Dystopian

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Cover of "The Handmaid's Tale," featuring two women in red cloaks and white bonnets standing near a tall brick wall
Image from Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood

Genre: Dystopian

Trigger Warnings: Heterosexual sex (consensual and non-consensual), misogyny

Back Cover:

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…

Review:

I’m still not sure what to make of this book.

I picked it up because my fiance and I got Hulu and I wanted to read the book before I watched the show. It took me a while to work through, for no particular reason.

And it was … odd.

There really wasn’t a plot to speak of. Like, seriously. At first I thought it was just slow to start, but nope – I got all the way through it and there still wasn’t really a plot. But it’s okay, because it’s really the world that grabs you. It’s one of those things where you get off the bat it’s an oppressive regime, but it’s slowly revealed how horrifying it is, what life was like before, and how it suddenly changed (although it didn’t make completely clear why it changed).

And the world is horrifying. People who don’t convert to the regime’s particular brand of Christian fundamentalism, doctors who performed abortions, and anyone else who doesn’t conform are executed and hung on a wall for everyone to see. There are only a few options for women – if they aren’t wives, they could be Handmaids if they were fertile, Marthas (who do all the housework) if they weren’t, or Aunts (who indoctrinated the handmaids-in-training)  if they were … I’m not sure what the qualifications for Aunt are. Women aren’t allowed to read or do much of anything – wives are allowed feminine pursuits like gardening and knitting, but not much else.

The details – and even the main ways society functions – fall into place slowly, bit by bit over the course of the book and even by the end I still felt like there were some things that I wasn’t aware of yet. It was beautifully built, engrossing, and enough for me to keep interested despite the lack of plot.

I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist world. This all made sense to me. I honestly didn’t realize how completely horrifying this would sound to other people until I started explaining it to my fiance, who was appalled that this would make sense to anyone, and extremely disturbed that there were fundamentalists who actually praised this as an ideal society. If you’re not used to religious fundamentalism (such as the Quiverfull variety), it’s going to be a horrifying introduction. If you are, it’s going to be eerily familiar and still horrifying.

Okay, we’ve gotten this far and I’m still not sure what I’m trying to say about this book. (Samantha Field, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote a great post on it that’s more eloquent than this one and I highly recommend it.) This is the kind of book you really have to read for yourself, because there’s no way you can get a sense of it just from a review.

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Current Issues/Society

Review: Outliers

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

Title: Outliers: The Story of Success

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Genre: Current Issues/Society

Trigger Warnings: Racism

Back Cover:

There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them-at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. And in revealing that hidden logic, Gladwell presents a fascinating and provocative blueprint for making the most of human potential.

In The Tipping Point Gladwell changed the way we understand the world. In Blink he changed the way we think about thinking. In Outliers he transforms the way we understand success.

Review:

I almost started this review by saying I had low expectations for this book, but that’s not really true – I didn’t have really any expectations for this book. I picked it up mainly because it was an audiobook, I’d had it on my reading list for years, and his other book The Tipping Point was okay. I didn’t expect to be thrilled, but I also didn’t expect to be let down.

Outliers surprised me.

Of course, I have the same complaint with Outliers as I did with The Tipping Point – it’s not very practical. It explores the path to success for lots of people (including Bill Gates, hockey players, a New York lawyer, and a middle schooler from the Bronx), but it doesn’t explain how to become a success (or predict if you or someone else will become one). But also, there’s kind of a reason for that.

You know the American idealism of “if you work hard enough you’ll succeed”? In Outliers, Gladwell surrounds that concept with a ton of TNT and lights the fuse.

His entire premise with this book is that success takes hard work, but it also takes being born into or being given a particular set of circumstances that make all the difference. For example:

  • Bill Gates was born at the right time so he was a teenager when computers started appearing in universities and businesses and had wealthy parents who could send him to an elite private school that got a computer – therefore enabling him to have a ridiculous amount of practice with and understanding of computers by the time he dropped out of college.
  • Canadian hockey players are unlikely to succeed if they’re born April through December, because the league cutoff date is January 1 and players born at the beginning of the year are slightly older (and therefore bigger, more coordinated, and better) when it comes time to pick the best players for better training in elementary school.
  • Lawyer Joseph Flaum was born to immigrant parents who had been in America long enough to afford send him to law school, but was Jewish so unable to get a job at a big law firm – so he started his own firm taking acquisitions cases that no one else would take, and when acquisitions suddenly became a big business he and his firm was already on top.
  • And Chris Langan, one of the smartest people in the world by IQ, who spent most of his life working as a bouncer in a New York bar and never finished college – because he came from a low-income background and never learned how to negotiate with authority to get what he needed.

