Thursday, 24 May 2018

Book Review: A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea

It's been a while since I read anything in one sitting, but this was utterly heartbreaking and compelling.

Masaji Ishikawa and his family moved to North Korea during the great migration of Japanese/Korean immigrants to the communist state in the 1960s. Promises of a paradise and jobs for all duped many a family at the time, but the reality was far from what was expected.

This is by far one of the best first hand accounts I've read of life in North Korea, and in some respects it completely overwhelmed me. The outpouring of grief, bitter regret and disappointment Masaji feels for himself and his family is palpable on every page. It's his passion to tell his story, and shame both the Korean and Japanese governments for their failings, that make this so readable - but never enjoyable. It follows Masaji from that fateful journey across the sea to North Korea, to his life as a tractor driver and endless search for a happy life with his growing family, to the famine of the late 1980s and early 90s which ultimately leads to his desperate escape.

The desperation of a whole nation is described so eloquently here, it's hard to read at times. But it should be read. The cruelty of human nature is all too evident, and shouldn't be ignored. I admire Masaji Ishikawa for the courage it must have taken to recall his past, and defy a nation in doing so. I can only hope that by doing so he's finally found some peace.

A River in Darkness is available to purchase now from: Amazon

 - 4 stars

Monday, 21 May 2018

Book Review: In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park

I’ve read a few books from North Korea defectors. Most noticeably A River in Darkness:  One Man's Escape from North Korea and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, but I hadn’t really read anything from a purely female perspective until now.

Yeonmi Park grew up in North Korea, near the border with China, with her entrepreneurial father, mother and sister. Although they may not have initially had the worst upbringing due to her father’s ingenuity, this changed when he was sent to prison, leaving Yeonmi and her sister alone without food while their mother travelled for work. What follows is the now typical, and harrowing, tale of starvation and desperation to survive in a country that doesn’t care for their own outside of the elite. Yeonmi talks openly of a childhood spent searching for food and constantly living in fear that they could follow in their father’s footsteps.

Desperation turns to flight, as Yeonmi and her mother are smuggled into China, and to perhaps an even worse fate than starvation as they soon become embroiled in the trafficking and raping of North Korean women to impoverished Chinese farmers. Throughout her story, Yeonmi is honest and open about her experiences to the point where it almost feels cathartic. By sharing her story it feels like Yeonmi is expressing not only her disappointment in her home country, but also her grief and resilience to thrive. And it also gives hope to those still struggling.

The book also really highlights just how different the experience of defecting is for North Korean women compared to men. Often the men do this alone, and are exposed to harsh and violent endings. The women endure their own unique horrors that seem to revolve around this feeling of powerlessness and reliance on their captors, but often it’s alongside other women who share their plight. For Yeonmi, she had her mother.

The most surprising aspect for me were the later chapters centering around South Korea. I’d read previously of the struggles first encountered by North Koreans during their assimilation into South Korean life, however I wasn’t fully aware of the prejudices, and also the lack of understanding, that Yeonmi faces on encountering native South Koreans. This seems to be no fault on the governments side, as they provide education and money to help ease the pressures, but rather just a general ignorance to the plight of defectors. It would seem, from Yeonmi’s perspective, that they choose to bury their heads in the sand to the real suffering across their borders. I found it especially sad that Yeonmi felt the need to bury all aspects of her North Korean heritage - from her accent, to studying ‘celebrities’ just in order to fit in and be accepted.

The real sentiment I’ll take away from this however, is just how strong the familial bond can be. Yeonmi and her mother face so much adversity through their lives, and continue to look for their missing sister and daughter long after their arrival in South Korea. Their bond never waivers, and the love they have for each other is unending.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom is available to purchase now from: Amazon

 - 4 stars

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Book Review: This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay

I loved this. In part funny and heartwarming, yet also utterly heartbreaking and disillusioned. I think this strikes a particular cord with me at the moment as the author was an obs & gynae doctor, and I’ve recently spent time myself as an inpatient on such a ward.

This is the first book in a while where I’ve read passages out to my husband while laughing out loud one minute and then had to hold back tears the next. It’s a full on rollercoaster of emotions that also seems to very accurately describe what it’s like to work as front line staff for the NHS. I should know, I do it everyday too, and we all have our stories to tell that encompass the best and worst of British medical care. It’s one of my favourite things about the job, hearing stories from everyone about ‘that time a patient shoved a remote control up their rectum’ or ‘remember that night shift a woman faked passing out’. I think it’s what binds and bonds you all together. The camaraderie. Told with a liberal dose sarcasm and self deprecating humour, the author manages to walk that tightrope between friend, colleague and reliable narrator to a finely tuned ‘T’.

My admiration for other healthcare professionals is limitless, and will continue to be so. It’s really the awful and gut wrenching stories interspersed throughout (especially the last chapters) that make you realise how much pressure and guilt our doctors are under. And for little pay might I add. Day after day, night after night they fight to provide the best level of care they can without succumbing to sleep deprivation, depression or worse. There’s a lot of emotion here, a lot of anger and sadness that’s so hard to see, yet is oh so common in the increasingly frequent demoralised NHS worker.

It’s a very bittersweet read, that I devoured in one day, and I’m sorry it’s over. It’s one of the best memoirs of this kind I’ve read in a long time and I loved following Adam Kay on his journey through life as a junior doctor.

This is Going to Hurt is available to purchase now from: Amazon

 - 5 stars

Monday, 14 May 2018

Book Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This is a mastercraft in historical fiction, unlike anything I've read since Agatha Christie.

Evelyn is going to be killed. Again. Every night her murder goes unsolved, the gala party where she dies restarts and Andrew is always too late to save her.

The writing is hugely atmospheric, and sets the scene perfectly. The descriptions are rich and detailed. It's almost like stepping back in time and being with these characters, living (and dying) amongst them. The plot is also quite unique in that the story is told over and over with Andrew taking the role of a different character every night with small hints and clues drip fed throughout, almost like a historical 'Groundhog Day' meets 'Cluedo'. However, the plot can never be taken at face value, as nothing is really as it seems and characters constantly surprised me.

It's not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination - there's twist and mysteries that left me completely baffled and had me desperate to understand what was going on, but that's what makes this such a compelling read. You really want to know what happens, as you try to draw conclusions before Andrew. I found I was especially drawn to Evelyn, and as her story unravels I felt a need to know who killed her.

That said, at times I felt a disconnection with some of the other characters as I was mainly so invested in Andrew and Evelyn, and sometimes it took a while for me to get my head round Andrew as a new person with different mannerisms every night.

Still, I thought this was like a breath of fresh air for the mystery genre. Different and exciting.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is available to purchase now from: Amazon

 - 4 stars

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Book Review: The Earlie King and the Kid In Yellow by Danny Denton

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a truly original dystopian novel, but The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow sits on the right side of imaginative to really stand out.

It’s been raining in Ireland for what feels like forever. Flooded and desolate, the Earlie King rules from his barren throne, controlling the kids in yellow who act as his runners. Except this yellow kid has been thrown out. His mistake? Getting too close to the Earlie King’s daughter. And with her death, all he wants is his baby.

The manner in which the story unfolds is very convoluted and strange. It’s told through a series of third party plays, stories and off hand accounts almost like it’s been pieced together mouth to mouth like an old fashioned folk story or urban legend. There’s also a wonderful mix of old and new as people within the world cling to remnants of the past while slowly evolving their language and traits to suit this new world. It’s so sophisticated in its comprehension, and shows how talented a writer Danny Denton is.

There’s also a wonderful, almost desolate atmosphere that runs throughout the novel. I could almost feel the despair and, strange as it sounds, the ‘wetness’ of the inhabitants living in this constant torrential nightmare. The descriptions of the world are so colourful and clever and deeply imaginative. It was a definite highlight, and you can clearly see that the author has really thought about everything, and constructed his world with care.

