Review: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis [1962/2005] – ★★★★

Nothing I know matters more / than what never happened.” John Burnside

This Italian classic tells the story of the prominent and aristocratic Finzi-Contini family in the Italian city of Ferrara in the 1920-30s through the eyes of a boy and then a man hopelessly in love with this family’s beautiful daughter Micòl. Our narrator’s family and that of Micòl could not be more apart on a societal standing, but they are both Jewish, and our narrator is soon admitted to Micòl’s entourage, making friends not only with Micòl, but also with her brother Alberto. A well-kept tennis court in the garden of the Finzi-Contini becomes the central point of the young people’s existence, and also, as it turns out, a sort of a safe haven, as anti-Semitic forces are tightening their grip on Italy on the eve of the World War II. Unbeknown to all, the ground is already set for the ultimate tragedy. This sensitive novel does not have the clearest of narratives, but it is still a touching coming-of-age story of lost love and opportunities, where emotions of first-love and tender friendship learn to co-exist with such feelings as pride and shame.

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Review: Property by Valerie Martin

Property [2003] – ★★★★

Louisiana, 1828. Manon Gaudet, the wife of a domineering owner of a sugar plantation, tells us about her life, at times recalling her past. Her husband rules the house and the plantation with an iron fist, signalling slave girl Sarah as his lover. However, their stable life is soon repeatedly threatened by slaves’ rebellions in their region, making both re-evaluate their life positions. Although the novel is uneven and the narrator is made intentionally unlikeable, Valerie Martin still wrote a chilling, eye-opening and interesting account of slavery and the meaning of ownership in the mid-nineteenth century US, not least because of her particular focus on the perspective of a slave-owner.

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Review: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927] – ★★★★

This novel, which spans from 1848 to 1888, focuses on Jean Marie Latour, a young Frenchman recently appointed as a Vicar Apostolic in the state of New Mexico, a part of land which has only recently been annexed to the US. The Father becomes a new Bishop in the region and he came there with his loyal friend and compatriot Father Joseph Vaillant. The two priests face a whole array of problems in establishing a religious jurisdiction in the new area, from the region’s isolation and merciless climate to authority challenges on the part of Mexican priests. This historical novel can be called a “descriptive tour de force”, rather than a straightforward narrative story. It is more of an anthropological/historical travelogue, focusing on the nature of land and on the people living on it, rather than a linear story. However, this does not make this book a “lesser” novel. On the contrary, Cather leaves plenty of space in the book for colourful descriptions of exotic environs, paying attention to the particular themes, including the ardour of religious duty and the dilemmas of missionary work.

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Mini-Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet [2010] – ★★1/2

In this tale by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas (2004)) the year is 1799, and Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk, arrives with the Dutch East India Company to the trading post of Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki, Japan at the time of the sakoku, when Japan permitted only very limited contact with foreigners. Engaged to be married, de Zoet seeks a fortune and a high position to impress the family of his fiancée in Europe. However, “inadvertently”, he falls under the spell of one disfigured midwife Miss Aibagawa, who, in turn, aspires to knowledge and then freedom. In times of all kinds of persecutions and discriminatory policies, de Zoet has to navigate a very uneasy road in the foreign country through cultural differences and alleged conspiracies.

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Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

the power of the dog coverThe Power of the Dog [1967] – ★★★★

“…there was no doubt in Phil’s mind of the end of [the] pursuit. The dog would have its prey. Phil had only to raise his eyes to the hill to smell the dog’s breath [Thomas Savage, 1967: 76].

This book is by an underappreciated American author Thomas Savage, and Jane Campion (The Piano (1993)), one of my favourite film directors, is currently shooting an adaptation of it. The story takes place in a small town in Montana in the 1920s where two brothers’ interests clash when one of them unexpectedly decides to marry a widow with a son. Raw, uncanny and psychological, The Power of the Dog is probably known for its intense character study of Phil Burbank, whose brooding and quietly menacing presence haunts the pages of this book, making it virtually unforgettable. Thomas Savage undoubtedly drew from his own previous experience of working as a ranch hand to produce a different kind of a western, whose deep sensitivity to the characters and their dynamics is nicely offset by the “harsh” authenticity of the language.  Continue reading “Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage”

Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

my name is red My Name is Red [1998/2001] – ★★★★★

Why does man not see things? He is himself standing in the way: he conceals things.” “What are man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors“. (Friedrich Nietzsche) 

