Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "Diamond Head" A Novel by Cecily Wong, Served Up with a Recipe for Hawaiian Poke with Black Sesame Seed

Today's TLC Book Tour stop is Diamond Head, a novel by Cecily Wong. It's my second review of a Hawaii-based book this week. Unlike the rom-com, present-day Oahu setting of About a Girl, Diamond Head takes us from China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion to Oahu from the early 1990's to the 1960's. It is an absorbing drama about the secrets that weave a family together but also pulls them apart. I am pairing by book review with a spin on one of my favorite local foods with a recipe for Poke with Black Sesame Seed, inspired by a scene in the book. 

Publisher's Blurb: 

A sweeping debut, crossing from China to Hawaii, that follows three generations of a wealthy dynasty whose rise and decline is riddled with secrets and tragic love—from a young, powerful new voice in fiction. 

Frank Leong, a prominent shipping industrialist and head of the celebrated Leong family, brings his loved ones from China to Hawaii at the turn of the twentieth century, abandoning his interests at the port of Tsingtao when the Japanese invade. But something ancient follows the Leongs to the islands, haunting them—the parable of the red string of fate. According to Chinese legend, the red string binds one to her intended beloved, but also punishes for mistakes in love, twisting any misstep into a destructive knot that passes down through generations.

When Frank Leong is murdered on Oahu, his family is thrown into a perilous downward spiral. Left to rebuild in their patriarch’s shadow, the surviving Leongs attempt a new, ordinary life, vowing to bury their gilded past. Still, the island continues to whisper—fragmented pieces of truth and chatter—until a letter arrives two decades later, carrying a confession that shatters the family even further.

Now the Leongs’ survival rests with young Theresa, Frank’s only grandchild. Eighteen and pregnant, Theresa holds the answers to her family’s mysteries and is left to carry the burden of their mistakes. On the day of her father’s funeral, as the Leongs gather to mourn the loss of their firstborn son, Theresa must decide what stories to tell, with whom to side, and which knots will endure for another generation.

Told through the eyes of the Leongs’ secret-keeping daughters and wives—and spanning the Boxer Rebellion, Pearl Harbor, and 1960s Hawaii—Diamond Head is an exploration of whether there’s such a thing as a legacy of the heart. Passionate and devastating, it is a story filled with love, lies, loss, and—most astounding of all—hope.

Print Length: 320 pages  
Publisher: Harper (April 14, 2015)

My Review:

It's hard to believe that Diamond Head is a first novel, it reads like a book from an experienced author with its deeply nuanced and skillfully told story of multiple generations of a Chinese family. The story moves back and fourth in time, told primarily by the Leong women--matriarch Lin, her sister-in-law Hong, daughter-in-law Amy, and granddaughter Theresa--as well as the thoughts of the taxi driver who takes the Leong women to the funeral of Bohai, Lin's son (husband of Amy and father of Theresa). The multiple narratives and time changes were a little confusing at first but I got into the rhythm and enjoyed the different perspectives. So many secrets this family has, knotted together like the invisible red string that Chinese folklore says ties them by the ankle to the person they are meant to be with. The legend says that a string that is free of knots means love is pure and life is smooth like Chinese silk, but a tangled, knotted string shows punishments for mistakes, and it means that not only is it unlikely a person will find their true love, it also makes it difficult for future generations to find their own destined loves. The red strings of the Leong family are quite tangled with knots.

I am not sure what I enjoyed more, the glimpses into the family's early days in China with the mystery and the folklore, or the setting of Oahu from the fifty years between 1914 when the Leong's moved to Hawaii and their present day of 1964. I am always eager to read about the place I have come to know and love and I am especially fascinated by Hawaii in the time of the bombing on Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II. I can picture the Leong's estate in the shadows of Diamond Head and I live in the same East Oahu community as Bohai, Amy and Theresa. Author Wong brings Hawaii to life with her words, like these from Lin when she arrives from China; "The breeze--the warm sweet winds that came off the water--could not be captured in a photograph. Neither could the smell; a powerful blend of flowers and fruit, sand and salt water. Every part of the island seemed to sway in harmony; the thick leaves of the palm trees waved to one side and then bent to another. And the sand, like freshly milled flour, was even whiter than it was soft. I couldn't believe a place like this existed..." (Deep sigh.

Just a gorgeously-written story--heartbreak and deception, but love and beauty too. If you love literary fiction, stories of families and different cultures, historical fiction, and/or Hawaii-based novels, Diamond Head will likely engage you and sweep you into the Leong's secretive and mesmerizing world.  

Author Notes: Cecily Wong is Chinese-Hawaiian. She was born on Oahu and raised in Oregon. Diamond Head grew from family stories told to her by her parents and grandparents. Wong graduated from Barnard College, where the first pages of this novel won the Peter S. Prescott Prize for Prose Writing. She lives in New York City.
Find out more about Cecily at her website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Food Inspiration:

Although not its central theme, being about family and Hawaii where food usually equates to love, of course this novel is going to be full of food inspiration. With the Leong's Chinese heritage, I thought about making some of the traditional dishes mentioned; bone marrow soup with ribbons of cabbage, fish and rice, shark's fin soup, and moon cakes to name a few. Once they arrive in Oahu, the Leong's and Hong, who does most of the cooking, adapt to the melting pot of Hawaiian cuisine with dishes like haupia (coconut) custard, steamed mahi, green curry shrimp, pork adobo and sushi. 

