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Brian R. Martin (London, UK)
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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
by Michael Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The 2008 financial collapse explained, 27 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
In this book, the author focuses on the activities of a small group of people, in many ways eccentric amateurs, and initially totally unknown figures to the ‘big beasts’ in the rarified world of investment banking, who foretold the crash of the US mortgage bond market that was the start of world-wide financial turmoil in 2008, and in so doing profited greatly. By a huge amount of tedious work, reading boring, jargon-heavy literature put out by the banks and other financial institutions, they realized that there was a massive fraud being perpetrated on investors in this bond market, an area that had rapidly come to hugely outstrip the traditional equity market. The first part of the conspiracy was to lend billions of dollars to house buyers who clearly did not have the means to meet the payments in the long term. These were the notorious ‘subprime mortgages’. The banks were then packaging these mortgages into financial instruments called ‘collateral debt obligations’ (CDOs) and persuading the rating agencies to give 80% of them a triple-A rating on the basis that the CDO contained a few low-risk loans. They could then be sold to eager buyers worldwide and earn the bank substantial fees.

But it didn’t end there. Those that failed to get the desired rating were simply repackaged, so that all these dubious products were eventually classed as ‘risk free’. This was the second part of the conspiracy and a huge failure by the rating agencies (who were paid by the banks). They failed to examine in detail the structure of a given CDO, but simply accepted the bank’s assessment. The situation rapidly spiraled out of control. A CDO-A might contain some of the mortgages in CDO-B that in turn might contain some of the mortgages in CDO-C, and the latter might even contain some mortgages that were in CDO-A. This was an Alice in Wonderland world where it was impossible to give a true value of any CDO, and its worth was what the bank said it was worth. Even the senior staff at the banks that were selling the CDOs didn’t have a full understanding of what was happening.

This is where the outsiders entered. First they realized that the original loans were often being made to people without asking for proof of income (‘liars’ loans’) and that the home owner was offered a low interest rate (the ‘teaser’ rate) initially, typically for the first two or three years. They argued that after this period expired there would be a high probability that the owner would default and, crucially, that this would happen to the vast majority of loans within any given CDO, because they would all be unable to pay for the same social reasons. The banks, however, had risk models that only considered a worse case scenario of just a few percent failures. If they could take out insurance, via what were called ‘credit default swaps’ (CDSs), against a failure of a CDO, they argued that they would only have to wait a couple of years or so before the low-rate period expired and the insurance would have to pay out. Throughout they remained worried that they had missed something, because the logic seemed so obvious, they couldn’t understand why the banks themselves had not seen it. Eventually they did of course, and much later started to cynically (even corruptly?) bet that the very bonds that they had issued would fail.

Initially, the outsiders had hurdles to overcome. They had difficulty finding any bank that would sell CDSs to them because they were mere minnows with only small funds. However, these hurdles were overcome and to some amusement of the banks they started to accumulate substantial positions in ‘bets’ that the CDOs would fail, and at only a small cost in premiums. It was a nail-biting time because the price of CDOs continued to be stable, even sometimes rise, despite the increasing rate of defaults on the underlying loans. But the end, when it came, was very rapid, just as the outsiders had predicted. Indeed the losses were so great that they feared the big banks would themselves fail and so be unable to pay out on the CDSs. In great haste in the last stages of the collapse they scrambled to offload them and managed to get out before the final collapse.

The rest is history: several major bank collapsed; hundreds of billions of dollars were pumped into the system to keep others afloat; Congress stepped in and bought subprime mortgage assets for up to 2% of the US GDP; and senior bankers who had lost billions in the debacle were allowed to walk away with ‘bonuses’ of tens of millions of dollars. But the householders who had defaulted on their loans received nothing and were dispossessed.

