This Burns My Heart

I won this book in a giveaway on Goodreads a few months ago.

This Burns My Heart, a debut novel by Samuel Park, is a heart-wrenching tale about how a single decision can so drastically affect the rest of your life. Set in Korea in the early 1960s, the war is coming to an end and the country is changing quickly. Soo-Ja Choi, a beautiful young woman with rich, loving parents, wants to move to Seoul to go to diplomat school. Her father refuses her, so Soo-Ja plans to marry Min, a young war protestor who is also looking to go to Seoul. She does not love him, but he seems nice enough, and she believes he is the ticket for her to get to Seoul.

The day before Soo-Ja’s wedding, she has another offer of marriage from Yul Kim, an attractive young man studying to be a doctor. She rejects him as so much time and energy has already been spent in her own marriage preparations. This is the moment that she will later relive a thousand times, hoping to change her answer and rewrite history.

After marrying Min, she moves in with his parents and is expected to play the role of the dutiful, obedient daughter-in-law. She realizes that she was tricked and that she will never reach Seoul. She later discovers that Min’s father has a substantial debt, and encouraged Min to pursue her just to be able to force her loving and rich father into helping out with his financial woes.

Soo-Ja and Min have a daughter, Hana, together, who is the light of Soo-Ja’s life. She wants to get away from Min, but the law says that the husband gets the children, a fact of which Min does not hesitate to remind her. So Soo-Ja is stuck with a poor, lazy husband, working herself to the bone, just to be near her daughter.

Yul does make a couple of unexpected appearances in her life. He has gotten married to another woman, but is still in love with Soo-Ja. But because of Hana, Soo-Ja must still reject him.

Min’s parents have moved to America, and when Soo-Ja has gone home to be with her own family after the death of her father, Min effectively kidnaps Hana, going to America. He has also taken the money that Soo-Ja worked so hard for, and the pay-off from her investing. There is nothing to do but to go to America to try to get Hana back. Once there, Hana does not want to leave, preferring to stay with her father and her grandparents. Again, Soo-Ja resigns herself to her miserable fate and decides to stay with them, working for her father-in-law.

Somehow, Min sees what he has done to her and decides that he wants to be able to like himself in a few years. So, he grants a divorce and sends Hana back to Korea with her mother.

After she returns, she stays away from Yul, believing that by doing so, she can hope that he, at least, may have a good marriage. However, Yul’s wife pays Soo-Ja a visit with the intent to make her promise to spurn any advances that Yul may deliver in the future. When she learns that they are no longer together, she can make no such promises.

Finally, Soo-Ja and Yul can be together and she can look forward to the rest of her life being different.

While different than many novels about Asian women searching for love in an oppressive society, This Burns My Heart is really a romance novel. Even though the meetings between Soo-Ja and Yul are few and far between, they can each feel each other’s presence, or absence, in their lives every single day. Soo-Ja had suffered so much, so I was very glad to see her luck finally change while she still had time to enjoy life.

I’d definitely recommend this book.

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A Young Wife

I received an Advance Reader’s Edition of A Young Wife, by Pam Lewis, through a Goodreads giveaway. From the moment I began reading, I was completely engrossed. While mostly a serious read, it was also a quick read and very entertaining.

Minke van Aisma, 15 years old, is chosen by an older wealthy man to travel to Amsterdam to care for his dying wife. The day his wife dies, Sander DeVries proposed marriage to Minke within days they sail to Argentina. Minke doesn’t really know her husband’s business details, but she believes he is a merchant and will open a store when they reach Comodoro Rivadavia. Minke is completely in love with her husband, even after his true colors begin to show.

Shortly after reaching Argentina, Minke discovers that she is pregnant. She loves being a mother to their son Zef, and is excited when she learns that she is pregnant again. Her husband does not seem to share her enthusiasm. Soon, Minke’s sister Fenna arrives from the Netherlands, very unexpectedly, but it turns out that Sander has sent for her, claiming she is to help Minke with Zef. On one of her daily trips to the beach, riders appear and kidnap Zef before her very eyes. Inquiries are made, but with no results. Sander claims to get a confession out of a young man, one of Minke’s only friends, and kills him. He must leave Argentina immediately. He and Fenna go to New York, to find work and set up a house. Minke is too advanced in her pregnancy to travel, so remains behind with Sander’s physician uncle, Cassain.

