By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Night Tiger
By Yangsze Choo
Flatiron Books, 2019
Ji Lin, a smart and ambitious dressmaker’s apprentice, has been moonlighting as a dancehall girl to help pay off her mother’s mahjong debts. When one of her dance partners leaves behind a gruesome souvenir, it may just be her chance for an adventure.
Meanwhile Ren, an 11-year-old houseboy, is on a mission. In order to fulfill his former master’s dying wish, he must find the man’s missing finger —lost years earlier in an accident —and bury it with his body within 49 days of his death. Otherwise, his master’s soul will wander the earth forever.
And then there’s the series of mysterious deaths and the possibility of a weretiger roaming the jungle on the outskirts of town.
As Ji Lin and Ren embark on their separate journeys, it’s only a matter of time before they cross paths. And it’s clear they are meant to meet.
“Night Tiger” gives readers a glimpse into a world of servants and masters in 1930s colonial Malaysia. We see what it could have been like for the locals and British to live amongst each other. We see how things such as class, race, and gender can impact a person’s lot in life and what they might have to do to improve it.
Choo weaves a complicated tale filled with mystery and modern idealism, balanced with a healthy dose of superstition and folklore. Both Ji Lin and Ren are complex characters. In a society in which they—as a woman and a servant—are seen as second-class citizens, they defy those expectations. Neither of them let their station in life stop them from doing what they believe is right. Their integrity and strength of character are admirable and something we can all strive for in the face of hard times and temptation.
By Angie Kim
Sarah Crichton Books, 2019
Pak and Young Yoo, Korean immigrants living in Miracle Creek, Virginia, own and run Miracle Submarine, a hyperbaric chamber used to treat conditions ranging from autism to infertility. Things are going well for them until one day, the chamber explodes and two people die —a woman and an 8-year-old boy. And it’s clear that the explosion was no accident.
A year later, the lead suspect is put on trial and while it appears this individual is the obvious perpetrator, we quickly learn that things are not always how they seem and people are not always who they appear to be.
Told from various characters’ points of views, “Miracle Creek” is a courtroom thriller filled with twists and turns that will have readers wondering whodunnit (at least this one) until the very end. Kim does a great job in creating three-dimensional characters who could all be the actual guilty party. As each chapter unfolds, readers will second guess themselves and doubt who they believe is the real arsonist and killer.
And as readers learn more about each character and see things from their perspectives, they will find their opinions shifting and changing without even realizing. All of a sudden, you’ll find yourself relating to and feeling for unsympathetic characters and thinking twice about rooting for previously “innocent” ones (though for me, there was one character who I wasn’t fond of from the beginning and justifiably really did not like them by the end).
In addition, “Miracle Creek” exposes readers to the world of parents with special needs children. We see the lengths to which some will go to do what they feel is best for their child. And Kim shows readers how it is the furthest thing from black and white when it comes to treatments. As someone who is not too familiar with this community, I appreciated seeing not only the battles these parents fought to do right by their children, but some of the battles they fought against each other. It helped humanize a group I previously did not know too much about.
The Bridge Home
By Padma Venkatraman
Puffin Books; Reprint edition, 2020
After escaping from his abusive father, 11-year-old Viji and her younger sister Rukku run away to the city. But once they get there, they learn how dangerous life can be for them. Fortunately, they make quick friends with Muthi and Arul, two homeless boys who invite the sisters to live with them on an abandoned bridge.
Life in Chennai, India is not easy, but the four children form a family of sorts, spending their days scavenging the city’s trash heaps and making and selling jewelry to make a living. It may not be ideal, but they are proud of being able to take care of themselves. They no longer have to depend on untrustworthy adults.
But when illness strikes, Viji has to decide whether it’s worth the risk to trust adults again and ask for help, before it’s too late.
“Bridge Home” gives readers a glimpse into a world not many of us may know too much about: homelessness. We see what the four children go through in order to survive. And as bleak as it may seem, they are able to find joy together as well. Venkatraman does a great job of balancing their struggles with their resilience and showing the strength children have that adults may not always realize or appreciate.
Viji is a smart and resourceful girl who will do what she thinks is right in order to protect her sister and herself, first from their violent father and then from the dangerous adults in the city. I loved how protective she is of Rukku, who has a developmental disability, but also how she learns to encourage her sister and let her try new things in their new life.
For a middle reader book, “Bridge Home” dives into a number of difficult topics, from domestic violence, to homelessness, to child labor. While things may be simplified, Venkatraman also does not sugarcoat the children’s situation and by doing so, exposes readers of all ages to an often invisible community among many societies.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.