Saturday, 29 September 2007

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader
Alan Bennett
Faber/Profile €??

ONE'S out for a stroll in the grounds when the corgis take a dislike to a strange van.

When Her Maj wanders into the van to apologise for the rough manners of the royal woofers, she finds a peaceful scene: it's the City of Westminster's travelling library, and a kitchen boy is reading, while the librarian pastes a label into a book.

Flustered, one asks the same question as always. "Have you come far?"

And borrows a book. That's the start, because with Norman the kitchen boy as a guide, Queen Elizabeth is soon deep in literature and developing muscles.

It's not a popular move. The corgis try to dispose of the books by stealing them and worrying them. One's army tries to blow up the current seducer. One's prime minister and the visiting diplomats and tycoons are dismayed to be asked what they're reading (nothing, it always turns out).

Alan Bennett's charming, gently funny book has taken off on its home island, where the citizenry can be forgiven a little royal-worship. But it's well worth a sneaky read even for the most adamant republican.

xxxxx stars

The Earth Knows My Name by Patricia Klindienst

The Earth Knows My Name
Patricia Klindienst
Beacon Press

SACCO and Vanzetti were murdered by the US in 1927, in a historic fit-up.

Two FBI men had sworn affidavits to the fact that they believed the anarchists innocent of the murders they were executed for. Neighbours had testified that the pair were selling them eels at the time of the armed robbery and murders.

Patricia Klindienst started her rather earnest and political book about gardening when she found a forgotten photo of her Italian immigrant mother holding up a newspaper with the headline announcing that Sacco and Vanzetti's appeal was denied.

It sent her off on a search for immigrant gardens - and the gardens of America's native people.

"The irony of the pressure to assimilate is that it not only robs people of their heritage and their dignity, it robs the dominant culture too, impoverishing us all," she writes.

Her discoveries are very apposite to our own new status as a country hesitantly welcoming incomers.

The book is a surprise underground hit, the word going out across gardening maillists and websites. And no wonder.

Klindienst travels from a garden run by the descendants of slaves to one kept by Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, a Punjabi woman's garden and those of Japanese and Italian and Khmer migrants. She ends in a Yankee's garden, and brings his gift of ancestral corn seeds to the Indians whose culture his own ancestors had ravaged.

xxxx stars

Monday, 24 September 2007

Trespass by Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin
Weidenfeld & Nicholson €??

VALERIE MARTIN'S Mary Reilly was filmed with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich, and her Property won the Orange Prize in 2003.

She's written on a jaw-dropping number of subjects, even including a book about St Francis. From the Deep South, she's now a native New Yorker.

New York's new left is the core of this story of a family getting over the bumps from one generation to the next.

Chloe and Brendan are a book illustrator and a historian, kindly, well-off lefties who just hate the neocons. Their son brings home a girl with a dangerous and biblical name, Salome.

Salome is a Croat, a watchful, pointy little thing who's convinced, quite rightly, that her man's mother doesn't like or trust her.

This normative enough stuff blossoms into a twisty tale of Croatian and Serbian atrocities, strange Basques who hang around with shotguns, mild political activism and generational strife.

It doesn't quite come together - you get the feeling the writer would really much prefer to be telling the story of an American revolution - but it's an absorbing family story.
**** and a half stars

Bad Behaviour by Sheila O'Flanagan

Bad Behaviour
Sheila O'Flanagan
(Headline €??)

CHICKLIT queen and ex-dealer Sheila O'Flanagan's done it again. A huge, comfy quilt of a book that you can snuggle down with.

Darcy, Darce to her friends, is a high-flyer, with everything a girl might desire, except someone to share it all.

But Darce is a bit up her own... well, you get the idea. She's still in a fury 10 years later because her best friend stole her best guy.

Said friend Nieve (eww - am I the only one that hates Irish names phonetically rebranded?) has now sent Darcy an invitation to her Huge Big Wedding, the epitome of glorious vulgarity, to said desired ex.

Darce is not a happy unit.

Always best pals, Darcy and Nieve spent their childhood sharing everything.

But Darcy was a little darling, while Nieve had her beady eye on the main chance, making her fortune from early sproghood by doing messages, chores and every kind of job - for a price.

Now Nieve is about to have her big chance - but dealing can lead to double dealing, and she's facing her greatest challenge.

O'Flanagan is an ex-dealer herself, and writes with confidence about the world of finance.

Bad Behaviour would have been three times as good at a third of the size - but then it's the kind of book that you like to dip in and out of, following the girls through to the happy ending you know is waiting.

xxxx and a half stars

Monday, 17 September 2007

Ship of Dreams by Martina Devlin

Ship of Dreams
Martina Devlin

IT'S too tempting for most writers who take on the Titanic to sink (ahem) happily into that velvety Edwardian world, and go full frontal romantic.

Martina Devlin has given us a crowd-size blockbuster - but it's not just the love story you might be expecting.

Who could blame her if she wrote a King of the World cinematic version - when she set out on her research, the writer unexpectedly found a family story about a great-great-uncle who died on the Titanic, leaving a pregnant bride.

