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: Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All

2017: 22
5 of 5 stars
Published September 2015

Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All by Jonas Jonasson (translation from Swedish to English by Rachel Willson-Broyles)

Another hit from Jonas Jonasson! I always know I’m going to read one of his books with a smile and this is no different. His books are quirky and off the wall. The book cover itself calls the adventure “madcap” and yes, yes it is. The humour is wry and dry and there’s always a satisfactorily happy ending.

This book tells the tale of a homeless hotel receptionist, Pers,  who lives in a cheap hotel that used to be a brothel, a defrocked female Protestant Vicar, Johanna, who doesn’t believe in God anymore and a violent criminal,  Anders,  who breaks bones for money who find themselves in the business of formally organizing the criminal’s daily attacks, paid for, not just by other criminals, but by anyone that wants to teach someone a physically painful lesson. They draw the line at murder for money but are not adverse to more broken bones. But when Anders the criminal finds God, an inadvertent result of conversations with the priest, he doesn’t want to hurt people anymore. Pers and  Johanna have become accustomed to the dirty money and have to come up with another plan.

Their plan is to start a church, the church of Anders, cashing in on Anders’ newly baked obsession. In his newly benevolent state, Anders has gained a lot of positive publicity in the tabloid press by giving away a lot of the money he made for the revenge hits, including money he took but didn’t do the jobs at all. As a result, Stockholm’s criminal element are looking for him. The new church might bring in the krone, but it might also be the death of them all.

These adventures and more are recalled in the book. It’s about money, charity, stupidity and even love. It’s about overcoming the expectations of your family and finding who you really want to be. And it’s about taking charge and changing your life. As are all his books!

Reading Evolution, from then to now

I’ve been a reader as long as I can remember being able to read. I can clearly recall being in the hospital when I was 10 or so and reading a book avidly and reading it out loud to the girl in the other bed because she was blind. I believe it was also a book I re-read several times though I can’t remember now what it was.

My all time favourite book, read in my early teens the first time, was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I read it many times well into adulthood though I confess I haven’t read it since I was in my 30s at least. That’s a long time though I won’t go into how long! I may just reread that some time soon.

The first “grown up” type books I remember reading were my aunt’s Harlequin Romances. They were thin, easy to read, and, back in the early 70s, pretty tame on the romantic “details” so my mother allowed it. I read Harlequins through my teens but lost interest after that. They were too tame for me by then, not very challenging, and were becoming pretty formulaic and “samey”. What I did like about them in particular was that many of them took place in an foreign locale, Paris, Australia, Brazil etc. I was an armchair traveler even then.

I had advanced to popular fiction when I was in my 20s, what we might call “chick lit” these days though I guess that’s not very politically correct. I notice some book companies are calling it “women’s fiction” which basically means the same thing. They are sexier, filled with (usually) strong women who overcome adversity, have wildly romantic lives with interesting careers but who often get their heart broken and sometimes even take delicious revenge on someone that did them wrong/stole their company/killed their father etc. I did have to spend a couple of years sanitizing my reading material. Due to an ex who had very little in the way of self esteem, I had to keep the peace by reading non threatening books like Agatha Christie mysteries. Suffice it to say that didn’t last more than a couple of years and when he did *me* wrong, he lost any right to dictate to me what I could read and well he knew it.

But somewhere along the way I started becoming drawn to books about crime, detectives and serial killers. I’m not sure when that started. I’d like to blame Steig Larsson and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but I think I was reading them a few years before that series came out. I surprised myself. It never was my sort of book. Nor my sort of tv show or movie. I still find that I’m ambivalent about most cop/detective/crime tv series and movies though if it’s something really well put together, I might like it.

The HBO series, Dexter, was a favourite of mine though I wasn’t as keen on the books on which the series was based. The British detective series Life on Mars (not the awful American version) was superb but it had an element of time travel in it. Come to think of it, over the years I’ve quite enjoyed some of the British crime dramas. The stories always seem grittier and are so well cast. Recently, I’ve started reading books by Val McDermid. There was a good series called Wire in the Blood that was based on her detectives and a criminal psychologist.

Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy was excellent. The Swedish movies made from the books were equally superb, though the one American version made from the first book was a bit less so. It wasn’t bad, however, but didn’t have quite that dark edge the Swedish ones did. Another series of great crime books, also written by a Scandinavian author, Norwegian Jo Nesbo, has Detective Harry Hole (pronounced Hol-ay) chasing down serial killers in Oslo. In fact, I’ve picked up similar books by other Scandinavian authors and they’re quite good. They are all translated into English and I have to admire the translators for doing such a stellar job. It must be very difficult to do that, to convey the same thing in the same way that the author intended. You would have to be a good writer in your own right to be able to rephrase something in a different language that makes the same point in the same way.

I still enjoy “women’s fiction”, general fiction,  and sometimes “literary” fiction. I would have to say my all time top genre is historical fiction though I never did get into what is loosely termed as “bodice rippers”. I do like historical fiction with a bit of romance in it but the historical fiction “bodice rippers” are not that different from the Harlequin Romances I read when I was a teenager. The plots and dialogue are predictable and repetitive with a cookie cutter romantic formula and every euphemism for all things sex-related thrown in. I’ve read *good* historical fiction with romance involved and there’s a wide gap between the two. (points to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series)

I’ve been reading more fiction by Canadian authors, still with my favourite genres, and enjoying them as well. I don’t think I’ll ever stick to just one type of book and there are some sorts that really don’t interest me at all such as westerns. When it comes to horror and suspense, I would choose sparingly. I like Stephen King but on the whole, tend not to read that genre, nor do I usually enjoy hard core Science Fiction though I don’t mind it on the light side and some fantasy will do me well now and then also. I’ve been enjoying some of the futuristic dystopian type novels as well which are a bit scifi and fantasy. I also like to dip into the classics (published before 1950, even in the 19th and 18th centuries). I’ve been wanting to read Don Quixote for ages. Maybe this will be its year.

What about non-fiction?  I do like non-fiction history, and autobiographies/biographies of historical figures. I don’t care for politics, self-help, spiritual, or business/financial non-fiction. I like a travelogue type book and the occasional humourous book, preferably about travel (Bill Bryson, anyone?) but I always drift back to history. I think that’s why I enjoy historical fiction so much. I know that the facts are sometimes bent and molded a bit for the fiction but unless it’s really, *really* wrong (like giving Henry VIII four wives instead of six and the book isn’t speculative fiction) then I can forgive a bit of “fast and loose” that the author plays to fit their plot.

So there you have it, the evolution of my (mostly) fiction reading life. I have a few hard-core favourite genres and then another group of “now and then” types of books. A good story is a good story and I’d certainly take any recommendations on board for consideration.