Saturday, 29 December 2007

With My Lazy Eye by Julia Kelly

SURPRISE hit of Christmas, Julia Kelly's first novel, With My Lazy Eye, is a really gorgeous evocation of the time from childhood through adolescence.

A surprise because of its newness and its drab cover, by the way, not because of the writing, which is masterly.

Lucy Bastonme ("based-on-me"?) is as eccentric as every child, especially every middle child, squashed between the wonder of the firstborn and the adorableness of the baby.

With her lazy eye and her definite refusal to conform - as we first meet Lucy, she's gazing down the plug-hole at the finecomb she thrust down there when her mother tried to remove her population of lice - she watches the family and friends from an ironic distance.

This is a big writer, whose work we're seeing in its first flush. Kelly's ability to focus on the tiny things, so that this shortsighted peering opens out to reflect a whole vision of life, is the mark of a master.

Kelly has worked as a desk editor for Irish and British publishers, and has written a monthly column for dSide magazine for several years; on reading With My Lazy Eye I went hunting hopefully online, but unfortunately they're not there.

If you want a book to curl up with while you recover from that whole Christmas effort by taking to the bed with a mug of tea and a bowl of reheated Christmas pudding and brandy butter, rush out and buy With My Lazy Eye - if there are any copies left.

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

MARIO Vargas Llosa wrote one of the funniest books ever, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and in The Bad Girl he's back with another coyly distant seductress.

We meet her first as the teenager from Chile who electrifies the middle-class parties of 1950s Lima with her sexy dancing and sexier high-falutin ways.

Narrator Ricardo adores Lily, but she won't ever agree to actually go steady, always holding hands and going out with him, but keeping him strictly at a distance.

Until the disastrous day when, at the birthday party of one of the jealous local girls, she's introduced to an actual Chilean, and is outed (gasp!) as a working-class girl, and banished from the parties and girly teas - though the boys still pursue her.

Cut to Paris in the 1960s, where Ricardo, still earnest, still solemn, is happily studying to be a translator, while giving a dig out to the would-be Communist revolutionaries.

Bringing in a batch of trainee Che Guevaras from the airport, he recognises one - it's Lily, rebranded as Arlette.

But he's too chicken to follow through, and in a breath she's in Cuba training for the liberation of Peru. Then Ricardo hears that she's the lover of the big man of the Cuban revolution.

Then he meets her again in Paris - now glammed up and the wife of a diplomat.

Famously, this is a homage to Madame Bovary, but The Bad Girl has its own South American way, and is funny and very winning.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

The Secrets of Married Women by Carol Mason

EE oop, girls in their married bliss in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Jill is married to Rob, but he's gone off her ever since they found out that his sperm count was too low for them to have kids.

A tasty lifeguard is giving her the glad eye, which could be some consolation, if she wanted anything but her husband's love.

Jill's best pal, Leigh, is in the opposite position: Botoxed to the hilt, she's gone off her adoring husband but the lads she wants don't fancy her.

She's looking for fun, and not too fussed where she gets it.

And Wendy? Wendy has it all. The most gorgeous hunk you ever saw, a top cop, clone of the young Paul Newman.

All nice comforting chicklit, to be read while drinking a warm glass of Zinfandel before a cosy fire while the kids sleep sound upstairs.

There's dark stuff here, though. Wendy's loyal, loving husband loves to be lovely, and loves to be loved, and one woman just isn't enough. And Jill's mother is fading into the darkness of Alzheimer's.

But it's the kind of story that promises you a happy ending. Fear not.

This is Carol Mason's fourth novel, but the first one to attain publication, and it's got the raw realism of someone writing about a world she knows.

A grand little book for the festive fireside.

Hidden by Cathy Glass

HOW to be happy: it's the most difficult question, especially around Christmas, when happiness is mandatory, and sometimes pretty difficult.

Misery lit, as they call books about the deeply unfortunate, isn't any help either. Reading about children "surviving" (yeah, right) abuse, violence, mental cruelty and hunger isn't a road to calm.

But sometimes there's a story that's genuinely heartwarming, like Hidden, by Cathy Glass.

Foster carer Cathy (not her real name) here tells the story of Tayo, a 10-year-old assigned to her, who seems to have no past.

Tayo's mother, a drunken, screaming wreck who seems to live by freelance prostitution, exists in the English social system under several names linked only by her fingerprinting during arrests.

Tayo is not a mirror of his mother. Instead, he is polished, with perfect manners and an upper-class accent.

Gradually Tayo's extraordinary story comes out. At first he insists that he's white and won't eat "foreign muck". Then, as Cathy slowly gains his trust, he starts to claim that he grew up with his father and his grandmother in Nigeria, before his Malaysian mother stole him.

Cathy and Tayo's social workers don't really believe his story - but it proves perfectly true, and his father comes to claim him and bring him home to Africa.

So yes, there is real happiness.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett

ZUGZWANG is a chess term used when a player must move, but any move makes his position worse.

In Ronan Bennett's thriller, Jewish psychoanalyst Dr Otto Spethmann is a man who stays away from politics.

But in the Russia of 1914, where Bolsheviks and Tsarist secret police are conducting an underground war, and the Black Hundreds - the anti-Semitic fascists - are hunting down supposed Jewish plotters.

Spethmann has two new patients. One is Avrom Chilowicz Rozental, a neurotic but brilliant chess player. "Rozental seemed destined to become the third World Chess Champion, feted everywhere from Berlin to New York, Tokyo to Buenos Aires."

But in the days before the St Petersburg chess tournament of 1914, Rozental is close to total breakdown, and the slithery Polish violinist and (possibly) political activist RM Kopelzon brings him to Spethmann for analysis.

The other new patient is the famous beauty Anna Petrovna Ziatdinov, wife of a "little lawyer with a violent temper", but more to the point, daughter of the terrifying man known as the Mountain, suspected of funding the Black Hundreds.

Spethmann and his beloved and wayward daughter Catherine soon become the target of the secret police. Both in his life and in the chess game that inhabits the book and reflects the action, he is in zugzwang.

A story impossible to put down, yet a little distant in its engagement with the era of revolution, Zugzwang works better as analogy for today's 'war against terror' than as a straight thriller.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

FIRST published four years ago, Brick Lane has taken off again as it's "now a major film".

Its filming in London caused furious controversy among touchy Bangladeshi immigrants who said it caricatured them.

You'd have some sympathy - here, familiar to every Irish person from our own touchiness, is the self-educated father boasting to his children "We saved their culture in the Dark Ages, copying out Plato and Sophocles".

Here is the highly respectable moneylender, no one admitting that moneylending is what she's doing and interest is what she's charging.

And here, at the centre of the story, is Nazneen, the young matron, married off to a much older husband.

In one telling scene the doctor who comes to treat her friend's addict son - drugs are another unacknowledged secret of the immigrants - wistfully tells her that there are two kinds of love.

He says there's the kind that starts out big and you keep carving bits off it till none is left, and the kind that starts small and grows like a pearl with the repeated irritations of married life.

Nazneen experiences both kinds. She has passion with handsome young radical Karim, who grows more and more Islamic despite their adulterous love.

But deeper in the end is her affection for her husband, the darling Chanu, a man full of theories and educational ambition, and in the end the better man.

Very funny and absolutely lovable, this deserves every copy it sells.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Essential Guide to Car Care for Girls by Danielle McCormick

RTB Media €9.99

USEFUL and funny - what more can a girl ask of a book? Dubliner Danielle McCormick's hands-on manual has everything.

It's very pink, shamelessly girlie-ist, and chock-a-block with tastefully photographed mechanics. These, for some reason, appear to prefer to work stripped to the waist.

They don't seem to pay that much attention to the very clean engines they're dallying with, instead gazing at the girls in tight T-shirts who are tuning up their lipstick, leaning on the car, casual like.

Apart from the mechanics, there are other great photos - of the four-stroke combustion cycle, the head gasket, the transmission, the timer belt.

There are even instructions on how to change a wheel (while wearing stiletto heels).

Your mileage may vary, but most women find that trying to change a wheel while wearing stiletto heels results in cars full of men screeching to a halt to help. But maybe that's useful too.

The book has everything from the basics of how an engine works to what the alarm symbols on the dashboard mean, and basic first aid - flat tyre, jump-start, lost keys. It's got a great troubleshooting Q&A at the end.

Some basics that are apparently coded into Y chromosomes are handily explained - how to add screen washer, oil and anti-freeze, check the tyre pressure, change the wipers and so on.

This is a great Christmas book - the perfect stocking-filler for any women who drives.

Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky

Chatto & Windus

COUNTRY people have their secrets. So do city folk, of course, but people who have lived in isolated but interconnected farmsteads brood more, and the secrets live on and poison generation after generation.

Irene Nemirovsky, a city girl born and bred - brought up in St Petersburg, then in Nice when her wealthy family fled the Russian Revolution, took shelter in her old nanny's village of Issy l'Évêque when the Nazis came to France.

Before she was shipped away to die in Auschwitz, the best-selling author wrote Suite Francaise, discovered and republished in 2004 to well-deserved acclaim.

Fire in the Blood is set in the same Burgundy countryside, and written at the same time, in 1942, but here we're in old France, before the time the Nazis came.

This is a slow starter, with Nemirovsky's fabulous descriptive prose ripening the story gradually. At first, it's as wholesome as a basket of russet autumn apples.

The story is told by the elderly Sylvestre, seemingly an outsider to all the dramas he watches with such an air of detached cynicism. It's all brilliantly translated by Sandra Smith.

Centre of good - also seemingly - is Helene, Sylvestre's cousin. Centre of bad, then, must be the luscious Brigitte, who has married a wealthy, ill-tempered old man, but is carrying on a quiet affair.

The story, so slow in the first pages, unreels rapidly at the end, and has one of the best, and nastiest, last lines in literature.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

World Without End by Ken Follett


ON THE cusp of the Middle Ages and the modern world, Ken Follett's characters don't know how radical a change is happening.

