March 23, 2011

Old School Charlotte

Something drew me to the books by Charlotte MacLeod. Possibly the name Charlotte? It could have been the hand drawn artwork on the front jacket cover. Then there was the photo of Charlotte MacLeod herself on the back cover. The photo is of a lovely, hatted older woman, pouring a cup of tea from a delicate white china tea pot into a matching tea cup...very intriguing. What sort of mystery novel would a woman of her appearance write? Surely nothing too risque or too brutal (see Dean Koontz). Can you judge a book by its cover is the question?

Yes, you can!

I decided to begin my exploration of Ms. McLeod's novel's with her book titled "The Corpse in Oozak's Pond: A Peter Shandy Mystery." I enjoy, as did my mom apparently, a series of novels with the same detective. I enjoy watching the character evolve. So, why not start here?

Well, Charlotte did not disappoint. This novel is set in a small, rural college town, Balaclava Agricultural College, in north-eastern US. It involves the discovery of the body of an unknown man in the middle of the College's pond. Who is he, how did he end up there and why was he in the pond are the outstanding questions. Peter Shandy is a professor at the College who has taken the role of resident detective in this town. The novel moves S L O W L Y, ever so S L O W L Y. It is filled with conversations that frankly, aren't necessary. Unfortunately, as a reader I had no great desire to know what had happened to the corpse. No real connection was established between the dead man and the reader. No reason to care about the who and the why.

The same held true in the second novel of MacLeod's that I read "The Gladstone Bag". This novel followed an elderly woman, much like MacLeod herself, who stumbles onto a mysterious murdered man washed up on the beach on a private island in Maine. Sound familiar?

In an attempt to date these books, whose language is quite antiquated, I scanned the copyright page at the front of the book. While looking for the publication date I came across the "this is a fictional novel" disclaimer. I have never read this disclaimer before, assuming they all say the same thing. This was not the case. Here is what I found.

"Maine has many islands off its coast, and maybe even some private gold buried somewhere, because Maine is an enchanted state where anything can happen and often does. However, the place, the people and the events in this story are all, as the old folks used to say, made up out of whole cloth. There is, as far as the author has been able to discover, no island named Pocapuk outside these pages: and if any of the characters seem to resemble actual persons the reader knows, it's either coincidence or wishful thinking."

This quotation sums up MacLeod's attitude in her books. She uses humour in a slightly snobby and overtly witty way. Curious how my mom happened upon this author. What made her collect five of her books? To this point in my reading journey, I have found that my mom's books have been high drama, graphic and fast paced thrilling mysteries. Perhaps she was charmed by the female characters, or Charlotte MacLeod herself. That is understandable. Clearly you could see yourself sharing a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits with these old world women.

PS - When I was searching my mom's bookcase for the second MacLeod book to read...something in my mind told me to look for novels by Charlotte Webb. It was only when I returned upstairs and looked at the first book that I realized I had confused the book "Charlotte's Web" with the author Charlotte MacLeod! Duh?!

** photo sourced from

March 3, 2011

And the winner is...

The debates are over, and the decision has been made. The book that everyone in Canada should read, according to CBC Radio, is "Best Laid Plans" by Terry Fallis. Good news because I've already read it!

A few weeks before the debates were to be held I requested 2 tickets to the live taping of the debates. I got the tickets and invited my mother-in-law to come along. My mother-in-law has a passion for reading and had already read two of the books...I knew she was the perfect person to invite. After all she was the person who lent "The Best Laid Plans" to me well over a year ago.

Here is how our little adventure unfolded.

The tickets were for the Monday morning taping...the first of three days of debates. It was requested that we arrive an hour before the doors opened. The tapings were taking place at the CBC Broadcasting Centre, downtown Toronto. Since my mother-in-law lives in Hamilton, she spent the night at our place so we could get an early start Monday morning. The plan was to leave home at 7:30am...arrive at 8:30am...1 hour before the doors were set to open. The stars were aligned that morning., the streetcar arrived soon after we got to the stop. The ride downtown was uneventful. As we walked and chatted our way to the broadcast centre we laughed about how early we were arriving, just about 8:15am.

As we entered the building however, we were shocked to see a line, of mostly women, reaching almost to the door. We jumped in line and hoped that we wouldn't be bumped from attending. The tickets had come with a warning - they overbook for these tapings and some people would not get in...could we be those people? We stood and waited, and waited. Until finally a young woman came along and checked our names off the master list. As she stepped away from us, another woman joined her and brought along a stanchion. This second woman placed the stanchion directly behind us and informed the 20 or so people behind us, that they would be on stand-by...they might not get in! We made it! By the skin of our teeth.

Well, more waiting. By now it was 9:30. We had been standing in the same spot for over an hour. Our feet were sore, and we were beginning to wonder if we had been forgotten. Then the line started to move. We left the poor stand-byers behind, and marched toward the elevators. At the elevators, we were last in the door. Of course, this meant last one in...first one out. We moved up a few positions in line as a result of the elevator ride. Once upstairs, there was more waiting to be done. Almost another hour passed before we were let in the studio to find a seat.

The room was dark. The chairs were configured in a circle around the table and chairs, for the debaters in the middle of the room. We managed to find a spot for two people. We were sitting facing Jian Ghoemeshi...staring at a couple of the panelists backs.

The "warm-up" woman came out and told us the standard rules about bathroom breaks, or lack there of, and the need to CLAP and LAUGH LOUDLY. No problem! When she was done with her speech out came Jian. After his opening remarks and a quick question from the audience about his socks (Paul Frank socks) was time to introduce the celebrity panelists.

Ali Velshi - The Best Laid Plans
Lorne Cardinal - Unless
Debbie Travis - The Birth House
Georges Laraque - The Bone Cage
Sarah Quinn - Essex County

The debate began. If you would like to hear the debate from the first day follow this link. At the end of the hour it was obvious what the outcome would be...and it was confirmed with the final vote...Essex County was OUT. Essex Country is a graphic novel and according to the panel it was deemed to not be a "novel". Thus, it was eliminated.

Interestingly enough, when the recorded broadcast was completed Jian took questions and comments from the audience. I think the celebs were all taken aback by the overwhelming support for Essex County. The opinion that a "cartoon" cannot be considered great literature was not supported by the people in the crowd. The theory that this graphic novel can be seen as a "gateway" to reading was shunned by the panel, yet supported by the audience.

I have not read Essex County. It has just recently been added to the Toronto Public Library's catalogue...and there are 149 holds on 43 copies...I think I am around number 100.

Our experience was over. It was lunch time. Time to meet up with my bro-in-law and head to the food court for lunch.

As the next couple of days of debates progressed the panelists narrowed the list to "The Birth House" and "The Best Laid Plans". In the end "The Best Laid Plans" took the title. Both books I have read, and enjoyed. Do I agree with the final victor? I'm not sure. I understand that BLP is a fun, satirical look at Canadian politics, something we should all be more interested in. So, yes it is quintessentially Canadian. However, TBH is a beautiful historical novel..and to be honest after all the murderous and mysterious novels I have been reading of late (see my many previous posts) it was a nice distraction. I guess I believe that it wouldn't hurt for Canadians to read both novels.

Today I picked up "The Bone Cage" from the finished 4th. I'm curious to see if a novel about olympic athletes can pique my interest. We shall see.

PS - "The Best Laid Plans" began as a podcast...when author Terry Fallis couldn't find a publisher he decided to take matters into his own hands. You can listen to the chapter by chapter podcast at CBC's Canada Reads site.

** "The Best Laid Plans" book jacket image sourced from