Monday, April 28, 2014


It’s always nice to be able to refer back to a book when you’re writing a review. In this case, though, my ten-year-old daughter scrounged the book the second I was finished with it—she’d been eying it from the moment I cracked it open.

Fans of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series will not be disappointed by The Boundless. It’s action-packed and lots of fun, with unexpected characters and just a twist of the supernatural.

As in Airborn, we start with an exciting, James-Bond-style opening that establishes the main character and the world of the book. In this case, we’re in a world much like late Victorian-era Canada, attending the Last Spike ceremony celebrating the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. With monsters, and an avalanche.

We then flash forward to the main character’s life a few years later. He and his family are on a new course as a result of the opening events. The father, whom we met as a railway labourer, has been promoted, and young Will finds himself with a first-class ticket on the maiden voyage of The Boundless, a train more than seven miles long.

The train, of course, is the main setting for this combination mystery and heist caper, which unfolds as the train pulls her way across the country. Will befriends a gutsy young tightrope walker and even joins a circus act for a while, as he works his way from the end of the “rolling city” back up to the start, where the final showdown must occur.

Oppel’s latest for middle-graders offers appealing characters, high-stakes adventure and lots of twists to keep readers guessing. You won’t regret joining The Boundless on her journey.

Erin Thomas writes (and reads!) books for kids and teens from her home in Whitby, Ontario. For more information, visit


Your youthful musings don’t often get to see the light of day as an adult (I keep mine in the back of the closet behind the hat boxes, not brave enough to throw away what was a lifeline but now seem so tedious). Barbara Ehrenreich’s precocious philosophical probing in Living with a Wild God are unearthed as part of a university request for lifetime material. As she sifts through her extraordinary glimpses of the divine, we also see a turbulent teen with an all too common 1950’s middle-America inheritance of overbearing, intellectually stunted wage slave father and bored, underemployed, mentally unbalanced, housewife mother. What keeps you reading is the display of an extraordinary intellectual curiosity, the boundless scathing self deprecating narrative voice and the fascinating discovery of another dimension beneath the surface, or rather lying alongside the three dimensional world.

Ehrenreich considers her episodic experience of another world as evidence of the divine. She does admit her revelations could be classic experiences of mental illness, disassociation, and other evidence of the rich genetic stew and historical pressure cooker effects of her family and place in history, but she quickly dismisses these hypotheses. I found her story painful, insightful, and tedious all at the same time, just like those long hidden journals of mine. The coming of age of any teen in modern North American society is the emergence of the self from a materialist, egocentric, and self absorbed wasteland. Ehrenreich finds her vocation away from an inward focused, minutely observed and measured world into collective social activism and disruption in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 60’s.

I found the book very uneven; perhaps because I know so little about the authors’ adult life achievements, but the thrill of revisiting a great mind in the making was spur enough to drive my reading though some of the less beguiling sections. As an invitation to think on how we perceive reality and how a probing mind matures, this is a fascinating reflection.

- Rosslyn Bentley


You will want to read Sean Michaels' Us Conductors as soon as you can, both because it is a brilliant novel and because everyone will be talking about it and you're going to want to be hip and have already read the latest 'hot' book.

You will want to read Us Conductors because its plot -- the first person narration of Lev Sergeyvich Termen (Dr Theremin) as he recounts his life, including the invention and dissemination of the theremin; a recounting that takes place  while literally held captive and metaphorically captive by the things he did and didn't do in his past -- because its plot is similarly captivating: espionage, America in the 20s, successful men and the things they can buy, romance-lust-and-longing, war stories and suffering. These descriptors make the plot seem sweeping. The plot is not sweeping. Instead by following our humble, sad and utterly sympathetic first person narrator, the events read as intimate and specific, even while we recognize them as extraordinary.

In its plot and narration (I'll get there in a minute), the book asks the compelling questions: what makes for a significant life? how can we correct mistakes of omission? who is responsible for our actions and inactions? how can we reconcile the drive for beauty and love with the desire for wealth and fame? These are questions that grapple with the boundary between the extraordinary and the intimate that get worked out again and again in the novel: For instance, Lev's imprisonment in the Soviet gulag is marked by the dehumanizing and impersonal that recall the historical moment -- hunger, thirst, savagery. And his release reads as arbitrary, both a result of the caprice of Lev and the despotic of the Russian rulers, even while the reader must know that for the narrative (and we do know because its narrated retrospectively from relative comfort and safety) to continue he must live and must escape or be released: with both escape and release being quite extraordinary.