Four children see the biggest secret of the 14th century: a merchant's daughter, a knight's two sons and the daughter of a thief.

World Without End follows them through an era that makes the last century in Ireland seem dull.

The boys, of course, want to be knights like their father - little knowing that the age of knighthood is ending, and that of merchant power coming into flower.

The Black Death is about to sweep across Europe, cutting the population by one-third and shattering a social system that had endured since the time of the Romans.

Follett's characters are engaging: Merthin, the knight's son who becomes a genius of architecture; Caris, laughed out of it when she says she wants to be a doctor, as if she were a man; Gwenda the honourable thief; Ralph the bully.

When the town's bridge crashes down, church, guilds and nobles are set at odds over the costs and profit of rebuilding, and whether to hire the brilliant dismissed apprentice or his stupid master for the job.

Follett's story twists and turns delightfully with great plots and subplots. At over 1,100 pages, you're going to need wrist guards, because it's hard to put this down.

Follett has avoided the "I spake truth, my liege" kind of clichéd writing, and these are people you believe in - yet his gritty descriptions of the bestial norms of medieval life are absolutely telling.

It's a book to make a noble put his sabaton through a stained-glass window.

It's all about Him Colette Caddle

Pocket Books

WORRIED mother Dee has it all together. Her home cooking is selling like hotcakes, and her big house has been turned into a crèche, solving the problems of single parenthood.

She has a nice boyfriend - a farmer who's able to turn his hand to anything - and his parents, happily retured and running a bookshop, love her.

Her son Sam, always sickly with asthma and eczema, is turning into a happy, bouncy kid.

Boyfriend Conor seems committed, but isn't waving any ring boxes under her nose.

Life is going on, fairly ho-hum, with the odd money problem. The only excitement is when a reporter corners Dee in the supermarket and she becomes a local expert on food additives and their effect on vulnerable children who eat packaged foods.

Dee knows her stuff because young Sam reacts dangerously to common additives.

It's a rather sedate story so far.

Then one day in walks Sam's father Neil, an addictive gambler and liar who stole from her and abandoned her when she was pregnant. He promises that he's now reformed.

Dee must choose between the life she's made for herself and the chance of Sam having a real father.

It's all about Him is a slow-moving read, ideal for those who don't want any sudden wild surprises, but like novels of ordinary life.

It's all about Him by Colette Caddle

(Pocket Books €??)

WORRIED mother Dee has it all together. Her home cooking is selling like hotcakes, and her big house has been turned into a crèche, solving the problems of single parenthood.

She has a nice boyfriend - a farmer who's able to turn his hand to anything - and his parents, happily retured and running a bookshop, love her.

Her son Sam, always sickly with asthma and eczema, is turning into a happy, bouncy kid.

Boyfriend Conor seems committed, but isn't waving any ring boxes under her nose.

Life is going on, fairly ho-hum, with the odd money problem. The only excitement is when a reporter corners Dee in the supermarket and she becomes a local expert on food additives and their effect on vulnerable children who eat packaged foods.

Dee knows her stuff because young Sam reacts dangerously to common additives.

It's a rather sedate story so far.

Then one day in walks Sam's father Neil, an addictive gambler and liar who stole from her and abandoned her when she was pregnant. He promises that he's now reformed.

Dee must choose between the life she's made for herself and the chance of Sam having a real father.

It's all about Him is a slow-moving read, ideal for those who don't want any sudden wild surprises, but like novels of ordinary life.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Snakehead by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz
(Walker Books €??)

BACK in the days, I contracted rheumatic fever, and spent some weeks in the boarding school infirmary, far from human contact.

I was infectious, so all the books I read had to be burned after they touched my nasty hands. In a feverish, hallucinatory state, I discovered Victorian penny dreadfuls.

These usually had evil Oriental or Central European villains with moustaches and devilish cunning.

There tended to be a slightly iffy sexiness about them, with daring young heroes being stripped off and tortured, wrestling bad guys, and having awfully strong relationships with male mentors.

And the villains were great - ahh, Fu Manchu, with his drooping moustache, and his beautiful daughter who left a lingering scent of mimosa in her wake.

Alas, all this is gone - but wait, no! Young Alex Rider to the rescue.

Alex no sooner splashes down in a space capsule in Snakehead when the Australian secret service recruits the 14-year-old, and within a breath he's in a wrestling ring in Thailand, wearing only silk shorts and showing off his karate skills, greasy with sweat.

The villain, Major Winston Yu, with his unhealthy love of England and his mum who put him through Harrow by working as an assassin, has the dastardly plan of killing off a bunch of wealthy do-gooders including a pop star and a billionaire property developer who plan to 'Make Poverty History'.

All 14-year-olds, of whatever age, will enjoy this.

The Desperate Diary of a Country Housewife by Anon

The Desperate Diary of a Country Housewife
Collins €??

COUNTRY livin' is the life for me, reckons the freelance journalist Martha Mole, and off she and her husband go to live in Paradise.

Anon, apparently, is Daisy Waugh, who has written the Country Mole column in the Sunday Times for a couple of years.

In this very, very funny book, Martha Mole finds herself all aloney-o for most of the time, with her husband living in London and visiting on occasional weekends.

He starts out living on a fold-out bed in his office, but soon - as Martha's friend Hatty splits up with her lazy lump Damian, he's living in Hatty's place, while he helps Hatty to send Damian's script to the Oscars.

Martha, meanwhile, is stuck in Stepford. She's pretty whiney to start with, but by the time she's had an affair with the builder, got pregnant, got a Bonnie Tyler haircut from the local hairdresser (horrors!) and gone to live in the bath because the smell of paint intensifies her morning sickness, you'll be sick from laughing.

Martha is obviously a born and bred city girl, who regards country people as moronic mumsies.

She compounds her miseries by writing a column, a la Country Mole, and her neighbours soon begin to ask her if she's the one who's writing it.

Since she gives them all mocking nicknames and reveals all their secrets, she's definitely heading for trouble.

It's a very, very funny book, and the perfect Christmas read. Apparently, the author's back in the city now.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Overheard in Dublin Again by Gerard and Sinead Kelly

Overheard in Dublin Again
Gerard Kelly & Sinead Kelly
Gill & Macmillan

THE ONE I remember is the clerk in a newsagent in Dublin Airport. Lorcan, the customer who reported the conversation was buying Moleskin brand notebooks, and when he went to pay the €17, the saleswoman was shocked at the price.

"That's because they're Moleskin," he explained. And she murmured to herself, "Ah, the poo-ur moles."

There's something so sweet about it.

These web anecdotes are probably as typical of Abu Dhabi or Dakar as they are of Dublin, but every city thinks its own eccentricities are unique.

Here you have the southside boy in a shop who, asked if there's anything he wants, says "Thanks to a good education and wealthy parents I want for nothing; however, I do require a copy of the Irish Times."

There's the beggar looking for "any spare change" and the passer-by who says "Sorry, I've only a fifty" - so the beggar replies "That's all right, I'll give you change."

The bus driver who slams on his brakes, then apologises over the intercom that "some GOBSHITE" just ran the red lights in front of him.

At the All-Ireland hurling final the crowd are warned to stay off the pitch. The game ends, the crowd surges onto the pitch, and over the tannoy comes "Plan B, Plan B, Plan B" - as "PLAN B" is displayed in huge letters on the big screen.

Still selling like hotcakes, this is undoubtedly going to be the year's favourite stocking-filler.

Overheard in Dublin Again by Gerard and Sinead Kelly

Overheard in Dublin Again
Gerard Kelly & Sinead Kelly
(Gill & Macmillan €??)

THE ONE I remember is the clerk in a newsagent in Dublin Airport. Lorcan, the customer who reported the conversation was buying Moleskin brand notebooks, and when he went to pay the €17, the saleswoman was shocked at the price.

"That's because they're Moleskin," he explained. And she murmured to herself, "Ah, the poo-ur moles."

There's something so sweet about it.

These web anecdotes are probably as typical of Abu Dhabi or Dakar as they are of Dublin, but every city thinks its own eccentricities are unique.

Here you have the southside boy in a shop who, asked if there's anything he wants, says "Thanks to a good education and wealthy parents I want for nothing; however, I do require a copy of the Irish Times."

There's the beggar looking for "any spare change" and the passer-by who says "Sorry, I've only a fifty" - so the beggar replies "That's all right, I'll give you change."

The bus driver who slams on his brakes, then apologises over the intercom that "some GOBSHITE" just ran the red lights in front of him.

At the All-Ireland hurling final the crowd are warned to stay off the pitch. The game ends, the crowd surges onto the pitch, and over the tannoy comes "Plan B, Plan B, Plan B" - as "PLAN B" is displayed in huge letters on the big screen.

Still selling like hotcakes, this is undoubtedly going to be the year's favourite stocking-filler.

The Principessa by Christie Dickason

The Principessa
Christie Dickason
Harper €??

SOFIA is a gritty, cautious princess guarding her life as she stays by her dying father, a man as lethal as a spider.

He's killed her mother for objecting when another woman's son, the creepy Ettore was raised to be heir.

Ettore has killed Sofia's pliable young husband, who might have provided another heir to cut him out of the succession.

Now her father has sent to England for a 'firemaster' - a dynamite expert who's turned from war to fireworks - supposedly to organise a grand funeral fireworks to celebrate his transfer to the throne of Heaven.

Back in England the firemaster, Francis Quoint (hero of Dickason's The Firemaster's Mistress) is sent by kingmaker Robert Cecil on this top secret mission.

Turns out that the mad old prince wants more than fireworks. He wants Quoint to propel him safely to Heaven, so he can persuade God in person that he had reason for all those rapes and murders.

A good plan, but technically difficult.

There are some great characters - the Arab slave secretly restoring Moslem documents in the hidden library, Ettore's moustachioed giant bodyguards.

Dickason's writing benefits from her strange background. Born in the US, she grew up in Thailand, Switzerland and Mexico, among other places. It gives her the ability to imagine the extraordinary.

