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Ryan the ace of hearts

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan Doubleday (2014; paperback) €6.49, *****

THE reception of Ryan's debut novel is the stuff author's dreams are made of: it won the Guardian's First Book Award, was long-listed for the Man Booker, and won Book of the Year and Newcomer of the Year at the Bord Gaís Energy awards. It has been released once more, for yet another round of plaudits, and deserves every single one.

It looks small, but then so do hand grenades. In a rural Irish town, the cornerstone business, in the form of the construction firm, goes bust, and with it the fortunes of everyone in the locality. It's not enough that there were dirty dealings going on, but the insult to the injury is that this supposedly tight-knit town has betrayed itself.

All the little indignities that are generally taken as par for the course in the run of daily life turn into raging offences, trickling down the generations and laying toxic ground for those yet to come.

It's rather too handy to cite past and present generations of writers when talking about Ryan's astonishing debut, and the possible influences thereon.

Rather than cite names, it is more relevant to point to a robust tradition of the Irish writer's ability to evoke time, place, and circumstance through the spoken word of characters.

Ryan constructs his tale through the voices of 21 protagonists, each one taking centre stage to speak his or her piece, each one with their own discreet voice, yet each one's speech imbued with the rhythms of the locality. Each person has his or her own grievances, sense of humour, insights, dreams, hates, and loves, and each story is embedded in the whole in a flawless depiction of life in a small town. Ryan handles each and every one with aplomb, and the richness of the storytelling, and the sound of those voices, are haunting and heartbreaking.

Speaking of hearts: for the time of year that is in it . . .

The Unpredictable Consequences of Love by Jill Mansell Headline (2014) €21.50 ***

MANSELL is a deft spinner of love stories, and this is no different: Josh fancies Sophie, Sophie is all like, 'Thanks, but no thanks' and it takes off from there. Mansell is also very, very good at atmosphere and sense of place, and the Cornwall setting makes one want to rush off there, even in the dead of this rubbish winter we're in, because her treatment of the setting is that cozy and appealing.

As good as she is at managing a large cast of characters, this felt somewhat oversubscribed by people, and the book that tiny bit too short – even at 384 pages – to utterly satisfy.

Douglas: Lord of Heartache by Grace Burrowes Sourcebooks Casablanca (2014; eBook) €4.54 ****

A GOOD book series is just like a good television show: you become invested in the fates of the characters, and just want to keep watching – or in this case, reading. A good romance set in the Regency era is like Jane Austen, but with sexiness, a costume drama in which the costumes most assuredly come off. Burrowes is terrific at narratives that warm the heart (and other bits); here, she is as good as ever, although it felt like there wasn't enough of those favourites from other books making appearances.

How to Fall in Love by Cecilia Ahern HarperCollins (2013) €14.99 ***

THE popular author takes on a serious subject to weave into a romance, that of the suicide epidemic in Ireland. It's always tricky, and it is achieved here with mixed effect.

Christine talks Adam out of jumping off the Ha'penny Bridge by claiming that if he gives her a month's time, she can give him reasons to live. The usual falling in love business ensues – which I love, just so you know – but the action is hampered by some very go-slow, dense prose, and Christine's one-woman anti-suicide campaign is hard to credit. One might say that this genre is all about escapism – maybe, but not when there's that serious issue at stake.


Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy Arrow (2006; new edition) €11.45 *****

I KIND of hated the movie a lot: I mean, Minnie Driver was adorbz, but Chris O'Donnell and wonky accent? This is La Binchy at her very best, making us love Benny and Eve right from the off, yearning for them to have wonderful, happy lives, and without any of that openly smutty nonsense, if that's not your thing. It's also a little love letter to life on our small island, which makes it even richer for its sheer fondness. And, once you read one Binchy, you'll be off to find another . . . Hmmm: Evening Class or Quentins?