Spark Book Review: The Science of Exercise and the Brain

Exercise and the brain

Changing thinking about exercise and the brain

Written by bestselling author and psychiatrist John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain is a positive book that looks at how exercise can improve neuroplasticity, learning, and executive function. It suggests exercise as a helpful addition to medication, or sometimes even a replacement for medication in the treatment of depression, addiction, and ADHD.

Exercise and the brain

I found Spark to be full of practical advice for improving education, lifting depression, alleviating addiction, improving student achievement, managing ADHD in adults and children, increasing mental performance, and reducing the likelihood of cognitive decline. If you didn’t think exercise was a panacea before reading this book, Doctor John J. Ratey will make a believer of you by the end. His book is chock full of case studies, statistics, and experimental data that both convince and encourage. Exercise may not cure everything, but it seems to optimize the brain by re-balancing the brain’s chemical and electrical signals and triggering new connections.

Why exercise and the brain?

People evolved as hunter-gatherers who were always on the move. Similarly, our brains need the chemicals released by moderate and intense exercise to function best. People typically exercise to improve their health or extend their lives but Ratey says these motivations are secondary to the more important benefits: improving the brain.This book will change the way you think about your workout. I found myself reading it on the stationary bike.

The only negative aspect of this book is that it gets very technical for the average reader, especially in ebook form. The references to clinical trials and case studies make Ratey’s style is appropriate for a cutting-edge expert in his field. As a non-expert, I could have used some brain diagrams to help me absorb the scientific names for various brain regions, growth factors, neurotransmitters and so forth. There was a lot to learn and while Ratey explains things well, it would have been nice to have a cheat sheet or visual organizers.

Who should read Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain?

I read this book with interest because of my work with children. The book leads off with a couple of fascinating studies relating how exercise can improve student achievement, contentment, and behaviour. There are sections devoted to ways in which exercise stimulates new learning and helps students with attention challenges. That said, there are sections on a wide range of maladies that affect adults from depression to Alsheimer’s Disease to addiction. This book will be useful to a broad range of readers, including those interested in practical suggestions to help stave off mental decline with age.


10 Reasons Writers Benefit From Conventions

10 Reasons Speculative Fiction Writers Benefit From Conventions

Do you read or write speculative fiction such as fantasy, horror, science fiction, magic realism or slipstream? Consider the benefits of attending a fan convention. I know what you might be thinking. The stereotype of conventions is that they are full of movie fans in Klingon costumes like something out of the Big Bang theory. While conventions like Comic Con are huge tradeshow style events with big budgets and an emphasis on visual media, I prefer the more literary conventions built around books.


My local Canadian favorites are Ad-Astra (Toronto) and Can-Con (Ottawa) but Conventions are even bigger in the United States. Two Cons I can personally recommend for writers are Worldcon and World Fantasy Convention. Here is a handy list of conventions to help you find one in your area.


Ad Astra SF one of Toronto's top Conventions for writers and readers
I will be at Ad Astra, Toronto, April 29 – May 1.


Can-Con, one of Canada's top conventions for readers and writers.
I will be at Can-Con, Ottawa Sept. 9-11, 2016.

What can I expect at my first convention?

Most conventions will include workshops, panel discussions about genre fiction, movies, TV shows, and related issues such as science, diversity in publishing, modes of combat or history. There may be a costume parade, fight demos or a dance, and there are usually parties, a vendor’s room, special screenings of films, book launches, author readings, autograph sessions, and other special events. With a packed schedule, the hardest part can be deciding between conflicting options. Those interested in meeting publishers and authors are well advised to skip evening panel discussions and try parties or the bar.

Top 10 Reasons Writers Should Attend a Convention

Don’t let fear of storm troopers make you miss out on a great thing. There are so many benefits to attending conventions, of which the friendliness of the volunteer community is one of the most important. Here are some others.

  1. Indulge your inner fanboy/ fangirl

Many people attend literary events to hear writers read and then line up for autographs and a chance to spend a moment with a favorite author. At a convention, in addition to these activities, the same authors will typically attend parties and book launches where you can chat with them casually.

Fandom provides unique pleasures on its own, with some fans expressing their creativity by writing and performing songs, creating art, and writing fan fiction inspired by the works of their favorite authors. Some writers even got their start this way, creating fan fiction as they learned their craft, before branching out with original characters.

