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.

Review – Our Chemical Hearts | Krystal Sutherland

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  • Title: Our Chemical Hearts
  • Author: Krystal Sutherland
  • Publisher: Hot Key Books
  • Release Date: October 4th 2016
  • Pages: 320

Blurb

Henry Page has never been in love. He fancies himself a hopeless romantic, but the slo-mo, heart palpitating, can’t-eat-can’t-sleep kind of love that he’s been hoping for just hasn’t been in the cards for him—at least not yet. Instead, he’s been happy to focus on his grades, on getting into a semi-decent college and finally becoming editor of his school newspaper. Then Grace Town walks into his first period class on the third Tuesday of senior year and he knows everything’s about to change.

Grace isn’t who Henry pictured as his dream girl—she walks with a cane, wears oversized boys’ clothes, and rarely seems to shower. But when Grace and Henry are both chosen to edit the school paper, he quickly finds himself falling for her. It’s obvious there’s something broken about Grace, but it seems to make her even more beautiful to Henry, and he wants nothing more than to help her put the pieces back together again. And yet, this isn’t your average story of boy meets girl. Krystal Sutherland’s brilliant debut is equal parts wit and heartbreak, a potent reminder of the bittersweet bliss that is first love.


Before we dive into what I think about this book, let us take a moment shall we, and appreciate this gorgeous cover! It is, hands down, one of my very favourite covers for the year – no surprise there. It’s simple yet gorgeous, and can you see how the fishes look very 3D-ish? Beautiful. I just couldn’t stop admiring it when I first received it. Just goes to show how a simple idea, if well-executed, can work wonders. Kudos, Theresa Evangelista!

Our Chemical Hearts is a story of first love. It’s warm and fun and sweet —- eh, hold on there. Let’s try again.

Our Chemical Hearts IS a story of first love, but it’s more than that. It’s a story on warm friendships and supportive families. It’s a story on tragedy and regret. Pain and forgiveness. It will take you through so many emotions; and that to me, shows just how well a writer can influence you.

I loved how the story was written in Henry’s point of view. His voice was very raw and convincing; which made it very easy to appreciate the writing. The funny thing is, some of the things he thought/said were kinda cliché – but it worked. IT. SO. WORKED. He has a very unique and imperfect personality which feels so REAL. Such a great character indeed. Put together with Grace’s mysterious ways, that’s where the magic happens.

“I didn’t want to tear off her clothes and kiss her. I just felt… drawn to her. Like gravity. I wanted to orbit her, be around her, the way the Earth orbits the sun.” 

If you’re into pop culture references you will have immense fun because this book is full of them – the Harry Potter references were spot on! Loved, loved it. I would say that the references in general were a bit too many in my opinion so if you are not really the movie-going type this book might not be for you. Unless you’re okay with researching stuff while you read, that’ll work too! Oh and if you’re not into some fandoms by the way – *cough* skins sparkles in the sunlight *cough* – you might find it entertaining too. Hehe!

“Edward Cullen, you poor, miserable bastard,” I said as I locked my phone screen and stared at the ceiling.”I should not have udged you so harshly.”

The story-telling was very well-thought and creative. You will find PowerPoint slides and Facebook conversations which scored the book extra points. I particularly loved how the author connected the different parts of the story with an old Japanese art of repairing broken poetry – Kintsugi. The Japanese believe that when something/someone has suffered damage and has some sort of a history, it becomes more beautiful. I’ve known this symbolic expression even before I read this book but seeing how it connected so well with the story made it ever more special.

Overall – a very strong, memorable YA contemporary standalone which will fill your heart with so much compassion and love. I would highly recommend reading this. Fragmented pieces, when patched up, will be whole.

Thank you for this, Krystal.

 “People don’t have soul mates. People make their soul mates.”

Rating: 

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

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 – Adulthood is a Myth | Sarah Andersen

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  • Title: Adulthood is a Myth
  • Author: Sarah Andersen
  • Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
  • Release Date: March 8th 2016
  • Pages: 109

Blurb

Are you a special snowflake?

Do you enjoy networking to advance your career?

Is adulthood an exciting new challenge for which you feel fully prepared?

Ugh. Please go away.

This book is for the rest of us. These comics document the wasting of entire beautiful weekends on the internet, the unbearable agony of holding hands on the street with a gorgeous guy, dreaming all day of getting home and back into pajamas, and wondering when, exactly, this adulthood thing begins. In other words, the horrors and awkwardnesses of young modern life.


Adulthood is a Myth – do you think so? This book comprises of bite-sized comics suitable for those in their teens and early adulthood. It is such an enjoyable read! Absolutely hilarious, relatable and I read it in one sitting. Currently juggling between work life, study life and book blogging, I experience this a lot when I’m all zoned out after a tiring day –

sacomic

Some of her comics are more focused on women issues in general, so I do hope that in her next book, there’s a nice share of comics on men too! All the more fun when there’s a nice balance to it.

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Oh and have I mentioned how adorable Sarah’s drawings are? You will find yourself screenshot-ting/taking pictures of the comics as you go – excited to share it out with your family and friends – and share a good laugh!

Definitely suitable if you’re looking for a gift for a friend or for some light and fun read on a weekend. Looking forward to more comics from you, Sarah!

 “I’m pretty sure adulthood was a myth all along.”

Rating: 

Review – After You | Jojo Moyes

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  • Title: After You
  • Author: Jojo Moyes
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Release Date: June 30th 2016
  • Pages: 409
  • Prequel: Me Before You

Blurb

How do you move on after losing the person you loved? How do you build a life worth living?

Louisa Clark is no longer just an ordinary girl living an ordinary life. After the transformative six months spent with Will Traynor, she is struggling without him. When an extraordinary accident forces Lou to return home to her family, she can’t help but feel she’s right back where she started.

Her body heals, but Lou herself knows that she needs to be kick-started back to life. Which is how she ends up in a church basement with the members of the Moving On support group, who share insights, laughter, frustrations, and terrible cookies. They will also lead her to the strong, capable Sam Fielding—the paramedic, whose business is life and death, and the one man who might be able to understand her. Then a figure from Will’s past appears and hijacks all her plans, propelling her into a very different future…

For Lou Clark, life after Will Traynor means learning to fall in love again, with all the risks that brings. But here Jojo Moyes gives us two families, as real as our own, whose joys and sorrows will touch you deeply, and where both changes and surprises await.


*Warning: Contains major spoilers from Me Before You and minor spoilers from After You.*

Me Before You is — hands-down one of my favourite contemporary reads of 2016. So when I knew there was going to be a sequel, GAHHHHH I was extremely excited.

With the death of one of the main characters from the first book, I didn’t really know what to expect from this one. But I felt that it has to be really good — cause why would we have a sequel for a book which had an incredibly good closure already?

Unfortunately, After You did not meet my expectations.

After You is largely about Lou – the story of her life after Will. The challenges she went through, her many discoveries, and her relationships with new people. Don’t get me wrong; I love the purpose of the book – sharing her story and showing how she has grown after the incident. However, I do feel that there should have been so much more depth in the plot. It feels rather unreal.

“I failed you, Will. I failed you in every way possible.” 

The plot was clunky and patchy. There was an introduction of an entirely new character which had zero connection with all the existing characters – Will’s daughter (like whaaaaaaaa–t?). It was not well-thought and the lack of continuity from Me Before You was distasteful. There was no solid direction throughout the book. There were many times when I felt – where is this story going? 

You may feel connected to Lou in ways where you can relate to her, and that’s okay. But this story should be so much more than her having to deal with an annoying, immature teenager and a terrible boss. It should more about Lou, rather than putting her character through “other people’s problems”. Didn’t Will give her enough difficult time already?

I felt her character needed more strength, vision, and empowerment. Where is that scene where she breaks free from all things pulling her back and make a real stand for herself? Where is the build up to something so amazingly surprising it would just keep you on your toes?

Even if I managed to wipe the whole thing from my memory, I would never be allowed to disassociate myself from Will’s death.  

I am disappointed with this sequel. I wish an epilogue was written at the end of Me Before You instead, rather than this long-winded book which did not do the prequel justice.

This is the part where I tell you that if you really want to know what happened to Lou, you should read this. I don’t have the heart to though. Me Before You is good enough as a very strong standalone. I believe Will would agree with me on this.

Pieces of him in pieces of me. Pieces of him where they shouldn’t be.

Rating: 

I would like to thank Penguin Books Malaysia for this review copy in exchange for my honest review!

Review – We Were on A Break | Lindsey Kelk

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  • Title: We Were on A Break
  • Author: Lindsey Kelk
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Release Date: October 6th 2016
  • Pages: 416

Blurb

Is it a break? Or is it a blip? ‘You’ve just had a holiday,’ I pointed out, trying not to yawn. ‘Wasn’t that enough of a break?’ ‘I don’t mean that kind of break.’ There’s nothing worse than the last day of holiday. Oh wait, there is. When what should have been a proposal turns into a break, Liv and Adam find themselves on opposite sides of the life they had mapped out. Friends and family all think they’re crazy; Liv throws herself into work – animals are so much simpler than humans – and Adam tries to get himself out of the hole he’s dug. But as the short break becomes a chasm, can they find a way back to each other? Most importantly, do they want to?


Before you ask, no this book has nothing to do with Friends, so sorry to disappoint dear fans! Having said that, I do feel the author should have acknowledged Ross’ well-known phrase “We Were on A Break” from the TV series. It would have been so much more fun for the readers! I talked to a few people on this and they did feel the no-mention was unforgivable. If there WAS a reference, I’m sorry but it was a no-show for me.  😦

We Were on A Break is a story on Liv and Adam. They have been dating for quite some time now and as they reach a certain stage of their relationship, the pressure to tie the knot mountains – both from family and friends, and internally as well. This book encompasses a truckload of emotions surrounding the expectations and everything that goes along with it. Love does, make the world go round. (Oh and a couple of crazy friends help with that too.)

HAS HE DONE IT YET?????????

My favourite part of this book is definitely the characters. There were so many good ones and each played a meaningful part in the overall story.

Plot wise, it did have a good direction to it but there wasn’t exactly anything out of the ordinary. It was a bit too typical and immature for my liking, to say the least.

The writing was great – nicely paced and understandable. Unfortunately, I did find it rather confusing (and annoying) at times when it came to the narrations. It was very difficult for me to distinguish between Adam and Liv’s voice as the swaps were not clearly stated and most of the time I could only guess at the end of first page into the chapter.

Sometimes, I realized, life didn’t work out quite how you’d imagined it would. 

And sometimes life was all the better for it. 

Overall, if you’re someone like me who rarely reads Chick Lit and have super high expectations for one worth my time, you can give this one a miss. I did enjoy the read, but it wasn’t memorable. But if you’re really into Chick Lit, by all means you could give this a try. I’m pretty sure you would enjoy the humour and lightness to it.

“I knew I should have taken her a pizza instead of flowers.”

Rating: 

I would like to thank Harper Collins International 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.