RON CORBETT Updated: October 10, 2019
In our local reading guide for this fall, we cover poignant memoirs, the first autobiography by a former Supreme Court Chief Justice, quirky history, murder and mystery, and for the reader in search of something a little different: a genre-mashing, sci-fi love story.
The subtitle to Charlotte Gray’s most recent book of non-fiction — A Millionaire, His Gold Mine and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise — sounds more like the plot to a mystery by John D. Macdonald. Gray’s story of Sir Harry Oakes certainly reads more like a pulp fiction classic than a biography.
Oakes was a prospector who struck it rich by discovering gold in Kirkland Lake, Ont. A millionaire by age 42, he more or less retired, moving to the Bahamas and lived a life of opulence that was scandalous long before he was found murdered in his home in 1943, following a violent storm that swept across the island.
Gray long ago assumed Pierre Berton’s position as Canada’s best writer of popular history, and the story of Oakes is a cracker. A sensational murder trial, the bumbling interference of a colonial governor who used to be the king of England, a dysfunctional family, a missing fortune – Agatha Christie might have been tempted to rein it in a little.
But it’s all true, and told in the inimitable Gray style, which guarantees you’ll be guessing, and enjoying the ride, right to the last page.
Author: Charlotte Gray
Publisher: HarperCollins Canada
This Place: 150 Years Retold
Explore the past 150 years through the eyes of Indigenous creators in this groundbreaking graphic novel anthology. Beautifully illustrated, This Place: 150 Years Retold showcases the work of 11 Indigenous writers, eight illustrators and two colour artists.
Among the writers is Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, an Anishinaabe artist who splits her time between the nation’s capital and the Cape Croker Reserve in southwestern Ontario. Her story, Nimkii, was influenced by the tragic case of Teddy Bellingham, an Anishinaabe teenager brutally murdered in Smiths Falls in 1992.
Even though This Place: 150 Years Retold — an upper-tier graphic novel, both in the creative work and production standards – targets young adults, it can easily be enjoyed by readers of any age.
Author: Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm et al
Publisher: Highwater Press
Ottawa Rewind: A Book of Curios and Mysteries
Andrew King describes himself on his Twitter account as an “artist and cartoonist.” It is a self-deprecating description for someone whose work can indeed be found in some of the finest art collections in the city.
What doesn’t get mentioned as often is that King is also a local history sleuth who loves to solve old mysteries. Where was Ottawa’s first ever house built? Was there really a nuclear reactor at Tunney’s Pasture? And what in the world happened to the capital’s first tiki bar?
King has been seeking answers to questions like these since launching his popular website Ottawa Rewind in 2013. He has set out to find the location of shipwrecks in the Ottawa River, the Playboy bunnies that once worked the Riverside Hotel in Vanier, and every single Freemason or Knights Templar symbol built into Canada’s Parliament Buildings.
It’s a quirky, let’s-go-exploring examination of local history, and the results are sometimes extraordinary. King tracked down a wooden schooner that was once the subject of a National Film Board movie, a half-submerged shipwreck that still sits in a quiet bay of the Ottawa River. He has found the remains of the fabled Pokey Whiskey moonshine still near Manotick, a bootlegging operation that not even J. Edgar Hoover could find.
“A lot of this information is out there nowadays,” says King. “It’s online, or in old maps and books. Geoottawa is one my favourite apps. You can see, in aerial photos, just how Ottawa has changed over the years. What we’ve gained, and what we’ve lost.”
Ottawa Rewind: A Book of Curios and Mysteries is a compilation of King’s favourite mysteries from his website. Whimsical and well researched, it is as much a mystery as it is a history book, reminiscent of the popular Lost Ottawa books. (It will also finally tell you where some of the underground tunnels are in Ottawa.)
Author: Andrew King
Publisher: Ottawa Press and Publishing
Shut Away: When Down Syndrome Was a Life Sentence
Part memoir, part history book, Shut Away tells the rise-and-fall story of Ontario’s large provincial institutions for people with cognitive disabilities. At the same time, it tells the heartbreaking story of the author’s youngest brother, Bill, who had Down Syndrome and was only two-and-a-half when he was admitted in 1951 to Smiths Falls’ Ontario Hospital School, later renamed the Rideau Regional Centre.
