel like the author might be confusing this concept of tattoos with the Russian criminal underworld, where there are specific, distinctive tattoos used.
  • Page 27: “‘Spasibo.’ Arkady Lavrov ignored the American in favor of the sentry. ‘Pozhaluysta zakroyte dver.‘” Maybe it’s just me, but throwing in a pozhaluysta (please) when asking someone to close the door boggles the mind, especially since the speaker is an intense spy who’s the director of the GRU. To me, it would be more likely he’d bark in Russian, “Zakroyte dver,” with the implication in his tone that if the door wasn’t closed promptly, there’d be hell to pay.
  • Page 42: On a CIA dossier describing a character’s resume, we have the following information: “Listed as Vice President for Communications Security, ‘Zelyonsoft’ [zelyeniy is Russian for ‘gold’].” No, zelyeniy [зелёный] is green. Zolotoi [золотой] is gold.
  • Page 60: Remember that GRU director on page 27 who was ever so polite in asking for the door to be closed? Well, here we have this sentence about him: “But the FSB general was a solider and appreciated the willingness to take the initiative.” People, the FSB and the GRU are two totally different intelligence organizations! The FSB grew out of the KGB when the Soviet Union fell. The GRU is foreign military intelligence. And then there are other intelligence organizations like the SVR for external intelligence (though allegedly the FSB works in this area as well). My point is, they’re all different and you’ve got to keep them straight if you’re including them in a book. Wouldn’t it be rather silly to mess up the FBI and the CIA in a spy thriller?!

And there you have it. I was so frustrated with the book because I kept being jolted out of the story by these issues, so I stopped reading it on page 70. Maybe I’m picky, but there are lot of books out there and limited time to read them, so I’ve got to be choosy. I finished reading an alternate history recently (SS-GB by Len Deighton) and I’m still plugging away at Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard in Russian. If someone else has read The Fall of Moscow Station and tells me it greatly improves later, maybe I’ll finish it. But until then, I think I’ll read other books.

2016: My Year in Books

A couple of other bloggers I read, K.M. Weiland and Kiera, wrote posts about the best books they read in 2016. Usually, by the end of the year, I forget which books I read that year, but thanks to Goodreads, this is no longer the case. 2016 was the second year I tracked my reading on that website. This year, there’s even a convenient little page that sums up all of one’s reading.

I read a lot in 2016—126 books to be exact. It was actually fewer than 126 because some of those were short stories that tied in to series I’d read. But still, even without counting those, I still read a ton of books. Here are some of my favorites.

Continue reading “2016: My Year in Books”

Book Review: The Billion Dollar Spy

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and BetrayalThe Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really fantastic book that tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet engineer who spied for the CIA and gave the United States hundreds, maybe even thousands, of technical documents pertaining to Soviet radar, military planes, weapons, and much more.

The book briefly traces the history of the CIA in Eastern Europe. At the start of the Cold War, it was very hard to recruit and run agents within the Soviet Union itself. Most of the assets spying on our behalf were doing so outside of the Soviet Union and were diplomats or intelligence officers working abroad. Eventually, this changed, and the CIA was able to recruit in Moscow itself. There was a setback during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, as the director of the CIA during this time placed more importance intelligence gained through technical means as opposed to intelligence from actual humans.

This was the environment in which Tolkachev approached the CIA. It took the poor man about a year to get the CIA to actually respond to his overtures for contact—but once they did, he produced an impressive amount of material. Originally, he hand-wrote valuable intelligence, either from what he’d seen over his career as an engineer or from documents he memorized, but the CIA quickly realized this wasn’t feasible long-term, so they supplied him with miniature cameras to photograph documents.

It wasn’t easy and he ran the risk of being caught many times, especially when he took documents home to photograph them. At one point, his wife discovered his spying and told him to stop, not because she liked the Soviet Union but because she was worried about the potential consequences for their family. In fact, Tolkachev’s hatred of the KGB and the Soviet Union stemmed from Natasha, his wife. Her family was murdered in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and she was briefly reunited with her father when she was eighteen. He was released from a labor camp in poor health and told her everything: how Natasha’s mother Sofia was arrested and shot because she dared go visit family living in Denmark, a capitalist country, and how he refused to turn against Sofia, which led to his long sentence in the labor camp.

Tolkachev spied for many years, asking for payment in an escrow account he would have access to upon defecting, and also asked for everyday items that were hard to come by in 1970s and 1980s Moscow, including Western music for his son Oleg.

Unfortunately, despite the CIA and Tolkachev’s efforts to evade KGB surveillance in Moscow, Tolkachev was arrested, tried, and executed. His capture was the result of an internal betrayal; both Edward Lee Howard, a disgraced former CIA trainee, and Aldrich Ames helped the KGB identify him. He was executed in 1986. His intelligence helped the United States well into the 1990s: thanks to him, the United States was able to fight Iraqi pilots during Desert Storm since the Iraqis flew Soviet aircraft. Hoffman also emphasizes that the Tolkachev case shows how valuable human intelligence is, as there was no way to have acquired all this intelligence without having a source like Tolkachev.

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Review: Star Nomad

Star Nomad
Star Nomad by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In recent years, it’s become increasingly rare for me to become so absorbed in a book that I stay up super late reading and neglect doing other things in order to finish it. It’s not that books have been getting bad over the years—it’s that I don’t have time anymore to do this.

However, this book is an exception. I started reading it late on June 3. I stayed up to probably 2 am (I was too scared to look at the clock!) trying to finish it. I didn’t finish it, so I went to bed and finished it the next day, on June 4. Then I immediately went and bought the next one when I saw it was out.

I’ve read a ton of Lindsay Buroker‘s books before. I devoured her Emperor’s Edge, which I highly recommend if you like character-driven stories set in a fascinating fantasy universe. (They have magic and scary creatures and an empire and all sorts of good stuff.)

However, I usually prefer science fiction to fantasy, which is one reason I enjoyed this book so much. The plot is intriguing—the protagonist has to work with a character who fought in the same war she fought in, but he was on the opposite side—and the characters are great. That’s one thing I like about this author’s work: she always makes her characters seem like real people. Their banter is always fun to read, too. It’s very realistic and often quite funny.

As I said, I immediately went out and bought the second book in the series and finished it within an afternoon because it was also so good. Now on to the third book. Here’s to hoping the author releases three more books very soon!

Note: I didn’t receive a free copy or any sort of payment in exchange for this review. I just really, really liked this book!

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Review: Ratcatcher

Ratcatcher
Ratcatcher by Tim Stevens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why can’t every spy thriller be this good? Not only does this book have unexpected plot twists and turns, but it’s actually properly researched. The Russian characters have real Russian names—what a shock! There are no random names of historical figures that aren’t actually common in Russia, like those that appear in Christopher Reich’s Rules of Vengeance. (To be clear, I really like Reich’s book. I was disappointed that he gave one of his characters the last name of Witte, though. Sergei Witte was a famous tsarist minister, but his name is actually relatively uncommon in Russia. It’s as if the author plucked it from a history book without knowing.)

Anyway, back to the review of Ratcatcher. This book is fabulous. The author even gets the tensions between Russia and Estonia right. If you want to read a fast-paced spy thriller with believable, realistic characters and a fascinating situation heavily influenced by historical events (I’m an amateur historian, so I appreciate when authors are aware of historical events), check out this book. When I got it, it was free on Kindle, so you really have nothing to lose by giving it a try.

If I could give it SIX stars out of five I would. Well done indeed.

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