Sunday, 30 March 2008

Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann

Black Swan €16.70

LEO is deep in love, travelling with his adored girlfriend, Eleni. They're taking one of those holidays that the young refer to as "travelling", as if they are a kind of work, not a months-long holiday at all.

Then, in some benighted corner of South America, a drunken trucker steers his lorry into their bus. Elena is killed, and Leo starts to fall down into hell.

Meanwhile back in the Great War, Mortiz Daniecki survives the icy horrors of war, and, captured, escapes from the greater horror of a POW camp into a snowy waste.

As Leo endures the empty months after Eleni's death, and Mortiz treks across Siberia towards the half-remembered warmth of a lost kiss, the two stories enrich each other.

This is not a book for nasty old cynics. It's full of love and warmth and sorrow, the chapters broken up by Leo's day book of wise quotes from Einstein, Tennyson, Shakespeare and the lads.

I couldn't take it at all. But it's shot up the bestseller list, loved by nicer people than me, and is still selling like crazy.

And for those who believe in love and all those good things, there's an ending that will vindicate every shred of that belief - until the chilling epilogue.

A Quiet Belief in Angels by RJ Ellory

Orion Books €10.65

THERE'S a killer on the loose, targeting little girls for particularly gruesome ends.

Our hero, young Joseph Vaughan, is growing up in Georgia and has the misfortune to find one of the girls, or most of her.

The sensitive boy, adoring his schoolmarm and writing stories to enter in competitions, sets up a bunch of friends who call themselves the Guardians to watch out for the murderer.

As World War II turns American feeling against Germany, the neighbours suspect the prosperous German neighbour who is the lover of young Joseph's mother.

So far so standard. But then - as the reader begins to wonder if Joseph himself might be hiding more than he reveals in his narrative - things turn even darker.

RJ Ellory, despite his subject matter, is English, and when he's not writing works in addiction rehabilitation and youth literacy.

Perhaps this is what gives his narrator the sense of oddness and dysfunction that make him so riveting.

In his teens, Joseph becomes the lover of his former teacher. His mother has lost her mind and is now in the mental hospital suffering the rigours of 1950s medical experimentation.

He leaves for New York and the life of a reclusive writer, and amid paranoia and obsession, starts to track down the killer.

This novel's strange, hesitant style has catapulted it into the kind of sales achieved by a book taken up by book clubs, where every copy sold sells 20 more.

It will be interesting to see how it does in the US - will Americans take to it in the same way that people on this side of the Atlantic have done.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

An Offer You Can't Refuse by Jill Mansell

Headline Review €15.99

CHICKLIT should be funny, fast-moving, with a slightly ditsy heroine who's good at heart - and who always gets her man in the end.

An Offer You Can't Refuse ticks all the boxes. It's so funny that I found myself hooting helplessly with laughter.

And Lola is a heroine worth loving. She's just a kid when her boyfriend Dougie's acid mother, Adele, offers her ten grand to give him up.

She's about to tell Dougie's mammy to go whistle when her adored stepfather confesses that he has run up a gambling debt and has to go on the run from some very threatening ex-best-friends.

Lola takes the money, years pass and she comes home - and meets Dougie again in the most unexpected way possible.

Following her instincts, she saves a woman from muggers, and the woman's grateful husband invites her to a thank-you party.

Her life is about to become super-complicated. But that's nothing new. Add in a glamorous long-lost father, a nerdily tidy guy in the flat next door to Lola, and Dougie's gorgeous but unbelievably sloppy sister, and the mix is perfect.

Oh, and there's Lola's mother, a sweet woman with the clothes sense of a five-year-old and a hairy-jumper, hairy-beardish new man in her life.

True love triumphs all over the case - except when Lola tries to make a match for her mother - and all is well in the end.

The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith

Little, Brown €14.99

THE soft word turneth away wrath, and in the world of Mma Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana, it's also good business practice.

The ninth in the series has the same gentle charm as the others. There are no surprises here, but a happy story with some kindly humour.

In The Miracle at Speedy Motors Mma Ramotswe is commissioned to find the family of a woman whose parents have become late - as they say in Botswana - and so cannot be questioned.

The woman is certain, however, that the woman who brought her up was not the one who gave her birth.

Meanwhile, some sick person is sending frightening threats to Mma Ramotswe and her deputy. "Fat lady: you watch out! And you too, the one with the big glasses. You watch out too!" says the first.

The one with the big glasses, Mma Ramotswe's ambitious deputy Grace Makutsi, has personal difficulties that need tactful resolution: she's engaged, but her family are seeking a spectacular dowry of almost 100 cattle, when the proper rate would be more like eight.

And Rra JLB Matekone, Mma Ramotswe's husband and the owner of Speedy Motors, has found a doctor who thinks he can cure their adopted daughter's incurable paralysis.

