A tale of betrayal and backstabbing in vicious Westminster-on-the-Tiber

<strong>LUSTRUM<br /></strong>BY ROBERT HARRIS<br /><strong>Hutchinson, &pound;18.99</strong><br /><br />ROBERT Harris is the author of best-selling historical novels such as Fatherland and Enigma. In 2003, he wrote the first of his books based in Ancient Rome, Pompeii. This was followed in 2006 by Imperium, the first in a trilogy about the statesman and orator Cicero. Lustrum is the second. <br /><br />It is impossible to ignore Harris&rsquo;s own political involvments when reading this book. A former political journalist and&nbsp; vocal early supporter of New Labour, he fell out with Tony Blair over the Iraq war. It is impossible, when he starts writing about Senatorial goings-on, not to see parallels with British politics.<br /><br />The word &ldquo;lustrum&rdquo; refers to a ritual sacrifice held every five years &ndash; the same period as a parliamentary term, of course&nbsp; &ndash; and the novel focuses on one of the most exciting periods in Roman history, when Cicero was fighting to defend the Republic against an unpleasant and opportunistic Catilina. This is followed by his fights against Julius Caesar. <br /><br />Gratifyingly, there are plenty of similarities between ancients and moderns. If it weren&rsquo;t for the togas, you can imagine the plots and parties, betrayals, backstabbing and broken promises in the corridors and backrooms of SW1. It could almost be Westminster-on-the-Tiber. There are story-lines about expenses and about politicians pulling strings to get bigger residences. Plus ca change, we are meant to think. <br /><br />In one passage, Caesar is described as a dangerous man because he fails to see the importance of politics, or life. He has a &ldquo;divine recklessness&rdquo;, and &ldquo;a contempt, if you like, for the world itself &mdash; as if he thinks it&rsquo;s all a joke.&rdquo; A description, one suspects, that the classicist sitting in City Hall might read with interest. <br /><br />However, there is more to Lustrum than glib comparisons. Harris is also keen to point out the differences between then and now. Today the worst that a disgraced MPs faces is deselection or a grilling in the press &ndash; a far better fate than exile or execution. In other ways, too, we compare well with the Romans, whose wars end in slaves and booty being paraded through the streets. Whatever we fight for, we don&rsquo;t fight for this.<br /><br />Leaving all this aside, though, Lustrum is a rip-roaring 400-plus pages, filled with snappy dialogue, plotting and characterisation. In the last analysis the people are far more compelling than the politics, and you can&rsquo;t ask for much more than that. A perfect Boxing Day page-turner.<br /><br /><strong>ADRIAN MOLE:<br />THE PROSTRATE YEARS<br /></strong>BY SUE TOWNSEND<strong><br />Penguin, &pound;18.99</strong><br /><br />SINCE he first ambled into the national consciousness at the age of 13 3/4, Adrian Mole has appeared in eight novels, including this one. He has grown from a pimply adolescent into a disappointed middle-aged man who is now nearly 40. To be precise, 39 1/2. For those who have not followed his evolution, he now lives in a small village in the English countryside with a wife named Daisy who yearns for the big smoke. She is, we learn, the only mother at the school gate in high heels. She fiercely resists wellies. She complains that the hopelessly uncosmopolitan villagers &ldquo;think that Russell Brand is a type of kettle&rdquo;. Mr and Mrs Mole&rsquo;s sex-life is non-existent, and their marriage a sad mistake. <br /><br />What is even worse is the success of Adrian&rsquo;s teenage sweetheart Pandora &ndash; whose full title, Dr Pandora Braithwaite BA, MA, PhD, MP and Junior Minister in the Foreign Office, tells you all you need to know about the divergent paths of their lives. Obviously, Adrian still holds a candle for her. <br /><br />The book is set against a damp and vaguely depressing background of uninspired Englishness: Iceland canapes, the war in Afghanistan, Nigella Lawson, the X Factor, HP Sauce, the Antiques Roadshow, fish and chips. One brilliant story-line has Adrian&rsquo;s mother writing a fictional misery memoir. She also wants to go on the Jeremy Kyle Show to establish once and for all Adrian&rsquo;s paternity. <br /><br />Ostensibly, this is a lightly comic novel with some comfy laughs, but its moments of bleak comedy are telling. Adrian fears he has prostate problems and behind the bric-a-brac of his chaotic, failed life is fear, a knowledge of the passing of time. Old age and illness are starting to loom. Townsend&rsquo;s comedy might be cosy, but there is a seam of darkness running through it. This series is becoming something more interesting than those who first met Mole 25 years ago could have imagined.<br /><br /><strong><br />THE BRIGHTEST<br />STAR IN THE SKY<br /></strong>MARIAN KEYES<br /><strong>Michael Joseph, &pound;18.99</strong><br /><br />MARIAN Keyes was one of the first writers to produce what has become known as chick-lit. While this has become something of a derogatory term, Keyes&rsquo;s books have far more to offer than those who peddle literary candyfloss. <br /><br />Set in Dublin, her latest looks at the lives of eight people living in a block of flats. There is a female cab-driver, a pair of Polish immigrants, a bored couple who enliven their comfortable but aimless existence by performing &ldquo;random acts of kindness&rdquo;, an elderly lady who tells fortunes and a woman whose boyfriend has that staple of chick-lit, &ldquo;commitment issues&rdquo;. The whole thing is narrated by a spirit, with echoes of The Lovely Bones. &nbsp;<br /><br />The characters are nicely drawn and lovable to a tee. The general tone of the book is safe, and this is meant to warm the cockles. This is unashamedly comfortable fiction.<br /><br />However, Keyes gets away with this because she is funny. Most books in this genre are so up-beat that they become kitsch, but Keyes resists the temptation to overdo it. Previous books have looked at addiction, domestic violence and death, and this one touches on dementia. Manipulative? Perhaps, but it adds heart and guts to the novel. <br /><br />Keyes has the talent to inject such story-lines into lightly comic novels. That is exactly why she is so popular, and it raises her above her peers. Whether you can take 624 pages of it, though, depends on whether you are a fan.<br />