Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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Title: Pachinko
Author: Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Hardcover: 496 pages
Source: BEA 2016
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

A new tour de force from the bestselling author of Free Food for Millionaires, for readers of The Kite Runner and Cutting for Stone.

PACHINKO follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.

So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher from BEA 2016.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

When Andrew and I went to BEA 2016, this cover really stood out to us. There were only a few copies available and it was a fairly thick book, so we only picked up a copy for ourselves instead of also getting another copy for his classroom. I am SO glad we decided on grabbing it, because it’s been one of my favorite reads this year and I can’t wait to see how it’ll be received by everyone when it comes out.

Pachinko is a story that follows the life of Sunja, the daughter of a Korean couple who own a boardinghouse by the sea. It starts off by detailing her father’s life, then goes through the generations starting with Sunja herself, and then her son’s life, and finally her grandon’s life. It’s told through multiple perspectives, though it tends to focus more on Sunja’s family.

This is a story about what it meant to be Korean living under the shadow of Japan during World War II, what it meant to be Korean in the aftermath of World War II, and the sacrifices people make to ensure the survival and happiness of their future family members.

Pachinko is well developed and complex in its details of how these characters would have lived their lives during this time. I feel like the story of how Korea and its people lived under the rule of Japan around the time of World War II is largely untold and untaught — at least, it is in American public schools. While it is devastating in its bleakness, I enjoyed learning at least a little bit about this country and I feel as though I have a slightly deeper view of the world during World War II because of this book. Lee did an amazing job with her research in being able to trace how Japan acted towards Korea across these decades and showing it within the context of her story.

I was surprised by the pacing in this book. Usually, I find sagas to be just a tad on the slow side, and was a little worried when I saw that this story spanned generations, but while it’s comprehensive, the story moves steadily along, hitting the important parts and then skipping over the years when it needs to progress.

Given the different characters and the length of time this novel spans, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better as a short story cycle. It almost had that feel to it, and I think there were moments that would have been heightened had it been written in such a format. I don’t think that the story significantly suffers from it being written as a novel, but I do think that the way its constructed is almost an in-between novel and short story cycle, which sometimes took me out of the story a little bit to try to figure out what sort of format this is. Not a huge complaint or anything — just a thought.

For me, the first part of the book was the strongest and most compelling. My favorite part was reading about how much Sunja would sacrifice and how hard she would work to give her family the best chance possible. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in historical fiction. The characters and the writing itself are beautiful, and as I’ve said, it provides an interesting look at a culture that I don’t think we often get to learn about.

Manga Series Review: Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto

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Title: Naruto, Volumes 1-72
Author: Masashi Kishimoto
Publisher: VIZ Media
Source: Chicago Public Library – Overdrive
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

In another world, ninja are the ultimate power—and in the village of Konohagakure live the stealthiest ninja in the world. But twelve years ago Konohagakure was attacked by a fearsome threat—a nine-tailed fox demon which claimed the life of the Hokage, the village champion. Today, peace has returned, and a troublemaking orphan named Uzumaki Naruto is struggling to graduate from the Ninja Academy. His goal: to become the next Hokage. But unknown to Naruto and his classmates, within him is a terrifying force…

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

I started watching the Naruto anime years and years ago, but it went on for so long that I was never able to finish, let alone get into Shippuden. Then, Andrew started getting into more anime and manga stuff and agreed to watch the series with me. We just barely made it to the Shippuden anime series before the wonderful Chicago Public Library released the entire manga series on Overdrive. My local branch of the library doesn’t have a lot of manga, so I requested a volume or two once in a while, but didn’t get very far into the manga series, so this release was HUGE. I could read it on my computer and not have to deal with waiting a week for it to ship to my branch. At the same time, Andrew and I cancelled our CrunchyRoll subscription, so we didn’t have access to Shippuden anymore. So, he started reading the manga as well.

Without giving spoilers, I’m going to sum up my feelings of the series as a whole — all 72 volumes. It starts off as a bit of a fun story, with Naruto trying to become a ninja and being loudmouthed about how he’s going to be Hokage someday, but quickly takes a bit of a darker turn. They are, after all, ninja and are very often in real danger when they take on their missions. Kishimoto doesn’t hold back when he crafts the story — the battles and dangers are high-stakes and even at 11 years old, the characters fight for their lives. I enjoyed this, because being a ninja would be dangerous, so I appreciated that this series had that level of honesty and genuineness.

