The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer is a stellar debut novel for Ta-Nehisi Coates. While he has had an illustrious career in journalism, this is his first foray into fiction and he has hit a home-run! Coates’ writing style is stunningly eloquent, creating passages that transport the reader into the images and scenes created by his masterfully selected language. This is a gorgeously written piece of literature!

The story revolves around the life of Hiram Walker, one of the ‘Tasked’ on a plantation in Virginia called Lockless, owned and run by the ‘Quality’ Walker family. Once a thriving operation, the land is dying and the plantation and the ways of the gentry are facing a slow death.  We meet Hiram at a young age after his mother has been sold into bondage. He finds safe haven with a cantankerous woman in the slave village and it is during this time that he realizes that, even unschooled, he has an extremely unusual capacity to remember things. This talent brings him to the attention of the plantation owner, Howell Walker, who also happens to be Hiram’s birth father. Recognizing the tremendous gift that the boy has, Walker Sr brings the boy up to the main house to be educated and to be his white son Maynard’s servant.

This is the beginning of a journey that will take Hiram through oppressive suffering toward a future that will enable him to become a soldier in the underground war between the Quality and the Tasked. He will begin to unearth the memory of his mother, buried deep within him, that will allow his gift of ‘conduction’ to emerge, a gift that will help him to understand that freedom without love and family is bondage in its own way.

The story is based on the real life experiences of William and Peter Still, African-American brothers who were able to purchase their freedom from slavery and went on to become active abolitionists and conductors on the Underground Railroad. Fleeing For Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railway and The Underground Railroad Records are compilations of experiences of  the slaves and conductors who worked on the secret network and reflect the perils, tactics, and emotional struggles faced by the freedom seekers and fighters.

A warning to the reader: the inhumanity depicted in this story is almost beyond belief and yet multitudes of blacks have this savagery imprinted into their DNA through the generations that lived and continue to live in a country still much defined by its roots of slavery. 

— Nancy C.

Beer, Polkas and … Murder!

As K-W celebrates Oktoberfest season – a time of beer, polka and all things Bavarian – it’s the perfect time to pick up the Sloan Krause cozy mystery series by Ellie Alexander. The series is set in a small town known for its own Oktoberfest celebration and focuses on the growing culture of craft beer.

The first book in the series, Death on Tap, introduces readers to the town of Leavenworth, Washington. This Bavarian-inspired tourist town has a colourful cast of citizens including Sloan Krause, whose life revolves around her family-owned brew house and restaurant. When a murder occurs at one of the small craft breweries, Sloan finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.

While the mysteries in the first three books of this series are at the forefront, Alexander also provides readers with interesting tidbits on craft brewing and its growing culture. As someone who enjoys craft beer, I found the info on the brewing process, flavours etc. quite interesting. But it was the underlying mystery surrounding Sloan’s murky past that kept me coming back for more. Since this mystery about Sloan’s early life builds over the three books, I highly suggest reading the books in order.

Book 1: Death on Tap
Book 2: The Pint of No Return
Book 3: Beyond a Reasonable Stout

Whether you’re a craft beer aficionado or simply not a beer person, I think fans of lighter mysteries will enjoy cozying up this Fall with this series.

— Laurie P.

WPL Book Clubs’ Picks for October

Join us for book club conversation at any meeting. No need to sign up. No need to clean your house. The WPL Book Clubs have “open” membership, so you can drop in once in a while, or come faithfully every month.

Monday, October 21 – Monday Evening Book Club
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
7:00pm – Main Library, Auditorium

21 Lessons For the 21st Century provides a kind of instruction manual for the present day to help readers find their way around the 21st century, to understand it, and to focus on the really important questions of life. Once again, Harari presents this in the distinctive, informal, and entertaining style that already characterized his previous books.

The topics Harari examines in 21 Lessons include major challenges such as international terrorism, fake news, and migration, as well as turning to more personal, individual concerns, such as our time for leisure or how much pressure and stress we can take.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century answers the overarching question: What is happening in the world today, what is the deeper meaning of these events, and how can we individually steer our way through them? The questions include what the rise of Trump signifies, whether or not God is back, and whether nationalism can help solve problems like global warming.

Few writers of non-fiction have captured the imagination of millions of people in quite the astonishing way Yuval Noah Harari has managed, and in such a short space of time. His unique ability to look at where we have come from and where we are going has gained him fans from every corner of the globe. There is an immediacy to this new book which makes it essential reading for anyone interested in the world today and how to navigate its turbulent waters.

Read a review of the book by Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates!)

Goodreads: 4.2* rating and reviews

Just want a summary of the book?  Find it here

Place a hold on a WPL copy of the book, the eBook or on the eAudiobook.

Thursday, October 17 – Thursday Afternoon Book Club
Transatlantic by Colum McCann
1:30 p.m. – Main Library, Boardroom

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a black American slave, lands in Ireland to champion ideas of democracy and freedom, only to find a famine unfurling around him. In 1919, two brave young airmen emerge from the carnage of World War I to pilot the first transatlantic flight from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to the west of Ireland. In 1998 an American senator criss-crosses the ocean in search of a lasting peace in Ireland.

