At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 19th, 2021.

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5
A very readable book about Maddy — a 20-year old homeless girl in San Francisco who unwittingly witnesses the tail end of the murder of a homeless boy and gets tangled up with the victim’s parents and general ineffectiveness of the judicial system.

The writing is good and it does thoroughly depict at least one homeless person’s life in San Francisco — the utter tedium of hanging around doing little but scamming for money or getting high all day, sleeping in the park but waking at 4:00 am to avoid the cops, heading to the shelter for showers and food — rinse, repeat. While the book was clearly supposed to trigger a feeling of empathy, pity, and a desire for more social programs to “help,” it really did the opposite for me. Maddy and her friends were given so many opportunities to live a different life: in addition to all the free food, showers, medical care, etc. they got from the shelter and free clinics, they were constantly offered entrance into all kinds of programs to help by a slew of well-meaning social workers. Instead, they spend their days hanging around doing nothing, begging for money to get high, and sitting in the park gathering program pamphlets from do-gooders. Which they didn’t want. Eventually, after watching the young boy bleed out, engaging with the boy’s heartbroken parents, seeing one of her friends almost OD, and having a social worker make the effort to find her in the park every day offering encouragement, more programs, and a round trip bus ticket to find her estranged mother, Maddy begins a journey we hope will be more productive. I was honestly left feeling like maybe all of the money behind these programs could have been better spent elsewhere. I’m completely behind offering people opportunities to get out of a hole — whether of their own making or not — but I’m not enthused about chasing them down repeatedly until they deign to give it a try.

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Unusual family drama (with an element of mystery) that takes place before, during, and after the big San Francisco Quake of 1906. Irish immigrant Sophie Whalen answers an ad for a mail order bride. The husband? A handsome widower with a young, motherless, daughter. Things are not as they appear, however, and one morning when her husband is away, a knock on the door changes everything. And then … the big one hits.

Decent writing, likable though somewhat two-dimensional characters, and some interesting surprises in the plot. The best part is the detailed, historically accurate descriptions of San Francisco and the Bay Area (eg San Mateo) during and after the quake.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 2nd, 2021.

Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim

Thanks to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Oct. 30, 2018.
Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A gripping, and ultimately uplifting, tale highlighting a piece of American immigrant history. The date is 1923 and Mei Ling is an 18-year old girl in Guangdong Province whose family fortune has suffered “the triple devastation of war, famine, and disease.” With little warning, she finds herself a “paper wife” — married to a stranger (and mother to a two-year old named Bo) under the false name of his recently deceased wife in order to enter America. Her true identity is buried under a second layer — her elder sister was the intended bride, but a last minute illness forced the substitution. Mei Ling must keep this quiet as her husband is expecting a timid Rabbit wife and is instead receiving a fierce Dragon.

The story follows Mei Ling through her wedding, the trip in steerage to San Francisco, her new family, including a six-year old orphan named Siew whom she meets on the boat, and immigration through Angel Island. Beautiful and detailed descriptions of San Francisco and Oakland Chinatowns, the people she meets, the lives they lead, and the way different people try to succeed in the new country. I love that each of the characters (even the unpleasant ones) has real depth — the author did not resort to stereotypes in this fictionalized account of a Chinese immigrant experience. The story takes some surprising turns as Mei Ling the Dragon takes steps to maintain harmony and protect her family.

As a way of setting the context, the book’s epigraph comprises a single disturbing quote from then President Rutherford B. Hayes: “I am satisfied the present Chinese labor invasion (it is not in any proper sense immigration — women and children do not come) is pernicious and should be discouraged. Our experience in dealing with the weaker races — the negroes and the Indians, for example — is not encouraging.” Ugh.

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!