Books: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

currentlyreadingThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Published July 29, 2014
There’s a lot to love about Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which follows the travels of The Wayfarer, a ship that builds wormholes, and its small crew, primarily over the course of a year-long journey to a distant planet.

Several readers have compared the novel to Joss Whedon’s much beloved Firefly, and I found myself drawing the same comparison.

Both works are set in space on a well-loved spaceship that’s worn down, but trusted and homey. Lovable, optimistic, and technologically inclined mechanic Kizzy has shades of Kaylee Frye… if Kaylee was hopped up on caffeine anyway! And most significantly, both works have a strong “found family” trope at the center of them. Although Captain Malcolm Reynolds doesn’t always get along with Simon Tam in Firefly, Simon is part of his crew and above all Mal is loyal to his crew. In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Corbin and Sissix often have their differences, but Corbin is still family, and the crew of the Wayfarer look after their own.

Personally, I found another similarity in the way that this book grew on me in much the same way Firefly did. It took me a few watches to fall in love with the television series, perhaps in part because the characters are such a huge part of the appeal that it’s a show you watch more for the interactions of members of the crew than for plot. Here too, I was half-way into the book before I fully grasped how brilliant this novel is. I suspect it’s because The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is also a character-driven story and the reader needs time to get to know Chambers’ unique characters and appreciate the different interactions they have with one another. In both cases, I was won over and am now a card-carrying member of the fanbase!

There are plenty more reasons to love this book than that it brings back fond memories of Firefly though. Let’s start with the diversity:

The story is set hundreds of years after humans have destroyed and left the earth. As a result, humans have mingled for generations and most now share a “nationless” blend, such as Ashby’s tight black curls and amber skin. Corbin’s pale skin colour makes him a rarity among humans and he’s even described as “a pink man bred for tedious labwork and a sunless sky”. There’s also diversity of genders and sexuality including:

  • A character who uses “their” pronouns.
  • A character whose species starts out as female and becomes male as they hit middle/old age.
  • A character whose species engages in “coupling” (sex) for comfort and fun without subscribing to human behavioral norms of monogomy or being judged for promiscuity.
  • Characters who are attracted to the same sex.
  • Inter-species relationships.

It’s all here!

I also loved how realistic and organic the interactions between different crew members of the Wayfarer felt. Chambers shifts between character perspectives to tell the story, which means the reader gets a sense of how crew members of different species feel, not only about the plot and their fellow crew members, but also their feelings on the behaviour of different species. We see Rosemary realizing how stiff and formal the crew must seem to Sissix, an Aandrisk whose species engages in much more platonic and romantic touching than humans do, and later see the reaction of young Aandrisks when they meet humans for the first time and curiously ask questions.

Although the characters may not always understand their fellow crew members, and may express frustration towards them and the ways in which their species or they as individuals behave, there is always respect for these differences. In the few cases where tempers boil over, it is made clear that offensive comments will not be condoned. Not only do characters respect one another, they try to accommodate one another’s differences. The Captain offers to complete a work shift for Sissix when she begins to molt, a stressful condition for her species, and the crew have put down strips of carpet over the metal grates to ensure that her claws don’t get caught. This sends a strong message of peaceful co-existence, particularly given the violent pasts that some species have had, and of celebrating differences.

I also have to applaud the fact that Chambers makes her alien species so different from one another and not just variations on the human race, as can often be the case in science-fiction. From the reptilian Aandrisks to the Grum doctor and cook, and the Sianat Pair navigator, there is a fascinating array of races who hold different belief systems and cultural behaviours.

The plot is not complex or twisting, but it doesn’t need to be. The focus is very clearly on the characters and their interactions over the course of the journey. There’s something almost cosy about the novel in the way that it left me with warm and fuzzy feelings and in a general mood of contentment. Ultimately, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a refreshingly unique character-driven novel that I would highly recommend to anyone interested.

Books: When the Sea is Rising Red

WhenTheSeaIsRisingRedWhen the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen
Published February 28, 2012

When the Sea is Rising Red is an intriguing read filled with moody atmospheric prose. There is a lurking darkness in the world, shown subtly through the warnings children sing/chant in the streets, the history of beings with significant magic being hunted down and killed, and in the tales about a sea witch hungry for sacrifice. Young women born to the great houses and lives of privilege escape their fates through suicide often enough that the cliff from which they jump to their deaths is known as ‘Pelim’s Leap’.

After her dearest friend Ilven kills herself in order to avoid an arranged marriage, seventeen-year-old Felicita considers her choices and opts for a life of freedom over life as a privileged woman subject to a man’s every whim. Faking her own death, Felicita disguises herself as a member of the working poor and gets a job scrubbing mugs in a teashop. She’s drawn to lonely but gentlemanly vampire Jannick, and to Dash, a charismatic rogue and leader who has secrets of his own, but when Ilven’s death calls forth from the sea a dangerous power, Felicita must decide if her loyalty lies with the family she abandoned or with those who would twist the darkness to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system.

