Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

During my two-week family vacation in Texas, where we zig-zagged across the Lone Star State, driving from Houston, to Dallas, Austin, and then back to Houston again, I managed to stop and visit the local library to pick up some good reads that weren’t related to my work as an agent. I picked up a book in the featured fiction section based partially on the cover and the cover copy.  I was intrigued.  This book seemed like easy reading and I was hooked after gleaning the first several pages of the story.  And maybe it had something to do with the 80-degree weather outside, but The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, just looked cool and refreshing, if not a little bit magical.

I read the The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, in less than 48 hours.  It was one of those books that you can’t put down and constantly think of when you have to put down.  It’s difficult to describe the book, it seems part allegory, part realist adventure, with dashes of magical realism thrown in.  The story revolves around a child-less couple, who, one night, carves a snow girl in the Alaskan wilderness.  The next day, a small almost elfin girl, is seen flitting through the woods with the very mittens and scarf that had adorned the snow girl the night before.  What enfolds during the story, is an intimate portrait of a marriage, individual longing for a child, and the meaning of family. Of course, that’s not as eloquent as the cover copy:


I have a feeling NY is going to see a lot of this soon…
Credit: Moscow Daily Photo

“Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.”–Cover Copy from The Snow Child

At times, I felt like I was reading Henry James’s Turn of the Screw–is the narrator reliable or unreliable?  Here, there were two narrators.  The book alternated between the husband’s perspective and the wife’s perspective.  This way of writing can at times seem like a gimmick, but with Eowyn Ivey’s prose, the transitions were smooth and realistic.  There was an undertone of sadness in the book that immediately appealed to my melancholy side.  I also think that, being a mother myself, heightened my awareness and made it all the more poignant, the relationship between mother and child.

What I also loved about the book was the great sense of place.  Adventure writers whom I love, like Jon Krakauer, are able to achieve this immediate sense of place that transports you to the scene of the story.  I’ve never been to the great wilderness that is Alaska, but I was transported there by Eowyn’s fine and crisp prose.  I was really impressed by how the prose was never overly-flowery when dealing with such a fantastic subject.  A lot of debut writers tend to ‘over-write.’  That was definitely not the case here.

Oh, did I mention that this is Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel?  And that it was recently short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize? All the more impressive, I’m in love, and I’m just a teensy bit jealous of the fine folks at Folio Literary who helped bring this book to market (Jeff Kleinman represents Eowyn).

It was strange to read the book when outside it was in the 80′s but this is the perfect read for Fall/ Winter.  Curl up with a hot cocoa and let The Snow Child take you into the Alaskan Wilderness.

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Book Review: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

I just finished reading Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.  I found it after buying the e-book version of When The Empire was Divine by Julie Otsuka, when Amazon suggested ‘other books I might like’ (thanks Amazon, you know me!).  Based on the excellent mostly five-star reviews of the book, I decided to get a hard copy since the cover was so beautiful AND the hard copy version was cheaper than the e-book version (sometimes I still like to kick it old school!).

I finished the book in 3 separate sittings.  I immediately loved the protagonist, Kimberly Chang, who had such a brave and formidable voice for a teenager.  The story is told in the first person and the details are so finely drawn, so realistic, that at times I felt I was reading a memoir.  The book is a coming-of-age story of a girl from Hong Kong and her mother, who came to the United States, only to have to labor for years in a sweat shop and repay an aunt for their debts.  The descriptions of the run-down roach-infested building that Kimberly and her mother return to after working at the sweatshop, were heartbreaking.  To realize that other human beings live, nay, survive, under such conditions is appalling.  Indeed, author Jean Kwok has revealed in interviews that the book was based, at least in some part, on her own life, where she too worked at a sweatshop, even at age 5, buttoning clothes and tagging clothes.  That is probably one of the reasons the book feels so authentic, because it is semi-autobiographical.  Here’s an excellent interview of the author, if you are curious:


The story is also one of the American Dream, overcoming great odds and becoming successful despite not being white, privileged, or rich.  That is the part of the book that I loved the most, the plucky self-assurance of the character despite some real and formidable challenges such as not understanding the English language, prejudice from peers, and no institutional support from her public high school.  Through talent and hard work, Kimberly Chang achieves a full-scholarship to Harrison Prep (Kwok’s real life counterpart was Hunter High School), achieves independence for herself and her mother, and then goes onto Yale.  Like Kimberly Chang, Kwok underscores that she was one of the lucky few that was able to escape the sweatshop, unlike many others who worked in sweatshops.

The character development and changes that the central characters undergo in the book are honest and believable.  One of the strongest characterizations is for Kimberly’s jealous aunt, who secretly does not want her niece to be as successful as her son.  Every time Kimberly out-achieves Nelson (the aunt’s son), you find yourself cheering for her.  Additionally, I love how skillfully the author brings the reader into Kimberly’s world by using evocative language that is a mash-up of the wrong English words as Kimberly hears them, it’s not quite Chinglish but rather explores how Kimberly obtains language with her limited vocabulary.  You have to read the book to catch my drift, but the way that Kwok uses the mash-up language is highly creative and makes you sympathize with the character instantly.

I find it very difficult to criticize any of the choices Kwok made in writing the book.  Although on Amazon some felt the ending was maudlin, I thought it was an appropriate, maybe a bit dramatic, way of ending the book.  The one thing I wonder about is why Kwok made her relationship with her mother seem so wonderful.  Maybe because it would almost seem unfair to have a mother-daughter relationship filled with conflict when the protagonist already had to endure and overcome so much.  Or maybe the family was just so busy keeping up with the exhausting work at the sweatshop that there wasn’t room or time for conflict.  Also, having a common enemy (the aunt, society), helps bond mother-daughter despite the age gap. Because the father is absent from the story it is particularly plausible that the mother and daughter would have such a close relationship.  I found that extremely touching and a departure from the mother-daughter conflict that is portrayed so well by other Asian American authors such as Amy Tan.

A beautiful book, I highly recommend it for your summer reading list!

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