What this sad story revealed was widespread cynicism in the financial industry, banks, rating agencies and regulatory bodies, bordering on corruption, and a remarkable lack of understanding of the fundamentals at the highest level in the banks. There have been many books about the causes of the financial crash of 2008, but few can match this one in the detailed knowledge of its author and the clarity of his presentation. There is some repetition in explaining technicalities, but this is acceptable. If the reader understands it first time these can easily be skipped over without loss of continuity. Overall it is an excellent book.


Police: A Harry Hole thriller (Oslo Sequence 8)
Police: A Harry Hole thriller (Oslo Sequence 8)
Price: £4.49

4.0 out of 5 stars The return of Harry Hole, 24 Jan. 2016
Jo Nesbo has a worldwide readership for his acclaimed thrillers, particularly those featuring detective Harry Hole, and this book is one of that series. The plot revolves around a series of brutal murders of policeman that replicate former unsolved crimes, including the locale where the murders were committed. The new young ambitious chief of police, Bellman, is more interested in making sure that any resulting kudos comes to him and any failures fall on others. Because of this, Gunnar Hagen has set up a small elite team to work on solving the crimes, without telling Bellman. It consists of a therapist, who knows a lot about the minds of serial killers, Katrine, Beate, and Borjn, all old trusted colleagues of Harry. But even they are making little headway and another murder is committed. They need Harry, with his special talents, but this will be difficult because at the close of a previous book, Harry, traumatised by a particularly difficult case that affected him personally, left active policing and took a post lecturing at the police academy. He has also promised the love of his life, Rakel, that he wouldn’t return to his former life. Of course eventually the lure of being actively involved again overcomes his reluctance and halfway through the book, Harry joins the team.

Harry’s reappearance does not stop more murders occurring, including that of a member of the team, but he does reinvigorate them and plausible suspects begin to emerge. They include a psychopathic killer who was believed to be dead, but it transpires had faked his own death after escaping from prison. He is just one of several suspects the team have to consider. There are also quite a few interwoven subplots, including: the activities of a mentally unstable female student at the academy with a fixation on Harry; Bellman’s corrupt relationships with a policeman called Truls Berntsen, now suspended and nursing a grievance, and a senior member of the City Council, his lover Isabelle Skoyen; and Harry’s back story involving the killing of a notorious drug dealer. Eventually, after several false trails as different suspects become more likely than others, the real motive emerges, and Harry single-handed races against time to catch the killer before he strikes again, this time against Harry’s dearest. The ending is fast and furious and stretches credibility somewhat, but at the end the killer is dead. Not all wrongs are righted though, and Bellman emerges as a hero and celebrity. The book ends with a very brief scary scene that presumably is a trailer for a future book.

All the Harry Hole novels are complex, but this one verges on the convoluted. The identity of the killer came as a surprise to me. Perhaps I failed to read the clues, or perhaps they just were not there. Readers will have to decide for themselves. Nevertheless, it is a good example of the serial killer genre, if not the very best of the Harry Hole series.


The Lighthouse (Inspector Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)
The Lighthouse (Inspector Adam Dalgliesh Mystery)
by P. D. James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Classic detective novel, but not one of her very best., 18 Jan. 2016
P D James is often described as a master of the classic detective novel, and I have no quarrel with that. Although not all her books are of the very highest quality, she has achieved great success with her series featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh, the cool-headed, intellectual poetry-writing detective from the Met who is brought in to solve murder cases where the utmost discretion is required. In this case the death is on a secretive fictional private island called Combe, located a short way off the southwestern English coast. It is administered by a Board of Trustees and the purpose of the Trust is to provide distinguished individuals, including politicians, with a place where they can relax and ‘recharge’ for a few weeks; hence the need for discretion. The only other people allowed on the island, apart from a few staff, are those who were born there, and one of the last of these is a famous novelist called Nathan Oliver, who visits every few months to work, accompanied by his long-suffering daughter and his copyist/assistant. Oliver is a very unpleasant man who manages to upset just about everyone on the island, and when he is found hanging from the balcony of the island’s defunct lighthouse, the great shock amongst the small community is not matched by displays of grief.

