K-drama review: Strong Woman Do Bong Soon

Strong Woman Do Bong Soon

I am very torn in my reactions to this K-drama. On the one hand, I love the lead character and the setting felt more like a realistic modern Seoul than any of the other dramas I’ve seen set there, except maybe Doctors (Strong Woman Do Bong Soon first aired in Korea in 2017 so it is the newest K-drama I have watched). On the other hand, the sense of humour can be not only juvenile, but also homophobic.

And it started so well! This show juggles a few different genres and to begin with I loved the switches from one to another, but they were less well balanced in the second half. Similarly, the storylines all started strongly, but got a bit lost around the halfway point. It’s almost as though different writers took it over. It’s certainly the first time with one of these K-dramas where it hasn’t felt carefully plotted from start to finish.

Genre one is superhero, and the superhero in question is Do Bong-soon (played by Park Bo-young). She is a petite 27-year-old who didn’t do well enough at school to go to university, has never held one job for long, but dreams of designing computer games. Oh, and she has supernatural strength, which she uses to save people from danger. She’s cute and girly but also a little bolshy, which probably comes from her experience of standing up to bullies.

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You’re a son of a gun, Sammy

maltese falconThe Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett

I’ve been meaning to read this for years. As a fan of Raymond Chandler I figured I should read the original gritty noir American detective, so I was pleased when my book club picked this for one of our “classic” reads. I was late to the book club discussion but I think we all felt the same way: this is worth reading but not as good as Chandler!

I guess I was hoping for that luscious purple prose that Chandler is such an expert at – it’s ridiculous and yet in a way beautiful. Hammett has none of that. Which isn’t to say this is badly written, it’s just a bit plainer, but still very entertaining and with moments of beauty.

The story centres on San Francisco private detective Sam Spade. He’s cynical, a womaniser, good at depriving villains of their weapons and on first-name terms with most local police, the DA and the DA’s secretary. And he sees a lot of his lawyer. The plot begins on page one, with a new client arriving in his office. Miss Wonderly wants Spade and his partner to follow a man for her, a simple enough job that predictably is neither as simple or as safe as it should have been. The maltese falcon of the title takes a while to come into play and is an appropriately mysterious unusual object around which to centre a plot that brings together a variety of criminals.

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There is no truth except in relation

The Luminaries

The Luminaries
by Eleanor Catton

I’m a bit bemused why this won the Booker Prize. It’s not by any means a bad book, but less than a week after finishing it I’m finding it’s not really stayed with me, and nothing about it felt particularly standout. Except perhaps its size. That’s pretty noticeable.

This is a historical mystery novel with a broad cast of characters (and you know there’s a lot of people to keep track of when a book begins with a character list) who inhabit the New Zealand coastal town of Hokitika during the 1860s. The story opens with the arrival of Mr Walter Moody, come to make his fortune on the nearby goldfields. On his first night in town he stumbles on a secret meeting of 12 men who are trying to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious events that occurred two weeks previously: a prostitute attempted suicide (or did she?), a wealthy (and well-liked) man vanished and a drunken hermit was found dead with a fortune hidden in his home. Moody finds that by chance he has some information that may be pertinent to the gathered men, so they all tell their stories in turn. Or rather their snippets of the same story, because it becomes clear that they are each part of a large jigsaw puzzle that must be reassembled.

“Unconfirmed suspicion tends, over time, to become wilful, fallacious, and prey to the vicissitudes of mood – it acquires all the qualities of common superstition – and the men of the Crown Hotel, whose nexus of allegiance is stitched, after all, in the bright thread of time and motion, have, like all men, no immunity to influence.”

That’s part one, which is 360 pages long – partly because every new character is described in great detail, or at least their physical appearance and temperament are. But that length also comes from the same story effectively being told multiple times from different perspectives, with different details added or assumptions made that are later proved wrong. It’s an interesting way to tell a story, if sometimes confusing, and I think I was a little disappointed that the rest of the novel didn’t follow quite the same style.

From part two the story moves more conventionally forward and then eventually backward in time, much like a detective novel, following the characters trying to unravel the mysteries and then going back to reveal what actually happened. It’s no surprise that all of the odd events are linked together, but figuring out how and why is genuinely intriguing and enjoyable enough to keep me reading without feeling burdened by the book’s 832 pages (except for the occasional sore arm from holding all that size and weight – this is definitely a good argument for the e-book).

“[This] only showed, Moody thought, that a man ought never to trust another man’s evaluation of a third man’s disposition. For human temperament was a volatile compound of perception and circumstance.”

So if it wasn’t the book’s size or the plot that left me unsatisfied, what was it? One thing is that I didn’t really get the book’s main narrative device – the plural narrative voice (as in, the story is told by “we”, not that different narrators take turns). I wasn’t sure who these voices were supposed to be, though I did get a sense they were somehow linked to star signs and astrology, which also pop up at the start of each section. It’s a shame because I quite like the idea of a chorus, like in an old play, but it just didn’t quite work for me. Possibly because I was put off by the astrology references. This is a personal prejudice, but I did think that the astrology didn’t strongly relate to the rest of the story and felt out of place. (It does actually come up as a plot point that’s probably meant to be really important, but I felt could easily have been dropped without affecting the rest of the story at all, so that’s not really key at all, is it?)

