Archive for October, 2010

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October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

A B C D E F G H <a I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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A B C D E F G H <a I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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Family’s Honor aka Glory of the Family

October 6, 2010 1 comment

Television drama offers an outsider the opportunity to look inside a foreign culture, particularly when the serial is long. The most revealing aspects are always those that go without comment. These are the social norms that everyone local understands. In this instance, Family’s Honor aka Glory of the Family gives us 54 episodes looking at two fundamental building blocks of Korean culture. The first is the practical mechanics of courtship and marriage. The second is the class structure that divides the dynastic old respectability from the monied arrivistes. Put the two together and you have the central dynamic driving the narrative. Under what circumstances can members of the ancestral family marry “beneath” themselves. As in other Asian cultures, this is a choice between arranged marriages and marriages for love. In the Korean culture, the marriages should, wherever possible, be agreed between the families but, in principle, may be for love. However, when there is a clan and ancestral home involved, the sociopolitical rules are different to reflect the greater importance of the family’s identity.

What makes this story so fascinating is that all the adult members of the traditional family are coming from failed relationships, whether through death or divorce which is significantly less common in Korea than in Western culture. This gives us the chance to view the cultural practices at every level of the family from the great grandfather patriarch who has apparently never acted on his love for his housekeeper, through his son and the three adult grandchildren.

The primary focus is on the relationship between the granddaughter played by Yoon Jung Hee and the son of a predatory family, played by Park Shi Hoo following on from his success in Iljimae, intent on buying out the business interests of the ancestral family. She is a diffident and quiet academic who went through a marriage ceremony. But before the marriage could be consummated, the couple were involved in a car accident in which she was injured and her husband was killed. There is an immediate problem in that one of her young students has a crush on her and, in the best traditions of not-quite stalkers, this man is prepared to “fight” for her hand. The parvenu has been trained by his father to use every conceivable strategy, legal or not, to win corporate battles. This is not the ideal basis upon which to build but, in the metaphorical sense, she is the beauty to tame the beast. Over time, she awakens a conscience in the man who comes to see that, sometimes, there are more important things in life than money. To a one-track-minded son of a nouveau-riche family, this is a revelation that does not come easy. What makes it all the more difficult for him is that, if he chooses the light over the dark, this means betraying his family. He was told to acquire the company for its status and valuable assets. How can he switch to protect the interests of the company and the family that owns it? As an aside, the section of the plot dealing with the government’s investigation of the young man’s business strategies is particularly revealing in the balance struck between the national interest and cultural expectations of respect for a successful businessman.

Then comes the revelation for an outsider like me. Having opted for love with his eyes open, our “hero” runs into opposition to the proposed marriage from his mother. His father, played by Yun Kyu Jin as a soft-hearted bully, would accept marriage into the clan for the enhancement of his status. But his mother, played with frenetic energy by Seo Kwon Soon, considers her prospective daughter-in-law jinxed. Because her first husband died on the night of their wedding, she believes the girl will always be bad luck. Her opposition is implacable. What added to my fascination was the acceptance of this as extreme but not unusual. Given the families must agree the marriage, both sides back away from each other, respecting the other’s point of view. Even when there are negotiations, everything falters when it comes to the list of wedding gifts she demands as a condition of agreeing the marriage.

There are also interesting ructions as the son marries a colleague of equal age and comparable status because she is pregnant with his child, while his two sons both wish to marry significantly beneath themselves, one to a police officer, the other to an office cleaner. As is the way in many cultures, wives must move into the households of their husband’s. The traditional family must therefore “accept” these socially inferior girls and train them in the traditional way of life. Equally, our quiet academic would have to move in with the harridan mother-in-law, a daunting prospect even if consent to the marriage were to be given.

The final element is that, at a relatively late point in the narrative, an unfortunate revelation emerges that would potentially destroy the credibility of the ancestral family’s implicit claim to a perfect lineage. The person who makes the discovery believes this is his meal ticket for life. All blackmailers bring their own sensibilities to the bargaining table. They could not stand similar facts disclosed about them. They assume the same reaction from their intended victims.

In the better tradition of a cultural anthropologist, I have learned much about the household routines of modern families, one traditional, the other newly rich. It is both reassuring and depressing that cultures survive. For those born into those rituals of life, everything is perfectly normal. For an outsider, we see that patriarchy still dominates as women are allocated their roles and style of dress about the house. Perhaps significantly for the future, there are signs the women may be growing slightly more assertive, but these isolated shifts in “power” are treated as amusing departures from the norm — the exceptions that prove the rule (for now).

By way of closing, mention must be made of Park Joon Mok who, at eight years old, showed maturity and presence as the great grandson, while Shin Goo is magnificent as Ha Man Gi, the great grandfather whose hard-earned wisdom sees the family through the crises. While there are inevitably times when the story spreads into different relationships or business situations, and everything slows down, this remains one of the more interesting of the contemporary dramas. Family’s Honor aka Glory of the Family is worth seeing through to the end for a relatively unsentimental view of love and marriage.

You can download the theme song here.

For those of you who are fans of Park Shi Hoo, there’s a fan site at


Personal Preference aka Personal Taste (Korean drama)

October 5, 2010 1 comment

This is yet another example of a wonderful set-up completely thrown away. Let’s start with a little background. After the success of Boys Over Flowers, the South Korean broadcast network went into a huddle. In Lee Min Ho, they had a star. What they now needed was a new program that would reinforce his reputation and carry everyone on to yet greater heights of profitability. So, as is always the case, they hunted around for suitable material. Someone lighted on the novel Personal Preference by Lee Sae In and, with screenwriter Park Hye Kyung at the helm, a 16-episode serial was born.

The first three episodes are a triumph, managing to capture two very different Western traditions with unexpected accuracy (not, of course, that they were attempting to do this — as a Korean drama, they were producing something Korean). The first of these is farce. Done well, this is a complete form of entertainment representing an irresistible combination of tragedy and comedy, swinging wildly from one situation to the next until we arrive at a delicious conclusion. So when we first meet Park Kae In, played by Son Ye Jin, she is a broad caricature of female insecurity. While potentially talented as a designer, she lives in the shadow of her distinguished father and never feels she can deliver anything to satisfy his (or anyone else’s) taste. For most of the time, she hides away in her father’s house, living on the money stashed away by the family. When out, she affects a very eccentric style of dress, rarely caring what impression she creates. As to the commercial world, she has little experience in trying to match her design aesthetics to market expectations and is not a success.

At the beginning of the serial, she has made an effort to produce furniture but, because of her complete inability to recognise danger, finds herself the victim of her business partner who raises money by a mortgage on her father’s home and then loses it all. Worse, she is in a relationship with a extravagantly smarmy architect and believes he is about to propose marriage. Unfortunately, he is actually trying to dump her. He has fallen for the woman who is a tenant in Park Kae In’s house but, whenever he tries to tell Park Kae In, he loses his nerve. This communication failure brings them all to the day of the real marriage ceremony and, of course, the innocent Park Kae In goes along to the impressive Registrar’s offices, and discovers the terrible truth. Distraught, she is hurried away from the ceremony and put in a quiet side room. Unfortunately, this is a central control room equipped with a public address system. So her discussion of betrayal is accidentally broadcast throughout the building with the wording sufficiently ambiguous that all the couples intending to marry believe her words apply to them. When the dust settles, no one gets married and Park Kei In is likely to lose her father’s house.

The second theme comes from English restoration comedy which was, by any standards, wonderfully bawdy as a reaction against the surrounding Puritanism. One of the best-loved stock characters was the predatory rake, out to bed as many women as possible. To avoid suspicion by husbands, some rakes pretended to be gay. Thus, if unlucky enough to be caught in a situation that would normally be considered compromising, all suspicion would naturally be diverted. The plays would then chart the slow disintegration of the deception and its consequences.

Lee Min Ho is cast as Jeon Jin Ho, a talented architect in competition with our smarmy two-timer for high-profile jobs. By a series of coincidences that continue the potentially farcical nature of the series, he is caught in a situation that might suggest he is gay. At first this is irrelevant. But, when he enters the race to win the next big contract to design an extension to a major museum, he discovers the need to copy the architectural style of Park Kei In’s father. To do so, he needs access to the house. Unknown to him, this is highly convenient because Park Kei In needs a replacement tenant to help pay off this unexpected mortgage. At first, she is completely against the idea of a man as tenant but, when told Jeon Jin Ho is gay, this removes all barriers. Not unnaturally, Jeon Jin Ho is delighted to gain access to the house but shocked to discover that he is thought gay. It gets worse when the drunken Park Kei In broadcasts her mistaken belief to all-comers at a local bar/restaurant where, by the inevitable coincidences on which farce depends, the man responsible for commissioning the museum contract happens to be dining.

