Have you ever gotten a book recommendation that was so good you could not wait to tell everyone else about the book? This is that book! This epic multigenerational story draws you in and pretty soon the characters feel like your family and friends.
I love multigenerational tales – The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi are two of my favorites. While reading Pachinko, I joked with the person who recommended it to me, that I could barely live my life. All I wanted to do was read the book. It was so compelling that I could not wait to see what happened next.
The novel, set in Korea, starts in 1910, and focuses on a family who runs a boarding house in a small village by the ocean. This couple has only one son, Hoonie, who was born with a cleft palate and twisted leg, but manages to survive childhood and grow into a dependable son who makes his parents proud. Hoonie eventually takes over the boarding house with the help of his wife, Yangjin, and the couple have a daughter named Sunja.
As a naïve, sheltered teenager, Sunja makes a mistake. She meets and falls in love with a much older, Korean man. Unbeknownst to her, he is already married to a Japanese woman and when Sunja becomes pregnant, he offers to take care of her as his Korean mistress. Sunja refuses, and thus, starts a family-centered tale that readers will be unable to put down.
After Sunja’s rejection of Hansu, an unusual and timely solution is provided for her situation, and soon she is on her way to Japan to start a new life. Over the course of the next several years she deals with many struggles. She and her children and grandchildren endure harsh discrimination, financial troubles and have their lives impacted by world events, but despite the hardships, Sunja’s life has love and friendship, and raising her children brings her much joy.
I am not sure how I missed this captivating book when it was first released four years ago, but if you have not read it, I highly recommend it. Min Jin Lee has created a beautiful, enthralling tale of family. The characters are well written, flaws and all, and the setting and use of world events creates a strong, thought provoking novel.
As the title implies, MEXICAN GOTHIC by SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA is an homage to the gothic fiction novels of the 20th century, but one set deep in the mountains of Mexico rather than the English countryside.
Noemí Taboada is the strong-willed, somewhat-spoiled daughter of a wealthy family. She spends her free time reveling in the glamor and decadence of 1950’s Mexico City – dating men her father doesn’t approve of, and enjoying life.
As the book opens, Noemí has been summoned home from a costume party by her father. Expecting to be reprimanded for her choice of date, Noemí is surprised that her father instead wants to talk about her cousin Catalina.
Catalina was recently married following a whirlwind romance. She kept her relationship with Virgil Doyle a secret from everyone, and the two went back to Virgil’s ancestral home as soon as they were wed.
Noemí’s father has received a frantic, confused letter from Catalina claiming that the Doyles are poisoning her and mentioning ghosts. Fearing that either Catalina is in real danger, or that she may need some psychological help that her new husband refuses to provide, Mr. Taboada asks Noemí to visit her cousin and report back about the situation.
Arriving at the crumbling mansion known as High Place, Noemí is immediately at odds with the Doyle family. Virgil is brusque, dismissive, and unhelpful. Virgil’s aunt, Florence, keeps Noemí from visiting Catalina, who she claims has tuberculosis. And the Doyle patriarch, Howard, talks almost exclusively about eugenics.
Now a sickly, bedridden old man, Howard also tells Noemí about his deceased wives. They were a pair of sisters, both wards of Howard when he came to Mexico. He married the elder sister initially, but she died within the year, leaving Howard to marry the younger sister.
From one of the local people in town, Noemí learns about the fate of Howard’s children. Years ago, Howard’s daughter Ruth had fallen in love with a local young man. When the young man went missing following her father’s disapproval of the match, Ruth took a shotgun into the house and shot every member of her family, including herself.
Howard survived his gunshot wound, Florence and young Virgil were not in the house at the time; the three of them were the only remaining members of the Doyle family.
Noemí’s only ally at High Place is Florence’s son, Francis. It is through him that she learns much of the history of the mansion and the Doyle family. He tells Noemí about his family’s mining business that built their fortune, which has since dried up, and the English cemetery that Howard had constructed – with dirt brought over from Europe – where the deceased Doyles have been laid to rest.
