Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

by Barbara Demick

October 2016

Nothing to Envy is next month’s pick for my mom’s club book club. Now, as you can probably guess if you’ve been following me for even a short time, I don’t read non-fiction. Not as a rule, but simply because I’ve been more interested in fiction and haven’t had a non-fiction book cross my path that sound appealing. Honestly, I only gave Nothing to Envy a try because it was for book club. I should probably learn by now “not to judge a book by it’s cover” (or genre), because I loved this book, even though I assumed it would be dry and boring (so far from the truth). It was eye-opening and challenging to read, but it was written in an engaging, gripping way, so I was drawn in at the first chapter. Demick is gifted in story-telling. I was impressed that she could take a subject matter that has never peaked my interested and have me fully invested in it in a matter of minutes.

Demick was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in the 1990’s. She was reporting out of Seoul and worked for years to get into North Korea, but when she was able to, she found she was virtually restricted from any truth because of North Korea’s policies of only showing a good face. Demick shifted tactics and began interviewing North Koreans who had defected and were mostly living in South Korea. In her book, Demick focuses on the stories of 5 individuals: Mrs. Song, Oak-hee, Dr. Kim, Jun-sang, and Mi-ran. As Demick captures their lives, she also informs her reader about North Korean politics and policies. As someone knowing nothing about North Korea, (other than that fact that it’s an isolated communist country), it was eye-opening for me to learn about this country. I’m still processing the realities of North Koreans: from a dictatorship that requires permission to own a television or to visit a neighboring town, to people imprisoned for saying the littlest thing against their leader, to the suppression of technological and cultural advances (like electricity and appliances), to the wide-spread, long lasting starvation of an entire people. It is heartbreaking and cruel and deeply saddening. It is hard to believe that people are so restricted and unable to have the basics (such as food), when we live in a country of such freedom. However, even with all the the turmoil and hardship, Demick writes about hope. The hope for people who are able to leave and start a new life for themselves (as difficult and challenging as that is), and hope that one day Korea might be united again.

Summing it up: Demick writes in away that sweeps you into the lives of others and gives you perspective on something outside of your own bubble. Her non-fiction is anything but dry and I’m so happy I gave it a chance. Though there are some difficult situations to read, I highly recommend this book.

All the best, Abbey

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The Return of the Prodigal Son

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The Return of the Prodigal Son

by Henri J. M. Nouwen

October 2016

I read this book for my book club. I’m not sure I would have pulled it off the shelf, but I really enjoyed reading it. It was short, interesting, and beautifully written. I was a history major in college and one of the skills I learned was how to look at a primary source (like a painting, photo, letter, or document) and expound and explain what it was all about, preferably without adding personal opinion. This is the best way to explain The Return of the Prodigal Son. It was thoughts and observations on Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. I thought that Nouwen brought a lot on insight and made me remember the joys of studying history. He spent a lot of time discussing the Biblical story as well, which was also very interesting. Overall, I learned new things and came away with a better understanding of both the story and the painting. It also gave me the itch to visit art museums again! 😉

Summing it up: if art history or history interests you, you’ll probably really enjoy this little 130 page book!

All the best, Abbey

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

by J. K. Rowling

October 2016

Well, 5 down and 2 to go. So excited to keep reading, but sad that I’m over halfway and the books will come to an end. I’m not ready for that, but I don’t want to stop reading! Rowling is a master of characters. They are flawed, which makes them incredibly relatable. I love how even though it’s a story about wizards and witches, it feels like an everyday kind of life, a very normal life. I think I could read the books many times and notice something new, or catch something I missed, the first time. I’m in love with her genius, and I am loving this series.

