Sunday, March 29, 2015


At some point, most people I know end up complaining about relationships – or a lack thereof! My single friends complain about how they can't find someone with that special je ne sais quoi. My friends in relationships bemoan their lack of freedom or passion. Does anyone ever end up finding what they're looking for in a relationship? Although most of us crave that "happily ever after," it seems as elusive as ever.

Robin Rinaldi's The Wild Oats Project seems like the perfect solution: an unsatisfied wife has a year of incredible sex with other partners – while still remaining married to her husband. It seems like the perfect compromise between love, stability, adventure, and variety. Except this story is not a glossed-over, made-for-rom-com, straight-to-DVD blockbuster. It's a real year in the life of Robin Rinaldi: candid, heartbreaking, and honest. Robin bares all (literally) and pours out her heart in this fascinating and emotional must-read.

Robin is a typical middle-aged woman who has been married for years to a husband who loves her ("Scott"). However, Robin faces a typical problem: something is missing. What is it, exactly? She and her husband still have sex regularly. Scott is tall, handsome, and still exercises regularly to maintain his athletic physique. Robin is as confused as her friends are, but she knows something is missing.

Robin initially pins the problem on children. As she gets older, Robin yearns for children more and more. Despite every imaginable plea and tactic, Scott is determined not to have a child. In fact, he gets a vasectomy. Heartbroken, it's a snapping point that jolts Robin out of her futile struggle. Pandora's Box is opened. In graphic yet intimate detail, Robin charts her progression from an inhibited, therapy-seeking professional to a woman with an open marriage who attends workshops on orgasmic meditation. Robin rents her own apartment during the week and has the best sex she has ever imagined with a slew of attractive, intelligent men (even experimenting with women as well). On the weekends, she returns to Scott, who patiently waits for her – so it seems.

Ultimately, Robin's project lasts for a year and concludes in stark realization and understanding. After her non-monogamy is over, Robin realizes is that she wasn't just unhappy with something as superficial as a lack of kids. Robin realized that she was searching for intimacy and openness, things that were just not really a part in Scott's personality. Robin's desire for children stemmed from a desire to fill the void of detachment that she felt with Scott. Robin’s year of sexual self-discovery was what really forced her look the real problem in the eye.

The Wild Oats Project is must-read for any adult (and it's definitely rated X). In our relationships and careers, we can all benefit from self-exploration by daring to ask ourselves hard questions and to make hard choices. Perhaps why Rinaldi's book leaves such a powerful impression at the end is because she reveals that even halfway through life, we don't always have it figured out, and it's okay. Life is not set and dead at 30, 40, or 50.

It's exceedingly easy to judge Robin or to say that we wouldn't make the same choices. But ultimately, the real takeaway is that it is always important to continually evaluate ourselves at every stage of the game of life. What do we want, and is there something we need to change in order to achieve fulfillment? Every day is an open slate waiting for us to make a change. The real dilemma is: are we happy with how our life is going? Like Robin, we should all take an honest look at our own lives and have the courage to take the first daunting steps towards progress. It may not be easy, but as Robin discovers, it definitely is worth it.

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 obvious 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 Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

Monday, March 23, 2015


An Ember In The Ashes is an incredible book. I could generally compare it to The Hunger Games by Susan Collins, but comparing these two books would be a little like comparing apples to oranges. They have very different flavors and characteristics, but yes, they are both of the same genre. 

Like The Hunger Games, Sabaa Tahir's novel takes place in a fictional world where an oppressed girl, Laia, and her people, are trying to achieve freedom. However, unlike The Hunger Games, it features two main characters: Laia and Elias. Though Laia is a "scholar," one of the oppressed (similar to "District 12"), and Elias is a "Martial", one of the oppressors (similar to "The Capital"), neither are actually free to live how they want. This dynamic is perfectly portrayed by Tahir.

The first chapter might not draw you in right away, but only because the features of the world take some time to make sense. Once you understand this world, however, An Ember in the Ashes is hard to put down. I do not think that the story takes place in either a future or a past world. It seems to carry both historical, current and futuristic ideas and concepts. The Hunger Games takes place in the future, after the world has seemingly fallen apart and been put back together. An Ember in the Ashes takes place in a world where separate cultures have fought and been conquered to create a giant empire. Such an idea could be a creative way of picturing the future: could we all eventually become one worldly society? Or it could be a way of looking at history: is this a spin on real and mythological wars in human history? Either way, I believe there could be many comparisons and allegories in this novel.

