The Girl With Seven Names

Those of us who live in the West know that North Korea is a brutal regime. But what is that world actually like? I read The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee for book club. And what a read it was. Here’s the premise:

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realise that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumours of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

What aspects of North Korean life surprised or shocked me?

  • Indoctrination begins from birth.
  • There is a caste system called songbun in North Korea. If you’re fortunate, you belong to a high caste. It’s very difficult to improve your caste position. Falling down the caste system is relatively easy. “The hostile class which made up about 40 per cent of the population, learn not to dream. They got assigned to farms and mines and manual labour.”
  • It was unthinkable to defy one’s parent.
  • Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il, and now Kim Jung Un are revered almost like gods. Every family must have pictures of the dear leaders in their family. Inspectors come into your house and check to make sure these pictures are prominently displayed and impeccably clean. “They had to be the highest objects in the room and perfectly aligned. No other pictures or clutter were permitted on the same wall.”
  • Police “prowl the city looking for violators of North Korea’s myriad social laws – anyone in jeans, men whose hair was a touch too long, women wearing a necklace or foreign perfume – all of which were unsocialist and symbolic of moral degeneracy and capitalist decadence.”
  • Bribery is often the only way of making anything happen.”
  • There are informers everywhere: “Neighbours could be relied upon to inform on neighbours; children to spy on children; workers to watch co-workers; and the head of the neighbourhood people’s unit, the banging, maintained an organized system of surveillance on every family in her unit.”
  • heroin is one of the few products North Korean makes to an international standard.” It is sold abroad to raise foreign currency.
  • people are executed publicly. Neighbours and family members are expected to watch. Even little children.
  • in school, children have ‘life purification time’, or self-criticism sessions. “Everyone took turns to stand up, accuse someone, and confess something. No one was excused for shyness. No one was allowed to be blameless.”
  • independent though is discouraged. “We were not required to formulate any views of our own, or to discuss, or to interpret ideas in any subject.”
  • America is the enemy.
  • “Every child learned to subordinate their will to that of the collective.”
  • North Korea has a communist youth movement – the Young Pioneer Corps. Participation is mandatory. Members undergo military training.
  • “Kindness toward strangers is rare in North Korea. There is risk in helping others.”
  • North Korea is an atheist state. Anyone caught in possession of a Bible faces execution or a life in the gulag.”
  • suicide is taboo. “Not only is it considered gravely humiliating to the surviving family members, it also guarantees that any children left behind will be reclassified as ‘hostile’ in the songbun system … it is a highly emotive means of protest. The regime regards it as a form of defection.”

There’s much more but I’m sure that’s enough to make you shiver.

Hyeonseo Lee’s story of her own escape and the dangers she subsequently undertook to get her mother and younger brother out of North Korea is harrowing. Her bravery, determination and guts will amaze you. Hyeonseo says  that “curiosity had always been greater than my fear — not a good trait to have in North Korea, where fear keeps your senses sharp and helps you stay alive.” Somehow, she prevailed.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Book Club tackles Where the Crawdads Sing

The Toronto book club I’ve been attending for roughly twenty years discussed Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing recently. In advance, our moderator circulated a New Yorker magazine article about the wildlife efforts of Delia Owens and her husband Mark Owens in Africa and the huge controversy that arose when one of the major news organizations was filming a documentary about them and a poacher was killed. There was some suggestion (unproven) that Mark Owens’s son might have killed the poacher.

This article offers an intriguing view of Delia’s unusual life in the wild and her relationship with her then husband and there was much speculation at book club on how her work in Africa affected Where the Crawdads Sing.

We usually begin by asking each person whether they liked the book – and in the case, everyone said they enjoyed it, although most offered a caveat or two.

What is it about the story that so many readers have found compelling? Goodreads has over 440K ratings of the novel averaging 4.5 out of 5. Our group felt that the sections of the novel dealing with Kya’s marsh world were the most compelling and that this portion of Owens’s writing is superb. Perhaps that’s because she’s written three earlier non-fiction works about natural settings.

