Friday, May 22, 2020

THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND


Review of THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND by METTE IVIE HARRISON
(first in THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND series)

As a dog fanatic, I’m a sucker for books that feature dogs at all, especially at the core of the story. THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND reads like a fresh fairy tale, striking that wonderful balance between nostalgic, familiar elements and unique, innovative twists.

This story is difficult to describe without revealing too much; I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the chance to read how this tale unfolds for herself. Let me say that the characters really made this novel exceptional for me. Everyone feels layered and believable, rather than typical, simple fairy tale tropes. The prince is likeable but tortured with self-doubt and the princess standoffish and odd but all the more compelling for it.

They live in a world with animal magic, but – fearful of its power – people now hunt down and kill anyone believed to possess it. Prince George’s stomach turns at enforcing such laws, for both personal and moral reasons, but he doesn’t know how one changes the minds of an entire kingdom. Meanwhile, Princess Beatrice’s moods could be explained by the sad fact that her father treats her like a useless disappointment – but there’s still more to her mystery.

Harrison deftly interweaves several plot threads, in ways you might not expect. This book frequently intrigued, surprised, and moved me, earning a fond place in my heart as a favorite, a beautiful modern classic.

Friday, May 15, 2020

THE GENE


Review of THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY by SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE

This author is already well-known for his bestseller THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, which—coming highly recommended—is on my to-read radar but hasn’t made the cut off the too-many-books-too-little-time list. However, when a friend I was visiting bought Mukherjee’s more recent book and I expressed interest, she dared me to read it in the less than 48 hours remaining in my stay. At 495 small-print pages, it was a tight squeeze, but I finished it!

Of course, it helped that THE GENE is an engrossing, well-written book. The difficulty with nonfiction can be making material that is normally very interest-specific more universally appealing. Mukherjee exemplifies the best of this art, crafting a story of “the gene” that reads like an epic tale. He begins around Aristotle’s conviction that not all traits come from the male. From there we explore: Mendel, Darwin, eugenics, and more – on into the modern era’s current research and technology. He even makes the material more personal by sharing about his family’s genetic history with schizophrenia.

At times we veer away from the science into the politics behind the research: government and societal influence, relationship dynamics between scientists, various bias. This all helps develop a complex, layered portrait of both the science and the history behind “the gene.”

It was probably more noticeable because I read this book in two days, but Mukherjee does repeat some information along the way. It’s always spaced far apart, so I assume it’s intended as refreshers and likely especially helpful for the more probable scenario where someone makes their way slowly through this book one chapter a week or so.

I haven’t yet read the popular THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, but after finishing THE GENE, I understand Mukherjee’s appeal as a writer. He’s a veritable storyteller of history.   

Friday, May 8, 2020

TRAINING YOUR DOG THE HUMANE WAY


Review of TRAINING YOUR DOG THE HUMANE WAY by ALANA STEVENSON

Years back, I worked as a dog trainer and I’ve also raised three Guide Dogs for the Blind. So I approach the topic of dog training with a lot of prior experience and insight, but it’s been a while. I recently adopted an adorable Corgi puppy, so I’ve been reading numerous books on dog training to brush up on good habits and see what’s new in the field.

Well, there is something new and I love it. Since I worked as a trainer, the field has shifted dramatically away from dominance theory (as behavioral science research is disproving a lot of old conceptions about alphas, submission, packs, etc.) and towards positive training methods. The latter has always been my preference, so it’s validating to see it gaining more research-backed support.  

Stevenson provides great general guidelines regarding how dogs learn. As one example, dogs give their situational context more weight than most owners realize. What that means is: if you always take your dog to the guest room to train him – well, he might think those commands are only relevant in that room, and that’s why he ignores you when you ask him to “sit” on a walk. You also must be careful exactly when and what you praise; sometimes the dog thinks you’re rewarding something different than what you intend. Here’s a funny example from my Guide Dog days: a puppy happened to cough at the same time he finally sat on command for the first time. His raisers highly praised him for sitting on command, but the dog assumed it was the whole sequence that earned such an enthusiastic reaction and, from then on, he always coughed when he sat.

Stevenson also discusses the importance of repetition. Dog intelligence varies greatly by breed as well as the individual dog, but often it does take a dog more times to grasp a concept than her owners think it should. And learning can be a two steps forward, one step back process. Just because your dog finally does something the correct way doesn’t mean she now entirely understands it and will always do it correctly from now on. I cannot emphasize enough the value of patience when training dogs.

