Monday, May 27, 2013

Fish Change Direction in Cold Water

Fish Change Direction in Cold Water
Pierre Szalowski

An icestorm is a natural disaster with a quintessentially Canadian personality. It arrives slowly, without fanfare, and is accompanied by seasonally mild weather. As we have seen this year in Guelph, it has the power to drop old trees, endanger travelers, and disrupt power service. In Montreal in 1998 it did all this and more. It shut down the city for three days and left many without power for days.

In Fish Change Direction in Cold Water a ten-year-old boy asks the sky to fix his family’s problems and is rewarded with a life-changing storm. Pierre Szalowski’s
novel weaves together the isolated lives in a Montreal neighbourhood thrust together by shared weather. The book is a comical and uplifting look at the possibilities that arise in life when a drastic change in weather causes everyone to change directions.

As someone who lived through the 1998 icestorm nearby in Ottawa, I got to relive the community spirit that brought out the best in everyone. With the electricity out sporadically throughout the city, there were many who took in those without power. This book captures how life slowed down momentarily and brought people together.

A great book full of laughs and social commentary, especially recommended for young readers going through family trouble.

- Dave MacKay

Red Planet Blues

Red Planet Blues
Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer’s twenty-second novel is somewhat of a departure from his more recent works. While his most popular sci-fi thrillers such as FlashForward (the basis for the 2009 ABC series) and the WWW trilogy tell near-future or present-day stories, his latest, Red Planet Blues, follows some of the genre’s more traditional conventions—the book is set on Mars, after all. But Sawyer doesn’t limit himself to one genre; Red Planet Blues also pays homage to classic noir crime novels, most notably Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

Set against the backdrop of the Great Martian Fossil Rush—a tip of the hat to the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s—the story follows the exploits of Alex Lomax, a private detective living in a domed city on future Mars. Very quickly, Lomax becomes involved in a series of investigations revolving around stolen identities, stolen fossils, murder…and naked ladies. And then there are the transfers: wealthy individuals who’ve had their minds uploaded to immortal android bodies. In other words, this is a compelling fusion of classic sci-fi and detective mystery fiction.

Although Red Planet Blues doesn’t explore the “Big Ideas” as fully as Sawyer’s previous works, there’s still no denying that this latest novel is a heck of a lot of fun.

- Z. S. Roe

The Shore Girl

The Shore Girl
Fran Kimmel

Dark and enchanting: that’s what Rebee Shore is. The sweet innocence of childhood has escaped Miss Shore. Forced to travel from town to town, she has never stayed in a place longer than three months because her demanding, flighty, hard-as-nails mother is always on the run. Rebee loves her mother but has learned some people are not to be counted on. Rebee does not know her father or anyone from her mother’s past life, except for her Aunt, who has her own issues to deal with. Rebee has an endless stream of questions, the first being who is her mother running from and why? 

Rebee evokes a sweetness that people cannot help but gravitate toward, but her independence and fierce eyes that show she has seen too much prevent anyone from getting too close to her. The Shore Girl, which depicts Rebee’s life as she finds the answers to her questions, is told from her perspective and from the perspective of those who have had the fortunate experience of meeting her. Reading about Rebee is addictive; you fall in love with the young girl and travel with her through her life. Rebee has many lessons to teach us, the first being that you control your own destiny.

- Katie Lowe

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Snow Hunters

Snow Hunters
Paul Yoon

Sitting in a noisy cafe with my notebook open, I think about silence in Paul Yoon's book Snow Hunters and am amazed at how he does it. Here I am in a dizzying mix of hissing, droning, gurgling sound that defiantly opposes silence, yet somehow within this space, I am able to sustain a feeling of silence after finishing Snow Hunters yesterday. Wow! That's something. Yoon not only explores how silence develops intimacy and meaning in our lives, he offers it to us; silence, with its spiritual understanding intact, lifts from these pages to create an aura around you, which to my mind marks this book as a valuable reading experience.

Yoon's protagonist is Yohan, a North Korean POW who refuses repatriation after the Korean War. He stays in the American war camp for almost a year, helping the medics, mending clothes, until he is given the opportunity to emigrate to Brazil, where a job awaits him. Yohan accepts the offer and makes the journey to a new land  to become an apprentice to a Japanese tailor named Kiyoshi. Equipped with a few Portuguese words he learns from the South Korean sailors on board ship, Yohan lands in Brazil as a foreigner.

In spite of Yohan’s memories of war—especially his friendship with Peng, who was blinded in a landmine explosion that led to their capture and years-long detention in the POW Camp—and his emotional ties to another homeland, another life, that claims much of his mind and heart, Yohan tries to open up to his new life. The simplicity of his life with Kiyoshi, his brief conversations with one of the sailors who bring cargo to Brazil, and Yohan's sporadic encounters with Santi, a small boy, and Bia, a mysterious young girl, combine to weaken the hold of his past and to strengthen his desire for a new life in his new land. A gentle kind of magic permeates this story, and its subtle light shows us the beauty of a simple life.

- Morvern McNie

Apocalyptic Planet

Apocalyptic Planet
Craig Childs

In recent years there has been an absolute onslaught of fear around issues of climate change. The media loves to accentuate the imminent apocalyptic doom destined to destroy the Earth. Supposedly civilization as we know it, and possibly even life itself, are about to vanish in an almost instantaneous way. As outrageous as those predictions of immediate and final extinction are, there are many, even if they don’t want to admit it, who are fearful of the future. Even for those who support action on climate change, it is tiresome, annoying, and depressing to be constantly bombarded with announcements of doom.

Craig Childs, author of Apocalyptic Planet, is on a mission to discover what the end of the world will really look like. He travels the world to experience the most uninhabitable regions on earth. His discoveries are both humbling and thought-provoking. His book is neither positive nor negative, but rather neutral. Childs doesn’t lambaste modernity or suggest the need for a massive paradigm shift. Instead, he cites facts and highlights the reality that the Earth is over four billion years old and is in a constant state of flux. While anthropogenic impacts are indeed accelerating certain processes, one fact remains certain: there are bigger, stronger, and slower forces at work that we are not yet able to fully understand. It’s not that Childs advocates passivity, but that he puts our role and efforts into perspective:

The Earth is a seed planting itself over and over. And we are not the gardeners.  We are no benevolent being leaving the house every morning with a watering can and a towel to dig up weeds wiping our brows midday to marvel at our handiwork.  Instead, we are within the seed itself.  We are part of its cells and the hardness of its coat, our place not to marvel at the futility and smallness of ourselves, but to keep life moving. What we do now, from the inside, determines the vigor of that seed, how long it might live and plant itself again.
This is a fantastic book, one that provides a refreshing clarity.

- Charles Bryer

Bookshelf Home

The Resurrectionist

The Resurrectionist
E. B. Hudspeth

Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” I think that's true for most people; we love anything to do with the supernatural, the paranormal, anything that falls outside the rigid lines of science. It makes us feel comforted, knowing that everything isn't all rules and guidelines, that there's still room for exploration and adventure. The desire for the mysterious is escapism in its purest form.

But science too can be beautiful in its intricate, wonderful way; it builds connections between things thought unrelated and provides a powerful way to understand our universe. These two forces, the known and unknown, are balanced masterfully in The Resurrectionist. The book starts with an idea: what if all mythical creatures (or at least the anthropoid ones) were ancestors of modern humans?

Hudspeth takes this conjecture and runs with it. The fictional biography of Dr. Spencer Black is masterfully done, touching on real-world events but leaving just enough open for the reader to enter the story fully, rather than just read an account of it. Dr. Black feels real, acts real, and we are with him until his tragic end.

However, while the writing in this book is entertaining enough, it is the artwork that really stands out. Accompanying the pseudoscience are fully realized anatomical drawings of several beasts of lore, including satyrs, sphinxes, and merfolk. The art is nothing short of astounding—skeletal and muscle diagrams mesmerize the eye and bring the creatures closer to life than they have likely ever been. I cannot praise the book highly enough; even casual browsers in the bookstore will find themselves entranced by the oneirataxic imagery. The Resurrectionist is quite likely to be one of the most highly-regarded gems of 2013.

- Robert Green

Monday, May 13, 2013

Thinking the Twentieth Century

Thinking the Twentieth Century
Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

The historian Tony Judt was dying slowly from ALS when his friend and colleague Timothy Snyder proposed working together on a book. Snyder had recently published Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, a challenging examination of wartime genocides that extended beyond the Holocaust. Thinking the Twentieth Century takes the form of a conversation between these two historians and good friends, friends who expand on and circle around some of the most important and sometimes most obscure periods in the last century. It was, perhaps, a century with more history than any other. It was certainly a century with more deaths by atrocity than any other.

