The Hate U Give

When I discovered The Hate U Give during its release last year, I thought to myself, “This book is going to resonate with readers and become very popular.” After 85 weeks on the NYT Bestseller List, millions of copies sold, and a movie adaptation released in theatres this week, it has become more than popular; it’s mainstream. Why? Because there are so many people around the world (and not just teens) who, like the book’s narrator, are experiencing varying forms of a political awakening.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a story of many stories. It’s a story about 16-year old Starr Carter struggling to exist between two worlds: her predominantly black neighbourhood of Garden Heights and the predominantly white suburban prep school she attends. It’s a story of her childhood best friend Khalil being brutally shot by a police officer unarmed. It’s a story of grief. It’s a story about systemic injustice. It’s a story about the realities of racism in America that persists today. It’s a story about finding your voice. And it’s a story about a community that struggles to come together against these injustices while trying to restrain their fury towards each other.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Its subject is timely, complex, and rendering. I loved how much the book focused on Starr and her family. Unlike many YA books where parents are either dead or absentee, Starr’s parents and extended family were not only consistently present but fleshed out. We not only know Momma and Daddy, but Starr’s older half-brother Seven, Uncle Carlos, Nana, and her younger brother Sekani. All of these relationships are dynamic and create a fully imagined community. Sure, Starr has a boyfriend and friends from school, but they stand on the periphery in the story. In the darkest and most tragic of circumstances, Starr’s loving family not only supported her, but empowered her too.

While this book was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement it unapologetically tackles the question of what racism looks like in America today. Many may suggest that racism is a term of the past but this book argues otherwise. Racism may not have public lynchings or signs that segregate white Americans from African Americans like it was under the laws of Jim Crow, but the segregation that separates Starr’s communities allows the persistence of endemic oppression of African Americans to continue. Racism can look like Starr’s dad being ordered to lay down with his hands behind his back for having a loud conversation with his next-door neighbour Mr. Lewis. Or it can be more invisible such as Hailey unfollowing Starr’s Tumblr account because she didn’t want to see “gross images” of Emmett Till on her dashboard. While this book doesn’t attempt to solve the problem of racism (that’s way too big a task) it does paint a complex picture of what racism looks like in America in 2017. Its picture has heavy strokes of blatant racism, tones of invisible racism, white privilege, systemic oppression, and even reverse-racism in the background.

While this book has a tragic beginning, it ends on an impassioned and empowering note. As Starr is politically awakened, she is empowered to use her voice to stand up for her community. In these perilous times we live in, Starr sets a great example of becoming an advocate even when the system always fails you. And that’s why in the Parthenon of young adult literature, Starr will continue to shine on and off the page.

— Eleni Z.

The Dark Town Series Continues

Lightning Men is the latest offering from Thomas Mullen and picks up two years after Darktown, the first book in the series, left off.

Once again, Mullen brings his readers into the gritty streets of post-WWII Atlanta with its social and political issues, racial intolerance, corruption and outright brutality that continues to be the status quo for so many. Mullen doesn’t shy away from these emotionally charged topics in this character-driven crime novel.

Readers continue to witness the Black officers struggle within the confines set for them by their supervisors as they police the Black neighbourhoods which are grossly overpopulated and in need of even basic necessities. This is in stark contrast to the White neighbourhoods — and many Whites are fine with the way things are, thank you very much. The dichotomy between Black and White continues within this second Darktown book and I like that Mullen doesn’t give easy answers or hold back on the gritty, hard-to-read scenes.

Mullen also continues to educate readers about aspects that many may not know about, myself included. For me, that issue involved the Columbians (aka Lightning Men) who formed soon after the end of WWII. With their lightning patches on their uniforms they, like the Nazis that inspired them, reveled in promoting hate against Blacks and any diversity and were a smack in the face to those American soldiers who had just returned from battling similar hatred overseas.