Though it’s not labeled as such, Outliers is really about how privilege affects success and how the circumstances of your birth influence the rest of your life. Though it doesn’t touch much on race or gender, if you want to start exploring class privilege and its effects, this is a good book to start with. And if you want to know why higher classes seem to get ahead faster with less work, despite America’s “work hard and you’ll succeed” idealism, definitely give it a read.

(A note on the trigger warning: I honestly didn’t see racism in the book, but I am white. It was pointed out to me during an anthropology class a couple years ago that Gladwell’s treatment of Koreans in chapter 7 is racist, so I listed that as a trigger.)

Superhero

Review: Sovereign

Cover of "Sovereign," featuring a silhouette of a short-haired female supherhero hovering in space with the earth in the background
Image from Tor

Title: Sovereign

Series: Nemesis #2

Author: April Daniels

Genre: Superhero

Trigger warnings: Extreme transphobia, rape mention, domestic abuse mention

This book is second in a series, so this review will probably contain spoilers of book one, Dreadnought.

Back Cover:

Only nine months after her debut as the superhero Dreadnought, Danny Tozer is is already a scarred veteran. Protecting a city the size of New Port is a team-sized job and she’s doing it alone. Between her newfound celebrity and her demanding cape duties, Dreadnought is stretched thin, and it’s only going to get worse.

When she crosses a newly discovered billionaire supervillain, Dreadnought comes under attack from all quarters. From her troubled family life to her disintegrating friendship with Calamity, there’s no lever too cruel for this villain to use against her.

She might be hard to kill, but there’s more than one way to destroy a hero. Before the war is over, Dreadnought will be forced to confront parts of herself she never wanted to acknowledge.

And behind it all, an old enemy waits in the wings, ready to unleash a plot that will scar the world forever.

Review:

After the difficult but absolutely fantastic story that was DreadnoughtI got my hands on this book as soon as it came out … a month ago.

I actually had to take a several-week break in the middle of reading this book. Remember how I said Dreadnought was “difficult” with all the transphobia? This book is worse.

So, if you remember Graywytch from the last book, she’s a major player in this one. With all of her TERF transphobia and man-hating. And I’m really trying to avoid spoilers here, but there’s a point about right in the middle of the book where really really bad things happen and there was so much pain and hatred and transphobia that I just had to put the book down and back away for a while. So heads up if transphobia is an issue for you – that section is going to pack one hell of a punch.

Once I came back to it after that, though, it was much easier and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some of the greatest things it has going for it:

  • The master plot was fantastic and there’s a massive twist and you don’t find until AFTER the final battle what the actual evil plan is
  • Relationship issues between Calamity/Sarah and Danny
    • Pros: Great tension in the story and they’d-better-figure-this-out tension for me reading it
    • Cons: You don’t get as much Calamity epicness in this book
  • Character development! Danny grows SO MUCH in this book and it’s amazing watching her mature
  • Superhero/law enforcement politics – yes, it’s a thing, and it’s kinda cool
  • A superhero secondary character who’s genderqueer/nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns

My only actual plot problem with the book was all the legal stuff. Danny gets involved in a lot of legal battles, and they wrap up a little more conveniently than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind – I was dreading getting through all the superhero action and then having to deal with frustrating legal stuff – the resolution just seemed to come out of the blue.

This book was really difficult, even more so than the first book. I kept anticipating transphobia around every corner, and it was hard when it showed up and a relief when it didn’t. But it came out to a happy ending with some cute romance and I’m glad I finished it. Sovereign wraps up neatly, but if there is an upcoming book three, I certainly wouldn’t object.

The Nemesis series:

  1. Dreadnought
  2. Sovereign
Did Not Finish, Work and Business

Review: Drive

Cover of "Drive," featuring red text on a white background
Image from Daniel Pink

Title: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Author: Daniel Pink

Genre: Work and Business

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

Most people believe that the best way to motivate is with rewards like money—the carrot-and-stick approach. That’s a mistake, says Daniel H. Pink (author of To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Motivating Others). In this provocative and persuasive new book, he asserts that the secret to high performance and satisfaction-at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, Pink exposes the mismatch between what science knows and what business does—and how that affects every aspect of life. He examines the three elements of true motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose-and offers smart and surprising techniques for putting these into action in a unique book that will change how we think and transform how we live.

