“The Oxford Murders” by Guillermo

This is a fascinating detective novel, particularly if you know and like Oxford, or if you know and like the world of mathematics and logic. If is just as fascinating if you are not especially up on these things, because the story swings between head and heart and concludes in an intriguing twist.

Martinez has graduated from the University of Buenos Aires with a thesis in algebraic topology and has a scholarship to Oxford. He moves into quarters in the house of an old professor’s wife, and her granddaughter, Beth. During his first two weeks he meets the famous Arthur Seldom, one of the leading minds in logic. Seldom pays a visit to Martinez’ apartment, because he has received a message announcing “The first of a series”, with the address of Mrs. Eagleton, and a time of arrival. What he walks in on is an old lady, murdered in her chaise longue. Further discussion with the police reveal Seldom’s message had included a perfect circle, or symbol, similar to symbols he had used in his own book of philosophy, which had a chapter on serial killers.

This book continues, as you can imagine, with more symbols, and more murders. But there is a surprising connection between Seldom, and the beautiful granddaughter, which is itself linked with the murderer’s convictions. It keeps you guessing til the end.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Giving” by Bill Clinton

giving.jpg If you’ve ever put down the daily paper and wondered, where has all the good news gone? you might try this book by ex-president and author, Bill Clinton.

Although it’s impossible not to look for the political angle, what you find instead is an amazingly level-headed, well-written account of what Clinton calls “an explosion of citizen service” since the conclusion of the Cold War. In a world where l00 million children in poor countries don’t go to school, and half the world’s people live on less than $2.00 a day, it’s perhaps no surprise that information technology and globalisation of commerce have made everyone more aware that the name of the game is sharing, so that all may benefit.

As for his involvement, Clinton points out that when he met Hilary in law school, she was working to provide legal services to the under-privileged. In Arkanas, she ran the legal aid clinic and prison project. She did it, he notes, because it made it her happy. Clinton himself left the White House in 200l. In 2002 he started the Foundation in his name and in 2005 convened the Clinton Global Initiative at the annual opening of the UN General Assembly. Their pledges rose from $2.7 million the first year to more than $7 million the following year.

This book looks at the various ways we can give: with money, time, things, skills, good ideas, even including organizing markets for the public good (companies are making money by cutting greenhouse gases in Denmark). He discusses the part governments can play. He examines non-governmental organizations and looks at the results of their giving and how these have to checked. He includes a thorough list at the back of the book of names, books and websites.

Next year may be an election year in the US….but this seems to me to be a book for all time.

Review by Anne McDougall

“The Law of Dreams” by Peter Behrens

lawofdreams.jpg This is the story of the Great Famine in Ireland and the violent adventures of young Fergus O’Brien who undertook to escape it.

Set in l846, in County Clare, the book describes the inhuman living conditions of farmers and their tenants ruled by overseas landlords. This is not a political account. Behrens points out in remarks at the end that the British people probably had no more idea of the suffering in Ireland than most of us in North America do of the people today living in Somalia, or Eritrea. “The Law of Dreams” simply recounts the horrific life Fergus experienced from the moment his father and mother and sisters were burned to death when their cabin was destroyed and he escaped, to tramp his way first to a ship to Liverpool, living a rough life with the Bog Boys en route, then to work on the railroad in Northern Wales, and finally to a ship going to Canada with a life on board that you can hardly believe for its suffering.

Fergus has both courage, and indomitable dreams. The Toronto Star points out that this book “has to resonate with North American readers, no matter how their ancestors came to these shores.”

It is vividly-written historical fiction, with a story you won’t soon forget.

Review by Anne McDougall

“The Last Chinese Chef” by Nicole Mones

This is a delicious novel. One reviewer in fact warns: avoid reading while hungry.

The Last Chinese Chef

It is written by an American, Nicole Mones, who ran a textile business for l8 years in China before returning to the U.S. where she writes for “Gourmet” magazine. She combines a sensitive knowledge of Chinese life with a love of food. And so we learn all kinds of things about the important place of cooking in Chinese life, and a reverence for food miles away from our careless attitude to Chinese takeout. Instead, the ceremony of preparing and dishing meals is central to the whole fabric of Chinese family life.

