Book Review: The Woman in the Camphor Trunk by Jennifer Kincheloe

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Title: The Woman in the Camphor Trunk
Series: An Anna Blanc Mystery #2
Author: Jennifer Kincheloe
Narrator: Moira Quirk
Publication Date: December 6, 2017

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The Woman in the Camphor Trunk
An Anna Blanc Mystery #2
Jennifer Kincheloe
Narrated by Moira Quirk
Jennifer R. Kincheloe, Ltd.,
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook
Also available in trade paperback from Seventh Street Books

From the author—

Los Angeles, 1908. In Chinatown, the most dangerous beat in Los Angeles, police matron Anna Blanc and her former sweetheart, Detective Joe Singer, discover the body of a white missionary woman, stuffed in a trunk in the apartment of her Chinese lover. Her lover has fled. If news gets out that a white woman was murdered in Chinatown, there will be a violent backlash against the Chinese. Joe and Anna plan to solve the crime quietly and keep the death a secret. So does good-looking Mr. Jones, a prominent Chinese leader who has mixed feelings about helping the LAPD and about Anna.

Meanwhile, the Hop Sing tong has kidnapped two slave girls from the Bing Kong tong, fuelling existing tensions. They are poised on the verge of a bloody tong war that would put all Chinatown residents in danger.

Joe orders Anna out of Chinatown to keep her safe, but to atone for her own family’s sins, Anna must stay to solve the crime before news of the murder is leaked and Chinatown explodes.

There’s something about turn-of-the-century fiction that really appeals to me and I can’t truly put my finger on just what it is. Maybe it’s the knowledge that things are on the very edge of tremendous change and that life is going to become quite different as well as a good deal less innocent.

Anna is the epitome of these coming changes. Raised in a privileged society, she yearns for something that will engage her intelligence and her interest in people who aren’t nearly so well off and she’s willing to fight for her ambitions (although “ambition” isn’t entirely the right word). Having found that she’s good at detective work—she’s curious and very smart, not to mention bold enough to go after what she considers justice—she goes where no woman has gone before, so to speak, throwing societal mores to the wind. Anna isn’t allowed to be an actual detective but she gets a lot done as an assistant police matron.

This time, Anna is involved in investigating the murder of a white woman in Chinatown which, of course, exposes her to a world very different from anything she’s known before with tongs, brothels, opium dens and the like. At first, she’s assigned to work with Joe Singer but, due to some unfortunate circumstances, she soon has to develop her own leads, much to the dismay of every man she knows.

With a lot of humor from Anna, we get a good taste of how things were at that time and how a feisty young woman could get around some of the restrictions placed on women (and the painful consequences of defying society). The narrator, Moira Quirk, does a wonderful job of bringing Anna to life and, in fact, she makes me think of an older Flavia de Luce transported to America in an earlier day. The combination of Ms. Kincheloe’s well-researched and lively story and characters along with Ms. Quirk’s talent make for a wonderful tale, the first I’ll be adding to my list of favorite books read in 2018.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.

About the Author

Jennifer has been a block layer, a nurse’s aid, a fragrance model, and on the research faculty at UCLA, where she spent 11 years conducting studies to inform health policy. A native of Southern California, she now lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and two teenagers. She’s currently writing book three in the Anna Blanc Mystery series. Book two, THE WOMAN IN THE CAMPHOR TRUNK, came out in Fall of 2017 from Seventh Street Books.

Website // Facebook // Twitter // Goodreads // Pinterest

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About the Narrator

Moira grew up in teeny-tiny Rutland, England’s smallest county, which is fitting as she never managed to make it past five feet herself.  Moira’s work spans the pantheon of the voiceover world: plays for BBC radio, plays for NPR, video games, commercials, television promos, podcasts, cartoons, movies and award winning audiobooks. She’s won Multiple Audie Awards, Earphone Awards, as well as Audible’s prestigious Book-of-the-Year Award. She has lately set foot in front of the camera again, appearing in “Pretty: the Series” and the Emmy-winning “Dirty Work.”

