“Talking about Detective Fiction” by P.D. James

talkaboutdetectivefiction.jpeg If anyone is well-equipped to tell the story of detective fiction it must be P.D.James, herself a leading figure in this popular genre.

Her new book “Talking about Detective Fiction” is a delight in many ways. James takes the historical perspective to show how writers like Dickens enriched his own story-telling with elements of mystery in a book like “Bleak House”. In the U.S., writer Wilkie Collins does the same thing in “The Woman in White”.

In England in the l930’s women writers like Dorothy Sayers wrote about an age of anxiety, before the welfare state was introduced and with growing threat from fascist dictators abroad. While the British writers tried to bring order out of disaster and wrote about tranquil village life, in the U.S. writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were showing the social upheavals of the same period when prohibition, gangsters, boom and depression were in full swing. “The Maltese Falcon” came out of this, as well as Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe.

Much of the pleasure in reading James’ book comes from finding your own favorite detectives, and remembering books you loved. She has a special place for the “breaker of all the rules”, Agatha Christie.

James herself must have broken most of the rules with twenty books to her credit – many of them made into films, or broadcast on television. In 2000 she celebrated her 80th birthday and now lives in London, as Baroness James of Holland Park , where she was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame in 2008.

Review by Anne McDougall

“The Man in the Wooden Hat” by Jane Gardam

manwoodenhat.jpeg There’s just nothing like a good story, and Jane Gardam knows how to tell one. It’s a treat when a new book comes out by her.

“The Man in the Wooden Hat” is the tale of Betty Feathers, wife of Sir Edward Feathers whom we met in “Old Filth”. Even without knowing Sir Edward, his wife stands out as a thoroughly colourful character on her own. Together they constitute a very British marriage: entirely original and unexpected in fifty years of being together.

Gardam paints vivid shots of the old Empire,when British barristers could call the tune on British Law in any corner of India, Hong Kong, etc. In this story, old Filth was a Raj orphan, sent to England for lonely school studies which finally culminated in his highly successful law career. He needed a wife and finally found one: Elizabeth Macintosh, herself orphaned after terrible years in an Internment Camp.

Much of the story takes place in Hong Kong and the East comes exotically to life. Then England, where once again Gardam takes you into a tiny village in Dorset, damp, lovable, full of odd characters. The book has deeply sad moments, as well as high comedy.

Jane Gardam has written some sixteen novels, many of them winning prizes. She is the only writer to have won the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel of the Year twice. She lives with her husband in England.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Last Night in Twisted River” by John Irving

lastnighttwistedriver.jpeg John Irving’s new novel begins with the death of a young Canadian on the big log-driving river, the Androscoggin, in New Hampshire. It takes its violent story for 50 years, moving from New Hampshire to Boston, to south Vermont, to Toronto. Irving sees this period as a massive change in America’s way of life.

Logging is not the only industry that is dying. The country is seen as moving into a post-imperial status, and away from its cherished “manifest destiny”.

The Manchester Guardian notes that in this book, Irving brings up a lot of the stories in his earlier books. The Guardian calls this “a playful novel, toying with the stock elements of the rugged American literary tradition associated with the frontier spirit.”

All readers of John Irving will recognize the powerful story-line that races through generations and locales. Irving believes it’s an accidental world and we should beware anticipations of who we are.

This is Irving’s twelfth novel. He has won the National Book Award for “The World according to Garp”, as well as the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Cider House Rules “- a film with seven Academy Award nominations.

Review by Anne McDougall

“A Week in December” by Sebastian Faulks

weekdecember.jpeg This is an appropriate book for right now.

The novel “A Week in December” tells the stories of seven people living in London, U.K.. Among them are a hedge-fund manager, poised to bring off the biggest trade of his career, a student who has been brain-washed by Islamist theory, a schoolboy hooked on drugs, and a Circle Line train driver,who joins them all together in a daily loop.

Faulks is a daring story-teller and writes with great skill about the self-deception and greed of these people. He brings in their loves and hopes as well, however, so that we are drawn in to the way the electronic age fragments modern life and end up thoroughly involved in what is going to happen to them. The conclusions are convincingly upbeat.

Faulks lives in London and knows it intimately. He is well-known for earlier novels, such as “The Girl at the Lion d’Or,” “Birdsong” and “Charlotte Gray”. This book is a fine yarn for the Christmas season, or any other season.

Review by Anne McDougall

“What is Stephen Harper Reading?” by Yann Martel

whatstephenharperreading.jpegCanada must be the only country in the world where a published author could send a list of books to the head of state, suggesting what he might read, and then have the list published.

Yann Martel is the Canadian author of the popular “Book of Pi”. He was invited to Ottawa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council, along with a large group of other artists, dancers, musicians, etc. While sitting in the House of Commons, he looked down at the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and it occurred to him to share his love of reading with him.

As a result, on April l6, 2007, he wrote Mr. Harper a note and posted off a copy of “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, by Leo Tolstoy. He received a polite acknowledgement from Mr.Harper’s office. Martel has been posting him a book every second week from then until quite recently. He has received only one other acknowledgement…other-wise silence.

He sent 55 books in all and you can imagine the incredible range of authors he includes – all the way from Shakespeare, to Northrup Frye—from Paul McCartney to Michael Ignatieff. The covering notes describe the book and why Martell likes it. They are informative and neither patronizing nor impertinent. Martell is disappointed in Mr. Harper’s silence. At least he was not rebuffed.
And for the rest of us, the list is well worth reading.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Family Album” by Penelope Lively

familyalbum.jpeg This is a new novel by the amazing British writer, Penelope Lively.

In “Family Album” we are taken into a big Edwardian house, set in a quarter acre garden, in which a family of six children grow, eventually leave home for fame and fortune, only to return again and again to the spot that made them what they are.

Lively concentrates on Alison, the rather blowsy, pink-cheeked mother, who will tell anyone who will listen that motherhood and home-making and cooking have been her passions and she will pursue them to the end. She does –with usually benign, sometimes disastrous results: both on her taciturn, writer-husband, and six children. There is a mystery in this brood, involving the au pair girl Ingrid, and it hangs over the household until the very end.

Lively takes the story into present day, when the girls all get jobs, don’t go in for full-time mothering and cooking, in fact barely start families at all. It’s a provocative look at everyday life, not only in the U.K.. One son lives in Toronto with a Chinese-Canadian wife, a daughter in Italy, another in Paris.

Lively has won numerous prizes for her twenty books of fiction and non-fiction. Critics praise her subtle understatement, also her “blend of romance and stinging commentary”. Perhaps what endears her most is her compassion toward her characters. That certainly happens in “Family Album”.

Review by Anne McDougall

“A Life Like Other People’s” by Alan Bennett

alifelikeotherpeoples.jpeg This is a very touching and down-to-earth story of his own family by the famed British dramatist, Alan Bennett.

Known and loved for his work on Beyond the Fringe, numerous stage shows, as well as books including “The Uncommon Reader”, Alan Bennett is completely frank in describing his growing up over a butcher’s shop in the manufacturing city of Leeds, Yorkshire. His father ran the shop. The house had no front hall. It did have great affection between his parents, his brother and himself as well as happy, often hilarious times, with a pair of unconventional aunts.

All this came to an end when the family moved to a small nearby village – “to be in the country”. His mother was stricken with depression and later dementia. His father had to learn to drive a car and made the 50-mile round trip to the hospital every day. Bennett has written the true and heart-breaking story of “care-giving”. He does it without any of the “splother” that his family despises, and it is very affecting and courageous in its frankness.

Not a jolly book for Christmas – but a good one just the same.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Generation A” by Douglas Coupland

Generation A This is a jolting new novel by the young Vancouver writer, Douglas Coupland. It’s the story of five young people in different parts of the world, who get stung by a bee.

This is at a time in the near future when bees are supposed to be extinct. The result is tremendous pressure to isolate this group and try to analyse them. Why were they picked to be stung?

One of them, Diana from North Bay,Ontario,admits that they are “damaged goods – deeply isolated in our own ways”. Coupland probes their isolation in rapid, modern prose. When they all get together,they find a way to get in touch by writing and telling stories. This is the world of cell phones, Blackberries, Ipods – all things that tend to make life faster but not necessarily closer.

Coupland takes an original look at this fast, modern world and the loneliness it may be leading us into – quite unsettling for an older reviewer !! – but energetic and provocative. He has written an international bestseller,”JPod”, and nine novels which have been widely translated and published in most countries around the world.

Review by Anne McDougall