ARC/Book Review: Every Falling Star – Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland


Title: Every Falling Star (2016)
Author: Sungju Lee, Susan Elizabeth McClelland
Genre: Young Adult, Non-Fiction
Extent: 336 pages
Release Date: September 13, 2016
Rating: ★★★★☆

Goodreads Description

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.


Anyone who has seen my non-fiction TTT post knows that I love memoirs and I have a special interest in all things North Korea, so it should be no surprise that the first non-fiction book I review for this blog ends up being a North Korean memoir written specifically for the YA audience!

Now, I’ve read several other books on North Korea – Nothing to Envy, The Girl with Seven Names, Somewhere Inside – but I think this one is a great one to start with, as it has background information those other books may not. I went into these aforementioned books with prior knowledge because I did my own research, but you really don’t need to do any sort of research with this one — just start reading it. 🙂

North Korea is indeed a Hermit Kingdom: a true-to-life dystopian nation.

The blurb of Every Falling Star says that it’s ‘the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience’, but having read a couple of other similarly themed memoirs before, I have to say that I didn’t specifically get that sense. I believe that YA audiences will enjoy this book, but I also believe that they will enjoy other memoirs just as much. Perhaps it’s the first book to be marketed specifically to a young audience, but otherwise I didn’t notice any real difference between this and other North Korea memoirs written for a presumably adult audience.

Anyway, this memoir is the story of Sungju Lee, who was born into a somewhat well-to-do family but had to leave his life of comfort at the age of 12 years old. The bulk of the story covers the four years he spent on the streets — fending off for himself on the streets, meeting other boys who have similar backgrounds, forming a gang with them, ‘conquering’ other poverty-stricken towns.

This memoir is also about the emotional upheaval Sungju went through ever since he was very little: how his mum pinched him so he would cry when Kim Il-Sung, the ‘Eternal Leader’ passed away and all he felt was emptiness; the confusion when his family was ‘transferred’ to the poorer areas of North Korea; the grief from losing his parents; the loss of his faith in the government…

Morality is a great song a person sings when he or she has never been hungry. You can walk the noble road, Sungju. But if you die because of it, nobody will remember you were a noble person. Just a fool. Our enemy is death now.

Reading this book filled me with dread, though I think it’s important to note that all the North Korean books I’ve read filled me with the same dread. The physical and emotional trials and tribulations that Sungju and his gang went through were so terrifying that even though I’ve read similar stories before, this one also left an impact on me. Personally speaking, though, I do believe that these books will keep leaving an impact on me just because it’s such a horrible way to live and it’s still happening.

I would recommend Every Falling Star to just about everyone — people who have read similar stories before, people who are complete newbies to the situation, people who don’t usually read non-fiction, people who do. Sungju’s story is incredibly mesmerising, incredibly powerful, and incredibly important. The book provides a brief history of North Korea before the memoir actually starts, and there’s a glossary at the end for Korean terms used throughout, so it makes reading it (and educating yourself) very easy. Sungju himself is a success story, but there are countless others in his shoes that never escaped and very likely are still going through the things portrayed in this book.

Our families — our pasts — feel like they never existed. We’re little more than animals now. […] Everyone has abandoned us. Everything has been taken away from us, except hope. You taught me that we can only give hope away. No one can take it. And you also taught me that hope is what makes us human. That, and love.

I highly encourage buying this book as a portion of the proceeds of this book are being donated to the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights to help north Korean refugees in China. Alternatively, you can also read more about the situation and donate directly to the organisation here.

* I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This in no way swayed my opinion of the book.

32 thoughts on “ARC/Book Review: Every Falling Star – Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland

  1. This is one I will definitely read. I already told my mom and she wants to read it, too. There’s so little info on what’s going on over there that it’s scary. People are starving. People are trapped. It IS a true dystopia. And it’s good to see people writing books that shed light on North Koreans and their plight.
    Good choice, and good review! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


  2. I’m not a huge fan of non-fiction, but maybe I’m just saying that because I haven’t read enough to really fall in love with these kind of books. I’m more used to fiction, and getting lost in the story. Reading that book, and that hard story, would probably give me the chills and make me want to move to Mars or something, haha. BUT I think these kind of books are so important, and it’s great to see them marketed for the young adult audience just as well, because we all need to be aware of what’s happening in the world. Great review, Reg! 🙂


    • I actually don’t read that much non-fiction as well but I LOVE memoirs that tell of unique experiences (i.e. the one I read very recently is from a Bachelor winner). It is much easier to lose yourself in fiction, though, and when your characters are going through something bad you’re like “eh, it’s fiction, MORE PLEASE”. With non-fiction it’s obviously a bit different. 😛

      Thanks, Marie! I definitely think this is an important book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I’m really excited for this book. I haven’t read anything about North Korea before and I want to learn more about it so this seems like a good book to start with.
    Great review!


  4. Great review Reg! This sounds like a really interesting book and, despite not having picked up any memoirs or non-fiction books before, I’ll definitely give this one a try. The fact that you’ve recommended it to everyone, including newbies, and that it’s written for a YA audience means it’ll probably be a good one to start off with.
    It sounds like it will be a heavy book in some places, but like you said it’s important books like this are still being published because there are people still living with this, and I guess even memoirs that focus on people who lived through the wars it’s important we remember what happened to them and happened back then as well! 🙂


    • Thanks, Beth! I hope you do – I’d say that the writing is just OK, but you don’t read memoirs for the writing, I guess. And the book does give a bit of background info so even if you’re unfamiliar with the current situation, you’ll be in good hands. 🙂

      Reading books like this is always hard because you realise these things have actually happened to people before (and in this particular case are still happening), but I think that’s exactly why it’s important.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s all right, I guess you’d read memoirs for the story and the history more than the writing. It sounds like a great book, and sounds as if there’s a lot of information so I won’t get lost in situations I don’t understand or anything.
        Exactly, I mean it’s not really the same because they’re not strictly memoirs but the books I’ve read set in World War Two (like The Book Thief) were hard to read in places because even though they’re not based on true events things like that did happen to people during that time.


  5. I recently came across this and am so glad to see that you reviewed it and “liked” it (like seems like the wrong word given the subject but I think you know what I mean). I’m not the biggest fan of non-fiction, I read maybe one per year, but this is definitely on my list! It’ll be a relatively new topic for me, so I can’t wait to dive into it.


  6. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. I found that it wasn’t for me. My biggest complaint was that the story got hung up on the details of various gang fights (it was gang fight after gang fight after gang fight), though I get that the gang stuff is the bulk of the stuff. I was also bummed not to find out what happened to his gang members later on! But I do think there is an audience of this book, and I think that it is going to be well-received. Great review (:


    • Thanks, Ali! It’s very hard for me to comment on the content because it’s a memoir so the content does depend on what has happened in real life… and having read other memoirs from North Korean defectors, I’d actually say that this one is more ‘unique’ (those others didn’t tell of actually being in a gang). That being said, though, I suppose my review is more on whether or not I think it’ll be a good introduction to people not familiar with the topic otherwise… and I think it is. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

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