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).
Watch the trailer

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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.
Watch the trailer

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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!
Watch the trailer

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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.
Watch the trailer

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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!

 

 

Most Anticipated 2020 Releases

Every year I resolve to read more from my backlist – books I’ve been meaning to read for months or even years but have never quite gotten around to – and every year I look ahead to the shiny new releases and my plans fly out the window! I love reading these kinds of posts from others and adding to (an already lengthy) TBR list. They’re especially helpful for me as a reader/blogger who gets most of my reading material from my local library so I can place my holds early and get ahead in the queue! Last year my most anticipated list included just 13 titles, but I read 7 of them in the end, so that’s pretty good. I still plan to read through some of the titles that I already own, but I know I’ll be unable to resist the siren song of many of these hotly anticipated releases!

Note: I’ve noticed this year that a lot of release dates have been shifting around, even in the last few weeks, so this is (as far as I know) accurate at the time when I wrote it, but release dates may change. I’ve tried to check both goodreads and chapters indigo, the largest bookstore chain here in Canada for accuracy.

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The Teacher 
by Michal Ben-Naftali
translated by Daniella Zamir

January 21, 2020

“No one knew the story of Elsa Weiss. She was a respected English teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, but she remained aloof and never tried to befriend her students. No one ever encountered her outside of school hours. She was a riddle, and yet the students sensed that they were all she had. When Elsa killed herself by jumping off the roof of her apartment building, she remained as unknown as she had been during her life. Thirty years later, the narrator of the novel, one of her students, decides to solve the riddle of Elsa Weiss. Expertly dovetailing explosive historical material with flights of imagination, the novel explores the impact of survivor’s guilt and traces the footprints of a Holocaust survivor who did her utmost to leave no trace.”

Since my first few titles (and some more further down) appear both on Rachel’s most anticipated list and on mine, a big shout out to Rachel for so often being my source for new literary/general fiction titles I might enjoy. Thanks Rachel! I’m so intrigued by this premise. Survivor’s guilt is a really interesting (and obviously depressing) theme and the promise of a book with historical material that has been well-researched and a richly imagined fictional biography speaks to me.

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The Truants 

Kate Weinberg
January 28, 2020

“Jess Walker has come to a concrete campus under the flat grey skies of East Anglia for one reason: To be taught by the mesmerizing and rebellious Dr Lorna Clay, whose seminars soon transform Jess’s thinking on life, love, and Agatha Christie. Swept up in Lorna’s thrall, Jess falls in with a tightly-knit group of rule-breakers–Alec, a courageous South African journalist with a nihilistic streak; Georgie, a seductive, pill-popping aristocrat; and Nick, a handsome geologist with layers of his own.

But when tragedy strikes the group, Jess turns to Lorna. Together, the two seek refuge on a remote Italian island, where Jess tastes the life she’s long dreamed of–and uncovers a shocking secret that will challenge everything she’s learned.”

I don’t read nearly enough literary suspense and this sounds like the perfect antidote to that problem. I’m always wary of comp titles, especially those invoking the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie, but the goodreads blurb has enough descriptors I enjoy (‘unsettling’, ‘beautifully written’) for me to pick this up.

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To be Taught, If Fortunate
Becky Chambers
January 28, 2020

“As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, Ariadne and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.

Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.”

Canada usually follows the US release dates for books. More rarely, we’ll align with the UK date. Yet when it comes to books by Becky Chambers we’re somehow always months late to the party! I waited months for Record of a Spaceborn Few and I’m still waiting for this new novella by the author of the Wayfarers series, so onto the 2020 list it goes.

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Upright Women Wanted
Sarah Gailey
February 4, 2020

“Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her—a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda. The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.”

I really enjoyed Gailey’s Magic for Liars but, let’s be honest, it’s the “queer librarian spies on horseback” that rocketed this to the top tier of my TBR!

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Daughter from the Dark
Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
February 11, 2020

“Late one night, fate brings together DJ Aspirin and ten-year-old Alyona. After he tries to save her from imminent danger, she ends up at his apartment. But in the morning sinister doubts set in. Who is Alyona? A young con artist? A plant for a nefarious blackmailer? Or perhaps a long-lost daughter Aspirin never knew existed? Whoever this mysterious girl is, she now refuses to leave.

A game of cat-and-mouse has begun.

