Powerful Women. Powerful Books.

I wish that my reading goal for 2018 had been to read books about outstanding women because I would have fulfilled it several times over.  I know, it’s like I’m retconning my reading list goals but I read some really fantastic memoirs last year from authors like Elizabeth Hay and Terese Marie Mailhot. B.C. writer Lindsay Wong gave us the terrifically-named memoir The Woo-Woo : how I survived ice hockey, drug raids, demons and my crazy Chinese family while Michelle Obama beat U.S. publishing records this year with her warm autobiography Becoming.

Being welcomed into the lives of these outstanding women felt like a break from the everyday grind. It seemed like they were becoming new friends with each page I finished whether they were telling stories of caring for parents, children or relaying their own coming-of-age journey.  There was something to be learned from every one of these books and I think it’s possible that I might return to them again in the future, something that I love to do with books that become such good companions.

At first glance you might not consider the women in my non-fiction favourites of 2018 to be among your first choice for a companion as they include characters who use deception and, when the situation required, incredible violence to succeed.  But when I looked back at the list of novels that I adored this year I found that I had read quite a few featuring women who used their strength, determination, and wit to make their way in difficult situations – these really are perfect choices for a new friend even if they come in book form.

heresyHistorical fiction often focuses on women who need to be rescued and so many contemporary novels have a tendency to make women into victims or heroic figures – women who can ‘do it all’ and wear a snappy business suit at the same time.  The author of Heresy, Melissa Lenhardt, recently pointed out that it is no longer enough for novels to portray women as superheroes. They must also be permitted to demonstrate their need for revenge, greed, and bloodlust – just as male characters have been doing for decades.

I thought her latest novel, Heresy, about a group of female outlaws living in the American West in the 1870s seemed to spring to life the minute I began reading it.  I could almost hear the piano soundtrack while I read the first pages.  This was one of those rare books that had a story that wins me over even though I didn’t really like the concept.  She tells the story of a group of women from multiple perspectives, different time periods, and even includes a transcript of a podcast from a 2018 but this didn’t spoil the thrill of learning about the lives of Hattie La Cour and Margaret “Garet” Parker.  I loved these two women and their loyalty to each other as soon as I met them.

Hattie and Garet are the driving force behind the Parker Gang who begin robbing banks and stagecoaches after their ranch is stolen from them by their dishonest neighbour (who also tries to force Garet to marry him).  The story of either of these women would be enough to fill any epic Western but combine their crime spree with shootouts, a few bar fights, the possibility of being caught by Pinkerton detectives (one eventually joins their gang) and this is a book that would satisfy any reader.  It certainly prevented me from getting any meaningful work done while I had the book at home.  I haven’t stopped talking about it or thinking about the way that these women controlled their destiny at a time when this was not an easy choice.

a1-tqf9zzvlIn The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco the main character, Almas Rosales, is another kind of outlaw and, coincidentally, also a Pinkerton detective.  Or, was she a Pinkerton detective?  I don’t want to spoil things by revealing too much about the role Alma is meant to play in this novel but at one point it is suggested that she has been discharged from the agency for ‘bad behaviour’.  This poor behaviour serves her well because in the world of 1880s opium smuggling the skills needed to succeed include being able to use weapons, fight in dingy warehouses, wear any number of disguises and out-think criminals.

Alma Rosales is one of the most compelling characters that I have read in years and, although this novel is written as an adventure with high stakes, it was also absolutely fascinating to learn about the Washington port town.  I cheered for Alma in every gunfight, during every horrifying walk down a dark alley, and each time she made the decision to scrap with a despicable thug.  She is trying to solve a mystery– to discover the leak in the opium smuggling ring – but is also slowly being caught up in a romance with the powerful woman who heads the local operation and cleverly use this attraction to her advantage.  Alma’s choices make this a thrilling story that is worthy of a stay-up-until midnight read.  You will not regret it.

I read some other fabulous books featuring first-rate female characters this year including Madeline Miller’s Circe (you can read my review) and the amazing YA sensation by Tomi Adeyemi Children of Blood and Bone.  Sarah Bird chose the first woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers as the main character in her novel Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen and Imogen Hermes The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock was a voyage into 1870s London through the eyes of a beautiful courtesan named Angelica Neal.  She wasn’t the only person in that novel to think that creature would make her fortune but the story will capture your heart – I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

Looking ahead to the rest of this reading year I think I will continue on this streak of enjoying books featuring female characters in all their complexities – not just being rescued or becoming victims of crime.  I’ve just placed a hold on a debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson called American Spy.  It’s the story of an FBI operative who had been caught in the dull bureaucracy of 1987 until she is chosen to be part of a CIA covert operation.  The summary of this novel is fascinating but my favourite line was about how she and her sister dreamed of being secret agents when they grew up – that sounds like my kind of book.  I can’t wait to read about more mayhem, deceit, and a few fights in dingy warehouses, with women making the choices about who will be throwing the punches.  2019 is going to be an exciting year.

