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on February 23, 2016
Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son took me a long time to read. The incredible story of Pak Jun Do skips back and forth in time and if the reader isn't fully engaged it becomes confusing. However, I found it to be an excellent work of fiction that could, in a lot of places, be part of a memoir written by a North Korean defector. Jun Do is the son of a singer who was kidnapped and sent off to Pyongyang, the capitol of North Korea and a father who heads up an orphan's work camp. North Korea is a totalitarian government run by the Kim family dynasty who controls every aspect of the people's lives, and The Orphan Master's Son tells this story very well by showing us what Jun Do goes through to keep his head above water and to stay alive in a country where life can be ended for saying the wrong thing. There is also a love story that is threaded through the book.

Jun Do begins in the orphanage then goes to work in the tunnels that are totally dark. These run under the DMZ and are very dangerous to work in, but he becomes very good at what he does and goes on to language school where he doesn't learn very much. The teacher speaks English which the students are trying to learn, but he doesn't speak Korean. Jun Do is assigned to a kidnapping unit and although he doesn't like it he does as he is told, kidnapping people from the beaches of Japan. One of them is an opera singer and this makes Jun Do think of his own mother who was kidnapped in the same way. He serves time on a fishing boat where he listens to transmissions and follows two women rowing around the world as he listens for signals or transmissions from potential enemies. Jun Do finally winds up in a prison camp where he defeats Commander Ga in a martial arts fight, and who is a rival to Kim Jong-Il. Commander Ga is the husband of Sun Moon, who is a beautiful actress and singer. Jun Do has fallen in love with her.

There is famine and starvation in North Korea and Jun Do has to deal with that tragic outcomes of that. In the work camps there are scenes of violence, but I've read a lot of books including memoirs of defectors from this country and the violence that those who successfully made it out describe is much worse that what is in The Orphan Master's Son. This is a long, often convoluted read, but if you stick with it it is well worth the time spent when you reach the end and all loose ends are tied up nicely by this extraordinary author. It is one of those books you won't easily forget.
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on March 2, 2016
Amazing novel. Given the unfamiliar setting and disturbing events of the story, I found it dense and initially hard to follow. About halfway through the Confessions of Commander Ga, I decided to re-read the whole novel. Great idea. I picked up on subtleties in Jun Doh's character and experiences that I had not remembered from the first reading. Adam Johnson beautifully blends characters, details, humor, and thought-provoking insights throughout the novel. Everyone should re-read this fascinating novel. I was so drawn into the final moments of the novel that I couldn't stop reading - now I want to re-read it, not for comprehension, but for pleasure in the complex relationships that develop around Jun Doh. This novel will stay with me for a very long time. It is an important story, beautifully written and brilliantly constructed.
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on January 28, 2012
When I see reviews entitled something like "A Masterpiece" on Amazon, I often suspect they're hyperbole. But I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say this is one of the best books I've ever read, and as a compulsive reader for over 20 years, that's saying something.

Without spoiling anything, the novel starts much like you'd expect a novel about North Korea: it's foreign, bleak and disturbing. The first part of the book introduces us to Pak Jun Do -- the Orphan Master's Son of the title -- and it progresses steadily until you think you know what to expect from this novel. But at the end of Part I (about 25% through) the author shifts the story so surprisingly, so audaciously, I couldn't help but pay closer attention. Once I was hooked, I couldn't put the book down.

The Orphan Master's Son is one of those great novels, like The Life of Pi, that's both accessible and profound. It takes you to emotional places you didn't think you'd go, and yet by the end it all seems inevitable that you'd end up there. The author also did an incredible job rendering every nuance of the North Korean social climate. It's as if someone who lived there all his life wrote The Orphan Master's Son.

