The Fear Index by Robert Harris

The Fear Index

The Fear Index by Robert Harris is a fast-paced story set in the world of high finance and computer technology but it didn’t appeal to me as much as the other books by him that I’ve read. It’s about scientist Dr Alex Hoffman, who together with his partner Hugo Quarry, an investment banker, runs a hedge fund based in Geneva, that makes billions. Alex has developed a revolutionary form of artificial intelligence that tracks human emotions, enabling it to predict movements in the financial markets. It’s built around the standard measure of market volatility: the VIX or ‘Fear Index’.

Alex wakes up one morning in the early hours to find an intruder has managed to bypass the elaborate security of the house. He challenges him only to receive a blow to his head that knocks him out and the intruder escapes. That is just the start of his troubles. A brain scan indicates he may have MS or possibly dementia and he is advised to take further advice, which of course, he doesn’t want to do. It appears that someone is out to destroy him and his company and even worse it soon looks as though this will cause a major global economic crisis. He is at a complete loss as to who it can be. It’s someone who has infiltrated into all areas of his life, affecting his marriage as well as his business.  He even begins to doubt his sanity.

On the one hand it helped me understand a bit more about hedge funds and how they operate but I got lost in the computer technology details. The characters are all not particularly likeable, but it’s definitely a page turner with plenty of suspense as the story raced to a conclusion, and it kept me puzzling over what or who was really causing the paranoia and violence. I thought it began well but didn’t find the ending very illuminating or satisfying and was left wondering what it was really all about.

I liked the chapter headings with extracts from books such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which made me wonder if the book was about the evolution of man into machine. Just an idea – if you’ve read the book what did you make of it all?

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Hutchinson; First Edition, First Printing edition (29 Sept. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0091936969
  • ISBN-13: 978-0091936969
  • Source: Library book
  • My rating: 3*

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End

Hardcover, 259 pages, published October 20th 2016 by Faber & Faber
Source: Library Book
My Rating: 5*



After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

My thoughts:

This is without doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year. I was spellbound, the storytelling is superb, the characters are unforgettable, and the setting comes across so vividly that I had no difficulty in imagining the locations. Add to that the narration written in Thomas McNulty’s own uneducated voice, fluent and richly descriptive and so easy to read, despite the mix of Irish and American slang.

Thomas is writing, looking back on their lives, to a time when it seemed that years of their lives were endless:

Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on for ever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. (page 39)

He is a young Irish immigrant, 17 years old when he and his friend John Cole volunteered to join the US army. Thomas, had left Sligo, starved and destitute, for Canada and then made his way to America where he had met John under a hedge in a downpour and they became friends and secretly lovers for life. He describes John Cole as ‘my love, all my love.‘  They began their life together working in a saloon in Daggesville, dancing and dressed as girls, until they were seventeen and they could no longer pass as girls:

But nature will have his way and bit by bit the bloom wore off us, and we was more like boys than girls, and more like men than women. John Cole anyhow in particular  saw big changes in them two years. He was beginning to give giraffes a run for their money, height-wise. Mr Noone couldn’t find dresses to fit him and Mrs Carmody couldn’t stitch fast enough. It was the end of an era, God knowed. One of the happiest works I ever had. (Page 12)

The fact of their love underlies the whole book. But the next stage of their lives was so different, fighting in the Indian wars against the Native Americans as the settlers moved west and then in the Civil War. I’m not keen on reading about wars, battles or fights of any kind but I found the descriptions in this novel were exceptional, truly heart-rending, although I would have preferred fewer scenes of war and massacre. Barry doesn’t spare the details and clearly depicts the horror and waste of war, commenting in Thomas’s voice: Killing hurts the heart and soils the soil (page 225).

After the wars have come to an end they leave the army and the rest of the book follows their lives together with Winona, a young Indian girl, who they come to regard as their daughter. But danger is never far away …

In a way I thought it was odd how this book held my attention. I was surprised by a number of things – the very long paragraphs, sometimes extending to several pages  – the strange grammatical errors and figures of speech, and at times passages written in the present tense. And yet, Barry’s prose is so lyrical and poetic that I think this is what made the book so compelling to read. Each time I picked it up to read I became lost in its pages. It is not perfect, but then I often find that that doesn’t matter when I’m so totally captivated by the writing, which is why I’ve given this book 5 stars.

Amazon UK link

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie, #2)

This is the second book in Val McDermid’s Kate Pirie series, a series that really should be read in order as A Darker Domain reveals one of the outcomes of the first book, The Distant Echo.

Description from Amazon:

Twenty-five years ago, the daughter of the richest man in Scotland and her baby son were kidnapped and held to ransom. But Catriona Grant ended up dead and little Adam’s fate has remained a mystery ever since. When a new clue is discovered in a deserted Tuscan villa – along with grisly evidence of a recent murder – cold case expert DI Karen Pirie is assigned to follow the trail.

