Help Me by Marianne Power

*Thank you to HarperCollins Canada for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

It is truly a great feeling when a book surprises you in the best of ways. “Help Me” by Marianne Power is one of those books for me. This is a true story of one woman’s quest to build the life she desperately wants through self-help books. This book will make you laugh but it will also make you reflect on the big questions asked by the author. It is equally hysterical and thought provoking. In short, it was one hell of a ride that made me laugh out loud in public (I suspect onlookers were confused as to how I was laughing so much while reading a book titled “Help Me”)

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Synopsis:

“There comes a point in every woman’s life when she realizes that things cannot carry on the way they are” – Marianne Power.

On the surface, Marianne’s life seems great. She’s a thirty-six year old freelance journalist living in London. She has supportive group of family and friends. She wears designer clothes and travels often. However, deep down Marianne feels unfulfilled, lost and behind in life. As Marianne is nursing a bad hangover one Sunday morning, she comes to a realization that things need to change. She decides to turn to the world of self-help books to help her become a perfect person, with the perfect weight, living in a perfect home with a perfect life partner. The problem with this plan: there is no such thing as perfect.

Marianne embarks on a twelve-month journey in which she will read one self-help book per month. She decides that she will not only read self-help, she will DO self-help. She will follow the advice given in these books, no matter how scary it is. What follows is a year filled with uncomfortable challenges, facing fears and questioning damaging subconscious thoughts.

Does Self-Help Really Help?

“The dangerous expectation that can be created by self-help books is that if you’re not walking around like a cross between Mary Poppins, Buddha and Jesus every day you’re doing it wrong. You must try harder.” – Marianne Power

Marianne starts her self-help journey with the book “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. This book inspires her to do things that she is afraid of, and so she writes up a list of scary things she would never imagine doing. She finds herself becoming a nude model for an art class, chatting up a random man on public transport, doing stand up comedy, and skydiving. I loved reading this chapter specifically because you could really feel her fear through her writing. I know there were times when I was cringing and feeling proud of her at the same time.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the chapter on rejection therapy, a game created by Jason Comely in which the goal is to seek out rejection in order to overcome the fear of rejection. It was an absolute riot reading the scenes where Marianne asked for free coffee, a discount in store and asked to join strangers at cafes. Her inner dialogue is gold! This chapter was not only funny, but eye opening as well. It turns out that even when Marianne was searching for rejection, she would not always get it. People would surprise her with their kindness and openness, leaving Marianne to realize that she had gone out of her way to avoid rejection her whole life and barely lived as a result.

The Downside to Self-Help:

As her journey progresses, Marianne explores more self-help books like “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey and attended a Tony Robbins seminar called “Unleash the Power Within”. What starts as an inspirational journey becomes overwhelming and Marianne soon becomes burnt out from all the self-helping. She finds herself alone with all the voices of the authors in her head leaving her feeling even more emotionally exhausted. I really think this portion of the book is important as it shows what happens when you go too far with these books. A self-help plan can be equal parts self-growth and alienating if not done right.

As Marianne realizes her friends and family are starting to worry and pulling away, she presses pause and reexamines her commitment to reading self-help. Perhaps this is the most important part of her self-growth as she looks into her own behavior and realizes she does not have do all this on her own. That asking for help from actual people and reconnecting with the people she loves can be just as empowering. It is with this realization that she takes a giant leap forward and continues with reading what turn out to be the three books that leave the biggest impact: “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown and “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay. I believe the reason why these books made the greatest impact was because she realized a journey towards self-development does not have to be taken alone.

My Thoughts:

This book was unlike any other nonfiction book I have read before. It is deeply personal, vulnerable and hilarious. At times, it felt like I was reading a novel, mainly because of the hilarious dialogue between Marianne and her mother. The mother’s advice, skepticism and genuine concern were both hysterical and endearing.

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I found myself laughing, gasping, feeling sad and rooting for the author every step of the way. The chapters are broken down according to the self-help book the author was reading. Marianne manages to capture the biggest lessons from every book she reads. If you enjoy nonfiction books that are funny and inspiring, then this book is for you. In fact, I think this book can be for anyone. You do not have to like or even appreciate self-help books to enjoy this deeply personal story.

Happy reading!

Shazia.

 

 

 

 

 

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

It truly takes a gifted author to write a historical fiction that not only pulls at your heartstrings but also makes you feel like you are back in that time living it through the characters. The Gown by Jennifer Robson is truly a gift that I enjoyed immensely.

This book is about survival.

While there are many themes that the author expertly covers, survival was the one that stuck with me till the very last page.

There are many books that are written about the war or during the war, but The Gown focuses on the aftermath. It focuses on how people pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild brick by brick. It is about friendship, love, creation, PTSD and a person’s legacy. The Gown takes us on this journey as each of the main characters experience life altering events that take them to places they would have never imagined.

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Synopsis:

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London 1947: A brutal winter, rationing of resources and tragic memories leaves many people feeling the harsh aftermath of World War II. Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin are embroiderers working for Norman Hartell, the famous designer who has been chosen to make the wedding gown for Princess Elizabeth. Ann and Miriam, each weighed down by memories of their past, set to work on the gown for the royal wedding. They become closer, forging a friendship that will help them both during their darkest times.

Toronto 2016: Heather Mackenzie is mourning the death of her grandmother. While helping her mother go through her Nan’s things, she discovers a box with her name on it containing embroidered flowers that resemble the flowers on Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. Heather knows very little about her Nan’s past, but with some digging she discovers a clue that leads her to believe that her Nan once helped create the Queen’s dress. Heather boards a plane to London in search of the answers to her questions.

