Dorama review: Kantaro the Sweet Tooth Salaryman

Kantaro the Sweet Tooth Salaryman poster

I am in two minds whether I can really call this a dorama, as it’s barely a drama at all. This TV series (a 2017 co-production of TV Tokyo and Netflix) is in essence a travel food show, with a thin veneer of comedic storyline to tie it together. It’s very entertaining, but also very weird. And it definitely made me want to go back to Tokyo.

The lead character, Kantaro Ametani (played by Onoe Matsuya) is not an endearing man. He is the prototypical salaryman – always serious, focused, hardworking, rejecting colleagues’ invitations to socialise. But he has a secret – he plans his working day around opportunities to “bunk off” for half an hour at select dessert restaurants and then blog about them under the pseudonym Amablo. In fact, he even switched jobs (a relatively big deal in Japan, where it’s common to stick with one company for life) so that he could live and work in Tokyo, closer to all those delicious sweets.

As part of his new job is sales visits to bookshops (cue lots of scenes in Tokyo’s many many bookstores), this is relatively easy. The bulk of each episode is devoted to one particular dessert or sweet at one particular real-life shop or restaurant. The dessert is described in loving detail with high-def slow-mo photography of it being made. And the restaurant also gets an introduction that has clearly been written by its owner or PR person.

So far, so entertaining and lots of note-taking about where to go when we save our pennies for another Japan holiday. But then it gets weird.

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A monk’s thoughts must be like a town defended by a sturdy wall

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf's Church book coverApothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church
by Indrek Hargla
translated from Estonian by Adam Cullen

This is my fourth book completed for the EU Reading Challenge, and the first one that came from a recommendation I received after my initial blog post. So thank you to Kätlin (who is Estonian but lives in the UK) for suggesting this book. I’ve learned a little about the history of Tallinn and enjoyed a satisfying murder mystery to boot.

The setting is 1409 Tallinn, which at the time was not strictly part of Estonia, but a recent addition to the Holy Roman Empire. A preface sets the scene: Tallinn is a small coastal town finally enjoying growth and prosperity after a terrible band of pirates have been caught and punished. Christianity is central to everything. As well as having multiple churches of its own, a new castle on the hill overlooking Tallinn houses monks and holy knights.

It is in this castle, Toompea, that the story opens, with a drunken knight stumbling towards his gruesome murder (I should add that only the barest of details are given – this is not a grossout/medically-detailed crime novel). When the body is discovered, Tallinn’s town magistrate, Dorn, is called upon to catch the murderer quickly. He in turn asks his friend, the town apothecary, to help him investigate.

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I have discovered a new thought that seems important

Cover of The Memoirs of MoominpappaThe Memoirs of Moominpappa
by Tove Jansson
translated from Swedish by Thomas Warburton

This is the third book I have completed for my EU Reading Challenge. I know it’s a little bit of a cheat because it’s a children’s book and it’s not strictly set in Finland, but I think you learn at least something about Finland from the Moomins.

This book is a little bit special, as it’s the first time this particular title has been published in the UK. This story started life as the much shorter Exploits of Moominpappa, which Jansson revised and added large chunks to 18 years later to create The Memoirs of Moominpappa. It was published in the US in 1994 but it did not include all of Jansson’s revisions, such as the prologue, which is a real shame as the prologue is particularly funny.

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A depressing forest of loneliness growing below everything else

Polyglot LoversThe Polyglot Lovers
by Lina Wolff
translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel

This is my second book for my EU Reading Challenge, this time tackling Sweden (though the book is set in three countries and includes lines from several more languages, as befits its title). It’s a strange, compelling tale told with a sense of humour.

The book starts brilliantly, with 30-something-year-old Ellinor recounting her dabbles in Internet dating, which lead her from small-town southern Sweden to Copenhagen to Stockholm. I loved Ellinor and her voice, her self-awareness. There is both strangeness and ordinariness in her story. The bulk of it is about a date that turns into a creepy, potentially dangerous situation. It manages to be both upsetting and empowering, following how Ellinor deals with the situation.

“Sometimes he read people’s messages to each other. And it would make him so sad he’d be useless for the rest of the day. As though his heart was enlarged and misshapen, its edges jutting into his chest, and all he wanted to do was cry…You see how one person writes to lots of others, keeps writing, gets cancelled on, breaks down…Hopeless, the guy who worked there said it was. Damn hopeless. And he said an undergrowth emerges, a depressing forest of loneliness growing below everything else.”

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April 2019 reading round-up

Bluebells

You’d think with two bank holidays and some empty weekends I would have read a lot in April, but bearing in mind that every other read is a 60-page mini book, I wasn’t especially prolific. However, I did have some lovely days in the Wye Valley with my mum, some good times (and unfortunately a little too much sun) with friends and I did a fair amount of sorting out books for my EU Reading Challenge.

I also watched some great films (I highly recommend Hearts Beat Loud, now on Netflix, and Eagle vs Shark, now on Amazon Prime Video) and great TV (yes, I am up to date with Game of Thrones – thankfully, as overheard conversations at work this week have been spoilerific). It’s a wonder I read any books at all, frankly.