The breakdown of the different types of training – shaping, luring, active, passive – is especially helpful for those new to dog training. Understanding different methods will help you decide which will be best for different commands and circumstances, as well as build your general understanding regarding how dogs learn.

I also really like that this book includes photos. I’m very pleased that Stevenson discusses dog body language in her book. It’s important in training, but often misunderstood by anyone who hasn’t specifically studied it. And the photos are immensely useful is actually visualizing what she’s describing.  

To make the book extra user friendly, there’s a handy summary of the main points at the end of each chapter. As any pet owner (or parent, for that matter) can tell you: 1. Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t obvious, or there isn’t one right thing, and 2. Sometimes even when you know the right thing, it’s not the instinctive thing so in the moment you do what you “know” is wrong. Stevenson’s quick bullet lists help any newbie or experienced trainer keep the most important training points at the forefront of their mind.

My single criticism is of Stevenson’s discussion of how dog’s view property. She claims that dogs don’t understand your wallet, for example, is yours. Agree. She says dogs often believe that whomever has an item – and sometimes that’s them! – “owns” it, for right now at least. Agree. Then she adds that you will never see a dog take something another dog is using. Um…strongly disagree. And now really confused how a trainer who has spent so much time around dogs has never seen that happen. Dogs take things from each other alllllll the time.

I mention this partly because it’s my only point of disagreement with this book, but also partly as a cautionary reminder. It’s easy to project human psychology onto dogs. I believe that’s what we did with old-school dominance theory. While I align much more strongly with positive training methods, that doesn’t mean we don’t still sometimes misinterpret dog behavior to suit our modern views. If you want to view dogs as more cooperative, it might be easy to selectively overlook that sometimes they, too – especially puppies – can be mischievous punks who wander up to a playmate and snatch away a toy mid-chew.

As an experienced trainer, I didn’t find any information in this book that was new to me, but it was a fantastic, well-organized, and insightful refresher, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with zero to little base knowledge on this topic.   

Friday, April 24, 2020

KORGI: SPROUTING WINGS


Review of KORGI: SPROUTING WINGS by CHRISTIAN SLADE
(first book in the KORGI series)

When I announced that I intended to adopt a Corgi puppy, one of my friends promptly showed me this delightful series of graphic novels. With an evocative storyline, appealing characters, and beautiful illustrations, these books are for all ages.

The concept – various fey living in companionship with extraordinary corgis – is adorable, the magic mysterious and distinct, and the plot moving. Altogether the book overflows with an endearing childlike imagination.

The story unfolds with few words, through superb illustrations. I’m including a simple one here that doesn’t spoil anything, but some frames are far more emotionally powerful. And, of course, all the more striking in full color. At the back of the book you’ll find descriptions of each character that provide more context and clarification for anyone craving as much.

SPROUTING WINGS is a short story with a lot of deeper, more epic subtext that ushers one’s imagination into a greater, magical world. I earnestly recommend this book to Corgi fans, fantasy fiction addicts, graphic novel enthusiasts, and most children. I cannot wait to read on!


Friday, April 17, 2020

MINDFULNESS


Review of MINDFULNESS: AN EIGHT-WEEK PLAN FOR FINDING PEACE IN A FRANTIC WORLD by MARK WILLIAMS and DANNY PENMAN

As someone who has struggled with stress and anxiety my whole life, mindfulness feels like my savior. I’m not a religious person, but upon discovering mindfulness I nevertheless felt I had discovered my spiritual side. The philosophies teach balance as well as compassion towards both yourself and others. I tend to frame my self-worth in terms of productivity and am always looking ahead to the next goal, making me someone who could benefit greatly from a more mindful mindset.

Endorsement aside, the more I read about mindfulness the more I think there’s an undercurrent of elitism. When books or teachers simply push the relaxation aspect, I can’t help wondering about people who really cannot afford any break: the single parent working three jobs, the full-time student juggling work to pay for their education, anyone growing up in complete poverty. Mindfulness is an incredible asset but not something we’re likely to crave until we have more basic essentials, such as food and safety and general financial stability.