In her fictional riff on their story, Devlin uses every shred of information about the actual sinking - including the haunting memories of those who survived, of the shrieking thousands thrashing in the water.

But then she goes on from there, imagining the life of her pregnant heroine as she makes a life for herself in the new country with allies met on board - the rigid classes of 1900s Ireland riven apart in the struggle in the New World.

Independent columnist Devlin put together a great cast - upper-class lady, American civil war veteran, penniless 'Bridie', romantic Frenchman - to run her story. It's already selling in a big way; this is going to be one to watch.

xxxx stars

The Inferior by Peadar O Guilin

The Inferior
Peadar O Guilin
Publisher €??

IT'S A troubled life you have when you look at your neighbours and think "There's eating and drinking in that fellow".

In Peadar O Guilin's The Inferior, Stopmouth, our disabled hero, hasn't yet been 'volunteered' to be given to one of the other sentient species as lunch, but it's a close thing.

In O Guilin's cannibal world, the humans trade their weaklings for the weaklings of the Clawfolk, Hairfolk, Hoppers and other species. There are no non-sentient prey species, and no edible vegetation.

No species can talk to any other, until, mysteriously, two of the non-human species start to co-operate, and go on a Sarajevo-style ethnic cleansing drive to wipe out the others.

Into this Arcadia drops - what else - a beautiful woman from the sky. Straightaway, the treacherous Wallbreaker, Stopmouth's ambitious, too-clever brother, claims her as a second wife.

And off we go with a rollicking adventure for young adults.

It moves a bit slowly for teens, but for the kind of grownups who loved sci-fi of the classic Gollancz era, this is a relaxing read.

But it sparks uneasy thoughts: when you think about it, if we keep killing off species, our world could be like Peadar O Guilin's chilling vision - a world in which it's eat and be eaten.

xxxx stars

Thursday, 13 September 2007

The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham

The Importance of Being Kennedy
Laurie Graham
(Fourth Estate €??)

NINE children grew up in the Kennedy family. Before the oldest had reached middle age five had met violent ends.

Joe died in World War II, blown up trying to destroy German bombing bases. JFK and Robert were assassinated. Kathleen's plane crashed in France. Rose, the slow one, was destroyed by a lobotomy.

In Laurie Graham's novel based on the family, the narrator is their nursemaid, a sugar-coated viperous ball of malice, cooing how she loves the children, even as she lubriciously repeats every snide rumour.

The Kennedys were the original hothoused children - their mother pinned up news stories for them to discuss at meals; sent them relentlessly to classes in dancing, sailing, swimming; taught them to act as a cohort in each other's interest.

The nasty little rip of a nursemaid shows Joe as a bully and Jack as forever competing; Robert as a piocious coward; Edward as a fat little telltale, and so on. The one she values is Rose - slow, but no more than certain members of the British royal family.

I can see this book having a brief flowering, but it won't be a loved novel people will return to. Too sneery.

xxx stars

Saturday, 1 September 2007

What I Was by Meg Rosoff

What I Was
Meg Rosoff
Penguin €??

THE ENDING is what makes a story great or little, and until the end, Meg Rosoff's The Way I Was is great.

The narrator, Hilary, is miserable in a freezing, ritual-bound sea-coast boarding school of the 1960s.

He's on his last chance - he's been expelled from two previous schools - but he sneaks out and meets Finn, who lives all alone in a wooden chalet on an island reached by a tidal causeway.

Hilary joins Finn on secret expeditions in this understated love story. Finn lives a Boy's Own life, without school or family, living from work on market stalls in town, and longlining for fish.

Finn can't believe that Hilary thinks it's an accomplishment to be a lazy student, and teaches him how to sail, manage a kayak, fish and work for money.

They go hunting for a mediaeval town lost under the sea. "Can you really hear the bells?" Hilary asks, and Finn says, yes, of course.

Rosoff is best known for How I Live Now, a much talked-about 'crossover' novel: a children's book also read by adults, about a 21st-century world war.

How I Was is a winningly told story, and deserves the fabulous sales it's already achieving.
4 stars

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Moral Disorder
Margaret Atwood
Virago €??

A NOVEL told as a series of linked short stories that click together to make a family portrait, Moral Disorder ranges from hilarity to tragedy, and, oddly, from 1950s America to ancient Rome.

In one fragment our hero Nell and her sister Lizzie drive along the highway, having the wandering conversation common to all sisters, as Lizzie mutters at other drivers, all of whom she calls Fred. "Drop dead, Fred, the lights were red," she snarls as a woman crashes through.

Nell acquires a husband, Tig - when his wife, author of the organisational bible Femagician, interviews her and decides she'll do for the job.

Then back to Nell as a 15-year-old monster telling her terrified sister in a 'reasonable but still eerie tone': "It's all right, you can come out of hiding now, the game's over. I'm not a monster, I'm your sister" - with resulting nightmares for little Lizzie.

Then Nell and Tig as hobby farmers, making a pet of a rejected lamb - and bringing him to the slaughterhouse when he's an aggressive ram, and getting him back as chops.

It's an odd book, kind of empty and heartless but at the same time a bit of a pageturner, and at times so funny I found myself giving barks of laughter.

4 stars