Stay at Home Shakespeare

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Like many bookish friends, I’ve been reflecting a lot on Emily St. John Mandel’s prescient novel Station Eleven lately. For those who haven’t read it, the book takes place after civilization has been destroyed by a deadly pandemic known as the “Georgia Flu”. (Despite the premise, it’s a beautiful, lyrical book that’s ultimately hopeful about humanity and if you haven’t read it but are one of those who devoured the 2011 thriller Contagion in March you should definitely pick this up. If you don’t like your fiction quite so eerily relevant to current events, I’d suggest making a mental note to read it in a few years). I recently attended a TPL crowdcast event promoting Mandel’s new novel, The Glass Hotel (which you can watch here), where the interviewer mentioned that Station Eleven (2014) has re-entered the Canadian Fiction bestseller list in the wake of COVID-19. I don’t think any of her readers expected to relate to the characters of Station Eleven in such a literal way, but almost as unexpected is just how much I’m relating these days to the novel’s theme of connection with others through art, and more specifically, through Shakespeare.

From Zoom readings of his works conducted both by amateurs armed with a great deal of enthusiasm and actors taking their passion for their craft virtual while they wait for theatres to reopen to free streams of his plays by respected institutions across the globe, the Bard seems to be everywhere these days! So whether you’re keeping a carefully organized list of Shakespearean and other theatre productions to stream before they disappear or are simply looking to dip your toe into the water, here are a few ways to incorporate some Shakespeare into your quarantine life!

Shakespeare Plays Streaming

picture of Martha Henry as Prospero in The Tempest

The Stratford Festival
I have to start with some homegrown Canadian Shakespeare talent, which means the Stratford Shakespeare Festival! Located in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, the Stratford Festival runs annually from April to October. Although its primary focus is Shakespeare, the Festival also performs other plays and even some musicals in rep/rotation. The festival is offering free streaming of 12 of its productions, scheduling its film showings around four themes that seem relevant today: Social Order and Leadership, Isolation, Minds Pushed to the Edge, and Relationships. A new film is released each week on Thursday and it’s then available for 3 weeks on the Stratford Festival website. Their kick-off production, “King Lear”, has now expired, but here are the next several weeks and their availability:

Available Now:
“Coriolanus” (April 30 – May 21) * expires this Thursday
“Macbeth” (May 7 – May 28)
“The Tempest” (May 14 – June 4)

Upcoming:
“Timon of Athens” (May 21 – June 11)
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” (May 28 – June 18)
“Hamlet” (June 4 – June 25)
“King John” (June 11 – June 25)
“The Adventures of Pericles” (June 18 – July 9)
“Antony and Cleopatra” (June 25 – July 16)
“Romeo and Juliet” (July 2 – July 23)
“The Taming of the Shrew” (July 9 – July 30)

picture of the Globe Theatre in London, England.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
A reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, the Elizabethan theatre in London where Shakespeare’s plays were performed, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre performs plays, offers tours and educational visits, and serves as a cultural landmark. During its closure, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is making some of its plays available online. While Macbeth is available until schools reopen in the UK, other selections will be available to stream for 14 days:

“Macbeth” (2020) – available until UK secondary schools reopen.
“The Winter’s Tale” (2018) – May 18 until May 31
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” (2019) – June 1 until June 14
“A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” (2013) – June 15 until June 28

If your Shakespeare itch is still not scratched or there’s a different play that you’re looking for, Shakespeare’s Globe also has additional selections on its on demand platform Globe Player to rent, purchase, or send as a gift.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London raises 95% of its revenue through ticket sales, guided tours, education workshops, retail and catering – which all depend upon the venue being open to the public and are in critical danger of not being able to reopen after the pandemic so I know times are tight for many of us, but if you are able to donate to the Globe or help one or more of these wonderful arts organizations offering programming, please consider doing so.

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National Theatre Live
The broadcast arm of the National Theatre in London has been streaming a different play every Thursday. Plays are then available to watch for 7 days. I missed their acclaimed production of “Antony & Cleopatra”, but between June 4th and June 11th you can stream the 2014 Donmar production of “Coriolanus” starring Tom Hiddleston. Although I can’t say Coriolanus is my favourite play, this is an excellent adaptation of it which I was lucky enough to see during my trip to London in 2013!

Picture of Patrick Stewart as Macbeth

PBS Great Performances
Getting on board with free streaming content, PBS Great Performances has unlocked the 2009 Rupert Goold production of “Macbeth” starring Sir Patrick Stewart.

Shakespeare Ballets Streaming

picture of San Francisco Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet

San Francisco Ballet’s “Romeo & Juliet”
This ballet adaptation of the classic tragedy “Romeo & Juliet”, danced by the San Francisco Ballet Company, is streaming on Youtube from May 11 until May 25 as part of #LincolnCenterAtHome. If you’ve never seen a ballet adaptation of Romeo & Juliet it has a gorgeous score by Sergei Prokofiev and is well worth watching!

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The Royal Ballet’s “The Winter’s Tale”
One of the major reasons that I wanted to write this blog post was to let people know that one of my all-time favourite ballets, and the ballet that I would most recommend to someone who has never watched a ballet before and is curious (please don’t just watch the bloody Nutcracker and call it a day) was available to stream for free! The Royal Opera House has been alternating weeks between filmed performances of its opera and ballet performances. Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”, danced by The Royal Ballet, premiered on their Youtube channel on May 1st and was supposed to be available to view until June 1st. Unfortunately, and without any explanation, it’s been taken down early. I know it’s incredibly tacky to complain about something free (does it help that I legally purchased a copy of the blu ray?), but I know there were people who planned to watch but, due to the overwhelming amount of time sensitive theatre content out there, were waiting because they believed they’d have time, so it seems a little unfair. Still, if anyone is interested in this one I may have a way so um give me a shout if you’re interested?

Picture of dancers from American Ballet Theatre production of Ashton's The Dream

American Ballet Theatre’s “The Dream”
This isn’t part of the overwhelming amount of content made available for a limited time during the pandemic, but an older filmed version (from 2002) of Fredrick Ashton’s charming one act ballet based on “a Midsummer Night’s Dream” is available in its entirety on Youtube.

Marquee.tv
If your finances haven’t been impacted by COVID-19, or if you’re comfortable signing up for a free trial and cancelling before the charges begin,this honestly does look like a pretty cool subscripton service featuring ballet, films, etc. although the layout makes it very hard to find everything that is available. Personally I don’t think there’s enough there for me to consider an annual subscription but maybe the free trial or for a few months. It does have my beloved “The Winter’s Tale” production by the Royal Ballet as well as I think a more recent HD version of Fredrick Ashton’s “The Dream”. Other Shakespeare includes a whole bunch of Royal Shakespeare Company productions, including “Richard II” with David Tennant.

Shakespeare Zoom Readings

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#ProjectShakespeare
For the last four weeks #ProjectShakespeare has been the highlight of my quarantine! I was invited by Rachel and Abby to join the group and made my debut in April playing the integral roles of Francisco, Cornelius, and Messenger in “Hamlet”. While I took musical theatre and dance lessons and even a year of drama in high school,
I’m a shy, anxious person who loves watching and writing about plays and musicals but has never entertained dreams of appearing in them. Yet despite the intimidating level of talent and dedication in this group, everyone is so supportive and welcoming that I’ve enjoyed every single minute of preparation and performing. I’ve since appeared as Luciana in “The Comedy of Errors”, Cordelia in “King Lear” (a highlight for me!), and Don Pedro in “Much Ado About Nothing”. As a casual group ultimately reading/performing Shakespeare for fun, we decided that recording or streaming the performances would be somewhat daunting so these aren’t available to view or rewatch, but if you have a group of friends, or friends of friends, that would be interested in reading Shakespeare or other plays, I would highly recommend Zoom readings with friends!

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#CoronaColdReads
The first stirrings of an idea for a post about the prevalence of Shakespeare in our coronavirus times came when I had to turn down a request to read a small part in a special birthday edition of a Shakespeare Zoom reading by a friend because… yes, you guessed it, I had already committed to another Shakespeare zoom reading! Kelly Bedard, the creator and editor of an online Toronto-based independent theatre (and film and TV) review site called My Entertainment World has been running her #CoronaColdReads twice a week. Streaming live on Youtube (but you can also watch the full performances after the fact) on Tuesday and Saturday nights, roles are mostly played by actors she knows from the Toronto indie theatre scene and by friends from her Alma Mater’s Shakespeare Society, although other actors have also appeared and the “King Lear” #CoronaColdReads cast features some pretty starry names if you’re at all familiar with the Toronto/Stratford theatre scene! During May they’ve been performing the history plays and I can’t watch to stream some of these soon.

Although, as an avid theatre-goer, I see an average of one Shakespeare production every year or so, Shakespeare has never had as huge an impact on my life as his works are having right now. Between making time to watch the Stratford premieres, trying to fit in what other Shakespeare plays I can, reading the plays (some of them for the first time), and performing as part of Project Shakespeare, the Bard has completely transformed my quarantine.

Have you watched any of these or turned to Shakespeare in quarantine? What are your favourite plays or productions? Let me know in the comments and stay safe!

