Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mrs. Poe

Mrs. Poe
By Lynn Cullen

Mrs. Poe is not a biography of Edgar Allan Poe’s wife nor is it a romantic love story. Author Lynn Cullen deliberately planned it that way, leaving the reader to decide on the meaning behind the ambiguous title.

When a newspaper editor advises her to write “shivery tales for ladies,” protagonist Frances Osgood playfully responds, “You’d like me to be a sort of Mrs. Poe.” An acclaimed poet in her own right, Frances had also dabbled in children’s literature. But as the wife of a philandering portrait painter, she could no longer afford that luxury. So, it is not surprising that she welcomes the opportunity to meet the mysterious Poe, if only to help her career. What follows is a flirtation, a seduction, and an illicit love affair.

While reading, I could easily imagine myself sitting in one of those New York parlors, listening with rapt attention to Poe and the other members of the literary crowd, among them, “a Bohemian poetess in her gypsy hoops earrings and loose vest; the elderly Mr. Audubon in his buckskin costume” and “Mr. Walter Whitman, who belligerently wore the long-tailed frock coat and ruffles from an earlier era.”

In writing this novel, Lynn Cullen demonstrates superb storytelling abilities and meticulous attention to detail, expertly blending mystery, romance, and history. Where the actual facts are incomplete, she fills in the gaps beautifully.

After retiring from a 31-year teaching career, Joanne Guidoccio launched a second act as a writer. Her articles, book reviews and short stories have appeared in newspapers, magazines and online. Last month, Soul Mate Publishing released her debut novel, Between Land and Sea, as an ebook on Amazon. You can visit her website at

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction

I feel like most Canadian fiction would do better if it wasn't so relentlessly marketed as such. Every time I listen to the yearly edition of Canada Reads on CBC, so much attention seems to be drawn to the fact that the author is Canadian that being Canadian becomes a gimmick. Latched onto like a lamprey with a Napoleon complex, this kind of marketing strategy often ends up neglecting the more important factors, like whether or not the content of the story is actually enjoyable. Dead North, a collection of zombie short stories by exclusively Canadian authors, is the first of its kind that I've seen to buck this trend, using the diverse cultural mythology of the Great White North to put a number of unique spins on an otherwise over-saturated genre.

Within its pages, you'll find everything from traditional Romero zombies, undead whales, and risen corpses of the demonically possessed variety, to Wendigos, and even a twisted retelling of a much beloved Grimm fairy tale. Of course, with over 20 different authors contributing to the volume, the quality does vary (“Waiting for Jenny Rex”, in particular, is an exercise in shameless gimmick-whoring), but the vast majority were well-written enough so as to keep my curiosity peaked.

Besides its inclusion of 99 different flavours of rotted flesh for the zombie connoisseur, the characters and structure of the various tales are in and of themselves so diverse that they never get monotonous. While some are the typical tales of horror, betrayal, and shambling hordes that we've come to know and love, others simply use the zombie apocalypse as a frame within which to tell a number of intriguing, personal stories. Dead North quite literally travels from coast-to-coast, from a Vancouver weed grow-op run by a fanatical, religious hippie, to the frozen tundra (where the “dead-heads” make for good eating; if you know how to suss out the sickness), and even the fishing villages of Nova Scotia.

It becomes clear through reading this volume that the zombie genre has quite a bit more value for the ambitious author to excavate before we salt their bones, burn the remains, and otherwise lay this cultural obsession to rest. Those looking for a novel twist on their beloved cannibalistic horrors should set aside some time to check this one out; it's a lot of fun.

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why People Believe Weird Things

Michael Shermer

Belief – be it in the supernatural or in the merely mundane – is often an individual and deeply personal endeavour. In other words, our beliefs matter greatly to us. Unfortunately, not all of those beliefs are as logically sound as others. In fact, some of them are just plain weird.

In Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of our Time, American science writer and long-time skeptic Michael Shermer delves into the world of ESP, Alien Abductions, Holocaust Denial, and much more. He pits reason and science against our most bizarre popular beliefs, and offers a frequently meticulous breakdown and analysis of those beliefs and their respective movements.