The cast, including Rake, Boggs, Smith and MacInnis, continue to show great depth and readers get some backstory on each but I still feel there’s a lot of untapped issues that Mullen will bring forth in future books. The only issue I had with this book is that I found there to be a lot of characters to keep track of.

48538-v1-600xMullen shows that, unfortunately, the process for social change is a very slow one as we sadly continue to witness in recent events. Racism, both blatant and covert, remains a timely issue and racial tensions ran high then as they do now.

Like the first book in the series, Lightning Men is eye-opening, gritty and gripping with well-rounded, well-flawed characters who struggle within the stifling confines of racial injustice, ignorance, indifference and intolerance. Mullen weaves compelling characters with historical issues within his story with great skill. I highly recommend this book but strongly suggest starting with Darktown.

— Laurie P.

Note: in 1948, eight African-American men (picture above) joined the Atlanta police force. They inspired Thomas Mullen’s latest novel, Lightning Men.

A life of loss

I always feel a little sad when I see a severely neglected and abandoned house. I wonder about the people who might have lived there, the joys and sorrows they might have experienced within its walls, and how they might feel to see their former home in such a state.

In Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage, the main character becomes obsessed with the dilapidated cottage near his great-aunt’s house, especially after he sees the ghost of a missing boy. The cottage was dubbed “Grief Cottage” by the locals after a mother, father, and 14 year old boy disappeared from it when Hurricane Hazel hit. Their bodies were never found.

Marcus, the 11-year-old main character, has had to deal with a fair amount of grief of his own. In fact, the title could easily be a metaphor of his own life. He had already suffered losses before his mother is killed in a car accident. Marcus is sent to live with his only remaining relative, his great-aunt Charlotte, who is a talented but reclusive artist that lives on a small island in South Carolina.

Marcus reminds me of Disney’s Pollyanna, only without her eternal optimism. Godwin has written this character to be extremely sensitive to others and wiser than his years: the result produces a profound effect on those around him. In many ways, Marcus is as neglected and abandoned as Grief Cottage, and I found myself bracing for the hurricane that eventually releases inside him. Grief Cottage is a good read but not a happy read: even the positive twists near the end are tinged with loss.

Overall, I give Grief Cottage a 4 out of 5 stars.

-Sandy W.

 

Gifted: keep the Kleenex close

Gifted is a touching story about family (in all its many, complicated forms), loss, forgiveness and helping children reach their potential in the various aspects of their lives. It’s the story about a young girl named Mary whose uncle is dedicated to raising her to be a normal child. But Mary isn’t normal. She’s a math prodigy whose family has more than their fair share of baggage.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie but picked it up at WPL because, let’s be honest, Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer are in a movie together. Did I mention Chris Evans? But I digress … I knew very little about this movie before popping it in my DVD player but was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I became engaged in the lives of this family.

This film has got a lot of heart, a touch of humour and, like I mentioned, a truly stellar cast. We have Chris ‘Captain America’ Evans as Frank Adler, the uncle who is trying to do his best to raise his young and brilliant niece so that she leads a normal life. I enjoyed seeing a new, tender side to Evans and I liked that he got to exercise his acting chops more than his biceps in this movie.

gifted-648673583-largeThen you have Oscar winner Octavia Spencer who is always captivating and could play a potted palm that would leave me slack jawed in awe of her. The only person in this film who can hold a candle to Ms Spencer may be young McKenna Grace who plays Mary Adler, the 7-year-old child at the heart of the movie. Wow, can this girl act. Grace is as talented as her eye lashes are long. Her portrayal of the precocious, brilliant young girl is wonderfully natural, touching and believable. She vacillates between childish innocence, a spunky attitude, a wee case of potty mouth and shows viewers Mary’s extraordinary brilliance which is well beyond her years. The deep connection between Evans and Grace comes through to the audience and I recommend that viewers keep some Kleenex handy.

