Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

5 of 5 stars
Published February 2017

Pachinko is a type of Japanese arcade game, similar I think to pinball with upright machines that have pins and bright colours, similar to the cover of this book, which is quite a pretty cover, I have to say. According to Wikipedia, it’s also a game that is used as a gambling machine and the small steel balls are rented to the players in these Pachinko Parlors like slot machines in a casino and the winners get the balls which are exchanged for prizes or money in a separate business because gambling for cash directly is illegal in Japan.

Life is a gamble, a crap shoot. You take chances. You rise to the top or you struggle to survive. Maybe an outside influence contrives to set you on a path to win or lose.  This is a story about a family that survives. It’s a multi generational saga, just the kind I really enjoy. It starts in Korea with a woman and her slow but genuine husband. They have a daughter, Sunja whom they love dearly. After the husband dies, the wife and daughter run a boarding house, barely making ends meet. The daughter falls in love with the slick and handsome Koh Hansu, and gets pregnant but it turns out he is married. She is shamed but another man comes to her rescue. A Korean Christian minister, Isak, is a guest who has been ill with tuberculosis and after Sunja and her mother nurse him back to health, he marries her to give the child a name and save her reputation. They move to Osaka to live with his brother and his wife where he grows to love her and the little boy, Noa and they have a son together, Mozasu. World War II has a devastating effect on the families and as we move into the post war years, we follow the lives of the two boys, both of whom become involved in the pachinko business.

I didn’t realize that Koreans who lived in Japan were treated very badly. The racism is appalling, with Koreans having little or no rights at all and looked upon as third or fourth class people. I can’t even say “citizens” because for much of the 20th century, they were not allowed to apply for Japanese citizenship even if they’d been born and raised there. Even to this day, Koreans in Japan don’t have a lot of equal rights or opportunities. The story focuses on Family,  on the Korean and Japanese cultures, Loyalty, the unpredictability of life and the effects of life choices, those choices that are gambles in the hope that they can make better lives for themselves and their families. It sweeps through most of the 20th century and is a really good story. As with most really long books, the first couple of generations’ worth of story is better than the later ones  which don’t have as much depth or detail but I still enjoyed it all.

The book is quite long and could have used some tighter editing. Sometimes the extraneous detail takes away from the emotion in the scene. Another point that I saw mentioned elsewhere is that we never see any death. All the characters over the decades that die, do so “off screen” or off page, if you will, and it’s referred to after the fact. It can be a bit jarring in one or two occurrences.  As with a lot of books that span many years and 3+ generations, the last generation  or two’s timeline seems to be short changed, with longer and longer gaps of time passing between chapters which are shorter and less detailed, pretty much just a “touch base” of an update.

I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway via Grand Central Publishing for an honest review, and honestly, I really liked it! It’s got all the elements I enjoy in a book. Multi generations of a family, well developed and interesting characters, a long and chunky book, a look into a culture with which I am unfamiliar.

Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

2017: 13
4 of 5 stars
Published June 2016

This story covers over two centuries of history, the history of two families. Two half sisters (though they never knew it) had very different lives. They were both born in small villages in Africa, of two tribal nations, the Asante and the Fante, in the centre of what is today Ghana on the Gold Coast of Africa, once a British colony. One was captured and taken to the coast, Cape Coast and held in the dungeons of the Castle before being sent on a slave ship to America and the other was married to the white governor of the territory, and lived in the Castle above the dungeons. Their lives and their descendants are traced through connecting stories, one from each generation over the next two centuries up to just after the millennium when it all ties together.

For the sister who was a slave in America and her descendants, we are given windows into the life and experiences of African Americans, the racism that changes over time, evolves, maybe gets better but not really. It comes down to what these characters did to survive hardships, poverty, addictions, and it comes down to families at the core, a steel thread of strength and love through the generations of families that survival hangs on to. The scene moves from the deep south, on plantations and coal mines, to New York and Harlem in the 20th century.

For the sister who remained in Africa and her descendants, we see village and tribal life and politics, superstition, war, conquest, the difficulty of not always fitting in. Again, though, the blood of the family flows through each generation but in this case, each generation family member that we meet seems to be more isolated from the previous one. The bond of the family doesn’t seem to be there for many and each character has to make their own way on their own. But there is also reconciliation and, in the end, that familial bond is forged.

