Books: Now I Rise

22817331Now I Rise by Kiersten White
Published June 27, 2017
Like the first book in the series, And I Darken, White’s novel is a gender-swapped YA re-imagining of Vlad the Impaler as a young woman named Lada Dracul. Determined to sit on the throne of Wallachia, which she believe to be her birthright, fierce Lada leads her men on a quest to win allies to her cause and reclaim the Wallachian throne. Her narrative is paralleled with that of her brother Radu, who is working as a spy inside Constantinople and reporting to the Sultan Mehmed.

It did take me a bit to get back into the world, but this is likely because I didn’t re-read And I Darken before diving into Now I Rise. Ultimately I found it the more engrossing book, one that takes the Dracul siblings on separate but parallel journeys. I loved the symmetry of a brother and sister with different strengths who are keenly aware of each other’s gifts and of their absence.

Both characters are utterly fascinating. Lada is fierce and often downright mean. Her methods, at least initially, involve force, but she begins to long for her brother’s skill at subtlety and politics as the road to the throne proves more difficult than she had expected. In contrast, while he feels guilt about his deception, Radu effectively uses subterfuge and skillful persuasion to help the Sultan bring about the fall of Constantinople. However, he often thinks of his sister and her more straightforward methods of obtaining the same result.

I enjoyed the first book in the series, And I Darken, giving it a solid four stars on goodreads, but I loved Now I Rise. Judging from others’ reviews, I’m not alone in this. I suspect this difference is because the first book introduces the world and two interesting and completely different protagonists, but Now I Rise sees Radu and Lada make choices based on what is important to them, be it power, religion, love, etc., and then feel the weight of the consequences. With each character there is a distinct sense that they have blood on their hands. These are people who have been forced to make terrible choices, and who must live with them, wondering if they have done the right thing. It’s a rough progression into adulthood, from which neither will emerge unscathed.

As someone who enjoys stories about difficult choices, and about situations where characters make decisions that are morally ambiguous, Now I Rise really appealed to me. Radu especially, but Lada as well, begin to see that things are not so simple as good and bad, and question whether the ends justify the means. Although it’s said in a different context, there’s a quote from my favourite series of books, The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, where a character gives the protagonist a piece of advice to “Speak as you would write: as if your words were letters of lead, graven there for all time, for which you must take the consequences. And take the consequences.” It’s that last line that has stuck with me over the years and I think it’s relevant here, where Lada and Radu find out the hard way the bittersweet cost attached to getting what they want and must live with it.

The minor characters in this book, on all sides, are wonderful. I loved the father-daughter relationship between Hunyadi and Lada, the friendship and feelings between Radu and Cyprian, and the support and love that Nazira (I could write paragraphs about my love for Nazira!) and Radu share. Of course there are also the complicated relationships that each Dracul sibling has with Mehmed, the Sultan.

Lada and Radu both change over the course of their journeys, becoming less naive about the way things work. By the end they are no longer content to be pawns who are used/manipulated by others. While I adore Lada, her unabashed ferocity and desire to go after what she wants, it is Radu who stole my heart. His journey is especially devastating to read about as he doubts himself and all that he is doing to people he has begun to care for. Now I Rise is that most wonderful of things, a sequel that improves upon its predecessor. I cannot wait to find out the fate of the Dracul siblings when book three in the Conqueror’s Saga is published next summer!

Books: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

292838841The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Published June 27, 2017
As a fan of musical theatre, the combination of a rakish, devious, but lovable main character named Monty, and the similarity of the title to that of one of my favourite musicals, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, meant that my first impulse was to burst into one of its song (Perhaps “It’s Better With A Man”?). Once I suppressed this urge though, I found a quick-paced YA historical fiction novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring issues of race and sexuality in 1700’s Europe.

Part of the appeal that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue held for me was the setting. I’m a sucker for a good hist fic book, but surprisingly there are still relatively few YA historical fiction books out there. Even more unusually, The Gentleman’s Guide is set in early eighteenth century Europe, not in one of the more popular time periods (such as the Renaissance, Victorian era, or the Regency). The story follows Henry “Monty” Montague, a young gentleman who enjoys gambling halls, alcohol, and trysts with both men and women. Monty is expected to settle down and take over his family’s estate, but first he gets to embark on a final hurrah, a Grand Tour of Europe. He’s accompanied by best friend, Percy, who he is secretly in love with, and his practical and bookish younger sister Felicity.  Monty’s light fingered approach soon turns the trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt though, and secrets are revealed on all fronts.

Monty is definitely a flawed character. Although he has dashing good looks, dimples, and is sometimes a quick thinker, he’s also impulsive, reckless, and an insatiable flirt who dulls the pain of his seemingly unrequited crush on Percy through alcohol. More than once Monty lands the travelling group in trouble because he hasn’t stopped and thought about his actions. Yet his ardor for Percy is real, and it’s this earnest emotion that makes Monty a character that we root for, despite his flaws.

Percy, on the other hand, is a hard character not to like. His heritage and identity as the ward of nobles, but also a biracial man in a time when slavery still existed, is deftly handled. My only complaint is that because Percy is so proper and has learned to act in accordance with social customs, because as a man of colour he can’t get away with Monty’s wild actions, we don’t get as much insight into Percy’s thoughts as I would have liked.

