Books: Things A Bright Girl Can Do

33876596Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
Published September 7, 2017
Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a charming and heartfelt novel about the suffragette movement in England during WW1. Spanning the years from 1914 through 1918, the novel is written from the perspectives of three young women from different backgrounds. Well-off, sheltered Evelyn joins the Suffragettes as much to annoy her parents as out of any great devotion to the cause; May, a Quaker and pacifist like her mother, is committed to the suffragists but refuses to use violence to further their cause, while Nell, whose family is just scrapping by, seeks an equal wage for equal work. The fight for equality challenges all three women, and as war looms they must ask themselves how much they’re willing to sacrifice.

What a breath of fresh air this book is. I picked it up because it vaguely looked interesting and wound up hooked! All three of the teenage protagonists are engaging and grow over the course of the novel. It’s likely partly the 1914 setting, but Evelyn and May at times reminded me of Sybil Crawley or Rose MacClare, sheltered, but well-intentioned and passionate young women.

Evelyn comes from a privileged background, with a fiancé and a good education, but she loves to learn and wants to broaden her mind at Oxford. As this is not socially acceptable, her parents forbid it, and she falls into the suffragette movement out of frustration and a desire for equality. It’s empowering to follow her journey, as she joins the suffragette movement out of a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the lack of options available to her as a woman and becomes a committed part of the efforts, even enduring a brutal hunger strike when she is arrested.

May is, in some ways, the most worldly of the three, with a mother who is open-minded, even when it comes to May’s romantic inclination towards other women. May’s aware of and accepting of her identity as a gay woman, and has an infectious optimism towards life. But while her stubborn commitment to her principles is an admirable quality, it also makes it difficult for her to view things from another’s point-of-view. It’s only later, with the wisdom of experience, that she discovers things aren’t so black and white as she had always believed.

For Nell, who dresses in boys clothes and has always felt like an outsider, a chance meeting with May opens a door. Nell is a working-class factory girl, one of six children living with their parents in a two-room flat. The suffragist movement was a practical application. She’s paid half as much as male workers and wants to earn an equal wage to support her family. Life is hard, but as Nell discovers her Sapphic inclinations for the first time, she finds some refuge in May.

I felt attached to all three characters and, importantly, to both of the central relationships that develop. Evelyn and Teddy are friends from childhood who have always presumed that they will marry, but as first Evelyn’s growing interest in the Suffragette cause and then WWI threaten their wellbeing, Evelyn and Teddy discover just how deep their feelings for one another run. Nell and May come from different upbringings and hold different values, but their shared identity as lesbians grows into a sweet story of first love. Although I rooted for both couples, I also appreciated the fact that romantic love is not the sole focus of the novel.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do is obviously well-researched and sheds a light on different spheres of the suffragette movement, including the pacifist Quakers in the form of May and her principled mother, who refuses to pay taxes until women are represented in parliament, and suffers the consequences. There is a subtly rendered lesson in here about walking a mile in another person’s shoes.

Author Sally Nicholls doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of the suffragette movement, or from detailing the hunger strikes that imprisoned women undertook in an effort to be treated as political prisoners. She is also unflinching in her depiction of the impact of WWI on both soldiers and their families and loved ones , portraying the social consequences and the physical and psychological effects of the war.

Although at times it goes to dark places, the novel is ultimately uplifting. I really enjoyed Things a Bright Girl Can Do and highly recommend it as just the kind of feminist book that can pull you out of a reading slump.


Books: Eliza and Her Monsters

31931941Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
Published May 30th 2017
Eliza Mirk lives dual and totally separate lives as Eliza Mirk, shy, friendless, high school student, and LadyConstellation, the anonymous creator of wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. When Wallace Warland, Monstrous Sea‘s biggest fanfiction writer, moves to her school, he assumes she’s just another fan and tries to draw Eliza out of her shell, but when her secret is accidentally shared with the world, Eliza’s life begins to unravel.

Eliza is a fabulous protagonist who will appeal to a lot of readers. Flawed, but sympathetic, she’s a believably teenage character who doesn’t see the point of schoolwork, has trouble making friends due to her crippling social anxiety, and thinks her parents just don’t get her. At her high school she’s weird loner Eliza Mirk; Online she’s LadyConstellation, creator of Monstrous Sea. Eliza’s engagement with the online world through fandom and her struggle with anxiety make her a character readers will relate to as she learns to achieve some balance in her online and offline lives.

Stories that treat mental health issues with the respect and sensitivity they deserve are sadly all too rare, but Eliza and Her Monsters depicts Eliza’s struggle with anxiety in an honest and sympathetic way. This is one of the best portrayals of mental illness I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Author Francesca Zappia vividly portrays the crushing weight of expectation Eliza feels from the Monstrous Sea fandom, her panic attacks when the weight becomes too much, and, at the climax of the book, a truly devastating mental breakdown. Although I don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder, I know what depression feels like, and how difficult it is to move forward, and Eliza’s ordeal was almost painful to read at times because it felt so real.

I also loved the world within a world of Monstrous Sea. Although the reader only gets bits and pieces of Eliza’s comic, the world and plot seem so fully developed that it’s easy to see why this comic would have such a far-reaching fanbase. No doubt every creator or author will see things differently, but I relished the opportunity to view fandom from a creator’s point of view for once.

As someone who has been aware of, and peripherally involved in, fandom since my teens (although always as more of an Eliza Mirk lurker and consumer of discussion/media than as a LadyConstellation creator), the depiction of fandom spoke to me. I’ve been one of those people eagerly awaiting a new chapter of a work, and commenting once I’ve devoured it. Eliza and Her Monsters feels like a celebration of that culture, while also encouraging fans to take a step back and think critically about how we, as consumers, are owed nothing, and the mental health of the creator must come first.

Eliza and Her Monsters is a quick and, for the most part, incredibly engaging read, but surprisingly I thought it lost momentum in the last third. I say surprisingly because there is such tension inherent in Eliza’s situation, as she keeps her identity as the creator of Monstrous Sea from Wallace, from the new friends she has made through Wallace, and from her school and community, that it seems the fallout will be tremendous and earthshaking. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here since it’s literally on the inside cover that her secret is accidentally shared. To a certain extent the fallout is devastating, and I think it’s done very well where Eliza is concerned, but I also found myself losing interest.

The one thing I disliked about this book, and honestly he’s most of the reason why this is a four star and not a five star read for me, was Eliza’s love interest, Wallace. I didn’t have strong feelings about Wallace one way or the other through most of the book, but his selfish behaviour later in the novel is so deeply off-putting that it destroyed any regard it had for him or for his relationship with Eliza. Eliza Mirk deserved better. It’s a shame that the romance is such a let-down, but it shouldn’t put you off reading this fabulously creative and moving novel about fandom, friendship, and finding yourself.

Monthly Wrap-up: January

Should a person who’s only posted a few things this month be writing a monthly wrap-up? Probably not, but I find these month-end posts useful for keeping track of my reading and theatre-going experiences, so I’m going to write one anyway and add in the reviews as I get to them.

It was definitely a slower month for me, with only five books completed, as I go through the January blues. My selections were almost all in the four star range (the exception being my one re-read), so a solid start to the year, but nothing outstanding. What will be my first five star book of the year? Hopefully something will blow me away in February!

Dear Martin
by Nic Stone  small 3 half stars  + Review
Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia  small 4 stars  + Review
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden   small 4 stars  + RTC
Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls   small 4 stars  + Review
The Game of Kings (re-read) by Dorothy Dunnett   small 5 stars   + RTC

Book of the Month: I tend not to count re-reads as a book of the month or in my best of lists each year, otherwise it would be my re-read of one of my favourite books of all-time, The Game of Kings. It’s honestly a toss-up. I LOVED most of Eliza and Her Monsters, but I had issues with the way the central relationship unfolds and felt like the book lost some of its tension, and my interest, towards the end. The Girl and the Tower took me a good hundred pages to get into, and wasn’t as enthralling as its predecessor, The Bear and the Nightingale, was, but I still really enjoyed it. Things a Bright Girl Can Do was a bright and well-researched breath of fresh air. I went in with no expectations and came away thoroughly impressed. It’s the book I had the fewest complaints about and might just be my pick of the month for that reason.

Least Favourite: Purely because I had a good month for books and everything else I read appealed more to me personally, it’s Dear Martin. As I explained in my review, I think it’s an important book, and I’m both glad that it exists and that I read it, I just didn’t find it as gripping as my other January reads.


Seen on Stage: I talked a little bit recently about how January in particular is challenging for me, so I’ve limited my theatre-going this month, seeing only one play. Groundling Theatre Co’s Lear, with legendary Canadian actress Seana McKenna in the lead role, was filled with strong performances and the choice to cast Lear as a woman offered some additional commentary on mother-daughter relationships and on women in leadership roles.

It’s taking me awhile to transcribe them, but I also spent the month conducting a few in-person interviews with actors in productions I saw this year for My Entertainment World’s annual Nominee Interview Series in advance of the MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards. Look for those some time in February!


Coming up in February: I’ll be continuing my Lymond re-read by diving into the second book of the series, Queens’ Play at some point in time. I know a lot of my fellow Dorothy Dunnett fans consider Queens’ Play their least favourite of the series, but personally I love it. I’m also hoping to, at long-last read Jane Eyre, possibly as a buddy read with Hadeer if she’s still up for it! Otherwise I’m keeping my reading list a little looser this month, so I’ll be working through some of the books I have out from the library, including Traci Chee’s The Speaker, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne, and posting my review of Rachel Lynn Solomon’s You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone.

What was your favourite January read? What are you most looking forward to reading in February?

First Impresions

As you’ve probably noticed from the lack of reviews or other posts recently, January is a rough month for me. You see, Daylight saving time ushers in the long, dark winter days that kick start my Seasonal Affective Disorder. I can usually make it through December out of sheer love for the fairy-light filled Christmas season, but after the ball has dropped and we’ve ushered in a new year, my spirits drop. Every year I struggle with January (and to a slightly lesser degree, February and March). The work day seems to zap me of whatever limited energy reserves I have and I wind up eating instant meals and feeling guilty about the housework I’m not doing and the reviews I’m not writing.

My reading (largely done on my commute to work) continues, but some of my bookish habits have altered. I’m a heavy library user who usually carefully manages her 40+ holds to ensure that I never have more checked out at one time than I can read. This month I got careless. I wound up with five books checked out and only a limited desire to read any of them, so I wondered, what if I read the first 50-ish pages of each book to see what grabbed me and then blogged about my first thoughts?

All of these book selections are by authors I’ve never read before, and were chosen at a whim, without reading a formal review or a friend recommendation.



You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon
378 pgs. YA Contemporary

30339479Summary: Twins Adina and Tovah have grown apart over the years and have little in common. Viola prodigy Adina longs to pursue music professionally, while studious Tovah is awaiting her acceptance to Johns Hopkins to pursue a career in medicine. One thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, the disease that is slowly destroying their mother. When the test results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s, but the other tests positive.

Thoughts: It takes an exceptional YA Contemporary read to really grab me, and I suspect that’s not You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone. Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting things here. As someone who majored in the humanities during my undergrad, I found Adina’s jealousy and bitterness over society and family valuing her sister’s STEM aspirations over her gift for music very relatable. Genetic disease is a topic I haven’t seen explored before in YA and I think it’s done here, at least in the brief section I read, with sensitivity and honesty. I’m also intrigued by the debt that’s subtly alluded to in the story; Why does Adina owe Tovah? However, the writing style reads on the young side of YA, a personal pet peeve of mine, and the prose is not particularly well-written, employing a tell don’t show method that grates. I’m also a little put off by the fact that it’s already so crush/romance-centric.

Verdict: Ultimately it’s a quick enough read that I plan to continue, but I’ll be surprised if this is above a 3.5 star book for me.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
419 pgs. YA Historical

33876596Summary: Through rallies and marches, in polite drawing rooms and freezing prison cells and the poverty-stricken slums of the East End, three courageous young women join the fight for the vote. Lesbian suffragettes in 1914! Do I really need to say more?

Thoughts: Full disclosure, by the time this posts I will have finished this book, which gives you a pretty good idea of how much I enjoyed the first fifty pages! Things a Bright Girl Can Do is engaging from the first chapter, where it depicts a pivotal moment in the life of one of its heroines, Evelyn. I loved that all three protagonists, Evelyn, May, and Nell, are from different backgrounds and social upbringings. Nell is a poor East End factory worker who wants equal wages for women, May comes from a Quaker family and is a pacifist seeking a peaceful way forward, while Evelyn is an upper-class girl who wants to attend university like her brother and beau – yet they all share a common goal of equality. It’s a theme that resonates in this day and age when feminism continues to strive for equality. It’s also notable in that the book is YA historical fiction with LGBT rep, in Nell and May.

Verdict: Charming, yet unafraid of depicting the violence of the suffragette movement, Things a Bright Girl Can Do is definitely worth reading.

The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo
222 pgs. YA Historical Fantasy

33099589Summary: The Five Daughters of the Moon is the first part of a fantasy duology inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution and the last months of the Romanov family. As the Crescent Empire teeters on the edge of a revolution, sisters Alina, Merile, Sibilia, Elise, and Celestia, are the ones who will determine its future.

Thoughts: I have the vague feeling that this will be one of those books where the concept is better than the execution. At just 222 pages, it’s an incredibly short read – I’m already almost a quarter of the way through! – so I feel like I have a pretty fair impression of the book. The Five Daughters of the Moon is certainly original, combining elements of technology with magic through the fictional counterpart of Rasputin. There are also some inventive  ideas here, including the fact that the titular five daughters each have a different biological father (“seed”) sometimes chosen for political reasons, and the idea that naming something  or someone can anchor the soul to its body. I was less impressed by the writing. The first narrative voice is supposed to be that of a six-year-old child, but it doesn’t feel authentic. The language is too mature and the child seems to understand everything that an adult would.

Verdict: It’s so short that I may end up finishing it anyway, but I suspect I’ll be more in awe of the gorgeous cover and the intriguing concept than the book itself.

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
323 pgs. Dystopia

31451186Summary: Rachel is a scavenger in a near-future ruined city that is littered with discarded experiments from The Company, a former biotech firm, and hosts a dangerous and unpredictable massive bear. On one of her missions, Rachel brings home something unusual, which she names Borne. Initially resembling a sea anemone, she comes to realize that Borne is not a plant, or even an animal, but an intelligent, and ever-changing life-form.

Thoughts: Borne is one of the most unique novels I’ve encountered, demonstrating that new and interesting things are in fact still possible within the well-worn dystopia genre. The world building is thorough, and yet seamless, so it never feels like an info dump. The writing style and plot are engaging and invite curiosity about will happen next and how the creature named Borne will change. My one caveat is that already the main female character has been brutally beaten (though fortunately not raped). I hope that this is either an isolated incident of violence, or that the violence will be more evenly distributed throughout the rest of the book.

Verdict: Borne is the most promising of the five books on this list and one that I look forward to continuing.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
415 pgs. YA Historical Fantasy

34213608Summary: Makepeace is an illegitimate daughter of the aristocratic Fellmotte family and shares their supernatural hereditary gift: the capacity to be possessed by ghosts. Unbeknown to them, the wild, brutish spirit of a bear already resides in Makepeace, and may be her only defence against the Fellmottes’ terrible plans for her.

Thoughts: 50 pages in and I still can’t decide how I feel about this book! I love the idea of the English Civil War setting, a period not often used in fiction, although the first fifty pages don’t feature a lot of world building. I’m also intrigued by the introduction, in the last chapter I read, of Makepeace’s ominous grandfather, Obadiah Fellmotte. Unfortunately I still don’t feel connected to any of the characters. I’m starting to come around to Makepeace (mostly because she defended a mistreated dancing bear and attacked the men who were responsible), but at fifty pages I should care about what happens to an orphaned teenage girl more than I do. I suspect that this may just be a book that is not for me. The writing is certainly atmospheric, giving off a dark horror vibe in the descriptions of spirits that I think other readers will really enjoy. As someone who won’t touch the horror genre with a ten foot pole though, I’m probably not the intended audience.

Verdict: If I didn’t have so many other books out from the library now I’d probably give it a try, but at the moment A Skinful of Shadows is near the bottom of my pile.

Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you thought of them! How do you choose which books to commit to? Do you ever give them a fifty page test drive? Let me know in the comments.

Books: Dear Martin

24974996Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Published October 17, 2017
I really wanted to be one of the thousands of people on goodreads raving about how powerful and moving this book was, but honestly I was a little underwhelmed. This is less a reflection of the quality of the book, or a judgment on Nic Stone’s writing, than it is a case of mismatch between reader and intended audience. YA Contemporary isn’t a genre that holds much appeal for me personally, and when I do read YA books I like those that sit towards the adult side of the YA scale. Dear Martin skews decidedly younger. It’s a book that should be present in every American high school classroom and/or library, but as a thirty-something I found it less enthralling. For all that this sounds negative, there are a lot of things to love about Dear Martin. It’s an important and timely book that tackles issues of race relations with sensitivity, and it features a realistic and engaging protagonist in Justyce McAllister. I’m glad I read it, and would recommend Dear Martin to others without hesitation, I just wish my reading experience had left me as emotionally wrecked as others seem to have been by this debut.

At seventeen-years-old, star debater Justyce McAllister is at the top of his class and bound for an ivy-league education. But when he attempts to help a drunk ex get home safely, he’s accosted by a police officer and handcuffed. Although the charges are dropped, the experience rattles him, and Justyce turns to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To begin with, I adored Justyce. He’s a realistically teenage and sympathetic protagonist, who is hard-working, intelligent, and yet still naive when it comes to women. Nic Stone deftly conveys Justyce’s feelings of frustration and increasing anger, first at the way he is treated by a police officer when trying to do a good deed. As Justyce becomes aware of the fact that he is viewed as lesser by classmates, who assume that his success is due to affirmative action and not his merits, Justyce begins to view the world differently and wonder what more can he do? She also depicts his feelings of isolation, as Justyce feels that he has no one to talk to that will understand what it is to be a black man. He’s an immensely likable character that I rooted for instantly, and continued to root for, and feel for, especially when his reputation is dragged through the mud in a situation where Justyce should be seen as a victim.

It goes without saying that Dear Martin is an important book. At a time when there’s a loud cry for diverse voices, Nic Stone tackles a timely topic, race relations in America including the shooting of black unarmed men by police officers, with honesty and pathos. As a white woman from a middle-class background, I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a marginalized person and to experience discrimination based on the colour of my skin. I certainly don’t know what it’s like for black men to be racially profiled by authority figures, to have to fear for their lives in encounters with police officers, or to be assumed to be less capable by their white peers. Discussion of how well Nic Stone presents this experience doesn’t belong on my blog, but on blogs of the many diverse bloggers out there who can write with authority on the subject. What I will say is that I thought Stone presented Justyce’s point of view well. I felt angry, frustrated, and ashamed of the way Justyce, and other black characters, are treated by white characters in this book, and Stone opens a window into the rightful anger and pain felt by marginalized people.

As I mentioned, YA Contemporary is not my genre, so it’s likely that Dear Martin was never going to strike me as deeply as someone who reads widely in the genre. My YA preferences also tend towards books like Six of Crows, which feature teenage characters but could just as easily be shelved outside of the Teen section of your local bookstore. Dear Martin reads like it’s intended for a younger audience. At barely two-hundred pages, some of that scenes of pure dialogue written in a script format, it zips along. You’ll undoubtedly finish it in under two hours, but I felt that it was almost TOO quick. There’s no time for events to sit, and for the impact of the story to be felt. In her acknowledgments the author thanks her editor for helping her cut the book in half and honestly I’m sorry we didn’t get a fuller version of the story.

I also found the choice of format really distracting. The majority of the novel is told in the third person, from Justyce’s POV, with excerpts in first person letter format, as Justyce writes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while he embarks on an experiment to be more like Dr. King (I would have preferred to see more engagement with the principles of Dr. King, since these are glossed over in the narrative and not examined in any depth). A novel using these two formats would be fine, but Stone also includes scenes that are pure dialogue, as though in a script, to document the class discussions. I found the constant shifting between these three formats, sometimes within the same chapter, a little distracting, especially in such a slim novel.

The other issue with a book this short is that the secondary characters inevitably feel underdeveloped. I liked what we got of them, but many of the characters didn’t feel fleshed out enough and they exist to further Justyce’s story, rather than as people in their own right. This is particularly true of the female characters. Melo is more or less a plot-device and she never gets a resolution or much development beyond being a promiscuous drunk. Justyce’s mom also feels a little one-note as the poor single-mother who doesn’t approve of him dating outside his race.

None of this changes the fact that Dear Martin is still an important, and engaging read, I just found the pacing, formatting, under-developed minor characters, and young feel to the story all made it difficult for me to be as invested as I hoped I would be.


Stage: Lear (Groundling Theatre Company)


Canadians pride themselves on being hardy, but already this winter is proving to be a difficult one, dumping large amounts of snow on us along with brutal subzero temperatures. In these kinds of conditions, it’s tempting to take up hibernation, but the Groundling Theatre Company’s female-fronted production of Lear makes it worth your while to leave the comforts of home.

As the second production of this play to feature a woman as Lear that I’ve seen in four months, I can’t help comparing the Groundling Theatre production to last summer’s take on a female Lear at Shakespeare in High Park. Viewing either production is enough to leave audiences ruminating over the greater meaning that can be wrung from the play simply by casting a woman as the lead. Taken together, the Groundling Theatre Company Lear and Canstage King Lear make an eloquent argument for casting a woman in the title role, if not exclusively than certainly more often.

Set in the 16th century, this summer’s CanStage production emphasized female leadership in a male-dominated world, offering fascinating commentary on how women are viewed by others, and how they choose to present themselves to inhabit traditionally male roles. Groundling Theatre’s Lear takes a more intimate approach, focusing on the relationships between mothers and daughters. Of course King Lear is very much a play about filial relationships, but this production places them at the forefront, as a mad Lear repeatedly assumes that Poor Tom’s poverty is because he has daughters. As director Graham Abbey writes in the program notes, viewing the tragedy through a maternal lens makes more poignant Lear’s reaction to perceived ingratitude. Watching a bitter female Lear curse Goneril’s womb to sterility is shocking, while the primal wails of a mother who has lost her beloved daughter in the play’s final scenes are devastating to witness.

The talented cast is composed of screen and stage veterans, including several members of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival company. Led by Seana McKenna, in a commanding performance as Lear, the diverse company excels. Mckenna’s Lear is blunt and precise in her interactions and dialogue. Her Lear is all sharpness and calculation except, as her fool points out, when it comes to her daughters. As her mind slips away, Lear’s edge dulls, revealing her underlying regret and tenderness. It’s a riveting performance to watch, although I’ll admit that I found Diana D’Aquila to be the more affecting Lear, in the Shakespeare in High Park production.

Jim Mezon is a steady and empathetic Gloucester, and Orphan Black‘s Kevin Hanchard is a marvelous Kent, demonstrating loyalty and steadfast devotion. Colin Mochrie, best known for his ongoing role on improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, may be the company member with the least Shakespeare experience, but he’s a good fit for the honest and wise fool, delivering his lines with perfect comic timing.

Lear’s elder daughters can often seem one-note, but Diana Donnelly and Deborah Hay are two of the stronger Regan and Gonerils I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Hay is especially interesting to watch, as she invests her character with a measure of empathy. Her Goneril seems initially to be simply a daughter at her wit’s end with a parent who is increasingly exasperating and verbally abusive, but her resolve strengthens as a play goes on. I liked Mercedes Morris, in a subtler performance, as Cordelia too. Her devotion to Lear is evident in calmly expressed pleas of faithfulness, but Morris could use to project more, as her quiet voice was sometimes lost in the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

In a memorably villainous turn, the towering Alex McCooeye is an affable Loki-esque figure as Edmund. Undoubtedly the dangerous and destructive black sheep of the family, he’s so damn charismatic you can’t take your eyes off him. His soliloquies feel like he is speaking directly to each member of the audience, and McCooeye admirably walks the line between comedy and drama, drawing laughs from the crowd when earned yet continuing to be a threat.

As his noble brother Edgar, Antoine Yared is likable in a solid performance. However, as more theatres take on Shakespeare’s classic plays with diverse and gender-swapped casting, it’s a bit of a shame to see Edgar repeatedly approached in such a traditional way. In my view of CanStage’s production I remarked on what a shame it was to see Edmund, the villain, queer-coded when Edgar could just as easily have been portrayed as a gay character. After the Groundling Theatre Co. production, my friend remarked on the inadvertent, but unfortunate, commentary made on women rulers, as all of the female characters are dead by the end of the play with only men left on stage as the lights come down. The solution she posited was casting Edgar as a woman too; Edith, if you will. It’s an idea that has a lot of merit, and I’d love to see a production of Lear that gives this a try.

This was my first Groundling Theatre Company show, but I gather clean, simple sets, and costumes that don’t correspond with any particular time or place are hallmarks of this emerging company. The minimalist but effective stage, which is constructed of interlocking monochrome blocks that can be rearranged to give the impression of doors, or a bed works well. There are some really lovely pieces of staging in here too. I loved the scene where Gloucester cannot see a letter proving Edgar’s treachery until he wears spectacles, and where the fool has an opportunity to showcase some tricks. However, I found the costuming, which draws upon everything from a formal waistcoat and cravat to infinity scarves, hoodies, and jeans, to be an oddly lazy choice that doesn’t serve to ground the play in any particular time and fails to create a cohesive vision.

I was more taken with the choice to include a live musician, percussionist Graham Hargrove. The percussion is largely understated, but adds vital tension as needed, and gives thundering voice to Lear’s infamous storm.

With a diverse and talented cast, Groundling Theatre Company’s production of Lear offers a nuanced portrayal of mother-daughter relationships, and commentary on the challenges of being a woman in a position of power. I have some minor complaints, for example I’d prefer that the costumes grounded a show in a particular time and/or place, and while I loved the percussion, it sometimes drowned out the actors in the storm scenes, but on the whole this is a thoughtful, well-acted, Lear that’s worth leaving the warmth of your home to see.

The Groundling Theatre Company production of Lear runs until January 28th at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

Photo of Mercedes Morris, Seana McKenna and Colin Mochrie, by Michael Cooper

T5T: Books on my 2018 bucket list

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the wonderful Bionic Book Worm. This week’s topic:

JANUARY 9TH – Top 5 books on my 2018 bucket list

I’ve taken the topic to mean books that you’re prioritizing for 2018 and will absolutely, positively read this year. I’ve opted for books that were mostly hold-overs from 2017, and possibly earlier than that, some of which overlap with my 2018 reading resolutions, to read more classics and to read what I own.

272460685. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Pushkin’s short novel in verse has been on my reading list for a few years now, because it’s a story I’ve seen and loved in other forms. It was while watching the National Ballet of Canada dance the classic John Cranko-choreographed adaptation of Onegin that I fell for ballet as an art form. I was spellbound by the female lead, Tatyana, who begins the ballet as a country girl who has to be dragged away from her novels to greet company and felt empowered by the end of the ballet, where Tatyana doesn’t die, but holds a position of power over the (quite frankly rather dickish) Onegin. More recently, I caught a new Canadian musical based on the story that was one of my favourite theatre experiences of the year! By now I know the elements of the plot and characters well, but like any bookish blogger, I really want to read the original!

676974. Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault
Historical fiction is one of my preferred reading genres. Several years ago, I went looking for recommendations to read some of the more foundational authors in the genre, hoping to find well-researched and well-written titles. Some I took to heart, like Sharon Kay Penman and Dorothy Dunnett, but although the name Mary Renault often came up, I’ve still never read any of her books. A few friends have told me how much I would love her works, and I even picked up Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy at a used bookstore last year, so I have no excuse! Fortunately, owning copies just means that Fire From Heaven can count towards one of my 2018 reading resolutions, to read what I own. Although I’ve heard it’s dense, I fully expect to love this book, and I can’t wait to tackle it later this year!

AssasinsApprentice3. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
In 2017 Assassin’s Apprentice made a lot of my ‘series I’ve been meaning to start’, ‘top of the TBR’, kinds of lists. Yet here we are in 2018 and I STILL haven’t read it. A few book bloggers I follow made their way through the fantasy series last year and seemed to love it, and friends offline have recommended it to me, so I am determined – 2018 will be the year I finally pick up a Robin Hobb book! I actually have copies of the first few books too, thanks to a friend who permanently moved to New Zealand and gifted some of the books she couldn’t take with her to me.

320756712. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The book everyone was talking about last year was The Hate U Give. I intended to read it. I moved up the holds list at the library. I looked forward to it, yet it never quite reached the top of my TBR, despite the raves. My only excuse is that I’m really not much of a YA Contemporary reader, but there are a few notable exceptions and I suspect this is one of them. I’m making this important book a priority for 2018, and am planning to read it in February!

110161. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I always get the same reaction from friends when they learn that I, a former English major and current enthusiastic reader, haven’t picked up Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece. “You haven’t read Jane Eyre?” they ask in disbelief, jaws hanging open. To be honest, I’m a little surprised too. Somehow I never encountered it in high school or university and, although Jane Eyre is one of those rare classics that seems to be beloved by its readers, I rarely read classics after completing my degree. Now, as I make a conscious effort to choose a variety of reads and tackle some of the classics though, Jane Eyre is undoubtedly at the top of my list.

Have you read any of these? What are the titles you’re prioritizing this year? Comment and let me know!

Least Favourite Books of 2017

Like many in the book blogging community, I consider reading to be a form of escape, and 2017 was a year when we all had a lot to escape from. Many of the books I read captured my imagination and took me on moving, well-plotted journeys, populated by sympathetic flawed characters. Some… did not. My favourite books of 2017 can be found here, but I’ve also compiled a list of five of my least favourite reads of the year.

The good news is that only two of the books I read this year are so egregiously bad that I’d actively discourage anyone from reading them, the other choices fall more into the category of novels that either disappointed me with their execution, or that were simply not my cup of tea. Some of my choices will likely be controversial as they are critically acclaimed, so keep in mind that this is simply one person’s opinion. These books did not appeal to me personally, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be exactly what someone else is looking for!

349535c5. Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi
I feel a little bit badly about sticking Sonora on here because it’s such a clear case of a book that just was not my cup of tea. A contemporary, literary fiction work that reads like an extended fever dream, Sonora is pitched as a lyrical coming-of-age story about Ahlam, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and his Israeli wife, and Laura, the wilder, bolder best friend. Together they move from the desert suburbs of Arizona to explore drugs, sex, and boys in New York City, but the highs and lows of the drug-fueled lifestyle threaten to destroy them both. The writing is both the best and the worst thing about Sonora. At its best, Assadi’s prose is lush and poetic, as in her descriptions of setting, from the stark Sonoran desert in Arizona to the bustle of New York City. However, I found the ornate language distracting, to the point where I read the discussion questions at the back of the book and realized that I had missed key plot and character elements because the prose was so stylized! Sonora offers little of substance and reads less like an engaging and effective novel than it does an experiment in form, devised by the author to enable her to play with imagery and language freely without being constrained by plot. As someone who reads little in the way of literary fiction, it was a slog. Putting aside the plot and form issues, Sonora is a book populated by characters who only ever feel surface deep, making it difficult to connect with them. Ultimately I was left wishing the story had been more cohesive, and that the book had drawn more on the interesting familial relationships between Ahlam and her parents, than on her more cliché connection to party girl Laura.

311451484. The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich
The Love Interest is certainly the most readable book on this list, taking me only a few hours to read cover to cover, but it’s also one of the most disappointing books I’ve encountered. The problem? It’s a textbook case of a fabulous concept executed poorly. The fault appears to lie with author Cale Dietrich who doesn’t seem to know what he wants the book to be. At times The Love Interest appears to be a straightforward satire of the traditional YA romance genre, with laugh out loud funny lines. Yet it also tries to construct an original dystopia, in which boys are groomed from childhood to be “love interests,” lifelong spies who keep tabs on potentially important people by becoming their significant other. The result is a mess of a novel that doesn’t do either of these things well.

The idea behind The Love Interest is a subversion of the traditional YA love triangle. Pitting Juliet’s two love interests, a nice boy-next-door type and a bad boy against one another to win her heart, they instead fall for one another. Sounds fascinating right? Unfortunately the in-story subversions and lamp shading of YA tropes just don’t make sense within the context of the, rather shallowly constructed, world. Take for example the Nice vs. Bad formula. Each “love interest” is rigidly groomed to fit one type or the other and one Nice and one Bad are sent after each chosen girl, yet the in-world explanation for WHY these tropes have to be adhered to is hand waved. Ultimately, I found myself asking why a lot while reading this book and never getting much in the way of satisfying answers. Despite some incredibly funny lines, the inconsistency in the storytelling, the shallowly-rendered characters, and the lack of logic in the world building add up to a book that never fulfills its potential and that fails to do justice to a terrific concept.

6352223. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
My first experience with classic Russian literature did not go well. I believe that somewhere in War & Peace‘s 1,300 pages there is a genuinely good four or five hundred page book, but War & Peace as it exists now is an unbalanced work. The first half of the book is stronger, offering interesting, if enigmatic, characters and wry commentary on how young men romanticize the war, but mid-way through Tolstoy abandons all pretense that he is writing a novel. The remainder of War & Peace reads like a dissertation that exists only for Tolstoy to spout his thoughts on war, The Great Man Theory, and more. Even the (100 page!) epilogue reads more like the rambling conclusion of a Masters student than a novel. There’s a brief stretch where Tolstoy remembers that he has actual characters and returns to their lives to quickly sum things up, but even this seems like an afterthought. More accurately titled War & War & War & War & War & War & Peace, it often feels like any emphasis or development of plot and characters are a digression for Tolstoy, instead of the main event. If you’re especially keen on military history I imagine War & Peace makes for a fascinating read. If not, don’t read War & Peace, read Les Miserables instead.

184678182. An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay
Roxanne Gay is a noted feminist and writer of non-fiction and I certainly don’t intend to take away from her contributions, but her debut work of fiction is, quite frankly, awful. The first half of the novel deals with Haitian-American Mireille’s abduction at gunpoint outside the walls of her father’s multi-acre estate by men seeking ransom. When her captors do not receive the sum they’re looking for, Mireille is repeatedly, and graphically raped. The remainder of the novel deals with the aftermath of this trauma. Part of my hatred for this book comes from the fact that it aims to comment on complex themes of racism, sexism, and classism, yet offers nothing of value to the conversation. Rape and trauma are subjects that should be handled with delicacy, particularly in a time when shows like Game of Thrones have been criticized for their gratuitous use of sexual violence, yet Gay’s take is upsettingly exploitative. Gay appears to be trying to create a mirroring panic in the reader during the kidnapping scenes with her use of staccato prose, but the effect is just choppy and poorly written. The dialogue is even worse, full of over-the-top, corny conversations that wouldn’t be out of place in a cheesy romance novel or a B movie. The relationship between Mireille and her husband Michael is immature at best, and the two characters appear to be in constant competition for the title of most irritating character. It doesn’t help that An Untamed State suffers from pacing issues, thrusting readers into the midst of kidnapping within the first few pages, before we have time to become invested in the characters, but my biggest issue was with the graphic depictions of Mireille’s sexual assault. It’s difficult to believe this book was even written by a woman, let alone a noted feminist, because the rape scenes are so frequent, graphic, and disturbingly voyeuristic. The ending breaks even the tenuous grip that An Untamed State had on reality with a twist that is so implausible and unnecessary that it had me rolling my eyes at the page. The only redeeming qualities here lie in Gay’s portrayal of PTSD following the kidnapping and in the fascinating, but sadly all too few, insights offered on the immigrant Haitian-American experience.

231688171. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
Although I found it dense and too “hard science fiction” to be my kind of book, I admired the merits of The Three Body Problem, the first book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. Unfortunately, the sequel is not only dull and devoid of interesting characters, it’s also shockingly misogynistic throughout. Without going into too much detail, the book deals with an incoming alien invasion of Earth by the Trisolarans. Although their ships will not arrive for 400 years, the Trisolarans have planted subatomic particles that give them access to all human information on Earth, making it nearly impossible for humanity to form a response that the aliens will not see coming. In response, humanity appoints four “Wallfacers” and provides them with unlimited resources to design separate and secret strategies to mislead and foil the Trisolaran attack.

Cixin Liu’s strengths clearly don’t lie in character development, as his creations have so few distinguishing characteristics that they blend together into one bland, not particularly likable, type. The female characters, of which there are few, fare even worse. Liu’s women exist primarily as love interests for the male characters, who lead, make the tough decisions, and generally hold positions of importance, including all four Wallfacer appointments. Many of the female minor characters betray their husbands, leaving me to wonder if the author has some unresolved issues, and The Dark Forest opens with the womanizing protagonist unable to even remember the name of his latest fling when she is killed off! But the most offensive portrayal of all occurs in a plot that has to be read to be believed – except that no woman should ever read this book. Main character Luo Ji falls in love with an imaginary perfect woman that he has created (which his doctor describes as a totally normal experience?!) and his infatuation is so overwhelming that it destroys the only close relationship he has with a real woman. When he is appointed a Wallfacer and has the resources of the world at his disposal, he decides to use them to find a real woman who fits exactly the image he has in his head, by describing her to a bodyguard. Unbelievably, the bodyguard finds a woman who exactly matches this description, brings her to Luo Ji and they proceed to fall in love and have a child together! An impending alien invasion is more believable than this entire plotline. Throughout, the woman (Yan Yan) is infantilized, described as innocent, childlike, in need of protection, and possessing less education than our male protagonist. After they’ve been together for a few years (long enough for her to procreate), Yan Yan is quite literally fridged! The author puts her into refrigerated hibernation, along with her daughter, held as hostages against Luo Ji’s good behaviour, and they’re never heard from again. Never before have I read something so disturbingly, casually misogynistic, yet The Dark Forest holds a 4.4 rating on goodreads and has been critically acclaimed! My suspicion is that the blatant misogyny in these books is being tolerated because the author is Chinese. I’m all for diverse voices, particularly in the traditionally white male written SFF genre, but they should not come at the cost of three-dimensional female characters. Fans of Science-Fiction and Fantasy deserve better.

What were your least favorite reads of 2017? Comment and let me know!