The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

This book cover drew me in right away. I’ve always wanted to go to Venice, I like to sketch and hope to do more of it when I travel (although I must say with the digital camera age it is so much easier to simply take a photo and sketch or paint from that on returning home), and the misty watercolour on the cover just captured my imagination totally.

The Venice Sketchbook takes place in two eras and tells the present day story of Caroline Grant, abandoned by her husband for the glamour of New York and refusing to return her son, and the pre-war story of her aunt Juliet Browning (Lettie), former art teacher reaching the end of her life, and how, just as Lettie has been a positive and powerful influence on Caroline in the past, her story will have an even greater influence on Caroline’s future.

Rhys Bowen

The novel begins with the backstory of Aunt Lettie’s time in Venice just before war breaks out and diplomats are leaving Italy for home and her visit with her aunt in 1928, just before she is to attend art school there— an opportunity that fails to happen until much later. Meanwhile, Caroline’s backstory begins and catches us up to the time when her husband has left, she is dissatisfied with her work, and is ready to accept her Aunt Lettie and her granny’s offer to move into the house they share and change her employment if she wants. When Aunt Lettie dies and leaves Caroline 3 old keys and the request to distribute her ashes in Venice, Caroline is thrown into a different world where she begins to unravel the mystery of her aunt’s early years of romance, daring, and determination, an unravelling that shows Caroline a way out of her dilemma into a bright future.

This story is a times fairly predictable but is well told and takes quite a few unexpected turns. It is a quick read, with lots of interesting descriptions of parts of Venice, its traditions, customs, and festivals, and many interesting characters especially during the war years. An enjoyable summer read especially for anyone who enjoys stories that take place in foreign parts or war romances. ****

Posted in Adult Book, Book Cover, Historical Fiction, Romance | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Finders Keepers by Craig Childs

I read House of Rain by Craig Childs before I went to Colorado on my first dig because it was all about the time period of the dig I was attending and because he is someone who goes to extremes to find out if theories about early native civilizations could possibly have happened the way people think. It was an amazing book and when I saw this title I knew I had to read it as well.

Finders Keepers, subtitled A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, is a philosophical exploration into the way, over the centuries, the outlook about the preserving, collecting, archiving, displaying of artifacts has changed over and over and whether or not our current process is appropriate or over the top.

Craig is an acclaimed journalist with credentials and experience as long as your arm and contacts in all the various segments of the controversy of whether we pocket artifacts we find, purchase them without provenance, leave them where we find them, or report them and have them displayed in museums or more often than not stored in buildings where they are unlikely to see the light of day because there is so much of it and never enough funding to properly process it all.

In his exploration of this topic, Craig interviews various billionaires who display their million dollar collections in their homes where others rarely get the smallest glimpse of them to try to grasp their philosophy. He meets with curators in various parts of the world in famous museums to learn about the difficulties they face and how they view their own collections as well as those of people who hoard precious links to the past in their homes. He has conversations with pothunters who circumvent the laws and park rangers who report finds only to have them removed and “protected” by curators who then squirrel them away where no-one ever gets to see them again.

Craig on site

Craig’s interviews are insightful and his anecdotes engaging. His descriptions of his own experiences in the amazing settings of past civilizations are captivating, his prose lyrical. He is a man of principles who seeks to understand various perspectives and to do the right thing in his own life. He questions who the past belongs to. Questions whether there is a difference between a pothunter, an archaeologist, or a tomb raider or are all of them desecrating that which should be left alone. He leaves you to draw your own conclusion and wondering if he has made a conclusion of his own. *****

Posted in Adult Book | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The 14th Colony by Steve Berry

Another great romp in Berry’s Cotton Malone series. This title appealed to me because apparently Canada, my country, was intended to be the 14th colony of the United States of America.

The adventure begins with Berry’s conjecture of what was said in that historical moment behind closed doors on June 7th, 1982 between Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States as they met in the pope’s private study in the Apostolic Palace. Then, it skips to the present day and Cotton Malone, former Magellan Billet agent and current used and rare books seller in Copenhagen.

