sebby_reads's reviews
242 reviews

Violets, by Kyung-sook Shin

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dark emotional sad slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated

4.0

Violets by South Korean writer Kyung-Shook Shin tells a story of Oh San and her lonely and  repressive life. It was originally published in 2001 and has been recently translated into English by Anton Hur. I’ve been wanting to read this for quite some time. Thank you so much Feminist Press for a digital ARC.

The story started with San’s childhood in a village. Since her father abandoned them she had been living with her mother and grandmother. She was also neglected by her mother and she was only accompany by her friend Namae. One day, they had a moment of physical intimacy in a field of minari but afterwards San faced a violent rejection from Namae. Unbeknownst to the situation and her feelings at that time, San struggled to get her friend back but Namae continued to reject her.

Years later while working at a flower shop in Seoul, San became friend with Su-ae, the florist of the shop who later became her roommate. At the shop, she encountered a sexually aggressive businessman, and a photographer who came to take photos of violets for a magazine. After another encounter with the photographer, San developed an obsession with him. Since she left the village San never met Namae again but still wondered about that brief intimate incident from time to time.Scarred by her parents’ abandonment and Namae’s harsh rejection, San was traumatised and didn’t know how to deal with her feelings for the photographer Will she ever feel loved?

What a beautiful and haunting story. Through writer’s captivating and picturesque storytelling, I sauntered through San’s lonely life and found a lot to unpack for. The protagonist was shattered by the trauma of being abandoned since her youth and had been internally battling the repeated rejections of her closet people. She had also repressed her queer desire internally for a long time. The book depicted a society where patriarchy is still strongly presence and talked about domestic abuse and violence against women including sexual harassment, as well. It is a heartbreaking read. Kudos to Anton Hur for yet another eminent translation. Poignant and unforgettable.

Violets will be available on April 12th, 2022. This is my first book by Kyung-Shook Shin and I’ve heard or seen many great reviews of her book, Please Look After Mom which won her 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. I have already put it in my TBR list and can’t wait to read it, too. Anton Hur is longlisted for this year’s International Bookers with two of his translated books, Cursed Bunny and Love in the Big City. I love both books and I would like to read his other translated works, too. This is my second book of #ManseMarch reading. I had very little reading in March but managed to finish this book in the evening of 31st March. Just in the nick of time. 😊

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Cursed Bunny, by Bora Chung

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adventurous dark emotional funny inspiring mysterious relaxing fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated
I recently finished Cursed Bunny by Korean author Bora Chung. It is a collection of short stories with an immaculate blend of science fiction, horror and supernatural phenomena. From the first story to the last one, I was totally blown away. My only regret is I didn’t read it earlier.

The collection comprises ten remarkable short stories and each tells a fascinating story with such evocative narrative. Although these stories give somewhat surreal or folklore-like impressions, they don’t veer off of the reality of deep rooted patriarchy and capitalism in today’s society. Through her unforgettable characters, Chung presented the agony of childhood traumas youths bear and war traumas elders carry to this day. She also infused the consequences of one’s bad deed without overshadowing the story. Subtly and masterfully she wrote these contemporary folk tales.

As I praise Bora Chung for her masterful storytelling, I have to express my appreciation towards the translator Anton Hur for brining impressive articulations in every story. He distinctly portrayed the uniqueness of each story with his fluid translation and I believe he left an impactful touch on me as much as Chung wants her readers to have. The book is longlisted for this year’s International Booker. Very much deserving for both writer and translator.

I really love the titular story Cursed Bunny and I also like the Embodiment, the Frozen Finger, and Goodbye, My Love. The entire book is an enthralling journey, an experience and also a breath of fresh air for me. However, my absolute favourite is the last one, Reunion which has made an indelible impression on me. What an affecting piece. I personally consider it as the capping stone of the book.

