The First Book You Should Read in 2012

I’m not a big “jump on the bandwagon” kind of person generally, but this is one I’m leaping onto wholeheartedly. That’s the bandwagon forming for Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, coming on January 10, 2012.

The novel is set in North Korea and is like a hybrid dystopian-realist work of art. Part of why it works so well is the setting. North Korea  is obviously a real country, but the place Johnson describes sounds completely made up. He apparently spent a lot of time researching North Korea and made several trips there in an effort to get the details right, and it shows. The story of the country itself is reflected in the characters.

Pak Jun Do, the protagonist, is the son of a lost mother; his mournful father runs a work camp for orphans. Jun Do comes to the attention of his superiors after he’s trained in the arts of zero light combat, then as a professional kidnapper. Constantly forced to think on his feet, his story zigs and zags all over the place as he tries to stay alive. The story shifts after a daring prison break forces him into a new role,  as the rival to Kim Jong II.

Meanwhile, other regular North Koreans try to keep their heads down and avoid attracting attention; it’s in the interactions Jun Do has with his countrymen that shows the tenderness and beauty still alive and well in the hearts of people . Johnson’s elegant writing highlights the seemingly arbitrary rules and unfamiliar detail of an isolated nation, and makes North Korea come alive. This book is a one-two-three punch to the gut that leaves you reeling.


6 thoughts on “The First Book You Should Read in 2012

  1. Chang Terhune

    As I said on Twitter to you and MGK of Books on the Nightstand, I got an ARC of this and loved it. Despite the heavy subject matter it is an amazing story. One of the best books I’ve ever read.


  2. Shelley

    I like your phrase “dystopian-realist.” With the increasing takeover by the corporate giants in our culture, it’s hard to tell anymore where dystopia stops and reality begins….



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