The cast of characters also had a complexity to them that I wasn’t expecting. This is a complicated family situation filled with emotion, power struggles and grief. You’ll feel for Frank as he struggles to figure out what is best for Mary in the wake of family upheaval that threatens to damage the bond between them.

Overall, this is a wonderful little movie that is endearing, poignant and shows the complexities of family. You will quickly become wrapped up in the lives of Frank, Mary and even Fred, their one-eyed cat. I highly recommend this movie.

— Laurie P.

A glimpse of old Hollywood

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is an utterly engaging look at a Hollywood icon – her trials, tribulations, successes and multiple marriages – as she struggles to make her way in life, love and career within the confines of Hollywood and those she creates for herself.

Evelyn is a complex character. She’s stunningly beautiful, head strong and confident in some aspects of her life. As a young woman, she doesn’t always make the right choices but she’s a compelling character that readers will gravitate towards. Readers will become engrossed in Evelyn’s life as she struggles to find love, accept love and find her true self – unabashedly and totally. Personally, I loved the older Evelyn who had paid her dues, made her mistakes and came out of it all with a quiet confidence, strength and self-awareness.

 Evelyn isn’t a character that I’d normally enjoy … and yet, I liked her. I really liked her. She’s exceptionally flawed but she’s aware of many of her flaws – she accepts some, regrets a few and is unashamed of many. She has used her body and played the Hollywood game to further her career in an industry that didn’t value strong, independent women. She made horrible choices, betrayed loved ones and even ignored parts of her own identity to further her career. But underlying it all there was always a glimmer of a woman I could get behind as a main character and I wanted to see her succeed, despite herself. 

The story is told with two different time lines with Reid dropping juicy tidbits to keep her readers attention. The first timeline follows Evelyn as a young starlet in Hollywood and the other, decades later, focuses on an elderly Evelyn as she tells her life story to Monique, a young, unknown journalist. There are some twists thrown in and the mystery of why Monique was chosen to write the memoir added mystery to the book. 

 The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a mesmerizing read that gives readers a bird’s eye view into Hollywood and touches on some bigger issues, including sexism, sexuality, owning up to one’s choices and even has its touching and romantic scenes too. 

Your emotions will get a work out with this book. You’ll laugh, feel exasperated, cry, get all mushy with true love and even enraged! And through it all you’ll find yourself cheering on this unique, sassy and flawed character who persevered, lied, loved and betrayed to achieve success at the box office and in her personal life as she struggled to know herself. This is some wonderful storytelling that would make a fantastic summer read if you want to delve into old Hollywood with a truly unique and flawed character that you can’t help but root for.

-Laurie P.

Revisiting a classic

Sometimes you want a new (or newish) book. And sometimes you want an old classic.

I’m doing the classic thing. I recently checked out Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind for a re-read. I expect I’ll be hanging out with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler et al for a good chunk of the summer as it’s 1037 pages long. Maybe I’ll have to skip a few of those pesky household chores…

I am so caught up in this magnificent piece of historical writing. The book, as most people know, is set in the American South just before the Civil War. It’s kind of bittersweet, maybe sad, to see Scarlett O’Hara’s comfortable, gracious world and know that it is about to disappear forever (though since the whole system was predicated on slavery you can hardly regret its disappearance).

Then comes the war (1861-65) and all its horrors and uncertainties. When it is over, the people of the South struggle to pick up the pieces of their life again. And through it all, our heroine schemes and manipulates time and time again to get what she wants. (But maybe the scheming and manipulation are really not so bad. Since Scarlett lived in a time and place where women had very little power, I’m not sure I blame her for using what means she could to exert some control over her life.)

So yes, GWTW is a wonderful story. It is also a first-rate piece of writing and has a large cast of well-drawn characters. It’s no wonder the book was a sensation when it was published in 1936 and is still widely read today, a classic in other words.

–Penny D.

