Sunday, 29 July 2007

How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper

How to Talk to a Widower
Jonathan Tropper

Lucille Redmond

POOR Doug. He's 29 and a widower with a teenage stepson. Doug spends his life in a damp morass of misery, mourning for his wife Hailey, killed in a plane crash.

But that was a year ago, and his friends and family are nudging him to get the mourning over with and find 'closure'.

When a cop turns up on the doorstep with stepson Russ by the collar, stoned and defiant, Doug is stymied, even when the officer tells him that the tough guy was crying in the patrol car, and referred to Doug as his father.

This doesn't in the least sound like a book anyone but a dedicated miseryguts would want to read, but surprisingly it is really funny, and very moving.

What do you do when your rejected stepson gets a blurry tattoo? And then reveals that it's a comet: Hailey's Comet, called after his dead mother.

Doug's life doesn't get easier. His one prop, his twin sister, throws herself on his mercy and moves in, pregnant, and their other sister, Debbie (who got off with her new fiancé at Hailey's funeral) is determined to have the perfect wedding.

Sad, funny, brilliant, How to Talk to a Widower is one of the great books of the season.

First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

First Among Sequels
Jasper Fforde
Hodder & Stoughton

THURSDAY Next, Jasper Fforde's literary (literally) detective, has some tough plots to crack. Her sullen son Friday must be mothered into adequate adulthood, as he's destined to be ChronoGuard director-general.

There's worse: funniness is leaking inexplicably from the novels of Thomas Hardy. Even Jude the Obscure, once full of laughs, is now morose.

And Thursday's haunted by her uncle Mycroft, whose keen mind had pushed the frontiers in disciplines ranging from fusion power to romantic fiction.

Amid government cuts, a dangerous surplus of national stupidity and a cover identity as a carpet fitter, Thursday must solve these mysteries.

On the side, she has a big cheese deal going across the borders in the Socialist Republic of Wales.

The horrible thing about this relentlessly funny book (a bit like being trapped with a joke-a-minute alcoholic) is that it's so near to truth in its Selbyesque surreality.

In one imagined reality TV show, Samaritan Kidney Swap, 10 renal failure patients try to persuade a donor, and voting viewers, which one should have his spare kidney - as done in reality (as a practical joke) last month in the Netherlands.

Jasper Fforde is a specialised taste, and for those who love quirky English humour, this will hit the spot.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
JK Rowling

The publication was preceded with a fever of carefully orchestrated hype, and when it was leaked onto the internet a couple of days before publication there were howls of fury from the Muggles involved in its publication.

A PDF file appeared on torrent sites such as Pirate Bay, with the chipped pink fingernail polish of the childish hands holding down the pages to be photographed clearly visible - unlike the type, which mostly disappeared halfway down the page.

This was soon followed by an audio file obviously read by a computer's text-to-speech software, which had difficulty with some of the spellings, reading out 'M.R. [pause] Weasley' for 'Mr Weasley', and spelling out anything that appeared in capitals, so that Harry often shouted "Stop! Ess Tee Oh Pee!"

Nothing daunted, avid fans downloaded both in their millions. But fear not, Muggles, they won't make the slightest dint in the sales, any more than the plot spoiler on Wikipedia. Harry fans will buy and buy.

Every generation feeds its children the stories that express its ideals. The kids of the 1960s read James Stephens' translations of the stories of Fionn, and Patricia Lynch's cosy Travellers' tales, and Enid Blyton's safe adventures.

In the time of suicide bombers, we've entered a darker world. JK Rowling, drawing from JRR Tolkien, brings us into a paranoiac otherworld where a brave Resistance is hunted by evil forces.

With the final book of her Harry Potter series, Rowling makes the parallel with racist/religious ideologies all the clearer.

For those who've been living in an enclosed convent, here's the background: Harry Potter is the only survivor of a family of heroes. He's marked by the scar caused when the evil ideologue Voldemort killed his parents and attempted to kill him.

Like the young Luke Skywalker, Harry has a psychic connection with Voldemort, the Hitler of the magical world. Up till now, we haven't known why that was.

The books are set in two parallel worlds: that of the Muggles (humans) and that of the magical people who live partly in their world and partly in another, enchanted one, using magic to do the things Muggles do with machines.

Harry is the star of Hogwarts school, the boarding school for wizards, but also lives as the unloved nephew of a Muggle family in our suburban world.

In this seventh book, vicious Voldemort has returned to a worldly incarnation. His plan is to cleanse the magical world of 'mudbloods' - those of mixed magical and Muggle blood. Using deception, terror and torture, he has infiltrated almost everywhere, including the Order of the Phoenix, the Resistance working against him.

Harry is a Resistance leader, on the run with his comrades and under constant attack from the Voldemort's death-eater troops.

