Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath

Robert Flaherty and the Frozen North

Lucille Redmond

FATHERS are getting feisty, looking for rights of custody and control over children whose mothers they've never married; even children not yet born.

Maybe it's not a bad thing. With rights - perhaps - come responsibilities. And kids need fathers.

The filmmaker Robert Flaherty was a case in point, as Melanie McGrath reveals in The Long Exile, the riveting story of his secret Inuit son, Josephie.

Flaherty was long dead when a scandal rocked Canada in 1993. Hearings revealed child abuse, prostitution, a horrifying suicide rate, a 23pc death rate of children, and resolute government inattention as the Inuit relocated to Ellesmere Island starved in the 1950s - among them, the son Robert Flaherty abandoned, Josephie.

Over a lifetime, Flaherty filmed all over the world. In the 1930s he was on Aran, sending currachs into dangerous storms. A crew were almost lost; a woman was snatched from the clifftops by a wave and saved only by the giant strength of her co-star. Children were filmed teetering in gale-force winds on the deadly crumbling cliffs at Dun Aengus, the hungry waves clawing at them.

"I should have been shot for what I asked people to do, all for the sake of a keg of porter and £5 apiece," he said later.

He could resist neither a dramatic shot nor a lovely woman.

In 1921 Flaherty made Nanook of the North. To play the hunter Nanook he chose the greatest hunter of his time, Alakariallak. Nyla, one of Nanook's two wives, was played by sweet-faced Maggie Jujarluktuk - Flaherty's lover.

That Christmas Day, Flaherty long gone, Maggie gave birth to Josephie, who would never see his father.

In the Arctic, the whites found it fun to shoot caribou, the main Inuit food and clothing supply. Herds of hundreds of thousands dwindled to nothing as they were shot and left to rot.

A people who had commanded the Arctic were reduced to dependency on a tiny dole from the Canadian government, and the sale of fox fur and carvings. Alcoholism, TB and suicide were endemic.

Nanook of the North became an international craze. 'Nanook' ice creams were made showing the face of Alakariallak - as the great hunter starved to death in the brutal winter of 1923, on a fruitless search for caribou.

Flaherty, now involved in a South Sea Islands film, told interviewers he "felt bad about" the death.

He was starting to make the great films of his life; films that had a theme in common - often there was a beautiful boy, learning of life side-by-side with his father.

When Josephie was seven, Maggie's husband went out to hunt. His tent was found, empty, beside a hole in the ice. So Maggie moved in with her dead husband's brother, Paddy Aquiatsuk.

Josephie was lucky in this third father: Paddy was a renowned sculptor, and an influential, canny, brilliant man who loved his stepson and taught him to hunt.

In Tahiti, Flaherty was finding it difficult to make a harrowing enough film about the warm life of the South Sea Islanders, but eventually he centred the film on a lovely girl called Reri.

She was brought to New York, and put in the Ziegfeld Follies, married, toured Europe, split; her work dried up and she returned to Tahiti a broken woman.

"I feel bad about it," Flaherty said. "I guess in a way I'm partly responsible."

In the Arctic, Maggie died, and Paddy married a widow called Mary, who brought four more kids with her.

Life was tough. Paddy and Josephie's extended family was half-starved, living at times on flour and water.

Josephie, now 16, was hired as 'chore boy' in the weather station. Having the job meant he could marry the girl he'd been courting, Rynee.

The Second World War arrived, and the United States began to move in on the northern Arctic.

A Canadian Privy Council memo noted that America's temporary airstrips "would probably assume the character of small US bases and Canadian control might well be lost".

You'd have to wonder how much Robert Flaherty's influential romance of the Inuit hunters had to do with the solution chosen.

The Canadian government looked at the Inuit - alcoholic, suicidal, sick, dependent on the dole and subject to white corruption - and had a wonderful idea. Why not return a select group to their natural habitat (under the control of the police), and let them live as nature intended?

Paddy Aquiatsuk (the whites called him 'Fatty') was approached by the local policeman, Ross Gibson (the Inuit called him 'Big Red'), who told of a place teeming with game, where his family could live in the old way, and lied that they could return any time they wanted.

Paddy asked Josephie to go, but Josephie had a job and a wife and two kids by now, and another on the way.

So Paddy and most of the extended family set off, to arrive in hell. They had thin wool clothes, and hadn't been allowed to bring any boat bigger than a kayak - useless in the mushy sea ice of this terrible northland.