It’s the summer before Harry’s fifth school year and life with the Dursleys is miserable as usual. Before long, Harry and his cousin, Dudley, find themselves being attacked by dementors, but Harry is able to fend them off. However, he used magic which lands him in a world of trouble, capping off with a trial to determine whether or not he can continue at Hogwarts. Dumbledore comes through in the end and defends Harry to success. Harry is immensely relieved and spends the last few days of summer with the Weasleys and  Hermione. Spoilers: They are staying with Sirius in his magical house in order to keep Harry safe. The Weasleys and Hermione have been there for a while (and soon after Harry arrives, Ron and Hermione find out that they are head boy and girl at Hogwarts), so Harry is confused and jealous. To make matters worse, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and Sirius are part of a secret order: The Order of the Phoenix, and won’t tell anything about it, won’t even explain why Harry was attacked and what’s going on with him. Ron and Hermione smooth things over a little bit before they begin their trip back to Hogwarts. This is Harry’s fifth year and he is facing his O.W.L.S exam (so, piles of school work), a horrible new defense of the dark arts teacher (Prof. Umbridge), a new Quidditch team, and being whispered about all the time by his school mates. Things go downhill quickly for Harry. Prof. Umbridge is literally out to get him (and the whole school). She is given her position by the Ministry of Magic and slowly gets more and more power and control over all the students and teachers. She gives Harry horrible detentions for questioning her in class – he’s forced to write “I must not tell lies” but the ink is his own blood from his hand. She also finds a reason to kick him off the Quidditch team, and prevent clubs from meeting. She makes things so unbearable for the Weasley twins that they decide to help Harry at one point by creating a diversion, resulting in them leaving school in order to start a joke shop. It is the talk of the school and happy relief for the twins. Harry’s only source of happiness is in forming a secret club to teach some of his fellow students how to defend against the dark arts (because Prof. Umbridge’s class is book only, not practice). Harry is also plagued by horrible dreams where he sees and feels what Voldemort is seeing/doing. In one reoccurring dream, he is trying to find something specific in the Ministry of Magic. Harry is trying to learn how to block these mind dreams, but he also is curious to find out what Voldemort is doing so he can stop him. Finally, near the end of the year, Harry’s dream takes a dark turn and he witnesses Voldemort torturing Sirius. Harry can sit by no longer and leaves (with Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Luna, and Neville, who refuse to let Harry leave alone). They get to the Ministry of Magic and soon realize that they fell into a trap. Voldemort is there with his followers who have escaped Azkaban, but without Sirius. Voldemort wants a prophecy that only Harry can get him. So beings a battle between Harry and his friends, and Voldemort and his followers. Harry is able to keep the prophecy from Voldemort, but soon many of his friends are down and it’s looking hopeless. Then, several members of the Order of the Phoenix arrive to help battle. In the end, the prophesy breaks, Sirius is dead, Harry and his friends live, and Voldemort escapes. Harry is in shock and they all return to Hogwarts. There he learns the truth: he and Voldemort have a link which Voldemort used to trick Harry and use him for his purposes. Dumbledore admitted that he did not do the right thing. In his attempt to protect Harry, he kept him in the dark, which lead to things going wrong. But he tells Harry everything now. How in order to be protected, he has to live with his Aunt and Uncle, and how the prophecy tells how he and Voldemort can’t co-exist . . . in the end one will need to kill the other. It is a heavy relief to know the truth, and sad to know how he needs to return to his Aunt and Uncle’s. Happily, Prof. Umbridge got herself in trouble, so slinks off when Dumbledore returns with Harry and the truth comes out that Voldemort is indeed returned and Harry is not a liar. There are so many subplots as well. Mr. Weasley gets attacked by Voldemort and Harry dreams about it, which is what saves Mr. Weasley from death. Percy has estranged himself from his family causing them immense pain and frustration. Dumbledore is forced to leave Hogwarts at one point and Prof. Umbridge takes his place. Harry and Cho have a little fling before it peters out. Ginny shocks Ron by being old enough to date and being good enough to play on the Quidditch team. Ron gets dragged into playing Quidditch, where he plays horribly until the last game. I really appreciated how in this book both Harry and Dumbledore make mistakes that cause really bad things to happen. They are not perfect and a lot of pain is caused because of it. In the end, relationships are repaired, but not everything is. It’s sad, but at the same time, very relatable and honest. I really, really liked this book.

Summing it up: I’m still going strong on loving Harry Potter.

All the best, Abbey

The Art of Racing in the Rain

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The Art of Racing in the Rain

by Garth Stein

October 2016

The Art of Racing in the Rain was a recommendation from a co-worker. He described it as a book written from a dog’s perspective and very good. I’m always up for a good recommendation, so I was happy to add it to my list. Well, this book made me laugh and cry, and was moving and sweet. It was not a “happy” book per se, but it was beautiful and I loved it, even with the challenging subject matter.

