The Defiant

Rarely will I ever read a book series out of order. Reading a series out of order can be a recipe for disaster. You risk the plot not making sense. You risk missing key character points. And truthfully, you’re losing the overall effect of the author’s storytelling. But every so often I will come across a book that is so interesting that I fall to the temptation of starting a series in the middle. The Defiant just had too many of my interests to pass up. It’s historical fiction, it takes place in ancient Rome and it has strong female characters that kick butt and take names. And it’s written by Lesley Livingston, who wrote The Wondrous Strange series which I adored. I was so thrilled when I saw it; I dove right in without reading the first book.

Set in ancient Rome during the reign of Julius Caesar, The Defiant tells the story of Fallon, the daughter of a Celtic King.  Her homeland was attacked by Roman forces and she was taken captive. Sold as a slave to a ludus (a gladiator academy) she now fights as a gladiatrix named “Victrix.” Over time she wins the love of the crowd but earns the ire of those she has defeated. She finds herself in a violent feud with a rival ludus and one night her academy falls under attack. Fallon and the other gladiatrices escape, however their survival as fugitives is uncertain.

Although there are records of female gladiators during Roman times, very little is known about them. Male gladiators were depicted in artwork all across the Empire, while only one example of female gladiators exists. Nothing is known about their training or fighting styles. This leaves the narration of their story wide open. Author Lesley Livingston makes good use of this creative freedom. Fallon’s fighting style is so formidable, I found myself silently cheering her on as I read.  There is a tight comradery between Fallon and her fellow warriors that isn’t common to read. Most often stories will pit woman against woman in a rivalry for success. In this story, these gladiatrices will gladly die for one another.

The Defiant may be the second book in the series but I didn’t find myself lost or confused. The back story was blended into the plot so well that I could navigate the story without missing anything. As soon as I finished the book, I put a copy of The Valiant (book #1) on hold, only to discover that there is third book (The Triumphant) in the series set to be released this spring.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, action based stories, ancient Rome or women who kick butt.

— Lesley L.

 

You Inspire Us

In honour of International Women’s Day, our bloggers are sharing the women (real or fictional) who inspire them. From sleuths to librarians, activists to llamas (yes, that’s right), inspiring “women” come from all periods of time and walks of life.

Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew has a special place in my heart. I can still vividly recall the first Nancy Drew book I ever read, The Hidden Staircase. I was immediately hooked and went on to devour every single other ND book. Why? How could you possibly not love Nancy Drew?? She makes a terrific heroine for young girls. Smart, brave and independent, Nancy was always keen to tackle a new mystery and more than capable of outwitting rascally bad guys.

The author was no slouch either. Using the pen name Carolyne Keene, Mildred Wirt Benson wrote the first 23 Nancy Drew mysteries and more than 100 other books. Later she worked as a journalist and — how amazing is this? — continued writing for newspapers until just before her death at age 96.

— Penny D

Elena Greco

The fictional character that has inspired me recently is Elena Greco, the narrator of the My Brilliant Friend series by Elena Ferrante. What inspires me most about Elena Greco is her quiet determination and ambition. Elena, who was born and raised in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Naples, defies expectation by graduating high school and proceeding through a university degree. With the encouragement of her friend Lila, Elena carves out her own career, leaves her hometown, and achieves her goal of becoming a published author. Elena Greco’s resounding voice inspires me to believe in my own abilities and remain disciplined to work towards my goals.

— Eleni Z.

Lillian H. Smith

There are many inspirational women I could write about, but the one that stands out bringing me back to my research assistant days. Lillian H. Smith was born in 1887 in London, Ontario and was the first professionally-trained Children’s Librarian in the British Empire. She came to Toronto in 1912, trained staff and created programs. By the end of her 40 year career she had helped expand a library system and the framework for the innovative delivery of children’s services, forming a guide for libraries across Canada and globally. Her motto to get “…the right book, to the right child, at the right time [and her feeling that] “…the love for a good story, well told, lies deep in every human heart” says it all.