That said, I particularly liked this book, because the authors do address how overworked, crazy busy people can realistically incorporate mindfulness practices in their lives. Take meditation as an example. A lot of us have a very narrow idea of meditation. The stereotypical image is that of an experienced monk living in seclusion and possessing an almost magical ability to entirely free her mind. We think that if we cannot clear half an hour from our day to retreat to a quiet place, sit crossed legged on the ground, close our eyes, and do nothing, well, we can’t meditate. These authors make the wonderful point that you can’t really do meditation wrong. If you’re trying and “failing,” research shows that your mental health still benefits greatly from the regular attempts. “The spirit in which you do something is often as important as the act itself.” People who try meditation already convinced that it’s dumb and won’t work for them usually find they’re right; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People more open to the experience, if still skeptical, often feel hesitant at first about whether they’re “doing it correctly” but start to find the effort extremely beneficial as they move past that typical insecurity. Also let’s do away with the all-or-nothing thinking; a minute-long meditation once a week is still better than nothing. And position doesn’t matter nearly as much as effort. Lying down’s not particularly recommended since a lot of people might just fall asleep, but sitting in a chair or even standing are perfectly valid choices for meditating. So is keeping your eyes open. The point is to find what works for you. I especially adore the authors’ suggestion of reclaiming “wasted” time. Take standing in line, for example. Your average overworked person might still stop regularly at a coffee shop and wait in line for their energy fix. Or maybe stand around in a break room waiting for the coffee to brew. Either way, take those moments of boredom and frustration and turn them into an opportunity for meditation. It’s not about doing it perfectly; it’s about making an effort.

Disclaimer: I didn’t do their recommended meditation exercises, because I’m already pretty familiar with meditation and have even done several of these specific exercises before. Personally, I aim to meditate for five minutes every day. It’s enough to be a challenge for someone with such an overactive mind but to also leave me feeling more relaxed and unburdened. It’s also something I can realistically fit into a busy day. If I have more time, I sit on the ground and close my eyes, but on more frantic days I still attempt to spend five minutes somewhere, even while waiting in line, focusing on my breathing and/or clearing my mind. I would, of course, recommend the exercises for anyone new to meditation. There are lots of ways to meditate—clear your mind, repeat a mantra, focus on a physical object or a mental image, listen to guided audio meditations—and you’ll want to find which methods appeal most to you. I prefer repeating a mantra. While I still find entirely clearing my mind too hard, fixating on one helpful mantra for five minutes really helps me narrow my focus back to the present moment.

There are so many meditation exercises in this book that one might wonder at its worth to me if I didn’t do them. Practices like meditation gain power through repetition, so I’m mostly trying to keep myself exposed to mindfulness concepts until hopefully my brain starts to shift from primarily anxious to primarily calm. The very first time I read a mindfulness book, I felt like it changed my life only to find a week later that I had forgotten most of what I learned. As any therapist will tell you, changing how you think is no easy feat. If you’ve been a worrier for decades, no single book can change that permanently after one read. Continual, repeated exposure is the best way to make lessons, especially psychological lessons, stick longer-term.

I’ve already stretched out this review rambling about meditation, but let me pull out one other concept I really liked from this book: that we all need some sense of completion. Feeling trapped is one of the leading causes of depression and often happens from that “hamster wheel” sense: that we’re busting ourselves in a repetitive, exhausting routine…for what? People are more prone to this gnawing sense of pointlessness when they don’t focus on the present, when they’re always either looking ahead or behind. Finishing a task doesn’t really feel like finishing anything if you’re already thinking about the next one or even the next dozen after that. Instead only think about the current task and then allow yourself a moment of pride when it’s completed before moving onto something else. If you’re happy, enjoy it without worrying how long it’ll last. If you’re sad, don’t fight the bad feeling; negative emotions are a natural part of life and make our positive ones all the more meaningful.

Objectively, I understand why many people roll their eyes at mindfulness talk. It sounds corny and even cult-ish if you haven’t connected with the concepts personally. But I have. It’s no exaggeration to say that mindfulness has changed my life. It’s no magic pill—like anything worthwhile, it takes effort—but I’d highly recommend that anyone who values introspection and life-long personal growth read more about mindfulness. This particular book is a great starter for those new to the concepts but also a good refresher for those working to internalize mindful philosophies longer-term.

Friday, April 10, 2020

OH MY DOG


Review of OH MY DOG: HOW TO CHOOSE, TRAIN, GROOM, NURTURE, FEED, AND CARE FOR YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND by BETH OSTROSKY STERN, with KRISTINA GRISH

I don’t want children; I want dogs. I want a pack. And I’m planning to adopt my first pack member soon. I’m an experienced dog trainer, but it’s been several years since I worked in that field, so I’m brushing up as I always do: by reading, specifically numerous guides on raising and training dogs.

