Sunday, 30 November 2008

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Gollancz €11.95

JOE HILL'S first novel, Heart-Shaped Box - about a bad-boy rock star who buys a ghost on the internet - was built around a plot hole the size of San Andreas Fault, but was so exuberant, funny and scary that several editions sold out before publication.
The first issue of his comic Locke & Key sold out in one day.
The stories in 20th Century Ghosts were the first book published by a writer who happens to be the son of Stephen King, but kept that quiet until outed by perceptive readers.
The stories are gripping - oh yes. They lack the cruelty of true horror, and they have the sweetness that is Hill's most notable asset.
(His father, incidentally, used to have a dog called Good Boy. When children petted it and said "Good boy!" he would reel back and say: "You're clever! How did you know my dog's name?")
In one story here, a film-obsessed ghost terrifies cinemagoers by chatting to them about the movie, then replaying her death.
In another, dead children coach a kidnap victim on how he should kill their murderer.
In a charming fantasy, a man remembers his best friend, an inflatable boy who lived in terror of the narrator's evil father and his savage pit bull.
Irresistible stories.

The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

O'Brien €12.99
A NEW Irish fantasy talent has appeared. Celine Kiernan is one of the crop of animators developed by Sullivan Bluth when the company was in Ireland.
She went on to follow the work around the world, then she and her husband came home to set up their own studio in Dublin.
She's always had stories niggling away in her head, one of them about Wynter Moorehawke, Protector Lady, well-qualified carpenter's apprentice, former King's Cat-Keeper.
With the first burst of happy laughter, you know you can settle down to a happy fireside read with this fantasy set in a version of a 14th-century south of France.
But this is a France not only of witch-hunts, torture and roadside gibbets, but also of talking cats, clubbable ghosts, and supernaturally chilly statues (which, handily, can be used to keep the milk and butter cool).
That first laugh was at the traditional greeting for cats: "All respect to you this fine day, mouse-bane" - and its most cat-like response: "All the finer for you, having seen me".
But as Wynter arrives home after years, the cats won't acknowledge her, and even the ghosts run away at her greeting. Something is most definitely wrong.
The first of a trilogy, this shows serious promise. I forecast a rosy future for Celine Kiernan.
Author's website

Monday, 24 November 2008

Testimony by Anita Shreve

Little Brown €12.99 (Easons price)
A SCANDAL erupts in a classy private school - three boys aged 18 and 19 and a girl of 14 are filmed in sex acts, and the film is released on the internet.
Testimony is the story of what comes afterwards - and before - in the words of witnesses gathered together for a docu-book.
It sorta works, and sorta doesn't. Where it doesn't, it's because the author really can't decide who's to blame here.
The girl involved is a child, but she's a slut who comes on to boys a few years older. Shreve can't quite bring herself to wholeheartedly condemn them.
No surprises happen, either. It's fairly clear from a few pages in what's going to happen - one boy will die, one will sue, and one will make reparation by devoting himself to charity.
Inevitably, there's an affair between adults tucked between the sheets of the story.
The real villain is sex-for-fun, which ends up making you feel as if you're watching a literary version of Reefer Madness.
Weirdly, the book goes from first person - everyone but the headmaster - to third person for his central narrative, to second person - iffy - for one of the mothers.
It's all worthy and weighty, maybe a sign of exhaustion in a writer who's brought out almost a book a year since 1998.
Publisher's website

The Fire Gospel by Michael Faber

Canongate €10.99 ( again)
JESUS was a fat little guy whose last words were "Please, someone, please finish me", and his most faithful disciple was a spy for the High Priest, in Michael Faber's The Fire Gospel.
His hero, Theo Griepenkerl, is an academic hoovering up some of the goodies of Iraq's antiquities after the war. A gurning curator pauses in leading him through a museum and goes to answer the door.
The subsequent explosion blows a relief of a pregnant goddess to bits, and Theo discovers nine scrolls of perfect papyrus dislodged by the blast.
Which he forthwith steals, and sets out to make his fortune with the translation.
They turn out to be priceless - the words of an actual eyewitness to the Crucifixion, Malchus, who was converted when ... well, it gets a bit graphic here.
In former Whitbread contender Faber's horribly funny book, Theo becomes a Christian version of Salman Rushdie, with enraged crowds and stalkers following him from reading to reading. Not to mention the suicides.
I somehow doubt this is going to be a best-seller. Theo isn't a likeable enough hero - not until the end, anyway.
And it will probably enrage all those who believe, as the song has it, in an interventionist God.
But if it's grim humour you're after, Faber is your man.
Publisher's website

Monday, 17 November 2008

Artemis Fowl and the Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer

Puffin €14.99
NO ONE can say I didn't warn the government that if they dug up Tara, they'd have no luck: those signing the order would be out of a job, and the economy would go down the tubes.
The goddess Bóinne and the Sidhe don't mess about. Any Artemis Fowl reader could have told Bertie and his pals the same. But did they listen?
Eoin Colfer's latest is the perfect Christmas present for any literate kid.
But as with drum sets, it's a gift that will come back to haunt you. It's full of jokes that are incredibly funny when you're young, and demand to be shared.
Former evil mastermind Artemis Fowl has turned his family. Now the criminal dynasty are out to save the world, investing in green power and peace.
But his past misdeeds have rebounded on him. Ma Fowl has the deadly fairy virus Spelltropy.
The only cure came from the silky sifaka lemur, and Artemis, in a typical piece of Fowl play, sold the world's last one to (gasp) Extinctionists.
He must go into the past and steal the lemur from his younger self.
The result is hilarious. Perhaps the best thing is the haiku Artemis composes on the sight of a dwarf's bottom as it tunnels magically into the lemur's cage. But it's just one treat in a book full of treats. Pure fun.
Author's website: Eoin Colfer

Wishful Thinking by Melissa Hill

Hodder €10.14
A TRAIN crashes at Merrion Gates. Lives are ended, and lives are changed.
Rosie gets that train every week. Today she has plenty to think about. Her daughter Sophie has demanded that she hand over the deeds of her house to guarantee the purchase of a dream home.
But Rosie is recently widowed, and when Sophie - owner of a brand-new sports car, regular champers quaffer and sun holiday aficionado - asked the same favour before, dad Martin had said no.
We did without to get a deposit, he said. You can do the same.
Rosie has always been more soft-hearted with her children than Martin was. Now she's thinking through the decision, tempted to say yes.
Other commuters face challenges too.
Dara (when did this name change sex?) is married. She's made her bed and can lie on it. But it's a thorny bed when she looks back after just six months. And when an old flame comes back into her life, her marriage is tinder, not tender.
Louise faces a tough court case when she seeks compensation from the driver who knocked her down and ruined her life. But now, her life is being mocked and vilified by lawyers who seem to know everything about her.
A family-values pageturner from Melissa Hill, this will thrill her fans.
Author's website: Melissa Hill

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Enchanting Alice by Anne Dunlop

Poolbeg €17.99
ANNE Dunlop is back with a blast in this gently funny story of love and marriage in the 1970s.
Beauty queen contestants Jane and Kathleen couldn't be more different. Jane's a svelte, dark Derry beauty, Kathleen a fine sonsy hunk of a farm girl.
Jane confides that her ambition in life is to marry for love, and to live happily ever after.
Be careful what you wish for. Months later she's a 17-year-old bride, married to Kathleen's brother Michael and living on a farm on the top left-hand corner of Lough Neagh, with his Bible-bashing father and spiteful mother, and raging Kathleen.
Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy, as the Bible has it.
Jane soon chickens out and makes a run for it, moving into a house in a nearby council estate.
And we're off - into a cosy world where Jane's new neighbours teach her how to live, and turn her into a hothousing mother who force-feeds her children Mozart and mackerel, while flirting with sexy Oliver, father of 10, from down the road.
Poor Michael, meanwhile, is a slave on his father's farm.
This is pure fantasy. It's set in Northern Ireland from around 1971 to 1988, but there isn't a whiff of the Troubles - just adorable mountainous farmers beating the Lambeg drum at the Glorious Twelfth marches.
It's cuddly, undemanding and fun, with a sweet humour that is very appealing.
And don't worry - Jane gets the second half of her wish too.

