The Girl With Seven Names

After a wait of more than two years, I finally found this book on the library shelf. The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John) recounts how a girl overcame life in a secretive and ruthless country, her harrrowing attempts to evade recapture and punishment and her courage in fighting for her freedom and finding out what it is to be human.

It is not a very long memoir (slightly under 300 pages, but in small print), divided in three parts (with quite a few pages of photographs), but it took me more than a week to finish reading. (I wish the font size was a bit bigger so it would not be such a strain on my eyes.)

Part One (The Greatest Nation on Earth) gives readers a detailed glimpse into Lee’s childhood and how her name was changed for the first time when she was 4 years old, how her father was arrested, the famine and cultural change that she witnessed and her ‘prank’ in trying to slip across the river near her home into China when she was 17.

Part Two (To the Heart of the Dragon) tells of how she had no idea what to do when she arrived in Shengyang and how she had assumed a new name just before turning 18 when her mother warned her never to return. She learnt Chinese but it was six months later before she realised that she was never going to see her mother and brother again. Trapped in a foreign country with no identification, she had nightmares and became depressed. She soon assumed another name, hiding in plain sight. Betrayed by someone to whom she revealed her country of origin, she was arrested by the police, interrogated but later released. When she moved to Shanghai four years later, she changed her name again. Not long after, she got a new identity and name and worked in a big company. Her brother was beaten up and mother locked up as the authorities thought she was a spy.  When she was 25, she travelled to South Korea in a long-about way.

Part Three (Journey into Darkness) is most well-written. Arriving in Seoul at 28 and locked up, her political awareness began. She had a name change so that she could apply for the university entrance exam. It was now more than eleven years and nine months since she last saw her mother and brother. She made plans for them to join her. They were arrested while escaping and had a harrowing experience for the next two months. They were reunited six months later. By 2010, she was accepted by Hankuk University of Foreign Studies for an undergraduate course in Chinese and English, her mother worked in a motel and her brother decided to try for university. Becoming romantically involved with an American (and later marrying him) initially shocked both her mother and brother. She started speaking out in defence of defectors, and about the human rights abuses in North Korea.

The writing style is rather straight-forward. I wish she has injected more feelings and emotions into the writing; the horrors of what happened would be more keenly felt.




It’s been a while since Julie Garwood has a new book; imagine my delight when I saw this 2017 book (in Large Print) on the library shelf! I’ve never read any book in this series (Buchanan-Renard series) before and this is the 13th installment. (Though I’ve read a few of her other books and deemed them pretty good.)

I expected a good read, not just because of what I’ve come to know of the author from a few of her earlier books but also because of a quote on the inside cover: Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

The plot: Allison Trent is a college student who models on the side. She not only has a gorgeous face but also a brilliant mind. (Her uncanny ability was first noticed when as an 8-year-old she was asked to help her older sister put a new 500-piece puzzle together and she completed it in 25 minutes.) She can solve 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles in minutes and she can write – and hack – code. There is no programme she cannot fix or hack. She is recruited by the FBI to work with agent Liam Scott on a leak in his department. He needs to find out who the traitor is, but he can’t use another agent, so Allison comes in.

The sub-plot: Jordon Clayborne is a legend and genius in the technology field and Allison’s best friend. Their friendship would ultimately change Allison’s life. Jordon’s husband is also a FBI agent. . .

The story is rather interesting and the writing is very readable (maybe the large print also helps) but there are some parts unnecessary to the point of being unbelievable (eg the other sub-plot involving Allison’s uncle, aunt and cousin is a bit too over-the-top).

Singapore is also mentioned once: Liam also works on other cases simultaneously in places such as Honolulu, Brussels and Washington. Maybe the author can consider penning a novel set in Singapore?

The Ultimatum

I have always been eager to read Karen Robards’ novels, so I was very excited when I saw this latest book (published in 2017) on the library shelf. I borrowed it without even looking at the blurb.

To my utter disappointment, this book is totally unlike any of her other books! (She has written about 50, and I’ve read them all.) It’s also the first in a new series, called The Guardian. The next time I see a Karen Robards book on the library shelf, I’ll be sure to check that it’s not the next one in this series, and I’ll be sure to read the blurb too.

To be fair to the author, the first chapter is really good. It captures my attention immediately. I turn the pages eagerly, expecting more. But what a let-down it is! Plot and story aside, the writing style is such a departure from Robards’ that it seems as though someone else has written it.

