Book Review: Pompeii by Robert Harris

Spoiler alert, the volcano erupts at the end.

Harris has a knack for crafting quick paced clever and gripping thrillers and this is no exception. Marcus Antillus has been sent from Rome to be the chief engineer of the Aqua Augusta, the aquaduct which provides the towns around Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. The area is in drought and the water levels are falling. Antillus also has to deal with angry, jealous underlings and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his predecessor.

First sulphur poisons the waters and then the supply fails, meaning he must set out to fix the aquaduct. He heads to Pompeii to work down the system to find the blockage or leak. While there he discovers that a former slave Ampilatus who rose to success in the aftermath of an earthquake seventeen years earlier.

He begins to suspect that Ampilatus and his predecessor had some kind of deal, and wonders if this is why he vanished. He sets out to fix the water supply but has to deal with earthquakes and odd phenomenon like ash flows on the side of the mountain.

Are these signs building to something?

Well, obviously they are but Harris does a good job of making the story involving enough. Attilus’ investigation into the disappearance of his predecessor starts to reveal a conspiracy before it takes a surprising turn.

Similarly Ampilatus is a good villain, someone who has dragged himself up through bluff, ingenuity and ruthless ambition. He adores his new place of power, particularly the unease of former masters now dependant on him.

The story unfolds well and the final eruption provides a gripping finale. Harris captures the chaos and horror of the eruption as darkness and death rolls over the town. The panic and tension builds well and the conclusion is executed brilliantly.

Harris also does a good job of including real historical figures like Pliny and also of detailing the different stages of the destruction. There’s also a delicious example of dramatic irony provided by a prophecy, which reads differently to the audience than it does for the characters.

Verdict: Fast paced, involving and building to a tense conclusion, this is a really well crafted thriller that adds a human element to a large historical event. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Conclave by Robert Harris

Whenever a Pope does the process for choosing his successor is the same; Cardinals from all over the world travel to the Vatican where they are locked in until a new Pope is chosen. This is the conclave. There have been two during my lifetime, and I’m fascinated by the whole thing.

The idea is that through prayer and meditation the Holy Spirit guides the Cardinals to the new leader. But a cynical view is that the lock in is essentially where the politics of the papacy plays out. Either way, the whole system is shrouded in mystery.

Clearly the idea intrigues Robert Harris too and he has written a smart, involving thriller which follows the Cardinals within the walls.

When the current, unnamed Pope passes away, the ball is in motion and as Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli is in charge of the show. There are several contenders and as the voting begins factions are forming.

Lomeli, aging and experiencing a crisis of faith, watches as the political machinations start up. Secrets and scandals bubble to the surface, and ambition muddies the water. Lomeli becomes increasingly suspicious of some of the frontrunners and investigates rumours and whispers. He wants to maintain the church’s reputation and avoid scandal, but it becomes apparent that there are lots of skeletons in the closets.

Does Lomeli have the strength of will to see it through? And as he does expose the corruption is he unwillingly moving himself up the pecking order? Leaving others questioning his motives.

This is a cracking read, with the twists and turns playing out in a well paced and involving manner. Lomeli is a decent hero, riddled with doubts and fear, but ultimately commited to doing the right thing. As the process wears on he becomes more proactive in ensuring the best man gets the big job.

Harris layers in the intrigue and uses the claustrophobic setting to his advantage, the isolated cardinals are sealed off from the outside world, meaning that Lomeli’s investigations are hindered and some information is revealed too late in a surprise ending which is impossible to see coming.

A fantastic read which hooked me in early and entertained me throughout.

Verdict: A very well written and involving thriller, Harris has a great knack for letting the story unfold at a decent pace and slowly allowing his characters to reveal themselves. There’s not much action but the political schemes are gripping. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

WARNING: Here be spoilers.

I really dug this book despite the fact I knew where it was going pretty early on.

The novel is set in Geneva, and concerns a bunch of extremely wealthy characters. The protagonist, Alexander Hoffman is a computing genius who left the CERN (the European science initiative where the large Hadron collider is) under a bit of a cloud and who has since struck it rich in the world of hedge funds and high finance thanks to an algorithm he created which tracks and predicts market trends, acting with little need for human control.