It’s an interesting premise — that President Reagan and Pope John Paul agree to work together through different means to achieve the downfall of the Communist Soviet Union, the President through political and economic maneuvering and the Pope by inspiring the Catholics in Poland to overthrow their government in order to revive their religion. Their go-between had been Stephanie Nelle, then a low-level State Department lawyer, now head of Magellan Billet for two more days, just until the new president is inaugurated.

Nelle pulls Cotton out of retirement once again to rescue a Russian who holds a secret to the 14th Colony — a means of destroying the United States by use of a portable nuclear device which is hidden away somewhere and he and Cassiopeia Vitt have to track a 2nd Russian who has grasped the secret before them and is set to destroy the US by means of the device.

I think I prefer Berry’s books that involve archaeology and ancient mysteries more than his modern political shoot ’em up spy plots where there are lengthy descriptions of ordinance, army vehicles, and aircraft. Maybe they’re aimed at a male audience although I’ve enjoyed many of his books — I have at least 14 of them on my shelf at home — but the violence in this one and the details of the various weaponry just left me disappointed. The ending was good — full of tension — although you’re pretty certain Malone is going to come through it OK; he is after all the hero of the story. And a happy conclusion to the story is a given. Not a favourite for me but still a good read. * * * 1/2

Posted in Adult Book | Leave a comment

Slow Starter

Well, once again I started off the summer great guns, determined to read a lot and post regularly and once again, it didn’t happen. While I did better than my effort last year and read most of the summer, my posting did not keep up and my reading also fell behind to the point where I was only reading in bed at night before turning out the light. However, I think I’m in a better position now as my trailer season is coming to a close and I also think I have a pretty good excuse.

This is what my lot looked like just over two years ago when I purchased this trailer.

This is what it looks like today.

A lot of time, money and effort went into this.

I read quite a few Barb Fradkin mysteries (she’s been rescheduled to come to our book club meeting in November), a number of Jeffrey Archer mysteries, and I just finished reading Finders Keepers by Craig Childs, author of House of Rain which I read about 9 years ago before I went to an Earthwatch dig at Crow Canyon Archaeological Centre in Colorado and enjoyed very much. Hope to write a blurb about it later this week even though it looks to be a hectic one with things starting up in town and closing up the trailer looming in the not too distant future. Maybe I’ll even get to share about a few of the others I’ve read before being bogged down in packing up. Cheers from Mississippi Lake, Ontario, Canada.

Posted in Adult Book | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Ancient Dead by Barbara Fradkin

Book 4

The Ancient Dead is book 4 in Ottawa author Barbara Fradkin’s Amanda Doucette series. I’ve read almost all of her Inspector Green series now and chose this book because of my personal passion for archaeology as well as photography and the write-up for this one sounded right up my alley. It did not disappoint. The only thing is, I’ve once again jumped into a series that would be better read from book 1 so that I understand all the references to past activities and traumas. I will once again, skip back to the first book and start to read chronologically.

Having said that, the characters. While Amanda and her boyfriend, RCMP officer Chris Tymko, are the central figures to the story, we begin with photographer Todd Ellison, a down-on-his-luck kind of guy whose first marriage failed, whose career as a journalist disillusioned him, and who is currently trekking around the Alberta badlands photographing the shabby historical remains of the past and the haunting beauty of the western landscape. When he chances on an almost hidden coulee (the remains of large rivers that once flowed across the landscape leaving an often deep ravine but now hold small streams or spring and winter runoff) where he discovers a bone protruding from the hot sand, his imagination immediately runs wild. Dinosaur bone? Bison? Human? Laws prohibiting excavation of bones without permission are severe in Alberta, so Todd merely takes photos and leaves the bone where it lay.

Amanda is in Alberta to organize a tour opportunity for high school students from an Indigenous community in the north of the province in order to familiarize them with the vastness of the land, the history of it, and the beauty of it. It is a charity intended to open them up to new friendships and new ideas and opportunities as they prepare to plan a future career. When Chris, wearing western gear, tips his hat for a photo op in front of a dilapidated homestead, Amanda is reminded of a similar shot framed above the bed in the spare room of her Aunt Jean.

