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: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

2017: 23
4 of 5 Stars
Published July 2014

Kindergarden is a dangerous place, both for the children and the parents. It brings out the worst in people, especially all the parents with their rivalries and cliques. Rumours, lies, and great leaps to conclusions cause more headaches and upset than you would think.

Jane has brought her 5 year old son, Ziggy, to live in a small town by the sea where he’s about to start kindergarden. On the way to the Orientation Day for the kids starting school for the first time, she meets Madeleine who is just turning 40, with a teenager and two smaller children, one of whom is Chloe and who is starting kindergarten. Madeleine has turned her ankle on the way back to her car while berating a teenager for texting and driving and Jane drives her and the two younger children to school. Madeleine then fills Jane in on all the cliques and politics among the school mothers. Later that morning, as the children are leaving school, the daughter of a rich, career woman, Renata, accuses Ziggy of choking her and things for Ziggy and Jane get off to a bad start.

Through the school year, there are more accusations, escalated by unfounded rumours. Madeleine is dealing with her teenage daughter’s relationship with her father and father’s new, seemingly perfect wife, Bonnie. Madeleine still harbours a lot of anger and resentment towards her ex husband even though she’s now happily remarried herself. Her friend, Celeste also becomes a friend of Jane. Celeste and her husband, Perry, have two 5 year old twin boys who have also started school and Celeste also has a secret. Perry hits her. Jane has a secret to do with Ziggy’s father. Eventually, you just know, all the secrets are going to come blasting out of the closet and it isn’t going to be pretty.

The book opens on the night of a school fund raiser where someone has died. The rest of the book traces to path to this night from the orientation day at school to the fund raiser. Added on are excerpts from interviews with the other parents where you can clearly see which ones believe all the rumours and which ones have probably started the rumours. The police are trying to get to the bottom of the death but are not having a lot of luck. Of course the truth to the murder/death is going to come out as well.

I liked the book quite a bit. It is definitely soap opera but I like soap operas. The plot wriggles along the twisty path, placing hints and a bit of cryptic vagueness along the way to see if we can figure out a couple of the twists and then who has been killed and why. I didn’t figure it out. I usually never do with these things (unless it’s blatantly obvious) so I’m usually pleasantly surprised and wonder why I didn’t see it coming.  I liked the main characters, despised the ones I was supposed to and plan to read more by this author.

The book has been filmed as an HBO series currently airing so I wanted to read it along with watching the series. I know there’s going to be differences but now, reading the book, it’s completely cast in my head by the actors I’ve seen in the various parts! The series has been moved from the outskirts of Sydney, Australia (the book) to the California coastline and I think it’s been cast quite well.

Begorrathon Review: Room by Emma Donoghue (book and movie)

My next entry for Reading Ireland Month is a look at author Emma Donoghue with a review of her book Room and a look at the movie that was made from it, screenplay also by Ms. Donoghue.

Emma Donoghue is an Irish-born writer now living in Canada so we claim her as one of ours as far as CanLit goes. She was born and grew up in Dublin where she also attended university. She was awarded a PHD from Cambridge in England and spent a few years traveling back and forth between Ireland, England and Canada but moved to London, Ontario in Canada in the late 90s where she now lives with her family.

Her 2010 novel, Room, is told from the point of view of five year old Jack and it won many awards, shortlisted for a number of others including the Man Booker prize. Room is the only one of her books I’ve read so far, but I do own a copy of her recent book The Wonder, on my bedside table.

Book Review: Room is told from the point of view of 5 year old Jack. He was born in this room and raised there and aside from what he sees on television, which isn’t “real” to him, it’s all he knows. His mother was abducted when she was 19 and has been held captive in this room which was built into a garden shed, for 7 years. The man that took her comes most nights and rapes her.

We are taken through their days and nights, what they do, what they eat, how they cope. Jack is quite happy, and he’s very smart and articulate, though his grammar and sentence structure is still that of a young child so it takes a bit to get used to it. You can read between the lines from Jack’s observations about his mother and her reactions that he doesn’t always understand her reality.

Eventually they emerge from Room and the rest of the book is about them coping with the real world, still from Jack’s point of view. The outside world isn’t “safe” and it’s vast and unknown and filled with people and is overwhelming to him. Although Jack is very close to his mother, “Ma”, you can also see that she is trying to raise him to be his own person.

I liked the book very much, and it was one I had a hard time putting down. It’s touching, sad and happy, too.

