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.

On the Come Up

After devouring and waxing poetic about Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, I was among the eager fans awaiting On The Come Up. It’s a coming-of-age story about a Black teenage girl named Bri who finds her calling, the power of her own voice and, ultimately, discovers who she wants to be.

I easily connected with Thomas’ writing style. It’s powerful, engaging and authentic as she shows Bri and her family’s struggles to make ends meet and deal with their complicated past. Through her dialogue, she reveals the bonds between the characters and adds humorous bits, delightful nerdy references and some solid banter.

I loved that Bri is so different compared to Starr (the main character of The Hate U Give). She is brash, headstrong, outspoken and occasionally makes poor choices but its through those choices, and their consequences, that we see Bri find out who she wants to be. She is flawed but passionate and once she focuses on what’s important to her, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Angie Thomas need not worry about Sophomoric Writer Blues. On The Come Up is a wonderful, thought-provoking read about self-discovery and while many readers may not connect with Bri’s hip hop world, Thomas has written a story about relatable issues (loss, friendship, the messiness of family, standing up for yourself) and allows her readers to take a look at the world through Bri’s eyes and walk in her Timberlands for at least a few hundred pages.

— Laurie P.

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.

Featured Titles – Winter 2019

Our WPL Collections Department staff have waded through reviews, catalogues and blogs, searching out the next must-read titles to share with you. You can browse through their latest selections on the Featured Titles list for Winter 2019.

Fiction Picks

Secret identities. Deception. The theft of people’s scandalous stories for personal gain. Murder. Fashion design. Royals. The topics are wide-ranging and there are definitely novels for every taste on the winter 2019 list.

Non-Fiction Picks

From essays and speeches to Googling that weird rash, seasonal eating to autonomous cars, downed ships and, a popular topic year round, the weather. It was difficult to select just seven titles to feature but we did it!

Happy reading!

featured-titles-winter-2019

Marilla of Green Gables

Enthusiasts of Anne of Green Gables always worry –rightly so! – when a contemporary author takes on the task of writing a new story involving their favourite setting and characters. Is it possible to get it right or will the writer make a mess of it?

As someone who personally owns the full collection of Anne books, this was certainly my concern when I discovered that Sarah McCoy – an American author, no less! – had tackled Marilla’s story, bouncing off of this exchange between Marilla and Anne in chapter 37 of the original book:

“John Blythe was a nice boy. We used to be real good friends, he and I. People called him my beau.”

Anne looked up with swift interest.

“Oh, Marilla–and what happened?–why didn’t you–”

“We had a quarrel. I wouldn’t forgive him when he asked me to. I meant to, after awhile–but I was sulky and angry and I wanted to punish him first. He never came back–the Blythes were all mighty independent. But I always felt–rather sorry. I’ve always kind of wished I’d forgiven him when I had the chance.”

“So you’ve had a bit of romance in your life, too,” said Anne softly.

“Yes, I suppose you might call it that. You wouldn’t think so to look at me, would you? But you never can tell about people from their outsides. Everybody has forgot about me and John. I’d forgotten myself. But it all came back to me when I saw Gilbert last Sunday.”

McCoy’s story begins when Marilla is 13 years old and chronicles her life in Avonlea and at Green Gables. We experience her joys and sorrows and encounter familiar characters including Matthew Cuthbert, Rachel Lynde, the Barry family, and of course, John Blythe. We attend sewing circles, church picnics, Ladies’ meetings and a hanging, and visit a Nova Scotia orphanage on more than one occasion.

Just as Budge Wilson captured the essence and tone of Anne in Before Green Gables, Sarah McCoy has encapsulated Marilla’s story in this additional prequel, bringing in historical aspects such as the Underground Railroad and the rebellion of 1837. Marilla is smart, strong, capable and independent, but struggles with pride and difficulty communicating the deepest feelings of her heart to those she cares about most. She is family-oriented to a fault. Does this sound like the Marilla we know? It certainly makes me want to reread the series to remind myself!

McCoy herself reread the Anne books and conducted considerable research in writing this book, consulting primary and secondary resources, visiting the “Avonlea” area of PEI and interviewing L.M. Montgomery’s descendants, who gave her their stamp of approval.
Marilla of Green Gables is a great addition to the series and Christmas gift idea for your Anne fan. I only wish it had been written by a Canadian author!

— Susan B.

100 Books That Changed the World

Wow, this is such a fascinating book! Flip through this book, pick a page–any page–and you are guaranteed to learn something.

That’s what I did when I borrowed 100 Books That Changed the World by Scott Christianson & Colin Salterand. And here’s what I found. A title, previously unknown to me, so intrigued me that I immediately went and grabbed it off the library shelves. The book is Maus by Art Spiegelman. It’s the author’s Pulitzer-Prize winning account of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust, told in graphic novel form. Now, I am not a graphic novel person but Maus is amazing.

100 Books that Changed the World is arranged chronologically, from I Ching (2,800 BC) to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2014). Each listing comes with information about the book and why the authors considered it to be significant. The book is split about 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction.

Some of the 100 books are religious or moral teachings, such as the Bible, the Torah, the Koran and the writings of Confucious. There are books about scientific discovery (for example, books by Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin and Rachel Carson) and works related to culture/economics/politics (for example, books by Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Dr. Benjamin Spock).

Turning to fiction, some of the choices are hundreds or thousands of years old and still widely read today. How amazing is that! Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey (got to read those one day) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales rub elbows with more recent picks that include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and George Orwell’s 1984. Even a couple works of children’s literature get the nod. Can you guess what they might be?

