Saturday, February 27, 2010

Among Thieves

David Hosp
Nick was coming through Dublin airport last week; he’d been in Ireland on business.
‘What do you want from the bookshop?’ he texted.
I texted back: ‘Pick something you think you might read’
Should be interesting I thought, for my husband is not reader, unless you count reading the football results on the sport pages at the back of the newspaper. The only time I have ever seen a book in his hand was our first date to Sheikh’s beach, sixteen years ago and even though it was only John Grisham I allowed my-self a flutter of excitement, for I thought I’d finally found that elusive combination of brawn and brains – so rare in so many men... Turned out the John Grisham had never been opened, his sister had given it to him for Christmas; he used it to elevate his head out of the sand when he was sunbathing…
Nick landed into Bahrain with Among Thieves by David Hosp.
“Any reason why you picked this?”
He shrugged. He was noncommittal. “Only because I couldn’t find anything with a picture of a gunman on the front.”
Among Thieves was inspired by the largest art theft in history. On St. Patrick’s Day 1990, while the city of Boston was celebrating with green beer and rowdy parades two men dressed as police officers bluffed their way in to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, overcame the guards and made off with a dozen works of art, worth 500 million dollars.
I didn’t know this, but apparently, dissident outlaws use art as currency, because it’s lighter and easier to carry than cash. And some of it is extraordinarily valuable. Sometimes the thieves trade the works for guns, sometimes they hold the pieces to ransom until the owner’s insurance money is handed over...
In this fictionalised account of ‘who-dunnit’ – who robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - the thieves are a psychopathic IRA man and a small time Boston gangster. But the heist went horribly wrong: the paintings were not insured, and they were too famous to be sold on the open market.
Now twenty years later the IRA man is back in Boston, seeking the stolen paintings, to fund the resurrection of the Troubles. Meanwhile his partner in the robbery, Devon Malley, is in jail. He’s been nicked stealing knickers (I couldn’t resist that!) and has called his attorney Scott Finn. Not only does he want Finn to spring him from jail, he also wants Finn to babysit his daughter until he springs him from jail...
Finn is a bit of a soft touch. He’s from a disadvantaged background, he was reared in government institutions; he ran with the bad boys when he was younger. He doesn’t want Malley’s daughter exposed to such an environment. He agrees to look after Sally Malley.
Little does dad Malley know, but the safest place for him is jail; the IRA man hunting him down will stop at nothing to get the relevant information about the whereabouts of the paintings...
“How far did you get in the story?” I asked Nick.
He looked at me strangely. He said, “You asked me to pick a book I thought I might read. But you didn’t actually ask me to read it. Did you want me to read it? Why didn’t you say? I might have fitted in a few pages after District 9 on the movie channel...”
David Hosp is a Boston attorney. Among Thieves is his fourth novel. He writes on his daily commute by boat across Boston Harbour.
VERDICT: Perfect entertainment for a seven hour flight. Nick doesn’t know what he was missing!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Secret Life of War