Website // Facebook

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Play an excerpt here.

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Book Review: Lucky by Henry Chang

Lucky
A Detective Jack Yu Investigation #5
Henry Chang
Soho Crime, March 2017
ISBN: 978-1-6169-5784-1
Hardcover

The protagonist in this series, Jack Yu, is a Chinese detective.  The action centers in New York’s Chinatown.  The novels offer a brutal look into the poverty and violence, the gangsters and crime of the society.  The “Lucky” of the title is Jack’s boyhood friend, a Chinatown gang leader name Louie who was shot in a Chinatown OTB establishment and lay in a coma for 88 days, finally awakening on Easter Sunday.

Jack believes his blood brother friend has run out of luck, and tries to get him to enter the witness protection program.  But Lucky eschews Jack’s advice, and upon his recovery after leaving the hospital puts together a small crew in an attempt to regain his position as the crime boss of Chinatown.  He masterminds several daring operations against other crime bosses’ gambling dens or massage parlors, stealing large sums of money.  It is a race with one of two results.

Meanwhile Jack is called upon to perform his duties as a New York City cop, giving the author the means to describe the culture and people of Chinatown (and the satellite areas in Queens) , portraying the streets, buildings and environment as only a native can.  Henry Chang writes simple, hard prose, tightly plotted.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

Book Reviews: The Night Searchers by Marcia Muller and Death Money by Henry Chang

The Night SearchersThe Night Searchers
A Sharon McCone Mystery
Marcia Muller
Grand Central Publishing, July 2014
ISBN: 978-1-455-52793-9
Hardcover

Sharon McCone undertakes two peculiar cases, sort of interrelated. The first is brought to her by an attorney who introduces Sharon to Jay and Camilla Givens. The other is handed over to her by her husband, who operates a separate security agency, when he is called overseas on a secret mission. This one involves a kidnapping of one of his clients.

It appears that Camilla “sees” devil worshipers performing human sacrifices in an undeveloped area in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Sharon learns that both Jay and the kidnapping victim are involved in a group that partakes in night forays, following clues, hunting treasure and, apparently, performing weird acts. Just how all these factors add up to Sharon solving both cases is the basis for a wide-ranging story.

While the plot is worthy of note, it is complicated and somewhat loosely written and disjointed. The author does keep Sharon and her husband, Hy Ripinski, fresh and up to date, continuing their development as characters in this long-running series, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2015.

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Death MoneyDeath Money
A Detective Jack Yu Investigation
Henry Chang
Soho Crime, March 2015
ISBN: 978-1-6169-5532-8
Trade Paperback

Detective Jack Wu once again is tapped to solve a case because he is of Chinese descent. When the body of an Asian man is seen embedded in the debris and ice of the Harlem River, he is called from his Chinatown precinct to take control of the case, which turns out to be one of murder.

The only problem is that the victim has no identification, and there isn’t a clue to be found. So Wu follows the Chinese community through the city, north to The Bronx and its restaurants, gambling and sex dens, and south to Chinatown and its own fleshpots and gaming spots. And along the way, he learns a variety of secrets attempting to give justice to a man who was all but invisible.

This fourth novel in the series, as were its predecessors, is economically written, with especially short sentences, and a smattering of Chinese words and phrases to provide authenticity.  This police procedural moves in logical progression across New York City, looking deeply at the Chinese culture and environment of New York’s Lower East Side.  Wu is an unusual investigator, applying the usual methodology of police investigation with the occult, an old woman who touches object obtained during the investigation and supplying him with clues.  Maybe other protagonists should consider Ouija boards.

A very enjoyable read, and recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2015.

Book Reviews: Skulduggery by Carolyn Hart and City of Dreams & Nightmare by Ian Whates

SkulduggerySkulduggery
Carolyn Hart Classics
Carolyn Hart
Seventh Street Books, November 2012
ISBN 978-1-61614-706-8
Trade Paperback
*****

Skulduggery, a lively novel of action and suspense, was first published in 2000 and is being re-released as a Carolyn Hart Classic. The story is every bit as riveting and relevant today as it was thirteen years ago.