Love in a Damp Climate by Quentin Fottrell

Currach €14.99

IF YOU see an a woman reading a paperback, gawping and muttering "Holy God tonight!" - that will be me, reading Quentin Fottrell's Love in a Damp Climate.
Ray D'Arcy Show agony uncle Fottrell's advice is sometimes sensible, sometimes, well...
To a woman hurt by discovering her husband's online porn, he writes: "No doubt there are some husbands out there who don't surf the Net, looking for porn. While they do exist, I don't believe they're exactly thriving as a breed."
He tells the story of Emily, whose last text from one beau, on Hallowe'en, said: "Be careful if you go out tonight, because the pretty girls always get murdered first."
Nothing daunted, she was standing outside Kehoe's when she heard a good-looker saying "I'll go and try my chances with that blonde."
"Good luck," she said as he passed, and he went into courting mode. He brought her home to the farm - where she spent her time eating broccoli and celery and competing with the heifers for his attentions.
After a night of would-be passion, Catherine opened her bald swain's medicine cabinet and cruelly drew a '!' on his bottle of Rogaine hair restorer.
Gay Michael "never thought of boys romantically. Except for one guy at school who I fooled around with from 14 to 17..."
Stefano left Helen because he was being conscripted by the Italian Army. She ran into him again three weeks later in Whelan's - and he tried to get off with her.
Holy God tonight.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Atlantic €16
ARAVIND Adiga forewarns the reader from the start that his hero is a murderer, so every event is flavoured by that pre-knowledge.
This year's Booker winner isn't so much a novel as a diatribe against the corruption of India.
He writes about an India with an even worse case of the post-colonials than Ireland.
Landlords in 'the darkness' - the countryside - run a kleptocracy where they vote on behalf of their tenants, and their thugs beat to death anyone impertinent enough to want to use his own vote.
Balram, our hero, aka the White Tiger, is scholarship material. But in a village where the teacher steals the money for uniforms and school meals, he's soon put to work breaking coals.
Ambition leads him out of the village, to life as a serf in the town home of the family of the psychopathic local industrialists, where he learns how to bribe politicians, and how the 'rooster coop' of Indian life works.
After the murder, there's a moment where he reads a one-paragraph story: "Family of 17 murdered in northern India", and knows it's his own family, murdered in revenge.
If you want a sweet book to calm your troubled heart as you watch the destruction of the world economy, look elsewhere. If you like a savage satire, this is the book for you.

Bones of the Hills by Conn Iggulden

HarperCollins €16
AVID fans of Conn Iggulden's work will love this. I wasn't that gone on it, to tell the gods' honest truth.
Genghis Khan, having galloped through two enormous books and across Asia and Europe already, is now taking on the Arabs and Persians and Afghanis.
He hasn't a lot of time for his most talented son, Jochi - partly because he's convinced that Jochi is not his but the child of rape.
Chief fomenter of this rumour is Jochi's pettish brother Chagetai, who's determined to cut Jochi out of the succession.
Iggulden uses this conflict as a loose structure to hold together some wonderful set-pieces on the real battles fought by the Mongols in their advance westwards.
He switches viewpoints frenetically - from Genghis to his wives Borte and Chakahai, his sons and generals and the judo champion who teaches the Mongols to wrestle.
The battles are described with the kind of immediacy that would make you suspect that Iggulden has a time machine stashed in his writing room.
He hasn't stuck to the legend - his Genghis is a black-haired Mongol, not the green-eyed redhead of the old stories - but he's stuck close to the records of conquest and cruelty.
For those who loved the first two of the Conqueror series, the third will complete the tale.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy

Orion €23.40
MAEVE Binchy, founder of Irish chicklit, has written the book that will steal Christmas.
These loosely linked stories fan out from the central theme of a struggling new heart clinic. Here, kindness and hard work are rewarded and the bad punished. Very satisfying.
Some of the stories are amazing. My favourite is about the priest stalked by a determined woman ready to lie, blackmail and steal to get her way - and about how his friends get him out of this scrape.
It's laugh-out-loud funny, it's heartwarming, and it's a pageturner. And for fans, some of the characters from earlier Binchy hits make a new appearance here - like the staff of Quentins, and the ditsy twins from Scarlet Feather.
The new characters are some of Binchy's best. Anya, a sweet, tough-minded Polish girl, starts work as a general dogsbody in the heart clinic, and makes herself indispensible. But as she and the son of a social climber fall in love, things get rocky.
Down-to-earth doctor Declan falls madly for nurse Fiona the first time he sees her. Ah, but Fiona has a past...
Binchy has only got better since the days when she started her writing life as an affectionately gossipy journalist and then wrote the first girly bestsellers - can it be 26 years since Light a Penny Candle?
A lovely book.

Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill

Quercus €18.84
OLD communists in the Laos of the 1970s are the unlikely heroes of Colin Cotterill's thrillers - and especially his hero, Siri.
Dr Siri Paiboun spent his youth fighting in the jungles, side-by-side with his wife, to free his country from French occupation.
By now he's in his mid-70s, a lonely widower, and in any civilised country he'd be settling into retirement with the comfort of a pension and a medical card.
No such luck for the aged revolutionary: he's national coroner, and uses his medical skills and his love of Maigret to investigate mysterious deaths.
One of Dr Siri's cases is the drowning of a kid from a fishing village - an ace swimmer, whose corpse is covered in mosquito bites and splinters above the waist, but not below.
The other is a blind semi-retired dentist (ow!) killed by a truck - after picking up a letter written in invisible ink.
Dr Siri and his friend Civilai, a top government cadre, go off together to investigate. They're friends even though Civilai is one of those who stole the governing of the country from the founding revolutionaries.
It's very funny - particularly when the two pals attend a Bruce Lee show re-voiced in Lao, where the audience rock with laughter as the evil capitalist somersaults backwards onto the roof, snarling "We slaves of the Western money culture will always prevail, you common coolie".
Very funny, and very political, and quite instructive.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Microtrends by Mark J Penn and E Kinney Zalesne

Penguin €14.90
JUST days ago Microtrends - published this time last year but still sailing off the shelves of airport bookshops - seemed like an amusing analysis of a stable, static world. No more.
Microtrends authors Mark Penn and Kinney Zalesne write about " the emerging counterintuitive trends that are shaping tomorrow right before us".
Penn - advisor to Microsoft, the Clinton, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton - and lawyer and former Janet Reno counsel Zalesne chose 75 'microtrends' on how US society is going.
Or was going until the rolling economic crash of the last fortnight.
They said five million Americans aged 65 or over were still working, almost twice as many as in the 1980s, and added "That number is about to explode."
It certainly is, now that the comfortable pension you've earned is dissolving before your eyes.
'Old New Dads' who father children in late middle age were surely a boomer luxury.
The 'Sun-Haters', who spawned an industry of sun-proof clothes and sunscreen, may disappear now that there are more immediate dangers to fear.
How charmingly historic 'International Home-Buyers' now seem.
'Militant Illegals', ' Extreme Commuters' and '30-Winkers' are features of a world full of work, with ballooning house prices.
The recent past is another country. They did things differently then.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Penguin €13.40
DISASTER Capitalism, Naomi Klein calls it - powerful people making their fortunes from chaos.
Bedad, they're feeding now.
Imagine this book being read by tooth-grinding, newly impoverished suits in the business class lounges of international airports.
Klein describes how right-wing ideologue Milton Freedman advised the dictator Augusto Pinochet to change Chile during the hyperinflation that followed his 1973 coup d'état.
The makeover comprised tax cuts, free trade, privatised services, cuts to social spending, and deregulation - and replacing state schools by private ones funded by vouchers.
Klein, a Canadian journalist who founded the No Logo movement and has written about consumer culture for many years, follows the system of shock followed by 'reforms' through Iraq after the US invasion, Russia after Yeltsin, New Orleans after Katrina, and the Asian Tiger economies after the currency run that caused their crash.
Controversially, she links the free-market tactics to the rise in torture in countries where these theories were put into effect - claiming that torture is used to crush economic dissent.
Her theory is that the super-rich, backed by some world banking organisations, use the stunned shock of people after an economic or natural disaster to remake economies in the profitable image of laissez-faire.
If she's right, you may now have a chance to watch the shock doctrine in action in a country near you.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Bloomsbury €13.99

