March 2021 Wrap-Up

It’s March. Again. Maybe still.

It’s been a weird month for me. I actually felt like I coped better during January and February this year, perhaps due to the stay-at-home order in my province which meant that my job at the library was limited to helping with curbside pick-up of holds, a much safer prospect than being in close quarters with patrons to provide computer support and directions. As the stay-at-home order lifted and we resumed operations (and were told that we apparently don’t qualify for any level of vaccine prioritization despite working with the public without being able to enforce a mask mandate and without the protection of plexiglass??) my mental health has deteriorated and I had tech issues as my hard drive mysteriously crashed and I had to pay to replace that. Despite the exhaustion of feeling like, at least in my province, we’re no better off and are, in fact, worse off than a year ago, I did manage to have a solid reading month, reading 10 works.

Stats: My reading this year continues to be overwhelmingly white, which is not a good look, but everything 9/10 were by women or nonbinary authors. Four of my reads were new releases and I wasn’t absolutely blown away by any of them so I’m going to make an effort to read from my backlist in the next few months.

“The Daughter of the Forest” by Juliet Marillier 4.5 stars
“Winter’s Orbit” by Everina Maxwell 4.5 stars
“Brown Girl in the Ring” by Nalo Hopkinson 3.5 stars
“Slippery Creatures” by K.J. Charles 4.5 stars
“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare (re-read) 5 stars
“The Echo Wife” by Sarah Gailey 3.5 stars
“Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen 3.5 stars
“The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner 2.5 stars
“The Councillor” by E.J. Beaton 4.5 stars
“The Raven King” by Maggie Stiefvater (re-read) 4 stars stars

Monthly Total: 10
Yearly Total: 28/60

Favourite: “Daughter of the Forest” is a 500+ page mass market and I read it in a matter of days I was so consumed. I did have some issues with it, but I understand why Marillier is such a beloved fantasy author and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Least Favourite: “The Lost Apothecary” is a case of a really interesting concept executed poorly. There’s very little about the book to recommend and I can’t see myself reading future titles from this author.

Next Month: I read a lot of new releases and while I enjoyed (most) of them, they didn’t absolutely blow me away so I want to concentrate on some backlist titles and go be a little less strict in my reading. I will be reading “Mansfield Park” for Jane Austen Book Club though and I’m hoping to catch up on some of the Shakespeare plays I skipped in the last month or two.

***Seen on Screen***

WandaVision – Late to the party, I know, but I’m 5 episodes in and so far enjoying this strange MCU property. I’m too young to have much of a point of reference for sitcoms from past decades, but I’m finding Elizabeth Olsen’s acting and ability to suit the style of each era of television interesting and I’ve enjoyed the peeks we’re getting so far at what’s going on. I’m not unspoiled about how it plays out but it’s still engaging to watch it all unfold.

The Falcon & The Winter Soldier – Honestly I’m a little disappointed by this one so far but each episode has been better than the one before so I think it will pick up. I’m not sure this show knows what it wants to be. There’s some attempt to grapple with larger world economic issues, but also tackling race relations in America with Sam’s story, and there’s all of Bucky’s trauma to contend with, and now there’s Hydra involvement/super soldiers and I worry that they’ve bitten off more than they could chew. Possibly (probably) this could have used a longer (13 episode) arc like the Netflix Marvel properties that had the time for character development and to amp up story arcs. Instead, much like the marvel movies themselves, it feels like we’re getting action with a side of banter while character development is only sprinkled on top. Bucky especially deserves better, but so does Sam.

***Stage on Screen***

“Victoria” by Northern Ballet – Northern Ballet is one of my favourite ballet companies and if I lived on their side of the Atlantic I would be a regular attendee of their performances. They recently streamed “Victoria”, a new ballet choreographed by Cathy Marston about the life of the Queen, as part of their pay-what-you-can season. The ballet uses a frame narrative in which Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice (an expressive Pippa Moore) reads her mother’s diaries after Victoria’s death and comes to understand her mother at last. Abigail Prudames gives a tour-de-force performance as Victoria, in the first act as the austere widowed Queen and then, as Beatrice reads earlier volumes of the diaries, as a bright young woman navigating the corridors of newfound power and falling in love. Marston’s choreography shines throughout. My only quibbles were that the ballet seems to want to document every aspect of Victoria’s life, which can make the storytelling confusing and the characters hard to follow. Like so many video captures of ballet performances there is sometimes a tendency to zoom in too closely instead of letting viewers see more of the stage and movement, but this is negligible. There’s a conversation to be had about whether Queen Victoria and the Empire she represents is really the best subject for a newly commissioned work but when the work is this good the answer is murkier.

