The Island of Sea Women

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane back in 2017 and really liked it. I’ve been meaning to read some more of Lisa See’s work ever since, but the content is quite heavy, so I keep putting it off. So when I received an early copy of The Island of Sea Women from Simon and Schuster Canada, I was excited to finally read another one of Lisa’s books!

I clearly need to prioritize reading some of her earlier works because I liked this just as much as I like the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, maybe more!! The Island of Sea Women is about a matrifocal community of female divers on Jeju Island. Jeju Island is a large volcanic island located to the south of South Korea. It was under the control of the Japanese until the end of WWII, when it was taken over by the Americans.

What’s interesting about the island and many of its communities, is that they are mostly focused on women. Many of the traditional gender structures still exist in that men own property, the ownership is passed down through the male line, and giving birth to boys is valued because only boys can attend school and perform ancestor worship. However, the women are viewed as the providers and decision makers and the men stay home and raise the children. This is because it is the women on the island who become Haenyeo. Haenyeo are a collective of divers who are widely respected. They row offshore every day to dive in the frigid ocean for sea-life to feed their family and to sell to wealthy Japanese colonizers. The most prized catch is the abalone, but they also dive for sea urchins, octopus, squid, and other species.

See focuses her story on Young-sook. Young-sook is the daughter of a Haenyeo chief, so she learns to dive from an early age and develops a very close friendship with another girl in the community, Mi-ja. The two girls are inseparable and both join the Haenyeo collective when they come of age and travel together as young women to do leave-home diving work. However, as they grow older, their friendship is challenged and circumstances arise to drive a wedge between the two women. This book tells Young-sook’s life story, her friendship with Mi-ja, and the sad history of Jeju Island.

I was really interested in the Haenyeo culture and how they work together as a collective. I thought it was fascinating the ways that traditional gender roles were sometimes switched in this culture, but remained similar in other ways. I find diving to be fascinating (and terrifying) and I really liked learning about the Haenyeo traditions, how they would organize and dive together, and how resilient these women are. But what I really loved about this book was the way it also takes us through South Korea’s history.

I read Min Jin Lee’s book, Pachinko, last year and really liked it. It’s about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan and the challenges they faced there as immigrants. It was a good introduction the the history between Korea and Japan. This book also focuses on that conflict, but from a different angle and perspective; between the two books I learned a lot about Korea and Japan. The history covered in this book is upsetting to be sure, but it is a very good look at how Western countries can tear other countries apart in their own political disputes. Korea was split at the end of WWII, to be governed by the Soviet Union in the North and America in the South. Russia obviously promoted communism and America, democracy.

As everyone knows, American’s were extremely threatened by the rise of communism. I’m still not super familiar with Korea’s history, but from this book, it seems that there was support for communism on Jeju Island, which created conflict between the island and the rest of the Korean mainland. Rebel groups popped up among the mountain tribes on Jeju Island and fighting ensued between rebel groups and the authorities. Korea had a culture of guilt by association, whereby if a member of your family committed a crime, you were considered tainted by association. This resulted in consequential killings in which families and entire communities might be punished for the actions of an individual. The Jeju uprising officially began on April 3, 1948, and resulted in the destruction of many villages and left many people homeless.

I’ll admit, I know very little about Korea’s history, but I loved learning about it from Young-sook’s point of view. The people of Jeju had always had a tumultuous relationship with the Japanese and she observed that little changed within their communities with the end of WWII and that their power mostly just changed hands between the Japanese and the Americans. Young-sook observes that they have always been oppressed, but that Korean’s always looked after one another. However, because of differing ideologies between a democratic and communist state, she was upset to see Korean’s start to turn on one another.

From this setting, we also see how the Haenyeo were forced to change and adapt over the years and the impact the conflict had on their diving activities. The Haenyeo are still very popular, but more as a tourist attraction. The birth of daughters was also celebrated on Jeju as it ensured the financial stability of the family. However, very few girls are training to become Haenyeo these days and the collective has greatly aged, with few young women to take their places. I loved how See balances the challenges and changes to the collective along with the changing and increasingly challenging political climate on the island. It also linked in with Young-sook’s changing relationship with Mi-ja. While the novel takes us through 70 years of Korean history, at it’s core, it is a story about friendship and forgiveness.

As much as I loved this book, I do have one criticism, which is what brought my rating down from 5 stars to 4 stars. The story is told in 5 parts and progresses pretty naturally through time. However, each part starts with a flash forward to 2008. While I see some value in the 2008 timeline, I think it would have worked better as a short epilogue focused on remembering the April 3 incident and finding peace. I did not like the inclusion of Clara in the story. While Young-sook struggles with her feelings and forgiveness throughout the second half of the novel, I felt this last storyline came too late in the story and timeline. Personally, I thought the ending felt forced and manipulative. I felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into this cathartic moment at the end, but the catharsis was too late in coming and not believable to me.

