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review 2017-10-30 15:17
DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING

 

Praised by Alice Munro (whose name is on the back cover), Do Not Say We Have Nothing earned Madeline Thien the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for most promising Canadian writer under the age of 30. Then went on to win a Carnegie Medal, the Scotiabank Prize and the Stanford Travel Writing Award (Wikipedia 2016), but although shortlisted for The Man-Booker and the Bailey’s Prize, it didn’t win. I was shocked. The reviews I’d read suggested a forgone conclusion…It speaks to the humanity that continues even in the harshest, most self-destructively paranoid conditions, and it shows how the savagery of destroying culture comes hand-in-hand with the destruction of human bodies. For this reason alone, I hope it wins the Man Booker prize…(Boland 2016)
 
I found it compelling, important. I thought a close second read would determine why it hasn’t gained a glittering crown. Long, with a rambling, fractured narrative, covers many aspects of the Maoist revolution. The story is told in sewn-on patches, revealed slowly with huge difficultly, almost like a labour. This immediately felt right…as if structure and style represent the dreadful hardships the Chinese people experienced.
 
Do Not Say We Have Nothing  opens in Vancouver in 1990. Marie’s father has killed himself in Hong Kong jumping from a high building, and Marie (also called Li-Ling) and her mother take in a young woman from China. Ai Ming arrives at their home without ‘papers’. 10 year-old Marie is enamoured by the teenager, but ask as she might, cannot discover what has happened to her. Marie tries to get closer by showing the girl something that belonged to her dead father…
 
The notebook with her father’s writing, the Book of Records, was easy to find. I picked it up, knowing it would please her. But when I offered the notebook to Ai-ming, she ignored me. 
I tried again. “Ma told me it’s a great adventure, that someone goes to America and someone else goes to the desert. She said that the person who made this copy is a master calligrapher.”
Ai-ming emerged from her coat. “It’s true my father had excellent handwriting, but he wasn’t a master calligrapher. And anyway, no matter how beautiful the Book of Records is, it’s only a book. It isn’t real.”
“That’s okay. If you read it to me, I can improve my Chinese. That’s real.”
She smiled. After a few moments of turning pages, she returned the notebook to the bedcover, which had become a kind of neutral ground between us. “It’s not a good idea,” she said. “This is Chapter 17. It’s useless to start halfway, especially if this is the only chapter you have.”
“You can summarise the first sixteen chapters. I’m sure you know them.”
“Impossible!” But she was laughing…(Thien 2016)
 
Politics, time, place and generations of characters are intertwined within the story, and echoed in the handwritten ‘Record’ of the extract above. It was like reading a half-lost Chinese legend, or a guide to survival under hopeless oppression. I loved the way stories and music are powerful threads connecting the lives and times of a Chinese family. Often, I felt I was reading Dostoyevski. I agreed it wasa beautiful, sorrowful workthe mind is never still while reading it…(Senior 2016)
 
At the core of the story is a true event. In 1968, the director of Shanghai Conservatory of Music, He Luting, was dragged from his office by Red Guards, physically abused in front of TV cameras and accused of ‘non-revolutionary thinking’ over his  approbation of Western classical music. He did not confess, as most did, instead, crying out, “shame on you for lying!” (Isobel Hilton 2016). Thien incorporates this into her story.
 
I have this idea that … maybe, a long time ago, the Book of Records was set in a future that hadn’t yet arrived,” one characters says (Thien 2016). The covert record, written by hand and passed secretly from writer to writer, allows them to express what they cannot tell. Almost entirely unrevealed on the page, I thought the notebook was a metaphor for the half-lost history of three generations. 
 
