Friday, November 30, 2012

Out of the Blue

Jan Wong

Jan Wong’s self-published book Out of the Blue is a sobering read. Focusing on the tragic circumstances of her descent into the hell of depression and anxiety following vitriolic criticism of her Dawson shooting coverage, Wong provides an incredible overview of the research and the lived experience of this debilitating condition. The dragging, all-encompassing ability of depression to snuff out hope and true rational thought is brilliantly described and analysed in Wong’s work.

Her chaotic fear of a possible sniper—a sobbing mess, she races from her own garage to the doorstep of her home, screaming to be let in—is a tipping point. And Wong’s brilliant but tragic recounting of her journey accompanying her son on a Scandinavian hockey tour is one of her many reflections on the destructiveness of the disease on family life.

Wong’s horror at not being able to write as a result of her illness, her skewed logic, and her uncharacteristic memory lapses are painstakingly described. I found Wong’s descriptions all the more vivid, having also suffered a major depressive episode; however, I was lucky to have an employer who supported me and my recovery. Wong unveils the shocking cut-throat corporate culture of the Globe and Mail and its grossly unsympathetic handling of mental illness.

Out of the Blue celebrates the fighting spirit of a journalist whose curiosity and critical thinking skills never fully desert her, but it is also a call to demand more humane work environments where recovery is possible and, even more crucially, where prevention is considered an essential  part of productivity.

- Rossyln Bentley

The Dog Stars

Peter Heller

Peter Heller’s fiction debut removes any doubt about his writing ability. Already well known for his non-fiction adventure writing, Heller’s background makes The Dog Stars stand out in a sea of dystopian literature. Set in the distant future after a renegade virus has decimated humanity, the novel follows Big Hig as he spends his days patrolling the skies surrounding the airplane hangar in which he has been squatting for the past nine years. Days and nights blur together until he discovers signs of friendly contact from an air traffic station at Grand Junction. With nothing left to lose, he embarks in his faithful 1956 Cessna to try to find some semblance of human connection, only to uncover much more than he bargained for. The Dog Stars focuses less on the shock of humanity’s demise and more on the psychological warfare survivors must endure each day. It’s also a surprisingly poetic book, reading more like a diary than a straightforward narrative. If you’re into post-apocalyptic scenarios, you’ll definitely be hooked. And if you’re not, I’d still recommend it for the fact that it’s very well-written and researched.

- Dallas Dunstan

Friday, November 23, 2012

I've Got Your Number

Sophie Kinsella

Shopaholic fans will be pleased to know that Kinsella has performed chick lit magic yet again. Poppy, our sweet (if slightly misguided) heroine, has just lost her heirloom engagement ring at a hotel and had her phone stolen. In a blind panic—How will the hotel staff contact her?!—she finds a cellphone in the garbage and claims it. Of course, when the owner, Sam, realizes his cell phone is in someone else’s hands and Poppy begins to read his emails, take his messages, and stick her nose into his life, the real hijinks begin.  I’ve Got Your Number is an amusing love story for our tech-obsessed times. What happens when two people are forced to share the intimacy of a phone? The fun is in finding out.

- Lindsay Rainingbird

Life Is About Losing Everything

Lynn Crosbie

Well known for her blunt sardonic prose, Lynn Crosbie does not disappoint in this semi-autobiographical assemblage of vibrant vignettes. Her minimalist, pithy style resonates throughout this novel, offering both humour and sentiment.  With superb craftsmanship Crosbie creates a portrait of herself that aptly captures the meaning behind her title.  Recounting experiences of loss, bereavement, everyday disappointments, and the rediscovery of herself in the process, Crosbie manages to sneak in small snippets of hope and contentment, so that her overall message is not one of loss, but of the formation of our identity that occurs through the experience of loss. Crosbie creates a collage of these vital snippets from life, sometimes messy, and most of the time jagged, but always infallibly honest in their delivery.

