Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: My Favourite Books

Of all of my favourite books, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is one I often forget when people ask me about my favourite books. Not that it’s a bad book, or forgetable in any way, but just as a reader of largely fantasy books, or at least books with some sort of supernatural element, Eleanor and Park is somewhat more understated; there’s no magic, nothing out of the ordinary, just a beautifully realistic love story.

I discovered Eleanor and Park after reading another of Rowell’s books, Fangirl, which I also love. As soon as I finished Fangirl, I immediately went to my nearest bookshop and sought out anything else by Rowell, and Eleanor and Park was on a display table. (Briefly taking a tangent, I am loving the new run of Runaways that Rowell has a large part in the writing of, and I would recommend it to anyone, as you don’t have to have read any of the previous Runaways to be able to follow what’s going on. Anyway.).

The book is set in the 1980s, and centres around the two characters of Eleanor and Park. Both of them, typically, don’t quite fit in with the world of high school. Park is half Korean, which makes him an outcast in Omaha, Nebraska, where almost everyone is white, and on top of that, he is obsessed with music and comic books. Eleanor is even more of an outcast, wearing men’s clothing a lot of the time, a little chubby, with a head of bright red hair. Park realises how much of a target Eleanor is for the bullies at their school, and so offers her the seat next to him on the bus. As is to be expected, a relationship blossoms between them.

The novel explores issues of race, class, family, and so much more. At the novel’s open, Eleanor has just returned from a year spent living with her uncle after she was kicked out of her home by her stepfather, who abuses her mother and her siblings. The conflict between Eleanor, and to a lesser extent also her siblings and her mother, and Richie, her stepfather, is central to the story, but amazingly it never errs from realistic throughout the novel. The story, whilst heartbreaking, is firmly rooted in the reality of life for many people, which makes it all the more poingnant.

One of the other things I loved as well was the mystery of the novel’s ending. Leaving a story so open ended is something that I rarely enjoy, but Rowell does it so well that it still feels like a satisfying ending. By the end of the book, you know the characters so well that you know what most likely happened, but you can never be sure. The ending also fits with the reality of the novel – you don’t ever know exactly what’s going to happen in life, and that’s okay, as a lot of the time you just have to go where life takes you.

Everyone who I have leant this book to have told me that they cried reading it, and in my opinion moving people to that extent is a clear signifier of a good book. All of this is why Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park will undoubtebly remain one of my favourite books, quite possibly forever.

 

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My favourite books: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was recommended to me by many people before I actually read it. If I’m completely honest, I only got round to it because it was on the reading list for one of my modules this year (it was subsequently removed, much to my dismay, but that’s another story). I don’t know why it took me so much convincing – I love Greek and Roman mythology, I love the Iliad, and I’m always excited to read books with LGBTQ+ representation, and this book ticks all of those boxes. No wonder then that before I had even finished it, it had made it into the list of my favourite books.

This book is just beautiful. I cried throughout the book – I started bookmarking every time the book made me cry, which considering I knew the ending, and how Miller consistently foreshadows the ending through Achilles’ happy arrogance and Patroclus’ reluctant happiness, was a lot. I ran out of post-it-note bookmarks. This, coupled with the gorgeous poetic descriptions of the landscapes and events of the novel, makes it into one of those books I stayed up until 2.30am to finish, at which time I messaged my friend in tears and she immediately knew what I had just finished reading.

I don’t feel that my love of the Iliad was a necessary pre-requisite for reading and loving Miller’s novel either. Most of my friends that have read the book and love it had no idea what was going to happen, giving them a completely different experience of reading the book. Either way, I do not know a single person who has read The Song of Achilles and not enjoyed it.

This book is the book that I always recommend to people without exception when they ask me for book recommendations, so I felt it most remiss not to mention it here on my blog when I have this favourite books series. If you haven’t yet read it, do so. I sincerely promise you that you will love it.

My favourite books: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 

As I haven’t been able to read many new releases recently owing to my rather extensive university reading lists, I thought I could start a series this week, talking about my favourite books, in both my experience with them and why I love them so much. So this week: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

The Night Circus is the book I say in response to the ‘What is your favourite book?’ question from anyone, and though there are many books I enjoyed and appreciate just as much as The Night Circus, so few people I know have read it that I can’t resist the possibility of telling someone about it so they may read and enjoy it too. 

I first read it as a loan from my uncle, who gave it to me as a book he’d read, mildly enjoyed, and thought I might like. I will admit, it took me a while to get into. When I boarded the plane for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2014, I was around 40 pages in. A day and a half into the holiday and I had finished it. I got swept up into the story, invested in every character, unsure of what was going to happen, that I could barely put it down. I have since forced many of my friends to read it, and I still live in hope that the production company that bought the rights will make the film someday.

