Review | A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson

GodinRuinsI had mixed feelings about Atkinson’s earlier novel Life After Life. I thought that concept behind the book — the ability to live one’s life over and over again until you get it right — was more compelling than the book itself. So when I received an advance reading copy of the companion novel A God in Ruins, I wasn’t quite that hyped up about it, and while I was going to give it a shot, I was at most cautiously optimistic.

A God in Ruins is about Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula, who in turn was the protagonist in Life After Life. Unlike Ursula, Teddy gets only one life to live, and we follow his journey from being a mischievous little boy to fighting in World War II as an RAF pilot, and finally to adjusting to life after the war.

I thought A God in Ruins was a much stronger book, though I also think that having it parallel Life After Life to some degree added to its strength. The poignancy of having only one life to live, set against the backdrop of World War II, is particularly heightened by our knowledge that having the chance to live one’s life over and over again isn’t quite tragedy-free either. The scenes about the war may be the most dramatic, but it’s Teddy’s life after the war that holds most resonance — his struggle to cope with going back to ordinary life and his strained relationship with his daughter.

There were some points where I felt bored reading the book, but other moments where scenes hold major emotional impact. I love the Adventures of Augustus stories about a little boy modelled after Teddy. The innocence and mischief in these tales are particularly resonant when contrasted with the hardness he needed to acquire for the war.

Despite the shifts back and forth in time, the story is fairly linear, with the exception of the final couple of chapters in the end. These chapters hearken to the mysticism of Life After Life, but in this case, I found they packed an emotional wallop for the reader. With these final few pages, Atkinson casts the rest of the novel in a new light, and heightens so much more the reality of war, of wasted potential, lives cut too short, and other lives that can feel too long.


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

Review | The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood

atwoodIn a dystopian world, humans are offered a chance at escape: join a social experiment and live in a self-contained community where you alternate months between a suburban lifestyle and a prison. The goal for the experiment is a solution to overcrowding in prisons, as one character terms it, timeshare taken to the extreme.

For couple Stan and Charmaine, it beats the hell out of their current existence sleeping in their car and fighting off hoodlums every night. Stan is somewhat suspicious, but the lure of clean towels and a fresh bed proves too much temptation, and they both apply.

The Heart Goes Last is an Atwood novel, and as anyone familiar with the Oryx and Crake trilogy or The Handmaid’s Tale can attest, ay time a society is presented as utopian, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s not. In this case, the corporation that runs the experiment has its eye on profits — familiar Atwood tropes like headless chickens bred for meat make an appearance, and the question of what happens to residents after they pass away raises a chill, given the community’s devotion to waste reduction.

The title refers to the process of dying, the last vestige of humanity right before the moment of death. And as the story progresses, the title takes on much more resonance, and the struggle to hold on to one’s humanity becomes ever more problematized.

The novel begins as with a fairly slick sci-fi tone — we have the seemingly perfect world, the heightened technology and a philosophy taken to the extreme. Throughout, we get hints that the world isn’t quite so perfect — e.g. the chilling reality of Charmaine’s job, prisoners having sex with chickens — but the core conflict is fairly typical sci-fi. It begins with Charmaine having a secret affair with the man who lives in their house while she and Stan are in prison, and launches off into Stan being utterly enmeshed in the reality behind the system’s shiny veneer.

My main concern with this novel is that Atwood appears to squish so many of her ideas in, yet their impact rarely goes beyond a brief appearance. One example is the aforementioned headless chickens which were literally a passing reference. Another is the development of sex droids, which played a key role in the plot, but barely dealt with the problematic nature of their development.

Rather, the sex droids seemed a mere stepping stone toward what I found a truly chilling development (I’ll avoid spoilers here) — and again, this further development did play a part in the plot, but Atwood barely grazes the surface of how problematic this is. There is a great snippet of a conversation where one character challenges the idea that “nobody is exploited,” and another corrects him, “I said nobody feels exploited. Different thing.” There’s so much to unpack within that statement, vis a vis some of the things happening within this world, but then it’s barely touched upon till the very end. Unlike, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale, where there are a couple of key driving forces behind the plot, the story in The Heart Goes Last seems to want to go off into multiple directions, without quite settling on one.

The most powerful section of the book for me comes at the very end. Without giving too much away, it involves a procedure and the happiness of a couple of characters. The final pages in particular call into question what happiness entails, and what love really means. It brings up contemporary notions of romantic love, and contrasts it with the sedateness of a long-term relationship, and calls into question under what circumstances we can find happiness within both. These themes were discussed in various ways throughout the novel, but I felt a lot of it got lost underneath the discussions around the prison system and sex droids. There were certainly moments of potency (a revelation about the knitted blue teddy bears is particularly discomfiting), but not quite enough cohesion among them all.

Still, the book made me think, and the ending in particular was problematic in a good way and made me long for more. It’s not my favourite Atwood, but it’s a highly readable tale with Atwood’s trademark wit and quite a few tidbits for thought.


Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | If I Fall, If I Die, Michael Christie

IfIFall“The boy stepped Outside and he did not die.” One of the most promising beginnings to a novel that I’ve encountered in a long time. If I Fall, If I Die tells the story of 12 year old Will, whose agoraphobic mother has kept him indoors all his life. When the novel begins, a noise outside his home leads Will to take his first taste of freedom.

The novel has such a powerful beginning. We experience with Will his fears at his first steps outside, his uncertainty at dealing with other people, and finally his exhilaration at discovering how limitless the world really is. Coupled with that is his guilt over, in a way, leaving his mother behind. I love the interplay between Will’s emotions, and his warring desires to introduce his mother to the wonders of Outside while at the same time to make her feel safe and comfortable, which she can only really feel within the walls of their home.

I also really loved the glimpse into the mindset of Will’s mother Diane. Christie details how a single day at the subway transformed her into a woman too afraid to leave her front door. At one point, he writes, “How easy it is for a life to become tiny. How cleanly the world falls away.” (page 16) That entire chapter is such a potent, moving depiction of how easy it is to slip into agoraphobia, & how terrifying/paralyzing the condition can be.

The story falters a bit when it leaves behind Diane’s story somewhat and focuses on Will’s life Outside. He happens to become involved somehow with some unsavoury characters, and ends up trying to solve a fairly complex mystery dealing with some dangerous criminals. Even as this part of the plot began, I could see how it could develop into a potential motivation for Diane to face her fear, but from such a powerfully intimate beginning, these developments just felt contrived. From such depth of emotion in the characters’ internal worlds, the shift to a primarily external plot was jarring, moreover, disappointing. It was all just a little too convenient, and I wondered how Will and Diane would have dealt with the shift in their dynamics if Will’s life had stayed just a tad more ordinary — how much much poignant the catharsis would have felt.

That being said, there’s just a gorgeous line near the end of the book that brought back, somewhat, what I loved so much about the beginning:

But the shadow that love can’t help but cast is fear: fear they won’t stay alive or around — fear they’ll be reckless, or doomed, or just walk away and not consider you ever again. With love, you’re scared it will disappear. With fear, you’re scared it never will. (page 323)


Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Children Act, Ian McEwan

McEwanI had such high hopes for this book. The question of religious freedom versus one’s well-being is so fraught with nuance that there is never an easy answer. When even individuals can be conflicted about where we stand, personally, on certain issues, how much more difficult must it be for law makers and law enforces, who must weigh the needs of a wide range of people.

The Children Act is about Fiona, a High Court judge, who must decide on the case of seventeen-year-old Adam’s right to refuse life-saving medical treatment due to religious reasons. As a minor, his parents’ wishes must be taken into account, but in this case, they’re all in agreement that he should be allowed to refuse. The question is, should the court intervene and save his life? Can a seventeen-year-old, who has grown up in a devout household, truly be said to be making an informed choice when he decides on religious belief over his own life?

To help her reach a decision, Fiona decides to visit Adam, and her judgement is further complicated by the bond she forms with the boy. Being childless herself, the moral dilemma of allowing a child to die is particularly difficult for her to face.

This leads to a third act plot development that just completely ruined the novel for me. Without giving too much away, I’ll say only that it turned the book ordinary. Despite such a promising set-up, with such nuanced ethical quandaries to face, McEwan instead chooses to focus on Fiona’s personal life, which is a valid choice for sure, yet also one that deflates the novel somewhat. The ending returns somewhat to the question of religion and its role, but I still wish the novel had grappled with its themes just a bit more than it did.


Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

22536182“There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay.” So goes the blurb behind the advance reading copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s a beautiful book, the stylized tree on the cover combined with the text on the back conveying a world of magic within its pages.

And indeed, Ishiguro invites us into an Arthurian style world, where a mist causes forgetfulness, and an elderly couple sets out on a quest to find their son. The language evokes a world of myth, the childlike Middle Earth in Tolkien’s The Hobbit rather than in his later trilogy. The themes are universal — love and forgiveness and the power of memory.

In Giant, amongst the encounters with knights and battles with dragons, amid the backdrop of political turmoil in England, the heart of the story lies in the love between the elderly couple Axl and Beatrice. A fog of forgetfulness has hidden memories of their past together, and at several points the question is raised whether some memories are best left forgotten. This is a particularly poignant question in light of the setting of the story — right at the crux of change, the death knell of the Arthurian age and the beginning of modern Britain. How much of Axl and Beatrice’s Britain will survive in memory, and given the various armed conflicts in their Britain’s history, how much would we ultimately want to remember?

As with any quest, there is a particular point of no return, the crux as it were of the entire adventure. For Axl and Beatrice, this takes the form of a legend about a boatman. According to the legend, couples who truly love each other may be ferried across to an island where they would be together forever. Yet before the trip, the couple must pass a test to prove the depth of their love, and if they fail, they are doomed to wander the island alone for all eternity. It’s a beautiful metaphor for death, and recalls the romantic ideal of love so strong that it lasts beyond death.

There are a lot of beautiful moments in Giant, and the conversations between Axl and Beatrice at times brought me to tears. But something was missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, and it’s possible that my expectations were just too high (it’s an Ishiguro, after all). But I was expecting to be transported. And with such a mystical framework for the narrative, with such lyrical language and mythological encounters, I was expecting to lose myself in the world that the author has created. Yet I wasn’t. The story felt just a tad too crafted, the language just a tad too designed that it never quite clicked into a natural cadence. I appreciated what the author was trying to do, and I liked his characters and his themes, but I never quite fully connected to the story. This is a shame, because I love Ishiguro’s work, and I really wanted to lose myself in this book. It wasn’t bad, but it could have been so much more.


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

Review | Armada, Ernest Cline

ArmadaThis was disappointing. I absolutely geeked out over Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and I was eagerly anticipating his next novel. But while Armada wasn’t bad, necessarily, it also wasn’t anything special, and after providing such geeky pleasure with Ready Player One, being just “meh” is probably the worst thing that could have happened for the author’s next novel.

Like Ready Player One, Armada dives deep into gaming culture, and posits the premise that the fate of the world lies in the hands of nerds. In Armada, a particular video game involving aliens comes to life in the real world, and it turns out that this game was actually a training device aimed to prepare the world against an alien invasion. Enter Zach Lightman, video gamer extraordinaire who is recruited to join the elite forces in saving the world. There is also a bit of a subplot involving Zach’s relationship with his father, a fellow gamer who became consumed by his own conspiracy theories and ended up dying in a sewage plant explosion when Zach was a baby.

Unfortunately, overall, this whole story and all its subplots just felt all “same old, same old.” Certainly, most of the references (Star Wars, Ender’s Game) are deliberate — and I likely missed a whole list of other references in my reading. Cline peppers his narrative with quips about how familiar things feel, and characters calling attention to cliches. But in this case, the quips hit too close to home. Rather than clever homage, as Ready Player One did so well, Armada just felt stale.

Worse, the characters all felt like stock characters. There’s the Ender-type chosen one with daddy issues, the wise mentor in disguise, the bully, the quirky manic pixie dream girl love interest, and an assorted cast of other people. There is a poignant moment near the end, where it seems like the aliens are about to win and various gamer/soldiers begin to pair off for a potential last moment of human connection. But otherwise, the characters felt as flat as their video game counterparts.

It’s possible that I’m just not the right kind of geek for this. Whereas I was in geek heaven over Ready Player One’s references to Nintendo type games, I rarely played space battle games unless at an arcade, and so perhaps I’m just not the target demographic for this novel. Perhaps someone who grew up playing World of Warcraft type video games would enjoy this book, or maybe someone who loved Ender’s Game would appreciate whatever subtlety there is in Cline’s homage to the story (rather than a straight up copy, which is how it struck me from seeing the Ender’s Game movie trailer).

Still, I really wish I’d enjoyed this book more. I devoured Ready Player One, and I’m up to read whatever Cline writes next. Unfortunately, I had fairly high expectations for Armada, and it fell short.


Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | In the Country: Stories, Mia Alvar

Here’s a confession: I’ve always dreamed of writing a Filipino-American novel. I have no clue what it will be about, or even what genre it would be in, but I knew I wanted the protagonist to be Filipino, and I wanted it to resonate somewhat with readers beyond other Filipinos.

Here’s the reason: As a Filipino-Canadian bookworm and aspiring novelist, I’m dismayed by the apparent lack of books with Filipino characters or Filipino content in the mainstream literary world. With the notable exception of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (published over a decade ago – in 1991), there aren’t a lot of contemporary examples of fiction written by Filipinos and published or read outside the Philippines. Some of the others I know of are either about the country under Martial Law (relevant history, but still far from contemporary), or written by non-Filipinos (still notable, as in the case of Angie Abdou’s recent novel Between, but not quite the same). I should add here that it’s entirely possible I just don’t know of these examples, and I would love, dearly love, to be proven wrong about this.

IntheCountrySo when fellow blogger Lynne from Words of Mystery offered me her copy of Mia Alvar’s short story collection In the Country, I was thrilled to discover this title. Here was a recently published book (2015!) by a major publisher (Penguin Random House!) written by a Filipino American whose stories, according to the book blurb “vividly give voice to the women and men of the Filipino diaspora.”

Here’s another confession: Alvar’s stories could have been just okay, and I still would have been liked the book, because as I mentioned, I’m starved for contemporary Filipino American literature. So imagine my thrill when I read the first story and realized Alvar’s writing is so much more than just okay — it was brilliant!

Her stories indeed “vividly give voice” to her characters, transporting the reader to locales such as Dubai or New York and describing events such that you can actually feel like you’re there. Her characters range from household helpers and young professionals in the 80s and 90s to activists in 1970s Martial Law. Filipino-ness is intrinsic and integral to her characters, without necessarily determining their stories, and references to Filipino cultural nodes like sari sari stores and telenovelas are sprinkled throughout, again intrinsic and integral to the stories without quite being the driving force. I guess that by that I mean that Alvar’s writing doesn’t quite set out to push Filipinos to the forefront, but rather takes the stories that are there and simply shares them with the world.

Given how many Filipino-American stories seem fixated on Martial Law, I found myself more drawn to her tales of Filipinos working in other countries. OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) form a significant part of the Philippine economy and population, and Alvar’s stories do a great job of presenting the balancing act between being away from home and forming a new home wherever you are.

I particularly love this passage from her story “Shadow Family,” about a community of Filipinas in Bahrain whose lives get upended when a flirtatious young household helper joins their group:

We too had landed vowing to stick to English — to impress others, to practice, to avoid embarrassing our children. Although the teens still found plenty to ridicule in our accents, nuns in convent school had at least taught us to pronounce our f‘s and v‘s correctly, to know our verb tenses and distinguish genders, to translate naman differently depending on the context. But at these parties we spoke Tagalog even to the babies, who barely understood it, for the same reason we served pancit and not shawarma. Between Arab bosses and Indian subordinates, British traffic laws and American television, we craved familiar flavors and the sound of a language we knew well. (p. 97)

I love the simplicity of that notion, that stubborn clinging to a language because it’s the one bit of home that you can keep, no matter what. I love it mostly because I understand it, because I understand the sense of home that can come just from hearing the sharper cadence of your language.

It’s this sense of home that I felt while reading Alvar’s stories, the sense that while the experiences she recounts are not quite my own, there are touchpoints and trademarks that resonate with familiarity. I read this collection on a train out of town one weekend, and for once, I actually wanted the journey to last longer so I could keep reading.

One question I have every time I read a book that resonates with me because of something in my background (e.g. Crazy Rich Asians), I wonder if non-Asians or non-Filipinos would respond in the same way. Is the book great just because I found familiarity within it, or would other readers also find something within it that will resonate with them? And part of me always hopes so, because that would mean that something in Filipino culture, or Asian culture in general, something far beyond the stereotypes that unfortunately are all too prevalent in books and movies, touched a chord in a broader readership. So far, I’ve lent In the Country to one non-Filipino friend, who also loved it and thought the writing was really good. Call me silly, but that response actually made my day.

In case you couldn’t tell, I absolutely loved Mia Alvar’s In the Country. Here, finally, is the book I’ve long wanted to read and, to be honest, also wanted to write. I still dream of someday joining Alvar and Hagedorn and a hopefully growing list of Filipino fictionists who have carved a space of our own in the Western literary world. In the meantime, I’m beyond glad that Alvar has written this book, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.


A note that at the beginning of this year, I made a pledge to read more Asian American Women Writers. I will likely do a brief recap list nearer the end of the year rather than individual reviews for all of them, but it’s thanks to this pledge that Lynne from Words of Mystery passed this book on to me.

If you’re interested in reading more works by Asian American women, here’s the shelf I created on Goodreads, based off of Celeste Ng’s original article.

And if you have any recommendations to add to this list, in particular of Filipino writers, let me know! I’m always on the lookout for more.