Book Review: Arsenic and Adobo
A very cute cover. Can't forget the little dog, a staple in cozies!
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala is a cozy mystery centered around Lila and her family who own and operate a small Filipino restaurant. It's a fun read and includes recipes for most of the dishes in the back. It's the first book of the Tita Rosie's Kitchen Mystery series, which also include Homicide and Halo-Halo (2022), and Blackmail and Bibingka (2022). Arsenic and Adobo won the 2022 Anthony Award and 2022 Agatha Award, both in the category Best First Novel. The author was a 2017 PitchWars mentee, which shows just how powerful that program was in launching authors' careers.
When Lila's toxic ex dies at her family's restaurant, Lila is a suspect. Knowing her innocence, she tries to solve the murder before her family restaurant has to close forever. In the process, she learns there's more than just murder happening in their small town, and every restaurant has been a victim.
I liked this story a lot. It flowed smoothly and was a fast read. While I didn't know any of the foods at the family restaurant, there was enough description to keep me oriented. There were also a couple love interests that made things exciting beyond the mystery. I could tell this was the start of a series, but it still had closure at the end.
My list of dislikes is pretty short. Mainly, as with many cozy mysteries, I didn't understand why Lila went rogue to solve this alone. Yes, she's a suspect who wants to clear her name, but she wasn't taking any advice from her lawyer, and all the evidence she would would have been inadmissible in court. However, this is my main complaint with almost every cozy, so perhaps it's just a trope I need to let slide when reading this genre.
You'll like Arsenic and Adobo if you like cozy mysteries, books with recipes for the food it describes, and a dash of (PG) romance. It may not be for you if you prefer detective mysteries or expect a higher spice level with your romantic subplots.
Have you read Arsenic and Adobo or the other books in the series? Have you read other novels by PitchWars alums? Let's discuss in the comments!
If you missed it, my story "Please Don't be a Serial Killer" is one of the stories in Nightmare Sky: Stories of Astronomical Horror. It's an anthology from Death Knell Press edited by Red Lagoe, which published in November 2022.
The Bram Stoker Awards announced its preliminary ballots for works published in 2022, and Nightmare Sky made the list for Superior Achievement in Anthology! Horror Writers Association members can vote on which of the ten anthologies make it to the final ballot, which will be five titles. Those five titles can officially say they are nominees. So we aren't there yet, but it's so exciting! Death Knell Press wrote a beautiful post about how much this means to Red.
If you're not familiar with the Bram Stoker Awards, here's a little background. Bram Stoker famously wrote Dracula, among other horror titles. The award was created by the Horror Writer's Association and first presented in 1988. The preliminary list is made from recommendations of HWA members or by a jury. Either way, it means HWA members have been reading and enjoying Nightmare Sky enough to recommend it. It's such an honor! The winners are announced in the spring.
If you're a voting HWA member interested in Nightmare Sky, feel free to contact me for a copy.
Wish us luck!
Book Review: Woman of Light
You know I'm a sucker for a pretty cover!
Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine was longlisted for the 2023 Joyce Carol Oats Prize. The book is her debut novel, though she also published an acclaimed collection of short stories and articles for major publications. Woman of Light is about a young Hispanic woman, Luz, in 1930s Denver. It's this quarter's pick for my work's Diversity and Inclusion Book Club, and yes, the author does share a Hispanic background with the main character and majority of side characters.
Luz comes from a line of women with a very vague gift for seeing the future, and Luz uses tea leaves to do so. Luz deals with racism, sexism, and poverty as she navigates a time period after her brother is kicked out of their home. She experiences first love, first lust, and a change in career. There are some time jumps, some of which are visions and some of which aren't, to show the last few generations of women.
This book covered a time period in which I didn't know much about Denver. Growing up in Colorado, our 4th grade Colorado History unit skipped from the frontier to current times, as if nothing interesting happened in between. (After reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I suppose I understand why that era isn't taught to 9- and 10-year-olds.) I found it interesting to see Denver from that era, though sad to see the pervasive racism and sexism.
I had two problems with the book that made it harder to read. First, the time jumps didn't fit into the story for me, and introduced so many characters that I had trouble remembering who was when. It also felt like a lot of things happed to Luz rather than because of Luz. Even in the climactic moment of the book, she doesn't initiate or resist it, she just goes with the flow. Since I prefer active characters (especially ones who are women) this was a major drawback for me. Aside from those issues, a smaller complaint was that Luz's gift, which felt so important in the blurb I read, had little impact on the story and in my opinion, might as well have not been included.
