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Water Ghosts

3.35  ·  Rating Details ·  312 Ratings  ·  91 Reviews
A mesmerizing story of a community of Chinese immigrants in a small California town in 1928, weaving history and mythology around the lives of the townspeople and the ghosts who haunt them

Locke, CA, 1928— Three bedraggled Chinese women suddenly appear out of the mist one afternoon in a small Chinese farming town on the Sacramento River, and their arrival throws the communi
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published April 16th 2009 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published April 1st 2008)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Bethany C
I'm still not exactly sure how I feel about this book. When I first started it, the writing style seemed very strange. Present tense, and no quotation marks when people were clearly speaking, almost like one long run-on sentence. But I actually got used to it surprisingly quickly, and helped the book flow so that I seemed to read it faster. Then I was slightly put off and confused by jumping back and forth between years, but after a few times it fit the story as memories shaped the characters. H ...more
Deb Atwood
Aug 16, 2012 Deb Atwood rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ghost-novels, ghost

With Ghost Month starting this week, this is the perfect time to take a look at Water Ghosts. This book was originally published under the title Locke 1928, and until I neared the end of the book, I would have said Locke 1928 was a better title than Water Ghosts. This is one of those novels in which the town becomes a kind of character, similar to Empire Falls by Richard Russo. And indeed, author Ryan paints the town with sensory-rich detail. I visited the tiny delta hamlet of Locke, CA, still e
Jason Pettus
Apr 26, 2009 Jason Pettus rated it really liked it
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

One of the biggest pleasures of running this website is the chance to discover new books recommended to me by other writers I admire; take for example California author Jason Riley, who earlier this year sent along to me the novel Water Ghosts by his buddy acquaintance Shawna Yang Ryan, under the belief t
Jul 24, 2010 Kathleen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-i-won
I really hate to give this book only three stars because it is truly beautifully written. I love the haunting mood of the novel and the use of Chinese mythology and stories. However, I have to add into my rating how enjoyable I found it to read. I tend to love novels that give me characters that I come to care about or at least find fascinating and this novel really didn't provide that. The story was also very hard for me to get into which would have been ok if in the end I felt it had a large i ...more
May 31, 2009 Rob rated it really liked it
I feel bad because I know Shawna and my 4 star review seems to have brought her average down. So let me clarify what I mean by 4 stars.

I think this is an excellent book. It does a fantastic job of touching on interpersonal relationships within a specific historical context and invoking emotional responses to spiritual/fantasy possibilities. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone. It is not my type of writing, along the lines that Toni Morrison is not my type of writer. Which is to
Bethany C
I'm still not exactly sure how I feel about this book. When I first started it, the writing style seemed very strange. Present tense, and no quotation marks when people were clearly speaking, almost like one long run-on sentence. But I actually got used to it surprisingly quickly, and helped the book flow so that I seemed to read it faster. Then I was slightly put off and confused by jumping back and forth between years, but after a few times it fit the story as memories shaped the characters. H ...more
Maryan Heffernan
Shawna Yang Ryan’s beautifully written and evocative debut is splendid and I am looking forward to her continued career.

Water Ghosts is an exquisitely crafted insight into a Californian community of Chinese immigrants in 1928. Three spectral women emerge on a dilapidated boat out of a mist on the Sacramento River, one the wife of Richard Fong, manager of a local gambling saloon and two who are not known but their presence casts a strange shadow over this male dominated Chinese community.

The app
"I'd give my breath to you." A beautiful line from an absolutely beautiful book.

Water Ghosts is the story of Locke, California, 1928, when three Chinese women appear on the river out of the fog and disrupt the town. Who are these women? Where have they come from? Why have they come? These women become entwined with the lives of the townspeople as the story unfolds. It is a story of love, passion, ambition, and betrayal that feels almost dream-like.

