Review: Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea
Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea by Sungju Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Thank you to Amulet Books and ABRAMS Kids for providing me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**

4.5/5*

“If [spoiler] were still alive, he might say, Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked in his boots.”

If I hadn’t been aware that this book was, indeed, a true story of one boy’s experiences in North Korea, I might have told you this was a dystopian novel. It reads just like one, and that these instances are true, that the people — despite name-changes — lived and existed on this same Earth as I do is simply incredible.

I think for people such as myself, modern-day North Korea is this kind of mystery. A black hole of general information populated only by the ghosts of my own imagination. Inevitably, this includes tall concrete walls and barbed wire fences — something akin to the Berlin Wall of the late 20th century more than anything else. Bringing it back to the people inside, the trees within the forest that might find themselves with their roots chained to the ground as opposed to flourishing.

The pitch of this book is that it allows “young readers to learn about other cultures where freedoms they take for granted do not exist,” and Every Falling Star does just that. I may not be the target “young reader” audience for this novel, but I am an audience who was deeply affected by Sungju Lee’s story. It’s gripping and horrifying and electric and wild and anything you’d expect from fiction…and it’s all true.

“You see, my father was in the military. He and his story are known by the regime. Disclosing the reason would identify him and put the few relatives of my family still in North Korea at risk. I will say that if he had done what he did in a free country, such as as the United States, his actions would be viewed as merely part of the democratic process. But in Pyongyang, they resulted in my family’s explosion from the capital city and eventual separation.”

In our own American capital, Washington D.C., there are words carved into the Korean War monument that read: “FREEDOM ISN’T FREE.” And if you don’t realise that’s one of the best lessons of this memoir, then you haven’t been paying attention. This is a book of immense tragedy and triumph, and I encourage everyone to read it.

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Review: Nevernight

Nevernight
Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review to come…after I find the right words to express my sheer joy with this novel…

Okay, deep breath…here we go…

**A massive thank you to Thomas Dunne Books and St. Martin’s Press for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purposes of review**

…be advised now that the pages in your hands speak of a girl who was to murder as maestros are to music.

It is rare, indeed, that I stumble upon a book that grips me with its first page, but Nevernight holds that distinction. I was so gripped, in fact, that I immediately messaged several of my reader friends, telling that, “I’m only 1% through this book, but I already know I’m going to love it.”

I can count the times this has happened on one hand.

And even now, at Nevernight’s end I worry I won’t find the right words with which to describe just how thoroughly I enjoyed this book. But first, a little history: I’ve been a fan of Mr. Kristoff since his Lotus War trilogy — and more recently his co-authored Illuminae — but as much as I liked that trilogy, it doesn’t hold a candle to Nevernight. Whatever skills were being forged in Lotus War, got honed for Nevernight and it really shows. Everything is tighter, the pacing more consistent, but Kristoff has lost none of his power of creativity. This is a wonderfully rich and unique world, filled with characters who are not only entertaining as hell, but about whom I cared a great deal.

And into the shadows, she walked.

This is a viscerally brutal and (at times) horrifically violent story of one girl’s revenge, and the lengths to which she will go to achieve it. But, beyond that, Mia Corvere is a fully-realized and fully-actualized character: she is not just walking revenge. After all, that’s not particularly interesting — give me flawed humans, but humans nonetheless with faults and foibles. Mia makes mistakes, she learns from these mistakes; she kicks ass and outsmarts plenty of very smart, equally vicious young boys and girls. They are training to be assassins who worship a goddess of Night, after all.

“The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow.”

Did I mention there’s religious conflict? There’s religious conflict, where the usually standard trope of “light v dark” (read: “good v evil”) takes a more interesting turn by creating two different religious factions, each with their own kind of power. And, interestingly enough, we’re following a girl who walks in the shadows, who follows the religion of the dark; in this story, we want the dark to win. Or, at the very least, we want Mia Corvere to win. This badass girl has grit and gumption — frankly, she’s many amazing things that I cannot say because (a) spoilers and (b) probably shouldn’t be said in polite company. She and her better half, Mr. Kindly — there is something both endearing and eerie about that name — are the backbone of this novel, and it’s been a while since I met a book with such a strong spine.