Mockingbird Songs

I was introduced to Harper Lee by my mother. She was in the habit of handing me books when I was bored and apples when I was hungry. I was the last of five kids and she had parenting down to a science by the time I arrived. She knew exactly what to do when one of us was underfoot – distract us with a book or give us something to eat. She had loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird and thought it was a good way to get me out of the kitchen, probably away from the cookie jar, for a few hours and she was right. Her book suggestions were always good even though I was usually disappointed by her ‘eat an apple’ idea.

Looking back on my first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird now I wonder if I processed everything that was going on in the book when I first read it. I think that I focused more on the adventures of the kids, wished for a tree house, and wondered what it might be like to have someone like Calpurnia in my life. It was a surprise to find out that there weren’t more books by the same author when I went to look on our local library shelves but it wasn’t until my university years that I thought more about the author’s life.

Following the 1960 publication of her novel and the 1962 film based on it she gave several interviews and was photographed for LIFE magazine and several other publications. In many of these interviews Harper Lee suggested that she was writing another novel (which we can now read as Go Set a Watchman, published in 2015) but as she found it increasingly hard to complete this new work the requests for further interviews were declined and she became known as the ‘reclusive’ author.

The pressure to produce a follow up novel is one theory about why she stayed out of the spotlight but it’s hard to say what really was going on in Harper Lee’s mind because she chose to keep her cards close to her chest where personal details were concerned. The success of To Kill a Mockingbird allowed her the means to do exactly as she wished. Just think about it, a New York Times article published after her death said that over 40 million copies of the book had been sold and she lived frugally throughout her life with one small home she shared with her sister Alice in Monroeville and the same small Manhattan apartment she rented first in 1949 and kept until her death in 2016. It’s clear from her writing that she loved her small town and the people who lived there so why would she ever choose to leave it unless absolutely necessary.

Untitled-1When I read that Wayne Flynt, a history professor from Auburn University, was going to publish letters from his years of friendship with the author I had my name on that holds list as soon as I could. I was checking my library account daily when I knew that the book, Mockingbird Songs : my friendship with Harper Lee, would arrive and I couldn’t wait to get the book home.

Wayne Flynt is well known for his previous books about Southern history, religion and politics and was one of the early editors of the online Encyclopedia of Alabama where you can find a wonderful entry about Harper Lee, members of her family, the area where she grew up and the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. You can check it out online.

Flynt and Nelle (as she signed her letters to him) talked about his work and the early days of the Encyclopedia of Alabama in their letters because they shared so much of their lives through their correspondence. He and his wife became friends with Harper Lee’s sister Louise first and then got to know the author better when Flynt was asked to introduce the author’s achievements at an award’s ceremony. In those written conversations a friendship grows and from 1983 to her death. She and Flynt send news about their health, the things that they are reading, how they feel about politics and world events, and tidbits about family. One of Flynt’s grandchildren is named Harper and Lee is delighted to hear about this little girl’s life in each letter.

Flynt and his family visit with Nelle many times throughout their friendship, in Monroeville and in New York, and each time their relationship deepens. In every chapter of the book he prefaces the letters with some information about how they have been connecting, sometimes through formal events and at other times in her home or at restaurants in town. Their correspondence is lengthy and she is enthusiastic about his publishing efforts but always very humble about the legacy of her own. Although she is constantly aware of her advancing age, and discusses visits to the doctor for health concerns relating to her eyes, her letters are consistently upbeat and filled with paragraphs about what she is reading and looking forward to doing next. If Harper Lee were ever a isolated person it does not come across in these letters, she is busy and happy, she just didn’t choose to share her life with the press.

In 2006 Flynt was asked to write a tribute to his friend for an event in Birmingham to celebrate her lifetime of work on behalf of racial reconciliation. He accepted the assignment and read a speech he had written that he called “Atticus’s Vision of Ourselves” that so captivated Nelle she asked him to read it at her eventual memorial service. His eulogy is included in his book just before the author’s acknowledgements and we can read it with the reassurance that it has Harper Lee’s absolute approval.