  1. Speak in Public to a supportive audience

As a lightly published author, it isn’t easy to get speaking gigs, but reading to an audience and learning how to keep their attention will improve your work. The first thing to remember about conventions is that unlike large literary festivals, they are run by volunteers. When you sign up you become a member of the organization. While registering online, you will be asked if you wish to volunteer. Say yes.

Conference organizers typically follow up with an email asking how you would like to help. I suggest signing up to speak on panel discussions, readings (if you are published) or even pitching your own events. In this way I was able to organize a writing game at Toronto’s SFContario, got a chance to do a videotaped reading at Can-Con, and was invited to speak on panels as a teacher-librarian, a NaNoWriMo participant, and as a fan of all things Sherlock Holmes. I also pitched and moderated a panel about serial fiction on Wattpad. Find authors who are attending the convention to be your co-panelists to increase your chances of success.

  1. Cross-pollinate your imagination

You may think you are a literary writer or a horror writer or a fantasy writer, but chances are you read widely outside your genre. And if you don’t, start now to expand your writer’s skillset. Listening to readings by authors outside your usual area can inspire cross-genre concepts and introduce you to new favorite writers. Guests of honour and panelists at conventions come for the love of it and to meet their fans. Why not get to know some of the most approachable and enthusiastic authors in a new genre? At the very least you can learn what each genre does best and incorporate it into your own work. I recommend SF for inspiring intellectual curiosity and a sense of wonder. Suspense and horror create visceral chills in readers. Fantasy is wonderful for world building, monsters, and creative whimsy.

  1. Attend parties!

This is the most fun reason of all. What would you say to meeting a room full of passionate readers and writers? Conventions host book launch parties, publisher parties, and all flavour parties. Doctor Who themed tea parties are a hit in the afternoon but nighttime fêtes are where the action is. If you’re the shy writer type, as many of us are, don’t worry; you already share common interests with most people in the room. You might have to attend a hundred ordinary social events to meet this many avid readers and established and aspiring writers. Come bask in playful and creative conversations.

  1. See Art and Fashion in new ways

I’ll fess up. I’m bored of old school fantasy book covers. You know the ones. Unicorns, dragons, medieval castles. It’s not my thing anymore. Now I prefer the sexy SF covers with weird aliens and half-naked women – Kidding! At cons you will still find these art tropes plus new twists on fantastic themes in the form of graphic novels, acrylic paintings, digital art, crafts, jewelry, and post cards. If you are thinking of self-publishing, you might even meet your future cover artist.

Conventions often hold fashion shows in the evening where fans display the costumes they have made based on anime, film, TV, and novel characters. The shows usually include some humour and drama as well as prizes for the best. Watching the fashion show is amusing in itself but it can also get the creative juices flowing. Watch as models in self-made costumes strut across the stage to tell you their stories.

  1. Spend money for good causes

Many conventions run a fundraiser for local charities by means of various activities. Have fun and feel good whether it be at a tea party fundraiser, auction, or a beef cake/ cheese cake photo shoot.

Conventions also feature a dealer room where you can “support the cause” of keeping your bookshelf current and your treasure trunk loaded. Expect to find any combination of jewelry, puppets, costumes, toys, t-shirts, corsets, steam punk accessories, games, and especially books. Support your reading habit. Tell your family it’s educational.

  1. Meet the experts “dropping science”

Not all conventions have a hard science track but I have attended conventions where tenured professors and aerospace scientists discussed the feasibility of Mars exploration and affordable delivery options for satellites. After the discussion panelists take questions from the audience. What more could a budding science fiction writer want?

Other cons might feature discussions on environmental themes, life on other planets, or hands-on opportunities like star-gazing with telescopes on the hotel roof. If you are interested in science, why not meet real researchers and experts? If you don’t get all your questions answered during the discussion, you can always meet up and chat later at parties and book launches.

  1. Improve your writing skills

Conventional writers’ conferences offer broader, less genre-focussed workshops that may not help you write that high fantasy novel or awesome science fiction story collection you are working on. For future professionals, conventions offer genre specialized discussions with working writers. Name writers sometimes offer instruction unavailable elsewhere for any price. Your favorite author likely doesn’t run workshops for wannabe writers, but at a convention they may “do it for the fans.” Don’t miss out.

  1. Invent your own panel discussion

You never know which of your ideas will dazzle the organizers. Don’t be afraid to use your unique expertise in your pitch. They are often looking for new angles. For World Con Montreal, Julie Czerneda kindly invited me to use my teaching experience to create and present science fiction related curriculum resources for educators. It was the first time I presented anything at a convention.

