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3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
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Let me start by saying I was so impressed with this novel that I am going to come across like Adam Johnsons' mum, publisher, editor, best friend, paid acquaintance or a combination of any of the above. I was actually lucky enough to get a copy and just read it. The blurb makes it sound like a sort of comedy set in North Korea, in actuality it is a staggering achievement as to what you can do when you truly love the subject as Johnson does.

It is in two parts, the first chronicles the life or rather endurance and suffering of Jun Do; he is the son of the Orphan Master, after his mother was taken away to entertain the big wigs in Pyongyang, they were left alone. All beautiful girls from the provinces are taken away like this. It is also shameful to be an orphan and they have their real names ignored and are replaced with the names of fallen martyrs. This way they will always carry the mark and shame of being an orphan. Jun Do's father pretends he too is an orphan and treats him more harshly than the others, it is an existence of grinding poverty ' made worse by the compulsory loud speakers that spout blatant propaganda all day and act as brain washing devices.

In turns he becomes a tunnel assassin in the Demilitarized Zone, a kidnapper and reluctant and not very good spy. He also ends up on a fishing boat where he gets the love of his life's image tattooed over his heart ' the 'best actress in the world' Sun Moon - not her real name, but chosen for her by The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il; or the fat tyrant who is famous for his song 'I so Ronery', as we know him in the Imperialist West.

Then Part Two deals with the Taekwando Champion of the World and husband to the best actress ' Commander Ga. He is famous for many things including ridding the army of homosexuals. This is done oft times by seeing if they can fend off his 'man attacks' ' a veiled euphemism for full on rear entry intercourse. If you fail well then you must have wanted it ' makes perfect sense.

This book was researched by Adam Johnson for over six years and he visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to ensure authenticity. He has crammed so much in that it is as educational as it is both entertaining and moving. He brings all the characters to life and brilliantly highlights the failings of the West when viewed through the eyes of the North Koreans. Whilst at the heart of this there is a central theme of love and sacrifice, there is hope, there is humour, though comi-tragic would probably best describe it; but moreover there is a page turner of a story that had me hooked from the start and kept me right to the end. I actually had a dream about the characters at one point, I was that caught up in the book. I can not say enough good things about this brilliant, original, fascinating and thoroughly captivating read. I am longing for his next one and even if it takes another six years it will be worth the wait.
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on May 18, 2016
Still reading it.It is so information dense I can only read a little at a time.
You are totally immersed in Korea and what went/is going on there.
I love learning about other cultures and countries.
Excellently written.....
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Firstly, the standard disclaimer. I received this book in a GoodReads drawing so it made its way to my door at no cost as part of the book's marketing. Even so, as always I will endeavor to give the book an honest airing.

I rated the Orphan Master at 5 stars but to be honest it's a rather weak five stars. The topic, the novel and varied life of a North Korean orphan and conscripted soldier, is automatically amusing before the second page is even turned. We get to see what life is at least theorized to be like in that backwards little Asian country. The depiction is keenly Orwellian and inspires great pity for a people so ruthlessly used by a tyrant for generations.

All that said though it does begin, after a while to inspire a bit of ennui. There's only so much to say and Johnson seems to say it again and again and again. At half way I was a ship happily adrift in the sea of this novel. By the last few pages I was just tired and looking for the shore. The ending, though dramatic and appropriate, failed to spur me to awe because of the length of time it took to get to it and the fact that it was fairly obvious after all the lead-up.

Well worth a read, perhaps spread out over a lazy week or so. Transitions between narrators can be abrupt in the last half of the book though so take special care to figure out exactly who it is suddenly using the first person before you go to far. Enjoy!
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on February 18, 2014
In another book, 'Nothing to Envy -Ordinary Lives in North Korea ' by Barbara Demick in the first chapter is a satellite view of N & S Korea at night. The bottom half has a smattering of lit up inhabited areas w Seoul largely evident as the capitol by the size of whiteness or lightness against blackness of night. Whereas, the upper N. Korea looks almost non existent, a couple of dots like two pple smoking or an insignificant flicker a plane against starless universe. So daunting is that image taken from space, it has stayed w me as the 'picture says it all'.

I realize this author was awarded the Pulitzer Prize be sure to read the short interview at the end w editor asking the questions. As this is a novel & not based on real characters, I know of the propaganda constantly being fed to the poor to ensure allegiance to "Dear Dictator, the father" before family members. The great famine is not exaggerated, (the worst imaginable, hundreds of thousands died, yet outside aid was rejected which oddly is absent, I believe, in this narrative)Imo, there were too many scenarios that were obviously created to personalize , since the author was not given access to interview the 'common pple' during his visit to N K. As expected, he was escorted & closely watched as he made his way to sites & places. He was allowed to request (within reason of a Communist country living in the dark day & night where pple were made to believe there were no better places & contained elements of deprived living, , working in terrible conditions however he went to an Orphanage which has a constant underscoring in the story. The rest of his information was through interviewing those who defected, though he d o es say few do.

