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review 2020-04-14 10:09
Lustrum - Robert Harris

A stunning trilogy. Robert Harris has accomplished what many historical authors may aspire to but few attain. He has created an ancient Rome alive with the sights, the sounds, the smells of a city towards the latter years of the republic. He has painted a picture in my mind of warring commanders: Pompey, Caesar, Crassus. He has allowed me to view both the beauty of Rome from the aristocratic Palatine to the stench of the inner-city streets. He shows Romans as a people obsessed with wealth, and from wealth flows power, influence, and the ultimate prize a position in the senate leading to first consul adoration.

Pompey the great commander, the chief general in the state….” A large chair was carried in for the Imperator, and he settled himself into it. An ivory pointer was placed in his hand. A carpet was unrolled at his feet into which was woven a map of the east, and as the senators gazed down he began gesticulating at it to illustrate his achievements”…. Caesar, the chief priest, adored by all the masses, fresh from military success, biding his time as he waits, panther like, moulding the men of influence to attend to his every whim. These two together with the wealthy Crassus form the triumvirate, a power base for them to dictate and manipulate. It is however a dangerous thing to allow so much “imperium” into the hands of the few.

Cicero’s year as 1st consul is drawing to a close, and some of his finest accomplishments are now just a distant memory. When he faces a direct threat on his life it is to his wealthy companions that he turns for help and support, but such friendship will always require payback. Robert Harris shows not only the strong side of Cicero but his weaknesses. His aspirations to climb the social ladder, result in a questionable decision when he borrows money to purchase a grand property owned by Crassus in the exclusive Palatine hill. As the candle slowly fades on a glittering senatorial career, and as the influence of a few wealthy men starts to emerge, the scene is set for a bloody conflict. Rome should have learnt the lessons of the past that it is a grave mistake to leave so much power in the hands of a powerful minority.
A wonderful story, the subtle blending of fact and fiction makes Lustrum an essential read…the final chapter “The Dictator” now awaits me” Highly recommended.

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review 2020-04-09 09:13
A solid account
An Officer and a Spy - Robert Harris

If the Dreyfus case had a script then “An officer and a spy” would surely be that document. Once again Robert Harris selects a time of extreme importance in history and by careful research and a cast of shadowy characters produces a work of some importance. It is a time of great social upheaval and suspicion amongst the super powers namely France, Germany, and Russia. Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused and convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans. He was sentenced to life behind bars on Devils Island. This was a gross injustice carried out with ruthless efficiency by the army. When it became known that it was not Dreyfus but Major Charles Esterhazy who was the perpetrator the army, rather than lose face, did nothing to reverse the situation preferring to let Dreyfus remain in gaol.

An officer and a spy carefully records this historical drama from Alfred Dreyfus’s incarceration and the many attempts by Georges Piquart to have him released, and all charges against him dropped.

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review 2020-04-07 09:45
Absolute power
Imperium - Robert Harris

The 1969/1970 comedy Up Pompeii starred British comedian Frankie Howerd as put upon slave Lurcio always ready and willing to spread a little gossip from his adopted Roman household. Now in no way am I trying to suggest or draw a comparison between Lurcio and Tiro (personal secretary to Cicero) but using a member of Cicero’s household to act as narrator we have a wonderful  “fly on the wall” storyteller. Cicero was an excellent lawyer, orator, shrewd politician and through his own speeches and letters Robert Harris is able to construct a powerful unforgettable story of Rome at a time of great turmoil and change. By using the voice of Tiro, first a slave then a freeman of Cicero, he effectively invites us the reader to enjoy a private view of the Roman Republic.


The first part of Imperium shows Cicero develop his skills both as orator and advocate using his talents to expose the tyrannical reign of Gaius Verres, Roman magistrate, notorious for his misgovernment of Sicily extorting local farmers and plundering temples for his own personal gain….”Gaius Verres has robbed the treasury and behaved like a pirate and a destroying pestilence in his province of Sicily. You have only to find this man guilty and respect in you will be rightly restored”….His most heinous crime was the crucifixion  of Publius Gavius accused of being a spy and sentenced to death….”and had Gavius stripped naked and publicly flogged before us all. Then he was tortured with hot irons. And then he was crucified”….Civis romanus sum were the only words uttered by Gabius as he slowly died.