The premise sounds strange when described, and it is so difficult to describe. There’s a circus that ‘appears without warning’, is only open at night, and disappears again. The Circus is in fact a stage for a duel between Marcus and Celia, both bound at birth to be engaged in a duel of magic until one of them wins. And every character within the Circus has a role to play.

One of the key reasons I love this book so much is its characters. You care about every single one, no matter how many are introduced as the story progresses. I think one of the reasons this is is Morgenstern’s masterful use of a non-chronological narrative – the story leaps forwards and backwards in time, with headings on each chapter to tell you where and when you are each time. Through this, you see the world of the circus introduced to the different characters, and see how they fit it in with the wider narrative.

The premise of the novel seemed so unique to me as well. The idea of young and old arguing as to whose way is better is obviously ages old, but the framing of the Night Circus, open only for a few days, arriving unannounced, was just so enticing. As a reader, you are like one of the many normal visitors to the circus who are described in a few vague chapters dotted throughout the novel. You walk around with the other people, admiring these things that you could never dream of appearing so vividly in front of your eyes as Morgenstern’s words come to life.

The ending of the book also worked really well – it did not feel forced, it was very satisfying, and it still left me in tears.

The Night Circus is almost as magical as its namesake circus is itself, and that’s why it remains firmly in my list of my favourite books.

All That She Can See by Carrie Hope Fletcher: a novel that needed five minutes more in the oven

Carrie Hope Fletcher is not someone who shies away from hard work. It is clear in everything she does, working in theatre in lead roles in many productions, and making vlogs for her channel ItsWayPastMyBedTime on YouTube. It shows in her fans – she has amassed over six hundred thousand subscribers over her years on YouTube, and has performed in Les Miserables as Eponine, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as Truly Scrumptious, and is currently in the Addams Family playing Wednesday Addams. On top of this, she has written three books, All that She Can See being her second novel and third book, all whilst juggling everything else that life is throwing at her. As a result, I was more than excited to read this book, as the passion she had shown for it led me to believe that the same high-level performance would shine through in this aspect of her career as well.

Unfortunately, it fell just short.

All that She Can See centres around Cherry Redgrave, a woman who can see people’s bad feelings as monsters that follow them everywhere, growing when the feelings increase and shrinking when the feelings lessen. Cherry has been able to see these feelings since she was born, and using this power she bakes things containing the good feelings that people need to counteract the bad.

The book is an easy read – the plot is compelling, and I read it on holiday within a few days. I cared about the protagonist, Cherry, and what happened to her. The premise is fantastic, and Fletcher explores it in a very interesting way, through both Cherry and the other characters who have the same and similar powers as her. There are so many characters, all with individual lives and backstories, clearly carefully thought through by Fletcher.

The flaws with the book seem to come with untidy editing. The prologue and the first chapter seem surplus to requirements, as everything that is revealed within it is explained again when Cherry reaches Portsmouth, where the main portion of the novel is set. The characters who are Cherry’s ‘usuals’ are explained perfectly through their actions once Cherry reaches Portsmouth in the main portion of the novel, so the first chapter describing them makes it seem like Fletcher doesn’t have the confidence in her writing later in the novel, which she should. Also, once it gets to the main action of the novel featuring these characters, it doesn’t feel like there is enough time to have these characters to become ‘usuals’, and some of the things mentioned – such as Sally giving Cherry’s customers tarot card readings – seem to be forgotten. These characters being set up at the start of the novel, combined with the tone that Fletcher adopts in the portion of the novel between the first chapter and the sixth chapter, makes the action that takes place before Cherry arrives in Portsmouth read like backstory that is just being told rather than shown to us. Cherry’s backstory is interesting, so it strikes me as odd that it is almost dismissed due to this.

It also seemed that the novel could have done with proofreading. I was adding in commas as I read the book to make it make sense, and there is a character mentioned in the ‘usuals’ chapter in the list of everyone – Orla – who is not mentioned previously as all the other characters are to tell the reader why they have the ‘Meddlums’ (as the feelings are dubbed) that they do. This is a simple issue that should have been picked up in proofreading, but somehow it wasn’t, which really brings you out of the story as you’re trying to get into it. Granted, it is a first edition, and mistakes are made in first editions that can then be rectified later on, but these seem too numerous to ignore.

Fletcher’s tone comes across as quite preachy at times, but this seems to be more down to the issue of not having faith in her readers – an issue that I know many writers suffer from, as they want to get their point over very clearly. For example, when Cherry is talking to two women described as ‘charlatans’, Fletcher feels the need to specify that ‘”respect your elders” was something Cherry had been taught very early on in life, but as she grew up, she realised respect wasn’t something to be earned and sometimes wasn’t relevant to age or experience’. As this is surplus to requirements, it comes across as Fletcher using her novel to make a point to the reader, which is quite strange in a novel, and is quite disconcerting to a reader, as it almost interrupts the action of the novel.