— Penny M.

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 Hate U Give

When I discovered The Hate U Give during its release last year, I thought to myself, “This book is going to resonate with readers and become very popular.” After 85 weeks on the NYT Bestseller List, millions of copies sold, and a movie adaptation released in theatres this week, it has become more than popular; it’s mainstream. Why? Because there are so many people around the world (and not just teens) who, like the book’s narrator, are experiencing varying forms of a political awakening.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a story of many stories. It’s a story about 16-year old Starr Carter struggling to exist between two worlds: her predominantly black neighbourhood of Garden Heights and the predominantly white suburban prep school she attends. It’s a story of her childhood best friend Khalil being brutally shot by a police officer unarmed. It’s a story of grief. It’s a story about systemic injustice. It’s a story about the realities of racism in America that persists today. It’s a story about finding your voice. And it’s a story about a community that struggles to come together against these injustices while trying to restrain their fury towards each other.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Its subject is timely, complex, and rendering. I loved how much the book focused on Starr and her family. Unlike many YA books where parents are either dead or absentee, Starr’s parents and extended family were not only consistently present but fleshed out. We not only know Momma and Daddy, but Starr’s older half-brother Seven, Uncle Carlos, Nana, and her younger brother Sekani. All of these relationships are dynamic and create a fully imagined community. Sure, Starr has a boyfriend and friends from school, but they stand on the periphery in the story. In the darkest and most tragic of circumstances, Starr’s loving family not only supported her, but empowered her too.

While this book was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement it unapologetically tackles the question of what racism looks like in America today. Many may suggest that racism is a term of the past but this book argues otherwise. Racism may not have public lynchings or signs that segregate white Americans from African Americans like it was under the laws of Jim Crow, but the segregation that separates Starr’s communities allows the persistence of endemic oppression of African Americans to continue. Racism can look like Starr’s dad being ordered to lay down with his hands behind his back for having a loud conversation with his next-door neighbour Mr. Lewis. Or it can be more invisible such as Hailey unfollowing Starr’s Tumblr account because she didn’t want to see “gross images” of Emmett Till on her dashboard. While this book doesn’t attempt to solve the problem of racism (that’s way too big a task) it does paint a complex picture of what racism looks like in America in 2017. Its picture has heavy strokes of blatant racism, tones of invisible racism, white privilege, systemic oppression, and even reverse-racism in the background.

While this book has a tragic beginning, it ends on an impassioned and empowering note. As Starr is politically awakened, she is empowered to use her voice to stand up for her community. In these perilous times we live in, Starr sets a great example of becoming an advocate even when the system always fails you. And that’s why in the Parthenon of young adult literature, Starr will continue to shine on and off the page.

— Eleni Z.

Is the RomCom Alive & Well?

One of our daughters told me that she read an article online that the RomCom is dead and the author was blaming Tom Hanks. I was so horrified that I couldn’t even look it up. I mean, really? Did this person even watch You’ve Got Mail? How about Sleepless in Seattle? Romance galore. Then our daughter wondered if she was mistaken and it might have been Hugh Grant and I gasped out loud. Not the floppy haired star of Notting Hill? What about his wonderful role in Four Weddings and a Funeral? Hugh Grant? A killer of romantic movies? Never. I loved those movies. How could Hugh or Tom be to blame for the end of one of the most delightful genres of film ever? The absolute pinnacle of meet cute occurs in Notting Hill because Anna Scott casually enters Will Thacker’s travel bookshop and then meets him later – collides with him – and he invites her to his house with “the blue door” to clean up. Oh my. Can this glorious style of film truly be finished?

And then I thought about it and realized that I’ve never really been able to convince myself that showing these movies to my own daughters is a fabulous idea. They are very sweet movies and I love them nostalgically but they don’t show a version of romance or life that I want them to aspire to. We need more than a meet cute. Falling in love because you both like school supplies and bagels is not enough even if you do have the on-screen chemistry of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The great news is that these cheerful films are still being made but in a more thoughtful way. Kumail Nanjani and Zoe Kazan wrote a semi-autobiographical film about their relationship that was so funny that I think we could call it a ComRom and I was just 100% swept away by their romance. It was beautiful, despite the fact that much of it was spent in a hospital, with Zoe’s character in a coma. We watched The Big Sick and loved it so wholeheartedly that we had to sit through all of the extra features because we didn’t want the magic to end. Okay, I was the driving force on that but it was a splendid film.

Fabulous news for fans of romantic comedies is that Kevin Kwan’s wonderful novel Crazy Rich Asians has been made into a film and will be in theatres to charm us all. It should meet the needs of both romantic and comedy perfectly but will be an updated take on this genre of film.

Main character Rachel Chu is an accomplished Economics professor who has been dating history professor Nicholas Young for a substantial amount of time when he asks her to go with him to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding (there is no meet cute in the book because they are set up by a mutual friend but in the book they are eating at Tea & Sympathy in an early scene so that is a lovely, romantic touch – maybe their delicious scones will feature in the movie?) and they pack their bags and fly together like a calm, normal couple. It’s the last average thing that they do together because Rachel is absolutely astounded to find that when she visits his grandmother for the first time she is living in a palatial home surrounded by what looks like acres of forest in the middle of a busy city. This where the comedy and the romance start to mix together in the most enjoyable way with fantastic pacing throughout the novel. I laughed and laughed and hope to do the same in the theatre.

Kwan wrote an outlandish but charming fish-out-of-water story with Rachel meeting the in-laws, going to Singapore for the first time, learning that Nick is from one of the wealthiest families in the country and participating in an almost daily battle with women who want to marry this most sought after bachelor and facing the knowledge that Nick’s own mother doesn’t approve of her. Honestly, if she weren’t perfectly sure that Nick was the first person she had ever considered spending her life with, I think she might have made a hopped on the next flight back to New York. See? New York, the home of the RomCom. Her awareness that she is the one making the decisions here, that Nick isn’t her only option for happiness, is what puts Kwan’s novel squarely in this decade and will make the screenplay a different animal from Romantic films of the past.

The first book in this trilogy (it is followed by China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems) was so instantly likable that Kwan was approached to sell the film rights before it was even published. It has been reported that he turned down one of the first offers because they requested that he change Rachel Chu’s character to a non-Asian woman so that they could more easily cast the role. By taking on the role of executive producer on this film he was able to play a part in guiding the choices made in the casting of the parts and they are absolute perfection.

Constance Wu – of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat – has the part of Rachel and she will be a force to reckon with, exactly what is required to carry this film. She will play opposite a new actor, Henry Golding, as Nick. The director of the film, John M. Chu, wanted to be sure that the film had an outstanding all-Asian cast to match this incredible book so after they announced that they had signed Constance Wu for the main role he posted a video with an international open casting call. Who could resist this guy?

They received thousands of two minute videos with the hashtag #CrazyRichAsiansCasting and combed through them to find exactly the right actors to fill their cast. The social media accounts of author Kevin Kwan, the director, the principal actors and many of the creative leads were filled with colourful tidbits of news during the months leading up to the filming and once they were on set it was thrilling to see them post photographs of the actors together on location and in their glorious couture costumes. It’s really been a treat to watch everything come together. Check out this photo from one of their cast parties – so glamorous.

crazy rich

True to Kevin Kwan’s vision, the sets, flowers, food, cars, and dresses were opulent and vibrant. According to everything I have been reading even the soundtrack and orchestration will match his vision for the story – everything is absolutely over the top. Give yourself the treat of watching the trailer. Have you already seen it? Watch it again. Watch it for Ken Jeong, Awkwafina, Nico Santos, Gemma Chan and Michelle Yeoh – and that’s just in a two and a half minute trailer. That is just a fraction of what you will see in the theatre. Can you believe it? It’s stellar.

So, are Tom Hanks or Hugh Grant to blame for the death of the romantic comedy? I really don’t know because I was too much of an ostrich to look it up. I know that I wouldn’t read it even if I found the article. I do know that I look forward to seeing this film succeed and hearing all about how Constance Wu saved the romantic comedy. Long live the meet cute!

– – Penny M.

From Horror to Hope

Two books written  about the experiences of North American Indigenous women had the power to shake my assumption, based on a lot of previous reading on the subject, that I understood the kind of pain and suffering that First Nations women and girls have endured since colonialism ripped their worlds asunder.

NotYourPrincess#NotYourPrincess, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, is a stunningly beautiful compilation of short stories and poetry, written as “…a love letter to all young indigenous women trying to find their way, but also to dispel those stereotypes so we can collectively move forward to a brighter future for all”.

Broken down into four sections, the selections take us from horror to hope, from brokenness to healing. The written words are accompanied by rich and powerful artwork and photography and compel the reader to stop and breathe in the message being relayed. The emotional intensity jumps off the page and takes your breath away, not just as an empathetic response but as a celebratory ‘high five’ for the healing that is happening and the strides that are being made.  A mere 109 pages in length, this book doesn’t ask for a huge commitment from the reader but it gives back value a hundred times over.

calling down the skyRosanna Deerchild, a celebrated author and broadcaster, has written Calling Down the Sky, a powerful poetry collection that gives voice to the generational effects of her mother’s experience as a residential school survivor. You can sense the struggle her mother feels when her daughter prods her to share her story. She is overflowing with the emotional impact  of her experience and yet overwhelmed by the telling of it.

One of my first thoughts reading Deerchild’s poems was how she used such small words and yet the message they delivered was like a punch to the gut. I could almost visualize her mother reverting back to the language of a child as she remembered the cruelty and horror inflicted on her and her fellow ‘inmates’. No flowery language required; her voice is as trenchant  as the cruelty bestowed upon them.

Both are stunning and important works of art.

— Nancy C.