Tag Archives: Sibling rivalry

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Undertaking of Lily ChenBefore Danica Novgorodoff‘s story even begins, her dedication page offers crucial tidbits: in paying homage to her grandparents, she reveals both her Chinese heritage and inspiration ["To my grandparents, Eugene and Ellen Chen Novgorodoff"]; in quoting a July 2007 article from The Economist (we’re talking pretty much now!), she prepares readers with an introduction to “a burgeoning market for female corpses, the result of the reappearance of a strange custom called ‘ghost marriages,’” in which parents of unmarried dead sons hold posthumous ‘weddings’ to prevent their progeny entering the next world alone. [Might I suggest Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride as a most ingenious companion text?]

Wei Li, the favored older son of the Li family, is dead. Accident though it was, his younger brother Deshi remains responsible. Following a tradition that possibly began in 208 AD when a powerful warlord demanded “the body of a woman” to “lie with [his dead young son] in the dark eternal bedroom,” the Li brothers’ parents give Deshi a bag of cash, a beast of burden, and demand he return in exactly a week with a wife for Wei.

Following advice from a dwarfish matchmaker who sends him to skeezy Mr. Song, Deshi searches for a suitable spouse, even if that means digging six feet under. When a love match doesn’t turn up, Deshi goes in search of a fresher candidate. He meets Lily, the obstinate, feisty daughter of a remote villager mired in financial woes; Lily impulsively steals Deshi’s ride forcing him to give chase. Their unexpected journey together begins – Deshi trying to get to that wedding on time with the perfect guest, Lily intending to escape her provincial life for a new beginning in the big city. Sunday’s deadline (couldn’t resist) looms … and somehow Deshi must fulfill his filial duties, even if that means, uh … dying for love.

Corpses and ghosts aside – not to mention that not-so-subtle skull on the book’s cover – Undertaking is quite the heartstrings-pulling story for this Valentine’s Day. No, really! Novgorodoff’s original narrative and her can’t-turn-away-from-the-action-packed-art definitely trump chocolate and flowers any day.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark PlacesIf Gillian Flynn isn’t already a household name, she will be sure enough. The film version of her mega-bestselling 2012 novel Gone Girl is due to hit screens in October with Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike starring as the troubled couple. Since Flynn herself wrote the screenplay, any grumbling about Hollywood’s cinematic makeover might be unwarranted, although apparently Flynn has changed the ending …?! Huh? Guess we’ll have to check out the results come fall.

Oh, but I’ve digressed. Maybe because I’m avoiding the horror factor here. While Gone Girl and Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, seemed to be more psychological brutality, Dark Places – her novel in between – is the most viscerally violent of all.

At age 7, Libby Day survived when her mother and two older sisters were slaughtered in the family farmhouse. She managed to escape into the frigid cold, and hid in the bushes for so long that she lost three toes and half a ring finger to frostbite. Her 15-year-old brother was eventually convicted of the multiple murders.

Almost a quarter century later, Libby is broke, desperate, and no longer able to live off the kindness of strangers. She hasn’t seen her brother in all that time, her deadbeat Dad is floating out there as useless as ever, and she’s estranged herself from the one relative – her maternal aunt – who stood by her in spite of all of Libby’s betrayals (including murdering her aunt’s dog). When the horrendously-named Kill Club offers her money for her time – and her memories – she’s desperate enough to play along. They’re convinced her brother is innocent … which would mean that Libby’s eyewitness testimony couldn’t possibly be true.

To find out what really happened that night – I had NO idea! – readers will wade through satanic rituals, spousal abuse, pedophilia, bovine sacrifices, teenage hormonal rages, entitled wealth, and so much more. Yes, you’ve got almost 400 pages of humanity at its worst; if you choose to go audible, a full cast of notable narrators read with just the right blend of blasé observation and urgent shock. Horrible, gruesome, unbelievable, yes … but like the best train wrecks, you won’t be able to turn away.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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The Little Hut of Leaping Fishes by Chiew-Siah Tei

Little Hut of Leaping FishesFor all the power and wealth of the Chai clan, discontent and tragedy haunts its three generations. With the challenges facing China at the turn of the 20th century as the last imperial dynasty crumbles and western colonialism looms, patriarch Master Chai’s once ironclad rule over his household begins to falter.

Born the first grandson, Mingzhi’s life is not necessarily his own to control as the family’s eventual heir. Obedient, hard-working, and honest, Mingzhi realizes early that his family’s extensive involvement in opium production is not an enterprise he supports nor wants to inherit. His path to redemption, as well as escape, is in education as he tenaciously works toward becoming a government official far from the family’s reach. Away from the Chai mansion, he finds reprieve and enlightenment in his eponymous “little hut of leaping fishes.”