Catherine McKercher is a professor emerita of the School of Journalism and Communications at Carleton University, and not surprisingly, she knows how to write a book. Her research into the history of these institutions is flawless, and the narrative is compelling.
What readers may be unprepared for is the poignant tale of McKercher’s brother, who died from hepatitis B that he contracted while institutionalized.
It is a gut-punch of a story, placed atop the steady, never-preachy sub-narrative of McKercher’s book: We can do better.
Author: Catherine McKercher
Publisher: Goose Lane Editions
Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law
Truth be Told is the first autobiography by a judge from Canada’s Supreme Court, although any reader looking for fly-on-the-wall revelations about landmark court cases may be disappointed. Beverley McLaughlin’s latest book is more personal in nature with few secrets, if any, revealed about the machinations of Canada’s highest court.
McLaughlin is a skilled writer (her debut novel, Full Disclosure, was published last year) and her stories of growing up in Alberta, to later become Canada’s longest serving Supreme Court chief justice, are fascinating and even at times hysterical.
One anecdote concerns the time former prime minister Stephen Harper was in a war of words with the chief justice. In the course of their very public row, McLaughlin brought home a puppy. She writes that she wanted to name the dog Harper, so she could say, “Harper, sit! Harper, lie down!”
In the end, McLaughlin opted for judicial caution and prudence — “What if people heard me saying that in a park?” — and gave the dog a different name.
Author: Beverley McLaughlin
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Christmas in Newfoundland: Memories and Mysteries
Mike Martin is the award-winning author of the Sgt. Windflower mystery series, set in Grand Bank, N.L. The Halifax Chronicle-Journal has called Winston Windflower “possibly Canada’s most polite Mountie.”
Christmas in Newfoundland is something different for Martin, who has called Ottawa his home for several decades. It is a book of short stories featuring Windflower: some mysteries, some tall tales, and some recollections on what it was like to be a child growing up in Newfoundland, with Christmas fast approaching.
The whimsical, Norman Rockwell-type illustrations for the book were done by students in the visual arts program at Canterbury High School.
Author: Mike Martin
Publisher: Ottawa Press and Publishing
This is How You Lose The Time War
It’s a rare book that’s described as “part epistolary romance, part mind-blowing science fiction adventure,” let alone in a glowing, starred review in Publishers Weekly. Genre-bending is just one of the many charming surprises about This is How You Lose the Time War, a rollicking sci-fi tale written by Max Gladstone and Ottawa’s Amal El-Mohtar.
El-Mohtar teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa, and if this book is any indication, none of her students will ever be short of story ideas. The complicated plot of This is How You Lose the Time War unfolds in what its publisher humbly describes as: “The whole of time and space.”
The book is a tour de force performance by El-Mohtar, a young writer who has already won a Hugo, perhaps the most prestigious award in speculative fiction.
Author: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Publisher: Saga Press
The Real Ogie!
There are ways to measure hockey greatness: Stanley Cups, record book stats, Hall of Fame inductions.
But what if you are the inspiration for a character in a Paul Newman movie? Not just any Paul Neman movie, but perhaps the greatest hockey movie of all time – Slap Shot?
This is the measure of greatness for Goldie Goldthorpe, the brawling left-winger once called “the wildest, meanest, most unpredictable player in hockey,” who was also the inspiration for feared enforcer Ogie Oglethorpe in Slap Shot.
Goldthorpe’s after-hockey life has been almost as tumultuous as his playing career, and local author and hockey historian Liam Maguire does a wonderful job of telling both. A can’t-put-it-down read for any hockey — or Slap Shot — fan.
Author: Liam Maguire
Publisher: Burnstown Publishing House
Ron Corbett is a journalist, author and co-founder of Ottawa Press and Publishing. His most recent novel is Cape Diamond, by ECW Press.