Enzo is an unusual dog. He is more intellectual and introspective than other dogs, and he also believes that after he dies he will return as a human, which he longs to do. He belongs to Denny, a race car driver/mechanic and adores him. It’s just the two of them until Eve comes along. Enzo is jealous for a while, but learns to accept her in Denny’s life. Then, Zoë comes along and Enzo in enchanted and instant buddies with Denny and Eve’s little girl. Life is beautiful.Spoilers: Then things spiral downhill. Eve gets sick, but it is years before she agrees to see a doctor, and by then it’s too late: she has brain cancer. After battling it for a few months in the hospital, Eve decides to move in with her parents, and keep Zoë with her, so Denny can keep up with his racing career. Denny reluctantly agrees and they are all hopeful that Eve is improving. After a few more months they have a magical night where Eve is glowing and they all believe she’ll be returning home, but that night she dies. Denny is desolate, and to make matters worse, his in-laws sue him for custody of Zoë. Denny is heart-broken, but determined to fight for his daughter (who is only 5 at this point). After a few years of being drained of cash, pummeled emotionally, being accused of sexual abuse, and being all-together worn down, Denny is ready to give up. However, his friends encourage him and his parents (with whom he’s been estranged for years) come back into his life to support him and give him his inheritance. Denny rallies and in the end he wins the custody battle. He is also offered a racing position with Ferrari in Italy, which he happily accepts. But then Enzo’s time has come to leave Denny. Enzo’s been there through the happy years and through all the difficult ones, but he is old and sick and finally has to die. It is peaceful and so, so sad (crying writing about it). Denny is able to move to Italy with his daughter and have a fulfilling racing career. After being settled and establishing himself in Italy, he is introduced to a young boy who is an avid fan and knows all about racing. His name is Enzo.

One theme of this book is making your own destiny and having faith to change your life and your path. At the beginning of the book Ayrton Senna is quoted, “With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.” Enzo takes this to heart and at one point reflects, “I had always wanted to love Eve as Denny loved her, but I never had because I was afraid. She was my rain. She was my unpredictable element. She was my fear. But a racer should not be afraid of rain; a racer should embrace the rain. I, alone, could manifest a change in that which was around me. By changing my mood, my energy, I allowed Eve to regard my differently. And while I cannot say that I am a master of my own destiny, I can say that I have experienced a glimpse of mastery, and I know what I have to work toward.”

Summing it up: I highly recommend this book! It was beautiful and moving and simply wonderful.

All the best, Abbey

How to Write a Novel

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How to Write a Novel

by Melanie Sumner

October 2016

I found How to Write a Novel while browsing one day and it looked too cute to pass up. It turned out to be cute, funny, and heartfelt. Parts were slow and I felt I had to push myself to continue reading at points, but overall it was a good book.

How to Write a Novel is written from the perspective of Aris, a very mature 12.5 year old. She is trying to make money and decides to do so by writing a best-selling novel in 30 days (using the tips from the same titled book). Aris uses a lot of humor to describe her journey writing for a month and all that transpires from break-ups, to failure, to close friends that stick by, and finally to success. It is simple, sweet and heartfelt. Aris, her brother Max, and her mom are struggling to live well and are often helped by their nanny and PMI (positive male influence), Penn. Penn watches the kids, helps around the house, and is an all-around great guy. Aris’ mom is an adjunct English professor who is caring, scatter-brained, and loves helping her students. Aris misses her dad (who died before her younger brother was born) and misses her “betrothed” who has moved from Georgia to Boston. She goes against her mother’s wishes and reads her mom’s detailed, complex journals and knows more than is good for her. Spoiler Ending: After many months Aris’ boyfriend breaks up with her, and by that point she is sad, but ready to move on. Penn and Aris’ mom sort of get together as a couple, but then back off because they’re not ready (much to Aris and Max’s disappointment). Aris’ mom gets laid off for helping a young black man write a defense statement after getting illegally tried and sent to jail for a week because of speeding, but she pulls herself up and decides to help people with decluttering their homes in order to declutter their lives. Aris sends her mom’s journals out to random people who have bought other books from her mom and gets into huge trouble, but in the end, one of the people is an editor who writes back wanting a manuscript. Aris finishes her novel, and that’s the end of the book!

Summing it up: even though it was slow at points, overall How to Write a Novel was funny and sweet and worth the read!

All the best, Abbey

The Forgotten Seamstress

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The Forgotten Seamstress

by Liz Trenow

October 2016

Totally in love with this book! The Forgotten Seamstress is another book I found whilst browsing and the synopsis drew me in. I sew, so maybe the word “seamstress” sold me too, but regardless, I’m so happy I found this book. It was a beautiful story about love and loss and finding yourself (one of my favorite themes). I loved the sway between the past and present and how everything connected in the end. The plot was clever and the characters interesting . . .I just loved it.

