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Tag: Toronto

Persepolis Rising Book Launch

One of the privileges of living in Toronto is that there are a lot of bookstores. And one of the best things about Toronto’s book scene is Bakka Phoenix Books, one of the oldest bookstores (if not the oldest) dedicated to selling speculative fiction.

Oh, and hey, you know something else about Toronto? That’s where they’re filming The Expanse, the TV series based on the book series of the same name by James S.A. Corey.

So it’s kind of inevitable that, last night, Bakka Phoenix hosted the book launch for Persepolis Rising, the latest volume of the series.

I have to admit up front that I’m not a devoted reader of this series. I read the debut, Leviathan Wakes, in 2012 when it was nominated for a Hugo. But life happens — other books come out, the TBR pile grows, attention spans waver, all that stuff. And I haven’t read another book in the series since.

It’s my husband, Mr. Books&Tea, who is the true fan between the two of us, and he was the one who suggested attending the launch. In fact, that’s him you can see through the store window in the photo below — the guy in the Blue Jays hat.

A photo of the storefront of Bakka Phoenix Books, showing many copies of various volumes of the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey.

I snuck out to take a picture of the storefront. Poor Mr. Books&Tea was looking for me in the store’s basement to no avail.

 

We were lucky enough to get a seat before the store got too crowded. The two authors behind the pseudonym James S.A. Corey — Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck — showed up around 7 PM. Don’t worry about their annoyed expressions in this photo, though. They literally came to the store straight from the set of the TV show and so were probably tired.

Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, the authors of Persepolis Rising, stand behind the counter at Bakka Phoenix Books

Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham were excited to be here, though they were weirded out by standing behind the counter.

 

This book launch was different from other book launches I’ve attended, as there were no readings. Instead, it became a giant Q&A session with the audience, with a lot of the discussion focused on the differences between the book and the show.

I ended up live-tweeting quite a bit of it:

The Q&A lasted for about an hour, after which the authors got ready to sign books. I didn’t realize until I needed to get up how crowded the store was!

People at the book launch waiting in line to get their copies of Persepolis Rising signed.

 

People who wanted to get their copies of Persepolis Rising signed had to get a number from the book staff and line up in order. Since Mr. Books&Tea and I showed up early, he was one of the first people in line.

Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck sign my husband's copy of Persepolis Rising.

Here’s Mr. Books&Tea getting his copy of Persepolis Rising signed.

 

After that, it was getting late and we needed to head home. But we both had a good time, since Bakka Phoenix is always a wonderful place to visit. And rest assured — someday I will read the entire series.

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zenahat Khan

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zenahat KhanTitle: The Unquiet Dead (Esa Khattak & Rachel Getty #1)
Author: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Format: Print (hardcover)
Rating: 3 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed a copy from the library

Christopher Drayton was a lucky man; he was rich, multilingual, living in a luxurious house on the Scarborough Bluffs in Toronto, and engaged to a beautiful, voluptuous woman. But when he falls off the Bluffs to his death, investigators Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are brought in to assess the situtation because all is not as it appears: Christopher Drayton’s true identity might actually be Dražen Krstić, a Bosnian war criminal responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were murdered.

Esa and Rachel are the core investigators of Community Police Services, a special unit designed to handle “minority-sensitive” cases. Esa, a practicing Muslim and former member of the Toronto Police, is the perfect man for the job; Rachel, much younger, is the stepdaughter of a revered cop and is part of CPS because no other unit will have her due to some past indiscretion — although what she did isn’t clear.

As evidence increasingly mounts that Christopher Drayton is Dražen Krstić, Esa and Rachel realize that the situation is murkier than they realize: while his fiancee thought she was the primary beneficiary of his will, it appears that Krstić also left a substantial bequest to a local museum celebrating the history of Andalusia, long known for its inclusivity and religious tolerance before the Reconquista of Spain. Why would a genocidal war criminal settle in Toronto, a city with a sizable Bosnian Muslim population? How much did his fiancee know about his past? And, perhaps most importantly, what possible reason would an Islamophobic murderer have for supporting a museum built in remembrance of a high-water mark of religious and multicultural tolerance?

I started to read The Unquiet Dead because noted fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed recommended it on Twitter earlier this year — the idea of reading a book where both the author and the protagonist were Muslim was a big part of the appeal for me. Throw in the fact that I don’t read a whole lot of mystery novels anyway, and it felt like just the book I was looking for to stretch my reading boundaries.

My eagerness intensified once I learned that the book was set in Scarborough, where I live. Scarborough is the eastern-most part of Toronto, and gets a really bad rap — it’s the Staten Island to downtown Toronto’s Manhattan. Now, while there have been other mystery novels set in Toronto, like Robert Rotenberg’s series, the ones I’ve read have been awfully downtown-centric, and if Scarborough’s mentioned at all, it’s usually only the really sketchy parts that are mentioned, like the string of motels on Kingston Road.

On top of that, I’m Macedonian, and Macedonia, like Bosnia, was one of the former constituent regions of Yugoslavia, which broke up in the early 90s. So in a lot of ways, The Unquiet Dead seemed like a book maximally calculated to appeal to me: it was a story that had connections both to where I live now, and to where my family came from.

However, I really struggled while reading this. For one thing, although the story takes place in Scarborough, it focuses on one or two particular high-income enclaves (the Bluffs and what sounds an awful lot like the Guildwood area) that that are really different from the rest of the borough where I live. Where are the strip malls? Where are the post-war neighbourhoods full of immigrant families? One or two scenes take place at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, which is literally a 10-minute drive from my house, but the most that is said about the location is a snarky comment about its brutalist architecture. Where are the gaggles of students from all across the GTA? What about the charming shops on Old Kingston Road around the corner? What about the long stretch of Military Trail that leads into the campus, full of houses with obscenely large lots that are being bought up and redeveloped?

I wanted to see a reflection of my neighbourhood, but all I got was a city setting with a serious case of white room syndrome. It didn’t feel like Scarborough. Hell, Rachel lives in Etobicoke (the borough on the extreme western end of Toronto) but Scarborough is in the east. Why are there no interminable drives from place to place, or barely any mention of the 401?

On top of that, I thought that one of the subplots was far more compelling than the main plot. As Esa and Rachel gather more and more evidence pointing to Drayton’s true identity, Rachel also learns a key piece of information about her family: the whereabouts of her younger half-brother, whom she assumed was missing or dead on the streets for years. When she finally gathers the courage to meet him in person, she learns that their mother knew where he was all along and met up with him repeatedly, and even as she repeatedly blamed Rachel for making him run away in the first place.

As the book progresses, Rachel constantly monitors her mother’s speech and actions, and slowly realizes how passive aggressive her mother has been to the family. This family dynamic is really interesting, and I want to see how it plays out in future books.

However, the central relationship between Esa and Rachel is one that I’m a bit more ambivalent about, as they both appear to have repressed feelings about each other — I really want their relationship to stay professional, rather than give in to some sort of future mandated heteronormativity. I find their potential romantic pairing even more problematic because of an incident from Esa’s past: he was falsely accused of sexual harassment by an attractive and sexually charismatic coworker because he spurned her advances, and she roped his best friend, a noted author, into corroborating her claims, resulting in a major professional setback for him.

Considering that the use of rape as a weapon of war in Bosnia is brought up as a repeated plot point in The Unquiet Dead, this use of the whole “woman claiming sexual abuse as a form of revenge” trope is incredibly off-putting. Especially in the context of contemporary Canadian politics and culture, where the judge of the Jian Ghomeshi trial justified a “not guilty” verdict with reasoning like this:

As I have stated more than once, the courts must be very cautious in assessing the evidence of complainants in sexual assault and abuse cases. Courts must guard against applying false stereotypes concerning the expected conduct of complainants. I have a firm understanding that the reasonableness of reactive human behaviour in the dynamics of a relationship can be variable and unpredictable. However, the twists and turns of the complainants’ evidence in this trial, illustrate the need to be vigilant in avoiding the equally dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful. [Emphasis added]

Oh, those women. They just can’t be trusted, can they? I sense an uncomfortable strain of internalized misogyny throughout The Unquiet Dead, actually. Rachel constantly assesses her appearance against those of the women she encounters during her investigation, and always considers herself lacking, what with her thick, athletic build and mousy appearance. Rachel’s mother contributes to this low self-esteem with constant gaslighting. Laine, the woman who accused Esa of sexual harassment, is a curvy bombshell with a coterie of men surrounding her like mayflies. Melanie Blessant, the woman who was engaged to Drayton before he died, is portrayed as nothing more than a tasteless, tacky gold-digger who is willing to sacrifice the safety of her own daughters in order to snag a rich man. Mink Norman, the captivating woman who runs the Andalusian history museum, briefly catches Esa’s eye but is revealed to have ulterior motives.

In other words, most of the women in The Unquiet Dead, if not all of them, never have a chance to be three-dimensional beings. Rachel comes the closest due to her keen sense of detail that allows her and Esa to crack the case, but she still always judges herself as falling short of some unattainable feminine ideal that she thinks every other woman in the story meets. Internally, Rachel always feels herself to be in competition with these women, whether aesthetically or morally.

That lack of three-dimensionality, along with the treatment of the part of the city where I live as nearly a blank map, really rankles me.

My Thoughts on the 2016 Toronto Tea Festival

Woo! I know I’ve been gabbing about it for the past few weeks, but the Toronto Tea Festival finally happened last weekend! I got to meet up with my tea friends, do some swaps, see people whose books I’ve read (I got to meet Linda Gaylard face-to-face!), and generally just absorb the atmosphere of it all.

Are panda-themed tea sets a good way to add atmosphere? I'd say yes.

Are panda-themed tea sets a good way to add atmosphere? I’d say yes.

I’ve written an article about the event for World of Tea, Tony Gebely’s site, but that review was a more generalized one of the whole event. Here’s a more personal, impressionistic take on things:

Like last year, and the year before, the festival was crowded. There were nearly 50 vendors (not all of them sold tea, but the vast majority did), and I would easily say that thousands of people showed up. I’m still kind of amazed that they’re holding the event at the Bluma Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library, as the whole place felt crowded to the seams. Even if the Reference Library is a great central location, I honestly think they could benefit from hosting it in a larger space next year.

In addition to the vendors, there was the front stage where the festival held regional tea ceremonies and even tea tasting competitions. I took part in such a competition on Saturday morning and it was much harder than I thought it would be. I was generally able to determine what kind of tea was being served (white, green, oolong, etc), but had a much harder time naming the correct country of origin and cultivar. Evidently, my tea tasting tongue has a long way to go before it’s truly an expert!

Toronto_Tea_Festival_pine_bamboo_ceramics_gaiwan

I borked the tea tasting competition. I am not worthy enough of this gorgeous gaiwan.

I strolled around, tasting samples and taking stock of vendors I’ve seen there before. It was good to see Joel from Capital Teas again —  he has a phenomenal memory, and still remembers that I bought a pack of jasmine pearls from him at the festival two years ago. There were lots of familiar shops there.

However, there were also some new ones. The vendor that I was most excited about was a ceramics studio called Secret Teatime. They make handmade cups, mugs, and Japanese tea vessels out of stoneware; Momo Tea, which occupied the stall next to them, was pouring matcha from one of their stoneware bowls. I’m not a huge matcha person, but I ended buying a matcha bowl and a set of cups from Secret Teatime because it turns out that their studio is in Scarborough, the same suburb of Toronto that I’m from.

And there was also this gentleman, who was preparing matcha in a corner near the stage.

And there was also this gentleman, who was preparing matcha in a corner near the stage.

And let me tell you, as someone who’s lived her whole life in Scarborough, it kinda sucks when people think of your suburb as this vast swath of conservative, Rob-Ford-voting mouthbreathers. Having an independent ceramics studio in the same suburb as me just tickles me pink. Plus, I’m supporting local business by buying their wares! How could I say no to that? I’ll review the tea set from them very soon. I also bought a matcha whisk from Momo Tea to accompany the ceramics set.

Other than the bowl, cups, and whisk, I bought only two varieties of tea: a big bag of nettle tea from Samadhi Tea House and some intriguing chai mix from Chaiwala. Most of the other vendors there were offering things I was already pretty familiar with, so it didn’t feel like such an adventure as it has in the past.

Some spices from Chaiwala.

Some spices from Chaiwala.

I’m finding it interesting that the year in which I bought the most tea from the tea festival was the first year I attended, in 2014. Then, I was still very new to the world of loose-leaf tea beyond David’s Tea and Teavana, and at the festival I bought five types of loose tea the first time I went — which, back then, felt excessive. Goodness, how much has changed! The festival served as my kickstart to the loose leaf tea world, and I learned a lot through Steepster. But now that I know my way around more, I know what vendors I like to buy from and I have a better idea of my own tastes; the festival doesn’t represent as huge a trove of wonder as it used to.

Toronto_Tea_Festival_Zhen_tea

Though I have to admit that a big-ass table covered in tea is still pretty awesome…

It was still fun, though. There were some beautiful ceramics on display, and it was nice to spend a day at the library downtown.

Gorgeous ceramics like these, I mean. Bow down, for you are not worthy of such lovely items!

Gorgeous ceramics like these, I mean. Bow down, for you are not worthy of such lovely items!

Tea Reviews: Lemon Verbena, Lemon Meringue, and Pink Dragonfruit from Tealish

About Tealish

tealish_teas_groupTealish is an independent tea blender and retailer in Toronto. Their store is close to Trinity Bellwoods Park — waaay far west of where I live — so when I was nearby a few weeks ago for an event, it was the perfect opportunity to stop by their shop in person.

I ended up purchasing three teas of theirs to try, all of which were caffeine-free. Tealish doesn’t offer sample sizes, unfortunately — their minimum for purchases is 50 grams. But honestly, considering how pretty their store is and how I also snagged a free gourmet popsicle when I was there because their freezer was temporarily busted, I’m not too put out.

You can order all of Tealish’s teas online at www.tealish.com (but remember that they don’t do samples).

Lemon Verbena

For many years we’ve been in love with the intoxicating fresh lemon scent and flavor of lemon verbena. The aroma is entirely unique and is best described as a clean, bright, and zesty lemon. One whiff and we were hooked! Lemon Verbena is also commonly known as Vervain in Europe where the herbal tea (tisane) is very popular.

Lemon verbena is one of those herbal teas that I’ve really been curious about, so I leapt on the opportunity to try some. However, look and smell of the leaves was very different from what I expected. I was anticipating something soft and lemony, similar to lemongrass or lemon myrtle, but the leaves look and smell like regular cooking herbs.

Tealish_lemon_verbena

Tealish’s lemon verbena leaves remind me of thyme and sage in particular — they’re small, broken-up, and a soft forest green colour. There is a slight hint of lemon at the back of my nose when I sniff the dry leaf, but it’s very faint.

I brewed 2 tsp of dry leaf in a giant 2-cup mug using 95°C water for 5-10 minutes. The resulting brew was a deep greenish orange yellow that reminded me of many other herbal teas. The brewed tea smelled somewhat sweet; almost like tulsi (holy basil) but not quite. The taste was similarly herbal and mild with overtones of thyme and sage.

I’m surprised by how soothing this tea is — it’s a great caffeine-free option for the evenings, and I bet it would be perfect for when you’ve got a cold. Considering the cooking-herb flavour of this lemon verbena, I’m also curious to see what it would be like added to a marinade or to a roast.

Lemon Meringue Rooibos

A colourful blend of green and red rooibos with a smooth lemon taste reminiscent of freshly baked lemon meringue pie. With a delicious zesty lemon flavour and a perfect creamy finish, this red tea infusion is a sweet and healthy treat!

This tea is a bit of a cheat for me since I’ve had it before; I received it in one of my very first Steepster swaps. However, that was nearly a year and a half ago, and the tea I got was old and starting to lose its lustre.

The new tea that I got from Tealish? Wow. It pops. The smell when I open the bag of lemon meringue rooibos has the sort of lemony zing I was expecting the lemon verbena to have. Underneath the blast of lemon is a sweet, creamy note that I’m pretty sure is the meringue flavouring.

Tealish_lemon_meringue

I brewed a teapot of this to share with my mom — an achievement in and of itself, since when she wants tea, she normally asks for just plain old “orange pokey”. I poured out a big mug for me and a medium mug for her. Looking at the wet leaves, I see bits of citrus peel and what looks like calendula petals mixed in with the rooibos.

The taste of the tea is muted compared to the smell of the dry leaf. It’s lemony and kind of sharp, but it’s not overpowering. I think the creaminess of the meringue/vanilla flavour is in there, but that flavour is shy, flitting in and out of the curtains, so to speak. I particularly like that the base is green rooibos, since red rooibos can taste too much of wood if you’re not careful.

Pink Dragonfruit

Pink is the universal colour of love, and it’s true, we are totally in love with this combination of exotic dragonfruit, goji berries, chokeberries, elderberries, cranberries and papaya. It’s full of sweet berry goodness and delicious hot or iced! Add some fresh berries to your infusion for an extra pink pop!

The dry leaf for this tea is very chunky — you can see dried bits of dragonfruit, berries and papaya. Although I smell elderberry most strongly, I also smell the dragonfruit (mainly at the back of my nose and the roof of my mouth) and also hints of citrus. Very nice!

I’m going to admit that I made this tea twice for this review. I used half of the 50g packet to make a pitcher using 4 cups of hot water topped up with 4 cups of cold water, added some agave nectar, and left it to sit in the fridge overnight. However, this pitcher was too weak and watery in flavour.

I then brewed the remaining stuff left in the packet with 3 cups of hot water and added 3 cups of cold —  but the resulting iced tea was still too weak and watery. It was a bit sweeter, but not by much.

Tealish_pink_dragonfruit_iced

Despite the weak flavour, I still do taste and smell fruit but it’s fairly indistinct. The tea is a pale peachy-pink, but ultimately, the nice colour wasn’t enough to wow me. You’re better off just dumping all 50g into a single pitcher and letting things work from there.

Verdict

The Pink Dragonfruit tea was a disappointment, but the other two were better. The lemon meringue tea, in particular, is one that I’ll be very happy to keep in my cupboard. The lemon verbena is a soothing one that I can see being good as a sleep aid in the evenings.

Tea Reviews: Irie, Soul Good, and Jubilee from Tea Leaf Co

About Tea Leaf Co

tea_leaf_coTea Leaf Co is a Toronto-based tea retailer. All their teas are certified organic by Ecocert Canada and the USDA. Most (but not all) of their teas come in sample-sized pouches of 20g. Shipping is free for orders $49, but as a bonus, shipping is a flat rate of $3 if you buy only sample sizes. I purchased three samples for review and they arrived in my mailbox in Toronto in less than a week.

You can buy from Tea Leaf Co online at www.tealeafco.com.

Irie — Coconut Chai

The first thing that will strike you about this blend is the smooth aroma of coconut which permeates the infusion, and flutters amongst the other Chai spices, without overwhelming, imparting that delicious smooth coconut flavor. The sweet notes of citrus come out at the mid point of the flavor development while the cardamom sweetness lingers towards the end… a masterful performance.

Ingredients: Black tea, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, cloves, orange peel, black pepper, coconut shreds, natural essences.

tea_leaf_co_irie_dryWhen I first opened the package of Irie tea, I immediately smelled the spices and the orange peel, but I didn’t smell much coconut at first. However, I could definitely see big flakes of coconut in the dry leaf, along with flecks of ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and orange peel. The leaf was just lovely to look at. Eventually, I did notice the smell of coconut, but it was light and faint at the back of my nose near my soft palate.

I brewed 3 tsp in my 3-cup teapot with 100°C water for 3-4 minutes and added a dollop of agave nectar. The resulting brew was a clear amber that was lighter than I expected. The smell was a very fine balance of coconut, orange, and spices.

tea_leaf_co_irie_pourThe first taste on the tip of my tongue was of sharp spices, which eventually faded to smoothness. After that, the strongest two spice flavours were ginger and cardamom, with coconut becoming a light flavour on the back of my tongue. This was a really smooth chai with a good balance of flavours. However, I do wish that the base tea had been stronger, as it was really light.

Soul Good — Apple Cider Oolong

A perfect cup of all natural apple cider to warm you up this autumn and winter.

Ingredients: Oolong tea, apple pieces, ginger, natural essences.

Soul Good apple cider oolongWhen I first opened the package of Soul Good tea, I smelled a powdery smell that I couldn’t quite place. It reminded me of potpourri or baby powder but not in a bad way — it was soft and sweet rather than dry or chalky. I could smell the ginger and the apple on top of the powder, creating an interesting flavour profile — not quite reminiscent of apple cider, but definitely fruity and spicy.

The dry leaf consists of white flecks of dried ginger, brown pieces of dried apple, and dark, curled nuggets of oolong tea. I don’t know enough about oolong to be able to identify what’s being used here, but based on the floral smell and the dark green colour of the nuggets, I’m guessing that it’s either unroasted or only lightly roasted.

tea_leaf_co_soul_good_brewI brewed the 1.5-2 teaspoons of dry leaf in 1 1/2 cups of water at 85°C for 3-4 minutes. The resulting brew was a pale orange yellow, and the dry leaf had clearly expanded a lot in the filter bag.

The brewed smell was quite similar to the dried smell: sweet, soft, fruity, powdery. I added a spoonful of agave nectar (too much, I realized in retrospect) to the cup, which helped bring the flavour forward. The apple was gentle and appeared mostly on the back of my tongue. The ginger was there if I squinted, but it wasn’t that strong.

Although this tea is billed as an apple cider oolong, I wasn’t really getting the depth of flavour that I would expect from a cider. I think this is because of the blend’s use of green oolong. I bet it would pack a greater punch if a more heavily-roasted oolong were used for the base.

Jubilee — Mango Green Rooibos

This organic herbal tea blend is an exciting combination of herbs and spices. It embodies the smells and flavors of the carnival season and piques all of your senses creating an experience that walks a fine line between excitement and relaxing escape.The carnival culture of Brazil and the Caribbean stem from African traditions, since Africans has an ancient tradition of parading and moving in circles through villages wearing masks and costumes.

Ingredients: Green rooibos, rose petals, mango pieces, calendula, orange peel, apple pieces, natural essences.

Jubilee mango green rooibosThe dry leaf for Jubilee was a mix of rose petals, calendula petals, green rooibos, and mango pieces. The smell was like ripe, juicy mango edging into overripeness. In the back, contributing to that overripe smell was the rose, adding a bit of tartness, and the calendula, adding a bit of floral peachiness.

I brewed 8 tsp of the dry leaf in my iced tea pitcher — I boiled one litre of water, added a squeeze of agave nectar, and let it sit for 5 minutes before topping the pitcher up with another litre of cool water and chucking the entire pitcher into the fridge to cool. I let it sit for about 8 hours before pouring out a glass to taste.

tea_leaf_co_jubilee_brewThe liquor was a bright sunny orange, and the dominant flavours were of mango and rose. Again, the flavour itself was very light on the tongue. Almost too light, actually — I worry I may have understeeped this.

Verdict

My favourite tea of this set was Irie because it had a very finely balanced blend of spices. I have some masala chais in my cupboard that taste like a cinnamon stick and others that are pretty much nothing but ginger, and this one sits right in the middle. Plus, the hint of coconut and orange provides depth.

The Jubilee iced tea was good, but I think I wimped out on the leaf and didn’t add enough sugar. I think I’ll use the rest of the sample for a single pitcher and see how that fares. I’m quite happy with my choices, though; Tea Leaf Co. has more blends to try, and many of them look very promising.

One Final Note: Great Service and Branding

One final thing I’d like to note about Tea Leaf Co is how solid their branding is. Their site is bright and easy to navigate, their colour scheme and typography are clear and distinct, and the quality of their packaging is apparent when looked at up-close.

On top of that, their customer service is top-notch: the owner, Stephanie, mailed my package almost immediately after it was ordered even though she was very busy dealing with many things at once, and the tea was delivered wrapped in a beautiful layer of colourful tissue paper. The package also contained a handwritten thank-you note that included a custom coupon code for future orders.

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