Stage: Kim’s Convenience

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Set in a family-run Regent Park variety store, Kim’s Convenience tells the story of the Korean-Canadian Kim family as they navigate the complicated relationships they have with one another, and make choices about their future that will have lasting consequences.

Kim’s Convenience has a long history on the Canadian stage, winning the New Play Contest at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011, being mounted at Soulpepper, and touring across the country, but this was the first time I’d seen the show. I’m delighted to say that Kim’s Convenience lived up to the hype. The play is hilarious, heartfelt, and moving, resulting in a standing ovation at the performance I attended.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is a standout in a universally strong cast, as he depicts Appa’s struggle with the knowledge that neither of his children want to take over the store when he retires. When he receives a fair offer from a real estate agent to sell the store as the neighbourhood gentrifies, Lee’s nuanced performance balances the choice between leaving the store, which Appa considers to be his story, to his children, and retirement.

What truly makes the play are the relationships it depicts, each with a different but equally compelling dynamic. Jean Yoon is subtle but effective as Umma, the steadfast wife who also maintains surreptitious contact with estranged son Jung (Richard Lee) through church. Their brief a capella duet makes for a touching moment in the show, as does the reveal that she is a grandmother for the first-time. Jung is a relatable character, having had an epiphany in his early thirties that he feels left behind by his friends and is unhappy with the form his life has taken. The relationship between Jung and Appa is fraught and largely unseen but certainly alluded to until a climactic scene in the second act, while the nervous but earnest connection between Janet (an excellent Rosie Simon) and police officer Alex (Ronnie Rowe Jr.), a childhood crush, as they fall for one another adds a lighter note.

It was Janet’s relationship with her father that resonated the most with me though. Appa wants Janet to take over the store after he retires, but thirty-year-old photographer Janet has dreams of her own. Although there is obviously love between them, both Janet and Appa feel unappreciated and that tension comes to a head in an argument about taking out the garbage. The audience can see both sides of the argument and I think it’s a very realistic disagreement as both parents and their children feel frustration when they perceive themselves to be undervalued by family.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Kim’s Convenience is as funny as it is touching. Although far from politically correct, I laughed at Appa’s detailed racial profiling of customers most likely to be thieves in “steal or no steal”, and at the opening jokes about boycotting Japanese products.

The play features realistic, flawed, and fully formed characters, and is a loving portrait of the City of Toronto and its diversity.

I’ve since finished watching the first season of the CBC television sitcom of the same name, and while I mostly enjoyed the TV show (it takes a few episodes to get into and the pilot was perhaps not the best choice for an opening episode), I do feel like the longer format means that it suffers somewhat in comparison. The compact self-contained nature of the play makes for jokes that land each time and for emotional resolution that is incredibly effective.

Kim’s Convenience plays until March 4, 2017, at Soulpepper Theatre.
You can also catch the play in July 2017, at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.

Photo of Paul Sun-Hyung Lee by Cylla von Tiedemann

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Books: Best and Worst of 2016

I’m late to the blogging party, but thought I would start off with with a look back at my favourite (and least favourite) reads of 2016. I hit a personal record for number of books read in a calendar year, with 73 books read and 6 re-read for a total of 79 books. This list details my favourites of the year, based on how much I enjoyed them and how meaningful these books were to me. My picks include books I read in the calendar year, and not just books that were published in 2016.

The Ten Best

1. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
This sequel to Six of Crows features multiple edge-of-the-seat heist plots as Kaz Brekker and his band of misfits again fight for their lives and for revenge. (YA fantasy)crookedkingdom

Crooked Kingdom was my most anticipated book of 2016 and I ran to the bookstore on my lunch hour to snag a copy the day it was released. I promptly fell into the old reader dilemma of being torn between wanting to devour it as quickly as possible, but not wanting to face saying goodbye to these characters so soon. The author does a superb job of worldbuilding with gritty Ketterdam and beyond, and I cared so deeply about all of these flawed, three-dimensional characters that saying goodbye at the end was bittersweet. I love that time doesn’t heal all wounds and that Kaz and Inej, in particular, continue to be scarred by their pasts even as they help each other to move forward. The clever plotting and twists and turns that made Six of Crows such an engaging read continued in this conclusion to the duology, as Kaz has to use every last one of his wits to keep his team alive. Highly recommended and yes, it made me cry.

2. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Following four friends through the decades as they graduate from school in New York City and deal with personal demons. Not for the faint of heart, you will cry (Literary fiction)

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A Little Life is not for everyone. There are massive trigger warnings for rape, childhood sexual assault, suicide, self-harm, abuse, eating disorders, and mental and physical illness. It’s difficult to read, intense, and dark, but it’s also one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. I raced through the 700 pages of this novel in only a few days, unable to put it down, and read into the night. Based on the idea that sometimes we can’t recover from trauma, even with loving and supportive friends and (adopted) family members, the book is often bleak, devastating, and sometimes graphic. It’s also incredibly compelling, told through beautiful prose about characters who feel real and three-dimensional and flawed.

