Tag Archives: Family

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You*STARRED REVIEW
Celeste Ng’s debut is one of those aching stories about which the reader knows so much more than any of the characters, even as each yearns for the unknowable truth. “Lydia is dead,” the novel opens – blunt, unnerving, devastating.

She’s only 16, the middle of three children of James and Marilyn Lee, a mixed-race couple married years before the ironically named Loving v. Virginia finally invalidated U.S. anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. They’re initially drawn together by their differences: James, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, finishing his Harvard PhD; Marilyn, the only Radcliffe undergraduate determined to become a doctor, a gifted scientist among unbelieving men. When they bury their daughter in 1977, the Lee family – already fragile before the tragedy – implodes. James detaches, Marilyn seeks refuge, brother Nath blames, and youngest Hannah silently watches all. Each will search for a Lydia who doesn’t exist, desperate to parse what happened.

Verdict: Ng constructs a mesmerizing narrative that shrinks enormous issues of race, prejudice, identity, and gender into the miniaturist dynamics of a single family. A breathtaking triumph, reminiscent of prophetic debuts by Ha Jin, Chang-rae Lee, and Chimamanda Adichie, whose first titles matured into spectacular, continuing literary legacies.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, May 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese American, Hapa

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich AsiansSuspend your disbelief before you open this book (or stick in your ears, so energetically read by actor Lynn Chen). You might also consider duct-taping your jaw shut because Manhattan-based Singaporean author Kevin Kwan insists on the veracity of the excesses in his outrageous, hilarious, train-wreck tragic debut novel: “So many aspects of and stories in the book I actually had to tone down!” he told Vanity Fair in an interview last year. “The reality is simply unbelievable. They say truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but there’s such a thing as believability when you’re writing a novel. I did a lot more simplifying and cutting out of the decadence and the excess than I did of adding it on … [My] editor was like No one will believe this. And I would say, But this really happened, and she’d reply It doesn’t matter. You’re going to lose readers because it’s going to seem so unreal that people would spend this much money, or do something this excessive.”

Now that you’ve been duly warned by the author himself, let the way-over-the-top eye-rolling, name-dropping, back-stabbing begin. What could have been just an old-fashioned, simple love story of poor little rich boy falling in love with the wrong (-classed) girl of his dreams, becomes a decadent confection of wealth and overprivilege gone awry.

Nick Young, NYU history professor, is going home to Singapore to be his childhood best friend’s best man. He asks his girlfriend, Rachel Chu – NYU economics professor – to join him. Oh, the implications of such an invitation! His cousin Astrid duly advises him to warn Rachel about their unique family… but, of course, he doesn’t.

Rachel, who endured a peripatetic childhood with a single mother who eventually found stability as a real estate agent in northern California, is naive enough to believe that frequent flyer miles could upgrade the happy couple into a Singapore Airlines suite for their journey east. By the time she lands in Nick’s entitled world (private jets, yachts, islands, couture duds in seven-figure euros, servants given as royal gifts), she’s caught in a viper pit filled with spoiled heiresses and unrepentant social climbers who abuse then dismiss her as unworthy competition for Asia’s most eligible bachelor. Even worse, the young pale in comparison to the craziest rich Asian mothers …

Against such stupefyingly shallow odds, can true love survive?

Regardless of your net worth or specific Asian affiliation, Kwan’s multigenerational saga will have you both cringe-ing and nodding in recognition, not to mention more than the occasional guffaw of shock. While the staggering fortunes represented here are what might appear in The Economist or Forbes, the dysfunctional antics of the immeasurably wealthy become fodder for farcical reality shows and grocery-aisle gossip rags. But, of course, timing is everything … because on beaches, long flights, and weekend veg sessions, Crazy Rich Asians provides just the right disposable distraction.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American, Singaporean, Singaporean American, Southeast Asian

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

Rules of SummerArgh! Here where I’m stuck for another month, three or four inches of snow greeted me this morning (so much for almost May!). But if anyone can convince me summer is coming, that would be the inimitable Shaun Tan. This, his latest title, immediately pulls me into saturated landscapes – just opening the pages releases a waft of mischief and melts my frozen curiosity. I realize that summer in Tan’s native Australia parallels our North American winter (or late spring, in some places, ahem!), but please allow me these few minutes of warm escape …

“This is what I learned last summer: …,” and so the Rules of Summer begins. A pair of brothers wander, hide, explore as if they are the only two humans in their surreal city playground, surrounded by endless possibilities and the most fantastical, whimsical creatures.