Their body clocks stopped working. In the endless winter dark, they did not know day from night, and woke and slept randomly in their tents and huts. They were told that they could kill only one caribou per family per year, so they couldn't make warmer clothes. And when they asked to go back, they were refused.

Paddy wrote to Josephie, pleading that he come. By the time Josephie got the letter, Paddy had died. But Josephie had himself been sacked for giving cheek to his employer. He and his family were starving.

On the ship, Josephie's two-year-old daughter was taken shrieking away and shipped off to be treated for the TB she'd contracted in her half-starved state. He wouldn't see her for three years.

At Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island, horror followed horror. Two little boys went out to try to find fish. One was found dead, the other never found.

The whites would regularly send out fleets of jeeps to pick up the Inuit en masse and bring them back to the air base to do clean-ups. They were encouraged to spend the pittance they were paid in the bar.

Prostitution and alcoholism became endemic. There was a huge rate of foetal alcohol syndrome - babies born damaged by their mothers' bodies being full of drink.

Josephie and his six-year-old daughter went out every day, feeling their way in the dark, to trek for miles, hunting for what meat or fish they could kill. And slowly he went crazy.

In the dark, the Inuit were at the mercy of the merciless whites who controlled their meagre dole and their very right to hunt and live. The 1993 hearings revealed that teachers had raped children, and women - including Josephie's beloved Rynee - had been forced into sex with whites by promises of extra food. Horror piled upon horror.

Over the years, Josephie developed a fearsome temper, and sullen depression. Some blamed possession by spirits, others the biorhythm disturbances. Others said that a man abandoned by his father to such a fate as Josephie's would go crazy.

In 1968 he had a mental breakdown, from which he never recovered. In 1984 Josephie died of lung cancer.

Long before, in 1951, film commentator John Grierson wrote an obituary for Robert Flaherty. In each of his films, he wrote, there was a boy who hoped to grow into a hero.

Maybe, he speculated, the boy who appeared in all of Robert Flaherty's films was "the son he never had".

The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath is published by Harper Perennial


The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

The Gum Thief
Douglas Coupland

YOU CAN always rely on Douglas Coupland. The Canadian who wrote Generation X, Microserfs and a host of hits can be trusted to produce a warming story of paisanos battling the odds to become a success.

Not this time.

His paisanos this time are the serfs of Staples, the office supply giant. But this is a deeply depressed book.

Roger, our hero, is an unrecovering alcoholic, with a tragedy in his past and a novel in his notebook.

He's writing a Thin-Man-esque - at least in theory - dialogue of wit and wisdom, and he's been working on it for years.

Bethany, his colleague in Staples, is a young Goth. One day she discovers that Roger is also writing her into his notebooks - he's keeping a diary that pretends to be hers, and it's eerily accurate. Roger's a literary stalker.

A series of first-person narratives take off from these roots - but as a reader, I found myself muttering "If you're so clever, why amn't I interested?"

Coupland is playing with words and images and misery in his novel; there's not much story in evidence, though.

I was dying to love this book, but I couldn't. It's full of wry, ironic, incisive postmodern insights. Just not a lot happening.

But don't take my word for it - after all, my judgment isn't infallible; I hated Scorsese's Taxi Driver, still do. Maybe it's a masterpiece.

xxx stars

I Never Fancied Him Anyway by Claudia Carroll

I Never Fancied Him Anyway
Claudia Carroll
(Bantam Press €??)

PSYCHICS are an unlikely source of chicklit gold, but Claudia Carroll's Cassandra is a rich seam for the author.

Cassandra has always had 'flashes'; even at the age of seven she sees bronzed beach hunks with longing eyes proposing to her aunties.

When we meet her next she's earning her living writing a psychic agony column for Tattle, a Dublin gossip magazine.

Cassie's friends seek advice too.

The obligatory gay friend, Marc with a C, is looking for Mr Right, or rather Messrs Right, as he serial-dates every nice-looking guy in his gym.

Activist friend Jo has little time for such frivolities - she's busy saving the world - but Cassie knows there's someone out there for everyone.

And spoilt-rotten Charlene meets another DSM (decent single man) and now Cassie's in trouble: could this guy be destined for Cassie herself?

Further complications ensue when Charlene decides that she's going to be Cassie's agent, and wants her to star on a TV show - where the DSM is a producer.