Read to: CD 3 of 7

Review:

I thought this book would be similar to The Power of Habit in that it would teach me the psychology behind motivation and how to motivate myself. And I read Daniel Pink’s book on creativity, A Whole New Mind, back in high school and it was the book that made me realize not all nonfiction was boring. So I had really high hopes for Drive.

The bad news is it’s the wrong genre.

If you look up at the genre I put at the beginning of the review, it’s “Work and Business.” I picked it up thinking it was “Personal Development.” I was wrong. The good news is Daniel made it very clear at the beginning of the book that he was going to focus more on motivating employees than motivating yourself.

I was pretty disappointed, but I stuck it out for a bit, hoping that I could find something valuable that I could personally use. And there was some interesting stuff (for example, that people tend to be more motivated when they have more freedom and flexibility) – it just wasn’t really applicable to me. It just got boring for me since I wasn’t getting much out of it.

On the flip side, though, if I was a business leader and had employees, this probably would have been immensely valuable. After all, that’s the audience this book was written for. I just happen to not be in that audience.

Personal Development

Review: Rising Strong

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

Title: Rising Strong: The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution

Author: Brené Brown

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

Social scientist Brené Brown has ignited a global conversation on courage, vulnerability, shame, and worthiness. Her pioneering work uncovered a profound truth: Vulnerability—the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome—is the only path to more love, belonging, creativity, and joy. But living a brave life is not always easy: We are, inevitably, going to stumble and fall.

It is the rise from falling that Brown takes as her subject in Rising Strong. As a grounded theory researcher, Brown has listened as a range of people—from leaders in Fortune 500 companies and the military to artists, couples in long-term relationships, teachers, and parents—shared their stories of being brave, falling, and getting back up. She asked herself, What do these people with strong and loving relationships, leaders nurturing creativity, artists pushing innovation, and clergy walking with people through faith and mystery have in common? The answer was clear: They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.

Walking into our stories of hurt can feel dangerous. But the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Our stories of struggle can be big ones, like the loss of a job or the end of a relationship, or smaller ones, like a conflict with a friend or colleague. Regardless of magnitude or circumstance, the rising strong process is the same: We reckon with our emotions and get curious about what we’re feeling; we rumble with our stories until we get to a place of truth; and we live this process, every day, until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness. It’s the process, Brown writes, that teaches us the most about who we are.

Review Trigger Warning: Death mention

Review:

You may (or may not) recall me mentioning this book and how I discovered in in my review of Daring Greatly, another of Brené Brown’s books. After finishing the awesomeness that was Daring Greatly, I was thrilled to find Rising Strong as an audiobook, too.

The actual book part of the book was pretty short, which normally would annoy me but this time it didn’t. Brené starts with outlining the process she’s determined for how to “rise strong” after a fall or emotional setback. The process is actually the subtitle of the book:

  1. The Reckoning (recognizing you’re feeling an emotion and getting curious about why)
  2. The Rumble (letting yourself feel that emotion and deal with it)
  3. The Revolution (distilling the “key learning(s)” from your experience and becoming a better person)

She devotes about half the book to talking about those and how you do them, and the other half to examples. Which was actually a really good idea, because the process can look different for different people in different situations, and sometimes it’s just plain hard to recognize. She uses both her own examples and the examples of other people, which is cool.

She also introduced some other really cool concepts, like the Shitty (or Stormy) First Draft to help you “rumble” with emotions, and brought her research on shame into a lot of it. (I’m just going to have to read the rest of her books to find out more about her research.)

I can actually say one thing about this book that I haven’t been able to say about any of the other self-help books I’ve reviewed here – this process works. While I was reading (well, listening) to this book, a friend of mine died. And working through the process that Brené outlines in this book helped a lot with dealing with the emotions from that.

Overall, this book is amazing and it works. I definitely plan to make my fiance read it. And it’s one of the few books that I actually plan to buy and keep on my shelf and reread periodically.

High Fantasy

Review: Of Fire and Stars

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

Title: Of Fire and Stars

Author: Audrey Coulthurst

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, burning alive, torture mention

Back Cover:

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile nations. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire–a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses–and her teacher is the person who intimidates her the most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine–called Mare–the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms–and each other.

Review:

I never used to be into books about court drama, but Of Fire and Stars completely changed my opinion.