She isn't writing as fluently here as in the predecessor, but it's an entertaining story of mythical 17th-century city-states and murderous plots, interlaced with a heaving bosom or two.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Daddy's Girl by Lisa Scottoline

Daddy's Girl
Lisa Scottoline

NAT GRECO is her daddy's little girl, her brothers' little sister and her boyfriend's little woman.

Amid all this diminution it's nice when a sexy colleague in law school brings Professor Nat out to a prison where he's representing prisoners pro bono.

Scottoline fans will be unsurprised when a murderous riot transpires, and soon young Nat is running for her life, with hair hacked and dyed and sporting pink-rimmed glasses - 'like Fugitive Barbie'.

Scottoline doesn't hit her stride until well into the middle of this thriller, but when she does, her ditsy heroine becomes lovable and funny.

There are enough twists to satisfy the most avid gasp-seeker, and even a little instruction as the Underground Railway - the secret slave-smuggling route to Canada - is dragged into the plot by the hair of its head.

One scene where Nat flees screaming - 'they were in a mall. In other words, girl country' - and the mallsters turn on her pursuer in righteous rage will make every chivalrous heart smile.

Perfect train reading, not grabby enough to make you miss your stop, but an entertaining story to pass the journey.

Do You Want What I Want? by Denise Deeegan

Do You Want What I Want?
Denise Deegan
(Penguin Ireland €??)

ANOTHER illness-mediated story from Denise Deegan, whose unfortunate characters have been strafed with everything from leukaemia to bipolar depression.

This time it's Aids, or the suspicion of it, as young doctor Rory is attacked by a needle-jabbing addict as he makes a visit in a rough Dun Laoghaire flat block.

As Rory faces the prospect of Aids or hepatitis he takes a deep look at his life with girlfriend Louise, and realises that maybe he wants more.

In fact, maybe he wants kids. But Louise doesn't. And so he grows closer to his motherly sister-in-law Orla, abandoned and divorced by Rory's callous brother, who's gone off with a young wan and gelled his hair in search of his inner teenager.

And he wants kids more and more as he becomes involved with Orla's foster-child, whose mother has overdosed and is trying to pull herself back together.

Orla's teenage daughter is hitting the sauce, and alcoholism looms.

ER fans will love this, though all these illnesses are starting to look like literary Munchausen by proxy syndrome

It's a story that pulls the reader in, with appealing characters and surprise twists, and a final devastating childbirth - no, not saying who's giving birth here - with plenty of beeping monitors and emergencies.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Gomorrah by Susan Knight and Marta Wakula

Susan Knight and Marta Wakula
Fairground Press

IT'S NOT often that writers in Ireland take a risk. Most stay safe within genre, writing chicklit as fluffy and pink as a favourite teddy or haunted thrillers with sex woven through.

But Susan Knight has embraced the dark side with this disturbing collaboration with Polish artist Marta Wakula.

Booting out the concept of any narrative-driven high-concept plotting, she brings us into the desolate world of a city overtaken by a night-black eclipse in which horror roams.

A helmeted policeman sneaks along the streets following a full-breasted woman carrying a child, and we know he's up to no good.

A bearded geisha girl strips before a fairground crowd while a limbless man writhes in her discarded kimonos.

In the interrogation cells, a woman learns to lick the officers' boots and never to call for her lost child.

The illustrations, brutal, almost jabbed on to the page with a savage black line, match the vicious action of the text.

Not a book for café reading, but if you want your dull world turned upside down, this is the one for you. An underground classic contender.

Buy this book

I Saw You by Julie Parsons

I Saw You
Julie Parsons
(Macmillan €??)

SPECIALITE de la maison for Julie Parsons is terrified parents, with a side dish of creepy stalkers.

Her fans are used to settling cosily into a story of brutally murdered beauties and their heart-riven, guilt-stricken, and finally vengeful mothers.

This time the ex-students of a nice wee Protestant boarding school in the Wicklow Hills are turning up dead, apparently by suicide. But surely not.

They come from tough stock, the headmaster says. "They are the descendants of empire builders...came to Ireland with Cromwell."

Except for Marina Spencer, who has, he sniffs, "no hinterland" - which is why she was the only kid expelled after a bullying scandal years before.

The author showed bad judgment in starting this thriller with a man chained in a shed in Ballyknockan.

Many of Julie Parsons' fans will probably say what I said: "Oh, wait, I've read this one", and put it back on the shelf without buying it.

She reintroduces some of the characters from 1998's Mary, Mary - inspector Michael McLoughlin, now retired, sets out on a private investigation of Marina's suicide, and Mary's mother from that first book also reappears.

The story is slow to start - much of the first half is taken up with flashbacks to the earlier story and the past of the current one.

But once it finally takes off, it gallops like a hunt through the hills, and readers will whip through the final pages, unable to sleep for dread.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath

Robert Flaherty and the Frozen North

Lucille Redmond

FATHERS are getting feisty, looking for rights of custody and control over children whose mothers they've never married; even children not yet born.

Maybe it's not a bad thing. With rights - perhaps - come responsibilities. And kids need fathers.

The filmmaker Robert Flaherty was a case in point, as Melanie McGrath reveals in The Long Exile, the riveting story of his secret Inuit son, Josephie.

Flaherty was long dead when a scandal rocked Canada in 1993. Hearings revealed child abuse, prostitution, a horrifying suicide rate, a 23pc death rate of children, and resolute government inattention as the Inuit relocated to Ellesmere Island starved in the 1950s - among them, the son Robert Flaherty abandoned, Josephie.

Over a lifetime, Flaherty filmed all over the world. In the 1930s he was on Aran, sending currachs into dangerous storms. A crew were almost lost; a woman was snatched from the clifftops by a wave and saved only by the giant strength of her co-star. Children were filmed teetering in gale-force winds on the deadly crumbling cliffs at Dun Aengus, the hungry waves clawing at them.

"I should have been shot for what I asked people to do, all for the sake of a keg of porter and £5 apiece," he said later.

He could resist neither a dramatic shot nor a lovely woman.

In 1921 Flaherty made Nanook of the North. To play the hunter Nanook he chose the greatest hunter of his time, Alakariallak. Nyla, one of Nanook's two wives, was played by sweet-faced Maggie Jujarluktuk - Flaherty's lover.

That Christmas Day, Flaherty long gone, Maggie gave birth to Josephie, who would never see his father.

In the Arctic, the whites found it fun to shoot caribou, the main Inuit food and clothing supply. Herds of hundreds of thousands dwindled to nothing as they were shot and left to rot.

A people who had commanded the Arctic were reduced to dependency on a tiny dole from the Canadian government, and the sale of fox fur and carvings. Alcoholism, TB and suicide were endemic.

Nanook of the North became an international craze. 'Nanook' ice creams were made showing the face of Alakariallak - as the great hunter starved to death in the brutal winter of 1923, on a fruitless search for caribou.

Flaherty, now involved in a South Sea Islands film, told interviewers he "felt bad about" the death.

He was starting to make the great films of his life; films that had a theme in common - often there was a beautiful boy, learning of life side-by-side with his father.

When Josephie was seven, Maggie's husband went out to hunt. His tent was found, empty, beside a hole in the ice. So Maggie moved in with her dead husband's brother, Paddy Aquiatsuk.

Josephie was lucky in this third father: Paddy was a renowned sculptor, and an influential, canny, brilliant man who loved his stepson and taught him to hunt.

In Tahiti, Flaherty was finding it difficult to make a harrowing enough film about the warm life of the South Sea Islanders, but eventually he centred the film on a lovely girl called Reri.

She was brought to New York, and put in the Ziegfeld Follies, married, toured Europe, split; her work dried up and she returned to Tahiti a broken woman.

"I feel bad about it," Flaherty said. "I guess in a way I'm partly responsible."

In the Arctic, Maggie died, and Paddy married a widow called Mary, who brought four more kids with her.

Life was tough. Paddy and Josephie's extended family was half-starved, living at times on flour and water.

Josephie, now 16, was hired as 'chore boy' in the weather station. Having the job meant he could marry the girl he'd been courting, Rynee.

The Second World War arrived, and the United States began to move in on the northern Arctic.

A Canadian Privy Council memo noted that America's temporary airstrips "would probably assume the character of small US bases and Canadian control might well be lost".

You'd have to wonder how much Robert Flaherty's influential romance of the Inuit hunters had to do with the solution chosen.

The Canadian government looked at the Inuit - alcoholic, suicidal, sick, dependent on the dole and subject to white corruption - and had a wonderful idea. Why not return a select group to their natural habitat (under the control of the police), and let them live as nature intended?

Paddy Aquiatsuk (the whites called him 'Fatty') was approached by the local policeman, Ross Gibson (the Inuit called him 'Big Red'), who told of a place teeming with game, where his family could live in the old way, and lied that they could return any time they wanted.

Paddy asked Josephie to go, but Josephie had a job and a wife and two kids by now, and another on the way.

So Paddy and most of the extended family set off, to arrive in hell. They had thin wool clothes, and hadn't been allowed to bring any boat bigger than a kayak - useless in the mushy sea ice of this terrible northland.

Their body clocks stopped working. In the endless winter dark, they did not know day from night, and woke and slept randomly in their tents and huts. They were told that they could kill only one caribou per family per year, so they couldn't make warmer clothes. And when they asked to go back, they were refused.

Paddy wrote to Josephie, pleading that he come. By the time Josephie got the letter, Paddy had died. But Josephie had himself been sacked for giving cheek to his employer. He and his family were starving.

On the ship, Josephie's two-year-old daughter was taken shrieking away and shipped off to be treated for the TB she'd contracted in her half-starved state. He wouldn't see her for three years.

At Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island, horror followed horror. Two little boys went out to try to find fish. One was found dead, the other never found.