Claiming that she is a musical prodigy, Alyona insists she must play a complicated violin piece to find her brother. Confused and wary, Aspirin knows one thing: he wants her out of his apartment and his life. Yet every attempt to get rid of her is thwarted by an unusual protector: her plush teddy bear that may just transform into a fearsome monster.

Alyona tells Aspirin that if he would just allow her do her work, she’ll leave him—and this world. He can then return to the shallow life he led before her. But as outside forces begin to coalesce, threatening to finally separate them, Aspirin makes a startling discovery about himself and this ethereal, eerie child.”

The challenging foreboding Russian fantasy Vita Nostra was one of my favourite reads of 2018, so I’m excited to dive deeper into Marina  and Sergey Dyachenko’s minds with this standalone novel, also translated by Julia Meitov Hersey.


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The Unspoken Name
A.K. Larkwood
February 11, 2020

“What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does — she will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice.

But on the day of her foretold death, a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.

But Csorwe will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.”

The Unspoken Name has been much buzzed about in sci-fi & fantasy circles, but it first came to my attention when it was recommended by author Tamsyn Muir as a great high fantasy with queer representation. Admittedly I read fewer fantasy books these days that feature non-human characters, but titles like The Goblin Emperor are among my all-time favs, so a orc characters isn’t necessarily a turn-off. Also, author A.K. Larkwood’s about page lists some pretty intriguing favourite things to write about!

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Last Smile in Sunder City
Luke Arnold
February 25, 2020

“I’m Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me:

1. Sobriety costs extra.
2. My services are confidential – the cops can never make me talk.
3. I don’t work for humans.
 
It’s nothing personal – I’m human myself. But after what happened, Humans don’t need my help. Not like every other creature who had the magic ripped out of them when the Coda came…
I just want one real case. One chance to do something good.

Because it’s my fault the magic is never coming back.”

An actor trying their hand at writing novels always fills me with a certain trepidation, urban fantasy is not my genre of choice, and reviews have been pretty middling, so I can’t honestly say that I’m expecting much from Last Smile in Sunder City, but I do still plan on reading it for two reasons: 1) It’s written by Luke Arnold, AKA Long John Silver on the best TV show there ever was, Black Sails, and Arnold has always seemed very pop culture and fandom savvy. 2) The Kirkus review described it as “the illegitimate love child of Terry Pratchett and Dashiell Hammett.” I love Chandler, Hammett and the hardboiled detective fiction genre and I’ve enjoyed the woefully little I’ve read from Pratchett, so this is a pretty powerful comp. It’s appeared in my local library’s catalogue so I’ll definitely pick it up at some point.


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When We Were Magic
Sarah Gailey
March 3, 2020

“Alexis has always been able to rely on two things: her best friends, and the magic powers they all share. Their secret is what brought them together, and their love for each other is unshakeable—even when that love is complicated. Complicated by problems like jealousy, or insecurity, or lust. Or love.

That unshakeable, complicated love is one of the only things that doesn’t change on prom night.
 

When accidental magic goes sideways and a boy winds up dead, Alexis and her friends come together to try to right a terrible wrong. Their first attempt fails—and their second attempt fails even harder. Left with the remains of their failed spells and more consequences than anyone could have predicted, each of them must find a way to live with their part of the story.”

More Sarah Gailey. More magic. Also apparently female friendships and gay witches? Sounds good to me!

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My Dark Vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell
March 10, 2020

“2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.”

Obviously a very timely novel in the era of #MeToo, I’m really intrigued to see how this one goes down and what uncomfortable questions it raises.

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The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel
March 24, 2020

“Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star hotel on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for Neptune-Avradimis, reads the words and orders a drink to calm down. Alkaitis, the owner of the hotel and a wealthy investment manager, arrives too late to read the threat, never knowing it was intended for him. He leaves Vincent a hundred dollar tip along with his business card, and a year later they are living together as husband and wife.

High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. He holds the life savings of an artist named Olivia Collins, the fortunes of a Saudi prince and his extended family, and countless retirement funds, including Leon Prevant’s. The collapse of the financial empire is as swift as it is devastating, obliterating fortunes and lives, while Vincent walks away into the night. Until, years later, she steps aboard a Neptune-Avramidis vessel, the Neptune Cumberland, and disappears from the ship between ports of call”.

Like many, I absolutely loved St. John Mandel’s previous novel Station Eleven, a quiet, hopeful book about rebuilding after the end of the world and the importance of the arts to our humanity. The Glass Hotel sounds completely different, but I’m sure that St. John Mandel’s prose will continue to soar and I can’t wait to read her latest effort!

