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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Review of THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See

4 Stars
This is a fascinating novel which introduced me to the haenyeo, female divers on the South Korean island of Jeju.  These women breath-hold dive to great depths in frigid waters to harvest seafood like oysters, abalone, octopus, squid, and sea urchins, slugs and cucumbers.


The duration of the novel is 70 years, from 1938 to 2008.  Young-sook, an 85-year-old woman living in Jeju, is approached by an American woman who has a picture of her grandmother Mi-ja who was also from the island.  Young-sook denies knowing Mi-ja and flees from the family.  The narrative then flashes back to the past where Young-sook and Mi-ja, girls from very different backgrounds, become inseparable friends and diving partners.  They even travel to Vladivostok to dive there before marriages are arranged for them and they begin families on Jeju.  Much of the interest in the book lies in the reader wanting to find out what caused the break in such a close friendship, a break so drastic that Young-sook doesn’t even want to talk to Mi-ja’s descendants.   

Though I knew about free-divers, I had never heard of haenyeo.  This book describes their work in great detail:  their beliefs, rituals, and skills.  Researchers have studied them and discovered that “’the cold-water stress that the haenyeo endure is greater than for any other human group in the world.’”  Their work is dangerous, so much so that the leader of a haenyeo collective reminds the women that “’Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back . . . We are crossing between life and death every day.’” 

I also found Jeju’s matrifocal culture interesting:  “’not a matriarchy.  Rather, it’s a society focused on women’” where men “’live in a household that depends on the tail of a skirt.’”  The women are the breadwinners, supporting their families by diving.  “’Given the dominance on Jeju of volcanic cones, which are concave at the  top like a woman’s private parts, it is only natural that on our island females call and males follow.’”  The husband’s “only responsibilities are to take care of babies and do a little cooking.”  Besides harvesting the wet fields of the ocean, the women also maintain gardens, dry fields:  “it’s a well-known fact that men’s knees are too stiff for this work, and they are shy around sickles and hoes.”  The women work hard but have independence because their husbands have no say in “what a woman could or could not do, say or not say.”

There is humour in the women’s descriptions of their husbands as lazy and weak:  “No man was built to shoulder the full weight of feeding and caring for his family.  That was why he had a wife and daughters.”  They mock “man’s sensitive ears’ and “the sentimentality of a man.”  Haenyeo talk about what they don’t want in a husband:  “’I don’t want a husband with puny thoughts.  I won’t tolerate a husband who needs scolding - Or requires constant attention to know I care for him.’”

Characterization is outstanding, especially that of Young-sook who emerges as a memorable character.  Being a haenyeo requires her to be physically strong (“it typically took two [men] to carry what a haenyeo brought ashore”) but also mentally strong, independent, determined, and brave.  Young-sook is all of these but her stubbornness proves to be both a positive and negative quality.  She finds forgiveness difficult and chooses to remain angry and bitter.  Nonetheless, given what losses she suffers, her behaviour is realistic and understandable. 

The novel examines friendship, betrayal, and forgiveness.  It also looks at how political conflicts led by men impact the lives of women and children and their closest relationships.  Readers should be warned that the depths of human cruelty are detailed, especially in descriptions of the Jeju Uprising, what Young-sook calls the 4.3 Incident.   This is surely one of history’s least-known massacres; for almost fifty years after the uprising, it was a crime punishable by beatings, torture and a lengthy prison sentence if any South Korean even mentioned the events of the Jeju Uprising in which tens of thousands were killed.  Only this past April did South Korean police and defense ministry apologize for the massacres.

This is historical fiction at its best.  The author did extensive research and provides the reader with information about little-known cultures and historical events.  In addition, the book has a compelling plot, memorable characters, and thematic depth.  Like a haenyeo, take a deep breath and dive in!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Review of THE GONE DEAD by Chanelle Benz

2.5 Stars
This book was a disappointment.  I was expecting a mystery with some focus on serious issues, but there is no real mystery, just people not wanting to discuss the past and confront racial injustice.

After an absence of three decades, Billie James returns to the Mississippi Delta.  She has inherited the house where her father Clifton, a well-known black poet, died in 1972, 30 years earlier.  During her time in Glendale, she finds out that some people suspect Clifton’s death may not have been the result of an accidental fall as determined by the police.  She decides to stay and try to learn the truth, though there are people who keep warning her not to ask too many questions.  As she persists, she finds herself in increasing danger.