Themes:

I always wondered how the people living during this time were able to rebuild their lives after the brutality of WWII. How difficult it must have been for the survivors to carry the knowledge that their loved ones had died in concentration camps? How did the world heal? The Gown shows us that friendship can be the foundation of survival and moving on. The author takes us through what post-war London would have looked like through the eyes of fictional characters Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin. We read about their long workdays as they stitched and embroidered the gown for the royal wedding. As we read along, we see a beautiful friendship developing between these two strong women.

The theme of survival guilt is also explored in this story as we are shown how the survivors feel guilt about roaming free in the new world while their families were brutalized and murdered. This kind of guilt is portrayed expertly in the story and it shows how breaking down the walls people put up to protect themselves and letting someone in can be the first step into acceptance of the past and moving forward.

 “It was hard, at times to ignore the disquieting voices that told her she was fooling herself, that she would empty herself into this misguided project, and when she finished, it would be to find that no one was interested. That no one on earth, apart from her, cared to know what had happened to those she loved” – Jennifer Robson

Another theme that is beautifully depicted is how art and creation have their own healing powers, not just for the creators but also for those viewing the art. The royal wedding was held during a time of despair, as if to give a spark of light to the nation that was shrouded in darkness for far too long. The Gown would become a piece of art that captures the interest of the onlookers, but also provided it’s own kind of therapy to Miriam and Ann as they worked tirelessly on it.

Overall Thoughts:

The Gown was a truly breathtaking book to read. Everything was so descriptive that it felt like I could see the scenes in my head. I could almost see Ann and Miriam hunched over their frames in their coveralls stitching the elaborate flower star designs onto the gown. I could feel the emotions they were feeling. I could feel Ann’s heartbreak, Miriam’s guilt and Heather’s loss. I also enjoyed the way the story jumped from past to present and how we learn details of Ann and Miriam’s lives through Heather’s search for answers. This book had a lot of heart and it pulled many tears from me.

In many ways, this book reminds us that when elaborate gowns are made, so much of the credit goes to the designer and hardly any goes towards the ones who worked on the embroidery. I have a newfound appreciation for all those dedicated souls who put all their time and love into the delicate details that are what makes a dress beautiful. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to Google images of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown to admire the embroidery.

Check out The Gown at Chapters Indigo.

Happy reading!

Shazia.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for sending me a copy of The Water Cure in exchange for an honest review.

 There have been quite a few feminist dystopian novels like the Handmaid’s Tale and The Virgin Suicides that have been written. However, comparing The Water Cure to those books would be wrong. In my opinion, this book stands alone as something else entirely. Yes, the book does describe a world in which being a female is considered a disadvantage, but the book reads as if it is all happening in the present. While some people may argue that this book is still considered to be a dystopian, I personally did not see that reflected in the writing. My advice? Go into this book without expectations. This will not be a book for everyone, but it is so inherently unique that I think it deserves a chance to be explored by readers.

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Synopsis:

“There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable.” – Sophie Mackintosh

The Water Cure introduces us to a man named King who has created a home in an isolated territory for his wife and three daughters, Grace, Lia and Sky. There is barbered wire around this territory that gives clear messages of “do not enter” and “do not leave”. King does this to protect the women from the dangers and violence from the men on the mainland. King and his wife have their daughters engage in brutal therapies that are meant to make their bodies and minds strong against the toxic world beyond their barbed wires. The girls are made to believe that the men of the world will harm them and that they could become sick from the mere toxicity from their breaths.

Their carefully orchestrated life turns upside down when King disappears and three men wash ashore. They seek shelter in the girl’s home and from this point onwards everything changes. The three men, James, Llew and Gwil are mysterious and quietly take over the role of King to protect the women. We see the sisters navigate their first experiences interacting with men. We also see the bonds of sisterhood tested and how they struggle to come to terms with their new reality.

The Characters:

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Most of the story is told through Lia’s perspective. Lia is the middle child who yearns for love and finds herself drawn to one of the men washed ashore. She continuously battles over the guilt and fear of being drawn to “the enemy”, someone who could easily kill her. We are taken through flashbacks as Lia recounts rituals in which she had to hurt her sisters or kill animals in order to strengthen her body and mind. These parts were difficult to read as the author really masters how to make you feel uncomfortable. Lia’s perspective takes up the middle portion of the story, and while I did find this part to be a bit slow and dragged out, I still feel that the character development was well done. You really feel Lia’s pain and how desperately she wants to be loved.

Perhaps the most interesting character for me was the eldest daughter, Grace. We only get Grace’s perspective at the very beginning and end of the book. In my opinion, these were the best parts of the book. Grace gives us more insight into the mysterious character of King. We are told he is their father, that he protects them from the toxins of the outside world and tries to help other “sick” women. It is through Grace that we learn the truth about King and his motive. It is through her that the story finally starts to make sense and loose ends are tied.

James, Llew and Gwil are mysterious characters. Llew is the father of the young boy Gwil. James is Llew’s brother. From the very first time we are introduced to these characters, I got a sense that something was wrong. The author does not provide much information about them, and we learn more about them through their actions and interactions with the sisters. I was constantly on edge waiting to learn their motives. When everything is revealed, it was quite the surprise.

The Story:

I think the most interesting thing about this book for me is how the story is written. The author does a good job in showing rather than telling. We are not told what kind of world the women live in. Instead we are shown through the perspectives of Lia and Grace. At one point the author even does a group perspective, which I believe is an incredibly hard thing to accomplish. The author nails it! I really felt the collective emotions of the sisters in these chapters. At times I felt myself feeling lost because of the way we were given little context but a lot of description. I had to really pay attention and think through what I was reading. There were many beautiful metaphors with the use of water. The writing itself was poetic, mystical even at times.

