China by Edward Rutherfurd (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

A sweeping novel of China from 1839 – 1900, from the Opium Wars through China’s Century of Humiliation to the suppression of the Boxer rebellion. It’s the story of the conflicts surrounding the forced opening of China to Western trade, customs, and religion. The story is told through a variety of characters who span cultures, classes, backgrounds, and professions (including plenty of women characters with different roles, abilities and agendas). Multiple generations of characters such as a young English merchant trying to make his fortune (through opium), an upright Mandarin charged with enforcing the emperor’s ban of opium, a palace eunuch, a peasant girl, a mercenary pirate, a missionary, a Manchu bannerman, the emperor and various concubines and princes, and some craftsmen. The characters have depth, too. They reflect on what is happening, how they feel about their own role, and how to achieve their goals while maintaining their values (or how to shift their values to attain their goals).

I love that history itself is the protagonist in this novel, rather than the background setting for individual stories. Everything is told through the personal stories of the characters — either through participation in the action or through conversations between neighbors, colleagues, and family members. Even past history is exemplified in ritual and description of the origin of individual morality. This approach brings to the fore what it was like to live through these times with only direct observations and rumors as sources of information. And how very different that information was depending on your location, background, profession, culture and connections. Additionally, there were so many fascinating descriptions of various ways of life — all told in a style that was interesting because someone was learning it (e.g. a craft) or going through it — so always real and never dry. This was a long book, and I literally had trouble putting it down. (As a warning, one of these “fascinating” descriptions was about foot binding, and I skimmed through trying not to read that at all. Of all the atrocities visited upon humans, this is the one I find most horrific and barbaric (yes, even more than female circumcision which comes in a close second).

This is my first Rutherfurd and I’m now going back to read more. Meticulously researched, personal and accurate — a kind of modern day Michener for those old enough to remember classics like Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, The Source, or Caravans. After reading this, I have a far more in-depth understanding about the relationship between China and the West and of life in the 19th century.

Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart (Mystery/Historical Fiction)

The second book in the series and (sadly) the last one for me to read. Another exquisitely written mystery fully evoking the rhythms, culture, and political machinations of early 18th century China (1708 to be exact). In this book, our scholar and prior Imperial librarian Li Du, has stopped in a small valley on the way to Lhasa where his caravan discovers the dead body of a monk with a small white mirror painted on his chest. Thus begins a journey into artistry, beautiful descriptions of relationships of all kinds, and Tulkus — reincarnated lineages, the most powerful of which is the Dalai Lama.

I’m going to miss this series and I hope the author’s latest book (which takes place in London in 1703) does not mean that she has given up on Li Du forever!

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Writing: 4 Plot: 5 Characters: 4

The sweeping, emotionally intense story of an Akha village girl in the Yunnan Province. Spanning 1988 through 2016, Li-Yan (commonly known as “Girl”), goes from tea picker in Yunnan to Guangzhou Tea Master to global businesswoman.

While the characters are well developed and the plot riveting, my favorite aspect of the book is the way the author brought recent Chinese history, American adoption of Chinese children (usually girls), and the tea trade to life.  Especially the extensively researched tea trade — a fascinating discussion of pu’er tea — from the resurrection of the old methods of production (which were discouraged during Mao’s reign) to the history, economy, and medicinal applications going back centuries. Supporting this thread was the impact of various Chinese policies, and slogans on regular people — from the Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaoping’s slogan “ To get rich is glorious” to The Thirty Years No Change Policy, the One Child Policy, and the Great Leap Forward. and the recognition of the 55 ethnic minorities (even though there were actually many more).

Another thread follows the experiences of Li-Yan’s baby girl, adopted by Caucasian parents in California with only an ancient tea cake to connect her to her birth parents. While happy with her parents and life, Haley and other Chinese adoptees face the issue of not fitting in — with either the Caucasians or the other Asians. Interestingly, while the bulk of the book is in Li-Yan’s voice, all information about Haley comes through letters, school reports, and other external forms of documentation.

Lisa Yee is a master at sweeping you into a story that you can’t help but care about. Warning — I found the events of the second chapter so disturbing that I almost stopped reading the book but I’m very glad I kept going. I found the descriptions of China fascinating — it was constantly surprising to me to be reminded that some of the things that sounded so “primitive” had been a way of life only 30 years ago. Intriguing plot, well-developed characters, and a rich and historically accurate background environment.

I’m looking forward to reading Lisa See’s upcoming book “The Island of Sea Women.”

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for an early review copy of A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, which will publish August 14, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

Heavily pregnant, Scarlett and Daisy, meet at Perfume Bay — the exclusive maternity home in Los Angeles for Chinese women who want to have their “anchor” babies in the U.S. for automatic citizenship. Neither wants to be there — teen-age Daisy has been placed there by parents anxious to separate her from an “unsuitable” boyfriend; Scarlett has been placed there by the baby’s father — also her married boss — who wants the son he believes she is carrying.

After an opportunistic escape, they make their way to San Francisco’s Chinatown where they learn about motherhood while trying to bulldoze their way to legal status and financial stability (Scarlett) and find the boyfriend (Daisy).

Woven throughout the modern day narrative are the historical stories of Scarlett’s China — highlighting the contrasts between the traditional and modern, the city and the country, and China and the U.S. There are a lot of interesting details included: Scarlett’s estranged mother was the village “family planner” — the woman charged with upholding the unpopular “one child” law (only recalled in 2013, this novel takes while the law was still in effect). Historical immigration policies in the U.S. had banned Chinese women from immigrating as families “weren’t supposed to take root here.” The backstories of other characters reveal even more detail of life in China under Communist rule.

While the end is tied up perhaps too neatly, the story is unpredictable and engaging, the characters are appealing, and I appreciated the inclusion of historical and cultural detail. It is simultaneously a novel about China and San Francisco, quirks and all. It shirks from neither!