Friday, February 21, 2020

VISION IN SILVER


Review of VISION IN SILVER by ANNE BISHOP
(third in THE OTHERS series)

Spoiler alert warning: don’t read this review if you don’t want any spoilers of the first two books.

Tensions between the Others and the humans continue to escalate as retaliations beget retaliations. Human activists lead the charge riling up the public and garnering sympathy for the HFL (Humans First and Last) movement. The Others are content to ignore human grumblings…until malcontent turns dangerous. When humans hurt, antagonize, and mistreat the Others, they don’t realize how far their harmful actions ripple. Humans think of the Others as a few semi-human beings living on the periphery of human society. They’ve forgotten about what lives deeper in the wilderness. They’ve forgotten what happens when the Others decide humans are no longer useful.  

Simon, a wolf shapeshifter, and Meg, the blood prophet, might be the key to saving humankind. Simon leads the local Courtyard, a liminal area between human and Other society where the worlds merge and blend a little. That’s the case with Simon’s Courtyard perhaps more so than others. After befriending Meg when she escaped those taking advantage of her prophetic gifts and sought asylum in the Courtyard, Simon gradually accepted more and more humans into their world: new employees, friends of Meg, some of the local human police. Humans and Others might mingle in other parts of the world, but nowhere do they understand and value each other to the degree found in Simon’s community. Which is why, when HFL groups lash out at Others with increasing violence, higher authorities want Simon’s input on whether any humans deserve to live.

I’m avoiding mentions of the main plot thread of this novel for spoiler reasons, but I will say that Bishop is one of the few authors who consistently writes books I can’t put down. Avid readers can become jaded readers – you’ve seen it all – but Bishop always brings forth my childlike wonder at the sheer magic of good storytelling.
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Friday, February 14, 2020

RUINED


Review of RUINED by AMY TINTERA
(first in the RUINED trilogy)

Emelina Flores was the useless daughter of a powerful and ruthless queen. I don’t mean useless in the typical sense. I mean useless as in not a Ruined, this world’s term for those with formidable telekinetic abilities. Emelina’s parents and sister were notoriously remarkable Ruined. Until the day a rival kingdom organized an uprising, killing Emelina’s parents and kidnapping her sister.

They overlooked Emelina, the “useless” one. Mistake. Driven by a bitter craving for vengeance, Emelina has organized a return uprising. In fact, she intends to return every cruel favor by killing the entire royal family responsible for her own kingdom’s destruction. The book opens with Emelina murdering the young prince’s betrothed on her way to the castle. Emelina will take her place, marry the prince, and, once the pieces of her strategy align, she and the remaining Ruined will destroy an entire family and kingdom like they destroyed hers.

What Emelina didn’t see coming is how…reasonable the prince is. His father might be a cruel tyrant, but in the prince Emelina sees the potential for a different future. Of course, her vicious plan is too far gone to stop now, and she really can’t afford these developing feelings for a husband who won’t live much longer.

It’s no secret that YA fantasy has been a glutted market the past few years. You can read dozens of plot synopses that sound so similar, it’s difficult to select which books will make your cut. It comes down to quality, which you can’t assess for yourself until you read it, but for me RUINED stood out in the crowd. The book features a strong but flawed heroine, well-plotted politics, a convincing star-crossed romance, many other compelling characters, and satisfying social subtext. Simply put, this story has depth. How I love a good story with depth.

While a few details later in the book tied up a little too neatly, I felt invested enough in the characters that I eagerly suspended my disbelief and let myself enjoy the riveting story. The ending also hits that very satisfying balance between closure and plot threads left open for the next book. I can’t wait to read the second book in the trilogy and I’ve already looked into what else Tintera has written.
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Friday, February 7, 2020

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 12


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 12, Recovering a Sense of Faith

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 12, the last week of the program, focuses on “recovering a sense of faith.” In other words, we’ve spent the first eleven weeks breaking down and analyzing creativity, but as our last step Cameron wants us to accept that there’s still something mysterious about art, that creativity requires a degree of trust, both in yourself and the world. I think the artist dates are particularly relevant to this. They give your imagination the freedom to play and explore, essentially exercising your creativity.

My favorite assignment this week was “mend any mending.” As it sounds, Cameron encourages you to step away from the creative and fix whatever’s broken. I like that this encourages the importance of taking a step back, a reminder that creativity isn’t all about the final product but also a state of mind. Neglected to do lists only serve as creative distractions.

