Thursday, May 23, 2019

Ann Howard Creel - The Uncertain Season

Author: Ann Howard Creel
Title: The Uncertain Season
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

When I stood on the shores of Galveston in 2013, I was clapping my eyes on the ocean after decades. I grew up in a town that was a little like Houston, only much smaller in scale. It was hot and humid and the seashore was at least an hour's drive away. Absence had made my heart fonder for the sea shore. The proximity of the ocean from the city charmed me. The sands, the rolling waves were the same as they were on the beaches of my childhood.

I have read the 1900 Galveston: Indignities series by N.E. Brown and enjoyed them immensely. I read up on the infamous 1900 storm and a book by Suzanne Morris Galveston. 

Ann Howard Creel's book was recommended to me by a Kindle newsletter that sends me a list of books that are recommended and marked down as a special deal for the day. I usually browse through the newsletter and buy the book if it looks interesting, as this one did. I used the Look Inside option  available on Amazon to get the feel of the book. This option reminds me of flipping through a few pages of a book in a library or a bookstore to see if it looked good. This method has rarely failed me.

The Uncertain Season gives us a prologue where a girl's family is lost during the 1900 storm in Galveston. She is saved thanks to the ingenuity of a fisherman her family is friends with. From the next chapter we learn about the main character, Grace Hilliard who is on her way to the railway station to pick up her cousin Etta. The girls know each other slightly, having met only once before as children. Etta is gorgeous but a poor relation. Grace is true to her name, talented, rich and graceful.  She is engaged to Jonathan, rich and handsome. Etta tries to make a foothold in this rarefied world of the Hilliards, she wants to marry a rich young man and live this luxurious life they are accustomed to.

By contrast Grace finds herself doing charity work among the poor people of the city by the side of  the Methodist Reverend Ira Price and is deeply affected by the life there. She also comes in touch with the Girl who lost her family in the 1900 storm and tries to help her.

The changes that Grace and Etta face changes their thinking and way of life. There are secrets that are uncovered and revealed dramatically which alters them forever.

We can call the book a historical romance. It is the story of Etta and Grace, girls who are related by blood but not class. All the divisions of that age, between rich and poor, colored and white are well etched.  Etta is an outsider trying to fit in, she can hold her own in a conversation with the friends of Hilliards but when they start talking about travel or opera and the art scene, she finds she cannot compete. She isn't exposed to that kind of a privilege. Hence she has to use subterfuge and mystery to augment her appeal. Grace has been so ensconced in her privileged life that when she first steps into the alleys to work with the poor she is taken aback. She has lived her life barely a mile away from the alley but never imagined anything like it.

I liked how well etched the characters were. They seem so real with their angst and anxieties. It is easy to empathize with them even when they are doing something wrong, for we understand why they do it. The story is well crafted and it was easy to read. The writing style is simple and engaging. This a little gem of a book and I am willing to read more books by this author.

I love a good romance but find it hard to find one. There are so many romance novelists who wind up being tedious, most of them are too fluffy and the story feels like flat soda. This one was full bodied and it barely even felt like a romance, it was more like a slice of life story. The best kind in my opinion.


Friday, May 17, 2019

J M Lee - The Investigation

Author: Jung Myung Lee
Title: The Investigation
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Translator: Kim Chi Young

Nearly five years ago I was introduced to Korean Series by my mother. In these years I have barely seen a handful of Hollywood movies, another handful of British ones. Hollywood AV output, movies or series, was once my staple. The majority of my watching time is now devoted to Korean series or movies.  I have discovered a new world, a new sensibility there which I am not willing to leave.

Likewise, my book reading was also majorly western. I did like a lot of Soviet authors at one time and read them avidly. Mostly it was British authors and the US ones that occupied my reading.  My love of Korean series has made me look for Korean literature as well. I loved Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, both Japanese. Now it was time to look for some Korean authors. I found the magnificent Han Kang who gives us a glimpse into human psyche without any mercy for her readers.  I found Bae Suah equally good, not for the same reasons, but for extracting beauty out of the commonplace.

