90 Miles to Havana, by Enrique Flores-Galbis. Roaring Book Press, 2010.

When Castro takes power in Cuba in a violent uprising, and rebels begin taking over the homes and possessions of families, 9-year old Julio's parents decide to send him and his two older brothers to a refugee camp in Miami for safety. They expect to be reunited in a few weeks. In camp, they are met by a different reality than the one promised: bullies, gangs, poverty and lies. Through Angelita, a family friend, Julio becomes involved in an illicit and daring plan to rebuild an abandoned boat and rescue his parents.

Flores-Galbis was a child refugee from Cuba and this children's novel is based directly on his own experiences with "Operation Pedro Pan." It is a story that picks up momentum with each chapter, and gives voice to a part of American history that is seldom taught.


The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch. Amazon Crossing, 2010. (Kindle Ed.)
A young lady asked me for this book last week, and it was available neither in our collection nor in the larger Link+ collection. She said it had been recommended independently to her by three friends in the same week and she thought she should seek it out. Curious myself by then, I bought a Kindle edition and read it on the iPad.

Having so recently read Brooks's Year of Wonders, I found this novel to be a perfect counterpoint. Told in a male voice and set in the same century, this is the story of the hangman in a small German town and his impact on its citizens, businesses, politics, and commerce. There is the suspicion of witchcraft when brutally murdered orphan children are discovered to have the same mysterious mark on their shoulders, and also a blossoming romance between the hangman's daughter and the doctor's son.

The descriptions are graphic, particularly of the tools and methods of the hangman's trade, but they only add to the tension as the tale becomes ever more tangled. I found it to be a very satisfying read, and plan to recommend the library purchase a copy.

Update: The library now owns copies of this title.


Shanghai GirlsShanghai Girls, by Lisa See. Random House, 2009.

Pearl and May, teenage daughters of a business man in Shanghai in the 1930s, are modern and liberated. They model for advertisements, wear western clothing, and speak English. In public. At home, they are still bound by traditional Chinese family customs, and are stunned to learn their father has sold them to be wives of the American Chinese sons of their father's debtor in payment of his gambling debt. Their world is shattered upon discovering their father has lied to cover up his gambling losses, and the lengths he is willing to go to to save himself and his wife.

Thus begins an exploration of the atrocities of the war with Japan, the harsh and impersonal treatment of immigrants to the United States, and the struggle to reconcile the stories of the riches that will be theirs in Hollywood with the realities of poverty, hard work, and deep prejudice.

As with the author's "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan", Lisa See tells the story with vivid and lyrical language. Her intimate understanding of the Chinese and American cultures, and deep knowledge of the historical setting allows the characters of Pearl, May, their parents, their in-laws and their husbands to sharpen and develop through the interplay of relationships, and the effects of secrets, war and segregation on their ambitions and dreams. And then, there's Joy, the daughter around whom May and Pearl build their new lives.

I felt the first half of the book set the stage; in the middle, the drama of the tale build quickly and grabbed me, and from then on it was a page-turner that kept me up till the wee hours.