KLASSEN ON BOOKS - September 2015 - By John Klassen (Review)



Reviews by John Klassen


David Holdsworth


David Holdsworth is a retired public service officer who worked abroad and held a number of positions including in the Privy Council Office. He has now turned his skills to writing with a sharp eye for the foibles of government and public service.  His first novel: The Ambassador’s Camel: Undiplomatic Tales of Embassy Life described the antics of diplomatic life in a fictitious country.  His new book turns inward with a funny, satirical focus on the “tough on crime” agenda of the current government.


Tough on Crime, The Novel

If you are part of the thirty-percent of the electorate who thinks that Stephen Harper cares about the social/political culture of Canada, you will not like this book.  If, on the other hand, you are part of the seventy-percent who think Harper and his acolytes have to go before they do any more damage to the fabric of Canadian society and mores, you will chuckle over this topical, trenchant satire of the state-of-affairs in Ottawa, delivered with humour and a sharp eye for the machinations of Harper politics. 


Charlie Backhouse is a new MP, elevated in his first term to Minister of Crime and Punishment in the government of Lawrence Julius Chamberlain.  Charlie is charged with shepherding through Parliament a massive omnibus bill that enshrines all sorts of tough-on-crime legislation, including the construction of a massive super-max prison in the Gatineau Hills.  This sparks outrage and fierce opposition led by Margaret O’Brien, the redoubtable mayor of the fictional town of Riverdale located not far from Chelsea in the Gatineau Hills. Margaret is a neophyte in the cut-throat world of federal politics, but she is a quick study ably supported by a cast of interesting characters mobilized to Stop The Prison.  Faced with set-backs in the public relations war that expands to the national level, the government doubles-down and begins illegal fracking in the Gatineau Hills. The tension builds further as Chamberlain fails to buy-off Margaret and unleashes his “dirty tricks” operatives.  There are some fun plot twists I won’t give away, good humour, and even a couple of love-interests that come together. 


The story-line may be far-fetched, but not the litany of attitudes and actions it captures that characterize the current government: the arrogance of the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministers as talking heads who never stray past their PMO talking points, surveillance of legal protests, the irrelevance of truth when the sole objective is damage-control, denial of accountability and responsibility, central control of all communications, the use of ‘plausible deniability’ for those in positions of authority, dismissal of supposedly independent officials who dare criticize government actions, $millions of public money spent on partisan advertising, muzzling scientists, dismissal of evidence-based policy-making, the use of hush-money to try to cover-up political embarrassment, complete cynicism in the use of Senate appointments and control of the Senate.  


This might sound like a laundry list and Holdsworth does not hide his sympathies, but neither does he bludgeon the reader; he weaves his points through a well-constructed plot.  The topicality and veracity of Holdsworth’s observations rest on the record of the Harper government and even more particularly on the “the look into the black box of the PMO” (as one character describes a moment in the novel) that we now see in the unraveling of the sorry tale of the Duffy payment and cover-up. 

There is now a long list of books sharply critical of the Harper’s policies and practices on a wide range of issues and their effects on Canada.  Holdsworth’s satire joins that throng with a lighter and fully enjoyable touch.



Edward St.Aubyn


St.Aubyn (1960-) is an English author, best known for five novels grouped as the Patrick Melrose novels, now available in a single volume. This is a brilliant series that describes St.Aubyn’s dysfunctional childhood and adult life with candor, penetrating observation and acerbic wit; highly recommended. Lost for Words is St.Aubyn’s ninth novel.


Lost for Words

I don’t remember when I have laughed out loud so much in reading a novel. The story turns around the lives and antics of the judges for the inaugural presentation of the Elysian Prize for Literature, and the fixations of writers desperate to win the prize. All except one writer who is as bewildered as everyone else when her cookbook of Indian cuisine is mistakenly submitted for the prize and finds itself on the short list. One writer, certain that he would take the final prize, plots the murder of the judges who refuse his book’s late entry because of a mistake from the publisher!


St.Aubyn uses a scalpel to eviscerate the pretentiousness of many examples of modern writing, of literary prizes, of universities, of literary critics, of authorial egos, and of the venality of judges.  In the hands of a lesser writer, the satire could have become ponderous and collapsed in on itself. St.Aubyn is such a skilled writer that he maintains perfect balance on the knife-edge of parody.


This is a light, quick read but it is often hilarious and always irreverent, and worth the price to enjoy how St.Aubyn doesn’t just puncture balloons of pretention…he destroys them.

Tags: John Klassen