Month: February 2016

2015 Nebula Award Nominees

The first big nominee list in Science Fiction & Fantasy for 2015 awards is out! The Nebula Awards will be presented in May, so until then here’s the reading list in the best novel category:

raisingcaineRaising Caine, by Charles E. Gannon
Series: Tales of the The Terran Republic, #3

The third in Gannon’s space-opera series has “reluctant diplomat and military intelligence operative” Caine Riordan journeying to a new world to try and forge an alliance with its mysterious inhabitants. For hard science-fiction and adventure fans, Fantasy and Science Fiction book and audiobook reviews calls this series “an intergallactic thrill-ride.”


fifthseasonThe Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin
Series: The Broken Earth, #1

I’ve raved about this book before, and after finishing her Inheritance Trilogy (that was the 2 1/4″ book from my winter picks post) I can definitely say that N.K. Jemisin is my favourite new find in a long time. This series features a world so ravaged by environment disasters that it marks its historical eras by whatever catastrophe defined them. It’s three main storylines, each told in an entirely different narrative style, make for a challenging, unique read. It takes a bit to get going, and the narrative can be confusing at first, but it is so SO worth the read!


ancillarymercyAncillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie
Series: Imperial Radch, #3

The conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy has its self-aware-starship-turned-soldier Breq facing a final confrontation with her enemy, the ruler of the now divided Radch empire. Ancillary Justice, the first book in this series (which was also Ann Leckie’s debut) won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke Awards, so this is definitely a must-read.


graceofkingsThe Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu
Series: The Dandelion Dynasty, #1

Liu is an award-winning short-story writer. His new series is set in an Han dynasty-like setting, and is inspired by Chinese and Western mythology and storytelling. It’s a novel of kingdoms and thrones, gods, friendship, and betrayal. In terms of scale, world-building detail (and sheer number of characters) it’s being compared to Game of Thrones, and in terms of writing style and scope, that of Guy Gavriel Kay.


uprootedUprooted, by Naomi Novik

My other favourite from 2015, this is a departure for Naomi Novik from her bestselling Temeraire series.    In essence, it’s a coming-of-age story, but I loved the way that Agnieszka fights to be true to her talents, and fights for her friends and village despite the regular disapproval of her captor-turned-tutor, his colleagues, and even the nobility. This is a beautifully crafted fairy-tale like story – dark, magical, and utterly spell-binding.


barskBarsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen

I’m not usually a fan of the talking, anthropomorphic animal characters – Jim Butcher’s cats from the Cinder Spires book and Kevin Hearne’s Irish Wolfhound from the Iron Druid chronicles excepted… and neither of them are actually talking… but I digress. Anyway, despite my anthropomorphic hesitations, Barsk just sounds too intriguing to pass up; it’s set in the far future where, while humanity has died out, it’s successors – animals that have been genetically modified to into sentience and genius – remain, and have scattered all over the galaxy.  This novel features the Fant (elephant-descendants, of course), who were exiled to a back-water world, but produce a drug which the other species all now depend on, that allows one to interact with the recently dead.  The premise sounds a bit Dune-ish to me, and add to that Space Elephants and it’s now top of my list of nominees I missed last year but have to read now!

updraftUpdraft, by Fran Wilde
Series: Bone Universe, #1

This one’s nominated both in the Best Novel and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy categories. Also Fran Wilde’s debut novel, it’s a coming of age story featuring a teen girl about to take her final test to become  flier and follow in her mother’s footsteps.  It’s been praised for fantastic world-building (because how can you say no to meticulously crafted cloud cities?), great characters, and of course being just plain fun to read.


Check out the full list of nominees at  I’m excited that both my two favourite reads from 2015 (Uprooted and The Fifth Season) are nominated, although I would never be able to pick between them.

What do you think? Is the nominee list a good representation of 2015’s offerings, or are there any big oversights?

Freedom to Read 2016

raifbadawiSaudi blogger Raif Badawi became known around the world when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes because of his writing.  Many people, myself included, thought to themselves that such a thing could never happen in Canada.  Because we live in a world where freedom of expression is not an inalienable right for everyone, it is important that we appreciate the freedom we often take for granted and renew our commitment to defending freedom of expression for all.  For these reasons, Freedom to Read week is a valuable part of our cultural lives and Canadians and Canadian residents.

freedomtoreadEach year the he Canadian Library Association’s Advisory Committee on Intellectual Freedom, in partnership with the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee, conduct a survey identifying library materials that have been challenged.  These materials are those that concerned members of the public have asked to be removed from library collections or reclassified for a variety of reasons.

