Sunday, November 18, 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I have spent the last week furiously reading Pachinko for two book groups that meet on Tuesday. It's a big chunk of a novel; clocking in at almost 500 pages. I've finally finished it this Sunday morning, and even though I haven't given myself a lot of time to process it, I'm writing my review with my first impressions. 

First of all, I find the cover to be absolutely stunning. Every time I look at it, I find myself taken aback by the beauty of it. I see Sunja and her sons, and my heart breaks for all they will go through. This is definitely a book worthy of discussion, and I can't wait to talk about it on Tuesday with my book groups. 

In a nutshell, this novel is about four generations of Koreans living in Japan during the 1920's-through 1990. I confess to be completely ignorant of the Korean-Japanese tension, and totally in the dark about the discrimination and awful treatment of Koreans who were forced to flee Korea and settle in Japan as political conflicts, World War 2, and the division of Korea into North and South took place. The novel starts in Korea, in the small fishing  village of Yeongdo and the family of Hoonie, his wife Yangjin, and their only child, Sunja. Japan has annexed Korea, and the economy is terrible. Hoonie dies, leaving Yangjin and teenaged Sunja to run a boardinghouse to makes ends meet. Hard working women; so hard working I feel a bit ashamed at how easy my day to day life is, and how blessed I am to have enough food to eat, clothes to wear, and the money to pay for lights, water, and heat. 

Sonja meets wealthy businessman Hansu while going to market one day. He's drawn to her, and they begin a friendship that leads to an affair. Sunja is very young (15), and finds herself pregnant. Hansu is married to a wealthy Japanese woman, and cannot and will not marry Sunja. He is very pleased she's pregnant, hoping for a boy after having three daughters with his wife. Sunja rejects his offer of being his "Korean wife", and sends him away. Being young, and pregnant, Sunja has very few options, and her condition will bring shame to her family name and her mother. Isak, a young man who is staying at their boardinghouse, decides to marry Sunja and take on the responsibility of being husband and father to her unborn child. Isak is on his way to Japan to work as a pastor at a church. His health is very poor, but his desire to help Sunja overrides  everything. 

Isak and Sunja arrive in Japan and are stunned at the treatment of Koreans living there. Subjected to harassment, living in slums and extremely filthy conditions, Koreans are seen as dirt. Isak and Sunja, living with Yoseb and Kyunghee (Isak's brother and sis-in-law), struggle to make ends meet and strive to survive daily life. Life takes turns that are tragic and heartbreaking, and as the years go by, the family stays together and endures strife that strengthens them rather than tears them down. 

Hansu is still around, however. He is powerful, and rich, and keeps tabs on Sunja and Noa, his son. I found Hansu to be a very compelling character. A man who is torn between two families, trying to do what is right, and still, after all those years, loves Sunja and won't give up. The relationship between Sunja and Hansu was one of the best parts of this novel. 

There's so much more to this generational saga. I am so grateful for reading this novel, and learning about the Korean-Japanese strife that continues on today. I had no idea. Family, identity, self-worth, hard work, sacrifice, national identity, and love are all huge themes that run throughout the pages of this novel. It's definitely an epic, multi-generational novel that will leave you breathless when you finish the last page. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, audio, and ebook. 

Rating: 5/6 for a look at a corner of the world and a history that I was not familiar with at all. The layers of history, emotion, and political strife that echo through generations of family are hard-hitting and incredibly moving. Sunja is one of the most memorable characters I've come across this year. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Bartered Brides: An Elemental Masters Novel by Mercedes Lackey

I have always been a fan of fantasy novels. I remember a high school English assignment where I had to create a make believe world (including drawings) and how much I loved doing that. My earliest reading memories were of books that involved some element of magic and fantasy-John Bellairs! and Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series are two of my favorites. This was years and years before Harry Potter, but even then, writers understood kids needed that element of magic and fantasy in their stories.

I'm still a big fan of fantasy but I don't put it at the top of my reading list, and for that I'm annoyed with myself. One series I do enjoy is Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series. There are thirteen novels in the series and I haven't read them all (some sit on my bookcase...) but I've read enough that I always look forward to reading the next. She mixes late Victorian England, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, along with elemental masters. Elemental masters are people who are gifted with the power of one of the four elements: fire, air, earth, water. They serve to protect England from evil. And as we know, power corrupts, and some folks who are elemental masters are not so pleasant.

