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Above the East China Sea: A novel Hardcover – May 27, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Obon, the Buddhist festival of the dead, provides the frame for Bird’s novel about two girls who live in the same place, the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan, but at different times. Tamiko, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, leaves home with her sister, Hatsuko, to take part in Japan’s desperate, last-ditch defense against the Americans in 1945. More than 60 years later, Luz James, a part-Okinawan military brat living at Kadena Air Base, is grieving for her own sister, who was killed while serving with the air force in Afghanistan. Bird uses distinct voices to weave her narrative. Luz’s voice convincingly captures a smart but troubled contemporary teen, while Tamiko’s voice reflects her place in a very different culture. Readers won’t soon forget Tamiko’s searing depiction of her experiences during the Battle of Okinawa, when more than one-third of the local population was killed or committed suicide. Links between the two girls, hinted at early on, crystallize as Luz’s quest to learn more about her ancestors takes her deeper into the past and into the traditions that still exert a hold on daily Okinawan life. Bird, whose other novels include the well-received Yokota Officers Club (2001), has delivered a multilayered and utterly involving work with plenty of grist for book discussions. --Mary Ellen Quinn

Review

“A big novel of place and ideas, and a finely wrought one with dynamic characters and relationships. . . . As the novel moves between past and present, between the perspectives of  [two] girls coming of age in the mysterious puzzle of Okinawa, the island and culture are shaped by the lessons of war and occupation. . . . Richly rewarding.” —Elizabeth Taylor, Editor’s Choice, The Chicago Tribune
 
“A stunning account of wartime Okinawa, which was both a colony of Japan and its front line. . . . Everything from the local educational system, to the fatalistic ideology of the imperial cult, to the social signifiers encoded in a prostitute’s kimono . . . create a visceral rendering of a society buckling between the exigencies of obligation and the realities of deprivation. . . . Bird is a wise and sensitive writer.”—Anthony Marra, San Francisco Chronicle

“An extraordinary effort of the imagination and a major display of literary talent—an absolutely don’t-miss novel that should become a classic contribution to the fiction of our era.”—Claire Hopley,  The Washington Times

“Like Faulkner, Bird is a writer whose métier is the American South, though, also like Faulkner, her writing possesses an expansive worldview. To my mind, Bird is the finest living Texas novelist, and Above the East China Sea showcases all of her gifts in spades—her unmistakable voice displays warmth, wit, and that rare variety of irreverence that possesses real heart.”—Robert Leleux, The Texas Observer
 
Above the East China Sea should be the one that lands Bird among the literary elite. This is the rare tome that has the goods for both popular and critical acclaim at the highest level.”—Joy Tipping, The Dallas Morning News
 
“This is Bird’s most ambitious novel to date, tackling a World War II tragedy about which most Westerners know little or nothing. During the Battle of Okinawa, hundreds of island teens known as the Princess Lily Girls were forced to serve as nurses on the front lines under horrifying conditions. . . . Bird depicts Okinawa’s island culture, and its violent near-erasure at the hands of Japan and America, in hypnotic detail . . . the history is undeniably gripping. Ultimately, this tale of how women and girls survive bloody times manages its happy ending without offering easy answers—quite a feat for such an entertaining read.”—Amy Gentry, The Austin Chronicle
 
“A rich and engrossing achievement . . . a suspenseful and magical journey . . . Fans of Amy Tan or Khaled Hosseini will be drawn to the adept mingling of settings and cultures.”—Library Journal
 
“A powerful sense of history and place . . . Set in Okinawa with heroines who live seven decades apart, Bird’s ambitious and rewarding novel offers a fascinating glimpse of the Pacific Island . . . She, herself an ‘Army brat,’ invests the narrative with psychological veracity and effectively contrasts brusque military lingo with the islanders’ lyrical expressions.”—PW


Advance Praise for Sarah Bird's Above the East China Sea

"Above the East China Sea is Sarah Bird's most powerful novel yet.  This tour de force of historical imagination cuts between the bloody, beleaguered Okinawa of 1945 and its seemingly peaceful incarnation in the present time.  But the island is far from peaceful; beneath the surface of things, war continues to roil and trouble this profoundly damaged place.  By interweaving the stories of two young women separated by time and culture, Bird has given us a profoundly moving meditation on war, family, love, and what might be waiting for us on the other side of loss."
 
--Ben Fountain, winner of 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award finalist.
 
