This is an extraordinary book. It touches on some of the most horrific human actions of the early 20th century. And yet it manages to be a gentle, hopeful story.
It centres around Teoh Yun Ling, a Malay-Chinese woman who during her life has been a judge, prosecutor, landscape gardener and a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War. The book opens with her retirement, following which she travels from Kuala Lumpur to the Cameron Highlands, a tea-growing region of Malaysia where she has friends and property. Here, Yun Ling starts to write her memoirs.
The narrative switches to her first arrival in the Cameron Highlands, when she is a young prosecutor who has quit her job on the War Crimes Commission and needs respite at the home of a family friend, Magnus. She is still angry about the war and in particular the Japanese war crimes committed. She bears physical scars as well as psychological ones. She suffers in particular because her sister did not survive the camp where they were both held.
White by Marie Darrieussecq translated from French by Ian Monk
I added this to my wishlist when it was first published in English, on the back of a blog review (probably Savidge Reads, but I now forget). It was always going to appeal to me: scientists and engineers in Antarctica, international collaboration, humour and romance. But somehow it stayed sat on my wishlist for years.
Earlier this year Tim and I finally made it to Shakespeare & Co in Paris (we’d been to Paris before but hadn’t squeezed in the bookshop). I wanted to buy something translated from French and this title immediately came to mind. Amazingly, it was right there in their surprisingly small translated-from-French section. Of course, this means it has the awesome Shakespeare & Co stamp on the title page so I was never going to get rid of the book no matter how it turned out. But thankfully I do really like it.
The story (written in 2003) is set in a near future where people communicate via 3D holograms, the first manned mission is on its way to Mars, and the first permanent European base in Antarctica is under construction. (This last, arguably the entire basis for the story, does betray some lack of knowledge of Antarctic history – unless the translator has omitted the key modifier “pan-European”, which would be a first. Several European countries have their own permanent Antarctic bases.)
A Girl on the Shore by Inio Asano translated from Japanese by Jocelyne Allen
I picked up this manga because it sounded sweet from the plot synopsis – a tale of teenage romance – and the cover art is beautiful. I somehow missed the significance of the cellophane wrapper, not to mention the small label “Ages 18+”.
In some ways my first instinct was right. It’s a good story, often a sweet one, with truly incredible artwork throughout. I frequently paused to show Tim a page that moved me in its beauty, often dialogue-free.
Koume Sato is in her final year of junior high (ages 14–15). She likes pretty boy Misaki, but he uses her and then ignores her, so she runs to Keisuke Isobe, who she knows has a crush on her because he has previously confessed as much. They strike up a relationship, but keep it secret because at school Koume is popular, while Keisuke is considered a weird loner. In public Koume hangs out with a group of girls, gossiping, while at Keisuke’s house she discovers manga and indie music. She is clearly using Keisuke, but it isn’t clear whether or not he minds. Sure, she ignores him most of the time, but then so does everyone, especially since his brother’s suicide.
So far, so right up my alley. There are side characters who in some cases become significant, there are issues about school and studying, and always the gorgeous seaside town setting. But…this is sexually explicit manga, and the two people we repeatedly see having sex are Koume and Keisuke. We learn early on that Misaki demanded that Koume give him a blowjob before telling her he’s not interested, and that her reaction was to run to Keisuke and ask him to sleep with her. Their relationship is almost entirely about sex, and sexual experimentation.
This was another random Netflix recommendation, and it was a really good one. Hello, My Twenties! (also known in English as Age of Youth) cuts through a lot of the tropes of Korean TV. The lead characters are all women and they’re not lame! Some of them have sex before marriage and it’s not a big deal! There’s not even one overarching storyline, but instead several intersecting ones!
This show is also unusual among K-dramas in that it’s had two seasons and has been renewed for a third, and that doesn’t spoil it at all. Both seasons one and two wrapped up some storylines while leaving others open-ended and each time this felt right as both an ending and a possible opener for more to come.
The basis is a shared house in Seoul called Belle Epoque and the five women who share it (one of whom changes for the second season). Over the short seasons (12–14 episodes) we get to know the women – their friends, their love lives, their taste in food and clothes – and we watch them becoming friends with each other. As this is a typical flatshare, the women didn’t know each other before moving in and are very different. They probably wouldn’t have met, let alone become friends, without this house. In season one, each episode largely concentrates on one of the women, so their secrets are revealed gradually – and they all have secrets.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang translated from Korean by Deborah Smith
As you’ll have noticed, I have been watching a lot of South Korean TV shows this year. It all started with a random Netflix recommendation, and I enjoyed that first taste so much that I immediately asked for more suggestions on Twitter. Naturally, all that screen time has got me curious about life in modern Korea, so it seemed about time that I picked up a book or two by Korean writers.
This Korean novella was a huge deal when it was released in English, winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. It’s an odd book and provoked a strong reaction in me, but I’m still trying to pin down what that reaction is exactly.
Yeong-hye has always been a dutiful, if dull, wife – until the day she stops eating meat. This angers her husband and family far more than it seems to merit, and they question her mental health, while she blames it on a recurring dream. Where the story goes from there either means being vegetarian in Korea is a seriously radical act, or that Yeong-hye’s decision is a symptom of something else – whether it’s marriage problems, nightmares or indeed her mental health.