Mr. Johnson's storytelling is so masterful, it took me back to the feeling I had when I first fell in love with reading. I imagine this hauntingly beautiful novel will stay with me for many years.
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on August 27, 2015
I'm convinced that the only reason it won the Pulitzer is because it's the only thing that has been written about North Korea with any semblance of truth. Most people who have read it say, "I read it, but I'm not sure what was going on." My sentiments exactly. I found it to be an ordeal.
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on May 29, 2013
*Spoilers in the second paragraph down*

North Korea was best described to me as an entire country in a hostage situation. Every North Korean is a hostage living in the grip of an insanely capricious and deviously paranoid terrorist regime. "The Orphan Master's Son," the 2012 debut novel by Adam Johnson, is a powerful look at the country, the lifestyle of the people, and the terror that comes with living under a madman's rule. Johnson has written a fantastic character-driven story about a boy named Jun Do that dissects the autocratic tomfoolery of the North Korean regime. And boy is North Korea a straight up silly place. Before reading this book I recommend you search Google for an image of North Korean at night.

The story alternates from Jun Do's travels throughout the different stratospheres of North Korean rule to the account of the interrogator who is questioning Jun Do after his imprisonment. Jun Do grows up as the son of an orphan master, and is repeatedly mistaken for someone with no family. But in a way, all North Koreans are. He becomes a soldier, a kidnapper, a sailor, a spy, a prisoner, a liar, a hero. However, like any North Korean, he is forced into deeper and deeper deceptions as he must maintain the facade as a patriotic North Korean citizen - even bringing the North Korean lie to the American heartland. Eventually his lies catch up to him and he ends up imprisoned in a North Korean torture chamber.

Jun Do is the ultimate North Korean. He scraps for meals. He is a survivor. He is imprisoned for no reason. Brief aside: I'd have to rank a North Korean underground concentration camp as one of the top 5 worst places in the world (I would put it ahead of Waziristan and northeastern Nigeria but behind pretty much anyplace in Syria). His most valuable expertise - the ability to withstand torture and to sustain in total darkness - comes from his training as a tunnel soldier (Over the last 50 years North Korea has dug a variety of "incursion tunnels" underneath the DMZ. The latest was found in 1990). Jun Do and the rest of North Korea grew up in the darkness. But he learns from the darkness and is able to lie his way into a position of some power and class. After all, this is a regime where the everyone lies to the next person up the totem pole, all the way to the leaders, who tell the greatest lie: that North Korea is a communist utopia.

Johnson writes the story of Jun Do and the interrogator in steady and powerful prose, not flashy but consistently captivating. The dialogue is sometimes hilarious and the pacing is fluid. I raced through this book, and greatly enjoyed it. Of all the 2011 novels I've read, "The Orphan Master's Son" is either 1 or 1a on the list of best books. It combines a gripping plot with terrific writing and fully developed characters. Anyone with an interest in the silliness of North Korean or a deep psychological study should pick this sucker up.
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on May 31, 2012
Few people in the world can write knowledgeably about life in North Korea (DPRK), and within that subset of humanity, how many could reasonably create a novel? And not just any novel, but an intricately woven tale that incorporates the voice of an "enlightened" interrogator for the regime, as well as the perspective of an apparent orphan, or at least, a son of the master of an orphanage in North Korea. Oh, and add into this mix of characters a lonely, spoiled movie star of revolutionary films, a young girl working in a fish cannery dreaming of a better life in Pyongyang among the privileged elite, and cameo appearances by the Dear Leader, Kim Il-Jong, himself.

This novel left me haunted by not only the utter brutality and nightmarish quality of life in North Korea, but also the bittersweet love story of the eponymous "Orphan Master's Son" - his search for meaning in a surreal world where nothing has any meaning other than the story that is assigned to you by the Dear Leader, which can change based on his whim. While reading it I was struck with the parallels to Orwell's "!984", which this echoes in all of its melancholy and at times brutally disturbing depictions of life in prison camps, or just the sheer absurdity of life in a country where you can be randomly plucked from your commute to the office to work for a week in a "volunteers brigade" harvesting rice or filling sandbags to guard against floods.