It's all witty fun, but with occasional icky touches, like Carroll's tendency to refer to 'the Queen' and generally carry on as if Ireland is a suburb of Essex.

Carroll is Nicola on Fair City, by the way, as well as being a big success as a writer - she's about to take off in world markets, with Harper bringing out her hilarious Remind Me Again Why I Need a Man next year in the US.

xxxx and a half stars

Monday, 22 October 2007

Why There Are Only Four Nucleotides

First published in Science Spin magazine (weblink at foot), this is a piece about the Irish scientist Dónall Mac Dónall, who brilliantly used a method used in computer science to solve one of the puzzles of DNA

By Lucille Redmond

TCD chemist Dónall Mac Dónaill has discovered something so blindingly obvious that it lay there under the eyes of scientists ever since DNA was known. He has proved that nature puts its own checking and correcting software in place in our DNA, to stop it producing faulty copies.

Humans - like other living things - are made of billions of cells. Each cell contains the pattern for the whole human - the set of 46 chromosomes. In theory, if you have the pattern, you can knit up the whole person from it - those chromosomes contain all the physical information about the person: blue eyes, good teeth, likely to get sickle cell anaemia.

Inside these chromosomes are genes, made of long, tightly-coiled molecules of DNA. If you uncoiled one of these tiny molecules and stretched it out, it would be more than six feet long.

So a living thing is made of cells, which contain (among other stuff) chromosomes, and those chromosomes contain genes, which are made of DNA. The chromosomes are the instruction manual, which is written in DNA.

All life, from bacteria to an elephant, has its blueprint encoded in DNA.

Our cells reproduce by making replacements of themselves. Each one cell splits into two, and that into four, and so on. And each daughter cell has its own copy of the blueprint to make the whole organism - eyelashes, teeth, leaves or whatever.

The important thing for our purposes in this article is how the DNA makes a copy of itself.

The DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) that makes up the cells is shaped like two strings twisted into a spiral, connected by 'nucleotides' - molecules mostly made from carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. This is the 'double helix' discovered 50 years ago by Watson and Crick.

Nucleotides are the letters of the words that make up our instruction manual for the leaf or elephant or microbe.

Nature uses four nucleotides to make DNA. They go by the noms de guerre A, T, C and G: adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine.

The nucleotides are strung along the two long strings, gluing themselves on at the back, and reaching out at the front towards their opposite numbers on the opposing string.

One important thing about these nucleotides: there's a right one for everyone. A T and C G.

Not only that, but (how different from the rest of us) they actually match perfectly with their love objects.

The way nucleotides mate (as it were) is by clamping together at three points. Each nucleotide has three points - their dangly bits, as you might say - which are either hydrogen atoms or 'lone pairs'.

(The analogy of 'mating' and sexual reproduction is, of course, only an analogy. There isn't any real mating going on here.)

If you're a C nucleotide, you'll have these points arranged in this order: hydrogen, lone pair, lone pair. And your beloved G will have them arranged in this order: lone pair, hydrogen, hydrogen. A perfect fit for each other. (Well, in fact, only two of A's and T's points work, which muddies the water a bit, but it works as if all three match in all the opposites.)

So on the two opposite strings of DNA, C is always opposite G, and T is always opposite A.

T has lone pair, hydrogen and lone pair in places one, two and three; and A has hydrogen, lone pair and hydrogen. Perfect for each other.

On each nucleotide, the hydrogen atom is attracted to the lone pair on its opposite number, and vice versa. So C and G will clamp together perfectly, and so will A and T. It's as if you had a three-pin plug and socket. But instead of the plug having three pins and the socket three holes, the plug had two pins and a hole, and the socket two holes and a pin.

Mechanically this works because a 'lone pair' is an electron-rich area, and the hydrogen atom is attracted to the electrons.

The nucleotides have another difference: they come in two sizes, large and small. A and G are large, for instance - they have two rings - and T and C are small, with one ring.

So - and if you're under 16 maybe you should stop reading now - when the DNA strands pull apart, they make babies.

Only one of these strings is used by the DNA - the purpose of the other one, its negative version, is to reproduce the useful one.

There is a long strand of DNA - two strings made of sugar and phosphate, with nucleotides strung along them - A, C, G, T, in any order, on one side, and their opposite and partner on the other side. So where you have A, C, G, T on one side, the other side will have T, G, C, A. The first A links up with the T opposite, the second C with G, the third C with G and the fourth T with A.

