Wednesday, 16 December 2009

We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka



Fig Tree
Glue? Really?
Our heroine, Georgie Sinclair, is a freelancer on Adhesives in the Modern World. But the glue thing is more about how we, like, bond.
Who’s Lewycka?
Pronounced Levitzka; she wrote A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian (a surprise hit) and Two Caravans (less so). Her million-selling books are hilarious, but about deeply serious subjects. In this case, that includes Israel and Palestine.
This is a stick-’em-up?
Of human bondage. Georgie, daughter of a gritty North of England Commie (“If they ‘adn’t shut all t’pits, they wouldn’t be so mad for oil now, would they?”) has split up with her nerdy husband, and needs human contact.
She finds a new man?
She finds an old woman. Mrs Shapiro lives in a spooky mansion with seven cats. “When you see a good man you just grebbit quick,” she advises Georgie.
Rock steady
But Mrs S falls on the ice and a social worker plots with an estate agent to sell the mansion and grab a profit.
Sticky situation?
She’s sending desperate messages from the ‘care home’ - but Georgie has fallen into the Velcro-handcuff clutches of devilish Mark Diabello, the estate agent.
A demon lover?
Things start to go suspiciously wrong in the absent Mrs Shapiro’s house, and Georgia calls in Mr Ali the handyman. “Jews live here?” he asks, looking at the mezuzah on the door.
You’re giving it all away!
Not. There’s much more - brilliant, funny, and you’ll learn about Israel and Palestine, the Holocaust, the Danish Jews who were saved -
And the pusscats?
Lewycka writes great animals. The rapist Wonder Boy, delicate Violetta, The Stinker and the other cats are as real as the Palestinians, the surprise Israeli, the Jesus-freak son, angry husband and the rest.
But is it good?
Better than good. Get the flu just so you can stay home, tucked under a duvet with a warm fire and a mug of spicy chicken soup and gobble up this book.

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Under the Dome by Stephen King



Hodder & Stoughton

The dome in the tome?
‘Under the Dome’ is Americanspeak for happenings in Washington: Stephen King is symbolically writing about his government in this stonking great thing.
Tell the tale
A Maine town is cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible dome that clangs down, chomping off a woman’s arm, neatly halving a woodchuck and de-nosing a plane in midflight.
Exciting!
Yeah, it starts big. The US government sends in the army, as is its wont. But nothing gets through the dome: not missiles, not acid, certainly not troops.
And inside?
Inside, it’s like a speeded-up view of the onset of Naziism. The corrupt Selectmen (like county councillors) already have a giant meth lab running behind the Jesus is King radio station…
Eh?
Surprising, all right. The police chief dies when his pacemaker explodes in the Dome’s electrical field, and evil used-car salesman and Selectman Jim Rennie hires thugs as policemen.
But there’s a hero?
Naturally. Dale Barbara - regretful Iraq veteran and short-order cook - is named by the President as leader. But Rennie ain’t havin any.
Rubbing my hands here
So was I. But after the first 200 pages, which rip along, it stumbles around for the next 700. Our Barbie isn’t MacGyver. A second crash - of an Irish jetliner - is desultorily treated. The characters are great and there are wild plot twists - Rennie’s son turns necrophiliac - but the story somehow doesn’t integrate.
Should I buy it?
The writer of Carrie, The Shining, Misery and a million other hits loses the plot here. I wonder if it’s because computers are so fast to write on. After that fabulous opening, the story is like an extended video game.
Best points?
Shows how easily totalitarianism can happen; how we’re all stuck on a planet with limited resources; how the powerful bully the weak.
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Wednesday, 2 December 2009

It’s Not Me, It’s You by Charlotte Ward




Headline
Oh noes, breakup time is here
It certainly is. When you scent the first mince pie and hear the tinkle of glasses at a staff party you know tears are not far behind. Christmastime is breakup time.
Why? Why?
What everyone asks herself after Mr Right turns out to be Mr Right Little So-and-So. But help is at hand - Mirror reporter Charlotte Ward has written a devastatingly funny account of some stonking great splits.
But why?
Lots of whys. Ward’s pal Anne was really into her new man, but the sex was too embarrassing - wake-the-neighbours yells. Olivia took an instant dislike to her boyfriend’s “little friend” - It was long and skinny and looked like a chipolata... or a severed finger.”
Severed? Ewww!
Verity’s boyfriend showered her with attention and presents and adoration - but when she came home from a Malaysian holiday she felt like her stuff had been moved.
A bit paranoid?
Then she found the superspy-type pictures on his mobile: everything she owned, photographed so he could store them while he had some nookie, then return them to their places.
Oh. So steer clear of them all?
The awful breakup stories are the most fun, but Ward gives good advice for the newly single, and reveals how men deal with breaking up too.
Revenge?
Actually, a lot of her revenge stories are girly ones - like Anna, who found steamy texts from women on her boyfriend’s phone. She told him she knew he was playing away because she’d caught an STD from him…
Any happy stories?
Stacy squeezed through a packed pub with drinks for herself and a man she fancied. “I thought this might be yours,” he said with a grin - holding up the wraparound skirt she’d been wearing. Reader, she married him, and lived happily ever after.
Most shocking thing?
A revelation in the “Truth About Men (by men)” section: “We don’t always pee standing up. There. I said it.”
Author's site

