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.