Work and Business

Review: The 4-Hour Workweek

Cover of "The 4-Hour Workweek," featuring the pink silhouette of a person in a hammock between two palm trees on a pale orange background
Image from Tim Ferress

Title: The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9 to 5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich

Author: Tim Ferriss

Genre: Work and Business

Trigger Warnings: Strong language, gendered slurs

Back Cover:

What do you do? Tim Ferriss has trouble answering the question. Depending on when you ask this controversial Princeton University guest lecturer, he might answer: “I race motorcycles in Europe.” “I ski in the Andes.” “I scuba dive in Panama.” “I dance tango in Buenos Aires.” He has spent more than five years learning the secrets of the New Rich, a fast-growing subculture who has abandoned the “deferred-life plan” and instead mastered the new currencies-time and mobility-to create luxury lifestyles in the here and now. Whether you are an overworked employee or an entrepreneur trapped in your own business, this book is the compass for a new and revolutionary world.

Join Tim Ferriss as he teaches you:
– How to outsource your life to overseas virtual assistants for $5 per hour and do whatever you want
– How blue-chip escape artists travel the world without quitting their jobs
– How to eliminate 50% of your work in 48 hours using the principles of a forgotten Italian economist
– How to trade a long-haul career for short work bursts and frequent “mini-retirements”
– What the crucial difference is between absolute and relative income
– How to train your boss to value performance over presence, or kill your job (or company) if it’s beyond repair
– What automated cash-flow “muses” are and how to create one in 2 to 4 weeks
– How to cultivate selective ignorance-and create time-with a low-information diet
– What the management secrets of Remote Control CEOs are
– How to get free housing worldwide and airfare at 50-80% off
– How to fill the void and create a meaningful life after removing work and the office

Review:

If you’ve ever heard of Tim Ferriss, you know he has a Thing. That Thing is doing something spectacular, writing about how he did it, and making grandiose claims about how everyone can become spectacularly wealthy/pro athlete-level fit/a pro chef/whatever with minimal effort by following these steps. Pretty much everything he says sounds too good to be true.

And yet I was curious. I tried reading his The 4-Hour Body and got overwhelmed about a quarter of the way through. I tried reading his The 4-Hour Chef on audiobook and stopped two CDs in because the audiobook cut out half of the content in favor of saying “refer to this in the print or ebook copy.” And then I found this as an audiobook and decided to give it a shot.

In the beginning, Tim says this book is about “lifestyle design” – freeing yourself up for independence so you can make conscious decisions about doing what you want, not just what you have to do to make money. It’s not really about lifestyle design. It’s really about two things: starting a business and extended travel. Oh, sure, there’s stuff in there about negotiating a remote work agreement with your boss and reducing unnecessary stuff and whatnot, but the bulk of the book is spent on entrepreneurship and long-term travel advice.

Was it good? Well, yeah. Besides the grandiose claims that Tim Ferriss makes, there was a lot of solid advice about starting a business, including a lot of resources for all types of businesses. I especially liked his idea of a “muse” product, and I’m probably going to implement some of the stuff he brings up in my business and in product creation. I don’t have a lot of experience with travel, so I can’t judge a lot of that advice, but it sounds reasonable and actionable. And it was also inspiring – I know that I’m not interested in travel for as long as Tim talks about (6 months or more), but I am interested in shorter-term travel and listening to this book made me want to travel more (and get more excited about an upcoming trip I have planned).

There are two main drawbacks to this book. One, Tim makes a lot of assumptions about his target audience – mainly, that they’re a lot like him. This book is not written for disabled people, blue-collar workers, or poor people. And Tim is a little out of touch with regards to what’s affordable – before he started his lifestyle design and travel stuff, he was making $70,000 per month (yes, there are 5 figures in that number, and yes, it is per month. That is more than I have made in my entire life combined in a single month).