 
“Sarah Bird, a brilliant and accomplished novelist, has topped herself with this uncommonly powerful, beautifully rendered novel. Above the East China Sea is a compelling tale of love, loss, and the desperate search for closure, wrapped in a gripping mystery that must be worked out against the backdrop of a fascinating culture that is as little known to Americans as it is important.  This book rings true on all its levels. From the stresses of a military family to the banter of American teens. From the power of an ancient culture to the tragedy of war and its aftermath.  This story is unlike any I’ve read before. I will never think of Okinawa, or war, or belonging, in the same way again. Above the East China Sea will stay with me forever.”
 
--Mary Wertsch, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress
 
“Informed by her research in Okinawa’s history and literature, novelist Sarah Bird combines the saga of an Okinawan high school girl drafted to serve in 1945 as a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa with the story of an American military dependent sent with her family to the vast complex of U.S. bases in Okinawa where troops train today for the war in Afghanistan. The loss of family members in war and rituals for communicating with spirits of the dead connect these two narratives which take place in disparate times and cultures, but in the same lush environment of this sub-tropical island.  Bird portrays characters among Okinawans from many walks of life in the 1930s and 1940s with remarkable fullness and credibility.  This double drama held me rapt throughout, enhanced by the author’s first-hand knowledge of growing up in a military family overseas and her ever-sharp ear for raw and raunchy teenage dialogue.”
--Steve Rabson, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies, Brown University
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (May 27, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385350112
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385350112
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (92 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #356,466 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

My first interview about "Above the East China Sea" coming out next May. I loved chatting about this book with the insightful Mary Helen Specht:

Today I am so pleased to present an interview with the amazing Sarah Bird. She is a rare writer, one whose work is as popular as it is literary, as dark and insightful as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Find out more about her novels here: http://sarahbirdbooks.com.

Bird's ninth novel, Above The East China Sea (to be released by Knopf in spring of 2014), is a big serious novel about the price of empire, and a loving evocation of Okinawans and their culture. The novel presents the unexpectedly entwined story of two teenage girls -- one a contemporary U.S. Air Force brat, whose hard-ass, party-girl sergeant mom is stationed at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa; the other a gentle native of the island who is forced along with the other sheltered girls of the elite Princess Lily High School, to serve in the Japanese army's cave hospitals during the Battle of Okinawa.

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MHS: Let's begin with the question that every reader loves to ask and every writer hates to answer: Since you also spent part of your youth living on Okinawa, how much of your own experiences inform the characters or the drama of this novel?

SB: No, I think that is an important and valid question and don't really understand why writers get testy about it. I'm fascinated by the intersections between fact and fiction. In the case of Above the East China Sea, the book absolutely wouldn't exist had I not been a military kid. (I disavow the term "military brat," since, as a group, children raised by soldiers who put The Mission above all else, including family, are some of the least bratty America produces.) While I was growing up, we were stationed in Japan and Okinawa, and I based a novel, Yokota Officers Club, on those experiences. In researching that book, I was astonished at what I did not know about Okinawa or our country's relationship with the chain of Ryukyu Islands that it is part of.

At the age of eighteen, I'd stood at the top of a popular destination, Suicide Cliff, and I'd toured yet another, the vast labyrinth of tunnels constructed by the Japanese army with native labor, and been absolutely unaware of their significance. I didn't learn for another thirty years that more lives had been lost during the Battle Okinawa than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. That the invasion was the largest land-sea-air battle in history. That over one-quarter of the Okinawan population had died in agonizing ways, and virtually the entire cultural history of the islands had been lost.

The story of the Princess Lily Girls, the sheltered native girls from an elite private school who were conscripted by the Imperial Army to serve in their cave hospitals under the most horrific conditions imaginable, embodied this tragedy. I told the historical half of the novel from the perspective of two sisters who refuse to let anything, not the struggles of nations, not even death, tear them apart.

MHS: Your novel explores Okinawa in two different time periods. Can you tell us a little about your research process for this book? Was it different researching a country and culture that is not your own?

SB: I've actually done quite a few projects in foreign countries, both as a novelist and a screenwriter. For this one, I definitely did not want to write a purely historical novel. I wanted to show the continuing ramifications of our presence on that island. How seven decades after the war ended U.S. military installation still occupy a fifth of tiny Okinawa's precious 463 square miles. Having grown up within the barbed wire of the vast stretches of runways, housing areas, parade grounds, swimming pools, golf courses, and so on, it was a mind-bending exercise for me to put myself outside of the fence and ask questions like, How would an American would feel if, say, the entire eastern seaboard, were occupied by foreigners?

