Saturday, 26 May 2007

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

The Post-Birthday World
By Lionel Shriver

IT'S a bad sign when publishers call a book 'important' on the cover. It means they suspect that there's not a lot of entertainment here.

They're right on the money with The Post-Birthday World by We Need to Talk about Kevin author Lionel Shriver.

Living in Belfast for 12 years, a city where everything is mutable in every moment, may have been an experience that called out Shriver's what-if, maybe-if story.

There might be a certain amount of autobiography too - at the time of writing it (says one of those gossipy author interviews), Shriver was leaving her writer partner for a jazz drummer.

In The Post-Birthday World, Shriver's protagonist, Irina, cohabits with dull-but-worthy conflict resolution expert Lawrence. After one electrifying kiss, she turns to electric-but-nasty snooker champ Ramsey.

Or does she? Yes and no.

Shriver writes the story in parallel chapters - affair Irina and then virtuous Irina - with the happenings in successive pairs of chapters mirroring each other.

The Post-Birthday World would have made a lovely novella, frothy and fun, revealing by concealing.

Even at a shattering 600 pages, it has its funny moments, as when Lawrence and Ramsey discuss Lawrence's work on the Good Friday Agreement.

In these moments, it's as much fun as a quickie with a chippy.

The Shadow in the River by Frode Grytten

The Shadow in the River
Frode Grytten

ODDA is a quiet Norwegian town, where Robert Bell's the local stringer for a national paper.

Norway is like Ireland used to be: a murder is big news, a story that will last all summer.

When a young lad goes into the river in his car, everyone knows it's murder, and the Serbs killed him.

But Robert's paper parachutes in a star journalist and photographer to cover the story, and Robert is demoted to their chauffeur and local source.

He watches with lip lifted as they wade in, asking the wrong questions and treading on toes. They ask him to 'tickle' his brother, who's the cop leading the investigation; he says his brother isn't ticklish.

Indeed he isn't, and Robert is having an affair with his brother's wife - secret, they hope, but how secret can anything be in a small town where everyone calls the nationalist leader 'Knickers' because he's known to steal panties off washing lines.

Robert looks at it all with the gloomy eyes of a basset hound, wondering where social democracy went, and thinking 'There's nothing easier than covering a murder'.

Frode Grytten's morose thriller isn't really about murder, though; it's about ambition, greed, globalisation, money and excuses, lit by mordant humour and incisive insights.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering
Anne Enright
Jonathan Cape

MISERY is more enticing for the writer than the reader, and it may be that only the more devoted literary types will read on through Anne Enright's gloom-filled novel of a huge dysfunctional Irish family.

All happy families are the same, as Tolstoy pointed out - but so are all big families, according to Enright. (How did she resist using this hommage as her actual opening line?)

Every big family, she writes, has its star, with a selection of houses in exotic locations, to which none of the others are invited, each has a drunk, an abused child - oh, wait, her fictional family, the Hegartys, don't have this - or do they?

Enright has chosen an unreliable narrator, a wonderful device for the writer who uses it intelligently.

Her narrator isn't quite sure of the story, and tells each beautifully wrought scenelet hesitantly. The couple who meet in a hotel and watch each other - will they be lovers, will they be friends? The Broadstone visit - was there abuse, was there just a family holiday?

And as narrator Veronica tracks back her story from her brother's death, unpicking the things she thinks she thought she once maybe knew, Enright's writing is, as always, spectacular.

A book for long and leisured reading to enjoy its nuanced pleasures.

The Woods by Harlan Coben

The Woods
Harlan Coben
Orion €??

SUMMER camp, the paradise of American youth, the memories of innocence. It's their Gaeltacht, when they learn how to flirt and love and be themselves.

But this time the summer camp run by mellow dopehead Ira went bad. Kids went into the woods and didn't come out; some were found dead.

Now county prosecutor Cope Copeland finds that his childhood trauma - he was one of the two who survived, while his sister disappeared and another two were found bloodily murdered - has come back to haunt him.

In a rather messy entanglement of plots, Cope is prosecuting two rich white kids accused of raping a black stripper, and the father of one of the lads comes after him with evidence uprooted from his past.

It works fabulously for the first half, but Coben fails to sustain the characters. The essential nastiness of all his leads comes out increasingly as the story goes on. He fails to make decent use of his ex-KGB father and his sneaky spooky friends. The ending is frankly jaw-droppingly boring and unlikely.

But heck, who reads to the end of this kind of tome-sized holiday reading. Read the first half and have a great time.