The conversations of the novel also seem quite unnatural. It seems that the steps in conversations are lost, so characters are spilling their guts after not having known each other for very long. It is hard to feel compassion for all of the characters when they don’t behave like real people. A lot of characters with substantial depth have been fit into this novel, and as soon as they are introduced, you find out everything about them and their life. In my opinion, the book would have benefitted from either having less of these characters, or revealing the aspects of these characters gradually.

The action also seems slightly rushed, but less so – a lot does happen in not very many pages. More time could have been taken over Cherry’s early life, and the ending is incredibly vague, which may have been deliberate, but comes across to me as almost a cop out, not wanting to work out how Cherry gets out of the situation she is left in at the end of the novel. The book could have benefitted from being around one hundred or so pages longer, which I think would have allowed for the natural character development and the natural progression of dialogue and action that I feel this novel is somewhat lacking.

The thing I was most disappointed with was that all of these issues could have been sorted with another edit, so the main impression that I got of the novel was that it was rushed. Another careful edit could have taken this book from alright to amazing.

Whilst when considered in the context of the busy life that Fletcher is leading, the novel is amazing, when taken alone, it falters, and could have done with a little longer and a little more focus on it to achieve the great novel that I know Carrie Hope Fletcher is more than capable of.

Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer: Riordan’s humour and wit take on the Norse gods

When my mum asked me several years ago if I wanted to go and see a film directed by the same director that directed one of the Harry Potter films, featuring Greek mythology (a topic I had loved for years), I jumped at the chance. As soon as I came out of the screening of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, I realised I had to buy the book. Once I had read it, I disowned the film of course, seeing how it paled in comparison to the book (and I don’t mean in a pretentious ‘the-book-is-always-better’ kind of way, I mean it in the sense that they took a great concept and storyline and twisted it into a shadow of its former self). I loved the original Percy Jackson series, I loved the Heroes of Olympus series, and so Rick Riordan secured himself in my list of authors whose every book I read.

I have read the first book by Riordan in the Kane Chronicles, which are based around the Egyptian gods, and didn’t love it as much as I didn’t feel attached to the characters. Despite having heard good things about Riordan’s take on the Norse gods, I was slightly dubious when it came to Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer. I needn’t have been.

From the opening, I loved this book. Riordan creates another sarcastic, funny protagonist, and yet somehow Magnus is different enough from Percy that he doesn’t just seem like a copy of the character that so many readers know and love. Riordan retains the hilarious chapter titles that made me laugh out loud just flicking through the contents page, all as original as the ones seen throughout his previous books. There is a great connection to the Percy Jackson series in that, as can be guessed from Magnus’ surname being Chase, he is the cousin of Annabeth Chase, Percy’s girlfriend. This link could have felt forced and an attempt to endear the readers to Magnus, but instead it felt very natural and worked well.

I was slightly nervous that I would not understand this book as well due to not knowing much about the Norse gods, but instead the book serves as a great introduction to them. With a glossary of terms and important figures in the back, and you learning everything along with Magnus, it is very easy to pick up on Norse mythology. A lot of the traditional mythology is interspersed with modern twists – for example, one of the highlights of the novel for me was Thor’s use of his hammer, Mjölnir, to watch tv shows such as Game of Thrones.

One of the other great things about this book is that there is explicit representation. The Valkyrie who saves Magnus, called Sam, is a Muslim teenage girl with a majic hijab that can camoflauge up to two people at a time, and through her character various topics, including arranged marriage and Islamophobia, are explored. One of Magnus’ two protectors, Hearth, is a deaf elf, and his deafness is the only reason that the characters survive the final battle of the book. The characterisation within this book generally speaking as well is fantastic, with a vast array of unique and interesting characters, including a talking sword and two talking goats, and I am left interested to know how these characters develop as the series continues.

With the first chapter of the sequel that was in my copy of the book, I am very intrigued to read the next installment in this series, and any more than follow, and see how Riordan further develops this world that he has created.

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: brilliant inside and out

I had heard about The Girl of Ink and Stars many times from many people before I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave – it was Children’s Book of the Month not once but twice at Waterstones, (later going on to win Children’s Book of the Year), was a Financial Times Book of the Year, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Award, and was shortlisted for both the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award. Not only that, but many people I trust for book recommendations and follow online, such as Carrie Hope Fletcher on YouTube, read it and recommended it. And I, as an aspiring young adult author, really wanted to read it.

