Books: Ancillary Sword

AncillarySwordAncillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Published October 7, 2014
Ancillary Sword is the second book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, and I can safety say that this series is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Her first book, Ancillary Justice, won just about every major science-fiction award when it debuted in 2014, and it was on my tbr for about as long before I finally dove into the series this year. The series is every bit as unique and worthy of praise as I had hoped. The world-building is terrific, there are characters I care deeply about, and the author’s sharp social commentary on gender, class, and imperialism had me bookmarking quotes along the way that particularly resonated with me.

Written in the first person, our narrator is Breq, a music-loving millenia old spaceship AI inhabiting the body of a single human “ancillary”. Formerly the spaceship Justice of Toren, she had thousands of bodies (ancillaries) at her disposal and was connected at all times, able to see through the eyes of any of these ancillaries and to monitor the health and emotions of her human officers as well. Twenty years ago the Lord of the Radch destroyed Justice of Toren and her crew, leaving the former spaceship isolated in a single human body. Breq’s sense of loss and isolation from not having ancillaries lingers throughout both books in the series that I’ve read. Even as she recognizes what ancillaries are (reanimated corpse soldiers linked by artificial intelligence), she misses that connection and being once more on board a ship brings back regret that it will never be what she really wants, but she will have to make do with what she has.

While Ancillary Justice dealt with Breq’s quest for vengeance against the Lord of the Radch for the destruction of her ship and crew, Ancillary Sword is a much quieter sequel, that focuses more on character growth and on a critique of society, and is no less poignant for it. As Fleet Captain, Breq leads the ship Mercy of Kalr on a diplomatic mission to Athoek, a planet known for its tea (a necessity of Radch civilization), but although the planet was annexed hundreds of years ago and everyone should now be “civilized”, there is unrest and the enemy alien Presger might have taken an interest in what’s going on.

The world-building in this series is really exquisite. The Lord of the Radch has been annexing other worlds and adding them to the empire for roughly three thousand years, and Leckie’s Radchaaii have a strict emphasis on propriety in their behavior and think of races as “civilized” (annexed and submitting to the superior Radchaai ways) vs. uncivilized. I love the touches of culture we get throughout the book, from the Radch view of tea as civilizing, to their strict mourning customs and wearing of memorial tokens in memory of the deceased, to the idea of “clientage” a form of social relationship where clients offer their loyalty and services in return for financial support and prestige of their sponsor’s wealthy house.

The Radchaai are a race unconcerned with gender. Women and men dress and act similarly and their language, the predominant language of the empire, does not express gendered differences. Leckie makes the interesting choice to convey this gender neutrality through the default gendered pronouns of “she” and “her”. While the pronouns are initially jarring, I didn’t find it difficult to adapt, and was even shaken when, in this novel, the characters switch to another language for a time that does differentiate gender revealing that a minor character is male. The reader never does discover the genders of many main characters in the series.

As a female reader of SFF, I found using “she” as a default powerful, but I can also see how this choice in pronouns and fact that some characters are mis-gendered throughout the series could be triggering to trans or non-binary readers.

Leckie also excels at sharp social commentary. Much of Ancillary Sword is an exploration of privilege and power and challenging the status quo. From the moment she sets foot on Athoek, Breq tries to help out the victims of inequality and challenges the presiding ideas about class and what is respectable. Instead of taking rooms that fit a Fleet Captain, Breq sets up her household in the Undergarden, a place where legally no one is supposed to live and that is inhabited by the poor. She recognizes the inequality that workers on the tea plantations face and stands up for them, and she intervenes when a worker’s younger sibling is being taken advantage of by the daughter of the plantation owner, and has no recourse because the power imbalance is so great that he would lose his job or his wages for food if he did not submit to the sexual advances.

“You take what you want at the end of a gun, you murder and rape and steal, and you call it bringing civilization. And what is civilization, to you, but us being properly grateful to be murdered and raped and stolen from? You said you knew justice when you heard it. Well, what is your justice but you allowed to treat us as you like, and us condemned for even attempting to defend ourselves?”

At one point a non-Radchaai character surprises Breq with her view that one race on the planet’s problems would be remedied “if only they became better citizens’. Breq replies, “Just how good a citizen does one have to be in order to have water and air, and medical help?” This struck me as very relevant in the present day.