Except everything dies after this wonderful start. What could have continued as a frothy, fast-moving farce develops into a wooden romantic drama with endless bickering between the different couples both principal and secondary. Although it does get slightly more interesting again when the missing father reappears, the overall pacing is leaden and the ending cannot come quickly enough. This is not, I hasten to say, the fault of Lee Min Ho or Son Ye Jin. They do their best. I think the network executives lost their nerve. Instead of building on the growing misunderstandings about Jeon Jin Ho’s sexuality, he is to do the “natural” thing for stars like Lee Min Ho, namely fall in love with Park Kei In. Perhaps the same spirit of Elizabethan Puritanism still inhibits Korea. It cannot be good for Lee Min Ho’s image to play the role of someone actually gay or even someone pretending to be gay. He must behave as straight throughout and get the girl. Only then will his fans be happy. So, after the first three episodes, this is only for you if you want a traditional Korean drama with a cute boy falling in love with slightly wacky girl and finding fulfillment both architectural and romantic.

Secret Circles by F. Paul Wilson

Well, here we are with the second installment of the young adult series involving the soon-to-be Repairman Jack. Continuing on from Secret Histories, we are once again pitched in with Jack and Weezy growing up in Johnson on the fringes of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. In production terms, Gauntlet Press has produced one of its better pieces of jacket art, neatly capturing the antiquity of the pyramid. It’s interesting to compare this to the jacket design produced by TOR which is completely underwhelming. The repetition of the word “secret” in the titles continues the theme of the secret history of the world which underpins the entire series. But this reference to circles is somewhat pedantic. Let’s take the idea of the narrative arc. As you know, arcs are parts of a circle. To highlight the “obvious” notion that plots develop cause and effect which may have some degree of circularity is uninspiring, to put it mildly. Even a young reader might find it redundant to have all this explained at the end of the book.

I confess to finding the first outing in this Jack Junior version somewhat tedious as, regrettably, I find most modern young adult fiction indigestible. But this is a major improvement. We are caught up in the disappearance and probable kidnapping of a five-year old. It’s not Jack’s fault Cody Bockman goes missing, but he feels guilty in not having seen the boy home when he had the chance. This leaves us in the situation of knowing Jack will be at work in trying to get the boy back.

Why, then, is this “young adult” book more readable? Several factors are at work. The first is a less patronising approach. Despite the explanation of circularity referred to above, F. Paul Wilson has managed not to follow the more usual tendency of authors in dumbing down the plot and the language used. Although the vocabulary is slightly less demanding, it’s definitely pitched at “older” readers. More importantly, the adults are acting with a more appropriate level of intelligence (or lack of it). In part, this is forced because of Jack’s emerging interest in fixing things. Once Jack is exposed to the reality of marital abuse, we are into complex human emotions. Fortunately, Wilson keeps everything reasonably realistic as Jack wrestles with his conscience when “wiser” heads advise him not to interfere. Later thinking about whether he did the right thing strikes the right tone for adults, young and old. For younger readers it’s an engaging teaching vehicle. For the completists among us, it represents the first real attempt on Jack’s part to rationalise his value system. In the first book, there was too much left unsaid. Wilson has begun to take this origins project more seriously and the results are better.

The next factor is a more dense set of references from and to the Adversary Cycle and the Repairman series. Part of the appeal of any origins series is the opportunity to put all the building blocks in place for what we know is to come. By definition, this is an elaborate game. As readers, we can watch the author tick all the boxes while all the characters are going through the pages, oblivious to the significance of the events unfolding around them. So now we see the emerging relationship between Jack and Drexler more clearly and, thanks to Bloodline, we can understand why Cody’s kidnapper would not want to hurt Jack. The Traveling Circus pitches its tents. It’s good to see Walter Erskine back in action after The Touch, and is this an underground village along the lines we first saw in The Keep? The idea of a buried city is always interesting. In this case, we avoid the necropolis cliché and focus on how this might be connected to the pyramid. For those who like a little additional information, the creature is a q’qr, a survivor from the First Age. That said, the idea the pyramid would not have been found by more outsiders is a bit convenient. With the government overflying the area in helicopters, you would expect someone to have seen it, particularly if they were so interested in the first site discovered in Secret Histories. Experienced investigators would have widened the area of search. And then Jack can quickly pick out a fifteen-foot high pyramid on an aerial photo. . . Yeah, well, he’s good like that.

Despite my minor carping, this is a genuinely more interesting effort from Wilson with everything set up nicely for the third installment — Secret Vengeance. It’s worth having a look at.

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle

Ants, wasps and bees are social insects. They live harmoniously in their colonies and, in their insect way (not meaning to be too patronising here) work for the common good, defending their own, and solving all the problems that come their way as best they can. Not, of course, that I envy insects. But they are an interesting point of contrast to us humans. We seem to have great difficulty in all our relationships, work only when we must, and conspicuously fail to solve most of our problems. It seems we pay a high price for what we call “intelligence”. Look at how successful insects have been. They have colonised most of the planet without feeling the need to develop massive brain power. Why? Because they avoid the bear pit of emotions that bedevils our lives. Just think of all the problems caused by love and hate, fear and anger. Our lack of trust fuels the fear. We seem doomed to disappointment with ourselves and others. All of which brings me to We Never Talk About My Brother.