Stern’s hefty book is thorough, to say the least. She covers every aspect of dog care that you can imagine and probably plenty that hadn’t occurred to you. A lot of it’s in the long subtitle: everything from grooming to feeding and lots in between. She goes in depth on each topic. The section on nutrition will help readers decode seemingly arbitrary marking adjectives like “ultra premium” versus “super premium.” The section on grooming gives clear specifics regarding supplies and technique. The section on bonding lists some common human impulses and why they may not always be appreciated by our dogs.

While I would recommend this book, especially to those completely new to dog ownership, that recommendation comes with two caveats. First, the content is clearly geared towards the wealthy. If Stern makes owning a dog sound impossibly expensive, don’t despair; a lot of what she pushes as essential is really optional. You don’t need a whole hired team of specialists to raise a dog and you don’t need to buy every pricey “pet-must-have” product on the market. While advice from professionals is very important and you should always consider what’s best for your pet, you can easily train and groom your dog yourself. Above all, what your dog most needs from you is attention, in the form of both love and care.

Second, I found the book a little alarmist and I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone with anxiety issues. Stern spends far more time discussing unlikely scenarios than the likely ones. For example, she focuses more on emergencies—from rare health issues to car accidents to natural disasters—than on basic training. I believe this is because Stern’s primary training advice is to hire a professional trainer. So, while I would still recommend this book as in-depth situational care and emergency guide, I would suggest reading further materials on training, which I consider one of the most essential aspects of owning a dog.

While I would recommend OH MY DOG as a starting book for first time dog owners—ideally paired with more detailed training guides—this thick book is a thorough reference for both basic aspects of dog care as well as worst-case-scenario planning.

Friday, April 3, 2020

AVENGED


Review of AVENGED by AMY TINTERA
(second in the RUINED trilogy)

Don’t read this review if you don’t want any spoilers for the first book in this trilogy, RUINED

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The conclusion of RUINED left a complicated, intriguing setup for the this book. All Em wanted was to rescue her sister Olivia and she finally accomplished that. While Olivia’s taste for cruel vengeance does give Em misgivings, most readers will likely be even more alert than our heroine to the possibility for tragic disaster. Though Olivia has always had a vicious streak, Cas has opened Em’s eyes to how power can be abused, all too easily. Now, to boot, Olivia has good reason for craving revenge. It’s clear Em can expect a struggle keeping her powerful sister in line.

Em and Cas went their separate ways at the end of the last book, each turning their full attention to repairing their fractured countries. Cas’s power-hungry cousin Jovita clearly aspires to oust him from his leadership role, and his well-known romance with Em, a perceived enemy to their country, gives Jovita a perfect opportunity for discrediting him. Meanwhile, Em and Olivia no longer have a castle and many of their people, the feared Ruined, have already been murdered, but they intend to rebuild. Of course, Olivia wants more than that; she wants revenge and she wants to remind everyone why Ruined like herself should be feared, respected, and above all obeyed. Em softens Olivia’s cruelty, but Olivia increasingly resents her sister’s pleas for mercy, compassion, and compromise.

Though fate tore Em and Cas apart, Tintera manages to unite and divide them repeatedly in this second book. While the likelihood of their crossing paths requires either significant suspension of disbelief or faith in concepts like fate, I happily went along with anything that seemed a little contrived; the characters and their relationships make the story well worth the reader’s cooperation.

In AVENGED, Tintera spins a vibrant, complex tale of war, intrigue, and alliances. Even when the author hand feels heavy, the pay-off is worth it in the form of a compelling and satisfying story. I look forward to seeing how Tintera concludes this trilogy.

Friday, March 27, 2020

ZAK GEORGE'S DOG TRAINING REVOLUTION


Review of ZAK GEORGE’S DOG TRAINING REVOLUTION: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO RAISING THE PERFECT PET WITH LOVE by ZAK GEORGE, with DINA ROTH PORT

I hadn’t heard of Zak George before borrowing this book from the library. (I’m now given to understand he’s a popular YouTube star, with his videos focusing on dog training.) I’m reading several books on raising and training dogs, as I plan to adopt my own soon. While I’m an experienced trainer myself, I treat dog ownership as a sacred responsibility and am doing all the brushing up I can.

Though I may not have heard of him, I love George’s training approach, and thus loved his book, too. He and I are of the same mind regarding dog training, specifically that we emphasize positive training. While methods have been steadily moving towards that direction, years back when I was actually working as a dog trainer my positive approach was very “against the stream.” The idea behind positive training is that a dog is a companion, so you want to build a strong bond of trust and understanding, with which you can teach your expectations. By contrast, there’s dominance theory, which is increasingly—thankfully, in my opinion—falling out of fashion. As George discusses, dominance theory is based on misinformation about wolf pack behavior and the misguided notion that dogs, domesticated millennia ago, are the same as wild wolves. Dominance theory pushes concepts like alpha and submission, and focuses more on punishment and control, which—most reputable trainers will tell you—actually only creates more behavioral issues.

