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!
If you're friends with any writers, there may come a time when you're asked to beta read their book. Maybe you're a writer yourself, maybe not, but either way beta reading is different from reading a typical book. If you've never beta read before and don't know how, this post is for you! Here are five steps for how to beta read.
Step 1: Upfront Questions
Before you agree to beta read, ask the writer some key questions. Your goal is to determine if you're the right audience for this book. Ask for: genre, age group, word count, brief pitch.
Step 2: Set Expectations
After you agree to beta read, ask the writer what their expectations are.
Step 3: The Read
Now you're ready to read.
Step 4: Summary
After your finish reading, you may have some overall thoughts to put together in a summary.
Step 5: Letting Go
Ready to go beta read? Have more advice for beta readers out there? 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!
The cover is so interesting to me, with the expression on her face and the northern lights in the background.
Camp Zero is Michelle Min Sterling's debut novel. It's a near-future cli-fi (science fiction with emphasis on climate change) with three main POVs. It's been out since the end of March, and already I've gotten so many emails from Amazon advertising it with other books.
Arguably the main POV of Camp Zero is Rose, a biracial (white/Korean) sex worker with a secret agenda who arrives at a worksite in northern Canada where a famous architect is building a new city. The second POV is Grant, an English professor/heir to billions who wants to escape his family's influence. He comes to the worksite thinking he'll be an English prof at the new college there, only to realize it's not built yet, so he tutors the construction workers. The third POV is a collective (we/us) perspective about an all-female scientific crew (includes LGBTQIA+ characters) at an even farther north research station. They've signed on for two years of isolation to study the climate, but they get a lot more than they bargained for and band ever closer together to survive.
This book was different from what I've been reading, which kept me interested. The cli-fi aspect was fresh, since a lot of cli-fi focuses on the more southern parts of the world, but this focused on what would happen in Canada. Some really cool concepts like the Floating City were done well, with not just the rich and wealthy in mind, but with a clear demonstration/criticism of how anyone but the top 1% would be treated in this scenario.
I'm not a huge fan of sex worker characters, since in books they're almost always sexually assaulted (or an attempt is made) and that's not a scenario I enjoy reading. This book was not an exception to that. I also struggled with the collective POV, even though the idea of their predicament and the types of characters were my favorites (shout out to badass lady scientists.) I think the collective POV kept me from connecting as well with these characters, so they always felt at arm's length (aka a very distant POV.) I also didn't find the ending very satisfying.
This book is for you if you are looking for cli-fi, want a biracial (white/Korean) POV, want a sex worker character who chose and feels empowered (in most scenarios) by her job, or are interested in trying a collective POV. This book is not for you if you are looking for deep POVs or are not in the mental space to read about sexual assault, the death of a partner, or a sex worker (regardless of if she chose it.)
Have you read Camp Zero? How did you feel about the collective POV? What did you think about the ending? Let's discuss in the comments!
I know this cover makes you think there's a kraken attack in this story. There is not a kraken, it's much more unique.
The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty is an adult historical fantasy novel centered on an 12th century female pirate captain and her crew in the waters off of Yemen. This book is in the same universe at the author's famous Daevabad Trilogy (City of Brass (2017), Kingdom of Copper (2019), and Empire of Gold (2020), written as S.A. Chakraborty) although about one thousand years before those books take place. This author also has separate short stories and a collection of short stories set in the Daevabad universe.
Amina Al-Sirafi is a retired pirate captain, living out her days with her daughter and mother in an unassuming corner of Yemen. However, when a wealthy woman arrives knowing a little too much about Amina, the captain is forcibly pulled from retirement to find the wealthy woman's missing granddaughter. Success means riches beyond any of her former plunder, but failure means her daughter will be killed. Amina reunites with her old crew of misfits and her all important ship to sail the seas once more, but finds far more adventure than anyone bargained for.