This isn't a book that's going to knock anyone off their perch, but it's a nice story, told beautifully.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Forgive and Forget by Patricia Scanlan

Transworld Ireland

IT CAN be a sad mistake to walk out on a marriage that seems ditchwater dull.

In Forgive and Forget, Barry has long since left dependable Connie and gone on his way, shuddering at the prospect of day after day of healthful food and weekend after weekend of dinner with the parents.

Barry - pretty dull himself, if truth be told - hooked up worshipingly with careerist Aimee, who likes to make her own mind up for herself. She doesn't stop at that, also making sheepy Barry's mind up for him.

Now Debbie, child of his first marriage, is engaged, but she doesn't really want Barry and Aimee at the wedding. And Melissa, daughter of his second marriage, is neglected and fat.

As the first wife, Connie, sorts out all his problems for him, Barry starts to wonder if he made the wrong choice, and to dream erotically about his ex.

Playing under this is a subplot about daughter Debbie and her chosen groom - flibbertigibbet Bryan, who loves to spend, spend, spend.

There's another about Judith, boss woman and mum-minding spinster, sliding gradually into bitter alcoholism.

This isn't a novel that's going to keep anyone from work - it's not a book with big themes. It's a cosy story about the preparations for a wedding and the conflicts within a fairly standard Irish family model.

But for curling up while reading dozily by a warm fire, it's just the thing.

Constance by Rosie Thomas


FAMILIES: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. And the family of Constance Thorne is tougher than most, in Constance by Rosie Thomas.

We meet Constance first as a wailing scrap of a lost baby, discovered in a London garden by a courting couple in 1963.

Her only identity is a marcasite earring pinned to her blanket.

And this is where I part company with Rosie Thomas. A writer who produces a baby with an identifying mark makes a contract with the reader - this clue is going to result in a fulfilment of the story.

I can tell you right now that Thomas breaks that contract.

It's a pity, because the family story is charming. When we next meet Constance she's a successful commercial composer, living most of the time in Bali, with a lovely London penthouse flat on the side.

She has never come to terms with her unhappy childhood as a skinny dark outsider in a family of plump blondes. Or with her passion for her brother-in-law.

Now she hears that her sister, Jeanette, is dying, and she rushes home to remake the lost relationship.

Jeanette's son, Noah, has met Roxana, a remarkably respectable Khazak lap-dancer, who has left behind her country and is forging a new 'English' identity, trying to forget the brother she thinks is dead.

The complex family make for a warm and enthralling story, with plenty of twisty surprises along the way.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Truth Commissioner by David Park


IT'S AN appealing idea for a novel: the stories of the people involved in the 'peace and reconciliation' process in Northern Ireland.

And David Park's book has gone down well in Britain, chosen as a Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4 and reviewed approvingly in the quality newspapers.

Characters in The Truth Commissioners regard Ireland with dislike. The Truth Commissioner himself refers to the North, early on, as "a godforsaken land… where a ship that sank and an alcoholic footballer are considered holy icons".

Murder is not their fault, they feel - it's the fault of Ireland.

One of those who murdered a boy whose disappearance the commission is investigating - is building a new life in America.

The IRA send delegates to get him and coach him in his testimony. It'll be painless, they say. He replies: "Painless? To say what I did?"

Fenton, a policeman who was involved in the same boy's murder, now helps orphans in Romania.

When he's called on by his former superiors he says everyone knows who the murderer was: Francis Gilroy, now a government minister.

"It wouldn't look too good, even in this crazy country, if the Minister for Children had a child's blood on his suit," he says.

The book reads as if researched from within the security services. But the quality of the writing is fine, with a glowing interiority that at times lifts the stories off the pages.

Lessons in Heartbreak by Cathy Kelly


IZZIE is a fine big sonsy girl, the sort any farmer would immediately choose for a wife. Look at those childbearing hips!

She's a New York models' agent, though, where the demand is more for the lurcher look.

Her dream is to start an agency for normal-sized models. But she's fallen for that eternal trap: the married man who lies about his real state in life.

In Cathy Kelly's bestseller, Izzy's is one of three stories. They revolve on the tale of Izzy's grandmother Lily, a nurse in wartime London.

All three women - Lily, Izzy and Izzy's aunt Anneliese - are the victims of lying hounds of married men. In Anneliese's case, the lying hound is her husband; for the other two, the husbands are other people's.

Waterford lady's maid Lily goes to London during the war to learn to be a nurse, and pals up with an aristocratic girl who introduces her to tall, tanned Jamie, a submariner. (Weren't wartime submariners small and pale? But no matter.)

Jamie tells her the old story, and soon they're all torrid.

Meanwhile in the present day, Izzy is guilted when she returns home to her dying grandmother (Lily again) and meets the devastated Anneliese, whose husband has run off with her best friend.