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Computing the amount of precious time that had been lost to him for ever

Last of Cheri book coverThe Last of Chéri
by Colette
translated from French by Roger Senhouse

Ah, Chéri, the spoiled beautiful boy who thought he was being terribly grown up by getting married to the first girl he liked who was his own age. Thankfully Colette revisited that scenario and reassured us that no, Chéri is not happy living a respectable life.

Since his introduction in Chéri, Chéri has fought in the First World War and returned to a Paris changed irrevocably. His wife has found purpose running a hospital for war veterans, which holds zero interest for Chéri. There is no longer a glittering whirl of parties to occupy his time. He’s depressed, but he doesn’t understand that.

“The apparition of the large, flat, half-veiled moon among the scuppering vaporous clouds, which she seemed to be pursuing and tearing asunder, did not divert him from working out an arithmetical fantasy: he was computing – in years, months, hours and days – the amount of precious time that had been lost to him for ever.”

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K-drama review: Legend of the Blue Sea

Legend of the Blue Sea poster

Yes, yes, I think I am addicted. I wanted to give Lee Min-ho another chance after the awfulness that was The Heirs, because it was his acting (and maybe also his looks) that got me hooked on K-drama in the first place. Legend of the Blue Sea (SBS 2016/17) had been recommended to me as a K-drama with an awesome female lead, and also happens to star Lee Min-ho.

This is a bit of a mix of genres. You could boil down the plot summary to: mermaid comes ashore for the first time, bumps into attractive man and much hilarity ensues. It’s a literal fish-out-water story. It’s Splash. But it’s also a historical drama (there are two timelines: one in Joseon era and one modern day), a crime drama, a family drama and of course a romance. And all of those genres appear in both comic and serious guises. Which could have been a hot mess, but it actually works pretty well.

The series opens with a crime caper: Heo Joon-jae (Lee Min-ho) is part of a team of conmen ripping off a rich woman. Joon-jae uses hypnosis and suggestion as his contribution to the team, while Jo Nam-doo (Lee Hee-joon) leads the team and Tae Oh (Shin Won-ho) handles the computer wizardry. After the con they need to lay low for a while, so Joon-jae goes to Spain.

Here we meet our mermaid Shi Cheong (Jun Ji-hyun) who comes ashore (her tail automatically turns into legs on shore) and is at first completely clueless – but she does have supernatural strength and the ability to erase memories. She takes a shine to Joon-jae and follows him around wordlessly until he caves and takes her under his wing.

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To avert one’s eyes would be nothing short of cowardice

melancholy of resistance book coverThe Melancholy of Resistance
by László Krasznahorkai
translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes

Here we are, my first book for the EU Reading Challenge. I started with Hungary, a country about which I know shockingly little. That is despite Hungarian folk music having played a key role in my childhood.

For several years I performed competitive gymnastics, and for most of that time the music for my floor routine was a piece I knew only as “Czárdás”. This is the name for a particular style of music and dance from Hungary. It’s usually a short piece including both slow and very fast passages – i.e. perfect for gymnastics. Here’s a rather impressive one on YouTube. Sadly the cassette with my 90-second snippet has been lost to the mists of time, but for a few key years in my youth, I heard that tune a LOT. You’d think an intellectually curious young woman like me would have investigated where that music came from, but maybe I was too young to understand that music can have a much bigger role in culture and history than the few minutes it takes to listen to it.

In this novel, Krasznahorkai tells the tale of a small Hungarian town where a foreign circus has arrived, along with a ragtag crowd of followers. The newcomers, and the circus’s advertised claim to have a stuffed blue whale in its enormous truck, add a nervous sense of distrust to a town already on edge. But is the danger anything to do with the circus at all?

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Witches had to go to extraordinary lengths to acquire powers

Last Rituals book coverLast Rituals
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder

I remember learning about Yrsa Sigurðardóttir from the much-missed The Readers podcast, back when it was hosted by Gavin Pugh and Simon Savidge. They discussed her crime novels in such glowing terms that I immediately added this title, the first in her ongoing series, to my wishlist. But then I stumbled across a later book in the series in a charity shop, read that first and wasn’t blown away, so I settled for following Sigurðardóttir on Twitter (she gives good Twitter).

A few weeks back, I decided that I wanted to give crime another try (after the failure of one of my March reads) and this was on offer on the Kindle Store. Cue my second venture into the world of lawyer Thóra Guðmundsdóttir.

The crime that opens the book is the murder of German postgrad history student Harald Guntlieb at the University of Iceland. Some gruesome things have been done to the body that appear to be linked to his research into witchcraft. His family in Germany are not happy with the police investigation, so they ask their family lawyer Matthew to team up with an Icelandic lawyer – Thóra – to dig deeper.

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K-drama review: Romance is a Bonus Book

romance is a bonus book poster

You can just tell from the title that this is going to be a ridiculous show, but it’s also a 2019 offering co-produced by Netflix, so I figured it might have some of the modernity of Hello, My Twenties (still my favourite K-drama). Romance is a Bonus Book is really enjoyable and fairly modern, but it does get cheesy and a little over-earnest at times.

The show is set in a small-ish literary publisher in Seoul, which had obvious appeal for me. There’s some fairly realistic stuff about how books are published – including a heartbreaking scene of lorry-loads of remaindered books getting pulped – and plenty of passionate speeches about the importance of books. I really liked most of the workplace stuff, but it’s still a K-drama so of course at heart this is a romance.

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