The story is full of the old Rowling magic - aerial dogfights on broomsticks and enchanted motorcycles; an Armageddon in which Professor McGonagall leads a charge of galloping desks, cheered on by the characters charging after them from portrait to portrait; mandrakes used as weapons of mass destruction.

But it's less rich in Rowling's old humour, and there are longeurs and pages of explication.

In fairytale settings, woods, weddings and swamps, occasionally mixed with Muggle chip-shops, Harry pursues or is pursued by seven magical items - a diary, a cup, a diadem, a person - objects resonant with Harry's parents' and Voldemort's history.

The nuanced story of double agent Severus Snape is fantastically worked out. People surprise you - Draco Malfoy, Dudley Dursley, even Dumbledore, Harry's mentor - murdered... or was he?

Lily, Harry's mother, who died to save her baby son, proves to have been central to the motivations of - well, let's not spoil it.

In the end, when you close the last of the seven books with a satisfied sigh, it's all been worth it. The world has been restored to its happy self. To quote the last sentence, long disputed and many times inaccurately leaked - all was well.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Life Class by Pat Barker

Life Class
Pat Barker
(Hamish Hamilton €??)

PAT BARKER books always have a spéirbhean or two, moist-lipped, hot-eyed, mysterious of gaze.

And sure enough, in the years leading up to the Great War, here we are at the Slade school of art.

Grimly art-focused North of England lad Paul Tarrant is casting warm looks at Elinor, a siren who always makes any man or woman she speaks to seem at the centre of her world.

But it's Teresa, a model for Augustus John and all that crowd, who becomes his lover. Teresa may or may not have an angry, jealous husband. She gets threatening notes, but did she write them herself?

No, it turns out when the husband beats the tripes out of Paul, and Teresa takes herself off out of the way.

Next thing, Paul's working as a medical orderly patching together the blown-up half-corpses of Ypres, and sharing a love-hate thing with the lad billeted with him.

Barker is a fine writer, and couldn't write a bad book if she tried. Her books have been filmed and won Bookers and Guardians. But this isn't her best work ever - there's a lack of centre in the story, and the characters are thin.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses
Per Petterson

TWO boys go out stealing horses in the forest idyll of Norway a few years after war has ended and the Gestapo been routed.

Not really stealing, just larking - but the day-out-of-time sense of those beautiful hours is shatteringly reversed by the revelation, later, of what has happened just before it.

Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses comes laden with awards, the latest the Dublin Impac, the largest prize in the world for a single work. Fittingly, for ex-bookseller Petterson, it's a prize awarded by libraries all over the world.

This is a book full of solitude, with the super-reality of a world brought to life in a phrase. It's a short-story-writer's novel, concentrated and disciplined.

The alternate chapters are the youth and age of the narrator. In his sixties, alone again, he has returned to the woods to find a shape for his life. In his youth, he is learning to be a man, under the tutelage of his flawed, heroic father.

And underlying it all are the stories of the Resistance, the occupation, and the betrayal of the parents' marriage.

Petterson has a unique ability to show character by a single, well-placed brush-stroke: a glance, a word, even a word not said. And what characters!

How lucky we are to live in a time when we have this to read.

The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy

The Woman in the Fifth
Douglas Kennedy

HARRY RICKS is a bad man to cross. Bad things happen to those who do him wrong.

He's also a haunted man, on the run in Paris after blowing his suburban life to bits. Behind him in the rubble are a marriage (defunct), a lover (dead by suicide) and a career (casualty of events).

He's as far down as he can fall. Or so he thinks. But one consolation: for years, he's taken French classes, planning to give it all up one day and go to Paris to write.

It's a gripping story, but forgettable, because of the coldness and dislikeability of every character but one.

In Paris, Harry falls ill and is selflessly aided by a kindly Turk, who is almost immediately written out of the story.

After that, Harry finds night work with nasty people doing something unknown but probably unspeakable. He takes a foray into a literary salon for some hostile flirting with a mystery woman from the classy Fifth Arrondissement, who soon comes to play all too important a part in his life.

The novel follows every rule of storytelling: every event torques the horror up; every page has a new surprise, a twist.

We may expect to see it on the screen any day soon.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Neat Vodka by Anna Blundy

Neat Vodka
Anna Blundy

FAITH ZANETTI is a bad girl done good - a war correspondent whose staple diet is vodka, cigarettes and trouble.

This is the third thriller about her, and after picking this up for a quick dip, I'll be hunting out the first two.

Faith has just arrived in Moscow as correspondent for the Chronicle when she's arrested for a murder that happened when she was 19.

Then, she was briefly married to a seedy but sexy Russian guy. Apparently he's been in jail ever since for the murder.

Her only memory is waking up from being passed out after 15 straight vodkas, covered in blood and being asked to stand as witness to the crime scene of the next-door neighbours, a nice young couple who'd been dismembered by an axe murderer.

Faith, back in the future, goes looking for her ex in the jail - only to find that another ex-friend is pretending to be him and serving his time.

