All the Ever Afters

Most of us have heard the story of Cinderella many times over – as children, as adults reading to children and Disney’s take on the popular tale. But Canadian author Danielle Teller is asking readers to put aside their preconceived ideas of Cinderella, her stepsisters and, most especially, her ‘evil’ stepmother.

You may be thinking, “I already know the story of Cinderella – bullied, Fairy Godmother, glass slipper, Prince + happily-ever-after”. But in Teller’s version, All the Ever Afters, we witness the story of Cinderella through the eyes of Agnes, the woman who would become Cinderella’s stepmother. Despite being such a well-known tale, I found this quite an engaging read. The popular aspects of the fairy tale are woven into this re-imagined story that includes insight into Agnes’ early life, the life of her two daughters and how their relationship with Elfilda (aka Ella) developed over time. I especially enjoyed seeing the complexities and dynamic relationships within this family. Life isn’t all glass slippers and Fairy Godmothers, am-I-right?

This is a creative retelling of a well-known, much loved fairy tale that gives readers a different perspective which may leave some readers feeling differently about the much maligned evil stepmother. With its stunning cover art, this is an eye-catching book but it’s also an engaging coming-of-age story that features complex family dynamics, set within a well-known fable.

— Laurie P.

Someone We Know

Shari Lapena, the Toronto-based lawyer-turned-author, is on my short list of ‘Favourite Suspense Authors Evah’. With her latest book, Someone We Know, she once again provides her readers with a fast-paced, suspenseful and twist-riddled whodunnit.

This was a thrilling ride through a suburb that is full of secrets, deceit and a dead woman with a complicated past. Ooooo, right? Lapena provides great twists and many plausible suspects leaving readers to question pretty much every character’s motives. The characters are a diverse and complicated bunch, but each felt well-developed and featured a wide range of personalities – with some being not so likable and others hiding deep, dark family secrets with smiles on their faces. You just don’t know who to trust.

My only beef is a small one – it’s but a wee moo – but I found there were a lot of characters to keep track of and with the police sometimes referring to characters as ‘Mr. so-and-so’ versus their first names, it got a bit confusing remembering who was who. The author is good at reminding the reader but this suburb has a lot of residents that readers will have to keep track of.

I don’t want to give away any secrets or twists but I’ll just say that Lapena has, once again, written a clever, compulsive, hard-to-put-down suspense read with a long list of culprits that will keep readers guessing (and second guessing) until the bitter end. You’ll want to get your hands on this book ASAP. As luck would have it, WPL has copies of this title in regular print, large print and audiobook on CD that you can borrow!

— Laurie P.

If You Want To Make God Laugh

After recently reading an advanced copy of If You Want To Make God Laugh, I can now say that South African-Canadian author Bianca Marais has officially secured a spot in my “must read” author list.

I first came across Marais in 2017 after reading and loving her previous book, Hum If You Don’t Know The Words which was a beautifully written story that tackled big topics with compelling characters, heart and compassion.

With her new book, If You Want To Make God Laugh, Marais has once again written an engaging story but this time there is a personal connection as she draws from her own experiences as a volunteer with HIV-infected children in her native South Africa. These experiences bring a depth, authenticity and emotion to her writing as she describes life in 1990’s South Africa as Apartheid is ending and the AIDS epidemic is firmly taking hold.

I appreciate that Marais doesn’t shy away from the big issues – such as the stigma of HIV, racism, homophobia, religious corruption and abuse of power. She sets these issues within a touching story that follows the lives of three women and the little boy who brings them together. These women learn to find strength in each other during a time of much suffering, rampant bigotry and ignorance. (Note: fans of Hum If You Don’t Know The Words will also enjoy the brief cameo of two of its characters within this story.)

I highly recommend this well-written, powerful and poignant story that focuses on the resiliency and tenacity of women, from different backgrounds, as South Africa experiences its turbulent transition to democracy.

— Laurie P.

Last Resort

Marissa Stapley’s The Last Resort is a character-driven story that focuses on the crumbling relationships of several couples who attend a two week relationship boot camp at a secluded, luxury resort in the Mayan Riviera in a last ditch attempt to save their failing marriages. The retreat is lead by powerhouse couple, Miles and Grace Markell, who appear to have the perfect relationship themselves. But as the days progress, the struggling couples end up getting much more than they bargained for when unorthodox therapy methods and an impending tropical storm unearth secrets, deceptions and manipulations leading to a tension-filled ending.

This was a well-paced story (which I read in less than a day) that engaged me throughout with a solid plot, interesting characters, a great baddie readers will love to hate, and an enjoyable Big Little Lies vibe. The only issue I had was that the format took a bit of getting used to. It blends different points of view with celebrity news releases and an interview between an unidentified man and woman. Why this format was used becomes clear to readers towards the end so I advise readers to keep with it! It’s totally worth it!

This was an entertaining read filled with deceit, secrets and an exciting whodunnit. With its beautiful tropical setting, The Last Resort would make an excellent holiday or summer read.

Marissa and I croppedI was lucky enough to meet Marissa (photo left, the author with WPL blogger Laurie P.) at a Kitchener Public Library author event recently. She is delightful and I enjoyed hearing her talk about this book and give her readers a chance to get to know her better. I eagerly look forward to reading what she has in store for us next!

— Laurie P.

 

Mrs. Everything

I think every woman will find a bit of herself in Jennifer Weiner’s latest book. With story lines that focus on the good, the not-so-good and the wonderful aspects of being a woman, Mrs. Everything contains voices of mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and partners and weaves in issues that women can relate to in varying degrees.

This is a lengthy novel that spans decades and follows the lives of two sisters, Jo and Bethie. Through their stories, Weiner addresses many issues that women faced in the past, the issues we have in the present and as well as those that may continue to affect the future of women. She hits on emotional topics through the changing decades and blends them into a story that will captivate readers as we tag along on the bumpy journey of these two women as they figure out who they are on their own and together as sisters.

This is a hearty read at 464 pages and, I’ll admit, it felt like it dragged a bit at times. But it’s this length that allows Weiner to dig deeper into important issues and show how they reverberate through the sisters’ lives – issues that include women’s roles within family and society as well as our continued struggle for the right to choose what happens to our own bodies.

Through Jo and Bethie, Weiner discusses topics that were important to the women who came before us, to the women we are now and hopefully will embolden society to bring much needed change as we work to transform a world that lifts up and encourages the daughters we’re raising today.

This is a powerful story that will run readers through a spectrum of emotions. You’ll cry, laugh, feel frustrated and empowered as you read this story about two sisters and their journey to find fulfillment, love and acceptance as women in complicated and ever-changing times.

Note: I highly recommend that readers read Weiner’s forward which describes where her inspiration for this story began.

— Laurie P.

Ask Again, Yes

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is an inter-generational domestic drama that focuses on two families who find their lives intertwined by one fateful event. The story follows the families for several decades allowing readers to witness the implications and far-reaching effects this one event has on members of both families.

Readers will have to be patient with the book’s slower start but soon they will be pulled into the lives of the Stanhope and Gleeson families. I particularly appreciated Keane‘s candor and sensitivity regarding the issues of mental illness and addiction and how she illustrates the long-term influence parents’ decisions have on their children.

While I found the story to be somewhat predictable (and perhaps a little long in the tooth) at times, the topics that are addressed (family, loss, tragedy, addiction ..) were explored in depth making it a good choice for book club discussions.

Overall, Ask Again, Yes is a well-written, poignant and insightful story that illustrates how one tragic event can change the trajectory of many lives and how the bumpy road to forgiveness and healing after such an event can reverberate through a family for decades.

— Laurie P.

Wunderland

Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein is a historical fiction page-turner that brings readers into the lives of two teenage friends, Ilse and Renate, who have vastly different perspectives and experiences during World War II.

The story begins in 1989, shortly after Ilse’s death, when her daughter, Ava unearths Ilse’s long-held secrets. The story then heads back in time, to Berlin in the late 1930’s when Ilse and her best friend Renate are teenagers. It’s through the bond of these two young women that we get varying views of the war and witness the disintegration of their friendship and the reasons for it.

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What made this book stand out from the many, MANY WWII historical fiction books I’ve read, is how Epstein vividly describes what life was like for German citizens leading up to and including WWII. She describes the rise of the Nazi regime and their horrific methods of growing their power and shows how some German citizens began to believe the propaganda and felt justified when they participated in fear mongering and terror of their own neighbours. She also reveals the dire restrictions, discrimination and abuse Jewish families faced from their own government as well as the pitiful aid from other countries as they tried to flee.

While there’s a fair bit of jumping back and forth between time lines (and one that I was less invested in), in the end, Wunderland is an engaging read with story lines that merge into an incredibly revealing look at the rise of Nazism within Germany. But ultimately, the focus on the poignant, heart-wrenching tale about a complicated friendship, long-held secrets, loss and betrayal is what will keep readers glued to the pages.

— Laurie P.

Oven to Table

I love a good cookbook and the library is the perfect place to ‘test drive’ a new cookbook!

In order to be a ‘must have’ in my kitchen a cookbook needs to be loaded with recipes that I can make for my family – recipes that fit our tastes, are doable, use ingredients I can find in my local food store and don’t leave me elbow deep in sudsy water all evening.  With Oven to Table, Jan Scott gives readers 100 easy to make, tasty recipes, complete with beautiful and enticing colour photos, that use only one pot, dish or pan.

Scott’s writing style is approachable as she describes different pans, required utensils, foods to keep stocked in your kitchen and her tenets for ensure successful one-pot cooking. She clearly identifies vegetarian, gluten-free, kid-friendly and make-ahead dishes as well as those that are better suited when you have more time and don’t have to quickly feed your small humans before shuttling them to evening activities.

I made a few of the recipes in the book and all were fantastic. They included:

  • Smokey Corn and Cheddar Chowder with a side of Honey, Thyme and Cheddar Skillet Cornbread
  • Goat Cheese and Dill Hash Brown Quiche
  • Roasted Red Onion Party Dip

Overall, this is an impressive cookbook that I look forward to using often. One pot/pan recipes speak to the mom in me who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time cleaning up after a meal. I love cooking but washing dishes? Not so much. With its enticing colour pictures and clear instructions, this cookbook will inspire home cooks to whip up these delicious one-pot dishes for the important family meal.

— Laurie P.

NOTE:  I’ll be discussing this cookbook (and several more – including my favourite fiction and nonfiction reads) in my upcoming Books and Baking program on Monday, May 13th at 2:00pm at the John M. Harper Branch. Registration for this free program opens online May 6th.

The Five

the fiveFrom August 1888 to November 1888, five women were murdered in the Whitechapel area of London by a person (or persons?) known only as Jack the Ripper. There have been countless articles, books and movies of the infamous crimes, with most focusing on the violence and mystery surrounding Jack’s identity.

The Five takes a different view with author Hallie Rubenhold focusing on the five female victims who, for more than 100 years, were labelled as prostitutes. Through tremendously detailed research piecing together the lives of the five – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane, Rubenhold shows readers how and why these depictions of the victims are gravely false.

The book has five chapters, one for each victim, but doesn’t focus on their brutal and well-publicized deaths. Instead, it focuses on their humble beginnings up until they were murdered because these women were so much more than grisly deaths and the misconstrued labels society gave them.

What struck me the most about The Five was the author’s vivid and unflinching look at the lives of the lower class in the 19th century – lives that were often brutal, uncertain and set within horrific living conditions. Rubenhold also focuses on the limitations imposed upon women of the time, especially those of the lower classes.

With no rights and few options available, most women were at the mercy of the men in their lives and could look forward to working to support their family at a young age, getting married, have numerous children (of whom they’d lose a significant number to disease and malnutrition) and an early death. In general life was hard in the late 19th century but was certainly significantly harder for women.

With this unique focus, Rubenhold shines a light not on the vicious crimes of a notorious mad man, but on the five female victims. And while at times the book was a little info-heavy, I applaud Rubenhold for humanizing the victims of these infamous murders that have captivated the world for over a century, as well as shining a light on the hardships of women in the late 19th century.

— Laurie P.

The Island of Sea Women

Fans of Lisa See know and love her for her detailed historical fiction stories that include strong female characters. In See’s latest book, The Island of Sea Women, her story begins in the 1930’s and 40’s during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the island of Jeju. Through the eyes of best friends, Young-Sook and Mi-ja, two young haenyeo, we witness the political upheaval after WWII, the atrocities committed against citizens, and their desire and struggle to control their own country without interference from others.

I had never heard of the haenyeo before reading this book. With her meticulous research, See introduces readers to these well-respected, strong and staunchly independent women and their unique matrilineal society. They are the heads of their families and the sole providers who risk their lives daily to fish using the methods haenyeo have used for generations while their husbands typically stay home to watch the kids (and apparently not much else).

While the haenyeo culture and its matrifocal way of life was interesting to witness, the story itself is a bit of a slower read. A lot of historical detail is given and having that background is important to understanding Korea’s struggle for independence and how that influenced the haenyeo. While some scenes were difficult to read due to their violence, I respect that See doesn’t hold back on her descriptions detailing the horrors inflicted on the people of Jeju as they struggled under Japanese occupation and later when the US got involved.

51kn-DDoHlL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Island of Sea Women is a historical fiction novel that focuses on the lives of the unique and powerful haenyeo (a culture many people have probably have never heard of), the history of Korea (that many people may have never learned about in school) and the lives of two friends whose sister-like bond is put to the test by family loyalty, hardships, loss and misunderstanding. This is an eye-opening and touching read about culture, friendship and the struggle of a nation to be autonomous.

— Laurie P.

Note: our friends at Kitchener Public Library are presenting “An Evening With Lisa See” on March 25, 2019 at 7:00pm at the Central Library on Queen Street. Registration is required for this free event.