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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.

Not the bucket reading list

A few years ago I’d never heard of the bucket list. And then when I did hear the term, I was mystified. Why would anyone need a list to go and buy a bucket ? Surely its easy to remember just one item on your shopping list? Or was it a way some people used to control their purchasing habits – they could buy only what could fit into a bucket? It wasn’t until the film The Bucket List came out that I got the ah ha moment. Now I see these lists everywhere. For biblioholics, the Bucket List often involves delving into the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list .

I’m taking the road less travelled with a Not the Bucket List reading list. The five classic books I never want to read. No matter how much you tell me how wonderful they are. No matter that they are all on this 1001 Books List. They are just not for me. You may detect some patterns in my choices.


The Master and Margerita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Book  number 609 on the 1001 list is one I had on my ‘to read’ list for years. But felt I needed to do some warm up with other Russian authors before tackling this big one.  It wasn’t until last year when I read Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, that I realised Bulgakov’s novel contained elements that I find deeply off-putting in a novel.  The fact The Master and Margerita concerns a visit by the devil to the Soviet Union was a big red flag since I struggle with mythical, unreal characters usually. Worse was to come. One  character is a mysterious “magician”; another learns to fly and somehow, don’t ask me how, Pontius Pilate gets in on the act. This recipe had far too many elements I don’t like and I can imagine I would read it with teeth clenched, just waiting for the moment when the ordeal was over. Not what you want to spend your twilight years doing.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville 

Yes I know this is considered a Great American classic but this is 700 pages about an obsession with a whale. Where’s the fun in that?  I imagine there are plenty of dramatic moments but when I’ve peaked into this tome in the bookshop all I seem to find are lengthy descriptions of the natural history of the whale, how they move; what they eat; how to hunt and kill them and then extract the oil.  If I was that interested I’d just go and find a natural history book wouldn’t I? Seems to me that Mr Melville is one of those authors who does extensive research and then absolutely cannot resist showing off about it but including every last fact and piece of info in his book. The best part of this book is the opening sentence “Call me Ishmael.” (It’s fun to think how, by meddling with the punctuation, you could get a totally different meaning from just three words).

Lord of the Rings by J R.R Tolkien

My dislike of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit has endured for decades. It dates from my time at university where a sizeable number of friends became totally enamoured of these books and, it seemed, could talk of little else. Posters of some of the characters soon replaced those of David Bowie, Led Zepplin etc on bedroom walls. They even started to go to meetings of a newly-formed Tolkien appreciation club. Was I missing something special I wondered. Fifty pages of  The Hobbit was enough to tell me that a gulf had opened between myself and these friends. I found another set who had also formed an aversion to Middle Earth and never went back.

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe 

I made an effort to read this much vaunted example of the Gothic novel, even managing to get half way through the escapades and misadventures of Emily St. Aubert. I think I kept going because there was a promise of a seriously creepy episode in a gloomy castle and a dastardly villein. But it was slow – slow – going because before we got anywhere near the castle we had to endure Emily’s long and meandering journey in a mountainous region of France. And after all that the episodes at the remote castle of Udolpho, failed to live up to their promise. I abandoned the book and don’t plan to pay a return visit.

Hitchhikers’ Guide to the GalaxyDouglas Adams

Book number 718 on the 1001 Books list is another ‘cult’ from the 1970s that I never latched onto. Didn’t watch the TV series, never listened to the radio program; didn’t go to see the film and have zero interest in reading the book. Why? It’s science fiction which doesn’t get my heart rate going anyway but add to that it’s comedy which is another genre I struggle with. It has to be brilliantly clever humour otherwise I’m not interested.

FrankensteinMary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I have actually read this but only got to the end because it was a set book on a university module. The best part was the scene fairly early on in the novel where Victor Frankenstein sees the result of his labours. Instead of beholding a beautiful creature he is confronted with a monstrous tall figure (hereafter called The Creature) with yellow eyes and skin that barely conceals the muscle tissue and blood vessels underneath. Shelley’s description of this scene is outstanding. Then it all goes downhill and we end up with the Creature and Frankenstein chasing each other around the Continent, Scotland and the North Pole.  Yes there were some moments where we are asked to sympathise with the predicament of this Creature who never asked to be brought into the world and now longs for a mate. But parts of the book are simply ludicrous – we are asked to believe for example that the Creature learns to speak by listening to a family living in the next room of a remote cottage and teaches himself to read after discovering a lost satchel of books. Full marks to Shelley for the idea and for cleverly balancing elements of Gothic and realism but I so wish it had been less silly.


So there you have it. I know some of my choices are ones which some of you might love and even count as your favourites. What would you put on your personal Not the Bucket List, perhaps some of them are ones I love.


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