The novel’s greatest strength is its interesting world building. There is a clear class divide between the great houses like House Pelim, which the protagonist Felicita is born to, and the poor of the city, and the city itself has a realistic grittiness to it. The great families in this book have a distinct patriarchal hierarchy in which daughters are destined for arranged marriages that will better their house in some way. Until marriage, a young woman is the property of her father or her older brother, and she is educated only until she is married and goes to live with her husband. The high houses are also dependent on scriv, a drug that activates their magical ability for a brief time, and Felicita experiences a form of withdrawal and ache for the drug’s presence when she is forced to leave it behind. Vampires inhabit an equally strict world but one that is a matriarchy, where women inherit regardless of whether or not they are powerful and have magic. The presence of various magical folk tale creatures, from selkies to unicorns, further enhances the unique world that Hellisen has built.

Felicita is a realistic and flawed protagonist. Naïve and sheltered, she has come from a life of privilege and doesn’t easily leave behind her assumptions about vampires and the working class. She also has a blind spot when it comes to her family and what they are capable of. Yet for all this, she’s also courageous enough to make a choice to change her story and leave behind all she knows. She is also hard-working, and stands up for her principles. Although Felicita realistically longs for the comforts of home, such as expensive sweets, shoes that fit her, and a warm soft bed, she stays the course and makes the hard choice in order to maintain her freedom.

When the Sea is Rising Red is a bit of a slow-starter, but it’s worth reading for the way it surprises by going against type and turning classic YA fantasy tropes on their head. Yes there is a love triangle (of sorts), but the resolution of it was a pleasant change, and it is truly a book where the heroine takes control of her own fate, at least as much as the restrictive world she lives in will let her.

Yet for all the good aspects of this book, there are a few things that hold me back from absolutely loving it. Without spoiling too much, I wish the reader had gotten more about the Felicita-Owen dynamic since her feelings towards her brother felt a little unresolved and I was hoping for more insight into how she feels about him by the end of the book. Particularly given Felicita’s initial unwillingness to believe anything bad about her family, it would have been nice to see more of a transformation in her as she questions all she knows.

I also thought the novel took a long time to get going, and although the moody atmospheric writing is strong, the first third or half of the book reads like a pretty typical YA novel:

  • Protagonist escapes her privileged but terrible circumstances by running away from home.
  • She disguises herself, gets a job among the working poor, and makes friends/allies.
  • She’s also attracted to a mysterious bad boy dandy of a man, but also to a vampire who treats her well but has secrets of his own.

It certainly helps that the book goes on to spin these conventions in different directions, but it felt very run-of-the-mill to begin with. When the Sea is Rising Red is a short read though, so it’s easy enough to read on and get absorbed in this interesting and haunting world, and in Felicita’s quest for freedom.

T5W: Future Classics

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

This week’s topic was a challenging one for me: Discuss the books you think will be considered classics one day! What makes a book a classic is a topic that has been much debated and I don’t know that there will ever be agreement on this topic, so I’ve opted for books that I think fit many of the characteristics commonly cited as being markers of the classics.

The classics are usually books that you can read multiple times and take something new away from them each time, they endure across generations and speak to people from different backgrounds and time periods, they have themes or noteworthy qualities that can be discussed and shared with others, in a book club or an academic setting, for example, and they have something important to say or are innovative in some respect.

I also set a few rules for myself in constructing this list:
1. They had to be books I’d actually read and not books on my tbr or that I expect will be good.
2. They had to be books I think stand an actual chance of becoming a classic. In other words, not just novels I liked and think should still be widely read in 50 years, but novels I actually think will stand the test of time.

Without further ado, here’s my list of future classics:

10nyuis1. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (published 2014)
There are many reasons to love this gorgeous book about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II. The book is beautifully written with evocative prose and imagery, and I loved both of the protagonists and the way their stories were told. Tearjerkers can often feel manipulative to me as though they’re trying to make you cry, but with All the Light We Cannot See everything about the novel feels so genuine that the emotional reaction I had to the book was completely earned and came from the feeling I had for the characters and their circumstances. It’s a book that has stayed with me, and that has transcended it’s setting (Contrary to what you’d think from reading this T5W, I’m not usually one for WWII set stories). I could easily see this story of youths who are both victims of the war being taught in classrooms and read for generations to come.

