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.

New Series Coming!

PUBLISHING NEWS: The first novel in a DETECTIVE/MYSTERY series set in New England will be published by Stark House Press, California, USA. The novel turns on CAPE COD, BOSTON, and the BALKANS, and features Detective Lieutenant Ivy Bourque.

Book One RELEASE DATE: Spring 2023. Title and cover reveal in early 2023.

Stark House has also optioned the next book in the series.

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

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier: A Personal Review

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier by Lesley Choyce, 2019. Dundurn.

Book reviews are supposed to be objective and largely impersonal. Caveat: This one is personal. Tune out if you wish.

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier swirls around Stewart Harbour, Nova Scotia, a fictionalized fishing post close to the real Sheet Harbour on the Eastern Shore, where I grew up. Although I left the shore at 17, I still feel it in my bones.

Some followers of this blog have been asking me to broaden my introduction. At the risk of boring others, here we go. [You can skip ahead to the review. See the last paragraph.] Shortly after leaving the shore, I headed to OZ, taking in the whole Red Continent, after which I kept goin’ down the road. Over a 20-year span, I “paused” to work many times – in Australia again and again, central and western Canada, the USA, England, and New Zealand – to fill my pockets and keep travelling, which I managed to do, seeing every continent except Antarctica. I only stopped because my pack was worn out. Just kidding.

But enough of my wanderlust. Back to the Halifax pier.

It could be that I’m prewired to like this book. Broken man on a Halifax pier happens to be a lyric from one of my favourite Stan Rogers songs: ‘Barrett’s Privateers.’

Now, the book review. To me, Broken Man on a Halifax Pier is an honest feelgood novel, not soppy but uplifting. I won’t recap the plot (I rarely do). Suffice to say, it’s a story of redemption and love. True love often comes across as unbelievable; I felt occasionally at sea as I read, but I didn’t mind. A beguiling woman (smart, sexy, and rich) falls for a completely down-and-out man. I fell for them and the setting. Choyce knows and loves the Eastern Shore. He brings it to life like no author has. For that, I am eternally grateful.