May 2019 | Books & Links

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Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee traces the lives of an ethnic Korean family across the twentieth century, from their experiences in Korea under Japanese occupation to life in Japan in the post-war period. It’s very well written and I found myself completely engrossed in the story and the lives of Min Jin Lee’s characters. My reading of Pachinko coincided with our trip to Belgium, and it made the train journey there and back pass quickly. There are so many different storylines and themes packed into the 500 odd pages, and I found myself constantly looking up from the book to read more about a certain moment in history or cultural reference I wasn’t familiar with. I particularly enjoyed seeing how the women pushed at the boundaries of established gender roles and family dynamics to support themselves and their families, the friendship between Sunja and her sister-in-law Kyunghee, and the examination of identity and belonging from different perspectives. It’s broad, ambitious, and very well realised. Reading Min Jin Lee’s afterword, I saw that the book was itself 30 years in the making as she had initially had the idea as a college graduate in 1989, the year Pachinko ends. I think it was worth the wait though, as all those years of research, planning and writing resulted in a novel that is as strong and immersive as it is for the attention to detail.

My only gripe with it is that I felt that at times the pace was too fast, especially in the early sections. It’s a tricky thing to balance though, especially when writing a book that encompasses so many different experiences and such an extended period of time. I also felt that the character Hansu was given too much of an omniscient role; useful for progressing the story and for allowing certain plot twists, but perhaps not entirely realistic. For example Hansu warns the young Sunja not to be lured in by promises of work in the north for fear she’ll be forced into prostitution, and later in the book he takes action to remove her family from harm’s way as the war in Japan nears an end. It’s hard to believe that an ethnic Korean in Japan would have the inside knowledge to be able to make such suggestions and decisions in the 1930s and 1940s. These are just minor points though, as on the whole it’s a very good book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I will see if I can get hold of a copy of ‘Free Food for Millionaires’ next.

Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman

I loved the main ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy and enjoyed the first instalment of the second prequel/sequel trilogy, but never paid much attention to these two little stand-alone novellas. They’re short, but worth reading.

Once Upon a Time in the North – Philip Pullman

I enjoyed Once Upon a Time in the North more than Lyra’s Oxford, probably just because it was longer with more going on. Iorek is one of my favourite characters from the HDM world, so it was good to read another story about him.

Links & Articles

An opinion piece in the Guardian by Ellie Mae O’Hagan about swimming and sexism that made me feel less alone. I love swimming, but I hate having to contend with overinflated egos on 50m nights.

Graphic Novels

Chicken with Plums – Marjane Satrapi

Browsing the stacks at the library while hunting down Nick Brnaso’s Sabrina, I found Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi. As I’d just finished reading Persepolis, I added it to my pile of books. Chicken with Plums has the same art style as Persepolis and tells the story of Marjane’s great uncle, a musician who gave up on life. It’s a really sad story of a man who wasn’t allowed to marry the woman he loved, so settled for someone else who didn’t support him as a musician. It has funny moments too though, in the form of the delirious visions he has as he lies in his bed waiting to die.

Sabrina – Nick Drnaso

I read Sabrina by Nick Drnaso in one sitting as I couldn’t put it down. The story starts innocently enough with two sisters, Sabrina and Sandra, catching up at their mum’s house in Chicago while Sabrina cat sits, and then quickly dives down a very dark hole.

Without giving too much away, Sabrina goes missing and the panels then follow her boyfriend, Teddy, who isn’t coping and has moved in with an old school friend, Calvin, who works on a remote military base Colorado. The reader quickly find out what happened to Sabrina, and the aftermath forms the bulk of the storyline.

Throughout the book I experienced an unrelenting sense of dread. Characters appear and I expected the worst of them, but then ended up surprised when the scenes diffused without incident. Nick Drnaso is very good at creating an atmosphere through his drawings and storytelling, and I think the simple art style is part of the magic here as my imagination worked overtime to fill in the blanks.

Theme wise, Sabrina (the book not the character) places a dispassionate gaze on conspiracy theories, the role of networks, algorithms and the 24 hour news cycle in creating and feeding hysteria, and the pervasiveness of social isolation. It’s gripping, harrowing, and well worth reading, although I did find the ending a bit bland.


I only abandoned one book this month.

Happiness – Aminatta Forna

I picked this up and quickly put it down. It’s too descriptive of environments and settings, at the expense of character development. When I’m reading a book I want to feel an almost immediate connection to the characters and storyline. I care more about what’s going on in their heads than the name of the street they’re walking along and direction they’re facing in central London.