15dtj612. Maus by Art Spiegelman (serialized 1980-1991)
Art Spiegelman’s classic Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel tells the story of his father Vladek’s experiences as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust in cartoon form, and was perhaps the easiest choice for my list. I’d argue that it’s already a contemporary classic and will still be read in one hundred years. The black and white art depicts Jewish people as mice, German people as cats, Polish people as pigs, etc. in order to show the absurdity of dividing people by the lines of nationality. The story is told through Art interviewing his father Vladek about his experiences in Hitler’s Europe in order to write and illustrate a graphic novel based on his father’s story. Interludes as Art clarifies details about the story show his relationship with his father and his horror as he comes to terms with what his father has been through. Ultimately Maus examines both sets of experiences, those of the survivors as well as how the children of survivors are affected by what their parents have gone through.

ioj8xt3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published 2014)
A patient, slow-moving, yet beautifully told story about the breakdown of civilization as we know it and what happens fifteen years after the end of the world. Following a devastating plague, a theater troupe and orchestra known as The Travelling Symphony travel through what remains of North America. Unlike many post-apocalyptic works that focus on the period directly following the collapse and the fight for survival, Station Eleven moves between the pre-collapse days and fifteen years after the collapse to tell the story of what comes next. The central idea, “Survival is insufficient” really resonated with me and the reader sees through the museum, through an individual trying to start up a newspaper, and of course through the symphony, the ways in which human beings begin the slow rebuilding process and the importance of culture and art. It’s a gorgeous lyrically written story that gets better on a re-read and is a wonderful piece to analyze and find new insights in.

alittlelife4. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (published 2015)
Perhaps a more controversial choice since it’s not a book that I would recommend universally due to the darkness of its themes, but A Little Life is one of my favourite books. The story follows four friends through the decades as they graduate from university in New York City and deal with their personal demons. Although difficult to read at times due to the violence one of the characters endures throughout his childhood, it’s one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read with gorgeous prose and real flawed characters. It is also unlike anything I had ever read before. Ultimately A Little Life is a master class in writing, and brought an incredible beauty to one man’s struggle against the ties of his traumatic past.

j6n48z5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (published 1997)
I went back and forth over my last pick, debating less obvious choices, but ultimately of course Harry Potter had to make the list. I don’t know that it will be considered a classic in terms of its writing style or having deep themes for discussion, but it’s a beloved series that has been read and re-read by devoted fans. When a series has a large portion of a major theme park (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios) dedicated to it, you know it has staying power. Harry Potter has had such a huge cultural impact on the world that the word “muggle” has entered common usage and you instantly have an impression of a person by their self-proclaimed Hogwarts House. The sheer impact the books have had on a generation guarantees that the kids who grew up with Harry Potter will no doubt one day read or pass along the series to their own children, nieces, or nephews, making the series a classic in the making.

What books do you think will be classics one day?

Books: The Chosen Maiden

TheChosenMaiden1The Chosen Maiden by Eva Stachniak
Published January 10, 2017

The Chosen Maiden is sweeping account of the life and accomplishments of ballet dancer and choreographer Bronislava (Bronia) Nijinska, the sister to legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who was known as “Le Dieu de la Danse” (The God of the Dance). Set between 1894 and 1939 and told from Bronislava’s perspective, the novel explores themes of art and modernity as Bronia sees beyond her rigid classical training and strives to be a great artist, dancing and creating bold new works.

Born to dancer parents, Vaslav and Bronislava are both aimed at the Russian Imperial Ballet School from a young age. After graduation, they both dance for the Imperial Ballet initially, which presents financial stability and safety for the struggling family, but Sergey Pavlovitch Diaghilev’s newly formed Ballets Russes offers the opportunity to dance on world stages performing new and exciting works. Bronia follows her brother to the new company, at first given only small roles to dance, but through her persistence and passion she begins to carve out a place for herself and her imagination is captured by new and modern ways of dancing. Bronia’s life becomes more challenging as World War One tears the continent apart, and as she deals with broken relationships and fears for the safety of her family and friends, but she remains resilient and devoted to her art.

Intelligent, passionate, and yet the reasonable peacemaker of her family, Bronia is an engaging and likable protagonist. She is a steadying presence who tries to look out for Vaslav’s best interests, and moderates the disagreements between him and Sergey Pavlovitch (the Ballets Russes impresario and Vaslav’s lover), and who looks after her mother. Although perpetually in the shadow of her gifted older brother, Bronia is also a talented dancer and choreographer who is passionately dedicated to her craft and to seeing modern ballet brought to life.

This is the second novel by Eva Stachniak I’ve read, after The Winter Palace. With both novels I’ve been impressed by the author’s attention to detail and the way that she has so richly and realistically recreated the historical periods in which her novels are set. The Chosen Maiden vividly portrays the turbulence but emerging modernity of early twentieth century Europe, and I really enjoyed Stachniak’s prose.