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls



Simon & Schuster
Cowboys & Injuns?
And real cowboys, some of ‘em Native American. Jeannette Walls’ first book, The Glass Castle, was a memoir of growing up dirt-poor, daughter of homeless, wandering eccentrics.
But she made good?
Glamour-puss TV reporter. Glass Castle was a best-seller, and she followed up with this novel about her grandma - a convent girl and tough babe who ended up as a wealthy rancher.
What of these horses?
By the age of six, Lily is helping her crippled father break horses. He’s just out of jail - someone got shot, but it ain’t his fault, despite his ‘Irish temper’ - he’s the son of a Famine refugee.
She became a cowboy?
No siree. First her father’s helper and interpreter - kicked in the head by a horse as a child, he’s unable to talk clearly. Then a schoolmarm, but she keeps gettin’ fired for whalin’ on them young’ns.
Career-change time?
Sacked for pulling a pistol on a polygamous Mormon elder after telling the gals about wimmin’s rights, she decides to go to college.
Sensible
She has to make the money, so she gets a factory job in Chicago, then, when her pal gets pulled into the machinery by her ‘long Irish hair’, as a maid.
Why do I think this will go wrong?
She marries a fast-talkin’ dude, but whoop-de-dee, he’s a bigamous hound dog who’s spent all the savings from their joint bank account. After that she swears off men.
But she’s a grandma!
Keep your shirt on. When she’s half-qualified she gets a teaching job. Her pretty little sister turns up pregnant - but when the priest finds out -
Uh-oh
After the tragedy, she marries a big steady guy, deals bootleg from under the baby’s crib, teaches, runs a ranch, and brings up her kids with the strap always at the ready.
Some story
You bet your bottom dollar. And that’s only the half of it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll chaw tobaccy.
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Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston


Headline Review

Not girly?
Jennifer Johnston writes tiny, perfect books, as delicate as wisps of silk chiffon booby-trapped with Semtex.
Ah so? Explosive secrets, then?
Book reviewer Caroline Wallace’s boss in the Telegraph sends her to Dublin (from her greyish life in London) to interview aged writer Desmond Fitzmaurice - everyone thinks he’s dead years ago, but he’s not.
Alive and kicking?
He promises her “lots of sex and some violence” in his diaries, which he holds under lock and key. Unlikely, she thinks, looking at the creaky old gent living in Sorrento Terrace over the strand at Dalkey.
And is there?
Oh, there is. There’s also lovely wry humour. When Caroline meets Desmond he strikes her as a bit of an egotist, waited on by wife, ex-wife, cleaning lady, sons and daughter. By the end of the book, she thinks he’s a monster.
Monstre sacré?
Less sacred, more selfish. He’s like the sun around whom a solar system of infuriated female planets whirls. All his relationships are biting, with a dash of spite, like a pink gin dripping with Angostura bitters.
Any of this autobiographical?
Scarcely! Though the details of Fitzmaurice’s life share a likeness with the author’s father, playwright Denis Johnston, who was, like our hero, a war corr in WWII, and did, like him, divorce a beloved actress wife to marry another. But I can’t see him murdering anyone.
It’s mainly about murder?
No, it’s mainly about the horrors of growing old, and very funny with it. Desmond F is so antique he’s practically auctionable, but he’s still determined to chip his way back into the world of fame and fortune. He’s a ruthless old beast.
A good buy?
Good buy to all that. The editing, unfortunately, is a little lax, with ‘their’ for ‘there’, ‘affect’ for ‘effect’, and the like. It spoils the, er, effect.
Article by the author's son about the book's background

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A State of Mind by Kevin Casey


Lilliput
Ireland of the welcomes?
Bestselling writer Bill Cromer and his sexy German girlfriend Ingrid move into Wicklow, in the heyday of the tax-free status for artists, when government action lured in millionaires to spend their money here.
And do they love it?
Up to a point. Cromer is a working-class Englishman who longs to be accepted by the county types living in Wicklow. But he has landed into the homeland of one O’Dalaigh, a still vividly anti-English hero of the War of Independence. Soon Cromer is getting visits from sinister men in trenchcoats.
Scary - does he flee?
No, because the sinister trenchcoated ones fail to make sure of who they’re talking to, and instead of threatening Cromer, they try to blackmail our narrator, ex-journalist John Hughes.
When are we?
In the 1970s, a time of bank robberies, the Ra and a word in your ear. And, of course, sex.
Sex! I was hoping you’d mention sex
Our narrator - bored with his matriarchal family - is eager to fling his marriage to the wind and bed Cromer’s mot, Ingrid, while doing some research for his novel at the same time.
Sounds like a plan. He’s the dashing hero?
Unfortunately, Hughes isn’t a very appealing hero. The character is flat and lacking in subtext, to be technical about it.
What happens with the Ra?
Hughes is coaching Cromer in books about history. He recommends Tom Barry’s My Fight for Irish Freedom with an airy “Completely unreliable, but it provides some insight into the O’Dalaighs of this world.”
And?
After that - it’s kind of unclear. There’s a beating. There’s a tryst. There are misunderstandings. There’s a suicide. Hughes’ life with his wife and beloved daughter is in the balance.
Who’s Kevin Casey?
Married to poet Eavan Boland, he was one of the good writers of the 1970s, and has come back with a swing with this glumly comic story.
Publisher's site

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Stieg Larsson


Maclehose

Thriller by Swedish reporter, ja?
You betcha. Third and last of the series by the late Stieg Larsson, founder of anti-racist magazine Expo and world authority on right-wing extremist groups. He handed a publisher the manuscripts of the three books and promptly dropped dead aged 50. The books have been an international sensation.
Nice for his heirs
Not, it turns out, for the woman who shared his life for 30 years. Under Sweden’s tight-fisted cohabitation laws, Eva Gabrielsson isn’t entitled to a single öre.
Ouchy
She’s going to write about it, apparently. But meanwhile…
Oh yah, the hornet’s nest
Hornets’, plural. Lisbeth Salander, our hero, starts the book in hospital with a brain injury and riddled with bullets.
Eee, no - it’s not about her?
Not for the first 250 pages or so; you can basically skip them. At that stage, ace reporter Blomkvist - Larsson’s fictional alter ego - smuggles in her Palm Tungsten, and she’s suckin’ diesel again.
Who are these eponymous hornets?
Basically, Sweden’s security services - they’ve been covering up after a cell of lunatic Russian defectors and psycho killers for years - and in the process they’ve had young Lisbeth confined to a mental hospital for much of her youth. Now, facing exposure, they have too much to lose.
So it’s a spy story?
Ironically, in the circs, it’s about suppression of women, and how male society closes ranks to enable violent men.
Salander’s a hacker, if I remember rightly
And her faceless friends, citizens of the online ‘Hacker Republic’, weigh in to help her, as do unconnected women - a newspaper editor, a lawyer, a security official and a policewoman. And Blomkvist, natch.
Good, then?
To be honest, not as great as the first two. But I’ll bet fans will read it just to find out what happens to Salander.
Stieg Larsson site

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes


Penguin

Zowie! A new Marian Keyes book!