Taking these stories as his point of departure, Colum McCann weaves together the lives of Douglass, Alcock and Brown, and Senator George Mitchell in a tapestry that is both ambitious and unforgettable.

Goodreads: 3.8* rating and reviews

NY Times review of the book

Place a hold on a WPL copy of the book.

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.

Meet Author Joanna Goodman

Joanna Goodman, author of the One Book, One Community selection for 2019, The Home For Unwanted Girls, is visiting the Region of Waterloo from September 24 to 26. Four (4) author events, including book signings, have been scheduled:

Tuesday, September 24
7:00pm to 9:00pm
Knox Presbyterian Church, 50 Erb St W, Waterloo, ON N2L 1T1

Wednesday, September 25
1:15pm to 2:15pm
Waterloo Oxford District Secondary School, 1206 Snyder’s Road West, New Hamburg N3A 1A4
Note: this event is open to the general public, not just to students of Waterloo Oxford.

Wednesday, September 25
6:30pm doors open, 7:00pm program begins
Kitchener Public Library – Central Library, 85 Queen St N, Kitchener, ON N2H 2H1

Thursday, September 26
6:30pm doors open, 7:00pm program begins
Trillium United Church, 450 King Street East, Cambridge, ON N3H 3M9

All of the author events are free but attendees are advised to arrive early for a good seat.

To learn more about Joanna, The Home for Unwanted Girls and One Book, One Community, visit oboc.ca

Leaf Through a Good Book This Autumn

I wonder if Salman Rushdie and Colson Whitehead thought about asking their publishers to put their most recent novels into a drawer for a few months when they learned that Margaret Atwood was releasing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale? The fall publishing season is always so competitive plus they have that upstart, previously sticking with non-fiction, Georgia-born Delia Owens sitting on the NY Times bestseller list for over 50 weeks, and now Mags has more to say about the Republic of Gilead. Poor guys looking at their sales numbers, just feeling glum.

Well, they have a lot more competition on the way. So much more. And it’s all great news for readers! There is an absolute rush of wonderful material coming into the library every week and it’s almost too hard to keep up. Even better news for us – we don’t have to buy any of them. We just place holds, come into the library to ask for suggestions, or browse the shelf and marvel at the treasures. It could not be easier to find something to read this fall.

With her 10th book Emma Donoghue has created a novel that is once again completely different from anything she has written before (and she has written so many good things). A childless widower, Noah, almost 80 years old, agrees to take in his 11-year old great-nephew just as he is planning a trip to Nice. It seems as if it might be a story about an unlikely friendship but becomes something entirely different. Their relationship is surprisingly funny and takes the reader deep into Noah’s family history while he is learning about the future through 11-year old Michael. Akin is a vacation novel that you won’t easily forget.

Usually when reviewers say that a book is ‘ambitious’ I worry they are hinting an author has bitten off more than they can chew with the scope of a novel but with Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) I think a demanding storyline is not a concern. In The Water Dancer the main character, Hiram Walker, is born with a mysterious power he doesn’t fully understand but is able to use in guiding escapees from plantations in the South to freedom in the North. Magical realism combine with historical fact in a novel that is sure to be one of the highlights of this season and we also have it in recorded book format so you can just let the story wash over you.

Author Ami McKay has been sharing tidbits about her memoir Daughter of Family G through posts on her website and recently said that she had recorded an interview with Shelagh Rogers for CBC’s The Next Chapter but I just want to read it. I want to cuddle up in a chair and learn – in the tone that we have all come to love – her family’s story. When I learned that she was publishing this memoir it reminded me of other similar books; The Juggler’s Children and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but they were written after the fact. Ami McKay is researching her family’s legacy of hereditary cancer with the full knowledge that it will have an impact on her health and that of her children. It will be an absolutely fascinating read from a favourite author.

There are other big names publishing this season who just might make Salman and Colson worry a bit before they fall asleep each night. Ann Patchett will be giving us the gift of The Dutch House this fall, Jeanette Winterson has reimagined the Mary Shelley story with Frankissstein, and Elizabeth Strout has written Olive, Again (although maybe we are all thinking of it as ‘Olive, Again!!!’ as we are so happy to see her on the shelves). Perhaps not in the running for a Booker, a Giller (wrong country, I know), or a Pulitzer Stephen King has published another full-length novel called The Institute. It begins in a very small town with the reader falling for a no-nonsense ex-cop named Tim before the action abruptly switches to the workings of a frightening institute. Children are being kidnapped from their homes and tested by scientists in an attempt to learn more about their unusual abilities. Some of the children have telekinetic powers, others can read minds, but they are united in their desire to escape the compound and the horrifying tests. Everything, including the reason for the Institute’s existence, is untwisted at the end (you will see Tim again) but not before you find yourself wishing you had read this book during daylight hours only.