And now this book! J.M. Lee has used fiction to give us the fictional biography of one of Korea's best loved poets - Yun Dong Ju. Dong Ju was born and brought up in Manchuria where his grandfather had fled to avoid famine in Korea.  Korea was annexed by Japan in Dong Ju's lifetime. He studied for a while in Korea and then went to Japan to study further. He was a poet and wanted to publish his poetry. His professor feared his poetry would be seen as seditious and urged him to give up the idea. He left a copy of his manuscript with his professor and another with his friend. Soon, he was arrested by the Japanese for working underground for Korean independence. He was lodged in Fukuoka prison. He died there after a year and a half,  just before Korea won its independence. Later, his friend published the manuscript of poems left with him.

The narrator of the book, Yuichi Watanbe is a young guard in Fukuoka prison. He is handed the investigation of the murder of a guard Sugiyama. He solves the murder, it was the work of one of the prisoners. However, he finds that things are not simple and keeps digging. In the process he comes in contact with Yun Dong Ju. They share a common love for poetry and literature but the realities of their situation is not conducive to beauty of any kind. They are on opposing sides in a war, a prisoner and a guard. This war has torn apart the victorious nation of Japan as much as the vanquished nation of Korea. The ordinary people of both sides suffer equally. The beauty and sanity of life is a victim here, not the nationality of people.

We get an in depth look into the murky life of prisoners and guards of this prison. This is the worst way in which humans treat their own kind. The greed of a few lays waste the lives of many. The murder mystery is used in a masterly fashion by J.M.Lee to expose the dirty underbelly of war to us. It is interspersed with beautiful poetry of Dong Ju, references to great masters of literature and even Opera.

As I said in my review of Han Kang's Human Acts, if this book does not make you a pacifist, nothing ever will. I have to say it again for this book as well.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Rattawut Lapcharoensap - Sightseeing

Publisher: Grove Press
Author: Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Title: Sightseeing

I have been trying to enrich my knowledge of Thailand lately. I visit my mother there yearly and wanted to expand my knowledge of all things Thai to be able to appreciate the country better. More so as I wanted to travel across the country and take in the sights. I have been reading some blogs that offer information about backpacking through the country. There are useful tips about what to pack and which medicines to carry and where to stay, apart from the usual tips about what to see.  This blog, by Nomadic Matt, curiously, even had a list of books about Thailand as a bonus.

When I was last in Thailand and visiting Ayutthya, my mother told me about the story of a king whose family drowned in a canal there. Apparently, you cannot touch a royal person. So when a boat capsized and the Queen and her children were drowning, no one would rescue them for the fear of breaking the rule of physical contact with a Royal. It was such a macabre story, that I was struck by it. My mother also talked about Anna and the King of Siam which has been made into two Hollywood movies. 

The book, Anna and the King of Siam was on the list of recommended reading by Nomadic Matt.. So was Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap with some glowing comments. I discovered Sightseeing on Scribd, which is always an incentive to get to it right away.

I was captivated by the first story, Farangs. It was about a boy whose father was an American and the mother, a Thai girl. The father stuck around with them for ten or eleven years before going back to the US. His mother now runs a hostel on a beach. The boy uses his facility with English, learned from his father, to hook farang (foreign) girls. The few pages of the story hit the spot right away. They give us a quick, by no means shallow, look at life in Thailand.

This statement is true of all seven stories in this anthology. The stories are about Thai people from the lower end of the social strata, working hard to keep body and soul together. There are young boys trying to cope with loss and grow up in At the Cage Lovely. Draft Day is about a privileged kid dodging draft and losing friendship. Sightseeing is about a woman who is on a trip before she loses her eyesight. Priscilla the Cambodian (my favorite of the lot) is about the divide between natives and the refugees. This poignant story makes a strong point about the hostility refugees face the world over. Don't Let Me Die in This Place is about an aged American man trying to adjust to a life in Thailand. Cockfighter is about a man trying to hold on his dignity, viewed by his teenaged daughter as she is trying to make sense of her life.