And so on along the double strand: always A mated with T and C with G. Life is good.

DNA carries its information in the order that the nucleotides are strung along the sugar-and-phosphate strand. ACT means something different from TAC.

When the two strands pull apart, every A has produced a T, and every T an A. Every C will have produced a G, and every G a C. So two new strands now exist - each one a mirror image of the string that produced it.

That's how DNA is reproduced in all living things.

What has baffled scientists for some time is this: other nucleotides are possible - indeed others exist. So why doesn't nature use them in the DNA strands? Surely they'd increase the possibilities in coding?

Why not use, say, X - a nucleotide with its hydrogen atom and lone pairs arranged as lone pair, hydrogen, lone pair - and K - arranged as hydrogen, lone pair, hydrogen? Having an extra pair of nucleotides would enormously increase the amount of information you could string along that chain.

After all, it's actually possible to reproduce these other nucleotides in the same way DNA reproduces A, C, T and G. Indeed, around 15 years ago a scientist called JA Piccirilli successfully made X and K, and reproduced them.

There seemed to be no obvious reason why nature did not use all 16 possible patterns of hydrogens, lone pairs and sizes of nucleotides in the DNA spiral. Indeed, there was even a suspicion that nature was a big fat lazybones, and had just gone for the easiest option.

But Mac Dónaill suspected there might be a better explanation. Maybe nature was being careful.

Luckily, he had a background in computer science, as well as chemistry. So he was familiar with a system invented by a Bell Labs scientist 50 years ago.

Back in 1950, Richard Hamming of Bell Labs was one of the pioneers of computer science. Hamming invented a way of making data transmission more accurate, by adding an extra 'bit' to every chunk of information sent.

Let's say you're sending a piece of information along a wire to your pal Gene. You agree with each other that it will be sent in three-digit chunks. But somewhere along the wire there's an interruption, and one of the chunks gets scrambled. How's Gene to know?

Hamming's idea was to send, say, three-digit bursts of 1s and 0s, and to add a 'parity bit' to the end of each set of digits - an extra 0 or 1 that would make the set always have an even number of 1s. So if a set with an odd number of 1s came through, it was obviously wrong. And with a bit of fiddling, the system even allowed the errors to be corrected once they were recognised.

(Or you can set it up to always send an odd number of 1s - it doesn't matter once it's agreed between sender and receiver.)

This system is used in every form of electronic information now - credit card transactions, booking airline tickets, making phone calls, and so on. Any data transmission uses it.

Mac Dónaill had the revolutionary thought: is it possible that nature used the same method in DNA? Could that be why only the four nucleotides A, C, T and G were chosen, instead of the rich array of possible nucleotides out there?

"Piccirilli proved in the 1990s that at least in principle some of these extra nucleotides did actually work with our existing molecular machinery. He made some of the other nucleotides which are not commonly employed in nature - some of the other patterns - presented them to polymerase - the copier which copies the strands of nucleotides - and they worked. That actually gave a little bit more impetus to the question of why nature didn't use these extra nucleotides.

"My starting point was that when we look at nucleotides, we tend to see the chemical representation. We don't see the information content so clearly," says Mac Dónaill.

"So I decided to show these patterns of hydrogens and lone pairs as ones and zeroes. There are three positions where you could have a hydrogen or a lone pair - that gives you up to eight possible patterns.

"There are additionally two sizes, and each pattern could be written on a large or on a small nucleotide, giving a total of 16 distinct nucleotides," says Mac Dónaill. "I decided to show the large rings as a 0 and the small as a 1, to complete the numerical view.

"I was just looking at the patterns, and the patterns were expressed by numbers - and so all that was now left in what I was now looking at was the information. I observed almost immediately, as soon as I had made this step, that if I divided them into the two parities of odd and even, all of the natural nucleotides which nature uses in DNA have the same parity.

"A nucleotide makes a copy by making a negative, and there are four other nucleotides which go in there. You want the correct one to match perfectly, but you also want to make sure that the wrong ones will match as seldom as possible.

"Two nucleotides - one odd, the other even - will occasionally actually fit, in a large minority of the time. Whereas if you use only all even parity nucleotides or all odd parity nucleotides, you'll find that the opportunity for a mismatch to occur and actually get through is considerably reduced."

