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Histories and personalities collide in this literary tour-de-force about the Philippines' present and America's past by the PEN Open Book Award–winning author of Gun Dealer's Daughter.

Two women, a Filipino translator and an American filmmaker, go on a road trip in Duterte’s Philippines, collaborating and clashing in the writing of a film script about a massacre during the Philippine-American War. Chiara is working on a film about an incident in Balangiga, Samar, in 1901, when Filipino revolutionaries attacked an American garrison, and in retaliation American soldiers created “a howling wilderness” of the surrounding countryside. Magsalin reads Chiara’s film script and writes her own version. Insurrecto contains within its dramatic action two rival scripts from the filmmaker and the translator—one about a white photographer, the other about a Filipino schoolteacher.

Within the spiraling voices and narrative layers of Insurrecto are stories of women—artists, lovers, revolutionaries, daughters—finding their way to their own truths and histories. Using interlocking voices and a kaleidoscopic structure, the novel is startlingly innovative, meditative, and playful. Insurrecto masterfully questions and twists narrative in the manner of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, and Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Apostol pushes up against the limits of fiction in order to recover the atrocity in Balangiga, and in so doing, she shows us the dark heart of an untold and forgotten war that would shape the next century of Philippine and American history.

336 pages, Hardcover

First published November 13, 2018

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About the author

Gina Apostol

18 books288 followers
Gina Apostol was born in Manila and lives in New York. Her first novel, Bibliolepsy, won the 1998 Philippine National Book Award for Fiction. She just completed her third novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, a comic historical novel-in-footnotes about the Philippine war for independence against Spain and America in 1896.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 278 reviews
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,136 followers
April 27, 2023
Insurrecto gives me faith that the root meaning of 'novel', nouvelle, something new—will continue to be true for a long time to come. Every sentence here was a revelation. Manila—so perfectly captured. The strange, very strange layer of popular American culture that paints itself over the Philippines—perfect. The strange, very strange way that Tagalog becomes the language of choice for ‘strange’ in English-language movies set in far-off lands....my friend from the Philippines had never stopped being indignant at the way Tagalog is spoken by Ewoks and Indonesians and Vietnamese, depending on the movie.

Most of all though this novel is an indictment of the way we forget. As well as an indictment of the way we remember, inaccurately. It is my best book of 2018. I’m so grateful to have read it.

If you try to read it yourself, it might help you to take to heart the advice the author gives us on p. 103: "A reader does not need to know everything."


Also, everyone who matters in this novel is an incredibly interesting woman. Yep.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
296 reviews2,171 followers
August 18, 2019
Kaleidoscopic metafiction in the Philippines

Towards the beginning of Insurrecto there is a reference to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, an early 20th century artwork inspired by stop-motion photography, which depicts a figure in motion using overlapping abstract forms. This is a clue (one of many) to the book’s approach: if Insurrecto was a painting it would be a cubist one, the narrative broken apart and reassembled in highly stylised, abstract, dimensional form. It is disorienting at first but starts to make sense the longer you stare at it.

So, this is a pretty confusing novel. I would not call it ‘difficult’ but it does require attention – this is not the sort of book you can just zone out to. It is more concerned with connecting ideas and observations; it is not particularly emotion- or character-driven. If you are looking for an examination of Duterte’s Philippines, you might want to look elsewhere. Apart from one climactic scene of police brutality, current day issues are not the main concern here. Nor is this what you would call ‘historical fiction’.

We first meet Magsalin, a mystery writer and translator who has returned to her native Philippines after several years in the U.S. She is writing a novel about Chiara, an American filmmaker whose father Ludo, also a filmmaker, made a movie in the 1970s, The Unintended, shot in the Philippines and ostensibly about the Vietnam war, but with parallels to an earlier insurrection in Balangiga in 1901 during the Philippine-American war.

With me so far?

Chiara (despite possibly being Magsalin’s fictional invention?) engages Magsalin as her translator. The two women undertake the writing & researching of duelling film scripts, one about the uprising at Balangiga, the other about the behind-the-scenes production of The Unintended, including Chiara’s childhood.

These metafictional layers are collapsed upon each other such that everything seems to be taking place on the same plane – different perspectives all facing out simultaneously. Chapter numbers are out of sequence, with the different story strands spliced together. The hopscotching chapters, seemingly in random order, are in fact assembled with care and things do begin to make sense in due course, but it takes a long time and most likely benefits from a second reading (an alternative chapter order, presumably sequential, is provided at praxino.org along with other supplementary material).

Apostol is concerned with perspectives, with lenses, multiple methods of viewing. Insurrecto is filled with examples of these from the familiar – cinema, photography – to the obsolete – the stereoscope and the praxinoscope with their early attempts at rendering 3D effects or moving images. Authors often employ cinematic techniques but Apostol’s chopped-up, montage style is more like a video art installation than a movie. The personal & the political; the historical & the contemporary; the colonised & the colonisers; the tragic & the absurd: none of these are foregrounded because it is all combined and presented as one multi-faceted view.

Frequently you feel Apostol’s presence as a guide to decoding the book, as the text itself hints at how it should be read:
"The story Magsalin wishes to tell is about loss. Any emblem will do: a French-Tunisian with an unfinished manuscript, an American obsessed with a Filipino war, a filmmaker’s possible murder, a wife’s sadness. An abaca weave, a warp and weft of numbers, is measured but invisible in the plot. Chapter numbers double up. Puzzle pieces scramble. Points of view will multiply. Allusions, ditto. There will be blood, a kidnapping, or a solution to a crime forgotten by history. That is, Magsalin hopes so."

At the heart of the story is Casiana Nacionales, the 'Geronima of Balangiga', female revolutionary and, in Apostol’s telling, the main instigator of the uprising. Nacionales remains enigmatic, but she represents the obscured and forgotten figures of history, a "story of war and loss so repressed and so untold". Insurrecto is not a straightforward historical accounting of events, it is a puzzle, one that won’t be to every reader’s taste. Nevertheless, it is powerful, memorable and assured.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
October 1, 2019
This is a complex book full of allusions both cultural and historical that I feel hopelessly unqualified to review, though I enjoyed reading it. There are three or possibly four parallel stories, and the chapter numbering is eccentric and rather confusing. The cast is introduced before the story starts, and key players and events also get little potted summaries at the end.

