San Francisco Book Review of LIVING TREASURES

San Francisco Book Review

The year is 1989. Eighteen-year-old Bao, a first-year law student, finds herself smitten with Tong, the commanding officer she met during her required college military training camp. Bao knows better than to date (let alone engage in sexual relations) because that would mean expulsion from school. Nonetheless, Bao’s covert meetings with Tong eventually lead to intimacy followed by an unexpected pregnancy. Dutifully submitting to her parents, Bao goes to live with her grandparents after her abortion. Her one-month stay turns out to be more eye opening than her own personal trauma when she learns of a pregnant woman who is hiding from China’s One-child policy workers.

Bellwether Prize Finalist Yang Huang has penned a poignant love story whose roots run deeper than the bond between two lovers. Centering much of her attention on Bao, who is fearful to spread her wings, Huang attentively interweaves various themes throughout the plot. Using historical situations from the time period as well as one of China’s national treasures – the Giant Panda – Huang contrasts between those who are willing to defy authority and Bao’s timidity. Such examples include the bold student activists at Tiananmen Square against Bao’s lack of involvement, and the audacious pregnant “guerrilla women” against Bao’s complaisant attitude toward her parents’ wishes for her to get an abortion. Obviously, there is another theme that contrasts life and death, which is not only prevalent with the guerrilla women, but also the brazen starving female pandas desperately searching for food so they can nurse their cubs.

Amid these themes, Huang’s third-person narrative is replete with incredibly powerful metaphorical imagery of life, in particular, the yellow-rafter tree and the lotus flower. Scenes also include detailed descriptions of the delicately captured, incredible sights and sounds Pingwu County countryside and the bustling city of Nanjing. Her depictions are tightly interlaced throughout the riveting modulated dialogue (back-and-forth conversation) Huang has so deftly incorporated, allowing readers to experience the tension associated with those who live in a non-democratic society.

Bao definitely fits the description of a dynamic character. Huang gracefully handles Bao’s development from chapter to chapter as she gradually breaks out of her protective emotional shell. Indeed, there is a sense of anticipation that Bao will be able to face her fears at some point. Yet Huang carefully balances her storyline with a host of supportive characters intermixed with antagonists that provide enough unforeseen situations to leave readers to wonder what will be the next phase in Bao’s journey. High on the chart of antagonists is the notorious Childless Du, whose involvement with the One-child policy is disturbingly chilling.

Huang’s winning novel is more than another work of historical fiction. Living Treasures is endearing, extraordinarily moving, and its timely message about life makes it a must read for young and old readers alike.

Reviewed by Anita Lock

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Library Journal review of Yang Huang’s LIVING TREASURES

Library Journal

In this debut novel, a finalist for the Bellwether Prize in 2008, 18-year-old Gu Bao is a first-year law student facing some difficult life decisions during the tumultuous period of the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989. When she loses her virginity to her boyfriend, an officer and graduate of the Army Commander College who reassures her that she can’t get pregnant the first time she has sex . . . (more)

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Kirkus Reviews Yang Huang’s LIVING TREASURES

Kirkus Reviews

A college student faces personal and political challenges in Tiananmen-era China.

In Huang’s debut novel, college student Gu Bao makes her way through an evolving China that is moving toward modernity but cannot escape the memory of the Cultural Revolution. The political and the personal are irrevocably intertwined in Bao’s world. She loves Tong but knows she will lose her place at the university if she is seen with him because students are expected to put their duty to the state ahead of romantic relationships; an off-campus dinner party revolves as much around preparing the perfect entree as it does around news and images from the ongoing protests. The protests at Tiananmen Square and elsewhere have tragic consequences, both on a national scale and close to home, as one of Bao’s friends is killed shortly before he was scheduled to leave the country. The conflict at the center of Bao’s story is a deeply personal one—she becomes pregnant and knows that having a baby will bring an end to her education and condemn her to a bleak future—but it’s also set against the backdrop of China’s authoritarian family-planning policies. When Bao travels to her grandparents’ rural home, she befriends a peasant woman who is concealing an illegal pregnancy. When the authorities discover the woman’s condition and order her sterilization, Bao sees firsthand that personal vindictiveness is as strong a force as party loyalty when it comes to enforcing the law. She acts to protect her friend but finds herself in unexpected personal danger. Huang does an admirable job balancing Bao’s individual story against the canvas of China’s evolution using crisply drawn characters who reveal their layers as the story progresses. Some readers may find the book’s opening scene, in which a young Bao encounters a renegade panda, overly fablelike, but Huang avoids the trap of overusing the panda as a metaphor in the book.