“The Dreamers Ever Leave You” Excerpt from The National Ballet of Canada – I love this ballet so much. Robert Binet’s short contemporary piece inspired by the beauty of the natural world as depicted in the works of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris moves me every time. It was originally commissioned as an immersive experience presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario where the audience could move around the dancers as they performed. I’m so in love with the gorgeous piano score by Lubomyr Melnyk, the evocative lighting and spare costumes, and the quality of movement. “The Dreamers Ever Leave You” reminds me of the beauty and the harshness of the Northern landscape and this filmed excerpt is gorgeously shot as well. Please give this a watch, you won’t regret it!
Watch it Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWYs5djBhT0

What have you been up to for the last month? What was your favourite March read? Comment and let me know!

February 2021 Wrap-Up

Almost a year into the pandemic I’ve managed to have one of my best reading months! Go figure. I’m also crushing my goodreads challenge, so here’s a picture for posterity:

I read 10 works this month, and while many of them were on the shorter side, I did read some full-length novels, including 2 that were close to 500 pages. Considering February is the shortest month of the year and I had a lot of Project Shakespeare on my plate as I played back-to-back leading roles as Juliet and Prince Hal, I’m feeling pretty good about it!

Stats: In terms of genre my reading had more variety this month. Along with the Shakespeare and Jane Austen book I’ve been reading for Project Shakespeare and Jane Austen Book Club respectively, my choices included a graphic novel, a work of non-fiction, a science-fiction novel, a fantasy novel, and a few works of literary fiction. In terms of diversity the stats are, well, they’re overwhelmingly white. I definitely need to work on that for the rest of the year. Only 1/5 of my reads this month were by women which is also a big yikes.

“The Vanished Birds” by Simon Jimenez 5 stars
“Working on a Song:The Lyrics of HADESTOWN” by Anaïs Mitchell 5 stars
“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare (Re-read) 5 stars
“Shorefall” by Robert Jackson Bennett 4 stars
“These Violent Delights” by Micah Nemerever 3 stars
“Henry IV part 1” by William Shakespeare (Re-read) 4 stars
“Heartstopper Volume 1” by Alice Oseman 4.5 stars
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen (Re-read) 5 stars
“The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare 2 stars
“The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes 4.5 stars

Monthly Total: 10
Yearly Total: 18 / 60

Favourite: If “The Vanished Birds” doesn’t land high in my year-end list of 2021 Favourites I will be shocked. It’s an absolutely brilliant book about memory, human connection, and the bittersweet passage of time that literally made me cry it was so moving. I immediately recommended it to my mom, who also loved it.

Least Favourite: I’m reading (or in some cases re-reading) all of Shakespeare’s plays this year and so far “The Taming of the Shrew” is my least favourite. The abusive gaslighting behaviour Petruccio deploys to “tame” Katherine is pretty sickening to read, especially when it’s played for laughs and it just casts a damper on the whole rest of the play.

Next Month: I still have my 500 page #BookTubeSpin pick to begin, so I’ll be reading “Daughter of the Forest” by Juliet Marillier by March 31st. I’ve also just picked up my library hold on one of my most anticipated debuts of the year, “Winter’s Orbit” by Everlina Maxwell! The Jane Austen book club I’m in is reading “Northanger Abbey”, a book I know quite literally nothing about, so that should be interesting. I always like to read something Irish in March and this year that will be Jan Carson’s “The Fire Starters” (which after two tries FINALLY arrived in the mail!) and I’m feeling the need to really sink my teeth into something denser, so we’ll see what grabs my interest, whether it be more classics or some historical fiction.

***Seen on Screen***

Sense & Sensibility (1995) – With its all-star cast, this film is definitely an improvement on the book! The inoffensive but dull Edward of the book is here given some life and character – especially through his connection to youngest Dashwood sister Margaret (who the book often seems to forget exists??) – and the focus is more on Elinor and Marianne’s sisterly relationship than on each of their romantic relationships. There’s still more chemistry between Elinor and Col. Brandon than there ever is between Brandon and Marianne, but the sisters’ suitors (Alan Rickman, Greg Wise, and Hugh Grant) are a handsome bunch of men and, dare I say it, Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay improves upon Austen’s novel, which very much reads like a debut novel.

Sense & Sensibility (2008) – Unlike Emma, where I thought a miniseries was a wise choice to give the characters more space to develop and change, I’m not sure there was enough story in Sense and Sensibility to justify any adaptation longer than a feature film. Then again, perhaps this is just me thinking Sense and Sensibility lacks the skill and charm of Austen’s later novels. It’s a decent effort but as the series went on I often found myself drifting or beginning to scroll through Twitter. As Elinor and Marianne, Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield, respectively, are well cast and once again there is more of an attempt to include Margaret Dashwood and make her a slightly more developed character. Screenwriter Andrew Davies has stated that he worked more on the male characters in this adaptation and, to an extent, this shows. Dan Stevens is a far more likable and charming Edward Ferrars than the character is in the book, and Dominic Cooper has the requisite charm for Willoughby, but I found David Morrissey very bland as Brandon and thought that his casting exaggerated the age difference between Marianne and Brandon. I will say that there’s very little of the friendship between Elinor and Brandon on display in this production, likely in pursuit of giving Marianne a love story – indeed the miniseries shortens her illness and lengthens her scenes afterwards with Col. Brandon, depicting their marriage as not a one-sided attachment but a genuine love match. The number one reason to watch this adaptation is for the views of the coast though, as the Dashwood cottage (actually Blackpool Mill) is situated by the sea.