I found multiple raving reviews of this book amongst bookstagrammers and also from other reviewers. Expect the unexpected and I guarantee you will be pleased. The blurb itself is pretty much an invitation. “Blurring the lines between magical realism, horror, and science-fiction, Chung uses elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society.”
Strangers on a Pier: Portrait of a Family, by Tash Aw

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informative inspiring lighthearted reflective fast-paced

4.75

“Maybe it isn’t to do with our faces, but with our wish for everyone to be like us. We want the stranger to be one of our own, someone we can understand.”

Strangers on A Pier: Portrait of a Family by Malaysian author Tash Aw is a remarkable book about immigrant people and their generation as well as their longing for the lost past in their life. In less than 100 pages, it tells the writer’s personal story as an immigrant generation, his conversations with his father, and a very touching memoir of his grandmother.
In the first part of the book, Aw talked about his youth as he chatted with his father about the past. Through his family’s intricate history, he discussed the landscape of an immigrant family. Both Aw’s grandfathers were from China and they migrated to Malay Peninsula in the 1920’s. As the ship arrives the destination, there are others like them; strangers in this new land, lost on a pier and have no clue of what to expect next. Survival comes first as it always does for human beings. They work hard for their children and provide the education they never get so that they could be risen up in social class. He also discusses the ideological differences between the immigrant grandparents and their grandchildren.
In second part, Aw recounted his memories of his grandmother and the conversation he had with her. While telling his grandma’s story, he weaves into his personal experiences as a Malaysian Chinese to illustrate the dissimilarity between them but also to showcase their sharing of common attributes. At the same time, the reader gets to learn about the women of her generation and what they were ‘expected’ to be in their time.
Forgotten heritage and lost identity are common when we talk about immigrant family stories. People migrate to a new place for betterment of their lives and their generations’. Adaptability is the key and to be able to fit into a new society, one has to change. During such time, people are sometimes forced to forget the past and their narratives are silenced.
With every difficult choice they made, they shed away a small part of themselves and either a new part replaces or it remains as a void. All those changes may seem insignificant individually but later it become significant and it is too late for you to pick up the pieces you discarded.
Through Aw’s evocative narration, one’s search for their root and root of the root is delivered impeccably in Strangers on A Pier. It is not about one’s desire to dwell in the past nor condemning on the changes one has to make. It is one’s bittersweet yearning for the past that had been forcibly silence. This may be a thin book with only 90 pages however it definitely urges me to think more while reading it and demands to question after finishing the book, as well. Fast but unforgettable read, indeed.
Freedom: How we lose it and how we fight back, by Evan Fowler, Nathan Law

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hopeful informative inspiring reflective medium-paced

4.25

Freedom: How we lose it and how we fight back is written by Nathan Law, one of the student leaders in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement 2014. The book chronicled how he became an activist and his experiences as a politician as well as the threats of authoritarian acts towards HK and countries across the world by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The book is more than Nathan’s involvement in educational and political reforms. It is about Hong Kong’s continuous fight against CCP. After the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong, the political landscape has been changed significantly. Several pro-Beijing groups rooting in HK and taking the important seats. Years later, there were multiple violations of human rights done by HK government directed by CCP. HK’s political system got worsen and Hongkongners’ right for freedom is worryingly deteriorating.

In his book, Nathan emphasised more on the significance of freedom and how we should preserve it before it’s too late. And when it is endangered, why we must voice out and how we should fight for our freedom. He pointed out the rise of totalitarian governments in other countries and the threatening consequences encountered by nations across the globe. He discussed about the importance of rule of law and also to be aware of disinformation and division. He highlighted to believe in people and the power of change so that people can continue the resistance. CCP has fabricated lies that Nathan been funded or trained by the western countries. Leaving Hong Kong for safety isn’t betrayal. Activism works in various forms and regardless of your geographical location, what matters is to continue fighting for the cause you believe in. Works can be done more efficiently in safe and free environment.

