Category Archives: Reviews

Some of my best reads from 2016 and 2017

For whatever reason, 2016 was a reading binge year for me that spilled over to 2017. Of the too many books I read, these are the ones that easily come to mind when I think back to the books I enjoyed, or made me think, or made me cry.

Top 3

These are the books that linger in my brain and my heart, long after I finished reading them. Re-reading these are in my near future.

Reclaiming Conversations, by Sherry Turtle – my “Recommended Read” of 2016, this book was a catalyst to reflect on my own relationship with the mobile device in my hand, and not just as a resource for planning the introduction of mobile ownership to the kids. (nonfiction)

Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss (first book in the “Kingkiller Chronicle” trilogy). Tai’s “recommended read” of 2016, and I’m kind of jealous that he claimed it first. It’s a fantasy book with such a unique system of magic, and it has amazing pacing. Such an amazing protagonist overcoming jaw-dropping challenges, but so many well-rounded supporting characters too. I wholeheartedly enjoyed it better than Game of Thrones, and I really liked GoT when I first read it too!

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi – an absolutely beautiful memoir written by a bright neurosurgeon who discovers he has late-stage lung cancer. Before going into medicine, Kalanithi completed an English degree, thinking he would be able to explore “the meaning of life, and death” thru literature. The journey he goes through and the deep introspection he has on why he became a doctor, and what makes a good doctor, are written about exquisitely. This was one of those books where many times i had to put it down just to reflect on the brilliant sentence or paragraph that i just read.

Fiction Faves

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell – if you love Harry Potter and teen drama, this was a highly entertaining read with an amazing story twist half-way through. It borrows heavily from the tropes in Harry Potter, but makes it a completely different wizarding world, and you’re dropped into the adventure immediately (the story opens up at the start of their last year in wizarding school).

Actually, anything by Rainbow Rowell has been wonderful. Eleanor and Park was a beautiful YA romance. I wrote earlier about my reaction to reading it.

For a completely different tone, her Landline is an adult novel that explores the heart-rendering dilemma of a woman torn between her career (which she loves and is driven by) and her husband and kids (who she loves, but feels inept to be present for–he is a stellar stay at home dad). Her personal life is a kind of a mess. An incident around the holidays leads to a fight and he travels to his parents’ for christmas with the kids as initially planned, while she decides to stay home for work. There’s additional tension of wondering whether she and her writing partner (a hot guy she’s been writing with since college) would end up together. Throw in a mystical landline phone that seems to be the only way she can get a hold of her husband, but it seems like she’s talking to him from 15 year ago. I just found it captures so many of the more subtle challenges an adult faces, compared to a YA.

Jane Steel, by Lyndsey Faye – it’s Jane Eyre meets Dexter meets Nancy Drew. Jane is an amazing female protagonist. Her resiliency, pluck and smarts make you cheer for her in this Victorian England historical-mystery-thriller-romance. It was a slow first chapter for me, but then picked right up. Along the way I learned a bunch about British Colonialism in Sikh region of now India.

The Voodoo Killings: A Kincaid Strange Novel, by Kristi Charish. A super fun mystery thriller, in a world where the raising of zombies has just been made illegal in the USA. The protagonist thus loses her job consulting for the Seattle police force (since even the temporary raising of zombies to ask murder victims about how they died is illegal).

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. This is a sweeping novel of a family drama taking place in two worlds I knew little about: the country of Ethiopia and the practice of medicine where doctors and nurses do not have the resources we take for granted in North America.

The Martian: A Novel, by Andy Weir – this totally appealed to the science geek in me. It was thrilling, smart (the author tried to be as scientifically accurate as possible), and funny, showing such a positive example of human ingenuity and good humour conquering over the dire circumstances of being stranded on Mars.

For a completely teeny bopper YA romance though that is thoroughly enjoyable brain candy, I also recommend Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. She’s a mixed Korean & white junior in high school in Omaha (or some such place in the US midwest), who would write letters professing her love to the boys she had crushes on, to try and get over them. She’d then save the letters and not actually send them. Until one day she makes her little sister mad, and then the sister sends them off in the mail! Hijinks ensue. As an Asian girl growing up in the Canadian Prairies, it’s nice to identify with this character in a way I couldn’t when I was a teen, due to lack of representation in the books available then.

