Book review: The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn

The Dark Enquiry (Lady Julia Grey, #5)The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the Lady Julia Grey series, and I confess that I took my time reading it. I have loved this series since it came out—the first book, “Silent as the Grave” being a particular favorite. It contains one of the most romantic quotes ever: “For where thou art, there is the world itself.” (From Henry VI, Part 2)
The first few books deal with the courtship between Lady Julia Grey, the daughter of an earl, and Nicholas Brisbane, a half-gypsy, half-Scottish private detective. (Oh, and there are a few mysteries thrown in for entertainment as well.) In this final book, the two are married, and, in addition to the interesting mystery of who murdered a fake medium, we are treated to watching the couple coming to terms with their marriage and defining the parameters of their relationship. For Dorothy Sayers fans, the narrative arc of this book is similar to “Busman’s Honeymoon,” which covers a similar theme between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane after their marriage.
I absolutely loved this book—the love between Lady Julia Grey and Nicholas Brisbane is well articulated and soaring, and the conflict caused by their disparate backgrounds is believable and handled well. The dialogue is witty and sharp. The mystery is well-crafted and provides enough superfluous and non-superfluous events to add to the development of the secondary characters. In addition, Lady Julia is one of ten children, and the interactions between the various siblings makes for entertaining reading.
The first book and this final book are my two favorites of the series, and perhaps it is not a coincidence that those are the two books where one of the main characters suffers a tremendous personal loss. The scenes describing the loss and its aftermath are the most heartrending of the book.
I highly recommend this series for those who like historical mysteries set in Victorian times. (And even if you aren’t a tremendous fan of Victorian times, the strong writing and well-rounded characterizations of these books are compelling enough to read them anyway.) The series is best read in order: “Silent in the Grave,” “Silent in the Sanctuary,” “Silent on the Moor,” “Dark Road to Darjeeling,” and “The Dark Enquiry.”

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Restaurant review: Chinatown Express (Washington, DC)

We were looking for a quick bite to eat before the Adele concert at the Verizon Center.  Daikaya (known for its ramen) was a 40 minute wait.  But then we happened upon this hole-in-the-wall that advertised fresh hand-cut noodles (called 手拉麵 in Chinese).
The noodles can be either put in soup or stir-fried, and you can choose your toppings (vegetarian, chicken, roast pork or roast duck are some of the choices).  I opted for soup with roast pork on top.  Jim went with the little soup dumplings(小龍包) and normal dumplings.  They were good but not memorable.
On the other hand, the noodles were excellent—thick and substantial, the way hand-cut noodles should be.  The broth was simple but filling, and the roast pork was excellent—flavorful and meaty.

half-eaten bowl of noodles with roast pork soup

half-eaten bowl of noodles with roast pork soup

We believe the quality of the dishes here is completely dependent on what you order.  Based on our limited data points, I would lean towards ordering Cantonese specialties such as roast pork as well as the hand-cut noodles (which aren’t a Cantonese specialty but are lovely anyway).
We will definitely be back to try some additional dishes.  If you’re looking for a quick and inexpensive meal around the Verizon Center, Chinatown Express should be on your list!

Chinatown Express is located at 746 6th St, NW, Washington, DC 202-638-0424 (

Book review: Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

Lords of the North (The Saxon Stories, #3)Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the 3rd book in the Saxon series (I know–I am way behind), and this one is my favorite so far. (Which is not to say that I disliked the other ones.) But by book #3, Uhtred’s personality is well-established as one where he knows perfectly well what he should do but often ignores it in favor of what he wants to do. (Trust me, so far there is no moral lesson to be derived from Uhtred’s behavior.) He continues to be snarky and sarcastic and irreverent, and I love him.
This book also deals very little with Alfred. Alfred the Great is one of my favorite characters in history and so I’m not always thrilled with the treatment he gets in this series (suffice it to say that Uhtred is not a fan). That being said, I like the fact that the author is willing to go against the commonly held conceptions about Alfred even as I cling to my illusions.
As always, the book is quintessential Cornwell. It is gritty and violent and gory, with no attempt to prettify the historical context. You can almost hear the grunts and screams of the men in battle and feel their swords slice into flesh.
If you haven’t read this series, I highly recommend you do so (but do it in order). I very much look forward to reading the next installment!

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Inn at Little Washington birthday dinner

It was our son’s 15th (!) birthday a couple of weeks ago and, in addition to feeling really old, we celebrated with a dinner at the Inn at Little Washington (at his request).

