Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.

Pachinko is a multi-generational family saga which starts with Sunja, the teen-aged daughter of two poor but loving parents who instill in Sunja a love of family and the value of hard work and sacrifice for the sake of those you love. Over the course of this 500-page novel, we follow Sunja from Korea to Japan, and then follow her descendants through two more generations, as her children and her grandchildren struggle to find their place living in Japan but never able to shed their otherness as Koreans.

The early sections of the book focus on Sunja herself, as she finds herself pregnant by an older man who offers to set her up with a comfortable life as his Korean wife, despite never being able to marry her since he’s already married in Japan. When Sunja rejects his offer, she faces a life of shame until a kind but ill minister decides to devote himself to her and provide a life for Sunja and the baby in Osaka.

Life in Japan is hard, as the Koreans live in a squalid ghetto-like neighborhood and struggle to survive. As the second World War progresses, the family faces greater and greater dangers, and yet Sunja’s family grows through her two sons as well as the extended family she finds in her brother- and sister-in-law.

Over the years, Sunja’s children grow into young men, and each faces his own set of obstacles and challenges. While post-war Japan offers greater opportunities in some ways, the Korean immigrants and their Japanese-born children are continually treated as inferior, looked upon as dirty and undesirable and criminal. The discrimination, portrayed in this book through the 1980s, is unrelenting and very disturbing.

The plot covers about 50 years, and during these decades the focus shifts away from Sunja and toward the younger generation and their friends, relationships, and their own struggles. While my attention was mostly held throughout, by the last third of the book I started to feel that the story was becoming a little too dispersed. Not only were there chapters about Sunja’s children and grandchildren, but there was also a chapter focused on the wife of Sunja’s son’s best friend and other on the girlfriend of one of her sons. As more and more characters are introduced and given backstories, the main characters tend to slip into the background. Why should Sunja’s story become less interesting as she ages? She’s little more than a supporting character by the final sections of the book, although the final chapters wrap up her story very well and bring the various plot points back together.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and discuss in Pachinko. I knew little about Korean history or the status of Koreans living in Japan prior to reading this book, so it was quite eye-opening for me. The intricate relationships and tensions between the characters are informed by the social status of the Koreans and how they view themselves and their roles in Japan, sometimes in really destructive ways.

Pachinko is an ambitious novel that covers a woman’s life from girlhood to old age, showing her loves and commitments and determination, as well as the legacy she leaves for her children. With memorable characters and heart-breaking events, Pachinko would make a great book group choice, as there’s plenty of food for thought and discussion.

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The details:

Title: Pachinko
Author: Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: February 7, 2017
Length: 502 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman

 

Two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and each burdened with her own shocking secret, are reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. While one sister lives in relative ease on the bucolic Armory campus as an officer’s wife, the other arrives as a war widow and takes a position in the Armory factories as a “soldier of production.” Resentment festers between the two, and secrets are shattered when a mysterious figure from the past reemerges in their lives.

The Wartime Sisters is the second novel by Lynda Cohen Loigman, whose debut novel The Two-Family House came out in 2016 (reviewed here). Both books focus on women’s lives during the 20th century, and both examine the intricate relationships between sisters, friends, and the people who come into their lives.

In The Wartime Sisters, Millie and Ruth couldn’t be more different. Ruth is three years older than Millie, and spends her entire childhood and adolescence hearing about her sister’s beauty and charm. Millie is the one their mother pins her hopes on, fantasizing about how the endless crowd of suitors will yield the perfect man to propose to Millie and make all her dreams come true. Meanwhile, Ruth grows up realizing that she’ll never be the pretty one, and resents Millie for always being the center of attention… never stopping to ask herself if Millie actually wants or enjoys the attention that comes her way.

The story flashes back and forth between the late 1930s, as the girls approach womanhood, and 1942/1943, as they settle into life at an army base in Massachusetts. We learn over time how they came to be there, and how they became so estranged from one another following their parents’ death.

Interwoven throughout their chapters on their earlier years is a nice evocation of Jewish life in Brooklyn at that time, showing the ways in which the family’s religion and culture define their world, their friends, and their approaches to life. Meanwhile, in Springfield, both Millie and Ruth form new bonds among the military wives and base workers, who represent a different but no less vibrant sort of community.

The Wartime Sisters shows the damage done to women’s souls through neglect and abuse, and also by the small and large cruelties carried out through resentment and gossip. In Springfield, we meet two additional women who fill large roles in the sisters’ new lives: Lillian, the base commander’s wife, with her own troubled childhood, is a pillar of strength and goodness amidst the turmoil; and Arietta, a motherly woman with a talent for both singing and cooking, takes Millie under her wing.