Honestly, I wasn’t super excited about this book–yeah, it was queer and it looked good, but it wasn’t at the top of my list. I ended up picking it up because I needed another book and this one was easy to locate at the library. And it totally blew me away.

First, there was Denna. She was brilliant. She’d done a lot of studying in her preparation to become queen of Mynaria, but she was still “I’ve looked at this map twice and now I have it memorized” brilliant. I can’t find the words for what else I want to say about her–besides brilliant, there weren’t a lot of characteristics that stood out–but she was an absolutely fantastic character and the kind of person I’d hope to be if I were a princess.

Mare was, as it says on the back cover, an unconventional princess. She would rather wear riding breeches than ball gowns and valued independence above all else … and she also did quite a bit of sneaking out of the castle to gather information from spies, which was awesome. In retrospect, she was the kind of stereotypical tomboyish don’t-want-to-be-a-princess princess, but she didn’t feel like that while reading.

The cool part is the story is told in alternating perspectives, so you get both sides and the inner thoughts and feelings of both girls. And the romance between them is built slowly but the chemistry is undeniable.

It’s been a long, long time since I read a court drama book–which is a lot of what this is. Yeah, there’s some sneaking out of the castle and some “who’s behind this assassination?” but there’s also a lot of social niceties (and trying to do non-princess-y stuff without betraying all of the social niceties) and arguing with the council and “you have to do your duty because you’re a princess” stuff. And it was honestly fantastic.

Also, you know the trope of “main character is so much more powerful than other magic users”? This book uses that trope. But differently. It kinda turns the trope on its head and I love it.

I don’t have enough good things to say about this book. The characters were great, the plot was awesome, and even the setting, though a pretty standard high fantasy setting, was cool. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And though the ending wrapped things up nicely and a sequel isn’t necessary, I would enjoy one.

Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction

Review: The Edge of the Abyss

Cover of "The Edge of the Abyss," featuring a girl dressed in black standing on the seashore with massive read octopus tentacles rising from the surf
Image from Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Edge of the Abyss

Author: Emily Skrutskie

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic/Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Blood/gore, violence between sea monsters

WARNING: This book is a sequel and this review contains spoilers of The Abyss Surrounds Us!

Back Cover:

Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Case dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and threatening the ocean’s ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect?

Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?

Review:

This is one of the best emotional roller coasters I’ve been on in YEARS.

So I loved loved loved The Abyss Surrounds Us, and as soon as I finished reading it I immediately reserved this book at the library.

It never made it out of the library. I had a break between work and yoga, sat down in a chair, and devoured the entire book in a single 1.5 hour sitting. I couldn’t put it down and really didn’t want to.

You get more of the great characters in this book, including some backstories and more about Swift’s history. Also some of Cas’s family towards the end. But most of what you get is Cas and Swift and their relationship, which is a beautiful, complicated mess and a total emotional roller coaster. Ups, downs, love, hurt … so many emotions. It was so raw and real and vivid and I loved the way it wrenched my heart around.

We also get a lot more about pirates in this book. How they work, who they are … even meeting a lot more of them. And it’s interesting, because they’re all scheming and piratey, but none of them seem quite as ruthless as Santa Elena. (And as a bonus, you get to learn a lot about pirate politics, which there is apparently a lot of.)

There is a plot, and a really good one – other set-free Reckoners like Bao are destroying the ocean’s ecosystem – but it takes a bit of a backseat to Cas’s emotional turmoil and her messy relationship with Swift and the reoccurring ethical conundrum of working for and with pirates. But the emotional plot and the plot plot blend nicely, and even though emotions are the focus, it doesn’t overwhelm the sea monster plot.

The only thing I wasn’t 100% a fan of was the final battle. Yeah, it was epic and there were sea monsters and stuff, but in my opinion it wasn’t quite as epic as the ending of book one. Don’t take me the wrong way, it was still pretty darn epic. The Abyss Surrounds Us just set a really high bar that The Edge of the Abyss didn’t quite meet. The ending after the final battle, though, makes up for it.

Overall, this was a great book and an amazing series. This review really isn’t doing this book justice. I loved it. It pulled my heart out and played with it and it’s one of the best books overall I’ve read in a while. I’m just sad this is the end of the series. Logically, I know it’s a good ending, but still. I wish there was more!

The Abyss Surrounds Us Series:

Personal Development

Review: The Power of Habit

Cover of "The Power of Habit," featuring red text on a yellow background and black human silhouettes running on a red hamster wheel
Image from Charles Duhigg

Title: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do

Author: Charles Duhigg

Genre: Self-Help/Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Descriptions of medical procedures (surgery)

Back Cover:

In The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize–winning business reporter Charles Duhigg takes us to the thrilling edge of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. Distilling vast amounts of information into engrossing narratives that take us from the boardrooms of Procter & Gamble to sidelines of the NFL to the front lines of the civil rights movement, Duhigg presents a whole new understanding of human nature and its potential. At its core, The Power of Habit contains an exhilarating argument: The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, being more productive, and achieving success is understanding how habits work. As Duhigg shows, by harnessing this new science, we can transform our businesses, our communities, and our lives.

Review:

I picked this up for several reasons:

  1. It was an audiobook and I needed a new audiobook to listen to on my morning commute
  2. That library branch’s selection of audiobooks is pretty extensive but mostly religious
  3. I had a vague feeling that I’d seen it somewhere before and that maybe it was on my to-read list (I checked later, it wasn’t)

But either way, I picked it up and listened to it, and I’m glad I did.

The concept is really fascinating. Charles breaks down habits – how they form, why they form, and how you can change them, looking at psychology and research. And it all made a whole lot of sense.

There are three parts to the book. The first one is on individual habits. This is where Charles lays the foundation for the book – the cue-action-reward sequence that forms habits, how habits can be changed by recognizing cues, changing the action, and getting the same reward, and examples of everything from recovering alcoholics to weight loss to stopping smoking. This part was immensely valuable, completely fascinating, and, best of all, backed up by science (including psychology and neurology).

The second part, on corporate habits, wasn’t quite as good. Sure, it had its interesting facts, but it felt more illustrative than prescriptive – by that point we already know the framework, so it seemed more like it was just using examples to explain how habits work inside companies. Which wasn’t necessarily bad – it just felt like a downgrade after how awesome part one was. Although if I were a business leader, I might find this part more valuable than I did.

The third part, societal habits, is where the book really started to fall apart. It never really explained what a “societal habit” looked like, and with a lot of his examples – like the Montgomery Bus Boycotts – it felt like it was really stretching to make habits the root cause. You don’t learn much that’s useful and there’s not really a good way to apply it to anything.

And as a rather irritating aside, Charles has a habit of jumping between examples – spend a few minutes with this guy, then jump to this lady over here, then this other guy, and now we’re back with the first guy’s story … It all made coherent sense and the transitions weren’t bad, it just got on my nerves because I kept thinking an example was done and nope! We’ll come back in two chapters or so.

Overall, this is an incredibly useful book. Even if you get nothing out of parts 2 and 3, part 1 is valuable enough that it’s still completely worth the read (or listen, in my case). And if you decide to read it and completely skip part 3, I won’t blame you.

Personal Development

Review: Daring Greatly

Cover of "Daring Greatly," featuring a gray background with sideways text that transitions from yellow to green to blue
Image from Brene Brown

Title: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Author: Brené Brown

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

Every day we experience the uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure that define what it means to be vulnerable or to dare greatly. Based on twelve years of pioneering research, Dr. Brené Brown dispels the cultural myth that vulnerability is weakness and argues that it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage.

Brown explains how vulnerability is both the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief, and disappointment, and the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation, and creativity. She writes: “When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.”

Daring Greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where “never enough” dominates and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It’s even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there’s a far greater risk of getting criticized or feeling hurt. But when we step back and examine our lives, we will find that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as standing on the outside of our lives looking in and wondering what it would be like if we had the courage to step into the arena—whether it’s a new relationship, an important meeting, the creative process, or a difficult family conversation. Daring Greatly is a practice and a powerful new vision for letting ourselves be seen.

Review:

I first heard of Brené Brown at the 2016 Global Leadership Summit, where she did a speech on vulnerability and communication. It was far and away my favorite speech in the whole two-day event. Daring Greatly and another of her books, Rising Strong, were both on sale at the Summit bookstore – I didn’t buy either of them, but I put them both on my reading list. Cut to now, a year later, and I found Daring Greatly as an audiobook that I could listen to on the way to work.

You know those books where the author is talking about something you shouldn’t do and you think, oh, I don’t do that, but then the book keeps smacking you in the face until you realize that you actually do? Yeah, this was one of those books. With several different concepts.

