Monday, February 25, 2013

The Chalice

The Chalice
Nancy Bilyeau

In The Chalice, the reader is transported back to the England of 1528, a country before the Reformation. The story centers on protagonist Joanna Stafford’s challenge to find her place in the world after the dissolution of her priory and her quest to fulfill her destiny. The Chalice follows on from a previous book, The Crown, by the same author, but each story is independent of the other.

Joanna’s parents are a wealthy English Nobleman and a Spanish woman who came to England as a maid of honour to Katherine of Aragon. Joanna too has been to court as a maid of honour to the queen, arriving on the day Henry VIII asked Katharine of Aragon for an annulment; Joanna leaves court that same day after being attacked by George Boleyn, the brother of Anne, the future Queen. This attack causes Joanna to sink into a depression, and her mother takes her to a convent where a nun lives who has exhibited the power to heal and foretell the future. The seer gives Joanna a prophesy, and so begins Joanna’s quest to seek out two more prophesies from two other seers to save the life of the king and to return the country to the one true faith.

The book interweaves historical fact with fiction, and this makes for an enjoyable and believable read. This was an engrossing thriller that went along at a good pace; the characters and conditions of living at that time were well described, as were the trials of being a woman at a time in history when they had few individual rights.

People familiar with the history of England and the Reformation will find this book fascinating, as it interweaves the stories of several of the most powerful men of the time, adding to the historical background of the story. The historical detail is accurate and the writing conveys a real sense to the reader of the feelings of mistrust, conspiracy, and ambition that were evident in such a turbulent time in England and Europe. The Chalice was a most enjoyable read, and I was sorry when the story ended, and would recommend this book for young adults, older readers of historical fiction, and people interested in sixteenth-century England.

- Catherine McGratton

Bookshelf Home

The Antidote

Oliver Burkeman

I often recall a conversation I once had with my sister, at the time Executive VP for HR in a large re-insurance firm.  She mentioned a mail-room worker who was constantly purchasing anything Anthony Robbins published and going to seminars, and was an extremely positive thinker. “The sad thing is,” she said, “He’ll never get out of the mail room. He just doesn’t have it.”

In a nutshell, there’s the problem: contrary to what many believe, positive thinking doesn't necessarily lead to positive change. Sometimes, in fact, it leads to the opposite. Burkeman covers that, as well as issues such as happiness, goal setting, security/insecurity, failure, and death. In every chapter he presents evidence that the way we’ve been programmed to think may, in fact, not be the best way. For instance, in the chapter “The Safety Catch,” he talks about why the World Values Survey (among other research) has consistently found the world’s poorest countries to be among the happiest. In this chapter and others he discusses the work of philosopher Alan Watts, and throughout the book mentions thinkers from Pema Chödrön to Émile Coué to Epictetus.

This was a somewhat difficult book to read, in that it challenges ideas and beliefs that we are taught virtually throughout our lives.  Rethinking, and possibly changing, things you've always "known" takes some effort.

Recommended reading for anyone who is not interested in having their mind run in the same rut all their life.

- Steve Lidkea

Back to Blood

Tom Wolfe

Be careful what you wish for, they say. In many ways, Back to Blood is about the unintended consequences of getting what you want. Wolfe throws together a Cuban cop who yo-yos between hero and pariah, his on again/off again girlfriend, a sex therapist, the staff of a major newspaper, a Russian painter fond of drink, and his patron—a Russian oligarch with aspirations. It’s the story of how one cop deals with the repercussions of his heroics on himself and the people around him. His story is set against the larger mystery of an expensive and suspicious gift to a local art museum by a wealthy Russian.

Wolfe’s cast are nothing alike, save one thing: they’re all trying to escape from their muddy past to their bright, shining future. The problem each of them faces is the present. They’re all locked in a work in progress under the blistering Miami sun. That makes them all infuriating and yet intriguing. It’s also what makes Back to Blood worth reading. In some sense, we’re all a work in progress.

Can I recommend Back to Blood? I found the first chunk of the book quite frustrating, but as Wolfe drew the threads of the story together, I found the end ultimately satisfying. I think you might enjoy it too, if you’re prepared to stick it out. I think you’ll want to.

- Danny Williamson

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Blind Giant

Nick Harkaway

Coming into this book, author Nick Harkaway had a long way to go to win me over. Its premise, as communicated on the book jacket and first section, creates the impression that it is yet another alarmist rag about how digital culture is ruining some aspect of the human experience. Luckily, I resisted my urge to set the book down and ask my editor for one which I would not so readily spew vitriol at. Instead, I discovered a pensive little gem which offers a unique and insightful perspective on the friction accompanying the radical shift to digital culture. In doing so, it explores what these conflicts reveal about what we hold dear, what motivates us, and, as the title says, what makes us human.
Harkaway's approach to the issue embodies, in my mind, the best kind of philosophy: instead of pointing at one thing (in this case, the Internet) as the harbinger of our doom, he digs deeper to examine why we react in such an extreme fashion to these societal shifts in the first place. Is it the breakneck pace of contemporary day-to-day life? The overflow of stimuli that bombard us moment-to-moment? The threatening of our privacy as our personal membranes become increasingly permeable and security issues become more difficult to navigate? The Blind Giant's response is that, while useful, each of these answers only addresses the presenting symptoms of a deeper disorder. Using them instead as clues to the root of the problem, Harkaway investigates prominent issues such as media piracy, privacy, and information overload with a level of nuance and bipartisanship that few writers on new media have delivered. An active citizen of the Internet (an avid World of Warcraft player and prolific blogger with a significant web presence), Harkaway skilfully switches between expressing wide-eyed wonderment at the possibilities offered to us by the existence of the Internet and warning readers about the chilling abuses it has the potential to facilitate.

