Category Archives: Reviews

The Fireman, by Joe Hill

the fireman

I actually read Joe Hill’s The Fireman last summer, during a lovely readalong event hosted by Care and I was supposed to post my review back then as part of the readalong, but my time got hijacked by various vague (and many) stuffs (life has a tendency to do that), so when TLC Book Tours asked if I wanted to participate in HarperCollins‘ The Fireman book tour, I thought, “Yay! now I will remember to write and post my review.”

And actually, it’s probably a good thing I’ve let some time lapse between reading the book and posting the review, because frankly all I was good for after reading the book was saying “Look, just read it, okay?” over and over again, which does not a good review make.

So The Fireman is one of the handful of novels that put a good solid dent in my not-so-unwavering belief that I don’t really like dystopian novels. And this is most definitely dystopia we’re talking about, what with the Dragonscale spore that makes its victims spontaneously combust. As you can imagine, this has quite the effect on civilization as we know it, paving the way for lots of dystopian fun.

Joe Hill is a wonderful storyteller, and he has a great story to tell in The Fireman. I particularly liked the sunny, chipper Harper Grayson, and for me the story was enjoyable in part because she’s the main focus. (I definitely agree with many other readers that a more apt title for the book would have been The Nurse.)

The many pop culture references sprinkled throughout were also great fun–and for me specifically, because I am a diehard PL Travers fan, all the Mary Poppins references (Harper adores Mary Poppins).  Nothing like plugging another novel during a review, but Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere holds a special place in my heart because it is, essentially, Mary Poppins-land, all grown up–a fact which I think Harper would appreciate (see how I tied it back to The Fireman there?).

Bad guys abound, and it’s most definitely a world I wouldn’t want to inhabit (Cremation Squads? No thanks). And in the midst of all that story, Joe Hill also manages to tackle some weighty issues as well, and does so quite handily.

So yes, this is a massive tome, a virtual doorstopper of a read (my copy weighs in at around 750 pages), but that’s really the only thing brick-like about it. I had a ton of fun reading this book.

Joe Hill’s essential links:  Website, Twitter and Instagram: @joe_hill, and Facebook.

Depraved Heart, by Patricia Cornwell

Depraved Heart

I really wanted to like this latest Kay Scarpetta novel, and for the first little while, I thought maybe we really were back to the focus of the earlier Scarpetta novels, with their forensics-driven crime plots.

But, rather unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with Depraved Heart. While the crime Kay is investigating at the start of the book sounds pretty interesting to me, it’s not particularly riveting for Kay. And sooner rather than later we’re back to the threat of harm to Kay and to those that Kay loves (ie Lucy).

When I’m watching a TV crime series, I’ve never been particularly fond of those season-long story arcs, the ones that are supposed to build suspense in between the monster-of-the-week themes and keep the viewer coming back for more. Truth be told, it’s each week’s mystery as well as the development of the relationships among the main characters that keeps me coming back. I’ve just never been all that interested in those big, conspiracy-laden, main-character-as-the-target story arcs. When I’m doing catch-up by binge watching a crime show on Netflix, I will sometimes actually skip those episodes that focus on those big story arcs.

So it’s not any surprise that I’m not fond of them in the pages of a series I like, either. In this case, the bulk of the novel focuses on the same kind of bigger-than-life plot, and when you combine it with all of the Kay’s introspection (and there’s a ton of that), it’s just not the right read for me.

True, this series has been travelling down this particular road for the past few books, but I do keep hoping.

And if Kay Scarpetta finally does get back to those forensic mysteries that originally launched the Scarpetta series, though? Count me in!

And thank you to TLC Book Tours  for providing me with a review copy of this book.

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon Barnes & Noble
 
Author Links: Website, TwitterFacebook, and Instagram

Review: The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell

The Fifth Gospel

I decided to pick up The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell because I’d read The Rule of Four, which Caldwell co-wrote with Dustin Thomason, a while back and really enjoyed it. And Caldwell definitely didn’t fail me with The Fifth Gospel. The quick review? I enjoyed it. A lot.