- Sarah Walker

Assholes: A Theory

Aaron James

Aaron James is a political philosopher at UC-Irvine, and despite its eye-catching title and mass appeal, Assholes: A Theory is indeed a piece of philosophy. I expected this going into the book, but I still thought I would find James’s tongue planted firmly (or at least gently) in cheek. But this is sincere work, and contains some genuinely valuable philosophy. It does lack some of the rigour associated with contemporary analytic philosophy, and in the acknowledgements James admits to having “relaxed” his standards to some extent. But James also shares, like me, the skepticism most professional philosophers feel about “pop philosophy,” and I must say that his book fares extremely well in this regard, compared with some of the lay philosophy churned out over the last decade or so.

James’s subject is the asshole, the person who (wrongly) believes himself—assholes are almost invariably male—to be worthy of special treatment due to an entrenched sense of entitlement. Entire chapters are spent discussing this definition itself, and there are also chapters on how assholes differ from mere “jerks” or “pricks,” assholes and gender, and how assholes can negatively impact capitalism, including a game-theoretic appendix on the subject. What we are not given is much useful advice about what to do about assholes. This is partly because James is a bit despairing on the matter, but I can’t help but think that more productive work on “asshole management” is indeed possible, at least on a philosophical level.

- Bill Cameron

Quiet: The Power of Introverts

Susan Cain

Susan Cain spent five years officially—and her entire life unofficially—researching Quiet. This self-proclaimed introvert set out to write a book that would empower the quieter half of the population and increase awareness among parents, teachers, and employers.

As part of her extensive research, Cain visited an evangelical mega church, Harvard Business School, and a Tony Robbins seminar. While visiting the church, Cain discovered that “evangelical churches often make extroversion a prerequisite for leadership.” Some parishes even check Myers-Briggs scores and think twice “if the first letter isn’t an ‘E’ (for extrovert).” At Harvard, one of the students commented, “Good luck finding an introvert around here.” After watching Tony Robbins perform, Cain concluded that he has a “hyperthymic temperament, a kind of extroversion-on-steroids.”

I put on my teacher hat and paid particular attention to the interviews Cain conducted with Asian-American students living near Cupertino, California. While they excelled academically, many of these introverted students struggled with class participation and hit a brick wall in workplaces where “loudness and speaking out are the keys to popularity and financial success.”

Cain also interviewed successful introverts who have learned to survive and thrive in highly-charged workplaces. In fact, Susan Cain herself is a great example of an introvert who has managed to adapt, since she would never have be able to publish Quiet if she hadn’t convinced her publisher she was enough of a pseudo-extrovert to promote it. Cain helps us to understand the unique things introverts have to offer, and helps introverts to better understand themselves.

- Joanne Guidoccio

Shadow of Night

Deborah Harkness

With Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness continues the complex tale she began in A Discovery of Witches, the first book of her All Souls trilogy, tracing the search of Matthew Clairmont, a centuries-old vampire, and Diane Bishop, a witch, for the magical manuscript Ashmole 782 throughout the continent of Europe, and through time itself.  Time-walking back through history to the Elizabethan period, when Matthew was a very different man (and vampire), Diana must learn how to control her burgeoning powers without destroying herself or those around her as she searches for the elusive manuscript.

Matthew’s personal experience of the past and Diana’s historical expertise allow them to navigate the tumultuous time period they walk into.  Through England, France, and Czechoslovakia, they interact with historical friends and foes, trying to keep Diana’s cover and gain the information that they need.

There’s much less tea-drinking in this book than the first, but more historical fact and action.  Matthew and Diana must learn (and relearn in Matthew’s case) how to act in a very different time.  Their relationship is pushed to the limit as they become accustomed to their new roles in society and the danger they face as a married witch and vampire.

If you loved A Discovery of Witches, you’ll eat up this second book of the trilogy. Following Matthew and Diana on their journey, you become caught up in their lives together as husband and wife, watching Diana as she struggles with her unpredictable and potentially dangerous powers and Matthew as he meets old friends.