The whites would regularly send out fleets of jeeps to pick up the Inuit en masse and bring them back to the air base to do clean-ups. They were encouraged to spend the pittance they were paid in the bar.

Prostitution and alcoholism became endemic. There was a huge rate of foetal alcohol syndrome - babies born damaged by their mothers' bodies being full of drink.

Josephie and his six-year-old daughter went out every day, feeling their way in the dark, to trek for miles, hunting for what meat or fish they could kill. And slowly he went crazy.

In the dark, the Inuit were at the mercy of the merciless whites who controlled their meagre dole and their very right to hunt and live. The 1993 hearings revealed that teachers had raped children, and women - including Josephie's beloved Rynee - had been forced into sex with whites by promises of extra food. Horror piled upon horror.

Over the years, Josephie developed a fearsome temper, and sullen depression. Some blamed possession by spirits, others the biorhythm disturbances. Others said that a man abandoned by his father to such a fate as Josephie's would go crazy.

In 1968 he had a mental breakdown, from which he never recovered. In 1984 Josephie died of lung cancer.

Long before, in 1951, film commentator John Grierson wrote an obituary for Robert Flaherty. In each of his films, he wrote, there was a boy who hoped to grow into a hero.

Maybe, he speculated, the boy who appeared in all of Robert Flaherty's films was "the son he never had".

The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath is published by Harper Perennial


The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

The Gum Thief
Douglas Coupland

YOU CAN always rely on Douglas Coupland. The Canadian who wrote Generation X, Microserfs and a host of hits can be trusted to produce a warming story of paisanos battling the odds to become a success.

Not this time.

His paisanos this time are the serfs of Staples, the office supply giant. But this is a deeply depressed book.

Roger, our hero, is an unrecovering alcoholic, with a tragedy in his past and a novel in his notebook.

He's writing a Thin-Man-esque - at least in theory - dialogue of wit and wisdom, and he's been working on it for years.

Bethany, his colleague in Staples, is a young Goth. One day she discovers that Roger is also writing her into his notebooks - he's keeping a diary that pretends to be hers, and it's eerily accurate. Roger's a literary stalker.

A series of first-person narratives take off from these roots - but as a reader, I found myself muttering "If you're so clever, why amn't I interested?"

Coupland is playing with words and images and misery in his novel; there's not much story in evidence, though.

I was dying to love this book, but I couldn't. It's full of wry, ironic, incisive postmodern insights. Just not a lot happening.

But don't take my word for it - after all, my judgment isn't infallible; I hated Scorsese's Taxi Driver, still do. Maybe it's a masterpiece.

xxx stars

I Never Fancied Him Anyway by Claudia Carroll

I Never Fancied Him Anyway
Claudia Carroll
(Bantam Press €??)

PSYCHICS are an unlikely source of chicklit gold, but Claudia Carroll's Cassandra is a rich seam for the author.

Cassandra has always had 'flashes'; even at the age of seven she sees bronzed beach hunks with longing eyes proposing to her aunties.

When we meet her next she's earning her living writing a psychic agony column for Tattle, a Dublin gossip magazine.

Cassie's friends seek advice too.

The obligatory gay friend, Marc with a C, is looking for Mr Right, or rather Messrs Right, as he serial-dates every nice-looking guy in his gym.

Activist friend Jo has little time for such frivolities - she's busy saving the world - but Cassie knows there's someone out there for everyone.

And spoilt-rotten Charlene meets another DSM (decent single man) and now Cassie's in trouble: could this guy be destined for Cassie herself?

Further complications ensue when Charlene decides that she's going to be Cassie's agent, and wants her to star on a TV show - where the DSM is a producer.

It's all witty fun, but with occasional icky touches, like Carroll's tendency to refer to 'the Queen' and generally carry on as if Ireland is a suburb of Essex.

Carroll is Nicola on Fair City, by the way, as well as being a big success as a writer - she's about to take off in world markets, with Harper bringing out her hilarious Remind Me Again Why I Need a Man next year in the US.

xxxx and a half stars

Monday, 22 October 2007

Why There Are Only Four Nucleotides

First published in Science Spin magazine (weblink at foot), this is a piece about the Irish scientist Dónall Mac Dónall, who brilliantly used a method used in computer science to solve one of the puzzles of DNA

By Lucille Redmond

TCD chemist Dónall Mac Dónaill has discovered something so blindingly obvious that it lay there under the eyes of scientists ever since DNA was known. He has proved that nature puts its own checking and correcting software in place in our DNA, to stop it producing faulty copies.

Humans - like other living things - are made of billions of cells. Each cell contains the pattern for the whole human - the set of 46 chromosomes. In theory, if you have the pattern, you can knit up the whole person from it - those chromosomes contain all the physical information about the person: blue eyes, good teeth, likely to get sickle cell anaemia.

Inside these chromosomes are genes, made of long, tightly-coiled molecules of DNA. If you uncoiled one of these tiny molecules and stretched it out, it would be more than six feet long.

So a living thing is made of cells, which contain (among other stuff) chromosomes, and those chromosomes contain genes, which are made of DNA. The chromosomes are the instruction manual, which is written in DNA.

All life, from bacteria to an elephant, has its blueprint encoded in DNA.

Our cells reproduce by making replacements of themselves. Each one cell splits into two, and that into four, and so on. And each daughter cell has its own copy of the blueprint to make the whole organism - eyelashes, teeth, leaves or whatever.

The important thing for our purposes in this article is how the DNA makes a copy of itself.

The DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) that makes up the cells is shaped like two strings twisted into a spiral, connected by 'nucleotides' - molecules mostly made from carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. This is the 'double helix' discovered 50 years ago by Watson and Crick.

Nucleotides are the letters of the words that make up our instruction manual for the leaf or elephant or microbe.

Nature uses four nucleotides to make DNA. They go by the noms de guerre A, T, C and G: adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine.

The nucleotides are strung along the two long strings, gluing themselves on at the back, and reaching out at the front towards their opposite numbers on the opposing string.

One important thing about these nucleotides: there's a right one for everyone. A T and C G.

Not only that, but (how different from the rest of us) they actually match perfectly with their love objects.

The way nucleotides mate (as it were) is by clamping together at three points. Each nucleotide has three points - their dangly bits, as you might say - which are either hydrogen atoms or 'lone pairs'.

(The analogy of 'mating' and sexual reproduction is, of course, only an analogy. There isn't any real mating going on here.)

If you're a C nucleotide, you'll have these points arranged in this order: hydrogen, lone pair, lone pair. And your beloved G will have them arranged in this order: lone pair, hydrogen, hydrogen. A perfect fit for each other. (Well, in fact, only two of A's and T's points work, which muddies the water a bit, but it works as if all three match in all the opposites.)

So on the two opposite strings of DNA, C is always opposite G, and T is always opposite A.

T has lone pair, hydrogen and lone pair in places one, two and three; and A has hydrogen, lone pair and hydrogen. Perfect for each other.

On each nucleotide, the hydrogen atom is attracted to the lone pair on its opposite number, and vice versa. So C and G will clamp together perfectly, and so will A and T. It's as if you had a three-pin plug and socket. But instead of the plug having three pins and the socket three holes, the plug had two pins and a hole, and the socket two holes and a pin.

Mechanically this works because a 'lone pair' is an electron-rich area, and the hydrogen atom is attracted to the electrons.

The nucleotides have another difference: they come in two sizes, large and small. A and G are large, for instance - they have two rings - and T and C are small, with one ring.

So - and if you're under 16 maybe you should stop reading now - when the DNA strands pull apart, they make babies.

Only one of these strings is used by the DNA - the purpose of the other one, its negative version, is to reproduce the useful one.

There is a long strand of DNA - two strings made of sugar and phosphate, with nucleotides strung along them - A, C, G, T, in any order, on one side, and their opposite and partner on the other side. So where you have A, C, G, T on one side, the other side will have T, G, C, A. The first A links up with the T opposite, the second C with G, the third C with G and the fourth T with A.

And so on along the double strand: always A mated with T and C with G. Life is good.

DNA carries its information in the order that the nucleotides are strung along the sugar-and-phosphate strand. ACT means something different from TAC.

When the two strands pull apart, every A has produced a T, and every T an A. Every C will have produced a G, and every G a C. So two new strands now exist - each one a mirror image of the string that produced it.

That's how DNA is reproduced in all living things.

What has baffled scientists for some time is this: other nucleotides are possible - indeed others exist. So why doesn't nature use them in the DNA strands? Surely they'd increase the possibilities in coding?

Why not use, say, X - a nucleotide with its hydrogen atom and lone pairs arranged as lone pair, hydrogen, lone pair - and K - arranged as hydrogen, lone pair, hydrogen? Having an extra pair of nucleotides would enormously increase the amount of information you could string along that chain.

After all, it's actually possible to reproduce these other nucleotides in the same way DNA reproduces A, C, T and G. Indeed, around 15 years ago a scientist called JA Piccirilli successfully made X and K, and reproduced them.

There seemed to be no obvious reason why nature did not use all 16 possible patterns of hydrogens, lone pairs and sizes of nucleotides in the DNA spiral. Indeed, there was even a suspicion that nature was a big fat lazybones, and had just gone for the easiest option.

But Mac Dónaill suspected there might be a better explanation. Maybe nature was being careful.

Luckily, he had a background in computer science, as well as chemistry. So he was familiar with a system invented by a Bell Labs scientist 50 years ago.

Back in 1950, Richard Hamming of Bell Labs was one of the pioneers of computer science. Hamming invented a way of making data transmission more accurate, by adding an extra 'bit' to every chunk of information sent.

Let's say you're sending a piece of information along a wire to your pal Gene. You agree with each other that it will be sent in three-digit chunks. But somewhere along the wire there's an interruption, and one of the chunks gets scrambled. How's Gene to know?

Hamming's idea was to send, say, three-digit bursts of 1s and 0s, and to add a 'parity bit' to the end of each set of digits - an extra 0 or 1 that would make the set always have an even number of 1s. So if a set with an odd number of 1s came through, it was obviously wrong. And with a bit of fiddling, the system even allowed the errors to be corrected once they were recognised.

