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Xiaolu Guo – A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers

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Learning and living.

Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Pages: 356
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-50147-3
First Published: 27th February 2007
Date Reviewed: 23rd June 2016
Rating: 3/5

Zhuang Xiao Qiu has come to England to learn English so she can have a better career in China. Early on she meets a British man at the cinema and they quickly become lovers. He’s twenty years older than her and, as she comes to realise, very different in personality, but she loves him. And with her ever improving language skills she hopes it will all work out.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers is a pretty easy-going book about cultural and personal differences that hold sway over even the hottest sexual chemistry (though not all of it’s graphic; I’m saying it to allude to the slightly humorous nature of the book). Told in a broken English that begins with little knowledge of the language and slowly improves over the course of the novel until it’s edging towards fluent, it’s quite a lovely book even if it’s far from perfect.

In regards to the language, obviously it is part of the whole concept. Guo wants to show not only the literal improvement of someone with only a basic knowledge when they first land in England but also how much can be conveyed no matter the speech, and this works. Granted, in choosing this book you have to be happy to read a whole novel in this broken language, but there is much to like about it. The chapters are driven by dictionary definitions, each chapter revolving around the aspects and real-life examples of a word definition. There are also a few pictures, mostly basic maps, and the passing of time is marked in months, episodes segregated by the months they occur.

One of the best things about Guo’s development of the story as a whole is the way you get a very clear picture of Xiao Qiu’s lover no matter her terminology. Guo succeeds in fleshing out the nameless male main character without our ever hearing from him directly (we only hear of him through Xiao Qiu and through a couple of letters he writes to her), and whilst some of his characteristics elude Xiao Qiu for some time, you as the reader cotton on to him pretty quickly. You see the drifter in him, the non-commitment that he tries to explain to Xiao Qiu but fails to do so well enough for her to truly understand (and that’s not to do with her English but to do with his dithering). On the other hand, this man seems to be unaware that he may feel more than he says, more, even, than he realises, and so at times the novel is quite powerful emotionally.

At the same time, Xiao Qiu is rendered rather stereotypically and with a strong focus on sex. I’ve noticed this about Guo, that she spends a lot of time, needlessly, on sexual subjects and it’s the case here, too (hours spent at a peep show, for example). It means that, because Xiao Qiu is understandably meant to be, at least somewhat, a reflection of a Chinese immigrant, that reflection comes off badly. Doubtless most people will recognise that she isn’t representative of Chinese women except in the ‘proper’ sections on culture (as in the sections where she speaks of things that are more a true representation of a Chinese woman’s thoughts) but this doesn’t change the confusion – why did Guo write Xiao Qiu this way? Especially as Guo moved to Britain from China herself? (And we could also question the way Xiao Qiu moves in with her lover soon after meeting him when we’ve been informed of how traditional her mother is and, later, that Xiao Qiu wants the married-with-house-and-children life herself.)

To reference a later book of Guo’s that I’m including because I read it first, there is the same plot detouring here as there is in I Am China, but its impact is not as overwhelming on the story. Xiao Qiu goes off to travel for a few months and it’s just a series of train journeys and meet and greets with a particularly negative ratio of creepy strangers to caring strangers that doesn’t advance the plot and, despite Guo’s suggestions to the contrary, doesn’t contribute to character development either. But as soon as Xiao Qiu is back in Britain the story picks up again.

There is some commentary on Communism here, as well as Mao’s era and the distinct differences between British and Chinese culture. A good half of Xiao Qiu’s relationship with her lover is composed of conflicts caused by both parties’ relative inability to accept the other’s cultural differences, and this is where the showing of both personalities is most prevalent. You as the reader can see where Xiao Qiu has made a relationship with someone who is not a good fit – and that’s without any of the cultural differences – and where both could do with better communication of the sort that is not down to language.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers isn’t perfect. There’s the filler section, the gratuitous references to sex and the plot that’s not particularly compelling – a fact that manages to slip under your radar at times due to the language, a fact that may or may not be considered convenient. But it’s a nice read, it’s got a lovely literary fiction aspect to it that can be enjoyed by both lovers of the genre and those who don’t tend to like it, and it makes you look at situations in a particular way. Those who have learned English as a second language may relate directly to some of Xiao Qiu’s frustrations and those who haven’t will appreciate what Guo is trying to do.

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Marie Sizun – Her Father’s Daughter

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Don’t tell children only half the secret.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 144
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67028-1
First Published: 2005; 13th June 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 9th June 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: French
Original title: Le Père de la Petite (The Father Of The Little)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Her Father’s Daughter is a superb book about something that doesn’t often get thought of when we talk about war – the effect of a soldier’s homecoming on his very young children. It’s also a study in how war messes with the emotions of those back home, and in this case the damning effects that can have.

Sizun writes in the third person from the perspective of the child. France, the girl at hand whose show-of-patriotism name is rarely used, is at once spoiled, kind, and almost precocious. The author brilliantly shows how, for example, a child may be annoying but not at fault – we all know this, that children do not understand subtleties especially when adults don’t answer their questions comprehensively, but it’s how Sizun goes about her detailing, putting the point out there in an ironically comprehensive way.

The book studies the change when France’s father returns, after which she’s no longer the only person in her mother’s life and no longer possesses her.

‘When your poor little daddy comes home’… Off hand. Just like that. […] But right there, in what her mother said, in those words, something loomed before her, something quite new. Something that intruded into the intimate, familiar world of the kitchen. Something the child perceives as a threat. When. Come home.

This is where Sizun addresses the breach: to the mother, everything will right itself and life will be good again but to France a stranger is set to arrive, a man whose role she has no concept of. She doesn’t know a father is like a mother and the photograph of him in the apartment has no meaning for her. She’s resentful, sees disruption ahead in the life she likes. Her mother has spoiled her to the point of madness, letting her draw on the wall, sing loudly inside, even letting her pick her (the mother’s) outfits. We can assume the mother does this out of sadness and, on some level, guilt.

What is a father? The notion of fatherhood is beyond the child… Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal or not very kind.

In Sizun’s child-sized detailing we can read between the lines – we can tell what this big ‘secret’ of the mother’s is, where the ‘baby’ has gone. Sizun shows how important it is to tell a child the why instead of just telling them it was a dream.

When the father comes home the parents don’t perform a proper introduction, instead they push a kiss on a child from a stranger. The father is strict – he doesn’t like the drawing and singing – and it’s a while before France sees his fatherly side, Sizun demonstrating what happens when there are different parenting styles with the addition of having to adapt to life after living in a prisoner of war camp. The father does not represent all fathers of his situation – the author also shows a man who has come home in good spirits, a neighbour with a daughter France’s age. And some of the changes France must make are due to the time period – seen but not heard.

As her father starts to treat her with kindness she turns against her mother. Does the mother use poor discipline as a weapon, as a way of having control in spite of her own mother’s words? Is it down to the guilt she feels over her illicit situation? The mother is an ambiguity; Sizun leaves her open for your interpretation.

Her Father’s Daughter is downright splendid. It tells an unfamiliar tale in a particularly affecting way and succeeds at making you question a child’s actions in a child’s context because you’re never out of her head. Whilst translated (Adriana Hunter is on top form) the word choice is everything, the length of the sentences key. This is a World War II book you don’t want to miss; and it’s in the top tier of Peirene Press’s acquisitions.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Marie-Sabine Roger – Soft In The Head

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But now getting better and better.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 210
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27204-5
First Published: 2008; 9th June 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: French
Original title: La Tête En Friche (Fallow-Headed – as in a field in fallow)
Translated by: Frank Wynne

Walking in the park one day, Germain sees an old woman spending time with the birds he likes to count. He’s semi-illiterate, had a neglected upbringing, and doesn’t consider himself worth much, whereas Marguerrite has been through university and worked in science; the unlikely pair begin a friendship based on their mutual interest in the park’s birds, and Marguerrite’s wish to read aloud. Slowly Germain finds himself changing.

“Well, well. Germain sitting at a bar? Now, there’s a coincidence!”
I used to think it was his way of saying, Hi, nice to see you. But, no, apparently, it meant he thought I was a pathetic drunk clinging to the bar like a limpet to a rock.

Soft In The Head is a stunning book that’s comprised of so much more than its thinness suggests. It was first written in French and adapted for the big screen, and now it’s been translated into English.

Perhaps the most important factor, at least initially: the translated text is superb. Wynne has transposed the French into the English equivalent, for example he’s used swear words and distinctively British terms, such as ‘chav’ (I’ve no idea what the French equivalent is or if there is one, but know the Australian is ‘bogun’) so that you get a picture of Germain from the first. What Wynne has effectively done is take the book and give it an English flavour meaning that the intended English-speaking market will understand the book more than they might have if it was a straight translation. In other cases you might feel a bit duped but here it just makes sense and the book is incredibly readable. It means that all the showing, rather than telling, Rogers has done, is carried over – the atmosphere and feel of the book. Despite the fact you can tell it’s a translation (the French names contrasted to British terms kind of make this obvious) you can see Roger’s text underneath. She was writing for her students and thus the translation matches this sort of concept of youthful phrasing and unimpeded speech. You can see the teacher’s mind in this book.

This book is a page-turner. It’s full of literary references and humour and observations and a beautiful admiration, a platonic love of sorts. Whilst we never get to hear from Marguerrite as a narrator, Roger has ensured we know enough about her – Germain may spend more of his time on himself but Marguerrite, as the driving force, gets a lot of time.

Words are boxes that we use to store thoughts the better to present them to others. Show them to their best advantage. For example, on days when you just feel like kicking anything that moves, you can just sulk. Problem is, people might think you’re ill, or depressed. whereas if you just say out loud: Don’t piss me around, I’m really not in the mood today! It avoids all sorts of confusion.

The beauty of the book lies in what is shown, in the way that Germain starts out believing he’s not worth much of anything, swearing a lot, using simple terms peppered with words he’s learned from the dictionary (he includes the definitions), and as the novel progresses the reader sees him become more educated, intellectual – he starts to use these words he’s learning from his time with Marguerrite, sees the conflict (that seems more an anxiety on his part than a reality) that occurs when his friends think he’s getting too ahead of himself, and sees if not a completely different future then at least a happy one. He comes to view love differently, see more to the world, and so forth. He comments on this change from time to time, as he does the learning, but it’s in the subtext and what is shown through the words themselves that the reader will discover just how much he’s achieved.

A book about books, this novel is delightfully satisfying. Marguerrite and Germain read Camus and a couple of other authors (who aren’t as well-known). They discuss the text mostly by way of Germain’s understanding; Germain, knowing more than he realises, brings in different interpretations. Marguerrite teaches him by example; it’s a friendship of equals.

By now it should be obvious – there’s a thread of the thought of tolerance in this book. It’s not a theme, more that Roger promotes tolerance towards others, in this case someone who hasn’t had the privilege of growing up book-rich, who has never set foot in a library. Germain may seem stupid but how much of that is actually true and how much does that thought depend on his own view of himself?

It’s hard to say exactly how wonderful and well-written Soft In The Head is without quoting a swath of text. Suffice to say if you like reading about reading and if you’ve even the slightest interest in education and educational access issues, you will very likely appreciate this novel.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Eloisa James – When The Duke Returns

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When baring your knees would result in people thinking you were Tarzan.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: ???
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-24560-2
First Published: 25th November 2008
Date Reviewed: 14th October 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

…So the Duke of Cosway turned up to Lord Strange’s party and bundled Isidore away. Now he’s back, however, and looking worse for wear with his un-Georgian way of dressing and general indifference to social mores, Isidore’s not sure she wants him. Simeon agrees with her that an annulment is best, but there are things to see to in the meantime, namely the stench in his house due to his parents’ lack of care. As Isidore comes to see, Simeon’s not bad looking for his lack of wigs and hair powder, and as Simeon comes to see, Isidore may not be the docile wife he was expecting but he likes her all the same.

When The Duke Returns is the fourth book in James’ Desperate Duchesses series and continues straight on from the previous, Duchess By Night.

This is a good book, on par with the rest if not the best, pardon the rhyme, though it isn’t quite as funny. After a while of thinking I realised it’s meant to be funny, but the subplot of the sewage pipes leaking all over the house leans more on the side of icky. It’s true the start of this series saw cow pat discus, but that was simply silly and not so literally wretched.

The characters, however, are fair as I’ll be repeating later on. Isidore is a fun heroine if misguided and silly, and Simeon, whose first name I’m using regardless of the fact his society says it’s not correct, is a breath of fresh air, somewhat literally, in a world where all heroes up to now have been clad in breeches. His liking for simple clothes means he’s a bit more modern and understandable in the context of our present day. The rest of the characters, the heroes and heroines of the other books ensure we’ve something of a soap opera on our hands and round it off with a wig on top. (The secondary plot here, the lead-in for book five, is Jemma and Elijah. As such there is quite a bit of time spent on them and sidekick Villiers.) The servants also get their time, in particular butler Honeydew whose not-quite-subtle attempt to get his master and mistress sharing a bed affords a smile.

I’d like to address the views of Buddhism and the ‘exotic’ here as I expect some will wonder about what reads as offensive – James writes in context, placing the sorts of views people had in the 1700s into her fiction so the characters are racist and prejudice on occasion as befits their period.

The relationship is average but the sex scenes are well written – comparable to the previous book. The writing on the whole is excellent, a couple of info-dumps aside, and as always you can trust that most of the background context is factual with some artistic license thrown in for good comedic measure.

