The Orphan Master’s Son: Gaining freedom where little is to spare

The Orphan Master's SonBefore starting The Orphan Master’s Son by American Adam Johnson, I had heard some buzz on Twitter, and did a quick search on Goodreads to see that quite a few people really enjoyed it. Good enough for me!

The book is set in North Korea and through the eyes of a couple citizens looks at the power the state has on its people, as well as the propaganda it spreads to keep that control.

Throughout the book we largely follow Jun Do who was raised as an orphan, though secretly his father was the Orphan Master (hence the title). As he grows older he has several different jobs for the state, including a kidnapper of Japenese citizens, then as English language spy on a fishing boat. Through a turn of events he finds his way to America on a delegation trip to Texas. After returning, everything changes after he is sent to prison mines for a crime unbeknownst to him.

Without getting into too many spoilers, the rest of the book flips to feature Commander Ga, Kim Jong Il’s great foe, and shows how, as mentioned, the State has so much power over its people that even identities can be changed based on the approval of the Great Leader. Throughout, we’re also told a propaganda story that interestingly mirrors the actual story being told, but obviously in a light that favours the government. This is an effective way to show how the message can be changed to convey one thing, even when everyone is living a completely different reality. How the government can control its people is by far the most interesting aspect of the book for me, though I’m not entirely sure how much is overly exaggerated and how much resembles the truth in some way.

Normally this isn’t the type of book I’d find myself reading, but I’m glad I did as it had brilliant writing, interesting characters, and Johnson really allowed you to get inside their head and believe this all could have happened. I give The Orphan Master’s Son a 5/5.

My review of Room by Emma Donoghue

ROOM - Emma DonoghueImagine growing up in a world that’s limited to an 11 x 11 room. All you know is the objects that you have, and your Ma who raised you.

Room is told from five year old Jack’s point of view, which definitely took some getting used to. Throughout the first half of the story we repeatedly get to experience Jack and Ma’s routine Room. Ma, who has been in Room for seven years, religiously makes sure Jack is fed, has his (limited) exercise, learns his math and reading, and watches one hour of TV each day.

Ma is a good mother, given her situation. You can tell she’s emotionally damaged from her ordeal, but she does everything to make sure Jack is as educated and healthy as she can. With the TV in the room, she attempted to protect Jack by created a fantasy world, where everything in Room was real, and everything outside was TV. She also physically protected him, from the man who visited every night.

Old Nick, as Jack calls him, is the man. He brings food, Sunday treat, and stays for the night. When he comes, Ma makes sure Jack is already in Wardrobe. Before sleep each night, Jack counts the number of creaks in his head. Old Nick makes Jack’s Ma upset.

It wasn’t until the second half that I really became enthralled with the book and couldn’t put it down. I felt like I was really in the head of Jack, and at times was frustrated like he was when things didn’t go his way, or seemed completely foreign to him. At the same time, I felt Donoghue did a fantastic job of conveying what was happening to the two of them through things like Ma’s behaviour and Jack’s innocent observations.

My biggest qualm with the book would be the sometimes inconsistent writing style. It seems Donoghue tried too hard to capture the vocabulary of a five year old, mixing ridiculous word combinations with amazing vocabulary. Jack was relatively well-educated by Ma, and had television to teach him proper sentence structure as well, but so often he would essentially come up with jibberish – maybe chalk that up to his living situation, I don’t know, but it made the reading experience very choppy at times.

If you’re looking to pick this one up, be patient and you won’t regret it. While the basic premise is something we’ve all seen in news headlines, it’s a unique take on writing and you have to give it to Donoghue for attempting it. I quite enjoyed Room and the story really stuck with me – so much so, I had to take a few days afterward to get my mind right to write this post and even pick up another book. I give it a 4/5.

To Kill a Mockingbird: a classic everyone should read

To Kill a MockingbirdOften times classic novels don’t appeal to me because they feel over-hyped, but every so often one catches my attention and I give it a go.

What intrigued me most about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? Well the themes played a big part: racial injustice, class, gender roles, the loss of a child’s innocence. But it was also the way she went about telling the stories in the small southern town of Maycomb, Alabama – through a child’s lens.

Taking place during the Depression, the book is split in two parts. The first part focuses on telling the story of Scout Finch, the protagonist, and her brother Jem. The two of them, along with their summertime friend Dill spend much of their time preoccupied with trying to catch a glimpse ‘Boo’ Radley, the reclusive neighbour at the end of their street. The second part focuses on the children’s perspective of a very adult case of Tom Robinson, a black man their father Atticus is defending, who is accused of raping a white woman.

Scout is one of my favourite literary characters – young and naive, but curious with a strong, take no bull attitude. She always tried to push buttons by not conforming to societal norms – basically acting like a boy, which was radical in the 30’s. Much of her spark, she got from her father Atticus, who raised his kids to understand the world they lived in and that it wasn’t perfect, but did so in a way that went against the grain of the time. As she learned more about the Tom Robinson rape trial, from speaking with him, he didn’t sugar coat it or push her aside as most parents would, which helped Scout’s character mature. His character is flawless in his values and though it must have been a struggle raising his children on his own (with a lot of help from Calpurnia, their maid) he always empowered his children to learn for themselves. His biggest lesson, and one that weaved the two plot lines together was that it’s always important to view the world in the other person’s skin, so you get a better understanding of where they’re coming from.

I’m happy I read this small novel that packed such a memorable punch. If you haven’t managed to pick it up, I highly recommend you do – you won’t be disappointed. As an aside, I watched the movie after I finished the book, and while the casting was spot on, I found it omitted a lot and changed around so much of the story that it lost what made the book great. I give To Kill a Mockingbird a 5/5.