The Forgotten Seamstress follows two heroines in two time periods: Maria and Caroline. Maria is a young seamstress serving the Prince of Wales’ household in the 1930’s, while Caroline is a recently single/jobless woman struggling to find her way in present day. The story oscillates between these two women’s stories, culminating in a beautiful ending. Spoilers: Maria is young and headstrong. Raised in an orphanage, she secures a job as a seamstress with her best friend, Nora, in the Buckingham Palace. She catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and they have a short affair, which leaves Maria pregnant. When she is close to delivering, she is taken away to an asylum where her baby is taken away from her as soon as he is born. Maria is desolate and forced to stay “tucked away” at the asylum where everyone tells her her past is a fantasy. She undergoes many treatments, one of which leaves her mute. A young woman comes in and helps her learn to speak again, for which Maria is forever grateful. When she is about 50, Nora finds Maria and is able to take her home. Maria is also reunited with her son’s family. He has died, but she finds his adopted mother and his daughter. Through this whole time Maria has been crafting a quilt that tells her life story and holds love and the truth to her story (a love letter from the Prince of Wales). The other protagonist, Caroline, is struggling with her future. She is in her thirties, recently broken up with her boyfriend of 5 years, and jobless. On top of it all her mother has dementia and is starting to get worse and need more looking after. She is going through her mom’s house and finds a mysterious, beautiful quilt that belonged to her grandmother. Something draws Caroline to the quilt and since she is jobless she decides to try and find out the quilt’s provenance. She asks a local reporter, Ben, to help her look into it. Slowly, they start unearthing Maria’s complex history and putting the pieces together. Things culminate when Caroline discovers a letter in her mom’s house, written to her father. It is from her grandmother and tells the story about how she was never able to have a baby, so her husband brought one home one day for her and even though it was mysterious (and shady) she accepted it and raised her son. When he was in school, she decided to volunteer at the asylum down the road where she met a seamstress who was mute. She helped her regain speech and learned that her baby was taken away the same day that she was given her baby boy. She puts things together and leaves, keeping silent until years later when she tells Maria the truth and introduces her to her granddaughter, Caroline. Caroline is shocked, but everything makes sense and she is finally able to have clarity and peace about her past and her future. She has always wanted to be an interior designer, so using the quilt as inspiration she launches her own business. Her mom is settled in a home nearby where Caroline can visit her often. She decides to run her business out of her mom’s home, sell her London flat, and naturally, she and Ben have fallen for each other and are starting a relationship. It is such a sweet ending! I just loved this book!

Summing it up: I absolutely loved this book and loved the history. There were sad/difficult moments, but it was beautiful and touching and inspiring. I definitely recommend it!

All the best, Abbey

“A” is for Alibi

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“A” is for Alibi

by Sue Grafton

October 2016

Well, I might slowly be turning into a mystery book lover. Which is hysterical, because up until now I have not enjoyed mystery books at all. They’re too creepy. 😉 But now that I’ve delved into thrillers, mystery books are starting to be enjoyable (as long as they’re not too graphic or creepy . . . baby steps!). I’ve heard of Sue Grafton for a while and I decided to bite the bullet and read her first alphabet book mystery . . .well, I loved it! I totally fell for Kinsey Millhone and just loved her character (reminded me of Stephanie Plum from One for the Money). I was caught up in the book from the beginning and nearly stopped breathing at the end with the suspense. However, I was especially proud of myself because I figured out who the murder was a probably half way through, which is a big deal because I’m one of those people who is genuinely lost/surprised/etc at everything! I’m really hoping the rest of Grafton’s books are just as good.

Kinsey Millhone is a twice divorced P.I. who loves living on her own and solving mysteries. One day she is approached by a newly released murder who claims she was falsely convicted. Kinsey remembers the case (prominent, but highly disliked, divorce lawyer found dead from pills being tampered . . . young wife the obvious killer) and decides to take it on. As she begins interviewing people, from the friendly and helpful partner (Charlie), to the first wife (Gwen), to the children, and a former secretary (Sharon), the case gets more and more muddled. Kinsey travels around interviewing, writing up case cards for the file, and getting to know Charlie, slowly falling for him. Spoilers: when the lawyer originally died, a few days later a young accountant (Libby) is found dead, but no connection is made. Kinsey is convinced that there is a connection though and investigates. During her investigation, Sharon is murdered (right before Kinsey can have a further conversation with her) and then Gwen is found dead after a hit and run (also, right before Kinsey has arranged to talk with her again . . . Gwen had just confessed to murdering her husband because he was a horrible person). In the end it all becomes clear. Charlie, who has been a gentleman, is actually a murderer, having killed Libby because she had found out he was embezzling, and following Kinsey and knocking off Sharon and Gwen. When Kinsey puts two and two together there is a final showdown where Charlie is chasing her with a knife to kill her, but Kinsey keeps her cool and shoots him. It was such a spooky, intense ending, but so good!

Summing it up: I loved Kinsey and I loved the mystery and I loved the intensity. I definitely recommend “A” is for Alibi!

All the best, Abbey