Peter Beaumont
There is a certain type of woman who relishes the pain of child birth; I’m sure you know at least one; does this monologue sound familiar? “Yes of course they offered me pain relief – they said I could have gas and air, or pethidine, or an epidural. But I chose No Pain Relief. Because I wanted to see how I would do...”
Having read The Secret Life of War, I am convinced there is a similar type of man in the world – who seeks out terrifying danger because he wants to see how he will do.... This man is called a war correspondent and I strongly advise no woman to ever agree to marry one for he could never make her happy - he’s not a team player, he’s an adrenalin addict...
Peter Beaumont is Foreign Affairs Editor of the Observer. He joined the newspaper in 1989, and for the past fifteen years he has reported on wars all over the world. Now he has written The Secret Life of War because he says “In newspapers and magazines it is still regarded as bad form to describe the reality of the everyday horror of conflict.”
His book pulls no punches in describing ‘the everyday horror of conflict’. Beaumont describes the smell that lingers after a suicide bomb (the sharp tang of butcher’s shops, soiled nappies); he describes a blindfolded hostage’s beheading as a ‘perfunctory sawing... like skinning a fish or a butcher cutting fat off meat’. He shares with us soldier-talk (none of it is pretty). And he describes, with astonishing matter-of-factness the surreal part he plays in the proceedings.
For example: it’s spring 2007 and he’s accompanying the American military on a patrol of the streets of Baghdad. They get out of their armoured vehicles and the soldiers do what they joined up to do, they move in formation, handing out ‘little tip cards designed to persuade the residents to phone in information on the insurgents’... Beaumont and a female journalist follow, with cameras slung round their necks.... Then there’s a crack crack crack of automatic weapons fire. The soldiers go into battle and the female journalist politely asks: “What do you want me to do?”
A sergeant politely answers her: “You can do anything you like.”
I freely admit I quickly became desensitised to these stories; the realities of war are so far removed from my everyday life of school runs and supermarket shopping. The only blood, guts and gore I encounter on a regular basis are my son’s bloodied knees when he falls off his bicycle. So I hardly blinked an eye during the chapter about the Second Intifada when young Palestinians were throwing stones at heavily armed Israeli tanks and Peter has written: ‘Once I saw a boy shot down so close to me I could have touched him as he ran past to throw his stone.’
Until I realised, with a shock that if we had been born Palestinian and our home was on the Gaza Strip, it could be my son he was writing about – What a horrible, horrible thought!
VERDICT: So you don’t think the army’s for you? But you’re desperate to test your nerve? Buy yourself a North Face duffel bag and become a war correspondent – there are always horrific stories to write about in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pam McBride

Of course you know this already - behind every great man is a far greater woman.... Last night we went to hear Willie John McBride give an after dinner talk at the rugby club. Mr McBride is a legend, he's also one of my neighbours in Ireland, our farms are five miles apart.
The queue for Willie John's autograph stretched half way across the marquee so I contented myself with Pam's autograph. I won't wash my arm for a week

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chasing Rainbows

Nuala Woulfe
One of the most tiresome things about being a stay-at-home mum is my lack of cash for frivolous luxuries. And I’m not talking about designer face cream or cashmere socks or a professional leg wax – I’m talking about books and book buying.
Many novels are first released in trade paperback (TPB); publisher–speak for ‘big size paperback’; they cost about £12.99. Perhaps it’s my thrifty Scots Irish upbringing but I happen to think £12.99 is allot of money to risk on a novel and a novelist I know nothing about, irrespective of whether the cover is pretty, or the blurb promises an uplifting read! In popular fiction all covers are pretty, and all blurbs promise an uplifting read.
So I didn’t buy Chasing Rainbows by first time novelist Nuala Woulfe when it was first released in TPB. Keen and all as I was to read it, I knew, from experience, that within a year it would be re-released as smaller cheaper paperback.
And let me tell you, lovers of popular fiction, Chasing Rainbows was well worth the wait! It’s such an unpredictable story; it did not twist any direction I was expecting; I love that in a novel.
Ali Hughes is twenty eight, going on seventeen. She works in an office, in a job she detests and for which she is overqualified. She’s always late when she deigns to turn up. Desperate to try something different, she unscrupulously cheats her employers into paying for her journalism course at night classes - she tells them its work related.
At the weekend she goes out to get drunk with the roughest bunch of women I’ve ever read about. Cynical, streetwise, uninhibited – “Seen any good willies lately?” is how they greet each other. They knock back terrifying amounts of drink and think nothing of vomiting into a bath, or peeing on the street.
Ali is still hungover on Monday, she’s pulling yet another sickie when ex- lover Dave drives up in his swanky new car waving a packet of biscuits and - wham bam - before the tea is wet they’re having hot, heavy sex, but not before Ali pops into the bathroom to quickly shave her legs....
So far, so eye popping.
Then a curious thing happens to Ali. At a (teetotal) ceili down the country she meets a man totally unlike the flash type she usually runs with. Karl has a PhD, he reads; he plays classical guitar. He admires her expressive eyes and how pretty her neck is when her hair is tied up. Ali is so intrigued she agrees to out with him. They spend the day at his lovely old country house recently inherited from an aunt. The Guinness and the country air go to Ali’s head, and yes, you’ve guessed it – wham bam – suddenly she and Karl are having hot heavy sex. Except this time, with Karl, she conceives. And it changes her life forever...
Nuala Woulfe is a Belfast woman who currently lives in County Tipperary with her husband and three children. She’s been writing all her life, for fun and as a professional journalist. Chasing Rainbows is her first novel – she was inspired by dreams she started to have after beginning colour therapy to treat migraines.
VERDICT: Since reading Chasing Rainbows I’ve begun to lock up my daughters. And any time in the future, when they have to go out, unchaperoned by me, they will be wearing chastity belts. And I will have the key.