Here’s what it’s about:

In 2004, as Pope John Paul II’s reign enters its twilight, a mysterious exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums. A week before it is scheduled to open, its curator is murdered at a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of Rome. That same night, a violent break-in rocks the home of the curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest who lives inside the Vatican with his five-year-old son. When the papal police fail to identify a suspect in either crime, Father Alex, desperate to keep his family safe, undertakes his own investigation. To find the killer he must reconstruct the dead curator’s secret: what the four Christian gospels—and a little-known, true-to-life fifth gospel known as the Diatessaron—reveal about the Church’s most controversial holy relic. But just as he begins to understand the truth about his friend’s death and its consequences for the future of the world’s two largest Christian Churches, Father Alex finds himself hunted down by someone with a vested stake in the exhibit—someone he must outwit to survive.

Readers who see the title The Fifth Gospel might, understandably, think the novel is a Da Vinci Code kind of read. It isn’t. Sure, there’s a lost gospel and an ancient holy relic, but the similarities end there. If you’ve read any of Dan Brown’s novels, you’ll know they clip along at near-breakneck speeds. They are definitely fast rides, and the thrill is entirely in the plot.

The Fifth Gospel, while highly readable and entertaining, has so much more. In addition to the lost gospel and the ancient, controversial holy relic, there’s also a murder mystery and a lot of Vatican politics and intrigue. And at its core, the novel is the story of two brothers, one a Roman Catholic priest, the other a Greek Catholic priest with a five-year-old son.

While definitely a page turner—it is, after all, a thriller—the writing has a literary feel to it. There are some beautifully written passages throughout. This, for example, on the gravity of a priest being laicized: “This is what gives the sentence such power: it turns us into ghosts. It obligates the world to deny our existence.”

In the Acknowledgments, Caldwell notes it took him ten years to write the novel, and the extensive research he performed is something that takes the book to a whole other level. There’s no info dump going on here; details are revealed to us within the lives of the characters and the setting in which they live. We become immersed in the world of the Vatican, that small, walled country so few of us know anything about.

I learned a lot about so many things: ways of reading the gospels, the rift between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the Eastern Catholics, how the Vatican is run. Yet I didn’t realize I was learning these things until after I finished the book, because none of it is fed to us as information. It all forms a solid part of the story itself.

If you like a thriller or mystery that does more than drive you quickly through the pages, you should definitely add The Fifth Gospel to your to-read list.

Book review: Lowcountry Boneyard, by Susan M. Boyer

lowcountry boneyard

Die-hard mystery fans often grumble about mysteries with a paranormal twist, because what’s the good of a mystery when you’ve got supernatural means to help you solve it? Susan M. Boyer’s latest instalment in her Liz Talbot mystery series smartly sidesteps this issue; Boyer’s private detective Liz Talbot may spend her days shadowed by former high school friend and now guardian spirit Colleen, but Colleen’s main role is to protect her earthly friend, not flaunt any investigative chops.

Sure, Colleen can read minds, but she can’t read everyone’s minds. And actually, during the course of Lowcountry Boneyard, Colleen proves quite unhelpful in the mind-reading department. She also shows little flair in the mystery-solving department. She’s a guardian spirit, and true to her nature, guard is what she does.

And Liz Talbot does need guarding. Hired by wealthy Colton Heyward to investigate the disappearance of his daughter Kent, who also happens to be the heiress of old wealth on her mother’s side of the family, Liz initially hopes the police’s assessment of the situation is right: Kent simply moved out without telling anyone where she was going.

But as Liz and her partner and lover Nick dig deeper into the investigation, it becomes obvious they are ruffling someone’s feathers. As several suspects surface, from Kent’s creepy and unsavoury twin uncles to her best friend Ansley to her boyfriend and aspiring master chef Matt, it soon becomes apparent that Liz and Nick are in real danger.

All the while the ghostly Colleen flits in and out of scenes, sometimes with information, sometimes with warnings. The only thing I found frustrating was the romantic subplot between Nick and Liz, which arises because of information Liz knows only because of Colleen. It seems very clear to me that Liz should tell Nick about Colleen. Maybe it’s just that I feel relationships don’t work well when lies are involved.

Boyer sets the tale of this investigation amidst the many charms of South Carolina. We’re taken through the beautiful streets of Charleston and introduced to the warm, friendly fictional town of Stella Maris. Along the way we also get a taste of Greenville, South Carolina. These are settings that work well with the characters and serve as a solid backdrop to the investigation at hand.