This is the third book I read about Hong Kong Protests. Last year, I read Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong, Nathan’s fellow activist and City on Fire by Antony Dapiran. Both books talked about the history of Hong Kong and its unhealthy relationship with CCP and how the protests began. Nathan wrote this book with his friend Evan Fowler, also a Hong Kong native. Since it is about the same events in HK, some similarities can be found in all three books. Regardless, it is an important read as it helps you understand not just about Hong Kong and its sociopolitical issues, also about the rise of authoritarianism and its global threat. Equally, it is insightful and encouraging, as well. Their detailed and personal stories are heart-rending and at the same time, empowering.
_____
Nathan Law was born into a working-class family who were initially from Shenzhen, China. When he was six years old, the family moved to HK where his father worked. He was a moderate student at school and not very involved in politics since the family was apolitical. When he was in secondary school, he learnt about the 1989. Tiananmen Square Massacre. Attending the annual vigil to commemorate the event was his first peaceful resistance. In his university, he joined Student Unions and later became committee member of Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKSF).

Nathan actively involved in 2014 Umbrella Movement and became one of the prominent student leaders fighting for HK’s electoral reform against Beijing Government. In 2016, he and other student leaders founded a new political party Demosistō. At the age of 23, he became the youngest-ever elected person to become a HK legislator. However, he and three other pro-democracy legislators were disqualified from the Legislative Council due to oath taking controversy,. In 2017, Nathan was jailed for his involvement in occupying Civic Square during 2014 protest. Upon his release, he tirelessly fought for the rights and safety for people of HK. When the new security law enacted by Beijing in mid 2020 threatened his life and his party leaders, he fled HK. In April 2021 he announced that he has been granted asylum in the UK. He continued to voice for Hong Kong and the future of Hongkongners.
A Passage North, by Anuk Arudpragasam

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challenging emotional reflective medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

4.25

A Passage North is an exquisite novel from Sri Lankan Tamil novelist Anuk Arudpragasam. The novel recounts the complex thoughts of Krishan as he travels from Colombo to a village in northern Sri Lanka to attend the funeral of Rani, his grandmother’s former caretaker.
Upon receiving the news of Rani’s death, Krishan has been dejected and the email from his ex set him in a great turmoil. As he takes a long train ride to the northern province, he recollects his thoughts on various matters in his life. His grandmother’s deteriorating health and her stubbornness, Rani’s tragic past haunted by the aftermath of the Civil War and her relationship with Krishan’s grandmother as well as his complicated relationship with his former lover, Anjum are cascaded through his recollections along with notable literature works and philosophy.
A Passage North is indeed a collections of Krishan’s introspections and contemplations intertwined with various scars of the country’s civil war left on its survivors. Written in elongated sentences with sophisticated proses, it is equally challenging and mesmerising to read this novel. As there is absolutely no dialogue in entire book, the endless train of thought is never interrupted but when necessary, diverted into a different path eloquently. Most of the time, these thoughts are like a string of magnetic beads linked to one another loosely yet never segregated which perfectly depict the profuse recollections and emotions pass through the mind of the protagonist.
With meticulously refined (and most of the time lyrical) narrative, the writer tackles on trauma and pain, memories and desire, as well as oppression and sexism through the narrator’s relationships with other characters and their background. The voice of Tamil diaspora is heard in a mixture of their struggles, guilts and pains which still remain with them. Throughout the book, the ingenuity of Anuk Arudpragasam’s storytelling can be seen. A very well deserving of 2021 Booker Prize shortlist indeed for this literary masterpiece.

