The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman

I’m fascinated with stories that seem like they could be realistically true. A lot of realistic fiction sometimes pulls me out of the story, but The Home for Unwanted Girls kept me engaged in their realistic explanation of a pregnant young woman in 1950s Quebec and the subsequent expectations of her parents and society.

The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman is a suspenseful novel that spans decades filled with love, lies, and many secrets. In 1950s Quebec, both the English and French find themselves living in uneasy and unsteady civility. Maggie Hughes is stuck in the middle of this issue with an English-speaking father and a French mother who seem to barely tolerate each other despite their large family. Maggie has grown up with high expectations thrust on her by her father. She’s expected to take over her father’s business and marry a good man, NOT the poor French boy named Gabriel who lives on the farm next door. Readers can practically predict on their own what will happen next because fictional young women live to defy their father’s wishes. Maggie soon finds herself enamored with Gabriel. When she becomes pregnant at fifteen, Maggie’s parents tell her that she has to work to get her life back on track and that means she has to put her baby up for adoption.

Baby Elodie is put up for adoption and grows up in Quebec’s orphanage system which is impoverished, dirty, and rife with issues. Elodie is bright and determined to survive the horrible treatments the nuns put her through all while anxiously waiting for her mother to swoop in, find her, and adopt her. With this precarious existence, Elodie survives, but things only manage to get worse when a law is passed that says that psychiatric hospitals will earn more funding than orphanages. Thousands of orphans in Quebec are now declared mentally ill, are shifted to other orphanages-turned-psychiatric-hospitals, and are forced to take care of legitimate psychiatric patients that are bused into the newly minted psychiatric hospitals. Elodie is finally released when she turns seventeen, but her freedom is a difficult adjustment. This new normal is an alien experience, but luckily Elodie has friends that are helping her adjust.

Maggie has never been able to forget the daughter that she was forced to give up when she was fifteen despite her family’s repeated wishes to move on with her life. Maggie married a businessman desperate to start a family. Living with him has been easy, but when he keeps pushing her to have a baby, Maggie is forced to confront him on their different wishes. Around the same time as the rocky part of her marriage comes to a head, Maggie unexpectedly reconnects with Gabriel after years of separation. Maggie is forced to choose between Gabriel and her husband.

As this novel progresses, Maggie and Elodie’s stories intertwine in unexpected ways, leaving readers to hope that each time circumstances will result in their meeting. Maggie hopes to find Elodie and quickly realizes that she needs to make a better, more focused effort to do so. Throughout this novel, Maggie works to figure out how to balance multiple life truths. The truth that was taken from her and Elodie when Maggie was fifteen haunts her. Maggie yearns for her family to be together and for everything to be out in the open.


This book is also available in the following format:

Black Irish by Stephan Talty

I have a fascination with serial murderers, the grislier the better. I snatch up books about them as quick as I can, but veer away from television shows because they seem too formulaic and predictable. The books that I have read/listened to recently have all been reliably gritty and suspenseful. I stumbled upon Black Irish by Stephan Talty a week ago and loved it.

Black Irish is delightfully gruesome and mysterious. Absalom ‘Abbie’ Kearney is a detective in South Buffalo. Even though her adoptive father is a revered cop, Abbie is considered to be an outsider in this working-class Irish American area because of her dark hair, druggie mother, mysterious father, Harvard degree, and a myriad of other reasons. Her troubled past makes her current life in South Buffalo difficult as she works to earn the trust and respect of everyone in ‘the County’. The County is full of fiercely secretive citizens who look out for their own and shun outsiders. Digging for the truth or trying to find out about her past is nearly impossible for Abbie without the help from accepted local Irish good-ol’-boy cops and detectives. Because of this, Abbie works even harder to prove herself to be more than capable and worthy of her badge, much to the chagrin of the locals.

When a mangled corpse is found in a local church’s basement, the very church that Abbie herself attended, the County finds itself unnerved. A message seems to sweep through the area. While Abbie is the lead detective on the case and is running the investigation, she finds that other detectives, and more importantly the locals, are taking it upon themselves to solve the case. The code of silence and secrecy that began in Ireland still exists in the County, making Abbie’s search for the killer even more difficult. This secrecy stonewalls her everywhere she goes, even at the Gaelic Club which her father frequents. Shaking down leads is difficult and Abbie soon finds herself receiving vicious threats and warnings.

The killer has a clear signature and with each passing day, Abbie thinks she is getting closer. With more people murdered, Abbie finds this case consuming her. While working to solve these crimes, the killer is slowly circling closer and closer to Abbie, until finally dropping into her life. Abbie is left to dig into her own past, her family’s past, how everything is related to the County, and also how the County’s secrets just may end up destroying everything in which the whole community believes.