An Ember in the Ashes is very rich and complex. It includes so many different sides that you can never really favor one outcome, or be bored. This book appears to end in what could be a series or a single production, but it definitely left me wanting to read more. I won't continue to describe the outcome though, because I am scared of spoiling it. I must say that Sabaa Tahir has put a lot of time into research for this novel, perfecting it's portrayal of war. Her efforts are evident. The story is realistic and full of depth. It is the kind of book you could read more than once. In fact, as someone who almost never, if at all, reads books multiple times, I am considering rereading this novel.

There weren't really any aspects of An Ember in the Ashes that I thought were lacking. I hope this book becomes popular and Sabaa Tahir continues to write more novels of this caliber. It definitely deserves lots of attention. It has the potential to be widely popular and it will not let down its readers. It is extremely enjoyable and leaves you wanting more.

Johanna de Jong is a senior at Bishop Macdonell.  

Monday, March 16, 2015


Not since 1989 has “Mini” adorned the boot of the Austin line of cars, a passion of Herbert Austin, born 1866 in Buckinghamshire, England. Austin emigrated to Australia at age 16 to join an uncle in an engineering firm, but returned to England ten years later. It’s hard not to imagine allusions to this tidbit of history – hinted at as well by the homophone, perhaps – when Emma drives into Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma: A Modern Retelling in her Mini Cooper, and Frank Churchill’s oft-discussed visit is from Australia where he lives with this aunt and uncle.

And could McCall Smith’s relocation of the story from Austen’s Surrey in the South East of England to the slightly further North, Norfolk, be occasioned by his desire to invoke Noël Coward in a passing reference? After all, Amanda, in Coward’s Private Lives, says “Very flat, Norfolk”, to indicate a certain dullness of the area, thereby setting off lively commentaries about it being undulating, actually, and no one would say that who had to harvest wheat there, and so on.

And what about Austen’s Mrs. Elton, with her constant boasting of the “barouche-landau” and her “caro sposa”? McCall Smith can only be applauded for responding with his “cadit quaestio,” coming out of the mouth of Emma as a young girl, taught by her governess.

Such is the mindset one gets into, and is encouraged to stay in right to the final pages, as the putative Alexander McCall Smith quips: “We cannot argue with Edinburgh,” referring to Emma’s always–correct and sensible former governess, Miss Taylor. This metonymy allows McCall Smith to write what he knows: although born in then-Rhodesia, he got his Ph.D. in Edinburgh and is Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh.

Jane Austen was herself a master of word play, double meanings and allusions. She was highly literate and well–read, with a rich vocabulary. So when the modern Mr. Woodhouse, picking up anxiety in the womb as his mother endures the Cuban Missile Crisis in A Modern Retelling, becomes a “valetudinarian,” the scene is set. “To dispatch one’s friends to a dictionary from time to time is one of the more sophisticated pleasures of life, but it is one that must be indulged in sparingly: to do it too often may result in accusations of having swallowed one’s own dictionary, which is not a compliment, whichever way one looks at it.”

Just as McCall Smith can transport us to Botswana for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, to Edinburgh for his series featuring Isabel Dalhousie, and to Germany in my personal favourite, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, so too can he transport us to Jane Austen’s early 19th Century England. His commentary is similarly ironic and witty. He caricatures such things as Austen’s bedroom count in the estates of Highbury as a way of denoting hierarchy –– and therefore seeming worthiness of the inhabitants –– and stays true enough to the characters to make them seem familiar to Austen fans, while imbuing them with characteristics that make them seem like our neighbours and colleagues as well.

Who in the early 21st Century hasn’t observed those who focus on social media and website development as an excuse for not getting down to work? Emma languishes about her father’s house after graduating from a design program and points to these activities as initiatives on her way to starting her own business.

Mr. Perry is still a quack doctor but now he dispenses health foods and supplements. The Miss and Mrs. Bates are still in reduced circumstances, but now they are victims of a Lloyds reinsurance scheme –– or are they?

