Review: “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics,” Dan Harris and Jeff Warren

Pros: Ideal for me
Rating: 5 out of 5

Note: Book provided for review by publisher


Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book, by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren, and Carlye Adler, seemed ideal for me–I am a skeptic, and I am certainly fidgety (much like Jeff, one of the authors, I have ADD)! I’m impressed by how much the book makes meditation accessible, makes it seem like just another part of life, like riding the bus to work or brushing your teeth before bed. Just something you do because it makes sense and makes your life a little bit better.

Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation, it is succeeding.

The whole attitude of the authors gives you permission to “fail” at meditation as many times as is necessary–by making it clear that it isn’t failing in the first place. The whole idea is that you learn to come back to focusing, and that return is success. It makes the stakes much smaller and easier to face. Mindfulness is the goal rather than emptiness. I love the tone of the book. It stays grounded in the everyday and sometimes the hilarious:

…the collective attention span of a syphilitic squirrel.

One of the parts that particularly appeals to me is the idea that if you’re dead certain you can’t spare five minutes (or sit still for that long), even one minute counts. There’s a ten-breath meditation that I’ve been doing every day since I started reading this book, and even I can manage that! Part of the idea is that you can’t control what arises in your mind, but you can learn how to respond to it. “Hurt more, suffer less.” You might in fact feel some of your emotions more acutely, but you’re less likely to act out on them and hurt others.

There are habit-formation tips, as well as an examination of the hindrances to meditation (such as boredom or restlessness). It’s nice that they acknowledge such barriers as legitimate and important and give us hints for how to handle them. The authors also try to avoid fancy or precious talk; they want to make meditation accessible to everyone, and I think they succeed. Even when they get touchy-feely (such as talking about self-compassion) they find a way to bring it down to earth. In this case, by providing us with an example called the “Giving A Shit About Yourself Meditation”! There’s also a laziness meditation, and a 30 seconds-plus meditation to do when trying to be there for someone else. A couple of the extra meditations in the appendix get a little more froofy, but not overly so (and there are plenty of nuts-and-bolts meditations so that it won’t hurt you to pick one of those and use it instead).

They do acknowledge that if you have a mental illness or a history of trauma that you should check with a mental health professional before embarking on a serious meditation practice. It would have been nice, however, to see a bit more about how meditation can interact with trauma.

The authors consistently made meditation out to be something entirely ordinary, which is about the opposite of what I’m used to, and I think that’s valuable and brilliant. If you want the purported health and mental health benefits of meditation without the daunting cheerleading or fanciness, this is the book for you!

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Review: “Toad Words and Other Stories,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Delightful fairy tale variations with a folk tale feel
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s collection Toad Words And Other Stories very much tickled my fancy. I love the folk tale feel her stories give off. She uses both fairy tales that have been given a lot of modern attention (Snow White, Red Riding Hood, the Little Mermaid) as well as older ones that haven’t, and she brings plenty that’s new to them. The Little Mermaid, for example, is called “The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight”:

But you have two cultures breaking against each other, it’s the young women who are going to come out the losers. Any two cultures. Pick two. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. Some things don’t change.

I think two of Kingfisher’s best talents lie in character-building and dialogue, as I’ve noted in other reviews. Her narratives in general also produce a wonderful, magical feel to them. And Kingfisher’s imagination in building out new aspects of old fairy tales never ceases to amaze me.

[The muffins] went glop, which is not an appropriate sound for muffins to make upon contacting wicker, but Turtle was pleased by this, because the last batch had gone clonk and glop was progress of a sort.

I’ll note that last quote was from “The Wolf and the Woodsman,” a fascinating version of Red Riding Hood in which the hood is neither red nor designed for riding. But it makes a fascinating look at why women often find themselves afraid of ‘nice guys’.

There’s a wide variety of tales and I loved them all. If you’ve read any Kingfisher before and enjoyed her work, you’ll love this. If you haven’t read anything of hers yet, this is probably a good place to start. It’ll give you an idea of whether you’d like her unique take on fairy tales. Some of them get a bit dark, and some of them are told from very different perspectives. There’s something to be learned and enjoyed in each one.

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Review: “Bryony and Roses,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Fantastic version of Beauty and the Beast
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s Bryony And Roses beautifully captures the folk tale feel that she writes so well in other volumes. In this tale, Bryony is a gardener who wanders into a seemingly deserted manor house during a killer snow storm. She takes shelter, and food and warmth are mysteriously provided for her and her pony. When she’s ready to go, she decides to take the rose from the breakfast table as proof of her insane side-trip, only to be told by a horrifying Beast that now her freedom is forfeit and she must live in the manor with him. She’s given one week to return to her two sisters, and he suggests she bring her gardening needs back with her. As she settles into the odd magical manor and grows used to the Beast, every day after dinner he asks if she’ll marry him, and every day she says no. By the time she figures out how to leave, she realizes there’s more at stake than just her own freedom.

The manor house itself is a wonderful character. It lays out ‘hopeful’ dresses for Bryony, wanting someone to dress up for dinner. It practically seems to pull up its own sod to allow her to plant her seedlings. Yet at the same time, if the Beast tries to tell her anything about his own past, candles start going out, a cold breeze blows, and the demeanor of the house becomes threatening. There’s a rose plant in a courtyard that seems important, but Beast can’t really talk about it, and it’s strangling a beautiful tree. Bryony isn’t very fond of roses, so she has to resist the urge to rip it out. Meanwhile, there seems to be an intruder who occasionally paces her room at night, and in Bryony’s dreams a seductive man asks for her help but won’t tell her what kind of help he needs.

Bryony and Roses is also a great contender for best first line:

She was going to die because of the rutabagas.

Doesn’t that just make you desperately want to know what death-by-rutabagas means?

The dialogue is wonderful, as always seems to be the case when I read a Kingfisher tale. The same is true for the relationships between characters–romantic and not. As well as the characters themselves. She has so many wonderful strengths as a teller of tales.

“Trees are good at dying, you know, we practice it for many autumns.”

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Review: “The Raven and the Reindeer,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Wonderful fairy tale-esque story
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s The Raven and the Reindeer is a glorious version of a Snow Queen fairy tale. Young Gerta and Kay are neighbors who’ve grown up together. Plump and sturdy Gerta is obviously in love with Kay, but Kay is a cold and distant creature. She just can’t quite see the distance. (Or as the narrative notes, “It is hard to see a story when you are standing in the middle of it.”) Gerta’s grandmother tells her stories of all kinds, including one of the dreadful Snow Queen, so Gerta recognizes the terrible spirit when she comes to claim Kay in the middle of a blizzard. All Gerta can do is watch helplessly from her window as the Queen abducts an all-too-willing Kay from his own bedroom window. When it’s clear that he really has disappeared and this wasn’t a nightmare, she becomes determined to set out after him and rescue him from the evil spirit. Her grandmother tries to dissuade her to no result. Unfortunately she’s hardly traveled for a couple of days when she gets waylaid by a witch.

I think my favorite part of this tale is the talking raven:

“Do you still talk?” she asked.
“Hell of a thing to forget in a day,” said the raven.

He’s sarcastic and biting yet seems to have a soft spot for Gerta. He has a sense for magic that she lacks, and offers that another young woman he knows might be willing to help Gerta. Janna and Gerta develop a fascinating relationship–one of Kingfisher’s strengths is relationships, in my opinion. They always have depth and interest to them, and often turn out to be something unexpected on at least one level. Right up there with the relationships is the dialogue:

“Are you a witch?” asked Janna.
“No,” said the old woman, “I’m a Lutheran.”

It’s hard not to keep quoting the dialogue because it’s so witty and delightful!

The style is magical. The characters are delightful. The setting is evocative and the tale is touching and vibrant. I would absolutely recommend The Raven and the Reindeer to anyone who likes folk and fairy tales.

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Review: “Acceptance,” Jeff Vandermeer

Pros: Lovecraftian horror and madness for modern readers
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Jeff Vandermeer’s Acceptance (Book Three of The Southern Reach Trilogy) takes us back inside the mix of pristine wilderness and Lovecraftian madness that is Area X. The area is spreading, and all of our primary characters find themselves trapped inside. Through a mix of journal entries and other point-of-view shifts both past and present we explore the secrets that Area X still keeps. The primary PoV characters are Saul (the lighthouse keeper referenced in the other novels, who was present through the creation of Area X), the Director/the Psychologist, the Biologist and Ghost Bird, and Control. In particular we get the run-down on the Director’s previous trip into Area X (with Whitby) before the twelfth expedition took place. We finally find out more or less what Area X is and how it came to be, but it isn’t explored too thoroughly. The wrap-up of the series doesn’t take away too much of the mystery and madness that made Annihilation so special; nor does it leave too much unexplained. I found it to be just the right balance.

I think every writer has words and images that they return to. I thought it spoke to the heart of this series that the words and concepts that seem to return repeatedly are compost, colonizing, and stitching. They all work themselves neatly into the secret heart of the madness that seethes within every inch of Area X. I’m frankly surprised to see a story such as this trilogy that can maintain that Lovecraftian sense of madness and horror while also providing just enough explanation to satisfy a modern audience.

I found Saul’s story particularly interesting. Even though it’s largely a means to an end for a fascinating reveal, Vandermeer gives Saul plenty of personality and layers, as well as a connection to the modern-day story through the Director/the Psychologist.

The original Annihilation is still my favorite of the trilogy, but the story as a whole is fantastic. There’s enough detail that I think it will reward re-reading a time or two as well. In particular there are some uses of hypnosis that cast previous events in a very different light.

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Review: “Authority,” Jeff Vandermeer

Pros: Lovecraftian horror and madness for modern readers
Cons: Didn’t like the main character
Rating: 4 out of 5

Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority (Book Two of The Southern Reach Trilogy) follows on the heels of his Annihilation, in which the Biologist’s journal took us on a journey through madness in a mysterious Area X. Now we get to find out much of the behind-the-scenes as we concentrate on The Southern Reach itself, the secret government agency that oversees research into Area X. “Control” (John Rodriguez) is the new acting director of The Southern Reach, and he’s our central figure here. He’s an odd protagonist, seeing as in most books he’d be an antagonistic or even enemy character, not the main character. Three out of the four expedition twelve members have returned, and Control believes he’s likely to get the best answers from the Biologist, so he concentrates on questioning her. Some of the strange characters that populate The Southern Reach aren’t friendly to the new authority figure, so he has to fight their attempts to undermine him at every turn–all the while attempting to reconstruct the details behind the scenes of Annihilation.

This book is a fascinating autopsy of the rotting corpse that is The Southern Reach. Control ends up researching the previous Director of the agency as well as the twelfth expedition, seeing as she was also the head of that expedition. What he finds indicates that the madness that infects the pristine wilderness that is Area X may have infiltrated the agency as well. And the Director might not have been its only outlet.

Control is a weird character. I wasn’t entirely fond of him and his strange family history, which dampened my enthusiasm for the book a bit. His mother and grandfather are spies, and he’s the black sheep of the family who keeps screwing up assignments. His mother seems to have his best interests at heart, but does she really? And just how much is she manipulating him anyway? She certainly has an interest in The Southern Reach that she hasn’t expressed to him. Through her he also has a connection to a mysterious person he only knows as The Voice, to whom he reports by phone. This strange character berates and swears at him at every turn as he fails to learn enough to satisfy.

The story is intense, with plenty of vividness and detail. The Southern Reach is a character in its own right, made up of many pieces of the normal turned on its head. And as for Control, he’s becoming obsessed with the Biologist and her place in things. Even though I didn’t adore this installment in the way I did Annihilation, it’s still quite worth reading if you enjoyed the first novel.

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Review: “Annihilation,” Jeff Vandermeer

Pros: Lovecraftian horror and madness for modern readers
Cons: Clinical tone might put off some readers
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (Book One of The Southern Reach Trilogy) is a treasure trove of Lovecraftian horror and madness, written for modern-day readers. It’s written as the journal of the Biologist, a member of the twelfth expedition into “Area X”. This is an isolated beach and the land around it, cut off from civilization by a mysterious border. The Southern Reach is the governmental agency tasked with figuring out what Area X is, and they haven’t had much luck. Some expedition members go mad and kill each other. Some expeditions go mad and kill themselves. Others mysteriously appear at their homes after being gone for months, seem distant and empty, and then die of cancer months later. Advanced technology seems to degrade quickly when it works at all, so the expeditions take only simple machines with them. Each expedition uses different protocols, trying to figure out what might make a difference at the heart of the enigma. Expedition twelve is all-female, and the members’ individual identities are stripped away, leaving them knowing each other only by their job titles. The Psychologist, who leads the expedition, has put each person through rigorous questioning and mental preparation, but it’s entirely unknown whether this will help at all.

The Biologist’s tone is somewhat clinical, which might put off some readers. I found it worked to reinforce the strangeness of the setting and events. It takes very little time for the unusual, maddening effects of Area X to put in an appearance, so you don’t have to wait for long. There’s a lighthouse that seems significant, and a strange tunnel with bizarre writing lining its walls:

“… There shall be in the planting in the shadows a grace and a mercy that shall bloom dark flowers, and their teeth shall devour and sustain and herald the passing of an age …”

The tone of Annihilation is very internal, so it’s hard to see how this is set to become a movie next year. Most of what happens is nested within the experiences of the Biologist, and her take on it is integral to what happens and how.

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.

There are strange creatures that inhabit Area X, and accounts of past expeditions may not have been entirely correct in how they were portrayed to the characters during their training. Despite the odd advanced decay of everything left behind to find, there are some secrets that haven’t been lost to madness and decomposition.

I absolutely loved Annihilation. It’s a fantastic exploration of the madness present in both internal and external landscape, and it’s a Lovecraftian horror built to appeal to modern readers.

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Review: “Archangel’s Heart,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Vivid and fascinating
Rating: 5 out of 5

Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Heart (A Guild Hunter Novel)–Book 9–continues the over-arching plot of the series rather than tackling a new romantic pairing. I like the fact that the series has enough plot going on to be able to do this. And the fact that Elena and Raphael’s romance has been consummated in no way prevents them from acting as excellent main characters with plenty of ongoing chemistry. Not all erotic romance series can boast the same. The ongoing plot and worldbuilding are complex enough that you should make sure you’ve read the series so far, but you don’t have to worry about being lost if it’s been a few months since you read book 8. (Hell, I ended up reading the two novels out of order and I’m keeping up pretty well.) In this volume Lijuan’s territory is starting to go to Hell in her absence. Vampiric bloodlust is cropping up, resulting in entire wiped-out villages of people. An unaligned group of isolated angels called the Luminata calls the Cadre of archangels and Ancients together to decide whether it’s time to divide Lijuan’s territory between the remaining Cadre members, and if so, how. (This is apparently pretty much the only function of the Luminata in the outside world–otherwise they seek individual enlightenment.) However, it doesn’t take long for Elena to realize that something weird is up with their leader, Gian, and it might be connected to her own mysterious family background.

We get to see all of the Cadre (except Lijuan) in one place, and it’s fairly fascinating. There’s plenty of angelic politicking going on. The big problem, of course, is that no one really knows how ‘alive’ Lijuan might or might not be, or whether she’s going into Sleep, or simply regaining her power from being torn apart by Raphael before she shows her face again. She displayed such immense power during the war that no one wants to risk pissing her off by entering her territory, yet without archangelic oversight the vampires will continue to fall into bloodlust. There’s little to indicate the best course of action.

Elena’s family plot becomes quite interesting. The Lumia (the home of the Luminati) is in Morocco, where Elena’s grandmother came from. Elena visits a nearby village only to find it strangely free of vampires and angels, and the mortals terrified of angels. No one wants to talk to her about anything, but it’s obvious that some of them find her strange coloration, with her white hair, familiar. She wants to ask Gian about the mystery, but can’t shake the feeling that he’s lying to her and could be dangerous. In fact, he’s hardly the only member of the brotherhood who raises her hackles.

As usual Nalini Singh’s work is vivid, lush, and enticing. The characters have depth and chemistry, including friendships and more tenuous ties, not just the romantic. The landscapes are vividly drawn and enjoyable, while the plot intrigues and captures the imagination.

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Review: “Archangel’s Enigma,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Wild characters, plenty of plot progression, lush landscape
Rating: 5 out of 5

Archangel’s Enigma (A Guild Hunter Novel)–Book 8–delves into the enigma that is Naasir, one of archangel Raphael’s seven closest friends and colleagues. Most people believe him to be some odd sort of vampire, but those who know him best realize he’s something more. Most of them don’t know just how unusual he really is, a half-wild creature with animalistic instincts. He’s about six hundred years old and having seen some of his friends take mates now wants one of his own. But he knows he needs another wild creature who can take him on his own terms. Unfortunately, he’ll have to delay his hunt while he accompanies a young angelic scholar on a vitally important mission (she couldn’t possibly be his mate, because she’s taken a vow of celibacy, and no mate of his would have ever done something so silly). Lijuan, the Archangel of Death, is believed to be looking for the Sleeping place of the Ancient Alexander so she can slay him while he’s vulnerable. Andromeda, who has studied Alexander extensively, is believed to be the best hope of finding this place. It’s Naasir’s job to protect her while they both try to find it. Unfortunately, Lijuan is one step ahead of them–she has Andi kidnapped before their journey even begins.

Naasir and Andromeda may occupy the main plotline, but we still get to peek in on our old friends and the overarching plotline. Lijuan’s ongoing devolution is bloodily explored, as is Illium’s too-soon possible ascension to archangel status. There’s a legendary Grimoire to be found, and a blood vow Andi’s parents made on her behalf to be overcome. Soon she’s to go to her grandfather Charisemnon’s court and serve there for 500 years. He’s an evil, horrifying power who enjoys torture and death. If she doesn’t participate, she’ll become a victim herself. And she can’t possible let him find out about her growing feelings for Naasir, so she’ll be torn away from her maybe-mate for those 500 years.

Both Naasir and Andi are great characters. Each has unexpected layers to them. Naasir has learned to wear a skin of civility when needed, but wants a mate who can match and accept his inner wildness. Andi is a devoted scholar, but she also loves to wield a blade and does so with far more skill than Naasir could expect. Her own wild inner nature may well be a match to his own.

The landscapes they travel are lush and vivid. We get to explore from the skies of New York to the angelic Refuge, Africa, and beyond. As always with Singh’s writing it’s easy to visualize the setting and the people. Also, while much of the Guild Hunter series follows the standard erotic romance series trope in which each book covers a new pair of characters within the same setting, Singh’s books build on a great ongoing plot as well as a web of friendships and relationships between all of the characters. It helps to keep things interesting, building the new while remaining grounded in the old.

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Review: “Archangel’s Shadows,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Beautiful story
Cons: A bit of a sexual conundrum
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Archangel’s Shadows (A Guild Hunter Novel, Book 7) delves into the erotically charged, headstrong relationship between Guild Hunter Ashwini and vampire Janvier. They’ve been alternately flirting with and hating each other for several years now, and while Janvier is certain she’s the one for him, she believes she carries a secret that means they can never be together. For the moment, however, they’re stuck with each other. Mysterious bodies have started showing up–first animals, now a human, as dessicated husks of their former selves. Meanwhile, a new drug targeted at rich vampires with nothing better to do threatens to destabilize the precious post-war peace of New York. Ash and Janvier are tasked with solving the first of these problems, and find themselves inevitably bumping up against the second. They need to take care of things quickly, before any of the other archangels see them as weak and easy to conquer.

As usual, Singh brings a beautiful world to life. Make sure you’re already familiar with it, because there’s a lot going on. Fans of the series will finally get to see these two together, while also keeping up with Elena and Raphael as Raphael’s enormously powerful, and alien, mother comes to visit. We get to find out more about the mysterious Legion. I particularly like the characters of Ash and Janvier; they’re both snarky, strong, and deadly. They work very well together despite their differences. They make natural partners which is fun to watch, and their chemistry is outstanding.

There’s just one problem. In the wake of the recent #metoo campaign, I find myself much more aware of instances of sexual harassment, pressure, and so on, in which one party doesn’t respect the other’s boundaries. And the truth is, Janvier pressures Ashwini in all sorts of ways that for most people would be totally unacceptable. It works for me in this book, because the characters have so much past history, ongoing flirtation on both sides, and deeper caring for each other:

…when they’d spoken so many times, trusted one another so deeply.

It also makes a huge difference to me that when the ultimate seduction occurs, she’s the one who instigates it. As much as he pushes her boundaries, he also in a strange way respects them. I also understand that some readers will want the fantasy of having to be pushed past their own boundaries.

That said, it’s a fine line, and I’m sure there will be readers on both sides of it. You know your own tolerances, so take this into account when you decide whether you want to read this book or not.

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