In this novel, Sherlock is dead. Not really, but only his closest friends know he's alive, actively working to shut down the evil Moriarty's vast network of minions before they can harm anyone else. Moriarty is dead, thanks to Sherlock, but of course when you're that evil, it takes a bit more to really be dead. Enter Spencer, a fellow who is an elemental master of spirits. This kind of elemental master is very rare; he can command spirits, trap them, and have them do his bidding. He can move between this world and the spirit world with ease. What he's planning is horrific: to bring Moriarty back by taking over the body of a young wealthy man. To do so, Spencer must gather enough power to make this leap possible. How to do that? By trapping the spirits of young women who are bound to him. Their anguish fuels the talisman needed to bring Moriarty back. 

Spencer is pretty awful. He finds young, poor women, promises to marry them, and takes care of them. Once they're married (by a total faker), he ends up decapitating them and keeping their heads. All this is designed to trap their spirits, and their misery in the spirit world fuels Spencer's powers. 

Headless bodies are showing up in the Thames, and no one can figure out who they are, and where they are coming from. It seems like a hopeless case, and without Sherlock around to look at the clues, the police are stumped. Nan and Sarah, two cohorts of Sherlock and Watson, and elementals in their own right, work to figure out what is going on; completely unaware that Moriarty is not completely gone--and plotting to come back and create havoc. 

I love Mercedes Lackey's Elemental series. Her use of magic using the elements, along with fairies and other creatures always peaks my interest. I'm still that kid who thinks that fairies live in the backyard, I guess. I appreciate the logic of Sherlock Holmes, and wow-who knew Watson was a Water Elemental Master?

This would be a great series to start for a middle school or high school reader who loves fantasy. There really isn't any graphic violence--most is done "off-screen" and good triumphs over evil after some great battles. 

Rating:  4/6 for a twist in the Sherlock-Moriarty battle, with a satisfactory ending and a new beginning for one of the characters. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Susan Orleans' The Library Book; a peek into the Central Library of the Los Angeles public library system, and the fire that devastated it in 1986. I was charmed and completely engaged in reading this ode to libraries, librarians, and the special, magical space libraries have in our culture. 

Susan Orleans brings her childhood memories of visiting her public library with her mother to the forefront, and that spark is reignited when she herself brings her son to a branch of the Central Library in Los Angeles. It's been a few years, but she immediately reconnects to her sense of wonderment and downright love of public libraries. That, and her interest in learning more about the mysterious 1986 fire set her off on her latest book project. 

 This fire that destroyed 400,000 books and damaged hundreds of thousands more; this fire that destroyed irreplaceable collections of early Los Angeles history; this fire that sent librarians into deep depressions as they processed their grief-yes, their grief--it was a major unsolved crime; was it ever solved?

 It's not just the fire that Susan Orleans examines, although it is a major player in this book. We get the best history of libraries in Los Angeles; full of quirky characters, odd balls, tough ladies working in what was considered a man's world (yes, libraries didn't even allow women to enter for quite some time!), and a history of early Los Angeles--this was by far my favorite part of the book. The sheer size of the Central library--along with the dozens of branches spread throughout Los Angeles--it boggles my mind how many people are required to run it every day, the sheer size of the collections, and the constant stream of patrons waiting to enter when the doors open at 10 AM.

Anyone who thinks libraries are not important today are simply clueless. Libraries are constantly changing to meet the demands of the public; they remain one of the few places around that welcome all-the homeless, the rich, the middle class, the poor, the illiterate, the well-educated. Those people who have nowhere else to go-libraries are a place to feel safe. And who wouldn't feel safe, surrounded by all those wonderful minds in all those books and materials just waiting to be picked up and examined? And it's all free. And there are people there who will help you with whatever information or resources you need. 

I loved reading the history of libraries in Los Angeles. I'm always interested in early LA and California, and this book offers a unique slice of it. It's a glimpse of the development of a library system that started from a very small space with a few books to a massive, sprawling system that serves millions of people, and all the challenges that were overcome in between. What's most interesting are the different talents each city librarian brought to the job over the first 100+ years of the LA library system. There is always work to be done. 

