Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Readers will be swept up in this Korean family saga set in Busan, Korea and Osaka, Japan from the 1910s through the 1980s. Four generations struggle with supporting their family and keeping their ethnic identity as Koreans. Sunja grows up in a small boardinghouse catering to fishermen in a Korea occupied by Japan. Her father Hoonie dies when she is 13, so Sunja and her mother YanJin work hard. When Sunja gets pregnant, she learns that businessman Hansu is already married. Isak, a young pastor, ill with tuberculosis, is nursed back to health by YanJin in their boardinghouse, and agrees to marry Sunja. They move to Osaka and live with his brother Yoseb and Yoseb’s wife Kyunghee. Times are hard, Isak is imprisoned for a while, and Sunja and Kyunghee help support the family by selling kimchi and candy. Sunja and her sons Noa and Mozasu are occasionally helped by Hansu, alienating Noa when he learns learns the truth. Later the family does well financially, with Mozasu running several pachinko parlors and sending his son Solomon to university in the United States. Faith and family, love, luck, and loss are the themes running through the decades of this moving, character-driven novel.


The Lake House

lake house jacketThe Lake House by Kate Morton

Sadie Sparrow is a detective in London in 2003, but is visiting her grandfather in Cornwall while on leave. On a run with her grandfather’s dogs, Sadie discovers an abandoned house, Loeanneth. In 1933 the Edevane family hosts a midsummer’s eve party at Loeanneth. The next morning, their little boy Theo is missing and is never found. Sadie is fascinated by the story and the house, and works with a retired policeman, the local librarian, and an elderly mystery writer to find out what happened. Much of the book is set at Loeanneth in 1932-33, where three sisters, Deborah, Alice, and Clemmie are growing up, mostly oblivious to their family’s many secrets. Readers who like mysteries and family sagas may enjoy this book, along with readers of Mary Stewart, Rosamunde Pilcher, or Melanie Benjamin. The beautiful house has its own secrets, and there are many twists and turns to the plot. Some readers thought it too long, but I kept turning the pages to find out the answers. Sadie is an appealing character, as is the mystery writer’s personal assistant. This was a memorable, satisfying read.

Early Warning

early warning jacketEarly Warning by Jane Smiley

At 476 pages, Early Warning is not a quick read. It is the sequel to Some Luck, a family saga about an Iowa farm family. Early Warning covers the years 1953 to 1986, as the Langdon family expands into the next generation. I think the first book is better, but the many characters in Early Warning are interesting company and the author is an excellent storyteller. Dialogue is very well done, and the complex interactions of the extended family are believable. Plot is not the strong point here, as there is some predictability. Topics covered include the Cold War, the baby boom, psychoanalysis, stay at home mothers, Vietnam War, breast cancer, social change in the sixties, working for the CIA, pursuit of wealth, coming out, a drawn-out divorce, sibling rivalry, and changes on the family farm. As the Langdon children become middle-aged they become more introspective about their lives and their family. I definite recommend starting with Some Luck, and I’m looking forward to the last book in the trilogy, not yet written.

Some Luck

Some Luck by Jane Smileysome luck jacket

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley begins the Last Hundred Years trilogy with a novel about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family set during the years 1920 to 1953. Walter and Rosanna raise a large family near the farms of their parents, and cope with an amazing amount of change, from the coming of electricity to reluctantly replacing plow horses to a tractor, drought and financial worries during the Great Depression, watching a son go off to World War II, and more. The heart of the story is a scene where the extended family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner after the war. The novel is narrated in turns by most of the Langdons, but the characters are so memorable that the changing point of view enriches rather than confuses. Remarkably, the author can even capture the reader’s attention with the description of a day in the farmhouse from the viewpoint of a toddler. Smart, opportunistic Frank is the eldest and the one who will go off to war. Lillian makes an unexpected escape from the farm, while Joe never wants to leave. Of course, the Langdons experience moments of drama and tragedy, from Rosanna giving birth alone to a revival meeting, the state fair, and sudden death, but most of the scenes are about life on the farm. Readers will welcome Early Warning, the sequel, in May.