Emma: A Modern Retelling is a spirited romp through Jane Austen’s world, retaining enough Austen-like sensibilities and sharp commentary to make his a credible retelling. The interview when Miss Taylor applies to Mr. Woodhouse for the governess position is brilliantly done. But there are also enough differences to spark curiosity as to how it will end. Or perhaps, more accurately, it raises curiosity as to how McCall Smith will interpret the ending of Austen’s Emma.

Jane Austen’s novels and manuscript works focus on the trials and tribulations of a privileged class and provide a window into the life of her times at the beginning of the 19th Century. They also provide veiled political commentary about the antics caused by strict class structures, the fate of young women whose families can’t afford to leave them well-off, and the “pride and prejudice” involved in social relationships. The role of marriage is to create strategic alliances more often than it is to bring together lovers intent on sharing their lives.

When she writes Emma, her forth novel and the last one published before her death, Austen says, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." We watch this attractive, rich young woman manipulate people, often with very hurtful results. Keeping her from truly sociopathic tendencies is her ability to reflect on all the unintended consequences and feel remorse –– for at least a short time. Emma’s own unease about her behaviour functions as a device to draw our attention to the depths of her character flaws. As Austen’s Emma ends, with all its happy, romantic couplings, a question lingers: Has Emma accepted George Westley just to ensure that no one else gets him?

McCall Smith obviously wonders this, too. In the final pages, his narrator –– who has been significantly unreliable at various points throughout the 360 pages –– calls this an important summer for Emma as she gained moral insight, able to see the world as it appears to others, thereby inspiring kindness and attempts to ameliorate suffering.

But Emma has told us herself that she has to be “first” in people’s eyes or she reacts with jealousy and meddles in their lives. In fact, she says her only real sense of accomplishment is when she is acting like God, when people are “clay in her hands." We watch her vacillate between resolutions to reform and renewed plans to change the lives of others. So when she goes from wishing that Mr. Knightly would always remain single so that the life she and her father know can continue on as it has been, to joyfully accepting his proposal of marriage, we can’t help but wonder if relief over her concerns about the future ownership of his estate are really the cause of her joy.

The modern Mr. Woodhouse improves with a retelling. He is as caring and gracious as his 19th Century counterpart but now he reads the Economist and his constant worries go beyond his immediate personal circumstances. He thinks more about climate change than about draughts and the germs in the air of London. In debates with Knightly he muses: “If we can’t find it within ourselves to apologise to the descendants of our victims, then our hands will remain forever dirty.” He has also become slightly more active in his efforts to correct Emma’s behaviour. He actually shouts at her saying, “No. I shall not hear any more of your cruel views. Enough!”

McCall Smith may stay true to the salient features of Austen’s novel, but he adds his own imaginative twists, making A Modern Retelling a fresh new read.

Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.

Sunday, March 8, 2015


Each time I read a book to review, I simply can’t believe my luck. The books that have been published this year are all so incredible, especially Lacy Eye. It only took me a couple of days to read because I could not put it down! I was almost late to work one day because I was up reading this book until 2:00am. Jessica Treadway's novel follows Hanna Schutt, a woman who was in a terrible attack which killed her husband. The main suspect is her daughter Dawn’s boyfriend. But the question on everyone’s mind is: was Dawn somehow involved with the death of her father?

The characters in Lacy Eye are all very realistic, and make choices that can be frustrating to the reader but understandable at the same time. I think this is part of what makes this book so enjoyable. The book is told from Hanna’s perspective, and goes back and forth between before the murder and after. The way this was done reminded me very much of the film We Need To Talk About Kevin, where the mother is reflecting on her child’s upbringing and trying to determine where/if something went wrong.

The suspense that Treadway puts into every page of her novel astounds me. I wish every author had that ability to make a reader linger on every sentence. This is Treadway’s first novel; she has written many short stories in the past, but I think her transition to novels was a brilliantly executed. To anyone who loves a suspenseful novel, Lacy Eye is for you.

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.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Vanishing Girls is a creative, relatable, and gripping novel. Before opening the book, its title had me expecting a depressing mystery novel about kidnapped girls. I expected to read a book that was going to drag out and leave me anxious. However, my worries "vanished" into thin air after reading the first page. Though this book contains mystery, the story itself is much more complex.

