What to do about Valentines Day?


When a colleague recently asked me to write the inaugural Valentine’s Day post I admittedly filled with a sense of dread. Valentine’s Day has always been a bit of contentious holiday in my life. On the one hand it’s an easy event to make fun of, admonish, or loathe—especially if you’re single.  My first inclination was to put together a cynic’s guide for survival full of tales of heartbreak, unrequited love, and self-help literature devoted to independent living and the joys of detachment (still tempting!).

But is that too easy?  Is Valentine’s Day really just another “Hallmark-holiday” or is there something to be said for an occasion which, as Francine Prose recently stated, “encourage[s] us not only to acknowledge but also to embrace the broadest, the least judgmental and the most generous definition of love”?

In reality I am a closet-romantic with a soft spot for a good love story. One of the primary reasons that I enjoy literature is because it offers an opportunity to explore the endless complexities of love, intimacy and relationships. And so, in honour of the bitter romantic in us all, I present a short-list of some of my favourite and unflinching love stories—where no happy endings are guaranteed.


Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler barneysversion

In this atypical love story, Barney Panofsky—the ultimate sympathetic anti-hero and unreliable narrator—recounts his life, friendships, three marriages and trouble with the law, with varying levels of detail and accuracy as his mind and memory disintegrates. I’ve always adored this novel for Barney’s undying, hopeless and misguided devotion to his third wife Miriam Greenberg as he continually battles against his own worst enemy—himself.


Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

birdsongCue the orchestral ballads, this is the most epic romance you’ll find on my list. Birdsong has it all; dramatic historical wartime setting? Check. War hero and sumptuous local French woman? Check. Gratuitous sex scenes? Double check. Yet through it all, this novel somehow manages to avoid cliché and pulp, and instead remain rooted in reality with detailed historical accuracy and complex, rich characters.



Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill:dept of spec

This is one of those books you can read in one sitting and are left clutching its pages and staring at the ceiling for hours afterwards. This gorgeous novel offers a concise and devastating portrait of a marriage which makes you empathize so deeply for the protagonist that you may want to reach in and give her a hug.

Other title’s worth perusing:

  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion
  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  • This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
  • Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


How about you? What are you reading this Valentines Day?


Meet our new Community Librarian

Name: Mikale Fenton

Mikale sailing in Clayoquot Sound while enjoying a good book

Mikale sailing in Clayoquot Sound while enjoying a good book

Job Title:  Community Librarian

Best book I have read this year: This is a tough one! I think that I’d have to say Rachel Cusk’s “The Outline”. At its core it’s about a woman who travels to Greece to teach a writing course, and the mostly one-sided conversations she has with the people she encounters along the way. While it may not sound like much, the novel is written with such delicate precision that through each fascinating conversation Cusk explores philosophical questions and universal themes surrounding relationships, memory and interpretation. I’ve heard mixed reviews for this book, but personally I was devastated when it was over.

On a side note, although I tend to gravitate mainly towards literary fiction I’m also a complete junkie for dystopic fantasy and thoroughly enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven”, a quiet and dark dystopic tale set in the familiar Great Lakes landscape. Highly recommended to anyone looking for a more mature entry into the apocalypse genre.

Rachel Cusk's Outline

Rachel Cusk’s “The Outline”


I will read any book by: John Valliant, Joan Didion, Michael Ondaatje, Joseph Boyden, John Steinbeck, & Haruki Murakami.

Best place to curl up with a book on a rainy day: Currently my favorite reading nook is in my new apartment on the couch nestled in with the radio, my house cat and an endless supply of licorice spice tea!

Best place to lounge with a book in the sun: I spend a lot of time camping and hiking on the North Shore mountains and on the west coast of Vancouver Island where I always make sure to bring my book along. That being said, I think some of my most memorable and sureal reading sessions have been atop of a BC ferries sundeck battling with cross winds while keeping an eye out for marine life.

