Review | The Magicians, Lev Grossman

TheMagicians

In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater, a nerdy and melancholy eighteen year old, is recruited to join a magic university in upstate New York called Brakebills. Quentin is obsessed with a children’s fantasy series about a magical land called Fillory, and real life just cannot compare, particularly when he sees himself as both sidekick and jilted suitor in his trio of friends. When invited to study at Brakebills, he hopes he has finally found his meaning in life, his place of belonging, and the thing that will finally bring him happiness.

Grossman riffs off the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia traditions, and presents a rather more sardonic view of magic. As an older student, Eliot, tells Quentin, most people can’t do magic because “it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right.” Indeed, unlike Hogwarts which felt wondrous and, well, magical, Brakebills makes magic feel like a particularly rigorous college major, like pre-law or pre-med. During one term for example, students had to study in isolation all the different ways circumstances can change the makeup of a single spell. As Quentin observed, he knew more about that particular spell than he’d ever wanted to know, including how to cast it if he were a woman.

The book continues to follow the characters after graduation, when they struggle to find their place in a world where most people are unaware that magic exists. One of them discovers a portal to Fillory, and, having not quite found the happiness he sought in Brakebills, Quentin turns his attention into possibly finding happiness in the fantasy land of his youth. However, just like Brakebills isn’t quite as wondrous as Hogwarts, nor is Fillory anywhere near as magical as Narnia. The residents in Fillory appear to be in need of something, and while Quentin and his friends decide to go on a quest to become kings and queens of Fillory, the decision resulted more from an understanding of fantasy tropes and classic quest stories than from any real understanding of how the quest’s success will solve Fillory’s troubles.

I liked the story. I hesitate to call it more realistic than traditional magical stories because I like to think real-life magic would still be more exciting and wondrous than Grossman presents. As well, Grossman pulls short of delving deep into realism — while his characters drink a lot and face ennui upon graduation, they also lead charmed lives, with a magical network of corporations guaranteeing magical graduates a comfortable lifetime income for shell corporate jobs. I also hesitate to call it more adult than traditional magical stories, because while there is sex and drugs and certainly less wide-eyed innocence, there is also a naivete about Quentin and his friends’ approach to life, a sort of languorous privileged view that still makes me want to tell some of them to grow up. Still, in a way, both descriptors are accurate. Grossman does raise some interesting complications that could occur if magic and magical lands did exist. I can imagine mastery at magic requiring a lot more tedious memorization than fun tricks, and I can also imagine a magical fantasy land not quite living up to childhood expectations.

Among the characters, I absolutely loved Quentin’s classmates Eliot, a fashionable gourmet, and Alice, a brilliant, talented magician. In contrast, Quentin is not at all a likeable character, at least for me. It’s hard to root for someone who is so consumed by his own ennui and lack of self-worth that he is unable to see that other people around him have problems of their own and that he externalizes blame for his mistakes onto “the sick, empty world they were all in together.” (p. 263)

His attitude towards their quest in Fillory annoys me as well. When Alice points out that people could get hurt, he responds:

“If I die doing this, at least I’ll have done something. Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time.” (p. 332)

The problem is that they don’t really have a goal or stated need for that quest in the first place. Quentin is just bored with life and decides to find meaning by visiting Fillory, and then literally for lack of anything else to do, decides to go on a quest to become king.

Possibly one of the reasons I love Alice so much is that she calls Quentin out on his behaviour:

“If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or your going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”

“You can’t just decide to be happy.”

“No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.” (p. 333)

The end of the book promises further adventure in the sequel, this time involving Quentin’s childhood friend Julia, who was not accepted into Brakebills and therefore taught herself magic. From what I hear, she is a much more interesting character than Quentin, and the TV show version somewhat conflates both books so that, on the screen, we get her story alongside Quentin’s.

The Magicians TV Adaptation on Showcase

Having read the book, I’m much more excited to see how it translates on the screen, and to see the actors who will bring the characters to life. I also can’t wait to find out more about Julia’s story, as the glimpse I’ve seen of her in the book seems intriguing.

The Magicians premiered last January 25, and airs on Showcase Mondays at 9. Catch up on previous episodes at www.showcase.ca/themagicians and check out a brand-new episode tonight on TV and tomorrow online.

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Thanks to Showcase.ca for a copy of this book (and awesome card deck!) in exchange for an honest review.

Review | City of the Lost, Kelley Armstrong

26869354Where would you go if you suddenly had to disappear? In Kelley Armstrong’s City of the Lostthere’s an isolated small town in the Yukon that provides such a sanctuary, hidden away by the forest and essentially self-sustaining. Casey Duncan, a detective who has killed a man, is less interested in escape than in ensuring that her best friend Diana is safe from her abusive husband. The town’s sheriff Eric Dalton needs a detective, so the town council agrees to take Diana on if Casey comes along.

A departure from Armstrong’s usual paranormal thriller, City of the Lost is a fairly straightforward murder mystery, a locked room puzzle in a town where everyone has a troubled past. There are shades of political intrigue, the possibility that the town council accepts bribes to allow dangerous criminals into town, and the threat of “hostiles” living in the surrounding forest. There is also a drug angle, with the mild-mannered town pharmacist allegedly suppling residents with a more potent version of a popular drug. And there is a series of murders with rather disgusting markers such as internal organs hanging from a tree. It feels very much like a big city police procedural, except with small town friendships and the added danger of the wild.

Armstrong can always be counted on for a good story, and City of the Lost is a solid example of that. It had a lot of good points — the romance was hot and I absolutely love that Casey is half Filipino-Chinese. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, or worse, condescending that I’m making a big deal of it, and I really don’t mean it to be. It’s just that I never really expect to see characters like me in popular fiction, so it’s always a thrill when I do. And it’s an even bigger thrill when the character is awesome like Casey is, and when her being Filipino-Chinese isn’t at all integral to the story, when it’s simply a throwaway piece of description, because it shows how effortless it can and should be to incorporate diverse characters into literature. Armstrong has always been great at having diverse characters, and I love that about her work.

I’m a huge Kelley Armstrong fan, and perhaps that’s why this novel fell somewhat short of my expectations. The mystery was good, but the search for the killer wasn’t quite as gripping as I’d hoped. I knew there was danger in the town, and the danger had turned somewhat personal with a character I liked getting killed, but the mystery somehow lacked urgency. I wasn’t flipping the page as fast as I could to get to the bottom of it. Contrast that to her earlier work The Masked Truth where I stayed up late to finish it, or the Cainsville series, where I was so intrigued by the mythology she’d created that I wanted to keep reading more.

The characters as well were likeable, but not so memorable that I absolutely need to read more of their stories. Armstrong creates good characters and her Women of the Otherworld series in particular is an example where her characters veritably crackle off the page. I didn’t quite get that crackle in City of the Lost, and in fact, when Casey was going on a rock climbing trip with a new close friend Petra, I had to flip back to remind myself who Petra was. Their first meeting confused me as well — Petra was part of a group that Diana had gone with to a bar, and while Casey initially seemed put off by the group, agreeing with Eric that they were the popular party kids Diana should probably avoid, she then becomes very good friends with them herself. It’s possibly a case of first impressions being a mistake, but the change in Casey’s perception seemed to have happened within the same page, which confused me.

All this to say that City of the Lost is a good book, just not as amazing as I look for in a Kelley Armstrong story. Perhaps I just prefer her paranormal fiction, or perhaps, as this is the first book in a series, Armstrong is still feeling out her characters and setting. Still, it’s a solid mystery thriller, and it’ll be interesting to see how the concept of this town will play out in future instalments.

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

Blog Tour | Just a Little Bit of Love, Ines Bautista-Yao

just a little bit of loveOne of Ines Bautista-Yao’s greatest strengths as a romance writer is that she is able to tap into the romantic fantasies of our high school selves. You know the type. That moment in life when it does seem conceivable that a pop star can find you in the midst of a crowd of screaming girls and fall madly in love, or that the hot captain of the sports team harbours a secret crush on the nerdy math geek.

Bautista-Yao takes these fantasies, and repackages them into sweet vignettes that actually feel real, and more to the point, realistic. Rather than Nick Carter swooning as he catches your eye at a Backstreet Boys concert (ahem), perhaps it’s a cute, shy man at the coffee shop where you work. Or the (actually cuter) teammate of that athlete you’re crushing on. Or perhaps it’s the random cute guy you encounter once at a work event and fear you may never see again.

These stories make up Bautista-Yao’s newest book Just a Little Bit of Love, a collection of short stories that are tangentially related to the main characters in her most recent novel Only a Kiss. As the blurb says, these are just small doses of romance, but they do serve up a whole lot of feels.

Q&A WITH INES BAUTISTA-YAO:

1. These stories revisit the world of Kate and Chris from your novel Only a Kiss. What inspired you to return to that world and flesh out these characters?

I wish I could give you a more creative answer but the truth is, I started writing the story blog posts to promote Only A Kiss. Then my husband asked how many stories I had and suggested putting them all together in a collection. The problem was I wasn’t done with one of my stories and no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to finish it. So I stopped writing it and just started a new one which I fell in love with in an instant!

2. Two of the stories may be familiar to avid readers of your blog, where they were originally published. What was the reader response to those stories and what made you decide to include them in this collection?

Whenever I would announce the stories, I’d get readers and friends messaging me asking for more. So this is it! But of course, I’m still getting requests for more haha! But that’s always a good thing.

3. In “On the Sidelines,” the romance begins with tension — Ina finds John annoying. What about this type of beginning interests you as a writer?

I like complications because I want to see how my characters figure them out and come out better, stronger, and happier in the end. Also, it makes my characters and their relationships more intriguing.

4. I love Ina’s friend Robert, who cheers on her romance while being too afraid to pursue his own. His fear is compounded by his being gay, and unsure how his crushes will respond. What inspired Robert’s character, and do you think you’ll ever write a romance between characters of the same sex?

I have no idea. I didn’t plan for Robert to be gay, he just was. When I start writing, I have a very general idea in mind and everything comes together when I start putting the words down. So I don’t know if I will write a same sex romance. Who knows? I just might one day :) As for inspiration, that’s a secret because I think it’s still a secret, if you know what I mean :)

5. John tries to woo Ina with cheese rolls and in “Sticky Notes”, Jacob charms Carla with a sticky note. What was the sweetest thing a guy has done for you, and what made it so special?

I believe there’s a fine line between sweet and creepy. The difference lies in your feelings for the boy. If Ina didn’t like John, his persistence would have been creepy. If Carla didn’t like Jacob, she would have been grossed out by the sticky note. So given that, I’ve had boys serenade me, draw me islands, write me poetry, give me bouquets of flowers, but the sweetest thing a boy has ever done for me was something I only found out about after it happened. Before my husband and I got together, he was praying a novena to St. Joseph that I would finally come to my senses and realize I was in love with him too :)

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Thanks to the author for inviting me to be a part of this blog tour!

Just a Little Bit of Love is available on Amazon.

 

Review | The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson

GapofTimeThe Gap of Time is such a beautiful book. Winterson is a master of language, and she plays with Shakespeare’s tale in such clever ways that it feels both homage and update, Shakespeare’s original not so much retold as teased out and turned inside out. There’s a playfulness to Winterson’s tone, a lilt to her cadence that hints that she doesn’t take all of this too seriously, yet there is also such lyricism in the language that she manages to evoke depths of emotion all the same. It’s a linguistic feat worthy of Shakespeare himself, and thus such a fitting “cover” of his work.

Take for example the beginning, where a man named Shep finds a baby “light as a star” abandoned near a hospital, and decides to adopt her as his own:

I played the song and I taught it to her. She was singing before she could talk.

I am learning to be a father and a mother to her. She asks about her mother and I say we don’t know. I have always told her the truth — or enough of it. And she is white and we are black so she knows she was found.

The story has to start somewhere. (page 23)

The words are simple and straightforward, yet the rhythm almost feels musical. Contrast that with the harsh momentum in the story of Leo, a man whose irrational jealousy ends up destroying his family:

Leo swivelled round to the window. He hated his friend for fucking his wife. Weren’t there enough women out there? Everywhere he went, bars, clubs, hotels, boats, there were identical-looking women searching for men. Long hair, long legs, big sunglasses, moulded tits, vast handbag, killer heels. You could rent them for the weekend except that it wasn’t called renting, but both parties knew who paid and who put out. (page 39)

You could just feel his anger bubble up and about to burst through. Winterson’s story isn’t meant for stage, but there’s a stage-like quality to her writing, a sense that you’re watching the action unfold rather than just reading about it.

Gap of Time is a cover version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. You don’t need to know the original to appreciate this story; the novel begins with a handy recap of the play. One of Shakespeare’s later plays, it was never one of my favourites, mostly because I felt Leontes (Leo in Winterson’s version) got off too easily with his own happy ending despite all the havoc he wreaked on other people’s lives. Winterson’s version makes me appreciate the story more, and while I still can’t bring myself to feel sorry for Leo, I appreciated how Winterson’s book makes clear how much Leo’s darkness is within him and how much his suffering ends up self-inflicted.

I also love the other updates Winterson made to the story. She weaves in issues of race (a white girl adopted by a black man and his son) and sexuality (the tension between Leo and his best friend Xeno is partially due to them having once been lovers and there are hints that Leo’s homophobic comments to Xeno are actually rooted in fear of his own sexuality). She also ramps up the metaphor, but does this so beautifully that it feels natural rather than heavy-handed. Xeno invents a video game inspired by a story of an angel who is trapped in a courtyard, and as time passes in the game, Time itself eventually becomes a character in its own right. I’m not quite sure what it means, and there’s a moment where Winterson blurs the lines so I’m not sure if the characters are playing the video game or moving about in the real world. I didn’t like that ambiguity, but I think the metaphor of the game is beautiful overall.

Towards the end, Winterson breaks the fourth wall and deliberately steps back to let the story play out without her. Up until that point, she has moved the characters around, between London and New Bohemia, between the past and the present, and just before she breaks that fourth wall, she situates the characters just so. It’s masterfully done, a playwright/director creating a tableau just as they signal the curtain to fall. There’s an artifice to Winterson’s presentation, certainly, but it’s deliberate and, to my mind, done really well. We know, somewhat, how the story will end, because we know how Shakespeare’s original ended, and despite Winterson’s weaving in of new themes like race and sexuality, she consistently stayed true to the flow of the original. And yet we are still swept away. The emotions are still real, the characters still fleshed out, and the wordplay simply magnificent.

I loved this book, and I’d love to read more of Winterson’s works, to see how her magic with words can bring her own stories to life.

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

 

Blog Tour | All Inclusive, Farzana Doctor

All Inclusive book coverI absolutely loved Farzana Doctor’s new book All Inclusive. The publisher’s summary begins with the intriguing question “What’s it like when everyone’s dream vacation is your job?” The novel takes place at an all-inclusive resort, and I loved the behind-the-scenes peek at the employees simply going through a work day while having to deal with starry eyed travellers expecting a five-star-everything experience. Anyone who’s worked in tourism, and possibly even retail, may be able to relate.

I love the way Doctor writes about family, and about the tensions that arise from having multiple heritages. One of my favourite parts of her earlier novel Six Metres of Pavement is Ismail’s struggle with his family’s cultural norms in the face of new relationships. Family and self-realization are major themes as well in All Inclusive. Protagonist Ameera, a resort employee whose career is jeopardized by a customer complaint, struggles with never having met her father, who disappeared the morning after she was conceived. Unbeknownst to her, her father Azeez is looking for her, and the reason behind his disappearance makes this quest ever more bittersweet.

All Inclusive Blog Tour Banner

Dundurn Press has kindly invited me to be a part of their blog tour for All Inclusive, and I took the opportunity to ask Farzana some of the burning questions I had while reading the book.

Q & A with FARZANA DOCTOR

Farzana DoctorQ: Ameera works at what many people consider a “dream vacation.” Why did you choose such a setting, and what insight does this career choice give us into her character?

An all-inclusive resort, rife with inequality, seemed like a good setting for Ameera’s struggles. She hopes the job will provide an escape from her life, but instead she finds herself in a walled-in amusement park where she must face herself.

Q: Ameera and her father Azeez’s search for each other takes a much different form than I expected. Why did you choose to have Azeez’s story take that trajectory, and were there any particular challenges that resulted from it?

Azeez’s story came to me by magic. During a period of deep discouragement I heard a voice telling me about his character and his back story. I listen to voices when I can hear them—they always guide me well. At first I didn’t want to write what I was being told; I don’t have personal links to the real-life tragedy in the story and I worried that it might not be respectful to those who do. But the more I researched the issue, the more obsessed and compelled I felt about writing it.

Q: Ameera is compared to a house with a roof and windows, but no walls, because of her lack of knowledge of who her father is. How important is an understanding of one’s origins to one’s sense of rootedness?

It’s not essential, of course (many people don’t know their ancestry). However, I chose this to be an important part of her journey. On a personal note, being connected to my roots makes me feel more grounded.

Q: Ameera is very unfamiliar with the South Asian aspect of her heritage, and the story’s setting away from Canada adds another layer of uprootedness. What is it about this double separation from heritage/home that intrigues you, and how difficult/easy was it to put yourself in Ameera’s shoes?

I wanted to create a liminal space that would magnify her sense of otherness for the reader. This in-between place also offers her freedom to explore things she cannot at “home” in Canada. You know, it wasn’t that hard to put myself in her sandals! So many of us diasporic folk feel this sense of not belonging anywhere.

Q: In one of the most (to me) touching scenes, Azeez advises the pre-teen daughter of a con artist that her parents’ problems are not her own, yet the daughter’s shoulders remain stiff and unyielding. How much do you think children take on their parents’ burdens, and is this reflected in Ameera’s relationship with either or both of her parents?

We know that trauma can be inter-generationally inherited, even if that trauma is not directly witnessed. In this example, the child might not realize exactly what her parents are doing, but she senses the wrongness and stress. Ameera inherited her mother’s solid, independent approach to life. She mostly inherited her father’s physical attributes, but I also wanted to imagine how his losses might impact her without her knowing.

Q: Did you do any fun research about Mexico and resorts for this book? If so, what was the highlight of this research trip?

The research wasn’t intentional. I went to an all-inclusive resort in Huatulco about six years ago and was very awake that trip. I noticed the foreign tour reps and wondered how they lived. I saw the intense beauty around me. I cringed at the unequal relations between workers and vacationers, the food and water waste, the history of land appropriation. All this fed my imagination and helped me create “Atlantis”.

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Thanks to Farzana for answering my questions!

And thank you to Dundurn Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for inviting me to be a part of this blog tour!

All images courtesy of the publisher. Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #AllInclusiveNovel.

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.

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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.

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