Monday, 26 January 2009
Weidenfeld & Nicolson €20.24
BYRON was a nasty piece of work. The son of Mad Jack Byron, he was trailed up by his awful mother, who stravagued around the country with him trying to get her claws on his inheritance.
Another of Mad Jack’s sprogs was Augusta Leigh, the poet’s half-sister, and perhaps his only real love.
A star of an international level undreamed-of by the Beatles, the febrile fatty loved nothing more than a girlish boy, unless it was boyish girls like nutty Caroline Lamb.
He traversed Europe like a one-man clap epidemic, the nasty thing, leaving a pustulating trail of syphilis and gonorrhea and miserable hearts in his wake.
Marrying a virtuous woman, he greeted his daughter’s birth with “Oh, what an implement of torture I have acquired in you” - a concept familiar to sadistic spouses.
His wife flouted him by running away, so his real instrument for torment was his ‘bastard’ daughter Allegra - neglected but bullied, passed from carer to uncaring carer.
A creative child with a mischievous smile, the toddler Allegra became increasingly disturbed, and died in the convent where her beast of a father had incarcerated her.
Edna O’Brien’s biography of the creep lacks the beautiful, ringing simplicity of her novels, but if you want to grind your teeth with rage, this is the book for you.
SICILY is usually the place for Mob stories. But there are other stories there too.
In Camilleri’s latest cosy thriller about Inspector Salvo Montalbano of the Vigata police force, politics keep seeping into the investigation of murder.
The victim has been shot in the face and left with his mickey dangling, suggesting some kind of crime of passion.
But as Montalbano probes the crime - in between feasts at local restaurants - things begin to look a little less clear-cut.
The dead man had a hot-breathed, close relationship with his nun-like sister, a baggy woman with tempting violet eyes.
But there were lovers, and lovers of lovers. There’s an impotent husband who wants to hear all the details of the affairs of his wife - but becomes enraged when she has a bit on the side without telling him. That’s unfaithful.
And there’s the dead man’s profession - a pharmaceutical salesman, in an area where a series of upper-class men have been found dead, killed by badly-cut cocaine.
Inspector Montalbano is beloved of readers, as much a classic of mystery writing as Poirot or Maigret.
This doesn’t have the sprightly humour of the early stories - but it has its moments, as the police in the tiny station work their way through the clues, and work out how to sidestep the politics of the murder.
Monday, 19 January 2009
Headline Review €9.44
THE HORRIBLE truth is that Millie is 39. She’s had a great time as Andrew’s wife after the last 15 years of flitting and good-timing.
But now she’s married, and her biological clock isn’t just ticking, she’s being deafened by the alarm.
It’s time for serious action on the baby front. But Millie’s husband really isn’t co-operating as he should.
Fair City writer Clare Dowling is the mistress of feelgood stories, but here she’s dicing with danger. But she’s still funny even writing about a fraught subject.
What her heroine Millie hasn’t realised is the unfair rule that at 18 you only have to glance at the postman to be pregnant. But at 39 - when you can actually support the kid - your body’s snarling at you: “You had your chance, babe; forget it”.
And few things put a worse strain on a marriage than the infertility of either one of the partners.
Millie is getting familiar with terms such as ‘ovarian reserve’. She isn’t noticing how much more reserved her husband is.
As Andrew digs in his heels and Millie goes right ahead baby-hunting anyway, their marriage seems to be falling to pieces.
Dowling’s done it again with this entertaining story. Her fans will love it.
DIVINE Alice Devine is in the pits. No man, no real home, her adorable baby Adam to support.
And a sister who keeps helpfully getting her jobs.
So naturally she moves in with her sister, Grace, and takes the next job offered.
Working as an assistant fundraiser for a maternity hospital lands her into the world of the rich. Older men with younger wives, women built like busty stick insects - but all the same problems as the women whose husbands have less money and more hair.