Despite the ending, I still loved this book. Though the story focuses on Young-sook, I loved the exploration of Mi-ja’s story as well. The history and decisions of some of the characters were upsetting, culminating at the April 3 incident. However, I felt that they demonstrated how things can change in an instant and how in life and death situations, what might have been a well-meaning action or decision can be interpreted in the aftermath. It’s a somber realization, but it was the defining moment of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s relationship. I would definitely recommend this book.

The Island of Sea Women will be available for purchase in stores on Mar. 5th, 2019. Thanks to Scribner and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

December Summary

I got so caught up in the New Year that I totally forgot to do my monthly summary for December! I’m not sure if I will continue these into 2019 or not, but I wanted to do the last one to finish off for 2018. Here’s what I read:

Books read: 8
Pages read: 2,736
Main genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Favourite book: The Feather Thief

December is always a bit of a slower month because I go home for Christmas to visit my family. But I still managed to read 8 books. I started off with my favourite read of the month, The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson. This was a huge surprise to me seeing as The Feather Thief is about a guy who steals 300 bird carcasses from the Natural History Museum in order to sell the feathers to fly-tiers, but it was strangely compelling. I read it on Audible and I thought the narrator did a great job and I was totally enthralled with this little known heist for the entirety of the novel. Definitely recommend for history buffs.

I finally read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, which has been on my TBR for ages. It’s historical fiction about female pilots in WW2 that is widely loved in the YA community. I didn’t love it quite as much as I expected, but I followed it up with the companion novel, Rose Under Fire, which I actually ended up liking a lot more. The second book is about notorious women’s concentration camp, Ravensbruck, and while it’s very upsetting, I thought it was really well written.

I read two mystery novels, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, and Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie. Truly Devious has been lauded all over Booktube and I was totally blown away by how much I DISLIKED it. I’m actually shocked by how many people love this book because I thought it was poorly written, poorly plotted, and extremely juvenille. I really wanted to love it, but it was a huge disappointment. I didn’t have too many thoughts on Murder in Mesopotamia. It wasn’t my favourite Agatha Christie, but still a fun 3-star read.

About a week before I was due to head home for the holidays, I received an early copy of The Wicked King by Holly Black from Hatchette. I was really excited to read this one because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it and as someone who liked, but didn’t love, The Cruel Prince, I was interested to see if the sequel was any better. I still didn’t love it quite as much as everyone else, but I did like it better than the first book and I am now pretty desperate for the final book!

Finally, I read two books while I was home for Christmas. I finally picked up Wildcard by Marie Lu, the sequel to Warcross, and read pretty much the entire book on the plane on the way home. Unfortunately, this was another disappointing book. I LOVED Warcross last year and while I still liked parts of Wildcard, I thought it was overwritten, with the plot being overly complicated and action for the sake of action. I finished off the year with the final book in the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy, Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han. I didn’t love the conclusion as much as the first book, but overall I think this is a really strong contemporary series and I can’t wait to watch the sequel on Netflix this year!

Wildcard

Rating: .5
Author: Marie Lu
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pub date: Sep. 2018 (read Dec. 2018)
Series: Warcross #2

I read this book on my way home for the holidays and I fear I may have waited too long to review it. I’m already starting to forget parts of this, but I will do my best to review.

Warcross really surprised me last year and ended up being one of my favourite books of the year. Sci-fi is not my favourite genre and I did not like Marie Lu’s Young Elites trilogy, so I didn’t expect to like Warcross, but ended up falling in love with this vibrant and futuristic version of Japan. Sadly I hadn’t heard great things about Wildcard, but I tried to go into it with an open mind.

I thought Wildcard had a pretty strong start. It jumps right back into the action and I was really excited to be re-introduced to the Phoenix Riders and Emika’s world. There is a strong mystery element in Wildcard and you really don’t know who you can trust, so I was definitely intrigued.

Sadly though, Wildcard was not able to live up to the world Marie Lu created in Warcross and I felt it started to buckle under the weight of the plot and the lack of character development. I love a good fast paced plot – and despite everything else, this plot remained fast paced throughout the entirety of the book – but I felt that Lu abandoned a lot of the characters and character development from the first book in favour of new characters and it caused this one to just fall flat.

