Sunday, November 15, 2015


Written in the third person, Richard B. Wright’s memoir reads like a novel, yet is highly personal. When you think about tackling several decades of your life, it can be daunting to capture what that little girl or boy inside you was really like. Wright’s choice of using the third person is a wonderful tool to frame his life story.

This entertaining read starts out in Midland, Ontario, where Wright grew up during the 30s and 40s. At that time, the Midland port, with shipbuilding capabilities and large granaries, was a hive of activity that supported wartime commerce opportunities.
Having read many author biographies and interviews, I so enjoyed the commonplace human things that Wright includes in his memoir. Early in his career, for instance, while in a sales role, he states he had in his "new attaché case, 3 sales memos, a tuna fish sandwich and a paperback copy of Zorba the Greek…” which painted a delightful picture of the balance between the banalities of work life and learning his craft. 
Halfway through the book, I’m thinking, I like how this young boy has evolved to adulthood. He was creative and lucky in landing his first few jobs by that age-old method of sending out masses of letters offering up his skills. His first few bosses were interested in his humour and talent for using his words well. It made me want to meet this character – the man who would become “author Richard B. Wright.” Another warm image that resonated for me was Wright’s early and steadfast awareness of his love of words, his desire to be around them every day, and for words to factor in his daily work. While I might share that love of words, I, along with many others, remain in the "wannabe" writer camp!
Wright recalls advice from early mentors that “he had to remember that a serious writer was interested not just in providing entertainment but also in using the power of language to understand experience.”
Another aspect of Wright’s ‘writerliness’ that I enjoyed was the varied techniques he employed to tackle the work of writing, which includes determining how to overcome the inevitable struggles. “Thinking and feeling his way into this book … after a while (he) began to feel and sense those times…” of which he is writing, captures how he launches into a new project. Clearly having an innate penchant for early editing, he “knew he had to overcome this compulsion to tinker endlessly with his sentences.” Wright would often reflect on his father’s snow shoveling advice, evolved as a result of the regular and heavy snowfalls of Midland winters: “Just go through and don’t try to make it perfect. You can widen it later.” He applied this to his editing process over time.

As I came to his third last chapter, “The Age of Longing”, his memoir was beginning to feel like a mystery novel with the ever-mounting tension suggesting that a difficult life experience was imminent. Not so. As it turns out, Wright’s tension was more about what is usually experienced by published novelists who regularly have the “will (I) be able to write another book that the publisher would accept” type of anxiety. Considering this, my admiration for Wright grew after seeing the impressive list of 13 books that he has written to date.

I appreciated his comments following his mother’s death: “After the death of parents we make our own grim calculations; now orphans in middle age we consider, if only briefly, the time remaining to us…” This leads me to the one area of disappointment in Wright’s memoir: I would like to have heard more about this talented man’s emotional and social experiences. We’re not given much understanding of the nature of his family life, or that with friends and colleagues. References to his wife are positive. His wife Phyllis clearly has supported him throughout his career, including moving to different locations and changing occupations from time to time.

But as I write this and re-read some passages, perhaps there is more about his inner life than I realized. When Wright reflects on his own journal comments during his writing process, “… I offer a few random notes from journals, kept under lock and key lest they fall into the wrong hands and my lazy and infrequent observations be revealed for what they are, a perfunctory record of banality…” So apologies, Mr Wright if there is more here than my remarks suggest and, I would be delighted to know more about you as a husband, friend, or father should a ‘memoir sequel’ be something you consider!

Wright’s closing essay, “What Happens When We Read Stories”, is brilliant. He writes: “Without words we are reduced in our capacity to endure vicissitudes or express our wonder at being alive.” May I express my sincere gratitude to Richard B. Wright for sharing his life’s work to date in this beautifully crafted memoir. He provided me with inspiration and entertainment. I expect it will for others: readers and wannabe-writers alike. 

Jennifer Mackie has lived in Guelph for over 40 years, is a business consultant with never enough hobby time for reading, sports, online puzzles and quilting. She reads for entertainment and to discover the world of ‘curious’. Along with finding value in the story, she enjoys experiencing different writer’s styles and methods for how they entice one into their made up worlds.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Soundless is one of my favourite reads of the year! This book simply can’t be described in full without spoiling it, but I do highly recommend that it goes on everyone’s TBR list! Richelle Mead has created this amazing one-of-a-kind concept, an exotic and gorgeous setting, and an extremely likeable main character.

This novel has one of the most unique and interesting concepts I’ve read in quite a while. In Soundless, the all characters but the main are deaf. The way the world is imagined without sound is extremely intriguing. Sign language is used instead of words, and the news is painted by apprentices. What is really special about Soundless is the fact that since the characters can’t hear, there is no actual dialog. Yes, the characters communicate, but there are no quotation marks, since they don’t actually speak… They sign. When they communicate, the words are instead italicized, so don’t worry about the book being hard to follow.

Soundless is set in a mountain village in China, which I have always wanted to visit. Something about China is so majestic and is the perfect place for a book like this to take place. The descriptions of the setting are so beautiful and vivid, so the reader can actually see the mountains and the mines. These descriptions make this book even more incredible than it already is!

I really enjoyed the main character in Soundless, Fei. She is an artist, and since I have been really into art books lately, I especially enjoyed this characteristic. Fei is the only person in her village who can hear, and it must be terrifying hearing sound for the first time and not be able to describe it to anyone. She handles it well and uses her ability to help her friend. Fei doesn’t whine, which can be irritating in a book, and is quite strong. She is actually the perfect character for this book, and I’m glad that she is so enjoyable.

Soundless has a super unique concept, a breathtaking setting, and a likeable main character. This book is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year! If you are a fan of mythology, this is a must-read!