Another aspect I enjoy so much about the two works of Stachniak’s I’ve read so far is the exploration of feminism. Bronia believes her brother to be a great artist and the envy she experiences is less to do with his gift as a dancer than with what behaviour is accepted from Vaslav, as a man, and not from her as a woman. While Vaslav has liasons and takes lovers, Bronia is carefully guarded by Vaslav and by Sergey Pavlovitch against an affair with an opera singer she loves, and is warned constantly against love and marriage. After Bronia does marry later in the book, she learns that she is pregnant, spoiling plans to dance the lead in a groundbreaking new ballet. Upset at the timing of the pregnancy, for she is at the height of her abilities, Bronia is accused of not wanting the child by her dancer husband and thinks bitterly, ‘It is all easy for him to say. He can go on dancing. A child is always a father’s accomplishment and a mother’s problem.’ Other cautions about being a woman are presented through the example of family members. Mamuisa puts some of her dancing on hold for Bronia’s father, who leaves her to marry another woman, and Mamuisa’s sister marries and gives up her career, but is abandoned by her husband.

Bronia also goes against typical gender conventions. She chops her hair short and wears trousers and not dresses off-stage. In her dancing, she uses her body to jump higher than a woman is expected to, and dances wearing soft shoes, rather than pointe shoes, in her ballets.

I’m confident most historical fiction readers will enjoy The Chosen Maiden, but this is definitely a case where Your Mileage May Vary. Occasionally I’ve felt as if a book was written for me, because the topic, or the writing style, or the type of characters fit so specifically with my interests. The Chosen Maiden is one of those books.

I had a childhood interest in ballet but it’s only over the last few years that I’ve started attending performances by the National Ballet of Canada and becoming interested in dance. In 2014 the company danced John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, a biographical ballet about the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky that opens and closes with his last public performance before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 29. Throughout the ballet he experiences feverish memories of his personal life, his art, and the turbulent world he lives in. I found Nijinsky incredibly moving and inventive and it’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever seen on a stage (Sidenote: The National Ballet has announced that they’ll be performing it again this fall so watch out for that no doubt gushing review in November!).

My interest in the story of Nijinsky is what drew me to this book and, as is usually the case in historical fiction, I found it really interesting to compare the different takes on people in Vaslav and Bronia’s lives. The Chosen Maiden paints a much less flattering portrait of Romola, Vaslav’s wife, than the ballet does, for example.

I thought the novel loses some steam after Vaslav’s madness overtakes him, but since Bronia is an engaging main character, I was interested in the changes that each World War brings to Bronia’s life and the great ups and downs of both her personal and professional life.

The Chosen Maiden definitely has more to offer if you’re familiar with, or interested in, the world of dance, but either way it’s an excellent historical fiction read with an intelligent, likable main character and strong prose.

T5W: Favourite Angsty Romances

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

I have a confession. I love angst in fiction. When done well, it takes me through the emotional wringer in a really cathartic way and moves me greatly. I’ve been looking forward to this topic for a few weeks now and quickly came up with my five couples, although I found it harder to jot down a few thoughts on just what it was about each couple that I loved so much. Ultimately all of these pairings are ones that had me making incomprehensible high-pitched noises and/or crying at least once, often from joy and from sorrow.

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for The Lymond Chronicles and A Little Life. The couples are slow-burns who happen later in the book/series, so if you are considering reading these, I’ve kept the actual summary and quotes deliberately vague and safe to read, but don’t highlight the pairing names or parts that I’ve hidden with white font!!

Without further ado, here are the five couples that had me making dying whale noises at least once in anguish and in joy!

1. Francis Crawford & Philippa Somerville (The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett)
CheckmateThe Lymond Chronicles are my FAVOURITE BOOKS OF ALL TIME. I read them for the first time in 2012 and had such a bad book hangover that I found it impossible to read anything else for days. I’ve already re-read the entire 6 book, roughly 500 pages per book, series twice.

There was really no competition for the top position on this week’s top five. If you ever read The Lymond Chronicles, and you should, everyone should, because they are superb in every single way (although they will break your heart along the way, you have been warned) you’ll get it because there is ALL OF THE ANGST, particularly with this couple. They spend most of the book (Checkmate, the last in the series) hopelessly in love with each other and yet pushing one another away. Each person believes that they are doing the right thing and is not aware that the feelings are mutual. With any less gifted an author than Dorothy Dunnett this would just not work, but in her hands it’s wonderful anguish. Just when the pair have realized that they love each other, one person makes a sacrifice for the other that changes them and their relationship forever. This is a true match of equals who complement each other intellectually and who know each other’s soul, but there are a hell of a lot of obstacles that stand in their way.