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The Empress of Salt and Fortune
Nghi Vo
March 24, 2020

“With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage. Alone and sometimes reviled, she has only her servants on her side. This evocative debut chronicles her rise to power through the eyes of her handmaiden, at once feminist high fantasy and a thrilling indictment of monarchy.”

This Tor.com novella sounds so intriguing! If there’s anything I learned with my reading last year it’s how many terrific novellas there are out there and what an impact can be made in under 200 pages. I’m really looking forward to finding more great novellas in the new year and this looks like the perfect choice! Also ‘feminist high fantasy’ about the ‘anger of women’. Those are some pretty great descriptors.

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The City We Became
N.K. Jemisin
March 26, 2020

“Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.”

N.K. Jemisin. Need I say more? She’s definitely on my auto-read list by now and this is one of the most hyped and exciting SFF releases of 2020.

 

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Shorefall
Robert Jackson Bennett
April 21, 2020 (???)

“The upstart firm Foundryside is struggling to make it. Orso Igancio and his star employee, former thief Sancia Grado, are accomplishing brilliant things with scriving, the magical art of encoding sentience into everyday objects, but it’s not enough. The massive merchant houses of Tevanne won’t tolerate competition, and they’re willing to do anything to crush Foundryside.

But even the merchant houses of Tevanne might have met their match. An immensely powerful and deadly entity has been resurrected in the shadows of Tevanne, one that’s not interested in wealth or trade routes: a hierophant, one of the ancient practitioners of scriving. And he has a great fascination for Foundryside, and its employees – especially Sancia.

Now Sancia and the rest of Foundryside must race to combat this new menace, which means understanding the origins of scriving itself – before the hierophant burns Tevanne to the ground.”

There have also been January and February release dates for this one floating around, but I’m going with the bookseller pre-order date of April 21st. At this point Robert Jackson Bennett is both an auto-read/buy author and one of the few white cis straight men that I trust to write women/woc well. I adored his Divine Cities trilogy and thought Foundryside, the first in his Founders series, with its astounding worldbuilding was one of the most intelligent, thoughtful books I read in 2018. I can’t wait to dive into this sequel!

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The Silence of Bones
June Hur
April 21, 2020

“1800, Joseon (Korea). Homesick and orphaned sixteen-year-old Seol is living out the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Indentured to the police bureau, she’s been tasked with assisting a well-respected young inspector with the investigation into the politically charged murder of a noblewoman.

As they delve deeper into the dead woman’s secrets, Seol forms an unlikely bond of friendship with the inspector. But her loyalty is tested when he becomes the prime suspect, and Seol may be the only one capable of discovering what truly happened on the night of the murder.

But in a land where silence and obedience are valued above all else, curiosity can be deadly.”

Hadeer’s most anticipated reads turned me onto this one. I don’t have a ton of YA on my TBR for next year and The Silence of Bones sounds unique for the genre. After Pachinko I’ve definitely had an interest in Korean lit/history, and the author is Canadian and apparently we even work for the same library system (although to my knowledge we’ve never met)!

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Swimming in the Dark
Tomasz Jedrowski
April 28, 2020

“When university student Ludwik meets Janusz at a summer agricultural camp, he is fascinated yet wary of this handsome, carefree stranger. But a chance meeting by the river soon becomes an intense, exhilarating, and all-consuming affair. After their camp duties are fulfilled, the pair spend a dreamlike few weeks camping in the countryside, bonding over an illicit copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Inhabiting a beautiful natural world removed from society and its constraints, Ludwik and Janusz fall deeply in love. But in their repressive communist and Catholic society, the passion they share is utterly unthinkable.

Once they return to Warsaw, the charismatic Janusz quickly rises in the political ranks of the party and is rewarded with a highly-coveted position in the ministry. Ludwik is drawn toward impulsive acts of protest, unable to ignore rising food prices and the stark economic disparity around them. Their secret love and personal and political differences slowly begin to tear them apart as both men struggle to survive in a regime on the brink of collapse.”

Rachel, Steph, and I have a bit of a pattern of reading books described as gay and heartbreaking and this certainly fits the bill. There was a distinct lack of depressing fiction in my 2019 reads. I’m hoping to change that and to be really emotionally impacted by something, and this might be the perfect choice. I also haven’t read a lot of Polish lit and I’m intrigued to see what that looks like.

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Network Effect
Martha Wells
May 5, 2020

“Murderbot returns in its highly-anticipated, first, full-length standalone novel.

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.

Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.”

Hands down the 2020 release that I am most excited about! Martha Wells was my favourite discovery of 2019. The Murderbot quartet of novellas are absolutely brilliant, with a protagonist who is snarky, relatable, and human even in its desire to be anything but. Like many other Muderbot devotees, I jumped for joy when I heard there would be a full-length novel featuring Murderbot.

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Suzanne Collins
May 19, 2020

“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will revisit the world of Panem sixty-four years before the events of The Hunger Games, starting on the morning of the reaping of the Tenth Hunger Games.”

The title and the cover are objectively pretty awful but how could I not be excited about a return to Panam (and terrified, definitely terrified)!

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Harrow the Ninth
Tamsyn Muir
June 2, 2020

“Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last necromancer of the Ninth House, has been drafted by her Emperor to fight an unwinnable war. Side-by-side with a detested rival, Harrow must perfect her skills and become an angel of undeath — but her health is failing, her sword makes her nauseous, and even her mind is threatening to betray her.

Sealed in the gothic gloom of the Emperor’s Mithraeum with three unfriendly teachers, hunted by the mad ghost of a murdered planet, Harrow must confront two unwelcome questions: is somebody trying to kill her? And if they succeeded, would the universe be better off?”

Gideon the Ninth wasn’t an absolute slam dunk for me; I found the worldbuilding incomplete and the pacing uneven, however it was still one of the most singularly unique books I’ve ever read. I fell in love with the characters and I can’t wait to see where Muir takes them next in her second The Locked Tomb book.


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The Court of Miracles
Kester Grant
June 2nd 2020

“A diverse fantasy re-imagining of Les Misérables and The Jungle Book.

In the dark days following a failed French Revolution, in the violent jungle of an alternate 1828 Paris, young cat-burglar Eponine (Nina) Thenardier goes head to head with merciless royalty, and the lords of the city’s criminal underworld to save the life of her adopted sister Cosette (Ettie).

Her vow will take her from the city’s dark underbelly, through a dawning revolution, to the very heart of the glittering court of Louis XVII, where she must make an impossible choice between guild, blood, betrayal and war.

I mean the pitch is “a diverse fantasy re-imagining of Les Misérables and The Jungle Book”. This could be terrible but I’m so curious about what a combination of those two things would look like!

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The Tyrant Baru Cormorant
Seth Dickinson
June 9th 2020

“The hunt is over. After fifteen years of lies and sacrifice, Baru Cormorant has the power to destroy the Imperial Republic of Falcrest that she pretends to serve. The secret society called the Cancrioth is real, and Baru is among them.

But the Cancrioth’s weapon cannot distinguish the guilty from the innocent. If it escapes quarantine, the ancient hemorrhagic plague called the Kettling will kill hundreds of millions…not just in Falcrest, but all across the world. History will end in a black bloodstain.

Is that justice? Is this really what Tain Hu hoped for when she sacrificed herself?

Baru’s enemies close in from all sides. Baru’s own mind teeters on the edge of madness or shattering revelation. Now she must choose between genocidal revenge and a far more difficult path — a conspiracy of judges, kings, spies and immortals, puppeteering the world’s riches and two great wars in a gambit for the ultimate prize.

If Baru had absolute power over the Imperial Republic, she could force Falcrest to abandon its colonies and make right its crimes.”

I know, I haven’t even read The Monster Baru Cormorant yet, but I’m planning to prioritize it this year and then carry on with this third book in the series. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an all-time favourite of mine that I’m excited to revisit.

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The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
Zen Cho
June 23, 2020

“Zen Cho returns with a found family wuxia fantasy that combines the vibrancy of old school martial arts movies with characters drawn from the margins of history.

A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.”

I wasn’t as enthralled by The True Queen as I was Sorcerer to the Crown, but I still enjoyed reading it a great deal. I’m excited about anything Zen Cho has to offer and the blurb sounds right up my alley and fits in well with my recent plunge into The Untamed obsession! This also fits in well with my continuing read more novellas goal for 2020!

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The Angel of the Crows
Katherine Addison
June 23, 2020

“This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.
 