- Olivia Whetstone

Sunday, November 1, 2015


My first encounter with Mr. William Shakespeare was in a Grade 7 English class. We studied Romeo and Juliet, watched the modernized film version with Leonardo DiCaprio, and acted out scenes from the play. A decade later, I am delving back into Shakespeare with the role of Malvolio in a Laurier production of Twelfth Night. Our director’s vision is to be free with time and era, providing some fresh air to the play. This seems to be the trend with presenting Shakespearean plays today as well as in film, opera, and other works – reinterpreting old classics in contemporary ways.

Jeanette Winterson’s new novel The Gap of Time is indeed such a modernization. In fact, it is one of a series of retellings of Shakespeare's work by a plethora of renowned authors such as Margaret Atwood and Tracy Chevalier. The Gap Time is a "cover" of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which has little to do with the infamously cold season. For those not familiar with the 17th century play or intimidated by Shakespeare’s early modern English, Winterson helpfully provides a summary of the play at the outset of the novel. For those less faint of heart (such as myself), reading the original Shakespeare will make comparing and appreciating Winterson’s cover much easier and more interesting.

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale centres on the crazed King Leontes of Sicilia, who accuses his wife Hermione of adultery along with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia. Their infant daughter, once born, is banished and raised by a shepherds, only to return to her native Sicilia at the close of the play to be reunited with her family. Winterson updates the novel to the present, with many clever name changes and surprises. The antiquated Kings Leontes and Polixenes become Leo and Xeno, two childhood friends who in Winterson’s novel were at one point also lovers as teenagers. Leontes’ pregnant wife Hermione is reincarnated as a famous French singer named Mimi. Their daughter retains her name of Perdita, which still refers to her exile.

Winterson’s retelling is substantially darker than the Shakespeare play. Leontes’ sexual obsession is exaggerated, the famous bear which attacks Antigonus is translated into murderous robbers, and the bucolic shepherd scenes are scrapped for an African-American family living on modest means. Winterson’s novel explores Shakespeare’s themes of Othello-esque jealousy, class, and family in further depth than a play is able. She also underpins her rendition with further themes, many of which would not have been comprehensible in Shakespeare’s time – technology, sexual identity (or lack thereof), and celebrity culture.

Winterson’s tale edges more on the perverse and sexually charged at times, which creates a new “Leo” that is perhaps more understandable to modern audiences in his sexually-charged, businessman guise than a King that seems to descend into madness by accusing his pregnant Queen of adultery. Mimi is a more talented Hermione, but she does not die, become a statue, and then magically return to living human form again. Following the original Hermione storyline would certainly not be as credible to modern audiences as realistic fiction – unless Winterson decided to write The Gap of Time as a sci-fi fantasy. Oddly enough, as musical as many of Shakespeare’s plays are, there is not much music in the original Tale. Winterson rectifies this, with Mimi’s vibrant musical career, Shep’s piano bar, the HollyMollyPolly band, and many other occasions for music-making.

The Gap of Time is a meticulously constructed and interesting re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Although in English-speaking countries Shakespeare may seem ever-present in classrooms, there is still so much to discover in his brooding and humourous work, especially remarkable given that he predated the field of psychology by so many centuries. Winterson affirms that Shakespeare is as as relevant as ever in his mastery of the art of storytelling and his probing insights into the human condition that still ring true today. From The Gap of Time, to the Met’s new, controversial production of Verdi’s operatic adaptation of Othello which has done away with blackface, to the upcoming film adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Shakespeare is very much alive and kicking, in a countless array of guises and disguises that continue to startle and amuse contemporary audiences. I look forward to recreating my own version of Shakespearean magic with my reincarnation of Malvolio in January. In the mean time, I have lines to learn!

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical vocalist. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages fluently (with a few in progress). After obtaining degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, it became clear that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Some Turbid Night. Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Timothy Snyder’s previous book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, was well received in 2010. Since then, Putin left one of his massive estates, took a Stalin pill, ordered the assassination of more of his critics, and seized the Crimean peninsula in March 2014. This last action finally provided Russia with a fresh water port. Putin’s quislings then invaded eastern Ukraine, and infamously shot down a Malaysian Airline jet, killing all 298 passengers. Subsequently, world wide invasions of talking heads landed on many beaches. During that time, Snyder’s live interviews proved him to be one of the most informed and reliable commentators on the history leading up to, and during, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. In Black Earth he returns to Second World War Ukraine, Poland, and other east European countries to examine in close and fine detail the devastation wrought upon these countries and their Jewish populations by Hitler and Stalin.

Black Earth is not a book that adds some incremental history to what we know about interwar and war time eastern Europe. It is a wide ranging and detailed history of the devastating decisions and actions taken by Hitler and German officials, as well as those taken by Stalin, that led to the outbreak of the Second World War, and to the genocide of millions of Jews and other innocent people. Snyder writes knowledgeably, and looks clearly at the decisions that many officials made in many countries to betray the innocent into the hands of Hitler and Stalin’s murderers.

During the time covered by Black Earth, the borders between many countries changed significantly, or disappeared, only to reappear in sometimes unrecognizable forms. In some cases, large areas of some countries became part of other countries. And small areas such as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia simply disappeared. Without maps, much of Snyder’s history would have often been difficult to follow. However, he has provided extensive and detailed maps throughout Black Earth—an average of two maps in each chapter, and on some occasions three or four maps in other chapters. These maps ensure that the close reader may easily follow the often complex, yet unfailingly clear history that unfolds in each chapter.

I say “close reader” while recalling that Michael R. Marrus in The New York Times Book Review of September 6, 2015 wrote, “I suspect that Snyder will have lost many readers by this point” (About 60-70 pages into the book). I was about 130 pages into the book when I happened to read the Marrus review, and I was deeply engaged by Snyder’s clarity and detail, as I examined each map. Maybe Marrus wasn’t attending to the maps.

Two hundred pages into the book, and Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jewish people has not yet begun. But once any country is occupied by German forces, or by Russian forces, some members of the local police, military, and some residents take up arms and begin evicting Jews from their houses, and murdering them wherever they see a Jew. This is very difficult reading. In each country, the responses vary. Some residents volunteer to betray Jews into German hands. Other residents, at great personal risk to themselves, hide Jews in their houses, and care for them. Sometimes local police forces take part in killing innocent Jews. At other times, police officers sometimes save as many Jews as they can.

