Random Reads: The Virgin Blue, Love in the Driest Season, Betsy and the Emperor, Shanghai Girls

I love shopping for books at the thrift store because I never know what I'll end up getting and I love the variety. I love the opportunity to purchase and read books that I would normally never give a second glance. Fun.

The first book I read was Betsy and the Emperor by Staton Rabin. I like anything to do with history, so this was worth my time, but I don't know that I would recommend it as a great read. It would be good for a child/teen who's learning about Napoleon or anyone who's interested in historical fiction and has some time on their hands. I'll probably keep this one and have the boys read it some day. The book is written from the perspective of Betsy Balcomb, who lived on the island that Napoleon was banished to after his defeat. The book takes a few liberties, but overall stays very close to the real life events regarding Betsy and the Emperor. Interesting enough and safe for children.

The next book - probably the best of this lot - was Love in the Driest Season by Neely Tucker. I couldn't put this book down and it had me in tears at points. Mr. Tucker writes about the struggles and triumphs of the adoption of his Zimbabwean-born daughter, Chipo. You fall in love with Chipo at the very beginning of the story, and find yourself rooting for this unlikely family who have to overcome great odds in order to be together.  This book would be appreciated not only by those interested in adoption, but for the cultural insight, the day-in-the-life-of-an-international-journalist aspect, and the up close and personal look at the AIDS epidemic and the toll it's taking in Zimbabwe.

My least favorite book in this stack has to be The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier. Two stories, set centuries apart, are woven together in Southwest France. Ella is an American of French descent who has followed her husband to France. Haunted by a disturbing dream, she decides to trace her ancestors with the help of a local (male) librarian. As the pieces of her past come together, her marriage begins to unravel. The book switches back and forth between Ella's modern-day quest and her ancestor, Isabelle's life story, set in the dark days of Huguenot persecution. The book had some interesting aspects that appealed to me, such as the customs and manners of the French people, and the background of the first French Christians and how they suffered. However, I have little taste for books that take marital infidelity lightly which leaves me less than impressed with this The Virgin Blue. Overall, I felt it was a forgettable book with an outcome that I could predict a mile away.

Last, but not least, was Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I'm a sucker for a book that melds a good story with lots of facts and information. I like to put a book down feeling like I've learned something. Shanghai Girls fits the bill perfectly, in my opinion. Lisa See tells the story of two Chinese sisters who start out as wealthy, spoiled girls living in the lap of luxury in Shanghai, to lower-class, mature women, in L.A. Growing up, the girls were comforted and coddled by their parents, only to find one day that their father has gambled away their wealth and freedom. The girls are forced into arranged marriages to a pair of brothers whom they are lead to believe are wealthy. Initially, the girls plot to escape their marriages, until the Japanese invade China and the sisters must flee from their country into the waiting arms of their new husbands in America. After a long detainment on Angel Island, they are released to their new family only to find that they were deceived as to the wealth of their husbands and in-laws, and must embark on a life of hard work and drudgery to survive. More than anything, this book spoke to me about the roles that we assign ourselves and those around us and how we often trap ourselves in those roles. We choose to play them out to the bitter end instead of having the courage to change and improve ourselves. While the sisters always remain close, and care greatly for each other, their relationship is never as close as it could be simply because of the misunderstandings and false impressions that they harbor through the years. Powerful, interesting, and entertaining, I'd recommend this book to anyone - in a book club or flying solo.


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