Monday, 25 June 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns
Khaled Hosseini

AFGHANISTAN'S agony is mediated through its shut-in women in Khaled Hosseini's extraordinary follow-up to The Kite Runner.

Laila's father, a teacher made jobless by the Russian invaders, reads her The Old Man and the Sea, and that image of the great fish being towed tenderly home by the fishermen, while the circling sharks tear it to pieces, is his image of his country.

Devoted Mujahadeen, idealistic communists, torn lovers and the snipers and bombers in the hills are treated with the same tenderness by this most plotty of writers.

Hosseini narrates like a street storyteller, who must keep the paying audience fascinated by twists and turns and revelations of character or they'll walk away.

The result is a book that holds the reader more with every page. If you see someone on a bus dashing away a tear as they read, they're probably in the middle of A Thousand Splendid Suns.

The story spans the time from the Soviet invaders to the American invaders. But against these large themes is the larger story of two families, full of love and anger.

It's written at a distance - Hosseini has not experienced life as a woman, and has not lived in Afghanistan for many years - but his tale-telling skills triumph and he makes great characters and a believable country.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jeb Rubenfeld

The Interpretation of Murder
Jed Rubenfeld
(Headline Review €??)

JED Rubenfeld teaches law at Yale, wrote his senior thesis in Princeton on Freud and studied Shakespeare at the Juilliard School of Drama.

The Interpretation of Murder is his perfect storm, bringing together his three obsessions.

There's a craze in America for whodunits set in Victorian and Edwardian New York, with historical characters - Poe, Freud - and on-the-spot reportage.

Rubenfeld uses the sado-masochistic scenes and opium-dreaming brothels of Victorian fantasy in a mystery to be solved by one of Sigmund Freud's bumbling coterie of psychoanalysts. (The story is based on Freud's actual visit to New York in 1909.)

It's selling awfully well, and justifiably so; it's a good read for the first half. Then it falls away, with the plot too convoluted and the villain too far from the centre.

But there are great moments - notably in the caisson where the foundations of the Manhattan Bridge were laid. And the writer enjoys himself with quotations from Hamlet, the analyst hero convincing himself that the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy is not about being, but about seeming.

It's fabulous fun, if not for all the family.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Better by Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande
Profile Books

A SPECIALIST surgeon who lectures in Harvard and writes for the New Yorker, Atul Gawande wondered why some doctors, hospitals and health systems performed so much better than others.

Winging it doesn't work, he says: what works is scorecards, attention, and rigorous, written detail.

Virginia Apgar devised a scorecard with points for newborns moving all four limbs, crying, turning rosy, and heart rate in the 1950s. When it was used, infant mortality plunged. Her scorecard is today used worldwide.

Gawande sees 4.2m children vaccinated against polio in three days. He reports a childbirth as it goes wrong. He probes malpractice suits. He explains why doctors don't wash their hands - though they know it saves lives.

He meets Warren Warwick, who invented a massage jacket to punch the phlegm out of the chests of cystic fibrosis patients who live alone, and even teaches patients a new cough.

Gawande examines the disgusting details of deaths by execution, talks to a millionaire doctor, finds out why half-completing operations on the battlefield saves Americans' lives in Iraq.

One of the most fascinating books you'll ever read, it's the perfect gift for your favourite doctor.

Lucy in the Sky by Paige Toon

Lucy in the Sky
Paige Toon
Pocket Books

LUCY is perfectly happy. Isn't she? Of course she is. Her boyfriend James gives her diamond earrings and tells her funny stories that usually turn out not to be true.

But maybe James is a dirty lying rat.

Paige Toon - reviews editor of Heat magazine - has a zany way with a story in this first novel, so when Lucy is in the sky, diamonds in her ears, she gets a text from her boyfriend's phone:

"Hi Lucy! Just shagged James in ur bed. Thought u should know. 4 times this month. Nice sheets! xxx"

Since Lucy is on her way to Australia, and she's about to meet Nathan, a tasty surfer with that just-out-of-bed look and a taste for schoolboy jests, those experienced in the ways of chicklit will know exactly what's on the cards. Sun, sea, sand and - well, I won't spoil the anticipation.

Back in London, Lucy casts a jaundiced eye on James and his lying ways, while casting lingering longing looks at the phone, which soon rings from Australia.

There's one blunder in the generally light-hearted tone, when Lucy's drunken Irish father turns up in the nastiest possible circumstances. But mostly this is full of sexy nonsense, with James getting duller by the moment, and Nathan maturing nicely in the Aussie sun, and fun all the way.

Not an intellectual treat, but a story to distract you from the harsh realities of life.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

Walk the Blue Fields
Claire Keegan
Faber & Faber

SHORT stories are seldom fastsellers, so it's a surprise to seek Claire Keegan's second collection so hot.

