Category: Fiction

Little Women/The Other Alcott

Cover image for Little Women by Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott / Elise Hooper

ISBN 9780451529305 / 9780062645340

“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason.”

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March live in Civil War era Boston with their mother, Marmee. Their father is away at war, and the two older girls have gone to work to support the family. Beth stays home to keep house, while little Amy is still at school. Little Women is a quiet, domestic coming of age novel that follows four very different sisters as they grow up and find their place in the world. Together they befriend their wealthy but lonely neighbour, Theodore Laurence, and his grandfather, weather sickness and loss, and face difficult choices about marriage and family in the aftermath of the war.

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper I first tried to read Little Women when I was about eleven years old, after receiving a boxset as a gift. I found it exceedingly boring, and put it aside after only a few chapters. I next picked it up when I was about thirteen, and utterly devoured it. Along with many a previous reader, I was charmed by Jo, vexed by Amy, and felt cheated by Laurie’s disposition at the end of the novel. After attending a reading of The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper at Brick & Mortar Books in January, I decided that is was well past time to revisit this classic.

What struck me most on this third reading was how condescending and moralizing Little Women is. It is full of asides, lectures, and reprimands that bog down the delicate characterizations and loving depiction of a family. Knowing more about the history of the novel, this is now less surprising. Alcott was induced to write the books by her publisher, who saw an untapped market for clean literature for young women. Alcott herself was not precisely a traditional woman; she was an unmarried career woman who supported her parents and siblings with her craft. And it was precisely this responsibility to care for her dependents that persuaded her to accept her publisher’s offer, and to publish not one but two installments of Little Women, and then two later sequels. In short, Alcott knew that she was pandering, but she had a family to support, so she wrote what her publisher wanted. The subtext of the book is more complicated than that, of course, but the bad taste remains.

One of May Alcott's original illustrations for the first edition of Little Women, 1868While the lecturing tone of the book is now decidedly unappealing, I was as drawn to the characters as ever. The focus is on the interactions and interplay between the sisters, though their neighbour Theodore Laurence of course plays an important role. The March sisters have a pleasingly realistic air, likely helped by their basis in Alcott’s own family. It is this fact that Elise Hooper draws on in her historical novel, The Other Alcott. The story follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned.

If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. Hooper’s Louisa is prickly and temperamental, using her position as the family breadwinner as a right to exercise control over those she supports. Yet she has mixed feelings about her success with such pandering material, and little patience for her fans. May’s dreams of being an artist are constantly subordinated to her family responsibilities, and with little idea of how to support herself as an artist, she labours under a heavy weight of obligation to her wealthy sister. That weight is especially burdensome when the character of Amy March in Little Women reveals all too clearly how May thinks her sister must see her.

The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas. Women were finding ways to study art, despite prevailing ideas about the indecency of such an endeavour. So in addition to a difficult and well-drawn family tension, the novel also has a great historical backdrop to work with. Hooper occasionally inserts her historical research about the Alcotts or May’s artistic contemporaries in a way that is less than fluid, but it seems to be a stumble born mostly of enthusiasm for her subject. However, it is all this information that helps the novel form such an intriguing counterpoint to Little Women, adding context, and taking the part of the most maligned sister. And May’s own life is more interesting than anything Louisa imagined for Amy.


Mansfield Park

Cover image for Mansfield Park by Jane Austen by Jane Austen

ISBN 9780141439808

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” 

Following her mother’s imprudent marriage, Fanny Price is taken from an impoverished situation in Portsmouth, and raised at the estate of Mansfield Park by her mother’s sisters, and her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. There is she is brought up alongside, but always somewhat separate from, her cousins Maria and Julia, and their much older brothers, Tom and Edmund. Quietly in love with her cousin Edmund, the sensible younger son, Fanny watches with dismay as two new arrivals to the neighbourhood threaten to upend the peace and comfort of Mansfield. Siblings Henry and Mary Crawford have come to live with their sister, Mrs. Grant, bringing with them London ways and flirtations. Edmund is very much taken with Mary, and jealousy over Henry opens a rift between the Bertram sisters. With little influence in the family, or even confidence to speak her mind, Fanny can only watch as the Crawfords threaten to unravel all their domestic felicity, and perhaps even ruin some reputations in the process.

