“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

“Pierre Berton” by A.B. McKillop

“Pierre Berton”  by A.B. McKillop This is a big book about a big man, Pierre Berton.

Known to every Canadian who read a newspaper or watched TV over the last 50 years, Berton was one of the leaders who brought Canada out of the shadow of the U. K. and U.S. and helped shape our own history and identity.

He did it as a writer on Macleans and The Toronto Star, and on TV on the long-running Front Page Challenge. He published a string of best-selling books such as The Klondike, The Last Spike, The Comfortable Pew. Berton was born in Whitehorse, eventually went south to the University of British Columbia where he wrote for the college paper, and then settled in to the publishing world of Toronto. He was a devoted, if flamboyant, family man, with six children. They lived in Kleinburg, outside Toronto but Berton spent most of his time flying and speaking all over Canada, defending what he thought best for the country.

A. Brian McKillop is Chair of the Department of History at Carleton University. Like his earlier prize-winning The Spinster and the Prophet, this book gives a thorough and dazzling picture of the times Berton lived in, as well as a sensitive portrait of Berton himself. It is a fine combination of history and biography.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“A Fair Country” by John Ralston Saul

“A Fair Country” by John Ralston Saul “Whatever our family tree may look like, our institutions and common sense as a civilization are more Aboriginal than European or African or Asian”- so writes John Ralston Saul in the introduction to his new book, “A Fair Country”.

The distinguished writer and husband of former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, has already published a number of essays, and also novels. In this book he looks at the 400 years of Canada’s history, and wonders why we are so hesitant to recognize what he sees as the strongest influence in our society: i.e. the Aboriginal idea of inclusion and recognition of diversity within the circle.

He shows that the early years brought the newcomers and First Nations together. Champlain said, “our young men will marry your daughters and we shall be one people.” Apart from New France, the Acadians, and also the settlers on the west coast particularly in the Okanagan Valley, intermarried with the First Nations. Peter Lougheed, successful premier of Alberta, married into a leading Metis family that combined a local Aboriginal network with the classic Hudson’s Bay Company background.

It was only when Victorianism took over, and Canada accepted an inferior colonial attitude, Saul claims, that we lost our self-confidence and realization of who we really are. This has returned, to a great extent he maintains, in the arrival of immigrants and our widening of the circle to include diversity and fairness to all.

In these days of uncertainty within our government, this is a most interesting – and caring – look at what Canadians have succeeded in doing in the past and what Saul maintains we can do again, if we recognize our strengths and build on them.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday” by Alexander McCall Smith

“The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday” by Alexander McCall Smith There are not many new ways of praising the wit and charm of Alexander McCall Smith’s books.

He of course is the Scots writer, living in Edinburgh, whose “No. l Ladies Detective Agency” became a world-wide best seller a few years ago. Since then, the retired professor of Edinburgh University has turned out stories from at least three series. The recent one is from the Isabel Dalhousie series. Its heroine gets increasingly sympathic, I find, as she pursues her role as editor of a Review on Ethics, but also devotes more time to her personal life, which involves real love for her slightly younger, musical partner, also for their young infant son. Added to this is the complication of running her household, presided over by a paid housekeeper, Grace.

Smith is completely at home in Edinburgh, as is Isabel Dalhousie, so you get a wonderful picture of the physical, as well as social, ins and outs of this marvelous city. Isabel is quite well-known in a number of circles, and is often asked about problems that arise, often of a legal nature. She can’t resist getting involved, and this happens in this book. The plot is intriguing, as are her efforts to offer help.

Smith strikes his usual balance of sympathy and common-sense and it makes for an utterly readable and enjoyable book.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Exit Lines” by Joan Barfoot.

Exit Lines by Joan BarfootIt can’t be easy to write a funny, provocative, as well as compassionate book about life in a Retirement Home.

Joan Barfoot succeeds in Exit Lines. The Canadian novelist concentrates on four people, three women and one man, whose lives had crossed in varying degrees before they entered the Idyll Inn. The building sounds a bit like Ottawa, with a river, ducks and the occasional canoe. This group of people get together for a glass of wine and very quickly build up a kind of loyalty. This will be severely tested, as time goes by, by one of their member’s startling request. Events unfold that challenge this request. The unfolding story shows up Joan Barfoot’s skilful writing.

This is her eleventh novel. She lives in London, Ontario and has been named for a number of prizes. Alice Munro says: “So much fiction turns out to be diversion, in spite of fancy claims, and doesn’t really look at anything. Well – this does.”

Book Review by Anne McDougall