The novel focuses on Billie’s perspective, but the viewpoints of eight others are interspersed.  The most interesting one is that of Avalon, “an old juke joint” frequented by Clifton.  After describing all it has seen in its life, which has included “too much weeping too damn much of the time,” it addresses Billie:  “Listen, girl, everything you want to know is near, telling itself over again, the song is on repeat.”

This statement really indicates the theme of the novel:  racism still exists.  People who know what happened to Clifton do not want to address the issue of unjust treatment of blacks in the past.  Even her Uncle Dee does not want her investigating his brother’s death.  In the present, Billie becomes friends with a white man but their relationship does not receive the community’s approval.  Given the high incarceration rate for blacks, Billie does not think she can trust the police.

The pace of the narrative is slow so I found my interest waning.  There is considerable extraneous information that seems to serve little purpose.  For instance, Uncle Dee brings Billie to talk to one of Clifton’s former girlfriends who says, “’Dee tells me you have been asking questions about your daddy’s death.’”  The following paragraph follows that statement:  “Her uncle is still hovering.  Her mother had a print of the Röttgen Pietà, a fourteenth-century German sculpture.  In it, a mutilated Christ lies emaciated in Mary’s lap, ribs showing, mouth fallen open, tiny compared to the mass of his mother.  But it is Mary’s stony expression that is so disturbing:  the wooden, embittered agony.  ‘She got the police report,’ her uncle says.”  What does a German sculpture have to do with the discussion of the police report of Clifton’s death?  What’s with the fixation with deodorant which is mentioned three times?  Her uncle comes to take her to a bar and Billie responds with “’What bar?  I don’t have deodorant on’”??  And how about this disjointed conversation:  “’My mother was an academic.  She specialized in Christian medieval theology.  So I know me some King James.’ She inspects her raw elbow.  ‘My cousin is in jail.  I hate thinking of him in there.  He was such a sweetheart’”??

The ending is disappointing.  There is no real closure since many questions are left unanswered.  One character, Dr. Melvin Hurley, an academic writing Clifton’s biography, is just dropped; he is present at the climax but then is never mentioned again.  The rushed climax and abrupt ending – with no dramatic revelations – are not in keeping with the pace of the rest of the novel. 

The most positive element of the novel is its rich sense of place.  There is no doubt that the author is familiar with the Mississippi Delta.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find much else to recommend the book.  There is no real mystery because the manner of Clifton’s death is totally predictable.  The theme is worth developing but its impact is lessened by an uneven, disjointed narrative.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review of MAN OF THE YEAR by Caroline Louise Walker

4 Stars
I loved this book which is the interior monologue of a man whose public and private personas are entirely different.  It brought to mind the oft-quoted lines from Walter Scott’s poem Marmion:  “Oh, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practise to deceive!”

Dr. Robert Hart has been chosen as Citizen of Year in his home community of Sag Harbor, NY, but his happiness at receiving the award is tainted.  He suspects that his wife Elizabeth is having an affair with Nick Carpenter, their son Jonah’s best friend, who is staying in their guest house for the summer.  Though he has no real evidence, he devises a convoluted, highly questionable plan to keep Nick away from Elizabeth, a plan that if discovered would put Robert’s medical career in jeopardy.  Of course things go awry, and he has to take desperate measures to keep his life and reputation intact. 

Robert is the first person narrator throughout, though there are chapters interspersed that present the viewpoints of other characters connected to Robert:  his best friend’s wife, his office manager, his son. These latter sections clarify how others perceive Robert so that the reader is not left with only Robert’s perspective which is certainly skewed.  He is definitely not a reliable narrator. 

Though the novel begins slowly, once initial relationships were established my interest was maintained.  There is considerable suspense:  how will Robert put a stop to Elizabeth and Nick’s alleged affair?  Then when things go wrong, how will he “whack-a-mole [his] next risk”?  There is more than one surprise twist to keep the reader on his/her toes.

The book is really a character study of one man.  Dr. Hart is successful and seems not to lack confidence, but it becomes apparent that much of that self-assurance is a façade.  Being very insecure, he lets his imagination run wild and he jumps to conclusions.  I was reminded of Othello when Desdemona’s father tells him, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceived her father, and may thee.”  Elizabeth was unfaithful to her first husband so Robert easily suspects she could be unfaithful to him.