Get to Know the Fantasy Reader Tag

I’m going to make an effort to get back into semi-regular blogging now that I have some time on my hands and I figured what better way to ease back in than with a tag?! I’ve shamelessly stolen this from Hadeer, but the original idea comes from the Get to Know the Romance Reader Tag created by Bree Hill, which was adapted for fantasy readers by The Book Pusher.

1. What is your fantasy origin story? (How you came to read your first fantasy novel)

I have a notoriously bad memory, which only gets worse the further back I go, so I honestly can’t recall my first experience with fantasy, but I was a fan from a young age. Phoebe Gillman’s beautifully illustrated The Balloon Tree, about a princess who must save her kingdom from her evil uncle, the archduke, when he stages a coup while her father is visiting a neighbouring kingdom, remains one of my favourite picture books. My mom read aloud to me and my younger brother the early Harry Potter books as well as middle grade fantasy staples like the Chronicles of Narnia, and some of my favourite series as a 9 or 10 year-old were Bryan Jacques’ Redwall, featuring anthropomorphic animals in an abbey, and Lloyd Alexander’s high fantasy, welsh myth-inspired Prydain Chronicles. The first “adult” fantasy I remember reading is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon though, which I read during 7th grade science class (hiding it under my desk, likely not very subtly given the size of the book)!

2. If you could be the hero/heroine in a fantasy novel, who would be the author and what’s one trope you’d insist be in the story?

Forgive me, but I hate these kinds of insert yourself into a story questions. Honestly I just don’t feel that I’m interesting enough to be a fantasy heroine! I will say that I admire the way that Robert Jackson Bennett writes women, and women who are perhaps unlikely protagonists (such as Shara, a clever spy yes, but a quiet tea-drinking, glasses wearing spy, in City of Stairs and middle-aged, disabled military general Mulagesh in City of Blades), and his skillful worldbuilding, so I’d probably want him to take on the project. A few tropes I love to see employed are the protagonist, a master of self-control, taxed to their absolute limit, resulting in exhaustion fainting, angsty and complicated, but ultimately loving, sibling relationships, and condemnation by the court of public opinion ultimately revealing that all is not as it seemed and the character has been wronged. I’m not sure that I’d want any of these things to happen to me though!

457301523. What is a fantasy you’ve read this year, that you want more people to read?

I haven’t read much fantasy so far this year (although my order from my local SFF indie bookstore is set to ship in May, so look for that to change!), but I did love Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated from the Russian by Julia Hersey. It’s a twisted (though arguably more straightforward than their previous effort translated into English, Vita Nostra) standalone about a DJ who saves what appears to be a ten-year-old girl named Alyona from danger, only to find himself with questions about who she actually is and what she wants from him. Is she a daughter whose existence he’s just learned about? A young con-artist? An otherworldly being seeking to return to paradise with her brother? Or something more sinister? The development of the fraught relationship between DJ Aspirin and Alyona is compelling and I loved the way in which Daughter From the Dark talks about music, art, and freedom.

4. What is your favorite fantasy subgenre? What subgenre have you not read much from?

My favourite subgenre is definitely secondary world fantasy. A big draw for me is worldbuilding and there’s so much that can be done in creating a world with its own cultures, rules, and history. Sometimes that also means a magic system. The Coldfire Trilogy by C. S. Friedman does this very well with its energy field known as the fae that can be manipulated/Worked to perform magical feats, though not without consequences. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside with its magic system that is more reminiscent of technology/coding but set in an Italian city state inspired secondary world, is also an outstanding example. I love the fact that secondary world doesn’t have to mean magic though. Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier series of spy novels are set against the rise of a facist government certainly draw inspiration from Weimar Berlin, but they’re differentiated not by magic (in fact there’s no magic at all), but because they’re set in a secondary world with different political tensions and events.

The subgenre I’ve read the least is definitely urban fantasy. Surprisingly, for someone who LOVED Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m actually not big on reading about vampires, werewolves, and other assorted creatures and their daily lives. I realize that it’s a big subgenre so it’s entirely possible that I just haven’t read the right book yet. I realize that I’m generalizing/oversimplifying when I say this, but I don’t typically find that urban fantasy offers enough worldbuilding or deep diving into characters to keep me happy and the tropes don’t tend to appeal to me personally.

5. Who is one of your auto-buy fantasy authors?

I don’t buy a lot of books period because I live in an apartment in a big city so I don’t have a lot of space and I have access to an excellent library system, but the ones that come closest are probably Robert Jackson Bennett, Leigh Bardugo, and Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette. They haven’t written a lot of adult fantasy but based on the strength of one trilogy, I would also say Katherine Arden and Lara Elena Donnelly. N. K. Jemisin is also high on my list.

6. How do you typically find fantasy recommendations? (Goodreads, Youtube, Podcasts, Instagram..)

A bunch of different ways! I follow Tor on social media and their blog and tend to read the forthcoming releases posts. I don’t always agree with their choices, but I follow what’s being nominated for the big SFF awards (Nebula, Locus, Hugo). I read blogs of course and especially value recommendations from bloggers/friends whose tastes align closely with my own. I especially value picks from any of my fellow Lymond Chronicles fans since we tend to have a very specific set of tropes that we love. On Goodreads I tend to read a few two star and a few five star reviews of a book to see what people loved about the book and what didn’t appeal to them to see if it’s something that’s going to bug or elate me, and while I take them with a grain of salt, if a bunch of authors I love have enthusiastically blurbed a book, it’s often a good sign that it’s something I’m going to enjoy as well.

7. What is an upcoming fantasy release you’re excited for?

50202953._sx318_Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of my all-time favourite books, so it would be an understatement to say that I’m excited about this! I love Clarke’s sense of humour and her creativity and can’t wait to see what her new book will offer. The comparison titles (Circe and The Ocean at the End of the Lane) I’m taking with a grain of salt since I wasn’t wowed by either book, but I think there’s a good chance that they’ve just picked popular fantasy titles with crossover mainstream appeal.

45166076._sy475_The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho. I’ve really enjoyed both of Cho’s previous titles and the description for this (queer found family wuxia fantasy!) sounds both right up my alley and perfectly timed for my ongoing spiral into The Untamed obsession!

 

8. What is one misconception about fantasy you would like to lay to rest?

I’m going to second Hadeer here and say the fact that it’s written by middle-aged/old white men for white men. There have always been women writing fantasy, they have just historically often been less prominent or critically lauded as male writers in the genre. Increasingly diverse writers are publishing and being promoted and there are more #ownvoices stories out there.

Although we’re talking about fantasy specifically here, I’d also like to say regarding its sister genre, science-fiction, one misconception I had was that it wasn’t for me as a not particularly science/engineering/math-oriented person and as a woman. I realized that, like most genres, it wasn’t that the entire genre wasn’t for me, it was about having to do some research to discover what I wanted from the genre. I found that “hard sci-fi”, which was driven by science and technology and ideas, was still not my cup of tea but that I loved character-driven stories with a compelling emotional core, like Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers and Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, and clever political intrigue tales with fascinating protagonists like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch. It’s just about digging a little and finding what content or which subgenre appeals to you.

9. If someone had never read a fantasy before and asked you to recommend the first 3 books that come to mind as places to start, what would those recommendations be?

SO, obviously this is going to depend on the person, but here are some general recommendations:


Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I have yet to find a person who didn’t enjoy this book/duology. I gifted it to my not a reader friend (she reads maybe a book or two a year, maybe) and she finished the first one and bought Crooked Kingdom. I gifted it to my brother’s girlfriend, who is not a fantasy fan. She loved it. This is the one book that I will thrust at absolute everyone and be confident in my recommendation. It’s YA, but has crossover appeal. It’s fantasy, but has crossover appeal. The characters are three-dimensional, flawed but compelling, the pace is quick and filled with plot twists, yet Bardugo slows down and gives her characters enough time to breathe and to come face-to-face with their trauma. Six of Crows is the perfect gateway book.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Not as universally successful a recommendation as Six of Crows, but I’d be pretty confident in saying most people who pick this series up enjoy it. I’ve recommended this to my not a reader friend for when she finishes Crooked Kingdom and I’ve gifted this to other people who don’t necessarily enjoy fantasy. Perhaps because there’s a historical element and it’s grounded in our world, I think A Darker Shade of Magic is a more accessible pick than say jumping into a high fantasy novel.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Perhaps a little riskier, but I just found this world and Arden’s prose so entrancing that I feel like others could easily be sucked in. There’s a historical element and a mythic/folk tale element that may be easier to accept than a high fantasy story as well. I also gifted this to my brother’s girlfriend and she loved it.

10. Who is the most recent fantasy reading content creator you came across that you’d like to shoutout?

Honestly I’ve been really out of the loop and haven’t been keeping up on blogs or seeking out new content enough lately as I’ve been caught up in the never ending doom spiral these days but if you read a ton of fantasy please drop your blog in the comments and I’ll take a look!

