Book Review: the Girl with Seven Names: Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.

The Girl with Seven Names – Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.

Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).

Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.

She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.

In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.

The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.

The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.

She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.

The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.

But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.

Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.

So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.

Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).

Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.

As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.

After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.

Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.

It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”

These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.

SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.

Penty-Lowarth – Delightful Holiday Cottage for Two Set in Lush Gardens in Cornwall

Set in a central position in Cornwall, close to St Columb Major, you may find Penty-Lowarth, whose name means garden cottage.

Penty-Lowarth holiday cottage at St Columb Major, Cornwall

We have just returned from a very enjoyable stay there and it’s perfectly located for access to many of Cornwall’s major tourist attractions: The Eden Project, St Michael’s Mount, Lost Gardens of Heligan, Tintagel, Port Isaac and Padstow, and many others. The Screech Owl Sanctuary is close by, as is the National Trust property Trerice, and of course for beach-lovers you would be hard put to find lovelier beaches than those at Mawgan Port and Watergate Bay.

The cottage itself is set in lush gardens as you’ll see below.

Gardens surrounding Penty-Lowarth holiday cottage in Cornwall

You may want to wander round to the koi carp pond: the fish are very friendly and will rise out of the water to greet you – with their mouths wide open of course.

Koi carp pond near Penty-Lowarth holiday cottage, Cornwall

Passionate about surfing? Then you’ll find Polzeath’s fabulous surfing beach a twenty minutes drive away. St Austell on the south coast and Newquay on the north coast are both equally accessible.

Penty-Lowarth is beautifully decorated by the present owners, David and Caroline, and something I particularly appreciate in a holiday house or cottage is the thoughtful provision of storage space, with every attention paid to small details. If you follow the link here to the full details of the cottage you will find photos showing you how stylish the interior of the cottage is.

Outside seating rea at Penty-Lowarth holiday cottage, Cornwall

When you arrive you’ll find Cornish coffee, half a dozen eggs, tea, milk, a packet of Cornish fairings and a bottle of wine waiting to welcome you. Full provision is made for dog-owners too, with a dog bed, blankets and bowls all provided.

The cottage is ideal for couples. Do check out Penty-Lowarth if you’re considering a holiday in Cornwall.

SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction

The Tube Station – Fresh and Imaginative Worship Space above the Surfing Beach at Polzeath, Cornwall

I’ve just visited this creative worship space in Polzeath and was delighted with the vibrant atmosphere and décor.

The Tube Station Polzeath

Working in partnership with the Methodist Church, the Tube Station has a café, an indoor skate ramp, an art gallery, a chill-out space for surfers and all beach-users, a worship venue, and much more.

When I visited one September Sunday morning, the place was packed, with standing room only at the back.

Café Bar in the Tube Station Polzeath

A brilliant speaker, Jude Levermore, who is the Head of Mission for the Methodist Church, gave an engaging talk about “our NHS stories” and how many of us have stories to tell about how the NHS saved us. And so do we have stories to tell about how the grace of God has transformed our lives. An interesting thought: everything the Good Samaritan does for the injured traveller in Jesus’ parable “The Good Samaritan” is now done for us by the NHS – and we expect it too.

Surfboards James and Judas at the Tube Station Polzeath

And her second message was “God wants to use us even though…” then fill in with all your weaknesses and excuses and reasons why you hang back and think you’re not worthy or good enough and don’t believe in yourself. She herself said God wanted to use her as the Head of Mission for the Methodist Church EVEN THOUGH she is a woman, she’s divorced, she isn’t ordained.

I particularly loved the surfboards up on the ceiling, each with a disciple’s name on it. And I noted that Judas Iscariot is there too. Judas is a name that means betrayer to many. And yet I believe Judas was ultimately forgiven and redeemed and saved too. EVEN THOUGH…

I do recommend you experience the Tube Station if you are ever in Polzeath, and especially if you’re there on a Sunday morning.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction & non-fiction

My new book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020.

Remembering Binna Burra Lodge, Glorious Mountain Eyrie in Queensland, Australia, Destroyed by Fire, September 2019

In South East Queensland, Australia, high in the mountain ranges that rise up behind Surfers Paradise, forming the Gold Coast hinterland, you will reach the small town of Canungra. And there you will find the road to Binna Burra.

Photos taken at Binna Burra, in the Lamington National Park, Gold Coast hinterland, South East Queensland, Australia

At the end of the road is Binna Burra Lodge, set in lush rainforest, high in the glorious mountain ranges of the Lamington National Park. Or at least, you could find it until 7th September 2019 when raging bushfires burned all the cabins and buildings to the ground, felling massive rainforest trees and sending them crashing down across the only road to the site, preventing firefighters from reaching the grounds of the lodge.