The two strands slowly merge as Todd’s discovery turns out to be human remains and Amanda begins a quest for her Uncle Jonny who has not been heard from for 30 years and she fears the body might be either his or, as the adventure continues, possibly someone he has killed.

Hoodoos near Drumheller

The story is full of Alberta landscape: hoodoos, mesas, oil rigs, rolling prairies, dinosaur digs, and white water rafting as Amanda works with various organizations, including the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. As Todd and Amanda, separately at first, follow leads, a young reporter Todd is collaborating with is assaulted and both sleuths are frustrated at the lack of information forthcoming from the police and concerned because they feel they are being followed.

This is a fascinating book not only because of the mystery surrounding the remains in the coulee but as we learn more about the socioeconomic effects of the oil industry, the Indigenous education system, the Canadian Pacific Railway, arcane attitudes towards women, and the settling of the prairies where homesteaders faced many difficulties not the least of which were adverse weather conditions year round. The descriptions of the landscape transport the reader to time and place. The characters are well drawn and you can’t help feeling Amanda’s frustration with the stonewalling of the police, her confusion as people are trying to stop her from discovering the truth and her hope that the trail will lead to her Uncle Jonny being alive and well. A fast and excellent read. *****

Posted in Adventure, Mystery | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Truth Be Told by Beverley McLachlin

The subtitle is, My JourneyThrough Life and the Law. Truth Be Told is the story of a woman who, if she saw barriers, she overcame them and when she sought something, she went after it. The first woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin’s story is, should be, an inspiration to any woman who seeks to put her talents to the greatest achievable goal to the best of her ability.

Beverley is from a small town in southern Alberta, Pincher Creek , part of an immigrant family of German descent that was warm, open, hard-working and one which prized education. Growing up during the 2nd World War, she was dimly aware of prejudice against Germans, racism against natives, and expectations that women would marry, stay home, and raise children. Her mother had always encouraged her, as did her father, to strive toward and to work hard for, whatever goal she chose and that she did. They were a family that treasured family and her story is full of warm memories and unusual stories from her upbringing.

Her story starts with Beverley describing herself as “An Ordinary Girl” with a belief that she wanted to do something ‘not ordinary’ with her life. She loved learning, worked hard at her lessons — doing them by correspondence in winters when her family was snowed in on their mountain — and won a scholarship to university. Whenever she had doubts about how to achieve, she learned from others and from her mistakes and forged ahead, always finishing near, if not at, the top of her class.

Despite the isolation of their farm, Beverley was able to attend her 12th grade classes and made good friends including two indigenous kids from the Piikani reserve who were attending non-residential school for the first time. Becoming friends with Peter Yellow Horn and George Crowshoe led to her one of her earliest experiences of how the law was slanted against Indigenous peoples. Peter wanted to be a lawyer in order to help his people but the requirement for law school was to have 2 languages but they meant English and French and his second language was Piikani and so his entrance was refused.

Beverley’s journey includes her relationship with Rory McLachlin, a great influence on her life and career, the father of her son, Angus, and her greatest encourager. Quite some time after his death, she became friends with Frank McArdle, a lawyer she met at Cambridge during a lawyers’ conference, and that friendship slowly blossomed into romance.

During her time on the bench, “she presided over charged debates on topics such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms”. Since retiring from the Supreme Court, Beverley has published this memoir and a novel, Full Disclosure, and sits on the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong and on the Singapore International Commercial Court. Plus, she works as an arbitrator. A fascinating journey of a remarkable woman whose work influenced justice for Canadians of all walks of life. *****

Posted in Adult Book | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Templar Cross by Paul Christopher

Book 2

This is the 2nd book by Canadian author Paul Christopher (pseudonym) in his Templar series. This fast-paced plot starts off with John “Doc” Holliday, retired Army Ranger and about to be retired history teacher at West Point, being jolted out of his reflective mood by the arrival of his cousin Peggy’s fiancé Rafi with the news that she has been kidnapped and there’s no ransom demand, no clue as to why or by whom. In short order, Doc is attacked by an assassin, packs his bag, and heads with Rafi to catch a flight to France.