Even if I just leave it on my kitchen table to impress people when they come over I am looking forward to From the Oven to the Table. Just look at that cover. Doesn’t that look like a book someone would check out if they were an incredibly impressive home cook? In 2018 the author published the absolutely sublime How to Eat a Peach which I was sure I would use for more than the desserts (I never did) but I loved checking it out of the library more than once just to allow myself to imagine I could cook fish that way (instead of the same three ways I always do it). This new cookbook promises quick recipes for dinner after work and substantial dishes we can use to charm our friends. I like to do both of these things! Friends and food sound so good to me when the weather starts to get colder. This is one of the many new cookbooks that will be on the shelves to tempt me this fall. Keep them coming, I am ready.

Keep all of the gorgeous books coming, I really can’t wait.

— Penny M.

All the Ever Afters

Most of us have heard the story of Cinderella many times over – as children, as adults reading to children and Disney’s take on the popular tale. But Canadian author Danielle Teller is asking readers to put aside their preconceived ideas of Cinderella, her stepsisters and, most especially, her ‘evil’ stepmother.

You may be thinking, “I already know the story of Cinderella – bullied, Fairy Godmother, glass slipper, Prince + happily-ever-after”. But in Teller’s version, All the Ever Afters, we witness the story of Cinderella through the eyes of Agnes, the woman who would become Cinderella’s stepmother. Despite being such a well-known tale, I found this quite an engaging read. The popular aspects of the fairy tale are woven into this re-imagined story that includes insight into Agnes’ early life, the life of her two daughters and how their relationship with Elfilda (aka Ella) developed over time. I especially enjoyed seeing the complexities and dynamic relationships within this family. Life isn’t all glass slippers and Fairy Godmothers, am-I-right?

This is a creative retelling of a well-known, much loved fairy tale that gives readers a different perspective which may leave some readers feeling differently about the much maligned evil stepmother. With its stunning cover art, this is an eye-catching book but it’s also an engaging coming-of-age story that features complex family dynamics, set within a well-known fable.

— Laurie P.

When “Back to School” Means “Off to University”

We started preparing for the start of the new school year in a very different way than any year before because one of our kids was making a bigger change than normal – with a school year that involved moving out of the house and into a university residence – so some of the things we usually fit into our new school year planning had to be adjusted.

It turns out that packing your first child up to send them off to university is a lot more involved than I first thought and I was relieved to use the resources of WPL to get it done more easily (some of the research could even be done from the comfort of my own dining room table when I used our Digital Library – super cozy). It’s far too early to say whether or not things have gone well but I feel like we’ve done our best. Here are some of the best things we used to get ‘ready’.

It was helpful to read both fiction and non-fiction about this topic because any time I found myself thinking back to what my university years were like I would realize things like my own cell phone had been the same size as a men’s dress shoe and textbooks back then were still made of paper so I really needed to get some idea of the kind of pressure a modern university student is under. I can recommend Jean Hanff Korelitz’ Admission, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, and My Oxford Year which gave me an idea of what contemporary university life is like. An unexpected bonus came our way through the memoir by American disability rights advocate Haben Girma which is absolutely non-fiction but reads so beautifully it is like a witty, best friend novel. She is just telling you her captivating story of growing up in California, attending a small college in Oregon, and deciding to go to law school, and it’s as good as any YA novel out there. A wonderful picture of college life.

We also found many solid resources that focused on student mental health, finances, academic success, making new friends, choosing a career path, separating from home and family, potential romantic difficulties… I almost can’t keep typing… it’s really too much. Each year Maclean’s publishes their guide to universities in Canada with a survey of almost 50 schools and over 24 thousand students – it’s a great source and we receive the updated guide every year here at the library. My absolute favourite (I quoted it a few times, read it aloud at mealtimes, it became a bit of a ‘thing’ for the kids to tease me about but it really helped) among the books that I read was called Letting Go : a parents’ guide to understanding the college years because it included anecdotes from students, university staff, and parents. It was written by two college advisors in the U.S. and I found myself thinking about sections in this book often. I’m sure that it saved me from making some unwise choices during the weeks leading up to our last days of summer.

In school years past we would usually hit the cookbooks and find new meals to try in the first weeks of September but this year we were looking at food in a different way. We were helping our university-aged student prepare for the co-op term that will arrive in four very short months. Although we started with very elaborate ideas of what a university student’s perfect meal will look like (what were we thinking?) in the end we decided that it is more realistic to choose meals that are tasty and easy to prepare. We had success with a few cookbooks and have even added some of their recipes to the family rotation – Kevin Curry’s Fit Men Cook : 100 meal-prep recipes for men and women and The 5-minute Salad Lunchbox were our top two for realistic ingredients and flavour. In Kevin Curry’s book he provides a whole plan for approaching food and meal prep and, despite the use of the word ‘men’ in the title, we all found it useful.

During the last days of prep for her final move in day all I could focus on was reading cozy mysteries and I’m so pleased that I found a really good series on the shelves that had absolutely nothing to do with universities, children, packing, or choosing a career. It was all about two women who run a gingerbread cookie-baking business in a small murder-filled town outside of Washington, D.C. It’s so much fun (other than the murders) and it included a few lovely recipes to try. Just distracting enough. Now all I am thinking is “I can’t wait for Thanksgiving” and reading week. Who’s with me?

— Penny M.

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.