In 66 Star Street - Keyes’ latest bestseller, I’ve no doubt - couples are coalescing and bursting apart like an experiment with mercury, and some strange beast is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Is it life? Is it death? Wait and see.
Sounds less cuddly than usual
It’s edgy enough, but very funny - several loud guffaws every few pages. The characters are great -
Tell me more
Two fine Polish hunks, one holy and prayerful, one zippy and zingy with blazing blue eyes, both sharing their flat with vividly bad-tempered taxi driver Lydia. One psychic -
The real thing?
Jemima, an aged Protestant lady, and yes, genuine psychic, with a troubled grey dog called Grudge, works for a psychic hotline. Her gorgeous foster-son Fionn is about to be the star of a new TV gardening programme.
Gorgeous, you say?
Fionn is so lovely that even his photo throws a sparkly wink to anyone who looks at it. More of the tenants at No 66: Matt ’n’ Maeve are married, quiet, devoted, a decent-living couple with a calm routine.
How ideal
You may think so; I won’t contradict you. And glam-mam type Katie is 40 this hated birthday. She’s the beloved of unreliable workaholic Conall.
All about coupledom?
No indeed - one aged parent is dying, another is struck by illness but no one will listen to her frantic daughter; companies go bust and people are sacked. Most of the action takes place in a haze of alcohol and sex, often both at the same time.
So many stories?
And more, indeed, since all these lives and others weave in and out - including the dog’s. The stories don’t have the driving force of Keyes’s earlier work, but this is good fun, and you know that in the end the good will win out and the bad be punished with icy force.
A buy?
A cosy read to comfort you in this nasty rainy winter we’re facing.
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Makers by Cory Doctorow


HarperVoyager
This is the Boing Boing guy, yah?
Yah. Co-editor of the Boing Boing zine, begetter of the Craphound blog. Author of a shelf of books, also released online under creative commons licences that encourage filesharing.
Blah. Is this any good?
Just giving you the background - because Doctorow is writing about what he knows. Son of Trotskyist teachers (his father born in a refugee camp in Azerbaijan), he grew up an activist.
And the story? The story?
Well, uh, yeah. At first it’s a spark-shower of creativity, with ideas zipping and humming and bouncing off each other. Reporter Suzanne is lured in to write about deeds of derring-do by corporate suit Kettlewell, head of a merger between Kodak and Digicell.
This is a story?
It’s like one of those old dotcom novels - remember Microserfs? Kettlewell wants zillions of creative cells around America to work for his firm Kodacell. He drags Suzanne to Florida to meet nerdy Perry and lardass Lester, who are doing crazy projects combining science and art.
Sounds worthy
Then they bring in talented people from a nearby shantytown, whose guru is an old aerospace engineer bankrupted by his dying wife’s medical bills.
And they do what?
That’s the problem. Doctorow’s story is tugging itself to pieces, his vocational egalitarianism pulling one way, his natural elitocracism dragging him relentlessly another, while he’s trying to write about a kleptocracy.
No! No! Big words!
Put it this way: the boys want information to be free; vicious tycoon rivals want to crush their ideals. There’s randomish violence. A subplot about Russian gene tech that cures obesity, and a whole class of ‘fatkins’ - skinny, avid former fat people who have mad sex like the 1980s gay subculture.
Worth a buy?
Certainly worth reading online for that brilliant first 100 pages.
Author's site

206 Bones by Kathy Reichs


Heinemann
How many bones?
There are 206 bones in the human body - as forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan knows. Or should, but not if she’s an incompetent flake, as an anonymous caller claims to her bosses.
Hate that
A long-lost heiress turns up dead, and Tempe supposedly botches the post mortem. Then the only person who can reveal the anonymous caller’s name dies.
Zut alors!
This is the 12th Temperance Brennan book. In it, a particularly weird serial killer is targeting old ladies in French-speaking Quebec. A bunch of them have been found, very dead and in a decomposed state, some just skeletons.
Bones! That’s it!
No, the Temperance Brennan in the TV show Bones isn’t based on this series. Actually she’s based on the writer, Kathy Reichs, who is herself a forensic anthropologist.
Wow, that’s pretty circuitous
Tant pis. Temperance is having workmate trouble: a highly ambitious woman whose only lack is, well, qualifications, as well as a stalker who leaves her notes basically saying “Yankee Go Home” - in French, of course. And a seedy spelunker lurks in the lab.
Spelunkwha?
Potholer, normally. Guy who crawls through city sewers, in this case. In other news, Tempe seems to have lost some finger bones, and hasn’t noticed an obvious flaw in a child’s tooth. Canny readers suspect foul play, not incompetence.
Big sellers, these series?
All 11 so far made the Sunday Times bestseller list. This one is a good read, and the story keeps you interested, but there’s a certain feeling of running on the spot - tropes from the earlier books, like sports plane crashes and historic bodies, are repeated here.
Any hot romance?
Tempe’s old romantic interest, Detective Andrew Ryan, is dangling around, but not really on the scene until the end.
A buy, or not?
I’d advise waiting for the paperback.
Authors site

Jumping in Puddles by Claire Allan


Poolbeg

I need a box of chocs and a girly story
Look no further, my dear: a box of Lily O’Brien’s best and Jumping in Puddles, the story of a group of lone parents in a Donegal village putting their lives back together.
Village full of gossip?
You have no idea. Ciara is 17 and won’t tell anyone her baby’s father’s name - not even her mam, who’s helping her bring up the sprog. The poor kid has left school and gone to work in the village shop, run by the local dragon.
Worst thing I can imagine
Maybe, maybe not. Niamh (why do authors give characters lookalike names? Ciara… Niamh - confusing for readers!) is mourning her perfect husband. He’s left her rich and living in their dream home, but she’s shattered. And about to be more so.
And no one to talk to?

