Robert Harris’s latest book The Fear Index is a thriller set in the exciting world of high finance and computing. The fact that it is genuinely thrilling, given the topics, is testament to Harris’s skill.
The story revolves around a genius boffin physicist called Dr Alex Hoffman who creates a program that can learn, analyse and help pick stocks and shares. Essentially it’s an AI stock trader. The program looks at data and learns how to predict when stockbrokers are getting particularly jittery. As I have written before, traders are very easily panicked but if you could predict what stock they were about to crap themselves about before the market does, you could make a fortune by shorting stock (essentially a bet that the share price will go down).
The program works brilliantly and keeps getting better and soon Hoffman and his business partner are making so much cash it would cause an anti-capitalist to have an instant nervous breakdown. But strange things are happening at home - Hoffman is attacked by an intruder in his house and he receives a first edition Darwin book from someone.
I can’t relate any more of the story but it is a thriller so you should know it gets very exciting.
I have been trading for about 6 months now, so am a mega expert on how the markets work and the terminology used, but don’t worry. Mr Harris explains everything very well. The financial stuff is just background anyway. Think of this book as more of a Michael Crichton techno type of novel.
I enjoyed The Fear Index. It was gripping, exciting and well written. Sadly there were a few things I felt let it down a tiny bit. The characters where slightly cliched. The scientist isn’t good at dealing with social situations and doesn’t care about money, just his work. His business partner is a good looking ex-London trader who lives a bachelor life, treats women as objects, and wants a really flash yacht. As with most fast-paced thrillers though, this doesn’t really matter.
The Fear Indexhas a number of themes it is trying to explore. These are all well and good but occasionally feel a bit hammered home by quotations. The AI is like a new lifeform that is learning and evolving. Theme: evolution - so there are lots of quotes from Darwin. Is the Doctor truly in control of his creation? Here’s a quote from Frankenstein. There are other quotes from people like Bill Gates and Clinton concerning people, fear, computers, etc. It could be argued that these quotes enhance the themes discussed and add new angles to the narrative but if that is the case then I felt the themes weren’t quite explored enough. Which is slightly contradictory, so ignore me.
To summarise, I would have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed The Fear Index. While I may have stated that it could have done with a bit more characterisation and exploration of themes (without the bullet-point feel of the quotes), it should be kept in mind that this is a thriller. It’s also set in the high-speed world of finance and computing and the events take place within a day. So in fact, job done. Enjoyable, interesting, fast-paced, and recommended. Enjoy.
When Perry Makepiece and Gail Perkins go on a tennis holiday to Antigua, they meet a Russian gangster type called Dima and his family. Dima wants to make a deal with the British Government and to do that he needs the holidaymakers to get in touch with the “right people”. Or spies to you and me. Soon Perry and Gail find themselves in basements in London, assignations in Paris, and safe houses in Switzerland.
It sounds pretty cool. I was expecting ‘The Man Who knew Too Much’ but more modern and with spies and a John le Carre twist. Except the book isn’t like that.
Many have hailed this as a ‘return to form’ and I guess it is in that le Carre has returned to spies and all the backhanded dealings that go on. He is clearly pissed off with bankers and corporate money screwing up the world but at its heart this is still a classic piece of spy thriller action. It is highly readable and entertaining.
There are a few things I didn’t like though. The first were the main characters. They are likeable enough but for some reason le Carre wanted them to be more working class as opposed to his usual public schoolboy types. This is fine except that he seems to have trouble writing characters that apparently come from the working classes. Peregrine Makepiece is an Oxford Don who loves to ski and play tennis and cricket. Gail Perkins is a lawyer who inherited a flat in the very posh Primrose Hill. They go on a tennis holiday in Antigua for Christ’s sake. It just didn’t gel in my head. What made it more confusing was that their background didn’t really matter for the story being told. They might as well have been middle class, they could keep the same personalities.
I also wasn’t all that keen on the pacing. The first third of the book is told in flashback as Perry and Gail are debriefed in London. The story’s plot just felt a bit jumpy.
Having said all that, this is a good book. If you like le Carre’s work you will likely enjoy this. I may have been a bit tinted by the fact that the last book I read of his was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Which is awesome and a lot better. So an entertaining and well written ’return to form’ indeed. Just not one of his very best.
I have already written about the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and how exciting and page turning it is. I intended to write separate reviews for the Girl who Played with Fire and the Girl who Kicked the Hornets but decided not to. Instead I will review the second two books and assume you have read my previous review, and kind of wrap the whole thing up as a review of the trilogy.
This is partly because I am a complex character who doesn’t play by the rules. Mostly though, it is because the second two books follow on from each other in one big exciting story, using characters you know and love from the first one, which stands slightly separate.