But the good part is, this book doesn’t just smack you with how you’re screwing up – it provides ideas, tips, suggestions, and ways you can practice being better and living more authentically. Which is the second thing I love about this book. It’s so practical. Coming from an academic researcher, you might expect otherwise, but this is no theoretical construct – well, it is, but there’s also practical steps and commitments and ways to apply the theory. (I have a huge Thing about information being practical, so that gave it major points.)

It’s also super encouraging. The whole book is full of hope and “you can do this” and all the ways life is going to be so much better and real awesome when you’re vulnerable.

Brené is open about her struggles with these concepts. She shares her failures, screw-ups, and moments she just plain could have done better. Which makes this book feel a lot more real. Brené isn’t preaching at you, she’s leading you, saying, “I figured this out and here’s how it’s changed my life – here’s how it can change yours, too.” And I think that’s great.

A review really can’t do justice to this book and the hope and advice and vulnerability contained in it. It’s great advice for relationships. It’s great advice for parenting. It’s great advice for leading. It’s great advice for life, really. And as I listened, I realized that one of the reasons my fiance and I have such a great relationship is because we’d unconsciously discovered a lot of these principles.

Seriously, read this book. And maybe buy copies for other people. I know I intend to make my fiance read (or listen to) it at some point.

Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction

Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us

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
Image from Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Author: Emily Skrutskie

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic/Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore

Back Cover:

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. Shes been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the giant, genetically engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup and teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

Review:

I first heard of this as a lesbian book recommendation on Tumblr and immediately reserved it at the library because heck yes scifi lesbians! I’m always complaining about there not being enough gays in speculative fiction. But anyway.

For some reason I thought this was set in space. Not sure how I got that idea. It was a little disorientating at first, because I’m expecting space and getting ocean, but once I got a couple chapters in I was hooked.

The Abyss Surrounds Us has everything I look for in a book.

The Characters: Fascinating! Cas is the protagonist, an East Asian girl from San Francisco who is just getting ready to take her place in the family business – which happens to be raising and training sea monsters. It’s pretty darn epic. Then there’s Swift, the pirate girl assigned to watch Cas while she’s training the pirate’s monster, who’s part badass and a tiny bit sweet and mostly just making the best of some crappy circumstances. Both girls have great character arcs, the romantic tension is obvious but built slowly, and you get cool minor characters in the pirates … it’s just awesome.

The Setting: So this is after a lot of global warming and stuff and the oceans have risen to ridiculous levels, countries have splintered into smaller countries, (hence why I put “post-apocalyptic” as a genre on this) and pirates run so rampant the only way legitimate ships could protect themselves is by genetically engineering sea monsters. It’s a great concept. The pirate ship that most of the story happens on is a combination of old-fashioned pirate-y stuff and modern technology, and there’s even a brief excursion to a floating pirate city which is also really cool. It’s just fantastic.

The Plot: The plot is really quickly paced, which I loved. It follows Cas, and starts with “what’s wrong with my Reckoner,” then moves into “survive the pirates/train the pirates’ monster enough that he looks trained/don’t actually train the monster because I don’t want to help the pirates because they’re evil.” But then she begins to wonder if they’re really so evil. And she starts getting to know (and kinda like) Swift. And what starts off so simply – survive the pirates, don’t help them, get home – suddenly gets super complicated with ethics and emotions and things.

The End: Holy crap, the end. An epic battle that made me feel Epic Battle Feelings that I haven’t gotten from a book in a long time. A twist I probably should have seen coming but didn’t. Romance that I did see coming but was still really happy about. And it wrapped up nicely while still leaving room for a sequel. There were no cliffhangers, just the confident knowledge that you’ll want to spend another book in this world with these characters. And I do.

One thing I will say about it, though, is it is pretty violent. (Hence the trigger warnings.) Some people do die, one death is described in somewhat graphic detail (even though Cas is disgusted by it), and there’s quite a bit of carnage in the final battle. So just be aware of that if that kind of thing bothers you.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the book was too short. (It’s less than 300 pages, which is short to me, and it feels shorter than it is.) But it’s paced perfectly, so I really shouldn’t complain. It was a fantastic book, and I’m super excited there’s a book two. Now, pardon me while I go reserve that one at the library …

(As a side note: If you’re a fan, you really should check out Emily Skrutskie on Tumblr.)

The Abyss Surrounds Us series:

  1. The Abyss Surrounds Us
  2. The Edge of the Abyss