The second half of the book is given over to Cicero’s bid to be elected one of Rome’s two governing consuls and by so doing achieved “Imperium” absolute power. It is wonderful to be party to and to understand just how difficult oppressive and cruel life could be for the ordinary populace of Rome in the latter days of the Republic. Wealth was king, wealth was the stepping stones of a life of influence, status and honour. We meet the great players of the day, Pompey and Crassus efficient killing machines, at advancing the rule of Rome spreading citizenship for and wide. Success in battle resulted in wealth, (plundered) power and influence….”Crassus, said Pompey at once his old enemy was never far from his thoughts”….”Well I suppose if you are really worried said Cicero we could always specify that the supreme commander should be an ex consul whose name begins with a P”….


Imperium is the first of a trilogy about the life of Cicero, It is a brilliant piece of writing, taut, informative, alive with the sights and sounds of everyday Rome….”Rome is not a question of blood or religion: Rome is an ideal, Rome is the highest embodiment of liberty and law that mankind has yet achieved in the ten thousand years since our ancestors came down from those mountains and learned how to live as communities under the rule of law”…

Highly, highly recommended!

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-04-24 19:37
Munich by Robert Harris
Munich: A novel - Robert Harris

September 1938, the world is on the brink of war. Hitler has his eyes set on Czechoslovakia, bringing the Sudeten-Germans into the Reich. At the eve of the invasion, Britain's prime minister Chamberlain tries everything to prevent open war. But is peace worth any cost?


That's actually the question around which this whole novel revolves. Harris adds 2 young staffers to each side to sort of add the human component to these events, the immediacy of the threat, both of impending war but also of the further unimpeded rise of Hitler. History of course tells us that war broke out nonethess, albeit a year later, after the invasion of yet another country. It also tells us that appeasement only works so far: At some point one has to draw a line, at the latest when the fundamental principles of one's own state and way of life are threatened.


So, what would have happened had the world not silently condoned the invasion of Czechoslovakia but intervened then and there? Were the allied forces truely so militarily unprepared in their (re)armaments after WW1, as is indicated here, that they wouldn't have stood a chance if the war had begun in 1938? And what would that have meant for the holocaust: fewer victims? Or even more (after the defeat of the allied forces)? Would Hitler have had the time to surround himself with sycophants and like-minded people if he had been challenged openly (which is the point that Hartmann makes why it's important that Britain doesn't give in to Hitler's demands)?


Harris already delved into these what-if scenarios with his excellent "Fatherland" set in a world where Nazi Germany had won the war... and it's still a mind-boggling thought experiment, the change of a single event causing major consequences (or, in this case, the failure of affecting said change). The only downside to this novel is the fact that it takes about 200 pages to really get going, but once you're past that, this is a page-turner.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-03-03 17:16
The Fear Index by Robert Harris
The Fear Index - Robert Harris

The owner of a big hedgefund company, Alex Hoffman, physicist and inventor of an algorithm that could revolutionize trading, is attacked one evening in his home in Geneva. After getting checked at hospital which got him the recommendation to visit his neurologist with the headscans that were taken, he goes to work the next day because of a big investors' lunch. But strange things keep happening: the delivery of a book by Darwin, he finds that he apparently bought out his wife's art exhibition... and then the algorithm starts making risky trades...


This novel starts out pretty exciting, the break-in, a possible conspiracy, a computer algorithm running amok. But it all gets a bit confusing the longer the story runs: Hoffman's history of mental illness for one, his dabbling with artificial intelligence on the other side... but all this doesn't really explain what actually happened. Did Hoffman arrange for everything, including the break-in and his death, and just forget it in a psychotic break, as is suggested in the end? But what about the risk-advisor who falls into the open elevator shaft? He can't have foreseen that he would step into the lift at that moment - so, did he program the algorithm to kill any opponents? Or did he program some self-protective subroutines so that the algorithm decided for itself to kill him in self-defense in order to have no more master?


But in the end, it all gets wrapped up too easily, the company earns an enormous amount of money and all's swept under the rug, the algorithm lives on... and Hoffman disappears. Honestly, I would love to know what happens next and hate the way this novel keeps me hanging at this point of the story.


Still: a good read, albeit one that leaves me with more questions than it answers.

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