The pace never lets up and involves Nazi gold, desert crossings, terrorist attacks, betrayals, excavations of ancient tombs, smugglers, Vatican assassins, island prisons, and white slavery as Doc and Rafi try to discover where Peggy is being held captive or even if she is still alive. There either was very little about a Templar cross or else it was so subtle I missed it. There was a 2-piece cross Doc found in the tomb of Imhotep, the famous architect of ancient Egypt, that comes to light at the end of the adventure but that was all I noticed and I’m not sure how it is tied to the Templars. Maybe I missed something.

Christopher has an amazing grasp of ordinance and goes into great detail about guns, planes, boats, and trucks which may appeal to many readers but I tired of it fairly quickly. Also, I don’t remember the 1st book being so violent and while it’s a great romp around the Mediterranean à la James Bond or Indiana Jones, I felt it rather missed the mark. I will read book 3 for, as Doc muses to himself, he was “fairly certain that Father Thomas [of the Vatican] wasn’t finished with him”. ** 1/2

Posted in fiction, Thriller | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Hidden in Plain Sight by Jeffrey Archer

Book #2 William Warwick series

Jeffrey Archer is an author recommended to me by a couple of friends and I’ve had a few of his books on my shelf now for at least a year. I decided to bring some with me to the trailer and finally sat down to read one of them this week. Archer has written at least 20 novels not counting his Clifton Chronicles, Prison Diaries, short stories and screenplays. This is book 2 in his William Warwick series. I recommend you read them in order as the plot does continue on from book to book.

William has just been promoted to Detective Sergeant as this story begins and his detective team has a new assignment: taking out a drug kingpin known as the Viper. No-one knows his real name, where he lives, or what he even looks like. A lucky break gives William a lead to a pub where dealers hang out and connects him with a former school chum who’s into the drug scene and willing to ‘turn’ in exchange for money and two tickets to Brazil for him and his girlfriend to put half a world between him and the Viper after he testifies. At the same time, there’s an unfinished case involving art fraud (read book #1) where the criminal, Miles Faulkner, walked with a suspended sentence and the team is certain he’s up to more criminal activities so they’re on the alert for that as well.

William’s life is complicated as he’s about to be married. His fiancé, Beth, is a research assistant at the Fitzmolean, his father, a famous QC, and his sister, Grace, is also a barrister becoming well known for her sharp questioning and winning ways.

There are some interesting sidelines as both William and Beth are interested in art and honeymoon in Rome where the Sistine Chapel is visited more than once and the art fraud angle continues as Christine Faulkner wants Miles’ art collection as part of the divorce settlement and is certain he is going to somehow defraud her.

The plot is fairly fast paced and the book an easy read once you get past the first two chapters where Archer uses conversational settings to introduce team and family and fill in events from the previous book to bring the reader up to speed on who’s who and what’s what. As I was reading, I felt I had read it before but maybe I just gave up after the first two chapters because of the long conversations; once into the plot nothing was familiar and the story zoomed along, moving back and forth between the various strands of life and the investigations. An enjoyable read. I will certainly read the other Archer books on my shelf although probably not in a hurry as I have a lot of TBR titles waiting. ****

Posted in Mystery | Tagged | Leave a comment

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I’d heard a lot of great things about this book from various sources and my book club read the book a little while ago, but at the time I was snowed under with other things and missed out on both the reading and the discussion. Finally, I’ve read Where the Crawdads Sing and I’m very glad I did. This is an outstanding book. A movie based on this story and directed by Olivia Newman is being released in Canada on July 22nd and I expect to go to a theatre and see it, something I haven’t done since pre-covid.

Kya Clark was almost seven when her Ma, tired of being beaten by her drunken husband, walked down the lane carrying her special blue suitcase and Kya was pretty certain she wasn’t coming home although she still nurtured a tiny hope within her. Shortly after, her older siblings drifted away and finally, her brother Jodie left as well; Kya had to learn to cook, manage the rundown shack they called home, purchase goods, garden and stay out of her father’s way. Her solace was found in the marshlands surrounding her shack in the North Carolina everglades. Kya had to grow up fast. When the kids at school laughed at her on her very first day (she went because she wanted to know what number came after twenty-nine), she headed for the marsh whenever the truant lady showed up until they gave up on finding her and she never went back to school.