And who is Mr. Kindly, you ask? That’s a good question. He is Mia’s shadow-cat — yes, really, he is a cat made of shadows — and functions as both Mia’s companion and a pseudo-familial figure, as well as something like a weapon, should he feel like it. Yes, a weapon: assassins, remember?

“Hmm. I appear to have misplaced the fuck I was about to give for what you think.”

Since we’re on the topic of assassins: this book is violent. Horridly violent. This novel is graphic and vulgar and gruesome, filled with constant profanity that would make a sailor blush scarlet, sex scenes that make it very much NSFW, and more blood than an episode of Game of Thrones. This book is merciless and I absolutely fucking loved it.*

*Damn…I thought I was going to get through this without swearing.

Oh yeah, there are footnotes. For anyone who loved Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series and the use of footnotes there, rejoice because we have found their successor! This book is written by an unknown narrator — though I have my suspicions as to his/her/its identity — and they frequently interject themselves within the narrative via footnotes to provide background information and a good helping of snark-entary. It’s brilliant, though I will admit it was a little difficult to maneuver in the digital format, but I suspect that is due to this being an ARC more than anything. Whatever the case, this brilliant addition is like the cherry atop this entertaining sundae.

“Never flinch.” A cold whisper in her ear. “Never fear. And never, ever forget.”

You need this book. No, I’m not exaggerating. You need this book. Prior to this book, I’d kind of figured that I’d apparently sold my soul, tears, laughter, and emotions to Mr. Kristoff — but I feel like this book was just his way of making sure. Yes, I’m sold. I’m ready for the rest of this trilogy. Bring it on!

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Review: Ghostly Echoes

Ghostly Echoes
Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Thank you to Algonquin Young Readers for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**

I remember picking up Jackaby on a whim several years ago. I’d never heard of the author, never heard anything about the book itself, but dang did it have a visually interesting cover. And, after tearing through it in about an hour, I thought it was quite a fun, oddly charming story.

The same could be said about its sequel, Beastly Bones, though I don’t think it quite lived up to its predecessor. Ghostly Echoes, however, truly does. There is still the pervasive undercurrent of darkness that weaves its way through these ever-charming books, but it feels more personal this time. Our characters are inextricably linked to the crime(s) in question, and I think it helps to invest one in the story more than Bones.

She slid through the demolished wall. “My turn.”

If you’re already reading these books, then Echoes will not disappoint; if you haven’t started reading yet, then I encourage you to do so, because they are a quick trip through time for a fun, supernatural mystery.

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Review: Saint’s Blood

Saint's Blood
Saint’s Blood by Sebastien de Castell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*4.5/5

**Thank you to Quercus and Jo Fletcher Books for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purpose of review.**

I cannot stress enough just how happy I am that I discovered the Greatcoats series. Sebastien de Castell has managed to craft a world and, more important, characters that I truly cherish and with whom I look forward to spending a good deal of time. And, did I ever take my time with this novel. I savoured it, relishing the humour and wit of my favourite rag-tag crew, who, even still, are working to put their queen on the throne.

This is primarily because only a few months have passed between Knight’s Shadow and Saint’s Blood, which is definitely to this third installment’s benefit. I didn’t feel like I had missed huge chunks of important development, so despite being dropped in media res — and in media snark — I was perfectly up to speed with where everyone was and what they were up to.

If Traitor’s Blade was the funny novel, and Knight’s Shadow was the dark novel, then Saint’s Blood is the perfect balance of both. There’s all the wit (and snark) of Traitor’s along with the darkness of Knight’s, which means this might just be my favorite of the series thus far. We had a great antagonist, who did their work almost entirely in the shadows, thus making them all the more terrifying and difficult to catch; religious turmoil in the form of crazy enforcers called, Inquisitors (yes, they are just as bad as they sound); and then, suddenly…murder. Lots and lots of murder.