One way to convince organizers they need you is to think of a unique panel theme and offer to moderate. The moderator of a panel prepares a short introduction to the topic, introduces the speakers (generally published authors), and ensures the discussion runs smoothly. For many writers, meeting other panelists is a convention highlight.

  1. Join the “Con Runners”

But let’s say you’ve signed up for a convention and the organizers turned down your offer to help as a panelist or reader. Volunteering to help at the information desk, with food preparation, registration, security or similar tasks is a good way to meet people. When you offer to help out the following year, you can bet the organizers will remember your name with gratitude. If you are a talented organizer, you may find volunteering with the con running team is the most fulfilling activity of all.


An experience worth repeating

Maaja Wentz has spoken on panels, run a writing contest, and read her fiction and poetry at conventions such as: Can-Con (Ottawa), SFContario and Ad Astra (both in Toronto), and World Con (Montreal in 2009).

Why your chapter book makes me angry

Kids minds are precious


I read a lot of books as a teacher-librarian, and I’m no literary snob when it comes to children’s fiction. I’m delighted to see children reading series fiction, and the kind of stories that will be called genre fiction when they are older: adventure, fantasy, mystery, science fiction. I’m happy to see them devour cookbooks, sports books, record books, joke books, how-to books, graphic novels, comic books, books that describe pranks, YA novels about the lives of teens from the wrong side of the tracks, non-fiction, and magazines on everything from science to movie stars. Anything that inspires a love reading in kids is a good read.

When I’m not at school, I write stories and novels and think about publishing them, either traditionally or independently. To learn how, I watch online videos, and read e-books by self-publishing gurus and independently published best-selling authors. Some of these videos are also made by entrepreneurs who aren’t interested in writing, so much as in creating a mailing list of people to whom they can sell courses, coaching, and digital ‘content.’ I’m sure some of these marketers create useful products while others are complete flim-flam artists. That’s okay. Everyone knows that when you buy something, it’s ‘buyer beware.’ We’re all adults here on the internet.

Except we’re not. Recently, I watched a free webinar on writing books for children and publishing them independently. I was horrified by how cynically the author of the course recommended that we create titles based on the kind of keywords parents and children would be looking for inside the top-selling categories for children’s fiction on Next, we were supposed to combine these keywords with the latest trends such as Minecraft, or recent hit toys or Hollywood movies to create a sure winner. Once a bestselling concept was created by combining a fad, some popular keywords, and concepts from pre-existing best-selling books, the work of actually writing the book was so unimportant that this guru suggested hiring an unknown to do it on a cheap work-for-hire site such as Fiverr. With this sales method, quantity and discoverability are everything. Good writing is beside the point. How offensive to assume children don’t know quality when they read it!

I looked up some of the books created this way on Amazon to see if they were any good. The first couple I looked at were, predictably, terrible. I used to take a George Brown children’s writing class with well-known children’s editor Peter Carver. Not one of the students in that class ever turned in anything as flawed as the first page of this self-published book. It’s the difference between caring about writing as an art, and trying to rip off as many suckers as possible for money.

I am in favour of self-publishing, and I have no problem with the existence of books that are imperfect, tacky, or not to my taste. Adults are welcome to write and sell any kind of erotica the law allows, without it becoming my concern. It’s when crass marketers try to make a buck by methods which will put boring books into the hands of children that I get upset. Very young children work hard to learn to read, some of them very hard. When they reach the early stage of independent reading and can finally choose their own material, they deserve to read something hilarious, or intriguing, or imaginative, or exciting, or thoughtful, or better yet, all these things at once. They should never be exposed to something which is wilfully awful and boring, created just to have great SEO.

What’s to be done? Censorship is out of the question. does not and should not decide which books get published through its Kindle self-publishing platform. I suppose I could badmouth every disciple of this cynical hack meister, except some of his acolytes might write good books despite their commercial intentions. It can’t be any other way. In the hands of someone with talent and the intention of entertaining children, someone could follow his shallow advice and produce a compelling book that motivates children to read. So if censorship is out, but letting awful books fall into the hands of children is still a tragedy, what is the remedy?

I just spent this Saturday at TDSB Google Camp, a daylong conference for educators wanting to use Google applications in education. Something George Couros said in a workshop about digital footprint resonated with me. He said not to worry about students who might post a bad comment on digital platforms. The essential is to bury the bad in an overwhelming quantity of good.

