Books: Our Dark Duet

32075662Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab
Published June 13, 2017
star-3-half
Set roughly six months after the events of This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab returns to the world of Verity, a place where violent acts breed actual monsters, with Our Dark Duet. In order to step up and take on a leadership role in the FTF, an organisation that aims to keeps the city safe from monsters, August Flynn has repressed the humanity he yearns for and embraced his nature as a sunai monster who can steal ‘bad’ souls with a song. But when Kate Harker, a gifted monster hunter now living in nearby Prosperity, is threatened by a new and terrifying monster that can turn its victims against one another, she realizes she can’t outrun her past. Will her return to Verity be enough to fight back the monsters, including one of her own making? And will August let her back in? Our Dark Duet is a bittersweet ending to an interesting duology about humanity, monsters, and the gray area in-between them.

Schwab seems to delight in subverting gender expectations in her work, a choice that I wholeheartedly applaud. As in her Shades of Magic series, the Monsters of Verity duology gives us an impulsive and independent female protagonist (Kate) who feels most at home with a weapon in her hand, and a more brooding and careful male counterpart (August).

Both of the main characters held my focus, and I enjoyed reading about the changes they had undergone since This Savage Song, but I also really missed the interaction between Kate and August, which doesn’t occur until mid-way through Our Dark Duet. Oddly enough, when the same author places Lila Bard and Kell Maresh on separate journeys for a good chunk of A Gathering of Shadows, she pulls it off brilliantly! So why doesn’t it work as well here? I think part of the reason is the supporting cast.

The Shades of Magic series features minor and side characters, both in Red London and on the pirate ship Lila joins the crew of, who were all fully fleshed out and interesting in their own right. To be honest, I found Kate’s crew of allies in Prosperity all a little one-dimensional. August fares better in Verity, with his family and an engaging villain to support his arc, but even still, few of the supporting players match the heights of Rhy, Holland, or Alucard. The exception continues to be August’s sister Isla, who is a delight! Although voiceless, she gets across more with a touch, a glance, or an action than many characters do with the full range of motion and ability to speak. I also really enjoyed the introduction of the genderless, down-to-business, sunai Soro and vicious Malchai Alice.

Admittedly I tend to like characters more when they agonize over their feelings, even when they don’t show this on the outside, than when they shove them down and repress emotions in the course of duty, so it took me a bit to warm up to August this time around. It’s the presence of characters like Isla, who in her quiet and gentle way disapproves of August’s choice to embrace his monster duty, Kate who straight out asks August what he’s playing at, and feline companion Allegro, who abandons August’s company as he reaps souls, who humanize August again. Once the cracks in her armor begin to show and he wonders if he’s doing the right thing, he becomes (at least to me) a much more engaging character.

Victoria Schwab has a gift for maintaining tension throughout her books, and this is no exception. Several subplots are deftly balanced, from August’s struggle with his own nature and role to Kate’s battle of wills with the chaos eater invading her mind. Full disclosure, I didn’t think to re-read before embarking on Our Dark Duet and it definitely made the beginning harder to follow as I tried to remember where This Savage Song left off! Although the first-half is slow going, once the novel kicks into gear in the second half it’s an engaging and fast-paced ride.

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T5W: Favourite Bromances

It’s been a few weeks since I did one of these, but how could I resist sharing some of my favourite literary bromances?! This week’s topic focuses on Favourite Bromances, defined here as a ‘platonic relationship between two characters who identify as male’.

My personal take on bromance has always been really close, through thick-and-thin male friendships, so I’ve stuck to close friendships, rather than just my favourite platonic relationships between men. For example, I adore everything about the dynamic between Richard and Francis Crawford in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicles, but it’s not always a close relationship so they don’t make the cut here!

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

TheDreamThieves1. Gansey and Adam Parrish/Gansey and Ronan Lynch
(The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater)
One of the things I love most about The Raven Cycle is that the platonic relationships are depicted as being equal in importance to the romantic relationships that develop over the course of the series. In fact, Stiefvater said that while writing the book she had a post-it note on her computer that said, “Remember that the worst thing that can happen is that they can stop being friends.” As someone who has no interest in being in a romantic or sexual relationship, it means so much to me that all of the friendships in The Raven Cycle are depicted so well and that they are placed on equal footing as romantic love. Even though there are ships in this book, including one that is among my favourite fictional romantic relationships of all-time, I also adore the friendships between characters and especially the ‘bromances’ that Gansey has with Adam Parrish and with Ronan Lynch. Despite their differences in social class and upbringing, Gansey obviously thinks the world of Adam Parrish, and although he experiences some understandable envy, Adam cares so much about Gansey. Both Gansey and Ronan have siblings of their own, but their relationship with one another is so close that they seem to consider each other brothers. I love that platonic relationships in general, but especially the bromances between these characters, are so important throughout The Raven Cycle.

‘While I’m gone’, Gansey said, pausing, ‘dream me the world. Something new for every night.’