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya

Kya is a gutsy character, holding fast to things her mother taught her, ready to learn the waterways through the glades and how to fish to find the money to survive when her Pa would disappear for weeks on end until finally he doesn’t come home at all. A chance encounter with one of Jodie’s friends, Tate, begins a relationship — one that starts with reading lessons and blossoms into something more. Tate teaches her to read and she soaks up knowledge from books he brings her like a sponge. She begins to identify and paint plants, insects, birds, and animals of the glades, posting her work on the walls of her shack. But when Tate goes away to college and doesn’t return as promised, she turns to Chase Andrews, a privileged boy from town, for a new friendship. When their relationship turns sour and Chase turns up dead, Kya is accused of his murder and stands trial.

This story is told in two time periods: beginning in 1952 when her Ma leaves and 1962 when the body of Chase Andrews is found by a couple of kids on bicycles. Sometimes when a story weaves back and forth between past and present it becomes too confusing but in this case, I think it adds to the suspense as the Sheriff and his Deputy try to determine whether Chase was murdered or committed suicide while at the same time we see this independent, shy girl who loves everything about the nature surrounding her isolated life as she builds a future for herself and becomes a famous naturalist.

Delia Owens

The ending to this poignant story came as a total surprise to me. Never saw it coming. The descriptions of the swampland and glades, the small town life, the delineation between blacks and whites, is all beautifully and sensitively described. Ms. Owens’ background in zoology as a wildlife scientist shines through in a totally authentic way as does her development of Kya’s character throughout. An amazingly vibrant story. An incredible first novel. Looking forward to the movie. *****

Posted in Adult Book | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Templars, The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones

The Templars

I thought it was time to read a scholarly work about The Templars, a theme that has long interested me but of which I had only a passing acquaintance with what was fact and what was fiction. I had revisited the Ridley Scott movie, Kingdom of Heaven, and was curious about how accurate it might be. I was surprised at how much accuracy there was and what few discrepancies were made to enhance romanticism.

This is not a dry book: it is chronological, exciting, yet well-grounded in documentation. Divided into 4 parts — Pilgrims, Soldiers, Bankers, Heretics — Jones follows the order of The Poor Knighthood of the Temple from its humble beginnings with a vow of chastity, obedience, and poverty (their emblem two brothers on a single horse), to an international and extremely wealthy organization around which myth and legend continue to swirl almost 700 years after their demise.

I love a book with maps and this one has many showing the Franks’ (Europeans) castles in the middle east, the battle sites, the areas of Europe where Moors were being expelled, and finally the dwindled areas of Christian foothold in the Holy Land by the time of the Mongols and Mamluks. In addition, there are many colour photos of tapestries, frescos, castles, effigies, and paintings appropriate to the text and making you want to get on a plane and go to visit these historical sites.

The story involves other orders formed and sent on crusade from the earliest times, the crusades (lesser known, perhaps) in other countries such as Spain, Portugal, and even within France where they took on an anti-Semitic flavour, right to the final deaths of every Templar. The politics, both secular and pontifical, of the times and in the various countries where the order had spread were intriguing and compelling and the curse on Philip IV and William of Nogaret made by James of Molay, last head of the Templars, that “God will avenge our death” just before the pyre was lit is extremely eerie as both men were dead within a year.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in learning the factual story of this fascinating order and medieval period. Dan Jones is not only an exceptional storyteller but a solid historian. The book clearly separates fact from legend and puts the latter in perspective without detracting from the enjoyment of the multitude of literary works and movies that appeal to our sense of adventure. He has written seven other books focused mostly on the middle ages, his passion. I’m sure I’ll be looking into his histories of the Plantagenets. Excellent. *****

Posted in Adult Book | Tagged , , | Leave a comment