Another quote that struck me was this one, where Breq tries to explain to the System Administrator that she is not trying to see things from the perspective of those less privileged.

“These people are citizens…When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem. When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety. And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?”

I must also mention that Ancillary Sword includes my new favourite expletive, “you fish-witted fuck.” I hope I never have cause to use that one, but I do think it would be fun to say.

Ancillary Sword is a wonderful book, and though it was perhaps slower paced and less driven than Ancillary Justice, I actually enjoyed it more for its look at power and privilege and the inequality of empire. I would need another several hundred words to talk about how much I enjoyed these characters, from devoted recovering addict Seivarden to Lt. Tisarwat who spends the book in crisis, Kalr Five’s pride in her work and her dishes, the whimsical all too briefly featured Presger Translator Zeiat, Basnaaid the independent and measured sister of an important character from the first book, and Citizen Queter, whose rage at the injustice she and her brother face is keenly felt. And of course Breq, intelligent, keeping her cards close to her chest, and yet caring so much about her crew and about justice. I highly recommend the Imperial Radch series and I can’t wait to pick up the final volume in the series, Ancillary Mercy!

“The Book was Better”: Twelve Angry Men

“The Book was Better”
– reader proverb

“The Book was Better” is a feature where I look at a television or film adaptation and the book it was based on and talk about what worked and what didn’t for me in each medium.

29034Twelve Angry Men is a play written by Reginald Rose about the deliberations of the jury of a homicide trial. Although the jury initially seems close to a guilty verdict, with only a single dissenter voting not guilty, the 8th juror sows a seed of reasonable doubt over the course of the play.

I read very few plays, so this was an interesting reading experience for me.  My one quibble is that I found it difficult to keep track of the different characters, who are identified only as Juror 2, Juror 3, etc. and not given names. Without having a visual reference or a proper name for each individual, it often took until the characters had spoken multiple times for me to get a sense of who they were. This was particularly true of the characters who are less forceful presences in the play. Until well into the play I found myself flipping back and forth to remember what each person had said before. This is an issue unique to the print version of the play though and I found it easier to keep track of each character when actors were involved.

Aside from this minor drawback, I found Twelve Angry Men completely captivating. The play is a masterclass in maintaining tension, and it is well paced to peak at the end of the first act, lessen at the beginning of the second act as the characters are given some breathing room, and then to build again as the jury grows closer to a verdict and tempers flare from the opposing jurors. The dialogue is well crafted to reveal pieces of each character’s background, sometimes rapidly and sometimes as a slow reveal, and the characters speak distinctly from one another, even when no actors are involved.

2hoeiixPlaywright Reginald Rose also wrote the screenplay for the 1957 black & white film version of Twelve Angry Men, so it’s no surprise that this is an excellent adaptation. Starring Henry Fonda as the dissenting Juror 8, the film sticks to the play in situating the characters almost entirely within one set, the jury room of a New York Court of Law on a hot afternoon. The visual medium allows for the claustrophobic nature of the jury room to be felt as the deliberations go on, and the stifling heat as the characters, many of whom begin wearing full suits, open windows, remove their jackets, mop their brows, and stare at the broken fan.

Part of what makes the play so interesting is that the reader/audience never does get the closure of knowing whether the jury’s verdict is correct or not. In both the 1957 movie adaptation and the original play, Juror 8 does an expert job of building a case as he plants seeds of reasonable doubt in the minds of his fellow jurors, and in the end I was convinced by his argument, but there is no way to know for certain if the defendant is guilty or innocent of the crime.

I do think the movie, although still subtle, is less ambiguous than the play though in a few ways. The film makes it obvious that Juror 8 is the person we’re supposed to sympathize with and find ourselves in agreement with, from his reasonable manner and treatment of his fellow jurors to visual cues in the form of his white suit. The film also begins in the courtroom, making the choice to give include a brief shot of the defendant, a scared looking teenager with watering eyes. The play omits the courtroom and the defendant entirely and the judge’s instructions to the jury are given as a voice-over while the curtain opens on the empty jury room.

In both the play and the film it’s easy to spot the belligerent Juror 3, impatient Juror 7, and bigoted Juror 10 early on and to recognize them as people that we have all encountered before, the impatient man making light of the situation because he wants to get to the ballgame he has tickets for, and the man prejudiced against people from the slum, believing violence is in their nature. I think the most pleasant surprise for me watching the film was the earnest nature of Juror 2, who came across as a non-entity on the page but is obviously easily swayed and excited, but well-meaning in this adaptation.