I re-entered the world of a military dependent stationed at one of the US's 700 plus overseas bases through the character of Luz James, only surviving child of a hard ass single mom sergeant in Security Forces. As the novel opens, we learn that mom is away on TDY, (temporary duty, one of the many acronyms that defined my early life), Luz's beloved older sister Codie, the emotional core of her rootless life, has just died in Afghanistan, and Luz is standing at the top of Suicide Cliffs looking down on the East China Sea where past and present are about to collide.

MHS: Did you decide to go back to Okinawa (in person) to write this book? If not, why not?

SB: Thank God for the Internet and that I live in a town with a world-class library university library system. The bulk of my research had to do with getting Okinawa's side of the story of the invasion and immersing myself in the history and the culture of the Ryukyu Islands. I was very fortunate early on to find the superb collections of Okinawan literature translated and collected by Steve Rabson, the pre-eminent expert in the field, who became a great source and sounding board.

As for research into the life of a contemporary military teen on Okinawa, the intimate side of that world certainly would have been closed to me had I shown up in all my old lady glory. But it was wide open and completely accessible on youtube. There I discovered an entire channel, Planet Oki, devoted to the hip hop scene on the island. I gathered tremendous insights from the many video diaries of young air force recruits going through basic and specialized training. Facebook was a wonderful source for teens and enlisted members currently stationed on Kadena Air Base.

Thus far all my sources have confirmed that I got it right, which is a gigantic relief as that was crucially important to me. So although I would have loved to have visited Okinawa, I also had loads of hesitations. First, I didn't think I could learn what I needed to in a short visit, couldn't penetrate any of the worlds that are so open to me in me other ways. Then there was the expense. Okinawa is a long way away. Finally, my time growing up on Okinawa was magical is so many ways. My parents were young and healthy, my brothers and sisters and I were this one, tight unit having an enchanted adventure. Though I now understand the dark side of that magic time, I've put those personal memories aside and don't really want too much reality to intrude upon them; I wanted my own private Okinawa to remain preserved in amber with its golden glow intact.

I will say that I did acquire a bottle of awamori, a sort of Okinawan rice brandy, with the requisite habu snake coiled at the bottom and toasted every time I felt I'd figured out a knotty problem. I can't compare it to viper-less awamori, but the stuff I have tastes like very strong sake. Oh, and it increased my virility tremendously.

MHS: Since many of your readers will likely be American, how did you approach the challenge of explaining Okinawan culture without bogging down the novel with exposition? Can you give us an example?

SB: This was a huge concern for me and the reason that I had to rewrite the novel several times from page one. For quite some time, I was at a loss about how to immerse an American reader into a culture with such fundamentally different ideas without turning the book into a sort of "Meet Okinawa and Its Weird Ways." I also, really, didn't want to write a ghost story which the book would have been for a reader who isn't steeped in the Okinawan ideas that the basic human unit is not the individual but the family. And that the dead live on in a literal way, influencing every aspect of life.

The two keys for me to unlocking this problem were the novels The Famished Road by Ben Okri and, of course, the book in whose shadow we all labor, 100 Years of Solitude by the author I named my only child after. I also admire the novels of John Burdett and how the beliefs of his Buddhist detective are implicit in the action.

Still, I did need a vehicle to articulate Okinawan history and her muddy relationship with both the US and Japan. My "mule" for carrying this narrative load was the character, Jake Furusato, a bilingual, bi-cultural Okinawan teen.

In this excerpt, Jake is helping Luz find a man in a photo she and her beloved sister Codie might be related to.

+
Excerpt from ABOVE THE EAST CHINA SEA

I hand Jake the photo, pointing to the corner of the sign above the guy's head where the word 'apLand' appears and theorize, "Probably a misspelling of App Land, right? Some tech store. I'll Google it."

"Don't bother." Jake's tone is weird. He flips the photo back onto my lap and pulls into traffic. "I know exactly where and what that is."

The rain has stopped by the time, we leave the broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise and turn onto narrower and narrower streets until we're creeping along a nearly deserted back street. On either side are abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows and weeds growing through the concrete steps sporting signs so faded by the sun that I can barely make out the names: Club Kentucky. High Time Bar. The Manhattan. Girls Girls Girls. GI Welcome.