Through the questioning of Dalgliesh and his two assistants, Detective Inspector Kate Miskin and Sergeant Francis Benton-Smith, the author establishes the characters of the islanders and shows how their frequently complicated lives are often intertwined with each other and with Oliver. A recent example is that of one of the guests, Dr Yelland, a distinguished scientist who heads a medical research laboratory. Yelland is incensed that he has apparently been used as the basis for an odious animal-torturing scientist featured in the book Oliver is currently writing. Could instances such as these provide a motive for murder?

The investigation continues with a mixture of forensic interviews and intuition, but seems to be going nowhere until a second brutal murder is committed. At the same time Dalgliesh is struck down by SARS (the second person to have contracted the condition) and is confined to the infirmary, leaving Kate in charge. At this point the plot takes on an element of unbelievability. Dalgliesh, recovering in bed, has a ‘revelation’ where all the loose ends come together and provide an explanation for both murders, which of course turns out to be true. The murderer is then captured after a dramatic confrontation at the lighthouse in which both Inspector Miskin and Sergeant Benton-Smith distinguish themselves in different ways. The novel ends with the reunion of Dalgliesh with the love of his life, Emma Lavenham (to whom he has proposed in an earlier book) who arrives on an incoming helicopter that takes off the detective and his team.

Up to the point where Dalgliesh becomes ill, the book has all the features I would have expected of a PD James novel: good characterisations, atmospheric descriptions, unexpected events etc., all written in a suberb elegant style. But the solution of the crimes lets it down; while the clues all hang together, the way it is revealed is disappointing.


We Are Anonymous
We Are Anonymous
by Parmy Olson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars The 'anonymous' world of hackers, 11 Jan. 2016
This review is from: We Are Anonymous (Paperback)
In this book the author tracks the rise and fall of Anonymous, from its emergence from an anarchic web-based message board called 4Chan, through several spin-offs where members moved on from the original aims of creating spoofs and hacking the websites and databases of perceived ‘bad guys’, such as bankers and the Church of Scientology, just for ‘lulz’ – internet slang for a great laugh at some else’s expense – to more serious actions against sites of law enforcement agencies, national tax and health service records, and others, undertaken in the main just because they knew they had the skills to do so. This proved to be a huge mistake and a slippery slope that eventually led to jail and financial penalties for most of the prime movers. The whole movement has been described as a revolution, and it did have some aspects of this: starting with legitimate protest, leading to actions which were largely altruistic, with a common purpose; followed by divergences among its membership about the best course of action to pursue; then the formation of splinter groups turning viciously on one another; and ultimately the inevitable betrayals and collapse of the entire enterprise. The dark net may be the Wild West of the Internet, but the Anonymous world of hackers is up there with it.

The story is both fascinating and repellant. It is told in great detail and is clearly based on extensive research, face-to-face interviews etc. that give it a ring of authenticity. The author makes no attempt to take sides and make moral judgments, but simply reports the story factually. One might argue that it is too detailed and that there is much that may not be of interest to anyone not a regular internet user, and this may well be true. But without the detail it would be difficult to understand the many characters and their actions. How is it that so many young men (and they were mostly male), often teenagers, were attracted to an activity the goal of which quickly degenerated to become one of destruction, without any thought to the potential damage inflicted on both organisations and individuals. The author does address this question at the end of the book, but can offer only the usual answers about disaffected youth seeking an outlet to dispel boredom and the make their lives more interesting.

The prime movers in the movement had a deplorable lack of ethical standards. This is illustrated by their manipulation of vulnerable individuals just to humiliate them. More importantly, numerous naÔve young people were encouraged to take part in illegal mass cyber attacks by assurances that they could never be caught because their identities were safe, when this could never be guaranteed and the potential penalties if caught could be very severe. Some are facing 10-year jail sentences and claims of hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the end of the book, one hacker ruefully admits that the police were often smarter than they were.

