In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

I’m not quite sure how to begin this review. This book is not an overly large one, but I feel as if I experienced a lot as I was reading it. It was both a draining and inspiring read.

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Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea, a country she describes as “unimaginable” and “indescribable” in interviews. From the moment she’s born, she’s imprisoned under North Korea’s oppressive government rule. Yeonmi’s childhood is basically a study in hunger; she describes how food, or rather the painful lack of it, was a constant theme in her young life. Acute hunger numbs little Yeonmi to the daily horrors that she has been born into: seeing children her own age or younger begging and dying on the streets; seeing friends and neighbours executed for such transgressions as watching a Hollywood film.

Despite these daily nightmares, Yeonmi and her people are told that they live in the best country in the world, led by a benevolent and wise leader who only has their best interests at heart. They see the suffering and pain around them, but have to believe – or least pretend to believe – that they are in the best situation they can be in. As far as the children of Yeonmi’s generation can tell, this is the truth: despite the lack of resources, technology, and inequality in education, North Koreans are being well taken care of. Yeonmi’s parents, and their contemporaries, however, are more aware of their country’s decline in resources, and are slowly coming to realize its manipulative propaganda and dangerous totalitarian rule.

I know it’s trite, but having read 1984, it was chilling to read Yeonmi’s autobiography, and see how many similarities there were between an imagined dystopia, and what is very much a reality for an entire nation of people today. Yeonmi also remarks how much the novel Animal Farm spoke to her own experience.

Even when Yeonmi escapes to China, the horrors don’t subside. She and her mother become entangled in human trafficking, and Yeonmi has to continue to draw on the strength of her spirit to look after the two of them. China’s harsh policy on North Korean refugees means that Yeonmi, and others like her, are unable to reach out to the authorities for help. Instead, they are forced to be exploited, and exchange one life of oppression for another.

Once Yeonmi and her mother are resettled in South Korea, Yeonmi works hard to achieve her dreams of fitting in with a new people. She takes advantage of the education and resources that become available to her. Yeonmi has now become a strong activist voice for the suffering of the North Korean people. Her speeches and interviews have been viewed online numerous times. Her burning desire to live, to do more than just survive, is evident in her story. In one of her interviews, she remarks that if she were to die now she’d be happy, as she had finally tasted freedom. It’s a powerful, and weighty remark. Yeonmi’s story is a heart-breaking and revealing one. Not only does it shed light on North Korea’s harsh regime; it also urges us to take up our duty as free humans. At the One Young World conference, Yeonmi asks the guests to educate themselves and others as much as they can about North Korea. I think anyone who reads this book will benefit from it; besides being an incredible tale about survival and a resilient spirit, it’s also a story that urges us to be more empathetic towards our fellow human beings.

“Sometimes I felt crazy too.”

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Sylvie feels invisible. Her sister, “Calamity” Cate, is suffering from mental illness. It’s wreaking havoc on the family.Cate is lost in her nightmarish world, and her parents are both drained by this situation. Sylvie’s swept up into the eye of the storm, feeling far too much like a negligible speck. School isn’t much better, either, where she feels out of place and visible for all the wrong reasons. So, Sylvie decides to undergo a makeover. The new Sylvie will be bold and throw caution to the wind. More importantly, she’ll be noticeable. This, of course, doesn’t come without its own set of consequences.

I love how Kaeli Baker has created a flawed, but endearing character in Sylvie. She is absolutely in a difficult position; she is going through things that no one at her age should be going through alone. At the same time, she reacts in quite selfish ways, and is often oblivious to the goings-on around her. Her decisions are impulsive and misguided. There were times when I just wanted to reach in, grab her face, and command her to take care of herself. It’s heartbreaking to think about how many youngsters are out there, isolated in their experiences, and unable to vocalize their pain, or trying to externalize it in ineffective ways.

Living with mental illness is difficult, but this novel shows that this can also be true for those living with someone suffering from a mental illness. Cate’s mental illness is not at the center of the novel; it’s the effects of it that Baker focuses on, and it’s a good exploration. Watching Sylvie’s family struggle to keep it together is hard, but from the outsider perspective I had as a reader, at times it seemed almost inevitable. Their suppressed emotions break out in loud and explosive actions, or in quiet, insidious ways that eat away at each of them. It’s an honest exploration, and Baker does not try to cover anything up in pretty paper.

The interactions between the younger characters were a little less real for me, however. There were times when the dialogue felt a little unnatural and jilted. Some of the development also feels slightly rushed. I can appreciate that this is a shorter novel, however, and as such there’s only so much space to work with.

I think a lot of young readers will benefit from reading this. Not only does it highlight the importance of reaching out for help, it also encourages reaching out to help others. There isn’t much discussion about mental illness and adolescents, especially in the New Zealand school setting. This book takes step to change that.

Breathing Life into Drawings

Sierra Santiago loves art. She has a knack for creating images, and is currently working on a giant community mural. Strangely though she suddenly notices that the images  around her are starting to move. Images are fading, facial expressions are changing. Strangers and strange creatures alike are suddenly chasing her. Sierra soon discovers that her family heritage is not as straightforward, or as ordinary, as she once thought, and she becomes embroiled in her most difficult project yet.

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Isn’t the cover beautiful?

There is a lot to like in Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper. Sierra, a young Afro-Latina highschooler is a strong and intelligent heroine, with  insecurities and self-doubts that make her a multi-dimensional character. Her relationships with friends and family are warm and entertaining to read about, though interspersed with the inevitable difficulties. Her newfound ability – being powerful enough to render illustrations and infuse them with a magic that brings them to life – were, to be nerdy about it, totally cool. I think the young child in me was especially gleeful about that because one of my daydreams used to be having the power to do exactly that  – imagine drawing the exact thing you wanted or needed and simply willing it into life. (You’d never want for anything! Of course you’d have to be a pretty good artist for it work…) Shadowshaping, however, can also singing and telling stories. The power itself seems an ode to the act of creation, and it’s an inspired touch.

Older creates a world that is very vivid and imaginative. The paranormal aspect is smoothly woven into the narrative. It’s thrilling to see the fantasy dimension buzzing behind the facade of Sierra’s urban life. The characters within it are numerous and beautifully diverse. High-school me would probably have cried tears of joy at this novel. The novel did, however,  feel like it was lacking in character development when it came to some of the secondary characters. They weren’t as fleshed out as Sierra herself, and also made for some confusion in some of the scenes as I couldn’t immediately place who was who. I hope we get to see more of the other characters in the coming books.

Sierra’s coming into her own is beautiful to watch, especially as she discovers her own family’s deep involvement in this supernatural community. Her bravery when it comes to embracing a part of her family that her own mother shunned was touching.  My favourite scene involves a very important conversation with a female family relative that quite suddenly and unexpectedly moved me to tears. It was perhaps the most inspiring and heartening scene in the book for me. It seemed to encapsulate everything the book was about.

There is a strong theme running throughout it of oneness of community. The shadowshapers’ power stems from the strength of their relationship with their ancestors. Their entire system of power is structured around togetherness and community, and I loved that.It ties in with Sierra’s insecurities regarding her own skin colour, her African heritage, and watching her overcome her doubts, and even the doubts and jibes of those close to her made my heart swell. The novel is quite slim, so these scenes felt like they could have used a little more development as well. It was great to see Sierra take that first step but I wanted a something more surrounding that first step to make it more substantial. In any case Older has kicked off an entertaining series and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

Thoughts Left Behind in Second-hand Bookshops

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Thoughts like these and many others will persist in clogging up the narrow, book-lined aisles of second-hand bookshops. We barely have room for the books, folks, we can’t have your scatter-brained impulses flooding our book hovel. Unclaimed thoughts will be summarily disposed of. Please do not leave this kind of thing lying around in public:

  • Sweet! Cheap books!
  • My wallet is going to love me!
  • Think of all the books I could take home!
  • Wait. I don’t have have much space left on the shelf.
  • Ok, just one or two. Three, if I find something REALLY good.
  • How is it that every single bookstore has “The Da Vinci Code”?
  • I wonder which of these books belonged to a billionaire?
  • Has a billionaire shopped here?
  • Do billionaires even shop in second-hand bookstores?
  • That just seems unfair.
  • Oh, yet another edition of my favourite title (of which I might already own seven other editions)!

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  • I wonder if this shop is a secret entrance to a magical world.
  • How many wizards have been in here?
  • When am I getting my letter to Hogwarts, anyway?
  • Why is that second-hand bookstores never stock any Shirley Jackson?
  • I feel sorry for the neglected books.
  • I wish I could read every book here.
  • But you can’t be everyone’s champion.
  • Does Dan Brown lose sleep over the fact that he is the bane of every second-hand bookshop owner’s existence?
  • Come to think of it, does E.L. James?
  • What if I find the original Shakespeare folio in here?!
  • I could be a billionaire!
  • I wouldn’t have to shop in second-hand bookshops after that.
  • Aw, I’d still come anyway, who can resist the charm?
  • Crap, I bought way more books than I meant to.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

This novel follows Sunny Nwazue, an albino American born Nigerian girl. With her family having moved back to Nigeria, Sunny is finding it hard to fit in. Her looks and smarts are both fodder for the school bullies. Add to that her outsider status of being “akata”, an African American, life for Sunny is not exactly sunshine and rainbows.

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As if these daily pressures aren’t enough, Sunny also has special powers. The kind that are also a curse, as she is now privy to how the end of the world will unfold.

Thankfully, with the help of newly acquired friends Sunny learns she is actually part of a larger magical community.

Sunny’s is a very engaging character to read about. I think young readers will take to her – she’s an intelligent and resourceful child. She is curious and extraordinarily brave, yet at the same she feels very familiar, as if she could be any child you meet. I think this aspect will really endear her to young readers. She is just like any kid trying their best to fit in, worrying about balancing friends and family, while trying to establish her individuality.

The new world Sunny discovers is riotous with magic. There’s something new at every turn. There is a lot to take in, in that regard, but one of the positive side effects is that the story is never put on pause in order to make way for excessive word building. The reader is swept along into this magical terrain with Sunny. I can see how that could be a bit of a downside, as it’s a lot to take in, but then, you don’t get bogged down in overwhelming details about setting and foliage etc., either.

If there was one thing I wanted more of, it was to see more interaction between Sunny and her parents. Her mother obviously knows a lot more about this new world Sunny’s discovering than she’s letting on. Plus, Sunny’s relationship with her father is very rocky and fragile. I would love to see more positivity in that relationship in future novels but I can appreciate that Okorafor might be trying to convey that some relationship in life just don’t evolve past a certain point in life.

I think young readers have a hero to discover in Sunny. She is a newbie, thrown into deep waters, but she’s a conscientious kid who ultimately tries to do the right thing. I’m eager to see where this series will go.

English Magic Has Never Been More Fun

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Confession: I hugged this book close once I’d finished reading the last page. I wanted to absorb into my being, take it everywhere with me, show it off to everyone. Unfortunately, I sort of finished it on the day it was due so I had to give it back. But it’s one of those books that has earned my eternal love that I now have to buy my own copy. (Cos that’s the only reason to buy a book, duh).

Sorcerer to the Crown took the book blogging world by storm last year, and that’s when it caught my eye. Once I saw the words “Regency England”, “magic”, and “diverse characters” in a blog or review I had to hastily look away, because I knew that this book and I were going to become very well acquainted and I did not want to spoil a single thing for myself.

In case you couldn’t tell, the experience totally lived up to my expectations.

English magic is having a hard time of it. Magicians are struggling to perform spells, the Crown is at war with France, and is sneakingly requesting magical help, though this is technically  forbidden. Zacharias Wythe, the Sorcerer himself, isn’t exactly enjoying himself at the moment. Not only is he struggling to find the reason for the depletion of England’s magic, he has to also struggle with the Society’s (the community of English magicians) censure about his right to hold the Sorcerer’s staff, as the death of the previous Sorcerer (who also happened to be his adopted father) was under very mysterious circumstances.

There’s also the fact that Zacharias  is a black man. You add that into the mix, and suddenly Zacharias’s problems are two-fold. Zacharias’s position as Sorcerer is even more under threat with the Society questioning his eligibility to hold the staff, and latent racism rising rapidly to the surface.

Not only that, but since Zacharias agreed to speak at a girls’ school about magic, he’s suddenly and unexpectedly burdened with an orphan runaway by the name of Prunella Gentleman. Prunella, however, is no apathetic leech. Armed with the unhatched eggs of seven familiars (a treasure, indeed, in magically barren England) and the flimsiest of clues about her past, she concocts a plan to enlist the help of the Sorcerer Royal. Being half English and half Indian, Prunella knows the only way to secure a position in society is to marry well.

This story is described as a combination of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Georgette Heyer’s regency world. I would probably also add Diana Wynne Jones into the mix. I absolutely love the way that Cho describes the magic, and the way it’s used. It makes it seem very real and very practical, and not some unknown, inexplicable thing.

What’s more, Cho depicts the way magic is used to symbolize the complexities and inequalities of race, class and gender. Though Zacharias has the Sorcerer’s staff, his lack of a familiar sparks acidic conjecture within the Society, spurred very much by the darkness of his skin. Now that his father has passed away, he no longer has his protection against the vicious tongues of Regency society. English magic is also forbidden to women and the lower class. This, of course, makes Prunella’s position especially intriguing. Not only does she possess the magical familiars, her grasp on magic is very advanced, indeed, more so than a lot of the upperclass, male magicians. Oh, and the fact that menstruation actually strengthens her magic? Where has this book been all my life?

But it’s not all social commentary and no play. The story interweaves humour and wit beautifully. There were several instances where I found myself having a chuckle. In fact, I was pretty much grinning for the majority of this book. Seeing the various characters interact was a joy.

Prunella, though at times annoyingly impulsiveness, has resourcefulness and quick-thinking on her side to back up that impulsiveness. She’s whip smart, and I really loved that she was also allowed to take centre stage during the action. She has a lot of cunning on her side, and for an orphan, that’s always a handy characteristic to have.

Zacharias is a man after my own heart. After everything he goes through – being rescued from slavery by Sir Stephen, being grateful for this, while also resenting the fact that he never knew his own family; taking up the position of Sorcerer Royal though it is at the risk of his own happiness, well-being and peace of mind – it’s amazing that despite all of it he still manages to be composed, compassionate and kind. He has all the requisites for  being a Brooding Hero(TM) and, yet, that never stops him from being a genuinely good person. It’s just nice to see that authors are not afraid to write romantic heroes in this way.

The book is fairly brimming with memorable secondary characters. What I loved most about this novel was that Cho really exercised the extent of the “fantasy” element – it’s a world with magic, and as such, magic has the power to connect people from all over the globe. And hallelujah! FINALLY an author who makes use of that. Honourable mentions go to Prunella’s mentor, Mak Genggang, a Malaysian enchantress, whose power and withering wit will make her an immediate favourite.

Just read it. You’ll thank yourself you did.

“Bliss” by Katherine Mansfield – a breakdown

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Katerine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield’s stories are like paper flowers. Seemingly fragile, oozing simplicity, but a closer look reveals the complexity that went into the construction, the precision and accuracy that achieves the deceptive simplicity that is characteristic of her stories.

Bliss centres around Bertha Young, thirty years old and resisting the inexplicable need “to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement.” There is no explanation for the extreme elation that suddenly invades Bertha as she makes her way home.

The stream of consciousness grips as tightly as this overwhelming joy has gripped Bertha. Mansfield really excels at this narrative form, and she knows just how much to put in, and how much to leave out.

“‘No, that about the fiddle is not quite what I mean,’ she thought, running up the steps and feeling in her bag for the key – she’d forgotten it, as usual – and rattling the letter-box. ‘It’s not what I mean, because – Thank you, Mary’ – she went into the hall.”

It’s so very life-like, this fractured thought process and Bertha springs into life so adamantly, and if she wasn’t real to you in the first paragraph, then she certainly is now. And it is this realness that’s so very captivating.

Mansfield’s stories are always tailored with the trappings of daily life – all the quotidian details that you don’t really pay attention to in your routinely adventures, but set within the context of the bigger picture they make a very rich tapestry indeed.

“Mary brought in the fruit on a tray and with a glass bowl, and a blue dish, very lovely, with a strange sheen on it as though it had been dipped in milk.”

I often refer to Mansfield’s writing as stop-and-smell-the-roses writing, because it feels like she’s urging you to take a moment and really look at the trivial details of life. And then she’ll paint them with a brush that will render them magical, almost gem-like in their sudden ability to shine where they didn’t before.

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She dots daily life with these fascinating details, and then brings you down to reality. There is gentle irony in the way she satirizes her own characters for fancying things that mightn’t be there.

“She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror – but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something . . . divine to happen . . . that she knew must happen . . . infallibly.”

Everyone’s prone to a little whimsy, a little fantasizing, and none more so than Mansfield’s characters. More than the English teachers who analyze these stories, it’s the characters in them that infuse things with an overripe magic, and symbolize things left and right.

“At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn’t help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal.

. . . And she seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with is wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.”

On the beauty and perfection of this unassuming pear tree is what Bertha hinges her entire night. She and her husband will be entertaining dinner guests, a few close artistic friends, and “a find” of Bertha’s, Pearl Fulton. Mysterious, sophisticated, whom “Bertha had fallen in love with . . . as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them.”

And so, do we finally come to the source of Bertha’s ecstasy? Is it the strange Miss Fulton who has Bertha in such raptures, feeling the painful intensity of life? Mansfield never says so. Instead she points to more of Bertha’s wishful thinking as she imagines there’s a common feeling between herself and her newest guest, an understanding of just how wonderful this night is.

“But Bertha knew, suddenly, as if the longest, most intimate look had passed between them – as if they had said to each other: ‘You, too?’ – that Pearl Fulton, stirring the beautiful read soup in the grey plate, was feeling just what she was feeling.”

Moving through the steps of the dinner party, Bertha struggles to contain her glee. She watches her friends whom she loves, but knows that they can’t quite understand what she and Pearl are experiencing. The reader, too, is excluded from this bubble. We never quite know why Bertha is so ecstatic, though we are, at least, more clued in than her guests.

This scene is particularly exquisite, because it allows us to eavesdrop in the various tidbits of conversations that Mansfield dangles before us. We are at the dinner party, too, though we are privy to more than the others.

Bertha waiting for a “sign” from Pearl, believes it to be a momentous occasion when Pearl asks to see the garden, something “so exquisite on her part that all Bertha could do was to obey.” Finally, she can show her companion in this unique experience the axis on which this magical night spins: the pear tree.

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“How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, and understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?

For ever? – for a moment? And did Miss Fulton murmur: ‘Yes. Just that. Or did Bertha dream it?”

And so we reach the home stretch. The day is about to close up again. Bertha has been flitting through it on imaginatively strung trapeze threads. She longs to tell her husband, who has only been ice towards Pearl Fulton, of her special new friend, of what they have shared, and the thought of being alone with her husband thrills and scares Bertha.

“For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband.”

It seems that Bertha’s latent desires for Miss Fulton have manifested in an unlikely urgency for her husband. The pear tree now has a double meaning; with its full blossoms, reaching for the moon, it is no longer just a symbol for Bertha’s perfect night. The giddy day has culminated in this moment of sexual awakening.

And yet, Bertha will not be free to end her night with illusions. Life is not that generous.  Bertha Young, only a girl as her name suggests, farewells her guests, “feeling that this self of hers was taking leave of them forever”, for with the taste of desire she believes she has finally stepped into the adult world. Perhaps this is where she was heading, as a young girl giddily anticipates a milestone birthday, perhaps Bertha sensed that her next step into womanhood was nigh.

Womanhood, when it does arrive, is bittersweet. Because, secluded in the hallway, is beautiful Miss Fulton, more womanly and sophisticated than Bertha, in the arms of Bertha’s husband. It is a shock to both Bertha and the reader. Once Miss Fulton, too, leaves Bertha is left with her realization. All of the magic of the night is stripped away, all of the blissful ignorance shredded, and Bertha is only left with a world that she does not truly understand.

“But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and still.”

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