The historical part of the story centres on America's war in the Philippines in the early 20th century, and an atrocity that took place in the South of Luzon. The contemporary part, which also takes place in the Philippines, concerns a young Italian American film maker Chiara who spent part of her childhood with her father, also a film maker, as he made a film about the war, and a Filipino exile translator Magsalin who has her own version of the story. Plenty of real characters such as Muhammad Ali and Elvis also play prominent roles.

I am not sure the whole thing coheres, but it is a lively and interesting book.
Profile Image for Paris (parisperusing).
187 reviews25 followers
June 24, 2019
Initial thoughts: Girl, bye.

Well. This was definitely not the book I believed it was going to be. Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, a novel of two women — one a translator, the other a filmmaker — forever bumping heads as they scribe the infamous and continuous brutalities of the Philippine-American War, had a promising foundation but was marred by the hands of its own creator.

Getting through the first 50 pages of Apostol’s writing was, in itself, a chore, let alone its entire 300 pages. What's more, I was not expecting the book to become even more confusing as it progressed. Jessie, my biblio in crime with whom I read for a buddy read, echoed my exact feelings and frustrations. The only difference: she finished, I did not. (LOL) I tried, you guys. I truly did. Had it not been for Jessie’s reassurance and our commitment, I would have called it a day a long time ago.

Maybe I will finish it anyway — I only had a couple chapters to go — but I know my feelings won’t change because the writing style made it nearly impossible to enjoy — I even tried listening on audio, which I’m not a fan of cause I like taking notes. (Many 2/3-star Goodreads users agree with me.) Apostol uses flowery, superfluous language and makes reference to just about as many useless details and flashbacks imaginable to cover up the fact that this story had no direction whatsoever. By two-thirds of the book, I was rendered helpless and wanted no more.

One nice thing I have to say — something Jessie and I both agreed on — was that Apostol’s novel had an incredibly promising premise: Unpacking the colonialism and savagery of war inflicted upon natives of the Philippines through two women with strong ties to the atrocity? Sign me up! But told like this? No.

My verdict, nonetheless: Sis, this ain’t it.

If you liked my review, feel free to follow me @parisperusing on Instagram.
Profile Image for Katia N.
586 reviews705 followers
August 6, 2019
This novel reminded me Möbius strip. Reality flips into fiction and back without noticeable stitches. There is multitude of historical times and narratives spliced within its canvas.

Everything doubles in the novel. The first part deals with the Philippines immersion into certain elements of the American popular culture. It shows how subtle the colonial influence could be; how the culture is appropriated notwithstanding the politics.

Then, the characters. They double too. It is not a coincidence that some of them suffer from diplopia. Each main female protagonist has got her mirror reflection in another character. The reflection not in terms of similarities but in terms of the opposites.

Magsalin, the translator in Manila meets her double in Chiara, the American filmmaker. Chiara arrived in the country to better understand the last part of her father’s life. She brings with her a script about her father in the 70s and the war in the beginning of the 20s century. Magsalin rewrites this script from her perspective. Somehow the script splits in two (how it happened is opened to an interpretation as many other matters in the text). And the book is broadly structured around these narratives - the road trip of the two women and their two scripts.

The essence of the book is post-colonial. And, if one peels the surrounding layers (fascinating and moving by themselves), one would be left with historical tragedy of Balangiga in 1901 during the war between America and Philippines. 44 American military personnel has been killed by the locals. In retaliation, the American forces killed 37 thousands and scorched the earth around according to the book.

In spite of the scale of these largely forgotten tragedy, the novel is far from didactic in depicting it. It deals with history in a subtle way. It tries to see this conflict from the perspective of the soldiers as well showing their human side. It also shows inevitable human interactions between them and the locals. There are doubles in this layer as well: one historical figure Casiana Nacionales, the woman who participated in uprising. Her double is fictional Cassandra Chase, the American photographer who managed to document the atrocities.

The novel is slightly too gimmicky and postmodern in American sense. It is not Nabokov or Borges in spite of the blurb.

But it is serious imaginative work dealing with history, grief, lodging and the complexity of identities in the post-colonial contemporary world.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,309 followers
November 27, 2019
At times, she feels discomfort over matters she knows nothing about, and Magsalin hears rising up in her that quaver which readers have, as if the artist should be holding her hand as she is walked through the story. 
But she rides the wave, she checks herself.
A reader does not need to know everything.

How many times has she waded into someone else’s history, say the mysteries of lemon soap and Irish pubs in Dedalus’s Dublin, or the Decemberists plot and Dostoyevsky’s The Devils, Or Gustave Flaubert’s Revolution of 1848, in what turns out to be one of her favourite books, Sentimental Education, and she would know absolutely nothing about the scenes, the historical background that drives them, the confusing cultural details, all emblematic, she imagines, to the Irish or the Russians or the French, and not really her business - and yet she dives in, to try to figure out what it is the writer wishes to tell.
Why should readers be spooked about not knowing all the details in a book about the Philippines yet surge forward with resolve in stories about France?

The novel Insurrecto by Gina Apostol, published by perhaps the UK's finest publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, tells the story of two women:

- Magsalin, a translator, now living in New York, but whose family, notably her mother and Karaoke-loving and-Elvis-fans uncles remain in the Philippines.  

- Chaira Braso, daughter of the late film director Ludo Brasi, and herself a film director.  The (fictitious) Ludo Brasi, is known, if at all, for his cult Vietnam war movie, shot in the Philippines, The Unintended (now more or less forgotten, though at one point it was thought The Unintended would challenge the genius of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – except be less commercial) and for an unfinished movie (unfinished due to his death, possibly by suicide, possibly suspicious) The Unintended, about the 1901 Balangina incident:

The Balangiga incident of 1901 is a true story in two parts, a blip in the Philippine-American War (which is a blip in the Spanish-American War, which is a blip in latter-day outbreaks of imperial hysteria in Southeast Asian wars, which are a blip in the infinite spiral of human aggression in the livid days of this dying planet, and so on). 