It’s sad to see the conflict between Ruth and Millie. As Ruth’s husband is sent overseas as a wartime scientist and Millie arrives, husband-less, impoverished, and burdened by secrets, it would seem that the two women finally have an opportunity to reclaim their relationship and establish a new closeness. Sadly, although Ruth offers a home to Millie, the warmth and ease that should come with it is missing. While the author lets us see why Ruth feels as she does and how her resentments built over time, it’s still hard to empathize. As far as we can see, Millie has never done anything wrong, has never set out to hurt Ruth or to undermine her. Ruth blames Millie for the incessant comparisons unkind neighbors have made all their lives, but it’s clearly just so unfair. Because of Ruth’s animosity, Millie is left to deal with their parents’ death on her own, and makes some calamitous decisions that bring about hardship and suffering. It’s hard to forgive Ruth for what she put Millie through.

In terms of the historical settings, I enjoyed learning about the Springfield Armory and the role women played in wartime readiness and production. The characters are colorful and memorable, and Arietta in particular is a delight to meet.

Overall, I found The Wartime Sisters to be moving and engaging. The story is crisp and nicely constructed, and the length means that it never feel draggy. I enjoyed the exploration of Ruth and Millie’s relationship, and despite being super annoyed with Ruth for much of the story, I thought the build-up of their history together and the explanation of all the baggage they carry with them was really effective and realistic.

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The details:

Title: The Wartime Sisters
Author: Lynda Cohen Loigman
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Shelf Control #147: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Women in the Castle
Author: Jessica Shattuck
Published: 2017
Length: 356 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined in an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding.

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

First Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin s mother, the beautiful and naive Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resister s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war each with their own unique share of challenges.

Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.

How and when I got it:

I won it in a Goodreads giveaway.

Why I want to read it:

Talk about guilt! I was so excited when I won this book — and somehow, it seems to always fall behind the nightstand or slip off the TBR stack (metaphorically speaking), and I’ve just never gotten to it. My husband read it soon after I first received it, and he thought it was incredibly powerful. I really have no excuse, and it makes me seem horribly ungrateful not to have read a giveaway book already. The subject matter sounds fascinating, and I know (from hubby as well as others) that it’s well worth reading. Note to self: Let’s make this a priority for 2019!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Thursday Quotables: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
(published 2016)

This story of wartime love and loss is full of hard, sad moments:

She’d known with certainty that she needed him only when he had turned away from her on the platform at Waterloo. How her heart had dropped — as if there were no end to falling. When the hour had come for the war to take him away, that had been the first and last moment she had known without doubt that she loved him.

One knew how one felt only when things ended.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Book Review: The Ship of Brides

20510869In 1946, thousands of war brides set sail to join the men they married and start their new lives. Can you imagine the bravery involved? Around the world, in the midst of the second World War, local girls fell into hasty, romantic marriages with soldiers stationed in their towns. Is there a more swoon-worthy ideal than the heroic GI, on leave for a few days, wooing the local girl and then heading back into battle?

Following the war, the British government made it their business to reunite the brides and their men, commissioning ships to transport the young women to England. Competition to get onboard was fierce; the brides lived in suspense, waiting for their letters to arrive to confirm that it would finally be their turn.

In The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes, originally published in 2005 and getting its first US release this month, we follow the journeys of four Australian war brides as they embark on their life-changing journeys. As the story progresses, we get to know more about each young woman, what makes her tick, and how she ends up crossing oceans for the sake of love. We meet:

  • Jean, the 16-year-old party girl, uneducated and slightly crass, but with a taste for fun and a daring spirit. Jean seems to 1373381genuinely love her soldier Stan, whom she married in a flurry of flirtation.
  • Avice, a wealthy society girl who always strives to be seen as the epitome of proper wifey-ness. Avice always has to be just that much better than everyone else.
  • Maggie, a farm girl who’s devoted herself to caring for her father and brothers for the last few years. She’s never been away from home until now — but can a carefree country girl find happiness among strangers in England?
  • Frances, a nurse who’s seen the horrors of war first-hand caring for released POWs in army hospitals. Frances has a reserve and dignity about her, and doesn’t appear to be caught up in the girlish frivolity of the other brides. There’s something going on behind the quiet appearance; Frances is clearly a woman with secrets.

As The Ship of Brides begins, we find out that the bride program is winding down. Some earlier voyages were made aboard luxury liners — but disappointingly for Avice and some of the others, the ship available for our group is the HMS Victoria, a British aircraft carrier that’s seen better days. Rather than sailing in comfy staterooms and dining in formal dining rooms, these brides are provided with hastily built dorm-style cabins in the nooks and crannies of the naval ship, allowed up on deck for exercise, and eating in the converted mess areas. Oh, and the sailors’ areas are strictly off-limits: Yes, these are newly married brides — but they’re also young women spending six weeks at sea in close quarters with a bunch of sailors… and you really can’t be too careful, at least as far as the Navy is concerned.

The Ship of Brides provides a vivid depiction of life on board the ship, aptly showing the unlikely contrast of frilly women’s fashions and the need for a makeshift hair salon with a naval vessel full of planes, fuel, gray walls, and a company of Marines. It’s not just the brides venturing into life-changing territory. For the men on board, the journey represents their voyage home from war — a return to normalcy, to civilian life, and to a peace-time existence that has only been a distant memory during the war years. For the brides as well as for the sailors and soldiers, the six weeks of the voyage are full of uncertainty, hope, and fear.