I particularly love that George encourages speaking to your dog in full sentences. They understand more than most owners realize. And, no, encouraging these conversations isn’t an insistence that dogs entirely follow every word of your meaning, but they do recognize trends. George even suggests saying, “I’m going to show you something new today,” every time you introduce a new command or trick. Sure, the dog won’t have a clue what that means the first time you say it, but they are smart enough to notice the pattern that whenever you say that, you then teach them something new right after. Anyone whose dog runs for cover at the word “vet,” no matter how the word’s buried in a sentence, knows how much connection dogs can make between certain words and certain situations.

I also nodded along in ardent appreciation at George’s insistence that there are no “bad” breeds. Aggressive dogs are aggressive because of their training—or in many cases, lack thereof. Some breeds have reputations as aggressive…which then means people who want aggressive dogs are more likely to adopt them…and then train them to be aggressive…which reinforces the perception that certain breeds are more aggressive.

While George’s book is much slimmer than most of the other dog guides I’ve read, frankly I thought his was packed with the most useful information. He demonstrates that you don’t need to be long-winded to teach dog training and he condenses clear instructions for teaching specific common commands and behaviors within a few paragraphs or less each.

I agree so strongly with George’s advice; I found this a refreshing and validating read, especially given how many dominance theory books have been around for decades. Let the dog training revolution continue!

Friday, March 20, 2020

STRANGE THE DREAMER


Review of STRANGE THE DREAMER by LAINI TAYLOR

After her bestselling DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE trilogy, Taylor returns with another unique and haunting tale. Orphaned librarian Lazlo has been obsessed with the mythical and mysterious city of Weep for as long as he can remember. Then a hero known as the Godslayer walks into their library seeking help on behalf of the, apparently, very real city of Weep.

Taylor has a knack for luscious writing and addictively intricate and complex plots. My above summary of the premise hardly does justice to the layers of absorbing characters and conflicts. Toss in a rivalry with a vain alchemist, a forbidden romance, a high-stakes “riddle,” and an intriguing magic system. As for the writing, take the following phrase for example of Taylor’s distinct style: “his voice low and masculine...as though it had been left out in the weather.” She writes unique metaphors I have never heard, would not have imagined myself, and yet easily understand.

I honestly loved this book, but I don’t think I’ll read on this series. Without specific spoilers, the ending skewed away from my tastes. The whole book feels like the opening scene of a greater story, and the dramatic cliffhanger ending lost rather than peaked my interest. Taylor used to be one of my favorite authors, but she’s increasingly moving away from what I love about her work—the whimsy, writing, and humor—and towards what I least like—grimness and drama. I’m of the mind that dark content is about balance: what it adds to the story must be worth the level of horror/trauma/tragedy. For me, this book felt like it gleefully marinated in overdone darkness. However, if you love drama so juicy it’s like water wrung from a cloth, including complicated character dynamics, haunting magic, and plenty of tragedy, this book is absolutely for you.
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Friday, March 13, 2020

CREATIVE YOU


Review of CREATIVE YOU: USING YOUR PERSONALITY TYPE TO THRIVE by DAVID B. GOLDSTEIN and OTTO KROEGER

After gaining so much from reading THE ARTIST’S WAY, I’ve been interested not only in further books about writing but specifically those geared around creative self-therapy. I also have a very amateur interest in psychology, in particular the Myers Briggs personality assessment (although it should be mentioned that the accuracy and benefits of the test are debated among professionals). As with THE ARTIST’S WAY, I think anything involving speculation and generalizations (like personality tests) must be taken with a grain of salt. That said, you can always gain significant insight through self-reflection.

CREATIVE YOU is the perfect intersection of these interests, discussing how Myers Briggs personality types relate specifically to creativity. While I did find all the content interesting, it did seem more speculative than I like. There’s some intriguing insight here and plenty worthy of further discussion with others, but a lot of generalization. Personally, I think the book really could have benefitted from some case studies. I mean more layman case studies. The book utilizes historical figures as examples, but I also felt confused and frustrated that they refer back to the same handful of figures again and again; I suspect they picked one or two individuals for each personality type.