IT MUST have been particularly galling for Mary Ann Shaffer that she died before she could finish her first and only novel.
More galling for her readers. Shaffer's characters are so vivid that you sigh with regret as you finish their story.
She decided to write about Guernsey after getting stuck in the airport there, where she kept herself warm under the hand-dryer in the men's toilets.
There (not in the actual toilets) she found Jersey Under the Jack-Boot, and discovered to her astonishment that the Channel Islands had been occupied by the Germans during World War II.
Born in West Virginia, Shaffer spent a lifetime working in libraries, bookshops and publishing.
Eight years before she died, she started to write the story that haunted her.
It was finished in draft when she discovered that she had abdominal cancer, and asked her niece, children's writer Annie Barrows, to tie up the loose ends.
This is the story: after the war, a brittle London columnist finds herself in correspondence, first with a Guernsey pig farmer who has bought a book she once owned and seeks more by the same author, then with other members of his book club.
An innocent opening, which leads dreamily into the realities - including the horrors - of that German occupation. And to love, death, moral questions and the whole lot.
It's a winter book, the kind for a big leather armchair, a turf fire and a glass of hot port.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Bloomsbury €13.99

IT MUST have been particularly galling for Mary Ann Shaffer that she died before she could finish her first and only novel.
More galling for her readers. Shaffer's characters are so vivid that you sigh with regret as you finish their story.
She decided to write about Guernsey after getting stuck in the airport there, where she kept herself warm under the hand-dryer in the men's toilets.
There (not in the actual toilets) she found Jersey Under the Jack-Boot, and discovered to her astonishment that the Channel Islands had been occupied by the Germans during World War II.
Born in West Virginia, Shaffer spent a lifetime working in libraries, bookshops and publishing.
Eight years before she died, she started to write the story that haunted her.
It was finished in draft when she discovered that she had abdominal cancer, and asked her niece, children's writer Annie Barrows, to tie up the loose ends.
This is the story: after the war, a brittle London columnist finds herself in correspondence, first with a Guernsey pig farmer who has bought a book she once owned and seeks more by the same author, then with other members of his book club.
An innocent opening, which leads dreamily into the realities - including the horrors - of that German occupation. And to love, death, moral questions and the whole lot.
It's a winter book, the kind for a big leather armchair, a turf fire and a glass of hot port.

Song of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult

Hodder & Stoughton €14.99

WHAT a baffling book this is - until you realise that it's Jodi Picoult's first, published way back in 1992 and now reissued.
The story is all over the place, told in fractured scenes, with the culmination repeated in fragments.
Jane Jones is escaping a marriage that's sliding into violence by driving with her daughter Rebecca to her brother. star-
But her husband, a world-famous marine biologist who knows more than anyone else about the songs of the humpback whale, has spent his life tracking whales, sets out to track his wife and daughter.
Two love affairs, the death of a lover, a childhood of abuse and the maturation of a teenager in an extended road move are rattled around and thrown out again in a fragmented story.
Jane and Rebecca are heading towards the apple farm where Jane's brother Jolie works. They find three men there: the owner, Sam, and his employees Jolie and Hadley.
The novel was controversial because of its age-barrier-crossing shock tactics - Sam and Hadley are both 25, and the mother falls for one and the daughter for the other.
This was and is a bestseller. Don't let me put you off.
I didn't much like it. Oliver isn't a particularly nasty guy; a pain in the ass, certainly, and a control freak - but half of the women of Ireland are married to that.
But be assured, you're in the hands of an expert, even in Picoult's first published novel.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

The Táin, edited and translated by Ciaran Carson

Penguin Classics €11.99

FUBSY but ferocious, Setanta Ó Sualdaim was a nasty piece of work.
At the age of seven the pup was beating the tripes out of 150 other Ulster sprogs when King Conchobhar, brother of Setanta's mother, Dechtire, asked his nephew to dinner with his blacksmith, Cullen.
Blacksmiths, in the Bronze and Iron Ages, were the techie tigers. They made all the weapons of mass destruction.
The king arrived at Cullen's, and Cullen let loose his massive mastiff with three men on the end of each of its three chains.
When Setanta turned up, dilly-dallying with his hurley, javelin and sliotar, he killed this family pet. But he told the weeping smith that he'd train up another dog - sure isn't one as good as another? - and meanwhile act as a guardian for the house and business.
So he got the name Cú Chullain - Cullen's Hound.
Fast-forward 10 years, the Connachtmen are advancing, led by huffy Queen Medhbh, in a fury because her best bull has gone over to her husband's herd.
The Ulstermen are under a curse put on them by a gravid sprinter and pre-pubertal Cúchullain, now a vicious superboy, is the only one who can defend them.
Ciaran Carson's new version is unlike the stately complexities of the myth, but has a slangy, riveting immediacy.

The Witness by Sandra Brown

Hodder €10.14
IT'S incredibly annoying when the hero you're reading about has a secret and you don't know it.
It's like one of those youthful episodes with big brothers dangling sweets high above your grabby little hands.
This is the way of it in Sandra Brown's 70th-or-so novel (more than 50 of which made the New York Times bestseller list).
A couple are in hospital - the woman, Kendall, has saved the man - she says he's her husband - obviously he's not.
Kendall tries to go on the run with her baby. The mystery man sticks to her like glue.
Interspersed with this thrilling chase is another - the story of the woman's marriage to a well-off Bubba, her life as a defence lawyer in small-town Deep South America, and increasingly sinister episodes.
Kendall finds, like many a girl before her, that the man she has married is deeply in love with his dad.
He prefers to go hunting and fishing with daddy. Poppa turns up for breakfast during their honeymoon.
And Kendall doesn't know whether she's being paranoid when she feels that there's something a little sinister about her father-in-law.
This is the perfect book to bring to hospital when you're going to have an endless wait for a nasty procedure. You won't be able to put it down - but you'll instantly forget it as soon as you finish it.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Someone Special by Sheila O'Flanagan

Headline Review €12.99
STEP-FAMILIES have been an ideal - in fiction anyway - since The Brady Bunch. You have two, I have two, we have one together, and everyone's ecstatic.
But in Sheila O'Flanagan's Someone Special, the Dolan family regard half-sister Roma Kilkenny as an interloper.
The Dolans are an unusual thing in today's Ireland - the proprietors of a family business.
Stodgy Darragh inherited the reins from his father. The one who should have got the job, everyone feels, is accountant Kathryn.
Half-sister Romy is outside it all; she's in Ireland to mind her mother briefly, but her heart is back in Australia.
I read on, not really knowing what it was all about, apart from the fact that the Dolan-Kilkenny clan were invariably nasty to each other.
A lot of the action takes place in people's heads. It seems a book that might have been much better if the first draft was ditched and a new, sharper one written.
But then you come to the last 100 pages, and the pace speeds up. Suddenly you're whipping through the story, eager to know what's going to happen.
Will Alan, Kathryn's violent husband, drag her back to servitude in America? Will Darragh edge the others out of the firm? Will the warring siblings find each other? I couldn't stop reading.

Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer

Atom €11.99

THERE'S eating and drinking in Bella, heroine of Stephanie Meyer's superseller Breaking Dawn.
Bella Swan is engaged to a man who hungers for her. Literally. He's a vampire.
Meyer hit on the perfect formula: chicklit with bloodlust. Giant books, each guaranteed to stun a suave vampire if you drop it on him from a height, giving you time to run away, slowly.
In the first of the Twilight series shy Bella moved from Arizona to the small town of Forks. Here she fell for schoolboy vampire Edward Cullen.
And so on through the series, which 'young adults' just, well, drink up. Especially, I've noticed, young Christians.
Edward and his bloody family are moral types; they don't prey on humans, but instead drink animal blood. Maybe a nice slice of black pudding.
In this tome, Bella has reached her full strength, and challenges the powers of evil. But first... she's pregnant. And baby vampires bite.
I couldn't get into it at all. Maybe it's all that elephant garlic from Lidl I've been eating.
But these books - and many in the same vein - are ginormous sellers.
The Darren Shan series - the first, Cirque du Freak, now being filmed - the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles, and a night-black host of others are flocking onto your shelves. Beware.

Monday, 22 September 2008

The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg


KASPER Krone can hear aural auras, sensing the defining note of any person.
In the hands of Peter Høeg, whose Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, was a deeply loved cult hit in 1992, you can happily expect weirdness, depth of feeling and a blizzard of mad facts.
In his first book in 10 years, Høeg goes off on a solo flight.
Ex-clown Krone is pulled into a labyrinth surrounding the 'quiet girl' of the title - a child who reveals herself as having no 'tone'.
Krone's in trouble: a gambling habit has landed him with a huge tax debt and he's about to be deported and jailed.
Now he sets off to search for the toneless child, convinced that she's in the hands of kidnappers.
Krone is full of notions, the story full of whispery mysteries, devolving finally into fantasy about a race of magical children hidden from the world.
I loved Smilla, and found this disappointing. It's terribly complex, fine if it held great depths, but I couldn't see these depths - which is just as likely to be a lack in me as in the book.
If you love the circus, you'll love this, and if you love language, how could you fail to love a writer who talks of "heavy, fine rain that fell like a grey silk curtain".