Parks and Recreation – Yes, like so many others I too succumbed to re-watching Parks and Rec after it reappeared on Netflix. It’s a series that gets off to an extremely slow start, only finding its feet near the end of season two with the introduction of Chris and Ben, but it has a lot of heart. I loved watching Leslie gain respect in her career and fall in love and I enjoyed watching April grow and care and the other characters mature and figure out what they wanted from life. Some of the Jerry stuff still rubs me the wrong way and it’s hard to watch the series now knowing what we do about guest actors like Louis CK and series regular Chris Pratt, but for the most part it’s still a fun watch.

Lawrence of Arabia – I know that this movie is Problematic in multiple ways but I love it so. Alec Guinness in brownface is quite frankly appalling, and the white saviour narrative is pretty cringy. While I don’t think the movie is very historically accurate, it gets some leeway there for being more of an interpretation (with liberties taken and characters consolidated) of Lawrence’s autobiography “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, which may itself be exaggerated, than an attempt to accurately represent the Arab Revolt. However, this film is absolutely gorgeous. Seriously, the cinematography alone makes this worth watching, but there’s also that memorable lush score, the epic scale of the production, and the tremendous performances of both Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. I absolutely love this film and especially how comfortable it is with silence – with just letting moments play out and giving them space to breathe instead of needing to constantly be going (the Marvel movies today come to mind). It leads to scenes like Sherif Ali’s entrance having more weight to them. I also love the emotional heft of this movie and its character arcs.

To All The Boys Always and Forever – This was just the mid-February fluff I needed! I found the second movie lacking and while this wrap-up of the To All The Boys trilogy could be accused of being overly sweet and sentimental, I really enjoyed it. I loved that Lara Jean ultimately makes the choice that’s best for her growth as a person and that she’s supported in this choice.

***Stage on Screen***

“Ballet’s Storyteller: John Neumeier” – I’ve made no secret of my love for choreographer John Neumeier. While I haven’t loved every work of his I’ve seen, my love for his ballets “Nijinsky”, my all-time favourite ballet, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” make up for it. This half hour video features clips from three of his ballets performed by The National Ballet of Canada. “A Streetcar Named Desire” features a pas de deux between Blanche (Sonia Rodriguez) and suitor Mitch (Evan McKie) with appearances by Blanche’s deceased ex-husband, Allan Gray (Skylar Campbell). This is a gorgeous snippet and a wonderful showcase for three of my favourite dancers in the company. Rodriguez also shines in the second clip, “The Seagull”, adapted from Chekov’s play, where she dances with Guillaume Côté. Finally, there’s the faun pas de trois from semi-biographical ballet “Nijinsky” depicting the meeting and courtship of famous early 20th century dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (Côté) and his future wife Romola (Heather Ogden) alongside the personification of one of Nijinsky’s most famous characters, the sensual Faun (Keiichi Hirano).
Watch It Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACbl9d0winM

What have you been up to for the last month? What was your favourite February read? Comment and let me know!

Top 5 Tuesday: Series I Need to Finish

Like so many of my fellow bookworms, I have a lot of series on my TBR. There’s a certain commitment in stating something publicly, so I’m hoping this week’s Top 5 Tuesday topic – Series I Need to Finish – will force me to tackle at least a few of these in 2021. For accountability reasons I’ve chosen to specifically focus on series where I read the first book, loved it, and yet never finished the series.

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Meeghan Reads! It was originally created by the wonderful Bionic Book Worm. This week’s topic:

FEBRUARY 16TH – Top 5 series I need to finish

Picture of the cover for The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson.

The Masquerade by Seth Dickinson

Synopsis: Dickinson’s Masquerade is a brutal geopolitical fantasy that manages to make economics interesting! As a child, Baru watches The Empire of Masks conquer her island home, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. Baru bides her time, swallowing her hate in order to one day infiltrate the Empire and dismantle them from within. In order to prove herself, an adult Baru is sent to subdue the distant Aurdwynn, but her forbidden attraction to the fascinating Duchess Tain Hu threatens to derail even the ruthless Baru’s plans.

Why I need to read it: I read The Traitor Baru Cormorant back in 2016 and it was one of my favourite books of the year. At the time I called it brutal, effective, and so well-written. I also appreciated the politics and the dive into morality that made for a fascinating character study. Now book 2, The Monster Baru Cormorant, was published in 2018, but my memory is absolutely terrible. I’d forgotten the details and the politics and knew I would have to re-read in order to appreciate the next book in the series. Despite my best intentions, I never got to it and by now book 3 is out! The series isn’t finished yet – there’s a fourth book due out at some point – but I really want to catch up on this series anyway.