(Or you can set it up to always send an odd number of 1s - it doesn't matter once it's agreed between sender and receiver.)

This system is used in every form of electronic information now - credit card transactions, booking airline tickets, making phone calls, and so on. Any data transmission uses it.

Mac Dónaill had the revolutionary thought: is it possible that nature used the same method in DNA? Could that be why only the four nucleotides A, C, T and G were chosen, instead of the rich array of possible nucleotides out there?

"Piccirilli proved in the 1990s that at least in principle some of these extra nucleotides did actually work with our existing molecular machinery. He made some of the other nucleotides which are not commonly employed in nature - some of the other patterns - presented them to polymerase - the copier which copies the strands of nucleotides - and they worked. That actually gave a little bit more impetus to the question of why nature didn't use these extra nucleotides.

"My starting point was that when we look at nucleotides, we tend to see the chemical representation. We don't see the information content so clearly," says Mac Dónaill.

"So I decided to show these patterns of hydrogens and lone pairs as ones and zeroes. There are three positions where you could have a hydrogen or a lone pair - that gives you up to eight possible patterns.

"There are additionally two sizes, and each pattern could be written on a large or on a small nucleotide, giving a total of 16 distinct nucleotides," says Mac Dónaill. "I decided to show the large rings as a 0 and the small as a 1, to complete the numerical view.

"I was just looking at the patterns, and the patterns were expressed by numbers - and so all that was now left in what I was now looking at was the information. I observed almost immediately, as soon as I had made this step, that if I divided them into the two parities of odd and even, all of the natural nucleotides which nature uses in DNA have the same parity.

"A nucleotide makes a copy by making a negative, and there are four other nucleotides which go in there. You want the correct one to match perfectly, but you also want to make sure that the wrong ones will match as seldom as possible.

"Two nucleotides - one odd, the other even - will occasionally actually fit, in a large minority of the time. Whereas if you use only all even parity nucleotides or all odd parity nucleotides, you'll find that the opportunity for a mismatch to occur and actually get through is considerably reduced."

For example, Piccirilli's nucleotides, X and K, were a perfect match for each other - the pattern on X was lone pair, hydrogen, lone pair (the same as T); and K had hydrogen, lone pair, hydrogen.

But now the green-eyed monster appears: X can also mate with C. Even though their hydrogens and lone pairs don't match up perfectly, it's chemically possible because the size of their rings fools them. Large rings always mate with small, and small with large - that's how it happens.

Poor G! Is there no decency in this world, even at the molecular level?

Worse still, when X (which is odd parity) does mate with C (which is even parity), we have trouble. X may have a copy of C when the strands separate, but in subsequent copies, C is more likely to come out with a copy of G after all.

The trouble is that this means that the new string that's been created is now wrong - in effect, the blueprint is wrong. The living cell that's formed using the new DNA strand - an incorrect blueprint - might work right, but it might not work, or it could work wrong. Or it could just work differently.

"Once it's on paper in front of you as a problem, it's a simple exercise with pen and paper," says Mac Dónaill. "Quite seriously, once you've made the jump from molecular structure into binary numbers, it really is a problem that you could give at the end of secondary school or first year computer science. So I just did it with pen and paper."

The way he did the test was this: he assigned the value 1 to hydrogen, and the value 0 to a lone pair. And then he assigned the value 1 to a double ring, and 0 to a single one. That meant that C's value was 100,1 (hydrogen, lone pair, lone pair; single ring). G was 011,0 (lone pair, hydrogen, hydrogen; double ring).

He drew a hypercube - a cube within a cube - to give himself an image of four dimensions, and he mapped directions to those binary numbers. This is a way used in computer science to show the relationships between "code words" - sets of binary numbers - used in data transmission, and to test how easily errors can be recognised.

The small rings were shown on the inner cube, and the large rings on the outer cube. And the binary numbers of the hydrogens and lone pairs were the up, down, left and right, back and forward positions.

The first bit determined left or right (0 left, 1 right), the second bit determined front (0) or back (1); the third bit determined down (0) or up (1), and the fourth - the bit for the size of the rings - the inner (1) or outer (0) cube.

Then he worked out what positions in the hypercube the various nucleotides would reach. And he found that it worked: A would always fit T, and C would always fit G well - whereas the likelihood of a mismatch was much greater with the other possible patterns.

He had used the hypercube model to prove that the patterns worked. But what of the chemistry?

When he looked at the nucleotides in this way, the odd parity set of eight didn't look as good a model as the even parity set. "In the odd parity set of eight, it seems that six of them are not chemically viable, or their patterns are unstable - the hydrogens would move. It's as if you have a lock where the teeth in the lock actually move about - that wouldn't be very satisfactory - sometimes the key would work, the next day it wouldn't."

In the eight nucleotides whose binary numbers work out as even parity, four were unstable. "Of the eight patterns in the even set, four of them are not chemically very stable - but this time only four. When I eliminated the unstable ones, I was left with A, C, T and G."

What he had discovered was simple - astoundingly simple, but an earth-shattering discovery in genetic terms.

What Mac Dónaill discovered was that nature uses the size of the nucleotides as a parity bit - as the extra, error-resisting, piece of information that makes sure the information transmitted is correct.

He couldn't believe what he was seeing at first. It was too simple to be true. He moved on to other problems in error coding. And he had a large burden of administrative work - at the time he was director of the computational chemistry programme in TCD. So he didn't have a lot of time available for pure science in any case.

"I didn't publish it for two reasons: I didn't have the time to verify it, and I needed to check also that nobody else had done this. But partly the solution was actually so simple - I just didn't believe that nobody had published it. I was quite frankly a little bit worried that I was going to make an eejit of myself.

"It took time - I searched the literature very carefully, and I checked this again and again, and I tried to make sure as objectively as possible that there wasn't something that I'd missed."

In June 2002 Mac Dónaill submitted his paper to the leading publication Chemical Communications, and got raves from the review board. It was picked up by Science and Nature - the world's two leading science journals.

Then the Mathematical Association of America wrote a piece on his discovery, then Science News. Then national organisations all over the world flocked in - academies of sciences, then science magazines, both popular and official, wrote shorter or longer articles. The Chinese Academy of Science and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences covered it. It even made its way into fundamentalist Christian publications in the US.

Mac Dónaill has now had a number of invited papers, in publications like the journal Origin of Life, and the Journal of Molecular Physics. The IEEE, one of the leading engineering societies in the world, has invited him to speak at a conference, on information theory in molecular biology.

"Some years ago Richard Dawkins made a rather controversial statement," says Mac Dónaill. "He said: 'If you want to understand life, don't think about throbbing gels, think about information technology.' So the idea has been around in broader terms for some time that life is at heart an informational, computational process.

"In a sense, nobody would confuse, to give an analogy, the program that they've got written on their CD or minidisc with the hardware of the disc itself: those are quite distinct conceptually.

"There is a suggestion that perhaps to some extent we have made that mistake in molecular biology - we are confusing the hardware of life with the life process, which may be more like - many of the aspects or features of life, the magic of life, is in the information, and the chemicals provide the medium.

"So we think of matter as living, but in a very real way we have a program encoded in matter - it's really the program which is living. But it's written in DNA. You might call it 'slimeware'.

"But at heart, whether it's written in DNA or written in a magnetic or optical material on discs or CDs does not change the fundamental nature of the information."

Mac Dónaill has made a stunning discovery - a triumph for science, and a huge step forward. And it is a discovery that has come out of an Irish university, from the thought and research of an Irish scientist. This basic, fundamental observation of the behaviour of nucleotides has revolutionised the way that we look at the coding of DNA.


First published in Science Spin magazine,
© Lucille Redmond

Sunday, 21 October 2007

The Last to Know by Melissa Hill

The Last to Know
Melissa Hill
Poolbeg €15.99

MELISSA HILL is the genius of whiplash: never read one of her books unless well braced, because you're just getting used to a character and bang, you're facing the other way with your ears ringing.

Here, she sets us off at a nice rocking-horse pace in a story about a couple of couples that don't seem to be getting on so well. Oh, don't believe a word of it.

London Irish writer Sam has made a success of expressing the feminine zeitgeist; we first meet her answering her fan mail as her irritated partner, Derek, pleads for her to leave off and marry him, forget this writing nonsense.

Anna and Ronan have been engaged for aeons, but somehow never set a date.

And Sam's sister, Eve, is coping with a wine importer husband who's always travelling, never home, and doesn't do his share of the childrearing and housework.

So far, so ho-hum. Then you discover that you're reading a novel within a novel - all these stories are in a manuscript being copytasted in Australia by Brooke Reynolds, acquisitions editor of an Aussie publisher. Hmm.

Read on and you'll realise that Brooke's connection with the fiction she's reading is uncomfortably close, as revelation follows shock revelation.

The writing is a little sprawling - tightening up would do no harm - but for chick lit fans, this is a gulp-in-one-go pageturner. Another hit for Hill.

(xxx and a half stars)

Foolish Mortals by Jennifer Johnston

Foolish Mortals
Jennifer Johnston
(Headline Review €??)

AT 77, Jennifer Johnston has published her 15th novel, plunging fearlessly into the subject of age and decay.

Her hero Henry half-wakes from a coma in hospital, with no recollection of his recent life - even of his recent wife.

His first wife is around all right, acting in lieu of next-of-kin, but apparently he'd made everyone very cross by breaking up with her and marrying someone else.

It seems he has children, though he remembers none of this. And it's only as he gradually recollects, shred by shred, that he realises how truly complicated his life is.

Foolish Mortals is written in Johnston's characteristic light and flighty style, rich in dialogue and soft on plotting. So when, somewhere in the middle of the book, you're calmly turning another page to have the whole thing turn around and bite you, it's a shock.

In a way, it's an awful pity this shock doesn't come earlier in the story, because it's the catalyst for the action - and the great characters - taking off.

