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Review – Water Ghosts by Shawna Yang Ryan

water ghosts

Water Ghosts
by Shawna Yang Ryan
272 pages
Published April 16, 2009

Water Ghosts by Shawna Yang Ryan is a poetically written story about a small town, Locke, near Sacramento, California in the year 1928.

Three Chinese women inexplicably appear out of the mist one afternoon (ghosts!), one of whom claims to be married to Richard Fong, who happens to manage the local gambling parlor, and who is having an affair with one of the local prostitutes. Richard left his wife, Ming Wai, 10 years earlier in China to come to America to work, and instead of trying to bring her to America (though it would have admittedly been very expensive), he sends her money and enjoys the single life in Locke.

Chloe, a prostitute and Richard’s lover, is interested in Sofia Lee, the preacher’s daughter. This is a dangerous triangle as Richard is a jealous lover and Sofia is…the preacher’s daughter. Lesbian relationships = not good in 1928.

The brothel madam, Poppy See, is in love with Richard and used to be his lover, so she pines for the day when they will be lovers once again. She is also psychic and has premonitions. Her premonitions are not very hopeful once the water ghosts arrive.

I hustled to finish this book before I went to see the author at Book Passage. I was even more motivated to see the author when I realized I really wasn’t understanding the book. I mean, it’s not like she used huge words I couldn’t understand, but I felt like the story meandered and I really didn’t get where the ghosts came in. When I read the book, there were no ghosts.

Getting to talk to the author made me appreciate and understand the book a lot more, and even made me want to re-read the book so I could look at it with a new understanding (though re-reading a book right now is out of the question based on other commitments I have).

After talking to the author, a lot of things clicked for me in the book. I finally understood that water ghosts are a Chinese myth, though since that wasn’t explained in the book, that whole portion of the story went right over my head. That’s why I was so confused that this was touted as a ghost story, for as far as I could tell, there were no ghosts in the story, because my idea of ghosts and the Chinese tradition of ghosts are two different things. That being said, I think something at the beginning of the book explaining water ghosts would have been beneficial to the reader.

Also, while the prose is very poetic and beautiful…so was The English Patient‘s, and I guess I’m finding out that poetic prose just doesn’t do it for me. BUT! If you’re into very atmospheric books or poetic and flowery prose, then I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Rating: 79 out of 100

Buy Water Ghosts at Powell’s | Buy Water Ghosts at Amazon

Shawna Yang Ryan’s website

Other reviews:

S. Krishna’s Books

carp(e) libris reviews

Devourer of Books

Muse Book Reviews

| Tags: , , , , , 17 comments »

17 Responses to “Review – Water Ghosts by Shawna Yang Ryan”

  1. rhapsodyinbooks

    I’m glad to read your review. I tried starting it a couple of times, and couldn’t get into it. I think I will send it to the not-a-priority pile!


  2. Kathy

    Well, you know how I felt about The English Patient. I guess this one isn’t for me either.


  3. Literate Housewife

    I’m glad I read this review before starting this one myself. I’ll be sure to research more on water ghosts if it’s not clicking.

    How wonderful that you were able to meet the author, Trish!


  4. Lenore

    I have a Chinese friend (born and raised in mainland China) who is forever talking about strange things and making references I don’t understand. For example, she lives in Spain now and complains that it is “bottom of Earth hole”. Ok then…


  5. Jen - Devourer of Books

    I wish I’d had the opportunity to see the author too. I enjoyed the book for the writing, but also felt a bit lost in the story, even though it sort of came together for me at the end.


  6. Laura/BookingIt

    I haven’t read this book, but I have found that beautiful, poetic language gets in my way when reading a book.

    I wish I could appreciate it– I know I’m missing out. Oh well.


  7. stacy

    I’m not sure if this is a book I’d read, but it is nice to know a little more about the Chinese ghosts going in.


  8. diane

    i was wondering about this one, so i appreciate the great review. thanks


  9. Robin of My Two Blessings

    Now I’m intrigued. Putting it on my wishlist.


  10. Nicole

    I love good and beautiful writing but I feel like sometimes it can be a double edged sword. If it’s too pretty it can be hard to feel anything for the characters or have that visceral connection to their experience. Glad that you were at least able to get some clarification so that it made sense.


  11. Meghan

    I’m glad to know that I’m already going to have trouble with this book before I’ve even started it! I’ll have to remember this post in case I get confused and at least know that I’m not alone. It won’t be a high priority read though!


  12. Donna

    Great review! This one sounds interesting to me. Also sounds like it would be great for book clubs to read.


  13. zibilee

    Wait, so the water ghosts are not actually ghosts? I would have been a bit confused as well. I am glad that you got to talk to the author and get a better understanding of some of that stuff though. Great review!


  14. Anna

    I’m wondering if that bit about the Chinese myth should have been included somewhere, an author’s note for instance. Still, this sounds like a good one.


  15. Beth F

    I started this book and then let it go. I’ll have to look into the water ghost myth and then start over and see if I do better. But you know what I thought about The English Patient…. so perhaps this one isn’t for me.


  16. sarah pekkanen

    I’ve never heard of water ghosts, but it sounds intriguing. I wonder how many people know about them? I wonder how much a difference it would’ve made to you going in, had you known.


  17. Rebecca

    Thanks for explaining about the Chinese myth. I would not have understood either. I thought it was a true ghost story myself. The book still sounds very interesting and I would like to give it a try when I get my prior commitments up to par!


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