Or it is until you begin to read these brutally immediate stories, so intense that you must leave the book aside between them.

The settings are country places, the characters full of sly, articulate indirection. Nothing is said, everything is meant. Nothing is mentioned openly, everything is observed secretly.

Keegan's dialogue is unparalleled. More is always implied. In the extraordinary title story, a priest watches the woman he has failed marry another.

As the wedding party consumes the lamb with rosemary jus, and the groom's father smoothly takes the mike from his new son-in-law's blurting drunk brother, someone says to the priest: "I see they've put you down with the rest of the sinners."

Keegan's writing manages to be rich and spare at the same time, using every word with perfect economy for layers of different meanings. Beyond brilliant.

The Strangler by William Landay

The Strangler
William Landay
Bantam Press

IT'S getting big play in Boston, and, strangely, in France, but The Strangler is proving a sleeper here.

The successor to William Landay's record-breaking debut, Mission Flats, this whodunnit moves around the Boston Strangler killings, and is shadowed by the Kennedy assassinations.

The intro quotes a 1962 magazine ad: "Fostered by the unmatched universities here, hundreds of research-based industries have sprung up on all sides..."

Sound familiar?

As in Ireland today, the Boston of 1963 is a city whose prosperity is surfing precariously on a wave of construction.

The building industry has always been the dream business for corruption, the perfect place to launder money. The New Boston is gangland heaven, a tiger economy swollen by Italian mobsters.

In Landay's happy riff on the clich├ęs, the Daly family are caught in the backwash.

The three Daly boys are a triptych of Irish American stock characters: a cop, a gentleman burglar and a lawyer.

Their family is headed by the classic heavy-hipped Irish widow, her cop husband slain in hot pursuit.

Joe, her cop son, is played for a dumb Mick by the slick Italians. Ricky, the burglar, takes diamonds that prove hotter than he ever expected. Michael, the lawyer, follows his growing suspicions about his father's death.

Their investigations lead the family into the gut-ripping world of the Boston Strangler.

It's the kind of story that could be mushy in the wrong hands, but the immediacy of Landay's observation ("his hand wrung his cheek") slams you right up against the action. Superb.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris

The Lollipop Shoes
By Joanne Harris
(Doubleday €??)

CHOCOLAT author Harris has returned to her witchy heroine Vianne and daughter Anouk to tell much the same story, but from the bad girl's angle.

The bold strap in the lollipop shoes - red and glossy - is Zozie de l'Alba, a con woman who sees great potential for profit in the chocolate shop Vianne's now running in Montmartre.

Vianne has settled for a regular life, with Anouk in school and an engagement in prospect to a nice, wealthy man.

Zozie insinuates herself into the shop with 'glamours' and 'caltrips', spells and signs. The standoffish locals start visiting and becoming friends.

And Zozie draws Anouk away from her mother, teaching her spells to deal with nasty schoolmates and unfulfilled desires.

Everything isn't sweet. Vianne has another child, Rosette, who was born with cri du chat syndrome - and her disability is a problem for wealthy Thierry.

Chocolat fans will know that it'll all be sorted out satisfactorily, with a feast, two lovers and change.

As sweet and tempting as a box of dark-chocolate-coated almonds, The Lollipop Shoes is a book to nibble through in one long feast.

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

The Secret
Rhonda Byrne

I'VE always had a secret belief that if I wanted something, I just had to order it up from the universe and voila! - in a week or a month, it'd turn up.

Seems I'm not alone. And if only I'd thought of making a book out of it, I could have made millions, like Rhonda Byrne.

Stop! Stop! Negative thoughts, Byrne warns (namechecking Leonardo, Shakespeare and the New Testament), are only going to bring bad things. It's a [itals]good[/itals] life.

As well as the dead heavy hitters, Byrne brings in living advisors - a 'philosopher, chiropractor, healer, and personal transformation specialist', an (ooh!) 'entrepreneur and moneymaking expert', et al.

The Secret has lots of reference to quantum physics - maybe quantum physicists will be an important tranche of readers.

Seriously, it's absolutely true that if you clear the way by working out what you actually want, and go for it, things happen to help you along.

But The Secret has an unhappy sense of the all-powerful, suggesting that you can cure illnesses, wish wealth, become beautiful and strong and fine and rich by 'the law of attraction'. If only.

It's all very well, but it has an ugly corollary, the suggestion that all the autistics and cystic fibrotics are causing their own problems by their bad thoughts.

And if the longing and love and hope and wishing of millions of people could bring us what we want, Madeleine McCann would have been home with her parents long ago.

None of us, I sadly suspect, is so powerful.

But don't pay any attention. I'm just jealous.