I first encountered the work of Jane Austen when I was about seventeen or eighteen, beginning with Pride and Prejudice. I promptly read through her entire oeuvre in short order. I remember being charmed by the incisive way Austen describes each character, sometimes rendering a sharp portrait in only a few strokes. She was a striking observer of human nature. Since then, I’ve reread both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility multiple times, but this year, for the first time, I’m revisiting works like Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.

Mansfield Park is a most peculiar read when approached from a modern perspective. The protagonist is Fanny Price, a timid and retiring heroine who is decided in her principles, but rarely dares to speak her mind. The driving point of the novel is whether or not Fanny will marry her cousin Edmund, the younger son of Sir Thomas, who is destined to enter the clergy. While unremarkable for the period, the cousin loving is undoubtedly a bit squicky for the modern reader. Though Fanny and Edmund are well-suited to one another in character and temperament, it can be hard to root for them romantically. And the more taken in by Mary Crawford the supposedly sensible Edmund becomes, the less deserving of the steadfast protagonist he appears.

Much of the plot also does not translate well, and reflects poorly on the characters in the process. In the first half of the novel, Sir Thomas is called away to attend to his estates in Antigua, and the action revolves around the imprudence of his children while he is away. Tom’s friend Mr. Yates comes to visit, and together they hatch a plan to put on a private theatrical. Edmund and Fanny are the only conscientious objectors to this scheme, and in this the reader is expected to concur with them whole-heartedly. Whereas nowadays the theatre is regarded as an object of high culture, in the Regency period, the theatre was still a very lowly and disreputable position.

To the modern eye, Fanny and Edmund thus look rather like prudish killjoys when they make their objections. Edmund is eventually drawn into the plot when his brother proposes inviting a neighbour in to fill a vacant role in the play. Horrified by the idea of such public exposure of an ill-advised private scheme, Edmund condescends to take the role so as to prevent such an evil, leaving Fanny the only non-participant among the young people. However, her qualms are soon borne out in the characters of her cousins. The romantic plot of the play deepens the rift between Maria and Julia, and their jealousy over Henry, and threatens to expose Maria’s fecklessness to her rather oblivious fiancé, an engagement which was formed before Henry entered on the scene. Acting together also puts Edmund very much more under the power of Mary Crawford.

If all this sounds critical of the novel, it is not meant as such. Mansfield Park is a novel of the period in which it was written, and cannot and should not be expected to conform to modern practices and ideas. If anything, a great part of the interest of Austen’s work lies in the way it illustrates how much the same and yet how much different our times are. The characters are people we recognize and know, and human nature is much the same as ever, but the mores and traditions that shape their actions are intriguingly different. I do not have a strong recollection of my first impressions of Mansfield Park—clearly it was a not a favourite as I did not feel compelled to reread it until now—but it has amply repaid revisitation.

Binti: The Night Masquerade

Cover image for The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okoraforby Nnedi Okorafor

ISBN 978-0-7653-9312-8

Binti was change, she was revolution, she was heroism.”

In the third volume of her novella trilogy, Nnedi Okorafor continues the story of Binti, who has returned home to Earth after her first year of study at the galaxy’s premier institution of higher education, Oomza Uni. While the homecoming and reckoning with her family and her heritage was difficult, Binti is now faced with an even larger conflict. The peace between the Meduse and the Khoush is tentative, bound to break at any moment, and the Himba may be caught in the middle. Still struggling to control the zinariya biotechnology that she unlocked in Home, and suffering from the side effects, Binti may nevertheless be called to put her skills as a master harmonizer to work on one of the oldest feuds in the galaxy.

As evidenced by the summary above, the plot of this novella relies heavily on the action and world-building of previous installments—reading out of order is not advised. While Binti and Home have a logical separation, The Night Masquerade reads as a continuation of Home, but on an expanded thematic scale. In Home, Binti was forced to confront the rift that she made when she left her family and abandoned their traditions to attend Oomza Uni. She also had to do some grappling with her identity as a Himba woman, and with how her father’s heritage figured into that. The Night Masquerade expands to consider the conflict between cultures, and Binti’s place within the wider society she has entered, and indeed within the galaxy itself.

In the first volume, Binti describes her people, saying “we Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish.” By this third installment, it becomes evident how much Binti has grown from her experience at Oomza Uni, rather than diminished. First she connects with the Meduse, and we see how that changes her, helping her to understand anger, and realize how difficult it is to contend with. She grapples with her father’s roots among the Enyi Zinariya, learning to see them as they see themselves, rather than as the savage Desert People she has been taught to regard them as. And she makes other, new connections in The Night Masquerade. Her journey has been an expansive one that grapples with identity and belonging on many levels.

