Title: A River in Darkness
Author: Masaji Ishikawa
Publication date: 1st January 2018
My rating: ★★★★☆
Born in Japan to a Korean father and Japanese mother, Masaji Ishikawa learnt how to prepare for the worst possible scenario at a very young age. Broken promises and false hopes by the Communist party in Japan enticing his family to move to North Korea prompted a difficult life with corruption, starvation and hopelessness.
This was an incredibly tough book to read but so powerful and vivid that I managed to finish it in one sitting. The first person narrative added a very intimate touch that made his story feel even more heartbreaking. Gripping from the very first chapter, I was immediately drawn into his worries of moving to North Korea and shortly after the struggles his family faced to survive. The narrative feels extremely real and the events so disturbing that it is almost unbelievable how bad the totalitarian regime in North Korea is.
It is probably of no surprise that what I most enjoyed in this book is the end where Masaji shows courage and an exceptionally strong character by trying to escape from North Korea. This was perhaps where the story took a turn for the better and we followed a much more promising, although still rough, journey through Asia to safety. His will to survive is overwhelming and it puts everything into perspective, celebrating the little things in life that we often don’t realise we have.
My only criticism would be the very abrupt end and lack of narrative following his life to date. No information of the author’s life is available online and it is unknown how this story was published or who helped him in writing this book, an important detail that I wish was shared with us, although I feel that this was done on purpose to protect him. Nevertheless, this book is a real eye-opener and I highly recommend it to everyone.
Title: The Rosie Project
Author: Graeme Simsion
Publication date: 11th April 2013
My rating: ★★★★★
Don Tillman is an oddity. Despite his inability to secure a second date, he is adamant on finding a wife using the most extraordinary and inappropriate way possible – a scientifically designed survey based on his background in Genetics. When his closest friend Gene recommends Rosie Jarman, completely unsuitable based on his criteria, Don becomes intrigued with her background and decides to help her with her own personal project of finding her biological father, thus “The Father Project” is born.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first started reading this book but I was pleasantly surprised by the quirky characters and crisp writing style. Don is utterly bizarre but also charming in his own way and I immediately warmed to his character. I particularly liked the contrast of Rosie, relatively normal when compared to Don, and her ability to dilute the strange settings they sometimes found themselves in during “The Father Project”. The other minor character, Gene, offered a lot to the story in terms of the science and logic behind both projects and the mechanics of Don’s mindset which, without giving too much away, I thought was key towards the end.
Particularly notable throughout the book are the very witty scenarios, misunderstandings and quirks in Don’s life such as lobster Tuesdays and the hilariously described cocktail incident. These flaws make for a very vivid and fun personality that the reader cannot help but love. By building the complex wife questionnaire we immediately understand and admire Don’s simple and straightforward thinking and this is later repeated in a more elaborate form with “The Father Project”. The author develops several key themes here and expands on the familiar notion of the difficulty in finding a suitable partner and the fact that quite often opposites attract even though we may not in be control of it.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book even though it doesn’t reflect my usual choice. It was enjoyable and unlike many similar reads I found myself laughing out loud several times and keen to discover the mind of Don Tillman. However, the slow pace and abrupt ending may not suit other readers, an important aspect to consider when deciding to pick up this book.
Title: Before We Were Yours
Author: Lisa Wingate
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication date: 30th November 2017
My rating: ★★★☆☆
Based on a real-life story of one of the greatest adoption scandals, Before We Were Yours unravels the tale of Rill Foss and her younger siblings who were ruthlessly kidnapped and thrown into the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage only to later be sold to wealthy families. In present day South Carolina, we follow the emotional journey of Avery Stafford who is about to find out a dark hidden family secret.
I was immediately drawn into the story from the first page, particularly in Rill’s story starting in 1939 and following the roller coaster journey from her riverboat home to the orphanage. A controversial and difficult theme like kidnapping and child-trafficking requires carefully chosen vocabulary and I thought that the author successfully handled this sensitive topic. The five Foss children felt very real and I especially liked how their character developed from their home to the orphanage to their new adopted homes.
