Another gorgeous cover!
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is a historical novel recommended to me by a friend. It's about a woman and her contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 1800s - early 1900s. Being an etymology nerd, and knowing it had a feminist bent, I was excited to dive in.
The novel focuses on Esme, daughter of one of the men tasked with collecting and organizing words for the dictionary. After her mother died, she spent most of her time with her father in a place called the Scriptorium, where the words were sorted and compiled. Esme found a slip of paper on the floor with a word and realized it had been lost and decided to keep it. As she grew older, she learned that some words weren't lost by mistake, but left out on purpose--often words related to the poor and especially women. She must decide what to do about it, continue to help a dictionary that loses words on purpose or save those words left behind.
This book had a lot of interesting elements. I'd never thought about what it took to make the first dictionary or the thought process behind words to include or exclude. I thought Esme lived during an interesting time in England, which included the movement for women's suffrage and WWI.
Something frustrating about the book was that Esme took a long time to start on her character arc, so the beginning felt too slow for me. However, a lot of what was happening around Esme was interesting enough that I kept going.
Overall this book was an interesting read. This book is for you if you like Victorian-era historical fiction, etymology, and early 20th century feminism. It's not for you if you are looking for a super active character, if you're looking for a romance, of if you're not in the headspace to read about pregnancy/adoption.
Have you read the Dictionary of Lost Words? What other historical novels have you enjoyed? Let's discuss in the comments!
Look at that sphynx! With a cover like that, I couldn't say no!
I stumbled on Poisoned Primrose (Motts Cold Case Mystery, Book 1 ) by Dahlia Donovan when looking for an indie published cozy mystery to read. My goal this year was to read nine indies and I was behind, but I also wanted an indie in a genre I hadn't read indie before. When I saw the cover of Poisoned Primrose, I knew I needed to read it. It is book one in a series which also includes Pierced Peony, Pickled Petunia, and Purloined Poinsettia.
This book follows Motts, an autistic and asexual middle-aged woman and her sphynx, Cactus, who move into a late relative's cottage in a small English town. She knows the villagers, as she spent many childhood visits there, so there's a strong returning-to-small-town vibe. As Motts redoes the garden, she finds a very dated dead body. Motts pokes around to learn more about the victim and those who knew her, but the killer doesn't appreciate Motts's interest.
I liked the portrayal of the sphynx cat, Cactus, it was 10/10. The author either has or has lived with one, I'm sure. Cactus was my favorite character. I liked that the main character was written by an autistic author. I've read a couple books now about an autistic main character written by neurotypical authors and they get quite cringey with the stereotypical portrayals. I liked that this book avoided that! I also liked how Motts's asexual identity was respected and represented.
Unfortunately, the mystery was not clear enough to me. I didn't even have a sense of the age of the victim or why she was buried in Motts's garden at all. I was left without the sense of satisfaction that a solved mystery normally leaves me. I also had no idea what most characters looked like, so it was hard to picture some scenes.
Overall, this book is for you if you're looking for authentic autism or asexual representation, if you want to fall in love with or learn what it's like to own a sphynx, or if you prefer mysteries about cold cases. It is not for you if you want all your questions answered at the end of a mystery, want a romantic subplot involving spice, or a prefer fresh dead body in your mysteries.
Have you read Poisoned Primrose? Do you recommend other indie cozy mysteries? What other books have great autism rep? Let's discuss in the comments!
Wilbur loved to rub his face on this one, so I think he enjoyed it too. Photo by Kate Ota 2023
I know it’s hard to believe, but until recently I hadn’t read anything by Sarah J Maas, the bestselling author of the Throne of Glass series, the Crescent City series, and the NSFW fae series A Court of Thorns and Roses. This author first made a splash when I was trying to survive grad school and keeping up with reading trends fell off my radar. However, one of my close friends and fellow book lovers recently told me I’d love Throne of Glass, so trusting her judgement, I bought it.
What is Throne of Glass anyway? Isn’t SJM the fairy lady?
Fairies feature in the distant past in Throne of Glass (book 1 out of 8 in the series). It focuses on (human) assassin Celaena, who is brought out of a labor camp prison to compete against a ton of other killers (not all assassins specifically) to become the King’s Champion. Win, and she gets a four-year contract and then freedom. Lose and she’s back at the labor camp where she’ll definitely die. Along the way she meets and has sizzling chemistry with the crown prince and the captain of the guard. However, as the competition progresses, dark secrets come to light.
Does it live up to the hype?
I picked it up on vacation (I’d been searching every indie bookstore at home and had never spotted it) and devoured it. It was exactly my jam: strong female protagonist, a little magic, some chemistry to keep things interesting, twists, and language that was invisible. I know some people read for deep turns of phrase to savor, but I want the words to fade away so I can watch the movie in my head.