It was a scene at the Pali Lookout that I kept going back to and that inspired my dish for this novel. Amy, goes on a day date (the curfew set in place after the Pearl Harbor bombing precludes nighttime activities) with enlisted engineer Harry, who she suspects might be her true love and attached to her destiny by the invisible red string. Harry takes her up to the Nu'uanu Pali Lookout and packs tins of poke--cubes of fresh ahi to enjoy with the view. Despite being born on Oahu, since Amy's family has little money and lacks a car, it is her first trip to this scenic spot and poke is an extravagant and unexpected treat.  

..."And now you should understand," he reached behind him and grabbed the tin lunchboxes, "why I brought poke."

"See the gods don't care about fish," he said, handing me a tin and a set of wooden chopsticks. I pulled on the ti leaf and opened the lid. Fat pieces of pink ahi and black sesame seeds were packed into the little box. It had been a long time since I'd eaten fish this fresh, this expensive. I lifted myself onto the hood of his car. 

"Unbelieveable," I said, placing a piece of salty tuna on my tongue, "Where did you get this?"
Amy, Diamond Head, Cecily Wong

The Pali Lookout is a place I have taken many visitors to on a sunny day. It is the historic site of the Battle of Nuuanu, where in 1795, King Kamehameha won the battle and united Oahu under his rule. The views of the Windward coast from over 1,000 feet above the coastline are panoramic and the gusts of wind can on many days, almost sweep you off of your feet. Hence the picture I took of my niece in the collage above that always makes me laugh. (That photo and the chickens that hang out in the parking area represent the Pali Lookout to me.) 

We never would have been able to eat poke that day, at least without a mouthful of hair included, but the dish is one of my favorite parts of Hawaii. The raw fish salad is at almost every local gathering and I fell in love with it the moment I tried it when I was just traveling to Oahu a few times a year for business. (Here's an early poke-love post if you want to learn more about it--please excuse the terrible photos.) ;-) Even now, when I am off-island for any length of time, I find myself craving it, and stopping by my local grocery store to pick up a container of it as soon as I get back. I do make it myself sometimes--it's easy enough to do at home--but there is a simple joy in grabbing a container full of a favorite poke and a pair of wooden chopsticks, and eating it on a sandy beach.

"But poke, raw and buttery, fresh from the ocean--even before the attack, I'd never seen it on my family's table."
Amy, Diamond Head, Cecily Wong 

Amy enjoyed her poke out of a small tin lunchbox wrapped in a ti leaf. I placed my homemade poke into a small gold tin for the photo. I made my usual poke recipe but added some black sesame seeds to match the poke in the book and also a bit of wakame (seaweed) for color. I'm always happy to enjoy poke on its own but, I am equally as fond of a poke bowl--poke combined with whatever rice and usually salad or something green that happen to have on hand. In this case, I combined the poke with sushi rice and some blanched sea asparagus. The combination of the slightly warm rice and the cold fish and greens is sublime.

Ahi Poke with Black Sesame Seed
By Deb, Kahakai Kitchen
(Should Serve 2 or more as Appetizer

6 ounces of sashimi-grade ahi tuna (yellow fin tuna) cut into small cubes
1/2 medium sweet onion, diced finely
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup wakame seaweed, rehydrated  (optional)
1/4 cup shoyu (soy sauce) low-sodium
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp finely crushed macadamia nuts
*1 tsp Hawaiian Red Alaea salt, or to taste
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 Tbsp black sesame seeds, lightly toasted

Place ahi cubes, sweet onion, green onion (and seaweed if using) into a small bowl. Mix together shoyu, sesame oil, crushed mac nuts, Hawaiian sea salt red red pepper flakes. Add this dressing to the poke, along with the black sesame seeds and carefully mix all ingredients. Enjoy!

Note: Traditional poke uses inamona--ground up roasted kukui nuts. It's not easy to find, even here. I have a locally made mixture of Hawaiian Red Alaea salt and inamona that I keep on hand but I have found you can get a close approximation by using finely ground roasted macadamia nuts. I used both in this poke.  

Notes/Results: As Amy describes, the poke is salty, buttery, fresh, and it also has a nice brininess from the seaweed, and a nutty finish from the sesame seeds, inamona, and mac nuts. You can add ginger and garlic to poke but to me, especially with the sashimi-grade ahi, I want to taste the fish and not overpower it with too many strong flavors. You can eat the poke as-is, serve with taro or other chips or crackers or make up a poke bowl. Poke will discolor with exposure to air, so it is best eaten within a day or so. If you are a ceviche or sushi fan, you will likely love poke too.  

I am linking this foodie book review post up to Beth Fish Reads Weekend Cooking Event. This is my first time linking up to this event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post

Note: A review copy of "Diamond Head" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.



  1. Oh my gosh that poke looks amazing ... you definitely have me craving it right now! And it is the perfect compliment to this book in my opinion.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  2. Thanks Heather! I am already craving it again. ;-) This was a great tour--I really loved the book--both the writing and its setting.

  3. I'm looking forward to reading this book Deb. Finally got off the wait list at the library, and can pick it up this week. Love the poke too!

  4. I think you'll enjoy it Claudia! ;-)


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