The fundamental sadness of humans

The last family in england book coverThe Last Family in England
by Matt Haig

I’ve put off reviewing this novel for a while now. I love Matt Haig and this is a lovely book, but I feel like maybe the author – who has spoken publicly about his anxiety and depression – was in a bad place when he wrote it. It’s sad and bleak and I think the ending broke me a little bit.

It’s the story of the Hunters – an ordinary family in an ordinary British suburb, but who are on the brink of disintegrating. And it’s narrated by Prince, the family dog, which sounds like a terrible idea but actually works really well.

Adam and Kate are happily married, their children Hal and Charlotte are typical teenagers. On the surface. But the marriage is brittle. Hal is fragile. Charlotte is always angry. One small spark is all it will take to destroy them.

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He was a mystery to me till the bitter end

never tell book coverNever Tell
by Lisa Gardner

I picked up this crime novel in need of an engrossing, compelling read to get me back into reading. It worked on that level, but it definitely has flaws, primarily that I found the conclusion offensive. So I can’t in honesty recommend this book. If you’re interested in my specific objection, read beyond the spoiler warning below.

For the most part, I liked the characters and the set-up of the crime. The leads are all women and they’re not all broken and/or alcoholics – particularly not the police professionals, which was refreshing. The chapters alternate between three characters: the prime suspect, Evie, a high-school teacher pregnant with her first child; the lead detective, D.D. Warren, who is a recurring character of Gardner’s; and Flora, who is a survivor of a past crime turned police informant and victim-support worker.

The book opens with Evie arriving home to find her husband Conrad dead. She takes the gun from his lap and fires it, and seconds later is found by the police still holding the gun, which makes it hard for them to believe her statement that she didn’t kill Conrad. D.D. recognises Evie from one of her first cases as a police officer, when Evie was a teenager who had accidentally shot and killed her father (or had she?). To make matters even more complicated, when news of the murder is televised, Flora recognises Conrad as an associate of the man who kidnapped and serially raped her.

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K-drama review: Oh My Ghost

oh-my-ghost

This was largely a random Netflix find, possibly loosely inspired by a recent conversation at work about how ghosts occupy a different place in East Asian culture to Western culture. Oh My Ghost (2015 tvN) also heavily features chefs and cooking, which I have recently realised I am a big fan of in my TV choices. And the trailer for it looked light and silly, which appealed to me.

Oh My Ghost is a combination of sweet romance, crime drama and supernatural comedy, and it handles all those elements really well. It discusses sex and passion reasonably openly, for a K-drama. And the leads are very beautiful. Which means this comes pretty high in my ranking of K-dramas, despite my low expectations.

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One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot

Life After LifeLife After Life
by Kate Atkinson

Way back when I was working for my student newspaper as the arts and books editor, I reviewed a short-story collection called Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson. It wasn’t her first book, but it was still early in her career. I loved it and vowed to pick up the novels she had previously written. But then more than 16 years passed and my only further Atkinson consumption was the TV series Case Histories starring Jason Isaacs as her character Jackson Brodie. Which was excellent.

In 2013 and 2014 everyone was talking about Life After Life. It won the Costa Novel Award and the admiration of all my favourite book bloggers. And I still didn’t read it until the brief period of snow that we had a few weeks back, which made a wintry book feel appropriate. And maybe that’s for the best. I really enjoyed this book, but I suspect it wouldn’t have stood up to the hype, for me at least.

I like the concept: Ursula is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm on 11 February 1910 and dies a few seconds later. She is born again and lives a few years before dying. The cycle keeps repeating: 11 February 1910, snowstorm, Ursula’s birth. However many years she lives, it all starts again at that same moment, same place.

“Ursula opened her milky eyes and seemed to fix her gaze on the weary snowdrop. Rock-a-bye baby, Sylvie crooned. How calm the house was. How deceptive that could be. One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot. ‘One must avoid dark thoughts at all costs,’ she said to Ursula.”

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K-drama review: Pinocchio

Pinocchio

I enjoyed this K-drama far more than I expected to. Pinocchio (SBS 2014–2015), as the title suggests, is a loose interpretation of the classic fairy tale, but grounded in reality. And it’s also an examination of TV news reporting, asking tough questions about truth and other values in journalism.

All the essential ingredients of the fairy tale are there: a person who displays a physical manifestation of lying (in this case hiccups); a person close to them who acts as a conscience; dead and absent parents; there’s even (in my interpretation) a fairy godparent role.

And yet for all that, the TV show this most resembles is Doctors – right down to its lead actor Park Shin-hye. Here she plays Choi In-ha, a woman who has Pinocchio syndrome – she hiccups when she lies (or, importantly, believes herself to be lying or supporting someone else’s lie). Just like in Doctors, the first two episodes are flashbacks setting up the dramatic and romantic storylines.