Twelve Angry Men is a classic, and rightly so. It depicts the clash between men of different backgrounds and personalities who hold a boy’s life in their hands and must reach a decision, putting aside their differences and their prejudices, and is a fascinating look at the way the judicial system works.

Verdict: Draw. The film is an excellent adaptation (screenplay written by the original playwright) of a classic play. Worth reading and watching.


T5W: Authors You Want to Read More From

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

When I first saw this week’s topic, Authors You Want to Read More From: Talk about some authors that you’ve only read one or a few books from, and you NEED to read more, I thought it would be a piece of cake. Don’t we all have authors we’d like to read more from but whose other works are just slightly further down on the tbr list? It turns out when it comes to authors I’ve already read, my tbr mostly falls into two categories:

1. Authors such as Dorothy Dunnett, V.E. Schwab, and Leigh Bardugo. I’ve read more than five of their books already, but sooner or later I want to read everything else they’ve ever written!
2. Authors who have only written one or two novels. I’ve read what they’ve published so far and I can’t wait to read whatever they publish next!

This second category seemed more in keeping with this week’s theme, so I’ve made an effort to keep this week’s Top 5 to authors who I have only read one or a few books from, and who I would buy new works from tomorrow if they were on the shelf, that’s how excited I am about the prospect of more!

alittlelifeHanya Yanagihara
A Little Life was one of the best books I read last year and a new all-time favourite of mine. First of all the writing is absolutely exquisite. In a lesser writer’s hands I’m not sure this grim sort of reverse fairy tale would work at all, let alone as well as it does, but in Yanagihara’s capable hands the book soars. Although it’s a hefty 720 pages, I read the book in about half a week because I couldn’t put it down! It’s also the type of book that appeals to me: dark and sometimes bleak, yet with glimpses of compassion and love that make you feel that all is not lost. The author’s prose and gift for storytelling, as well as her memorably flawed and broken characters had such an impact on me that I would buy her next book regardless of what it’s about. I can’t wait to devour more of her writing!

15q8eafKatherine Arden
As you could probably tell from my review, Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale sucked me in quickly and never let me go. I was enchanted by the lyrical prose, the strength and compassion of heroine Vasya, and the weaving of folktales into this rich historical fantasy. It took me all of about 50 pages of The Bear and the Nightingale before I clicked Want to Read on the second volume in the series, The Girl in the Tower on goodreads. It looks like The Girl in the Tower isn’t out until early 2018, so there’s a bit of a wait ahead, but I am really looking forward to diving back into this magical medieval Rus’ setting and reuniting with Arden’s cast of strong characters. Her enchanting prose alone is enough to guarantee that I will happily pick up more of her work in the future.

barucormorantSeth Dickinson 
At times it felt like Dickinson’s debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant was written just for me. I love books that feature political maneuvering and power, and I usually find stories featuring characters with a grey sense of morality engaging. In Baru, Dickinson creates a protagonist whose motive and reasons are understandable but the lengths she goes to in order to achieve her goals are sometimes difficult to stomach. It makes for a fascinating character study in a book that is brutally effective and completely engrossing. I also found the depiction of colonial empires and the methods colonizers use to stamp out undesirable traits in the colonies, (like Baru’s home island of Taranoke) such as criminalizing homosexuality, both disturbing and thought-provoking. Dickinson is currently working on the sequel, tentatively titled The Monster Baru Cormorant, and I CAN’T WAIT to get my hands on it! When an author manages to make detailed descriptions of economic policy not only understandable, but even interesting, you know he’s one to watch!

cityofbladesRobert Jackson Bennett
The exception to my list of authors who have only published one or two novels, I believe Robert Jackson Bennett has a few previous works that I have yet to check out, but the reason I’m a devotee is definitely his Divine Cities trilogy. I’ve read the first two volumes, City of Stairs and City of Blades, and absolutely loved them. As someone who enjoys epic fantasy, and who has always had an interest in mythology, these were right up by alley. I loved the detailed and rich world-building, his prose, and the fact that he uses a fantasy setting to explore themes of colonialism and racism. The number one reason to pick these books up though is definitely the strong female WoC protagonists in Shara and General Turyin Mulaghesh (the later a middle-aged, disabled, WoC general who swears. A lot.) The third volume, City of Miracles comes out next week (I’m already screaming about this!) and I can’t wait to finish the series, and then to see what Robert Jackson Bennett will do next, because I will be there!

