Sunday, 29 April 2007

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Nineteen Minutes
Jodi Picoult
(Hodder & Stoughton €??)

WHAT a stroke of luck for bestselling writer Jodi Picoult that her story of a school killer who rampages through the site of his torment, shooting dead the classmates who made his life a misery, should come out the very month of another American school massacre.

The catchcry of her shooter - "They started it" - even eerily echoes Cho Seung-Hui's "You decided to spill my blood".

Nineteen Minutes can be confusing at first, since no normal reader pays much attention to chapter headings, which here say things like 'Three Months Before'.

When you get a handle on the way the story skips back and forth in time, Picoult's killer and his victims take hold of the action.

Jeered, brutalised, patronised by teachers, ignored by his father, disowned by his popular brother, Peter is a perfect butt for hurtful tricks. He keeps seeking friendship, unable to understand why people hate him.

Central to the story, in a pattern familiar to Picoult fans, are a mother and daughter, distanced from each other by work (mom's a judge).

Daughter Josie is the hinge of the story; girlfriend of the school sports star and leading bully, she's also an on-off friend of Peter, the weedy nerd with specs and a backpack of guns.

The writer uses cringeworthy US slang - cool, hot, brainiac, neat freak - to set the teen theme. It works, as does her oddly cutout set of characters, against tragedy that might demand deeper writing.

A thriller to the last page, Nineteen Minutes overleaps its limitations. Don't miss it.

The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien et al

The Children of Hurin
JRR Tolkien et al
(HarperCollins )

TOLKIEN'S reworked early masterpiece of 99 years ago is written in a style that wavers from the plain speaking and huffy heroism of the Viking sagas through a faux-biblical style and into English fairytale.

Men make many long speeches to each other, and give each other violent gifts with pompous names: the Helm of Hador, the sword Anglachlel.

It's all very snobby: thrall-work is looked down on; killing people with magic weapons is a good thing; elves are good, orcs are bad, humans are in between, dwarves are incidental.

All this could be great fun if there were any sense of a quest, any thematic meaning underlying it all, but it's a collection of incidents with little sense of any continuity, sequence, causality or reason.

But don't believe me. Throngs, and eke legions, of critics are lauding this, and it's truly loved by those who speak Elvish. Read it, if that be your doom.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Tenderwire by Claire Kilroy

Claire Kilroy
Faber €??
Lucille Redmond

CRITICS, 'those insects who live for but one day', as Voltaire had it, have been less evanescent than usual about Claire Kilroy's second book, lavishing almost universal praise on the brilliant literary thriller.

Readers are equally enthusiastic, and the book is being whipped out from under the eager grabbing hands of would-be buyers in bookshops.

The story: a starry violinist - a bit out there; think Nige Kennedy in drag - collapses after her debut as soloist. On leaving hospital she goes on the batter, and in one of many dodgy pubs meets a dodgy guy - Chechen, Russian, something - who has a Strad for sale.

Yeah, right, she thinks, but then she hears it and thinks, Yeah.

Conscience isn't her strongest point in any case, so her subsequent adventures include a great deal of sidestepping of ethical dilemmas.

The writing is mouthwatering. The maybe-Chechen is huge and 'as blond as a child'; he's selling what he calls 'fairy special violence' that travel secretly around the world like mice. It's 'just another fiddle in a country full of fiddles'.

The fairy special violence and its provenance come quickly into question. Can it be a Nazi trophy, the moral property of a Jewish family? Or is that another scam?

Underlying this story is another: the businessman gone missing from a north Dublin headland, the subsequent torture of animals on that headland, in which the young violinist may have been involved…

Fairy special violence indeed, and a writer born to play it.

The Friday Night Knitting Club

The Friday Night Knitting Club
Kate Jacobs
Hodder & Stoughton

DEATH and love, the first-time writer's friend: Kate Jacobs is in home country with this story of Walker and Daughter, a New York knitting supplies shop, and its customers.

Single mother Georgia has parlayed a talent for knitting into a shop that's rapidly become home to a club of knitters - tactless sociologist Darwin, wise old widow Anita who's dodging courtship because she's still mourning after 17 years, and so on.

Georgia is always tired, always achey, always lonely, but her 30s are a stable time. Her little girl, Dakota, is growing up well, and they've negotiated the problems of bigotry caused by Dakota having a black father and a white mother.