If you're a lover of books, or a librarian, buy this book. The inside covers make it look like a library book. You'll be fascinated by Harry Peak, the man who was suspected of starting the fire at Central Library. You'll be interested in what unfolds, and if he actually did it. He's just another quirky character in the life of the library. Most importantly, I hope, for you-that this will stir that desire to explore, read, and imagine that sometimes gets lost in our day to day world. Sit down and read a book. Wander the library stacks. Check out the website of your local library. Attend a program. It's all there, waiting for you. 

Rating: 5/6 for an engaging, delightful read about a horrible fire that could have ended the life of one library, but instead brought together a community to restore what was lost. Also a history of the Los Angeles library system-trust me, it's pretty interesting! 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

November Reads: Where I Double Down and Read Like a Crazy Book Lady

October, you wore me out. Seriously. Does it sound weird that the only "relaxing" thing I did all month was spend a few hours in my back yard picking up branches and cutting down plants? October was a whirlwind, and between a busy schedule and the encroaching darkness (time falls back this Sunday!) I am in need of some home alone time with my books. My plan for November is to go to work, fulfill my social obligations (which I've limited), work out, and otherwise be home. Reading while burning my 'Fall Day' candle, curled up under my comfy couch blanket.

It's an ambitious read list this month, and by the looks of my book choices, I'll be traveling the world a bit, too. Always good to break away from my usual reads and delve into different genres, authors, and settings. So here's what's on my list for November reads:

Reading this for two book groups. A novel set in Korea, about generations of a Korean family. Lots of great reviews; I'm anxious to dive in. It will take me some time to read it, but I have a deadline of November 20th to finish it for discussion.

I won a copy of this novel! Wahoo! Colombia in the 1990's... not my usual read.  
The latest in the Elementals Series by Mercedes Lackey. I love this series, and I miss reading my Sci-Fi/Fantasy. A welcome palate cleanser for my historical fiction reads. 

An ARC I received that looks like a remake of A Roman Holiday. Should be a fun, light read. 

I'm reading this now. About the 1986 fire at the Central Los Angeles Library that decimated the collection. Who did it, and why? 
Of course you know I'll be reading other books, too. They flit in and out and sometimes demand I stop what I'm reading and read them first. It happens on a regular basis...well, actually, weekly. 

November is my dedicated month to reading as much as I can, whenever I can. My top ten list is coming up at the end of December...can't wait to see what I pick at my favorite read of 2018. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

This novel fits into my Halloween reads perfectly: it involves mind tricks, ghosts, and a complicated family dynamic that leads the heroine down a dark path.

The Winters is a thriller that starts off quietly enough: you get foreshadowing from the opening pages; you know something has gone terribly wrong. But then you're introduced to our heroine, who remains nameless throughout the novel. At first I thought I had just missed her name, but no, it never comes up. Hmmmm....

Meeting on the Cayman Islands where she works a drudge of a job for a horrible boss, Mrs. Winters-to-be meets Senator Max Winter, and they quickly fall in love. She's not at all what his first wife, Rebekah, was, and she becomes obsessed with Rebekah. Tall, blonde, beautiful, classy; killed in a car accident on the grounds of Asherley estate, Max's family Long Island mansion. There's Dani, Max's teenage stepdaughter, who is still grieving the death of her mother, and is a handful. She's angry, bitter, and does not like Max's new fiancee. Dani goes to a lot of trouble to make the future Mrs. Winters miserable. 

As our heroine struggles to fit in at Asherley, you sense something just isn't right, and maybe Max isn't the perfect, debonair man she first met. But what is it?! Do we believe Dani, or Max? 

Oh--the last pages are a real kicker. It's like being in a boat, gently riding the waves, and then BAM! Here comes a big one, and it rocks the boat violently. You  feel for Mrs. Winters, because she really is trying to grapple with a new life, a new husband, and the ghost of Rebekah. Will she figure things out in time to save herself? 

This was a great thriller and a big thank you to Viking for sending me an an advanced copy. It takes the domestic thriller and turns it up a notch. It has a modern gothic feel to it that I appreciated and it almost lent a timelessness to it, even though it is firmly set in contemporary Long Island. For those who enjoy thrillers, pick this one up! 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel that leads you down the path, and you know something is wrong...but wow it all happens quickly and you read with baited breath. A very good thriller!

