Unfortunately, he dies before he can get the center up and running. Iris promises him that she will go and finish what he started. She had planned to go alone but ends up taking along her childhood friend, Noah. He is a veteran from a more recent war, Iraq, where he lost a leg. Unable to come to terms with his new situation and the daily pain and anger he feels, it is hoped that Noah will find some way out of his misery while he is in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, there are many people who live on the streets and a large percentage of them are children. Mai, a girl, and Minh, a boy with one arm, sell small items to tourists and Minh challenges them to games of Connect Four for one dollar. Minh has a brilliant mind and usually wins but never speaks a word. They scrape small amounts of money together, which is promptly taken from them by Loc, the opium addict who threatens the two young kids into working for him and supplying his cash. They sleep together in a basket under a bridge and are lucky if they can eat once a day.
Qui carries her granddaughter on her back every day between their shack and the market where she attempts to sell old books. Her beautiful little granddaughter, Tam, has leukemia and Qui puts every penny she can towards the pain medicine that eases Tam's suffering. It breaks her heart to watch this child in agony, though Tam rarely complains. Qui spent months saving enough money to take Tam to a hospital but by the time she did, it was too late, there was nothing the doctors could do for her.
When Iris and Noah reach the center they find Thien, a young Vietnamese woman who served as Mr. Rhodes' assistant, painting and generally getting ready for the opening, which is about a month away. She proves to be an invaluable asset to the center, she knows the city and a surprising number of its people. Her warm and open spirit shines through in her understanding of the Americans hopes and fears.
As they set to work, both Noah and Iris have their own issues to overcome. Noah is filled with rage at his loss and the pain he is in, so he doses himself with pain medication and alcohol. He doesn't see any good in the world anymore and is only going through the motions of living. Iris is unsure and tentative, she doesn't speak the language and is intimidated by the noise and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. But they will both find that the poor Vietnamese people have so much to teach and they experience profound changes within themselves.
Of course, it is a matter of opinion, but to me a great novel must have several qualities: it must pull the reader out of themselves, it must grapple with a basic human truth or moral tenet, it must resonate in the reader's own life or teach them something profound. Without these qualities, a book might be good and entertaining, but not be worthy of being called great. With Dragon House, John Shors has fulfilled all of my requirements. This is a GREAT novel, in fact it is the best I have read this year. He has taken a heart-wrenching fact of life and turned it into a moving and exciting fictional tale that serves to highlight the plight of poor children, not only in Vietnam, but around the world. He accomplishes all of this and polishes it with some excellent writing:
"Vietnam, a country that had known little but war for many generations, was strangely peaceful, as if the spirits of the slain had somehow infiltrated the prejudices of the living. Hope abounded across the land. Hope often obscured by shanties and brothels and misery but, nonetheless, the collective aspiration for a better tomorrow."
I can't praise this book highly enough, I thought that it was wonderful on so many levels. I had originally planned to review it at the end of August, just prior to its September 1 release. Then, my Mom called me and told me that she had received a copy of it in the mail and before she knew it, she had read half of it. She couldn't put it down and said that it was the best book that she had read in many years (she's quite a reader, so that is high praise). She got me so interested that I had to go and start reading it myself. So there you go, two thumbs way up for Dragon House!
The author plans on donating some of the proceeds of this novel to Blue Dragon Children's Fund, they work with children in crisis in Vietnam and have a center for street children in Hanoi. Anyone who donates $100 to Blue Dragon Children's Fund will receive a signed copy of Dragon House directly from John. You can find more information about John and his books at his website, please take a minute and visit!
Dragon House will be published by New American Library on September 1, 2009. ISBN 978-0-451-22785-0
I have one copy of Dragon House to give away. This copy is a little different from an ARC, it is a bound galley, which means that it is printed on regular 8 1/2" x 11" copy paper and then bound on the side. But it is complete and has everything the finished book will have, including a Reader's Guide and Discussion Questions. To enter, just leave me a comment here. You can earn extra entries if you do the following:
+1 become a follower (current followers automatically included)
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Leave me ONE extra comment for each of these that you do. Winner will be drawn at random and must have a US or Canada mailing address. You can enter until midnight eastern on August 18. Many thanks to John for sending me the book for review...I loved it! Good luck everyone and thanks for visiting!