“As you say, I’m inexperienced. On the other hand, you are not always right. Please listen. Please think. Are you sure, when it matters so much, that you know my feelings better than I do?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not infallible. You might, without my crediting it, fall deeply in love and for ever, with some warped hunchback whelped in the gutter. I should equally stop you from taking him.”
She couldn’t speak. Her breath wheezed in and out. With extreme deliberation, and indeed restraint and moderation as well, [she] raised her glass and dashed it on the parquet. Crystals frosted the carpet between them, and the wine lay like blood.
Speech came back. “God in heaven,” [she] said. ‘Do you think that I care?’
He looked up from the mess. “I know you don’t,” Lymond said. His eyes were black, not blue; and there were red splashes on the white velvet. “But you must excuse the hunchback, who does.”

2. Kaz Brekker & Inej Ghafa (Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo)
SixOfCrowsI love this pair so much! Kaz and Inej are both scarred by their pasts to the point where it impacts their ability to have normal relationships. Kaz’s childhood trauma has made touching another human being with bare skin so unbearable that he wears gloves to cope, while Inej was captured by slavers and forced to work in a brothel. The depth of feeling they have for one another is intense. Kaz saved Inej and gave her the opportunity to start again as The Wraith, someone to be respected, and he in turn depends on Inej and she is a sort of moral compass for him. They make each other better, and I love that their trauma doesn’t just magically disappear because they’re in love. They begin to heal together but there’s still a long long way to go.

“Stay,” he said, his voice rough stone. “Stay in Ketterdam. Stay with me.”
She looked down at his gloved hand clutching hers. Everything in her wanted to say yes, but she would not settle for so little, not after all she’d been through. “What would be the point?”
He took a breath. “I want you to stay. I want you to…. I want you.”
“You want me.” She turned the words over. Gently, she squeezed his hand. “And how will you have me Kaz?”
He looked at her then, eyes fierce, mouth set. It was the face he wore when he was fighting.
“How will you have me?” she repeated. “Fully clothed, gloves on, your head turned away so our lips can never touch.”
He released her hand, his shoulders bunching, his gaze angry and ashamed as he turned his face to the sea.
Maybe it was because his back was to her that she could finally speak the words. “I will have you without armor, Kaz Brekker. Or I will not have you at all.”

3. Willem Ragnarsson & Jude St. Francis
(A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara)
alittlelifeTo say anything at all about this pairing is to spoil part of the novel, so highlight to read my thoughts, or if you don’t mind being spoiled for the book/aren’t going to read it.

A Little Life is very much Jude’s novel, but the central conceit is that sometimes a person is so damaged by the trauma they’ve endured, in Jude’s case systematic sexual and physical abuse, that they can’t recover from it. Jude’s battle with his past is very two steps forward, one step back. Through it all he is supported by Willem, his best friend. Slowly Jude realizes that he doesn’t want to be alone and that he loves Willem, but Jude sees himself as unworthy of love and his childhood abuse has left him repulsed by the act of sex in any form. Willem and Jude are truly two halves of a whole who just fit, but Jude’s past places strain on their relationship and both men have to make concessions. Like some of the other relationships on my list (oops I’m sensing a pattern), they can’t overcome and fully heal from their pasts, but the relationship is a stabilizing force in Jude’s life and their connection is beautiful and heartbreaking. It is impossible not to be moved by these two.

“Who am I? Who am I?”
“You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend .. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it. You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again. You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m Willem Ragnarsson. And I will never let you go.”

4. Damen and Lauren
(Captive Prince by C.S. Pacat)
kingsrisingThe premise of this m/m novel involves Damianos (Damen), Prince of Akielos, being betrayed by his lover Jokaste and his ambitious half-brother and sold to Laurent, the Prince of an enemy kingdom. Damen keeps his identity a secret, for the Prince despises Damianos, who killed Laurent’s beloved older brother on the field of combat years earlier. Their mutual hate grows into a grudging respect, a friendship, some truly smoldering UST, and even, finally, love, but Damen’s unrevealed identity is a tremendous source of angst and until the final book the reader is left to speculate on whether Laurent already knows and, if not, how he will take the news that he has fallen for his brother’s killer. Angst also stems from Laurent’s childhood trauma and the walls he has built up around him in response. I’ve been reading this series since 2009 back in the Livejournal days and the final book in the trilogy, published last year, was everything I was hoping it would be for one of my favourite angsty couples.

“I hated you,” said Laurent. “I hated you so badly I thought I’d choke on it. If my uncle hadn’t stopped me, I would have killed you. And then you saved my life, and every time I needed you, you were there, and I hated you for that too.”