My favorite parts, however, are the characters. You can tell that Kishimoto loves what he does, because there’s a wonderful playfulness to the characters that drew me in and made me fall in love with them. Each character has their own flaws and personalities, but you see that they are generally good people who care about their friends and their families. They work hard to protect them and when there’s danger, they all come together to fight against it. The series shines when the characters are given a chance to go above and beyond for their comrades, and this series is, in the end, a series about what it means to be friends.

Though it’s a long series, I would say it’s worth it. It’s almost bittersweet that we’ve finished it. We spent the better part of the year reading the manga together, talking about new developments and following the characters in their journey. Unlike the anime, which dragged on with filler episodes, the manga is perfect. Some things drag on, but the pacing is overall great for the story. It’s made me laugh out loud and cry, sometimes both at once. And while everything isn’t over-explained in the final volume, all my questions were answered satisfactorily. I loved reading about Naruto’s story and his journey to becoming an adult. There’s a reason why this is such a popular series — it’s really, really good. If anything about it at all interests you even in the slightest, I’d highly recommend getting started on it.

Book Review: Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes

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Title: Dark Sons
Author: Nikki Grimes
Publisher: Blink
Paperback: 208 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

A guy whose father ripped his heart out too.

You and me, Ishmael, we’re brothers, two dark sons.

Destroyed, lost, and isolated, the perspectives of two teenage boys—modern-day Sam, and biblical Ishmael—unite over millennia to illustrate the power of forgiveness.

 

 

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I’ll be honest and say I did not know what I was getting myself into when I picked up Dark Sons.  I knew I had read things by Nikki Grimes before (and am embarrassed to say I could not remember what those things were) and that it looked like kind of an interesting.  I was pleasantly surprised both by the format and content of the book.

One thing to know (and again something I should have but didn’t know before I read the book) is that it is a collection of poems that tell the story of two sons dealing with a changing relationship with their father.  The first is Ishmael and his relationship with his father Abraham (from Old Testament fame) and the second is a more modern distancing about a teenager named Sam.  Through the course of the book the similarities and differences of these two interpretations are brought to the forefront through alternating sections of poetic cycles.

As someone who grew up in a fairly religious household (and as a result when I stopped being particularly interested in faith for religious reasons and more for academic ones), I really enjoyed the Ishmael side of the book.  He has always been a fascinating character to me and the role he plays is one that I feel like is ripe for a lot of different interpretations.  I felt like this interpretation of what his emotions and feelings must have been were incredibly well done and were interesting when compared to the Christian response in terms of how Sam was able to deal with his father’s new family in the modern part of the book.  It set up an interesting parallel of having God take care of these people while still not making a great life for them or seeming to always have their best interest at heart.

I thought the portrayal of Sam was also incredibly well done.  It felt incredibly real and is one of the few reasons I would potentially recommend this book to a student.  The way that the character processes emotions and was able to separate his feelings for his father and his new wife from those for his step-brother was quite interesting and something I feel like most people have had to do even if not with this particular situation.

I do not think I would ever assign this book primarily because I think that religion is a bit too explicitly central.  That said, I have several students that I am already thinking of who could relate and benefit immensely from this.  I also think that there are students like me who might see the comparison of Ishmael as almost a “patron saint” of someone abandoned by their father to be compelling even without the religious overtones it produces.  Overall, it was a good, quick read and the format was something different that I found quite refreshing (although, this should not be super surprising coming from me since my favorite format for books are short story cycles).

Book Review: The Princess of Trelian by Michelle Knudsen

princess-of-trelianTitle: The Princess of Trelian
Author: Michelle Knudsen
Series: Trelian, Book 2
Publisher: Candlewick
Hardcover: 448 pages
Source: Chicago Public Library
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

The hundred-year war with Kragnir is over, and Meg will soon be named the princess-heir of Trelian. But her connection to her dragon, Jakl, is making her parents’ subjects uneasy. Will they ever accept this dragon princess as their future queen? It doesn’t help that Meg is suffering horrible nightmares and sudden, uncontrollable rages—and with the link joining them, Jakl is feeling the rages, too. Meg is desperate to talk to Calen, to see if he can help her figure out what is happening and how to stop it before she or her dragon does something terrible…

Meanwhile, Calen is having troubles of his own. He’s far away, gone off with Mage Serek to receive his first true mage’s mark. But his marking ceremony is disrupted by a mysterious magical attack, and ominous prophecies predict a terrifying new danger. The Magistratum’s greatest enemy may soon reappear—and the other mages believe that Calen himself may have a hand in his return!

