Monday 21 May 2018

THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES by Hyeonseo Lee and David John

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read a review of it on ~ thank you for introducing me to it!

Genre: Memoir, non-fiction, adventure, North Korea 

'There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens.  The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in their brutal system...blurring morals so that no one is blameless.  A terrorised Party cadre will terrorise his subordinates, and so on, down the chain; a friend will inform on a friend out of fear of punishment for not conforming.  A nicely brought-up boy will become a guard who kicks to death a girl caught trying to escape to China, because (her attempted escape has made her) worthless and hostile in the eyes of the state.'

Hyeonseo Lee—or Min-young as she was in North Korea—is a defector from the Kims' brutal regime.  She escaped 'by accident', shortly before she was eighteen; all she had wanted to do was take a look at China, over the river, before her coming of age meant that she would be punished as an adult for any misdemeanours.  But when the time came to go back circumstances had made it too dangerous, and so she began her life on the run.

 Looking back at Hyesan, where Hyeonseo/Min-young grew up, 
from across the river in Changbai, China, where she first escaped to.

I've been wanting to find out more about life inside North Korea for ages, and was glued to this book.  If ever you wonder why people put up with these regimes in which your only privacy is the thoughts inside your headand not even these, if you betray the 'wrong' emotion by a facial expressionthis book will make you understand.  Min-young knew no different.  In North Korea, life centres around proving loyalty to the Kims.  It is like a religious cult on a huge scale, total brainwashing.  There is no contact with the world outside the borders, and all citizens are taught, from a very young age, to believe in the absolute power of the Kims.  They are spoken of as gods, with the belief instilled that they are admired and respected the world over, and that North Korea is the greatest country to live in.  Even the history taught to schoolchildren is untrue, re-told to show the Kims as great warriors and saviours of the people.  The great famine of 1996 (yes, a northern hemisphere country in which thousands starved to death, just twenty years ago) was blamed on the evil Americans instigating trade sanctions.  While the people were dying, the Kims lived like princes.

'We knew a family who'd been deported because the father had rolled a cigarette using a square of cut newspaper without noticing that the Great Leader's face was printed on the other side.  His whole family was sent to the mountains for a backbreaking life of potato digging'

This picture of Kim Song II at the mass games was made by thousands of children 
holding up pieces of coloured card.  Hyeonso and her friends would have to hold them up for so long that they had no option but to urinate in their clothes.

Of course, people are far from happy.  Corruption and trading on the black market is rife, and the only way to live more than the most meagre life.  That such practices are commonplace is not surprising, in a country which openly manufactures and exports heroin and crystal meth to boost its economy.

Hyeonseo/Min-young came from a relatively well-to-do family so did not suffer as some, but she visited provinces where the famine had hit hard, and there is no detail spared.  Her life in North Korea takes up only the first quarter of the book, which disappointed me slightly, but there is plenty more to come ~ during the next ten years she overcomes many, many brushes with the law, usually via informants, each time with the very real danger of ending up in the terrifying North Korean prison system for the rest of her life.  She suffers, too, missing her family and never knowing who she can trust, but she is an incredibly bright and resourceful young woman; truth being stranger than fiction, if you saw her character on a TV thriller series or read about it in a novel you might think 'no, too far-fetched; all that couldn't happen to one person'.

Near the end, when she helps others defect, she shows how getting out is not the end of the story ~ sometimes, those who have escaped do not know what to do with their freedom.  They miss their families, and the more simple life inside the walls of Kim World.  

It's a fascinating book, as well as being extremely readable, and I recommend it most highly.

Monday 7 May 2018

SKINHEAD by Richard Allen

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads 

How I discovered this book:  This book first came out in 1970, the first and most well-known of a series of cult novels by Richard Allen.  I went to a fairly rough school from 1970-1972*, where the (scary) skinhead girls of the 3rd and 4th years would lend it to we 12-year-old babies.  It got passed round the whole class, and I remember it used to fall open at Chapter 8, the rude bit.  When I spotted the new digital version during an Amazon browse, I had to buy it to see how it had stood the test of time, and if it was as bad as people said it was, even then.

Genre: violence, crime, social comment.

Briefly:  The story tells of a couple of weeks in the life of Joe Hawkins, the 16-year-old leader of a skinhead gang from Plaistow, East London.

Violence - tick
Sexual content - tick
Nudity - tick
Bad language - tick
Racism - tick
Sexual violence - tick

It's hard to give this a star rating as there are so many elements to take into consideration.  As a piece of pop culture history, it's a gem.  The characterisation is pretty good, and it certainly kept me turning the pages.   Now and again clever insights are succinctly delivered, and the atmosphere of the time - the post-1960s optimism, pre-decimalisation era, when the East End no longer ruled, is so well illustrated I almost felt nostalgic for a time and place about which I know little.  A soldier, Jack Piper, who falls foul of Hawkins' bovver boots, talks about the fate of his working class parents in the dreariest part of London in a way that is quite heartbreaking.  The attitudes of the older working classes, particularly the police, to the new liberalism of the 1970s is, I dare say, spot on.

...but then there's the exposition, the bad punctuation (the proofreader from the New English Library, its first publisher, must have thought that a semicolon is a random alternative for a comma, whenever you feel like it), the exclamation marks, the lazy grammar... and, in places, lack of research/realism.  'Richard Allen' (pen name) was nearly 50 when this was written, and it's clear he doesn't know what the effects of 'pot' are, or even that it wasn't called that by anyone other than newspaper reporters.  He appears to think that all hippies, or 'hairies' (haven't heard that word since 1972!) are unemployed and indulge in regular orgies.  Joe Hawkins and his band of thugs never use the 'f' word, and call people things like 'stupid idiots', though the 'c' word does appear once or twice.  

It's really quite a horrible book, depressing and nasty, from Joe himself (who, Allen makes clear, is not the victim of social deprivation or an abusive childhood, but was born a psychopath), to the way women are portrayed (old bags or total slags), to the way in which the older people worry about the lack of control over the new breed of thugs.  Yet I kept turning the pages.  Go figure, as they say.

Oh, and by the way, the Chapter 8 'rude bit' is no stronger than anything you might read in one of today's mainstream 'steamy' romances.  In an age when you see more explicit stuff in network TV dramas than would have been included in under-the-counter soft porn films in Joe Hawkins' day, it is quite tame.  And actually not badly written.

*I was 'lucky' enough to experience the first year of easing into the new comprehensive school system, which meant not being able to go to the Grammar School until I was 13.  I think this had an adverse effect on my whole attitude to education, and possibly my whole life, because I had to learn to be rebellious in order not to get picked on by the rougher girls.  On the other hand, it probably taught me an interesting snippet or two that came in handy later in life, when I started writing. 

Saturday 5 May 2018

ASSAULTED SOULS by William Blackwell

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Genre: Post Apocalyptic

This first instalment of the Assaulted Souls series is a short novel (possibly a novella) of just 183 pages.  The setting is an alternative reality ~ the year 2016, three months after a nuclear blast.  The story opens with Nathan King - who has lost his memory due to a fall from a balcony - waking up in a cave with a man he doesn't recognise and no recollection about how he got there.  Great opening.  We soon find out that the cave is on Prince Edward Island, which I assume to be off the coast of Canada, and Nathan begins to piece facts together via information from the stranger (Edward) and his own still hazy memory.

Elsewhere, Nathan's girlfriend, Cadence, is held captive by the cannibalistic Thorvald.  In another cave we meet escaped convicts Karl and Russ.  Everyone is scared of the Neanderthals, a group of other escaped convicts from the same facility as Karl and Russ.

This opening to the series has a lot going for it; there is some excellent, amusing dialogue (both spoken and inner), and the setting descriptions totally worked; I could imagine every scene.  It rips along, and I found each character to be clearly defined from the outset.  Mr Blackwell can certainly write, and this is one of my favourite genres. 

However, much though I enjoyed the author's writing style and humour, I feel that the book needs more work ~ careful redrafting, the fine-tuning of ungrammatical sentences, and more attention to structure.  The backstory of some important issues, such Nathan's amnesia and the nuclear blast itself, are brushed off in the odd short paragraph (some of which read like notes that were written with the intention of expanding them in a later draft), whereas a story about some trouble with a difficult tenant in Nathan's past life was more detailed than necessary for such short book, and not particularly relevant; the tenant does appear later on, but is in and out within a couple of pages.  Mr Blackwell is clearly imaginative, articulate and can write some captivating sentences (which is much of what writing a good book is all about), but there were too many that made me go 'ouch'. At first I was highlighting passages and making the note 'ill-thought out sentence'.  As I found myself highlighting more and more, I shortened it to 'ITOS'.  Then I gave up.   A few examples:

'..his stomach was still knotted with hunger and when he had woke up this morning he had even...' ~ either 'when he woke up', or 'when he had woken'.

'The radiation had already infected his mind, producing a stark raving lunatic'.  Better: 'turning him into a stark etc', or something like 'producing worrying psychotic tendencies'; I think the phrase 'stark raving lunatic' is a more like something you'd read in a comic book, anyway. 

There are run-on sentences (two independent clauses without an appropriate punctuation mark or conjunction to separate them) and non-sentences such as this: 'Suddenly banging and growling at the door.'

To sum up, the basics are all there, but in my opinion it needs fleshing out, more re-drafting and the help of a good copy editor for it to stand up as the good example of this genre that it could be.

Note: If anyone is looking for such a thing, the best editor I know of, Alison Williams, has 20% off bookings in April and May this year.  More HERE.