This book is for you if you're into historical fiction, especially the 1930s or the not-so-wild West, or if you're into literary fiction. It's not for you if you like your speculative elements to have a more central role, if you're looking for active characters, or if you're not in a good mindset for reading about racism, racially-motivated violence, or sexual assault.
Have you read Woman of Light? What do you think? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: The Sixth Extinction
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is a Pulitzer Prize winner (2015) for general non-fiction. I picked it up because the summary available from my library's website said it discussed the current extinction events by focusing each chapter on a specific species, and I'm a sucker for animal facts. It was the first book I finished in 2023, and it was fascinating.
Like I wrote above, the book has one chapter focused on a different species, either extinct or endangered, and discusses not only that species' predicament, but how it fits into the larger tapestry of our understanding of the current extinction event. The title is a reference to the five prior major extinctions (think meteor killing dinosaurs, which is discussed!) and how the current die-off is similar in scale. I learned so much, including that extinction wasn't even a thing people thought could happen until the 1800s. There used to be a penguin-like species in the northern hemisphere until the 1840s and I'd NEVER heard about it!
Pros for this book, it was very well written (hence the Pulitzer), and I mean that it wasn't a dry, slow, jargon-heavy monster. It included deeper history as well as the author's own adventures in going to the places where the extinctions took or were taking place. Based on my summary of the book, you can also tell that I loved learning all the little details about the animals. There was even a Neanderthal chapter, which is dear to my heart as the topic of my current #amquerying project.
There wasn't much I disliked about the book. Perhaps it was depressing thinking about all the species at risk or vanishing. But it's also vital to know it's happening in order to prevent it. The ebook ended at the 74% mark, and after that was all the bibliography type information non-fiction books include. That unfortunately left me in the lurch on my commute, as I'd expected at least two more chapters worth of reading.
I'd recommend this book to animal lovers, people who are looking for science non-fiction that is accessible to non-scientists, and history lovers. It's not for climate change or science deniers or anyone who would be too upset about dying animals.
Have you read any good non-fiction lately? Let's discuss in the comments!
2023 Reading and Writing Goals
After my successful reading (and only a little successful writing) last year, I'm setting more goals! Of course, I've learned some lessons I'll be applying to my new goals as well.
1) Volume of Reading
In 2023, I won't be keeping track of the number of books I've read, but the number of pages. This is because I got so stressed about needing to finish books last year that I felt guilty choosing long books, and didn't want to DNF a book after investing so much time into it. If I go off of pages read, then I can DNF a book without feeling like I'm letting myself down, and I can pick long books without worrying about needing to read faster. I went back to my data from 2022 to get a baseline and in 2022 I read just over 14,000 pages.
My 2023 goal: Read 15,000 pages
2) Variety of Authors
I liked keeping track of the number of female authors I read, but I found it super easy to hit my goal of >50% of the authors being female. Therefore, I don't think I'll set a goal for this in the up coming year. However, I will keep track, and if it drops below 50%, then it'll be back on my resolutions next year. I just want to see if I naturally meet this mark.
However, I was challenged by my 2022 goal of 50% of the authors being unlike me in some (demographic) way.
My 2023 goal: >50% of the authors will be marginalized in some way
3) Variety of Publishing
One really tough aspect of my goals last year was the 8 indies. Most of them were great, but two were big flops for me. Still, I could just be looking in the wrong places for recommendations, so I'm going to keep at it!
My 2023 goal: Read 9 indie books
4) New Aspects to Track
I want to add a new challenge this year as well, and I've thought about reading award winners/nominees, classics/foundational novels of scifi, or debuts. I'm a little torn, so why not all three?
My 2023 goal: Read 2 foundational scifi novels
My 2023 goal: Read 4 scifi award winners/nominees from the last 2 years (2021-2023)
My 2023 goal: Read 5 debut novels (from 2022 or 2023)
A lot of these will look familiar, but the only way to get published is to keep trying.
This is staying the same, since finding five open agents from my list every month proved to be pretty tough sometimes.
My 2023 goal: Send >5 queries each month until I finish my potential agent list
2) Writing Fresh
I don't care which month I finish the novel in, so long as I finish it. I've been getting great feedback on the first half, which has given me a ton of ideas for the second.
My 2023 goal: Finish the first draft of my current WIP
3) Critique Groups
Tried and true, I'm going to earn my keep in these valuable groups.
My 2023 goal: Continue to attend my critique groups and keep up with the pre-reading (when applicable)
4) Continuous Improvement
I have great opportunities this year for workshops, and I feel like maybe it's even safe enough to go to big conferences again. Hopefully the timing works out.