5290152. Frodo and Sam/Merry and Pippin
(The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)
I’m pretty sure you could fill an entire Top 5 with just bromances from Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, but I’ve stuck to (cheating slightly) just two between my beloved hobbits. Sam and Frodo are definitely the kind of friends who stay by each other’s side (quite literally!) until the end. When the Ring has Frodo in its grasp, Sam is there to give him the strength he needs to carry it forward. It’s a beautiful friendship inspired, I remember being taught in an undergrad course, by the WWI soldier relationship between a private and a batman (A batman, was a soldier who was required to fight but who was also tasked with looking after an officer’s kit, cooking, and cleaning – Downton Abbey fans may recall the connection between Lord Grantham and Mr. Bates). Although perhaps not put through the same intense testing as Frodo and Sam’s connection, I also love the bromance between hobbits Merry and his cousin Pippin. Nearly inseparable, their paths are forced to diverge and they swear fealty to different lords, but remain the best of friends.

‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get!…. Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.’

AConjuringOfLight3. Kell and Rhy Maresh
(The Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab)
I think that what I love most about Kell and Rhy’s relationship is how well these brothers complement one another. Kell is often serious, restrained, and worrying about something, while Rhy is jovial and flirtatious. They couldn’t be more different and yet they would do absolutely anything for one another, to the point where Kell literally binds their lives together in order to save his brother. Although Kell feels like an outsider when it comes to the royal family and his adopted parents, he has always considered Rhy his brother.

Kell smiled. It was a rare thing, and Rhy wanted to hold fast to it—he was the only one who could make his brother smile, and he wore it like a badge.

14kiizd4. Prince Aleksander and Seyonne
(The Rai-Kirah Trilogy by Carol Berg)
This is one of those tropey (but somehow still really fun to read?!) cases of enemies who become reluctant allies and ultimately close friends. Many of Seyonne’s people, who have been waging a secret war against demonkind, were enslaved by the invading Derzhi people. After 16 years as a slave, he is purchased by the heir to the Derzhi Empire, Aleksander. Naturally at first they despise one another, but Seyonne sees a spark of greatness in Aleksander and as he sets about trying to save him from a powerful demon that is pursuing the heir, they become fast friends. The friendship is developed slowly enough that it’s believable and feels true. Although the rest of the trilogy unfortunately never quite lives up to the promise of the first book, I do love this friendship, a true bromance of two men who may disagree on issues but don’t love each other any less for their differences of opinion.

‘Grandfather was right, wasn’t he? This is not just about your oath anymore, not about saving the world from demon chaos. This is about Aleksander.’
‘I would give my life for him – a stubborn, arrogant, murderous Derzhi. I think I’ve lost my mind.’
‘You sound just as he did, cursing you for an insolent barbarian…just before he went dashing off to Avenkhar to find you.’

242805. Les Amis (especially Enjolras and Combeferre and Courfeyrac)
(Les Miserables by Victor Hugo)
As much as I love Les Miserables, both the book and the musical, I have sometimes felt that the fandom tends to get a little hung up on les amis, the revolutionary students fighting on the barricades, to the detriment of the other characters. For a topic like this week’s T5W though ‘The Friends of the ABC’ fit perfectly. Introduced in a chapter titled, “A Group That Almost Became Historic” are Enjolras, a charming young man capable of being terrible who represents the logic of the Revolution, Combeferre, who “completed and corrected Enjolras” and represents the philosophy of the Revolution, and Courfeyrac, full of youthful animation. I love this trio and how different they are, yet how well they fit as a team and build on each other’s strengths. Whenever I’m seeing a musical adaptation of the book I can’t help but keep an eye out for a strong central trio of amis thanks to the descriptions and interactions of this trio in The Brick (as the unabridged Les Mis is affectionately known).

‘Enjolras was the chief, Combeferre was the guide, Courfeyrac was the center. The others gave more light, he gave more heat; the truth is that he had all the qualities of acenter – roundness and radiance.’

That’s it for my, somewhat eclectic, list of favourite literary bromances. Have you read any of these? Who are your favourite bromances? Let me know in the comments!

Stage: Hamlet

Hamlet

Hamlet at The Public Theater in New York City has the odd distinction of being the funniest production of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy I have ever seen. Certainly Shakespeare’s work is often humorous, but with the possible exception of Polonius, the morose Dane isn’t usually a great source of comedy. Directed by Sam Gold, this production throws all that out the window to deliver a Hamlet that is comic, contemporary, and delivered in a way that feels accessible for Shakespeare fans and those less familiar with the Bard’s work alike.

Hamlet at the Public Theater is also the most #aesthetic performance I’ve seen of this play. A table covered with fresh cut flowers sets the scene, but the lighting choices as well, particularly in the ghost scenes, have a beauty all their own. The set is spare, consisting mainly of a metal table and chairs and a few props on a red carpeted stage, but it’s used effectively. Actors who are not actively involved in a scene often sit just off stage, but visible, on a carpeted stair at the back of the set. A just off-stage washroom, visible to the audience, is also used to great effect.

