Monday, 28 July 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

(Fourth Estate €15.99)

CLEAR away a block of time. Get flu if you have to. Anything to be able to devote total attention to this extraordinary book.
Early in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the young dog Almondine hears a whispery rasp from the baby sleeping in its mother's arms. She puzzles over the sound, and realises that it is the shriek of a child who can make no sound.
Almondine rises and crosses to where the mother sleeps with the child in her arms. "She became in that moment, and was ever after, a cautious dog," writes David Wroblewski.
Hamlet crossed with The Jungle Book, this is a stupendous work.
The story: the Sawtelle family have been breeding dogs for three generations. They're breeding for power and beauty, but also for heroism, finding dogs that have done extraordinary things and crossing them into their breed, the Sawtelle Dogs.
They don't sell pups. They sell yearling dogs, which have gone through an intensive education, training for creativity and intelligence.
The dream is to breed the 'next dog' - which will replace dogs in the evolutionary chain, as the wolf replaced the extinct Dire Wolf, and the dog replaced the wolf.
Into this dreamland steps an evil man, who loves to do harm just because he can.
Fourteen-year-old Edgar, born mute but super-intelligent, using Sign Language both with his family and friends and with his dogs, faces this well-armed wheedler with the skills that he has: the skill of the wolf for laying an ambush and the skill of an innocent for seeking the truth.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has a ghost made of rain, spooky neighbours, corrupted innocents, ruminations about evolution and selection. And the writing! Writing that makes your teeth water with reality, but is never self-consciously writerly.

The Beach House by Jane Green

Penguin €14.99

SECRETS are in the air in Nantucket. The island, once the world focus for whaling, is now trendyland, flocking with wealthy Manhattanites on their holidays.
Decrepit femme fatale Nan, a local eccentric who lives in one of the few beautiful old houses untouched by the gobbling developers, has run into money trouble.
She's sitting on a house that could realise $10m, but the last thing she wants is to have a developer tear it down.
Long ago Nan's husband, Everett, disappeared. He left his clothes on the beach, and left her to face a mountain of gambling debts.
Nan made a go of it then; now her financial adviser is telling her that she really is in trouble as the markets plunge.
She knows there must be some way of making money from her assets. But a sale of the valuable antique furniture and heritage clothes and jewellery fails to bring in the expected thousands.
So she opens the house up for paying guests. Of course I'm going to give them breakfast, she says - I'd feel embarrassed not to feed people.
As the house fills up with the lovelorn and lost, everyone cooks and gardens together, and relationships start to form between the tenants, their children, spouses, lovers, friends and parents.
That's before the secrets start to come out. As does the gay man who's never been able to tell those closest to him.
And the broken girl who shoplifts for the thrill that replaces love. And the wife astonished and hurt by her husband's failure.
Nan's healing power gets to work on her own son - haunted by an ill-judged affair - and on step-children and lovers and matches made in heaven.
With simple writing, likeable characters, and plot twists that are just about believable, The Beach House is a lovely, cosy read. You can practically smell the healing sea air off it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Addition by Toni Jordan

Sceptre €11.95

THERE’S safety in numbers, and for Grace Vandenburg, everything counts.
Although Grace lives in modern Australia and he died long ago in New York, she’s in love with Nikola Tesla, inventor of radio (Marconi stole his idea) and discoverer of the uses of electricity, magnetism, the AC motor, robotics and radar.
Like Grace, Nikola counted everything: staying only in hotel rooms with numbers divisible by 3, he ate every night at 8pm with 18 napkins folded beside him, mentally calculating the cubic volume of each forkful.
Grace hasn’t worked since she froze one day in the schoolyard and was carted off to hospital. She wakes every morning at 5.55 exactly, and rises at 6am, ready to brush her teeth with 160 brushstrokes.
It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but this is a book that causes snorts of laughter.
Grace’s sister, for instance, is happily married - “stuck in wedded purgatory with that Blackberry-wielding ferret. He’s got the sex appeal of a hard drive.”
Her niece Larry (short for Hilary) is Grace’s favourite person, the one who finally explains that there’s a difference between average, median and mode.
When Grace meets Seamus Joseph O’Reilly, they fall madly (of course) in love.
Seamus is Mr Average. “Medium looks, works at the box office, likes football and barbecues.”
Soon he starts gently trying to save her from the numbers. Within 3.33 seconds she’s in behavioural therapy with a bunch of germophobe obsessives and Francine, their therapist (who dips apples in toilets and eats them to prove it’s ok).
Under the influence of all the normalising pills, Grace’s brain divides into a squabbling pair.
Her story ends happily, with every reader cheering and laughing to the finale.
A bizarre, quirky book, you wouldn’t imagine you’d love this, but it’s the kind of thing that gets passed from reader to reader with enthusiastic recommendations.