The stories are all beautifully written, layered, deep and striking. This, in my mind, is how every author should strive to write. This is Rattawut Lapcharoensap's debut book. He is a Thai-American writer residing in the USA. I have read another story of his on Granta, called Valets, a story about a group of valets who are working at a seedy food joint which was once the pride of Bangkok. Like Rattawut's other stories, this one lingers in your mind too.

 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Chronicles of Brother Cadfael - Ellis Peters

Author: Ellis Peters (real name Edith Mary Pargeter)

If you are looking to latch on to a series of books that are unfailingly exciting from book to book, look no further. Of course, you must like historical fiction which are a detective series to boot. For us, Sherlock Holmes is also a historical series, but Brother Cadfael walked in England much much earlier.

It was the twelfth century in England. Civil War tore apart the people. King Stephan and Queen Maud strive to claw at power. The aristocracy is divided into two camps. The people, largely unattached to either, hope for peace and prosperity and will sing the praises of any who brings it to them. King Stephan is in the lead for now. Shrewsbury in England is behind the King.

In a Benedictine abbey in Shrewsbury, Brother Cadfael is living out his retirement. He was inducted late into the order, after he had served in the Crusade and worked as a Sailor. He has uncommon knowledge of herbs. He is tasked with maintaining the herb garden at the abbey and also tend to sick people. He is shrewd and observant. Time and again he is called upon to solve a mystery.

There is a formula is often followed in all the books. There is a murder and also a love story in the secular world. Brother Cadfael gets interested in the murder or is called to help. His knowledge of people and their passions is as extensive as his knowledge of herbs. He makes use of it to solve these mysteries and set the lovers on the right path. Often there is monk in trouble over his faith. Brother Cadfael helps him too.

Despite the formula, the sheer inventiveness behind each book makes them virtually unputdownable. I have polished off a complete book at a sitting, a feat I have not achieved much in recent times. Luckily for me,  scribd.com has the complete series on its shelves. I am having a whale of time reading them up.  I have completed about six or seven of the total twenty so far. The way I am going, I am sure I will finish all of them by the end of this year.

The era is faithfully depicted and rings true. I am not knowledgeable enough to vouch for it, but everything sounds right. The language, the clothes, the customs. By and large, the monks and men of God are depicted in a good light. They do have failings, one or two are evil but generally are wise and pious. Same goes for the aristocracy. They are also mostly favorably depicted, with some exceptions. The common people are usually hard working and solid, again, with some exceptions. In short, the times are hard, the war between Stephan and Maud is difficult for the people, but still they are doing well. This may not be the truth, but it makes a good setting for the mysteries when an occasional serpent comes along to cause trouble in paradise.

Brother Cadfael is Welsh and there is a lot of reference to the different way of life of Welsh people. Sometimes people from Cadfael's past turn up, with a bit of back story and we learn a little more about the short stout monk bent upon doing the right thing. The core story progresses from book to book, some characters remain constant and some change. At times the monk leaves Shrewsbury on a mission and discovers adventures in a new place.  Hugh Beringer, the deputy sheriff at Shrewsbury is the monk's best friend and ally. They often aid each other in solving mysteries.

I have enjoyed all the books in the series I have read so far immensely, but the last one I read - Virgin in the Ice was by far the best. There was the mandatory murder, a young love pair and a confused monk, but there was also intrigue, runaways, capture and a battle replete with daring rescues. This was the only book where I could not figure out the murderer.

I suppose I will write a bit more about the series after I complete them or after I have read some more books. I hope I have kindled an interest in book lovers about this very interesting series.