And that investigation is a mysterious tale that charms with its many twists and revelations. In the end, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the denouement, but only because Boyer has created a history filled with transgressions which cry out for justice. While current justice is served, justice for past crimes remain frustratingly illusive. Overall, Lowcountry Boneyard is a good read, a mystery well worth diving into.

Copy for review provided by TLC Book Tours.

Review: Strong Female Protagonist by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag

strong female protagonist

I first read about Strong Female Protagonist, by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag, at Capricious Reader, but by the time I got my copy from the library, I’d forgotten what it was all about. So when I started reading it, I was more or less going into it blind.

Alison Green is a tier one biodynamic individual. She has super strength and is invincible. In her world, that makes her a superhero alongside other superheroes, fighting tier one biodynamic individuals who are supervillains. Fighting crime and beating the bad guys as Mega Girl is a whole lot of fun … until one day she comes up against her arch enemy, the mind-reading Menace, and discovers evidence of a conspiracy that puts all of her heroic feats into a new light. As Menace puts it, “Nobody thnks we can change the world, and they’re right.”

Is Menace right? Beating up the bad guys suddenly feels irrelevant to Alison. She has no clue what she’s doing, and it doesn’t make sense that people are looking to her for answers just because bullets can’t harm her and she’s strong enough to lift a car over her head. So Alison steps away from the business of being a superhero, enrols in college and tries to figure things out as best she can.

The only thing is, not everyone’s ready to let her forget her past. And in the meantime, Alison’s given up on saving the world. She wants to change it instead. But is such a thing even possible?

Strong Female Protagonist is a webcomic which found its way into print via a successful Kickstarter campaign. And I am so glad it did. I loved everything about Alison’s story: her struggles to live a somewhat normal life, the frustrations of living in a world that even her powers can’t truly save, the spotlight it shines on everyday heroism. Despite her powers, Alison is as human as everyone else, uncertain of what’s going on, unsure of how—and if—she can change things.

In many ways, this is a graphic novel that grapples with a lot of heavy issues: Is it worth saving the world if saving the world means preserving it the way it is? What is the worth of a tortuous self-sacrifice that saves individual lives but won’t make the world a better place? Can a handful of moments make the difference between a superhero and a supervillain? And if it does, what does this say about our world? But at the same time, there are many, many fun moments. It’s a perfect blend.

 strong female protagonist note 2 

The other thing I enjoyed about Strong Female Protagonist? The notes from the author and the illustrator on the bottom of each page. Sometimes these notes add further explanation to a panel, other times they point out something in the art, and often they’re just a pure fun me-to-you wink and nudge from the author and/or illustrator.

If Mulligan and Ostertag decide to do another Kickstarter for the next volume? I’m definitely in! If you haven’t read this comic yet, you really must add it to your to-read list. And when you’re done, you can continue with the further adventures of Strong Female Protagonist online, where the webcomic is updated twice weekly.

Reading: The Camelot Kids by Ben Zackheim

I don’t do very many blog tours – one a year, at the most. Because the lovely ladies at TLC Blog Tours always seem to send me an email in the beginning of every year with a title that catches my eye.

This time around, the title that caught my eye was The Camelot Kids by Ben Zackheim.

Camelot kids

I love the Arthurian legends, and anytime I come across a book about King Arthur and his knights, it goes straight to my TBR list. There are several Arthurian-based fantasies out there, and the ones I love best are those that are set in today’s world. So I simply couldn’t resist the The Camelot Kids.

Here’s the synopsis:

What would you do if an odd girl in a cloak told you, “You know you’re a descendant of King Arthur’s knight, Lancelot, right?” You’d probably do the same thing 14-year-old New Yorker Simon Sharp does. Back away nice and slow.

But Simon learns the truth when he’s kidnapped by a drunk troll, rescued by a 7-foot man named Merlin, and thrown into training with 149 other heirs of the Knights of the Round Table.

Can Simon survive a prophecy that predicts the world will be saved through its destruction? The Camelot Kids is about one boy’s struggle to make it to tomorrow in a world both real and fantastic.