This is another collection from Tachyon Publications which, over some fifteen years, has been slowly but steadily building itself into one of the better small presses. It’s always pleasing when a delicate flower grows sturdy and diversifies from its initial one-trick pony status as Peter S. Beagle’s publisher*. As I write this, we have good news for this latest collaboration between writer and publisher: “By Moonlight” won the Locus Award for the Best Novelette. The collection itself is shortlisted for an award of Best Collection in the World Fantasy Awards for 2010. I am coming to this book late in the day, playing catch-up.

Fortunately for me as a reviewer, three of the stories have already been collected in Strange Roads. Click through for the missing reviews. This thins down the wordage and gives me a chance to focus on the main theme to these stories which is easily stated: the strengths and weakness of the human heart.

Brothers! Life would be so easy if they could just get along. But there’s always this competition based on birth order. Except. . . Well, sometimes the older is the wiser and chooses to step back and avoid confrontation. Not because he fears his younger brother — who knows how much bigger and stronger the older may be — but because he has a live-and-let-live approach to life. Except. . . Well, there may come a time when the older can no longer look the other way given the excesses of the younger. If he was to step out of the shadows. . . Well, if he did and no matter what the result, “We (the family would) Never Talk About [My] the fight between the Brother(s)”. It would be just too painful to recall.

“The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” is an elegiac lament on the willingness of people to allow envy to colour their relationships. What makes this story such an achingly beautiful tragedy is the unselfish love that is lost. If people could only see what value they have in their lives and be satisfied with it, they could be happy and contented. But frustration and ambition changes people. Imagine a mighty Lord who, unusually for his culture, is prepared to accept people for what they are and reward them on their merits. He has broken convention by allowing a commoner to enter his household as a huntsman. Once this door is open, the simple peasant begins to lose his innocence. The question of his status haunts him. Where does he fit in? What are his just deserts? In his village, such questions would never have troubled his mind. But in a highly political court and a stratified class system, they are unavoidable. People change through force of circumstances. It may be just in external appearance as they adapt to their new environments. More alarmingly, the changes may be in their hearts. Perhaps there is a monster lurking inside all of us, just waiting for the chance to show itself.

“The Last and Only, or Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” also deals with a change in the heart as Mr. Moscowitz slowly loses his identity as an American and becomes a French archetype. In fact, so perfect is his transformation that he becomes the standard by which Frenchness is to be measured. This is all well and good, but what is he supposed to do when, having relocated to France, he finds they are just, well, not French enough? If this is a coming-of-nationality story, “The Stickball Witch” is a delightful coming-of-age story. Ah those happy days when traffic was so infrequent we could all play safely in the streets. Like Beagle, I miss the communal lives we led as children. This is not to say parents were any less mindful or caring. But, when daylight came during school holidays, the streets were our home. In my town, the problems came from a rival group of children (I hesitate to use the word “gang” because that has acquired rather more dark overtones). We agreed to disagree and divided the town into mutual no-go areas. Beagle’s witch turns out to have a rather more impish sense of humour, but she also guards her territory.

“By Moonlight” explores the nature of love a man may have. One may find God but then be seduced. Another may never know religion but be all too familiar with the betrayals of women. If two such men were to meet, they would have interesting things to say to each other. It might be world-weary. After all, trust is one of the first things lost when relationships are broken. But in reality, men are stronger creatures. They may be driven on by the obsession they can recapture what has been taken from them. They may be running from a world that never seems to appreciate them except for the reward money to be earned by turning them in. So husbands may betray the lovers taken by their wives. Mistresses may sell their lovers to the law enforcement agencies. It’s all the same really. No matter which side of the fence you may think you are on. “The Unicorn Tapestries” is also about betrayal except. . . Can you ever really capture a dream?

Finally in “Chandail” we look into the secret recesses of a woman’s mind. How should she feel when her family sold her into slavery? What would she say if she had the chance to talk with the one who betrayed her? There are answers offered here as the woman enters into a strange communion with a semi-telepathic sea creature. In making the physical attempt to save the creature, she overcomes her anger and fear. The question is whether such conquests mean love has a chance to grow again.

This collection deserves to win the “Best” award. Reading anthologies, it’s always a delight to come across a new story by Beagle. Being able to walk through the pages of this collection with a man so suffused with humanity is a privilege and a delight. If you have not already discovered Beagle, you should buy this collection as a first introduction.

