WHEN WE BELIEVED IN MERMAIDS – BARBARA O’NEAL

  1. STORYLINE, taken from Goodreads: Her sister has been dead for fifteen years when she sees her on the TV news… Josie Bianci was killed years ago on a train during a terrorist attack. Gone forever. It’s what her sister, Kit, an ER doctor in Santa Cruz, has always believed. Yet all it takes is a few heart-wrenching seconds to upend Kit’s world. Live coverage of a club fire in Auckland has captured the image of a woman stumbling through the smoke and debris. Her resemblance to Josie is unbelievable. And unmistakable. With it comes a flood of emotions—grief, loss, and anger—that Kit finally has a chance to put to rest: by finding the sister who’s been living a lie. After arriving in New Zealand, Kit begins her journey with the memories of the past: of days spent on the beach with Josie. Of a lost teenage boy who’d become part of their family. And of a trauma that has haunted Kit and Josie their entire lives. Now, if two sisters are to reunite, it can only be by unearthing long-buried secrets and facing a devastating truth that has kept them apart far too long. To regain their relationship, they may have to lose everything.

2. SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: At the very beginning, i was not really intrigued by When We Believed in Mermaids – quite a number of things bothered me to a point that I found the book a bit awkward and not genuine: the 1st person storytelling did not excite me, beause we learned certain things about the characters in a rather unnatural way, the dialogue was unnatural as well, there were additions to the story that were unnecessary and certain sentence structures simply made me giggle, because they were written in such an amateur way, though this might have been a “lost in translation” problem. 

As I went along, I noticed improvement (or I simply got used to the things that bothered me, who knows) and I started gulping up the book, reading like crazy. I liked the jumps between the present time (the timeline where Kit looks for Josie, who turns out to be alive and living with a new name “Mari”) and the past (the timeline of their childhood) and I simply loved the shifts of perspectives between Kit and Kit’s sister. I found this in particular to be written in a very neat way – it was quite eye opening to be able to see their childhood from two different sets of eyes, with Kit growing up in better circumstances than Josie did, even though they are sisters who were living together. The story shows us that 1) every family has their skeletons and 2) every human being has their own thoughts and feelings, we all develop differently and we all face different consequences. 

When We Believed in Mermaids seems to be a mash of genres that I’d name from young adult to crime and romance. I usually really dislike two things: mash of genres and sex scenes. However, the first is rather exciting –  I love my crime and I swear by this genre, but O’Neal dances around cleverly and successfully with romance and crime. The sex scenes – there is quite a number of them in this story – did not bother me, even though they can get a bit descriptive/graphic, but I found that to be an interesting addition to the story – the exploration of sex in particular, given the fact that O’Neal brushes upon both healthy, passionate sex, and abuse of it. 

Abuse is a very important element of this book and so is addiction – it’s the two topics that can be very heavy to read about and I believe they’re the reason why this fiction has received a lot of black and white comments. I have to say I found myself to be a little bit grey: perhaps I hate that I loved it.

I believe addiction is an illness and I believe there is a big part of addiction that we do not understand, especially not those people who have never faced addiction, either directly or indirectly. If you have never known an addict and if you tend to not be exactly empathetic in life in general, it is very hard to understand a big portion of this book. It is hard to understand why O’Neal writes certain characters the way she has written them – so black and white. A lot of characters in this book are the characters we love, we root for, we hope and dream for, but they end up disappointing us, because they do not, can not, know better. 

Depicting one character in particular – Dylan, who is the boy that grew up with Josie and Kit. Dylan is an insanely black and white character. He is the boy that acts like an older brother, a mentor, a parent to some degree. He is the character that gets praised and loved by Josie and Kit – he is even described as “Merman.”He is idolised. He is out of this world amazing! But, he also makes catastrophic mistakes, constantly pushes toward his personal demise and is ultimately mentally darker than any other character. He is black and white. He is an addict. And he does things in such a way that shows you that he does not, can not, know better. 

Sometimes I hated O’neal for the way she has written Dylan. Sometimes I hated her for the way she has written other addicts in the book, who I loved and who “let me down.” But I understood what the point was: to point out that addiction is no doubt a disease and it can (and will) steal the people we love and turn them into something we do not understand. Even they do not understand it, it is such a heavy thing. 

And so, I have to say I hate I loved When We Believe in Mermaids, because I would have written certain things differently if this was my book, I would have implicated less tragedy and give more characters a happy ending, but then this book wouldn’t be what it is and it wouldn’t have been an eye-opening lesson. I truly believe I learnt a lot as I saw Kit, Josie AND Dylan growing up in front of my eyes, as they faced with addiction, love and sex and abuse, loss and grief, but also undeniable happiness and hope. 

3. WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK? For the very first time, this is very hard for me to answer. I would have recommended this to anybody still “growing up”, anybody eager to learn and open up their mind. I would not recommend it to people who are close-minded, controlling and who expect only one thing from this book – a crime story that gives you answers. When We Believe in Mermaids is a lot of things packed into one and it isn’t for everyone, but if it is for you, it is going to be an absolutely wonderful read you just won’t forget about so soon.

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LOST APOTHECARY – SARAH PENNER

  1. STORYLINE, taken from Goodreads: A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course.Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.
    Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.
    One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register. In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

2. SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Lost Apothecary is definitely more of a “woman’s” read – it is an ode to all the women hurt by men who were liars, cheaters, abusers or all of the above. If you are hoping for a silver lining with a male character that is going to return some hope in your shattered perception, you are going to be disappointed. This is not a romance. This is a read about powerful women who have taken matters into their own hands and, eventually, got rid of the hurt the men caused them and, with that, of the men themselves.

Divided into two timelines – past and present, the story presents us two protagonist women: Nella who is in charge of her apothecary (and the woman that supplies her female customers with various poisons) and Caroline who has taken a trip to London, in love with history and on the verge of finding out Nella’s secrets (or is she?)

It has become a popular thing to do – to write a book in two tenses: the last 3 books I have read all consisted of this structure. Having said that, I got a bit bored of this and the next book I read, I’d like for it to be written in a different way. However, I have to give credit where credit is due – it’s an interesting technique that helps readers develop more empathy. Knowing the story of Nella first-hand, as she describes it, gives us depth into the events that we simply would not have received if we (only) got these answers through Caroline, as she discovers them. Of course, the duality of the timelines has certain cons – in this book in particular, the past events proved to be more exciting than the present. The present was perhaps more of a personal story of Caroline, rather than a historical breakthrough per se. 

Because of this, at the start, the Lost Apothecary leaves us hanging. Caroline’s wish for discovery was pointing to a more intriguing story than it proved to be. Penner could have given us more research, more data, more shocking twists. Caroline is an amateur, of course, and you can only do so much with a historical event that has happened roughly 300 years ago that nobody really researched up to now. But this is a work of fiction, not a biography, so it’s needless to say that we do expect something interesting and maybe even crazy to happen. 

For the most part, the Lost Apothecary is a “3 stars” read – it reads nicely, it possesses certain charm, but it does not reach the potential it has.  That is – until you reach the last 100 pages, which pull the book up toward a “4 stars” read, as it does resolve in a more interesting way than it has started.

With a satisfying end, the Lost Apothecary ends up teaching us a lot about life: about regrets, secrets that can ruin people’s lives, fears and second chances, selfishness and independence. These lessons are disguised in the story itself and give us a fresh perspective. I wish the book has given us more in the aspect of story-telling (and, I suppose, drama), but it gives us plenty in terms of secret messages that go beyond the story.

3. WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK? If you’re intrigued by the description of the book and, in general, with history and power of women, this book is an interesting read. Not as dramatic or thrilling as some other book, but quite inspirational and perhaps even thought-provoking, in terms of “who am I, what do I want in life?” and how to face certain other questions and feelings. 

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THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT – WALTER TEVIS

  1. STORYLINE, taken from Goodreads: When she is sent to an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth Harmon soon discovers two ways to escape her surroundings, albeit fleetingly: playing chess and taking the little green pills given to her and the other children to keep them subdued. Before long, it becomes apparent that hers is a prodigious talent, and as she progresses to the top of the US chess rankings she is able to forge a new life for herself. But she can never quite overcome her urge to self-destruct. For Beth, there’s more at stake than merely winning and losing.

2. SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: You have probably heard of the Queen’s Gambit – you have most likely binge watched the miniseries on Netflix. I did, too. It took me a couple of months to see it (and a couple of friends telling me how great this show is) but I liked it enough to do some research about it and when I found out it was based on a book, I decided I want to own that book!

What’s interesting about the Queen’s Gambit is the fact that this book was published in 1983. I will be honest with you, I am not one to read plenty of older books, because I’m more intrigued by the modern style of writing, but Tevis writes in an insanely modern way. He incorporates the modern elements – feminism and addiction, and finds ways for us to love the main character, Beth, who grows up in front of our eyes. Much as in the miniseries, we follow Beth from the day she loses her mother in a car accident and gets sent to an orphanage, to – well, wherever life takes her. 

The process of Beth growing up is pictured so realistically – she goes from being an innocent kid to being an adult interested in trying new things and learning. She tries, she fails, she gets up, she tries again. There is so much curiosity and resilience there that it is simply beautiful to follow along. And there is a lot of character development, the kind that makes you feel for Beth and make you cheer for her. 