3. City of Stairs/City of Blades (The Divine Cities series) by Robert Jackson Bennett
The Continent, ruled by the divine, conquered and enslaved the island nation of Saypur, but hundreds of years later the island overthrew its conquerors and the divinities were killed. In City of Stairs, spy Shara investigates a plot to overthrow the new regime and return the divinities. In City of Blades, a retired general is called out of retirement and sent to the ends of the earth to investigate a secret agent gone AWOL in the middle of a mission. This take on colonialism and on mythology and divinity is rich and unique (Fantasy)

cityofbladesFantasy is sometimes viewed as a genre dominated by white male writers and the same ideas, but the way that Robert Jackson Bennett writes women and women of colour is truly exceptional. The protagonists of his two books are an intelligent spy WoC torn between her passion for history and her practical career as an operative, and a disabled middle-aged WoC retired general with a foul mouth. Both are three-dimensional, nuanced, flawed characters that I would rank among my top female fictional characters from any form of media. The world building in this series is some of the best I’ve ever read and the mythology involved is a delight, especially if you grew up on greek myths like I did. Completely engaging and written with beautiful prose. The third book in the series comes out in May so I highly recommend catching up now!

4. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
An Asian-American family deals with the death of their eldest daughter, and favourite child, Lydia in 1970s Ohio (historical fiction/literary fiction)

everythinginevertoldyouThe kind of novel that you find yourself thinking about days and even weeks later, despite it being a quick read (I finished it in 24 hours). I loved how the author got into the heads of Lydia, elder jealous brother Nath, younger forgotten sister Hannah, and parents James and Marilyn, who mean well but each pin their separate hopes and dreams for themselves on their middle daughter. The prose is absolutely exquisite throughout as the author explores themes of racism and sexism of 1970s America. It’s a quiet book but such a stunning read that I’d wholeheartedly recommend to anyone.

5. Kings Rising by C.S. Pacat
Final part in her m/m romance trilogy, Captive Prince, about two princes from enemy kingdoms.(romance/erotica/fantasy)

kingsrisingThis series has special meaning to me because the author of this series introduced me to the works of Dorothy Dunnett, my favourite author, when she discussed authors who have inspired her. Indeed, if you’ve ever read Lymond you’ll recognize a lot of those books in the Captive Prince series. I also have a long history with Captive Prince itself, as I was reading the series as far back as 2009 when it was published in parts on livejournal. I received email alerts when the author had updated with a new chapter and looked forward to these updates throughout grad school. Seeing it all brought to a great conclusion this year in print form meant so much to me. Seeing the relationship between Damen and Laurent build over the course of the books from open hatred to grudging respect and unresolved sexual tension to finally love was so gratifying and I enjoyed the writing style, the wit and antics of Laurent in particular, and the wonderfully plotted court intrigue.

6. The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
As a child, Baru’s island is conquered and they barucormorantimpose their values and norms upon her nation, disposing of one of her fathers in the process. She decides to tear down an empire from within, joining the Masquerade in order to set her people free (fantasy)

You know how sometimes you feel like a book was written for you? This was one of those things, it was so far up my alley with politics, power, and a dive into morality that made for a fascinating character study. I did guess some of the final twists and turns, so it wasn’t as unpredictable as I would have liked, but suspecting what would happen didn’t make it any easier to read. It was brutal, effective, and so well-written.

7. Elegy by Vale Aida
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Political intrigue fantasy featuring, in the words of the author, “snarky antiheroes, machiavellian lesbians, and the enemies-to-lovers trope” (fantasy/romance)

This one filled me with delight because it was so far up my alley. This debut from another Dorothy Dunnett admiring author was wonderful. The world building is well done, the prose is delightful and witty, and there are so many characters to fall in love with, from loyal Emaris to Francis Crawfordesque Savonn to intelligent Iyone and Shandei, the embodiment of “fight me!” I will definitely be re-reading it in 2017. If you liked Lymond and/or Captive Prince, you will love this book.

8. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
Final book about four friends who seek the sleeping welsh king Glendower (YA fantasy/urban fantasy)

ravenkingThe collected first three books in this series topped my personal 2015 Best Books of the Year list. I definitely have my quibbles with the final book in the series, but this is one of those cases where even a book that I didn’t love as much as some of its predecessors is so far above many of the other novels out there that it doesn’t matter. Parts of the end made me squeal out loud and have to put the book down for some air. Parts of it were so creepy that I warned an easily spooked friend that this was not something she should be reading before bed. It was a hell of a ride and bidding goodbye to these characters was incredibly bittersweet as they have all meant so much to me. This remains one of my favourite all-time book series, with characters who are flawed and feel real, and beautiful prose.

