This Little Light

This Little Light” is a compelling story that takes place in the near future and features relevant issues, a tense plot, a strong main character and a shocking ending. The intensity grows throughout the story, which is set over 48 hours, as two teenage girls flee for their lives when they’re accused of bombing their high school’s “Virtue Ball”.

This is a Dystopian read where issues of socio-economic disparity, immigration, climate change, the power of the government, media and fundamentalist religion are at the forefront. Abortion has been re-criminalized and birth control is hard to obtain, which creates an underground “Pink Market” for these services. The rights of women have been whittled away to the point where teen girls are told their place in society, which includes declaring a chastity promise to their fathers. That’s a whole lotta issues, but it works.

Rory, as the protagonist, is a breath of fresh air. I love her strength and conviction as she voices her opinions and relentlessly questions the way things are being done (her outspokenness often being blamed on her being half Canadian! Atta, girl!). She’s one small voice in a sea of media, Christian fundamentalists and politicians who want to control the rights of women and keep immigrants “in their place”.

This story has a strong teen vibe to it which is great, but unexpected. The only thing I didn’t love was the teen speak which felt contrived and often grating. For example, “I wanted to tell Fee to go up and have a shower because smell ..” This kind of dialogue occurred a lot and felt awkward – like the author was trying too hard to sound like a teen.

Overall, this was an engaging, eye-opening read that handles some big issues within a compulsive story that shows the importance of people questioning how things are done and not just accepting what you see in the media as fact. This is, obviously, a good pick for people itching for books with a Handmaid’s Tale feel to it.

— Laurie P.

National Treasures

If you are a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale (Season 1 and Season 2) on TV, but are afraid to read a book by Margaret Atwood, I encourage you to give The Testaments a try! The Testaments is the long awaited and much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale that reads more like pop fiction novel than a traditional Margaret Atwood book.

The Testaments takes place approximately 15 to 16 years later than The Handmaid’s Tale.  The reader sees what the world now looks like through the testimony of three female narrators: Aunt Lydia (yes, that Aunt Lydia), Witness 369A, and Witness 369B.

Aunt Lydia reveals that Gilead’s citizens are more power-hungry and corrupt than ever. Trust is a rarity and Aunt Lydia says to “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Having no friends, I must make do with enemies.” Witness 369A tells the reader about her life growing up as the daughter of a Commander in Gilead. Witness 369B lives in Canada, and gives the reader her perspective as an outsider of Gilead, looking in. I can’t give you any more details about the narrators without spoiling the many twists, turns, shocks and surprises you will encounter as you read the book.

I’ve been waiting for this sequel for so long that I really wanted to take my time reading it.  However, my copy must have contained chocolate because it kept calling me to come back to it, and I ended up reading it within a day. I found myself totally engaged with the narrators and each new morsel of information they revealed made it that much harder for me to put down.

I recently attended a “Margaret Atwood: Live in Cinemas” event that was presented onscreen at a local Cineplex. Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale TV series, read two excerpts from Aunt Lydia’s narrative in The Testaments. Two other readers each read an excerpt from Witness 369A and 369B. Atwood was also interviewed and she was asked was what made her decide to finally write a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale after 34 years? Her answer?  When Trump got elected as President of the United States. Atwood was also asked what she thought was the most important issue facing the world today. Without hesitation she said our planet, and she feels if we focus on healing and protecting our planet, our other issues will fall into place.

— Sandy W.

Crowing About “Hollow Kingdom”

I’m not wishing for the end of the world any more than I long for a murder to happen but I do love reading about both of them.  So many interesting things happen in novels about the apocalypse.  Remember R.E.M‘s song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”?  It’s a checklist of perfectly terrifying elements that make a captivating story – “Birds and snakes and an aeroplane”, “Governments for hire” and the “Furies breathing down. your neck” – all the best parts of great Apocalyptic fiction.  I don’t want the end of the world to happen but when the writing is so good well, I do feel fine.  Thank you, Michael Stipe.

So many books featuring a possible apocalypse stand out when I think of my ‘best ever’ books, starting with Stephen King’s The Stand (which I first read way back in high school).  We get to meet the characters in these books when they are at their weakest, when everything is stripped away, so we really get to know them.  I still remember conversations between Stu and Franny in Stephen King’s book more vividly than I do the actual content of any class I took in high school.  It’s also fascinating to see how authors like Emily St. John MandelEdan Lepucki and Neal Stephenson choose to end our world – what exactly are the  catastrophic mistakes that they see our society making that takes us to destruction?  How do they imagine our society will rebuild?  These are the nitty gritty details that I love about this type of book.  If an advance review mentions genetic engineering gone wrong, pandemics-getting-out-of-hand, any instance where the CDC makes a mistake and tries to cover it up then I place my hold right away.  At least they will be an entertaining read and the really beautiful ones give me a chance to ponder what we value in our civilization – what would we miss if it all starts to fall apart?