This book hooked me from the start. The narrator uses different accents for each character which made them all easy to follow. Stephan Talty has woven a masterful examination into the cone of silence in closed off neighborhoods, even when that code hides dangerous, murderous pasts and people. I greatly enjoyed this book and can’t wait for more.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Those Girls by Chevy Stevens

I have a pretty long commute to work and as a result, I have been listening to audiobooks through OverDrive and One Click Digital in my car. (If you don’t know what either of those resources are, come in and ask a librarian or give us a call. They’re fabulous!) Anyway, I’ve been finishing an audiobook at least once a week and I have discovered I have a type. I LOVE gruesome mysteries, the more complicated a plot the better. Add in strong women who can defend themselves and I’m hooked. My latest audiobook listen fit into that plot perfectly and I couldn’t get enough.

Those Girls by Chevy Stevens is a piece of riveting suspense fiction that covers many years in the lives of the Campbell sisters: Jess, Courtney, and Dani. Their life has never been easy with their mother dying when the girls were young and their father away for weeks at a time working. The three girls live on a remote ranch and must provide for themselves when their father is gone. When he is home, they struggle to stay out of his way, as he is very abusive and has an explosive temper. One night, he comes home in a particularly foul mood and a fight gets out of hand. The sisters have to leave their home and go on the run.

On their way to a new city, their truck breaks down and the girls find themselves facing a new nightmare. What seems to be two good Samaritans offering help devolves quickly into a worst-case scenario with the girls struggling to survive. Jess, Courtney, and Dani don’t know if they will ever be able to escape this new problem or even if they will be able to come back from what has happened to them. Starting completely over in a new town with new names and new lives is their only chance at redemption, revenge, and escape from both the fight with their father and this new terror.

While this book can be a bit of a downer at times, the sisters have an extremely close bond that pulled me in and had me rooting for them to finally get what they wanted. I’ll admit that I had to start this book over twice because I found the beginning to be a little slow, but once the action picked up and I had listened to it for about 15 minutes without stopping, I was hooked. Jess, Courtney, and Dani live a horrifying, depressing, and nightmarish life, but through it all, they stick together and they know that the others will always have their back no matter what.


These books are also available in the following format:

Bizarro by Heath Corson

bizarro

Everyone loves a good superhero, right? They swoop in and save the day, leaving the public stunned at their magnificent feats of strength and good will. Not all superheroes are worshipped though. Enter in Bizarro. Bizarro is Superman’s opposite in every way. From the way he speaks to the way he flies, Bizarro is truly Superman’s mirror opposite.

In this first volume of Bizarro by Heath Corson, Jimmy Olsen, one of Superman’s friends, finds himself on a roadtrip with Bizarro from Metropolis to Bizarro America, aka Canada. Jimmy has an ulterior motive: he wants to create a coffee table book of their adventures, something that will hopefully make him lots of money. Road-tripping with Bizarro turns a little crazy when he introduces Jimmy to Colin, his pet chupacabra, and when Bizarro takes the two of them off on strange and funny adventures. This graphic novel allows readers to follow Bizarro’s mixed-up life and the messes both Jimmy and Bizarro inevitably end up entangled in. I hope future volumes will give readers more of a look into Bizarro’s back story.

Corson is giving new life to Bizarro in this first volume, highlighting all the differences between Superman and Bizarro and even giving the superstars of Metropolis multiple cameos in this book, a shout-out fans of Superman are sure to enjoy. This addition of familiar people to Bizarro’s world helped me ground and better understand this book. (The way Bizarro speaks may push you out of this book, but I encourage you to stick with it and just remember that he always means the opposite of what he is actually saying.) Happy reading!

Curling up with a Good Book

If the slowly lengthening nights and cooling winds have you longing for the perfect title to take with you under the covers, check out any one of these lush, engrossing novels.

In Amanda Coplin’s dense debut novel The Orchardist, an orchard farmer called Talmadge has been tending the same grove of fruit trees in the foothills of the Cascades for half a century. His life is changed forever by the appearance of two young sisters and the violent men who trail them. This turn-of-the-century America is as wild as it can be: a nation where solitude is genuine and there truly are places that the law just doesn’t reach.

The Crimson Petal and the White offers a lurid, intoxicating look at the oft-visited streetwalkers, orphans, and gentle ladies of Victorian England. From the high to the low, the people who make up this fabled society are brought together through the dreams of a surprisingly well-read young prostitute named Sugar. Author Michael Faber invokes the gas-lit ambiance of that era but tinges his narrative with an irresistible modernity that makes this novel unique.

Margaret Atwood is my favorite author. You probably know her for her famous dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale, but forget all about that and read The Blind Assassin instead. In this Booker Prize winner, Atwood traces the history of two sisters: Laura Chase, a novelist who dies mysteriously in her twenties, and Iris Chase, who recounts their story as an octegenarian. There is a novel within this novel, written by Laura; within Laura’s novel, there’s a novel within a novel within a novel: a science fiction tale called “The Blind Assassin” as told to Laura by her lover. It sounds impossibly convoluted, but it just works – Atwood’s genius isn’t just plotting, but stunning language: years later, sentences from this gorgeous book will still be rattling around in your brain. It’s unforgettable.

The Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town

The Kids are back in the Hall! Or at least they returned to the hall long enough to make a new 8 episode mini-series in 2008 called Death Comes to Town which is super duper funny and, of course, very Canadian.

