Saturday, 31 March 2007

Baby Zero by Emer Martin

Baby Zero
Emer Martin

THREE people are Baby Zero - in each case a girl born in the year zero in 'Orap', an invented country not a million miles from Iran.

Emer Martin's novel is bracketed by a substory of one of the zeroes waiting to be stoned to death - a literary trick that's an annoying distraction to the great central story.

But Martin writes great characters here, and a great story, if only her editors had persuaded her to tell it straight.

Thought-provoking, brilliant, flawed, this is one of the novels of the year.


Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Heart-Shaped Box
Joe Hill
(Gollancz €??)

JUDAS Coyne is a rock star who collects creepy memorabilia. He buys a ghost and it haunts him.

Nice premise - but it's Joe Hill's rocketing story that keeps the reader turning the pages, eyes bugging, shoulders up around the ears, back pressed into a corner.

This is one scary book - but it's also funny, with a protagonist who starts off unlikeable and segues into a real hero, kind, smart, protective and a fighter.

Joe Hill is, as publicists quickly discovered, Stephen King's son, and he's a chip off the old block. He writes so like his father that at first people assumed it was one of King's periodic forays into pseudonym.

At first Judas (born Justin) is a spoilt rocker, living with the latest of a succession of Goth strippers whom he calls by the names of their state of origin because he can't be bothered to distinguish one from another.

Then Craddock the spook moves in. He's dressed like Johnny Cash, he has black scribbles for eyes, and a quick Google discovers that in life he was a psy-ops torturer in Vietnam. Not a very nice ghost.

So Judas and girlfriend Georgia take to the road, with their animal familiars (his doggies), pursued by their hypnotic, murderous haunt.

Truly brilliant. If you're worried about something, this is the book to read; you'll forget all about it, so petrified and intrigued will you be.


Saturday, 24 March 2007

31 Dream Street by Lisa Jewll

31 Dream Street
Lisa Jewell
Penguin €??

TOBY – hero of Lisa Jewell’s hotly selling Iris-Murdoch-ish ensemble romance, is a middle-aged loser.

He’s a poet, at least he sits all day in his room at the top of the house his daddy gave him, writing poetry on his computer. Doesn’t sell any, though.

He lives by renting out rooms, choosing needy and arty tenants. So far so depressing. Only it’s not, because Jewell’s wit lights up the pages, as when Toby's object of lust's promiscuity doesn't fuel his desire, but “If anything it had flattened it like a big bum on a whoopee cushion.”

Jewell writes great characters and situations – dissolute teenage Con, full of lust and then suddenly in love, settled Leah and her Indian boyfriend, two runaway mothers and a bad father, a sudden life-changing inheritance, a rattletrap house turning into a des res. And she writes great endings.

As Jewell finds the perfect mate and the perfect solution for each with the skill of a Kerry matchmaker, she sprinkles the story with bon mots and insights. A book to grab quick before it sells out.


In the Woods by Tana French

In the Woods
Tana French
Hodder Headline Ireland €??
Lucille Redmond

STOP all the clocks, cut off the telephone, order in enough turf for a glowing fire for a week and settle in to read a masterpiece.

In the Woods has everything: doomed lovers (two pair), child disappearance cases (x2), psychopaths (x2), crooked rezoning a gritty, witty unreliable narrator, a story that grabs you by the throat and drags you screaming through the woods.

A dead child is found on the Bronze Age altar discovered where a motorway is being driven through the sacred site of Knocknaree. She's the talented ballerina daughter of the man leading the anti-motorway fight.

The narrating cop is the survivor of another unsolved disappearance, in the glorious summer of 1984, giving him a spookily mendacious magic.

Add political dealing, the sacred honour of police partners, a family with something badly wrong, a weird archaeological crew and the horrifying pooka-haunted woods: the ingredients for something wonderful.

The story whips back and forth through brown-envelope territory, procedural matters and the loving, funny pair of cops investigating the murder with its spreading connections of dirty dealing.

Don't under any circumstances bring this book with you on holidays, unless you want to spend them reading in the hotel room.


Saturday, 17 March 2007

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

Burning Bright
Tracy Chevalier
HarperCollins €??

GIRL With a Pearl Earring author Tracy Chevalier has returned with this story of a country family up in London and living beside William Blake, poet, revolutionary and artist.

It’s a great idea for a book in the Chevalier style – the Washington writer triumphed with Pearl Earring, a romance based on the life of Vermeer, later made into a broodingly sexy film, but has also written a steamer on a medieval tapestry artist who gets stitched up by his love for a lovely model.

But she’s lost her magic touch with Burning Bright, written rather like a children’s book, with a story that weaves around without really getting anywhere.

It’s a pity, because readers who rush to buy this may then miss out on Chevalier’s return to form.

The story centres on the Kellaway family, who come from the village of Piddletrenthide to a London full of the news of the French Revolution. The Kellaways aim to work for the historic Astley circus, and there’s lots of 18th-century colour, Lord-a-mercy-ing and lubricious verse as they wend their way around the city.

Chevalier is now working on a story about a 19th-century fossicker, in which she hopes “to make fossils sexy”, according to her website. Hmmm.


