Who Gets What — and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design, by Alvin E Roth

>> Sunday, July 17, 2016

TITLE: Who Gets What — and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design
AUTHOR: Alvin E Roth

PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

TYPE: Non Fiction

Most of the study of economics deals with commodity markets, where the price of a good connects sellers and buyers. But what about other kinds of “goods,” like a spot in the Yale freshman class or a position at Google? If you’ve ever sought a job or hired someone, applied to college or guided your child into a good kindergarten, asked someone out on a date or been asked out, you’ve participated in a kind of market. This is the territory of matching markets, where “sellers” and “buyers” must choose each other, and price isn’t the only factor determining who gets what.

In Who Gets What—and Why, Nobel laureate Alvin E. Roth reveals the matching markets hidden around us and shows us how to recognize a good match and make smarter, more confident decisions.
Roth is well known for his work on market design, which garnered him a Nobel Prize in Economics back in 2012. I've been following his blog for a while, so I bought his book as soon as it came out.

This is a fascinating exploration of matching markets, which are the markets where things don't simply work by finding the right price at which supply equals demand. As Roth puts it, "prices don't do all the work" there (in fact, in some, prices don't do any work at all). In matching markets, both supplier and consumer have choices, and have to choose each other. It's not enough for the consumer to decide on a product, as they would in a commodities market, the supplier has to choose the consumer as well (e.g. I can't just decide to attend Oxford University, they have to accept me as well. And Oxford can't just decide I'm going to study there!).

Roth presents several such markets and explains how they work and what problems such markets might suffer from, and proposes some solutions, including several he and his colleagues have implemented in the past for markets as disparate as kidney exchanges, school placements and the hiring of new doctors.

I'd recommend this one to both professional economists and lay readers alike. There was plenty here that was new to me (I fall in the former camp), and plenty that, although familiar, I'd never thought about in quite that way before. And it sparked off some really interesting further reading. Roth writes in a way that somehow manages to be clear enough that non-economists will get it perfectly, while not feeling simplistic and condescending to those of us familiar with many of the concepts.

And it's super practical (while making it clear that there is a hell of a lot of very technical stuff behind it all). As someone who bemoans the unintelligible maths arms race that has engulfed current economics research, this was great.



House of Shadows, by Nicola Cornick

>> Tuesday, July 05, 2016

TITLE: House of Shadows
AUTHOR: Nicola Cornick

PAGES: 449

SETTING: Various
TYPE: Fiction

For fans of Barbara Erskine and Kate Morton comes an unforgettable novel about three women and the power one lie can have over history.

London, 1662:

There was something the Winter Queen needed to tell him. She fought for the strength to speak.
‘The crystal mirror is a danger. It must be destroyed – ‘
He replied instantly. ‘It will’.

Ashdown, Oxfordshire, present day:

Ben Ansell is researching his family tree when he disappears. As his sister Holly begins a desperate search, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to an ornate antique mirror and to the diary of Lavinia, a 19th century courtesan who was living at Ashdown House when it burned to the ground over 200 years ago.

Intrigued, and determined to find out more about the tragedy at Ashdown, Holly’s only hope is that uncovering the truth about the past will lead her to Ben.
House of Shadows tells the story of two beautiful and dangerous paranormal objects across three different time periods.

In the 17th century, Cornick fictionalises the story of a real historical character, Elizabeth of Bohemia. Elizabeth Stuart was an English princess who married Frederick V, Elector Palatine. Frederick lost his kingdom, and Cornick's story starts as Elizabeth and Frederick are in exile in The Hague. Cornick's addition is that Elizabeth inherited two powerful objects from Mary Queen of Scots: the so-called Sistrin pearl and a jewelled mirror. They can do a number of things (can you tell I was never quite sure what?), but the main thing is that they allow the user to scry the future. Frederick has taken to using them, together with the knights of the Rosicrucian Fellowship, to try to recover his crown. Elizabeth is completely against this, as the objects have a history of taking payment for their use in blood, but Frederick won't listen. The book follows Elizabeth's story over the years, particularly her relationship with William Craven, a soldier she's rumoured to have secretly married after the death of her husband.

In the present day, Holly Ansell's brother Ben has mysteriously disappeared from from the holiday house he and Holly inherited from their parents in a little village in Oxfordshire. That house used to be part of the estate where William Craven had his manor house (which has since burned down), where he's rumoured to have brought Elizabeth after their marriage. Holly discovers Ben has been researching their family history (very uncharacteristic of him), and through some of the material he left behind, deduces he was seeking the Sistrin pearl, which has been lost since the 17th century.

One of the things Ben left behind is a diary written by a courtesan in the early 19th century (here's our third time period), telling of her life as the mistress of a Lord Evershot, a spoilt aristocrat decended from William Craven. Evershot is clearly looking for something he believes is hidden in his estate. Could it be the Sistrin pearl?

Action moves between the time periods, but particularly the first two. A shame, because I particularly enjoyed the character of Lavinia Flyte, our 19th century courtesan. Like Holly, I thought she was fabulous: brave, pragmatic and determined to make the best of things, presenting a brave front but clearly hiding vulnerabilities. I would totally read a book all about her!

Elizabeth and William's storyline I liked less. I suspect we were meant to find their relationship oh-so-romantic, but I wasn't particularly engaged. Plus, there's a point when Craven allows his mistress to walk all over him in a way that helped the plot go in a particular way but felt completely unrealistic for the character (I'm not even sure why Cornick needed to do this, plot-wise, as there are plenty of other ways in which the same ends could have been achieved). I wasn't fussed about either of them, to be honest.

I liked the present-day story more. The mystery of Ben's disappearance is interesting and I liked Holly well enough. That said, I never really got a good sense of her. She's fine, I guess, and worked ok as the main character for the plot, which is the main thing here. Holly gets a romance as well, and quite a nice one. The guy was intriguing, a former soldier who now runs an engineering company in the village. I wish we'd got more of him. The romance is nice, but underdeveloped. And given that I picked up this book because it was mentioned by Susanna Kearsley together with In Another Time, I should clarify we do get a HEA!

This was diverting enough and mostly harmless. I enjoyed the history but didn't feel any deep emotions. It was fine.



Marrying Winterborne, by Lisa Kleypas

>> Sunday, July 03, 2016

TITLE: Marrying Winterborne
AUTHOR: Lisa Kleypas

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Victorian England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Ravenels series

A ruthless tycoon

Savage ambition has brought common-born Rhys Winterborne vast wealth and success. In business and beyond, Rhys gets exactly what he wants. And from the moment he meets the shy, aristocratic Lady Helen Ravenel, he is determined to possess her. If he must take her virtue to ensure she marries him, so much the better . . .

A sheltered beauty

Helen has had little contact with the glittering, cynical world of London society. Yet Rhys’s determined seduction awakens an intense mutual passion. Helen’s gentle upbringing belies a stubborn conviction that only she can tame her unruly husband. As Rhys’s enemies conspire against them, Helen must trust him with her darkest secret. The risks are unthinkable . . . the reward, a lifetime of incomparable bliss. And it all begins with…

Marrying Winterborne
I sort of abandoned Kleypas after reading her contemps. Her "billionaire businessmen are amazing!!" gushing really put me off and felt very pre-2008. When she went back to historicals with Cold-Hearted Rake last year I wondered if I should go back, but that one didn't particularly call to me. This, the second book in the series, did. My one bookish resolution is to worry less about reading series from the start, so I went for it.

Marrying Winterbourne being the second book in the series does show quite a bit, particularly at the start of the book, as the whole beginning of the main relationship happened in book 1. In that book, self-made tycoon and owner of the world's biggest, most profitable and all-around most amazing department store, Rhys Winterborne accompanied his friend (the cold-hearted rake of the title, I take it) to take possession of an earldom the latter had unexpectedly inherited. They were apparently caught up in a train crash and Winterborne was pretty poorly for a while. He was nursed by Helena, his friend's new-found cousin, and sister of the previous Earl.

Helena was innocent and naive and spent a lot of time with Winterborne, who fell madly in lust with her. At some point they became engaged (we're told his proposal was very much a sort of business proposition), but that didn't last long. The end of it, as far as I could tell by reading this, came when he kissed her a bit too passionately and her reaction triggered a migraine. Then the heroine of the previous book took it upon herself to tell Winterborne the engagement was over, even though Helena had wanted nothing of the sort. All of this is backstory, and we're told it right at the start of the book, in a way that felt a bit flat. Lots of telling, no showing.

As the book starts, Helena is determined to get her engagement back. Contrary to what Winterborne thought, she hadn't accepted the engagement because of the excellent arguments he made about how much he could give her, being so incredibly rich. Nope, Helena found Winterborne really attractive and intriguing, if a bit frightening, and couldn't wait to marry him and live a less circumscribed life. Winterborne is in no mood to listen at first, but she soon convinces him that she really, really does want to marry him (enough to prove it by allowing him to "ruin" her).

So they become engaged. And nothing much happens. Helena finds out a secret that she fears will put Winterbourne off marrying her, but it's obvious it won't, and that he'll put her mind at ease as soon as she tells him about it (the resolution of this conflict is extended by Helena refusing to have the conversation and instead deciding to spend just a bit more time with Rhys before it all ends, as that will be all she has to sustain her in her old age -great reasoning, and one of my least favourite romance tropes). There's a damp squib of a blackmail plot, with a blackmailer who quite obviously poses very little danger and generates very little tension. And there is the rescue of a little girl, including a sword/cane-wielding female doctor who was by far my favourite character in the book. That last bit was fab, but unfortunately lasted for only a few pages.

Eh. You can probably tell from my descriptions that I found a lot here quite tedious. The book started well enough, in spite of the backstory infodump. I liked Helena. She's a little bit terrified of Rhys, but she realises it's a good terrified, and he's the most exciting thing that's likely to happen to her in her life. So she takes things into her own hands and takes the risk to go see him. And she stands her ground and absolutely does not let him intimidate him. For the rest of the book, though, the relationship didn't live up to that start. Kleypas really plays up the contrast between the upper-class, delicate blonde innocent and the big, working class dark brute, which is not my thing. It was relatively inoffensive, though, as Helena does have a spine and Rhys shows quite a bit of respect for her wishes. But it wasn't that interesting, and to be honest, for a long time all that was happening in their relationship was far too many sex scenes that didn't add anything.

I think Kleypas is now an author whose sensibilities just don't work for me. I just could not stand her gushing -there really isn't a better word to describe it- both about the nobility, and about just how incredibly rich Rhys is and how wonderful his department store is and just how many amazing luxury goods he stocks. He is, at least, pretty progressive (takes care of his workers, is happy to hire women for high-responsibility roles), but that only makes it more weird when we get things like this bit:

“A department store?” Lady Berwick sounded disconcerted. “I only frequent small shops, where the tradesmen are acquainted with my preferences.”

“My sales clerks would show you the greatest variety of luxury goods you’ve ever seen in one place. Gloves, for example—how many pairs do they bring out for you at a little shop? A dozen? Two dozen? At the glove counter at Winterborne’s, you’ll view ten times that many, made of glacĂ©ed kid, calf suede, doeskin, elk, peccary, antelope, even kangaroo.” Seeing her interest, Rhys continued casually, “No fewer than three countries have a part in making our best gloves. Lambskin dressed in Spain, cut in France, and hand-stitched in England. Each glove is so delicate, it can be enclosed in the shell of a walnut.”

“You offer those at your store?” the countess asked, clearly weakening.

“Aye. And we have eighty other departments featuring items from all over the world.”

“I am intrigued,” the older woman admitted.
Yay for big department stores putting small shopkeepers out of business!

I was also seriously annoyed by the essentialisation and objectification of Rhys's Welsh background. There's a constant litany of "I'm Welsh therefore this", "I am like this because I'm Welsh". Yes, it's all positive ("Ohhhhh, Welshmen are so hawt!"), but that doesn't make it any less distasteful.

In general, this felt old-fashioned to me. It's just the sort of historical that I would have really liked back in the 90s, when I was first starting out in my romance reading and something like this would have felt wonderful compared to old-school bodice-rippers. But now I tend to prefer something that's a bit more subversive when I read historical romance, something that questions the setting a bit more, rather than celebrate it. This is not it.



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