Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son

 The Orphan Master's Son
by Adam Johnson

Genre:  Fiction
Pages:  480
Published:  8/7/12 by Random House
Format:  book

 My rating:
5 out of 5 stars

I finished this book several weeks ago, and it has taken me several weeks to sit down and process my thoughts into a coherent review!

Pak Jun Do, who is an orphan master's son, is a citizen of North Korea.  While he lives in a country that brainwashes its people into believing they are citizens of the greatest democratic nation in the world, Jun Do sees past the propoganda and recognizes that he and his fellow citizens are slaves to their leader Kim Jung Il.  As Jun Do gains attention from Kim Jung Il, he begins a dangerous attempt to move into the inner circle of North Korea's government and save the woman that he loves.

Like most people, I knew very little about North Korea before reading this novel.  I recognize that this is a fictional story, but it does seem to be a story that is based on research and some facts, along with the author's imagination.  I found it fascinating and horrifying all at the same time.  And it makes me want to read and learn more about North Korea and what life is like for people in that country.  I think this novel is worth reading just because it opened my eyes to a part of the world that I had never before considered.

But it is also worth reading because it is just a great novel!  I loved the tone of the novel.  While it is about some horrible, horrible real life conditions, there is an undertone of satire and dark humor to Johnson's writing.  And it worked really well in this novel.  The things that are happening in North Korea are just absurd and often appear silly when read from an American perspective.  It is almost laughable.  Except it's not, because it is real.

So while this does read like political satire, it is also a thriller and even a little bit of a love story.  I read in an interview with Adam Johnson that he wanted to portray what life is like for the regular every day person in North Korea.  What is it like to be a parent, a spouse, a friend in a country that controls your every movement?  Through Jun Do's journey, I felt like we got a picture of all those things. 

I would highly recommend this novel. I give it a solid five stars!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska
by John Green

Genre:  Young Adult
Pages:  256
Published:  12/14/08 by Penguin Group
Format:  ebook

My rating:
4.5 out of 5 stars

I first read this book about four years ago. It was my first John Green book, and at the time, I had no clue who he was. Since then, I have read most of John Green's other books and have become a huge fan. So I wanted to go back and re-read Alaska to see how I felt about it four years later.

Looking for Alaska follows what seems to be a fairly typical John Green formula (very similar to Papertowns and An Abundance of Katherines, at least): Nerdy boy (Miles "Pudge" Halter) falls for a wild, unpredictable, unattainable girl (Alaska Young) while seeking out answers to important life questions.

I don't think John Green's novels became popular because they tell the most original stories. It is the way that he writes those stories that makes them so great. I love his dialogue (which some claim is unrealistic for teenagers, but I still love it), his witty humor, and his intelligent approach to dealing with life's big questions. It is just so much fun to read a John Green book...he makes you laugh, he makes you cry, he makes you think! There is definitely a level of intelligence in his books that you don't find in a lot of young adult fiction, and I appreciate that.

My original comments after reading this book four years ago were: "I liked it, but I don't feel comfortable recommending it to teenagers." I've probably changed my opinion on this a little over the last four years. There is a lot of sex, drinking and smoking in this book. Not behavior that I would consider appropriate for teenagers.

I do admit that I am a bit naive about the kinds of things teenagers do these days. The more I read young adult fiction, the more I come to realize this. My guess is that John Green's depiction here is a pretty realistic portrayal of many (but definitely not all) teenagers. I also think these characters were realistic because they were often obnoxious and dramatic and unlikeable...again, I think that could describe many teenagers accurately at times! It's not easy being a teenager, and this story about teenagers trying (and sometimes failing) to figure out life should not be ignored completely due to its more mature content. It's not a book for kids or tweens, but I think a mature teenager can read and learn from it.

The bigger and more important purpose of this novel is answering this question, based on the last words of Simon Bolivar: "How will I ever escape this labyrinth?" This novel doesn't preach, and it doesn't tell you what you should think in the end. Instead, it becomes a thought provoking reflection on life and afterlife and God and religion and what it all means. And while the novel doesn't provide all the answers, it does leave you with a glimpse of hope and a desire to seek more answers. I think that honestly seeking these answers is extremely important for both teens and adults alike.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Storyteller

The Storyteller
by Jodi Picoult

Genre:  Fiction
Pages:  460
Published:   2/26/13 by Atria books
Format:  book

My rating:
3.5 out of 5 stars

I would give this book 3.5 stars. If it was written by a different author, I probably would have given in 4 stars. But after reading many of Jodi Picoult's books, I'm starting to get extra critical about her writing style.

I was a fan of several of Picoult's early books. But once you have read more than a couple, you quickly realize how formulaic and predictable her books are: written in alternating points of views (and fonts), about a controversial issue, and with a big twist at the end that is never really all that surprising once you have read a couple of her books and know to expect it.

At the same time, Picoult can tell a good story. She can keep you turning pages. I always enjoy reading her books. But I get frustrated because I feel there is great potential for all of her books to be better than they are. She seems to release a new book every year, and I think she would benefit by writing less books and spending more time creating greater quality.

So here are my thoughts on Picoult's lastest book, The Storyteller.

What I liked:
-Part Two, which told about Minka's experience in concentration camps during the Holocaust, was excellent. I have read many different fictional stories about the Holocaust, and the stories never get any easier to read. Picoult's account is unflinching and painful to read, yet you can't turn away from it.
-I liked the "controversial issue" in this book about forgiveness. It asks some good questions and provides some thought provoking scenarios. Are some crimes beyond the realm of forgiveness? If we choose to hate the criminal, are we then just the same as the criminal who chose to hate when the crime was committed?

What was okay:
-Minka's fictional story that was spread throughout the book. At first, I thought it was unnecessary and the metaphor to the Holocaust was too forced. But then the story played into the plot of the novel, and it made more sense.
-the modern day characters of Leo and Sage. I didn't love their part of the story, but I didn't hate it either. The strength of this novel was definitely Minka's life and experiences.

What I didn't like:
-Sage's sisters were named Saffron and Pepper (they were all the daughters of a baker). This is just awful.
-The twist at the end. I knew it was coming, and I knew what it was going to be, but I just didn't get it. I didn't think this particular twist was necessary at all for the story. There was enough conflict and climax leading up to the end, why throw something ELSE at the end that is supposed to surprise us but really doesn't surprise us at all!  With Picoult's track record, a much more surprising twist would have been for there to be no twist at all in the final pages.
-there were some unbelievable coincidences in how this story came together, namely how Josef came to meet Sage. At first I was annoyed because it seemed completely unbelievable, but then more is revealed that maybe it was more structured than random chance. But I didn't feel like this was explained enough and left me questioning Josef's true motivations. Perhaps this was purposeful, but I would have liked a little more clarity here.

To summarize, I did enjoy reading this story in the way that I usually enjoy reading Picoult's work. If you have never read Picoult before and don't have my critical eye pointed at her, then you may find this book more satisfying than I did! I do think it is worth taking the time to read.