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The bankers who saw the crash coming, and bet on it

THE BIG SHORT
BY MICHAEL LEWIS
Allen Lane, £25
by Zoe Strimpel
THE Big Short comes late in the day, at least in terms of the publishing frenzy that (inevitably) followed the financial crisis. Indeed you might have an impulse to roll your eyes and say: “not again” – not another book whose theme is an angered “we had it coming and those devils in finance knew it but were too stupid and scared to do anything about it” sentiment.

This is another of those books, in a way. And yet, it’s so much better, a compulsive, razor sharp account written by a past-master – the author of 80s Wall Street bestseller Liar’s Poker. That described Lewis’s experiences after he “stumbled” into the now-defunct Salomon Brothers at 24 with a Princeton degree under his belt.

In The Big Short he expresses his shock that what he witnessed on Wall Street in the 80s wasn’t going to go down in history as world’s most decadent financial period. No, it would seem tame compared to what came later.

The Big Short is told from the perspective of those who foresaw it all – and bet on it. They’re an odd, weirdly compelling cast of characters. First we meet Meredith Whitney, the then obscure young analyst whose noisy insistence on corruption and ineptitude on Wall Street (Citigroup in particular) first got Lewis’s attention – and that of Wall Street. In one day she shaved $390bn off the Wall Street stock market, and 8 per cent off the shares of Citigroup. Whitney put Lewis on to Steve Eisman, the book’s first big character. The son of two Wall Streeters, the socially graceless Eisman was ignored for his vociferous and constant lambasting of the subprime mortgage industry as far back as the 1990s. Then there’s Michael Burry, a physician turned stock picker (with Asperger’s Syndrome), who becomes the first to buy a credit default swap on subprime mortgage bonds. Greg Lippman, another bolshy Wall Street type, saw early on the potential of betting on the collapse of the subprime swaps market. And then there are the young guns from California who set up a hedge fund in Greenwich Village, and – in looking for a long shot – found a rather interesting surprise.

Utterly gripping and dripping with sarcasm, perhaps this won’t be for everyone. All the same, it’s compulsory reading for anyone and everyone who has lived and worked in the West over the past three years.

NO RESERVATIONS
BY FIONA O'BRIEN
Hodder, 6.99
by Zoe Strimpel
SOMETIMES what a girl needs is a little guilty treat. (Evidently men need it too – a male colleague who saw this book on my desk wouldn’t let it go until I twisted it back out of his arm). Anyway, this is it. Fiona O’Brien is a silver-tongued, blonde-haired Irish author, with just one other book to her name (firmly in the chick lit category too) called None of My Affair.

It’s not badly written. O’Brien’s former career as an advertising copywriter has served her well, as her writing is catchy, like an edgy jingle that keeps jingling on until – oops, you’ve got to the end in one sitting.

As for plot, the clue is in the title: this particular web of love triangles, duos, deceptions and mistakes all revolves around a restaurant, Dominic’s, whose (handsome, well-spoken, lovely and soon-to-be single) chef Dom is vying for a Michelin star. Meanwhile, under his nose, things are unravelling: his PR girlfriend Tanya is mercilessly pursuing her own ends. Other characters – and hearts – in trouble include Charlotte Keating, who struggles to control her wayward daughter and come to terms with her husband leaving her for a younger woman. PJ O’Sullivan is the sexiest doctor in town but five years on, he’s still devastated by his wife’s death. Dear oh dear. And at the centre of all this is studly Dom himself: as he pursues his star, he can’t help but push family fidelity to the limit.

O’Brien excels at withering quips and Jane Austen-style observations. Take the following, when Tanya meets Dom: “Like many handsome, well-bred men, he was, she correctly guesses, heavy on charm but not terribly astute.” Oh dear, poor Dom. He never had a chance, did he?


FREEDOM
BY DANIEL SUAREZ
Caitlin Nolan
Quercus, £12.99
by Timothy Barber
DANIEL Suarez returns to a future of uncertainty and violence with the techno thriller Freedom. Suarez, formerly an American computer programmer, self-published his debut novel Daemon, a gripping, scary thriller set in the near future. It was picked up by a big publishing house after gaining a major following among thriller fans for whom a lot of techno jargon and geekery is a bonus rather than a turn-off, and became a best seller.

Freedom is the sequel, and picks up where Daemon left off, a few months later. The Daemon – the mega-virus unleashed in the original book upon the death of Silicone Valley genius Matthew Sobol – is steadily taking control of the world, and destroying anything, and anyone, that stands in its path. Now Suarez tackles the problem of how society and any notion of self-determination can survive in a world where the machines have completely taken over.

As former detective and now Daemon operative Pete Sebeck attempts to forge a new future, Suarez introduces some potentially interesting questions – is the Daemon really a source of evil, or is it a corrective force bringing stability to an unhinged world? Unfortunately that means there’s rather a few passages in which characters stand around ruminating on these themes, without any of it being awfully interesting or enlightening. It can get a bit like those long, drawn-out scenes of philosophising in The Matrix sequels, when you keep on wondering when Keanu’s next going to tool up and kick some cyber ass.

Luckily, there’s also plenty of action too, as well as acres of digital mumbo jumbo for techno junkies to chow down on. As with his first book, there’s no denying that Suarez knows both his ones from his zeros, and also how to tell a story that will scare those who like to be scared by such things in a pretty compelling way.