She’s already working a case from the same year. During the Miners’ Strike of 1984, pit worker Mick Prentice vanished. He was presumed to have broken ranks and fled south with other ‘scabs’… but Karen finds that the reported events of that night don’t add up. Where did he really go? And is there a link to the Grant mystery?

The truth is stranger – and far darker – than fiction.

My thoughts:

The first thing that struck me when I began reading this book is that is not divided into chapters. Instead the text is divided by date and place, which initially is a bit confusing, moving between the two cases Karen is investigating. However, I soon got the hang of it.

I like the mix of fact and fiction in A Darker Domain, using the Miners’ Strike as the backdrop to the mystery of Mick Prentice’s disappearance. It is intricately plotted, with a large cast of characters and it’s deceptively easy to read – it’s easy to pass over significant facts that you realise later are of importance.

I like Karen Pirie, who had been a Detective Constable in the second part of the first book, The Distant Echo. Now she is a Detective Inspector in charge of the Cold Case Review Team in Fife. She describes herself as

a wee fat woman crammed into a Marks and Spencer suit, mid-brown hair needing a visit to he hairdresser, might be pretty if you could see the definition of her bones under the flesh. (page 6)

In the tradition of fictional detectives she’s an independent character, who takes little notice of her ineffectual boss, who she nicknames the ‘Macaroon’, undermining his authority. But she is hard-working and tenacious.

I like the contrasts Val McDermid portrays, such as the ‘darker domain‘ of the miners’ lives, the rich landowner wanting to find his grandson, and the beautiful setting in Tuscany where the members of a troupe of puppeteers, are squatting in a ruined villa.

I also like the mix of the two cases, which, as this is crime fiction, I fully expected would at some point interlink. The question is how do they interlink? Val McDermid has a neat way of leading you along the wrong lines with her twists and turns, culminating in the final paragraph. But the ending seemed rushed, tacked on, almost as an afterthought, which left me bemused and feeling rather flat. So, not as good as The Distant Echo but still an entertaining book.

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; First Thus edition (2 April 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007243316
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007243310
  • Source: a library book
  • My rating: 3.5* (rounded up to 4* on Goodreads)

Reading Challenges: my 4th book for R.I.P. XII

I hope to read the next book in the series, The Skeleton Road, before the end of the year.

My Friday Post: Conclave by Robert Harris

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s first paragraph is from Conclave by Robert Harris, a thriller set in the Vatican as the 118 cardinals meet in the Sistine Chapel to cast their votes for a new Pope.


It begins:

Cardinal Lomeli left his apartment in the Palace of the Holy Office shortly before two in the morning and hurried through the darkened cloisters of the Vatican towards the bedroom of the Pope.

He was praying: O Lord, he still has so much to do, whereas all my useful work in Your service is completed. He is beloved, while I am forgotten. Spare him, Lord. Spare him. Take me instead.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice. These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56

Lomeli reckoned the Holy Father had had it in mind to remove almost half of the senior men he had appointed.

From the back cover:

The Pope is dead. 

Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world’s most secretive election. 

They are holy men. But they have ambition. And they have rivals. 

Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other books by Robert Harris, so I’m expecting to like this one too.


First Chapter First Paragraph: A Darker Domain

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.

This week’s first paragraph is from one of the library books I featured in my last post. A Darker Domain by Val McDermid, the second Karen Pirie book.

A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie, #2)


It begins:

Wednesday 23 January 1985; Newton of Wemyss

The voice is soft, like the darkness that encloses them. ‘You ready?’

‘As I’ll ever be.’

‘You’ve told her what to do?’ Words tumbling now, tripping over each other, a single stumble of sounds.

‘Don’t worry. She knows what’s what. She’s under no illusions about who’s going to carry the can if this goes wrong.’ Sharp words, sharp tone. ‘She’s not the one I’m worrying about.’

Blurb (fromAmazon):

Val McDermid, creator of TV’s Wire in the Blood, mixes fact with fiction, dealing with one of the most important and symbolic moments in recent history.

Twenty-five years ago, the daughter of the richest man in Scotland and her baby son were kidnapped and held to ransom. But Catriona Grant ended up dead and little Adam’s fate has remained a mystery ever since. When a new clue is discovered in a deserted Tuscan villa – along with grisly evidence of a recent murder – cold case expert DI Karen Pirie is assigned to follow the trail.

She’s already working a case from the same year. During the Miners’ Strike of 1984, pit worker Mick Prentice vanished. He was presumed to have broken ranks and fled south with other ‘scabs’… but Karen finds that the reported events of that night don’t add up. Where did he really go? And is there a link to the Grant mystery?