5. Richard St. Vier & Alec Campion
(Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner)
SwordspointReckless, sharp-tongued nobleman Alec and honourable, but ruthless swordsman Richard St. Vier are one of my favourite fictional pairings. The very natures of those involved, particularly self-destructive Alec who picks fights for fun, give the relationship a darkness, yet the reader never doubts that they love each other deeply. There’s angst enough in Swordspoint, as Richard believes Alec has left him, but the angst and the depth of love between them continues in a few novels and short stories set years later in the ‘verse, which include Richard losing his sight (a particularly devastating blow to the most skilled swordsman in the city), and their respective deaths.

Please,” Alec said, still pulling against his arm as though he were ready to start hitting him again; “That’s a new one from you. I think I like it. Say it again.”
Richard’s own hands sprang open; he flung himself away from the other man. “Look,” he shouted, “what do you want from me?”
Alec smiled his feral smile. “You’re upset,” he said.
Richard could feel himself shaking. Tears of rage were still burning behind his eyes, but at least he could see again, the room was losing its red tinge. “Yes,” he managed to say.
“Come here,” Alec said. His voice was long and cool like slopes of snow. “Come to me.”
He walked across the room. Alec lifted his chin and kissed him. “You’re crying, Richard,” Alec said. “You’re crying.”
The tears burned his eyes like acid. They made his face feel raw. Alec lowered him to the floor. At first he was rough, and then he was gentle.

Who are some of your favourite angsty couples in fiction?

Books: History Is All You Left Me

HistoryIsAllYouLeftMeHistory Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera
Published January 17, 2017

History Is All You Left Me is a moving portrait of love and loss, as Griffin Jennings deals with the loss of his first love, ex-boyfriend Theo, in a drowning accident. The novel unfolds in alternating chapters. “History” explores the past from the moment where Theo and Griffin become romantically involved, through their preemptive break-up as Theo moves across the country to attend college, to Griffin’s jealousy as Theo embarks on a relationship with a new man, Jackson. “Today” begins with Theo’s funeral and the aftermath of his death.

I enjoyed History Is All You Left Me, but I wasn’t head over heels for it. Honestly, I think I was spoiled by Silvera’s previous novel, More Happy Than Not, which I found enthralling.  With More Happy Than Not I was reading Silvera for the first time so I went in without expectations and wound up loving the effective, snappy, yet eloquently moving prose, but I also was completely surprised by the twist (I hadn’t seen the comparisons to a certain movie that would have given it away), and I found that I liked the main character, as well as his girlfriend, and sympathized with them both.

The prose I so admired is still in existence with History Is All You Left Me, and I liked the timely pop culture references. Silvera does a good job of portraying the depth and intensity of loss, and even how individuals deal with grief differently, through Theo’s parents and friends. Now that I am familiar with Silvera’s work though, I found myself waiting for a twist. Although I didn’t puzzle it all out, I expected something and wasn’t quite as caught off guard as I had been with More Happy Than Not.

I also found that while I did sympathize with Griffin (and Jackson) and the situation he’s in, and even found his choices understandable, I didn’t really like the character very much. Griffin is certainly a realistic and three-dimensional character, and I found the push and pull between Griffin’s selflessness in pretending he’s fine with Theo moving on when the reality is he’s devastated, and his selfishness in (admittedly unintentionally) using other characters to suit his needs interesting, but also a little off-putting and I never fully connected with him as a character.

Despite not connecting with Griffin, there are aspects of this novel that are wonderful. I loved the fact that this novel is a queer romance without any homophobia in sight. Theo and Griffin’s parents are all supportive of their relationship, as are their friends, and there is no angst about sexual orientation. In fact, this book has some wonderful parental figures in general, and it makes a nice change to see such positive portrayals of family life (with the sole exception of Jackson’s father). I also liked the early “history” chapters featuring Griffin and Theo’s relationship and felt that they were a believable couple with chemistry, making it easier for me to understand Griffin’s jealousy and sorrow at losing his ex first to Jackson and then to death.

Ultimately, History Is All You Left Me is definitely worth reading and is a strong effort from Adam Silvera, I just didn’t find it as crushing and emotional as many other readers did, going by goodreads reviews.

Stage: Pinocchio


Based on Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, the National Ballet of Canada’s world premiere of Pinocchio is an inventive work that combines ballet and theatre in a vibrant and unique way.