Most of the choices in this book I would certainly agree with. Though to be completely honest a few I had never even heard of. And here are two titles not part of this book that I would have included: The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

— Penny D.

The Girl They Left Behind

I’m an avid reader who reads many different genres but historical fiction is the one genre that I regularly gravitate towards. When you read a lot of one genre, you sometimes feel like you’ve read it all. The Girl They Left Behind by Roxanne Veletzos brings something new to this very popular genre with an engaging, informative and heart-felt story based on her mother’s early life during WWII and later during the Soviet occupation of Romania.

During the horrors of the 1941 Pogrom in Bucharest, Veletzos’ grandparents made the difficult choice to leave their three-year-old daughter, Natalia, on the steps of a building hoping to give her a chance to survive. Sent to an orphanage, she was quickly adopted by a wealthy couple who were devoted to her and gave her life of privilege.

Veletzos follows her mother’s early life and also provides vivid descriptions of Bucharest during WWII and afterwards when the Soviets took control, a time when life for many Romanians continued to be fraught with uncertainty and danger – especially those who didn’t support the Communist regime. She includes the lesser known history of Romania during these times and blends her personal family history into a riveting, fictional read. This is a captivating, sometimes heart-wrenching story about family bonds, resilience and hope.

I highly recommend The Girl They Left Behind to fans of historical fiction who enjoy getting a different perspective in the popular WWII historical fiction genre and especially for those of us who think they’ve ‘read it all’. Veletzos may just surprise you.

— Laurie P.

Starlight

Full disclosure here….. I am a HUGE fan and admirer of Richard Wagamese!! He could write out my grocery list and I am sure that I could find poetic beauty throughout. So it was with very mixed feelings that I cracked open Starlight, Wagamese’s final offering. On the one hand I couldn’t wait to delve into it but on the other, I knew it was his last and I felt profound sadness at the loss of such a master writer.

Starlight is the story of six people whose lives are connected through vastly different circumstances. Emmy and her 8 year old daughter Winnie, on the run from two brutal and callous men, Cadotte and Armstrong, find themselves forced to do what it takes to survive. Having her child collaborate in the stealing of food and fuel breaks Emmy’s heart but desperation trumps morality when it comes to keeping her child safe. It is during a failed shoplifting attempt that Frank Starlight enters their lives.

Starlight, a man at peace with himself and the world around him, offers Emmy and Winnie a safe haven and an opportunity to rebuild their lives. Along with his hired hand, friend Eugene Roth, the woman and girl are exposed to the natural wonders of the world they inhabit. They learn how to be still in nature and to learn to listen and live in the wilderness.

While this transformation is happening, the two men from whom Emmy and Winnie broke free, are driven by a boundless depth of hatred, revenge and evil to avenge the damages inflicted upon them by the woman and girl during their escape.

The juxtaposition of pure love and pure evil are strikingly presented with Wagamese’s usual powerfully poetic prose. His artful descriptions of the landscape evoke such an intense sense of peace and tranquility while his portrayal of the violence and brutality of Cadotte and Armstrong induce visceral feelings of panic and fear.

I am in awe of this master writer and his ability to take me past the written word and into the moment itself. It is a transcendent experience all the more beautiful and mournful because he has penned his last prose.

— Nancy C.

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 Romanov Empress

If you like historical fiction, The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner is a great read! Narrated by Maria Feodorovna, the mother of the last Tsar of Russia, it follows her life from her idyllic childhood as a Danish Princess through to her role as Dowager Empress of Russia during the Bolshevik revolution.

Minnie, as she is known by friends and family, is betrothed to Nicholas Romanov, the heir to the throne of Tsar Alexander Romanov II. Falling terminally ill unexpectedly, Nicky begs Minnie, upon his death, to marry his brother Alexander III. At the age of 19, Minnie feels that she has no option but to accede to her late fiancee’s request and marries the new heir apparent, a bullish and brooding man, quite unlike his gentle and refined brother. With time though, Minnie, now officially Maria Feodorovna, develops a deep love and respect for this besotted man and bears him six children.

Covering the time period from 1862 to 1918, the story illustrates the dynastic entitlement that accompanies those born of royal blood. We are witness to the opulence and extravagance of the wildly wealthy while at the same time observing the tremendous pressure borne by those fettered by the traditions and behavioural mandates of the Royal family.

As we watch the lives of the Romanovs unfold over the years, we are also witness to the fomenting of rebellion within Russia. While the Royals live lives of extraordinary excess, extreme poverty for many Russians affords them a life of hopelessness and hunger. Dissent runs rampant in the country with many assassination threats and attempts on the Tsar’s life. After one group, the Nihilists, are eventually hung or banished, their cause is picked up by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. We all know the story does not end well for Maria’s son, Tsar Nicholas and his family. Facing utter contempt from his citizenry, in part due to the reliance the Royals have put on a ‘sorcerer’, Grigori Rasputin, the Romanovs are without support from the masses and the country rings out with calls of death to the Tsar.

0425286169This novel was well-researched and gives the reader plenty of opportunity to observe the excesses and trials of the Russian monarchy. It also gives additional information on the fate of the surviving Romanovs after their escape from Russia. There are two family trees in the front of the book, one for the Royal Family of Denmark and one for the Imperial Romanovs of Russia.

I would strongly suggest that readers avail themselves of these familial road maps as the interweaving of the families makes it hard to keep straight who the characters are and from which bloodline they descend.

— Nancy C.