I appreciate the style in which the book was wr
Jan 01, 2016 janet rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love how Ryan uses history, myth, and folklore to tell her tale. The ending is amazing so I won't give anything away. Some of the descriptions are exquisite with a strong sense of melancholy. Each chapter feels like a vignette so at times it feels disjointed. This created an effect of separation between characters laid over days of routine labor with small events occurring or moments of awareness. It made me read it slower. I am not sure how I feel about this.
Jun 27, 2013 Carrie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: to-reread
I had to read this book for a class on the American Gothic, and I am so glad I did. This is truly an amazing work, unlike anything I've read before. Stylistically it is as jarring as the three boat women -- there are no quotation marks, leading to a lyrical sort of reading with multiple interpretations. The mixing of cultures and traditions leads to a unique setting during a difficult time in American history.
Amanda J
Aug 16, 2010 Amanda J rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of Toni Morrison or Lisa See
Recommended to Amanda J by: goodreads giveaway
Mystical elements are combined with the historical setting of Locke, California in the 1920s - a chinese settlement near San Fransisco. Yang Ryan presents a wide cast of flawed characters, each with their own selfish ambitions and desires. While at times both lyrical and haunting, this novel moves slowly through its forced prose.
Aug 22, 2010 Olivia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting and well-written book, if a bit explicit. The writing style is intersting. The author doesn't use quotation marks, which was weird at first, but gave the story almost a dream-like quality. The story switches between different charcters often. It was a quick read.
Dec 07, 2015 Monica rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Historical fiction that takes place in the Sacramento Delta when Chinese were first immigrating to Cali. It has a slow rhythm like everything is under water. It's about water images and power, women's roles and the body, agency through spirit.
Jane Mettee
Dec 24, 2015 Jane Mettee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Magical writing. Enjoyed this story and the history.
Amy Layton
This book was wonderful to read for a class--it's the perfect introduction to Asian-American (and more specifically, Chinese-American) history and literature. Also, lesbians.
Jun 07, 2017 Jodi rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'm not sure what to say about this book. I listened to it and I read another reviewer that said she had to stop listening to it and switch to the book. I felt like, if I switched to the book, I would have never finished it. The book has no quotations marks, etc... when the characters are talking. That would probably drive me crazy. It is beautifully written; I will give it that. But, it was hard to follow at times. I found myself just focusing on 4 characters and listening for their names to co ...more
Jul 04, 2012 Noah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There might be a conflict of interests in me reviewing this book, as the author is my (awesome) former professor. But regardless of the possibility that my opinion was colored by me knowing her, I stand by my opinion that this book is awesome, and easily the best fiction I've read all year.

The plot summary reads like a Chinese-American version of Beloved (and although this book really is its own thing, I draw the comparison because she quotes Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech): the y
Mar 01, 2017 Bill rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved it, but it is not for everyone. It is not a linear strongly plot driven book. This is written as a series short vignettes and chapters that read like short stories. The strength of this book is in the telling, excellently written, a writers book.

Early on it is a bit tough to follow as it jumps around in time. In the beginning I'd have lost without the cast of characters listed on the forepage.
Ju Haghverdian
DNF - Part 2, Chapter 12.

This is the 3rd time I tried to "read" this story but I cannot get through it.
I'm not sure why, I cannot connect with the story. I cannot say it was for the lack of trying.
Jill Paulson
The story is intriguing, no doubt, and while there several things that I really liked about this book, there were a few things that I mildly disliked as well.

Let's start with what I liked.

First of all, the prose is SO beautiful...often quite poetic which was a feast for my imagination. The scenes and characters really came to life as I was reading.