Some readers may be surprised by the similarities that Shermer draws. After all, it’s not every day that someone compares creationists to Holocaust deniers. Still, Shermer’s arguments are always respectful and well-conceived, and never vindictive or petty.

If Why People Believe Weird Things has any drawback, it’s that its writing is sometimes dense, making it occasionally slow going for readers new to the science and philosophy genres. Make no mistake, this is no light bathroom reading material – thinking caps are required. But maybe that’s the point: weird beliefs come easily; sound judgement and critical thinking, on the other hand, take work. And in the case of Why People Believe Weird Things, that work is equally compelling and thought provoking.

While a glass cutter by day, by night Z.S. Roe spends his time writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  His writings have appeared in various publications, including the Cambridge Times, The Silhouette, and The Toronto Sun, among others.  Most recently, his short story “Peeping Tara” appeared in issue 13 of Dark Moon Digest.  You can visit his blog at

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

Edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer

Fiction today is thoroughly categorized. Walk into any bookstore and you can easily find what you're looking for stuck under a neatly printed label, be it fantasy or mystery or romance. But what about those stories that escape generalization? Those odd ones, those black sheep, that refuse to be labeled under any one category?

Well, they can be found within the pages of The Weird, a mammoth tome edited by renowned author/editor couple Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. The Weird is a collection of fiction written over the past hundred years, from 1908 to 2011. Its stories are by turns creepy, intriguing, and mesmerizing, and each one is written by a different author. Some names will be familiar—Stephen King, NeilGaiman, George R. R. Martin. Others such as Haruki Murakami, Olympe Bhêly-Quenum, and Leonora Carrington await discovery.

Not only is The Weird a chance to experience the odd side of fiction, it's also an opportunity to discover unfamiliar authors, most outside our cultural boundaries. The Weird is lengthy (1,100-odd double-columned pages) but worth the time and effort. Most readers will find themselves eagerly sucked into this book, for once The Weird latches on its tentacles, it never lets go.... Five stars from this reviewer.

Robert Green is a confirmed bibliophile and aspiring writer whose love of sci-fi has caused him to own many more books than he has physical room for. He is also the owner and creator of the up-and-coming company Verity Books, which can be seen at various cons throughout the year. Any questions or comments can be sent to or

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Facades

By Eric Lundgren

It’s ironic – and scary – that Lundgren published this dystopian novel shortly before Detroit declared bankruptcy, because the world you’ll experience in The Facades is eerily close to Motown’s state of decline, only worse. The story takes place now (or perhaps in the near future) in the fictional city of Trude, somewhere in the American Midwest, and, as part of the rich humour in this book, Lundgren riffs on Trude’s Scandinavian and German background: the surnames, the street names, and the local opera house’s weakness for Wagner.

Disintegration is the theme, and it drives the plot: will Sven Norberg, a mild-mannered legal clerk, find his missing opera star wife, reconcile with his born-again Christian son, and put his family back together? Will he ever understand why it fell apart, like the city of Trude itself? Will he come to understand his own mental breakdown?

The characters, humour, and ideas here gave me a full-bodied read. First, there’s Norberg, who’s a pitiable character, a man who can’t accept his luck in love, when he married Molly, an attractive opera singer. He has reservations about his worthiness, and the public attention that Molly gets irritates him. But when Molly goes missing, the strength of Norberg’s love shows in his dogged tries at finding her. The minor characters – from a cop called “The Oracle,” to a crazy local architect – are perhaps farfetched, but a lot of fun. And while I found the plot to be sometimes dull, humour kept me reading. Wit is everywhere. Reader expectations are often reversed, and Lundgren breaks the conventions of the mystery novel to hilarious effect. The book is a deep read, bringing in psychology, classical music and opera, and the disintegration of the American economy.

So, a multi-layered story. If you’re looking for a challenging – and funny – literary novel, spend some time in Trude. But be prepared to be as disturbed as you are entertained.

Bob Young's short stories have been published in the literary journals Other Voices, Postscripts to Darkness, and Great Lakes Review. Visit his website:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Top Brain, Bottom Brain

By Stephen M Kosslyn and G Wayne Miller

Have you ever wondered why you are the way you are? Maybe you’re logical and analytical, excelling in Math and Science. Or maybe you’re artistic and creative, with a knack for music and the arts. Ideals of a simple left and right brain dichotomy have permeated pop culture for years, leading us to believe that we are either academically or artistically inclined. But this idea is taking a back seat to the theory of top and bottom brain cognitive styles.

