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“Beatlebone” by Kevin BarrySee more

This is a racy novel about the Beatle, John Lennon, and his escape to Ireland to find peace and tranquility.


It is by a currently famous Irish writer, Kevin Barry, whose first book,  City of Bohane, has taken prizes all over Ireland and Europe. He has an original way of writing, blending fantasy and reality. This suits the famous Beatle, who had some Irish blood himself although he grew up in Liverpool. In this story he wanted to get as far away from New York City as possible, and leave behind problems of domesticity and a current writer’s block. Lennon had in fact bought a small island, off the west coast of Ireland, some years earlier. He yearned for what he hoped would be peace and quiet.


His trip turned out to be anything but peace and quiet. Barry’s high-flying style of writing turns the story into something like a magical mystery tour of its own – what one reviewer calls “a high wire act of courage, nerve, and great beauty.” It also gives a rare picture of ancient Irish mythology.


Reviewed by Anne Mcdougall

“Celtic Lightning” by Ken McGooganSee more

Ken McGoogan has already published the widely-read book How the Scots Invented Canada. In this new one, the history professor broadens his research on the founding of Canada and shows how the Irish early immigrants, combined with the Scots, established a kind of Celtic lightning that has lit our country ever since.


To do this, McGoogan picks five of the main values he says the early Celts brought with them, these being Independence, Democracy, Pluralism, Audacity and Perseverance. He then gives the lives of some 30 prominent individuals in both Scotland and Ireland who illustrate these values. Many of these are photographed. He shows how these values were then transmitted to the early generations that came to Canada and have taken root here.


The characters are fascinating: Robert the Bruce (for Independence); John A. Macdonald, David O’Connell (Democracy); Oscar Wilde (Pluralism); James Joyce (Audacity); Robert Louis Stevenson (Perseverance). It makes for a provocative look at our country where a population of some 9 million has a strong effect on the remaining 30 million.


Ken McGoogan teaches at the University of Toronto and at King’s College in Halifax. He has published some dozen books, including Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge and won numerous honors for his work in Canadian history.


Reviewed by Anne Mcdougall

“The Road to Little Dribbling” by Bill BrysonSee more

Bill Bryson was born in Desmoines, Iowa, in the U.S. When he was twenty, he set off on a hitch-hiking tour of Europe. On his way home he stopped at Dover, England. Here he met congenial friends who offered him a job in a hospital.  While there he met, and married a pretty English nurse – and never came home again. He had fallen in love with England and spent the rest of life as a journalist, and writing books in which he tells of his love for his adopted country.


These books have become best-selling travel books, not only because Bryson is a deft historian and his curiosity is infectious but because he has a very amusing way of writing. Some of the best-known are The Lost Continent, Neither Here Nor There, and Notes from a Small Island. In the last one, he went on a trip around England to celebrate the lovely green land he had chosen to live in. In this new book, his publisher asked him to make another trip and see what if anything had changed. Bryson charts a line from the bottom of England, a town called Bognor Regis, to the top, a spot called Cape Wrath, just over seven hundred miles. He calls it Bryson Line and includes an excellent map showing his ports of call. By rented car, bus and train he describes his trip, not neglecting Dover, where he landed many years ago. He is a gregarious visitor and the book is full of amusing things that happen to him. But at the base is a real love for the beauty of the countryside, full of trails for walking and dotted with pubs for relaxing. It makes for delightful reading.


Reviewed by Anne Mcdougall

“Writers’ Houses” by Nick ChannerSee more

This is an intriguing book that takes you into the houses where some of  Britain’s most famous writers did their work.


The illustrations are in colour, so we get a vivid shot of Dylan Thomas’ Boat House, perched on the hillside at Laucharne in Wales where he looked over a beautiful expansive estuary, or the cottage where Robbie Burns was born and brought up or, again, the hidden West country retreat of Agatha Christie.   There is an excellent photograph of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-on-Avon, a long, half-timbered house in Henley Street that his parents bought in 1552.  Shakespeare was eighteen when he married Anne Hathaway and they lived in Henley Street for some years. The house became a showplace for visitors, but in 1847 the American showman, P.T. Barnum, tried to buy the building and move it to the United States. Charles Dickens led a campaign to save the house and was successful.


Nick Channer is a full-time author who lives in the heart of England, not far from Shakespeare’s birthplace. He has a special interest in the influence of place on creative writers. He contributes to many publications, including the Daily Telegraph, Country Life and the Scots Magazine. In this book he explores the architecture of these writers’ homes, and looks at the influence of the various rooms on their writing. It gives a special look at many of the great literary figures from Tudor times to the late twentieth century.


Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“A Few of the Girls” by Maeve BinchySee more

Maeve Binchy is the famous Irish writer who wrote some twenty novels as well as short stories and non-fiction before she died in 2012. The books were all bestsellers. A number were adapted for film or television and she won a string of the highest prizes Britain and Ireland have to offer.


It’s a pleasure therefore to see a new collection just released, titled A Few of the Girls. Binchy was married for thirty-five years to the Irish writer and broadcaster, Gordon Snell. He has written a very short introduction to this book and tells of sitting at the other end of a long desk in front of the study window, that he shared with his wife. He says: “Storytelling was her natural and magical talent.” Apparently the words poured out and she typed with breakneck speed, never at a loss for new ideas, all about people and their relationships, often amusing, very often heartbreaking.


As well as the novels and short stories, she wrote stories for newspapers and magazines. Many of these appear here for the first time and will be welcomed for Christmas by people who love Binchy’s writing.


Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“The Year of Lear” by James ShapiroSee more

James Shapiro, Professor of English at Columbia University, is one of the world’s leading scholars on Shakespeare with numerous books and prizes to his credit.  In The Year of Lear, he takes a look at a particular year (1606) when Shakespeare produced three plays at a time of great turmoil in England.


For one thing, a great plague attacked the country, with countless people losing their lives. King James of Scotland had taken over the throne of England, after the death of Queen Elizabeth. The result was great conflict between the Protestants and Catholics. On the Fifth of November a group of disaffected Catholic gentry plotted to blow up Parliament, kill the king and roll back the Protestant Reformation. They did not succeed, but the reverberations went on endlessly.


Shakespeare was a well-known playwright by this time and had written and acted in many of his most famous works. These were done under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, however. In 1606, he turned to the Scottish regime. In both King Lear and Macbeth, the influence of Scotland can be felt. This book tells the intriguing story of how politics affected Shakespeare – though it never stopped his audience from packing his shows.


Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“Circling the Sun” by Paula McLainSee more

Paula McLain made her name as a writer of historical fiction with her earlier book, The Paris Wife, which became a huge best-seller.


In this new one, she continues her sharp, sympathetic writing, this time in the early days of British colonial Kenya. She concentrates on the daughter of a couple who left England in 1904 to set up a farming estate in the British African Protectorate. The father was an experienced horseman and planned to train horses for racing. The mother very soon found the life too grim and returned to England with her son, abandoning her young daughter, Beryl.


This girl grew up with her father and a native tribe who lived on the estate. She was independent and fearless, to a degree, and very soon discovered she too had the ability to ride and train horses, which she did to the amazement of the British colony.

She broke all the rules socially, with a disastrous marriage and a love affair in a triangle involving the famous writer, Isak Dinesen who wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa. McLain’s book is filled with descriptions of the beauty of Kenya as a backdrop to the decadent set of expats who had come to enjoy it but broke all social rules while doing so. Circling the Sun brings the 1920’s to life and reads at a suitably fast pace.


Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“A Literary Tour of Italy” by Tim ParksSee more

Tim Parks is a British writer, well-known for fourteen novels as well as works of non-fiction. But he is also loved as a translator of books by famous Italian writers down through the years.


In A Literary Tour of Italy, he looks at a number of these writers (and statesmen) and gives us essays on Dante, Machiavelli, Garibaldi, Mussolini — all the way up to less familiar names like Bassani and Tabucchi. These show the stages by which various parts of Italy finally got together to become one country.


Parks loves his adopted country and between literary and statesmen concerns we get a vivid picture of the life and customs of this beautiful country.


Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“Gertrude Bell: A Woman in Arabia” by Georgina HowellSee more

With so much of our own news coming from the Middle East these days, it is interesting to read of this remarkable woman who played a big role in that part of the world some 100 years ago.


Gertrude Bell was born into a rich family of industrialists in the north of England in 1868. She was the first woman to get first class honours in Modern History at Oxford University. She set off to explore the world and found her love in trips through Middle East deserts, making seven independent expeditions in all. She learned Arabic, and also turned to archaeology, and photography. She served the British armed forces during World War I, as intelligence expert, becoming an army major.


She worked for self-determination of the Arabs and contributed to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the new Iraq. She understood the importance of what she called “a just comprehension of the conflicting claims of different classes of the population” and  “gaining the confidence of the people so as to secure their cooperation.” We are still trying to do this today. There have been many books written about Gertrude Bell. In this one, Georgina Howell has collected her papers and letters. They give an excellent picture of her life and times.


Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“What’s Happened to Politics?” by Bob RaeSee more

Bob Rae believes that democracy is challenged in Canada, as it is everywhere in the world. In his new book, he looks at the key political and legal institutions – the Courts, the House of Commons, and the Senate – and considers ways to make them more transparent, better-managed and clearly defined across all levels of government.

Bob Rae himself was elected eleven times federally and in Ontario. He served as Ontario’s twenty-first Premier, in an NDP government, and also interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 2011 to 2013. In this book he examines some of the problems facing government today: from Senate scandals and big-money politics, to  Aboriginal questions, economic downturns and the muzzling of free speech. He says young voters are tired of seeing political promises broken. They, and everyone else, are fed up with partisan spin taking the place of government leaders working together to solve problems.


He dedicates this book, his fifth, to his parents. His father, Saul Rae, served in Canada’s Foreign Service from 1940 until his retirement, at a time when many distinguished Canadians, including Mike Pearson, worked with members from all parties to get the best political result.


Reviewed by Anne McDougall