Also, I would not recommend reading this as an audiobook, at least not if you want to reference the many, many resources that Tim recommends. The audiobook spends a lot of time reading URLs that don’t do much good if you are listening while driving, like I do, and can’t write them down.

Overall, this was a pretty good book. The business section had some great advice, and if you’re interested in long-term travel, there’s probably some good stuff there, too. But take what Tim says with a grain of salt – he makes grandiose claims, but it’s highly unlikely everything is as easy (or as affordable) as he says it is.

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Current Issues/Society

Review: Bullshit Jobs

Image from David Graeber

Title: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Author: David Graeber

Genre: Current Issues/Society

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

Be honest: if your job didn’t exist, would anybody miss it? Have you ever wondered why not? Up to 40% of us secretly believe our jobs probably aren’t necessary. In other words: they are bullshit jobs. This book shows why, and what we can do about it.

In the early twentieth century, people prophesied that technology would see us all working fifteen-hour weeks and driving flying cars. Instead, something curious happened. Not only have the flying cars not materialised, but average working hours have increased rather than decreased. And now, across the developed world, three-quarters of all jobs are in services, finance or admin: jobs that don’t seem to contribute anything to society. In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber explores how this phenomenon – one more associated with the Soviet Union, but which capitalism was supposed to eliminate – has happened. In doing so, he looks at how, rather than producing anything, work has become an end in itself; the way such work maintains the current broken system of finance capital; and, finally, how we can get out of it.

This book is for anyone whose heart has sunk at the sight of a whiteboard, who believes ‘workshops’ should only be for making things, or who just suspects that there might be a better way to run our world.

Review:

What’s ironic is that I read this book entirely while I was at work. What’s sad is that while reading this, I realized I’ve only had one job in my life (waitress) that wasn’t a bullshit job. On the bright side, I feel less bad about goofing off on jobs where I don’t have enough work to fill an entire day.

Let me back up.

David Graeber makes the argument in this book that there are millions of white-collar jobs that should not exist, and the people who hold these jobs know it – he calls these jobs bullshit jobs. These are jobs that provide no benefit to society, often exist because of unnecessary bureaucracy, and frequently don’t have enough tasks to keep them busy for a full eight-hour day.

The book is peppered with footnotes. Many of them are simply side points that Graeber wanted to make but that didn’t fit into his main text, but some of them do cite actual research. Most of the book, though, is based on the testimonies of and interviews with people who hold various types of bullshit jobs. You hear the stories of people all over the world, in their own words, about how their jobs are useless and soul-sucking.

While I can’t speak from that angle (I don’t know a lot of people, let alone people open enough to talk about their bullshit job experience), I can definitely say that what Graeber talks about rings true to me. I work in marketing (a job that provides negative value to society, according to calculations in the book), and I have never had a marketing job that filled more than an hour or two per day. And yet at each job, I have tried to look busy the whole day, as some sort of unspoken social contract that my boss is paying for my time so I have to pretend to give it to them.

The first five chapters explained and dissected the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, and they were fascinating and engaging. I devoured them. Chapter six was dense, about the history of work, and though the topic was interesting, it took me a while to get through. Chapter seven actually suggested a solution to the bullshit jobs phenomenon (although making it clear that this book is about the phenomenon, not the solution).

If you have a bullshit job, or think you might have a bullshit job, this is an excellent book to read. You’ll gain some insight into the problem, why it happens, and why it keeps happening. You might end up understanding why people are dissatisfied with “great” jobs a little more than you’d expected.

Personal Development

Review: The Happiness Project

Cover of "The Happiness Project," featuring brown buildings with blue sky above them and the title in yellow text on the sky
Image from Gretchen Rubin

Title: The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun

Author: Gretchen Rubin

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Moralizing about food, discussion of serious illness

Back Cover:

Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. “The days are long, but the years are short,” she realized. “Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.” In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project.

