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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars one hell of a good read
Fantastic story that took me by surprise. It takes a good 200 pages before you really get the gist of what is happening but it feels great when it all fits into place. Also I think Adam Johnson deserves an enormous amount of praise for tackling this incredibly difficult, yet often ignored, problem that is N.Korea. American audiences no doubt hear a great deal about...
Published 23 months ago by M. Johnson

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Surprised that it won a Pulitzer
The North Korean setting was intriguing and one of the main reasons I picked up the book, having finished Escape From Camp 14 not too long ago (which is a must read if you have an interest in the country). While the author does a great job at re-creating what we suspect the country may be like, I found the book incredibly hard to get into. I almost put it down a few...
Published 14 months ago by A. Chu


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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars one hell of a good read, 22 May 2013
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Fantastic story that took me by surprise. It takes a good 200 pages before you really get the gist of what is happening but it feels great when it all fits into place. Also I think Adam Johnson deserves an enormous amount of praise for tackling this incredibly difficult, yet often ignored, problem that is N.Korea. American audiences no doubt hear a great deal about N.Korea but here in the UK we only hear about it when there is another missile test. It's incredibly disturbing to think a regime as backward as this has lasted so long. I was too young to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall, I'm optimistic though that I will live to see the end of the DMZ.

Bearing in mind this is fiction, the narrative still projects a powerful real life message - something I an unlikely to forget anytime in the future.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson, 4 May 2013
By 
RachelWalker "RachelW" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Orphan Master's Son (Paperback)
I admit, if i had read about this book a year or two ago I probably wouldn't have been quite so intrigued by it. If there's any book that can be said to be topical and follow a resurgent trope, this is it. Not in any kind of exploitative way, needless to say. But through a series of unpleasant coincidences, this really should be the book of the moment, the one on everyone's lips. Not just for its topicality, but for it's quality also.

This is the story of a North Korean orphan boy, and his journey from the orphanage to the interrogation bunkers of his nation's Dear Leader. The structure is complex, and certainly not linear. The first couple of hundred pages tell of our orphaned young man's early adventures in his homeland, and the second tell of his fantastical reach into the echelons of the mad power structure of the country under the guise of one Commander Ga. The first section is [relatively] straightforward, the second is the more challenging, but once you get your head around what's going on, it is by some distance the more rewarding of the two sections (not that the first is not of high quality). It also becomes the most compulsively gripping, interesting, frightening, and dangerously strange.

This is a book about many things: identity and stories predominantly, however (characters lie, act, pretend, say what they expect the leaders want to hear, change names, change personalities, change husbands, change life-stories). The narrative message that's what is conveyed by narrative is true, whether or not it is the truth, is one of the overarching messages here. Certainly in terms of life in North Korea.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of the story is the humanity of some of the characters, the citizens of Korea. Just like you and I, of course, but who live their lives with a complete different structure and belief, whether because simply go along with their governments version of events, or truly believe they live and are governed in the best way (it is deemed madness that Americans are not dispensed food tokens, that suntanning is not free, that dogs are trained in obedience but not children), which sometimes seems strangely plausible. The difference between people's internal and external lives is displayed clearly and sometimes heartbreakingly, particularly in some of the scenes between the interrogator and his parents.

This is a wonderful book. Deep and rich, moving, frightening, enlightening, scary, and funny. Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rare fictional insight into the secretive N Korean regime, 8 Nov. 2012
By 
Ripple (uk) - See all my reviews
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There are very few novels set in modern day North Korea - with good reason. The political regime is so secretive and alien that research must be a nightmare. It's very hard to gauge how accurate a representation Adam Johnson's book is of this but it seems to be at least plausible and generally believable. What he does so well is to move from the opening slightly smug "isn't the propaganda thing a bit funny in terms of what people there believe" to making the reader really care and understand how shocking the effects of this can be on the individual lives of the people there. There are scenes of horrific suffering but Johnson retains a light touch wherever he can - so the Dear Leader, Kim Jon iL, is presented at times as being "lonely" in a nice nod to You Tube clips.

Johnson's hero, Jun Do, grows up in an orphanage run by his father. However he presents a mixture of people from all levels of society - there are those who believe in the myth of the leader and the propaganda, those who know the truth and use it to their own advantage and those who know the truth and use it just to survive. The challenge for a fiction writer is of course that it relies on personal stories and in a political culture like North Korea the individuality is suppressed.

The setting is fascinating and original and that does much to offset some of the aspects that perhaps stretch belief a little. It's hard to believe that Jun Do's lack of commitment to the cause would allow him to hold some of the positions that he finds himself in for example, but interchanging roles seems to be part of the model and presumably the argument against this goes that the leadership don't even question that everyone buys in to the story and aren't just compliant through fear.

At first the narrative is split between Jun Do's story and the official announcements of the State but later on we also get the story of an Interrogator. While this introduces a vital element to the story the mixture of the three strands doesn't always feel as smooth as it could do. However, it is a fascinating subject and a highly original book that celebrates the human spirit in impossible conditions. There's humour, a love story and fascinating insight into a mysterious country. Johnson is well worth reading - this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as a not unrelated movie might have put it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Surprised that it won a Pulitzer, 2 Feb. 2014
By 
A. Chu "isabelle94" (London) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
The North Korean setting was intriguing and one of the main reasons I picked up the book, having finished Escape From Camp 14 not too long ago (which is a must read if you have an interest in the country). While the author does a great job at re-creating what we suspect the country may be like, I found the book incredibly hard to get into. I almost put it down a few times but forced myself to get through the novel. The character development is shallow for the most part and it's really hard to care much about what happens to the various people in the novel. The writing is also clunky at times with details sometimes not flowing together properly. I'm quite surprised this won a Pulitzer. While there are moments when the novel engages you, there are not enough of these to really draw the reader in. Instead, it tends to plod along. It's not horrible by any means, but it doesn't quite live up to the hype either.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking yet often humorous story, 17 Jun. 2012
By 
AR (UK) - See all my reviews
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Set in North Korea, this book follows the life of the orphan master's son, Jun Do, as he becomes a tunnel fighter, kidnapper, spy and national hero.

The book has the air of a fable, and also tells the story through propaganda, imagining the way it might actually be told in North Korea. Often the story assumes a humorous, almost tongue in cheek air, yet when you consider it as a work of fiction that is actually based on a lot of research into a real nation and its people, it becomes very tragic. Families are punished for the perceived misdeeds of one member, fathers refuse to trust their own sons, and people will risk their lives for a meal of flowers.

Despite carrying out some horrible deeds, Jun Do manages to remain a compelling and sympathetic protagonist, a good man forced to commit atrocities by a cruel state that will turn on him all too quickly if he doesn't comply. The story leads him in picaresque fashion from one adventure to another, supported by a rich cast of characters who all have their own tragic stories.

This book can be taken on two levels, as a simple tale of one man's journey through life and suffering, but also as a very intelligent exploration of a secretive nation that is unfamiliar to many. Entertaining yet extremely thought-provoking, made all the more compelling by the notes that reveal the level of research carried out by the author, and his own travels in North Korea.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Novel so Brilliant in Originality it is Breathtaking., 25 Jan. 2012
By 
Tommy Dooley (London, England) - See all my reviews
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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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, humourous insight into North Korea, 19 Jun. 2013
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The Orphan Master's Son isn't the easiest book to get into - it took 100 pages or so until I felt I understood the thread of the narrative and even then the reality of North Korea kept encroaching on what is, surprisingly, a deeply humourous tale.

My persistence was rewarded, though, with a fascinating narrative and a compelling insight into what life must be like within North Korea.

I'm not sure this is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize - in fact it seems very much that the prize was awarded for the book's not-so-subtle political stance, rather than the quality of the fiction - but its a great read all the same, and well recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Painful picture of only „democratic“ country in the world, 16 Nov. 2013
This review is from: The Orphan Master's Son (Paperback)
"The Orphan Master's Son" by is an exceptional work that enabled author winning of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for 2013. Following the fate of several characters the author has given a portrait of the most totalitarian country in the world, North Korea, which is sometimes very painful to read.

The main character Jun Do (not a coincidence that the name is similar to the American name for an unknown person John Doe), which in the words of those who are governing it lives in the only democratic country in the world, is an orphan who grows up in an orphanage run by his father, though he was never acknowledged by him.
Already in early childhood he will become a pawn, a worker in the mighty machinery of a totalitarian state where the question isn't what the government can do for you, but what are you going to do for it all your life.

When he will grow up, he will become a soldier specialized for the combat in the tunnel and a kidnapper of Japanese and South Korean civilians from the shores of their countries. After achieving excellent results, he will be sent to learn English, and as a spy sent to the ship where he will become a national hero based on false story which will save the crew of his ship from certain death.

As a reward he will be given the opportunity to be part of a delegation which will visit Texas where he will be introduced to a different life, where for example, he will learn that dogs are not bloodthirsty animals or that North Korea hasn't won the war against its southern neighbor.
When he will return home, due to a government quirk for the prize he will be sent to a labor camp from which nobody usually return, and thus ends only the first part of this exciting novel, which is easily read, but permanently cut into reader's memory.

In the second part, the story will move a bit in the future, when main character will be accompanied by one more, and a few minor whose fate will be followed.
Also the narrative will change, therefore besides from the perspective of the two main characters additional narrator will be propaganda machinery that airs daily pronouncements that can be heard from loudspeakers everywhere, even in each apartment.

I won't speak about further details to not spoil the pleasure of reading, but when the story will come to an end in some way it will be rounded to the beginning and the propaganda of this criminal state will show up in its most cynical edition...