Until Niamh and Ciara - and Ruth and Liam - join Detta O’Neill’s support group for lone parents, to the fascinated delight of the village. Ruth and Liam’s spouses have run off with each other, by the way.
Yikes! Makes a bond, though
Liam is dead solid, an old-fashioned Irishman who likes his fried breakfast and his traditional values. Unfortunately, his mother loathes his ex. All he wants is Laura back and his life the way it used to be.
Know the feeling
Socially ambitious Laura and bossy bank official James, Ruth’s ex, seem perfectly suited. But as Ruth knows, there’s more to James than meets the eye. Ruth is a weepy, downtrodden type who’s bullied by her bold strap of a teenage daughter, and worried about her sons.
Kids? These poor souls have kids?
The kids are the centre of the story - the Loony Lone Parents (as they nickname themselves) grow into a strong group who help each other with their children and their rapidly changing lives.
Rattling good yarn?
If RTE have any sense, they’ll buy this and turn it into a fab series and sell it internationally.
Author's site

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann


Bloomsbury

About a fellow on a tightrope at the World Trade Center, I heard?
A bunch of connected stories riffing on that central image - Philippe Petit really did dance on the high wire between the recently-built towers for 45 minutes early in the morning of August 7, 1974, a quarter-mile above ground, watched by spellbound New Yorkers.
It’s not about him? Confused now
He appears in the linked stories, the first about a saint: Corrigan, an Irish worker monk living among the New York prostitutes who are his friends. Corrigan’s brother, who tells the story, becomes entranced by Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn, two of the prostitutes.
Uh-oh. When men write about prostitutes, they die
The omens aren’t good, I’ll admit. Then there’s a story about a group of mothers of men who have died in the Vietnam War. Two of them, upper-class white lady Claire and dead-solid black lady Gloria, are moving towards a tentative friendship in this sometimes catty milieu.
Very 1970s
And an arty couple, travelling back from a failure to sell their paintings and smoking dope who tip a van, cause it to crash. The man immediately absolves himself from guilt; the woman goes to the funeral of the people killed in the crash.
Worth reading, you reckon?
Su Perb. Couldn’t put it down. McCann has a way of tenderly drawing you into a world where terrible things are happening to people you care desperately about.
Famous writer, I think, eh?
Multi-award-winning writer’s writer - Paris Review published extracts from Let the Great World Spin and it was longlisted for the Booker. But don’t let that put you off; it’s a beautiful book. I came across him first when he wrote a column for the Evening Press while cycling across America as a teenager - amazing stories about backwoods psychopaths and the like. Buy this. Read it.

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Wednesday, 30 September 2009

What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazell


Simon & Schuster
Suddenly, everyone’s pregnant
You’d think it was infectious, wouldn’t you? The baby virus. So here’s ‘the world’s bestselling pregnancy manual’, as it says on the cover.
Wasn’t there some controversy?
Heidi Murkoff isn’t a doctor, and there was criticism about her writing on illness, and especially on diet, in pregnancy. And people said the early editions made labour and motherhood sound like hell.
Accurate, then?
Ah, now - their advice is actually down-to-earth and sensible. In this fourth edition - the best one to get - Murkoff and Mazell talk about everything you can possibly imagine wanting to know. Get a highlighter and sticky bookmarks, mark questions you want to ask your doctor, and bring the book with you.
OK, let’s see, what do they say about… smoking?
They advise not to smoke when pregnant, and not to hang around smokers. They also recommend not drinking alcohol - certainly not drinking a lot. And they have good words on cocaine, marijuana, heroin. Things people might be afraid to ask a doctor.
Oh dear, scolding?
There is a certain tut-tuttiness, but generally they lay out the book month-by-month, and offer sound sense. For instance, they talk about work and pregnancy - when you should tell your boss and colleagues, what kind of work you shouldn’t do when you’re pregnant, even whether you should play Mozart to your bumpy tummy.
Eh? Take it easy
Last thing you should do is take it too easy - they advocate keeping fit. By the way, there’s a good section on how to get pregnant (get that filthy look off your face; it’s about diet, ovulation and so on). And they have a bunch more books on toddlers, nannies, pregnancy diet and pre-pregnancy planning.
So I should buy it?
Woolly little booties, a baby sling and this book. I’m off to Mothercare.
The What to Expect page - helpful pregnancy, baby and pre-conception advice

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Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Savvy by Ingrid Law



Puffin
Kids with magic?
Secret super-powers. The Beaumont family always discover their ‘savvy’ on their 13th birthday. When Fish turned 13 the family had to move inland, because the storms he caused were too dangerous near any large body of water.
What do the others do?
Rocket (16) is electric. Grandpa can make land - when Mom and Pop married he made them six acres as a wedding present, moving neighbours’ homes further apart without their noticing.
Mom and Pop?
Pop doesn’t have a savvy; his family’s talent is losing all their hair by 30. Mom’s savvy is to be perfect - not an easy one. Grandma used to catch radio waves, so there are jars of happy tunes and inspiring speeches all over the house.
A great book for kids?
If you’ve got readers, they’ll just gobble it up. It’s a gorgeous book, about a quirky but happy family who look after each other, and about teenagers finding their way.
Teenagers? Oh no!
Oh yes. Mibs (for Mississippi: the kids on the school bus call her Missy Pissy), turns 13 as it starts. She’s dying to see what her savvy will be - but it’s no longer important on the day. Poppa’s car is crushed in a crash, and he’s hospitalised far away, in Salinas, Kansas.
Her savvy isn’t raising the dead and healing the halt?
What do you think? Mom, Grandpa and little Gypsy take the family clunker to Salinas, bringing Rocket to charge the battery. Mibs decides she has to get to Salinas too, and hides away in Lester the Bible salesman’s bus with brothers Fish and Sampson - and Will Meek, the preacher’s son she fancies, and Bobbi, his cool sister.
A Bible salesman? A flake?
Far from it - Lester is dead sound, and when he stops to rescue Lill the waitress, whose car has broken down, things get even more interesting.
Maybe I’ll read this myself
Good idea. I love this book. Sweet, kindly, courageous, funny, hopeful. Love it.