In spite of an expansive cast of characters, author Chiew-Siah Tei tends toward simplified archetypes rather than multidimensional individuals. Mingzhi, for example, is the ‘good’ grandson with his laudable successes while his younger half-brother is the ‘bad’ counterpart – deceptive, lazy, and vengeful. Of Master Chai’s sons, one is a debauched opium addict with two wives, while the other is a filial, irreproachable, unmarried nurturer. Of the household’s two wives who belong to Mingzhi’s father, one remains a devoted mother and long-suffering silent wife; the other proves to be a scheming adulterous runaway.

Predictable as many of the characters might be, Tei manages plenty of unexpected plot twists and turns, from brutal rivalries to unexpected friendships to unrequited love. Her deft machinations earned her a 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize longlist nod – no small feat for the Malaysian Chinese, Scottish-domiciled author writing her first novel in English (she’s won multiple prizes for her earlier titles in Chinese). If, by chance, you choose to go audible, the elaborate family saga is engagingly read with breathless animation by Malaysian Australian actor Keith Brockett, whose androgynous voice works especially well here.

Mingzhi reaches manhood in spite of abandonment, repeated betrayals, and even unexpected death – who needs enemies when you have your own family too ready to watch you suffer and fail? Such survival merits Mingzhi another life, as his story continues a vast ocean away in last year’s sequel, The Mouse Deer Kingdom. Further adventures ho! Stay tuned.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Burgess BoysSmall-town Maine, where Elizabeth Strout was born and raised, has been home to her four novels. In her first title since she won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for her novel-in-13-stories, Olive Kitteridge, Strout returns to tiny Shirley Falls where she set her acclaimed, chilling debut, Amy and Isabelle. This time, in The Burgess Boys, she brings the whole wide world to the isolated mill town, from ex-residents who never intended to go ‘home,’ to refugee transplants who long to return to people and places that no longer exist, to the ubiquitous media with their imposing, exposing cameras that send the worst of Shirley Falls around the globe.

As soon as they were able, the Burgess boys left Maine, both becoming lawyers who landed in Brooklyn. Jim, the eldest, became a celebrity corporate attorney and lives a lavish lifestyle with his old money trophy wife and their almost-grown children. Bob also chose the law, but most of his Legal Aid clients can’t afford to pay him; his ex-wife remains his best friend, although she left him for a Park Avenue life with a new husband who could give her the children she desperately needed. Bob’s acerbic twin, Susan, is the only Burgess who stayed Shirley Falls-bound, solo-parenting a quiet teenage son, Zach, after her husband abandoned the family to move to ‘real’ Sweden after growing up in New Sweden, Maine.

Lonely, isolated, friendless, Zach’s done something terrible: a pig’s head, a mosque, Ramadan. Susan hysterically calls her brothers home. For the first time in decades, the Burgess siblings are forced together to face not only the charges threatening Zach’s entire future, but their own troubled relationships with each other, as well as their long-dead parents – a father killed too young in a horrible accident, and a mother whose bitterness poisoned them all. In spite of Zach’s heinous act, Strout avoids absolutes, moving fluidly between condemnation and empathy by adding diverse community voices, including a devout Somali storeowner who witnessed his son’s brutal murder, a twice-divorced Unitarian minister, and an elderly lodger in Susan’s home who has listened for years to Zach’s loud music … and his tears alone at night.

The single extraneous voice appears in the “Prologue” and then disappears: an unnamed Shirley Falls transplant to New York explains how she came to “‘write the story of the Burgess kids’” – those opening five pages wouldn’t be missed. And since I’m quibbling, might I add a quick warning that what ubiquitous narrator Cassandra Campbell (hard to pick up a book without getting her stuck in your ears) thinks are regional and international flourishes will just need to be ignored. Thankfully, Strout’s words are stronger than Campbell’s grating accents. By book’s end, what you’ll remember most are the challenges, negotiations, joys, acceptances, and renewals of the remarkably resilient bonds that make up family.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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The Third Son by Julie Wu + Author Profile

Third SonVision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son

So how many detours can a writer make before becoming that writer?

If you’re newbie novelist Julie Wu – who knew as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1980s that writing was what she wanted to do – the answer might include a Master’s program in opera performance (after serious training in the violin), medical school and the related internships and residencies required to become a doctor, a successful Boston-area practice, and motherhood.

Two decades-plus ago (but who’s counting?), Wu was “too intimidated to try writing,” as she revealed in an April interview for TaiwaneseAmerican.org. The award-winning novelist-to-be Allegra Goodman lived in Wu’s dorm, having already published, while other fellow Harvardites were also writing novels. Despite the encouragement of a teacher who admired Wu’s first freshman expository writing assignment so much that she suggested Wu move into a creative writing section, Wu decided instead to be “practical.” She thought about taking a short story class but didn’t have anything to submit for the application. She kept reading – “I simply love novels – the immersive nature of them. They’re really the original virtual reality programs, made to run on your brain” – and graduated with a degree in literature. Her own writing was yet to come.

Then at 22, Wu had a vision about “a little boy in Taiwan – it was so vivid I rushed immediately to write it all down, and that’s when I realized that that was how to write – that it wasn’t just pushing words around, it was about having a vision and really communicating that vision to other people.” She planned on a novel – “I wanted to be, you know, Tolstoy” – but another almost-quarter century would pass before Wu’s debut novel, The Third Son, finally hit shelves in April earlier this year just after she turned 46.

Wu began writing in earnest in 2001, producing Tolstoy-worthy lengths before eventually distilling her original vivid vision down to just over 300 pages: “I lost track of the number of revisions. I didn’t even print them all out, but I have drawers, trunks, and filing cabinets filled with drafts. Someday I’ll have a big bonfire,” she told Jaime Boler of Bookmagnet. She estimates she kept a mere 2% of the original draft.

The one element that remained unwavering throughout was, of course that “little boy in Taiwan.” He became Wu’s eponymous “third son,” Saburo Tong, who is more comfortable with his Japanese first name than his unfamiliar Taiwanese moniker Tong Chia-lin. Born into a politically prominent family in Japanese-controlled Taiwan, Saburo comes of age in the 1940s and ’50s, a tumultuous time on his small island home as it moves from Japanese control to U.S. invasion to mainland Chinese domination. Inextricably woven with Saburo’s narrative is the violent history of Taiwan’s 228 Incident, which began with the Taiwanese uprising against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government on February 27, 1947, resulted in the brutal massacre of 10-30,000 Taiwanese on February 28 (“228”), and ushered in the White Terror, a period of martial law that lasted nearly four decades during which thousands of citizens were harassed, imprisoned, and murdered. [... click her for more]

Author profile: “Vision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son,” Bloom, October 28, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese American, Taiwanese, Taiwanese American

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien

Boxers and Saints

In 2006, Gene Luen Yang made major literary headlines when his then-debut, American Born Chinese, became (not without controversy, ahem!) the first-ever graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award. [Click here for my 2007 post-NBA interview with Yang.] Released earlier this month, Yang’s two-volume Boxers & Saints returns him to the recently announced NBA Young People’s longlist. Allow me a moment to whoop and holler in congratulatory glee …

Although packaged as two separate titles, both should be read together to maximize insight and enjoyment. You wouldn’t be satisfied with half a story, right?

“Every war has two faces,” the back covers of both titles aptly insist. During the foreign-incited Boxer Rebellion in 1890s China, the eponymous Boxers are represented by a young boy named Little Bao, who is more interested in the epic stories of the traveling Chinese operas than the hard labor needed to keep the family farm producing; the titular Saints are led by a young girl known only by her birth order, “Four-Girl,” who as the fourth daughter in her extended family is neither welcomed nor nurtured.

Even in the remotest villages, the “foreign devils” are encroaching with both their indiscriminate guns and their proselytizing religion. Little Bao’s father falls victim to the foreigners’ violence, and the villagers realize they will need to learn to protect themselves. A mysterious man named Red Lantern appears, savior-like, and trains the young men in kung fu. Little Bao’s childhood conversations with the opera gods morphs into the constant demands of the warrior spirit of Ch’in Shih-huang, China’s first emperor who managed to unite the vast country. The emperor demands that Little Bao must keep their beloved country together – which can only be achieved by ousting not only the foreign devils, but the “secondary devils,” as well – their fellow Chinese who have fallen under the influence of Christianity.

Those Chinese Christians are the so-called Saints. They are who welcome “Four-Girl” in spite of her endless questions, recurring doubts, and demands for snacks. She finds her community – and even a name of her own, Vibiana –  among those very foreign devils and their converts. She also discovers her own heroine, Joan of Arc, who both inspires and haunts her. As the Chinese vigilantes bring violence closer to her walled Christian village, she begs young Joan for guidance … and impossible answers.

Boxers, at almost double the length as Saints, is the volume to read first. Its extra page count sets up a fuller context to what happens on either side of war; it also sets up the narrative overlaps between Little Bao and Vibiana. The tragic outcome is inevitable –this is the guaranteed horror of war – but Yang’s graphic frames that fast forward to the conclusion are filled with moments of joy, discovery, empathy, soul-stirring doubt, and inexplicable resolve.

Most remarkable of all, Yang (who himself is a “secondary devil”-Christian, as well as a teacher in a Catholic high school in Northern California) gives literal face and voice to the undeniable forces that wield such terrible power over the actions and lives of young people – the war machine will not be ignored. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ no longer exist, which ‘side’ you’re on predetermines your actions, loyalty can only be upheld with devastating choices. While the historic details here are inspired by the actual Boxer Rebellion, the underlying narrative is clearly of war –  any war: the impossible demands, the illogical spin, and always, the unavoidable carnage.

Read and weep. And read and weep again. Boxers & Saints – up next, NBA shortlist? And then … history awaits …!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese, Chinese American

The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

Wedding GiftTwo sisters, born three months apart on the same Alabama plantation, could not have more different lives. As the daughter of a slave, Sarah is Master Allen’s property; as the legitimate Mrs. Allen’s youngest child, Clarissa is a pampered young lady of means. Playmates as children, Sarah is eventually given to Clarissa’s new household as her personal servant when Clarissa marries an older widower. What is clearly a financial arrangement of convenience threatens the future of the entire Allen estate.

Told in chapters narrated by Sarah and Mrs. Theodora Allen, both women reveal a pre-Civil War society that allowed few freedoms for women, regardless of their skin tones. Being a slave is surely the most heinous existence: when Sarah’s mother Emmeline refuses Master Allen after years of nightly service, he sells Sarah’s older sister to a faraway plantation where she is inhumanely tortured. Theodora arrives on the plantation as a hopeful young wife, and while her privileged status provides lavish creature comforts, she remains a victim of the Master’s violent whims and debaucheries, just as their daughter Clarissa is, in effect, ‘sold’ to the highest bidder.

According to the press release accompanying the galley, first-time author Marlen Suyapa Bodden – who works as an attorney with The Legal Aid Society in NYC – based her novel “on a true court case in Alabama in the 1800′s.” Although the novel’s official publication date is scheduled for later this month, Gift is already a national bestseller, thanks to a 2011 self-published debut that put 150,000 copies into circulation. I might also add that with an African American author, Gift seems rare among recent bestsellers featuring African American narratives: Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks were all written by non-African Americans.

As Gift returns to shelves now backed by a major publisher (St. Martin’s Press, part of the vast Macmillan network), it’s also available to stick in your ears, narrated by January LaVoy, who embodies Sarah’s character with determination and authority, and Jenna Lamia, whose flighty youthful voice is surely an example of unfortunate casting. Lamia might have been an ideal choice to personify Clarissa had the chapters been thus written, but her narration lacks any solemnity as the long-suffering Theodora.

That said, even at 10.5 hours, the audible narrative moves more swiftly than on the page; Lamia aside (Sarah’s chapters, thankfully, outnumber Theodora’s), Gift just sounds better than it reads. In silent print, the dialogue, especially, is predictable and stilted, but add a bit of breathily modulated southern accent and such judgment is easily eclipsed. [Could Oprah or Tyler Perry be thinking celluloid?]

With the weather cooling, grab your headset and let the miles fly by with this historic saga of two ill-fated sisters – who needs enemies when you’ve got your own family to wreak such ruinous destruction?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011, 2013

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Avatar: The Last Airbender | The Search (Parts Two and Three) created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, script by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Avatar Search 2-3

Okay, for the latest full Avatar experience, might I suggest you do a bit of catch-up homework first: To find out what prompts this eponymous ‘search,’ you’ll need to read the three-part Promise which reveals why family relationships matters so much, especially to Aang and Zuko; then you should pick up Search Part One to catch up with the gang’s quest to find Zuko and Azula’s long-missing mother, Ursa. A moment of gratitude is also in order that 2006 National Book Award finalist Gene Luen Yang continues to script these all-new Avatar adventures. Whoooo hooooo indeed!

