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 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.

The Long Night is upon fans of Game of Thrones

It’s going to be a very long wait for Game of Thrones fans. Recently, it was announced that the final season will not be released until spring of 2019. Will Bran reveal what he knows about Rhaegar? Will Jon Snow defeat the Night King? Will the Long Night end? Who will sit on the Iron Throne if the battle is won?

Fortunately, there are some fantastic television series DVDs in our collection to help you get through the Long Night.

Vikings

There are only two things that matter to the Vikings: destiny and war. And the only way for a Viking to achieve his destiny was to be victorious in war. Vikings follows the story of the legendary Norse hero, Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar is an ambitious and methodical warrior who is a descendant of the god Odin. Eager to achieve what no other Viking has done, he eventually he leads an army to the shores of England to raid the Saxon villages.

Axes and shields may dominate the screen but at its core Vikings is about politics. Ragnar is a calculating leader who plays the long con, often outsmarting his opponents through strategy rather than blood. Women also play a strong role in the show. Lagertha (Ragnar’s wife) is a shield maiden with a reputation for courage and wit all her own. When it comes to fantasy, Vikings goes light on the supernatural elements. A raven may appear to give the idea that Odin is watching, but the fantasy symbols are few and only serve to reflect the belief system of the time.

Vikings combines action with intrigue and is my go-to series between seasons of Game of Thrones. Season Five, Part I of Vikings will be release in April 2018.

The Last Kingdom – (based on Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Series)

The Last Kingdom shares the same timeline as Vikings but the story is told from the point-of- view of the Saxons.  What we know as modern day England is broken up into seven separate kingdoms. Six of the seven kingdoms are ruled by Danes (Vikings). For decades, the Danes have attacked and plundered Saxon lands and now only Wessex remains free. The show follows Uhtred, the young heir to Bebbanburg. His family is murdered by ruthless Danes and he is taken as a slave. Overtime, he is sold to a Danish Earl who treats him as a son rather than a captive. Uhtred grows to be a man of two worlds – born a Saxon but raised in the brutal traditions of the Danes. His adoptive father is murdered in the first episode and his quest for retribution sets the tone for the remainder of the show.

The Last Kingdom is a fast paced, plot-driven series that is quick to watch – the first season only has eight episodes. It’s a good choice for those who don’t want to commit to hours of television watching.

Spartacus

A Thracian soldier is captured and enslaved by the Romans. Forced to fight as a gladiator for Roman entertainment, Spartacus conspires to overthrow his masters. His path to freedom is bloody and full of vengeance.

This is not a show for the faint of heart. There is a lot of action and violence, true to the nature of historical gladiator fighting. The cast is incredibly talented. You can’t help but love the villainous husband and wife who run the gladiator school. Played by John Hannah and Lucy Lawless respectively, they are comparable to the Macbeths – always plotting to rise above their station. The costume and set design is equally impressive. There is a great attention to detail placed on replicating the style of the Roman time period. It is done on a scale that is usually reserved for big budget Hollywood movies.

Spartacus is a wild ride – it is incredibly fast paced with a scandalously shocking storyline. It is one of my guilty pleasures.

Reign

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was only six days old when she ascended to the throne. Viewed as a threat to the English crown, she was sent to France for her protection. The show begins with Mary’s betrothal to Dauphin of France and follows her rise to power until her execution in England.

Reign takes a lot of liberties with history, which makes the story hard to predict. The Mary we see on the show is much more scandalous than the Mary we read about in our history books.   The costumes, accessories and music of the show are designed in modern style, giving it a Gossip Girl type of appeal. While not a true fantasy show, there are elements of the supernatural on the fringes of the storyline – just enough to add a twist to the plot and keep the audience guessing how the story will unfold.

Reign is a plot-based show, rich with intrigue and conspiracy. The main character, Mary, is a relatable girl that you will root for even when you already know her fate.

-Lesley L.

Can’t Get Enough of Outlander

Have you ever read a series of books that combine history, political intrigue, battles and war, adventure, time travel, and the supernatural with a love story so captivating it has generated millions of fans around the entire world? Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books do just that.

Outlander, the first book in the series, was originally published in 1990. The story begins in 1945 when Claire Beauchamp and her husband, Frank Randall, are on a second honeymoon in Scotland. They are hoping to re-connect after serving separately in WWII.

Alone on a ramble in the countryside, Claire is drawn to an ancient circle of standing stones. She accidentally walks through a magical portal and finds herself in the war-torn Scotland of 1743. Due to her appearance and English accent, she is considered a spy by Redcoat Captain “Black Jack” Randall (no the last name is NOT a coincidence!). Only Jamie Fraser, a tall, red-headed, strong-willed Scottish Highlander, can save Claire from danger.