The book is well worth reading and could be recommended to many groups of people, all the way from those responsible for keeping national and private data secure, to those who might themselves be contemplating undertaking hacking.


Our Garden Birds
Our Garden Birds
by Matt Sewell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.70

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent companion to his book on owls, 5 Jan. 2016
This review is from: Our Garden Birds (Hardcover)
This is a companion volume in the series that includes the author’s book on Owls, and the format is similar. For each bird there is a page with a delightful watercolour illustration by the author and another page with a brief description of it. These are not technical enough for a serious bird watcher, but rather quirky, with an emphasis on the bird’s character, which can actually be useful when identifying it. There are also pages with collections of smaller illustrations enable comparisons to be made and to aid in distinguishing between different birds. Ideal to keep handy by a garden window and to be used when needed. Excellent value for money.


Owls: Our Most Enchanting Bird
Owls: Our Most Enchanting Bird
by Matt Sewell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.94

5.0 out of 5 stars but I'm sure they are good enough to identify the bird, 3 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is an enchanting little pocket book of all the owls you are ever likely to see. Each owl has a very short factual, often humorous, description, and each is illustrated by a whole-page watercolour. I'm not an expert to say how accurate these are, but I'm sure they are good enough to identify the bird. It is excellent value for money and would make a delightful 'thank you' present for anyone interested in birds, particularly owls of course, or just to cheer someone up.


The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery
The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery
by Rob Dunn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

5.0 out of 5 stars The heart - its problems and the attempts to cure them, 1 Jan. 2016
In this book, the author gives an overview of the physiology of the heart and attempts to cure its diseases. The technical information is sometimes challenging, but is clearly presented and essential to understand developments in the field of cardiac medicine. He also deftly interweaves the personal stories of key people in the narrative. They are a diverse bunch, ranging from a flamboyant South African surgeon called Barnard, who performed the first heart transplant, to the almost saintly Japanese scientist Endo, who worked for 30 year collecting and examining tens of thousands of fungi in order to develop a drug that would lower cholesterol levels in the blood. This eventually led to statins, now taken daily by 30 million people worldwide.

The heart is a unique organ, which if it ceases to beat for just a few minutes always spells death; at least before the invention of the heart-lung machine. Even in the nineteenth century it was still widely viewed as the repository of the soul, and to contemplate heart surgery was considered irresponsible in the extreme. The book opens with an event that broke this taboo. In 1893, a young African –American doctor called Williams was practicing medicine in a small hospital in Chicago when presented with a patient who had been stabbed in the heart and facing certain death. Against all conceived wisdom, Williams opened the chest, located the wound in the heart, and sewed it up. The patient survived and heart surgery was born. Williams was the first of a long line of pioneering doctors who were prepared to undertake new procedures that revolutionised cardiac medicine.

In the next few chapters the author steps back to discuss several important historical figures: the legendary Galen, physician to Roman gladiators, whose work in anatomy still dominated medical thinking at the time Williams was working; Da Vinci, who produced exquisite dissection drawings; and Vesalius, Harvey and others, whose work on blood eventually lead to the modern view of how it circulates in the body. These chapters are very interesting in their own right, and also set the scene for the start of the modern era in cardiology.

One of the outstanding problems when dealing with the heart was how to ‘operate’ inside it without opening the chest wall. This was addressed in 1929 by a ambitious young doctor called Forssmann, working in a small hospital in Germany, who had only graduated one year earlier and was not even a surgeon. He proposed to thread a catheter into a vein in the arm and push it all the way into the heart. This was considered madness and would almost certain lead to death, so in the best tradition of scientific mavericks, he first tried it out on himself. X-rays showed that the catheter had indeed reached the right chamber of Forssmann’s heart. The way had been opened for procedures now taken for granted, such as the insertion of stents to keep open constricted ‘plumbing’.

