The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer is a stellar debut novel for Ta-Nehisi Coates. While he has had an illustrious career in journalism, this is his first foray into fiction and he has hit a home-run! Coates’ writing style is stunningly eloquent, creating passages that transport the reader into the images and scenes created by his masterfully selected language. This is a gorgeously written piece of literature!

The story revolves around the life of Hiram Walker, one of the ‘Tasked’ on a plantation in Virginia called Lockless, owned and run by the ‘Quality’ Walker family. Once a thriving operation, the land is dying and the plantation and the ways of the gentry are facing a slow death.  We meet Hiram at a young age after his mother has been sold into bondage. He finds safe haven with a cantankerous woman in the slave village and it is during this time that he realizes that, even unschooled, he has an extremely unusual capacity to remember things. This talent brings him to the attention of the plantation owner, Howell Walker, who also happens to be Hiram’s birth father. Recognizing the tremendous gift that the boy has, Walker Sr brings the boy up to the main house to be educated and to be his white son Maynard’s servant.

This is the beginning of a journey that will take Hiram through oppressive suffering toward a future that will enable him to become a soldier in the underground war between the Quality and the Tasked. He will begin to unearth the memory of his mother, buried deep within him, that will allow his gift of ‘conduction’ to emerge, a gift that will help him to understand that freedom without love and family is bondage in its own way.

The story is based on the real life experiences of William and Peter Still, African-American brothers who were able to purchase their freedom from slavery and went on to become active abolitionists and conductors on the Underground Railroad. Fleeing For Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railway and The Underground Railroad Records are compilations of experiences of  the slaves and conductors who worked on the secret network and reflect the perils, tactics, and emotional struggles faced by the freedom seekers and fighters.

A warning to the reader: the inhumanity depicted in this story is almost beyond belief and yet multitudes of blacks have this savagery imprinted into their DNA through the generations that lived and continue to live in a country still much defined by its roots of slavery. 

— Nancy C.

In-Between Days

In-Between Days is a memoir about living with cancer. For people who are sad-averse, this subject matter would be enough to keep them away from this book. Having it presented in a graphic novel format could be the last straw for the reader sitting on the fence. However, I urge you to step outside of your comfort zone and experience this illustrated emotional, spiritual and physical cancer journey that Teva Harrison takes us on.

At the age of 37, Harrison was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, a disease that, at the time, was classified as incurable but controllable. Believing that she would be living with this disease as a chronic illness, Teva sought the help of a psychiatrist who worked in the oncology department at her hospital. Talking through her concerns led her to creating drawings of the dark emotions she was experiencing. Her doctor encouraged her to continue with this therapeutic exercise and from that encouragement, this graphic novel was born.

The reader is taken through Teva’s cancer journey from diagnosis through numerous treatments to her eventual acceptance of the incurability of the disease. The illustrations are done in black and white, which allowed her to depict her experience, both starkly and also more-lightheartedly. Visually, the drawings are stunning in their simplistic detail.

We learn of her first meeting with her soul-mate/husband David and the incredibly beautiful way their romance unfolded and the solidity of that relationship through some of Teva’s darkest moments.

Anyone who has experienced a devastating diagnosis of any kind, whether personally or alongside a friend or family member, will understand the oscillating moments of torment and hope that patients experience. The need for connection versus the need to be alone; the need to eat versus the emptiness of hunger; the need to get up and out versus the paralyzing fatigue that makes the smallest movement seem monumental. Harrison walks us through the map of the intimacies of her life with candor and humour. She was blessed with a family of exceptional women and that legacy and support was the steel in her spirit when the days seemed their darkest.

Spoiler alert. I’m not going to lie to you… by the time I reached the end, I really thought/hoped/prayed that Teva’s story would end well. And I think to a certain extent, it likely did insofar as she lived with passion and ferocity, in the face of an uncertain future. I expect that she packed more ‘living’ into her dying days than some people do in their ‘living’ days. This is a beautiful, heartbreaking and life-affirming tale told by a very brave and very talented woman.

— Nancy C.

The Stationery Shop

A stationery store is unsurprisingly the focal point in this story by Marjan Kamali which tells the tale of four families and their inextricable connections to one another.

Based in Iran from 1916 until the present, we watch the blush of young love between forbidden classes unravel against the backdrop of political conflict and rebellion.

