Review 1696: V2

Just a note first: The description of V2 on Goodreads made me wonder if the publicist actually read the book. It describes one of the main characters, Kay Caton-Walsh, as an ex-actress when she is actually an ex-university student, and it says she becomes a spy. I always assume these descriptions come from the book jacket, but in this case the jacket is more truthful. I just happened to notice this, so I went over and looked at the description on Amazon, and it is the same as the one on Goodreads. Hmm.

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Kay Caton-Walsh, a WAAF, is having a liaison with her married lover, who is also the air commodore, when the area is hit by a Nazi V2 rocket. Her lover is dispatched to the hospital while she returns to work, disturbed by his refusal to let her accompany him to the hospital. A photo interpreter in Intelligence, she and her sector are attempting to locate the V2 launch site in the Netherlands. When the commodore treats her dismissively afterwards, she decides to volunteer for a position with a group of WAAFs in Belgium who will be trying to locate the launch sites by computing the rocket’s parabola.

Dr. Rudi Graf is a rocket engineer who has worked with Werner von Braun since he was 16. He has tried to concentrate on the mechanics of the rockets, but he is becoming disillusioned about the conduct of the war and sickened by the behavior of the Nazis. The novel alternately follows these two characters as they work on the same project from the two sides.

Although I am a devoted Harris fan, I don’t think this is one of his best. For one thing, it doesn’t build suspense as most of Harris’s books do. For another, I am dismayed by this trend I’ve noticed of depicting sympathetic German soldiers from World War II. Although I realize they were not all actively engaged in horrible acts, Graf really is. His dream of space flight has been converted into flinging rockets at civilians. Luckily, the program wasn’t that successful. Still, it killed hundreds of people on the British side and enslaved many more on the other side of the Channel.

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Review 1529: The Second Sleep

There are some authors whose books I’ll buy immediately, and Robert Harris is one of them. This means that I haven’t always read what the book is about, and I seldom read the jacket to remind myself before I begin reading, even if I did when I bought the book. Generally speaking, Harris writes excellent historical novels. So, I was reading along, thinking I was in the 15th century, when I suddenly realized I was reading a dystopian novel set far in the future.

After a cataclysmic event, the world has gone through another dark age, and England has emerged into a pre-industrial-age society ruled by the church with a culture that is superstitious and suspicious. Christopher Fairfax is a young priest who has been dispatched by the bishop of Exeter to a small village, Addison St. George, to see that the recently deceased local priest, Father Lacy, is buried.

Upon his arrival, he notices right away that Father Lacy was a heretic, for he finds a library and a collection devoted to the past, before the Apocalypse. Such studies are considered blasphemous, yet the father has a cache of such objects as plastic straws, Barbie dolls, and iPhones.

Fairfax also begins to fear that Father Lacy’s death may have been different than an accidental slip from a feared local structure called the Devil’s Chair. When he investigates, he finds a huge mass grave where Father Lacy had been digging, but it looks like Father Lacy was chased up the slope, which then collapsed.

This is an atmospheric novel, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I have Harris’s previous novels. For one thing, the idea of the world going into a familiar religious-based Dark Age after a cataclysm isn’t exactly original. For another, the ending is quite abrupt, and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to interpret what Fairfax and the others ultimately find. It’s disturbing, yes, but what does Harris mean by it? I was also confused about something unexplained concerning the title. Harris includes a quote at the beginning of the book that tells us that Western Europeans used to sleep twice each night, waking and returning to sleep after midnight. During his first night in the village, Fairvax awakens to realize that the villagers have all gotten up and gone out, despite an apparent nationwide curfew. All along I was expecting some weird explanation for this. Instead, Fairfax himself is incurious about it, and what the villagers are doing is never explained. Yet there’s the book’s title, which I assume does not refer to this event but to the second dark age.

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Day 1300: Munich

Cover for MunichRobert Harris’s newest book, Munich, takes place during four days in September 1938, during which England’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with Hitler, Mussolini, and the President of France to try to avoid war over Czechoslavakia. Or at least Chamberlain was trying to prevent war. As he has done before, Harris manages to create suspense around an event the outcome of which we already know.