Top Ten Tuesday: Single-Word Titles

I’m just squeaking in under the wire here, but I loved this Top Ten Tuesday topic so much that I wanted to participate, even though it’s last minute! At first I thought it would be a challenge to fill all ten slots on this list, but I actually ended up having to leave some out. Here are ten of my favourite books that go by just a single word:

34810320Sadie by Courtney Summers
This gritty YA thriller is one of the best things I read in 2018. Told in alternating points-of-view, one in which the titular protagonist tracks her younger sister Mattie’s killer across America and the other a serialized podcast of her story by a local radio personality trying to locate the missing Sadie, the book is less about what happened and more concerned with how events unfolded. Sadie herself is so intriguing; her determination to make right the botched police investigation and bring Mattie’s murderer to justice is balanced with her resourcefulness and vulnerability and Summers handles the dark themes of her book (which is definitely on the mature side of YA) with sensitivity. This was one of those books that I couldn’t stop thinking about long after I put it down!

15195Maus by Art Spiegelman
Yes, I know there are subtitles for this genre-defying graphic novel, but if I were to reference just Maus to almost anyone, I’m certain they would know what I’m talking about so I feel justified in including it here. Originally serialized from 1980 to 1981 (it’s now commonly published in either a one or two volume collected edition), Maus depicts both Art Spiegelman’s interviews with his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, and Art’s memories of the complicated relationship he has with his father. Memorably, the Jewish characters are drawn as mice, Nazis as cats, etc. Maus became the first graphic novel to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize and it’s significance both as a work of literature and in its sobering account of the Holocaust and the inter-generational impact of that trauma, really can’t be overstated. It’s also damned good. As you’d expect from the subject matter, Maus can be difficult to read. It’s unflinching and honest and will move even those with the hardest of hearts, but it’s well worth reading and will no doubt remain a classic.

25353286Provenance by Ann Leckie
Compared to her Imperial Radch trilogy, I felt like this standalone novel set in the same universe but featuring an entirely different cast of characters, undeservedly flew under the radar. Admittedly a book so focused on a fundamental archival principle (“provenance” is a term for the individual, family, or organization that created or received items in a collection) was always going to appeal to my librarian who seriously considered becoming an archivist nature, but I honestly loved Provenance! Leckie raises important questions about the way we document historical events, wondering if a document needs to be genuine to be important? Or can it gain significance through what it represents, even if it is based on a lie? Provenance is part mystery, part coming-of-age tale, and part political thriller with astounding worldbuilding, subtle but pointed social commentary, and engaging characters. I just wish more people would read it!

14497Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
No one can accuse Neil Gaiman’s works of flying under the radar. They’ve been adapted into TV series, movies, plays, and even an opera, but I still have a soft spot for Neverwhere. I love the idea of London Below, a world where people who fall through the cracks of society go, sometimes merely through showing compassion for others, and especially the way in which Gaiman has used the existing London tube stations as the inspiration for creatures and beings that inhabit his byzantine underground world. Although protagonist Richard Mayhew is your standard fantasy ‘everyman reluctantly sucked into adventure’ character, the beings who populate London Below are every bit as strange as their setting. It’s been about seven years since I read it last so I’m definitely due for a re-read.

Foundryside RD4 clean flatFoundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
Set in an industrial city inspired by the Italian City States, Foundryside is an inventive, fast-paced book about a street smart thief who gets in over her head when she unknowingly steals an immensely powerful object. Sure it has a gorgeous cover, but it’s Bennett’s creation of one of the most innovative magic systems I’ve ever encountered that has me singing Foundryside‘s praises. Basically the consciousness of objects in the world can be manipulated when they’re inscribed (referred to in-world as ‘scriving’) with a set of magical symbols and codes. Operating like the rules of a computer programming language in our world, scriving tricks objects into believing that they are supposed to behave differently. The result is a fantasy novel uniquely placed to comment on the ethics of technology, intellectual property, and anti-competitive practices that create barriers to information for the less privileged members of society.

32322796Elegy by Vale Aida
As anyone who has been reading this blog, or following me on social media knows, I am physically incapable of shutting up about Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I have a literary type and it’s the clever, witty, competent, theatrical hero every bit as frustrating as they are intriguing. He who places everyone else above himself even while putting up a facade of apathy. Author Vale Aida’s Elegy and Swansong (the Magpie Ballads duology) are a delightful Lymond pastiche. Like the idea of the Lymond Chronicles but worried about the dense prose and untranslated quotations? Wish Lymond was more overtly queer than subtextually queer (it’s still pretty damn queer, it was just written in the 1960s)? Love the enemies -> lovers trope? Then Elegy and Swansong are for you! They are independently published, but available in eBook or paperback form through Amazon or Book Depository and are well worth buying! I fell in love with the characters, swooned over the lush prose, and delighted in the political intrigue.

PachinkoPachinko by Min Jin Lee
I feel like considering it only narrowly missed out on the top spot on my ‘Favourite Books of 2017’ list, I don’t talk about Pachinko nearly enough, so here goes: I knew very little about Korea in the 20th century so this multi-generational historical fiction novel following an ethnic Korean family living in Korea under Japanese rule, and then in Japan itself, was an eye-opening experience. It’s a novel that doesn’t shy away from depicting discrimination and hardship faced by Koreans living in Japan, who were seen as foreign residents and shut out of many traditional occupations. What makes Pachinko so engrossing though are its characters. Although the characters are realistic and flawed, at times making choices that are not in their best interests, I love that this family isn’t afraid of hard work and sacrifice in order to achieve a better life for their children. When they succeed, we feel their happiness, when things don’t go as well and they endure hardship, we bare their pain. It never feels long, and I was carried away by the elegant prose and the engaging portrait of one family through the decades.

68485Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
I love that the genres of fantasy and science-fiction have come far enough that taglines like “lesbian necromancers in space!” and “queer librarians on horseback fighting facism!” are being used to sell books. It wasn’t always that way, but there were pioneers, like Ellen Kushner’s 1987 “mannerspunk”/”fantasy of manners” novel Swordspoint. It’s a second-world fantasy (meaning it’s set in another world but there’s no magic) about a bisexual master swordsman (Richard St. Vier), who is hired by nobles to settle their disputes by dueling on their behalf. The plot is largely political intrigue among nobels, but it’s Kushner’s lovely prose and the way in which she writes her captivating characters (particularly Richard and Alec and their relationship) that stayed with me long after I finished the book. I’m definitely due for a re-read this Spring!

31451186Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
I’m not just including Borne because I’m especially proud of the review where I compared the concept of this novel to studio executives hearing the pitch for SpongeBob SquarePants for the first time (although, I am proud and I stand by it!), it’s honestly one of my favourite standalones of all time. I value uniqueness in my reads and I can’t think of anything stranger than Jeff VanderMeer’s novel about a sentient cross between a sea anemone and a squid, a towering, insane, flying grizzly bear, and a post-apocalyptic city scavenger. Often eloquent and beautiful, Borne is a melancholy, but ultimately hopeful, exploration of humanity, the environment, and non-human intelligence.

35018890Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
All three of Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier trilogy books are single-word titled books and I absolutely adore them. Inspired by both Cabaret and Weimar Republic Berlin, Amberlough is a tense spy drama set in a sensual, richly described, secondary world during the rise of a fascist government coup. I’ve rarely A) been so tense while reading a book and B) found myself absently reflecting on the book even months after I finished reading it. I loved the moral ambiguity of the world and its characters, the relationships between each of the characters (but particularly Aristide and Cyril), and the political intrigue. Amberlough is one of those rare books that has imprinted on my heart and that I know I’ll be re-reading for the rest of my life.

What are some of your favourite single-word book titles? Drop me a comment and let me know!

Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, created by The Broke and Bookish and now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl!

January/February Wrap-Up

We’re 2 months into 2020 and honestly? I’m not off to a great start. I’ve read 10 books so far (3 of them re-reads), which puts me on track for my Goodreads Challenge goal of 60, but I don’t have a new 5-star read to show for it. February hasn’t been a great month for me personally and I’ve been struggling with both Seasonal Affective Disorder and stress over my job situation (my temp. FT position is coming to an end in less than a month and I don’t know what’s next for me) so I only made it through 4 books this month – 2 of them novellas. Hopefully March will be a more successful reading and blogging month for me!


JANUARY
The Raven Boys (re-read) by Maggie Stiefvater  small 5 stars
The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee  small-2-stars + Review
The Dream Thieves (re-read) by Maggie Stiefvater  small 5 stars
Blue Lily, Lily Blue (re-read) by Maggie Stiefvater  small 5 stars
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine  small 4 stars
Tarnished Are The Stars by Rosiee Thor  small-3-stars

FEBRUARY
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers  small 3 half stars
The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood  small 4 stars
The Regrets by Amy Bonnaffons  small-2-stars
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey  small 4 stars

Current Reading: I am slowly working my way through Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I keep getting sidetracked by new release library holds but I am genuinely enjoying it and looking forward to getting back into Wolf Hall in March. I’m just starting Daughter from the Dark by the Dyachenkos (trans. by Julia Hersey). I loved Vita Nostra so I’m hoping this will be another strong release from them. I’m also continuing with my Ace Books Challenge by picking up Belle Révolte by Linsey Miller. Besides those books I’m really desperate to get a few five star books under my belt so I may dive into my backlist of titles I’ve been wanting to read for awhile rather than grabbing the new and shiny.

