Something to Hide is an utterly unpretentious and fun story of four women whose fates are shown to intertwine after many twists and many secrets (most from one woman to the other). I was concerned at first that the four far-flung locations would be exploited with heavy descriptions of travel and local attractions, but they end up fitting completely into the story and giving it the mysteries it needs. Yes, it’s a madcap pace but the emotions of the women are real and well-rendered.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing sets out to tell the story of two intertwined families through the eyes of the youngest daughter, leaving safely in Vancouver while the rest of the protagonists suffer various hardships in 20th century China, including the Cultural Revolution (particularly dangerous for devotees of classical music) and the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Booker Prize committee loved it; I found it tedious and overly heavy with history. Sure, there are lots of clever observations, including the ongoing theme of sending secret messages through hand-copied books, but I would have liked more personal stories and fewer political ones, since they are abundantly told elsewhere.
Death of a Red Heroine starts with the body of a national model worker and ends with a political vengeance against a so-called HCC, high-cadre child. In between is a leisurely investigation of an admittedly complex crime that takes Inspector Chen and his faithful sidekick Yu through bustling Shanghai, a detour through the traffic bureau, many restaurants, multiple poems and a karaoke session with spying undertones.
The ponderous historical briefings seemed less annoying than in the previous installment I read , but perhaps it was because I am more used to them. Still, if you like fast-moving action this is not the book, or the series, for you.
When Red Is Black is a rather mundane crime investigation into the murder of a dissident Chinese writer, who used to be a devoted Red Guard but switched to the other side. What sets the book apart is the setting, a communal building in modern Shanghai where the Iron Bowl government jobs can no longer compete with the riches of capitalism. The story is heavily laced with expositions of recent and not-so-recent Chinese history, which to me felt overly heavy and didactic. I enjoyed the nuanced characters of the detective and his superior, however.
It seems to be chic these days to talk about the street where you live, at least if you are a foreigner. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road tackles a Shanghai street and presents many interesting characters. There is a resourceful and ambitious flower seller, who left her small village to make a relative fortune, but was not able to give her sons the education she dreamed of because of the strict residency permit rules. There is another woman, obsessed with making money and falling into what seems to us pretty obviously fraudulous schemes. And the folks who were evicted from the traditional houses to make way for juicy redevelopment initiatives also have a history of their own. A solid story of a society in transition.
In The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China, the author searches for his family’s long-buried treasures in a place he is never been (and no one remembers quite where it is!) Of course, the search is doomed from the start but it is an enjoyable adventure, mostly in the stories of how the porcelain art and industry developed in China over time — and how politics and wars again and again influenced them.