Review of Donna Leon’s “About Face”

aboutface.jpg Donna Leon is a generous writer. Anyone who has read any of her seventeen mystery novels to date will know that she gives not one story but three.

There is the central plot of crime and intrigue that holds the novel together. But always running alongside this is the enchanting story of the leading detective’s family life. And behind these themes is the ever-haunting presence of the city of Venice itself. Leon has lived there for over 25 years and writes about the beauty, the danger and corruption lurking in the exquisite palazzos, the sense of style, love of food and overall Venetian glamour that really takes you down the canals in the gondolas with her leading characters.

“About Face” has its own story of murder, which comes very close to the family of Guido Brunetti, the detective in charge. It is at a dinner party at the house of his father-in-law, Count Falier, that he meets a woman who turns out to be involved in his investigation into a suspicious death.

The violence is dangerous but does not overcloud an excellent detective story. Donna Leon has done it again; it’s a fine read.

Review by Anne McDougall

A review of Mavis Gallant’s “Going Ashore”

Mavis Gallant Going Ashore Mavis Gallant is our best-known expatriate writer. She has won all the top prizes Canada has to offer, including Companion to the Order of Canada, and is also recognized internationally as a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

She was born in Montreal in l922, and became a leading journalist in that city. Divorced, she left in l950 to live in Paris and write short stories. Her first pieces were accepted by The New Yorker, and she has been writing them ever since – enough, Robertson Davies once surmised, to add up to twenty novels.

She herself has travelled a lot between Quebec, New England, France and Germany and writes sensitively about all these cultures, giving vivid pictures of the spots she features. Often the characters seem a bit lonely for whatever they crave for home. There is a bitter after-taste in stories like “The Rejection” and “Sunday Afternoon”. But always a rollicking movement of life pressing on and what Alberto Manguel calls in his introduction, “the sense of things”.

With the world getting smaller every day, and globalisation all around us, Mavis Gallant feels ahead of her time in what her probing, compassionate stories are trying to tell us.

Review by Anne McDougall

Saturday the 18th book launch: “This Is How I Love You”

This Is How I love You

Barbara Landry will be launching her new book of poetry, “This Is How I Love You” on Saturday April 18th at 11am.

The poems in This is How I Love You are about the deep familial and spiritual bonds that exist at a visceral level. The inner dialogue surrounding these bonds is the raw material Landry draws from. She writes about losing a beloved sister, a God who whispers in her ear, a solitary afternoon in a Cuban café. Landry doesn’t shy away from the big questions and tackles them with courage and humour. With a language that is easily accessible, one containing a distinct musicality and rhythm, these poems leave an imprint on both the ear and the heart.

You can also order Barbara Landry’s books through our online store.

“The Extraordinary Event of Pia H.” book launch on the 18th!

The Extraordinary Event of Pia H.Nicola Vulpe will be signing copies of his new title, “The Extraordinary Event of Pia H.”, at Books on Beechwood. The event takes place on April 18th at 11am.

Quill and Quire have published a review of Nicola’s book on their site. Here’s an excerpt:

The Extraordinary Event of Pia H. is superficially a tale of a wife gone missing from a Spanish plaza – miraculously vanished into thin air, if two elderly doñas are to be believed – and a frantic husband’s search for her. However, within the story’s dense, dreamlike folds of shifting identities, questionable realities, and a cryptic parallel narrative, deeper and darker possibilities exist.

“Nicola Vulpe is one of Canada’s most intriguing and imaginative authors. The Extraordinary Event of Pia H. is a story of dark miracles, but the real miracle is the writing: dense, playful — and utterly engaging.”
–Mark Frutkin, author of Fabrizio’s Return

Nicola Vulpe’s books are available to order through our online store.

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

guernsey_cover.jpg This is a simply delightful little novel set mainly on the island of Guernsey, the British island once occupied by the Nazis.

The date is l946. The book takes the form of letters written to and from a London journalist, Juliet Ashton. A resident of Guernsey had come across Juliet’s name on the flyleaf of a book she had once owned, by Charles Lamb. Juliet helps him find more writing by Lamb and this leads to the discovery of an unusual book club founded on Guernsey as an alibi to protect its members from arrest by the Germans. It is called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Juliet has just published a book of her own and while enjoying the subsequent wining and dining, is on the lookout for a new subject to
write about. The Guernsey connection develops great appeal and she goes over to the island. She continues her letters to her publisher and friends in London and what she discovers is a delightful group of people on the island of Guernsey who survived desperate conditions during the war, with great courage and humour. She is drawn into this society and the story takes a convincing and romantic turn.

It’s a charming read. The author is Mary Ann Shaffer, an American editor who had flown to England to do research on another book when she became intrigued by the story of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands. She was helped by her niece, Annie Burrows, an author herself.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Butterfly Mind” by Patrick Brown

“Butterfly Mind”  by Patrick Brown Patrick Brown may have a “butterfly mind”, as one of his teachers described him, but whether in a book like this, or in an international radio or television broadcast, he certainly writes a mean story.

Born in Birmingham, England, and educated at Downing College, Cambridge, he started reporting in Montreal in the l970’s during the Quiet Revolution. His success took him to many of the major political events of the past quarter century, including the Solidarity Movement in Gdansk, Poland; Cambodia where Brown covered the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the war in Afghanistan.

Brown first visited China in l989 during the Tiananmen Square protests. He has returned many times, and in fact now lives in China.