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The White Book, by Han Kang

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dark emotional reflective sad slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

3.75

The White Book, originally written in Korean by novelist Han Kang, is a story of loss and grief told in very aesthetic proses. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018.
The writer bares all about the loss of her sister who died only after a few hours old. She has never met her elder sister. She learnt about her sister through her parents. But the pain she carries, the occasional what-ifs she asked to herself and the loss she feels is immense. In three parts, the book showcases the doleful tragedy. First as an introductory and how her mother lost her first child in one snowy day. In second part, she writes a fictional life of her sister should she have lived. The last part is the borderless area of what is real and what is not.
In this book, Han Kang explores deep and personal philosophical views on life and death. Deborah Smith masterfully translated into English and I get to experience the narrator’s lament through very poetic proses. To portray the tormenting sorrow the writer craftily uses various white items found both in nature and in man made things as reference in accordance with her story such as snow, moon, sleet, rice cake, candle, breast milk, swaddling bands, etc.
This is very different from her other two books I had read, The Vegetarian and Human Acts. Both are unique in their own way and agonising to read. Here in the White Book, there is no prominent plot but filled with multiple parts of one to two pages of lyrical writings. Is this book a fictional story or poetry or essay? We can’t possibly categorise it into any of the genres, actually as the narrative itself is foggy but in a beautiful way. One thing for sure is that all these small chapters have the ability touch me deeply.

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Love in the Big City, by Sang Young Park

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emotional lighthearted reflective sad fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

3.75

“Rain still falls during the late rainy season, as do tears even when it’s too late.”

Love in the Big City is narrated by ‘Young’, an aspiring writer living in Seoul, South Korea. It is a poignant novel depicting current day’s love life of a queer person—vibrant as well as drab and grey at times. This is a debut novel by the novelist Sang Young Park and translated into English by Anton Hur.
The writer tells the protagonist’s life story in four parts. In part 1, Young narrated his youth and his best friend, Jaehee. Spent their early adulthood fearlessly with booze and hookups. Together, they took care of each other and regardless of the situations they were in, she was his rock and he hers. Part 2 is about Young’s relationship with his lover 12 years older than him. Young was “out” within his circle of friends whereas his partner was closeted. Due to several differences, their love journey was quite bumpy. Despite all the red flags that keep popping here and there, Young loved him painfully. The writer also introduced Young’s thorny relationship with his ailing mother whom he had to take care of because of her recurrent cancer. The title of part 3 is eponymous and it befittingly tells how Young met Gyu-ho, the love of his life. Their relationship looked enchanting but it was seen through rose-colored glasses. Young being HIV positive put some drawbacks in their relationship, not just in sex, but also in career opportunities. In final part, Young talked about his encounter with an older man he met on Tinder and his continuous yearning for Gyu-ho. He keeps revisiting his memories with Gyu-ho as he continues his life.
This is one of the four books I purchased from @tiltedaxispress last year and first one to read. To be frank, we are familiar with such curves in a love story. You had a dear friend very close to you in your youth and one day you two grew apart. You fell in love with someone so hard and the breakup with that person turned you into a bitter and unbothered person. You didn’t take love seriously cause you’d been hurt until someone walked into your life and thawed your cold heart. Then for some unfathomable reasons, it didn’t work for you two. You recollect the memories of your loved one as your life goes on. We’ve read in books and seen in films or even experienced on our own.
Why is this different then? The writer sets a brilliant tone that portray the love life by today’s youths. It also highlight Asian queer community and how it is different from what we usually see or read in western queer literature. The ideological differences and varying social acceptance factors amongst different generations as well as cultures can be seen in this book. The narrative is crisp and emphatic though at some points, it is quite sentimentalized. The eloquent translation by Anton Hur provides an articulate account of the experiences and emotions of the characters. Quick and enjoyable read actually.
Heart wrenching events that queer people have to endure—acceptance from friend and family, struggles in workplace and for employment, and last but not least pain caused by the loved ones—are rendered immaculately. While same sex sexual activity is legal in South Korea, marriage or other forms of legal partnership hasn’t been granted recognition. Through various characters, Sang Young Park tells the sociopolitical conditions of queer community in today’s Seoul. Still orthodox within the society and discriminative by the laws, it is in fact an important story. Discrimination towards queer people, including the self imposed one due to conservatism, is an important and insidious issue. If it can’t be eradicated, will love in the big cities (and small cities, too) survive?