     Part One: An uprising of Filipinos against an American outpost in Samar (the exposition here would be a fascinating movie in itself, though with too many local color details) leads to forty-eight American deaths, with twenty-two wounded and four missing in action.
     Part Two: The US commanding general demands in retaliation the murder of every Filipino male in Samar above ten years of age. Blood bathes the province. Americans savage -- "kill and burn" is the technical term -- close to thirty thousand Filipinos, men, women, and children, in a rampage of such proportions that the court-martial of the general, Jacob H. “Howling Wilderness” Smith, causes a sensation when the events become public in 1902.
The Infamous General Jacob Smith ordered the Filipino deaths by making memorable staccato statements: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better it would please me.” The generals resonant phrase made his name: “The interior of Samal must be made a howling wilderness.”

(see also https://philippineamericanwar.webs.co...)

Chaira, who spent some time in the country as a child, comes, in 2018, to the Philippines to shoot her own movie, following in her father's footsteps, asking Magsalin to act as her translator and guide. But Magsalin has her own story to write, and doesn't so much translate the script as rewrite it:

The story Magsalin wishes to tell is about loss. Any emblem will do: a French-Tunisian with an unfinished manuscript, an American obsessed with a Filipino war, a filmmaker’s possible murder, a wife’s sadness. An abaca weave, a warp and weft of numbers, is measured but invisible in the plot. Chapter numbers double up. Puzzle pieces scramble. Points of view will multiply. Allusions, ditto. There will be blood, a kidnapping, or a solution to a crime forgotten by history. That is, Magsalin hopes so.

which stands for a self-review of this novel as well.

These are the first words if Chapter 1 of the novel.  Except said Chapter 1 is only reached on page 109 of the book and after Chapters 2 to 26 (Chapter 16 also serves as Chapter 26), and these are also presented out of order as:

Chapters 20, 2, 3, 21, 4, 22, 5, 6, 23, 7, 24, 8, 9, 10, 11, 25, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 also 26, 17, 27, 21, 18, 19 and then in the next part called "Part II: Duel Scripts" 22, then, finally, the elusive Chapter 1. Or rather one part of Chapter 1 as this chapter is continued in installments - often with continuity breaks - throughout the remaining c200 pages of the book that take us to Chapter 35, or rather Chapters 35.

The attentive reader of the above will also notice two chapters 21 and two 22s.   As from Chapter 21 onwards there are two competing versions of the story Script 1 and Script 2, the first version of Chapter 21 being appropriately titled “Everything in the World is Doubled”, essentially representing Chiara's and Magsalin's competing stories, which finally converge in a joint chapter "Finally the Karaoke."

It all makes for a heady mix - with important points about translation, colonialism, and how stories and history are told, mixed in with lots of playfulness (Elvis and Muhammed Ali are two key characters). It is deliberately very different to the rather earnest sagas expected of post-colonial writing, as the author has explained in an interview:
It is an insurrection against the novel form! It’s especially an insurrection against the form of the political novel.

Sometimes I get the sense that if we are interested in radicalism — and my work, in my view, is polemical; layered and multi-tonal as it is, it is nakedly staking political ground — we are expected not to play as much, not to have as much fun with our art. Or as Asian, people of color writers, or whatnot, we’re expected to write certain kinds of novels, sad realist family sagas or something, while narrative play is for Donald Barthelme or Don DeLillo or some other don.
The resulting form is very Borgesian or Nabakovian, even if the politics certainly isn't. From another interview:
I love Nabokov, and also Borges—I think those two are art-twins. (They were actually born in the same year, 1899—which was, coincidentally, or maybe not, the year the Fil-Am war began.) But my aims are different. .... But reading both Borges and Nabokov so deeply, I end up with aims that are anti-colonial, anti-racist, anti-patriarchy—three terms that would make Nabokov vomit because politically he was nutty.
If this sounds like a difficult read, particularly given the unfamiliar, to most UK/US readers, setting, the quote from the novel that opens my review is key to approaching the novel. From the same interview:
Q: What is the ideal way to read Insurrecto? And what’s the ideal way to re-read it?

Gina Apostol: A lovely question. The ideal way is to read with pleasure. I wrote it with pleasure; my hope is that it can be read with pleasure. I’d say read the book also with acceptance of not-knowing. The book is meant to be a puzzle. Sadly, destabilization is part of the journey. But so are one’s own wits, modesty, and instincts. Anyone with generosity can read this book. 

If you re-read, do it according to your desire. Of course, despite this caveat, I do have a cheat sheet website! For those interested, I’d suggest reading it afterward. https://www.praxino.org/
Overall, a wonderful novel - one that should have been on the Booker list, and surely must feature on next year's Women's Prize For Fiction. 4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Neale .
310 reviews144 followers
December 4, 2018
This is an amazing, skilfully written book. Apostol uses repetition, alliteration, multiple perspectives, and shifts the narrative back and forth in time, all to wonderful effect. In fact, after finishing this book, I feel it’s much deeper than I first thought and think I have only paddled over the surface. The narrative in its simplest form is about a massacre that took place in Balangiga in 1901. A terrible historical clash of cultures. Both cultures are represented by the two protagonists. Magsalin is a Filipino translator who is writing a book about Chiara and her famous father. Chiara is an American Film maker. The film she is making is about the massacre. A massacre in which a Filipino village and its inhabitants were killed in retaliation for the killing of its small American garrison. Chiara’s film tells the sordid tale from the perspective of an American photographer. Masalin is hired to help Chiara and incurs her wrath when she changes Chiara’s script and writes her version told more from a Filipino perspective. Apostol takes the reader back and forth from the present to the past, back and forth between the actual massacre and the filming of the massacre in the present. At the same time we are taken to the ongoing argument between Masalin and Chiara over the story and how it should be told. It is at this point we learn more about Chiara’s childhood and her father, and get an insight into why Chiara is making this film. It all works beautifully, however it can be slightly confusing at times, especially if read in multiple sittings. This is a great book. I will read it again, and I will also read all of Apostol’s work. 4.5 Stars.
Profile Image for Tommi.
243 reviews106 followers
July 21, 2019
[4.5] Insurrecto puzzled, taught, entertained, and amazed me, its labyrinthine structure ensuring my engagement from the beginning to the end (the feeling of “at what point is anything going to make any sense?” persisting throughout). It’s maybe a tad too meta for a pure 5-star rating, but I still adore Apostol’s novel a lot. Feminist to the core, unabashedly literary, and illuminating a period of history I knew too little about (the Philippine–American War).
Profile Image for Blair.
1,794 reviews4,441 followers
August 23, 2019
(4.5) In Quezon City, a translator named Magsalin meets an American filmmaker, Chiara Brasi – the daughter of the famous director Ludo Brasi, who shot his Vietnam War film The Unintended in the Philippines in the 70s. The Unintended took inspiration from the 1901 Balangiga massacre, part of the Philippine-American War, and now Chiara wants to make her own film about it. She's intent on visiting Balangiga and wants Magsalin to accompany her. Though Magsalin agrees to help, she has other ideas too. Having read Chiara's script, which centres on an American photographer named Cassandra Chase, Magsalin writes her own, in which she fictionalises the life of the Brasi family and imagines Ludo having an affair with Caz, a Filipina teacher.

At least, I think that's all correct. Insurrecto is an astonishing maze of interlocking narratives; it took me a while to untangle (some of) the threads and figure out what it was doing. In its telling, it recreates the disorientating effect of a factual story filtered and warped by several layers of invention. The chapters are out of order, Magsalin and Chiara's dual/duelling scripts intercut with one another. The camera lens is a recurring motif: these are stories shaped by the medium and/or the storyteller. Scenes are interrupted by a director's instructions or a reference to costumes or lighting; Magsalin and Chiara think in terms of the staged implausibility of their own circumstances.

Consistently meta, Insurrecto itself talks to the reader as much as the characters do. It's a book as a living, speaking thing. We are reminded that 'the world does not exist without an observer'. Magsalin tells herself: 'a reader does not need to know everything'.

How many times has she waded into someone else's history... and she would know absolutely nothing about the scenes, the historical background that drives them, the confusing cultural details, all emblematic, she imagines, to the Irish or the Russians or the French, and not really her business—and yet she dives in, to try to figure out what it is the writer wishes to tell... She gets stuck in the faulty notion that everything in a book must be grasped.

Yet Magsalin still notes down her questions, and I too kept pausing to refer to the cast of characters or look something up (a place, an untranslated word, a name). It's discombobulating – fiction is mixed with fact at every level: Apostol describes fictional figures with the same gravity and detail as real ones, and that made me want to question and check everything. Even now, I'm wondering whether some of the people mentioned were actually Apostol's inventions, or simply too obscure to easily look up online. (I'm not the only one – put 'Cassandra Chase' into Google and you'll get 'Balangiga' and 'photographer' as suggested terms, though the character is fictional. But the insurrecto heroine Casiana Nacionales was a real person, albeit a little-known one, and certainly unknown to me until this book.)

Insurrecto inhabits a similar space to Martin MacInnes' Infinite Ground and Laura van den Berg's The Third Hotel: books that start with a 'mystery' and spiral out in a hundred directions to become something much bigger, richer, weirder. The difference between those books and this one – the thing that makes Apostol's work stronger – is that Insurrecto is built on real history. At Balangiga, American forces retaliated to the murder of 48 of their men by ordering the massacre of everyone in the province above the age of 10, resulting in thousands of deaths. While the idea of 'who gets to tell the story' is not unique to this book, the way Apostol handles it – with multiple/layered (simultaneous) perspectives, broad-ranging empathy and wit – feels like something entirely new. Insurrecto is not necessarily about reclaiming the narrative, but instead about understanding that it (like any story) belongs to no-one; that it can't be reduced to a pleasantly sanitised, straightforward account; that any one person's understanding of it represents an interplay between history, the present, fact, fiction and personal experience.

It's tricky to know exactly how to put this, because I mean it as a compliment, but it doesn't sound like one: Insurrecto is a 340-page novel that feels like 1,000 pages. It's mind-bogglingly dense with detail and... I want to say 'cleverness', but that seems like an insufficient term. It's a dizzying achievement, and one of the most impressive modern novels I've read.

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Profile Image for Eugene.
Author 17 books256 followers
December 6, 2018
A polymath's lyricism is woven with post-colonial tristesse. A deft and labyrinthine depiction of our helpless condition of ever-revolving insurrection, Gina Apostol has created an elegant mise en abyme wherein the colonizer and the colonized reflect themselves over and over and yet over again.


i found this site quite helpful : https://www.praxino.org/chapters-in-n...

post scriptum & nota bene : found this passage in apostol's also excellent GUN DEALERS' DAUGHTER (which serves as good intro/sequel/commentary) for INSURRECTO:

I discovered that our books of history were invariably in the voice of the colonist, the one who misrecognized us. We were inscrutable apes engaging in implausible insurrections against gun-wielding epic heroes who disdained our culture but wanted our land. The simplicity and rapacity of their reductions were consistent, and as counterpoint to Soli’s version of the past, these books provided, as I admitted to Soli, the ballast for my tardy revolt. Soli reproved me. Why do history books persuade you but not the world around you? You live in a puppet totalitarian regime, propped up by guns from America, so that we are no sovereign country but a mere outpost of foreign interests in the Far East. She said this with such conviction, I could barely reply. But, I countered, the military-industrial complex, as you call it, does it not suggest not only an economic order but also a psychiatric disorder? It occurred to me that it was a system of oppression that spurred both of our delusions—hers (to save the nation) and mine (to save myself). Soli nodded, disarmed at the thought, but in the end she disagreed. Obscurantism, she said, does not serve change. The therapeutic couch may be necessary—at least for some, she said pointedly. But it is not the place for action. Next time you drive home to Makati, she said, look around: all you need is to look out your limousine’s window to know that it is a problem to be living the good life in such bad times.
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
Author 57 books609 followers
January 30, 2019
How far can you push a labyrinthine meta-fictional, meta-cinematic novel complete with linked film scripts that takes on US imperialism and the troubled Philippine–American relationship and history? Exactly this far. Loved it. Reminded me of THE SYMPATHIZER but was even more dizzying. I’m happy to work for my fiction if it’s this good.
Profile Image for Gabe.
131 reviews110 followers
August 1, 2018
One of the best novels of the year.
Profile Image for jo.
613 reviews497 followers
February 21, 2019
gina apostol is a brilliant writer and a polymath. the book is as lovely at the sentence level (so. much. beautiful. writing) as it is mindblowing in its conception. the layering is not discreet, but let me try:

- a filipino translator is trying her hand at writing a mystery
- which involves a famous director who is shooting a film
- this director is using the translator because the movie is set in the philippines and the director is italian-american
- the novel you are reading is partly the mystery, partly the movie (though, really, it is both the script and an account of the shooting process)
- it's also a real story about a revolutionary act that took place in 1901 by filipinos against occupying american forces
- the novel you read jumps between the real story, the story that is part of magsalin's mystery and the the story that is part of chiara's film, often in the same short paragraph (this is unequivocally mindblowing).
- subplot 1: chiara's father, a revered italian american director, now deceased, shot a vietnam movie the location for which was the very area in the philippines where the the revolutionary act occurred.
- subplot 2: chiara's mother and chiara's childhood
- subplot 2: ludo's (chiara's father's) lover, filipina, and her relation to ludo.

i am sure i'm missing something.

what you get here is a colonized narrative questioned on the page. why are the filipinos perpetrators of the rebellion called insurrectos? their killing of american occupiers (the second biggest massacre of american troops, at the time, after big horn) is not an insurrection but a taking back of what's theirs. it is, in fact, a revolution.

why has history erased the female leader of the revolution?

why is tagalog, one of the philippines' languages, used randomly in movies when people speak in an undetermined foreign language whose understanding doesn't matter?

why is the philippines the shooting location of movies that take place elsewhere?

why does chiara want to make a movie about the philippines? ostensibly, to retrace the story of her dad, whom she misses, and missed throughout her childhood (he died when she was young). is chiara using the philippines as hunting ground for her memories and losses?

nothing in this book is laid out traditionally. the book reflects constantly on itself as a novel, as a movie shooting account, as a mystery. it yanks the reader out of the story, forces the reader not to identify, makes the reader conscious of the construction of the text. apostol also puts quite a bit of film history, film theory, literary theory and postcolonial theory in the narrative, so that's another series of concepts you either know or look up, or just don't worry about.

(i am sure i'm missing something: oh, art history! that's another one! i told you she's a polymath).

what delighted me is that i got all the italian references, cuz i am italian. if you are not italian or an avid italophile, this bit also will be opaque to you.

i anticipate this will be a classic of postcolonial literature pretty damn soon. it's fantastic.
Profile Image for Nadine in California.
957 reviews99 followers
January 17, 2019
This is one of those books you want to start again immediately after finishing it - there is so much going on on so many levels I know my brain didn't pick it all up. It's a kaleidoscope of stories within stories, and spiralling ideas on colonialism, filmmaking, popular culture and more, but all anchored around the history of the US in the Philippines. This makes it sound like hard work to read, but it isn't - here are some samples to prove it:

In the audiece at an Elvis Presley concert in Las Vegas (the bedazzled white jump-suit Elvis):

"The spotlight turns back on. Virginie realizes it is a visual effect, not a snap in her brain, and she sees the man being rearranged, put back together by the strobe lights. A constructed and reconstructed figure, put back together by his audience’s screams.”

An observation:

“The life of a filmmaker is one of scraps of plots sandwiched between the lack of means to fulfill them. The life of a woman in the fifties is one of scraps of plots sandwiched between the lack of means to fulfill them.”

Here is one character's way of reading novels like this one:

“As she reads, Magsalin keeps track of her confusions annotating each chapter as she goes…In the notebook, she includes problems of continuity, the ones not explained by hopscotching chapters; issues of anachronism, given the short life-span of the male subject (1940-1977) contrasted against the women, who have superpowers: longevity and dispassion; words repeated as if they had been spilled and reconstituted then placed on another page; a stage set of interchangeable performers with identical names, or maybe doubles or understudies as they enter and exit the stage; an unexplained switch of characters’ names in one section; and the problem of lapsed time-in which simultaneous acts of writing are the illusions that sustain a story….But she rides the wave, she checks herself. A reader does not need to know everything.”

And last but not least, this reflection on turn of the centuy colonial photographs:

“Photographs of a captured country shot through the lens of the captor possess layers of ambiguity too confusing to grasp:

there is the eye of the victim, the captured, stilled and muted and hallowed in mud and time;
there is the eye of the victim, the captured, who may be bystander, belligerent, blameless, blamed – though there are subtle shifts in pathetic balance, who is to measure them?;
there is the eye of the colonized viewing their captured history in the distance created by time;
there is the eye of the captor, the soldier, who has just wounded the captured;
there is the eye of the captor, the Colonizer who has captured history’s lens;
there is the eye of the citizens, bystander, belligerent, blameless, blamed, whose history has colonized the captured in the distance created by time;
and there is the eye of the actual photographer: the one who captured the captured and the captors in his camera’s lens-what the hell was
HE thinking?"
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,826 reviews1,387 followers
September 13, 2019
A book of three’s

Three interleaved time settings: It will be set in 1901, or maybe 1972, or maybe 2018” - the Balangiga massacre of 1901, a film shoot in 197- and two women visiting the Philippines in 2018.


Three interleaved narrative streams: one the ostensible main narrative (which possibly includes an ex-pat Philippine author translating a film script for a character – the American daughter of a famous film maker – that she may have simply created), two the different versions of the film script – one the original version by the coloniser, the second the translated version by the colonised


Three Cassandra’s – Cassandra Chase (an American war photographer), Casiana Nacionales (a revolutionary) and Caz (a schoolteacher in 1971)


Three takes on the book interleaved in this review – one the author’s, two alternative and excellent reviews.

An enjoyable book (provided like the author suggests you simply go with the flow) perhaps best described as meta-meta-meta fictional rather than just meta-fictional

The only criticism I would have be whether the confusing meta-fictional macro-structure and equally but differently confusing micro-narrative detract from the main aim of the book which is to preserve the memory of the unremembered America-Philippines war.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,735 reviews2,338 followers
May 9, 2020
"The story Magsalin wishes to tell is about loss. Any emblem will do: a French-Tunisian with an unfinished manuscript, an American obsessed with a Filipino war, a filmmaker’s possible murder, a wife’s sadness. An abaca weave, a warp and weft of numbers, is measured but invisible in the plot. Chapter numbers double up. Puzzle pieces scramble. Points of view will multiply."

From INSURRECTO by Gina Apostol // 2018, Soho Press

I finished this book 2 days ago, and I'm still piecing it all together in my mind. What Apostol does in this novel is nothing short of remarkable - but it's also difficult to describe. Kaleidoscopic, multilayered - these are the words that come to mind first. It's a meta-analysis of colonialism as it took place and is it continues to take place. How history is revised, written over by the victors, and/or kept hidden over decades.

Events occur in several time periods, but Apostol's lynchpin moments are in Balangiga, East Samar province in 1901, part of the Philippine-American War, AND Duterte's Philippines in the 2010s.

What was clear - even in a story that skips through time and space - is Apostol's use of language and cultural references. Her writing style is highly intellectual, but still accessible.

She references traditional Filipino weaving several times in the text, and this allusion continues in her story's structure - the warp and weft crossing and skipping over each other, colors changing, shifting, and a resulting tapestry.

If you like metafiction, historical narratives, and critical theory this one is definitely worth checking out. Elements of Calvino and Cortázar, with playful and clever language.

I have a feeling this one will be even more meaningful with a reread. Still pondering, and very interested to read more Filipino literature and history.
Profile Image for Jerrie.
990 reviews130 followers
December 6, 2018
I found the audiobook of this on Hoopla, but the narrative of this book is complex so I would recommend reading a hard copy if one is available to you. This is a multi-layered story about two women traveling in the Philippines-a young American filmmaker and a translator. A central theme of the book is grief. Both women are dealing with personal grief, but there is also an examination of cultural/social grief in the face of colonialism and a particular massacre in the Philippines. There is a lot of jumping about between the different levels of the narrative, so I had to rewind and listen again multiple times to make sure I didn’t miss anything. 3.5⭐️
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,072 reviews240 followers
November 20, 2021
There is an excellent historical (and little known) story here. In the Philippine American War (1899 – 1913), forty-eight Americans were killed at a garrison, which led to an American reprisal and the killing of thousands of Filipinos. The Americans had helped the Filipinos defeat the Spanish, and then stayed on as “occupiers.”

The narrative centers on four people – a photographer in 1901, a scriptwriter in the 1970s, the daughter of the scriptwriter who is making a film of the incident in present times, and a translator (also in present times). There is disagreement between the daughter, Chiara, and translator, Magsalin, over whose perspective should take precedence in the film.

“She had a conversion into the world of the Filipino insurrectos of 1901, Chiara says. That is not the correct term, Magsalin says. What? They were revolutionaries, Magsalin says. It was not an insurrection. Chiara ignores her.”

At first, it felt like someone picked chapter numbers out of a hat. To complicate matters, there are three different timelines. I am not sure what the author accomplished by jumbling up the chapters. This period in history is already largely “forgotten,” so why not tell it in a more straight-forward manner? It is very artistic, but this is not a book for anyone that prefers linear storytelling.

This book would have easily been 4 stars if it had been organized differently. I recommend reading the author’s End Notes and Essay, which are more direct and convey essential background that the narrative does not provide. I plan to read non-fiction to learn more about this period in history.
Profile Image for Emily M.
293 reviews
Shelved as 'abandoned-speed-dating'
April 17, 2023
DNF at 30%

Gaargh. My third attempt on this book, which I was determined to like but just... couldn't drum up interest for. I like Gina Apostol; she wrote a great essay on the whole Mavis Gallant/Sadia Shepard/New Yorker debacle, but the postmodern elements in this novel were, for me, counterproductive and alienating. Since it was set in the Philippines I hoped the characters would be local, but a number were well-off American celebrity types, a type I particularly dislike in fiction. I suspect this was going somewhere interesting, but unfortunately, it wasn't going there quickly enough.
219 reviews39 followers
August 7, 2019
I found the topic interesting and the writing strong but did not feel the metafictional style or obtuse structure enhanced my appreciation of the book. The material was so inclusive and stylized that content was obscured and diluted. Four stars rounded up.
Profile Image for Cari.
389 reviews25 followers
December 30, 2020
3.5. I’m a sucker for a who-gets-to-tell-the-story theme. But this book is so much more than that alone - it’s stories within stories within stories, a complex and challenging work by a brilliant writer.
Profile Image for Bea.
466 reviews71 followers
March 9, 2022
I was excited for this because it's written by a Filipino author.
However, I didnt enjoy this at all because I just didnt understand what was going on,
and it felt like the story was all over the place.

Maybe, I'm just dumb?
Profile Image for Miranda.
310 reviews17 followers
August 8, 2018
So complex and mind-boggling and incredibly meta, but so so worth it at the end.
Profile Image for Nick Klagge.
731 reviews56 followers
December 2, 2018
I found this book a difficult read in more ways than one--both literarily and as a matter of reflection on national and family history. But I found it very worthwhile and recommend reading it, especially to Americans who know little about the Philippine-American war of the early 20th century (which, of course, is virtually all of us).

I read Gina Apostol's novel "Gun Dealers' Daughter" earlier this year and enjoyed it, although sometimes I found her complex writing style to be a challenge. "Insurrecto" is an even more complex book--I would liken it to books by Umberto Eco, whom I would have described as my favorite writer in my early 20's, although not currently. It follows two women in the modern Duterte-era Philippines, but also contains a number of artfully nested stories--Chiara is making a movie about events in Samar during the Philippine-American war (revolutionary violence that resulted in the highest casualties among American soldiers since the Battle of Little Bighorn, followed by the indiscriminate murder of thousands of Filipino civilians); Magsalin is her translator but creates her own revision of Chiara's script, and the story also ends up following the lives of Chiara's parents, one of whom was a filmmaker who created a movie about Vietnam but filmed it in the Philippines...etc. The different stories and perspectives are densely layered, with chapters intentionally numbered out of order and often started without pronoun referents to deliberately blur the different stories. I found that I enjoyed the book the most if I allowed myself some confusion and was not too fastidious about making sure I was following all of the connections. I believe this was to some degree Apostol's intent; she has spoken in interviews about how part of her goal in writing the book was to reflect her own mind's blend of colonized and colonizer, as a Filipina living in New York. (One thing I want to note for other readers, in case it's unclear to you as it was to me: Apostol's character Casiana Nacionales, despite her improbable-sounding name, was a real-life Filipina revolutionary--the only woman memorialized as part of the Balangiga uprising, though little is now known about her other than her name.)

As Apostol artfully shows, the events of 1901 are far from irrelevant today. The US Army stole as war trophies the church bells of the town of Balangiga, Samar, which were displayed at a military base in Cheyenne, Wyoming until literally earlier this year. (Apostol's postscript glossary says that the bells have not been returned, which just shows how recently events have unfolded--I believe they are currently on their way back to the Philippines.) The occupying US forces used "the water cure" as a method of torturing Filipinos, which is very similar to modern waterboarding. And, perhaps the most distressing thing I learned about (from Apostol's glossary) was the existence of the "Order of the Carabao," a private club of American military leaders founded during the Philippine-American War that continues to exist and meet annually to this day. The club is a symbol of imperialism and racism that I am shocked to know still exists--and more than that, has hosted the likes of Colin Powell. See this Village Voice article from 2003 for some rather stomach-turning war-mongering and hearty singing of racist songs: https://www.villagevoice.com/2003/01/...). You know something is a despicable bastion of ancien regime racism when it uses racial slurs so obscure that you have to look them up ("kakiac" for khaki-colored skin)--cf. George Allen's use of "macaca" (monkey) in his 2006 campaign for one of Virginia's senate seats, which he just barely lost to Jim Webb.

Aside from all that, this book also made me revisit a bit of my own family history. I learned within the last couple of years that my great-grandfather's brother, Ben Klagge, was in the US Army and stationed in the Philippines in the early 1900s. I learned this because I found in my grandma's attic some postcards that he had sent to my great-grandfather from the Philippines. The postcards don't tell anything about his experience or role there--he seems to have just sent them along for the images--but at least one was stamped and postmarked from Manila in 1909. I got interested in this (since my wife's family came from the Philippines) and ended up donating the postcards to a museum in the Philippines (Museo de La Salle) when I was there earlier this year. Since I knew the Philippine-American War happened around this time, I had looked up the dates; seeing that the war ended in 1902, I just assumed that Ben had been a grunt stationed on an army base well after the end of the conflict. But reading "Insurrecto" and doing some further research, I am much less confident in this view--the US military (and pro-American Filipino forces) continued fighting pro-independence forces in the more distant provinces all the way until 1912. So my great-grand-uncle may well have been an active participant in killing Filipinos and suppressing the movement for independence. I know we all have unpleasant things in our family trees if we look hard enough, but it is a little vertiginous to realize that only three generations separate me and Ben. And if nothing else, I certainly wish I had done more homework and gotten a little more perspective before bringing the postcards to the museum.

I try to remember that I'm not the only American who knows very little about the Philippine-American War--it's a rather dark part of our country's history that many would prefer kept tidily under the rug. I'm glad Apostol wrote this book, which is not only a very strong novel on its own merits, but which should also play a role in increasing awareness of this imperialist war in our collective memory.
Profile Image for Aimee Dars.
1,010 reviews88 followers
February 7, 2019
Apostol, Gina - Insurrecto

Chiara Brasi, a director, has arrived in the Philippines to make a pilgrimage to Samar where her father, Ludo, also a director, filmed his Vietnam War movie, The Unintended. She hires translator and budding mystery writer Magsalin who grew up in the Philippines but relocated to New York to accompany her on the trip.

So that Magsalin might understand the purpose of her visit, Chiara sent her a copy of a script she planned on shooting in Samar herself. Magsalin took issue with the script and rewrote it with what she believed was a more appropriate perspective.

At the center of the scripts lay the 1901 massacre in Balangiga. A village of insurgents or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view, attacked a U.S. army outpost and killed most of the soldiers. In retaliation, the army killed anyone in the region who could bear arms against the U.S.--males older than ten--and halted trade, including the arrival of food. Historians estimate anywhere from 2,500 to 50,000 Filipinos were killed.

Insurrecto imagines Casiana Nacionales, the only female in the historical records surrounding the massacre, as a leader against the U.S. army, organizing the women and facilitating the release of the men who were imprisoned as forced labor. How she and her allies achieve this is actually quite funny and draws on Apostol’s delight in puns and word play. In the fictional account, American photographer Cassandra Stone witnesses the initial attack and the aftermath.

In the context of the novel, some critics saw The Unintended as Ludo’s retelling and critique of the army’s actions in 1901, with similar events and the movie drawing from historical names to identify the characters. It was also in the Philippines that Ludo disappeared from Chiara’s life.

Insurrecto layers the story of the Balangiga massacre, the imagined history of Ludo making his final film and what happened to him, and the interactions between the two women. However, this is all on a shaky foundation as it’s never quite clear who is narrating the book at most moments. Certainly, this is by design. In interviews with Apostol I read after finishing the book, she stressed that the voices of colonized and colonizers were intertwined and their stories could not be told independently. Alone, their narratives would be incomprehensible.

Over and over in the novel, too, events are mediated by lenses of cameras or through mirrors, and it’s particularly interesting how Cassandra poses her photographs which become popular in the United States but also contain misleading implications about relationships and are accompanied by incorrect captions.

How grief informs history and memory and how history (as we know) is written by the victors, echoes throughout the book. Some characters, though, like Chiara’s mother Virginie, crave forgetting, and Virginie refuses to stay in one place, living in sterile hotels devoid of reminders.

I really enjoyed reading about the events of 1901, which I’d not heard about before, and learning about Casiana Nacionales. It might not be a coincidence that this is also the most linear and straightforward part of the novel.

While I very much respected the themes Apostol developed, overall, I didn’t enjoy reading Insurrecto besides this subplot. The chapters were presented out of order with several chapters 1. I’m sure there is a pattern to this, but I am not invested enough to analyze it. Outside of the historical story, I never felt on a solid foundation in terms of the narrator or whether the events were in fact happening or just part of Magsalin’s writing process.

When I was telling my husband about Insurrecto, he said I was too square to like the book, and he might be right. This pushed the boundaries too much for me to ever just relax and take pleasure in the story or the writing, though I certainly applaud Apostol and her risk-taking. I think whether you like the novel will depend on how much you fancy non-traditional narratives. If they are not for you, you probably won’t like Insurrecto. However, if they are something you find pleasing, you’ll probably love the book.