The heroine of the story is Dr. Ellen Christie. Not a medical doctor, but one who nevertheless works with human bones. She is a curator at a San Francisco museum and is known as “the bone lady.” One evening after work, she’s contacted at home by a man desperate to consult with her regarding a skull. This skull, aside from exciting the daylights out of her as a way to further her career, draws her into a magnificent adventure. Ellen has immediately recognized the skull as that of a specimen of Peking Man. The skull, as well as other bones, had mysteriously disappeared from China during WWII. Now the bones have apparently reappeared and are up for sale to the highest bidder.

Ellen is a major player in this tale of present day San Francisco’s Chinatown, powerful criminal elements, kidnappings, and murder. That Ellen also finds romance along the way only adds to the drama. More than a simple suspense story, Skulduggery is also a learning tool as the reader follows the known history of the Peking Man bones–to a certain point. The rest of it? Well, it could of happened!

Characterization is good, setting is good, plot is good, the writing is good. There’s nothing in this short novel not to like. I’m looking forward to others in Ms. Hart’s classic series.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, November 2013.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

 

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City of Dreams & NightmareCity of Dreams & Nightmare
The City of a Hundred Rows Vol. 1
Ian Whates
Angry Robot, October 2010
ISBN 978-0-00-734524-3
Mass Market Paperback
*****

In this perfectly realized fantastical city, the neighborhoods go up–or down, depending on which strata of society a being belongs. Urban sprawl on the vertical, a terrific concept.

In the lower levels, called Rows, of this city, life is hard. Adolescents belong to violent gangs, which are used by outside forces to administer their will on the population. Competition within the gangs is fierce as to who is the most daring member. Thus begins young Tom’s adventure, a dare to climb up the Rows until he reaches the forbidden topmost level. Even he doesn’t believe he’ll ever reach the top—but he does. And witnesses a murder by Magnus, one of the most powerful men of Thaiburley City.

Magnus knows Tom has witnessed the murder, and sets Tylus, a Kite Guard (you’ve got to read the book to discover a Kite Guards function. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.) on Tom’s trail back down through the Rows. An alien being steps in to help Tom, enlisting Kat, a female survivor of the Pits, to aid the boy in reaching his home territory. As they make their way through the mean streets, they are pursued by more than just the Kite Guard, including an assassin as well as a deranged madman and his gruesome constructs. Fast paced action ensues.

Every character has a story within this novel, and Mr. Whates develops them well within the overall concept. No one seems alike, which is a good thing, and the reader is given just enough background to maintain individuality. In a long story like this one, with a large cast, it helps keep each one separate.

I definitely enjoyed this book and will be looking for the sequel.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, November 2013.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

Book Review: White Ginger by Thatcher Robinson

White GingerWhite Ginger
Thatcher Robinson
Seventh Street Books, October 2013
ISBN 978-1-61614-817-1
Trade Paperback

When you’re looking for a missing person, there only one person you should call. Bai Jiang. The People Finder. And in San Francisco’s Chinatown she’s the one you don’t want to make mad. Because has a tendency to strike back. Sometimes with a knife. This is White Ginger and this book will take you from the triad run streets of Chinatown to a hotel in Vancouver, to a barren piece of land outside of Sacramento. Jiang visits them all…with death on her tail.

Bai Jiang is a people finder. Her current case has her looking for a teenager who was sold by her brother to a gang who would use her as a sex slave. However, Jiang has more problems on her plate than a missing girl. These include: troubles with a powerful lawyer over an incident at her daughter’s school; battling her emotions regarding her ex husband who is a triad enforcement officer; and tracking down the person or persons involved with taking out a contract on her life.

The fun gimmick Robinson uses is Chinese proverbs that he works into each chapter. Jiang is a tough, sometimes cynical woman with heart and emotions that aren’t far below the surface. The action is quick and decisive, the characters are serious and motivated, the story doesn’t keep you waiting for something to happen. Welcome to Chinatown for an adventure likely to leave you wanting more.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, August 2013.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.