Rich with wildlife this rainforest eyrie is a paradise location I visited at least four times during the few years I spent living in Australia 1985-1990, and then visited again when I returned to Australia in 2007 – and was planning to visit again in November 2019. But everyone had to evacuate the site in the face of encroaching fire on Friday 6th September.

The first time I visited Binna Burra on my own, I was delighted with the warm welcome, the conviviality with others who had also come alone, the joyful meals together in the Lodge, the immensely knowledgable tour guide whom I dubbed ‘Peter the Rainforest Host’, the walks through the rainforest, the many magical discoveries and the sublime views.

Binna Burra has special memories for me. Birdsong echoes from peak to peak, the blue haze of eucalyptus vapour often veils the richly forested slopes, and the lure of the Coomera Falls on the 22 kilometre Coomera Circuit awaits keen bushwalkers who love majestic views from rocky outcrops.

I remember feeling as if I was in another dimension up at Binna Burra, the atmosphere so rarefied, the air wine-sweet, a magical presence separate from the world. Here it was I had one of the few mystical experiences of my life.

Another with memories of the Lodge, Cecilia O’Grady, who worked there 1982-1986, said: “I feel quite emotional thinking about it, the history of the place. It’s very spiritual. It’s beautiful.”

The cycle of life in Australia, well known to the aborigines, involves controlled burn-offs. The periodic apparent cataclysm of fire turns the fertile landscape into a devastated waste of blackened stumps, where you would think all life had been eliminated. And yet life returns. The rains come, the green shoots spring up, and the fertile land renews itself.

But for Binna Burra fire is unknown. It is a lush, green, wet environment normally resistant to such fire. “It’s a rainforest, it’s a lush wet green place, how can it be burning?” said Professor Darryl Jones, Griffith University ecologist.

It is impossible to look anywhere else other than climate change for the reasons behind this tragedy. Nevertheless I hope that the rainforest will demonstrate once again its miraculous power for the renewal of life, and I have faith in the restoration of this glorious mountain top eyrie with the construction of a new lodge and accommodation.

I’ve previously written on this blog about Binna Burra: read it here. Also I’ve written about another rainforest lodge in Lamington National Park, OReilly’s, which you may read here.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery

fiction and non-fiction

My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing in 15th June 2020

Book Review: “The Power of Seven” by Emily Owen

A book of faith and courage, which the author structures around seven biblical themes: Creation, God Is, The Lord is My Shepherd, I Am, Echoes From the Cross, Add to Faith and Revelation Churches. Under each theme, Emily Owen arranges her thoughts and reflections in 7 parts.

In a poetic style which appears deceptively simple at first, the author intersperses autobiographical fragments and anecdotes, with reflection, prayers, and quotes from the Bible in a beguiling conversation with God.

Through this we clearly see the source of the author’s strength through her own challenging life circumstances. Diagnosed with neurofibromatosis at age 16, she then underwent numerous operations which left her deaf at the age of 21. Emily Owen’s gift in using her own personal story is that she reaches beyond her individual situation to reach a place where the reader can identify with what she writes and claim her insights for their own lives.

The author’s tone is gentle and reflective, and ultimately she has created a poignant, beautiful, uplifting book, in a world which stands more than ever in need of the power of contemplative prayer. Authentic and profound, “The Power of Seven” draws you in, showing how painful life experiences can bear a rich harvest of illumination and hope.

SC Skillman

psychological, mystery, paranormal

fiction and non-fiction

Book Review: ‘Lifelines’ by Andy Croft and Mike Pilavachi

I stood in a queue of those waiting to have this book signed by Andy Croft, at the CRT (Christian Resources Together retreat) several months ago.

I remember Andy asked me about my interest in being at the conference and I told him I too was a writer. He asked me about what I write and when I said fiction (psychological suspense / paranormal thrillers) he said, “Oh they sound much more interesting than my book.”

Well, having confessed that I left it several months before finally getting round to reading ‘Lifelines’ by Andy Croft and Mike Pilavachi, I can now confirm that it is superb: funny, interesting and challenging.

The two authors take us through some of the great biblical heroes: Joseph (of technicolour dreamcoat fame); Elijah (who beat the 400 prophets of Baal in a fantastic challenge as to whose god could call down fire from heaven); Ruth (who chose to go forward into a new and very different culture, to support her bereaved mother-in-law Naomi, and who then met Boaz); Daniel (captured with his friends and taken to Babylon where he eventually became famous to us for his survival of the Lions’ Den and the Fiery Furnace); and David – great King and Psalmist, formerly the lowest of the low as a shepherd boy, famous to many for his showdown wth Goliath).