The themes of cult mentality, patriarchy and trauma are deeply explored in the story, but again it is shown to the readers through Lia’s flashbacks and emotional turmoil. We are given more information about the girl’s childhood, their parent’s expectations and how/when they are allowed to express their emotions. The water cure was eventually explained and it left me feeling uneasy but also invested in finding out more. I was beginning to feel a bit impatient for more information but it was all eventually unraveled. While the ending did feel a tad bit rushed, I was so relieved to get the full story that I did not mind.

This was not an easy book to read. At times I felt horrified, uncomfortable and a bit impatient. I was really a mixed bag of emotions and I spent a good portion of time after I was done reading thinking about how I felt about the whole experience. I realized that all those emotions meant the author did a good job in evoking a response from readers. No matter what you feel after you’re done reading, the fact remains that you felt something. Even if the feeling was anger, frustration, sadness or discomfort. The writing makes you feel, period. This for me is a good reading experience.

Happy reading bookworms!

Shazia.

 

Book Review: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

Publisher: HarperCollins

I would like to thank HarperCollins Canada for sending me a copy of Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig in exchange for an honest review.

This was an inspiring and thought-provoking book to read. It is truly refreshing when an author shares his or her personal journey with readers. To feel an author’s vulnerability in their writing is a beautiful thing and to reflect on your own life afterwards is where the magic happens.

Matt Haig is one of those authors that takes you along on his personal journey and helps you understand the lessons he learned along the way. This book explores the link between anxiety, stress and our modern world. It is not just meant for the Millennials or the Generation Y group. This book is aimed for all humans who live on this nervous planet.

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Notes on a Nervous Planet

We have come a long way when it comes to discussing mental health. However, in this book Matt points out an interesting thing that we do when people discuss their mental health issues. He discusses how people continue to say things like “You are so brave for sharing your story”. As pointed out in the book, it should not be thought of as being brave for someone to have shared his or her struggles. It should be considered normal.

I paused when I read this and thought back to all the times I used a similar phrase when reading or listening to someone’s story. It’s a completely valid point that I thought should be shared. While there were many themes in this book, I would like to discuss the three big ones that stood out for me: Technology overload, loss of connection and life overload.

Technology Overload:

We live in a chaotic, overly stimulating and faced paced world. More than ever before we are being bombarded with notifications from the overwhelming amount of apps we have on our phones. We have to comb through text messages, whatsapp messages, emails, tweets, direct messages and Facebook messenger messages. Matt describes how this can be anxiety provoking. He describes the feeling of being on high alert while waiting for text messages or when receiving new notifications. We are constantly plugged in and being distracted.

Matt acknowledges how hard it can be to distance yourself from your phone and he shares his own struggles. However, he provides useful tips on how to control social media time rather than letting it control you. He recognizes the struggles with advancing technology, but also acknowledges the positives. This book does not bash technology and blame it all for our unhappiness. On the contrary, it presents the problems we may face and provides us with advice on how to create a space to foster peace and shape the life we want.

Loss of Connection:

Matt describes how the rise of the Internet and social media makes us more connected but also physically draws us further apart. An interesting point is made about how many things that pulled us out of our homes in the past are now available on the Internet. It is also so much easier to communicate with friends and family via Skype and Facetime rather than putting all that effort into getting out into the world to meet them. Loneliness seems to be one of the side effects of social media. I loved how Matt offers readers tips on how to remain human in a world that has become addicted to cell phones. It resonated with me as I sometimes find myself scanning the the people on the bus and counting how many of them have their cell phones in their hands, myself included.

Life Overload:

Matt refers to our world as a global nervous system. We are connected in more ways than ever thanks to technology like the Internet and the telephone. I think one of the most interesting points of this book was that because we have become so globally connected, we might feel emotions collectively through this large nervous system. We feel the group’s emotions and these emotions become our own. We get reminded of a time when we got our news with the morning newspaper and the evening news. That’s it. Just twice a day.

These days, news coverage goes beyond the newspaper and CNN. It is also present in the trending topics of Facebook, discussed on Twitter, shared on Instagram and Google news offers us a plethora of news articles to comb through. There is definitely an information overload, especially when the news being presented revolves around topics that sadden or frighten us. This book explains how it can be anxiety provoking, leading us to stress more and become anxious over the impending doom that may befall on us.

My Thoughts:

This was such an enjoyable book to read. I really can’t say that there is anything that I disliked about this book. It was broken down into sections that are quick and easy to read. There are many themes that are explored through funny anecdotes, lists and short discussions. It was an honest and insightful account about how to live your best life possible in a modern world that is designed to make you feel anxious. It is about creating a space of peace for yourself, to unplug and live in the moment. I think we could all benefit from Matt Haig’s reminders and advice. Highly recommended!

Happy reading,

Shazia.

Is There Still a Stigma Around Self-Help Books?

I notice an acquaintance, let’s call her Jane, clutching a book to her chest. It is bright yellow and I immediately recognize it.

Me: “Are you reading, “You are a Badass” by Jen Sincero?”

Jane: “Oh, yeah I am. I got it as a gift or else I would never pick it up myself. I usually don’t do self-help books”.

Me: “I loved that book! I read it twice”

Jane: “Oh really? That’s good. I hope I enjoy it. I don’t care for self-help books, but it seems funny”.

It is then that I notice the subtle signs of discomfort: her nervous laugh, the way she hides the title by holding it to her chest and how she shifts from one foot to another. Not to mention, she states she doesn’t care for self-help books twice.

