Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Cho Nam-Joo, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea, Tanya Bretherton, true crime, Viking

Three Quick Reviews: Tanya Bretherton, Cho Nam-ju & Imbi Neeme

Good things come in threes, they say.

Here are three eclectic stories, all focused on women characters and written by women writers, that I have read this year. All are highly recommended.

They include a narrative non-fiction book by Australia’s queen of historical true crime, a best-selling novel from Korea and an award-winning new release set in Western Australia.

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer’  by Tanya Bretherton
Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself in Australia as a writer of historical true crime. I have previously read The Suitcase Baby and have The Suicide Bride in my TBR. The Killing Streets is her latest.

It examines, in painstaking detail, a series of violent murders against women in Sydney in the early 1930s. It took a while for the police to cotton on, but eventually, the cases, in which the women’s bodies were found dumped in public places, were linked together and suddenly the hunt was on for Australia’s first serial killer.

Unfortunately, in their rush to convict someone, the police made many mistakes and got the wrong man: the killings continued regardless.

As well as being a fascinating account of (unreliable) police investigative techniques at the time, this book is also an eye-opening portrait of a misogynistic society in which women were merely the playthings of men and if they went missing or were killed it was their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the “wrong” kinds of clothing, pursuing the “wrong” kind of career or simply belonging to the “wrong” class. This is very much a story of a society in which victim-blaming was king,  where the police were quick to rush to judgement and where media coverage and hearsay had an entire city gripped by fear.

The Killing Streets  is a thoroughly researched and highly readable example of narrative non-fiction that puts a series of Depression-era crimes into a social, historical and economic context. It gets a bit bogged down by detail in places and sometimes the creative elements of the narrative felt overdone, taking away from the reportage of the story, but on the whole this is a good one for true crime fans.

‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’  by Cho Nam-ju
Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 176 pages; 2020. Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang. 

This international bestseller from Korea, first published in 2016 but recently reissued, is a damning portrait of a contemporary society that favours men over women in almost every facet of life.

It tells the story of Kim Ji-Young, who grows up in South Korea and slowly comes to realise that she is at a disadvantage in almost everything she does simply because she was born female. Her younger brother gets special treatment by her parents (extra food and his own room), she’s sexually harassed at school by her male classmates (but is expected to put up with it because that’s just what boys do), she gets overlooked for promotion at work despite being a dedicated and conscientious employee, she’s expected to give up everything for her husband when she marries — you get the idea.

The easy-to-read narrative is dotted with footnotes relating to gender inequality in Korea — for instance, statistical information on the sex ratio imbalance at birth (116.5 boys born to 100 girls in 1990), and the ways in which women do odd jobs on the side to make money as well as raising children, running households and looking after elderly family members — which lends the story real authenticity.

I found Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 a gripping story, easily read in a day, but I’m not sure it told me anything I didn’t already know. For many teenage girls and young women, however, this novel would be the perfect introduction to feminism. It’s an important and powerful read.

‘The Spillby Imbi Neeme
Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Before The Spill was published, Imbi Neeme’s manuscript won the Penguin Literary Prize — and it’s easy to see why. This is a gripping tale of two sisters, Nicole and Samantha, whose lives go separate ways following an incident in their childhood (a car accident on a remote road in Western Australia) and who later struggle to reconcile their differences — in temperament, in outlook and the ways in which they see their divorced parents — as adults.

The story, which is largely set in Perth, is told in such an original and ambitious way — vignettes from the past interweaved with the present day, told in alternate chapters from each sister’s perspective — that it’s hard to believe this is the work of a debut novelist. The writing is assured and the characters flesh-and-blood real.

In its portrayal of alcoholism, Neeme shies away from stereotypes or cliches, presenting the disease and its impact on others in all its messy, complicated detail. She does much the same for the relationship between sisters, for Nicole and Samantha are tied together forever but love and loathe each other in myriad different ways. There is jealousy and anger, hurt and regret, misunderstanding and confusion on almost every page. Yet this is not a maudlin story. There are many laughs and witty asides — often at the expense of stepmothers that come into their lives at various times —  dotted throughout.

I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of this tricky and tangled family. It will be very interesting to see what Imbi Neeme comes up with next…

I read ‘The Killing Streets’ and ‘The Spill’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. They form my 10th & 11th books for #AWW2020.
Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR2020, You-Jeong Jeong

‘The Good Son’ by You-Jeong Jeong

Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 309 pages; 2018. Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim.

The smell of blood woke me up.

So begin’s You-Jeong Jeong’s The Good Son, a locked room mystery that morphs into something much more dark and sinister.

It tells the story of a 25-year-old man who wakes up to discover his mother dead on the kitchen floor, a deep wound in her neck and blood everywhere, including on his own hands and clothes. But did he kill her? He has no memory of the night before because he has stopped taking his epilepsy medication and that often results in massive headaches and blackouts. There is no sign of forced entry, so if he didn’t kill her, who did?

Structured in four parts, all narrated by the son, the story charts Yu-Jin’s life living under a semi-lockdown with an over-protective mother. As the narrative progresses it gets increasingly more unhinged and abhorrent. I do, in fact, wonder why I bothered to read it. But it did have some good points:

I liked the ever-changing nature of the story. As soon as I thought I knew what was going on and why Yu-Jin behaved in a certain way, the author would throw in a new bit of information that made me reassess all that had gone before. I can’t explain it very well here because that would spoil the plot, but you cannot second-guess anything in this novel. And it’s that kind of unpredictability that is probably why I kept turning the pages.

It’s a good depiction of an unhinged mind. Think Francie in The Butcher Boy or Joy Stone in The Trick is to Keep Breathing. This is reflected in a narrative voice that gets increasingly more disturbing as the story moves forward.