There are great characters here, especially Henry's mother Tash - always more interested in her art than her family, and now drinking to fill up the void as her talent and her memory drain away.

Under all the drama and revelations, this is really Tash's story, and it ends with one of the great death scenes. What a way to go.

(xxxx stars)

Saturday, 13 October 2007

The Summer of Secrets by Martina Reilly

The Summer of Secrets
Martina Reilly

HOPE is a no-hoper - she's just lost another job (her sixteenth, she thinks), and she decides to take off.

Literally. But the plane has other ideas, and when she's one of the few survivors dragged out, her two best friends, Julie and Adam, take three months each off work and bring her home to the little Kerry town where she grew up.

They're the sane ones. At least, that’s what she thinks. But it turns out that Julie and Adam have 'issues' of their own, even as Hope makes her way through counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sounds like a packet of misery, doesn't it? But it's not - this is one of the funniest books of the year, and a cuddly bundle of fun and entertainment.

As Hope and the grouchy but gorgeous artist in the cottage up the mountain eye each other and throw sarcastic remarks back and forth, Julie tries to face down her ambitious parents, and Adam, the rich successful one, proves a mess.

But it all ends happily, in a finale that'll have the most hard-hearted reader wiping tears - and not just of laughter - from the eyes.

xxxxx stars

The Creative Lower Being by Karl McDermott

The Creative Lower Being
Karl MacDermott
Killyon House Books

MANUS Mannion is a Creative Lower Being, "screenwriter, committed melancholic and non-viveur", his lonely life taken up with efforts to sell scripts that exude a damp self-loathing.

Each time he makes a pitch, his victims make bright suggestions that may help him to catch the tune of the 'zeitgeist', and rush to answer their mobile phones and get away.

Lyric FM has been broadcasting fabulously funny scenes from this, Galway comedian Karl MacDermott's first book. But it works better as spoken word than a book for reading.

There are some belly-laughs that burst with an unexpected joie-de-vivre.

In one scene, the student Manus mistakenly takes the part of Lucky in the H-Block Godot. Mullet-wearing poseur Ivor O'Doherty tells his cast: "Not many of the established members of Dramsoc have been prepared to risk their so-called careers by working with me."

In this Godot, "tramp costumes are out. Shit covered sheets are in," he tells them.

Naturally, Manus's parents want to support their son in his career choice, and no matter how he tries to stop them, they're determined to see him act.

Later Manus gets an acting job with Curious Lemon theatre company, directed by 'taboo rich' Nigel MacBeth (rich, but doesn't like talking about it).

The superstitious actors are terrified. Nigel ridicules the superstition about mentioning That Play, and insists on being called by his surname. The actors is hobbling around in casts and on crutches as sinister accidents befall one after another.

The Creative Lower Being could do with sticking to the comedy and avoiding the dank angst that takes it over at times. But it's a promising start for a badly-needed comedy voice in Ireland.

xxx stars

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Second Glance by Jodi Picoult

Second Glance
Jodi Picoult
Hodder & Stoughton

PICOULT can weave a piquant tale, but this time she's let herself down.

Second Glance is a ghost story, the middle section of which is told by the main ghost, a wimp who makes one's spectral toe itch to give her a swift boot in the ectoplasm.

The story is also riven by a timezone flaw. The modern characters are haunted by ghosts from the American eugenics era of the 1930s. But Lia, the 1930s ghost, reads like someone from the 1890s.

At one stage she has a little timeslip, and slides into the new millennium, where she's astonished as a boy with wheels on his feet whizzes past her.

Well, Francis Stuart once told me that in the roller-skating-crazed 1930s the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire was a roller rink, where you could race around and around behind the hanging screen on your skates as a film was projected onto the screen.

Picoult's basic idea is interesting - after all, the American eugenics theories were what inspired Hitler and his mates to try to wipe out a whole section of humanity, a fact which has been conveniently forgotten.

But the storytelling is tired, and Picoult isn't in her usual rattling good form.

xxx stars

Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright

Spilling the Beans
Clarissa Dickson Wright
Hodder & Stoughton

ADORABLY pretty, brilliant, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice - Clarissa Dickson-Wright had it all. Or so it seemed.

But genetics is destiny, sometimes. And her father's family were monsters.

An ancestor, thrown out of the New Model Army for having a strong weakness, was taken back for Cromwell's Irish campaign, and after the brutal invasion of Drogheda, settled in the town.

The family continued to love the drink and hate the Catholics. On her parents' marriage, "my father had written to [his mother] that my mother was a Catholic, and received a missive back which included the line: 'I would rather she were a black naked heathen whore than a papist'," writes Dickson-Wright.

This was 1927. Short years later the gloss had come off the marriage, and Arthur Dickson-Wright, by now a famous society surgeon who treated the British royal family, was battering his wife and children and starting the day with vodka-laced orange juice.

Dickson-Wright's book is a hair-raising account of her own alcoholism, until she finally found AA and became one of the Two Fat Ladies whose cooking delighted a worldwide audience.

It's full of eye-popping gossip, my favourite of which was an appealing description of the Marquess of Waterford's tattoo of a hunting pack in full cry down his back, with the fox's brush disappearing into his ass-crack.

xxxxx stars

Saturday, 29 September 2007

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader
Alan Bennett
Faber/Profile €??

ONE'S out for a stroll in the grounds when the corgis take a dislike to a strange van.

When Her Maj wanders into the van to apologise for the rough manners of the royal woofers, she finds a peaceful scene: it's the City of Westminster's travelling library, and a kitchen boy is reading, while the librarian pastes a label into a book.

Flustered, one asks the same question as always. "Have you come far?"

And borrows a book. That's the start, because with Norman the kitchen boy as a guide, Queen Elizabeth is soon deep in literature and developing muscles.

It's not a popular move. The corgis try to dispose of the books by stealing them and worrying them. One's army tries to blow up the current seducer. One's prime minister and the visiting diplomats and tycoons are dismayed to be asked what they're reading (nothing, it always turns out).

Alan Bennett's charming, gently funny book has taken off on its home island, where the citizenry can be forgiven a little royal-worship. But it's well worth a sneaky read even for the most adamant republican.

xxxxx stars

The Earth Knows My Name by Patricia Klindienst

The Earth Knows My Name
Patricia Klindienst
Beacon Press

SACCO and Vanzetti were murdered by the US in 1927, in a historic fit-up.

Two FBI men had sworn affidavits to the fact that they believed the anarchists innocent of the murders they were executed for. Neighbours had testified that the pair were selling them eels at the time of the armed robbery and murders.

Patricia Klindienst started her rather earnest and political book about gardening when she found a forgotten photo of her Italian immigrant mother holding up a newspaper with the headline announcing that Sacco and Vanzetti's appeal was denied.

It sent her off on a search for immigrant gardens - and the gardens of America's native people.

"The irony of the pressure to assimilate is that it not only robs people of their heritage and their dignity, it robs the dominant culture too, impoverishing us all," she writes.

Her discoveries are very apposite to our own new status as a country hesitantly welcoming incomers.

The book is a surprise underground hit, the word going out across gardening maillists and websites. And no wonder.

Klindienst travels from a garden run by the descendants of slaves to one kept by Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, a Punjabi woman's garden and those of Japanese and Italian and Khmer migrants. She ends in a Yankee's garden, and brings his gift of ancestral corn seeds to the Indians whose culture his own ancestors had ravaged.

xxxx stars

Monday, 24 September 2007

Trespass by Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin
Weidenfeld & Nicholson €??

VALERIE MARTIN'S Mary Reilly was filmed with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich, and her Property won the Orange Prize in 2003.

She's written on a jaw-dropping number of subjects, even including a book about St Francis. From the Deep South, she's now a native New Yorker.

New York's new left is the core of this story of a family getting over the bumps from one generation to the next.

Chloe and Brendan are a book illustrator and a historian, kindly, well-off lefties who just hate the neocons. Their son brings home a girl with a dangerous and biblical name, Salome.

Salome is a Croat, a watchful, pointy little thing who's convinced, quite rightly, that her man's mother doesn't like or trust her.

This normative enough stuff blossoms into a twisty tale of Croatian and Serbian atrocities, strange Basques who hang around with shotguns, mild political activism and generational strife.

It doesn't quite come together - you get the feeling the writer would really much prefer to be telling the story of an American revolution - but it's an absorbing family story.
**** and a half stars

Bad Behaviour by Sheila O'Flanagan

Bad Behaviour
Sheila O'Flanagan
(Headline €??)

CHICKLIT queen and ex-dealer Sheila O'Flanagan's done it again. A huge, comfy quilt of a book that you can snuggle down with.

Darcy, Darce to her friends, is a high-flyer, with everything a girl might desire, except someone to share it all.

But Darce is a bit up her own... well, you get the idea. She's still in a fury 10 years later because her best friend stole her best guy.

Said friend Nieve (eww - am I the only one that hates Irish names phonetically rebranded?) has now sent Darcy an invitation to her Huge Big Wedding, the epitome of glorious vulgarity, to said desired ex.

Darce is not a happy unit.

Always best pals, Darcy and Nieve spent their childhood sharing everything.

But Darcy was a little darling, while Nieve had her beady eye on the main chance, making her fortune from early sproghood by doing messages, chores and every kind of job - for a price.

Now Nieve is about to have her big chance - but dealing can lead to double dealing, and she's facing her greatest challenge.

O'Flanagan is an ex-dealer herself, and writes with confidence about the world of finance.

Bad Behaviour would have been three times as good at a third of the size - but then it's the kind of book that you like to dip in and out of, following the girls through to the happy ending you know is waiting.

xxxx and a half stars

Monday, 17 September 2007

Ship of Dreams by Martina Devlin

Ship of Dreams
Martina Devlin

IT'S too tempting for most writers who take on the Titanic to sink (ahem) happily into that velvety Edwardian world, and go full frontal romantic.