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Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella


Bantam Press
Ain’t it grand to be bloomin’ well dead?
Not dead but sleeping - or in the case of Lara’s ghostly Great-Aunt Sadie, doing the Charleston while smoking gaspers at cocktail parties.
Sadie masochism?
Sadie died aged 105, unvisited, in a nursing home. At the funeral she turns up as a 23-year-old ghost in a silky shimmy dress. She’s horrified at Lara, still drooping over a guy who dumped her by email. “Why don’t you take a new lover?” she asks, astonished. “Or several?”
I’m sorry for her trouble
“Don’t be a trailer,” dead Sadie tells Lara. “You can want and want a man, but if he doesn’t want you back, you might as well wish the sky were red.” Sadie’s more interested in getting Lara to find her necklace - mysteriously missing from the nursing home - and steal it back.
I sense the grinding of a ghostly axe
Sadie drags Lara into japes, mocking her cautious nature and demanding that she take crazy risks, like asking sexy American executive Ed Harrison out on a date after crashing his business meeting - Sadie has a far from otherworldly interest in delicious Ed.
Nothing like entrepreneurial eroticism
That would be Lara’s Uncle Bill, a coffee magnate who leveraged ‘two little coins’ into a worldwide business - and an irritating trope. The US president rings him for chats. They’re making a film about him, starring Pierce Brosnan.
What a great role model
That’s what he thinks; he runs seminars where people hold up the ‘two little coins’ he started with and chant that they too can succeed if they start from nothing. But sexy Ed snarls: “The only people who go to those seminars will be self-deluding fantasists, and the only person who’ll make money is your uncle.”
Should I buy it?
Only if you want to bust your sides laughing, adore the characters and be pulled in by a great plot full of twists. Brilliant!

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett


Penguin Fig Tree
A story about maids in the Deep South?
Don’t expect to put this book down once you pick it up - the story sucks you in and won’t let go. And it’s funny. Set in the 1960s, when Mississippi was the heartland of American apartheid, it’s about how the most powerless people start things changing.
Gripping stuff?
Our heroes are saintly Aibileen, who loves her white boss’s neglected little daughter; Minny, the sassy-mouthed maid who’s the best cook in town; and Skeeter, a white girl who wants to be a writer. Skeeter is trying to find out what happened to Constantine, who brought her up - but no one will talk. And she’s consulting Minny for her house cleaning column.
Her what?
Everyone has to start somewhere. Skeeter (so nicknamed because she’s skinny as a mosquito) writes a column on difficult stains, with advice from the expert: Minny, who has just been sacked by her white lady employer, Hilly Holbrook.
I sense a vicious villain?
Hilly is vile. She runs the bridge club, the ladies’ dances, the whole Jackson social scene, and she’s demonic in her control. Her ambition is to get people to instal outside toilets for the ‘help’ to use, so white bottoms don’t have to sit on the same toilet seats as black ones.
Noble, eh?
Lying Hilly has told everyone Minny is a thief. But Minny gets a job with the only one who hasn’t heard: Celia Rae Foote, a white-trash girl who married the man Hilly had her eye on.
Oooh, bad move
Worse, poor Celia doesn’t know what she’s done, and keeps trying to get in with Hilly and the ladies. Then Skeeter decides to write a book about maids in Jackson, and she gets together with Aibileen to collect all the maids’ stories.
Aren’t they scared?
Oh yes. But that’s what makes this story brilliant: the real horror amid the sugar-coated niceness. Funny, sad, angry: this book has everything.

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Monday, 7 September 2009

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory


Simon & Schuster

A dish fit for a king?
The most beautiful woman in England, they called Elizabeth Woodville, back in the 15th century. “I didn’t raise you to be a poor widow,” her witchy mother tells her, “alone in a cold bed, her beauty wasted on empty lands.”
And so say all of us
Never fear: enter the usurper king, Edward IV - the Yorkist commander who has booted out the Lancastrian king Henry VI. Elizabeth, daughter of a big Lancaster supporter, is a descendant of Melusina, an Anglo-French water goddess, so she’s able to slither into his affections.
Is this a real historical person?
Elizabeth? Oh yes. Mother of the Princes in the Tower, poor mites. Though Gregory (like many actual historians) believes that the ‘false pretender’ Perkin Warbeck was the real deal. He was the younger of the princes, and had (she reckons) been hidden away in Flanders by a Jewish merchant pal of Elizabeth’s.
She’s a pale and distant beauty?
She’s a hard-edged rip. Herself and the magical ma are constantly ill-wishing those who would use the lady ill. Edward’s cousin ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’, who was the politico that got him the throne, went on to plot with his brother to oust him.
Lovely, lovely people
Believe you me, the Plantagenets were a nasty bunch of snakes, surpassed only by the Tudors who finally got the knife in them. Anyway, our Liz and the ma are forever whistling up ill winds (which almost wreck Warwick and one of his invasion forces, but then go on to do the same to her Ed), and writing their enemies’ names in blood and putting them in lockets.
Bit daft, eh?
Well, the 15th century was kind of like that anyway. Everyone believed in witchcraft, though witches ran the risk of being strangled at a crossroads by a blacksmith.
Why don’t we have these books about Ireland?