It’s a distinctly contemporary version of Hamlet. The actors wear modern-day dress, including Polonius in a business suit and Hamlet alternately in a hoodie or in a cozy sweater and a pair of briefs, the poison is delivered using a syringe, and lasagna features prominently in one scene. Yes, there is a lasagna splash zone! This has its pluses and minuses. The costuming isn’t particularly original, and the play removes some of the broader context of Hamlet, such as Fortinbras and the European political situation of the day, but the contemporary setting does lend itself better to physical comedy and it feels like a very accessible version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

I’d be lying if I said the chance to see Oscar Isaac live on stage wasn’t the impetus for my most recent trip to New York City. First introduced to Mr. Isaac’s work through the most recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, I began working my way through his filmography (more of a feat than it sounds because I’m generally more of a TV viewer than a moviegoer). I marveled at his on-screen charisma and admired his ability to transform into completely different roles with conviction. When the news that he would be taking on the Dane in New York City broke, a friend and I quickly hatched vacation plans, egged on further by the knowledge that the new season of Broadway musicals featured exciting shows like Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 that we both wanted to see.

So, after all of this build-up how was Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet? His performance is every bit as good as expected. Isaac appears comfortable and at ease on stage, his charisma radiating throughout the theatre. His Hamlet is animated, seeing to teeter on the edge of madness throughout the play, and Isaac is adept at balancing low comedy (as he plays mad, Isaac’s Hamlet quite literally spends much of the play without pants) with soliloquies that are heartfelt and imbue the well-known text with meaning. He engages directly with the audience and is fully committed to a very physical performance that must be exhausting to perform each night.

The other standout of the evening was undoubtedly comedian Keegan Michael Key. Even before the performance began Key brought the laughs, giving a pre-show speech where he asked the audience not to plug-in their cellphones to a socket at the back of the stage during intermission. “You would think I wouldn’t have to say this,” Key said, “but it happened last night.” Personally, having skipped dinner before the nearly four hour show due to train delays back from Coney Island, by intermission the tray of lasagna still on stage was looking more interesting than the socket!

Keegan Michael Key’s portrayal of Horatio, much like this production of the play itself, relies heavily on physical comedy but it’s extremely effective at doing so. Key’s depiction of the murder of Gonzago in the play within a play scene not only had the audience laughing uproariously but also had his cast-mates struggling to keep straight faces! The rest of the cast is generally strong, especially Peter Friedman (Polonius) and Ritchie Coster (Claudius). Gayle Rankin certainly provides a unique take on Ophelia, as an angry, sarcastic young woman who doesn’t seem to have much of a connection with Hamlet at all, but I’m not certain it worked for me.

This production of Hamlet also acts as an effective ad for Dyson or other industrial cleaning products. By the end of the night the red carpeted stage is such a mess of fresh cut flowers, lasagna, and mud that I don’t envy the cleaning staff!

All in all, it’s a very good production of a play that, full disclosure, has never been a favourite of mine, but I think Hamlet at the Public would have benefited from a more cohesive vision overall. Running four hours, it also begins to feel a little long. Oscar Isaac’s performance would be worth the price of a ticket on its own though and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see his energetic and charismatic take on the Dane live.

Hamlet plays until September 3rd at the Anspacher Theater of The Public Theater in New York City.

Books: Ancillary Mercy

23533039Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
Published October 6, 2015
star-4
The final volume in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy left me conflicted, and it took reading a selection of other reviews on goodreads to put my finger on why that was. It’s not that Ancillary Mercy is a bad book – it isn’t, I genuinely enjoyed the novel and gave it a solid 4 stars – it’s just not what I expected from the last book in a series. Initially I thought Breq and her crew’s part in things wrapped up too conveniently and easily, while the epic scale of the conflict promised in the first novel is largely left alone. After some reflection though, I think the ending fits, even though it’s not the one I expected. Ultimately the Imperial Radch trilogy isn’t a Lord of the Rings-esque epic about the battle between good and evil or a dystopia that seeks to overhaul an entire world order, it’s about one individual AI’s part in it all and her journey to becoming a person.

Let me backtrack a little. The first book in the series, Ancillary Justice, set up this galactic empire ruled by the Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch. Possessing multiple bodies, which share a single consciousness, Anaander Mianaii can be in many places at once, allowing her to govern the entirety of the sprawling Radch Empire. Enter Breq, the last remaining fragment of the Radch starship Justice of Toren’s consciousness. She is the only surviving ancillary (AI-controlled corpse soldier) after the ship’s destruction and has vowed revenge on The Lord of the Radch. Ancillary Justice is a fast-paced adventure and Leckie throws the reader in headfirst with limited time to adjust to a world unique from our own (among other things, the default pronouns are female gendered).

After establishing this vast empire and a grudge spanning decades, Leckie’s second book, Ancillary Sword, did the exact opposite of what I expected. Instead of escalating the conflict and placing Breq, now Fleet Captain and with allies in her quest for revenge, squarely in the center of it, Leckie takes a deliberate step backwards, narrowing the focus to a single world. It’s a book about injustice in a much smaller arena, and about characters and relationships. The choice gives Leckie’s plot a change to breathe, and allows her characters to grow and develop.

As much as I loved Ancillary Sword‘s narrower focus, I thought the epic scope of the trilogy would continue with Ancillary Mercy. I really expected to be thrust back into the galactic conflict set up in the first book of the series. Instead, the final part of the trilogy remains focused on a single world, a single part of space, and a defined set of largely already existing characters. It was enough to make me wonder if Leckie had changed her vision of what she wanted for the series halfway through! After some reflection though, I believe Ancillary Mercy‘s strength lies in how well it develops all of its characters and in how it finds the humanity in non-human characters.

Certainly the debate about the ethics of artificial intelligence is not new. Whether AI appears in the form of ships, androids, or something else entirely, science-fiction has long pondered whether AI’s can ever be human, and discussed the morality of whether artificially intelligent beings are property or should have autonomy. The Imperial Radch trilogy, with its AI-formerly the starship Justice of Toren-protagonist is a masterclass in introducing this theme organically and in a subtle way. From the first book, the ties that a Ship can feel to its crew and its ability to have Favourites is underestimated by humans. By Ancillary Mercy there are conversations where Breq and Sphene, another fragment of consciousness from a starship, discuss how they are addressed by the members of their crew and if it would bother them to be referred to as ‘it’. There is a disabled Breq reflecting as she receives medical attention that if she were still just an ancillary, she would have been cast aside. And there is Breq becoming more human, learning to rely less on her ancillary implants and Ship to tell her what the crew is feeling at any given moment.

These instances of character development are not limited to the book’s AI characters. There are quiet moments like Lieutenant Tisarwat’s struggle to shape an identity for herself between the powerful Lord of the Radch who has been inside her head and the flighty young lieutenant she once was, when she discusses changing her eye-colour to something more conventional. Then there’s Seivarden, whose social interactions are shaped by her past addiction and her former aristocratic social status. She apologizes at first to her lover without understanding what she said that caused such offense, and then realizes that even if she can’t understand why something was so offensive, the point is that she hurt someone she cared about and that should have been enough to cause a change in behaviour.

And yes, there’s some comic relief in the form of Translator Zeiat, a Presger visitor who takes great joy in drinking fish sauce by the bowl, but serves a purpose in the end.

Ancillary Mercy in this way fits into the category of some of my favourite sci-fi, that which is driven by characters and their self-development and their interactions with one another, as much as it is by plot and machinations (see Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga for another great example of this type of science-fiction).

If you go into this book expecting a larger resolution to the galactic conflicts, you will undoubtedly be disappointed. Ancillary Mercy ignores many of these larger issues and problems with the world introduced at the beginning of the series, but if you’ve come to love Breq and her crew as characters and want their story, you won’t be disappointed. Ultimately it’s an ending that takes time to settle in the mind, but once I thought about it, I appreciated Ancillary Mercy all the more. Like life, things are left unfinished and there is a sense that the world will carry on, and that the characters will continue to develop and grow. Perhaps in a two steps forward, one step back kind of way, but still in the right direction.

Stage: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney

In 2014, Tooting Arts Club staged a production of Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s – London’s oldest working pie and mash shop. The immersive experience allowed audience members to arrive early and have their very own pie and mash before the show. This Off-Broadway transfer at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City uses a replica of the original pie-shop, and keeps up the pre-show tradition, employing former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses as its official pie maker. No, sadly I didn’t opt for a pre-show pie, but the atmosphere remains unique and this is an excellent production of Sondheim’s operatic masterpiece about a barber intent on seeking revenge against The Judge who had him transported as a convict on false charges, and who seduced and raped his wife, and is raising his daughter as his ward.

I have to start by raving about Carolee Carmello because wow, what a performance! As Mrs. Lovett she displays excellent comic timing, and is both appropriately pragmatic, and sympathetic. I think there’s often a tendency for actresses playing the role to air on the side of comedy, singing in a harsh or less pleasant manner. Carmello finds just the right balance, singing the role every bit as well as she acts it. Her exchange with Lewis’ Sweeney Todd in “A Little Priest” (“good you got it”) is absolutely hilarious, and her Mrs. Lovett is fully alive and energetic without ever being over-the-top.

Norm Lewis is undoubtedly the best-sung Sweeney Todd I’ve ever heard. His baritone fits the operatic style of Sondheim’s masterpiece to a tee, but unfortunately his acting is less impressive.  His Sweeney seems to vacillate between two extremes, becoming either a stone-faced expressionless man or one who shouts in uncontrolled fury. Its an approach that renders the character less sympathetic and less deserving of pity than he should be by the end of the play, and I sorely missed the nuance in Lewis’ performance. I was also disappointed by Norm Lewis’ take on “Epiphany”, a pivotal soliloquy for the character, which he decided to shout. The choice completely baffled me because it meant there was no use of dynamics, no building to a climactic moment, just a furious one-note yelling throughout.

Slight side rant here to say that whether it’s an actor’s choice based on what he’s seen done before or a decision in directing, I don’t understand this choice to play a big song for an anti-hero or antagonist character as straight anger! Unfortunately it’s something I’ve seen more than once with Javert’s Soliloquy in Les Miserables, and both in Les Mis and in Sweeney Todd it has the effect of robbing the audience of the natural pity and emotion they should be feeling for the character. In Norm Lewis’ case, it’s all the more frustrating because he has such a fine baritone that a sung-through take on the song would undoubtedly be impressive, and help with some of the acting issues I had with his performance.

Norm Lewis was the only thing in this fabulous Off-Broadway production that I was not wild about though. Alex Finke, who I loved in Les Miserables last year, is the kind of actress who can make even a somewhat shallowly written character, like ingenue Johanna, feel three-dimensional. Spirited and beautifully sung with a clear soprano, Finke’s Johanna was one I rooted for. More than any other actress I’ve seen perform this role, she portrays the fear and despair Johanna feels at being trapped in her situation.

It helps that Finke has such an able partner in Matt Doyle’s youthful and likable Anthony. Their chemistry is strong enough to overcome the slightly ridiculous idea of two people falling in love through a window, and I believed in their connection. Jamie Jackson was another standout as Judge Turpin, superb in voice and acting ability, and suitably creepy. An interesting choice is made to cast Pirelli as a woman, and in this case it works well.

The replica pie-shop set is small, but the staging is thoughtful, using both levels of the theatre, the shop’s counter area, a staircase, and the long bench seated tables where audience members sit to tell the tale. This space is used to the fullest, most ingeniously when the intermission is (politely) kicked out of their seats to the lobby during intermission so that the crew can make over Mrs. Lovett’s original rundown establishment into the spruced up, more popular pie shop it becomes as soon as a more abundant pie filling is decided upon by Lovett and Todd. Audience interaction is a factor here if you’re sitting on the main level, but it’s done in a way that’s entertaining, rather than over-the-top or unnecessary.

Sitting in the balcony seats on the upper level (all that was left when we purchased tickets) meant that I felt a little removed from the action, but the seats do offer an excellent view of the stage in the small Barrow Street Theatre. A note on the seats though: the balcony seats, at least for a woman of average height, are undoubtedly THE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE seats I have ever sat in for a show. Both me and the two women I saw the show with were not able to touch the ground from the high bench-seating, which forced us to brace our feet either on the bar under our seats or on part of the balcony railing in front of us, not exactly a comfortable way to see a show! I would go back and see this production again in a heartbeat if it were in a different theatre, but the seating experience was so painful that I’d think twice about returning to the pie-shop balcony. I have no idea whether the floor seats are more comfortable or not, but for those audience members who are short or who have disability issues, I can’t recommend sitting in the upper level.

The actors are accompanied by a three-piece on-stage orchestra, and vocally there is not a weak link among the cast. This makes Sondheim’s operatic score a treat to listen to. I’m sorry to have missed Jeremy Secomb, who originated the role of Sweeney Todd in this production and in the original London Tooting Arts Club show, but it’s still a strong production worth seeing… just beware of those balcony seats!

Sweeney Todd is booking into 2018 Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City.

The Sunshine Blogger Award x2

I’ve been running a little behind with tags and awards lately, but I’m going to try and catch up over the next month or so (especially once I’m into reading War and Peace in September and there will be fewer book reviews)! Recently I was nominated by two bloggers I love following, Rachel @ pace, amore, libri and Dani @ Perspective of a Writer, for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Thank you both so much for the award and if you don’t already follow Rachel or Dani, definitely check them out!

sunshine_blogger_award-1024x1024

The Rules

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link back to their blog.
  2. Answer the 11 questions your nominator has given you.
  3. Nominate 11 other people and give them 11 new questions to answer.
  4. List the rules and display the award.

Rachel’s Questions:

1. What’s the last movie you saw and what did you think of it?
It’s very telling of how rarely I watch movies that I’m having trouble remembering what the last movie I watched was. I’m pretty sure it was actually The Prince of Egypt on Netflix though (how appropriate a response to a Rachel question!) because I’d had a stressful week and really needed something animated but I’d watched my usual animated favs that I own (Tangled and Ratatouille) recently but wanted something good that I could lose myself in for a bit. I love The Prince of Egypt, its an excellent film and the music is SO good, how is this not already a musical?

Do you have any weird or random talents?
I really don’t! My ability to predict casts and who will be cast in which part in National Ballet of Canada productions is improving thanks to my obsession with the company, but it’s a talent in progress. Otherwise it’s mostly just things like knowing all the words to Les Mis!

What’s your favorite song at the moment?
I’ve been listening to the cast recording of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 a lot recently, so probably something from there. “Letters” gets stuck in my head a lot, but I really like “Pierre” and “No One Else” and “Dust and Ashes” too, and the whole based on great works of nineteenth century Russian literature connection has me back into Onegin and I wind up singing “Let Me Die” and “Oh Dear Father” a lot.

What time of day do you do most of your blogging?
I queue posts so this doesn’t always show, but generally I write my posts at night for the simple reason that I work a pretty typical 9-5(:30) job during the day and when I get home I sit with my cockatiel Poe. When Poe and my laptop are around at the same time she persistently jumps on/walks on/chews on the keys and no typing gets done, so I generally wait until after she’s in bed.

What’s your favorite museum that you’ve been to?
This is such a stumper!!! In Washington, DC, City of Museums, obviously I found the Newseum really interesting and purely for fun I loved the Spy Museum, and the Museum of American History but I think ultimately my answer is a tie between The British Museum and the V&A. The V&A I remember finding really fun and interactive, but still educational, and The British Museum is just the dream. But Hadeer’s answer is terrific, the Chester Beatty museum in Dublin is really gorgeous.

When’s the last time you went to a wedding?
April 2016. A friend from University got married and it was a really nice ceremony and the party afterwards was a lot of fun and I had the chance to spend time with some friends who I don’t see very often.

Do you have a celebrity doppelganger?
I don’t think so? Help me out guys if you know a celeb who you think looks like me!

If you were a cat, what color cat would you be? (Very important question.)
I would be a tabby for sure, but I’m not sure which colour tabby!

Do you have a favorite publisher or publisher imprint?
Content-wise I would say Tor, which has the distinction of being the only publisher where I actually read their blog posts as well as like the books they release.

Have you ever dressed up like a fictional character? (Bonus points for photo evidence.)
Not specifically, I did go as a wizard one Halloween and someone asked if I was Hermione (and this was before Harry Potter blew up so my mom and I were impressed someone knew who Hermione was although that hadn’t been the intent). I also went as a Mountie (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer one year which was heavily inspired by my love for the Canadian show Due South and my crush on Constable Benton Fraser, but I wasn’t going AS Fraser so…

What’s your favorite thing about your city (or state, or country)?
My favourite thing about Toronto is definitely the arts scene. Obviously I’m a huge fan of theatre, and living in a city that has its own opera company, ballet company, some reputable independent theatres, and that tends to get touring musicals and plays as well as some Canadian sit-down productions is really important to me. I love having access to all of these wonderful shows!

Thanks Rachel!!

Dani’s Questions:
1. If you had to chose a dystopian world to be sent to, which would it be and why?
Oh my god they’re all so awful I would survive none of them! I mean, at my current age I guess I could deal with The Hunger Games because at least I’m no longer in the tribute pool and I don’t plan to ever have children, but it’s still an awful place to be!

2. What are your favorite blog posts to write and why?
It really depends! There are some shows or books where I just have SO MANY THOUGHTS and I’ve taken notes while reading/after watching and can easily write up a review that I’m really proud of. Other times it’s like pulling teeth to put down how I feel about something in a way that makes sense. I tend to enjoy the top 5, top 10 posts when there’s a topic that really suits my interests because it’s a challenge and forces me to think back over what I’ve read for possible answers.

3. Under what circumstances would you DNF a book?
It takes A LOT for me to DNF a book. I think there’s been two in the last two or three years? In one case (To The Lighthouse) it was so dull that I tried twice and couldn’t even get through the first twenty pages. I realized that I had taken in absolutely none of the book and at that point I gave up. In the other case (LAMB: The Gospel According to Biff) I was more than half-way through and had struggled the entire time. I didn’t find it humourous, I didn’t like any of the characters, I found it crass and not clever at all. In general, probably if there are literally no redeeming qualities about the book, and/or if it’s racist/misogynistic etc.

4. What types of characters do you love most? (i.e. like genre but for characters, examples: strong female, hot love interest, nerds, pirates, if you can group them and love them, name them!)
Oooh boy. I guess there’s ‘guy who seems like an asshole on the outside but is actually a good person on the inside’, since I love h/c characters who play into that by being *tortured* mentally or physically by something and suffering, bonus points if they keep the fact that they’re suffering away even from the people they love, badass bookworms, too clever for their own good characters who are usually super insightful, snarkers, I love a good anti-hero or someone with a little darkness in them, practical good under pressure women.

5. If you could teleport to any city in the world which would it be? If you had to make your way home on you own would it still be the same city?
London, absolutely. I love London, it’s my favourite city in the world and I haven’t been in about four years so I’m starting to get the itch! Also, I’m obviously going to miss it, but I’d love to see one of my favourite theatre actors, David Thaxton, in the production of Jesus Christ Superstar he’s currently performing in since it’s a great musical and the production has been well-reviewed. Although I wouldn’t say no to New York City to see The Great Comet one last time before it closes (why are all of my answers theatre-based?!?) And despite the cost, yes I think I would still say these cities. At least it would halve the airfare!

6. If you wrote a book, what would it be about? (i.e. the premise, type of characters, world?)
I’m not a fiction writer so this is purely hypothetical, but it would probably be fantasy or fantasy-influenced, and I would put my characters through hell and back because that’s the kind of book I enjoy, but in the end things would be okay-ish. I like the kind of book where people don’t walk away easily magically healed but their scars and emotional wounds stay with them and only get better gradually.

7. If a band were to be featured in a fictional story, which would you want it to be and why?
I don’t actually listen to a lot of bands so it wouldn’t make any difference to me, I’d love for a musical to get a shout-out though!

8. What book describes you best? (Is it a particular character, the cover or the story?)
I don’t know about describes me – I felt like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as well as The Lymond Chronicles were books that I was meant to find. JS&MN is set in the early 1800’s, my favourite time period, and has a dry wit, footnotes explaining the magical history of Britain, and a stubborn and somewhat well-intentioned but absent-minded protagonist magician, which certainly appeals. Lymond it took me awhile to get into, but once I was hooked I was hooked! I’ve heard some people say it bears a resemblance to “id fic” because there’s so much hurt/comfort and since that is exactly my jam, I LOVE those books.

9. Favorite book universe and why? (Is it the friends you would have, the world you would live in or the abilities/circumstances you would be in?)
Even though I’m not a diehard Harry Potter fan, it’s so hard to think of anything else because the wizarding world is just so cool. Who wouldn’t want to share a butterbeer, or ride a broomstick or apparate? The idea of being able to do magic and see magical critters is really cool.

10. What is your favorite book pet? Real pet? Ultimate pet?
I mean, pet is probably the wrong word but Shadowfax would be awesome…although probably not too practical for a city-dweller like me! Ditto Gert from Runaways’ telepathically linked dinosaur Old Lace. Lying Cat from Saga would be useful, but also a bit of an awkward pain. Again not so much a pet, but I’ve been fascinated by the His Dark Materials idea of Daemons for awhile. I’d love to have a daemon! I’m happy with my cockatiel Poe, I just wish she’d lose a few of her bad behaviours like screaming when she sees sun in the morning unless I have blinds and curtains drawn!

11. If you’d humor me and look at this post I wrote about Korean dramas… which banner looks like it has a story you would be interested in reading/watching?
The Emotional Acting one I guess?

Thank you Dani!!

I nominate:
Amanda @ MetalPhantasmReads
Caffeinated Bibliophile
Elise @ The Bookish Actress
Emily @ Embuhleeist
Luna @ Bookish Luna
Katie @ Read With Katie

My Questions:
1. Which movie would you love to see on the big screen (something that you’d either love to see in the movie theatre again, or an older movie before your time that you never had the chance to see in the theatre and would love to)?
2. Which book would you love to read for the first time again?
3. Do you have a favorite publisher or publisher imprint?
4. If you worked in a bookstore, what would your one staff pick recommendation be, and why?
5. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever used as a bookmark?
6. Is there a classic that has been on your TBR for ages?
7. What’s your favourite bird?
8. What colour do you wear the most?
9. What are your thoughts on binge-watching? Is it something you do, and if so, which show did you last binge-watch?
10. What’s your favourite episode of your favourite TV show and why?
11. Do you have a favourite bookstore/used bookstore?

 

Stage: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

TheGreatComet

Based on an excerpt of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is inventive and energetic, an immersive spectacle of a show. Seeing The Great Comet is an experience. From the almost otherworldly and intimate design, which includes staircases enabling the cast to ascend to the mezzanine, making interaction with the audience at all levels of the theatre possible, to the interactive elements, which see cast members toss boxes of pierogis into the audience and hand out egg-shaped musical shakers to wave in time with the music, The Great Comet embraces its uniqueness.

Immersive theatre has been a growing trend of late, but in some cases it can seem forced or even cringe worthy. Not so with The Great Comet. Although the cast recording is wonderful, and has definitely been on repeat in my apartment this month, the design and immersive aspects are such an integral part of the show that it’s actually difficult to picture a stripped down concert version of the musical. The cast fully commit to their part in the performance, creating a euphoric atmosphere that the audience can’t help but get swept up in.

This genre-hopping musical, described by creator Dave Malloy as “an electropop opera”, is based on twenty-two chapters of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace covering Natasha Rostova’s affair with Anatole Kuragin while her finance Prince Andrey is away at the front. After a disastrous visit with her future in-laws, and missing Andrey, Natasha is pursued by the handsome and rakish Anatole, a conquest aided by Anatole’s sister Hélène. However, Hélène’s husband, Pierre who has been a friend of Natasha’s family for years, as well as Natasha’s closest friend, her cousin Sonya, decide to intervene.

Walking into the Imperial Theatre, I found it difficult to believe this was even the same place where I had seen Les Miserables only a year earlier. The stage has been extended and reconfigured into raised walkways around both pockets of musicians and audience members seated at cabaret-style tables. Even before the show begins, there is a lot to take in, such as the walls draped with red velvet and covered in pictures, and the stunning starburst chandeliers, suspended from the ceiling to create an effect that is nothing short of magical. The set and lighting design is complemented by the costumes (designed by Paloma Young), which range from the elegant nineteenth century period wear adorning the main characters to the steampunk-inspired costumes worn by the energetic ensemble and even glowstick covered ravers in one memorable scene. The design is exquisite, creating an aesthetic that belongs to Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 alone.

