The Fear Index
by Robert Harris
The Fear Index is an ambitious project. Set in Geneva in 2010, against the real-life backdrop of the global financial crisis, Robert Harris plays with fact and fiction to create a thriller that blends economics, crime and sci-fi. But Harris, best known for his historical thrillers, is no stranger to intellectually satisfying novels and he seamlessly weaves in accurate market data, real political developments and chapter epigraphs from Charles Darwin.
Central to the plot is Alexander Hoffman, a former physicist at CERN who has turned his attention to running a successful algorithmic hedge fund. Hoffman has constructed a "machine-learning algorithm", VIXAL-4, which monitors global data and uses artificial intelligence to trade on fear. Trouble arises when the machine begins to function independently of its creator, and Hoffman is forced to confront fear head-on when several attempts are made on his life.
The book starts off slowly and it's a struggle to sympathise with the main characters: Hoffman, a selfish and rude introvert; and his business partner, Hugo Quarry, a caricature of an arrogant, upper-class British banker. However, set over a 24-hour period, the pace soon picks up and the novel becomes a gripping and enjoyable read. No financial knowledge is necessary, and through the characters Harris delivers some colourful and admittedly "crude" explanations of how hedge funds, algorithms and trading work. What's more, although Harris acknowledges his "flights of fancy", the novel presents an intriguing insight into the operation of hedge funds behind closed doors, and the roles of fund managers, "quants" (quantitative analysts), and risk managers.
Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography
by Walter Isaacson
There's an instinctive urge to like Steve Jobs: the man who brought us the iPod, iPhone and iPad. The genius, who founded Apple in his garage, was ousted from the business, and then returned to transform it into the world's most profitable technology company. The icon, who wore an understated uniform of blue jeans and a black polo neck. The husband, father and brother, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, and lost his battle against the disease earlier this year.
In Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, Walter Isaacson challenges that instinct. Jobs told the journalist and biographer that there were "no skeletons in his closet that can't be allowed out," and Isaacson has stuck resolutely to that brief. The material has been taken from over 40 interviews with Jobs, in addition to interviews with his friends, family, employees and enemies, and paints a picture of Jobs as an unsympathetic character, who was ungrateful, cruel, disloyal, and prone to tantrums. The honesty and frankness with which Jobs is treated is refreshing, but the unpleasantness of his character threatens to overshadow both his achievements, and the reader's enjoyment of the biography itself.
Steve Jobs follows the conventional structure of a biography and it is exceptionally detailed, chronicling Jobs' life and career from start to finish. At 630 pages the work is long, but that shouldn't put you off: Isaacson is a powerful storyteller and his subject fascinating. Jobs knew what customers wanted long before they did, which made him an exceptional businessman. But don't expect to lift any tips for success from the text: Jobs' demeanour was peculiar and learning "to stare at people without blinking" and perfecting "long silences punctuated by staccato bursts of fast talking" is unlikely to go down well at your next job interview.
In the introduction to the book, Isaacson, who has also authored biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, jokes that perhaps Jobs saw himself as the natural successor to those great men. Given that Jobs "revolutionised six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing", the biography suggests, he was.
Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour
by Michael Lewis
Not a day passes without tales of economic woe in the media. Countless authors have taken on the global financial crisis, but few have addressed the subject with the energy, dynamism and wit of former bond salesman, Michael Lewis. Boomerang takes the reader on a journey from Iceland to Greece to Ireland to Germany to America, with Lewis, now a financial journalist and author, seeking to find the causes of economic meltdown in each country's distinctive national characteristics. Whether it's the macho culture of fishermen who "like to take risks" (Iceland), or an ingrained culture of tax evasion and corruption where "no one had bothered to count up" the government's spending (Greece), Lewis draws bold observations from his colourful conversations with natives of each country, from prime ministers, to monks, to drunken locals at the pub.
Boomerang walks the fine line between being funny and being politically incorrect, referring to an Icelandic investment banker, for example, as "a bearded troll". Yet Lewis's tone is what makes the book so accessible and engaging. Throughout the fast-paced 240-pager, it feels more like listening to an old friend talk through his holiday snaps than a chronicle of economic crisis. Yet Lewis sprinkles the text with telling facts about how each country abused the availability of cheap credit, and subsequently failed to deal with the fallout.
Originally written as a series of shorter essays published in Vanity Fair, Boomerang would benefit from a smoother narrative in places. It's unlikely to change your views on the present crisis, but if you're stuck at home this Christmas, it's the perfect book to dip in and out of to keep you entertained.