Kosslyn and Miller’s Top Brain, Bottom Brain explores facets of the body’s most fascinating organ, providing an overview of the lobes of the brain, the mechanisms of brain function, and historical neurological theories. But if you weren’t a Neuroscience major, don’t be discouraged; Top Brain, Bottom Brain is unpretentious and completely accessible. The authors use a prose that is simple yet intelligent, describing the theory behind personality types and the products of habitually favouring the top or bottom brain. 
The book systematically debunks left and right brain theories and builds evidence for the theory of cognitive modes, culminating in a scientifically valid questionnaire to test the reader’s dominant mode. Are you a Mover, Perceiver, Stimulator, or Adaptor? Kosslyn and Miller provide novel examples and explanations for each of the four cognitive styles, stressing that they are not rooted in one’s intelligence, but are situational and based on one’s interactions with others and the environment. You might even be surprised to learn what mode you defer to when presented with unfamiliar circumstances.

Top Brain, Bottom Brain provides insight not only into our individual personalities, but the manner in which we interact with others and the implications for our personal and professional lives. This book provides inventive data on the workings of the human brain with the potential to change the way society thinks about thinking. 

- Laura Martin

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Kim Stanley Robinson

Despite only being published a few months ago, 2312 has already been nominated for several awards, including the notable Nebula and Hugo awards. Curious as to how it gained such a lofty position among science-fiction fandom, I decided to give it a look for myself.

First the bad news: 2312 does not come close to equaling the unparalleled excellence of Robinson's Mars series. The book is ponderous at times, often going to unnecessarily complex lengths to describe the new technologies, viewpoints, and societies that have developed in the three centuries hence from now. The exposition can become mind-numbing, often distracting from the excellent story set up in favour of heaping more details on the reader. But not all of it is useless; in most cases the explanation of the world Robinson has built is fascinating in concept, if not in portrayal.

Luckily, the exposition does birth the more entertaining side of the novel—the story itself. It begins on Mercury, in the great city of Terminator (which Robinson fans may remember from his earlier novel, The Memory of Whiteness), a massive structure which constantly moves on gigantic tracks in order to stay just ahead of Mercury's deadly sunrise. In this city lives Swan Er Hong, an artist who has just lost her friend and step-grandmother, Alex. After a time, Swan starts to wonder about the curious cause of Alex's death (she perished well before her time; she was just a century old) and, upon meeting several of Alex's old acquaintances, among them an oddly likable character by the name of Fitz Wahram, Swan launches an investigation into the occurrence, which brings her face-to-face with some shady and hidden aspects of humanity's future in the solar system.

To say anymore would only spoil the book. 2312 is worth reading, though not as enjoyable as its writer's preceding work. The facets and aspects of this future are interesting and engaging when not being overly explained, and the fact that Robinson has chosen to incorporate an old-fashioned mystery trope into a heavy SF novel makes for a curious but pleasant juxtaposition. Swan herself is a fun character to get to know, especially as she incorporates several fundamental issues in our 21st-century world into herself, sometimes taking them to extremes. And the portrayal of humanity's future is refreshingly positive, and plays to our adaptability as a species.

All in all, it's a novel that certainly deserves those austere nominations. Happy reading.

Robert Green is a confirmed bibliophile and aspiring writer whose love of sci-fi has caused him to own many more books than he has physical room for. He is also the owner and creator of the up-and-coming company Verity Books, which can be seen at various cons throughout the year. Any questions or comments can be sent to or

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Anne Hébert 

This past fall, Anansi Press did the world a favour by initiating “The A-List,” a series of beautifully redesigned classic publications from their rich and historic backlist. Among them is Kamouraska, Anne Hébert’s dark tale of illicit love, bloody murder, and the strictures of social norms and expectations.

First published in 1970, Kamouraska, set in 19th Century Quebec, is the story of Elisabeth d’Aulnieres, a young, married mother who becomes embroiled in an illicit affair with an American doctor. The murder at the story’s climax is an explosive and bloody collision between a passion unfettered and the family and societal obligations that fetter.