A Whispered Name by William Brodrick

Little, Brown
IN the Great War, a man is found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death.
Two generations later, a woman comes to a monastery seeking the truth about what happened.
But the truth has died with the monk who left a scatter of memorials, including the army tags of another soldier.
The monastery sends another aged monk, a former lawyer, to hunt out the truth of what happened.
The result is a story that starts out with great oomph but swiftly gets entangled in itself.
William Brodrick is an English writer living in Paris, a former monk, and he writes stunningly about monastic life - the vocation that strikes a monk with such homesickness that he's drawn home to the abbey.
He's on less sure ground writing about the fatal act of heroism at the centre of his story - islander Seosaimh Ó Flanagáin's throw of the dice to save a lost man.
But this is a writer to watch. He skirts the temptation of writing about the politics of World War I, and goes for the mud and the blood and the beer.
The story of Joe Flanagan and Owen Doyle - and Herbert Moore, who must try a court-martial, and who ends his days in monkish silence - is almost good, and has moments of greatness.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Shadows of Doubt By Noel Redican

Mercier €13.50

NOEL Redican comes from a family of out-and-outers: two of his Redican uncles were the hardest hunger-strikers and toughest gunmen in the War of Independence.
Then there was Uncle Sean - Seán Harling, married to Redican's aunt Nora.
The Redicans robbed a bank and handed over the money. Dedicated republicans, they had never counted it, and somewhere between them and the quartermasters it went missing.
Few believed the Redicans took it - church mice were wealthy magnates compared to them, and bank managers routinely inflated the amount supposed to have been stolen - but questions were asked.
Their brother-in-law was a clever lad taken up by Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins. After a long fight for the Republic he took the side of the Irregulars, then inexplicably joined the Free State police as a spy.
When it came out that he was spying on the Fianna, the main recruiting arm of the Movement, the IRA sent assassins after him; he shot dead the man sent to kill him.
Or did he? Redican's book makes it clear that he thinks the Gardai - and ultimately their Fianna Fail bosses, Éamon de Valera, Seán Lemass, Sean McEntee and Frank Aiken - were responsible.
Seán Harling, he says, gave up his life and his reputation for Ireland.
Anyone reading this outstanding work of scholarship and inside knowledge will be convinced.

Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly

Bodley Head

IN 378 AD the Huns attacked the city of Constantinople, which was then the centre of the Roman Empire.
The Romans had brought in some mercenaries to fight off the Huns and the Goths who'd joined them. These mercenaries were Saracens recruited from Arab tribes.
One of these rode at the Goths. "With a chilling yell he slit the throat of one of the Goths and, leaning down from his horse, drank the blood that spurted warm from the wound."
The Huns hurriedly withdrew. But not for long. A few decades later they would overrun the whole of the Roman empire, devastating it from Romania to Belgium.
Historian Christopher Kelly's book should be read by anyone who worries that the Roman Empire in its dying stages bore similarities to western civilisation.
It is flocked with fascinating characters and events (Olympiodorus, a diplomat with a performing parakeet, anyone? Attila, about to abandon a siege, seeing that a stork has carried her chicks away from their nest, and deciding that "since birds can see into the future", he's going to win, sacking the city?)
It's thronged with on-the-spot facts - about the physical look of eunuchs and their place in Roman society, about the real value of the huge protection money paid to Attila and his boys to leave the Romans alone.
It's full of double-dealing and dastardly deeds, told in a breathless tone that makes it as immediate as Watergate.
It's funny, it's dashing, it's tragic, it's violent, and it's horribly reminiscent of the modern West and its neighbours.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

4th Estate €14.99

CRICKET in New York? Irish-Turkish-Dutch-American writer Joseph O'Neill's voice rings the knell of nostalgia in this Booker-nominated story.
Hans van den Broek, abandoned by his wife, wilts through his days as an oil futures analyst, and his solitary nights in the Chelsea Hotel, and befriends dodgy Trinidadian cricket tycoon-wannabe Chuck Ramkissoon.
During the breakup the narrator asks, "disastrously" if there is anything he can say that might make her change her mind, then flees to the bathroom.
"When I picked up my toothbrush it was wet. She had used it with a wife's unthinking intimacy. A hooting sob rose up from my chest."
Alone, but for the strange strangers who haunt the Chelsea - one a man who dresses as an angel, with several changes of wings - he joins a cricket league of men from the Caribbean and the subcontinent.
O'Neill is superb on America's petty horrors - in one hideously funny scene, the apparatchiks of the DMV use their tiny power with raging glee to bully poor souls who need driving licences.
The unwieldy story begins with the announcement that Ramkissoon's bound and drowned body has been found, and wanders through the marriage breakup to a reunion.
It's a bit disappointing, despite the flashing brilliance, but its beautiful writing shows the sure signature of a writer set to do greater things.

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Picador €23.60 (hardback)

OSAMA is the name of the narrator. It's a playful touch that brings you into Alameddine's Arabian Nights world.
A hakawati is a seanchaí. These traditional storytellers work Arab cafes, holding listeners spellbound with tricksy twists.
Osama has rushed from Los Angeles to his father's Beirut deathbed. As the family mourns and remembers, a series of stories about emirs and slaves and djinns plays itself out.
It's a device that works, kind of. The book is fat enough to have proved a potent weapon in any of the wars the family passes through - the Lebanese war, the Israel-Palestine one, various homelier conflicts.
In one running story, slave girl Fatima gets herself a djinn stalker who cuts off her hand, and she goes in search of this charmed hand.
(You know those familiar Irish door-knockers in the shape of a hand, by the way? They originated from the same charm - the Hand of Fatima.)
For the western reader - this one, anyway - it all gets confusing. I found myself whining "Where's the story", wanting just one tale rather than this plethora.
If you want to know all about the folk myth around the Koran, and how the Middle East thinks, though, you needn't look further than this wind-about tale.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Saving Grace by Ciara Geraghty


ALREADY by page 7 it's so funny that a shocked hoot escapes. A few pages later, with her characters in mid-kiss, Ciara Geraghty writes: "I'm like an eight-year-old in Claire's Accessories - I just want everything, immediately, no questions asked".
Saving Grace is so funny and so much fun it's impossible to believe it's Geraghty's first.
But indeed it is. And she obviously got a bang out of writing it.
This is the story of insurance assessor Grace O'Brien, who has just woken up in bed with big shy Bernard, the new IT guy. To her horror.
Her beautiful, beloved boyfriend, Shane, is temporarily in England, and she can't believe she's been so stupid.
But Grace is a registered eejit - seriously asthmatic, she smokes; she thinks chestnuts come from oak trees, and mixes up the Himalayas and the Andes.
She's also a big sweetie, towering in her teetering high heels from one social disaster to the next.
And she's on the run from anything serious, because she's raw with grief. She can't talk to her mother about her brother's death - they can't even look at each other, because Patrick died saving Grace from one of her silly escapades.
Warm, moving and hilarious, this is the book that will shield you from even an Irish summer.

