Monday, 25 March 2019

Book review: THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See

Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Scribner
Read: February 2019
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ

Book Description:

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

My musings:

I was first introduced to Lisa See’s writing through THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE, which was one of my favourite books read in 2017. So imagine my delight and anticipation when I was granted an ARC of her latest book THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN from Edelweiss!

I admit that I knew very little (i.e. nothing) of Jeju’s history, the little Korean island that is home to our two main characters. In the 1930s, when Mi-ja and Young-sook were little girls, the island was quite unique for its matriarchic society. It fell to the women to provide an income through diving, whilst the men raised the children, did the housework and tended to the gardens. Young-sook’s mother was one of the head “haenyeo” on the island, teaching the younger women to dive - how to hold their breaths, how to read the ocean and how to stay alive in this dangerous occupation. “A woman is not meant for the household!” she said to her daughter. It’s a fascinating culture and much too complex to explain here, but See does a great job in making her haenyeo characters come to life. We meet Mi-ja and Young-sook when they are mere “baby divers” starting out on their journey, and accompany them through their whole lives into old age. And what tragic, heartbreaking lives they lived! I had no idea of the terrible history of the island when I started reading this book.

I loved See’s descriptions of island life and the culture of the haenyeo, and the story drew me in very quickly. In my review of THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE I reflected: “See seamlessly blends facts and fiction, educating the armchair traveller as the story progresses and adding depth to her characters.” At the start of the story, this was also the case here, and I was transported very quickly into Mi-ja and Young-sook’s world. However, maybe because of the long time-span covered in this book (a whole lifetime), I felt that after the girls had been married off to their respective husbands and had children of their own, I lost connection with the two main characters. Perhaps it was also due to the fact that the story moved along very quickly at that point, and focused very strongly on political events, but I had the impression that See was keeping her characters at arms’ length and that the personal stories got lost along the way.

Saying that, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN is a meticulously researched book, and See’s knowledge of Korea’s history and the haenyeo culture shines through from beginning to end. See is not afraid to include some graphic scenes from horrendous massacres on the island, as seen through the eyes of her characters, which I had been totally ignorant of. Interwoven with these historical events is the friendship bond between the two women, which will be put to the test when they are confronted with an impossible choice in a life-or-death situation. Personally, I would have preferred if the story had focused on Mi-ja and Young-sook when they were unmarried girls working as haenyeo, and I never tired of the descriptions of haenyeo culture and lifestyle, which were fascinating. I interrupted my reading several times to look up photos and facts about the haenyeo, which gave me a vivid picture of the island women. I felt the timeline in the present a lot less immersive, and caught myself skipping some parts to get back to the past.


All in all, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN read like a strange hybrid between fiction and non-fiction for me. At times, it was like receiving a history lesson, making it more of an educational experience for me than an emotional one, which was ok, but I had hoped to have more of my heart involved than my brain. Lovers of historical fiction will appreciate See’s extensive knowledge not only of the history of the island, but also of haenyeo culture, which was fascinating. I strongly recommend visiting the author’s website where she shares some links to photos and footage of haenyeo women.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Scribner for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Book Review: THE STRANGER DIARIES by Elly Griffiths

Author: Elly Griffiths
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Read: March 2019
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

From the author of the beloved Ruth Galloway series, a modern gothic mystery for fans of Magpie Murders and The Lake House.

Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. A high school English teacher specializing in the Gothic writer R. M. Holland, she teaches a course on it every year. But when one of Clare’s colleagues and closest friends is found dead, with a line from R. M. Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger,” left by her body, Clare is horrified to see her life collide with the storylines of her favourite literature.

To make matters worse, the police suspect the killer is someone Clare knows. Unsure whom to trust, she turns to her closest confidant, her diary, the only outlet she has for her darkest suspicions and fears about the case. Then one day she notices something odd. Writing that isn't hers, left on the page of an old diary: "Hallo, Clare. You don’t know me."

Clare becomes more certain than ever: “The Stranger” has come to terrifying life. But can the ending be rewritten in time?

My musings:

"Hell is empty and all the devils are here."

An atmospheric Gothic setting in an old school building that is rumoured to house a ghost? A literary inception (book within a book) element? Some gruesome murders with cryptic notes that have the police puzzled?

