Thursday, April 18, 2013

Desolation Row by Kay Kendall

Desolation Row. Kay Kendall. March 2013. The Armchair Publisher. March 2013. 258 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780985994211.

Austin Starr’s husband David is a “draft dodger” (term used for those without refused to fight in the Vietnam War) and has taken her to live in Canada where they are both pursuing academic careers.  Austin isn’t completely happy there, is rather homesick and finds the culture in Canada very different from America.  Things are about to get even more difficult for her and her husband.  Even though they’re living outside America, they are still part of the protest movement which is actually picking up steam in both countries.  Murder suddenly alters their world!

One of the protest leaders, Reginald Simpson, the son of an American Senator, has been great for the movement but has earned a few enemies as well.  When Austin one night stumbles over his dead body, she is totally traumatized but quickly has to recover when David is accused of the murder.  Having spent some brief time being trained to work for the CIA, albeit never pursuing that career, she knows with every fiber of her being that David is innocent and sets her course to find the killer.  This drive doesn’t exactly endear her to the Canadian Mounties, who don’t know about her background and see her as meddlesome.  However, she does make a somewhat strange semi-friendship with one of the officers and manages to share her findings with him.

At the same time she comes under the protection of her university mentor, a Professor of Russian history, and his daughter.  They help her examine her questions: Who hated Reg so much to kill him?  Why was Reg so out of sync with his father and why is there something shady about Reg’s father?  What’s the difference between hating the system that turns to war in times of conflict and just not wanting to fight in a war?  Other questions appear on so many pages but the most important is who is now threatening Austin?

The ending will be quite a surprise and another point of view that really most will realize we don’t think of too often.  Desolation Row is a good read, an engaging mystery, and a satire of the anti-war movement in some ways.  Interesting read!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tendrils of Life by Owen Choi

Tendrils of Life. R. Owen Choi. Princeton Falcon Press. July 2012. 428 pp. pbk. ISBN#: 9780985728601.

To many the Korean War remains a distant memory, except for those American soldiers who fought in the war and passed on their knowledge to their children and grandchildren.  Now we have a potent novel that explores what happened to the Korean people before and during this war, how the Japanese, Chinese and North Koreans forced Koreans to turn against Koreans.  We read a story of the depths of despair from starvation, filth, disease, rape, murder, but we also have here a story replete with the deepest love, cooperation, compassion, and most of all hope that drives men and women forward to obtain dreams of a better life.

Jimin and Sinman are the protagonist and antagonist respectively who are deadly enemies not realizing how deeply they are truly connected.  The novel opens with Jimin, his sister Misern, their mother and father leaving the island of Ockdo, a remote island in southern Korea.  The father comes briefly and infrequently and leaves for long periods of time.  They arrive in a communist-occupied Seoul in 1950 before the war begins and they live with starvation, fear of the communists who randomly arrest, torture and kill anyone and everyone for the flimsiest reason.  On and on this horror continues, with Jimin and Misern’s mother eventually attacked and dying from her wounds.  Sinman hates Jimin, a family clan warfare whose origin is gradually revealed throughout the entire novel.  Sinman has money and bribes whoever he needs; his goal is to kill Jimin, but after much suffering Jimin and Misern decide to return to Ockdo. 

Little do they know that they are about to begin a horrendous, long journey which will be full of hate and love, starvation and food provided by kind-hearted Koreans, and so so much more than this review can adequately convey.  Sinman hates his father but must comply with his commands due to their true origins as poverty-stricken peasants; trying to be what one can never be is what tips the mental imbalance of Sinman and his father.  But Jimin doesn’t know this and escapes before he can come to harm; later he will have one final confrontation.

American soldiers are depicted quite poorly here; they speak of their disdain for the country that they are risking their lives for. They bomb cities and towns, never realizing that the Communist Chinese have hidden in the hills and caves.  Communists cannot be trusted for one second.  Sora becomes Jimin’s lover, introducing a new type of relationship into Jimin’s life. Other characters like Teacher Yang appear when just needed, wisely advising Jimin how to proceed when his fears and ignorance would threaten to destroy his dream.

So much more could be said about this surprising, fascinating novel that has received little attention and deserves so much more.  It is well-researched, perhaps one-sided in several places, but still reflective of the multiple points of view regarding that long ago, almost forgotten nightmare period in Korean history.  Highly recommended historical fiction!