If you have an interest in this period of European history, Black Earth is a compassionate, wide-ranging, and troubling history of that time. Snyder concludes this fine book with informed warnings about how easily the murder and genocide of innocents occurs, and has occurred since the Second World War. He surveys how these genocides are occurring, and touches briefly on how these terrible choices will occur yet again. Snyder’s compassion extends to his friends. When his colleague Tony Judt was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Snyder was one of Judt’s caregivers. At different times, Snyder and Judt have both quoted the Polish Army Officer Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to enter Auschwitz, in order to understand it: “I bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.” (The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, p. 13).

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Thirty-seven years ago, in 1978, Patti Smith shook up the music world with the release of her album Horses. “Gloria” and “Redondo Beach” from that album can still get the joint jumping. In the same year she released her underarm album, Easter. “Because the Night” from that album is still powerful, and “Easter” is a lament to end lamenting.

In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the prestigious title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres—France’s highest honour for an artist.

In 2010 she published Just Kids. It became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and won a National Book Award. The American writer Joan Didion said this about Just Kids: “This book is so honest and pure as to count as a pure rapture.” And Johnny Depp landed long enough to praise her book as well: “Patti Smith has graced us with a poetic masterpiece, a rare and privileged invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached.” I remember not being able to put Just Kids down until I finished reading it.

It’s 2015 and Patti Smith has just released another book, M Train, a reference to something she saw in a shot glass after two tequilas, “I closed my eyes and saw a green train with an M in a circle; a faded green like the back of a praying mantis.” (p. 123). Smith never repeats herself and M Train alternates between memoir, diary, travelogue, real estate deal, good meal/bad meal stories, and her lust for more and more good coffee, and impossibly good stories, that in another writer’s hands, you simply could not believe were true.

For example, how could the following story be true? Smith is attending a conference of the Continental Drift Club in Iceland, and is excited to be invited to photograph the chess table where Boris Spassky played Bobby Fischer in 1972 in “The Chess Match of the Century” in the breathless deathless words of The New York Times. She lingers in the room where the modest table is preserved, and tries to frame the table in her camera viewfinder to get the best photograph. Then she has the honour of meeting Fischer, who begins to spew “a string of obscene and racially repellent references that morphed into paranoiac conspiracy rants.”

“Look, you’re wasting your time, I said. I can be just as repellent as you, only about different subjects.”

Fischer has finally met more than his match, and settles down and eventually he and Smith spend part of the evening singing songs such as “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Fischer in falsetto. True story.

Could the following story be true as well? Smith is staying in a big Hotel in London. She’s anticipating the forthcoming Cracker TV marathon staring Robbie Coltrane, about to be aired in Britain.

(Haven’t seen Cracker yet? Go to Thomas Entertainment on Baker Street in Guelph now and rent it before the other person reading this review rents it. Now, back to Smith’s story...)

Standing by the elevator I suddenly felt a presence beside me. We turned at the same moment and stared at one another. I was stunned to find Robbie Coltrane, as if I’d willed him, some days ahead of the Cracker marathon.

“I’ve been waiting for you all week, I said impetuously.”

“Here I am, he laughed.”

And here she is. On the M Train. I couldn’t put her second book down either.

Read more from James Reid at 

Sunday, October 4, 2015


How do we become the people we become? Where do we start? What are the forces that direct and shape us? Where does it all end, and why? These are the big, meaty questions so deftly poised by Don Gillmor in Long Change. Gillmor, also the author of Canada: A People’s History, has in his third work of fiction written what could possibly be considered the great Canadian novel. It’s an epic tale that feels a little bit like a mashup between The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby, with the Canadian oil industry as a backdrop.

The story arc of Long Change is vast, as its title suggest. Gillmor explores the life of Ritt Devlin, a tale that starts with a boy of fifteen running from his past and present in Texas towards a future in the oil patch in Canada. It is a saga that will take 70 years to tell, shaped by internal forces and external circumstances. There is an awesome intersection of places, people, and events that provides resonant believability. Gillmor’s characters are principled but flawed; as readers, we get to explore exactly what principles Devlin and others are prepared to compromise, the consequences that result as principles erode and just how flawed people can become as a result.

What I most loved about the novel was the depth and richness that Gillmor has embedded into the Long Change. The book is firmly rooted in the oil industry, from the hot, back-breaking work of roughnecks at remote wellheads to the overheated, cut-throat world of deal-making and corporate competition. The evolution of Calgary and Alberta—socially, physically, and politically—from the 1950s through today, is portrayed with an uncanny eye for detail and nuance. The growth of western Canada is in many respects the story of oil; the story of oil is the narrative structure that drives Gillmor’s efforts. The landmarks and events of Calgary are brought to vivid life through the relating of how oil fortunes were made, complexly structured for tax purposes, lost and made again.

While a work of fiction, the Long Change also weaves significant actual world events into its overall structure, Devlin's thriving and striving played out against the backdrop of the wildcatting of the early years of oil development in Alberta, the National Energy Program, the decline of the Soviet Union and the opening of the far north for drilling and exploration. The detail and authority that Gillmor brings to describing life and leverage in the oil industry is nothing short of exceptional.

Long Change works on a number of levels, which is an integral part of its overall appeal. It screams of a sense of place, not just in its descriptions of Alberta but also of the wild wests of emerging oil centres like Africa in the 1980s and Russia in the 1990s. The characters are well developed and entirely realistic, wrestling in equal with petty grievances and profound ambition. It provides a gritty and realistic portrayal of the hardscrabble life on the front lines of the oil industry, the mercenary world of political lobbying and corporate dealmaking, as well as the thousands of petty personal dramas that play out on the sidelines. 