Thursday, September 20, 2018

Zen Cho - The Terracotta Bride

Publisher: Self (?)
Author: Zen Cho
Title: The Terracotta Bride

Sometimes a book recommendation can be very rewarding. This book was pushed into my recommended reading by Scribd and I am glad it did. It is a short book of merely 51 pages. A novella or a longish story.  Its breathtakingly gorgeous cover is what first attracted me to it. I am glad the 'inner beauty' of the book lives up to its cover.

Siew Tsin died at a young age, perhaps only 18. On reaching hell she was met by her great-uncle who promptly sold her to the richest man in hell, Junsheng. Good news is, all the paper money, paper servants, paper mansions, paper gramophones that the devoted relatives burn for their dead forbears does reach them. It can buy them a comfortable afterlife. Junsheng is reveling in the offerings of his successors.

Soon Siew Tsin finds out that hell has its own rules, corruption levels and ambitions. She is blind to everything around her, bent only upon keeping herself occupied. When her husband brings home a Terracotta bride, her perspective changes. She has to learn about things going on around her and fast, as she is in danger. Also she learns that one may have to go to hell and back to find true love.

The novel is a quick and a heady fix of fantasy. We are flung into an other-worldly atmosphere as soon as we open the book. The Chinese customs of dealing with the dead, tenets of Buddhism, reincarnation and even the Terracotta warriors are mashed together to create this tale. The writing is superb. The sentences are short and elegant. The irony of being alive in afterlife after death is brought out nicely from time to time.

She lived, dead, unnoticed by her husband, the household, and even by her own self. 
Until the terracotta bride came.

I was so impressed by Zen Cho, that I immediately read another book by her, another short novella. More about it later. This is surely an author to watch. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Shen Fu - Chapters from a Floating Life

Publisher: Oxford Press (1960)
Author: Shen Fu
Title: Chapters from a Floating Life
Translator: Shirley M Black
Read on: Scribd.com

I often fantasize about books written by amateurs, maybe for self indulgence or for the pleasure of a few friends. They maybe typewritten or even hand written, filling a few pages and ordinary copy books. They maybe be manuscripts by authors who never found publishers, or merely diaries by people meant to be kept secret and to the heart. These could be works to rival those of great masters, worthy of being read by many people and called classics. So many beautiful books out there destroyed because they were private or neglected. Why, even Jane Austen nearly suffered oblivion at one time. Now we cannot imagine literary scene without her.

It was happenstance that led Yang Yin to a bookstall where a manuscript lay among second hand books. Yang Yin was the brother-in-law of Wang Tao, who was a prominent writer and an editor of Shan Bao, a prominent Shanghai Newspaper.  These two meritorious gentleman rescued the beautiful autobiography of Shen Fu, a painter, from oblivion. The book became a instant hit with the readers of Shan Bao in 1877 and is still being read.

Shen Fu lived from 1763 to 1825(?) during the Qing Dynasty. Whatever we know of his life is recorded in his book.  Out of the possible six chapters only four were recovered. He had a lovely childhood in the lap of nature and was fortunate to find a soul mate in his cousin Shu Chen (or Yuen). They had an enviable married life without much discord. What plagued their life was their poverty. Shen Fu was a painter but he could not eke out a living with this. He often picked up work as a Yamen (secretary), but there was no permanent work and the couple was always in debt, forced to pawn their belongings and move from place to place (hence, floating life).

The book is lovingly translated by Shirley M Black. It is said to be very poetic in Chinese, you get the same idea when you read Shirley Black's translation. It is equally poetic and gives you the impression of floating down the river in a gently rocking boat. It was impossible to find any details about the translator. However, the foreword states that she rearranged the sequence of the book and modified some parts of the original book to make it easy for the western reader. Ever since I learned that, I have been wanting to find some other translation that provides the text in translation as it is. I hope to learn more about it.

The book has been adapted into a ballet. I feel it could make a beautiful movie as well, starting with the discovery of the manuscript, its popularity, search for the missing chapters that segue into the captivating story of Shen Fu.

 
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