Now, it’s the late spring of 2017 and we know that Harper Lee died in Monroeville at age 89 in February of 2016 and she had her wish granted with Wayne Flynt’s reading of that tribute at her funeral. As articles about her life and the importance of her writing poured into newspapers, magazines and online worldwide following her death, I spent some time thinking about Scout, Jem and Atticus. If an author is going to leave us with stories of just one family then I think Harper Lee made the right decision in writing about this one. Maybe we can set aside all of the stories of the ‘reclusive author’ and spend some time instead reading Wayne Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs: my friendship with Harper Lee. You just might find yourself buying a nice pen and sending a letter to someone you care about.

— Penny M.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is the latest book by author Lisa See. It’s focus is on family, the mother-daughter bond and different cultures set within the tea industry.

The story focuses on the Akha, one of the fifty-five cultural minorities from deep in the heart of the tea growing region of China. Their reclusive, rural way of life are vividly described, as are their beliefs which combine a focus on nature, superstition and strict, and sometimes harsh, rules.

The book has two story lines with the main story focusing on Li-yan, a young woman who was raised within a small Akha village. When she becomes pregnant outside of marriage, a strict taboo in her culture, she makes the heartbreaking decision to keep her pregnancy a secret and give her baby girl up for adoption to give both a better life. Li-yan’s life is peppered with struggle and success as she makes her way from living with the Akha to having success in the lucrative tea business and living a much more modern life than she could have ever dreamed. While she is a flawed character, you see a strength in Li-yan and you quickly became invested into her struggle, joy, sorrow and determination.

downloadThe secondary story follows the life of Haley, the baby Li-yan had given up, who was adopted by a California couple as a baby. Via letters and emails from Haley and Constance, Haley’s adoptive mother, See addresses issues some Chinese adoptees and adoptive parents face, namely their struggle to be seen as a family unit despite their physical differences, rude comments made by strangers etc. I liked that See focused on these issues and I found the discussion between Chinese adoptive kids quite interesting and eye-opening as they talk about their conflicting feelings about being given up for adoption — going from unwanted to highly treasured.

This is a well-written, absorbing read that is rich in culture but the true focus, the life of one woman’s strength, desire for redemption and determination to find her daughter, is what made this book for me. See illustrates the undeniable bond between mothers and daughters, both birth and adoptive, and would make an excellent book club pick.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is available at WPL as a book, audiobook on CD, eAudiobook and eBook.

I’d recommend it for readers who enjoyed Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Secret Daughter.

— Laurie P.

Harry & Snowman

There’s a quote I once saw in a horse magazine. “Every rider has that one special horse which changes everything about them.” For horseman Harry deLeyer, Snowman was that horse. Their story was recently captured in the documentary Harry & Snowman.

deLeyer was born in Holland in 1927 into a hardworking farm family. During WWII, young Harry and his family aided the Resistance, saving human lives but also the lives of hundreds of starving horses, left behind by the Nazis as they fled following defeat.

Newly married, deLeyer and his young bride, Johanna, immigrated to the USA where he worked on a tobacco farm whilst dreaming of a life with horses. Opportunity came in 1954 when deLeyer was offered a job teaching riding at a prestigious private girls’ school in New York State, a position he ended up holding for 22 years.

In 1956 deLeyer went to a horse auction, searching for a solid horse, suitable for the beginners at the school. Due to car trouble, he arrived as the auction was wrapping up. He took a quick look around at the “leftover” horses which, depressingly, were destined for the slaughter horse. A flea-bitten grey, ex-plow horse caught his eye. As deLeyer looked up at the horse behind the stock trailer’s sides, the horse looked down at him with large, soft eyes. And, like in a classic romance novel, their gazes locked and a lifelong connection was made.

deLeyer offered $80 for the grey, including delivery to his farm, and a deal was quickly struck. “Snowman” had entered deLeyer’s life and would change it forever.

