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,


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,

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,

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Incredible Banker by Ravi Subramanian - Book Review

The Incredible Banker is a book in Ravi Subramanian's banking chronicles series. Incidentally, I have read its sequel, The Bankster (may access the review by clicking the link) in the past and was certainly one of the books from modern Indian writers which I have enjoyed.

The plot of this novel jumps across timelines, starts with the CEO of Greater Boston Global Bank (GB2) receiving a show cause notice from the RBI which the CEO perceives to be a witch-hunt against foreign banks following the 2008 financial crisis. The story immediately shifts back by two years to the mundane work environment at GB2, with Karan Panjabi, despearately trying to meet his monthly targets and Deepak Sarup, head of internal audit division and his rival, trying to sabotage the performance of Karan's department. In the mean time, there is also a romantic sub-plot between Deepak, a married man and Savitha, a widowed woman and a staff of GB2 in Karan's team. In the mean time, the plot also moves to rural Odisha and West Bengal focusing on Naxals (communist insurgents) mobilising their resources and weapons. The best of all is the fact that all these events are connected in some way and the author manages to keep the reader in suspense till the last page.

Usually the characters are the assets of an author in any story but here, the author didn't have them as there were too many characters across four sub-plots and even though Deepak would have probably been the most prominent, would certainly not fit being the lead. Thus, the only asset the author had remaining, to exploit was a strong plot and to be fair, he used it very well. The plot did move across different timelines but the author managed to maintain the suspense element essential for a thriller novel by doing that. Moreover, the crab mentality in the corporate world was portrayed fairly well by the author, as to how, more often than not, in a large decentralised organisation, individual interests often supersede that off the organisation.

Added to all these, I also managed to finish the book much quicker than I expected myself to, considering it took me less than 24 hours to cover a 300 pages book. As a corollary, I would thus say that this book is pretty much a page turner which is also essential for a thriller novel.

However, I cannot ignore the fact that I could not connect with any of the characters in the book and efforts could have been put into the same, even if it meant that the book would have been longer by around 50 pages. Since the author had put in no such effort into building the character, I found it really strange that towards the end of the novel, a 'girlfriend' of Karan is introduced who also happens to work at GB2 and provides him with vital information. Moreover, although this is something that I should be saying in the review of the sequel but since I posted its review way before, I'd have to say the same here - the structure that the author seems to follow seems too similar in both the books, various unrelated sub-plots and during the course of the plot, the author connects the dots.

To conclude, I would say that The Incredible Banker is a good thriller novel, and it was quite commendable that the author managed to maintain the element of suspense till the very end. I also enjoyed this a little more than The Bankster despite the fact that the sequel had a stronger plot; because of the fact that I read the sequel before I entered the corporate world and reading The Incredible Banker now, I could appreciate the corporate politics much better in this book and I am sure this book could be enjoyed by those working in corporates who have a love for thrillers. I would award the book a rating of seven.

Rating - 7/10

Have a nice day,
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