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.

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.

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell

I like to read a variety of genres and, like many readers, I have a list of my favourite authors whom I trust to give me an awesome read in their usual genre. But I also love it when an author breaks out of his or her genre to try something different.

Case in point – Robert Dugoni. He is one of my go-to authors for suspense (if you haven’t read his Tracy Crosswhite series you really must — start with My Sister’s Grave). With The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, he branches out to write a stand-alone, heart-felt coming-of-age story about a boy named Sam Hill who faces adversity throughout his life because he was born with a genetic abnormality – ocular albinism which gives him red eyes.

Sam Hill (nicknamed “Sam Hell”) is a main character readers will easily get behind. The story is told using short chapters alternating between Sam’s childhood and adulthood, where readers witness Sam’s struggles with discrimination, a ruthless bully and being a social outcast. Through it all he has the unwavering support of his two best friends and his parents but it’s his relationship with this mother, his staunchest champion, that brought a few tears to this reader’s eyes (which is no easy feat, I’m telling you).

This is an engaging and touching story that hits all the emotional buttons and will be most appreciated by those who have ever felt like an underdog. Sam’s story is about faith, loyalty, persistence and unconditional love. You’re simply going to love Sam Hill.

Note: I highly recommend you read the author’s acknowledgements at the end of the book. I loved learning about his personal connection to the story and how the idea of Sam Hill came to him.

— Laurie P.

Once Upon A River

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield is a well-written, deeply atmospheric novel and, as its title suggests, has a strong sense of folklore. One might even call it more of a Gothic fairy tale. At the heart of the story is a mystery surrounding the identity of the young girl who is found in the Thames and pronounced dead … until she isn’t.

Within the first few pages I realized I was in for a treat. Readers will immediately be drawn to Setterfield’s wonderful writing, vivid descriptions of the setting and her diverse group of characters which drive the story much more than the mystery. Much like the Thames itself, the story meanders as the various tributary subplots and characters are introduced. If readers can wade through the slower points in the middle, they’ll realize that these aspects all have purpose and are given an incredible amount of depth.

This Gothic folktale stands out for its vivid characterizations, imaginative plot and hint of fantastical things with Setterfield’s enchanting storytelling abilities easily being the highlight of this book for me. Recommended for fans of Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale.

— Laurie P.

One Day in December

A little bit comedy + a little bit drama, One Day in December by Josie Silver, will hit readers in their heart strings and funny bones in equal measure as they witness the sometimes tumultuous and complicated love life of Laurie James and her ‘bus boy’ – a man who catches her eye and her heart in one brief encounter on a December afternoon.

These two strangers experience love at first sight but are unable to meet in person at that precise moment. Their brief connection continues to haunt both of them until they suddenly find themselves thrown together but are unable to act on their feelings. The story has likable, believable characters and is a slow-burn kind of read since the story is told via different points of view over the course of a decade. The timeline and points of view are woven together well and I enjoyed getting a bird’s eye view of the interconnected relationships of these friends and lovers.

I fully admit that I am not normally a big reader of romances (I often find them to have a strong ‘ode de fromage’ feel) but while One Day in December is a light-hearted romance, it also touches on some serious topics and complicated relationships making it more than a simple love story. This is a wonderful, escapist-type read that I read in just over a day. But don’t just take my word for it. This novel has caught the eye of Hollywood actress and avid reader Reese Witherspoon who recently selected it for her popular book club.

This romantic dramedy is a perfect pick for fans of When Harry Met Sally, Me Before You and Notting Hill.

While this a lighter romantic read, the addition of its deeper moments about friendship, love, loss, regret and missed opportunities make it a book that will appeal to many different readers. It’s romance with some deeper issues, topped with some laughs, hold the cheese.

— Laurie P.

Becoming

This book was a joy to read. I’ve been a fan of Michelle Obama for quite some time. I’ve always liked her strength, her passion to help others, her positive outlook and her strong devotion to her family and this book just made me appreciate her even more.

WPL has Becoming in three formats: hardcover, large print and recorded book (CD). I listened to the CD and found Michelle Obama to be an engaging narrator who allowed her warmth, humour, compassion and honesty shine through. She is the Michelle Obama you’ve seen in interviews and with Becoming, she brings readers into her personal triumphs, losses, insecurities and struggles from her early days as a young Black girl growing up in the south side area of Chicago, to her love of education and her years at Princeton, to meeting a fellow lawyer with a ‘weird name’ and her eventual role as First Lady of the United States. Readers are privy to the Obama’s early years as a couple, Barack’s increasing involvement in politics, parenting two daughters together, his run for the presidency of the USA and their eight years living in the fish bowl that is the White House.

Michelle Obama has always seemed like a regular kinda gal to me. She’s a mom, wife and daughter who just happens to be living an extraordinary life. As FLOTUS, she has lived under public scrutiny trying to balance family life with the daunting workload that she bore as First Lady. She wanted to give their children a reasonably normal childhood and use her role as First Lady to make positive changes in the country she so clearly loves. She gives readers a bird’s eye look at her life in the White House – the unique experiences made available to her as well as the limitations to her freedom and I appreciate that she doesn’t hold back on her opinions on some of the issues that have plagued and still plague the US.

Throughout the book Michelle Obama is well-spoken, genuine and she comes off as relatable and often inspirational as she shares personal anecdotes that show her fears, loves, struggles and accomplishments. Some of her anecdotes had me grinning, relating to her thoughts as a wife and mother, while several caused me to tear up as I listened to her speak about the devastation and loss her country has faced.

This is a moving, powerful and reflective book that readers, especially women and those who have ever felt unseen and ignored, will appreciate. You don’t have to be a Democrat (or even an American – says this proud Canadian) to enjoy this book. If you weren’t a fan of Michelle Obama’s before, you will be after reading Becoming.

— Laurie P.

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 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.

Gifted: keep the Kleenex close

Gifted is a touching story about family (in all its many, complicated forms), loss, forgiveness and helping children reach their potential in the various aspects of their lives. It’s the story about a young girl named Mary whose uncle is dedicated to raising her to be a normal child. But Mary isn’t normal. She’s a math prodigy whose family has more than their fair share of baggage.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie but picked it up at WPL because, let’s be honest, Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer are in a movie together. Did I mention Chris Evans? But I digress … I knew very little about this movie before popping it in my DVD player but was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I became engaged in the lives of this family.

This film has got a lot of heart, a touch of humour and, like I mentioned, a truly stellar cast. We have Chris ‘Captain America’ Evans as Frank Adler, the uncle who is trying to do his best to raise his young and brilliant niece so that she leads a normal life. I enjoyed seeing a new, tender side to Evans and I liked that he got to exercise his acting chops more than his biceps in this movie.

gifted-648673583-largeThen you have Oscar winner Octavia Spencer who is always captivating and could play a potted palm that would leave me slack jawed in awe of her. The only person in this film who can hold a candle to Ms Spencer may be young McKenna Grace who plays Mary Adler, the 7-year-old child at the heart of the movie. Wow, can this girl act. Grace is as talented as her eye lashes are long. Her portrayal of the precocious, brilliant young girl is wonderfully natural, touching and believable. She vacillates between childish innocence, a spunky attitude, a wee case of potty mouth and shows viewers Mary’s extraordinary brilliance which is well beyond her years. The deep connection between Evans and Grace comes through to the audience and I recommend that viewers keep some Kleenex handy.

The cast of characters also had a complexity to them that I wasn’t expecting. This is a complicated family situation filled with emotion, power struggles and grief. You’ll feel for Frank as he struggles to figure out what is best for Mary in the wake of family upheaval that threatens to damage the bond between them.

Overall, this is a wonderful little movie that is endearing, poignant and shows the complexities of family. You will quickly become wrapped up in the lives of Frank, Mary and even Fred, their one-eyed cat. I highly recommend this movie.

— Laurie P.