Wilbur has no regrets, so he couldn't relate to the main character. Photo by Kate Ota 2024.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig has been brought up to me by several people: my mom, my sister, and one of my friends, who gave me the book as a gift. It seemed like the universe really wanted me to read it, so I finally did. This book was on many best seller lists and major book club lists as well as winning a Goodreads Choice Award for best fiction of 2020.
Content warning: a character commits suicide, a cat dies
The Midnight Library follows Nora, a British 35 year old who has just been fired from her dead end job at a music store, whose cat has just died, and who basically is friendless and abandoned by her only remaining family. She ends up committing suicide and wakes in a sort of purgatory, a library. The librarian, her childhood librarian, explains the rules: every book in the library is a life she lived differently and she can ask to see any of them. Most are lives where she didn't do one of the regrets listed in her book of regrets, but some are just very small tweaks to reality. Nora explores these other lives to find one worth living, though many are not as happy as they seem. As time runs out and she moves closer to true death, she must decide what matters most to a life worth living.
As many have said before, this book is very It's a Wonderful Life, but offering more alternate realities than could have fit into a movie. Though the final choice is predictable, it's interesting to see how many different versions of Nora's life the author was able to conjure. I found it interesting when she ran into other people in her situation, and that not everyone's midnight library was a library at all. It felt like a deep character study of Nora, which could be helpful to recreate if you as a writer are struggling with character.
On the downside, Nora's cat at one point died of the same thing that killed my late cat, so that left me in tears for a while. I was also frustrated by how bad Nora was at fitting in to the lives she stepped into--she never got better at it! I guess improv isn't for everyone, but it's a useful life skill.
This book is for you if you love It's a Wonderful Life, multiverses (but make it contemporary fiction), or if you yourself are struggling with regrets. This book is not for you if you are not in the headspace to read about suicide/suicidal ideation or dead cats (especially if a heart defect was involved), or if you're looking for more fantasy/sci-fi high-stakes multiverse hopping.
Have you read The Midnight Library? Stealing this question from my mom, who asked her book club: what would your midnight library be? Let's discuss in the comments!
I woke them up for this picture so please excuse their grumpy expressions. Photo by Kate Ota 2024
Sword Catcher is the first adult fantasy from Cassandra Clare, of Shadowhunter fame. I enjoy that series from her because of how she can manipulate reader emotions about characters. She's also written the only love triangle that I consider a real triangle (Will/Jem/Tessa). Suffice to say, I think she's a master at character and was excited to see a new world from her.
Sword Catcher focuses on Kel, the titular sword catcher aka body double for Prince Conor. He steps in where there could be danger and his only job is to die for the prince, if necessary. With a little magic and a lot of coincidence, they look alike. When not on duty, Kel poses as the prince's cousin. Kel discovers a new crime lord has sprung up in the capital city who has eyes on taking down the prince (who is basically a regent due to his father's mental health) and Kel makes some unlikely friends in trying to protect the prince. One such unlikely connection is Lin, the only female physician from the local Ashkar people. Ashkar people are pretty much analogous to Jewish people at certain times in history--restricted movement, specific clothing requirements, no inter-marriage--and are the only people in the world who can use magic. Lin wishes only to save her bff/surrogate sister Mariam from a chronic illness that's about to run its course. But when Lin discovers a magical object that may be the key to saving Mariam, the problem becomes how to make it work, and why it seems to work only when she's called to the palace for some emergency healing.
The world was very well-built. I understood what was going on, even when only shown a portion of the world. The characters' desires were clear and their actions always made sense in serving those wants. I liked the clear analogy to Jewish populations in the past with the Ashkar people and the LGBT+ friendly world. This kept it from feeling like just another fantasy Europe. There was a lot of diversity in characters from other places and thoughtfully developed languages.
Unfortunately, there was so much worldbuilding that I started skimming over country names and character names if I didn't think they'd be relevant. Some names were also frustratingly similar, like Falconet and Fausten. The set up of the book also took too long, though I suspect this is because this book is clearly book 1 in a series, so the set up needed to set up the whole series and not just a stand alone. Still, it took a while for things to get moving.