***Seen on TV***
I don’t have cable or any streaming services except Netflix but I’m slowly trying to catch up on some of the TV that I’ve missed. In the last few months I’ve watched (either on DVDs from the library or on Netflix):

  • Chernobyl (HBO) – Difficult to watch at times but eye-opening, especially since it occurred the year I was born so I didn’t know that much about the events or the government response. Skip episode four entirely if you’re triggered by seeing multiple dogs die.
  • Good Omens (Amazon/BBC) – I read the book years ago and really liked it so I’d been waiting to get my hands on this. First of all, David Tennant and Michael Sheen are perfect as Aziraphale and Crowley and I loved watching their relationship develop on screen. Generally I thought the pacing and depiction were very good. My one complaint is that when Tennant and Sheen weren’t on screen I found myself losing interest, but this is a gorgeous tribute to Pratchett’s work and is so enjoyable!
  • Star Trek Discovery (CBS All Access) – The plot is a little bonkers at times and can be hard to follow, but I just love these characters so much that I don’t even care! Pike was a tremendous addition to the show, Ethan Peck was great as Spock, and I continued to enjoy the relationships between characters: Tilly and Michael’s friendship! Saru and Michael’s respect for and trust in one another! Stamets getting his husband back! I’m curious to see where it will go next, but honestly I’m most interested in the characters so it hardly even matters.
  • The Untamed (Netflix) – In case you missed it, I’ve wholeheartedly fallen into The Untamed and I’m never climbing out! The Untamed/CQL is a Chinese-subtitled fantasy series set in ancient China about different sects who seek immortality through dispelling demons and monsters using magic and swords. It’s part political machinations, part murder-mystery, but mostly it’s a love story between the rule-abiding stoic Lan Wangji (aka. Lan Zhan) and carefree mischievous Wei Wuxian (aka. Wei Ying) that transcends decades, family obstacles, and even death! Although based on a gay Chinese novel, censorship prevents it from openly being depicted as a love story but somehow the show is even gayer as a result? There’s lots of yearning, touching, long-held gazes, and yes they even have their own in-show ship song (sung by the actors portraying the roles). The special effects are awful, but the acting, costumes, and set design are terrific. I’ve actually cried watching this show, which is rare for me, and I’m so hooked that I think I’m on my fifth or sixth re-watch. Let me know if you want to gush about The Untamed with me!

***Seen on Stage***

In contrast to my reading, I saw a lot on stage! The odds that I’ll write full reviews are not good, so here are some short reviews on the Toronto theatre scene this month:

Mother’s Daughter and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (Soulpepper)
My day off happens to fall on a Wednesday so I made it a two-show day by taking in a matinee performance of Mother’s Daughter and spending the evening at Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at Soulpepper.

Mother’s Daughter is the final part in playwright Kate Hennig’s Queenmaker trilogy, exploring Tudor Queens through a contemporary feminist lens. While I still think the first of these plays (The Last Wife, about Catherine Parr) is my favourite, I loved this story of the much maligned “Bloody Mary” Tudor as she comes into her power. It’s very much a play about perception and legacy, deftly exploring how women (and particularly women with power) are viewed and remembered by those around them. Why is Mary villainized while her father, who executed indiscriminately, is remembered more fondly by history? At the heart of Mother’s Daughter are the relationships between women. Mary (played as a sympathetic anti-hero by Shannon Taylor) has a fraught relationship with the apparition of her dead mother Catherine of Aragon/Catalina (Irene Poole in a commanding performance), who urges her to be merciless and eliminate rivals while she has both a sisterly love and a healthy distrust of half-sister Bess (charismatic Jessica B. Hill), a more able political player, and finds commonality with the pious, doomed Lady Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin). I sympathized with Mary as she at first attempts to placate her enemies and grant them clemency, only to make choices that arguably lead to ruin when she’s pushed to act decisively. Told in accessible colloquial language (in the wake of Brexit, a line about how the ‘English do not like Europeans’ referencing Mary’s unpopular marriage proposal from Spain drew laughter), Mother’s Daughter is a timely and perceptive exploration of women in power.

Set almost entirely in the notorious Rikers Island prison, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train explores themes of contrition and hypocrisy. Minimal set design emphasizes the bleak environment faced by incarcerated men and highlights the sliver of sunlight they observe in their daily allotment of yard time. Although this production is anchored by strong performances from Xavier Lopez as Angel Cruz, on trial for attempted murder, Diana Donnelly as his put-upon, proud defense attorney, and the reliably excellent Daren A. Herbert as charismatic fellow inmate Lucius Jenkins, I couldn’t fully connect with the story. I suspect the play is meant to cause audiences to reflect on morality. I’m all for moral ambiguity and it’s a theme I usually love to see explored, but I found the weighing of an unintentional killing of one man, essentially a cult leader who has objectively done bad deeds, against eight lives of “normal” people taken intentionally to be too cut and dried for me to take seriously.

Singin’ in the Rain – Film with Orchestra at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
I’ve been to a couple film with orchestra presentations in the city now with mixed results, so I was a little skeptical about how well this would work but figured that either way it was a chance to see one of my favourite films on the big screen. Singin’ in the Rain with the TSO was such a delight though! After the first few minutes (in which the live orchestra drowned out the movie musical), the sound was adjusted and I had a lovely time. Admittedly I’m not a film buff and I don’t tend to see a lot of movies while they’re still in theatres, so I’d forgotten the sheer joy of watching and reacting to a film with other people and how fresh that can make the experience even of watching a film you can practically quote from memory. An all-time great made even better with a live orchestra.

Secret Life of a Mother (Crow’s Theatre)
I went into this one-women show completely blind, having booked tickets entirely because I loved both playwright Hannah Moscovitch and Maev Beatty, the actress starring in it. As it turns out, it’s a raw exploration of pregnancy and motherhood that’s by turns laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly poignant. Both the friend I went to see this with and I do not intend to ever have children, yet it had both of us tearing up so I can only imagine the impact this beautiful show would have on a mother or mother-to-be! One of many highlights was Maev sharing that during childbirth, starred at by impatient doctors, she felt such pressure to perform that she pushed so hard she gave herself a black eye! I absolutely loved this and would recommend it to most (although it does deal with difficult issues, including miscarriages, so not for women who have recently been through a miscarriage or infertility).

Caroline, or Change (Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre)
If you’ve never been to Toronto, The Winter Garden Theatre is one of the most gorgeous theatre venues I’ve ever seen. It’s one part of the last surviving double-decker theatre in North America and the ceiling is adorned with lanterns and real beech branches and leaves to give the appearance of an Edwardian garden. These days it’s mostly used as a venue for TIFF so I was thrilled when the Musical Stage Company announced their residency in the Winter Garden Theatre. As I’ve come to expect from Musical Stage Company, this production is top-notch. The cast is terrific, with standout performance from R&B star Jully Black in her first musical theatre role as Black maid Caroline, and Vanessa Sears as daughter Emmie and the simple multi-level effectively conveys the reality of 1963 Louisiana. Unfortunately the problem with Caroline, or Change is the source material. The music is beautifully sung in this production but there’s not a memorable song among them, the book is clunky, and there’s an over-reliance on the double-meaning of change (Caroline is told that she can keep any change found in her employer’s clothes while she does the laundry and the musical is set against the backdrop of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of President Kennedy. I’m also a little baffled by the choice to have all of the inanimate objects (the laundry machine, the radio, the moon, etc.) personified as human beings yet nothing’s ever done with this concept and Caroline doesn’t interact with them? Anyway, great cast, great production, but not a musical that I enjoy. I cannot freaking wait for next year and the Musical Stage Company production of Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 though!!

Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

40639316The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library by Edward Wilson-Lee
Published March 12th 2019
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In hindsight, the clue that I wasn’t going to enjoy this book was right there in the (sub)title.

When selecting The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books as my January pick for a Biographies! book club at work, I assumed that the focus would be mainly on Hernando Colón, Christopher Columbus’ illegitimate son, and his quest to collect and then organize books and material into a great library. At the time I thought nothing of the fact that this son, the man the biography is ostensibly about, isn’t even named in the subtitle. By the time I had tediously made my way through the first hundred pages (reading with a piece of paper covering the remaining text on the page so my mind and eyes couldn’t wander) about Columbus and his New World voyages, I bitterly regretted both my mistake and the fact that because I was reading this for work, I couldn’t DNF it.

The story of Hernando, his library, and how he undertook the process of organizing its contents is genuinely fascinating, but unfortunately this story makes up only a small fragment of Wilson-Lee’s bloated, meandering book. The rest covers Christopher Columbus, and Spain and its history in a way that only those who have personal experience with either the region or the manuscripts Hernando collected (which, remarkably, one member of the book club did!) will enjoy. I suspect that many others will DNF (as the two other members of the book club did), frustrated by the lifeless narrative, the dense text, and the lack of focus. Those who finish The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books will no doubt be left with a great deal of respect for Hernando Colón and his work, but sorely disappointed by the wasted potential that is this biography.

Fully the first third of Wilson-Lee’s book is focused on Columbus and, to a lesser degree, his relationship with his illegitimate son. Colón, who accompanied his father on many of his voyages, idolized his father and attempted to repair his tattered (yes, even in the sixteenth century) reputation. Yet even after Columbus’ death, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books reads like filler. It’s an exploration of place and time that goes far beyond what’s necessary to contextualize Hernando Colón’s life; more travelogue than biography. It’s also less than strictly factual, frequently using phrases like “perhaps he would have encountered” or “he may have seen” to discuss architecture and features of the towns and cities Colón visited.