Bach’s Goldberg Variations (always played by pianist Glenn Gould), becomes the score in our head. – the words echoing the complex counterpoints in the music. It’s a symbol, I believe, of how brilliant creativity is suppressed and punished in the Cultural Revolution (CR), but also of how music is universal. Early in the novel, Marie says…I was drawn toward it, as keenly is if someone were pulling me by the hand. The counterpoint, holding together composer, musicians and even silence, the music, with its spiralling waves of grief and rapture…(Thien 2016) She might be talking about the story she’s about to unfold.
 
Tieananmen Square in the 80s
We only find out Ai-Ming’s full story as the book progresses to its climax in Tiananmen Square. However, this is the beauty of close reading, and doing so made me sit up. There are a lot of clues in that first chapter in Vancouver. I had tried to keep them in my head on my first read, but it was almost impossible. The sweep of the book wipes them away. It’s only at the end, as things come to a head, that we learn how Ai-Ming and Marie are intrinsically connected.
 
Marie narrates short sections of the novel as an adult, in the present day. She’s become a mathematics professor, which links with the contrapuntal nature of music and story. She’s still seeking the truth about her family’s history. Meanwhile, the lives of the families of two sisters over fifty years of Chinese revolution is revealed in a wide-ranging viewpoint, allowing one after another of the characters to catch and take up the tale. It’s never clear who is in charge of this omniscient-like third person. It might be Ai Ming, remembering all she knows of the Book of Records, even adding to it. Maybe this is all Marie’s story, told at the end of her quest. Or perhaps the overarching view is Thien’s herself.
 
I became intimately involved with these lives, the ambiguities of the story, and the glorious sounds of music; Chinese and European, violin and piano. From Vancouver we go back to the colour and gaiety of the 1940’s, where two teenaged sisters entertain by singing in provincial teahouses. We follow Big Mother Knife and Swirl through the land reforms, re-educations, the arrival of the Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution, and on, to the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
 
Big Mother has three children, including a boy called Sparrow, who becomes a musical prodigy. Swirl and her husband, Wen the Dreamer, have a girl, Zhuli. Wen is the ‘master calligrapher’ and principle contributor to the Book of Records. He and Swirl are caught up in the punishments devised to expose counter-revolutionaries… anyone deviating from the norm of communist orthodoxy. They are tortured and given hard labour in a desert area of China, where they barely survive. The young Zhuli is sent to find her aunt in Shanghai. She takes up the violin under the influence of her cousin, the shy composer, Sparrow, and is destined for great things, until the Cultural Revolution rises up. At the Conservatory, Zhuli becomes unable to cope with the humiliations, brain-washings and destruction of music and musical instruments….students began writing essays asking, “What good is this music, these empty enchantments, that only entrench the bourgeoisie and isolate the poor?”(Thien 2016). Some musicians form a clandestine resistance group, and this seems to finally topple Zhuli. She kills herself. 
 
In Moa’s China, history is manipulated or suppressed unless it toes the party line. And so, from the safety of Canada, Thein has attempted to tell the entire truth, using music as her theme. It feels off-key, literally, to write about musicians when so much of the history is political. They quietly go about their business of writing, playing and teaching music. They have brilliant minds, but are quiet people, not necessarily politically articulate.
 
Sparrow becomes deeply intimate with a piano student, Kai, whose family didn’t survive the starvation times of the Great Leap Forward. But Sparrow is unable to consummate their love, perhaps because of his timid reserve, perhaps due to the shock of Zhuli’s death. Kai is determined to live whatever the cost. Ruthlessly, he compromises his art and prospers as a musician, lauded by the establishment, while Sparrow, who cannot dishonour classical music, is forced to leave the Conservatory, reassigned to work in a radio factory for thirty years.
 
And what of the Book of Records? In an interview, Thien explains…It’s a book with no beginning, no middle and no end, in which the characters are seeing an alternative China where they recognise mirrors of themselves and which they write themselves into.” She is speaking literally as well as metaphorically. “The act of copying is different in China because part of the art of calligraphy is that you learn to write as the masters did. It’s a lot about breath and pressure and line. (Armistead 2016)
 
When I surfed the net, I discovered the notebook is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of pre-history, Shiji or the Historical Records. Like the novel and the notebook, the Shiji is non-chronological, fractured…overlapping units that interpret rather than document. Completed in 91BCE  it was kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had had its author, Sima Qian, the ‘grand astrologer’ castrated. (Vioatti 2014).
 