Not only mavericks appear in the story. There are also those who toiled steadily for years to perfect a technique or device. The Japanese scientist Endo is mentioned above. Another important example is Gibbon, the pioneer of the heart-lung machine, which made it possible to perform operations for hours instead of the few minutes that formerly had been the limit before death of the patient was inevitable. Even small babies with congenital heart disease are now routinely operated on successfully. This device opened the way to heart transplantation, but this was only practical as a long-term solution by extensive use of drugs to suppress the body’s immune system. The author discusses how such drugs were created, although only briefly. But not everything is a success story. The story of failure to produce a practical artificial heart is also told.

Later chapters turn to the huge problem of heart disease in the developed world, its relation to cholesterol, and the development of statins. Ironically, Endo himself, who had raised levels, decided not to take statins, but instead to change his diet and lifestyle. The role of cholesterol is not as simple as it first appears. Chimpanzees have far higher levels of cholesterol than humans, but do not suffer from atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) an ancient problem in humans. (They do however die from another heart problem – fibrosis of the heart muscles.) In latter chapters the author explores this, and other information obtained from animal studies, that might shed light on human heart problems.

The book concludes with an account of the controversial theory that all animals have approximately the same number of heart beats from birth to dead, about 1 billion; animals with slow heart rates live longer, those with fast heart rates live shorter, although with intervention this can be changed, as we have seen in the case of humans, where life expectancy has risen substantially in the modern era. Finally, the author makes a plea that we should examine the animal and plant world much more intensely, because it has potentially a huge amount to offer in the fight against disease. Who can argue with that?

This is a fine book, well written and full of interesting information. My only criticism, and it is minor, is that it would have benefitted from more illustrations. Ones like that showing an early operating theatre, or Forssmann working in his lab, while still smoking a cigar, give a real feel for the atmosphere at the time, and in the latter case what a larger-than-life character Forssmann must have been.


Mattel Games Blokus
Mattel Games Blokus
Offered by a1 Toys
Price: £17.90

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent family game, 28 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Mattel Games Blokus (Toy)
This is a surprisingly complex strategy game for up to four players, but with only one simple rule, which determines how the coloured pieces are placed on the board: each piece you play must touch at least one other piece of the same colour, but only at the corners. The aim is to fit the most pieces on the board. The game ends when no-one can place any more pieces and the winner is the player with the lowest number of squares in their unplayed pieces. It can be learned in one minute and is suitable for just about anyone over the age of 4 or so. An excellent game for all the family.


The Closed Circle
The Closed Circle
by Jonathan Coe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Sequel to 'The Rotters' Club', 27 Dec. 2015
This review is from: The Closed Circle (Paperback)
‘The Closed Circle’ is a sequel to ‘The Rotters’ Club’, a novel set in the 1970s about a group of school friends attending a grammar school in Birmingham. ‘The Closed Circle’ jumps forward twenty years or so and examines how their lives have evolved, so it will make much more sense if you have first read ‘The Rotters’ Club’, although this is not strictly essential.

The main character in the latter was Benjamin, and remains so in this sequel, if only because his friends constantly worry about him. He remains rooted in the past and is a rather pathetic figure, unable to recognise that his ground-breaking ‘masterpiece’ novel is unpublishable (even if he were ever to finish it), still pining for his lost love, the beautiful Cicely, even though he is married to Emily, a fringe member of the school friends. He is forever trying to ‘find’ himself. One of the least interesting sections of the book is when he spends some time ‘healing’ himself as a guest in a French monastery. Incidentally, here he meets another guest, an English businessman who specialises in running down companies and walking away with a huge pension. He appears very briefly elsewhere in the book. Their meeting in an obscure monastery has little relevance to the story, but is just one of several unbelievable coincidences that occur in the book.

