Review | When Dimple Met Rishi, Sandhya Menon

28458598There’s a Tagalog word that best encapsulates how I feel about Sandhya Menon’s YA romance When Dimple Met Rishi: kilig. Its closest English translation would probably be “the feels,” but as anyone who grew up with a first language other than English can attest, only one’s mother tongue can fully encapsulate the depth of emotion one has felt. When Dimple Met Rishi is probably one of the best YA romances I’ve read in a long time, and the character of Rishi is also the first in a long time I’ve actually claimed a YA character as a book boyfriend. I absolutely adored this book. I immediately recommended it to an old acquaintance in the Philippines who writes “clean romances,” and as of this writing, I plan to pass on my copy to a teenage niece who I hope will enjoy it as much as I did.

When Dimple Met Rishi is about two brilliant Indian-American teens whose families have arranged their marriage. Dimple Shah is an aspiring computer coder who rebels against her family’s expectation that she’ll settle down with an “Ideal Indian Husband,” and signs up for computer camp in the hopes of impressing an app developer she admires. Rishi Patel is a romantic who is content to adhere to his parents’ traditions, and the summer before he begins at MIT, registers for computer camp so he can meet his future wife. When they meet, Dimple is horrified that this guy she’s never met could jeopardize her future, and Rishi realizes that things aren’t quite turning out the way he’d imagined.

I absolutely loved both characters, and their meet-cute made me laugh. I love how, despite Dimple’s rebelliousness against tradition, tradition itself isn’t presented as wholly a bad thing, and Dimple herself still also admits that she still feels bound to her parents’ expectations. In fact, one of the ways she and Rishi bond is that he understands how important her family is to her life, in a way that’s somewhat different from how family is important in North American culture.

Rishi is also a fantastic character. He’s a bit more of a starry eyed romantic than the type of guy I’d usually fall for, but there’s something utterly charming about mix of awkwardness and confidence. In my absolute favourite scene, when some snobbish rich kids from camp make Dimple uncomfortable at a fancy dinner, Rishi stands up for her and completely catches them off-guard. Unlike Dimple, he comes from a wealthy family, and I love that he’s so comfortable with who he is even when he doesn’t quite fit in.

I also loved the development of their relationship, particularly as each of them helps bring out the best in the other. Rishi helps Dimple become less self-conscious and more comfortable in her own skin, mostly by being so comfortable in his own. Dimple in turn helps Rishi face his secret longing to produce comic book art, despite his plans to fulfil his parents’ wishes and attend MIT.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sweet romance and an absolute delight to read. I love how nerdy both main characters are, and I especially love that this fantastic story is part of a (hopefully) rising trend towards more diverse representation in contemporary literature. I highly recommend it to all YA-loving nerds out there who may enjoy imagining what it would be like to spend a summer with the nerd of your dreams.

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

Review | Rich People Problems, Kevin Kwan

29864343Kevin Kwan’s crazy rich Asians are back! In this third instalment of the series, the family comedy takes a more bittersweet tone, as the Shang-Young matriarch Shang Su Yi lies on her deathbed. Whereas Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend lampooned the lifestyles of the rich and wealthy by presenting it through the perspective of an outsider thrust into that world, Rich People Problems discards the outsider’s surprise altogether and makes us see the human beings within the wealth. Whether it’s dealing with the potential loss of a loved one or fighting to keep the family’s legacy alive, these “crazy rich” are people whom we “crazy not-rich” can easily relate to. Rich People Problems packs an emotional wallop while still maintaining Kwan’s signature light-hearted comedy, and is by far my favourite book in the series.

It was fantastic to revisit all these characters I’ve grown to love (or love to hate) since Book 1, and most significant of all is Su Yi herself. We’ve always known her as the grand dame of Tyersall Park, incredibly wealthy and powerful, surrounded by an army of servants so that she never needs to so much as lift a finger to do any slightest bit of work. She’s always come across as regal and imposing, so the very idea of her dying seems almost impossible. Yet in Rich People’s Problems, as she lays on her deathbed, we finally get a glimpse into Su Yi herself and the incredible, sometimes tragic, life she led. She grew up during the war, and I liked reading about her family’s experiences living in fear of Japanese soldiers, mostly because it reminded me of my own grandmother’s stories, but also because these experiences stand in such sharp contrast to the luxurious lives she has built for multiple generations of Shangs and Youngs. I also enjoyed reading about her happier moments, such as travelling to India and falling in love, because it was a nice balance to what she and her family went through in the war. I’d personally love to read a whole novel just about Su Yi and the people in her life, so I’m in if Kevin Kwan ever wants to do a Crazy Rich Asians prequel.

Despite the sombre premise, Rich People Problems is still comfortingly hilarious. Kitty Pong, the former soap star who keeps marring up, takes the comedic centre stage as she competes with her own stepdaughter, famous fashionista Collette Bing, for top spot in the upper echelons of Asian society. As Colette’s faux humility continues to overshadow Kitty’s dramatic gestures, Kitty’s schemes just get increasingly over-the-top until it all comes to a fittingly dramatic showdown that intersects with the Shang-Young clan’s story.

The hilariously boorish Eddie Chung also provides comedic gold within the main storyline. As family members from around the world fly back to say their goodbyes to Su Ying… and to grasp one last chance at inheriting the family estate Tyersall Park, Eddie schemes to become the heir, which involves having favoured grandchildren Nick and Astrid banned from Tyersall Park. Eddie’s antics are as annoying and entertaining as always, and it’s soapy fun to see his desperate efforts for his grandmother’s fortune.

Nick and Astrid, of course, have long been the heart of Kwan’s series. The main storyline centres on Nick’s American-born Chinese girlfriend, later wife, Rachel adjusting to his family’s wealth, and a major subplot involves Astrid dealing with her husband Michael’s insecurity over finances whilst her ex-boyfriend Charlie quietly pines for her from the sidelines. In Rich People Problems, Nick yearns to see his beloved grandmother before she dies, but hesitates because of their years-long estrangement over Su Yi’s disapproval of his marriage to Rachel. His mother, the irrepressible Eleanor Young, is eager to help smooth the reconciliation, mostly so that Nick can be reinstated as the heir to Tyersall Hall, which adds a welcome dose of comedy to this plot line. But it’s Nick’s pain over his strained relationship with his grandmother that propels this story, and makes you root for him.

I’ve always found Astrid’s relationship with Charlie incredibly romantic, so I’m thrilled to see them officially dating at the beginning of Rich People Problems. Unfortunately, Michael isn’t ready to let her go without a hefty settlement, and his schemes put her reputation and social standing at risk. For the first time in the series, Astrid’s story faded somewhat into the background for me. I suppose I enjoy the will-they-or-won’t-they tension between her and Charlie more than this final, mostly inconvenient, snag before a happily ever after. Still, Astrid continues to be one of my favourite characters, and it was great seeing her character develop in this novel, as she learns to forge her own identity beyond just the Leong family heiress and society It Girl.

I’ve long been a fan of the Crazy Rich Asians series and am nowhere near ready for it to end. I’m not sure if the series will continue past Rich People Problems, but if it doesn’t, Kwan couldn’t have written a more fitting conclusion. I actually teared up a bit while reading it, which is quite an achievement for a series so noted for its comedy, and that’s just a testament to Kwan’s skill that he makes us care deeply for his characters even as we laugh at their antics. I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to Nick, Rachel, Astrid and all the other characters in this world (yes, even Eddie); it’s been an amazing ride.

On the bright side, we now have the Crazy Rich Asians movie to look forward to. Directed by Jon M. Chu and starring an all-Asian cast, including superstars Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh, this film looks amazing, and I can’t wait to see it!

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Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Reviews | The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz and The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner

The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz

30842480Webster College’s first female president Naomi Roth finds herself accused of racism when a popular African American professor is denied tenure. The truth is that the professor was denied tenure because he was found guilty of plagiarism, but due to his legal right to confidentiality, Naomi is unable to make that reason public. Naomi confronts the tension between her own activist past and sympathy for the students protesting the decision, her own daughter joining the protests, and the responsibilities that come with her position.

I liked the idea behind this book, and the unique perspective it used. Particularly on social media channels, it’s easy to jump on a bandwagon and become very passionate about a cause without necessarily taking the time to consider the other perspective. So it was interesting to read the perspective of someone who could understand both sides, and was unfortunately constrained herself from revealing the truth. Korelitz does a good job of showing how both sides can be culpable in double talk. For example, Naomi overhears the leader of the student protests complaining that the school administration refuses to talk to the protesters, but Naomi had made clear to her staff that she wanted an open door policy for any protester who wished to speak to her. She wonders if her staff had disobeyed her, and we as readers can’t help but wonder if the student leader is lying about his attempts to open up channels of communication. Then a potential hate crime occurs and the situation gets even more charged.

Unfortunately, despite all the interesting potential for the story, it never quite grabbed me. The pacing was slow, the writing dense, and the narration a bit too introspective for my taste. The book touches on some important and emotionally charged subjects that are relevant to people interested in social justice or involved in academia, but the execution wasn’t quite as gripping as I’d hoped.

The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner

31423198I’m a huge sucker for beach reads, and this book seemed right up my alley. High powered attorney Marin Bishop is contacted by her long-lost half-sister Rachel, who invites Marin to join her in traveling to Cape Cod to meet their mutual long-lost grandmother Amelia.

There are soap opera twists (both were fathered by the same sperm bank donor), romance, family drama, and encounters with a cast of quirky, loveable characters. The setup reminded me a bit of Elin Hilderbrand, whose work I loved, and I opened this book eager to escape into its pages.

Unfortunately, Brenner lacks Hilderbrand’s magic, and I found myself bored by the story. The characters weren’t quite compelling enough to make me care, and while there was some development and things happened to the characters, I wasn’t really interested in finding out more.

I often enjoy escapist beach reads, and love the ones with all the soapy family type drama, but this one fell flat for me.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for advanced reading copies of these books in exchange for honest reviews.

Play Review | The Making of St. Jerome and I Am For You

Some plays, like Huff & Stitch and Punch Up are so visceral that just reading them feels a bit like seeing them performed on stage. Others, like The Making of St. Jerome and I Am For You, have such compelling narratives that reading it feels like slipping into the rich tapestry of a novel.

The Making of St. Jerome by Marie Beath Badian

34082636Sadly still all too timely and relevant, this play was inspired by the 2004 shooting of a Filipino Canadian teenager by a police officer in Toronto. The story is told from the perspective of the victim’s older brother Jason de Jesus, who is dealing with grief and guilt around the circumstances leading up to his brother Jerome’s death.

“It was just supposed to be a fight, Jay. Just a fight,” Jerome’s friend Dean tells Jason about the incident. After some white teenagers tell a Filipino teenager to “go back where you came from and eat your rice,” the teen’s friends decide to retaliate. Plainclothes police officers got involved, and twenty-seven seconds later, Jerome has three bullet holes in his back. The police officer claims self-defence.

“Say Jer really did have a rock,” Jason tells the audience. “Say all that shit really happened. …Now picture this. Kids. Just kids. Don’t think a bunch of thugs, don’t think gangs, think kids.” A chorus demands he tell the truth, and he continues:

The cops show up. They don’t see just kids. They see — Jane and Finch Kids. Clarkson Kids. Tuxedo Court Kids. Bendale Kids. Crescent Town Kids. Galloway Kids. …To them it’s a situation. To them it’s an incident. To them it’s an altercation. They show up–not with pepper spray or batons or tasers, even. But with guns. …And suddenly here I am being a spokesperson instead of a brother. [pp. 62-63]

The emotional heft of St. Jerome isn’t just in the systemic issues it brings to light, but rather in the intimate glimpse into the relationship between the brothers. Their relationship is fairly typical, with the usual sibling rivalry and Jerome admiring his older brother as a child, but with Jerome’s death, the tensions feel more fraught for Jason, and he can’t help remembering the arguments they’ve had, and his jealousy of Jerome’s relationship with their parents. At its core, St. Jerome is about the love between brothers, and is a moving, poignant tale.

I Am For You by Mieko Ouchi

31945139When student teacher Caddell Morris encounters two girls fighting on his first day, he responds by giving them a legitimate excuse to fight — as Mercutio and Tybalt in their school’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

I Am For You is such a fun play for Shakespeare nerds and theatre buffs. It presents a classic Shakespeare tale in a new light, focusing on Mercutio and Tybalt rather than on the eponymous couple, and reframing Romeo and Juliet as an action-packed story of violence and tragedy rather than the usual romance. It also takes us behind the scenes on how fight scenes are choreographed and rehearsed, which was pretty cool for me to learn about.

We never really quite learn exactly what Lainie and Mariam were fighting about in the first scene, but Ouchi does a great job in presenting aspects of their personality that could have led to the tensions. Lainie is familiar with fighting and has been to the principal’s office so often that she’s in danger of getting expelled. In contrast, Mariam’s combat knowledge is very structured; she takes fencing classes at a nearby college and is the youngest student in that class. Their rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet include both sword fighting and hand to hand combat, which gives each girl the opportunity to gain the upper hand.

I love how the structure of stage fighting helped both girls learn about how they approach conflict beyond the play. For example, while learning to fence, Lainie learns that aggressive movements with the foil actually makes you more vulnerable to getting hit, whereas a light touch gives you the control you need to win the fight. While learning hand to hand combat, Mariam learns to engage with her partner with a believable level of aggression, to “sell” the fight. And also while learning hand to hand combat, both girls learn that when throwing or pulling hair on stage, it’s actually the “victim” who keeps control and directs the action. Ouchi weaves these acting lessons in with real life character development for both girls, and it was just fun to read.

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Thank you to Playwrights Canada Press for copies of these books in exchange for an honest review.

Review | After the Bloom, Leslie Shimotakahara

30270312When Lily Takemitsu goes missing from her Toronto home on a summer morning, her daughter Rita searches for her. Rita’s investigation leads to uncovering her family’s past at an internment camp in California during World War II, and the novel switches from Rita’s present-day search to Lily’s life at the camp.

I really thought I’d enjoy this novel more than I did. I’m a sucker for mother-daughter stories, I find stories of dementia and aging to be heart breaking, and the history of Japanese internment camps in America is a subject I think deserves much more airtime than it gets. It’s a dark time in American history and a grave injustice to Americans of Japanese heritage, and I think there is still much more of these stories that need to be told.

Unfortunately, I struggled through this novel, and finally decided to give up on finishing it. The beginning is an interesting enough hook, and the scenes featuring Lily’s life at the camp are the best parts of the novel. The writing was just a bit too wordy and the pacing just a bit too sluggish for me. Rita’s part of the story pales in comparison to Lily’s, and the shifts in time lacked dynamism. There wasn’t much that connected both narratives throughout, and it felt like two separate stories and lacked the urgency of a young woman uncovering the truth about her mother’s life.

After the Bloom explores an important part of history, but I’m afraid I couldn’t get into it.

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

Play Reviews | Huff & Stitch and Punch Up

The experience of reading a play can never be as amazing as seeing it performed live, but some plays come pretty close. The best plays to read are the ones where things are so vividly described you can almost imagine watching it performed, and that imagining only makes you wish all the more you can experience it in person. Cliff Cardinal’s Huff & Stitch and Kat Sandler’s Punch Up are two such books, where so much of the magic is in the rhythm of the language, and I’d love to see people bring it to life on stage.

Huff & Stitch by Cliff Cardinal

34896418Huff and Stitch are two powerful one-person plays by award-winning Indigenous playwright Cliff Cardinal.

Huff is about Wind and his two brothers Huff and Charles coping with their mother’s suicide, their father’s abuse and the machinations of Trickster. It’s an intense, visceral play that begins with Wind on stage with a plastic bag over his head, duct-taped to his throat, his hands cuffed behind his back, and the pace never lets up from there. Audience members are made complicit as well, as Wind talks about suicide then walks up to an audience member to request they remove the cuffs and hold on to the plastic bag. “Don’t give it back no matter what I say,” he says. “I need you.”

All this within the first few minutes, and as the play goes on, we learn about what has brought Wind to that point. It’s a tragic, raw story about family and growing up in the residential school system, and incredibly powerful on the page. The actor playing Wind also plays the other parts — his brothers, his father, Trickster — and the incredible skill to pull that off unfortunately cannot be captured in the script, but must be amazing to see in person.

In Stitch, Kylie Grandview is a young single mom and porn star whose fervently religious mother threatens to take her baby away. It’s presented as a series of clicks, mimicking internet browsing and again making the audience complicit in Kylie’s experience as we choose to “click” through a new scene in her life.

Stitch is funny and sad at the same time; Kylie’s yeast infection is personified and acts as the voice of her subconscious, which is just hilariously tragic and so fitting yet so wrong. The pace feels frenetic, and the lines sometimes blurred where one experience ends and another begins. For example, the part where Kylie performs a rape scene for her job is structured so that it’s unclear at first if the assault is real or staged, which just highlights all the sexism, exploitation and general messed-up-ness Kylie faces in her life.

Punch Up by Kat Sandler

9781770917422_2Punch Up is hilarious! In a nutshell, from the back cover:

The Most Pathetic Guy Ever kidnaps the Funniest Man Alive to make the Saddest Girl in the World laugh.

Duncan falls in love with Brenda, a woman he sees about to kill herself. He makes a deal with her — if he can get her to laugh at dinner that night, she promises not to follow through, but if he can’t make her laugh, he’ll kill her himself. She agrees, and since he needs help, Duncan then kidnaps one of his favourite comedians Pat, chains him to a desk with a typewriter, and demands that Pat help him come up with the perfect routine. The irony is that Duncan is unintentionally funny — he’s a bread tester at a factory whose job is to sample every 41st loaf to test its density — but he’s horribly unfunny when he actually makes an effort.

The introductory stage directions instruct performers to “punch up” the jokes if they can come up with better ones, and with regard to pace is the laconic directive: “Pick it up.” Even on the page, it reads like a stand up routine, with brisk patter and overlapping dialogue punctuated by strategic little moments of silence where I can just imagine one of the actors pulling a Jim Halpert look.

I was in hysterics just reading the play, it’s SO FUNNY! I’d love to see it in person, and see actors bring the comedy to life in a way I may not be able to imagine. Someone please stage this play soon, and in the meantime, even just the book version is an awesome comedy fix.

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Thank you to Playwrights Canada Press for copies of these books in exchange for honest reviews.

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.

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