Cover of Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

House of Niccolo by Dorothy Dunnett

Synopsis: Set in 15th century Bruges, when merchants became the new knighthood of Europe, the series is about the rise of Nicholas “Claes” van der Poele from good-natured dyer’s apprentice to helming a mercantile empire.

Why I want to read it: I know this will come as a shock to anyone who’s been reading this blog for awhile but I am a HUGE fan of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles series. As in, it’s my all-time favourite series and has consumed good chunks of my life for the last 8 or 9 years and influenced my reading choices. I re-read at least one book in the six book series every year or two. I’ve still never read The House of Niccolo. I read the first two books (there’s eight in total) and I liked the first, really liked the second, but neither book hit me in the same way as Lymond. It might be partly the setting (15th century merchant Flanders vs. 16th century political intrigue Scotland) but I think it’s mostly that protagonist Claes just doesn’t appeal to be in the same way that beautiful tortured polyglot genius and sometime asshole Francis Crawford of Lymond does. I do love Dunnett’s writing style though and I’m determined to read this entire series.

Cover of City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty

Synopsis: When street smart con Cairene artist Nahri accidentally summons a mysterious djinn warrior to her side during a con, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she believed only existed in children’s stories is real. Nahri is bound to Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, but behind the city’s gates, old resentments simmer between the six djinn tribes and even magic can’t shield Nahri from the dangers of court intrigue.

Why I want to read it: I read City of Brass in 2018 and really liked it for the fresh worldbuilding it offered and the interesting characters. I had some issues with the execution of the concept, especially in its pacing and I found it confusing to keep track of the various djnn tribes, their customs, and loyalties, but ultimately this is yet another victim of my good intentions to read the second book quickly and then enough time passing that I’ve completely forgotten the first book and need to re-read. The entire series is out now so I’m hoping to read them consecutively.

Cover of Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb

Synopsis: Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry Farseer, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals – the old art known as the Wit – gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility. So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and embrace a new life of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.

Why I want to read it: Robin Hobb is beloved of the book blogging community. I buddy read Assassin’s Apprentice in 2019 and I enjoyed it and fully intended to keep going but I got distracted and a year flew by and I completely forgot every single detail of the plot. I’ve heard the series picks up and I know Rachel, who is not usually a fan of fantasy, loved the second book in the series so I promise I will begin again and try not to be too intimidated by the length.

Cover of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel

Synopsis: England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

Why I want to read it: This is the only series on this list where I didn’t finish the first book. I was about a third of the way into Wolf Hall in March 2020. When the world ground to a halt, so did my reading. I suddenly didn’t have the ability to focus long enough to read, let alone to read a dense, long historical fiction novel. In the end I marked it as paused and put it aside. Although the reviews among my friends/fellow bloggers have been a little more mixed, this series is so critically acclaimed and I was mostly enjoying it, although I did find it slow going, before the pandemic so it’s certainly a book series that I plan to return to.

Have you read any of these? Which series should I prioritize? Comment and let me know!

Top 5 Tuesday

I’m trying to get back into blogging on a more consistent basis, and one of the ways I want to do that is through participating in bookish memes when I like the topics! I was especially taken by this month’s Top 5 Tuesday tags because as much as I enjoy some fictional romance (I’m playing Juliet this weekend in Project Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet after all!), Valentine’s Day can be a weird time of year when you’re aro-ace. I really appreciate that Top 5 Tuesday has shied away from the usual Valentine’s topics with its choices.

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Meeghan Reads! It was originally created by the wonderful Bionic Book Worm. This week’s topic:

FEBRUARY 9TH – Top 5 series I want to start

Picture of the cover for Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier

Synopsis: Based loosely on “The Six Swans” fairy tale, the first book in the series, Daughter of the Forest, is about 13-year-old Sorcha, who embarks on a quest to return her brothers to their true form after a witch’s curse transforms them into swans. Using only her hands, she must sew six shirts from a painful nettle plant and remain mute the entire time. But terrible events hinder her progress and eventually take her further and further away from her home. The series is set in 9th century Ireland and covers four generations in the family of Sevenwaters.

Why I want to read it: This series was highly recommended to me by my friend and former co-worker Ivana, who has similar taste in books. I purchased copies of the first three books from a used bookstore and in 2017 named Daughter of the Forest one of my 5-star predictions. Well, it’s 2021 and I still haven’t read it but fate, or rather Rick and his BookTubeSpin#1 stepped in and proclaimed that I would read this before March 31st!

Image of the cover of When Christ and his Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman

The Plantagenet series / The Angevin Novels by Sharon Kay Penman

Synopsis: The series begins with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, a disaster which drowned William Adelin, the only legitimate son and heir of King Henry I of England and kicked off a succession crisis and a period of civil war in England known as The Anarchy. Focusing initially on the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, his equally famous queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the 5 book series moves on to cover their notorious offspring, often called the Devil’s Brood.

