Re-Shelving: 2016

It’s well past January, and perhaps a bit belated for this post, but I’ve read too many good books this past year to not re-visit them.

I have to say that my decision to read more diversely this last year was quite effective (and made me realize how much I’d been missing out on). More than half of the books I read were by #ownvoices* authors, and the stories stem from a variety of life experiences. I only hope to increase the range of stories and authors this year.

While I enjoyed the majority of my reading picks, there were several that impacted me in significant ways. Here are the standouts:

The Book That Was Both Educational and Devastating

1In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

This memoir was an intense and harrowing read. It chronicles Yeonmi Park’s life under the North Korean regime, describing how her family struggles to survive under an iron fisted rule. While Yeonmi Park has now escaped and found freedom, the journey to achieve that is a long and treacherous one. Escaping North Korea was only the first step, and soon Yeonmi’s trapped in a tangled web of exploitation. However, her story is also one of resilience and hope. Since her escape Yeonmi has tried her best to educate the world about the dangers that she escaped, and that many North Koreans are still facing. The only thing I can recommend is that you read her story.

The Book That Was Brilliantly Entertaining, and Possessed a Unique Elegance

phoThe Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

This novel centres around Phoenix, an “accelerated specimen” who has been has been grown by the scientists of Tower Seven. She has no idea of the reason for her creation, or about the extent of her powers. She is on the brink of discovering just how devastating and destructive they can be, however, and it hinges on a moment of betrayal. I adored Phoenix. She is, quite literally, a ball of rage at times, and I loved that the narrative let her flex that part of her character so frequently. Femal rage in this novel is justified, and has serious consequences. Okorafor’s writing has a brevity and vitality to it that I love – she never bogs you down in descriptions, and yet you can clearly envision her characters and adventures. I would highly recommend this to both sci-fi fans and newbies. I’m in the latter group, and I found it incredibly easy to sink into this story.

The Book That Stomped All Over My Heart, and Then Brought it Back to Life Again

2Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti

What can I say about this novel that I haven’t said before? Months later, it’s still hovering in my mind, and I keep mentioning it whenever and to whomever I can. It explores an aspect of New Zealand history that’s rarely touched on in fiction: that of the Morioris. The novel has forbidden love, familial love, and self-love as its main ingredients. It connects three voices: Mere’s a young Maori girl in 1700s New Zealand, Lula a modern Maori European woman in present day New Zealand and a mysterious voice that connects the two women. The mystery of the voice, of Lula’s past and Mere’s future all churn slowly to a heartwarming conclusion.

The Book With a Lovable Cast of Characters That Made Me Hug it Tight After I’d Finished It

sttcSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

This is set in Regency England when Magic is at an all time low, and the Sorcerer to the Crown, Zacharias Whythe finds his position is not as secure as he would hope. The fact that he is an African man, and the adopted son of the previous Sorcerer who happened to die in mysterious circumstances only complicates his position. Despite all this Zacharias remains a strong, stoic and noble character, who doesn’t lose sight of duty and I might have fallen a little bit in love. Thrown into the mix is orphan, Prunella Gentleman, half English, half Indian, and completely ready to find her own place in the world. She’s resourceful, smart, and a tad bit impulsive, but that makes for a lot of fun adventuring. There’s a whole cast of characters to fall in love with, and fall in love I did. I can’t wait for the sequel!

The Book That Simultaneously Made Magic Seem Real and Extraordinary

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The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

Oh, Diana Wynne Jones. I have to wonder if she really was a witch, because she has a way of writing about magic that makes it seem very real. She describes it an almost tangible thing. Reading her books makes you wonder if magic isn’t just an extra element in the real world as well. In this one, Christopher Chant is determined to be the new Chrestomanci, the magician chosen to be the supervisor of all those who use magic. Christopher, however, is just like any other young boy his age, and just wants to play cricket, and only use magic for fun. Diana Wynne Jones is also great at characters – they are so lifelike and vivid that I can hear them even when I’m not reading the book. It’s a story that jumps to life so easily, and is such a fun romp. I may not have read her as a child, but she certainly makes me feel that childlike wonder every time I pick up one of her books.

Have you come across some of these? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know what your standouts were.

*The term “own voices” authors refers to authors who write fiction or non-fiction based on marginalized experiences from their own lives.

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.