In an alternate 1880s London, angels inhabit every public building, and vampires and werewolves walk the streets with human beings under a well-regulated truce. A fantastic utopia, except for a few things: Angels can Fall, and that Fall is like a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. And human beings remain human, with all their kindness and greed and passions and murderous intent.
 

Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of this London too. But this London has an Angel. The Angel of the Crows.”

Somehow I only recently found out about this?? I’m a little appalled at my lack of awareness of this book because The Goblin Emperor is one of my all-time favourites… as is her Doctrine of Labyrinths quartet published under the name Sarah Monette. At this point I would read anything she chooses to write and a paranormal Victorian London is certainly appealing!

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The Empire of Gold
S.A. Chakraborty
June 30, 2020

Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of the battle that saw Dara slain at Prince Ali’s hand, Nahri must forge a new path for herself, without the protection of the guardian who stole her heart or the counsel of the prince she considered a friend. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her familyand one misstep will doom her tribe.
 
Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid, the unpredictable water spirits, have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.
 

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.”

I still haven’t read Kingdom of Copper, but I loved City of Brass and look forward to reading the final chapter in the Daevabad Trilogy!

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The Island Child
Molly Aitken
July 28, 2020

“Twenty years ago, Oona left the island of Inis for the very first time. A wind-blasted rock of fishing boats and sheep’s wool, where the only book was the Bible and girls stayed in their homes until mothers themselves, the island was a gift for some, a prison for others. Oona was barely more than a girl, but promised herself she would leave the tall tales behind and never return.

The Island Child tells two stories: of the child who grew up watching births and betrayals, storms and secrets, and of the adult Oona, desperate to find a second chance, only to discover she can never completely escape. As the strands of Oona’s life come together, in blood and marriage and motherhood, she must accept the price we pay when we love what is never truly ours . . .”

Magic realism can be hit or miss for me, but I’ve read some books in the genre I truly loved and the emphasis on Irish folklore definitely appeals to my interests and my roots. This is also one of the more gorgeous covers I’ve seen!

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So there you go! Nearly double the number of anticipated reads I had last year (especially if you add in Rebecca Kuang’s The Burning God and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, both due to be released in Fall 2020 although they don’t have cover art yet). Are you eagerly awaiting some of these too? Is there another upcoming release that you can’t wait to read? Please comment and let me know!

Most Disappointing Books of 2019

As the year winds down and we look ahead to a new year of trying to keep on top of our goodreads challenges and our ever growing TBR piles, I wanted to look back on some of this year’s reads that really didn’t work for me. Reading is always subjective and not all of these are bad books per se, they’re just books that, for one reason or another, I didn’t enjoy. Each of these books fell short of the coveted “good” rating of three stars or above on goodreads, making them my most disappointing books of 2019.

347231305. Slayer by Kiersten White
My rating: star-2-half
Review here 
Perhaps my expectations were just too sky high, but as an older millennial who grew up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the announcement of a new series of Buffyverse novels written by Kiersten White, author of the much loved Conquerors Trilogy, filled me with joy. Slayer failed to live up to its potential though in this underwhelming, and frankly unnecessary, read. The dialogue didn’t sparkle in that infinitely quotable, pop culture-infused way that episodes of the TV show still do decades later, the plot was predictable and a little sloppy, the main characters lacked depth while the supporting characters were interchangeable, and trying to figure out the timeline of the novel gave me a migraine. As I expanded on in my full review, I hoped that White would give us a slayer for a new generation. Someone relevant to today’s issues, who would disrupt the white feminist slant of the show. Instead, I had trouble connecting with either timid Nina or her protective twin sister Artemis. There were things I liked about Slayer, such as the Easter eggs referencing minor characters from the series, the idea of a shared slayer dreamspace, and encounters with OG slayers Buffy and Faith, but ultimately the novel fell short in just about every way.

329272394. The Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: star-2-half
Another case of a critically lauded (in science-fiction circles, at least) book that just didn’t work for me. While I may have struggled with and not fully understood Ninefox Gambit, the first in Yoon Ha Lee’s The Machineries of Empire trilogy, I appreciated Lee’s ambition and the fascinating dynamic between the story’s two protagonists, Kel Cheris and Jedao, the dead, sociopathic tactician sharing her mind. Not allowing the reader into the mind of a character and forcing us to view them only through the biased eyes of supporting characters can be done to great effect (see The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett) but in The Raven Stratagem I just found myself missing Kel Cheris and Jedao. Lee takes a step back from the action to shift from a military perspective to a more political and personal story (again something I’ve seen done to great effect, in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword for example), but something about The Raven Stratagem didn’t click for me. Perhaps its the perspectives involved – the fact that the story is mostly told from the POV of those who have power rather than those who lack it and are effected as a result. Perhaps it’s that the cast of characters expanded for this novel but weren’t nearly as well developed as in the first book. Whatever the reason, I found The Raven Stratagem to be a challenge with limited rewards. I’m honestly not sure whether I’ll bother to read the concluding novel in this trilogy.

