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.

Books: Obelisk Gate

26228034Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Published August 18, 2016
star-4
I finished my re-read of Obelisk Gate, the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, on schedule as the last book in my Reading the Hugos challenge, but I’ve been dragging my feet on writing a review for it, not because I didn’t love it (I did!) but because I’ve been exhausted this week and wanted to have the time to do it justice in review form. I considered rushing home last night and trying to write something up before the awards were announced Friday evening but was too tired to ultimately do it. The upside is that it means I get to write this review with the knowledge that for the second year in a row N.K. Jemisin has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel! It really is a deserving series, imho, her finest works of fiction (that I’ve read) to date, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final book in the trilogy later this month. Congratulations to N.K. Jemisin!

Obelisk Gate is set in a world called the Stillness, a single supercontinent where Earthquakes occur frequently and the aftermath every few centuries results in a “Fifth Season”. Seasons are sporadic climate events which cause flora and fauna become hostile, changing their behaviour to fit the dangerous atmosphere, a time when the sky turns ashy, and human “comms” declare martial law. Seasons also inhibit civilization from ever evolving beyond a certain point. In fact, the world has only lasted this long because of orogenes, a marginalized group of people (also known by the slur “rogga”) born with the ability to manipulate thermodynamics, who can quell shakes. But orogenes are an oppressed minority, killed by those who don’t understand, or kept in check by Guardians of the Fulcrum, who can resist their power and control orogenes through fear.

Picking up right where its predecessor left off, in mid-conversation nonetheless, Obelisk Gate continues the story of Essun and her daughter Nassun. Having learned that the Earth is a) alive and b) angry, Essun learns that her old friend Alabaster, a powerful orogene, has a plan to placate Evil Earth and eliminate Seasons forever, and that he needs her help to do it. But as the Season encroaches, can she learn fast enough from Alabaster’s cryptic instructions or will they seal the fate of the world? In perhaps the more heartbreaking of the two narratives, we also backtrack to Nassun and her struggle for acceptance by her bigoted father and by the world at large.

Obelisk Gate isn’t so much a better book than The Fifth Season, as it is a worthy sequel with the advantage of reader familiarity. In her first book of this trilogy, Jemisin creates a world so different from our own and rich with detail that it’s a lot to take in. Obelisk Gate has a head start because it can assume the reader is already familiar with the mechanics and prejudices of the world from the first book in the series. This allows for an easier transition that builds on the exquisite world-building and the fully developed but flawed characters introduced in The Fifth Season to continue Essun’s story.

While its predecessor shifted between three non-linear POVs (Damaya, Syenite, and Essun), Obelisk Gate proceeds in a linear fashion, narrowing the focus to one character we’re familiar with, and one who is new to us. I remember initially finding The Fifth Season so jarring partly because Essun’s chapters are written in the second-person, a perspective I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before in published fiction! Much like adjusting to the one gender pronouns in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, where all characters including those who are biologically male are addressed as “she” and “her”, the use of second-person in The Fifth Season took some time to get used to. The second-person chapters continue in Obelisk Gate but again, with familiarity it’s an easier read.

Although the book’s setting and the abilities some of its characters exhibit place it firmly in the realm of fantasy, I’ve recommended this series successfully even to those who don’t usually read fantasy. The prose is absolutely gorgeous and the worldbuilding, while complex, is so well thought out and deep that it transcends genre. Many second books suffer from taking a step back from the action, but Obelisk Gate is far from hesitant in its storytelling. The pacing gives the characters time to breathe and develop, but also includes enough action and suspense to keep the reader engaged.

I also really enjoyed these characters. Essun has been so guarded for much of her adult life, and has been through such trauma, that she finds it difficult to connect with others, but Obelisk Gate gives her people to care about, a position in the comm that matters, and a higher purpose. I love her snarky yet caring exchanges with Alabaster, as these two share such a complicated and bitter history but they also need one another. And then there’s Nassun. My heart breaks for Nassun. As her childhood slips away forever when she realizes by calling her bigoted father “Daddy” she can more easily manipulate him to continue to see her as his daughter and not as a “rogga”, and as she falls so quickly into loving another being as a father-figure because she has been so starved of affection from those close to her.

Whether you’re a fan of fantasy novels or not, I really can’t recommend this series highly enough, and if you’re a fan of fantasy and you’ve never read any of Jemisin’s work, well what are you waiting for?! The final book in the series come out this week I believe, and I know it will be an exciting, but bittersweet experience to say goodbye to this series I love.

Discussion: In Translation

When it comes to reading classics by Russian, French, and Spanish authors, I hum and haw a lot over translations. I ask fans of a work, particularly those who have read more than one translation, what they think. I read reviews, I try to compare passages and construct pro-con lists. I am the Queen of Translation Indecisiveness, anxious that I’ll make the wrong choice and it will take away from the experience of reading the book. I’m in the midst of one of these decisions right now, after committing to read Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace as part of a group led by Rachel and Hadeer on Goodreads (join us if you’re interested, it’ll be fun!) and thought I would share a little bit about what I look for in a translation and how I go about choosing one, and open it up to the book blogging community to share how they select a translation.

Admittedly I haven’t read many translated classics yet, but I’ve read a few and there are others on my near-future tbr. There are three criteria that go into my selection process:

1. It must be unabridged
Abridged versions of books don’t appeal to me at all. I understand the reasoning behind them, and for someone who may have difficulty, or not be interested in, making it through a thousand page book, or for introducing a younger audience to the classics, I can see the appeal, but abridged books are not for me. Period. Personally, I want to experience the novel close to the way in which an author intended it to be read, and with abridgments I worry that I would miss something vital or enjoyable about the text.

2. Too much modernity is a turn-off
My first attempt to read a translation didn’t go so well. I picked up the new Julie Rose translation of Les Miserables mostly for its shelf appeal. It was a hardcover edition of Les Mis, big and beautiful, but when I tried to actually read it, I found the use of modern language jarring. After fifty pages I gave up and switched to the Signet Classics edition, translated by Fahnestock/MacAfee. I’ve never looked back! As a lover of history, and as someone who isn’t put off by dense prose, the older translations were a better fit for me. I learned that, for me, modern prose doesn’t make the text easier to read, it just serves to jerk me out of the story.

3. Remains true to the spirit of the original novel
It doesn’t have to be a literal word for word translation, but the intent and the original spirit of the work must be kept intact. For example, a work that removed or made massive changes to a scene or to dialogue because the translator thought they knew better than the author would not appeal to me. This is definitely a tough one since I can’t read the original language to tell how faithful the translation is to the author’s style, plot, and characters. Generally I read reviews of a translation to see how readers and critics think it compares, both to other translations of the work and to the original text.

Of course, there are also practical considerations. I don’t currently have an eReader, or device that I can comfortably read on, so I’m limited to translations that are still in print. If it’s a massive physical book (over 1,000 pages) will I be reading it at home where the size/weight doesn’t matter? Or does it have to be portable, so I can read on the subway?

How about you? When you read classics or work by foreign authors in translation, how do you go about deciding which translation to choose? Do you compare versions directly before making a decision? Do you rely on reading reviews or comparisons of translations? Do you reach out to friends/the book blogging community to ask their opinions and suggestions on translated works? What are your criteria for selecting a translation?

And since there are a few French and Russian classics I’d like to read in the next few years, do you have a favourite translation of either War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo, and/or Eugene Onegin that you would recommend?

T5W: The Middle Was Best

After a few weeks off (and a lovely whirlwind vacation to New York City where I ate some fantastic food and saw some wonderful shows), I’m back with another Top 5 Wednesday! This week’s topic: Second Book is Best. While I’ve tried to stick to series where the second book was my favourite, I’ve tweaked the definition slightly for one choice, selecting a book that is the third in a (currently) five book series.

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

TheDreamThieves1. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (Book 2 of The Raven Cycle)
I enjoyed Stiefvater’s first book in this world, The Raven Boys, but it’s The Dream Thieves where the series really gets going. Part of the reason for this is that The Dream Thieves is Ronan Lynch’s story. For the first time, the reader gets a vision of what makes Ronan tick and the stew of feelings and fears that lie under his rough exterior. Although there’s a vein of magic running through the books courtesy of the quest to find Glendower, ley lines, and Blue’s psychic family, it’s not until the very end of The Raven Cycle where Ronan’s abilities are first mentioned, and The Dream Thieves is where they come into focus. This second book in the quartet deepens the story and reveals more about each of the characters. I really enjoyed The Raven Boys, but I devoured The Dream Thieves and this is the book where I knew I would re-read this series until the day I die.

2198112. The Virtu by Sarah Monette (Book 2 of The Doctrine of Labyrinths series)
Like The Raven Cycle, Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths books take a bit to get going. To begin with, one of the two P.O.V. characters spends half of the first book quite literally insane! I love the whole series, but The Virtu is a better written book. The plot seems to wander a little less and since Felix Harrowgate is sane(r) in this volume, the sometimes antagonistic and complicated relationship between Felix and his half-brother Mildmay makes for a more interesting read. The reader also gets a lot more of Mildmay’s inner thoughts in this book and he is one of my favourite characters period, so I loved spending more time in his distinctive voice. Monette is a master of worldbuilding, and having established Melusine in the first book, she’s able to expand on and deepen the reader’s knowledge of this fantasy world. It all makes for a captivating second volume. You could definitely make an arguement for the third book, which is also fabulous and offers both a strong female P.O.V. and a heartbreaking plot, but the fourth book, while still worth reading and a worthy conclusion, is less interesting than the previous volumes.

2r7nc603. Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo (Book 2 of The Grisha Trilogy)
The Grisha Trilogy is a perfect example of The Second Book Is Best because it’s the only book in this trilogy that I gave a full five stars to on Goodreads! It’s often difficult with a fantasy series because there is so much worldbuilding that has to occur to set up an interesting and believable setting for a series. Bardugo’s first book in the series suffers a little from this set up, but Siege and Storm kicks into gear and also features the introduction of my favourite character in the series, Nikolai. Nikolai’s swagger and wit instantly grabbed me, and I’m not alone – he’s a fan favourite for a reason! While I was actually fairly pleased with the way the series I ended (I know that’s a fairly unpopular opinion), I also didn’t find the final book of the trilogy as gripping as Siege and Storm, so this series naturally deserves a place on this week’s T5W.