- Lindsay Ly

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn

A novel that would twist even Shakespeare’s mind!  Gillian Flynn has written an intriguing, dark, and intoxicating murder mystery about a criminal mastermind who is always a few steps ahead of his victims. In Gone Girl, Amy Dunne, the wife of Nick Dunne, disappears in what appears to be a home invasion on her fifth wedding anniversary. The police suspect foul play and the main suspect quickly becomes Nick, who is no husband of the year.

Nick expresses his innocence even when all the clues lead to him. His lying, deceitful, and laid-back behavior around his wife’s disappearance does not help him either.  As Nick has both the press and the police against him, he finds himself caught up in his own lies and teaming up with his twin sister Margo to prevent himself from going to jail. Police continue to find clue after clue: a silver box with a treasure hunt designed for him by his wife, a bleached kitchen with blood residues, a diary written by his compulsive, type-A personality wife, who is just as manipulative as Nick. The clues lead only to one option: Nick took Amy. But why are the clues so perfect that they leave no other option but Nick? Whoever said marriages are happily ever after never met this competitive, ambitious, vengeful couple.

Written from the perspective of both husband and wife, Gone Girl is intriguing and leaves you wanting to know more. Flynn offers a unique perspective into both the criminal’s and the victim’s mind. With a complex, original, and compelling plot, Gone Girls is definitely a must read for mature adults!

The Selector of Souls

Shauna Singh Baldwin

“A taste of sweetness” is the definitive feminine quality women bring to the world, reflects Damini, one of the two main characters in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s latest novel, The Selector of Souls. Yet it is sweetness that Damini is unable to taste following her desperate actions at the novel’s opening. In this richly layered book spanning 1994 to 2005, the at first parallel and then entwined stories of Anu and Damini are deftly recounted.

The novel is full of often violent contrasts: male and female, sweeper caste and VIP, Catholic versus Hindu and Sikh. The women are caught in India’s intense conflicting facets of culture, faith, and caste. They experience the fact that “one woman’s story is nothing like another’s” and yet they both struggle to assert themselves against the dominant culture so focused on men. “A boy, a boy, everyone wants a son,” complains Vikas, Anu’s abusive husband, at the birth of their daughter Chetna. The extremes within Indian culture are exposed, from the odious “gendercide” practices of girl-child abandonment, sex selection by ultrasound, wife beating and honour killings, bride price and dowries on the one hand, to karma, reincarnation, the warmth of extended family, and the comfort of close rural roots and shared hardship on the other.

The novel’s climax coincides with the India’s emergence as a nuclear power, closely followed by Pakistan’s—the hell to India’s heaven or is it vice versa? The constant clash of nations is set against the war of the sexes and the war between the landowners and the village peasants, each doomed; each relationship seems to repeat patterns of intolerance. Yet within the novel, an elemental female force returns the possibility of balance to the world. Anamika Devi, the essential female goddess, is worshiped through a few rupees thrown in a simple pot. The cave she occupies, however, houses two pivotal scenes in the novel and holds surprises as mysterious as the echo in E. M. Forster’s Marabar Caves in A Passage to India.

Singh Baldwin, in the great Indian tradition, weaves a story splendid in details and majestic in scope. You may find yourself in search of some sweetness to leaven the bitterness, but you will not easily forget this perceptive tale.

- Rosslyn Bentley

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Skin and Bones Time: The Hunger Angel

Herta Muller

In a Stalinist labour camp, the hunger angel is not a guardian of souls, but a demon that drives the starving mad.  He sits on the heart-shaped shovel and measures out the lives of the digging prisoners, each load of coal equaling one gram of bread.  Before people die, hunger fur grows in the hollows of their cheeks; the ghost of a hare appears in their faces.