Against this tantalizing background rushes the story of an American journalist, recently widowed when her husband was killed in a car accident. Grief-struck, she accepts an assignment in Beijing to cover a legendary chef, American-born but half-Chinese. The story weaves gently and convincingly between the chef rediscovering his ancestors who had made their mark in the Chinese culinary world, and the American widow coming to grips with some of her own personal problems. Throughout the story they partake of fantastic dinners with menus and recipes for anyone interested…almost too many…but always impressive and surprising.

With China looming all around us, economically and politically, it’s both a pleasure and a help to dip into its ancient and stunning history regarding putting food on the table.

Nicole Mones has already won recognition for her books “Lost in Translation” and “A Cup of Light”. She has another winner with this one.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

cover-splendidsuns.jpg The author of the bestselling “Kite Runner” has written a second novel, and I must say I find it shattering.

It is set in Afghanistan, which of course is on all our minds as Canadian soldiers get killed there. The author Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has lived in the U.S. since l980, where he is a U.S. envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency. He brings to life in a startling way his home country’s misery in the midst of non-stop war.

This misery fills the lives of the families he describes: the illegitimate daughter who is married off to a cruel widower, and a second young girl who loses both parents in a bomb attack and has the same fate. The Washington Post Book World finds parts of “The Kite Runner” raw and excruciating to read and the same thing applies here . We get a picture of the Soviets departure, the war lords return and finally the Taliban. Reading about their ferocious rules in the newspaper is quite different from seeing how they apply, in this new book.

Hosseini writes sparely and vividly. The 25 years away from his country have not dimmed his awareness, nor his great affection for his own people. He shares this in “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. At times the story is heart-breaking.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“Consequences” by Penelope Lively

It is 20 years – and more than 20 books of fiction and non-fiction later – since the English writer Penelope Lively won the Booker Prize for “Moon Tiger”. Her new book,”Consequences” has all the charm and elegant understatement for which she is renowned.It is set in England and follows the love stories of three generations of one family. She concentrates on the women and shows how in each case they follow their heart, even when they are breaking conventional, society-based traditions.

The first pair leave London for a very rough, though beautiful, cottage in Somerset. There are truly lovely descriptions of the countryside, as well as their life together as Matt Faraday succeeds in making a living as artist-engraver. World War ll brings tragedy, and he is killed in action. By a series of extraordinary, but quite believable circumstances, the grand-daughter of this pair eventually follows her own passion for art and publishing and winds up at the original Somerset cottage – with an ending that even Penelope Lively doesn’t quite disclose.

Lively writes of the periods she knows so of course the book is dated – as shown by the touching photograph of Victoria Station in war-time London on the cover of the book. It only adds to the beauty of “Consequences”.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“The Good Husband of Zebra Drive” by Alexander McCall Smith

goodhusbandofzebradrive.jpg There is another Africa behind the headlines in the daily news, and Alexander McCall Smith takes us there every time he writes about Precious Ramotswe and her No. l Ladies’ Detective Agency. The first book in the series was a runaway bestseller, and this one has just as much charm, as it follows the adventures of Mrs. Ramotswe’s husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, as he takes on a case and tries to track down an errant husband.

The story is set in a small village in Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland).. McCall Smith was born in Botswana, and taught law at the university there, before returning to live in Edinburgh, which is now his home. He captures the big sky, the dirt roads that run beside the Notwane river, where crocodile lurk at the water’s edge. He also draws us into the compassion of the society, as well as the sharpness of Mrs.Ramotswe as she goes about in her tiny white van, picking up clues from neighbours who trust her. Although tactful about her husband’s temporary switch from running a big garage to trying his hand as detective, you feel a certain relief on her part as he concludes his “case” and slips happily back to mechanics , where he is a pro.

McCall Smith has a number of series running out of his Edinburgh office; the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series and the 44 Scotland Street series. Readers who love them all will welcome this new one

Reviewed by Anne McDougall.

“The Ladies Lending Library” by Janice Kulyk Keefer

ladies-lending-library.jpg This is summer cottage time in the Georgian Bay – but with a difference. The novel takes place in l963, and the families it describes came to Canada from the Ukraine, or Poland and are finding their way in a new life which challenges many of the old values and dearest memories. Not only have they just got settled in Toronto, or Hamilton, but now the problems of ill-equipped shabby cottages, endless chores of cooking and washing, as well as watching their l2-year olds as they rush down zig-zag paths to the beach almost overwhelm the mothers, as they wait all week for husbands to take the long drive up for the weekend.

Janice Kulyk Keefer concentrates on these women, waiting in Kalyna Bay, and forming a reading circle of what they considered daring titles to be kept hidden under their beds. Apart from a little gin and gossip, however, they are most excited by the new “Cleopatra” movie and the affairs, on and off the screen, of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

As the summer wears on we get a distinct impression of these newcomers trying above all to keep their group intact and conventional. The book’s ending therefore comes as a shocking surprise with the behaviour of the wife of the millionaire, and the strictest mother.

Janice Kulyk Keefer has won many prizes in Canada for her novels, short story collections, poetry and non-fiction. With this story she shows her skill and story-telling flair,as well as considerable sensitivity for a particular group of Canadians.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Two Innocents in Red China” by Pierre Trudeau and Jacques Hebert

twoinnocentsinredchina.jpg The subject is China – huge, baffling – but “Two Innocents in Red China” is a good book to tackle it.

We have the writing of not one but two Trudeaus: the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who wrote the original manuscript with a close friend, Jacques Hebert in l960, and also Trudeau’s son Alexandre, himself a ranking film-maker and journalist, who has reissued the book 47 years later with an up-to-date introduction of his own.

Trudeau and Hebert were left-wing intellectuals living in Montreal at the time Quebec was emerging from the dark days of Duplessis domination. They had both travelled considerably by the time the Red Chinese government’s “Cultural Association” was issuing invitations . Trudeau had in fact been in Shanghai in l949 just before the Communists routed Chiang Kai Chek. In l960 five Montrealers accepted China’s invitation and set off for a trip of 5 weeks that would cover 5000 miles.

At that time the West was in the throes of the Cold War and did not recognize Red China, which was very poor and feared by Westerners. The Two Innocents were to discover what was really going on – or at least what their hosts wanted them to see. Between them, Trudeau and Hebert describe quite frankly, and often amusingly, what it’s like to visit factory after factory, nurseries, hospitals, prisons, under the always-polite care of an interpreter and a guide who never leave them alone to talk privately to a Chinese citizen.

What they see is a total emphasis on work – which Mao had realized would give the down-trodden peasant class a sense of pride, as well as build prosperity for the Great Leap Forward. Even the political leaders were required to work one month a year in a workshop or in the fields.The result, the Canadians report, is a sea of smiling healthy children who today of course have built the new China, host to the Olympics and leading the world in economic expansion.

Margaret MacMillan, herself the author of “Nixon in China”,calls “Two Innocents” a charming period piece that gives a memorable picture of a China that has largely vanished. Even in l960 Trudeau and Hebert looked in vain for much of spiritual value. They longed to dream beside a Buddhist temple, or emperor’s tomb, but were whisked off to yet another film on the Red Army,or endless cups of tea before visiting a commune. Trudeau does slip off one evening and wanders the streets alone, without finding a single night-club – no jazz, no Scotch. He was gently reprimanded for the rest of the trip.

Still, you feel considerable sympathy on Trudeau’s part for a country which he points out had been invaded 40 times in the last century and a quarter, and which was struggling to improve conditions which meant 94% of the population lived in only 2/5th of the country. When he became Prime Minister ,of course,. he was the first Westerner to recognize Red China, in l970.

His son, Alexandre, writes a 33-page Introduction with some thoughtful insights into his father’s life and interest in China. He had planned to take his whole family to China when Tiananmen Square forced them to cancel. Alexandre also updates developments in China, based on his own travels there.

Altogether this is a fascinating look at the enormous country that has been so successful it may stifle in its own environmental excesses – something Mao did not consider.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Divisadero” by Michael Ondaatje

This is a story of colour and pathos that hurtles from the Gold Rush country of northern California, through the brawling casinos of Nevada, to land in the gentle countryside of south central France.

Ondaatje tells the intimate story of a father, two daughters, and an adopted boy who get into a violent fight that splits them forever. Anna eventually turns to writing and working in the archives, which takes her to France in pursuit of an early writer, Lucien Segura. His life, and losses, reflect much of her own ,and we are drawn into memories which skip backward and forward throughout the book.

The author of “The English Patient” and “In the Skin of a Lion” has had a taste of chop and change in his own life. Born in Ceylon, he has lived for some time in Toronto, with much travelling in between. It gives space and grandeur to his narrative, as well as deep feeling to his characters.

Review by Anne McDougall