I have always been a fan of cultural and historical novels and this one fits both. There is a very strong infusion of the Chinese culture even though
Aug 18, 2016 Kate rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
This is a story that is drawn from many tales of Chinese immigrants and placed in the California Delta town of Locke, which still exists with close to 90 residents. This story starts with the founding of Locke. When fire devastated the town of Walnut Grove many of the Chinese immigrants who lived there as non land owners decided to rebuild a life in a different area. They negotiated and got permission to build homes and business in a new area from a farmer named Locke on an unused section of his ...more
Nov 16, 2010 Christina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 20, 2015 Diane rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a wonderful novel, which I appreciated even more on the second reading. Shawna Yang Ryan, portraits each character beautifully. I especially liked the contrast of the weak, drifting, impulsive young girl who ends up as an abused harlot- and the tenacious, driven, abandoned wife who seeks her revenge even after death. Her determination is so strong that she steals the very life away from the hapless husband who failed to send for her.
This book is so colorfully well done that it can dispen
Eileen Souza
May 30, 2009 Eileen Souza rated it did not like it
Shelves: china, asia, north-america
So disappointing - this book has received rave reviews, and received nothing but 5 stars on Amazon. Even good reads has it at 4.57 stars, but it's completely unreadable.

The major flaw here is the fact that there are no quotations around what people are saying - and there's a lot of saying one thing and thinking another.

There are too many characters, and the story is told from each person's ownperspective, but again, I can't follow the thoughts and words because there's no differentiation - and
Andrea Allison
This is the first book I've won in a giveaway on Goodreads. The storyline sounded intriguing and couldn't wait to start reading it. After finishing Water Ghosts, my excitement level wasn't so high.

I don't know much about Chinese culture for which I'm unable to comment on, but I found myself liking the story for the most part. I think the style of writing the author chose really throws readers for a loop, or at least it did me. I'm use to reading books where quotation marks identifies dialogue. T
Manda Seats
Aug 17, 2010 Manda Seats rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Historical fiction lovers.
This was an interesting read. It was my first Goodreads Giveaway win, so thanks to Goodreads and the ones that opened the contest!

This was a quick, light read, but it was a little difficult to follow. There aren't any quotation marks used when people speak, so it's hard to decide what's spoken word and what is thought. The time-line also jumps around a bit, but eventually, the storyline of the characters unfold and the ending was pretty good.

To be honest, the ending was probably the best part.
Mar 24, 2012 Marty rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ctmh-challenge
A very poignant tale of a small California town where most of the population are Chinese and men overwhelmingly outnumber the women. The story revolves around the present and past experiences of a half-dozen characters, including a manager at the gambling hall, his wife who has traveled from China to reunite with him, his former lover who is the madame of the local brothel, Chloe, a Anglo prostitute and her friend, Sofie who is the daughter of the local baptist preacher and his white wife. The n ...more
Jun 01, 2009 Janine rated it really liked it
I love reading books that take place in towns that I live somewhat close to. I am an Asian American Studies kid so this book was right up my alley. After reading it I went online and looked up everything I could on Locke, California. Shawna's depiction seems pretty accurate and well researched. My favorite character was Poppy See the brothel madam who pretty much can sense your whole life story and your future does by touching or smelling or tasting or any kind of "sensing" of something of yours ...more
Jul 26, 2010 Arlith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I won this in a Goodreads giveaway...

First off, the book is very lovely. There's a lot of really great imagery. I did find it distracting that there weren't any quotation marks used. About a third of the way into the book, I got used to it and it added a dreamlike quality to it.

Smells and scents were mentioned and described quite frequently that, and the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab addict in me was absolutely delighted by it. Then when it was Hungry Ghost Moon in the book, I was thrilled.

Elizabeth Kennedy
Oct 08, 2013 Elizabeth Kennedy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a wonderful book full of belief, mystery and superstition. The three wind together like a swollen river that here and there releases a secret. The lack of quotation marks in the narrative lends itself to the dream like quality of the writing and that surreal style softens the harshness of the situations described. The sorrows are real, and the things that must be endured are real, but the three women who suddenly appear may be real or they may be ghosts. I love the weaving together of th ...more
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SHAWNA YANG RYAN is a former Fulbright scholar and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Her short fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Asian American Literary Review, Kartika Review, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. She is the 2015 recipient of the Elliot Cades Emerging Writer award. Originally from California, she now lives in Honolulu.
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