The other characters have developed into adults with varying degrees of success. Claire, divorced from Philip, has returned from Italy where she worked as a freelance translator, leaving behind her married lover; Philip, remarried, is in Birmingham working as a local journalist; Doug has married a rich beautiful aristocrat and is a writer on a London newspaper; Steve, the only black pupil at the school, is an industrial chemist; and Benjamin's brother Paul, once an avid admirer of Mrs Thatcher, is now an ambitious, rather smug, New Labour politician. Nevertheless many of them are frustrated by a nagging thought that their life, and modern life in general, is unsatisfactory and they may have ‘missed out’ in some way. This is of course the author’s opinion, but he sometimes projects it via his characters in an off-putting way.

Into this old mix comes an entirely new character, a beautiful young woman, improbably called Malvina, who is destined to have a profound effect on several of their lives, particularly Benjamin and Paul. Along the way several loose ends are tidied up and more links in the ‘closed circle’ forged: who drugged Steve before his A-Levels; what happened to the school joker Harding, aka ‘Sir Arthur Pusey-Hamilton’ of the school magazine; why and how Claire’s sister Miriam disappeared; and who exactly is Malvina.

As in his other books, politics also play an important role in this one, but unlike in ‘The Rotters’ Club’ they do not appear as naturally in the story. Coe obviously feels strongly about serious issues like the second Gulf War, but in this book they are thrust upon the reader and it often reads more like a political pamphlet than a novel. So instead of reasoned argument we have stock characters and situations we can all despise, such as unprincipled venal politicians, greedy company directors, etc. He also manipulates his characters so that he can make critical points about aspects of modern life such as reality TV, tabloid magazines, aggressive driving etc. They are often too contrived to be convincing, to the detriment of the story.

Overall, this book is worth reading to ‘close the circle’, and still contains some very humorous sections, but it is not as satisfactory as ‘The Rotters’ Club’.


The Eye in the Door
The Eye in the Door
by Pat Barker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb second volume in ‘The Regeneration Trilogy’, 20 Dec. 2015
This review is from: The Eye in the Door (Paperback)
‘The Eye in the Door’ is the second of the three books by Pat Barker that comprise ‘The Regeneration Trilogy’, and which together won her the 1995 Booker Prize. They are often described as war novels, although only the third volume is mainly concerned with action in the WWI trenches; ‘The Eye in the Door’ is set entirely in Great Britain. Although it can be read as a stand-alone novel, it is best to have already read the first novel ‘Regeneration’, because many of the characters introduced there also appear in this second volume. This is true of the central character, Billy Prior, a working class army officer. He has suffered blackouts and periods of loss of memory as a result of his experiences in the trenches and was treated by the famous psychiatrist Dr Rivers at the Craiglockhart military hospital in Scotland. Dr Rivers also appears in the first volume and is one of a number of characters, including the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who links the story to actual events.

Prior now works for the Munitions Office, with the job of tracking down anti-war pacifists, deserters and other ‘undesirables’. He is in a difficult position, because he is bisexual himself and knew many of the anti-war activists before the war, having grown up with some of them. They include a woman called Beattie Roper, who has been imprisoned for allegedly plotting to poison Lloyd George and other prominent politicians and whom he tries to help. This is another example were the novel is based on reality, this time on the case of Alice Wheeldon, who was convicted of just such a crime. Prior is a complex personality, and like others in the book is struggling with conflicting forces within himself – duty, and loyalty to his friends. Because of his periods of instability he is unable to trust himself. He queries whether he betrayed a close friend to the authorities during one such episode.

The novel explores the conflicting emotions experienced by Roper and others at a time of national crisis, when it was by no means certain that the Allies would prevail. This is done partly through observing their actions of course, but equally important by their conversations, including a fascinating on-going dialogue between Rivers and Sassoon. Pat Barker is a master of conversational prose and the result has the ring of authenticity. It is a superb account of the destruction that war inflicts, not just on men’s bodies, but on their very being as humans. It is told in a way that is intelligent and unsensational, even with a little humour when appropriate.


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