Fiction Honorable Mentions
  • Wonder, by RJ Palacio – a kids book that centers around an extraordinary boy Auggie who also has a severe facial deformity. It should actually be read by all adults as a reminder of the importance to always be kind.
  • The Help, by Kathryn Stockett – started my journey to better understand and empathize with the African-American experience in the South in the age of the Jim Crow segregation laws. Telling the stories in a really accessible manner, it is at times funny, tense, bitter and heartwarming.
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue. The synopsis given by the publisher is better than my many attempts at trying to describe this. It was discovering the world anew from the eyes of this 5-year-old child who knows nothing beyond the single room. I found the second half lagging a little as it switched gears, but still interesting in a more clinical way.
  • Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes – a funny and weepy romantic novel. Lovely easy read. No bodice ripping though…it was made into a movie last year.

Non-fiction Favs

Reinventing Organizations, by Frederik Laloux – an organizational theory book that revolutionized my company, as it gave us the language and terminology to describe our organizational structure and culture. It accurately calls out many of the underlying causes to why i had to leave Accenture (more than just the commute and the work). The abbreviated illustrated version now available makes the content much more accessible.

How to Be A Woman, by Caitlin Moran – a super hilarious collection of biographical anecdotes from this UK journalist that collectively combines to be a siren call for “strident feminism”. I will be making my daughters read this when they’re teens, no lie. (nonfiction)

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg- while it’s a very funny and entertaining read, as I’m reading what the dating scene looks like in the past decade, all I could think was, “Thank god I’m not single now and looking for love”. And then I thought about how it ties into what I read in Reclaiming Conversations.

Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish – this really helped us deal with jealousy issues in our children last year

Decisive: How to Make Decisions in Life and Work, by Chip and Dan Heath

Enjoy reading! And send me your favourite recommendations!


Star Wars, and other Arts and Culture that moved me in 2015

I don’t get out on the town that much anymore, other than my season’s tickets to the National Ballet (young kids are such a bummer). Even so, there was still lots of arts and culture that moved me in 2015. And since it’s already into February in 2016, without further ado, let’s get to the list!

TV / Webseries

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a webseries on Youtube.

This 2013 production takes Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and updates it to the current modern era and format with aplomb. Lizzie Bennett is a video blogger (aka vlogger) and through her semi-weekly videos (each usually lasting between 3 and 5 minutes), the story unfolds. It’s not necessary to know the plot of Pride and Prejudice to enjoy this series, but it does give an extra layer of enjoyment to be able to anticipate the plot, and compare the adaptations. It even won an Emmy! I love that Charlotte and Bingley/Bing Lee are Chinese! I love the costume theatre! (you’ll see) I missed this web series during the original publishing back in 2012, so I did lose out on the interactive trans-media aspect of it, but it was no matter, I was hooked all the same and binge watched this in two sessions. If you’re a romantic, give it to episode 7, and see if you too aren’t hooked for the count. Continue reading Star Wars, and other Arts and Culture that moved me in 2015

Nostalgia for some books of my childhood

I recently finished rereading Anne of Green Gables. It is E1’s copy of the book we gave her for Christmas, and when I read the first few chapters aloud to her, I got hooked again. In the evenings, as she slept, I borrowed the book to read furtively onward. A smile was likely on my face the whole way through to the end, delighted with the character of Anne and the “scrapes” she got herself into.

It’s also delightful seeing E1 also getting taken up in not only the characters and the story of Anne of Green Gables, but of many of the books she’s reading. I look at her and I see myself at her age. I am nostalgic for the books of my childhood and early teens, and for how they made me feel, the childhood memories they invoke, or the lessons I still keep from them. Here are some of them. (Unfortunately, I am terrible at remembering plot details or character names, so please don’t expect a synopsis of these books!) Continue reading Nostalgia for some books of my childhood

National Ballet of Canada Review: The Winter’s Tale

How does someone get into a state of mind where the seed of jealousy can take root even if it is completely unwarranted? Once the seed is planted, is there anyway to stop it growing, or will it inevitably destroy the very thing you love? Then if you are the wronged one and had your love destroyed by the one you loved, would you forgive him/her if (s)he repented painfully over the years? And would you so easily accept strangers into your heart as family if all you knew was a family of a different home? These were some of the questions I’m still pondering after watching this terrific ballet adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. (Here is the synopsis of the story, as structured for this ballet. )

If you like theatre and dance, even if you’re not particularly fond of ballet, you really must to go see the National Ballet of Canada’s co-production with The Royal Ballet of The Winter’s Tale as choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The current run by the National Ballet of Canada is over today, but it surely will make a comeback in the seasons to come. It would be crazy for NBOC to not immediately remount a production as successful as this one, after such a short one-week run. There are many things to commend about this production, but the one thing that is apparent is how conscious Wheeldon is to what would attract new audiences to story ballets. Just as in Alice in Wonderland, the theatricality, production design, and music are really designed to entice the audience to pay attention to the truly wonderful dancing on stage.


There are many outstanding choreographic moments in this show that I’ll remember. A few off the top of my head:

  • The Act 1 duets between Leontes and Hermione, where the same motif is repeated, but getting progressively more sinister and violent from his part as the act progresses.
  • The solo of Leontes as the jealousy takes hold. The movement is twisted, tortured
  • Hermione’s solo during her trial is beautiful, lyrical, and so lonely as she pleads her innocence.
  • The amazing group peasant dances in Act 2.  There is so much joy and exuberance in these sequences that it made me smile the whole while through it. There are so many different shapes and lines made, with very interesting body shapes and movements, that it’s just visually stunning. It’s really a shame that music continues moving so much that there isn’t any slight pauses in the music or the dancing to allow invite the audience to applaud. (I know, we can applaud at any time, but our Toronto matinee audience is generally shy and overly polite…and I don’t feel brave enough to start the applause myself)
  • The really unique positioning in the pas de deux with Perdita and Florizel. In a weird way, I would make the analogy that her body was positioned as if he was holding her like a french horn, with her torso curled up, her head being mouthpiece, and her semi-split legs being the bell of the horn, if the bell was longer and reached up to go across his shoulders. It’s a visual I’ll not forget.

Dance Performances

November 21, 2pm cast:

  • Leontes – Evan McKie
  • Hermione – Jurgita Dronina
  • Perdita – Rui Huang
  • Paulina – Svetlana Lunkina
  • Polixenes – Brendan Saye
  • Florizel – Skylar Campbell

I believe this was my first real chance to see Evan McKie dancing in a lead role since he joined NBOC. Each production typically has multiple casts, so the luck of which cast performed on Saturday afternoons (our season tickets), combined with his injuries in the last couple of years, made this an exciting performance for me. He definitely did not disappoint. Leontes is not a showy technical role, but it’s a showy dramatic acting role. Physically embodying the jealousy eating at him bit by bit until his outlook and his physical bearing is twisted. In his performance there was palatable tension and emotion on stage, especially in the separate duets he has with Hermione and Paulina.

I was also really curious and excited to see newly joined principle dancer Jurgita Dronina as Hermione. She played Hermione with assurance and yet lightness. Her solo at her trial was one obvious highlight; she executed that difficult choreography flawlessly so you didn’t even realize how difficult it was. The other big highlight for me was her duets with McKie as her desperation of the situation grows. The emotion and drama between them were very realistic.

Svetlana Lunkina as Paulina just made me even more of a fan of hers. There’s something about her arms that’s just mesmerizing. And she then has the serious acting chops to portray a woman with all these conflicting feelings: anger and despair toward the man who caused the death of beloved Hermione and her children, and indirectly her husband, but also the sense of duty to continue to serve her master of the kingdom she belongs to.

I only wished the same assuredness of these principle dancers would have rubbed off more on the dancers playing Perdita (the lost princess 16 years later) and Florizel (the prince she falls in love with). The choreography for them in the second act is tremendously difficult, that is for sure, and the audience could tell of the effort involved. You could see that Rui Huang was absolutely concentrating on the steps, but that meant the acting of the part of the young lover was sacrificed. There wasn’t any chemistry between her and Skylar Campbell as Prince Florizel. Things like reacting to each other’s touch, or small body language nuances that demonstrated that she was aware of where he was on stage regardless of whether she was looking at him or not…those were missing. The kisses felt choreographed, instead of a natural thing for these two characters to do. Because I couldn’t believe in the two of them as lovers, it really eroded the magic from the first act.

Production notes

  • The original music by Joby Talbot really helped tell the story, in particular where bits of discordant tones creep into the main melody to signal the change in Leontes’ inner mind. It was definitely clear that this is the same composer as Alice in Wonderland though. There were hints of that score throughout this production—the use of mallet instruments, the kind of wormy sound of the oboe or clarinet paired with the violins. I thought the violin solo in Act 3 as Leontes mourns at Hermione’s grave was absolutely beautiful and I was disappointed that it was so short. I would have loved to have that bit extended. The Act 2 peasant dances were also able to be so joyous because of the great music.
  • The sets and props really helped set the tone between the stark and austere realms of Sicilia, and the warm brightness of Bohemia. The silk effects to convey the rough seas, the sail of the boat, and the bear that attacks Antigonus (as per the famous stage direction of Shakespeare) were brilliant. And the grand tree that is the centerpiece of the second act really is impressive as it spans the entire width of the stage, adorned with hanging jewels and doodads.
  • There were parts of the third act that seemed truncated. For example, when Perdita is revealed to be the lost daughter, how her adoptive father and brother react was kind of skipped over. If there was a reconciliation or apology sought from Polixenes to his son Florizel, then I missed it. And after the wedding scene, it cut really abruptly to the statue gallery. I would have liked another few bars of music for the action on the stage to better transition to that location.
  • The costuming was gorgeous throughout. The detail and the flow of the fabric particularly for the ladies dresses were just outstanding. The only slight distraction was how the purple silk dress worn by Perdita really shows all the sweat. You’d think they would have remembered that from the Alice in Wonderland.

Overall, the story has really been translated amazingly well for the dance stage. The plot line is quite clear, there is lots of drama and action, and really great solo roles for the company dancers. I’m really looking forward to seeing it again the next time they put it on, and keen to see other casts perform the same roles.

What an amazing start to the 2015-16 season!


Attending Fall For Dance North 2015 – Program 2

I was thrilled to attend the second program of the inaugural Fall For Dance North dance festival on the evening of Oct 1, 2015. (Thanks to my friends K&D for getting tickets, and my dear hubby T for taking care of the kids on a Thursday night.) A whole evening of 6 dance companies for $10! How amazing is that? Considering that Oct 1 was also World Ballet Day, it was all together a great day of dance.

On a little more pessimistic side, I do wonder about the sustainability of the festival. The intention of it is to draw new audiences to attend dance performances by making both the price ($10) and the durations of each piece (20 min or less) more accessible. Will it be successful, in the way So You Think You Can Dance has broadened the audience for dance? I sure hope so.

For our evening of dance we had the Program 2 selection of performances. Here are my rough review notes:

Ballet BC – Twenty Eight Thousand Waves

  • This company has come back from bankruptcy in 2009, and according to one of my companions for the evening, have revamped their quality of dance as well. (she used to be a season ticket holder of Ballet BC before 2009) If there was a decline in dance quality back then, it surely isn’t evident now. The performance given this night was terrific.
  • The piece is physical, with intricate partnering sections, but also many moments of solitude.
  • The lighting, set design and costuming were murky, dark…not unlike the waves at sea that pound an oil rig (the title of the piece apparently alludes to the number of times per day an oil rig is battered by waves)
  • The first pas de deux was a stand-out moment for me, the two dancers handled the truly difficult partner work almost effortlessly, but were also able to convey a sense of angst or grief.
  • Did there really have to be that bright string of lights across the top of the stage to shine in our eyes for half the performance though?

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre – After the Rain Pas de Deux

  • After the cold and dark look of Ballet BC, the brighter and warm colours of the set, lighting and costuming were welcomed by my eyes.
  • A beautiful pas de deux piece, slow and not showy, but all the more difficult for the absolute control it takes at all times.
  • While Christopher Wheeldon choreographed it as an abstract piece, I am left with a feeling of touching on the tender moments of a deep love, ended by a mourning of that love lost.

DanceBrazil – Malungos

  • A hybrid of Afro-Brazilian folk dance, capoeira, and contemporary, the pulsing music provided by the musicians on stage was infectious. The rhythm section gave different tempos and rhythms (I think i heard some samba in there?) that just instinctively makes you want to move your body.
  • While the dance quality can’t measure up against those that came before it, it was an enjoyable group performance.

Peggy Baker Dance Projects – fractured black

  • I was most excited for the prospect of this one, because Peggy Baker is such a legend/institution in the Toronto contemporary dance world. I’d seen a performance of her company several years before and enjoyed it immensely. For this piece to be created in collaboration with musician Sarah Neufeld, it just seemed like it’d be something special to see.
  • I was let down. The dance was oddly very static, with the movement really only coming from her arms and upper body, with only a few high kicks from the legs. Otherwise her feet were stuck in place. I kept thinking that at some point soon, she was going to rip off the corset and clunky heels she was wearing as a symbol of throwing off the shackles against women and finally MOVE! But no, the piece just ended, expectation unfulfilled.
  • The music was haunting and beautiful though. Neufeld both played the violin *and* sang, which seems terribly difficult to me.
  • I just had a thought – maybe Peggy Baker wanted us to feel frustrated, as a metaphor for how women are still constrained?  Well, if frustration was the desired result, she sure got it from me, and I was not entertained by it. I don’t think it would win over any new audiences either.

Dorrance Dance – SOUNDspace

  • This was my favourite piece of the night, hands down. Dorrance Dance is a tap dance company, one that aims to push the form. This particular piece has no music save the rhythms created from the dancers’ themselves. I was amazed by the varying audio textures, differences in volume and intensity, and playful rhythms throughout. The artistic director and choreographer Michelle Dorrance typically choreographs the rhythms and sounds first, then the steps to create the sounds, and then the body movements to make it an entertaining and surprising experience to watch.
  • Thoroughly enjoyable and joyful from start to end. I’m sure I was smiling the whole way through. Great lighting design too, and now I’ve experienced what a properly miked tap routine is like. Personally I wished this was the closing routine of the evening.

Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company – Desencuetros and Rio del Tiempo

  • Esmeralda Enrique was definitely the star here in this flamenco performance. She was just oozing intensity and passion – her performance transcended the mere steps and she was radiating out to the back of the hall. It wasn’t that the other members of her company were poor performers at all—if you were to watch them individually, they were all lovely dancers. But the way she moved her arms and held the angles of her head, the snap back from flow to position…she was the star.
  • The live musicians and singers were very cool too. Similar to the tap routine, the rhythms created in flamenco are very stirring.

Crossing my fingers that this really was the inaugural event, and not just a one-shot deal.


National Ballet of Canada Review: Ratmansky and Côté

Performance: May 30 matinee

Being & Nothingness world premiere

Choreographed by Guillaume Côté, started off as a solo commissioned by Greta Hodgkinson a couple of years ago, before being expanded for this season into a larger work. The piano music by Phillip Glass was quite a perfect fit for the piece.

Greta was as incredible as she was in the first time I saw this. Grappling with loneliness, questioning meaning, and the anxiety of confronting your being – it was all demonstrated here, in here “duet” with the light bulb.

The set was stark, pulled back and up without any backdrops or curtains. The main curtain pulled up several minutes before the start of the show, and showed Greta sitting at the edge of a bed staring out into the house even with the house lights up. Lying on the bed was Felix Paquet, and you wondered whether he was her lover in the piece, but it turns out he was just sharing the space until his vignette. Other set elements included a door, a sink, a window, a chair and a rug, a phone – all would have a dance vignette interacting with these props. Continue reading National Ballet of Canada Review: Ratmansky and Côté

Falling in love with Eleanor & Park

I fell in love with this book, Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell, quickly and completely. Much like how the title characters do with each other.

Eleanor is the eldest of five children in a family smothered under poverty and the tyranny of an alcoholic, abusive stepfather. With bright red, curly hair, pale skin, Rubenesque body, and strange thrift-shop wardrobe, she stands out in school for all the wrong reasons. Continue reading Falling in love with Eleanor & Park

Into The Woods: Film Review

I’ve been struggling with my review of the movie Into The Woods (2014). On the one hand, as pure entertainment you can bring your family to, (i.e. without containing very many obvious uncomfortable topics needing explanation later to innocent ones) like an ice cream dessert, I’d say it scores a 9 out of 10. Upon deeper scrutiny, on the other hand, if what you are looking for is a main course with an expert blend of taste, aromas, textures, and appearances, I’d have to give it a 7 out of 10. Read on if you want to hear why. Continue reading Into The Woods: Film Review

Serial—Seriously addicting

I know I’m coming to the Serial podcast party 11 weeks late, but better late than never, right? And after listening to just the first podcast, I know I’m hooked.

What is Serial? From its website:

Serial is a new podcast from the creators of This American Life, hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial will follow one story – a true story – over the course of a whole season. We’ll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us. Each week we’ll bring you the latest chapter, so it’s important to listen in order, starting with Episode 1.

Continue reading Serial—Seriously addicting

National Ballet of Canada Review: Nijinsky

I’m continuing on with my reviews of the 2014-2015 season of the National Ballet of Canada with the performance of Nijinsky. I must admit, the first time I saw this ballet in 2013, my gut reaction was, “Meh.” Sure, the physicality of the dancing was impressive, but the performances by the NBOC are so often impressive. It just didn’t wow me, or move me. When I saw that they were mounting it again this 2014-2015 season, I was actually tempted to switch out the tickets to a different show. Now I’m satisfied I didn’t.

Continue reading National Ballet of Canada Review: Nijinsky