everythinginevertoldyouCeleste Ng
Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was one of my favourite reads last year. Days and even weeks after finishing it, I found myself reflecting on the book, despite the fact that it was such a quick read I finished it in under 24 hours. I’ve since recommended the book to a few people and bought it as a gift for another. The author’s prose is absolutely exquisite and I found the book really well structured with characters who were real and flawed, as she explored themes of racism and sexism in 1970s small-town Ohio. I believe Celeste Ng’s next novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is scheduled for publication this fall, and I will definitely be picking it up!

Have you read any of these authors? Which authors do you NEED to read more from?

Books: Sonora

349535cSonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi
Published March 28, 2017
Purely due to the order in which my holds came in at the local library, April turned out to be a literary fiction month for me. Reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Hannah Lillith Assadi’s Sonora back-to-back, I didn’t feel strongly enough about either book to quite paraphrase Dickens with ‘It was the best of literary fiction, it was the worst of literary fiction’, but there was a marked contrast in the reading experience for me. Both novels are, to some extent, about identity and coming of age, and each features a mixed-race protagonist who dances and her somewhat wilder and bolder best friend, but while I enjoyed Swing Time and thought it offered a lot of interesting insights and commentary, I thought Sonora fell flat.

Ahlam is the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and his Israeli wife. Growing up in the desert suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, she is an isolated outsider until she meets Laura, her magnetic counterpart with a lightning forged scar across her abdomen. Together they explore drugs, sex, and boys and journey to New York City with vague aspirations of pursuing careers in the arts. But in NYC, they succumb to a party-fueled lifestyle of highs and lows that threatens to destroy them both.

Sonora reads very much like an extended fever dream, intense but confusing and hallucinogenic. In the short term the effect is interesting, offering an opportunity for the author to play with imagery and language freely, but over the course of the novel it becomes tiring as there is seemingly very little plot to anchor the work. Reading the discussion questions linked to in the back of the book, I realized that I had missed a lot of the content of the novel due to the fragmented dreamlike writing. Although it’s a slim volume of under 200 pages, Sonora seemed to drag on and I returned to it only reluctantly on my commutes, rather than reading voraciously after work.

Admittedly, literary fiction is not my genre. I can count on one hand the number of lit fic books I tend to read a year, so I am not the target audience for this novel. When I enjoy literary fiction works, it tends to be for the well-crafted prose, character-driven narratives, and a deep exploration of themes that leaves me thinking about a book for days afterwards. Here Sonora only partially succeeds.

Assadi’s strength is certainly her prose, which is at times lush and poetic. In particular, her descriptions of two contrasting settings, the stark Sonoran desert of Arizona:

“The saguaros were everywhere scattered like crucifixes against the sky, endless and ancient, and in the half-light cast human shadows on the dust. Their arms were cast forth, cheerfully upright, blossoming come April, until dying or struck by lightning and stripped to skeletons.”

and the ever-changing bustle of New York City:

“The subway was my solace. I memorized the variance in the sound of the trains. The A’s low rumble as if it has inherited the knowledge that its journey ended at the ocean. The difference between the new F and the old F even before it pulled into the station. The torturous turns of the the 2 made as it pulled in and out of Park Place. The tender whirr of the G.”

struck me as vivid, the type of writing that engages all of the senses. I also found a few of the stories Ahlam’s father Yusef tells her to be striking, especially one about the curse of the Bedouins in the desert who dig for water and sometimes find oil instead and believe God has cursed them. He says,

“They would wail and scream and plead not to find it ever again. Every time they saw black instead of blue. Well, suddenly the west needed that black liquid. And some of those Bedouins became rich from the very thing they used to believe was a curse. But oil is still a curse. Would there be war at all if it was not for oil? How many millions have died for that black liquid curse?”