No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay

Orion €11.95

CYNTHIA wakes up alone in the house, the night after her first drunken binge with a bad boy. Her family are gone without a trace.
Her father came last night and dragged her out of the car where she was canoodling with Vince Fleming, son of a local criminal.
Now, as she stands in the kitchen and wonders where everyone’s gone, she begins to be frightened.
It’s a great beginning to a story that rattles along at speed.
Years later, Cynthia goes on TV, taking part in an unsolved mysteries programme, in the forlorn hope that she might hear some news of the lost ones.
But it’s as if she’s thrust a stick into a pool full of alligators. There’s a message saying her parents forgive them. A car appears, following Cynthia’s little girl to school at walking pace.
And the aunt who brought her up tells a long-kept secret to Cynthia’s husband.
They hire a detective, who turns up some news of his own.
Cynthia’s father is a man of mystery. No driver’s licence picture, no social security records. Can he have been an FBI agent? On a witness protection programme? A spy?
All this is great. But it gets to the point where you want to echo the character who wails “How long is this going to go on?” – or words to that effect.
The story has a belly like a poisoned pup. Somewhere in the middle, when the family haven’t turned up, clue after clue keeps appearing, and every few chapters there’s a sinister dialogue by unidentified people, you get the itch to skip to the end.
But it’s worth it for the buildup. And while the end isn’t that satisfying – the solution works technically, but not emotionally – it all wraps up.
A great book for waiting for the airport to fix their radar, though. Long enough and exciting enough that it’ll last you for the few days.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller


SKIP immediately to Part 2. I’ll tell you what happens in Part 1. You can go back and read it later.
Pippa Lee is a madonna, the calm and competent wife of Herb Lee, America’s most famous publisher.
Pippa – still in her 50s – and Herb, who’s now in his 80s, have moved to a wealthy retirement estate known locally as Wrinkle Village.
Their friends Sam (great novelist) and his partner Moira (greatish poet on the lookout for a nicer but still famous man) are their constant companions.
OK, that’s it.
Now for the good stuff, as you turn hastily to page 61, where it goes into the voice of Pippa herself, and plunges into her chaotic, desperate youth.
Hilarious and stunningly sad – you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll say “Oh, shit, no!” – it’s a roller-coaster ride through the bohemia of the mid-century.
And Rebecca Miller should know her stuff. Daughter of Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, daughter-in-law of poet Cecil Day-Lewis, she must have spent her youth mobbed up with the literary aristocracy.
Not just literary – heavens, before she was born, her dad had been married to Marilyn Monroe!
So with jaw open, as you’re whizzing through the book laughing and crying, you’re also saying “Who is that?” and coming up with crazed theories.
From the stagey suicide of Herb’s gorgeous first wife to Pippa’s dealings with her speed-freak mother (still giving her baby-bottles at 16). Hmm, hm. Who can this be?
It’s a book that could sadly go unnoticed until it’s filmed – already on the cards, starring Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves and Winona Rider – and then take off. Make sure you’re in before the crowd; you’ll be passing it to your friends.
But skip that first part.

Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

Headline €15.99

ACE detective Stephanie Plum’s got the blues. At least, she has, along with her colleagues, after they open a briefcase booby-trapped with blue dye, which explodes all over them.
The ditsy but still ace skip-tracer is off on another off-centre adventure with ex-’ho Lula by her side, and Plum’s complex love life providing the salsa.
In the fourteenth of the series, they’re on the trail of $9 million in stolen money. As always in Plum’s New Jersey homeland, everyone’s a cousin.
As she climbs out of another window, leaving another dead guy behind her, she muses that it’s lucky the cop answering her call is Eddie Gazarra. “We’d grown up together and he’d married my cousin, Shirley the Whiner.”
There are plenty of side issues to spice up her life. Lula has decided that Tank, her giant ex-special-forces sweetie, has proposed, and is planning the wedding. Tank is crashing down in a faint.
Schoolkid Mario (in the game Minionfire he’s Zook, a major mage who’s stalking the griefer (say what?) and watching out for the wood elves) is in Plum’s care, because his mom has skipped bail after robbing a liquor store.
Dom Rizzi, Zook’s anger-management-troubled uncle, is out to get Plum’s sweetie, Joe Morelli, because Joe may be Zook’s real father.
Plum’s grandma joins Zook in Minionfire to seek the griefer, then along come her aged pals, plus Mooner, Plum’s stoner former schoolmate.
After that it gets complicated.
As funny as a barrel of monkeys – oh yes, there’s a monkey in there too, as well as a country rock star turned TV investigator – this is a triumph for Evanovich.
If your best pal has broken up with her sweetiepie and needs some cheering, go straight to the bookshop and buy this book for her.

People of 1916

The Absent Wife by Karen Gillece

A GIRL with a lovely name: Star Anise Quick. She never knew who her father was – her mother, Jean, told her Africa was her father, and all the children of Africa were her brothers and sisters.
When Jean is dying, though, she finally tells Star that her father is Leo Quick, an Irish portrait painter.
Star makes her way to Dalkey, and everything changes.
Leo has brought up his two children, Silvia and James. He didn’t know Jean was pregnant when she left, and when Star phones, he’s just had a stroke.
He’s been eaten away for years by a secret he can’t unravel: why did Jean leave him and their children?
James is a TV celeb who’s trying to get all the wealth he can generate up his nose.
Silvia is the good girl who minds her dad as he needs it, but has her mother’s addictive liking for uncommitted sex.
Gillece’s delicate writing unfolds all these layers of stories, dancing back and forth between past and present.
She layers in current news stories – Natascha Kampusch and the British teacher who was jailed for calling a teddy bear Muhammad make appearances – and drops in luscious scents and flavours.
As the family reclaim the daughter and sister they didn’t know about, they’re also reclaiming the wife and mother who disappeared.
For Star, and for Leo’s close friend Hugh, it’s another reclamation, of the wrong that couldn’t be righted, and the bond that couldn’t be broken.
Gillece gets better with every book. She’s finding her style as a writer of contemplative, incisive novels, but she hasn’t hit her pace quite yet.
This is a book for the bedside, to be savoured and talked about with friends.

The Bloomsday Dead by Adrian McKinty

Serpent’s Tail
IT’S such a great idea – a thriller based on Ulysses.
And it starts out well: “State LY Plum P Buck Mulligan” reads the note handed to the hotel shamus.
It translates thus: “In stateroom LY (that is, the fiftieth floor, suite Y), a Plum (in other words, a drunk American) named Mr P Buck was creating a Mulligan (ie a disturbance).
And it ends well, in Joycean tradition, with that trailing sibilant “Yes.”
The middle is more problematic. Michael Forsyth, McKinty’s hero, is the kind of Northerner who wears crossed Union Jack and Red Hand in the fanlight of his little mind, and absolutely hates all things Irish.
“In my eyes the Garda Síochána was only a notch or two above the Irish Army and, as an ex-member of the British Army, I had nothing but contempt for that body,” he writes.
“Any squaddie worth his salt would join the Irish Guards in London; any peeler up to scuds would get into one of the big metropolitan police forces across the water. Irish coppers and soldiers were second-rate.”
Not, perhaps, the perfect note to strike if you’re aiming to lure Joyceans, who adore Dublin, Ireland and all about the country.
Between ‘plump Buck Mulligan’ and ‘yes’, it’s an orgy of killing, interspersed with paranoid ravings, self-hatred and a bit more killing.
The effect is curiously anaesthetic. After a while the reader stops bothering to notice new characters – after all, Mike’s going to kill them in a minute.
Reading, you get the feeling that McKinty is ‘writing away from’ his subject – that he really wants to write about something else. From the wrongness of his take on the IRA characters (hellfire and respectability), I suspect that he wants to be writing about the UDA.
If you like thrillers with a high body count, this is for you.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