* As further examples of the symbiotic relationship between authors and small press publishers, consider F. Paul Wilson and Gauntlet Press and Joe R. Lansdale and Subterranean Press.

As an added note, this collection was shortlisted in the category of Best Collection for the World Fantasy Award 2010 but, sadly, did not win.

For reviews of other collections by Peter S. Beagle, see Sleight of Hand and Strange Roads.

Speak to the Devil by Dave Duncan

Urban fantasy and paranormal romances are very much the fashion these days, with authors happily playing with the idea of vampires, werewolves and all kinds of magical folk disporting themselves in the twilight of our modern world. Perhaps I’ve been beaten into submission by the constant drip of film and TV blurring the genres, now accepting Buffy et al as embedded in our culture. Although, truth be told, this is just an excuse to indulge in often senseless violence in the hope the contemporary settings will add an extra frisson of fear. We are supposed to think, “That could be us!” As if. . . But when it comes to historical novels, it’s disconcerting to find them morphing into fantasy, particularly when an author has taken the care to research a real world environment. This is not to say an author cannot bend the genre rules. The writer’s code is not carved in stone. You do not have to be Brandon Sanderson and set your fantasy novel in a fictitious world where the magic can play by whatever rules you create. But internal consistency just somehow feels more comfortable. Fictional powers in a fictional world, I say. Albeit that’s a nonsense because anything not real is by definition “fictional”. Anyway, it’s rather like coming across an anachronism in a historical novel. Personally, I flinch. Similarly, there’s an immediate conflict when magic achieves something impossible in the real world being described. Imagine the chaos if C. S. Forester had decided to give Horatio Hornblower the supernatural power to change the direction of the wind whenever his hero got into difficulties during a naval engagement and needed to tack out of danger.

In Speak to the Devil by Dave Duncan we have the assumption that Joan of Arc had access to magical powers and was, in effect, the visible tip of an iceberg. So, all around Europe, we have magical abilities running in families. At low levels of power, these individuals are tolerated by the states and, in appropriate cases, actively exploited for political advantage. But if the power increases, then the individuals become too inherently dangerous to all the untalented power-brokers and so must be eradicated.

It’s interesting to compare this to Duncan’s Alchemist trilogy — a densely plotted series of mysteries set in a “real” Venice where some magic works. In this sentence, we have the pivotal difference between the two approaches. In the first The Alchemist’s Apprentice, the whole issue of the magic is left equivocal. We understand that “this” Nostrodamus may have some predictive abilities, but the solution to the mystery depends on the application of intelligence. Similarly, the sidekick may use Tarot Cards, but the results are enigmatic and he’s left to fend for himself as best he can. It’s only as the series progresses that the supernatural element becomes slightly more explicit. But, even in the third The Alchemist’s Pursuit, the mystery element remains dominant. These are inherently mystery novels with a supernatural twist.

In what is trailed as The Brothers Magnus, a new series, we start off in the same spirit as many other historical novels with a d’Artagnan sent off on a mission impossible by a Cardinal Richelieu who wants plausible deniability in using supernatural powers to defeat an invading enemy. Well, apart from the “speaking” which is quite vague at the outset, this could be any derivative work, and we go through the first third of the book with only a limited form of teleportation to get us more quickly from A to B. This minor aberration to speed up events that would otherwise get bogged down with days of fast riding on tiring horses does not detract from the general spirit as historical. We then have a really clunky change of gear in which the magic becomes dominant and history be damned (like the Speakers if you care to listen to the religiously inclined of the Age). This second third of the novel is somewhat annoying. The emerging extent of the magical powers jars with the history of the period and trying to paper over the cracks by these discussions about Joan of Arc is something of a cheat. Although the historical record shows her claiming inspiration through visions involving a number of Saints, her success was more likely due to raw intelligence and a clear understanding of military strategy.

In fact, more generally Duncan seems to be using this magic as a form of cheating. If someone is injured, a Speaker can negotiate for his recovery. This is miraculous and bends reality rather too much for my taste. But I do confess to becoming more interested in the magical mechanism as the book continues. The speaking with the “saints” is provocatively enigmatic and presents us (and the Speaker) with a mystery to solve. By the end, I was sufficiently interested to discover that the next in the series is called “When the Saints” and I have ordered my copy. It was a close run decision and, depending on your sensibilities, you may well decide the book is not for you. The sequel, When the Saints is much better and definitely worth reading.

For other books by Dave Duncan, see The Alchemist’s Apprentice, The Alchemist’s Code, The Alchemist’s Pursuit and Pock’s World.

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