Event Recap | Penguin Random House Canada Fall Preview

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Last Thursday, Penguin Random House Canada invited booksellers and book bloggers to get a sneak preview of some of their must-read titles this season. It was an evening of pure bookworm nerding out, and a chance to meet some of their authors.

#CanLit Author Encounters

Lynn Crawford, Michael Redhill, Linda Spalding, Anthony Lacavera and Sam Turnbull all came to talk to us about their books.

  • Farm to Chef: Cooking through the Seasons by Lynn Crawford (Sept 12) – an absolutely gorgeous cookbook with recipes that, at first glance at least, sound delicious and seem simply enough to make. Recipes are arranged by season and featuring key ingredients (e.g. apples and mushrooms in Fall, cabbage and squash in Winter, asparagus and strawberries in Spring, and berries and tomatoes in Summer).
  • Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (Sept 19) – a literary thriller set in Toronto about a young woman who investigates the mystery of her doppelganger being seen in Kensington Market. This book was already on my TBR list even before this event, so I’m very excited to have met the author and dig right in!
  • Fuss-Free Vegan by Sam Turnbull (Oct 17) – comfort food vegan recipes with no kale, no quinoa, no smoothies and no energy balls! We got a recipe card for 15-minute Peanut Noodles. I love peanut butter and noodles, and I especially love making meals in 15 minutes or fewer, so consider me sold on this vegan dish.
  • How We Can Win by Anthony Lacavera (Oct 3) – did you know the lightbulb was invented by Canadians? This book, by the founder of Wind Mobile, is about the need for Canadians to step up, own our successes and go for the gold rather than settling for bronze.
  • A Reckoning by Linda Spalding (Sept 26) – a novel inspired in part by Spalding’s own family history of her Quaker ancestors moving to Canada and taking with them their pet bear.

 

Already Read, Highly Recommend

  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – one of the best books I’ve read this year, a Dickensian coming of age story of a gay man in 20th century Ireland. Carve out a staycation to immerse yourself in this.
  • Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin – a Congressional intern has an affair with her boss and reinvents her whole identity to move on from the fall out. Told from the perspectives of the intern herself, her mother, her daughter and the Congressman’s wife.

 

My Top 5

  • The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Oct 19) – I remember being absolutely blown away by The Golden CompassLa Belle Sauvage is the first in a new trilogy set in Lyra’s world, and I can’t wait to revisit that world.
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Sept 12) – a family story that begins with the main character’s daughter setting fire to their house on purpose. I love Ng’s earlier book Everything I Never Told You, and @ReederReads describes this book as being “like a really good episode of The Good Wife.
  • Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks (Oct 17) – Tom Hanks wrote a book! Hanks’ love for typewriters is well-known, and each of the 17 short stories features a typewriter.
  • We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Oct 3) – Coates’ essays about the Obama White House years. I need this book.
  • God by Reza Aslan (Nov 7) – I loved Aslan’s take on Jesus in Zealot and can’t wait to dive into this.

Fiction Highlights

  • The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce (Nov 7) – how beautiful is this cover? Described as AJ Fikry meets High Fidelity, this story is about a record store owner with a knack for finding people the music they need, rather than the music they think they want.
  • Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn (Oct 3) – the newest instalment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a contemporary re-telling of King Lear, with Lear re-imagined as the head of a global corporation.
  • Bonfire by Kristen Ritter (Nov 7) – grip lit by the star of Jessica Jones!
  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett (Sept 12) – book 3 in the series started by The Pillars of the Earth, which I loved. Follett does a great job creating an immersive world for his historical epics.
  • Artemis by Andy Weir (Nov 14) – a heist story on the moon by the author of The Martian. Recommended for fans of The Expanse.
  • The Rooster Bar by John Grisham (Oct 24) – this is a nostalgia pick, as I was a huge fan of Grisham’s early work but haven’t really loved his more recent titles. But this story sounds like the kind of book I would have devoured as a teen — law school students learn their school is a scam and look for a way to escape their student debts and defeat the system.
  • Smile by Roddy Doyle (Sept 12) – a whodunnit psychological thriller, this intrigued me because of its comparison to Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which I loved.
  • Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean (Oct 31) – this is another nostalgia pick for me, as the Vinyl Cafe stories were among my earliest introductions to Canadian culture. Stuart McLean passed away earlier this year, and this volume collects his Christmas stories.
  • The Boat People by Sharon Bala (Jan 9) – a group of Sri Lankan refugees come to Canada only to face the threat of deportation of accusations of terrorism in their new land.

Non-Fiction Highlights

  • The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin (Sept 12) – I remember taking the online quiz to find out if I’m an Upholder, Questioner, Rebel or Obliger, and being disappointed by my result. This book is about how you can make the most of your personality type and influence others.
  • The Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (Oct 17) – about a powerful wolf in Yellowstone. Someone at the event said it’s like Dynasty or Game of Thrones, but with a wolf.
  • Endurance by Scott Kelly (Oct 17) – remember the twin astronauts who participated in a NASA study on the effect of space on the human body, where one lived on the space station for a year and the other stayed on Earth? Scott Kelly is the twin who lived in space, and this is his story.
  • I Can’t Breathe by Matt Taibbi (Oct 24) – a timely book about the roots and aftermath of Eric Garner’s killing by police.
  • The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt (Sept 12) – beautiful cover! Greenblatt’s a great go-to if you want to geek out about Shakespeare or anything historical, and I’m curious to see his exploration of the Adam and Eve story.

Movie and TV Highlights

  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Aug 29) – I haven’t read the book, but I love this TV tie-in cover and am so excited for the CBC series (Netflix in the US)! (Trailer)
  • The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (Sept 26) – I love Nesbo’s thrillers and this one stars Michael Fassbender! (Trailer)
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Jan 30, movie tie-in cover still to be revealed) – I absolutely loved this geeky tribute to 80s video games, and can’t wait to see it on-screen! (Trailer)
  • Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James – the movie tie-in edition includes James’ photos and caption commentary from the making of the film. The Fifty Shades Freed movie comes to theatres next February!
  • Voyager by Diana Gabaldon – Outlander Season 3 launches on W network this Fall! (Trailer)

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Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for a great evening!

Giveaway | The Sinner on Showcase

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Based on the international bestselling novel of the same name, The Sinner follows a young mother (Jessica Biel) who, when overcome by an inexplicable fit of rage, commits a startling act of violence and to her horror has no idea why. The event launches an inverted and utterly surprising crime thriller whose driving force is not the “who” or the “what” – but the “why.” An investigator (Bill Pullman) finds himself obsessed with uncovering the woman’s buried motive. Together, they travel a harrowing journey into the depths of her psyche and the violent secrets hidden in her past.

The eight-episode crime thriller premieres Monday, August 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showcase in Canada. To watch the trailer, please click here.

I love the trailer — I think Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman are fantastic in it and I can just imagine how masterfully they’ll bring this grip lit psychological thriller to life. As a fan of mysteries, I’m also intrigued by the whydunnit element of the story and the comparison of the author on Goodreads to ‘Germany’s Patricia Highsmith.’

Giveaway (Canada only)

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Read the book that inspired the show! Thanks to Showcase, I’m giving away a prize pack to my Canadian readers that includes:

  • A copy of The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr
  • Showcase tote bag and swag

Three ways to win:

One (1) winner will be chosen from all three platforms.

Contest ends at midnight on August 21.

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Thank you to Showcase for the opportunity to host this giveaway!

Three Must-See Plays in Toronto This Week

Prince Hamlet

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On stage till April 29 at the Theatre Centre. General admission seating, pay what you can afford ($5, $25, $50, $75). Buy tickets online.

The most visceral, emotionally powerful take on Shakespeare I’ve ever experienced, Ravi Jain’s ASL/English production Prince Hamlet is a must see. The stark set design compels us to keep our gaze fixed on the actors, and the dynamism of their movement through the space. The piles of dirt around the stage provide opportunities for fraught, highly symbolic engagement by the actors, and the mirrors on the far wall create moments of self-reflection done very well, as characters like Claudius and Hamlet deliver monologues not to the audience but to themselves.

The key to this play’s success in my view lies in the masterful performance by Dawn Jani Birley who plays Horatio. Tasked with telling Hamlet’s story after his death, Horatio narrates the events of the play in ASL. Birley also interprets much of the spoken dialogue into ASL, yet remains present in the scene, her gestures conveying emotions writ large. Birley’s performance is most powerful when she’s alone on stage, either signing a speech before another character delivers a monologue, or delivering her own monologue as Horatio. The scene where she narrates Ophelia’s death is heartbreaking, and the final scene of the play, where Horatio dissembles with grief at Hamlet’s death is beyond words. I try to write in more detail about the experience on this blog, but really, that final scene just about broke me. I’m usually too self-conscious to give a standing ovation when I’m as close to the stage as I was at Prince Hamlet (second row), but this performance brought me to my feet. It was incredible.

Banana Boys

Banana Boys

On stage till May 14 at Factory Theatre. General admission seating, Tickets $25, $20 for seniors, students and arts workers. Buy tickets online.

Raw, irreverent and surprisingly poignant at times, Banana Boys is a brash take on Asian-Canadian masculinity. The title is from a derogatory term to describe someone “yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” and the play tells the story of five Asian-Canadian men who are exploring their identities and navigating adulthood.

The story begins at the funeral of one of the men, Rick (Jeff Yung), a wealthy consultant who lived with drug addiction and the ability to time travel, and who was found with a mirror in his chest. The time traveling conceit sets the stage for a frenzied series of vignettes from the characters’ lives, as Rick pops in and out of various time periods in an attempt to find some potential for posterity.

For a show about death and drugs, it’s remarkably hilarious. I particularly loved a game show scene that mimicked the cheesy variety show formats on Asian TV, and Matthew Gin as Mike had to choose from four “acceptable” career options as his mother cheered in the background. Another favourite scene was a guerrilla warfare sequence where the characters were confronted with the landscape of being a “banana boy”, such as that white guys get girls from various backgrounds and banana boys are left with video games and bubble tea.

At other times, the play is in-your-face about its darker themes. For example, Oliver Koomsatira as Dave narrates an incident of racial violence from the stage, and his cast mates walk into the audience, look audience members in the eye and show images from the story on their phone screens. It was uncomfortable, and consciously so; we as audience members are forced to confront the reality that Dave had lived through. Dave struggled with anger management issues throughout the play, beating up white characters for real and perceived racial slights, and his anger becomes a constant reminder of the microaggressions Asian-Canadians face daily, and how all of that adds up inside you.

Banana Boys is raw and powerful and the staging is absolutely masterful. See it.

Little Pretty and the Exceptional

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On stage till April 30 at Factory Theatre. General admission seating, Tickets $45, $30 for seniors, students and arts workers. Buy tickets online.

A Punjabi-Canadian man and his two daughters prepare to open up a sari shop in Toronto as the elder daughter Simran (Farah Merani) deals with mental health issues. I came into this play expecting a family comedy along the lines of Kim’s Convenience, and wasn’t prepared for how harrowing an experience this play would become. The play plunges us directly into Simran’s psyche, beginning with her stressing out over LSATs, and Merani is a tightly coiled spring, jittery and awaiting the slightest touch to explode. Later, she channels her long-deceased mother and walks around the store as lights flicker and sounds come from speakers and it’s just an overwhelming, utterly terrifying scene. I almost clutched the arm of the friend who watched the play with me, and had to remind myself this was fiction, so real did this scene feel. All kudos to Merani for her performance, as I can only imagine how tiring, how emotionally draining it must be to play this part day in and day out; I was exhausted just watching what she went through.

The performance standout for me however was Shruti Kothari as younger sister Jasmeet. Some online reviews have called her “effervescent”, and it’s true — she lights up the stage with her quest to become prom queen and her rom com scenes with new boyfriend Iyar (Shelly Antony). But as the story goes on, we realize there’s a strained cheerfulness to Jasmeet’s demeanour, a determination to remain positive and keep her family living as normal a life as possible. For all her love for her sister, she is the last to allow herself to admit that Simran needs help, and for all her desire to keep her family happy, she also harbours major unresolved issues about her mother. The play’s program calls her “the typical hip Toronto teenager”, which I think is a disservice, as to my mind, she gave the most nuanced performance and her character showed the most growth within the story.

Shelly Antony as Iyar is hilarious and charming, but more importantly, as the only character outside the family, he provides perspective and sees things before the family members allow themselves to acknowledge. He’s most fun as comic relief, but when he gets serious, you realize how wonderful he is as a boyfriend, and how much more he is than just the perfect prom king beside Jasmeet’s queen.

Sugith Varughese is fantastic as Dilpreet, the father whose dreams of a new life in Canada are inextricably intertwined with his dreams of creating a family legacy for his children. Dilpreet provides a much needed reality check; while Simran struggles with stress and Jasmeet turns a blind eye to the possibility that things are less than perfect, Dilpreet must keep the family going. He continues with the sari store because he needs to pay the bills. He has to confront his guilt over his wife’s death because he needs to help his daughters. Varughese imbues the character with humour and charisma, and serves as a wonderful foil for both daughters.

This isn’t an easy play to watch, but if you do, prepare to be moved.

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Fun fact: I actually learned of these plays from each other. A friend invited me to see Little Prettyand in the programme I saw a promo for Banana Boys, and when I watched Banana Boys, there was a flyer in the lobby for Prince Hamlet. So many thanks to my friend Tina who started me on this whole series in the first place!