Suddenly, amidst all the gray buildings, we encounter one painted a vivid crimson. The shocking color frames a painting two stories high that depicts a beautiful woman in a red-and-lilac kimono sniffing a flower. A few blocks later there is another painted a shocking pink. A two-story poster depicts a pair of animé girls in French maid costumes, breasts overflowing laced bodices. An invisible fishing line hoists up the backs of ruffled skirts to reveal the clefts of their butts. With a weirdly sarcastic tone, Jake translates the caption beneath the girls: "'Welcome home, Mr. Married Man. Your wife is out shopping for the day. Is there anything we can do for you before she gets back?'"

"Check that one out." He points to a place and translates the sign, "The Girls Nursing Academy." The two-story building is covered in bathroom tile and features giant posters of young Japanese girls in sexy nurse uniforms and pink scrubs. There is another caption, and though Jake does this translation in a high, girly voice, it's obvious that he doesn't think any of it is funny. "'Please, come in! We need to check your pulse. Now, please remove all of your clothes. We'd like to check your blood pressure, too.'"

On the street, a couple of Japanese businessmen in black suits crane their necks to study the photos of the nurse girls. A thuggy-looking guy with slicked-back hair steps out and beckons the men to enter, holding the door open, and pointing to other photos posted on the signboard next to him.

"What are these, strip clubs? Whorehouses?"

Jakes gives a dry imitation of a laugh. "Whorehouse? Technically, no, since prostitution has been illegal in Japan since the mid-fifties. No these are 'bathhouses,' Sōpus. Which is why what you pay for in a Sōpu is just a bath. A very, very expensive bath where the girl washes you with her naked, soapy body. But if, during all the rub-a-dub-dub, the couple should just happen to realize that they are soul mates and fall deeply in love and can't keep themselves from having mad, passionate sex. Well, it happens. That's just two strangers who've fallen in love. The money is for the bath. Period. That's the Japanese way."

"You sure know a lot about all this," I say.

Jake shakes his head. "No one who grows up here doesn't know about Soaplands. This is where Japan, Okinawa, and, now that the dollar is so weak, to a much lesser degree, America, all, literally, rub up against each other."

I'm relieved that Jake's judgment and disgust are for murky political relationships. He drives on, pointing out the tiled, painted businesses as we pass them. "Okay, there you've got the Princess Heart, the Emerald, and Wave. And, look," Jake tilts his head toward a couple of soldiers," "the first customers of the day.

Though they're in civvies, I figure the guys to be marines, since everything about them--from their high and tight haircuts, to the weightlifter muscles, to the rolling gaits, like their balls are so enormous they have to straddle them with each step, is military on steroids. They're too big for the narrow street, too red-faced for the glaring sun. The marines pause in front of the Princess Heart and stare at the poster of a girl with a face like Betty Boop and breasts like a Jersey cow.

The soldiers shove each other as they study a price list that starts at 24,000 yen for an hour, more than they make in a week. A tough-looking Okinawan bouncer wearing sunglasses, his hair gelled into a spiky do, slouching against a wall, straightens up, flicks his cigarette into the street, and closes in on the marines. He waves the soldiers away with broad gestures. The marines fail to take the hint and start to go in anyway. The bouncer, arms folded in front of his chest, blocks their entrance, and, with one nod of his head, two guys appear to flank him. The marines start to force their way past, and the three men drop down into the Stance. The marines recognize the serious ass-kicking potential on display, flip the guys off, and leave.

Jake takes a left, turns down a street drabber and drearier than the others, and stops in front of the drabbest and dreariest building. The sign above the door is spelled out, not in Japanese characters but in straightforward English: SoapLand. "This the place you were looking for?"

"I didn't think it would be... You know." Just like I figured, the instant I let anything about my family out, humiliation follows.

"This is the only place around here that's so low-class they take foreigners, even the lowest of the gaijin, soldiers. US G.I.s were what originally built the businesses, but all that's changed. Most sōpus now won't even let one stand outside and ogle the photos of the girls because they'll scare away the customers with real money, Japanese businessmen."

The rain has stopped, and in the bright sunlight SoapLand looks even dingier. The aqua tile framing the frosted glass next to the front door is filigreed with mildew along the grout lines. The photos of girls sporting ratted-up hairstyles, pale lipstick, and heavy eyeliner from the sixties and seventies, posted in glass cases outside, are so old they have faded to a lifeless blue. They remind me of the photo of my grandmother. Too much.