Isolation, as Noah Richler notes in his introduction, of both the societal and geographical kind, is the main theme of the book. It dictates Elisabeth’s choices. The snow, the cold, the whispering neighbours, the long distances between peers and towns, her husband, a drunk and destructive man-child who constantly threatens her with his own suicide, all contribute to her solitude. And thus, her seemingly irrational desire for her exotic lover is in many ways a revolt against this. It was difficult for me not to see the story as an impressionistic portrayal of gender roles, a meditation on what it means when a woman’s options are so few. And while Elisabeth’s crimes are undeniably childish and grave, I couldn’t help but feel for her.

Kamouraska could almost be read as Noir. Collusion, secrecy, societal obligations shattered by careless debauchery, it’s the stuff of pulp fiction. And yet complex. For while Elisabeth’s crimes are obvious it is hard to convict her fully. This moral ambiguity makes for the most compelling of reads as it ultimately forces us to encounter our own morality and values. Heavy stuff indeed. Highly recommended.

Nathan Lawr

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Story of the Human Body

Daniel Lieberman

As the famous Theodesius Dobzhansky quote goes, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” However, many health-related fields nowadays have taken this philosophy to the extreme, promoting and justifying methods and theories by calling on the idea that “we were healthier before we started doing X, and therefore we should go back to how we did it before!” despite the absence of actual evidence in favour of the specific remedies being suggested. Even evolutionary psychology often leans dangerously close to truism instead of science. In The Story of the Human Body, Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman aims to better elucidate the relationship between the past and present. He calls upon information from biology, anthropology, pathology, and sociology to chronicle how the changing lifestyles of the human race have generated a new type of pathology he calls “mismatch diseases.” These are the health concerns that evolutionary health gurus refer to, having arisen from the crafting of an environment that we are not evolutionarily well-adapted for. According to Lieberman, we then perpetuate a vicious circle by treating their symptoms, instead of addressing their root causes by changing those environments.

I've already mentioned the multidisciplinary approach Lieberman takes to justify this narrative, but it bears repeating. He is remarkably thorough in breaking down the transitions that have carried us from the humble beginnings of the genus Australopithecus, to our first, striding steps as Homo Erectus, all the way through to Homo Neanderthalensis' mysterious disappearance, the birth of culture, and both the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Lieberman's most impressive feat, however, is his detailing of how each of these different mechanisms have influenced the health of the human race. Longer legs with forward facing hip-socket joints cost us less energy travelling a certain distance, but it also made us significantly less capable at climbing trees. The butterfly effect of this was that humans became adapted for running long distances for the purposes of “persistence hunting”--a form of hunting where hunters will chase an animal until it literally drops dead of exhaustion. In hunting larger prey, humans then being able to communicate hunting strategy to a younger generation through the means of socialization and culture meant that we were able to outlast the less conceptually adept Neanderthals.

The Story of the Human Body constructs a long, complex chain of events, and Lieberman's intense scrutiny and research ensures that there is not a weak link in the bunch. As a result, when he reaches the point in the book where he begins prescribing solutions to our modern day morbidity problems, his recommendations, backed up by a good 300 pages of well-sourced evidence,are all the more sound. It is an amazing, fascinating read, and one of the few books to successfully amalgamate findings from so many different fields into a solid thesis on how we might improve our health going forward. I won't be surprised if The Story of the Human Body ends up sharing the same bookshelves with such legendary works as Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, and as such, I couldn't recommend it more. 

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Anna Quindlen

When renowned photographer Rebecca Winter leases out her condo in the city and takes a cottage in the country, she gets more out of life than she thought she would. Still Life with Bread Crumbs is about a member of the “sandwich” population, a woman getting squeezed from both ends, both emotionally and financially by her aging parents and her son. Her earlier photographic career has made her a hero of sorts to many women, but now she is on the downslope of her career with an unsupportive agent and a shaky bank balance. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, she takes her fate in her own hands and changes her situation. The problems don’t go away, but she finds energy to cope with them, and in the process gets another chance at professional success and personal happiness.  

Anna Quindlen’s seventh novel is about reaching out, never giving up, and is a lesson in staying open to new opportunities. This is a portrait of a woman one can identify with, laugh with, root for, but never feel sorry for. A thoroughly good read, this novel left me feeling optimistic about life. This would be a great book club novel, and is suitable for all adult readers.