My thoughts on Camelot Kids:

  • For a middle grade novel, this is a big book, weighing in at 506 pages. It’s a length that might put off some younger readers who aren’t used to longer books. It’s also quite a heavy book, too, physically.
  • The illustrations by Ian Greenlee are really really lovely. They both reflected and added to the images I had in my mind from reading Zackheim’s descriptions, which I feel is something all good children’s book illustrations should do.
  • I felt the book could have used more editing, especially in the first third. Not so much the copyediting, but rather the broader, overall editing, to tighten up scenes, make characters more consistent with their personalities, and clean up some other, general inconsistencies. For example, I found the scene between Digby and Simon in the nurse’s office didn’t match Digby’s character from earlier in the book; he didn’t seem the kind of man to say “if you touch my boy again, I’ll kill you myself.” And as an example of a general inconsistency, on page 170 of my copy, there’s a line that reads “He [Merlin] also does pro bono work, of course, because he’s a sucker for gold.” This type of inconsistency should have been caught by the editor, as the author obviously meant paying work, not pro bono work. And also, gold is prohibited in New Camelot, which is something that becomes an important plot point later in the novel, so where did Merlin stash this gold?
  • There was also too much smiling, winking and smirking. Again, something that should have been caught during the editing phase.
  • Despite the lapses in editing, there’s a great deal of story going on here that younger readers will likely enjoy. It’s a very interesting and original retelling of the Arthurian legends. And at the midpoint of the book (the end of chapter 23), I was really taken by surprise! I definitely didn’t see that one coming.
  • It was also at this point that I felt the story really found its legs and took off.
  • There’s much to like about the author’s worldbuilding when it comes to the town of New Camelot. I especially enjoyed the marketplace known as The Spell. And there are lots of delightful little instances of magic that are pure fun. Very inventive!
  • There’s also bits of humour injected into the prose here and there which made me smile.

And now for some thoughts which will have to be on the vague side because I don’t want to give away spoilers:

  • I loved what happens with Excalibur! But the story fails to expand on that, which was a great pity. I would have liked to have seen more made of the whole Excalibur thing.
  • I didn’t really feel the main villain of the piece (well, there were several villains, but I need to be ambiguous about this as it’s a huge spoiler) was credible in that role. I would have liked to have his character built up a bit more in previous scenes, so when we see him doing what he does, we think to ourselves, yes, I see it now. Too much of his motivation was given to us through telling rather than showing in a later chapter, which I thought detracted from the story.

The first half does lag – we get a lot of information during the first half, none of it in infodump format, thankfully, but while it is interesting, it isn’t of the page-turning, what happens next variety. The second half manages to do both (trust me, a lot goes on in the second half). I would have also liked the main villain to have been more credible in his/her/its role (keeping you in suspense here!). And more made of what finally happens with Excalibur. Overall, this is an original middle grade read that kids who like fantasy, especially of the Arthurian legend variety, will likely enjoy.

Reading: ‘The Secret Place’ by Tana French

The Secret Place by Tana French

I am, unabashedly, a genre reader. I love to read mysteries, fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, the occasional dollop of science fiction and every now and then a quirky, funny romance. While I like beautiful prose as much as the next reader, gorgeous prose only takes me so far – if it’s not accompanied by an interesting plot and well-developed characters, it’s hard for me to keep plugging away at it.

When I want beautiful prose for its own sake, I’d much rather turn to poetry.

With Tana French’s mysteries, a reader like me comes away very satisfied. There’s plot, there’s great character development – and then there’s words used so well, so beautifully, so elegantly, phrases and snippets of sentences stay with you for days after you’ve finished the book, lingering in your mind, like a taste of memory, almost but not quite tangible.

French’s most recent book, The Secret Place, doesn’t fail in all three regards: plot, character and writing. Number 5 in the “Dublin Murder Squad” series, it’s not necessary to have read the previous books first before opening up this one. There is no main series protagonist the way there is in other mystery series. Instead, the loose thread tying each of the books is the fact that the characters are homicide detectives on Dublin’s Murder Squad, and after the first book, the main character in each subsequent book has been a character who first showed up in a previous book in the series.

The The Secret Place stars Detective Stephen Moran, not yet on the Murder Squad but seeing his chance in this case, and Detective Antoinette Conway, who is on the Murder Squad but with a reputation of not being “one of the boys”, fueled largely by the fact that she is a woman.

The murder takes place at St. Kilda’s, an exclusive all-girls boarding school. Adding a wrinkle to the investigation is the involvement of Holly Mackay, the daughter of Detective Frank Mackay, with whom Stephen had worked previously in Faithful Place.  The victim, found dead on the lawns of St. Kilda’s, is a boy from a neighbouring boys’ school.