Putting my anger at the creators of bad chapter books together with Couros’s advice then, I spent much of Sunday writing my very first kid’s chapter book. It involves magic, comedy, adventure, and a plucky heroine who doesn’t let a bully or a mad scientist’s cursed elixir ruin her life. A tentative title might be: Darling Jackie and Missy Hyde.

May it be the first of many, since I really enjoyed writing something that wasn’t too ‘adult’ to read to my students for a change. Ideally, I’ll get feedback from children and my writers’ group to make the story better. I’ll polish it and work at it until the story is something I would be proud to have young children read. And if I publish it or get it published someday, may it serve partly to bury those terrible, cynically concocted e-books that made me so mad.

Top 5 Favorite Halloween Costumes

Do you love costumes?

I love Halloween parties and dressing in creative costumes when I go to school (as a teacher-librarian). Here are five of my favorite costumes:

Anne of Green Gables
Anne of Green Gables is a historical, literary costume.

Animal Costumes

  • Panda. When pandas came from China to the Toronto Zoo, I wanted to dress up in their honour. The fun part of this costume is suggesting a panda face with elegant makeup, rather than making it too literal. I found glittery black sequined panda ears and decided to go with a sleek top and heels rather than stuff my belly with pillows. Who can dance with a pillow on their stomach?
  • Lady Bug. This costume idea was inspired the year biting ladybugs came to Toronto. The costume version doesn’t bite, unless you want it to. You can buy red wings and antennae at any costume shop. The fun part is dressing up like a ‘lady’ in heels, black lace and your choice of exciting decollete.

Character Costumes

  • Tooth Fairy. For this I wore fairy wings, a blue checkered lumberjack shirt, work boots, jeans, and carried a big set of pliers for pulling teeth. Who says the Tooth Fairy can’t be baddass? The ghoulish detail to this costume was a string of teeth I wore around my neck: large molars with red roots still attached that I made out of white and blood-red modeling material.
  • Conan the Librarian is the disguise my co-workers remember best. I wrapped fake fur around my shins and body, donned a horned helmet and made myself a shield and war hammer covered with book posters. There’s a primitive warrior trapped in the heart of every meek-mannered librarian, and when you let it out the kids bring back their books on time!
Conan the Librarian
Conan the Librarian
  • Showgirl. I had just outfitted 8 Klondike can-can girls for a school play in pink bridesmaid’s dresses with big crinolines and headpieces. Why should the students have all the fun? The headpiece is carboard, mounted on a headband and then covered in black velvet and decorated with a fan of feathers. I wore a puffy crinoline under a metallic blue underskirt that just peeped out from the lacy yellow overskirt. Accessories included heels, fishnet stockings, and a gold-trimmed black velvet bustier from a lingerie shop.
Bat Girl versus Poison Ivy! Two great Halloween costumes
Bat Girl versus Poison Ivy! Two great comic book Halloween costumes that go better together.
  • Poison Ivy. I spray-dyed my hair comic book red, added extensions in the same colour and festooned myself with leafy boas and garlands. The makeup was dramatic too. I felt a bit like a drag queen until my brother said: “You look really good in makeup.” His costume was even better at that party. He showed up as a zombie pizza delivery guy, with a pizza in a box he baked himself!
Poison Ivy, Hockey Hooligan and a terrifying loans officer.
Poison Ivy, Hockey Hooligan and a tiny but terrifying loans officer.

Halloween ‘Frenzy’ Update:

What a nice Halloween present! Feeding Frenzy is listed #46 in Mystery/Thriller with over 48 000 Wattpad reads. The question now is how to celebrate when it hits 50 000 reads?

Feeding Frenzy nears 50K


Future Library: Message to the future

What will humanity be reading in a century? Will paper books still be read? Visionary author Margaret Atwood is the first to contribute a secret story to Future Library, a unique 100-year artwork.

Designed by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, Future Library is a real place, created for Oslo, Norway. Part of this project is a forest of 1000 trees, planted in Nordmarka, near Oslo, which will mature in 100 years to provide paper on which to print this unique anthology. A room in Oslo’s new library, made from trees from the same forest, will store these future books. Until 2114, visitors to this room can wonder at what kinds of fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and stories the library will encompass, and create these potential works in their minds. Imagine growing a book over a hundred years!

A different author contributor will be honoured each year. When asked, Atwood declined to reveal anything about her story, because secrecy is “part of the deal.”