The great surprise was Felicity though. Barely mentioned in the summaries for this book, this lone central female character is an absolute delight. Monty’s capable younger sister longs to study medicine, can always be found with her nose in a book, and acts a bit as the Hermione of this trio, practical and collected in a crisis. I loved her slightly abrasive, but genuinely loving underneath sibling relationship with Monty and how she doesn’t shrink away from what needs to be done.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue does rely heavily on one of the oldest tropes in the book, miscommunication. However in this setting, where a man choosing to reveal his love for another man could not only result in the loss of a friend but also a fate at the end of a hangman’s noose, the miscommunication is effectively employed.

The story itself is a tremendous amount of fun. Once The Grand Tour goes off the rails, the resulting adventure involves robbery by highwaymen, imprisonment, pirates, poisoning, and more. Author Mackenzi Lee moves the action along at a brisk pace, but gives us quieter interludes where Percy and Monty can share a moment, or reflect on themselves. Remarkably, although the novel generally has a light tone, it discusses a wide range of serious issues that effect our characters, such as homophobia, abuse, racism, disability, and sexism with the appropriate consideration they deserve. The friendship between Percy and Monty is deep and affectionate, and it develops believably, although both characters have wounds past and present to overcome.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an enjoyable YA historical fiction read that uses its 1700’s setting to explore serious issues of race, disability, and homosexuality. I loved the relationship between Percy and Monty, and this book also features one of the best central trios I’ve ever encountered. I also loved the fact that the end includes detailed author’s notes that place the book into its historical context! Definitely recommended, especially as a fun summer read.

Stage: Toronto Fringe Festival Wrap-Up

Last month, the editor of My Entertainment World asked if I was interested in joining her staff to cover Toronto theatre, beginning with the Toronto Fringe Festival. I enthusiastically, but with some anxiety, said yes for a few reasons. As much as I love writing reviews here, and will continue to do so, I’m aware that most of my wonderful followers are not local and read my stage reviews out of curiosity or out of a (very flattering!) desire to know my opinion on a show, not because it’s something they’re considering attending. Writing for My Entertainment World offers a really cool opportunity to support Toronto theatre and ballet by sharing my honest opinions on what’s worth seeing to an audience who just may buy a ticket for the show. I had a wonderful time reviewing 11 shows for My Entertainment World this year at the Toronto Fringe Festival, an annual independent theatre festival featuring 160 shows in 12 days, and I’m looking forward to writing more for them in the future.

The opportunity to help cover the Fringe also brought with it some nerves . You see, I am a former Fringe virgin (well, almost virgin – I’d previously seen exactly one Fringe show The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) in 2013). The sad part is that I honestly don’t know why I never attended the Fringe Festival before. I follow enough theatre-related publications and social media accounts that despite not attending before, I generally knew which shows were the year’s standouts. I’d even talked about seeing a show since the festival’s “Best of Fringe”(not held this year due to restructuring at the usual venue) is in my neighbourhood. Sure enough, this year as I looked through the programme I noted several shows that I was interested in seeing!

In the end I attended 16 shows, 11 of which I reviewed for My Entertainment World. Interested in reading my reviews? You can check them out, including my feelings on one of my highlights of the Fringe, Grey, here.

The remaining 5 shows, I’ve reviewed below in order from least impressive to most impressive. Since I already have this nifty stars and half-stars system, I’ve recycled my star ratings for the plays and musicals I witnessed.

06-02-2017-163909-2413Everything There Is To Know
I enjoyed Everything There Is To Know, an original 90 minute musical by Aaron Jensen, more than you might guess from my 2.5 star rating, but I can’t justify giving it a higher rating than this when it needs so much work. To quote Meatloaf, ‘two out of three ain’t bad’ and that’s where this musical currently stands. I found the cast strong overall, especially Sheridan College graduate Quinn Dooley in the lead role of Sophie. Plucky and precocious, but with real moments of feeling, Dooley is believable as a preteen with an overactive imagination. Much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Sophie makes up stories and likely unconsciously casts her friends and family in the various animal roles. It’s a shame that the last note of the show didn’t seem to fit comfortably in Dooley’s range, although judging from a few stifled coughs following the show, it’s possible that the actress was sick. I also enjoyed Christopher Wilson as Dad/Buffalo, and while Sara Stahmer (Mom) was outmatched vocally by the score, she made up for it with an energetic performance. Most of the cast play multiple roles and threw themselves with abandon into each part, but it’s Karolina Kotus (Beatrice/Turkey) who steals the show as an intimidating camp counselor in a patter song that also shows off her ability to belt called “The Forest Is Not Your Friend”.

I generally liked the music, although at times it comes off a little Sondheim-lite. There are no obvious earworms here, but the score is enjoyable and the lyrics often witty. The lyrics did have some of the cast tripping over their diction, but I’m not sure if this is an indication that the tempo is too fast, or that they didn’t have enough rehearsal time.