Why I want to read it: I’ve only read one Sharon Kay Penman book (Here Be Dragons) but I really enjoyed it and she’s an acknowledged master of the historical fiction genre. Maybe it’s going through all of Shakespeare’s history plays recently and becoming more familiar with the Plantagenets that has sparked this renewed interest in reading historical fiction. I used to read a lot more historical fiction than I do these days though and I often really enjoyed it so I’m deliberately planning to read more from the genre this year. Especially since my favourite book series of all time, while owing a lot to and inspiring many fantasy authors, are yes, you guessed it, historical fiction. Also, Eleanor of Aquitaine is the coolest.

Cover of Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Synopsis: In the aftermath of a war between gods and men, a hero, a librarian, and a girl must battle the fantastical elements of a mysterious city stripped of its name.

Why I want to read it: Honestly, I’ve read the goodreads synopsis and I still have no idea what this duology is about but it’s one of my mom’s favourites (we don’t always agree but we often do and swap SFF back and forth) and I know other friends absolutely adored it as well so I’m looking forward to this!

Picture of the cover for The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter series by Sigrid Undset
(translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally)

Synopsis: Set in fourteenth-century Norway, the first book in this trilogy chronicles the courtship of a headstrong and passionate young woman and a dangerously charming and impetuous man. Defying her parents and stubbornly pursuing her own happiness, Kristin emerges as a woman who not only loves with power and passion but intrepidly confronts her sexuality. Her prose combines the sounds and style of Nordic ballads, European courtly poetry, and religious literature.

Why I want to read it: I’m not actually sure how I learned about this series, but probably it was through a list of historical fiction recs, but it’s looked both interesting and intimidating ever since. I’m tending more towards classics this year though and this series, published in 1920, is looking very appealing right about now! Undset was awarded the Nobel prize for literature for her depictions of Northern life in medieval times through these novels. I’ve read very little Nordic fiction so I’m very intrigued!

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Synopsis: Eleven secret government expeditions and few have returned unscathed. Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. Annihilation opens with the twelfth expedition.

Why I want to read it: VanderMeer’s Borne is one of my all-time favourite books but despite my best intentions I’ve never read any of his other works! I think this critically acclaimed book is probably the logical place to start.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Are there any series you’ve been meaning to read? Comment and let me know!

Book Review: Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown

Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell
Published April 14 2020

In another universe I saw Hadestown last April. In this one, of course, my tickets were refunded when Broadway shutdown and I made do listening to the brilliant cast recording on repeat during isolation. While we wait for a metaphorical spring to come and make it safe to gather and experience live theatre once more, this book by songwriter Anaïs Mitchell is an excellent way to pass the time.

Given Hadestown’s themes of hope, isolation, and exploitation of the working class, it’s also extremely timely.

For those who aren’t well versed in musical theatre, Hadestown is a folk-opera retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in a Great Depression inspired post-apocalyptic world where resources aboveground are scarce. Created by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, it got its start in 2006 as a community production/staged tour in Vermont and had try-out productions off-Broadway and in Edmonton and London before debuting on Broadway. Hadestown went on to receive 14 Tony Award nominations and be named Best Musical in 2019.

Working on a Song offers an insightful glimpse inside the process of writing a musical and the changes Hadestown underwent, both lyrically and narratively, over the course of its journey to Broadway. Each chapter covers one song and contains its full lyrics followed by notes from Mitchell. Her thoughtful notes on any given track may include the idea that sparked the song, a peek at prior lyrics and why they were scrapped or recycled into another track, or commentary on what purpose the song serves within the musical and how that evolved or changed through different productions. Anaïs Mitchell’s style of writing is honest and deeply personal throughout, especially as she talks about lyric cuts that disappointed her or songs she continues to find fault in.

My experience with Hadestown is purely as a fan of the Broadway cast recording, so I found the parts about how the musical changed through its different incarnations really interesting. Especially fascinating are the rewrites the character of Orpheus underwent, going from a confident/bordering on arrogant man who the audience couldn’t connect with in earlier productions to the naive prodigy who wears his heart on his sleeve but is lost in his own world of music we know now.

Working on a Song is, admittedly, a book intended for a very niche audience, but it does what it sets out to do. I have no doubt both fans of Hadestown/Anaïs Mitchell and aspiring songwriters/lyricists will find this a rewarding read.

Book Review: Unconquerable Sun

Picture of the cover of Kate Elliott's book Unconquerable Sun.

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott
Published July 7 2020

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

With a tagline like “young gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space”, I’m honestly a little surprised that Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun has received so little attention from the book blogging community! Featuring intricately plotted political machinations, high stakes situations, and richly imagined worlds, this character-driven space drama is an engrossing read, perfect for fans of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.