...aka darzy... | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews651 followers
July 18, 2019
”It will be set in 1901, or maybe 1972, or maybe 2018”

In fact, it is set in all three of those years. Simultaneously.

Insurrecto starts in the present day Philippines. In this time frame, Chiara Brasi is an American film-maker visiting the Philippines to research the disappearance of her father, Ludo Brasi, a cult film director in the 1970s. The movies planned by both Chiara and Ludo hinge on the massacres at Balangiga in 1901 (this refers to real events when Filipino rebels killed 48 American soldiers on the island of Samar and the American army responded with a massive and indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of islanders: US general Jacob Smith declared that Samar should become a “howling wilderness” - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balangi...).

It is clear that the foundation for Gina Apostol’s novel is something dark yet often forgotten or unknown in the wider world.

It gets complicated when you quickly realise that all the three time frames mentioned above are mixed in the narrative. Not just mixed, but they interact. At least, I think they do: it’s all rather confusing.

Not only are the timeframes mixed, but there are also a lot of textual shenanigans going on. In the present day story, Chiara enlists a local translator, Magsalin, as a guide and Magsalin, it turns out, is writing a film script to counter-balance that being created by Chiara. Part Two of the novel is called “Duel Scripts” and that pun gives you a clue about the underlying structure (although, to be honest, it is often hard to spot this given the mixed up time frames and other complications: the novel is very, very meta and often contains long self-referential passages that are a boon to anyone writing a review because these meta-novels so often contain narrative that does the reviewer’s job for them:

”Do you think there are parallel universes are we are stuck in the one made up only of the bad movie plots?”
“I wonder if we are stuck in the bad movie plots we make ourselves,” says Magsalin
“I think we are stuck in someone’s movie,” says Chiara.


The script, as Magsalin sees it, creates that vexing sense of vertigo in stories within stories within stories that begin too abruptly, in media res)

It is often hard to know at what level you are operating as you read - how many nested levels of story within story within story are there? And, as the quote with which I started goes on to say:

”There will be unapologetic uses of generic types, actors with duplicating roles. Anachronisms, false starts, scarlet clues, a noirish insistence on the pathetic pursuit of human truths will pervade its miserable (quite thin) plot, and while the mystery will seem unsolved, to some it will provide the satisfaction of unrelieved despair.”

There are not that many books that attempt to use comedy to talk about war. I guess “Catch 22” stands at the top of that pile and there are times when Insurrecto reminded me of that. There were also times when the writing (and, I have to admit, some of the word play about people’s names) brought Thomas Pynchon to mind (Prank Vitrine and Private First Class Gogoboy seem particularly Pynchonesque).

Hidden behind the cleverness, the word play, the fractured structure, the nested stories and images, there is a lot of serious stuff going on. We trace the stories of several women, often over-looked. We see the history of the Philippines which is something I confess to knowing little about.

My reservation is whether the serious points are rather too hidden by the literary bravura. It might make more sense to someone who knows the history, but that would probably be preaching to the converted when it would be better to get the message out into the wider world.

I am not going to give this book a rating immediately. I don’t think I understood the book sufficiently. It is either brilliant or not and I am struggling to decide. I can’t remember this happening to me before! The final chapters do allow several pieces to slot into place and rather suggest that a re-read is required. Gina Apostol is one very clever person and I have to confess that I think her book has rather defeated me on first reading. That’s not, in this case, necessarily a bad thing, but it is the reason why I can’t quite decide which way my rating will fall.

UPDATE: I have settled on 4 stars. I like the way the book has lodged in my memory, but I do still feel like the message is somewhat obscured by the technical brilliance and cleverness.
Profile Image for L A.
354 reviews8 followers
October 30, 2018
I received an advanced reading copy of Insurrecto from NetGalley and Soho Press in exchange for an honest review.

I was quite interested to read this as the Philippines is not an area of the world I am very familiar with and I was looking forward to gaining an insight into the culture and some of the country’s history and culture.

The book vividly describes the bustle, heat and culture of the Philippine setting. The characters initially seem compelling when we meet them, however, I did not feel like I got to know them by the end of the novel. The filmmaker, Chiara, is mysterious to the point of being completely unknowable. The other main character Magsalin, is easier to get a grip on but she still managed to slip through my fingers. I enjoyed the flashbacks to Chiara’s parents and felt these were the most interesting characters in the novel although again, I felt their motivations were impossible to grasp.

Ultimately my main issue with this novel was the writing style which I found almost unfathomable. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, but there were passages that I read and re-read multiple times and still failed to fully understand. The writing style is rather overwrought, and I struggled to comprehend what was happening at certain points in the novel. I appreciate that this is my personal preference, others may enjoy this aspect of it.

On balance, this novel had some enjoyable parts to it and I can honestly say that it is quite unlike anything I have ever read. It is a vibrant and interesting novel, but not one that spoke to me personally.
Profile Image for Jessie.
259 reviews172 followers
December 13, 2018
About two contemporary women, a filmmaker and a writer, travelling around the Philippines with a duelling narrative about an uprising against the Americans in 1901, this book tried to do all of the things. What I liked: 1. The idea of the book. There is an important story in there somewhere. 2. The badassery of the Filipinx folks that disrupts the western narratives of sweetness, forbearance and whatever other lies we tell ourselves to justify the labour we demand in the west 3. Some of the complex-ass history of colonialism in the Philippines (it is a long storied history of multiple colonizations, it’s a lot to parse - holy hell). What I didn’t like 1. It was hard to follow. Really hard to follow. I know I missed a lot. 2. Too many storylines. I couldn’t get invested. Some twists and turns were extraneous and unimportant. I had a hard time landing in the novel. 3. It was too in it’s own head. I called it both fussy and tortured at times. Apparently it had pages of reference material in the book? There was so much that was inaccessible to the listener. 4. It tried to fit too much into one book. Curse of the second novel? Being tricky on purpose? Idk but it lost me in it’s attempted scope in few pages. By book buddy told me that a review called it metafiction and I think that’s a nice way of saying “it’s too dense to parse and it feels like it’s trying to pull a fast one on you”. I would try her first novel to see if this was aberration, so that speaks to her capacity as an author I suppose?
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