I’ve also never before encountered a biography that told me less about its subject as a person. By all accounts Hernando Colón was an obsessive man, a workaholic consumed by his library and other projects (including a comprehensive Latin-English dictionary that never made it past the letter B, a description of the geographic makeup of Spain including distances and geographical features, and a biography of his father that neatly omits all of Columbus’ worst qualities), who had little in the way of a personal life. Yet the same accusation could be leveled at William Pitt the Younger and I would recommend William Hague’s informative and entertaining biography of Pitt to just about anyone, so I’m inclined to think the omission of any insight into Hernando Colón is a fault of the author.

Parts of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books detailing how Hernando categorized his collection of prints so that he wouldn’t purchase duplicates, and describing his epitome, which summarized information contained in each manuscript with the purpose of disseminating not the books themselves but the summaries to the broader public are fascinating, but they occur late in the book and far too infrequently. As someone who doesn’t often pick up non-fiction, I may not be the target audience for this book, but as a librarian, I most certainly am. If even a librarian, the very geekily interested in the organization of information type of reader this book should appeal to the most, can barely get through the book, I’m not sure what hope anyone else has of finishing it!

2020 Reading Resolutions

Although I didn’t publicly commit to any 2019 reading resolutions, I certainly had some goals in mind. Like many book bloggers, I hoped to spend the year clearing off some of my owned but not read books/backlist TBR. Like many book bloggers, this did not happen. So this year I’m committing publicly to my reading and blogging goals in hopes of holding myself accountable. My 2020 goals are as follows:

1. Read at least 60 books
This will be the third year in a row that I’ve set my goodreads challenge count to an achievable, non-stretch goal of 60 books. In 2018 I famously missed this goal when, late in the year, I abruptly decided to read the 800+ paged Anna Karenina. Although I made my goal in 2019 (with 63 books read in total), I’ve decided to stick to 60 for a few reasons. My reading is definitely impacted by stress and what goes on in my personal and professional life and since I’m still technically a part-time employee of the library system I work for (despite working full-time or nearly full-time hours since I was hired a year and a half ago) with a temporary full-time contract set to expire at the end of March, I really can’t predict where I’m going to be later in the year, whether it’s as a part-time employee surviving by picking up whatever extra hours shifts are available at branches across the city or in another temporary full-time role at a new branch, and that means that I have no idea what my schedule or free-time will be like. The other reason is that I find setting a higher yearly challenge goal dissuades me from picking up longer books, including classics and high fantasy works. I want to feel comfortable picking up longer titles this year without worrying about balancing a long book out by reading exclusively novellas or graphic novels for awhile.

2. Read (at least) 6 classics
The goal I failed rather spectacularly at this year was to read more classics. I don’t think I read a single classic all year! This year I’m aiming for one every other month for a total of at least six. I’m not going to commit to a firm classics TBR, but I will be reading Brideshead Revisited with Steph and Rachel this winter, and possibilities beyond that include The Iliad, Rebecca, East of Eden, Of Human Bondage, a work by Dickens (I’ve only ever read A Christmas Carol, so if you have a favourite Dickens book let me know in the comments!) and Pride & Prejudice.

3. Blog on a consistent basis
It’s not just my reading habits that are impacted by stress/my professional life, when I’m pressed for time or feeling down I don’t have the drive to write reviews or other content for my blog. I feel victim to that in a big way in 2019 and barely had a presence for the last half of the year. I’m not going to resolve to review everything I read or to maintain a blogging schedule because that’s setting myself up for failure when my professional life is so uncertain for the foreseeable future, but I do want to be more consistent and put up at least a few posts a month throughout 2020 and not just poke in for monthly wrap-ups and year-end posts. I’d also like to participate in more book tags and create more original posts/content beyond just reviews.

4. Don’t feel guilty about re-reading my favourites. Do use it as an opportunity to review them.
2019 was a very mediocre year of reading and part of that was because I picked up new books that didn’t end up grabbing me when I would have preferred the comfort food of re-reading an old favourite. This goal is two-fold. I’m definitely a re-reader, yet I often feel guilty when I do it, as if I should feel badly about not constantly seeking out new favourites. I’d like to maintain a better balance between new reads, backlist reads that I hope will become new favourites, and re-reading old favourites. I also have the unfortunate ability to get in my head about rave reviews and put them off or not write them at all because I’m anxious about not being able to accurately describe how much a book meant to me. I’m going to be less intimidated by books I absolutely loved and make more of an effort to do my favourites justice by re-reading some of them and then actually putting into words how much I love them!

5. Read what I own
I’m a big library user and don’t buy many books. The exceptions are keeper copies of favourites that I know I will re-read one day, new or second-hand copies of books I suspect I will love, and gifts or random used bookstore buys. My bookshelves have reached the point of overflow and I definitely need to do a personal weed (a librarian term for going through books and deciding what’s worth keeping and what should be discarded) in order to reorganize, so I’d like to go through my shelves and read more of the titles I’ve picked up over the years so I can decide whether I need to own copies or if I should donate them. Also, I STILL haven’t read all of the books in my Five-Star Read Predictions from 2017 (I’ve read 2 out of 5) and I own all of them, so clearly I need to finish those off so I can do another predictions post!

6. Do more buddy reading
I was hoping to do a lot more of this last year than I actually did, so this year I’m resolving to find other like-minded readers and take on books together. Rachel, Steph and I have already committed to reading a few books together, but if anyone else is interested in buddy reading something together, let me know!

I was going to resolve to read more non-fiction, especially since my favourite book of 2019 was a work of non-fiction, but I’ve been struggling to get through this biography that I’m reading for work for a week so I think I’m going to leave non-fiction alone for a bit!

What are your reading goals for 2020? Leave a comment and let me know!

Favourite Books of 2019

Often I have trouble narrowing down which titles should appear on my favourite books of the year list. It says something about the mediocre year of reading I’ve had that out of 63 books read, I could really only come up with 12 contenders. There are a few more that I heartily enjoyed and recommend, I could discuss my pleasant surprise at some great Canadian science-fiction this year, like Kelly Robson’s deservedly Hugo nominated novella, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach and L.X. Beckett’s technologically adept Gamechanger, how much I enjoyed Taylor Jenkins-Reid’s ode to a fictional 70’s band, Daisy Jones and the Six or how I appreciated Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik putting a feminist spin on fairy tales, but ultimately there were really only twelve books that I seriously considered for this list, so I’ve written up the two that fell just short as well.

Honourable Mentions

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12. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

“I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body. Do you think my body couldn’t decide what it wanted to be?”
“I think it doesn’t matter because we get to decide what our bodies are or are not,” he answered.

Unsurprisingly, Rivers Solomon’s debut novel about the journey of the HSS Matilda, a space ship organized much like the antebellum South, is an uncomfortable read. It’s unflinchingly graphic in its depictions of violence and unsubtle about the way that dark-skinned sharecroppers from the low-deck slums, like protagonist Aster, endure brutal treatment, deplorable living conditions, and pervasive casual cruelty (including misgendering) from white upper-deck “owners”. Yet this sci-fi treatment of American slavery is grounded by exceptional world-building and its characters, who are unique, diverse, and full of heart, even as they wrestle with the collective trauma of their people. As a queer, autistic, and black character, Aster is still all too rare a protagonist to come across and I loved watching the connection between Aster and Theo, another nonbinary character grow. The exceptional characters and worldbuilding are let down by a meandering plot and an ending that doesn’t feel earned, but it’s a promising debut and an inventive, sobering look at slavery through a science-fiction lens.

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11. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

“You couldn’t spell obligation if I shoved the letters up your ass.”
“I gotta say, I don’t think that would help,” said Gideon. “God, I’m glad you didn’t teach me my spelling.”

I really wanted to be one of those bloggers screaming to the rafters about this book and forcing it into the hands of everyone they meet, but I never quite reached that point. Obviously I thoroughly enjoyed the book – it’s only just shy of my ten favourite reads this year – but it was more of a 4.25 star read for me than a glowing 5 stars. The premise is fantastic; gothic lesbian necromancers in space? Sign me up! and ultimately it’s the uniqueness that kept me hooked, but the execution of Muir’s vision didn’t always work for me. I could tell that she had thought through the nuances of her magic system, yet it wasn’t explained well on page and I found the world-building lacking. Some pacing issues also held this back from being the grand slam that it could potentially have been, but despite these issues I loved this weird little book and I fell in love with Gideon and Harrow and their complicated dynamic. I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything like Gideon the Ninth before and the ending left me itching for book two. Bring on Harrow the Ninth!

The List

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10. The Deep by Rivers Solomon

“One can only go for so long without asking ‘who am I?’, ‘where do I come from?’, ‘what does all this mean?’, ‘what is being?’, ‘what came before me and what might come after?’. Without answers there is only a hole. A hole where a history should be that takes the shape of an endless longing. We are cavities.