1172548Fear especially comes into play for the brides as they look ahead toward their married lives. Most had whirlwind romances and hasty marriages; for many, their time spent thus far with their new husbands can be counted in days or weeks. And yet, here they are, sailing around the world and leaving everything behind in pursuit of love and happiness. Nothing is guaranteed, though. After the initial giddiness of the departure from Sydney, the brides inhabit a sort of purgatory, an in-between time with no assurance of a happily-ever-after. Over the course of the journey, several brides receive the dreaded Not Wanted Don’t Come telegram — and once the husband has changed his mind, the journey is over for that bride, who is taken off ship at the next available port and sent back home to pick up her life in Australia once again. No matter how excited and in love the brides are, no matter how romantic their stories of wartime wooing, each knows that this could possibly be her own fate, and the nervous energy of uncertainly underlies each waking hour.

The book gets off to a somewhat slow start, and it’s not immediately clear at the outset who the main characters are and about whom we’re really intended to care. But within a few chapters, we begin to know the brides more deeply, and as the story progresses, we become completely invested in their fates and their potential for finding happiness.

The characters themselves are sharply defined, each with her own story to tell. Frances is the most interesting of the lot and the one whose journey I found the most compelling. There’s a noble tragedy to her tale, and I couldn’t help feeling her pain and her hope as the story unfolded. In many ways, The Ship of Brides is an old-fashioned love story, but with a sense of honor and hopefulness that I found utterly romantic. The young women are often depicted as silly girls, chasing dreams of glamorous love that can’t possibly hold up in real life, and yet there’s something so brave and vulnerable in their commitment to their dreams, stepping out into the unknown in pursuit of their hopes for happiness.

The Ship of Brides is truly a lovely book, perfectly capturing the heady adventure of wartime love, and the bravery of countless young women who took the ultimate risk in pursuit of a dream. I’d never really known much about the war bride phenomenon, and found this book to be an eye-opening peek at a unique little corner of history. I learned a lot, and yet never felt like I was reading a history lesson. Instead, I became swept up by the personalities and courage of the characters, and felt like I was on the edge of my seat, hoping and praying for a happy ending.

If you enjoy a well-written love story with unique characters and a moving narrative, check out The Ship of Brides! As for me, I’ll be reading as many books by this author as I possibly can, starting with Me Before You for a November book group selection.

See my reviews of more books by Jojo Moyes:
The Girl You Left Behind
One Plus One

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The details:

Title: The Ship of Brides
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: October 28, 2014 (originally published in UK in 2005)
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Books via NetGalley

Flashback Friday: A Town Like Alice

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight — and you’re invited to join in!

Here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

A Town Like Alice

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

(first published 1950)

From Goodreads:

Nevil Shute’s most beloved novel, a tale of love and war, follows its enterprising heroine from the Malayan jungle during World War II to the rugged Australian outback.

Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman living in Malaya, is captured by the invading Japanese and forced on a brutal seven-month death march with dozens of other women and children. A few years after the war, Jean is back in England, the nightmare behind her. However, an unexpected inheritance inspires her to return to Malaya to give something back to the villagers who saved her life. But it turns out that they have a gift for her as well: the news that the young Australian soldier, Joe Harmon, who had risked his life to help the women, had miraculously survived. Jean’s search for Joe leads her to a desolate Australian outpost called Willstown, where she finds a challenge that will draw on all the resourcefulness and spirit that carried her through her war-time ordeals.

It’s hard to neatly sum up A Town Like Alice. Part of it is a moving, horrifying account of a death march during World War II, in which civilians women and children suffered and died. Great courage and sacrifice move the story forward, and this segment of the book concludes with terrible events and a tragic outcome. From there, the narrative moves into the story of a woman rebuilding her life, determined to make a difference, and not fitting the mold of a complacent, wealthy Englishwoman. The remainder of the book is filled with adventure, and is part frontier drama and part romance. That’s a lot to fit into a not particularly long book (the mass market paperback version is under 300 pages), but gifted author Nevil Shute pulls it off.

A Town Like Alice takes place in gorgeous, rough, wild settings include Malayan jungles and the Australian Outback. The characters are heroic and steely, and Jean herself is a delight. Nevil Shute’s writing conveys the terror of war and the triumph of human spirit. This is just a lovely, lovely book, and although it’s been many years since I read it, I remember certain parts of it quite vividly, and always list it among my favorites.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that way back when there was a TV mini-series of A Town Like Alice, with a very photogenic cast:

I have no idea if the TV series itself would be worth watching today or if it would feel tremendously dated, but I’m willing to bet that the book holds up quite nicely. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think!

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join the Flashback Friday fun, write a blog post about a book you love (please mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the Flashback Friday host!) and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!