Yes, yes, YES! *clapping my hands together in excitement and jumping up and down*

It’s true – this book has it all – but wait, there is more! I am incredulous that I have never read any books by Elly Griffiths before, because this one had all the elements I enjoy in a good thriller. It starts with an excerpt of The Stranger, a novella by classical author R.M. Holland, featuring a stranger telling a story to another passenger on a train as they ride through the dark night. It’s creepy, and it’s menacing, and it had me hooked immediately like a hapless little fish flapping around on the end of the line. This story may not be the main plot, but its theme flavoured the rest of the story and cast its dark shadow over it. Just the way I like it!

The rest of the book is being told through three POVs: Clare, an English teacher at Talgarth High School whose best friend Ella gets murdered very early in the story; her daughter Georgie; and DS Harbinder Kaur, the detective investigating Ella’s death. Each of the three women are well-rounded and intriguing characters with complex backstories and secrets to hide that may – or may not – make them unreliable narrators. I especially enjoyed the character of DS Kaur, whose different cultural background added a lot more depth to the storyline than in many other police procedurals.

Another favourite of mine was the setting, which was so atmospheric and creepy that it almost featured as another character in the story. Talgarth High, the setting of much of the story, is an old brownstone building that was once home to R.M Holland, the author of the famous story The Stranger and its infamous quote: “hell is empty”, which featured prominently in the spate of murders to follow. The building also has its own resident ghost, the White Lady, who has been spotted by many townsfolk and is believed to herald an imminent death. This particular ghost will soon have her work cut out for her, when the bodies mount up!


All in all, this was just such a delicious read for me. Murders inspired by a classical gothic novel, an old English schoolhouse setting with its own resident ghost, a white witch, ghostly scribbles in a diary and a detective who must solve the puzzle before more lives are lost. My highlight was to be able to read R.M. Holland’s novella The Stranger in its entirety at the end of the book, which left me duly spooked and thoroughly satisfied.  THE STRANGER DIARIES  was a perfect blend of gothical, suspense and police procedural with a touch of the supernatural, based on a (fictional) classical tale. It was clever, engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable. I can’t wait to read more from this author in future.

Thank you to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

If you enjoyed both the gothic element in this story as well as the "book within a book" theme, then I strongly urge you to pick up:

The Weight of Lies The Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter

Friday, 22 March 2019

Book Review: THE SILENT PATIENT by Alex Michaelides

Author: Alex Michaelides
Read: March 2019
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him.... 

My musings:

The hype finally got the better of me! I know I’m late to the party, but I admit that I really enjoyed this twisty thriller just like the rest of you.

You’ve all read the blurb and to be honest, the less you know of the story the better. I instantly found the premise of a woman locked up in a mental institution for the criminally insane for brutally murdering her husband very intriguing. There is something about the term “institution” that brings up black and white images of horrendous Victorian asylums with bars in front of dark windows dripping with rain and mirroring the open-mouthed gapes of inmates locked away for eternity. On that note, I loved that the author did not buy into those type of stereotypes when portraying the psychiatric facility where Alicia is being held but gave us a much more modern, realistic version. Facing the imminent threat of being closed down due to a lack of funding, its team of staff are desperate to do the best for their patients despite budget cuts and constant restraints by management, who focus on the business side of things rather than the patients. Working in a hospital myself, I found this aspect to be true to real life, even though there is some journalistic licence used for the sake of entertainment and making the story work. Overall, I was happy with the author’s portrayal of the facility and its therapists, which added an unusual angle to the book I really enjoyed.

I also really like the idea of delving into the human psyche, so an MC who is a psychologist or psychotherapist always draws me in, especially if they are emotionally damaged themselves. THE SILENT PATIENT really delivered on that front, as psychotherapist Theo Faber is trying to delve into the mind of the “silent patient”, Alicia Berenson, in an effort to help her remember the events of the night of her husband’s murder. Or so he says. I assume that, as for any detective revisiting an old unsolved case, there is a certain professional arrogance at play here, to prove that you can succeed where others have failed. But you will have to read for yourself to see whether that is the case here or not. Let me just say that over the course of the book we get as much of an insight into Theo’s psyche than that of Alicia, which added depth and set this mystery apart from many others in the genre.

I really enjoyed the clue-by-clue chapters as Theo tries to find out what happened the night of Alicia’s husband’s brutal death, partly through his sessions with her and partly from his own private  investigations into her life (which probably break every rule in the book about his scope of practice, but never mind that). Alicia is a complex and fascinating character, made all the more intriguing because she refuses to talk and defend herself. Which is the main element that drives the story – since Alicia remains a silent presence, we, the readers, are just as much in the dark about her past as Theo. Until ... ok, again I won’t give anything away. Just read it!