I always test as INFJ, but I strongly agree with the argument that your letters matter less than your percentages. Part of why Myers Briggs can feel less accurate to some people than others is if they are more midline. If you are 90% something, you will likely identify strongly with the description of that type. But if you’re 51%, you were so close to being the other type and could easily test the other way on a retake. I test very high on Introverted and Judging, but more midrange on Intuitive and Feeling. I always get the final result of INFJ, and I relate strongly with descriptions of that type, but I’ve also found it worthwhile to peruse my “near miss” types.

That said, I didn’t like this book’s “quick” type assessments. Though I always test the same with any version of the test that asks me specific questions about myself, the book instead lists adjectives and has you decide which column you identify with more. Based on those columns, I would choose Sensing even though I always test as Intuitive and I would select Thinking even though I usually test as Feeling. Interestingly, though, those are indeed the two categories where I test more midrange. This discrepancy does, however, highlight the accuracy debates about the Myers Briggs test. This book’s adjectives assessment clearly doesn’t guarantee the same results as the actual test.

The biggest debate about personality typing, though, revolves around “boxing” people. I enjoy categorizing myself for the purposes of self-understanding and -improvement. When I explore my personality type, I also look at “near miss” categories as well and I always consider whether I truly relate to the descriptions or not. Unfortunately, a lot of people will take their type results from personality tests and incorporate it strongly into their self-identity: “I’m not good at that. My type description says so. I won’t do it.” Ideally, personality tests are a self-reflection tool, not an excuse. And your personality can change. (Though I’ve always tested as Introverted, I laugh to see how much I keep sliding along that spectrum over the years from lower to higher percentage Introverted.) It’s harmful to think of your type results as 100% accurate and fixed. You can be who you want to be; it just might take some work.

CREATIVE YOU indulges in a lot of speculation and generalizations, but it’s a great jumping off point for self-reflection about your personality and how it relates to your creative habits. I suspect it’s the type of book that’s more fun to read as a group, perhaps for a book group, where you can discuss all the various specifics with which each individual related or disagreed. My predominant takeaway is that, while reading about personality type is fun and interesting, your personality is not fixed. Take what you can from reading neat, boxed personality descriptions like these, but be careful categorizing or limiting yourself.

Friday, March 6, 2020

TRAIN GO SORRY


Review of TRAIN GO SORRY: INSIDE A DEAF WORLD by LEAH HAGER COHEN

Cohen is not deaf nor hard-of-hearing, but she does have a very unique connection to the Deaf community. Cohen’s father’s parents, her paternal grandparents, were both deaf. Having grown up immersed in Deaf culture himself, Cohen’s father went on to teach at and eventually become the superintendent of New York’s Lafayette School for the Deaf. Cohen herself grew up within this school, surrounded by more deaf people than hearing people. Now, as an adult, she reflects on the complex and wonderful community she had the privilege to experience. TRAIN GO SORRY is part memoir since Cohen interweaves her own experience, but also part biography since she follows her father as well as two specific students. Furthermore, it’s part social commentary given how the content naturally addresses the specific hurdles deaf people encounter in a hearing-centric world. Labels aside, TRAIN GO SORRY is a wonderfully written book.

TRAIN GO SORRY goes beyond typical memoir by following several people: Cohen herself, her father, and two students—Sofia and James. Cohen shares her own experiences living within a vibrant Deaf community as a hearing person, including the time she shoved pebbles in her ears as imaginary hearing aids to be more like the childhood peers who seemed so enviably bonded by their Deafness. Of course, the teacher’s stern and alarmed reaction surprised and confused young Cohen. Seen through a child’s guileless oversimplification, that anecdote is an excellent introduction to the emotional complexity of Deaf experience.

Cohen herself grew up immersed in, fascinated by, and drawn to Deaf culture. She describes some interesting cultural differences, such as the long goodbyes common among the Deaf. Cohen speculates that for those often accustomed to being shut out, it’s hard to part from the ones who make you feel included and understood. Her own experiences studying to become an interpreter and dating a Deaf man provide fascinating insight from a hearing person’s perspective. For example, Cohen describes how when people realized her boyfriend was deaf, they would refocus their attention on her and expect her to do the communicating. She doesn’t want to ignore someone talking to her, but neither does she want to speak for her boyfriend and hinder his ability to communicate directly.  