I’ll admit, because of the sometimes convoluted writing style, this was initially hard to get into and I was rather intimidated by the lyrical prose. It isn’t normally a type of writing I’d go for. It also, at times, made the characters feel a little disconnected from the story as there isn’t that deeper level of connection you would normally get from a first (or third) person narrative. However, I found this style really suited the book, and after the initial struggle, I really enjoyed this. The characters are an intrinsic part of the world, rather than a separate entity. It’s like one big symbiotic maelstrom, where the characters couldn’t exist and be who they are without this dystopian land, and vice versa. Don’t be put off by the style - especially if you like your dystopians dark and edgy and full of atmosphere.

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow is available to purchase now from: Amazon

 - 4 stars

Monday, 7 May 2018

Book Review: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Just like the beauty described within, The Belles is beautiful yet ultimately flawed.

Camellia is a Belle, blessed by the Goddess of beauty with the gift to change the appearance of the people of Orleans, who have been cursed to be born grey and without colour. Trained from birth along with her sisters, Camellia sees it as her duty to offer such an important service and wants nothing more than to be picked by the queen as the favourite, honoured with the role of beautifying the royal family. But things don’t always go to plan.

I’ll start with the positives. The descriptions of the environment, the girls and their beauty treatments are lush, detailed and full of colour (although very food orientated at times, especially in relation to skin colours). It’s also a well thought out and reasonably well developed world. There are hints of Japanese teahouses and rich carnivals that help to define the world and ground it in a sense of its own reality. The glimpses we see of the wider world outside of the palace were often the highlights for me, as they were so vibrant and intriguing. I would have liked more time here.

The pacing is slow, especially in the first half of the book as nothing really seems to happen other than meeting a large number of characters that seem to serve little purpose. However, the mysteries and intrigues encountered by Camellia on her journey had me hooked. I wanted to know the various ins and outs and why’s desperately, and this had me reading on even with the slow pace. I did start to worry at about 80% of the way through as not all of my questions had been answered, however most of them were resolved by the end - although not necessarily to their full extent, and the finale felt rather rushed. It felt like I’d been dealt half a pack of cards, with the author holding back a few intrigues for a second book. Which I admit, did irritate me.

The main characters, for the most part, are ok. Camellia as the main protagonist is the standard YA heroine. Special gifts, but with a rebellious heart and a need to bend the rules. Naive, yet a good egg. She was likeable enough to carry the story, but a bit bland. There was no bite and no feistiness. No depth to her character. Her sisters all follow a similar vein, although we rarely see them, which was a shame. There was potential here to develop a strong bond of female characters that I thought was wasted. Sophia was the main draw here, as she makes a great antagonist. Unpredictable, lashing out when you least expect it, and coming up with some devious and often awful deeds to make others suffer. She’s also harbours an obsession that runs as an undercurrent throughout the whole population. With the Belles, their power and most importantly their beauty. As with most of the inhabitants of Orleans she’s beautiful, but wants to be the most beautiful. She’s insecure and this manifests as a deep rooted, all consuming desire to control everything and everyone. I loved it.

The secondary characters, unfortunately, are the main downfall here. They seem to be thrown under the bus on multiple occasions just for the sake of the plot, instead of being properly developed. Several times I thought there was potential to really drive a plot with a unique and underplayed character in YA (such as the queen and her female lover, or Sophia’s lady in waiting and her secret love affair with her female servant) only for them to trail off into nothing. Or be used as a pointless plot device. It was deeply disappointing. I want more from my YA these days.

I think by the end, this was my final impression of the Belles. It was pretty, but without any real substance. Will I continue on to read the next in the series? I’m unsure.

The Belles is available to purchase now from: Amazon

 - 3 stars

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Book Review: To Kill A Kingdom by Alexandra Cristo

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I love mythology, and grew up with a love of mermaids and the sea. One of my favourite Greek myths is about the sirens who lured men to their deaths with their beautiful voices, so I was extremely intrigued by this book and what it had to offer other than as a retelling of The Little Mermaid.