Do the two timelines work? Here we had reservations. Most said they found the murder investigation and trial bland and not written nearly as well as early timeline chronicling Kya’s growing up. The group expressed admiration for the deep understanding of Kya’s inner life as portrayed in the earlier timeline and disappointment that the story lost Kya’s voice/inner monologue and the richer understanding of her motivations that would have come from that in the other timeline.

Why are readers drawn to Kya as a character? Because she’s alone and vulnerable, because she demonstrates strength and determination, because she cares deeply for the natural world.

Will there be a movie version? A resounding yes. Apparently Reese Witherspoon has already bought the film rights. Some felt that Delia Owens crafted the story deliberately with a movie in mind.

Was the story plausible? Could a little girl of seven really look after herself the way Kya did? Could Kya learn to read and educate herself so completely? Was the ending plausible? We debated each of these.

If you’re interested in an interview with Delia Owen, you can check this article from BookPage.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens ~~ For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

8 Tips for Bookclubs

I belong to three book clubs. Each one has a different approach and personality. I’ve belonged to one for more than twenty years, another for seven or eight years, and the third is a more recent formed group.

Book clubs – whether in person or online – are popular with readers. The surveys I’ve done suggest that up to 30% of readers belong to a book club that meets either in person or online and that women are more likely to belong to a book club than men. You can read more about the dynamic of book clubs here.

What makes a book club successful? A few thoughts based on my experiences.

Size doesn’t matter. While living in Hong Kong, I belonged to a book club for two. Tita and I had a wonderful time discussing the books we’d chosen – some fiction and others non-fiction. We took our task seriously with each of us bringing notes along to the meeting and an hour or more would pass before we knew it. Another book club I belong to often has thirty or more participants, and while intimacy is lost, the wide range of opinions makes up for it.

Don’t choose books that are too long. Over the years, I’ve concluded that books longer than 400 pages are too long. If the book is too long, several people won’t read it or will grow frustrated with the story/content. Frustration does not lead to a good discussion.

Select a variety of books for your season. I prefer a mix of fiction and non-fiction, a variety of topics during the season, and books that allow me to learn about something. For example, this year I’ve read Educated by Tara Westover, Citizens of London by Lynne Olson, The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. One memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family, one non-fiction set in London during WWII, one fiction set in Alaska and another in Malaysia.

Don’t be afraid to read something different. One year, we chose to read a play (I think it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), another year we chose a slim volume of poetry. There was a year where every book was from outside North America, and another where every book dealt with the same theme. Such choices enrich the reading experience.

You need a moderator. Someone needs to select topics for the group and guide the discussion. Think of your book club like a meeting with a purpose – the purpose being to explore the experience of reading a particular book, how it affected different people, the significance of the book’s themes, characters, and setting, what made a particular book an excellent or a poor read. And so on. The moderator keeps the group on track, invites participation, ensures that no person dominates and so on.

Choose topics that foster discussion. The lively conversations that follow will lead to a deeper appreciation of reading as exploration, encountering characters whose life philosophies and experiences are vastly different from yours, discovering unknown places and cultures, vicariously inhabiting challenging circumstances. To do this, consider looking at reviews to discover the varying opinions others have and base questions on what you find. Choose topics that are broad enough for most members of the group to connect with. For example, what themes does XYZ novel explore? How important are they to the story? Are they relevant today? In my experience, the topics suggested at the back of most books of fiction are not particularly useful.

Agree on the rules for discussion. The social aspect of physical meetings seems to augment the experience, as does the ability to watch expressions and gestures for clues to what others are thinking. Proximity brings immediacy to the exchange and a liveliness that cannot be replicated over the Internet. But … you knew there would be a but, didn’t you? … no one enjoys a discussion where one or two people dominate or it wanders off topic all the time or an individual makes a sweeping statement that seems to diminish all other opinions. Set a few rules. Usually the moderator takes on the role of reminding participants about the rules, if required.

Make time to socialize. I’ve heard of some groups where participants are so busy socializing, they hardly get around to discussing the book. In my opinion, this isn’t a book club! On the other hand, a group that meets at 7pm, starts the discussion immediately, and breaks up at 8pm without any time to socialize isn’t much fun. Just like any gathering, refreshments add a welcoming feeling that fosters participation.

Please add your tips for successful book clubs in the comments.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website