The Likeness by Tana French

Hachette Books Ireland

PROPERTY and identity: the two main reasons for murder.
Many the soon-to-be widower screams “You’re not who I thought you were” as he grabs up the knife.
And the division of the home and the savings is eased by about-to-be widows who kill to inherit all rather than half.
In Tana French’s second novel, it’s more complicated.
Detective Cassie Maddox – one of the central characters in French’s first book, the magnificent In the Woods – discovers that she’s a victim of identity theft.
Or rather that ‘Lexie Madison’, a fake persona Cassie was using when working undercover, is now the identity being used by another woman.
And that woman has been found dead in a ruined cottage in the wilds of Wicklow.
Spookily, she’s been stabbed, just as Cassie was stabbed by a speed freak when she was using the ‘Lexie’ identity to work undercover.
Cassie is sent in to take the dead woman’s place – she didn’t really die, they tell friends of ‘Lexie’, she was in a coma.
She finds herself in a complex household, almost a commune, shared by students in a stunning half-ruined Georgian house in the mountains that one has inherited.
The Likeness has a bit of the second book syndrome about it. It’s draggy at times, with slow narration and not enough happening.
But a writer with French’s power can still bring the reader along, with scary details and mystery within mystery.
As Cassie becomes ‘Lexie’ and her involvement with Lexie’s friends grows, she’s living two lives. In one, she’s a detective acquiring inside knowledge – ‘Lexie’ was pregnant – and in the other she’s living with Lexie’s friends, not knowing who may be the killer.
Fascinating and terrifying; don’t put the lights out after closing this.

City of Thieves by David Benioff


RUSSIA has been invaded by the Nazi armies, and Leningrad is surrounded by German troops.
Two teenagers, Lev and Kolya, are sent on an impossible quest – a dozen eggs for the wedding of a Party official’s daughter.
Lev’s been caught looting when he should have been on fire patrol. Kolya is a deserter.
Lev is a shy virgin, cracked about chess, and about his cello-playing neighbour. Kolya’s a sex-mad boy with a talent for talking his way out of trouble.
They’re sentenced to death, but the quest for the eggs is offered as an alternative.
They try in the city first. But this is a town where they’re melting down the glue in library books to sell as food.
The two boys escape from cannibals, track a legendary old man who’s supposed to be guarding a hen-coop on the roof of an apartment block.
Finally they escape the city – Piter, as it’s nicknamed by its inhabitants – knowing of the rumours that the peasants are living fat while Leningrad starves.
They discover a Nazi brothel full of plump girls held as slaves. They fall in with partisans – the most deadly of whom is a skinny girl sniper.
Kolya talks about all the sex he’s had, and adds endless literary criticism, especially of the great unknown novel The Courtyard Hound.
When he discovers that Lev’s father was a poet murdered by Stalin, their friendship is sealed.
Screenwriter Benioff uses his grandfather’s stories of life in wartime Russia to make a quirky and enticing novel.
From the cosy grandparents with their sinister history to the appealing Kolya and Lev, it’s a book to make you laugh when you’re not flinching.
Much better than his screenplays (Benioff worked on Troy and The Kite Runner), it’s touching and gritty.