As usual, dinner was fabulous from the moment we stepped into the restaurant until we were wheeled out of the restaurant in a food coma.

Appetizers included the mélange of the Inn garden’s heirloom tomatoes with marinated fairy tale eggplant and local sheep milk’s feta


to a tin of sin (American osetra caviar with peekytoe crab and cucumber rillettes)


to a quartet of Rappahanock oyster slurpees (with sorbets of cucumber, cocktail sauce, horseradish, and wasabi)


Additional courses consisted of a carpaccio of herb-crusted Elysian Fields baby lamb loin with Caesar salad ice cream


to a crispy napoleon of chilled main lobster with osetra caviar


to a pan-seared Maine diver scallop with Jerusalem artichoke purée, capers and tomato relish


to grilled pepper-crusted black kingfish with shallot confiture and red wine reduction


to crispy maple-glazed pork jowl with braised red cabbage and walnut ravioli


to fontina-filled tortelloni on a sweet corn sauté with local shiitake mushrooms and patty pan squash purée


to a chanterelle mushroom “meatloaf” with celery root purée and angry red sauce


to a chop of organic milk fed pork with grilled peaches and potato purée


Dessert included a miniature chocolate birthday cake


to the Inn’s signature dessert of seven deadly sins (clearly gluttony is the one practiced most frequently here!)


to a peach tart served with almond ice cream


It was an incredible meal and a perfect birthday celebration!

with Chef Patrick O'Connell

with Chef Patrick O’Connell

Sense and Sensibility (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Our daughter and I attended the Folger Shakespeare Library production of “Sense and Sensibility” last night. (Jim is, to put it in an understated way, not a devotee of Jane Austen, describing her works as nothing but “yakety yak”). Needless to say, he was not invited to come to the play.

Adaptations of Jane Austen’s works can generally be lumped into two categories: period melodramas that take every word written by this brilliant author as proclamations from the deity versus lighthearted comedies (a la the movie “Clueless”) that recognize the works for what they are—satiric commentary on societal foibles.

This production of “Sense and Sensibility” definitely falls into the latter category. The set is creatively imagined, with the furniture mounted on wheels so that the actors move quickly and ingeniously to new positions to mark a different setting. Several of the actors play dual roles, marked by the wearing or absence of glasses or a ruff (the highlight is the actor who plays Edward Ferrars also playing his drunken younger brother). And the aisles of the theatre are also considered fair game in this staging.

The production is lighthearted, well acted, and does not take itself too seriously. It is high energy rather than languorous, impetuous rather than deliberate. We loved it (despite all the yakety yakking).

“Sense and Sensibility” is playing at the Folger through October 30 (

Restaurant review: Chef Mavro (Honolulu)

Chef Mavro is one of our favorite restaurants in Honolulu. While some of our other favorites have gifted chefs who serve excellent food, Chef Mavro has both those requirements, and the dishes are always beautifully presented. We try and go twice on every trip and alternate between the 6 course menu and the 4 course menu.
This is the four course menu, where the serving portions are a bit larger than the 6 course menu, and it is every bit as delicious.

We started with the amuse-bouche: white bean mousse with duck confit rillettes. We could have cheerfully made a meal out of the rillettes.



All of us opted out of the squid course and substituted it with black truffle risotto. Black truffles. Risotto. In the hand of a master. Need I say more?


black truffle risotto

The next course was onaga in fisherman’s bouillabaisse marseilles-style, with rouille & croutons. The “crouton,” served with a spicy garlic aioli, was completely scrumptions.

onaga bouillabaisse style

onaga bouillabaisse style

The meat course was herb crusted niman rack of lamb, served with tomato, zucchini, eggplant & bell pepper à la monégasque.



It was accompanied by a side dish of extra virgin olive oil caper mashed potato. I don’t particularly like mashed potato (it’s a texture thing), but this was scrumptious.

mashed potatoes

mashed potatoes

The palate cleanser was a watermelon-champagne gelée.


