Windows into Other Worlds: Gifts for the 2022 Holidays, British Authors

To give a book is to give a window into another world. Here are four gift ideas for the 2022 Holidays. Today, British authors; next week, North American authors.

First, a mystery/detective suggestion:

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, 2005. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Barnes won it for The Sense of an Ending, 2011). Arthur & George should appeal to aficionados of detective fiction as well as literary fiction. The novel retells the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes’ creator) championing a lowly solicitor named George Edalji. Arthur & George aired as a TV mini-series in 2015.

Lessons by Ian McEwan, 2022. If you know someone who likes long, contemplative novels, Lessons could fit the bill. {NB: It weighs in at 448 pages, which could be too long for some.} Like Julian Barnes, Booker-prize winner McEwan is an elegant stylist. Lessons features a worldly plot and vivid detail, such that a social anthropologist could read it hundreds of years from now and form a solid picture of the novel’s era: post-WW II.

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes, 2022. In Elizabeth Finch, Barnes has created a memorable character, a stoic, erudite Londoner. Finch is a beacon of light to the novel’s protagonist. She propels him to write a study of Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate. NB: The novel is a philosophical exploration as much as a contemporary narrative. If your prospective giftee favours novels salted with metaphysics or antiquity, Elizabeth Finch is sure to please them.

Inside Story by Martin Amis, 2020. McEwan, Barnes, and Amis are considered three of the best British authors of the post-war period. Although subtitled A Novel, Inside Story is largely biographical. Amis regales readers with unique insights, both frivolous and cerebral. He grew up in a time and place of, let’s say, amorous exuberance (Swinging London, 1960s-70s). The novel uncorks womanizing and braggadocio, but also poignancy, self-doubt, and generosity of spirit. If your giftee admires inventive prose and unabashed characters, this is a book for them.

Ron Corbett: Maestro of Hinterland Noir

A century ago, in the time of Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame), there were relatively few detective novelists. Not so today. There are hundreds of excellent (and prolific) detective/mystery novelists. Take Canadian Ron Corbett, an Ottawa-based author whose novels have been nominated for both the Edgar and Arthur Ellis awards.

Corbett is the epitome of prolific; he’s published four novels in the last five years. The first, Ragged Lake (2017), set in an abandoned village on the Northern Divide, is the opening salvo in the Detective Yakabuski series. The Divide, a fictionalized Canadian hinterland, is beautiful but unforgiving. Frank Yakabuski is as no-nonsense as Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. He’s also as well-drawn. Ragged Lake is a paragon of descriptive prose, as are the next two novels in the series, Cape Diamond (2018) and Mission Road (2020).

Continuing the Ian Rankin comparison, like the master of Scottish Noir, Corbett doesn’t dish out genteel whodunits. [Fans of cozy mysteries, be aware.] Corbett’s fictional violence isn’t gratuitous; it’s part of life on the Northern Divide. Yakabuski is the perfect cop for the region: hard-nosed yet imbued with a deep, one could say, mystical sense of the Divide.

After the Yakabuski trilogy, Corbett moved to the wild timberlands of Maine with The Sweet Goodbye (2022). The protagonist, Danny Barrett, is an undercover FBI agent. Like the Yakabuski novels, The Sweet Goodbye is a complex tale of deceit and retribution. Unlike them, the Maine novel has a major female character, which softens the plotline — in my view, to good effect.

At the risk of stepping into quicksand, let’s look at male vs female characters in the detective/mystery genre. {If you don’t want to step with me, please go to the last paragraph.} Consider Ian Rankin’s fictional world. He portrays women deftly, but the cops, murderers, and victims are mostly male. In my reading experience, the more hard-boiled a novel, the smaller the role women play in it. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, such as the Dragon-Tattoo series with Lisbeth Salander.

I realize there’s an element of sexism in what I’m saying. ‘What, AMP, women can’t be tough or bad-ass?’ Sure they can. Take Salander again. I tend to look at the male-female continuum in terms of realism, not sexism. If females dominate an author’s fictional world, the reader shouldn’t expect males to play main roles. And vice versa. When males dominate a fictional world, you don’t often find numerous influential females. In my view, that’s fictional realism, not gender myopia. It’s up to the author to decide where they want to fall on the continuum. Readers will follow if they wish.

Bottom line: As a reader, when I’m not interested in a story, when the male-female continuum doesn’t ring true, I drop the book. Which I didn’t do with Corbett’s novels. I read all of them to their vivid ends.