What I found most impressive about The Blind Giant was how it connected proximal issues like the ones noted above with the more ultimate themes of human experience. Harkaway suggests that we feel overwhelmed because the reach of the outside world through our informational streams represents a violation of the concept of hearth and home which we have held static for so long. He believes that media creators are finding it so difficult to curtail piracy and falling profits because they are struggling to adapt to a business model where the consumer has vastly more control over acquisition and consumption of goods—where the decision to buy a product or support a company is based more on a model of gift-giving and good will, and a more direct, intimate relationship between consumer and creator.

This is the kind of eye-opening, lateral thinking brought forth in this book, bolstered by fastidious research inspired by a variety of disciplines, from philosophy to economics, social psychology, and engineering. Take care in picking up The Blind Giant, for you may find yourself with a library's worth of additional reading from all of the interesting references cited. For me, it has accomplished the impressive feat of leaving me both more informed about the world we live in, and optimistic that we as humans can make the most of it. That alone makes it worth a recommendation.

- 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.    

This is How You Lose Her

Junot Diaz

“I’m not a bad guy.” This first line sets the stage for Junot Diaz`s latest collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her. Who is this person and why start on the defensive? The narrator is Yunior (who tells eight of the nine stories in the book), a Dominican-American who serves as Diaz`s literary alter ego. Diaz is a dazzling writer. There is a velocity to his writing. His words fly off the page at you. You hear his voice speaking to you more than you feel like you are reading his words.

On the surface, This is How You Lose Her is a book about an immigrant finding his way in a new country, but the real story is about Yunior’s search for love. Yunior is smart and funny and self-aware; he sees his flaws and struggles with them. This search culminates beautifully in the final story, “A Cheater`s Guide To Love,” where we see him unravel and then try to piece him himself back together. It is a modern masterpiece of the short story form.

Diaz reminds me of another writer, Sherman Alexie. Both are dynamic, funny, and profound, telling us tales from the other side of the American Dream. Riveting stuff.

- Brendan Johnson

The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern

We're in the middle of winter now, and what better way to spend a cold snowy day than to attend a circus? Not just any circus, but The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Oh wait, I almost forgot. The Night Circus is not real (though I wish it was).

Although Morgenstern’s circus is fictional, she has certainly perfected the art of making fantasy a reality. Her storytelling is simple—Morgenstern places the reader in a world where imaginings are more than just figments. The pacing is liquid on paper. Morgenstern keeps the reader guessing from the beginning to the end without overdoing it. The novel reads like a dream, as if Morgenstern is an illusionist herself.

The Night Circus focuses on the lives of two illusionists-in-training, Celia and Marco. The big plus this book scores is the well-drawn distinction between the backgrounds of Celia and Marco. Celia’s upbringing is harsh—having your father behead a bird in front of you is quite traumatic. Marco, however, seemed to have had more liberty, although his master was always on his back. Eventually these two illusionists cross paths, and when they do, sparks fly, magically and romantically.

Even though The Night Circus isn’t real, it is an escapist’s ideal winter break. Morgenstern has outdone herself with this magically romantic novel. There is no doubt in my mind Morgenstern is a novelist to watch out for. So take your front row seat and enjoy The Night Circus, watching the showdown between Celia and Marco.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Something Fierce

Carmen Aguirre

What does it mean to be a revolutionary? In her memoirs, Carmen Aguirre answers this question very well. And she does it by telling the story of her life growing up in the underground resistance against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s. Winner of Canada Reads 2012, Something Fierce presents us with a teenage girl who wants to give everything she has in order to liberate her homeland—and to make up with a handsome boy as well.

One of my favourite aspects of this book was Aguirre's recollections of being in the resistance. It is incredible what they had to go through—secret messages to be passed, “goods” to be delivered, orders to be followed immediately. And if they were caught, torture and death would be added to their daily planners. As a Latin American myself, I am proud to be represented by Aguirre, with her courage to defend the people of her continent. Her political commitment is, simply, a model to learn from.

And when it comes to Latin American politics, I can tell you that if you read Something Fierce, by page 100 you will be wearing a Cuban flag pin on your hat. I am serious—it happened to me! A recommended read for all those who want to learn more about the history of Latin America and be reminded that revolutionaries are not just political tools but human beings with complex, rich lives.