The Matchmaker by Marita Conlon-McKenna

AS HE made them, He matched them, Dublin mothers are apt to mutter darkly as they look at their daughters and the fellows they marry.
But Maggie Ryan, in The Matchmaker, is determined that there's someone for everyone - especially for her three single daughters, Anna, Grace and Sarah.
Her teeth are whetted when a rich bachelor moves into her Pleasant Square homeland.
But Anna wants a poet, who'll love her with the burning passion Yeats had for Maud Gonne.
She meets a disturbingly ambitious playwright with a symbolic take on life, the doyen of the café scene.
Happiness looms - or does it?
Not to mention Grace, who's happy and confident in her relationship with a man her colleagues call Mr Smooth - until he has that "We've had fun, I'm sorry it had to end this way" talk with her.
The old girlfriend he'd finished with has turned up, and it's not finished after all.
Sarah isn't looking for a man. She's happy enough to have a good male babysitter for her kid, and to draw and write the adventures of Mitten the Kitten to entertain the little one.
And Maggie herself? Not a chance. Until the girls send her off on a spa break and she meets her match.
As gorgeous and snuggly a book at you'll read in a long day's cuddle-up in bed, The Matchmaker is a winner.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson


MUST stop reading must stop reading just another page must stop reading.
It's one of those books - but not for the first third, which is slow and awkwardly written.
Read the first few pages to get the characters in your head, then skip to a third in, when our hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is investigating the long-ago disappearance of the heir to an industrial empire.
Stieg Larsson, who wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was Sweden's best and bravest investigative journalist, the bane of racist and neo-Nazi organisations and a world authority on them.
His life was lived under constant death threats.
After his work in journalism, he settled down at night to write thrillers. He wrote a series of three - this is the first; the other two will appear in translation next year and 2010.
He gave the manuscripts to a publisher, and then died of a massive heart attack at the age of 50.
The books, published posthumously, were a million-selling sensation in Sweden, and this first of the series is now taking off worldwide, after being chosen by Oprah.
The story: journalist Mikael Blomkvist, convicted of libel for a story about a dodgy tycoon, is hired by the aged head of the Vanger family to investigate the disappearance of his granddaughter in the 1960s.
Working on the Vangers' desolate island home, Blomkvist is helped by a hacker, Lisbeth Salander, a damaged kid under the 'care' of the State. They discover that there's more to the Vangers than a family business.
There they become the hunted, with very dangerous people on their trail, ready to kill and maim to shut them up.
Apart from being a tense, horrifying thriller that will have your eyes standing out from your head and your mouth hanging open as you read, it's a guide to investigative reporting.

Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong


DELICOUS, and sometimes stomach-turning, Shanghai food is a central thread in Red Mandarin Dress.
A serial killer is murdering vulnerable women, leaving their bodies sprawled in pornographic poses, wearing demure mandarin dresses.
Comrade Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau skips neatly aside when he's asked to take charge of another investigation.
A radical lawyer is taking on a corrupt builder, and Chen knows the Party bosses are likely to be up to their pockets in the building deal.
He explains that he's involved in taking a degree in Chinese literature - can't see that one going down well in Phoenix Park - and hasn't got the time to give the case his attention.
But behind the scenes, Chen starts work on both cases.
Qui uses tasty literary references, and a deep knowledge of the history and experience of the Cultural Revolution, to paint Chen's investigation. It's a riveting story.
The mandarin dress was a symbol of the decadent old China: in the 1960s, the ideal was the Iron Woman, dressed in her Mao suit and muscled up to be a star worker.
A beautiful violinist became both the icon of the revolution - in a photo showing her with her pretty son, gazing into the future - and a subject of blackmail by the bullies who had come to the fore with the Red Guards.
Chen unwinds the threads leading into the past to find the killer, in a story that tells you hard facts about both new-capitalist and revolutionary China.
As Chen and his colleagues find the killer and set up the trap, he quotes the Chinese poets. "When the fictional is real, the real is fictional; where there's nothing, there's everything," he murmurs.
He never said a truer word.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

Jonathan Cape

KRAIT venom is a deadly neurotoxin that kills seven out of 10 victims.
But that's not what laundryman Uncle Starchy tells Under Officer Ali Shigri in A Case of Exploding Mangoes.
It's a stoner, he says. It's only deadly if it touches metal. Then it will kill an elephant. First the elephant dances, then he drags his feet, then he dies.
Shigri has reason to be venomous. His father, Pakistan president General Zia Ul-Haq's sidekick and security boss, committed suicide.
Like a lot of Zia's friends who got a little too powerful, Shigri senior died suddenly.
In this tremendously entertaining novel, depiction of the fictional Zia steers close to his real-life counterpart, though perhaps more loveable.
A religious maniac who decides that there should be no name for God but Allah, Zia bans all other names, even the pet names mothers use in children's prayers.
He's been collecting enemies throughout his career, since he hanged his predecessor, prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
His generals bug his rooms. The US ambassador can't stand him. But his most dangerous enemy is a mild-mannered blind woman, awaiting stoning to death (because she can't identify her rapists, so she's obviously an adulteress).
The Maoist head of the mango producers' union is cursing him from his jail deep underground. And like every assassin, Zia is paranoid of his apprentices.
Even God is out to get him, sending him messages through the Koran.
Young Shigri, his camp friend Baby O and a CIA man brought in to teach them the famous Silent Drill are all too innocent.
As A Case of Exploding Mangoes opens, we already know that we're looking at a bunch of dead guys. Hanif's consummate skill is in showing us how the guys got dead, and making us laugh the whole way to the kill.

The Secret Shopper's Revenge by Kate Harrison

IT'S chicklit of the best sort, and it's a bildungsroman too.
Emily is a single mother. She never intended to be, but her up-and-coming businessman husband up and went. Now he's in Switzerland with lover Heidi, and Emily's subsisting on subsistence payments with baby Freddie.
Sandie is the corporate woman. Her toe is on the threshold of the boardroom, she coaches her Lord Dim boss in strategy and figures, and he brings her for cosy suppers.
Grazia is a redundant muse - the artist she inspired and adored and nursed has died and left her with no purpose in life.
But the fate that brings these three together changes every one of them. Not to mention serving up the most satisfying comeuppance to the baddies who do them down.
There are great villains: Emily's ex, slimy little Duncan; the horrid Marsha, who patronises her customers and cheats her bosses; Grazia's anonymous phone-caller.
At the start, Emily is a child, still in thrall to the creepy boy-next-door she married, who calls her Chubster and Piglet. And Sandie and Grazia? They have their secrets and their insecurities.
As the three become mystery shoppers, turning their cameras on shops and businesses to find out who's caring for customers and who's walking all over them, they grow and change.
This is a Cinderella story - three Cinderellas, really - and as yummy and comforting as a big box of liqueur-filled chocolates.
If the sun is shining, take it to the beach. If the day feels as if someone opened a zip in a water-filled sky, curl up beside a turf fire with the duvet around you, good music and a box of Lily O'Brien's chocs, and sink into that chicky enjoyment.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy by Tom Reilly

DID Oliver Cromwell's soldiers commit an outrage in Drogheda, killing, raping and looting?
Tom Reilly - born in Drogheda, and an admirer of Cromwell - says it was an act of war, and there is no proof that any civilians were killed.
In his detailed and argumentative account of Cromwell in Ireland, Reilly finds no credible evidence by the Puritan besiegers, and only propaganda by Catholics and royalists, to show a general massacre.
Cromwell himself is quoted as saying that the defending officers were 'knocked on the head', while the troops were decimated, every tenth man killed and the other nine sent to Barbados (that is, into slavery).
It's a fascinating book, despite occasional minor blunders (referring to General David Leslie's troops at Dunbar in September 1650 as Highlanders, when in fact the ungodly Highlanders had been excluded by the Act of Classes prior to that; giving Charles I four children at the time of his death, when he had six).
But back to Drogheda. We know from modern sieges - Srebenica, Leningrad - what happens. The rich get out, leaving their servants, the poor, the troops and the idealists to defend the besieged city.
When the besiegers burst in, there's mass looting, rape and destruction.
Reilly is on a bit of a sticky wicket insisting that the New Model Army's soldiers were different. They were famous in England for their looting in Ireland. (A contemporary drawing shows one draped with ducks, links of sausages and a roast bird on a spit, cups and glasses dangling off his bandolier, a tureen helmet and a roasting-dish as a shield.)
Slow to start, this boots up into a fascinating book, especially worth reading for the contemporary accounts.