In drawing attention to some of the more surprising titles on this list, it is not my intention that we scoff at the presumed ignorance of those who challenge library materials, but rather that we open up conversations about why access to materials representing a full range of view points is essential for the health and well being of our society.

Here are some titles that have recently been challenged in Canadian schools and libraries:

warsThe Wars by Timothy Findley

Published in 1977, Findley’s The Wars was most recently challenged in 2011.  The parent of a twelfth grader in Ontario asked that the book be removed from her child’s curriculum because of sexual and violent content including prostitution and gang rape.  The book, which won the Governor General’s Award, remains on the curriculum.

tango.jpgAnd Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell 

This book about homosexual penguins raising a chick together was removed from a Calgary Catholic School Library after being challenged in 2006.  Though for many children this book serves as a compassionate and heartwarming introduction to acceptance, it is clear not everyone feels the same way.  In library catalogues the book has been tagged as “brainwashing children,” and “godless penguins.”

thisonesummerAnd just this week, Canadian graphic novelists Mariko and Jillian Tamaki had their widely acclaimed work This One Summer pulled from the shelves of three American secondary schools in response to a parent’s complaint that the book was inappropriate for a third grader. (I can’t quite figure that one out either.)

If you’d like to learn more about Freedom to Read week, please visit


Literature, Empathy and the Migrant Experience

As the migrant crisis continues to unveil its complexities over news screens everywhere and Canada contemplates how to best welcome and make room for refugees in our communities, I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a human being and citizen of the world.

How do you build friendships with people from an unfamiliar culture where etiquette, language and customs collide with your own? How can our community be as welcoming and inclusive as possible when, for many Canadians, understanding what it’s like to continually worry about the safety and well-being of you and your family is an alien concept?

In other words, how do you build empathy?

Many have written excellent pieces and done studies on how literature can help readers to better understand and connect with others.  In his Atlantic article, author Joe Fassler explains this process best by saying that, “Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us how to feel other people suffering. When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin color or her skin color. You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are. And so reading great novels absolutely can remake us as much better human beings. ”

Below I’ve put together a short list of Canadian novels which explore the migrant experience for readers who are interested in pushing their limits of human understanding. You’ll notice that while many of the titles are contemporary, I have also included American novelist John Steinbeck’s American classic Grapes of Wrath, which although it was published in 1939 is still as relevant today as ever as it chronicles the hardships faced by a poor Midwest family forced off their land and into the sea of migrants heading West during the American Dust Bowl. empathy exams

In addition to these titles, NVCL’s March Book Club will be taking a look at Leslie Jamison’s collection of essays, The Empathy Exams . If you’re interested in learning more and participating, please join us on March 2nd for what promises to be an interesting discussion (It’s also my first book club at NVCL!).

Finally, February 22nd is also the deadline for the Library Small Grants program, an initiative we are piloting here at the library to build creative and community-led cross-cultural relationships here on the North Shore.  The deadline is Monday so please don’t hesitate to apply, we’d love to hear from you!


Recommended Reads:

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill theillegal

One of my most anticipated reads of the year is Canadian author Lawrence Hill’s first novel since the bestselling epic, The Book of Negroes. The Illegal tells the story of Keita, an elite marathoner and refugee from a fictionalized country in the centre of the Indian Ocean called Zantoroland who uses his running prowess to escape to Freedom Land—a familiar stand-in for the wealthy, democratic Western world.  In an interview with CBC, Hill said “I think we have trouble imagining the lives of refugees and stateless people. With refugees, you see all these pictures of these people who are displaced or on the move… It’s important to remember that each of these people has a story: has a mother and a father and perhaps children, lovers, aptitudes and skills. There are doctors, engineers and lawyers in those groups of displaced people, as well as people of every other economic class.” 


The Cockroach by Rawi Hage  cockroach cover

Published in 2008, The Cockroach was the finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was also selected as one of CBC’s Canada Reads finalists in 2015.  Through flashbacks and conversations with his therapist following a failed suicide attempt, The Cockroach tells the story of one former refugee’s violent childhood in a war-torn country, forward into his current urban life, and out into the frozen night-time streets of Montreal, where the thief survives on the edge of society.


Year of the Runaways The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Nominated for this year’s Man Booker Prize, this book takes a slightly different look at the migrant experience by highlighting the plight of economic migrants, in this case by telling the story of the difficult, lonely, and at times despairing lives of four illegal migrants who made their way to Sheffield, UK from India in search of a better life.