This whole interaction made me wonder: Is there a stigma when it comes to reading self-help books?

I have seen it a few times over the years. Discomfort when someone sees me reading a self-help book. Sometimes it’s an eye-roll, other times I see an eyebrow raising and a few times it’s been a downright “you read that stuff?”

Well, yes I do. In fact, I love this “stuff”.

The Good News:

In the last few years, I have seen more enthusiasm related to self-help books. I have seen these books on display more often than before. I have listened to podcasts with the authors from this genre discussing their books. I have also seen these books included in popular book clubs. More of these kinds of books are shared on platforms like bookstagram and goodreads.
Chapters Indigo even has a section called “The Wellness Shop”, which features a whole array of self-help books related to self-development, meditation, coping with anxiety and alleviating stress. I have met people who asked questions about self-help books. I have had lengthy discussions about the themes and topics covered by the authors regarding mental health. This often leads to stories being shared about our personal struggles and how we incorporated teachings from these books into our lives. These are the conversations we need more of in our lives.

The Resistance:

What makes some people uncomfortable about being seen in the self-help section of the bookstore? What makes some people uncomfortable about reading their self-help books in public? Is it the idea that seeking these books is a form of weakness? Is it the fear of judgment from others?

I truly believe that people’s resistance to self-help books is basically centered on a lack of knowledge about this genre. Some people may think these books are filled with schemes. Others may think these books provide a false notion of “you will be fixed by the end of Chapter 20”. A few may even believe that there is nothing written that we don’t already know.

There may be some truth to these ideas. I’m not saying all self-help books are wonderful and contain pixie dust that will “bippity boppity boo” away all your insecurities and struggles. What I am saying is the genre itself deserves to be treated with an open mind. So next time you see someone roll their eyes or raise an eyebrow so high it looks like it’s about to shoot off their forehead, maybe try to have a discussion. Maybe ask the person why they dislike self-help books. Share why you like this particular book you are reading. You don’t have to change their mind or bring them over to your side, but sometimes a conversation can lead to openness or just a great book related conversation.

My Favorite Self-Help Books

I can’t do a blog post about this genre and not include some of my favorites.
Here are some of the self-help books that I found immensely important and life changing. I believe that for a self-help book to be a success, you need to feel a certain level of vulnerability from the author. You also have to be willing to feel your own vulnerability. Here is my top five list:

1) Good Vibes, Good Life – Vex King

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I have been gushing about this book since Christmas to everyone who will listen to me and I have no intention to stop anytime soon. Vex King is such a gifted author who shares his own life experiences and the lessons he learned along the way. I love books that promote self-love and positive vibes.

2) Daring Greatly – Brene Brown

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Brene Brown spent twelve years getting up close and personal with vulnerability. She shares her years of research and her own personal struggles with vulnerability and helps us realize that vulnerability is where courage can be found. There is so much to learn from this book as it left me reflecting on my own thoughts and experiences.

3) The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson

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While many self-help books and social media quotes focus solely on positivity, Mark Manson discusses the importance on how to stop being positive all the time so that we can truly become happier people. It is an interesting concept about how we need to fully feel our sad moments in order to move forward.

4) You are a Badass – Jen Sincero

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This book is badass! The author has a great way of weaving humour and real life experiences to ultimately help readers love their badass selves. Lots of laugh out loud moments and advice that makes you think about living your best life.

5) Unlearn: 101 Simple Truths for a Better Life – Humble the Poet

This book is a collection of writings and insightful quotes to remind you of your potential and ways of thinking to deal with whatever life throws your way. I loved the little lessons that were shared. This book is both insightful and motivational.

Final Thoughts:
We have come a long way as mental health awareness is being discussed more and many authors are stepping forward with their stories. Is there a stigma? I believe we are seeing less and less of it. There may always be some level of discomfort either from the reader or from the outside world. What’s important is that we keep talking about it and sharing the message from these books. Sometimes all people need is a gentle reminder of self-love from authors who want to spread their message and help the heal the world one page at a time.

Happy reading!

Shazia.

18 Favorite Books from 2018

I truly believe that you become what you read.
The books you read fill your mind and heart.
They inspire you to become more and to do more.
Some books leave a lasting impression,
while others change your life.

I love looking back to the books I read over the year and reflecting on the important lessons they taught me. I read a total of 49 books this year and here are my 18 favorite books from 2018:

1) Becoming – Michelle Obama

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“There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.” Michelle Obama

One of the most important lessons I took away from Michelle’s journey is the importance of nourishing children with the belief that they are good enough, smart enough and capable enough. We see the importance of this kind of teaching, as Michelle was equipped with these beliefs growing up. In turn, these beliefs helped her every time she found herself sinking in the games of the political world. I admire her strength, confidence and humility. This was one of my favorite books of the year.

2) Educated – Tara Westover    

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“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create” ― Tara Westover

Tara was born into a survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. She lived with five siblings and Mormon parents who did not believe in formal education or medicine. Tara takes us on her journey as she breaks away from an abusive family member and her father’s extreme beliefs and travels all the way to Cambridge to pursue a higher education. The important lesson I learned from this book is how education can transform you and provide you with the tools to feel liberated and confident.

3) Good Vibes, Good Life – Vex King

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“You’ll keep getting the test until you’ve proven that you’ve learned the lesson. You’ll keep seeing the signs until you take them seriously and act on them. You’re always being guided to live a greater life, as a greater person” – Vex King

Once in a blue moon, you come across a book that opens your eyes and motivates you to become the best version of yourself. This book by Vex King did just that for me. I loved every second of it. This is the kind of book that you may revisit often when you need a dose of motivation, a reminder for self-love or a mantra about positive vibes. The importance of self-love is the lesson I took away from this gem of a book.

4) Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – Balli Kaur Jaswal,

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“In traditional Indian morality tales, wayward children were the primary cause of heart conditions, cancerous lumps, hair loss and other ailments in their aggrieved parents.”Balli Kaur Jaswal

A big theme in this book is about traditional families and the shame attached to their daughters when they step out of line from what is expected from them. Womanhood is explored through the perspectives of women from different generations. Culture is explored through the perspectives of immigrant parents and their modern children. The biggest lesson from this book is that every person has a story to tell and there is a writer in all of us.

5) Circe – Madeline Miller

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“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.” – Madeline Miller

 Circe is born into the house of Helios, God of the Sun and a Titan. Feeling like an outcast amongst the gods and goddesses in her own home, Circe turns to the mortals for companionship and soon discovers her powers for witchcraft.. It is not long until the all-powerful Zeus feels threatened by Circe’s powers and sends her into exile on the Isle of Aiaia. I love stories in which you follow a character as they endure brutal hardships only to discover their full potential. The lesson in this book was all about self-worth and personal growth. I loved watching Circe gain strength and find herself on a lonely island.

6) Sea Prayer – Khaled Hosseini

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Oh, but if they saw my darling. Even half of what you have. If only they saw. They would say kinder things surely– Khaled Hosseini 

They say great things come in small packages. Sea prayer is a very short illustrated book that took my breath away. It reads like a letter from a father to his son. The author was inspired to write this short story after the death of a three-year-old Syrian refugee as he was fleeing for safety with his family. Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying face down in the water is an image I may never forget. Knowing that this little angel inspired Sea Prayer made the story pull at my heartstrings. The author’s proceeds will benefit UN Refugee Agency. More information on the website: www.khaledhosseinifoundation.org.

7) Bloom for Yourself – April Green

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“Sometimes, there is no reason whatsoever than the simple truth that the universe just wants to watch you bloom”April Green

Bloom for Yourself is a lovely collection of poems about self-love and healing. April Green’s poetry is like a breath of fresh air. It is as if the words find a home inside your heart long after you have put the book down. These poems are small reminders to help you realize your worth in a world that can make you feel very small. I suggest keeping this book on your nightstand and reading a poem or two before sleeping and when you wake up. Start and end your day with these beautiful words.

8) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

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“There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun in sugar” – Gail Honeyman

 I love books that introduce us to unique characters. Eleanor Oliphant is such a memorable character. You find yourself rooting for her and wanting to give this fictional character a big hug. From her tragic childhood to her socially clueless ways, she grabs your attention from the very first page of this book. The big lesson: the journey to self-improvement is hard and long, but it is a journey we must take.

9) It Ends With Us – Colleen Hoover

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“Just because we didn’t end up on the same wave, doesn’t mean we aren’t still a part of the same ocean” – Colleen Hoover 

I purchase Colleen Hoover’s books without even reading the synopsis. That is how much I trust this author to move me with her words. This book was by far my favorite book she has ever written. The theme of the book came as a surprise to me, so I do not wish to ruin it for anyone thinking about reading it. All I can say is, it is an important book for both women and men to read. I loved seeing how far the main character goes in her journey of self-development.

10) The City of Brass – S.A. Chakraborty

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“Greatness takes time, Banu Nahida. Often the mightiest things have the humblest beginnings”S.A. Chakraborty

Nahri is a con woman living on the streets of 18th century Cairo, where she swindles money from many Ottoman nobles during palm reading and healing rituals. One day, Nahri accidentally summons a djinn warrior and as a result she is introduced to a magical world and the City of Brass. This is an intriguing story filled with magic, folklore and mystery. Look out for the sequel being released in the New Year.

11) The Hating Game – Sally Thorne

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“Both love and hate are mirror versions of the same game, and you have to win. Why? Your heart and your ego. Trust me, I should know”Sally Throne 

This book was my favorite romantic comedy pick of the year. I read it during the holidays and I could not stop smiling and laughing. This is the story of Lucy and Josh, two coworkers working in a publishing company who hate each other. Or do they? The work place banter is absolutely hilarious and the more you get to know these characters, the more you will love them.


12) The Cruel Prince – Holly Black

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Sharpen your blade. Harden your heart” – Holly Black

One of my most favorite young adult books this year was The Cruel Prince. The story opens with a brutal murder that leaves three sisters without parents and at the mercy of the killer. Ten years later, the sisters are all living in Faerie having been raised by their parent’s murderer. What I love about this story is that each one of the characters is majorly flawed. I love the idea of an anti-hero and that is what you get here.

13) Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling

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“After all this time?”
“Always” – J.K. Rowlng

I reread the entire series this year and I can tell you it was like therapy for my adult heart. I spent the summer revisiting Hogwarts and tagging along with Harry, Hermione and Ron. I laughed and cried just like I did when I first read these books and it felt wonderful. For anyone looking for a fun escape, I recommend reading this series again and again.

14) Dear Martin – Nic Stone

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“Dear Martin, can you explain why everywhere I turn, I run into people who wanna keep me down?”Nic Stone 

Justyce is a good student with a bright future ahead of him. But when a police officer roughly puts him in handcuffs one night, he starts questioning the world he lives in. He starts wondering if he would have endured the same treatment if he was white. He begins writing a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in an attempt to help him work through everything that unfolded after that encounter with the police officer. This is such an important book to read and it is so well written.

15) Braving the Wilderness – Brene Brown

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“When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens, we should immediately wonder, “is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?”– Brene Brown.

I knew I would enjoy this book when Brene mentioned J.K. Rowling in the very first chapter. One of my favorite quote from the book is when Brene imagines J.K. Rowling telling her: “new worlds are important, but you can’t just describe them. Give us the stories that make the universe. No matter how wild and weird the new world might be, we’ll see ourselves in the stories”. This set the tone for the rest of the book.

16) When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect timing

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“We all know that timing is everything. But we assume timing is an art. Timing is really a science” – Daniel H. Pink

The most interesting part of this book for me was when the author breaks down time to when we are most productive based on our sleep patterns. As we get older, we get a sense that time is just flying by. So how do we make use of the time? When is the best time to make decisions? When is the best time in the day to work on your creative projects? This book covers it all and more.

17) Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

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(picture from @khanlibrary)

“Remember, every treasure comes with a price – Kevin Kwan 

 Imagine finding out that your boyfriend is one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors. Rachel Chu is stunned when she visits her boyfriend’s family home in Singapore. She never saw the big mansion and private planes coming. As she is swept into the lavish life she meets some interesting people who are hell bent on sabotaging her relationship. I loved the drama, but more importantly I enjoyed reading about the culture in Singapore.

18) Legendary – Stephanie Garber

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Not everyone gets a true ending. There are two types of endings because most people give up at the part of the story where things are the worst, where the situation feels hopeless. But that’s when hope is needed most. Only those who persevere can find their true ending.”― Stephanie Garber

I really enjoyed reading this sequel to Caraval. The world that the author creates is beyond magical and filled with such colourful characters. The writing is poetic and the villain in the story is truly captivating. We are taken away into the world of Caraval, a performance where the audience participates in the show. They are warned that it is just a game and nothing is real. But for sisters Tella and Scarlett, it starts feeling very real. This was a delight to read.

And there you have it. I’m grateful for all the amazing books I had the chance to read this year and I’m excited to see what 2019 has in store for me.

Happy reading and Happy New Year!

Shazia.

Becoming – Michelle Obama

Do you ever look at people and think, “What is their story?”
I sometimes find myself thinking this whenever I see someone displaying some kind of emotion.
I have thought about this when I saw someone silently wiping away tears during a bus ride.
I have thought about this when I saw someone leaving the hospital with an extra skip in their step and a smile on their face.
I have thought about this whenever I met a bully who liked to terrorize people just to make themselves feel better.

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama, teaches us the importance of owning our stories and who we are becoming,

This book begins with Michelle home alone, making a grilled cheese sandwich and eating on her porch. Of course, this is not the White House. This was a scene of her life after Barack Obama’s presidency came to an end. It was a beautiful way to open the book as it gives readers a glimpse into the transition she was going through at the time. Michelle realized in that moment of serenity that she had so much to reflect on and share.

The book is separated in three parts:
Becoming me
Becoming us
Becoming more

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(picture from my instagram @khanlibrary)

Becoming Me:

Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” ― Michelle Obama.

To be honest, I did not know anything about Michelle’s childhood and I found this part of the book to be a delight. The way Michelle writes about her childhood is almost like she opened the front door of her house on the south side of Chicago and welcomed readers in. She introduces you to her caring mother, her strong father suffering in silence with a chronic illness and her protective big brother Craig. She shows you around the small house and takes you back to see their family car, the Buick. She takes you downstairs and introduces you to her strict Aunt Robbie who teaches piano. It really is an intimate tour of her childhood home and her close-knit family.

You understand that her parents sacrificed so much to see their children succeed. You also understand that a lot of the confidence Michelle has steamed from a supportive environment at home. There is a lot of family time in this section of the book and I smiled through it.

Michelle’s parents encouraged her to ask questions, to learn more and work hard. These are the values that you can find in later stages of her life. The values she returns to when she is told that she is not “Princeton material” by her guidance counsellor. She digs deep and pushes forward excelling in school and becoming a Harvard graduate and landing a job. She was also insightful enough to later realize that she was not feeling passionate about her job. It takes a lot of strength and determination to leave a well paying job behind and to pursue something that will give you purpose.

I think what I took away from her childhood is this: Helping a child realize they are good enough, smart enough and capable enough will instil in them the kind of confidence that will pull them up when life tries to knock them down. Michelle was knocked down many times in her life, but I truly think that her parents are one of the biggest reasons she stood back up and reminded herself that she was enough.

Becoming Us:

Alright, let me just get this out. Michelle and Barack are all kinds of adorable. It is almost as if you can feel the love between them when they look at each other. Their inauguration dance felt like some kind of political fairy-tale that left me screeching, “why are you two so cute” at the TV. It was only after reading their story that I appreciated their relationship that much more. Can I also say the choice of their wedding song made me melt? They are so darn cute!

Michelle is incredibly honest and open about her love for Barack and the struggles that come with being in a relationship with a man who has big plans for the country. She does not shy away from speaking about her feelings about politics and how it was at times a lonely place to be.

The most impactful part of this story for me was Michelle’s fertility struggles. It takes so much courage to write about something as painful as miscarriage. It also takes strength to write about fertility problems and the toll it takes on a woman. How your career takes a backseat as you go through the treatments and appointments.

You can really tell that she carried the values her parents taught her and passed it on to her two girls. You can also tell that none of it was easy. Being a working mother and the wife of a politician was difficult. Barack’s absence was felt in the household and she found it frustrating trying to keep her girls awake till their dad got home.

There is a quote in the book that reflects on when Michelle found a balance and accepted that Barack would be absent a lot of the time and how they would make the best out of it.

“I didn’t want them ever to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us”

The thing I love most about Michelle and Barack’s relationship is the respect they have for each other. Things are not easy between them, but they communicate and again it boils down to that mutual respect. They are one hell of a team, and did I mention they are adorable?

Becoming More:

“We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.” ― Michelle Obama.

I have always thought Michelle Obama was an inspiration, but what I admired most about her was her confidence. Here was a woman who seemed to know who she was and that she was enough. I was often curious as to how she had so much composure and confidence while being in the middle of the political game that was designed to tear you down.

But it did tear her down.

She was not only a woman, but also the first black First Lady. She shares with us that being the first black family in the White House meant that they needed to work twice as hard and endure the backlash that came their way. It is sad to learn how much she was stereotyped as being an angry black woman, or how she was never really asked about her own career.

Tabloids always questioned how she spoke, how she dressed and how she behaved. It is frustrating that an accomplished woman with an intelligent mind and big ideas had to endure so much of this during the campaign trail and well into her time as First Lady.

“At this point, I’d been First Lady for just over two months. In different moments, I’d felt overwhelmed by the pace, unworthy of the glamour, anxious about our children, and uncertain of my purpose. There are pieces of public life, of giving up one’s privacy to become a walking, talking symbol of a nation, that can seem specifically designed to strip away part of your identity. But here, finally, speaking to those girls, I felt something completely different and pure—an alignment of my old self with this new role. Are you good enough? Yes, you are, all of you. ― Michelle Obama.

How much do we know about Michelle Obama’s career? I knew bits and pieces but I was in awe over how much this woman accomplished in her life and how she continues to strive to make a difference. She launched missions related to childhood nutrition and girls education. She met with veterans and started mentorship programs. She strived to change things and fought to make a lot of what she wanted happen.

Overall:

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There are not enough words for me to describe how much I enjoyed this book and everything I took from it. All I can say is that it is an important book to read. It is not a political book. It does not dive into the political wars between the Blue and Red. I’m Canadian, so I can’t relate to how intense American politics can become, although I have seen numerous discussions get incredibly heated over the years. I truly believe that Michelle’s personal journey is powerful enough to be appreciated no matter what political party you support. There is something for everyone to learn in her journey.

Highly recommended read!

Happy reading,

Shazia.

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Why do we find dystopian novels so intriguing? I often ask myself this question every time I crack open a new dystopian book that promises me many hours of reading about a future world where a plague has wiped out half of the population or humans themselves created the downfall of society.

I do believe what makes a dystopian novel truly memorable is when the reader puts the book down, takes a deep breath and says, “yep, it may seem crazy but I can see it happening”. That is a truly terrifying thought that makes you reflect on the world we live in and what could happen in the distant future.

Vox by Christina Dalcher left me with such thoughts.

This book will make you angry.
This book will scare you.
Most importantly, this book will make you think and ask “what if?”

Synopsis:

 “We’re on a slippery slide to prehistory, girls. Think about it. Think about where you’ll be—where your daughters will be—when the courts turn back the clock. Think about words like ‘spousal permission’ and ‘paternal consent.’ Think about waking up one morning and finding you don’t have a voice in anything.”

This dystopian novel is set in a future America where the government has decided women are to be silenced by allowing them to speak a maximum of 100 words per day. Women wear counters on their wrists that keep track of the number of words they speak in a day. If they go over 100 words, they will suffer severe consequences. Overtime, women no longer hold jobs and girls are no longer taught how to read or write. Girls who speak the fewest words in school are given rewards. Half of the population has been silenced.

Dr. Jean McClellan was a renowned linguist and a mother of four before the counter was slapped on her wrist. She did not resist when the counter was placed on her six year old daughter’s wrist, despite knowing what happens when speech and language is taken away from a child.

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“Evil triumphs when good men do nothing. That’s what they say, right?”

The men in the book play important roles as the story progresses. Jean’s husband, Patrick reminds her and their daughter Sonia when they are running low on words. He uses close-ended questions when communicating with his wife and daughter as the counter gets dangerously close to 100. Jean has to watch her husband and sons openly communicate with each other while her daughter shakes or nods her head throughout dinner. Jean also watches her oldest son get pulled into the “pure movement” as he follows the very men that silenced his mother and sister.

“I don’t hate them. I tell myself I don’t hate them. But sometimes I do”

Jean finds herself becoming resentful as she watches the men in her life enjoy the freedom of speech that was taken away from her and Sonia. When a group of men in power reach out to Jean asking her to come back to work for a mission, she has an important decision to make: Do as she is told and enjoy a temporary freedom of speech for herself and her daughter, or fight like hell to free all the women who have been silenced.

Strengths:

“I learned that once a plan is in place, everything can happen overnight.”

I think what caught me off guard was the unique twist on a way to silence women. While I have read similar stories like The Handmaiden’s Tale, this book offered a new and terrifying scenario of women wearing word counters. This part of the story horrified me and captured my attention from the very start. I was completely enthralled by the story and I was anxious to know what Jean would do and how she would fight against the powerful leaders who silenced so many women.

“There’s a resistance?” The word sounds sweet as I say it.
“Honey, there’s always a resistance.”

I was not expecting the disturbing twist that came when Jean figured out what the men in power were planning for the future and what role she was to play in it. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse than word counters, it does. I was caught off guard and I became even more fearful for Jean and her daughter. It was a genius twist that made me incredibly angry all over again. I also thought that the character of Sonia was an important motivating factor for Jean. I felt her pain as her daughter’s counter went over 100 words. It was heartbreaking, and I could feel a mother’s anguish in that very important scene that pushes the story forward.

Flaws:

While I was completely absorbed in the story, there were several flaws in the writing style along with the resolution towards the end. I found the buildup to be fantastic, but the climax was quick and book ended far too quickly. I was confused by the conflict and chaos as the ending was approaching. I do feel like the author needed to slow down and not rush the resolution. I thought there were too many characters involved in the conflict and the big scene in the end. This only made the ending more perplexing and it made me question several character’s motives and reasoning. Furthermore, some of the characters did not feel well developed enough. I would have enjoyed knowing more of their backstory or just getting under their skin and finding out what drives them.

“You can start small, Jeanie,” she said. “Attend some rallies, hand out flyers, talk to a few people about issues. You don’t have to change the world all by yourself, you know.” 

Overall, this book was very thought provoking and important to read. I felt heavy after reading it but I also found myself reflecting on the world we live in. There were so many questions and thoughts that went through my mind while I as reading, and I think that is the big takeaway. Despite the numerous flaws, this book makes you think and ask questions. If you ask me, the author succeeded in terrifying us with a dystopian novel that made us ask the question “what if” and shudder from just the thought of it.

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Happy reading,

Shazia.

Educated by Tara Westover

How incredible is it when you randomly pick up a book at a bookstore, reading nothing but the excerpt and that very book leaves a profound impact on you? I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I picked up this book. “Educated” by Tara Westover is one of the most thought-provoking and beautifully written memoirs I have read in a long time.

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Summary:

“All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine: that the odds were better if you rely only on yourself”.

Tara was born into a survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. She lived in a home with five siblings and a mother and father who did not believe in formal education or medicine. Eventually, her father’s Mormon beliefs became extreme, as did his paranoia about the government coming after them. Her father worked in a junkyard and planned for the “end of days” by hoarding food and guns. Her mother became a midwife and cured many of the their ailments with herbalism. Tara recounts a childhood full of injuries that did not receive any medical attention. Her father believed the medical profession was the work of satan and trusted his wife’s herbalism, which he called “God’s pharmacy”. She watched as her family members suffered severe burns from gasoline explosions and traumatic brain injuries from car accidents. Her mother treated these injuries with herbalism in their home. In later years, Tara recounts how many of the injuries left a few of their family members with altered personalities due to brain damage, something none of them considered at the time.

Between living with her father’s paranoia and one of her brother’s escalating violence, Tara decides to pursue an education. She teaches herself algebra and trigonometry in preparation for a university admissions test. She manages to escape the violent outbursts of her brother, but she carries the memories of each violent act with her as she attends university. She also carries with her the knowledge that her father condones her pursuit of an education. Tara furthers her education and eventually finds herself in Cambridge. Her world begins to shift as her professors try to make her see her own potential. However, Tara’s guilt about going against her father’s wishes and losing ties to her family get a hold on her and threaten to hold her back or revert to her old ways time and time again.

Education:

“You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.” 

My favorite part of this book was when Tara found herself in a classroom for the first time in seventeen years. We read about her experiences as she learns about the Holocaust and the true horrors of slavery. We are taken through her emotions and how she processes all the gruesome details as she reads the history books. Perhaps the most profound moment is when she learns about Bipolar Disorder and as the professor is listing the symptoms, her father comes to her mind. She continues on the path of realization as she is taught the symptoms of brain injury and thinks about her mother and how she was never the same after their car accident. Through this education, she understands her family better and starts understanding where her father’s paranoia and episodes of grandeur and persecution come from.

Her journey was not easy as she pursued her education. It is truly inspiring to read about how she overcame her feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and insecurity over the lack of previous education.

Physical and emotional abuse:

“He said positive liberty is self-mastery—the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty, he explained, is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.” 

Reading about the emotional and physical abuse at the hands of Tara’s brother was very hard to read, but it was also one of the most important parts of the book. It was even harder to read about how her family denied any of the abuse actually happening, and how her mother turned a blind eye to it rather than face the brutal reality. Her brother’s violence escalates as she gets older and instead of seeking help she learns to laugh it off or tell herself he had reason. It takes a while for her to realize how dangerous her brother was becoming, and by then a lot of the damage was already done. The really interesting part of this portion of the book is how her personal perspective of what happened during these violent moments do not match with the narrative her parents feed her. She resorts to going back to her journals and really asking herself if these violent incidents happened the way she remembers them. It was fascinating to read about how she learns to trust her memory and protect herself.

Family:

“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.” 

Family is really at the heart of Tara’s story. At times it was painful to read about how much she loved her family but how hard she tried to keep those ties from breaking. From her older brother Tyler she found the strength to pursue her education and from him she found a pillar of support when her family was turning their backs on her. Her father believed she was “taken by Lucifer” and tried time and time again to bring her back to her previous life on the mountain. Many times he succeeded but he was never able to stop her from getting her education. Tara struggled with loyalties and sense of duty, but she also recognized her family environment for what it had become: toxic. Though you get a glimpse of a father and mother’s love for their daughter, you also see how sometimes that is not enough. I loved the relationship Tara had with her brother Tyler and how sometimes a simple nudge from a family member you look up to can be life changing.

Final thoughts:

This story is not about Mormonism and Tara makes that perfectly clear from the beginning. It is about reconstructing yourself, dealing with the loss of family and how education can change you. It is about believing in yourself, overcoming your struggles and learning how to shed the weight of your past. There is so much you can learn from this book. It is almost impossible to list all the themes. Educated is not an easy book to read. It is punches you in the gut and takes you along someone’s personal journey. It is like reading a diary and peering into the household of a family in the Idaho Mountains.