In this lively and compelling account, Rubin chronicles her adventures during the twelve months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. Among other things, she found that novelty and challenge are powerful sources of happiness; that money can help buy happiness, when spent wisely; that outer order contributes to inner calm; and that the very smallest of changes can make the biggest difference.

Review:

I’m back to “reading” audiobooks since my morning commute is now 35 minutes. And I was super excited to find this as an audiobook, because I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I’ve heard about it. I’m all about making myself happier.

Gretchen Rubin planned for her happiness project by reading all the research she could get her hands on about happiness, both from scientists who study it and from less scientific works (like Aristotle, as she mentions in the title). Then she listed out a bunch of little things they said would make people happier, grouped them into categories, and set out to tackle one category each month. These “little things” included concrete things, like writing a novel, cleaning closets, and starting a collection, and intangible things like “be a treasure house of happy memories” and “be Gretchen.” Along the way, she discovered four “splendid truths” and one general maxim of happiness.

Overall, I liked this book. Gretchen is very open and honest about both times when things went well and times when she messed up (being human, she messed up a lot). She writes in a very engaging and relatable way, and (except for a few moments where I felt awkward for her as she described herself screwing up) I thoroughly enjoyed listening.

I also think some of her principles are good, too, especially her general happiness maxim – “To think about happiness, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right in an atmosphere of growth.” Basically, to increase happiness, you have to consider what makes you feel good, what makes you feel bad, what makes you feel right (in a moral sense), and ways for you to grow. Which sounds both completely doable and like great things to consider when you’re trying to be happier.

And then we come to the problems with this book. Namely, Gretchen isn’t facing anything unchangeable that would cause her to be unhappy. She’s white and rich enough to live comfortably in New York City. She has a good marriage to a good man. She’s college-educated, working at her dream job (full-time writer), has many friends, and has no mental or physical illnesses whatsoever. She’s not facing poverty, discrimination, illness, or anything else that might make a “happiness project” less effective. She focuses purely on individual actions and completely ignores societal and systemic problems that cause most unhappy people to be unhappy.

There’s a whole essay I could write here on the problems of the Western individualist approach to health and happiness, but this is a review and not the place for it. I enjoyed reading this book, but I have doubts about its general applicability. I’d be much more interested to see a happiness project from someone poor, marginalized, and/or ill to see if individual actions really make that much of a difference when society is stacked against you.

Also, Gretchen’s happiness project sounded exhausting. She had to constantly put in so much mental energy to change the way she acted, reacted, and thought. I might incorporate some of her principles, but I doubt I’ll be doing one of my own anytime soon.

Fairy Tale

Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Cover of "Girls Made of Snow and Glass," featuring a black background with spikes of ice or glass sticking up from the bottom and the title in white text
Image from Melissa Bashardoust

Title: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Author: Melissa Bashardoust

Genre: Fairy Tale

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, emotional abuse, mild body horror

Back Cover:

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone – has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do and who to be to win back the only mother she’s ever known, or else defeat her once and for all.

Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything, unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

Review:

This may be the best fairytale retelling I’ve ever read. Girls Made of Snow and Glass is a retelling of Snow White, told from both “snow white” and the stepmother’s points of view, and it is fantastic.

First, there’s Lynet. The Snow White character in the story, she feels stifled by her overprotective father and would rather climb trees and scale the castle walls than be quiet and demure like her mother, the way her father wants her to be. She loves her father, but she also wants to be her own person, free from the shadow of the dead queen. She has an internal struggle between who she wants to be and who other people want her to be (which I found very relatable), and in the end she’s strong and courageous enough to make her own way in the world. I loved her.

Then there’s Mina, who, despite being the stepmother of the story, is far from evil. She was actually a very sympathetic character who knows she’s broken because she can’t love (and, she thinks, can’t be loved). I honestly didn’t root for Lynet to beat Mina because I cared about Mina, too. I wanted them both to win somehow.

