Book Review: Every Falling Star

Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland is a young adult memoir that was released into the world this week. It details Lee’s life as a youth in North Korea. The tagline of the book, The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea, was what initially drew me to read the book, and while I think that it met some of my expectations, it left me wanting more.

Book Review: Every Falling StarEvery Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea by Sungju Lee, Susan Elizabeth McClelland
Published by Amulet Books on September 13th 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 336
Format: Ebook
Source: Netgalley
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Every Falling Star, the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience, is the intense memoir of a North Korean boy named Sungju who is forced at age twelve to live on the streets and fend for himself. To survive, Sungju creates a gang and lives by thieving, fighting, begging, and stealing rides on cargo trains. Sungju richly re-creates his scabrous story, depicting what it was like for a boy alone to create a new family with his gang, his “brothers”; to be hungry and to fear arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. This riveting memoir allows young readers to learn about other cultures where freedoms they take for granted do not exist.

I have a weird fascination with creepy, oppressive communities (things like the Holocaust, various cults, Scientologists, certain fundamentalist religions, etc.), so naturally, I bee-lined for a book about extremely secretive North Korea. Every Falling Star begins when the author, Sungju Lee, is in his elementary years and living a relatively happy and comfortable life in Pyongyang, North Korea. When something happens to cause the government to lose their trust in Lee’s father, his family is sent to the impoverished town of Gyeong-seong.

The book describes the heart-breaking details of what happens to Lee when he essentially becomes orphaned as a pre-teen and is forced to survive on his own for four years before he is able to escape to South Korea.

If I could do the book my way, here’s what I’d keep:

1. All the creepy details: It’s hard to remember that this book is real and that this isn’t another dystopian fiction novel. The things that these young North Korean children are taught and the things that they are forced to experience are mind-blowing and horrifying at the same time.

Here’s what I’d change:

1. The endless gang battles. OMG I felt like 80% of this book was about fighting this gang and then taking the train to another village and fighting that gang and then punching this gang’s leader and kicking that gang’s leader. I get that this book is probably targeted at young adult dudes (so they’d probably eat it all up), but as an adult girly, I wanted to fast-forward to get back on track.

2. The abrupt as heck ending. FINALLY he escapes! YAY! It’s amazing and exciting and then it’s over. In maybe two pages? OH MY GOSH this could have been 1/3 of the book. He could have drawn that escape out and made it such a nail-biter, but instead it’s like it was a minor aspect of the story rather than A HUMONGOUS MOST IMPORTANT part of it. I wanted so much more information. Everything seemed to happen so seamlessly (and maybe it really did?) during his escape, and I just wanted there to be more tension.

3. The dialogue. I had two main problems with the dialogue: a) There was too much of it, and b) because there was too much of it, it caused the voices of the boys to be far too mature for their age. Instead of using the dialogue to explain things, I wish Lee had said, “And then we discussed that…” and just summarized the conversation as the narrator. It caused the story to be a little unbelievable at times.

4. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GANG?! He spends almost the entire book with the gang of dudes and then in the epilogue he doesn’t address them! Oh my gosh! What happened to them? Even if he said, “I never saw them again,” it’d be better than nothing at all. I felt so cheated!

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Overall, I think that this book is definitely better suited for a young guy (or a young girl who is really interested in fighting and/or gang stuff), and I think it’s wonderful that this book exists for young readers to learn about a country and lifestyle so different from their own. As an adult reading it, I found that it was just missing too much for me (more political details, more about the intricacies of the escape – probably stuff your average pre-teen/teen would find uninteresting?). I guess I should pick up an adult North Korea memoir!

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Are there any memoirs, auto-biographies, biographies, etc. that you would recommend knowing that I love such creepy, cultish stuff? I’m always up for recommendations! Do you know any good books about North Korea?

This book was generously provided to me by Amulet Books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

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