In my opinion, there was one flaw in the conveying the reality of N.K as Adams says, readers relate to pple not things, so he created characters based on his interaction w NK defectors & what he witnessed in a supervized tour. If you want to depict w authenticity, why make the characters speak like Americans? I found this distracting, as it lessened the credibility. I understand that a Korean speaking English would sound as such, direct translation never comes out the same. But Jun the "translator" who was used to eaves drop on conversations over his radio at sea, was to basically understand & be able to forward the gist to NK authorities, never was adept at speaking, yet he's fluent in some scenarios w Americans, as is his phrasing. But it's the constant dialogue which is supposed to be in native tongue but translated for us, just misses any expressions, terms, idiom of speech. We don't all say the same thing the same ways & that's mostly how the characters spoke. Only the daily announcements, propaganda came closer to authentic. I think there is so much that readers want to know about NK that these sci fi & James Bond scenarios were un necessary the Texas visit, they didn't feel plausible , as w turning into Capt Ga after his demise & everyone treating you as him though they know he's not.

There are special touches such as the rowers that Jun hears over the radio. The constant making up stories between men for the knowledge they will be punished for another's escape or being where they shouldnt be in waters fishing, finding Nike's shoes....discovery the last holiday place for elders isn't there.

The story is disjointed, i often wasn't sure what was past or present, who was w ho, esp when a previous character who is the main one, becomes someone else who is also featured, so that Ga is the real Ga, & Ga is Jun. You find him transformed before the explanation is given as to why, how, & where is Ga?

I do have a question that I'd put to the writer. Knowing what you know, & having written a chilling & derogatory book which reveals N.K as a place worse than hell...why do you thank by name a few pple in Korea who accompanied you & were assigned for you NOT to see anything that could be transcribed as negative, much less evil? Surely, they did not know you were using this approved (rarely given) visit for this purpose. What do you think will become of those who will be accused of telling information they should never have? The fact you sourced it from libraries & interviews from defectors won't make any difference will it? Who will pay the cost when you recd the Pulitzer Prize? .....according to your own words, someone(s) take the fall. I was left w this haunting thought.
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on April 22, 2012
This novel is about the adventures and misadventures of Pak Jun Do, a North Korean, who is raised in the `Long Tomorrows' orphanage his father is director of. Jun Do never knew his mother - we are told that she is a singer of great beauty who was shipped to Pyongyang. His name, like those of the other orphans, is given to him from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. He is, simultaneously, everyone and no-one. Jun Do even sounds like John Doe.

After the orphanage is devastated, Jun Do is sent to the military where first he undertakes training in zero-light combat in the tunnels under the demilitarized zone, and then on an undercover mission which involves kidnapping Japanese from the beaches. And then, Jun Do is sent to language school to learn English, which gets him assigned to a boat to transcribe radio intercepts. Once back on land, he is assigned to an intelligence team travelling to Texas where he meets a Senator and his wife.

`There's no way around it: to get a new life, you've got to trade in your old one.'

After returning from Texas, Jun Do ends up in a labour camp where he takes over the life and identity of a North Korean military hero, Commander Ga. In this half of the novel, the depiction of North Korea may exceed a reader's wildest imaginings. `The Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il, who died shortly before this book was published, is Commander Ga's rival for the affections of Commander Ga's wife, an actress named Sun Moon.

It's complicated, and convoluted and doesn't always make sense. It's jarring at times to switch from the omniscient narrator who tells the `real' story, to the ever-present loudspeakers that tell the version of the story the government wants its citizens to hear and then, in the second half of the novel, to include the interrogator whose responsibility is to make sure that every citizen's story is told. In the end, after most of the pieces fall into place, Pak Jun Do does really become a hero - but not an official North Korean one. I'm ambivalent about setting a dystopian novel in a country where fiction can easily be read as fact but, in the end, it's that blurring of possibility that makes this novel such a powerful read. It's satirical and sad, as well as amusing and unsettling.

`What are you going to believe, citizens? Rumours and lies, or your very own eyes?'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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on December 28, 2013
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. The author did a lot of research on life in North Korea and it comes across in the writing to completely immerse you in the experience. Based on facts, historical events, places and people, this non-fiction peice of literary heaven will leave you wanting more from the first page right through to the last. A great read.
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on October 5, 2013
Not having many preconceived ideas about a story which takes place in North Korea, I was soon gripped by this unique, complex tale. The author takes the reader places which are highly uncomfortable, while intriguing. The characters are well-developed and leave an impression, although a haunting one.
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on June 30, 2013
This book captures well what must be a completely disorienting experience living in North Korea. A well told story that maintains a perfect pace and level of tension throughout.
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on February 8, 2015
Half way through this difficult read and will not continue. Have already grasped the essential message that North Korea is dehumanizing .. soul destroying -- the entire country a prison in itself. Don't quibble with Johnson's ability to write well, but think that his point could have been made in half the time. To force the reader to endure page after page of descriptions of the mechanized brutality of the state, may reinforce his message, but also tries the reader's patience.
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on May 18, 2015
An awesome read holding you captive from the beginning page. Sending you tumbling into confusion as the time and narrative changes. Could not put it down. A truly great read and horrifically realistic insight as to what North Korea may be like.
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