Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Published March 2013 by W. W. Norton and Company
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for this review

Publisher's Summary:
In this evocative and thrilling epic novel, fifteen-year-old Yoshi Kobayashi, child of Japan’s New Empire, daughter of an ardent expansionist and a mother with a haunting past, is on her way home on a March night when American bombers shower her city with napalm—an attack that leaves one hundred thousand dead within hours and half the city in ashen ruins. In the days that follow, Yoshi’s old life will blur beyond recognition, leading her to a new world marked by destruction and shaped by those considered the enemy: Cam, a downed bomber pilot taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army; Anton, a gifted architect who helped modernize Tokyo’s prewar skyline but is now charged with destroying it; and Billy, an Occupation soldier who arrives in the blackened city with a dark secret of his own. Directly or indirectly, each will shape Yoshi’s journey as she seeks safety, love, and redemption.

My Thoughts:
When I picked this book to read for review, I didn't know much about it; I didn't read the publisher's summary. In all honesty, I can't recall now what piqued my interest. More and more I'm finding I like to pick up a book this way. Clearly there was something that intrigued me about it originally so I have some idea I might like it but otherwise, I have no preconceived notions.

In fact, the publisher's summary is a little misleading. Epstein has crafted a novel that moves back and forth between multiple third-person narratives. Throughout, she keeps the book moving forward in time as she shifts settings, from 1935 Hamburg, New York to 1962 Los Angeles and gradually begins to intertwine her characters.

I suppose the novel could be called "sweeping" moving as it does through time and back and forth across the Pacific. Curiously, I never felt like I was being swept up in a massive story; Epstein makes the novel very much the intimate stories of the people caught up in the war between Japan and the United States. Without casting judgment, Epstein uses her characters along with many real-life characters to explore the atrocities of war. Having just read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was surprised to find myself back in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation but it also made me not ready to read about the torture of soldiers, a direction I was certain, at one point, the book was headed in. Instead, Epstein gives the reader only what is necessary at that point then moves on, only to smack me down later with the horror of the firebombing of Tokyo.
"Yoshi's last sight of her was like something she'd seen once in an  old painting in a temple; something their teacher had called a "Hell Scroll." Entitled The Goods of Heavenly Punishment, it showed a huge fiery demon consuming tiny people limb by limb, surrounded by more flames and staggering, fire-limned figures."

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is just the kind of historical fiction book I love - a new look at a time in history you might have thought had already been covered from every angle with an interesting blend of characters and a solid foundation in the facts. 

For other opinions, check out the rest of the tour. Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. Jennifer lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two daughters and especially needy Springer Spaniel.


  1. I agree - sometimes it's way better to avoid the publisher's summary! But of course there has to be a way to get you to pick up the book without it! LOL

  2. This sounds like something I would love. I'm adding it to Goodreads!

  3. I'm glad that you commented on the sweeping aspect. I much prefer intimate, personal stories over sweeping sagas. Toss in a well and a missing cat and I am there!

  4. I know what you mean about preconceived notions - I've found myself enjoying books much more when I know very little about them ahead of time.

    Thanks for being a part of this tour. I'm glad to see how much you enjoyed the book!

  5. I agree that the stories seem very intimate, and I think getting readers to connect with it on a personal level makes it more powerful. Great review!