The prose can be lovely, but it is also a distraction from anything of substance and I felt like I was missing things because the language and imagery was so ornate. For me, a novel needs more than interesting prose to be gripping, and this is where Sonora lost me. Although it is a coming-of-age story, I never connected to Ahlam, the protagonist. She is something of a lost soul, following her childhood friend Laura, initially to parties in their hometown but then all the way to New York City and into drug addiction. Ahlam’s fascination with Laura, a self-destructive, impulsive presence who repeatedly makes poor decisions, never fully connected for me, and the other characters are similarly portrayed without a great deal of depth. I found the process of reading Sonora laboured and when I finished the novel it didn’t leave me thoughtful or moved by the journey.

Personally, Sonora was just not my cup of tea. I think I would have appreciated it if the characters had been better fleshed out, if more of the book had touched on Ahlam’s home life and the relationship with and between her parents (which I found more interesting than her connection to Laura), and if the plot had been more coherent and read less like an extended fever dream. It may be better suited to regular readers of literary fiction who are looking for something fragmented, stylized, and hallucinogenic in scope.

Books: Pachinko

PachinkoPachinko by Min Jin Lee
Published February 7, 2017
Multigenerational sagas are perhaps my favourite subgenre of historical fiction. In my teens or early twenties I was shaped by Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, I loved Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles (although I have my doubts over how well they would hold up for me on a re-read), and I devoured Morgan Llewellyn’s Irish Century series. So it’s not unexpected that I fell head over heels for Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko.

Taking place from 1910 through the late 1980s, Lee’s novel follows four generations of an ethnic Korean family living in Korea under Japanese rule and then in Japan itself. The book is beautifully written and does not shy away from depicting the discrimination and hardship that Koreans living in Japan during this period, who were seen as foreign residents and shut out of many traditional occupations, faced.

Learning about a place and period in history that I knew very little about was part of the appeal of Pachinko, but what made the novel so engrossing was the characters.  From the beginning I cared for Hoonie, a cleft-palated fisherman who is steadfast, kindly, and whose good opinion is valued by all, and for his daughter, steady, hardworking Sunja who never complains. Over the course of the novel, Lee presents us with a full cast of characters to adore, including sister-in-law Kyunghee, who provides a lightness to the novel and to Sunja’s life, earnest and kind Christian pastor Isak, and studious Noa who wants to be “normal” (to be Japanese) so badly that he hides his true identity.

Of course there are shades of grey and characters who err and make choices that are not necessarily in their best interests, but the overall impression I had was of a family who aren’t afraid of hard work and sacrifice in order to achieve a better life for their children. When they succeed, we feel their happiness, when things don’t go as well and they endure hardship, we bare their pain. Even the minor characters are so well-written that I gasped in sadness at the death of one such character. With such a likable cast, the deaths of major characters are even more moving because since we experience both the loss of the person and the impact that these deaths have on the surviving family members.

I didn’t get the significance of the title until later in the novel, when the pachinko parlors are introduced and I looked up exactly what the game entails. A widely popular slot machine game in Japan, pachinko offers an opportunity for the Baek family, shut out of many traditional occupations, to accumulate wealth. Sunja’s son Mosazu becomes a millionaire, owning several pachinko parlors, but even with the security of wealth, honesty in business, connections, and a good education, his family cannot escape feeling like outsiders in the country where they live. Mosazu confides to his closest Japanese friend:

“In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.”

Ethnic Koreans are called Zainichi or foreign residents, and are required to reapply for alien registration cards every three years even if they were born in Japan, like Mosazu and his son Solomon.

“And this is something Solomon must understand. We can be deported. We have no motherland. Life is full of things he cannot control so he must adapt. My boy has to survive.”

The Baek family’s story is very much one of survival and of sacrifice. Yangjin sends her pregnant daughter Sunja away with love, knowing they may never seen one another again, in order to give her a shot at a better life. Similarly, Sunja seeks to provide for her family, first through hard work selling candy and kimchi in a marketplace all day, and later through swallowing her pride and asking her eldest son Noa’s yakuza (organized crime syndicate) father for help paying for his schooling, when Noa passes the entrance exam for a prestigious Japanese university.

Lee’s prose is elegant, richly capturing the myriad of different settings found throughout Pachinko. Although the novel is nearly 500 pages, the pace is kept up throughout and Pachinko never feels long or plodding. Also impressively, the author avoids falling into the trap of generational sagas where some family members or narrators are less engaging than others. While I do have favourite characters, I felt connected to them all. Even the veritable villain of the piece in a way, Hansu Koh, a gangster figure who embeds himself in Sunja’s life through deception when she is an impressionable teenager and impregnates her, is interesting enough to not be viewed as wholly evil.