The Hunger Games trilogy: Impossible to put down

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Given its ‘young adult’ tag, The Hunger Games trilogy didn’t really appeal to me, but I’d heard a lot of chatter of late, and the preview for the movie piqued my interest, so I decided to give it a try. Let me just say, Suzanne Collins wrote it well enough that they would appeal to any age group. Over the Christmas break I began reading The Hunger Games, and two days later I’d finished the next two in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay – the books are that addictive.

The story is told from the point of view of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year old from District 12, in the country of Panem. It takes place sometime in the future in a post-apocolyptic world where Panem is a large country spreading across North America. It is ruled from the central city called the Capitol which also oversees 11 other districts which produce various goods to feed the main city.

To give a bit of an outline of what you’ll find in the first book, the Hunger Games is an annual tournament where a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are drawn from a pool in each district and sent to compete in a battle televised for all of Panem, but for the pleasure of those in the Capitol. The games are yearly reminder that the Capitol rules the district and it is meant to quell any thoughts of rebellion that may arise.

The first book’s main focus was the Hunger Games, and as a standalone book it was great. As I moved on to Catching Fire and Mockingjay the overarching story developed into a society on the brink of collapse and eventually a full-on rebellion against the Capitol by the Districts. Expanding the story gave it so much more depth, and made it into one that dealt with the problems in this broken society, and not so much about the games themselves.

When it comes to the characters, Collins’ writing brings the cast to life. Each one, especially Katniss, Peeta and Gale, has a distinct personality and throughout each story you see how those personalities come into play. As with every novel that I love, each of the main District 12 characters have a solid back story so you get a sense of what made them who they are. They’re supported by many other characters from across Panem, and though there are many to keep track of, it rarely gets confusing.

The one thing irked me the most was what that after spending so much time leading to the final showdown in Mockingjay, the conclusion read as if it was point form notes to let everyone know what happened and how the characters fared. It didn’t do the story justice to rush through the end like that and it left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth.

All that being said, I still enjoyed the story overall and would recommend it to everyone who’s a fan of the dystopian theme a la 1984 or Brave New World. I give The Hunger Games a 5/5, Catching Fire 5/5, and Mockingjay 4.5/5.

What did you think of the trilogy?

Before you go, check out the trailer for the movie, which is coming out in March and starring Jennifer Lawrence:

My top 5 books of 2011

Last year I attempted to to read 26 books in 52 weeks, but unfortunately life got in the way and could only manage to get through 16. This year I contemplated doing the same challenge, but figured I’d just read as much as I could and not look for a goal, but I managed to read 16 again this year anyway. Oh, these are my favourite books that I’ve read this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were published this year:

5. Between the Assassinations

Between the AssassinationsAravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations was the second book I reviewed this year and I was really pleased with his second output.

The book features a series of ‘day in the life’ stories from people of (fictional) Kittur, India, shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. With that lens it looks at many issues including: caste, sexual disease, drug problems, political corruption, the influx of villagers seeking a better life in the city, and much more.

As with many of the books that really speak to me, this one has very strong characters whose stories stick with you long after you’ve moved on from their tale.

4. Fall of Giants

Fall of GiantsIt seems like I’ve only read the biggest books by Ken Follett; first there was Pillars of the Earth, then World Without End and now Fall of Giants. Each of these were either a bit less or a bit more than 1000 pages, so they weren’t all that fun to read on public transit, but they were all very well written.

Fall of Giants is a fictional story based on history and takes place during the 13 1/2 years leading up to the First World War and it’s end. Each character introduced in the book cross paths at one point or another, whether it be an American diplomat coming to the aide of two Russian slum-raised teenagers, or Ethel the former housewife of Earl Fitzherbert of her village rising up in the political ranks and making an adversary of him in the process.

3. The Given Day

The Given DayWhen I saw The Given Day by Dennis Lehane I immediately picked it up. I’d read two of his other novels, Mysic River and Gone Baby Gone and really enjoyed his writing style. This one was a bit different though – still set in Boston the others, but this time in the 1930s.

The novel follows the two main storylines. The first is that of Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer; the second follows Luther Lawrence, an African American man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The two become intertwined as we see them separately take on issues of unions and race. Lehane does wonders with mingling the two lives and his writing is full of imagery and the words jump off the page to take you back in time.

2. Steve Jobs: Biography

Steve Jobs I managed to get through Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson rather quickly (for my standards) and just posted my review for it a couple days ago, so have a look:

Review of the Steve Jobs biography

I was thinking it would make a great movie. Do you think any director could do it justice and live up to Jobs’s standards? There was a movie called The Pirates of Silicon Valley in 1999 and it starred Noah Wyle as Jobs. I haven’t seen it but I think this biography would make a bit more of an interesting story since so many of Jobs’s friends and enemies have spoken up about him. I also think Christian Bale would make a great Jobs.

1. The Help

The Help

The Help is set in the 1960s and looks at the issue of race relations in Jackson, Mississippi. The premise is ‘Skeeter’ a white woman is looking to the maids of the city to help her write a story from the point of view of ‘the help’. You just have to do a Google search and you’ll see it’s a book that has gotten as much flack as it has praise.

One interesting news article from September says Stockett stole her identity for the character of Aibileen. Her name is Abilene Cooper and she was the maid to Stockett’s brother for 12 years. Much of the similarities are the same, but the case was thrown out.

I feel at the very least the book is a great starting point for race discussions.

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