Disguise by Hugo Hamilton

4th Estate
YOU can't live your life on a hunch, Gregor's best friend tells him; but that's what he does.
Gregor lives in disguise from the day when a black market dealer hands the child over to a woman whose own child has been blown to smithereens in the bombing of Berlin.
The dealer is the woman's father, Emil, a man with contacts and lovers from Poland to Alsace, himself soon to disappear in the explosion that is the world war.
Gregor grows up thinking he's the woman's son. His 'father' comes home from the war obsessed with hunting and survival, and teaches him how to find the right mushrooms and berries, how to live in the woods when you have nothing.
Then one day Uncle Max - who may or may not have betrayed Emil to the Gestapo under torture - lets the secret out.
Gregor becomes convinced that he's a Jewish child, smuggled out, one of the saved, one of the Chosen.
Jew: it's a word that causes its own explosions in a Germany trying to forget its guilt.
His best friend, Martin, says "Welcome to the club" - he's the son of a Russian officer - perhaps the child of rape. Forget it, you can't let the past devour your life, he pleads.
But Gregor can't stop travelling, trying to unravel the truth or leave it behind. His own son grows up, and people remark that he's the spit of Emil.
Hugo Hamilton's new novel starts, literally, with a bang, but strays a little in its examination of identity, nationality, ancestral guilt, race memory and other big questions.
They're questions that beg for an answer, even a wrong answer, but here they can get only thought.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Love Lies Bleeding by Kate Thompson

New Island Books
SLAPPED down by her publishers, Kate Thompson bounced right back.
She was almost finished her new book, Love Lies Bleeding, when her publisher called her and said sorry, kid, it's time for us to part.
With the help of her writer friends - including Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly - Kate put a notice up on her popular blog, and started selling her book online.
She sent the first part of the book off for free, and requests flooded in to buy the rest of the book, nicely produced by local businesses around Camden Street.
And she kept writing. Now Kate has a new publisher, and Love Lies Bleeding is in the shops in an official, non-online version
Love Lies Bleeding is the finest Thompson fare: writers, artists and film stars living glam lives between California, Ireland and France. Love and misunderstandings. Death and infidelity. Basically nice people getting all twisted up.
Screenwriter Deirdre O'Dare and her sexy film star husband Rory McDonagh are passionately in love. She's certainly not jealous of Corinne, the beautiful body double with whom he simulates sex for professional reasons. Oh no.
Greta O'Flaherty (who's also the body double Corinne, working under a pseudonym, just to confuse us a bit) is looking for a new life.
Luckily, Deirdre and Rory are looking for a nanny with the cúpla focal, so Greta gets a job minding the bábóga.
Then director's wife Dannie Palmer, jealous and sad and desperate for a baby, starts her "brilliant career as a home-wrecker, morale annihilator and mind-body-spirit terminator".
For those who love a cosy page-turner, this is the perfect beach book.
Love, death, betrayal, misunderstandings - everything that makes a great story.
Not to mention hysterical take-offs of very recognisable Irish stars of stage, screen and page.
Our Kate's done it again.

The Good Plain Cook by Bethan Roberts

Serpent's Tail

WEALTHY and arty, Peggy Guggenheim slept with her many lovers (though perhaps not at the same time) in a bed with a silver bedhead by Calder.
Her parents had been supremely wealthy, but when her father went down with the Titanic she had a lot less money than her billionairish cousins, poor mite.
In the way of the bottom rung of richy-rich-land, she hung out with artists, and bought their work, and slept with them as she and they fancied.
Lovers included Samuel Beckett and Max Ernst (she married Ernst), and she bought the work of Picasso, Magritte, Calder, Miró, Jackson Pollock, et al.
In The Good Plain Cook Bethan Roberts riffs on a little-known time when Guggenheim and her daughter Pegeen lived in Sussex with one of her lovers, the Communist poet Douglas Garman, between 1934 and 1937.
Kitty, her heroine, lies her way into a job as a cook with the unorthodox family based on Guggenheim's - 'Ellen Steinberg', her daughter 'Geenie' and the poet 'George Crane'.
Kitty is gobsmacked by their sexy, undisciplined life, but more worried about how to cook what they want. Quiche: would that be a kind of egg-and-bacon pie, she wonders.
George gurns in the writing studio at the end of the garden, staring hopelessly at his typewriter. Geena, Ellen's feral daughter, tries to get her mother's attention by being fey. Ellen makes raucous love and talks about art.
Kitty fancies the gardener, the conservative Arthur, who is suspicious of George's attempts to convert him to communism.
It's several disasters waiting to happen. The only trouble with The Good Plain Cook is that they wait a little too long.
As Europe teeters on the edge of mass murder and red war, these self-indulgent people play with their political and personal ideas.
It's sensual and atmospheric, and it's awfully English and pre-war. Lovely style, though.

Monday, 28 July 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

(Fourth Estate €15.99)

CLEAR away a block of time. Get flu if you have to. Anything to be able to devote total attention to this extraordinary book.
Early in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the young dog Almondine hears a whispery rasp from the baby sleeping in its mother's arms. She puzzles over the sound, and realises that it is the shriek of a child who can make no sound.
Almondine rises and crosses to where the mother sleeps with the child in her arms. "She became in that moment, and was ever after, a cautious dog," writes David Wroblewski.
Hamlet crossed with The Jungle Book, this is a stupendous work.
The story: the Sawtelle family have been breeding dogs for three generations. They're breeding for power and beauty, but also for heroism, finding dogs that have done extraordinary things and crossing them into their breed, the Sawtelle Dogs.
They don't sell pups. They sell yearling dogs, which have gone through an intensive education, training for creativity and intelligence.
The dream is to breed the 'next dog' - which will replace dogs in the evolutionary chain, as the wolf replaced the extinct Dire Wolf, and the dog replaced the wolf.
Into this dreamland steps an evil man, who loves to do harm just because he can.
Fourteen-year-old Edgar, born mute but super-intelligent, using Sign Language both with his family and friends and with his dogs, faces this well-armed wheedler with the skills that he has: the skill of the wolf for laying an ambush and the skill of an innocent for seeking the truth.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has a ghost made of rain, spooky neighbours, corrupted innocents, ruminations about evolution and selection. And the writing! Writing that makes your teeth water with reality, but is never self-consciously writerly.

The Beach House by Jane Green

Penguin €14.99

SECRETS are in the air in Nantucket. The island, once the world focus for whaling, is now trendyland, flocking with wealthy Manhattanites on their holidays.
Decrepit femme fatale Nan, a local eccentric who lives in one of the few beautiful old houses untouched by the gobbling developers, has run into money trouble.
She's sitting on a house that could realise $10m, but the last thing she wants is to have a developer tear it down.
Long ago Nan's husband, Everett, disappeared. He left his clothes on the beach, and left her to face a mountain of gambling debts.
Nan made a go of it then; now her financial adviser is telling her that she really is in trouble as the markets plunge.
She knows there must be some way of making money from her assets. But a sale of the valuable antique furniture and heritage clothes and jewellery fails to bring in the expected thousands.
So she opens the house up for paying guests. Of course I'm going to give them breakfast, she says - I'd feel embarrassed not to feed people.
As the house fills up with the lovelorn and lost, everyone cooks and gardens together, and relationships start to form between the tenants, their children, spouses, lovers, friends and parents.
That's before the secrets start to come out. As does the gay man who's never been able to tell those closest to him.
And the broken girl who shoplifts for the thrill that replaces love. And the wife astonished and hurt by her husband's failure.
Nan's healing power gets to work on her own son - haunted by an ill-judged affair - and on step-children and lovers and matches made in heaven.
With simple writing, likeable characters, and plot twists that are just about believable, The Beach House is a lovely, cosy read. You can practically smell the healing sea air off it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Addition by Toni Jordan

Sceptre €11.95

THERE’S safety in numbers, and for Grace Vandenburg, everything counts.
Although Grace lives in modern Australia and he died long ago in New York, she’s in love with Nikola Tesla, inventor of radio (Marconi stole his idea) and discoverer of the uses of electricity, magnetism, the AC motor, robotics and radar.
Like Grace, Nikola counted everything: staying only in hotel rooms with numbers divisible by 3, he ate every night at 8pm with 18 napkins folded beside him, mentally calculating the cubic volume of each forkful.
Grace hasn’t worked since she froze one day in the schoolyard and was carted off to hospital. She wakes every morning at 5.55 exactly, and rises at 6am, ready to brush her teeth with 160 brushstrokes.
It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but this is a book that causes snorts of laughter.
Grace’s sister, for instance, is happily married - “stuck in wedded purgatory with that Blackberry-wielding ferret. He’s got the sex appeal of a hard drive.”
Her niece Larry (short for Hilary) is Grace’s favourite person, the one who finally explains that there’s a difference between average, median and mode.
When Grace meets Seamus Joseph O’Reilly, they fall madly (of course) in love.
Seamus is Mr Average. “Medium looks, works at the box office, likes football and barbecues.”
Soon he starts gently trying to save her from the numbers. Within 3.33 seconds she’s in behavioural therapy with a bunch of germophobe obsessives and Francine, their therapist (who dips apples in toilets and eats them to prove it’s ok).
Under the influence of all the normalising pills, Grace’s brain divides into a squabbling pair.
Her story ends happily, with every reader cheering and laughing to the finale.
A bizarre, quirky book, you wouldn’t imagine you’d love this, but it’s the kind of thing that gets passed from reader to reader with enthusiastic recommendations.

