BOOK REVIEW: The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa See

BOOK REVIEW: The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa SeeTitle: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Published by Scribner
Published: March 5th 2019
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 384
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

A new novel from Lisa See, the New York Times bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and family secrets on a small Korean island.

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.

Lisa See’s new book, out March 5, is a stunning story of two women separated by tragedy. Set mostly on Jeju Island before, during, and after World War II, See explores the strength and tribulations of women in all aspects of their lives — from their work as haenyo (deep sea divers), mothers, daughters, sisters, friends — and brings history to life through the lives of two friends: Young-sook and Mjia.

Told through interweaving timelines, from the more distant past of pre- and post-WWII to the more recent past of 2008, See takes us to Jeju Island through the eyes of Young-sook as she grows up, learns to dive and provide for herself and her family, marries, starts a family of her own, and struggles to survive through WWII and its aftermath. It’s a brutal history, devastating from all angles, that See weaves into the life of Young-Sook, but it’s incredibly empowering and a pleasure to read as the book is a testament to the strength and resilience of women.

I will admit, before reading this, I had very vague knowledge of Korea’s involvement in WWII (as I grow older, I realize how much of my history education stopped around the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the century and didn’t seem to focus much on the World Wars or anything after, and this is something I am actively rectifying!), and I no prior knowledge of Jeju Island, the matriarchal culture, and the haenyo. After reading this and being so intrigued by these women’s lives, I definitely want to read more about it. See’s book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s been several years since I revisited her work, and I’m delighted by the relationship between two women and their families in The Island of Sea Women. I now want to go back and read the books of hers I haven’t read yet because I think See is a master at weaving in the personal, private lives of women with extraordinary circumstances in history.

The Island of Sea Women is already one of my favorite books of 2019, so don’t miss it!

Thank you to Scribner Books for sending me a complimentary advance copy to read and review. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Queen, by Signe Pike

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Queen, by Signe PikeTitle: The Lost Queen by Signe Pike
Series: The Lost Queen Trilogy #1
Published by Touchstone
Published: September 4th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Fantasy
Pages: 527
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Mists of Avalon meets Philippa Gregory in the first book of an exciting historical trilogy that reveals the untold story of Languoreth—a powerful and, until now, tragically forgotten queen of sixth-century Scotland—twin sister of the man who inspired the legendary character of Merlin.

Intelligent, passionate, rebellious, and brave, Languoreth is the unforgettable heroine of The Lost Queen, a tale of conflicted loves and survival set against the cinematic backdrop of ancient Scotland, a magical land of myths and superstition inspired by the beauty of the natural world. One of the most powerful early medieval queens in British history, Languoreth ruled at a time of enormous disruption and bloodshed, when the burgeoning forces of Christianity threatened to obliterate the ancient pagan beliefs and change her way of life forever.

Together with her twin brother Lailoken, a warrior and druid known to history as Merlin, Languoreth is catapulted into a world of danger and violence. When a war brings the hero Emrys Pendragon, to their door, Languoreth collides with the handsome warrior Maelgwn. Their passionate connection is forged by enchantment, but Languoreth is promised in marriage to Rhydderch, son of the High King who is sympathetic to the followers of Christianity. As Rhydderch's wife, Languoreth must assume her duty to fight for the preservation of the Old Way, her kingdom, and all she holds dear.

The Lost Queen brings this remarkable woman to life—rescuing her from obscurity, and reaffirming her place at the center of the most enduring legends of all time.

Signe Pike’s The Lost Queen was everything I’d been craving in a historical fiction (with a hint of fantasy) novel. Set in 6th-century Celtic Britain, Pike weaves historical details with Arthurian legends and manages to bring a vivid creation of a young woman’s life to the page. Languoreth is the oft-forgotten twin sister of Lailoken, a warrior and a wisdom keeper who was later known as Merlin. In this first installment of a trilogy, we’re given an insight of Languoreth’s childhood through first love and subsequent marriage, all while the followers of a newly-introduced religion threaten to disrupt life as she and her people know it.

Languoreth and Lailoken are born with gifts and raised in the Old Ways by their mother before her death; and as much as Languoreth would like to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a healer and a wisdom keeper, her father has plans for her to marry to secure an alliance. Even though this novel takes place in the mid-500s, the choices with which Languoreth is faced are immediate, real, and are similar to choices women face today. This first installment in the trilogy is less about Languoreth’s role in Lailoken’s life as it is about her role in becoming a powerful queen, taking charge of the choices she made, and forging her way through a man’s world.

This first novel of a trilogy is rich and engaging, and it sets up for what I hope are brilliant examinations of early Scottish/Celtic life with the invasion of Christianity. I already love the glimpses of day-to-day life in those early courts, and I felt like I was right there next to Languoreth as she experienced everything. I can’t wait to see what happens next with Languoreth, Lailoken, and Pike’s further reimagining of the Arthurian legends. The next one isn’t out until 2020! That’s so far away!! But if you’re looking for something to fill the void between Outlander, Game of Thrones, and Mists of Avalon, definitely check this one out.

Many thanks to Touchstone for sending me a complementary copy to review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox

BOOK REVIEW: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester FoxTitle: The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House
Published: October 2nd 2018
Genres: Historical, Fantasy
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Two centuries after the Salem witch trials, there’s still one witch left in Massachusetts. But she doesn’t even know it.

New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall.

The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

The Witch of Willow Hall is a perfect fall read to me. It’s got just the right amount of thrill and spooky vibes, unlikable but compelling characters, a heroine to root for, and a little dash of romance that you’ll root for.

