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Faulks takes aim at London, the City and Dickens

<strong>A WEEK IN DECEMBER</strong><br />BY SEBASTIAN FAULKS<br /><strong>Hutchinson, &pound;18.99</strong><br /><br />WITH HIS interest in the historical past and his solid, straightforward prose, Sebastian Faulks is the bard of Middle England. His most famous books &ndash; Birdsong, Charlotte Gray et al &ndash; are set in the world wars, times sure to interest your middlebrow reader. So he is taking a risk with this ambitious book, whose events take place in the very recent past.<br /><br />Set in late December 2007 against the backdrop of a banking system that is in meltdown, he tries to take a snapshot of London life, with its various cultures and social strata. One character is a female Tube driver and another a young Muslim man who is drawn into radicalism. (Faulks&rsquo; negative comments about Islam have caused a mild controversy.)<br /><br />However, they are rather sketchily drawn, and he is more at home with barristers, journalists and politicians and the deliciously nasty hedge fund manager with the venal, bloody name of John Veals. Fortunately, this is where the focus of the book lies.<br /><br />Faulks has done his homework on the financial system and in some rather dull passages, makes sure we know it. His final word on the subject of the crash is a populist rant against the way the financial system is run; a character describes the activities of the City as &ldquo;a fraud as old as markets themselves.&rdquo; This sort of stuff is entertaining enough, but attempts at other registers (such as satire) fall rather flat.<br /><br />In interviews, Faulks has compared himself to the modern American masters Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, and a book about the city inevitably suggests Dickens and Balzac. Sadly for him, and us, Faulks is not as good. A shame.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; <strong>Jeremy Hazlehurst</strong><br /><br /><strong>THE ARMAGEDDON TRADE</strong><br />BY CLEM CHAMBERS<br /><strong>No Exit, &pound;6.99 </strong><br /><br />FOR ANYONE with pretensions of literary grandeur &ndash; or even just dignity &ndash; the Armageddon Trade looks at first sight like something to steer clear of, especially in public. The book&rsquo;s cover sports a military helicopter flying into an erupting volcano &ndash; hardly promising.<br /><br />But covers can deceive. Chambers is a financial guru &ndash; CEO of ADVFN, a stocks and shares website, and a revered markets commentator. It&rsquo;s clear from reading even a few lines of this book that he also has a creative flair that has been bursting to get out for years, and with this, his first novel, it&rsquo;s finally on the loose.<br /><br />The action begins with a day in the life of Kenco, a genius trader at a Docklands bank who began as a teaboy there before being discovered for his talent in predicting the future of markets. Then there&rsquo;s Max Davas, king of trading, who makes billions dealing US treasuries. But now his system is telling him something&rsquo;s wrong, that in a year&rsquo;s time, all assets will be worth zero dollars &ndash; including gold, oil, and Microsoft. In fact, the dollar won&rsquo;t be trading at all. Kenco is also worried &ndash; his predictions show catastrophe is around the corner. But is it set in stone? Do predictions signal reality? Can the world be saved in the nick of time?<br /><br />Written at a smart clip, and humorously observant, Chambers clearly knows what he&rsquo;s talking about so well in the real world that he can translate it effortlessly into fiction. This is about as good as a post credit crunch financial thriller could get &ndash; it plays on our darkest fears and creates new ones, and is impossible to put down. Essential Tube reading.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; <strong>Zoe Strimpel</strong><br /><br /><br /><strong>JULIET, NAKED</strong><br />BY NICK HORNBY<br /><strong>Penguin, &pound;18.99</strong><br />&nbsp;<br />ANNAAND Duncan have been together for 15 years, one of those couples that seem to fit perfectly. That&rsquo;s because they have one major binding element &ndash; their (well actually Duncan&rsquo;s) obsession with the American musician Tucker Crowe, who disappeared from public view after a trip to the toilet in a Minneapolis nightclub 20 years before.<br /><br />Annie goes along with the obsession, mostly because she has accepted it as a kind of &ldquo;disability&rdquo; that comes as part of the Duncan package. But she is beginning to wonder if she&rsquo;s actually been wasting her time with him &ndash; the Crowe obsession has always taken precedence over children, even over discussions about children.<br /><br />Then, when Crowe miraculously releases a new disc, and Annie fails to see what&rsquo;s so good about it and writes as much on a fan website, Duncan jumps in bed with someone else. Annie finally has an excuse to throw him out.<br /><br />But what nobody counted on is that Crowe happens to agree with Annie&rsquo;s view of his album, and writes back to her. Turns out, he&rsquo;s just as much an expert on wasted life as she is &ndash; and it soon emerges that there is a lot more to his silence than an incident in a nightclub toilet.<br /><br />The novel showcases that particular brand of dry, self-indulgent humour that is Hornby&rsquo;s trademark. The peculiarly pathetic nature of middle aged men with uncontrolled obsessions is rendered deftly as ever here, and the cynical figure of Annie saves it from simply falling into the vortex of Duncan&rsquo;s humourless world. But Hornby sceptics will probably remain as such, since this is, after all, a horse from the same old stable.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; <strong>ZS</strong><br />