In my review of Binti in 2016, I wrote that the plot relied “heavily on a mysterious, ancient device called an edan, which serves multiple functions with little explanation.” The edan has since diminished significantly in importance to the story, but in The Night Masquerade, its origin and purpose are finally revealed, filling out the universe’s backstory. Indeed, since this is the last contracted Binti story, many things are being wrapped up and concluded. There remains ample space for Okorafor to expand on Binti’s universe, but readers will be left with a satisfying stopping place.


Also by Nnedi Okorafor:

Who Fears Death 

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 978-0-316-31027-7

What they don’t realize is this: Yes, they frighten me, but I have always been scared, since the day I got here. I was raised by the man who murdered my parents, reared in a land of monsters. I live with that fear, let it settle into my bones, and ignore it. If I didn’t pretend not to be scared, I would hide under my owl-down coverlets in Madoc’s estate forever. I would lie there and scream until there was nothing left of me. I refuse to do that. I will not do that.”

Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she had been raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans.

The Cruel Prince follows three sisters trying to find their place in the world(s). Though she is the only one who has magic, Vivi longs to return to the human world where she was raised. Jude and Taryn, though they know that Faerie is designed to dazzle mortals, are nevertheless enchanted with it, and dream of finding a way to make it their place forever, rather than somewhere that they live at the grace of the man who killed their parents. Taryn hopes to make a marriage that will secure her a place at court, while Jude hopes to use her talent with a blade win a post in one of the great houses. Each in turn is faced with the question of what price they will pay in order to get what they want.

Through the character of Jude, and her development, Holly Black examines what we are capable of, and how far we will go to get what we want. Jude dreams of being a knight, and wants to declare herself a candidate for selection as such by one of the great houses during the summer tournament. But her adopted father, Madoc, a redcap with violence as his very essence, does not believe that Jude has what it takes to be a knight, despite her skill with a blade. With the obvious and honourable path closed to her, Jude accepts a different bargain, one that reveals an even darker side of the High Court, and reminds Jude why Faerie is a dangerous place for mortals, especially at a time when power is about to change hands.

Though she knows the ways of Faerie, and has been trained as a warrior by the general himself, Jude is at a constant disadvantage. She has no magic of her own, and must constantly be wary of the magic around her. She must wear rowan berries to ward off compulsion, turn her stockings inside out to avoid being led astray, and salt all her food to prevent ensorcellment. She must rely on her wits, and her merely mortal strength to face down those who would put her in her place. And Prince Cardan and his friends seem bent on demonstrating that however at home she feels in Faerie, however well she think she knows the rules, she will always be a mere mortal. It is this very weakness, and her determination not to give into it that makes Jude a compelling narrator.

The Cruel Prince is a twisty and intricately plotted fantasy that takes us deep inside the High Court of Faerie. Holy Black knows just how to hit my expectations enough to keep me satisfied, while simultaneously subverting them enough to keep me intrigued. I am already eagerly awaiting the release of The Wicked King in 2019.

Also by Holly Black:

The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown 

The Iron Trial 

Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3)

Cover image for Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9358-6

“For others, the lure of a world where they fit is too great to escape, and they will spend the rest of their lives rattling at windows and peering at locks, trying to find the way home. Trying to find the one perfect door that can take them there, despite everything, despite the unlikeliness of it all.”

When Rini lands in the duck pond behind Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, she is looking for her mother, Sumi. But Sumi was murdered three years earlier, and never found the door back to her Nonsense world to defeat the Queen of Cakes, marry her candy corn farmer, and live happily ever after with their daughter. Rini shouldn’t even exist, and now reality is beginning to catch up with her as she starts to fade away. Quests are strictly forbidden at the school, but can Sumi’s friends really allow her daughter to have never been born?

Beneath the Sugar Sky marks the third installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. The books do not need to be read strictly in order, but the author recommends reading Every Heart a Doorway before this volume. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, being a prequel, can really be read before or after the first book. But since the plot of this novel hinges on a murder that took place in book one, and continues with some characters from that volume, beginning there is suggested.

While Every Heart a Doorway was about the aftermath of returning from a portal world, Beneath the Sugar Sky is a true portal fantasy that involves examining what happens to the worlds the children leave behind when they are pulled back to Earth. When Sumi ceases to exist, the Queen of Cakes is never defeated, and her prophecy goes unfulfilled. This third installment allows us to visit not one but two of the portal realms described in the first book, including Nancy’s Halls of the Dead, and Sumi’s Nonsense world, Confection. The latter is particularly interesting since most of the protagonists themselves visited Logical worlds, and struggle with the rules of a Nonsense realm like Confection.

