Sunday, 28 September 2008
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.
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
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".
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
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.
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.
Posted by Pageturners at 19:30
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.
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.