The story manages to achieve this subsumption (or perhaps misdirection) of the extraordinary into the particular (and so relatable and sympathetic) through masterful narration. Us Conductors presents the best use of the second person I've ever read and uses the first person confessional with genius confidence and impact. The second person is used to address the "you" of Clara Reisenberg, the woman Lev loves and longs for. The early establishment of the you, as Clara cuts some of the usual complaint that the second person, can be so direct as to cause discomfort for the reader; likewise, the "you" is balanced against the first person so as to not overwhelm. These reasons suggest the "you" is only effective in what it doesn't do, but I should say the "you" is incredible here for what it does achieve: it evokes melancholy and loss without naming melancholy or loss, it establishes the depth of love without explaining the depth of love and it signals the primacy of Clara in Lev's understanding of his life: for all of his extraordinary accomplishments he, like the reader, makes sense of his world through his love for Clara, the smallest (and grandest) of intimacies.

For all that it does do, the second person also renders Clara's thoughts and reactions curiously absent from the narrative. As much as we know of Lev's love, we're never entirely sure how Clara feels. We only know her through Lev's interpretation and the scenes we get of her behaviour. It is difficult - though not in an unsatisfying way - as a reader to determine how Clara actually feels and how Lev wants Clara to feel or how he imagines her to feel. This ignorance speaks to a larger question with the first person confessional and that is the reliability of our narrator. While we can trust the sequence of plot events  we cannot be sure of the causes of these events: how much is Lev leaving out of his confession to Clara that might explain the dramatic turns his life takes? How much can be explained by the (again) arbitrary power of the Soviet state?

These questions of reliability and narrative causality get worked out in the title of the novel itself. If we read Us Conductors as "those who conduct us"  (the 'us' here read as Lev and all of "us", including the reader), we might see the authoritarian power of the state and its agents as they direct (and misdirect) Lev. But if we read the title as "I, who conduct us through this story"  (the 'us' in this instance being Lev and Clara) we can see instead Lev's attempt to exercise authority over his own life, to take ownership for the opportunities he squandered with Clara, the things he could have said and done, the attempts he made to make his life - to conduct his life - the way he wanted to. I suppose you could read the title, too, as "U.S. Conductors" and think about the United States and Russia and the plot elements of espionage that bring immediacy and historicity to the plot. All this to say it's a title that didn't (at first) grab me, but ultimately reveals the complexity of plot, narration and theme at work in the novel.

The question of what we trust in Lev's narration also gestures to what we as readers ought to take away from this fictionalized history. As a reader without any existing knowledge of Lev Termen or the invention of the theremin I confess to being less enthusiastic about beginning the novel than I might have been if I'd known anything of the history (or present) of Lev and the theremin. That said, I approached the novel as a reader of fiction. I genuinely supposed that Lev and Clara were invented characters and the theremin a sort of magical-fictional instrument (though somewhere in the recesses of my cultural memory I thought I'd heard of such a device). Sorting out what is factual from what is fictional shouldn't trouble you as a reader, either, in part because the narrative points of view makes it impossible to confuse this with straight history telling and in part because the 'what is fact' question gets lost in the absolute humanity -- and empathy -- of Lev's story and his love. My only complaint is that the novel includes a 'post script' (and I do hate the epilogue) that, were I student of history, I might fact check to find out if the list in the post script is "what really happened." The effect of the post-script is to announce "this was historical!" in a way that undercuts the timelessness and intimacy of the story; the post-script also effectively takes the poignancy out of the conclusion to the novel because it assures the reader that everything eventually worked out (sort of). The reader should be trusted to either do the historical fact-checking on their own if they deemed it important to know what came next OR to allow the last page of the novel to be the last page of the story: a conclusion as poignant as I've read them.

It is with this poignancy that I'll end this review: this is poignant writing. What do I mean by that? I mean it is beautiful, grasping, fresh and sharp writing. Michaels' use of short sentences, of repetition, of original comparisons and apt metaphors require the reader to routinely stop, reread, reimagine and to take a breath. There are simply gorgeous sentences in this book. It's a kind of lyrical writing with a beat and pulse that appropriately mirrors the musical subject matter, but also an inventive use of language that aligns with the themes of creation and fit-for-use discovery. It is simply tremendous writing that allows the other, excellent, elements of the book - the plot, narration and historical blend - to shine.

When's she not reading, Erin Aspenlieder is teaching, running or eating cookies (sometimes all at once). She prefers fiction and books made of paper. She blogs at


I thought Scottish mothers had the corner on guilt trips, tough love and manipulation, but having read Elaine Lui’s hilarious (sort of) memoir I realize that Chinese mothers obviously went to the same school. The common bond between these mothers is that they want the best for their children, and they want their children to be the best that they can be. 

Elaine Lui’s mother, who’s Chinese name translates to Squawking Chicken, is feisty, highly opinionated, and a fighter. She was raised in Hong Kong by parents that ran a Mah Jong den, and yet, overcame great difficulty and hardship in her own life. The book is an account of how she prepares her daughter to succeed in life by teaching her life lessons along the way. In Elaine Lui’s mother's point of view every moment is a teaching moment, and will continue to be as long as she is alive. I learned a great deal about Chinese culture, and familial obligation in this novel, some of which western off-spring would do well to emulate.

The memoir is a monument to mother–daughter relationships, the ups and downs of that relationship and the many rewards are both equally represented; however, what shines through the most is the love that exists between these two very different women. A great story to share with mothers and daughters everywhere, especially as Mother’s Day approaches.

-- Catherine McGratton


Gluten-free, lactose-free, low cholesterol, high fibre. Nowadays it seems as though every retailer is selling a solution to our abundance of dietary challenges. But why is this generation suddenly plagued with so many problems? Is it heightened awareness, a boom in fad-dieting and a few million hypochondriacs? Or is it something deeper? Dr. Moalem believes it's not only deeper, it's microscopic.
We've all heard the nature versus nurture debate and we know that our genes are responsible for physical appearance and general health. But what if we learned that the bullying our parents endured as children left an indelible mark on our genomes? Would we believe that a seemingly insignificant change to our genetic code could leave us impervious to pain or lethally sensitive to morphine? And why doesn't the latest Hollywood diet work for everyone? Inheritance uses fascinating examples to emphasize the delicacy of our genomes and the advantages and disadvantages that arise from changes in genetic makeup and expression.
The topics flowed well from chapter to chapter and new questions and ethical debates arose as the book progressed. Can we really segregate professional athletes into weight classes but not genetic classes? Should employers and insurance companies have access to our genetic information? What about potential partners and spouses? And where do we draw the line? When I first picked up this book I expected a "mind over genetic matter" self-help journey, but was treated to a page-turning narrative of evolution and the products of genetic variability. I sped through each chapter and even re-read the book right after I'd finished it. I would definitely recommend Inheritance to any genre of reader, not just science enthusiasts. Because as Dr. Moalem shows us, research into rare genetic disorders has the capacity to help not only those directly afflicted, but the entire population and the populations to come.

Laura Martin's lifelong addiction to fiction took a back seat when she went to the University of Guelph for Molecular Biology and Genetics. She became fascinated with neurological conditions like Alzheimer's Disease and dementia, and is hoping to attend Dalhousie University in the spring for a Masters in Neuroscience.

Friday, April 25, 2014


What makes for a great storyteller? What makes us listen? What can stories reveal about ourselves and others that allow connection and understanding? Richard Wagamese's novel Medicine Walk explores these questions through the quasi-quest, quasi-bildungsroman narrative of Franklin Starlight. As Franklin accepts the task of helping his estranged father, Eldon, to his death, he also accepts the role of listener. Just as readers assume this position each time they open a new book, Franklin is unsure what to expect, but committed to the hearing.

This metafictional thread is softly woven, but bears consideration: what do we, as readers, assume (both in the sense of 'to take on' and 'suppose to be the case') when we begin reading? Genre, narrative point of view, diction and phrasing, author biography and context give us the rudimentary tools in the early pages of a story to position ourselves, to ease into a work and find where we sit vis a vis the story we're hearing (never mind that our particular readerly moment is one where books come laden with existing expectations - and reviews like these). Whether a story adheres to or troubles these expectations, and whether our expectations predetermine and limit what we'll read/hear gets played out as Franklin grapples with reframing his feelings about his father and whether and how much he will accept the stories as true or sufficient recompense. These questions get echoed in Franklin's confrontation with his own expectations of his father and of his own and Eldon's separate and twinned identities and histories.

It's an unusual (narrative) relationship. Eldon, an alcoholic and absentee parent, brings his story to Franklin with the ostensible purpose of telling Franklin about his birth, name, and family, but with the attendant - and mutually recognized - hope of earning, through the telling, Franklin's forgiveness and some kind of reconciliation. The novel, in its exploration of this relationship, brings forward questions of what can be forgiven, what forgiveness entails, what we owe ourselves and our broadly understood family. Whether knowing the cause of an unforgivable act, whether recognizing the cause as societal or historic or simply not our fault, can lessen the violence of the unforgivable.

It also exposes the deeply moving selflessness of love, while still worrying about the difference between selflessness and selfishness. It explores the contours of this division in the character of Bucky in one of the more surprising and rich representations of humility and grace I've read in recent memory. He is a complex, if oddly unexamined, character in the book. Complex I suppose in that he performs key plot functions and occupies a layered character position; unexamined in these sense that his thoughts and reactions are obscured to us, accessed only in brief dialogue. Still, a poignant character.

One element of the novel that bothered me - at least for the first half - was that I couldn't seem to place it in time or place. There were references to wars - World War II and Korea - that let me loosely place it but in an ahistorical (or perhaps extra-historical) way; and (stunning and beautiful) descriptions of place that left no doubt of a fully realized setting - just no setting with a corresponding place in reality that I could quickly identify. But as I latched on to the themes of storytelling I recognized that my desire to pin this narrative down in time and place was to try and evacuate it of its catholic impulse. This story of guilt, mortality, paternity, loyalty and love should, and does, move us regardless of place or time.

Which is not to say it isn't also particular. It is a story of domestic violence, of poverty and of colonialism while also being a story of one boy making sense of who his father is, his (a)filial responsibilities and his capacity for forgiveness. I'd suggest it is also a book for readers of all stories to think about the responsibilities of listening and our capacity to be moved and changed by what we hear. It is certainly a book you ought to read; a story you ought to attend to.

When's she not reading, Erin Aspenlieder is teaching, running or eating cookies (sometimes all at once). She prefers fiction and books made of paper. She blogs at

Friday, April 18, 2014


Few people would associate magician Harry Houdini with the work of Scotland Yard leading up to WWI or the assassination of the Romanov family in 1918.  Even fewer would be able to make a connection between Arthur Conan Doyle and the illusionist, though the two men had regular contact that was marred by tensions between Doyle’s unrelenting belief in the supernatural and Houdini’s ability to ground all supposed magic in the real world. Galloway exposes these and other aspects of the magician’s life that have been dismissed into the past in a semi-biographical text on Houdini and his killer, Martin Strauss.

Houdini 1899
The story opens with Martin’s visit to a doctor, who tells him that he will eventually lose his mind due to a cognitive dysfunction in Martin’s brain. The character’s need to tell the story of Houdini, and how he killed him twice, is driven by his fear of forgetting crucial events in his life that involved the magician and Martin’s own family.  The narrative then shifts to Houdini’s side of the story and explores his rise to fame with the help of Scotland Yard, for whom Houdini agrees to provide information on people of significance to the organization, like the Romanovs. As the magician becomes increasingly entangled with behind-the-scenes political crimes and scandals, he fights against the hold that the organization has on him and his career. At several points during his shows, his life is put at risk by mysterious and unidentifiable forces, which influences Houdini to disappear from the public eye. 

This is where Martin enters the story. While attending one of Houdini’s shows, Martin sees Houdini and without any explanation, punches him in the stomach, causing Houdini’s appendix to burst, leading to his death. By revisiting his memories, Martin attempts to make sense of his actions, including the events that lead to the loss of his love interest. With a highly unreliable character experiencing mental confusion and memory loss narrates the story, the reader has to decide what’s real and what only exists in the imagination, much like the audience members at Houdini’s shows. The result is a disconcerting narrative that questions the reliability of the mind to understand what it sees.