Ru by Kim Thúy

In vignettes that shift back and forth between past and present, Ru tells the story of a young woman forced to leave her Saigon home during the Vietnam War. Thúy traces the woman’s journey from childhood in an affluent Saigon neighbourhood to youth in a crowded Malaysian refugee camp and then to Quebec, where she struggles to fit in — all aspects of the author’s own life story.


The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck   JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath

One of my all-time favourite reads, this is one of those stories which has the power to reach and touch readers who have difficulty stepping outside their North American experience. It examines the plight of the Joad family as they are forced off their Midwest homestead and join the sea of migrants heading west to California during the 1930’s Dust Bowl. One thing that I found most striking about the book is how Steinbeck is able to fully realize what happens when dehumanizing labels like “migrant”, “refugee” and in this case “Okie” are assigned as tools to allow others to step back and withdraw their responsibility to care and empathize as fellow human beings.


-Mikale Fenton

Black History Month

February is Black History Month in the United States. In honour of that observance, and in light of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, here are a few books on the Black experience in North America that will enrage, enlighten, and fascinate.

BookOfNegroesThe Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill

This compelling and award winning novel gives a sweeping vision of the 18th century slave trade. At the request of British abolitionists, Aminata Diallo writes her life story, beginning with her abduction from an African village, her life as a plantation slave, her transfer to Nova Scotia following American independence, and finally her journey to England. All of this is fascinating, but it is the narrator’s voice and character that make this book sing.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle AlexanderNewJimCrow

“We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it,” observes Alexander. And she lays out in devastating and scrupulously researched detail how mass incarceration in the U.S. (nearly at the levels achieved by Stalin) has created a new version of the abhorrent Jim Crow laws – which permitted racial discrimination in the American south. A disturbing but essential and timely read.

HangingAngeliqueThe Hanging of Angelique, by Afua Cooper

We don’t ordinarily associate the idea of Canada with slavery, except perhaps as the terminus for the underground railway. This is the historical account of a Canadian slave who was convicted of setting a fire in Montreal in 1734, but who may have been guilty of nothing more than being a woman who refused to accept bondage.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi CoatesBetweenWorldAndMe

Still showing up on all kinds of bestseller lists, this short book looks at what it means to be Black in America today. Structured as a letter to his teenage son, Coates writes of his childhood, his education, his fears as a parent, and underlying all this is the issue of race. There is rage, kindness, love, and a kind of painful wisdom, all delivered with a James Baldwin vibe.

RosaParksThe Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jean Theoharis

Famous for refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, Rosa Parks has entered the civil rights pantheon as a mild, self-effacing, almost accidental activist. This biography sets the record straight, revealing her life as a protester both before and after the bus incident. She may have been quiet, but she was also thoughtful, passionate, and dedicated. A true hero of her time.

If you’ve read all of these, here are a few other books on this topic that aren’t to be missed: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin; Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (or anything else by her); and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Outdoor Inspiration for (almost) Spring

While I know we’re in for a bunch more rain soon (and, my pessimistic side says, probably a freak snow storm or something), at this moment it’s gorgeous and I’m about ready to shake off the winter cobwebs and go outside and play.  Here’s my list of favourite outdoorsy books, which will keep me inspired when it inevitably starts to rain again.

Off thoffbeatenpathe Beaten Path, by Norman D. Watt

This book was my intro to hiking on the North Shore, and it has a great mix of hikes – from the very basic to the advanced. Each hike includes useful summaries of the time estimates, elevation gain, recommended seasons, and dog-friendliness, and its hike descriptions have just the right level of detail.  It’s now in its second edition, with updates on trail-heads (always appreciated!), signage, and winter use.



Knack Guide: Hiking & Backpacking, by Buck Tilton

The “Knack: Make it Easy” series are from Falcon Guides, and I love them – they’re a wonderful balance of approachable and concise, yet thorough and detailed.  This one provides a great introduction to all the skills, gear, and know-how you need to start your hiking and backpacking career.


Roadie: the misunderstood world of a bike racer, by Jamie Smith

While I’ve been cycling for transportation most of my life, I’ve only recently really gotten in to road cycling.  The drop-bars, skinny little tires, and shifters were mystifying at first, and to make matters worse I decided to start out on an older bike with down-tube shifters, so the whole setup was totally terrifying to me. It’s really a wonder I’m still doing it. Anyway… while the whole bike set-up was strange and new, but even stranger and newer was the whole road bike and road racing culture. This is a great (and really funny) exploration of it – everything from gear and nutrition, all the way to cycling teams and leg shaving.

Bike Snbikesnobob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling, by nyvbikesnob (

For a more thorough (and even funnier) exploration of the world of cycling, check out “Bike Snob”. My favourite sections: “The various subsets of cyclists” (each of which includes why the other subsets don’t like them), “Why is everybody trying to kill me?”, “How not to crash,” and “Pain, Nature’s Cruel Instructor.” It of course has lots of useful stuff too, like locking your bike properly, dealing with flats, and bike fit.

walkinthewoodsA Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

Now a classic, no outdoorsy-book list is complete without this one.  Bill Bryson’s attempt to do the Appalachian trail makes for an engrossing and hilarious tale on its own, but the people he travels with and meets along the way really make the story. Skip the movie – it glosses over some of the best parts – and read the book instead!


halfwaytoheavenHalfway to Heaven, by Mark Obmascik

In Walk in the Woods fashion, journalist and self-described “overweight, stay-at-home dad” Mark Obmascik decides he’s going to climb all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-footers in less than a year. Like Bryson, Obmascik is ordered by his wife not to do it alone, and so begins another amusing tale of friendship, danger, and adventure, featuring another cast of colourful characters and even some father-son bonding. If you liked A Walk in the Woods, definitely give this one a shot.

gironimoGironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy, by Tim Moore

Another glutton for punishment author on this list, Tim Moore decides he’s going to ride the most brutal of cycling tours – the 1914 Giro d’Italia – on it’s 100th anniversary. On a period-specific, wooden-wheeled bike that he salvaged and put together himself.  Despite not really having been on a bike in more than a decade. This travelogue is full of adventure and hilarity, pain and misery, period clothing and Chianti.


wildinyou The Wild In Youby Lorna Crozier & Ian McCallister

If you’re looking for some inspiration of the more traditional sort (my tastes admittedly run towards the… less serious), The Wild in You is a beautiful collaboration of photography and poetry, all on the creatures and landscapes of the forest and ocean. Gorgeous, meditative, and wholly inspiring.


I know us book-junkies are not exactly known for our outdoorsiness, but I think a book is a perfect reward for making it to your adventure destination. That’s what ebooks on your phone are for, right?



Gong Hey Fat Choy

February 8th is Chinese New Year – so Happy New Year! Here are a few reading selections to help expand your understanding of this fascinating culture.


AgeOfAmbitionAge of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, by Evan Osnos

Looking at the clash between individual aspiration and authoritarian control in the new China, New Yorker staff writer, Evan Osnos, delivers a vivid portrait told through the stories of everyday people. With great narrative flair, the author explores the themes of economic change, censorship, and personal values. Winner of the 2014 National Book Award in Non-fiction.

MasteringChineseCookingMastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

So what’s not to love about Chinese food? This cookbook provides skill-building lessons, brush drawn illustrations of step-by-step techniques, and great photographs of finished dishes, ingredients, and landscapes. This beautiful book is a great way into the ancient cuisine of China, and is a delight to leaf through as well.

CountryDrivingCountry Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler

Road Trip! Acquiring his Chinese driver’s license, Hessler sets out to track how the automobile and improved roads are transforming China. He follows the Great Wall, and then moves to a small farming village which dramatically alters before his eyes. Finally he ends up in a city where he witnesses the shift from agriculture to industry. Along the way, Hessler writes movingly about the average people who are reshaping the nation.


frogMo Yan – Frog

You might know Mo Yan as the 2012 Nobel prize winner for literature.  Mo sheds light on the far-reaching implications of China’s one-child policy in Frog.  Tadpole is a playwright writing a play about his aunt Gugu, a midwife and steadfast Communist who performs abortions to demonstrate her loyalty to the party.


threebodyCixin Liu – The Three-Body Problem

2015’s Hugo Award Winner was this hard science fiction Chinese novel in translation. The Three-Body Problem attempts to answer an age-old SF question: What happens when humans and aliens make first contact? The book is the first in an anticipated trilogy; volume 2 is due out later this year.

americanbornchineseGene Luen Yang – American Born Chinese

Yang made news earlier this year when he was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US.  If you haven’t already, I urge you to read his graphic novels starting with American Born Chinese. It tells three intertwined stories about characters longing to fit in.

You can read his inspiring inaugural speech online; his powerful closing sentiments echo our own,

Let me end by encouraging you to read without walls. Find a book with someone on the cover who doesn’t look like you or live like you. Find a book about a topic that you don’t know much about. Find a book that’s in a format you’ve never tried before: a graphic novel, a words-only novel, or a novel in verse.

Read without walls and see what happens.

I bet it’ll be something amazing.


-Michael and Patricia

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?