At the end of World War II, Leo Auberg is deported to a gulag only because he is a Romanian-born German. He survives through his love of words and his hunger-fuelled, hallucinatory consumption of life.  Everyone at the camp has hunger words: words that they feed on, names of foods, and memories—their escape words.

The lyricism and inventiveness of Herta Muller’s writing make this heartbreaking book palatable. It is divided into anecdotal chapters, like small bites, which makes the story easier to digest. The details, which could only be witnessed by someone in a gulag, are astonishing: a cap taken off during a roll call freezes to the ground and has to be pried off;  bread is traded by the desperate prisoners because as it dries its appearance shifts, making some pieces appear bigger than others; the gob of shaving foam blown off a barber’s hand by a sigh lands between his galoshes, which are tied at the ankles with copper wire.

Herta Muller, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009, based her novel on the experiences of her mother and of a poet friend, Oskar Pastior.  The gulags were a taboo subject in Romania until the fall of communism.

- Kasia Jaronczyk

Catherine the Great

By Robert K. Massie

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert K. Massie has produced a masterful biography of one of the greatest political leaders of the eighteenth century, a century of great empires and powerful leaders.

We witness Catherine’s convoluted ascent from obscure German nobility onto the world stage as Matushka, mother of all Russia. Drawing on extensive memoirs and letters, Massie provides insights into the Empress’s thinking as she schemes and manipulates friends, lovers, and adversaries.

Intensely ambitious and intelligent, Catherine applied her brilliant diplomatic and political skills to making Russia a great power, also amassing one of the world’s great art collections. She embraced the Age of Enlightenment, developing friendships with Voltaire and Diderot. She spent two years creating a new code of laws for Russia, inspired by the writings of Montesquieu. She even considered freeing the serfs, but fears raised by the French Revolution and the Pugachev rebellion in Russia quickly ended such thoughts.

In various ways Catherine’s lovers strongly influenced her reign. In collusion with Prussia’s Frederick the Great, she manipulated her former lover, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, first installing him as King of Poland-Lithuania, later dismantling his realm, which completely disappeared for more than a century, enlarging her own empire in the process. Grigory Orlov, an influential military officer, was instrumental in the overthrow of Catherine’s estranged and mad husband, Emperor Peter III, who reigned for only six months, and in her accession as absolute monarch.

Grigory Potemkin, her lover and principal advisor for 17 years, put down the Pugachev rebellion, and in military action against the Ottoman Turkish Empire, secured the Crimea and Black Sea coast as Russian territory.

In a review in the New York Times, Kathryn Harrison described Massie as “a biographer with the instincts of a novelist.” I certainly found his book to be a page-turner.

- D’Arcy McGee

The Green Shore

Natalie Bakopoulos

Greece is a special place, a personal Elysian fields--golden, warm, with air perfumed by the scents of the Mediterranean. Place this paradise in a vice of fear: in 1967, just twenty-three years after Nazi occupation, a military junta brings its might to bear on a populace of “people doing their jobs, not wanting to make a scene.”

Despite the terrible familiarity of “the energy it takes to stay below the radar” and the knowledge that to think is a crime in itself, the more mature characters in Natalie Bakopoulos’s intense first novel, The Green Shore, feel torn by their wishes for liberty, stability, and protection of family and self. Typified by the radical poet Mihalis, their reaction to oppression is to suppress feelings and avoid arrest. The resulting tension becomes unbearable: Mihalis eventually bursts out from his mild expressions of resistance to full-blown confrontation, which in turn leads to his arrest and subsequent torture--all described in an eerie calm of disassociation.

Sisters Sophie and Anna mature personally and sexually, and the novel draws parallels between the unpredictable and explosive qualities of political action and their burgeoning sexual natures. In Sophie’s case the forbidden thrill of political action drives her from the bosom of family and homeland to the cold, rainy haven of Paris. The reunification of the family at the novel’s close provides a further sense of the story as a classic tale. Bakopoulos’s ability to create a compelling family saga in an intriguing oppressive context makes this novel a fascinating read.

- Rosslyn Bentley

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Carsten Stroud

If Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie co-wrote a supernatural detective story, you'd probably end up with something like Carsten Stroud's Niceville. Titled after its setting, the story begins with the sudden vanishing of a little boy (not a figure of speech—he literally disappears) and the killing of several police officers. The effects of both events spread out, affecting the lives of 21 different characters throughout the course of the story, interconnecting them in a complex web of secrets and conspiracies that have their roots back at the turn of the twentieth century.

I mention Tarantino because of the book’s snappy dialogue. The conversations are quippy and entertaining, effectively holding the reader’s attention. The Ritchie parallel comes from Stroud’s ability to string together so many storylines in ways that interconnect like a fascinating puzzle box, granting multiple eureka moments to readers as we're given tantalizing bits of info with which to try and stitch together our own answers.

It's difficult to classify Niceville as a single genre because the book makes effective use of a cornucopia of different tropes. It's a noir mystery structured like a morbid comedy-of-errors and ridged with a number of increasingly creepy horror elements, with the use of the latter being one of the most impressive features of the book. Stroud makes use of minimalistic, Hitchcock-type storytelling, constantly threatening to show you what's in the bag rather than actually doing it. Vague descriptions and the reader's fear of the unknown do most of the dirty work to produce spine-ascending chills at regular intervals.

If I had any complaints about Niceville, it would have to be the inconsistent characterization. Including 21 fully fleshed-out characters could result in a tome more usable as a murder weapon  than reading material, but several characters feel like rushed, two-dimensional, caricatured plot devices more than actual people. Though Stroud's prose makes them fun nonetheless, switching from the more fully-realized characters to flatter characters was sometimes jarring enough to break my immersion in the book. Despite weighing in at over 400 pages, Stroud’s pacing is brisk enough that hours can pass in a blur while the reader investigates the labyrinthine events of his yarn.

Niceville is an inventive little gumbo of classic narrative elements, strung together in a way that’s creative enough to satisfy even the most cynical of readers. Events and people gradually form a complex web, like clues a crime investigator might pin on a bulletin board and connect with red yarn, stringing you along from one chapter to another. You’ll soon find yourself another 150 pages in and wondering where the time has gone. Well-paced, wittily written, and meticulously thought out, Niceville is definitely worth a look for any fans of horror, noir, comedy, or just plain good writing.

- Vincent Smith

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery.    

In Praise of Messy Lives

Katie Roiphe

Reading Katie Roiphe is like a drink of Campari and grapefruit, bittersweet and bracing. She’s the sort of person who’d be a good friend, but never your best friend. Thoughtful, considerate, yes, but a little too astringent, a little too willing to be dead honest, a little too sarcastic, a little too ready to see the ridiculous in the things you thought you admired.

Thank goodness we still have essayists, and books of essays; that we haven’t all crawled up the navel of novels, or nonfiction, but still have people like Roiphe dedicated to just writing opinion.

What’s she on about? Pointless babies, American travelers, benighted relationships, Didion, Austen, the incest card, Sontag, Updike, modern urban life, the benighted Internet, being a dominatrix.

There is so much she finds questionable, but so much she wants to appreciate. Her approach/avoidance for everything is one long invigorating tone poem.

- Peter Ferguson

Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Michael Pollan

The Omnivore’s Dilemma demonstrates how disconnected we have become not only from our food but from how and where it is produced. Split into three parts, Michael Pollan’s book first takes us through the rise of corn, a plant that led to human domestication and now permeates every part of our modern lives. He then looks at industrial organic agriculture, how it is practiced, and what the word “sustainable” really means. Finally, Pollan makes the case that food is much more than just calories and nutrients, and explores the idea that we may be missing out on the health benefits imparted by culture and tradition that were once an integral part of our diets. Written as a first-person account of food exploration, with humour and insight, Pollan’s book is as entertaining as it is informative. The Omnivore’s Dilemma will help you to see and appreciate your food in a new way.

