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Identity, love and loss

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux Faber & Faber (2013) €21.50 ****

TWO questions: Can a book of big ideas be funny? Can I actually write this review without spoilers?

I was taken aback by the first laugh I got out of Theroux's novel about identity, love and loss. I mean, this had some sci-fi aspects to it as well as greater philosophical queries related to what makes us who we are as human beings, so my first snort of laughter caught me unawares. It's not like you'll be ROTFL, LYAO, but still, it was a refreshing and appealing experience. You don't get many laughs out of, say, Frankenstein; although Mary Shelley's classic is impossible not to invoke when talking about this book, this is a work unto its self, one that understands its antecedents but at the same time breaks new ground.

Dr Nicholas Sheldon is dead – or is he? He has landed up in a mental hospital and has managed to convince his keepers that a little computer access isn't going to adversely affect his progress back to sanity. What is sanity? Is it knowing the truth about oneself? What if that truth isn't considered plausible? Sheldon was a fatality in a car accident, but if what this man says is true, the Johnson scholar and academic has come back from the dead. But was he ever really truly alive?

Ah! So many questions, so many permutations of so-called truth . . . Theroux paces his narrative like a champ, except when it gets bogged down a little bit before the big reveal of the machinations of a group of biotech gangsters based in the former Soviet Union. Fantastic! The world has been a poorer place for the lack of Cold War baddies.

Apart from this tiny go-slow, the novel is a rich combination of deep thoughts, unexpected amusement and the terrifying notion that the identity that we create for ourselves could be used against us. Great stuff.

Despite their apparent differences, one book dovetailed into another this week.

The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper Hodder (2013) €10 ***

HERE are more big ideas. In Greek mythology, Orpheus descended into the underworld in order to rescue his wife, Eurydice, and wooed her release from Hades and Persephone. It didn't end well. Here, Jonah is searching for his wife, Lucy, an archaeologist who has gone missing with a golden tablet that is said to possess magical powers. Interspersed with this is the story of Plato – yes, the philosopher Plato – who is on an odyssey of his own. Philosophy meets mystery meets time travel! It's entertaining, if slow-going in parts.

Police by Jo Nesbo Harvill Secker (2013) €27.50 **

HERE'S a mystery without the philosophy: Harry Hole is on his ninth outing, and the Scandinavian police procedural novelist is in typically grim form. In the last number of years, I've found myself drawn increasingly to the crime genre and am able for some truly strange stuff, but Nesbo's crimes are stunningly gruesome and make for hard reading. The premise is brilliant – a serial killer lures policemen and women to the sites of an unsolved crime on that crime's anniversary and ambushes them – but the plot contrivances are too pat, and Harry comes into the mix awfully late.

Holy Orders by Benjamin Black Mantle (2013) €18.75 ***

Speaking of series: I'm always sorry to start reading one late in the game. This is the sixth novel featuring 1950s pathologist Quirke. He drinks too much, he's cranky, he's a rubbish dad – all the tropes one expects to be applied to a man of a certain age, in any age of Irish history. John Banville – I mean, Black – brings an elegant tone to a hard-boiled genre; but the pacing of the mystery-solving bit is not on par with the prose. The time period is perfectly wrought, however: you can almost feel the coal dust sinking into your skin, along with the incessant rain.

The City of Strangers by Michael Russell Avon (2013) €7.99 ****

EVEN farther back in time, and as perfectly wrought as the above, here we are in pre-World War Two Ireland and New York which take centre stage in this political thriller/spy/police procedural. It's the second novel featuring Garda Sergeant Stefan Gillespie; I read Russell's The City of Shadows in 2012, and it felt comfortable knowing some of the former detective's background.

Russell does well with the New York scenes, and mixes real-life people with his fictional squad. As in his first novel, the Gate Theatre once again is implicated: the wife of an influential doctor is missing, presumed dead, and her actor son has gone on tour to New York with the troupe from the northside venue. Cinematic writing meets spot-on pacing and the details are well-researched – you may just learn something.

A Gift to Remember by Melissa Hill Simon & Schuster (2013) €18.75 **

AND then I read another book set in Manhattan. I love a hot romantic comedy, and this is only tepid, sadly. When Darcy Archer ploughs into Aiden Harris on her bike and Aiden suffers amnesia, she finds herself going above and beyond the call of duty, even though she flattened him: she has to take care of his dog, and she has to help him put his memory back together.

The number of implausibilities are many and the reminder of that Sandra Bullock movie nags the brain. Lovely evocation of NYC, though; it would have made me homesick had I not just been.