In Warcross, Emika struggles in trusting her teammates. She is used to working as a lone wolf and takes a lot of pressure and responsibility upon herself. Her teammates want to help and she eventually learns to trust them and realizes that being part of a team is better than operating alone. While the Phoenix Riders are still present in this book, I felt they weren’t integral to the plot and much of the book focuses on Emika and Zero. I liked that Emika made a new girlfriend in this book (I’m sorry you guys, I literally can’t remember her name!! Zero’s second, can anyone help me out here?!), but I really wanted to see more development of the characters we were introduced to in the first book and the Warcross world, but this was really Hideo and Zero’s party and I thought Emika struggle to carry the story.

Where Wildcard lost me was in the plot. I think Marie Lu made this too technical and tried to throw in way too many plot twists. I’ll admit, she got me on a lot of them, but I felt the plot got way too convoluted towards the end that I just kind of tapped out on the book. Warcross introduced this really interesting VR world that I could totally see happening within my lifetime. Lu introduced a lot of thought-provoking moral issues like is it justified to remove people’s freewill in order to completely eliminate crime? I thought there were a lot of interesting ethical questions to explore in this book, but I think Lu sacrificed this development in the interest of writing more action, which really did a disservice to the world she created. It’s a resounding YES that Hideo’s technology to eliminate crime was a bad idea, but we never really explored the benefits and consequences of his algorithm and jumped right to the need to destroy it.

There was so much action in this book, and yet, I was kind of bored. The entire last 30% of the book is just one extended action scene with very limited character development. I stopped caring about the Phoenix Riders and I thought Emika added very little to the development of the story. This really became more about Zero and Hideo and even though there was a lot of action, things started to feel a bit repetitive. I like a good plot, but for me, stories are always first and foremost about the characters. A book needs a good plot to move the characters forward, but I would never sacrifice development for action. I wanted to think about the ethics of a VR world and how to integrate morality with technology, but I guess Lu just wanted to deliver a fast-paced action novel. She delivered on the action, but I’m not sure why I should care about it.

The Poppy War

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: R.F. Kuang
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Pub date: May 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

Disclaimer: Spoiler Review

I’ve been postponing writing this review because I’m not quite sure how to rate or review this book. I read a lot of YA Fantasy and this was so different than everything else I’ve read, it was really refreshing.

The Poppy War falls into the historical fantasy genre. It is set in the fictional Nikan Empire, who has survived two Poppy Wars and is on the brink of a third war with the Federation of Mugen. This world is very much based off of China and Japan and the Second Sino-Japanese War. I think one of the reasons I’ve been postponing this review is because this is based on a conflict I’m not very familiar with and because I think that it’s important to recognize that the author did not write this book for me. I’ve heard that this book is super important and meaningful to many Chinese people and I think the author is really trying to be a voice for that pain in this book.

Because this is such a historically significant book, and there are a lot of plot elements I want to discuss, I can’t write a spoiler-free review for this book. So please don’t read any further if you’re trying to avoid spoilers for this book. In addition, I wanted to acknowledge S. Qiouyi Lu’s review that was posted on Barnes and Nobles website. Because I wasn’t at all familiar with the history behind this book, I had to do some research for this review, and her article was a great starting point for me and influenced my own review. Her review is also a great example of how this book may be more meaningful for Chinese readers and that I likely missed a lot of the cultural and historical context and nuances.

First off, I have to applaud Kuang for this book because it is extremely impressive in scope. It’s a 500+ page novel and I believe it covers about 5 or 6 years of plot. The story starts with our main character Rin at 12 years old. She is a war orphan who wants to prove herself by passing the Keju (national exam) and being accepted into Sinegard, the elite military school. The first half of the book follows the traditional fantasy format, with Rin acing her exam, but then struggling to be accepted among the wealthier students at school. Nikan is on the brink of war and it looms over the students as they study and prepare for eventual positions in the military.

The story followed a pretty predictable arc until the end of Rin’s first year of school. It’s not until Rin pledges Lore that the plot starts to take a turn and you realize that you’ve stumbled upon something totally new. There’s a lot of elements going on in this book and there is really a lot of depth to the plot. In addition to the historical retelling of the Sino-Japanese war, Kuang also weaves a huge element of religion and shamanism into the story, as well as China’s history with opium and drug use. After Rin pledges lore, we learn that, despite what the empire claims about Shamanism being a myth, Rin is indeed a shaman and has the ability to commune with the Gods.

This book has 3 parts, but it kind of felt like 2 separate books to me. The first half of the book is all about Rin getting into school and surviving her studies, but around the 50% mark of the book Nikan is finally catapulted into a war with Mugen. The school term ends abruptly and the students are called upon to defend Sinegard and are assigned to various divisions of the military, This is where I felt like I was starting a new book because the plot changed so drastically in the second half.