43256597._sy475_3. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
My rating: star-2-half
I can’t think of a better example of the subjective nature of reading than the fact that Night Boat to Tangier has appeared on multiple critics’ best of lists for the year (not to mention been longlisted for the Booker) while landing squarely on my list of the year’s most disappointing titles! Night Boat to Tangier should have been a slam dunk. I don’t always love literary fiction, but a darkly comic read about two aging Irish criminals reminiscing about their pasts while awaiting an estranged daughter’s arrival sounded right up my alley. However it took me more than a month, and a number of self pep talks, to slog through its mere 255 pages. Although the book has some lovely turns of phrase and had me sniggering a few times at its black humour, I need more than language to be invested in a book and that emotional attachment never materialized here. Its protagonists are nearly interchangeable and because I was not connected to the characters, I was left unaffected by their reminiscing. The plot is nearly non-existent and I often found myself struggling to focus on the pages. Admittedly I think I would have enjoyed it more if I’d had the time to devote to reading it properly, rather than in fits and spurts over a long period of time, but not much more. Do Charlie and Maurice ever reunite with Dilly, the estranged daughter? Honestly, by the time I reached the end I just didn’t care one way or the other.

393590112.Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee
My rating: star-2
Review here
I’d be more inclined to go easy on self-published author Jonathan P. Brazee’s military science-fiction novella if he hadn’t played the voting system to garner a completely undeserved Nebula Award nomination earlier this year. In a field of imaginative, well-written nominees, Brazee’s tale of a plucky underdog stood out in all the wrong ways. Fire Ant is an amateur effort, as riddled with genre cliches as it is spelling and grammar errors. My eyes glazed over at the abundance of military procedures and space battles, yet there was woefully little in the way of characterization. Admittedly I’m not keen on the military sci-fi subgenre and I definitely wouldn’t have picked up Fire Ant if I hadn’t challenged myself to read all the Nebula nominated novels and novellas this year, but I confess that I have little sympathy when an author pushes to get their work nominated for a prestigious prize when it isn’t anywhere near the high caliber of writing showcased by fellow nominees in the category. Fire Ant is the novella equivalent of the umpteenth sequel to a popcorn movie. Blandly entertaining enough while you’re consuming it, but forgotten shortly thereafter.

393958571. The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
My rating: star-2
Review here
Leckie is the second author this year (along with Kiersten White) to appear on my most disappointing 2019 reads list after having one of my favourite reads in a previous year. I LOVED Leckie’s sci-fi Imperial Radch trilogy and her standalone set in the same universe (titled Provenance), so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her first foray into fantasy, but The Raven Tower‘s glacially slow pace made this one a challenge to get through. I continue to admire Leckie and respect her attempt to do something completely different with the genre, but the experimental nature of the novel (which is told from the perspective of a god who exists across time in the form of a rock) did not work for me at all. The distracting second person tense keeps readers at arms length from the characters so I was never able to connect with them and it’s about 250 pages longer than it should be. As a novella The Raven Tower could really have been something, but as a novel it’s just a snoozefest.

What were your most disappointing reads of 2019? Let me know in the comments!

My Life in Books 2019

Both Rachel and Callum did this bookish tag/meme recently and I’m shamelessly stealing it from them as I try and get back into blogging in time for all of the fun end of year content!

The rules are simple: Using only books you have read this year, answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

In high school I was 
The Girl in the Tower

People might be surprised by All My Puny Sorrows

I will never be The True Queen

My fantasy job is Sorcerer to the Crown

At the end of a long day I need Conversations with Friends

I hate The Deep

I Wish I had Magic for Liars

My family reunions are Empire of Wild

At a party you’d find me with Exit Strategy

I’ve never been to Blackfish City

A happy day includes Normal People

Motto I live by: Gamechanger

On my bucket list is Regeneration

In my next life, I want to have Vigilance

Books Mentioned:

Tagging anyone who would like to do this!

