Saturday, 25 August 2007

Run by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett
(Bloomsbury €??)

I'VE NEVER met a normal family. Happy, yes; normal, no. And in Ann Patchett's Run, the Doyles are as odd as they come.

Do not, I warn you, read this while eating, as you're liable to jab the fork into your cheek as Patchett makes one of her rapid-fire plot twists.

Boston; a loving family: white mother, idealist politician father, son Sullivan, and their two adopted black babies, Tip and Ted.

The mother dies, the father turns into a mother hen, adoring the babies and somehow forgetting the older lad.

Twenty years later he drags the younger two to a Jesse Jackson lecture, and on the way out a woman pushes Tip out of the way of a car and is mown down herself.

Her daughter reveals that she's their sister - that she and her mother have watched over them for years.

"We have an 11-year-old stalker!" whispers one of the boys. But there are more twists to come in this riveting, heartwarming story.

Some cavils: the editing is flawed, with 'hoards' of people and one boy working in a 'cubical'; and inconsistencies in continuity. And while there's a happy ending for the adopted children, we're never given a resolution for troubled, semi-criminal Sullivan.

But if you want a gripping book to take your mind off your problems, this is it. Ann Patchett has done it again.

xxxxx stars

Monday, 13 August 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver et al

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver et al
Faber and Faber

NOVELIST Barbara Kingsolver decided to go home to the Virginia mountains and try to feed her family for a year with food grown on the home place, or within 100 miles.

Kingsolver's book about her year's adventure is preachy - skip the first chapter to get to the good stuff - but lyrical. Her descriptions of gardening and cooking with her family make you want to put on the overalls and pick up the hoe.

And her daughter's delicious recipes at the ends of chapters make the book a good buy.

Her clear love and joy in her family is infectious and inspiring.

But as I roamed the supermarket buying my metal-tasting cotton-wool tomatoes and taste-free rocket salad, I wondered how possible Kingsolver's plan would be in Ireland, where local eating would mean goodbye to bananas, oranges, avocadoes - heavens, even wine!

At the same time, she has startling insights - for instance, the way Americans have gone nutty about creationism comes from the fact that they no longer raise crops or livestock, so they don't see evolution in action.

And you have to think, hmmm, if we just had a greenhouse on every farm, how much we could grow locally here. Mangetout grow like weeds. So does rocket. So do tomatoes...

Brilliant, challenging, fascinating, enticing. Don't miss this book.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

The Memory Keeper's Daughter
Kim Edwards

STORIES have a way of hanging on: give the people what they want and they'll come, as actor Red Skelton muttered at the funeral of the tyrannical movie mogul Louis B Meyer.

One is the story of the lost prince. It goes like this: the child is sent away by his father, given to soldiers to kill, usually because of a prophecy that the kid's bad news.

But the tender-hearted soldiers raise the kid as their own, and he comes back to wreak havoc.

Kim Edwards has mediated this story through Middle America. Here, the lost child is a girl twin, discarded because she's born with Down's Syndrome.

Her doctor father, David sends her away to be raised in a nursing-home, and tells her mother, Norah, that she's dead. But the nurse who takes her away runs with her, and raises her.

It's selling like crazy. Yet it's a curiously empty book.

It's selling because it tells an essential truth: the secret ill deed eats a hollow out of the centre of David and Norah's marriage, corrupting their concourse from within.

But it has the sugary everything-will-be-fineness of Steel Magnolias. Undoubtedly soon to be a major movie.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Harper Perennial

A DAZZLING book set in the 1960s, when revolutionaries were hopeful and the young republic of Biafra was about to secede from Nigeria.

It's this year's Orange Prize winner, and also a Richard and Judy book club choice, covering both the intellectual and the wow-read ends of the market.

Warning: it starts well, then there's a dullish section when an English writer is drafted in as a character - but read on. The pace picks up again. It certainly does.

Olanna and her sister Kainene are sisters - Olanna beautiful and in love with a young radical lecturer; Kainene the brains of her family and following her father into business as an industrialist while living with Richard, a diffident white Englishman.

Nigeria is riven by corruption, and the intellectuals want it to end. But when the coup comes, it is bloody, and then it is swiftly followed by the genocidal killing of thousands of Igbo people. And Olanna and Kainene's family are Igbo.

This is not a book for those who prefer to skip the gory parts. Olanna and Richard both witness the murders - he in an airport where soldiers break in and murder all the Igbo, she as she visits a Moslem man she once loved, and he smuggles her out past the bodies of her cousins.

Biafra fills with refugees, and as the Nigerian 'police action' to bring back rebel Biafra threatens, the famine begins.

Half of a Yellow Sun is an ideal book for anyone who might think "It couldn't happen here" or "It never happens to people like us".

Next by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton

Lucille Redmond

CRICHTON likes to scare the tripes out of us.

He's succeeded admirably with Jurassic Park, Next and a plethora of other scary stories based on nasty things happening because scientists get trigger-happy.

This time they're genetically engineering humans, thinking "Hmm, wonder what would happen if we threw a few human genes into a parrot… or a chimp…"

Crichton's fans know what will happen. Evil corporations will use their innocent discoveries to wreak havoc.

So it is that we soon have life insurance cancelled when someone's reported as having a gene for heart disease.

Oh no. It's not the man with heart disease whose insurance is cancelled - it's his son, who's now defined as 'pre-ill', and therefore uninsurable, because he shares the gene.

And the family of a man whose cells have the ability to cure cancer have to go on the run - because the evil corporation's supply of the cells has been stolen, and they want to (forcibly) take more from his kids and grandkids.

This is a book to gobble up for distraction, while noting the science stuff in your paranoia jotter. But it's not one of Crichton's best. It lacks a strong central character you can identify with - too many, too similar, too anodyne American characters.

But a great book for distraction, all the same.