While the story takes place in one day filled with interviews at St. Kilda’s, each of the interview scenes is followed by a scene set among the students in the year leading up to the murder. It’s a daring structure, and French pulls it off elegantly and beautifully, leaving the reader with a feeling of effortlessness as we are taken back and forth between the two timelines, never confused, never at a loss as to what has happened.

What left me in awe, though, was French’s handling of the characters. In addition to the two detectives, the novel focuses on eight teenaged girls, all students of St. Kilda’s. French deftly brings each of the girls to life, so that even in passages without benefit of some identifying feature, it’s easy to know who the characters are.

The story is well-plotted, leaving you wondering for much of the novel as French plants suspicions here, there and everywhere. French also adds a touch of possible magic  in a “is it? isn’t it?” way that is pure magic in itself, adding yet another layer to an already beautifully intricate story. It’s just a touch of magic, and to my mind, is a perfect fit for those short wonder years of teenaged girldom, where so much around us is touched with possibility and potential.

And as for the writing … When I first started reading The Secret Place, I wanted to jot down lines that sent shivers down my spine. After a while, though, I realized if I did that, I’d end up writing down most of the book. You can flip to almost any page at random in The Secret Place and find some bit of description that will linger on in your mind. You can almost taste that year at St. Kilda’s, the  way the girls’ lives are intertwined as I can only imagine must happen within the confines of a boarding school, how they’ve grown, matured, deepened.

I just flipped through to a random page in my ebook copy, and this is what popped out at me:

“None of them would ever have imagined what they had brushed up against; what other selves, other lives, other deaths were careening ferocious and unstoppable along their tracks, only a sliver of time away. The grounds are pocketed with clusters of girls, all blazing and amazed with inchoate love for one another and for their own growing closeness; none of the others will feel the might of that swerve as the tracks switch and their own power takes them barreling into another landscape.”

This kind of writing occurs throughout the novel. A beautiful read with an enjoyable, engrossing mystery. I’m looking forward to the next Tana French book!

Reading: ‘Bones Never Lie’ by Kathy Reichs

Bones Never Lie by Kathy Reichs

Earlier this year I played “catch-up” with Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan series. I read several of the books in the series that I’d missed, ending with Bones of the Lost … and decided I wouldn’t read another book in the series again.

Maybe it was the effect of reading so many of the books back to back, but I just felt so tired of Reich’s Tempe rushing into danger in much the same way the heroines in old Victorian novels did. There’s smart and impulsive and then there’s smart but impulsively dumb. When a smart main character like Temperance Brennan deliberately rushes into danger without any sort of preparation (you know, little things like making sure you have your cell phone with you, or letting someone know where you’re going), it just doesn’t sit well with me, even if things do turn out fine in the end. So I kind of said to myself, “never again.”

And then, a couple of months ago, a copy  of Bones Never Lie showed up in my mailbox, courtesy of Simon and Schuster Canada.

For weeks it sat on my desk. Eventually, the temptation proved to be too much. The thing with Reichs is, her plots tend to be good, solid plots. Interesting plots, in that page-turning kind of way. So I picked the book up and began to read it – and I’m glad I did.

in Bones Never Lie, Tempe discovers a link between two child murders, a link which digs up a part of her past. The new evidence from the new murders suggests that serial killer Anique Pomerleau, whom readers first met in Monday Mourning, has relocated to the States and is on another killing rampage.

Aside from the obligatory “protagonist looks in the mirror and describes herself” scene that tends to find its way into Reich’s novels, I enjoyed Bones Never Lie. Admittedly, I kept waiting for that scene where Tempe recklessly dashes into a danger hot zone with no preparation and no backup in order to somehow end up saving the day, but this time around, while she did dash, she did it with foresight. She did it smartly. Yes, she was smartly impulsive!

So despite my initial reluctance to read this book, I ended up gulping it down late into the night, turning page after page as quickly as I could. The entire story, from beginning to end, was more than satisfactory, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment in the Temperance Brennan series.

Art Journal Art Journey: Collage and Storytelling for Honoring Your Creative Process

art journal art journey nichole rae

I love art journaling, although I don’t have as much time (read: almost never) for it as I’d like. But while I may not bring out the acrylic paints and paintbrushes as often as I should, I do find myself devouring lots and lots of books about art journaling.