A knotty, engaging novel of China’s recent history.

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5-Star Foreword Review of Diane Haithman’s DARK LADY OF HOLLYWOOD

Detroit native Diane Haithman reads from her novel “Dark Lady of Hollywood” at Barnes & Noble, 3 p.m. Sun. 6800 Orchard Lake, West Bloomfield Township, Michigan. (248) 626-6804. From The Detroit News

Reviewed by Jill Allen, Foreword Reviews

All the world’s a stage when an actress and a terminally ill TV executive meet in this biting comedy.

It takes a special kind of talent to simultaneously skewer Hollywood and Shakespeare while writing a thought-provoking novel, and Dark Lady of Hollywood proves Diane Haithman has this genius. As a former arts and entertainment writer for the Los Angeles Times, Haithman’s book explores themes of the ephemeral nature of show business, a human desire to connect, and what really matters in life, while causing chuckles at the same time.

As the story opens, TV executive Ken Harrison’s life and career slide downhill fast. Demoted from his job due to the fickle whims of television ratings, he struggles to find meaning in his life while trying not to think about the aggressive form of cancer that he has which other people seem to think has taken over his life. Fate brings him together with Ophelia Lomond, a biracial thirty-two-year-old wannabe actress who finds herself in a rut. Shakespeare aficionado Ken quickly determines that Ophelia will be to him what the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was to the Bard: his inspiration. However, Ken and Ophelia have decidedly different ideas of what being a muse involves.

In a brilliant coup, the author allows Ken and Ophelia to narrate alternating chapters from the first-person point of view so that the reader gets to know each intimately. In this way, Ken becomes more than a one-dimensional cancer survivor, and Ophelia becomes more than just a biracial beauty.

Both Ophelia and Ken have wry, wise viewpoints on the entertainment industry, which will keep readers laughing along. Additionally, the pair is shrewd and intelligent. They play off each other well, making it easy to root for them and their budding relationship. One can empathize with why Ophelia would change her name and pretend she is from an imaginary island, because the author astutely shows the hoops anyone has to go through in hopes of landing the role of their dreams. It is refreshing to see someone like Ken, who, in the face of terminal illness, goes about stubbornly living his life, even when everyone around him says he’s going to die.

Furthermore, the author gently satirizes Los Angeles and the industry while making the Bard of Avon drolly relevant. She begins every chapter with an apt quote from a Shakespeare play. Anyone who appreciates comedy and either loves or disdains Tinseltown will adore this breezy, biting book.

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Foreword Review of Erika Raskin’s CLOSE

Reviewed by Meg Nola, Foreword Reviews
July 30, 2014

Raskin easily balances humor and drama in this novel about parenting, reality TV, and family.

Erika Raskin’s Close is a welcoming and nuanced novel that offers a window into the life of the Marcheson family—with ultimately much of America peering through that window as well.

The Marchesons’ story unfolds in Charlottesville, Virginia, where mom Kik (an acronym for maiden name Klara Isabella Kauffman) tries to manage the daily juggling of a single parent’s extended schedule. Kik has three daughters and a professorial ex-husband, she teaches writing yet longs to be a novelist, wouldn’t mind a second chance at love, and in general experiences the ups and downs of an intelligent, charmingly quirky forty-something female:

The past was crammed with haphazard snapshots that Kik was sure could be separated into two albums. When My Husband Loved Me. And After He Stopped.