My 2023 goal: Attend one writing workshop or conference
6) Short Stories
These have never been my focus, but with two short stories published now, I want to keep going. You never know when an agent's reading an anthology or magazine, right?
My 2023 goal: Get one short story selected for publication.
That's about it. I'll check back on this post at the end of next year to see how I did.
Do you have 2023 goals and resolutions for reading or writing? Let's chat in the comments!
2022's Resolutions: Updates
A year ago, I posted my 2022 reading and writing resolutions. Now it's time to check in and see how I did.
Goal: Read 45 books
Achieved! I read 45 books exactly and reviewed 23 of them (see links below)
Goal: 8 of those books would be indies
Achieved! I read 8 indies exactly and reviewed 3 of them (see links below)
Goal: Greater than 50% of the books would be written by female authors
Achieved! 66.66% were written either exclusively by women or at least one woman, where multiple authors contributed
Goal: At least 50% of the books would be written by authors who have a marginalized identity.
Achieved! 55.55% were written either exclusively by or including at least one author with at least one marginalized identity
I read a ton of great books this year. It was a good mix of new, old, big hits, and quieter releases. SciFi and Fantasy tied as my most common genres, which is no surprise as those are always my favorites.
Here's my reading list from 2022:
Goal: Have my WIP query ready by February
Achieved! I sent my first round of queries for this project in February 2022.
Goal: Send at least 5 queries per month
11/12 on this one, can't win them all, though some months I sent more than 5.
Goal: Complete the first draft of my next WIP by August 2022
Nope! This one is still under construction.
Goal: Continue attending writing groups whenever possible
Goal: Keep up with this website
Achieved! A couple months were slimmer on content than others, but that's the way it goes sometimes.
I'm still deciding on my 2023 resolutions/goals. Did you achieve your 2022 goals? Did we read any of the same books? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: The Matzah Ball
The cover of The Matzah Ball. Why yes, I am looking forward to the movie (rights were optioned in Feb 2022!)
The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer is a Hanukkah romance. Basically, take the tropes of any Hallmark Christmas movie and make it Hanukkah. If you've seen any of those movies, you'll love the little nods to those plot beats. The main character, Rachel, is the daughter of a famous rabbi, but she has a secret--she writes Christmas romance novels. Living with her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she must constantly measure how much energy she's willing to spend and how much recovery time each action will cost. Her bubble of normalcy is burst when her pre-teen summer camp rival, Jacob, comes to town to throw a ritzy Matzah Ball on the eighth night of Hanukkah. Not only that, but her publisher wants her to pivot from Christmas romance to Hanukkah romance, and she needs a ticket to the sold-out Matzah Ball to get in the spirit. Jacob, still healing from his mother's death, needs Rachel's famous father to make his Matzah Ball feel like an authentic, and celebrity-scale party. However, seeing Rachel sparks old feelings and he goes about courting her all wrong. In the end, he needs his party to be a success to keep his business afloat.
This story was adorable. We read it for Diversity and Inclusion Book Club at work, and it was a perfect choice. Easy reading, festive for December, Jewish author and characters, disabled author and main character, and no sex--perfect for a work-based book club. I loved the nods to tropes; for example, instead of running into a "Santa" type figure who propels the plot in a secret way, like Christmas movies always have, she runs into an Orthodox Jewish man, who also helps move the plot forward by letting Rachel know about the Matzah Ball by leaving his newspaper behind. There's also a very sweet Grandmother with a Holocaust story unlike I'd ever heard. (And yet someone in book club had heard a very similar survival story. What are the odds?)
On the downside, it was quite long--400 pages. We almost didn't choose this book because of it's length. Some of Jacob's choices were also so cringey. What adult thinks his ideas would be good ideas to woo a woman? The two of them just needed to talk.
You'll enjoy this book if you're looking for a no-sex romance, a Hanukkah setting, or a rivals-to-lovers story. You may not enjoy this book if you want sex in the book or if you are going to be frustrated by the many holiday romance tropes.
Side note: my library didn't have an ebook copy of The Matzah Ball, but when I requested it, they bought it! Shout out to the library!
Have you read The Matzah Ball or any other non-Christmas holiday romances? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: Iron Widow
The cover of Iron Widow, which is a pretty badass cover
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is a secondary world fantasy and start of a series, though the rest of the series isn't out yet. The book has won a lot of best of fiction awards and hit best sellers lists. Iron Widow follows Zetian, a scifi version of Wu Zetian, the only female Chinese Empress in her own right. In this world, giant magical mecha-suits piloted by a male-female pair fight off attacking alien-esque mecha-suit-material bug things. The male pilots often drain the female pilots of their energy until they die. One pilot did that to Zetian's sister and now Zetian is out for revenge.