This book is for you if you like Cassandra Clare's characters and writing voice, if you want to read a book with fantasy-Jewish elements, and if you want to start a series with some serious worldbuilding. It's not for you if you want a book that can stand alone, if you need a fast pace from the start, or if you prefer low/urban/contemporary fantasy to high/epic/secondary-world fantasy.
Have you read Sword Catcher? What did you think? Did you expect two characters to get together who haven't yet? (I did!) Let's discuss in the comments!
Violeta by Isabel Allende was given to me for Christmas this year. I managed to squeeze it into January, making it my sixth read that month. I knew nothing about the book beforehand, so I went in with no expectations.
Violeta is an adult historical fiction following Violeta through her life from the 1920s onward in Chile. It included events American audiences would find familiar, like WWII, and less familiar, like the military coup in Chile. It was written as if it was a giant letter from Violeta to Camilo, whose relationship to Violeta becomes clear as the story progresses.
I enjoyed learning about 20th century Chile from this book, because I knew very little about that. Something that surprised me was that despite the distance and different histories, a lot of familiar events acted like major milestones in Violeta’s life. I liked the different events that I'd not heard about before, because I worried initially that this book would be too similar to stories of 20th century Americans that I’ve read before.
Something harder for me was the writing style. It had a lot more summary than scene, which matched the epistolary-like structure, but still didn’t work for me. It made the events feel too distant from me, and I had trouble understanding some of Violeta’s choices because I was so far removed from the moment. She also had awful taste in men. Warning: this book contains both physical and psychological abuse.
This book is for you if you are looking for female-lead historical fiction, if you want to learn about 20th century Chile, or if you want fiction with the flavor of memoir. It’s not for you if you’re looking to read deeply about specific events or real people in Chile’s history, or if you’re not in the headspace to read about an abusive relationship, drug use, or pregnancy complications.
Have you read Violeta? What about Isabel Allende’s other books? Let’s discuss in the comments!
This series is almost as tall as my tallest cat. It's definitely a work out to haul this series around. Photo by Kate Ota 2024
Last year I reviewed Sarah J. Maas's hit Throne of Glass, the first in an adult epic fantasy series, and asked if it lived up to all the hype. I decided it was, and bought the rest of the series. In January, I finally finished the last book of the series, Kingdom of Ash, a nearly 1000 page behemoth. I even did the famous tandem read of Empire of Storms and Tower of Dawn. So, is all that worth the hype?
What's the series about? (SPOILER FREE)
As a refresher, Throne of Glass followed Celaena Sardothien, famed assassin, as she tried to win the king's tournament to be the King's Champion, aka assassin on call. Along the way she got some troubling information from a ghost and discovered the king was not all he seemed to be. The rest of the series follows the same three characters: Prince Dorian, Captain Chaol Westfall, and Celaena Sardothien (by many names) through the adventures that ensue from seeds planted in book 1. More POVs are added over time for characters that have become beloved by fans.
The books are: Assassin's Blade (prequel, recommended to read 3rd), Throne of Glass, Crown of Midnight, Heir of Fire, Queen of Shadows, Empire of Storms, Tower of Dawn, and Kingdom of Ash.
Does It live up to the hype?
My impression of the series was that it was a fun read. Celaena kept me on my toes and always guessing, and I loved whenever her plots and plans were revealed both to the audience and those around her. She was intensely clever not just powerful, and she never leaned to far into the trope I hate, "I'm not like other girls," because she was super girly when she had the chances. The romances were hit or miss for me because some I rooted for and sometimes I was yelling at the book about what a terrible guy someone was and why his romantic interest absolutely needed to dump him.
My complaints are few. Even though I predicted a lot of the overall things that would happen, the twists along the way kept me going, just like in the first book. I didn't like Tower of Dawn much, because it focused on Chaol, who I grew to dislike. However, the tandem read improved that experience, see the next section.
Does this series live up to the hype? Yes. Well written, interesting, surprising, strong female characters without the internalized misogyny, and a dash of romance. 10/10 will probably re-read someday!
What's the tandem read and is that worth the struggle?
The tandem read is when you read some chapters of Empire of Storms and then switch to Tower of Dawn, and then back again. I followed the guide on the Throne of Glass wiki, which I think worked well.
