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Wednesday 19 September 2018

Quality over quantity

Direct: A Thousand Pardons doesn't tread on Mad Men territory
Direct: A Thousand Pardons doesn't tread on Mad Men territory

Do shorter books lack the substance of heftier tomes? We take a look in this week's guide

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee Corsair (2013) €12.99 *****

THE previously Pulitzer Prize- nominated novelist opens his latest with an atom bomb: Helen and Ben, to the disgust of their teenage daughter Sara, are off on their Date Night. This is actually code for couple's therapy, and in that night's session, Ben tells nothing but the truth.

It is apocalyptic in its directness, and even if there is a whiff of narcissism and privileged existentialism, it rings devastatingly true. Anyone who may have thought that this story, set in Rensselaer County and Manhattan, was going to tread well-worn Mad Men and, worse, Woody Allen territory, couldn't be more wrong.

Dee deals with his characters' defects with an impressive even- handedness, and the result is a feeling of exasperated compassion on the part of the reader – but compassion nonetheless. Helen has had her entire life gutted, but what part did she play in its destruction?

Ben has what he wants now, a new life with every day a blank slate, but had he reckoned on the loneliness? Sara is an only child, adopted from China, and for once feels like she's not the oddity she was in the past, but to what degree is she going to take her new-found freedom too far?

Dee makes us care what happens to everyone. Authors often like us to know who the hero is; in this case, we're not sure that anyone is heroic in a literary sense, but in a human sense, the indomitability of this crowd is gripping and most of all, truthfully human. And it's all packed in at less than 300 pages, which is a triumph of precision and depth.

Many of last week's tomes were hefty. These are slimmer in shape; how are they in substance?

Boneland by Alan Garner Fourth Estate (2013) €24.30 ****

Comparisons are odorous, but one doubts that Shakespeare had as many fantasy/YA novels to deal with in his era. There seems to be a divide amongst adult readers – Pullman v Rowling – and here, Garner seems to err on the side of the former, but still evokes much of the darkness of the latter.

This is a grown-up sequel to the author's two previous children's books, and this is for everyone who ever wanted to know what happened when their hero grew up. It's a sobering look at ageing, loss, and the razor's edge between genius and madness. Garner's tone is gorgeously poetic and yet still manages to provide intense narrative tension; his language does take some getting used to, though, so even if it's short, it's involving.

Stay Where You Are Then Leave by John Boyne Doubleday (2013) €14.70 ***

THE Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was a massive hit, and Boyne has penned another novel for children that is appealing to all ages.

Alfie Summerfield turns five years old on July 28, 1914 – or the start of World War I, which has just got to be the worst birthday remembrance ever. Over the course of the war, he and his family soldier on, and it is only by chance that he discovers that his dad is not in France as he supposed, but relatively nearer to home. Feelingly written, and kind of like Warhorse without the horse, this is a heroic journey for a young lad; it pulls out some details and skates over others, but it is still a lovely read.

The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell Vintage (2013) €14.99 ***

HERE, Mankell is exercising his social conscious and a snarky tone, and they don't quite sit that comfortably together.

The poet Jesper Humlin is the poster boy for white privilege, and in many ways, Mankell is not only taking issue with male entitlement and narcissism, but also with the way in which immigration issues are being handled – or not, as the case may be.

Humlin meets three women who are in various states of living outside the system, and one would expect that some class of transformation would occur. Not so much, which is an indictment in itself of the mess that is being made of people's lives, but not so satisfying on a narrative level.

I Take You by Nikki Gemmell Fourth Estate (2013) €11.50 **

I CONSIDER this a shorty due to the font size so, despite being 280 pages, it feels enlarged to merit the hardcovers. Within you will find a contemporary twist on DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, and despite having disliked that book heartily, I kept an open mind. This is another in the erotic BDSM genre that is attempting to mainstream the topic.

I have yet to come across one of these novels that actually presents us with a psychology that illuminates the fetish world. This was no exception. My new fetish is finding one of these class of books that is actually sexy.

Malarkey by Anakana Schofield Oneworld (2013) €11.50 ***

THIS is tricky, as the structure feels rather tricksy: Our Woman, a steadfast, smart-mouthed Mayo countrywoman, narrates a largely time-and-space bending account of sexual doings and awakenings in the countryside.

The tone sometimes errs on the side of aren't-those-country-folk-folksy, but Phil – our woman – is too sharp for it to go off course completely. When she comes upon her son in the embrace of some other mother's son, all hell breaks loose; Schofield balances the tragedy and the comedy with aplomb.

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