It really is a story about slavery from both sides, the sellers and the sold, and the effects over time. The slave trade not only affected the people who were enslaved but also the countries where these people were betrayed and captured by their own people and sold to the white rulers and slave traders.

The only reason it didn’t get a full 5 stars is because one thread of the story wasn’t really finished, for me. Each of the sisters is given a necklace with a polished stone. One is able to keep it and pass it down through the generations but the other is lost and buried in the dungeon under the castle before she is put on a ship and it is never found again. I would have liked to have seen that come full circle. What was the point if it is left hanging?

That aside, the stories from each generation are all very good and all the characters are vivid and believable. The earlier generations of the book get more time than the later ones because they are the foundations of the future. Thus, some of them we get to know better than others but all of them stay with you. This is the author’s first novel and is setting the bar high for her next one. She’s a very talented writer. This book has received a lot of attention and this time, I think it’s worth the hype! Then again, it ticks a lot of boxes for me, historical fiction, family saga and believable characters.


Review: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

2017: 10
3.5 of 5 stars
First published September 2003

It took me nearly four months to finish Quicksilver which is a book the size of a doorstop. In actual fact, it’s three books. It’s part of the Baroque Cycle trilogy but each of the three books in the trilogy contains three books, so in effect, it’s a nonilogy. Is that even a word? Nine books in the series, with three in each volume makes for very big, chunky books. This is a vast, historical epic taking place from the mid-ish 17th century in the years leading up to the Restoration of Charles II to just after the turn of the 18th century.

I despaired several times of ever getting through the first volume. It was very long and long-winded at times but the stories had enough in them to keep me interested enough to keep plodding on though it was an effort. I was heartened, however, when I realized that though the volume was well over 1000 pages, a full 25% of it was character lists and acknowledgements, etc. I realized I was much further along in the book as far as the story goes than I thought which helped me see it to the end.

The first book of the three volume set is Quicksilver and focuses on Puritan Daniel Waterstone who was a peer of Isaac Newton and many of the other alchemists-turned-natural-philosophers. The 18th century was an important era for the development of science and mathematics and Daniel is in the thick of it. The book starts with Daniel in the New World, living near Boston and Cambridge and he is persuaded to return to England to defend Newton in a debate over the origins of calculus against Dr. Leibniz who also developed a calculus at the same time as Newton. Who did it first? On the ship, Daniel writes his memoirs and we are led back into his story, his school days with Newton, the Restoration, the Great Fire of London, the establishment of the Royal Society and experiments that sometimes go badly wrong. In the “present day” on the ship, there are also pirates threatening to attack, a common occurrence.

The second book changes scene completely and we meet pox ridden “Half Cocked” (quite literally) Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds (which is also the name of the book) and Eliza whom he rescued from a Turkish hareem. While Jack looks for love and fortune, the pragmatic Eliza becomes a financial adviser and spy as they make their way through the Paris of Louis XIV, Versailles, and the Duchy of Orange where Prince William has a new British bride, Princess Mary Stuart. This book is a real romp through Europe and historical events and wars, with both Jack and Eliza getting into and out of scrapes galore, together and apart.

The third book, Odalisque, takes us back to England in the lead up to the deposing of James II and crowning of William and Mary in 1688. We hear more of Daniel’s story and more of Eliza’s, often through her encrypted correspondence. Eliza is playing a dangerous game and is spying for both sides, the French and the Dutch Prince William. Daniel spends his time in the court of James II, watching as it all falls apart for the king. He seems to be more of an observer in this book rather than a participant. Daniel isn’t really that much of an interesting character, he is more like the Greek chorus, observing and commenting whereas Eliza is engaging and fun and she’s definitely a survivor, out of either sharp instincts or sheer luck, or a combination of the two!

While Stephenson does go on a bit much and the descriptions could be edited, it does paint a rather vivid world. The extensive length of the book is not for the faint hearted, though I do believe you can also get hold of the three books individually which would make reading it a bit easier. I liked enough of it to keep going through the drawn out bits but having said that, I don’t think I’ll pursue the other 6 books/2 volumes which continue the story, at least not for awhile.