I knew that I would read this debut novel about the apocalypse seen through the eyes of a domesticated crow (these were the keywords thrown around for the last few months when Hollow Kingdom was being chatted about online) but I didn’t know if it would just be a quirky read or one that rises above ‘book about a crow’.  I also wondered who I might share it with. How many other readers would like to read a book written from the perspective of a crow? From the first chapter I knew that it was a book for everyone.  Everyone!

The story begins with S.T., his human friend Big Jim, and their dog, Dennis, enjoying a fine day outside their home near Seattle. Looking back S.T. realizes that there might have been other indications that Big Jim’s health was declining but when one of Big Jim’s eyeballs falls out and rolls across the lawn he knows that things are starting to get serious. S.T. is a clever bird. Crows are, of course. He thoughtfully scoops it up and puts it into one of the cookie jars in the kitchen in case it can be used by Jim later and then spends the next few days trying to cure Jim of this terrifying illness. He tries everything – brings him the keys to his truck, tries feeding him Cheetos, carries him their favourite photographs from the fridge door, brings some medication from the local Walgreens – but nothing works.   With Dennis by his side (he attaches Dennis’s collar to a leash and leads him away from their home) they go on a mission to see if there are any uninfected humans who can help Big Jim.

It’s horrifying like all good infection-turns-humans-into-zombies novels but it’s wonderfully different because it’s all told through the language of animals and how they see us.  Author Kira Jane Buxton must have enjoyed books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down when she was a kid because she has the natural world built to perfection.  If the violence level weren’t so high I would be tempted to share this book with junior readers because there was so much to love and her passion for animals is evident throughout.

S.T. is the main voice but he is joined by Dennis and they meet other crows and dogs throughout their adventure.  We see some of the adventure from the perspective of moles, a poodle, a seagull, an armadillo, a polar bear and an octopus and it is all bewitching.   Their travels take them across the state, through a university campus, into abandoned neighbourhoods, a large zoo, an aquarium, forests and to the beach and it leads to a wide variety of discoveries about humans.  Some work out well for our team of crow and dog and some really do not.

I’m trying not to spoil the plot of the story (or the ending) but with many of the remaining humans preoccupied with their zombie thoughts this leaves an opportunity for the natural world to take over and it is all beautifully described by Buxton.  Seeing the destruction of the human world through S.T.’s opinionated eyes is the very best view. He was perfectly content being a crow who felt like he was almost human.  He has more enemies than friends among animal kind so the challenges that he and Dennis face together are doubly hard.  It becomes an opportunity for the reader to fall hard for both of them; especially as the author describes them as “a rejected crow with an identity crisis partnering a bloodhound with the IQ of boiled pudding.”

There are some moments in this book that were a little scary to read and had to be returned to – if I could have read them with my eyes partially covered like you watch a horror film, I might have done so.  I read this book quickly because I almost couldn’t believe how clever it was, how she was able to make her crow’s voice seem authentic, and yet I didn’t want to finish it because the time spent with S.T. and Dennis seems far too short.  It’s the classic problem with a book that you love – reading it fast because it is perfection but just not wanting it to end.

Yes, Hollow Kingdom can also be described as a zombie novel, and it is narrated by a Cheetos-eating crow with a name that is so profane I can only share the initials in this blog post, but there were moments in this book that moved me to tears and caused me to want to write down quotations from Buxton’s beautiful text.  I could needlepoint them on a pillow with a cute little crow and dog image maybe?  The author might be trying to send us a message about the environment or the dangers of relying on technology.  She might be saying all or none of this and wants to remind us of the importance of animal welfare.  It’s an unforgettable book about the end of world as we know it and you really should read it – Cheetos optional.

— Penny M.

Great Teen Reads to Start the School Year

The days are growing shorter and the leaves are starting to change colour. This can only mean one thing: the school year is about to begin. If you are looking for a good book for a novel study or just a great story to read in your spare time, the Waterloo Public Library has got you covered with a great selection of teen reads.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
We Set the Dark on Fire is a perfect blend of the classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the teen bestseller Divergent. In the story there are three social classes: upper class, lower class and those that live beyond the wall. Men in the upper class have two wives: a Primera and a Segunda. A Primera is responsible for fulfilling the needs of his household. A Segunda is responsible for fulfilling his sexual needs. Young girls in this society are sent to school to learn how to properly serve their future husband.
Daniela graduates at the top of her class and is chosen by the wealthiest family to serve as a Primera. It is the highest honor that a girl could receive. However, Daniela is keeping a secret that could destroy everything– she was born beyond the wall.