What stands out is Robert’s narcissism and supreme arrogance.  He describes Elizabeth as being “worthy” of him and when he thinks his wife is attracted to someone else, he assumes that attraction lies in the fact that the man has features similar to his.  Even when Robert knows he is wrong, he refuses to admit it:  “Backtracking shows weakness.”  He takes enjoyment in manipulating people to do as he wants. 

There are actually no likeable characters.  Robert and his family are acquainted with many people, but Robert knows that he can confide in no one:  “There’s not a soul in Sag Harbor I can call – not one good friend or mild acquaintance who could lend an ear without clanging the gossip chain.”  By the time the ending is reached, Robert is not the only character who proves to be morally bankrupt.  This lack of sympathetic characters is not a problem; in fact, it seems appropriate that Robert is surrounded by such despicable people. 

This book reminded me of Herman Koch’s novels Summer House with Swimming Pool and The Dinner.  Anyone who liked either of these should pick up Man of the Year.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Review of THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON by Sara Collins

3.5 Stars
The novel begins in 1826 in London.  Frannie Langton, aka the Mulatta Murderess, is awaiting trial on charges of killing her employers, George and Marguerite Benham.  Her lawyer asks her to help him defend her so she decides to write her life story.

Frannie was born a slave on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica.  Her master, John Langdon, is a pseudo-scientist, a Josef Mengele character; determined to prove that blacks are a separate species, he performs gruesome experiments.  Having been taught to read and write, Frannie is forced to be his assistant.  Later she is brought to London where she becomes a maid in the Benham household.  George is a renowned scientist interested in studies similar to John’s and so keeps questioning Frannie about his experiments in Jamaica.  Marguerite also takes an especial interest in Frannie but for different reasons.  Then the two are found dead in their home, and Frannie is charged with their murders. 

Interspersed with Frannie’s story are excerpts from the testimonies of trial witnesses and the journals of George Benham.  These third-person perspectives often clash with Frannie’s version of events so the reader is left wondering about her reliability as a narrator.  There are certain topics she refuses to discuss in detail (eg. the exact nature of the experiments Langton performed on both the living and the dead) and she claims to have memory lapses, so what else is she hiding?  Frannie also has a habit “which often weighted my limbs in those days, and made everything thick and slow, including my thoughts” that affects her credibility. 

Of course, it is Frannie who is the most interesting character.  She is a fully developed character with dreams and desires.  It is her intelligence that stands out most.  Her observations are often witty and astute.  For example, she comments “The white man is the measure of all things, and of all things the measure is the white man” and “newspapers . . . travel some distance to the rear of truth” and “Why is it that every white you’ll ever meet either wants to tame you or rescue you?  What no one will admit about the anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it.”

Frannie is not always a good person.  Understandably, she has been scarred by her experiences in Jamaica.  For instance, she doesn’t believe that “’there’s any such thing as an honest man.’”  She knows she has a great deal of potential but she is black and female and not given opportunities to meet that potential.  She certainly suffers from anger and jealousy. 

The book has echoes of various other novels; Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad come to mind.  Readers may even think of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  There are several literary allusions in the book since Frannie is an avid reader.

The pace of the book is uneven.  I found the section in London to be slow.  Certainly, Frannie’s relationship with the Benhams must be developed but there is needless repetition.  The author also wanted to add suspense to the mystery (Did Frannie kill two people?) but there’s a fine line between arousing suspense (by extending the rising action) and creating boredom.

Readers should be warned that the novel touches on a number of topics they may find uncomfortable:  slavery, incest, addiction, sexual deviance.  The perspective of an educated black woman living in the early 19th century does, however, make for interesting reading. 

Friday, July 5, 2019

Review of DreadfulWater by Thomas King

3.5 Stars
I loved the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour when it was on CBC Radio about 20 years ago.  That radio comedy show was written by Thomas King so I shouldn’t have been surprised that he also wrote a mystery series with comedic elements.

Thumps DreadfulWater is a Cherokee ex-cop turned photographer who ends up becoming a detective.  A casino/condo complex is about to be opened when the body of a computer programmer is found on the premises.  Stick Merchant, a young activist opposed to the development, is the prime suspect so his mother Diane, the band chief and Thumps’ sometimes lover, asks Thumps to investigate.  As is expected, Thumps solves the case, though not before more murders occur. 

This is the first book of the series so there is considerable background given about Thumps.  He left the police force in Eureka, California, because of a tragedy after which “being a cop was something he could no longer do.”  He is now a photographer but considers himself “self-unemployed.”  One friend calls him lazy – “’the laziest man I’ve ever known’” – and napping does seem to be his favourite past-time.  That same friend also tells him that he is “’good at what you do’” and it does not come as a surprise that he is better at detective work than the sheriff, Duke Hockney. 