In My Name is Red by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, murder of one miniaturist – Elegant Effendi – was committed within the circle of miniaturists working for the Sultan in medieval Istanbul. At the same time, thirty-six year old Black returns to his hometown of Istanbul after his twelve years’ absence to seek once again the hand of his beloved Shekure, an opportunity that was denied to him twelve years previously. Unwittingly, Black becomes entangled in the intrigues of miniaturists working under Enishte Effendi, Black’s uncle and Shekure’s father. Masterfully, Pamuk takes us deep within the art circle of medieval craftsmen who labour to produce a mysterious new book, a circle repleted with professional jealousy, narcissism, hidden love and, above all, differences as so the proper way of painting and representing pictures under one strict religious canon. In this historical novel, Persian art-forms clash violently with rising Venetian art influences as Black starts to realise that, in order to find the murderer of Elegant Effendi, it is necessary to go deep into the worldviews and art opinions of each of the three suspected miniaturists – “Stork”, “Olive” and “Butterfly”, testing their loyalties and beliefs. It is impossible not to get swept away by this novel of great insight and intelligence. My Name is Red is like a rich, tightly-woven exotic tapestry whose secrets lie in elaborate details, red herrings and in the depth of the soul of its maker, celebrating the beauty, imagination and intelligence of ancient artworks and methods of painting.  Continue reading “Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk”

Review: Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang

Half a Lifelong Romance1.docx Half a Lifelong Romance [1950/1966/2014] ★★★★★

Maybe a love like that came to a person only once in a lifetime? Once was enough, maybe” [Chang/Kingsbury, 1950/2014: 354].

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness” (Bertrand Russell).

Half a Lifelong Romance, translated from the Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury, is a modern classic where a timeless story, filled with passion, longing and sorrow, meets fluid and engaging writing. In this story, set in the 1930s, Manzhen, a young girl, forms friendship with her co-worker Shuhui and his friend Shijun; soon after, between Manzhen and Shijun sparks a feeling so innocent and tender that both are left speechless, floating near the island of complete happiness. However, Manzhen’s disastrous family circumstances and Shijun’s own familial duties do not let the lovers get any closer to each other, and, in time, their circumstances only worsen as they try to fight their inner sense of duty, responsibility, family tradition and lack of money to get nearer to each other. Simple misunderstandings, false pride, as well as unexpected betrayals also keep these people’s true happiness at bay. Half a Lifelong Romance is a moving, quietly devastating and exquisite novel that may surprise you with its power (including its dark twist) in the second half. Chang wrote compellingly, engagingly and beautifully, and her story of Chinese family traditions and one love torn apart by circumstances is one unputdownable read.  Continue reading “Review: Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang”

Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys Book Cover The Nickel Boys [2019] – ★★★★★

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth” (Albert Camus).

Colson Whitehead’s latest book is the story of Elwood Curtis, a clever and hard-working boy, who is sent to the Nickel Academy for boys after one “misunderstood” event. Drawing inspiration from a real, shocking story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida (subsequently known for its mistreatment and abuse of boys), Whitehead paints a gruesome picture of one school that employs shocking corrective procedures that can break any human spirit and hope for the future. Through Elwood, we enter a dictatorial organisation whose rules must be obeyed at all costs because the price for not doing so is hard to put into words. Idealistic Elwood, who worships the sermons of Dr Luther King, soon has to confront one way of life filled with arbitrary violence, indifference, heartlessness and hypocrisy. In this environment, Elwood must learn fast how the place is run in order to survive, and the book is also a story of coming to terms with one’s horrific past. Neither Elwood nor his story may seem original, but the account is very heart-felt, not least because this is a story about the fight for freedom and against institutional injustice and racism. There have been many Elwoods throughout history, people who were either crippled for being who they are; whose spirits were broken before they could lead a life of peace; or those who simply did not make it alive, having gone through a system that should not have existed in the first place. Preserving the memory of these people is the point of Whitehead’s latest book. Continue reading “Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead”

Review: Serena by Ron Rash

Serena Book Cover Serena [2008] – ★★★★1/2

Will at Coot’s Reviews suggested that I read Serena by Ron Rash for my Appalachia Reading Challenge, and both H.P from Hillbilly Highways and Emma at Book Around the Corner also recommended that I read Rash’s work, so thank you! Serena pleasantly surprised me. This novel tells the story of a newly-wed couple the Pembertons who arrive to a logging community high up in North Carolina Mountains to take over a timber business there. Every worker at the camp is awed by Mrs Serena Pemberton, a woman so strong-willed and determined she can match any man’s will power or shrewdness. Masterfully-executed and beautifully-written, Serena evokes vividly both the beauty of North Carolina’s landscape and horrors involved in the business of cutting trees to make profit. Ron Rash even packs in the novel “slow-burn” suspense since Mr Pemberton’s past actions give rise to unforeseen consequences, and, as the couple arrive to North Carolina, with them also descends upon the village something disturbing and sinister.

