The author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve is an American-born mom whose travels take her family to China, and whose two boys attend Chinese public elementary schools (the boy of the title is the older one; the story stops when the younger one enters kindergarten). She takes us mostly through his experience, and his parents’, although she adds other stories of independent reporting she did while living in China. The best parts of the book, by far, are the ones that tell of her personal experience, as she humorously tells of her surprise, even horror, at some of the coercive behavior modification techniques used with very young children — while she freely marvels at their academic successes. She also tells of bribing teachers with expensive American handbags, and the routine requirement for parents to practice at home with students who are not performing at the level expected by teachers. And there’s a good arc to the story, moving from astonishment to respect.
The Leavers tells the interleaved stories of a Chinese-American boy who is apparently abandoned by this mother, then adopted by a white couple, and of his mother, who was brutally deported in a raid of the beauty salon where she worked, undocumented.
Parts of the story are wonderful, capturing everyday moments in the boy’s life as he struggles in school, devours junk food with his cousin, or spies on his adoptive parents, and showing his distress as he is brutally yanked from one world to another. But some parts, especially dialog, seem lifted from a cheap self-help book — and the overall logic of the story is somewhat flawed. If you can get past the stilted bits, it’s an interesting look at both adoption and immigration.
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.