There's a lot to like about this novel. Amina is an interesting character, a mother--which fantasy often kills off--and an older character than most fantasies focus on. The rest of her crew is entertaining as well. I hadn't seen most of the magical things they encountered before, which kept things feeling fresh and new. Despite it being a long book, it didn't take that long for me to read.
On the downside, the "one last adventure" trope was at the forefront, which isn't my favorite. It also felt like the beginning (after Amina gets her goal for the novel) was quite slow, and a lot of it was figuring out what was going on. I'd say from the 20% to the 45% mark was too slow for my taste.
This book is for you if you enjoyed the Daevabad Trilogy, because I have to assume there are easter eggs in there for you. (I didn't read her other trilogy so I don't know for sure.) It's also or you if you enjoyed the maternal main character of The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin or if you're looking for fantasy with Islamic influence. It's not for you if you dislike the "one last adventure" trope, dislike pirates, or need the pacing to be quick throughout. It's also not for you if you're going to complain about Muslim characters.
Have you read The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi? Have you read City of Brass and know how they relate? Let's discuss in the comments!
The two books in the Six of Crows Duology.
The Six of Crows Duology by Leigh Bardugo is a pair of books set in the same universe as Shadow and Bone, called the Grishaverse. Grisha are magic users and fall into certain categories, mainly people who can manipulate elements (wind, water, fire), people who can manipulate human bodies (healers or heartrenders), and people who can manipulate objects (called Fabrikators). That's all explored in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, which largely takes place in Ravka. Six of Crows focuses on six characters in another country nearby called Kerch. Characters from Six of Crows appear in the Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone, but don't let their appearances there fool you, this duology has nothing in common with season 1 and very little in common with season 2. This duology came out a while ago (2015 for Six of Crows and 2016 for Crooked Kingdom) but are still often on agent MSWLs and have some elements in common with my WIP, so I decided to take a look.
As a side note: You do not need to read the Shadow and Bone trilogy first, although events in that trilogy are alluded to and even spoiled in the duology. If you plan to read both series, read Shadow and Bone first.
The duology's main characters are Kaz Brekker, the ruthless leader/strategist of group; Inej, a skilled climber/tight rope walker/acrobat/assassin; Jesper, the sharpshooter; Wylan, the runaway rich boy and explosives expert; Nina, a Grisha heartrender; and Mattias, a former Grisha-hunter and Nina's sort-of romantic buddy. The main plot is a heist--they need to break into the castle of another country (Fjerda, where Mattias is from) to steal a chemist who is making a drug that makes Grisha more powerful and then pretty much kills them. For their troubles, they're promised a wild amount of money. They must deal with constant changes in plans and their own pasts bubbling up to haunt them.
There's a lot to like in this duology. The characters are great, the heist is well done with some Ocean's 11 vibes, and the pacing is excellent (which it needs to be for books this long.) I liked the depth of the characters, which I was surprised by because with six POVs, there's a high risk of some characters coming off as flat. However, I knew what motivated each person very clearly. I even took notes so I can try some of Bardugo's techniques in my own writing. I will admit that I have read some of Bardugo's other work and disliked it, so I was surprised I liked this so much. If you're in the same boat as me, don't be afraid to try this duology.
No book is perfect, of course. One thing that fell a little flat for me was that Kerch/Ketterdam were clearly based on the Netherlands/Amsterdam, but while I got that sense linguistically (one of Bardugo's strengths is using the names of things to give a really cohesive sense of place) I didn't get that sense in other cultural elements. As a person with Dutch heritage, I wanted more Dutch! On another picky note, so many of the characters made quick witted comments and jibes that their dialog often felt interchangeable during big group scenes.
This duology is for you if you liked Shadow and Bone (the trilogy or the Netflix adaptation), enjoy heists, and enjoy ensemble casts. It's not for you if you dislike multi-POV books, if you are not in the right headspace to read about kidnappings/sexual assault/human trafficking, or if you're hoping to find a very Dutch Dutch-inspired setting.
Have you read the Six of Crows Duology? Which crow is your favorite? Let's discuss in the comments!