Initially, many other books got in my way. Naturally, studying an English and Creative Writing degree, I had a lot of poems, novels, short stories, and plays to read for my course, and these obviously took precedence. Everytime I walked into my local Waterstones, there was a lovely display of copies of the book, in windows or on the tables, and I desparately wanted to pick up a copy, but just… didn’t.

But then I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She came to do a guest lecture at my university about writing “children’s” fiction was inspiring, especially for someone like me who sits working on my young adult novel whilst my friends work on amazing pieces that sit nicely under the label of ‘literary fiction’. She was incredibly lovely, no pretenses that the process was easy as she projected the word counts of her numerous drafts to show how the first draft was never the finished product, frank talk about the effect of mental illness on her writing process and how she battled through it, and information about the way things are done publishing-wise either side of the pond. She also discussed with us how ridiculous it is that some books are considered better than others due to their genre, a sentiment I very much share. Needless to say, The Girl of Ink and Stars jumped up my reading list, and I bought a copy almost immediately. And I am so glad I did.

The first thing that amazed me was the beauty of the whole book. The cover itself is gorgeous, but the pages themselves are where the true amazement lies. Each page is decorated like a map in keeping with the protagonist Isabella’s dreams and her father’s job as a cartographer. The result is that every page feels like a step on the journey that the characters undertake, mapping out the unknown of their island. I’ve never seen pages like it, and I urge you to pick up the book if only to see the pages.

The only potential issue with a gorgeous cover is that sometimes the contents don’t quite live up to their presentation.

This book definitely did not have that issue.

The story centres around the character of Isabella, who volunteers to guide a search for her friend after she gets lost in what the people of her village call ‘The Forgotten Territories’. More than eager to explore the island and chart it on a map, following in the footsteps of her father, a cartographer, she ventures in to the Forgotten Territories with the search party, and finds herself facing a lot more trouble than she initially expected.

The exposition of the story is slow and subtle, revealing a world that is not too dissimilar from our own – after all, Kiran Millwood Hargrave does say that the places in all of her novels are real places, but they obviously feature some slight embellishments. The relationships between the characters are great – I particularly enjoyed seeing the friendship between Isabella and Lupe, as a focus on friendship rather than romance is so refreshing to see. The mythic elements were really interesting, and tied well into the rest of the plot.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been a little longer. As it was, at just over 200 pages, I felt the world wasn’t explored to its full potential. I would love to have seen adventures spanning over the whole island in depth, as there are some villages displayed on the map that are barely visited, only for a page or two, and some that are not visited at all. The world of the book was so great, it just seemed a shame to leave it at what felt almost like the bare minimum exploration, especially when the protagonist talks about how much she wants to explore the entire island of Joya throughout the novel.

Overall,  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and adventure, and wants to read something refreshing.

The Transition by Luke Kennard: a reflection of issues of a highly possible near future

The first thing I noticed when picking up Luke Kennard’s debut novel the Transition was, as it so often is with any book, the cover. It certainly stands out – the blue cover with plain white writing and a weird circle would be expected more of a textbook than fiction.

The premise in itself is very interesting, which is always a good start. The novel is set in a near future, where there is a secret program that goes by the name of the Transition, aimed at people who have committed crimes in an attempt at reformation of character. In this program, you and your partner live with a couple older than you, who attempt to teach you their ways. Karl and his wife Genevieve are the couple who are subject to the Transition in the novel, after Karl is convicted of fraud and a tax infraction. The novel explores their experience through the Transition, the problems that they face, and the truths that Karl uncovers.

One very interesting thing about the book is that you are kept as in the dark as Karl. He discovers things that are somewhat fishy about the Transition, but his mentors, Janna and Stu, have responses to any and all of the queries he raises. It is up to you as a reader, as it is up to Karl, to believe whichever side you find most reasonable. The better side is more defined at the end, but the ambiguity throughout leads to uncertainty as to how the novel will end. Normally, I can predict the ending of any plot, and so I was a little wary to finish this book as any ending I could imagine was unsatisfying – if there’s one thing I hate, it’s an unsatisfying ending. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. It made perfect sense, and now I’ve read it, I can’t imagine it ending any other way.