Saints are falling, felled by our hidden enemy, and so the Greatcoats once again find themselves in the position of being underdogs: untrusted and hunted from any and all sides. This allows now only for macrocosmic crises with which the group as a whole must deal, but also for development on a smaller, individual scale, as each of our favourite Greatcoats are forced to deal with their own issues. Every single character, from Kest and Brasti, to Valiant, and, of course, to Falcio, develop and change throughout the narrative.

If you haven’t picked up this series, you’re missing out. And if you have read this and just not yet picked up Saint’s Blood: you need it. This is the swashbuckling fantasy you need in your life.

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Blood Will Have Blood

spoiler-warning

CAVEAT EMPTOR: The following post will contain spoilers related to plot and character arcs through Season 5 of Game of Thrones, as well as The Oresteia by Aeschylus. Read on at your own risk.


Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win  out in the end.” (Ag. 139)

Game of Thrones has had its share of what could be called “wrongful” deaths — trying to tally up the names would take a great deal of thought, time, and blank paper — but there has only been one that struck me particularly hard. It was last year, in Season 5. It was a death so shockingly wrong, that it had me shouting (mostly profanity) at my television, feeling more than a little gutted and nauseous as it progressed and reached its agonizing conclusion.

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The immolation of Shireen Baratheon is one of those pivotal moments in the show that is not present within the original narrative by George R.R. Martin, thus making it one for which I was not emotionally prepared.* It did, however, set off some alarm bells in my head in its similarity to a particularly famous tragic Greek myth: the House of Atreus. In fact, the more I looked at both the House of Atreus and the House Baratheon, the more eerie similarities seemed to appear between the two fictional dynasties., with some admitted variations.

I don’t think this sequence’s comparison to Greek myth is an accident given that David Benioff, one of the two showrunners for the series, has dabbled in the topic before. In fact, he was writing on the Trojan War mythos when he wrote the screenplay for the 2004 film, Troy. My thoughts on that adaptation aside, Troy is evidence enough to me that Benioff is familiar with the Atreus myth, and could have logically taken the opportunity to draw parallels not only between these two moments, but between the Houses Baratheon and Atreus.

*Nota bene: I am now aware that Benioff and Weiss were told by George R.R. Martin that this event is to occur, eventually, within the novels, however I began this post before that information was made readily available. Either way, my evaluation of Benioff’s familiarity with the story of Atreus still stands.

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Review: Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet
Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

*4.5/5

**Thank you to 47North for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**

Did you ever read a book, where you’re not entirely sure where it’s going, but it’s so hypnotically intriguing that you keep reading anyway? Did you ever read a book that, upon reaching its haunting, and emotional conclusion, you put it down and just let out a breath, unsure of how exactly to articulate what you were feeling in that moment?

That was me and this book.

But if I can say anything for certain, it’s that I’m now 100% a fan of Charlie N. Holmberg. I adored her Paper Magician trilogy when I picked up its first instalment on a whim from Amazon First — it was downright charming, with pleasant, likeable characters, and an interesting magic system. But Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet is absolutely nothing like Paper Magician. It’s dark and twisted, a little bit on the side of creepy, eerie and otherworldly, and absolutely beautiful. Holmberg really has crafted something different — equal parts fairytale and mythology — and it shows the breadth of her storytelling ability, especially given that the story is, ultimately, quite simple. And yet, sometimes, the simplest of stories are not only the most difficult to tell, but the most moving and gripping.

What stands out for me above any of the usual things I look at in a novel — characters, writing, narrative, plot — is how I felt when I finished this novel. I felt like someone had gripped my heart in their hand and started squeezing; even now, almost 24-hours later, I still feel that same sensation when thinking about this book’s climax and denouement. And that tells me Holmberg did something incredible, even if I can’t properly explain what it was.

This is a magical book, bittersweet and beautiful, and I definitely recommend it.

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