Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant


Heavy breathing in a 16th-century convent?
Kinda. Young, beautiful, madly in love and protesting with every breath, 16-year-old Serafina is shoved into the nunnery by her angry family.
Angry why?
Blame it on the boogie. They’d made a good match for Serafina, but she fell for the wrong man (wrong for her family, that is), and enters with a secret stash of letters To Ser With Love.
Which is what the convent proceeds to do to her. The Council of Trent is tightening the screws on over-indulgent nuns who wear makeup, keep pets, put on theatrical holy shows and consume wine and biscuits.
I didn’t think nuns were like that
We didn’t think nuns were like a lot of things. This St Caterina’s convent in Ferrara is raging with strife. Humble Suora Umiliana wants miracles, fasting, prayer and mortification of the flesh. Abbess Chiara, smoothly political, wants to keep things as they are.
Ah, life
Then there’s an aged nun who’s basically been in the slammer for most of her life, banged up in her own cell because her stigmata and visions are too politically exciting for Ferrara.
Holy God
All done in his name. Then there’s our heroine, Suora Zuana, herbalist and doctor, and the nearest thing you’ll find in the time and place to a rational human being.
And Serafina's boyfriend?
Wouldn’t want me to reveal the whole thing, would you? The good guys win in the end, but you’ll have to guess who they are.
Who’s this Dunant dame?
Multifaceted writer who leaps with effortless ease from noir thrillers (she’s a Silver Dagger winner) to The Birth of Venus, about a Renaissance babe torn between a dashing painter and her wise, kindly husband.
Should I take a vow to buy it?
If you like a book full of continual change and transformation, as the rule of St Benedict would put it. A bit too long, but the story is juicy.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

Simon & Schuster

My niece’s 16th birthday and what can I get her?
Teen demon fiction by young Irish writer Sarah Rees Brennan. Demons, magicians and a sexy, surly hero.
Nick Ryves has a Heathcliffy kind of dark passion about him. He’s gloomy and misunderstood, and cares only about oiling and exercising his sword, and escaping his demons.
A teenager, in other words
Ah, far, far more, m’dear. For Nick has a dark secret. He and his brother Alan and their crazy mother are on the run. The magicians are out to get them.
Mostly I thought it was teachers
There’s something strange, and strangely attractive, about young Nick, but it’s Alan who cares about people. And all the girls who care for Nick.
Tis well I remember it
Enter Mae, cute as a witty kitten (when a boy admires her breasts she says “Thank you - I grew them myself”) with her claws out to defend her own brother, the witless Jamie, who’s in trouble deep.
Lots of magical action?
Oh yes, plenty of flights and fights and fun as the boys dance for demons in the Goblin Market, and seek out the magicians well known to haunt the snugs of London pubs.
And hot sex?
Please. This is a teen novel. Though there’s a fair amount of heavy breathing between Mae and Nick.
First novel?
Surely. Though the young author (pictured on the press release charmingly pouting as she poses against a gravestone) has a blog with 4,000 followers, and has written ‘fanfic’ - stories about other authors’ characters, very popular online - for years. She really has a way with a plot - some of the turns and twists make you go “woof”.
Sounds just the dart for the niece
And - v important for teens - it's a guaranteed source of street cred to carry this around. It has the feel of an underground hit.
Author's site
Author's blog

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Last Train from Liguria by Christine Dwyer Hickey


So you’re raving about it?
…writing as deep and warm and soft as a kiss, a story as stark as a knife, you have to read it, it’s going to be 2009’s big Irish novel. Buy three copies at least, because this is the kind of book you press on your friends, and you’ll want to keep one for yourself.
Gripping from the start?
Actually, no. It starts with a depressing scene from the 1920s when a drunk wakes up having apparently murdered his sister, and goes on the run.
At first you’ll keep reading because of the beauty of the writing, which has the kind of immediacy where you actually think you’re the characters. Which is amazing, because they’re very different from each other - reserved, wise Bella in the 1930s, her messed-up granddaughter Anna in the 1990s, whose one-night stand is one of the funniest scenes I’ve read.
So what’s the story, morning glory?
Bella goes to work as a private tutor to Alec, the son of a beautiful German Jewish woman and a dying Italian aristocrat. ‘Edward King’ - the putative murderer of the first scene - is his music teacher. Over the years they become loving surrogate parents to Alec, whose mother remarries and basically forgets him. Then the anti-Jewish laws come into effect in Italy, and they have to try to smuggle him out before the Nazis get him.
I don’t really like those Holocaust novels
Me neither - there’s often a kind of lip-licking excitement about them. But this is different - you get to love Alec, and the reserved Bella and secretive Edward, and the odd lives they live.
I didn’t know Italy deported Jews?
Me neither, either. But they did - and Alec’s stepfather pays lots of money to priests and nuns to get him out, using his teachers to smuggle him and his baby half-sister, in a terrifying flight. I promise you, this is the best book of the year. It’s extraordinary.
Publisher's site

