Insurrecto, by Gina Apostol

Some of the words used to describe Insurrecto: dizzying, labyrinthine, psychedelic, meta-meta. This doesn’t sound like a novel I’d love, but I did love this. The descriptor I’d choose is “kaleidosopic,” and I have always loved kaleidoscopes. The multiple time- and storylines of this novel reflect and refract each other. It’s full of metaphors of frames, lenses, and zooms, a novel peopled by photographers and film-makers. Give it a twist and see its narrative fragments fall into a new pattern.

Apostol was born and grew up in the Philippines and now lives in the US; Insurrecto takes up the fraught history between the two countries. Magsalin, a translator, has come home from New York for a visit, mourning her mother and her husband, working on a mystery novel. She receives an email from Chiara Brasi, a film-maker, demanding her help in a visit to Balangiga, Samar, site of a massacre in the Philippine-American war. When Chiara was a child, her father Ludo filmed his cult movie about the Vietnam War, The Unintended, there. Now Chiara wants to make her own film, prompted by a night with a group of artist friends in the Catskills where they all agreed to write a story based on what they found with a single Google search. The multiple references in this framing–to Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, the night in Switzerland that gave birth to Frankenstein–are typical of Insurrecto, which is full of allusions to cultures high and low.  Continue reading

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TBR Challenge: Once a Ferrara Wife by Sarah Morgan

May’s TBR Challenge theme is “backlist glom (author with more than one book in your TBR).” Wondering how I would fit a TBR read amid my demanding library pile, I chose Sarah Morgan’s Once a Ferrara Wife, a Harlequin Presents set in Sicily. I have read and enjoyed plenty of Morgan’s books in the past, and have plenty more TBR.

I’m going to start with something personal that affected my reading of the book. For a lot of people, romance reading is a comfort in hard times. For me right now, that is not the case. I have been dealing (or let’s be honest, not dealing) with depression for a long time now, and am finally recognizing that that’s part of why I went off romance novels. Emotional response is a big part of the romance-reading experience and I’m not having much. I read a book and think, “I see what you did there; whatever.” Then I feel worse because of my lack of feeling. [I’m not asking for sympathy or advice! I’ve made tackling my depression a priority for this summer and I’ve taken the first step.] I can’t do romance justice right now. I haven’t figured out whether I’ll take a break from this challenge, read non-romance from my TBR, or keep trying. But I’ve reached the point where I feel I can’t write any kind of romance review without acknowledging how my mental health is coloring my response. In general I am less able to/willing to pretend everything is fine. So there you go.

Once a Ferrara Wife–or any Harlequin Presents–was not a good choice for my current reading mood. Presents are all about big emotions and OTT tropes. Part of the fun of reading is seeing how the authors use these to explore real emotional conflicts in a highly dramatized way. But if you’re not going to be swept away by the feelings, the experience isn’t as rewarding. Continue reading

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TBR Challenge: Ascension, by Jacqueline Koyanagi

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is “something different,” so I chose Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension: Tangled Axon, which is science fiction with romance between two women, two things I rarely read. I’m drinking from the firehose of end of term work, so I’m amazed I managed to finish it, but I did. Please excuse this review, which is dashed off on my iPad so short and unedited. And I find “ascension” very hard to spell, embarrassing for an English-teaching church lady.

Alana is a “sky surgeon” (engineer) who longs to work in space but ekes out a meagre “dirtheel” existence on planet where, like many places in her universe, the inhabitants are being crowded out by Transliminal Solutions, a corporation/empire/not clear exactly what from another universe that promises to fix all your problems if you only have money. Alana and her aunt have a painful degenerative disease and are trying to save enough for the cure Transliminal offers.

Then the ship Tangled Axon arrives looking for Alana’s sister Nova, a “spirit guide.” (Why they want her and what exactly a spirit guide is remains unclear for quite a while). Alana stows away on the ship and adventures ensue.

Ascension is Koyanagi’s first novel and I think it shows. There are some good things about it, particularly the depiction of living with an illness and the anxieties it creates if you can barely afford to treat it, which rang true. Continue reading

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Reading Lists

Hi, my name is Liz, and despite my best 2019 intentions my library pile is out of control again. Let me tell you about it.

Pile of library books discussed in the post

Finished and ready to return:

Vivien Chien, Death by Dumpling: I liked the setting of this cozy mystery, an Asian-themed mall in Cleveland where the main character works in her parents’ noodle house; it’s good to see more diversity in this subgenre. But ultimately the book confirmed for me that I’m not a big fan of cozies, and the characters felt pretty cardboard/stereotypical.

Reading (and listening) now:

Zen Cho, The True Queen: not in my pile because it’s a digital download. I’m almost 1/3 in and really enjoying it so far, especially because so far there is more focus on Malaysian characters than in Sorcerer to the Crown, in which Mak Genggang was one of my favourite characters. Continue reading

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Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss

In a brief prologue to this short novel, Sarah Moss describes the sacrifice of an Iron Age girl. Moments before her torture begins,

The men turn her to face the crowd, they display her to her neighbours and her family, to the people who held her hands as she learnt to walk, taught her to dip her bread in the pot and wipe her lips, to weave a basket and gut a fish. . . . She has been one of them, ordinary.

This scene makes the opening line of the novel’s main first-person narrative, set just after the fall of the Berlin wall, ring ominously: “Darkness was a long time coming.” One thing Ghost Wall suggests is that darkness is always there, part of the fabric of ordinary human life. It’s not something we have left in a more primitive past.

Teenaged Silvie and her family are participating in an Iron Age re-enactment done by an “experimental archaeology” university class, with a professor and three students. Silvie’s father, a bus driver, is fascinated (and/or obsessed) with this past, and has shared that fascination with Silvie. She knows far more about the natural world, foraging, and ancient history than the privileged university students, and she adeptly picks up crafts they practice like basket-weaving. But Silvie’s father is also, as becomes clear, a controlling abuser who is in part using his understanding of a “more authentic” past to justify keeping his wife and daughter in subservient roles. Her time with the students, especially Molly, pushes Silvie to begin looking at her family life in a new way. Continue reading

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