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). 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


The first time I saw Wab Kinew was at a speaking engagement in April 2013. Best known as the dynamic host of the acclaimed CBC documentary series 8th Fire, the journalist/broadcaster-cum-indigenous-spokesperson was the guest of the Halton Catholic District School Board, educating the small audience in Oakville on the Idle No More movement. He was engaging, informative, personable, entertaining. There was a bit of an unexpected moment outside of the presentation and friendly banter. An indigenous woman in the audience dismissed Kinew as not really indigenous enough because he had chosen to wear a business suit to this event. Kinew handled this situation with deftness, class, and vigour. More on this later.

In The Reason You Walk, Kinew recounts his journey reconnecting with his father after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The memoir is as much Kinew's story of coming into himself as an educated (both formally and traditionally) Anishinaabe man, weaving his own experiences in with his father's life story. Kinew starts at the beginning of his father's life. Named Tobansonakwut (Low Flying Cloud), Kinew's father was born into a traditional family with early spiritual growth until the moment his childhood ends as he is sent to St Mary's residential school. "Renamed" Peter Kelly, Tobansonakwut's story here is much like many survivors' stories as recounted at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings across Canada from 2010-2014. Religious conversion, mistreatment, abuse, but also also stolen moments of joy, like the company of a kind priest or skating on an outdoor hockey rink.

When Tobansonakwut finally returns home at 16, it was not the home he remembered: his father gone, younger siblings still in residential school, and am older brother already an alcoholic. Tobansonakwut quickly leaves and heads to work, and while his story of hard work and racism and poor decision-making is not unusual, what does stand out from this story is a persistence to not be shackled by the injustices he has experienced. Tobansonakwut keeps circling back to the traditional culture, his deep connection to the spirituality from both indigenous and Christian (here Catholic) perspectives, a retention of Anishinaabemowein (the language), and eventually, cleaned up, political action, activism and forgiveness.

The strongest parts in this memoir occur when Kinew talks about indigenous traditions and ceremonies. Kinew provides his audience with an insider's view of some sacred ceremonies such as Sundance. In my experience in the indigenous community, many elders and knowledge carriers closely guard ceremonial practices. One elder said to me this summer, "Everything else has been taken from me. This is all I have. I am not yet ready to give this up by sharing it." Another perspective is that there is power in knowledge. Educating people about the importance and sacredness of ceremony, the sacrifice, responsibility and humility that accompany ceremony may lead to better understanding by those outside the community. Kinew is careful to provide context, explaining, for example, the responsibility that he had by being given his father's war bonnet, that the pain of piercing at Sundance is an act of selflessness as it shows that prayers and hopes for others are more important than personal comfort. It was these Sundance scars that Kinew offered to bare to the woman in Oakville who challenged his business attire. As he removed his jacket he asked her how he is a different person with, or without the jacket.

Kinew talks about the forces within indigenous community that divide (like the woman in Oakville), and those who work tirelessly behind the scenes for change for indigenous peoples. In one poignant scene, Tobansonakwut adopts the archbishop with Kinew presiding over the ceremony. The image of the meshing of two cultures is striking:  "The archbishop raised the eagle feathers in his left hand... He wore the bright star quilt over his black robe and Roman collar. This Catholic holy man stood in the centre of a traditional Anishinaabe building adorned with the accouterments of both cultures." Beautiful.

Ningosha anishaa wenji-bimoseyan is a line from an Anishinaabe travelling song traditionally sung at the end of a gathering to wish everyone safe journeys. The line roughly translated into English, I am the reason you walk, gives Kinew's memoir its title. Kinew notes that there are layers of meaning within this line, as with most phrases in Anishinaabemowein. Kinew examines how all the layers are intertwined in his life, how simply the ebb and flow of life bring different layers to the forefront for different people at different times, how the gravity of watching the decline of a beloved father brings the family closer together as they consider all the reasons they walk.

- Colinda Clyne

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Growing up between cultures definitely enriched my upbringing. I heard captivating stories from my Chinese family and I loved watching costume dramas set in Imperial China. However, one story I definitely did not hear from my mother as a child was that of Sai Jinhua. Her fascinating life as an international courtesan may not be children’s bedtime book material, but it has nevertheless been celebrated in operas, films, and other forms. Alexandra Curry’s debut novel The Courtesan is perhaps a first in another way as well. Curry introduces the West to this unique and multi-faceted woman, whose cross-continental escapades have become the stuff of legend.

Sai Jinhua lived in the tumultuous and intriguing turn of the twentieth century. Europe and America have made inroads upon the final dynasty of Imperial China. Curry dedicates The Courtesan to Sai Jinhua’s early years, from her tragic childhood to her rise as a Chinese icon. Jinhua is joined by a cast of largely fictional but nonetheless compelling and plausible characters. The Courtesan begins with the execution of Jinhua’s father, a mandarin who is beheaded at the command of the emperor. Her father’s first wife spitefully sells Jinhua, leading her into a house of prostitution. There she has her feet broken and bound at the hands of the madam of the house, Lao Mama. She soon begins “bed business” as soon as she turns twelve with clients multiple times her age. Fortunately, she finds camaraderie with Suyin, a maid whose friendship will sustain her for years to come. Jinhua is eventually saved from her harsh destiny when Master Hong purchases her as his concubine. When Hong is selected as the European emissary, Jinhua follows him to Europe. She resides in Palais Kinsky in Vienna, encounters the aristocracy, befriends a servant named Resi, and falls in “Great Love” with Count von Waldersee. However, her idyllic life as an exotic adventurer is interrupted when she is brought back to China and both the fate of herself and China take a drastic turn for the worse.

Curry’s detail is both sumptuous and heart-wrenching. Especially at the beginning of the novel, Curry describes Jinhua’s plight in candid, cruel detail, from the fierce piety of Timu and her Buddhist rosary to the sadism of Lao Mama, represented by her brutal emerald ring. Jinhua’s foot-binding and deflowering by Banker Chang are described in particularly gruesome detail. Yet, Jinhua’s encounter with Empress Elisabeth, excursions with Resi, and moments with Count von Waldersee are charming and beautifully portrayed. The simultaneous juxtaposition of privilege and violence in The Courtesan is reminiscent of Puccini’s unfinished opera Turandot, where his gorgeous melodies juxtapose with the title character’s icy brutality. Fans of books such as Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha will also enjoy this tale of a fascinating woman whose life extended far past her profession as a courtesan.

