Sunday, 22 October 2006

The Hat Shop on the Corner by Marita Conlon McKenna

The Hat Shop on the Corner

Marita Conlon-McKenna
Bantam Press price??

HATS have a special place in a woman's heart. There's something about a hat
that represents the celebration of life; they call up the happy times. You
have to live up to a hat by being happy in it.

The Hat Shop on the Corner is by the author of The Magdalen, and a series
of children‚s novels on the Famine, filmed as Under the Hawthorn Tree.But
here she‚s using a more gentle touch.

Ellie Matthews is cleaning up her late mother's hat shop on South Anne
Street in Dublin when two people come in and change her life.

One had ordered a hat from Ellie's mother, and expects to find it ready for
her daughter's wedding in a few days. .

The other is the solicitor with whom Ellie‚s mother had been negotiating -
to sell the shop to the developer who's hoping to build a multi-storey

It‚s a development that could spell the end for the lovely street of
intimate shops where generations of Dubliners have bought treats for
themselves and the people they love.

As Ellie‚s aunt Yvette says, "Naturellement the gallerias and the large
department stores bring thousands of people to shop every day, but just
look at Paris - we have the best shopping in the world, huge stores, but
many of our finest shops are small, exquisite and individual."

Somehow, Ellie ˆ who was trained as a milliner by her French mother, but is
now a textile buyer for a big Dublin company - is drawn back into running
the shop.

This is a charming story of Ellie and her customers, who run the gamut from
ladies who lunch to the highly unlikely.

Dublin's new mayor Mo Brady, a battling northsider, walks in looking for a
serious hat for her newly glamorous life - and weighs in to make sure Anne
Street‚s shops stay in business.

Tough tyke Tommy Butler wants a Memory Hat for his nan's 100th birthday,
commemorating her century of Dublin life.

The neighbourhood revives as shopkeepers and their friends help each other
to repaint and rebuild, and offer each other ideas ˆ and have lots of great

And amid the millinery Ellie finds love: unreliable but gorgeous Rory, the
roadie for a series of bands, and Neil Harrington, the serious young

This joyous book is delightful - a perfect gift, and a story to treasure.

Monday, 16 October 2006

A Place Called Here by Cecelia Ahern

A Place Called Here
Cecelia Ahern
(HarperCollins €??)

WHERE do all those socks go, that go into the washing machine and never come out, all those mobile phones and umbrellas that just one day disappear?

This is the question on the mind of ex-garda Sandy Shortt, and it’s been plaguing her since she was 10, when classmate Jenny-May Butler went out one day and was never seen again.

Sandy has always been neurotic about losing even a toothbrush. She left the Gardai to set up an agency to find missing people.

A lot of people go missing in Ireland. Over 300 children seeking asylum have disappeared since 2001 – lone children who were in the care of our State.

It’s an interesting subject for Cecelia Ahern to tackle – because quickly the reader realises that this is a fantasy novel, a huge jump in genre.

Sandy often finds the missing – until, one day, she runs right out of this world and into the world where all the missing things go.

It’s a land where people dress in clothes found in lost luggage, and trade goods that turn up in the woods around the villages.

Greens will be happy that Ahern’s ideal world has solar panels and wind turbines, with government by consensus.

Of course, Ireland is the home of the echt story of lost and found: Oisín’s journey to Tír na h-Óighe and his return and search for the Fianna. In Irish, when someone drifts around aimlessly – or arrives very late – people say that he’s like Oisín i ndhiaigh na Féinne.

But it’s The Wizard of Oz that underlies Ahern’s story, with its theme of finding heart and brain and courage.

Her missing people marry and have families (though not, seemingly, pets – all those dogs who trotted off one day, nose to the ground, and didn’t come home must have gone somewhere else).

And Sandy is able to bring these hungry lost ones news from home.

It’s a gripping story, and a moving one. The plot sags a bit in the middle when Ahern gets pulled out of synch by planning her ideal world, but returns in full force by the end.

There’s even a strange kind of love interest happening in parallel universes, as the brother of one of the lost seeks Sandy, while her partner is seen in flashbacks growing increasingly despondent at her neurosis.

A strange book, and absolutely one for the handbag, for a whole new audience.

Friday, 13 October 2006

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

Portrait of an Unknown Woman
Vanora Bennett
HarperCollins €??

Lucille Redmond

THOMAS MORE was a genius and a canonised saint, but also a bit of a loolah, with his own private Guantanamo in his garden where he tortured heretics (Protestants).

Rumour – and if you’re looking for gossips look no further than the court of Henry VIII – had it that he liked to have his favourite daughter scourge him into repentance for his sins.

He was also chancellor (minister for finance) for Henry VIII, a poet, one of the world’s first sci-fi writers (he wrote Utopia, a vision of a perfect society), and generally a Renaissance man.

One of the most unusual things More did was educating his daughters, a foible regarded as sheer madness at the time.

And in this bestseller, being gobbled up eagerly and passed between book clubs, Vanora Bennett takes a real person, More’s adopted daughter Meg Giggs, and uses her as the basis for the story of the Mores.

This is a great combination of a bodice-ripper and true history, taking in everything from the humanist thought of the Reformation to the fate of the little Princes in the Tower, murdered (maybe) by Henry VIII’s uncle.

Meg is a woman with a not unusual fate – she’s married to a man who’s a lot less intelligent than herself, but plenty ready to steal her ideas.

On the bodice-ripper angle, we have, as usual, a handsome devil, untrustworthy and gorgeous, while in the wings waits a sound, decent sort longing to pledge his love.

On the serious-history angle, we are reading a story we know, but seen through new symbols as tricky and fun as Holbein’s, making this one of the best books we’ll read this year.

Our knowledge of the More family comes partly from the sketches for a lost group portrait by tricksy Tudor court painter Hans Holbein – apart from his gift for making character apparent (that straddling portrait of Henry VIII), he famously hid a distorted skull in his composition The Ambassadors.

His tricks in the More picture included putting the family’s fool, Henry Pattison, in the centre, staring out and looking just like a dwarfish version of Henry VIII.

Bennett weaves all the tricks into a ripping yarn that has you saying to yourself: “I must put out the light and go to sleep… just a few more pages…”