Part Two finds the Fire siblings once again testing their rivalry, until Zuko warns Azula, “Look, we can spend the rest of the day – the rest of our lives – fighting each other, but it won’t get us any closer to mother.” Cooperative for the time being, brother and sister, together with Aang, Katara, and Sokka, arrive in Ursa’s native village, Hira’a, where they meet Noren and Noriko of the Hira’a Acting Troupe. Although the devoted couple can’t seem to offer any detailed information about Ursa, Noriko mentions that Ursa’s first love Ikem was thought to have run off to the Forgetful Valley when Ursa left to become Ozai’s wife. Warned that it’s “a dark, dangerous place [from which] no one who enters ever returns,” Zuko nevertheless determinedly announces, “We’re going to Forgetful Valley.” What the Fire Lord commands, the Fire Lord gets.

In Part Three, Aang calls forth the Mother of Faces “who walks through the Forest once a season, and “grant[s] one favor to one human.” But the one human in line for that next favor has already been waiting far too long, and Aang justly tells Zuko, “I’m sorry … we’ll keep looking for Ursa on our own.” Of course, brash Azula has a different plan, and her greed and anger set in motion a race for the truth.

Once again, Yang leads his creative team through epic feats, not to mention including an inspired nod or two toward age-old fairy tales (Snow White with a twist) and swashbuckling myths (royal siblings-in-rivalry Zeus vs. Poseidon or Athena vs. Ares). Zuko’s personal search, not only for his beloved mother but his very identity, results in more questions than answers … which proves to actually be a very good thing, because surely that means more Avatar escapades to come!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese American, Pan-Asian Pacific American

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri‘s (The Interpreter of Maladies) unparalleled ability to transform the smallest moments into whole lives pinnacles in this extraordinary story of two brothers – so close that one is “the other side” of the other – coming of age in the political tumult of 1960s India. They are separated as adults, with Subhash, the elder, choosing an academic career in the United States and the more daring Udayan remaining in Calcutta, committed to correcting the inequities of his country. Udayan’s political participation will haunt four generations, from his parents, who renounce the future, to his wife and his brother, who attempt to protect it, to the daughter and granddaughter who will never know him.

Verdict: Lahiri is remarkable, achieving multi-layered meaning in an act as simple as “banging the edge of the lid three or four times with a spoon, to break the seal”; this, her second novel and fourth title, is deservedly one of this year’s most anticipated books. Banal words of praise simply won’t do justice – perhaps what is needed is a three-word directive: just read it.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, August 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions for a HeatwaveAlas, this was the last Maggie O’Farrell I had left. Ever since discovering The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (my first and still favorite, I admit), I’ve moved her books to the top of the top of the To-Be-Read piles with regularity. Now that I’ve finished, I suppose that will make room in my brain (or ears) for other TBR titles, at least for a few years. Years. Well, that merits at least another ‘alas.’

London in 1976 might be in the midst of a heatwave, but Gretta Riordan isn’t going to let the stifling temperatures keep her from baking fresh bread. As he does every morning, her husband Robert tells her he’s off to the newsagents to pick up a paper before they eat. He’s already laid out the dishes, butter, marmalade: “It is in such small acts of kindness that people know they are loved.” But then Robert doesn’t return.

Still disbelieving, Gretta must let the children know of their father’s disappearance; he is not lost and he has not met with an accident, she knows, because he’s taken his passport, as well as withdrawn bank funds. Once a close, contented family, the five Riordans have scattered through the decades. Michael Francis, who lives nearest, has just finished another tedious year teaching high school, knowing full well he should have been a lauded professor had he not made the proverbial mistake of getting his girlfriend-now-wife pregnant before either was ready. Monica is barely enduring her stifling second marriage, forced to play stepmother to two unyielding girls. Aiofe, the much younger youngest, is across the Pond in Manhattan; she’s a photographer’s assistant in love with her renegade soulmate, but she suffers on the verge of losing all because she’s unwilling to admit her illiteracy.

Called home, each adult must pull his or herself out of lethargy and face mistakes, past and present, in order to move forward. Michael Francis must cease the blame and allow his wife her own life, Monica must stop punishing Aiofe for a betrayal she never committed, and Aiofe must realize that admitting the truth doesn’t mean losing independence. Even Gretta has shattering secrets to divulge, the release of which might lead the family back to reunion and so much more.

Interestingly enough, for the first time in many, many titles, Heatwave seems to have finally released veteran narrator John Lee from my own imposed pairing with all titles Orhan Pamuk (even when I’ve read Pamuk on the page, I ‘hear’ John Lee!). Certainly that’s testimony to O’Farrell’s convincing storytelling. So much so that if Lee decides to take on O’Farrell’s next, my ears will be waiting impatiently!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British, Irish