For example, Piccirilli's nucleotides, X and K, were a perfect match for each other - the pattern on X was lone pair, hydrogen, lone pair (the same as T); and K had hydrogen, lone pair, hydrogen.

But now the green-eyed monster appears: X can also mate with C. Even though their hydrogens and lone pairs don't match up perfectly, it's chemically possible because the size of their rings fools them. Large rings always mate with small, and small with large - that's how it happens.

Poor G! Is there no decency in this world, even at the molecular level?

Worse still, when X (which is odd parity) does mate with C (which is even parity), we have trouble. X may have a copy of C when the strands separate, but in subsequent copies, C is more likely to come out with a copy of G after all.

The trouble is that this means that the new string that's been created is now wrong - in effect, the blueprint is wrong. The living cell that's formed using the new DNA strand - an incorrect blueprint - might work right, but it might not work, or it could work wrong. Or it could just work differently.

"Once it's on paper in front of you as a problem, it's a simple exercise with pen and paper," says Mac Dónaill. "Quite seriously, once you've made the jump from molecular structure into binary numbers, it really is a problem that you could give at the end of secondary school or first year computer science. So I just did it with pen and paper."

The way he did the test was this: he assigned the value 1 to hydrogen, and the value 0 to a lone pair. And then he assigned the value 1 to a double ring, and 0 to a single one. That meant that C's value was 100,1 (hydrogen, lone pair, lone pair; single ring). G was 011,0 (lone pair, hydrogen, hydrogen; double ring).

He drew a hypercube - a cube within a cube - to give himself an image of four dimensions, and he mapped directions to those binary numbers. This is a way used in computer science to show the relationships between "code words" - sets of binary numbers - used in data transmission, and to test how easily errors can be recognised.

The small rings were shown on the inner cube, and the large rings on the outer cube. And the binary numbers of the hydrogens and lone pairs were the up, down, left and right, back and forward positions.

The first bit determined left or right (0 left, 1 right), the second bit determined front (0) or back (1); the third bit determined down (0) or up (1), and the fourth - the bit for the size of the rings - the inner (1) or outer (0) cube.

Then he worked out what positions in the hypercube the various nucleotides would reach. And he found that it worked: A would always fit T, and C would always fit G well - whereas the likelihood of a mismatch was much greater with the other possible patterns.

He had used the hypercube model to prove that the patterns worked. But what of the chemistry?

When he looked at the nucleotides in this way, the odd parity set of eight didn't look as good a model as the even parity set. "In the odd parity set of eight, it seems that six of them are not chemically viable, or their patterns are unstable - the hydrogens would move. It's as if you have a lock where the teeth in the lock actually move about - that wouldn't be very satisfactory - sometimes the key would work, the next day it wouldn't."

In the eight nucleotides whose binary numbers work out as even parity, four were unstable. "Of the eight patterns in the even set, four of them are not chemically very stable - but this time only four. When I eliminated the unstable ones, I was left with A, C, T and G."

What he had discovered was simple - astoundingly simple, but an earth-shattering discovery in genetic terms.

What Mac Dónaill discovered was that nature uses the size of the nucleotides as a parity bit - as the extra, error-resisting, piece of information that makes sure the information transmitted is correct.

He couldn't believe what he was seeing at first. It was too simple to be true. He moved on to other problems in error coding. And he had a large burden of administrative work - at the time he was director of the computational chemistry programme in TCD. So he didn't have a lot of time available for pure science in any case.

"I didn't publish it for two reasons: I didn't have the time to verify it, and I needed to check also that nobody else had done this. But partly the solution was actually so simple - I just didn't believe that nobody had published it. I was quite frankly a little bit worried that I was going to make an eejit of myself.

"It took time - I searched the literature very carefully, and I checked this again and again, and I tried to make sure as objectively as possible that there wasn't something that I'd missed."

In June 2002 Mac Dónaill submitted his paper to the leading publication Chemical Communications, and got raves from the review board. It was picked up by Science and Nature - the world's two leading science journals.

Then the Mathematical Association of America wrote a piece on his discovery, then Science News. Then national organisations all over the world flocked in - academies of sciences, then science magazines, both popular and official, wrote shorter or longer articles. The Chinese Academy of Science and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences covered it. It even made its way into fundamentalist Christian publications in the US.

Mac Dónaill has now had a number of invited papers, in publications like the journal Origin of Life, and the Journal of Molecular Physics. The IEEE, one of the leading engineering societies in the world, has invited him to speak at a conference, on information theory in molecular biology.

"Some years ago Richard Dawkins made a rather controversial statement," says Mac Dónaill. "He said: 'If you want to understand life, don't think about throbbing gels, think about information technology.' So the idea has been around in broader terms for some time that life is at heart an informational, computational process.

"In a sense, nobody would confuse, to give an analogy, the program that they've got written on their CD or minidisc with the hardware of the disc itself: those are quite distinct conceptually.

"There is a suggestion that perhaps to some extent we have made that mistake in molecular biology - we are confusing the hardware of life with the life process, which may be more like - many of the aspects or features of life, the magic of life, is in the information, and the chemicals provide the medium.

"So we think of matter as living, but in a very real way we have a program encoded in matter - it's really the program which is living. But it's written in DNA. You might call it 'slimeware'.

"But at heart, whether it's written in DNA or written in a magnetic or optical material on discs or CDs does not change the fundamental nature of the information."

Mac Dónaill has made a stunning discovery - a triumph for science, and a huge step forward. And it is a discovery that has come out of an Irish university, from the thought and research of an Irish scientist. This basic, fundamental observation of the behaviour of nucleotides has revolutionised the way that we look at the coding of DNA.


First published in Science Spin magazine,
© Lucille Redmond

Sunday, 21 October 2007

The Last to Know by Melissa Hill

The Last to Know
Melissa Hill
Poolbeg €15.99

MELISSA HILL is the genius of whiplash: never read one of her books unless well braced, because you're just getting used to a character and bang, you're facing the other way with your ears ringing.

Here, she sets us off at a nice rocking-horse pace in a story about a couple of couples that don't seem to be getting on so well. Oh, don't believe a word of it.

London Irish writer Sam has made a success of expressing the feminine zeitgeist; we first meet her answering her fan mail as her irritated partner, Derek, pleads for her to leave off and marry him, forget this writing nonsense.

Anna and Ronan have been engaged for aeons, but somehow never set a date.

And Sam's sister, Eve, is coping with a wine importer husband who's always travelling, never home, and doesn't do his share of the childrearing and housework.

So far, so ho-hum. Then you discover that you're reading a novel within a novel - all these stories are in a manuscript being copytasted in Australia by Brooke Reynolds, acquisitions editor of an Aussie publisher. Hmm.

Read on and you'll realise that Brooke's connection with the fiction she's reading is uncomfortably close, as revelation follows shock revelation.

The writing is a little sprawling - tightening up would do no harm - but for chick lit fans, this is a gulp-in-one-go pageturner. Another hit for Hill.

(xxx and a half stars)

Foolish Mortals by Jennifer Johnston

Foolish Mortals
Jennifer Johnston
(Headline Review €??)

AT 77, Jennifer Johnston has published her 15th novel, plunging fearlessly into the subject of age and decay.

Her hero Henry half-wakes from a coma in hospital, with no recollection of his recent life - even of his recent wife.

His first wife is around all right, acting in lieu of next-of-kin, but apparently he'd made everyone very cross by breaking up with her and marrying someone else.

It seems he has children, though he remembers none of this. And it's only as he gradually recollects, shred by shred, that he realises how truly complicated his life is.

Foolish Mortals is written in Johnston's characteristic light and flighty style, rich in dialogue and soft on plotting. So when, somewhere in the middle of the book, you're calmly turning another page to have the whole thing turn around and bite you, it's a shock.

In a way, it's an awful pity this shock doesn't come earlier in the story, because it's the catalyst for the action - and the great characters - taking off.

There are great characters here, especially Henry's mother Tash - always more interested in her art than her family, and now drinking to fill up the void as her talent and her memory drain away.

Under all the drama and revelations, this is really Tash's story, and it ends with one of the great death scenes. What a way to go.

(xxxx stars)

Saturday, 13 October 2007

The Summer of Secrets by Martina Reilly

The Summer of Secrets
Martina Reilly

HOPE is a no-hoper - she's just lost another job (her sixteenth, she thinks), and she decides to take off.

Literally. But the plane has other ideas, and when she's one of the few survivors dragged out, her two best friends, Julie and Adam, take three months each off work and bring her home to the little Kerry town where she grew up.

They're the sane ones. At least, that’s what she thinks. But it turns out that Julie and Adam have 'issues' of their own, even as Hope makes her way through counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sounds like a packet of misery, doesn't it? But it's not - this is one of the funniest books of the year, and a cuddly bundle of fun and entertainment.

