ESCAPE FROM CAMP  14, by Blaine Harden, is no beach read. It brings to mind a host of qualifiers,  as searing, harrowing, distressing, gut-wrenching. Remarkably, none of these mar the clean, spare copy as it reveals    Shin-Dong Hyuk’s life and subsequent flight from  the North Korean political prison camp where he was born.  More accurately,  Hyuk was bred in Camp 14 to be another slave in the service of the totalitarian regime led by Kim Jon II. Were not Harden a writer with  impeccable journalist  creds, I would have found it impossible to wrap my mind around this particular detail, Call me naïve, but I would like to believe that slave breeding receded into the mists of history. After all that has been published about concentration camps and gulags, I want to believe that they were aberrations and that having learnt about them, we of the global community will see to that this sort of evil can never flourish again. Harden’s book allows yanks my security blanket out of my hands. It jolts me out of my First World citizen’s  comfort zone  and makes me uncomfortable enough to consider certain questions—can I aspire to be my brother’s keeper? Will I remain silent while hunger, torture, and slavery exist? These are not thoughts  take to the beach. Or are they?

I think they are. I think that the least a citizen of the vastly privileged First World can to is to inform herself of what goes on beyond the confines of her village. That is no fun task. For one thing, it makes me question my sense of entitlement to freedom, justice, a roof over my head, four square meals a day. But Harden’s intent is not to induce guilt in well fed, cosseted Americans. I do not his portrayal of Hyuk particularly sympathetic. It is clear, sober and makes no appeals to emotion. Somehow this very refusal to add bathos to the record of many seasons in hell makes this a remarkably credible book. That and a sufficiency of footnotes.

That the per capita income of North Koreans is lower than that of the Sudan, Congo and Laos will never become a burning issue in Tater Hollow. Neither will the fact that tin North Korea, the state controls most of its citizens’ bodily function—there is a quota for excrement to be used as fertiliser and in political prisoner camps unauthorised sexual contact is punishable by death. But then, there the question of torture a Spanish Inquisitor would blush to use. There are amputations, burning and brutal killings of children who happen not to belong to the politically reliable. ”The (ruling Kim) family maintains at least eight country houses…Nearly all of them have movie theaters, baseball courts, and shooting ranges. Several have indoor swimming pools, along with entertainment centers for bowling and roller skating. Satellite pictures show a full size horseracing track, a private train station and a water park. A private yacht which has a fifty-meter pool with water slides…” The Kim  feast on “…beef raised by body guards on a special cattle ranch, and their apples come from an organic orchard where sugar, a rare and costly commodity in the North, is added to the soil to sweeten the fruit.” This while political prisoner are beaten to death for hiding five grains of corn.” Knowing this tends to cast a pall on one’s cozy apathy.

So here is my recommendation–make yourself uncomfortable. Read this book, perhaps not at the beach, but at a place that will allow you to imagine the unimaginable.  Learn of how someone bred to be a slave finds his way to redemption. Ultimately, this is the story of a triumph over  adversity. It is not all hearts and flowers. Hyuk’s struggle to integrate himself in a much freer society continues. He deserves to be known and Harden deserves praise for doing a superb job of telling this story. 

By the way,  Harden  won his journalistic creds at The Washington Post, where he served as as Bureau Chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Currently, he reports for Public Broadcasting Services and contributes to The Economist.


All you need to do to get these free buttons and temporary tattoo is to e-mail your continental USA  postal address to claracastelar@gmail


On July 10th, Viking will be publishing Deborah Harkness’s SHADOW OF NIGHT, the highly-anticipated sequel to her blockbuster debut novel, A Discovery of Witches.  Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont, witch historian and vampire geneticist respectively, have timewalked to 1590s Elizabethan England on their hunt for the magical alchemical manuscript Ashmole 782—its sudden appearance and disappearance has upended the delicately ordered world of magical creatures (witches, vampires, and daemons), threatening to unleash unprecedented metaphysical chaos. SHADOW OF NIGHT has been called “a must-buy” by Library Journal and critics everywhere are making it mandatory summer reading.

In order to receive the temporary tatttoo and buttons picture above, readers in the continental United States may e-mail me their postal addresses. SHADOW OF THE NIGHT is the sequel to   A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, which Amazon is offering in  e-book format as their “Deal of the Day” on June 10th, for just $2.99 on that day


The recipe is simple—take four ounces of George Lucas, add four ounces of Stiehg Larson, blend in a a dash of Tolkien and a pinch of Baudelaire. Stir well et voila, you have Swedish journalist Jan Wallentin’s STRINDBERG STAR. Billed as an international bestseller, this is a ponderous novel indeed. Set in Falun, Sweden, it opens with an excruciatingly laboured account of cave diving during which a diver named Eric Hall, happened upon a dead body clutching an ankh. On the walls of the cave he also finds words alluding to Norse mythology. His discovery earns him a couple of mentions in the local press, but that is all too brief for his taste. Feeling neglected, he pesters university professor Don Titelman, a former psychiatrist turned historian, to discuss his finds.


Titelman, he of the he of the “yidish noz that stuck out from his face like a broken finger”, is a frail man whose childhood summers spent in the company of his Jewish grandmother seem to have shaped his life. Grandma is a SHOAH survivor Nazi doctors experimented upon in Ravensbruck. Hearing about her experiences at the concentration camp and delving into the Nazi paraphernalia she inexplicably keeps nearby, he develops chronic anxiety. It is not puzzling g that he chooses to become a doctor, but it is confusing to leave the interval between summers at his Yidish Bubbe‘s and and adulthood to the reader’s imagination. There seems to be an attempt to explain why he abandons psychiatry—he has a nervous breakdown after an encounter with Neo-Nazis. But Wallentin leaves to many responsibilities to the reader whom he trusts to infer that it the breakdown makes it logical for Titelman to veer from psychiatry onto an academic career in the field of religious symbology.

To imbue the main character with a fatal flaw is part of an age old formula—antiheroes are more lovable than perfect heroes, I suppose. But the flaw with which Wallentin burdens Titelman, is a lalapalooza of a drug addiction that makes eaves the reader wonder just how long can the frail, forty-something Titelman, who hardly ever seems to eat—there is mention of a couple of spartan meals in the entire novel—function.

Titelman moves in a vacuum. He has no friends, other than a sidekick, Eva Strand, he acquires after he becomes a suspect in Eric Hall’s murder. He has a sister, a computer geek conveniently endowed with the gift to hack into banks and railroad accounts. She is, as most of the plot, unsubstantial.

Unsubstantial or not, off trots Titelman, clutching a black bag that contains an astonishing array of controlled substances and that goes with him, literally, to hell and back. Throughout the four hundred and seventy pages of the novel, up Swedish hill, German dale, and the frozen expanse of Antarctica, he unwillingly keeps company with villainous Germans—who might or might not be Nazis– intent in finding the opening to the underworld. So strenuous are his adventures that is that it is no surprise that his gobbling of elf-prescribed Ritalin, Xanax, Clonazepam and other drugs escalates. Does he go into a comma? Certainly not. The reader might, though.