And, finally, the dessert course. A peach flambé, with peach, lemon chiboust brulée & sablé, and a blueberry compote accompanied by crème fraiche with a pernod accent and fennel pollen. It was a perfect finish to a lovely dinner!

peach flambe

peach flambe

Book review: A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell, #1)A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the author’s Julia Gray mystery series, so I was looking forward to the beginning of another series by her. But I was torn about this novel when I finished it. There are very few things in life that I am ambivalent about, but this book is one of them.
The narrator (heroine) really starts off the book as highly dislikable–Vernoica Speedwell is arrogant and smug and a know-it-all. It is a testament to the author’s skill that she slowly grows on you and, by the end of the book, is almost likable.
The hero of the book is likable enough in his irascible way but since the book is narrated in the first person, it’s difficult to get any sense of him outside of the narrator’s perspective.
The historical background is well-researched and well-integrated into the book. You get a sense of atmosphere and context without feeling like you’re reading a history tome. It’s well done. And the mystery is almost a side interest, as you become familiar with the characters and the secondary characters (who are mostly great fun).
There is no doubt that the second half of the book is better than the first half, but in a new series, that is understandable.
I think highly enough of the author and of the second half of the book that I will read the second book in the series when it comes out. But I still can’t decide what I think of this first installment!

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Movie review: Jason Bourne

I love the Bourne series of movies. I love its anti-government, conspiracy theory nature. I even love “The Bourne Legacy,” which most people don’t. I adore Jeremy Renner, and the character growth of the female lead in that movie isn’t something you see in a lot of in action movies (see also “The Terminator” and “The Peacemaker”).

However, I may have to make an exception for the latest installment in the series. Oh, sure, there are still the highly thrilling fight scenes and the fast-paced action sequences. And there are actually plot twists, kind of (miracle of miracles). In addition, the acting of the secondary characters is solid if not extraordinary. But (and this is a big BUT), I don’t go see Bourne movies for angst. (If I wanted to see angst, I’d go see some chick movie. Not my thing.) And there was way too much angst in this movie. Jason Bourne is either a killer or he’s not. The government is either covering up some illicit program or it’s not. But to angst about either of these things is a waste of good celluloid.

The family opinion was split. Jim doesn’t like action movies to begin with (he only goes to indulge me) and was appalled at the collateral damage in this one. The daughter thinks Matt Damon is hot and loves angst so liked the movie very much. This was the son’s first Bourne movie, and he did not care at all for the herky jerky filming style.

Next time someone proposes another installment of the Bourne series, I recommend returning to the government conspiracy theory plots (and to come up with an original one). In the meantime, I’ll go back to being on Team Cap and wait for the next Avengers movie.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation: Hawaii

We just returned from 10 days in paradise (aka Hawaii and, more specifically, Honolulu).  Among other things, the kids took surfing lessons, we saw rainbows,


we built sand castles,


we visited the Punchbowl (officially known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific),


and we went on a Segway tour of Diamondhead with Marcus’s best friend and his family.

Segway tour

Segway tour

near Diamondhead

near Diamondhead

We also ate lovely meals (at Chef Mavro (more about that later), Town, Alan Wong’s, and The Pig and the Lady amongst others), and we had shave ice (at Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha).
Oh, and the daughter worked on her college application essays.
Despite that unimportant detail, we had many days of relaxation and family time.  There is something special about Hawaii for us.  I’m not sure if it’s the beautiful scenery

sunset on Waikiki

sunset on Waikiki



or the friendliness of the people or something else, but we just feel at home there.  (Maybe it’s because having hapa kids there is no big deal—we get taken for locals all the time.)  All of our trips to Hawaii have been wonderful, but this one was amazing!

Book review: Dreaming Spies by Laurie King

Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell, #13)Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoy this mystery series and its unique and interesting take on Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, the past few books have been the weakest of the lot, so I was delighted that #13 in the series proved to be such a delightful read.
The book takes place in 1920s Oxford with a flashback to 1920s Japan. I’ve been to Japan several times and am reasonably familiar with Japanese culture, and the author did an excellent job describing pre-Westernized Japan as perceived through the eyes of the British. Her descriptions were quite accurate and perceptive and made for an enjoyable read (especially when you don’t have to throw the book figuratively against the wall and yell, “That’s simply not how it works.”).
In addition, the plot was extremely clever and well done. While I accurately picked out the major villain, there were several unexpected (at least to me) plot twists. I loved coming to the end of the book and having to do a re-read to pick up on all the clues that I missed the first time. That’s my favorite kind of mystery.
As always in these books, the characters are well drawn, and Mary Russell’s narrative is full of personality and character.
If you haven’t read this series yet, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore or library, and start reading. (It’s best to read it in order.) And if you’ve stopped reading the series, I highly recommend picking it up again. “Dreaming Spies” is a highly worthy addition!

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