The Confabulist immediately entrances as the reader is pulled into a world of secret plots, illusions, and the politics that defined America and Europe at the turn of the century. The deceptions that are both purposefully and unintentionally created by the characters heighten the intrigue around Houdini’s life, which elevates Galloway’s book from a mere biography to a complex fictional work. By giving voices to real-life individuals, like Margery Crandon, who was an acclaimed medium during the time period, or Sergei Vasilyevich Zubatov, a dangerous Russian police administrator that operated in Moscow, they emerge from their two-dimensional historical identities and populate Houdini’s world, which adds to the incorporation of the real with the fabricated that occurs throughout the book.

While some parts of The Confabulist might appear to border on the absurd and force the reader to check the historical accuracy of events, the author succeeds in produced an absorbing story that at the very least satisfies the reader’s desire to learn about the reality behind magic tricks.

Alicja Grzadkowska is finishing up her final semester at the University of Guelph before moving on to study Journalism at Ryerson in the fall. Her bookshelf is stacked with yet-to-read fiction titles, which hasn't stopped her from regularly adding to her collection. Traveling to big cities across North America is another one of her obsessions, and one which she hopes to indulge in again this summer.

Monday, April 14, 2014


The Word Exchange is a thought-provoking novel, set in the future of technological superiority. Anana works at one of the few remaining places that produces paper-bound books instead of a computer based alternative. She soon starts to notice things changing at her workplace, and eventually people even become strange, speaking in words that don’t make sense. Before Anana knows it, her world is tipped onto its side and a technological plague forces her to seriously question the world she has gotten so used to.

Alena Graedon does a fantastic job of developing her characters. The future setting can sometimes be difficult for the readers to connect to, but her characters are so real and true that they tied the whole setting together. Graedon incorporates the strange words I previously mentioned in a very subtle but powerful way. When the reader can feel like they are noticing these strange occurrences on their own, it puts them in the centre of the story. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves reading and literature, but also to those who enjoy thrillers. Recently, so many areas in media are involved with zombies and other monster threats. It was a real breath of fresh air to read about a different type of threat, this new language plauge Graedon has thought of. I will definitely keep my eyes peeled for her works in the future. 

Wesley Wilson is a zoology student at the University of Guelph and works on campus at a microbiology lab. When Wesley isn’t studying away, she spends most of her time reading. Anna Karenina is her favourite book, but she enjoys reading a variety of different genres. 


When asked to describe the most important factor in health and recovering from illness, Dr. Judith Orloff provided a one-word answer: surrender. While it is not the recommendation most people would expect to hear from a physician, it is not too surprising, considering her skill set—board-certified psychiatrist, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA, and intuitive healer.

In The Ecstasy of Surrender, Dr. Orloff challenges old beliefs about health, sex, aging, beauty, and money. Divided into twelve chapters, the book contains quizzes, meditations, and practical strategies designed to help the reader “flow with life rather than fighting it or pushing so hard you sabotage yourself.” Dr. Orloff shares stories from her own life and that of her patients clearly demonstrating the strength and power that comes from letting go of obsessive and destructive relationships.

Her advice is spot on, especially in the chapter entitled “The Fifth Surrender: Cultivating Impeccable Communication." In addition to providing insight on finding a soul mate, she discusses boundary setting and effective communication with anger addicts, narcissists, passive aggressive personalities, guilt trippers, and gossips.

Having experienced several personal and family health challenges, I reread the last three Surrenders several times. I was particularly interested in Dr. Orloff’s approach to pain and suffering. She starts by distinguishing between the two states: “Pain consists of the uncomfortable physiological sensations” while suffering is “your thoughts and emotional reactions to the sensations. And she stresses the following fact: “Suffering is amplified by the scary stories you tell yourself about pain.” While the pain will not necessarily disappear, harmonizing with it can dissipate the fear and anxiety.

An excellent reference book chock full of wisdom and humour.

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. In September 2013, Soul Mate Publishing released her debut novel, Between Land and Sea, as an ebook on Amazon. You can visit her website at


Three years make a lot of difference, especially when dealing with epidemics such as polio. Born in 1954, I escaped the clutches of the dreaded virus.