No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay

Orion €11.95

CYNTHIA wakes up alone in the house, the night after her first drunken binge with a bad boy. Her family are gone without a trace.
Her father came last night and dragged her out of the car where she was canoodling with Vince Fleming, son of a local criminal.
Now, as she stands in the kitchen and wonders where everyone’s gone, she begins to be frightened.
It’s a great beginning to a story that rattles along at speed.
Years later, Cynthia goes on TV, taking part in an unsolved mysteries programme, in the forlorn hope that she might hear some news of the lost ones.
But it’s as if she’s thrust a stick into a pool full of alligators. There’s a message saying her parents forgive them. A car appears, following Cynthia’s little girl to school at walking pace.
And the aunt who brought her up tells a long-kept secret to Cynthia’s husband.
They hire a detective, who turns up some news of his own.
Cynthia’s father is a man of mystery. No driver’s licence picture, no social security records. Can he have been an FBI agent? On a witness protection programme? A spy?
All this is great. But it gets to the point where you want to echo the character who wails “How long is this going to go on?” – or words to that effect.
The story has a belly like a poisoned pup. Somewhere in the middle, when the family haven’t turned up, clue after clue keeps appearing, and every few chapters there’s a sinister dialogue by unidentified people, you get the itch to skip to the end.
But it’s worth it for the buildup. And while the end isn’t that satisfying – the solution works technically, but not emotionally – it all wraps up.
A great book for waiting for the airport to fix their radar, though. Long enough and exciting enough that it’ll last you for the few days.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller


SKIP immediately to Part 2. I’ll tell you what happens in Part 1. You can go back and read it later.
Pippa Lee is a madonna, the calm and competent wife of Herb Lee, America’s most famous publisher.
Pippa – still in her 50s – and Herb, who’s now in his 80s, have moved to a wealthy retirement estate known locally as Wrinkle Village.
Their friends Sam (great novelist) and his partner Moira (greatish poet on the lookout for a nicer but still famous man) are their constant companions.
OK, that’s it.
Now for the good stuff, as you turn hastily to page 61, where it goes into the voice of Pippa herself, and plunges into her chaotic, desperate youth.
Hilarious and stunningly sad – you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll say “Oh, shit, no!” – it’s a roller-coaster ride through the bohemia of the mid-century.
And Rebecca Miller should know her stuff. Daughter of Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, daughter-in-law of poet Cecil Day-Lewis, she must have spent her youth mobbed up with the literary aristocracy.
Not just literary – heavens, before she was born, her dad had been married to Marilyn Monroe!
So with jaw open, as you’re whizzing through the book laughing and crying, you’re also saying “Who is that?” and coming up with crazed theories.
From the stagey suicide of Herb’s gorgeous first wife to Pippa’s dealings with her speed-freak mother (still giving her baby-bottles at 16). Hmm, hm. Who can this be?
It’s a book that could sadly go unnoticed until it’s filmed – already on the cards, starring Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves and Winona Rider – and then take off. Make sure you’re in before the crowd; you’ll be passing it to your friends.
But skip that first part.

Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

Headline €15.99

ACE detective Stephanie Plum’s got the blues. At least, she has, along with her colleagues, after they open a briefcase booby-trapped with blue dye, which explodes all over them.
The ditsy but still ace skip-tracer is off on another off-centre adventure with ex-’ho Lula by her side, and Plum’s complex love life providing the salsa.
In the fourteenth of the series, they’re on the trail of $9 million in stolen money. As always in Plum’s New Jersey homeland, everyone’s a cousin.
As she climbs out of another window, leaving another dead guy behind her, she muses that it’s lucky the cop answering her call is Eddie Gazarra. “We’d grown up together and he’d married my cousin, Shirley the Whiner.”
There are plenty of side issues to spice up her life. Lula has decided that Tank, her giant ex-special-forces sweetie, has proposed, and is planning the wedding. Tank is crashing down in a faint.
Schoolkid Mario (in the game Minionfire he’s Zook, a major mage who’s stalking the griefer (say what?) and watching out for the wood elves) is in Plum’s care, because his mom has skipped bail after robbing a liquor store.
Dom Rizzi, Zook’s anger-management-troubled uncle, is out to get Plum’s sweetie, Joe Morelli, because Joe may be Zook’s real father.
Plum’s grandma joins Zook in Minionfire to seek the griefer, then along come her aged pals, plus Mooner, Plum’s stoner former schoolmate.
After that it gets complicated.
As funny as a barrel of monkeys – oh yes, there’s a monkey in there too, as well as a country rock star turned TV investigator – this is a triumph for Evanovich.
If your best pal has broken up with her sweetiepie and needs some cheering, go straight to the bookshop and buy this book for her.

People of 1916

The Absent Wife by Karen Gillece

A GIRL with a lovely name: Star Anise Quick. She never knew who her father was – her mother, Jean, told her Africa was her father, and all the children of Africa were her brothers and sisters.
When Jean is dying, though, she finally tells Star that her father is Leo Quick, an Irish portrait painter.
Star makes her way to Dalkey, and everything changes.
Leo has brought up his two children, Silvia and James. He didn’t know Jean was pregnant when she left, and when Star phones, he’s just had a stroke.
He’s been eaten away for years by a secret he can’t unravel: why did Jean leave him and their children?
James is a TV celeb who’s trying to get all the wealth he can generate up his nose.
Silvia is the good girl who minds her dad as he needs it, but has her mother’s addictive liking for uncommitted sex.
Gillece’s delicate writing unfolds all these layers of stories, dancing back and forth between past and present.
She layers in current news stories – Natascha Kampusch and the British teacher who was jailed for calling a teddy bear Muhammad make appearances – and drops in luscious scents and flavours.
As the family reclaim the daughter and sister they didn’t know about, they’re also reclaiming the wife and mother who disappeared.
For Star, and for Leo’s close friend Hugh, it’s another reclamation, of the wrong that couldn’t be righted, and the bond that couldn’t be broken.
Gillece gets better with every book. She’s finding her style as a writer of contemplative, incisive novels, but she hasn’t hit her pace quite yet.
This is a book for the bedside, to be savoured and talked about with friends.

The Bloomsday Dead by Adrian McKinty

Serpent’s Tail
IT’S such a great idea – a thriller based on Ulysses.
And it starts out well: “State LY Plum P Buck Mulligan” reads the note handed to the hotel shamus.
It translates thus: “In stateroom LY (that is, the fiftieth floor, suite Y), a Plum (in other words, a drunk American) named Mr P Buck was creating a Mulligan (ie a disturbance).
And it ends well, in Joycean tradition, with that trailing sibilant “Yes.”
The middle is more problematic. Michael Forsyth, McKinty’s hero, is the kind of Northerner who wears crossed Union Jack and Red Hand in the fanlight of his little mind, and absolutely hates all things Irish.
“In my eyes the Garda Síochána was only a notch or two above the Irish Army and, as an ex-member of the British Army, I had nothing but contempt for that body,” he writes.
“Any squaddie worth his salt would join the Irish Guards in London; any peeler up to scuds would get into one of the big metropolitan police forces across the water. Irish coppers and soldiers were second-rate.”
Not, perhaps, the perfect note to strike if you’re aiming to lure Joyceans, who adore Dublin, Ireland and all about the country.
Between ‘plump Buck Mulligan’ and ‘yes’, it’s an orgy of killing, interspersed with paranoid ravings, self-hatred and a bit more killing.
The effect is curiously anaesthetic. After a while the reader stops bothering to notice new characters – after all, Mike’s going to kill them in a minute.
Reading, you get the feeling that McKinty is ‘writing away from’ his subject – that he really wants to write about something else. From the wrongness of his take on the IRA characters (hellfire and respectability), I suspect that he wants to be writing about the UDA.
If you like thrillers with a high body count, this is for you.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

The Likeness by Tana French

Hachette Books Ireland

PROPERTY and identity: the two main reasons for murder.
Many the soon-to-be widower screams “You’re not who I thought you were” as he grabs up the knife.
And the division of the home and the savings is eased by about-to-be widows who kill to inherit all rather than half.
In Tana French’s second novel, it’s more complicated.
Detective Cassie Maddox – one of the central characters in French’s first book, the magnificent In the Woods – discovers that she’s a victim of identity theft.
Or rather that ‘Lexie Madison’, a fake persona Cassie was using when working undercover, is now the identity being used by another woman.
And that woman has been found dead in a ruined cottage in the wilds of Wicklow.
Spookily, she’s been stabbed, just as Cassie was stabbed by a speed freak when she was using the ‘Lexie’ identity to work undercover.
Cassie is sent in to take the dead woman’s place – she didn’t really die, they tell friends of ‘Lexie’, she was in a coma.
She finds herself in a complex household, almost a commune, shared by students in a stunning half-ruined Georgian house in the mountains that one has inherited.
The Likeness has a bit of the second book syndrome about it. It’s draggy at times, with slow narration and not enough happening.
But a writer with French’s power can still bring the reader along, with scary details and mystery within mystery.
As Cassie becomes ‘Lexie’ and her involvement with Lexie’s friends grows, she’s living two lives. In one, she’s a detective acquiring inside knowledge – ‘Lexie’ was pregnant – and in the other she’s living with Lexie’s friends, not knowing who may be the killer.
Fascinating and terrifying; don’t put the lights out after closing this.