It used to be impossible to go a day without seeing an episode of The Kids in the Hall, the Canadian Sketch Comedy show that originally aired on CBS and HBO from 1989 to 1995, and then appeared in constant reruns on Comedy Central and other cable channels. But it has been awhile since I have seen the gang altogether (comedians Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thomson) since they have all been off making other TV shows, voicing characters in Disney movies, and hosting reality shows in their home country, so I was thrilled to discover this new series sitting on our new DVD shelf.

Instead of The Kids in the Hall‘s usual short comedic sketches, Death Comes to Town is a murder mystery ala Agatha Christie meets Monty Python featuring a huge cast of characters/suspects all played by the five comedians. The story takes place in the small town of Shuckton, Ontario, when the town’s beloved mayor is killed in his home just after informing the town that they did not win the bid to host the 2028 Winter Olympics. One of the mayor’s old hockey prodigies, an recluse who hasn’t left his home in decades, decides to solve the mystery with help from the local news team and a bunch of quirky townspeople, all while a Demon repeatedly tries to kill him.

I highly recommend Death Comes to Town for all Kids in the Hall fans and for anyone who likes their humor both a little dark and very silly. And although fans may be sad not to see most of their favorite KITH characters, there is a brief cameo by the beloved Chicken Lady.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen

Idella and Avis are The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay; the girls learned early on to fend for themselves.  In 1916, their family is barely scraping out a living on a rocky potato farm in New Brunswick, when their mother unexpectantly dies in childbirth. The girls, ages seven and five, are left in the care of an overwhelmed father who turns to alcohol for comfort.  Though Dad tries to create a semblance of normalcy by hiring  a series of French Canadian housegirls, none stay for long, and after a few years, he ships the girls across the border for a short stay at a boarding school in Maine.

Idella grows up to be the responsible older sister — always caring for someone.  First, it’s for her father, after he is accidentally shot when hunting deer out of season;  later, she cares for her very contrary mother-in-law.  On the other hand, Avis is the wild one — a free spirit who likes to drink and who runs through men,  but often pays painful consequences for her impulsive choices, including a stint in prison.  Still, all is not heartbreak in this story of family ties and remarkable resilience — there are equal doses of humor and hilarity as well.

What I found most intriguing about this book is that the author, Beverly Jensen, died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, never having published a word of her writing.   So how did this book come to be?  Well, a group of supporters gathered around her work, initially getting one of the chapters of this book published as an award-winning short story.  Amazingly, the stories all fit together with convicing continuity and the author’s voice comes through loud and clear, even beyond the grave.  Every writer should have such friends.

Mounties and Robbers

Due South is one of the few prime time Canadian series to air on American tv. The cultural differences between Canada and the U.S.  in general, and the Mounties and Chicago police in particular, were a major theme. The Canadian law enforcement officer is politeness personified, while the American is well-armed and cynical.

The tone was gently absurdist. That, and the fact that it bounced all over the schedule,  led to it’s cancellation. Fortunately, though, like so many other under-rated shows, it is available on DVD through our very own PrairieCat.

Especially charming,  was that the star’s vast knowledge of just about everything was attributed to the fact that his grandparents were librarians. You gotta love that.

Mascot Mania

Vancouver Olympic Mascots

What’s a modern-day Olympics without mascots?

Well, definitely still exciting but perhaps a little less fun.  If you were able to watch any of the opening ceremony for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, the emphasis on the traditional “First Nations” was obvious.  The media and marketing moguls have carried it a bit further by designing some cute, cuddly little mascots inspired by native creatures.  Here’s a few to look for:

  • Sumi — (the mascot for the paralympic games) is an animal spirit with the hat of a whale, Thunderbird wings and the furry legs of a black bear.
  • Quatchi — a friendly, if rather shy, young sasquatch, who wisely wears boots and earmuffs
  • Miga — a mythical sea bear, who’s part orca and part Kermode bear

If you go to the official website you and your kids can play games with Quatchi and the other mascots.  I don’t know about you, but it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to competing in the Olympics!

The Armchair Traveler – Quebec

Louise Penny , a former  Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter, steeps her mysteries in the French culture of Quebec. Her Chief Inspector Gamache  series has been compared to Agatha Christie (a small village setting and large cast of characters and  surprise endings) .  In Brutal Telling, Gamache is called in when an unknown dead  body turns up in  local bistro. Penny’s skill is creating a place that is so appealing that  readers want to move there, bringing to life people you want to spend time with and describing meals that make you salivate.

Kathy Reichs works as a medical examiner in Quebec (and North Carolina). Apparently, the tv show Bones was inspired by Reichs’ work and she also works as a producer on the show.

The  heroine of her mysteries is Temperance Brennan, who, coincidentally, is a  forensic anthropologist who works in both Quebec and North Carolina. Monday Mourning is set in Montreal, where Tempe investigates the skeletons found in a pizzeria.  In this installment, her romance with detective Andrew Ryan is not going well, though the French Canadian setting is as magical as ever.