Martina Devlin has given us a crowd-size blockbuster - but it's not just the love story you might be expecting.

Who could blame her if she wrote a King of the World cinematic version - when she set out on her research, the writer unexpectedly found a family story about a great-great-uncle who died on the Titanic, leaving a pregnant bride.

In her fictional riff on their story, Devlin uses every shred of information about the actual sinking - including the haunting memories of those who survived, of the shrieking thousands thrashing in the water.

But then she goes on from there, imagining the life of her pregnant heroine as she makes a life for herself in the new country with allies met on board - the rigid classes of 1900s Ireland riven apart in the struggle in the New World.

Independent columnist Devlin put together a great cast - upper-class lady, American civil war veteran, penniless 'Bridie', romantic Frenchman - to run her story. It's already selling in a big way; this is going to be one to watch.

xxxx stars

The Inferior by Peadar O Guilin

The Inferior
Peadar O Guilin
Publisher €??

IT'S A troubled life you have when you look at your neighbours and think "There's eating and drinking in that fellow".

In Peadar O Guilin's The Inferior, Stopmouth, our disabled hero, hasn't yet been 'volunteered' to be given to one of the other sentient species as lunch, but it's a close thing.

In O Guilin's cannibal world, the humans trade their weaklings for the weaklings of the Clawfolk, Hairfolk, Hoppers and other species. There are no non-sentient prey species, and no edible vegetation.

No species can talk to any other, until, mysteriously, two of the non-human species start to co-operate, and go on a Sarajevo-style ethnic cleansing drive to wipe out the others.

Into this Arcadia drops - what else - a beautiful woman from the sky. Straightaway, the treacherous Wallbreaker, Stopmouth's ambitious, too-clever brother, claims her as a second wife.

And off we go with a rollicking adventure for young adults.

It moves a bit slowly for teens, but for the kind of grownups who loved sci-fi of the classic Gollancz era, this is a relaxing read.

But it sparks uneasy thoughts: when you think about it, if we keep killing off species, our world could be like Peadar O Guilin's chilling vision - a world in which it's eat and be eaten.

xxxx stars

Thursday, 13 September 2007

The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham

The Importance of Being Kennedy
Laurie Graham
(Fourth Estate €??)

NINE children grew up in the Kennedy family. Before the oldest had reached middle age five had met violent ends.

Joe died in World War II, blown up trying to destroy German bombing bases. JFK and Robert were assassinated. Kathleen's plane crashed in France. Rose, the slow one, was destroyed by a lobotomy.

In Laurie Graham's novel based on the family, the narrator is their nursemaid, a sugar-coated viperous ball of malice, cooing how she loves the children, even as she lubriciously repeats every snide rumour.

The Kennedys were the original hothoused children - their mother pinned up news stories for them to discuss at meals; sent them relentlessly to classes in dancing, sailing, swimming; taught them to act as a cohort in each other's interest.

The nasty little rip of a nursemaid shows Joe as a bully and Jack as forever competing; Robert as a piocious coward; Edward as a fat little telltale, and so on. The one she values is Rose - slow, but no more than certain members of the British royal family.

I can see this book having a brief flowering, but it won't be a loved novel people will return to. Too sneery.

xxx stars

Saturday, 1 September 2007

What I Was by Meg Rosoff

What I Was
Meg Rosoff
Penguin €??

THE ENDING is what makes a story great or little, and until the end, Meg Rosoff's The Way I Was is great.

The narrator, Hilary, is miserable in a freezing, ritual-bound sea-coast boarding school of the 1960s.

He's on his last chance - he's been expelled from two previous schools - but he sneaks out and meets Finn, who lives all alone in a wooden chalet on an island reached by a tidal causeway.

Hilary joins Finn on secret expeditions in this understated love story. Finn lives a Boy's Own life, without school or family, living from work on market stalls in town, and longlining for fish.

Finn can't believe that Hilary thinks it's an accomplishment to be a lazy student, and teaches him how to sail, manage a kayak, fish and work for money.

They go hunting for a mediaeval town lost under the sea. "Can you really hear the bells?" Hilary asks, and Finn says, yes, of course.

Rosoff is best known for How I Live Now, a much talked-about 'crossover' novel: a children's book also read by adults, about a 21st-century world war.

How I Was is a winningly told story, and deserves the fabulous sales it's already achieving.
4 stars

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Moral Disorder
Margaret Atwood
Virago €??

A NOVEL told as a series of linked short stories that click together to make a family portrait, Moral Disorder ranges from hilarity to tragedy, and, oddly, from 1950s America to ancient Rome.

In one fragment our hero Nell and her sister Lizzie drive along the highway, having the wandering conversation common to all sisters, as Lizzie mutters at other drivers, all of whom she calls Fred. "Drop dead, Fred, the lights were red," she snarls as a woman crashes through.

Nell acquires a husband, Tig - when his wife, author of the organisational bible Femagician, interviews her and decides she'll do for the job.

Then back to Nell as a 15-year-old monster telling her terrified sister in a 'reasonable but still eerie tone': "It's all right, you can come out of hiding now, the game's over. I'm not a monster, I'm your sister" - with resulting nightmares for little Lizzie.

Then Nell and Tig as hobby farmers, making a pet of a rejected lamb - and bringing him to the slaughterhouse when he's an aggressive ram, and getting him back as chops.

It's an odd book, kind of empty and heartless but at the same time a bit of a pageturner, and at times so funny I found myself giving barks of laughter.

4 stars

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Run by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett
(Bloomsbury €??)

I'VE NEVER met a normal family. Happy, yes; normal, no. And in Ann Patchett's Run, the Doyles are as odd as they come.

Do not, I warn you, read this while eating, as you're liable to jab the fork into your cheek as Patchett makes one of her rapid-fire plot twists.

Boston; a loving family: white mother, idealist politician father, son Sullivan, and their two adopted black babies, Tip and Ted.

The mother dies, the father turns into a mother hen, adoring the babies and somehow forgetting the older lad.

Twenty years later he drags the younger two to a Jesse Jackson lecture, and on the way out a woman pushes Tip out of the way of a car and is mown down herself.

Her daughter reveals that she's their sister - that she and her mother have watched over them for years.

"We have an 11-year-old stalker!" whispers one of the boys. But there are more twists to come in this riveting, heartwarming story.

Some cavils: the editing is flawed, with 'hoards' of people and one boy working in a 'cubical'; and inconsistencies in continuity. And while there's a happy ending for the adopted children, we're never given a resolution for troubled, semi-criminal Sullivan.

But if you want a gripping book to take your mind off your problems, this is it. Ann Patchett has done it again.

xxxxx stars

Monday, 13 August 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver et al

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver et al
Faber and Faber

NOVELIST Barbara Kingsolver decided to go home to the Virginia mountains and try to feed her family for a year with food grown on the home place, or within 100 miles.

Kingsolver's book about her year's adventure is preachy - skip the first chapter to get to the good stuff - but lyrical. Her descriptions of gardening and cooking with her family make you want to put on the overalls and pick up the hoe.

And her daughter's delicious recipes at the ends of chapters make the book a good buy.

Her clear love and joy in her family is infectious and inspiring.

But as I roamed the supermarket buying my metal-tasting cotton-wool tomatoes and taste-free rocket salad, I wondered how possible Kingsolver's plan would be in Ireland, where local eating would mean goodbye to bananas, oranges, avocadoes - heavens, even wine!

At the same time, she has startling insights - for instance, the way Americans have gone nutty about creationism comes from the fact that they no longer raise crops or livestock, so they don't see evolution in action.

And you have to think, hmmm, if we just had a greenhouse on every farm, how much we could grow locally here. Mangetout grow like weeds. So does rocket. So do tomatoes...

Brilliant, challenging, fascinating, enticing. Don't miss this book.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

The Memory Keeper's Daughter
Kim Edwards

STORIES have a way of hanging on: give the people what they want and they'll come, as actor Red Skelton muttered at the funeral of the tyrannical movie mogul Louis B Meyer.

One is the story of the lost prince. It goes like this: the child is sent away by his father, given to soldiers to kill, usually because of a prophecy that the kid's bad news.

But the tender-hearted soldiers raise the kid as their own, and he comes back to wreak havoc.

Kim Edwards has mediated this story through Middle America. Here, the lost child is a girl twin, discarded because she's born with Down's Syndrome.

Her doctor father, David sends her away to be raised in a nursing-home, and tells her mother, Norah, that she's dead. But the nurse who takes her away runs with her, and raises her.

It's selling like crazy. Yet it's a curiously empty book.

It's selling because it tells an essential truth: the secret ill deed eats a hollow out of the centre of David and Norah's marriage, corrupting their concourse from within.

But it has the sugary everything-will-be-fineness of Steel Magnolias. Undoubtedly soon to be a major movie.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Harper Perennial

A DAZZLING book set in the 1960s, when revolutionaries were hopeful and the young republic of Biafra was about to secede from Nigeria.

It's this year's Orange Prize winner, and also a Richard and Judy book club choice, covering both the intellectual and the wow-read ends of the market.

Warning: it starts well, then there's a dullish section when an English writer is drafted in as a character - but read on. The pace picks up again. It certainly does.

Olanna and her sister Kainene are sisters - Olanna beautiful and in love with a young radical lecturer; Kainene the brains of her family and following her father into business as an industrialist while living with Richard, a diffident white Englishman.

Nigeria is riven by corruption, and the intellectuals want it to end. But when the coup comes, it is bloody, and then it is swiftly followed by the genocidal killing of thousands of Igbo people. And Olanna and Kainene's family are Igbo.

This is not a book for those who prefer to skip the gory parts. Olanna and Richard both witness the murders - he in an airport where soldiers break in and murder all the Igbo, she as she visits a Moslem man she once loved, and he smuggles her out past the bodies of her cousins.

Biafra fills with refugees, and as the Nigerian 'police action' to bring back rebel Biafra threatens, the famine begins.