Catherine McGratton

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Wrong Side of the Law

Wrong Side of the Law
Edward Butts

Not since Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the KidNot since William S. Burroughs’ ruminations on outlaws like Half-Hanged Kelly in Cities of the Red Night… And not since Frank Rich’s timeline in The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina, about the gang who couldn’t shoot straight in the Bush-Cheney White House, have I enjoyed a book about crooks as much as Edward Butts’ Wrong Side of the Law.

Guelph author Butts has collected and colourfully retold true stories of Canadian bank robbers, bandits, and cattle rustlers.  Stories from the days when you didn’t have to be a banker to rob a bank, and get away with it.  When the Wild West operated year round, instead of just during the Calgary Stampede. When the bad guys lit out of town, to lay low, and live off their ill gotten gains.  When men were men, and women wished they’d just shut up about it. When the sentence at the end of the trail for murder was to be hanged by the neck until dead. As one of the 710 executions in Canada by hanging, until they were abolished in 1962.

Their names? Butch Cassidy, Dutch Henry, the Sundance Kid, the Pigeon-Toed Kid, Doc Willis, Red Hyslop and Blackie Lawson. Even the lesser known names have something legendary about them, or at least antic. Butts sorts through the antic and legendary. And when the legends are too great to find clarification, settles for, “Dutch Henry Yauch seems to have been killed several times over.”

The true crime stories here tell of desperadoes who didn’t come to their senses until they were arrested or killed in a shootout with the police. Their crimes took place in Newfoundland, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Toronto, Regina, Montreal, and Guelph. Yes, our Guelph—the kind of city where my birdfeeder was stolen and I thought a crime wave had struck our neighbourhood.

The lives of these desperate men often finished with convictions to hang. My dad remembers the days when these brutal executions took place. Although there were a number of hangmen in Canada, when a hangman arrived in town to carry out the sentence for execution, he came in a car without license plates and was always known only as Ellis. These precautions were to try to ensure that he could not be traced for revenge after he executed the condemned.

Of course it is a good thing that these men on the wrong side of the law were brought to justice. But there is something else about Edward Butts’ recreation of a mostly forgotten time in Canadian history. The stakes were high then, but not as high as they are now. Maybe it’s that the losses were not as great as they are now. And the losses are becoming greater.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Disaster Diaries

Sam Sheridan

Anyone who has read my review of The Fighter's Mind knows that I'm a big fan of acclaimed fight author Sam Sheridan. His willingness to boldly throw himself into the most treacherous situations in order to experience the full spectrum of human experience lends a genuine honesty to everything he writes. I make no qualms about believing that, in this way, he is a modern day Ernest Hemingway (minus the rampant alcoholism).

He continues this tradition in his most recent release, Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Apocalypse, where he attempts to quiet the fear which plagues every father and husband: the fear that if disaster strikes, he will be unable to protect the ones he loves. He begins the book plagued by his knowledge of the fragility of “the grid” (the complex safety net that modern society provides us), and by the lack of survival skills many people have should it ever fail. In response, he takes off on a journey around the world, learning the survivalist tools of the trade. Shooting (both for hunting and defense), knife-fighting, primitive wilderness skills (no steel tools allowed), and knowing how to both highjack a car and drive like a master stuntman (should you be chased by zombies, and/or raiders, and/or alien zombie raiders) are all a part of his journey to self-reliance. He even touches on the oft-forgotten mental aspect, the ability to exist within a post-apocalyptic environment while still maintaining your sanity being an essential skill unto itself.

I really enjoyed this book. As always, Sheridan has a way of balancing respectful reverence with accessibility. He makes no qualms about the immense levels of patience, commitment, and fortitude it takes to develop these skills, but at the same time lets you know that if a person is willing to put in the time and effort, your average Joe can (and by all means should) learn them. You're right there along with Sam as he makes the difficult—and sometimes painful—transition from a  world that provides stability and sustenance to one where situational awareness and the ability to improvise with the most sparse resources can mean making it for another twenty-four hours. It's a hell of an adventure, and one which I recommend every curious reader go on.

- 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.      

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