For more information on Ron Corbett, see his website.

Unapologetically Opinionated: Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, aka the “Hitch,” was always unapologetically opinionated – on everything from journalism to political ethics to the non-existence of God.

Although Hitch was opinionated, he never allowed himself to be intellectually frozen. Before he died in 2011, he changed his mind as the world evolved and he saw fit. But that’s not why I find him worthy of reading and rereading. I turn to him for his informative, inviting prose and command of the English language.

Hitch was a British-born, Oxford-educated raconteur, debater, and lecturer who became an American citizen and lived almost half his life in Washington D.C. Numerous critics regard him as one of the finest English-language essayists of the last fifty years. He wrote extensively, but not exclusively, on politics, particularly American politics and the international Left. He also penned essays on history, literature, and language, to name a few of his wide-ranging topics. While some of his pieces aren’t in my wheelhouse, and I don’t endorse all of his opinions, I continue to admire his candid style.

Three recommendations: Hitch-22, A Memoir; And Yet … (Essays); Arguably (Essays).

A few Hitch excerpts:

On tyranny: “The conventional word that is employed to describe tyranny is ‘systematic.’ The true essence of a dictatorship is in fact not it’s regularity but it’s unpredictability and caprice; those who live under it must never be able to relax.”

On patriotism: “Tribal feelings belong to the squalling childhood of the human race, and become no more charming in their senescence …. But ironies of history may yet save us. English language and literature, oft-celebrated as one of the glories of ‘Western’ and even ‘Christian’ civilization, turn out to have even higher faculties than used to be claimed for them. In my country of birth the great new fictional practitioners have in their front ranks names like Rushdie, Ishiguro, Kureishi, Mo. This attainment on their part makes me oddly proud to be whatever I am, and convinces me that internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.”

For more information, see Christopher Hitchens on Wikipedia.

Inside Story: A Martin Amis Funhouse

Review of Inside Story by Martin Amis, 2020.

An Amis novel is like the weather in May. You never know what to expect. I’ve loved two of his novels (London Fields and Time’s Arrow), liked others, and, on occasion, been completely disappointed.

Amis’s prose is inventive, but it’s often overdone. He’s certainly no Hemingway, limiting adverbs and adjectives. On the contrary, Amis wields them like a boxer, at times jabbing, but usually lining them up for a haymaker. Over the course of five decades, he’s managed to alienate both sides of the reading divide: to literary stuffed shirts, he’s uncouth; to genre buffs, he’s too high-minded. As for Inside Story, I didn’t love it, yet it tickled my funny bone. And my mind. I laughed aloud and, every twenty or so pages, I stopped to think – on everything from Donald Trump to death to beauty to the history of the novel.

Inside Story is a mashup of fictionalized autobiography, literary observations, and sociopolitical opinions. Although subtitled A Novel, the book is largely (and unabashedly) biographical. When Amis is at his best, the narrative has a gravitational pull. His words spin a funhouse of warped mirrors. He regales readers with unique insights, both frivolous and cerebral. Some dismiss Amis as sexist. Others say he’s a bounder; still others, a little shite. I don’t care. I’m loathe to shun books due to their writer’s transgressions. [Having said that, if Putin writes a book, I’ll shred it.]

Alright, back to Inside Story. Martin Amis grew up in a time and place of, let’s say, amorous exuberance (Swinging London, 1960s-70s). If you enter his funhouse, you’ll encounter womanizing, yes, and braggadocio, but also poignancy, self-doubt, and generosity of spirit.

A few excerpts from Inside Story:

On the English language: “Great Britain no longer had an empire – except the empire of words; not the imperial state, just the imperial tongue.”

On the pretzel logic of Biblical hellfire: “It’s not that eternity never ends – it never even begins.”

Describing Donald Trump: “That chicken-hawk, that valorised ignoramus, that titanic vulgarian, dishonest to the ends of his hair.”

Shepherding a Flock of Words

A few weeks ago, Ben Fox of Shephard.com asked for a curated list of books for his new site. The site was created to link readers to books, not just any books, but books recommended by authors as opposed to algorithms (which are used extensively by sites like Amazon).

Ben asked for a focused theme. I chose “the best Canadian detective and mystery novels.” My top five 📚 recommendations are:

A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Until the Night by Giles Blunt

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe

Click the link below to see the full recommendations and a review of each title.

https://shepherd.com/best-books/canadian-detective-and-mysteries