Claire soon becomes torn between the two very different men (husband, Frank, and Highlander, Jamie) in her two separate worlds.

The remaining books in the series, which should definitely be read in order, are:

  • Dragonfly in Amber
  • Voyager
  • Drums of Autumn
  • The Fiery Cross
  • A Breath of Snow and Ashes
  • An Echo in the Bone
  • Written in My Own Heart’s Blood

66a08d71d8a20de6e487672119ec0226Diana Gabaldon is currently working on the ninth book, Go Tell the Bees I Am Gone. Gabaldon does an incredible amount of research and puts great historic detail into her books, so there is usually a span of a few years between each publication.

When I first learned that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books were going to be made into a television series, I was very skeptical that the screen version would live up to the images of Jamie and Claire that have been entrenched in my mind for so many years. However, I was very pleasantly surprised!

Season 1 and 2 successfully capture the important people, places, and events of the first two books, and it has been thrilling to see all these things come to life in vivid colour and detail. The screen version seems to be just as popular as the book series. Rotten Tomatoes has given Season 1 a score of 91%, with an audience rating of 94%. It also set a Rating Record for Multi-Platform Viewing. Season 1 (which is divided into Volume 1 and Volume 2) and Season 2 are available to borrow on DVD from WPL as well as all of the books, of course. Season 3 of Outlander premiered on the W Network on September 10th.

One final note: the Outlander series (both book and screen versions) contain scenes of extreme violence which is indicative of the time period. There are also some very steamy parts so keep a fanning device handy!

— Sandy W.

Hamilton

What we’re listening to in our house right now is actually what we are listening to in our house and in our cars because we listen to the same thing all the time right now – the soundtrack of the Broadway musical Hamilton: An American Musical.

I did this a lot when when I was a kid and would visit the music collection in the Main Library in Hamilton to bring home my favourites to play over and over but I never imagined it would happen to my own family. I know that my father was a little tired of hearing me sing “I Like to be in America” (West Side Story), and disagreed when I sang “It’s the Hard Knock life” (Annie) because it clearly wasn’t, and probably wanted me to find out how I could “solve a problem like Maria” (The Sound of Music) sooner, rather than later.

As for our family getting tired of singing about the scrappy American founding father, Alexander Hamilton, I don’t think I need to rush things. There are soulful ballads, jazz, R&B, a smattering of old fashioned Tin Pan Alley stuff, gorgeous show tunes with the full cast singing with all their heart (like when you sing along in your car at a stoplight and the person next to you tries not to look), and some truly amazing hip-hop. It doesn’t matter which track we play – they are all ‘good ones’.

I really do think that ball of sunshine, Lin Manuel-Miranda, is outstanding. His voice on the soundtrack, which is all we have to go by right now until he is back onstage performing the title role and we are lucky enough to secure tickets, is just superb. From the lightning quick cabinet room rap battles to the poignant lullaby he sings to his newborn son I just don’t feel like it is possible to tire of his voice. He plays the part of Alexander Hamilton to perfection from earnest aide de camp, attractive suitor to Elizabeth Schuyler, uncompromising lawyer and heartbroken father. The first time we listened to the soundtrack from beginning to end I found myself weeping in our kitchen. Twice. I won’t say what caused my outburst because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but even if you know the details of Alexander Hamilton’s death (this isn’t a spoiler as his birth and death dates are well known – 1755-1804) you will be moved by Lin Manuel-Miranda’s voice in the final moments of the musical.

Manuel-Miranda’s writing voice is just as wonderful as his singing voice. We are always talking about the way he is able to make us laugh and think as we enjoy the songs. I have said to our kids that if anyone at our house ever fails an exam which involves this period of American history there will be a severe punishment because by now they should have internalized it all. He lays out the basics of the significant battles, dates and the big names like Washington, Yorktown, King George III, Lafayette, Jefferson and hits the high notes with the writing of the American constitution but it is so clever that every few moments you can’t help but be amazed by the genius of the writing. It’s like he is channeling the lyrical brilliance of Sondheim, Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hammerstein with musical influences coming from every genre. It’s magical. It makes you snap your fingers and want to dance along, try to rap as fast as they do (only when my kids aren’t looking).

