Kindle. I stumbled upon this Pulitzer Prize winner via a review of his shorts Fortune Smiles in the New York Times. In some ways it's an update on George Orwell, an exploration of identity in totalitarian North Korea, just as biting but far funnier than that might sound. Kim Jong-il rules with a thin-skinned capricious forcefulness that propaganda can't really obscure; the people seem to know there's more out there, but not what it might be. The leading nameless character undergoes a lengthy journey from the orphanage to the yangban milieu, from zero-light tunnel fighter to third mate on a fishing boat, to people thief, to Minister for the Mines. Some scenes shock, even though they are unsurprising. Johnson has a great talent for breaking the tension by cashing in his Chekhovian devices at what seem almost arbitrary times, at will, and wearing his research lightly. My only very minor beef is that the behaviour of several characters wasn't entirely plausible within Johnson's North Korean logic itself.
Michiko Kakutani. Barbara Demick warns that there's a lot of make believe here. Johnson talking with Karan Mahajan. Wyatt Mason at the New Yorker is more critical. I think the second half works as the setting moves to Pyongyang, itself a place of magical realism.