"Actually," I say, "I've changed my mind. I don't even know why I thought that I'm related to..." I wave at the scene on the other side of the windshield, "...any of this. My grandfather was a farm boy from Missouri. My grandmother met him when he was stationed at Kadena."

As I speak, the marines rejected from the higher-class sōpu down the street appear. As soon as they move into view, there is motion on the on the other side of the frosted glass of Soapland. The shadow of a man wobbles across the glass as he nears the open door. My heart gives a violent stroke.

"So, you want to leave?" Jake asks.

The shadow is inches away from being exposed at the open door. "Yes, we should leave. Now."

Jake starts the engine and pulls forward. He is about to turn onto the street when the shadow man appears in the open door.

Jake stops. "Isn't that the guy in the picture you showed me?"

He is even gaunter than he'd looked in the photo taken three months ago. The high knobs of his shoulders tent up his suit on either side of his head. A rim of white hair outlines his face where the roots of his frizzy dyed curls are growing out. Though he could pass for Latino, even white, in person his loose-jointed ease with a hint of swagger is all African-American.

I want to say "no" so much it hurts. I don't want to be related to some skeevy guy working at a sudsy whorehouse. I am cutting this loser out, excising him like a malignant growth, I'm saying the word, I'm denying that he has any relation to me when the old guy throws his shoulders back, stands up straight, and greets the marines with a smile that is Codie's dazzling smile. The years fall off of him and Codie is there radiating the same quick, but scattered intelligence.

The marines try to wave him off, but he gets out in front, cutting them off. They step around him, but he stays on their heels, a whippet herding buffalo. When they continue rebuffing him, moving farther down the block away from SoapLand, he grabs one of the marines' sleeves. Instantly, two massive clubs of arms shoot skyward, throwing off the unwelcome touch, and both soldiers whirl on the pest and go ghetto on him with aggressive head bobs and eye pops.

The skinny man with Codie's smile backs away, both hands up, declaring total surrender. The marines leave, fist-bumping each other, bonded again in semper fi brotherhood.

"What do you want to do?" Jake asks.

What I want is to tell Jake that I was mistaken, that my life has nothing to do with a broken-down old pimp dogging customers. I really want that. The only thing I want more is the tiniest scrap of my sister back. A flash of her smile. The name of the man who might be our grandfather. I pull the handle back, the car door cracks open. "I have to talk to him."

I get out and head toward SoapLand.

+

MHS: Were there any common stereotypes / simplifications / misconceptions about Okinawa culture that you consciously tried to avoid or correct while working on the manuscript?

SB: The biggest misconception is that Okinawa is Japan. Hopefully without being didactic, I wanted to show how the island has been betrayed and exploited by both the US and Japan, usually in collaboration. How they have paid for decades for a war they had no part in starting and never stood to benefit from.

Mostly, I wanted to highlight how viscerally the Okinawans understand the tragic, incalculable costs of empire, whether Japanese or American, and how those costs are always borne, mostly, by the young.

+++

posted by Mary Helen Specht
Mary Helen Specht is our July 2013 Writer In Residence. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Colorado Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southwest Review, Florida Review, Southwestern American Literature, The Texas Observer, and Night Train, where she won the Richard Yates Short Story Award. A former Fulbright Scholar to Nigeria and Dobie-Paisano Writing Fellow, Specht currently teaches creative writing at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Steve VINE VOICE on April 4, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Told against the backdrop of both World War II and the current American "rental" of huge chunks of the island by the U.S. armed forces, Above the China Sea weaves the lives of two girls together into a complete piece that was very well crafted. While I longed for some better drawn adult characters, I still found the drama rich enough and the pacing engaging, particularly the final two-thirds of the novel. The ending is bittersweet and lovely.

I was attracted to this book because one of the characters is a military brat, and though I'm not current or former military, I've worked on the civilian side for close to ten years, so my kids have attended the same overseas schools and have moved around a considerable bit, both in the US and abroad. They're not military brats, but they have experienced the rootlessness and social frustrations that come with a life devoid of the continuity most people are used to. Author Sarah Bird's own life as a military child brings a powerful sense of authenticity to this engrossing novel. I certainly think that young adults living on U.S. bases around the world might find some empathetic characters in the novel. Others may simply marvel at the history and the cruel realities of what it is like to be Okinawan, and the terrible impact the war in the Pacific had on their island.

