Book Tour Review: Nights in Shanghai by Nicole Mones

Monday, April 7, 2014
Title: Night in Shanghai
Author: Nicole Mones
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 288
Published: March 4 2014
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 3/5

In 1936, classical pianist Thomas Greene is recruited to Shanghai to lead a jazz orchestra of fellow African-American expats. From being flat broke in segregated Baltimore to living in a mansion with servants of his own, he becomes the toast of a city obsessed with music, money, pleasure and power, even as it ignores the rising winds of war.

Song Yuhua is refined, educated, and bonded since age eighteen to Shanghai’s most powerful crime boss in payment for her father’s gambling debts. Outwardly submissive, she burns with rage and risks her life spying on her master for the Communist Party.

Only when Shanghai is shattered by the Japanese invasion do Song and Thomas find their way to each other. Though their union is forbidden, neither can back down from it in the turbulent years of occupation and resistance that follow. Torn between music and survival, freedom and commitment, love and world war, they are borne on an irresistible riff of melody and improvisation to Night in Shanghai’s final, impossible choice.

In this impressively researched novel, Nicole Mones not only tells the forgotten story of black musicians in the Chinese Jazz age, but also weaves in a stunning true tale of Holocaust heroism little-known in the West.

Showcasing an interesting and vibrant setting of 1930's Shanghai, Nicole Mones's Night in Shanghai is a detailed and well-written piece of historical fiction. Thomas Greene makes for an unlikely protagonist, but as Mones shows throughout the novel, Shanghai in the 1930s was an unusual place, full of tensions and Concessions, Nationalists, Communists, Triad members, jazz players, and foreigners. A lot of the story in Night in Shanghai is concerned with shedding light on little known historical events (like the Chinese jazz era, or the resettling of European Jews in Western China), and Mones does so with aplomb.

Thomas Greene and Song Yuhua were well-constructed and three-dimensional characters, but I never really grew to care about either of them. Thomas had potential at the early stages of the novel, but his attitude grew increasingly thin on my nerves before long. It wasn't that either of the two were boring or undeveloped as protagonists -- I just personally never invested in either's story or evolution throughout Night in Shanghai. The ill-fated romance angle also fell flat for me, though Du Yueshang was the most compelling person in the story. I wish the novel had allowed more time with her as an important character. It just happens that I was far more interested in the setting than I ever was in the characters operating in it.

This novel made me curious about the era of jazz popularity in China, which the book uses to explore and showcase how different Shanghai was from expectations. Like the refugees, African American Thomas can find unprecedented freedom in the Chinese city, but it is an imperfect place, with the external threats of the Japanese to compete with the internal civil war between Nationalists and Communists. It's a fascinating time and place in history, and the author shows that clearly. Daniel Kalla's The Far Side of the Sky also explored Jewish European refugees in China, but Mones does so with more authority and care here. The two elements (jazz and refugees) might not sound like they balance each other, but they do so rather well. 

Night in Shanghai was a bit of a struggle for me since I lacked a personal interest in the characters, but I cannot deny that the setting and atmosphere were vibrant from the beginning. This is an author that can veer a bit dry, but the details are magnificent and create an encompassing scenario for the characters to interact within.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, fair review -- I'm glad I didn't kill myself to get on this tour, but will likely get it as I really liked Mones' Lost in Translation.


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