However, Alexanda Curry has made some interesting alterations to Jinhua’s story. In the novel, Jinhua’s venture into prostitution seems to occur earlier in her life than usually documented. Master Hong’s first wife also did not commit suicide out of jealousy in reality. Jinhua in fact did travel much of Europe besides Vienna, and the true nature of her relationship with Count von Waldersee remains unknown. Jinhua’s equally fascinating scandal-ridden later life is also not explored, including her reputed saving of Beijing using her German, later marriages, and prison sentence. However, Curry, acknowledges this in the Author’s Note, and in fact her literary choices are quite rewarding. By setting Jinhua’s European voyage solely in Vienna, Curry streamlines the plot and allows more time to explore the locale in more depth rather than flitting between cities. The interpolation and expansion of both fictional and historical characters adds emotional dimension and further drama to The Courtesan. Though potentially contentious, Curry’s creative choices result in a unique interpretation of Jinhua that is carefully constructed and thoughtfully fashioned. It is a reimagining of Jinhua which is sensitive and nuanced, while positing some interesting hypotheses for the contradictions and gaps in Jinhua’s real life story. Of special note is Curry’s idiomatic use of Mandarin in unaccented pinyin, which was a pleasant surprise for me, as I speak Mandarin. Curry also uses German in the Vienna chapter and the use of both languages further immerses the reader in the changing sights and sounds of Jinhua’s cross-cultural life.

As a great fan of historical fiction, I am sometimes disheartened by the inundation of the genre with copious amounts of Eurocentric fiction, which can tend toward the formulaic and familiar. However, Curry’s book takes a brave direction, exploring China’s vibrant tapestry of history. The Courtesan reminds me of why I fell in love with historical fiction in the first place: when it’s done well, it showcases fascinating and well-written stories that are all the more remarkable since the characters were once living, breathing human beings as we are now. The Courtesan is a fascinating opportunity to delve back into a time where bound feet, emperors, and courtesans existed – reminders of both the beauty and cruelty of the human condition that still remain today, albeit in different forms.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages fluently (with a few in progress). After obtaining degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, it became clear that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Some Turbid Night. Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Bestselling author Dr. Brené Brown doesn’t waste time delving into her message. On the cover, she provides a succinct, two-sentence summary: “If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fail. This is a book about what it takes to get back up.”

In the introduction, she is even more direct (and vulnerable) when describing her own ability to rise strong: “I’m not great at falling and feeling my way back.”

So why should we listen to her message?

Very simply, Dr. Brown has the ability to not only write and speak about vulnerability but to also live with it. Throughout the book, she provides many examples of her struggles, not sparing any of the details. I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled, “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws,” where Dr. Brown describes her encounters with these unsavoury characters and also includes her own experience as a chubby little sewer rat in a battered jacket and torn jeans.

In addition to sharing her own stories of struggle, she interviewed a wide range of people: teachers, clergy, parents, couples in long-term relationships, artists, military personnel, leaders of Fortune 500 companies. From her research, she concluded that the Rising Strong process is the same, regardless of circumstances such as divorce, death, job loss, and workplace conflict. With practice, each life challenge can be addressed using a unique set of 3 Rs—Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution.

In the Reckoning step, we recognize and develop a healthy curiosity about our emotions. Instead of labelling ourselves as failures, we should simply recognize that emotions and feelings are in play. And not be afraid to ask ourselves about triggers and strong emotional reactions. While the instructions sound straightforward, Dr. Brown reminds us that shutting down or disengaging is the usual default.

In the Rumbling step, we get honest about the “stories” we have been making up about our struggles. Dr. Brown suggests that we engage our creativity and write SFDs (sloppy first drafts). The process is clearly stated: “Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”

The Revolution is the final step of the Rising Strong process. Here, we integrate the lessons learned during the Rumble.

Rising Strong is an excellent book, chock full of Dr. Brown’s trademark wisdom and humour.

Joanne Guidoccio is the author of A Season for Killing Blondes, Between Land and Sea, and The Coming of Arabella. Visit her website at

Sunday, August 30, 2015


Growing up for me was eventful but challenging. My immigrant parents were tight on cash and journeyed from city to city across the continent looking for work. When we finally landed in small-town Ontario, I was bullied by my mostly Caucasian classmates for my race and sexuality. However, among all of my struggles, the weight of being gay pressed heaviest upon me. After many years of guilt, fear, and uncertainty, I finally came out to my parents at age twenty. I was pleasantly surprised to eventually discover the support and acceptance of my parents and friends. However, it has not always been easy for the LGBT+ community to find acceptance and belonging. Most of us identifying as LGBT+ were born into straight households disconnected from our isolated struggles and unable to pass down generations of events, memories, and solace. Thus, works such as The Gay Revolution are critical in establishing a common sense of identity, history, and remembrance for the LGBT+ community. Lillian Faderman’s groundbreaking new tome is a monumental and important history of gay rights that draws our attention to the struggles of the queer community, past and present.

Clocking in at over 800 pages, The Gay Revolution is a commanding addition to anyone’s bookshelf. Yet Faderman’s love letter to LGBT+ rights is captivating, amusing, and shocking, making it a necessary addition to anyone’s bookshelf. Despite its length, it is inclusive yet focused, centring mainly on the struggle for lesbian and gay rights in the United States beginning in the 1950s. As a Canadian reading the book, I eagerly anticipate an equally well-written version from the Canadian perspective. Yet, with its setting in the United States, The Gay Revolution introduces us to a uniquely divided and complicated country with wildly opposing camps and an incredibly heterogenous population. Faderman embarks upon this ambitious voyage with both meticulously researched detail and cheeky irony.