Half of a Yellow Sun is an ideal book for anyone who might think "It couldn't happen here" or "It never happens to people like us".

Next by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton

Lucille Redmond

CRICHTON likes to scare the tripes out of us.

He's succeeded admirably with Jurassic Park, Next and a plethora of other scary stories based on nasty things happening because scientists get trigger-happy.

This time they're genetically engineering humans, thinking "Hmm, wonder what would happen if we threw a few human genes into a parrot… or a chimp…"

Crichton's fans know what will happen. Evil corporations will use their innocent discoveries to wreak havoc.

So it is that we soon have life insurance cancelled when someone's reported as having a gene for heart disease.

Oh no. It's not the man with heart disease whose insurance is cancelled - it's his son, who's now defined as 'pre-ill', and therefore uninsurable, because he shares the gene.

And the family of a man whose cells have the ability to cure cancer have to go on the run - because the evil corporation's supply of the cells has been stolen, and they want to (forcibly) take more from his kids and grandkids.

This is a book to gobble up for distraction, while noting the science stuff in your paranoia jotter. But it's not one of Crichton's best. It lacks a strong central character you can identify with - too many, too similar, too anodyne American characters.

But a great book for distraction, all the same.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper

How to Talk to a Widower
Jonathan Tropper

Lucille Redmond

POOR Doug. He's 29 and a widower with a teenage stepson. Doug spends his life in a damp morass of misery, mourning for his wife Hailey, killed in a plane crash.

But that was a year ago, and his friends and family are nudging him to get the mourning over with and find 'closure'.

When a cop turns up on the doorstep with stepson Russ by the collar, stoned and defiant, Doug is stymied, even when the officer tells him that the tough guy was crying in the patrol car, and referred to Doug as his father.

This doesn't in the least sound like a book anyone but a dedicated miseryguts would want to read, but surprisingly it is really funny, and very moving.

What do you do when your rejected stepson gets a blurry tattoo? And then reveals that it's a comet: Hailey's Comet, called after his dead mother.

Doug's life doesn't get easier. His one prop, his twin sister, throws herself on his mercy and moves in, pregnant, and their other sister, Debbie (who got off with her new fiancé at Hailey's funeral) is determined to have the perfect wedding.

Sad, funny, brilliant, How to Talk to a Widower is one of the great books of the season.

First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

First Among Sequels
Jasper Fforde
Hodder & Stoughton

THURSDAY Next, Jasper Fforde's literary (literally) detective, has some tough plots to crack. Her sullen son Friday must be mothered into adequate adulthood, as he's destined to be ChronoGuard director-general.

There's worse: funniness is leaking inexplicably from the novels of Thomas Hardy. Even Jude the Obscure, once full of laughs, is now morose.

And Thursday's haunted by her uncle Mycroft, whose keen mind had pushed the frontiers in disciplines ranging from fusion power to romantic fiction.

Amid government cuts, a dangerous surplus of national stupidity and a cover identity as a carpet fitter, Thursday must solve these mysteries.

On the side, she has a big cheese deal going across the borders in the Socialist Republic of Wales.

The horrible thing about this relentlessly funny book (a bit like being trapped with a joke-a-minute alcoholic) is that it's so near to truth in its Selbyesque surreality.

In one imagined reality TV show, Samaritan Kidney Swap, 10 renal failure patients try to persuade a donor, and voting viewers, which one should have his spare kidney - as done in reality (as a practical joke) last month in the Netherlands.

Jasper Fforde is a specialised taste, and for those who love quirky English humour, this will hit the spot.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
JK Rowling

The publication was preceded with a fever of carefully orchestrated hype, and when it was leaked onto the internet a couple of days before publication there were howls of fury from the Muggles involved in its publication.

A PDF file appeared on torrent sites such as Pirate Bay, with the chipped pink fingernail polish of the childish hands holding down the pages to be photographed clearly visible - unlike the type, which mostly disappeared halfway down the page.

This was soon followed by an audio file obviously read by a computer's text-to-speech software, which had difficulty with some of the spellings, reading out 'M.R. [pause] Weasley' for 'Mr Weasley', and spelling out anything that appeared in capitals, so that Harry often shouted "Stop! Ess Tee Oh Pee!"

Nothing daunted, avid fans downloaded both in their millions. But fear not, Muggles, they won't make the slightest dint in the sales, any more than the plot spoiler on Wikipedia. Harry fans will buy and buy.

Every generation feeds its children the stories that express its ideals. The kids of the 1960s read James Stephens' translations of the stories of Fionn, and Patricia Lynch's cosy Travellers' tales, and Enid Blyton's safe adventures.

In the time of suicide bombers, we've entered a darker world. JK Rowling, drawing from JRR Tolkien, brings us into a paranoiac otherworld where a brave Resistance is hunted by evil forces.

With the final book of her Harry Potter series, Rowling makes the parallel with racist/religious ideologies all the clearer.

For those who've been living in an enclosed convent, here's the background: Harry Potter is the only survivor of a family of heroes. He's marked by the scar caused when the evil ideologue Voldemort killed his parents and attempted to kill him.

Like the young Luke Skywalker, Harry has a psychic connection with Voldemort, the Hitler of the magical world. Up till now, we haven't known why that was.

The books are set in two parallel worlds: that of the Muggles (humans) and that of the magical people who live partly in their world and partly in another, enchanted one, using magic to do the things Muggles do with machines.

Harry is the star of Hogwarts school, the boarding school for wizards, but also lives as the unloved nephew of a Muggle family in our suburban world.

In this seventh book, vicious Voldemort has returned to a worldly incarnation. His plan is to cleanse the magical world of 'mudbloods' - those of mixed magical and Muggle blood. Using deception, terror and torture, he has infiltrated almost everywhere, including the Order of the Phoenix, the Resistance working against him.

Harry is a Resistance leader, on the run with his comrades and under constant attack from the Voldemort's death-eater troops.

The story is full of the old Rowling magic - aerial dogfights on broomsticks and enchanted motorcycles; an Armageddon in which Professor McGonagall leads a charge of galloping desks, cheered on by the characters charging after them from portrait to portrait; mandrakes used as weapons of mass destruction.

But it's less rich in Rowling's old humour, and there are longeurs and pages of explication.

In fairytale settings, woods, weddings and swamps, occasionally mixed with Muggle chip-shops, Harry pursues or is pursued by seven magical items - a diary, a cup, a diadem, a person - objects resonant with Harry's parents' and Voldemort's history.

The nuanced story of double agent Severus Snape is fantastically worked out. People surprise you - Draco Malfoy, Dudley Dursley, even Dumbledore, Harry's mentor - murdered... or was he?

Lily, Harry's mother, who died to save her baby son, proves to have been central to the motivations of - well, let's not spoil it.

In the end, when you close the last of the seven books with a satisfied sigh, it's all been worth it. The world has been restored to its happy self. To quote the last sentence, long disputed and many times inaccurately leaked - all was well.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Life Class by Pat Barker

Life Class
Pat Barker
(Hamish Hamilton €??)

PAT BARKER books always have a spéirbhean or two, moist-lipped, hot-eyed, mysterious of gaze.

And sure enough, in the years leading up to the Great War, here we are at the Slade school of art.

Grimly art-focused North of England lad Paul Tarrant is casting warm looks at Elinor, a siren who always makes any man or woman she speaks to seem at the centre of her world.

But it's Teresa, a model for Augustus John and all that crowd, who becomes his lover. Teresa may or may not have an angry, jealous husband. She gets threatening notes, but did she write them herself?

No, it turns out when the husband beats the tripes out of Paul, and Teresa takes herself off out of the way.

Next thing, Paul's working as a medical orderly patching together the blown-up half-corpses of Ypres, and sharing a love-hate thing with the lad billeted with him.

Barker is a fine writer, and couldn't write a bad book if she tried. Her books have been filmed and won Bookers and Guardians. But this isn't her best work ever - there's a lack of centre in the story, and the characters are thin.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses
Per Petterson

TWO boys go out stealing horses in the forest idyll of Norway a few years after war has ended and the Gestapo been routed.

Not really stealing, just larking - but the day-out-of-time sense of those beautiful hours is shatteringly reversed by the revelation, later, of what has happened just before it.

Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses comes laden with awards, the latest the Dublin Impac, the largest prize in the world for a single work. Fittingly, for ex-bookseller Petterson, it's a prize awarded by libraries all over the world.

This is a book full of solitude, with the super-reality of a world brought to life in a phrase. It's a short-story-writer's novel, concentrated and disciplined.

The alternate chapters are the youth and age of the narrator. In his sixties, alone again, he has returned to the woods to find a shape for his life. In his youth, he is learning to be a man, under the tutelage of his flawed, heroic father.

And underlying it all are the stories of the Resistance, the occupation, and the betrayal of the parents' marriage.

Petterson has a unique ability to show character by a single, well-placed brush-stroke: a glance, a word, even a word not said. And what characters!

How lucky we are to live in a time when we have this to read.

The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy

The Woman in the Fifth
Douglas Kennedy

HARRY RICKS is a bad man to cross. Bad things happen to those who do him wrong.

He's also a haunted man, on the run in Paris after blowing his suburban life to bits. Behind him in the rubble are a marriage (defunct), a lover (dead by suicide) and a career (casualty of events).

He's as far down as he can fall. Or so he thinks. But one consolation: for years, he's taken French classes, planning to give it all up one day and go to Paris to write.

It's a gripping story, but forgettable, because of the coldness and dislikeability of every character but one.

In Paris, Harry falls ill and is selflessly aided by a kindly Turk, who is almost immediately written out of the story.

After that, Harry finds night work with nasty people doing something unknown but probably unspeakable. He takes a foray into a literary salon for some hostile flirting with a mystery woman from the classy Fifth Arrondissement, who soon comes to play all too important a part in his life.

The novel follows every rule of storytelling: every event torques the horror up; every page has a new surprise, a twist.

We may expect to see it on the screen any day soon.