In general, it’s so easy to sink into this book. I was eager to read more, more and more. When it felt as though I had read 200 pages already, I had only read 70 and I was disappointed about that, because I was too eager to advance in the storyline. Of course I did know what direction the storyline is probable to go in, due to watching the miniseries first, but I think my eagerness and excitement  was still due to Tevis’ incredible writing, and not due to me wanting to sink into the things I KNOW happen later on. 

I do, to some extent, regret watching the show prior to reading the book,  because i have to say the show is insanely accurate to the book and I wouldn’t say I have read anything new – which is great praise to the show, but on the other hand I was secretly hoping I could pull off a classic “THE BOOK WAS BETTER!!” banter, which I simply cannot do this time. On the other hand, I will admit I wouldn’t have read the book had I not watched the show, because 1) I wouldn’t know the book exists and 2) as a person who is generally not interested in chess, I would not have been interested in reading the book, falsely believing that the story is too focused on chess (which it absolutely isn’t, nor is the show.)

There are descriptions of chess games, of course, but they flow beautifully, and even somebody who knows absolutely nothing about chess (except how a couple of figures move around) did not lose herself in the story. There is passion in Beth’s thoughts and words, passion for chess, which is a wonderful new outlook on chess itself. Too often we have the mindset that chess is boring – an old game that old people play, but I have to say the Queen’s Gambit shows us the freshness behind the game. Had I not felt completely hopeless about being able to learn chess, this story would have absolutely inspired me to start playing it. 

Chess is an important element in this book and it’s what connects the entire story and, more so, makes it so original and fun. It’s the reason why the book stands out, but it’s not THE one and only reason why this book is so wonderful. Everything in it simply fits together, in the most clever way. 

Tevis has written more novels, plenty of which have been turned into TV pictures and I am currently finding myself flirting with the Hustler, trying to decide if I should own another Tevis novel. If that happens, I will of course have to let you know.

3. WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK? Yes. It’s true that if you have seen the TV show, you will not learn much more about Beth through the book – it’s striking how many similarities there are, down to DIALOGUE! I literally recognized the same dialogue. However, Tevis is the star here, this is his novel, this is his storytelling and it’s worthy of a read. You can only love Queen’s Gambit more, there is nothing for you to lose.

THE DARKNESS – RAGNAR JONASSON

  1. STORYLINE, taken from Goodreads: The body of a young Russian woman washes up on an Icelandic shore. After a cursory investigation, the death is declared a suicide and the case is quietly closed. Over a year later Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavík police is forced into early retirement at 64. She dreads the loneliness, and the memories of her dark past that threaten to come back to haunt her. But before she leaves she is given two weeks to solve a single cold case of her choice. She knows which one: the Russian woman whose hope for asylum ended on the dark, cold shore of an unfamiliar country. Soon Hulda discovers that another young woman vanished at the same time, and that no one is telling her the whole story. Even her colleagues in the police seem determined to put the brakes on her investigation. Meanwhile the clock is ticking.

2. SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: I have never heard of Ragnar Jonasson prior to 2021 and then suddenly, BOOM, he was everywhere. His Hidden Iceland series, a trilogy that opens up with The Darkness, was something that everybody started talking about. Reluctant to read something that is popular, I was taking time to decide whether or not I want to read Ragnar, because (sadly) a lot of the times it turns out that something popular is just not good – it is overhyped instead. I read reviews, I stared at his beautiful books in every store and then I finally decided to go for it. I did not regret this one bit.

Prior to Ragnar, I have been reading a lot of Chris Carter and Camilla Lackberg, so I was dealing with crime stories with a rather quick pace, filled with mysteries, clues and (especially in Carter’s writing) brutality. I will say The Darkness is not like that. It’s not very fast paced, dramatic or (even) brutal, it instead reads as a classic; an older crime book (even though it isn’t one.)

We follow Hulda, an older detective, who is on the verge of retiring. Hulda is a brilliant character, especially given the fact that she is written by a man. Too often, protagonist women are not the women younger girls could look up to. The way Jonasson writes Hulda, though, is just beautiful. He doesn’t make her dependent on men – instead, she is independent, smart, determined and stubborn. She wants respect. She does have a softer side, regretful of the choices she has made in her life, and this side is shown to the readers, but it’s not what other characters in the book notice about her.

Following Hulda is an incredible experience. We really warm up to the woman who has never advanced in her career, because younger colleagues, men, were considered for promotions before she has. We warm up to the woman who has lived a tough childhood, who has loved and lost and grieved. She is no doubt the star of the book, being created in such an interesting way.

Jonasson succeeds in making us love this character and he succeeds in making us love whatever he writes, wherever he takes the story. No, there are no insane twists that make you pull out your hair, but the story is still not predictable or boring. It has a lovely pace, being intertwined with the present and the past – the latter filled with scenes of Hulda’s childhood that make us understand why (and how) did she turn into the person she is today, and the scenes of the crime that slowly, but surely, reveal the answers, alongside Hulda’s investigation.

There is honestly no dull moment in this book, with Jonasson not being afraid to touch upon topics such as feminism, abuse, suicide – difficult topics, but he does not squeeze them out, they’re merely additions to the book, rather than the main elements. We do not even realize how important they are to the story, till we finish it.

Ragnar is clever, smart. He drops hints we do not pick up till the very end … He even reveals the reason behind the book’s title, The Darkness, which is done in a very interesting, and yes – clever, way. So many reviewers praised Ragnar, so many said he’s the best crime writer of his time, and though I do not want to put such labels on anybody, I have to say he is one of the best writers I have ever read.

3. WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK? Absolutely. This is one of the best books I have read and I will be buying the other two books in the trilogy – books that actually go back in time, to two cases Hulda has solved as a younger detective. Ragnar is so wonderful that he even hints at these cases in The Darkness, and he hints at what else we can expect – getting answers about events from Hulda’s past that are merely mentioned/touched upon in the Darkness, but will no doubt have more power in the other two novels.

All hail Scandinavia, you have given us another brilliant crime writer who has just about blown me away.

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GIRL A – ABIGAIL DEAN

  1. STORYLINE, taken from Goodreads: Lex Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped, the eldest sister who freed her older brother and four younger siblings. It’s been easy enough to avoid her parents–her father never made it out of the House of Horrors he created, and her mother spent the rest of her life behind bars. But when her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her siblings – and with the childhood they shared.

2. SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: When this book was just released, I was told that it is “a thriller to look out for” and reading the storyline, I was feeling quite excited. Whatever the reason, we tend to be moved by tragic stories like these and I was definitely interested in what the writer is going to do with this idea. I bought the book almost immediately as it was published, excited to read something fresh and relatively original. 

When I actually started reading the book, I no longer found it fresh. If anything, I found it a bit dull. I did not expect to read a drama, that much is true, but nevertheless I couldn’t find it in me to be compelled by what the writer was writing about. I sensed that it is her first novel and there is plenty more work to be done regarding her writing style. I did not find her compelling. The sentences tend to be short, the dialogue lacks emotion, the characters are blank and it is impossible for one to get invested in them. The entire writing is pretty much robotic.  

The writer also jumps from present to past, which I have to say I did not hate – we are presented the events of the past with the consequences in the present. The only problem is that it is not done in a marvelous way. The jumps tend to get a bit confusing and perhaps make it hard for one to focus – just as one gets interested in the story, it shifts, and here we go – I had to put the book back to my nightstand and I was not interested in reading it for another couple of weeks. 

There is some progression of events. The family we follow goes from having an average life, to bad, to really, really bad. By the time all of the abuse “grows” in the scenes of the past, we do feel certain anger and sadness regarding the situation and how it has played out. It’s not all robotic. However, there is hardly any character development from the author’s side or empathy development from the reader’s side. Though we get to know Lex, the protagonist, to some degree, she is not written in a way that we could get in her head and feel her heart. 

All in all, I was quite disappointed. This did not turn out to be a “thriller to watch out for”- I wouldn’t have even truly labeled it as a thriller. It felt much closer to a biography, especially when I did some research about the book after reading it and I learnt that the author based the book on a true, tragic event. This was, of course, expected, however – I learnt she took a big clunch of the true story and put it in her book, without giving a disclaimer or mentioning the case in any way. It made me wonder whether she took advantage of this real life case and made it a profit for herself. Furthermore, supporting my claim that this book was not written nicely enough for me to get invested in it and/or feel anything deep through it, I was filled with empathy after taking thirty minutes to research the real life event, whereas I hardly felt any such thing spending weeks reading this book. 

To sum it up, this is not truly a thriller, it is not even a biography, but for the lovers of creepiness – it does contain some of these elements, especially by the end of the book. Finishing the story, I did not feel cathartic or anything similar to that, but I did have trouble sleeping at night because of a special reveal (that plenty of readers actually anticipated, but I have to admit I did not.) Most of the story was, to me, ambiguous – not really clear with the events that have happened, leaving it to a reader’s mind to decide, so it was impossible for me to anticipate anything in the book at all, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it still left me wishing the author was a bit clearer with certain events. 

3. WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK? I personally would not suggest it, but I am a firm believer that one person can hate the same book that somebody else loves. So, if you have been curious about the book, you have the time, and especially if you find it in your local library (and thus do not need to spend money on a purchase), do not let my review stop you from having your own experience. 

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