As someone who has been involved in the horse industry for close to 40 years, it was a given that I would borrow this movie from the library. But you really don’t need to be a horseperson to appreciate the story of deLeyer and Snowman.

Hearing Snowman’s story in deLeyer’s own words, paired with interviews with show jumping legends George Morris and Rodney Jenkins, is a treat. Snowman was retired when I was just a toddler, but I do remember seeing deLeyer competing in Canada in the early 1980s as “The Galloping Grandfather”. And deLeyer is still riding and coaching today, even as he closes in on his 90th birthday.

I actually usually avoid watching “horsey” films as the vast majority are disappointing, cheesy, inaccurate or truly cringe-worthy. This documentary of deLeyer, Snowman, and deLeyer’s eight children, offers insight into show jumping (and life) in the 1950s. It is at times humourous, definitely heart-warming and inspiring.

If you’d like to learn more about deLeyer and Snowman, borrow the bestselling book by Elizabeth Letts, The Eighty-Dollar Champion.

— Sandi H.

Fun, Foodie Mysteries

Mystery novels. Are you a fan of them? I am, to a point.  This is not my #1 favourite genre but there definitely are some mystery series that I absolutely love.  The series which I do read faithfully are by British authors and the tone is generally between a cozy mystery and a thriller.

A colleague of mine who loved gory police procedurals used to comment on the fact that both she and I read mysteries but mine were the ones with the “bloodless” murders.  And really, that’s true. I have no interest in reading a book that will give me nightmares and I’m definitely more about the solving of the crime(s) through deduction rather than guns ablazing and shootouts in the menacing back alleys of big cities.

Sometimes though I need a change from the small village, multiple murder novels from the UK and switch to something lighthearted. These two American authors fit the bill.

Diane Mott Davidson was probably one of the earlier foodie mystery writers, starting her Goldy Schulz mystery series over 25 years ago with Catering to Nobody.  Goldy is a single mother who is trying to raise her son while make a living in Colorado as a caterer. In the course of building her client list and catering at various locations, public and private, evil doings start to occur and Goldy can’t help but become involved. Catering to Nobody was nominated for an Agatha Award for in the “Best First Novel” category but was beaten out by Katherine Hall Page for The Body in the Belfry.  All of Davidson’s novels include recipes of dishes mentioned in the story and in fact, in 2015, Davidson released a combination cookbook-memoir titled Goldy’s Kitchen Cookbook : cooking, writing, family, life.

The other is G.A. McKevett.  McKevett (a pseudonym for Sonja Massie) is the author of 50 books which include the 22 (so far!) which feature ex-cop turned private detective Savannah Reid. The titles always make me smile (“Fat Free and Fatal”, “Corpse Suzette”, “Cooked Goose” … you get the idea) and so do the stories themselves. A transplanted Georgia peach and lover of fine dining and Southern homestyle delights, Savannah sets up the Moonlight Magnolia Detective Agency and soon is trying to clean up the streets of LA…or at least, her area of Southern California.

In a side note about culinary mysteries, back in the 90s British culinary writer, Janet Laurence, wrote a mystery series featuring (surprise, surprise) a culinary writer named Darina Lisle. They were light reads but the sleuthing was well thought out. If you can get your hands on them, they’re worth a read.

Enjoy this recipe from Diane Mott Davidson’s “Catering to Nobody”, a favourite with my family. And if you’re looking for a light mystery, give these authors a try.

— Sandi H.

Dungeon Bars (a.k.a. Oatmeal Raisin Bars)

1 c. unsalted butter, softened

½ c brown sugar

½ c white sugar

2 eggs

2 tsp vanilla

1 c. all-purpose flour

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp baking soda

1 c. oatmeal

1 c. raisins

Preheat oven to 350F.

Cream butter and sugars.  Beat in eggs and vanilla. Add in flour, salt and soda. Stir in oats and raisins.

Spread mixture in a lightly greased 9 x 13” pan. Bake for 30 minutes. Cool slightly and cut into bars.