A distinct thread in Brown’s memoir is his addiction to, and recovery from alcohol. He is open and candid about the part it played in his journalistic career and just as candid about the devastation he experienced before he got help and gave it up.

He devotes the whole last third of the book to China and acknowledges that the country’s size and complexity make it impossible to predict which way it is going to turn. Which doesn’t stop his mind from flitting from one vivid picture to another. His book is particularly timely, designed as it is to come out on the eve of the recent Beijing games. He shares some fascinating thoughts.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Coventry” by Helen Humphreys

“Coventry”  by Helen Humphreys This is a brilliant short novel – l75 pages – set in the cathedral town of Coventry, England.

It takes place, mainly, on the night of November l4, l940 when the Germans bombed Coventry and the whole city, including the cathedral, went up in flames.

Harriet Marsh is on fire duty at the church. She lost her husband in l9l4 at the Battle of Ypres and this new war has chilling memories for her. Beside her is young Jeremy Fisher, another fire-fighter, whose artist-mother was a casual friend of Harriet’s. They set off together to try to find his mother, trudging through a city smashed and burning and full of shattering casualties.

Humphreys writes a deceptively simple prose. But her situations and careful details pack a decided punch in their under-statement. This is really a story of the loss suffered by two women – set against the background of the enormous loss of Coventry itself. But for each woman there is the blessedness of love recovered. It makes for a succesful book based on a city that has become almost a symbol for World War ll.

Helen Humphreys is a Canadian author, living in Kingston, Ontario. She has written five prize-winning novels as well as a non-fiction work “The Frozen Thames”.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“The Killing Circle” by Andrew Pyper

“The Killing Circle”  by Andrew Pyper Andrew Pyper is a Toronto author already widely acclaimed for three novels and a collection of short stories. This new book is a murder mystery. It’s pretty menacing and hard to put down.

Part of the intrigue is the Toronto setting. A journalist, single father, who lives off Queen Street, decides to join a creative writing circle to pick up his own imagination. At this time a murderer is striking at random in the city, leaving a trail of mutilation and taunting the police with cryptic notes.

The members of the group read out the shady parts of their lives. One of them told of a child-stealer called the Sandman. The author is intrigued by this, steals the story and develops it into a book that becomes a best-seller.

He will pay dearly for his theft when the woman who had introduced the Sandman originally goes after him, and his own son is kidnapped.

The book delves into the interplay between real-life, and fiction. We see what happens when someone is actually fooled by the distinction and hardly knows how to find the way back to reality. The book is terrifying in spots. It is also very convincing.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Horses in her Hair” by Rachel Manley

“Horses in her Hair”  by Rachel Manley This is the story of Edna Manley, wife of Norman Manley , the Jamaican leader who brought the country its independence.

It is written by her granddaughter, Rachel Manley, who was part of her grandmother’s life both in England, where Edna was born, and later in Jamaica where Edna went when she married Norman Manley.

Edna was the daughter of an English missionary who had served in Jamaica and married a West Indian girl. When Edna married ,she was returning to her mother’s country, which she had heard about in glowing terms all her life. The book gives a very perceptive picture of the coloured race in the Caribbean and how it gradually got a grip on power that had been British.

Edna is very much part of this, as would be her two sons. But she has another whole side to her: she is an artist and sculpts in wood and stone – pieces which make her name in Britain as well as in Jamaica. The book illustrates this work; one of the most striking is called “Horse of the Morning” carved in wood. She also initiated the island’s first literary magazine and won the love of writers and philosophers throughout the Caribbean.

Her granddaughter Rachel has an impressive literary career of her own. She serves on the creative writing faculty at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. and has won prizes for her poetry, as well as Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for “Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood” and “Slipstream: A Daughter Remembers”. She divides her time between Toronto and Jamaica.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Payback” by Margaret Atwood

“Payback”  by Margaret Atwood Margaret Atwood is world-famous for her fiction, non-fiction, poetry and books for children. These books have not all been “timely” — or even meant to be. But in “Payback”, she hits the jackpot. At a time when the whole world is going through a period of economic upheaval, she looks at the question of debt not just as a part of high finance, but as it has been part of our lives for centuries, in religion, literature and social human history.

Her book “Payback” came out originally as the 2008 Massey lectures. It was published just as the financial world was shaken by the collapse of a debt pyramid called “sub-prime mortgages”. Atwood points out this attitude had been building for some time. In l950 the first credit card was issued in Canada. By l955 the Canadian household debt-to-income ratio was 55%. By 2003 it was l05.2% and in the U.S. ll4%.

Debt could not exist, she notes, without our sense of fairness. This goes back a long way – to the Code of Hammurabi in biblical times, i.e. an eye for an eye. In old Egyptian and Chinese cultures it’s the Tao, or Way; in India the Karmic justice, i.e. return of good for good, evil for evil.

We are going through a period when debt has passed through a harmless and fashionable period and is reverting to being sinful, examples starting with the payment of dowries, selling people, and slavery. Atwood looks at Christianity and original sin and the question of the debt of sin. A chapter called Shadow Side examines what happens when people don’t pay their debts, e.g. debtors’ prisons.

She gives the book a lift when she looks at literature, e.g.Shakespeare and Hamlet: “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, and Charles Dickens, with lots of examples from Ebenezer Scrooge. Her last chapter is called Payback and she ponders how we look at things, wondering whether we should add things up differently and calculate the real costs of how we’ve been living. This leads to the huge world of natural resources and what we’ve been taking out of the biosphere. Perhaps another book?

Book Review by Anne McDougall