— Teresa N-P

Viola Desmond

When Viola Desmond first appeared on our new ten dollar bill I have to admit that I didn’t know much about her story. I quickly set out to remedy that, and the more I learned about her, the more I admired her. Desmond is often remembered for taking a stand against racism and refusing to move from the “White Only” section of a movie theatre in Nova Scotia, but did you know that she also owned and operated her own beauty salon? In addition to owning a salon, Desmond also started a beauty school so that other black women could have the same business opportunities as her. There’s so much to be learned from the way Viola Desmond stood up for what was right and supported the women around her. To find out more about Viola Desmond, be sure to check out Meet Viola Desmond by Elizabeth MacLeod, illustrated by Mike Deas. Although you’ll find it in the Children’s section, it’s definitely worth looking at no matter how old you are!

— Jenna H.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller is one of the world’s most well-known Deaf-Blind persons but did you know she was also one of the 20th century’s leading humanitarians? After losing her sight and hearing at an early age, she was tutored by Anne Sullivan and later graduated from Radcliffe College, cum laude, in 1904.

Keller became a well-sought after lecturer and supporter for people with disabilities and women’s issues. In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a non-profit organization whose goal is to defend and preserve the rights afforded to all individuals. For these accomplishments, Keller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, included in the Women’s Hall of Fame and received several honourary doctoral degrees.

Helen Keller died in 1968 at the age of 87 and will be remembered for turning her adversity into a powerful legacy. Keller is an example of the strength, tenacity and skills that people, who are often seen only for their ‘disabilities’ by society, can accomplish if provided the appropriate resources, language and education.

— Laurie P.

Llama Llama

“Come and listen little llama. Have a cuddle with your Mama…
Gifts are nice, but there’s another: the true gift is, we have each other.”

Mama Llama (in Anna Dewdney’s charming books) represents the ‘every mom.’ She’s up in the night with little llama. She’s up every morning getting him ready. She teaches him how to share. She deals with tantrums. She deals with meltdowns. She takes care of her of her little llama, even when she’s sick herself. And she does it all with patience and love. There are no awards for the Mama llamas of the world. There are no pages reserved in the history books. Yet she shapes her child in many ways –both in mind and in heart.

— Lesley L.

Louise Arbour

There are many reasons why Louise Arbour, currently the UN Special Representative for International Migration, has captured my attention for so many years but first and foremost is the time she spent as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The strength and resilience she demonstrated throughout the agonizingly brutal and horrific testimonies she and her fellow judges presided over during these trials is a testament to her courage and unwavering sense of justice. These civil wars were as barbaric as they come and under her leadership, for the first time, sexual assault committed in the name of war was prosecuted as a crime against humanity.

— Nancy C.

Louisa May Alcott

My mother gave me a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was in elementary school. I quickly joined the thousands who admire Jo March’s fierce loyalty, creative spark, and constant despair over having to act like a young lady. As a teen I learned that Alcott put much of herself into Jo, including the writing of sensational “potboilers”, and that she also wished for a life beyond what was acceptable for women in her time. Although best known for writing books for children she published over 30 books and story collections, worked as a Civil War nurse, was a passionate abolitionist, and early suffragette. A fascinating woman and incredible writer, Louisa May Alcott has been inspiring us for over 150 years. Quite a legacy.

— Penny M.

Alice Munro

Alice Munro is one of the most gifted short-story writers in Canada and the English speaking world. She has the innate ability to be able to fully develop a character and their experiences within a short story, something that could take another writer an entire novel to achieve.

In 2013 Munro became the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She has also received 3 Governor General awards, 2 Giller Prizes, the Man Booker International Prize for Lifetime Achievement, a Canada-Australia Literary Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and an O. Henry Award. In 2005, she was one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people.”

Yet, for all her achievements and recognition, Alice Munro remains as humble and unassuming as the characters she creates. I had the tremendous honour to meet her at a reading for her book Dance of the Happy Shades. When I told her that I was focusing my undergraduate thesis on her writing she said, “Oh my goodness, can’t you find something more interesting to do?”

— Sandy W.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, was an amazing woman, one worthy of emulation. She never let her status as a slave get in the way of her goals. She believed she was entitled one of two things: liberty or death. After escaping her “owner,” she put herself in danger many times to work as a “conductor,” rescuing others through the Underground Railroad. She also gave of her talents to help the Union Army during the American Civil War, serving as a nurse, scout and spy. Following the war, Harriet continued to fight against inequality and to offer assistance to those in need. With slavery and injustice continuing to persist, Harriet’s story serves as a powerful example and call to action.

— Susan B.

The Widows

I have to admit at the outset that I struggled a bit to get into The Widows by Jess Montgomery. I don’t know if it was the book or just my attitude at the time but I came very close to bailing. However, I am glad that I didn’t as I became quite engaged with the story and the strong female characters within.

