DarkMarket – Book Review

DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia by Misha Glenny.

Misha Glenny is an established investigative journalist who has worked in tv and radio as well as in print. I decided to read this book after a talk he gave at the Edinburgh Book festival a couple of years ago. The book describes the series of events leading to the taking down of the DarkMarket site where cyber criminals would buy and sell stolen credit card information. It’s a well written book based on interviews with police and convicted criminals. This does risk the police point of view being economical with the truth and the criminals either exaggerating their own importance or fibbing outright. Glenny does give a health warning regarding the truthfulness of one of his interviewees.

The background is truly worldwide covering the UK, Ukraine, US, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey. The hackers were all male, highly intelligent but with personality disorders and often more interested in showing off their technical skills than making money. They were mostly very young: one Ukrainian hacker, now a politician, had already established a precursor to the DarkMarket site before he was eighteen. Another experienced German cyber- criminal was still at school.

The book doesn’t go into too much technical detail, which I found a good thing. Although the book is non-fiction, it is written in thriller style with ‘cliff-hangers’ at the end of each chapter. However I did find some of the chapters disjointed and I found it difficult keeping track of all the characters who are referred to both by their real names and on-line aliases. Three and a half stars.

 

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An Officer and a Spy – Book Review

Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors. His genres are thrillers and historical fiction and although the subject matter varies, his books are always consistently good. This is no exception. An Officer and a Spy is both a thriller and historical fiction dealing with the Dreyfus Affair. This is the real case of 1890s Jewish French army officer wrongly accused of spying and sentenced to life with solitary confinement on Devils Island. Although I knew how the story ends it was still gripping reading.

The tale is told from the point of view of Colonel Picquart who is involved in Dreyfus’ arrest then asked to head army intelligence. At first Picquart is convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt then gradually uncovers evidence pointing to his innocence. Picquart is blocked by the army top brass who don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake. Later it emerges that Dreyfus has been framed on orders from the very top. The book describes both army and Paris salon life in the 1890s. In due course Picquart is himself in some danger and has to make moral choices.

My only criticism is that the final part of the book is a series of courtroom dramas and could have been shortened by a hundred pages or so. Four and a half stars but if I have to choose between four and five, I’ll give it five.

 

Book Review: Vichy France by Robert Paxton

This seminal book first published in 1972 exploded the myth that Vichy was imposed by the Nazis in the face of massive French resistance. It also ignited public discussion of Vichy in France itself with Paxton being subsequently called as a witness in trials of former Vichy officials. Paxton describes how Vichy hoped to become an equal partner in the new Nazi German dominated Europe, while at the same time maintaining the fiction of neutrality. Vichy’s actions were in part motivated to save her fleet and her empire but when even these were lost at the end of 1942, Paxton shows how Vichy was motivated by fear of an allied invasion and a desire to become a broker in a future peace treaty.

Vichy was never a fully signed up Fascist regime but a proponent of a mix of socially conservative, Catholic, agrarian, anti-Communist, anti-Anglo-Saxon and anti-Semitic ideologies. Despite this Vichy was domestically a technocratic regime with the same civil servants running the Vichy war economy later in charge of post war economic planning as if nothing had happened.

Not a light read with plenty of detail and statistics but a serious historical classic.  5 stars.

Six Years by Harlan Coben

Like all of Coben’s books that I’ve read, this deals with middle class suburban people who are not what they seem and have a past which catches up with them.

I really liked the first half of the book; there was plenty of intrigue which kept me speculating what was going on and consequently I was quickly hooked. However I was increasingly disappointed in the second half of the book as answers to the mystery were provided; there was just something unsatisfactory about them. I did find the dialogue clichéd and Jake’s frequent proclamations of his love for Natalie rather cheesy. The characters didn’t seem very real to me, especially Jake who just didn’t feel like a college professor. 3 stars.

The Innocent – Book Review

I really liked this book: it’s all about plot that keeps you hooked with twist and turns and more unanswered questions being continuously raised. As with other Harlan Coben books I really like the theme of middle class suburban folk with a past that catches up with them. I found the book started a little slow as it took a while to get all the threads going. I did find there were too many characters that meant I had to go back every now and then to recall a character’s earlier appearance. I thought the dialogue and characters a bit clichéd.  While there were no contacts in the mafia a middle class housewife could call on, a device Coben has used in other books, there is a convenient walk on police contact whose hobby is creating a stripper database. I thought this a bit lazy of Coben and there really was no need for him to do this in order to keep the story moving. As usual with Coben there are plenty of twists and turns throughout the story but the final twists in the last two chapters were just a little too pat.  All these negative points may be the reason for some readers to give this book a low star rating, but for me they were more irritants that prevented me giving five stars. For me a thriller has to have a good plot and be a page turner and in this respect Coben delivers. 4 stars.

The Two Faces of January – Movie Review

The film is adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel and there similarities to The Talented Mr Ripley (TTMR).

The film starts in 1962 Athens when a wealthy middle-aged American Chester MacFarland (played by  Viggo Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) meet with Rydal (Oscar Isaac). Rydal is a young American drifter working as a tour guide exploiting his customers’ lack of the Greek language to short change them. In some ways Rydal resembles Tom Ripley although he is far less of a sociopath.

Chester turns out to be a fraudster escaping from investors he has swindled.  All three end up on the run and move to Crete. The plot is less complex than TTMR and the interest is mainly in the interactions between the characters, in particular the two men. In turns each tries to manipulate and get the better of the other. Added to this Rydal becomes infatuated with Colette. Overall one of the better films I have seen this year. 3 stars.

BTW This is the first time I’ve seen a British Board of Film Classification warning of “scenes of smoking”. And yes, there is a lot of smoking.

Grand Budapest Hotel – Movie Review

The film starts in the 1960s dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel where the owner and former lobby boy describes the hotel’s heyday in the 1930s centred on his mentor, concierge Gustave (played by Ralph Fiennes). All the 1930s scenes look like a stage set, brightly covered in pink and purple colours. The dialogue is witty and the pace very fast centred on the story of the disputed inheritance of a work of art left by a wealthy patron of the hotel. A lot of celebrity actors (such as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jeff Goldblum, to name a few) take on cameo roles and are for the most part quite unrecognisable.

I did have one problem with this film, despite its originality I just didn’t find it funny. 3 stars(just).