Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘Twelve hundred British soldiers are isolated and waiting to die on the small island of Kheros, off the Turkish coast. All these lives could be saved if only the vigilant, savage and catastrophically accurate guns of Navarone could be silenced. Navarone itself is a grim iron fortress, manned by a mixed garrison of Germans and Italians. To Captain Keith Mallory, skilled saboteur and trained mountaineer, falls the task of leading the small party to scale the vast, impossible precipice of Navarone to blow up the guns.’

The Guns of Navarone is an adventure / thriller novel written by the popular World War II novelist, Alistair MacLean. While MacLean has disappointed me in the past with some of his works such as The Caravan to Vaccares and The Last Frontier, the work often touted as his best would not be something that would miss my attention for too long and thus, I thought I would give the author one more chance.

The story takes place with the Second World War in the backdrop; about a near suicide mission to rescue 1,200 British soldiers stranded in the Greek island in the Aegean Sea under German control. Apart from the Germans, the problem for the British is the German fortress in Navarone with highly accurate mortars capable of sinking any ship within its vicinity and in order to rescue the soldiers, they would have to first silence the Guns of Navarone. The British assemble a team led by Captain Keith Mallory, a mountaineer from New Zealand supported by Corporal Miller, an American who is an expert with explosives and Andrea, a brutish Greek soldier (ironic that none of them are British). For the mission to succeed, they have to get past the German patrols in the Aegean Sea, then scale the cliff under unfavourable weather conditions (which is deemed impossible) to get into the island of Navarone and finally, neutralise the German troops and destroy the guns of Navarone and considering the circumstances, this was indeed a near impossible mission.

I enjoyed the fact that the author chose to base the book on a real incident (refer Battle of Leros) which makes such novels all the more interesting. The author had built his characters well, each of the three main protagonists from varied backgrounds with differing skills; Mallory for the mountaineering and overall responsibility for the team; Miller who also acted as the paramedic for the team and Andrea was the expert in combat. I also liked the fact the author didn’t digress throughout the book and in fact, this is the first Alistair MacLean book which I have read where there is no needless romantic sub-plot. Being a thriller, there were also twists and turns to look forward; with traitors and double agents appearing during the course of the book and I liked it that the three main protagonists were quite intelligent and made through tough situations owing to good planning and clever thinking rather than mere brawn. Apart from all these, the author also described the location and the setting really well that visualisation was very easy and of course, I could effortlessly read the book owing to his lucid writing.

However, I have got to say that while the protagonists were highly intelligent and capable, I felt their opposition was really weak making the impossible circumstances more possible for the three main protagonists. Of course, suspension of logic is quintessential to enjoying a MacLean novel as in every novel of his, the protagonist has a near impossible mission and this book is no different and for someone who wants a more rational plot, they would perhaps be disappointed by the book. As always, I have never been impressed by MacLean’s dialogues and feel that they are too direct and this book is no exception to it.

On the whole, the book had a highly gripping and engaging plot and it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for those who enjoy reading World War thrillers and I for one am glad that I was willing to give Alistair MacLean one more chance.

I would award the book a rating of seven on ten after consideration of whatever I have stated above.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Andy

Friday, 30 December 2016

Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis – Book Review



Publisher’s write-up:

‘From mere trainee to lowly geek, to triumphal Big Swinging Dick: that was Michael Lewis’ pell-mell progress through the dealing rooms of Salomon Brothers in New York and London during the heady mid-1980s when they were probably the world’s most powerful and profitable merchant bank.’

Liar’s Poker is a book on investment banking and bond markets written by the American banker, Michael Lewis based on his experiences at Salomon Brothers, a leading merchant bank in the United States during the 80s.

The book could be split into three parts; where the first part would deal with the author’s experience as a trainee in the bank; followed by elaborating on how the mortgage trading division grew in the bank and the internal tussles among the top management and finally, the author’s own experience at the firm, starting as a geek fresh till the point of becoming a fairly successful banker.