“When we looked upon Man, we sought to fix him: we mourned his failures and measured his gifts…But there is no truth except in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no longer sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past. We now look outward, through the phantasm of our own convictions.”

I did like the little summary at the start of each chapter, which reminded me a lot of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, including the tongue-in-cheek sense of humour with which they are written. And I liked the variety of people, both in terms of nationalities and personalities. But that very plurality also meant that there was no psychological insight into any people or events. It’s a personal preference, I know, but I like to get under someone’s skin in my reading, rather than be held at arm’s length.

Have you read this? What did you think of it?

Published 2013 by Granta.
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

The Veronica Mars Movie

Veronica Mars movie poster

I know: it’s not a book, or an author event, or even a play, but I’ve noticed over the last year that I’m far from the only V Mars fan, so I thought those who haven’t caught the film yet might be interested to hear what I thought of it. And those who have seen it, please weigh in in the comments!

Disclaimer: I am not only a fan of the series, I am also a Kickstarter backer of the film. But then, who isn’t?! You probably already know the storyline from the countless news articles but here’s my summary.

The film is set several years after series three ended. Veronica “I got a PI licence for my 18th birthday” Mars has left her home town of Neptune, California to study law in New York and is about to sit the bar exam. She’s interviewing for a job at a top law firm, she has a steady boyfriend in Piz (her college boyfriend from series three, but interestingly they have only been back together for a year, they’ve not been together the whole time) and she’s still in touch with best friend from high school Wallace. The world is her oyster. So of course this is the precise moment for Logan “trouble follows me everywhere I go” Echolls (her high school ex-boyfriend) to call Veronica and ask her for help as he’s the number one suspect for the murder of his pop star girlfriend. Veronica heads back to Neptune, coincidentally arriving in time for her 10-year high school reunion.

The film is packed with nods and winks to fans and all (or very nearly all) the beloved old characters from the TV show not only make an appearance, but for the most part are intrinsic to the plot. It’s a typical Veronica Mars plot with three or four storylines overlapping, including the stark divide between rich and poor that preoccupied much of the TV show. There’s also the familiar sense of humour, the snappy dialogue, the indie music track and my favourite fictional father–daughter relationship (because Keith Mars is the best).

Does it look and feel like a film rather than a feature-length episode of the TV show? Honestly, I’m not sure. Personally I think the TV show was quite visually stylish anyway, and it certainly didn’t look out of place on the big screen on Friday night. I also don’t agree with Mark Kermode’s complaint that the plot is labyrinthine – yes there’s a few different things going on but it’s not hugely complicated. Then again, am I saying that because I have years’ worth of background information going in?

All told, I loved it. And I was relieved when at the Friday night showing of this in Bristol the (busy but not full) audience applauded when the credits rolled. (Incidentally, do make sure you watch to the end of the credits; the second easter egg is a particular gift to fans.)

I don’t think it was flawless. Mac was criminally under-used. There were some plot holes, or at least things that I didn’t think entirely made sense. But for the most part it was exactly what I, as a fan, wanted and I look forward to watching it again just as soon as we have figured out this digital download business.

Have you watched the film yet? What do you think of it?

I may break a few rules

The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler

The first book in the Philip Marlowe series (though not the first I’ve read) this blackly funny story of the darker side of LA confirmed my love for Chandler and his purple prose. I read it for book club, which led to a hilariously highbrow conversation about what has never aspired to be more than pulp fiction. But it’s good pulp fiction.

The plot is…complicated. I was beginning to think I had missed something towards the end and then Marlowe explains the whole thing to another character, which I suspect his publisher made him put in there. The story begins with the private detective being hired by dying millionaire Sternwood to deal with a pesky blackmailer. It seems straightforward but one bad guy leads to another and Sternwood’s two daughters are both troublesome, turning it all into one big knot of murder and intrigue.

Marlowe himself is an intriguing character. He’s a good guy and has a strong moral code that he imposes on himself, yet he delights in pissing off the police or letting people believe that he’s up to no good. And he’s not above kissing a girl and then discarding her. He’s clever, but not so clever that he’s pieced it all together from the start. He gives the impression of a devil-may-care attitude but looking closely at his actions you realise he actually cares very much. As he explains to Sternwood, “I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favour.”

Chandler’s LA is of course marvellously seedy. Even the rich Sternwood girls are caught up with gangsters and crooks, from the petty to the top of the pile. It is his (and by extension Marlowe’s) understanding of the criminal world, and how several seemingly distinct cases are tied up together by the associations between people, that makes the book brilliant and confusing.

And it’s funny. Marlowe’s narration is full of sharp observations and ironic humour. I love lines like “You have to keep your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes.” The language in general is gorgeously overblown, which is a style some members of my book club found offputting. But I can’t help adoring a book that sets a scene: “I got down there about nine, under a hard high October moon that lost itself in the top layers of a beach fog.”

For a book written in the 1930s, there is an interesting attitude towards homosexuality. Marlowe uses language that would be considered homophobic today but elsewhere he appears open-minded about such things. When joking about his impending death, he says “Don’t scatter my ashes over the blue Pacific. I like the worms better. Did you know that worms are of both sexes and that any worm can love any other worm?”

I think I preferred Farewell My Lovely, but this was still a great read and I fully intend to read the rest of the series.

First published 1939 by Alfred A Knopf.

A thriller without thrills

Southwesterly Wind
by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
translated by Benjamin Moser

This highly acclaimed novel is the third in the Inspector Espinosa series, set in Rio de Janeiro. Quotes on the book jacket compare Garcia-Rosa to Colin Dexter and Raymond Chandler. I really really don’t agree.

It may be a style thing, it may be poor translation, but I did not get on with this book. I would have abandoned it if it wasn’t so easy to read. Easy but not good. There was a lot of clumsy phrasing, sentences that seemed like they could have been clever or funny if written differently. The plot was odd but predictable, the policeman’s actions unlikely and the ending not nearly as ambiguous as Garcia-Rosa would have us believe.

The story centres around Gabriel who was told by a strange fortune teller at his 29th birthday party that he would kill someone before his next birthday. As the big three-oh approaches, his paranoia gets increasingly bad and he goes to the police. Inspector Espinosa is intrigued but doesn’t know what he’s expected to investigate – no crime has been committed. Yet.

Of course, eventually crimes do happen that may or may not be related, there are shadowy characters and beautiful women, and there are many detailed descriptions of the city of Rio, which was one part of the book that I did like. That and Espinosa’s friendly neighbour, a young girl called Alice who wants him to get a dog so that he doesn’t get lonely. That was a sweet subplot.

There seemed to be an attempt to add something spiritual to the usual thriller fare. There was a lot of talk about psychoanalysis and religion and the effect of the southwesterly wind. But it wasn’t fully explored and it didn’t sit well with the rest of the novel.

The main problem, though, is that it takes a while for stuff to start happening and yet I felt no suspense. I thought that it was obvious there would eventually be a dead body that could possibly be linked to Gabriel and before that had even happened I had figured out the ending. None of the characters beside Espinosa had any real fleshing out. I am frankly baffled by the awards and praise Garcia-Rosa has received. Maybe his previous two books were far better?

Originally published in Brazil in 1999 by Companhia das Letras, Sao Paulo, under the title Vento sudoeste.
This translation first published 2004 by Henry Holt and Company.

Sometimes you shouldn’t probe too deep

Rupture
by Simon Lelic

This was another book club read and it certainly generated a lot of discussion, even if part of that was our cynical reaction to the marketing surrounding this book – a lot of review copies were sent out and the book includes “book club” style questions at the back. I mean, it worked, we all read it!

I really enjoyed this book but I didn’t note down my thoughts on finishing it, as I usually would, because I suspected it wouldn’t stand up to intense criticism. Turns out I was right. The more questions asked around the table, the more I realised that this was a guilty pleasure rather than a class act.

The story follows policewoman Lucia May’s investigation into a school shooting. It seems to be a cut-and-dried case – teacher walked into assembly, shot and killed five people including himself – and May’s superiors urge her to wind up the investigation quickly so that the community can move on. But May wants to know not just what happened but also why, and that’s a complex question.

Lelic certainly has some skill. I was gripped by the story even though most of the facts are revealed early on. Every other chapter is a transcript of an interview from shortly after the shooting, allowing a lot of characters’ voices to be heard. Certain details are revealed in these chapters that you realise Lucia has known all along (because she conducted all the interviews) while we as readers had to wait to get to that interview, which is the opposite way round to how information in a novel usually works, and I liked that.

Without wanting to give too much away, the key theme of this book is bullying, and it wears its mission statement so plainly that the message can get heavy handed at times. Yes, bullying happens among adults as well as children and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, but I’m not sure that this book gave the most accurate portrayal. I’m also not sure how accurate Lelic’s portrayal of the police is (I’m guessing not very) though I did find the school convincing. Our discussion revealed a number of plot holes, many more than I would ever have spotted alone.

I was glad to find I was not alone in considering the killer, Samuel Szajkowski, to be the most compelling character in this book. Even though he is dead before the book begins, and there are no flashbacks, we get to know a little of him through other people and what emerges is a believable, complex man. It’s a shame that no other characters are quite so fully rounded, but then you could argue that the book is really about Szajkowski even though it follows Lucia’s daily life.

It was suggested that there is a certain element of doggedly following writing guidelines evident in this book, which is Lelic’s first novel. But while reading it I was able to completely suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Which is no bad thing, let’s face it.

First published 2010 by Picador.
Finalist for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award 2010.