“Never leave a red sock on the clothesline,” the text commands. Because, as the mesmerizing picture on the opposite page reveals, that single sock proves to be a siren call which brings a behemoth, angry, red-eyed, red bunny into the back alley while a black bird calmly looks on.

“Never leave the back door open overnight.” Because who knows what sort of ill-behaved guests might move in and what they might do! “Never be late for a parade.” Because what you might miss will never come by again! “Never give your keys to a stranger.” Because in the short time you’re locked out, that stranger will replace you in your very own life! “Never wait for an apology.” Because while you’re trapped in your own dark, glowing anger, even the swirling snow won’t be able cool you down. Luckily, help is on the way …

The younger brother learns (sometimes the hard way), but he also makes mistakes and argues, even rebels and gets banished. Yet he also knows that he can rely on the unbreakable bonds of brotherhood: when he extends his hand, he finds another ready to pull him to safety. The rules may prove to be arbitrary – some might only exist to be broken – but brotherhood remains sacred.”That’s it,” declares the final text as the boys sit watching TV surrounded by reminders of their exciting exploits. At least until the next – and final – wordless page: already the brothers are plotting their next big adventure. Fueled by Tan’s infinite imagination, we’ll be begging to go along …

For more of Tan’s award-winning titles on BookDragon, click here.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Australian

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

Double BindThe title here is your first warning: Oxford Dictionaries describes ‘double bind’ as “[a] situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action.” Think on that, then brace yourself as you open the cover (or hit ‘play’ to allow narrator Susan Denaker to lull you into false complacency): between these pages, you’ll lose all control of what’s real and what’s not.

To tell you too much would be such an injustice, so if you’re already a Chris Bohjalian groupie (my favorite hapa Armenian American writer and general go-to-when-I-need-a-good-story-stuck-in-the-ears), just read it without any further preamble, because that’s always the best way to discover new stories. If this is your first Bohjalian from his 16-thus-far (#17 coming in July), congratulations for picking a mind-blowing powerhouse, so go start already.

If you’re still with me, let’s start with Bohjalian’s opening “Author’s Note” in which he carefully lays out what’s true: the executive director of a Vermont homeless shelter shared with Bohjalian a box of “remarkable” black-and-white photographs taken by a once homeless man, Bob “Soupy” Campbell; both were “mystified” how such an obviously accomplished artist could go from capturing images of celebrities and newsmakers of the 1950s and 1960s to becoming homeless in Vermont. “We tend to stigmatize the homeless and blame them for their plight,” Bohjalian writes. “We are oblivious to the fact that most had lives as serious as our own before everything fell apart.” In deference to Campbell, Bohjalian includes some of his luminous photos throughout this book. He adds, “Obviously, Bobbie Crocker, the homeless photographer in this novel, is fictitious.”

The “Prologue” then begins with grave violence: “Laurel Estabrook was nearly raped the fall of her sophomore year in college.” She was 19, biking on a dirt road not too far from school when two men in a van attacked her. In the midst of this description – unrelenting in careful details – of the most pivotal moment of Laurel’s young life, Bohjalian slips in two unexpected phrases you should not miss on page 3: “George Wilson (shot Jay Gatsby as he floated aimlessly in his swimming pool)” and “…even if she hadn’t grown up in West Egg …” Hold on to those clues …

By prologue’s end, the narrative intentions are set: At 26, Laurel works at a Vermont homeless shelter and is in possession of a box of photographs belonging to 82-year-old Bobbie Crocker, a former shelter resident who has just passed away. The photos fall into three categories: instantly recognizable famous people and places; a girl on a bike on an all-too-familiar dirt road; and scenes from the country club of Laurel’s childhood “once owned by a bootlegger named Gatsby” that include photos of society doyenne Pamela Buchanan Marshfield as a girl with an anonymous young boy about whose identity Laurel instantly “has a hunch.” Laurel must decipher the multi-layered story literally laid out before her, realizing she is somehow implicated.

Puzzled yet? [And no, you don’t need to be a Gatsby aficionado, just know the basic story of invented identities and unattainability. Literary heresy aside, Gatsby bores me, except when Elevator Repair Service performs it as their phenomenal eight-hour stage spectacle renamed Gatz.] Just beware: Don’t get too presumptuous too quickly – even as Bohjalian reveals clues in plain sight, full understanding probably won’t come until you go back and reread. Reality has rarely been so clearly, cleverly camouflaged.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Armenian American

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

This One SummerCanadian cousins Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki‘s first collaboration, Skim, won enough major awards to make their second title an eagerly anticipated publishing event. Get ready because This One Summer hits shelves May 6. And here’s the bottom line: Summer is spectacular without a chance of sophomoric slump in sight.