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill


Quirky Commie murders?
Back in 1978 the aged Dr Siri Paiboun, hero of the Laos revolution and now national coroner, is about to become a married man and father of two at the ripe old age of seventysomething.
Hardy man
Indeed. Not only has Dr Siri been snaffled off the shelf by an aged beauty, a former comrade in arms, he’s also forced to attend the Communist Party’s Quarterly Planning and Progress Conference.
A thousand flowers will bloom
And he’s being haunted by ghostly American thugs who chase him down the dark streets of an otherworld ‘hood sneering racial insults.
Where does the pogo stick come in?
What? Oh, the title? The toy is worshipped by Hmong hill people. Someone brought it home from a war and it caused mayhem - all the kids fought over it. Convinced it was demonically possessed, the tribe set it up with its own shrine.
And sure why not?
While Dr Siri is up in the hills with the pogo stick worshippers, his assistants - lovely Dtui, and Mr Geung, whose Down’s Syndrome makes him particularly efficient as Dr Siri’s assistant - are trying to thaw out a suspicious deep-frozen corpse.
Where do writers get these ideas?
My question exactly. But this series of books about Dr Siri have a sweet, feelgood vibe that’s kindly and reassuring. The characters are all good people, except the ones who are satisfyingly bad.
And tell me this, what’s a communist doing being haunted?
You know how it is with occupied countries - it’s not just the country that gets occupied. Soon the citizens are culturally colonised too. Dr Siri has become the habitation of a thousand-year-old shaman, who is a magnet for bad guys from the spirit world.
Best thing you’ve ever read?
Wouldn’t quite go that far. But if you want a sweet and fuzzy book with plenty of gentle laughs, this is the one for you.
Author's site

The Kinsella Sisters by Kate Thompson

Funny, you say?
Snort-tea-through-your-nose funny. And upbeat and life-affirming, and a great story.
Saor is Gaelach?
Set in Lissamore, a trendy Connemara village full of creative locals and high-priced visitors. Two households both alike in dignity, in fair Lissamore…
Oh, get to the hot stuff
Bohemian Rio and her high-flying sister Dervla communicate only through notes about the care of their ageing Da. When Daddy dies, Rio finds a letter with riveting news.
And the other family?
Millionaire developer Adair Bolger and his petit bourgeois princess daughter Izzy (the comic relief - she thinks it’s classy to call your dessert ‘pudding’, and has some unfortunate luck with hair extensions) have a massive second home, built on the site of a cottage to the rage of locals.
Poor little rich girl Izzy falls like a ton of awfully elegant bricks for Rio’s son Finn.
Sounds wholesomely local
Norratall, my dear. Finn and Izzy are both keen divers, and a chunk of the action takes place in the seas off Thailand. And Finn’s actor father, sultry welfare-bum Shane Byrne, is about to hit the big time.
Cut to the chase: who gets of with who?
Ah, that would be telling. Rio is under siege by Shane, but too busy laughing at his fans’ internet fantasies, and Adair has the hots for her - but will he get anywhere? Will he?
Hey, don’t tell me the whole story!
There’s plenty more, don’t worry. After all, this is set in the first drastic days of the recession, and estate agent Dervla is trying to sell houses as everyone in Ireland tries to shed the second home and its mortgage.
What’s the best thing?
Lots of overhearing and picking things up wrong and subsequent tangles. And the descriptions of luxury and bohemian life and sun-drenched Thai holidays make you feel totally pampered.
I’m going to rush out and buy it
Good move.
Author's site