Her boss is Maud Hamilton-O’Connor, wife of the famous Boothy, and the most famous of Ireland’s charity ladies who lunch. But a bit scatty: don’t let her near the slug pellets when she’s cooking.
Here’s where 93% of readers start guessing who’s who. The other 7% already know, I’d guess.
“Even I knew Boothy,” writes Sarah Webb in this latest hilarious novel. “He was one of Ireland’s richest men… He also had a larger than life personality with fantastic, controversial expressions for everything from SUVs (‘Dublin Dumptrucks’) to the bin charges (‘Sin Bins’), and he was always giving ‘state of the economy’ soundbites on the telly.”
Anything for Love is full of twists and tears and laughs, another solid bestseller-to-be for the Dun Laoghaire writer.
Saturday, 10 January 2009
IF YOU want a book to take on your lifetime trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl who Played with Fire is the one. Better to load it on your Kindle or iPhone if possible, though, because it’s a huge thing.
Larsson, a Swedish investigative journalist, brought his thriller trilogy to his publisher and promptly died of a heart attack at 50, is a hellish loss to literature.
The characters are the same as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first of the series, but they’ve grown up. Lisbeth Salander, genius hacker and a paragon of body art, is wandering the world, discarding her nipple and tongue rings but (weirdly) getting her boobs done.
Mikael Blomkvist, editor of Millennium magazine, is preparing to publish a book about sex trafficking - as Larsson put it, “the finances of rape”.
Salander discovers that this probe revisits her own violent past. When a series of brutal murders happens, she’s right in the frame, and becomes a tabloid star as Sweden’s answer to Psycho Killer.
The tension torques tighter and tighter, there’s a shock with every page you turn, and the characters are tightly written and very likeable. The best thriller I’ve read in ages.
Black Swan €10.79
DULL isn’t usually a Joanna Trollope word. But she’s struck a less true note than usual with this story of an elderly woman who brings her lonely neighbours together for a weekly salon.
Eleanor sees widowed Lindsay and single mother Paula stravaging along the streets with their respective children, Noah and Toby, and invites them in, and their meetings grow into a circle as they bring in others.
Soon her flat is flocking with DJs and artists and businesspeople. Then Paula brings in a new boyfriend, the wealthy but manipulative Jackson. Bad move. Jackson wreaks havoc through the group, flirting and offering investment and bringing Paula’s son to cheer at a Chelsea match.
Trollope, queen of the Aga sagas, doesn’t work so well in this foray into literary gloom, which lacks the happy-ever-after chirpiness that’s her main selling point.
Everyone does, by the way, get a happy ending. But not before you have to follow them through a mass of deep thinking as they ponder without cease.
The characters are all too cut-out, and once they’ve been carefully outlined with characteristics, their predictable behaviour colours them in by numbers.
Trollope is a country girl, and writes most happily about rural life. Here, she seems walled in by the city, out of sight of the green.
DOWN in the basement, Dad's playing Texas Hold Em and chatting online with DesertMissy when - blam! - someone takes off the top of his head with a Golden Boy .22.
Since the final lines of his online flirt refer to the person who's just come in as "my wife... #19", it's obvious that the technologically savvy polygamist has just been done in by one of his handmaidens.
And that's just the start of The 19th Wife, a bestseller in the US. How well it will do here is moot. This book is hard work, with interlinking narratives and a multiplicity of viewpoints and styles.
The main narrator is sweet, gay Jordan, who grew up hard and fast when the voice of God told the ma that she should abandon him on the road when he was 14.
Yes, that's the suspect, that mother #19.
Jordan is determined that the ma is innocent. And so she seems. Innocent, otherworldly and totally dim - the kind who's waiting for the Rapture.
Peeking out from between the story of Jordan's investigation into his father's murder is another story - author David Ebershoff's retelling of the factual story of Brigham Young's renegade 19th wife.
Hideously funny and way, way too long, this makes a perfect desultory Christmas read.
THE RICH are driving us crazy - worse, the poor things are driving themselves crazy too.