- Jaime R. Brenes Reyes


Tamara Faith Berger

With her third novel, Maidenhead, Tamara Faith Berger dives headfirst into the complicated sexual education of a teenage girl, Myra, who is on the brink of finally understanding herself. Through a mix of sexiness and smut, Berger remains true to her reputation of “lit-porn provocateur,” allowing us to journey through Myra’s complex sexual games while relevantly touching on politics, race, and sadomasochism.

Myra goes searching for her first sexual experience while on a family trip to Florida, and abruptly finds it in a darkened motel room with Elijah, a man three times her age. She returns home confused and aroused, and quietly disjoins herself from her old friends and joins a new group of pot-smoking anarchists while her family collapses around her. When Elijah follows her home, Myra begins a downward spiral into the perverse world of master versus slave and sadomasochism, while Gayl, Elijah’s peculiar girlfriend, films every minute of it. The more that Myra’s family falls apart around her, the more she finds herself craving the intensity of Elijah and Gayl. We are swallowed up into the hidden desires of a desperate teenage girl, longing for something that she doesn’t even understand.

Myra’s journey is not meant to represent a regular coming-of-age tale featuring a normal teenage girl, but instead focuses more on a situation that strays from the norm and pushes the barriers of sexual understanding. The events in Myra’s life range from relatable to unbelievable, but Berger’s writing gives the novel a flow that might not be expected, especially considering the lewd encounters. Even during some of the harder-to-read moments of the novel, we are reminded of Myra’s true innocence and her simple desire to find something in her life that she can hold on to. The darkest actions are peppered with the reminder of what it means to be a struggling teenager, softening the rougher edges of the storyline and turning it into something understandable. Even if the thoughts, desires and actions of Myra aren’t those of your first sexual experience, or even of your wildest dreams, reading Maidenhead is definitely an experience worth having.

- Cassie Leigh Clancy

Sussex Drive

Lynda Svendsen

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, but Lynda Svendsen’s rollicking novel Sussex Drive sounds suspiciously like recent Canadian history. Set in the recent past, a God-fearing, rock-opera-composing-and-singing Prime Minister, Greg Leggatt, squares off against the forces of democracy and Lise Lavoie, a Governor General with principles. The real stars of the center-stage are Becky Leggatt, the PM’s wife, and Lavoie (a cross between Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean), who balance astute political machinations with emotional depth and soccer-mom-style family commitments.

The Governor General (GG to all in the know) is forced to prorogue parliament twice in the course of the novel, and political fallout in the form of acting-out teenagers, teen pregnancy, and assassinated “unwanted complications” litter the breakneck plot. Reading the non-stop witty and razor-sharp narrative was like watching a double episode of the West Wing, but with a Terry Fallis twist. Full of astute pop political and “Hello” style observations, the book will have you nodding at wry observations, such as Becky’s remarks about how tall Michelle Obama is and how much, as she stands there wearing a crayon-coloured outfit from Target, she looks like a giant version of the teacher from The Magic School Bus. And then you’ll find yourself wondering, “How do I know this stuff?”

For fans of fast reads and political high-stepping plots, this book is a speedy weekend page-turner—don’t forget to breathe!

- Rosslyn Bentley

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Slow Fix

Carl Honore

How does the Norwegian prison system achieve an enviably low re-offender rate? What are some of the key strategies in rehabilitating an inner city school? Why are oil spills not surprising to industry experts? These are some of the questions answered in Carl Honore's latest book, The Slow Fix.

In Honore's previous publication, In Defense of Slow, he demonstrated how taking the right amount time to do everyday activities well yields a better result. He now applies that same thinking to how we approach problem solving.

Each chapter details one of the key components to the slow fix and gives examples of how it plays out in the real world. But what I particularly enjoyed is that the book doesn’t prescribe a cookie-cutter approach to solving problems. Instead, Honore reveals that each fix is multidimensional, dynamic, and nuanced—in other words, it can be messy. Factors that worked well for one situation may not be the best for another. Still, the slow fix can be applied from industries to individuals, and everywhere in between.

Honore's style is accessible and stimulating. He does a good job of breaking down what could be a dry and complicated topic by fusing fact, humour, and insight.

- Mark Kubert

Year Zero

Rob Reid

Year Zero is a zany, humorous, and excellently written interpretation of the music world today and all the ridiculous copyright rules that accompany it. A reader of Rob Reid’s book will be immersed in an unbelievably imaginative and hilarious sci-fi world ringing with a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-like tone. The story follows Nick Carter, a struggling music copyright lawyer who is visited by two otherworldly strangers. They’ve come to Earth with hopes of finding legal help in order to offset the massive fines that the aliens of distant galaxies have accumulated from years of pirating Earth’s music (because, of course, although other species may be more technically advanced, humans are the only species in existence that has good music). The book’s satire invites the reader to seriously ponder certain absurdities of the music industry today, while also taking the reader to a fun, enjoyable world. This is a great read for any sci-fi or music lover!

- Braeden Etienne