9. A Darker Shade of Magic/A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
There are four Londons located in parallel universes and Kell is one of the few people able to travel between them (Fantasy)

gatheringofshadowsRed London magician Kell, who can travel between worlds, meets adventurous thief Lila Bard from a London without magic and they go on an adventure. I loved both serious Kell and the defiant “I do what I want” Lila and the odd couple way these characters play off each other. As is so important to me in fantasy, the world building of each London is really fascinating and I loved the setting that incorporates Mad King George III, as Georgian England is one of my favourite historical periods. An enjoyable fast-paced series with likable characters. Stay tuned for my review of the final book in the series, A Conjuring of Light, in March!

10. The Fifth Season/Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
thefifthseasonDystopia about a world where massive earthquakes and other disasters wipe out chunks of civilization every few hundred years. People who have the power to control and create earthquakes are feared and used, brainwashed from a young age to obey “for their own good”. (Fantasy)

The deserving winner of the 2016 Hugo Award, honouring the best fantasy novel of the year, The Fifth Season is a superb and complex fantasy novel by a WoC. There is so much to love about this book, including terrific worldbuilding, an original concept, gorgeous prose that pulls no punches, and diversity, both in race and in sexuality, of main and secondary characters. Worth reading even if you don’t normally read fantasy and the sequel, Obelisk Gate, is equally as good.

The Five Worst

1. Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Dystopia where there’s a caste system based on colours. After his wife is fridged to further his man pain, lowest of the low Red Darrow undergoes an extreme makeover to pose as a top Gold and infiltrate the system from within to overthrow the corrupt government. (Science-Fiction)

This book includes a wife who is killed off within the first forty pages of the book as a plot device and a main character who is incredibly unlikable and the biggest Gary Stu you will ever meet. In many ways Red Rising is reminiscent of the Hunger Games (a very poor man’s version of). It randomly includes roman mythology references but not in a way that makes any sense, and I found the book to be incredibly misogynistic, with the few female characters there are existing only as love interests for the main character, or to be raped.  I (stupidly) read the second book too and I can tell you that it does not get better. If Michael Bay wrote a book, this would be it. I’m both baffled and disturbed by the attention it has gotten, when this book is so poorly written.

2. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

An air force man tries to save his own skin but can’t get out of the war because they keep raising the number of missions required to complete their service. (Fiction/Classics/Humour)

This was one that I needed multiple pep talks to even finish. It’s obviously a case of not my cup of tea rather than it being a bad book, since I know some people rank it among their favourites, but Catch-22 just never clicked for me. The aspects that usually draw me to a book are really interesting plotting, in depth character studies, and lovely prose, and this ticked none of those boxes for me. I also felt that the book would be more effective in a novella format with 200 pages chopped off because the length and the repetition dragged.

3. The Mirror Empire 
by Kameron Hurley
There are parallel universes and they’re at war? Maybe? I was perpetually confused reading this I really don’t know what it’s about. (Fantasy)

One of those cases where the premise was interesting, but the execution was just poor on all levels. I couldn’t understand what was happening and it didn’t come together at the end, I disliked or downright hated most of the characters, even the ones I think the author wanted us to like. I assume it was intended to subvert expectations, but I found the women raping men and keeping them downright offensive. Also the author didn’t provide enough physical description of characters so it was really hard to picture them and created discordance when some of their ages were revealed with what I had pictured.

4. Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan
Stone Agesque setting in a fantasy world where citizens discover the species they’ve revered as gods can be killed. (Fantasy)

There’s nothing wrong with it per say, it’s just that there is nothing at all original or unique about this novel and it brings absolutely nothing to the genre. The characters are mildly interesting at best, the writing is adequate, and it hits most of the tropes but they’re all played straight. I also never felt like the stakes were very high.

5. The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
Pitched as a Hades and Persephone style romance with Indian mythology and a sinister horoscope. (YA fantasy)

I really wanted to like this book but it just fell flat for me in every way. I loved the concept but thought, as unkind as it sounds, that the author didn’t have the skill to pull it off. Instead the book is full of purple prose (I rolled my eyes more than once at the dialogue), a protagonist who is supposed to be smart but repeatedly makes terrible decisions, and a love interest who comes across as creepy and moving way too fast. There’s a lot of potential here, but it’s squandered by a poor love story and the depictions of most of the female characters.

Honourable mention to To The Lighthouse by Virgina Woolf which I didn’t even get far enough to count as a DNF. I tried twice and couldn’t make it past page 20 and found that I wasn’t taking any of it in. Apparently that book has the gift of curing my insomnia!