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Book Review: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

February 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: He, She and It by Marge PiercySummary:
In the middle of the twenty-first century, life as we know it has changed for all time. Shira Shipman’s marriage has broken up, and her young son has been taken from her by the corporation that runs her zone, so she has returned to Tikva, the Jewish free town where she grew up. There, she is welcomed by Malkah, the brilliant grandmother who raised her, and meets an extraordinary man who is not a man at all, but a unique cyborg implanted with intelligence, emotions–and the ability to kill….

Review:
I picked this up because of how incredibly moved I was by Woman on the Edge of Time (review) by the same author. While I found this interesting and unique, it didn’t move me in quite the same way. I imagine it would probably move a reader more if they are Jewish or a mother.

The book is richly steeped in Jewish culture and history. All of Earth is either a slum or run by corporations in basically corporate states except for a few free towns which manage to exist due to their value in trade. Tikva is one of these, and it’s made clear this is partially so because the founders were concerned about maintaining Jewish culture in a world being overcome by just a few corporations. The corporation Shira works at before returning to Tikva judges her in her performance reviews for staying too attached to her home culture, including things like naming her son a traditionally Jewish name. So there is this very interesting thread about how minority cultures can maintain themselves in the face of economic threat and assimilation. When Shira gets a divorce, the corporation grants majority custody to her ex-husband and ultimately essentially full custody when he is sent to work off-world. Overcome with grief, Shira moves home to Tikva. Here we learn that Shira’s grandmother Malkah raised her and see how differently her own mother approaches motherhood than Shira does. This is one of the key threads of the book.

The other key thread is personhood and what makes us human. One of the residents of Tikva has succeeded in making an illegal cyborg. There are periodic chapters where Malkah is telling him the story of the Jewish myth of the Golem (a human-like beast made of clay to protect the Jewish people from persecution. More info). Very clear lines are drawn between the golem and the modern-day cyborg, who was made to protect Tikva and keep it free. Of course people start to have mixed feelings about the cyborg and asking not just what makes him human but also if he can be Jewish? (He himself identifies as Jewish and attends synagogue). I particularly enjoyed that Malkah isn’t just the story teller to the cyborb but she’s also one of the most important and most intelligent programmers in Tikva. The programmers essentially are what keep Tikva free, and an elderly woman is one of the most important ones.

Even though it’s a topic I’ve read a lot in scifi, I always enjoy the exploration of what makes us human and at what point does intelligent technology gain personhood, and the way it was explored here was different from what I’ve seen elsewhere. In particular, I thought the not just female but female Jewish lens was new and great. But I will admit that I had trouble relating to Shira and her struggle with motherhood and types of motherhood. I think motherhood can sometimes be overly thought about and held up on a pedestal in our culture and in feminism too. While mothers who choose to mother differently are acknowledged in the book, women who choose not to mother are not. It’s as if mothering is a natural part of womanhood, and that was not something I felt I could connect to in the book.

Overall, though, this was a wonderfully different take on the scifi exploration of cyborgs and artificial intelligence. Recommended to scifi readers, but particularly to those seeking a Jewish lens or an exploration of motherhood in addition to cyborgs.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Paperbackswap

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Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok (Audiobook narrated by Angela Lin)

February 12, 2017 1 comment

Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok (Audiobook narrated by Angela Lin)Summary:
Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.

But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

Review:
There is so much that is wonderful about this book. The incredibly depicted settings of both Chinatown and ballroom dancing. The finely nuanced and richly complicated relationships. The new adult struggles of finding and being true to yourself while still relating to your family of birth. You don’t have to be first-generation American to relate to Charlie’s struggles to reconcile her childhood world with the world she knows now. In some ways I found this to be a Chinese-American version of Dirty Dancing, and that’s a big complement since Dirty Dancing is one of my favorite movies. I also particularly enjoyed seeing a single father realistically deal with his two daughters. He sometimes does wonderfully and sometimes fails them, and their fights are realistic and full of honesty.

If you’re curious about the audiobook version, Angela Lin does an incredible job. Every single character has their own voice and her accents are full of nothing but realism and respect. It was like a well-produced radio program.The praise this book is getting is well-deserved, and if you want to immerse yourself in Chinatown, dance, and new adult issues, you don’t even need to read my review further. Just go get yourself a copy.  But I do need to talk about what didn’t work for me.

*spoilers*
Charlie is dyslexic, and her father never allowed her school to officially diagnose and treat her, which led her to have poor grades and struggle with many typical entry level white collar jobs such as being an administrative assistant. Lisa in contrast is an excellent student who works after school at their uncle’s Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. Partway through the book, Lisa starts to have nightmares and wet the bed. She’s also been selected to apply for entry and scholarship to a highly selective private school, though, so Charlie thinks it’s probably related to that. I think the vast majority of readers will be able to quickly figure out that Lisa is being molested at the clinic. There are just way too many hints. Lisa doesn’t want to go to the clinic anymore after being good-natured about it. She starts getting jealous of Charlie whereas before she only wished for good things for her sister. And honestly bed wetting and nightmares are extremely typical symptoms of molestation.

But I don’t dislike this plot because of how obvious it was to me. I also fully acknowledge these terrible things can and do happen in otherwise average families, and I’m not against these stories being told. However, I do think it was a poor fit for the tone otherwise of the book. It felt like the idea was that there wouldn’t be enough conflict between Charlie and her family without this extra problem. Like Charlie wouldn’t have been at all worried about her sister or about leaving her family behind somehow without this other problem. I think that’s underestimating Charlie and underestimating how hard it can be to grow and change and become different from your family of origin. The rest of the book is so full of beauty and energy, whether it’s in Chinatown or in the ballroom dance rooms. Then this plot comes in and it just feels like it doesn’t belong. While I feel incredible empathy for people in Lisa’s situation, I came to resent her presence in the story because she felt kind of like olives being stuffed into a delicious lasagna. It’s not that olives are bad; it’s just that they don’t belong. I think that these were really two separate stories, and they should have been told separately.
*end spoilers

In spite of these feelings about the dual plots, I still really enjoyed the read and would happily read another book by Kwok in the future. I also think this is a great example of a new adult read that’s mostly about the emotional experiences of your early 20s. Recommended to anyone looking to get immersed in Chinatown and ballroom.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review and Giveaway: Life First by R.J. Crayton (Series, #1)

February 9, 2017 1 comment

Book Review and Giveaway: Life First by R.J. CraytonSummary:
Strong-willed Kelsey Reed must escape tonight or tomorrow her government will take her kidney and give it to someone else.

In this future forged by survivors of pandemics that wiped out 80 percent of the world’s population, life is valued above all else. The government of “Life First” requires the mentally ill to be sterilized, outlaws abortions and sentences to death those who refuse to donate an organ when told.

Determined not to give up her kidney, Kelsey enlists the help of her boyfriend Luke and a dodgy doctor to escape. The trio must disable the tracking chip in her arm for her to flee undetected. If they fail, Kelsey will be stripped of everything.

Review:
I have a confession to make. I was supposed to review this in 2016 but somehow my review copy never made it onto my Kindle or my 2016 ARCs folder. It was only when I was cross-posting to last year’s Accepted ARCs post that I saw it listed and wondered what had happened to it. Apparently it got hung up somehow in the cloud instead of ever delivering to my kindle. My apologies to the author for the delay but I must say the timing of reading it was rather impeccable. With new threats to the bodily autonomy of women coming in 2017 I found the dystopian future to be even more haunting than I might have in 2016.

Set in a near-future where the population was decimated by plagues and environmental issues leading to starvation, the title alludes to a new movement and indeed, rule of law, in the United States. In a landmark case, a woman who after the population decimation chose to have an abortion is prosecuted in court. Her defense is that you wouldn’t force someone to donate blood or a body part to save another person’s life so why should you force a woman to bring a fetus to term? The court agrees that it is a logical fallacy but instead of protecting abortion chooses to make it the law to donate body parts and blood when needed. (There are other impacts too, such as everyone must take statistics classes and decide whether or not to risk their life to save another’s based on the statistical likelihood of success). Everyone is given a life monitoring chip and is registered in a database and bodily matches found so they may be called in when needed. The main character is called in as a kidney donor, but she’s afraid to donate since one of her best friends became paralyzed as a result of her donor surgery.

Those who disagree with this policy have seceded to their own country in what used to be Florida. Kelsey and her boyfriend Luke plan her escape there but of course, not everything goes as planned. There are a lot of twists and turns that bring forth more moral issues that I can’t really get into without spoiling the book for others. Suffice to say, I work as a medical librarian, and I found the medical ethics issues raised on top of the bodily autonomy ones to be quite well-put and thought-provoking.

I must give a quick trigger warning that there is a graphic attempted rape in the book, which was definitely disturbing and not possible to simply skip over, as it was a key plot point and lasted for a while. However, I do think that it suited the book and the issues being raised and was not out-of-place. Essentially, if you’re disturbed by the attempted rape and not by the rest of the book then I have some questions for you about your ethical lines.

Overall, this was an engaging read that left me immediately curious about the next entry in the series. Twists and turns took it places I wasn’t anticipating it going and I encountered more medical ethics issues than I thought I would in the read. Highly recommended, particularly to those who have enjoyed other women’s issues dystopian futures such as The Handmaid’s Tale.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for honest review

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Giveaway!

Thanks to the generosity of the author, one lucky Opinions of a Wolf reader can win a copy of this ebook.

How to Enter:

  1. Leave a comment on this post stating why bodily autonomy matters to you.
  2. Copy/paste the following and tweet it from your public twitter. Retweets do not count:
    Enter to win LIFE FIRST by @RJCrayton, hosted by @McNeilAuthor http://buff.ly/2kgFf4F #scifi #womenauthors #giveaway
  3. Repost the Instagram giveaway announcement and tag my Instagram.
  4. Tag one of your friends on the Instagram giveaway announcement.

Each option gets you one entry. Multiple tweets/Instagram posts do not count as multiple entries.

Who Can Enter: International

Contest Ends: February 23rd at midnight

Disclaimer: The winner will have their book sent to them by the author.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.  Void where prohibited by law.

Book Review: Run by Kody Keplinger

February 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Run by Kody KeplingerSummary:
Bo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and a mama who’s not exactly sober most of the time. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Agnes Atwood has never gone on a date, never even stayed out past ten, and never broken any of her parents’ overbearing rules. Rules that are meant to protect their legally blind daughter—protect her from what, Agnes isn’t quite sure.

Despite everything, Bo and Agnes become best friends. And it’s the sort of friendship that runs truer and deeper than anything else.

So when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnes doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities, and—worst of all—confronting some ugly secrets.

Review:
This book would have wound up as a Disappointing Reads Haiku except that I actually didn’t have high expectations for it going in. The description didn’t appeal to me that much, and I had a feeling I might feel lukewarm about it. So why did I read it? I heard one of the two girls was bisexual, and hurting as I am for bisexual literature (it’s hard to find just from book descriptions), I’m willing to give most of it a shot if it sounds even moderately appealing. I do like stories of unlikely friendships and representation of less than ideal parenting situations (the realistic kind, not the fantasy kind of conveniently dead parents). I also liked the representation of not just bisexuality but also someone who is legally blind. I found the writing to be clunky, though, and the ultimate plotline to be a bit puzzling, rather than moving.

Agnes is written better than Bo. The depictions of her over-protective parents, what it is to be legally blind but not 100% blind, how others treat her, particularly in her church as an angel and not as a regular person, these were all great. The author is herself legally blind, and you can really tell. I’ve read many books about blind characters by people who were not themselves blind and the depiction was nowhere near as realistic as in this book. I think it speaks a lot to why own voices literature matters.

This realism doesn’t come through in Bo though. Bo reads like a two-dimensional caricature with the quick correction that oh hey I know I’ll make her bisexual but not a slut and that makes her seem sensitively written. Bo whose family is known in the small town as the trouble-makers, the no-goods. Bo with rumors spread about her and no-good drug-addict mom. Bo who, unlike Agnes, doesn’t speak mainstream English but mostly just in the sense that she says “ain’t” a lot. Bo who’s terrified of foster care so runs when her mom is arrested again. What bothers me the most about Bo (this may be a minor spoiler) is the book seems to think it gives her a happy ending. Like everything is ok now. But it’s clearly not. Speaking as a bisexual woman who had a less than ideal living situation in rural America in her teens, nothing about Bo strikes me as realistic. She reads as fake. She sounds fake. Some of her actions themselves are realistic but there’s no soul behind them. It might not have stuck out so badly if Agnes hadn’t been so well-written or perhaps if I wasn’t able to relate to well to who Bo was supposed to be.

One of the lines that I think demonstrates this problem that I couldn’t stop re-reading is below. It should have made me happy because Bo actually says the word “bisexual.” (Very rare in literature). But I was just irritated at how fake it all sounded.

“So … you’re all right with it, then? Me being … bisexual, I guess? I ain’t never used that word before, but … you’re all right with it?” (loc 2359)

It bothers me on two levels. First, rural people don’t just decorate their sentences with ain’t’s and double negatives. There’s more nuance to the accent than that and also Agnes and her average blue collar parents would have the same accent as Bo (they don’t). Second, I’ve never in my life heard a bisexual person speak about themselves this way, and I certainly never have. The number of times Bo asks Agnes if she’s “ok with it” (this is not the first time) is unrealistic. You know as soon as you come out if someone is “ok with it” or not and you deal and react to that. You don’t just keep wondering. You know. No amount of inexperience coming out would make you not know.

If Bo had been written as powerfully as Agnes, this would be a very different review, but since that’s not the case I have to say my dislike of the representation of Bo paired with my like of the representation of Agnes left this an average read for me, and it certainly won’t be a piece of bi literature I’ll go around recommending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

January 29, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara DemickSummary:
Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years–a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today–an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.

Review:
One thing the official blurb doesn’t mention is that all 6 of the North Korean escapees Demick interviewed were from the same town of Chongjin. This allowed for her to get multiple perspectives of life in the same town over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. I think this is key because it allowed her to, through their eyes, get a well-rounded sense of what life in Chongjin was like in those decades.

Since I had just read The Girl with Seven Names (review), the extent of the brainwashing North Korean citizens go through their entire lives and how difficult it is to escape (physically and mentally) were not revelatory to me. However, I do think this information is presented quite well by Demick, and there is added value in getting it from 6 different voices, instead of the one in the memoir I started out with.

What struck me the most as new information in this book was actually the famine in North Korea. I hadn’t heard of it, and every single person interviewed by Demick was touched by it. Some more than others. One of the people interviewed was a homeless child during the famine whose growth was permanently stunted by his starvation. For those wondering, the famine was the result of North Korea’s various trade agreements falling through after the fall of the USSR. Humanitarian agencies did send aid, but the North Korean officials intercepted it and either took it or sold it on the black market. Demick speaks at length how this incredibly long-lasting famine impacted not just people’s bodies but their psyche and can lead them to do things they normally wouldn’t for survival.

Her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.  (location 2109)

I already knew of the horrible gulags (prison camps) in North Korea but some of the people Demick interviewed had actually been in some of the less severe ones. They spoke of familial bribery and overcrowding as ways they got out. The crimes they commited to be sent to these concentration camp style prison camps, by the way, were things like smuggling goods and escaping to China. One new fact I learned about these prison camps that will haunt me for a while is this:

North Koreans have multiple words for prison in much the same way the Inuit do for snow. (location 2740)

Demick goes more in-depth into what happens to the North Koreans who do manage to escape to South Korea. How well do they acclimate? What are their lives like? She speaks about how many of them are struggling to save money to pay to have human smugglers help sneak their remaining family members out of North Korea. The most heartbreaking of these stories is the mother who escaped to China and had to leave her two children behind with their father who was still loyal to North Korea. Her children are grown now, and she’s still trying to get in contact with them to help them escape. In addition to the difficulties of trying to save remaining family members there’s the fact that capitalism is new to the North Korean escapees, and that South Korea really has a different culture at this point. There’s a lot of struggles to adapt to both that Demick does a good job demonstrating by letting her interviewees speak for themselves.

Demick did a wonderful job interviewing and assembling the stories of these 6 refugees. She both lets their stories speak for themselves and interjects at appropriate times with astute analysis. Recommended to those with an interest in North Korea who want some narrative story with critical analysis.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah MoskowitzSummary:
Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.

Everywhere she turns, someone feels she’s too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere— until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?

Review:
Etta is a character I wish I had been able to find in fiction when I was a teenager. She’s unashamedly herself, even when it hurts or it involves some floundering. She’s from a small town with dreams of the big city. She just doesn’t fit in her small town. She is so very real because she is so many intersectional elements at once. Most important to me is that she’s bisexual (and she actually SAYS the word), but she’s also female, black, and suffering from Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOs), where the name of the book comes from.

What’s so great though is that, even with being all of these things, her main point of conflict actually has nothing to do with any of them. She desperately wants to live in NYC, and she sees a contest to get into a musical theater high school in NYC as just the chance to do that. She has a huge dream, and that is something any YA reader can relate to. So even if the reader happens to not relate to Etta on anything else (and honestly, who cares? kids like Etta have to reach really hard to relate to most of the literature out there so it’s about time the mainstream kids have to as well), but even if they don’t relate to her on anything else, they should be able to relate to her on this adolescent experience of The Big Dream.

I loved that Etta is allowed to be the person she is without speaking for All Bisexuals™. She very clearly presents herself as a bisexual person who is not representative of all bisexual people beyond the being attracted to more than one gender thing. I also appreciated that the complexity of the queer community is shown. Etta talks about being pushed into being an outsider by both the straights and the lesbians because both of them kind of just want her to “pick a side.” The book begins with the lesbians being angry at Etta for dating a boy. They’re acting like she was a “fake lesbian,” and this is how Etta feels about that:

And bi the way, I was never a lesbian, and I told the Dykes that all the time, but there isn’t a Banjo Bisexuals group or whatever. (location 54)

While a lot of the book eloquently deals with Etta’s sexuality, it also takes time to talk about race and racism. I lost the highlighted passage but essentially Etta is talking with a friend and discusses how hard it is to be part of so many minority groups and how she can never hide being black but she can hide being queer, and how that means she can never escape racism. On the other hand, she also points out how exhausting it can be to constantly be reminding people of her queerness. No one denies that she’s black but people keep trying to take her bisexual identity from her. It’s a non-preachy passage that introduces the complexities of intersexuality to a YA audience.

Finally, there’s the EDNOS. The best part about this is the book come in when Etta is in recovery. Most books about eating disorders come in during the downward spiral, but Etta has already gone to treatment and is working in recovery. We so often don’t get to see recovery and how messy it can be in literature, but we see it here. We get to see how mental illnesses don’t just go away, people just have strategies for staying in recovery.

There’s a ton that’s good about this book, but I must say that I did think the level of partying could sometimes be a bit over the top. While obviously not all kids are straight-edged I was a bit skeptical of the level of partying going on in Small Town USA (including high schoolers getting into a gay bar repeatedly). Perhaps what struck me as a bit less realitic, actually, was Etta’s intelligent and put-together mother who is clearly caring being somehow out of touch about the partying going on, whereas Etta’s sister is 100% aware. It wasn’t enough to truly bother me and I do think on some level some YA readers expect an unrealistic set of partying situations just for the interest level but in a book that had so much realistic about it, it just struck me as a bit out of place.

Overall, this is a great addition to contemporary YA with an out and proud main character and a timeless plot of a small town girl with big dreams. I requested it at my library to be added to the collection (and they did!), and if you can’t buy it yourself, I highly recommend you doing so as well. It bring so much different to the YA table.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge #miarc
Specific Illness –> EDNOS

Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

January 22, 2017 3 comments

Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story by Hyeonseo LeeSummary:
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realize that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumors of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

Review:
I’ll never forget the first time I learned about North Korea’s terrifying dictatorship. I was discussing the horror of the concentration camps with someone as a young teen, and a person nearby said, “You know those still exist. North Korea calls them gulags.” I looked it up, and one of the first things I found was a child’s drawings of life inside. I later found out that we only have stories from the least bad of the gulags. The worst tier no one has escaped from to tell us what happens inside them. It’s really horrifying. Last fall, I decided it was time I learned more about North Korea, so I went looking and this book spoke to me as a place to start. I like first-hand accounts, it’s from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, and I liked the title. I got more than I had bargained for. While this memoir would be good regardless of the writing style because Hyeonseo’s life is just that interesting, her writing is articulate and insightful.

Hyeonseo does a wonderful job writing realistically and yet with empathy about herself as a child who had been fully fooled by the North Korean government. It can sometimes be difficult to understand how people can believe x, y, z but this book makes it easy to understand how it can happen and amazing that anyone manages to start doubting such an all-encompassing worldview.

One of the more surprising parts of the book to me was that at first Hyeonseo just wanted to see China. She had no intention of leaving North Korea forever. It’s just once she got out and visiting relatives in China she dragged her feet about going back until it was too dangerous for her to go back. (She would have been captured upon return and put in a prison camp for daring to leave at all). She now was in China with a totally different life path than she’d initially imagined. What was originally a vacation was now most likely a lifetime of being a fugitive. I think this part of the book is where Hyeonseo’s practicality and iron will first shine through:

Now that I was to stay indefinitely in China, I had to learn Mandarin. And I had the best teacher – necessity. You can study a language for years at school, but nothing helps you succeed like need, and mine was clear, and urgent. (location 1781)

I learned so much in this book beyond the horrors of what happens in North Korea. Like that China has an extradition agreement with North Korea which means that if any refugees are caught in China they are brought back to North Korea to face certain imprisonment and possibly death. I can’t imagine what it would be like to escape a dictatorship into the neighboring country and know at any moment you could be seized and sent back.

I also learned that South Korea has declared any North Koreans who make it to their land to be South Koreans and actually provide a lot of repatriation assistance but that the divide is growing between North and South Korean cultures the longer the divide is up, and some are concerned about how the two can ever be reunified once the North Koreans are freed from the dictatorship.

Hyeonseo provides a lot of insightful commentary about living under a dictatorship, human nature, brainwashing, and more. My favorite though was this:

There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens. The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in a brutal system, implicating all, from the highest to the lowest, blurring morals so that no one is blameless. (location 2368)

The only other thing I wish to say is that everyone should read this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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