Alternate History

Review: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

Cover of "That Inevitable Victorian Thing," featuring a purple background with a green tree on the left that is paralleled by golden circuits on the left, with the title in golden text in the middle
Image from E.K. Johnston

Title: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

Author: E.K. Johnston

Genre: Alternate History

Trigger Warnings: Amputation, privacy invasion, f/f sex (implied)

Back Cover:

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history two centuries earlier. The imperial practice of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage like her mother before her, but before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer incognito in a far corner of empire. In Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir apparent to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an unusual bond and maybe a one in a million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book, but they’re good mixed feelings. Sort of. So this review is a little bit out of order because the setting is hugely important in my thoughts on the book and the characters, not so much.

First off, this book is set in near future Canada, but I categorized it as alternate history because it’s a near future where Britain didn’t lose its power and influence and also made a lot better choices regarding human rights, less colonialism, etc. It was almost utopian. There were things I liked about it (like racism not being a thing and healthcare being free), and there were things I didn’t like about it (like the way it felt a bit like an erasure of all the wrongs Britain has done, and the computer-based “genetic matches” to promote marrying someone who you would produce better children with smacked a bit of eugenics). I definitely enjoyed reading about it, but I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Uh, plot. Princess Victoria-Margaret takes an undercover vacation to Canada, makes some friends, and falls in love. The author’s note at the end of the book called the book “a very small story in a very big world,” and I like that description. It’s a small story of a girl meeting new friends and falling in love with one of them, but it has enough turns and surprises that it doesn’t feel plotless. The worldbuilding overshadows it, but the plot is definitely there and definitely strong if you like character-oriented stories. Plus, there’s a happy ending for everybody!

On that note, let’s talk about characters. The characters were all enjoyable to read about – I loved them all and wanted all of them to get a happy ending – but thinking about it, they weren’t really developed in the traditional sense. This is very much a slice-of-life story, and there isn’t really much of a need to learn much about these characters’ pasts or delve into their deepest fears or anything like that. I loved all of the people on the pages (literally all of them, there’s no “bad guy” or even a rival to hate) and I was happy to spend 300 pages with them, but I couldn’t really tell you much about them.

Really, the only thing I didn’t really like was the romance. And not because I didn’t like the romance itself – the concept was great, the characters were great together, and I’m super happy it happened. But it was just poorly done. The characters who fall in love feel little flutters when they look at each other (starting halfway through the book), they’re confused why their hearts beat faster when they accidentally touch … and then they’re making out on the couch. It came out of nowhere with hardly any buildup. And I just think it could have been done so much better.

And, because the diversity is so good, I have to mention it: Victoria-Margaret is a mixed-race person of color with African-textured hair, one of the characters is intersex, and there’s also polyamory.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing takes a small, slice-of-life story and mixes it with rich world-building to form a complex, multi-layered story that feels a lot bigger than it actually is. It’s not precisely lighthearted but definitely very wholesome. Despite my mixed feelings about some elements, it was an enjoyable book and I’m glad I read it.

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Relationships

Review: Why Does He Do That

Cover of "Why Does He Do That?" featuring white text on a dark red backgroundTitle: Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

Author: Lundy Bancroft

Genre: Relationships

Trigger Warnings: Descriptions of abuse (physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual), cisgendered language

Back Cover:

He says he loves you. So…why does he do that?

You’ve asked yourself this question again and again. Now you have the chance to see inside the minds of angry and controlling men–and change your life. In Why Does He Do That? you will learn about:

– The early warning signs of abuse
– The nature of abusive thinking
– Myths about abusers
– Ten abusive personality types
– The role of drugs and alcohol
– What you can fix, and what you can’t
– And how to get out of an abusive relationship safely

Review:

This book is written for women who think they may be in an abusive relationship but aren’t sure, or women who are in an abusive relationship and want to know more about how their abusive partner thinks and how to get out. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot from reading this if you’re not in that situation, because you definitely can.

Lundy Bancroft writes this book from experience – he works with abusers as his profession, running an abusers program that tries to help men unlearn the things that make them abusers. This book is absolutely packed with information about how abusers work, how they think, how they got that way, and what you can do about it. It is super informative.

I saw my past abusers in the pages quite a bit. I got angry (and I’ll admit, a little triggered) reading through some of the descriptions of abuse. (If you’re not currently in an abusive relationship and are trying to recover from one, I highly recommend you make sure you’re emotionally ready before reading this.) Mostly, though, I learned how abusive men think and operate.

There are some shortcomings, though. This book does touch briefly on issues of same-sex abuse, but most of what it does mention is about abusive relationships between women. There’s hardly anything about a man abusing his male partner, and barely any mentions of male victims of abuse, whether abused by a man or a woman. It’s also written by a white man, so it’s unsurprisingly but disappointingly lacking in discussions of intersectionality – situations where victims are even more limited by things like race or immigrant status – and views the police as a generally good recourse unless the abuser is or has friends on the force.

The information laid out here about how abusers think and operate and how to recognize them are excellent, and definitely worth reading. And there is a resources section that does list abuse resources specifically for women of color, as well as a lot of other information for different circumstances (for teens, for people who want to support someone in an abusive relationship, etc.). Although there’s not a lot of intersectionality to it, it is still a fantastically valuable book and absolutely worth reading.

Current Issues/Society

Review: How to Change Your Mind

Cover of "How to Change Your Mind," featuring a completely black cover except for white text and a skylight showing a square of blue sky with a white cloudTitle: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

Author: Michael Pollan

Genre: Current Issues/Society

Trigger Warnings: Drug use, psychedelic trips, heart problems

Back Cover:

When LSD was first discovered in the 1940s, it seemed to researchers, scientists and doctors as if the world might be on the cusp of psychological revolution. It promised to shed light on the deep mysteries of consciousness, as well as offer relief to addicts and the mentally ill. But in the 1960s, with the vicious backlash against the counter-culture, all further research was banned. In recent years, however, work has quietly begun again on the amazing potential of LSD, psilocybin and DMT. Could these drugs in fact improve the lives of many people? Diving deep into this extraordinary world and putting himself forward as a guinea-pig, Michael Pollan has written a remarkable history of psychedelics and a compelling portrait of the new generation of scientists fascinated by the implications of these drugs. How to Change Your Mind is a report from what could very well be the future of human consciousness.

Review:

I found this while browsing for audiobooks at my local library. I read the title and thought, “Oh cool, a book on how to evaluate evidence and form better opinions!” Then I read the back and went, “Oh, okay. Psychedelics are cool too.”

I don’t know if it’s my rebellious streak or just curiosity, but I’ve recently been wanting to try drugs (the non-addicting ones, at least). Reading this book just made me want to try psychedelics all the more.

First off, there’s a lot of research, science, and history in this book. In fact, there’s a lot of everything in this book – it’s 11 CDs long (an average 350-page book is 6-7 CDs). If you ever wanted to know how LSD was invented, how psychedelics were used in psychiatric research, and the different kinds of psychedelics out there, this is your book. Michael is very, very thorough on reporting the history and science of psychedelics – and there is a remarkable amount of legitimate scientific research.

Surprisingly for a self-professed atheist, though, a fair bit of the book focuses on the spiritual aspect of psychedelics. When used as a treatment for things like depression and addiction, the more mystical of a trip the patient had, the better their recovery. Which I think makes sense – the stronger the sensations, the more likely they are to have a lasting effect. But in places Michael seems almost convinced that there is some sort of something “beyond,” if not a deity than at least universal consciousness or something similar, that psychedelic experiences let you tap into.

Some of that may be a “you had to be there” phenomenon. Michael relates five different trips he went on with four different psychedelic drugs, and does his best to describe the altered consciousness he experienced. (He stresses that we don’t currently have language to fully express the feelings and experiences of such trips.) I, personally, have never tripped on anything more than an accidental overdose of marijuana, which just made everything feel like a dream and did not provide any mystical revelations. So while I’m skeptical that I will end up believing the drugs connected me to anything more than altered consciousness and whatever’s happening inside my own mind, I’ll reserve judgement.

Though it was long, this book was above all else interesting. From discovery to de-legalization to the current research going on, to Michael Pollan’s own trips and experiences with underground “psychedelic guides” who set up and guide a psychedelic session, it was all a fascinating intro to a world that I knew nothing about. And I would someday love to try having my own psychedelic “mystical experience.”

High Fantasy

Review: A Harvest of Ripe Figs

Cover of "A Harvest of Ripe Figs," featuring a brown-skinned woman nursing a baby sitting on a throne with a blond-haired warrior wearing a mask standing beside the throneTitle: A Harvest of Ripe Figs

Series: Mangoverse #3

Author: Shira Glassman

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Emotionally abusive relationships, sexual content (heterosexual and homosexual)

Spoiler Warning: This book is third in a series, so this review probably contains spoilers of the previous two books, The Second Mango and Climbing the Date Palm. Proceed with caution!

Back Cover:

Esther of the Singing Hands is Perach’s Sweetheart, a young and beautiful musician with a Girl Next Door image. When her violin is stolen after a concert in the capital city, she doesn’t expect the queen herself to show up, intent upon solving the mystery.

But Queen Shulamit–lesbian, intellectual, and mother of the six month old crown princess–loves to play detective. With the help of her legendary bodyguard Rivka and her dragon, and with the support of her partner Aviva the Chef, Shulamit turns her mind toward the solution–which she quickly begins to suspect involves the use of illegal magic that could threaten the safety of her citizens.

Review:

Let me say this: I did not enjoy this book as much as the previous Mangoverse books. That’s not really any fault of the book, though. This book is first and foremost a mystery story, and I’m just not a huge fan of mysteries.

The plot focuses on the mystery of Esther’s missing violin, which also leads into the related mystery of “who’s using this illegal magic and where is it coming from.” As far as mysteries go, it wasn’t bad – like I said, I’m just not a huge fan of mysteries. And because this is a mystery, unlike the previous Mangoverse books, you will miss things if you try to read it in bits and pieces.

I also didn’t enjoy Shulamit as much this time around – but again, not really the book’s fault. Shulamit and Aviva are now parents, and most of their characterization in this book focused on their challenges as new parents to a baby. And as someone who has never had a child, that part wasn’t very relatable (or honestly, interesting) to me.

Beyond that, the major characters really haven’t changed much. Which isn’t a bad thing, since they’re all good, solid characters and I like them a lot. (See my review of Climbing the Date Palm for more specifics.)

This book also introduces a lot of new characters, most of whom were there because of the mystery aspects (suspects and/or witnesses) and I doubt they’ll be in future books. In some parts it gets kind of confusing because there’s so many different characters running around, and none of them are particularly interesting.

Okay, from reading this review so far you might get the impression that I don’t like this book at all. Which is not true. I didn’t like this book as much as the previous two, no, but I still enjoyed it. It was a lighthearted read, quick and fun, with solid characters, a good plot, and stakes that never seem super high. It’s a relaxation read, just like the other books in the series, and I definitely enjoyed it for that. And I will be continuing the series.

The Mangoverse Series:

  1. The Second Mango
  2. Climbing the Date Palm: A Labor Rights Love Story
  3. A Harvest of Ripe Figs
  4. The Olive Conspiracy
  5. Tales from Perach
Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic

Review: The Scorpion Rules

Cover of "The Scorpion Rules," featuring a gray background with a throne covered in a pattern of red and black scorpionsTitle: The Scorpion Rules

Series: Prisoners of Peace #1

Author: Erin Bow

Genre: Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic

Trigger Warnings: Death, death of children, blood, torture (physical and psychological)

Back Cover:

The world is at peace, said the Utterances. And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?

Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.

Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday. Until then she lives in the Precepture school with the daughters and sons of the world’s leaders. Like them, she is taught to obey the machines that control their lives. Like them, she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must. But everything changes when a new hostage arrives. Elián is a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught. And he opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the system they live under—and to her own power.

As Greta and Elián watch their nations tip closer to war, Greta becomes a target in a new kind of game. A game that will end up killing them both—unless she can find a way to break all the rules.

Review:

Oh, my god, the emotions. This book was on my most anticipated reads of 2019, and it completely deserved that space. I devoured it in a total of 3 hours and it’ll likely end up on my favorite reads of 2019.

So let’s talk about why I loved it so much: Greta. Greta is our main character and our narrator, and she is me. I don’t mean that in an “oh, she’s #relatable” way – in fact, a lot of the Goodreads reviews found her bland and boring – but she is exactly like me if I was in that situation. She’s a good girl, following the rules. It doesn’t even occur to her to try and change her fate; she puts her energy towards being prepared to die with dignity. She’s unobservant, especially when it comes to people. Erin Bow said Greta’s character was inspired by Spock, and as someone whose siblings jokingly called them “Spock” as a child, I saw myself in everything Greta was.

In the standard dystopian trope, it’s the rule-breaking rebel who saves the world. (Although whether or not there’s any world-saving in The Scorpion Rules is debatable.) But Elián, the rule-breaking rebel of this story, doesn’t do much saving. His fighting spirit is what wakes Greta up to the idea that they shouldn’t just lay down and wait for their own deaths, and then he recedes into a supporting role. He’s not even the love interest. He’s a good character, as far as characters go, but especially in the second half he doesn’t really do much.

If you’re going into this book thinking, “Oh, it’s a dystopian, there will be a rebellion and Greta and Elián will save all these kids and upend the political system,” then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The plot is a slow burn, but to me it didn’t feel slow because I loved Greta so much. Nothing happens in the first half of the book. The characters are going about their lives, taking classes, gardening, and caring for goats. Greta’s emotional arc takes center stage, even when something actually does happen, and if you’re not prepared for character- and emotion-focused and action-less (or if you don’t like Greta), you’re not going to like it at all.

Speaking of emotions, let’s talk about emotions. Specifically, how vivid and visceral the emotions are in this book. I cried a couple of times. I felt the emotional horror of the torture. Perhaps it’s because I was so invested in Greta, but the feelings leaped off the page and straight into my heart. It’s one of those books that leaves you emotionally wiped out, but in a good way, at the end, and I loved every second of it.

Yes, this book does have its problems. There’s no real reason for the other children at the Precepture school to look up to Greta as a leader. (Although the fact that she’s the daughter of a queen is emphasized, so maybe that’s supposed to be the reason, even though literally every other child there is a ruler’s kid.) And the romance, though very, very secondary, comes out of nowhere with no reason or buildup. But the romance part takes up maybe 10 pages TOTAL through the whole book, so I’m willing to overlook that.

I really, really want to talk about the ending, because I have Thoughts about it, but there’s spoilers there. So I’ll probably talk about it when I read The Swan Riders – because there is a sequel and you better believe I’m reading it. I loved this book (though I can see why some wouldn’t), and I can’t wait to continue the story.

The Prisoners of Peace series:

  1. The Scorpion Rules
  2. The Swan Riders
Did Not Finish, Self-Help

Review: Girl, Wash Your Face

Cover of "Girl, Wash Your Face," featuring a picture of the author (a woman with wavy blond hair) sitting next to a yellow fire hydrant that's spraying water in the air.Title: Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be

Author: Rachel Hollis

Genre: Self-Help

Trigger Warnings: Christianity

Read To: CD 1 of 6

Back Cover:

Founder of the lifestyle website TheChicSite.com and CEO of her own media company, Chic Media, Rachel Hollis has created an online fan base of hundreds of thousands of fans by sharing tips for living a better life while fearlessly revealing the messiness of her own. Now comes her highly anticipated first book featuring her signature combination of honesty, humor, and direct, no-nonsense advice.

Each chapter of Girl, Wash Your Face begins with a specific lie Hollis once believed that left her feeling overwhelmed, unworthy, or ready to give up. As a working mother, a former foster parent, and a woman who has dealt with insecurities about her body and relationships, she speaks with the insight and kindness of a BFF, helping women unpack the limiting mind-sets that destroy their self-confidence and keep them from moving forward.

From her temporary obsession with marrying Matt Damon to a daydream involving hypnotic iguanas to her son’s request that she buy a necklace to “be like the other moms,” Hollis holds nothing back. With unflinching faith and tenacity, Hollis spurs other women to live with passion and hustle and to awaken their slumbering goals.

Review:

I went into this with low expectations. I had it on my reading list because it sounded pretty good, but then someone told me the author didn’t look past her wealthy white privilege and most of the advice wasn’t very good. I decided to read it anyway, though, because I liked The Happiness Project and that was also written from that privileged perspective. Besides, it’s tackling lies we tell ourselves, how bad could it be?

So bad. So, so bad.

I stopped a little way into chapter three. Here’s a brief summary of what I got through:

Introduction: I have flaws, I swear! My life is not perfect! Even though I own my own media company and sometimes go to the Academy Awards, I’m honest about my problems! Why, just last week I posted a picture of my belly with stretch marks!

Chapter one: I have flaws, I swear! My life is not perfect! Why, just the other day I had some bladder leakage! Here are a few fortune cookie quotes about life with no practical application.

Chapter two: I have flaws, I swear! My life is not perfect! Why, sometimes I snap at my husband and sometimes my kids argue! But I’m always really good at doing what I say I’m going to do. Here are a few fortune cookie quotes about life with no practical application.

Chapter three: I have flaws, I swear! My life is not perfect! Why, when I work too hard at my dream job I get a physical ailment from stress that makes me self-conscious! (I stopped before it got to the fortune cookie quotes.)

The main theme that Rachel states is that your life is solely your responsibility and anything you have a problem with is your fault. (I’m not even going to unpack how much privilege is in that statement.) The main theme that comes through in the writing is that Hollis is desperate to convince people that just because she’s so much better than them doesn’t mean she’s perfect. She’s #relatable, guys!

She’s not even a good writer. Each of the chapters is titled after a “lie we tell ourselves,” but she never actually addresses the lie, just provides story after poorly-told story of her own life that don’t even try to relate to the “lie.” She tries so hard to have a unique voice that it just feels gimicky and contrived. And her “advice” is mostly useless platitudes of the sort you’d find in pretty script fonts on Pinterest. There’s no practical tips. Chapter two talks about doing the things you say you’re going to do (like working out), and her advice for doing that? Do it. That’s literally it. She hypes up “keeping promises to yourself” and then never actually gives any advice for how to do that. Even Better than Before gave some practical advice!

I keep comparing this book to Gretchen Rubin’s books, mainly because the authors are very similar in my mind. They’re both wealthy white women who wrote self-help books on how to be happier that are actually all about them. The main difference: Gretchen is actually a good writer. I think if Rachel was a decent writer and there was something actually actionable in this book, I’d be giving a review similar to The Happiness Project – more along the lines of “the writer is privileged but it was a pretty enjoyable book.” But as I started on chapter three of Girl, Wash your Face, the only thing I could think was, “If I was an editor, I’d have rejected this book already.”

Did Not Finish, Paranormal

Review: As I Descended

Cover of "As I Descended," featuring the dark blue silhouette of a girl's head and shoulders on a light blue background with the title in a cursive script
Image from Robin Talley

Title: As I Descended

Author: Robin Talley

Genre: Paranormal

Trigger Warnings: Drug use, alcohol use by minors, blood, death

Back Cover:

Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them.

Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.

Golden child Delilah is a legend at the exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. She runs the school, and if she chose, she could blow up Maria and Lily’s whole world with a pointed look, or a carefully placed word.

But what Delilah doesn’t know is that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to make their dreams come true. And the first step is unseating Delilah for the Kingsley Prize. The full scholarship, awarded to Maria, will lock in her attendance at Stanford―and four more years in a shared dorm room with Lily.

Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school.

But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.

Read to: Page 134 (39%)

Review:

This book is dark. Like, really dark. I probably found it darker than it actually was because I couldn’t get over the fact that these characters are high school seniors. They’re practically kids. And yet they’re doing hard drugs, drinking a lot, fighting and backstabbing and cheating to get ahead … maybe it’s because it’s so alien to my experience of high school (to be fair, I was homeschooled), but it just seemed really, really dark.

Let’s talk about the characters – or at least, what little there is of them. The characters themselves take a back seat to the rivalry between them. There’s Maria, who’s super smart and a good girl rule-follower and whose scores in everything are just behind Delilah, who is a druggie and party girl willing to cheat (or sleep with people) to get ahead. “Disabled” isn’t really a personality trait, but it seems to make up the bulk of Lily, and there’s also Maria’s friend Brandon, who is mostly just fat and gay. All of them are flat, and a lot of it reads like traits thrown in for diversity points.

The back cover promised a supernatural element, but beyond a creepy seance at the beginning and Maria experiencing some probably-a-ghost occurrences, there really wasn’t anything supernatural up to the point where I stopped reading. There wasn’t even anything supernatural involved in unseating Delilah and the death – it was all drugs. Which was pretty disappointing to me, because the main reason I picked this book up was for the supernatural element.

And that’s a big part of why I put it down. There wasn’t much of the supernatural like I wanted, it was so dark, and I couldn’t handle all the drugs and watching these kids destroy themselves and each other over … what? A scholarship? Rivalries? It’s high school. None of it will be that big of a deal in five years. Maria and Lily are acting like the scholarship is the only way for them to even see each other again after they graduate, and I’m pretty sure there are other options, even if they can’t go to the same college.

I enjoy a lot of YA books, but I’m just too old for this one. Having graduated college and being a bona fide Adult, reading about this high school drama just made me sad that these kids lacked perspective. It would probably be better enjoyed by someone actually in high school who doesn’t have the adult perspective I do.

Memoir

Review: Autism in Heels

Cover of "Autism in Heels," featuring a photograph from the waist down of someone wearing a mid-thigh-length skirt and red high heelsTitle: Autism in Heels: The Untold Story of a Female Life on the Spectrum

Author: Jennifer Cook O’Toole

Genre: Memoir

Trigger Warnings: Bullying, sexual assault and violence, self-harm, eating disorders

Back Cover:

The face of autism is changing. And more often than we realize, that face is wearing lipstick.

Autism in Heels , an intimate memoir, reveals the woman inside one of autism’s most prominent figures, Jennifer O’Toole. At the age of thirty-five, Jennifer was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and for the first time in her life, things made sense. Now, Jennifer exposes the constant struggle between carefully crafted persona and authentic existence, editing the autism script with wit, candor, passion, and power. Her journey is one of reverse-self-discovery not only as an Aspie but–more importantly–as a thoroughly modern woman.

Beyond being a memoir, Autism in Heels is a love letter to all women. It’s a conversation starter. A game changer. And a firsthand account of what it is to walk in Jennifer’s shoes (especially those iconic red stilettos).

Whether it’s bad perms or body image, sexuality or self-esteem, Jennifer’s is as much a human journey as one on the spectrum. Because autism “looks a bit different in pink,” most girls and women who fit the profile are not identified, facing years of avoidable anxiety, eating disorders, volatile relationships, self-harm, and stunted independence. Jennifer has been there, too. Autism in Heels takes that message to the mainstream.

From her own struggles and self-discovery, she has built an empire of empowerment, inspiring women the world over to realize they aren’t mistakes. They are misunderstood miracles.

Review:

I have never before in my life read a memoir, mostly because I’m not particularly interested in them. But my mother-in-law checked this out from the library for me, and I mostly started reading it because I was too awkward to give it back to her without at least trying to read it. Sure, I was interested in learning more about autism in women, but I was kind of put off by the memoir aspect.

It actually turned out to be really good, though. In the beginning, she talks about her children’s diagnoses, her diagnosis, and her research of how autism presents differently in girls than in the boys that most research is done on. I spend a lot of that part reading quotes out loud to my husband and going, “Hey, that’s me, I didn’t even realize that was an autistic thing.” She then went back through a lot of her life and showed how things she didn’t understand made more sense in an autism context.

Some of it was hard to read. I was homeschooled, so I never even had the opportunity to be bullied, but her description of how cruel her peers were to her when she didn’t pick up on social nuances was really difficult to read. She also had a chapter about her sexual abuse, but she did put a trigger warning on that chapter (and the one about self-harm/eating disorders), so I just skipped that one altogether.  She combines her story with the research she’s done, and the book doesn’t seem like a memoir as much as a discussion of autism, specifically autism in girls, illustrated by examples from one person’s life.

This is a short review, but I don’t have a whole lot to say. It was a very good book. I saw a lot of myself in the pages, and even some of my autistic husband, and it was inspiring to see how the socially ostracized little girl became a renowned speaker on autism. The only real criticism I have is that she only brushed against the idea of gender roles and emotional labor and how they affect autistic girls. I highly recommend this to anyone who is or knows an autistic girl and wants to learn more about how they think.

Personal Development

Review: Better Than Before

Cover of Better than Before, featuring the title of the book over two arrows, a red one pointing right and a yellow one pointing left, on a blue background
Image from Gretchen Rubin

Title: Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives

Author: Gretchen Rubin

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Moralizing about food, weight loss, exercise, dieting

Back Cover:

The author of the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, tackles the critical question: How do we change?

Gretchen Rubin’s answer: through habits. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life. It takes work to make a habit, but once that habit is set, we can harness the energy of habits to build happier, stronger, more productive lives.

So if habits are a key to change, then what we really need to know is: How do we change our habits?

Better than Before answers that question. It presents a practical, concrete framework to allow readers to understand their habits—and to change them for good. Infused with Rubin’s compelling voice, rigorous research, and easy humor, and packed with vivid stories of lives transformed, Better than Before explains the (sometimes counter-intuitive) core principles of habit formation.

Along the way, Rubin uses herself as guinea pig, tests her theories on family and friends, and answers readers’ most pressing questions—oddly, questions that other writers and researchers tend to ignore:

• Why do I find it tough to create a habit for something I love to do?
• Sometimes I can change a habit overnight, and sometimes I can’t change a habit, no matter how hard I try. Why?
• How quickly can I change a habit?
• What can I do to make sure I stick to a new habit?
• How can I help someone else change a habit?
• Why can I keep habits that benefit others, but can’t make habits that are just for me?

Whether readers want to get more sleep, stop checking their devices, lose weight, or finish an important project, habits make change possible. Reading just a few chapters of Better Than Before will make readers eager to start work on their own habits—even before they’ve finished the book.

Review:

Before I get started on this review, I want to point out a MAJOR trigger warning for anyone with a history of eating disorders or disordered eating. This book talks about dieting, exercise, and weight loss almost constantly as an example of “good habits” to start. There’s so much of it that it will overwhelm your coping skills, and I highly recommend that if you struggle at all with disordered eating, you should avoid this book.

Beyond that, this is not a super scientific book. It’s mostly based on Gretchen using herself as a guinea pig and drawing out principles from her successes and failures. She admits at the end of the book she finds individual examples (a “data point of one”) more convincing than research, but she also admits towards the beginning that she is not a typical person. So take her suggestions with several grains of salt. She does test her ideas on family and friends, but doesn’t really draw out advice from them so much as use them of examples of “see, my strategy works!”

A lot of this book is based on her previous work on the “four tendencies,” which is a personality framework she developed in a previous book she wrote, The Four Tendencies, that deals with how people respond to expectations. You don’t have to read that book to follow this one, though, as she explains the tendencies well enough that you can understand the point she’s trying to make. (And in fact, I feel like I understand the tendencies well enough now that I have no desire to read an entire book about them.)

Some of the points she makes using the four tendencies framework actually make a lot of sense. So does some of her other advice, like making a habit convenient making it easier to start and how identity affects habit formation. But even after paying lip service to the concept that everyone is different and should work towards forming different habits, a lot of the book followed Gretchen’s attempt to push people in her life (and by extension, the reader) to adopt habits that she thinks are best. Advice on habits in general is included along the way, but a good portion of it is Gretchen trying to convince everybody to form the same habits she does.

The book is pretty inspiring, but I don’t really know how actually useful it is, especially for me. I’ve always been strange about habits – if I try to form a habit, no matter what method I use (and I’ve used several that Gretchen recommends), it doesn’t work. But sometimes a switch randomly flips and I pick up a new habit effortlessly. I used to only brush my teeth at night, and didn’t even have the intention of trying to brush twice a day. Then one day last year a switch flipped and ever since, I’ve brushed my teeth morning and night, no exceptions. I wonder what Gretchen would have to say about that.