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Review: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes Book Cover Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café [1987] – ★★★★

I may be sitting here at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home, but in my mind I’m over at the Whistle Stop Café having a plate of fried green tomatoes“, Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, June 1986 (preface quote to Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café).

This book is about two women – Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman in a nursing home, – meeting in 1985, and Ms Threadgoode starts to tell Evelyn about her youth spent in Whistle Stop, Alabama during the Depression era. Evelyn goes back in her mind to that time when Ms Threadgoode’s wild, free-spirited sister-in-law Idgie and her beautiful, soft-spoken friend Ruth ran a café in Whistle Stop, discovering the hardship they went through and the happiness they found. Mrs Threadgoode also hints at a murder mystery which got everyone talking in the 1930s in Whistle Stop. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a “feel-good” book at the centre of which is a powerful story of two women whose friendship and love enabled them to overcome obstacles in their way. Originally presented, paying special attention to the connecting power of food and cooking, the book also touches on such themes as racism, aging, marital violence, and finding hope in difficult times.

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Review: The Editor by Steven Rowley

The Editor Book Cover The Editor [2019] – ★★1/2

In this story by Steven Rowley, author of the debut novel Lily and the Octopus [2016], a struggling writer James Smale lands a book deal, and his editor ends up being no other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, yes, the former First Lady of the United States. For James, it is like a dream-come-true situation, and, as he deepens his friendship with his famous editor, he realised he has to confront the painful issues surrounding the reason why he began writing his novel The Quarantine in the first place. Ms Kennedy Onassis wants James to open up about his mother and surprising family secrets emerge. The Editor, which is set in 1990s New York City, is quirky and humorous, but it is also a self-indulgent and pretentious book which suffers from a dull, predictable and melodramatic plot. Continue reading “Review: The Editor by Steven Rowley”

Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

Shipwrecks Book Cover Shipwrecks [1982/1996] – ★★★★★

Shipwrecks is a short novel translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey. It tells a story of one village in rural medieval Japan, following one boy Isaku, as his family struggles to get food essential for their survival. The village has a number of rituals, but one is particularly eerie: the village does everything it can to summon OFune-Sama (the Sea God) or shipwrecks to their coast. This phenomenon is often essential for the survival of the village (since ships carry the necessary food and other commodities), and Isaku and his family are always eagerly awaiting the season when O-Fune-Sama or shipwrecks occur. One day, such a ship does come to the shore where Isaku lives, but will it be a blessing or a curse for the village? Those who like books with discernible plot points and fast-paced action should look elsewhere. Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura is rather slow and contemplative in nature as it follows day-to-day activities of one village that has one eerie desire. However, despite based almost entirely on observations, the novel is no less fascinating and is subtly powerful. It is a great read for anyone who likes unusual stories which uncover different ways of looking at life.  Continue reading “Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura”

Review: Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau

texaco book cover Texaco [1992] – ★★★★★ 

You say “History” but that means nothing. So many lives, so many destinies, so many tracks go into the making of our unique path. You dare say History, but I say histories, stories. The one you take for the master stem of our manioc is but one stem among many others.…” 

Some books shine through times, forever stirring spirits” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 325].

Some books have such a distinct, authentic voice, which tells of the plight of ordinary people, that they cannot fail to move their readers, defying logical book analyses. Martinique-born Patrick Chamoiseau wrote such precise book, with such a distinctive voice at the core of it, and it is called Texaco, published in French in 1992 (translated by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997). This undoubtedly great book, which received the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1992, reads almost like a fable, rather than a story, and evades strict categorisation. What can be said for certain is that the novel is undeniably powerful in its transmission of the emotion and the message. Told through the voice of the high-spirited, determined, but disadvantaged woman Marie-Sophie Laborieux, it presents a turbulent period in the history of Martinique, the French overseas territory, and focuses almost entirely on individual lives and life episodes. At the centre of this story, which spans from 1823 to 1980, is, at first – Esternome, an ex-plantation slave, and, later, his daughter, our narrator, – Marie-Sophie, who are both determined to survive through extreme hardship and discrimination to fight for their loved ones’ and their people’s right to live and enjoy freedom on their native soil. Sometimes the story reads like a highly subjective, almost chaotic, but matter-of-fact narrative, and at other times it takes a form of a strangely lyrical and poetic piece, which is even similar to a national ballad. The story may even sometimes appear in the form of a cry or a lamentation, a strange ode to the Creole culture, language and tradition. The impressive thing is that whatever mode the novel employs or impression it gives, it never loses its vitality, its importance, its power, its emotion. This is the story of and by the generations who fought hard for their right to exist and prosper, and it is this unique perspective which makes this book so exceptional.  