June/July Wrap-Up

I haven’t written any reviews for the last few months, but I still wanted to look back briefly on my reading so far this summer and highlight some of my favourites. Since I haven’t written any longer reviews, here are some brief thoughts on each of the ten books I read in June/July:

Alice Payne Rides by Kate Heartfield  small 3 half stars
While slogging through The Raven Stratagem this month I really needed something fun and Alice Payne Rides fit the bill. Like its Nebula nominated predecessor, Alice Payne Arrives, this consequences of time travel novella is fast-paced, features a cast of engaging characters, and shows evidence of impeccable research as it includes historical mysteries like the disappearance of Arthur of Brittany.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Soloman  small 4 half stars
Unsurprisingly, this novel about the journey of a space ship organized much like the antebellum South is at times difficult to read. Dark-skinned sharecroppers from lower decks, like protagonist Aster, endure brutal treatment, deplorable living conditions, and pervasive casual cruelty from white upper-deck “owners”. An Unkindness of Ghosts certainly isn’t subtle, and the plot does meander, but the characters are unique, diverse in sexuality and gender (two of the lead characters appear to be written as non-binary, a minor character is asexual) and dimensional, and the world-building grounds this sci-fi treatment of American slavery.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (re-read)  small 4 half stars
If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but wished it was more diverse and faster-paced then rush to your local library/bookstore and pick up Sorcerer to the Crown. This book is so damned charming! The author comments on issues such as racism, sexism, and classism by depicting the microaggressions Zacharias Wythe, a freed slave and the newly appointed Sorcerer Royal, experiences courtesy of his peers, and the prejudice faced by Prunella, a half-Indian woman practicing magic. The tone of the novel is so much more light-hearted than this description suggests though. There’s wit, there’s magic, there’s romance. What more could you want?

The True Queen by Zen Cho  small 4 stars
While I found this sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown equally charming, the plot twists were a little predictable (and frustratingly the reader arrives at the answers before the characters do in almost all cases) so it didn’t quite enthrall me like Cho’s first book. What a delight to return to this world and these characters though. I loved seeing Prunella in power, enjoyed the deeper development of minor characters from Sorcerer to the Crown like Rollo, Damerell, and Henrietta, and I found Muna a sympathetic protagonist.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid  small 4 half stars
Taylor Jenkins Reid is one of the most compulsively readable authors I’ve ever encountered. Like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I found this book difficult to put down I was so engrossed. Formatted as a series of interviews with former members, friends, and family of a Fleetwood Mac-inspired fictional band, it evokes the 70s rock scene in LA with all the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll you’d expect, but there’s an emotional heart beating under all that glamour. I had trouble telling some of the male bandmates apart and kept having to flip back and forth to remember who was who, but other characters, like independent Karen, and of course Daisy and Billy, whose chemistry practically leaps off the page, drew me in.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong  small 4 stars
There’s no denying that this is a gorgeous book. Its language is as accomplished as you’d expect from poet Vuong and there are moments of great profundity but ultimately this just wasn’t a book that I connected with personally. The exquisite prose is to be admired though.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells  small 4 half stars
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells  small 4 half stars
I continue to absolutely love the character of Murderbot and its reluctant journey to explore its humanity. Often in science-fiction the non-human characters actively seek out human experiences. I think it’s rarer to see a character who so desperately would prefer not to bother with human interaction or experiences and yet can’t help being pulled in that direction.

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (translated by Molly Ringwald)  small 4 stars
Drawing understandable comparisons to other LGBT works like Call Me By Your Name and Tin Man, Lie With Me is a beautifully translated story of an affair between two teenage boys in France and the lasting impact of their time together. Although it doesn’t cover new territory, it’s no less poignant for that.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (re-read)  small 3 half stars
I thought that on a re-read Ninefox Gambit would be easier to comprehend, but alas I still found myself longing desperately for a glossary. It’s still too military sci-fi, a genre I have no interest in, to really appeal to me, but the characters of Jedao and Cheris are written so well and their dynamic is so engaging that it kept me interested even when I had no idea what else was going on.