Book Reviews: The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman and Wishful Thinking by Alexandra Bullen

The Fire Horse GirlThe Fire Horse Girl
Kay Honeyman
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-40310-8
Hardcover

In China, your astrological sign is a combination of one of the twelve animal signs and an element.  A Fire Horse will only appear once in every sixty years.  This is a good thing.  The Fire amplifies the Horse’s most distasteful traits: stubbornness, selfishness and volatile temper.  A Fire Horse girl, particularly one born in the early twentieth century, has little hope of conforming to the expectations held for a Chinese lady.

Jade Moon is a Fire Horse girl.  At a blush, she appears spirited, spunky.  In today’s world, a female with those traits could be adorable, desirable even.  Such is not the case in China in the 1920s.  Jade Moon is 17 years old and it is very difficult for her family to arrange a marriage.  No one is willing to tolerate her sharp tongue, and, most certainly, no one wants to subject themselves to the Bad Luck she brings.

When a stranger, Sterling Promise, appears to speak to her father, of course she makes no effort to curb her brashness.  Soon, her father announces that he and Sterling Promise will be venturing to America, and that she would accompany them.  Jade Moon knew of the freedom that Americans enjoyed, and the endless opportunities they had.  It would have to be better than home.

Jade Moon was wrong.  Before even boarding the ship, she became aware of her father and Sterling Promise sharing secrets.  She quickly learned not to trust Sterling Promise.  The few ladies on the ship told her things that she refused to believe.  Her time spent on Angel Island was horrific; her departure brave and bold, and quite crazy.  Jade Moon’s determination to make a new life for herself in San Francisco’s Chinatown is courageous and admirable.  Her challenges seem insurmountable, but her quick mind and newly acquired skills help her survive.  Sterling Promise’s random appearances make survival even more challenging.  As Jade Moon plows her way into a new life, she learns that, to achieve true happiness, she will have to begin to trust; she will have to put her heart on the line.

The Fire Horse Girl is a fabulously written story.  While Jade Moon and Sterling Promise are fictitious characters, many of the details are true.  The deplorable conditions, alongside beautiful, heart-wrenching poetry detailed on Angel Island, is real.  “Paper families” were created.  The Chinese “gangs” existed.  Even the stories that Jade Moon loved to hear and to tell are adaptations from various Chinese Folktales.  I think that Ms. Honeyman is outstanding in crafting such a fantastic tale around historical facts that are not well-known, but probably should be.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2013.

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Wishful ThinkingWishful Thinking
Alexandra Bullen
Point, January 2011
ISBN 978-0-545-13907-6
Hardcover

We are all familiar with stories involving Three Wishes.  We even know most of The Rules: no wishing for more wishes, can’t make someone fall in love with you, no bringing someone back from the dead….it is a concept that we can grasp.  But, what if you didn’t even know that you had been granted three wishes?  At least, not until your quietly murmured, oft repeated, “first” wish comes true.

Wishful Thinking is told from the viewpoint of Hazel, beginning on her eighteenth birthday.  We quickly learn that Hazel’s life, until this point, has consisted of moving around.  From foster home to foster home, periodically reconnecting with her “sort-of” step-dad, Hazel has yet to sink her roots. She has no place to call home.

Two magic words, shared on the morning of her birthday, manage to give her hope.  She has a chance to pursue answers to the questions that plague her.  Finally, she may be able to figure out who she is.

An encounter with a surly seamstress, immediately followed by the knowledge of the loss of someone she never had, leave Hazel broken and dejected.  Little does she know, as she murmurs the wish, once again voicing the only thing she has ever truly wanted, Fate smiles on her.

A trip back in time is probably the last thing Hazel expected, but indubitably the one thing she needed most.  Ms. Bullen writes of Hazel’s self-discovery and difficult choices in a way that brings the reader right into the fold.  This sweet, tender and fulfilling book is a quick and compelling read.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2012.