The Gay Revolution begins with socially charged 1950s America. We witness demeaning and deceptive bar raids where police coerced gay suspects into arrest. Concerned families with misplaced intentions would send homophile youth to mental institutions where electroshocking and drug-induced vomiting routinely took place. We discover early civil rights groups such as Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis, which created united fronts for gays and lesbians. We are tossed into the days of Stonewall, a surprising riot which caused mayhem as well as opening the eyes of the public to the plight and power of the gay community. In the decades leading to the end of the 20th century, we see gays fired from government positions due to supposed Cold War “Communist spying” as well as military witch hunts. We sift through decades upon decades of legal suits, which crumbled sodomy and marriage laws bit by hard-earned bit. We meet inspiring activists such as Frank Kameny as well impassioned zealots defending “family rights” and the “sanctity of marriage”. Anita Bryant certainly takes the cake (or should we say, pie) as the Queen of unexpectedly strong anti-gay activists, whose efforts at battling her gay enemies ended with a pie to her face and a performing career in ruins. We also encounter moving accounts, such as that of Charlene Strong, barred from sitting in the ambulance and entering the hospital room of her partner Kate Fleming, who drowned in a flash flood at home and was listed at death as “unmarried”.

The US has certainly come a long way since the times when police officers could arrest gays in bars under the pretense of seducing them and firing “homophiles” from the workplace was standard practice. In fact, since I began reading the preview copy of The Gay Revolution, it is already outdated. SCOTUS (The US Supreme Court) has since struck down DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act), thus paving the way to the legalization of same-sex marriage nationally in the United States. Exciting news indeed, but it is only the beginning of a continued struggle for equality and understanding. Many churches still condemn gays as abominations, trans and bisexual individuals struggle to make their voices heard in a sea of sexual identities, and scores of other countries in the world still arrest, imprison, and even murder those not belonging to the heterosexual norm.

Nevertheless, the incredible progress of queer rights are emblazoned upon the pages of The Gay Revolution. As the US joins Canada in marriage equality at last, it’s a sobering opportunity to appreciate how far we have had to come and how far we have yet to go in order to gain equality and freedom for all sexual identities worldwide. The Gay Revolution is an epic and inspiring crown of LGBT+ literature. I highly recommend it for any human of the homo sapiens persuasion - a reminder of both the cruelty of the human condition as well as its power to motivate and galvanize powerful change for the better.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages fluently (with a few in progress). After obtaining degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, it became clear that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Some Turbid Night. Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


After requesting to review this book, I wondered if Jacob Fugger really was the richest man who ever lived. I Googled it and guess what? There are several claimants to that title – Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates. Bill Gates? Sorry, you aren’t even top 10, and that was back at your peak.

Most websites show a ruler of Mali in the early 14th century to be number one. Be that as it may, Jacob Fugger was certainly the richest man of his period and his effects on business may be greater than any of his rivals. Until Fugger the Catholic Church prohibited charging interest on debts (or ‘usury’), which makes lending to any but the most solvent and trustworthy rather a risk, and consequently economies remained small. Fugger was almost as much politician as businessman, and through payoffs, favours, and buying of positions of influence for himself and lackeys he was able to persuade Pope Leo to issue a papal bill legitimizing interest.

Another practice that Fugger used to crush his competitors was double-entry bookkeeping. Until his time, businessmen jotted figures down on scraps of paper without any sort of organization. Italians had developed a better method and Fugger brought this knowledge back to Germany and revolutionized accounting in that country. He also had the audacity to ask the king to pay back a loan, something that just wasn’t done. And the king paid! 

Greg Steinmetz's book suggests that Fugger was a partial sponsor of Magellan, and details various political intrigues used to acquire a virtual monopoly on European copper and, to a lesser extent, silver. He also established the oldest social housing complex still in existence.

Recommended reading for a glimpse into a fascinating period of history.

- Steve Lidkea

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about sex, be it about the new sex-ed curriculum in Ontario public schools, or about questions of consent raised by the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, or even about the LGBT actors in such TV shows as Orange Is the New Black and Sense 8. A lot of talk, sure, but how much of that talk brings something original and challenging to the conversation?

In a thoughtful nonfiction book, The Sex Myth, Rachel Hills explores the great significance Western society places on sexuality, and offers a refreshing new perspective on the challenges that have arisen in our age of supposed sexual freedom. “Where once we were condemned for being too sexual,” she writes, “today we are admonished for not being sexual enough.” She goes on to explain that while we’ve done away with many of the old taboos around sex and pleasure, “we have replaced them with new anxieties around performance, desirability, and what it means to be ‘normal.’”

What follows is part social commentary and part pop culture expose, mixing in-depth research with dozens of personal anecdotes from a myriad of voices across the English speaking world. Ranging in topics affecting all groups, be they straight or gay, male or female, conservative or liberal, The Sex Myth considers how our assumptions about sexuality have shaped and continue to shape how we think about sex and how this thinking affects our daily lives.

Wildly accessible and compelling to read, The Sex Myth makes for an important addition to the ongoing discussion of sex and sexuality.

While working as a glass cutter by day, Z. S. Roe spends most of his free time drinking tea and writing. His writings have appeared in various publications, including The Mammoth Book of Quick and Dirty Erotica and the 13th issue of Dark Moon Digest. Most recently, his short story “Off-Script” appeared in Joypuke II. You can visit his website at

Monday, August 10, 2015


Given the scope of ideas that Margaret Heffernan brings to the fore in Beyond Measure:The Big Impact of Small Changes, I was surprised when I was handed the diminutive little booklet (weighing in at less than 200 pages). However, given that Heffernan's guiding light is the idea that it’s the little decisions made by everyone that make certain companies stand above the rest, it's fitting that a book so rich in insight is so deceptively small.