If there’s a villain in this story at all, it’s Mina’s father, the magician Gregory. He’s cruel and cunning and selfish, and he has dark plans for Lynet that don’t get revealed until towards the end. He’s not even in most of the book, but his shadow hovers over Mina and she’s (rightfully) afraid of him.

The story alternates perspectives between Lynet and Mina. You get to see how Mina came to marry Lynet’s father and how having a glass heart incapable of love affected her life. You also get Lynet’s struggle between her love for her father and wanting to be who he wants her to be, and her desire to be her own independent person. Then circumstances cause the two women to clash. And while ostensibly the plot is about this clash between Mina and Lynet, with a little bit of politics and magic, it’s really more about the characters. How they’re feeling, how they think, how they react. Mina and Lynet are excellently written, and reading about their emotional journeys was fantastic.

And probably the best part – it has a happy ending!

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. Mainly when it came to the romance. I can’t even say that Lynet falls in love with someone, because the romance doesn’t get enough time or attention for that to really be shown. She likes this person and they kiss towards the end, so there’s definitely some romance going forward after the end of the book, but it was really sidelined during the main story and the love interest isn’t even in most of the book. I liked the romance, it was cute and I think it was a good way of showing Lynet growing up, but removing it would hardly have affected the story at all.

This book is amazing. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and probably one of the best fairytale retellings I’ve ever read. I loved how it was character-driven while still being a fantasy story and not neglecting either element. I enthusiastically recommend this book.

Current Issues/Society

Review: Deluxe

Cover of "Deluxe," featuring what looks like a McDonald's meal on a tray, but instead of McDonald's logo and colors, it is covered with Prada branding
Image from Penguin Random House

Title: Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster

Author: Dana Thomas

Genre: Current Issues/Society

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

There was a time when luxury was available only to the rarefied and aristocratic world of old money and royalty. Luxury wasn’t simply a product, it was a lifestyle, one that denoted a history of tradition, superior quality and offered a pampered buying experience.

Today’s luxury marketplace would be virtually unrecognizable to its founders. Gone are the family-owned businesses dedicated to integrity and quality; the industry is now run by multi-billion dollar global corporations focused on growth, visibility, brand-awareness, advertising and above all, profits. Handcrafted goods are practically extinct, and almost all manufacturing has been outsourced to large factories in such places as China, where your expensive brand-name handbag is being assembled right next to one from a mass-market label that will cost substantially less.

Dana Thomas, a journalist who has covered style and the luxury business for The Washington Post, Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine from Paris for the past fifteen years, digs deep into the dark side of the luxury industry to uncover all the secrets that Prada, Gucci and Burberry don’t want us to know.

Traveling from the laboratories in Grasse, where the ingredients for Christian Dior and Prada perfumes are produced, to the crowded factories in China, where workers glue together “Made in Italy” bags by the thousands, Thomas explores the whole of today’s high-end shopping experience to answer some pressing questions: What is the new definition of luxury when advertising for this lifestyle is targeted mainly toward the mass market? What are we paying for when quality has given way to quantity? Can integrity survive in a corporate culture driven to meet regular growth and profit projections? Is luxury still the best that money can buy?

Review:

This promised to be a book in the vein of Bobos in Paradise – i.e. a fascinating and in-depth look at a social phenomenon. Plus, I see the appeal of luxury items and thought it would be a good read to learn more about the luxury industry. And Deluxe delivered on all fronts.

Let’s talk about what it covers, because there is a lot. The book starts off with a history of the luxury industry – how companies like Louis Vuitton got started and how artisans transitioned from making custom items for the 1% to mass-produced items for the middle class. It spends some time on the global luxury market, especially how Japan is a huge luxury consumer and China and India are on the rise. It goes over how celebrities made designer brands popular for the middle class and how the luxury shopping experience works now for the average person. It talks about how the genuine items are made and how the counterfeit industry works. It touches briefly on luxury designers working for “fast fashion” companies like H&M. And it finishes by exploring how luxury is done for the 1% of today, which is remarkably different from the shopping experience most people encounter.