The eponymous Sun is our Alexander. She has grown up in the shadow of her legendary mother, Queen-Marshal Eirene, who expelled the invading Phene and built Chaonia into a powerful republic. Now of age and the acknowledged heir, Sun is ready to prove herself a worthy successor, but her mother’s remarriage to a younger Chaonian noblewoman from the Lee family threatens Sun’s position and even her life as one of her loyal Companions is assassinated. Persephone “Perse” Lee wants nothing to do with her family’s machinations. She’s been attending a military academy under an assumed name for 5 years, but when treachery targets Sun and her Companions, the two women must work together to untangle political intrigue, thwart a Phene invasion, and restore their reputations, in a place where constant surveillance is the norm.

I absolutely loved this, and it’s a testament to just how good it is that I got through it even with a pandemic-induced severely shortened attention span. The world-building is intricate and diverse, with technology, and differences in technology between races, that make sense to their surroundings. The constant surveillance of broadcast network Channel Idol and ever-present connections to technology, such as messaging systems and social media, are a natural extrapolation from where we are today, which is something I love to see in Science-Fiction. 

Although Unconquerable Sun is over 500 pages, it never drags. Elliott keeps readers guessing with her twists and turns and she keeps a brisk, but not rushed, pace that balances thrilling action scenes with breathers that allow for character development.

When I read Science-Fiction, I’m always most absorbed by character-driven stories, that are enhanced by excellent world building. Unconquerable Sun checks both of these boxes. It’s refreshingly queer with a wide array of engaging characters, including the intense Princess Sun and the enigmatic Tiana. Perse is clearly the audience viewpoint character and her first person chapters, each titled using the tongue-in-cheek epithet “The Wily Persephone”, are some of the most frank and enjoyable. I’m fascinated to see where each character’s arc will take them over the course of the series.

Elliott uses multiple viewpoint characters to tell her story and she does so in an unconventional way – switching tense and perspective for each character. Sun’s chapters are told in third person past tense, Zizou in third person present tense, and Perse in first person present, adding a sense of urgency and connectedness. This choice takes a bit of getting used to, but it generally works well. My only nitpick is that Elliott’s clearly chosen to include one POV solely to have eyes in a certain part of space and this lesser-used perspective is where the story loses some momentum.

A PSA for Science-Fiction and Fantasy writers though: I love that you have as much faith in your readers to keep up as you do, but if your book has multiple nationalities/planets/factions/races, a large cast of characters, and your plot depends heavily on political machinations, please, I’m begging you, just give us a glossary! Unconquerable Sun throws a lot of political factions and character names at its readers very quickly and it was difficult to remember who was who, at least at the beginning. I also would love to see a better map accompany this book. Given these complexities, if you’re having a rough time focusing right now or don’t do well with large casts of characters, I’d suggest holding off on this one for a few months.

January 2021 Wrap-Up

I can’t believe we’re already a month into 2021! It’s been a productive start to the year for me, at least as far as reading goes. I’m ahead on my Goodreads Challenge, having read 8/60 books in January, and while my reading has been dominated by classics, it has been a rewarding month.

Stats: I only read works by 4 authors this month and the genre for January was overwhelmingly classics. I read 2 of Jane Austen’s novels, 4 Shakespeare plays, a fantasy novella, and a space opera novel. I’m really on a classics kick lately but I definitely need to up the diversity for the rest of the year.

“Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare 3.5 stars
“Drowned Country” by Emily Tesh 4 stars stars
“Unconquerable Sun” by Kate Elliott 4.5 stars
“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare (re-read) 5 stars
“Emma” by Jane Austen 4 stars stars
“Comedy of Errors” by William Shakespeare (re-read) 3 stars
“Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen 3.5 stars
“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare (re-read) 5 stars

Monthly Total: 8
Yearly Total: 8 / 60

Favourite: Although it badly needed a glossary, it’s a testament to how good it is that I read Kate Elliott’s 500+ page “Unconquerable Sun” and loved it, even with pandemic brain fog in full swing.

Currently Reading: I only have one book on the go at the moment, which is Simon Jimenez’ “The Vanished Birds”. I’m actually really enjoying it, I just haven’t been able to give it the attention it deserves this month.

Next Month: I’ve got a pair of big Project Shakespeare roles to prepare for so I don’t expect to be doing a lot of reading for pleasure besides my commute, but I did participate in #BookTubeSpin and The Wheel decreed that I will read “Daughter of the Forest” by Juliet Marillier by March 31st. This title was on my 5-star predictions list 3 years ago and I still haven’t read it, so clearly it’s time! Romance isn’t a genre I’ve read before but I need lighter fare through this winter and February seems like an appropriate month to dip my toe in the water. Olivia Waite’s “The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics” gets really good reviews, so I’m looking forward to this historical wlw novel! I’ve also joined a Jane Austen Book Club, which just had it’s inaugural meeting today, so I’ll be rereading my favourite book of last year, “Pride and Prejudice”.

***Seen on Screen***

Emma (2020) – I purchased the blu-ray months ago, despite never having read Emma or watched the film, suspecting I would enjoy it. Sure enough, this is a wonderful adaptation. The attention to historical detail in the (gorgeous!) costuming was a huge thrill and it’s a beautifully shot movie. This adaptation takes the quote attributed to Austen about Emma being a heroine only she will like and really runs with it. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma is the Queen B, a stuck up mean girl used to getting her own way. She’s not the most likable, but she’s engaging to watch and it does make Emma’s growth all the more evident. I loved her chemistry with the dashing George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), and while Bill Nighy is a more sprightly Mr. Woodhouse than I imagined, he makes the role his own admirably. The casting is generally great, but Mia Goth’s mousy Harriet and Miranda Hart’s chatterbox Miss Bates stood out. It’s also an incredibly funny film that not only accents Austen’s humour but finds additional ways to make viewers laugh.

Emma (2009) – I honestly can’t decide which adaptation of Emma I enjoy more – the 2020 film or the 2009 miniseries! Full disclosure: Romola Garai is one of my favourite actresses and I’m fond of Jonny Lee Miller too. They have such wonderful ‘old friends’ chemistry throughout the miniseries and Miller is such an earnest Knightley that it’s impossible not to root for them. Unlike Taylor-Joy, Garai’s Emma has good intentions, but she’s naïve and unintentionally wounds with her words and actions. Her portrayal is so joyful and vibrant that she’s easier to like and to sympathise with. It also benefits from not having to force Austen’s 400 page book into a 2-hour movie. I don’t love the costuming choices nearly as much, but its heart won me over quickly.

“Bridgerton” (Netflix) – In keeping with the Regency theme, I had to watch Bridgerton. Honestly, my feelings are mixed. Loved the diverse casting (although more LGBT content is definitely needed), the use of instrumental versions of contemporary songs as soundtrack, and the vibrant costumes that take great artistic license. It’s also a really good cast. The romance miscommunications and silliness made this a pleasant diversion but not fare for a new obsession. The TikTok Bridgerton musical though? That’s another story!

Outlander” (Season 5, Netflix) – I’m only vaguely invested in this and let’s be honest if it wasn’t on Netflix I wouldn’t bother tracking it down. In fact when I pressed play on the first episode of season 5 I was convinced I had missed a season because I remembered literally nothing in the “previously on” recap! I do, however, love the costumes and scenery, and every once and awhile they remind me why I’m still watching with a well done h/c episode. Unfortunately it’s usually sexual assault related, and yup, there’s still way too much of that, but I did think Roger’s trauma episode was really well done.

“Somebody Feed Phil” (Netflix) – Okay, hear me out. Sometimes I just don’t have the capacity to get invested in a new series and I need lighter fare so I tend to opt for cooking type shows. I stumbled across this one and at first wondered who was this goofball, but it actually won me over? It’s a travel/food documentary show spanning the globe, which is certainly nothing new. Host Phil Rosenthal (a TV comedy writer/producer) doesn’t appear to have any knowledge of food besides what he enjoys, but he’s remarkably willing to eat what the locals, or his celebrity friends from each region, tell him to try and that’s somehow refreshing. I like that it’s not all fine and fancy dining but also seeks out neighbourhood places and food stalls. Rosenthal is so full of genuine joy for the foods he tries and the people he meets that I enjoyed watching it. The theme song is laughable for all the wrong reasons and I could do with fewer wife jokes, but I’ll let it slide since his wife frequently guests on the show and they’re clearly in love.

***Stage on Screen***

The National Ballet of Canada has been airing clips of its performances, and while they’re sadly very short, it has been a pleasure to watch (or in some cases re-watch) parts of some of my favourite ballets. Each Youtube video is between 15 and 30 minutes long and contains clips of 3 different ballets, grouped by theme:

“Power and Passion: Great Drama” – This collection showcases 3 dramatic story ballets. Choreographer John Cranko’s “Onegin” is one of the all-time great classical ballets and a glimpse of Evan McKie, with his elegant long lines, dancing the titular role opposite Svetlana Lunkina’s sweet Tatiana is a treat. We also get part of my second favourite ballet of all time, Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”! The joyful second act brought a smile to my face, especially as danced by Jillian Vanstone (Perdita) and Naoya Ebe (Florizel).
Watch It Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bC4DKnA_DKk

“Modern Masterpieces” – As it sounds, this video is of three different contemporary short ballets. I don’t know that this clip of “Piano Concerto #1” shows the ballet to its best, but it’s a work I really love. Jiří Kylián’s “Petite Mort” (meaning “Little Death”, a euphemism for orgasm) is wickedly funny as it plays on the intersection of death and climax, and Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma”, a ballet set to instrumental versions of songs by The White Stripes will make you reevaluate all your preconceptions about ballet with its quick, writhing contortions of the body.
Watch It Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfH3foaaN4U