The focus in Beyond Measure is company culture: what factors in the environment, relationships and philosophies provide the most fertile soil for greatness? Heffernan succeeds in taking what is normally a wishy-washy subject – culture – and putting definite parameters around it, giving very practical steps on how leaders can drive engagement and free their teams to create great work rather than trying to wring it from them by force.

Despite the pragmatic nature of her advice, the tone is refreshingly gentle and human. In fact, a large part of her writing is spent confronting the fact that much of the mistreatment of workers, failure to address problems, etc, on the part of leaders stems from the fear of looking anything other than omnipotent and omniscient that often comes with established positions of authority. Appealing to the very human need to be understood and accepted, she repeatedly entreats them to turn to their employees for insights on difficult problems. After all, they hired them (hopefully) largely based on the stuff between their ears.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, she talks about the limiting effects of both rigid hierarchy and rigid office/society boundaries. Creating more flexibility in both scenarios, she argues, can lead to insights that may have otherwise gone unseen, and teams that work harder and better because they WANT to, rather than being afraid of what will happen should they fail to work themselves bloody.

It's an argument made succinctly and persuasively with equal parts compassion and practicality. Heffernan makes no illusions about there being an easy, step-by-step manual for achieving what she calls a "just culture", but Beyond Measure provides a solid philosophical grounding as well as some useful next steps for those looking to build an environment where people can flourish and create works they can be proud of. Easily worth a read for those on either side of the office desk.

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 at The Rogue's Gallery and One of Us. Check out his FB page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman, for more musings from the dark corners of the internet. Plus the occasional cat photo.


Two-time winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel, and also winner of the British Crime Writers’ Macallan Silver Dagger, the Canadian novelist Giles Blunt is an elite crime writer. In 2000, Forty Words for Sorrow came out and wowed this reviewer with its chilling portrayal of a psychopath’s crimes and icy heart. The book was the first in Blunt’s bestselling John Cardinal series, set in Algonquin Bay, Ontario (a stand-in for North Bay, where Blunt grew up).

The Hesitation Cut continues, in a very different way, Blunt’s focus on – and flair for interpreting – wounded, violent characters. Although it’s a suspense novel, not a whodunit, this novel includes satisfying misdirection and plot twists for mystery lovers.

Ranging from monks living in Upstate New York to a famous (and suicidal) novelist in New York City, the characters are quirky. For example, Lauren Wolfe, the NYC novelist, will only write while she’s wearing an old football jersey with the number twelve on it.

Thematically, the book is a challenging one. From the character arc of protagonist Peter Meehan – a thirty-year-old monk who abruptly leaves his monastery – I see the theme as follows: loss of (or betrayal by) a parent in childhood can lead you to pursue dysfunctional and destructive relationships in adulthood. In the ways that Peter’s and his lover Lauren’s lives play out, the story’s overall message seems to be that some deeply wounded adults can heal and lead healthier lives, but others are just too damaged. I was impressed that Blunt avoided a feel-good platitude in favour of ambiguity, which seems more like real life.

For any reader – suspense fan or not – who wants complex characters and thought-provoking themes, The Hesitation Cut provides a suspenseful treatment of a difficult subject. Let me give fair warning: this novel contains some scenes of extreme violence, and some of extreme sex, but none of these are gratuitous. This is writing that pulls no punches.

Bob Young’s short stories have been published in the literary journals
Other Voices, Postscripts to Darkness, and Great Lakes Review. He has completed his first novel, a mystery that partially involves the Grand River land dispute of 2006-07, and he’s currently submitting it to literary agents. Any takers? Visit his website:

Monday, July 27, 2015


Fishbowl gives a creative perspective of how people’s lives interconnect in an apartment building. It all begins when a curious goldfish takes a leap out of a 27th story window. As he descends he learns about the various residents in the building. Some of these characters include a shut-in, a construction worker with a secret, a young time-travelling boy, a woman who has just went in to labour, and a couple in a new relationship full of secrets and hope.

I live in an apartment building and I found it interesting to think about how everyone effects each other on a day-to-day basis. For instance, maybe holding the door for a neighbor will turn their bad day into a good one. This book opens your eyes to those you interact with every day but don’t necessarily consider an acquaintance. I also always enjoy when a book has several different story lines because it allows for that much more detail into the environment and characters.

This book is a great example of a character piece. Bradley Somer does a great job creating unique characters and interweaving them so seamlessly. I highly recommend this book to people who enjoy an interesting book filled with turns you may not expect, as well as character pieces in which a lot of work goes into making unique and fascinating characters. I hope everyone who reads this enjoys it as much as I did. 

Wesley Wilson is a graduate student at the University of Guelph, working on her Master’s in Food Microbiology as well as working in a microbiology lab. She is a self-proclaimed Slytherin who loves hanging out with her cats, Minerva and Aladdin, as well as curling up with a good book. She can often be found binge watching Gilmore Girls, or any of Wes Anderson’s films.


There have been a lot of books written about food lately. People want to know where their food comes from, how it is made or grown, and what might be wrong with it. People are trying to navigate through a mess of food narratives with buzz-words like organic, free-range, grass-fed, GMO-free, anti-biotic free, natural. But with so many competing interests, it is difficult to sort out who or what to believe.

Mark Schatzker adds another valuable voice, a new perspective, to this growing narrative around food. In The Dorito Effect he goes further than with his previous book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef. Not unexpectedly, he did find the tastiest piece of beef, on a farm where the cows grazed on pasture etc., but The Dorito Effect asks why. Where does flavour come from? Why does it exist? Where did it go? (And if you are scratching your head at that last one you are probably not old enough to know how much flavour has changed. When I asked my grandmother, she knew exactly what I was talking about.) And most importantly, how do we get it back.

This book, like others in this genre, serves the dual purpose of educating while entertaining with anecdotes from different people with a story to tell. Schatzker has threaded some of these narratives throughout the book, which adds a kind of continuity that other non-fiction books may lack — a cast of characters that you get to know and care about.