He does this by introducing two characters, friends from Oxford who are now diplomats. Hugh Legat is a junior secretary for the Prime Minister. Paul von Hartmann is in the German foreign ministry, but he is also a member of a group who would like to bring down Hitler. The group asks him to attempt to encourage a strong response from England on the Sudetenland issue by leaking secret German aspirations in Europe to England through his friendship with Hugh. The group believes that if war is declared, the German army will stop Hitler.

This mission is a dangerous one for Hartmann, who already has one SS officer on his tail. Meanwhile, Hugh in trying to be a liaison is continually stymied by orders from his jealous boss.

I felt a little more detached from this one than I usually do for Harris’s work. It depicts Chamberlain, though, as a much more determined and politically savvy man than he is believed to be now. I get the feeling that Harris, who states in the afterword that he has been fascinated by this meeting for years, wants to show Chamberlain in a more positive light than history generally affords him.

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Day 1193: Pompeii

Cover for PompeiiI was just as short way into Pompeii when I realized I had read it before, probably when it first came out. Leave it to Robert Harris to make a page turner out of a story that everyone knows the end to.

The novel begins a mere two days before the horrendous eruption of Vesuvius. Marcus Attilius Primus is the newly arrived aquarius for the area—the engineer who is responsible for maintaining and operating the aqueduct that provides water to the towns along the bay. His predecessor mysteriously disappeared two weeks before. Soon after the beginning of the novel, Attilius discovers that the aqueduct has stopped running. He mounts an expedition to Vesuvius to try to find the break.

On the course of his urgent journey to repair the aqueduct, Attilius runs afoul of Numerius Popidus Ampliatus, a powerful citizen of Pompeii. He is also attracted to the man’s daughter, Corelia. When in his work on the aqueduct, Attilius figures out what is happening on the mountain, he has to avoid assassins sent by Ampliatus as he endeavors to rescue Corelia.

The novel also follows Pliny, who as admiral takes the fleet across the bay in an attempt to make observations and rescue people.

Harris has done his homework, and his descriptions of the eruption are terrifying. He must have had the time frame right, but my only quibble is that Attilius has to cover so much ground before he gets to Corelia, I can hardly imagine she would still be alive when he got there. This is another well written, suspenseful novel by Harris.

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Day 1107: Conclave

Cover for ConclaveThe only book I’ve ever read featuring a papal conclave (except one of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series books, which has one as a subplot) was Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. That novel featured a series of bizarre murders. Robert Harris is skilled enough to generate the same level of suspense through secrets and activities that are much more likely.

As Dean of the College of Cardinals, it is Cardinal Lomeli’s job to conduct the conclave after the death of the Pope. Not only is Lomeli sincerely grieved at the Pope’s death, but he is also dedicated to doing his job well. He thinks the front-runners for the office will be Cardinal Tremblay, the Canadian Camerlengo; Cardinal Bellini, the Secretary of State; Adeyemi, the African Cardinal Major Penitentiary; and Cardinal Tedesco, the Patriarch of Venice.

Just before the cardinals are sequestered, a new cardinal appears, Vincent Benítez, newly appointed Archbishop of Baghdad. No one knows about the new appointment, but his credentials seem to be in order, and his appointment was kept secret because of the vulnerability of a Catholic cardinal in Iraq.

Another problem Archbishop Wozniak reports is that Cardinal Tremblay met with the late Pope just before the Pope died. Cardinal Wozniak tells Cardinal Lomeli the Pope confided to him that he had asked Cardinal Tremblay to resign from all his offices. Tremblay denies that this conversation took place and implies that the Pope was becoming unstable.

The suspense mounts as each vote fails to choose a candidate and secrets are revealed. Lomeli is dismayed to find himself becoming a viable candidate as others fall out of the running. He also finds indications that the late Pope was putting things in motion, months before his death, to affect the election.

Again, Harris has written a suspenseful and deeply interesting novel. The characters seem convincing—Cardinal Lomeli is extremely likable and all demonstrate human foibles without being caricatures. The ending is somewhat unbelievable, and although it is not really predictable, I was able to guess at something similar. That is a small caveat, though. All in all, Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite genre writers.

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Day 1084: Dictator

Cover for DictatorDictator is the final volume in Robert Harris’s trilogy about the great Roman statesman, Cicero. This trilogy has truly been spell-binding.

