Books: Independent Choice Autumn Blockbusters

Pick of the Week:

Mr MacGregor

by Alan Titchmarsh

Simon & Schuster, pounds 16.99

WHY IS "popular" a pejorative term? Such snobbish nonsense. The masses like Swan Lake, the Tower of London and The Hay Wain because they're rather good. And the same applies to much blockbuster fiction.

Maeve Binchy's publisher hopes to break a record with her new novel Tara Road (Orion, pounds 16.99, 488pp) and sell a million copies in hardback. They probably will, not least because it is gloriously free of literary pretension and reads jolly well. Plot is to fiction what melody is to music, and Binchy is mistress, like no other, of stories which sing out.

Bright, attractive and homely Ria Lynch lives in Dublin with her dishy husband and children in Tara Road, at the centre of a plausibly evoked network of friends. Ria's circle, free of shallow stereotypes, consists of folk we all know.

Sadly, it isn't only Ria who finds the smooth-talking Danny Lynch irresistible, and her marriage founders. Enter Marilyn Vine - a rather reserved American - who is silently failing to come to terms with a dreadful family tragedy.

She and Ria swap homes for the summer and each is instrumental in the rehabilitation of the other. There is no slushy writing or thinking and, by the time she reaches the end, Binchy bravely resists the temptation to fob us off with a fairy tale. Instead, we get a satisfyingly grown- up conclusion.

Mr MacGregor by Alan Titchmarsh (Simon & Schuster, pounds 16.99, 296pp) will certainly sell well too. We're not used to novels by gardening personalities, but this would be a fine debut whoever had written it. It's great fun, but also sensitive and sensible, with a tuneful story line.

Yorkshire-based Rob MacGregor is a TV gardening presenter, from humble origins, who also writes a column for a Sunday paper. Women fancy him in a big way. Against his better judgement, and to his later profound regret, Rob allows himself to be seduced by a praying-mantis type newsreader. Inevitably such perfidy sours the relationship with his real love, Katherine - although Titchmarsh eventually teases us with an ending worthy of a Victorian three-decker.

All this is set against the background of the trading problems of Rob's nurseryman father, and the politics of the TV studio. Mild mystery and gentle suspense propel the novel forward. Why, for example, is a predatory local businessman so keen to get his hands on MacGregor senior's nursery? Other colours are deftly blended on the Titchmarsh palette: a near-natural disaster, an elderly gay TV personality who drinks too much, and a thoughtful look at bereavement.

The Chelsea Flower Show provides a solid setting for a blossom-laden climax. The Titchmarsh fans in the Royal Horticultural Society and the National Trust whom he sends up so gently (and I have to confess to being a member of both) will lap up Mr MacGregor.

Ben Elton's Blast from the Past (Bantam, pounds 15.99, 271pp) and Frank Delaney's Desire and Pursuit (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99, 390pp) are a tad more "literary". Their more complex and less predictable narrative forms, and slightly more acidic tone, make them marginally more robust reads than Binchy and Titchmarsh.

In Ben Elton's novel, the past blasts into Polly Slade's life in the form of Jack Kent, a US army general, bastion of right-wing values. Polly, former drop-out and Greenham Common protester, is his diametric opposite. Yet their love for each other, was and is, passionate and graphic - and the writing is spiky and fast.

But Jack, then in his thirties, abandoned the 17-year-old Polly without explanation or apology because association with her would have hindered his career. Now he's in her London flat at 2.15 am, after 16 years of silence, to ensure that no word of their earlier liaison is ever revealed lest his long-term presidential aspirations be put in jeopardy.

This would be simple if the sexual charge between them, powerfully evoked by Elton, were not still so strong, and were it not for the intrusive proximity of another man, an obsessive who has been stalking Polly and making her life a misery for years. Blast from the Past is a thriller, a love story and a comedy. The Tess of the D'Urbervilles ending certainly made me chuckle.

Desire and Pursuit consists of two first-person narratives twisted together into a fat plait of a story: a sort of The Woman in White meets The Collector. Ann Ryan's story is gut-turningly cruel, while Christopher Hunter's is uncomfortably obsessive, although much he is much more benign than Polly Slade's stalker.

Hunter, an English journalist in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, catches sight of Ann Ryan's wedding from a distance and falls in love with the bride. Delaney gradually unravels both their stories over a number of years against the background of The Troubles, although the reader always knows more about Ann and Christopher than they ever know about each other.

Ann is the victim of her husband Joey and of her own parents. In time, she finds a way to exact cold revenge, although the new man in her life counsels forgiveness and peace.

Delaney's ending seems rather contrived. An incident tantamount to resurrection, an all-too-convenient terminal illness and an unlikely impending new relationship certainly stretched the credulity of this reader. Nonetheless I kept turning the pages and Delaney's prose, as ever, drops melodiously on the ear like soft Irish rain.

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