In the ballet’s opening scenes, lonely Geppetto (Piotr Stanczyk), a lumberjack in this Canadian incarnation of the story, fells a tree and finds inside it a wooden boy. The Blue Fairy entrusts the boy to Geppetto’s care, telling Pinocchio (Skylar Campbell) that if he tries to be good, one day he might become a real boy. Naive and easily led down the path of temptation, Pinocchio is distracted from this purpose by a puppet show, a pair of naughty “friends” (the Cat and the Fox), and by the prospect of wealth. Appearances by the Blue Fairy (Elena Lobsanova), who acts as his conscience, set him back on course, but the second act sees him undergoing more trials as he is temporarily transformed into a donkey and later swallowed by a whale before reuniting with Geppetto.

Will Tuckett’s Pinocchio is a production that relies very much on strong acting performances. Fortunately, The National Ballet of Canada is a company I have always felt is particularly strong in that area. As Pinocchio, Skylar Campbell is such a perfect fit that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role. His Pinocchio is curious and impulsive, easily led down the path of temptation, yet he is also sympathetic in his naiveté. Campbell dances the role initially with an awkward colt-ish movement that sets the wooden boy apart from the real schoolchildren and other characters in the ballet, but as he becomes a real boy, Pinocchio moves with grace and fluidity to dance in celebration with his father Geppetto. Campbell’s acting is also excellent. He is eager and boyish in his portrayal of the wooden boy who means well but makes poor decisions, and his reunion with Geppetto is heartfelt and moving. On the other end of the spectrum, a scene where Pinocchio awakes to find the coins he has planted have not in fact grown into a money tree while he slept and have been taken by his treacherous friends, is humorous and displays a quickness of movement as Pinocchio sulks and checks for the buried coins again and again.

The whole company is excellent, but Piotr Stanczyk is a standout as the fatherly Geppetto, whose loneliness and worry is keenly felt as he searches for his son by putting up missing posters on every tree. Although I wish the ballet has spent more time on the father-son bond between Pinocchio and Geppetto, both dancers are gifted enough actors that the connection is felt and their reunion moved me. Another standout is Dylan Tedaldi’s fox. His movements are relaxed and appear effortless as he sinks into the jazz-influenced score.

The costume design is one of the first things I noticed about Pinocchio from its promotional material. All of the characters are vivid and colourful in appearance, from the beautiful dress worn by the Blue Fairy, to the plaid lumberjacks, and various animals. Pinocchio’s curly wig is designed to look like wood shavings and yes, his nose does grow! The sets and design of the ballet are similarly impressive. The ocean depths spring to life as dancers manipulate fish, and beautiful projections add to the ballet’s visual appeal.

The jazz-infused score by Paul Englishby also adds to the ballet, particularly through a spirited woodwind motif used for the character of Pinocchio, and a more delicate theme chosen for the Blue Fairy.

There are a few things about Pinocchio that I thought worked in this context, but I can’t imagine them adding to any other ballet. Chief among these are the use of spoken dialogue to tell the story and the abundance of Canadiana.

Five Blue Fairy Shadows, danced by principal dancers Guillaume Côté, Harrison James, Sonia Rodriguez, Xiao Nan Yu, and Corps de Ballet dancer Antonella Martinelli, give voice to the Blue Fairy’s thoughts through spoken dialogue, a rarity in the ballet world. Classical ballet often tells its story through dance and through codified mime. I’ll admit to being someone who finds the mother pointing to her ring finger to indicate that her son must get married, a technique found in ballets like Swan Lake, old-fashioned and unwelcome, but I also don’t find dialogue a necessity when choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon have so effectively communicated stories like The Winter’s Tale through dance. I thought the spoken dialogue worked in Pinocchio without detracting from the ballet, likely because it is so clearly targeted at children, but it’s not a feature that I can see working for most ballets. Additionally, the rhyming structure of the text gives off somewhat of a ‘Dr. Seuss meets the ballet’ vibe, particularly in the schoolchildren scenes. Not a bad thing in this case, but again not something I can see working well in other contexts.

While some elements of Canadiana, such as the Mountie accompanied by a few bars of “O Canada” and the beaver tourists, walk the line between being fun and over-the-top, I mostly enjoyed the Canadian content, from the sneaky raccoons in the Red Lobster Inn, to the subtler and very beautiful East Coast inspired setting where Pinocchio and Geppetto are reunited.

No doubt carefully aimed at the March Break crowd, The National Ballet of Canada’s Pinocchio is a family-friendly theatrical production that both parents and children will enjoy. Judging from reactions on social media, purists who go in expecting a classical ballet may be upset by this hybrid of theatre and dance. While it’s not something that I would see repeatedly, I very much enjoyed Pinocchio. For open-minded viewers, it’s a fun afternoon or evening out, that is well danced and acted by this talented company.

Pinocchio is on stage until March 24, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Photo of Skylar Campbell and Heather Ogden by Karoline Kuras

Stage: Of Human Bondage


Adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s epic novel of the name name, Of Human Bondage focuses on medical student Philip Carey’s obsessive love for manipulative tea-shop waitress Mildred Rogers, and explores themes of art, class and privilege, and love.