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Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

The Bedlam Stacks Cover The Bedlam Stacks [2017] – ★★★

You’re not off to find the Northwest Passage on a thousand-mile plain of ice populated by six Esquimaux and an owl. It’s only Peru” [Pulley, 2017: 46].

When I found out that there is a book set in Peru, takes place in the 19th century, and concerns itself with Incan mythology, I knew immediately I had to read it because all these things appeal to me immensely. In the book by Pulley, we meet an explorer Merrick Tremayne, previously of the East India Company, who now resides in Cornwall with his brother. He has an injured leg and no prospects in England since his family fortunes are in decline. When his friend Clem visits him and suggest that he goes to Peru to fetch cinchona cuttings (which yields quinine), which can then help to cure malaria in India (on the orders of the East India Company), it seems like an impossible task. This is not least because there is a local monopoly regarding the trees in the region, and the journey can prove to be very dangerous. Merrick goes to Peru, with the aim to reach the village of Bethlehem or Bedlam, and soon finds that he needs to rethink his understanding of indigenous traditions, history and beliefs, and do it quickly if he wants to survive. The Bedlam Stacks is steeped in Incan folklore and has an eerie atmosphere, providing for a curious read. However, this book was definitely not a page-turner for me. It has a messy and confusing overall theme, caricature presentations, some unclear and dull descriptions, and – what I believe – a very unsympathetic character in the centre, all making the reading experience less enjoyable.  Continue reading “Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley”

Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

washington black cover Washington Black [2018] – ★★★ 

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, Washington Black has certainly been on many readers’ radar. This is the tale of Washington Black, a young boy who is initially a slave on a plantation in Barbados. This is where we begin the journey: the year is 1830 and the setting is Faith Plantation, Barbados. Young Washington (or Wash) is raised by Big Kit, a female slave, who looks after him. Like the rest, Wash witnesses the death of his old master, and sees how his new master – cruel Erasmus Wilde – takes control of the farm. Wash then becomes an assistant to the eccentric brother of Erasmus – Christopher Wilde or just Titch. What follows is the adventure which Wash never imagined (but we, probably, all did). In fact, as an adventure, the story is predictable, rather boring, at times too unbelievable, and, strangely, unexciting. Edugyan introduced several exciting and even original plot lines (such as scientific endeavours), but all of them are dropped before they are allowed to continue. The characters are rather caricaturish and shallow, and even though the beginning and the writing are strong, the issue is still that there is nothing fresh in this story (it follows a very familiar journey). The author has virtually nothing original or fascinating to add to an already long and established (“done-to-death”) literary theme of slave liberation, and hardship and discrimination experienced by a community outcast living in the early nineteenth century. Continue reading “Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan”

Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

the miniaturist coverThe Miniaturist [2014] – ★★

The Miniaturist, “The Sunday Times Number One Bestseller”, has received much praise, but is all the hype justified? The original idea for the book came to the author in Amsterdam, where Burton first saw Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house at the the Rijksmuseum. In her fictional story set in the 1680s, eighteen-year old Nella comes to Amsterdam after her advantageous marriage to an older rich merchant Johannes Brandt. Nella finds out that Johannes lives in a house with his domineering sister Marin, and soon begins to question the security of her husband’s finances. When Johannes gifts Nella a miniature doll house, which is the exact replica of their own home, Nella does not hesitate to ask for services from an elusive miniaturist, leading to unpredictable turns of events. This atmospheric novel is perfectly readable, but it is also too simplistic and melodramatic. Even worse, despite some obvious hints, The Miniaturist does not put its main mystery about the miniaturist or the doll house (the cabinet) at the centre for the readers to uncover; the novel’s male characters are superficial; and its surprises – preposterous. The plot does not go anywhere or reveal anything of substance, and the actions of the characters are as nonsensical as the ending is unsatisfying.  Continue reading “Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton”

Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

news of the world coverNews of the World [2016] – ★★★★★

He broke down the .38, cleaned it, reassembled it. He made a list: feed, flour, ammunition, soap, beef, candles, faith, hope, charity” [Jiles, 2016: 177].