“I am very honoured, and also happy to be part of this endeavor. This project, at least, believes the human race will still be around in a hundred years! Future Library is bound to attract a lot of attention over the decades, as people follow the progress of the trees, note what takes up residence in and around them, and try to guess what the writers have put into their sealed boxes.”

Margaret Atwood


In this video, Margaret Atwood calls any book “a communication across space and time.” As a longtime fan and admirer of Atwood’s writing, I just wish I could live to read her story.

Margaret Atwood – the first writer for Future Library from Katie Paterson on Vimeo.

Author Bio and Bloor West Writers

BWW, a Toronto-Based writers' group, meets weekly to trade critiques.
BWW meets weekly in Toronto.

I was recently accepted as a judge for the Mash Stories Competition. The Mash Competition appeals to my fascination with randomly inspired art, and artistic experiment. Each quarter, Mash posts three unrelated words. Participants incorporate these words into 500 word stories of any type. It’s not necessarily Dada poetry, but in the right hands, it certainly could be!

I’m flattered to be accepted as a judge, but when Mash featured me in their most recent newsletter, I was disappointed that I couldn’t provide a link back to BWW, my beloved critique group.

Over the years, I have owed a lot of my progress to Bloor West Writers. Prize-winning and published authors belong to BWW, but without a website, there was nowhere to gather their achievements and interests. To correct this oversight, I started a website we can contribute to collectively.

Words of the Season Reading
Words of the Season Reading

Here’s my bio, which also got an overhaul:

Maaja Wentz’s Dionysus-inspired poem “Fallow God,” appeared in EDGE’s Urban Green Man anthology. The experimental story “You,” won a prize in the national Norma Epstein Foundation competition for Creative Writing.

Her one-act play, Midnight Fran-pire, was produced at ‘Fran’s Café’ by Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre. She recently won a writer’s grant from the Writers’ Circle of Durham Region. She is a member of the WCDRSunburst Award SocietyOntario Library Association, and Bloor West Writers.

Partial to live readings, Maaja has performed her work at poetry slams, reading series, and science fiction and fantasy conventions. She Maaja holds an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto, where she studied works in English and French, and developed a life-long fascination with the ‘Gargantuan’ works of Francois Rabelais.

Her most recent projects include a serial novel, Feeding Frenzy, and an interactive novel called Cliffhanger Castle. Maaja is a teacher-librarian in Toronto, where she has written and produced a handful of children’s plays.

What is a Serial Thriller Anthology?

Cliffhanger Castle, an innovative serial anthology created by Maaja Wentz
Cliffhanger Castle. A paranormal serial anthology created by Maaja Wentz

Is this Wattpad’s First Serial Anthology?

This project is a paranormal thriller with a twist – author collaboration in a serial anthology. If you have ever wanted to read a suspense novel that combines mystery with lots of surprises, this innovative novel, the first of its kind on Wattpad.

Exciting writers compete to display their unique style, in conjunction with other talented authors. The idea is to combine a gentle game of writerly one-upmanship, with a chance for like-minded writers (and readers) to find each other. Only the most talented contributors will have their chapters included in the story.

Is a Serial Anthology Right for You?

Written by various authors in styles ranging from sweet to suspenseful, there is a lot of variety for the reader. If you don’t want to miss out, consider following the project on Wattpad. Here is the link to my Wattpad Profile: @MaajaWentz (on Wattpad)

There you will also find my Watty-Award-Winning mystery/thriller, Feeding Frenzy,as well as virtual shelves of reading recommendations in different genres. There is a lot of free fiction available every day on Wattpad. As a platform, Wattpad has a monthly audience of 45 million to whom it is committed to provide all its stories for free.

Note: Wattpad is for members only but all you need is an email address. Join Wattpad for full access, or get Cliffhanger Castle updates outside Wattpad by joining the Loon Lake Reading Club.


*** Update ***


After putting Cliffhanger Castle on hiatus while I concentrated on editing Feeding Frenzy for publication, Cliffhanger Castle is relaunched and looking for contributors. If you are on Wattpad and you would like to contribute, feel free to pitch me with a chapter idea. If I like your idea, and the samples of your work posted on Wattpad, you may just be our newest featured author.

WCDR Reading “Words of the Season”

I will be reading at Words of the Season in Pickering Tuesday night.

There will be music, prose, and poetry, by dedicated local artists. Admission is free and all are welcome!


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

6:30 pm…

Bear (A Firkin Pub) located at 1294 Kingston Road Pickering, Ontario. (Liverpool and Kingston Road, just east of Toronto).

Food and drink are available for purchase.