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.

You Inspire Us

In honour of International Women’s Day, our bloggers are sharing the women (real or fictional) who inspire them. From sleuths to librarians, activists to llamas (yes, that’s right), inspiring “women” come from all periods of time and walks of life.

Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew has a special place in my heart. I can still vividly recall the first Nancy Drew book I ever read, The Hidden Staircase. I was immediately hooked and went on to devour every single other ND book. Why? How could you possibly not love Nancy Drew?? She makes a terrific heroine for young girls. Smart, brave and independent, Nancy was always keen to tackle a new mystery and more than capable of outwitting rascally bad guys.

The author was no slouch either. Using the pen name Carolyne Keene, Mildred Wirt Benson wrote the first 23 Nancy Drew mysteries and more than 100 other books. Later she worked as a journalist and — how amazing is this? — continued writing for newspapers until just before her death at age 96.

— Penny D

Elena Greco

The fictional character that has inspired me recently is Elena Greco, the narrator of the My Brilliant Friend series by Elena Ferrante. What inspires me most about Elena Greco is her quiet determination and ambition. Elena, who was born and raised in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Naples, defies expectation by graduating high school and proceeding through a university degree. With the encouragement of her friend Lila, Elena carves out her own career, leaves her hometown, and achieves her goal of becoming a published author. Elena Greco’s resounding voice inspires me to believe in my own abilities and remain disciplined to work towards my goals.

— Eleni Z.

Lillian H. Smith

There are many inspirational women I could write about, but the one that stands out bringing me back to my research assistant days. Lillian H. Smith was born in 1887 in London, Ontario and was the first professionally-trained Children’s Librarian in the British Empire. She came to Toronto in 1912, trained staff and created programs. By the end of her 40 year career she had helped expand a library system and the framework for the innovative delivery of children’s services, forming a guide for libraries across Canada and globally. Her motto to get “…the right book, to the right child, at the right time [and her feeling that] “…the love for a good story, well told, lies deep in every human heart” says it all.

— Teresa N-P

Viola Desmond

When Viola Desmond first appeared on our new ten dollar bill I have to admit that I didn’t know much about her story. I quickly set out to remedy that, and the more I learned about her, the more I admired her. Desmond is often remembered for taking a stand against racism and refusing to move from the “White Only” section of a movie theatre in Nova Scotia, but did you know that she also owned and operated her own beauty salon? In addition to owning a salon, Desmond also started a beauty school so that other black women could have the same business opportunities as her. There’s so much to be learned from the way Viola Desmond stood up for what was right and supported the women around her. To find out more about Viola Desmond, be sure to check out Meet Viola Desmond by Elizabeth MacLeod, illustrated by Mike Deas. Although you’ll find it in the Children’s section, it’s definitely worth looking at no matter how old you are!

— Jenna H.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller is one of the world’s most well-known Deaf-Blind persons but did you know she was also one of the 20th century’s leading humanitarians? After losing her sight and hearing at an early age, she was tutored by Anne Sullivan and later graduated from Radcliffe College, cum laude, in 1904.

Keller became a well-sought after lecturer and supporter for people with disabilities and women’s issues. In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a non-profit organization whose goal is to defend and preserve the rights afforded to all individuals. For these accomplishments, Keller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, included in the Women’s Hall of Fame and received several honourary doctoral degrees.

Helen Keller died in 1968 at the age of 87 and will be remembered for turning her adversity into a powerful legacy. Keller is an example of the strength, tenacity and skills that people, who are often seen only for their ‘disabilities’ by society, can accomplish if provided the appropriate resources, language and education.

— Laurie P.

Llama Llama

“Come and listen little llama. Have a cuddle with your Mama…
Gifts are nice, but there’s another: the true gift is, we have each other.”

Mama Llama (in Anna Dewdney’s charming books) represents the ‘every mom.’ She’s up in the night with little llama. She’s up every morning getting him ready. She teaches him how to share. She deals with tantrums. She deals with meltdowns. She takes care of her of her little llama, even when she’s sick herself. And she does it all with patience and love. There are no awards for the Mama llamas of the world. There are no pages reserved in the history books. Yet she shapes her child in many ways –both in mind and in heart.

— Lesley L.

Louise Arbour

There are many reasons why Louise Arbour, currently the UN Special Representative for International Migration, has captured my attention for so many years but first and foremost is the time she spent as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The strength and resilience she demonstrated throughout the agonizingly brutal and horrific testimonies she and her fellow judges presided over during these trials is a testament to her courage and unwavering sense of justice. These civil wars were as barbaric as they come and under her leadership, for the first time, sexual assault committed in the name of war was prosecuted as a crime against humanity.

— Nancy C.

Louisa May Alcott

My mother gave me a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was in elementary school. I quickly joined the thousands who admire Jo March’s fierce loyalty, creative spark, and constant despair over having to act like a young lady. As a teen I learned that Alcott put much of herself into Jo, including the writing of sensational “potboilers”, and that she also wished for a life beyond what was acceptable for women in her time. Although best known for writing books for children she published over 30 books and story collections, worked as a Civil War nurse, was a passionate abolitionist, and early suffragette. A fascinating woman and incredible writer, Louisa May Alcott has been inspiring us for over 150 years. Quite a legacy.

— Penny M.

Alice Munro

Alice Munro is one of the most gifted short-story writers in Canada and the English speaking world. She has the innate ability to be able to fully develop a character and their experiences within a short story, something that could take another writer an entire novel to achieve.

In 2013 Munro became the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She has also received 3 Governor General awards, 2 Giller Prizes, the Man Booker International Prize for Lifetime Achievement, a Canada-Australia Literary Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and an O. Henry Award. In 2005, she was one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people.”

Yet, for all her achievements and recognition, Alice Munro remains as humble and unassuming as the characters she creates. I had the tremendous honour to meet her at a reading for her book Dance of the Happy Shades. When I told her that I was focusing my undergraduate thesis on her writing she said, “Oh my goodness, can’t you find something more interesting to do?”

— Sandy W.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, was an amazing woman, one worthy of emulation. She never let her status as a slave get in the way of her goals. She believed she was entitled one of two things: liberty or death. After escaping her “owner,” she put herself in danger many times to work as a “conductor,” rescuing others through the Underground Railroad. She also gave of her talents to help the Union Army during the American Civil War, serving as a nurse, scout and spy. Following the war, Harriet continued to fight against inequality and to offer assistance to those in need. With slavery and injustice continuing to persist, Harriet’s story serves as a powerful example and call to action.

— Susan B.

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.