Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld by Jake Halpern

What happens when you decide not to pay off those Jimmy Choos you bought on your Chase credit card? Chase will attempt to recover the money owed; but maybe you lost your job, or have other bills to pay, or are in prison. Who knows? At some point, it becomes more profitable for Chase to sell your debt, rather than try to recoup the money themselves.

One of the amazing things about this process is that the debt, YOUR debt, is sold as a line on an Excel spreadsheet. There might be thousands of clients on a single spreadsheet, which is considered a portfolio. So brokers who manage the sale of these portfolios are literally selling a thumbdrive with an Excel file on it. This is a process that is largely unregulated, easily pirated, and potentially lucrative for those willing to do the work.

And the quality of the portfolio, or paper, determines the price paid. What is the geography of the debtors? Is it credit card debt, or payday loans? Has the paper been sold more than once? Are the debtors young? Old? These questions and more, all play into determining if the portfolio is sold for pennies or hundredths of a penny on the dollar.

Bad Paper focuses on individuals in the business who specialize in, well, bad paper - older, harder to collect debt. This usually means millions of dollars of debt can be bought for dirt cheap with potential for significant profits IF the debt can be collected. With thousands of debtors to contact, it's sometimes a game of throwing the spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks. Of course, there's the potential for collectors to employ less than palatable tactics on these types of debts. Threats of lawsuits, imprisonment, and even personal threats can occur (which is totally illegal). But even if the debtors agree to pay a fraction of what they owe, the collection agency is making a massive profit.

Because of the risk involved, and the sometimes questionable tactics used, this industry attracts occasionally unsavory characters. Because of the lack of regulation, those in the industry often find themselves "working out" conflicts on their own.

Halpern also highlights a few stories from the other side of this industry. Those of the debtors themselves. Why did they go into debt? How successful (or not) was the collection agency in collecting that debt? And if it came down to it and they were taken to court, what happened? It was amazing to hear how easy it is to fight these cases, yet how rarely people do.

You don't need to be interested in finance or the economy to find this book interesting. It's something that I think most people can relate to on one level or another and a real eye opener to an industry you don't hear much about. A solid recommend.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

Part fantasy, part historical fiction, Shadow of Night is the second book in the All Soul's trilogy (and you really need to have read A Discovery of Witches first to get what is going on). As a tale about witches and vampires, there isn't a lot of action or back story on the whole witch/vampire/daemon culture. But this book was full of day to day details of life in 16th century Europe, which was a surprising highlight for me.

Shadow begins where Discovery left off, with Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont having time walked back to Elizabethan London. In search of the elusive manuscript, Ashmole 782, Diana is also hoping to hone her skills as a witch before they return to the 21st century.

We learn a lot about Matthew's past and his varied connections throughout Europe which include Queen Elizabeth and the emperor of the Roman Empire (or something like that). We also gain insight into Diana's unique skills, although I really wasn't visualizing the string metaphors Harkness used to help us explain them. We also get many examples of how Diana and Matthew are hopelessly devoted and bonded to each other. The latter involving the ever romantic rituals of bloodsucking and kissing third eyes.

It seemed the search for Ashmole and Diana's training were just vehicles for Harkness to explain what Diana and Matthew wore and ate from day to day, "Diana! Where are my hose!?" Matthew's many ties took them from country to country, meeting new characters that I couldn't keep track of and getting involved in tangentially related hijinks, the details of which I couldn't relate. But I certainly remember their accommodations and the social customs of each location.

At the end of the book, I felt the plot furtherance didn't match the geographical and chronological grandeur Diana and Matthew experienced. I'm worried that the third book will be another slow-moving read, especially without the historical interest the second held over me.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Dare I Call It Murder, A Memoir of Violent Loss by Larry Edwards

I'm on a true-crime spree, which is safer than the alternative, I suppose. I was actually turned on to this book by local author, Corey Lynn Feyman. He mentioned to me he knew a man whose brother murdered his parents on a boat trip, so the man wrote a book about it. NBD.

I was intrigued and easily found the book at my local library. This is the story of an around the world boat trip that Jody and Loren Edwards embarked upon with their adult children in the late 70's. Like most families, the Edwards' weren't without their share of drama, and spending several months together in a cramped space isn't good for most normal people. So on a stop in San Diego, Larry decided he would end his journey while his parents, brother Gary, sister Kerry, and a family friend (Lori) continued their adventures in the Spellbound.