Pachinko is a fabulous novel. For lovers of historical fiction, East Asian history, or family sagas, this is a must-read, but it’s a book that I would wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Despite the length, I found it a quick read and one I didn’t want to end. This profoundly moving tale of sacrifice, survival, and family, deftly explores themes of home and cultural identity in an accessible and engaging way.

T5W: Favourite LGBTQ+ Reads

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

Today’s Top 5 Wednesday topic is Favorite LGBTQ+ Reads: Talk about your favorite books that feature LGBTQ+ characters. I’ve been really looking forward to this topic, but it has also been really difficult to narrow it down to just five books!

Swordspoint1. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
Swordspoint features two male bisexual protagonists, swordsman Richard St. Vier and university student Alec Campion. I knew nothing about the book when I started reading it several years ago and remembered getting the strong impression that Richard and Alec were in a relationship from the writing and how comfortable these men were with one another, but the relationship wasn’t stated and I kept thinking to myself, “no, but this is canon. They wouldn’t actually be in a relationship, I must be reading too much into this” until they were actually in bed together, 80 pages into the book! How sad is it that representation sometimes feels so scarce that I doubt what’s right in front of my eyes until it’s explicitly stated?! Fortunately I think both fantasy as a genre and the book industry as a whole have improved their diversity and inclusion since then. Swordspoint remains a favourite of mine, for the dialogue between Alec and Richard, which is natural and shows how comfortable they are with one another. I also love that for both characters actions speak louder than words and their devotion to one another is demonstrated through their choices, rather than through words. Author Ellen Kushner (who identifies as bisexual) also creates a really interesting world of politics, class distinctions, and wit.

msg-1296591052342. Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan & Adrian Alphona (Illustrator)
Runaways is one of the great underappreciated comic books in my opinion, and I’m a little baffled at how overlooked it has been because it is a poster child for diversity. The main cast of characters includes an African-American boy prodigy, a Japanese-American former alter-girl who is a powerful witch, a plus-sized, glasses wearing, ethnically Jewish but spiritually agnostic girl and her telepathically-linked dinosaur, a mutant, a Latino cyborg, an alien lesbian, and an alien who switches gender at will. The premise is that a set of kids find out their parents are actually supervillains, and that they in turn have powers or abilities, so they attempt to balance the scales by fighting evil. One of these kids is Karolina Dean, a blonde vegan who learns that she is Majesdanian, an alien race that absorbs solar energy and re-radiates it in the form of the colors of the rainbow. Karolina also deals with coming out, as she harbours a crush on her teammate Nico, attempts to kiss a boy in order to feel normal, and finally tells her team that she is a lesbian. Karolina later gets a girlfriend in Xavin, a member of the gender fluid Skrull race, who change gender like we change our hair style. Runaways is a fabulous series full of the kind of snarky, pop-culture referencing dialogue you’d find in Buffy the Vampire Slayer of Veronica Mars, and has characters who are diverse and relatable and endearing.


24drhv63. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Tell the Wolves I’m Home was a selection for a book club that I’m in and probably not something I would have chosen to read on my own, but it was a really good book and completely different from anything I’ve ever read before. The book focuses on 14-year-old June, whose Uncle Finn, her confidant, dies of a mysterious illness. At the funeral she notices a strange man lingering who wants to speak with her. As she gets to know this stranger, Toby, she realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn and the two connect over their shared loss. Set in 1987, the book provides a different perspective on the AIDS crisis, and the dynamic between June and Toby, her Uncle’s lover, as she experiences jealousy and the realization that she didn’t know everything there was to know about her beloved Uncle, is really fascinating. I found it a very moving novel and one that sheds light on a period and situation that isn’t often written about in fiction, particularly fiction appropriate for teens.

