bigWOWO rating: Popular Fiction Bronze
War With Pigeons is the debut novel of Tae Kim, a young writer who is also an attorney at HSBC bank. I was happy that his publicist contacted bigWOWO about his book. I was excited to read it since I myself used to be a yuppie in New York, and I actually bumped down two books that were further ahead in my book queue in order to see what it was all about. I was also excited because this book is entirely self-published, and we at bigWOWO have taken a huge interest in the publishing industry and the evolution of self-publishing in the age of the internet. In the end, I enjoyed reading the novel, even though there were some major issues with the end product.
The book is about a young Korean American lawyer in New York City named Peter Kim. When his banker friend Simon dies from a knife wound, Peter becomes the executor of Simon’s estate, and he begins to learn the circumstances of Simon’s life and death. Through the course of the novel, we learn about the Korean immigrant experience, the influence of the chaebol, and the cultural ties that Kim’s Korean American characters bring into their assimilation story. Kim’s tale is one of murder, money, and mayhem within an upwardly mobile immigrant community.
First, the question on everyone’s mind is whether there is a material difference in quality between a self-published novel and a traditionally published novel. In this case, there was. This novel had no editor, and when I say “no editor,” I mean no editor at all–no one corrected for style or made line edits. There were typos (which Mr. Kim acknowledges), large block quotes of eye-abusing italics when the characters speak Korean, an over-reliance on the passive voice, and a flood of non-specific adverbs and adjectives (the word “beautiful” probably appears fifty times). It was sometimes hard to read. For the lack of line editing alone, this book would be ineligible for bigWOWO gold, as I believe we need to take language and presentation seriously. One of my big pet peeves was closing quotations–when you have quotes that extend over multiple paragraphs, you’re not supposed to use closing quotation marks until the end of the last paragraph. A decent writer could miss this, but a decent editor would have caught it. One would probably pay a thousand dollars or so for the services of a good line editor, but it’s worth it. Tae Kim should have hired an editor. I’m no grammar nazi, but some readers are–and there’s no reason to lose a reader because of syntactical and grammatical errors.
Second, I had major problems with the delivery. A large part of the plot came from the discovered diary of one of the characters. Simon’s diary is a melodramatic soliloquy that comes across as self-pitying drivel. At times the dialogue is extremely corny (“”So you’re the young man that’s stolen my little girl’s heart,” he greeted me.”). The problem is that the diary drones on and on and on and on for probably a good 25% of the book. Simon was dead by the time the character Peter discovers his diary, but if he weren’t dead, I’d want to kill him myself. His diary was that annoying. As some of the Amazon reviewers have noted, the dialogue throughout the novel in general is stiff, which also makes the delivery hard to read.
As a side note on delivery, on his website and in his interviews Mr. Kim says that his book is literary fiction. I disagree. While I think War With Pigeons focuses on an underrepresented minority and tackles some serious issues within that community, the higher level of language is absent, and the genre is clearly popular fiction.
Which brings us to the question: if this book had weak language and no editing, why do I recommend it?
There are three reasons why I recommend this book.
First, the plot was excellent, and the narrative arc is tight. There were few loose ends after 394 pages and at least five major characters, which says quite a lot–it’s not easy to write a novel of this length while keeping the story focused. Kim has a great bad guy–the Elder–and he managed to keep me turning the pages, even while I was working through Simon’s painful narcissism and self-pity. Plot-wise, this book has everything that make for an exciting read–violence, crime, hot women, prostitutes, sex, thugs, evil religious freaks, infidelity, murder, and suspense with lots of money exchanging hands. I think this book has screenplay potential. I was especially impressed by Kim’s attention to detail and discovery. When he talks, for example, about buying fish for a fish tank or purchasing an engagement ring, the direction of the dialogue is very precise on the details of what fish experts and diamond experts seek to convey in their interactions with non-experts. This attention to detail is important in creating a believable plot.
Second, this is one of the few Asian American novels that tells a story of one of the most common demographics in the United States–young, yuppy-ish Asian Americans living in New York City who spend most of their time with other Asian Americans. There are a good number of talented Asian American writers who write stories about young people that take place in New York City–Leonard Chang, Ed Lin, and Nami Mun, for example–but few have written stories of the upwardly mobile Asian young urban professional demographic. Certainly non-fiction writers such as Phoebe Eng and fiction writers such as Min Jin Lee have addressed part of the New York Asian yuppie crowd, but their crowd consists mostly of Asian women who spend most of their time with White guys (and no, Lee’s characters Unu and Ted don’t count)–which is perfectly fine but also relatively commonplace. Kim’s book addresses a different crowd.
Third, we ought to give serious props to Tae Kim for being the first significant self-published Asian American fiction writer. If you check out his website, he’s putting a lot of money and effort behind his work. Here on this site, we talk about self-publishing and how it’s knocking down the old barriers of traditional publishing, but Tae Kim is the first fictional writer to actually take up the reins on his own, start his own self-publishing company, and go out into the unknown. That kind of bold action gets props.
In conclusion, the story in this book was excellent but was hampered by weak language and a lack of editing. Tae Kim is currently working on a second novel, and I hope he hires an editor this time. His stories deserve good editing. His plot in War With Pigeons was tight, and perhaps some enterprising young filmmaker will take up the reins and turn this book into a movie.