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Princess of Trelian is the sequel to The Dragon of Trelian, which I read a while ago. It continues to follow Princess Meg and Calen, emphasizing Meg’s struggle to balance her new connection with her dragon, Jakl, and her responsibilities as the heir of Trelian. Calen, on the other hand, is struggling with his desire to learn and master more of his magic while being prevented from doing so by his master, because mages with a predilection for foretelling are convinced that he will be a danger to the Magistratum.

Overall, I think this was a solid sequel. The characters are definitely growing in complexity and the pacing was well done — there weren’t any times when I was bored or I thought things were being glossed over. It has the problem of second books in a trilogy, though, where it’s really just setting things up for the sequel, and it does end on a bit of a cliffhanger. However, it still manages to have plenty of action and adventure for all of that, and I enjoyed the fact that those action sequences didn’t seem so conveniently easy to get out of. One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is when the heroes are unstoppable and there’s tons of buildup to something, and then they solve it in a few pages. That does not happen in this book — the characters are sufficiently challenged with what they have to accomplish, which makes for an entertaining read.

My one complaint is the relationship between Meg and her parents. All three characters are either far too understanding or far too harsh (whichever is more convenient to the plot) at different times, and there isn’t much in the way of consistency. I didn’t mind this so much from Meg’s character, because she is growing up and is just learning how to handle herself and anticipate the end-results from her actions and attitudes, but it wasn’t explained why fully grown adults (who are rulers, no less) were acting rashly,  and it bothered me a bit.

However, I thought this was enjoyable and would have LOVED it as a pre-teen, so I think it hits the right marks for its intended audience. I can’t yet recommend the series without having read the final book, but I will say that the first two books are a solid start to a decent fantasy series.

Audiobook Review: Donny’s Brain by Rona Munro

donnys-brain-by-rona-munroTitle: Donny’s Brain
Author: Rona Munro
Narrator: Full Cast
Publisher: LA Theatre Works
Duration: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Source: Audiobook Sync
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

The acclaimed Scottish playwright Rona Munro has created a remarkable story about a man who wakes up from a car crash with brain damage. Now, he sees the world as the person he was three years ago, when his life and loves were in a very different place.

An L.A. Theatre Works full cast performance featuring:

Jared Harris as Donny
Sophie Winkleman as Emma
Siobhan Hewlett as Trish
Moira Quirk as Flea
Paul Fox as Al

Directed by Martin Jarvis.

Donny’s Brain is part of L.A. Theatre Works’ Relativity Series featuring science-themed plays. Major funding for the Relativity Series is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to enhance public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I downloaded Donny’s Brain during the Audiobook Sync promotion and finally got a chance to listen to it! I feel like the LA Theatre Works audiobooks are very much hit-or-miss for me. Obviously, I would prefer to actually watch the play and think that some are more suited than others for audiobooks, but this one worked fairly nicely as an audiobook!

Basically, Donny has been in a car accident and has brain damage. His memory has been set back some years, so he remembers loving and being married to a woman who is now his ex-wife, and can’t remember his current wife at all. And I thought some past situations I had involving exes were awkward —

This play revolves around relationships and basically how hard it is to communicate and be in a relationship. Sometimes, we guess at what people are intending when it’s not really what they mean to say or do, and sometimes we completely misremember events to make us out to be better than we actually are/were in the situation. This play goes into all of these things and involves some really interesting aspects of people not really remembering what went wrong, what went right, or what even happened. There’s even an ironic aspect of maybe the guy with brain damage remembers the most clearly, after all. It’s short, sweet, and drives the point home that when relationships don’t work out, it’s most likely the fault of both parties in some way or another.

Overall, this listening experience was enjoyable. The actors did a lovely job and having it be full cast really helped me follow the story. If you have an hour and a half to spare, I think this is worth your time.

