The Alice Network

The Alice Network unfolds along two timelines, one being 1915, the early years of the Great War and the other being post-WWII 1947. The 1915 story is based on real characters from WWI, a fact that I didn’t realize until I finished the book. I am a fan of historical fiction and this one did not disappoint. The unfolding of the lives of the women who were part of the real-life Alice spy network was fascinating. The patriotism that propelled them into this kind of dangerous work and the bravery they demonstrated day after day in their attempts to bring down the German war machine are hard to comprehend by someone who has never had their own existence challenged in such a way. I found myself wondering how I would have managed myself given the same circumstances.

One of the main characters in the 1947 segment is a 19-year-old girl from a wealthy New York family who has broken the chains of her parent’s bondage and has fled to France to solve the mystery of her cousin who went missing during WWII. She attempts to persuade Eve Gardiner, a war-weary former member of the 1915 Alice Network, to help her on her quest. Eve agrees to accompany Charlotte, ‘Charlie’, to France but not for the purpose that Charlie has envisaged. During their journey, the story of Eve’s experience as a spy unfolds and a thread of connection is drawn between the two women.

Eve, as a young woman of 22, is determined to do more with her life that work in the steno pool and when she is approached by Captain Cameron, who recruits candidates for the English spy network, she jumps at the chance to be part of the action. After a mere 2 weeks of training, she is sent to the field where she is met by Lili, the leader of the Alice Network, who trains her on what it really means to be a spy. Hired to be a  waitress in a restaurant owned by Rene Bordelon, a narcissistic and exceedingly greedy man, she begins her spy work in a most intense and compelling manner.

Eve at 54 is war-weary and broken by her experiences 30 years in the past. Charlie is repelled by her officious and offensive attitude and behaviour but continues to pressure Eve to help her find her missing niece, Rose. That search takes them on a journey of self-discovery and the devastating unraveling of the past that threatens to do them both in.

It doesn’t hurt the story at all that a handsome Scot, Finn Kilgore,  who happens to be Eve’s ‘minder and driver’, accompanies the pair on their journey. He is a supportive character but not a ‘rescuer’ of the women who are ‘rescuers’ in their own right.

This is a relatively easy read in spite of some content that at times can be most disconcerting.

-Nancy C.

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.

Hum if you don’t know the words

Hum If You Don’t Know The Words is a wonderful book that gave me all the feels. It made me cry, laugh, feel angry, shocked and even hopeful. But what surprised me was that this is Bianca Marais’ debut novel. Marais uses imagery and beautiful, even poetic, language to describe South Africa’s multicultural and linguistic diversity as well as the complicated and blatantly bigoted dynamics between South Africans in the 1970’s.

I have always been an avid reader of books dealing with racism and civil rights and after reading (and loving) Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime a couple of months ago I have become more interested in books related to apartheid. With this book, Marais sheds light on the flagrant racism and abuse of power of apartheid and also addresses other issues including homophobia, loss, grief, abandonment, bravery and the deep need we have for family connections.

Marais humanizes apartheid by showing how the Soweto Uprising on June 16, 1976 affected her two main characters. The story is narrated by two very different points of view – Beauty, a highly educated Black Xhosa single mother and teacher from the Transkei region and Robin, a 10-year-old white girl from the Johannesburg suburbs. These two are brought together after the Uprising and show two contrasting views of the effects of apartheid and the prevalent, often flippant attitude of racism as the status quo.

Both Robin and Beauty are given equal page time and are well-rounded characters but I had a much stronger connection to Beauty.  She had such strength, tenacity, grace and conviction even after enduring unimaginable losses and hardship. Robin is precocious and deals with the loss of her family in her unique way but often she was used to bring humour to the story. While these lighter moments offset the more serious scenes, at times, it got to be a bit much.

I will caution readers that there were a few scenes, especially towards the end involving Robin, that will require readers to suspend belief. This is fiction, I get that, but I think that the story went a little too far past what I’d feel was plausible. That is the only part of the book that faltered for me. Otherwise, this is an outstanding read that will keep readers transfixed.

Hum If You Don’t Know The Words will hit readers in the heart, head and hopefully conscience about how we need to treat and respect others. A little compassion, respect and empathy can go a long, long way. This is a poignant and important story that shows the damaging and long-lasting effects of inequality and bigotry with heart, some humour and wonderfully vivid language.

-Laurie P.

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.

Alone in Berlin

Wartime resistance always makes for powerful reading or viewing. These stories stir up deep feelings in us, especially if they are true.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (book and DVD) is a hot item at the library these days. It tells of a zookeeper and said wife in Warsaw, Poland who save the lives of hundreds of Jewish people. A number of years back everyone was talking about Schindler’s List (again, book and DVD) The movie won the best picture Oscar and many other awards in 1993. It’s the story of a German businessman in Poland, who although initially not a sympathetic character, goes on to save 1,000 Jewish people.

So that brings me to another great DVD about wartime resistance: Alone in Berlin.

Based on a true story Alone in Berlin, tells of two working-class Berliners, Otto and Anna Quangel. When their only son is killed in the war they turn to resistance. Their method: they write post cards with anti-Nazi slogans and then leave them all over the city. Of course, the post cards come to the attention of the police and Gestapo who hunt for those responsible. The movie is taut and suspenseful as the Quangels continue their campaign, even as the authorities zero in on them. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, but it does not end well for the Quangels.

Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson star. Thompson is excellent, as always. But I think Gleeson outshines her in his portrayal of stoic determination.

Watching the movie made me wonder a number of things. Leaving anti-Nazi post cards all over town seems rather futile to me. The Quangels surely didn’t believe they could challenge the Nazi regime by such means. So why did they do it? Why did they knowingly risk their lives? You also have to wonder how each one of us would act if we lived under a similar regime.

The movie is based on the book Every Man Dies Alone by the German writer Hans Fallada (1893-1947) and both are available at WPL.

-Penny D.

Join us at a book club conversation

Please join us for a book club conversation at any of our meetings. No need to sign up – you can just drop in!  This month we are discussing the One Book One Community (OBOC) selection – Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady.  To learn more about OBOC and upcoming related events go to http://oboc.ca

Monday, August 14 at 7 p.m. – Main Library Auditorium

Thursday, August 17 at 1:30 p.m. – Main Library Boardroom

 Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

How far would a son go to escape his past? And how far will a father go to help him?

With his wicked grin and confident swagger, navy musician Jack Lewis evokes Frank Sinatra whenever he takes the stage. While stationed in Newfoundland during the Second World War, Jack meets Vivian Fanshawe, a local girl who has never stepped off the Rock. They marry against the wishes of Vivian’s family—hard to say what it is, but there’s something about Jack they just don’t like—and as the war ends, the couple travels to Windsor, Ontario, to meet Jack’s family.

But when Vivian encounters Jack’s mother and brother, everything she thought she knew about her husband—his motives, his honesty, even his race—is called into question. And as the truth about the Lewis family tree emerges, life for Vivian and Jack will never be the same.

Told from the perspective of three unforgettable characters—Vivian, the innocent newlywed; Jack, her beguiling and troubled husband; and William Henry, Jack’s stoic father—this extraordinary novel explores the cost of prejudice on generation after generation. Steeped in the jazz and big band music of the 1930s and 1940s, this is an arresting, heart-rending novel about fathers and sons, love and denial, and race relations in a world on the cusp of momentous change.

You can find more information about WPL Book Clubs here or contact Christine Brown at 519-886-1310 ext. 146.

 

Creative Nonfiction is a term that often gets thrown around in literary discussions, but do any of us really know what it means? I sure didn’t. I often described it as nonfiction that was…creative, or if I was feeling really clever, as nonfiction that was experimental. Needless to say, those definitions would not satisfy any vocab teacher.

Luckily, the internet had the definition I was looking for. On the website for a literary journal called Creative Nonfiction, Lee Gutkind describes creative nonfiction like this:

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.

As I learned more about creative nonfiction, I realized how great this genre is. It’s the perfect bridge for dedicated readers of fiction who find nonfiction boring. I’ve met lots of people who want to expand their reading habits, but find it difficult to slough through some of the heavier (both literally and figuratively) nonfiction titles. If you’re looking to venture to the nonfiction side of the library this summer, then some of the creative nonfiction listed below might be for you.

Whether you’re a lover of nonfiction, or someone who just wants to dip their toe in, I hope this list can serve as an introduction to a genre that has a lot to offer. Happy reading!

