The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

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This novel tells of Pak Jun Do’s (John Doe’s) epic life, inextricably tied to the North Korean government’s bizarre whims. While reading, I felt like I was along for the journey and often was as confused as a captor being interrogated. I loved Johnson’s writing style – he plops you into the thick of it, letting you get immersed into all of the dumbfounding communist layers as the story enfolds.

Gwenamon says: I quite loved it

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Peony in Love by Lisa See

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This novel tells of Peony who succumbs to lovesickness in the exact same way a character from a famous opera does. We then experience Peony’s afterlife. I wish this novel was half as good as See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. But this novel is stilted, even boring at times, and often the character becomes too self-aware and explanatory as a cop-out (or so it feels) to move things along. The only thing I found interesting about this book, which I really don’t know why I finished, is See’s research. I really enjoyed the afterword. She could have done so much more with her hard work.

Gwenamon says: Avoid

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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

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“Manhattan Beach” tells Anna’s tale, from when she’s constantly by her father’s side as a 12-year-old during the Depression to during WWII, when she works at NYC’s naval yard as the provider for her family, since her father had by then deserted them. It’s a tale of love, familial loyalty, feminism, war, and organized crime. I loved “A Visit from the Goon Squad” and wanted to love Egan’s first work of historical fiction. But I didn’t. I found the fractured telling which worked so well for Goon Squad to be lackluster here, only reaping a reward at the very end. I also felt that Anna’s character wouldn’t have changed her mind about a crucial decision. However, I wholeheartedly appreciated Egan’s wonderful descriptions of emotion and memory.

Gwenamon says: Very good, just not great

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The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

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These interwoven stories tell of war, communism, art, family, love, and life’s grit and redemption. It’s hard to say if I loved these stories more than his novel – “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” but they cement that I’m a fan of Marra’s incredible storytelling and writing. I didn’t like the last story immensely, but the rest of them are top-notch.

Gwenamon says: Fantastic

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The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

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This novel spins fact and fiction to recount the last days of author Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte before they commit suicide while in exile from the Nazis. I confess that I had forgotten about reading this book until my husband reminded me. My explanation is that I read it during a bad batch of insomnia, which was probably a bad idea. The book is very dark (understandably) and somewhat fractured, with some beautiful writing.

Gwenamon says: Worthwhile

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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This is the read of utmost unhappiness, especially because I loved “The God of Small Things.” This is an incoherent “novel,” which is more like a draft of ideas. The story (if you can call it that) meanders confusingly and floats above the characters so you don’t connect with any of them. I think a Goodreads reviewer summed it up best: Roy is now more an activist than a writer. It’s too bad she didn’t apply her skill to use this book as a vehicle for education rather than obfuscation. This is totally a publisher’s money grab, like Harper Lee’s second novel.

Gwenamon says: So painful that I couldn’t finish it and boy, did I try

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I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal

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This is Ditie’s epic tale, full of dream-like descriptions and rather bizarre characters. He’s a lowly waiter whom we meet in a posh Prague hotel before WWII. As the war is about to begin, he falls in love with a Nazi gym teacher who takes him on new, misaligned adventures. I hated this book in the beginning, but that changed around page 100. I persevered only because it was a book-club pick. But I was happy that I finished it.

Gwenamon says: Worthwhile (if you follow through) and unique

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