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

The World of Lore: Dreadful Places by Aaron Mahnke

I haven't listened to podcasts since I stopped commuting 100 miles a day a year ago.Let me tell you, those podcasts and audio books kept me company on early mornings and afternoons when I was sleepy and in danger of nodding off. Oftentimes I couldn't wait to get in the car to start listening again!

Lore is a podcast that I haven't listened to, and I probably would if I was in the habit of listening to podcasts at home. I prefer music when I'm working in the yard, and my commute is now less than 10 minutes. So I'm glad Aaron Mahnke decided to put his podcasts stories into book form. Dreadful Places is the third book; Monstrous Creatures and Wicked Mortals are also available in hardcover. I dove right into Dreadful Places, because it's Halloween Eve Eve and I love my spooky stories. 

Full of myths, folklore, and some tragically true tales, this book is a fun (yes, fun for me), easy read told in a conversational style. You can read a few pages, put it down, and return to it very easily. Tales from around the world, but mostly set in the U.S. reveal some of the spooky and haunted places that send chills up our spines. Some, like Leap Castle in Ireland, have been haunted for centuries. Others, like the Queen Mary in California, have echoes of World War 2 and tragic accidents from the 1960's to keep guests quaking in their shoes. There's a little bit of everything in this book, and it keeps you engaged and turning the pages. I enjoyed the black and white illustrations-just enough to give me an Edward Gorey vibe. 

It's always interesting to read legends and ghost stories that have been handed down over time. How much is real, and how much has been added and embellished by all those storytellers? Aaron Mahnke does attempt to demystify some of the tales, and others...well, you're left to wonder. 

Fun stuff!  There's also a show on Amazon Prime called Lore, for those who want to watch. It recreates some of the podcast stories so you'll be able to watch and then have colorful nightmares. 

This is exactly the kind of book I would have inhaled as a middle schooler. There's nothing overly graphic or horrible about the tales, just good old-fashioned spooky stories.  For fans of folktales, mythology, and local history. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, audio, and if you like to listen to podcasts, it's available through iTunes. Lore the show is available through Amazon Prime. 

Rating: 4/6 for a perfect pre-Halloween read-a mix of spooky tales that ask the question: what's true?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

This was a quick read I found at the library as I was checking in books. At first I thought it was a YA novel, but I discovered shortly after that is was actually a middle school novel. I never would have guessed, because it was well written, had great pacing, and well developed characters. I can't wait to read the next in the Cassidy Blake series!

Cassidy is pretty young; I think she's about 12 in this novel. She has a gift: she can see the dead. Not only that, but she can cross over into the "Veil" and see all of the restless spirits, and how they are each in their own little time bubble, trapped between life and death. Her sidekick, Jacob, is a young boy who saved her from drowning--and yes, he's a ghost. After her accident, she's got this crazy gift. And to add to the story, her parents are famous authors of ghostly tales. She doesn't dare tell her parents what she's capable of now, a year after her near fatal accident. 

Expecting to go on the family's usual summer beach vacation, she's disappointed to find out her parents have agreed to film their own tv program on ghostly haunts around the world. No beach vacation this year. First stop: Edinburgh, Scotland--reported to be one of the most haunted places around. She's reluctant to go, but doesn't really have a choice. 

Once in Edinburgh, Cassidy feels the tug of the Veil and the tap tap tapping of spirits everywhere she goes. A visit to Greyfriars cemetery exposes Cassidy and Jacob to an evil spirit that will stop at nothing to cross the Veil...

I throughly enjoyed this book--it's absolutely something I would have gobbled up as a kid. It's the kind of book I always wanted to write. I've visited Edinburgh, and I can say it has a very special feel to it. I've gone underground, visited Edinburgh Castle, and yes, if you stand still and be quiet, you can feel the vibrations of the past. I hope to go back someday. 

I'd recommend this novel to anyone who likes a good ghost read. It doesn't matter that this is a middle school novel. It never felt like one, and the story moved along well. Plenty of room for more adventures for Cassidy and Jacob. If you have any young kids in your life who love to read paranormal novels, this would make a great Christmas gift! I'm going to look at Victoria Schwab's other novels. If you're interested, check out her Goodreads page: Victoria Schwab.  

Rating:  4/6 for an unexpectedly good ghosty read. First in a series. Suitable for young readers and everyone who likes paranormal reads. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.