Book review: Masque by W.R. Gingell

Masque (Two Monarchies Sequence)

Masque by W.R. Gingell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


To say that this book is the retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale does the author an injustice. So, yes, “Masque” is a retelling of the traditional fairy tale, but it is one of the most fun and original retellings I’ve ever read. To begin with, the story is set in a setting where both magic and technology exist. But, more interestingly, a murder happens, and the heroine decides she wants to solve the murder. The heroine (who is the narrator of the story) is, in turn, sarcastic, irreverent, funny, and perceptive. I love her. The hero is also a strong character in his own right, but it is the heroine whose story it is and who tells it as she wishes.
The secondary characters are fully formed and engaging in their own right, and the love story is reluctant and adorable.
The only minor flaw in the book is that the mystery is not that complicated–I figured it out shortly after the first murder (and I hate figuring out the murderer before the end). But this book is so much more than the murder mystery and well worth the read.
Note: this is the first book I’ve read by this author, and it looks like this is not a sequential part of but tangential to the Two Monarchies series. I am excited that I have 3 more books (and fairy tale retellings) to investigate!
I highly recommend this book!



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Book review: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson

Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was the the leader of a intelligence gathering group, the Alliance, in France during World War II that was instrumental in providing the Allies with key intelligence, including plans of Germany’s rocket program and coastal defenses in preparation for D-Day. The author explains the relative anonymity of her accomplishments as representative of the social mores and expectations of women, especially in France (although certainly true of the time as a whole).
The account of Marie-Madeleine’s life is fascinating–her victories and success are impressive and her failures heartbreaking. The toll of lives lost working for the Alliance network was high (the Nazis executed dozens of Alliance members when it became clear they were going to lose the war), and time and again, networks had to be rebuilt after the Nazis swept in and destroyed them.
This book is a fascinating glimpse into the difference one woman can make, against all odds, against the prejudices of her time, and against a brutal enemy that took no quarter. I highly recommend it!



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Book review: Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne

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Absolution by Murder (Sister Fidelma, #1)

Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Historical mysteries are a tricky balancing act. On one hand, the author should paint a realistic portrait of the period and needs to include the necessary details to describe the setting in which the mystery takes place. On the other hand, the author should also write a compelling and interesting mystery. Often, historical mysteries fall into either the category of a history book with a run-of-the-mill mystery or the category of an interesting mystery with insufficient or inaccurate historical detail.
This book falls into the former category. The author is clearly well-informed about the period (664 AD during a split between the Roman and Celtic churches) and writes about the shifting political alliances and complex religious issues with confidence and authority. But when I am able to guess who the murderer was within 10 pages of the murder, I know the mystery is not compelling. If you want to learn more about this relatively unknown period, the Sister Fidelma mysteries seem like a good way to absorb the information painlessly and easily. And I really like that the main character is a woman. But there are better historical mystery novelists out there–ones who can write knowledgeably about the period and produce a compelling mystery at the same time.



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Book review: Lady in Waiting by Marie Tremayne

Lady in Waiting (Reluctant Brides, #1)

Lady in Waiting by Marie Tremayne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A rather unusual premise: the heroine is about to be forced into an unwanted marriage with a despicable man and, to avoid the wedding, she runs off to become a housemaid in a reclusive earl’s household in the country. Naturally, the “housemaid” and the earl fall in love.
I realize that “grounded in reality” is not a phrase a reader ever uses with respect to a Regency romance, but I found it difficult to believe that a young woman from an aristocratic household would convincingly pass off as a housemaid, even an inexperienced one. I also found it difficult to believe that an earl would ever think about marrying one of his housemaids, no matter how persuasively the author wrote the love story.
That being said, the characters are charming and likable, the plot was no less a flight of fantasy than most romances, and I give the author points for the premise. It was a fun read. I rate the book 3.5 stars.



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Book review: Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien

Death by Dumpling (A Noodle Shop Mystery, #1)

Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This is a perfect beach read, especially if you are Asian-American. The main character, Lana Lee, grew up helping out with her parents’ restaurant. Life goes a bit sideways on her, and she’s returned to work there while sorting out her life, putting up with her perfect older sister, and dealing with being the primary suspect in a murder case. Along the way, she learns more about her family’s past, tries to be an amateur detective, and meets a cute policeman.
The tone is light-hearted, the heroine is likeable, and there are plenty of cultural references that resonate with those who grew up with immigrant Asian parents. The mystery is interesting without being too intellectually taxing.
All in all, a solid debut to a series. If you are looking for a fun beach read, this is a good place to start!