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Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring: Witness poems and essays from Burma/Myanmar (1988-2021), by ko ko thett, Brian Haman

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challenging dark emotional informative inspiring reflective sad medium-paced

4.75

To commemorate the one-year anniversary of 2021 Burmese Revolution, Ethos Books published ‘Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring:Witness poems & essays from Burma/Myanmar 1988-2021’ to share the voices of Burmese people and their fight against Tatmadaw (the military junta). The e-book is free to download internationally on Ethos Books’ website. Thanks a lot to Ethos Books for providing me an e-ARC of this book.
Two editors, Ko Ko Thett (Burmese poet & literary translator) and Brian Haman (researcher & writer), compiled the writing of poets and writers from various ethnic groups and backgrounds. Some are written in English and some are translated from Burmese. This anthology features a variety of voices including prominent contemporary authors and activists. Organized in reverse chronological order, the contents showcase the regime’s oppression towards the citizen for generations. First section comprises poems and essays on 2021 revolution and it fills the half of the book. The second section covers the writing from 2010 to 2020 whereas the final section includes the content from 1988 to 2010. Rather than labelling as ‘resistance’ writing, the editors used the term ‘witness poems and essays’ as it is more subjective and has no political agenda manifestation.
The anthology is sharp and multifaceted. It includes the events in early days of revolutions such as various forms of nationwide protests, personal account on fleeing one’s own home to refuge camp, stories and tributes to our fallen heroes as well as about the courageous people who stood up for the injustice. The transformation of the revolution can be studied in a few essays, too. Some of writers and poets in the book were tortured or shot to dead by the junta. Some have been sentenced to multiple years in prison. Some entered the jungle and joined the ethnic armed organisations to fight the regime. Some have to flee the country for safety.
I received the ARC in early January and honestly, it was not an easy read as it hit so close to home. I have a chest full of emotions jumbled together. I feel enraged and dejected in some parts cause the poems and essays are very graphic. These are our wounds. Some are my own bruise, some are my friends’ and all are our people’s wounds endured for many years. I had to take several breaks while reading it, sometimes hours and at times, days. Equivalently, I get encouraged by the empowering stories of the people who are resolute and unswerving in this fight. Yes, our wounds are still fresh and they have barely healed. Reading this book is like picking off the scabs unconsciously which makes the wounds fresh again. But I am also reminded to keep resisting the injustice and involve in this revolution.
Title of this book is a slight resemblance to a quote from the Nobel prize winning poet Pablo Neruda—“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Spring has always been a symbol of hope. It is the return of warm sunbeams after long cold winter nights. Though people’s spirit can be obscured for certain amount of time but it can never be broken over the long run. We shall keep fighting the darkness with the light within us.
So, for fellow Burmese people and those who have experienced abuse and oppression, please beware of graphic and violent contents. Take a break if necessary. What important for us as the readers is what we take from our read. This book exhibits our collective traumas and I hope to overcome them collectively, as well. Many of us took our fragile democracy for granted. It is a valid reminder that a “learning experience” for us could come at the expense of the feelings and lives of our own. Last, but never the least, our revolution must prevail.

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The Memory Police, by Yōko Ogawa

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dark emotional mysterious sad tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated

3.75

The Memory Police by a Japanese novelist Yōko Ogawa was written in 1994. It is a compelling story of a dystopian place on an unnamed island where things, both man-made and from nature, are disappearing. The book was the finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature and the 2020 International Booker Prize.
On the island, one by one, things like hats, ribbons, photographs, perfume, birds, and roses cease to exist one day and soon people forget about their existence. A few people who have the ability to remember these lost items are hunt down by the Memory Police to make sure these vanishing things are completely wiped out physically and in memory. People who remember also become disappearing. Some are arrested by the Police and never heard about them again. Some hide in safe houses of their acquaintances and some escape from the island.
The protagonist is a novelist who lost her parents when she was young. Like majority of the people, she also forgets things after their disappearance. She can barely recall her memory with her mother who has the ability to remember the lost objects. She has very little acquaintances—her editor and an old man she knowns since childhood. When she finds out her editor also has the ability remember the lost things, she decides to hide him in her house with the help of the old man. As the story continues, more things vanish. The struggles our narrator endures to the loss of things around her under the surveillance of draconian laws are depicted remarkably.
In 2019, an immaculate translation by Stephen Snyder was published. It effortlessly carries the cadence of original story. Simply put, it is an Orwellian novel but with an essence of hypnotic narration. People are forced to get rid of the things that are supposed to be gone and the Police wants them to eradicate the existence even in our memory. In a way, our memories are our voices and having memory itself is a crime in this story. The event of each disappearance was told beautifully with such subtlety. The collective traumas of fear and loss of a person living in a dystopian world is told in a cinematic narrative.
The tragic differences between ones who can remember and those who can’t (but fight to the authority to an extent) are portrayed and it is painful to read how they try to console one another under the totalitarian tyranny. In some chapters, the writer includes some parts of a novel that the narrator is working on. She writes about a character who has lost her voice in the story, drawing parallels between her world and the character she created. Writing a novel is another way of preserving the things that are lost or protecting one’s memory.
The theme of this speculative fiction is people’s attempt to preserve the past with the power they have. We all battle with losing valuable things and people we cherish around us as well as our own existence. Creating art (taking photograph, writing stories, painting, sculpture, etc) is our way of keeping memories as well as our resistance towards the authority. It is such a provocative read and very surreal, too.
Almond, by Sohn Won-pyung

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emotional hopeful inspiring reflective sad tense fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated

4.0

“I was just unlucky. Luck plays a huge part in all the unfairness of the world. Even more than you’d expect.”

Almond is a debut novel by South Korean novelist Won-Pyung Sohn. Set in contemporary time in Seoul, it is a coming of age story of Yunjae who was born with Alexithymia, a brain condition which makes him difficult to identify and express emotions.

The amygdalas, the almond-shape set of neurons located in Yunjae's brain, are small and not seem to be growing. Because of his inability to show emotion, he doesn't have friends at school. He lives with his mother and grandmother in a house attached with a bookstore. Yunjae's mother made post-it notes and pictures to teach him about human expressions and how to response in standard situations so that he could fit in into everyday's situations and not get picked on. While Yunjae is going out with his mother and grandma on his 16th birthday, a random person in the street gets violent and forces him to live on his own.

Gon, a troubled teenager transferred to Yunjae's school. Due to the complicated relationship with his father, Gon lashes out at everything. He's more annoyed by Yunjae's unbothered reactions so he bullies him. Yunjae still feels pain but he just can't display and it gets more intense. Gon wants to be strong and believes being unemotional is strength. Later, curious about Yunjae's emotionlessness, he attempts to befriend with him outside the school. With no one to teach him about new emotions, Yunjae also accepts Gon and tries to understand him. When they begin to get along with each other, one small incident leads to another and threatens the lives of both boys.

My absolute favourite part of this novel is collocation of two different characters each having their own contradicting characteristics. Yunjae can be emotionless in appearance but he is very articulate when it comes to expressing his opinions. On the other hand, Gon who has intense emotions and easily bursts out with anger frequently is poor in expressive conversations. The juxtaposition of these two characters fascinates me the most in the entire story.

The book is translated from Korean to English by Joosun Lee. It allows the reader traverses in the theme of family, friendship, loss, and compassion. In simple and crisp narrative, the writer delivers the protagonist's life accurately. However, it seems to be a bit unconvincing in certain parts when it is to illustrate the growth of Yunjae's character. The statements or incidents aren't cogent enough, I suppose. Unsure if it is the translation or the original writing. Nonetheless, it is a very heartwarming and soul stirring read. Those who loves books like Wonder and the Perks of Being a Wallflower might enjoy this book, as well.

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