The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017

 

Where do I start with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane? There was so much going on in this book – the plot was so layered and there were so many interesting themes underlying the story, but somehow it all worked and was immensely compelling. (disclaimer: there may be a few spoilers in here, but I think most of what I talk about is covered in the synopsis, which is pretty detailed)

Goodreads has been selling this book to me hard all year with their advertising, but for some reason I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. I read Dragon Springs Road earlier this year, which I liked but didn’t love. It’s probably unfair to compare the two books, just because they happen in China, but I found the pacing slow in Dragon Springs Road and I expected The Tea Girl to have a similar pacing, but I found this one so much more compelling. I don’t know a whole lot about Chinese culture, so I appreciated both novels and learned a lot, but there was a lot more going on in See’s novel.

Starting with the narrator, I absolutely loved Li-yan. She had such ambition, despite the constant belittlement from her family and the refrain that she was unimportant because she was a girl. Li-yan was born into the Ahka culture, which like many cultures, values boys far beyond girls. The Akha are a very tight knit people and view the village more as a collective than group of individuals. They believe everything has a spirit and they have many customs to protect against bad spirits and encourage good spirits. They believe it is everyone’s job to bring more children into the community and everyone always hopes for the birth of healthy sons.

I appreciated See’s writing because in the beginning the Ahka seemed so backwards to me and some of their practices were extremely horrifying. But throughout the course of the novel See was able to make me really appreciate their way of life and they did progress to abandon some of their more troubling customs (namely the killing of “human rejects”).

But I loved Li-yan because despite being told she was worth nothing, she had such ambition to pursue a better life through education and a desire to be someone. She convinces the village and her father to allow her to pursue her education and becomes the first educated person in the village. She faces so many struggles, but she always persevered and made choices (some of which were very tough) on what she felt was best for herself. Some readers might condemn her for giving up her child, but I didn’t fault her. She really would have had no life if she had decided to keep Yan-yeh. In many cases she was forced into some of her decisions, but I especially loved her decision to leave San-pa. I fully expected her to stick things out no matter how toxic things became, but when she finally recognized what was going on, she made a decision for herself to leave, even though she risked being sold or killed if she was caught.

She made so many wrong choices and at times really disappointed me, but I could sympathize with her decisions and forgive her for them. I was sad when she got distracted from her studies and ignored the advice of her family about San-pa, but she was so young and blinded by love, which I think we’ve all been at the young age of 16. She punished herself for so long after her failed marriage though and I was glad to see her find the strength to love again. 

I thought her relationship with her mother was beautiful. In the beginning I didn’t like A-ma because she was so harsh with Li-Yan, but she really grew on me and it was wonderful to watch their relationship grow and to see the softness in A-ma after the birth of Yan-yeh. I really enjoyed all the mother/daughter relationships in this book and the relationships between all of the women.

I didn’t enjoy the format of Hayley’s story as much (I think I would have preferred 1st person POV), but I learned a lot from her experience as well. I’ve thought about the challenges immigrants face in moving to America/Canada, but I haven’t put much thought into what it must be like to have parents that don’t look like you and to have so many stereotypes forced upon you. You always expect that your parents would be people that you could relate to and take advice from, but when your lived experience is so different from theirs, it must be so difficult not to have that shared experience and reassurance from your parents.

It was also interesting to learn a little bit about the one-child policy. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Chinese mothers and it’s upsetting to see girls so little valued in a culture. It was interesting to read about Li-yan’s experience giving up her daughter and I’d love to learn more from other perspectives of women who’ve had to make decisions to give up their daughters.

And of course there was the tea. I didn’t think I could find tea so fascinating! I had no idea there was so much history behind tea and I’d never heard of Pu’er tea, so it was interesting to learn about how tea production changed Yunnan province, world tea markets, and became such a phenomenon. What I really liked about this book is that it started in the 90’s. I couldn’t believe there were villages in China that were so remote and unconnected to the world within my lifetime. It was fascinating to see how they evolved and changed as the modern world came to them in search of tea. It gave me a whole new appreciation for tea!

There is so much going on in this novel, but it all worked and was immensely compelling. It was a beautiful novel about the struggles women face, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the ways in which we change and adapt to the world around us. Would definitely recommend!

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Beneath a Scarlet Sky


Rating:
 .5
Author: Mark T. Sullivan
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017 on audiobook

Ugh, this book.