The novel begins in dark times for Cicero, when he and his family are hounded out of Rome by Julius Caesar, his greatest enemy. Cicero was made to look ridiculous in Colleen McCullough’s series about Caesar, but Harris sees him differently, as a man staunchly in support of the dying Republic. On the other hand, McCullough pictured Caesar much more sympathetically, while Harris shows him as a man run mad with the desire for power.

For me, this novel flagged just a little bit in the middle, while momentous events in Rome are described from afar. I think my reaction is partly because I thought I knew what happened to Cicero and was dreading it. But I actually didn’t know my Roman history that well, so I was a little bit off. In any case, the novel picks right up as soon as Cicero rejoins the action.

Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite historical novelists. He writes a good, tight political thriller based on true events. I am already looking for his most recent novel.

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Day 1057: Conspirata

Cover for ConspirataConspirata is the second of Robert Harris’s Cicero novels, published originally as Lustrum, and is on my list of books for the Walter Scott prize. This series has been unexpectedly compelling for me. I had previously read Colleen McCullough’s series about Julius Caesar, and this series is such a contrast to it.

The novel begins at the start of Cicero’s four-year term as consul and ends shortly after it. During this time, Cicero is continually at odds with his enemies, who wish to dismantle the Republic. The most powerful of these enemies are the billionaire Crassus and Julius Caesar.

Although the intrigues in this novel are all political, that doesn’t make them any less thrilling. Harris depicts some of the most important figures in Roman history as men almost deranged by a need for power. We have strong sympathy for Cicero as he navigates the difficulties of Roman political life, forced into unpleasant choices but always trying to work for the good of Rome. This is a great series.

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Day 1026: Imperium

Cover for ImperiumBest Book of the Week!
One of the books on my Walter Scott prize list is the second in Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero, so I thought I’d start with this first book. The only other straightforward historical series about this period of Roman history that I’ve read is Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series about Julius Caesar. This series makes an interesting contrast.

The novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and amanuensis. Cicero is already in his 30’s when the novel begins with his decision to prosecute the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres. Cicero is usually an advocate, but he sees in this case a way to further his ambitions to ultimately become consul.

Although corrupt governors are apparently not unusual, Verres has completely abused his authority, by even condemning to death without due process a Roman citizen or two, something that was unspeakable to the Romans. Still, as a policy the powerful aristocrats are behind him, including the renowned orator Hortensius, who is defending Verres. Cicero must take a trip to Sicily to collect evidence.

This novel is a really fine combination of a legal and political thriller. McCullough’s series was mostly positive on Julius Caesar and negative on Cicero, even faintly ridiculing him. Harris’s novel makes Cicero a complicated sympathetic character and Caesar a slippery conniver. If you are at all interested in this period, I highly recommend this novel. And for excellent plotting and writing, I recommend it if you are at all interested in historical fiction.

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Day 1008: An Officer and a Spy

Cover for An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, we know how the Dreyfus affair turned out, but in writing about it, Robert Harris has managed to infuse the story with suspense. He accomplishes this by concentrating not on what happens to Dreyfus himself but on the man who exposed the sham.

At the beginning of the novel, Georges Picquart is only peripherally involved in the Dreyfus affair, but the generals in charge see him as helpful and he is rewarded by being put in charge of the Statistical Section, the army’s intelligence department. Picquart does not want the post, but he soon finds he is good at his job.

His staff seems distrustful of him, while he believes that some of their methods are sloppy. He receives intelligence that indicates that there is still a traitor in the French army, and it is not long before he figures out that the army has found Dreyfus guilty for crimes committed by a Major Esterhazy.

When Picquart notifies his superiors of what he believes is a mistake, his investigation is shut down. Soon, he is sent on a mission out of the country and begins to believe that his own staff is working to discredit him. It becomes clear to him that Dreyfus was actually framed for Esterhazy’s crimes in a climate of antisemitism.

Soon, Picquart is striving to save his own career and reputation. But he also refuses to give up on his campaign to right a wrong.

This novel is deeply involving and at times truly exciting. I have not read Harris before, but picked this up because of my project to read finalists for the Walter Scott prize and since I have read it, have read most of Harris’s Cicero trilogy. This novel is a masterful historical novel that is full of suspense.

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