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Dorama review: Midnight Diner

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories

This Japanese TV show exists in many versions – largely with the same actors – but I am here referring to the Netflix series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (which is arguably season 4 of the show originally aired on MBS). Tim and I love this show so much.

It’s a simple concept: at a late-night diner (open from midnight until 7 a.m.) in Shinjuku, the chef-owner cooks whatever dish his guests request. The camera lingers on the cooking, but this is a drama about people. Each episode takes as its subject one of the regular customers. In this way, the episodes are largely separate stories.

Midnight Diner has a wonderful atmosphere – warm, cosy, but within the confines of reality. The acoustic background music adds to the sensation of being in a friendly backstreet bar where there is always gentle hubbub and subdued lighting.

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The archaeological pace had grown feverish

Pompeii AwakenedPompeii Awakened
by Judith Harris

When Tim and I visited Pompeii last year our one disappointment was the lack of information at the excavations site. Even armed with the official guide book, we were confused about what some buildings were and which bits had been reconstructed. Though don’t get me wrong: we still loved it so much that we spent a second day there rather than climbing Vesuvius as originally planned.

So when we got home I searched for a book not about Pompeii pre-AD 79, but about the rediscovery of the town since 1748. Harris tracks the uncovering of Herculaneum and Pompeii up to the present day – a story that encompasses much of the political history of Europe over the same years and the development of modern archaeology.

This book is really good and definitely helped me to understand more of what we had seen in Pompeii, though I must admit it didn’t answer every question. It is packed with fascinating tidbits that I kept storing up to tell Tim.

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Dorama review: Good Morning Call

Good Morning Call

I have come full circle from a year ago – from Japanese TV dramas to Korean shows and now back to Japanese ones. Aside from confusing myself language-wise (I had just started to pick up some words in Korean), I found it really interesting to watch a similar teen drama to many of the K-dramas I binged last year, but set in a city I have actually visited.

Good Morning Call originally aired in 2016 on Fuji TV and a second season Good Morning Call: Our Campus Days was made a year later by Netflix. It’s a light-hearted romance set in Tokyo, where teenagers Yoshikawa Nao (played by Fukuhara Haruka) and Uehara Hisashi (Shiraishi Shunya) are both looking for an apartment to live alone for their last two years of high school. They are scammed into leasing the same apartment and, realising that they could not possibly afford such a nice place individually, agree to secretly live together.

Nao is a sweet, scatty, popular girl who feels things deeply and is incapable of hiding her volcanic emotions. Hisashi is a distant, clever loner who is good-looking enough to be fawned over by all the girls at school but has no patience with most people. They are not an obvious pairing and initially they fight a lot. But of course they learn each other’s virtues as well as flaws, not to mention their secrets. Enmity becomes friendship becomes…romance?

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They trusted that they might be okay. The war is over

How to be a Kosovan BrideHow to be a Kosovan Bride
by Naomi Hamill

This book has a style that initially put me off and ended with me completely in love with it and the story. It was a random purchase in response to a social-media appeal from Salt Publishing. I love a good random find.

The language echoes that of folk tale, with most characters named for their role in the story rather than having a given name. It seems a little stilted at first, but as I got used to it I was able to admire the ways in which Hamill uses style to great effect. Words and phrases are repeated, drawing powerful parallels between characters and events.

“The confidence didn’t come at first. At first they were like spiders, scurrying from house to house…But when they could walk from house to charred house, only looking over their shoulders once to see if they were being followed, they began to feel better. When the schools started back and the hospital opened and UN tanks were seen only once in a while, then they trusted that they might be okay. The war is over, thank God…We are free. We will live. We will marry. We will move on.”

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There is a tax on success

PachinkoPachinko
by Min Jin Lee

This is an epic family saga spanning two countries and most of the twentieth century. It took some time to lure me in, but once in I really loved it.

Pachinko starts in Korea in 1910 – the year when Japan invaded and occupied the country. Lee briefly sketches the family background of the woman who is to become the heart of the book: Sunja. She is the only surviving child of a couple who run a small boardinghouse in a fishing village near Busan. Their tenants are mostly fishermen and their income is small, but their reputation is strong enough that even as times get tough in Korea, they manage to get by.

Sunja is poor, uneducated and plain-looking, and as such she doesn’t expect to marry, but circumstances conspire to match her with an educated man who wants to take her with him to Japan to build a new life, so in 1933 they emigrate. But in Osaka she discovers that there is a form of poverty that is far worse than the way she was raised – because it is based on and maintained by racism. No Japanese company will hire Koreans except for the lowest of menial tasks.

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