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.