Less than 3 months later, Larry received a call, "Larry, there's been an accident." These five words marked the beginning of a life-long nightmare that Larry still lives to this day. Larry's parents were dead, his sister was unconscious, and his brother and Lori weren't really talking. And Larry spent the rest of his life trying to understand what happened.

If you're looking for true crime, you've got it. But this book is so much more. It spans decades and generations. It's a slowly unfolding story of how a single event can become an obsession, and how this obsession slowly chips away at one's psyche. As the subtitle states, it's a memoir of violent loss. And after reading it, you'll be a step closer to understanding the impact of such a loss. It's devastating, enduring, and toxic.

An interesting twist to the story is that there is a competing narrative out there. Larry's niece, against his wishes, published a website detailing the voyage of the Spellbound, encouraging browsers to come to their own conclusions about what happened. After reading the book, you'll understand what a dick move this was. And finding the website online was a surreal reminder that the events in this book are real.And it was interesting to see how someone who supposedly has credibility on the matter could get things so wrong.

Larry, a San Diego local, has won several awards for this book, including the winner of Best Published Memoir at the 2014 San Diego Book Awards and it was also a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize. So don't just take my word for it, it's a good book, y'all. One of my year's best.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Dead Reckoning by Caitlin Rother

Tom and Jackie Hawkes, both divorced, met and married. With a happy family life and a love for boating, the southern Californian couple had nothing but the rest of their lives to look forward to...until they ended up tied to their own boat's anchor and thrown overboard alive.

This is the story of how this loving couple's lives tragically intersected with those of Skylar and Jennifer Deleon's. Skylar, a former child star, was charismatic and charming. He doted on his pregnant wife who, along with her family, seemed to return the sentiment. Jennifer, raised as a "good Christian girl" was excited to begin a family with her husband. They seemed like a young couple with nothing but the rest of their lives to look forward to...until they met the Hawkes'.

It's not really how these two couples meet and interact that is the crux of this book. It's more a story of deception, double lives, and the power of denial. It's the story of how one man can manipulate those around him to see what he wants them to see.

But Jennifer isn't a complete victim in Skylar's deceit. Although an unlikely accomplice, Jennifer is more complicit in the Hawkes' deaths than many people might believe. Was she also deceived by Skylar? Or was she just a depraved as he?

Rother explores Skylar and Jennifer's chemistry and how two people with very different upbringings can come together in a toxic way. She also delves into Skylar's past, his family, and the fringe activities he kept secret so well, until the Hawkes' death started unraveling it all.

If you're a true-crime fan, this is a solid read. It's fascinating to learn how truly depraved people can be. And knowing these events occurred in my neck of the woods made the events even more surreal. A solid recommend.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

When a barnacle covered bag washes ashore on a small island in British Columbia, Ruth is immediately drawn into the narrative of Nao, a 16-year-old from an ocean away in Tokyo, Japan.

Nao lived with her parents in California, where Silicon Valley and the California sun held nothing but hope and happiness for the Japanese family. But her father's job loss returned Nao's family to Japan, where she went from happy well-adjusted teenager, to a bullied outcast. Escaping the constant pinching, stalking, and even fake funeral put on by her entire class, Nao finds solace in her diary, which Ruth finds in a Hello Kitty lunch box in the bag on the shore. She writes as if to an unknown friend, sharing how her own thoughts of suicide are complicated by her father, who when he isn't sulking or making origami insects, is trying to depart his own now. 

Nao also writes extensively about her buddhist nun grandmother, Jiko. The Japanese equivalent of Yoda, Jiko guides Nao through contradictory one-liners and an extended visit to her mountain monastary.  Through the Tao of meditation and scrubbing old ladies' backs, Nao's energy focuses on her family's mythology, which includes a journey to World War II via Nao's great uncle's letters.

Back in boring land, Ruth delves into her own research, trying to locate Nao or anyone from her family. Ruth hopes to help Nao before it's too late. But is she already dead? Was she a tsunami victim? Does she even exist?

In a nutshell, this description from The Guardian does a great job: 

"If a Japanese-American writer who is also a Zen Buddhist priest wrote a post-Japanese tsunami novel, what themes might you imagine she would address? Biculturalism, water, death, memory, the female predicament, conscience, the nature of time and tide? Tick. All there. Throw in the second world war, the reader-writer relationship, depression, ecological collapse, suicide, origami, a 105-year-old anarchist nun and a schoolgirl's soiled knickers, and you have Ruth Ozeki's third novel, A Tale for the Time Being."