After Elly is born and is old enough to travel, the three go to New York. Terribly excited to see her beloved husband, Minke is left disappointed at her frosty reunion. Knowing something to be amiss, she soon discovers exactly what. Conditions not what she expected, she is forced to find a job. With the help of her employers, she unravels the mystery of what happened to her first child, Zef.

In the acknowledgements, Pam Lewis explains that this book is loosely based on the events of her grandmother’s life, who was also born in the Netherlands, moved to Comodoro Rivadavia, and subsequently New York. There is no other information provided about the similarities between the lives of Minke and her grandmother, but I would be interested to know more. While the story was also a coming of age story for Minke and about how she found her own strength and independance, the personal cost was also quite high. (However, Minke was only in her 20s at the end of the book, with plenty of time for a lifetime of happiness.) I can only hope that the grandmother’s life began on a happier note.

I enjoyed the story and the writing style. There were also a few emotional scenes, but I felt that these could have been improved with more in depth character development. There were also characters that I would be interested to know more about, but as that information was not necessary to the plot, I understand why it was left out. Also, I felt that the end was a bit abrupt. I will assume that Minke has a happy ending, (not that the book ended unhappily, quite the opposite), but a bit more confirmation of that would have been nice as well.

Overall, A Young Wife, is a book I very much enjoyed. It actually reminded me a bit of Honolulu, by Alan Brennert, in that it was about a young wife coming to America with a less than ideal family situation. Anyway, full of adventure, a bit of mystery and romance, A Young Wife held me captivated.

Honolulu

My mom loaned me a book recently and could not stop singing its praises. I had to read it myself to see just how good it really was. The book was Honolulu, by Alan Brennert, and it was an amazing story that I couldn’t pull myself away from.

The book begins by introducing Regret, a Korean girl, named for the feelings her parents had when a girl was born to them. Knowing what type of life awaits her in Korea, Regret takes matters into her own hands and becomes a “picture bride” for a Korean man in Hawaii. She has also been told that girls may attend school in Hawaii, and she hopes that her dream of receiving an education might be realized. Along with a handful of other girls, Regret finds herself in Hawaii, looking at shabbily clad men, much older andmuch different than believed to be, awaiting them. All but Regret’s closest friend, Sunny, go through with the marriages and Regret now finds herself to be Mr. Noh’s wife. Mr. Noh works on a sugar cane plantation and has bouts of drunkenness and cruelty. Finally, he beats Regret, causing her to lose their baby (a girl) and injuring her. Regret leaves him.

Now calling herself Jin, (or Gem, as this was part of a nickname given to her by her teacher), she makes her way to Honolulu. She meets a colorful cast of characters, and is befriended by one of the famous women of the red light district. She eventually takes a job at a pineapple canning facility, where she meets Jae-sun. He is very interested in Jin and they develop feelings for each other. Finally, Jin decides to get a divorce and breaks the news that she is married to Jae-sun. He eventually gets over it, saying that losing her would be a great punishment. They get married among friends and Jin finally has the life she never dreamed of, full of love and a husband who wants her for something more than a mere servant.

Jin and Jae-sun have three children: Grace, Harold, and Charlie. Jae-sun opens a restaurant and Jin works as a seamstress. They have many happy years before the depression forces them to close the restaurant. At this point, Jin becomes the sole bread-winner for her family. Times are hard for everyone, but tension between whites and the “locals,” a term which becomes encompassing of native Hawaiians as well immigrants such as the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, etc is escalating as well. One such incident between the haoles and the locals results in the death of a close friend of Jin’s, Joe Jr.

The book ends with Jin’s 60th birthday celebration. She is surrounded by friends and family, including many grandchildren. She has become a successful businesswoman and employs many seamstresses. She makes an entire clothing line, which all began with the increasing popularity of the “Hawaiian shirts.” When asked if she would have done anything differently in her life, she answered. “I have no regrets.”

The author brought Hawaii’s rich history to life through the eyes of a Korean woman. I also liked the fact that the author incorporated real characters from Hawaii’s history, such as May Thompson, Joe Jr., and Chang Apana. It further enriched an absolutely amazing story.

I’ve also read many great reviews of another book of Brennert’s, Molokaka’i. Reading Honolulu really made me want to run out and grab Brennert’s other book, just so I could stay in this amazing world that he brought to life.

Wench

My sister-in-law recently gave me a book to read entitled Wench, the debut novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I thought the book was well written for the most part, and it told a story that pulled at the heartstrings of the reader.

The story is primarily about a slave, Lizzie, who is her master’s mistress. Every summer, her master Drayle, takes her to a resort in Ohio, which is in free territory. Tawawa House is popular amoung slave holders because they can bring their black mistresses and live openly with them during the time they are in residence at the resort. Lizzie looks forward to coming each year because she gets to see her close friends, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu. Because these women are the masters’ women, they do not share close bonds with anyone at their home plantations.

Lizzie sincerely believes that she and Drayle are in love. They have two children together, the youngest of which has blonde hair and, as Lizzie believes, could pass for a white girl. She repeatedly asks Drayle to consider freeing their children, but it is apparent that he currently has no intention of doing so. Reenie is misused and abused, and seems resigned to her enslaved life. Sweet embodies the definition of her name and is fragile. Mawu, chosen by her master in spite of her hatred of him, is full of spunk, a bit wild, and definitely rebellious. It is her words and thoughts that inspire the other women to actually consider freedom as reality.

There is another resort just through the forest that is for free blacks. The nearness of this other place gives the women courage and makes them consider actions they would not otherwise have dared. Mawu is planning to run, but due to a betrayal by Lizzie, who was only concerned about Mawu’s life, she experiences a public humiliation at the hands of her master, which all other slaves are forced to witness. At this point, Lizzie questions her actions and decides against ever repeating her mistake.

The next summer, the women return, but this time, Drayle brings his wife, Fran, and Lizzie must live with the other slaves. While there, Sweet learns of an epidemic back at her home. Soon, she learns of the death of all four of her children, one by one. Her own death follows shortly. Later in the summer, Mawu and Reenie get brave and run for it, but do not include Lizzie in their plans. Lizzie feels somewhat hurt, but understands that this was due to her betrayal the previous year. Meanwhile, Phillip, another slave who is like a brother to Lizzie, has fallen in love with the barber’s daughter, a free black woman. Lizzie uses what little sway she has with Drayle to convince him to sell Phillip to the barber, knowing that he will consider this a favor to her which all but destoys the possibility he might someday free their children.

Lizzie has also made friends with Glory, a white Quaker and abolitionist. After Mawu and Reenie escape, Lizzie visits Glory, who leads her to Mawu. She is hiding out in a small cabin not far from Tawawa House. When Lizzie questions why Mawu is so close, she understands that Mawu has been waiting for her. Meanwhile, Lizzie has received a letter from Reenie, who is safe and free in New York. Lizzie considers running, but Drayle chains her to the porch of the cabin and decides to leave the resort soon. Mawu is found by slave hunters and returned to her master.

At the end of the book, Lizzie has discovered that she can count on no one but herself, and even thinks of the possibility of killing Drayle in order to escape his bonds with her children. As the reader, I was left wanting more information of what Lizzie would decide and how her future would play out. However, as she is in the wagon heading back to her plantation and her children, I was left with the certainty that she has gained new strength and determination, and she will be a fighter when the time comes for hard decisions.

While not a new concept for historical fiction, I still enjoyed the book. There were some parts that could have been a bit more clear, such as when the author was insinuating something, but didn’t give enough clues to figure out exactly what she meant. And although she did provide quite a bit of Lizzie’s background, it would have been nice if some of the other characters had been a bit more developed. Other than that, definitely a good read.

