The last book I've read for 2014 is Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung. The Guardian calls it "a telling account of the madness of North Korea", the country from which the author fled in 2004. It's a book I wouldn't have picked for myself and hadn't heard about, but it was given to us by someone with a deep interest in history. Last year he gave us Iron curtain which expanded my knowledge of the Cold War era by about 1000%, so I was confident this would be another intriguing read. And it certainly was, especially having read Adam Johnson's The orphan master's son as well.
Within the opening pages, I was struck by Jang Jin-Sung's description of how the writing process worked then (and presumably still does). He explains that every single writer in North Korea produces writing according to a bureaucratic chain of command, and "anyone who composes a work that has not been assigned to the writer through this chain of command is by definition guilty of treason". All written works are "initiated in response to a specific request" and have to be "legally approved" once handed in. "It is not the job of a writer to articulate new ideas or to experiment with aesthetics on his or her own whim."
It's true that it's difficult to make a living as a writer in New Zealand and we all worry about shrinking markets, disappearing bookshops and the future of the book. But at least we can write about whatever we want. We take freedom of expression so much for granted - thank goodness we have it.
If you're interested, you can read a short extract from the book by clicking on Free sample on the Random House website.