Pros: You're not stuck with Chaol for 600 pages, you get others too. It feels more like the other books, where the main trio are all represented by POVs, even if they're not all together. You add tension to the read because if you follow the guide, certain elements align so you only know some information about the off-screen characters, but you maintain mystery.
Cons: It takes a while to flag all the chapters before you start, and you may accidentally get spoiled by the first line of some chapters--especially in Tower of Dawn! I also somehow got off, and ended by reading two sections in a row of Tower of Dawn because I'd already finished Empire of Storms. Oops! And of course, if you read in public, you now have to carry around two books instead of one, and they're beefy.
Overall, I felt like the tandem read was worth the struggle. I liked the added tension and the way it kept things fresh and moving forward. If you're curious about the experience, I recommend giving it a try!
This series is for you if you like monarchy drama in fantasy worlds, a mix between hard and soft magic systems, a strong female main character, and fae/fairies.
This series is not for you if you dislike fae/fairies, are not in the headspace for on-page violence or war (she's an assassin!), dislike soft magic systems, or dislike on-page sex scenes (they're not as descriptive as the scenes in Fourth Wing, but you're getting more than you'd get from a YA series, for example).
Have you read the Throne of Glass series? Crescent City 3, also from SJM, just dropped so I may do another "does it live up to the hype?" post soon! Which of her series have you read, and which is your favorite? Let's discuss in the comments.
2023 was a big year in reading for me, and while there are plenty of blog posts reviewing most of my reads, I thought I should highlight my favorites. Since my reviews include recommendations for who would enjoy or not enjoy any book, I think books I loved aren't always obvious. Without further ado, here are my top reads of 2023:
My Favorite Debut
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
My Favorite Award Winner
Babel by R. F. Kuang
My Favorite Writing Craft Book
Story Genius by Lisa Cron
My Favorite Indie
Anastasia by Sophie Lark
If you want to know about other great books I read, check out my 2023 goals update post, which has links to all my reviews for the year.
What were your favorite reads in 2023? Have you read any of my picks? Let's discuss in the comments!
In January, I posted my reading and writing goals for 2023 and now I'm checking in to hold myself accountable. My reading list from 2023 is at the bottom and I'll share my favorites in another post!
Goal: Read 15,000 pages.
Reality: I read 19,608 pages!
Goal: >50% of the authors will be marginalized or different from me in a demographic way.
Reality: 50.9% were marginalized or different from me in a demographic way.
Goal: Read 9 indie books
Reality: I read 9 indie books (see reading list below)
Goal: Read 2 foundational scifi novels
Reality: I read 2 foundational scifi novels: Frankenstein and I, Robot
Goal: Read 4 scifi nominees/winners from the last two years
Reality: I read more than 4 award winners/nominess, though I'll admit they aren't all scifi, and not all nominated in the last two years: Chain-Gang All Stars (National Book Award 2023 nominee); Babel (Nebula winner 2023); Woman of Light (multiple award winner/nominee 2023); The Sixth Extinction (Pulitzer Prize 2015), All Systems Red (Nebula and Hugo 2018); Artificial Condition (Hugo 2019)
Goal: 5 debut novels
Reality: I read 7 debut novels: Woman of Light, Lessons in Chemistry, Please Report Your Bug Here, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, The Blood Trials, Camp Zero, and Chain-Gang All-Stars
Goal: Send >5 queries each month until I finish my potential agent list.
Reality: Because some agents never opened in the time period I was querying, I didn't finish the list. However, that's beyond my control, so because I did send more than 5 queries per month until my list ran dry, I am counting this as a success.
Goal: Finish the draft of my current WIP
Goal: Continue to attend my critique groups and keep up with pre-reading
Goal: Attend one writing workshop or conference
Reality: I attended the PNWA 2023 conference.
Goal: Get one short story selected for publication
Reality: Nope! I totally forgot this was a goal this year. I wrote a short story, but never shopped it around. Oops!
Overall, not bad. I only fell short on a couple goals.
Below is my reading list from the year. My most popular genre by far was fantasy, followed distantly by scifi. Three of these books were DNRs, but at least 100 pages of each counted toward my page goal.
Title Author Pub Type Genre Link
The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Woman of Light Kali Fajardo-Anstine Trad Historical My Review
Arsenic and Adobo Mia M. Manansala Trad Mystery My Review
Reminders of Him Colleen Hoover Trad Romance Podcast
All Systems Red Martha Wells Trad SciFi My Review
Chain of Thorns Cassandra Clare Trad Fantasy
Lessons in Chemistry Bonnie Garmus Trad Historical My Review
Anastasia Sophie Lark Indie Fantasy My Review
The Chemist Stephanie Meyer Trad Action Podcast
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself Marisa Crane Indie Scifi/Literary My Review
Please Report Your Bug Here Josh Riedel Trad Scifi My Review
Fevered Star Rebecca Roanhorse Trad Fantasy
The Blood Trials N. E. Davenport Trad Fantasy My Review
Murder Your Employer Rupert Holmes Trad Mystery Podcast
Artificial Condition Martha Wells Trad SciFi
Bird by Bird Anne Lamott Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Babel R.F. Kuang Trad Fantasy My Review
Rogue Protocol Martha Wells Trad SciFi
Six of Crows Leigh Bardugo Trad Fantasy My Review
Story Genius Lisa Cron Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Crooked Kingdom Leigh Bardugo Trad Fantasy My Review
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi Shannon Chakraborty Trad Fantasy My Review
Charlotte: The Price of Vengance James Moore Pre-Pub Mystery Podcast
Camp Zero Michelle Min Sterling Trad Scifi My Review
The Power of Babel John McWhorter Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Putting the Fact in Fantasy Dan Kobolt et. al. Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Love, Theoretically Ali Hazelwood Trad Romance My Review
The Terraformers Annalee Newitz Trad Scifi My Review
The Legacy of Yangchen F. C. Yee Trad Fantasy
Toph Beifong's Metalbending Multiple Trad Fantasy
Fourth Wing Rebecca Yarros Trad Fantasy Podcast
Frankenstein Mary Shelley Trad SciFi My Review
The Mimiking of Known Successes Malka Older Trad Scifi/Mystery My Review
The Raider Bride Johanna Wittenberg Indie Fantasy
Starlet Sophie Lark Indie Historical/Mystery My Review
Throne of Glass Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy My Review
iRobot Isaac Asimov Trad SciFi My Review
Of Cinder and Bone Kyoko M. Indie SciFi
Poisoned Primrose Dahlia Donovan Indie Mystery My Review
Chalice of the Gods Rick Riordan Trad Fantasy My Review
Sun and the Star Rick Riordan/Mark Oshiro Trad Fantasy My Review
Crown of Midnight Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy
The Dictionary of Lost Words Pip Williams Trad Historical My Review
When We Left Cuba Chanel Kleetan Trad Historical My Review
Chain-Gang All-Stars Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Trad Fantasy My Review
My First and Only Love Sahar Khalifeh Trad Historical
The Savior's Champion Jenna Moreci Indie Fantasy
Iron Flame Rebecca Yarros Trad Fantasy Podcast coming soon!
The Throne of the Five Winds S.C. Emmett Trad Fantasy
Grunt Mary Roach Trad Non-Fiction
Heir of Fire Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy
Assassin's Blade Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy
We're All Monsters Here Amy Marsden Indie Fantasy My Review
Queen of Shadows Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy
The cover is giving me Carmen San Diego as a vampire, which is not a bad thing.
I needed to squeeze one more indie book in before the end of the year to hit my 2023 goals, and thankfully I found the novella We're All Monsters Here by Amy Marsden. At 99 ebook pages, I was able to finish it in one sitting. I'm so glad this is the book I picked up!
We're All Monsters Here is like Glass Onion (aka Knives Out 2) but with a vampire named Anna. She manipulated a corporate big wig into planning an exclusive executive getaway and inviting Anna, whose app he recently bought. It's basically a vampiric buffet. Anna's weekend even improves when she has a fling with one of the assistants, Saira. However, vampire hunters show up and Anna must navigate carefully to avoid being taken out.
This novella had a great voice and premise. Despite killing people, I really liked Anna--I mean, eat the rich, right? While I often complain novellas are too short, I thought the length of this one was just right.
