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Forbidden City: A Novel


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About the Author

William Bell was a Canadian author whose young adult novels have been translated into nine languages and have won a number of awards, among them the Manitoba Readers' Choice Award, the Mr. Christie's Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award, and the Canadian Librarians' Association Award. He died in 2016.


Despite certain shortcomings, this fictionalized account of the tragedy of Tiananmen Square is as engrossing as it is appalling. When Alex's father, a news cameraman, is assigned to Beijing, Alex leaps at the chance to join him. At loose ends in the alien metropolis, the teenager studies Chinese and explores the city on his bike, filming with a makeshift hidden camera. Not surprisingly, these skills come in handy during both the student protests and the subsequent crackdown. In fact, Alex's avocation, along with his father's profession, seem to have been chosen solely to provide the reader with a bird's-eye view of the events of that brutal spring. Even Alex's obsession with military history seems tacked on in order to facilitate the lumbering symbolism of the novel's conclusion. By contrast, Bell's descriptions of the action in and around the Square are vivid and heartbreaking--there are moments when the searing force of this fragment of recent history shines through the thin characters and eclipses the contrived plot. Ages 12-up. (Nov.)

Gr 6-12-- Alex, 17-year-old war aficionado and son of a Canadian cameraman, accompanies his father to China and becomes enmeshed in the Tiananmen incident of 1989. He gets separated from his father, is befriended by some students, witnesses a good deal of the massacre, and is finally smuggled out by a student who pays for his liberation with her life. This is a blood-and-thunder story, and Bell tells it with gusto. Incidents are piled on one another, background descriptions are very convincing, and at times readers will almost feel they are there. All this amounts to an incredibly compelling novel. Curiously, when the protagonist is not in China, he becomes somewhat one-dimensional. The beginning is a tad contrived to lead to the real meat of the novel, and the ending is pat beyond common decency (in a grand, melodramatic scene, Alex destroys all his war toys back in comfy surburban Toronto). Yet the preponderant part of this novel is marvelously realized, partially from the immediacy of using first-person narration, partially from telling vignettes that really bring the time, place, and situation to life in a most memorable way. There is also a certain ring of truth about some elements of the story that resonates long after putting this novel down. In spite of the flaws, this is an excellent tale, well told, and a historical novel of note. --John Philbrook, San Francisco Public Library

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