After a bad day at work, the day before I finished this book, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought the rest of the series at once. So, yeah, you could say I liked it.
Things I didn’t like were few and far between. I mean, in any competition book, you pretty much know who’s going to win, right? So there wasn’t much tension there for me, but the other twists introduced along the way really helped. The other downside is I have no idea how to pronounce the name Chaol. Is it Cole? Kay-ole? Kale? Ch-ole? I’m going with Cole in my head. I read this on paperback, but if you read it on an e-reader, be advised the map is very detailed and you may not be able to read it. (However, you won’t really need it.)
In conclusion, yes. It lives up to the hype. I’m already 200 pages into Crown of Midnight (book 2) and loving it! However, I’m going to try to read other books between entries in this series to better keep up with my goal of having 50% or more of the authors I read be from different backgrounds from mine.
You’ll enjoy Throne of Glass if you like deadly competitions, magical secondary worlds, and badass female protagonists. It’s not for you if you’re looking for literary style fiction, high spice level romance, or a real-world setting.
I liked reading such a popular book and deciding if it was actually that good, so I may do more posts about popular books and decide if they’re worth all the hype.
Have you read Throne of Glass? What about other books by SJM? Do her other series live up to the hype? What hyped up book should I do next in this series of blog posts? Let’s discuss in the comments!
The Amazon cover for the book features the green classic monster, not as described in the book.
Fall is spooky season and one of the main Halloween monsters is of course Frankenstein's monster, sometimes called Adam. Since it is a foundational text to scifi--the very first scifi, in fact--I decided to read the original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Rather than review it, I decided to write about what I learned about writing irom this classic novel (or really a novella, it was about 110 pages).
1) Don't be afraid of a unique story structure
Frankenstein is actually a letter written by a sea captain to his sister about meeting Dr. Frankenstein and that man's story. So the meat of the book is "story within a story" since you know in the end things will circle back to that boat captain. At one point, the story becomes the monster's story being told to Dr. Frankenstein being told to the captain. Like Russian nesting dolls. However, this complicated structure was made very clear and even acted as foreshadowing of excitement when the start of Dr. Frankenstein's tale got a little dry.
2) Don't overdo the backstory
While it may have been the style of the time, modern readers now don't need Dr. Frankenstein's life story to begin with his parents meeting. When I saw that was how the story began, I was dreading the rest. It didn't get interesting until Dr. Frankenstein left for college. So while it's good to read classics, keep in mind how very different the market is today, and don't accidentally pick up on very out of date style choices.
3) Build sympathy by showing what your characters wants most
We were all a little afraid of Frankenstein's monster after his first kill, naturally, because he's not on the page much to defend himself. However, he makes it clear exactly what he wants: a lover. He is so intensely lonely and in need of contact that after he explains it, you can't avoid sympathy. There is even some sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein when he just wants to protect others. Get your readers to choose sides by showing a deep want and explaining why--and why they can't have it (yet).
4) Keep up with the latest innovations
Mary Shelley was inspired by Galvanism and advances with electricity. If she'd only stayed aware of what was going on in the literary world, she wouldn't have run into the concepts that allowed her to conceive of Frankenstein. When looking for inspiration, look at innovations in fields that excite you: space, medicine, engineering, environmental science, oceanography, etc. Even keeping up with new historical finds in archaeology or anthropology, if you're more of a history/fantasy writer. You never know when you'll run into something that will inspire, so get out of your typical bubble.
Those are my big takeaways from Frankenstein for writers. I will admit I was very surprised that a lot of classic Frankenstein tropes weren't in the original book--no castle, no Igor, no villagers with pitchforks and torches. He literally made his monster in his dorm room. (Try explaining that mess to your R.A.) I think he was even described as yellow, not green. So the Hollywood-ization of Frankenstein has clearly overshadowed the original for my entire experience. Kind of wild!
Have you read Frankenstein? What were your writing (or reading) takeaways? What are some of your spooky season favorites? Let's discuss in the comments!
I decided to read Starlet by Sophie Lark because I loved Lark's Anastasia, which I read earlier this year. I chose the stand alone Starlet, a historical mystery.
Starlet focuses on Alice, the sister of a 1940's Hollywood star named Clara Bloom. When Clara is murdered on set, look-alike Alice sets up to finish Clara's final movie while also investigating the cast and crew to find the killer. She teams up with Jack, a local police detective, and together they dive into the mysteries of old Hollywood and uncover far more than just a murderer.
I liked plenty about this book. Lark's writing style is pretty invisible to me, allowing me to devour the book in about four sittings. I liked Alice and her motives and the details about how Hollywood operated. I liked the mystery too, with various twists and turns making it all the more interesting.