I followed one family for sixty years, across vast Chinese landscapes, puzzling about the ‘book of records’, carrying Baroque music in my head through 450 pages of traumatic experiences and moral complexities. Although it’s not an easy book to read, and I wasn’t alone in finding I always wanted to read on… Thien's reach—though epic —does not extend beyond her capacity, resulting in a lovely fugue of a book…(Chalfant 2016).
 
China has always been a dangerous place to state the truth, rather than toe the line. Then chose characters with great gifts, extraordinary yet quite ordinary, who fall foul of the absurd doctrines of a regime. Through them, I understood the consequences of Mao’s revolution on both the Chinese national identity, and the personal identities of its people.
 
The duplicitous Kai finally agrees to help Sparrow’s daughter, Ai-Ming, to escape China, but soon after Marie meets her, Ai Ming disappears into the USA. Marie is still searching at the end of the book. As if both girls, mirror-images of the girls who sang in the teahouses, resonate what the previous generation had to go through; to disappear emotionally or physically, or to wander, in search of reasons and identity. There’s no final answers, especially as to why it did not win the Booker. That is a puzzle as great as the Book of Records.
 

 

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review 2017-07-30 17:53
Ligeiramente Perigoso (Portuguese Edition) - Mary Balogh

 

I loved this story so much, that I'm giving five stars to an historical romance and I couldn't care less!
Honestly you guys, I don't remember the last time a story has kept me from falling asleep.
I've been sleeping so much lately, that one of these days, I'll wake up and find that I've grown roots and thorns... just to be on the safe side. That, or I'll be turned into a cat...

This, OH GOD, I don't know if it was the undertones of Pride and Prejudice (it helped), but I fell in love with these two characters from the moment a drop of lemonade is involved ;)
Wulfric, the Duke, with his aura of "stay away from me peasants", and Christine, who is _mostly_ a tornado of joy and happiness; but not in a silly way, were amazing characters.
I loved their characterization, and how their romance slowly evolved. There's a lot of walking, and talking through the countryside, with the characters getting to know each other.
As for the hot and heavy parts, there's only two sex scenes in this book, which was a relief considering how some "historical" romances lately are just a long _and boring_porn book fest.
I'm not going to say that I've loved all this author's books in this series, because I haven't, but the ones I liked, I really liked them... not this much as this one, because this one pretty much rocked the all kind of "adorbs" chart.
You should read it! ;)

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review 2017-07-22 16:00
Beyond the Usual Alpha-Beta Search: "Deep Thinking - Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins” by Garry Kasparov, Mig Greengard
Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins - Garry Kasparov,Mig Greengard

“In 2016, nineteen years after my loss to Deep Blue, the Google-backed AI project DeepMind and its Go-playing offshoot AlphaGo defeated the world’s top Go player, Lee Sedol. More importantly, as also as predicted, the methods used to create AlphaGo were more interesting as an IA Project than anything that had produced the top chess machines. It uses machine learning and neural networks to teach itself how to play better, as well as other sophisticated techniques beyond the usual alpha-beta search. Deep Blue was the end; AlphaGo is a beginning.”