Doubtless because we’re much, much nicer.

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One Day by David Nicholls


Hodder & Stoughton

The latest fashion across the water?
One Day is a Brit hit, a wry love story told through 19 years, set on St Swithin’s Day every year.
Et pourquoi, ca?
Symbolism, don’t you know - traditionally the English weather on that saint’s day, July 15, is a predictor of the weather for the next 40 days; if it rains it’ll be a summer of rain, if it’s sunny it’ll be glorious.
Hope it keeps fine for them
When we meet them Emma has just got a brilliant degree. Dex isn’t too bright, but is gorgeous, a more useful talent.
She soars, he sinks?
Oh no. Soon he’s seducing his way around South Asia, TEFLing (Teaching Eroticism as a Foreign Language), bronzed, slim and having a great time. Emma gets a dismal job in a greasy caff. They write letters, each dazzling the other. They sorta plan to get together at 40 if they haven’t found anyone else.
Eejits - why don’t they just get it on?
Wouldn’t make a satirical novel then, innit? Dex sinks inexorably towards his destined career, as a TV presenter on a laddish show called largin’ it. Emma rises briefly, becoming a teacher, but then, alas, writes a series of teen novels.
Why do I sense an unhappy ending?
Somethin’s gotta give. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of awfully BBC humour. Emma gets off with Ian, a comedian working days in the caff. Dex weds a terrible Tory and they have a daughter, Jasmine. There’s an Irish sandwich tycoon in there too.
Lovely people?
She’s a misery-guts; he seduces every woman he meets. I have no doubt that we’ll soon be picking up the hit DVD of the TV version.
And this David Nicholls chap is?
Kind of a political lads’ chicklit writer - his first, Starter for Ten, was about a working-class Marxist kid trying to get off with a rich gel and on to a TV quiz show.
Should I buy it?
More of a lads’ book, I’d say. But if you love those chirpy English comedies, go for it.
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Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon


Jonathan Cape

California in the Sixties?
Flowers in the hair, a joint between the fingers, a wave under your board and Hendrix’s Hey Joe floating through the air.
Groovy
Not quite. In this - well, historical novel, really - the LA police are deep in the heroin trade and have a hit man rubbing out union organisers and illegal immigrants. The Manson Family have just been caught for the Tate murders. Our private eye hero’s old girlfriend’s new rich squeeze has his wife putting out a contract on him.
What? What?
Dope fiend shamus Doc Sportello uses his stoner ESP to probe complex interlocking mysteries. Surfie band the Boards may be haunted by zombies. The Golden Fang may be a ship, a smack-dealing cartel or a tax dodge. Billionaire Micky Wolfmann may not have been kidnapped.
There’s a story in there?
Kind of. But this really doesn’t stick to the thriller structure - it wanders around, kinda toking on this philosophy and that and playing with words and images and concepts and… what was I saying?
Does it work as a thriller?
Hell, no. Every now and again something nasty happens, but it’s all in such a haze that you don’t really notice.
What characters inhabit this dark world?
El Drano (acronym for Leonard), who sells heroin - cut, one surmises, with America’s favourite toilet cleaner. Dirty cop Bigfoot Bjornsen. A sweet young family fighting to recover from addiction. Sixties tropes: an English moptop band (wink, wink); TVs with those giant remotes like a brick that buzzes in your hands.
Should I buy it?
Oh, definitely - Pynchon is the core literato, his Gravity’s Rainbow, V, etc must-reads. Just carrying this around and leaving it on cafe tables gives you instant street cred. But you should be wearing shades when you’re reading it, and endangering your health by at least smoking a mentholated.
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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Benny and Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti


Short Books
Swedish sex god seduces librarian?
In a sense. Benny and Shrimp is the story of an unlikely love. It came out in Sweden in 1998 and became a mass seller, then when it was published in the US it took off there. Now it’s about to explode here.
A love fated to be?
Pretty unlikely, really. In the graveyard, Desirée is gazing sadly and resentfully at her husband’s starkly designed grave while Benny tends his parents’ over-the-top grave of frills and marble and plastic flowers, and they dislike each other on sight. Then they smile at each other, and Zowee!
But…?
Ah yes. Benny is a dairy farmer crushed by a 16-hour day tending cows, clearing manure, fixing tractors, doing accounts, paying the vet, working in the forest, with no one to help. Desirée, or Shrimp as he nicknames her, is a serious intellectual with a career in the library.
So he needs a different kind of woman?
And she needs a different kind of man. Benny needs a sonsy farmgirl who knows how to make meatballs with lingonberry sauce from berries she’s gathered herself, and keep the farmhouse trim, and back the tractor and baler while he’s loading. Desirée needs a Lacan-discussing cafe lizard.
But then how…?
One smile, and next thing she’s fondling his blond curls and they’re having wild experimental sex all over the place. He buys her birthday presents - butterfly-shaped soap, a mouth organ, silly earrings, mauve tights -
Wait! Wait! What was that about sex?
Oh, lots of sex. Funny sex too, better still. And the story! A real page-turner, with nice subplots as well - one of the librarians keeps files and photos on colleagues; a friend loves a bad man who does her wrong.
But a happy ending?
The weirdest ending you could imagine, and morally equivocal, to say the least. But I won’t spoil it for you. Go and buy it pronto. It’s wonderful.
Author page for Penguin (Mazetti's US publisher)

