Red Notice by Bill Browder


I  do enjoy reading non-fiction; in some ways I regard it as a balance to the fantasy and science fiction that I prefer to read.  In fact the next three books that I plan to review are non-fiction.  The first book is Red Notice which I read with one of the book groups to which I belong.  Then I return to fiction with a relief and a light heart.

For the first half of Red Notice I was without sympathy for Bill Browder, in fact, I was often angry.  I found his motivation to become a capitalist, ‘the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe’ because ‘nothing would piss off his family more’ only ensured that he was stuck in juevenile mode; a competitive and self-regarding man lacking in empathy.  The rather clunky prose, especially when describing personal moments; ‘it took every ounce of effort for me to keep my cool’ tended to support this impression.

There is no doubting that Browder is a hard worker and a very persistent man.  He ploughs on despite difficulties and losses. His research is thorough and pain staking.  However, his business is to look for chinks, weaknesses and opportunities in places that are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing economic situation.  When Poland begins to privatise its ‘state-owned companies ‘selling this company for one half of the previous year’s earnings’ with no limitation on overseas investment he just sees it as an opportunity to make himself wealthy. He doesn’t share this information with Polish colleague ‘Leschek’ except to use him like a bookie’s runner. He is fully aware, due to his involvement with the Polish bus company Autosan, how desperately the country requires investment and expertise, but he begins a career in exploitation.  He is a remora shark taking advantage of a nation’s vulnerabilities and ignorance.

Reading page p.83 about the ‘pickings’ available in Russia for the voracious investment banker makes me feel sick.  It is equivalent to an antiques dealer ripping off a poor widow lady because she didn’t know the value of what she owns.  There is no honesty or honour in what he does and the way that he writes this chapter indicates that he is still proud of his ‘find.’

Then the book is all about finding like-minded investors.  I am very dubious about the term investor as pertains to this sort of financial activity as the purpose seems to be to find a company that has under-valued resources, suck up as many shares as it legally can, wait for the hard work and development to occur on the ground and then siphon off the wealth out of Russia.  This, to me, is not the same as BP’s arrangement with Sidanco which involves the provision of knowledge, equipment and long-term financial commitment in return for shares.

Then it goes sour for him.  The Russians do not like the way ‘foreign investors’ are gathered on the ‘bear’ like a bunch of ticks.  Browder says that it is his Russian, corrupt, exploitive competitors who dislike him and seek to dislodge him from his position in the economy.  Browder strives to stay in Russia and protect his investments by exploiting every political, media and legal loophole that he can.

What begins as ‘clearly having an axe to grind’ (Reuters in 2013) does metamorphose into an anti-corruption campaign.  He directs this campaign against officials and oligarchs seeking to illegally deprive him of his wealth. He refers to several blatant examples of corruption on page 203 of Red Notice.   He exposes the purchase of Russian companies by oligarchs and insiders for up to ’99.5 per cent discount of its’ fair value’. I am puzzled why he feels his own purchase of shares which Browder knew were grossly undervalued is that different from what the Russians were doing.

Yes, he does contribute to the exposure of the violence and corruption that infests the Russia.  He enlists the help of a number of Russians to do so and this is where the book is desperately sad. Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer of high principles exposes the tax fraud that is being used illegally against Browder and others.  His reward for such whistleblowing is imprisonment, torture and death.  I agree with Browder that Sergei Magnitsky was an incredible and an honourable man. I applaud his efforts to gain justice for him. I was horrified at the institutionalised violence that is prevalent in the Russian society and how it is used on individuals and their families and associates to cooperate with corruption, to prevent them from seeking justice and to undermine efforts to create a more equitable society.  I am glad I kept reading because in the latter part of Red Notice Browder does make some redress for his earlier greed.  His undoubted skills are now applied to altruistic purposes.

The book did lead me to read more articles about the murder of Sergei Magnitsky. There is a lot of evidence that governments of other nations are not sufficiently fussy about the source of the money that known corrupt persons are bringing into their economy.  The news that Nicolai Gorokhov, the Magnitsky family lawyer, was severely injured in March 2017 from being thrown out of a fourth story window is devastating.