My main complaint about many of the art journaling and mixed media books I’ve read over the years is that there’s often a feeling of sameness to them. The color palettes, the basic styles, the overall look – often one book will mesh into another and in my memory they become one long book, the pages virtually indistinguishable from each other.

Not so with Nichole Rae’s Art Journal Art Journey: Collage and Storytelling for Honoring Your Creative Process. I opened this book and was engrossed from page one. Unlike most other books on art journaling or mixed media, Nichole begins by plunging us right into her journaling process, and it’s a great process on its own, whether or not you decide to take what you’ve written and create an art journal out of it.

Her method of art journaling begins with her journaling process, which she does on the computer. She works with a list-style format of journaling which in her case reads beautifully, like poetry. It’s a very original, organic process, and just reading about it gave me lots of ideas for journaling different themes, which is something else she talks about. I always have so many ideas about various projects I want to work on, and I love how Nichole’s journaling process gives you permission to work on many themes at any given time:

“I often start multiple journal documents on my computer to set the writing process in motion. I save them to my desktop and am able to work on them little by little. Over time I will have a collection to use for my projects. Once I begin these journaling documents, my heart feels content to know they are created and will evolve with time. The simple joy of having them started provides comfort, knowing they are there to visit at any time.”

Once you feel you’re ready to print out one of your journal projects, it’s time to get into the creative process of putting all the pieces into a book. Nichole uses old, hardbound books for this process, and one thing I love is how she also incorporates pages from old books into her journals, in a method that’s a little similar to Austin Kleon’s blackout poetry, but with colour and without having to black most things out.

If you’re not a fan of working with altered books her techniques can definitely be applied to any blank sketchbook. I’ve made a few altered books before but have never really enjoyed the process. I don’t like having to glue pages together, or gesso them either, and I often lost the inspiration while I had to wait for the pages to dry. What I like about Nichole’s method is she doesn’t gesso the pages to give herself a blank canvas. Instead, she covers the page with a page from her printed journal and, in some cases, uses part of the page as her background or as part of the focus of the page.

While the discussion about laying out and assembling the pages is interesting, probably my second favourite part of the book, after the section on the journaling process, is the section on the creative mini projects.

“Working on a mini project while you are in the process of collecting and gathering supplies for your main project is a great way to be creative during this process. … I use mini projects to inspire my creativity and to help jumpstart the creative process.”

The mini project that appeals to me the most is the Inspirational Card Deck. There are just SO many possibilities for this one project. Not just from an art perspective, either. From a writer’s point of view, I can see myself creating writing prompts, mini character sketches, setting cards .. the possibilities are so exciting.

In fact, much of the process Nichole describes will help me with several of my writing projects. I’ve always loved combining my words with art, and Art Journal Art Journey gives me a process I can use without having to worry about my quite amateurish drawing skills.

There is an originality and freshness to Art Journal Art Journey that I really enjoyed. I finished reading it feeling very inspired, and the fact that her journaling process is one I can use for my writing was a huge, unexpected and very wonderful bonus.

‘Flash Boys’ and the Sad Tale of Sergey Aleynikov

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

I read Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys early last month – I absolutely had to get a copy of the book after I read the NY Times article “The Wolf Hunters of Wall Street”, an adaptation from the book..

Despite the sometimes complicated nature of its main subject – high-frequency trading in a Wall Street that’s rigged – it was a fast and compelling read. And of course, I liked that it was a Canadian, Brad Katsuyama, backed by a Canadian bank, the Royal Bank of Canada (employees called the culture there “RBC nice” – not, as you might guess, a usual kind of moniker on Wall Street), who gets the ball rolling.  Katsuyama realizes that every time he’d put in an order to buy shares on the market – shares that were up for sale right up to the point he pushed the button to enter his order – the shares would disappear and the price of the stock would increase.

“Brad’s problem wasn’t just Brad’s problem. What people saw when they looked at the U.S. stock market – the numbers on the screens of the professional traders, the ticker tape running across the bottom of the CNBC screen – was an illusion. ‘That’s when I realized the markets are rigged. And I knew it had to do with the technology. That the answer lay beneath the surface of the technology. I had absolutely no idea where. But that’s when the lightbulb went off that the only way I’m going to find out what’s going on is if I go beneath the surface.'” (from Flash Boys)

Katsuyama faces a somewhat Herculean task: he wants to find out how this is being done, and once he finds out, he wants to let people know. And he wants to find a way to fix things. The culprits, it turns out, are high-frequency traders who have managed to achieve a speed of access to information that gives them the mere nanoseconds advantage they need to beat the market every single time.