Gail Caldwell was not so lucky. In 1951, she caught polio when she was six months old. While she didn’t experience permanent paralysis, she retained a slight limp that followed her throughout an eventful life, one that Caldwell summarized using the following shorthand description: “Writer, grew up in Texas, slight limp from polio.”

As Caldwell approached midlife, she noticed increasing pain and lameness, exacerbated by the demands of raising Tula, a much loved Samoyed. Fearing the return of the “ghostly and conniving stalker” that had laid dormant for so many years, Caldwell faced an uncertain future until a standard X-ray revealed an unexpected diagnosis: Her hip was “a junkyard of bone” that required total hip replacement surgery.

I was surprised to learn that no health professional had ordered an X-ray in the over twenty years that Caldwell had complained about sprains, injuries, and progressive weakness. And I was shocked by some of the medical “mishaps and half-measures” she described throughout the memoir.

Thankfully, a competent primary physician stepped in and referred Caldwell to an equally competent surgeon who later delivered the following post-op report: “Things went very well. We were able to lengthen the leg by about one and a half to two centimeters, or five eighths of an inch.”

In the midst of her morphine cloud, she grasped the significance of that small measurement. The surgery had restored her ability to walk. What followed was a challenging period of rehabilitation where Gail Caldwell taught her leg to walk again at the age sixty-one.

New Life, No Instructions is an inspiring memoir, brimming with raw courage and the transformative power of unexpected blessings.

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. In September 2013, Soul Mate Publishing released her debut novel, Between Land and Sea, as an ebook on Amazon. You can visit her website at

Sunday, April 13, 2014


In The Full Ridiculous, Mark Lamprell has written a unique exploration of what it means to be alive, and what it means to live. And what most of us forget is really important about living.

The title is inspired by a quote from Zorba the Greek, a book that once inspired Lamprell's protagonist: "Am I not a man? And is a man not stupid? I'm a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe." And so it is with Michael O'Dell. A man with wife, children, house, everything... on the verge of a massive catastrophe. Or, more appropriately, a massive series of catastrophes. We start off big, with O'Dell being launched over the hood of a car. From hospital to home to hell. From there, things quickly unravel, with O'Dell desperately trying to hang on to the few threads that remain.

The Full Ridiculous is a complicated book. Simple on the surface, it would be easy to simply treat it as a farcical romp through the modern day challenges of hanging on to your job, your spouse, your house, your kids and your sanity. And, predictably, there is a time in the book where it would appear that Michael O'Dell is on the verge of losing all of them. But this isn't a predictable book. And while it ends well, the path to the finish line is anything but straight and sure. Lamprell explores profound issues about identity, relationships, love and loss, in a way that is sympathetic and sure-footed.

For me, I knew from the outset that this was going to be a difficult book to read, but a rewarding one. For anyone that has struggled with identity, purpose and meaning, the themes and events in The Full Ridiculous cut a little too close to the bone. Nonetheless, the book is compassionately written, wryly constructed and both hilarious and humanizing. A curious device is that the book is written (almost) entirely in the second person, intermingling you the reader with O'Dell the protagonist. Within pages, you accept this fact as normal. Right until the point where you realize why. I won't spoil the surprise.

This is a delightful book, that I found virtually impossible to put down. The vast majority of it was consumed in one sitting. It is tightly crafted, tautly honed and touchingly haunting. At the end, it leaves you hoping for a little bit more. Except that, really, it has provided you with just enough.

Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).


A book like Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual is hard to review because it defies genre boundaries. As a work of non-fiction, it is both a philosophical treatise and a self-help book.  It is a cultural history, an exposé, and a historical account. It covers subjects as varied as economics, natural disasters, politics, and celebrity. And it is as pessimistic about the present as it is optimistic about the future of the news. The News is a book for anyone interested in the story behind the story: how the news exploits human psychology and how its power over us has the potential to make us better people.

