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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: The First Excellence by Donna Carrick

It's hard to write, finish, and revise a book, and it takes courage and money to get it out there if the author wants to take the self-published route. Readers who are interested in self-published books but who don't want to waste their time on low-quality ones need a place to go for reviews. My new goal is to post a review of a self-published book the first weekend of every month so that authors and readers can connect with each other. I'm also going to try and get author interviews so that readers can meet the people behind the books. At first, reviews and interviews will be posted separately due to time constraints.

A disclaimer: I'm going to start with books by authors I know through real-life connections and through Twitter. If you're interested in getting your book reviewed and are willing to be interviewed by an otherworldly catfish, please email my assistant at bert{at}ceciliadominic.com or follow Bert on Twitter and message him there.

Title: The First Excellence – Fa-Ling's Map
Author: Donna Carrick
Genres: Coming-of-Age, Crime, Drama

I am ashamed to say that I've had The First Excellence – Fa-Ling's Map sitting in my to-read pile almost since I started this blog in the Spring. I enjoyed Carrick's serial thriller Two Good Hands (available to read on The Penny Dreadful web site) and knew that she is a master of intricate plotting and suspense, but I had a hard time getting excited about a Chinese girl's coming-of-age story since I'm not typically a coming-of-age genre fan. I brought it to my parents' cabin to read over my anniversary weekend, and once I started it, I devoured it in less than twenty-four hours.

Yes, devoured. This is not your typical "young adult finds herself" tale. The first two chapters contain a suicide, triple murder, hints at an anti-government plot, and introductions to characters who quickly find themselves in precarious positions. Set in China, the book focuses on Fa-Ling, an orphan who was adopted with her younger sister by a Canadian couple and who returns to her homeland to figure out who she is and what her "First Excellence," or career, should be. However, her cautious Canadian parents won't let her go alone, so she joins a supposedly "safe" group of five couples who are going to China to finalize the adoptions of baby girls. One couple is not what they seem, and one member of the group has her own very dirty little secret that results in two kidnappings. Fa-Ling meets a handsome Chinese detective who is investigating a supposed suicide that occurs in the room next to hers on her first night in China, and their feelings for each other grow as the investigation becomes more complicated.

One tough task for authors who write for a Western audience but who want to set their books in an unfamiliar land is how to highlight cultural differences without lecturing. Carrick, who has been through the Chinese adoption process, who is familiar with land's customs, and who has obviously done her homework, allows the reader into the Chinese mindset without information dumping or becoming preachy. Moments of humor are both at the expense of the sometimes clueless Westerners and annoyed Easterners, and they are always portrayed with sensitivity and understanding. At the end of the day, all the characters are human, and even the villains seem sympathetic.

With regard to manufacturing and appearance, the book is beautifully illustrated and put together by BookSurge. I did catch a few editing mistakes, but no more than I usually find in traditionally published works.

This is probably a matter of personal preference, but my only complaint is that Carrick writes in third-person omniscient point-of-view. Although she keeps the head-hopping to a minimum, I found that having more than one perspective per scene could sometimes be jarring. I – and, I suspect, many Western readers – have come to view third-person limited as the convention. Luckily, she doesn't do it too often.

Overall, I really enjoyed Carrick's First Excellence and hope she continues the story of Fa-Ling and handsome Detective Wang. This would make a fun series.

The First Excellence – Fa-Ling's Map is $17.99 at amazon.com and also available for $7.99 on Kindle.

Previous reviews: Kenn Allen's The Golden Cockerel

Coming up in January: Laura Eno's Don't Fall Asleep


  1. Great review! I really didn't have any idea what the book was about, based on the title. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Laura! I didn't either, really, which is why I had it for so long before I read it. I'm glad I did, though. Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Sounds like Carrick brought the goods in this one. Nice review, Cecilia!

  4. Thanks, Ant! She definitely did. It's worth a read if you haven't already. :)