Faith's cynical but naïve - a couple of republics short of a union, as one character puts it - but even she's puzzled by this.

Yes, it's complicated, and it gets more complicated every page, but never mind that, you can't stop laughing. A brilliant book, and as funny as a dicky machine gun.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Momzillas by Jill Kargman

Jill Kargman
Harper Perennial Original

GENRES are strange, appearing, becoming a craze and then disappearing. Momzillas is a genre chicklit novel about wealthy New York mothers - very like the bestselling The Manny.

Here we have Hannah Allen, a thirtysomething married girl with an adorable two-year-old and a cute husband, happy in California.

But oh no - husband Josh is a native New Yorker and his mama wants him home, so the whole family is uprooted, and Hannah must learn how to be a rich girl.

Cue nasty new friends, a mother-in-law who'd much sooner Josh married her own younger clone, the well-named Bee.

Hannah must learn how to compete, and how to spend, spend, spend.

It's mindless fun, with a story that keeps twisting and some funny lines: "It was as if the two most disgusting dresses got married and she was wearing their baby..."

Readers might long for a little more grit, but for sheer distraction, Momzillas will hit the spot like a well-mixed Manhattan.

We are Gold by Alice Chambers

We Are Gold
Alice Chambers
(New Island)

THE GOLD family are recovering from the death of a daughter, a mother and a sister in Alice Chamber's interesting first novel.

Hannah Gold has been killed in a car crash, leaving her son Jack, her sister and brother Dawn and Omega and her parents Rose and Henry bereft.

Each tries to mend the tears in different ways.

Rose writes discursive poems, exploring a world without Hannah, and a world in which her marriage is gradually exposed as polite and loving, but empty.

Jack expresses his grief in the classic manner of children: what psychologists call 'displacement activity', where a child puts great attention into play to avoid what's too painful.

Writer Alice Chambers is based between Dublin and Rome, and has worked as a translator for publishing houses. In her funny, moving novel, she uses Ireland's new cosmopolitanism as the backboard to bounce her story.

The family is one rich in eccentricity, poor in competence, with Omega weakly wandering after his wife dumps him; dippy Dawn squeaking and whinging; Henry distant and Rose one of those arty women who never quite followed her art.

Chambers is not well served by the publisher's gimmicky layout, which has distracting gaps between the paragraphs, making it hard to sink into the story with the dreamy attentiveness where you look up to find you've missed your stop.

It's a surprise best-seller, in great demand in the shops and outselling the more standardised books the publishers bet their britches on.

Monday, 2 July 2007

The Fallen by Jefferson Parker

The Fallen
Jefferson Parker

CAN YOU imagine the advantage for a cop of always knowing for sure?

In Jefferson Parker's The Fallen his hero, detective Robbie Brownlaw, has plunged into a burning building to save a frightened man. But the man turns and throws him out the window, six storeys up.

Brownlaw falls, but lands on a canopy and lives. When he wakes in hospital he is subject to a condition called synesthesis, a leakage of the senses.

This actually exists, though it's unusual. Certain musicians perceive particular notes as colours, or as scents, while some people see pictures and hear music.

In Brownlaw's case, the sense affected is truth. He can sense the true emotions when people are speaking, with coloured shapes sliding out of their mouths if what they feel isn't what they say.

Handy enough in investigating the apparent murder of a super-ethical super-policeman - Garret Asplundh, who left a trail of clues into his own probe into the police department.

What starts as an earnest police procedural plod takes off when Brownlaw discovers the first of Garret's secrets: he was hiding a young prostitute, bringing her back from the brink.

It doesn't stop, and speeds along, swerving from high to high, with plenty of shocks to keep the reader's adrenaline surging.

Nabeel's Song by Jo Tatchell

Nabeel's Song
Jo Tatchell
Sceptre €??

NABEEL YASIN is an Iraqi poet, now in exile for many years, whose smuggled poems are the songs of the resistance.

Nabeel's Song tracks Iraq from Nabeel's 1950s childhood up to the oppressive regime of the pan-Arab nationalist Ba'ath party.

Nabeel's brother was arrested and tortured for months in the national stadium with hundreds of other suspected communists.

His mother's house was regularly raided by different branches of police - once one group leaving met another arriving - and Nabeel's passport and papers were stamped 'Enemy of the State'.

As a poet who spoke out against the party - and particularly against ex-CIA assassin and Ba'ath puppetmaster Saddam Hussein - Nabeel was hated and hunted.

When his father fell off a roof and died, and Nabeel applied for a permit to bury him, the police accused him of murder.

After years on the run and a series of brutal beatings, he left Iraq in 1979. Two of his brothers were in jail, another, Tariq, who could normally talk his way out of any trouble, would be used as a human minesweeper before the Iraqi troops in the Iran-Iraq War.

Fascinating, horrible and impossible to stop reading, this should be read by anyone who thinks his own state couldn't become totalitarian.