The story: Bianca St Ives, previously known as Beth, is smart, talented and beautiful. She is also a thief, a manipulator and a con artist. She makes a living swindling con men out of money they stole and retun it to the rightful owners. In this installment, she is on a mission to uncover what has happened to millions of dollars, some top secret government documents and her father…

All the jetting around means different locations – Gudaibiya Palace in Bahrain, Four Seasons Scareinersma Bay Hotel in North Manama (Vegas by way of the Middle East), Savannah in Georgia, a Mediterranean Club House in the middle of San Francisco Bay and Heiligenblnt in Austria. Flights from Bangladesh to Singapore and from Atlanta to San Francisco are mentioned; and so are places like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatrez. Even Tony Bennett crooning his signature It Had To Be You live on stage at a party in Bahrain is mentioned. These would make interesting backdrops for a movie, if the rights are ever acquired for making one. (But the screenwriter would have a tough job with the plot.)



Run, Mummy, Run

I’ve come across Cathy Glass’s books a few times, and this time I decide to pick up her latest book (published in 2017). Since this is a novel inspired by a true story, and it is Glass’s 24th book, I think it would be quite a good read. I’m not disappointed.

The protagonist in this story is Aisha. Her parents (the Husseins) are from India, but she is born in England. Similar to the arrangement her parents would have made if they had been living in India, Aisha (who works in a bank) calls up an “introductory agency” (not a dating agency) to look for a suitor who has been vetted. She thinks she has made a possibly life-changing decision. Indeed she has.

She is introduced to Mark Williams. They have a whirlwind romance and courtship. Mark has always said and done the right things. He is the perfect gentleman, and wholly attentive to her needs.

The first time Mark hits her is when she returns home from hospital with their newborn daughter, Sarah. He is beside himself with guilt and self-recrimination and apologises all evening, so she forgives him. The second time, he pushes her against the wall over the use of crockery for her parents’ first visit. This sets the pattern of the abuser and the victim – he is powerful and fully in control, she allows herself to be humiliated and there is no going back.

Seven years pass, and during this time Mark’s occasional ‘out-of-character’ punches develop into a regular pattern which leaves Aisha in fear of her life. Aisha has had another child, James, and they live isolated, in fear, and hidden from the outside world. The beatings and mental torture continue.

Frightened and completely isolated, by the time she realises it, it is too late and she is impotent to act. Aisha is now very unhappy and consumed by happiness. Things have become too dreadful to speak of. She is a prisoner – she is nothing; she doesn’t make decisions; she barely exists. The only way she can leave is to kill herself.

If anything positive has come out of the years of abuse and misery, it is the bond that has formed between Sarah and James.

On the fateful day, Mark has sprung like a lion felling its prey, landing on her back and bringing her down, knees first, then her elbows and face……; her head pounced sideways, her cheeks grating on dry concrete, her mouth filled with blood as his fists plummell her back, her head, shoulders, neck, anywhere he could find.

Seizing the moment, she escapes with her children. That she has to leave all their possessions behind, and the children and she only have the clothes they’re in, don’t matter. Who knows what the future could hold, and now that she has made the decision to go away, all things are possible. She and the children had been trapped in a barren dessert, not only cut off from other people, but happiness.

In a multi-vehicle pile-up involving Aisha, the children and Mark on his new bike, Mark is pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. Aisha’s feeling of relief is mingled with a residue of fear. Some time later, she visits the woman with whom Mark cohabited for five years after the divorce from his first wife and learns what Mark was really like.

The message here is : No one can understand unless they have been in the same position. Abuse strips you of everything, bleeds you dry, so that you end up believing that you couldn’t survive without the person who is doing it to you.

However, as Aisha’s father comments: An eclipse doesn’t last foever. It will pass. The light will return and it will be lighter because of the darkness.

It is indeed an interesting and fascinating book. I will definitely read some more of Cathy Glass’s books.


Every Falling Star

With North Korea headlining the newspapers recently, I decided to read this memoir by Sunju Lee, who recounts how he survived and escaped North Korea.

Sunju has had a carefree life as a pampered only son of an elite. Playing with his pedegreed dog and watching cartoons comes to an abrupt end when he was 11, when his family was ordered to leave Pyongyang and go north for a holiday. At the age of 12, Sunju is forced to live on the streets and fend for himself when his father (who went to China in 1998) and his mother (who planned to go to Nampo to get food) didn’t return from their journeys and he has survived 10 days on salt and water alone. He waited for help but none came, so he decided to form a gang to steal for the next few months.

One day, Sunju returns to find his home sold by a broker to another family. Kicked out, he forms another gang with two teams to steal at the market and to perform at the train station. They all chain smoke and talk about older women; they all stink. He wished they were born anywhere but here.