Hoffman wakens one night to discover an intruder in his house, who assaults him before fleeing the scene. The book then follows the next day in Hoffman’s life, he’s rattled and faces an important business meeting in which he is to reveal his new computer system, which tracks trends regarding fear and plays the stock exchange accordingly.

However, as the day progresses the system becomes unpredictable and appears unsustainable. It makes decisions none of the staff can explain and appears to have a mind of its own.

At the same time Hoffman, who its revealed has a history of mental health problems begins to fear for his sanity as he becomes increasingly paranoid and discovers that various odd events all appear to have been set in motion by himself, despite him having no recollection of them. Frazzled and increasingly erratic, Hoffman attempts to get to the bottom of things while his coworkers attempt to manage the situation.

The book is really well done, and Harris creates a short, pacy, engaging thriller. Like I said at the top of this post, early on I worked out what was going on, but this didn’t really spoil my enjoyment.

Harris has a knack for writing thrillers which feel very grounded in the real world, reflecting real world events.

The novel revolves around the world of stock exchanges and finances, which I don’t know much about and care about even less, but Harris manages to explain things to the reader in quick burst ensuring that the book never turns into an economy textbook. There’s a deftness of touch in these parts where its all fleshed out without the reader feeling that Harris is talking down to him, it also gives you some understanding of the events that follow.

But the money stuff is just background for the more interesting story of Hoffman’s unraveling. The fear and worry that overtakes him as he begins to fear for his mental health is involving, despite Hoffman being an inherently unlikable character. He’s socially awkward to the point of rudeness and emotionally cold and distant, like a sort of Sheldon Cooper figure, but not played for laughs.

However, its hard not to feel sympathy for the man, especially that as a scientist who prizes logic and reason it must be even more disturbing to suspect that your own mind is failing you. There’s something tragic about the character, and as things worsen for him and the situation makes him appear to be a guilty man, you do hope he can sort things out, despite his many character failings.

The other characters are done very well, from Hoffman’s concerned wife who until this point was unaware of the mental health history, which gives the story some heart although its never satisfyingly explained why an artistic and friendly woman like this would be attracted to the cold and painfully rational Hoffman.

The characters that work best are Hoffman’s business partner, Hugo and the detective investigating the break in, Leclerc. Hugo, a swaggering, gregarious British toff is the polar opposite of Hoffman and a far more likable, engaging character. The relationship between the two feels natural, with Hugo being the salesman of their partnership and his desire for money and skill for manipulation explaining how he has turned a man of science into the head of a hedge fund.

As for Leclerc, the old, glum detective is our entrance into this world. He regards the technology and banking world with sheer bemusement and serves as a reminder that while the influx of wealthy business types to Switzerland may do wonders for their economy it doesn’t help the regular, working Swiss, as Leclerc has actually been forced to move over the border into France as he can no longer afford to live in his homeland.

Harris creates tension early and layers on a sense of dread and of things spiraling out of control. Its a real page turner and I found myself flying through it once I got going.

There are flaws, like I said, the plot is fairly easy to predict as surely by now we all know that creating a computer that thinks for itself is unlikely to end well.

This is what happens when computers become self aware.

Also, the main character of Hoffman grated on me and while I largely got caught up with the story perhaps he could have been developed more. I suppose in a way the coldness works as it explains why a person would make some of the decisions, and making him a distant, logic driven figure means that we can see why he fits with what Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) says in Jurassic Park:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.

But while he fits with the plot mechanics its his relationship with his wife where the character falls apart. It never feels natural, her attraction to him seems far too intellectual for a character who is shown to be more emotional and also, intellect doesn’t play that big a part in human relationships. Also, there’s a part where someone states that Alex used to babysit for them and she expresses disbelief and doubt as to how he’d be with kids when part of the backstory is that they’ve been trying for a kid. If you were that worried about someone’s abilities to deal with kids for one evening at a time would you really be considering starting a family with them?

The plot goes off on a sci-fi tangent, but Harris keeps it fairly grounded in reality and it never lurches into the realm of the ridiculous.

Verdict: A well structured, at times extremely gripping thriller where Harris shows a skill for creating tension and momentum, along with knack for realism and research, but its let down by some gaps in terms of characterization and a tad too predictable. 6/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do.

Next up on the reading list: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.