I absolutely loved watching Denee Benton. As Natasha, she conveys the character’s youth, as well as her vanity and desire to be liked. In the hands of a less capable actress, I think it would be easy to dismiss Natasha as flighty and foolish, but Benton is so damn charming, and her wide-eyed naivete so convincing, that I completely believed that everyone has always liked Natasha. Her soprano seems effortless, but packs a punch, and with multiple cast members (Oak, Amber Gray, and Grace Maclean in particular)  opting for a grittier and sometimes growly approach to their characters, her clear tone was a particular delight.

One standout for me was Ashley Pérez Flanagan, the understudy for Sonya, who was on in the performance I watched. Admittedly I went in unfamiliar with the cast recording and not knowing who songwriter Ingrid Michaelson (playing the role of Sonya in a special engagement) was, so I didn’t realize Pérez Flanagan was on until the performance ended, but I thought she was absolutely lovely and performed a beautiful soulful solo on friendship in “Sonya Alone”.

Seeing the show only a week after the casting controversy that embroiled the Broadway community, I was most curious about Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as Pierre. Oak received an incredibly warm and well-deserved reception from the audience, including sustained and hearty applause following a moving rendition of “Dust and Ashes”. His Pierre was melancholic and self-pitying, and Onaodowan conveyed the character’s weariness with himself and with his life in a performance full of pathos. His voice may not be quite as clear as Josh Groban (who originated the role on Broadway and appears on the cast recording), it has more of an edge to it, but it’s strong, and suits the material extremely well. It’s a beautiful performance and I’m thrilled that I had the chance to see it.

Like everyone who sees this show, I also loved Lucas Steele as Anatole. The height of arrogance and vanity, his swagger is terrific and his tenor soars. This is really a show that highlights the entire cast though, and every actor, from the other featured roles to members of the ensemble, was enthusiastic and in the moment. It’s such an energetic show and must take so much to perform that I could envision a ‘The Great Comet Workout’ routine being a bit hit!

Although I loved my first (and sadly only) time visiting this eclectic take on nineteenth century Russia, I suspect Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is the kind of show that grows on you and gets better with each viewing. It’s a visual feast with so much to take in, and so many different seating options for the audience, that I imagine theatre-goers could have an entirely different experience across multiple visits, and I am so disappointed that I will never get the chance to fully appreciate this wonderfully weird show from new vantage points.

It’s never easy for a less traditional show to find its way on the Great White Way, particularly given the casting kerfuffle that occurred last month, but I’m devastated that Broadway is losing this unique show, and encourage anyone who can to get themselves to the Imperial before September 3rd to bid Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 a bittersweet goodbye.

Stage: Bandstand

Bandstand

This original Broadway musical set in the 1940s finds Private First Class Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) returning from war to find no one’s hiring, not even a talented, but a little cocky, singer and pianist like him. When NBC announces a national competition bringing together competing swing bands from each U.S. state for a shot at stardom, Danny Novitski sees his shot. Putting together a band made up entirely of fellow veterans, and coaxing Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), the widow of his best army friend, to sing the lead, the Ohio-based band find their voices and confront their pasts through music.

Admittedly this period and this type of music are not favourites of mine. Generally I like my history pre-twentieth century and my music more traditionally musical theatre than swing, but I enjoyed Bandstand and was sorry to hear that it will play its last performance on September 17th. Directed and choreographed by Tony-award-winning Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand features some strong dancing. The choreography both enhances scenes with subtle choices, and boldly complements the swing music of the period. The image of the weight of the dead soldiers being carried on the backs of those who live on was particularly memorable.

One draw for me was the chance to see Laura Osnes, a true triple threat, live. She did not disappoint! Osnes gives a vulnerable performance as war widow Julia Trojan, showing resilience and charm. Her character’s grief and desire to know how her husband really died are keenly felt, but her Julia is also spirited and passionate. As Donny Novitski, Corey Cott proves her equal. He’s cocky, but never to the point of being unlikable, and he gives a nuanced depiction of the frustration some veterans felt at being portrayed as heroes for their service, yet unable to find work and readjust to life when they returned from the front.

The ensemble, including those who make up the band, remind me a little of Once. All have distinct slightly quirky personalities, even if they are a little stereotypical, and succeed in showing the varying impacts of war on soldiers. A special shoutout to Beth Leavel, as Julia’s mother Mrs. June Adams, who steals the show with some memorable lines and actions, including a platter of over-paprika-ed deviled eggs!

The music was a bit hit and miss for me. Although I enjoyed it at the time and thought it suited the story, there are only a few songs that stuck with me and I’d be more likely to buy a few individual songs off the cast recording than to download the entire album. That said, those few songs are earworms that I found coming back to me days later!  The musical also features a discordant climax song about veterans and the mental health issues they face that I found very poignant and rightfully angry in the course of the story, but not particularly pleasant to the ear.

Ultimately I enjoyed Bandstand, although it’s a pretty predictable show where most of the twists can be guessed well before they happen. I suspect the musical will resonate more with those who are at all interested in WWII stories, in stories that deal with veterans and the aftermath of war, and/or those who enjoy swing music though. Don’t fit into any of those categories? I’m fairly confident you’ll still have an enjoyable afternoon or evening, and walk out humming one or two of the songs.

Bandstand plays until September 17th, 2017 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City.