To begin with, this book had a very different plot than the Delirium series, another group of books written by Lauren Oliver. Vanishing Girls isn't futuristic, romantic, or extravagant in any way. Refreshingly, the novel does not need any of these aspects to keep your attention. Instead you will be drawn in by the story's realism. This novel is unique and it has many themes, including emotional anguish, family, love, healing, childhood, and mystery.

After a tragic accident, you are thrown into the lives of Dara and Nick, two sisters who are trying to get their old lives back. The focus is on the emotional relationship between the girls, who feel both deep resentment and deep love for each other. The two girls struggle to differentiate themselves, but they somehow grow to be exactly the same and completely different simultaneously. This book explores many different emotions. It also brings up memories of childhood. For anyone like myself, who has a sister or a brother, this story will relate to the feelings associated with siblings.

Vanishing Girls reminded me of the types of things that I explored and found mysterious when I was younger. That strange cluster of bushes, the monsters under the bed, the games and dares between friends. Things that seem so illogical now, but captured so much imagination and attention back then. I really enjoyed being part of not just Nick and Dara's childhood, but also the development of their lives before and after the accident.

As I have described this novel so far, I may have made it sound too sentimental or mushy-gushy. I can assure you that this book contains a perfect balance of drama, excitement, thrill and adventure. It is a great book for people of different ages and preferences. Do not be discouraged like I was by its title. It is not drawn out or extremely sad. Like many books, it has it's fair share tear-jerking and cheering for joy moments. Upon final interpretation, I realize the title has much more meaning than a literal vanishing girl. If there is one lesson this book taught me, it is that people are capable of vanishing in different ways.

Johanna de Jong is a senior at Bishop Macdonell. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015


"Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are." So said Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, noted French revolutionary and epicure.

But what do you eat? And why? Where did our sense of what is good, what is tolerable and what is truly sublime actually come from? And how did we evolve as a species to have the sensation of taste be quite so front and centre as it actually is, in our consciousness and in our lives?

These are the questions that Tasty attempts to answer. John McQuaid is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. In this book, he has turned his inquisitiveness to the subject of food and how we perceive it. Tasty is a work of impressive scope, exploring the history of eating and food in human development, and how our tastes and preferences have evolved over time, whether out of opportunity, accident or necessity.

I found Tasty to be both fascinating and riveting. I've often wondered about how we came to the complexity of food preferences that we have. Just who, for example, figured out how to distil alcohol? Or make bread? Or sorted out the process of breaking down sugarcane into sugar? All of these are complex and theoretically non-obvious processes that would not, one presumes, develop unprompted in the minds of our ancestors. And yet, on some level, that's by and large what happened. Someone cared enough, focused enough and observed enough to figure out what worked and what didn't in making food the flavourful experience that we enjoy today.

What I particularly enjoyed about Tasty was McQuaid's approach of working flavour by flavour through how we experience food. Whether salty, sweet, sour, savoury, bitter, or umami, he takes us on a comprehensive tour through history and geography. In doing so, the author attempts to understand the evolutionary influences that led to the development of taste, the purpose it was designed to serve, and how our experience of it has evolved. He starts with debunking the idea of the tongue map, that illustration introduced in high school biology that assigned different tastes to specific regions of the tongue.  And he keeps on going.

We learn about the role of bitterness in evolution, and the fact that it is amongst our most nuanced of flavours. We discover why some people adore Brussels sprouts while others loathe them. We explore how fermentation was discovered, and the relatively useful on-going role that alcohol has had in our development as a species. We explore the attraction of spice and heat, and how chillies migrated across the undeveloped world faster than the Europeans that introduced them. We learn the original source of the meme, "Tastes like chicken."

If you love food, are intrigued by evolution or just like a good story, Tasty is a book that you will likely enjoy. It combines narrative, investigation and cutting edge science with of-the-moment culinary explanations. In the tradition of works by Mary Roach and Jesse Bering, John McQuaid has comprehensively delved into a topic and brought it vividly and richly to life. Read the book, and you will likely never look at your food—or the process of eating—in exactly the same way again.

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).