Mal Warwick

Author Archives: Mal Warwick

A disappointing entry from Joseph Finder

Vanished by Joseph FinderVanished by Joseph Finder

@@ (2 out of 5)

Start with the author’s acknowledgments at the end of Vanished, and you’ll get a sense of the complexity of this story and the extent of the research he conducted. Like many of Joseph Finder‘s other novels, Vanished is an accomplished thriller — a proverbial page-turner that uses all the tricks of the writer’s craft to draw the reader from one minuscule chapter to the next. (There are 99 chapters in this book.)

Unfortunately, unlike other of Finder’s novels that I’ve read, this book is disappointingly flawed by what in the film industry would be tagged as egregious errors of continuity. These errors rob the story of its already marginal credibility, given the exaggerated competence of its hero, former Special Forces soldier and investigator par excellence, Nick Heller.

At one point, Heller refers to visiting his father in prison at a time he’d noted only a few pages earlier that the old man was in hiding overseas. There are other, lesser slipups as well, and if these were the only flaws in the story, I would be less disgruntled with the book. Unfortunately, in the story’s climax, a large number of police officers show up to save the day mere minutes after having been called — to a location at least half an hour away from their station.

I’d picked up this novel with great anticipation, having been enthralled with three of Finder’s earlier thriller, all of them about industrial espionage. I’m hoping Finder is less sloppy in future efforts.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Another hilarious novel from Donald E. Westlake

Watch Your Back! by Donald E. WestlakeWatch Your Back! by Donald E. Westlake

@@@ @ (4 out of 5)

There are two prerequisites for reading and enjoying the Dortmunder novels by the amazingly prolific Donald Westlake: (1) you enjoy watching a fiendishly clever plot unfold, and (2) you love to laugh.

In his 75 years — Westlake died on the last day of the year 2008 — Westlake wrote more than 100 novels and a passel of other books as well. Included were a dozen novels about the hapless career burglar, John Dortmunder, and his cronies, Stan Murch, Andy Kelp, Tiny, and assorted significant others and hangers-on. “Watch Your Back!”, published in 2005, is a good example of the lot.

The plot of this book is so convoluted that creating a summary strikes me as a daunting task. Besides, just knowing the plot would spoil the experience of reading it. “Watch Your Back!” is a whole lot of fun. From time to time, I simply couldn’t stop laughing.

As Amazon.com writes about this novel, “In his classic caper novels, Donald E. Westlake turns the world of crime and criminals upside-down: the bad get better, the good get worse, and God save anyone caught between a thief named John Dortmunder and his most improbable plans . . . [W]hen Dortmunder and his clean-up crew get together to plan the heist, they quickly get distracted and suddenly a billionaire from Fifth Avenue and a would-be Tony Soprano from New Jersey have one thing in common: John Dortmunder is after them both at the same time . . . and disaster can’t be far behind.”

You might also enjoy reading about Dortmunder’s last caper, funny to the end.

February 12, 2010

Pre-Columbian civilization in the Amazon

Pre-Columbian civilization

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

You may not have heard of Colonel Percy Fawcett, but it’s entirely possible your grandchildren will come to think of him in the company of Henry Stanley, David Livingstone, Heinrich Schliemann, Howard Carter, and Hiram Bingham. Fawcett, an eccentric Englishman with nearly superhuman survival skills, was the most famous explorer of the early 20th Century. This deeply engrossing book traces his amazing story from his early days in the British colonial army in Sri Lanka through his many fabled travels through the then-uncharted Amazon Basin, to his tragic end there in 1925.

Fawcett, his young son Jack, and Jack’s good friend, Raleigh Rimmel, disappeared after penetrating the Amazon jungle in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state more deeply than anyone had previously gone. On earlier trips, Fawcett had demonstrated a unique ability to befriend some of the region’s most hostile tribes, largely by demonstrating his extraordinary courage, an unwillingness to use force, and a gentle manner. Circumstantial evidence, much of it uncovered for the first time by David Grann in researching this book, points clearly to Fawcett and his companions’ deaths at the hand of a tribe immune to his considerable diplomatic ability.

Nearly until it comes to an end, The Lost City of Z appears to be the tale of a madman obsessed with an impossible vision: a lost civilization in the depths of the Amazon rainforest, where experts have long held that the region simply cannot support a sizable population or a sophisticated society. Imagine my surprise, then—imagine David Grann’s surprise!—when he discovered at the tail end of his researches that Fawcett was right all along! Thirteen years of intensive archaeological research led by Michael Heckenberger in the area where Fawcett disappeared in 1925 has turned up incontrovertible evidence of an ancient society—research that only very recently has been reported in scientific journals.

Why does this belated discovery come as such a surprise? Simple, really: the large buildings typical of that ancient society were constructed not of stone or brick—there’s none to be found in the jungle—but of natural products such as wood, vines, and fibers. No such buildings could possibly survive the onslaught of the rainforest once the society fell into decline and regular maintenance stopped.

This is an exciting book. I enjoyed it immensely.

Lisbeth Salander stars again in an engrossing murder mystery

lisbeth salander stars in the girl who played with fireThe Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium #2) by Stieg Larsson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

You have never met anyone like Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” in the title — guaranteed. Lisbeth is a tattooed, waif-like young woman with a brain of gargantuan proportions, an eidetic memory, an unsurpassed mastery of the Internet, and a mysterious past. In this unlikely but engrossing story of murder and corruption in the dark corners of contemporary Sweden, Lisbeth’s past is revealed in an encounter reminiscent of the games played out in the bowling alley of the gods.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second novel in a trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson centered on Lisbeth Salander that launched with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and will conclude with The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest. Sadly, the author of this unique little crime series died shortly after delivering the manuscripts for all three novels in 2004. Larsson was the editor of a politically engaged magazine, much like Mikael Blomqvist, who figures in both this novel and its predecessor as Lisbeth’s friend, foil, and sometime lover.

The power of Larsson’s spare prose and the extraordinary character of Lisbeth Salander vaulted The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo onto  best-seller lists internationally. Readers everywhere were captivated. There is much of the same experience in store for you in this sequel, but perhaps familiarity with the protagonists took the edge off my experience. I found this book slightly less satisfying than its predecessor, but I’m no less eagerly looking forward to its successor.

I’ve reviewed the whole series of five books written to date in the Millennium cycle at The magical Lisbeth Salander novels. You might also be interested in reading my reviews of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

India’s diversity under a microscope

india's diversityBetween the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Aravind Adiga is one of India’s most refreshing contributions to the world of books in recent years. His first novel, a wildly original story of near-mythic proportions, The White Tiger, won the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.

Between the Assassinations is a latticework of fourteen interrelated stories about the people of Kittur, a small town “on India’s southwestern coast, between Goa and Calicut.” The organizing principle of this book is the tourist guide, as each story begins with a walk through one of Kittur’s distinctive neighborhoods, giving the reader a view of the town’s humanity in all its extraordinary diversity. The stories in this collection are set in the tumultuous time in Indian history between the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and that of her son, Rajiv, seven years later.

A casual visitor to India inevitably remarks on the abject poverty to be found among so many of that country’s people. What remains invisible to the tourist comes to life in this remarkable collection of stories: the hopes, fears, doubts, and convictions of India’s poor, and the survival strategies they forge in the midst of challenges the rest of us cannot conceive. As a portrait of caste and class and intercommunal (Hindu-Muslim) relations in modern India, this book truly excels.

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

February 7, 2010

“Losing the News”: Alex S Jones laments the passing newspaper era

Losing the News by Alex S. JonesLosing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy by Alex S. Jones

@@@ (3 out of 5)

The subtitle of this impassioned essay — ” The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy” — tells half the story, one that’s familiar to any alert reader of today’s major newspapers. The other half of the story, equally familiar, is about how the Internet is undermining the newspaper industry and, in the process, steadily replacing the world as we know it with a frighteningly unknown future.

Alex Jones, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, comes to these themes honestly as the scion of a small-town Tennessee newspaper family. It’s no wonder he feels threatened.

In all fairness, there is considerable reason for apprehension over the decline of America’s major newspapers. Reflecting shrunken profits, repeated staff layoffs, closed news bureaus, and greater reliance on syndicated material, the nation’s once-fat dailies are slimming down at a terrifying pace. In place of the papers’ often earnest efforts at “objectivity,” we are increasingly basing our views on the unedited diatribes to be found on the likes of Fox “News” and the daily blogosphere. The perils for democracy in America are obvious. For example, could the so-called “Tea Party” have thrived in a world largely dependent on newspapers for its information? Or is that sad testament to the profound ignorance of the American people a product of Fox News, talk radio, and organized Internet rumor-mongering? You won’t be surprised to learn that there is no question in my mind that, despite its familiarity to the 19th-Century No-Nothing movement, I’m convinced the Tea Party is an artifact of the channels through which we now receive so much of our political information.

Jones writes well, and my harsh criticism may not be entirely deserved. However, it comes from my nagging feeling as I read this book that its underlying theme is nostalgia, a craving for the day when so much of the news that appeared in the nation’s dailies and on the air originated in the early edition of the Old Gray Lady, The New York Times. Those days are fast receding into history, and as Jones himself writes, there’s not much anyone can do about it other than “Adapt or Die.”

A murder mystery unfolds against the backdrop of the antiques trade

And Justice There Is None by Deborah CrombieAnd Justice There Is None (Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James #8) by Deborah Crombie

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Detective Inspector Gemma James and her former partner and current lover, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, make the big move into a home together in Deborah Crombie’s excellent murder mystery series chronicling their rise through the ranks in the Metropolitan Police.

The plot of And Justice There is None is fully as complex as those of others I’ve read in the series, and the seemingly unrelated characters introduced early in the book become convincingly intertwined as the mystery unfolds. The backdrop for this story is the London antiques trade, which becomes more comprehensible in the telling.

Deborah Crombie divides her time between North Texas, where she lives, and the UK, where she travels to research the novels in this engrossing series. As in others of her thirteen novels, each chapter begins with a short excerpt from a history or travel guide to the neighborhood where the story is set. Clearly, this is a writer who does her research.

You might also like to take a look at 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others), of which this novel is one, and 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

E. L. Doctorow on “Homer & Langley,” the legendary Collyer brothers

Homer and Langley by E. L. DoctorowHomer & Langley by E. L.Doctorow

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

“Homer & Langley” may not be the product of E. L. Doctorow’s finest writing, but stacked up against the usual run of popular contemporary fiction it has to be regarded as superior. This tale of the legendary Collyer brothers who perished in old age in their family’s once-elegant Fifth Avenue home offers a unique vantage point on New York society from the First World War until after the Second, ending with the brothers’ deaths in squalor in 1947.

We’re all familiar with the urban legend of the ancient recluse, holed up in a decrepit house crammed to the rafters with old newspapers and junk of every description. That legend may have begun with the Collyer brothers, whose eccentric behavior over three decades became notorious, first to their shocked neighbors and later to millions of New Yorkers through lurid accounts in the City’s press. Doctorow tells the story of their deterioration over the years in this thoroughly engrossing little book.

What is most remarkable about “Homer & Langley” are the inimitable characters of the two brothers, one blind and both clearly emotionally disturbed; the dynamic backdrop of New York through some of the most vigorous years of its history; and the extraordinary power of Doctorow’s writing.

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

Ken Auletta takes us behind the scenes at an extraordinary company

Googled by Ken AulettaGoogled: The End of the World As We Know It by Ken Auletta

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Ken Auletta monitors the media for the New Yorker magazine, and his writing frequently brings new perspective our understanding of the changes that are upending the world’s information sources at an alarming rate. “Googled” brings us face to face with several of the remarkable individuals who are reshaping the media — in ways that are little understood outside of the field. Focusing on Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the two Stanford computer wizards who launched Google barely more than a decade ago, and on several of their key colleagues, notably Eric Schmidt, the company’s CEO, Auletta takes us behind the scenes at this extraordinary company. Read this book, and you’ll understand why Google’s stock price stays in the stratosphere, why media executives from newspapers to films to television are terrified by the company — and why the Chinese government recently felt it necessary to rein it in.

Like any good book, “Googled” puts its subject matter in perspective. We learn, for example, that despite the proliferation of familiar products from Google, nearly all its revenue comes from a single source: online advertising. And we come to understand that the reasons Google is able to maintain such a stranglehold on online advertising are straightforward: they had the presence of mind to buy the leading online advertising agency early enough in the game to get away with it, and they are amassing a gargantuan storehouse of consumer data that may be unmatchable by anyone else. This book is well worth reading.

This book is included in my list of 29 good books about business history.

February 3, 2010

Joseph Menn: criminals are stealing trillions of dollars through the Internet

Fatal System Error by Joseph MennFatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who Are Bringing Down the Internet by Joseph Menn

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’re already worried about computer crime and identity theft, you’ll be wracked with fear if you read this troubling new account of the subject by a Los Angeles Times reporter specializing in Internet security. Joseph Menn’s “Fatal System Error” is aptly subtitled “The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who Are Bringing Down the Internet.” By focusing on two heroes of the underpowered movement to combat Internet crime, Menn brings this complex and terrifying reality into high relief. The book is largely devoted to the efforts of Barrett Lyon, a California surfer self-taught to become one of the world’s leading Internet security experts, and Andy Crocker, a courageous British policeman, and their collaborative work to identify the criminals responsible for the now all-too-familiar viruses, worms, Trojans, and denial-of-service attacks that have infiltrated millions of computers and disabled thousands of Web sites.

It’s disturbing enough to learn that criminals siphoned off $1 trillion from computer fraud in 2009 alone, and to know that a huge proportion of that money went into the pockets of the American mafia and the Russian mob. Even more disquieting, though, is to learn about how both the Russian and Chinese governments are protecting Internet criminals because they have enlisted them in building offensive cyberwar weapons. What we all learned recently about Chinese hackers’ attacks on Google and other U.S. companies invested in China is just a hint of the breadth and depth of that government’s efforts to gain ascendancy over the West by building the capacity to bring down our economies in the event of a future conflict.