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review 2018-10-20 09:29
Succubus- Regis P. Sheehan

This is an effortless read, not because the plot is simple, but because it is accurately written without the wads of supporting, though ultimately unnecessary detail common to so many spy/espionage thrillers. One could never describe Succubus as a ‘fat book’, engorged by superfluous, minutely detailed, descriptive paragraphs. This book is in a series of what I assume to be similarly economic-with-words novels. In this case classification as a novella has some credence, especially when the factual historical background is mentally separated into prologue. Inevitably, the so recent backstory will seem superfluous to some readers, but it certainly helps add a quality of realism to the fictional events whatever one’s previous knowledge of world affairs. I found it very easy to buy into the book as truth, which in a sense I’m sure it is. I’m sure that all the personal story elements have been accurately mirrored many times in the history of modern-day Korea.

The plot is exciting, with the traction to engage the reader despite the aforementioned economic writing style. We don’t have to be told how the blood drips, how the bullet distorts the flesh, how the cold creeps into ill-nourished bones to know, to see these terrors in the mind’s eye. Though this work is light on superfluous sentiment we are given a sufficiency of insight for us to generate our own details of character and those momentarily described scenes.

The directness of the writing is perhaps indicative of the work of a writer that has spent a working life at the sharp end of security and intelligence services, where long sentimental reflection is at best a dangerous luxury. Sheehan’s writing perhaps reflects a certain detached intensity in his own psychological make-up. We don’t get the intellectual chill of Le Carré, or the bombastic, and literary graphic detailed of great adventure and conspiracy writers like Wilber Smith or Tom Clancy but we do nevertheless get plenty of sharp observation.

Sheehan is very fond of using real and, what in relative ignorance I choose to guess are, realistic but invented acronyms. I point this out only because they are perhaps at times, overused, this being a story rather than a State Department report. I can see how their abundant use was by way of adding to the matter of fact realism, but also just perhaps a few were unnecessary.

The upsurge of significant news currently emanating from the Korean Peninsula certainly adds to this work’s poignancy. I have no difficulty in giving this work the full five stars on those sites that demand those crude endorsements. However, in the edition I read there are a few annoying copy errors. I assume that these will be addressed if ever Sheehan finds a void in his agenda. The only thing I don’t comprehend is the relevance of the book’s title, though I can believe that it would be very pertinent to the spy novel with a clear seductress as its pivotal character.



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review 2018-03-21 19:32
The Accusation by Bandi
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea - Deborah Smith,Bandi

This is a collection of short stories criticizing the North Korean government. Purportedly, it was written by an anonymous North Korean official still living in the country, and smuggled out as a handwritten manuscript. Upon reading the first couple of stories, though, I began to wonder if that backstory is a publicity stunt. I’ve read a lot of contemporary English-language fiction, and a lot of fiction from countries around the world, and what struck me about this collection is that it is written in a style characteristic of modern English-speaking authors. This makes it easy reading for those audiences: it’s written with the immediacy and emotional intimacy with the characters that one typically sees in English-language fiction; it has that pleasing balance of dialogue and narrative, that easy-to-read plot-driven flow, that immersion in the characters’ thoughts and feelings that characterizes most popular fiction today. Authors from cultural traditions very different from the mainstream western ones rarely write this way unless they have immigrated to an English-speaking country, even though almost all of them would have ready access to popular fiction, unlike someone living in North Korea.

Having these doubts, I poked around on the Internet for more information about the book (the New Yorker article is worth a read). No one has proven it to be a hoax, and a vocabulary analysis apparently indicates that the writer used North Korean language, which has diverged somewhat from South Korea’s over the decades of separation. However, I found it significant that journalist Barbara Demick, author of the fantastic Nothing to Envy (a nonfiction narrative of life in North Korea, based on her research and defectors’ accounts) also doubts the official version. Her doubt seems to stem primarily from the author’s keen awareness of the regime’s internal contradictions; this is apparently an understanding that takes defectors significant time outside the country to fully comprehend.

As for the book itself, each of its seven stories is a quick and easy read, though they average around 30 pages each. However, after the first two or three stories, which were fairly enjoyable, I began to tire of their incessant drumbeat. All of the stories are about how the regime and life in North Korea crushes a character in one way or another (usually metaphorically, but in one case physically): there is no conflict that doesn’t have the Party at its base and no possibility of happiness. At the end of the final story, a character, gazing at the red-brick local Party office, reflects, “How many noble lives had been lost to its poison! The root of all human misfortunate and suffering was that red European specter that the [party official] had boasted had put down roots in this land, the seed of that red mushroom!” Perhaps I ought to take the idea that the government could be the cause of all human suffering as evidence that the author does in fact live in North Korea, but in any case, such a simplistic view of the world doesn’t make for high-quality literary work.

Whoever the author may be, the fundamental storytelling skills are certainly there, despite a singular political focus, and it will be an especially interesting book for those who haven’t read much about North Korea. But for those who want to learn more about the country, I recommend starting with the brilliant Nothing to Envy.

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text 2018-02-19 19:38
Reading progress update: I've read 49 out of 176 pages.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea - Guy Delisle


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text 2018-02-13 01:07
Reading progress update: I've read 1 out of 176 pages.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea - Guy Delisle

while all eyes are on South Korea, I'll be sneaking into--ack!

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review 2017-05-25 00:00
All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea
All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea - Magnus Bärtås,Fredrik Ekman,Saskia Vogel If you don't know much about North Korea (which I don't), this is a solid if somewhat whimisically organised introduction to the country's history and culture. It's set in two frames: a tour the authors went on, and the country's film industry, especially as it related to the kidnapping of two South Korean directors. As much as I might have appreciated something more straightforwardly chronological, I found this book very interesting, and it did answer most of my questions.
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