In contrast, I didn’t feel that the present day story held the same level of complexity, perhaps because it unfolded in a relatively slower pace. Avery’s storyline felt strained and I thought that certain parts could have been avoided, such as the love story which seemed unnecessary, considering the theme of the book. However, her relationship with her grandmother was sincere and I admired her will and hope to uncover the truth. The family bond, both in past and present, was completely believable and genuine and I enjoyed discovering the connection between River Foss and the present day characters.
Without giving away too much detail, I can say that the ending was bittersweet and as pleasant as can be expected in such delicate circumstances. It definitely made a lasting impression and I was eager to research this scandal and pleased that it was depicted in such a respectable manner.
Title: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publication date: 15th September 2011
My rating: ★★★★☆
Set in the 19th century, Le Cirque des Rêves arrives with no warning and leaves no trace. Its two most profound magicians, Prospero the Enchanter and “Mr. A. H.” are preparing a challenge involving their magic skills through their protégés, Celia and Marco. The mysterious circus will be the battleground for the competition of which only one may triumph.
This book is so different from any other that I have recently read that I have struggled to identify my feelings towards it until now. It is one of those books that you reflect on even weeks after reading and as much as I want to love it, there are several exasperatingly slow-moving parts that leave a lot to be desired. Note that this is not a cannot-put-down type of book but rather one to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
Written with beautiful imagery and eloquent descriptions, the reader is immediately drawn into the magic of Le Cirque des Rêves where anything and everything is possible. We are introduced to magicians Prospero and Mr. A. H. who appoint their young apprentices with the intention of ending their long rivalry. A particularly frustrating aspect of the “contest” is that there appear to be no rules and no boundaries. As much as I enjoyed the magic tricks, unfortunately it is not until the end of the book where the circumstances of the battle are revealed.
Other important details to mention are the time lapses and change in character POVs which I feel do not allow for character development and can sometimes provoke confusion in case the reader is not paying close attention to the dates or keeping track of the constant round of newly introduced characters. Looking back, it is difficult to pinpoint a main character and I couldn’t invest in any of the interactions, particularly the sometimes forced dialogue between the apprentices Celia and Marco.
By far the best thing about this book is the setting. The circus is enchanting and the scenery so rich and full of life that the lack of substance and solidity in the plot is almost completely erased. I was mesmerised by the descriptions of each room in the circus and the imagery that is so superbly portrayed throughout the book. The atmosphere is dream-like and enchanting and the aesthetic extremely alluring – this in itself is enough to merit a four-star review. I highly recommend this book to any dreamers, romantics and fantasy lovers.
Title: We Were the Lucky Ones
Author: Georgia Hunter
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 2nd January 2018
My rating: ★★★★★
We were the lucky ones tells the tale of the separated Kurc family desperately trying to find their way back to each other during the horrors of World War II. As the war quickly spreads through Europe, each sibling takes a different path either by choice or by fate and must rely on hope in order to survive.
This book exceeded my expectations and left me with a lingering feeling of solitude after the huge mix of emotions experienced throughout the novel. Even before reading the first chapter I knew that it would be a mentally challenging read, as can be expected with any novel based around a Jewish family in World War II Europe. However, the scope of narrative and intertwining stories of each character set this book apart from many similar historical fiction novels set in this time period. As each character fights through their own person battle in order to survive the struggles of the war, the reader is immediately enveloped in their world and understand just how many close calls each one had to suffer.
I was particularly drawn to Addy’s story as his character followed a path not often discussed in books of this genre. From France to South America, his journey was perhaps one of the most strenuous, having been separated for over 10 years from his family before reuniting again. I sometimes found it challenging following the journeys of the other characters, as after separating at Radom in Poland at the beginning of the war, each was strewn across Europe or Asia, often not crossing paths until the very end of the novel. However, the pretexts before the beginning of each chapter summarising the key events were particularly useful in cross referencing against the events in the timeline of the novel and added an extra dose of grief towards the end. Most heart-wrenching of all was knowing that the novel is based on the author’s personal history and ancestry, though despite the anguish and despair exposed throughout the book, she successfully described the reunion scene with a mixture of relief, love and courage.
My opinion still remains the same even after contemplating on this novel for several days. The contrast in character traits, coupled with the collection of valiant scenes make for an exciting read and take us on a rollercoaster of a ride that can only be acknowledged by reading the book. I thoroughly recommend to all lovers of adventurous reads and those who yearn to see love and hope prevail even in the most desperate situations.