Through an unusual crimp of fate, Kik, her daughters, and their father, Owen, end up as the public project of one Dr. Price, famed television therapist and advice guru. Eldest teen daughter Doone lashes out through rebellion and substance abuse, middle teen Casey suffers from the stressful need to be perfect, and the baby of the family, Tess, is an unusually imaginative and challenging five-year-old. Kik’s parenting methods are loving yet sometimes overwhelmed, but Dr. Price feels he can quick-fix this family on his show.

Raskin’s narrative skillfully develops characters and uses shifting perspectives between Kik and her two older daughters. Young Tess is especially vivid, and even less-than-sympathetic Owen seems genuine enough to elicit sympathy during a time of intense crisis.

The author also excels with details of how a reality TV crew can invade private lives, and how the surreality of the viewing audience can continue to invade emotionally and physically. The hypercritical Internet postings of Dr. Price’s many fans are finely satirized, making one think of the “peanut-crunching crowd” of Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus, full of voyeuristic zeal and swarming to comment on the latest spectacle.

Close easily balances humor and drama, and despite the academic setting, the tone is accessible and unaffected. And while the last one hundred pages of plot seem to hasten a bit toward anxious climax and multiple resolutions, Kik and her daughters have become appealing and indeed close enough to make us want to wish them all the very best.

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Interview: Erika Raskin, CLOSE

From Kathyerskine’s Blog

Close.  What a great book title!  Fellow local author Erika Raskin’s novel (for adults) comes out in a couple of months and here’s the very engaging opening to pique your interest:

Sometime the dread was just a light tapping on the edge of awareness. Other times it was a howl in that dark space between anxiety and terror.

I love it! Here’s Here’s the synopsis:

Single-mom Kik Marcheson is doing the best she can. But effort doesn’t seem to count for much in the parenting department.

Her oldest daughter, Doone, is swimming in the deep end of adolescence. Casey, the middle-child slash good-girl is fraying along the edges and Tess, a quirky kindergartner, has installed an imaginary playmate in the family abode.

When Doone falls in with the wrong crowd, a TV therapist offers to help. And things do start to look up. But only for a while.

Erika obviously has a way with words and has earned quite a few accolades since she followed in the family business, as she puts it (love that, too), and became a writer.  To get to know Erika a little better (and she is a very fun person) I hope you’ll enjoy this light interview:

Tea or coffee?  Coffee.

Flavor?  Instant.

Milk or sugar?  Definitely doctored.

Favorite season?  I love the colors and sweater weather of autumn (before the leaves drop) — as well as all the impending celebrations. I also love spring when the gardens put on their party ensembles.

Can you deal better with wind or rain?  Wind. Unless I’m wearing a skirt. Then I get a little frantic.

Deciduous or evergreen?  Evergreen. Barren trees bum me out.

What’s always in your fridge?  Carrots.

Favorite comfort food?  Watermelon.

Chocolate or some lesser nectar of the gods?  In a perfect world I’d eat a watermelon and Dorito diet.

Food you’d rather starve than eat.  I’m a vegetarian…

Cat or dog?  Dog.

Flats or heels?  Heels.  I plan on retiring them, though, as soon as I get just a little taller.

Natural fibers or synthetics?  I like cotton – but seem to have a lot of the other stuff.

Jeans or fancier?  Jeans. And make-up.

Short hair or long?  In between.

Ideal evening.  Hanging out with my husband after a productive workday, bingewatching TV.

Ideal vacation.  Big beach house with everyone I love inside.

Favorite board, card, or computer game?  Scrabble.

Favorite sport or form of exercise?  Ballet barre.

Language in which you’d most like to be fluent.  Spanish. Still.

Country you’d most like to visit.  Ireland.

Skill you’d most like to acquire.  Being able to sing without scaring small children.

Favorite musical instrument.  Guitar.

You’re going on a book tour: Plane, train or automobile?  Depends on the distance. (Are we there yet?)

Topic you’d most like to write about.  I love writing and exploring different families.

Topic you think most needs writing about.  Social justice issues.

Author you’d like to meet.  Anne Lamott.