On "The Orphan Master's Son" novel the author had worked for seven years, he talked with many refugees and even he was able to visit Pyongyang.
Thus, his book is full of tedious details from North Korean daily life of constant hard work, the absence of any privacy, government control at every step, torture of those for which is only enough to think they did something wrong and all possible distortion of facts for the population held in delusion that they live in the happiest and the only democratic country in the world.

The book is difficult to classify by genre, it is a blend of dystopia, romance, thriller, spy novel, and even humor, and all these elements complement each other in this story, which although isn't based on real events is happening even now, as you read this, to many people in this sad country.

"The Orphan Master's Son" isn't a book without flaws, it could be objected for some inconsistencies regarding the plot and characteristics of the individual characters that are changed during story which doesn't sound convincing, but all this does not diminish the importance of this work which you should definitely read.
Therefore, the "The Orphan Master's Son" is best dystopian novel after Orwell's 1984, with the difference that 1984 year happened for North Korea and is still happening every day...

Be sure to read it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bizarre Behaviour, 12 Mar. 2012
By 
D. Elliott (Ulverston, Cumbria) - See all my reviews
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Publicity blurb for `The Orphan Master's Son' correctly warns "Any resemblance to real people or events may not be entirely coincidental". Content is based on what is known of the reality of North Korea at the height of the Kim Jong Il rule but it is a fictionalised tome revolving around the life of Jun Do/Commander Ga - brought up in a State orphanage and employed as an assassin, kidnapper and spy before becoming involved with the political apparatus of the Democratic Republic of North Korea, its Dear Leader and a beautiful singer/actress. Author Adam Johnson uses this multi-faceted scenario to weave stories within stories which overlap and shift backwards and forwards in time. The many sub-plots of `The Orphan Master's Son' are intriguing and convoluted, and leave readers unsure of what may be factual and what is surreal.

The author has visited North Korea and clearly he has undertaken much research, and he appears to honestly attempt exposures of societal and cultural matters with comparisons between a closed North Korea and an open West - particularly the USA. However he perhaps overly concentrates on the lower underprivileged strata of North Korea's population and in presenting an enslaved and backward nation he overlooks the military might, technological achievements and sporting qualities of this Communist country. Certainly Korea has a long history of occupation by other countries and it has experienced civil war and partition, so allowing `The Orphan Master's Son' to purposefully offer insights to the behaviour of a people suffering deprivation and poverty yet with unquestioning compliance and blind self-deception. Adam Johnson does this sincerely with a degree of black humour, but both reality and the surreal are bizarre.

It is difficult to categorize `The Orphan Master's Son' as it embraces so many conflicting concepts at different levels. It is about freedom and oppression, acquiescence and rebellion, submissiveness and independence, and truth and propaganda; plus subsistence and extravagance, boldness and cowardice, fear and daring together with loyalty and defection, and love and hate. There are physical and psychological terrors that make for a horrific, difficult and thought-provoking read, and this is made more so by the novel's complexity - but it is worth persevering - `The Orphan Master's Son' stands out as an enlightening commentary on the bizarre behaviour within a totalitarian State where its leader is truly omnipotent.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing Insight into a Different World, 9 Mar. 2012
By 
Brett H (Brighton) - See all my reviews
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This is a very unusual and really, in places, quite a harrowing book. It is set in an environment which few readers would have any experience of. However, the author has, apparently, made quite a study of North Korea so we must assume that this country is to at least some extent, as described. This is a strange and rather Orwellian society, where there is a constant fear that one will be denounced by family members, colleagues, neighbours or friends and land up in a prison camp without any sort of due process or hope of appeal.

However, if, like Jun Do, you have been brought up in this environment you will have learned to live and adapt to it. Hence, being able to come up with an alibi to explain to officials what has happened becomes part of one's existence. The story does not have to be credible, but has to be capable of interpretation so as to show the Democratic Republic of Korea, and, in particular the despotic `Dear Leader' in a favourable light. It is, as a result of this sort of fiction that Jon Dun is declared a Hero of the Revolution and is chosen to go on a diplomatic visit to the USA. Such is the gulf between the Koreans and their hosts that they could be from different planets rather than different countries and this is really the only light hearted part of the book.

Jun Do's life changes after this visit since, on the one hand he is viewed with some suspicion in that he may have been contaminated by his contact with the Americans. On the other hand, rather surreally, he is allowed to impersonate a prominent General, and, whilst all are quite aware of the substitution it is another fiction which suits everyone, right up to the Dear Leader, to go along with.

The narrative jumps backwards and forwards a bit in time, which is a bit disorientating and often takes the reader a little while to adjust to what is now happening, and at what stage in the story we are at. The prison scenes and the torture are quite hard to take in places, and rather depressing. It put me somewhat in mind of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Penguin Modern Classics).

All in all this was a book which I found interesting, at times absorbing and certainly harrowing. It is a story which noone is likely to finish and say they enjoyed, but I am glad I read it.
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The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Paperback - 14 Feb. 2013)
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