Review | The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See

25150798The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is such a beautifully evocative novel that will make you long to savour pu-erh tea. I’ve never tasted pu-erh myself, but the way See describes it makes it sound like such a precious, earthy and rich beverage, and I love the image of the leaves aging naturally in the sun then being packed into cakes for transport. I also love the way See describes the tea cakes being so precious that Chinese women in ancient times would take them along on long journeys to hand down to their children.

The story revolves around Li-yan and her family, Akha people in a remote Yunnan mountain village, who produce tea. Their world changes when a man in an automobile arrives in their village and offers them riches in return for their tea leaves and labour in producing high quality pu-erh tea. As one of the few educated women in her village, Li-yan is tasked with translating for the stranger, and is dazzled by the potential of the life he offers. When Li-yan gives birth out of wedlock, she wraps her daughter in a blanket with a tea cake and leaves her at a nearby orphanage.

Fast forward several years into the future, where Li-yan moves out of her village and pursues a career in tea connoisseurship, and her daughter Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl who is nonetheless curious about where she came from and what the tea cake means.

puerh-tea

Pu-erh tea cake. Source: http://www.esgreen.com.

Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is such a beautiful story about family and tradition, and about uncovering one’s roots and finding one’s home. But what I love most about it is the glimpse See gives into Akha culture and the history of pu-erh tea. I love the depiction of the traditions around tea making and tea drinking, and the history of how appreciation for this tradition has diluted over time. I highly recommend reading this book, preferably with a cup of tea in hand.

And if you’re curious, here’s a video on how to brew pu-erh tea.

+

Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Gauntlet, Karuna Riazi

29346880Described as “steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair,” The Gauntlet is a fun, fantasy middle grade/young adult fiction within Simon and Schuster’s new Salaam Reads imprint. I was looking forward to it since I first heard about Salaam Reads books for Muslim children by Muslim authors, and I’m happy to report that the final book did not disappoint.

During Farah’s twelfth birthday party, she and her friends Alex and Essie discover a mysterious board game in Farah’s bedroom. Due in part to the mischief of Farah’s younger brother Ahmed, Farah and her friends find themselves diving deep into the world of the game, on a mission to find Ahmed and take him home.

I love the world-building in The Gauntlet, and how the world of the boardgame, unlike the chaotic jungle of Jumanji, feels almost clock-like in its mechanical precision. There’s a logic to the challenges being offered, and to the way the players must navigate the world, but there’s also an urgent race against time, as each puzzle comes with a finite amount of sand in an hourglass within which the puzzle must be completed. The story felt very much like a video game — one challenge involving characters having to throw items from platforms before the platforms disappear, and as a reader, it’s almost a breathless experience just to get through that chapter.

I also love the Middle Eastern and South Asian elements in the story. For example, Farah and her family are Bangladeshi, and there’s a lot of descriptions of South Asian desserts that her mother makes for the party. Within the game itself, one of the challenges even involves South Asian delicacies, none of which I think I’ve ever tried, but am now very eager to taste. Farah and her friends also talk a lot about evil mischief being caused by djinn, and this has a heavy influence on the game.

Within all the action and excitement, there’s a lot of heart in this story. Farah’s love for her brother clearly drives her throughout her adventures, and Alex and Essie’s love for Farah keeps them fiercely loyal throughout the game. Even the origins of the game itself is rooted in love, and we see the tragedy in how the best intentions can be twisted into something dangerous.

The Gauntlet is such a fantastic book. It’s written for younger readers but will appeal to older readers as well. Also, how awesome is it that the main character wears a hijab, and that this is not just displayed on the cover, it is also brought up in the story itself?

+

Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Three Must-See Plays in Toronto This Week

Prince Hamlet

PrinceHamlet

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

IMG_0206

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.

+

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!

Theatre Review | Prince Hamlet

slider-prince-hamlet1

Ravi Jain’s ASL/English production Prince Hamlet is the most visceral, emotional experiences I’ve ever had watching Shakespeare. Dawn Jani Birley plays Horatio, the friend tasked to tell Hamlet’s story after his death. A deaf actress, she does so in American Sign Language, with no interpretation. She gives a brilliant performance, and I love how seamlessly the director integrated both ASL and English (or consciously chose one over the other) in the staging of all the scenes.

Much of the success of this structure lies in Birley, who is seamless in her transition from narrating the story to the audience to signing alongside spoken dialogue to participating as a character in the scene. Even when she interprets other characters’ lines, she remains very much present in the scene, somewhat like the speaking characters’ id come to life. At times, her facial expressions reveal emotions that the speaking character struggles to keep in check, and this is most apparent in Hamlet’s scenes with Claudius, as Christine Horne keeps Hamlet’s dislike to a bare simmer in her tone while Birley’s gestures bely the violence kept in check.

I also love where Jain has Birley signing other characters’ monologues in full, before the other actor steps forward and speaks the lines. The most vivid in my mind right now is that of Ophelia’s death, where Birley’s hands set the scene of flowing water, and her gestures convey Ophelia floating, then making some kind of garland, then sinking, struggling and finally giving in to death. Throughout, Jeff Ho’s Ophelia crosses the stage behind her, his steps measured and heavy, and it’s an unforgettable tableau overall. Gertrude’s speech afterward, informing Laertes of his sister’s death, is given added resonance by the memory of Horatio’s version. There’s another scene where this worked very well, with Hamlet and Horatio to one corner of the stage, and Horatio signs a monologue about Hamlet’s father before Hamlet delivers the speech. I don’t remember now what it was about exactly, but I very much remember the darkness and pain and fear that Birley’s performance evoked.

Christine Horne was very good as Hamlet as well. I was never quite sure if Hamlet really was going mad, or if he was scheming throughout. There are moments where she delivered her lines with a manic playfulness, and I wondered if perhaps Hamlet’s heart wasn’t completely set on revenge after all, if part of him just wanted to have a normal life and forget his promise to his father’s ghost. Then other times, Horne stalked around the stage with steely eyes fixed on Claudius, and I felt sure Hamlet was a hairbreadth’s away from committing murder. It’s a very nuanced performance, and often very much enhanced by Birley’s interpretation.

I can go on for ages about everything I loved about this play, but instead I strongly urge you to go see it for yourself. I love the gender bent casting — only Claudius and Ophelia are played by male actors — and the fact that there are many persons of colour in the cast. I also love that it’s a fully bilingual play with many scenes in both languages, but also some scenes solely in one or the other. Though all the other actors speak most of their lines, some of them sign parts of their dialogue as well, and I particularly love when Horne signed her lines (sometimes without speech) when in conversation with Horatio. I’ve seen ASL interpreted events before, but this was my first experience of a bilingual performance, and I was impressed.

The final scene was particularly powerful. All other characters having died on stage, Horne faces the audience delivers Hamlet’s final monologue, entreating Horatio to be his voice and tell his story. Birley doesn’t even attempt to interpret these lines. Overcome by grief, she stretches out a hand as if she could pull her friend back from death. And as Horne crumples to the floor, Birley is just about ripped apart by her grief in the middle of the stage. Her hand is shaped in what I think is the sign for the letter “P” and she whips it across her body in multiple directions, and I wonder if that’s the sign for pain or if her pain has gone beyond words. Her hands form the shape of a heart in front of her chest and then breaks apart. Her face crumples, and she signs what I recognize from earlier in the play as “good night,” and I remember the line from Shakespeare, “Good night, sweet prince.” And it’s just the most poignant moment ever. Part of me wishes I knew ASL so I could fully appreciate her performance, another part of me is moved with the experience of understanding her without quite knowing the words.

Prince Hamlet is onstage at The Theatre Centre until April 29. Tickets are available online. The best part is that Why Not Theatre tickets are ‘pay what you can afford’, with four ticket options from $5 – $75 and general admission seating.

For other perspectives: this Toronto Star article gives a great overview of the play, and this Globe and Mail review credits the signing narration as the highlight of the play and was what convinced me to see the play for myself.

Review | Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

30363791Dr. Eitan Green has the perfect life, a neurosurgeon with a wife and two children, until he accidentally runs over an Eritrean migrant in his car. The migrant’s wife, Sirkit, finds his driver’s license near the body, and goes to Eitan’s house to demand reparation. While Eitan is prepared to offer money, what Sirkit actually wants is for him to set up a clinic for the refugee community and provide free medical care. There is the added danger of the violence faced by the refugees, as well as Eitan’s wife Liat being the detective in charge of tracking down the driver in the hit and run.

Waking Lions is a powerful story about race and privilege and what it means to ‘do the right thing.’ I like the characterizations of Eitan and Sirkit, and the development of their relationship, from the wariness of the initial blackmail to the burgeoning respect as they begin to work together to provide medical care. Liat was an interesting character, and I wish her character had been developed more, as her naivete over her husband’s role in the hit and run stretched credulity after a while, especially given her purported ‘gift for reading people.’

The story starts off a bit slow, and it takes a while for the story to get going, but it’s worth plowing through. And Sirkit’s character in particular is slowly revealed as much more complex than simply a grieving widow who wants to help her community, and I especially liked how the truth of her relationship with her husband was revealed over time.

Waking Lions is a dense novel about some important issues, and provides a glimpse into a world I have rarely encountered in fiction.I like the insight the book provides into the lives of refugee communities in Israel, and the struggles they face even just to survive. It’s slow and introspective, an intimate story about broad political topics, and it challenges expectations.

+

Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Borrowed, Chan Ho-Kei

30119105I’m a huge fan of classic detective fiction, so it’s no surprise that I absolutely adored Chan Ho-Kei’s novel/collection of interconnected short stories The Borrowed. Told in reverse chronological order, The Borrowed follows the career of Kwan Chun-dok, a legendary Hong Kong detective, and his protege, Inspector Lok. The stories all take place at significant moments in Hong Kong history (e.g. the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the Handover in 1997), and I wish I knew more about Hong Kong history so I would have appreciated the links more.

