Friday, August 14, 2009

Shanghai Girls

Book No: 44
Title: Shanghai Girls
Author: Lisa See
Genre: Historical Fiction
Completed: 8/12/09
No. of Pages: 309
Rating: 3.5/5*****

I’m not sure where to start with this book, because I have truly mixed feelings about it. I, like so many others, read and loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I was looking forward to this book because I had heard many good things about it and it was strongly recommended to me by my librarian. In the end I found it a disappointing book, although there were many parts I did enjoy.

The Shanghai Girls are Pearl and May, two ‘beautiful girls’ who are models for traditional Chinese calendars. They live a life of privilege and ease, often thinking of no one but themselves. When their father arranges their marriages to Chinese-American men looking for wives, the girls refuse to go to America, setting off a chain of events that leads to heartbreaking tragedy. The sisters ultimately leave for San Francisco, and spend months on Angel Island being interrogated by immigration officials. While there a secret is revealed and a pact is made between the two that will alter the rest of their lives. Eventually arriving in Chinatown, to a life much different than they anticipated, these two sisters struggle to make a life for themselves and their new families.

There were some things I enjoyed about this book. I loved the beginning of this story, set in Shanghai in the mid 1930’s. It was very descriptive and full of fascinating detail of a city I knew very little about. Even when it gets into the invasion of the Japanese and the hardships and horrors that occurred I was fully engaged. However form the time the girls arrive on Angel Island through the ending I felt the book never reached that level of writing. I liked a lot of the history that was depicted and I learned quite a bit about the birth of Chinatown and immigrant life, but at times it felt like a history lesson, as if the author wanted to tell the history, it didn’t feel ‘lived in’.

I had several problems with the book that in the end took away from my enjoyment. The voice of the book is Pearl’s and it is her POV we get for everything, there are no other sides to the story. I also didn’t much care for the two sisters, for different reasons. May was spoiled, selfish and seemed to go through life without a care in the world for anyone except herself and what was good for her. Pearl on the other hand was the ‘good sister’ sacrificing herself again and again for May because she was her older sister and had to take care of her. I wanted Pearl to get a backbone, and when she finally does stand up for herself it is at the wrong time and has a devastating consequence. The men in the book are secondary characters, and seem to be there only to further the sister’s story along. The tragedies in this story are never ending and by the end have a soap opera quality to them – you just keep wondering what else can possibly go wrong. Some of the things that happened were predictable and when May reveals her big secret in the end I almost laughed because it was so obvious. And last but not least is the ending – there isn’t one, or at least a satisfying one. We are left with a bit of a cliff hanger, leading one to suspect a sequel.

This is actually the second book I have read this summer about the struggles of Chinese immigrants during the years leading to WWII and I found the other to be far more engaging and enjoyable, even though it was also very sad at times; if you enjoyed this book you may also like Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Play Book Tag: August Tag

THe tag for August at Play Book Tag is:


We will be reading and reviewing all sorts of books that have been tagged humor by Shelfari members.

Sound interesting? Come on by and join in the discussions.

Day After Night

Book No: 43
Title: Day after Night
Author: Anita Diamant
Genre: Historical Fiction
Completed: 8/2/09
No. of Pages: 292
Rating: 3/5*****

Anita Diamant’s latest book focuses on an aspect of WWII history that I think many of us know little about. After the end of the war and the liberation of the prisoners from the concentration camps thousands of survivors went to Israel; most of them no longer had homes or families and chose to start anew in The Promised Land. Upon arrival most of these people were placed in internment or refugee camps because they were ‘illegal aliens’ with no paperwork- an irony that is almost laughable in its stupidity. Nevertheless, these people found themselves once again prisoners, although treated far more humanely than where they came from.

The book focuses on four women who slowly form friendships, something they are afraid to do, having lost so much during the war hope had become one more thing to put aside. Little by little Tedi, Leonie, Shayndel and Zorah come together to help each other face each new day, while slowly trying to shed the unspeakable past. As each day passes in boredom and loss of expectation, an escape plan begins to be put into motion.

Over the years I have complained that books seem to be getting longer and longer and editing seems to have disappeared. In this particular case I wish the story had been longer, because I never felt an attachment to these women. Bits and pieces of their back story are revealed, yet none of them felt substantial to me; I frequently had to look at the back blurb which gave brief descriptions of the characters because they would blend together in my mind, they never took on lives of their own. There was so much more I wanted to learn of them and some of the secondary characters, Tirzah the kitchen aide in particular. When the escape finally occurs it is anti-climatic and we only learn the fates of the four women in a small epilogue; there was so much more I would have liked to have known about these women and their lives.

For a look at a little known footnote in history I found the book interesting, I just wish I was more engaged in the characters.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Book No: 42
Title: Kindred
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Genre: Historical Fiction
Completed: 7/30/09
No. of Pages: 264
Rating: 4/5*****

This book has a truly fascinating premise: What if an African American of modern day was unaccountably catapulted back in time to a time when slavery was the norm in the southern United States? What happens when her modern sensibilities are confronted with the real experience of being black in a time and place where that meant you had no rights at all? That is the scenario in Kindred by Octavia Butler and it is a riveting story.

Entwining historical fiction with science fiction Ms. Butler tells the story of Dana, an educated black woman living in NYC 1976 with her husband Kevin, who is white. Inexplicably she is pulled back in time, by a young boy named Rufus; he is drowning and Dana saves him. Rufus is Dana’s ancestor and time after time when he is in danger he somehow summons Dana to his side; she has no way of knowing when it will happen or what event will trigger her return to her own time.
Using the device of time travel Ms. Butler shows how an entire race is subjugated by the slave owners, how easily Dana slips into the life of a slave in order to survive. One time her husband is transported with her and they act as slave and owner in order to endure the times. They are both shocked by how easily they slip into their roles.

The book starts off with a bang and every time Dana is brought back in time the tension is ratcheted up a bit. The young Rufus grows up to be a slave owner and a selfish and cruel one at that. Each time you are wondering and worrying about what will happen to Dana and the rest of the slaves we become involved with over the years the story takes place. My only real problem with the book is Dana’s constant forgiveness of Rufus despite the way he treats her and her friend Alice. I understand her need to make sure nothing happens to Rufus, for otherwise she could not exist, so she is damned is she does something yet damned if she doesn’t. It’s a moral question that isn’t fully addressed; I would have liked to see Dana question her own motives more. I also would have liked to learn something of what happened to Kevin at the time he is left behind while Dana returns to the present. Outside of these two issues I enjoyed this book and would recommend it.