The Trouble with Weddings by Sharon Owens

The Trouble with Weddings
Sharon Owens
Poolbeg €15.99
Lucille Redmond

WEDDING planner Mags – a Belfast housewife with just a tinge of the Hyacinth Bucket about her, who speaks in the kind of Nordie Mockney that’s so reminiscent of transvestites in cosy cardies – has a problem.

Her boss, wedding planner supreme Julie, has chickened out. Julie loves other people’s weddings – she just doesn’t want to get married herself, and wealthy, sexy boyfriend Gary has popped the question.

Julie leaves capable Mags to steer the lighthouse through perilous waters while she goes off to Galway and has a mad passionate affair with a gorgeous young barman who looks just like Sean Bean.

On top of it all, Mags’s son and his anorexic daughter are in mid-emergency, and a teenshy rock star in platforms wants her to arrange a Gothic wedding for him and his supermodel girlfriend.

Sharon Owens, great-niece of Benedict Kiely and a writer whose gift with comic timing will leave readers gasping with laughter, has triumphed with this romantic farce.

Owens fans will love the morass of confusion, nonsense and sheer fun she conjures from the magic of a dream wedding or two.


Saturday, 10 March 2007

When the Boys are Away by Sarah Webb

When the Boys are Away
Sarah Webb
Macmillan €??

MEG lives with a professional sailor, so he's never home, leaving her dangling with her two kids and no life - apart from a nice house in Monkstown, enough money, two gorgeous children and a loving partner.

When the Boys are Away ... the Girls will Play has little play about it - the heroine is a reactive whiner, 'giving a right earful' to all around when things don't go her way.

This is one for Webb's faithful, who love her wry, girly style.


Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka

Two Caravans
Marina Lewycka
(Penguin Fig Tree €??)

A SHORT History of Tractors in Ukrainian was last year's surprise bestseller - still ranking at 111 on as I write.

It was a fairly astonishing hit, since it concerned two grousy middle-aged sisters trying to detach their aged father from his new wife, an ambitious suicide blonde New European.

But it had the one guarantee of bestsellerdom: a great story that would make you laugh till you bust your gussets.

Two Caravans is darker - five of its major characters end up murdered - but if I was a stock-buying type I'd be running out to invest in its chances.

Lewycka is writing about the invisible world that everyone sees and no one knows: the secret life of illegal immigrants.

The 'two caravans' of the title are the men's and women's caravans in a Kentish farmer's field, where the strawberry-pickers live.

Our characters are all darlings, even, in the end, the murderers and the criminals. And especially the dog called Dog, whom we first meet as he escapes illegal dog-fighters' cages, barking "I AM DOG".

Two brilliant Chinese girls giggle together as they work to earn the money for their third-level study, until they're offered a lovely job minding an ambassador's children, and disappear into the brothels of Amsterdam.

A sweet Malawian Aids orphan is minded tenderly by the others, and saved by his own incredible luck. A much-married woman seeks a father for her Down's Syndrome child.

The criminals do their deals, talking forever on 'mobilfon' to shift people around from the fruit fields to the brothels and the horrifying chicken factory farms where the workers play soccer with the dying hens.

And you can trust Lewycka's gentle writerly heart - there's a happy ending for the good, or at least for those that survive.


Saturday, 3 March 2007

Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon

Getting Rid of Matthew
Jane Fallon
Penguin €??

HELEN lives that saddest of all lives, the lonely existence of the hidden mistress. Her beloved Matthew has been promising to leave his wife for years.

Hers is a world of needy secret calls, Christmas spent alone.

Then she starts thinking about what she doesn't like about Matthew. The list is short at first - things like that annoyingly crinkly skin on his belly - but it grows.

Everyone in Getting Rid of Matthew makes lists - of bad husband-stealing types; of reasons for leaving lovers; of the pros and cons of pregnancy.

When Helen gets standoffish, Matthew gets interested. Leaving his wife, Sophie (herself a former mistress), he moves in with Helen. She swiftly finds out that there's less to him than when he was desirably distant.

In a mad moment Helen starts stalking Sophie, and decides that Matthew must be reinserted into his family.

A total comedy of mistress manners, Getting Rid of Matthew should be issued to anyone considering falling in love with someone married.


The Manny by Holly Peterson

The Manny
Holly Peterson
HarperCollins €??
Lucille Redmond

JUMP out of the way: a bestseller is coming up the tracks. Holly Peterson’s story of a rich girl and her male nanny is lepping off the shelves across the US, and it’s going to do the same here.

Jamie is a TV producer, working on a huge story - an interview with a Monica Lewinsky type who murmurs vague obscenities about her dealings with a right-wing Christian politician.

All that’s holding Jamie back is her husband, a pouty preppie who thinks a wife is a maid and a whipping girl.

On the day her big story is due to air he’s in whine-o-rama mode for her to get his favourite squash racquet restrung. And he’s miserable about earning a mingy $1.5m a year.

With Mr Richy Rich always working, homelife is awash with estrogen, with no male support for her distressed son, so Jamie hires a 'manny'. After all, the Kennedy kids all had male nannies – they called them (natch) governors.

This is bestsellerland - the manny isn’t one of the popolo minuto. Nope, he’s an about-to-be-millionaire software developer from a neocon background with hot buns and fab abs. Three guesses?

A diverting spell in the world of the greedy, The Manny is a genre-bender, sex and shopping and ambition and even a tinge of socialism, and brilliant fun.