The conversation ranges widely across “history, biography, and ethical treatise,” and in doing so, presents forgotten or unfamiliar history. The history and biography here are alive—recalling his early life, Judt states, “The world of my youth was thus the world that was bequeathed us by Hitler.” As for the ethical treatise, in his Foreword Snyder has this to say:

There is one truth that seeks us rather than the other way around, one truth that has no complement: that each of us comes to an end. The other truths orbit around this one like stars around a black hole, brighter, newer, less weighty. This final truth helped me to give this book its final shape. This book could not have arisen without a certain effort at a certain time, little more than a companionable gesture on my side, but an enormous physical campaign on Tony’s. But it is not a book about struggle. It is a book about the life of the mind, and about the mindful life.
Judt’s previous book, The Memory Chalet, exhibited such deep care for the world he was leaving, and leaving behind. Thinking the Twentieth Century is also a book about the capacity for caring. In this case, caring deeply about a friend.

 - James Reid


Frances and Bernard

Frances and Bernard
Carlene Bauer

I didn’t know until after I finished reading Frances and Bernard, the epistolary novel by Carlene Bauer, that it was based on the letters between the writers Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, and then I wanted to go back and read it again. With characters inspired by the feisty, Catholic Southern short story writer and the more-than-slightly-mad poet, the book sizzles with scintillating observations and opinions, and with passions of the mind and body as the two young writers fall in love through their letters over the span of ten years.

After meeting at a writer’s colony in 1958, Frances and Bernard begin a friendship through correspondence, finally meeting in New York city in the turbulent, gender-role-rearranging sixties, chronicling through letters their coming to terms with what their relationship can and can’t become, with all its fervour and all the demands each of them is dealing with.

As the friend who recommended the book to me said, “I never would have thought I would enjoy a novel written entirely in letters, but I couldn’t put it down.” Having only letters to go by can seem limiting because of restrictions in depicting place and action, but, maybe because the two characters live so passionately in words, the book never lags. Additional letters from each character’s closest friend fill out the story line, but it is Frances and Bernard who hold the reader’s attention with their talk of love and God, mothers and families, and, of course, writing.

A thoroughly satisfying read.

- Melinda Burns

Cinder & Scarlet

Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series takes traditional fairy tales and sets them in a futuristic steampunk world. So far there are two books in the series, reviewed below, and two more are coming.

Marissa Meyer

Cinder is a sixteen-year-old cyborg living in New Beijing 126 years after World War IV. She lives with her step-mother and two step-sisters, but unlike Cinderella in the traditional tale, Cinder is friends with her younger sister. Cinder lives in a city where robots are the norm, and in her streampunk world mechanics rather than doctors perform body transplants and fix broken limbs. Being part cyborg, Cinder is an exceptional mechanic, and one day a stranger (who turns out to be none other than the prince himself!) comes by her booth to inquire about repairing his cyborg. This launches Cinder into a series of dangerous events.

I really loved reading about Cinder's world, especially the technology. The more Meyer described the way robots work, the more I became fascinated. As a robot becomes older, it has more of a personality and becomes like a member of the family! They’re maybe not as good as a dog or a cat, but definitely a cool upgrade from the robots we have today.

Another interesting aspect of this novel is how the part-human, part-machine cyborgs of this era are treated. The cyborgs are outcasts, viewed as lesser beings simply because part of them is automated or made of metal. I liked reading about how Cinder struggled to overcome that social barrier. Cinder is a telling of the traditional Cinderella fairytale with a steampunk twist that I highly recommend to any YA reader who loves a good story.

Marissa Meyer

Scarlet is set in the same time period as Cinder, and in the same world filled with cyborgs, crazy inventions, and robots. Scarlet’s story, a re-telling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” is the second book in the Lunar Chronicles (please let there be more soon!). Scarlett is also sixteen years old, and has lived on a farm with her grandmother since she was small. Recently Scarlett's grandmother has disappeared, and so Scarlett goes on a journey to find her. Like Cinder, Scarlett is also a strong female character--she carries a shotgun in her back pocket, and is a complete bad ass.

On her journey she meets Wolf, and since Scarlet is another rendition of a classic fairytale, the twists and turns Meyer adds to the plot make it all the more exciting! Again, I absolutely love the steampunk world the author has created, and reading about it from the perspective of someone who is not a cyborg adds to the interest, since Cinder and Scarlett come from different social worlds. Again, I recommend Scarlet to any YA reader looking for some steampunk adventure, and I am super excited to read the next book in the series!


- Audrey Palmer Steinhauser

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant
Don Gillmor

Toronto is the city that every Canadian loves to hate, so it is a brave gamble for Don Gillmor to build his novel Mount Pleasant around a character meant to embody Hogtown. Harry Salter, former journalist turned history professor, tries to be a wry observer of life in the big city. His flaws often get in the way of his wisdom, however, and he becomes more of a stumbling, unsure baby boomer in decline than Mr. Toronto. Harry’s lifespan follows the shift from old-money Protestant Toronto to the mega-city of today. If you ever wondered what secrets lurk in those glorious Rosedale homes that gracefully carpet the ravines just above Bloor, I’m not sure that Harry is your best guide. He seems to have missed out on glory himself, and his investigative obsession with both his father’s and grandfather’s success stories only reveals tales of heartache and decline.

While Harry falls short of lovable, he does proceed to provide a thoughtful tour of Toronto’s historical roots. As Gillmor connects tales of W. L. Mackenzie’s scruples of long ago to the Occupy movement in St. James Park, he proves himself to be a beautifully talented novelist. When Mount Pleasant is the tale of a man who understands what was and is able to ponder what will be, the reader is happy to go along for the ride. You are more likely to want out of the cab when Gillmor goes back to pushing Harry in the dirt. Who could cheer for the only man not to profit from the many Toronto real estate booms? Could you care for the fellow who had a Bay Street father who always drove a Cadillac but left an inheritance worth less than the price of a used Camry?

Mount Pleasant regularly redeems itself by surrounding sad-sack Harry with a parade of fascinating figures. You want more of Harry’s stylish but bitter-tongued mother, his cynical sister, and his suffering wife. Gillmor gives gusto to even briefly glimpsed characters: the homeless demander who smears mustard on a passerby’s jacket, celebrity ghosts in the Mount Pleasant cemetery, and even Harry’s colon as it wisecracks through his colonoscopy. Every time Harry’s phone rings, Toronto comes to life.

A news item skated before my eyes recently. It quoted a survey claiming that many Canadians say their favourite hockey team is whoever is playing against Toronto. Ouch. It is no wonder Harry doesn’t sail above the city that Gillmor is trying to capture. As the rising condos limit his horizons, they only hide him from a nation that can’t stand him. You admire Don Gillmor for investing the creative energy into creating a true Toronto character. However, in the list of thankless tasks, it may rank just below enhancing the comedy talents of Stephen Harper. I see a Mount Pleasant sequel devoted to those happy to slash Harry around the ankles.

- Mark Kennedy

The Black Count

The Black Count
Tom Reiss

The Black Count is a Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of a man who rose above his station to become a renowned hero. Alex Dumas, father of author Alexandre Dumas, lived an adventurous life balanced between the privilege of his noble father and the complicated position of people of colour in the eighteenth century. Author Tom Reiss excavates the layers of fact, rumour, and parable surrounding the legendary mixed-race man who rose through the ranks of the French army to become a figure as fantastical as the characters written by his son. Some of the feats that hero Alex Dumas accomplishes are so impressive that they read more like historical fiction than biography.

The careful treatment of the history of Saint Dominique was of particular interest to me, as I learned a lot about the history of the island and the non-white people who called it home. This is only one of the many obscured historical contexts revealed by Reiss. Through the story of Dumas, Reiss is able to explore aspects of eighteenth-century French culture that are not commonly known.

Dumas's story had been lost for a time, but after a decade of research Reiss uncovers the story of a man who was so loved by his son that he became the inspiration for works we now consider classics, such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Reiss integrates his own respect for the subject, the adoration of the author Dumas, and the respect that Alex Dumas inspired in his soldiers and those who served alongside him. Their reverence is thrilling, informative, and unique.

- Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher

A First-Rate Madness

A First-Rate Madness
Nassir Ghaemi

It’s so tempting to label A First-Rate Madness a first-rate book. But it is. It’s one of those wonderful pieces that hits the nexus of science, emotion, and human interest.

Nassir Ghaemi’s thesis, drawn from an extensive historical study of leaders, is if your country is doing OK, you just need a ruler who’s a normal guy (yes, historically, most of them have been guys). But if you’re in financial jeopardy or, worse, a full-on war, you’re going to need someone depressed who can see things and people as they really are, or someone who’s totally manic, able to work ‘round the clock and make the troops take care of business.

Sherman, Turner, Churchill, Lincoln, Gandhi, King, FDR, Kennedy, Hitler, Bush, Blair, Nixon: the crazies are not the ones you might expect, and the bonus of examining each is the wonderful potted histories and diverting anecdotes. And the gentleness with which the stigma of madness is dampened.

- Peter Ferguson