Monday, 25 February 2008

Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella

Black Swan €??

LEXI Smart is out on a wild night of karaoke and banana cocktails (why? why?) when she falls down a flight of steps and bangs her head.

When she wakes up in hospital, Lexi is a new woman with a new improved life. Apparently.

Instead of bitten nails, she now has a glam manicure. She no longer has the Dracula-style crooked teeth that won her the nickname Snaggletooth.

Rather than her boyfriend being car telesalesman Loser Dave, she's married to a handsome multimillionaire - and she's a company director.

It all seems too good to be true. And since it's Sophie Kinsella who's telling the story (the woman who brought us the Shopaholic books) it's soon proving less glossy than it seemed at first.

Prepare to laugh - Kinsella is on top form in a feelgood book that's the best of chicklit: funny, warm, a great story.

As Lexi discovers that she's now famous for her hard business style, and that her husband loves her as trophy wife rather than for herself, the secrets start to bubble up.

Why do her old friends hate her? Who's the sexy architect who gazes so fondly at her?

Full of fun that will make you go from "Eww" to "Oooh" within pages, Remember Me? deserves its huge sales.

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

Sceptre €??

THIS dazzling first novel uses the setting of the Second World War to question the validity of nationalism.

Welsh and German nationalism, anyway; it doesn't really address British nationalism.

Its other theme is shame: male and female shame, and the difference between them.

There's scarcely a man who can write about an attractive woman without imagining her pregnant, and so it is in this very male book.

Esther, the village beauty of a remote Welsh hamlet, must face the moral issues of an unwanted baby. In the end, it's a man who makes the decision for her.

Esther, though, is an axle on which the writer swings his story. At its true centre is the motherly German corporal who becomes the buff of his POW cellmates' fury because he was the first to surrender.

There is a fairly desultory subplot about Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess and his wartime flight to Britain.

The Welsh Girl is written in our time, in an Orwellian world in which Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo exist, yet the fiction is not shadowed by our foreknowledge.

Instead, it's somehow cosy, perhaps a distancing effect of the very adeptness of Ho Davies' writing. Everything is described; there are discoveries in every word and idea, crowding out the starkness of cruelty.

In the end, he concludes that the true love of country is that of the sheep for their ageless habitat, and it is through evoking this that the good German redeems himself.

Ho Davies is half Chinese Malayan, half Welsh. Born in Coventry a quarter-century after its wartime destruction, qualified in physics and English, he now directs the creative writing MFA programme in the University of Michigan.

It's a background that makes him a passionate outsider, an interesting viewpoint for a consideration of nationalism and provincialism.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Lee Raven, Boy Thief by Zizou Corder


I LOVE this book. It's the best children's book I've read in years, and once I finished it, I wanted to start it all over again.

The bad boys of the Raven family are good boys really. When they are successful in crime, they dash their mum some caio - or give her some cash, as they say in the thieves' cant that's Lee Raven's voice.

Lee and his brothers are crims in 2040s London. They carry skellies - skeleton keys to open any lock - and they know the secret roads of London's sewers by heart.

But Lee makes a mistake: he's papped while dipping. The paparazzo's photo of him stealing the wallet of Romana Asteriosy, one of the richest, and crookedest, of the rich Russians in London, is on all the front pages.

Now Lee's on the run.

This story, told by a mother-and-schoolkid authorial team, has a magical twist with every page.

Lee steals the motherlode of stories, the book that God created at the same time as he made humankind.

As the book itself explains, it has the perfect story for every individual. "Or at least, to paraphrase the philosopher Jagger, if I don't give them what they want, I give them what they need."

Lee runs, pursued by a demonic authoress, and by Janaki, the adopted Kashmiri daughter the aged bookseller won in a game of poker.

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant fun. What a great book.

Buy Lee Raven, Boy Thief on

Anila's Journey by Mary Finn

Walker Books

ANILA is half-Indian, half-Irish, and her Irish father works for the East India Company in 19th-century Calcutta.

But her father has gone away, and her pining mother died, and now Anila's alone, trying to make her way with just a talent for drawing.

My old friend Mary Finn is well known for her Out and About in Dublin, a great book for entertaining kids in the city. Now she's turned to fiction, with this gentle, rather old-fashioned story.

"You have not just your natural talent to support your claim but there is undoubtedly a certain liberty in your situation that I believe can aid you in this matter just as well as it might undermine you in other ways," says Anila's mentor, Miss Hickey, encouraging the little girl to apply for a job drawing birds for an expedition in Bengal.

Anila refuses to believe that her father has deserted her, and so the expedition is also a chance to search for him.

The leisurely writing is beautiful, and the India of the British Empire is brought powerfully to life, in a leisurely tale with none of the frantically plot-driven atmosphere of most children's books.

This is a book to savour and read slowly and deliciously.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen

Bantam Press

IT probably wasn't a good idea to head for Yamamori and order the delicious haddock tempura just after picking up The Bone Garden for review.

Take it under advisement: don't eat while you're reading this. The early descriptions of a doctor examining pus-streaming victims of childbed fever, then wiping hands on a soiled towel and going on to an internal examination of the next mother are bad enough.

They progress to highly-scented accounts of dissections, with coils of intestines slopping into buckets or stretched back to the end of the lecture hall in didactic exercise. Icky.

A sketched-in modern story frames the main action, set in Boston in the 1830s, where medical students are learning their trade, largely on the poor Irish emigrants.

The Irish material is largely for colour "I'm greatly afeard 'tis time for me as well," murmurs young Aurnia, shortly before falling victim to Dr Crouch's infective hands.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the doctor who would later, in reality, learn from Robert Collins, the Master of the Rotunda, how to avoid spreading the deadly plague of childbed fever (wash your hands, docs, wash your white coats) is a character here.

But mainly the thriller is a penny dreadful about secret lovers, hidden babes and the grave-robbers working in the black night.

Very silly, but great fun, and a book to pass some happy hours. Just don't order the tempura.

7th Heaven by James Patterson with Maxine Paetro

Century €??

THE Women's Murder Club series (now on a TV near you) is based on James Patterson's numbered series of books (1st to Die, 2nd Chance, 3rd Degree, etc).

The latest, 7th Heaven, is soaring up the charts. It's written with the don't-touch-that-dial skill of Patterson - every page has a new hook to drag the reader into the next shocking scene.

But maybe the characters and theme are getting a tiny bit tired in 7th Heaven. If you're not a fan, you may find it hard to get into the book.

The story: Michael Campion is the Boy in the Bubble, a teenager with a heart defect who has grown up wealthy and protected. He's an internet chess champion, but he hasn't had the normal experiences of adolescence.

When he disappears there's a kerfuffle of publicity and television pleading, and the police are called in to investigate. A tipoff puts him in the workplace of a Bambi-like young prostitute, and under questioning she admits to killing him and disposing of the body.

Separately, the San Francisco cops are investing a series of arson attacks. A pair of teenage psychos are killing the rich, targeting elderly consumerist couples and torching their houses.

The stories are impeccably researched, but the characters are strangely cold. No matter; Patterson can grab your interest and keep you reading.

I just wasn't crazy about the detective, the attorney, the reporter and the pathologist at the centre of the series. But millions of others love them.