Jessica Jones vol. 3: Return of the Purple Man by Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Michael Gaydos (artist), Matt Hollingsworth (colours), David Mack (cover art)
So this is it, the last time (for now?) that Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos will work on the character they created, the almighty Jessica Jones (Bendis and Gaydos have left Marvel for DC). And they’ve certainly gone out with a bang, with what might be the best volume of all the Jessica Jones stories.
As the title suggests, in this volume, super-powered PI Jessica Jones learns that her greatest fear has come true: Killgrave has escaped from the SHIELD prison for supervillains in a very similar manner to his escape in series 1 of the Jessica Jones TV show, but this is not the same story, because the Jessica Jones of the comics universe is in a very different place in her life and has different things to lose. Killgrave can control the bodies and voices of other people and he delights in taking that power to the darkest places imaginable.
The story and the art beautifully capture the fear of having the worst thing that ever happened to you happen again. As Jessica says, this time it’s worse because she knows what the Purple Man is capable of, what he can reduce her to, what he can make her do. And what he can do to her loved ones.
As all K-dramas, no matter the genre, seem to have a heavy dose of romance, I decided to check one out that is 100% romance. And oh man, I certainly got what I asked for. Uncontrollably Fond (2016) is overblown, overwrought, over-serious melodrama. But it looks beautiful. And it isn’t pretending to be anything it isn’t – the warning signs were there from the start.
The opening scene is peppered with shots of a blossom petal floating gently to the ground – a recurring motif so cliched I almost laughed out loud. But then this is a series full of cliches: secret relatives, arranged marriage, super-rich people using the poor to gain advantage, critical illness, blackmail and lots of lies. A surprising amount of this information is revealed in the first two episodes, meaning that a quick plot summary can’t be all that quick.
Sin Jun-young is a major star – actor, pop idol, model (much like Kim Woo-bin who plays him) – and we meet him refusing to film a death scene, which we shortly after learn is because he is dying of an inoperable brain tumour. He of course hasn’t told anyone this, but he has started searching for his ex-girlfriend No Eul (Bae Su-ji, better known as Suzy from K-pop group Miss A), who handily turns up on his doorstep trying to persuade him to take part in a documentary series. Directing this show will save her career, which is faltering thanks to a bribe she accepted to stop investigating a corrupt company – a bribe she desperately needed to keep loan sharks at bay.
As last month was pretty much a failure on the books front, I decided to turn to a medium that has helped me out of slumps before: comics. At the start of the month, Tim and I treated ourselves to a trip to Forbidden Planet, where we spent far too much on comics. This was one of the random books I picked up.
The choice wasn’t completely out of the blue. I’ve read a few things from Oni Press and always enjoyed them – Scott Pilgrim and Ivy being cases in point. Like Scott Pilgrim, Lucky Penny is about someone in their early adulthood struggling to figure out life and largely failing. But without superpowers.
Penny Brighton loses her job and her roommate on the same day and, no longer able to afford rent, decides to move into a friend’s storage unit. She talks her way into a job at a launderette and flirts with a guy at the local gym to get free showers there. She adopts a stray cat for company. She fends off would-be looters most nights. She’s surviving, but can she really keep this up? Can she turn life into something better than survival?
I think this might be my favourite K-drama so far. It’s another one recommended to me as having a kickass female lead, and this time I actually agree. It’s not perfect, but it has a lot going for it.
The setting is Haneul Sports University in Seoul. Our lead characters are 21-year-old athletes from three of the university’s sports teams: swimming, rhythmic gymnastics and weightlifting. There’s swimmer Jung Joon-hyung (Nam Joo-hyuk) who would be the best swimmer on the team but he keeps getting panic attacks at competitions. There’s his ex-girlfriend Song Shi-ho (Kyung Soo-jin) a rhythmic gymnast who has just come back from the national training centre after losing her place on the national team. And of course Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung), the star weightlifter in her year.
Bok-joo is quickly established as a good daughter, a good friend and a defender against bullies. She helps her father and uncle at the fried chicken restaurant they run and goes to as many of her father’s dialysis appointments as her training schedule allows. She spends her free time with besties and fellow weightlifters Jung Nan-hee, a very girly girl, and Lee Seon-ok, a straight shooter who tends to hide her emotions. Bok-joo herself is a tomboy, which is working well for her until her first big crush, when she becomes self-conscious about the fact that she weightlifts and doesn’t have a traditionally feminine appearance.
Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf translated by Mara Faye Lethem
This is an odd combination of research notes and fictional diary. It appealed to me because the loose theme tying it all together is ice – polar expeditions, polar science, but also ice as a metaphor for human relationships, human behaviour. And I do love me a tale of Arctic or Antarctic exploration.
Alicia Kopf is the artist name of Imma Ávalos Marquès, a Catalonian artist who created a series of works over multiple years called Àrticantàrtic, culminating in this novel. The novel’s narrator/diarist is an artist called Alicia who has been working on a series called Àrticantàrtic. Are the essay-like chapters in this book about Scott, Peary, Amundsen and other early 20th-century explorers the real Kopf’s research notes compiled for her art? Or is that construction fictional, like the brother of the title?