I love my morning pages now. While my original plan was to stop them for a week after the program and assess whether I miss them, I feel confident enough that I would miss them to skip the stopping step altogether. I like that every day starts the same way. I like that “the same way” is something easy and relaxing rather than immediately diving into work like I did before. I like the daily, mindful self-reflection and analysis, as well as the outlet for releasing all those nagging concerns bouncing around in my mind. I still sometimes struggle filling three pages, but at the end of it I always feels refreshed and unburdened. A great way to start work and a great way to start the day.

My artist dates, on the other hand, I knew from Week 1 that I would want to continue. No changes there! I have a long list of ideas. We all fall into routines, stuffed with obligations and repeating chores until there’s little time left. I love that my artist dates provide some fun variation to every week as well as an emphasis on the value of taking some time for myself, not even as a yearly fluke but on a regular basis.

Honestly, approaching THE ARTIST’S WAY from an outsider perspective, I found it gives off cultish vibes, probably a combination of the invented pseudo-psychology lingo and the program’s many loyal, overly gushing fans. My point is that I don’t want to call myself a “convert,” because it only reinforces the cult vibe, but—hey, let’s be honest—that’s what I am! I did start the program with a healthy, open mind, but I also brought my bucketful of cynicisms, too. Not every single article or assignment was for me, but I nevertheless consider this program a glowing example of good self-therapy. Like any therapy, you will get out of it what you put into it. That said, THE ARTIST’S WAY is a wonderfully developed and insightful starting point for deep self-reflection centered around that illusive concept of creativity.
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Friday, January 31, 2020

NIGHTINGALES


Review of NIGHTINGALES: THE EXTRAORDINARY UPBRINGING AND CURIOUS LIFE OF MISS FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE by GILLIAN GILL

What I enjoy the most about reading nonfiction is when you think you know about a topic but discover how little you actually knew. Most everyone has at the very least heard the name Florence Nightingale, and I even include young children in that bold phrase “most everyone.” She’s renowned for her service as a nurse, specifically for her work during the Crimean War, as well as for how her professional ambitions and exceptional work ethic helped the women’s movement at the time.

Of course, that’s not where Florence’s story begins nor where it ends. I didn’t know what an unusual childhood she had for her time, although it makes sense that being raised against the norm teaches one to challenge the norm. It becomes very clear that Florence wouldn’t have become the woman she did, nor have been able to accomplish all that she had, without the support of her family. That’s not to say that everyone was supportive about everything all the time, but Florence’s family was certainly unique in how much they indulged their daughter’s controversial life choices.  

Florence’s father (known as W.E.N.) particularly stands out: as a very attentive, caring parent in an era where most wealthy families left their children to be raised by nursery maids and mothers stereotypically showed more concern for their children than fathers. Florence’s father not only doted on his children, but took his controversial parenting a step further by educating his daughters significantly beyond the norm. Whether we’re talking specific subjects, scope of overall education, depth of study, or means of gaining new knowledge (like reading), W.E.N. encouraged his daughters to defy expectations and pursue their intellectual interests.

Florence’s mother, “Fanny,” on the other hand, blamed much of Florence’s unbecoming behavior on an overactive mind pushed past the limits of good female health. Needless to say, Fanny wasn’t nearly as on board with W.E.N.’s ambitious educational curriculum for their daughters. Throughout Florence’s life, her mother expressed concern about Florence’s nontraditional choices, especially in terms of the unwanted social scrutiny those choices brought towards the entire family.

I found myself most affected by the portrayal of Florence’s relationship with her sister, Parthenope. From all descriptions, it sounds like Parthenope was a wonder of a woman tragically relegated to her sister’s shadow. She spoke many languages, studied literature and art and music, and understood politics, history, and philosophy better than most women of her time. However, Florence always outperformed older sister. It’s difficult to ever know a person’s heart, but from available information, it sounds like Parthenope—for the most part—did not resent her sister, even though Florence could be a very trying person to love. Instead Parthenope acted as another pillar of support for Florence, helping bring forth her younger sister’s potential.

Florence had several other influential family relationships, but so much more fascinating detail about her life lies beyond her blood relations. She had several suitors and came quite close to marrying a cousin; her ultimate rejection of said cousin caused a serious rift between the families, who had both been anticipating a happy union. She also had a nine-year courtship with a politician suitor before finally explicitly admitting, to him and herself, that she believed marriage would interfere with her nursing goals. Perhaps what most surprised me about Florence’s life was to learn that she was intermittently bedridden from the age of 37 to her death at 90. I never realized that a lot of her accomplishments in the field of nursing were achieved through letters and other writings delivered from her bedroom during periods of illness.  I also found the discussion of petty work politics in the nursing field all too relatable. Before Florence could institute any of the most impactful changes she had in mind, she had to navigate a mundanely familiar sea of egos, personnel clashes, and bureaucracy.

Unless you’re already a Florence Nightingale expert, I’ll bet you don’t know her as well as you think you do. While she has always been an intriguing historical figure for me, her life and family history proved far more unusual than I anticipated. As someone living in an American culture focused on individualism, this book is an especially powerful record about the rippling benefits of challenging social norms.

Friday, January 24, 2020

REMEMBER ME?


Review of REMEMBER ME? by SOPHIE KINSELLA

Sophie Kinsella remains my all-time favorite chick-lit author. I have mixed feelings about the genre. On the positive, I enjoy a light-hearted, funny read now and again, but on the negative, I often find chick-lit novels too shallow. With exceptions, chick-lit often follows a similar pattern: average (which apparently means somewhat superficial) young woman finds herself in a ridiculous circumstance. Hilarity ensues, including woman embarrassing herself more than once. When you think things can’t get worse, they do, but somehow everything ties up neatly with work, friends, family, and romance problems all resolving. Oh, and the romantic interest is almost always a secret millionaire, one of my biggest pet peeves with the formula.

In REMEMBER ME?, our heroine Lexi wakes up in a hospital with amnesia. Right off the bat, let me say that this is one of the few amnesia storylines that I love. Mostly, because it’s funny, but also because Kinsella handles the emotional issues very well. Lexi seems to have woken up to a perfect life. She went from snaggle-toothed and chubby to a slick, skinny, styled babe. Oh, and don’t forget flexible. Apparently, she started doing yoga in the period she’s forgotten. She has a gorgeous, considerate husband and thanks to both his work and her own promotions, they live in a stellar loft and want for nothing.

Of course, nothing’s as perfect as it seems. While Lexi looks how she always imagined she wanted, the abrupt change is jarring and, as she asks around, she doesn’t like discovering the emotional baggage that motivated these changes. Also in climbing the ladder at work, she apparently lost all her closest friends. And her perfect husband emphasizes why perfect is overrated, especially when he presents her with a “Marriage Manual” that includes a step-by-step section on foreplay.

Kinsella is one of the few chick-lit authors who pairs her amusing frivolity with enough deeper meaning to satisfy my particular tastes. REMEMBER ME? is the perfect literary palate cleanser of lighthearted hilarity.



SPOILER ALERT

I especially like how Kinsella subverts the love triangle trope. For the entire book, I understood Lexi’s attraction to both men, but wondered how she could choose either when she remembers neither. I love the line where Lexi comes to the same conclusion: “I can’t just run straight from one guy I don’t remember into the arms of another.”

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 11


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 11, Recovering a Sense of Autonomy

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 11 helps us with “recovering a sense of autonomy.” It’s the second-to-last week and I feel sad that it’s almost over, like at the end of a great vacation or summer camp. This week’s chapter is all about accepting ourselves. While one can argue that’s what we’ve been working on through the whole program, I think we’ve been more steadily building towards this week’s true, full acceptance.

Cameron discusses the importance of separating creativity from success. Our creative value shouldn’t be measured by such external factors. She also hypes up the importance of exercise and, as a bit of a fitness addict myself, I avidly agree. Yes, it’s good for health, but there’s also more carryover benefits than one might think. Exercise is all about steady, slow self-improvement. It’s proof that small, manageable steps lead to great outcomes. Running a marathon may not seem to have anything to do with writing a book, but it proves to yourself that you can finish something. All it required was steady effort.

I skipped Cameron’s assignment of creating an “artist’s altar,” but I feel that it’s very similar to what I’ve already started doing with my inspirational poster (see my Week 1 post). This week also asked us to do one nurturing thing for ourselves every day. I found that excessive, but it just demonstrates how contrary it is to my nature. I think I nurture myself plenty…but every day? My “nurturing” included working on said inspirational poster, baking a cake, and finally buying a cookbook I’ve been talking about wanting almost every week for six months.

I liked meditating to my own recorded voice reading the Basic Principles. Honestly, I liked them better that way, though I don’t know what that says about my ego! Perhaps I just like my own tonal emphasis on phrases that make me work for the meaning. I also enjoyed listing ten wishes for the following categories: health, possessions, leisure, relationships, creativity, career, and spirituality. It was especially freeing that these wishes don’t need to be realistic. I wrote down a few things I want but know will never happen, another rather therapeutic exercise. I expected to find writing a letter to my Inner Artist silly, but to my surprise I not only loved it but loved it enough to add my letter to my inspirational poster. Mine is more like an apology, for neglecting and dismissing my “Inner Artist” all these years, trying to push with guilt rather than love, as well as a promise to treat myself differently moving forward.

Inspired by the Basic Principles meditation assignment, I did more meditating for my artist date this week and really liked it. Not an easy thing for someone who is all about productivity, but that’s also why I think I could gain a lot from meditation. I’m going to try to make it a regular habit, maybe starting with a mere ten minutes once a week. Slow, steady steps.

I skipped three of my seven morning pages this week. Cameron warns that most people avoid these pages when they’re processing a lot of negative emotions and that proved the case for me. I hit a major personal bump this week and, my apologies, but I’m going to be vague in what I share. Throughout this program, Cameron discusses how some relationships are built on sharing each other’s insecurities; when one person moves from insecure to confident, the other might behave more sabotaging than supportive. I rolled my eyes at and laughed off her repeated warnings about how other blocked creatives don't like watching their friends becoming unblocked. I felt convinced that all my prominent relationships are entirely healthy and supportive, and some silly self-therapy program is hardly going to trigger any major changes. Now I feel Cameron predicted something I didn’t see coming. This may sound superstitious, but I believe it's basic psychology: misery loves company. If you're lucky enough to find this program helps you replace stress and anxiety with peace and contentment, well, you may be surprised by who's not happy to see you happy.

This was a hard week for me personally, but only further convinced me of the value of this program.  Some relationships I thought were strong suddenly crumbled, but the timing speaks volumes about the noticeable change in my attitude. I'm happier, more content and relaxed, less stressed and anxious, more optimistic and mindful. I don't think this program created problems in my relationships; I think a healthier outlook allowed me to see problems I overlooked before. Also, as depressed as these incidents made me, I feel Cameron’s program provided me with an excellent tool chest for taking care of myself during a hard time.

Friday, January 10, 2020

THE DEAF WAY II ANTHOLOGY


Review of THE DEAF WAY II ANTHOLOGY: A LITERARY COLLECTION BY DEAF AND HARD OF HEARING WRITERS edited by TONYA M. STREMLAU

My only criticism about this, and other collections, comes down to personal taste. Because the linking theme here is Deafness, the genre of writing varies greatly. I found myself less interested in the poetry, of which there’s plenty, as well as the play (I love plays, but prefer to see them in the theater rather than read the script). That disclaimer aside, I did discover several standouts as well as stories geared specifically my tastes.

I’m most excited about Raymond Luczak’s fantasy story, “Depths of the River.” Big surprise; anyone who reads my blog knows that, while I’m an eclectic reader, my heart stays with fantasy. And, frankly, deaf and hard-of-hearing characters are massively underrepresented in that specific genre. However, that sad fact made it extra satisfying to read a compelling, well-written fantasy story featuring such elements. I also enjoyed Luczak’s other, non-fantasy entry, though very different.

In terms of other favorites, I really liked Melissa Whalen’s nonfiction focused on some typical deaf experiences. Her prose reads smoothly and reminded me of fiction; it felt more like I was reading a story than a memoir, which as a big fiction reader I mean as a compliment. Her content was also very absorbing, with one piece focusing on tinnitus and another discussing the pledge of allegiance. I agree with the writing advice that discourages vaguely rambling about the horrors of war and instead suggests mentioning specifics such as a child’s discarded shoe by the roadside. Whalen embodies that advice by narrowing deaf experience to detailed specifics and pulling forth universal emotions. I can’t fathom what it’s like to be deaf in our society, especially from one story, but I can empathize with the individual experiences that Whalen portrays.

Now despite my earlier disclaimer about my lukewarm interest in poetry, I did find some that appealed to me here. I liked the pieces that worked with the visual layout to add emphasis: what Curtis Robbins did with spacing and how Justine Vogenthaler adds something with bolded phrases. I found this especially meaningful in this particular anthology, since Deaf culture is so visual.

It’s a frustration of mine that many books by or about marginalized groups become marginalized themselves. Readers often think the book is only “for” people who identify with that group. What a shame and what a loss. I’m here to tell you that THE DEAF WAY ANTHOLOGY is a varied and talented collection for anyone who likes, well, reading.