Book review: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

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Title: A River in Darkness

Author: Masaji Ishikawa

Genre: Autobiography

Publisher: Amazon

Publication date: 1st January 2018

My rating: ★★★★☆

Synopsis:

Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit.

My review:

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.

 

Book review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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Title: The Rosie Project

Author: Graeme Simsion

Genre: Humour

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 11th April 2013

My rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis:

Love isn’t an exact science – but no one told Don Tillman. A thirty-nine-year-old geneticist, Don’s never had a second date. So he devises the Wife Project, a scientific test to find the perfect partner. Enter Rosie – ‘the world’s most incompatible woman’ – throwing Don’s safe, ordered life into chaos. But what is this unsettling, alien emotion he’s feeling?

My review:

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.

Book review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

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Title: Before We Were Yours

Author: Lisa Wingate

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Quercus

Publication date: 30th November 2017

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Synopsis:

Memphis, Tennessee, 1939

Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge, until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents. But they quickly realize the dark truth…

Aiken, South Carolina, present day

Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

My review:

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.

 

Book review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern


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Title: The Night Circus

Author: Erin Morgenstern

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Vintage

Publication date: 15th September 2011

My rating: ★★★★☆

Synopsis:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads:
Opens at Nightfall
Closes at Dawn
As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears.
Le Cirque des Rêves
The Circus of Dreams.
Now the circus is open.
Now you may enter.
 

My Review:

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.

 

Book review: We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

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Title: We Were the Lucky Ones

Author: Georgia Hunter

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Publication date: 2nd January 2018

My rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis:

From the jazz clubs of Paris and Kraków’s most brutal prison, to the ports of Northern Africa and the farthest reaches of the Siberian gulag, We Were the Lucky Ones expresses how in the darkest of times the human spirit can find a way to survive, and even triumph.

My review:

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.