Love stories for under the mistletoe
In times like these a little escapism helps and any of the following would be welcome under the Christmas tree.
First up has to be Cathy Kelly's Homecoming (HarperCollins). There was no new Marian Keyes or Cecelia Ahern this year, but even if there had been Kelly's latest novel would probably have taken pride of place. It's one of her best -- a multi-layered story about an elderly emigrant who comes back from the US after her husband dies and settles in a square in Dublin where she gradually gets involved in the lives of the women who live there. This is about as far from the 'three best friends in an office' formula as you can get. These are real women of all ages and Kelly's warm, funny storytelling is both realistic and uplifting.
Sinead Moriarty's Pieces of My Heart (Penguin Ireland) is a clever blend of the tragic and comic, which is this writer's forte. It's about a typical doing-her-best mum, with a husband submerged in business, two teenage daughters (one of whom is developing serious anorexia) and a widower father who is going off the rails on Viagra. They're all pieces of her heart, which is breaking under the strain.
Poolbeg do a big charity book every year and the one this Christmas is a real winner. The Big Book of Hope is a collection of more than 40 fiction and non-fiction pieces by a distinguished line-up that includes Maeve Binchy, Joe O'Connor, Alex Barclay and Julia Kelly, as well as weather woman Evelyn Cusack and businessmen Denis O'Brien and Bill Cullen. Some of the stories are wonderful, but the most moving piece is non-fiction -- Martina Devlin's account of caring for her mother after a massive stroke, which alone is worth the price of the book. A trove to be dipped into for moments of peace during the Christmas mayhem. All proceeds go to the The Hope Foundation, the Irish charity that cares for street children in Calcutta.
Stand By Me by Sheila O'Flanagan (Headline) has echoes of the financial collapse, with a woman deserted by her husband when his business goes belly-up. From being the compliant wife of one of the country's highest flyers, she now has to start again and find herself in the process. She survives and in time begins to blossom with a new man on the horizon, when suddenly (as they do) the hubby arrives back, expecting life to carry on as before.
Two to Tango by Nuala Woulfe (Poolbeg) is a thoroughly modern story about mum-of-three Jennifer who can't settle and is bored with her struggling husband. She finds a soulmate in Rebecca whose marriage is also faltering. Together the two women try everything from Latin dancing to rugby, lingerie parties and toy boys to rekindle the spark they remember their lives having in their 20s. It's all a bit Desperate Housewives Irish-style, but it's a laugh and an effective antidote to the gloom and doom that surrounds us.
Pearl by Deirdre Purcell (Headline) is a return to the novel by one of the country's best writers. The 'Pearl' of the title is also a successful writer, Pearl Somers, who 40 years earlier was a little girl living with her family in the gate lodge of a castle in 1920s rural Ireland, where her father was the chauffeur.
Dramatic events happen which upset her and those around her, including the family which owns the castle, changing all their lives forever. Pearl has buried all this ... but 40 years on secrets begin to emerge.
Missing Julia by Catherine Dunne (Macmillan) -- when Julia goes missing without warning, William is catapulted into a life he's never imagined.
As he pieces together Julia's movements in the week of her disappearance, William begins to learn that the woman he loves has a past and a secret she has never shared. Another thoughtful novel from Dunne, who is a bestseller in Italy and famously the favourite writer of Berlusconi's former wife.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Penguin) has been on the bestseller list here for months. And with good reason. The book by Mississippi-raised first-time novelist Stockett has been called "the other side of Gone with the Wind". It's the story of the black maids in the grand homes of Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s who raise white children but aren't trusted not to steal the silver . . . and of how boundaries are crossed when a young white woman wonders why her beloved maid has disappeared. A great story that would make a captivating gift.