Five Creative Nonfiction Books that You Should Check Out at WPL:

Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

“David Sedaris tells all in a book that is, literally, a lifetime in the making. For forty years, David Sedaris has kept a diary in which he records everything that captures his attention-overheard comments, salacious gossip, soap opera plot twists, secrets confided by total strangers. These observations are the source code for his finest work, and through them he has honed his cunning, surprising sentences. Now, Sedaris shares his private writings with the world.”

Hannus by Rachel Lebowitz

“Hannus is a creative biography of Ida Hannus, a Finnish-Canadian suffragist and socialist living in Vancouver and in the BC Finnish commune Sointula through the turn of the century to the Cold War. Approached from different angles, employing a collage of techniques, Hannus is a constantly shifting – and consistently engaging – narrative that raises questions about the reliability of history and biography.”

Getting out of town by book and bike by Kent Thompson

“Getting Out of Town by Book and Bike is a collection of popular essays which take an often comic look at how reading and bicycling both transport people to places unknown. Thompson introduces the reader to travel writing by the nineteenth-century bicycle adventurer Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg and Canadian rock star Neil Peart, explains why he visits small-town libraries in search of copies of Anna Karenina, and ponders the social significance of the Tim Hortons coffee shops which dot the Canadian landscape. Writing in the spirit of James E. Starrs’ The Literary Cyclist, Thompson also contemplates the role of the bicycle in works by writers from George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells to Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Buckler. On the whole, it’s an offbeat and entertaining book of curiosity. George Elliott Clarke calls this book “a cool meditation on the Zen of cycling, a zesty memoir about growing up in the rural Maritimes, and an ‘off-duty’ scholar’s energetic studies of a host of writers.”

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

“This book has two extended excerpts from her never-before-seen notebooks–writings that offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary writer. Joan Didion has always kept notebooks: of overheard dialogue, observations, interviews, drafts of essays and articles–and here is one such draft that traces a road trip she took with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in June 1970, through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. She interviews prominent local figures, describes motels, diners, a deserted reptile farm, a visit with Walker Percy, a ladies’ brunch at the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention. She writes about the stifling heat, the almost viscous pace of life, the sulfurous light, and the preoccupation with race, class, and heritage she finds in the small towns they pass through. And from a different notebook: the “California Notes” that began as an assignment from Rolling Stone on the Patty Hearst trial of 1976. Though Didion never wrote the piece, watching the trial and being in San Francisco triggered thoughts about the city, its social hierarchy, the Hearsts, and her own upbringing in Sacramento. Here, too, is the beginning of her thinking about the West, its landscape, the western women who were heroic for her, and her own lineage, all of which would appear later in her acclaimed 2003 book, Where I Was From.”

Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir by Lorna Crozier

“A volume of poignant recollections by one of Canada’s most celebrated poets, Small Beneath the Sky is a tender, unsparing portrait of a family and a place. Lorna Crozier vividly depicts her hometown of Swift Current, with its one main street, two high schools, and three beer parlors–where her father spent most of his evenings. She writes unflinchingly about the grief and shame caused by poverty and alcoholism. At the heart of the book is Crozier’s fierce love for her mother, Peggy. The narratives of daily life–sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking–are interspersed with prose poems. Lorna Crozier approaches the past with a tactile sense of discovery, tracing her beginnings with a poet’s precision and an open heart.”

-Jenna H.

*All book synopses were taken from the Encore catalogue.

Magazines galore at your fingertips

I’d like to say that I love all of the Waterloo Public Library’s online resources equally, but PressReader has a special place in my heart. PressReader is an online resource that you can access through the Waterloo Public Library’s Digital Library webpage. PressReader gives you access to thousands of online newspapers and periodicals. Although most people use PressReader for their daily newspaper intake, the database offers a variety of magazines, including many that we don’t have in our physical collection.

When I first found out about the magazines that PressReader offers, I got quite excited and spent a good chunk of my afternoon perusing the selection. It’s interesting to see the international versions of familiar magazines like Good Housekeeping. In my browsing, I came across five magazines that piqued my interest, and I wanted to share them with you.

Top 5 Magazines I want to read on PressReader:

BBC History Magazine

This magazine has articles on different bits of World and British history. This jumped out to me, because it seems to make history accessible to the average person. It seems to cover interesting topics without the density of an academic journal.

The Simple Things

This is a lifestyle magazine that focuses on slowing down, living simply and enjoying life. I love a good lifestyle magazine, and one that’s designed beautifully, and makes me feel peaceful while reading it, is a winner.

Flea Market Décor Magazine

This is a décor magazine that focuses solely on the Bohemian/Shabby Chic/Vintage decorating style that is Flea Market inspired. I really enjoy seeing inspiration for this style of decorating and trying new DIY projects; this magazine offers both!

Practical Photography

This magazine is all about how to take better pictures. There’s a feature in the current issue of this magazine that’s all about the story behind a great photo. Too often photography magazines explain how a great photo was taken, but not why. Hopefully that feature is a sign of a good magazine!

The London Magazine

This magazine is the oldest literary periodical in England. I always enjoy reading a good literary magazine, so I was excited to see that this was available online. If you’re interested in short stories or poetry, this is the one for you!

As you start to travel away from Waterloo on your well-deserved summer vacations, don’t forget to check out the digital resources on wpl.ca . Resources like PressReader, the Download Library and Zinio are all available wherever you have internet access, 24/7. Take some time this summer to explore WPL’s online resources. You never know what you’ll find!

-Jenna H.

A young Italian hero

“Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy.  But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed” spoken by Pino Lella in Beneath a Scarlet Sky.

Writing Beneath a Scarlet Sky literally saved the author’s life. In the preface, Mark Sullivan writes openly about a time in his life when he was so low he considered crashing his car. He decided instead to go to a dinner party, where he heard an old story about a young hero that completely changed his life.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is based on the true story of Pino Lella, who, at 17, wants nothing more than to meet a girl and fall in love. However, it is 1943 and not only is Nazi Germany in Milan where Pino lives, but the Allies start dropping bombs on the city every night.  I am a huge fan of WWII fiction but, until this book, I had never read anything from the Italian point of view. I feel Beneath a Scarlet Sky does a good job describing the struggles within Italy between the Nazis, Fascists, Partisans, and later, the Allies.

The reader will be drawn to Pino’s idealism and passion for his homeland and all those who are suffering. This young man clearly sees the cruelty and injustice around him and acts upon it, while many of the adults seem too full of hatred or too afraid.  Each task that Pino takes on is more dangerous than the last, and he witnesses and endures more heartbreak than anyone at any age should.  It is sad to wonder if he keeps going on because of the resiliency of his youth, or because he lived in a time when there was no other choice.

There was only one part of the book I found slow, but I think the detail was necessary to truly appreciate the peril that follows. Similar to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See I found myself thinking about the characters and the story days after I finished reading it, giving thanks for the miracle of a young man named Pino Lella.

-Sandy W.

 

An Unlikely Bond

I’ve always been drawn to books set during WWII but after awhile you start to feel that you’ve read it all — and then The Women in the Castle comes along. Jessica Shattuck is a talented storyteller who has woven her plot around the perspective of three widows during the war. These women are very different, not always likable to the reader, but they firmly agree that Hitler’s view of Germany is not their own. Their stories are compelling as they try to keep their families safe and fed during the war and later as they struggle with their guilt, grief and forgiveness.

The story is told via multiple characters and time frames but the plot and writing flows easily. Readers will quickly become invested in these three women as they struggle to pick up the pieces after the assassination attempt on Hitler fails. Times are hard, people are starving, everyone is suspicious of everyone else and yet its during this tumultuous time that an unlikely bond is formed between Marianne, Ania and Benita. Temperaments clash, emotions run high making their new friendships tenuous and when secrets are revealed the women deal with the stress, abuse, deprivations and even collusion in different ways and with varying results.

The strength of this book is in its storytelling, it’s rich characterizations and Shattuck’s focus on the rise of Nazism through the eyes of German citizens. Many people wonder how the German people could allow Hitler to take control and commit such atrocities and I think Shattuck opens the door to that discussion. I found the post-war scenes most illuminating as regular citizens struggled with guilt over their complicity, not acknowledging the horrors around them at the time or not resisting enough. War isn’t always black and white.  It’s scary, confusing and murky at best and while the atrocities committed in the name of Nazism are not condoned, Shattuck shows her readers how regular people could get caught up in the constant rhetoric, deprivation and all-encompassing fear that pervaded Germany at the time.

This is a well-written story shows the strength and resiliency of women during extreme times. I applaud the author’s unique and fresh perspective on a very popular genre and era. This book would be an excellent book club selection.

–Laurie P.