A book I know I should read, but haven’t: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’ve had it on my nightstand for longer than I’d care to admit, but I always seem to come up with an excuse to read something else. The shame…. the shame…

The book I push on all my friends because it is soooooooo good: A good friend recently referred to me as an “audiobook evangelist” after listening to me preach the same tired sermon about the library’s incredible collection of downloadable e-audiobooks and how to find the goodies. Like anyone, I have a hard time finding as much time as I’d like to read, however as an avid runner and cyclist  audiobooks are my go-to. Top recommendations: the audiobook version of “World War Z” is enough to make anyone an audio convert. As an “oral history” told from the perspectives of a dozen Zombie apocalypse survivors (just bear with me), this audiobook takes advantage of its format by employing dozens of A-list actors to narrate each chapter with their own unique voice and dialect. Trust me and skip the terribly-adapted movie, all you need are headphones to enjoy this story.

For classics, one of my favourite books of all time is “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. I feel like this book is as close to perfection as a novel could possibly be. It’s a beautifully-written, sprawling epic about three generations of two families in California’s Salinas Valley who inadvertently re-enact the story of Cain and Abel.

Where you can find me: When not out in the community, I spend my Fridays and Saturdays helping library customers choose their next read at on the Reader’s Advisory desk and the 3rd floor Info desk here at NVCL.

I love to talk books and would love to hear from you. Tweet me at @mikalefenton and tell me what you’re reading!


BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction

Since 2005, British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction has recognized and rewarded thoughtful and provocative Canadian non-fiction works. It is the only national prize that originates in BC, and has a top prize of $40,000. The winner will be announced on February 4th. Here are the finalists:

BeyondPaleBeyond the Pale: Folklore, Family, and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, by Emily Urquhart

When her newborn daughter is diagnosed with albinism, the author embarks on a quest to understand the condition. Urquhart is a journalist and folklore scholar, accustomed to interpreting the world through other people’s stories, so this is her approach. Part parenting memoir, part travelogue, and part cultural critique, this is a unique look at how we explain human differences through our cultural beliefs

The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole RightToBeColdPlanet, by Sheila Watt-Cloutier

In this memoir, Inuk Sheila Watt-Cloutier describes the tumult of climate change in human rights terms, not just economics. The jarring changes in the Arctic, where warming rates are double compared to the rest of the globe, threaten the Inuit way of life and serve as an early warning system for the rest of the world. Her personal story is entwined with her passionate desire to preserve the future for her culture and her grandchildren.

StalinsDaughterStalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by Rosemary Sullivan

In 1967, Stalin’s daughter shocked the world by defecting to the United States. But coming to America did not free her from the legacy of her father’s name. Accessing KGB, CIA, and Soviet archives, Sullivan pieces together the epic life of a woman who never escaped the shadow of her monstrous father. It’s an intimate portrait, which also illuminates the broader context of her time.

StephenHarperStephen Harper, by John Ibbitson

The first part of this biography examines the very private life of our former Prime Minister. Ibbitson portrays him with all his moody flaws, giving a compelling portrait of a famously secretive individual. The second part deals with Harper’s achievements, such as uniting the Reform and Conservative parties, trade agreements and his government’s economic guidance. Neither hagiography nor mud-slinging tirade, the book is a balanced picture of an important and enigmatic figure.

Who do you want to win?

5 Ways to Read More

jbccIt’s just about the time of year when we all start breaking our well-meaning New Year’s Resolutions.  The gym is emptier and emptier each morning at 6am (not that I’m there; I just have reliable sources.)  For those of you with more bookish resolutions, I offer my help.

In my entire life I’d say the question I’ve most often been readtoomuchasked is, “How do you find the time to read so much?”  (If I’m being honest, I just read what I read without trying to hard and no matter how busy I am it seems to work out to between 50-100 books a year.  But that wouldn’t make a very helpful post now, would it?  So allow me to dig deeper… and present 5 ways to read more:)

cinder5.  Discover audiobooks.  Audiobooks can literally change your whole life.  They allow me to read when I’m:

  • Doing housework
  • Out for a walk
  • Commuting
  • At the gym  (I find if you are listening to audiobooks while doing cardio, it’s better to up the reader’s speed to 1.5x.  Otherwise I tend to keep pace with the voice I hear.)

The other nice thing about audiobooks is you don’t just have favourite authors anymore, you have favourite narrators too.

petitfour4.  Read to children.   My kids are great for a lot of reasons.  One of them is that they give me an excuse to stop whatever boring adulting I’m involved in in the evenings and read them a bedtime story. We’ve done everything from old favourites like Matilda to whimsical new releases like Anne Michael’s The Adventures of Miss Petitfour.

3.  ALWAYS have a book on you.  (You see that staff member reading in the elevator on the way to the break room?  Me.)

33 1_32.  No guilt reading.  If you’re not enjoying it, don’t finish it.  If you’re 100 pages from the end and feel like you know how it’s going to end… abandon it with impunity.  I’m a big fan of reading the right book at the right time.  If that means I’m currently going through a 33 1/3 phase and ignoring award winners and the Canada Reads shortlist, so be it.  (Dear Canada Reads shortlist, I’ll get to you shortly… when the mood strikes.  Fear not.)

  1.  Develop insomnia.
    I realize this might not constitute advice, but it’s still true.  Insomnia is a generous curse that gives you lots of time to read.  Oh, you want actual advice? Fair point.  Find something that captures your imagination.  Ask for recommendations from friends or your local library staff — anybody who gets as excited about books as you want to be.

Have tips of your own to share?  Sound off in the comments below.  Happy Reading!




Terrific Canadian Graphic Literature

I started a post on graphic novels and found that I had selected all Canadian books, and they’re great. So here are my top graphic picks (3 of 5 are non-ficiton), none of which could be confused with comic books.

OutsideCircleThe Outside Circle, by Patti LaBoucane-Benson, art by Kelly Mellings

From the 2016 Canada Reads Longlist comes this striking graphic novel about Pete, a young First Nations man caught in a cycle of poverty, violence and trauma. Ending up in prison, Pete realizes that he must make changes in order to survive and to be an example for his younger brother. It’s a hard-hitting but hopeful story, beautifully illustrated and beautifully told.

Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, by Sarah LeavittTangles

Graphic storytelling might seem like a counterintuitive choice for a poignant memoir about a daughter and a family coping with the mother’s dementia, but the spare artwork and candid prose work really well here. Though it is something of a harrowing read, Leavitt manages to incorporate humour along with the tragedy. Ultimately this is a moving story of a family’s love during an excruciating time.

EssexCountyEssex County, by Jeff Lemire

This trilogy of graphic novels set in Ontario explores the Canadian psyche through community, hockey, winter, loneliness, and great art. A superhero-obsessed orphan, estranged brothers, and a community nurse draw us into this small-town world. Lemire’s spare text is beautifully wrenching and the illustrations perfectly match. By turns poignant, sad, and amusing, this is a great read.

Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Gillian TamakiSkim

Goth teen Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka Skim), is an outsider, a wannabe Wiccan, and in love with her female English teacher. When a classmate commits suicide, Skim descends into a depression that no guidance counselor platitude can reach. A lovely coming-of-age story with artwork derived from the best Japanese traditions. Lovely.

FatherlandFatherland, by Nina Bunjevac

This memoir / family history deals largely with the author’s father – a Serbian nationalist – whose experiences during the Second World War left him an embittered drunk. When the father dies by accidentally setting off a bomb he was preparing for a terrorist act, the family must deal with the consequences and face their unsettling history. The illustrations drive the narrative in this one and are truly extraordinary.

What’s your favourite piece of graphic lit?


After Making a Murderer

makingamurdererWhen it comes to true crime, I am a sensitive viewer.  As a general rule, I stay away from media portrayals of real life violence as much as I can.  So it came as a complete surprise when I — like many many other people — got hooked on the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer.  In less than a week I’ve watched seven episodes of the ten episode series (a working mom’s version of binge watching) and already know I’ll be resistant to pull back from that constant state of wondering, “Is Steven Avery guilty?

What follows is kind of an exploration for me about what I’ll read and watch in the weeks to come that will be provoking and uncomfortable (and yet compulsively watchable or readable) in the way that Making a Murder has proven to be.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

innocentkillerAbout Steven Avery’s Case

My first stop will be Michael Griesbach’s book The Innocent KillerThe documentary left me with the feeling that this case (like all cases) is more complex than can be shown in 10 hours.  And there’s no denying the prosecution didn’t give the filmmakers the same access as the the defense.  Griesbach is a prosecuting attorney Manitowoc County, so I’m keen to hear his take on the case.