Oliver James's book Affluenza shocked the greedy last year. He wrote that the hunt for more and more affluence was an illness that left the infected feeling bloated and miserable.
He's back with The Selfish Capitalist, and a refreshing boot in the backside for those annoying geneticists who are creeping ever closer to the eugenics of the 1930s.
James reckons that the distress and mental illness that's on the rise in Anglo-American countries is the cause of a particular attitude to money.
"Based on the best available scientific evidence from the World Health Organisation, twice as many people suffer [emotional distress] in English-speaking nations compared with citizens of mainland Western European ones."
We're nuttier than the French. Oh, la, la!
This is a muscle-stretching book - you'll find yourself muttering at it, saying "but wait..." - but going on to read another page and another.
It ranges from how to get your kids to study successfully (teach them to be creative and autonomous) to the myth - according to high-up British military sources he talked to - of the 'War on Terror'.
Fascinating, controversial, crammed with facts and figures, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
Posted by Pageturners at 11:20
Simon & Schuster €8.99 (Easons price)
IRISH chicklit used to be great - witty, tightly plotted, with vivid characters. You never knew what was going to happen, and whatever happened you burst out laughing.
But in the last couple of years it's gone all fluffy. The plots are flabby, there isn't a joke in the place, and it's as dull as a daylight nightclub.
Colette Caddle just may be showing a light at the end of this tunnel with her latest book, though it's the dark light of misery lit.
It's an undemanding book, with more nourishment than flavour.
In Between the Sheets, Caddle's heroine, Dana De Lacy, is the type you read about in the Herald diary - a best-selling romance writer, well married, with publicists making sure her picture is in every paper as she haunts the glamorous night spots.
It all falls to pieces when Dana's sexy architect husband Gus walks out, saying their marriage was a sham. Both of them immediately get off with new squeezes.
Dana takes to the drink and starts writing about her dank Wexford childhood, when her father, a famous poet, was horrid to her brother and her mother, and idolised her.
The story goes back and forth between Dana's modern high life and early misery - but of course it all ends happily.
THE British love their battles, and once Shakespeare got his teeth into Agincourt (or Azincourt as the French and Bernard Cornwell call it), they hold their manhood cheap if they don't remember St Crispin's Day 1415.
Azincourt is a thriller about the battle that ended the feudal world.
Cornwell's hero, Nick Hook, is a serf, the unacknowledged son of his local lord. His family have a vendetta with the sons - also conceived through droit de seigneur - of the local priest.
Outlawed after punching the priest, ace archer Nick becomes a mercenary, and lives through a famous massacre at Soissons.
He fights his way (accompanied by an ex-nun, Sarah, another aristocratic offshoot) through the closing battles of the Hundred Years' War, until the culminating row at Agincourt, when a tiny English army used the super-weapon of English archery plus French mud to defeat the flower of French chivalry.
Azincourt is gripping, and meticulously researched. Virtually every character is a historical person.
It's selling like crazy, and should, though it has a touch of the Chinese meal about it - you're completely pulled in as you read, but can be strangely dissatisfied after you close it.
But if you want a Christmas book that will take you out of the world of 2008 and recession, this is it.
Chatto & Windus €22.94
WARS bracket the lives of the characters in All Our Worldly Goods: the Great War, which obliterates their home village, their factories and their fortunes; and World War II, which divides their country.
Irene Nemirovsky never saw this book published - she had died in Auschwitz, probably gassed as she was dying of cholera.
It is absolutely French, absolutely bourgeois.
Nemirovsky's family - Russian Jewish bankers - fled Russia during the Revolution when she was a teenager and settled in France, and she fatally adored everything about her new country.
Yet Nemirovsky's writing is Russian, and Jewish. She writes with the luminous observation of Turgenev, and her subject is family, seen with sympathy, humour and a kind of warm distance.
Here, her subject is the Hardelot family of St Elme, whose factory-owners have been the autocratic patriarchs of the village for generations.
They build nice houses for their workers, educate talented children and employ them at low salaries - but indignantly refuse requests for a swimming pool or a sports stadium.
The same indignation destroys the family, when patriarch Julien sets his face against his grandson Pierre for marrying the woman he loves, not the hard businesswoman Julian has chosen.
In a story that's gripping, funny and sad, this family will be familiar to all lovers of the Irish Big House genre.
Penguin Ireland €17.54
ISEULT Gonne's was an unfortunate second-hand life - half-acknowledged child of WB Yeats's muse; half-French, half-Irish; mistily involved with the married Ezra Pound; abandoned by Francis Stuart when he chose Germany and other lovers.
My mother once told me that Iseult was stunningly beautiful. When she walked into a room, every man went unconsciously to straighten his tie.
But as soon as her aged mother entered, it was as if Iseult had become invisible: Maud Gonne's blazing beauty obliterated her.
Orna Ross - teacher, journalist, literary agent, counsellor, writer - has wrapped Iseult's story within another.
The gigantic book is full of antique scandal: the sensational divorce of Maud Gonne and Major John MacBride is rehearsed here. MacBride, a hard-drinking soldier, denied the whispered charge of sexually abusing Iseult.
Ross, who is sick with cancer at the moment, used the relationship between Maud and Iseult Gonne and a fictional writer and her daughter, as a template for a meditation on the nature of daughterhood.
The book could have done with cutting by a third to sharpen the stories that really matter - but her style is so wonderful that even the dull in-between bits are almost a pleasure to read.
For anyone intrigued by the matching of art and idealism that gave birth to our state, this provide a fascinating insight.
Harvill Secker €17.39
ROAMING bands of adolescents spend their days in many Irish housing estates, as their parents work long hours, leaving them without supervision or help.
The same in Iceland, it seems.
Arctic Chill begins with the image of a stabbed child, frozen to the ground by his own blood, dead outside a deserted block of flats.
This is the latest in a series of haunting stories about Icelandic police investigating not just crime, but the chill sadness at the centre of their own lives.
As detectives Erlendur, Elinborg and Sigurdur Óli investigate the death of the half-Thai, half-Icelandic boy, everyone stymies them.
What kind of people are the family, Erlendur asks the interpreter, and she replies: "Very ordinary people. People like you and me. Poor people."
And in Iceland, where people speak plainly and keep a distance from their neighbours, there's a certain distaste for incomers.
The police are halted at every turn, but gradually their work turns up leads: the seedy man with a computer loaded with pornography; the teacher who thinks "they shouldn't let those people into the country"; the feral middle-class children.
Written in a plain, down-to-earth yet lyrical style, Arctic Chill is a cool examination of our value for children - as well as a gripping, harrowing story.
REVENGE is sweet. Though less so when you're getting your revenge on the wrong person.
In Second Chances, Lizzie Walsh has fled Wexford for Dublin, where she won't be reminded of the murder of her sister, Megan.
Lizzie has made a life she loves. She has a great job raising funds for a charity, a gorgeous wannabe actor boyfriend, and she volunteers for a helpline.
But one day she sees Megan's murderer, Joe Jones, now free as air, strolling along Grafton Street without a care in the world.
Lizzie turns into a stalker.
Joe Jones is universally acknowledged as a nice guy, kind to his elderly neighbours and the oul' fellas at the pigeon racing club where he hangs out. What a sickener.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Lizzie's mother has discovered Megan's diary - and, as astute readers will have guessed, Joe's not the bad guy.
The story is told in parallel, Megan's diary gradually revealing the truth of her death as Lizzie tangles herself fatally in Joe's life, determined to repay the harm done to her family.
Poor gormless Joe is unwittingly spreading his sweetness on the desert air as he loves his neighbour and does good to those who hate him.
Second Chances is cosy, not plotty, a reassuring winter read for lovers of sedate chicklit.