The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's SonThe Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Pak Jun Do believes he is special. Growing up in a North Korean orphanage is only circumstantial; his father must be the orphan master. The severe beatings are proof he receives no favoritism. Jun Do also knows he is special when he is chosen as a tunnel commander, a kidnapper and a spy. Fortune must shine on him in the labour camp as surely, unlike the other prisoners, he will be released soon.
Told by both Jun Do and an unnamed progressive interrogator, The Orphan Master’s Son will make you wonder if fortune is always a good thing.

First Impressions: I was really keen to read this novel based on all the fantastic reviews I had seen. However, I found it really hard to get into at first and didn’t really see the point to the story. Suddenly, at about page 98, something clicked and I was hooked.

Highlights: This novel made me want to read more about North Korea. I knew about the Japanese kidnappings from university studies but this novel made me rethink it all with a new perspective. I also recall hearing about all the prettiest girls being sent to Pyongyang but again the novel made me reconsider this information. Adam Johnson does incredibly well at underlying the reasons why individuals don’t defect when given the opportunity; it is ingrained in the North Korean psyche. Similar to this are the vague references to punishments characters have had to endure; their crimes are not revealed and people don’t think to ask or explain. I thought the scene when one of the characters explains to his son that they will always be holding hands in their heart if they have to denounce one another quite unforgettable and the haunting absence of a photo of the Dear Leader in one room Jun Do enters lingered with me.

If I was an editor: I would wonder if Kim Song-Il should feature as a character. Pak could still move within the upper echelons of North Korea without a personality being imposed on the mysterious leader himself. Despite this, Adam Johnson took a sensible and measured approach to the Great Leader’s character.

Overall: A story I really liked but found it difficult to love. Someone told me to vision it as a documentary reel and upon reflection this is great advice.

The Orphan Master’s Son: 4 stars

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KGB Sweetheart: Red Joan

Red JoanRed Joan by Jennie Rooney

Jennie Rooney is another author I met at the New Books Magazine Readers Day in 2013. I apologise to Jennie for taking so long to finish my review! Jennie was one of the morning speakers and when I arrived I was unsure if I should buy a copy of the book; it was in hardback after all! However, as soon as Jennie’s interview was over I raced out to buy Red Joan as I was captivated by what I had heard.

Based on the true story of Melita Norwood, a British woman outed as a KGB intelligence source in 1999, Red Joan follows the story of Joan Stanley, a British woman who becomes intrigued by glamorous Sonya and taciturn Leo, two Russian students also studying at Cambridge in 1937. After university Joan takes a job at a government ministry and has the option of helping the KGB should she choose. The story is told both in the present day dissecting the relationship between Joan and her son, as well as in a series of flashbacks.

First Impressions: I love the cover of the hardback! As for the content, I was absolutely hooked from the first page and read it in just over a day which was no mean feat while pregnant.

Highlights: I really enjoyed reading about the relationship Joan had with her family. Jennie Rooney certainly put a lot of thought into the full story of Joan, not just the spy element. Joan’s involvement with Sonya and Leo and her decision to become involved with the KGB were also realistic. I feared such a story may have included an overly dramatic moral dilemma based on love but the whole book was incredibly well written. Joan’s decisions were calculated and rational, just like her intelligent character.

If I was an editor: I could not praise Jennie Rooney enough for her novel. I would also want to know when her next novel will be finished!

Overall: Fantastic. A story of relationships rather than a spy thriller. A contemporary historical novel that inspired me to do more reading around the topic. This would definitely be my book of 2013 if I had put together a list!

Red Joan: 5 stars

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