- Mark Kubert

Friday, November 2, 2012

Daughters Who Walk This Path

Yejide Kilanko

The path of womanhood is not an easy one. A woman must withstand the heat of oppression under her feet and overcome the obstacles of gender bias ahead. At the same time, detours and derailments can determine a woman’s fate—they can make her either victorious or a victim of circumstance.

Yejide Kilanko’s coming-of-age novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path, introduces us to Morayo, the heroic narrator who indeed walks that path of oppression and gender bias among women in Nigeria. Growing up, Morayo had to deal not only with having an albino for a younger sister, but also with the social and traditional stigmas of femininity imposed by her conservative parents. As she walks this path of womanhood, Morayo is definitely not prepared for the derailment concocted by her cousin, Bros T, and the effect it would have on her in the long run.

But one cannot walk such a hard path alone. Morayo’s cherished aunt, Morenike, befriends her. Morenike has walked a similar path of abuse and shame, but lives to steer Morayo on the road to empowerment.

As a Ghanaian, I can relate to Nigerian conventions, such as conservative parents who favour males over females when it comes to breadwinning. But through Morayo’s obstacles Kilanko does a great job highlighting gender issues in Nigeria. The novel is broken into five parts. Morayo narrates the majority, while Morenike’s account is described in third person. Kilanko does a great job switching from first-person to third; both characters go through the same struggle, but it is Morayo who lives on with the lessons learned.

Daughters Who Walk This Path indeed encourages women to determine whether they will be victors over or victims of the obstacles in their lives.

- Raynika Awotwi

Age of Miracles

Karen Thompson Walker

Waking up on a Saturday morning was never this stressful. Julia and her family in suburban California have recently discovered that something has happened to the earth’s rotation: it has begun to slow. The days are getting longer and longer, birds are dropping out of the sky, and in the midst of global devastation, Julia is coping with the normal catastrophes of ordinary life—changes in her parents’ relationship, problems with her friends, first love, and the struggle to adapt to her new life in an altered world.

I knew I was in love with this book as soon as I read the first sentence. The story just escalated from there. The plot line is so interesting and the writing is so perfectly executed. This book is definitely an original. I love Julia because she’s just trying to manage her life as best as she can under the most unordinary circumstances. I can relate to her so well, not because the earth’s rotation has begun to slow but because she’s struggling with her friends, feelings, and parents. If you want a good read, then I suggest you read this one because this book doesn’t disappoint. Fantastic read!

- Christina Marchese

A Discovery of Witches

Deborah Harkness

This is a book to devour. With a love of mystery, history, fantasy (witches and vampires), and drinking tea, I was caught up immediately in this story, which left me wanting to read the next two parts of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy as soon as I had finished it.

Harkness weaves a complex tale about Diana Bishop, a witch who has refused to use her abilities since the brutal murder of her magically talented parents. Thrusting herself into her research at Oxford, Diana discovers a historic text, Ashmole 782. With that discovery, she sets loose ripples of power that affect witches, vampires, and demons around the world, setting them all on the lookout for her and the document. She knows that the text is important, but has no idea how or why.

Among those looking for her is the brilliant, centuries-old vampire, Matthew Clairmont. His elegant and sophisticated mannerisms balance out his feral, brutal tendencies, which come from years of fighting in wars and his inherent vampire nature. Using their wit and resources, Diana and Matthew seek to discover the importance of Ashmole 782 and stay alive.

The historical facts that Harkness employs in A Discovery of Witches add a rich level of detail, making the story even more compelling for people who love historical fiction. Tea lovers will find a kindred spirit in Diana and her love of a good cuppa. The only issue I had with reading this book was the desire to drink tea every time Diana did, which was a lot. Readers can continue to follow Diana’s adventures in the second volume of the trilogy, Shadow of Night.

- Lindsay Ly