Shanghai Girls

A beautifully-written book about two sisters who are chased from their beautiful life in 1930s Shanghai to the US by their father’s gambling debts and the Japanese invasion.  The characters and setting are very well drawn, and the plot is both enlightening and heartbreaking.  Immigration to this country has never been easy, especially for those who have to deal with racism on top of the trauma of leaving their homeland.

The ending doesn’t give me as much closure as I prefer, but I still found this a very, very good book.

Does My Head Look Big In This?

This is a frequently funny, occasionally poignant story about an Arab-Australian teenager who decides she’s going to start wearing the hijab full-time (including to her private school.)  It dives right into serious issues without making them seem at all heavy (faith, women’s rights, cross-cultural communication, the immigrant experience, getting along in families).  It also touches on lots of lighter teenage experiences.  It was a fun, worthwhile read.

The Frozen Sky

At the beginning of this story, I felt disoriented and unconnected from the characters. I almost gave up on the book.

I’m glad I didn’t.  While the character development wasn’t as rich as I’d prefer, it got better.  The real strength of the piece, though, was the exploration of how two radically different cultures might interact at first contact (and how politics would play into that interaction).

Well worth reading.

Flask of the Drunken Master

Susan Spann’s Shinobi Mystery series is great fun.  I love that it locates me firmly in a place and time in history that I know little about.  What’s even better is that it does this in a way that keeps a pretty puzzle and interesting people at the heart of the story.

In this particular book, Hiro and Father Mateo must prove the innocence of a brewer they know (Hiro owes him a favor) before the man is punished for murdering a competitor.  It’s a complicated little problem, set in a destabilized Kyoto (a situation which brings its own complexities), and the strain of navigating these troubling waters reveals some fault lines–or at least pressure points–in Hiro and Father Mateo’s relationship.  The descriptions are rich, the writing well-done.  It was a great pleasure to read, and I’ll be picking up Susan Spann’s next book when I can.


The Poisonwood Bible

Lush with Barbara Kinsolver’s typical detail, this story transported me to a time and place I knew little about.  The characters have distinct, interesting voices, and though I could see the train-wreck of a culture clash coming from the very first page, I read on, pulled inexorably toward the disaster, and then through it to the interesting things the surviving characters made of their lives afterward.  I came away wanting to know more about the history of the Congo and maybe all of Africa.

As always when I read something like this, I found myself wondering what other important twentieth century events and movements my high school “World History” managed to completely skip.

I did find it difficult to believe a Southern Baptist preacher would be as immersed in the Apocrypha as the Reverend Price was, and that made me wonder about how accurately other cultures might be portrayed in the book.  But perhaps Kingsolver took more trouble to research the various African groups than the American cultures she wasn’t fully part of.

This issue, however, is trifling, and on the whole, The Poisonwood Bible was well worth reading.  Not, perhaps, good enough to make it onto my keeper shelf (for books I frequently reread), but close.