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Six Degrees of Separation: From China to South Africa

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. As always the books I’ve chosen for my  chain are ones I’ve read though not necessarily reviewed.

Wild SwansThis month we begin with a book that made a huge impression on me Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang which traces three generations through some of the most momentous decades in the history of that country during the twentieth century.  If you’ve ever wanted to understand the human impact of Mao’s cultural revolution, this is an excellent starting point.

Wild Swans is banned in China so I could go down that path for my first link but I’m going to stick with China and the Mao regime.

Mao's Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer is the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a boy who was plucked from a peasant family in rural China to become a trainee ballet dancer in Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy.  He and another student got a a chance to study abroad in America as an exchange student – there he discovered that everything he had been told about America was a lie. The book recounts his desire for freedom and determination to perfect his talent under a regime that did not value individual talent and freedom of experession.

The effects of an oppressive regime on the artistic spirit give me my next link.


Do Not Say We have Nothing by Madeleine Thein (my review is here) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and (in my humble opinion) should have been the winner.  The Booker judges thought otherwise but the novel was critically acclaimed and did pick up a number of other prizes including the Canadian Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards for Fiction.  It’s an astonishingly ambitious novel that covers the Cultural Revolution in China but brings us up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians  whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.  Thein is Canadian yet her fiction predominantly deals with the Asia. Which gives me my next link: authors who write convincingly about other cultures and settings. 


Stef Penny hails from Scotland but she chose the unforgiving landscape of Canada’s Northern Territory for her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves. It’s a historical adventure of murder and abduction set in the 1860s that went on to win the 2006 Costa Book Award. Reviewers and judges remarked on the authentic atmosphere of her novel yet Penney had never set foot in Canada – she was suffering from agoraphobia at the time of writing this novel so did all the research in the libraries of London. The snowy landscape of this novel gives me an obvious next link….

Miss Smilla

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is a 1992 novel by the Danish author Peter Høeg. It’s typically described as a murder mystery and it does indeed feature the murder of a young boy and a quest by Miss Smilla Jaspersen to find the culprit. But it’s also about the legacy of Denmark and its  relationship with its near neighbour Sweden, its native Inuit people and about the different kinds of snow. Smilla’s father is a famous Danish doctor, but her mother was a Greenlander; hence her feeling for snow.  During the course of the novel we are introduced to many native terms used to distinguish big flakes from frozen drifts and experience the beauty of the landscape.

The concluding chapters of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow sees  Smilla travel through the Arctic ice in search of the truth, a journey which links me to a novel written by an author born 220 years ago this week.


Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale Frankenstein is a novel I dislike intensely. I find most of it so highly improbable as to be unreadable. It does have two really stand-out episodes however. One is the scene where the Creature manufactured by the scientist Victor Frankenstein is first revealed – it’s a hideous figure with yellow eyes and skin that barely conceals the muscle tissue and blood vessels underneath. The second is when Frankenstein tracks his creation to the North Pole and pursues him with a dogsled with the intent of revenging the murder of his bride.

Revenge and experimentation give me my sixth and final link.

The Monster’s Daughter is a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius set in South Africa. (my review is here). It begins during the time of the Boer War when a doctor in a British concentration camp begins conducting genetic experiments on female prisoners. Two children survive as freaks of nature. The novel then follows their lives through the period of apartheid rule and into the new South Africa.

And now I’ve realised that unintentionally my chain began and ended with books that feature oppressive regimes yet we’ve travelled many thousands of miles from China, to Canada, the Arctic and South Africa.

Update September 5 : I corrected the text based on Marit’s comment.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

18 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From China to South Africa

  • Fun idea to do the bookish six degrees of separation! I was struck by your mention of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and had to look up if that was just a different translation of the title I know as Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I believe it is?

    • Yes, it is the same book – for some reason the title was translated in more than one way. No idea why

  • I really like Frankenstein, I’ve read it a few times, but indeed for me too, hands down, the best part is the North Pole, I wish there was more of it, it’s such a bleak and apt way to create the feeling of extreme lengths and limits reached.

    • The part that I really couldn’t take was when the creature is holed up in the cottage and supposedly learns to speak by listening g to the conversation next door through a hole in the wall.

  • All of these look great. Haven’t read any of them but I am looking forward to eventually picking up Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

  • I wasn’t intentionally being insulting. It’s many years since I read this book so my memory is a little hazy on the detail but I see that I should have written Greenland not Sweden. Thanks for the correction.

  • I loved Tenderness of Wolves and am surprised that the athmosphere was found in a library 😆. I haven’t read Miss Smilla for many years, but to name Denmark as a colony of Sweden is rather insulting 🐲 Greenland is still a Danish colony, I’m sorry to say. Sweden has nothing to do in this book, as far as I remember

  • Fascinating chain – and I like your wandering through frozen climes (I’m attracted to them in theory, perhaps not so much in practice).

    • I like the idea of being snuggled up somewhere and looking out onto pretty snowy scenery but I’m very also much a warm climate person in practice.

  • Great chain.

    Thien’s book is in my TBR stack (probably prompted by your review?!). I loved Mao’s Last Dancer and it’s a book I’ve recommended to a few people although they haven’t loved it as much as me – not sure why!

    • I recommended Mao’s Last Dancer to a few people too and most of them enjoyed it

  • Great chain. The Tenderness of Wolves is one of my favourite books. I also enjoyed Smilla and Franke stein. The Chinese books sounds interesting, but I have only read Wild Swans.

    • Mao’s Last Dancer is an easy read in the sense it doesn’t go into a lot of details about politics etc. So might be one to try

  • Enjoyed your chain Karen – and I’ve even read a few of the books – Mao’s last dancer, The tenderness of wolves, and Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow. I should read Frankenstein but I haven’t!

    • Thanks – this one just seemed to come together fairly easily when others I struggle with half way through


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