by Jeanine Cummins
When Stephen King describes something as “one hell of a novel,” you sit up and take notice. And when, barely a few weeks into 2020, many reviewers start adding the same novel to their “best of the year” lists, you definitely watch out for it. So many times, that sense of anticipation can be such a let-down, but happily, for this reviewer, American Dirt more than lived up to all the advance hype. From the opening scene, it grabs the reader’s attention – Lydia and her son Luca hiding in a shower cubicle while the clatter of gunfire ricochets around the garden where their family had, minutes previously, been gathered to celebrate a birthday. A bookshop owner married to a journalist, Lydia knows all about the dangers of a city like Acapulco, and the oppressive threat of the drug cartels, but when the reality of “bodies as close as toppled dominoes” hits her own family, she knows she has to flee with Luca in order to keep them both alive. From here, the tension ratchets as they attempt to head to the safety of the U.S. without using bank cards or anything to alert their pursuers. A page-turner of the highest order.
$16.79 / Macmillan Publishers / 387 pages
Night Boat to Tangier
by Kevin Barry
The inside of Kevin Barry’s head must be a wild and exciting place to hang out, given the imagination that powers his madcap novels. Fiercely reminiscent of Pat McCabe – in his Butcher Boy heyday – Barry authored the wonderful Beatlebone about John Lennon’s island off the coast of Mayo (and planted the great man himself firmly in Clew Bay in an imagined primal scream escapade). Now, in his newest novel, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond sit on a bench in a ferry terminal in the old Spanish port of Algeciras. The two men have a long history of drug smuggling and various other antics, and they are waiting for Maurice’s estranged daughter, 23-year-old Dilly. They expect she will either be catching a ferry to Tangier or disembarking from one. Or so they have it on good authority. “It is a tremendous Hibernian dilemma – a broken family, lost love, all the melancholy rest of it – and a Hibernian easement for it is suggested: f**k it, we’ll go for an old drink.” Told mostly in dialogue, and with strong notes of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it’s a tale cheerfully told, but not recommended for those who prefer their narrative strictly linear and ordered.
$11.82 / Canongate Books / 232 pages
Grace in Winter
by Deirdre Purcell
Grace is the kind of selfless mother who puts others before herself and has spent years caring for others. Now that her children are grown, and her ex-husband Harry has found himself a new family, it should be her time to shine – but her youngest daughter Leonie has always been prone to explosive rages and still needs a lot of looking after. When Harry gives Grace and Leonie the gift of a winter cruise, in order to make sure Leonie is otherwise occupied and won’t interrupt a critical occasion, Grace hopes against hope that a change of scene will do them both good. But the cruise is a disaster, and Leonie’s paranoid fantasies create havoc. When she goes missing, Grace knows that things are not going to end well. But will she have the courage to make some tough decisions? There are glimpses throughout of Purcell’s old talent for character and story, but the book is something of a disjointed mess in parts, and the main relationships at its heart never really gel fully.
$16.10 / Hachette Books / 212 pages
by Sophie White
Ali Jones is an up-and-coming influencer who is keen to break the 10,000 benchmark of Instagram followers and maybe even scoop a Glossie Award. (In the absence of a glossary, the reviewer feels duty-bound to point out that sponcon is jargon for sponsored content, OOTD is outfit of the day, and mumfluencer is…well, you get the picture.) At the heart of the story, a young woman grieving for her dying father craves approval from the strangers in her phone, and longs to be part of the glossy, self-assured group of Irish social media darlings. Behind the screens, however, all is not necessarily so marvelous in their various glittery worlds. Über mama Hazel outsources most of the nitty-gritty parenting work to a team of staff, while Ireland’s biggest influencer Shelly has resorted to hiring a stand-in for her increasingly fed-up husband. When Ali mistakenly leads her followers to believe that she’s expecting a baby, the surge in follower interest stops her from ’fessing up. It’s an entertaining debut, with number two in the series already in the works, and an education for those to whom Instagram
remains a foreign land.
$15.44 / Hachette Books / 256 pages
Six Wicked Reasons
by Jo Spain
What do you do when the prodigal son returns? In the absence of a fatted calf, Frazer Lattimer – the domineering patriarch of a very fractured family – decides to summon all of the clan together when son Adam turns up after being missing for ten years. Adam’s mother has died in the interim, and his siblings are all over the country (and the world), but they gather obediently in Spanish Cove, well used to their father and his whims (not to mention his trust fund threats if they fail to jump at his command). They’re a troubled bunch – Ellen bitterly resents the others for forging lives away from home while she has remained living with Frazer and making improvements around the house; Clio has overstayed her welcome in New York City and is almost glad of the excuse to leave; James’s production company isn’t half the success he lets on, and he’s running out of money; and Kate has kept quite a few family secrets hidden from her husband Cheng. Lies, deceit, bullying, insecurity – all of the ingredients are perfectly placed by master chef Jo Spain to create the tasty treat she serves up in her third stand-alone thriller. She’s also the author of the Inspector Tom Reynolds police procedural series and is exceptionally prolific – having published eight novels since she debuted in 2015.
$15.24 / Quercus Publishers / 400 pages
Keep Your Eyes on Me
by Sam Blake
It was Mark Twain who once opined that “there is no such thing as a new idea,” and he had a point. Many books and films are variations on similar themes that, when boiled down to their absolute stripped-back simplicity, are actually almost the same thing. In her newest crime thriller, Sam Blake has started from the same premise as Strangers on a Train – the Patricia Highsmith classic noir novel that inspired the highly-praised Hitchcock film. In fact, if Blake had called her novel “Strangers on a Plane,” it would have been highly apt. Vittoria Devine and Lily Power find themselves next to each other in the airport, and subsequently on a flight to New York, and the two women strike it off so well that they end up confiding in each other about the people who’ve made their lives a misery. Lily’s beloved brother has lost their grandfather’s shop in a stupid bet, and the bullying winner is insisting on collecting his forfeit. Meanwhile, Vittoria has had it with her cheating husband, particularly now that his latest girlfriend is pregnant. By the time their plane lands in the Big Apple, the two women have concocted a plan that will see them wreak revenge on the men who’ve caused the upsets in their lives. Incredibly convoluted – a little too much at times – and fast-paced, this is one that forces you to keep your eyes firmly on the page. One blink in the wrong place and you could miss an entire plot twist.
$15.37 / Atlantic Books / 384 pages