A Year of Reading – part 2

Last week, I listed a bunch of books that I either read or, in many cases, did not finish in 2020. Here’s the rest of the books from a confusing, stressful, distracted and unfocused year.

As in prior years, I’ve used the following rating scheme: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type. As I said in last week’s post, my apologies to those authors whose novels I did not finish.

  • A Well-Behaved Woman by Theresa Anne FowlerER – The title of this one appealed to me as did the peek into the lives of the Vanderbilts, specifically Alva Vanderbilt who married into the “newly rich but socially scorned family” this saving her own family from financial ruin. By the way, Alva Vanderbilt isn’t as well-behaved as the title implies.
  • The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff – DNF – This novel kept popping up on Facebook and other places and I’ve enjoyed other novels by Jenoff, so I gave it a try. I think I’ve read too many novels about women who become SOE agents in WWII and this one didn’t differentiate itself in the early chapters.
  • Marlene by C.W. Gortner – ER – I’m a big fan of C.W. Gortner’s novels. In this novel he’s written the fascinating story of Marlene Dietrich from her early schoolgirl days to her rise as a Hollywood star and her support for US troops during WWII.
  • The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee – ER – Memoir of a teenager who escapes North Korea’s brutal and repressive regime and ultimately reaches the safety of South Korea. A story of daring, ingenuity, perseverance, and triumph.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller – OR – A discussion of favourite historical fiction authors led me to a discovery of Madeline Miller and her novel Circe. I’ve never been a fan of mythology – I find all those gods, their powers, and their complicated relationships confusing. In Circe, Madeline Miller creates a compelling, action-filled tale that explores the intersection of gods and humans. Her prose is superb.
  • Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin – DNF – An American woman works for the French resistance during WWII “while playing hostess to the invading Germans at the iconic Hotel Ritz in Paris.” Unfortunately, the characters did not grab my attention, but that could just be the pandemic, as I’ve enjoyed other novels by Melanie Benjamin.
  • Double Cross by Ben McIntyre – GR – Non-fiction: the story of the double-agents involved in Operation Fortitude and how they tricked the Germans into believing that the Allies would attack Calais rather than Normandy. What detracts from the story is the huge cast of characters and the detail with which McIntyre explores each one of them, often going back in time at length before proceeding with the main drama.
  • The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan – OR – Non-fiction account of D-Day. I found it mesmerizing, superbly told, suspenseful and very satisfying.
  • The Library of Legends by Janie Chang – ER – I had the privilege of an early-release copy of this novel. Janie Chang’s tale of a convoy of student refugees who travel across China, fleeing the hostilities of a brutal war with Japan is quite wonderful. The students have been entrusted with a 500-year-old collection of myths and folklore known as the Library of Legends. Here’s the article I wrote for the Historical Novel Society.
  • Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan – ER – when the opportunity came along to read an early-release of this biography, I quickly said yes. Anya Seton is one of those novelists who got me hooked on historical fiction. During her tumultuous life she wrote multiple bestsellers. As I said my review, Lucinda MacKethan’s biography is a superb story of a famous author’s life along with her struggles for recognition and fulfilment. 
  • Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig – ER – A story of a group of Smith College graduates who travel to France during WWI to help citizens whose lives have been destroyed by war. The novel compellingly tackles a central question: “What happens when you take a group of women with wildly different personalities and interests and set them down in the high-pressure situation of a war zone.” To be released in early March.
  • Red At the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ER – Selected by my book club, this novel “looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.”
  • The Lost Girls by Heather Young – ER – From the six-year-old girl who disappears to her sisters, mother and nieces, everyone in this novel is lost in her own way. Through multiple timelines, Heather Young patiently and carefully reveals what really happened in this compelling story.
  • The Year I Made 12 Dresses by Patricia Parsons – ER – As Charlie sews her way through the year after her mother’s death, she finds wisdom and unexpected happiness while uncovering secrets from the past. This was one of those novels that grabs you slowly and suddenly you find yourself in that I-can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-it mode.
  • A Castle in Wartime by Catherine Bailey – ER – I was delighted to discover another book by non-fiction author Catherine Bailey. Catherine writes non-fiction with the drama and excitement of fiction. A superb story of one family, their missing sons, and the fight to defeat the Nazis.
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain – OR – I began 2020 with Vera Brittain’s biography. Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, she served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war’s end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. It is “both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation.”

This is the sixth year I’ve shared my reading. You can check our previous years: 2019 (part 1 and part 2), 2018 part 22018 part 1, 2017 (part 1 and part 2), 2016 (part 1 and part 2). A Year of Reading 2015 – Part 1 and Part 2. A Year of Reading 2014 – Part 1 and Part 2

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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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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.

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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 www.mktod.com.