The Brethren
The Brethren
by John Grisham

Doubleday & Company, Inc., Cover price US$27.95; approximately JY3296

The king of the legal thriller' latest novel, "The Brethren," is quintessential Grisham, with one exception. There is no young, good-looking, highly ethical attorney to save the day in this made-for-movie novel. You do get your standard look at corruption within the American justice system, entanglements with the CIA and of course the political intrigue that goes with them. But somehow a battle of bad guys is just not as exciting, especially when not a one is the tortured Byronic type.

Joe Roy Spicer, Hatlee Beech and Finn Yarber are the Brethren, three former judges serving time in a low-security Florida prison. Yarber, once a Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court was nabbed on tax evasion. Beech, a federal judge in East Texas killed two hikers driving drunk in Yellowstone Park. Spicer, a justice of the peace out of Mississippi was caught skimming bingo money. Despite a long fall from grace, the Brethren are hardly repentant. Holding their own tribunal to while away the hours, they pass judgement on various disagreements among inmates and occasionally help others with appeals - for a price.

The real business of the day, however, is conducted secretly in the prison law library. There Yarber and Beech deftly draft letters under the guise of two young, handsome homosexuals, Ricky and Percy, hoping to bait middle-aged men foolish enough to have answered a personal ad in a gay magazine, but too scared to leave the closet. The Brethren's clever personas make for a lucrative mail scam. With the help of their drunken, loser lawyer, Trevor Carson, things are going well until they unwittingly toy with the wrong person. Enter the CIA, world disorder and corrupt campaign tactics, although the scheming judges never know it.

In the wake of the Clinton scandal "The Brethren" is a transparent example of art imitating life. You can almost imagine Grisham watching the evening news and saying to himself, "Now there's a good idea for a novel, but it needs some beefing up." Grisham's answer, a president with hidden homosexual tendencies, sadly, would certainly create more of a stir than Clinton's infidelities, and would have made for a fascinating storyline. Unfortunately, Grisham misses the opportunity to put the American justice system on trial in a novel. A president defending his rights to have a young boyfriend would have made for a truly thrilling legal mystery with a hero.
Georgia Jacobs

Sick Puppy
Sick Puppy

by Carl Hiaasen

Alfred A Knopf,
Cover price US$25; approximately JY2975

If you are already acquainted with the weird world of Carl Hiaasen's grotesque comedy thrillers, then you will know exactly what to expect from his latest, "Sick Puppy." If not, then you have some highly enjoyable catching up to do.

This novel, like its predecessors, is the work of a twisted master storyteller. What begins as a straightforward story soon acquires scores of different threads and well-drawn, larger-than life characters who then confront each other in an outrageous, almost cartoonishly violent climax. Throughout, Hiaasen walks a tightrope between the real world, where Florida is under constant threat from those who'd stop at nothing to redevelop it, and this overblown world of corruption, bizarre hitmen and sticky ends.

"Sick Puppy" revisits Miami and the Florida Keys, the area Hiaasen calls home and about which he writes campaigning, investigative articles for the Miami Herald. In a way, it seems, his novels are a way of fantasy fulfillment. If Hiaasen had his way, no doubt many of the real-life bad guys he writes about in his columns would end up like the ones in his novels. And Hiaasen does fictional bad guys quite unlike anybody else you're likely to read. Hideously scarred, one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged or with a weed trimmer in place of a hand, rare is the Hiaasen villain who does not have some physical deformity to match his spiritual shortcomings. The latest, a spiky-haired sadist called Mr. Gash, whose hobby is listening to tapes of fatal 911 calls, is a welcome addition to the pantheon.

Not that the good guys get off much lighter. Chief among these is Skink, who makes a welcome reappearance in this book, having first bludgeoned his way through the pages of Hiaasen's second novel, "Double Whammy," nearly ten years ago. Skink is a former governor of Miami who quit office in disgust and now lives, one-eyed and shaven-headed, in the swamp, where he subsists on a diet of roadkill and fresh fruit, emerging occasionally to wreak terrible vengeance on yet another set of greedy profiteers.

Because the appeal of Hiaasen rests so much on what lies on the next page, it would be unfair to reveal too much of the plot. However, central to the story are the construction of a bridge to an island, a rhino-horn-obsessed property developer whose life project is to turn two Russian prostitutes into walking Barbie dolls, a political fixer who hunts geriatric big game to mount their heads on his wall, a colony of singing toads, a hungry Labrador and a clinically psychotic eco-evangelist. And the psychotic evangelist is one of the good guys in this riotous, modern morality tale.
Nigel Kendall

The Asian Storm: The Economic Crisis Examined
The Asian Storm: The Economic Crisis Examined

by Philippe Ries

Tuttle Publishing, JY2,800

It's three years since the financial fire storm swept through Asian economies. As currencies crashed across the region, an estimated $2 trillion in financial assets went up in smoke, double-digit growth rates turned negative overnight, and skyrocketing unemployment rates plunged millions into poverty.

Thailand had enjoyed average annual growth of 7.4 percent over the previous three decades, and had stayed recession-free since 1958. But, what began as a little local difficulty in the Land of Smiles mushroomed into a full-blown regional economic crisis. As the dominoes fell, fears of the "contagion" developing into financial meltdown on a global scale ran rampant.

Philippe Ries, a Hong Kong correspondent with Agence France-Presse (AFP) from January 1997 to June 1998, observed first hand what he dubs "the collapse of the 'Asian miracle'." In this updated English translation the 1998 French version, he chronicles the crisis with a narrative pace that mirrors the breakneck speed of the events themselves, while Ries' access to a wide range of major players adds a human dimension.

Although structural problems varied country, Ries stresses that regional currencies were at the mercy of the wildly gyrating dollar-yen exchange rate. The strength of the yen until 1995 brought both Japanese industrial investment and huge flows of short-term international capital. Conversely, a 30 percent swing the other way over the next 18 months proved too much for local currency pegs. Next came a loud popping of speculative bubbles in local property markets, a swelling of unpayable corporate debts, and crisis in the local banking sector feeding rapidly through to the "real economy."

Prompt action by the IMF, grappling with unfamiliar private sector problems, may have averted the feared global recession, but Ries doesn't see this as a victory for Western over Asian values. As he points out, unsustainable speculative bubbles are a recurring part of economic history. Casting a wary eye at the "irrational exuberance" of US markets in recent years, he suggests the "Asian Storm" may have been just a small taster of the Big One yet to come.
Tom Carroll

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