***Seen on Stage***

The National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Merry Widow this June was a glittering delight. So incredibly charming that I seriously considered playing hooky from work so I could see it again with a second cast, The Merry Widow also marked one of the last performances of principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu before she retired from the stage. I’ve been a fan of Nan’s for awhile and seeing her dance the leading role of rich widow Hanna Glawari was definitely bittersweet. As thrilled as I am that I got to witness one of her final performances, she will be so very missed and I can’t believe I’ll never see her thoughtful Tatiana (in Onegin) or powerfully composed Paulina (in The Winter’s Tale) again. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Guillaume Cote, but he was unrecognizably good here, displaying a talent for comedy as the drunk Count Danilo and 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.

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But of course the highlight of June for me was finally getting to see Jeremy Jordan sing live! That’s one to cross off my bucket list for sure! The song choices in this Modern Broadway concert series highlighting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra left something to be desired, and I wasn’t as impressed with his co-star, Betsy Wolfe, as I was by Jordan, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. Jeremy Jordan is a charismatic, ridiculously charming performer with a tenor to die for and hearing those notes in songs like Santa Fe sung live was a treat.

If I’d seen The Lion King fifteen or twenty years ago I have no doubt I would have loved it. Seeing it as an adult, when its puppetry and design are no longer as innovative as they were when the musical debuted, I was less impressed. I’m still glad that I finally saw The Lion King though and I enjoyed it (there were great performances on this tour from the actors playing Timon and Pumbaa, from Greg Jackson as Zazu, and especially from Mufasa understudy William James Jr.).

I went to see Soulpepper’s production of August Osage County entirely for the cast and was not disappointed. The performances were simply stunning in this family drama. Samantha Brown (as live-in Cheyenne woman Johnna) played a character with little dialogue but held her own, subtly saying as much with her facial expressions and body language as any other character on that stage. This is very much a play about formidable, sometimes unlikable, women, and Nancy Palk and reliably great Maev Beatty were perfectly matched as manipulative mother and daughter. It’s a long play, but it never felt long. The humour sparkled and the drama and plot twists kept the audience enthralled.

I can’t say that the National Ballet of Canada’s summer mixed program Physical Thinking (comprised entirely of works choreographed by William Forsythe) did much for me. I liked it at the time but even a few months later I’m having trouble remembering the program.

With a day off work at the end of July, my mom and I purchased online rush tickets to see the Canadian cast of Come From Away. We’d previously seen the show during its pre-Broadway Toronto tryout in December 2016 and loved it but hadn’t been back since. I’d forgotten just how funny, heartwarming, and just plain enjoyable this show is! If you haven’t seen Come From Away yet, it’s now in Australia, London, New York, Toronto, and on tour across North America and I definitely recommend it as a great night of theatre.

***Life Updates***

I’ve been pretty scarce around these parts for the last few months and most of that is because my job has been keeping me busy. The public library branch where I work is perpetually short-staffed and while it means that I have been getting a lot of hours and experience, it also means a lot more responsibility. Lately I’ve found the sheer volume of work to be done really stressful and that coupled with existing mental health issues has left me feeling very drained. Some of the positions are starting to be filled so I’m hoping to have more of a system of support in the branch soon.

I am enjoying life as a Children’s Librarian though! I do a weekly Family Time session where I do half an hour of themed stories, songs, and rhymes, followed by a craft. Initially this was really daunting, but I’ve become more comfortable with it and I really enjoy seeing my regulars (a few of the kids hugged me last week, which was really sweet) and the crafts are going over really well! Last week we made ocean-themed suncatchers out of tissue paper, contact paper, and ocean animal silhouettes, and the week before that was glow-in-the-dark paper bowl jellyfish!

I’ve also been around less because my faithful 7-year-old laptop is on its last legs. Sometimes when I start it up it doesn’t charge even though it’s plugged in, and it’s always reallllly slow. I did buy a new laptop but haven’t had the time to set it up yet. Fingers crossed I can do that this weekend!


***Coming up in August***

 I’m still desperately trying to find some five-star reads that blow me away. One step towards that is reading through my backlist of owned books. I have about 10 that I’ve identified and set on their own shelf, so I’m going to get through 2 a month until the end of the year. If you have any suggestions for books you think I’d love, send them my way!

For my one year anniversary of being a public librarian in May I wanted to do a sort-of FAQ/AMA about being a Librarian. It didn’t happen, but I think there’s enough crossover and curiosity with book bloggers and libraries/librarians that I’m still going to write a bit about my experiences and day-to-day life and answer any questions you might have. I’m also planning to do a series on places in Toronto for book lovers, so stay tuned for that too in case you ever find yourself in “the 6ix”!