Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 496 pages.
Read from October 27, 2020 to November 6, 2020.

Another great recommendation that I can’t recall where I got it from. I think I stumbled upon it as historical fiction involving multigenerational stories are concepts I get excited about. It also helps that this book racked up a variety of literary awards in 2017/2018.

Pachinko, as I learned, is a popular type of gambling in Japan that started in the 1920s. The concept of the game is a mash up of a VLT and a pinball machine.

From left to right: a pre war pachinko game, 1970s pachinko machine, bottom photos are of the current modern machines.

Pachinko, in this novel, is a metaphor for the struggles of life, especially that of the Korean family in the story, and many others during is time under Japanese occupation.

“Life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing…”

The story begins in the 1900s with a teen named Sunja around the beginnings of the Japanese occupation detailing her poor but humble life at a fishing village in Korea. She is taken with an older stranger to the village named Hansu who fills her head with love and promises, however, when she falls pregnant he confesses to already having a family in Japan. Hansu is wealthy and does care about Sunja but Sunja is stunned by the betrayal and refuses any help from Hansu despite knowing the social rejection she will face being an unmarried mother. She instead decides to marry a kind, but sickly, minster named Baek Isak who knows her situation and takes her in regardless. Sunja leaves her home and follows her new husband to Japan. She gives birth to her first son Noa and to another son by Baek Isak named Mozasu. She lives with Baek Isak’s brother and sister-in-law in the Korean slums in Japan. While she finds a deep companionship with her sister-in-law, Japan is immensely unkind to Koreans and the conditions in which she lives are worse than they were in Korea. Sunja is stubborn and persistent and shakes conventional norms for the sake of keeping her family fed. Sunja’s sons struggle with acceptance as they are born and raised in Japan but their heritage makes them less than in the eyes of the Japanese. This struggle is particularly awful for Noa, who, is very academically astute, tended to hide is heritage. Mozasu is a much more practical child who grows up to take on a pachinko business, often viewed as dishonourable work. Despite Sunja’s rejection of Hansu, the decision comes to affect her whole life as well as her sons’, as Hansu isn’t so easily deterred.

Pachinko is a deeply moving story that encompasses so many themes and emotions. While the story embodies struggle, it’s very much about love, resilience, standing by your beliefs, and ambition. You become deeply invested in these sturdy and resilient characters as they endure hardship over nearly four generations.

“People are awful. Drink some beer.”

The book emphasises and focuses on strong and stubborn female characters with empathic and equally as strong male characters that compliment them in a compromising and highly patriarchal society. The story itself is very much focused on the characters and doesn’t discuss the nuances of the political situation in too much depth other than the depictions of suffering and persecution that this family endured. I think this approach has made this book accessible to readers who may not enjoy historical fiction. For me, it made me want to learn more about this tumultuous time for Korea as after the Japanese occupation is when the North and South of Korea parted ways, making for a very long and difficult era for Korea and its people.

Overall it was a wonderful and enrapturing read, despite it being a bit long, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction, multigenerational sagas, immersive characters, or an interest in Korean and Japanese culture and relations.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“May your Paths be safe, your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 272 pages.
Read from October 20, 2020 to October 22, 2020.

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 2010, more than 10 years ago. While I remember next to nothing about the book I must have enjoyed it enough to show interest in this new book by the same author. Now that I have read Piranesi and having added a few more years of age (maybe some wisdom in there too), I would probably enjoy re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell again. With more than 15 years between the publications of these two books, here is hoping we don’t have to wait that long for another book by this great author.

Piranesi is a curious man living within an even more curious home he calls The House. Its rooms and corridors are infinite and surrounded by oceans with its water that flood and fill rooms with ebbing and flowing with the tides. The rooms are decorated with stunning pieces of art and sculptures as well as ocean wildlife like birds and fish. Piranesi spends his time mapping this labyrinth that he lives in and living off the meagre resources it provides him. There are others in the House but the majority of them are dead in which Piranesi honours their rotting bodies and speculates how they came to be here and their previous existence. He doesn’t get lonely though as there is The Other, a man that comes and goes, talks to him frequently while he carries out his Great and Secret Knowledge research that he is obsessed with. Piranesi never questions his existence or the strange world he lives in until a newcomer, he calls 16, since they are the sixteenth person to come to the House (including the dead) but is warned by The Other to avoid this person at all costs. Piranesi’s inexpiable trust in The Other begins to wane as he begins to communicate with 16 through secret messages. 16 is trying to locate a person he doesn’t know and is inquiring about the bodies with The House. Piranesi begins to wonder if The Other is his friend at all and about his existence within The House, as well as the presence and life of a world outside of The House.

What a concept and plot! There were so many ways this book could have gone wrong since. From the historical references to the abstract concept and world within the book. To truly appreciate the genius of the book you need to know who Giovanni Battista Piranesi is. Piranesi lived in the 1700s and was a respected etcher, painter and architect. He is most known for his series of prints called ‘Carceri d’invenzione or ‘Imaginary Prison‘. The series shows a whimsical labyrinth of underground rooms, stairs, art, and machinery.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi - Le Carceri d'Invenzione - First Edition - 1750 - 01 - Title Plate.jpg
First plate in the first edition of ‘Le Carceri d’Invenzione

This art as well as the artist is the inspiration and metaphor for The House Clarke’s story. When Piranesi’ world begins to unravel is when you start to fully grasp just how crazy this story is. The concept of this story could have easily gone wrong if it were in the hands of any other writer but Clarke executed it perfectly. The story is engaging and whimsical but grounded enough even for those who may not be as interested in fantasy. Having never seen the real ‘Imaginary Prison‘ etches prior to reading this book, Clarke’s imagery and descriptions of The House provided me with the intimate detail and feel of the real etchings. The world that Clarke creates is immensely visceral and as a reader, you come to feel at home in The House, especially because Piranesi’s character is so endearing.

I adored this book and was dismayed at its short length. Even with its historical reference, it wasn’t a requirement to enjoy this story though it adds an immense amount of depth to the story. It’s a book I would reread and would recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or fantasy.

The Unquiet Past by Kelley Armstrong

Tess has always been haunted, literally, by visions of ghosts that she can’t explain…When the orphanage randomly burns down, Tess is left without a home. She then decides to works up the courage to learn more about her family and past so with only a phone number and an address, Tess sets out on her own.

2/5 stars.
ebook, 174 pages.
Read from September 14, 2020 to September 16, 2020

One of the perks of paying for a Kobo membership is that I get one free ebook from them a year. The selection is often limited and not always of the quality of books that I would read but for the most part I’ve enjoyed my selections, well, except for perhaps this one.

Set in the 1960s, Tess is seventeen has been in an orphanage in Ontario for as long as she can remember. Tess has always been haunted, literally, by visions of ghosts that she can’t explain. For a long time she feared there was something wrong with her but as far as she can tell, she is perfectly normal besides her visions. When the orphanage randomly burns down, Tess is left without a home. She then decides to works up the courage to learn more about her family and past so with only a phone number and an address, Tess sets out on her own. When she finds herself at ramshackle house in rural Quebec, she learns that the home was once home variety of mental health patients that were severely abused. While trying to unravel the mystery of the home she gets some help from an unlikely (but handsome) Metis stranger named Jackson. Could this home be the key to her past? What gruesome horrors occurred at this home and is she due to suffer the same fate?

When you read the blurb it sounds like a fascinating paranormal horror mystery with a little YA romance on the side right? Well, that’s not what I felt I got. I’ll put it out there that when it come to YA books I don’t generally care for the majority of love relationships that tend to build in YA books but if the rest of the book comes together I’m often willing to look past the relationship stuff. In this book, the story starts out strong but fell apart for me when Tess met Jackson. The story falls prey to all the standard YA tropes and falls away from the unique concept of this book. After Tess meets Jackson, the plot becomes less about her paranormal abilities and the mystery of the home and rather about their obvious impending relationship. The story went from screaming souls to sappy teenage romance full of tropes and stereotypes. Further the structure of the plot felt like it fell apart after Tess meets Jackson. Not only is Tess’ best friend, that she left in Ontario completely dropped from the story, but the parts about the home and its mental patients felt rushed, and you only get fleeting details on her mother (the most interesting part, in my opinion) before the writing is focused back on Tess and Jackson’s relationship and their random side quests. The book severely lacked in depth as well as a missed opportunity to expand on an interesting concept and plot that may have been series-worthy.

This story had a lot of promise and started off with a bang that quickly died away for me. I appreciate that the relationship is why many readers liked this book but this was not my cup of tea. Further, the book wasn’t structured well enough outside of that for it to be redeeming for me. I did enjoy the French that was through the book and the descriptions of the Canadian settings but I actually forgot that this book was meant to be set in the past and have some sort of historical fiction thing going for it. The author could have expanded on this a lot further.

Sadly, this will probably be my first and last Kelley Armstrong.

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