I liked the way in which the author had structured the book, starting with his interview and from thereon, his cynicism was visible throughout the book. I liked the way in which he was expressed the cynicism too, often with sarcastic jibes, funny anecdotes and yes, certain remarks on the practices of the people in the trade which would be regarded as unforgivably indiscreet by his employers which is perhaps the reason why he had to quit the bank in order to write the book. I also felt he gave a good insight as to how the bond trading flourished in the United States during the 80s and how Salomon Brothers exploited the fears of the investors. This book is in no way a tell all book on Wall Street corruption but the author has given enough content for the readers to understand why the corruption takes place in Wall Street.

However, I have got to say that I am least interested in knowing about the ego clashes amongst the top management of Salomon Brothers and a third of the book was spent on that and those were possibly the dullest pages of the books. While I understand that the author tries to make it as friendly as possible to even those who are not literate in finance, the feedback I have received from some of my friends who are not from the field of finance is that they don’t understand his jargons which was something I felt too; that the book is difficult for a layman to appreciate but then, to answer the question as to whether the author has satisfied his own community; I would speak for that; the answer is not entirely. The book could have gone into deeper aspects of bond trading, interest rate fluctuations, etc. instead, the author throughout the book; starts off with a technical aspect but eventually digresses into how things are done at Salomon which would not be entirely relevant.
To conclude, I would say that this is a good book for someone who knows about the jargons in the field and could be thoroughly enjoyed had the second part of the book not been there at all for I also felt that what the author said there was not specific to investment banks, but any corporates.

I would rate the book a six on ten.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Dirty Money by Ramesh S Arunachalam - Book Review



Publisher's write-up:

'Over a fourteen-year period from 1999 to 2013, one hedge fund carried out an investment strategy utilizing hundreds of millions of trades, virtually all of which lasted less than 12 months, and characterized the vast majority of the resulting $34 billion in trading profits as long-term capital gains ... resulting in estimated tax avoidance of more than $6 billion."- Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, United States Senate, 2014This publicly recorded statement exposes the shocking truth about how Wall Street, and the billionaire class, have continued to manipulate and exploit the financial system, taking advantage of loop holes to pull the wool over the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)'

Dirty Money is a book exposing how various players of the Wall Street of dubious repute have a significant say in the electoral process of the nation who project themselves as the flag bearers of democracy. 

The book starts with a dedication to the citizens of the United States and then proceeds to explain how campaigns of politicians are financed, often with money from manipulative players in Wall Street who fund the campaigns breaking all political barriers. The book has its focus on tax evasion, corporate crime, how they route money to foundations of the candidates and of course, the involvement of Wall Street.

I liked the way how the author brought out the flaws of the present system, especially, the use of basket options to claim benefit of a long term capital gain and setting off the same, often creating fictitious capital losses. The former was explained by citing the example of Renaissance Technologies said to have avoided around 6 billion USD in taxes and the latter was explaining the activities of the businessman Haim Saban. The author also has backed up all his figures and details with citations from reliable sources, including from committees set up by the government. The author often quoted Bernie Sanders and stressed on the cause that former candidate was trying to push for; reforms in Wall Street and the desperate need for them. Last, the author also brought out the issue of conflict of interest and how the financial regulatory framework has been systematically made pro Wall Street by repeatedly appointing Wall Street players to the state Treasury. I also appreciate the fact that the author maintained neutrality and throughout the book, did not endorse either candidates even though he did question the conflicting promises of Hillary Clinton on cracking down on tax evaders and at the same time and bringing in tighter regulations to Wall Street and the same time, delivers paid speeches to top executives, the transcripts of which are not released, akin to Donald Trump's tax returns.

While I praised the author for not endorsing a candidate, I couldn't help but feel that nearly 90% of the focus was on Hillary Clinton and despite Donald Trump making promises, especially his tax policies which very much raises the question of conflict of interest as it turns out that such policies tend to benefit him personally but then, it was hardly touched upon. Donald Trump's misdeeds, through the Trump foundation, was not part of the book at all but right here I shall end talking about what was not in the book and focus on what was there.

I do agree that the author did give citations to most of his text but then, the words often used were 'reported, alleged, named, tax issues' and not convicted and very rarely, were they convicted tax frauds. Moreover, the author spoke about exploitation of loopholes; and legally, exploitation of loopholes is not tax evasion but rather, tax avoidance and the same could be corrected only by an amendment to the law, even though I agree that the author did emphasise on the need for a radical reform through to the laws and regulations governing the industry. Also, in many of his individual examples, the author quoted donations in four figures, which is totally insignificant considering how someone as insignificant as Governor Martin O'Malley could raise close to 6.3 million USD.

On a side note, I would also say that this book is not something meant for an average person because it deals with a lot of intricacies such as tax laws, SEC norms, derivative instruments, etc. and fortunately, since I have done a couple of SOX audits, I am broadly familiar with the SEC requirements and thus, could appreciate the book.

While Clinton or Trump could become insignificant after November 8th, 2016, the issue raised by the author in this book is a matter for serious consideration and one could hope that the next President of United States, after she gets elected by a huge majority manages to implement these reforms, at least to keep the Bernie Sanders bloc of the Democrats at bay.

After the Witney by-election in UK, Bernie's brother, Larry, who contested for the Greens to replace David Cameron as MP for the constituency had this to say about how both brothers ended up on the losing side:


'He lost better and he will be probably the second-most important politician in America. So that’s not too bad. I won’t be.'

I really hope Bernie is, and the system is reformed.

Coming back, to conclude, I would award the book a six on ten, it gave a pretty good insight as to how Wall Street influences elections but then, I would have liked it if there was reasonable focus on both candidates.

Rating - 6/10

Have a nice day,

Andy


Sunday, 23 October 2016

She by Henry Rider Haggard - Book Review



Publisher's write-up:

'Haggard's spellbinding She is narrated by Ludwig Horace Holly where Leo Vincey, an adventurer, is determined to investigate the death of his ancestor Kallikrates believed to be an ancient Egyptian priest. A 2000 year-old Queen of the lost world of Kor, had slain Kallikrates. After a rigorous journey to the catacombs of Kor, Vincey confronts the She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the white ruler of Amahagger natives.'

She is a Victorian era novel written by Sir Henry Rider Haggard following the success of King Solomon's Mines (click to read the review) focusing on the same them - lost world. A Cambridge man, Horace Holly is approached by his dying friend who tells him his family history; that his ancestor is a descendant of Kallikrates, an ancient Egyptian priest slain by the white Queen of Kor in Africa, who is in fact, still alive. A set of documents are handed over to Holly where he is appointed as the guardian of his friend's son, Leo Vincey and on his 25th birthday, these were to be shown to him and it is upto Leo whether they wish to go in search of the queen or not.

I felt the author created a very solid base for a great story to emerge, an ancient race supposedly ruled by a queen who has lived for more than two thousand years and of course, a great adventure that followed, in search for the queen. The author also gave a lot of focus to details, on the lifestyle of the indigenous Amahagger people and their customs and also the landscapes that they travelled along, in order to meet the queen. Amahagger were an interesting people, especially considering the author contemplated a matriarchal tribe during the 19th century, where children were seen as descendants of the woman and of course, they unconditionally obey their queen. I also loved the way the author described the sculptures and the architecture inside the caves of Kor and my favourite, was perhaps, the conversation between Ayesha (the queen) and Horace Holly, wherein the latter takes her through the last 2000 years in brief and how she is hardly persuaded by Holly's idea of morality and talks about the changes throughout the 2000 years of her life.  There was nothing noteworthy about the characterisation, except that of Ayesha, more so because she has got a lot to tell and yes, though she claims to be strong in her principles, ultimately, she seeks only the love of Kallikrates / Leo Vincey (his descendant) and is willing to do anything for it.