Unfortunately this family-friendly musical loses all it has going for it with an awful book. It starts out strongly enough as a play about a girl whose parents are going through a rough patch. Former free spirit Mom leaves, Dad lies about it, and it seems to be about a girl who escapes into imagination and stories when her parents split up. Unfortunately, there’s a completely unnecessary, and so unclearly depicted that I didn’t even pick up on it, twist. Suddenly it’s about the end of the world. Honestly the way it’s currently scripted and staged, I thought the whole ‘the world is ending’ thing was one of Sophie’s nightmares right up until father and daughter were in a bunker! The passage of time is unclear, leading to questions such as ‘Why did Dad bother painting the kitchen when the world is ending?’, ‘Does Mom know the world is ending?’ ‘What happens to her?’, and even ‘It’s been long enough that he built a bunker in the backyard!?’ I know the story is supposed to be from Sophie’ perspective, but I don’t think that excuses this muddled writing and staging! It’s unfortunate because a more grounded approach that focuses on separation/divorce from the perspective of an imaginative child might have served the show better. I honestly do hope Everything There Is To Know goes somewhere. As it stands now though, it’s a bloated musical and the great cast and good music aren’t enough to redeem this muddled mess of a book.

a0d0f6_f45c6c03e2b74087af496caee9b498a7Confidential Musical Theatre Project
Waiting in line for the Confidential Musical Theatre Project (or CMTP) to open its doors, is a bit like waiting to be inducted into a cult. “This is my third Confidential,” said one man in line to an older woman, who replied that she had been to all of the Fringe Festival performances so far. Certainly after the 60 minute show ended I felt as though I had been brainwashed. ‘Maybe I should go to another performance,’ I found myself thinking. Perhaps the odds would be in my favour and I’d get Les Miserables, Company, or a show that I was more familiar with than the musical I’d just witnessed. After about ten minutes, happily ensconced in the nearby used bookstore, I returned to reality. I can understand the appeal of the Confidential Musical Theatre Project, which offers the guarantee that no two shows will be the same as well as the ability to be let in on a secret. It’s a strategy sure to incite repeat visits, but I wasn’t as thrilled with the output as I expected to be. The show I saw was good, not great. It was generally well sung and acted, but the performances (with one exception) weren’t stunning, and the show wasn’t as funny as I expected. Part of my meh response comes from the fact that the classic musical they performed is not one I’m very familiar with, or one that I particularly like. Ultimately I thought the rest of the audience got more out of it than I did. There was a general atmosphere of joy and willingness to laugh easily, which makes me suspect the audience was mostly made up of fellow actors and/or artists at the festival, who had a different perspective on how difficult it is to step into something after only an hour of group rehearsal. That said, I was very impressed by Jada Rifkin, our lead for the night, who was funny, charming, and unafraid to go all out, even when the risks didn’t always pay off. Rifkin alone was worth the price of admission. Would I go to another CMTP show? Possibly, but as much fun as the element of surprise is, I think I’d like to know what the musical is before committing.

e4e0a2a037Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party

Above all, Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party is a really good time. Set in The Monarch Tavern, cast members mingle with the audience before the show, snapping selfies and giving out birthday hats, while audience members play keep it alive with the dozens of yellow happy face balloons covering the floor. Although the pre-show talk and banter between songs is a little weak, the original pop songs, which range from a power ballad (sung beautifully by Erica Peck) to charming comic number “I’m a little bit Basic” (a hilarious Tess Barao), are catchy and well-sung by this talented cast. Throughout the show, Maddie’s friends provide insight into how reliable, kind, and smart the missing Birthday Girl is, but when Maddie finally arrives at her party (spoiler-alert!) she’s drunk and not nearly as put-together as she has always seemed. It’s a musical made with the millennial in mind and, as part of this oft-disappointed in the world generation, I was won over by Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party. The site-specific nature of the show does mean that sight lines are sometimes compromised, but not significantly enough to impact the experience, and the casual immersive atmosphere would be hard to duplicate in a more traditional venue.

Recall was the last of a four show evening for me, and with an 11 PM curtain on a day when I got up at 5 AM, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to stay awake. Fortunately Recall is such a clever and captivating show that all thoughts of my bed were banished for its 85 minute duration. Eliza Clark’s intelligent science-fiction dystopia Recall examines a world where children with sociopathic tendencies that have not yet manifested are hunted down by the government. The cast is terrific, with Kyla Young giving an unnerving performance (with an excellent dead-eyed stare!) as Lucy, and Warren Kang providing a sarcastic, yet vulnerable, presence as Lucy’s friend Quinn, who is also suspected of being abnormal. The standout though is Genevieve Adam as Justine. A few months ago I mentioned that one of the things I would like to see more of in fiction is mothers in SFF and with Justine my prayers were answered. Adam plays her as a spitfire, spunky and flirtatious, but also practical and tough when she needs to be. Her attempts to balance having some semblance of a life with keeping Lucy safe by dodging the authorities drives the story forward. Dialogue flies back and forth at a brisk pace throughout this script, which also finds moments for humour and affection despite the bleakly atmospheric world. As someone who loves fiction about morally grey characters and situations, and as an admirer of effective science-fiction, Recall spoke to me. It’s a clever play with charismatic performances and strong world building. It’s also completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I would gladly watch it again.

the2bseat2bnext2bto2bthe2bking2bbannerThe Seat Next To the King
The worry with a play like this, a play that received a coveted Fringe 5N review from Now Magazine’s Glenn Sumi and won the ‘Best New Play’ award before it had even premiered, isn’t that it won’t be good, it’s that it won’t live up to the hype. I attended the second last performance of The Seat Next To The King and for me it falls into the rare category of shows, along with the likes of Hamilton, that actually live up to the hype. The Seat Next To The King imagines a sexual encounter between a pair of men in a 1964 public washroom. One of the men is Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King’s right hand man. The other is Walter Jenkins, top aide to President Lyndon B Johnson. Playwright Steven Elliott Jackson’s script deftly explores themes of race, sexuality, and politics in 1960’s America, and it’s brought to vivid life through a perfect marriage between playwright, director, and actors.