63079644. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire)
Although not the second book in the series, A Storm of Swords is smack dab in the middle of the five books currently published of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s the finest book in the series so far, and includes THAT scene which makes people hurl their books against the wall. Although it’s a long read, coming in at over 1,000 pages in paperback, I found it the most gripping, as it contains plotlines with most of the major characters we know and love (compared to AFFC and ADWD, which divides point of views by geography) and some truly phenomenal plot twists and climaxes. This was the book I couldn’t wait to see adapted on screen, and although I have some (many) issues with Game of Thrones, like many book fans, I enjoyed the true initiation of show fans to Martin’s world and brutality when the Red Wedding appeared onscreen.

cityofblades5. City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett (Book 2 of The Divine Cities Trilogy)
I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. The first book, City of Stairs, featured one of my favourite female characters in literature, Shara Komayd, as the protagonist. This glasses-wearing, tea drinking, petite woman of colour torn between her love of history and mythology and her occupation as a spy won me over quickly. When I heard that the second book would feature this beloved character in only a minor role, I was skeptical. Instead, Jackson Bennett gave us Turyin Mulaghesh, a disabled, middle-aged, WoC General who swears like it’s going out of style for a protagonist, and a plot that was even better developed than the first book. City of Blades cemented this series as one of my favourites of all-time. I wasn’t as enchanted by the third book in the series, City of Miracles, which focused on a protagonist who couldn’t carry the story as well, but it was still an interesting read and a wonderful series.

What are some of your favourite middle books in a series?

Monthly Wrap-Up: July

July was generally a good month of reading for me! I ended up rating most of the six books I read this month four stars, and the only exception was Too Like The Lightning, a case of fabulously ambitious ideas that weren’t executed as well as I hoped. I continued my Reading the Hugos challenge, to read all of this year’s nominees for Best Novel and really enjoyed All The Birds in the Sky, but my favourite books of the month are all YA titles.

July17

Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee  small 4 stars + Review
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente  small 4 stars + Review
Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer  small-3-stars + Review
All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders  small 4 stars + Review
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee  small 4 stars + Review
Now I Rise by Kiersten White  small 4 half stars + Review

Book of the Month: Now I Rise by Kiersten White. I enjoyed the first novel in her The Conqueror’s Saga, Now I Rise took it up to a new level. I loved the fact that this is a book about consequences and the fallout from choices made, and that no one is left unscathed.

Runner-Up: A tie between Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. I loved both of these books and would recommend them to just about anyone. Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a rare YA contemporary where I really connected with the characters and enjoyed the storyline. I also LOVED that it features an asexual protagonist who isn’t forced to change and who has friends who support her. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is just so damn charming. I was swept away by its adventure and a delightful central trio of characters.

Least Favourite: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. This may partially have been a case of my expectations being too high, but I didn’t think it clearly delivered on its ambitious ideas. There are some interesting thoughts and concepts here, but I didn’t connect with the characters and found the plot slow-moving.

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Reading the Hugos Challenge Update: 6/8  Month three of my challenge to read all of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel and besides Cixin Liu’s Deaths End (which I gave up on after suffering through the second book in his trilogy), I have just one more book to go! I’ll be re-reading N.K. Jemisin’s Obelisk Gate in the first week of August shortly before the awards are announced on August 11th.

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Seen on Stage: July was a busy month for me! Kelly Bedard, the editor of My Entertainment World, asked if I was interested in joining their staff and covering the Toronto Fringe Festival. I saw a total of 16 shows, 11 of which I reviewed for My Theatre Toronto. You can read my write-up of the experience, my reviews of the 5 shows I saw on my own, and check out my reviews for My Entertainment World in this wrap-up post on the Festival. My favourite shows of the lot were definitely the rightfully hyped The Seat Next to the King, Grey, and Recall. The Seat Next to the King I found incredibly moving. It was a case of a great script being elevated by some simple but inventive direction and a pair of actors who had immediate and strong on stage chemistry. Grey was a poignant exploration into a crime that challenged the audience’s preconceptions by slowly peeling back the layers to reveal contributing factors to a murder (including parental neglect, disability, and bullying). Finally, Recall was a sci-fi dystopia about children with latent sociopathic tendencies being targeted before they commit a crime. Recall was anchored by strong performances by the whole cast and a quickfire script.

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Coming up in August: I’ll be on vacation in New York City for the first week of August, so the blog will be quiet during that time, but when I return I’ll be reviewing the last in my Hugos challenge, N.K. Jemisin’s Obelisk Gate. I’m also hoping to finish off a few series, including V.E. Schwab’s Our Dark Duet, and the final book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy.

What was your favourite read in July? What books are you planning to read in August?