Going into the book as someone who knew next to nothing about luxury items (I knew some brand names from social media and Google has to help me spell Louboutin), this book was a really comprehensive education – see the last paragraph for all the things you’ll learn. Plus, it’s absolutely fascinating. If you’re interested at all in luxury items, you’ll find this book interesting. And also probably find yourself wanting to purchase some luxury items.

In some ways, this book reads like a long, albeit entertaining, advertisement for luxury goods. The quality, the sophistication, the elegance and refinement all ooze through the pages and surround the luxury products with an aura of being the best. I’m in need of a new purse anyway, and reading this book made me wish I could afford a nice Hermes bag. But then in the second-to-last chapter, the author talks about fast fashion and how you can get items by famous designers for under $100 at places like H&M, which somewhat reduced my desire for designer clothes. (I would still love a Hermes bag, though.)

I found this book thoroughly engrossing, and not only did I learn a lot about the luxury industry (including the terrible conditions that make it unethical to buy affordable fakes), it made me wish I had enough money to experience luxury for myself.

I’ve gone on quite a bit on how much this book made me want to buy luxury items, and that was a big aspect of the book for me. It inspired a desire and a dream to experience the things the book talked about. But besides that, it was informative, entertaining, and absolutely fascinating. I highly recommend it.

Fantasy

Review: Ruin of Stars

Cover of "Ruin of Stars," featuring an ornate golden brooch with two arrows crossed in front of it
Image from Linsey Miller

Title: Ruin of Stars

Series: Mask of Shadows #2

Author: Linsey Miller

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore, mentions of war, child abuse, fire

Spoiler Warning: This book is second in a series, so this review contains spoilers of the first book, Mask of Shadows.

Back Cover

As one of the Queen’s elite assassins, Sal finally has the power, prestige, and permission to hunt down the lords who killed their family. But Sal still has to figure out who the culprits are. They must enlist the help of some old friends and enemies while ignoring a growing distaste for the queen and that the charming Elise is being held prisoner by her father.

But there’s something terribly wrong in the north. Talk of the return of shadows, missing children, and magic abounds. As Sal takes out the people responsible for their ruined homeland, they learn secrets and truths that can’t be forgotten.

Review

This book was excellent. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, and Ruin of Stars was the perfect follow-up.

Let’s start with Sal. Sal is having an identity crisis – Erlend pushes a strict gender binary that they don’t fit into at all, and also how Nacean are they if they lost their home so young and don’t remember much of it? And they’re wrestling with the guilt of having killed so many people. They’re the same determined, angry, full-of-complicated-emotions Sal from Mask of Shadows, just with a lot more of the complicated emotions part. And even though they’re dealing with so much darkness, you just root for them.

Other people have said Sal’s talking about their gender identity gets boring, and I can see how it could, but as a nonbinary person I loved it because I have a lot of the same feelings.

You also get a lot more of some of the great minor characters in this book. Rath comes back, Maud gets a bigger role and so does Elise. All have distinct personalities and are generally fun to read (especially Maud’s boldness and smart mouth). The downside is you get almost nothing of the other Left Hand.

There is a lot more to the plot than you get from the back cover. North Star and Winter have retreated to Erlend and are working hard to not only reestablish Erlend, but take over Igna too. And they’re using some dark and brutal stuff to do that. Sal’s job is to stop them. And that’s really all I can say without spoilers. There’s a lot that happens. Political stuff takes a back burner as Sal’s solutions usually involve murder. (Which, admittedly, is probably the best way to solve these things because the Erlenians are perfectly fine with killing excessively to get what they want.) And there’s some huge twists at the end …

… which are actually my only real problem with the book. All of Sal’s motivation has been revenge for Nacea being destroyed, and in the last quarter of the book Sal learns some surprising things about Nacea. And then the book takes a sharp left turn. It goes from focusing on stopping a war/the evil magic the Erlenians are using and getting revenge to focusing on new information Sal’s learning about Nacea. On one hand, it makes sense, since grief for their country and a desire to avenge it are their main motivation. On the other hand, it’s done abruptly, and so much information is thrown at you at once that it’s hard to process it all – I found it harder to care about all the new stuff.