Friday, 7 August 2009

Civil & Strange by Cláir Ní Aonghusa


Penguin Ireland

Civil and strange? What’s that mean?
It’s a Munster saying, meaning you should be civil with your neighbours, but keep a distance so the gossips don’t ate you alive.
What’s the story?
Kind of an Irish Aga Saga - Ellen escapes her unhappy marriage and manipulative mother by going back to the country town where she spent happy summers as a child.
Shudder - peeling wallpaper, dank rooms?
Until she gets the builders in, then it’s bright paint, conservatory, sexy cherrywood and granite kitchen, sexy kitchen installer.
Whoah, say again?
Yup, Eugene, gorgeous, flirty carpenter, has a fine pair of hands on him, and wants to get them on our Ellen. But he’s 12 years younger than her - shock horror - and she’s now a teacher in the local school.
She’ll bring disgrace on the family
Aha, your roots are showing. The nearest thing Ellen has to local family is her uncle Matt, whose wife, Julia, is icy and distant and wouldn’t have Ellen to stay when she was a kid.
And for why, like?
Matt married Julia at his mother’s instigation when the woman of his heart left him for someone else. Or so they say….
It’s good, so?
Brilliant. Not a pageturner, but told in a very appealing dialogue-heavy, slangy style. You like these characters and want to know what’s going to happen to them.
Gonna be a country girl again, eh?
Small-town, really. The local shopkeeper who’s avid for gossip. The way everyone knows everyone else’s business. The sly power plays by parents who bully the teachers.
Who’s this Cláir?
Poet, short story writer, novelist - this is her second novel; the first, Four Houses & A Marriage, was published by Poolbeg in 1997. Civil & Strange came out last year in the US, to critical acclaim, before arriving here.
It’s a buy, then?
A gently funny book that’ll make you nostalgic for your old home town.
US publisher's site

Thursday, 30 July 2009

If This is Paradise, I Want My Money Back by Claudia Carroll


Transworld Ireland

Dead? Not dead!
Yes, the heroine of Claudia Carroll’s rollicking new chicklit is Charlotte - generous, kind, loyal, and apparently dead as a doornail.
Wrecks the career path, that
The career - she always wanted to be a producer - was going nowhere. And now the late Charlotte is offered a new gig: guardian angel to James Kane, the TV producer who ditched her for screechy-voiced poodley-head Sophie. James also took Charlotte’s best programme ideas, giving her no credit, much less cash.
Charmer. Does she help him?
She does her vengeful best - this is a book for the box of chocolates and the Kleenex (for the tears of laughter). In the afterlife (rather like an old folks’ home) Charlotte realises her friends were right, James is a waste of space.
She’s got mystic powers, right?
Only James can hear her, so she has fun freaking him out at important moments: when he’s with the new mot, or he’s trying to pitch a script to a wealthy backer. The description of the backer is wickedly like certain Irish entrepreneurs, by the way.
So she only guardian-angels James?
She can give others dreams. Dreams of happy pregnancy for her wannabe-pregnant sister, who’s married to Perfect Paul and has a flock of sisters-in-law who hate her guts. Of the old boyfriend who’s just broken up with his wife for Charlotte’s internet-dating friend.
The author, isn’t she -
Yup, Nicola from the soap Fair City - now a full-time writer. So she knows the scene when she sets her hilarious story in the TV world, among producers, agents, actors and musicians.
Ooh, maybe this will be a movie?
Wouldn’t be surprised - her I Never Fancied Him Anyway, about a psychic agony aunt, was optioned by the producers of The Devil Wears Prada, and Oscar-nominated Robin Swicord is writing the screenplay.
TV3 interview with Claudia Carroll about If This is Paradise

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Living with Murder by Yvonne Kinsella


Gill & Macmillan

You’d be afraid to leave the house

You would that - all those druggies shooting each other, it’s like the Wild West.
But at least it’s only each other
Poor souls. But it’s often civilians too. Donna Cleary was “a gorgeous little thing, very chubby and looked like her dad”. Tough guys tried to muscle in on her friend’s 40th party. When they were politely refused they heaved the flowerpots through the window. Donna went out to clear up, and they drove up and shot her.
Was anyone charged for it?
Her suspected killer was a coke-stoked heroin fiend, a violent bank robber, according to Living with Murder. He died of a methadone overdose in a garda station.
And wasn’t there that plumber?
Anthony Campbell’s mam staggered into a friend’s house, white with shock, and said: “I’m after getting a call saying my son’s after being shot.” Anthony had tried out newspapers and stockbroking on work experience, but he plumped for plumbing, loved it. He was in a house fixing radiators, criminal Marlo Hyland sleeping upstairs without Anthony knowing. Hyland’s murders killed Anthony too.
Bloody drugs
Some people aren’t safe in their own home, either. Like the blind man in Monageer who smothered his two daughters, who had the same eye disease as himself, and hanged himself and his wife.
It leaves so many questions...
His mother swears he didn’t do it. He was in debt, terrified of moneylenders. But she’ll never know.
All so sad
A prison officer who sounds like a decent sort, Brian Stack, was executed with a shot to the head that left him quadriplegic and totally dependent for the 18 months he lived. He’d told his wife he was having hassle at work.
Not a happy read, then?
It’s a sad, sad book, especially when you look at the snapshots of people in happy times. But reading it gives you an insight into the stories in the papers.
Publisher's site

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult


Hodder

Say what?

