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Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music by Tim Falconer

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Everyone knows him – the child in the grade school choir who is asked to mime along when the class is singing. Or perhaps you are him and you know that you really are a good singer deep down but for some reason others seem not to agree. The author of Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music is author and journalist Tim Falconer, and is both of these. He loves music but has to admit to being a “bad singer” and so he embarked on a journey through the worlds of music and medical science to first get a confirmation that he truly was bad, and then to find out if there was hope to get re-trained and improve. Unfortunately, he turned out to be one of the 2.5 percent of the population that has amusia – he is scientifically tone-deaf. Fortunately for us, he is a great writer and investigator and he is able to take the reader through his personal odyssey to learn what that means, and what there is to know about this phenomena.

It turns out that there is much more to tone-deafness than simply not being able to hit the exact pitch. There is rhythm, timbre, tone, the arch of the melody and other intangibles that he tries to identify through the scientists and music experts he sees. Musicality is not just a function of the voice, or the throat or the ear – it is truly experienced and translated in the brain and it is the brain at fault for the author and others’ inability to reproduce sounds in pitch or to hear when there is a difference.

It is a fascinating book and one comes to really root for Falconer who is so determined to understand his weakness and to become a more proficient singer and ultimately, to sing on stage for an audience.  I won’t ruin the ending for you but I will highly recommend this informative and highly entertaining book which can lead one to a better understanding of why some can sing arias on the stage and others can sing their hearts out (but perhaps only should when they are in the shower.)

To find out if you might have amusia, look for the web-based sites he lists for self-testing.

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Angela Meady
Thunder Bay Public Library

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Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

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Part action novel, part history, part love story – Dance of the Banished is a book which will linger in the reader’s mind.

Zeynep and Ali are young Alevi Kurds in Anatolia, Turkey who are dreaming of a future together. Ali leaves his fiancée when he gets passage to Canada and Zeynep’s world is thrown into chaos when war breaks out. Their ensuing stories are told in alternating chapters and letters. Zeynep travels to a city where life is becoming more dangerous each day. It soon becomes clear that the Turks are using the camouflage of war to murder the minority Armenian population and Zeynep is a horrified witness.
Meanwhile, in Brampton, Ontario Ali is swept up with other immigrants and imprisoned in a war camp in northern Ontario. To the Canadian government, he is Turkish because he came from Turkey, and is therefore an enemy of Canada. Through everything, the main couple hold each other in their hearts and dream of dancing the semah together again. The semah is a religious dance and form of worship for the Alexi Kurds and is the inspiration for the book’s title and the cover painting by Pascal Milelli.

There are many stories set during World War 1, however few have touched on the period of the Armenian genocide and few books have also tackled the uncomfortable truth about innocents interred in Canada’s wartime camps. The characters’ love for each other and fierce hope despite terrible odds is very compelling and urges an ending of reunion and the righting of wrongs.

There is a reason why this book won the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch can bring history to life in a way that few others can

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone

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lineoffire2This book’s origins are quite remarkable. It began when a French artist named Barroux noticed some garbage being thrown out on a Paris street and stopped because he saw some old magazines and had been looking for some to cut up for a project. Among the debris he also found a medal and an old diary. It turned out to be over 100 years old and had belonged to a French man who had been conscripted into World War 1. The name was too faded to read anymore, but the words were quite amazing and they inspired the artist to create the images which would illustrate the unknown soldier’s words.

The result was a graphic novel unlike most novels or true-life accounts of war. Because the diarist was writing for himself the story is told in a very matter-of-fact and unedited manner. The reader views the story just as it unfolds for the teller, and it is not a grand drama, but rather, the personal view of an infantry soldier recounting what he sees, hears and feels as he moves through the early days of the war.

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It begins when France declares war and continues until early September in 1914. Then, it abruptly stops. By that time, the reader is captivated and wants to know what happens next, but it must remain a mystery because that is all there is to the diary. Instead, he includes the lyrics of some of the songs of the day and we are left to speculate what became of the person we have gotten to know.

In his diary, he writes about the initial enthusiasm of his fellow servicemen, of long treks and journeys, his aching feet, some of the people he befriends, life in the trenches and also in the hospital where he is taken at one point. He writes of the countryside, his inner thoughts and seeing courage in battle.

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Barroux illustrates every page of the diary using acrylic paint and a thick black grease pencil that he obtained from his butcher. He had to spray the pages to keep the grease lines from smudging and the result is a yellowish patina which suits the 100 year old story well. The drawings are semi-realistic with a slight cartoonish element which preserves a bit of the mystery of the diary-writer’s identity. He is “any-man” fighting for his country and wondering what will happen next.   Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse and many other fine books, wrote the introduction for Line of Fire and stated: “We need the voice of a witness to tell the unadulterated truth. We have it in this remarkable book.” I couldn’t agree more and recommend this unique book to anyone aged 12 and older.

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Angela Meady is Head of Children’s & Youth Services for the Thunder Bay Public Library.

Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves by Laurel Braitman

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animal madnessI couldn’t resist picking up this book to read after seeing the title. It did not disappoint. The author has spent her life studying animals as a biologist and MIT doctoral student, but it was her personal story of loving Oliver, a Bernese Mountain dog with debilitating separation anxiety and huge behavioral issues, which led her to research and write this compelling book about how animals, like us, can also suffer the “emotional thunderstorms” and disturbances characterized as mental illness.

Her research took her around the world to study animals in different circumstances and to collect their stories. She also goes back to earliest records of beached whales in the middle ages, through Darwin and B.F. Skinner , newspaper accounts of “rogue elephants” escaping from circuses and dog breeders, veterinarians and wildlife ecologists working with animals today.

The stories are poignant and compelling, such as accounts of dogs suffering from PTSD during World War One. The symptoms of these dogs mirrored those of the soldiers who fell mute in response to the threats and violence they witnessed. She draws parallels between the mutism and the responses of prey animals who freeze in the presence of a predator. Likewise, there are parallels between humans with OCD who must wash obsessively and animals who suffer from acral lick dermatis, or licking one’s paws until they bleed. In both cases it seems to be a self-destructive way of self-calming and an outlet for anxiety

Interestingly, abused animals and animals suffering what seems to be depression or anxiety or fear can get better in the same way that we can – through love and affection, medicine, behavioral therapy and the knowledge that someone understands their suffering and can help them feel better.  This optimism which is based on evidence, balances the very sad stories such as that of Tip the circus elephant who was deemed ”mad” – not because he was rabid but because he reacted violently to the person who kept him in chains and diminished his world to a square patch of earth with no social, physical or emotional stimulation other than beatings.

This very readable, accessible science book received raves from Discover Magazine and a wide range of sources. It challenges our assumption that humans are the only creatures to understand and truly feel pain, loss and frustration and to express it through our behavior. After reading Animal Madness, you may never look at your dog’s chasing his own tail or an animal rocking itself in a zoo enclosure in the same way again.

Angela Meady is the Head of Children and Youth Services for the Thunder Bay Public Library

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes But Fed Up With Fondue by David Sax

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tastemakersIf you have ever wondered why certain foods “appear” out of nowhere to suddenly show up on every menu, store shelf, magazine article and television program, this book will enlighten you. Whether it is acai berries, Greek yoghurt or pomegranate juice, Sax gets to the root of how celebrity chefs, clever marketers, food industry strategies or the rare combination of the right thing showing up at the right time can suddenly make a food into household name even while other foods slide into obscurity. Does anyone remember the muffin craze of the 1980s?
One of the current crazes is for cupcakes, and according to trend-seer Faith Popcorn, this is a symptom of the ‘down-aging” trend of baby boomers who seek to combine childhood memories with easy-luxury. They were featured on Sex in the City at a time when the show was at its peak and the craze took off. Bakeries which relied on children’s birthday parties for occasional sales suddenly found themselves pressured to sell cupcakes of every flavour, design and level of sophistication. Bloggers and television shows like Cupcake Wars introduced the  “must-have” cupcake to the wider world and the trend is still alive. Those who didn’t live through similar fads like fondue in the1960s must wonder what their parents ever saw in it, but the author reveals what drives these gastro-fads by delving behind the hype.
Curious about chia seed? Baffled by bacon-onics? Sax explains all and devotes one chapter to the meteoric rise of so-called “Super-Foods” in this decade. All in all, this book is a very tasty, light read which will open your eyes to a more critical view of restaurant menus and grocery aisle products.

Review by Angela Meady, Head of Children’s Services, TBPL

 

Yesterday’s Dead By Pat Bourke

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yesterdaydead“If all the adults are all sick, who’s in charge?”

This is the tag-line for an absorbing children’s novel by Canadian author Pat Bourke.It is set in Toronto in 1918 just as the first world war is ending and the deadly Spanish Flu hits the city. The first half depicts the challenges faced by Meredith, a 13 year old girl who left school in order to take a position as a maid in a manor in Rosedale. She must support her family after her father is killed oversees. Meredith’s tale is historically accurate in nature and her bravery comes from being determined to do her best despite difficult circumstances like a condescending butler, rude children and work that doesn’t end. The second half of the novel tells the gripping story about what happens when the flu comes to the household and the adults and children start to succumb. The father is a doctor quarantined at the hospital when the cook, the young boy, the butler and finally, the young man of the house, all take ill and suffer varying degrees of delirium and distress. No one is allowed in or out of the house so Meredith must wrestle with the responsibility of making life or death decisions. Before it died out, the Spanish flu killed an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 persons across Canada. The author is able to vividly describe what such an outbreak would have been like, down to including details like some of the bizarre folk remedies and “cures”. It is by no means a grim book as there is humour, character growth and redemption in this novel as well. The author’s obvious research and vividly rendered characters and scenes bring this historical novel to life for children and youth.

Angela Meady is the Head of Children’s & Youth Services at the Thunder Bay Public Library

Declan Hughes mystery series

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The Wrong Kind of Blood. 2006wrong

The Colour of Blood-2007

The Dying Breed –2008

Ed Loy is the private detective who returns to Dublin and encounters the gritty Irish underworld – many of whom are former school mates or neighbours. Suspenseful and rich with characterization.