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.

Friday, 4 May 2018

HOMO DEUS by Yuval Noah Harari @harari_yuval

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Amazon browse; I'd listened to some of it on audio book and read the brilliant Sapiens, so this was the logical next step.

Genre: non-fiction, anthropology, philosophy, history, sociology, etc etc....

For the first time in history, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little, more die from old age than from infectious diseases, and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.

Something to think about, for sure.  If Sapiens is how we got to where we are now, Homo Deus is about where we are (possibly) going.  Now that we can cure most ills and prolong life, now that the nuclear age has removed the threat of war on the scale of those of the first half of the 20th century, man is now engaged in the pursuit of ultimate happiness that will remain forever out of our reach, for we are biologically wired never to be satisfied. Harari slips in the Buddhist viewpoint, that in order to attain happiness we actually need to slow down the relentless pursuit of pleasant sensations (via food, drink, drugs, new cars, great holidays, more sex, etc., etc.).  The following paragraph, however, is the idea around which much of this book is based:

For 4 billion years natural selection has been tweaking and tinkering with {our} bodies, so that we have gone from amoeba to reptiles to mammals to Sapiens.  Yet there is no reason to think that Sapiens is the last station.  Relatively small changes  in genes, hormones and neutrons were enough to transform Homo Erectus - who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives - into Homo Sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers.  Who knows what might be the outcome of a few more changes to our DNA, hormonal system or brain structure?

Homo Deus discusses the collapse of theist and monotheist religions and the principals of humanism at some length, explores the religion of the future (Dataism), and discusses at an even greater length whether the 'self' actually exists or if all organisms are nothing more than algorithms, and if we might, eventually, produce the 'super-human', as technology advances at a speed so great that already a thirty-year-old can say to a child that the world was a different place when he was young.  There are some areas of the book I found fascinating and gave me much upon which to ponder, but in other areas I found it a little repetitive, with laboured points, and, once or twice, thought that Harari had shown a one-sided view of instances just to enforce his argument.

I read a novel a couple of months back called The Happy Chip, about a chip inserted into the brain that would assess what experience/item of food, etc., the individual needed to attain most pleasure (the pursuit of happiness).  In my review I remarked that I was sure this technology already existed.  After reading Home Deus, I now know that it is but a drop in the ocean.  Facebook possesses an algorithm that can correctly assess a user's needs and desires more accurately than his or her own family and friends (proven in tests), simply by viewing all the user's 'likes' on the site.  This information can be sold to retail companies and even politicians; the latter can then learn how best to influence the undecided.  Scary, huh?  Google predicts trends from the keywords picked up in our emails.  In a time when a large proportion of jobs can be done by automaton (and a frightening amount of them have a more than 80% chance of this happening within the next ten years), 'our personal data is probably the most valuable resource humans still have to offer, and we are giving it away to the tech giants in exhange for email services and funny cat videos'.

'The result will not be an Orwellian police state... The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within'.  The question is what will happen to all those people whose jobs can be done a hundred times more efficiently and cheaply by robots or computer programmes.  In the twentieth century, heads of nations needed soldiers and workers for wars and industry, so they improved living conditions and medicine for the masses, but what will happen when the masses are no longer needed?  

Years ago, I read somewhere that to be born in Western society in the second half of the 20th century made us the luckiest people in the history of the world.  If Harari's suggestions (and he does say they are possibilities, not prophecies) come to pass, I think that will remain the case.  My reaction to all I read is the one displayed by many when they learn these possibilities: I'm glad I won't be around to see it.

There's a section that discusses whether or not animals have a similar consciousness to humans, details tests that have proved that their emotional needs are very much like our own, and describes many of the abhorrent practices of the animal agriculture industry in such a way that I imagine many will consider changing to a plant-based diet once they've read it.  It was worth reading the book just for this reminder, but it's definitely worth reading anyway, even though it's repetitive to the point of being slightly rambling in a few areas, and not as well-structured as Sapiens.

Monday, 23 April 2018

FOUR SEASONS IN NEPAL by Nicola McGunnigle

4 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.  It is available in paperback only.  You can read more about it and see lots of great photos on the author's blog, and read delightful sections with her sons' views of Nepal, HERE.

Genre: Travel memoir, Nepal, aid work.

Four Seasons in Nepal is an account of the year the author and her family (husband and two young sons) spent a year in the country after the devastating earthquake of 2015; Nicola was to work with the NGO International Nepal Fellowship (INF).  This book describes the decision to go, the journey, how the family settled in, became used to the customs and made friends with the locals.  It tells of her activity in the post-earthquake rehabilitation programme, the GRACE project, in which she would work closely with others to rebuild schools, houses, and (most importantly) the wellbeing and morale of the communities.

This is an in-depth account of the year, about how they adapted to such difficulties as being without power for an extended period of time, but, most of all, how the work of the project helped the victims of the earthquake.  I envied the McGunnigle family the experience, and, of course, felt great respect for all that the INF do.

That the decision to go out to Nepal and help these people is a worthy one is indisputable, but my job is to review the book itself.  I gather it originated from blog posts, and in places I felt that there was too much detail, as if Nicola had written down every single memory and every thought that occurred to her, which makes it a very dense book.  Such detail works in short blog posts, but is rather a lot to wade through in a whole book; and I thought that it being chopped down by a third/edited a little more tightly would have made it more compelling.

Having said this, I would most certainly recommend the book to anyone who is thinking of going to Nepal for similar work; in such a case I'd say it is probably essential reading, as there is no stone left unturned.  From the point of view of someone who just likes reading travel memoirs and is interested in this part of the world, like me, I think it's more of a book to dip into here and there, reading odd chapters, rather than sitting down and reading it from cover to cover ~ rather like you would read a blog, I suppose!

The cover is beautiful, and the book is well presented, with some lovely photographs at the end.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

SAPIENS: A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari @harari_yuval

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Amazon browse; I'd listened to some of the follow-up, Homo Deus, on audio, and knew I had to read this.

Genre: Non-Fiction, anthropology, history, sociology, psychology....

Loved, loved, loved this book.  It is, as per the title, a brief history of humankind, but not just a physical one, ie, how we evolved into Homo Sapiens, but how our cultures evolved, how we group together socially, how the leaders of any society divide and rule by engendering explores our basic xenophobia, the good and evil of empire, how they are born and why they fall, the roots and effects, both positive and negative, of the Agricultural, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions ~ it looks at us, as a species, by standing away and observing.

Most interesting is the Homo Sapiens' invention of such imaginary concepts as religion, individual nations and money, which require the belief of millions of people around the globe to exist at all.  I can't believe I thought economics was such a boring subject when I was younger; the history of how money evolved and the explanation of how capitalism works had me glued to the pages.

There are so many great snippets of historical detail, too ~ have you heard of the ancient Numantians, who lived in small mountain town and resisted Roman invasion far more valiantly than most countries?  No, nor had I.  I never knew exactly how the Dutch became so powerful several hundred years ago, before I read this, what the Mississipi Bubble was and how it led to the French Revolution, or about Henry Rawlinson who first deciphered cuneiform script, that taught us so much about ancient civilisations.  I hadn't known exactly how Buddhism originated or understood its basis, or known how the belief in the superiority of the Aryan race began. 

This is not written in heavy text book fashion, if you're wondering; for such an informative tome, it is remarkably 'easy read', which, I imagine, explains its success.  It made me think about the smallness of seemingly important current events within the great expanse of time (and Bede's famous quote, which I'll put at the end), how each tiny sociological shift, each scientific development may have great effect in the long term, or none at all, and we have no way of knowing which it will be.  'Is the (current) upsurge of montheistic fundamentalism the wave of the future or a local whirlpool of little long-term significance?  Are we heading towards ecological disaster or technological paradise?  There are good arguments to be made for all of these outcomes, but no way of knowing for sure.  In a few decades, people will look back and think that the answers to these questions were obvious'.

Chapters about the present are frightening enough.  The section about how we treat animals in order to fulfil our desires for meat and dairy products should be enough to turn anyone vegan.  Not only that, but:

'Every year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the world'. 

'Most Christians do not imitate Christ, most Buddhists fail to follow Buddha ... in contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal.... It has succeeded.  This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do.'

But even more worrying is the last chapter, about our possible future in which natural selection may be replaced 'by intelligent design, through biological engineering, cyborg engineering or the engineering of inorganic life'.  It's already starting, but after reading this I'm glad I won't be around to see what happens.

It's a great book.  Everyone should read it.

*Quote by Bede, from The Ecclesiastical History of the English people:

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”

Saturday, 14 April 2018

BAD BLOOD WILL OUT by William Savage @penandpension

4 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, but I would have bought it anyway as I have read and enjoyed all of Mr Savage's books.

Genre: 18th century murder mystery.

This is the fourth in the Ashmole Foxe series of 18th century murder mysteries.  Foxe is a dapper entrepreneur living in the centre of Norwich.  Officially, he is a bookseller and purveyor of rare volumes, but in reality he has little interest in his shop, leaving it to be run by the reliable Mrs Crombie.  Aside from this, Foxe dabbles his fingers in many pies, not least of all the solving of murders to which he is often referred by the Alderman and other leading lights in the city.

In Bad Blood Will Out, Foxe is presented with two murders: one is that of a wealthy chandler, the other an actor in the White Swan theatre.  At first Foxe dismisses the latter, but finds his thoughts returning to it over and over.  His days are busy; he is also obliged to play host to his nephew Nicholas, who has come to the city to learn how to become a businessman.  As the early chapters progress, Foxe soon finds that, despite the presence of the odious Postgate, the theatre stage manager he and most others detest, he cannot resist delving into the White Swan murder - which soon becomes murders in the plural.

Like all of William Savage's books, Bad Blood Will Out is a highly readable mix of intricate plot construction and wonderful characters; Ashmole Foxe remains a delight, and the other characters are all fully rounded, with plenty of subtle humour in the dialogue.  The time and place is beautifully illustrated, with a backdrop of the world of 18th century theatre.

A stunning first chapter about a fire at the theatre some years before had my interest well and truly piqued, and the unfolding plot lived up to expectations (and the murder weapon had me stumped!).  I did wish, on occasion, that more events were shown in the same way as that first chapter, rather than being described/reported to Foxe, but this is just the personal preference of one who likes stories told from several points of view; I certainly enjoyed this novel and am sure Mr Savage's many readers will find it every bit as charming as all the others.