Based in 1924 Ohio coal-mining country, this is the story of two women, both young widows, who overcome the powerful grip of grief and pain to stand strong for what they believe in. Lily Ross’s husband, Sheriff Daniel Ross, had been murdered and pregnant Lily is asked to replace him as Sheriff until elections can be held to fill the role ‘properly’. Marvena Whitcomb, Daniel’s best friend, (unbeknownst to Lily) is in the throes of grieving for her own husband who was killed in an explosion at Ross Mining Company’s Mine No 9, also known as “The Widowmaker”.

Two prominent themes, still evident today, thread through this story. Both Lily and Marvena are powerfully courageous women butting up against a male-dominant societal norm that is eager to suppress and negate them.

In a town where corporate greed has been responsible for the killing and maiming of many of the town’s miners, organizing for unionization puts Marvena directly in the sights of the ruthless mine owner, Luther Ross. He will stop at nothing to suppress calls for improved conditions at his mine.

Lily too meets powerful resistance as she tries to uncover the truth about her husband’s murder. In a town where trusting someone can be a fatal mistake, these two women must find the courage to overcome their fear and join forces to uncover the truth that will set them and their community free.

All of the female characters in this story demonstrate an iron rod of internal strength and commitment to caring and nurturing their families and their community.

In the author’s notes, Jess Montgomery talks about learning that in 1925, in Vinton County Ohio, a woman by the name of Maude Collins was elected Sheriff after filling the post temporarily upon the unexpected death of her husband, Fletcher Collins. She went on to have a long career in law enforcement.

Technically, The Widows is at times well-written and then, variously choppy. I struggled off and on to keep characters straight but the underlying story was strong and some of Montgomery’s descriptions of the countryside landscapes were just gorgeous. So, I would rate The Widows 3*** for writing but 4**** for the story and the character development.

— Nancy C.

The Matchmaker’s List

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli is a heartwarming and impressive debut novel that is a mix of a few things. It’s a sweet coming-of-age story with a touch of romance, a sprinkle of humour and a dash of Canadian pride that looks at the positive aspects and complications of family, friendship, culture and community.

While it appears to be a cute romantic comedy (and it is!), Lalli also introduces several deeper issues into a story that focuses on one determined grandmother as she tries to find her single granddaughter Raina a husband. Readers get a look into the rich Canadian-Indian culture of Raina’s family and also witness the pressures it puts on three generations of women. It’s through these relationships of family and friends that Lalli shows how cultural expectations can sometimes clash with individual needs.

The story is set in “Toronno” (aka Toronto) and with Lalli’s vivid descriptions of that vibrant city and its diversity, it makes it a great setting for this story. And can I just say how much I love it when a Canadian author sets their story in Canada?!!

My only issue with the book is how Raina, in one instance, tries to curtail her grandmother’s husband hunting. It just didn’t sit well with me. While I appreciated the discussions it will create and the insight it gives readers about an aspect of the Indian community, I wasn’t fond of the execution and felt this misunderstanding went on for too long. However, it will spark some good book club discussions!

Overall, this was an enjoyable multi-cultural romance that had a touch of humour and went beyond the typical romantic fluff. I applaud the author for tackling larger issues including diversity, acceptance versus shame, multicultural and generational differences, and the deep influence tradition and culture have on people of all generations.

— Laurie P.

Waffles, Knope & Galentine’s Day

February needs all the help it can get. It’s the shortest month in the calendar but just seems so long. Breaking it up midway with a cheerful holiday on the 14th really helps give February a much needed boost. Here at the library we celebrate Library Lovers month in February so it’s a special month for us and in recent years I have also been participating in the wonderful celebration of Galentine’s Day, on February 13th, with the encouragement of friends. I’ve found that this makes all the difference in getting me through the second month of the year.

If you aren’t yet participating in this worldwide celebration sensation you can get started by watching Parks and Recreation, Season Two (Episode Sixteen) where the always enthusiastic Leslie Knope first brings all of her very best female friends together for a brunch which she describes as being “…like Lilith Fair, minus the angst. Plus frittatas!”