While the semi-autobiographical novel (which I have yet to read) starts with Philip’s early years in Paris, the play omits this to begin instead with his entrance to medical school in London. Although Philip is a promising student, his club foot has made him self-conscious and insecure, untrusting of other people’s high opinions of him. He initially dismisses tea-shop waitress Mildred as vulgar and common, but asks her out anyway and is quickly smitten.

The script is good, but what elevates Of Human Bondage are its evocative design and staging, and the strong performances from its cast, anchored by Gregory Prest as Philip Carey and Michelle Monteith as Mildred Rogers.

Gregory Prest plays Philip Carey as a character who has both a certain superiority about art and beauty, and yet is self-destructive and depressive. An early scene where he is humiliated in a class of his medical student peers, as the lecturer forces him to put his disability on display,  makes it easier to see why Philip would continually fall in thrall to a woman who abuses him. Of course, in her rages Mildred only serves to deepen Philip’s belief that he is not worthy of love. Not coming from a privileged background, the choices he makes impact him monetarily to the point where he seems poised to lose everything he has left, and the deeply sympathetic portrayal makes it difficult to watch.

Not having read the book, Michelle Monteith’s Mildred first struck me as assertive and independent. Initially Mildred’s restraint and seeming caution about moving too quickly with Philip, as well as her repeated coy “I don’t mind” refrain struck me as practical, but as the story progresses, Mildred’s other favourite phrase, “if it gives you pleasure” turns out to be her words to live by. She repeatedly turns on Philip when a better offer for comfort, wealth, and a good time comes along. I don’t know that it’s possible to make an audience like someone like Mildred, who blatantly and without remorse manipulates Philip financially and emotionally, but Monteith is never over-the-top and she is so convincing that at times you can understand the pull she exerts over Philip.

It is a testament to both actors that it becomes uncomfortable and even difficult to watch Philip continually be drawn back to Mildred just to undergo more of her abuse. Monteith’s performance is a masterclass in manipulation as she humiliates Philip, making him beg on his knees. In particular, there is one scene where Mildred is introduced to Philip’s handsome school friend Griffiths. The moment she learns that he has graduated and will be earning money, her behaviour shifts and she begins to flirt with Griffiths and exclude Philip for the rest of the night. When Philip becomes upset, she’s able to manipulate him so effectively that he even gives her money to spend the weekend with Griffiths!

The two leads are supported by equally strong performances from Sarah Wilson, as the charming divorcee and novelette writer Norah Nesbit, Stuart Hughes and John Jarvis as Carey’s artist friends, and Jeff Lillico, as Carey’s handsome medical student friend Griffiths, among others.

A tale of obsessive love that goes beyond reason, Of Human Bondage expertly explores the full range of human emotions. Its characters feel love, loss, fear, despair, and jealousy, and all of these emotions feel real and earned. I cared so much for these characters in spite of, or perhaps because of, their flaws that, not knowing how the play would end, I found myself hoping desperately and against type that it would end happily because I wasn’t sure that I could emotionally handle tragedy.

The production is enhanced by a minimalist but effective set. A large red square serves as the playing area, but left and right of the square are shadowed, and actors who don’t appear in a scene provide background sounds, music, and noises of the tearoom, gardens, or industrial London. In one scene, Philip and Norah sit facing the audience as we hear the final lines of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest spoken by actors in the shadows. The audience watches Philip and Norah watching the play. This use of sound combined with lighting that can instantly change the tone and location of a scene from the bright lights of a sunny day in the park to the use of shadows to create an eerie atmosphere immerses the audience in turn of the century London.

Additionally, the inventive staging is some of the best I have ever seen. Actors holding frames close to their bodies freeze in place on stage to give dimension to the portraits that adorn Carey’s flat, or hold the frames at arms length to convey a mirror. There’s a live montage in which Philip buys a flower and then a necklace from a vendor and Mildred accepts them elsewhere on stage in the next instant. And in one effective scene, the use of shadow and light combined with a chair knocked over convey suicide by hanging.

I was fortunate enough to grab a rush ticket and catch the closing performance of this excellent Soulpepper production. Ultimately, I found the play so profoundly moving that it was hard to believe I had nearly missed seeing it. This is a beautifully designed and staged, well-acted play that is at times difficult to watch in its intensity. If you’re in New York this summer, or have a chance to see this production at any point in the future, it is not to be missed!

Of Human Bondage closed its Toronto run on March 17th, but you can catch the play in July 2017, at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.

Photo of Paolo Santalucia & Gregory Prest, by Cylla von Tiedemann