The truth is stranger – and far darker – than fiction.

I’ve only recently become a fan of Val McDermid’s books and wish that I’d started reading them years ago.

What do think? Have you read this one or any of her other books? Would you keep on reading?


Library Books

I reserved these books over the last few months and, wouldn’t you know it, they all arrived practically together!


A Darker Domain by Val McDermid. This is the second Karen Pirie book. I’ve borrowed it because I loved the first one, The Distant Echo. In 1984, in Fife, heiress Catriona Maclennan Grant & her baby son are kidnapped. The ransom payoff goes horribly wrong. She is killed while her son disappears without trace. 2008, Tuscany. A jogger stumbles upon dramatic new evidence that re-opens the cold case. For Detective Sergeant Karen Pirie, it’s an opportunity to make her mark.

Conclave by Robert Harris – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other books by Robert Harris, so I’m keen to read this one about how a new Pope is chosen as the cardinals meet in the Sistine chapel to cast their votes. This is a novel and Harris depicts the cardinals as holy men – but ambitious and rivals to become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.

The Hidden Life of Trees:What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. I read Katrina’s review of this book and immediately thought it sounded an amazing book as I love trees. Wohlleben is a German forester and his book is about his love of trees and why they matter on a global scale. He makes the case that the forest is a social network – I like the idea that they communicate with each other – even if they don’t actually walk and talk like Tolkien’s ents.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry – I loved his book, The Secret Scripture and am hoping I’ll like this one too. Thomas McNulty and John Coles signed up for the US army in the 1850s and fought in the Indian Wars and then in the American Civil War. The book was awarded the Costa Book Award 2016 and won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 – not that winning these awards automatically means that I’ll like it and I’m often not keen on books about war.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

I have only recently started reading Val McDermid’s books and after reading one of her stand-alone books, A Place of Execution, I decided to move on to her Karen Pirie books. The first one is The Distant Echo (first published in 2003) in which Karen doesn’t play a major role – only appearing in Part Two as a Detective Constable.

The Distant Echo

Blurb (Goodreads):

It was a winter morning in 1978, that the body of a young barmaid was discovered in the snow banks of a Scottish cemetery. The only suspects in her brutal murder were the four young men who found her: Alex Gilbey and his three best friends. With no evidence but her blood on their hands, no one was ever charged.

Twenty five years later, the Cold Case file on Rosie Duff has been reopened. For Alex and his friends, the investigation has also opened old wounds, haunting memories-and new fears. For a stranger has emerged from the shadows with his own ideas about justice. And revenge.

When two of Alex’s friends die under suspicious circumstances, Alex knows that he and his innocent family are the next targets. And there’s only way to save them: return to the cold-blooded past and uncover the startling truth about the murder. For there lies the identity of an avenging killer…

My thoughts:

The nightmare began when student, Alex Gilbey found Rosie Duff dying in the snow in the Pictish cemetery in St Andrews. He ran to the nearby housing estate to get help and finding a policeman in his patrol car told him what he had found. By the time they got back to the body, Rosie was dead, despite the efforts of Alex’s friends to keep her alive. He and his three friends were the prime suspects, both the police and Rosie’s thuggish brothers were convinced they were guilty. But DI Barney Maclennan and his team, including DC Burnside, WPC Janice Hogg and PC Jimmy Lawson (the policeman Alex asked for help) were unable to find enough evidence to charge them with the murder.

Nearly half the book concentrates on the crime and the initial investigation, going into detail about each character and the circumstances of the murder, ending dramatically with another death. I felt I knew all the characters but had little idea who had killed Rosie or why. The case lay dormant for 25 years.

In 2003 Jimmy Lawson, now an ACC, is in overall control of the cold cases squad and is keen to enhance his reputation by getting at least one result. He assigns DC Karen Pirie to the Rosemary Duff case and asks her to find the physical evidence, which is missing from the box it’s supposed to be in, before interviewing the original witnesses. A new character comes onto the scene – Graham MacFadyen – with additional evidence that the police were not aware of at the time. The second investigation begins, equally as in depth as the first. The four students, all now with settled careers, are questioned again.

I just couldn’t work out which one of them, if any, was guilty. I couldn’t believe any of them would have murdered Rosie. And then a vague suspicion grew in my mind and I revisited the events immediately after the body was discovered, only to dismiss my idea as fanciful. Val McDermid is so skillful in giving you the clues and then leaving you in suspense (or at least that was my experience). There is a major twist that completely threw me before the dramatic ending when I realised that my initial suspicion was correct after all.

  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (4 Mar. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007344651
  • ISBN-13: 978-000734465
  • Source: library book
  • My rating: 5*

I loved this book and hope to read the next three books in the series as soon as possible. They are: