Science Fiction

Review: Republic’s Chosen

Cover of "Republic's Chosen," featuring a multicolored feather curled inside a circle
Image from Goodreads

Title: Republic’s Chosen

Series: After the World Ends #1

Author: Rory I

Genre: Military Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: According to the book: Background and secondary character death, bullying, discrimination (macro and microaggressions), in-combat violence and cruelty, institutional bigotry, mentions of PTSD, mild sexual content, sexual assault, spousal neglect. I add: Blood/gore.

Back Cover:

The world had never seen utopias until the Latin Republic was established. Equality, respect, humane treatment – all of those drive the society’s philosophy after the Great Disaster.

Yet humanity has not learned to leave war behind. When the Republic sends summons to Liana, she knows it’s illegal. Her immigrant status forbids her from fighting in the army, but the country’s leaders want control over her and they won’t stop at anything to get it.

Under the pressure of a tough training regime, threatened by a complicated political plot she must quickly untangle, it is no surprise Liana’s marriage begins to crumble. Tossed in a training campus and immediately involved in its intrigue, Liana needs allies quickly, but all she wants to do is crush the system which holds her hostage. With each passing day, it’s becoming harder to reconcile the need to hide her real identity and the desire to protect her immigrant countryfolk from harm.

An old friend returns to her life just in time to give her the leverage she needs. There is no chance she’s ever coming back to her peaceful life in hiding.

A strong bisexual lead, a secret identity, Special Forces soldiers, true friendship, and a headstrong trauma survivor trying to accept her role in saving the world.

Review:

I was really excited to read this book. I got a free ebook copy through the Sapphic Book Club, so it promised to be pretty gay, and the description sounded right up my alley. (The description I read also included something about Liana being former special forces and totally showing up everyone else in the army, which is a trope I love, but I can’t for the life of me find the description I read.)

Overall, Republic’s Chosen was good, but disappointing.

I liked Liana, to a point. She was skilled way above the basic training camp she was sent to, which I really enjoyed. She was also insubordinate and a troublemaker, which sometimes I enjoyed and sometimes seemed just too much. Mostly she was just stifled by the strict rules of the military – which I understand, but I didn’t like. (Also I don’t recall it mentioned anywhere on-page that she’s bi.)

Liana’s husband Marcus was most definitely not my favorite character. At the beginning, I thought he was a kind of a dick. By the time I got to the end, I wouldn’t necessarily call him a dick, but he definitely rubbed me the wrong way. I just couldn’t put my finger on why.

A lot of the minor/less major characters were really good, though. Most of them were queer (and it’s a common practice in this world to state your pronouns when you introduce yourself), and they all had little things that defined them, even though they often didn’t get a lot of page time.

I feel like the world could have been good if there’d been more of it. You don’t get a whole lot about this world, other than there is a big conflict between the Latin Republic (which I think encompassed the Americas?) and the Slavic … countries? I don’t know, that wasn’t very clear. And you get little details about things in the Latin Republic (unimportant stuff, like the women wear eye makeup under the eyes instead of on the lids) from Liana’s perspective, but you don’t get anything about how it came to be the Latin Republic, what the Great Disaster was, or even what the society’s philosophy is. The book was stuck on the military base, and that made it difficult to explore the world.

This book was just far too military for me. It was too focused on the training camp and the military exercises and the recruits and the rules and the hierarchy. I’m not a fan of the military industrial complex, and I expected there to be less obedience and submission to the military’s rules and regulations than there was. The structure and hierarchy felt like it was suffocating the story (which I suppose was intentional, since it was restricting to Liana, too).

I also didn’t like the married couple aspect of it. I don’t know why, and it’s completely a personal preference, but the conflict in Liana’s marriage in addition to everything else just didn’t fit for me. It felt like it added just another layer of complicated on a book that already had too much going on.

This was a long book – 400+ pages. And even with all that page time, it felt like there was too much happening. Liana and Marcus had conflicts with almost everyone, it seemed, as well as with the military structure in general. Then there was their marriage under strain from the being in the military thing. And everywhere they turn running up against restricting military regulations. And did I mention conflicts with almost everyone, including friends from their special forces days?

Okay, this review is a little disjointed and I’m trying to say a lot in a small space. I’m not completely sure what I’m trying to say, though. I did not like this book, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why. Military scifi is definitely not my thing, but there was just too much going on and I didn’t like the characters enough to actually enjoy this. If you like military scifi, though, you’ll probably enjoy this much more.

The After the World Ends series:

  1. Republic’s Chosen
  2. Blacklight (After the World Ends 1.5)
  3. Republic’s Reach (not yet released)

 

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Did Not Finish, Personal Development

Review: Enough Already!

Cover of "Enough Already!" featuring a picture of the author below red text on a white background
Image from Peter Walsh

Title: Enough Already!: Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You

Author: Peter Walsh

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: None (that I found)

Back Cover:

Does it seem like everything is moving so fast these days you can barely keep up? Do you sometimes feel that your life is spinning out of control? Most of us are so overwhelmed by the stuff in our daily lives — work, bills, family commitments, demands from our kids’ schools — that we rush from person to person and place to place. For many of us, life feels completely out of balance because we give one area of our lives too much attention and the other areas nowhere near enough. This crazy imbalance and the resulting stress and unhappiness you feel are the clutter that Peter Walsh wants to help you tackle in “Enough Already!: Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You.”

Peter examines the six key areas of your life — Family, Relationships, Work, Health, Money, and Spirituality — and shows how these unique parts of your life are so interrelated that if just one is cluttered, that clutter will creep into the other areas and throw your life off balance. He then offers a step-by-step plan that helps you acknowledge and address the emotional and mental clutter that holds you back from living the richly fulfilling life you deserve.

Read to: CD 2 of 5

Review:

This book just advertised itself as something it wasn’t, that’s the long and short of it.

It’s all about mental clutter, right? I assumed clearing mental clutter would involve tools like mind mapping, stream-of-consciousness writing, meditation, and that sort of stuff applied to different areas of your life to help you calm your mind.

Nope. I got through the section on relationships and part of the section on jobs, and it basically operates on the premise that all bad things are clutter. Communication problems? Clutter. Don’t like your job? Clutter. Negative emotions? Clutter. Which really felt like a major stretch – I always interpret clutter as “too much stuff taking up space,” not as “anything that is bad.”

It felt like Peter Walsh really wanted to write a life advice book, but he’d already branded himself as an organization person, so he decided to reinterpret life problems as clutter so he could write his life advice book without going off brand.

And honestly, it wasn’t even that great of life advice. The relationships section was all about communicating with your partner (not even how, just that you need to) and compromising, and didn’t even touch on friendships, relationships with family, or anything outside romantic relationships. When I stopped at the career section, it was going through the generic advice of “think about what you want your career to be, not just your job” and leave your job if you hate your boss.

This book is utterly unremarkable and, in my opinion, pretty much useless. It’s not really a book about decluttering your mind, it’s a slightly-worse-than-mediocre general life advice book that only gives broad, sweeping overviews of narrowly-defined areas of your life. In short, it’s not helpful and just plain bland.

Personal Development

Review: Blink

Cover of "Blink," featuring lower-case blue text on a white background
Image from Library Dude

Title: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Police violence, ableism against autism

Back Cover:

Blink is a book about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant – in the blink of an eye – that actually aren’t as simple as they seem. Why are some people brilliant decision makers, while others are consistently inept? Why do some people follow their instincts and win, while others end up stumbling into error? How do our brains really work – in the office, in the classroom, in the kitchen, and in the bedroom? And why are the best decisions often those that are impossible to explain to others?

In Blink we meet the psychologist who has learned to predict whether a marriage will last, based on a few minutes of observing a couple; the tennis coach who knows when a player will double-fault before the racket even makes contact with the ball; the antiquities experts who recognize a fake at a glance. Here, too, are great failures of “blink”: the election of Warren Harding; “New Coke”; and the shooting of Amadou Diallo by police. Blink reveals that great decision makers aren’t those who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of “thin-slicing” – filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.

Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology and displaying all of the brilliance that made The Tipping Point a classic, Blink changes the way you understand every decision you make. Never again will you think about thinking the same way.

Review:

This book had some issues.

I was actually moderately excited to read this book. I’m not the biggest Malcolm Gladwell fan, but I love the idea of thin slicing (when your mind comes to a subconscious conclusion from small bits of information) and was excited to learn more about it.

But this book was simultaneously mostly useless, revelatory, and deeply offending.

To start with (the relevatory part), it had the same problem as every Malcolm Gladwell book I’ve read, which I just now identified three books in: he sets up a great idea (“how to make good snap judgments,” “how things become popular“) and then instead of actually talking about how (or even why), he just gives example after example. If you want to get the “how” or “why” from it, you have to tease it out from his examples – if you can.

That’s why I described this book as “mostly useless” earlier – in the beginning, the book said you would learn how to make better snap judgments and when not to trust those initial instincts, and then ends with the conclusion “your first impression is good except when it’s not.”

Once I identified Malcolm’s problem, though, I did manage to tease out the main idea – snap judgments made by someone who has a lot of knowledge and understanding about something (e.g. art experts, marriage psychologists) are usually pretty accurate, and snap judgments made on something you’re not an expert in are informed by biases and prejudices. Which is actually good information. Trust your gut if you know a lot about the topic, examine your biases if you’re not. But you’ll only discover that if you read between the lines.

Now let’s talk about the “deeply offending” part.

Towards the end of the book, Malcolm talks about the shooting of Amadou Diallo (a black man) by four (white) police officers. It’s in the section on reading faces, and his point is that the policemen were not experienced enough in reading faces to make the snap judgment that Diallo was terrified, not dangerous. He completely dismisses race as a factor in the shooting, which annoyed me. But that wasn’t really the offending part. Malcolm called the moments when your body is affected by adrenaline and you can’t think clearly or make good snap judgments as “temporary autism.” Which is ableist and extremely offensive (this is speaking as an autistic person, and my autistic fiance concurred).

The idea of this book was good. And once you manage to read between the lines to what Malcolm is actually trying to say, it has a solid conclusion. But it also has issues. Really big issues. And honestly, you can sum up what you get out of the book in one sentence: “If you’re really knowledgeable in an area, trust your gut; if you’re not knowledgeable about it, examine your first impression for hidden biases.” And honestly, you don’t need to sift through three hundred pages of examples just to get to that sentence.

Work and Business

Review: Creativity, Inc.

Cover of "Creativity, Inc.," featuring the silhouette of Buzz Lightyear holding a conductor's baton on a red background
Image from Ed Catmull

Title: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Author: Ed Catmull

Genre: Work and Business

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover: 

What does it mean to manage well?

Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation—into the meetings, postmortems, and “Braintrust” sessions where some of the most successful films in history are made. It is, at heart, a book about how to build a creative culture. The joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, the emotional authenticity: In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Here, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so widely admired—and so profitable—based on philosophies that protect the creative process and defy convention, such as:

  • Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.
  • If you don’t strive to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.
  • It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them.
  • The cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.
  • A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.
  • Do not assume that general agreement will lead to change—it takes substantial energy to move a group, even when all are on board.

Review:

Apparently I only pick up books in the “Work and Business” category by accident.

Well, I didn’t pick up this book on accident. I heard Ed Catmull speak on creativity at the Global Leadership Summit in 2016, which (though it took a back seat to Brené Brown‘s) I thoroughly enjoyed. So when I found this book among the library’s slim audiobook selection, I picked it up without really reading the back cover.

To be clear, this wasn’t a bad book. Not at all. But it wasn’t what I expected.

I was expecting something about personal creativity, maybe about how to get inspired or how to solve problems creativity or just about how to be creative in general. What I would have realized if I’d read the back cover was that it was more about how to manage in a way that inspires creativity in your employees.

Interestingly enough, that management aspect was only about 30% of the book, though. The other 70% was a history of Pixar and how it came to exist and later to become a pioneering animation company. Which, again, was very interesting – I didn’t know really anything about Pixar before, and it was so full of ups and downs that it made for a great story in itself.

The downside of this book is personal – I’m not a manager or in charge of any employees. And that means there isn’t a lot in Creativity, Inc. that applies to me. The applicable part of this book is focused on employees and managers, corporate dynamics, and working teams. I’m sure if I looked really hard, I could find ways to apply some of the principles to me as an individual, but with just an initial read (well, listen), I didn’t see anything.

Like I said earlier, this is actually a good book, and it’s very interesting. It just wasn’t super applicable to me (and you know I’m all about the practical application). If you want to know about the history of Pixar, you’ll get a lot out of this book. If you’re a manager or business leader looking to inspire your employees, this will be helpful. But I’m not really the target market for this book.

Suspense/Thriller

Review: Salem’s Lot

Cover of "Salem's Lot," showing the head and neck of a feminine person whose skin is nearly white; their head is tilted back and there are two bleeding puncture wounds in their neck.
Image from Stephen King

Title: Salem’s Lot

Author: Stephen King

Genre: Horror

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, gore, child abuse, spousal abuse, rape mention

Back Cover:

Stephen King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, Is the story of a mundane town under siege from the forces of darkness. Considered one of the most terrifying vampire novels ever written, it cunningly probes the shadows of the human heart–and the insular evils of small-town America.

Review:

Now, before you go, “horror? Jalyn doesn’t read horror” – I know. This isn’t the kind of thing I would normally pick up. But my fiance is a HUGE Stephen King fan and he’s been pestering me for ages to read something by him. Eventually, I ran out of library books and agreed to give it a try.

(This was back in late November, mind you – my fiance’s mass market paperback copy is 631 pages and I just now finished it.)

This book has the biggest ensemble cast I think I’ve ever read, so I’m not going to talk about every character. It spends some time with pretty much everyone in Salem’s Lot. But the character who gets the most page time is Ben Mears, a moderately successful writer who grew up in Salem’s Lot and returned to work on his newest book. He also hopes to be able to process his feelings about the decidedly creepy Marsten House and the trauma of, as a child, being the one to find the body of Hubert Marsten in the house.

The rest of the characters mostly rely on stereotypes for you to get to “know” them – like the town gossip or that one guy who everyone thinks is weird but he doesn’t mind doing that job no one wants so they put up with him. But somehow King manages to make that stereotyping feel artful, so I didn’t mind it at all.

The first half of the book goes really slowly. It spends a lot of time building atmosphere – it’s a small town, with all its small town positives and negatives (which will be quickly recognized by anyone who’s lived in a small town), but there’s also something eerie and possibly a little evil living there, and it’s centered on the Marsten House. It also spends a lot of time on characters, especially Ben and how everyone in the town reacts to him. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like in-depth character studies or would rather sacrifice atmosphere for action, you will hate this. And honestly, I liked it and it still took me two months to get through it.

I feel like anything I say about the second half will be a spoiler, because the book spends so much time setting up the mysteries and vague uneasiness that gets revealed in the second half. That’s where the vague uneasiness grows and becomes the full-blown horror. I also think it dragged a little towards the end – the last hundred pages were a slog for me. They weren’t bad, I just wanted to find out the ending and wanted King to dispense with the lengthy descriptions and get on with the story.

To be honest, I didn’t find it that horror-y. But I think a large part of it was that I was reading it in bright light, sitting on the couch next to my fiance while he played video games, and kept getting distracted by the game and interrupted by my fiance’s occasional comments. I’m sure if I’d read it alone at night (or even in an environment where I wasn’t interrupted frequently), it would have been much scarier.

I will say one thing – Stephen King can write. Not that I was surprised, since he’s such a hugely bestselling author, but it was good. Lengthy and lyrical, but he has a remarkable knack for descriptions and I didn’t even mind how lengthy they were. It just added atmosphere. Whether or not you like his subject matter, he’s certainly a master of writing. (And this is only his second novel, I’m sure his later ones are even better.)

Okay, this is already pretty long, so I’m going to finish up with this: Salem’s Lot really wasn’t my kind of book, and I highly doubt I’ll read another Stephen King. But King is an excellent writer, and even though I wasn’t particularly invested in the story, he made me need to know how it ended. It’s not good in the sense that I liked it (I’m still not sure if I did or not), but it’s definitely good in the sense that it is a solid, well-written book.

Book Round-Ups

2017 in Books

I haven’t done one of these since January of 2015, but it’s the end of the year again and I’m back on the reviewing bandwagon. So here is my annual roundup of my 2017 reads – my top five favorites, as well as some notable books that didn’t make the top 5 and the top 5 books I’m looking forward to reading in 2018.

None of these lists are in any particular order.

Top 5 of 2017

Cover of "The Abyss Surrounds Us," featuring an Asian girl standing on the deck of a ship with the giant eye of a sea monster behind her

1. The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

Sea monsters + pirates + a protagonist of color + lesbians = fantastic. The Abyss Surrounds Us has everything I look for in a book: amazing characters with great arcs, skillfully-done romantic tension, one of the best settings I’ve ever read (did I mention training sea monsters?), a delightfully complicated and fast-paced plot, and an ending that made me feel Epic Battle Feelings. This is one of the first explicitly queer books I read, and it was a great start.

Cover of "Of Fire and Stars," featuring silhouettes of two princesses on a blue background with gold calligraphy text

2. Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

Court drama books have never really been my thing, but this book changed that. I loved the juxtaposition of the friendship (and later romance) between the smart, capable, bookish princess and the unconventional tomboy princess. The setting seemed like a pretty standard high fantasy setting, but at the same time unique and interesting. The magic system (and even the prejudice against magic users) was cool and interesting. And there’s a little bit of trope-smashing. I don’t have enough good things to say about this book.

Cover of "Rising Strong," featuring dark blue text on a light blue and white background

3. Rising Strong by Brené Brown

Rising Strong is … powerful. I love Brené Brown as an author and have adored every one of her books that I’ve read so far, but in my opinion Rising Strong is the most valuable (and that’s saying something). It goes over a research-based process that Brené has discovered/developed for dealing with failure and emotional setbacks. And it really works (I can say so from experience – see my review for potentially triggering details). I learned so much from this book and it’s now my go-to gift for people graduating from high school.

Cover of "The School for Good and Evil," featuring the title on a banner in front of a crest with a black swan on one side and a white swan on the other, above it are two girls, one with short dark hair and one with long blond hair, standing back-to-back

4. The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Probably the most creative book I’ve read in a while. I picked it up expecting a thin paperback and not a 500-page epic, but it’s worth every page. There’s a strong female friendship between two polar opposite girls (one who’s selflessly “good” but doesn’t think she is and one who thinks she’s good and is obviously too self-centered to be) and both girls get some absolutely AWESOME character growth. The setting is also fantastic, with a lot to explore, and honestly I’d love to go there. Overall, a great book.

The cover of "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," featuring red text on a background of a blue sky with clouds

5. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

I’ll confess: I read this back in July and I still haven’t used any of these principles to tidy up my living space, even though I’ve been in my new house since August. But I’m including it here anyway because it was an extremely inspiring read. It made me want to get my crap together – or, more accurately, get rid of my crap. It was also a thoroughly enjoyable read. My opinion may change after actually putting these principles into use (although I doubt it), but for now, it makes my top five favorite reads of the year.

2017 Books Worth Mentioning

Cover of "Essentialism," featuring a scribbled mess of lines on the left side, with an arrow pointing to the right, where the word "essentialism" is surrounded by several shaky circles.

Book I Wanted to Love

Essentialism by Greg McKeown. This came highly recommended, and I was really excited about it. Unfortunately, I’ve followed a blogger (Michael Hyatt) who teaches similar principles for many years and I learned nothing new. Worth reading if you’re not a major Michael Hyatt fan, but I got nothing out of it.

Cover of "Lizard Radio," featuring a scale-like pattern of circles in varying shades of green with the silhouette of a large lizard and a short-haired person.

Weirdest (Possibly Ever)

Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz. I described this in my review as “It’s a dystopian novel and a fever dream and Alice in Wonderland if Alice was part lizard and Wonderland was an agricultural camp,” and that kind of describes it. This book blends imagination and reality into something very unique and totally weird. Not necessarily a good book, but definitely an interesting one.

Cover of "Outliers," featuring dark text on a white background with a small purple marble in the middle

The Class Consciousness Award

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I have a lot of problems with all of Malcolm Gladwell’s work that I’ve read (mainly that it’s more theoretical than practical), but I loved that Outliers talked about how being born into a specific set of circumstances affects your eventual success. Though it’s not very nuanced, it’s a good starting place to learn about class privilege.

Cover of "I Will Teach You To Be Rich," featuring bold black text on an orange and green background

Shockingly Bad

I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi. It’s rare that a book I didn’t finish makes a “year in books” list, but I had to mention this one because it’s incredibly bad. Financial books often fall into classism and fatphobia, but this one also somehow included misogyny and didn’t even put on the usual veneer of pretending not to be classist. It was also pretentious and condescending despite presenting no unique information. Overall: bad.

Must-Reads for 2018

  1. Circle Unbroken by Zoraida Cordova. I enjoyed the first book in this series, Labyrinth Lost, and I’m excited for the second. (Also hoping it has more gay than book one.) It comes out in April.
  2. Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown. As I’ve said, I absolutely love Brené Brown, and this is her new book. (I actually already own a copy, I’m just really excited to read it.)
  3. Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor. This book is highly recommended by my favorite eating disorder recovery blogger, and I’m hoping to get a lot out of it. (Also hoping to get some talking points for when weight/diet conversations happen.)
  4. Fight for You by Kayla Bain-Vrba. This is only a novella, but it’s lesbian romance between a dancer-turned-gladiator and the best gladiator in the arena, so it sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would love.
  5. The Second Mango by Shira Glassman. A fantasy queen searching for a girlfriend, a female warrior with a dragon, and an evil sorcerer all sounds like fun. Plus it’s written by a bisexual Jewish woman and I’ve heard it’s pretty feminist.
Superhero

Review: Hero

Cover of "Hero," featuring a white male pulling open a white button-down shirt to reveal a tee shirt with the word "Hero" written on it.
Image from Lezbrarian

Title: Hero

Author: Perry Moore

Genre: Superhero

Trigger Warnings: Violence/blood, death, homophobia

Back Cover:

The last thing in the world Thom Creed wants is to add to his father’s pain, so he keeps secrets. Like that he has special powers. And that he’s been asked to join the League – the very organization of superheroes that spurned his dad. But the most painful secret of all is one Thom can barely face himself: he’s gay.

But becoming a member of the League opens up a new world to Thom. There, he connects with a misfit group of aspiring heroes, including Scarlett, who can control fire but not her anger; Typhoid Larry, who can make anyone sick with his touch; and Ruth, a wise old broad who can see the future. Like Thom, these heroes have things to hide; but they will have to learn to trust one another when they uncover a deadly conspiracy within the League.

To survive, Thom will face challenges he never imagined. To find happiness, he’ll have to come to terms with his father’s past and discover the kind of hero he really wants to be.

Review:

Part of me wanted my last review of 2017 to be more momentous than this, but this happened to be the book I took with me while I waited for my car to get repaired. So it is what it is, I guess. And Hero isn’t a bad book, really.

I don’t know what to say about Thom. He’s one of those characters that’s hard to review – he was a good, solid character who I related to and who developed throughout the course of the story. But at the same time, he was kind of unremarkable. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t feel like that while reading, but now I’m trying to write about him and I’m drawing a blank.

(Also, he’s very awkward and does quite a bit of putting his foot in his mouth. It made him seem real, but if you suffer from secondhand embarrassment like I do, there are parts where you’ll just want to crawl in a hole.)

I also liked that there were disabled characters in this book – namely Thom and his dad (Thom has some sort of seizure disorder and his dad’s hand is crippled). It’s not something you see a lot and I liked the diversity.

The other characters were all great. They had interesting backstories, quirks, and flaws. Ruth was a fascinating lady and pushed Thom to be a better person. Scarlett started off as the I-hate-you-but-we-have-to-work-together trope but became a friend by the end. Larry … okay, Larry was minor. But you also get backstories and character journeys of Thom’s parents (well, at least his dad), which I thought was neat that the book managed to do that while still focusing on Thom.

That whole “deadly conspiracy within the League” thing? That doesn’t really come up until the climax. Well, there’s a little bit of “the League thinks this villain did this crime but Thom knows he didn’t so they’re looking for the actual culprit,” but that really takes a backseat to the characters. The story is really about Thom dealing with homophobia and the growth and dynamics of him and his team of aspiring superheroes. Sure, there was some action, but it was more emotional than anything.

The only thing I really had a problem with was the romance. I saw it coming (not a bad thing), but the love interest didn’t get a lot of page time. On one hand, I understand why and it would have been hard to work more scenes in with him, but on the other, it felt a little like it came out of the blue considering how little interaction Thom had with him before the end.

Overall, this was a good book. Not spectacular, but definitely better than “meh.” It has its flaws, and for a superhero book it’s more focused on character dynamics and the emotional aspect, but I enjoyed it. It was a solidly good book.

Next week I’ll be doing my 2017 in Books post, where I round up my top reads of 2017, plus a few more I’m excited for in 2018. Stay tuned!

Personal Development

Review: Essentialism

Cover of "Essentialism," featuring a scribbled mess of lines on the left side, with an arrow pointing to the right, where the word "essentialism" is surrounded by several shaky circles.
Image from Greg McKeown

Title: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Author: Greg McKeown

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

The Way of the Essentialist involves doing less, but better, so you can make the highest possible contribution.

The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s not about getting less done. It’s about getting only the right things done. It’s about challenging the core assumption of ‘we can have it all’ and ‘I have to do everything’ and replacing it with the pursuit of ‘the right thing, in the right way, at the right time’. It’s about regaining control of our own choices about where to spend our time and energies instead of giving others implicit permission to choose for us.

In Essentialism, Greg McKeown draws on experience and insight from working with the leaders of the most innovative companies in the world to show how to achieve the disciplined pursuit of less.

By applying a more selective criteria for what is essential, the pursuit of less allows us to regain control of our own choices so we can channel our time, energy and effort into making the highest possible contribution toward the goals and activities that matter.

Essentialism isn’t one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything. It is a discipline you apply constantly, effortlessly. Essentialism is a mindset; a way of life. It is an idea whose time has come.

Review:

I wanted to love this book. I really did. It came highly recommended by most of the personal development blogs I follow, and essentialism sounded like an extremely valuable mindset. But this was probably the most underwhelming book I’ve read this year. Which is strange to say, because overall, this wasn’t a bad book. In fact, it was rather good. But I personally got nothing out of it.

Michael Hyatt is a leadership/intentional living/productivity/platform-building blogger who I’ve been following since 2010(ish). Essentialism came out in 2014, so I have to believe that Michael Hyatt either knew Greg McKeown or discovered the same principles on his own, because reading Essentialism was like reading Michael Hyatt Condensed.

Almost nothing in this book was new information to me. From focus to prioritizing, doing only the things that let you make your maximum contribution, even the power of sleep – all of it was stuff I’d heard before from Michael Hyatt. Which was disappointing. I’d expected there to be some overlap (after all, I first heard of Essentialism on Michael Hyatt’s podcast episode that had Greg McKeown as a guest), but I didn’t expect that much.

It was good information and valuable insight into living and making your greatest contribution. The idea of cutting everything nonessential out of your life, focusing only on what’s important at the moment, and giving the majority of your energy to what will make the most impact are all good ideas. And I love that the book is practical, with lots of tips and suggestions for how to prune your life down to “less but better” it promotes (and strategies for not saying yes to too many things).

Essentialism is very black-and-white (both figuratively and literally – section introductions are white text on black backgrounds and all the illustrations are bold black lines on empty white sections). You’re either a productive, focused essentialist or an unproductive, unfocused nonessentialist. Which does actually make sense with what the book is talking about, but as someone who has to work hard to avoid black-and-white thinking in real life, it felt a little strange. Again, not a criticism of the book itself, just something that didn’t work for me personally.

This wasn’t a bad book. On the contrary – if you’ve never heard of Michael Hyatt, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a great book on living with less, but better and having an overall more fulfilling life where you can make greater contributions to whatever work you do. But there’s so much overlap between this and Michael Hyatt’s principles that I got nothing out of it. Personally, it wasn’t for me. But it’s still completely worth a read (assuming you’re not as much of a Michael Hyatt fan as I am, that is).

Science Fantasy

Webcomic Spotlight: Lady of the Shard

Cover of "Lady of the Shard," featuring white text on a black background with white dots of varying sizes that look like stars in the night sky.

Title: Lady of the Shard

Author: Gigi D.G.

Genre: Science Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Manipulation in mildly sexual situations, mind control, mild body horror

Summary:

Lady of the Shard is a comic about an acolyte in love with the goddess she serves.

Review:

“Lady of the Shard” is short, but a whole lot happens! It starts off with a cute, overeager acolyte falling in love with the goddess she serves, and trying to deal with her complicated feelings about it. Things change when a monster (that’s actually not a monster) shows up … and that’s all that I can really say without spoilers, but there are several twists.

Also, the art is really cool and different – it’s very sketch-like, and white on a black (or occasionally pink) background.

Panel from "Lady of the Shard," with white lines on a black background. Two figures in hoods and long cloaks are next to a third, feminine figure; one holds a pillow and the other holds a bowl of food. The person in the middle looks surprised by the kindness. All three figures are drawn in pixelated lines.
And in my opinion, it looks really cool.

And did I mention this all takes place in space? The goddess saved humanity after the earth was destroyed, and so all the people living near the various stars bring tribute to her temple, which is a giant star-shaped thing floating in space. Despite that, though, it has a definite fantasy feeling.

“Lady of the Shard” is a great story with more action than you’d expect, an amazing antagonist, and a completely adorable protagonist. It’s a quick read, and in my opinion, totally worth it.

You can read it online for free here! (May not work well with mobile devices.)

Fantasy

Review: Eelgrass

Cover of "Eelgrass," featuring a thin white girl in a white dress with the wind blowing her hair and dress. There is water that looks like the ocean in the background.
Image from Tori Curtis

Title: Eelgrass

Author: Tori Curtis

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Kidnapping, forced marriage

Back Cover:

In Irish folklore, a selkie is a seal who can take off her sealskin like a coat and become a woman, seducing fishermen anywhere she goes. If he steals her sealskin, she is bound to his home, marrying him and mothering his children – unless she can find it and escape, leaving her family on shore forever.

In this lesbian reimagining of tales about women and the sea, Efa is having too much fun to worry about stories. Too young to have earned respect in her village, she spends her days roving with her beautiful and vivacious best friend, Bettan — until the night Bettan disappears into a rainstorm, and Efa can’t shake the certainty that she’s been taken.

Desperate to rescue her friend, Efa seeks out the fishwives, half-human fish who dwell under the tides and kill sailors with their sharp teeth and alluring songs. She doesn’t expect to find Ninka, an outrageous young woman who makes her feel giddy and who might be the key to unlocking her own courage.

Review:

I wasn’t honestly super excited about this book, but I got a free ebook copy through the Sapphic Book Club and had it on my phone so I could read it in waiting rooms and stuff. And overall, I was underwhelmed.

Let’s start with one of the two major positives in the book: Efa. She wasn’t one of the kick-ass leader-type characters that I usually like to read about, but I liked her because I related to her. Like her, I’m usually the quiet sidekick to a more energetic, boisterous, sociable friend; like her, I get overwhelmed and my emotions get mixed up when I need to do something important but don’t know how to go about it. She was one of the most relatable characters I’ve read in a while, to be honest.

Now, probably the biggest negative in the book: the romance. It fell flat for me. Part of this is because Ninka doesn’t have a lot of personality. It’s heavily emphasized that she does what she wants when she wants … and that’s about it. Which was disappointing, because I think with some development she could have been an awesome character.

Another reason the romance fell flat was there wasn’t a lot of feeling about it from Efa. I understand most of her emotional bandwidth was taken up by worry about Bettan, but there was next to nothing about romantic feelings towards Ninka. And the romance-hinting moments were few and far between (and they mostly consisted of Ninka kissing Efa and that’s it). So any time the romance angle came up it fell flat. Which was really disappointing, because this sort of opposites-attract romance between a fiercely independent fishwife and a restrained selkie homebody could have been amazing.

Which brings me to the other major positive thing in the book: the mythology. I’ve never read (or honestly heard of) a book about selkies before, and the fishwives were a cool take on siren/mermaid myths. I loved the idea of there being selkie villages that lived near human towns and selkies and humans interacted normally, and I liked how tight-knit the selkie community was and how it adapted to the people being sometimes seal and sometimes human. I wish you learned more of the community aspect with the fishwives.

The biggest problem with this book was that it needed more. It was too short. There wasn’t enough time to develop Efa’s feelings for Ninka, there wasn’t enough time to develop Ninka as a character or the fishwives as a species and a community – even though Efa spends about a month in the deep sea with Ninka, it’s glossed over in a handful of pages and not used to develop their relationship. The plot of rescuing Bettan was done really well, but the book wasn’t nearly long enough to cover the other subplots it tried to include.

Eelgrass was disappointing. I wanted to like it. I loved the concept. There just wasn’t enough of it to be as great as it could have been.