City of Thieves by David Benioff


RUSSIA has been invaded by the Nazi armies, and Leningrad is surrounded by German troops.
Two teenagers, Lev and Kolya, are sent on an impossible quest – a dozen eggs for the wedding of a Party official’s daughter.
Lev’s been caught looting when he should have been on fire patrol. Kolya is a deserter.
Lev is a shy virgin, cracked about chess, and about his cello-playing neighbour. Kolya’s a sex-mad boy with a talent for talking his way out of trouble.
They’re sentenced to death, but the quest for the eggs is offered as an alternative.
They try in the city first. But this is a town where they’re melting down the glue in library books to sell as food.
The two boys escape from cannibals, track a legendary old man who’s supposed to be guarding a hen-coop on the roof of an apartment block.
Finally they escape the city – Piter, as it’s nicknamed by its inhabitants – knowing of the rumours that the peasants are living fat while Leningrad starves.
They discover a Nazi brothel full of plump girls held as slaves. They fall in with partisans – the most deadly of whom is a skinny girl sniper.
Kolya talks about all the sex he’s had, and adds endless literary criticism, especially of the great unknown novel The Courtyard Hound.
When he discovers that Lev’s father was a poet murdered by Stalin, their friendship is sealed.
Screenwriter Benioff uses his grandfather’s stories of life in wartime Russia to make a quirky and enticing novel.
From the cosy grandparents with their sinister history to the appealing Kolya and Lev, it’s a book to make you laugh when you’re not flinching.
Much better than his screenplays (Benioff worked on Troy and The Kite Runner), it’s touching and gritty.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Whose Life is it Anyway? by Sinéad Moriarty

Penguin Ireland
PIERRE is only gorgeous. Tall, dark and handsome, a professor, nice, considerate, kindly. The perfect man.
But not if your family are traditional London Irish racists. Because Pierre is really dark – in fact, he’s from the Caribbean, brought up in France.
Sinéad Moriarty’s latest – undoubtedly – bestseller-to-be starts off with a bang.
Then it all gets dull (at least for this reader) for a great chunk of the book. Moriarty decides to have a big fat sneer at everything Irish.
Niamh, her heroine, spends most of her childhood loathing Ireland and all things green. Her family are caricature patriots, with a doorbell that plays Danny Boy, green leprechaun gnomes in the garden and the girls dollied up in ringlets and curtain-like dresses to enter Irish dancing contests.
This is possibly meant affectionately, but it doesn’t come across like that.
And the odd thing is that it’s set in the 1980s, when the IRA were bombing England and Irish people were looked on with deep suspicion by most English people, and especially by officialdom of all kinds.
But there’s not a mention of the Troubles.
But it’s all cosy fun, with Niamh getting her family on side to learn to accept Pierre. And trying to get his suave parents to learn to love their raw new daughter-in-law.
Niamh writes a fluffy newspaper column, and Pierre introduces her to his parents by laughing about the time she wrote an article on who gets to sleep on the wet patch after sex.
Her own parents already had to face the horror of her big sister getting pregnant at 17, and going on to become a materfamilias with five (Irish-dancing) daughters.
There are a few guffaw moments in here, and it’s a grand page-turner for the journey.

South of the Border by James Ryan


AUTUMN 1942, a young teacher on his first posting in the midlands, and his principal is gobsmacked by his brilliant Irish.
Can you translate a radio programme in Irish, the principal asks the teacher, surprised to find a Dubliner so fluent. I’m not from Dublin, the boy explains, I’m from Balbriggan.
But when he arrives at the house he’s directed to, he’s sent to a shed with a radio aerial twining through the trees, where a man crouches to hear a broadcast from Germany. In Irish.
He furiously denies stories of a Tan massacre in Balbriggan – I’m from there, I’d know – and later discovers that this was concealed from him at home, to keep him apolitical.
The teacher is furious at being dragged into politics, but his fury is muted by his passion for a mysterious girl.
Mysterious because she might be Protestant, an important distinction then.
This should be a brilliant novel. The writing is delicate, plain, absolutely beautiful.
But the plot gets lost in winding stories that don’t have any real thematic thread to hold them together.
Yet that writing – years later, at the funeral of Dixie Coll, the brother of the mystery woman, he sees her again. Beside her are her two aunts, now old women.
One has cropped white hair, but a marquisette hairband, “a tiara of sorts”, and two coats, one bedecked with several heavy costume brooches.
The other “was in full mourning garb, black hat, scarf and coat, all sabotaged by the gold-and-violet sequinned evening bag she was clutching”.
It’s moments like this that make you catch your breath.
The central story – a Luftwaffe pilot shot down, sheltered, betrayed, dying – gets a little lost in the middle of the tentative love story.
A very interesting novel about neutrality and revolution and the mutable nature of politics.

Final Theory by Mark Alpert

Simon & Schuster

EINSTEIN’S colleagues, now ancient, are being killed off one by one, found dead under suspicious circumstances in their baths.
The reason? The mathematical maestro’s mythic Unified Field Theory – a theory of everything long rumoured to have been expressed by the genius.
But Einstein – in this thriller, anyway – suppressed his Einheitliche Feldtheorie because he feared its world-destroying power.
The implications of his theory are such that it could be used for power that would end world energy shortages and wipe out the need for oil and coal.
Unfortunately, it also makes it possible for any freelance Osama (not to mention any bullying government) to squish cities and countries with the push of a button.
Alpert doesn’t get into any difficult philosophical questions like “why should they, if there’s free power out there”, but instead gets into a galloping yarn full of fun and violence.
There are moments of hilarity too – the vicious Russian torturer who’s chasing the old lads is shocked, I tell you, shocked, when he sees the waste of taxpayers’ money in inept security around an FBI centre.
Alpert’s hero is a science journalist like the author, who teams up with a gorgeous black scientist and Einstein’s autistic great-grandson to flee and then fight the bad guys and save the world.
Off they go, helped by conveniently credulous yokels from a rattlesnake-handling church, and pursued by a granny from the FBI and the Russian killer.
Tremendous fun.
It comes this near to being a new Da Vinci Code, but the ending loses pace a bit. But Alpert is definitely a writer to watch, and this is the perfect book for taking your mind off the real threats to the world.

Two Days in Biarritz by Michelle Jackson

MOUSY mouse Annabel was always the follower, and glamorous Kate the leader and the one who had the fun, in Michelle Jackson’s first book.
When Annabel gets langered (in both senses) on a holiday in Biarritz and tells Kate about her long-ago one-night stand with Kate’s dad, that’s the end of that friendship.
The two friends part, and the action strays back and forth through their lives, tracking the events from the day they met.
Predictably, Annabel has married a controlling man who suits his own sweet self, while Kate flitted from one man to another and lived from her art.
But now that they’ve separated, both women have to find their real selves. For Annabel, it’s the career she always wanted. This time, she’s determined, her husband can’t put his foot down.
For Kate, life presents immediate and desperate horror: her mother is dying of cancer and her own marriage is disintegrating. There’s one upside, though - an old love is back in the offing.
This is art teacher Jackson’s debut novel, and her inexperience shows in the often awkward writing.
But it is a heartwarming story of women who find their own strength, and readers like it enough to have it selling well all over Ireland.
Colin, Annabel’s husband, is a satisfyingly creepy chicklit villain. He’s bone selfish, nagging his son into a near-breakdown and trying to edit him to be a copy of Dad.
But we know that there’s a happy ending waiting out there. Domestic bliss and career success are sure to be on the cards for our girls.
There are sexy surfers and alcohol-rich seductions, misunderstandings and huffs and reconciliations over wine or coffee.
There’s even a climactic childbirth scene to close the action. Typical Poolbeg.