Book Review: 'Night in Shanghai'

Night in Shanghai
Night in Shanghai

by Nicole Mones

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Nicole Mones first visited China in 1977 as a textile merchant before she began writing fiction and nonfiction on the country.

hide captionNicole Mones first visited China in 1977 as a textile merchant before she began writing fiction and nonfiction on the country.

Owen Carey/Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Alan Cheuse reviews Night in Shanghai, by Nicole Mones.

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Shanghai in 1936 was on the verge of Japanese occupation. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse says it makes a terrific setting for new novel by Nicole Mones. It's called "Night in Shanghai." The book showcases the multicultural and moneyed scene of Shanghai's prewar heyday.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Shanghai, in this tenuous period of Chinese history, serves as home to big nightclubs and gambling establishments, among them the Canine Drome(ph) with its ballrooms, restaurants, gambling parlors, mah-jongg dens, and a full-sized cover dog track; Shanghai's grandest and greatest palace of nightlife, the place where everybody, Chinese and foreigners alike, fiddle while the Japanese fires are about to burn everything to the ground.

Or maybe I should say jam or swing rather than fiddle. Kansas City African-American jazz bands flourish here, contracted by Shanghai entrepreneurs who work for the major mob that runs every nighttime pleasure and vice in the city.

Into this stew comes Thomas Greene, a classically trained black pianist from Baltimore. He's taken a job as a band leader for one of the city's most popular black American groups, except that he's got to do on-the-job training - he's got to learn how to improvise and swing. Soon after arriving, he meets Song Yuhua, a young educated Chinese woman who serves in bondage, because of her father's gambling debt, to the head of the Shanghai mob. Greene leads the high life while Song, dreaming of a newer different China, takes up with the Communist underground. Only when the city stands on the verge of major collapse as the Japanese march in, do their lives seriously intertwine.

Both of them young and awkward but gifted and smart, they make for an odd but brilliant pair of lovers. They light up the pages of this novel even as the gloom of war darkens this once fabulous city. "Night in Shanghai," an intelligent historical romance, shows off with forceful insight, terrific characters and a telling sense of detail. And, folks, it swings.

CORNISH: The book is "Night in Shanghai" by Nicole Mones. Alan Cheuse reviewed it. His next book is "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories."

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