I read with sadness and apprehension that Julio Borges, the leader of the Venezuela opposition dominated National Assembly, has accused Goldman Sach of ‘aiding and abetting the country’s dictatorial regime’ through its acquisition of $2.4bn in bonds (at around 30 cents in the dollar) in the country’s state oil firm and making a ‘quick buck’ out of suffering.  The same story!  Money used like this is a dirty business.

The Alchemist’s Box, Merchant Blades Book 1 by Alex Avrio

        The Alchemist’s Box is filled with all the traditional ingredients of a fantasy adventure.

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In fact, within the first few chapters, I read about an unwise card game, brutal repercussions, gallant troop of mercenaries on horseback, coercion, a mysterious errand to secure a box with a snake eating its tale on the lid, gypsies, fortune telling, a stow away, extraordinary bad weather and extraordinarily bad wolves in a world where a fragile peace between competing empires has recently been put in place.  The raft of villains, comrades and difficult situations is initially overwhelming and makes the beginning of the novel rather heavy going.  Moreover, at first, I was not entirely convinced by the central protagonists; not convinced by the reasons why Regina Fitzwater and Maximillian Jaeger honour a contract with gang masters Gold, Honesty and Vagas and not convinced by the degree of enmity between the honourable Fitzwater and the scarred, guilty Jaeger, given that both have been soldiers and then mercenaries for years.

As The Alchemist’s Box continues the sound plot structure, the reliable prose with strong use of dialogue, some pithy phrases, the past lives of the central characters and the campfire yarns begin to lift it out of the ordinary.  By the midpoint of The Alchemist’s Box the characters are more credible and the plot has acquired more energy.  The sea voyage to The South Across the Water is the point where the novel really gets into its stride.  The sailor-eating mist is very good and the true characters of the group travelling to secure The Alchemist’s Box with the snake decoration, with additional picked-up-on -the -way commitments, are developed. The entrance of the Queen of the Dark, Nephthys, propels the novel into the realm of very good, which is the reverse of my usual experience of the introduction of the god factor, and the fantasy is vibrant and engaging.

The ending of the novel in last chapter, The Pain of Separation, is clever, snappy and satisfying. It  allows for a legitimate continuation of the endeavours of Fitzwater and Jaeger to make a financial success of their mercenary trade in Merchant Blades Book 2.

Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs and Other Stories by Andrew Kozma

I like writing that makes me think, slow down and think.  ‘Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs’ and the other stories certainly did that.  Andrew Kozma writes evocatively and elegantly about disturbing concepts.

The first story Stammlager 76 imagines a situation where a notorious prison is reopened.  In this case brutality has been replaced with neglect, by a lack of purpose, by a lack of stimuli; the prisoners are referred to as property.  Property, not like a horse or a slave, but like a lump of organic material on a petrie dish.  It is an eerie and fruitless place.  The story challenged me to read around the story, one thing I found is that 76 means slave, rest and hiding place, among other uncomfortable information.

The next two stories are perspectives on mortality and fleeing from a past that is determined to overpower which I found quirky rather than intense.

The last and the longest story, ‘Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs’ begins with the central character, suffering from despair, alienation and poverty, desperately seeking solace by visiting a small native reservation.  It is an examination of grooming and exploitation and of how the worm turns.

These are not happy stories, nor are they comfortable or just, but they are captivating and memorable.

The Call by Peadar O’Guilin

The staff at Booka Bookshop, which is a thriving and wonderful source of good books and great coffee, raved about this novel.  Peadar O’Guilin will be at Booka next week to read from her novel,  The Call.  I have read it, and reread some sections.  I can understand why the staff really rated the novel because it is very well-written.  The premise, upon which the whole novel pivots, is that there has been a resurgence of hostilities between the Irish and the Sidhe.  The Sidhe are able to ‘call’ people, adolescents in particular into their world for three minutes.  ‘Twenty-five years ago, when the Sidhe began taking teenagers, less than one in a hundred survived.  These days, with constant training, with fitness and study, with every spare cent in an impoverished country aimed at keeping them alive, the odds have improved tenfold.’