Monday, February 8, 2010

New Blinds

You may remember the saga of my faulty kitchen blinds? Or perhaps you can't remember that far into the past since my exhausting fight for justice started 18 months ago and has involved the Citizens Advice Bureau, solicitor's letters and the Small Claims Court...
Today I'm happy to unveil my replacement kitchen blinds.
And please God, don't let them fade horribly for I simply can't face another row...

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Last week I had temporary blindness. This week blood vessels have been bursting in my eye. Today I went to the eye doctor. To examine the retina drops are inserted, to make the pupil dilate. The eye doctor found a hole in my retina (!) but assures me the bleeding is most likely caused by dehydrated corneas. My nose is always stuck in a book and we blink less when we read (blinking keeps your eye moist).
He says I must read less and blink more. And if anything else bursts in my eye, he will have my head examined.
Here endth the biology lesson.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Adrian Mole - The Prostrate Years

Sue Townsend
There can’t be many people who have not heard of Adrian Mole even if they’ve never read his diaries. Bespectacled, intellectual, pompous and out of touch with reality; he’s a venerable British Institution, as famous as Pepys and Pooter.
It’s now twenty five years since Adrian Mole’s first volume of diaries was published. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ brilliantly recorded the minutiae of his life: the trials of pimples and promiscuous parents; falling in love with Pandora. Also major political and social events: Prince Charles’s engagement to Lady Di; Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands. (At the outbreak of the Falkland’s Conflict, Adrian gets out a map and tries to find the islands but they’re concealed under biscuit crumbs…)
Over the years he has successfully published more volumes of diaries and meticulously shared with us failed marriages, single parenthood, the raising of two sons on a sink estate, an addiction to Opal Fruits, his career as a celebrity offal chef, and always his love for Pandora.
In this latest volume – the Prostrate Years – Adrian is thirty-nine and a quarter. Always unworldly about money, he has been declared bankrupt and is forced to return to rural Leicestershire to share a converted piggery with his parents - a couple of such Hogarthian sensibilities it’s difficult not to like them.
Adrian’s current marriage is falling apart when he presents with symptoms of prostate cancer. After the first DRE (digital rectal examination) his doctor remarks on how tense he is:
“If you don’t relax Mr Mole you could trap my finger up your bum forever.”
With dignity Adrian informs him: “Yes I have been described as being an anal retentive before.”
As Adrian begins radiotherapy his discontented wife gets a job; soon she’s having an extramarital affair. So Adrian’s colourful mother steps up to support him through his treatment.
He writes: She told me she had decided to empty the old fashioned sweet jar of the mixed coins she has been collecting for the past three years and take them to the bank. She said: ‘As long as I’ve got enough to bury you...”
His father says: “Do they do prostrate transplants? Cos if they do, you can have mine, kid.”
In spite of the amusing asides, Adrian’s experiences of cancer are not treated lightly. He writes, heartbreakingly, after visit to his specialist:
I told her about my latest symptoms and she nodded and said, ‘Yes, that’s normal,’ and began to go through the various ‘roads we can go down’. I thought, ‘No, it’s not a road we can go down, Dr Rubik, it’s a lonely road that I will be going down alone. You are merely waving to me from the safety of the pavement.’
Sue Townsend, the creator of Adrian Mole, was born in Leicester in 1946. Her father was a postman and she’s the eldest of five sisters. She failed her 11 plus and left school at 15. By the time she was 22 she had three children under the age five. Her early Adrian Mole dairies are reputedly based on her children’s experiences at comprehensive school. This latest volume reflects her struggles with chronic and acute ill health - she suffers from diabetes, is registered blind, and has recently had a kidney transplant. Her son, Sean, donated his kidney for the transplant and the book is dedicated to him and to the Renal team at Leicester General Hospital.
VERDICT: Don’t dismiss Adrian Mole as a comic story played for laughs. This is one of the most unpretentious and heart warming novels I’ve ever read about serious illness.