TheDreamThieves4. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
Ronan Lynch and Adam Parrish are two of my favourite characters in fiction, so of course this series had to make my list. Part of what I love about The Raven Cycle is its subtlety. Ronan’s sexuality is hinted at in the first book and confirmed in the second, and in many ways The Dream Thieves is Ronan’s book about coming to terms with his sexuality, something he hasn’t even put into words before. A character who is recovering from trauma (my favourite kind of character!), he has a lot to work through, from his abilities to take things from dreams, to his sexuality and his feelings for Adam Parrish. He’s raw, intense, fiercely loyal to the point where he can’t even comprehend the point of casual relationships of any kind. He is drawn to danger and fights and street-races, but also hand raises a baby raven and leaves thoughtful gifts of hand cream. I also adore bisexual Adam Parrish who has his own issues to work through, which include his abusive father, and poverty, which means he has to work multiple jobs to keep himself in school, as well as his feelings about Blue and later Ronan. Stiefvater writes such incredibly engaging characters that their trials and relationships made me laugh and cry and make high pitched squealing noises out loud. One of my all-time favourites series and with great LGBT representation.

2dhy8w75. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
As far as LGBT historical figures go, is any tale better known than that of Achilles and Patroclus? In The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller tells the story of their bond, from friendship to romance through the eyes of Patroclus as the Trojan War looms. I’m a huge fan of Greek mythology so this was something I really enjoyed reading, and I liked the foreshadowing throughout the book. The prose is lovely, and I thought the development of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was really well done and the story was very moving.

This Top Five Wednesdays is about books, but I cannot stress this enough, if you’re looking for a television show with great LGBT representation, I highly recommend Black Sails, which features 4 main characters who are gay or bisexual, and they are all treated with respect and given plotlines and romances.

Books: Vicious

ViciousVicious by V.E. Schwab
Published September 24, 2013

In the present, escaped convict Victor Vale plots a dish best served cold against his former friend Eli. Ten years prior, as bright university students and roommates, Victor and Eli move from a theoretical examination into whether ExtraOrdinaries (EOs) exist to a scheme to actually create one, granting themselves supernatural powers.

Vicious is my fifth overall book of Schwab’s and third separate series (I’ve previously read the Shades of Magic series and Our Savage Song) and once again she demonstrates that pacing is a strength of hers. Vicious does an excellent job of maintaining tension throughout this quick read, to the point where I found it hard to put down! I constantly wanted to know what was going to happen next and how the inevitable clash between Victor and Eli would play out. The book is tightly plotted and the shifting between the present day after Victor’s release from jail and ten years prior during his friendship and falling out with Eli effectively moves the action forward while slowly revealing more about each character.

The superhero/supervillain origin story is often explored in fiction, and even some of the general ideas underlying how ExtraOrdinaries “EOs” are created are not so unusual (near death experiences and adrenaline), but I loved that in this book the resulting powers are not random or tied into survival, but are influenced by a person’s last thoughts before death, so Victor, who thinks ‘why wouldn’t the pain stop?’, has the ability to turn pain up and down in himself and others as if turning a dial.

I’m a sucker for an interesting morally grey anti-hero and Vicious has this in spades. When an anti-hero is well-written, we root for them even as they make choices that are morally dubious (in television, characters from Breaking Bad and Dexter come to mind, in books The Talented Mr. Ripley is a good example) and I never stopped rooting for Victor Vale. It helps that there are signs that Victor has a heart, He collects strays in Sydney and the dog Dol, and does care for his former cellmate Mitch, but he’s also fascinated by and even initially drawn to Eli because he senses something wrong about him, that he is a monster under the surface. I loved Victor and would happily read anything written about him.

I was less engaged by Eli as a character personally, but I still found him an excellent antagonist for Victor. He believes that because he put his life in God’s hands and received a power that doesn’t harm other people ,he is a hero. In Eli’s eyes, all other EOs are wrong, soulless creatures and he uses this to justify his decision to kill the other ExtraOrdinaries.

The supporting characters are just as interesting and I have a soft spot for Mitch in particular, who seems to be the muscle of the team, but is actually a clever hacker who is constantly under-estimated mentally, but also for Sydney who finds safety in the most unlikely of places, Victor Vale. Along with Dol, the dog Sydney revives, they make such an endearing team that I couldn’t help rooting for them and was left wanting more when the book ended.

The exploration of what makes someone a hero or a villain, a monster or a human being is part of what makes Vicious so engaging. Eli views himself as a hero, but Victor has always seen a darkness lurking under the surface, even before their experiments succeeded. Serena freely uses her power to get her own way and knows that there is something off, something missing, in her post-death, but she still cares for her younger sister and wants to protect her. Sydney is perhaps most interesting of all, since her powers have made her more than she was previously, a bolder individual who is no longer in Serena’s shadow. She maintains her humanity even as Serena seems to have lost some of hers. Eli and Victor were both somewhat monstrous to begin with.

