Book reviews


CHOCOLAT author Joanne Harris is best known for her evocative, food-inspired novels, but Runelight is the second in a series of books for young adults that reinterpret and adapt Norse mythology.

It is three years after the events of Runemarks. Maddy Smith, one of Thor’s twin daughters, is living in Malbry and is more powerful than the fallen gods of the Aesir and Vanir thanks to the runemark on her hand.

Despite the death of her friend Odin, Maddy must once again fight the forces of Chaos as old enemies seek to use her unknown sister to regain strength. But this time she has some unexpected allies to help stave off another End of the Worlds.

A preface provides a summary of the previous plot for new readers, and Runelight is enjoyable, funny and dramatic, but sadly overlong due to its constant repetitions of earlier events in each chapter.

The Prague Cemetery

Umberto Eco, Harvill Secker; £20

Review: James Robinson

PARIS, 1887: a mysterious forgery expert named Simone Simonini wakes up with almost complete memory loss. He starts to record anything he can remember in his diary, and is soon perturbed to discover that he may or may not share a personality with a priest named Abbe Dalla Picola.

Through these schizophrenic diary extracts, and occasional sardonic commentary by an unidentified ‘narrator’, Simonini/Picola reveals himself to be involved in a particularly vile conspiracy; a twisting, diabolical and rabidly anti-semitic plot, propagated by the highest members of 19th century European society, that will eventually lead to the Holocaust.

Disturbingly, the author insists that all events depicted actually took place, and all but the main character actually existed, a claim that he backs up with dozens of contemporary illustrations.

Compelling and beautifully translated from the original Italian, The Prague Cemetery is a vivid thriller and already one of the year’s biggest sellers across mainland Europe. The grim content leaves a depressing aftertaste.

Holidays In Heck

PJ O’Rourke, Atlantic Books; £16.99

Review: Alex Sarll

IN THE Nineties, PJ O’Rourke’s daring dispatches from the world’s front lines felt hilariously iconoclastic.

For all his efforts to portray himself as a coward, his war reporting was clearly that of a brave man. And while he was unashamedly an irascible right-winger, he seemed the sybaritic, cuddly sort, with even counterculture icon Hunter S Thompson happy to consider him a friend. But the world has changed, and O’Rourke’s Republican rabble-rousing no longer feels so funny.

Where Holidays In Hell had gonzo warzone reportage from Palestine and Nicaragua, its sequel includes an account of a ski-trip with O’Rourke’s three young children, nicknamed Buster, Poppet and Muffin. Those not keen on dogged free market evangelism and the allegedly cute antics of strangers’ children should probably avoid this volume.

Heroes Of Olympus: The Son Of Neptune

Rick Riordan, Puffin; £12.99

Review: Caroline Davidson

PERCY JACKSON’S back and fighting monsters that keep reforming and won’t die. His memory has been wiped by Roman goddess Juno so he has no idea of his adventure-filled past. He can only faintly recall girlfriend Annabeth and knows he needs to find a camp.

But when Juno forces him to enter Camp Jupiter to save her life and escape Medusa’s relatives the Gorgons, he realises the halfbloods are Romans — where are his friends? He’s welcomed and sent on a quest with clumsy Frank and secretive Hazel to free Death, who has been captured by the Earth goddess Gaia. Monsters will die once more if Death’s chains are broken.

Rick Riordan’s series gets more exciting as the stories progress. Percy is a likeable hero full of endearing qualities and introducing him to new characters to keep the tales fresh is a stroke of genius. Bring on the next book.

Boomerang — The Meltdown Tour

Michael Lewis, Allen Lane; £20

Review: Liam Heylin

A NEW sub-genre of travel writing — Financial Disaster Tourism — is well represented in this surprisingly entertaining read.

Given that the author is picking at the sores left by the obscenely venal rush to bankrupt much of Europe and America, Lewis strikes a jaunty and jaundiced tone that makes the very real horrors some way digestible. As with any decent travel book Lewis gives us a lively combination of anecdotes, colourful dialogue, just enough background to make it intelligible without swamping it in the density of economic history and a lively reflection and overview.

The Meltdown Tour’s first port of call is a surreal one as we join our guide in Reykjavik in a beautiful and almost deserted hotel, built at the height of Iceland’s economic boom. Lewis’s shtick is to identify a national characteristic in the country he is visiting and link this quickly sketched psychological profile to the behaviour that gave the country the particular angle on their experience of the boom and bust.

In the case of Iceland he combines the millennium-plus tradition in fishing with the way in which their young financial guns hit the markets. His thesis is that once they found a way to catch as many fish as was needed, with the smallest number of people, this left them free to try their hand at becoming big-shot investors.

For Lewis, they had a genetically hard-wired propensity to speculate and gamble, which they took from centuries of deciding when and where to cast nets, and took it into global finance.

The Icelandic story, as told by the visiting American, is comically strange and disturbing but is an appetiser for what happened in Greece.

Lewis clearly has a name and reputation that opens doors for him and he meets some of the key players in government, banking and financial speculating. The stories he tells from Greece are of endemic corruption.

One anonymous tax collector says during a cloak-and-dagger meeting: “It’s become a cultural trait. The Greek people never learned to pay their taxes. And they never did because no one is punished.” It is with a sense of dread and queasiness that one starts reading the Irish chapter. It goes head-long into a skewering of Anglo Irish Bank. Morgan O’Kelly’s words are quoted liberally and it’s easy to imagine Lewis’s disappointment at not getting an interview with O’Kelly for this book. Noting how little protest there has been on the streets he celebrates the egg-throwing pensioner at the AIB shareholder meeting in March 2009.

The book ends with California but the best chapter is on Germany’s knack for getting dirty while staying clean. For the book to be so entertaining when it could be catastrophically depressing is a praiseworthy achievement.

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