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.

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