It's a pity - though Coben's thriller is selling well, so he's scarcely bothered - because the book starts out with such brilliance of atmosphere and character and plotting.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

My Lady Judge by Cora Harrison

My Lady Judge
Cora Harrison

My Lady Judge

DISREGARD the dull title and duller cover, this is a fabulous thriller. It's what you might call a Brehon procedural, set in the last days of Gaelic Ireland, just before the vicious Tudor land grab began.

Investigator Mara is the only female Brehon in Ireland, running a tiny law school in the Burren and acting at the local resident magistrate.

It's the eve of Bealtaine, and everyone is going up to light the festival bonfire and drink and dance and court till dawn.

Everyone, that is, including Mara's unpleasant young assistant, the ambitious Colman. But Colman isn't what he seems: he has a thriving sideline that Mara doesn't know about...

Cora Harrison has been writing children's books for years. This is her first foray into adult thrillers, and she's on to a winner.

The book is flawed - the writer needs a great story editor to help her to sharpen her plotting, up the tension, move in a good subplot, cut the number of similar characters.

But this charming book could be the start of a million-selling series. Harrison - when she restrains her didactic impulses - tells a rattling story, and her gentle, incisively intelligent judge is a character well capable of gathering a fan following.


The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella

The Wedding Officer
Anthony Capella

IT'S the war: Italy is covered with a roaming mass of German, Italian, British and American troops, fighting their way back and forth.

In Naples, terribly correct 22-year-old James Gould is arriving to take up his duties as the Wedding Officer.

Basically, he has to stop British soldiers from marrying prostitutes. And since Naples is starving, almost every woman is prostituting herself.

James is wrecking the black market trade in penicillin and prostitution, so the Mob decide that he must be made happy - and what would make a young man happier than falling in love?

Fiery, feisty, funny Livia is parachuted in to cook for James, with ensuing star-crossed love.

As James learns the wonders of Italian food and Naples lovemaking, his icy British reserve is thawed by Neapolitan sunshine, and he's soon signing permission for the lads to marry their girls.

But of course there's a villain - the precursor of the CIA, plotting to kill off the Communists who were the backbone of the European Resistance movements.

The finale, with James and Livia fighting their way through the mountains, is less than convincing, but it fails to take from the enjoyment of this adorable story. Spicy, funny, delicious and sexy, this is the perfect holiday book.


Saturday, 12 May 2007

Kate Thompson takes on the internet

What Katy Did

Lucille Redmond

KATE THOMPSON has made it to the top - she's an Irish woman writer of what men and literary snobs call 'chicklit', with eight novels under her belt.

She has fans around the world ready to rush and grab her next book about a bunch of successful film-star-type friends living between Ireland and a village in the South of France.

The books are fun - especially Sex Lies and Fairytales, a charming, funny fantasy about writer Pixie Pirelli and her pals in a Connemara village.

But - like all good stories - Kate's has a nasty twist. Just as she had her newest book ready, Love Lies Bleeding, her publisher told her regretfully that as she'd failed to break out of the midlist, they were going to stop publishing her.


Publishing has gone that way. If you're a squirty little bouncy thing with tits and ass and a please-me smile, the money men's eyes go click-click as they visualise the demographic. But if all you've got is a good story, it's going to be tougher.

End of career.

Or not, in the case of Kate, because she's a fighter. Oh, hell, she said, poured herself a glass of wine and stared across the table at her husband, actor Malcolm Douglas (the voice man for the re-enactments of the tribunals on Vincent Browne's show).

"I'm going to put it online," she said.

"What, Love Lies Bleeding? Are you out of your mind? That's a year's work!"

"More, actually." But she saw Malcolm thinking, and said: "What?"

"Well," he said slowly, "maybe there's a way."

They thought it through. It would be possible. After all, Kate has a homepage and a newsletter that goes out to thousands of fans. Maybe the internet could work for her and her readers, even if the publishing world wouldn't.

In publishing, nowadays, the way of it is that your book will be pushed if it's tipped as an instant best-seller: if you're Ms Bouncy, say, or notorious for some reason - or if it's so spectacularly bestseller-material that there's no doubt it's going to sell.

Otherwise, it may get a week at the front of the bookshops, then it's marked down, or even becomes unobtainable.

The bookshops, after all, are under pressure from the likes of Amazon, which don't have to stack up and display anything.

So Kate and Malcolm worked out what they should do. She'd put the first 25 chapters of Love Lies Bleeding online, and then if people liked those, they could buy the rest, which she called The Clandestine Chapters.

She thought about it, and couldn't see any downside. She rang around her bestselling writer friends - Marian Keyes, Peter Sheridan, Deirdre Purcell, Cathy Kelly - and they said "Genius!"