However, I was very disappointed in the reveal of the killer. No spoilers about why, it just felt sad. I also felt like the ending after the reveal came out of nowhere. The romance between Alice and Jack wasn't as fleshed out as I wanted, and some of the characters needed a little more fleshing out.
This book is for you if you like old Hollywood affairs like in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, if you want a classic-feeling mystery, or if you want a quick/easy read. This book isn't for you if you want romance at the forefront, if you want a feeling of justified vindication at the reveal of the killer, or if you're looking for factual old Hollywood events.
Have you read Starlet? Have you enjoyed Sophie Lark's other books? Let's discuss in the comments!
This cover does so much to tell you about this story, and it's gorgeous. 10/10
The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older is a scifi mystery novella. Older has an earlier award winning series of novels, the Centenal Cycle Trilogy, as well as other short works. The Mimicking of Known Successes has gotten a lot of buzz, including most anticipated book lists, so I figured it was worth looking into.
On mid-far future Jupiter, platforms serve as "land" since the planet is a gas giant, and the platforms are all connected by trains. When a man goes missing at the end of a train line, investigator Mossa is tasked with finding out what happened. She turns to her college ex, Pleiti, who studies ancient earth ecosystems in the hope of developing one to help repopulate the earth, when the time comes. The missing man is an unpopular colleague of Pleiti, so she helps Mossa navigate the university's politics in the search. However, as they keep digging, the find far more than they bargained for. In the mystery, and in their relationship.
This novella was packed full of worldbuilding, though it never felt like too much and was always relevant to the investigation. Though there wasn't much time for deep dives into the characters, I still got a good sense of who they were and their history. Mossa was Holmes-y, making connections quickly but lacking in social awareness, though not as rude as Holmes is often portrayed. I found the concept of Pleiti's job interesting and the mystery also kept my attention.
I do have one big quarrel, which is that I found the solution to the mystery unsatisfying. I won't spoil it here, but part of a good mystery to me is feeling satisfied at the end that the entire explanation makes sense and was right in front of you if you'd just been as clever as the detective. I didn't get that.
This book is for you if you were ever a Holmes/Watson shipper, if you're looking for genre blending between mystery and sci-fi, and if you're looking for a sapphic subplot. It's not for you if you want a novel-length read, if you need to be able to solve the mystery about the same time the detective does to be satisfied, or if you're looking for a more real-world mystery.
Have you read The Mimicking of Known Successes? What did you think of that ending? Let's discuss in the comments!
The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz (they/them) is a far-future sci-fi focused on the people making a distant planet more earthlike over a long period of time. It came across my radar when I was searching for Newitz's older book, Autonomous, but the library had this one instead. Newitz has three novels, several short stories, and non-fiction books and articles, many with a climate or cli-fi theme. They have been nominated for and/or won several prestigious awards.
The book focuses on members of the ERT, a cross between park rangers, scientists, and colonists who are in charge of the terraforming process. There are essentially three novellas in the book. In the first, Destry, a member of the ERT, accidentally discovers a hidden city on the planet and must find balance between her corporate overlords and the people who should be extinct. In the second, Sulfur deals with the fallout of Destry's choices while also planning public transit. In the third, a sentient train must help with a disaster that shapes the planet's destiny.
This book had a lot of ideas in it, to say the least. It certainly didn't have any slow pacing, which kept me from being bored. I liked that the environmental group had so much power and the science was well written.
On the other hand, this book's pacing was killer. I felt like I barely got to know characters before their time was up, and there were so many names I got lost often. There was also a huge helping of weird, with things like talking, flying moose and a train falling in love with a cat. It got to be a too much for me.
Overall, this book is for you if you want three related novellas, if you like weird sci-fi/talking animals, and if you are looking for far-future cli-fi. It's not for you if you want a single novel with the same characters throughout, if you do not like talking animals, or if you don't want sex scenes.
Have you read The Terraformers? What about Newitz's other novels? Let's discuss in the comments!
The cover of Love, Theoretically
Love, Theoretically by Ali Hazelwood is a STEM romcom, which is Hazelwood's signature subgenre. It's been heavily advertised to me because I read two of her other books (The Love Hypothesis and Love on the Brain.) Her other book is a trio of novellas collectively titled Loathe to Love You and she has a YA coming out later this year called Check & Mate.
Love, Theoretically focuses on recent PhD grad Elsie's hunt for a job in academia as a theoretical physics professor. She has three adjunct positions and no health insurance, and with her glitchy insulin pod, time is of the essence to find stability. Let's not forget her side hustle as a girlfriend-for-hire (not for sex.) She's invited to interview at MIT but upon arrival learns the tricky politics involved in filling the position. One of the interviewers is Jack, an infamous theoretical physics critic who Elsie has hated for about a decade. Will they be able to get over their rivalry in order to get together or at least get Elsie the job? Find out.