A year later, it became harder and harder to steal and they rely more and more on performing, moving further north as stowaways on a coal train. Sunju is battered in a fight with another gang, covered in dried blood, bruises and mud, with head lice. His ribs hurt, has breathing difficulty, head wounds and teeth marks. One brother (the gang member who taught that hope is what makes people human) died in a gang battle when their hideaway is discovered.

Joining forces with another gang, they learn more about street fighting and stealing techniques. In the fall of 2000, their plan to steal pears from a farm failed and they were captured and sent to prison, from which they managed to escape.

After being on the street for more than 3 years, only 5 of the original 7 gang members remain. One of those who died was Sunju’s best friend.

Quite unexpectedly, Sunju meets an old man who claims to be his grandfather (which is true). He is thus rescued and looked after by his grandparents. Four years later, he receives word that his father wants him to go to China. He leaves with a broker and after a harrowing experience, eventually reunites with his father.

With his experience as a street boy, Sunju realises that home is not a place but people. In 2010, he studied English at the Arizona State University and in Oct 2015 studied for his master’s degree in international relations at the University of Warwick in England on a scholarship. He was also accepted into the London School of Economics.

In 2014, Hunju interned with a Canadian member of parliament as part of a programme funded by a North Korean advocacy organisation. In the late summer and fall of 2015, he worked for the UK Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. In spring 2015, he became the consultant for the rescuing team of Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Limits, a nonprofit group that helps rescue defectors trapped in China.

He still speaks around the world, raising awareness and money to rescue North Koreans in China. And he is still searching for his mother.

Having written but one short memoir, I understand what courage Sunju must have mustered to write such a compelling and evocative narrative. Though he has the help of author Susan Elizabeth McClelland in putting his experience into words, it must have been not easy; I can imagine the horrors that he has had to relive and the fear and tears that must have accompanied them.



What Was I Thinking?

When I read in the national newspapers last year that this TV host/actor has written a memoir, my first thought was: when would a copy be available for loan at the public library? Well, it didn’t take long. (By contrast, I still haven’t been able to get hold of Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl With Seven Names for more than two years now.) Perhaps many readers are not as interested in local books, since I could also easily get a copy of Josehpine Chia’s When A Flower Dies soon after it was published.

I did not have high expectations for the book, as all I knew about Gurmit Singh was that he has a reputation for being a funnyman (when I didn’t find him all that funny), a host for programmes like Singapore Idol and the NDP (National Day Parade) and an actor (the most famous of which is Phua Chu Kang, the contractor with yellow boots, permed hair and a big mole, who could not speak proper English). Hence I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered what a good read it is: I was not only highly entertained (I laughed out loud more than a dozen times) but I also learned something more.

In 16 chapters over 275 pages, Gurmit Singh writes about his early childhood (birth, speaking problem, memory problem, kindergarten, primary school), in which he reveals how his inferiority complex (I would never have guessed, from what I saw on TV) led him to become depressed and harbouring thoughts of suicide when he was only 10 years old.

Due to the financial circumstances at home, he became the youngest jaga (watchman) of a bank when he was 13 (from when he was in Sec 1 till Sec 4). Here, there’s something he writes that I fully agree with: I think everybody should play at least one instrument. Not to show off … but just so you have a place to go to when you want to be alone or just ‘escape’ for a while to get your thoughts collected and to feel calm again. Your instrument will always allow you to go to that place where you can just zone out. And that zone can sometimes be the difference between sanity and all-out war.

When he was in Pre-University, he was shocked to find out during an Economics class that his 40cents-allowance-per-day was not the ‘norm’ as even the teacher didn’t quite believe it when his classmates were getting allowances of up to $20 per day. I was shocked to learn this tit-bit because I had an allowance of 50cents a day (though I’m almost a decade older than Gurmit Singh) and my parents made me believe it was a lot!

I already knew from earlier reports that he didn’t attend University because his ‘A’ level grades were not good enough, but I didn’t know he sat for the exam twice, and that it was Maths that caused his downfall. (So there’s something I have in common -well, almost- because Maths has always been my weakest subject, but at least I managed not to fail and had better grades in other subjects to ‘help’ me.)