The story begins at Wichita Falls, Texas during the winter of 1870 and centres on Captain Kidd, aged seventy-one, who “travel[s] from town to town in North Texas with his newspapers and read[s] aloud the news of the day to assemblies” [Jiles, 2016: 3]. When Captain Kidd comes across a little girl who has recently been an Indian native and is now abandoned to the newness and vulgarities of the civilised world, Captain promises to deliver the girl back to her German-American family in South Texas. The issue for Captain Kidd is that Johanna was taken captive at the age of six and now, at the age of ten, considers herself a Kiowa. What follows is the journey of two vulnerable people on the treacherous road to the area of San Antonio, where Johanna’s aunt and uncle allegedly await her return. This is not only a tale of an exciting journey through the American South, which delves into the culture of native tribes, but also an emotional journey of two people whose resilience to hardship and kindness to strangers are the only guarantors of their survival.  Continue reading “Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles”

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites Book Cover Burial Rites [2013] – ★★★

Burial Rites is a debut book by Hannah Kent, an Australian author. It tells a fictional account of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a real person who had the distinction of being the last person in Iceland to be executed through a death penalty after her conviction for the murder of two men. In the book, Agnes is one of the three murderers convicted, alongside Fridrik Sigurdsson and another servant Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir. While Agnes awaits her execution, she is transported to an ordinary farm dwelling of Jón Jónsson, his wife Margrét and their daughters Steina and Lauga. While there, Agnes starts to forge human connections and even friendships, while also slowly starting to tell her story and her version of events. Burial Rites is slightly better than an average novel because it is well-written, takes a true story as its starting point, and also because it more or less conveys the fascinating peculiarities of that atmospheric place which was historic Iceland. However, on all other fronts, the book is a disappointment. It may be important to know the name of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and the Icelandic folklore, but there is not enough material here for an engaging book and, what is even worse, – the characters presented are unmemorable and one-dimensional, and the main character of Burial Rites is almost unsympathetic. The novel’s beginning may be strong, but the rest of the book is excruciatingly tedious and painfully predictable.  Continue reading “Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent”

Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries Book Cover The Luminaries [2013] – ★★★★1/2

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (T. S. Eliot).

What is the most intelligent, complicated and intricately-designed novel of this century? Eleanor Catton wrote it in 2013 and titled it The Luminaries. The winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2013, The Luminaries is a multi-layered tour-de-force, running about 820 pages, that tells the story of mysterious events, including a disappearance and a possible murder, taking place in a gold-mining town of Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1865 and 1866. To tell her story, Catton employs astrological charts, planetary positions and planetary relationships vis-à-vis zodiac constellations, thereby twelve leading male characters in her novel correspond to twelve zodiac signs, such as Scorpio or Sagittarius, and other characters relate to planets, such as Venus or Mercury. These characters’ interactions with each other take a complicated turn and, as we find out more about some eerie coincidences, undoubtedly influenced by astral positions, the mystery deepens and we uncover hidden relations, start to doubt our prior perceptions and come full circle to glimpse at the real truth. As Te Rau Tauwhare explains the origin of the word “Hokitika” to Balfour, “Understand it like this.Around. And then back again, beginning” [Catton, 2013: 106]. Beautifully-written and cleverly-construed, this rich in detail/description novel may be difficult for the reader to get into at first, but the book proves hugely rewarding and could really be called a modern classic.  Continue reading “Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton”

Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko Book Cover Pachinko [2017] – ★★★★

“The Japanese could think what they wanted about them, but none of it would matter if they survived and succeeded” [Min Jin Lee, 2017: 117]. 

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko had a long road to publication, almost thirty years, being first conceived as an idea by the author in 1989. The story spans four generations, and tells of Korean immigrants who come to Japan to seek a better life in 1933. This family then faces all manner of hardship, including poverty and discrimination, in the new country. For example, we follow Sunja, a daughter of a cleft-lipped, club-footed man, who takes her chance to marry a missionary, Isak, and goes to Japan to give birth there to her son, whose father, Hansu, remains a powerful man in Korea. In Japan, she meets her brother-in-law and his wife, and their life to survive begins. This emotional novel is a real page-turner and this is so not only because of its fascinating story set in a particularly turbulent time period. Pachinko is sustained by its vivid characters whose resilience in times of hardship is somehow both admirable and chilling. The characters’ determination to survive and succeed in conditions which are designed to make them fail will not leave the reader uninvolved.  Continue reading “Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee”