Monday, 28 August 2006

From Here to Maternity by Sinead Moriarty

From Here to Maternity
Sinéad Moriarty
(Penguin €??)

Synopsis: Emma and James have been trying for a baby for yonks – and as soon as they agree to adopt little Yuri from Russia, Emma discovers she’s pregnant. With a family full of eccentrics and a world that’s suddenly turned into exhaustion and fuzzyheadedness, Emma must maker her new life.

BABS, the bold younger sister, steals this story right out from under earnerst, careful, conscientious whinger Emma.

I laughed out loud reading the description of Babs making the most of a job selling bouncy fold-out beds on TV, as assistant to a musclebound Californian.

“Oh, Randy, I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. This Slumber-Puff mattress is the best,” Babs coos, as Randy crashes down on to the bed (and Babs) to prove its durability. “I’m going to order one for myself.”

Apart from Babs, whose carefree lack of any moral standards whatsoever troubles poor solemn Emma, their mother is a consequence of the first water.

“Dear, oh, dear, Mummy’s very touchy today,” says the horrid old bag to baby Yuri (whom she ends up minding, after doing her best to persuade Emma not to adopt him). She helpfully tells Emma when her jeans are too tight and she looks like a slob.

But Emma isn’t the ma’s only target – her brother, Sean, has got himself engaged to an Iranian. Married in a mosque? “Lord save us and bless us, that Taliban crowd and your man Osama bun Ladle will be turning up next,” worries the mother.

Dubliner Sinéad Moriarty is the author of The Baby Trail and The Right Fit (also sold as A Perfect Match) – and From Here to Maternity follows the same characters through the next stage of their fertility conundrums – annoyingly moany Emma with her adoption and birth, and her friend Lucy with the opposite.

Lucy doesn’t want a baby yet (at 36!) and thinks she’s plenty of time, while her husband wants a rake of kids to join him on the rugger pitch.

When Babs is on the scene, From Here to Maternity lights up, and it’s worth the read just for her. A brilliant character, who shows Moriarty’s unexpected flair for side-splitting humour and fun.

Friday, 18 August 2006

The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory

The Boleyn Inheritance
Philippa Gregory
(HarperCollins €??)

Synopsis: Anne of Cleves arrives in England to marry Henry VIII, and is joined by Jane Boleyn and Katherine Howard. In the two years that follow, two become queen and two meet a tragic fate.

SLOW to start – her editor should have persuaded Philippa Gregory to cut great swathes of this book – this is Henry VIII as a Tudor Stalin, in a court riven with paranoia, and a country destroyed by his rule.

Henry is now far from the ‘handsomest prince in Christendom’ of his youth; now, he’s bloated, immense, diseased, limping, foul of breath and deadly of whim.

In one disastrous moment, the straightforward, intelligent Anne makes the worst mistake any queen expectant might do. Henry staggers in to the room where she’s waiting with her ladies.

He’s in disguise, and when this foul old man rushes up and kisses her with his wet lips and reeking breath, she pushes him away, wipes her mouth and spits.

For a man whose vanity has destroyed the social welfare system that the church had run in England for centuries, and two of whose three queens so far had died under him, this is not a good start.

Anne is in trouble, but it’s nothing like the trouble little Kitty Howard will have. Katherine is just 14, and an airhead who adores dancing, flirting, new clothes and seduction.

Soon enough she’ll be queen herself, displacing Anne; but the very talents that win Henry’s fickle attentions are those that will lead her screaming to the scaffold.

Jane Boleyn is there as Anne’s advisor. She seems so straight, so loving, so gentle – but this is the woman who sent her husband and sister-in-law to their execution with her testimony.

Philippa Gregory, author of the bestselling The Other Boleyn Girl, about the unlucky Boleyn family: Anne and her sister Mary and brother George.

She’s had a run of entertaining books about the Tudor women, but this time she’s lost her storytelling touch, and the book could have been chopped by a third.

Still, it’s entertaining and horrifying, and a taste of that era of immense social change, when what there was of social justice gave way to privilege and greed.

Gregory has constrained herself by telling the story in a series of first-person accounts by Anne, Katherine and Jane, but her touch with Tudor life and values is sure.

Tuesday, 8 August 2006

Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

Whitethorn Woods
Maeve Binchy
(Orion €??)

Synopsis: ST ANN’S well in Whitethorn Woods is the centre of controversy – the holy well that gives everyone their heart’s wish is due to be obliterated by a big tarmac bypass. Maeve Binchy tells the stories of the people of Rossmore, the town being bypassed.

I’VE OFTEN wondered what would have happened if the occupying British had decided to drive a huge road through Tara, ancestral home of the High Kings.

There would have been holy murder.

Maybe Maeve Binchy was thinking of the same road when she wrote about Whitethorn Woods, where a shrine to St Ann, grandmother of Jesus, draws troubled people to ask the saint for help.

A bypass for the town, badly needed, is planned. Traffic is mad, a child has been killed.