I would never have guessed that he was classified as ‘medically unfit’ (PES E, for those who are familiar with the system) when he enlisted for National Service. After all, he has mentioned in many interviews that he was very active in the National Police Cadet Corpts in school. The reason was that he has a LAZY left eye! (Something else I didn’t know but can empathise because I also have something like that.) So he was sent to the Navy Headquarters as a Registry Clerk and then to the Navy Recruitment Centre where he was bored out of his wits. When he auditioned for the Music and Drama Company, and was selected, he felt as though he was going to the New York School of Performing Arts; there, he learnt ballet, jazz ballet, breakdance, tap dance, Malay dance, acting and singing. This would be a turning point for him!

In his recounts of how his career went from being a dancer to TV personality, I had lots of laughs! In between, he also wrote about how his application to the Ministry of Education was rejected (because of Maths again), and his relationship with his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Melissa (to whom he devotes a whole chapter, and more, through the pages throughout the book).

From humble beginnings at the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now Mediacorp), he became a household name. Programmes I remember catching glimpses of include Live on 5, Can I Help You, Gurmit’s World, Gurmit’s small Talk, Tonight with Gurmit, Phua Chu Kang (PCK) and Minute To Win It. PCK was such a huge phenomenon that there was even a movie (which I watched, courtesy of the National Library Board) and a stage performance for the President’s Star Charity. Another movie he had starred in is called One Leg Kicking, which I had also watched (on DVD on loan from NLB) because it also starred Mark Lee and Sharon Aw.

I’ve almost forgotten (because I didn’t follow every episode) the Mandarin drama serial called Baby Boom until it is mentioned that this was the only time he spoke Mandarin. He made great sacrifices and dedication for his craft. I vaguely recall an English drama serial (but never watched a single episode) called Lifeline; I got an insight to the lives of firefighters from a behind-the-scenes section here.

Having hosted the NDP 19 times, and the Countdown Live show on TV for 20 years, Gurmit Singh decided it was enough. Because all these have taken a toll on his health. For a long time now, he has been experiencing fainting spells and epileptic fits. His Blood Pressure is generally low, and doctors advise the best solution is never to be hungry (another piece of useful information for me). Fatherhood has also changed him.

One surprise came almost at the end when he reveals (with a photograph) a tattoo on his back with the names of his wife and children – a permanent part of his life.

In earlier chapters, he has also shared snippets about his parents, their relationship, and how he coped with their illnesses and eventual death.

Besides the fact that there are many details that take courage and conviction to write, I also like his conversational style. There is a lot of humour and wit in his honesty and frankness. Of course, there are also lots of photographs!


The Real Picture

I chanced upon this book at the library earlier this week while looking for books on Music. It is a very thin book, and I thought it would not take more than a couple of hours to read. I was curious about what real drama this King of Caldecott Hill (Li Nanxing) has to reveal, especially with regards to his fairytale marriage to former actress Yang Libing.

There are many photographs accompanying the text, which makes it an even easier read. Published in 2015, I thought it would contain more information about the actor’s early years in the industry. In the first two chapters, he describes how he was born into a large and impoverished family, and had to drop out of school in Secondary 3 at age 13 to work at a provision shop (and later in a paper factory and as a waiter at York Hotel).

When he was 20, he was talent scouted by Mao Wei, drama consultant for Singapore’s television. This changed his life. He is taught courtesy, politeness and humility and encouraged to observe, listen and learn continually, and to always have a sense of confidence. The entertainment industry is an excellent platform for learning, and he perservered with grit, paying particular attention to the veterans in action, especially in articulation and diction.

He shot to fame in three years and was earning $10,000 to $15,000 a month after more than a decade. When there was no new project, he ventured into business, sinking his entire savings of $900,000 into a country club in Sembawang. Then he was sent abroad to star in a show and the business deteriorated. He juggled acting and business and was mentally and physically exhausted. Saddled with a $2 million debt, injuries and misfortunes, he sought respite in alcohol. He is eventually arrested for drink driving and had his driving licence revoked for two years and fined $5,000.

He gambled in his attempts to clear his debts, but sank deeper and deeper. Unshaven and unkempt, he once left a casino $700,000 poorer in about 72 hours. He lost all his friends and his only companions were cigarettes and liquor. Negative media reports circulated around and no sponsors or shows wanted him. Besides a huge debt, his reputation was tarnished. He was shunned. He was in a state of despair.

Then a miracle happened. His life took another turn. He realises that the best and most precious things in life cannot be bought. After almost three decades, he left the television station to join an artiste management company. He is enjoying a simple and carefree life, and remains passionate about acting and film production.

I finished the book in less than two hours, feeling quite disappointed, as much of what he revealed in the book had been reported in the local newspapers. There is no mention at all of his ex-wife. I wonder what she has written in her book (the title of which I cannot recall). And I wonder why the library does not have copies of her book.