Besides that, though, the book was great, and it actually had a reasonably happy ending. It’s dark, definitely – I’d even say darker than the first book – but I tend to enjoy those kinds of books, and if you can handle darkness and murder I highly recommend you give both of these books a read.

The Mask of Shadows duology:

  1. Mask of Shadows
  2. Ruin of Stars
Personal Development

Review: The Lunatic Gene

Cover of "The Lunatic Gene," featuring the title in green text above a multi-colored double helix DNA strand
Image from Adam Shaw

Title: The Lunatic Gene: How to Make Sense of Your Life (alternatively subtitled The Reason Your Life will Never Make Sense)

Author: Adam Shaw

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Mentions of death, mentions of injuries

Back Cover:

Are you fed up with reading self-help books and not getting results? If so, this book is a hard-hitting, yet light-hearted voyage of discovery as to why your life will never make sense, because you live in a lunatic asylum. If you are feeling stuck, trapped, sleepless, anxious, depressed, or at a cross-roads in life, this book will help explain why, and what you can do to reduce the effects. It will also explain that all of these symptoms are messages from your body to enable you to change your life in very positive ways. This book is your guide to the trait which leads 99% of people into chaos and illness, and 1% to incredible, purposeful lives. If you are fed up with being part of the 99%, this book is for you.

Review:

What is the Lunatic Gene? I don’t know! The book never explains it. It’s very clear that the Lunatic Gene is not scientific at all, and it states some of the effects of the gene (what are they? I don’t know! It’s not clear), but it doesn’t tell you what the gene is.

Adam Shaw spends the first half of the book sharing his experiences (how are they relevant? I don’t know! He tries to tie them in but doesn’t do it very well) and trying to convince you that the Lunatic Gene is a thing, despite stating that it’s not a scientific discovery or genealogical fact. Then he spends the other half talking about how your brain/logic and heart/emotions disagree and how that causes problems, saying next to nothing about this Lunatic Gene.

And then he tries to convince you that heart disease happens because you don’t love yourself enough. Yes, really.

Not all of the stuff in here is bad. There’s actually some good insight into how suppressing or “bottling up” emotions that were overruled but “logic” causes problems and outbursts. But his solution to that is to listen to your heart more. (How do you do that? I don’t know! He doesn’t say what to do about it more than “follow your heart.”)

Also, my copy had no margins, so the first letter of every line was cut off and it was a nightmare to read. It was also difficult to read because none of it made sense. It didn’t fit together, the examples didn’t clear anything up, and I think there might have been advice in there somewhere? It’s a mess.

This book is very much … not great. It’s poorly written, poorly organized, and poorly formatted, some of its assertions are just outlandish, and it gives exactly zero concrete solutions to the issues it brings up. I’d say something here about the main message being not unique, but there’s like six “main messages” here that the book tries to cover in 44 pages and doesn’t give any of them enough page time to call it the main message. I can tell it’s trying, and it thinks it has something new, mind-blowing, and revolutionary, but it doesn’t.

Self-Help

Review: Lost Connections

Cover of "Lost Connections," featuring several hands holding sparklers on a black background
Image from Johann Hari

Title: Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

Author: Johann Hari

Genre: Self-Help

Trigger Warnings: Starvation, fatphobia, sexual abuse mentions, suicide mentions, gendered slurs, psychedelic use

Back Cover:

Award-winning journalist Johann Hari suffered from depression since he was a child and started taking antidepressants when he was a teenager. He was told—like his entire generation—that his problem was caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain. As an adult, trained in the social sciences, he began to investigate this question—and he learned that almost everything we have been told about depression and anxiety is wrong.