The main character, Nessa, who is preparing for her call is cranky and vivid and she has been crippled by polio. Is the recurrence of polio a consequence of  Ireland’s isolation? It is through Nessa we experience the dreadful and vindictive way that the Sidhe manipulate human flesh as if it were plasticine.  Nessa has a human enemy too, Conor.  The gradual exposure of Conor’s dreams of grandeur also reveals the ends he will go to to achieve it.  ‘On pain of death,’ Conor says. ‘Yes,’ she agrees.  That is kingship.’

So far so good but I am not a complete fan.  The description of the torments which are inflicted on her classmates when they enter the fairy realm should escalate the horror of the call but I found it, by half-way through, just tediously revolting. Sometimes it was clunky ‘by Christmas. It’s going to be a bloodbath’.  I was left with more questions than I had answers about the some of the characters, about the society that shovelled its youth into a boot camp and about the belated realisation as to the benefits of betrayal but then I suppose that there is going to be a sequel.

Would I recommend reading The Call?  Yes.  Would I want to read any more about this interpretation of the Sidhe -Irish war? No.

If you want to read gripping stories on human vs fairy conflict try The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams or The Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones.


Silvered by Tanya Huff

I have read several novels by Tanya Huff and kept one or two.  She writes well.  The plots are particularly satisfactory and the continuity is clever and sustained.  I had thought, until now, that she was a journeyman writer: reliable, competent, produced a lot of good material and worthy of recommendation.

Silvered puts her in a whole new ball game.  I loved this book.  I have read it three times and I have lent it to friends (demanded it back and insisted they buy their own copy) and I have sent two copies as gifts.

In order to write this review I have been puzzling over what it is that has lifted this novel above her others.  As in many of Huff’s other novels, in Silvered  she has created a self-aware, occasionally humorous, talented heroine.  Mirian is more gritty and earthy character as she struggles to adjust her understanding and her magical talent to the desperate circumstances.  She matures as the novel continues and the woman who completes her self-imposed task, to rescue kidnapped members of the Aydori Pack, is significantly different from the impetuous girl  who began it.

Magic in the novel is used consistently and is credible within the parameters of the novel, I really dislike novels where a central character suddenly finds a magical solution in the fantasy version of ‘and then I woke up’.  I was amused by the way the author implied, through Mirian who had been rejected by the University, that ‘training’ can be blinkered and it can muffle talent.

I was impressed by the way the novel explored how easily a society colludes with the creation of victims.  The Aydori people, werewolves, seers and mages, are demonised by the Emperor.  He uses science to do what the Aydori do magically.  He also declares as abominations whole sections of his own citizenry, and in naming them such he encourages and permits brutality against them.  This is why Silvered is so good;  as well as telling a rip-roaring yarn of derring-do it is exploring how peaceful folk are tipped into barbarity by unequal treatment.  Huff’s depiction of the attitude of the power brokers to their cruel Emperor, represented by Lord Coving, is shocking.

The supporting cast, Lady Hagan, Captain Reiter and Tomas the werewolf, are well-rounded characters and through them Huff explores the nature of bravery, morality and resistance.  I was a bit puzzled as to why only male werewolves were among the rescued but what a miner quibble.  I sort of hope, yes I do, that there will be another novel about this nation but I am fearful that it won’t be as good.

This is a gem of novel.

Super Extra Grande by Yoss & The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh

I have been on a jaunt to Jura, Scotland, via Greenock, Tarbert, Islay and Arran.  I drove the support vehicle while the others cycled; I only join in for moderate slopes for short distances.  It was glorious weather for exploring the old villages and the bird life and wildflowers were bright and vibrant.  The hotels we stayed in were comfortable and, when the others cycled off to complete their ‘over hill and down dale’ sixty miles, I mined guest-swap bookshelves.

I find such shelves fascinating.  There is the occasional gem of a find, Super Extra Grande by Yoss was one such.  What a laugh of a book.  Yoss pokes fun at many of the conventions of alien interaction while telling a rip-roaring story.  His huge hero, Dr Dongo, an action man with a touch of self-deprecation and parent issues, tells his story of saving the galaxy.  He admits he is an unlikely hero but his veterinary expertise in ‘fixing’  gigantic animals, finds the federal powers turning to him.  His additional talent, being sexually attractive (like Captain Kirk but with more modesty) introduces some other interesting characters and the moral debate about inter-species unions. This book has opened up a vista via a new author and the recommendations of the UPC Science fiction Awards.

In addition to the tomes and pamphlets on the local history, local geology and bird watching guides, the shelves contain a glut of detective novels which seem to compete with each other for gory ways of dismembering many bodies of usually young, usually female, usually abused prior to death victims.  I find it revolting reading and I am depressed by how many there are on the shelves.  I like reading ‘who dunnits’ too but my preference is for an emphasis on the puzzle, the professional detective, an authentic environment, some philosophical considerations and the deliverance of justice.  My favourites include Fred Vargas, Martin Walker, Adrian Hyland, Garry Disher, Sara Paretsky and C.J. Carver though none of these featured on the shelves.

I did find The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh who has resurrected the noble detective, Peter Wimsey.  I was a bit unsure at first as I love Dorothy L. Sayers and wondered whether Paton Walsh could reconstitute the whole ‘bag and baggage’ sympathetically  enough.  There were a few too many murders but the story was sound, the quotations apt, the tone sardonic, the reflections ‘of their time’, the denouement satisfactory and I loved that the depiction of an Oxford College.   Peter Wimsey and his wife, Harriet, were delicately developed in accordance with the groundwork laid by Sayers.  Another nugget found amid the dross and the happy possibility of rereading the early Sayers novels.

Robin Hobb ‘Blood of Dragons’ and Stephen Deas ‘The Thief Taker’s Apprentice’

I am about to return the above books to the library.

I love my library in Oswestry.  The librarians are lovely and supportive and they run many different activities for different ages and groups.  It is warm, colourful and friendly environment. It not only houses a wonderful collection of books and papers but it provides access to the internet and offers free classes for anyone who requires assistance in improving their computer literacy. I have to broadcast how wonderful it is because ‘trickle down wealth’, which was promised by the current government has not eventuated (its stuck to fingers of the already excruciatingly rich), and this means the local government bodies are pinched for cash. They are having to make very difficult decisions re allocation of money and they are cutting services. So our wonderful, wonderful library is struggling to provide those services that our community appreciates and needs.

The library has an extensive science-fiction and fantasy section.  This is one of the places that I find new authors or finish a series by a tried and familiar favourite author.  The librarians will search thorough the resources of linked libraries for authors I am seeking and I can order the book delivered for a pound.  I do buy science fiction when I have found a gem of a story or a great author.  I decided not to buy anymore of Robin Hobb’s, The Rain Wild Chronicles,

though I own the first two because I thought that the series was getting very tired and predictable.  The passion and vivacity of the characters  and the environment we were introduced to in The Dragon Keeper became humdrum and repetitive.  I do think that Hobb needed to write less voluminously to write more.  I think that she would have done well to have compressed the last two books into one.  I am convinced that this sort of epic writing can be a trap for an author leading him/her to sacrifice imagination and talent in order to exploit the popularity created by the first book.  I am now not sure I will read  another Robin Hobb I was so disappointed with the end of the series .

Stephen Deas has the opposite problem with The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice in that this book seems to have been bundled off the laptop with little revision and gaping holes in the development of character and environment.  Deas is an evocative writer and there are some powerful moments as Berren, a criminal and a slum kid,  chooses learning over continuing his pick-pocket career in a brutal city.  I really disliked the way that the author used Lilissa in the novel.  Master Sy was so enigmatic that I lost interest in the puzzle.   I think there is a suggestion of a sequel but I am not interested enough to follow it up.