I highly recommend this book for anyone like me who has a fascination for this modern day Hermit Kingdom, secluded from the outside world. Even those who don't have a basic understanding of life under the Kim's or what Juche is, can appreciate the amazing story that was created in this breathtaking novel. A work of art and a sure classic.
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on February 9, 2016
Full of twists. Everytime I thought I knew what was going to happen next, something else happened. And this book stimulated my intrest in North Korea, its history and its geography. Some in my book group thought it was too extreme, too tongue in cheek, too outrageous, hyperbolic, but I think it speaks to the extremes that the North Korean people live in, and at the same time the story is very personal. I felt I was with the main character Jun Do every step of the way. I'd give it 5 stars but that it seemed a few chapters too long, and the fact that others didn't enjoy it as much as I did tells me it isn't an easy read for some.
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on May 26, 2013
I think this is a good book but I do not think it worthy of a Pulitzer. Many Americans, like me, are drawn into a book like this just because they are fascinated by North Korea, if for no other reason than its obscurity. I think that accounts for much of the book's popularity, as long as we can believe its curtain-pulling is based mostly on hard facts and not just the author's imagination. But I always downgrade a work of fiction for failure to tie up loose ends, and, were I on the Pulitzer Committee would point out the following ones for this work:

1. Did the Dear Leader figure out how the camera worked when "Commander Ga" (Jun Do) failed to produce copies of the photos as requested? It is hinted at, but never explicitly stated, that he did, but we're mostly given to speculate on that.

2. Whatever happened to Second Mate? Was this left as a mystery for literary reasons or just because the author just didn't want to bother to follow up on it?

3. How did Jun Do manage to keep his camera hidden from the guards during the entirety of his incarceration?

4. Who was Mongnan, really? There's some suggestion she's actually Jun Do's mother, but the facts are never revealed to us.

And finally, and most importantly:

5. Did Sun Moon and/or her kids live or die? The author points out the failure to cut air holes in the barrels in which they were smuggled onto the cargo plane, and it's fairly clear that they left on that plane, but we never know in what condition they arrived at their destination. It's hard to believe that this last one isn't deliberate, but I can't for the life of me figure out why the author left us hanging.

By the way, I do NOT object to his flash-back-flash-forward technique, but it's one thing to leave questions unanswered temporarily in pursuit of that technique; it's quite another never to answer those questions at all.

All in all, an enjoyable and fascinating, if flawed, read.
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on June 25, 2016
I bought this book based on its Pulitzer prize and the often-favorable reviews. I kept waiting for the story to pull together and make sense, got about 80 percent through, put it down for an evening, then never picked it up again.

The main character reminded me of an unsympathetic North Korean version of Forrest Gump. He kidnaps and kills people from Japan, then he's a spy on a fishing boat, then he's a hero, then he's tortured, then he's sent to a Texas senator's ranch of all places, then he's imprisoned in a North Korean camp, then he kills (or I think he killed) a general, then he somehow escapes and assumes the general's identity, becomes a confidant of the "Dear Leader" (who seemingly doesn't notice the general's not who he used to be) while moving in with the general's beautiful movie star wife (who for some baffling reason sees little out of the ordinary with this), then he's thrown in prison where he's viciously tortured again. What happens after this, I don't know or care since that's where I finally just gave up even the pretense of being interested.

If that story line isn't convoluted, confusing and improbable enough, a large part of the events take place out of sequence — jumping back and forth between time periods, assumed names and incongruent storyline tangents into the family lives of torturing interrogators. Like I mentioned, it reminded me of a brutal North Korean version of Forrest Gump — only totally lacking in humor.
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on May 30, 2015
The Orphan Master's Son is one of the most puzzling, compelling novels I've read in a long time. Its main story, set in what might or might not be present-day North Korea, is so depressing that I often didn't think I'd continue. Yet I did, because the writing is so very good. We follow the life story of a man brought up in an orphanage (though not an orphan, he maintains, because his father is the orphan master, and has taken that job so that they won't be separated by the state). Orphans in North Korea, we learn, are drafted into the next-to-worst of all jobs (the worst ones, mining where you never see daylight until you die, for example, are performed by prisoners). Our hero, Jun Do, is first a tunnel rat, tunneling under the DMZ to South Korea so that someday an attack can be launched that way by North Korea. From there he's recruited--forced, really--into kidnapping vulnerable Japanese who will be used to teach North Koreans the Japanese language. His career moves on from there. He becomes close to one of the Kims (it's unclear which one) and even more important, close to one of the Dear Leader's former girlfriends, a position he manipulates into an amazing, almost surrealistic denouement.

The everyday casual violence of this imagined North Korea may discourage you from reading, but if so, you'll miss an extraordinary novel.
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