I was so engrossed in the audiobook that the ending snuck up on me all too quickly. To be honest, I did have an inkling of what was to happen, but thought I must be wrong, because surely the book couldn’t be ending yet, I was having way too much fun. And I’m normally not the best armchair Sherlock, so it took me by surprise when I was right. I must be reading way too many thrillers to see that one coming! However,  even if you are the type of reader who favours a “killer twist”, most reviewers have admitted to being gobsmacked by the final reveal, so this was obviously just a fluke rather than real detective skill on my part (I won’t give up my day job quite yet). I loved the way the author wrapped up the ending, which was just right and very satisfying.  


All in all, the whole psychotherapy angle is what drove this story for me and which made it a page-turner, as I was eager to see where Alicia’s therapy would lead to. The problem with a well-announced “killer twist” is that you start to expect the unexpected, which was the case here for me. That said, there probably isn’t a twist that hasn’t been done before in some book, some other time, so I’m not one to hold a grudge. Overall, THE SILENT PATIENT was an extremely entertaining, fast-paced story for me, and I don’t hesitate to recommend it to readers who love psychological thrillers that delve into the human psyche and don’t mind slightly unorthodox MCs.

If you liked the psychotherapy angle of this story, you may also enjoy:

Blue Monday The Frieda Klein series by Nicci French

Suspect The Joseph O'Loughlin series by Michael Robotham

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Book Review: THE NIGHT OLIVIA FELL by Christina McDonald

Author: Christina McDonald
Read: March 2019
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

In the small hours of the morning, Abi Knight is startled awake by the phone call no mother ever wants to get: her teenage daughter Olivia has fallen off a bridge. Not only is Olivia brain dead, she's pregnant and must remain on life support to keep her baby alive. And then Abi sees the angry bruises circling Olivia's wrists.

When the police unexpectedly rule Olivia's fall an accident, Abi decides to find out what really happened that night. Heartbroken and grieving, she unravels the threads of her daughter's life. Was Olivia's fall an accident? Or something far more sinister?

Christina McDonald weaves a suspenseful and heartwrenching tale of hidden relationships, devastating lies, and the power of a mother's love. With flashbacks of Olivia's own resolve to uncover family secrets, this taut and emotional novel asks: how well do you know your children? And how well do they know you?

My musings:

Well, this one will definitely go on my list of “books that made me cry”. It’s not a long list, and kudos to any author who can elicit such strong emotions in her readers that quite a few people in our group read admitted to shedding a few tears.

It starts with a parent’s worst nightmare. Abi Knight is woken in the middle of the night by a phone call advising her that her daughter Olivia is in hospital on life support after a fall from a bridge and is not expected to survive. But that can’t be right – Olivia is right in the next room, safely tucked into her bed. Isn’t she?

I admit I was hooked pretty much from this point onwards, and appreciated the 3.5 hour plane flight that enabled me to devour this book in one massive read-a-thon that left me in tears. Yes, there also is the mystery of who really was responsible for Olivia’s fatal fall, but to be totally honest, this was not the focus of the book for me. Anyone in the long line of suspects could have been guilty, and it would not have changed the gut wrenching truth that a beautiful young life had been lost. As the story slowly unfolds through Abi’s POV in the present, trying to come to terms with the loss of her daughter and searching for the truth, we also hear from Olivia’s POV starting in the past and exploring the events leading up to her fall.

McDonald explores so many interesting and emotional themes in her book. How well do we know our children? How well do we know our parents? As both Abi and Olivia tell us their versions of the story, it becomes obvious that their realities are quite different and that each is hiding things from the other. Abi, who is always questioning her ability to be a good mother and to protect Olivia from harm, has a strong sense of guilt and failure that accompanies her grief. How did she not realise that Olivia was in trouble? McDonald also throws out this interesting question: do you prefer happiness or truth?

I loved the soul-searching journey each and every character embarks on in this thought-provoking book and am so happy that I read it as a group read with the wonderful Travelling Friends. Our discussion added so much more to this book, and brought up some challenging questions and truths that may otherwise have got lost in translation. I highly recommend reading this book with a friend or a group to be able to talk about it – from its moral and ethical dilemmas to its hidden, simple questions in life. There was a depth to this story not often found in other mysteries, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I have read quite a few thrillers in the recent past that featured teenage voices, and I admit that I am very picky and easily underwhelmed with books that get this element wrong. So I am very happy to say that Olivia did not fall into that category. Whilst her chapters truthfully reflect the teenage voice, I always felt that I could relate to her thoughts, be it through raising my own teenagers or memories of my far distant teenage years. It was the contrast of Olivia’s thoughts to Abi’s impressions of her daughter that I found especially thought provoking.