But everything changes: one day Dakota's dad walks back into their lives. And so does Cat, Georgia's teenage friend who had let her down so badly.

The knitters help each other through the hard times. Turns out Cat now has a nasty, destructive husband. And Georgia has cancer.

Surprisingly, this is selling really well in the US, where happy endings are normally demanded. An interesting writer to watch.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen
Hodder €??
Lucille Redmond

IT'S the depths of the Depression in America, and our hero, Jacob, is just about to qualify as a vet when his parents are killed in a road crash.

Shocked at the discovery that his father's veterinary business is about to go bang, Jacob runs away with the circus. As you do.

In this pleasant fantasy, he enters a world of star-crossed love, adventure with the bums and the weirdos and the elephants, and everything every kid ever dreamed of about the life under canvas.

It's like a book written from a template, with a satisfyingly unstable villain, an ideal woman, etc.

The poor are always with us, in the form of an alcoholic who is paralysed by 'jake' - Jamaican Ginger, an ethyl alcohol product made popular by Prohibition in much the same way that cut heroin and cocaine poison people today.

Jacob bumbles through the story, checking the boxes: cruelty to animals, yes (beaten-up elephant); boyish adventures, yes (rompish prostitutes); bravery in adversity, yes (he faces down the villain, tries to help all, becomes a vet after all…)

But there's absolutely no genuine sense of the Depression. It's all research, with conflict and action fed into the mix. The result is a book that's as much fun as a big box of chocolates, and about as nourishing to the spirit.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Cinderella's Sister by Anne Dunlop

Cinderella's Sister
Anne Dunlop

SHIFTING big country fellas at dances was the leitmotif of Anne Dunlop's early books, funny, light-hearted stories about Protestant girls in the farmlands of Derry searching for Mr Right. The Pineapple Tart and The Dolly Holiday were brimful of fun and laughs.

A darker strain is apparent in this, her first book in 10 years.

Francesca marries late, and drops like a stone from the life of a jet pilot to that of the mother of three young children.

She's living in Botswana, in a world of white professionals and their black servants. It's a 1950s sort of life, with smacks the solution to naughtiness and women all at home with the little 'uns. Then her troublemaking twin comes to visit…

A gentle and pleasant read - it's brilliant to see Anne Dunlop back at the desk, and her fans will be agog for her next book.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

The Secret of my Face by Karen Ardiff

The Secret of My Face
Karen Ardiff
(New Island €??)

A CHARMING novel, set in the 1930s, with a slammer of a whiplash ending that changes everything that came before it.

Karen Ardiff has a reputation as a generous mentor to other writers and actors - she's an award-laden actress on stage and screen.

As in all the best fairytales, she's being rewarded, with her book a runaway success.

Her 30s Co Dublin is two worlds: a grim mountainy farm that might as well be in the 16th century, and the wealthy world of the leading surgeons in their homes in the Georgian squares.

Wrenched from one to the other is 14-year-old Veronica Broderick, whose hare lip has ruined her beauty. When an awkward young doctor appears at the farm, and she finds herself translated to her well-off aunt and uncle's home, a new world opens before her.

She's translated to a life of lovely hats, new experiences, and a plan for an operation that will remake her face, despite her father's opposition.

It sounds like a standard nostalgia novel, from this bare outline. It's far from that - but to say more would ruin the utter shock that recurs with every page turned. A brilliant debut.

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant
Derek Landy
HarperCollins €??

NEW author Derek Landy has famously got an advance in the region of seven figures for this children's book - a very nice region indeed, to paraphrase Groucho Marx.

Skulduggery Pleasant is great fun, full of creepy zombies, initiations into new magical horrors and adventures in the otherworld.

Our 12-year-old heroine Stephanie's uncle dies, and a skeletal friend comes to the funeral. Soon Stephanie is choosing a magical name, having an enchanting outfit tailored and battling vampires and other evil beings around Dublin.

It has a story that rackets on from crisis to crisis, and genuinely unnerving moments, not to mention a mirror that produces a clone that goes to school for Stephanie while she goes adventuring - every pre-teen's dream.

The perfect present for your nearest 10-year-old, it's full of fictional history and great quips as the skeleton detective and his girl helper knock the jokes back and forth.