“Okay. Awago Beach is this place. Where my family goes every summer. Ever since … like … forever,” Rose explains as the graphic novel begins. As soon as she arrives with her parents and dumps her suitcase, she goes in search of her “summer cottage friend,” Windy, who will be her constant companion on the beach, at the single sundries store, in front of the screen watching rented scary movies, and more. Windy’s house is often a refuge from the tension and bitter words Rose’s parents lob at one another – her mother is distant and withdrawn, her father angry and confused, and Rose caught somewhere in between.

But this one summer, high drama is also happening in the tiny waterside village among the local teenagers. Rose, who is a year-and-a-half older than Windy, listens closely when she can and learns that Dunc and Jenny are a couple, that a pregnancy might be someone’s unwanted reality. She tries out new words like ‘drunks’ and ‘sluts,’ and is duly disciplined by surprised mothers. As her parents’ relationship becomes more tenuous, Rose pushes away from her childhood toward new adolescent angst, fears, and shattering discoveries. Life after This One Summer ‘since … like … forever’ … will never be the same again.

Rose is a wide-eyed narrator, approaching adolescence with cautious wariness as she navigates through the troubled relationships around her, between young lovers who are just a few years older to parents who were supposed to stay together forever. The Tamaki cousins are undoubtedly two for two, once more capturing the uncertainty and doubt of growing up and pulling away, of knowing too much and not nearly enough. Given their hit record, their third time should be quite the charm.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Interrogation of Ashala WolfAs I feel I know so little about the literature of our Down Under friends, I admit I’m surprised to find I’ve posted almost 30 titles with Australian origins here on BookDragon thus far. If you were to pop-quiz me on Aussie authors, my instant answers would be Marcus Zusak (Mr. Book Thief himself), Oscar-winning writer and illustrator Shaun Tan, and graphic novelist Diana Thung. I certainly couldn’t name a single indigenous Australian author … until now.

Meet Ambelin Kwaymullina, an award-winning children’s writer and illustrator, who makes her novel debut with Ashala Wolf, Book 1 of the Tribe series. [Lucky Australian readers had The Tribe Book 2: The Disappearance of Ember Crow hit shelves in November 2013, with the second half of the series scheduled for 2014 and 2015; Stateside readers can only hope the next three titles will follow sooner than later.] Kwaymullina comes from generations of storytellers of the Palyku people of western Australia’s Pilbara region. “Aboriginal people of Australia have the oldest continuous living culture on earth,” she writes in her illuminating “Author’s Note.” “We are not a single homogenous group; we are many nations, and we hail from diverse homelands. We call our homelands our Countries.”

From her vast heritage, Kwaymullina creates the brave new world of Ashala Wolf, who “carries that ancient bloodline and has the deep connection to [her home] Firstwood that present-day Aboriginal people have to their Countries.” Somewhere, sometime in a post-apocalyptic future, children become the greatest threat to an all-too-controlling government desperate to keep what’s left of the world’s Balance. These children can start fires, cause earthquakes, shift clouds, fly, and more. Branded as Illegals when their abilities begin to surface, they’re shackled with power-inhibiting collars and imprisoned. Somehow, a few manage to escape. Firstwood is their Illegal haven, home to the Tribe and its 16-year-old leader Ashala. She’s a powerful Sleepwalker, which allows her to do anything in her dreams. In trying to save one of her own, she’s been caught at novel’s opening and is facing interrogation by an insidious official determined to break her with ‘the machine’ which will invade her memories and reveal all her secrets …

Yes, Interrogation might be labelled sci-fi dystopia, but its narrative twists and turns – not to mention its mind games, literally! – shatters any predictability. “[I]n writing about the Tribe,” Kwaymullina says, “I thought about the way the [Aboriginal] Elders draw you into a tale that is always more than it first appears. I thought, too, about the generations of Palyku women who have gone before me …” In blending past and future, Kwaymullina has undoubtedly found her own present Balance.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Australian

Migrant by José Manuel Mateo, illustrated by Javier Martínez Pedro, translated by Emmy Smith Ready

Migrant.MateoImagine a long scroll, that unfolds like a fan or an accordion. Each panel, when finally open, reveals a single, elongated picture, with sparse text to illuminate the densely populated illustration filled with mountains, animals, plants, people, that give way to trains, police cars, fences, highways, and a concrete jungle. On one side, the story flows in English. Gently flip it over, and you’ll find the same story in Spanish. More than a flat ‘book,’ Migrant is a uniquely unexpected, spectacularly composed art piece.

In a Mexican village that sits somewhere between the mountains and sea, a young boy plays hide-and-seek with his sister and dog. On the large farm where his father grows watermelons and papaya trees, the work is quickly disappearing. First Señor Augusto leaves, and then “the rest of the men who were farming did the same, because there was not enough money to continue planting.” The father ventures out, until “no one remained in town but the women and us children.” In desperation, the left-behind threesome take a dangerous journey north to Los Angeles in search of work and any news of the father’s whereabouts.

As familiar as the immigration story might be, the presentation here is unforgettable. [Click here for a stunning preview.] The ending “Author’s and Artist’s Note” explains that Migrant was inspired by the ancient Mesoamerican art of making paper from tree bark, called amate, on which stories were created in drawings or hieroglyphs. The long-ago Mesoamericans used a continuous sheet of amate that was gathered in folds rather than bound together as separate pages: “It’s called a codex,” the note explains.

Beyond the artistic context is a difficult overview of children who migrate north, sometimes without parents, in official numbers of about 50,000 a year. “They leave because of poverty, mistreatment, or violence,” but then must survive, all too often, even more difficult challenges getting to and living safely the other side of the border. “We seek not only to raise awareness but, above all, to safeguard [the children’s] memory. We wish to tell and to question this collective story that makes children defenseless and almost nonexistent to their own country and to the new one where they hope to find work.” Artist Javier Martínez Pedro, according to his bio, is especially aware of the plight of these forgotten children, because “he himself at one point illegally migrated to the Unites States.”

“[W]e have created this book: to demand these children’s right to exist.” The resonating amate speaks volumes, bearing witness to young migrants risking all to seek hope-filled new lives.

Readers: Children

Published: 2011 (Mexico), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, .Translation, Latin American, Latino/a

Bird by Crystal Chan

BirdIn the small town of Caledonia, Iowa, Jewel stands out: she’s “‘half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican.'” As if to provide a physical embodiment of Jewel’s hapa background, the audible producers cast Amandla Stenberg, who played the heartbreaking role of young Rue in the film version of The Hunger Games. No doubt, Stenberg’s nuanced narration is a literary gift.

While Jewel’s appearance marks her as different in Caledonia, her family’s tragedy is what most circumscribes her young life. On the day she was born, her 5-year-old brother John – called Bird for “the way he kept jumping off things” – plummeted off a nearby cliff as he “tried to fly.” With his death, Grandpa stopped talking. Birthdays, understandably, were the most difficult of all: “I’ve always had to share my special day with the silence behind Grandpa’s closed door and the silence at the cemetery and the silence that hangs thick between Mom and Dad’s words.”

On the night of her 12th birthday, Jewel finds a stranger in “her” tree: a boy named John who is as “dark as the night sky,” who introduces himself as a neighbor’s visiting nephew from Virginia. He bluntly explains his lack of family resemblance: “‘I’m adopted. Raised by white people. It’s not as bad as it sounds.'” As the two become fast friends, Grandpa becomes agitated to the point of violence; he’s convinced that John is a “duppy” – an evil spirit from Caribbean folklore that Grandpa and Jewel’s father believe caused Bird’s death. Yet John’s possible resemblance to a brother she never knew makes him that much more intriguing to Jewel. For the rest of her family, John’s presence is both threatening and comforting, and eventually forces the too-many secrets to break through their silent surface.

Debut author Crystal Chan clearly shares a Midwest, small-town, mixed-race background with her protagonist: in addition to her bio, her author website offers a fun FAQ page with the question “What mix are you?” Her answer, complete with two photographs as a child with each parent, is: “My dad is from Hong Kong, and my mom is from Wisconsin and is of Polish descent. So I grew up eating pierogies, along with stir fry.”

Chan writes deftly not only about being different surrounded by homogeneity, but the conflict within those differences for both Jewel and transracially adopted John. Bird proves to be an empathetic, resonating read, full of wisdom, grace, hope, and – of course – the greatest love.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Carribbean American, Chinese American, Hapa, Latino/a

Not My Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

Not My GirlChristy Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law Margaret Pokiak-Fenton began publishing stories in 2010 about the older Pokiak-Fenton’s difficult childhood as a young Inuit child growing up in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Their four books in four years are comprised of two titles for middle grade readers, Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home, which were then adapted into two complementary picture books, When I Was Eight and this, Not My Girl, which debuted earlier this year.

Now 10 years old, Margaret finally returns to her family from the faraway “outsiders’ school” where “I had grown tall and very thin from two years of hard chores and poor meals.” Virtually unrecognizable, her mother’s reaction is wrenching: “‘Not my girl!’ she called in what little English she knew … everything she remembered of me” had been ‘educated’ out of young Margaret, including her native Inuit language, culture, and even her name.

“Olemaun,” her father reaches out to her: “I had not heard my Inuit name in so long I thought it might shatter like an eggshell with the weight of my father’s voice.” Tight in his embrace, her mother, too, finally reaches out and “sheltered me in that safe place between them.” In spite of their love and attention, Olemaun’s return to her family proves to be a difficult challenge: her stomach is unable to digest the family’s traditional foods, the sled dogs no longer recognize her scent, she only understands her father’s translations, and she has “lost the skills [she] needed to be useful … [to] help feed the family.” She’s even rejected by her only friend whose parents forbid her to play with another “outsider.” Slowly, Olemaun must find her place with her family once more, comforted by her favorite book and a helpless puppy.

Artist Gabrielle Grimard again illustrates the duo-generational collaboration; again, her open, nothing-hidden expressions enhance Olemaun’s experiences – her father’s gentle gaze, her disappointed worry over tangling the family fish net, her dare-to-be-hopeful glance as her mother guides her hands in using the traditional knife, her single tear that matches the single drop of rice water as she nurses her puppy. The trio again transforms painful, unfortunate memories into another enduring story of resilience, tenderness, and unconditional love.

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Native American

Decoded by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne

DecodedThe layers here are astonishing, revealed through the filtered lens of an unnamed narrator who gathers the shared experiences, memories, and words about an enigmatic, brilliant man who has lost his sanity by the time the narrator’s research begins. The subject is Rong Jinzhen – orphan, mathematical genius, unparalleled code breaker, national hero. In spite of the narrative spotlight, he is allowed a mere two instances to speak for himself: in a message written in his own blood professing lifelong devotion to his adoptive mother, and in a lost-then-found blue notebook that can only be partially divulged as a redacted afterthought.

The Rong family’s fortune accumulated through salt, until a peripatetic member of the seventh generation becomes “the first person … to break from their mercantile heritage and become an academic.” After an education overseas, he founded what would become “the famous N University.” The most illustrious of the eighth Rong generation is an extraordinary woman who assisted the Wright brothers take to the sky, but childbirth takes her life. Her genius is reborn in her illegitimate grandson Jinzhen.

The narrator spends “two years on the railways of southern China, travelling the country to interview the fifty-one middle-aged or elderly eyewitnesses to these events” that comprise Jinzhen’s major life events: his birth, his early years as “Duckling,” his adoption by relatives, his university life as a teenage prodigy, his sudden induction into Unit 701 – the most elite division of code-breakers for China’s secret service – and what follows in the decades hence.

As Jinzhen attempts to decipher the impossible, the anonymous narrator works assiduously to graft together his subject through multiple voices with varying degrees of reliability. The Rashomon-esque story is filled with countless phrases meant to reassure: “to tell you the truth,” “to put it another way,” “in other words,” and yet that truth remains elusive throughout. Regardless of all who weigh in with scattered glimpses of family, mentorship, marriage, and career, Jinzhen’s own personal ‘codes’ remain incomplete and unknowable.

First published in 2002, Decoded was Mai Jia’s first novel; since its debut, Mai has catapulted into top-selling stardom in his native China, including winning his country’s top honor, the Mao Dun Literature Prize. He writes seemingly what he knows, having spent almost two decades as a soldier and possible spy in China’s “intelligence services,” according to his publisher bio. Decoded marks Mai’s arrival Stateside in translation; smart, compelling, exceptional as it proves to be, it should ensure more of his titles will be western-bound.

Tidbit: Not wanting to sully the novel itself, I’m adding this warning here: Choose the page. Why does a novel set in China, populated mostly by Chinese characters, need to be narrated in fake-Chinese-inflected English? The implication is that the characters are incapable of fluently speaking their own language. Really?! Because it’s a Chinese novel-in-translation that needs to be slapped with spurious exotica to sell it stuck in the ears? Narrator Ryan Gesell (an L.A. native clearly not of Asian descent) uses a similarly fabricated accent in Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost, giving U.S.-born Asian American characters a ching-chong flair. Is this aural yellowfacing offensive to anyone else?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002 (China), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese