Guest Review – How I Became A North Korean | Krys Lee

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  • Title: How I Became a North Korean
  • Author: Krys Lee
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber
  • Release date: August 2nd 2016
  • Pages: 246

Blurb

Yongju is an accomplished student from one of North Korea’s most prominent families. Jangmi, on the other hand, has had to fend for herself since childhood, most recently by smuggling goods across the border. Then there is Danny, a Chinese-American teenager of North Korean descent whose quirks and precocious intelligence have long marked him as an outcast in his California high school.

These three disparate lives converge when each of them escapes to the region where China borders North Korea—Danny to visit his mother, who is working as a missionary there, after a humiliating incident keeps him out of school; Yongju to escape persecution after his father is killed at the hands of the Dear Leader himself; and Jangmi to protect her unborn child. As they struggle to survive in a place where danger seems to close in on all sides, in the form of government informants, husbands, thieves, abductors, and even missionaries, they come to form a kind of adoptive family. But will Yongju, Jangmi and Danny find their way to the better lives they risked everything for?

Transporting the reader to one of the most little-known and threatening environments in the world, and exploring how humanity persists even in the most desperate circumstances, How I Became a North Korean is a brilliant and essential first novel by one of our most promising writers.


Guest Reviewer: Ashraf Ali 

After a dinner of delectable fish flown in on a private jet from Tokyo, smiling celebrities in fur coats and government functionaries wearing Rolexes dance to an American pop song under a glittering disco ball.

Krys Lee’s debut novel opens with a unique and often unseen glimpse of life in the North Korean aristocracy. It’s a shocking display of opulence particularly to those who have only heard of the Hermit Kingdom from mainstream news.

But look closer: Their smiles are grimaces, dressed up to conceal terror. This is not Manhattan but Pyongyang. 

Lee’s jarring comparison to Manhattan echoes Anna Fitfield of WaPo’s more recent experience with the party elites in what she calls “Pyonghattan”. It’s a fascinating read and I highly recommend it. Suffice to say Ms. Lee, with an opener like that, I am definitely intrigued.

The Dear Leader was drunk, now angry, and made his decision. He reached as if brushing off lint from my abeoji’s suit lapel, then motioned a bodyguard over and casually withdrew a revolver from the man’s jacket pocket. He aimed it at my abeoji’s heart.

In the blink of an eye, Yongju, one of three protagonists, has his world turned upside down. His abeoji (father) has been murdered in cold-blood by Dear Leader himself. He is forced to flee the privileged life he has for fear of persecution under the oppressive regime. This is the tipping point that sets in motion an arduous journey of survival, in a world where the odds are stacked against them at every turn.

How I Became a North Korean is told through the first person narratives of three main characters. First is Yongju, the son of one of the North Korean elite families. Jangmi, another protagonist, on the other hand, is a commoner. She is pregnant with the child of a high-ranking official thus is forced to sell herself to marriage to a Joseonjok, a Chinese of Korean ancestry to escape certain death.

The skyline blinded me with its glowing signs—neon, he called it. But it was the hundreds of motorcycles flying past that I couldn’t stop staring at. I promised myself that I would become like one of those women who looked so fearless, so free, riding alone on the enormous steel machines.

From a narrative standpoint, I love how Lee is able to use the different social classes of these two characters to convey their unique experiences with the world outside the DPRK. The quote above is a great example of this. Yongju has an introspective almost-poetic side to him while Jangmi, though stone cold in parts, has both a caring, motherly side and a general amazement at the world outside the DPRK.

Am I forgetting something? Oh, yes. The third protagonist in this novel Danny/Daehan, another Joseonjok and a devout Christian that immigrated to California with his father. He however returns to his homeland to see his mother and after a certain plot event I won’t spoil, joins some North Korean defectors including both Yongju and Jangmi.

Honestly, the “Danny chapters” were the weakest in what was for the most part a pretty enthralling read for me. I found him, despite the whole closeted gay aspect, to be a bit one dimensional at times. It is a shame that such a riveting personal crisis that could define his character, just doesn’t feel as fleshed out.  Compared to the other two protagonists, Danny comes off as uninteresting and sometimes seems to be just a deus ex machina for the them.

Overall, there’s no getting around the fact this is a beautifully-written novel. Lee herself has worked with North Korean defectors and it really shows in the vivid descriptions throughout the novel. You feel the desperation in their actions and the desolation of the lands they are forced to cross in the hopes to taste that forbidden freedom they yearn. Though I will admit that it’s a bit much at first, stick with it and you shall be rewarded.

Unfortunately, the third act didn’t stick to me as much as the writing style. It felt cliché at points and didn’t live up to the wonderful first act. It isn’t a deal breaker by any means but a disappointment nonetheless. Finally, I have one final albeit minor bone to pick with this novel.

Our eomeoni turned away. Look at me, her posture said. I’ve failed as your eomma.

This novel uses a lot of Korean terms. Some terms were explained but some were left as is, forcing the reader to guess, with varying degrees of success. Usually, one can make a pretty good guess a few sentences in, but in some parts, it does get a bit confusing. A glossary for the non-Korean speaking readers would have been much appreciated.

So, what’s the verdict? All in all, Lee has managed to craft a beautiful and nuanced take on North Korea and its people. Would I recommend everyone go out and get it? Unfortunately, not. This book is certainly not for everyone. But if you’re curious about the subject matter, this novel, despite its flaws, is certainly worth the pick-up.

Rating: 

I would like to thank Faber & Faber for this review copy in exchange for my honest review!


Ashraf enjoys long walks on the beach and sharing a book during dates, however impractical that may be. You can find him (if he ever decides to update) on Twitter at @AshNitrate.

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Review – Letters to You | Almaz A

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  • Title: Letters to You
  • Author: Almaz A
  • Publisher: Almaz
  • Release Date: August 1st 2016
  • Pages: 96

Blurb

Some people spend a lifetime looking for someone to call home. I found you.

Letters to You is Almaz’s debut poetry collection that narrates her journey to finding love by experiencing fear, hesitation, courage and ultimately letting herself freefall into the arms of her soulmate.


Sharing your love with someone is daunting, especially for those who have tasted its bitterness. Broken hearts doubt themselves and question the existence of true love. Though no matter how far deep this can swallow one’s self; there is always that longing to find love again. Love that can last. Love that can hold them together. Love that is encapsulated with hope, faith and courage.

And I’m trying, 

Trying so damn hard to unearth all the buried dreams I’ve forgotten about, 

Because I’m sure one of them was to love someone like you. 

Letters to You is a collection of poems written by the author for her lover. Every page draws you in with an array of emotions, peeking into memories of love you may relate to. As you immerse yourself into the book, you will see how beautiful love can unfold itself to, no matter how imperfect it may be.

You will always be that little piece of magic I carry with me wherever I go.

As I went on though, I realised that the poems were rather jumpy and sometimes repetitive; which could be seen as raw yet genuine. However,  I do believe that if there was more cohesion to it, the main message the author was trying to present could have been expressed more convincingly. Nonetheless, I must commend the author for stringing her words with so much heart, soul and honesty.

The book talks on old relationships, newfound love and all the securities and weariness in between. But most importantly, it is about the courage to believe again and experience love at its most fundamental. To allow it to take you through rain and shine; yet always finding a reason to smile at the end of the day.

I loved this book – read it in one sitting and kept on marking my favourite quotes as I progressed. I am definitely looking forward to more from this local author. Do read, and allow it surprise you with gems you may find.

 I fell in love with the way you held my hand and the way your breath whispered across my skin as you told me that 

it was okay to fall,

because our bodies may not have wings, 

but our souls already knew how to fly. 

Rating: 

I would like to thank the author, Almaz A, for this review copy in exchange for my honest review!