This book required quite a bit of world set up for me to get it, but once things clicked, I was in. I wanted Zetian to enact her revenge and boy oh boy, I was not disappointed. Even knowing that, I didn't predict most of this book, which is great because with all the research I've done about plotting I don't get surprised often anymore.
My list of downsides is really short for this one. Neither of the love interests made me root for them a ton until the end. One was a little too self-hating (ala Edward Cullen) and one was a little too entitled/clingy (ala Edward Cullen). You see the issue. But they both became better toward the end of the novel, which I suppose is the point of character growth.
This book is for you if you liked the vibe of the Cinder series by Marissa Meyer, the magic is present but there's so much more happening situation in the Green Bone saga by Fonda Lee, and the sister out for revenge plot of The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh. It's not for you if reading about the loss of a sister or romantic partner isn't for you, or if the mention of rape (not of an on-page character) isn't for you either.
Have you read Iron Widow? Are you excited for the sequel Heavenly Tyrant in 2023? Let's discuss in the comments!
When a Book Gets Your Job Wrong
Pipetting hand cramps are real. Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash
Have you ever read a book that depicts someone with your job, or at least in your field, and the author gets it totally and completely wrong? That happened to me recently. I work in biotech, specifically we make proteins (for example antibodies) to treat disease. I picked up a book about a scientist who was studying a protein to treat a disease and I was excited. With a pub date this year, the book led me to expect the science would be up to date.
It wasn't even close.
The science in this scifi was more than a decade out of date. I was so thrown off because the other tech was clearly modern (with kids having iPads, hashtags and social media, etc.). The plot was entirely based on the scientist having to do their work the very very old fashioned way. Needless to say, I struggled to enjoy the book.
When I got to the end, I thought perhaps the author had never spoken to anyone about the science. However, the acknowledgement section was full of names--mostly doctors. I don't expect MDs to know HOW antibodies are produced industrially, but I do expect them to know that antibodies CAN be produced industrially. In the end, I suspect the author never spoke to anyone who actually works in biotech today. Or if she did, maybe she didn't want to change her entire plot.
But wait, you say, why didn't an editor intervene? This book was self-published and likely didn't employ the kind of editor who would take it upon themselves to fact check the science. Especially given the author talked to doctors, any line or copy editor wouldn't even think about changing that sort of thing.
So, what did I learn from this reading experience that I can apply to writing? If you're writing outside your familiarity zone, be it a job or another aspect of a person, be sure to speak with people who have the most direct experience with that thing. At the very least, Google recent headlines in that space. Technology, especially biotech, computer/software, and AI, have all exploded forward in the last decade. Even if you're familiar with something, reach out to an expert. Especially before pinning your entire plot on that thing!
Have you ever seen your job or a similar career in a book? Did the author nail it, or totally miss the mark? Let's discuss in the comments!
Update: Nightmare Sky Now Available!
I'm not going to say for sure that the tagline is a reference to my story, but it could be! Graphic from Death Knell Press.
Looking to buy indie horror?
Nightmare Sky, and anthology of astronomical horror from Death Knell Press, is available as of November 4th, 2022! It's edited by Red Lagoe, and there's a foreword from Aurealis Award-winning author Alan Baxter and stories from 28 authors! The anthology is available in both e-book and paperback. There are all sorts of horror stories inside and they're all fantastic (yes, I got an early copy).
Copies are available from:
Barnes and Noble
Indie Bound (to buy it from your local bookstore)
Don't forget that you can always ask your local library to order a copy!
Authors: Tiffany Michelle Brown, Dino Parenti, Pauline Barmby, Zachary Rosenberg, Ziggy Schutz, Inara Enko, Jeremy Megargee, Vann Orcka, Patrick Barb, Justin Moritz, Matthew Condello, M. Richard Eley, Madison McSweeney, Bernard McGhee, Elizabeth Davis, Lindsey Ragsdale, Jacob Steven Mohr, Tony Logan, Kim Z. Dale, Ai Jiang, C.R. Beideman, Salvador Ayala, Kate Ota, Holly Rae Garcia, Avra Margariti, Grace R. Reynolds, Emerson Seipel, & Rose Strickman.
Want to learn more? Check out Death Knell Press's page about it.
I appreciate anyone who grabs a copy of this anthology!