Kennard also explores the issue of mental health very tactfully within the novel. However, it would have been nice to have Genevieve as not so much of a damsel in distress all the time, requiring Karl’s constant supervision (at least, in Karl’s opinion). Her success is depicted as a result of mania before depression, which is not unrealistic, but it would have been nice to see her have some further character development. I understand that her not having any development is representative of the cyclical nature of her mental health issues, but even the slightest development would be appreciated – something to show that she is a capable unique person in spite of her mental health issues. Regardless, the manner in which everyone treated Genevieve with relation to her mental health issues was the most truthful and good to see – the way Karl describes people ‘running for the hills’ when she takes a turn for the worst is not dissimilar to the way I have seen people act both in my own personal experience and in the experience of others. The treatment of mental health in the modern day is something that we seriously need to address, and Kennard certainly highlights that through this.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes being afraid for our future as the human race. Kennard’s switch from poetry to prose seems effortless, and I look forward to reading any future novels that he writes.

Living in the Present

‘The present is all we have, yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands’ – Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)

She sits, mug of tea cupped in her hands, and observes. She knows that she is in her home, and that she lives there with her family, but she does not remember their faces, or how she came to be here.

The voice comes from the speaker. ‘Live in the moment.’ She breathes in. Breathes out. Centres herself. Forgets that the speaker is there.

Her children come down the stairs – she knows, now, that there are stairs just outside of the kitchen, but it is something, she realises, that she did not know before this moment. Or maybe she did, and she simply forgot. Everything before this moment seems so cloudy in her mind. She leaves her mug of tea to make her children breakfast, and as soon as her back is turned, it disappears from her mind, as do her children’s faces. Her task remains in mind, and she wonders as she puts the bread in the toaster whether she has ever done this before. She certainly can’t remember doing it if she has.

She has a husband, she knows that for a fact. But she does not remember any of his individualities at all. Why did she marry him? She feels a strange claw grip in her lower abdomen as she realises she does not know where he is.

Her phone screen lights up.

The message on the screen reads ‘Greg’ in bold letters, underneath that, ‘Thinking of you, have a good day xx’.

Of course, her husband is Greg. He has a job. He is at his job. She remembers, although she still has no idea what his job is. Or who he is.

Her children soon leave the house, and she is left with a cold mug of tea wondering what they look like.

The speaker comes on again. ‘Breathe in. Breathe out. Live in the moment.’

She does as she’s told, forgetting the momentary fear about a stranger instructing her movements. As she hoovers the house, she wonders how the mirror got to be on the wall, or how the violet stain came to be so ingrained into the carpet. All her brain comes up with is that it does not matter, but she finds herself unable to stifle the worry. How did she even get to be in this house?

The doorbell’s sharp trill interrupts her thoughts. She turns off the hoover and abandons it.

The silhouette of the man on the other side of the door is visible through the frosted glass. She has a fleeting thought that it could be her husband, but despite still not remembering what he looks like, she knows that this man is not him. A feeling curls its way into her stomach, making her feel nauseous and clammy. She pushes it away and opens the door.

She recognises the man in a blurry sense. He wears a clearly expensive suit, his hair is very carefully styled, his face full of the tell-tale plump that only botox provides. She takes this all in whilst resisting an incredibly strong urge to slam the door in his face and lock herself in. She cannot recall why she feels that way, so she simply stands.

‘Hello, how are you feeling today?’ His voice carries a smooth control that only increases her panic.

‘Confused.’ Something within her tells her that this man knows why she feels this way. And how to stop it. But he simply offers his hand to her.

‘Come with me, I will help you.’

Every part of her screams against it, but she takes his hand and steps out of the house nonetheless. ‘I am still in my slippers!’ she says, suddenly embarrassed.

The man only smiles at her. ‘So you are. Would you like to change into shoes?’

She can sense that it is not a question, but nods anyway. She takes a step backwards, releasing the man’s hand and looking for a pair of shoes that are hers. She slips into a pair, leaving her slippers neatly in a gap.

The speaker fires up again. ‘Live in the moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.’ She obeys.

The man has not moved when she turns back to him, and he proffers his hand again. She takes it, and steps out, squinting at the bright light.

‘Where are we going?’ she asks. She knows there is something wrong with the question before he turns to her with a patronising smile.

‘Do not worry about where we are going. You have been there many times before. Just live in the moment. Appreciate the world.’ He turns away from her as he says this, and does not look at her again. Not as he opens the door to the back of the car, not a glance in the rear-view mirror as he gets in and locks the doors, not as he drives her through winding streets, not even as he opens the door to let her out of the car. He stands aside, lets her climb out and take in her surroundings before closing the door and walking away. She has no choice but to follow him.

‘In here please.’ He steps aside and lets her through a metal door into one of the giant concrete bricks that make up the surrounding landscape.

Flashes of memory come to her now. She knows that she has been here before, she knows that when she left here she never wanted to come back. She knows that there is no turning back now.

Two people wearing all white suits walk up to her, one moving behind her and restraining her arms, the other facing her, wearing a smile.

‘Hello again. I hear you are having some trouble. Are you ready to feel better again?’ The woman standing in front of her is blank faced, talking to her as if she is senile.