The rest of this story is about war and it is gruesome and bloody. Rin’s mentor, Jiang, has always advised Rin against actually calling on the Gods, but in her desperation at the battle of Sinegard, she calls on the fire power of the Phoenix to help the empire win and is subsequently assigned to the special assassination unit of the Nikan Empire. This division is essentially a troop of about 12 shamans, all of who are able to call upon various Gods, with the help of psychedelic drugs, which are illegal in the rest of Nikan, but permitted for the Shamans. I wish I understood enough about Chinese culture to understand the parallels and historical context of religion and drug abuse in China, but unfortunately it was a little over my head, but interesting nonetheless.

It’s a very multi-layered book and the more I reflect on it, the more impressed I am with the author’s ability to weave so many subplots into one novel. I’ve read she actually studied military strategy herself, and it definitely shows. In addition to recounting a piece of history, she also explores many dark themes about power. Rin is conflicted for most of the second half of the book because she spent her entire time at school being taught how to enter the Pantheon (where the Gods live), but is resolutely forbidden from actually calling on the Gods for power. Her and Jiang spend years debating the meaning of life and power. Jiang is reverent about power – there is always a consequence for taking from the Gods and he warns Rin against it.

This contrasts with her commander Altan in the second half of the book, who routinely gets mad at Rin for failing to call on the Phoenix. Rin relates to Altan – she doesn’t understand the point of accessing the Pantheon if not to take a little piece of that power for herself. It is very much a book about war and power. The atrocities of war, the loss of humanity, and how grief and loss can consume a person, transforming them into their very worst nightmare. It explores why genocides are possible and why wars continue to happen over and over again. We never learn from our mistakes. Grief can be blinding and the allure of power can cause people to lose all sense of humanity and commit the same atrocities that caused them the grief in the first place. Rin knows deep down that the power of the Phoenix is too all consuming, that the price will be too high. But there’s only so much pain a person can take before they need to reach out, if they can, and take a piece of that power for themselves. Throw it back at their oppressors.

This is definitely not a book for the faint of heart. It is gruesome. Kuang is not afraid to paint the realities of war and the impact it has on the human psyche. In the plot, she explores several real historical events, including the Nanjing Massacre (Golyn Niis) and Unit 731 (human experimentation). Knowing that these events are based in reality is horrifying and it does make for a very sobering read. I had to do some research about these real life events afterwards, and again, I’ll refer you to Lu’s review for more information.

There were some other smaller plot points that I found really interesting and just wanted to quickly draw attention to. First off, I really liked that this book didn’t have a love story. I kept waiting to see who was going to emerge as the love interest, and no one ever did! In line with this, The Poppy War included the most ballsy discussion of reproductive rights that I think I’ve ever seen in a book! Rin gets her first period at Sinegard at 14. She has no idea what’s happening and is horrified to discover she will have to put up with it once a month. She makes an impulsive decision to have her womb removed to avoid menstruation in the future. It was an interesting portrayal because I think generally a 14 year girl requesting to forfeit her potential to bear children would never be handled like this. Women are pretty much prized in society above all for their ability to bear children, and there’s almost no way any doctor would encourage sterilization on a 14 year old… except if they were poor or a minority, which Rin was (she was darker than many of the other students at Sinegard). Canada and America both have a sad history of forcing or tricking poor and minority women to get sterilized, so I found it believable that the government would be encouraging a peasant girl like Rin from Rooster province to part ways with her fertility. I also appreciated Rin for knowing what she wanted and not regretting the decision later.

But alas, I must admit that I did struggle with the story at times, which prevented me from fully loving it. There was a lot going on in this book, but I found the writing a bit detached at times and sometimes I struggled with picking it up again after putting it down. I think this was mostly related to structure. I said earlier that this felt more like 2 books to me than 1, and for that reason, I think it dragged. It was a little on the long side and I struggled with it after a while. However, I can’t deny the importance of this book and overall, I was incredibly impressed with it. Like I said, this book was not written for me, and I appreciate the author for her unflinching look at this piece of Chinese-Japanese history.

Pachinko

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Min Jin Lee
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Jan. 2018

It feels like I’ve been working on Pachinko for ages, but I finally finished it. I flew through several books at the beginning of the year, but it was nice to settle down with this one, which is definitely an epic and had a lot of depth.

If you’ve been following along, I decided to read 3 books about immigration for my January Challenge and Pachinko was my second selection. I read Girl in Translation earlier this month and loved it. I picked Pachinko because it’s been getting rave reviews and it’s one of the few books I found about immigration that wasn’t a story about immigrating to America.

