Tag Archives: greed

Oh! Darling

The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger (Penguin Books, $16.00, 352 pages)

“I’ve been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone…”   Bruce Springsteen

Cristina Alger’s debut novel is to Wall Street and corrupt investments what Robert Daley’s Prince of the City was to corruption inside New York City’s criminal justice system; and it makes just about as powerful a statement about contemporary life in this country.   This is a story about New York’s monetary elite (the One Percent) and about Greed with a capital G.   It’s a frightening tale about a place in which people equate money with love – in which money is, quite simply, the most important thing in the world.

As the novel opens, financier Morty Reis has killed himself.   Reis, a figure apparently based on Bernie Madoff, is an outside manager for Delphic, the investment company hedge fund run by the powerful billionaire Carter Darling.   (“The Frederick Fund, Delphic’s only single-strategy fund, had 98 percent of its assets invested with Reis Capital Management…  Morty was a brilliant investor.”)   The problem, as Darling’s son-in-law Paul Ross soon finds out, is that Reis Capital Management was a Ponzi scheme and Delphic’s clients stand to lose billions of dollars.   Ross, in need of a job after being pushed out of the Manhattan law firm he worked for, learns this sad truth soon after becoming the head of Delphic’s legal team.   He’s barely had a cup of coffee before learning that the SEC is on the phone.

It’s a Grisham-like opening but Alger, who has worked as both a financial analyst (Goldman, Sachs, & Co.) and white glove firm attorney, quickly steers the action to the fiscal side.   And she exposes the reader to the rough underbelly of life in the top stratum of New York high society – a class in which a small apartment in the Big Apple goes for $1 million with grossly high monthly maintenance fees, tuition for one child at a private school runs $34,000 per year, a summer rental in the Hamptons goes for $100,000, and SAT tutors ask for $1,000 an hour.   “Who had the stomach to run these kinds of numbers?   For even the very rich, this sort of daily calculus required a steely nerve…  a ruthless will to succeed.   (Carter’s daughter) Merrill would see schoolchildren on Park Avenue, golden-haired cherubim in pinafores and Peter Pan collars, and she would think:  Those are the offspring of killers.

Merrill is soon to find that her father is the most ruthless of the outlaws on The Street – a man who hides behind opulence – and his actions may have doomed not only his own livelihood and reputation, but also those of Paul and Merrill.   “Carter Darling was hard to miss for anyone who read the financial news.”   The strong-armed, patrician Darling is presented as a man who possesses some of the personality traits of both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.   He’s proud of his success (Merrill refuses to give up her maiden name when she marries Ross) but God only knows what he’d be without his hundreds of millions of dollars…  His wife knows that he sees her as little more than a cash drain, “an extra person on the payroll.”

To her credit, Alger permits us to examine a legal system in which cheap, easy quick wins are valued more than prosecutions that can achieve social and economic justice.   For today we live in a world in which billionaires can outspend local, state and federal agencies in the courtroom.   When justice has been turned upside down – and the accused control the process – it’s all about the plea agreement, the deal.   (Financial wheelers and dealers are extremely proficient at fashioning the deals that benefit themselves the most.)

The Darlings (paper)The reader knows that Paul Ross, aided by his legally trained spouse Merrill, and an investigative reporter looking into Delphic are going to have to make some hard moral choices before the story comes to its conclusion.   The same is true for the near-omnipotent (if flawed) Carter Darling.   Alger cleverly ties together two plot lines at the conclusion of this powerful novel in a way that’s not foreseen before the final chapters.

Who wins in the end – the white hats or the black hats?   You will need to read The Darlings to find out.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  “Alger…  knows her way around twenty-first-century wealth and power…  a suspenseful, twisty story.”   The Wall Street Journal

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Row, Row, Row Your Boat

No Mark Upon Her: A Novel by Deborah Crombie (William Morrow, $25.99, 384 pages)

I know you remember.   But I will make you forget…

Anglophiles, mystery lovers and rowing fans – this is a book for you!   Author Deborah Crombie has added a fourteenth book to her impressive list of mysteries with the February 2012 release of No Mark Upon Her.   The tale focuses on the intersection of two activities, work at Scotland Yard and rowing on the River Thames.   The first victim is Rebecca Meredith who was a high-ranking member of the force and an Olympic class rower on the comeback trail.   The discovery of her body along the banks of the river jump-starts the search for her killer.

Although Crombie is a native of Texas, she flaunts knowledge of Great Britain that she acquired while living in England and Scotland.   The narrative is filled with British phrases that were not familiar to this reviewer.   A Kindle or Nook e-book version would provide easy access to definitions.   Regardless, the language is not so far-fetched that a reader would lose the meaning of what’s being said.   The locations for the action are nearly cinema graphic which gives the reader the sense of having visited the locale without the burden of jet lag.