The use of flashbacks is done well to show how Yu-Jin’s relationships — with his mother, his late brother, his adopted brother and his aunt — shaped him. I liked the way these also fleshed out the kind of child he was, introverted and insecure, but how his great talent for swimming took him out of himself and gave him confidence.

It has a satisfying ending, albeit one that makes you grateful the story is not real life.

Yet, for all that, there’s no denying The Good Son is gruesome and bloody and repugnant in places. It is definitely not one for the squeamish. It takes a lot to shock me, but I found this book a little too much to handle. Read it with caution.

This is my 12th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it last year from the Dymocks $10 table, attracted by the marketing blurb on the front cover declaring it as a “Number One International Bestseller”. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR40

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 183 pages; 2015. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Quite frankly, Han Kang’s debut novel, The Vegetarian — which I read for Women in Translation Month is a bonkers story.

The premise goes something like this: a married woman becomes a vegetarian in meat-loving South Korea after she keeps having a freakish dream involving lots of blood. Her family reacts angrily to her decision. At a dinner party, her father tries to ram a piece of meat down her throat. She responds by picking up a fruit knife and slashing her wrist. She goes to the hospital. Later, when she’s discharged, her marriage begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist, develops an unhealthy interest in her body, which is slowly wasting away, and paints flowers all over her naked form. They have sex, get caught by her sister, and then she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where she’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and anorexia, before admitting she really just wants to morph into a tree.

Yes, I told you it was bonkers.

An unsettling metamorphosis

Structured in three parts, it follows Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis from dutiful wife (her husband is arrogant, sexist and sexually abusive) to subversive vegetarian in pursuit of a more “plant-like” existence. We never hear from her directly, because her tale is told from the perspectives of those closest to her: her husband (in part one), her brother-in-law (part two) and her sister (part three).

As the narrative inches forward it becomes increasingly more unsettling and unhinged. Part one is particularly confronting (Yeong-hye’s husband rapes her and treats her abysmally), while part two borders on the pornographic. Part three is a bit more even-keeled, but even so, there are vivid descriptions of unpleasant experiences and medical procedures in a psychiatric facility that are unnerving.

And all this is rendered in cool, detached prose, with an occasional nod to poetic lyricism.

Critically acclaimed

When The Vegetarian was published in 2015 it was greeted with much enthusiastic praise and it won the International Man Booker Prize the following year, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t quite understand the fuss.

It’s certainly original and even though it’s from South Korea, it has that languid, haunting quality that I normally associate with the best fiction from Japan. Similarly, it addresses themes of alienation, misogyny and a refusal to conform to societal conventions, but I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters and the storyline just didn’t hold my interest. Every time I put this book down, I really did not want to pick it up again.

And while I understand the book is saying a lot about the rigid constrictions of South Korean society, about sexual frustration and desire, and the ways in which the female body is used and abused, The Vegetarian — for all its intelligence, ideas and confrontation of taboos — really wasn’t for me.

Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest didn’t much like it either.

This is my 8th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 27th for #TBR40. It has been in my TBR since 2015, having received it unsolicited from the publisher for potential review prior to its official release.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hwang Sok-yong, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, South Korea

‘Familiar Things’ by Hwang Sok-Yong

Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong

Fiction – paperback; Scribe UK; 224 pages; 2017. Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Just as the recent Grenfell Tower fire here in London has highlighted the enormous disparity in the conditions under which the rich and poor live cheek by jowl in this city, Hwang Sok-Yong’s Familiar Things shows the same inequality — albeit a little more extreme — in modern day South Korea.

Set on a massive landfill site on the outskirts of Seoul, the story gives voice to the city’s marginalised population. It is told through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy known as Bugeye. His father has been arrested and taken to a re-education camp, so now his mother, a street vendor, must support them.

When she finds a job as a “trash picker” sorting out recyclables at the dump, they move from their existing hillside slum in the city to the ironically named “Flower Island” and live in a shack made of plastic, reclaimed wood and styrofoam in a shanty town on site.

The shifts his mother works are long and dangerous, but she makes more money than she did as a street vendor and they have plenty to eat, even if some of it is recovered from the waste they sort through on a daily basis. Yet Bugeye knows this is not a good life.

A month has already passed since Bugeye and his mother moved to Flower Island. She had tried to console Bugeye at first by saying that people lived there just like anywhere else, but he knew it was a garbage dump filled with things used up and tossed aside, things people had grown tired of using, and things that were no longer of any use to anyone at all, and that the people who lived there were likewise discards and outcasts driven from the city.

Over the course of the novel Bugeye makes friends, including the ancient spirits who once lived on the island before it was turned into a landfill site, and slowly adjusts to his new situation.

Evocative tale about inequality

Familiar Things is a truly evocative, haunting tale, expertly translated by Sora Kim-Russell. There’s a silky, dreamlike quality to the prose, which captures beauty where you would least expect it.

The blurb on my edition makes much of the magic realism of the story, something that would normally turn me off. But in a society that is steeped so much in the spiritual, it works beautifully. It’s done with such a lightness of touch it feels a wholly appropriate part of the narrative, highlighting the connections between the past and present, and showing that when you throw things away there are consequences — for the environment, for the economy, for society and for the people left behind.

I loved the subtle message of the story too, the way in which it conveys the idea that every life has a value and that too rapid urbanisation comes at a cost. But despite the fact that this is — at its heart — a political book and probably written from a place of anger, it has the feel of a light, easy read. It certainly makes me want to explore more by this author, whose own life story seems as intriguing as the tale he tells in this novel.

For another take on Familiar Things, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.