Across the world, Hari discovered social scientists who were uncovering the real causes—and they are mostly not in our brains, but in the way we live today. Hari’s journey took him from the people living in the tunnels beneath Las Vegas, to an Amish community in Indiana, to an uprising in Berlin—all showing in vivid and dramatic detail these new insights. They lead to solutions radically different from the ones we have been offered up until now.

Just as Chasing the Scream transformed the global debate about addiction, with over twenty million views for his TED talk and the animation based on it, Lost Connections will lead us to a very different debate about depression and anxiety—one that shows how, together, we can end this epidemic.

Review:

I heard of this book because of a video on Facebook my fiance sent me where the author outlined the basic concepts of Lost Connections. He wanted me to laugh at the author with him, but what he was saying honestly didn’t seem that outlandish to me. So I put this book on my reading list to evaluate the claims in full.

That, and I have more than my fair share of mental health issues and I would love to improve them.

The basic premise of the book is that depression and anxiety, rather than being individual biological problems, are more influenced by society, especially how modern Western society has become disconnected – from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world, and from a secure future.

Johann gives quite a bit of anecdotal evidence – stories and interviews with people who felt depression and anxiety which improved when they reconnected with one (or more) of the things that he claims we’re disconnected from. But there is also a surprising about of hard evidence (experiments and published research) that environmental factors do strongly affect anxiety and depression. (There’s also quite a bit of research showing that antidepressants have little to no effect.)

I’m disconnected from pretty much everything listed, and some of the stories Johann writes about – with people feeling better by connecting to those things – actually made me tear up with how much I wanted a connection like that.

Lost Connections makes a compelling point, much of it backed up by actual research, and I’m sold. I have no idea how to change society to reflect that, but I’m definitely working towards changing my own environment to connect more.

You can get a free PDF copy of the book here!

Did Not Finish, Suspense/Thriller

Review: Gated

Cover of "Gated," featuring a person with blue eyes and long messy hair peeking out from behind a tree
Image from Amy Christine Parker

Title: Gated

Series: Gated #1

Author: Amy Christine Parker

Genre: Thriller

Trigger Warnings: Missing child, guns, religious abuse

Back Cover:

In the Community, life seems perfect. Lyla Hamilton believes she is one of the chosen. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pioneer invited her family to join the Community and escape the evil in the world. They have thrived under his strict, charismatic leadership. Now seventeen, Lyla knows certain facts are not to be questioned:

Pioneer is her leader.

Will is her Intended.

The end of the world is near.

Pioneer has visions of the imminent destruction of humanity. He says his chosen must prepare to fight off the unchosen, who will surely seek refuge in the Silo, the underground shelter where the Community will wait out the apocalypse.

Lyla loves her family and friends, but a chance encounter with an unchosen boy has her questioning Pioneer, the Community – everything. She needs time to figure out the truth. But with Pioneer’s deadline for the end of days fast approaching, time is the one thing she doesn’t have.

Read to: Page 95

Review:

I am rather annoyed with this book.

I picked it up because of the cult aspect. I’m personally trying to deal with leaving a cult-like religion, so I thought it would be interesting and relatable. That’s really the only reason. And it honestly wasn’t very heavy on the cult stuff. Sure, there’s information about how the Community works and how isolated and close-knit they are, but besides calling Pioneer their prophet, there really wasn’t any religious aspect to it. Which may or may not have been realistic, I don’t know, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for.

Most of the story (at least until where I read to) was about Lyla’s feelings about the Community and doomsday and their preparations for it. Which, unfortunately, were not very interesting because she wasn’t a very interesting character. She grew up in the Community, so it didn’t really occur to her to doubt the apocalypse or Pioneer – she mostly wasn’t happy about target practice and that she would probably have to shoot people to defend the Community when doomsday came. I understand that – I wouldn’t be too excited about shooting people either – but there really wasn’t anything else until Cody came along.