Based on a song by experimental rap group Clipping (which counts rapper/actor Daveed Diggs among its members), Rivers Solomon’s novella is spun from the darkly unique premise of an underwater society descended from the offspring of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard during The Middle Passage. The trauma of their pasts is too great to be remembered regularly, so Historian Yetu alone holds the memories of her people, but the burden is too great and when she has the chance to be free, she flees to the surface. Solomon’s prose is dreamy and lyrical as they reveal a richly imagined and completely alien undersea civilization. Although the themes are weighty, as The Deep considers the broken identity that results from a loss of cultural knowledge and history, and explores diaspora, and the impact of generational trauma on a people, I found the novella ultimately uplifting and hopeful. A moving and raw examination of how to learn to live with the pain of generational trauma on an ongoing basis, and the importance of companionship and finding strength in others like you.

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9. Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard
(translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell)

“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it—the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”

No one could have predicted that I would love this as much as I did. Not Rachel, whose review alerted me to its existence in the first place, and not me, expecting it to end up somewhere in the four star rating range. Yet something strange happened when I picked up this odd little novella – I fell in love. The rich historical detail played a role. The spare, carefully crafted, yet dreamy prose so reminiscent of what I loved about Sarah Winman’s Tin Man (my favourite read last year) had something to do with it. The ‘what if’ premise that imagines how things may have played out if Michelangelo had accepted a commission from the Ottoman Empire to design and build a bridge across the Golden Horn was certainly a factor. Yet the most likely reason of all is simply that it’s so emotionally charged. I went from being interested and invested in the outcome, to overcome with pangs of emotion by the end. I wouldn’t recommend Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants to absolutely everyone, but in the hands of the right reader (who may be someone completely unexpected) this novella is an absolute gift and the sort of book that stays with you long after you’ve closed the pages.

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8. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

“I want to survive this world that keeps trying to destroy me.”

Unlike Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, expecting a Leigh Bardugo book to win up on my favourites list is a pretty safe bet. To each their own, but I’m honestly a little baffled at why this book has been so polarizing a read as the goodreads ratings suggest it is. Personally I loved it! Bardugo’s first foray into adult fiction introduces Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a former drug addict, sexual abuse survivor, and high school dropout who is offered a second chance – the opportunity to attend Yale University on a full-ride. The catch? She’s tasked with monitoring Yale’s secret magical societies, whose occult activities are more sinister than she could have imagined. Alex is a prickly protagonist, but I fell in love with her and with her mentor, the affable Darlington, and assistant Dawes. I found Ninth House an intelligent, atmospheric, and entrancing read that was well paced and left me hungry for more. At times it is as dark as advertised, with the book engaging directly with themes of sexual abuse and abuse of power so I advise heeding the trigger warnings if that’s something that concerns you.

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7. Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger

“Escape now, feelings later.”

Getting personal for a moment, 2019 was a pretty dark year for me. I struggled a lot with mental health issues brought on by professional frustration and I fell into reading slumps more frequently, which is why books that I couldn’t put down, that let me escape into another world meant so much to me. Steel Crow Saga was one of those books. Despite its length, Steel Crow Saga is an action-packed, swift-paced book that hooked me immediately. Set in a mid-20th century fantasy version of Asia, where the Tomodanese (Japanese) have the ability to bond with and shape metal and the Sanbuna (Filipino) and Shang (Chinese) people can create a soul bond with an animal, it’s very clear what nations are represented by their fictional counterparts and Krueger uses this understanding to explore the tensions between these Asian countries and the impact that colonialism has had on each of them. As a non-Anime watcher, the comparisons to Pokemon and Avatar: The Last Airbender were more of a deterrent than a draw, but if you’re also not a big Anime person and are considering this book, let me just say that yes, Steel Crow Saga is a lot of fun, but it also tackles serious themes, albeit while retaining a hopeful buoyance about the future. The novel’s four viewpoint characters (soldier, prince, detective, and thief) each have a clear voice and motivation and I loved them all so much! I love that there is such an excellent standalone fantasy novel out there, but how bittersweet that there aren’t more stories to read about these fantastic characters and the fascinating politics of the world they live in!

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6. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

“The phrase ‘see attached bibliography’ is the single sexiest thing you have ever written to me.”

Speaking of fun and reading the right book at the right time, there’s this gem. Often I reject these kinds of books as too fluffy for me, but once or twice a year (see my love last year for Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda) a book sneaks in with just the right balance of humour, heart, angst, a pinch of snark, and a winning romance. I started off skeptical but was quickly smitten by this charming self-aware tale of bisexual disaster Alex, the First Son of the United States, falling in love with Henry, the Prince of Wales. The relationship between the characters, though quick moving, avoids feeling like instalove because we’re let in on the emails and other communications between the characters when they’re apart. Although the writing didn’t thrill me, I found the chemistry between Alex and Henry believable and I enjoyed most of the secondary characters. It’s very definitely a book written by an American and I had trouble getting my head around the English monarchy being completely different (and undeveloped beyond some pretty cringy conservative tropes) while the American presidency seems to just go AU after Obama. The writing is also somewhat uneven. There are some beautiful romantic lines and bits of dialogue that made me laugh out loud, and I loved the allusions to queer history, but some lines do seem to be trying too hard. It’s not objectively one of the best things I’ve ever read, but I devoured it and then devoured it again before I had to return it to the library, and then bought a copy to re-read in the future. It’s not perfect, but I loved it anyway and it made me feel all of the feelings.

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5. Regeneration by Pat Barker

“But it’s not very likely, is it, that any movement towards greater tolerance would persist in wartime? After all, in war, you’ve got this enormous emphasis on love between men – comradeship – and everybody approves. But at the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it right kind of love? Well, one of the ways you make sure it’s the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind are.”

The World Wars hold little interest for me, so I rarely pick up books set during this period, yet a select few have been so well-written and affecting that they are among my all-time favourites: Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, Wein’s Code Name Verity, and now Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Confronting the psychological effects of World War I, the first book in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy is a slender but powerful read. Told through clear, sparse prose, the novel focuses on treatment methods during the war, but its primary focus is Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated English officer (and lauded poet) who, in 1917, was sent for treatment in a war hospital by pioneering psychologist W. H. R. Rivers after sending a letter to the Times declaring his disillusionment with the war. Barker begins her novel with this declaration, a scathing condemnation of those involved that begins, “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” As both Sassoon and Rivers are historical figures, what happens to each of them is already known, it’s the psychological drama behind the action that concerns Barker and that makes Regeneration such a compelling read. Barker deftly weaves in themes of class, politics, masculinity, and homosexuality, as she explores the psyches of both the soldiers and of their psychologist. The conversations between Sassoon and Rivers are particularly riveting. I can’t wait to find time to read the rest of this series in the new year because Regeneration was a knockout and a new all-time favourite of mine that I would recommend to just about everyone, though be warned there are some graphic depictions of the symptoms of shellshock as well as treatments for psychiatric disorders.

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4. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,00 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

My favourite discovery of 2019 was the Murderbot Diaries, a set of four novellas (with a full-length novel to be released in 2020!) told in the first person by a snarky, self-deprecating, agender security unit that thinks of itself as “Murderbot”. Murderbot would like nothing more than to half-ass its job and be left in peace to binge-watch its favourite shows, but when things go awry, Murderbot chooses to use its proficiency to keep the human explorers it has been assigned to watch over alive. The key word here is chooses because Murderbot lives in a world where it is treated as sentient property, owned by a corporate entity that leases security units out for contracted work. Its hacked governor chip offers the character the chance to make choices but not the freedom to do so openly, so it has shut itself off from humanity by pretending not to feel. Over the course of the series, Murderbot reluctantly takes steps towards exploring its humanity as it sets out on its own and must adapt to escape discovery. Murderbot is one of the most relatable characters I’ve encountered all year and I’ve been more or less shoving the first novella (All Systems Red) at people and telling them to read it all year. Gloriously snarky, intelligent plotted, and well-paced, I would recommend these novellas even to those who don’t normally enjoy science-fiction. Like many of the best stories about non-human characters, the Murderbot Diaries are, at their heart, about what it means to be human, particularly in a world where you’re seen as something less than.


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3. The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

“I am a witch,” said Vasya. Blood was running down her hand now, spoiling her grip. “I have plucked snowdrops at Midwinter, died at my own choosing, and wept for a nightingale. Now I am beyond prophecy.”

Two of my favourite series wrapped up this year and as you can see by their placement on this list, they both stuck the landing! The Winter of the Witch brilliantly concludes the story of Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Having experienced grief and hardship and been tested, Vasya matures into her powers to become a formidable woman and witch. It’s a transformation that feels earned, but that is also empowering. I wasn’t fully on board in earlier books, but the realization of Vasya’s slow-burn romance with Morozko, The Winter King, finds a new tenderness here and, through Vasya’s growing strength, becomes a true match of equals. Like the previous books in the Winternight Trilogy, The Winter of the Witch is immersive and atmospheric, told through Arden’s evocative, graceful prose. I loved the realistic moral ambiguity of the world, the fact that nothing is strictly black or white, good or evil as it initially appears to be and the fact that every choice has a consequence. I definitely shed a few tears over this one, and while I do have some quibbles about uneven pacing, I absolutely loved this book and the series it concludes.

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2. Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly

“Small lies,” he said. “Do you promise?”

