Book Time: August Titles

Didn’t quite reach my quota this month, but did spend some quality time with these pages.

Night School – Lee Child

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Let me tell you something about Jack Reacher. I am in deep, unapologetic love with this man. I will follow him wherever he goes, from tiny towns in American nowhere to more far-flung destinations, nod along as he breaks down every move in his fights against bad men. (Hand-to-hand combat comes up a lot.) Jack can devine the motives and next moves of any criminal just by which door he uses to exit the building. Everything is black and white and gray is a color reserved for mood-setting weather. He always eats in diners because of the sturdy coffee mugs and favorable calorie-to-cost ratio, and the fact that he usually uses them to either receive or stage missions, or take out a few criminals.

Jack is a 6’5”, 250-pound itinerant ex-military cop, moving through the world with one spartan outfit, a travel-size toothbrush, and a mean right hook. He’s basically a Viking: “I think ninety-nine of us grow up to love the campfire, and one grows up to hate it. Ninety-nine of us grow up to fear the howling wolf, and one grows up to envy it. And I’m that guy.” Did I mention Jack is the main character in an eponymous series by Lee Child? Well, I’m addicted.

In “Night School,” one of Child’s more recent offerings, it’s 1996 and Jack is back in the Army, getting a medal for a mission in the Balkans. His next orders are to report to an “inter-agency cooperation” school, which he quickly surmises is just military jargon for something super secret and definitely not school. What follows is a series of anti-terrorism shenanigans in Hamburg, Germany. The details aren’t too important, except that the CIA apparently has a bottomless treasure chest to let Jack do just about anything he needs to thwart disaster. So pretty true-to-life, in a “Way of the Knife” sense.

Jack and a former colleague go to Hamburg to investigate a terrorist sleeper cell, which involves a lot of staking out bars. The terrorists have arranged a deal with an AWOL American soldier, and Child gets to show that he is up-to-date on both historical and current geopolitics and cyber warfare. This is where the book is many pages too long – all I really need is Jack training his eye on the scene and honing in on exactly what needs to be done. Jack is at his best when he is in the middle of a fight, not explaining the reasoning behind terrorists using courier services.

I’ll always read whatever Jack gets up to, and I hope Child is game for another couple dozen rounds. One qualm: while I am generally not unimpressed by the way Child writes women, I keep wanting more. Sure, they’re just as good at fighting bad guys as Reacher, but could one of them be the bad guy, for once?

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

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The 490 pages of “Pachinko” practically turn themselves. The story spans decades, opening on a Korean family in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 1900s and climbing through the years to 1989. The mustard seed of the plot is that Sunja, daughter of a couple who run a boarding house, accidentally becomes pregnant as a teenager. A visiting minister offers to marry her, and they move to Japan.

Sunja’s children are Koreans who will never know their home country. Sunja herself labors epically, albeit humbly, to make sure their lives are better than hers, but the thread of oppression via Japanese rule remains taut.

As the generations spool out and characters branch off, Lee retains her storytelling power. It was never difficult to keep track of strands or lose sight of stories, such is the strength of her compelling narrative. She skillfully portrays the plight of Koreans in Japan in the 20th century through ordinary lives without spouting reams of history. While this left me wanting to dig further  into the subject, it made the book even more readable. The events and people speak for themselves.

Pachinko is a gambling machine, and even today, most pachinko parlors in Japan are owned by Koreans. I wholeheartedly recommend this book, and plan on checking out the following titles (fiction and non-) to read more about this history:
When My Name was Keoko – Linda Sue Park
Lost Names – Richard E. Kim
Who Ate Up All the Shinga? – Park Wan-Suh
Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945 -Todd A. Henry

Faithful Place – Tana French

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Tana French is another thriller writer I love unabashedly. Her mysteries are snarly and smart and her detectives are some of the most intriguing fictional people you’ll meet. (Lee Child, take note – French knows how to write interesting, multidimensional women.)

“Faithful Place” is part of French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, with interlocking components. Frank Mackey is the lead detective here, a hardened man-shell who smokes the pain away. When he was 19, he was supposed to elope with his girlfriend Rosie Daly and escape their working class nightmare, but she never came to the meeting place outside an abandoned house. No one found out what became of her. Mackey still runs away to Dublin, but Rosie’s disappearance continues to haunt him.

Two decades later, Mackey gets news that Rosie’s suitcase was discovered in the abandoned house, and returns to the neighborhood and his old life, full of disgruntled family members. Later, her body is found hidden in the basement. Memories come flooding back to Mackey, although he’s not allowed on the case. Of course, he finds a way.

I would read anything French puts to paper – her voice is sharp and her characters crackle off the page. She has a keen sense of pacing and expertly doles out details without giving too much away or bogging down the plot. Mackey and his family come to life effortlessly, and the dialogue is masterful. I do prefer other of her mysteries (see “In the Woods” and “The Trespasser”), but I’ll always get in line.

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