Sunday, 22 June 2008

Whose Life is it Anyway? by Sinéad Moriarty

Penguin Ireland
PIERRE is only gorgeous. Tall, dark and handsome, a professor, nice, considerate, kindly. The perfect man.
But not if your family are traditional London Irish racists. Because Pierre is really dark – in fact, he’s from the Caribbean, brought up in France.
Sinéad Moriarty’s latest – undoubtedly – bestseller-to-be starts off with a bang.
Then it all gets dull (at least for this reader) for a great chunk of the book. Moriarty decides to have a big fat sneer at everything Irish.
Niamh, her heroine, spends most of her childhood loathing Ireland and all things green. Her family are caricature patriots, with a doorbell that plays Danny Boy, green leprechaun gnomes in the garden and the girls dollied up in ringlets and curtain-like dresses to enter Irish dancing contests.
This is possibly meant affectionately, but it doesn’t come across like that.
And the odd thing is that it’s set in the 1980s, when the IRA were bombing England and Irish people were looked on with deep suspicion by most English people, and especially by officialdom of all kinds.
But there’s not a mention of the Troubles.
But it’s all cosy fun, with Niamh getting her family on side to learn to accept Pierre. And trying to get his suave parents to learn to love their raw new daughter-in-law.
Niamh writes a fluffy newspaper column, and Pierre introduces her to his parents by laughing about the time she wrote an article on who gets to sleep on the wet patch after sex.
Her own parents already had to face the horror of her big sister getting pregnant at 17, and going on to become a materfamilias with five (Irish-dancing) daughters.
There are a few guffaw moments in here, and it’s a grand page-turner for the journey.

South of the Border by James Ryan


AUTUMN 1942, a young teacher on his first posting in the midlands, and his principal is gobsmacked by his brilliant Irish.
Can you translate a radio programme in Irish, the principal asks the teacher, surprised to find a Dubliner so fluent. I’m not from Dublin, the boy explains, I’m from Balbriggan.
But when he arrives at the house he’s directed to, he’s sent to a shed with a radio aerial twining through the trees, where a man crouches to hear a broadcast from Germany. In Irish.
He furiously denies stories of a Tan massacre in Balbriggan – I’m from there, I’d know – and later discovers that this was concealed from him at home, to keep him apolitical.
The teacher is furious at being dragged into politics, but his fury is muted by his passion for a mysterious girl.
Mysterious because she might be Protestant, an important distinction then.
This should be a brilliant novel. The writing is delicate, plain, absolutely beautiful.
But the plot gets lost in winding stories that don’t have any real thematic thread to hold them together.
Yet that writing – years later, at the funeral of Dixie Coll, the brother of the mystery woman, he sees her again. Beside her are her two aunts, now old women.
One has cropped white hair, but a marquisette hairband, “a tiara of sorts”, and two coats, one bedecked with several heavy costume brooches.
The other “was in full mourning garb, black hat, scarf and coat, all sabotaged by the gold-and-violet sequinned evening bag she was clutching”.
It’s moments like this that make you catch your breath.
The central story – a Luftwaffe pilot shot down, sheltered, betrayed, dying – gets a little lost in the middle of the tentative love story.
A very interesting novel about neutrality and revolution and the mutable nature of politics.

Final Theory by Mark Alpert

Simon & Schuster

EINSTEIN’S colleagues, now ancient, are being killed off one by one, found dead under suspicious circumstances in their baths.
The reason? The mathematical maestro’s mythic Unified Field Theory – a theory of everything long rumoured to have been expressed by the genius.
But Einstein – in this thriller, anyway – suppressed his Einheitliche Feldtheorie because he feared its world-destroying power.
The implications of his theory are such that it could be used for power that would end world energy shortages and wipe out the need for oil and coal.
Unfortunately, it also makes it possible for any freelance Osama (not to mention any bullying government) to squish cities and countries with the push of a button.
Alpert doesn’t get into any difficult philosophical questions like “why should they, if there’s free power out there”, but instead gets into a galloping yarn full of fun and violence.
There are moments of hilarity too – the vicious Russian torturer who’s chasing the old lads is shocked, I tell you, shocked, when he sees the waste of taxpayers’ money in inept security around an FBI centre.
Alpert’s hero is a science journalist like the author, who teams up with a gorgeous black scientist and Einstein’s autistic great-grandson to flee and then fight the bad guys and save the world.
Off they go, helped by conveniently credulous yokels from a rattlesnake-handling church, and pursued by a granny from the FBI and the Russian killer.
Tremendous fun.
It comes this near to being a new Da Vinci Code, but the ending loses pace a bit. But Alpert is definitely a writer to watch, and this is the perfect book for taking your mind off the real threats to the world.

Two Days in Biarritz by Michelle Jackson

MOUSY mouse Annabel was always the follower, and glamorous Kate the leader and the one who had the fun, in Michelle Jackson’s first book.
When Annabel gets langered (in both senses) on a holiday in Biarritz and tells Kate about her long-ago one-night stand with Kate’s dad, that’s the end of that friendship.
The two friends part, and the action strays back and forth through their lives, tracking the events from the day they met.
Predictably, Annabel has married a controlling man who suits his own sweet self, while Kate flitted from one man to another and lived from her art.
But now that they’ve separated, both women have to find their real selves. For Annabel, it’s the career she always wanted. This time, she’s determined, her husband can’t put his foot down.
For Kate, life presents immediate and desperate horror: her mother is dying of cancer and her own marriage is disintegrating. There’s one upside, though - an old love is back in the offing.
This is art teacher Jackson’s debut novel, and her inexperience shows in the often awkward writing.
But it is a heartwarming story of women who find their own strength, and readers like it enough to have it selling well all over Ireland.
Colin, Annabel’s husband, is a satisfyingly creepy chicklit villain. He’s bone selfish, nagging his son into a near-breakdown and trying to edit him to be a copy of Dad.
But we know that there’s a happy ending waiting out there. Domestic bliss and career success are sure to be on the cards for our girls.
There are sexy surfers and alcohol-rich seductions, misunderstandings and huffs and reconciliations over wine or coffee.
There’s even a climactic childbirth scene to close the action. Typical Poolbeg.

Leaving Ardglass by William King


‘A DREADFUL cry pierces the air; a cry that still, on occasions, works its way into my dreams, and causes me to start up in the bed.
It’s the pivotal moment in William Hill’s novel of brown envelopes and priests and tribunals.
The narrator is working on his brother’s building sites in London. This brother is MJ Galvin, later to face accusations of offshore bank accounts and unethical relations with government ministers.
The book starts with the murmuring confidences of Monsignor Thomas Galvin, then dives backwards into 1950s London, when young Tomasín leaves Kerry to join his brother.
He works on the building of roads and suburbs and infrastructure. After he’s roughened his hands, MJ puts him to paying the truckers: get an invoice for £120, pay out £100 with a wink.
There are dead men working on the sites: the builder gets a contract for 40 men and employs 35, putting the wages of the five ‘dead men’ in his pocket.
Galvin’s friend is Deano, a kid who came from nothing and is studying to be a vet, working summers on the sites. “The brass plate on the front door this time next year,” Deano gloats.
But the brass plate is on his coffin after he plunges from the scaffolding when some fool removes a plank from under the tarp.
King, who is himself a priest in Dublin, then lays in a long dull account of a brilliant student for the priesthood, the road to the bishop’s palace, the prize stolen at the last moment by a sleeveen.
But in the opening half of the novel - those dark London stories lit by the chiarascuro of corruption and bitterness - this is a vivid story.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow

Hodder & Stoughton

‘LAST lectures’ are talks in which noted professors consider their demise and ruminate on what matters most to them.
But when Carnegie Mellon lecturer Randy Pausch, a virtual reality guru who was the inspiration to the people who made Star Wars and the Disneyland sets, gave his, he was dying of pancreatic cancer.
Students and admirers packed the hall, among them Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, whose column and video on spread from website to website across the world.
Zaslow and Pausch then wrote the book of the lecture together, and it’s now a worldwide bestseller.
Pausch sounds like fun. On his first day of term, teaching ‘user interface’ classes, he used to bring in a VCR, put it on the table, then smash it up with a sledgehammer.
“When we make something hard to make, people get upset,” he’d point out. “They become so angry that they want to destroy it. We don’t want to create things that people want to destroy.”
Pausch shares the wisdom he’s earned in a life where he “won the parent lottery”, a sunlit life with an adored wife and three darling children.
As he doles out granddad-ish advice – be honest, it’s simpler; take risks if you want to win; send handwritten thank-you notes – the reader knows that the tips come with a whiff of afterlife wisdom.
There are funny sections, like the one where he teaches his students how to apologise: 1) What I did was wrong; 2) I feel badly that I hurt you; 3) How do I make this better? “I’m sorry that you feel hurt by what I’ve done” isn’t an apology, he points out with a sharp little nip; wanting an apology back isn’t either!
It’s an incredibly brave book, sad and wise and even useful.

Michaelmas Tribute by Cora Harrison


BREHON Mara is back on the case in the sunlit Ireland of the 16th century.
In England, Henry VIII is king, and English fashions are seeping into Clare from those shoneens in Galway. But in the Burren, it’s still emphatically a Gaelic society.
So when Mara investigates two murders in rapid succession, it’s the Brehon laws that are applied, not the English law that will soon wipe out ‘Irish ways and Irish laws’.
The mystery story has its technical problems. There are too many, and too similar, characters, and it’s a bit blurry for the reader to keep them all in focus.
At the centre are the MacNamaras, who are collecting their annual tribute at the Michaelmas fair. But Garrett, the new taoiseach of the MacNamaras, has made an astonishing change.
Instead of gracefully accepting the tribute everyone reckons they should give, he’s demanded a specific amount from each farmer or miller or blacksmith.
The root of the problem seems to be his sexy Galway wife and her interior decorating ambitions, which have to be paid for by his clansmen.
When Garrett’s unpopular steward is found dead after the fair, and the bag of silver he’s collected has been cut from his belt, Mara’s hunt begins. Meanwhile, she’s being courted by the King of Munster, Turlough, whose own son and likely heir is an English lackey.
Suspects for the murder of Ragnall, the steward, and a miller who has left his own inheritance in a state of utter confusion, include Ragnall’s petal-pretty daughter, the son of a neighbouring taoiseach, the miller’s simple son, and a host of others.
Harrison enjoys exploring the difference between Brehon and English law, and the politics of Tudor Ireland.
A cosy read for fans of the series.

If Not Now… by Denyse Devlin

Penguin Ireland

MARINA ffrench has resigned herself to being single, but would love to find love. She meets the ‘deeply, provocatively attractive’ Luke on holiday in Morocco, and falls like a ton of bricks.
But the problem with Irishmen is the mammy, and Luke is on holiday with his elderly mother, who seems slightly batty.
The relationship between widow Marina and Luke seems to progress, but Luke is strangely uncommitted, blowing hot and cold. Is he wildly in love? Is he only playing? Is he gay?
Marina has her own complications. An uncentred plot brings in problems to solve for family and friends, lost teenagers to be put right, stories about the past, lots of conversations about relationship.
Things go slowly with Luke and his busybody of a ma, and Carlotta, an elegant Italian who hangs around Luke with a proprietary air.
But this reader, at least, felt an urge to boot Marina, with her constant selflessness and self-questioning. She’s a born martyr.
Gradually the secrets behind Luke’s involvement with Carlotta are revealed, and Luke and Marina start to trust each other and approach the dilemmas of a shared family together.
But with multiple relationships as convoluted as the Lisbon Treaty, it’s not an easy ride.
No one reaches 40 without having plenty of baggage. Luckily, Luke’s includes a lovely villa on a lake in Italy. Unluckily, his son is engaged to Carlotta’s daughter – but falling in love with Marina’s daughter.
Devlin’s multigenerational saga isn’t one to pick up unless you’re in it for the long haul. It’s a holiday read for those long airport waits.