As Hope and the grouchy but gorgeous artist in the cottage up the mountain eye each other and throw sarcastic remarks back and forth, Julie tries to face down her ambitious parents, and Adam, the rich successful one, proves a mess.

But it all ends happily, in a finale that'll have the most hard-hearted reader wiping tears - and not just of laughter - from the eyes.

xxxxx stars

The Creative Lower Being by Karl McDermott

The Creative Lower Being
Karl MacDermott
Killyon House Books

MANUS Mannion is a Creative Lower Being, "screenwriter, committed melancholic and non-viveur", his lonely life taken up with efforts to sell scripts that exude a damp self-loathing.

Each time he makes a pitch, his victims make bright suggestions that may help him to catch the tune of the 'zeitgeist', and rush to answer their mobile phones and get away.

Lyric FM has been broadcasting fabulously funny scenes from this, Galway comedian Karl MacDermott's first book. But it works better as spoken word than a book for reading.

There are some belly-laughs that burst with an unexpected joie-de-vivre.

In one scene, the student Manus mistakenly takes the part of Lucky in the H-Block Godot. Mullet-wearing poseur Ivor O'Doherty tells his cast: "Not many of the established members of Dramsoc have been prepared to risk their so-called careers by working with me."

In this Godot, "tramp costumes are out. Shit covered sheets are in," he tells them.

Naturally, Manus's parents want to support their son in his career choice, and no matter how he tries to stop them, they're determined to see him act.

Later Manus gets an acting job with Curious Lemon theatre company, directed by 'taboo rich' Nigel MacBeth (rich, but doesn't like talking about it).

The superstitious actors are terrified. Nigel ridicules the superstition about mentioning That Play, and insists on being called by his surname. The actors is hobbling around in casts and on crutches as sinister accidents befall one after another.

The Creative Lower Being could do with sticking to the comedy and avoiding the dank angst that takes it over at times. But it's a promising start for a badly-needed comedy voice in Ireland.

xxx stars

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Second Glance by Jodi Picoult

Second Glance
Jodi Picoult
Hodder & Stoughton

PICOULT can weave a piquant tale, but this time she's let herself down.

Second Glance is a ghost story, the middle section of which is told by the main ghost, a wimp who makes one's spectral toe itch to give her a swift boot in the ectoplasm.

The story is also riven by a timezone flaw. The modern characters are haunted by ghosts from the American eugenics era of the 1930s. But Lia, the 1930s ghost, reads like someone from the 1890s.

At one stage she has a little timeslip, and slides into the new millennium, where she's astonished as a boy with wheels on his feet whizzes past her.

Well, Francis Stuart once told me that in the roller-skating-crazed 1930s the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire was a roller rink, where you could race around and around behind the hanging screen on your skates as a film was projected onto the screen.

Picoult's basic idea is interesting - after all, the American eugenics theories were what inspired Hitler and his mates to try to wipe out a whole section of humanity, a fact which has been conveniently forgotten.

But the storytelling is tired, and Picoult isn't in her usual rattling good form.

xxx stars

Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright

Spilling the Beans
Clarissa Dickson Wright
Hodder & Stoughton

ADORABLY pretty, brilliant, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice - Clarissa Dickson-Wright had it all. Or so it seemed.

But genetics is destiny, sometimes. And her father's family were monsters.

An ancestor, thrown out of the New Model Army for having a strong weakness, was taken back for Cromwell's Irish campaign, and after the brutal invasion of Drogheda, settled in the town.

The family continued to love the drink and hate the Catholics. On her parents' marriage, "my father had written to [his mother] that my mother was a Catholic, and received a missive back which included the line: 'I would rather she were a black naked heathen whore than a papist'," writes Dickson-Wright.

This was 1927. Short years later the gloss had come off the marriage, and Arthur Dickson-Wright, by now a famous society surgeon who treated the British royal family, was battering his wife and children and starting the day with vodka-laced orange juice.

Dickson-Wright's book is a hair-raising account of her own alcoholism, until she finally found AA and became one of the Two Fat Ladies whose cooking delighted a worldwide audience.

It's full of eye-popping gossip, my favourite of which was an appealing description of the Marquess of Waterford's tattoo of a hunting pack in full cry down his back, with the fox's brush disappearing into his ass-crack.

xxxxx stars