Alexander Hamilton lived for less than 50 years but his impact on their country was incredible – to say he was an American founding father really isn’t enough – and it was a chance encounter with a book* (!) that Lin Manuel-Miranda read on vacation that led him to start thinking about setting this extraordinary story to music. I’m so glad that he did. I can wash my dishes so much more enthusiastically when I am listening to something like “Guns and Ships” where Aaron Burr says:

How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower
Somehow defeat a global superpower?
How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire?
Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’ flag higher?
Yo. Turns out we have a secret weapon!
An immigrant you know and love who’s unafraid to step in!
He’s constantly confusin’, confoundin’ the British henchmen
Ev’ryone give it up for America’s favourite fighting Frenchman!

And the entire company sings back with an enthusiastic:

Lafayette!

It’s a sensational use of language and each member of the cast does it perfectly. Their enunciation knocks my socks off every time and, when I was a kid I would lift the needle off of the record carefully and place it back to re-listen to try and figure out the lyrics but today you can go online and see endless analysis of each word, find the actors and super-fans on Twitter and Instagram to see minute-by-minute reviews as the cast prepares for performances. It’s a rabbit hole that I find myself enjoying because they seem as enthusiastic about the beauty of the music as the long list of people who have seen their show or are waiting for tickets. In the meantime we have the next best thing right here on the shelves here at WPL. Well, not exactly on the shelf because, well, it will probably be checked out. We’re talking about the music of Hamilton: An American Musical here, you know. It’s a Broadway sensation and you get to keep it for 3 weeks once you sign it out and customers do not bring it back early. They can’t. They are so busy listening to it in their cars and in their kitchens. They are listening to it non-stop.

— Penny M.

* the book that Lin Manuel-Miranda read and was so captivated by was Ron Chernow’s extremely well-reviewed Alexander Hamilton, from 2004, which we also have available here at the Waterloo Public Library.

Glory Over Everything

I am a huge fan of historical fiction. Give me a great story set in long ago eras with captivating characters and I’m in heaven.

Some of the eras I’m especially drawn to are WWII and slavery – two very emotional, brutal and turbulent times where the worst of humanity is offset by the bravery and resilience of people struggling to survive.

63275410_hrFans of Historical Fiction set in the southern United States during the 19th century will be eager to get their hands on the upcoming, Glory Over Everything from Canadian-born author Kathleen Grissom. It is the sequel to her very popular historical fiction novel, The Kitchen House, which introduced readers to a host of memorable characters and due to its focus on slavery and indentured labour, touching and often emotional story lines. While you could read Glory Over Everything as a stand-alone I think readers will have a better understanding of where Jamie and some other characters are coming from if they read The Kitchen House first. Personally, I loved reconnecting with some of my favourite characters from the first book.

The Kitchen House – With Glory Over Everything hitting shelves on April 5, 2016 readers still have time to read the first book to get acquainted with Belle, Jamie, Mama Mae, Lavinia and the rest of the characters. For those who haven’t read The Kitchen House it’s a story told via two different points of view – Belle, a black slave and Lavinia, a young Irish indentured servant. Witnessing situations from these two very different viewpoints gives readers a better understanding of just how different life was back for white servants and black slaves.

The Kitchen House focuses more on Lavinia’s story as she tries to straddle two worlds – the white world and the world of the slaves in the kitchen house. Grissom doesn’t hold back as she describes sometimes brutal descriptions of what slaves endured at the hands of their masters and also deals with different kinds of oppression – the powerlessness of women of all colours and the differences between families who seem to have it all (money, power, freedom) and slave families who appear to have nothing except each other. Grissom’s writing is vivid in its description of what life was like back in the late 18th century and evoked many different emotions in me from – shock, sadness, unconditional love, anger and joy. This book had it all. Some scenes were so emotional that they were hard to read but the characters were varied and quite multidimensional and you quickly begin to care about them.

glory-over-everything-9781476748443_hrGlory Over Everything – I was recently given an advanced reading copy of Glory Over Everything and once again Grissom captivated me from beginning to end. This sequel is definitely a page-turner and has Grissom’s signature captivating writing style and includes several characters from The Kitchen House. It follows the life of Jamie Pyke as he tries to make a life in Philadelphia while hiding a secret that could destroy the life that he has built. When someone to whom he owes a debt comes for his help Jamie realizes he must return to the south and face a very uncertain future with potentially dire consequences. The story is told once again via multiple narrators and is a fast-paced read that not only focuses on race, slavery and the Underground Railroad but on family ties and how one’s upbringing can influence us throughout our lives. With complex characters, a gripping plot and emotional scenes have made Glory Over Everything one of my favourite books of 2016.

Both of these books are filled with human endurance, strength, love, violence, betrayal, family loyalty, courage, trust and the power of hope. That’s a whole lot of emotion all wrapped up into two books but Grissom is a master at writing gripping novels that leave her readers thinking of the characters long after the last page is turned.

– – Laurie P.