Knope honours her friends with appropriate gifts (Leslie is the best at gift giving) and the personalized gift bags include fabulous items including gorgeous mosaics she has made of their faces. In seasons four and six of the show the writers return to Galentine’s Day and the theme of enjoying breakfast foods continues as does the emphasis on the strength of friendship. These are traditions worth adopting and you can find inspiration across the Internet as the special season arrives.

Turn to Etsy for gifts and cards made by talented artists. Or look to our collection of books that can help you to craft something special for your friends. I think a sweet little origami box made in your BFF’s favourite colour that you fill with delicious treats could be just the thing to drop into her book bag on February 13th. Or, if you really want to do this Knope-style you can make that mosaic of her face but you’d better get started now. That kind of gifting magic takes a long time to pull together.

Cover.final_.wAnother great way to celebrate Galentine’s Day is with a wonderful meal. We have so many great spots in town that you can hit for a delicious meal but how about you invite some friends over to your house for some treats and a good long chat about your friendship. There really is nothing better. When you eat at home there is no chance of feeling like you need to give up your table because the restaurant is getting busy – it’s your table. Just brew some more coffee or boil additional water for tea and make the fun last longer. It’s the best feeling. You can choose to go with a Parks and Rec classic and make the very best waffles or splash out make frittatas. You can’t help but be inspired by this 2017 cookbook from Rebecca Wellman, called First, we brunch: recipes and stories from Victoria’s best breakfast joints – your breakfast and brunch will really never be the same.

Should you feel like you want to keep your Parks and Rec vibe going after February 13th I heartily recommend the books of actors Amy Poehler and Retta (both women narrate their own audiobooks so you could listen to their wonderful voices tell you the secrets behind filming the television show where they first met – it is so much fun).

And finally. A personal tip. If you cut up your waffles in advance and make a small pool of whipped cream on your plate, you can dip each bite one-handed while you hold your book in the other hand and make it seem like you are celebrating a one person Galentine’s Day at any time of the year. We are all, as Lesley Knope says, “…beautiful rule-breaking moths.”

— Penny M.

Long Live the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll

When we think of Tina Turner we tend to think of wild hair, red lipstick and legs that can dance for days. Everyone knows of course about her tumultuous marriage to Ike Turner and how she left with nothing but 36 cents in her pocket. We know some of her greatest hits like “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and “Private Dancer” came out some years later. What most of us don’t know, however, is what happened in the years between her split from Ike and becoming a superstar.

My Love Story is an autobiography about the second half of Tina Turner’s life – the life that began after walking away from her success with Ike.

The beginning of the book does cover Turner’s early days and how Ike controlled every aspect of her career including her name. Born Anna Mae, Ike came up with the stage name Tina, had it trademarked and therefore owned everything she did. It does go into the abuse and how she reached her lowest point before walking out the door. But the majority of the book is about Tina’s resilience. How she remade her career and how she found love again.

The journey starts with her giving up everything she knew. Tina was finally free of her marriage but what else did she have? She was a woman approaching 40 and only known for performing with Ike on stage. She didn’t have the conventional looks of other female artists. She wasn’t curvaceous, her voice was raw rather than sensual and to top it off, she was being sued for breach of contract for the concert dates she missed after leaving Ike.

North America had a hard time accepting Tina Turner as a solo artist. She really did have to start from nothing. At times all she had to rely on was meditation and prayer, which she learned as a student of Buddhism. I found myself devouring page after page of her story as she takes back her life and transforms herself into the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Even if you are not a fan of Tina Turner herself, the book is full of historical events in music including her Las Vegas show with Sammy Davis Jr. and her iconic performance with the Rolling Stones at Live Aid. (She claims to have been the one who taught Mick Jagger his moves).

My Love Story is just that – a love story. Like any story it has a villain, a hero and some romance but most of all it’s a story about loving yourself. It is simply the best!

— Lesley L.

Powerful Women. Powerful Books.

I wish that my reading goal for 2018 had been to read books about outstanding women because I would have fulfilled it several times over.  I know, it’s like I’m retconning my reading list goals but I read some really fantastic memoirs last year from authors like Elizabeth Hay and Terese Marie Mailhot. B.C. writer Lindsay Wong gave us the terrifically-named memoir The Woo-Woo : how I survived ice hockey, drug raids, demons and my crazy Chinese family while Michelle Obama beat U.S. publishing records this year with her warm autobiography Becoming.