Lira is a siren who specialises in taking the hearts of princes, known as the Prince's Bane. Her mother, the siren queen, is the epitome of evil. Basking in cruelty and power, she has complete dominance other all sirens and enjoys making them suffer. Lira, as her daughter, often bares the brunt of this torture. As a result she's a deeply complex and ambiguous main character. She's conflicted, a known murderer of men and sirens, with a tortured past and a hatred of everything except her cousin Kahlia. Never knowing love, she only wants to please her mother by becoming as cruel and heartless as her. She must be cruel to survive in a world that takes no prisoners and has no sympathy for anything or anyone. When she meets Elian she gets a glimpse into a world that includes kindness and friendship, and she begins to question whether men are really as awful as her mother has led her to believe.

Elian is a prince of the kingdom of Midas, and a siren hunter. Charismatic, loves the sea, hates being a prince and the responsibility that comes with it. More than anything he wants to be free. Unlike Lira he follows more of a moral code. He kills sirens, but he doesn't enjoy it. He sees it more as a task that he alone must endure in order to keep peace throughout the kingdoms. He's also a loyal friend and captain, trusting his life in the specially selected crew he holds on board his precious ship.

I really enjoyed the dynamic relationship that Lira and Elian had. They're very similar in a lot of ways, and bounce off each other well. I also though the progression from hostile adversaries to friendship and beyond was built on gradually and never felt forced or unrealistic. I enjoyed the scenes where they simply talked to each other, and I would have liked more of this to deepen their relationship.

I loved the world building here. The world itself is made up of different island kingdoms all built around different myths. There's an island dedicated to love and romance, a warrior island and of course, the island of Midas which is filled with gold. I thought this was so unique and well thought out, as we travel with Elian to these various islands and explore them with him gradually. It's a subtle way to introduce a complex world to readers, and meant I was never overloaded with information all at once. If anything, I wish we could have explored more of these islands and seen more of the various myths associated with them.

There is a running theme throughout the story that family is determined by who we have around us, rather than blood. We make our own family, and our own futures. This is portrayed best in terms of Elian and his pirate crew, who are made up of a jumble of the kingdoms most talented and bloodthirsty. Elian's relationships with Madrid and Kye in particular is another great dynamic addition to the story, and they often provide the more lighthearted elements.

However, this wasn't a perfect novel for me. I wasn't overly keen on the writing style. This is told in first person narrative between Lira and Elian, which doesn't really float my boat, and sometimes it felt a little stilted. Its also difficult to distinguish who is 'talking' in each chapter as both voices are so similar, meaning I sometimes struggled at first trying to work out if it was Lira or Elian. I'm hoping this is just an ARC problem however, as I presume the finished copy will have named chapter headings.

The plot itself is also a bit of a slow burner, with not much action at first as we follow Lira and Elian in their respective homes, and see their extended families. There isn't much threat or tension, as the siren queen feels more like a far away threat. I did like the fact that we got to see the comparisons in home life between the two however, and how this has helped shape how each of them behave. Elian is from a loving, if overprotective, family who expect great things from their future heir. This creates a lot of pressure on Elian to always do the right thing by his kingdom. Lira in comparison is from an extremely abusive background, constantly berated and put down by her mother, to the extent that she's suppressed all aspects of her humanity to the point where she no longer feels anything but hatred and anger. I just wish there could have been more of a build up of tension at the start.

The introduction of Rycroft half way through the novel had the potential to add another layer of antagonism that I desperately thought the story needed at that point. However this was short lived, as his character disappears towards the later stages of the novel. This was a shame as he had the potential to provide a worthy antagonist to Elian to compete with Lira and her mother. In fact, I thought quite a few of these secondary characters seemed to act as filler, such as Yokiko and her brothers. For such a feisty female warrior we never really see her in action and she only appears in a few scenes, more as a plot device than as a fully formed character.

I think I wanted more from this. I wanted more sea adventures, more of Lira's life as a siren, more time with Elian and Lira getting to know each other, and more explanations about things that are never developed. Where did Elian get his knife? Why is it special? How did his father get his compass? The final scenes are great, and lead to an epic showdown, but I was left feeling a little letdown by it. I wanted more answers, and that final 'reveal' that's built up throughout the story didn't really live up to the moment. I wanted more drama from it.

Don't get me wrong, this was a great read. It flows well, it's wonderfully written and full of adventure and imagination. It's just not perfect.

To Kill a Kingdom is available to purchase now from: Amazon

 - 4 stars