When I first read the blurb for Amnesty, the final chapter in Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier series my heart stopped. Promising the return of a departed and much missed (by me anyway) character, I began counting the days until its release and yet I worried. Was there hope that the characters I loved so much could both face the consequences of their actions and survive the book? Would they ever be able to find peace after what they’d done? Would the ending feel earned? I needn’t have worried. Amnesty gives its characters room to breathe as they come to terms with the changes both in the world they inhabit and in each other. Characters take the first tentative steps towards putting the past behind them, yet Donnelly never hand-waves the trauma that they have experienced or belittles the choices that have led them to this point. Few things appeal more to be as a reader than a realistic exploration of trauma and the long and arduous, but not impossible, path that leads, if not to recovery per se, than at least forward. Amnesty tackles this beautifully and concludes in a bittersweet, and yet perfectly fitting finale. I was profoundly moved and cannot wait to re-read.

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1. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

“Dating back to the Iliad, ancient Egypt and beyond, burial rites have formed a critical function in most human societies. Whether we cremate a loved one or inter her bones, humans possess a deep-set instinct to mark death in some deliberate, ceremonial fashion. Perhaps the cruelest feature of forced disappearance as an instrument of war is that it denies the bereaved any such closure, relegating them to a permanent limbo of uncertainty.”

Was there ever any doubt that this would be my book of the year? Since I read Say Nothing in March I have been thrusting it at everyone I’ve ever met and insisting that they have to read this stunning book. At least a few have. Both of them have loved it as much as I did. I very rarely read nonfiction, but this narrative nonfiction work about the disappearance of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, during the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles” was so engaging that I had trouble putting it down. One of the most unsettling and informative books I’ve ever read, it contextualizes the events of the Troubles and the day-to-day existence and trauma of those who lived through this period. Needless to say, this book left quite an impression on me and I know it will haunt me for a long time to come.

Favourite Theatre of 2019

Just as I like to look back on my favourite books of the year, I love reminiscing about my favourite theatre productions seen over the last twelve months. These sorts of lists are always subjective and something that speaks to me may not have spoken to someone else. It’s also important to point out that while I see more theatre and ballet than probably the average person in the city, I am by no means an expert or able to take in all the wonderful shows that Toronto has to offer.

Honourable Mentions

First of all, honourable mention to the Canadian cast of the extremely short-lived Toronto production of “Dear Evan Hansen”, especially Robert Markus who played the titular role in a flawless performance. The set design, particularly the way it incorporated technology and social media, was clever, the music catchy, and the Canadian cast were all outstanding in their roles, but ultimately even this excellent production of the musical couldn’t overcome the standing issues I have with the book of “Dear Evan Hansen’/its themes. There’s just an ick factor I can’t get over and honestly I felt mental health issues were better handled in another show further up this list.

Honourable mention also to “Come From Away”. I hadn’t seen the show since its pre-Broadway try-out in the city and opted to revisit partly because there were rush tickets available but I’m tremendously glad that I did. The sit-down Toronto production is in fine shape, receiving a rousing response from the audience (particularly the East Coasters attending the performance I saw – if there’s a chance to see this show with East Coasters jump on it!) In dark times, this laugh-out-loud funny musical about kindness and giving one another a helping hand is a soothing balm. I’d forgotten how much heart there is in this show and I’d definitely recommend going to see it, whether you’re in Toronto, New York, London, Shanghai, or Australia (the cities where it’s currently playing, or will be playing the next year)!

The List

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11. “August Osage County” (Soulpepper)

I’ll admit to mostly going to see this one because Toronto actress Maev Beatty has reached ‘I’ll see anything with her in it’ status. I’m so glad I did though because Beatty wasn’t the only cast member to shine in this domestic tragicomedy. the play tackles weighty themes of addiction and the deteriorating state of the American nuclear family through its story of the dysfunctional Weston family reuniting after their father goes missing. As the self-medicating, dying matriarch Violet, Nancy Palk was compelling even as she hissed venom at her daughters and anyone else within earshot, while the aforementioned Maev Beatty was more than a match for her as headstrong daughter Barbara, whose marriage is failing. Although her lines were few, it was the subtle performance of Samantha Brown as the family’s Cheyenne live-in housekeeper Johnna, who functions also as a largely silent witness to the family hysterics, that really stayed with me. “August Osage County” is a long play, clocking in at over three hours, but it never felt long thanks to the mounting tension, cathartic reveal of devastating family secrets (sometimes to gasps from the audience) and a tremendous cast.
Watch the trailer

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10. “Piano Concerto”/”Petite Mort”/”Études” (The National Ballet of Canada)

Too often the problem with a National Ballet of Canada mixed program is its unevenness. I’ve been to many programs over the years where I’ve adored one short work and been left cold by another, so the pairing of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto”, Jiří Kylián’s “Petite Mort”, and Harald Lander’s “Études” was an inspired choice, resulting in one of the company’s best mixed programs in years.

“Piano Concerto” had its company premiere in 2015 and was an enjoyable work to revisit, although I certainly missed the presence of contemporary dancer Dylan Tedaldi, who I had seen in the role last time. The abstract choreography and use of design elements like hammers, stars, and bolts from soviet ideology effectively evoked composer Shostakovich’s struggle to reconcile his desire for artistic freedom with the demands of the state.

An ode to classical ballet, and to the ballet class in particular, “Études” progresses from work at the barre to pirouettes to more challenging moves like grand jetés. I’m pretty sure the casting process for one of the leading male roles in this ballet went something like this:

Person in charge of casting Études: So basically what we’re looking for is someone who can spend the entire ballet jumping and make it look effortless.

Naoya Ebe: *exists*

National Ballet Casting: Perfect!

Principal dancer Heather Ogden was a highlight as the female lead in “Études”, but actual ballet prince Harrison James and his classical equal Naoya Ebe, who spend most of the ballet spinning and jumping, respectively, were also superb. The progression from simplistic choreography of the warm-up to the showy finale was a joy to watch in this classical gem.

The highlight of the program though was “Petite Mort”, a clever, sensual, and strange exploration of sex that played with the innuendo of its title (Petite Mort or “Little Death”, referring to orgasm). Featuring six male and female dancers, who sparred with each other using both their bodies and fencing foils, “Petite Mort” was a treat to watch. Inventive and witty, I was transported (and not just from the opportunity to see one of my favourite dancers in the company with a sword).
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9. “Prince Hamlet” (CanStage & Why Not Theatre)

I’ve seen more productions of “Hamlet” in the last few years than a person who isn’t particularly fond of the play should, and while the excellent Public Theatre production which featured Oscar Isaac eating lasagna and one of the funniest pre-show announcements ever (asking the audience to please not try to plug their devices in to charge using the wall plugs on the set) has a special place in my heart, “Prince Hamlet” is undeniably the most innovative production of the play I’ve ever seen. Directed by Ravi Jain, “Hamlet” is remixed in this bilingual retelling that effectively integrates English and American Sign Language. “Prince Hamlet’ also breaks through restrictions on race and gender in its casting, giving us a female Horatio and Hamlet and a male Ophelia. While genderswapping some Shakespeare roles, such as Lear, can add new dimension and meaning to the play, I didn’t find that the gender swapped casting altered much of anything about “Hamlet”, it simply allowed actors who might not otherwise be cast in a role, to stretch their wings. Deaf actress Dawn Jani Birley did double duty, acting as both ASL narrator and as Horatio. Her dynamic presence and sharply punctuated, expressive signing were the perfect foil for the sullen Danish Prince (played here by Christine Horne). Scenes between the two of them sparkled, and I loved how they used ASL to communicate plans secretly so Claudius and Gertrude were unaware. As Ophelia, Jeff Ho gave a memorable performance, particularly in his mad scene, and Birley’s ASL retelling of Ophelia’s death had a hauntingly effective quality. The second act faltered a little and the dual didn’t totally work for either me or the friend I attended with, but “Prince Hamlet” is a remarkable achievement and a glowing example of how accessible theatre can be when it’s approached with the audience in mind and not as an afterthought.
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8. “
Rose” (Soulpepper)

Soulpepper’s first original musical boldly defied categorization in a memorable theatrical experience that was by turns heartwarming, funny, thoughtful, and empowering. Based on avant-garde poet Gertrude Stein’s collection “The World is Round”, it tells the story of inquisitive nine-year-old Rose who is faced with an unusual problem. Unsure of who she is or of her place in the world, Rose isn’t able to say her name. Her journey of self-discovery leads her into some unusual company, including a pride of lions and a terrifying group of giant otters? Star Hailey Gillis grounded a colourful and sometimes downright odd production with her endearing portrayal of the precocious Rose and Peter Fernandes brought a boyish charm and earnestness to his role as Willy, Rose’s best friend. Lorenzo Savoini’s design was simple yet effective, using a colour palate that reflected the iconic blue ink on pink page illustrations used in the original book. After the high energy first act, I found the second act dragged in the middle and could use some trimming off the long (2.5 hour) runtime for a musical ostensibly aimed at children, but “Rose” was an immensely charming show and a highlight of my theatregoing this year, particularly the climactic point in Rose’s journey of self-discovery, which had me inwardly cheering and outwardly tearing up for joy.
Listen to the cast recording on Spotify
Read my full review.

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7. “Next to Normal” (David Mirvish presents Musical Stage Company)

The Musical Stage Company has quickly become one of my favourite theatre companies in the city and this production continued to illustrate why exactly that is. Deftly handling themes of mental illness, addiction, and grief, “Next to Normal” is a rock musical about a suburban mother’s struggle with worsening bipolar disorder and the impact that has on her family. Any discussion about this production of the show has to begin by talking about the force to be reckoned with that is Ma-Anne Dionisio! Her performance as Diana was undoubtedly one of the year’s best. My jaw quite literally dropped watching her and I keenly felt Diana’s anguish and anger about her condition in this tour-de-force performance. The Toronto cast was refreshingly diverse, with Diana and her children all played by Asian-Canadian actors, and the role of Doctor Madden, usually played by a man, by the inimitable Louise Pitre. Stephanie Sy was another highlight, as underappreciated daughter Natalie. The set design seemed bland and uninspired for a show of this caliber though and I found the actors playing Dan (Troy Adams) and Gabe (Brandon Antonio) didn’t have the strongest voices and failed to live up to the energy or emotion brought to the musical by the other performers. Seeing this so closely on the heels of “Dear Evan Hansen”, I found the message in “Next to Normal” healthier and more relatable personally, and I was more moved by this production than by Evan’s duplicitous actions.
Watch the trailer

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6. Modern Broadway (Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

The TSO’s Modern Broadway concert was not only an entertaining, well-sung evening of recent(ish) Broadway hits, it also crossed an item off of my bucket list:

✔ See Jeremy Jordan perform live

Broadway is my favourite genre of music (I mostly listen to cast recordings) and Jeremy Jordan is my favourite vocalist. Seeing him live has been a dream of mine for years and although it wasn’t in a musical showcasing his acting chops, on stage in my hometown being impossibly charming and belting out his signature Santa Fe? Pretty much a dream come true. Jordan’s tenor is to die for and he was self-deprecating and charismatic as he introduced songs with anecdotes about his career. His take on Waitress’ “She Used to be Mine” brought the house down. Why then, you might be asking, wasn’t this my favourite theatre experience of the season? Well, although the Toronto Symphony Orchestra played beautifully of course, the problem with a pops concert like this is that it has to be as much about the orchestra as the guest vocalists. This resulted in some dubious song choices that stretched the definition of Modern Broadway. Unfortunately I also wasn’t so taken with Jordan’s co-star, Betsy Wolfe. Jeremy Jordan is a hard act to follow and though Wolfe gamely tried, she wasn’t able to live up to the high standard set by her fellow performer.

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5. “The Merry Widow” (The National Ballet of Canada)

A glittering delight, “The Merry Widow” was so incredibly charming that I seriously considered playing hooky from work so I could see it again with a second cast! Combining romance, whimsy, comedy, and the aesthetic splendor of Belle Époque Paris, the ballet told the story of a fictional Balkan principality on the brink of ruin unless the aristocratic Count Davilo (danced by Guillaume Cote) can woo rich widow Hanna Glawari (Xiao Nan Yu) before she is swept off her feet by a foreigner. Naturally, complications and miscommunications ensue. For all that I loved it, “The Merry Widow” was a bittersweet affair because it marked one of the final performances of principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu before she retired from the stage. I’ve been a fan of Nan’s for awhile and as thrilled as I was that I got to witness one of her final performances, I miss her presence on stage so very much this season and I haven’t quite accepted that I’ll never see her thoughtful Tatiana (in “Onegin”) or powerfully composed Paulina (in “The Winter’s Tale”) again. Guillaume Côté was the best I’ve ever seen him, displaying a talent for comedy as the drunken count, then partnering Nan beautifully in their romantic scenes later in the ballet. Jillian Vanstone was also winning as the young Valencienne and the set design and costumes deserve a mention for their sheer splendor. I really hope The National Ballet of Canada remounts this one sooner, rather than later.
Watch the trailer

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4. “Ghost Quartet” (Eclipse Theatre Company/Crow’s Theatre)
Offbeat, non-linear, and just plain odd, Dave Malloy’s song cycle “Ghost Quartet” was an absolute delight from start to finish. I’m predisposed towards Malloy’s brand of weird, being a huge fan of “Natasha Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”, so his musical style obviously works for me. The structure of the show is cyclical, twisting, and plays with magical realism in a story that spans generations of characters, including a spurned sister bent on revenge, an astronomer, and even a bear. “Ghost Quartet” artfully balances the haunting intensity of the storytelling songs with the ease of four friends fueled by whisky telling ghost stories around a campfire. Lines like “I will transcend and vomit this loser out of me” are poetic and powerful, yet humourous, representing Malloy’s style, but it’s the catchy foot stomping “Any Kind of Dead Person”, in which Hailey Gillis tells us why she’d rather be a ghost than a zombie, mummy, or other supernatural creature, that was the show’s standout number. The Canadian cast of four (Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Kira Guloien, and Andrew Penner) were all outstanding, having an easy chemistry with one another that got stronger as the run went on, voices that melded well in song, and the ability to play instruments as well as sing.  Set, Costume, and Lighting Designer Patrick Lavender created a warm and yet otherworldly space where anything felt possible, costumes that felt old and modern all at once, and dreamy lighting that transported us to another time. It was the perfect show to get me in the Halloween spirit. We went twice, and I was very tempted to go a third time. It was just that addictive!
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3. “School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play (Obsidian in association with Nightwood Theatre)

Dealing with issues of shadeism, racism, and classism in a nuanced way, “School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play” was such a joy! Playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s script about adolescent girls at a Ghanian boarding school in the 1980s is often laugh out loud funny and yet so beautifully poignant. Paulina (Natasha Mumba) has been Queen Bee of the school’s clique for years, but when new student Ericka (Melissa Eve Langdon), the daughter of a mixed-race couple, arrives from Ohio, Paulina’s control and social standing is threatened, particularly when a recruiter arrives to select one school girl to compete in the Miss Ghana beauty pageant with a shot of impressing on the world stage to become Miss Global Universe. Although the script is terrific, replete with 80s references and bitingly accurate in its depiction of adolescent nastiness between girls, it was the cast that made the Toronto production the success that it was. I can’t even choose one or two standout performances because the standard was so high across the board! Hilarious and heartbreaking, this was one of the year’s best.

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2. “The Brothers Size (Soulpepper)

Can I just RAVE forever about how fabulous and moving and important “The Brothers Size” is? The Canadian debut of Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (who co-wrote Moonlight based on his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue)’s play was the highlight of a strong season for Soulpepper. Part of McCraney’s Brother/Sister plays triptych, which incorporate Yoruba mythology into a contemporary setting that examines the issues faced by African-American men in the present, “The Brothers Size” is a huge achievement. The relationships between the three Black men, older brother Ogun, younger brother Oshoosi (who has just been released from prison), and Oshoosi’s cellmate and sometimes lover Elegba, were rendered artfully by actors Daren A. Herbert, Mazin Elsadig, and Marcel Stewart, respectively. The portrayals and the relationships between the characters in this intimate piece are even more impressive considering we learned at the talkback session following the play that Mazin Elsadig had replaced another actor in the role just two weeks before opening night! The performances delivered by all three actors were layered and thoughtful, charming and heartbreaking. Intimate, sensual, heartwrenching, and powerful in its examination of brotherhood, freedom, and responsibility, “The Brothers Size” was one of the best shows I saw all year and I desperately hope that one day soon Soulpepper will produce the other two plays in this triptych.
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1. “Kiss of the Spiderwoman(Eclipse Theatre Company)

Sold out before its limited run even began, Eclipse Theatre Company’s staged concert of “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” was the best thing I saw all year. Although the musical has a long history (and one that heavily involves Toronto) this was the first time I’d ever heard the score or seen a production of it. I bought tickets partly for the cast, all of whom I’d seen and liked in previous Toronto theatre productions, but mostly because it was being staged in the historic Don Jail (active as a prison from 1864 until 1977). The evening began with a tour of the jail, infinitely spookier at night than during the day, before we took our (extremely uncomfortable metal bar stool) seats for the performance. As one reviewer called it, “the perfect marriage of venue and subject matter”, “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” is set in an Argentinian prison during the country’s Dirty War. In order to escape from the dark reality of their days, gay window dresser Molina (Kawa Ada) spins colourful tales of the glamourous actress Aurora (Tracy Michailidis) to his cellmate, political prisoner Valentin (Jonathan Winsby), with whom he is falling in love. A grudging respect and tender camaraderie develop between the two men as they grapple with politics, masculinity, and the power of love over death. The Don Jail was the perfect venue for this musical, providing an atmospheric setting and acoustics that allowed the cast’s vocals to wash over the audience in a wave of glorious sound and emotion. The entire cast was phenomenal, starting with Kawa Ada, who was heartbreaking and honestly so perfect that it’s difficult to imagine another actor in the part of Molina. Tracy Michailidis was powerful and brought glamour and colour to her sensual performance as film star Aurora, and Jonathan Winsby’s vocals BLEW ME AWAY, especially his haunting performance of “The Day After That.” Even though this was by far the most uncomfortable theatre seating experience of my life, I would have gone back every night if it hadn’t been sold out. I’m devastated that there isn’t a cast recording or professionally shot video to capture this perfection but am so thrilled that I was able to witness it.

So there you go, my favourite things that I saw all year. What were your favourite plays, musicals, ballets, or operas of the year? Leave a comment and let me know!