Room: released in 2015
Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her novel and captured the book’s essence quite well, I thought. You can’t always get inside the characters’ heads as easily in a filmed version of a book without the dreaded voiceover and she did it. She brought Ma and Jack to life, as believable people. She drew out Ma’s fear, sadness, desperation, frustration and insecurity and Jack’s innocence and joy, fear at the new world that overwhelmed him and his curiosity about it, too as both of them adapted to freedom.

The “Room” part of the movie is all from Jack’s point of view, with some of the freedom part of the movie from Ma’s point of view as she struggles to figure out who she is, dealing with the media and her family and trying to help Jack adapt and gain his own confidence. Mostly, though it’s Jack and the child that plays him, Jacob Tremblay, does an astonishing job for one so young. Brie Larson who plays Ma aka Joy plays it just right, too, first, with Ma’s determination to take back her life or at least give Jack a chance at one and then, with the weight of guilt, media attention, and post traumatic stress overwhelming her. She won the Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Critic’s Choice, a Screen Actors’ Guild and British BAFTA award for this role and deservedly so.

Emma Donoghue’s  website.

Adding to the Hype

You know how it seems like everyone is reading the same book? A book will catch the attention of the media for whatever reason and it’s the one all the ads, all the newspapers and magazines are telling you that *everyone* is reading. So then, everyone you know really is reading it. Everyone loves it, everyone is talking about it. They’re going to make a movie about it. And, for me, and I stress that emphatically, *for me* often a popular book that’s got a lot of hype and publicity will be a disappointment.

Not everyone is going to like every book. I know that books I love sometimes have not been received well by other people. I can’t understand it (she said with a wink). I do know that in general, the books that seem to be overhyped do not end up on my favourite book lists.

I don’t remember books being hyped when I was growing up but they must have been. Books that stayed at the top of the best seller lists for weeks didn’t stay there by choice. They stayed at the top because people were buying and reading them. With the rise of the internet and social media, you just hear about it more often, I guess.

The first “Everyone is reading it” book that I can recall was The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller. I didn’t get around to reading it until quite some time after everyone else did and it certainly didn’t live up to its reputation for me. I found it slow and boring and the movie they made out of it was just as awful. My friend and I sat and watched it one Friday night and took the piss out of it all the way through.

The next book that was a media darling was The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. Everyone raved about it. A slew of new releases after that had similar types of storylines, that quest that took you back to the past. Some of those I actually did like. DaVinci Code? Not so much. That was one book I couldn’t even finish. I think I got 3 or 4 chapters into it and slammed it shut in disgust. I remember one particular reason was that I found the dialog very choppy, clunky, cliched and predicable. It was painful to read. I read reviews to get the story and watched the movie (which was…ok) to see how it ended.

Don’t even get me started on the Fifty Shades of Grey debacle. Just don’t.

It got to the point where I often avoided a popular book because of the hype. That’s not to say I haven’t continued to read them now and then and, I have to say, I’ve even enjoyed some on occasion. One book that hit the shelves in the past few years that sparked legions of readers was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I read it. I loved it.  The movie wasn’t bad, either. Then I read the first two books by Gillian Flynn (Sharp Objects and Dark Places) and I loved them even more! More recently, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins was pretty good, too, though not quite as riveting as GG. It’s one of those “If you liked Gone Girl, You’ll love…” books that avalanche out of the publishers after one book makes a huge impact. Those sorts of recommendations generally don’t pull me towards a book because they’re only trying to cash in.

The other thing about paperback bestseller packaging that highly annoys me is when you want to read the blurb on the back to see what it’s about and all you get are excited praise and kudos which also fill up the first few pages inside as well. No, thanks. Don’t tell me how this is the best book ever and it’s un-put-downable… tell me what the damn book is about! I’ll put a book right back on the shelf if all the publisher can do is fill the covers with exclamation points.

Just an aside, do you notice how, when a book goes viral, it isn’t just the plot line or plot device that’s taken up by subsequent books but also the look, feel and style of the book’s cover also gets copied?

This brings me to three series of books. Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) and the Outlander series.

The Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling started out as children’s books. The first two books of the series are thin and easy to read. They caught on. Kids loved them. Parents read them to their kids and realized they were smart and fun and exciting even for adults. The books got thicker, the stories a bit more adult and the story got darker. They grew up along  with the children that started with The Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone.  Hugely successful movies were made. A theme park has been opened. That’s when you *really* know you’ve made it big!