Question you’d ask that author.  How did she get so fearless.

What / who gives you spiritual guidance and inspiration?  Different writings, different authors. Sometimes no more than a line can change my path.

What most surprises you about our current culture?  The general acceptance of a loss of privacy. Totally creeps me out.

Some favorite books?  To Kill A Mockingbird, Mockingbird, Angela’s Ashes, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Traveling Mercies

Some favorite movies?  To Kill A Mockingbird, Terms of Endearment, Good Will Hunting, Little Women.

To learn more about Erika and her writing, please visit her website or her author page on Facebook.  Happy reading!



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San Francisco Book Review: GROWING UP WHITE

San Francisco Book Review, Reviewed by Hubert O’Hearn

Evan Nash of Choctaw County, Arkansas played Santa Claus at the end of the annual Christmas Parade in the Delta Country, and every Sunday, he taught those same children who had cheered him as he waved his red and white-sleeved arms; he taught them their Bible study at Sunday School.

“Would you trust God if you were thrown into a fiery furnace?” Uncle Evan asked.

“Yes! With all my heart!” I replied.”

Evan Nash taught those children to love the nigras (sic) too, just as Jesus loved them. Until, one day, a young black man named Bo Taylor accidentally bumped Evan’s old Aunt Tilley Nash into a stand of grape jelly and, wouldn’t you just know, poor old Tilley went and fell and broke her hip. There wasn’t much left to see of Bo Taylor, and what there was, you wouldn’t want to see—not after Evan Nash and the rest of the Klan had tied Bo to a tree and skinned him alive. Welcome to Arkansas’ Bayou country in the mid-1960s.

Jake Evans, who was ten when those events occurred, just turned fifty-nine and is not really handling the number of that birthday particularly well. So, as many of us do when the present is grey and the future an evening leading to a dark and endless light, Jake looks back to the sunshine of his youth. Well, sunshine laced with the clouds of tragic killings. Jake is a Presbyterian lay preacher using all he has learnt of, and because of his chosen life with God, he tries to make some sense of it all.

Author James T. Stobaugh is quite an elegant writer, verging on the poetic. Growing Up White is very much a novel of mood and meaning and, yes, quite explicit in religious intent. Clearly, Stobaugh knows his material, as in his day-to-day life, he is a pastor as well as quite a gifted writer. One cannot help but admire writers who have a clear love of language, and Stobaugh clearly has that. His words, images, and just general flow of his Bayou-like pacing are common enough in excellent poetry; a rarity in prose. Rather fittingly, the first song referred to in Growing Up White is ‘Moon River,’ for Henry Mancini would be the perfect musical accompaniment for the reader to have playing in the background.

Jake, in reminiscing about childhood hunting trips with his father, says of him “He was enjoying, no doubt, the enormity of being in Devil’s Den Swamp before the dawn erased its clandestineness. When he was in the woods, in a slough, walking in a field—no matter where he was, as long as he was hunting, it was sacramental. He was communicating with his God.”

As later in life, so does Jake. Throughout this book, so does Stobaugh. This is a graceful, elegant novel about – yes – evil, yet also the redemption from evil that is around us if we choose to seek it.


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BWW Reviews: Diane Haithman Kills in DARK LADY OF HOLLYWOOD

t was only natural that former Los Angeles Times writer and current Deadline|Hollywood contributor Diane Haithman would one day turn the tables on the town she has covered with such precision for the last 25+ years. A writer after my own heart, she also knows her Shakespeare Ps and Qs.

In DARK LADY OF HOLLYWOOD, Haithman uses her insider’s insight and razor-sharp wit to create a feisty new contemporary novel that blends the two worlds into a hilariously gratifying page-turner of epic sitcom proportions.



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Foreword review: A LITTLE SOMETHING

A Little Something

Foreword Review

Haddaway stays tightly focused on characters who deal with tragedy in a way that feels real.

Richard Haddaway’s A Little Something opens with a random and seemingly minor accident. While waiting on deck at his youth baseball game, eleven-year-old Justin gets hit in the head by a foul ball and has to go to the dentist for emergency work. While he seems fine on the way there, something goes wrong at the dentist, and what started as a small injury instead leads to the boy enduring a long coma. This instigates a moving story about life, death, family, and the meaning of love between a parent and child.

What makes this story work so well is Haddaway’s laser focus on the characters and how each deals with the impact of Justin’s coma and the uncertainty about his future. Nearly the entire book takes place in the hospital, while Haddaway fills in the characters with flashbacks to their lives before the accident. Justin’s parents, Sam and Katherine, bring very different perspectives to the situation. Katherine, a doctor herself, understands the clinical reality of Justin’s condition, while Sam relies on optimism and focuses on best-case outcomes.

Through their dialogue with one another—and their discussions with other characters—the book makes both perspectives and both parents truly relatable without making those differences too stark, so the couple remains compatible.

There are times when the book presents signals that it’s going to wind up with a clichéd story line, but those thankfully prove mere ways to play with audience expectations. Justin’s coma has no easy solution, and what makes A Little Something work so well is the way it takes readers inside the minds of family members in various stages of accepting that difficult reality.

The medical aspect of the situation is explained with a journalistic style that reveals all that needs to be known without becoming too technical. The doctors and other supporting characters feel like real people, and the flashbacks show both parents as well intentioned without turning them into too-perfect victims.

Perhaps most impressively, A Little Something realistically portrays its characters coping with grief in myriad stages—from lashing out at the dentist whose error might have caused the coma to grasping at Justin’s small movements as signs of hope for recovery.

The book addresses a sad story without veering into melodrama, and it does real character work in showing how its subjects handle their increasingly difficult ordeal.

Jeff Fleischer
April 30, 2014

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“Ken Harrison is a burned-out Hollywood executive who has been demoted from his job as vice president of comedy. Ken is also a very sick man, and his recent treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has left his body wasted and his mind vulnerable. Ken’s saving grace is his love of Shakespeare, particularly the sonnets. So when he meets the beautiful Ophelia Lomond, a budding actress and personal assistant to the spoiled and demanding Jazzminn Jenks, host of a popular talk show, he just knows something Shakespearean has happened. Ophelia becomes his muse, his personal version of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. Not only does Ken fall in love with Ophelia, he also agrees to her request that he murder Jazzminn. As the clock ticks toward the appointed day, the three find themselves trapped in their own modern-day Shakespearean drama. A finalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition, Haithman’s hilariously funny novel gives readers a bird’s-eye view of the Hollywood machine and its players. With witty, fast-paced dialogue and characters readers will cheer for, this debut is a deeply satisfying story of love, loss, and acceptance.”

–Carol Gladstein, Booklist

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Tony Rogers Wins National First Novel Prize

Tony RogersHarvard alum author and Cambridge resident Tony Rogers’s novel, The Execution of Richard Sturgis, As Told by His Son, Colin, recently won the first annual Dorothy and Wedel Nilsen Prize for a first novel. An excerpt of the novel first appeared in Harvard Square Editions’ Above Ground anthology. The story follows a rowdy, complex family man who befriends two devious men, and with them, is arrested for the rape and murder of a young man. While the other two men are released, Richard is sent to trail and convicted. His son Colin, deeply scarred by the effects of the trial and going through his teen years known as the son of a murderer, can’t bring himself to believe in his father’s guilt, continuing what he knows maybe a lifelong search to find out the truth about the murder and about his father.



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Midwest Review: ALL AT ONCE

“The boundaries of human imagination are explored in Alisa Clements’s intelligent fantasy novel All at Once. Clements presents two romantic triangles, centuries apart, whose participants all share psychic abilities beyond the norm. Much of this beautifully written novel centers on the story of Josephine, a scholar researching native religious practices in a more or less modern-day Brazil, and her encounters with a group of people, rebels against the government, who seem to have harnessed their psychic powers in a manner that promises great things for humanity but threatens the power structure. How Clements connects the dots between the two fraught relationships is just one of the rewards of this clever and entertaining book.”

—Midwest Review

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