The good guy characters are warm and knowable and the bad guys are thoroughly despicable.   Figuring out which group each of the characters falls into is a bit of a challenge.   While married members of the Scotland Yard force, Gemma and Duncan Kincaid, are clearly in the good guys group, their fellow officers are not so strongly portrayed.   Interestingly, Crombie has set up pairs of characters, both couples and work partners which make for an engaging read.   Some folks are just working, others are falling in love and a few are plotting the removal of obstacles in their evil path of greed.

There are crimes galore, rape, murder, arson and theft.   One of these crimes seems to lead to another, almost logically!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   In Great Britian/Europe, this book has been released with the title No Mark Upon Her: A Kincaid and James Mystery.

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Lies, Lies, Lies

Requiem for a Gypsy: A Commander Jana Matinova Investigation by Michael Genelin (Soho Crime; $25.00; 356 pages)

“The nearsightedness created by self-importance would always get in the way of finding evidence, particularly in a case like this.”

Commander Jana Matinova of the Bratislava police force is faced with lies, trickery, gunfire and a manipulative, but adorable, teenage girl named Em in her most recent appearance in Michael Genelin’s mystery series set in Eastern Europe, Requiem for a Gypsy.   Commander Matinova, Em and Prosecutor Truchanova are seriously outnumbered by the male characters in this somewhat dark tale of hubris and greed.   They may be outnumbered, but they are not timid or shy.

The first death of the book, a hit and run in Paris, sets up the mystery and the second person to die begins what turns out to be a killing spree.   The shooting victim, Klara Bogan, and her husband Oto are the hosts of a name day celebration in Bratislava that is quite lavish by Slovakian standards.   The party is broken up by deadly gunfire followed quickly by the mass exodus of the guests.   To make matters more stressful, Matinova’s superior, Colonel Trokan becomes collateral damage because he has shielded Oto Brogan from the gunfire.

Commander Matinova is thwarted repeatedly as she seeks to determine the name of the intended victim at the party.  She believes that Mrs. Brogan is an unlikely target.   Colonel Trokan is willing to back his commander; however, State secrets and protocols prevent him from giving her the official lead in the investigation.   Enter the arrogant and off-putting sister agencies that are drawn into the story as the killing and deceptions take Matinova on trips around the neighboring countries and even to Paris, France.   As expected, the characters display their power in various ways – wearing uniforms, behaving arrogantly, ignoring Matinova or just shooting each other.   In the latter case powerful gangsters and law enforcement officers are equally involved.

Author Genelin provides a rich mix of regional history and politics as he presents the reader with one red herring after another.   His portrayal of the nasty xenophobia present in Eastern European culture is portrayed well by  his character Georg Repka, who Matinova initially idolizes and later despises when she sees his true nature.

The heaviness of the story is enlivened by Em, who wrangles her way into Matinova’s care and protection by knocking at Matinova’s door in the middle of a snowstorm.   Who can resist a waif-like girl selling earings door-to-door in the cold?   Surely not Matinova who is lonely and misses her granddaughter who lives thousands of miles away in the USA.   Em steals the scene whenever she appears in the story.   Genelin has the ability to set up Em with plausible truths and convenient lies that the reader is hard pressed to differentiate.   His experience as a prosecutor in an earlier time of his life shines through on numerous occasions.   Moreover, his love of the subtle quirks in dining habits and quaint places around Europe are put to good use as mini characters in the story.

The starkness and lack of colorful descriptions, aside from food and beverage, prevalent until nearly the end of the book, keep the reader focused on the interactions of the characters and the aggression that some of them display as an integral part of life in their world.   When Genelin does go into detail about room decor, clothing or symbols of opulence, he reinforces the distance between his heroine’s life and the lives of those she must bring to justice.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Rich in compelling plot twists and sobering history lessons.”   Amazon

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Inside Job

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (Norton, $15.95, 291 pages)

“The problem wasn’t that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to fail.   The problem was that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to succeed.”

If you read The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, and think this is going to be another warm and fuzzy story, think again.   This is a former insider’s telling of the reasons the American economy was virtually destroyed by greed in the early 2000’s and it will get you angry – or at least it should.   Here’s one example pointed out in the book…

It’s late 2006 and U.S. home values have just suffered their greatest decline in 35 years.   And, so, Goldman Sachs selected this time to give a bonus to each and every one of its employees – a little bonus of $542,000 (not salary, but some extra spending cash for the holidays)…   How does this make you feel?

If you’re a normal human being without any ties – familial or otherwise – to Wall Street, you should be infuriated by the knowledge of these practices; and there are dozens of examples provided by Lewis.   Yes, this is a tale of incredible hubris.  Lewis, who had once worked at Solomon Brothers, notes that Wall Street traders saw themselves as geniuses who were above reproach:  “(They had) the ability to see themselves in their successes and their management in their failures.”   In fact, however, Lewis well makes the case that these same self-proclaimed geniuses simply didn’t grasp the details of the game that they were playing.   And we all paid the price for their failures.

In just a few years, “One trillion dollars in (subprime-related) losses had been created by American financiers…”   Lewis is honest enough to say that if he’d remained on the Street, he might have been part of the problem:  “If only I’d struck around, this is the sort of catastrophe I might have created.”

