The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – Audiobook Review

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, narrated by Tim Kang, Josiah D. Lee, and James Kyson Lee
Published in audio by Random House Audio, published in print by Random House


From the publisher:

An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”

Thoughts on the story:

Jun Do’s story is, at times, a bit of a tangled web, particularly as part of The Orphan Master’s Son is narrated by a voice over the loudspeaker that broadcasts to all North Korean citizens, and part comes from the point of view of a prison interrogator. It is not that Jun Do is an unreliable narrator precisely, it is that the nature of narrative in North Korea is, by definition, unreliable. This becomes increasingly evident during Jun Do’s time with Sun Moon, as identity and reality shift based on what people allow or force themselves to believe. Jun Do knows that power of belief and blind obedience better than most, having been an orphan who was not really an orphan, and thus he is one of the privileged few who is able to make this quirk of North Korea society work for him – at least for a time.

It is this contemplation on reality in North Korea that makes The Orphan Master’s Son so very brilliant. At the same time, however, Johnson has also created a story that keeps the reader interested, even before this theme becomes so strongly apparent. From Jun Do’s time as a state-mandated kidnapper of Japanese citizens, to his time manning a radio on a fishing vessel, his inclusion on a diplomatic trip to Texas, and then finally his relationship with Sun Moon, every aspect of Jun Do’s life offers the reader tantalizing and often horrifying glimpses into life in North Korea.

Thoughts on the audio production:

The best part of this audio production is that it uses multiple narrators to fully differentiate between the multiple points of view in Johnson’s story. Kang is the primary narrator, telling the majority of the story from Jun Do’s point of view. Lee and Lee voice the loudspeaker and the interrogator, giving additional definition and clarity to the story. I must say that none of the narrators completely wowed me, but all were solid narrators and they told the story adequately and in an interesting manner.


I might lean slightly towards recommending this in print over audio, but the audiobook also works perfectly well. Either way, this is definitely a book to pick up.

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I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

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Crossing the Line – Documentary

Crossing the Line (2006), written and directed by Daniel Gordon
Narrated by Christian Slater

As I was reading about North Korea over the past few weeks, I thought it would be interesting to get a little bit different perspective on the country. Megan from Algonquin Books set me on the trail of VeryMuchSo Productions, a documentary film crew who has made at least three different documentaries about North Korea.Their 2002 documentary The Game of Their Lives follows the 1996 World Cup soccer team from North Korea, and A State of Mind in 2004 tells the story of a pair of North Korean gymnasts. Both sounded fairly interesting, but when I came across VeryMuchSo’s 2006 documentary, Crossing the Line, about 0ne of the four US soldiers stationed in South Korea who defected in the 1960s, I knew I’d found what I wanted to watch.

James Dresnok was the second US soldier to defect to North Korea, and is the only one left alive in the country. By now he has been in North Korea more than twice as long as he ever lived in the United States. Dresnok allegedly had a very tough childhood, that seems to have turned him into a troubled young man. His first marriage ended when his wife cheated on him during one of his tours in Korea. When he returned to South Korea, based on how he tells his own story, he acted like a petulant, defiant teenager. When his commanding officer refused to give him a pass, he forged one and when he was on the verge of being brought up on charges, he simply walked across the DMZ into North Korea to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.

Although there are conflicting stories about some of the things that have happened to Dresnok over the past 50 years in North Korea, even the opposing stories offer an instructive look into life in North Korea. For one, the accusations that the brides of all four American defectors were women brought to North Korea against their will.  Of the two women still alive (neither of which was Dresnok’s first wife in North Korea, his second of three wives total), one claims that she simply came to North Korea as a tourist and fell in love, but the other has said that, although she came to love her husband, she was in North Korea because she had been kidnapped from Japan.

Crossing the Line is a fascinating hour and 1/2 view into American defectors and the lives they have lived in North Korea. It is not a topic that would have ever occurred to me, people defecting TO North Korea instead of FROM North Korea, but it has happened and is an instructive phenomenon to study.

If you’re interested in North Korea, Crossing the Line is definitely worth checking out. It is currently streaming on Netflix.


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Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden – Book Review

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
Published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin

The plight of ordinary North Koreans has been a topic increasingly discussed with Kim Jong Il’s death, and the bevy of new fiction dealing with the isolated society. Barbara Demick does a wonderful job chronicling the privations of the 1990s and the ensuing breakdown of North Korean society in Nothing to Envy, and it seems that the North Koreans of the lower class in the outer provinces have had as hard a time of it as nearly any people group in the world. What is less often discussed, however, are the perhaps up to 200,000 people held in North Korean prison camps. Some of these camps hold prisoners for short times only, to ‘rehabilitate’ people like free market traders back into North Korean society. Others, though, such as Camp 14, hold families for lifetimes, even for generations, without any hope of release. In Escape from Camp 14, journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the first person born into a North Korean prison camp to escape both the camp itself and North Korea.

Perhaps the most shocking parts of Escape from Camp 14 are those that detail Shin’s childhood in the camp. The dehumanizing treatment of prisoners – one guard who has since defected states that he was taught to “think of inmates as ‘dogs and pigs’” – meant that Shin never learned how to interact normally with other people. Everyone, including Shin’s own mother, was a threat to him, in competition for resources and someone who would snitch on him for any infraction of camp rules. Shin steals his mother’s lunch while she is at work, has rocks thrown at him by the children of guards, sees a little girl in his class beaten to death for stealing five kernels of corn. Eventually, as a 13 year old boy, he informs on his own mother and older brother who are planning an escape attempt and ensures their executions.

Equally fascinating and instructive are Shin’s attempts to acclimate to life outside of the camps, especially once he reaches South Korea and the United States.

“I am evolving from being an animal,” he said. “But it is going very, very slowly. Sometimes I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything. Yet tears don’t come. Laughter doesn’t come.” –p. 179

Shin had no idea about the government of his own country, let alone the rest of the world. It did mean that he had less brainwashing to unlearn, but the entire idea of normal interpersonal interaction has often difficult, and still continues to be so.

Escape from Camp 14 is not an easy book to read, much that happened to Shin will turn your stomach. It is, however, an important book to read. Perhaps people are not being systematically killed, but they are being worked to death, housed with little or no regard for the necessities of life and with no rights whatsoever. The existence of these camps has been known for years, but it is a subject rarely mentioned in the West, or even in South Korea. They are not something that we can continue to ignore any longer.

Harden tells Shin’s story in a clear, concise, and often horrifying way. Please read this book.

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Powells | Indiebound*

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* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones – Book Review

All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones
Published by Algonquin Books, an imprint of Workman Press

Il-sun and Gi are North Korean orphans, factory workers, and best friends despite their differences. Gi is somewhat introverted, loyal, a math wizard. She is the kind of girl who always produces more than her quota in the factor, doing her duty for the Dear Leader, but always willing to share her extras with Il-sun, a girl who rarely meets quota and has the gall to spit on Dear Leader’s portrait when alone in the dark. Unlike Gi, though, Il-sun is beautiful, and her beauty covers a multitude of sins. The fact that she is also naive and an orphan, though, makes Il-sun’s beauty dangerous, and the two girls end up smuggled into South Korea and sold into sexual slavery, where they are particularly vulnerable thanks to their North Korean brainwashing.

Mr. Choy took on a hard, stern look, the hint of a dangerous rage rippling across his eyes. It was a look that said his friendly, accommodating exterior was a thin crust over a far more volatile core. He smiled wryly and said, “If you refuse to work for me, I will have no choice but to hand you over to the American army, who will rape, torture, and kill you. Of course the choice is yours.” –p. 161

All Woman and Springtime is beautifully written, both in prose and plotting. The story is almost immediately engrossing. Particularly effective is Jones’s method of occasionally switching to the point of view of more minor characters, whichever is currently most important to the story. This does not work in all narratives, but in All Woman and Springtime it adds layers of depth to the story, by highlighting the variety of North Korean mindsets and situations. In fact, Jones does a wonderful job in general giving his readers a background to the North Korean cultural setting without becoming overly didactic. He walks a line well, giving enough information to those who have little or no knowledge of recent North Korean history beyond the death of Kim Jong Il but not succumbing to an info dump that will bore readers who have done further reading on North Korea.

In addition to the rich setting, Jones has  created realistic and well-rounded characters who will stay in the reader’s mind for some time to come. Not only does All Woman and Springtime give readers a peek into the lives and vulnerabilities of some North Korean woman, but Jones’s story and characters are so compelling that the story becomes universal. Very highly recommended.

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Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick – Book Review

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. –p. 11

One of the hardest countries to get a look inside is North Korea. Closed off since the Korean War, North Korea initially seemed to be doing better, financially than its cousin to the South. Pyongyan, the one city where visitors occasionally came, was filled with only those inhabitants who would make a good impression on outsiders, but even outside of the capital city most North Koreans believed for many years that their lives were as good or better than those of most of the world’s inhabitants. All this began to change with the famine in the 1990s, however. As people began to starve to death, they took increased risks and increasingly subverted the state that had held them captive for so long. Crossing illegally into China to work or trade for food gave many North Koreans a glimpse of what life was like in the rest of the world. It was only at this time that defections began in earnest.

In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick chronicles the lives of a variety of North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea. All came from different family situations in the stratified North Korean society, and all initially had varying degrees of dedication to the state, but all initially believed the propaganda they were fed. How could they not, after all? None of the outside world penetrates North Korea enough to show anything different. Plus, any resistance would mean repercussions not only on the protester his or herself, but on all other known relatives.

Demick interweaves her subject’s stories in such a way that is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. Alternating stories could have made Nothing to Envy choppy, but it is done skillfully with good transitions, so that instead it serves to keep the reader’s interest and keep any of the subjects from fading into the background.

For a general overview of the day-to-day lives so North Koreans, plus fantastic background to the situation, beginning with the end of WWII, I cannot recommend Nothing to Envy highly enough.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Library.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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