We also hear of John (the Beloved Disciple, and writer of letters, a gospel, and the book of Revelations); and Mary of Bethany, who scandalised everyone by pouring perfume worth thousands of pounds in today’s money, onto Jesus’ feet at a dinner party in her home.

Interspersed with tales from contemporary life and plenty of anecdotes we can relate to and identify with, this book moves along at a sparkling pace.

The two authors, with their own colourful personalities, demonstrate their ability to relate the circumstances of those heroes to our own situations, translating from a very different culture into ours, in a breathtaking display of what we know as ‘dynamic equivalence.’

The stories surrounding these heroes are among the most outstanding, captivating and dramatic in the history of story-telling. They abound with human interest, transferable messages that are sharply relevant to us in our culture, and the most stunning imagery that burns them upon our imaginations.

These heroes genuinely are people who stand out – for courage, personal commitment, self-sacrificial giving and love – all of them through various human weaknesses. In every way these people are heroes not only for their times but for ours to us today, right where we are, in this culture that pays homage to individualism, freedom of expression, and the vital importance of being independent and somehow ‘true to ourselves’.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery

fiction and non-fiction

Book Review: ‘Less Than Ordinary’ by Nicki Copeland

Less than Ordinary‘, published by Instant Apostle, is a non-fiction inspirational self-help book, an account of one woman’s journey from low self-esteem and negative self-limiting beliefs to a place of wholeness where she is able to blossom, nurture her relationships, rejoice in her own inherent worth, and offer her gifts to the world.

A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: As we let our own lights shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.

During the early part of the book, as I read Nicki’s story, I found myself wondering where all these ideas about herself had come from. What messages was she given when she was a young child? But later I thought that maybe the people who gave her those messages had no idea they were doing something so destructive; perhaps no such intention lay behind their words.

And then I realised I was identifying with some of her experiences, and I recognised the mindset. It may be that cultural presumptions about the role of women have something to do with it – even in our society, male/female equality still has a long way to go – but I also know there are men who feel as Nicki describes in these pages.

On a lighter note, I might mention that PG Wodehouse’s novels are full of young men browbeaten by domineering aunts and other authority figures, who are too shy and timid to express their true feelings, or be assertive. Light or not, the issues Nicki shares with us are not just a female thing.

What interested me in the book was Nicki’s description of how she came out of all this. She says that she ‘gradually began to consider…’ or ‘it occurred to’ her that… or she ‘slowly realised….’

For me the process was the same. Observation of people and experience of life eventually teaches you a stunning truth: that many of those who appear confident are not, underneath; that probably the majority of people shrink from meeting strangers; and that, in fact, when we humans seek to achieve our goals, we seem to be hard-wired to take what Robert McKee describes, in his book Story, ‘the most conservative action first.’

In Story, McKee points out that when constructing a plot, the author sets the main protagonist a challenge to overcome, a goal to achieve. Then the protagonist considers how to get what they want. And they always take the most conservative action first. In other words, they expend the least amount of energy to get what they want. This seems a rule of human nature and in the natural world too.

And if that works, good. But if it doesn’t – then you’ve got to spend a bit more energy, exercise more ingenuity, and do something a bit less conservative. And so on, until only the most extreme measures will do. It’s often only when people are pushed to the limit that they conquer great challenges.

So we can apply this rule of life to what Nicki says in her book Less Than Ordinary. All her early presumptions about herself were utterly false; and when the truth of human nature and behaviour finally broke in on her, she threw those false ideas away and she let her light shine.

I do believe there is great value for us when an author describes this process as well as Nicki does. If you feel this book sounds like one that would speak to you, I’d recommend reading it and pausing every once in a while to think about it, as you go through Nicki’s story.

Courage doesn’t consist of being naturally ‘confident’, and having high self-esteem written into your DNA and grasping challenges eagerly.

Courage is all about those who go on a long journey from out of a dark place, and discover the truth through life experience, then change in the light of it using the new knowledge to transform their lives.

SC Skillman

psychological, mystery, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

Book Review: ‘Half a World Away’ by Mike Gayle

Book cover: Half a World Away by Mike Gayle

This is a profoundly moving novel set in our contemporary society, which works on so many levels, intimate, insightful and also demonstrating panoramic vision.

In ‘Half a World Away’ Mike Gayle takes as his subject those children who are born into deeply dysfunctional situations in the UK, and thus come to the attention of the social services. Setting his story in London, he tells us of Kerry, a cleaner, and of her half-brother Noah, a barrister, who were separated when Kerry was 10 and Noah (formerly known as Jason) was two.

The story is on one level a very moving portrayal of the different destinies lived out by those who are adopted by a loving family, and those who go into care. On another level the story explores family relationships with discernment, sensitivity, compassion and a sharply observant eye. Then the novel works as an insightful account of how fate and chance and small decisions and choices interact in our lives leading to huge consequences.

As I read the book I was reminded in part of ‘The Love Story of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ by Rachel Joyce. This is a book of which you may say, “I had to put it down” because it was so highly emotionally engaging. At such times the reader may feel the need to take a rest from it, for that reasons. Some of it is painfully acute in its depiction of the most heartrending circumstances. And in addition to that, Mike Gayle’s observation of human behaviour, from the most callous and selfish – and no less tragic for that – through to the most kind, compassionate and caring, is of the highest order.

A brilliant book, which I may recommend to all – and to those personally involved in issues of adoption and social care, though some may find it almost too painful to read, it is so finely and accurately observed.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery

fiction and non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

My next book Paranormal Warwickshire will be published by Amberley Publishing in June 2020.

Book Review: ‘An Eagle in the Snow’ by Michael Morpurgo

‘An Eagle in the Snow’ by Michael Morpurgo

Set in the second World War, this story is appealing in its simplicity yet powerful in its implications. A young boy and his mother are on a train bound for the countryside, away from their London home which has been destroyed in a bombing raid.

During their journey they meet an unassuming stranger to whom they might never have spoken – if it wasn’t for the fact that their train is threatened by German fighters, and they stop in a dark tunnel, and he begins to tell them a story to comfort them all in the darkness, by the light of the few matches he possesses.

On one level this is a story of “What ifs” and “If onlys”. It has emerged from a real story, of a British war hero who may have saved Hitler’s life during the First World War – thus leaving him alive and free to make the choices he did, and to wreak havoc upon the world during the 1930s and 1940s.

And yet the real story itself may not be accurate. Hitler apparently identified the British hero who spared his life, from a painting which he kept in his study. And yet, even that knowledge of the mercy shown to him did not hold Hitler back from his own massive betrayals and merciless actions in the future.

The story Michael Morpurgo tells will help young readers to engage imaginatively with some of the events and larger issues of the two World Wars – and despite the tragedy and huge moral dilemmas the story poses, goodness and humanity does shine through.

Book Review: ‘Reparation’ by Gaby Koppel

I first heard of this book via my local independent bookshop Warwick Books, and planned to go to an evening with Gaby Koppel, to hear her talking about ‘Reparation‘.

The subject of the book – a young Jewish woman’s research into her mother’s past as a survivor of Nazi persecution during World War II – immediately appealed to me, but in the end I wasn’t able to get to that evening. Instead I ordered the book later, and now having read it, how I wish I had been there to see Gaby Koppel and hear her talk about her inspiration for the novel. When you’ve finished reading a novel, that’s when you are hungry to find out details about the author’s personal biography.

This is one of those books which will surely increase your knowledge in a number of areas, not least insights into how Hungary is currently addressing its baleful wartime past, and a vivid description of the fiercely insular life of the Hasidic Jewish community in Stamford Hill, in London; and indeed into how a modern Jewish person with no religious belief feels.

Alongside that, it is a heartfelt and passionate exploration of a mother daughter relationship. And the book helps you to understand wherein Jewish identity lies. It is undoubtedly based on the author’s real life experience of her Hungarian mother and her German father. And the main protagonist, Elizabeth, works in TV production just as Gaby does in real life.

As I began the story, for some time I found the first person narrator’s attitude to her mother Aranca very judgmental and sardonic, expressed in waspish style. Then gradually I began to see how Elizabeth had developed this attitude, and to understand the pressure on her of her mother’s volatile and temperamental behaviour and alcoholic episodes.

As my reading of the novel progressed I liked Elizabeth more and more, with her sharp and sassy wit, and her habit of always saying exactly what she thinks. She is a character who never wears a mask, and I often felt myself identifying with her thoughts and feelings.

As for Aranca herself, known always as Mutti to Elizabeth, she comes over as very challenging and exasperating, but the more we understand what she has suffered in the past, the more we empathise with her. And I was captivated not only by her quest to seek reparation from the Hungarian government for her past losses, but also by Elizabeth’s accounts of her relationships with Dave and with Jon, and by her exploration of how being Jewish profoundly affects every area of life.

I was fascinated by what we learn in the story about the Jews, about their feelings, beliefs and attitudes, and in particular about the Hasidic Jewish community. Reading this book opens up the lives of others to us, and I believe stories like this teach us to respect and accept our differences, and the various ways in which people seek to express their identity.

Highly recommended.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery

fiction and non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

My next book Paranormal Warwickshire will be published by Amberley Publishing in June 2020