A group of insurgents discover her true past and threaten to expose her, unless she aids them in their rebellion against the upper class. Daniela soon finds herself sympathizing with the rebellion and works to bring down the unjust class system.

There are so many parallels to our current political climate – the role of women in a male dominated society, the power of the rich elite over the poor and the vilification of those who live outside our borders. It prompts a lot of questions about the society we live in today – why do we settle for things the way they are? We Set the Dark on Fire opens the door for a lot of discussion.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Xiaomara is a lioness. She’s a fierce, independent young woman with a voice of her own. The problem is her family wants her to be a sheep. Her mother wants her to fall in line with religion, to silence her voice and obey.

With her voice gone, Xiaomara begins to pour her emotions onto the lines of a leather notebook, creating raw poetry. She keeps her words locked away from the world until she joins a slam poetry club. For the first time she has a platform to express herself and people are listening to what she has to say.

The book is written in verse, making it a quick read but it is full of so many different themes: family, friendship, sexuality, body image and self esteem.

The poetry Xiaomara creates is both genuine and sympathetic. She questions why things have to be the way they are simply because she’s young and female. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider will relate to her words.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
The earth is damaged beyond repair. The icecaps have melted. The far north is submerged. Earthquakes have caused the west coast to drop into the ocean. The Great Lakes are so polluted that the water has turned into grey sludge. Hordes of people now scavenge the land looking for clean water and scraps of food. But perhaps the worst part of all – people have lost the ability to dream.

The only dreams that remain are those that live within Indigenous people, who are now being hunted for their bone marrow.

At first glance, The Marrow Thieves may seem like a basic dystopian novel, but it is really about the resilience of Indigenous people. The story echoes the real life residential schools that once tried to kill the culture and the dreams of Indigenous people. But in this novel it is the reverse- Indigenous people are being killed to restore the dreams of others.

The Marrow Thieves won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Kirkus Prize and the White Pine Award. It is the kind of book that sweeps you into the story from the first page.

The Art of Breaking Things by Laura Sibson
Skye is a teflon girl. Nothing sticks to her. Nothing bothers her. Everything just slides right off. She might party too much. She might use more drugs than she should. She might get too familiar, a little too fast with any boy who gives her a second glance. But that’s just her style – she breaks the rules and pushes boundaries.

The truth is that Skye’s rebellious attitude is just a cover. Underneath she is struggling to bury her past. Something that’s too painful to remember. The only outlet she has is her art. Art helps her express what’s going on inside – what she keeps hidden from everyone.

The Art of Breaking Things is a realistic story that deals with difficult subject matter. The character of Skye is beautifully complex. She works hard at keeping a bad girl image, yet inside she is incredibly damaged and vulnerable. Her path to healing is powerful and full of emotion. Readers will be reminded of the character Melinda from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

— Lesley L.

“A word after a word after a word is power” Margaret Atwood

When you hear the name Margaret Atwood, what comes to mind? I asked several people this question and besides the “Who’s that?” I got from my son (…sigh…), most people answered that she’s Canadian and that she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. Other people said she wrote stuff that was “weird” or “dark.”

In fact, Margaret Atwood is a world famous novelist of many titles, as well as a poet, teacher, literary critic, environmental activist with a particular focus on oceans, and an inventor. I recently had the opportunity to hear her speak at a fundraiser THEMUSEUM hosted at Centre in the Square. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect with the headliner “From The Handmaid’s Tale to Art &Technology.” What I discovered was Margaret Atwood is actually quite funny, brilliant, profound, and a little bit saucy!

Daiene Vernile, former journalist, politician and cabinet member, led the conversation…that is unless Atwood wagged her finger and either pointed out that she wasn’t finished talking, or would say “Didn’t you mean to ask me about…?”

I learned that Atwood grew up with very scientific parents in northern Quebec where there was no school to attend. Instead, she read any book she could get her hands on, including her parents scientific books.

When Vernile described her as visionary, Atwood disagreed. She said she reads a lot of science newsletters and magazines, and that the seeds of her ideas can be found in these items. Scientific American is something she reads faithfully: you can also read it at WPL in magazine format, or through our digital library using RBdigital and your library card.

As you may know, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a totalitarian group named Gilead, who has taken over the government in the United States. Women who are still fertile are forced to become handmaids, in order to bear children for their masters and their wives. These handmaids have had their families, careers, and even their names have been taken away from them. Offred (she is now named this because she is of-Fred who is her master) tells her story, switching between her past life and her current circumstances.