A bit like the original Star Wars Trilogy, in other words.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played with Fire
The book starts with strangely-sexy-but-probably-not-someone-you’d-like-to-date Lisbeth Salander, who is on holiday. Following an incident on this holiday (which is utterly unrelated to anything else in the book and reads as a kind of ‘Adventures of Salander’ episode), she returns to Sweden. She is soon accused of multiple murder and goes on the run. Mikael Blomqvist (who shagged her for a bit in the first book), decides she is innocent and sets about saving her. Enter a mysterious man known as ‘Zalachenko’ and another mysterious man who is huge and a psycho and a bit like a Bond villain. Then enter excitement.
This book is superb. And I speak as someone who doesn’t read many thrillers. There are several superb scenes that have stuck with me until now and the book is annoyingly unputdownable. I looked forward to tube journeys so I could read, it was that exciting. It builds inexorably to a finale that’s brilliant and extreme. An ending that in my opinion is the best of the Millennium Trilogy, but I’m sure others might disagree.
Yup. The girl who kicked the metaphorical hornets’ nest is Lisbeth Salander. Actually, she kicked nest in the previous book and is now swiping at the hornets to stop being stung. But that probably didn’t sound as good to the publishers. In the third instalment of the Millennium Trilogy there is also a group of hornets who are secret hornets but are still connected to the original kicked nest. So to speak.
I will end the kicking hornets’ nests analogy now.
Basically, Salander is in a different kind of shit from the second book but things are still pretty hectic for her. Plus there are some new baddies.
This book carries on from the second one and has some similar awesomely thrilling moments. It’s hard to write about it too much without giving away story lines from book two. So I won’t.
As I mentioned before, I don’t read that many thrillers. I was thrilled by this and it may have ruined me for others. The story is genuinely gripping and you will find yourself spending hours reading and generally delaying your life until you have finished. The characters are superb, unique and memorable. The story is well plotted with about a million threads all tying up nicely.
I only have a few criticisms.
Characters – I’m sorry but there are too bloody many of them. If you don’t read all the books fairly soon after each other, it is possible you will get confused at parts. A few could easily have been cut out or consolidated.
There are also a few moments where situations feel a bit contrived or irrelevant. Some plot arcs have nothing to do with the main story at all and at other times there are a few chance sightings of people that happen a bit too frequently. It’s possible that this is common in thriller novels or in Stockholm, so I’ll shut up.
These niggles aside, the Millennium Trilogy is superb. It’s such a loss that Steig Larsson died just after finishing them as I would love to have read more.
If you are unconvinced and doubtful because of my tiny gripes, don’t be. One reason that I didn’t review the second book after reading it was because the moment it ended, I started on the third. And read it in two days. So did my wife.
Now that’s pretty gripping.
Do you like movies? Do you consider yourself to be open minded? If yes, watch these trailers I implore you. A new storytelling medium has arrived and only a complete dullard thicko luddite could not view these and grudgingly admit that a new way for telling a ripping tale has arrived. If you dismiss these out of hand because you they are ‘just games’ then you don’t deserve to be on the internet. Go read a parchment and bore people with how cultured you apparently are. (You aren’t, you are pretentious and probably read magazines more than books but keep that a secret.) These will not replace books or films but are an additional and different way of presenting a story and are just as valid.
I saw a trailer for the new Deus Ex game in December and almost had a ‘crisis’. I have only just calmed down. For those of you that don’t like computer games but think that movies are a good way to tell a story then you are missing out. Games have become an incredible new medium for telling a good tale. They often use famous actors, characterisation can be achieved just as effectively, and the narrative can twist as much as any convoluted twisty thriller. If there’s a good director, then the visuals can be just as pant wettingly compelling as any film. Particularly as we now live in an era of powerful new consoles and life affirmingly large high-def TVs. The only difference is that you aren’t a passive sap - you actively have a stake in what is going on which leads to you feeling more involved. Especially when your controller shakes when you get shot in the face.
So get over yourself. The next generation of entertainment and storytelling is here. Watch these three great examples of what can be achieved in a narrative sense and if you don’t they look at least slightly intriguing, then you are dead inside. You might as well watch Eastenders, read the Daily Mail and drink high strength lager while waiting for death. The review for the superb Uncharted 2 is here: http://thewordofward.co.uk/?p=634. The game plays like an interactive Indiana Jones film. With chapters and hot women and magic stones and chases and everything. It’s fucking awesome. Here’s the trailer:
The next trailer for a game set in L.A. in the gritty ‘noir’ period full of sexy dames and violent but well dressed men in hats. Rather aptly, it is called L.A. Noir and shows a completely different type of tale to that found in Uncharted. Although you still get to shoot people.
The final trailer in this trio of awesomeness is Deus Ex: Human Evolution. Deus Ex hasn’t come out yet so it may be crap. In its favour is the fact that it is the third game in the franchise and the first two were genuis and no part 3 of anything has ever been bad. (Don’t question that statement too closely, it may be flawed.) Anyway, check out the trailer. It’s like Bladerunner crossed with the news.
Ok I’m done. I will stop repeating myself. I find myself increasingly enjoying games as my disappointment with most new films increases. Next week: a review of Transformers 2. Just kidding.
