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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Book review: The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The authors set up the book with 3 Great Untruths that they think are endangering future generations. These Great Untruths are (i) what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; (ii) always trust your feelings; and (iii) there is a battle of good vs evil (and you and your beliefs are, of course, on the side of good). The book posits these Great Untruths, demonstrates with data how these untruths have spread throughout society, and documents the harm these Great Untruths cause. (Among those harms is a higher incidence of depression and anxiety.)
The authors further propose solutions to combat these Great Untruths, the groupthink that accompanies them, and the institutions that cave into them.
I found this book especially interesting because the direction K-12 schools as well as college and universities have gone is in the direction of the Great Untruths, all from the best of intentions. And I especially think it is important for educational institutions to teach its children that reasonable minds can disagree and disagree with respect and civility. As the authors state, “Having people around us who are willing to disagree with us is a gift.”
Four stars and highly recommended.



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Book review: Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Footsteps in the Dark

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


3.5 stars actual rating

I adore Georgette Heyer Regency romances, and I am very fond of her mysteries as well. This particular one is completely representative of Heyer mysteries. There is a large quantity of witty dialogue, acute and funny commentary on British societal biases, a somewhat cursory but adorable romance, and oh, yes, a mystery to solve. (I suspect the priorities of the author were in that exact order.) This book isn’t going to stretch your brain cells or make you think about it much afterwards, but it is an extremely pleasant way to spend a few hours. The book delivers precisely what it promises, which is a frothy and delightful set of characters who happen to stumble upon a mystery to solve and a romance to conduct. For those of you who like light-hearted British cozy-type mysteries, this book is perfect for you.



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Book review: Code Girls: The Untold Story of American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of my (achievable) New Year’s resolutions is to read more non-fiction. “Code Girls” was a wonderful place to start. The author paints a detailed and knowledgeable picture of the role women played in World War II breaking both the Japanese and German codes. Despite their obvious intelligence and substantive contributions to the war effort, these women often faced discrimination during their service. And, yet, the vast majority of them persevered, wanting to do their part to support the war effort. Their patriotism and their contributions in breaking the codes of the enemy are an untold and underappreciated part of World War II history.
I found the descriptions of the code-breaking effort and what it entailed fascinating. But even more fascinating was reading about the backgrounds of the various women. Certainly, there were women from elite colleges such as Barnard and Smith that contributed. But many of the most brilliant code-breakers came from less exalted schools or were from rural areas or were schoolteachers or just looking for adventure. And while discrimination certainly existed, there were also senior (male) officers who were supportive and gave credit where credit was due.
Another factor that struck me was what happened to many of the women once the war was over. A few of them stayed in what ultimately became the NSA, but most of the women left government service and started families. They rarely talked about their wartime activities and while many found their lives fulfilling, the excitement and the feeling of making a difference was something that was missing from their subsequent lives.
I highly recommend this book as an excellent resource of a little-known part of the United States war effort.



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Book review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock, #2)A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, and I think it is even better than the first. Or, rather, the mystery is even better. The first book suffered (relatively speaking, as it was excellent) from having to set up the characters and the plot to establish the existence of a female Sherlock Holmes, and the mystery component of the book took a back seat as a result. In the second book, with the characters firmly established, the author has the luxury of further developing her characters as well as creating a mystery that is both complex and personal to the characters. The tease of Moriarty’s existence that ended the first book returns in this book, a little more front and center but still a tease.
Historical mysteries have a double burden of creating an interesting mystery and staying authentic to the period. The author has done both here. In addition, what I find so compelling about this series is that Charlotte Holmes’s voice rings so true. The Benedict Cumberbatch line in the “Sherlock” television series about being “a highly functioning sociopath” applies here as well. Charlotte’s intelligence is a relatively easy thing to write about. Charlotte’s thoughts as someone who is on the autism spectrum is not an easy thing to write, and her thoughts come across as genuine and consistent throughout the book. It is masterfully done.
I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, and I am hoping there are more books to come!
The series is best read in order.

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