I didn’t pick up the books until, I think, the fourth or fifth book was released. The hype kept me away.  I borrowed the first four from a friend whose opinion I trusted and borrowed the rest from family members as they were released from there on because I liked them so much.  I had a friend who looked down on the Harry Potter phenomenon and hype, that kids might read these but never read another book. I asked him did it really matter that some kids might never read another book? If Harry Potter can get kids reading, some of them will continue and become lifelong readers and surely that’s a very important thing. He did concede my point.

I like the books a lot though I think they could have used a bit more editing as they went on. That seems to be an ongoing problem. An author is so popular that nobody wants to cut a word out of their manuscripts when really, they could be tighter and less bloated.

A Song of Ice and Fire

A Song of Ice and Fire

That brings me to A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. For most people, I think the HBO series Game of Thrones was the catalyst for people picking up the books. I had certainly never heard of them before that but I think people that were dedicated fantasy readers knew about them and George R. R. Martin certainly has his fans who have stuck with him all the way. I decided to read the books when I started to read the series and I have mixed feelings about them. I did read all five but I’m not sure I’ll read any others. Remember that word, “bloated”? Oh. My. God. I never thought so much endless detail could be fit between the covers of a book. My husband assured me that for that type of book, a lot of detail was normal to build the “world”. No. Seriously. Too much. And when he picked up the first book to read it, he agreed. Yep, wayyyy too much time spent describing every *single* dish at a banquet and every stitch of clothing on every guest in the room. Not necessary. Really not. No wonder it takes him years to write each book! That aside, I skimmed through the boring bits and enjoyed the bones of the actual story quite a lot.

The Outlander series

The Outlander series

That brings me to the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. She takes a very long time to write each book as well. I saw the first book, Outlander, in the bookstore when it was released in hard cover in 1991. It looked interesting. Romance. Time Travel. Historical fiction. Yes, I think so. And boy, did I love this book! The characters leaped off the pages. It was clear that the history was meticulously researched. Details, yes, there was details and perhaps a bit too much at times but I didn’t seem to mind. My husband tried to read it and got bogged down in the herb garden descriptions and gave it up. He is enjoying the tv series, though. Yet, nobody talked about the books. I never saw or heard any real publicity.

By the time the third book came out, the author came to Halifax for a signing. I saw it listed at my local bookstore and I took my copy and arrived at the shop early. The small bookstore was heaving with people, mostly women (the novels are seen as “romances” but really have so much more than that). I got in line and waited patiently, chatting to the others. Everyone said the same thing. “I thought I was the only one that knew about these books”! Word of mouth. No hype. I did tell people about the books and lent my books to family and friends. Jamie and Claire Fraser (the main characters in the series) found new fans with every person I lent the book to. Yet the series never seemed to be hyped.

The Starz channel in the US picked up the rights to the books, with the author’s approval, and the series has now aired two seasons, based on the first and second books. The publicity and the hype is heating up. The series and actors are getting noticed and I bet the book sales have spiked considerably. In this case, in my opinion of course, the hype is deserved. It’s an amazing series but I do know people that couldn’t get into the story. Everything is subjective.

Of all three series I’ve mentioned here, Outlander is my favourite and I’ve reread it many times. It’s the “little engine that could” approach. It spread initially by word of mouth. The author herself says that the book defied a type, that bookstores never knew where to shelve it. Was it a romance? Science Fiction? History? It has aspects of all three and she fought for it to be included in general fiction because the romance section didn’t attract much of a cross section of readers, not like the general fiction section does. The series has two Companion books and another “spin off” series of books about a secondary character, Lord John Grey which are quite good as well.

Other popular series I liked were (the names of the first book in the series) Hunger Games, Divergent, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just to name a few. I won’t touch the Twilight series with a barge pole. I prefer my vampires not to glitter in the sunshine! Anne Rice’s vampires are scarier and the Sookie Stackhouse books (the excellent True Blood series was based on them) are lots of fun (but the series was better!).

There you have it. The ups and downs of popular books from my experiences. There have been more books that have been generating a lot of talk and winning awards and quite often, those are very good and worth the publicity. I’m not being sniffy about popular books, truly I’m not. I love a ripping Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins as much as the next person. I just want my books to be well written, with good dialogue and interesting characters, something to make me laugh or cry, something to keep me guessing, something to inform me or entertain me.

Reading is subjective. Reading is important. The point is to read and it doesn’t matter if your tastes are not my tastes. I think our lives are enriched by reading and we should encourage our children and open up the world to them through books.

Other blog posts I’ve found about hyped books.
Chapter Adventures.
A Frolic through Fiction