Above the China Sea is an interesting mix of genres. Take the young adult drama format (both main characters are teenage girls), add the flavor du jour of the supernatural, and wrap things up in the aforementioned identity crises inherent in the gypsy lifestyle of military families, and you have a book that starts with a jolt, bogs down a bit in the first third, and then picks up speed to a satisfying finish.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By D. Sorel VINE VOICE on September 4, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When I cracked the spine and read the first three pages I thought "this is going to be my new favorite book!" About ten pages in I thought "maybe one of the top books for 2014." By 50 pages in I thought "is this over yet?!" I am fairly certain that I will get hate mail for this review, but I have to say that this is far from my favorite Sarah Bird novel. What was most troublesome for me was the switching back and forth between narrators. While this can be a great storytelling tool, it has to be used very carefully. In other words, both narrators have to be strong characters with compelling stories. I did not feel that this was the case with this novel.

The 1940's storyline was unbelievably compelling. The characters were beautifully drawn, the descriptions of the area were gorgeous, and the research that was conducted was flawless. I cared a great deal about these characters and wanted the entire book to focus on them. Sadly, there was a current storyline that dominated certain parts of the book. I found this storyline to be cliched, dull, and poorly written. Overall, I would highly recommend the historic storyline and would not recommend the contemporary one at all. Therefore, I have to give the novel in its entirety a 2.5 out of 5.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By ~Kiwi~ VINE VOICE on June 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is the first time I've read this author's work and I'm truly hooked. This book is beyond spectacular in every sense. She has written a story which needs to be told, one which also educates us about a time and place which I never thought much about until now and I'm grateful to have learned about this dangerous moment in the history of Japan and America. This author also has the gift of knitting a story together and having it all come together perfectly in the end; she has done this with brilliance.

We live in a world of cultures which seemingly are all different from each other, but when it comes down to the basics of being born and dying, there are few differences between us. Perhaps this is because the Universe is by Design; what flows in, also flows out in perfect harmony. There is a balance to what we experience whether we're aware of it or not at the time. I highly recommend this book to those who have embarked on the Ascension path which is now unfolding. This book will settle your nerves and impart great wisdom in this regard. BRAVO !

"Because this is Okinawa. Because you have to grow up here to truly understand it. Because the rules are different here. Because Americans believe that they can choose their family and relatives and leave them behind whenever they want and that they don't owe anything to the ones who went before. And they're the loneliest, most unhealthy rich people on the planet. And Okinawans believe that once you are part of a family, you are part of it forever, and they are part of you forever, and you owe everything to the ones who went before. And we're the least lonely, longest-lived, not-rich people on the planet. And because, I guess, we all believe what we're taught before we're old enough to ask questions, since it makes us part of the ones we love most. So I may be as deluded as anyone else, but it's what I believe."
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By D. W. T. Taylor on June 26, 2014
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Anyone who knows Sarah Bird as a sharp comic novelist might be surprised by the profound sadness at the heart of this unusual ghost story set partly in present-day Okinawa and partly during the American invasion of the islands in 1945. It's certainly a very, very long way from Bird's first Okinawa-based novel, the bright and breezy The Yokota Officers Club.
Tamiko Kokuba is a teenage girl who committed suicide during World War Two and whose spirit has spent more than half-a-century waiting for the gods to deliver her a human host to allow her and her unborn child to pass into the afterlife. Enter Luz James, an angry, rootless military brat whose mother is stationed at Kadena Air Base and who has the three days of the annual Obon festival, when the spirits of the dead walk the earth, to puzzle out the mystery of Tamiko's death and lay her own ghosts to rest.
After a methodical and slightly disjointed opening section, the novel slowly gathers pace as the two girls' destinies dovetail together, until it is racing towards its climax. Yet aside from the pleasure of having a good story told well, what is most affecting about Above the East China Sea is its depiction of the death of a whole way of life: the people of Okinawa suffered the double betrayal of having their native culture almost entirely subsumed when the islands were annexed by Japan as a first line of defence against the advancing American forces, then had to watch the islands themselves being razed to the ground as the Americans forced the Japanese into retreat. The harrowing depiction of the Battle of Okinawa and its aftermath haunt you long after the supernatural events of the novel have been resolved.
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Above the East China Sea: A novel
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