The Stationery Shop opens in New England 2013 with an elderly couple preparing to visit a seniors home to visit someone who has yet to be identified. As the narrative unfolds, we are transported back to 1953 Iran to a stationery store owned by a kind, gentle and learned man named Mr Fakhri. His shop is an oasis of intellectual and literary treasures. It is also, as it turns out, a location where forbidden love is given a chance to blossom.

Enter the main characters Roya and Bahman, two teenagers who are instantly drawn to each other with a power neither of them understands or can suppress. The stationery shop is their nesting ground for the love that is flourished between them. When the time comes to introduce family into the picture, we find that Bahman’s mother has totally different marriage plans for her son, plans that are not to be altered.

The tale takes another turn when we are transported to Iran 1916 where a young man from the upper class falls madly in love with the melon seller’s daughter, clearly a match that will be vehemently opposed by his family who has already chosen his future bride.

The character’s stories begin to intertwine and the reader becomes aware of the interconnections of the families, and the devastation that has rained down on the ill-fated lovers. Through it all, we witness the political turmoil within Iran during the 20th century. Pro-Shah and pro-democracy groups collide throughout with deadly results. The influence of the oil-hungry western world upon the machinations of ruling parties continues to this day and weighs heavily upon the lives of the characters in this story.

This is an easy read and yet packed with romance, political intrigue, and best of all, Persian cuisine. The reader can almost smell and taste the dishes that are offered throughout.

— Nancy C.

The River

As we approach summer, here is a great read for those who long for outdoor living. In  “The River“, the story centres on two young men, Wynn and Jack, who have been best friends since their freshman year. They bonded with a similar curiosity and love for fishing, the mountains and camping.

Deciding to take a long wilderness canoe trip on the Maskwa River in northern Canada, the lads get themselves outfitted sparingly but wisely with the best quality equipment they will require during their adventure. Having done some canoeing myself, I loved reading about the gear they brought.. the utility of the cooking devices, the kind of sleeping bags and clothing, each piece chosen for the multi-faceted uses that would be required of them. They were able to live in a kind of sparse luxury. Even the food they brought was well-planned and intended to supplement a diet of fish and whatever other food that could be derived from nature.

At the outset, we find them living idyllically, paddling leisurely throughout the day and making camp as the sun ebbed. Books are a common denominator and they spend their leisure time discussing their favourite reads.

One day while out on the water, they smell smoke and as the day wears on, they come to understand that this smoke is the harbinger of peril for them. Knowing a massive forest fire is heading in their direction, they make the decision to run hard to their final destination. They try to warn a couple of Texan fisherman about the imminent danger but they drunkenly laugh it off.

The next day, en route, there is a commotion coming from the shore, the sounds of a couple arguing intensely. Making the decision not to interfere, Wynn and Jack keep a brisk paddling pace until making camp that evening. This is the part of the story when mayhem breaks out and the skills and intuitive sensibilities of these young men are tested to the limits.

Author Peter Heller’s research into forest fires, wildlife and survival training is what takes this fast-paced, well-written psychological thriller to the next level. I was absolutely glued to this book and felt emotionally spent at the end. I gave it 5 stars!!!

— Nancy C.

American By Day

Derek B. Miller is a brilliant writer!!! He has taken a typical murder mystery and peppered it with philosophical tension and relatable character development. I loved his debut book Norwegian by Night featuring Oslo Police Chief Sigrid Olegard, who he continues to showcase in American by Day. The writing in both of these stories is light-hearted and yet gripping. I found myself laughing out loud at much of the dialogue and the political and cultural references.

In Miller’s newest offering, Sigrid finds herself unexpectedly travelling from her home in Norway to upstate New York in search of her brother Marcus who, based on their father’s intuition, has gone missing. Her perspective on all things American is hilarious and yet eye-opening.

Set in 2008, just prior to the election of Barack Obama, Sigrid finds herself in the middle of a racially charged murder investigation in which her brother is thought to be the perpetrator. In spite of all of her efforts, Sigrid finds herself teamed up with the local sheriff, Irving Wylie, a man who is unusually theologically well-read and philosophically-minded for a man in his position. The discussions that follow are often hysterical and yet didactically interesting. The clash of cultures is a giant wall that seems impossible to breach and yet in spite of themselves, a glimmer of understanding cracks open the barrier that entrenches them in their ideologically based approaches to criminology.