But if you had a child with a dangerous illness, and you could choose the genetic makeup of a new baby so the blood from its umbilical cord could save her, would you do it?
Oh, that’s a tough one
The trouble for Anna Fitzgerald, the little girl in My Sister’s Keeper, is that it didn’t stop at that first donation. For years her parents have used her as a replacement parts factory for her sister - blood, bone marrow - and now they insist that she donates a kidney.
What, without asking her?
She’s a kid - by definition, her parents are the ones who decide what’s right for her. Until she asks a lawyer to sue them for the right to her own body.
Sounds fair enough
Yeah, but her sister Kate is very sick now; unless she gets one of Anna’s kidneys, she’ll die. And Sara, the girls’ mother, is absolutely focused on getting Kate better.
Sounds like one of those conundrums from religious education class
Unfortunately, that’s a bit how it’s written. Picoult generally takes an ethical problem and plays it out with stock characters - heroic people in tough circumstances, a troubled teen - and she’s done that here.
‘Now a major film’, it says on the cover?
Starring Cameron Diaz, Alec Baldwin; in cinemas now. The novel has more twirly bits - the lawyer has a service dog and there’s a whole subplot involving him; Anna is a hockey star in the book and losing a kidney will stop her playing, and so on.
I sense a certain muted withdrawal?
The book badly needs an operation to cut away some flab. It could have been really good if the writer had co-operated with a brilliant editor to sharpen and tighten it.
So I could skip this one?
It’s a grand beach read, and Picoult is a good writer. But it’s not her very best. Go to the picture instead. Oh, wait - it only gets 44% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer. Hmm.
Author's page
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Flagging the Therapy by Dr Harry Barry


Liberties

I am not mentally ill!

Just a little, maybe? Think about it - maybe a downer is the mental equivalent of a nasty head cold? Maybe we’re all mentally ill sometimes, the same as we’re all physically ill sometimes.
And you have a solution?
Harry Barry’s Flagging the Therapy - he’s a Louth doctor, a director of Aware, the anti-depression charity. He has a bunch of stuff you can do to fight it.
Ack, it’s a huge book
Not so huge. But annoyingly, there’s no index. Luckily, I’ve read it for you, and can tell you to cut to the chase and turn immediately to page 216, where the good doctor outlines his master plan.
Which is?
I’m getting to it… Exercise, take Omega 3 oils, lay off the sauce if you’re depressed -
What? But drink is the only thing that keeps me sane

Apparently not when you’re depressed. He warns against drink, dope, cocaine - Irish women especially are using wine to deal with stress, it seems.
Life would be a dark, empty room
He says you should share your distress with someone you know and trust - ideally a professional in the area. And so on. Actually he has good guides to the various types of depression we may suffer from - bipolar or unipolar, anxiety, etc - and what approach helps them.
I’ve tried everything already
Oh yeah, and he warns that some therapies have a shallow foundation. But if we can learn to accept and love ourselves…
You’re joking, surely?
And you should organise a proper healthy diet - eating fish and eggs and greens and grains and good things keeps you on a steady keel. I don’t want to sound like Miss Thistlebottom, but a hearty meal -
Bleagh
Give the guy a break, he’s trying to help you. And he’s right - when you’re huddled in a cold black fog and you can’t get up or wash the dishes, it really helps to go out and go for a good fast walk. But you really should read the whole thing.
Maybe I will
Attagirl.
Publisher's site

The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns and The Wire by David Simon


Canongate

They wrote The Wire? I love The Wire!
The Corner, and Homicide, A Year on the Killing Streets are two books of classic journalism by reporter (and now fiction maven) David Simon and former cop and teacher Ed Burns, who together wrote the cult series The Wire.
True life stories, eh?
The two lads spent a year on the streets of Baltimore with low-level drug dealers, and Simon spent another year with the homicide squad. The Corner is basically about a family, the McCulloughs, falling to pieces as the drug world reaches out and sucks them in.
Lucky it’s not here
Oh, it will be. They write about “the slow, seismic shift that is shutting down the assembly lines, devaluing physical labour and undercutting the union pay scale”. That’s happening here too, in the Dublin and Limerick inner cities, places that used to be homes to factories and docks and skilled work.
Who are these McCulloughs?
Serious working-class people, descendants of slaves, who work two and three jobs each to make money and keep the family decent. Later, addicts and dealers whose life is a ruin, whose friends are gunmen and knifemen.
And Homicide? Same as the TV series?
Homicide, Life on the Streets was based on these real cases - the woman accused of killing a series of husbands for insurance, the cop blinded in a shooting, the 11-year-old disembowelled on her way home from the library.
Not nice
And characters: the Fish Man, suspected child murderer; cops like jokey Jay Landsman and steadfast Tom Pellegrini. Shocking twists, inside gen on cop work.
Not a chicky giggly book?
Affirmative. Deeply sad, very male, an incantation to the dying working class and the end of the unions, the schools, the law, the newspapers.
But still...
If you like The Wire and you’re gripped by Generation Kill, you’ll love these two books.
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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant


Virago

Heavy breathing in a 16th-century convent?
Kinda. Young, beautiful, madly in love and protesting with every breath, 16-year-old Serafina is shoved into the nunnery by her angry family.
Angry why?
Blame it on the boogie. They’d made a good match for Serafina, but she fell for the wrong man (wrong for her family, that is), and enters with a secret stash of letters To Ser With Love.
Mortifying
Which is what the convent proceeds to do to her. The Council of Trent is tightening the screws on over-indulgent nuns who wear makeup, keep pets, put on theatrical holy shows and consume wine and biscuits.
I didn’t think nuns were like that
We didn’t think nuns were like a lot of things. This St Caterina’s convent in Ferrara is raging with strife. Humble Suora Umiliana wants miracles, fasting, prayer and mortification of the flesh. Abbess Chiara, smoothly political, wants to keep things as they are.
Ah, life
Then there’s an aged nun who’s basically been in the slammer for most of her life, banged up in her own cell because her stigmata and visions are too politically exciting for Ferrara.
Holy God
All done in his name. Then there’s our heroine, Suora Zuana, herbalist and doctor, and the nearest thing you’ll find in the time and place to a rational human being.
And Serafina's boyfriend?
Wouldn’t want me to reveal the whole thing, would you? The good guys win in the end, but you’ll have to guess who they are.
Who’s this Dunant dame?
Multifaceted writer who leaps with effortless ease from noir thrillers (she’s a Silver Dagger winner) to The Birth of Venus, about a Renaissance babe torn between a dashing painter and her wise, kindly husband.
Should I take a vow to buy it?
If you like a book full of continual change and transformation, as the rule of St Benedict would put it. A bit too long, but the story is juicy.

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