Goodreads tells me there’s going to be a sequel to this book and I, for one, can’t wait to see what Victor will do next! And on a shallow note, I’m not normally one to judge a book by it’s cover, but how gorgeous is the cover design for this book?!

Highly recommended as a quick, fast-paced read with engaging characters and an exploration of morality and what makes us human.


Stage: Spoon River


Based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of short poems, this musical adaptation features the residents of a small town mid-west graveyard returning to share stories of their lives and deaths with curious passersby. By turns funny and moving, Spoon River serves as a celebration of life.

Inspired by immersive theatre, the audience arrives as mourners to a funeral. Instead of entering the theatre through its main doors, the audience walks down a hallway decorated with black-and-white photos and files past an open casket with a young woman in it. An usher in black historical costume expressed his condolences on our loss, and we file across the back of the stage (a series of tombstones that make up the cemetery), before being guided to our seats for the service. This unique entrance certainly adds to the atmosphere of the show, which begins, appropriately enough, with a eulogy.

As the preacher finishes his eulogy and leaves the graveyard, the various dead residents of Spoon River sing “The Hill”, the first of Masters’ poems set to music, a bluegrass theme about how in death all are equal. Throughout the show, some cast members double as musicians, accompanying on the fiddle, percussion, and brass instruments in a folk style that’s reminiscent of Once. The mixture of Americana, Appalachian folk tunes and gospel music is not outstanding or particularly memorable on its own, but it works to set the period and tone of the show and alternates nicely with scenes of spoken dialogue. Some of the songs work more effectively than others, particularly a quiet duet between a husband and wife who sing about being in love and growing old and dying together, the penultimate song where the young woman whose funeral opens the show sings a bittersweet goodbye to life, and the final earworm, that encourages us to live life to the fullest with lyrics like, “you will die no doubt, but die while living” and “is your soul alive? then let it feed.”

Spoon River is very much an ensemble piece. The play unfolds through a series of vignettes, and the actors play multiple characters over the course of the performance, appearing as an individual figure only briefly for a short monologue, scene, or song. These short appearances and the lack of an overall arc for the characters or the show offer little opportunity for standout performances, and mean that the ensemble must cohere.

Although more than half the cast has changed since I saw the production two years ago, I thought performances from the new cast members were strong and worked towards a cohesive whole, with one exception. A rare standout from Spoon River‘s 2015 run for me and the friend I attended with was Colin Palangio as an arsonist (since none of the character names are provided in the programme, we referred to him as “pyro guy” until we could look up the actor’s name). This time around, I believe the role was played by Daniel Williston and I didn’t find his performance nearly as engaging or charismatic. Williston chooses to growl rather than belt his main song and on the night I attended this meant that his vocals were not strong enough to be heard over the orchestra.

On the other hand, Hailey Gillis remains a standout as Bertie Hume, the deceased young woman whose funeral the audience (passersby) is attending. In a floral dress with tears rolling down her cheeks, she is an ethereal presence with a distinctive voice as she sings a farewell to life. Gillis has the sort of presence that makes anyone watching want to see more of her, and I’m very glad that she’ll be leading the cast of new musical Onegin performed by The Musical Stage Company in May.

This was my second time seeing Spoon River and while I still enjoyed it and found the show unique, for me it lost some of its charm this time around. I think the format of the show both helps and hurts it. The eulogies and decision to have actors play multiple characters in shorter cameo appearances makes Spoon River distinct from other musicals, but without time to get to know the characters and their stories, it’s difficult to feel any deep attachment to them. Soulpepper is also primarily a play company and although they have a cast of actors who can sing, it’s sometimes evident that this is not a company full of singers.

Personally I tend to prefer musicals with strong storytelling, with characters who you connect with deeply, and with gorgeous music. Spoon River doesn’t tick those boxes for me, but I do know devotees of the show who have been to see it upwards of five times, so it’s a musical where your mileage may vary. I think it’s a show that should be experienced once for the unique premise and take on small-town history, but whether or not you’re engaged enough to revisit this sleepy graveyard town of secrets after that, is up to you.

Spoon River plays until April 21st, 2017 at the Young Centre for Performing Arts in the Distillery District. You can also catch it this summer at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.

Photo of the 2017 Spoon River Ensemble, by Cylla von Tiedemann