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Posts Tagged ‘own voices’

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 longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (Series, #1)

Cover of the book The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Summary:
Chih, a non-binary cleric, is on a walking journey when they meet an elderly woman, Rabbit, with a story to tell. Chih ends up staying and listening to Rabbit’s tale while cataloging the archives of her things. It slowly is revealed just how much of history Rabbit was quietly witness to and participant of.

Review:
The summary I read was nothing like the one I wrote above and, therefore, I was under the misimpression from the combination of the summary and the title that this was a magical realism book featuring an actual rabbit. I also didn’t know how each chapter would start with essentially an archives finding aid that Chih is writing. There was a time in my life when I wrote finding aids for work, and I must be honest – I didn’t enjoy it. The combination of these two things didn’t put me in a great headspace for this book. However, I do think it’s a good read when it finds its audience, and that’s what I’m hoping to do here.

This book features a non-binary main character whose sidekick is a fabulous talking bird. Female/female love is also well-represented here. It is set in a fantasy world inspired by Asian period dramas with dashes of fantasy (like the talking bird). The entire premise revolves around respecting and listening to an elder – treating her as important simply because she is elderly. It of course then turns out that she has a pivotal role in history, but Chih would have never known that if they hadn’t listened to her. Those who love the history of items will also likely really enjoy reading the descriptors of Rabbit’s possessions at the start of each chapter. While this is a short book (novella length), it is the first in a series, so you can visit its world, and, if you like it, you can keep on going with the rest of the series.

Recommended to those looking for a fantasy with an Asian period drama fantasy written by an own voices author with a dash of magical realism and queerness.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 112 pages – novella/short nonfiction

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

Cover of the book The Conductors.

Summary:
Hetty Rhodes was once enslaved, but she ran away with her sister, only her sister was caught while she escaped. She began returning south to try to free her sister, but with her repeated trips became a Conductor on the Underground Railroad, alongside a man named Benjy, using their magic to help others escape. Now the Civil War is over and she and Benjy, who is now her husband, have built a life for themselves in Philadelphia. He’s a blacksmith, she’s a seamstress, and they both solve crimes in their spare time that the white authorities can’t be bothered with. When one of their friends turns up dead in an alley, their investigation takes them throughout Black Philadelphia on a hunt for answers.

Review:
The premise of the worldbuilding for this book reminded me of Thieftaker (review), the first in the Thieftaker Chronicles, which I really enjoyed, only set in the 1800s rather than the 1700s and with a Black woman lead rather than a white man. I say this as I was excited and thought this was a good thing. I remember thinking at the time that I wished there were more alternate history fantasy books and I was excited when the next one I saw brought such diversity to the genre.

I liked the magic in this book. I thought it was a great analogy for colonizing culture versus Black and Indigenous culture. The colonizing culture (Sorcery) requires the use of tools (wands) but the wands make that magic very powerful. The Black and Indigenous cultures use Celestial magic, which doesn’t require tools (they draw sigils instead). It can become very powerful but takes more study and time to become so. Anyone with magic being able to pick up a wand and wreak some havoc with very little knowledge as an analogy for weapons like guns I thought was great.

The book also demonstrates the community the Black folks of Philadelphia built up, which included those who freed themselves by running away, those who were freed by the Civil War, and those who were born free. There is a male/male relationship included among Hetty’s friend group, as well as a woman who experienced infertility and adopted a baby.

What didn’t work for me was the order in which the plot was told. The book starts in post-Civil War Philadelphia with Hetty and Benjy (her husband) working together to solve cases, in much the same way they used to work together as Conductors on the Underground Railroad. How Hetty escaped, met Benjy, and how they worked together as Conductors was told through a series of broken up flashbacks throughout the book. For me, this didn’t work. I was much more heavily invested in the stories being told in the flashbacks than in the present mystery, largely because a lot of the present storytelling relied upon the relationship between Hetty and Benjy and, without the full flashbacks, I had no understanding of the relationship between Hetty and Benjy. I needed to know why they were, for example, married but just for propriety’s sake. I needed to know why they decided to work together as Conductors in the first place. What finally pushed them to get married? I was so confused and felt so much like I was dropped into the middle of a pre-existing world that I went and double-checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally started with the second book in a series. Characters, even beyond Benjy and Hetty, kept talking about things that had recently happened in a way that felt like they had happened in a previous book. For example, the character who adopted a baby, the line about that felt like how the second book in a series will remind you of what happened in the first with that having been a key plot point in the first. I would say, in general, that for me, everything would have worked better if the first book in the series had been how Hetty and Benjy met and became Conductors together, maybe ending with them solving their first case as investigators after the War. Then this could have been the second book, perhaps with some additional flashbacks to inform us of some things from during the War.

I am sure that there are others that will read that paragraph and think “oh I like that vibe,” and that’s great. I hope this review helps this book find its audience. For me, though, I simply don’t like being dropped into the middle of the story.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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