Books featured in October

Carbon Copy, by Ian McKercher, 2019. Book launch Sunday, October 27, 7 p.m. Hall, Glebe-St. James United Church (650 Lyon Street at First Avenue)

Latest ‘Frances’ novel an exciting and readable tale

Reviewed by Bob Neilson

Carbon Copy is the third novel by Ottawa writer Ian McKercher. His first book, The Underling, set in 1930s Ottawa, introduced the world to Frances McFadden, the young Bank of Canada secretary. Her energy, intelligence and practicality quickly make her indispensable to an institution that grows into its role at the same time as Canada grows from a colonial backwater into a truly independent nation.

His second novel, The Incrementalist, takes the story into World War II, but with a stronger emphasis on historical fact and a heavier dose of adventure.

In Carbon Copy, McKercher is faced with the task of satisfying previous readers who already know and love young Frances and her witty circle, while offering something different.

His answer, as the sub-title of the book explains, is “a Frances McFadden Mystery” – a fusion of historical fiction and the mystery genre. Super secretary becomes super sleuth. And it works.

The novel is fast-paced, with a tight time frame. Within a few pages, Frances is catapulted into a spy story when she finds herself accused of treason.

She helps RCMP Inspector Hollingsworth and Ottawa Police Sergeant Scobie get to the bottom of an intriguing, multi-faceted mystery that includes secret documents, murder, mistaken identity, robbery and drug-running. Frances is forthright in admitting to being an amateur crime solver, but proves her worth time and time again.

There are sub-plots and plenty of minor characters, many of whom will be familiar to readers of the previous novels. There are lots of surprises, but the story never gets bogged down in its own twists and turns. It clips along at a great rate and keeps the reader intrigued.

Descriptive passages are sparse and to the point, while the dialogue carries the story. Dialogue is clearly one of McKercher’s fortes – the many distinctive voices in the novel give it a strong dramatic immediacy. Bank executives, Chinese cooks, pathologists and cat burglars all provide the varied and often witty dialogue that keeps the story racing ahead.

One of the great attractions of the first two novels is their sense of history and their depiction of life in Ottawa in the 1930s and ’40s. In Carbon Copy, Ottawa itself is again one of the novel’s main characters. One does not need to know Ottawa to enjoy the story, but the strong sense of place helps to ground the novel in a comfortable space. Everything rings true, from the elegant Chateau Laurier to the grubby back alleys of Lowertown.

The biting cold of February 1942 permeates the streets of the city and makes you happy to duck into the Bluebird Café. This is Ottawa when streetcars still ran and Chinese food was exotic. It’s a pleasure to have the old city brought back to life.

Of course Ottawa feels like an unlikely place for a spy story to unfold, both for the reader and for some of the novel’s characters. Frances notes this herself, finding it hard to imagine secret documents being traded in her rather provincial city. “In Ottawa?” she muses. “Hardly the hub of international intrigue.” A very Canadian reflection, perhaps. The response, by the way, is: “Don’t

sell the place short, from a spy’s perspective.” Indeed.

And don’t think that “old Ottawa” here is simply a quiet, conservative city full of old-fashioned values. The young and somewhat naïve Frances is introduced to aspects of her society that she had no idea existed.

The ending of the novel is very satisfying. The key mystery is solved and most threads of the story are tied up, but characters and readers alike are left wondering about some of the questions that the novel has raised. We grapple with our uncertainty about how the past should be interpreted and what the future might hold.

McKercher’s foray into mystery writing is definitely a success. Even if murder mysteries and spy novels are not normally your thing, you’re still going to find this an exciting and very readable tale. And if you’re already a Frances McFadden fan, you’re in for another treat.

McKercher has a sure touch; his characters jump off the page and pull you into their story. My advice? Open the book and let yourself get pulled in.

Bob Neilson is a former resident of Findlay Avenue who now follows life in the Glebe from Jamberoo, New South Wales.