Sepulchre

Another review I’ve written in the past…

I recently read Sepulchre, by Kate Mosse. It is second in a “trilogy,” and I use that term loosely, as the first two books can stand alone. (The third book is due to be published sometime next year.) The book is set in both the late 19th century and the 21st century and tells the stories of two young women whose lives are connected.

One tale begins in 1891. Léonie Vernier is 17 years old and lives in an apartment in Paris with her mother and her older brother Anatole, whom she adores. She knows there is something going on in his life, but he hides his secrets from her, believing her to still be a child. He is attacked on the street, his good name is slandered in the newspapers, and he and his family recently attended the funeral of his lover. Out of the blue, an invitation arrives for Léonie and Anatole to escape city life for a few weeks to visit their aunt, Isolde, at her country estate, the Domaine de la Cade, close to Carcassonne. Isolde is the much younger widow of Léonie’s mother’s half brother. The invitation seems to come at a perfect time, as Anatole feels that he needs to get out of Paris.

Upon arriving at the Domaine, Léonie hears rumors of something evil that resides on the estate and hears stories of wild animals. She senses that there is something sinister lurking somewhere on the estate. Upon exploring the library, she discovers a book written by her uncle concerning the Tarot and his experiences with a mysterious building on the estate called the Sepulchre. Léonie takes it upon herself to have an adventure and discover the location of this building. She does find the dangerous structure and begins to understand the experience her uncle recounted in his book.

Meanwhile, Anatole is unaware that a maniac in Paris is hunting him down, having killed his mother after trying to obtain information concerning his location. Victor Constant’s syphilitic mind can only focus on revenge. Anatole stole his love, and he would take what he could from Anatole, including his life if he is able to do so. Using his wily means, Constant finally locates Anatole at the Domaine.

While this is happening, the reader discovers that the funeral the Vernier family attended was a ruse. Anatole and his love believed that was the only way Constant would leave her alone and finally let her go. Anatole and his “aunt” (no blood relation) are now finally together at the estate and make plans to be married. It is also learned that Anatole will soon be a father. But, their happiness is short-lived, as Constant discovers their hideaway. Anatole has also finally decided to confide in Léonie and treat her as an adult.

The other story takes place in 2007. Meredith Martin is a graduate student from North Carolina who has come to Paris in order to conduct research for her biography of Claude Debussy, who happens to have lived in the same apartment building as the Verniers. Meredith is also in France for personal reasons. She was adopted by a distant cousin after her birth mother’s suicide, and all she was left with was a piece of music, with the simple heading Sepulchre 1891, and a photograph of a soldier. While in Paris, Meredith finds herself drawn to a flyer advertising tarot card readings. When she arrives at the address listed and gets a reading, the reader tells her that lines between the past and present are unclear, which is not something that she normally sees while giving readings. Also, Meredith finds that the image of a woman printed on a tarot card has a striking resemblance to herself, unnerving her. Fleeing the room, the deck of cards is pressed upon her as a gift. She arrives later that day at an old restored hotel, the Domaine de la Cade.

As she is driving to her hotel, she swerves to avoid hitting a woman who is standing in the middle of the road. However, when she gets out of her car, she finds no one there. Throughout the next few days, she also experiences feeling the presence of this woman and even dreaming of her, able to picture her green eyes. At the hotel, she does discover pictures displayed on the wall that resemble her photograph of the soldier. She learns that the people in the picture are Anatole and Léonie Vernier and Isolde. Meredith also becomes friends with Hal, the nephew of the current owner of the hotel, and he eventually becomes her love interest. At the Domaine, Meredith finally does discover the secrets of her family and the terrifying and dreadful events that unfolded at the Domaine more than a century before.

Kate Mosse is a very talented writer and I am looking forward to her next installment in the set. The historical pictures that she painted were fantastic. I loved the supernatural elements, and found the book to be strong in elements of mystery, obsession, and revenge. I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for an entertaining and fulfulling reading experience.