Pachinko begins in Korea in 1910 and takes us on a journey with 4 generations of the same family as they are forced to leave their ancestral home and build a life for themselves in Japan. This was a great history lesson and I learned a lot about both Korea and Japan and the touchy relationship between the two. Korea was colonized by Japan between 1910 and 1945 and split into North and South Korea after the second world war.

The story starts with Sunja and her parents, Hoonie and Yangjin, who run a boarding house in the small town of Yeoungdo in southern Korea. Sunja falls for a wealthy Korean visiting from Japan and becomes pregnant. Fortunately, one of their boarders, a young christian minister Isak, feels led to marry Sunja to save her from the shame of bearing a child out of wedlock and so that her child might take his name. Isak had been on his way to Japan for an appointment with a church when he stopped at the boarding house and they marry and Sunja accompanies him to Japan.

Relations between Japanese and Koreans were not good at this time and there is a lot of racism against the Koreans. The Japanese believe themselves to be the ruling class and think of Koreans as dirty and stupid. Sunja faces a lot of challenges living in Japan and the novel takes us though 80 years of history through Sunja’s children and grandchildren.

This is definitely not a fast read, but it is very impressive in it’s scope. I haven’t read a lot of historical epics (Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants trilogy is the only other one that comes to mind) and at times Pachinko felt very slow moving, while at other times I was really into it and wanted to know what would happen next. With 4 generations, we inevitably experience many deaths in this book and some of them were actually quite shocking and emotional!

There are so many great themes in this book. I loved Sunja and Kyunghee’s characters and their experiences as women and with motherhood. Lee continuously explores women’s roles throughout the novel and the expectation that a woman’s lot in life is to suffer. Their husbands and family were everything to Sunja and Kyunghee and it never occurred to them to seek happiness for themselves outside of their family. They both had dreams for their lives, yet they were always secondary to the dreams of the men. With each new generation it was interesting to see how women’s roles would change and I enjoyed when Sunja starts to question what her life might have been or could be now if she had made other choices.

The familial relationships in the story are heartbreaking. There’s so many different relationships presented in this book and they were all very beautifully written (although sometimes tragic). This family is tried again and again. They all suffered an enormous amount as Koreans, but their tenacity was inspiring in what they were able to accomplish. I really liked Kyunghee and Kim and I was really intrigued about what happened to the Koreans who returned to North Korea after the war. Lee leaves us with quite a lot of unanswered questions, but I think this is very much indicative of the relationship between Japan and Korea. North Korea was very much a big black box and you never knew what happened there. Many Koreans had to live their entire lives without ever finding out what had become of their friends and family.

I liked Mozasu’s story with the Pachinko parlours as well and I loved the themes Lee tied in with the parlours. So many Koreans were trapped in a cycle of poverty in Japan. They were 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants who had come to the land of their colonizers in search of prosperity and were then later emancipated from their homeland. It was so hard for Koreans to succeed in Japan and they were always looked down upon, yet there was nothing in Korea for them to go back to.  Pachinko parlours are gambling dens where you can play these pinball-like machines in hopes of winning. Because of the gambling, parlour owners were often mixed up in dark criminal underworld and linked with the Yakuza, the Korean gangsters. I liked that despite being rough around the edges growing up, Mozasu was able to discover who he really was in the Pachinko parlours and become an honest man, despite how easy it would have been to become corrupted.

“Every morning, Mozasu and his men tinkered with the machines to fix the outcomes – there could only be a few winners and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones. How could you get angry at the ones who wanted to be in the game? Etsuko had failed in this important way – she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

As a book about immigration, Pachinko was fantastic. There are so many thoughtful nuggets of information and shared experiences about immigration in this book. I was particularly moved when Mozasu had to take Solomon on his 14th birthday to get his fingerprints taken and get his documentation card so that he could remain in Japan. Even though he and his son had both been born in Japan, they were forced to renew their identity cards every 3 years and could potentially be deported to South Korea – a country neither of them had ever known. This is so relevant to what’s happening all over the world with white people spewing hate at immigrants that have been living and contributing to their countries and economies for years.

I’ll finish with a quote from Solomon towards the end of the novel which I loved for it’s hopefulness despite the decades of discrimination his family had experienced. I appreciated the relationships Lee built between the Koreans and the Japanese, to remind her readers that we are all just people. There are good actions and their are bad actions, but we are each our own and we can each actively make the decision to accept and support each other, rather than hate.

“Kazu was a shit, but so what? He was one bad guy, and he was Japanese… Even if there were a hundred bad Japanese, if there was one good one, he refused to make a blanket statement. Etsuko was like a mother to him; his first love was Hana; and Totoyama was like an uncle, too. They were Japanese, and they were very good.”