The Seat Next To The King was easily the most professional show I saw at the Fringe Festival this year as well as the most affecting. Some of the credit for this clearly belongs to director Tanisha Taitt. What struck me most about her vision for this show is how well it uses transitions between scenes. Simple set pieces, such as a bathroom sink, are turned into a hotel bed by the two actors, but continuity is maintained through period-appropriate musical selection, and the actors remain in character, using the time to reveal more about their characters’ mindsets. I was fortunate enough to attend a talkback after the show with the cast and creative team, and it sounds like Taitt also deserves credit for her role in the casting process. The chemistry between Kwaku Okyere (Bayard Rustin) and Conor Ling (Walter Jenkins) is intense, and both actors, as well as the creative team, described the chemistry as “immediate” from the first read. I know that down the road there will likely be other productions of this play with other actors, and I imagine they will be very good, but it’s hard to imagine anyone fitting as well as Okyere and Ling do onstage. As wonderful as the script is, this two-man play wouldn’t work without a strong cast who are believable together. Between Okyere and Ling the atmosphere is charged. Bayard is charming and self-assured, while Walter is cautious and afraid of what he has to lose. Watching the initial cat and mouse game develop into something deeper and more meaningful is truly beautiful to watch. Like most reviewers who attended this show, I can only add my voice to the chorus of those hoping The Seat Next To The King will be picked up by a professional company and added to their season. It’s a gorgeous moving work that begs to be seen again.

Hope you enjoyed reading my (not at all concise) coverage of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Next up in August: a trip to New York City to take in some Broadway shows!

Books: All The Birds In The Sky

25372801All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Published January 26, 2016
All the Birds in the Sky is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Seeming to transcend genre, (the closest match I could come up with is magic realism speculative fiction) the book deals with serious themes of nature vs. technology and climate change, through two outsider pre-teen protagonists who just might grow-up to destroy, or save, the world. While some building blocks of the story will feel familiar (boy meets girl, they’re from completely different worlds, etc.), All the Birds in the Sky is a unique novel that offers a lot to admire, including a two-second time machine, a matchmaking AI, and a snarky parliament of birds.

Beginning in childhood, All the Birds in the Sky tells the story of Patricia Delfine, a witch who can talk to animals, and Laurence Armstead, a science and technology genius, who builds a two-second time machine in middle school and tries to perfect artificial intelligence in his bedroom closet.  Set apart by their odd “witchiness” and aptitude for technology respectively, they are bullied and ostracized by their peers, and misunderstood by their parents. This adversity makes wary allies and then genuine friends out of Patricia and Laurence, despite their very different world views. They reconnect as adults in San Francisco, but Patricia and Laurence are on opposite sides of a war between science and magic set against the eco-apocalypse, and the fate of the world depends on them both. Probably.

I really loved Patricia. In a less-talented author’s story, I could so easily see her being relegated to the manic pixie dream girl role, but fortunately for the reader, in All the Birds in the Sky she’s a flawed character who lives a life independent of her love interests. Working crappy server/waitress types of jobs during the day, by night she tries to make up for past mistakes by using her magic to discreetly help people, in ways that include easing an AIDS patient’s pain and ensuring an addict can never use again. Patricia’s greatest struggle is that her large heart and desire to help everyone leads her to close-calls with the magic-users’ principle of enforcing humility through warning against aggrandizement, the principle of thinking too highly of yourself or your powers. I also loved that in times of panic Patricia remains calm and thinks practically, but she still feels very deeply.

I wasn’t quite as connected to Laurence, who comes off a little ungrateful and demanding at times, but he mostly won me over. The secondary characters are well-rendered, each feeling distinct and interesting, and I liked that most of the characters are shades of grey rather than solely good or evil. The author also casually includes a non-binary character as one of Patricia’s friends, which is fabulous to see in SFF.

Aside from the characters, I also really enjoyed the science vs. magic/nature vs. technology theme of the novel. Patricia, who can talk to animals, and Laurence, an engineering genius, are set up respectively as the embodiment of nature and technology, but although these concepts seem to be opposites, it turns out there’s more common ground than initially expected. Without giving away too much, the overarching idea seems to be that things are better when humans communicate and work together than when we act without understanding, which I think is important.

The prose is generally simple but effective for the story Anders is telling, and she sprinkles humour throughout, not in a Pratchett or Douglas Adams way where humour is the predominant quality, but I definitely chuckled from time-to-time.

I do have a few complaints. The assassin subplot that runs through the first part of the novel in the presence of creepy Mr. Rose is abandoned without much in the way of follow-up. I also found the end of the world came on very suddenly. Admittedly I can see how this would be the case. Mentions and vague threats about the impact of climate change are there in the background of the novel, just as in the present day, so a quick escalation to disasters that threaten the planet makes sense, I just didn’t see it coming and felt a bit blindsided as All the Birds in the Sky built to its climax. Ultimately though, these are minor complaints in a short, unique novel that’s well worth your time.


Books: Too Like The Lightning

26114545Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer
Published May 10, 2016
When I updated my progress on goodreads to 80% of the way through this 432 page book I still didn’t know whether I was interested in continuing this series – not exactly a ringing endorsement. As it turns out, taking a step away from the book for an extended weekend (it was both too dense for me to read between plays at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and physically too heavy a hardcover for me to carry around when I was travelling between venues on foot) brought some much needed clarity. I didn’t miss Too Like The Lightning when I put it down. Not even a little. Much like the first volume of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (not the odious second volume), it’s the kind of book that is clever and will appeal very much to a certain type of person. That person just isn’t me.

The story is told through a framing device, with Mycroft Canner recording his version of events for a distant future reader, but in the style of an Eighteenth century account. Throughout the story he maintains a dialogue with the reader, imagining our reactions to certain narrative choices. Through Mycroft’s eyes we learn about the 25th century. On the surface, this world is a utopia, where people can use a vast network of cars to travel to different continents in a matter of hours, lifespans have reached 150 years, nation loyalties are no more and so there is world peace. Fear of organized religion, caused by religious violence, has led the world to outlaw the public practice of any kind of religion, yet there are mandated weekly one-on-one sessions with sensayers, a sort of spiritual counselor who present answers to spiritual questions from multiple belief systems. Gender distinctions have become distinctly taboo so most use the neutral pronouns thee and thou, and there is an extreme form of censorship that requires complex labeling of all public writing and speech. Oh, and there’s a boy who can bring inanimate objects to life which threatens the very stability of the world.

Palmer has created the ultimate unreliable narrator in Mycroft Canner, a convict who has been sentenced in the 25th century way (based on an idea from Sir Thomas More that was never actually implemented), to wander the earth, without home or property, serving at the command of any citizen who needs labour. Allusions to the severity of Mycroft’s crime are scattered throughout the text. For example, the name Mycroft is no longer one that people use, and Canner’s identity is kept a secret from all but a select group of citizens. It’s more than halfway through the book before the reader learns exactly what Mycroft did and, as our narrator would no doubt say, “Beware reader! it’s gory!”

Unsurprisingly, since she is a professor in the history department at the University of Chicago, Palmer’s first novel is heavily influenced by the eighteenth century Enlightenment period (especially the writings of Voltaire) and by humanist thought. It makes for a weighty philosophic read, but I thought the author’s ambitious emphasis on ideas hindered her plot development and her characters.

I had a number of issues with Too Like The Lightning. I found it slow moving, with more politicking than plot. I usually enjoy works that involve political intrigue, but I just didn’t find it very interesting here, perhaps because I didn’t have a strong connection to any of the characters, and therefore didn’t care which group came out on top. I liked the characters, I just didn’t fully connect with any of them and I don’t feel invested enough to continue the series and learn their fates. I was also disappointed that the story doesn’t stand alone very well. There are some books in a series where there are unfinished threads leading to the next volume of a series, but also a clear sense that a chapter of a larger story has finished. I didn’t get that with Too Like The Lightning.

For all this negativity, there are things I admired about the novel. It’s unique. I have never read anything like Too Like The Lightning before, and as much as I love the science-fiction and fantasy genre, it’s a rare thing to encounter a book that’s so completely different from anything that came before. The world building is also tremendous. To knock down the world we’ve known, one with gender distinctions, religion, and loyalty to nations, Palmer creates new systems of belonging for her 25th century setting.

Instead of nations there are seven supranational bodies called Hives, which people join based on their shared interests, rather than their place of birth, seemingly based on the idea that “what we choose means more than what is handed to us by chance.” Instead of families there is the bash’ system (derived from the Japanese “basho”) where individuals are born into a bash’ but often choose to leave and join or start a new bash’ in their twenties based on mutual interests and values.

The world is diverse, and the use of gender pronouns is unusual. The world claims to be a strictly gender neutral society where the usage of gendered pronouns is taboo, but Mycroft suggests that the world is not truly a gender neutral society, but just pretends to be gender neutral. He breaks this restriction on social custom often by including gendered pronouns in his narrative, and yet these correspond with his impression of how individuals fit his ideas of gender, not their biological sex. Cousins, the spiritual Hive of sensayers, are referred to with the feminine pronoun, even when they are biologically male, like Carlyle Foster, and the wolfish Dominic is given male pronouns by Mycroft despite being biologically female. I gather from the author’s answer to a question on goodreads that the intention is to make the reader feel uncomfortable and to present a world that has failed on the gender conversation, and given up too easily, but I don’t think this point comes across in the text.

All in all, Too Like The Lightning is a frustrating read. At its best it presents intriguing world building and visions of a possible future with a centrally controlled car system that makes traveling an ease. It also stimulates important thought about the place of gender, religion, and censorship in our world. However, it’s a confusing novel that’s sometimes downright incomprehensible, weighed down by its own ideas. Although I don’t think Too Like The Lightning succeeds in its ambitions, I can’t help but admire its creativity.

T5W: Books That Aren’t Set In The Western World

This week’s Top Five Wednesday is one that I have been looking forward to – Talk about books that are set outside of the Western World (so outside of North America and Western Europe) or if they are SFF, books that aren’t inspired by those places (so no medieval setting fantasy!)

Admittedly a lot of the fantasy, YA, and historical fiction I read is set in North America or Western Europe, but I’ve been making an an effort to read more diversely (and would love recommendations if there are books with diverse settings you think I should check out!) recently. In fact, some a few of the best books I’ve read this year are set outside of these places! For this week’s countdown, I’ve stuck to books that are very clearly inspired by or set in places outside of North America and Western Europe, not books that don’t seem to be inspired by anywhere in particular.

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

Pachinko1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Japan/South Korea)
Setting and history figure heavily into this multigenerational family saga, which takes place between 1910 and 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. It’s a beautifully written book that doesn’t 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. Knowing as little as I did about this time and place before I picked up Pachinko, the opportunity to learn about this period in history was part of the appeal for me. I was not disappointed. Lee has a wonderful ability to make history come alive on the page, and the details of a myriad of twentieth century Korean and Japanese settings are richly rendered in elegant but simple prose. What I really love about Pachinko though is how realistic its characters are. Although they make mistakes, most of them are hardworking people trying to make good, and it’s incredibly moving to be taken on a journey through their successes and failures. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction!

15q8eaf2. The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Russia)
Rarely am I hooked by a novel as quickly as I was by Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. This gorgeous debut, a medieval Russian folktale/fairytale about the winter king and a brave and wild maiden absolutely enchanted me. Arden writes with lyrical prose and uses imagery to richly recreate the world of medieval Russia with all of its magic. It’s a style of writing that appeals to the senses, and you can almost feel the residual warmth of the giant oven on which the family sleeps and the cold foreboding of the nearby woods as winter approaches. As someone who enjoys mythology and folktales, I love the way that she brings the spirits, from the meek domovoi and the steady vazila to the more mercurial rusalka, to life. Additionally, this book contains a new favourite character of mine in Vasya, a free-spirit who is happier riding a horse or playing in the forest than she is performing needlework. Watching her grow from an impulsive child to an honest, compassionate, and bold young woman, is a joy as a reader and I look forward to returning to medieval Rus’ and to Vasya’s story when the sequel arrives early next year!

5yghvd3. The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy inspired by Ancient Egypt)
As much as I loved The Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate, my favourite N.K. Jemisin books so far belong to this lesser known duology. Set in the desert city-state of Gujaareh, loosely based on Ancient Egypt, the plot deals with Gatherers, who are Priests of the dream-goddess. Gatherers maintain order in this peaceful city by harvesting the dreams of citizens, healing the injured, and guiding the dreamers into the afterlife… whether they’re ready to die or not. When Ehiru, the most famous of the city’s Gatherers, is sent to harvest the dreams of a diplomatic envoy, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to drag the dreaming city into war. Fantasy that is based on a non-Western setting is still uncommon, and I have an interest in mythology, so I loved this unique duology. If you’ve never read anything by Jemisin before, she’s one of the best worldbuilders around and writes beautifully, so this series is worth checking out.

251507984. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (China)
This was my first Lisa See novel and I cannot wait to read more of her books! The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of Li-yan, an Akha ethnic minority girl in Yunnan, China and her family, who align their lives around the farming of tea. The arrival of a stranger in a jeep (the first automobile anyone in the village has ever seen) it marks the entrance of the modern world into the lives of the Akha, and Li-yan begins to reject the superstitions and rules that have shaped her existence. Setting is a huge part of Lisa See’s work of historical fiction, and she describes the Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, with care and in rich detail. Again, this was a place and time in history that I knew nothing about before reading this book, but I found it an engaging read and I rooted for Li-yan through her joys and her hardships.

271906135. And I Darken by Kiersten White (The Ottoman Empire)
Set in the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey and beyond), this gender-swapped YA alternate history of Vlad the Impaler sees Lada Dragwlya and her younger brother Radu held as pawns by the Ottoman courts. While Radu begins to adapt to their new setting, Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Part of the appeal of this duology for me was the fact that I’d never seen anything quite like it before, including the setting. Sure enough, I enjoyed the first volume in this series and will be reading the second part later this month.

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any recommendations for me on books set outside the western world that I should read? Let me know in the comments!

Books: The Refrigerator Monologues

32714267The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, Illustrations by Annie Wu
Published June 6, 2017

With sharp and pointed prose, Catherynne Valente riffs on the fates of women in superhero comics in The Refrigerator Monologues. This short story collection tells the stories, in their own words, of the six women who make up the Hell Hath Club, a support group where deceased girlfriends, wives, and others killed because of their association with a comic book hero or anti-hero, meet to share their stories. Although this quick read is often not subtle in its critique of the way women in comics are written, the stories are compelling and Valente’s unique prose fits this concept to a T.

In some ways Valente’s prose reminds me of reading a Neil Gaiman book. Both authors are fountains of unique, imaginative, playful, and sometimes dark ideas, who come up with worlds and concepts so wildly inventive and full of colour that I can’t begin to imagine what being inside their brains must be like. I’d previously read a few books in Valente’s Fairyland series and while I enjoyed the unique turns of phrase and creativity in her world, it didn’t quite capture me emotionally. Despite its short length, I thought The Refrigerator Monologues was more successful at getting me to connect with its characters.

The title plays on “women in refrigerators” or “fridging”, the term that comics writer Gail Simone coined to sum up the common trope in which female comics characters meet tragic ends purely to advance the (straight, white) male hero’s story and character development. As a critique of this lazy writing, The Refrigerator Monologues is incredibly effective.

These women are often just as, if not more, capable as their hero boyfriends. There’s the scientist whose formula creates her boyfriend’s powers, the woman whose own powers grow to such heights that her hero friends view her as a threat and seek to cut her down, and yes, an actual woman in a refrigerator, gruesomely murdered to send a message to her newly powered boyfriend. The voices of all six women are full of rage and regret, and no small amount of bitterness (generally justifiably, although it does make some of the chapters run together rather than stand as distinct voices). They are women who never had the agency in life to be at the center of their stories, to have stories at all that didn’t revolve around the male hero, but here in Deadtown they finally have the chance to share their version of events.

Paige Embry, Julia Ash, Pauline Ketch, Blue Bayou, Daisy Green, and Samantha Dane. They all feel real, and they’re generally well differentiated from one another. Despite all being women in comics who met similar unjust ends, their backstories are very different. I gather from other reviewers that there are echoes of actual comics women here (notably Gwen Stacey and Karen Page) but I wasn’t familiar enough with the genre to pick out these references (except Harley Quinn – that one was obvious even to those who have never read a Batman or Harley Quinn comic in their lives!). Comics knowledge is an asset, but by no means a requirement to enjoy this book though. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre understands the frustration of watching female characters used only to further the male narrative.

I’m not usually one for short story collections, but with The Refrigerator Monologues Valente creates six compelling stories that are seamlessly joined together through brief interludes in Deadtown. The world of Deadtown itself is subtly, but well, drawn and the comic backstories of each character are well thought through. The author has obviously worked hard to construct believably superhero and villain names that are not already in use, and plots and side characters that you could see truly existing as fully fledged comics in their own right.

It’s not a perfect book, I found the Pauline Ketch character grating, and although the critique of the way comics women are written is important, it’s a little heavy-handed. Still, this collection is worthy of admiration. The other women are engaging, their tragic fates induced the appropriate bitterness and pathos in me, and the world-building is tremendous. The Refrigerator Monologues is an insightful and creative read that most will enjoy.

Bizarre Historical Events Book Tag

Hey guys! Last month I came across this fabulous history-inspired book tag created by A Book Without End and just knew I had to do it. I love history, I even debated doing my Master’s in it or getting a professional degree in Public History before settling on becoming a Librarian, so the history love runs deep. What better way to learn about both bizarre events in history and books than with this incredibly fun book tag?!

|Emperor Elagabalus drowning his court in flower petals. Literally.| Name a book villain who would totally do this.

elegyThis sounds like it would fit The Empath, the fabulously dramatic, beautiful, but ruthless antagonist of Vale Aida’s clever fantasy novel Elegy. The Empath has long red hair and a billowing red cape, and the author’s tag for her character on tumblr is #drama emperor dervain teraille, so this is right up his alley!

|When King Philip II of Macedon sent the Spartans a lengthy threat of what he’d do if they did not yield to him, and they answered with a sarcastic one-word response -“if”| What hero/heroes would most likely answer like this to a threat from the antagonist.

SixOfCrowsApparently I like my heroes and anti-heroes snarky, because two immediately popped into my head: Breq, the brusque former Justice of Toren ship from Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series and everyone’s favourite teenage criminal mastermind, Kaz Brekker of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. Breq does not care at all what others think of her (she’d also fit the Alexander Hamilton fighting the entire party one) and is in the process of taking revenge against the emperor of the galaxy Annander Minnai herself, so I can’t imagine her being scared off by a lengthy threat. Kaz Brekker is just clever enough to call a bluff and to follow through on a crazy heist plan that can’ be done. He’s definitely the type to reply in this fashion!

|When Australia declared war on the Emus, and lost| A book that did not end up like you expected (in the terms of the plot).

22752127I didn’t really know what to expect from The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner and I spent the first half thinking, ‘okay it’s good but I don’t think it’s 4.26 stars on goodreads good!’ and then the last third of the book hit me like a train. I totally didn’t see where the book was going and I found it to be moving, well-written, and an excellent portrayal of depression. It’s definitely a book that’s somewhat inconsistent and rough around the edges, but it does all come together in that poignant last third of the book.

|Lichtenstein sending its army of 80 men to attack Italy and coming back with 81| A book you thought would be bad but actually ended up really liking.

23943137I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho when I first started reading it and for the first sixty pages I thought it would be simply a poor imitation of one of my favourite books, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But as I kept reading I found that yes, certainly there are similarities. Both are books about magic and magicians set in regency England. But I was quite charmed by Sorcerer of the Crown, which is ultimately lighter and fluffier, but also more diverse (both protagonists are PoCs, one a woman and the other a freed slave). Additionally, its diversity allows the author to comment on prejudice at the time.

|Alexander Hamilton challenging the entire democratic-republican party to a duel| A character who would totally do this.

112077I guess there are a few ways to take this, either a character who is all out of fucks to give and doesn’t care what others think of them, in which case Breq from Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword fits (that’s actually kind of the plot of the book – the world going but that’s not how it’s done! and Breq shrugging and carrying on), or an impulsive and stubborn character issuing a foolish challenge. The second meaning is definitely Will Scott in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings. He blunders right in, especially early in the book, without listening to advice and it’s endearing but also makes me want to facepalm. Oh Marigold.

|The Chinese setting monkeys on fire and launching them at British ships|  A book based on a great idea/concept

26409580Sure these days the YA dystopia is a genre in and of itself, but even within the genre there’s room for innovation and that’s what I found in Erin Bow’s The Scorpio Rules and The Swan Riders. The duology is set in a world where wars over water are common, but an artificial intelligence called Tallis has taken over and has an unusual way of keeping the peace. Tallis has taken a hostage from every world leader – their child heirs – and if any government declares war, their hostage’s life is forfeit.

|Emperor Caligula calling for an assembly just to tell everyone he could kill them all| A villain who just loves to gloat

6The first villain who comes to mind is actually Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Voldemort seems to love gloating over Harry, doing so in Goblet of Fire and waiting for his followers to arrive to kill Harry, and again in the final book when he believes that Harry has been defeated. Villains who gloat before they’ve actually done the deed really need to take a page from Adrian Veidt’s book…

|An old civilian woman aiding in the killing of their besieger King Pyrrhus by throwing a tile at him|
 A minor character you can totally imagine helping the heroes like this)
17378508I had trouble coming up with a minor character at first but then it hit me, Calla from The Raven Cycle quartet. I can definitely see bold Calla throwing a tile (or more) at someone who deserved it.

|When the US sent tanks, Special Forces, Tae Kwon Do experts, soldiers with M-16s grenade launchers etc., all just to cut down one tree| A book you really don’t understand all the hype around it.

22544764I never understood the buzz about Uprooted by Naomi Novak. I read it last year after it had been nominated for just about every major fantasy award, and assumed I would therefore love it and I just didn’t. I didn’t really like any of the main characters, I would have been more interested if Agnieszka’s love interest had been her pretty best friend from childhood instead of the (frankly) quite boring and rude Dragon, and I didn’t find it twisted fairytales or was enough of a unique spin on one to keep me interested.

|That one time in Prague when a Protestant threw a Catholic out of a window, only to have him survive by landing in horse shit which resulted in a large war| Favorite rivalry in a book (series)

JonathanStrangeMy favourite rivalry is not always antagonistic. In fact, it starts out as a teacher-trainee relationship, and develops into a partnership of equals, but quickly dissolves as the two magicians find that they have completely different methods and approaches towards performing magic. I’m talking, of course, of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I love the odd couple vibe of young, daring Strange and reclusive prickly old Norrell and the dependency of their relationship as the only two practicing magicians in England.

|That one time a bucket started a war| A book whose sole existence makes you question humanity (and the publishing industry). 

15839976How could I say anything else but Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy? I want to scream at the top of my lungs about how much I don’t understand the appeal of this series, especially given how blatantly misogynistic the books are. The female characters (which there are few of to begin with) are all there to be treated as sexual objects or love interests only. There are gratuitous rape scenes. There is the fact that the male protagonist’s wife is killed off in the first forty pages of the book purely to further the male character’s story and to give him man pain. The worldbuilding is shoddy at best, a strange hybrid of The Hunger Games, random Greek/Roman mythology, and a bizzare colour system. The protagonist himself is not at all likable, despite being a Gary Stu, and in general the book reads like a Michael Bay movie. Save yourself. Do not read this book!

|Julius Caesar being taken hostage by pirates, only to be angry at the low amount of money they demanded and made them demand even more money for his freedom| Some character who would definitely act like this if taken as hostage.

22637358I’m pretty sure this is Felix from Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series. When he’s in his right mind (so not half of the first book) Felix is an incredibly flawed protagonist. He’s vain in appearance, has a damaging view of himself as better than everyone around him (while secretly harboring the inner belief that his humble origins actually make him worth less than others), and he speaks in a deliberate upper class accent. I can definitely see Felix being offended at being offered for a low price.

|The Mexican president who was in office for only about 45 minutes| A character you just feel sorry for.

alittlelifeIf you don’t feel badly for Jude St. Francis in A Little Life, there’s probably something wrong with you. After surviving a truly horrific past of physical and sexual abuse when he was a child, Jude is physically and emotionally scarred. However he carries on, becoming a top-notch lawyer, and associating with a group of friends who respect and care for him. A Little Life is a bit of a reverse fairy tale though, or at least one of the oldet fairy tales without the Disney happy ending, where everything that can go badly does. For every good thing that Jude has in his life, something awful balances it out, and he can never fully escape his past, even when he is surrounded by people who love him.

|The General whose last words, before getting shot under the left eye, were “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”| Which character would most likely meet their end this way.

30319086I took this as a character who is so completely oblivious about what’s right in front of them and my answer is Oliver from If We Were Villains. I was going to say he’s the most oblivious character I’ve ever encountered, but Jerott in The Lymond Chronicles gives him a run for his money. I could see both of them being unaware enough of the world around them to get taken down like this.

I’m not going to tag anyone in particular, but this is a REALLY fun and unique book tag to do, so I highly encourage anyone who is interested to fill this out, pingback to Ella who created it, and feel free to consider yourself tagged and pingback to me too – I’d love to read your answers!