The three stories come at infidelity from different angles, but the same moral standpoint. As Izzy tells her own hound: "It's not special any more. If it's that special, why do I feel so sad?"

A great read for the airport and the beach.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Harper Perennial

QUAKERLY living and the link between creativity and madness should make for an odd mix, but Patrick Gale's 13th book is compelling enough to send readers rushing out to buy the other 12.

Antony Middleton is calmly considering whether he's done the right thing in taking a philosophy masters when he meets fellow-student Rachel Kelly as she takes a Ming bowl from its case in the Ashmolean.

In typical Quaker truth-telling fashion, he points out that she should really put it back, because now that he's seen her, he'll have to tell someone.

It's only days later when he's bringing the pregnant student home to Cornwall to shelter her, abandoning his studies for the teaching job he'd been avoiding.

It is the start of a lifelong love affair, annotated by the chapter headings, notes for an imaginary retrospective of Kelly's work.

This is a book that makes you laugh and cry and want to go to Quaker Meetings - if they're like those described here, long calm silences warmly embracing the attendance.

Gale writes incisively about abstract art, and drops heartbreaking clues in the paintings and objects described that foreshadow the action to come.

The writer has a background of service - his father was a prison governor at a time when, as Gale says himself, "there was still a very strong belief that prison wasn't about punishment, it was about preparing men...curing them and preparing them to go back into society as useful people".

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

David Fickling Books

PUBLISHED posthumously, months after its author's death from breast cancer, Bog Child is a peace activist's testament in fiction.

Dowd worked for most of her life for PEN, running international writers-in-prisons and anti-censorship groups, bringing creativity to poor children, and working for her local council in Oxfordshire as deputy commissioner for children's rights.

She also published the influential children's book A Swift Pure Cry, inspired by the Kerry Babies case and Anne Lovett's death in Granard.

Bog Child has two parallel stories of tyranny, involving (I think) the same two families. Fergus is the brother of a hunger striker in Long Kesh, who is dragged unwillingly into being a cross-border courier.

He finds the body of an Iron Age child or woman, who then tells her own story of fighting a tyrant.

Fergus is an appealing hero, and the entwined secrecy of borders, soldiers, volunteers, smugglers and families are interestingly used.

Dancing with Demons by Peter Tremayne


SISTER Fidelma is a seventh-century private eye, not to mention being a nun and married with a child. Busy lady.

She's the subject of a rake of international best-sellers - novels and short stories in which she investigates the troubles of an obviously crime-ridden mediaeval Ireland.

Assisting her is her faithful sidekick (and now husband), the Saxon monk Eadulf, a gormless but sweet man who serves as her Doctor Watson.

Sister Fidelma has fans around the world, who bring wads of tourism revenue to Cashel during the annual Féile Fidelma, and her stories are a series on German radio. The early editions are now collectors' items.

In Dancing with Demons, Sister Fi is called in to probe the assassination of the High King Sechnussach. Sechnussach was an actual High King who was really killed, by the way.

It appears that the cult of Crom Croích has come back in a big way in the less-Christian hinterlands. (CC was a rough-stuff god who hung out with 12 sub-gods and liked a drink of blood).

When Sister F heads for the High King's killer's homeland to ask a few questions, she stumbles on burnt-out monasteries and the bloody bodies of religious.

But soon she's sorted it all out with her keen monastic mind and unerring moral sense, and it's time for a showdown where the guilty will be exposed.

There's a slight ho-humness about Dancing with Demons, which is natural after a long series. But for Fi fans, it's another winner.

Confessions of a Fallen Angel by Ronan O'Brien

Hodder Headline Ireland

A PROMISING debut by Ronan O'Brien, a solicitor with the DPP. O'Brien brings his experience of criminal cases to bear in the creation of a creepy villain, the psychopathic Norman Valentine.

Norman is the next-door neighbour and former jail associate of Charlie, our narrator and hero.

Little does Norman know how unwise it is to get next to Charlie, who has already died twice, and has the eerie ability to dream death forecasts.

The hapless Charlie's first victim is his best pal, Owen, followed by the nice lady librarian who takes the troubled teen under her wing.

When Charlie accidentally mashes the next librarian under a stack of bookshelves (in a misunderstanding over a defaced copy of Moby Dick), he's sent to the slammer.

The humour is the book's best thing - Charlie's wry descriptions and vicious banter will make readers burst out laughing.

Subtlety takes a rest and the dark fun recedes when Ashling appears. Ashling is the woman of Charlie's dreams - which is unfortunate for her, since his dreams soon turn to the familiar subject of violent death.

Charlie moves to a diet of alcoholic self-blame, with a shot of black humour on the rocks to wash it down. But soon he's dreaming of a new love.

There are great characters here, mostly the really nasty ones. And there's plenty of slapstick, and dislikeably hilarious characters.