“This woman (Meredith Whitney) wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt.   She was saying that they were stupid.”

This is also the story of one Dr. Michael Burry, a man who figured out that big money could be made off of the Street’s losses and ignorance – he decided to bet, big-time, against subprime mortgage tranches and won big-time.   Burry was a man who figured out early on (in 2007) that Wall Street’s rating firms were engaging in massive cheating – rating as solid risks mortgage packages that were pure losers.   One single pool of “crappy mortgages” (falsely rated) – based on home loans made between April and July of 2005 – was allegedly worth three-quarters of a trillion dollars, but the entire pool was basically worthless.

The problem with Lewis’ account, which he states began as a policy paper on the roots of the modern-day American fiscal crisis, is that it reads like a dry white paper.   There’s no sense of outrage, no moral center.   Even while Lewis complains that the U.S. government (and, specifically, the White House) transformed Wall Street firms into public corporations, which were then deemed to be “too big to fail,” there’s no sense of anger.   Thus, we’re left with a sense of amorality, instead of immorality, in this presentation.

This is an interesting and easily read account, but it’s quite frustrating and not recommended.   If you want to enjoy something written by Michael Lewis, try The Blind Side.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.  

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When the Music’s Over

A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers by Lawrence G. McDonald with Patrick Robinson (Crown Business Reprint Edition; $16.00; 368 pages)

A Colossal Failure of Common Sense describes a CEO acting as if his firm was too big to fail…  One might be tempted to think that Lehman’s bankruptcy was too mild a punishment for the firm’s management.”   James Freeman, The Wall Street Journal 

The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers is now 2 years behind us.   It was the largest bankruptcy in history and the first in a series of banking and financial institutional failures linked to the housing bust.   It marked a low point in the chronology of Wall Street.   Former Lehman vice president of trading, Lawrence McDonald, and a veteran professional writer, Patrick Robinson, have painstakingly detailed the intellect, honesty and caring at the heart of the Lehman trading groups that tried valiantly to warn upper management of the impending doom.

This one hundred and fifty-eight-year-old institution was leveled by a small clique of men at its very top who lacked the restraint and manners that were the key to traditional corporate culture at Lehman.   The arrogance, greed, weak egos and excesses (think of TV’s Dynasty) are similar to the unfortunate behaviors exhibited by members of any and all cliques.

We view the action from McDonald’s perspective starting with his early yearning to work at a major player on the Street.   If you think every aspect of the real estate bubble and bust has been examined and reported on, think again.   This hefty book is written from an insider’s perspective.   Credit is given to whomever it is due at both ends of the spectrum of good and evil.  

The reader can feel the suspense building as the story continues to develop.   This book became a true page-turner prior to its end, even though its conclusion had already been written.   Recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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There I’ve Said It Again

How to Buy a Love of Reading: A Novel by Tanya Egan Gibson (Plume; $15.00; 400 pages)

Two highbrow writers and several low brow nouveau riche folks who reside in a community ruled by excess and one-upmanship are skewered with wicked satire in this irresistible debut novel by Tanya Egan Gibson.   Rest assured, Ms. Gibson takes the time, and she has the talent, to fully develop her characters.   Everyone from the protagonist, Carley Wells, to the object of her affection, Hunter Cay, takes their turn in the spotlight.

This is far from the usual ugly duckling or misfit gone berserk story.   Rather, the reader is permitted to delve into the complexities of what appears to be a very “simple” girl.   Carley is the vulnerable 16-year-old daughter of a brassiere mogul.   She does not fit in size-wise or intellectually with her prep school classmates.   Moreover, Carly has not encountered a book that she likes.   This is problematic as she is expected to earn a passing grade in prep school literature and go on to college.   To make matters worse, her harridan of a mother, Gretchen, lacks even a smidgen of empathy or love for anyone but herself.

Hunter Cay is a brilliant writer and obscenely beautiful fellow who is one year Carley’s senior.   He and Carley formed an unusual friendship when he and his mother became part of the wealthy community following his mother’s divorce from his billionaire father.   Carley loves him unconditionally and proves it by her willingness to accept whatever attention and caring he gives her.   She dotes on him and is also a first-class enabler of his vices.

There are parties galore to celebrate birthdays, literature and Hunter’s mother’s engagement.   The descriptions of the elaborate decorations, clothing and food for these events are spot on for a wealthy enclave, which makes this reviewer think that Ms. Gibson may have attended a few such parties in her own lifetime.   Carley’s birthday party has the craziness reminiscent of the masquerade ball in the classic film “The Pink Panther.”

All of this foolishness aside, there is much more to this book than a satirical plot.   The theme explores the idea of growing up into who you need to be to allow yourself to lead a meaningful life.   There are casualties along the way – the notion of the value of extreme wealth being one of them.   Even with billions, some of the characters are hard pressed to escape their personal fears and demons.   By the end of the tale, the reader will have a deeper understanding of human frailties and an expanded sense of compassion.

Highly recommended.   The trade paper version was recently released.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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