However, I have to say that this book was no amazing adventure for they manage to find the queen with relative ease (except certain minor setbacks) unlike his previous book King Solomon's Mines where they struggled for the diamonds. This was more of a love story, focusing excessively on the romantic sub-plot between an Amahagger woman, Ustane and Leo and also the mad lust of Ayesha (the queen). Moreover, one could always say that this book has to be judged by the fact that it was written in 1887 but then, I can't help but observe that the three Englishmen, Horace, Leo and their servant Job, were extremely racist and had an excessive pride of being part of the most civilised race (despite their record in the colonies) and of course, the conversation between Ayesha and Holly, the latter made a lot of remarks which could easily be construed as anti-semitic by the modern author. Of course, Holly also very proudly claimed that he was a misogynist and thus wasn't very comfortable with the customs of the Amahagger. One could argue that these weren't the author's personal views for the three Englishmen in his previous book, King Solomon's Mines, were a lot less racist and cooperated with the indigenous population. Considering Holly was the narrator, maybe they were his views but then, there was no need for him to be so much of a white supremacist for the plot didn't require him to be so. I also found the use of outdated language (thou, thee, etc.) for conversations carried out in pure Arabic (but not for pidgin Arabic) a little annoying, considering, the conversation is anyway supposedly translated, there was no point in annoying the reader with such usage. 

As aforementioned, this book is more of a love story than an interesting adventure but it could certainly be read once but might be a bit of a disappointment for those who have read King Solomon's Mines. To conclude, I would award the book a rating of six on ten.

Rating - 6/10

Have a nice day,
Andy

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Storm Warning by Jack Higgins - Book Review



Publisher's write-up:

'It's 1944 and Germany is facing defeat. Across the wild Atlantic, dominated by Allied navies, twenty-seven passengers aboard the barquentine Deutschland are battling home.

Waiting for them are a U-boat ace captured in a desperate raid on Falmouth, a female American doctor caught in the nightmare of flying bombs, a gunboat commander who's fought from the Solomon's to the Channel and a rear admiral determined to get back into action. Allies and enemies, men and women, the hunters and the haunted all drawn inescapably into the eye of the storm.'

The Storm Warning is an adventure story with the Second World War as the background. A German merchant ship leaves from Brazil for Kiel, with a crew of desperate German sailors and five nuns who intent to return home at all costs. On the other end, Paul Gericke, a commander in the German navy is sent on a near suicide mission in Falmouth and ends up being captured by the British. Both these are disconnected stories till they meet at a particular point heading for an interesting climax.

Before getting too deep, I wish to clarify that this is not a thriller novel or a standard Second World War novel, it so happens that the main characters are military personnel and that the story takes place during the war; but for that, this is a standard adventure story than a thriller novel. Jack Higgins tries to reiterate in this book as well, that soldiers on both sides are compassionate humans first, which is more powerful than their hatred for the enemy (similar to The Eagle has Landedand eventually, they come together for a common cause, beyond the lines of the war. In a way, I find that Jack Higgins is one of the very few authors who writes war novels without taking a 'black or white' approach to the enemy and identifies them as normal people with various dimensions to their character. The book was also reasonably paced and wasn't too long, making it easier to read.

However, I felt that the two plots were totally disconnected, and the book was in fact two separate stories till the last hundred pages where these two merge for an interesting climax. Owing to the fact that the book had two different stories, the author could not focus much on building the individual characters, including the principal protagonist Paul Gericke (who incidentally gets introduced only after 100 pages) and I even found his over-confident attitude a little annoying. The other side, the ship story had nothing particularly interesting either, considering they reached till Hebrides without any major hindrances and for the sake of it, there was a pointless romantic sub-plot between a sailor and a young nun (who is yet to take the pledge).

This is neither a great adventure story nor an amazing story based on the Second World War barring the climax and I don't think it is worth reading the whole book for the sake of a reasonably built climax which otherwise simply goes back and forth with too many characters that I was unable to keep track of more than five (on both the plots) beyond a point.

To conclude, I would rate this book a four on ten, which could have been lower had it not been for the last hundred pages.

Rating - 4/10

Have a nice day,
Andy
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