Wrongful Convictionscentralpark

Whatever your opinion about Avery’s guilt with regards to the Halbach murder, it’s difficult to get over the fact that Avery lost years of his life because of a wrongful conviction — years that likely cost him a relationship with his children.  I can see myself watching The Central Park Five out of a desire to understand how those who are wrongfully convicted function after society has treated them unjustly.

Police Corruption

changelingHaving already watched (and been stunned by) The Changeling, a film in which Angelina Jolie plays a mother who knows that the kidnapped boy returned to her is not her son at all, I’ll probably watch it again.  Jolie enduring the horrific effects of public slander by corrupt police shares a certain kinship with Avery.

I can also see myself picking up Jo Nesbo’s thriller, The Son, a fast-paced read about a web of corruption. 

Conspiracy Theoriesvoodoo

Voodoo Histories is a non-fiction work that examines the psychology behind what makes conspiracy theories addictive.  It does so through the lens of twelve real life cases including JFK’s assassination, the first moon landing, and 9/11.  Also, awesome cover.

frozenRural Wisconsin

In many ways, I think it is the landscape of Making a Murderer that will stay with me.  All those lingering shots of Avery Auto Salvage through the changing seasons seem somehow haunted and foreboding.  I’ve put a hold on Frozen, the first book in Kate Watterson’s Detective Ellie MacIntosh series, which takes place partly in the rural backwoods of Wisconsin.

Something Bleakmercy

I have to say I find Making a Murderer depressing as hell.  There’s every possibility that I’ll want stay in that pocket of bleakness after the show is done.  In that case, I’ll reach for Canadian author David Richard Adam’s Mercy Among The Children a novel that dwells in rural poverty and relentless tragedy.

How to you cope with the end of Making a Murderer?  What did you watch or read next?


Kat’s 2016 Winter Reads


The Inheritance Trilogy… coming in at 2 1/4″ thick

It’s going to be a busy winter! Before I can get to the titles on this list, I’ve got to get through this monster-sized book:

It’s awesome so far (every bit as good as I expected it to be after reading Jemisin’s more recent novel, The Fifth Season) Also, to be fair, it’s three books and one novella in one edition… I just hadn’t anticipated how big that would be when I ordered it.

But as soon as I’ve worked my way through that, these are next up:

Thiscensus Census-Taker by China Mieville

From the master weird-fiction writer, this story is narrated by a young boy who has witnessed a deeply traumatic event; trapped, he dreams of escape, and thinks he might have found the help he’s been looking for in a stranger who knocks at the door. But apparently the man may not be what he appears. Knowing Mieville, I’m intrigued as to why this novella is called “This” census-taker rather than “The” or “A”…

lucybartonMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

The Pulitzer Prize winner of Olive Kitteridge turns her eye to the complex mother-daughter relationship in her latest novel.  In it, Lucy is recalling the time she spent recovering in hospital and her Mother, with whom she hasn’t spoken to in years, came to visit. Strout’s characters are always so fully realized, and I’m excited to meet a new set of them.

whywecameWhy We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma

About a group of tight-knit twentysomething New Yorkers, this is a story about friendship, loss, and how we grow together and grow apart. It’s described as “warm, funny, and heartfelt,” with an engaging ensemble cast.  And I can never turn down ensemble casts.


nobaggageNo Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering by Clara Bensen

A travelogue with an engaging premise; Clara and Jeff barely know each other, but set out on a 21-day trip from Istanbul to London with no plan and (they think) no baggage. Of course ‘baggage’ has that double meaning here, but I’m honestly interested in the literal meaning, and how one can do without it on a trip of this scale.

portableveblenThe Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie

The story of a soon-to-be-married couple, whose engagement is threatened by their dysfunctional families, career aspirations, and other things/people that come between them.  Called “Quirky,” with appendices and squirrels, so I’m sold.


heartisamuscleYour Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Yapa’s debut novel, set during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, is the story of how one afternoon will change the lives of seven people forever.  It promises to be a beautiful and emotionally powerful  – albeit potentially gritty – read.