Cohen’s father, Oscar, experiences a similar internal struggle of feeling at once inside and outside of a unique culture. His deaf parents instilled in him a love for the vibrant Deaf community as well as an awareness of all the room for improvement regarding Deaf experience. He takes his obligation to his students very seriously and is hyper-aware of the drawbacks of a privileged (in this case hearing) person representing a marginalized community (in this case his deaf and hard-of-hearing students). He emphasizes communication, cultivating varied perspectives and maintaining a constant dialogue about the school’s evolution. Cohen does an excellent job expressing the complexity of her father’s work. His position sounds like a constant battle among parents, teachers, and bureaucrats. Most everyone is well-meaning, but the viewpoints vary and clash, leaving Oscar to mediate and make difficult decisions. Sometimes life is about balance and compromise, but in terms of social issues it’s often about picking a side.

In addition to Cohen and her father, the book also follows two students, Sofia and James. Sofia is a Russian immigrant who has to learn an entirely new sign language now. Additionally, her parents discourage signing at home and feel threatened by her ties to the close-knit Deaf community.

James grows up in ghetto poverty until the school provides him lodging in the school dormitory. With a brother in jail and many childhood friends taking part in illegal activities, James later realizes that being Deaf provided him with an alternate culture and perhaps saved him from a similar incarcerated future.

I’ve read several other reviews of this book that criticize it as disjointed for jumping focus between Cohen, her father, Sofia, and James. I entirely disagree about that structure being a flaw. While it’s certainly a dramatic shift with each transition, the varied perspectives all tie together into a beautiful portrayal of the layered, individual complexities of Deaf culture and experience.

Only after I finished this book did I realize why I recognized Cohen’s name. Back in 2015, I reviewed her nonfiction book I DON’T KNOW about the power and importance of admitting ignorance. Looking into her work further, she’s an extremely eclectic author, but these two books have convinced me that she has a unique and insightful take on the world. I’ll definitely read more by her and am especially intrigued to try read her fiction publications.

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.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Favorite Books Read in 2019


For those who follow my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2019. All the books I reviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I reviewed in 2019, not necessarily books published in 2019.

1.     EATING MINDFULLY by SUSAN ALBERS

There are a lot of other books out there telling you what to eat, but most of us could benefit more from considering how we eat. This small book is packed full of inspiring insight and mantras, helpful beginner exercises, and plenty of fodder for self-reflection and self-growth. Change the way you eat; change the way you think.

2.     THE HOW CAN IT BE GLUTEN-FREE COOKBOOK by AMERICA’S TEST KITCHEN

After learning I have Celiac disease and should never eat gluten again, I started teaching myself gluten-free cooking. While many of the gluten-free cookbooks I’ve tried have been disappointing, I found every single recipe from this one easy to follow and the results delicious. I’m discovering a few other good gluten-free cookbooks, but this one remains far and away my absolute favorite.

3.     BELLADONNA by ANNE BISHOP

This sequel to SEBASTIAN follows his infamously powerful cousin, our title-namesake Belladonna, as she prepares for the final showdown with the Eater of the World. Meanwhile, she meets a young man named Michael who, like herself, has been isolated from society for his unusual powers. 

4.     MURDER OF CROWS by ANNE BISHOP

The second book in Bishop’s THE OTHERS series opens with tensions already high between humans and the Others. After an incident of particularly underhanded sabotage, relations only worsen. Bishop remains one of my all-time-favorite authors: a master of her own comforting, utterly addictive, dark fantasy romance formula.

5.     BECOMING A WRITER by DOROTHEA BRANDE

First published in 1934, this book feels just as relevant today: proof that content shifts more than craft. Brande focuses on a combination of craft and philosophy: addressing emotional difficulties of the profession while also providing specific self-discipline exercises. My favorite is putting your distractible writer self on a time out.

6.     THE ARTIST’S WAY by JULIA CAMERON

Through twelve weeks of reading and exercises, Cameron encourages readers to find words for their psychological creative blocks and learn how to overcome those barriers. With insight and assignments centered on self-reflection, self-care, and self-improvement, she teaches sustainable, mindful habits for healthy, happy creative expression.

7.     INKDEATH by CORNELIA FUNKE

This conclusion to the INKHEART trilogy sees our young heroine Meggie trapped in the magical world of Inkheart with her father and other comrades, where they must find a way to defeat the cruel Adderhead. I love this series for its reading-centric magic system; the only way to defeat the Adderhead involves an extremely exceptional book.

8.     DAVID AND GOLIATH by MALCOLM GLADWELL

This popular nonfiction author delivers a fascinating book about underdogs, subverting expectations, and thinking outside the box. From girls’ basketball to organic chemistry to racial tension, Gladwell provides specific but eclectic case examples of people who approached problems in unique ways.   