Book Review: Legend by Marie Lu

Legend by Marie Lu.jpgTitle: Legend
Author: Marie Lu
Series: Legend, Book 1
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Hardcover: 305 pages
Source: Chicago Public Library
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths—until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I remember when Legend came out and people were raving about how awesome it was. The hype was so much that when Marie Lu went to the LA Festival of Books to sell signed copies, I stopped by her booth just so I could read it and see what the raving was all about. Of course, I’m terrible at reading books right away since my to-read list is ridiculously long, so now, years later, I am finally getting to see what the hype is all about.

Legend is yet another YA dystopia, this time in a world with a militaristic/war focus rather than an we-are-a-perfect-society focus. People who are born into wealthy families are groomed for the military so they can help in the Republic’s fight against the Colonies. June is a military prodigy — she’s smart, athletic, and can think outside the box, and is being groomed for a distinguished military career. She goes on the hunt for Day — who is also smart, athletic, and can think outside the box — the Republic’s most wanted criminal who grew up in a poor district in the Republic.

When Day allegedly commits a crime that hits home for June, she goes on the hunt for him to bring him to justice. What ends up happening is that they both learn a little bit more about what’s really going on behind the closed doors of the Republic.

This book is just straight enjoyable. I love that Lu kept it simple in terms of creating her world: no factions or groups for people to be sorted into, just poor and rich; military and civilian. Because of this, I think this book gives quite an amazing commentary on society in general in terms of how poverty is viewed and taken advantage of, and how people suffer under such strict hierarchical structures.

The conflicts within this world are revealed slowly — no information dumps!!! I enjoyed that I slowly got introduced to the complexities of the government and of what went on behind closed doors. I feel like this is the main reason why I enjoyed Legend. There’s an inherent conflict and pull in trying to figure out what exactly is going on with this dystopia — when the plot needed to stop for character development, I was pulled forward by what I wanted to know about this new world.

However, this book is fairly predictable — I don’t think there was one twist that I didn’t see coming. Also, I have a pet peeve about people being in a life-or-death situation, yet romance seems to be a priority. I get the whole young adult romance angle, but it bothers me, especially from characters who are supposed to be super intelligent, even if they are young.

With that said, I still thoroughly enjoyed the narrative of the book. It’s perfect amounts of tragic and heartwarming and I am very much looking forward to reading the sequels to see what exactly is going on with all the war stuff. I’d recommend this book for any dystopia lover. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly better than many other dystopias out there.

Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

absolutely-true-diaryTitle: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Illustrator: Ellen Forney
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Hardcover: 230 pages
Source: Chicago Public Library
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This is one book that I feel like I missed out on reading during my high school years, and I’ve always been sad about it; I’ve even owned a copy for at least 3 years, and I still wasn’t able to read it until recently, so finishing this was somewhat of a personal accomplishment for me. Not because it’s such a hard book or anything, but because this is a recent classic that I’ve been wanting to read for so long. It feels especially close to me, because while I am very much not related to any Native Americans, my grandfather lived in Spokane, WA for almost all his life, and he even lived on the Spokane reservation with his girlfriend for a large part of his later life, so it’s interesting to get a sense of the place my grandfather called home.

First, I have to say that this book is lovely. It’s about a boy named Junior who lives on the Indian reservation in Spokane, and he decides to go to the “white” high school to try to build a future for himself. I was able to read through it quickly because it’s a pretty easy read and it is so, so entertaining and hits on some very real, true-life events that were inspired by Alexie’s own life. It’s wonderful that this book is out there for teens to read when they’re feeling like an outsider, because the main character is pretty much the ultimate outsider in a lot of ways and reading about his feelings about that and how he deals with it is somehow comforting.

What makes this Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a success is the fact that it covers everything. It’s funny and yet incredibly heartbreaking, reflecting real life in a way that most stories don’t even come close to, which I think is a reflection of its large autobiographical influence. It comes across as honest and genuine, which is something that is lacking in fiction sometimes, and which YA fiction especially needs. The illustrations are an added bonus and give further insight into Junior’s character and his overall mood at the time he’s “writing” his diary entries. They’re incorporated well and I loved reading Forney’s explanations for why each illustration was done the way it was.

There’s a reason why this is such a classic, and I don’t know what I can say that others haven’t, except that I personally liked this a lot and think it belongs on the must-read lists of everyone, because it is such a powerful, wonderful story.