‘What are you going to do to me?’ she whispers.

‘Do not worry, you will feel better soon. Come with me now, it will make everything so much easier.’

She does not move. A sharp push in the base of her spine forces her to move, and she realises the person behind her is pushing her forwards, through this empty room, towards the next door. If she thinks about it, she can remember what the person behind her looks like, the way their white suit hangs off their tiny frame, their bleached white hair that perfectly matches the colour of their suit.

She struggles in a vain attempt to get herself free. The grip on her only tightens.

‘Live in the moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.’ The voice stills her, its presence in her ear unexpectedly restrictive. She tries to fight the urge to obey, but all she manages to do is make her breath shake.

She is forced down on to a reclined chair and strapped in at her wrists, chest, and ankles. The two white suits leave the room, and a woman in a lab coat walks in.

‘Hello, Lisa, is it? I’m Georgia.’

Her breath quickens. Is that her name? It sounds right, but how can it be? How can she not remember her own name?

Georgia looks confused. ‘You don’t remember?’

She does not give her an answer. ‘Please don’t do this to me,’ she whispers, ‘I want to remember. I don’t know who I am anymore.’ Her cheeks are wet. Georgia looks at her in shock and offers her a tissue before realising the restraints that encircle her arms. Georgia dabs at her cheeks.

‘It’ll make you feel better, I promise.’ Georgia does not sound as sure as her colleagues.

She is not sure of her memories, but she knows that she has not seen this woman before. She only shakes her head and turns away.

‘Right, the first step, here we go.’

The liquid in the syringe is unnaturally blue, and the fear escalates as it is pushed into her veins. She gasps as vivid memories flood back into her mind, straining against the straps as visions of her family dance behind her eyes. Her name is Lisa. She is thirty-six. She has been married for ten years. ‘Please,’ she gasps out, ‘Please, no more.’

‘Are you in pain?’ Georgia halts the rest of her preparation.

‘No, I remember. I remember everything.’ Her cheeks are wet again. ‘Please don’t take this away from me, please.’

Georgia hesitates. ‘It will make you feel better.’ She sounds as if she is convincing herself more than anyone else.

Lisa shakes her head. ‘No, it won’t, I’m sure of that, please, let me live.’

‘I have to do my job. Please don’t make this any harder than it has to be, we know what’s best for you.’

‘How can you say that when I have no idea who the people I love are unless they are sitting right in front of me?’ Lisa knows she is winning even as her voice shakes – none of the doctors she has met have ever let her talk this much.

‘That is one of the unfortunate side effects of the cure…’

‘Cure? This is torture!’

Georgia breaks. She puts her head in her hands and begins to cry, at which point two others walk into the room. They push past her, pick up the syringe and inject step two into Lisa’s arm as she screams.

A week later, sat at home, she receives a letter that simply reads,

I am so sorry. I will try to fix this.

Georgia

She does not know who Georgia is, or what she is apologising for, but she feels bizarrely content.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing – A multi-faceted novel exploring issues of the past, present, and future

Madeleine Thien is no stranger to awards. Across the total five books that she has written, she has accrued six awards and has been shortlisted ten times in total. This book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, tackles the complex issue of communist China. Thien is no stranger to writing about complex issues as well – her second novel, entitled Dogs on the Perimeter, was about the aftermath of the Cambodian Genocide. From reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing, it is clear that Nobel Prize Laureate Alice Munro was right when describing Thien’s first novel as the debut of a ‘splendid writer’.

From the blurb of Thien’s Man Booker Prize nominated novel, you would not be able to predict how emotionally heart wrenching this book is. It describes the story as ‘a history of revolutionary idealism’, and from that ideas are evoked of far flung tales often featured in historical novels, that seem to lack a sense of personality – as a reader, you don’t get the feeling that they were there, more that the story is being reported by a far-off observer. However, the personality in this novel is so prevalent that the story created seems so very real. Due to the book’s historical nature, and the use of multiple time streams, you know exactly what is going to happen to the characters. Amazingly, Thien still has the ability to surprise and keep you guessing from page to page. It is in this that the book is differentiated from a historical novel – it is not about the historical events, but rather about characters that just happen to be a part of them.

The story centres around a young girl called Li-ling, whose English name is Marie, living in Canada with her mother. The opening of the novel informs you of Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, committing suicide, in a way that shocks both due to its placement and the detached tone in which it is reported. Shortly after this, Marie’s mother receives a letter saying that the daughter of one of her husband’s friends from his life in China is in need of refuge, away from the prying, ever present eyes of the Chinese government. When the girl, Ai-ming, arrives, she carries with her the key to Marie’s father’s past. Through the stories that Ai-ming tells her, the Book of Records that her mother gives her, and her own travels to China, Marie pieces together the story of her father and his friends, Sparrow and Zhuli.

Although Marie is the character that provides the overarching narrative to the story, it is the story of these three friends that as a reader you are more interested in. Sparrow is the son of a highly praised officer of the People’s Liberation Army, which led the Chinese Communist Party to victory in the Chinese Civil War; Zhuli is his cousin, ten years younger than him, who was sent to live with his family when her parents were taken to a re-education camp. Kai is the only member of his family who survived the collectivisation that occurred during the Great Leap Forward, and he lives with his uncle in Shanghai. The three of them are musicians of the Shanghai Conservatory. Throughout the novel, their friendship and relationships develop, as well as their roles as musicians in a communist society. As the party turns away from music, denouncing it as reflective of the bourgeoisie, taking their instruments, their music, their freedom of expression, and destroying it all, the three friends find their friendships tested, whilst they battle with their own identities and how they fit into this way of life.

One of the amazing things about this novel is the way that Thien ties the true events of the past in with the narrative. Ai-ming is fleeing China after the protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre, and the novel’s climax centres around these same events. The land reforms that tear Zhuli’s family apart were seen across China during the Great Leap Forward, often sparked by findings such as that of the people of their village – they find that the basement was left standing after they knocked down the house of Zhuli’s father, Wen, and find various forbidden items, including books and musical instruments, within it. What happens to He Luting when his affiliation to Debussy comes under criticism as the Chairman of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was so horrific that the Conservatory as it stands today is called the He Luting Conservatory of Music – although the latter fact is unmentioned within the novel, the denouncing of He Luting is the beginning of the trouble for Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai as musicians. When Marie goes to China to attempt to find Ai-ming, who returns to China shortly after she gets her application as a refugee in the United States of America approved, Marie speaks of the issues of finding her due to ‘the Great Firewall’. None of these associations seem contrived, either, the plot flows naturally through them whilst highlighting the difficulties of life in China under the Chinese Communist Party, both in the past and in the present day.

These characters provide fantastic representations of the effects of living in communist China, and Thien furthers this through the conversations that take place throughout the novel between all of the focal characters and the people that they all meet on their journeys. The impersonal and almost robotic way they parrot their ‘Long live Chairman Mao’s and such, before any proper conversation takes place, contrasts so violently to the normal way in which the central characters casually talk to each other that the depersonalisation created by the revolution is painstakingly clear. No-one is allowed the individuality of talking person to person, they instead have to become simple carbon copies, all part of a machine, and all constantly reminded of their great leader and how fantastic their life is.

Whilst being a novel centring on demonstrating the history of communist China, Thien also explores the universal themes of love, loss, friendship, and identity. As well that, she covers issues very relevant in today’s society such as censorship and the plight of refugees. There was a recent report in the Economist about how the Chinese government has taken the internet – expected by many people from other countries to be a democratising force in China – and twisted it to their advantage. With the Great Firewall, as mentioned by Marie when she is attempting to find Ai-ming in China, the government now has the ability to block just certain pages on websites that contain keywords that they wish to restrict, and even prevent texts containing similar keywords from ever reaching their intended recipient. They can just delete them. And yet, this is not an issue that is talked about enough in our Western-centric society. Should we, so often vocal about the necessity of freedom of speech when it directly affects us, neglect to talk about the ongoing issue in China – and other countries across the globe – just because we don’t see it? Thien provides a clear platform for these issues within her book, bringing them to a Western audience.

Thien also masterfully highlights generational differences and similarities through the spanning of the story across multiple generations – though it is Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai that we mainly hear about when the narrative switches to the past, it is Zhuli’s parents, Wen the Dreamer and Swirl, that we are first introduced to. There is no fear when they first fall in love and get married, but as the revolution continues, Wen is stripped of his land as a wealthy landowner, the rest of his family beaten to death in front of him, and him, Swirl, and Zhuli are reduced to living in a hut and farming. Zhuli is not even allowed to attend school in the village due to Wen’s previous status. After Swirl comes back from the re-education camp, to live with Big Mother Knife – her sister, and Sparrow’s mother, who Zhuli is also living with – she is changed, fearful and distressed by her experiences. Some of the discourse that she and Zhuli have clearly demonstrates the generational differences created by their vastly different experiences of the world. Yet Big Mother Knife and Swirl go off to find Wen the Dreamer, after hearing news that he is still alive due to a letter he gave to Sparrow, just like Sparrow and Kai do when they follow Wen’s advice to locate Comrade Glass Eye. The generations are divided but also united by their experiences of hardship and their search for answers.