The adventurers are Kade and Christopher, who will be familiar from Every Heart a Doorway, and Nadya and Cora, who are both girls who visited water worlds. Together, they set out with Rini for the Halls of the Dead, to find out where Sumi’s spirit went when she was murdered, and if there is any way to return her to her world so that Rini will still be born. The central perspective belongs to Cora, who was a mermaid in the world she visited, a world where the size of her body made her a strong swimmer, protected from the cold water, and not the object of mockery from her school mates. Body image forms a central issue for this volume.

In reading this installment of the Wayward Children, I was unexpectedly captured by Confection, though I’m more inherently curious about darker worlds like The Moors, and the Halls of the Dead. But the idea of a somewhat internally consistent Nonsense world was really good fun, and McGuire used it to great advantage. For example, no matter how far apart they are, nowhere in Confection is more than a day’s journey from anywhere else, and McGuire is able to use this to keep the novella-length plot tight. Her prose is as beautiful as ever, and I just let myself roll with the absurdity of the adventure, including a visit to the Oven, the heart of Confection. This universe has developed nicely throughout the series, and while this was the last guaranteed volume, I am hopeful that we might yet be able to look forward to more adventures.

You might also like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Wild Beauty

Cover image for Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore by Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-12455-5

For a hundred years, La Pradera has bloomed under the hands of the Nomeolvides women, five in every generation, whose magic brings to life what was once a barren landscape unfit for farming. But the Nomeolvides women are cursed; any man that they love too much, who stays too long, will disappear into La Pradera, never to be seen again. They have lived with this pain for generations, defined and shaped by it. So when Estrella and her four cousins make an offering to the land, and a boy appears, a boy who seems to be out of his time, a whisper of hope goes through the family. Fel has no memory of how he came to La Pradera, but what if he was the disappeared lover of a long ago Nomeolvide woman? But even as the women begin to hope that their lost loves may not be lost forever, the arrival of a new member of the family that owns the land they are bound to threatens everything they have built.

La Pradera is a vivid setting, a place of magic and tragedy. The Nomeolvides women have worked the land there for a hundred years, but beautiful as they have made it, they can never leave it, or La Pradera will take its revenge. But though they are bound to this land, they do not own it. It belongs to the Briar family, a wealthy clan that hides their rejects and failures on this distant estate. When Marjorie Briar dies, Reid Briar waltzes into town, fully expecting to seize control of the estate from Bay, the illegitimate daughter of a Briar, who was raised by Marjorie, and named her heir. The power imbalance between the Briars and the people who have worked their land forms an important part of the story.

Despite the curse, romance is woven through Wild Beauty. All five of the Nomeolvides girls are a little bit in love with dashing Bay Briar, nominal heir to La Pradera. They do not know if a woman can be disappeared by their love, but they are all afraid to find out, and so they keep their affection for her at a distance. When Fel appears, he and Estrella are repeatedly drawn to one another despite her mother’s warnings. Though the land gave him back, they all worry that he could disappear again. And what if he really was once the lover of a dead woman he can’t remember? In the course of the story, both Bay and Fel must emerge as their own people before questions about who can love them will be answered.

In addition to being a romance, Wild Beauty has a strong theme of family, especially the relationship between Estrella and her cousins. The older generations of women are more distant and less well known. Estrella and her cousins are pushing themselves away from their mothers and grandmothers, as much as they can when they are all bound to the same land, unable to leave it for very long. They hope to somehow avoid the fate of their ancestors, as every new generation hopes, and that drives a wedge between them and their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. The older women try to keep the peace and protect their daughters, but Estrella seems determined to stand up to Reid, whatever the cost.

In this, her third novel, Anna-Marie McLemore returns with her lush, polished prose and fine touch for magic realism. Although slower paced, her novels always deliver for atmosphere, character, and emotional impact, and Wild Beauty is no different.

Also by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Weight of Feathers

When the Moon Was Ours 

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2017

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (but not necessarily published) in 2017. Click the titles for links to full reviews where applicable. Check back later for my top five non-fiction picks of the year.

The Break

ISBN 978-1-4870-011-7

Cover image for The Break by Katherena VermetteI first read Katherena Vermette’s novel earlier this year as part of Canada Reads Along 2017. The Break is the heart-wrenching story of a community that has been repeatedly torn apart by violence, as Winnipeg’s indigenous population struggles with the lingering effects of colonization. Through the skillful use of multiple narrative perspectives, Vermette illustrates how trauma accumulates and cascades down through the generations, becoming compounded as those who have been hurt try to raise the next generation of children. When a young indigenous woman is attacked on Winnipeg’s troubled North side, her family gathers around her hospital bed. Four generations of women close ranks, belatedly trying to protect their victimized relative. However, as they struggle to understand what has happened, the spectres of their own traumatic pasts begin to rise, demanding to be acknowledged at last. US readers, this book is coming your way March 6, 2018 from House of Anansi Press.

Categories: Canadian

The Hate U Give

Cover image for The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasThe Hate U Give is a brutal coming-of-age story about the harsh realities that face young black men and women in America. Starr Carter is a girl with a foot in two worlds. By day, she attends Williamson, a suburban prep school where she is one of only two black students in her year. In the evening, she goes home to Garden Heights, the city’s poor, black neighbourhood, where she has lived all her life. She is one person at home and another person at school, because she can’t be too “bougie” in the neighbourhood, or too “ghetto” at school. But the wall she has carefully built between her two selves begins to crumble when she is the only witness to a police officer shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil. Thomas’ debut novel is fundamentally about identity, and Starr’s struggle to bring the two halves of herself together. But it is also about families, communities, and building relationships. The strength of this narrative is in the way it balances the hard topics—racism, police violence, gangs, drugs—with themes of family, friendship, justice, and love.

Categories: Young Adult


ISBN 978-0-06-282133-1

Cover image for Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Chris RiddellI’ve owned a copy of this novel for some time without getting around to reading it, but this fall the kind folks at HarperCollins sent me a copy of a new edition illustrated by frequent Gaiman collaborator Chris Riddell (see also The Sleeper and the Spindle). The new edition contains the author’s lightly edited preferred text, and is newly illustrated for the book’s twentieth anniversary. It also appends the short story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back.”  Richard Mayhew is an entirely ordinary London businessman, whose spur of the moment decision to help a young girl in need causes him to slide through the cracks of reality, and into the dark realm of London-Below. But to be honest, Richard Mayhew is the least interesting or memorable part of Neverwhere. He is merely the reader’s access point to a uniquely atmospheric world just sideways from our own. Door is the last scion on a Neverwhere family endowed with unique abilities, and some of the residents of London’s underworld will stop at nothing to catch her and take advantage of her powers. Full of memorable villains, and unusual allies, I can’t believe I waited this long to read Gaiman’s earliest solo novel, but Riddell’s illustrations made it well worth the wait!

Categories: Fantasy

The Jane Austen Project

Cover image for The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn When Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane arrive in England in 1815, it is by unusual means, and with an even more unusual mission. Sent back in time from a somewhat dystopian near-future, they are charged with identifying the cause of Jane Austen’s untimely demise in 1817 at the young age of 41, and with recovering and bringing back her lost manuscript of The Watsons, as well as her letters to her sister Cassandra. This top-secret mission is known as The Jane Austen Project, and it has one very important rule; they must change the future as little as possible while achieving their objectives, or risk being stranded in Regency England forever. With this highly unusual premise, copy editor and ardent Austenite Kathleen A. Flynn has captured something of Austen’s tone and pacing, without trying to entirely mimic her style. The suspense of the narrative caught me by surprise, and I found myself barely able to put this novel down. This was in spite of the fact that there is a fair bit of set up involved in getting two people believably situated upper-class residents of 1815 London, and then into Austen’s family circle. Rachel is in the unenviable position of flirting with Henry Austen, while also getting to know her partner Liam, who is—awkwardly—posing as her brother for the purposes of the trip. Highly recommended for fans of time travel fiction that is more about the destination than the science of such an endeavour.

Categories: Science Fiction

City of Brass

Cover image for City of Brass by S. A. ChakrabortyDespite her abilities as healer, plying her con on the streets of French-occupied Cairo, Nahri has never really believed in magic. But when she stages an exorcism for a disturbed child, she accidentally summons a djinn who claims that she is that last descendant of the Nahids, the former rulers of the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. With murderous ifrits close on their heels, Dara vows to return Nahri to the home of her ancestors. But far from offering safety, Daevabad is a nest of politics that put the streets of Cairo to shame. While Nahri is a canny operator, she is naïve to the rules and traditions of her ancestors. The stand out feature of this novel is the complex dynamic S.A. Chakraborty has created between the different magical beings of this world, and even within the ranks and classes of the djinn themselves. In particular, the shafit—part human djinn—are an underclass poised on the edge of revolt. City of Brass was an utterly gripping novel from start to finish, but the last few pages introduced several plot twists that have me waiting with great impatience for The Kingdom of Copper to be released in 2018. Thanks to the fine folks at Harper Voyager, who provided me with an advance copy of this novel!

Categories: Fantasy

Honourable mentions also go out to Leigh Bardugo and Gail Carriger, as I finished reading series of theirs that I started last year. I utterly enjoyed both Crooked Kingdom, and The Parasol Protectorate, but as I’ve named books from those worlds to my top five in previous years, I decided to present a more varied list for those looking for my Top Picks. That’s it for fiction for 2017. Check back later for my non-fiction list!

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover image for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thienby Madeleine Thien

ISBN 9780345810427

“It was very modern and deeply Western to listen to music that no one else could hear. Private music led to private thoughts. Private thoughts led to private desires, to private fulfillments or private hungers, to a whole private universe away from parents, family and society.”

In the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli enjoy a relatively sheltered existence at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where Sparrow is permitted to teach, and his niece Zhuli is permitted to study, despite the fact that Zhuli’s parents have been designated “class enemies.” But soon the forces growing against Westernization and bourgeois occupations like musicianship will overrun the Conservatory as well. In the present day, Marie travels from Vancouver to Hong Kong to try to uncover the details of her father’s mysterious suicide there two decades earlier, and to perhaps find out what has become of Ai-Ming, the Chinese student she and her mother took in during the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square student protests. The two timelines spiral together, uncovering family secrets, and decades of contested Chinese revolutionary history.

Although Madeline Thien’s novel follows two timelines, one bears significantly more weight than the other. The past reverberates into the present, and echoes there, but the present otherwise feels much less significant to Thien’s story than the past. Marie’s first person sections feel rougher and more abrupt, less fluid and polished, less immersive than the third person narrative of the past. She seems more important as a witness to history than as a protagonist in her own right. Her mother, Kai’s wife, has no name of her own, and no backstory. The heart of the tale rests with Sparrow, and Kai, and the results of their choices, their actions, and their failures to act. What will they do to survive the revolution, and what sacrifices will they make in its name?

The novel asks many questions, among them, how does one communicate authentically when everyone is regurgitating slogans and reciting platitudes to protect themselves and their families? In Canada, Marie’s mother cannot even read a letter she receives from China without a dictionary, because she does not know the simplified written Chinese mandated by the state. Do Not Say We Have Nothing offers many alternate forms of communication, from music, to mathematics, to encoded stories, and secret records not written by the victors. However, the Chinese speakers in my book club noted that Thien’s grasp of Chinese was rudimentary, and her use of it often incorrect. The alternate forms of communication become acts of resistance, such as the copying and distribution of illicit literature, or transcribing Western music into jianpu notation to make it more accessible to a Chinese audience. Music itself becomes a loaded form of expression, because it is open to interpretation. The same piece of music can be seen as a revolutionary anthem, or a ballad for those lost in the fighting. In this way, Thien’s fictional composer Sparrow echoes the real Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was repeatedly denounced and then redeemed during various waves of the Russian revolution. Several such pieces of music are referenced repeatedly, and Glenn Gould’s performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations become the soundtrack of the story, which circles back on itself in the same way. History repeats, varies, but never fundamentally changes.

The question of how history is recorded and remembered is also fundamental to Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The Book of Records, passed down through generations and families from one steward to the next, both predates and reflects the reality that Marie is slowly uncovering as she delves into her father’s past. The protagonists of The Book of Records find themselves exiled and wandering in the desert, a fate that will eventually befall Zhuli’s parents, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer. Meanwhile, the heroine, May Fourth, takes her name from the early twentieth century movement in China that opposed Japanese encroachment into Chinese territory, a part of history almost forgotten by the characters, and largely unmentioned in the story, but which lives on in the copied and recopied page of the book.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is slowly paced, and the level of interest was inconsistent between sections. I was also disappointed to learn that neither Thien nor her publisher took the time to ensure that her use of Chinese was correct. However the novel is an interesting portrait of how different characters react to the curtailment of free speech and creative expression under a repressive regime, and asks interesting questions about how we record and remember history.