Atwood said she had one rule while she was writing The Handmaid’s Tale: that she would only include things that had already been done TO someone BY someone. I don’t know about you but I found this very scary. She finished writing this book in Alabama, and mentioned the irony of this considering their recent anti-abortion law.

The popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale has increased dramatically with the release of the TV series by the same name. WPL has Season 1 and Season 2 in our collection for customers to borrow. Many people don’t realize that a lot of taping for the show occurs nearby, in Cambridge. You can search the Internet to look for familiar scenes or follow this link to Cbridge.ca for pictures and information.

The handmaid’s red cloak and wide white bonnet have become common sights at protests around the world. No words or signs are needed but the message they present is clear. Atwood seemed humbled that a costume she created in a book has become a powerful “voice” for women today.

Atwood has now written a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale entitled The Testaments. It will be released this fall, on September 10th. WPL already has copies on order. I can’t wait!

— Sandy W.

The Next Great Teen Read

As a Library Assistant, there is nothing I find more encouraging than having a teenager approach my desk looking for something to read. With Tumblr, Snapchat, WhatsApp and whatever other social media outlets out there that I’m far too old to understand it’s awesome to know that there are still so many teenagers who enjoy reading a good old fashioned book.

The best reader’s advisory questions I get are from high school students looking for their next great read. I always make sure I have a running list of the latest teen fiction to suit which ever genre appeals to them. This can be tricky, however, when faced with those keen readers that have already finished all of the popular teen titles in our collection. For this reason I was thrilled when The Echo Room by Parker Peeveyhouse crossed my desk.

In The Echo Room, Rett wakes up in an abandoned building. There is no food and no water. He has no memory of how he got there. There is blood on his clothes. There is blood on his hands. The only clue is the phrase “Scatter 3” written on the wall.

Stumbling through empty rooms, he comes across a girl named Bryn. She also claims to have no memory. As they explore, danger arrives. Their memories erase and the day repeats. And it repeats again. And again. Every time the day repeats, the reader learns a little more about Rett and Bryn’s situation.

The outside world is failing. Crops are making people sick. Parents are forced to work off their medical bills at government run facilities. Their children are being left to be raised in orphanages. As Rett and Bryn make their way through the abandoned building, they discover that surrounding area has turned into a wasteland- nothing but rocks and ruined structures. As the days keep repeating, Rett and Bryn begin to recall tiny parts of their former lives and they must put all the pieces together if they want to survive.

I am so excited to have another excellent title to recommend to those enthusiastic teen readers who come to my desk. The Echo Room will appeal to fans of The Maze Runner series, yet it offers a whole new take, combining all of the elements of a thriller, survival and science fiction book into one. Teen readers this IS your next great read.

— Lesley L.

The Winnowing

The trickiest questions I’m asked at WPL’s Information Desk often come from vivacious teen dystopian readers. They have already read all the popular titles. They were captivated by The Hunger Games long before it was popular. They were engrossed in Divergent long before it was made into a movie. They devoured Lois Lowry’s books before they even got to high school. So what’s left to recommend? Thankfully, Canadian author Vikki VanSickle has come to the rescue with her latest title, The Winnowing.

The Winnowing offers a retelling of history, mixed with conspiracy and science fiction. After World War II the world faces a spreading infertility crisis. No children have been born since the end of the war and the human race faces extinction. Fast forward to 1989 – the small town of Darby, New Mexico is home to a group of scientists who have miraculously found a way to reverse the crisis. The cure is now administered to all children.

The book begins with a young woman, Marivic, having vivid nightmares of running through burning lava. The dream seems so real that it feels as though her feet are truly being scorched. This is the first sign of ACES (Adolescent Chromosomniatic Episodes), the side effect of the cure that all teenagers experience during the onset of puberty. Next, they will develop extraordinary abilities that stretch beyond human limitations. If they do not undergo a procedure called The Winnowing, they become a danger to themselves and those around them. Those who complete the winnowing are left with hazy memories, unable to recall any specific details of the procedure.

Like all teenagers in Darby, Marivic is sent to a medical centre to be treated for her ACES. Her best friend Saren is already there, having started treatment sometime earlier. Together they encounter a suspicious young man who claims to have information linking The Winnowing to more sinister events.

Science fiction enthusiasts will notice various references to famous sci-fi creators sprinkled throughout the novel, the most notable being the character of Dr. Roddenbury (a nod to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbury).

The Winnowing, which is a Red Maple Fiction Award nominee, will appeal to vivacious dystopian fans, as well as those who enjoy a good conspiracy theory.

— Lesley L.