Review: Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

This isn’t a novel, it’s a biography, and I don’t usually read biographies. But having finished this one a few hours after I started reading it, then it’s fair to say that I’ll be reading a lot more.

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Escape from Camp 14 tells the amazing story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a Korean  born with an automatic life sentence within the walls of the country’s most notorious political prison. The author, brilliantly, details the inhuman treatment the prisoners receive,  and reflects poignantly on how the existence of such places affects the people of North Korea as a whole.  A brief history of the country and the conditions the population live under (fear, starvation) is weaved throughout the book, giving the reader a clear context through which to follow Shin’s story.

Make no mistake, this is a harsh read that, at times, beggars belief: the torture, both mental and physical;  the systematic stripping of  another human being’s humanity from birth until they die from exhaustion or starvation – it’s all here, laid out in a plain, no-nonsense style that unapologetically leaves nothing to the imagination.

The book follows Shin from his birth to his miraculous escape, then traces his difficult adjustment to freedom beyond the walls of Camp 14. In many ways, this is just as harrowing as reading about his time inside the prison, giving an idea what it is like for people who emerge into the world following a long and unjust incarceration.

An excellent book, thoroughly recommended. Five out of five (I’d give it six if I could).

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (ahem!)

Right, did anyone else not know that this ‘Robert Galbraith’ is JK Rowling? Okay, just me then.

Not sure of the reasons behind the pseudonym; I’m guessing that she wanted her new stuff to be viewed on its merits, without folk comparing it to her previous work which is, of course, en- tirely different. In that regard, I guess I’m pretty well-suited to examing The Cuckoo’s Calling as I didn’t read the Harry Potter series.

The_Cuckoo's_CallingSo, as a book that stands on its own, The Cuckoo’s Calling is head and shoulders above much of the crime fiction I’ve come across in recent years. It’s an old-school detective story that follows the work and personal life of the unlikely-named Cormoran Strike, an ex-military policeman turned private detective, fighting to stay afloat in civilian London while trying to solve the mystery behind the death of supermodel.

As I said, it’s a great book; the author doesn’t mess around with wafty ex- positions; not a word is wasted; she flits around the characters thoughts and feeling with Woolf- like abandon, keeping the reader engaged with an enormous number of the Capital’s most unlikeable characters. Comoran himself is not a bad bloke; he’s a capable detective, though not superhumanly so – and I think that’s what keeps the interest alive, and the whole book just this side of believable. For me, the real star of the book was his secretary (but I shouldn’t say any more).

If I were to make one complaint then it would be that some of the peripheral characters came across as remarkably clichéd: fat, incompetent policemen with body odour; rich widows dying in their beds; painfully camp fashion designers… but I guess stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. Still, an immensly enjoyable read.

If you like outstanding crime fiction then The Cuckoo’s Calling comes highly recommended – by me anyway … 🙂

Book Review: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver excels at taking ordinary lives and using them to tell an extraordinary story. In this instance we have a middle-aged woman, married, successful, possibly happy, who finds herself at odds with her husband when she is forced to take in her older brother, a former jazz musician with something of a weight problem.

big_brother_coverLooking through her eyes, I found her observations about her brother and how the world sees him an extraordinarily compelling read. Shriver tells the story beautifully, using her precise and somewhat poetic style, and weaving in a whole Social Science case study that examines our attitudes to the chronically obese, and how we view the consumption of food. Having read it, I don’t think I’ll view cookery programmes in the same light ever again: at the end of the day, it’s all just fuel.

The characters are meticulously drawn and remain true and constant from start to end, driving a plot that makes it hard to put the book down. A writing master class.
If I would make one complaint, and this really is just a personal opinion, I thought the ending was a little bit disappointing; not so much the outcome, just the way it was staged.
Still, a great read, and highly recommended. Pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Ms Shriver.