Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Brave Enough, By Cheryl Strayed

Writing a book of quotes takes courage because the line between inspired and hackneyed is very thin. For the most part, Cheryl Strayed's "Brave Enough" manages not to cross that line. Her quotes are intended to comfort the bereaved and broken-hearted, keep the ambitious focused, and help the lost find their way home. But why write a book about quotes? According to Strayed, quotes "tell us we’re not alone. Their existence is proof that others have questioned, grappled with, and come to know the same truths we question and grapple with, too." They are powerful because "Quotes, at their core, almost always shout 'Yes!'"

Strayed addresses many topics in this book. Fear, is one. Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Do one thing every day that scares you." Strayed says, "Hello, fear. Thank you for being here. You’re my indication that I’m doing what I need to do." Forgiveness is another. "Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill."

Some of Strayed's prose falls flat, for example: "Don’t own other people’s crap," and "You’re here. So be here." Some is absolutely stunning and it is this prose that makes "Brave Enough" good enough: "I’ll never know and neither will you about the life you didn’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore."

Print Length: 160 pages
Publisher: Knopf (October 27, 2015)
Publication Date: October 27, 2015
Sold by: Random House LLC

Victoria Crossing, by Michael Wallace

"Victoria Crossing" is a well researched, beautifully written, work of historical fiction that transports us to New York City in the decade before the Civil War. Teeming with immigrants crammed into decaying tenements, New York at that time was a place where penniless hard workers could become prosperous.

One of those hard workers was Victoria MacPherson, a young Irish Protestant. After the potato crop failed for the third year, and her father was murdered for evicting families on orders from the local landed gentry, Victoria fled to New York. Sailing the Atlantic as a steerage passenger, she befriends Maeve, an Irish Catholic, whose brother has promised to meet her in New York. On their first day in America, however, Maeve's brother fails to appear and Victoria has her life savings stolen by a well dressed con man. Despite this, Victoria and Maeve find piece-work as seamstresses and begin their climb out of the rat infested tenements. Maeve's brother, Patrick, eventually does find them. Transported to Australia from Ireland at 16 for a crime he did not commit, he has made his way from Australia to the San Francisco gold rush to malaria-soaked Central America and finally to Manhattan.

Wallace skillfully recreates New York and Ireland in the 1840s. His depiction of the hopelessness of famine-ridden Ireland, the injustice and wildness of Australia, and the pestilence, despair and corruption of New York City, is vivid and realistic. As is his depiction of the gutsy Victoria as she builds a clothing business and demolishes any person who tries to cross her. "Victoria Crossing" is a fabulous novel that is on a par with the work of Howard Fast, Caleb Carr and Colleen McCullough.

(In exchange for an honest review, I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.)
Print Length: 320 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1503934136
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (May 17, 2016)
Publication Date: May 17, 2016
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Jacqueline the Ripper, by Karl Alexander

Karl Alexander does a wonderful job re-creating H.G. Wells in this sequel to his 1979, "Time After Time," but, as in the prior novel, he still is unable to create believable women characters. How does Amber Reese fall in love with Wells? Her immediate love makes absolutely no sense. Why does Amy Catherine Robbins Wells's second persona, "Catherine," come across as psychotic and why is Amy such a wimp? Notwithstanding the fact that at times I was ready to throw the book against the wall because the women characters were so badly developed, I finished the book because the plot was excellent and the character of H.G. Wells was so well crafted. This is why I gave the book four stars and why the book is worth reading.

Print Length: 336 pages
Publisher: Forge Books; First Edition edition (November 10, 2009)
Publication Date: November 10, 2009
Sold by: Macmillan
Language: English

Time after Time, by Karl Alexander

Karl Alexander does a very good job of bringing H.G. Wells to life as we time travel with him back to 1893. Unfortunately, Alexander doesn't make his female characters believable. This is a shame because his ability to tell a story, and his ability to describe 1893 London and 1979 San Francisco is top notch. Despite the character development problem, I highly recommend you read this book.

Print Length: 286 pages
Publisher: Forge Books (February 22, 2010)
Publication Date: February 22, 2010
Sold by: Macmillan
Language: English

Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America, by Joseph Kim

You are five years old and your parents and sister love you and spoil you. You love going to school and playing with your friends. Your mother cooks your favorite foods and your father creates toys for you and your friends.

Then one day, without warning, the food gets scarcer and scarcer. There are no more toys, and you miss school in order to scrounge for food. A vast and dismal landscape of orphaned children, gangs of thugs, and dead bodies replaces the warm and happy landscape that you knew.

Is this the plot of a young adult's dystopian novel? It could be. Instead, it is the story of Joseph Kim, a child of North Korea, who lost his family and was homeless at 11 years old due to the famous famine of the 1990s and the brutal uncaring Kim dynasties. Joseph kept alive the only way possible for him, by begging, stealing, working in dangerous coal mines, fighting and joining gangs.

At thirteen, completely alone, dressed in rags and starving, he crossed into China, not caring if the Border Guards saw him. Still considering himself a thief, he learned that something called "churches" and "Christians" would give him food and money. Eventually, an American charity, "Liberty in North Korea (LiNK)," found him and brought him to the United States. You may have watched his TED Talk from Scotland or read a newspaper article about. Neither conveys the horror that a whole generation of North Korean children faced when their parents could no longer feed them and their government abandoned them. The true magnitude of the famine is unknown due to lack of information. Some reports estimate the death toll at 2 million.

This is not a brutal future depicted in a science fiction book, this is North Korea today. Joseph Kim survived in ways that would have destroyed most of us. His story deserves to be read.

Print Length: 293 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books (June 2, 2015)
Publication Date: June 2, 2015
Sold by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea, by Eunsun Kim

Eunsun Kim is not even thirty years old, but:
1. She has fled two countries, North Korea and China;
2. She was forced to leave school at 11 and spend nine years trying to survive, most of the time without sufficient food and without a real home;
3. She watched her father, grandparents and neighbors die of starvation;
4. She was sold by a human trafficker, along with her mother and sister, to an abusive family in rural China;
5. In order to reach South Korea, she and her mother were smuggled into Mongolia and had to cross the Gobi Desert at night;
6. She and her mother were forced to abandon her baby brother in China; and
7. She spent many months being interrogated by South Korean intelligence in order to prove she was not a North Korean spy.

This book is one of a growing number that exposes the true horrors of the great famine that killed over a million North Koreans in the 1990s and the brutal conditions that still exist in that country. Despite all of the above, and worse, Eunsun's love of her homeland and her hope for a free, unified Korea remains, as does her commitment to try and help children who are experiencing devastation similar to what she endured. After reading her book, the common complaints of the West seem so unimportant. This book should be required reading in every high school.

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (July 21, 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1250064643
ISBN-13: 978-1250064646

Saturday, September 3, 2016

My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, by Wendy E. Simmons

I have read many books written by North Korean refugees or journalists visiting North Korea under cover or journalists captured and held by North Korea. Each book had something unique to offer, and each was an important book. "My Holiday in North Korea," however, may be the most unique of the unique because Wendy Simmons brings such a love of people and joyousness to this story about her short visit to North Korea. Throughout the book, we are treated to the best and worst of North Korea: the empty, "new," Women's Maternity Hospital filled with antiquated technology; the barely edible food that was luxurious under the standard of living that most North Koreans endure; the wedding where the bride did not welcome a western tourist; the lack of stores and traffic in Pyongyang; the multiple, "spontaneous" encounters with students in classrooms, factory workers and others- all staged and pre-choreographed; and the two minders and driver who were with Ms. Simmons every waking minute.

Three of her visits, however, stand out as the most poignant. While at the Women's Maternity Hospital, Simmons learns that twins and triplets are rare and they are raised in orphanages. We then meet these children at an orphanage. Simmons includes photos that show how beautiful they are. Although they appear healthy, my heart hurt at the idea of children taken from their family simply because they are twins or triplets. The second poignant visit involved a trip to a high school. While there, Simmons was impressed at how smart and accessible the students were, especially one young man who smiled at her and allowed her to take his picture. Looking at the photo and seeing the engaging smiles of the students, most caught off guard, it's hard to believe that they won't, somehow, change the direction of their country for the better. The third poignant visit involves the DMZ and the delight of the North Korean soldiers when they have their photos taken with Simmons's instant camera. Later that day, an older general takes Simmons to see (via binoculars) the wall built along the DMZ by South Korea. A gentle soul, he asks about her life, sings to her, and calls her a "brave girl" for visiting a dangerous place.

I have to admit that I was taken aback at first by Simmons's light hearted, and at times snarky, approach to her minders and North Korea. It is a dictatorship and the population lives in an isolated bubble. There is still famine in parts of the country, there are still brutal labor camps and gulags, and life spans are shorter than the west. Simmons reminds us, however, that the population of that brutal country is composed of humans. They laugh, they dream, they live their lives. While they may believe that America is the great enemy, most did not view Simmons as their enemy. She writes of crowds of school children at one stop who swarmed around her, so happy to see her, yelling "hello" and "good bye." Simmons's writing made me think and laugh and cry. The people she describes are the people we should think about when we think of North Korea, and these are the people who need us to work hard to make sure they have a future. I give this book four well-deserved stars.

(I received this copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)
Print Length: 312 pages
Publisher: RosettaBooks (May 3, 2016)
Publication Date: May 3, 2016
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Friday, September 2, 2016

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park

Yeonmi Park is a human rights activist who escaped, at the age of 13, from North Korea to China in order to survive. A victim of the Kim Dynasty's famine, Park was trafficked in China, along with her mother. Her memoir, "In Order to Live," pulls no punches. She was born at a time when the North Korean government was losing its subsidies from Russia as communism collapsed. While her family lived well for a time due to her parents black market trading, eventually that ended when her father was thrown in a labor camp. His health was completely broken there, and he was unable to care for his family when he managed to get out early.

When Park and her mother were smuggled into China, her mother was raped by the human traffickers, and Park, at 13, was forced to become the mistress of another trafficker. After escaping to South Korea with the help of Christian missionaries, Park fought against the growing anti-North Korean defector sentiment in South Korea, against her own shame at what she was forced to do to survive, and against her own lack of education.

She is a remarkable young woman, so remarkable the North Korean regime has retaliated against her for exposing the true horrors in that concentration camp of a nation. Park's growing awareness of the need for critical thinking, as opposed to brainwashed regurgitation of another person's or regime's ideas, is truly awe inspiring. Her recognition that there is no "I" in North Korea, only "we," is something that individuals who have escaped cults have long understand. This is one of the first times that a survivor of North Korea has drawn that exact comparison. We will be hearing much more from Park. She is only in her early 20s, and she has already sent a repressive regime into apoplexy- imagine what else she has in store for this world. Five stars.

Print Length: 290 pages
Publisher: Penguin Press (September 29, 2015)
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Beach View Boarding House Series, by Ellie Dean

Ellie Dean has written a fabulous series depicting how the inhabitants of a seaside town and boarding house survive WWII. The hardships, rationing, bombings, romances, deaths, estrangements, jobs, and love of family are brought to life by Ms. Dean. As I read, I was transported to 1940s England. I loved every one of the first eight books in the series, and I am looking forward to reading the next two which have just been released in the U.S.