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Book review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have to admit I was unenthusiastic about reading this book, as it was an assigned book for our son’s 11th grade English class. (Assigned reading is about as appealing to me now as it was when I was in high school.) That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by this book. The book takes place during the events leading up to John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. Henry Shackelford, a slave, is mistaken for a girl by John Brown and his army, and it is from Henry’s perspective that we witness the various events leading up to Harper’s Ferry. Topics such as gender roles, slave vs free, abolitionists vs pro-slavers are all deftly explored in a spirit of genuine curiosity and open-mindedness. The author makes no heavy-handed proclamations but weaves the historical events and characters (including visits with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass) together seamlessly with the protagonist’s personal journey of growth and self-knowledge.
The end is well-known, of course, but the book is filled with depth, emotion, and a love for humanity that makes it well worth the read.



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Book review: Don’t Label Me by Irshad Manji

Don't Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times

Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times by Irshad Manji

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The premise for this book is interesting, to say the least. The author has a conversation with her dog, Lily, as a way to promote discussion about diversity of thought, tribes, and discord. As hokey as this sounds, it’s a useful literary device because it allows the author to both acknowledge and deflect knee jerk criticism of her arguments.
The thesis of this book is that in order to bridge the current political divide that affects this country, we need to talk to each other sincerely and with an open mind. Humans like to put labels on people (privileged, racist, sexist, etc.). The author’s point is that we fail to understand each other as human beings if we do that (the corollary being that you are far more willing to draw quick and unfortunate conclusions about people if you see them as labels and not people). Her goal is to encourage people to have the moral courage to seek to understand the other side’s viewpoint, not for purposes of conversion but for greater understanding. In other words, acknowledging that, as I like to say, “Reasonable minds can disagree.”
This is a thought-provoking and thoughtful book. If you like dogs, it’s an especially entertaining read as well. Well worth the time to read!





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Book review: A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell, #3)

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I really loathed the heroine (and narrator) of this series, Veronica Speedwell, after reading the first book in the series. But I liked the author’s previous works enough to read the next two books of this series. This particular one (#3) is my favorite of the series so far. Veronica has become much less arrogant, much less smug, and much more likeable. Stoker, the hero, has always been interesting and likeable and this book contains more of his back story, which is fascinating and gives him a deeper dimension. The mystery is solid, and the plot takes place in the context of Egyptian excavations, which I have always found interesting.
I am so glad that I continued with this series, as it has evolved into a humorous and complex narrative over the course of the three books. But I do wish that the Lady Julia Grey series would return!!



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Book review: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


“A Woman of No Importance” is about the life of Virginia Hall, who despite being a woman, an American, and disabled (a prosthetic leg), managed to outwit and outlast the Nazis and organize, arm, and train pockets of the Resistance throughout France during the German occupation. (Oh, and fled over the Pyrenees when the Nazis finally figured out who she was.) She then returned to France to aid the Resistance to prepare for the Allied invasion in Normandy. Upon her return back to the United States, she joined up with the OSS and then the CIA, only to encounter deep-seated discrimination due to her gender.
Virginia Hall was a woman of immense force of personality, charm, and sense of purpose. She survived unimaginable hardships and loss and built a life for herself on her own terms. This is a well-written biography about a fascinating woman and her importance in the Allied victory in World War II.



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Book review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #1)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The premise of this book is fascinating: Mary Jekyll (daughter of “Jekyll and Hyde” Jekyll) through a fortuitous set of circumstances discovers other “daughters” of infamous men (Diana Hyde, Justine Frankenstein, Beatrice Rappaccini, and Catherine Moreau) and works alongside Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to solve the mystery of the Whitechapel Murders (theoretically attributed to Jack the Ripper).
I love how the author takes the perspective of the daughters (or “monsters” as they call themselves) as they solve the mystery. In addition, because there are so many main characters, the author has the daughters interject commentary throughout the story, in order to convey more clearly the personality of each character. I loved her use of this technique, although some readers may find it distracting from the main narrative.
My only quibble is that the ending of the book is a bit of an anti-climax, as it is clearly a story to be continued. (The second book of the series comes out next week.) I do think the author could have done a better job making this book a standalone mystery rather than leaving so many loose ends for the next in the series.
That being said, I really enjoyed this book. The premise is original, the author does a very good job of folding in the main characters and giving each of them a back story consistent with the literary fiction about their characters (her take on Justine Frankenstein’s story is especially fascinating), and I look forward to reading the next in the series!



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