So she closed her eyes, crossed her fingers and did it. She put out a notice in her newsletter to her fans, saying that they could get the first half of the new book by emailing, or clicking on the Love Lies Bleeding link on her website,

Then she went to bed.

The next morning, the email requests had started to pour in. She couldn't believe the number of them. She started sending out the chapters - and the payments for The Clandestine Chapters started coming back.

Then Marian Keyes put a link to Kate's Love Lies Bleeding page on her own blog, and the flood of emails turned into a tsunami.

"Malcolm came in and found me still on the computer. He said: 'Do you realise that you've been sitting there sending out the emails for 11 hours straight?' - I couldn't keep up with the requests."

Kate had The Clandestine Chapters printed locally on beautiful creamy paper with a handmade paper cover made from flower petals from Daintree in Camden Street, tied up with a pretty ribbon, and before she put the chapters in the packet she sprayed each one with lavender.

"It's a whole local industry," she says. "Everything's done in this tiny area. Even the payments come into the local Ulster Bank."

For her keen readers, it's like getting a present. "I'm just getting into bed to cuddle up with my computer," wrote one, who had waited for The Clandestine Chapters before reading the rest.

And the media got interested. Kate started getting calls from radio stations, TV, magazines. Heat magazine listed Love Lies Bleeding as a bestseller - the first ever to make it into the list without the might of a publisher behind it.

Hughes & Hughes are stocking The Clandestine Chapters - if you go in and ask for them (they're €15, by the way), the bookseller will go and get them from a back room and sneak them out to you.

Kate's spending a lot of time in the post office, posting off packets from around the world, and she can rattle off the rates of postage to dozens of countries from India to Australia.

Her next book - a big fat novel to be published under a new pseudonym - is well on the way, and her fans are panting for it. With Love Lies Bleeding she got help and editing input from writer friends. This time she's thinking about hiring an editor.

She's learning about the publishers' side of writing - the things writers don't normally think about, like ISBN numbers, publicity and marketing.

Other writers around the world are watching her progress carefully, while the publishers go on making mega-deals and consuming each other in reverse buyouts and multiple takeovers.

It's a very happy ending.


Monday, 7 May 2007

Redemption Falls by Joseph O'Connor

Redemption Falls
Joseph O'Connor
(Harvill Secker)

WANDERING through documentary evidence, Joseph O'Connor follows the afterlife of Fenian hero O'Keeffe of the Sword, who led thousands of Irish emigrants to their deaths in the abattoir of the American Civil War.

His fictional O'Keeffe, an amalgam of the real Thomas Francis Meagher, John Boyle O'Reilly and others, is now married to a millionaire and governor of a new territory on the frontier.

Impressive and loquacious, O'Keeffe has two faults: difficulty keeping it in his pants, and inability to speak to his wife without sniping.

Oh, and the drink. And the governorship is a punishment. And the territory is ungovernable, filthy, populated by half-mad war survivors.

Underrunning this is an unspoken scandal - perhaps based on Boyle O'Reilly's notorious attempt to seduce his patron's child in Australia.

Amid all the ruined people are two more ruined. One is a teenage prostitute walking barefoot across the country. The other is her brother, a traumatised child soldier surely modelled on 'Johnny Shiloh'.

At times the story takes light - there's a letter from a 15-year-old soldier ("...only don't let on I said I was afraid..." he pleads to his mother) forwarded posthumously to his parents, then to O'Keeffe with "God forgive you" scrawled across it.

O'Connor has written a powerful book, but a sprawling one. Not a restful read, but an irresistible one.


Sunday, 6 May 2007

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
Alexander McCall Smith

BOTSWANA'S people live in the trembling territory between South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia.

The Batswana are diplomats, familiar with the problems of walking carefully around bad-tempered neighbours.

Alexander McCall Smith was born in the nasty racist state of Rhodesia (now the nasty racist state of Zimbabwe), studied in Scotland, then returned to Botswana to teach, and now lives in Scotland.

He writes books about Botswana, which I love, and ones about Scotland, which I don't.

The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is at the centre of his Botswana books. Its proprietor, Mma Precious Ramotswe, has a comfortable 'traditional African figure' (size 22) and a heart as big as Africa.

Here, the agency investigates when the rudest woman in Botswana thinks her husband is having an affair. A hospital is worried that patients are dying on Fridays in a particular bed. And office supplies are going missing in a printing company.

All these - and a few staffing problems - are solved by tact and thought, flavoured with kind politeness.

A happy and lovable book; read it and smile.