Review -The Throne of Ledang | Iskandar Al-Bakri

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  • Title: The Throne of Ledang
  • Author: Iskandar Al-Bakri
  • Publisher: Buku Comel
  • Release Date: October 1st 2015
  • Pages: 229

Blurb

The legend of the Princess of Mount Ledang is the best-known and best-loved folklore in Malaysia. In 1488, news of her timeless and incomparable beauty reaches the ears of Sultan Mahmud Shah, the eighth Sultan of Malacca, who immediately dispatches an entourage to seek her hand in marriage. She agrees, only on the fulfillment of several bizarre conditions within a year.  His majesty was tasked to prepare seven barrels of mosquito’s liver, maiden’s tears, areca juice, hearts of germs, a golden bridge spanning the distance between Mount Ledang and Malacca, and a cup of royal blood from the Sultan’s infant prince as His Majesty’s wedding gifts. The night before the year’s end, the Sultan had all but one condition to fulfill; to prepare a cup of royal blood. His Majesty holds his son’s head and prepares himself to slit the boy’s throat. Magically, the princess appears and angrily tells him that she would not marry a man who would murder his own son. 

All is lost, and the bridge, after several generations, is forgotten. 

In 1875, Indera Sakti, a secret society with ambitions to seize political control of the entire Peninsula, mounts a quest to claim the twenty-six mile long golden bridge. Darul Kubra, a brotherhood of noble warriors, fights them to the bitter end. 

This is a story about the adventures of a young rope maker and a slave, Izz and Purnama, who are drawn into the hunt for the greatest treasure in Malay Literature that would ultimately change the course of their lives. 


I have so many things to say, but I too want to keep this spoiler-free so that you will be able to enjoy this great book as much as I did.

“Clear your mind and think about it slowly,” Che Khalid advised.

Thanks, Che Khalid. I know I can count on you!

It gives me great inspiration and pride when I come across a Malaysian author, especially one who writes exceptionally well in English. The feeling is even greater when the book is about Malaysia – and in this case, Malaysian folklore, which I, as a youth in my early 20s, still have so much to explore!

Puteri Gunung Ledang is one of Malaysia’s most talked-about folklore. Our community has always used different mediums to share this legend to the world – through movies, music and even theatre. So your next question might be – is this book a retelling of the legend, similar to ones we’ve seen before? Yes and no. Yes because it does give a fresh new perspective on the conditions given by Puteri Gunung Ledang to Sultan Mahmud Shah when he asked for her hand in marriage, and no because the setting of the story is generations after the setting of the legend in 1488. The Throne of Ledang is a totally new work of fiction in extension to the original Puteri Gunung Ledang, and set in 1875.

This book was slightly difficult to get into at the beginning because I didn’t really know what to expect. I had the impression it was going to be a rather heavy story.

“From this day forth I shall no longer be known as Radin Mas Merah. You may call me Ibunda.”

But as I went on, it was certainly very far from that. The Throne of Ledang is engrossing and educational. Even though it is fictional, it is so satisfying to learn on the many things the Malaysian community was involved in at that point of time. Be it strong bonds of brotherhood, the colonization of the British, Islamic teachings, the use of black magic, traditional medicine, or even silat, the Malay art of self-defense – there was never a dull chapter. It was full of great discoveries, adventures and so much learning! You would be glued to it for hours.

The author went in depth on slavery in Malaya too, which is often not talked about. The breakdown of why and how it was practiced – you would be caught taking sides and debating in your head. You will find yourself forming your own opinions, as you take in more and more of such pressing issues along the way.

In between all that “heaviness”, you will find fun riddles and heart-warming romance which is sure to keep you entertained. Blossoming friendships, acceptance among young children and the teamwork among villagers – the entire community setting brings a homely feel to the story.

“Wouldn’t be lovely if we could live up there among the stars?” Purnama asked. 

Nothing but love for this book. I highly recommend this to everyone – those in search for something closer to home and to readers out there who are interested in a glimpse of Malaysian folklore! You will be enlightened, amazed and engrossed.

And in the blink of an eye, she was gone. 

Here’s to many, many more great local reads ahead!

Rating: 

I would like to thank the author, Iskandar Al-Bakri, for this review copy in exchange for my honest review! Iskandar Al-Bakri is also the writer of The Beruas Prophecy.