But the pattern established early on in the series is very noticeable here. Indeed the characters leap off the page, the sex occurs after a fair period of courting, the history is good to read and the books are hilariously funny – but all stories suffer from a lack of conflict when it comes to the conflict – a conflict-less conflict, if you will. The couples argue over… well, this is my point. They argue over nothing at all really, and it’s most pronounced here in When The Duke Returns. Isidore is angry because she wants more say, Simeon changes from being pretty free and easy to wanting some control in domestic affairs, but neither convinces. Yes, they clash a bit and get angry over things as every couple does, but the question of divorce seems more an author convenience, a ploy to keep the book going. They have sex, say it’s not working, talk of divorce, and the cycle begins again.

Ultimately the book is a good read with a pinch of ‘get to the point already’ where the previously fun Isidore becomes annoying and the previously interesting Simeon becomes insipid. The ending is fun but too silly and wrapped up as quickly as Simeon gets wrapped up in Isidore’s skirts.

When The Duke Returns is an okay addition to the series and the sex is certainly steamy, but the format is wearing.

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Gøhril Gabrielsen – The Looking-Glass Sisters

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The way it is, if it really is.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 175
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67024-3
First Published: 2008
Date Reviewed: 9th September 2015
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Svimlende Muligheter, Ingen Frykt (Staggering Opportunities, No Fear)
Translated by: John Irons

The narrator of our tale is in the attic; presumably she’s locked in. Through the window she can see her sister, Ragna, and Ragna’s husband digging by a tree. It’s always been like this; our narrator struggles to gain recognition, Ragna’s attention and favour.

The Looking-Glass Sisters is a tale of love, worry, mental and physical health and unreliable narrators. A simple plot with a complex background, it studies the affects desire for love and companionship, accompanied with a lack of understanding and knowledge, can have on situations.

From the reader’s point of view, this book is about the narrator’s ability to relate events reliably. The set-up can be linked to the idea of the mad woman in the attic – in fact one of my own thoughts, whilst trying to root around in all the bits and pieces provided, was whether Gabrielsen was evoking Jane Eyre. This may sound odd, especially considering I don’t believe she is, but this is a point I’d like to make – The Looking-Glass Sisters presents an unstable mind and asks you to work out what is happening, what is true and what is false; the crucial element of Gabrielsen’s – the condition of the narrator – is only ever hinted at; the physical is easier to work out but you realise there is some mental instability, too. This means that there is a lot you can state about this book without knowing whether you’re near the truth and what’s so great about this is that it’s not frustrating; your interpretation, what you yourself bring to the table, is of great value. You’ve a guiding hand but in many ways, in most ways, this book will be exactly what you make it. (It’d make an excellent book club choice.)

The narrator presents herself – physically disabled (of that there is little argument) and the bane of her sister’s life. She knows she is a burden and wishes it were different, wishes Ragna gave her more time, supported her better. Shown through the text is the unrequited love of the narrator for Ragna; it’s not simply that she wants attention, it’s that she needs love.

This is how the reading goes for a time until the narrator starts to provide snippets of conversations that read as true – and they don’t conform to what she’s said in the past. Suddenly you’re presented with a different concept, that perhaps Ragna does care about the narrator and the narrator is being difficult. Perhaps it’s not that the narrator is unloved, it’s that she creates problems herself.

Again, it’s not so simple. It could be unrequited love, it could be the miscommunication, misunderstanding between two sisters who do love each other, or it could be that the narrator is unreliable due to her mental state. It could be a case of being unable to let go of past misfortunes and arguments instead of moving on. Gabrielsen has a firm hand on the story’s progression, teasing out the details so you have ample time to consider each possibility before moving on to the next. And each time that ‘next’ isn’t just a new possibility, it’s the evolution of the previous – that is to say, there’s a bit of every possibility in the whole and life is always moving forward.

It’s hard to say for certain what happens, what has happened and will happen. It’s hard to say exactly who the characters are, to come to a conclusion as to whether Ragna’s husband is someone she loves, someone whose thumb she resides under, or someone simply who’s frustrated, actually cruel. It’s hard to assign ages to the characters insofar as how they come across (their actual ages are suggested). And it’s hard to place a label on the narrator, to know who she is and what is going on with her – perhaps this is the point. This is her truth and it shouldn’t just be ignored, covered by small smiles and patronisation. Is she even alive at this point? Are there even two sisters?

In picking up this book you have to be prepared for an entire book’s worth of ambiguity – it rules here but the book would not be the same without it. It’s the lack of answers that make this novella what it is, that naturally extends the time you’ll spend thinking about it.

The Looking-Glass Sisters is an extremely slow burner, different, beautifully restrained, and full of ideas and thoughts to ponder over. You’ll want to give it your full attention and perhaps have a pencil handy which you might then offer to the narrator because she has much time to write and little in the way of tools.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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