The first half was a little too smooth for me. If nothing goes wrong for the characters, I start feeling like the story is too simple and maybe predictable. When things went downhill for Anna, it was much more fun. That being said, the voice and premise kept me going in the first half.
We're All Monsters Here is for you if you enjoyed Glass Onion, if you're looking for a sapphic urban fantasy, or if you want a quick read. It's not for you if your favorite part of fantasy is extensive worldbuilding, if you are looking for lots of twists and turns, or if you aren't able to handle blood and gore at the moment.
Have you read We're All Monsters Here? What was your favorite novella of 2023? Let's discuss in the comments!
The cover is interesting, but I would prefer Loretta's hammer on the cover, not a scythe.
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has been on my radar since January, when I read a list of the most anticipated 2023 debuts. Adjei-Brenyah has a short story collection out as well, but Chain-Gang was his first novel. It hit shelves in May 2023 and I've seen it on some lists of top reads for the year. I dove in with high expectations.
Chain-Gang All-Stars is like if you mixed the showmanship of pro wrestling, the reality TV/punishment concept of the Hunger Games, and America's broken prison system. Prisoners with greater than 25 year punishments are allowed to enroll in a program where they battle (mostly 1 v 1) to the death. After three years of battles, they can go free (called high freed). If they are killed, that's called low freed. The main character, Loretta Thurwar, is weeks away from freedom, and you follow her, her lover and fellow inmate Staxxx, and occasionally some other characters both inside and outside the system.
This book was very well done. Though it incorporated many POVs, some only seen once or twice, it did a great job at denoting POV changes with separate scenes and didn't head hop. I was kept on the edge of my seat, never knowing for sure who would survive any of the battles. Even without the threat of death, the POVs outside the chain-gang were tense and added so much to the understanding of how this system was allowed to continue and how the world reacted to it. The worldbuilding and character development were very well done.
It's hard to find a downside for me. If you're not a fan of violence, this will be a tough read for you.
This book is for you if you are a fan of the "punishments on TV" concept from The Hunger Games, if you're a prison abolitionist, or if you want to study how doing a multi-POV book can really work. It's not for you if you're not a fan of reading about violence, if you are not in the headspace to read about abusers or rapists (although one character was convicted after killing her rapist, so there's that to balance the scale), or if you're going to be homophobic about the central romance.
Have you read Chain-Gang All-Stars? What did you think about that final scene? Let's discuss in the comments!
I kind of want this dress on the cover of the book!
When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton was another recommendation from a friend. It was written by an author whose family escaped Cuba and it was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, so I had high hopes!
The book focuses on Beatriz Perez, an adult daughter in a family that escaped Cuba during the rise of Castro. Though they'd been very wealthy in Cuba, and continued to travel in the upper echelon of social circles in Florida, they were in financial trouble. However, Beatriz's goals are not to marry rich like her sisters, no, she wants revenge on Castro for the murder of her brother. When she meets a handsome up-and-coming politician, she wonders if revenge is the right route. However, when she is approached by the CIA about going undercover to take down Castro, she's tempted to go on the war path.
This book has such an interesting premise. A woman cold war era spy, a little romance, I was sold. I didn't know much about Cuban history aside from the very big picture events, so it was interesting to see it from a Cuban/Cuban-American perspective and learn more.
However, Beatriz kept making decisions that drove me insane. There was not enough spy craft, and when that plot line wrapped up, I was livid. She didn't have enough agency for me. Her male romantic lead was also so forgettable that I can't remember his name, nor find his name easily in reviews or even the blub on Amazon. He's off-brand JFK from Florida, basically. To me, he wasn't worth her time.
This book is for you if you want to learn about the Cuban revolution (but not in a dates and names and places kind of way), if you want a romance with a touch of spying, or if you enjoyed Chanel Cleeton's other books, which have crossover characters with this one. It's not for you if you're looking for a spy thriller, if you're looking for a book about being in the Cuban revolution (that's all in the past in this book), or if you're looking for a more traditional romance plot.
Have you read When We Left Cuba? What about Chanel Cleeton's other books? Are there other cold war spy novels about women you recommend? Let's discuss in the comments!
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!