Cody is the outsider boy that comes to the Community by chance, and Lyla has to give him a (limited) tour. She likes him a lot because he’s … well, I guess because he’s handsome. She mentions his extreme handsomeness when she first sees him, before they even meet. They hardly talk (at least on-page), but she’s inexplicably drawn to him. I don’t want to say love at first sight, but it was definitely feelings at first sight. And apparently meeting one really handsome dude is enough to make her question everything she grew up with.

Honestly, though, I kept reading. I wasn’t all that invested and I wasn’t actually sure what I felt about the book, but I knew the apocalypse wasn’t coming and I wanted to see what happened when they found out Pioneer was wrong. What really made me stop was aliens.

Yes, aliens.

A lot of flashbacks are interspersed in this book, covering Lyla’s childhood both before and after the Community. And in one, a flashback to “school” with Pioneer, you learn more about this vision that Pioneer is peddling. The earth is going to start rotating backwards, causing all sorts of natural disasters that will wipe out everyone outside the Community (the Community built an underground bunker to survive it), and then after five months, the aliens will show up to take them to a new life across the galaxy.

I know Scientology exists and aliens in cults are not, like, a completely out of the blue thing, but it still annoyed me. It just seemed so absurd. It also probably doesn’t help that I was looking for a book with a more Christian-like religion and themes of religious abuse, and the aliens just kind of proved to me that this isn’t the book I wanted it to be.

That’s not to say other people won’t like it – it has 3.75 stars on Goodreads, obviously people do – and I can see how some people would really enjoy this. It just didn’t match my expectations, and that kind of ruined it for me.

The Gated series:

  1. Gated
  2. Astray
Fantasy

Review: Mask of Shadows

Cover of "Mask of Shadows," featuring two knives crossed in front of a circular metal crest
Image from Linsey Miller

Title: Mask of Shadows

Series: Mask of Shadows #1

Author: Linsey Miller

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger warnings: Death, blood, mentions of abuse and war – for more details, read this

Back Cover:

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

Review:

This is the book I’ve been looking for.

You may have noticed I haven’t been reading a lot of novels lately. The reason is that I haven’t been able to find a novel that engaged me enough that I actually wanted to read more. (I’m honestly not sure if that’s more a reflection on the books or on me.) But this book – this book was absorbing and I loved it.

Let’s start with Sal. Sal is genderfluid, but it’s not a Big Thing – everyone just accepts it. They’re driven by revenge against the nobles who let their people die, and they have no preparation for being an assassin other than having been a thief and getting in street fights. They were just so determined to succeed, and I love reading about characters that are unprepared but do well through pure determination.

I love books about assassins, but despite Sal being in a competition to become an assassin, there wasn’t a lot of assassin-ing. It was more about competition-ing. Sure, there was some killing of other competitors, but the story was more about the training and learning, the dynamics between characters, and Sal adjusting to their new life and not getting caught while working toward vengeance.

I tried to come up with a “basic plot” for this book, but it’s hard because the two major plots combine so thoroughly. Sal wants to kill the nobles who let her people die, and they are using the audition competition as a means to that end. Some of it is trying to scheme and find which nobles are at fault, a lot of it is trying to survive (and win) the audition. It’s all fantastic and sucks you into the story. There’s a lot of violence, quite a bit of assassin skills (both learning and used), and some great characters in the form of the three members of the Left Hand and in Sal’s maid.

Really though, even the characters the book doesn’t spend a lot of time with are well done. There isn’t much court intrigue but what there is is great, Sal’s love interest is adorable and sweet (although their relationship does develop a little quickly), and the competition is fantastic.

I don’t have enough good things to say about this book. If you can stomach some blood and violence, I highly recommend it, especially if you need something to get yourself out of a reading slump.

The Mask of Shadows duology:

  1. Mask of Shadows
  2. Ruin of Stars