Eventually, Katsuyama manages to find other like-minded people and together they put together IEX, a new, fair stock exchange that the high-frequency traders can’t game. Katsuyama’s new exchange opened on October 25, 2013 and two months later, on December 19, got its big break when one of the big Wall Street banks, Goldman Sachs, sent in the exchange’s first big orders.

Since this is non-fiction, there’s no real happy-ever-after ending, which I found a little unsatisfying, although the book isn’t to blame. It’s just real life, that’s all, real life with all its uncertainties. So it’s still an uphill battle for IEX. And while IEX might be one small bright spot of fairness on Wall Street, there will always be more loopholes and more people ready and willing to take advantage of the loopholes to make billions of dollars.

It’s a never-ending story, really.

This main story in Flash Boys is an interesting one, but ultimately it was the story of Sergey Aleynikov that really captured my attention. While Goldman Sachs plays what’s essentially a good-guy role when it comes to IEX, it plays a darker role in its pursuit of criminal charges against Aleynikov, it’s ex-programmer, for theft of its code. In an article at Vanity Fair last year, Michael Lewis wrote about Aleynikov’s plight, and much of what’s in this article also appears in Flash Boys. (I highly recommend it – it’s a great read. Among other things, Lewis “re-tries” Aleynikov before a “jury” of his tech-savvy peers.)

Aleynikov was hired by Goldman Sachs to maintain its high-frequency trading software; the software itself was in the dinosaur stages, but Goldman didn’t want to build a new one from scratch. So Aleynikov spent much of his time patching things up as required.

During his two years at Goldman, Aleynikov often, as programmers do, sent himself snippets of code by uploading to an online repository. He was eventually hired by another firm to design a powerful new trading system from scratch (and in a completely different coding language, no less, which rather puts the charges against him in a whole different kind-of-ridiculous context). In the weeks prior to leaving Goldman, as he helped to bring others up to speed with maintaining Goldman’s outdated system, he continued this practice of sending himself snippets of code:

“The files contained a lot of open-source code he had worked with, and modified, over the past two years, mingled together with code that wasn’t open source but proprietary to Goldman Sachs. As he would later try and fail to explain to an F.B.I. agent, he hoped to disentangle the one from the other, in case he needed to remind himself how he had done what he had done with the open-source code, in the event he might need to do it again. He sent these files the same way he had sent himself files nearly every week, since his first month on the job at Goldman.” (from Vanity Fair)

Now, this makes perfect sense to me, and I’m not even a programmer. Mucking around with the HTML and PHP on this and a few other blogs is the extent of my coding experience. And the thing is, a lot of it wasn’t even Goldman’s original code – it was open source:

“Serge quickly discovered, to his surprise, that Goldman had a one-way relationship with open source. They took huge amounts of free software off the Web, but they did not return it after he had modified it, even when his modifications were very slight and of general, rather than financial, use.” (from Flash Boys)

(It all sounds quite familiar in the wake of the recent Heartbleed virus, doesn’t it? It seems lots of for-profit companies do this when it comes to open source code – they take and they don’t give back.)

So what happened? Aleynikov got charged under two rather ominous sounding pieces of legislation, the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 and the National Stolen Property Act, and after a trial by a non-tech-savvy jury, was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. He won his appeal and was released after a year of imprisonment – the appeals court ruled that the laws under which he was charged didn’t actually apply to his case.

But his story doesn’t end there. After Aleynikov’s release, Goldman Sachs continued its attack against its former programmer. A few months after his release, the state of New York charged Aleynikov with “accessing and duplicating a complex proprietary and highly confidential computer source code owned by Goldman Sachs” – essentially, a new crime for the same actions, so as to avoid double jeopardy.

So there isn’t any real ending to Aleynikov’s story either, at least not yet. The state of New York wants him to plead guilty, in exchange for letting him go on time served – as in, the time he served for a crime that the appeals court had already determined he hadn’t committed. But Aleynikov isn’t willing to do that, and really, can you blame him?