“Classical Gems” – While “Modern Masterpieces” will make you question everything you know about ballet, “Classical Gems” is a fairly straight-forward set of clips that are pretty much what you’d expect. For some reason “Giselle”, regarded as ‘The Ballerina’s “Hamlet”‘ for its test of her acting ability and dancing skill, is represented here not by Giselle or the eerie willies but with a showcase of skills by the dancers playing Giselle’s peasant friends. But since a few of those dancers are among my favourites in the company, I’ll allow it. “Le Corsaire” is a great showcase for skilled classicists Jurgita Dronina and Francesco Gabriele Frola, while “Etudes” makes for a rousing finale. If you like to watch dancers jump, and everyone should like to watch Naoya Ebe jump – just watch him, he practically hangs in the air! – “Etudes” is the ballet for you.
Watch It Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NE9xYjNplZ8

I hope you’re all well and staying safe as we (at least here in North America) ride out this second wave. Comment and let me know how you’ve been filling your days!

Book Review: Drowned Country

Cover of Drowned Country by Emily Tesh

Drowned Country by Emily Tesh
Published August 18 2020

4 stars

Although I didn’t find it as charming a read as her debut, Silver in the Wood, Tesh brings the Greenhollow Duology to a satisfying conclusion in Drowned Country. My review doesn’t spoil Drowned Country beyond its blurb, but it is spoilery for Silver in the Wood, so the spoiler-averse may want to turn back now.

Henry Silver, immortal lord of an ancient forest, is doing perfectly fine thank you very much. Sure Greenhollow Hall has become an overgrown ruin, the local thorn-dryad holds a grudge, and the love of his life has left him, but he’s fine. (He’s not actually fine). Silver may be able to bend the Wood to his will, but his indominable mother is something else entirely so when she summons him to find a missing girl, he reluctantly leaves the Wood behind. It’s a complete coincidence that Mrs. Silver’s monster-haunting partner is his ex, Tobias. (It’s not).

Whenever the sequel to a beloved book changes its viewpoint character I get anxious. My doubts aren’t always founded; Robert Jackson Bennett had great success switching PoV characters in his Divine Cities trilogy, where Shara Komayd, the clever, tea-drinking, glasses-wearing WoC spy in City of Stairs was followed by General Turyin Mulaghesh, a middle-aged, brash, foul-mouthed, WoC with a disability in City of Blades. I loved how different each narrator was and I thought both books were stronger for the contrast. Emily Tesh’s decision to swap Tobias for Henry Silver in Drowned Country is less successful. Quiet-spoken, burly loner Tobias is in large part what drew me into Silver in the Wood, making it one of my favourite reads of 2020, so the fact that Tobias is absent for so much of this novella is disappointing.

I like Silver, I do, but having been irrevocably changed by the events at the end of Silver in the Wood and further demoralized by the demise of his relationship, Henry Silver begins the book in a state of listless wallowing familiar to most of us who just lived through 2020. It’s Marius Pontmercy going out only at night so his green coat appears black the colour of despair levels of drama. As someone who has been reading lighter fare during the pandemic, I found Henry Silver a bit much to take right now.

My other frustrations with the book concern its pacing. While Silver in the Wood deftly balances character arcs, worldbuilding, and plot, Drowned Country spends so much of its 176 pages on Henry’s ennui and sulking that by the time the plot really kicks in, it feels cramped. I get why Tesh chose to unveil Henry and Tobias’ dynamic through flashbacks (the romantic relationship, burgeoning in Silver in the Wood, has ended before the opening pages of Drowned Country), but I think the connection between them would be more keenly felt if Tesh had given readers more time with Henry and Tobias as a couple, either through a 1.5 short story or by prolonging the flashbacks. How I wish she had fleshed out the story a little more into a short novel that gave both the characters and the plot some room to breathe!

If this is sounding negative for a four-star review, it’s only because I’m getting my critiques out of the way first. There is so much that I love about Drowned Country!

Tesh’s worldbuilding is as enticing as ever with Greenhollow Wood retaining its enchantingly wild otherness. I also adore the prose in these books. Like Katherine Arden does in the Winternight Trilogy, Tesh casts an enchantment with her writing, creating such a strong sense of place and incorporating folklore so effectively that I just wanted to climb inside the book and live within its pages. Both the setting and the prose evoke a point in-between old and new, that’s like our world yet not. It’s a place that seems dreamily nostalgic for the days when magic didn’t just survive, it thrived.

For all that I’ve harped on about Silver, I am actually fond of him and of all the characters and their eccentricities. Maud Lindhurst is a welcome addition, as clever as she is resolute, and I enjoyed seeing more of both Silver’s mother and Bramble, the dryad. It’s an absolute delight to see women in a m/m romance who are not just relegated to the sidelines but have a towering presence! Tesh even twists stereotypical gender roles, with men often being more passive and sensitive while women are the strong-willed, active characters.

As I turned the last few pages, I felt real sorrow in bidding farewell to the wood and to Henry, Tobias, Bramble, Mrs. Silver, and Maud. I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on whatever Emily Tesh chooses to write next and I hope there’s a full-length novel somewhere in her future!