The touches of humour make the book an entertaining read.  There really isn’t the biting social and political satire I expected; chuckles are a more typical reaction to the light-hearted humour.  There are comments like “Trouble . . . was like a man, never in short supply, never too far away” and descriptions like a man having “no more romance than a Kleenex.”  Another character is introduced as “a skinny reed of a man who enjoyed complaining the way some people enjoy chocolate.  He was an uncomplicated, unrepentant mix of bigotry, sexism, and general vulgarity, a social garbage can on legs.”  About the most pointed comment is the reference to one man’s hatred of Native-Americans:  “That was the nice thing about hate . . . You didn’t have to be right.  You just had to be committed.”

The one element that had me puzzled was setting.  When Thumps left California, he moved east and he seems to be living somewhere in the northwest in a town named Chinook.  I think of King as a Canadian writer (though I know he is American by birth), but it becomes clear that the fictional Chinook is in the U.S. because the F.B.I. comes to investigate.  So what’s with the Tim Horton’s reference?  It and the mention of Calgary are an appeasement to Canadian readers?

This is a fast, non-taxing read.  The mystery is fairly straightforward and identifying the villain is not too difficult.  It is the sharp dialogue and witty exposition combined with the indigenous view of the world that make this book more than ordinary. 

                

Monday, July 1, 2019

Review of SEA OF BONES by Deborah O'Donoghue (New Release)

3.5 Stars
Juliet MacGillivray is haunted by the death of her beloved niece, Beth Winters.  The police deemed it a suicide but Juliet has difficulty accepting this conclusion.  She sets out to investigate while visiting her summerhouse in northeast Scotland where Beth was living while studying Fine Art Textiles in a nearby art school.  As she begins asking questions, Juliet realizes there are people who do not appreciate her meddling.  When her partner Declan becomes involved, he too comes to realize there are those who do not want the truth exposed.

Several subjects are examined in the novel, one of them being mental illness.  Erica, Juliet’s twin sister and Beth’s mother, suffers with bipolar disorder and that diagnosis is always mentioned by the media when discussing Juliet’s position as chief of staff of a political party, as if Juliet is somehow tainted by having a twin with mental health issues.  Juliet also believes that the police’s determination that Beth committed suicide because of depression was influenced by her mother having a manic-depressive illness. 

The sexual exploitation of minors is another subject that receives attention.  There are scenes which may make readers feel uncomfortable.  Immigration, political corruption, and manipulation by the wealthy also come to the fore during Juliet’s investigation. 

There is quite a bit of suspense in the book.  Juliet, Declan and others who become involved in investigating Beth’s death and those who might know something about it face increasing danger.  Threats are made and people are hurt.  The sense of danger will keep readers reading. 

An issue I have with the book is that Juliet is not a really likeable character.  For all her professed love for her niece, they did not seem particularly close.  If Juliet really knew her niece, Juliet should have known when Beth phoned and said, “’There’s some wee things I really need to talk to you about’” that Beth had something important to discuss.  If she did know her niece’s tendency to understate, her not calling Beth for three weeks indicates nothing positive about her character.  At one point, Juliet realizes people think of her as “somewhat pathetic and controlling and superior all at once” and those adjectives describe her perfectly.  She does not seem to be a particularly warm person.  It seems that at least a couple of people think of her as a “very strong lady” but she doesn’t come across as that to me. 

What also bothers me is that characters often behave unrealistically.  For example, would a mother really bring her 13-year-old daughter to a party where drugs are openly used and where she is in danger of being sexually molested?  Would a man who helps recruit a minor for the purpose of sexual exploitation and who viciously kills a man be so shocked when he comes “face to face with his paymasters’ depravity” that he disobeys orders and behaves as he does at the end?

The ending has weaknesses.  The last few events seem largely unnecessary because there is focus on a character who doesn’t deserve attention.  There is too much falling action after the climax.  On the other hand, another character, one who played a pivotal role in the investigation, is just dropped; she is last mentioned as sitting in silence and shaking in shock.  (Other minor characters who are introduced in some depth seem unnecessary because they never appear again.)

The book is not perfect but it is still an enjoyable escapist read.  It touches on a number of important topics, and the plot, though uneven, has considerable suspense. 

Note:  I received an ARC from the publisher, Legend Press.