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Archive for May, 2021

Book Review: Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien (Series, #1)

Cover of the book "Death by Dumpling."

Summary:
Lana Lee didn’t expect to be hostessing at her family’s restaurant. But when she dramatically walks out on her job, Ho-Lee Noodle House in the Asian plaza of Cleveland seems to be her only option. When the plaza’s property manager, Mr. Feng, turns up dead next to a pile of her restaurant’s dumplings, the focus quickly shifts from Lana’s life to clearing the restaurant – and their chef – from suspicions of murder.

Review:
It’s no secret if you’re a fan of cozy mysteries that they’re hurting for diverse representation. When I saw this title, I was excited for a Chinese-American leading lady and also for the dumpling recipes I anticipated coming with it, as many cozies come with recipes or craft patterns.

The setting of this book feels very real, it reminded me of the “Asian plazas” I’ve seen in the Midwest when visiting my in-laws. The variety and types of stores and restaurants, as well as the description of where it was in relation to Cleveland rang as real to me.

The majority of the characters in this book are Chinese-American – including the murder victim and all of the potential suspects Lana works her way through. Lana is biracial – her mother is Chinese-American, and her father is white. Lana’s best friend is white, and the police detective (who we all know is the love interest, since that’s how it works in cozies) is also white. In spite of all this representation, I must mention that there was one cringe-inducing moment where sitting cross-legged is described as “Indian-style.” A good reminder that just because a book features an underrepresented group doesn’t necessarily mean it will be fully inclusive.

My lack of engagement with the love interest I don’t think is the fault of this book in particular – he was the generic police detective you see in cozies. I think it’s just that I have increasingly come to a negative perception of policing and I couldn’t get past his job in my head.

I was disappointed to discover that in a book revolving around a Noodle House and murder by dumplings – there were no recipes! I just kept re-flipping through the end of the book asking – really? A missed opportunity that would have knocked the book up a whole star for me.

With regards to the mystery, this was one of those rare cozies with a plot I could not 100% predict. A definite mark in its favor and something that kept me reading. I also must mention that Lana has a pug named Kikkoman (after the soy sauce). Important to the plot? No. But important to joy in certain scenes for sure.

Overall, if you’re a cozy mystery fan looking for some diversity or variety in your next read, I recommend giving this one a try. Just don’t come into it expecting recipes.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 328 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Cover of the book "Sorrowland."

Summary:
Vern desperately flees the strict, religious, Black Power compound she was raised on while she is heavily pregnant with twins. Giving birth shortly thereafter and raising her babies in the woods, she finds herself transforming inexplicably. But what is she transforming into? Why? And can she protect her children from both the compound and the world?

Review:
Another Rivers Solomon book was my favorite read of last year (An Unkindness of Ghosts, review), so when I saw their new book come available on NetGalley – featuring a religious, Black Power compound – I requested it immediately and was thrilled to receive a copy. Like all of Rivers Solomon’s work this book is a gorgeous, intertwining mixture of compelling and challenging.

I was startled by the focus on pregnancy and mothering at the beginning of the book. It hadn’t been the focus of the other Rivers Solomon books I’ve read, and I must admit as a person who has never been pregnant or a mother myself, I always struggle a bit more to connect to these characters. And, indeed, by the end of the book it was not Vern as mother I connected to but rather Vern as a person caught in a complex web of the world as we know it with her ability to right wrongs and change the future limited. That twist in the gut of being caught inside of something much bigger than yourself, that I was able to relate to.

Who cared who knew if the knowing didn’t prevent future occurrences?

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The fantastical elements are immediately engaging – beautiful and grotesque. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say her transformation took my breath away in a manner that reminded me of my feelings watching Season 1 of Hannibal. I mean that as a complement. It’s a fantasy that both feels like a fantasy and also real and leaves one wondering if Vern is right in the head or not? Can the world really work like this? What is happening to her?

The social commentary in this book is astute and apt without being preachy. Characters say what they say because their very lives have lived it – these are their experiences and real feelings. What may to some readers seem the most out there about the book can easily be traced to real occurrences in US history. It’s not far-fetched but one hopes its realness will reach more people because of how it is couched in fantasy.

There is rich queer content in this book, both in the sense of gender and in the sense of sexual relationships. There is two sex scenes, one of which I would consider explicit with people of multiple genders participating. However, contrary to how some booksellers are listing it, I absolutely would not call it “er*tica.” This is a serious fantasy book about issues of justice that just happens to have queer characters have sex “on screen” twice. Queer sex is not automatically “er*tica.”

With regards to other representation, there are many Black and two Indigenous (Lakota) people. Two characters have albinism, and this book eloquently depicts the visual impairments that come with that.

Overall, this book delivers what I have come to expect from a Rivers Solomon book – an engaging fantastical imagining with queer content and different abilities represented that draws attention to social issues. Readers who are able to keep an open mind to the book potentially not going the places they were anticipating or hoping for but who are willing to let the book lead where it may will enjoy this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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