Alain de Botton

The News is also difficult to review because of its unusual structure. The book is comprised of eight large sections, each of which is split into chapters on multiple topics. For example, the “Consumption” section is split into two chapters: “Dining, Travel and Technology” and “Culture.” Each chapter opens with a news item that exemplifies the chapter’s topic, such as a restaurant review, which is followed by numbered, miniature essays. These essays often bleed into one another, but are distinguished by a particular point or argument. In a chapter called “The Details” within the “World News” section, there is a news excerpt from the BBC about the Ugandan government. The next couple of essays go on to criticize, firstly, the news coverage of Uganda—as unemotional and devoid of interest for much of its potential audience—and secondly, the choice of consumers to follow celebrity news more willingly than an unarguably more important piece of world news. Botton goes on to conclude that world news will only “ignite our interest” by not trying to be blindly objective and sterile. By letting the artists and travel writers and poets explore the nuances of a place, they would be able to shed light on the “less obtrusive beauty and tragedy” that makes a country like Uganda more than the latest casualty report. The news should cover real people, and not just the macro-statistics that describe them.

The scope of this humble book is huge. It covers an immense amount of ground in 255 pages that can be read either cover to cover or one section at a time. There is so much information that I had to reread passages just to digest their multiple meanings. Like a scientist, Botton uses firsthand experience to explore how current events are being communicated to the public. He analyzes the results of his investigation and is able to make conclusions about what news actually does and what it should be able to do. The news is not only the main character, but it is simultaneously the protagonist, the antagonist, and the test subject. And Botton is not only putting the news under a microscope, he is examining human behaviour and what it reveals about human nature. An entire section is dedicated to “Celebrity.” After examining the typical celebrities of ancient Greece, Botton illuminates the relationship between the human qualities that a society values and who they choose to emulate. Those ancient Greek statesmen, athletes, and musicians were considered worthy guides to follow. What Botton goes on to criticize is neither that we have celebrities nor that we want to emulate them, but rather that they should be used more productively, “as case studies to be pored over and rigorously dissected with a basic question in mind: What can I absorb from this person”? News coverage of celebrities shouldn’t evoke jealousy or ambition, it should teach us how to be better versions of ourselves.

After reading this book, I felt ashamed of my own habits of news consumption, and rightly so. It made me think of how I consume news—where I get it from, what I click on, what I choose to read—and then what I do with news once I have digested it. Truthfully, I might bring it up with a friend as a topic of conversation, or bring it up on a date to make myself seem smarter, but the reality is that even the phrase “news consumption” is incredibly passive, immature and, in a word, gluttonous. But all of that is okay. By reading this book, I have become more conscious of my own habits. I am more aware of my power as a literate, semi-intellectual citizen of the world. I now realize my responsibility to be an active participant in the news—to take ownership of what I spend my time reading.  Because it matters.

Alain de Botton expresses an infectious optimism towards the future of the news, and the world, that is undeniable. In a later chapter, he states that the reviews made by cultural journalists “should direct our lonely, confused, scared and stricken souls to those works of culture most likely to help us survive and thrive.” As a cultural journalist, I believe that both The News and the news are worth your time.

Michelle Hunniford is a PhD student studying animal behaviour and welfare.  Poultry specialist.  Grammar enthusiast.  Orwellian and Darwinian.

Monday, April 7, 2014


I love debut novels. It's exciting to read something that you know somebody has worked really hard on in order to break into the publishing field, and fun to discover new talents. A debut novel can also be extremely telling about the writer; whether they are destined to go far in the literary world or crash and burn along the curbsides.

Rjurik Davidson's debut, Unwrapped Sky, is undoubtedly in the former group. It's a very beautiful novel that was obviously constructed with a lot of care. The world-building is phenomenal; there is enough detail given to make the city of Caeli-Amur feel like a real place, yet enough gaps are left to allow expansion in further writings. The pseudo-Greek mythology used to construct the city doesn't feel like feels almost weirdly natural, like a half-memory or potential path that was never taken. This in turn allows the reader to relate to the characters, which is advantageous, as in this situation there are three.

The first is Boris Autec, a former cityworker who has risen to the lofty position of a House officiate, a member of the form of government that Caeli-Amur is run by. He is bound and determined to eliminate the rebellious Maximilian, the leader of a seditionist group whose goal is to overthrow the houses and free Caeli-Amur's citizenry. To defeat him, Boris sends a spy into Max's group – the philosopher-assassin Kata, a troubled girl who owes more to the Houses than she is comfortable with. Throw in a few Greek creatures, mysterious decaying overlords, demigods, and warped magic system (the more you use it, the more it kills you) and you have the makings for a very special novel.

I very much look forward to revisiting the city of Caeli-Amur in the future, and would urge you all to join me as soon as you can.

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