 

In “Deep Thinking - Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins” by Garry Kasparov, Mig Greengard 

 

My personal experience with Go dates back at least a decade. I remember getting slaughtered every time by the free GNUgo software, just as I had been by every human opponent for the last 20 years. Never got the hang of it, though I was school chess captain back in the day. Totally different mindset. I first came across it in a little-remembered crime series called 'The Man in Room 17', with Richard Vernon and Denholm Ellit eponymously solving crimes without leaving their office, where they were always playing go. I also remember a funny little story while I was attending the British Council. Back in the 80s, a Korean guy gave me a game. After every move I played, he stifled a laugh and started a rapid fire of, "No! Cos you purrin ['put in', I presume] there, then I purrin here, after you purrin there an' I purrin here, you lose these piece" None of which made anything clearer. At chess, the first (okay, tenth) time I got mated on the back row by a rook, I learned not to leave the king behind a wall of pawns. Never got my head round the simplest 'joseki' (corner opening) at Go. Beautifully elegant game though.

 

If you're into Chess, and Computer Science of the AI variety, read on.

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review 2017-06-10 17:37
Girls Made of Snow and Glass - Melissa Bashardoust

          Arc Provided by Flatiron Books through Netgalley

 

                       Release Date: September 5th

 

Pitched as a feminist retelling, "Girls Made of Snow and Glass", doesn't disappoint in the least. Told in the alternative pov's of Mina, the stepmother Queen and Lynet, the snow Princess, this is a story that most surely will stay with the reader long after its read... What if there was more to the "tale" of the "evil" stepmother and her "naive" stepdaughter? What if there was a story of trying to break with one's past and one's sorrow? What if you only wanted to be loved, but never quite achieved that? How would you turn out with people trying to make a puppet out of you? This is the story of two women both trying to find out their true natures in a grey world . A world of snow and cold. And of bitter family ties. Along the way they will have to decide if they'll risk breaking those ties for a chance of finally being themselves. And of loving who they want. "Girls Made of Snow and Ice" is a tale of self discovery, friendship, and of budding young love, interwoven with bits of magic... In it, you have very different love stories. You have one between a woman with a heart of glass, and her creation. But for how long will it be her creation?

Another between two girls, both trying to survive in that world: One that has had everything given to her, except the love of a mother. And the other, who is trying to find her own station in a world filled with people who want to use her...

But for me, the most rewarding its between a mother and her child. Despite all obstacles, barriers, and wishes of kings. The writing is skilfully done, taking the reader successfully into a cursed world of snow, and many were the phrases _ so beautifully written _that I would love to share with you guys.

Really a remarkable read.

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review 2017-05-11 23:51
Review: Dark Asylum by E. S. Thomson
Dark Asylum (Jem Flockhart) - E. S. Thomson


I would like to thank Little Brown Books and Constable for providing me with an advanced reading copy of this book.

 

For a good few years I have avoided historical fiction, it's a genre that I used to read a lot of but found myself losing interest in. There was plenty of it out there but I just wasn't feeling it - they were all starting to run into each other, none stood out and I felt that they all read much the same. That is, until I came across E.S. Thomson's debut novel Beloved Poison and was blown away by how fantastic the book was. So fantastic, in fact, that it was my top read of 2016 and I have been recommending it to everyone ever since.

 

I was like a child on Christmas morning when Dark Asylum landed on my doorstep, but I have to admit I was a little apprehensive at first because I was scared it wouldn't live up to the first book. I needn't have worried, I loved it every bit as much as Beloved Poison.

 

It was such a joy to be with Jem and Will again and to be back on the streets of Victorian London. The sights, the sounds, the streets, the smells, the mood, the atmosphere, all so vivid that I was transported easily to another time and place. Like with Beloved Poison, the world around me ceased to exist while this book was in my hands.

 

The author's knowledge of medicine and of the time period is clear to see in the historical detail within the story. It's also clear that she enjoys what she does and has put a lot of love and dedication into the book.

 

And can I just point out that cover! This is one of the rare occasions where you can safely judge a book by its gorgeous cover and know that the story inside is every bit as amazing.

 

E.S. Thomson has made me fall in love with historical fiction all over again.

 

Highly recommended. One of my favourite reads of 2017 so far!

 

 

 

 

Reviews also posted to my blog: Scarlet's Web
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