In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park review

Hi everyone! This week I’m reviewing In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park. The title is fairly self-explanatory; this is Park’s memoir of life in North Korea and her subsequent escape into China. However she encounters more hardships here, and her and her mother escape yet again, this time to South Korea and hopefully freedom.

This was a difficult read. Park does not shy away from discussing harrowing, heartbreaking periods of her life; she speaks of starvation, human trafficking, rape and discrimination. Nothing is sensationalised or gratuitous, rather they are portrayed as sad facts of life. Yet there is always a sense of hope running through the book. This comes from Park herself; her bravery and determination to gain freedom for herself and her family is incredibly touching and inspiring. You are always rooting for her to succeed and even when faced with difficult decisions, you understand why she made that choice.

Park also writes eloquently about life in North Korea. I admit my knowledge of the country is minimal, but Park’s descriptions are so evocative that you are transported to a different country and culture. She breaks down North Korean society and how the Kim family are able to brainwash the nation, which makes it more accessible and easier to understand. She also mentions briefly North Korean history which I found fascinating and gave some context to the country it is now.

I really enjoyed this book – a weird thing to say, considering the tough subject matters it tackles. The passages about North Korea were interesting, albeit horrifying, and it made me want to read more about the country. But I think the book’s main strength is Park herself. She is such a strong, inspirational woman and writes so honestly and beautifully about her life. Her sheer will to survive was, and still is, incredible.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.

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The Secret Life of a Book Blogger Tag

Hi everyone! This is a first for me as whilst I love reading people’s answers to tags, I have never actually done one myself. But I saw this on Brunching Bookworms (and you should follow them as they’re amazing) and I couldn’t help myself. So without further rambling let’s get on with the questions.

1. How long have you been blogging?

Random Book Reviews Web started in May 2017 so about a year and 3 months. However I did run a Tumblr years ago. At the time I thought I was being quite non-conformist and edgy, but in hindsight I was a spotty schoolgirl reblogging Van Gogh paintings and philosophy quotes, thinking I was ‘deep’. Cringe.

2. At what point do you think you’ll stop blogging?

I don’t have any immediate plans to stop blogging, but I reckon when it stops being fun I’ll probably quit. I don’t see the point in continuing something just for the sake of it.

3. What is the best thing about blogging?

The community. I know everyone says that but it’s true. It’s fun to chat with fellow book lovers, especially since I don’t know that many readers in my real life, plus I love getting recommendations or discovering books I had never heard of.

sunflowers
Nothing says ‘edgy’ like sunflowers     National Gallery, London

4. What is the worst thing? What do you do to make it okay?

My harshest critic is myself. I get really annoyed with myself if I miss a deadline for a blog post- even though there is no ‘deadline’ per say and it’s just a random date I decided I would publish on. Two recent examples were when I wasn’t feeling well and when my laptop broke down. On both occasions I panicked my content wouldn’t upload on a certain date, despite knowing no one would notice or care if I skipped a day. I think this needs to be a goal for 2019: worry less!

5. How long does it take you to make/find pictures to use?

Since the vast majority of my pictures are book covers, probably less than 5 minutes. However I do have a post coming up which will require a bit more photography prowess on my part. Which is going to be…interesting.

6. Who is your book crush?

Rochester is pretty much my go-to answer, I love his character and the novel. Though a recent one might be Lenny from Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle; despite having some problems with the ending I thought Lenny’s character arc was beautiful and touching.

7. What author would you like to have on your blog?

I’m going to split this into dead and alive authors but to be honest there’s so many I couldn’t possibly name them all.

Dead: Daphne du Maurier and George Orwell. Both helped me get back into reading as a teenager, and their books still have an effect on me despite multiple rereads. Also I would quite like to know Orwell’s thoughts on the current political climate.

Alive: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I adore all of her novels, with Purple Hibiscus being one of my favourite books. I just find them brimming with humanity, with some moments warm and witty while others just heartbreaking. I can’t wait to read her next novel.

the dark circle
Lenny still fav after over a year book blogging

8. What do you wear when you write your blog posts?

It depends. On weekdays probably jeans and a shirt and on weekends, in all honesty, I’m probably in my PJs.

9. How long does it take you to prepare?

Again it depends. I usually write notes while I’m reading so I don’t forget later on. I then collate my notes to try and form coherent thoughts. I also normally edit a post a couple of times before publishing it so, excluding the reading/note taking time, on average about 2 hours.

10. How do you feel about the book blogging community?

I think I answered this in question 3, but I’ve found everyone really friendly and welcoming.

11. What do you think one should do to get a successful blog?

I’m definitely the wrong person to answer this question. I think if you start a blog purely for monetary gain/internet fame/free stuff/material gains you’ll be disappointed.

Other than that, I would say just be yourself, which I know is quite naff advice. For example I was terrified of reviewing Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl. I loathed that book (still do) and I knew Tyler had a large fanbase and is a really respected, prolific author. I was worried people would judge me for not liking it, which I know is silly. But I decided to be honest and it became one of my most read and liked reviews of 2017! So yeah, even if you think you have an unpopular opinion about a book, just share it anyway – people prefer it if you were honest about your opinions rather than hiding them.

vinegar girl
Do. Not. Read. This. Book.

And that’s all the questions! Sorry this is a lot longer than I anticipated. I won’t tag anyone but instead leave it open if others want to join in!

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson review

Hi everyone! Surprisingly, when writing my recommendations for Scottish literature late last year, I completely neglected Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m an idiot, I know. So I thought I would rectify that by reviewing one of his most famous works (and my personal favourite): Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This novella is set in London and follows our protagonist John Utterson who becomes increasingly concerned about his friend Dr Henry Jekyll, and the mysterious influence the malevolent Hyde has on him.

Despite being a really slim volume – my copy is just slightly over 100 pages – Stevenson manages to cram a lot in. The main theme seems to revolve around the idea of the public vs the private selves; how we may wear a mask in public and secretly keep an aspect of ourselves out of sight. Which ultimately wins; our ‘higher’ selves or baser instincts? This is obviously notable in the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic, but other characters represent this idea too. Utterson briefly mentions his own poor decisions though he never expands on them, leaving the reader in the dark to what secrets he may have.

Another character Sir Danvers Carew is seemingly the height of respectability; yet when the reader meets him he is in a part of London infamous for brothels and opium dens. Stevenson has taken his core idea and represented it through most of the characters in different ways; from the more science fiction/fantasy genre (Jekyll/Hyde) to maybe more realistic depictions of that theme (Utterson).

I also liked how Stevenson get up an aura of suspense throughout the story, impressive considering the twist at the end is so famous most people probably know it. There is an unpredictability to Hyde; a kind of animalistic nature that could do anything. You were never quite sure when Hyde would show up next and what he was going to do, especially nearing the end when his actions become very sinister.

The character of Hyde is so vaguely described that it allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. We are essentially told that he is short, young and looks evil or has this evil air about him; other than that there’s not much else. This lack of description makes him more frightening. Is he some sort of monster, a boogeyman? Or does he look more like someone you’d pass on the street? Stevenson lets you decide for yourself, and what a reader can come up with in their own mind is often scarier than anything the author could have written.

If you’ve never read Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde I urge you to do so. It is very different from the many film adaptations (or certainly the ones I’ve seen) and especially the awful musical which is so unlike the novella it’s ridiculous. Whilst the twist isn’t going to suprise you in the same way as perhaps Victorian audiences, it is still a really fun and well-written ghost story, with themes that could still be applicable today.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is published by Wordsworth Press and you can find more information here.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte review

Hi everyone! As I had been feeling a little under the weather recently, I have mainly been reading some of my favourite books as pick-me-ups. One such novel is  Jane Eyre, which I have read and re-read so many times my copy is falling apart. I’m sure everyone knows the plot; following Jane from her horrible childhood with her aunt and cousins to working as a governess under the charismatic Mr Rochester.

One of the reasons this is a favourite of mine is due to the characterisation. Jane is incredibly strong and determined despite appearances. She has to make tough choices throughout yet she always remains true to herself. Her words and inner strength, especially the line ‘I care for myself’, have always been a bit of a comfort blanket and were very uplifting in moments of insecurity.

Meanwhile, Rochester is ambiguous in nature, veering between hero and villain throughout. At points you like then despise him almost instantly; but very much like Jane you are under his spell. Despite never quite knowing how to categorise him, he still entertains the reader. Some of my favourite moments are when Rochester and Jane are together, their dialogue becoming almost like a sparring match. It is an enjoyable read, and one I can’t but adore.

However, despite being one of my favourite books, I’ll admit Jane Eyre  does have some problems, particularly in the latter half. The ending wraps up a little too nicely and conveniently for me, and at some points I did cringe. This is especially true for the reveal about St John and his sisters. I also think the character of St John could have been developed more. Jane is supposed to be conflicted whether or not to marry St John; but I thought he was a bit flat and subsequently never saw any appeal in marrying him.

Jane Eyre holds up to numerous re-reads as I can well testify. The main appeal comes from Jane herself; her strength and determination I’ve always found inspiring. She is very much the heart and soul of the novel, and she lingers in the mind long after the novel closes. Whilst I do have problems with the second half and wish it was a little longer, my impression of the novel now is the same when I first read it over a decade ago; it thoroughly deserved to be ranked as a classic.

Jane Eyre is published by Penguin Classics and you can find more information here.

 

 

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs. This is my first O’Brien book, which seems slightly strange considering she has over twenty works published. This one begins in a small village in Ireland called Cloonoila, where a stranger calling himself a faith healer has shown up. The residents are all intrigued by him, but especially a woman called Fidelma McBride. The attraction between Fidelma and this elusive stranger proves to have devastating consequences.

O’Brien successfully weaves plenty of heavy themes and ideas into the narrative, especially the notions of home and displacement. Throughout the narrative we meet characters who have left home due to work, seeking refuge or simply trying to escape from their past. O’Brien looks at how we define home; is it the place you were brought up, the place you have emigrated to or something else entirely? Is ‘home’ something within the individual? She never gives you an answer but instead allows the reader to explore the differing definitions of home.

The theme of storytelling is also quite prevalent in the narrative. There are two chapters essentially dedicated to a group of characters telling each other their life stories. Fidelma remarks in one scene that these people might not be telling the truth; they are just there to tell a version of their past and for people to actually listen. This blends in nicely with the idea of displacement; people are physically leaving their previous lives but also mentally distancing themselves.

Despite touching on some dark themes (there were a couple of times I flinched as O’Brien’s descriptions were graphic) The Little Red Chairs is ultimately very uplifting. The character of Fidelma goes through a lot in the story yet always has this sort of quiet determination to survive. It is hard not to sympathise with her, especially when the truth about her relationship with the stranger is revealed and the subsequent treatment of her by others.

I think The Little Red Chairs is very much a Marmite book; people will either love it or hate. The structure is odd to say the least, characters don’t necessarily behave in the way you would expect and sometimes it feels like you’re reading vignettes about one woman’s life, rather than a complete narrative. But I loved O’Brien’s study of one woman trying to rebuild her life and would love to pick up more books by her. She tackles some pretty intense themes but I wouldn’t say the novel feels heavy handed, despite there being some disturbing scenes.

The Little Red Chairs is published by Faber & Faber and you can find more information here.

Our Legendary Ladies Presents: Harriet Tubman by Megan Callea review

Hi everyone! Today is a first for me as I’m reviewing my first children’s picture book, which I kindly received from the author and Booktasters. Our Legendary Ladies series is a collection of books written by Megan Callea for very young children and tell the stories of famous women throughout history. The first book centres on Harriet Tubman, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery then later for women’s rights.

I really enjoyed this book. Callea writes in rhyming couplets, making the story easy to follow but also quite engaging for children. The narrative flows really well and the rhyming isn’t forced or trite. She also uses a mixture of small and larger, more complex words which helps children to develop their reading skills. A really nice touch is on the Our Legendary Ladies website (linked down below) there is a worksheet for Harriet Tubman and the themes present in the book. I thought this was an excellent idea as it allows children to engage with the topics presented and how to think critically.

The illustrations by Jennifer Howard are also stunning, as well as helping to tell Tubman’s story and complementing Callea’s writing. I found the images to be really evocative and memorable, which I think any good picture book should have.

Overall I think younger readers would really enjoy Harriet Tubman. It gives an insight into a remarkable woman while still being accessible to younger readers. A lot of research has obviously gone into the book which has paid off enormously. Coupled with Howard’s illustrations, Callea has written a wonderful children’s book.

Our Legendary Ladies Presents: Harriet Tubman is published independently and you can find more information here.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara review

Hi everyone! I can’t quite believe it is near the end of July and I’ve just finished my first non-fiction in 2018. But it was a good one. I’m sure most people have heard about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by now so I’ll keep my intro brief. McNamara tells the account of the Golden State Killer, a rapist turned serial killer who terrorised California from 1976 to 86, and who was caught earlier this year.

McNamara has written a very compelling, frightening debut. She has walked a very fine line between explaining the brutal nature of the attacks, but not making those descriptions so gratuitous that it feels disrespectful to the victims. Instead, she will tell you just enough and then allow you to fill in the blanks, which is often more terrifying than being told explicit details.

I also liked how McNamara wove aspects of her life into the story. She talks about what got her interested in cold cases, her research methods and her observations about interviewees and crime scenes. This was something I had never read before; previously the non-fiction I read focused solely on the subject matter, with very little in the way of the author and their reasons for writing the book. This gives I’ll Be Gone in the Dark more depth as you watch and make comparisons between the writer and her subject matter; how they both appear obsessed and how their obsessions evolve over time.

Sadly, McNamara passed away in 2016 while writing the book so the third and final part is written by Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen, both of whom helped McNamara in her research. Obviously the change in writing style is a little jarring, especially since I became really involved in McNamara’s storytelling. But Haynes and Jensen reveal plenty of insights into the killer, even showing charts of where he might live. Their discussions are very eerie considering how close their guesses were to the killer’s home. Both men and McNamara even bring up the possibility of using familial DNA, which is exactly how he was caught.

I picked up I’ll Be Gone in the Dark thinking it would be a straightforward narrative about one man. That’s not the case. You also have this compelling study into the writer’s mind, this obsession to reveal his identity. There are also interesting titbits about police procedures and how technological breakthroughs helped them to catch perpetrators. Yet all this information is woven into a highly readable, gripping book, written with warmth and wit. Even if you aren’t usually a fan of true crime books I would still recommend I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Just don’t actually read it in the dark.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is published by Faber and Faber and you can find more information here.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng review

Hi everyone! Today I thought I’d chat about Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which has received huge praise from, well, everywhere. I tend to wait for the hype to die down before picking up a book but I was really intrigued by the plot and couldn’t wait. Set in a small town called Shaker Heights in the 1990s, we open with the Richardson house ablaze. Younger daughter Izzy is the main suspect who has disappeared. We then go back a year later and follow the lives of the Richardson family and their new tenants, artist Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl. Everything is going smoothly until a custody battle erupts in Shaker – and the families find themselves on opposing sides.

Motherhood is a massive theme in this novel, especially the idea of what makes someone a mother – the physical act of giving birth, the raising of children or maybe something else. Ng approaches this topic with sensitivity and she never provides answers. As a reader you are never told what to think and feel but are left to interpret these characters and dilemmas for yourself, which I really enjoyed. I found this helped make me more engaged in the narrative and think about the book as a whole long after I finished reading.

The characters as well are similarly portrayed. No one is necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’; they all have their strengths and weaknesses, making them feel fully fledged. Even if I didn’t agree with the decisions made, I could understand why the character did it. The exception to this is Moody, the younger son of the Richardsons who has a crush on Pearl. His arc was fairly predictable and I probably would have liked to have seen a bit more depth to him. Because I could see how his story was going to unfold, I didn’t find him particularly interesting or sympathetic, and when we got to sections about Moody I did fight the urge to skip to a more fascinating character.

However as a whole the community of Shaker Heights was brilliantly portrayed by Ng. I noticed that she grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio and you can tell as her observations are spot on. She looks at this idea of a ‘perfect’ community and more specifically the idea of a nuclear family within that community, and deconstructs it. The obsession with how the exterior of houses looks (to the point where certain neighbourhoods can only use certain colours) hides the flaws of the inhabitants. Ng captures that feeling perfectly, of giving the appearance of being perfect while hiding your troubles.

Overall I really enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere. The plot was really tightly constructed, though admittedly I found some plot points a bit too coincidental. I also really liked Ng’s characterisations and how she tackled different themes. I’ve yet to read Everything I Never Told You but if it’s as good as this I can’t wait.

Little Fires Everywhere is published by Abacus and you can find more information here.

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis review

Hi everyone! Last month I went to see the film The Breadwinner which was nominated for Best Animated Picture at this year’s Oscars. I enjoyed it so much I had to pick up the book that inspired it. The Breadwinner is set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where women are forbidden to leave their homes on their own. A young girl, Parvana, helps her disabled father at the market. However one day he is imprisoned by the Taliban and the family are left to starve in their own home. They come up with a dangerous plan: pass off Parvana as a boy so she could go outside, earn money and buy food. The novel follows Parvana’s journey as she waits for news of her father.

I read that Ellis had spent time in Afghan refugee camps talking to women about their experiences and this is evident in the story. It feels very realistic; there is nothing particularly showy about Parvana and her life, despite the extraordinary circumstances she is living in. The narrative is very matter of fact; this is how life is and this is how people adapt to survive.

In a similar vein I found the characters’ relationships to be realistic and well-developed. I’m particularly fond of the dynamic between Parvana and her older sister Nooria, Ellis drew the tensions between the two beautifully, highlighting how much they love and care for one another despite driving each other insane. It was really relatable at points. You start to really care for this family and their plight, and by the end I wanted to pick the sequel up and carry on.

Ellis also does an excellent job of depicting the Taliban, not as some faceless monsters but as actual human beings. Yes, there are scenes of violence  (one in particular which still haunts me) but there is also a moment where you feel almost sorry for one of the soldiers. Ellis writes with such empathy that you cannot help but be moved and it impressive how even her smallest sentences can have huge effects.

The Breadwinner is suitable for children aged 9 – 12 but anyone can read it and still find it enjoyable. Ellis has taken a difficult, hard-hitting story and embued it with a hope and sensitivity which rings clear. The idea of family and community pulling you through is a powerful theme in the story. It is a good reminder that despite all the darkness in the world there is far more light.

The Breadwinner is published by Oxford University Press and you can find more information here.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill review

There are some minor spoilers in this review.

As many may have noticed I don’t tend to read much YA. To be honest I don’t know why I stopped as I used to devour it when I was younger (many, many years ago). So I decided to try it again in the hopes of rekindling my interest. Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill seemed a good choice. It is a dystopian world where girls are raised to be the perfect companions to men. When the girls are sixteen the ‘Inheritants’ come to the School to pick their favourite and if they aren’t chosen, the girls become concubines. Our story follows best friends isabel and freida who both seem to be on the verge of self-destructing.

O’Neill tackles some very heavy topics; sexism, body image, mental health, eating disorders. She writes about these with sensitivity and compassion. The novel never feels gratuitous or exploitative; these are just simply a part of the girls’ lives. Some scenes can be upsetting or uncomfortable but are necessary for the plot.

However, I did have a couple of issues with the book, the first one being pacing. I worked out what the big secret was about 100 pages in, meaning the remaining 300 dragged. The repetitiveness of the book reflects the monotony of the girls’ lives but I found it frustrating. I just wanted O’Neill to get to the point. There seemed to be a lot of filler and the plot could probably have worked in a novel half the size.

Also some aspects of this world didn’t make sense. Why are only female babies genetically engineered but not males? We are made to believe that previously girls had died off, presumably murdered. But why only them? The book seemed to raise more questions than answers and at points I wasn’t sure I understood this world.

Another thing was how language was used. The girls refer to chickens and eggs as ‘chick-chicks’ and ‘eggies’. Having them talk in this cutesy way is supposed to infantilize them but it seemed completely at odds with other aspects of dialogue. They use words such as ‘probation’ and ‘Vomitorium’ but not simply ‘eggs’?

Overall I found Only Ever Yours a disappointing read. The plot is certainly intriguing and I believe there is a good book somewhere amongst the pages. But certain aspects didn’t work for me or I didn’t understand why O’Neill made those choices. However I know many people love this novel so I’m probably in the minority. My quest to find a great YA read continues!

Only Ever Yours is published by Quercus and you can find more information here.