Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories

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On a recent visit to Powell’s Books in Portland, I was perusing the crime/mystery section and Korean author, Young-Ha Kim’s short story collection, Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories, caught my eye. I like to go opposite with my reading seasons, disturbing in the summer, and light-hearted in the winter. You can’t feel too dark when you’re sunbathing with a Mai Tai in one hand and crime novel in the other!

The collection begins with the title story, Diary of a Murderer. This is the longest story in the collection and it was my favorite for its strong narrative voice and intriguing premise. It follows a former serial killer, who has gotten away with his crimes, but now has Alzheimers. He is cognizant enough of his disease to worry that he might accidentally reveal himself, yet far gone enough to be living in a fantasy world, where he believes that his daughter’s new boyfriend is a fellow serial killer. His daughter is also a secret that he keeps, as he adopted the girl when she was a child, kidnapping her after killing her mother. His unreliable memory forces him to walk on egg shells. This serial killer who has caused so many people fear, now fears himself. It’s a great story idea and Kim does a fantastic job at keeping the tension. I felt both disgust and empathy towards the main character. He is a great anti-hero.

The second story in the collection is called, The Origin of Life. This story details a love triangle, where a woman in an abusive relationship manipulates her childhood friend to help her. I felt this was the weakest story in the collection, although Kim’s writing is so skilled, that it still kept my interest.

Missing Child explores the idea of a kidnapped child being returned to his parents after many years. The son is now a preteen and he is not the boy that his parents imagined that he would become. Would he have been like this all along? Or did the nurture part of the upbringing that he had with his kidnapper, over take the nature, the biology from his parents? What happens when your missing child is returned and it is not the happy occasion that you imagined? This story was fascinating and intensely emotional. The lives of the characters are utterly destroyed from one incident. The theme of child abduction is also carried over from Diary of a Murder, making these two stories solid companion pieces.

The last story is The Writer, about a novelist with mental health issues. The novelist is an unreliable narrator who is spiraling out of control, imagining a torrid relationship with the ex-wife of his would-be publisher. This is also a great companion to the title story, as both deal with unreliable narrators and mental health.

Kim is a new-to-me writer discovery. I enjoyed the intensity of his stories and surprising story arcs. He crafts vivid, emotionally wrought characters that I will not soon forget. I highly recommend Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories.

Everything Belongs to Us

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s novel, Everything Belongs to Us, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Set in Seoul, South Korea during the late 70’s, Everything Belongs to Us, is the story of two childhood friends from vastly different economic backgrounds. Jisun, the daughter of a successful business tycoon, is from a privileged family, and lives in a secluded mountainside mansion. Namin lives in a poor village, in a small house without running water, and her parents own a food truck, working sixteen hour days. The girls meet when Namin’s impressive test scores admit her to an elite middle school.

Fast forward to college, both women are attending South Korea’s most prestigious university. Namin’s goal is to become a doctor and her family puts all of their money and energy towards her success, seeing her as their ticket out of their hard life. Jisun’s father would like to groom her to take over his company, but she would rather disavow her wealthy upbringing. Instead, Jisun becomes involved in an activist movement, risking not only embarrassment to her family, but jail. A series of circumstances sets a course that will show each woman, that their situations are tenuous and that desire isn’t always enough.

LIKE– Wow. Just wow. Everything Belongs to Us is a dazzling debut novel that gripped me from the start and didn’t let go. I absolutely could not put it down, and as a consequence, I stayed up far past my bedtime to finish reading it. Wuertz’s strong voice, combined with sympathetic characters and a intriguing plot, kept me glued.

What surprised me the most, was how current the story felt. Admittedly, I know very little about Korea’s history during the 1970’s. However, with the exception of the factory protests (which for all I know could also be happening now), I kept forgetting that this story was set decades ago. I think it’s because the idea of college students focusing on power, social climbing and ambition, transcends decades or cultures. The idea of a lower-class family putting all of their dreams towards their child who could raise their status, is something that still happens; same as a child from a wealthy family who might want to test out a different life from the one in which she was raised. These are themes that transcend.

Power is a key theme of Everything Belongs to Us. The most gut-wrenching use of this theme, comes from Namin, when she learns that her younger brother, who has cerebral-palsy, has been sent away from Seoul, to live with their grandparents in the county. The problem is, the family is ashamed, and does not speak of Namin’s younger brother. She fears that he is dead, until as teenagers, Jisun suggests that Namin make a surprise trip to the countryside, to see if her brother is still alive. He is alive and knowing that her elderly grandparents will not be able to care for him much longer, Namin feels an even stronger pressure to finish school, and have a job where she will have the resources to help him. There is a beautiful scene where she takes him in his wheelchair to the river and as they cool their feet in the water, they dream of the fantasy home that they will one day have. Namin dreams of being wealthy, but not so much for herself, but for the power that it would give her to provide for her family. It’s a desperate and non-negotiable need for her.

In college, the girls meet Sunam, a boy from a middle-class background, who like the girls, is trying to find his place in the world. Sunam becomes Namin’s boyfriend, but their relationship declines when she becomes too busy with school and family obligations. Jisun, who is broken-hearted over an American missionary, turns her attentions to Sunam, beginning an affair with Namin’s boyfriend. Unbeknownst to both girls, Sunam is harboring a secret that would destroy both of his relationships. Wuertz’s plot is full of moral dilemmas and impossible situations. It’s suspenseful and kept me guessing until the very end.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. Everything Belongs to Us is a fabulous debut.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Everything Belongs to Us is set in the 1970’s, but is fresh and modern. Wuertz is a masterful storyteller and I can’t wait to read her follow-up to this magnificent debut. Also, be sure to check out her author website, where she shares pictures of her family, who were inspiration for the characters in Everything Belongs to Us.