Such a personal touch in the novel can only be created through the personal links that Thien has to the topic and her characters. Although Do Not Say We Have Nothing is not autobiographical, Thien does share aspects of herself with the character of Marie. For example, Thien has also lost a parent, and after she lost her mother in 2002, she went travelling, visiting China alone, partially to connect with her heritage. She and her mother had planned this trip together before she died. She said herself that her father ‘instilled an idea of China’ in her that ‘exerts a hold on’ her. Aspects of her life have also clearly influenced the novel in other ways. The issue of censorship of art is very close to her own heart, as she was a lecturer of Creative Writing at Hong Kong University from 2010 to 2015, before the program was abruptly shut down during Hong Kong’s crackdown on free speech. She wrote an article for the Guardian on this matter, in which she states that the move is ‘plainly intended to limit free expression’, and also likens the protests in Hong Kong prior to the clamp down to the Tiananmen Square protests, which obviously play a key part in her novel.

Moral, social, and political implications aside, this is also a beautifully written book. With the majority of the narrative centred around three musicians, music features heavily throughout. The way that the music is written in this book means that you can almost hear it, perhaps because of the vivid descriptions of not only the notes being played, but also the passion behind them. I had never consciously listened to Prokofiev before, but when Zhuli is playing her violin, ‘following Prokofiev up high porcelain staircases’ with the utmost concentration as ‘the notes chipped into one another’, every note serving to ‘elaborate this unending melody’, it was as if she were playing the violin right beside my ear. Whilst in a literal sense, the music cannot be heard, the music can be understood, and that is all that matters in understanding these characters.

The only complaint that has been made about this book is the dappling of Chinese words throughout. But these words serve to highlight the cultural differences and multiculturalism of the world. Marie has Chinese heritage, and to ignore that in favour of just accepting her Canadian side when her story is so interlinked with China’s history would be unnatural. The Chinese words extend the personal link that Marie has to this world that she is delving into – she is not someone looking for reports of the facts, she is searching for the answers that she so desperately desires about her father’s past.

Given the beautiful way this book is written, and the many things it brings to light and makes you consider, it is abundantly clear why it has received the critical praise that it has. Thien is definitely more than worthy of such accolades.

The Struggles of World Building

Word Count: 5712

There are many problems that writers face whilst writing their novels, but there is none so great to me as world building. When you’re creating your own world, there are no rules. Especially if you are building a world completely separate from this one that we live in, as I am attempting to. There is just so much to consider, and not one of the many sites offering well-intentioned advice and guidance ever seem to cover it all.

Of course, there are some amazing examples. Take J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, and surrounding stories that take place within that universe. It is so well beloved that people become obsessed with the detail of it, viewing it almost as a real world. Another great example is George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, with its intimate history of both the land and families, and interesting topographical map and meteorological patterns. I know these are two very famous examples, but they are so famous because they are so well planned and thought out.

On the other end of the scale, you have books like David Baldacci’s The Finisher, which quite frankly left me very frustrated upon completion. Baldacci’s attempted delve into fantasy writing makes it so abundantly clear how important it is to have your world thoroughly mapped out and making sense before you actually write the narrative – not that the narrative of that novel is anything special. He attempts to build a different world, but he changes too many things, making it just uncomfortable to read. For example, he changes the names of timings. Fair enough, people in an alternate universe would likely not have the exact same way of telling the time as us, but splitting their days differently to the way we do ours and expecting people to understand this with very little explanation is simply not the way one writes a functioning novel.

The most continuously successful fantasy novel is that set partially in our world. The examples are endless – the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, a lot of novels by Neil Gaiman, such as Stardust and Neverwhere, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia… the list goes on. The benefit of this format is that it allows common terms to the reader – such as, to quote the example from earlier, names for timings and measurements for timings – to be used in the novel, giving the story readability. But sometimes the benefits of this format are outweighed by the limitations it has. The writer has to find a way to tie their new world into the world of the novel, and for many plot lines, this is simply not feasible. Sadly, this is the case with what I am writing.

This has resulted, at least for me, in a serious issue: forced exposition. It is blatantly obvious when a writer is simply making something happen to expose something about the world or the characters within it. However, one of the issues with Baldacci’s The Finisher is that it provides no explanation, leaving the reader to attempt to figure out what is meant by each term themselves. There is certainly a balance to be found, and the fundamental problem that I am facing at this moment in time is discovering this balance. It takes dozens of re-reads and tiny tweaks, by myself and by my friends to try and plough through the bad to find any semblance of something good, but at the moment I’m just trying to get rough thoughts down on paper.

It is, however, not impossible, and therefore I shall persevere – it will just take me significantly longer than I thought to write this story!