When Noemí is finally allowed to see her cousin, Catalina seems relatively normal. She does seem weak and tired, but more coherent than she was in her letter. Until Catalina tells Noemí that the Doyles can hear her through the walls.
Concerned for her cousin, but unable to convince Virgil to get help for her, Noemí resolves to leave High Place and get help. Up to this point, the Doyles have been creepy and off-putting, but as Noemí attempts to leave the mansion, things begin to get a lot more supernatural.
Moreno-Garcia borrows elements from the classics of gothic fiction, from Flowers in the Attic to Dracula. MEXICAN GOTHIC is a creepy, atmospheric novel. The reader feels a growing dread as the history of the Doyle family is revealed, and as they – along with Noemí – come to understand just how much danger the Taboada cousins are in.
Noemí herself is not a traditional amateur detective. She is focused, driven, and stubborn. But while she has the fashion sense and charisma of a teenage sleuth like Nancy Drew, she has no real interest in solving the case. Her whole focus is on helping her cousin, not piecing together any mysteries.
It is an unusual book, and there is more going on below the surface than I can convey. Once you finish the novel, I recommend seeking out interviews with the author – she has a lot to say about this book, and about the real mining town in central Mexico that inspired the novel.
Book review by Beth Snow
Coming of age stories are the bread and butter of books written for teen audiences. They appear in a wide variety of formats, both fiction and non-fiction. Like people, they come in all shapes and sizes–which makes it more likely that readers will find a story that fits. For teens trying to find their place in the world, it can make all the difference. Today’s title is more than just historical fiction or an object lesson; it describes a painful path to identity.
In What the Night Sings, author Vesper Stamper raises and answers the question, “When all is stripped away, who am I?” Through her main character, Gerta Richter, she shows (in words and images) what remains of identity after a harrowing journey. Teenage Gerta lived a life sheltered in beautiful music and in her father’s love until the Nazis came one night and put them in a cattle car bound for a concentration camp. Only when her father’s story unfolded on the train ride, did Gerta learn she was Jewish and living under a false name. From that point on, she’s immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust surviving through luck and her skill with her father’s viola. Barely alive at the end of the war, Gerta begins the long road to recovery at a refugee camp where she meets other survivors–each with their own physical and emotional scars, each facing decisions about the future. At 16, she must learn who she is and carve a path for herself in a world utterly, irrevocably changed.
Let’s stop there, because plot summary doesn’t begin to tell the story. Stamper unfolds Gerta’s tale of pain and discovery using carefully crafted prose–just enough detail to be effective without offering more than what is needed. She crafts an outline on which readers can hang their imaginations, filling in Gerta’s experience: “The train screeches, slows, whines. The clacking tempo decreases until we stop. A rush of wind blows through the two small windows. It smells of a sweetish smoke. It is not wood smoke.” Although Stamper uses few words (the entire book including multiple supplemental sections reaches only 266 pages), it’s enough to create rich, believable characters. It’s also enough to convey the research behind this well-written historical fiction. Gerta’s emotions feel authentic, immediate, a realistic response to the specific nightmares of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.
There’s a sparse beauty in Stamper’s text and in the black-and-white, ink wash illustrations found throughout. Whether a small, corner work or a full, two-page spread, her art is both ethereal and very much grounded in reality. (Pages 198-99 are a fantastic example!) Images and story mesh perfectly, bringing Gerta’s journey to life and deepening the reader’s experience.
What sets this book apart from the greater body of Holocaust fiction is its timeline. The main narrative doesn’t end with the Nazi defeat. Instead, it tackles the immense question of “What happens afterward?” As was the case for millions after World War II, Gerta’s life does not immediately return to prosperity or joy because bombs stopped dropping and concentration camps were liberated. Stamper unflinchingly describes the situation faced by survivors–disease, malnutrition, poverty, housing shortages, physical and emotional scars, the search for loved ones, rampant anti-Semitism, reclamation of identity. Perhaps it’s possible that hope can return to Gerta, that she can truly live instead of merely survive: “Everyone has come and gone, piles of shells pulled in and out of waves, and I’m still here, a skeleton of a sea creature, dropped in this tide pool, living, watching, still living.”