People are taking sides – “pious, old-fashioned, superstitious people standing in the way of progress, the old Irish rooted in history and
traditions against the good modern Ireland which wanted to improve life for everyone”, as one character puts it.

Now, Maeve Binchy doesn’t do dark. You can confidently take a bet that you’ll never read the phrase “a frenzied stabbing attack” in one of her books. Bold little girls aren’t slapped by their mother then snatched by a mad man with a Rapunzel complex and jailed for 10 years, no remission, in a purpose-built cell.

Her stories are, in essence, fairytales with happy endings. Good things happen to the good, and only the bad, greedy, selfish people are sent to Hell, though even that is an angry, envious Hell of their own making.

Rossmore’s best person is Neddy Nolan – “not the sharpest knife in the drawer”, but sweet and slow and intelligent with the warm, uncalculating wit of someone who isn’t chasing ambition.

Neddy simply doesn’t see his brother’s crookedness, at first, and inadvertently reveals a scam to his boss on the buildings in London.

He’s kept home then to keep house for the brother and the other builders, and over the years of doing odd jobs and minding people, he saves a fortune, so he’s able to buy the family farm. And he’s so nice that the lovely local teacher marries him.

Another character wakes up in the horrors after getting too drunk the night before her big interview. She’s convinced that she’s taken the taxi driver home to bed, all because the man she loves fancies someone else. But instead, the taxi driver has taken her drunken advice – and both of them get their wishes.

The young curate does the work of the parish and tries to mend all the broken hearts and broken lives around him, while minding the doting parish priest with the help of a Latvian man.

They’re not all wonderful people: there’s a lazy, crabbed doctor who drives out a young competitor; there’s a mad woman who persuades a suicidal friend to take her lover’s new mot with him when he goes – and there’s her mother, who then steals her conman lover.

But the stories as a whole are as warm and cosy as a turf fire, just right for toasting your toes and holding off the cold reality of winter outside.

Maeve Binchy was born and brought up in a big happy house in Dalkey, eldest of the four children of loving parents.

She went to Holy Child in Killiney, then UCD, and worked as a teacher – in one Jewish school the grateful parents gave her a trip to a kibbutz, which is echoed in one of the threads in Whitethorn Woods.

Her parents sent her letter home from the kibbutz to the Irish Independent, and after it was published she kept writing, beginning a column for The Irish Times and becoming the paper’s London corr, where she met and married another writer, Gordon Snell.

Her fans’ (including me) greatest favourites were her gossipy stories of things overheard, vignettes like the one about the lad, watched by fascinated queues, who checked his appearance in the bank’s one-way glass before coming in and joining the longest queue – for the clerk he obviously fancied like mad...

Whitethorn Woods is another feast for all those who love Maeve Binchy’s books.

Saturday, 5 August 2006

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

Saving Fish from Drowning
Amy Tan
(Harper Perennial €??)

Synopsis: Bibi Chen, found gruesomely dead at the start of the story, accompanies her tour group in ghost form. Described in Bibi’s waspish commentary, the group wreak havoc through China and Burma, then disappear without trace.

VERY, very funny, a cutting satire on Americans abroad, edgy and completely impossible to stop reading, even at 3am with your eyelids propped up by matchsticks, Saving Fish from Drowning will be passed from sister to sister until the cover falls off from too much loving.

Accompanied by the furious, opinionated ghost of their tour organiser, a bumbling group of middle-class Americans set off on a journey through China and Burma.

Powerless to make her many opinions felt, ghostly Bibi shouts in their ears as they make one cultural boo-boo after another.

It’s all going to end badly, especially when a man with prostate problems mistakes the sacred shrine of the female genitalia for a useful outdoor urinal, and the whole group is cursed, and their children after them.

Our group includes Moff – the hippie entrepreneur who started by growing a screen of bamboo to shelter his marijuana plants from prying official eyes, and ended up making his fortune from decorative bamboos.

Moff’s son, Rupert, is a perfectly ordinary American kid – until seen with the desirous eyes of a beaten-down Burmese tribe who have been waiting for the risen Christ for generations.

The love interest: Harry, the doggy behavioural scientist whose TV programme, The Fido Files, is a worldwide craze with pet owners, and elegant Marlena Chu, Shanghai-born, Sorbonne-educated, from a millionaire family who lost it all in the flight from China and were now just comfortably off in America.

But this is a bedroom farce, with doors opening and closing and the gods and demons ready to bedevil all hopeful lovers.

And when the 11 go missing, both the vicious Burmese regime and the international media see an advertising opportunity. Could Moff have been a heroin dealer? Who’s the political activist stowed away amid the group? Have they gone into hiding with the Karen underground?

Amy Tan, as always, brings the otherworlds into her story. The Nats, or irritable undead spirits that cause everything from car crashes to diarrhoea, are, as a Burmese journalist attests “a big problem here”, and make themselves known by leading everyone into trouble.

It’s always good to see a new Amy Tan, and this is one of her best. Absolutely hilarious.