I could go on and on discussing this book and am grateful that I had the opportunity to take part in a Q & A with the author to discuss some aspects of the story that affected me on a personal level. If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller, then this one may not be the right book for you. However, readers who love character driven and emotionally charged narratives with the additional bonus of a mystery at the heart of the story will enjoy this one! I would also fully recommend it for a book club read, as it made for the most wonderful and deep & meaningful discussions. A wonderful debut – I look forward to reading more from this author in future!

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Book Review: BEFORE SHE KNEW HIM by Peter Swanson

Author: Peter Swanson
Publisher: William Morrow
Read: March 2019
Expected publication: out now
My Rating:  🌟🌟🌟🌟

Book Description:

Hen and her husband Lloyd have settled into a quiet life in a new house outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Hen (short for Henrietta) is an illustrator and works out of a studio nearby, and has found the right meds to control her bipolar disorder. Finally, she’s found some stability and peace.

But when they meet the neighbors next door, that calm begins to erode as she spots a familiar object displayed on the husband’s office shelf. The sports trophy looks exactly like one that went missing from the home of a young man who was killed two years ago. Hen knows because she’s long had a fascination with this unsolved murder—an obsession she doesn’t talk about anymore, but can’t fully shake either.

Could her neighbor, Matthew, be a killer? Or is this the beginning of another psychotic episode like the one she suffered back in college, when she became so consumed with proving a fellow student guilty that she ended up hurting a classmate?

My musings:

Peter Swanson’s thriller THE KIND WORTH KILLING is one of my all-time favourite thrillers, so I was very interested to find out what he has in store for us with his latest book BEFORE SHE KNEW HIM, which came out earlier this month.

The premise is very intriguing: Hen and Lloyd are invited to dinner at their new neighbours’ house to welcome them to the neighbourhood. During a tour of the house, Hen spies a fencing trophy on a shelf in the home office. It bears an uncanny resemblance to an item that belonged to a young man who had been brutally murdered in their old neighbourhood. What makes it even more suspicious is that Matthew, her neighbour, works at the school the murder victim attended at the time. Curious, Hen asks about the trophy and is fobbed off with the flippant explanation that Matthew had acquired the item at a garage sale. But Hen doesn’t believe in coincidences. All her alarm bells are jingling. When the trophy has gone from the shelf at her next visit to the house, she is convinced that Matthew was somehow involved in the murder. Could he even be the killer?

Swanson is a master at character development and straight away we know that Hen is not the most reliable narrator. Suffering from bipolar disorder and with a history of psychotic episodes, her claims that her neighbour may be a murderer are instantly dismissed by those around her. Even as the reader, I was often questioning her actions, which seemed impulsive and often downright dangerous. However, with Hen Swanson gives us a well rounded, multi-layered character whose history of mental illness is well portrayed and who drove the story for me. I would really love to see Hen’s artwork, which sounded as intriguing as her character herself. I soon found out that each and every person in the novel had something to hide. In usual Swanson style, I hence embarked on a rollercoaster ride of a series of “unfortunate events” engendered by our cast of dysfunctional people.

I think that Swanson’s talent lies in making even his most dysfunctional characters likeable. It is hard to explain how much I rooted for the murderous Lily in THE KIND WORTH KILLING  without sounding like a psychopath myself, but I freely admit that I really liked her. Similarly, despite the events unfolding in his latest book, I found all characters strangely compelling. Except perhaps for one. With good reason, as I later found out. But I am not giving any more away here! Fans of the author will be pleased that his latest book is not only clever and original, but also contains the hallmark twists that mark his earlier works. You may need some slight suspension of disbelief to fully buy the whole story, but it’s fiction, right?

I admit that this book started off a bit more slowly than I had expected and it took me a little while to find my feet. However, by about the 20% mark I knew that I was going to be in for a treat, and was not disappointed.

All in all, if you like dark twisted thrillers driven by a cast of dysfunctional characters, than this one is definitely for you.

Thank you to Edelweiss and William Morrow for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.