Be sure to read What the Night Sings cover to cover. The supplemental materials after the story round out the book and offer richer reading. The author provides hand-drawn maps of the book’s settings along with a glossary, pronunciation guide, and brief list of related resources. To get a true feeling of how music intertwined with the characters, try listening to the selections mentioned in the book; a list is included with the other resources. Most importantly, read the “Author’s Note” for a powerful view of Vesta Stamper’s moving, challenging journey of discovery as she created this story.
This memorable work was a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2019 William C. Morris YA Debut Award which honors a book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrates impressive new voices in young adult literature. This is an amazing book, award or no. Read it because it’s beautiful, powerful, important, and Velveteen Rabbit real. It’s great for teens (and adults) who are ready for Holocaust and coming of age material; be prepared for discussion opportunities on a variety of topics. I greatly enjoyed this title and hope you do, too.
February 3, 2019
I always have a hard time figuring out how to begin any columns I write for Joplin Public Library. This time it is even more difficult to know what to say. This will be my last column and book review on behalf of Joplin Public Library.
The day you read this will be my last day as director at Joplin Public Library. I have just completed nine years of what has inarguably been the most interesting years of my employment. The years have run the gamut of emotions and stretched me in ways I never anticipated.
In the way life frequently happens, I was not seeking a change. It was my full intention to stay with Joplin Public Library until I was led away in my dotage. An opportunity came my way, however, that changed that and is allowing me to come full circle in my life.
My undergraduate degree was awarded by Ozark Christian College on North Main Street. The “new” library facility opened there my freshman year. When I saw they had an opening in the library, I saw a chance to “dial back” my life a bit, yet come and work where my adult life began.
I will be beginning as Access Services librarian (fancy librarian term for making sure folks can get what they need) there. Leaving Joplin Public Library is definitely bittersweet. I have learned much and met so many terrific patrons and staff that leaving and beginning again isn’t easy. Yet the opportunity allows me to come full circle with my life in a way I hadn’t dreamed of.
I will miss Joplin Public Library and hope the feeling is mutual.
Now, I’d better tell you about a book!
I’ve read two books by Melanie Dobson this month that captured my attention and intrigued me. I have always enjoyed historical fiction, and especially fiction taking place during the World War II era, specifically during the Holocaust. Visiting Auschwitz when I was in college left an indelible imprint on me, making me want to learn more, both through fiction and non-fiction writings.
Both CATCHING THE WIND and HIDDEN AMONG THE STARS are set with dual time and storylines. There are storylines in the present-day setting that intertwine with the past. Both books had intricate plotting that kept me thinking, trying to figure out what was what and how the stories in each weave together to make one.
CATCHING THE WIND tells of Daniel Knight, who has searched for nearly 70 years for his best friend, Brigitte, whom he helped escape from the Gestapo after both their sets of parents were arrested. A long, harrowing and dangerous journey for the 13 and 10 year old gets them to England, where they are promptly separated. He never reneges on his promise to try to find her. But can he keep that promise?
HIDDEN AMONG THE STARS tells of Callie Randall, who runs a bookstore and discovers a cryptic list in a first edition of BAMBI. Her search for information leads her to take risks, discover past secrets, and find information that changes lives forever. Changes for the better? Or changes for the worse?
I read both books in audiobook format through Hoopla. Joplin Public Library also carries them in print format. The audiobook narrator was quite good. I don’t care for the narrators who read quite well, but in a sickly sweet voice. Give me a narrator whose voice changes for characters and situations. Nancy Peterson narrated these two books that way and did a great job.
These two books were the sort that had me sitting in the garage for five minutes more of the story, or driving more slowly on my commute home. Tempting as it was to listen at my desk, I managed to resist that.
If you enjoy historical fiction with a hint of intrigue, danger, and romance, as well as an inspirational bent, you will enjoy these books.
Thank you for allowing me to bend your ear about my reading habits for the past nine years. I will never forget the experience.
Reviewed by Jacque Gage
1901 East 20th Street
Joplin, MO 64804