Posts Tagged With: author

Shenzhen; A travelogue from China – Guy Delisle

Jonathan Cape, London; 2006

ISBN – 978-0-224-07991-4


The inside sleeve: 


‘Guy Delisle’s work for a French animation studio requires him to oversee production at various Asian studios on the grim frontiers of free trade.  His employer puts him up for months at a time in ‘cold and soulless’ hotel rooms where he suffers the usual deprivations of a man very far from home.  After Pyongyang, his book about the strange society that is North Korea, Delisle has turned his attention to Shenzhen, the cold, urban city in Southern China that is sealed off with electric fences and armed guards from the rest of the country.  The result is another brilliant graphic novel – funny, scary, utterly original and illuminating.’


Guy Delisle finds himself in an unusual position to spend time in a relatively unknown corner of the world; Shenzhen, a city north of Hong Kong.  He documents the three months he is there in striking sketches and many captivating insights held within the pages of Shenzhen, A travelogue from China.  Delisle’s easy style brings you instantly into his world; in a mere six panels and three lines of text you are transported to China, experiencing the sights and the smells as though you had been there yourself. 


Delisle’s time in China was not altogether happy; he went through great loneliness and times of boredom, predominately borne out of the lack of a common language with the populous.  These experiences however are still interesting to read about.  I found it quite intriguing how he chose to occupy his mind in the absence of companionship; from talking to himself to seeking company in language students who can barely put two English words together.  Not to mention how he coped with navigating basic requirements such as what to eat, without the privilege of reading the menu or talking to the waiter.  I’m not so sure how I would have survived in the same situation. 


On top of his personal challenges, the book offers some wonderful insights into Chinese culture.  It is the subtle differences between the people of the World that I am most interested in and he captures these beautifully.  The differences in infrastructure, freedom of movement from place to place and of day to day living are also explored.  Should I ever travel to China I now feel a little more prepared for the culture shock that awaits.  His later novel, Pyongyang, offers more in the way of cultural and political insight, but I personally feel that this is predominately due to the unique obscurity of North Korea.  Shenzhen is a lovely book to own, and I will dip into it often on my armchair travels.    


Favourite Quotes:


“Dog isn’t bad.  It tastes gamey, a bit like mutton.”


“There are days when I don’t say a single word.”


“Across the way, people slave through the night, squatting over washbasins.  Weeks later, I realise it’s the hotel laundry service.”

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The Fiction Class (Loving books and falling in love, Manhattan style) by Susan Breen


‘You’ve known there was something special about you for a long time, haven’t you?’

On paper, Arabella Hicks is perfectly qualified to teach a creative writing class on the Upper  West Side; as well as being an author herself, she loves fiction, more than anything in the world.

‘You still feel something every time you pick up a book; you still connect to characters in ways you’ve never connected to people you actually know, and you know you’re more than you appear to be. You have to give it one more shot; you have to see if you can be a writer.

But neither her own novel, nor her life are working out quite as she planned, and she is beginning to wonder whether this year’s students will be just as bad, mad and complicated as all the others; whether, as she fears, real life will never be as enjoyable as a really good novel

She is wrong.


This debut novel by fiction teacher Susan Breen is different from most romantic novels, in that it attempts to enlighten the reader by showing the world of the author. In itself that is perhaps not earth-shattering, but when your world is all about books and writing, it is something different to the average reader. However, that said, (and ‘different’ is good), it may be one of the downfalls of the book. I am not sure how many readers would be interested in a writing class, and the exercises that go with it. At the end of each chapter covering the evening class, Ms Breen writes down the homework, and the reader, if interested, can make use of this. A good idea for aspiring writers, but I am not convinced that the avid romance reader will be impressed.
The book has several themes, notably disability and illness and the caring responsibilities attached to this situation: then there is the difficult relationship between mother and daughter; impending death; the romance; writing; the growth of the protagonist’s self-awareness and confidence, and faith – a steady thread throughout the book, which in a way is the glue that holds it together.

Initially I had problems with the characters. The main character, Arabella, didn’t come alive for me until well into the second half of the book. I am not sure why she remained transparent, but she wasn’t real for me.  Once fleshed out and more believable, she stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the book. Her mother, Vera Hicks, was the only character who seemed believable. I’m not sure why. Whereas Arabella was a little too ‘goody-goody’, her mother was nasty, cruel and unfeeling, yet you felt sorry for her and could relate to how you thought she might be feeling, given her past life. Arabella was a bit like a character from  an historical romance, a young woman from the Regency period perhaps, demure and sweet, and in the background. She was, after all, named after a character (and book) written by the romantic novelist Georgette Heyer, so perhaps this was deliberate on the part of the author, and in true Jane Austen style, we see the awakening and strenghening of the female protagonist’s character as the story progresses. I read Georgette Heyer in my teens and am now going to re-read her, having had my memory jogged! The other characters, Chuck her patient lover, and her students, were interesting to a degree, but a little clichéd, I felt,  and I found myself confused by the sheer number. I began to mix them up.

I liked the originality of the story, and the boldness of some of the ideas and the questions arising from them, such as the daunting moral dilemma of whether a parent should be sent to a nursing home, or cared for at home, and the contrast between Arabella’s decision to do the latter, whilst her mother had given up her life to care for her husband at home. Arabella’s vague awareness that things are not always as they appear is given a sharp jolt as reality hits hard in some of her students lives. I felt that the reminder about disability became too invasive and whiny. It was in danger of being over stated. It is something I feel strongly about too, having been a carer, but I began to get irritated as I felt that it was used too many times in the book and the impact was lost. However, the idea of a woman’s faith keeping her together (no matter that it was a belief in a miracle) was important, and illustrated Vera’s humanity in a way that contrasted with her daughter’s genuine and gentle honesty, a humanity which could so easily have been her ruin.

I wasn’t sure about the book at first, as the first few chapters were slow and seemed repetitive, and the inclusion of exercises could have put people off. By the end of the book I was convinced that it worked, and was sad to finish it, and the characters did stay with me for a while afterwards which is always a good sign. I noted that there were many parallels between the author and her protagonist, (auto-biographic?) and hope that Arabella’s good fortune will perhaps rub off on her creator’s pen. I would certainly be happy to read any second novel that Ms Breen might produce and wish her well in her writing.

Susan Breen lives in New York with her husband and children and teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan

Susie -Kimmikat

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