Sylvie’s thriller and mystery review

By Sylvie Chartrand

Here is a summary of some of the books I have read so far this year, ordered by when I read them, not by favourites.

Panic Room by Robert Goddard (2018)

“Robert Goddard is an English novelist of crime thriller and mystery novels. Goddard grew up in Hampshire, England and attended the University of Cambridge, where he studied history” (www.orderofbooks.com/authors/robert-goddard/). He has written over 20 mystery thrillers; his most recent are The Ways of the World (2013), Corners of the Globe (2014) and The Ends of the Earth (2015).

The plot centres on a villa in Cornwall that Don Challenor has been hired to sell. He meets Blake, the house-sitter, a free spirit who is very private about her life. Don finds a panic room hidden in the house that is apparently closed from within. He and Blake try to find out what is in it and to learn more about the house owner Jack Harness, who is in trouble with the law for embezzlement. The disappearance of Jane Glasson and the death of Jory Fry seem to be connected to Harness. Then when two thugs ask Don where the money Harness stole is hidden, he has no choice but to get involved.

 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (2017)

“Paula Hawkins worked as a journalist for 15 years before turning her hand to fiction. She is the author of two #1 New York Times best selling novels, Into The Water and The Girl on The Train. An international #1 best seller, The Girl on the Train has sold almost 20 million copies worldwide and has been adapted into a major motion picture. Hawkins was born in Zimbabwe and now lives in London.” (paulahawkinsbooks.com/bio-paula-hawkins/)

If you liked The Girl on the Train, then you are sure to enjoy Hawkins’ second book Into The Water.

When Nel Abbott dies, her sister Jules must go home to look after her 15-year-old niece Lena. Jules is reluctant to go back and face her past. Jules and Nel were estranged but Jules needs to find out how her sister died. Did she really commit suicide? Or was she murdered? Nel was obsessed with the Drowning Pool where other women lost their lives over the years. Nel was writing the story of those women when her body was also found in the Drowning Pool. Hawkins weaves between past and the present to make this read intriguing.

 

Love Me Not by M.J. Arlidge (2017)

Matthew Arlidge is an English author of crime novels starring Helen Grace, a detective inspector in the south of England. You may want to read this series in order starting with Eeny Meeny (2014). His latest book A Gift for Dying came out earlier this year.

This author was unknown to me but once I started to read Love Me Not, I had to read the whole series – which I’m still working on!

The book begins with Helen Grace finding the body of a woman who has been shot. Why would a beloved wife and mother be targeted? The same day, across town, a shopkeeper is also killed. Is there a connection? Helen and her team start investigating and after a third killing, they start piecing the puzzle together, but can they stop the bloodshed?

 

Day of the Dead by Nicci French (2018)

Nicci French is the pseudonym of English wife-and-husband team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. This is the eighth book and the last of the Frieda Klein series about a London-based psychotherapist. It concludes Klein’s decade-long dealings with Dean Reeve, a psychopathic killer who is obsessed with her. Reeve has driven Klein into isolation until Lola Hayes, a criminology student, decides to write her dissertation about Klein and manages to find her. But by doing that, she exposes herself to danger, so Klein must come out of hiding for a final confrontation with Reeve.

 

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter (2018)

“Karin Slaughter is one of the world’s most popular storytellers. Some of her books have been made into movies or TV series, including Pieces of Her. She is the founder of the Save the Libraries Project,  a nonprofit organization established to support libraries and library programming.” (www.harpercollins.com/authors/karinslaughter/)

This is a story about the relationship of a mother and daughter. Andrea, who lacks confidence and can’t seem to find her way, is thrown into an adventure when an incident at the mall reveals another side of her mother, Laura, who faced down a murderer. Andrea is pushed into looking in her mother’s past to find answers as to why Laura isn’t cooperating with the police and why she is keeping secrets. Andrea wants to know who her mother was before she was born and save her from her current troubles.

Sylvie Chartrand is a public service assistant at the Sunnyside branch of the Ottawa Public Library.


Grace in Love

chronicles 
Grace MacInnis’s struggles with romance

Grace in Love, a novel by Ruth Latta

Reviewed by Randal Marlin

Grace in Love is a sequel to Ruth Latta’s earlier historical novel about Grace MacInnis as a 13-year-old and her father, J.S. Woodsworth. This time Grace is 22 years old and enrolled on scholarship in a six-month course in French civilization at the Sorbonne. We follow her through her time in Paris to her government job in Ottawa.

Latta has combined diligent research into the facts of this period, evidenced through archives including letters and reports of the time, with an imaginative reconstruction of Grace’s likely interactions and introspections. The result is a highly readable, informative account of influences on the career of Grace MacInnis, MP. who became a prominent parliamentary advocate for social equality, particularly regarding women’s rights.

Although this is a novel, the reader absorbs a lot of Canada’s social history, often presented painlessly in the form of dialogue or mental flashbacks in the mind of Grace.

The central theme of the book is Grace’s encounters and relationships with different men at different stages of her life. She has to come to terms with her own aims and expectations, and has to reckon with how these attachments will fit with a permanent commitment to a partner. Included in this reckoning is an estimate of how likely the other will be to reciprocate such a commitment, with all the necessary adjustments.

The opening scene is her arrival at her place in Paris. “She looked up at the house, saw a lace curtain twitch in a window, and a young voice saying , ‘C’est la Canadienne.’”

She then meets Madame De Bussy, who takes in boarders, university students, who interact freely, but the door must be left open if genders mix. The adjustments to life in Paris produce a lot of tension for Grace.

She would like to be a teacher of French, like her mother, though she doesn’t see herself as having the same level of dedication.

Her father, J.S. Woodsworth, a Methodist minister, fell out of favour with his Church when he opposed the “Great War” as it was then known. A supporter of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, he was arrested and briefly jailed. He then went to Vancouver, worked on the docks and spoke for the labour movement. In 1921 he was elected Member of Parliament for Winnipeg North Centre and the family moved to Ottawa.

While Grace studies hard in Paris, she also has something of a social whirl, joining other girls from the Sorbonne at cafés near Boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail. The talk gravitated to free love and then to birth control that was prohibited at the time. They agreed that legalization would be necessary for women to reach their full potential.

At one of the gathering spots she becomes smitten by a young man who is “movie-star handsome,” Willem Van Aarden, a Dutchman from South Africa. He had recently received a doctorate from the University of London. As Latta describes the scene, Willem smiles at Grace and “every nerve in her body came alive. She began fiddling with her hair.” He is attracted to her and a roller coaster of romance begins. She’s all for the fun life in Paris, but hesitates when she finds they have differing values likely to interfere with a permanent good relationship.

Returning to Canada, she gets a teaching job, but becomes dispirited when her students lack the motivation to learn French. She feels called to a career in social activism. Luckily there is a socialist-minded MP, who has little formal education, and can make use of her talents. Older readers may remember the sophisticated Café Henry Burger, where he invites her to dinner. She learns to curb her literary references when she sees he might be embarrassed by not getting them. The two start to move into a new amatory relationship, but Ottawa being what it is that must be concealed.

The two support each other, with both of them becoming eminent speakers who help to transform the very unequal relations between men and women at the time.

The novel is carried along with humour and by evocative references to songs and movies. You get a good sense of the mood of the different characters from Latta’s careful choice of the music they listen to.

Though archival documentation is amply provided it sometimes slows the narrative flow. The history of Canada’s left-leaning politics is well conveyed and that of Grace’s development in particular. All in all, the book is fast-paced, with rich descriptions of France’s countryside and Parisian social life.

Randal Marlin is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Carleton University, and the author of many works, including Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion.

Grace in Love
A novel by Ruth Latta
Baico Publishing Inc., 2018
311 pages
Available from Singing Pebble Books on
Main Street, or by emailing info@baico.ca
or ruthlatta1@gmail.com.

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