Being welcomed into the lives of these outstanding women felt like a break from the everyday grind. It seemed like they were becoming new friends with each page I finished whether they were telling stories of caring for parents, children or relaying their own coming-of-age journey.  There was something to be learned from every one of these books and I think it’s possible that I might return to them again in the future, something that I love to do with books that become such good companions.

At first glance you might not consider the women in my non-fiction favourites of 2018 to be among your first choice for a companion as they include characters who use deception and, when the situation required, incredible violence to succeed.  But when I looked back at the list of novels that I adored this year I found that I had read quite a few featuring women who used their strength, determination, and wit to make their way in difficult situations – these really are perfect choices for a new friend even if they come in book form.

heresyHistorical fiction often focuses on women who need to be rescued and so many contemporary novels have a tendency to make women into victims or heroic figures – women who can ‘do it all’ and wear a snappy business suit at the same time.  The author of Heresy, Melissa Lenhardt, recently pointed out that it is no longer enough for novels to portray women as superheroes. They must also be permitted to demonstrate their need for revenge, greed, and bloodlust – just as male characters have been doing for decades.

I thought her latest novel, Heresy, about a group of female outlaws living in the American West in the 1870s seemed to spring to life the minute I began reading it.  I could almost hear the piano soundtrack while I read the first pages.  This was one of those rare books that had a story that wins me over even though I didn’t really like the concept.  She tells the story of a group of women from multiple perspectives, different time periods, and even includes a transcript of a podcast from a 2018 but this didn’t spoil the thrill of learning about the lives of Hattie La Cour and Margaret “Garet” Parker.  I loved these two women and their loyalty to each other as soon as I met them.

Hattie and Garet are the driving force behind the Parker Gang who begin robbing banks and stagecoaches after their ranch is stolen from them by their dishonest neighbour (who also tries to force Garet to marry him).  The story of either of these women would be enough to fill any epic Western but combine their crime spree with shootouts, a few bar fights, the possibility of being caught by Pinkerton detectives (one eventually joins their gang) and this is a book that would satisfy any reader.  It certainly prevented me from getting any meaningful work done while I had the book at home.  I haven’t stopped talking about it or thinking about the way that these women controlled their destiny at a time when this was not an easy choice.

a1-tqf9zzvlIn The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco the main character, Almas Rosales, is another kind of outlaw and, coincidentally, also a Pinkerton detective.  Or, was she a Pinkerton detective?  I don’t want to spoil things by revealing too much about the role Alma is meant to play in this novel but at one point it is suggested that she has been discharged from the agency for ‘bad behaviour’.  This poor behaviour serves her well because in the world of 1880s opium smuggling the skills needed to succeed include being able to use weapons, fight in dingy warehouses, wear any number of disguises and out-think criminals.

Alma Rosales is one of the most compelling characters that I have read in years and, although this novel is written as an adventure with high stakes, it was also absolutely fascinating to learn about the Washington port town.  I cheered for Alma in every gunfight, during every horrifying walk down a dark alley, and each time she made the decision to scrap with a despicable thug.  She is trying to solve a mystery– to discover the leak in the opium smuggling ring – but is also slowly being caught up in a romance with the powerful woman who heads the local operation and cleverly use this attraction to her advantage.  Alma’s choices make this a thrilling story that is worthy of a stay-up-until midnight read.  You will not regret it.

I read some other fabulous books featuring first-rate female characters this year including Madeline Miller’s Circe (you can read my review) and the amazing YA sensation by Tomi Adeyemi Children of Blood and Bone.  Sarah Bird chose the first woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers as the main character in her novel Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen and Imogen Hermes The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock was a voyage into 1870s London through the eyes of a beautiful courtesan named Angelica Neal.  She wasn’t the only person in that novel to think that creature would make her fortune but the story will capture your heart – I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

Looking ahead to the rest of this reading year I think I will continue on this streak of enjoying books featuring female characters in all their complexities – not just being rescued or becoming victims of crime.  I’ve just placed a hold on a debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson called American Spy.  It’s the story of an FBI operative who had been caught in the dull bureaucracy of 1987 until she is chosen to be part of a CIA covert operation.  The summary of this novel is fascinating but my favourite line was about how she and her sister dreamed of being secret agents when they grew up – that sounds like my kind of book.  I can’t wait to read about more mayhem, deceit, and a few fights in dingy warehouses, with women making the choices about who will be throwing the punches.  2019 is going to be an exciting year.

— Penny M.