The story that I particularly enjoyed was about Fred Provenza, a scientist who used the behaviour of sheep and goats to ask questions about nutrition — mainly how do they know what to eat. Through descriptions of some pretty elegant experiments, Schatzker weaves a tale where things like nutrition and flavour are intimately linked. Animals know even better than nutritionists what their bodies need to survive. But what does this have to do with us?

Our bodies are also our own “nutritionists.” When we let them. But we have learned to ignore what our bodies are telling us (by indiscriminately consuming supplements, for example) and, even worse, our bodies are being fooled by food that tastes good but is no longer nutritious. By food that has severed the link between nutrition and flavour. This is the "Dorito Effect" — bland food disguised with flavourful nutrition mimics.

One of my biggest compliments about this book is that it is a fair account. It is really easy to stand on a soap-box and declare that one thing or another is the most important — Organic! Sustainability! Welfare! Economics! Anyone can make a one-sided argument and make it sound plausible, and even convince a couple people that it is the most important thing. But this is only doing people a disservice by oversimplifying an incredibly complex problem. Schatzker fully admits the different roadblocks that he, and others, have encountered when pursuing flavour.

(Aside: I am an animal welfare scientist. But I would be hard pressed to get any farmer or industry group to listen to what I had to say if I disregarded what they are most concerned about: economics. Instead, I have to demonstrate how the animal welfare and economic agendas are one and the same. How? By showing that animals with better welfare make a better product and ultimately save money.)

Schatzker takes this balance in stride when commenting on the history of how we got to such a flavourless state. First, the connection between flavour and nutrition has been newly embraced, and even then not by everyone. Second, food is where it is because plant and animal breeders have previously used measures like yield, disease resistance, and feed efficiency to genetically select the fastest and most efficient product. As a consequence of not selecting for flavour, and nutrition, we now have chickens that reach market weight in record time (6 weeks!) but taste like “one of those pillows they hand out on airplanes” and are not as good for you as they were at the turn of the 20th century.

The picture looks bleak, but Schatzker offers some hope in the way of a compromise. Mainly that yield (or price) doesn’t need to be sacrificed for taste if you combine the right varieties. Nutritious, delicious and affordable: the triple threat. I have already said too much about this incredibly thought-provoking account of modern food. It is by no means the only account, but it is an important voice nonetheless. And unless we want a future of bland, nutritionless, Orwellian food-products that must be consumed just to sustain life, people need to start speaking up for real flavour.

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


For over a year, I was a part-time Torontonian. I dated a foreigner and spent weekends at classical concerts, the beach, and eating vegan burritos in downtown T-dot. Danila Botha’s Too Much on the Inside definitely swerved a few corners from where I was spending my time. An earthy portrait of love, loss, and confronting the past set in Toronto’s Queen St W, Botha’s first novel is incredibly moving, gritty, and authentic. Too Much on the Inside is an honest and moving love letter to Toronto’s hodgepodge cultural fabric exploring bar life, cross-continental connections, and heartbreak. It has the paradoxical distinction of being radically different from my own experiences yet totally relatable: much like meeting a stranger from abroad in the hub of Toronto who has much more in common with you than at first glance.

Too Much on the Inside is an exploration of four fascinatingly dissimilar characters whose lives intersect and influence each other irrevocably. The novel reminds me of the fugal interlacing of P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia and the down-to-earth sincerity of J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy. Dez is a Brazilian Don Juan interested in Canada’s heterogeneous culinary and sexual cuisine. He runs a bar where Nicki and Marlize wait tables. Nicki grew up in Israel, where she spent time in the military. She’s dating Lukas, a transplanted hospital janitor with a crime-laced past who grew up near a military base in Nova Scotia. Marlize is an ex-ballerina from South Africa studying at Ryerson who is escaping a violent past. They are dealing with their ambivalent relationships to Toronto as well to each other and themselves.

Too Much on the Inside is an incredible feat of literary structural engineering: we collide with these four people knowing very little about them. Slowly, like groggy survivors of a car crash, they divulge haunting memories and experiences from their time in Canada and beyond. We discover their darkest fears and secrets. Each person’s personalities and motivations become clearer and we feel disgust, admiration, empathy, and pride towards them. Eschewing the traditional blocky chapter form, Botha moves deftly between the characters in effortless stream-of-consciousness, first-person writing. It has the disconcerting effect of being a collective voice of the bustling, multi-hued metropolis that is Toronto as well as a TV show that flips channels between parallel lives. It is a lot like being pushed onto a busy street in downtown Toronto: at first discombobulating, hearing chatter in countless accents and languages, and then enticing as the voices begin to emerge as captivatingly diverse faces and people. Botha’s writing is masterful – deceptively simple, with an astonishing attention to detail that creates a multi-coloured fabric of distinct locales and personalities.

Personally, I put off reading the final pages of Too Much for a of couple weeks and even so, at its close, I felt that Too Much on the Inside definitely did not have enough pages on its inside. It’s not every day that an author has the ability to create such indelibly memorable and strikingly flesh-and-blood characters. Botha’s characterization is so powerful that I wish that I could call up Leo, Nili, Marli, and Lukas to ask them how things have been going post-book. These are conflicted, complex, and flawed people who are difficult to leave behind at the end of the novel. Their heartbreak, loss, and ultimate emotional awakening are true to life and undeniably human. Their mistakes are inevitable but still difficult to accept when they occur and their moments of bliss and realization are bittersweet but stirring.

Despite the beautiful memories I created in Toronto, it was also a similar maze of conflicted feelings, emotional roller coasters, and eye-opening discovery that culminated in understanding through the anguish. Botha’s Too Much on the Inside is a reminder that most of us are simply trying to come to terms with love, loss, and identity crisis no matter where we come from, what our past was, or who we are striving to be in the present. Fortunately, like the four resilient protagonists in Too Much on the Inside, we’ve got each other in this journey, no matter how disparate or exotic we might seem to be on the outside.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages (with a few in progress). He holds degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, but it was apparent from an early age that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Some Turbid Night. Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.