The first few chapters were a little bit of a slow start for me, but it’s a slow start that builds suspense and wonder about the Montrose family backstory and why they’ve had to leave Boston. It’s not solely for one obvious reason or another, and once pieces of Lydia’s story began coming together, I needed to see how everything played out. The Witch of Willow Hall is a delightfully gothic story involving witchcraft, forbidden forests, and a large and spooky house holding all sorts of secrets.

Fox’s world-building reminded me a lot of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak in the way it presents the reader with an assumption that soon reveals more truths than initially expected. If you’re looking for a fall read that’s not too spooky but with the right amount of atmosphere, twists, and historical fantasy, then check out The Witch of Willow Hall!

I received a digital review copy from Netgalley in exchange for my review. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Italian Party, by Christina Lynch

BOOK REVIEW: The Italian Party, by Christina LynchTitle: The Italian Party by Christina Lynch
Published by St. Martin's Press
Published: March 20th 2018
Genres: Historical, Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

A delicious and sharply funny page-turner about "innocent" Americans abroad in 1950s Siena, Italy. Newly married, Scottie and Michael are seduced by Tuscany's famous beauty. But the secrets they are keeping from each other force them beneath the splendid surface to a more complex view of ltaly, America and each other.

When Scottie's Italian teacher--a teenager with secrets of his own--disappears, her search for him leads her to discover other, darker truths about herself, her husband and her country. Michael's dedication to saving the world from communism crumbles as he begins to see that he is a pawn in a much different game. Driven apart by lies, Michael and Scottie must find their way through a maze of history, memory, hate and love to a new kind of complicated truth.

Half glamorous fun, half an examination of America's role in the world, and filled with sun-dappled pasta lunches, prosecco, charming spies and horse racing, The Italian Party is a smart pleasure.

As soon as I began reading The Italian Party, I was swept away to post-WWII Italy and enveloped in a domestic spy thriller that captivated me from the first page to the final sentence. Scottie and Michael are newlyweds moving to Siena, Italy, to start their new lives as husband and wife. Michael’s been sent to Italy to sell the Italians some American tractors to propel Italy to more “modern” industrialization, or so Scottie thinks. Scottie appears to be the perfect person to fulfill Michael’s want and need for a wife, or so Michael thinks. Each of them have secrets upon secrets of their own, and the book deftly explores and unravels these secrets as the story progresses.

Michael has been sent to Italy with orders from the CIA to stop the Communist candidate from winning an election. His Ford office in Siena is merely a cover for his actual work. Without spoiling too much of the novel itself, Lynch explores one facet of the post-WWII/Cold War fears of the rise of communism and the fears from America about that rise. Little struggles throughout the book, including the “favored” American dessert of a can of peaches topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry over delicious Italian gelato, showcased the “rightness” and “righteousness” of American idealism over anything else.

The Italian Party is probably going to end up on my favorites of the year list. I loved the secrets weaving themselves through Scottie and Michael’s marriage and life outside their marriage. I love the development of the characters from beginning to end, and I love how both of them choose to support each other after all of these secrets between them come to the surface. The 1950s were mostly a different time and place compared to now, but Lynch shows that even then, people struggled with and faced the same difficulties in a relationship that people do today. So much of this novel reflects the current time, and it’s eye-opening to see history begin to repeat itself.

Christina Lynch weaves in domestic life with a spy thriller incredibly well, and the pacing of the book was excellent. I loved how the chapters themselves were divided into small sections, and somehow that made it even easier to zip right through and enjoy this book. Lynch’s sparkling prose makes you feel as if you are a fly on the wall in Scottie and Michael’s life in Italy, and it’s the perfect spring escape.

Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press for sending me a free copy to review; all opinions are my own!

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah SchmidtTitle: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 328
Format: Hardcover
Source: Goodreads
Goodreads

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

 How many years does it take to grow into someone?

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a strange and sometimes engaging reimagining of the famous Lizzie Borden murders. Told from alternating perspectives over the course of a few days, we are given insight into the minds of Lizzie and those involved in one way or another with the murders of Lizzie’s father Andrew and stepmother Abby.

By the end, I enjoyed this book, but I felt the book suffered from two things: target market and a slow exposition/initial pacing. I understand that publishers want to reach a wide range of audiences with certain titles, but I felt like this one was YA as I was reading it because of the writing style. It took me about a good third or more of the book to feel really engaged with the characters and the story, and then it seemed to pick up and then I couldn’t put it down. If you aren’t much of a YA reader, this one might feel a bit simplistic in the way in which it’s told. However, in some ways, I think that starkly simple language is what makes Lizzie’s story effective, because if you’re familiar with Lizzie Borden, you already know what’s coming, and by the time it does, it’s one of those chest-grabbing moments.

See What I Have Done explores in greater depth the relationships between Lizzie and the rest of her immediate household. At thirty-something, she still lives at home, unmarried, and behaves as if she is still a teenager with temper outbursts and juvenile outlooks on the world (which is where my “this feels like YA” comes from). It’s apparent from the very beginning that something is off about Lizzie’s mental state, and this disconnect between reality and what goes on in her mind adds to the Lizzie’s relationship with her father is odd and unsettling. At times, her attention-seeking behavior appears as if she’s a love-sick girl starving for the object of her affection’s attentions, and other times it feels as if her behavior is that of a child wanting her father to pay attention to her. Lizzie’s behavior toward and eventual murder of her father and stepmother stems from her deeply rooted jealousy toward her stepmother. As it happens in fairy tales, the stepmother “replaces” the dead mother, and to the main character, the stepmother is therefore “bad/evil,” and for Lizzie, she is the displaced princess.

In a series of twists and turns, Sarah Schmidt delivers a chilling examination of what goes through the minds of those closely involved with Lizzie Borden and her forty whacks. While it takes a bit to warm up to it, See What I Have Done is a solid debut.

I won a copy of this book through Goodreads giveaways for review! All opinions are my own.