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. *****

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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. *****

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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

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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. ****

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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. *****

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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. *****

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Do or Die by Barbara Fradkin

Mystery Series

A member of my book club recently introduced me to the work of Ottawa author Barbara Fradkin and I was immediately hooked on her Inspector Green Mystery series. Do or Die is the first in this series and I am now busily working my way through the whole collection.

It is refreshing to read a really solid Canadian police procedure series set in my own city of Ottawa and the surrounding valley. Do or Die begins with a murder in the library of the University of Ottawa just before closing. No eyewitnesses, no enemies, no apparent motive. The victim is the only son of a wealthy family with connections which adds to the pressure to solve the case. He was engaged in brain research with a brilliant scientist and other research assistants where tension and jealousy abound and there’s a underlying suspicion of fraudulent research results. A new girlfriend of a different culture has resulted in a clash with her male family members. Inspector Green must tiptoe around the macho egos, research fraud, and the political string-pulling that keeps interfering with Green’s investigation.

Green is a work-obsessed cop whose job cost him his first marriage and has threatened his second a number of times. As head of the Major Crimes Squad, Mike would rather be out on the streets than sitting behind his desk and working on committees. Along with his best friend, Sgt. Brian Sullivan, and the team from the Elgin Street Station, Green ferrets out important details but what he’s famous for is his gut feelings and they’re what usually solve the case.

Fradkin is a retired psychologist whose portrayals of motivation are both realistic and compelling. It is easy to empathize with Green as he deals with the frustrations of the job and the problems that result in his personal life. The ending was a complete surprise to me and that is something that rarely happens. I’m looking forward to meeting Ms. Fradkin in person at our June book club meeting. *****

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The Sword of the Templars by Paul Christopher

Book 1

The enduring legend of the Templars has always been fascinating for me whether through movies such as Kingdom of Heaven by Ridley Scott or a particular Robin Hood episode, Seven Poor Knights from Acre, or adventure/romance books such as this one, first in a series by Paul Christopher. I read The Sword of the Templars some time ago and enjoyed it so much I decided to read the series. Finally found a group 2nd hand on eBay and added them to my TBR pile which has spread itself over every nook and cranny of my apartment. Finally getting around to picking up where I left off, but first, a review of The Sword of the Templars.

The main characters are Lt. Col. John “Doc” Holliday of West Point and his cousin Peggy. When Doc’s Uncle Henry dies, it’s up to Doc and Peggy to go through his house where the adventure truly begins. Behind a secret panel, they discover a medieval sword wrapped in Hitler’s personal banner — a mystery and a riddle that they are not the only ones trying to solve. The house is set on fire, the pair are pursued across the globe, threatened, and attacked, and while one mystery is solved, another is encountered for the 2nd book in the series.

The plot is fast paced and easily read in a day. A bit of conflict between fact and fantasy but a rollicking good read. Looking forward to finally getting on with book 2, The Templar Cross. ****

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Update

A few weeks ago, I wrote that I was going to try to blog more often and that I was no longer going to adhere to writing a mystery on Mondays and a cozy read on Wednesdays. Nor was I going to publish a list of books I was going to try to complete and review on a regular basis. (Picture is my budgie, Budge. He will be my mascot now.)

I have stuck to this but now find I am unable to load the customize tools in order to remove the widgets for Mystery Monday and Cozy Read Wednesdays, nor am I able to update my “books read” for Goodreads 2021 reading challenge. I have now read and reviewed 26 books although my site insists it is only 22. Still working through frustrations with the block editing system as well.

Currently reading The Wind in the Willows (a birthday gift — a book I’ve never read) and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and other lessons from the crematory (not quite what I expected).

Let me know what you’re reading and if you, too, are having difficulties with the latest WordPress changes.

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The Huntress by Kate Quinn

This is the 2nd book by Kate Quinn that I’ve read and while I loved The Alice Network, I found The Huntress rather difficult to get into at first. There are basically 5 main characters — Jordan McBride, a young woman who wants to become a photographer and has important decisions to make about her future, Ian Graham, a famous wartime journalist turned Nazi hunter, his junior partner, Tony Rodomovsky from Queens, Polish-Hungarian with some Jewish ancestry, a Russian aviatrix Nina Markova who has defected and is the only known witness to the identity of The Huntress, and the huntress herself, Anneliese Weber. This is not a spoiler as there is no mystery from the beginning who the Huntress is — there are no other characters in the story. The suspense is in Ian’s group of 3 tracking her down and Jordan trying to uncover the truth about her from a different angle.

Weber, obviously not her real name (Lorelei Vogt), is a cruel, unrepenting killer of children who thought nothing of giving them a hot meal, shooting them, and pushing them into the lake; she also killed Ian’s younger brother which explains why he is so driven to arrest her. He is relentless in hunting her across Europe and eventually to the United States. Jordan, at first delighted that her father has finally developed a love interest so long after her mother’s death, soon begins to suspect that Anneliese is not who she seems.

I found Jordan to be a somewhat cardboard cut-out character at first — rather simplistic and hard to be empathetic towards. It wasn’t until after her father died and her suspicions of her new stepmother began to pile up that she became more 3-dimensional and interesting. Her decisions to ditch her longtime boyfriend/fiance and to pursue a career in photo-journalism were interesting developments and she became a brave, daring, insightful person with more real emotions and goals.

For me, the highlight of the book was Nina, raised in the wilds of Soviet Siberia, abused physically by her father, a fiercely disloyal subject of Stalin who taught her to fish and hunt and be a survivor. After watching a plane come down near her home and meeting the pilot, she becomes determined that she will become a part of Stalin’s women’s night time bomber pilots known to the enemy as the Night Witches. When she faces prison due to her father’s outspoken anti-stalinist views, she defects and narrowly escapes death at the hands of the huntress. She is a force of nature — somewhat crass, fierce, and driven — a huntress herself as she joins forces with Ian and Tony.

Ian is an interesting character. After seeing first-hand Omaha Beach and the Nuremberg trials, Ian wants to do rather than observe. Determined at first to set high standards of non-violence towards perpetrators of Nazi war crimes, he finds anger gets the better of him at times and it’s all he can do to resist the use of force to extract information. He marries Nina and sends her to England to protect her without really knowing much about her. As the plot thickens, despite the language barrier they learn to care more for each other and have a greater understanding of their disparate backgrounds.

This book never really realized my expectations after The Alice Network. I didn’t feel the huntress herself was a consistent character as she spared Jordan which wasn’t really in her character. The suspense was never really there except during Nina’s stories of her determination to fly, the sisterhood amongst the aviators, and her experiences flying and fleeing her homeland. The Russian folklore was interesting and the insight into how the women aviators came to have a place in Stalin’s airforce. I only give it a three out of five.

This book never really realized my expectations after The Alice Network. I didn’t feel the huntress herself was a consistent character as she spared Jordan which wasn’t really in her character. The suspense was never really there except during Nina’s stories of her determination to fly, the sisterhood amongst the aviators, and her experiences flying and fleeing her homeland. The Russian folklore was interesting and the insight into how the women aviators came to have a place in Stalin’s airforce. I only give it a three out of five.

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