The stories are all also told in classic detective fiction style, with Kwan Chun-dok displaying brain power similar to Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Similar to classic detective fiction, the puzzles are all brain teasers, with a satisfying big reveal at the end as the detective unmasks the culprit. The stories are all compelling and character-driven, and I love the satisfying resolution of each. The first story in particular ended with a reveal straight out of a Conan Doyle novel, mischievous and smart.

The stories are all also interconnected, with a character from one story reappearing in a later story, which would have taken place at an earlier time. I think I may have missed some of the reappearances (for example, a reappearance in the final story — or earliest, chronologically — seems to have major significance, but I had to flip back to find out what it could be), but I still enjoyed the stories overall.

I’m also a sucker for mentor/protege relationships, and I love how Kwan Chun-dok saw potential in Inspector Lok from early on, and developed him to take on his mantle. I also like how we saw Kwan Chun-dok as a young man, coming into his own abilities and making mistakes that would help shape the genius he’d become.

I admit I thought the reverse chronological approach to be nothing more than a clever gimmick at first, and I wasn’t much of a fan, but I found that I enjoyed getting to know Kwan Chun-dok in reverse order. We are so often used to the story of a brilliant young man who develops his own talents and becomes legendary that it’s an interesting effect to meet him first at the apex of his brilliance and then slowly get to know the man behind the legend, as he is revealed to be increasingly more vulnerable.

 

Hong Kong as well becomes a vivid character in its own right in these stories, as Chan Ho-Kei’s writing brings the city to life on the page. This book makes me want to read more Hong Kong police procedurals, or possibly even more of Inpector Lok’s adventures beyond his career with Kwan Chun-dok.

The Borrowed is such a fun book to read, and I highly recommend it for any fan of classic mysteries and police procedurals.

+

Thank you to House of Anansi for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review | El Deafo, Cece Bell

20701984I love, love, love this book! El Deafo is about a deaf bunny named Cece who is self-conscious about wearing her Phonic Ear (a hearing aid strapped to the chest and connected to a microphone) at school, and creates a superhero persona, El Deafo, to gain confidence in making new friends. Cece’s story is inspired by the childhood of the author, Cece Bell, and while the events and characters may have changed somewhat, the author’s note maintains the Cece’s emotions are based on how Bell often felt as a child.

It’s a funny and entertaining story, with a light humour that belies the depth of emotion being conveyed. I was moved by Cece’s desire to fit in, and by her experience of always being different in a way that she can’t hide. Her self-consciousness about her hearing aid and worry that people were staring at her are emotions that many readers, whether deaf or hearing, can relate to, and my heart broke just a little every time she thought she found “a true friend”, only to lose the friendship because of one snag or another.

I think this story will appeal to many ages; I found myself relating to Cece’s desire for belonging even as an adult. I cringed whenever she had an embarrassing misunderstanding, I felt bad when a friend she really liked stopped wanting to see her, and I got all giddy when a cute guy moves into her neighbourhood. The illustrations are adorable, and I especially love it when Cece literally goes heart-eyed around the cute guy, and conversations around her turn into gibberish because she stops paying attention.

People at school aren’t overtly mean to Cece, and I appreciated seeing how even well-meaning people can make mistakes when engaging with deaf people. For example, some of Cece’s classmates speak slowly and loudly to her when that doesn’t really make them easier to understand, and only serves to make Cece feel self-conscious that they’re talking differently to her than to everyone else. Or a friend realizes Cece isn’t quite following a TV show, and so turns up the volume, when really all it does is make the nonsensical sounds from the TV just sound louder, but still nonsensical. (Fun fact: soap operas are easy for Cece to follow because the actors often speak directly to the camera, and in close up.)

There are also things Cece’s friends do as hearing people without realizing that it would pose a challenge to her. For example, Cece finds sports challenging, because multiple people shout instructions at her, and she may not always see their lips clearly or know where to turn. Or at a sleepover, Cece’s friends continue chatting after lights out, without realizing that she can no longer see the conversation. There’s also a cringe-worthy, yet all-too-possible, example of a girl who befriends Cece and constantly introduces her to other girls as “my deaf friend.” This girl doesn’t intend to be mean, but we see how much it hurts Cece to be known as just “the deaf girl.” At one point, she decides to aim for really high grades so that she could become known as the smart girl rather than the deaf one.

I read this book as a hearing person and can’t say how a deaf or Deaf reader will respond to this book, but I hope that they may see some of their own experiences in Cece, and also be moved by the story. The story is based on lived experience, though Bell is careful to note that her experiences are unique to herself and in no way represent the experiences of other deaf peopleHer Author’s Note is also a great primer on deafness and on Deaf culture. She also notes that because she learned speech before she became deaf, her parents “were able to make decisions for me that kept me mostly in the hearing world,” and while fascinated by Deaf culture, she has “not, as yet, pursued a direct role in it.” As a hearing person, I found this very informative, particularly as it provides some context for how her experience as a deaf person who reads lips and uses a hearing aid is located within a much larger range of experiences of deafness.

This is such an entertaining, informative, and moving book. It won the Newbery Honor in 2015, and the Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12), and I can understand why. I highly recommend it for readers of all ages, and it’s a great book for parents and teachers to share with children.