Woven throughout the narrative is the story of the family tragedy that Sigrid and Marcus experienced as children, that being the death of their young mother. The magnitudinal impact that this event had on 11 year old Marcus underscores the cosmic difference in how these siblings related, and continue to relate, to the world.

Peppered throughout are thought-provoking discourses that range from the actual physiological changes to a person’s face while they are in the throes of lovemaking (on page 34), to the best way to approach a known and certain death (on page 232).

American by Day is a fabulous read for people who love to be able to have a perspective challenged by their casual reading choices. And while not necessarily critical to the enjoyment of this literary experience, I do recommend the reading of Norwegian by Night first. There is a lot of background information that forms much of the basis of Sigrid’s perspective and behaviour during her American adventure.

— Nancy C.

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.

The Widows

I have to admit at the outset that I struggled a bit to get into The Widows by Jess Montgomery. I don’t know if it was the book or just my attitude at the time but I came very close to bailing. However, I am glad that I didn’t as I became quite engaged with the story and the strong female characters within.

Based in 1924 Ohio coal-mining country, this is the story of two women, both young widows, who overcome the powerful grip of grief and pain to stand strong for what they believe in. Lily Ross’s husband, Sheriff Daniel Ross, had been murdered and pregnant Lily is asked to replace him as Sheriff until elections can be held to fill the role ‘properly’. Marvena Whitcomb, Daniel’s best friend, (unbeknownst to Lily) is in the throes of grieving for her own husband who was killed in an explosion at Ross Mining Company’s Mine No 9, also known as “The Widowmaker”.

Two prominent themes, still evident today, thread through this story. Both Lily and Marvena are powerfully courageous women butting up against a male-dominant societal norm that is eager to suppress and negate them.

In a town where corporate greed has been responsible for the killing and maiming of many of the town’s miners, organizing for unionization puts Marvena directly in the sights of the ruthless mine owner, Luther Ross. He will stop at nothing to suppress calls for improved conditions at his mine.

Lily too meets powerful resistance as she tries to uncover the truth about her husband’s murder. In a town where trusting someone can be a fatal mistake, these two women must find the courage to overcome their fear and join forces to uncover the truth that will set them and their community free.

All of the female characters in this story demonstrate an iron rod of internal strength and commitment to caring and nurturing their families and their community.

In the author’s notes, Jess Montgomery talks about learning that in 1925, in Vinton County Ohio, a woman by the name of Maude Collins was elected Sheriff after filling the post temporarily upon the unexpected death of her husband, Fletcher Collins. She went on to have a long career in law enforcement.

Technically, The Widows is at times well-written and then, variously choppy. I struggled off and on to keep characters straight but the underlying story was strong and some of Montgomery’s descriptions of the countryside landscapes were just gorgeous. So, I would rate The Widows 3*** for writing but 4**** for the story and the character development.

— Nancy C.

The Salt Path

If savouring the majesty of the great outdoors is not your thing, you would be well-advised to steer clear of The Salt Path. However, if you are in need of a  meandering hike on Britain’s sea-swept South West Coast Path, you will will find this wilderness romp a satisfying way to spend a winter weekend.

In The Salt Path, Raynor Winn begins this heart-breaking story by revealing that she and her husband Moth are about to lose their home as a result of an investment in a friend’s business having gone awry. After years in financially ruinous litigation to save their beloved home, the court’s final decision is a ruling not in their favour. As they huddle in a cupboard under the stairs while they listen to the bailiffs pounding on the door, they are withered by the reality that their family’s dream life is irrevocably coming to an end.

As if that isn’t enough burden to bear, they also learn that the chronic pain that Moth has been experiencing in his upper back for the last six years is actually the result of a rare disease called corticobasal degeneration which will begin to further destroy Moth’s body and mental acuity resulting in a slow and agonizing death. Losing the love of her life is a burden too onerous for Raynor to bear and she simply believes that the doctors have got it wrong.

Knowing that they have nothing left to lose, they embark on a 630 mile walk of the Southwest Coast Path from Somerset to Dorset. Their decision to wild camp along the way is borne from the fact that they have no money except for the 40 pounds the government will deposit into their account each month. Food wins over comfort and, with only the bare essentials of life in their backpacks, they begin their journey.

a1o3bibuohlTheir constant companion on the trip is a guidebook of the trail hike written by the much fitter and more experienced Paddy Dillon. They quickly come to understand that there is no chance of completing the walk within the same time parameters that Dillon did. This release of their preconceived expectations is just the beginning of the emotional and spiritual journey they both experience as their need to survive ellipses all other previous concerns that have burdened them.  The power of nature is a force that they eventually learn to stop fighting. In letting go they find that their struggle with their financial and emotional impoverishment falls away.

The Salt Path is a story of the power of love and the recognition of the interconnectedness of all things. It is a story of survival in the darkest of times and the joy of opening one’s eyes to seeing the world in a whole new way.

— Nancy C.

Starlight

Full disclosure here….. I am a HUGE fan and admirer of Richard Wagamese!! He could write out my grocery list and I am sure that I could find poetic beauty throughout. So it was with very mixed feelings that I cracked open Starlight, Wagamese’s final offering. On the one hand I couldn’t wait to delve into it but on the other, I knew it was his last and I felt profound sadness at the loss of such a master writer.

Starlight is the story of six people whose lives are connected through vastly different circumstances. Emmy and her 8 year old daughter Winnie, on the run from two brutal and callous men, Cadotte and Armstrong, find themselves forced to do what it takes to survive. Having her child collaborate in the stealing of food and fuel breaks Emmy’s heart but desperation trumps morality when it comes to keeping her child safe. It is during a failed shoplifting attempt that Frank Starlight enters their lives.

Starlight, a man at peace with himself and the world around him, offers Emmy and Winnie a safe haven and an opportunity to rebuild their lives. Along with his hired hand, friend Eugene Roth, the woman and girl are exposed to the natural wonders of the world they inhabit. They learn how to be still in nature and to learn to listen and live in the wilderness.

While this transformation is happening, the two men from whom Emmy and Winnie broke free, are driven by a boundless depth of hatred, revenge and evil to avenge the damages inflicted upon them by the woman and girl during their escape.

The juxtaposition of pure love and pure evil are strikingly presented with Wagamese’s usual powerfully poetic prose. His artful descriptions of the landscape evoke such an intense sense of peace and tranquility while his portrayal of the violence and brutality of Cadotte and Armstrong induce visceral feelings of panic and fear.

I am in awe of this master writer and his ability to take me past the written word and into the moment itself. It is a transcendent experience all the more beautiful and mournful because he has penned his last prose.

— Nancy C.

Stepping Out of My Reading Comfort Zone

I have to come clean right off the bat and admit that I almost didn’t keep The Saturday Night Ghost Club on my reading pile. Looking at the blurb, it didn’t seem to be the kind of subject matter that would normally catch my attention. I am thrilled to say that I stepped out of my comfort zone and into a gorgeously written coming of age story set against the backdrop of a derelict city called Cataract, a.k.a. Niagara Falls.

The narrator, Jake Breaker, is a neurosurgeon whose career has offered him the opportunity to delve deeply into people’s brains, knowing full well that the slightest error could cause irreparable damage to the patient. The technical details that are interwoven into Jake’s adult narrative are interesting and told with a simplicity that allows those of us uneducated in the anatomy of the brain to understand the concepts and to visualize what it must be like to be at the either end of the scalpel.

The 12 year old Jake takes us on a poignant journey of self-discovery through his membership in the Saturday Night Ghost Club, a group formed by his eccentric Uncle Calvin. With fellow club members, new kid-in-town Billy Yellowbird and his sister Rose and Calvin’s equally quirky friend Lex, who owns a video store that only sells Betamax, Jake begins a journey that ostensibly is meant to satisfy his curiosity about some of the town’s macabre urban myths but ends up stirring up the pot in a variety of life-changing ways. The summer of Jake’s twelfth year ends up being the one that introduces him to love and to the heartbreaking sadness that loss of love can bring.

At times hilarious and yet devastatingly sad, the story told from the perspective of a nerdy outsider feels poignantly real and emotionally charged. While the reader knows from the beginning that Jake has matured into a successful surgeon, one can’t help but be caught up in the dramatic pre-teen angst that culminates in the adventures of the Saturday Night Ghost Club.

Craig Davidson is establishing himself as one of Canada’s most successful and hard-working authors. Cataract City, published in 2013 was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and The Saturday Night Ghost Club is a shortlisted finalist for the 2018 Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize.

— Nancy C.