I finished this a few days ago and have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It is just a shame that I don’t really think it is that great a book. This puts me in something of a quandary on how to review it.
The story follows Robert Langdon, the hero of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, as he has yet another crap time. He is asked to give a lecture in the Capitol building in Washington by an old friend called Peter Solomon, who is in charge of the Smithsonian and a mega uber-lord in the Freemasons. It turns out to be a trick and soon Solomon’s severed hand is discovered in the Capitol’s central room freshly tattooed with lots of intriguing symbols. Symbols that can luckily be deciphered by Robert Langdon. A quest is then started plus lots of chases. There then follows history lecture, action, cliffhanger, history lecture, action, cliffhanger – until the end of the book (where there’s a great big history lecture).
First – the positive. The book is very, very readable and exciting. The technique of short chapters ending with a cliffhanger really works in thrillers like these. Hours of my life sped by as I lay on the couch reading and thinking, fuck it, just one more chapter. The ideas and history lectures and conspiracy stuff is genuinely fascinating and the book is worth reading for this alone. I learnt tons about the masons and religions by reading this and I know tons already. It also makes Washington seem a lot more interesting than I had previously believed it to be. As Langdon rushes about and the bad guy grows increasingly more mental, you are educated and thrilled in equal measure. The bits about the Freemasons and Washington’s history (both the place and the person) are great but Brown does go on a bit to prove his point. In one scene he even gives a character (and the reader) the exact search phrase to type into google. The puzzles are all printed and make it all seem a bit more fun as you see if you can work things out – but probably won’t bother.
Now the negative. The writing is pretty poor. It serves its purpose though and doesn’t really matter – you’re not going to be reading this sort of thing for finely written prose after all. The characters are astoundingly wooden stereotypes. Langdon is a professor who wears professor-ish clothes and spends every moment not being chased delivering a lecture. Peter Solomon is a powerful man and is head of powerful things and has powerful friends. The bad guy is like a lot of villains in Brown’s books – a less believable and more extreme version of your average Bond nemesis. This time, instead of an albino or killer monk, we have a heavily muscled bald eunuch who is covered in tattoos. There are a few other characters that seem to fill roles but have no real personality: an elderly African American who is wise and is the Architect of the Capitol (a job position not literally the architect) who made me think of Morgan Freeman for some reason; Solomon’s sister – pretty and clever and frequently in distress; a Japanese CIA chick who smokes a lot; a wise blind priest who is very wise; and so on. Again, the characterization doesn’t matter but it would have been nice.
The plot and some of the ideas in the book were ridiculous. I can’t tell you much without giving the plot away but once I learned what were they searching for, I guessed its location immediately. I read the entire book hoping to be proved wrong but my guess was correct. A guess I made in the first 30 minutes. Solomon’s sister Katherine is a Noetic “scientist” who believes in the potential of the human mind – basically, psychic ability. I suspect Dan Brown spoke to some Noetic “scientists” and got sold on the idea. The reason why I keep using inverted commas is that no matter what Dan Brown says – it isn’t science. They don’t use scientific method and none of their results are open to peer review. Brown seems to think people are sceptical about noetics as they are closed minded. It is more because the evidence is shite. He keeps mentioning that one day everyone will believe and be proved wrong about Noetics and frequently points out that the brightest minds believed that the earth was flat until relatively recently. It is a shame he didn’t research this because it’s horseshit and a myth that stems from the early 19th century. Most of humanity has known the earth is a globe since the ancient Greeks. Aristotle even provided visual evidence. They clearly didn’t believe that boats going over the horizon were falling off the edge of the world because most of the time the boats came back.
Brown tries to prove noetics further by stating that prayer groups have had a measurable affect on curing people and that experiments have been done to see this. There have in fact been some experiments done on this subject and they were done under proper scientific conditions with ‘blind’ test groups and so on. It proved that there was absolutely nothing in it. There are other experiments he mentions but nearly all have been done before and all proved false. I won’t go into any more detail here.
I apologize for this rant about noetics but it proves to be a central theme throughout the book and I found it ludicrous.
There are other scenes that are laughable too. Right at the very start some agents are chasing the big bald tanned baddie and stop to ask a big tanned guy with blonde hair if they saw anyone run past. ‘He went that-a-way’ the guy says. I mean, for fuck’s sake. Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny might be able to slap on a moustache and get away with this but really…
Also, when you find out what the villain is after and how his whole plan has been plotted you find your brain filling with question that start with “So why didn’t he just…” Annoying.
On the whole though, the book is fun with lots of codes and facts printed so that you the reader can try and work things out. You will be looking up a lot of things on google and it starts to feel almost interactive in places. The pace is relentless and exciting. You will probably enjoy reading it but when finished you will think – that was alright I guess. If I was to give a one sentence recommendation it would be: “If you liked Dan Brown’s other books, you will like this.” Just not as much as The Da Vinci Code.