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Nao's story is intruiging enough, but Ruth annoyed me. She would internalize Nao's characteristics by talking like Nao and even fighting with her husband, Oliver, due to his inappropriate reaction to one of Nao's diary entries. One particularly grating moment was when Nao's diary essentially catches up with itself, and Ruth and Oliver are reading together by kerosene light (small island issues apparently) when one of them implores, "go on, don't stop." Sigh.

Ruth's part in the story aside, I liked reading about Nao and her family. There is a good mix of philosophy and even the supernatural that raised things a level for me. But Ruth's part in the story canceled that out. So in total, kind of like the bag that washed on Ruth's shore, this book was a mixed bag for me. There's a lot going on with an interesting story, yet it was a book I could put down.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Lost Girls by Caitlin Rother

San Diego is truly a wonderful city to live in. But if you've been here the past 5 years, then you know that San Diego was faced with a tragedy we as a city didn't want to admit could happen. Over the course of a year, two young, beautiful high schoolers went missing. And when one was later found murdered, it appeared there might be a serial killer stalking our most innocent and vulnerable citizens, our children.

Amber Dubios was a ninth grader at Escondido high school. Eager to get to school with a check in hand to buy a lamb through the school's FFA program, Amber set off to school but never made it. Her disappearance became a mystery that the city of Escondido couldn't get past.

Almost one year later, Poway high student Chelsea King went missing during her after school run at Lake Hodges. Her parents immediately reported her missing and an intensive search for Chelsea began. Although it was a missing person's case, the FBI and SD Sheriff's homicide became involved.

The search for Chelsea led to clues being unearthed that pointed the finger at one individual. Within months of Chelsea's disappearance, two of San Diego's most troubling cases were laid bare for not just the city, but the nation to see. Although things happened at lightning speed in those months (in terms of legal proceedings), understanding what really happened started decades before, with the birth of a single man, John Gardner.

This book was a hard one for me. It literally hit close to home for many reasons. I know exactly where these girls went to school and lived. I know many of the people involved in the investigation, particularly that of Chelsea King. In casual conversations with neighbors, someone might mention the King family. Although we are a city of over 1 million, sometimes it can feel like a small town. I also know that one of the last things Amber and Chelsea's parents probably want is for John Gardner to get any type of additional press. And this book is mostly about him. So there's a part of me that feels disloyal to these beautiful girls for reading Lost Girls. But what Rother brings to the table is something that you won't get from all the media and news reports. John's backstory is not well-known. And perhaps something can be learned from it.

Although a fascinating story for anyone to read, Lost Girls is a tough pill to swallow for many San Diegans. This book may or may not help you understand Gardner's actions. But Rother's careful, thorough retelling just might be the most comprehensive look at a side of this story that some people would rather ignore.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Black's Beach Shuffle by Corey Lynn Fayman

I had the opportunity to meet with Corey Fayman one afternoon. We sat at a small cafe in Little Italy and talked about books (duh)  and writing. I was interested in knowing how someone just *decides* to self-publish a book...or two. I was also curious about what, if anything, lay on the horizon for Rolly Waters.

Waters is a private investigator living in San Diego. When he's not searching down runaway teenagers or spying on cheating spouses, he's playing gigs at local events with his band. When his latest gig ends with a body floating in a pool, Waters finds himself involved in a case more far reaching than his usual PI repertoire.

If on its face this book is a whodunnit, at its heart it is a peek into Fayman's love of music and San Diego. It's clear Fayman lives in San Diego, based on details throughout the book, from where Waters drives to what he's eating at two in the morning. Being an SD native myself, I knew exactly who Waters was, his scene, and how he lived. The SD references are so detailed, I wondered at times if it would alienate some readers, but ultimately, it's something that makes Fayman's writing unique.

Fayman also doesn't hold back with the music references. Not only is he a San Diegan, but he's a musician as well, as is clear from his characters' hobbies to their names. If you're a music fan, you'll get a kick finding all the little eggs Fayman has hidden.

While mystery isn't really my genre of choice, the book was a quick read and kept me entertained. Extra bonus points for giving it an SD noir feel. Kinda unexpected. I think I'll give his second book, Border Field Blues, a try.