Let's start off with an adult historical-fiction story chronicling the journey of a young girl immigrating from Japan to the US in 1917. Before the days of eharmony and match.com, Japanese parents sometimes resorted to sending out pictures of their daughters to men in the States and hoping marriage would ensue. Hana has never met her future husband before she travels to San Francisco to meet him, so she has no real idea what he's like. She has to deal with her stranger of a husband, trying to adjust to her new life and make friends, and living as a foreigner in an increasing hostile country (hey there, WWII and internment camps).
Hana is very naive at first only to be ground down by her situation and circumstances--sad, but she gains both resilience and strength as she struggles with difficult decisions. The details and historical aspect are well-researched and realistically presented. This book is short at 222 pages and as I recall, it ends rather abruptly. I can rationalize this by telling myself that the book ends where it does because it's the end of a certain part of Hana's journey in life, but even when I read this many years ago I was a tad WTF that's it?
Nonetheless, Picture Bride is a good portrait of the various difficulties that faced Japanese-Americans around WWII.
Fox Woman and Fudoki by Kij Johnson
More non-YA/adult! Both of these books are set Heian Era Japan; they are each standalone but related thematically and are set in the same "world". Fox Woman is essentially a particular Japanese folktale padded out to 384 pages; I knew which folktale it was and the book didn't really attempt to change it, so it was all very straightforward to me.
There is a decent attempt made to explore the nooks and crannies of the tale, i.e. when a fox falls in love with a man and changes into human form to be with him, does shape dictate nature? Since the man in question already has a wife when the fox lures him away and enchants him, what happens on the wife's side of the tale? What is the viewpoint of the enchanted man? The story is told from these first-person viewpoints with pretty good success.
I found Fox Woman to be overly long, as I tend to find most fairytales-turned-novels. There was also a scene of kind-of-pretty-much-bestiality that was presented in such a way as to be almost acceptable because, well, the protagonist is a fox and she's in love with a human man and she's a shapeshifter and at one point she starts to lose control of her human form but yeah not gonna lie I was kind of WTF during that scene.
I found the ending to be intellectually unexciting--i.e. the exploration of themes kind of petered out and ended up going for the predictable conclusion. The very, very end though had a sort of whimsical potentially hopeful will-it-or-won't-it charm that I quite liked.
The Heian setting is where this book really shines--everything from atmosphere to the depth of poetry and literature to the mannerisms of the nobility--to be astonishingly rendered. This lady has done her research and done it well (not that I'm a Heian expert but I've read some actual Heian Era literature), and credits her sources at the end of her books.
Nonetheless, it still had that same wonderful atmosphere and historical detail, as well as a cameo from Fox Woman. The very end also had a certain satisfyingly ambiguous charm to it.
YA/MG! Translated from German! About a young German boy named Christopher who magically finds himself teleported to Nepal where he teams up with the country's invisible Prince Jumar to combat the communists who are trying to overthrow the country! Also Christopher's brother went missing while traveling in Nepal so they have to find him! And there are these enormous dragons with black tunnels of eyes that eat the color out of the world and whose shadows turn people into hollow bronze statues! (Incidentally, that dragon on the cover is actually a very accurate depiction.)
Yes, so, there's a lot going on in Dragons of Darkness, and it reads more MG than YA--and yet a lot of the themes are more YA than MG, and then again more adult than YA. Everything about this book, from the distant, wry, and occasionally petulant observations of Jumar (who is literally invisible and nobody knows why) to the color-eating dragons (they were totally why I wanted to read this book and they didn't disappoint) to the way each section is prefaced with a page detailing the location, terrain, and flora and fauna--everything has an air of whimsy and a deceptively light tone.
Deceptive because the book deals with revolution and coups and terrorists and soldiers and death and politics. And yet the book handles all these themes quite well, in ways that make you think and consider while sympathizing, empathizing and growing appropriately frustrated at the same time.
I liked Dragons of Darkness overall, but it is a monster of a hardcover book at 566 pages, and it definitely started to drag after a while. The individual scenes felt important but reading about how they walked somewhere else, making wry but insightful observations about the world around them, started to wear a little thin. A lot of the things in the book you just have to accept--i.e. that Christopher suddenly finds himself in Nepal after opening a book on Nepal, that Jumar is invisible and his mother has been asleep in a garden for years, there are these massive colorful dragons, etc.--but if you can get past the whimsical inexplicableness and slog through the slow parts, Dragons of Darkness is a decent read.
These 4 books are MG, set in fantasy/mythological China and feature characters from Chinese mythology as well as non-mythological characters, and I was so totally absolutely in love with these books when I was in 4th grade. Like I read the last book to shreds, where the cover was beaten to the texture of fleece and the pages were falling out. The first and last books were my favorite, by the way. Also, the narrator changes with every book (I think--it's been a while). The overarching saga is one of war and magic and mythology, dragons and soldiers and treachery, and it's completely and totally not fair that most of the books are out of print.
Dragon of the Lost Sea is the first book and when I came across it at a school book fair, it was the cover that caught my eye because it was so distinctly Asian (sadly, the reprint had an uglier cover that matched the later books). I had also begun my first serious dragon craze and since I already loved fantasy, anything with "dragon" in the title caught my whole and undivided attention.
I hated first-person POV at the time but even so, I loved this book. The narrator is a dragon named Shimmer (okay, I admit that even than and still now in the abstract I find her name to be eye-roll-worthy, but trust me, I love her and the books anyway) who is the princess of her people. Her home, the Inland Sea, was enchanted into a pebble and stolen by a witch, and Shimmer's people have been scattered and exiled across the world. Shimmer's quest to take vengeance upon the witch, regain her home, and unite her people is, you will no doubt agree, pretty epic-sounding. And it is.
An orphan boy named Thorn joins her in her journey but Shimmer is the one with the thorny nature: she's a dragon, and a princess, and young and headstrong and arrogant and she doesn't need some street urchin's help. Except she does, and deep down she knows it and so does he, and the bond of friendship that grows between these two is awesome.
Book 3 is Dragon Cauldron, where events are setting up for the epic showdown between the evil creepy villain who has tricked a ton of people and gained a ton of power and intends to wage war against dragonkind. Something big, important, and WTF/OMG-worthy happens to a certain character in this book that has important implications for the next.
Those are my recs. Guess I'll have to track down some Asian-flavored YA now! Got any Asian-y YA recs? Have any super-favorite-absolute-awesome recs from when you were a wee 'un in elementary school?