This is a challenge to rate because it really is a fascinating story that deserves to be told, but oh my god, the writing was brutal. I really wish this story could have been told by someone like Markus Zusak, Anthony Doerr, Kristen Hannah, or literally anyone who knows how to better write emotions and dialogue.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the fictional telling of Pino Lella’s true story. Lella is an 17 year old Italian from Milan who comes of age at the height of World War II. His parents send him out of Milan and he ends up guiding jews and other people looking to escape Italy through the snowy alps to neutral Switzerland. He does this until just before his 18th birthday, when his parents call him back to Milan and force him to enlist with the Germans to avoid being drafted to what would likely be sure death with the Italian Army. This is a huge source of shame for Pino and when he finds himself assigned to be the driver for German General Hans Leyers, he seizes the chance to redeem himself by turning spy for the Allies. Oh, and along the way he falls in love with this girl Ana.

This was an incredible true story, but the writing failed on so many levels for me. Disclaimer, this was my first audiobook, so it’s possible that maybe audiobooks are just not the right format for me, but I really think it’s the writing. First of all, the dialogue was awful – it didn’t feel at all natural. Secondly, it was not dynamic. I know this book is based on a true story, but it’s still supposed to be fiction. As an author you can take some liberties on a true story, to infuse emotion into the story and make it more palatable to your readers. Historical fiction writers do this all the time.

I think Sullivan should have just written a biography because this novel was way too precise. I felt like I was reading a boring chronology of Pino’s life. “Pino did this, and then he went here, and then he saw this, etc…” It was way too long and Sullivan tried to make every single event seem so intense, he spent so much time detailing each alpine crossing and everywhere Pino went as a driver. It was weird how precise he was with everything, even down to the specific distances Pino hiked and specific time he did something. I didn’t need to know how many metres Pino traversed for every part of his mountain crossings and I didn’t need to know where exactly he took General Leyers at 2, 4, and 6pm.

Sullivan conducted extensive interviews with Pino Lella and I felt like he didn’t give enough voice to the character and tried to stay too close to Lella’s story. Pino’s narrative felt like that of an 80 year old man recounting what happened to him during the war rather than that of a 17 year old actually living these experiences. This experience happened to Pino 70 years ago and I’m sure it was hard for him to articulate his emotions about it, which is where I had the biggest issue with Sullivan’s writing.

Sullivan didn’t know how to emote. Pino felt like the most basic character ever. He’s constantly talking about how he “feels”, but it had no depth for me. I think Sullivan should have taken a bit more liberty with the story to better connect with or imagine what Pino really would have felt. This book was an example of telling your audience instead of showing them. Sullivan obviously admires Pino (as do I), but it got in the way of his writing because Pino didn’t really have many flaws. I feel like Sullivan didn’t imagine what it would really have been like for Pino to enlist with the Nazis and the struggle he would have faced being shunned by his brother and best friend. Sure he was “sad” or “angry”, but his emotions were so basic and lacked depth.

This went for all the characters. Most upsetting for me was Ana. She had no personality whatsoever and her relationship with Pino was so romanticized. I mean, Pino was 18 at the time, so I could believe his fawning over her, but ugh, there were way too many descriptions of Pino being intoxicated by her “female scent”. Bletch. Seriously, what did Pino like about her besides her beauty? We never learn anything of substance about her except a quick flashback to her father’s tragic death.

But enough about the writing, on to the story: it was so heartbreaking! Pino was a busy teenager during the war and made a truly incredible contribution to the war. The synopsis gives no indication about the time Pino spent in the alps guiding refugees across the border, which I found even more fascinating than his spy work under General Leyers. It’s wild how many historical events he bore witness to and I really liked learning about Italy’s occupation. I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction about the camps and what it was like during the war in England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and even Hungary, but I’ve never read any WWII fiction about Italy.

The ending and epilogue were some of the most meaningful parts of the book for me. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but there was one death (it’s war, there’s obviously going to be deaths) at the end of the story that was actually one of the most horrifying things I could ever imagine and I was extremely disturbed reading it. Honestly, everything about the end of the war in Italy was disturbing: the civil war in Milan, the revenge killings, the desecration of Mussolini’s body in the square. Death is so unpredictable and it was one thing that Sullivan did a good job of demonstrating towards the end of the book. 

Sullivan’s depiction of the aftermath of the war in Italy was also meaningful because it really showcased the hardships the people of Milan had experienced and their anger at the Nazis and the fascists. It’s a frightening look at the depravity of humans and how even after suffering so much, we can still want to see others suffer. Can revenge actually soothe your soul after bearing witness to so much pain? Pino was so detached emotionally at the end of the novel that I thought this was the one scene where Sullivan actually showed us his pain instead of just telling us about it. Pino was numb inside, so Sullivan stopped narrating his internal emotions and we were able to discern them from his actions rather than being told how he felt.

After finishing this book, I’m not surprised that Pino kept his experiences to himself. I don’t think him a coward, but I understand now why he thought himself one. He was shamed and shunned by a lot of people when he joined the Nazis and when he becomes a spy, he’s frustrated by not being able to share it with his family or Carletto and hates for them to think of him as a traitor Nazi. But to an extent, he was. He did join the Nazi party and it was only by fate that he ended up as a driver to Hans Leyers. I’m glad he was able to rebel under the Nazi regime and secretly fight against the Nazis, but the story could easily have gone another way if he had had no opportunity to fight for the Allies and ultimately, the winners.

But in a time of war we can’t know how things will turn out. Pino was young and not equipped for the situations he was put in. It’s impossible to predict how we will act and react in extreme situations and how the bounds of right and wrong can become blurred and confused by the people and events around you. I can see how Pino would be haunted by his experiences for the rest of his life and how war can really change the trajectory of your entire life and character.

I am very glad that Mark Sullivan has created a record of Pino’s life so that history will remember him, but don’t expect a well-written book.

The Women in the Castle


Rating: 
⭐⭐
Author: Jessica Shattuck
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: May 2017

 

This was so disappointing. Historical fiction is my favourite genre and I was really expecting to like The Women in the Castle, but it was a letdown. Maybe I should have read the synopsis more closely, but I thought I was getting a historical novel about the July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler from the point of view of the wives/widows of the resistance. This is not what this book was about.

Marianne is hosting a party at the Burg Lingenfels castle on the evening of Kristallnacht. In their outrage about this event, the male aristocrats in attendance decide to form a resistance against Hitler and name Marianne the “commander of wives and children”. She thinks this is somewhat patronizing at first, but later when the plot fails, comes to see it as a term of honour and importance. I still think it’s patronizing.

After the party the story jumps forward 7 years to the end of the war as Marianne attempts to track down any widows of the resistance (the plot having failed and their husbands all having been executed). She saves young Benita, the bride of her childhood friend Connie, from a Russian whorehouse in Berlin and Ania and her 2 sons from a displaced persons camp. They all move into Burg Lingenfels and try to rebuild their lives and escape the ghosts of their pasts.

This is pretty much the extent of what we learn about the July 20 plot – the rest of the novel jumps back and forth between the present and the past (but never focusing on the assassination plot). The format did not work for me at all and neither did the writing style. Evidently a lot of people loved Shattuck’s writing, but I found it very lacklustre and slow. The constant back and forth in time and the changing points of view made the story feel very disjointed. Ania’s past takes up a large chunk in the middle of the novel which felt very awkward in the pacing and the entire last quarter of the novel takes place in the 90’s.

That said, Ania was the only redeeming character in this book for me. I was interested in learning about the July 20 plot, but when I realized I wasn’t getting that I was hoping for a book about Germany’s struggle to return to normalcy after the end of the war and come to terms with the horrific details that came out about Hitler’s death camps. How did Germans move forward after discovering the extent of Hitler’s evil (which was unknown to many until the liberation)? What about former Nazi’s – how did they move forward? We’re they ashamed of their complicity in the halocaust?

I do appreciate that Shattuck offered a few different viewpoints on this dilemma. I did really like Ania and enjoyed her section of the story and how she grappled with the decisions she made during (and after) the war. However, I thought Marianne was insufferable and too uncompromising in her morals and beliefs. I didn’t understand why she was so revered and I didn’t like how her story concluded. Benita was irrelevant to me and I did not enjoy her story at all. I wish we’d had more time to get to know Connie, since he was so important to two of the main characters, yet without knowing more about him, I couldn’t understand what either Marianne or Benita saw in him.

So unfortunately this one isn’t getting a high rating from me because I found neither the writing nor the plot compelling. It had promise, but it didn’t live up to the expectation for me. It seems well loved by a lot of other people though, so maybe still worth the read?