BOOKS / In brief

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Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann, Phoenix House pounds 8.99. This young Irish writer hops into characters, predominantly Irish and American, with eerie aplomb: a gay man who works gutting fish, a middle-aged woman smuggling herself across the border from Canada to America, an old man who steals women's clothing, a young one working in a mental hospital. These diverse souls are memorably sketched, but there's something forced about the very facility, and more than a hint of portentousness. The best story conjures a taciturn Japanese decorator in an Irish backwater who eventually earns respect from his neighbours for his hard work and decency. Then McCann has to go and provide Osobe with a symbolic tic: he obsessively papers his own rooms, layer upon layer, until the walls bear down upon him. McCann's work is admirable and tiresome in equal measure.

The Blue Woman by Mary Flanagan, Bloomsbury pounds 13.99. A bumper crop of short stories, the best as rich and rounded as mini-novels. If Flanagan leaves a tale hanging in mid-air, it is in homage to the inconsequentiality of life, not just because she wants to be opaque. We don't really know what happens to Alice in the splendidly perverse and horrifying 'Alice's Ear', but are left with our own disquieted imaginations. In the menacing title story two English lovers stray into a Greek bar off the tourist trail; how much of their fear is simply due to holiday paranoia? Elsewhere, a middle-class white mother goes berserk and assaults a Bangladeshi child; Flanagan presents the facts and leaves the reader to decide whether the attack has a racial motive or no motive at all. It's not all horror, though: the female narrator of 'The Octopus Vase' doesn't have to do anything, she simply exists in hieratic purity, and the story brilliantly conveys the magic of personality. In the very brief 'May Day', Flanagan conveys the despair, disgust and jealousy of a young girl whose mother is preoccupied by the shenanigans of her senile grandmother in spare prose that echoes with pity and understanding for all three characters.

Pool by Ajay Sahgal, Picador pounds 5.99. This tale of rich, empty Hollywood lives is dedicated to 'Bret Ellis': it's depressing to think that this drab sicko is the tutelary deity of American literary youth. Sahgal's chronicle is predictably numbed, flattened, and short on characterisation: we never know exactly why the Keanu-like dumb- hunk narrator walks off his movie within days of its completion, jeopardising the entire multi-million dollar project, nor why he decides to return. Sahgal's main stylistic achievement is to present a phenomenally stupid narrator - and the bitching drunks, drop-outs and misogynists who are his groupies - in a deft, dryly amusing text. It's a bitter, disgruntled book which veers between humour and bile, and the occasional biting Hollywood in-joke underlines its sardonic authenticity.

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