9.     THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE by PHILIPPA GREGORY

After THE CONSTANT PRINCESS about Katherine of Aragon and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL about Anne and Mary Boleyn, Gregory delivers another gripping novel about Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives. THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE picks up after Jane Seymour’s death and follows King Henry’s fourth and fifth wives, Anne of Cleaves and Katherine Howard, as well as Jane Rochford, the window of Anne Boleyn’s brother.

10.  BIRD BY BIRD by ANNE LAMOTT

In this renowned book about writing, Lamott focuses on the emotional turmoils of pursuing a career as an author. She discusses typical writer advice, such as critique partners and outside perceptions of the field, as well as more unique topics, such as professional jealousy. Her distinct and well-articulated perspective makes even familiar insight a worthwhile read for any writer.  

11.  A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

This fifth installment in the widely popular A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series feels like more of the same, a great thing for the many hardcore fans. Pay attention as we follow dozens of distinct and intriguing characters navigating their way through this complex world and its brutal politics.

12.  REDEFINING REALNESS by JANET MOCK

With beautiful writing and impressive insight, Mock’s memoir distinguishes itself within a flooded genre. Clearly a very reflective person, Mock has had plenty of time to consider the labels society has given her: multi-racial, trans, victim, poor. She not only shares her specific experiences, but delves deeper for the universal meaning.

13.  THE LAST ANNIVERSARY by LIANE MORIARTY

When single Sophie’s one-who-got-away, now-married ex contacts her, the last thing she expects is that his aunt passed away…and left her house to Sophie. The house is on a tiny island legendary for an unsolved mystery: when a baby was found abandoned with no trace of what happened to her parents.

14.  WHAT ALICE FORGOT by LIANE MORIARTY

As a generalization, I’m not a fan of amnesia storylines; WHAT ALICE FORGOT is one of the few exceptions, simply because Moriarty skillfully triggers all my empathy vividly imagining Alice’s scared confusion.  Last that she remembers, Alice was young and madly in love. Then she wakes in the hospital: apparently ten years older, the mother of three children, and divorcing the love of her life.

15.  ABHORSEN and ACROSS THE WALL by GARTH NIX

ABHORSEN continues the namesake trilogy, jumping right into the drama and action cut off at the end of LIRAEL. ACROSS THE WALL, on the other hand, is an eclectic series of short stories that opens with a gripping, action-packed tale set in the same world as the trilogy.

16.  BLOOD OF TYRANTS and LEAGUE OF DRAGONS by NAOMI NOVIK

The eighth book of this wonderful series finds Laurence stranded in Japan with amnesia and separated from his dragon Temeraire. Then the ninth and last book presents our heroes with a rare opportunity to finally stop Napoleon’s reign of terror. I was sad to see this beloved series end, but will long remember the well-mannered dragon Temeraire and his comrades.

17.  SPINNING SILVER by NAOMI NOVIK

This novel opens on Miryem, a moneylender who earns herself a reputation for turning silver into gold. That reputation causes her no small amount of trouble when the fairy king takes it literally. This haunting book feels both wistfully familiar with classic fairy tale themes as well as captivatingly unique with multiple compelling heroines and a storyline that goes well beyond its inspiration.  


This might be the single best book about writing, specifically the craft of writing, that I’ve read. A professional editor herself, Morell presents the convincing opinion that it’s easier to discuss and avoid the pitfalls of bad writing than try to describe good writing. To that end, she provides numerous, thorough checklists for assessing and revising your work.

19.  POISON, CHARM, and BEAUTY by SARAH PINBOROUGH

These fairy tale retellings look more directly at the dark subtext in these classics, spinning adult versions centered around lust, greed, ego, and cruelty. Though they can be read as standalones, the books work together as a longer story and each novel pulls on more than one fairy tale influence. 


Twylla is both her kingdom’s future queen, currently engaged to their prince, as well as the kingdom’s executioner, since her bare skin kills anyone who touches it. This young adult fantasy trilogy stood out in a crowded genre; I passionately invested in the characters and tore eagerly through the enthralling storyline.

21.  THE GLASS CASTLE by JEANETTE WALLS

To say Walls had an unusual childhood is a laughable understatement. In this stunning memoir, she relays the emotional complexity of her upbringing through short chapters, each detailing a specific memory. What I admire most is Walls’ restraint: both by describing emotionally charged events without much sentimental commentary and by portraying individuals as complicated and contradictory rather than caricaturizing them.
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