I enjoyed the way Hazelwood calls out the bullshit in academia (as she does in every book) this time focusing on the way department politics can cost applicants time and money, the horrible adjunct system (why yes, I was also an adjunct and no, I didn't get health insurance either), and the way that PhD advisors have way too much power over their students' lives. I liked Elsie's growth as a character--in fact, if you're a writer struggling with writing character arcs, Elsie is a super easy study because you can see her flaw from miles away and it's easy to keep an eye on how that flaw changes with the story beats.
Alas, I didn't enjoy the book as much as I wanted to. I think Jack was too much like Adam and Levi (the male leads from the other two novels by Hazelwood) and he felt very flat. The dynamic of the couple was also too similar--giant quiet man, farther in his career and considered more successful than the female MC, is accused of hating the female MC so she hates him and is also small and quirky. After the second or third chapter I correctly predicted every "twist" in the book because it was so similar to the others.
This book is for you if you loved The Love Hypothesis/Love on the Brain/Loathe to Love You and want more of the same, if you want an MC who is in physics or has diabetes, or if you want an academic-HEA (happily ever after) for an adjunct. It's not for you if you don't enjoy enemies/rivals-to-lovers, if you didn't enjoy Hazelwood's other books or want something new, or if you are not in the mental space to read about someone's academic job hunt.
Have you read Love, Theoretically or any of Ali Hazelwood's other books? What do you think? Which STEM career do you hope her next MC has? Let's discuss in the comments!
Clue as a dragon. Photo by Kate Ota 2023
Putting the Fact in Fantasy is a collection of essays by subject matter experts about various topics that are often portrayed poorly in fantasy books, movies, and TV. The collection was edited by Dan Koboldt. I came across this book in an Indie bookstore and thought it would probably be helpful for my adult fantasy WIP.
The fifty essays cover topics such as history as inspiration (female professions in medieval Europe, feudal nobility), languages and culture (realistic translation, developing a culture), worldbuilding (magic academies, money, political systems), weapons (archery, soldiers, martial arts), horses (so many horses), and adventure (hiking, castles and ruins). Pretty large variety! Most entries are less than ten pages, and the entire book is only 332 in paperback.
There is a large skew toward European information, but some sections specifically call out non-Western information, like the feudal nobility section which included Middle Eastern titles. Very few sections are focused solely on non-Western information. Most of the historical info is also medieval or even Renaissance, with very little historical focus on more recent time periods. Some essays in the worldbuilding section are less about time period and more about making you think more deeply about your world, which was very helpful. I marked many sections I want to return to, including one about plants. I will say, the horse section went on a bit too long.
Is It Worth It?
I paid $20 at an indie bookstore for a paperback copy. The ebook is slightly cheaper ($14.99) but if you want to highlight or bookmark sections that you want to think about later, a physical copy is a good investment.
This book could be worth it if you're writing a historical fantasy or secondary world fantasy. If you're writing urban fantasy, magical realism, or contemporary fantasy, this book will not be as valuable to you. (Unless you're writing about horses and know nothing about horses.) This book may also be useful for other writers who are writing secondary worlds, since the worldbuilding section is pretty flexible. Bonus, there's also a section about Westerns!
Overall, it was worth the price to me.
Have you read Putting the Fact in Fantasy? What about the other anthology edited by Dan Koboldt, Putting the Science in Fiction? Let's discuss in the comments!
Tower of Babel, cat tower, same thing, right? Photo by Kate Ota 2023
The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter was published in the very early 2000s and discusses how languages arise, evolve, split, and go extinct. Why am I writing this as an "Is It Worth It" and not a book review? Well, I realized early in the book that if I was going to create a fantasy or scifi language, this book included a lot of information about how to make a fake language feel real and not just some made up words in an English grammar scheme.
This book covers a lot of ground in 303 pages, including discussing different grammatical boxes in which languages can be categorized and how languages tend to morph words (because there are reliable patterns). A lot of space is also dedicated to discussing dialects and creole languages.
I enjoyed many of the interesting facts in the book, and learned so much about language in general that I'd never considered. In fact, one of the facts I read was tweeted by Merriam Webster while I was reading. What are the odds? However, it was a little dry and spent a long time explaining things. There were also a lot of Bill Clinton jokes.
Is It Worth It?
I got this paperback book from an indie bookstore for $17.99. If I was trying to build a language for a story, I think it would be a huge resource to get started with the basic concepts of how the language would operate. However, if you're just a linguistics nerd, or someone who got excited by the etymology in R.F. Kuang's Babel, then this is probably not the book you are hoping it is.
Have you ever tried to create a language for a project? What sources did you find helpful? Let's discuss in the comments!