We Were Liars

We Were Liars by E. Lockhartwe were liars jacket

Three generations of Sinclairs spend every summer on their private island near Martha’s Vineyard, until last year. In this hard to put down young adult novel, Cadence is now 17 and has been struggling with migraine headaches and memory loss. She can’t remember what happened on the island two years ago, and no one, not even her younger cousins, will talk about it. Her mother and aunts are drinking a lot and arguing, her wealthy, aging grandfather is trying to start over without his late wife, and her cousins and their friend Gat are acting strangely. Cadence, teen cousins Mirren and Johnny and Gat (her aunt’s boyfriend’s nephew) are the liars of the title, and with her amnesia, Cady is an unreliable narrator. The island setting, with four family homes, two docks, one beach, and a building for staff, seems idyllic, but Cady finally learns the dark secrets everyone’s been trying to hide, leaving the reader stunned. And that’s really all I can safely say about this book. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, suspenseful read with a gorgeous island setting, and don’t need any of the book’s characters to be completely likeable, then read We Were Liars.

The Son: A Novel

son jacketThe Son: A Novel by Philipp Meyer

During the Westward expansion of the United States, also known as “Manifest Destiny” no group of Indians gave the settlers more problems than the Comanche.  They dominated an area of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico that was called “Comancheria”  In “The Son”, Eli McCullough, the thirteen-year-old son of a rancher in West Texas is captured by the Comanche after his family is killed. Along with his brother they are taken, naked, on a two week ride back to the Comanche home base. The Comanche are fierce and warlike, and love going on raids against the whites, the Mexicans, and other Indian tribes. They bring back horses, booty, and slaves.  At First Eli is consigned to hard manual labor with the women of the tribe, but as he proves his worth as a hunter and warrior, he is promoted to going on raids, and even earns his first scalp. 

Eli’s experiences are just the beginning of the story covered in this book. The history of Texas is laid out in the stories of Eli and his descendants. Eli’s son Peter is caught up in a blood feud with the Mexican Garcia Clan over Cattle.  Later when the cattle use up all the resources of the  land, oil is discovered, dotting the landscape with drilling rigs and saving the families fortunes.  Eli’s great granddaughter, Jeanne is raised on the ranch and can hold her own with her brothers. However when she takes over the family oil business she encounters old fashioned sexism in the nineteen sixties.

The history of the Comanche have been covered in other books and films.  “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C Gwynne tells the story of Quanah Parker, the half breed son of Cynthia  Parker, who was actually abducted by the Comanche and became a member of the tribe. Quanah was the last great Chief of the Comanche and presided over their eventual destruction and consignment to the reservation. 

In the movie, “The Searchers” John Wayne plays  Ethan Edwards, a civil war veteran whose niece, Debbie, is captured by the Comanche, thus starting a three year odyssey by Ethan and his adoptive nephew Martin to find and bring Debbie back home.

In the movie “A Man named Horse” Richard Harris plays

I’m usually not big on family sagas, but this one really interested me because of the Comanche connection.


Red Chamber

Red Chamber, by Pauline Chen

18th Century Beijing, China comes to life in this retelling of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber. Much of the book is set at the Rongguo mansion, owned by the Jia family. Lin Daiyu comes from the south of China to live with her uncle, cousins, and grandmother for a season. She meets her cousin Baoyu, the pampered son of the household, who is studying for exams, and Baoyu’s cousin Baochai, who befriends Daiyu. Baochai and Daiyu are both fond of Baoyu. Back in Beijing after caring for her father, Daiyu finds the atmosphere greatly changed, affected by family secrets, affairs, and marriage arrangements. Food, clothing, and daily life are all richly described, but some of the characters are not well developed, especially four young adult grandchildren of the family. The emperor’s death brings tragedy to the family, and some of the characters are disgraced, while others die from illness. This is not an especially happy book, but it is vividly written and memorable. Readers looking to immerse themselves in a different time and place will find this book hard to put down.